Here in the land of make-believe things aren’t what they seem. Hollywood Boulevard isn’t glamorous – it’s kind of seedy. The tourists look bewildered. The old bank building on the corner at Highland – a sort of Gothic meets Deco flight of fancy from the late twenties – may have stood in for the Daily Planet Building in the original Superman television series, but now it’s empty and sad and for lease – it has been for years. Homeless guys sleep in the doorways, and all day long the wholesome and earnest Scientology folks are everywhere, wanting to talk to you, and the Marilyn Monroe and Spiderman and Jack Sparrow impersonators hustle you for money, along with the guys who want to drive you around town in an old van with the roof sawed off and show you the sights. Then the usual long line of Korean evangelicals marches by with their placards and crosses, shouting about Jesus on their bullhorns and handing out tracts. All the while the relentless sun beats down and the dusty alkali desert wind howls in over the bare brown hills. Children cry as their parents try to make the best of it – but it’s hopeless. No one sees any movie stars.
It’s the wrong place. The movie studios are elsewhere and actually kind of spiffy. They offer tours, although you still won’t see movie stars. That’s more of a theme park kind of thing – Universal Studios over in Burbank is in fact as much a theme park as a working studio now – but Paramount, down on Melrose, isn’t like that. There you get a history tour, and the thing does look like a proper studio, with big white gates and all.
Still that’s not entirely the real thing either. Much of what anyone has seen in Hollywood movies and television shows was filmed in the obscure operations, like Raleigh Studios – an anonymous looking place across the street from the Bronson Gate at Paramount. All the interiors for that French silent film that won last year’s Oscar – The Artist – were filmed there. It’s probably the oldest studio in Hollywood and that movie was about the old silent-film days in Hollywood after all, the Mary Pickford days. She worked there, but of course it’s not open to the public and never was. Production companies rent the massive soundstages there for whatever they need to do. The place has quite a history – lots of famous movies and television shows were filmed back in there somewhere, but they keep the tourists out. No one is supposed to know about the place.
It’s odd to drive by Raleigh Studios and think about what was going on back there in the late fifties and early sixties. CBS needed space and from time to time Raymond Burr was in there pretending he was Perry Mason, thundering away in a fake courtroom. Back then that was all most Americans knew about the law. It was all clever tricks that trapped the bad guy, the one who was really guilty, into blurting out a confession on the stand, and sometimes it was a devastating closing argument that changed how everyone thought about the case. It was great fun, and since then it sometimes seems that half of what we see on television are courtroom dramas, now particularly emphasizing that devastating closing argument. Actors eat that up, or ham it up hoping for an Emmy – they get to be all righteous and insightful and clever and finally right about everything.
It’s the best sort of make-believe, but if you’ve ever served on a jury you know it’s not like that at all. Many years ago it was that kidnapping and attempted rape trial down in Long Beach, where the closing argument from the prosecuting attorney, an energetic young assistant district attorney, was full of fire and passion and righteousness and more than a little spittle. Those of us in the jury box were stunned, and then put off, and then a few of us started to giggle. The young assistant district attorney looked puzzled, but this sort of thing happens when you confuse make-believe with real life. Maybe he watched too much television. We found the defendant guilty – the facts were absurdly clear and that took only a few hours – but that closing argument certainly didn’t help at all. After the trial, when he asked about it, we told that assistant district attorney he came off as a jerk. He sheepishly agreed. He got carried away. Perhaps now he knows Hollywood isn’t real life, or perhaps not. It’s hard to fight the urge to be righteous and insightful and clever and finally right about everything when the opportunity is handed to you on a silver platter.
It’s like that with our politicians too. They must fight that same urge, which may be an urge to ham it up, and the lure of the way-cool closing argument is invariably irresistible. You’ll show them all that you’re right, and why you’re right, and they’ll be in awe of you, and vote for you of course. All it takes is a devastating closing argument.
