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Don’t shrug off ‘Atlas Shrugged’

It can be painful to anticipate seeing the film version of a book you enjoy — especially a “difficult” book that requires a lot of massaging to make it ready for the silver screen. The pain level can only be exacerbated when the movie is made on a small budget by an acolyte of the book who may have a different vision than you, or even lack the savvy and resources to carry the project through in a professional way. So, when my buddy told me that Atlas Shrugged was coming to Sedona, I … well … shrugged and told myself that, if it sucked, at least we’d grab a few drinks after the showing.

I’m happy to say that Atlas Shrugged is a good movie. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s professionally done, and does credit to the book while remaining watchable. The cinematography isn’t just Hollywood-worthy, it’s beautiful. The story builds at a good pace and it grabbed my attention — perhaps a testimony to the moviemakers’ skill in trimming down some of Ayn Rand’s excesses without losing the message and urgency of the book. Also the characters struck me as more human and accessible than their printed-page versions, both in their motivations and their conduct — that’s important not just for the heroes, but for the villains, who I found less cardboard-y on screen than in the book.

The feel of a crumbling America propped up by a dwindling class of producers is well-captured by backdrops to scenes, newscasts and conversations among the characters

Now, the weaknesses… Of course, it’s didactic. Even shorn of a few of Rand’s beat-it-to-death hammer-blows, Atlas Shrugged remains a political story, and that either works for you or it doesn’t. The audience started tittering after a few repetitions of “who is John Galt?” But that may be a product of the cultural familiarity that the phrase has acquired — the giggles died down after a while. I know that I grew more comfortable with the phrase as an expression of fatalistic resignation in the movie’s near-future setting.

The acting, while generally good, had a few week spots. Taylor Schilling comes off a bit lightweight and wooden as Dagny Taggart. I thought Grant Bowler was good as Hank Rearden, but my buddy thought he had an off scene or two before hitting his stride. The rest of the cast is heavily salted with familiar Hollywood character actors who do an excellent job of projecting despairing good or weaselly evil, as required. Michael O’Keefe pops up, very nicely, in the small role of Hugh Akston. By and large, the cast fills out the characters’ presence in a way that Rand’s writing sometimes didn’t.

And sometimes, there was no getting past Rand’s dialogue. Let’s face it, Atlas Shrugged is a compelling book because of the story she told, not so much because of the dialogue.

But let me sum it up this way: Atlas Shrugged is better and more enjoyable (a key point!) than most Nicolas Cage movies, at a fraction of the budget.

Sadly, Atlas Shrugged didn’t come to Sedona as a regular booking. It was a special one-night event sponsored by the Sedona Tea Party, and advertised largely through the group’s email list. Even so, 115 people turned out. Although you can probably expect a healthy future of DVD and streaming-video rentals for the flick, the movie seems to have lost its initial steam, and special showings like this are mostly going to preach to the choir.

Speaking of choir … This was the first Tea Party even I’ve attended, and yes, the gathering did include a prayer, as well as a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Interestingly, the president of the local group, a local businesswoman, was careful to remain non-partisan in her political statements, and inclusive in her religious ones — to the point of acknowledging alternative and non-traditional views, and describing her own views as such. She also claimed to have read Atlas Shrugged about two dozen times.

I walked away with the impression that the local Tea Party group is older (at 45, I was on the youngish side in the room) and generally conservative, but with a strong libertarian presence. The age range may be an artifact of Sedona, which is where slightly artsy wealthy people go to get all new-agey and then die. And the libertarian tone is, happily, to be expected in this state, nativist convulsions not withstanding.

So, if you get a chance, go see Atlas Shrugged. And don’t see it as a chore or a duty, but as a movie you might well enjoy. And keep your fingers crossed for parts 2 and 3.

Ron Paul polls strong as opponent to Obama

The latest CNN poll is out, including a variety of hypothetical matchups between potential GOP nominees and the sitting president. The strongest contender is … Rep. Ron Paul!

That’s right, in a what-if race between Barack Obama and Ron Paul, polling 1,034 Americans, the results come in at 52% for Obama and 45% for Paul. The next strongest candidate is (gag) religio-fascist Mike Huckabee at 8 points behind the president. Supposed favorite Mitt Romney trails by 11 points.

It’s way early yet, so take this poll with a grain of salt — although it taps the leading advocate of libertarian ideas in the Republican party as a serious contender.

A serious contender with the general public, that is. Among Republicans, Paul comes in with 10% support as a potential nominee, behind Huckabee at 16%, Trump, Romney and Palin. That still puts him in play, of course — and let’s see if the numbers move after this poll and today’s debate.

A chill runs down my spine

I know that I’ve been distracted recently, so can I digress from my usually scholarly and restrained well-spoken self and say: I’m just a tad scared?

Seriously. Ben Bernanke seems to have adopted Kevin Bacon’s first movie appearance as his guide to holding a press conference, gold bugs look prescient as the dollar slides toward Weimar territory and Donald Trump … holy shit, Donald Trump?

It’s as if we’ve entered the period of the decline of the republic — but without the reliable money that kept the Gracchi brothers fat and happy. And without the cool architecture and classy duds, of course. It’s the fall of civilization, but with everybody sporting wife-beaters in a strip mall. Come to think of it, it’s the fall of something, but maybe not civilization.

I know that “the end is nigh” is a reliable fall-back for everybody who really means, “things were better when I was a kid,” but do we really have to flirt so closely with stupid and disastrous just to call me out as a false Cassandra?

Actually, I don’t think “the end is nigh” – but I do thing that suckage is here, and likely to stick around for a good, long while. Good times more often end with a whimper than a bang, and I expect that we’ll slog through the same. Our kids will be heading out in our cast-off suits for long-shot job interview number 197 — at a Tongan corporation (the new superpower in 2031) — and we’ll still be telling them that things will likely turn around soon.

Well, they could turn around, but we’re idiots.

I don’t feel optimistic about the future, if that’s not obvious from the above. But I think I and my progeny are relatively well-positioned to slink in the future — scathed, perhaps, but not destroyed. Family history records that we’re pretty adept at slipping across borders: Spain to Italy, Germany to Serbia, Italy to Argentina, Serbia to America, Argentina to … well … the Bronx (we don’t always choose well).

So descendants of mine are likely to skulk through the future, ignoring the powers-that-be, making their own way and prospering on the margins.

But, damn it, I’m stuck here and now!

Hayek schools Keynes on recession economics

Remember that rap video in which F.A. Hayek and John Maynard Keynes faced off over their economic philosophies? Well, they’re at it again — and this time it’s over the causes