It’s just that’s hard to pull off, as shown by this week’s presumably devastating closing arguments from Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney. Ryan, the Ayn Rand guy with his fantastic budget that would cut almost all of the social safety net away forever, gave what was billed as his major policy speech on poverty and hard times in America. He would be righteous and insightful and prove that all his deep cuts would be good for America, ending poverty as we know it, forever. A few days later, Mitt Romney was to give his final major address on the economy, a closing argument that little or no government and tax cuts for everyone were not only what was good for America but made economic sense – we’d all be rolling in money and have all the services we could ever want, as the math really did make sense.
We all sat in the jury box and listened to Paul Ryan, but this was more Long Beach than Raleigh Studios:
In his first policy speech since becoming the Republican vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan said he and Mitt Romney will restore upward mobility and fight poverty in part by limiting the federal government’s commitment to safety net programs.
“Upward mobility is the central promise of life in America,” Ryan said. “But right now, America’s engines of upward mobility aren’t working the way they should. Mitt Romney and I are running because we believe that Americans are better off in a dynamic, free-enterprise-based economy that fosters economic growth, opportunity and upward mobility instead of a stagnant, government-directed economy that stifles job creation and fosters government dependency.”
That was the devastating argument. Take away the social safety net – any help for those in trouble – and they’ll buck up and get their asses in gear and thrive. We do no one any favors by helping them, but Hunter Stuart at the Huffington Post is a bit skeptical:
Paul Ryan portrayed himself as a friend of the poor, saying that he and Mitt Romney are running because they believe that “Americans are better off in a dynamic, free-enterprise-based economy” and promising those who are struggling that “our cause is yours, and yours is ours.”
But in the past, Ryan hasn’t shown quite as much empathy. In fact, throughout his career, the Wisconsin congressman has blasted welfare recipients for being “takers” whose poverty is not only a matter of choice but also a major reason for the country’s economic decline.
At a private Seattle-area fundraiser in early September, Ryan warned his audience that the social safety net now in place could become a “hammock” that would lull people into “lives of dependency and complacency.” His remarks drew applause from the mostly wealthy crowd.
During a speech to the Atlas Society in 2005, Ryan declared that “victimization” was “not dignifying.” He also said he was “trying to recruit a lot of minority legislators” to his side because it was “in their best interests.”
Maybe he changed his mind, but probably not. It was theatrics, or it was all in the details:
Ryan noted that Americans born into poor families are more likely to stay poor as adults than Americans born into wealthy families. A Romney administration, Ryan said, would help restore mobility by turning the open-ended commitments of federal anti-poverty programs into “block grants” – fixed chunks of money the federal government sends to states each year regardless of the amount of need. States, in turn, get more leeway to design their own programs.
“The federal government would continue to provide the resources, but we would remove the endless federal mandates and restrictions that hamper state efforts to make these programs more effective,” Ryan said.
Let the states do what they will. We’ll send a few dollars – we’re not moral monsters – but the federal government should stay out of the whole thing, and there’s this:
Ryan also proposed dramatic cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, in place of looming cuts to defense spending. (During the third presidential debate on Monday, Romney said he did not support cutting food stamps.)
Ryan and Mitt Romney want to toss an extra two trillion dollars at the military, which the military hasn’t requested, and Ryan says the way to pay for that is to cut off folks’ food stamps. Romney doesn’t agree. Maybe the two of them will work that out later, but the real issue was the debt, and of course Ryan pointed to Europe:
“When government’s own finances collapse society’s most vulnerable are the first victims, as we are seeing right now in the troubled welfare states of Europe,” he said. “Many there feel that they have nowhere to turn for help, and we must never let that happen in America.”
Ryan also said government spending discourages people from giving to charity. “Debt on this scale is destructive in so many ways, and one of them is that it crowds out civil society by drawing resources away from private giving.” …
A Romney administration, Ryan said, would seek balance between “allowing government to act for the common good, while leaving private groups free to do the work that only they can do.”
This was an interesting closing argument. We’ll do less for you, and less for everyone, and it will be good for you. Now vote for us.
The New York Times’ Charles Blow has much more – none of it makes much sense. Blow has all the details. No one believes a word of it, but Ryan had to give this major policy speech, his own closing argument.
The Times’ editorial board looked at this and at what Romney had been saying and summed it up nicely:
Mr. Ryan told the Cleveland audience that they could trust Mr. Romney to lead the nation because he has a “charitable heart.” We’d hate to see what stony-hearted looks like.
Making matters worse, cutting the budget IS the gist of the Romney/Ryan plan for alleviating poverty. They are not proposing alternatives to Medicaid, food stamps or other anti-poverty programs, or ways to offset the impact of their budget cuts on the poor.
Rather, they are saying that cutbacks will help the poor. How? In Cleveland, Mr. Ryan said that cutting deficits would increase private giving. That’s utter nonsense. And besides, even if churches and charities had more money for doing good works, they could never make up for the cuts in the Romney/Ryan budget proposals, which fail the poor by their own internal logic:
If A: The Romney/Ryan response to poverty is to cut the deficit, and B: Their deficit cutting proposals would harm the poor; then, C: Romney/Ryan would harm the poor.
In Long Beach we found the defendant guilty – the facts were absurdly clear and that took only a few hours. We ignored the stupid closing argument.
That’s one closing argument, and BuzzFeed’s Zeke Miller offers the key points of Mitt Romney’s speech in Ames, Iowa, on Friday, October 26 – Romney’s big closing argument on all matters economic and his grand theory of everything, that included this:
Four years ago, candidate Obama spoke to the scale of the times. Today, he shrinks from it, trying instead to distract our attention from the biggest issues to the smallest – from characters on Sesame Street and silly word games to misdirected personal attacks he knows are false.
The Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore is amused:
This is pretty rich coming from the guy who has spent much of the last month relentlessly pandering to the coal industry. But at any rate, what’s interesting about the “big and bold change” stuff is that it’s true: but not in any way he’s admitting.
Kilgore is also not impressed with what Romney says here in his real closing argument:
We will save and secure Medicare and Social Security, both for current and near retirees, and for the generation to come. We will restore the $716 billion President Obama has taken from Medicare to pay for his vaunted Obamacare.
We will reform healthcare to tame the growth in its cost, to provide for those with pre-existing conditions, and to assure that every American has access to healthcare. We will replace government choice with consumer choice, bringing the dynamics of the marketplace to a sector of our lives that has long been dominated by government.
Kilgore knows nonsense when he hears it:
I’m sure you know by now how Mitt and Paul plan to “save” Medicare. The “save Social Security” bit presumably refers to “reform” plans they haven’t had the guts to reveal, though Ryan was an early backer of partial privatization and Romney has talked vaguely about means-testing benefits.
But it’s the “health care reform” claim that is really incredible. By repealing Obamacare, Romney and Ryan would eliminate health insurance coverage for 30 million people who would otherwise be covered beginning in 2014. The Medicaid block grant they propose would, according to the most credible analyses, eliminate coverage for another 17-23 million people. That’s 47-53 million Americans who will have to find some other way to secure health care or simply do without. And what are the “reforms” proposed instead? The Romney campaign has already been forced to admit that its candidate’s deep concern for people with pre-existing conditions extends only so far as preserving current laws allowing people to pay both employer and employee shares of health premiums after they’ve lost their jobs, or try to buy terrible, expensive policies through state risk pools. But believe it or not, the big and bold Romney/Ryan agenda would make things worse by the “market-based” reform of interstate insurance sales, which would create a race to the bottom sure to eliminate most of the protections available to poorer and sicker people.
I won’t even get into the hypocrisy of talking about getting government out of health care while demanding that the single-payer Medicare program keep paying insurance companies and providers $716 billion in unnecessary reimbursements.
But other than that it was a fine closing argument, righteous and impassioned, just like in the television courtroom dramas. As Kilgore says – “If you like your dishonesty big and bold, he’s your man.” But it’s not dishonesty. It’s make-believe.
Paul Krugman has a slightly different take:
Mitt Romney has been barnstorming the country, telling voters that he has a five-point plan to restore prosperity. And some voters, alas, seem to believe what he’s saying. So President Obama has now responded with his own plan, a little blue booklet containing 27 policy proposals. How do these two plans stack up?
Well, as I’ve said before, Mr. Romney’s “plan” is a sham. It’s a list of things he claims will happen, with no description of the policies he would follow to make those things happen. “We will cut the deficit and put America on track to a balanced budget,” he declares, but he refuses to specify which tax loopholes he would close to offset his $5 trillion in tax cuts.
Actually, if describing what you want to see happen without providing any specific policies to get us there constitutes a “plan,” I can easily come up with a one-point plan that trumps Mr. Romney any day. Here it is: Every American will have a good job with good wages. Also, a blissfully happy marriage. And a pony.
This is all Hollywood make-believe, if you will:
His real plan seems to be to foster economic recovery through magic, inspiring business confidence through his personal awesomeness. But what about the man he wants to kick out of the White House?
Well, Mr. Obama’s booklet comes a lot closer to being an actual plan. Where Mr. Romney says he’ll achieve energy independence, never mind how, Mr. Obama calls for concrete steps like raising fuel efficiency standards. Mr. Romney says, “We will give our fellow citizens the skills they need,” but says nothing about how he’ll make that happen, pivoting instead to a veiled endorsement of school vouchers; Mr. Obama calls for specific things like a program to recruit math and science teachers and partnerships between businesses and community colleges.
So, is Mr. Obama offering an inspiring vision for economic recovery? No, he isn’t. His economic agenda is relatively small-bore – a bunch of modest if sensible proposals rather than a big push. More important, it’s aimed at the medium term, the economy of 2020, rather than at the clear and pressing problems of the present.
That’s depressing, but do you want that hot-damn impressive make-believe closing argument that changes everyone’s mind about the case, or the dull facts of the matter? They are not only dull, but somewhat depressing:
The point is that America is still suffering from an overall lack of demand, the result of the severe debt and financial crisis that broke out before Mr. Obama took office. In a better world, the president would be proposing bold short-term moves to move us rapidly back to full employment. But he isn’t.
Okay, we all understand why. Voters have been told over and over again that the 2009 stimulus didn’t work (actually it did, but it wasn’t big enough), and a few days before a national election is no time to try to change that big a false belief. So all that the administration feels able to offer are measures that would, one hopes, modestly accelerate the recovery already under way.
Still something is better than nothing:
It’s disappointing, to be sure. But a slow job is better than a snow job. Mr. Obama may not be as bold as we’d like, but he isn’t actively misleading voters the way Mr. Romney is. Furthermore, if we ask what Mr. Romney would probably do in practice, including sharp cuts in programs that aid the less well-off and the imposition of hard-money orthodoxy on the Federal Reserve, it looks like a program that might well derail the recovery and send us back into recession.
And you should never forget the broader policy context. Mr. Obama may not have an exciting economic plan, but, if he is re-elected, he will get to implement a health reform that is the biggest improvement in America’s safety net since Medicare. Mr. Romney doesn’t have an economic plan at all, but he is determined not just to repeal Obamacare but to impose savage cuts in Medicaid. So never mind all those bullet points.
What was Romney proposing in his closing argument? It was make-believe, what he wants to see happen but without any words about how we get there from here. He says he’ll tell us later, but maybe he doesn’t even know. Picture him in a fake courtroom down at Raleigh Studios on Melrose, thundering away at a jury box full of bored extras from Central Casting. It’s about as real as that.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Years ago, over on a courtroom set in Burbank that was supposed to be in a small town in the Deep South in the thirties, Gregory Peck gave that righteous and insightful and clever and right-about-everything closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird. He lost the case. Closing arguments don’t matter all that much. Facts do.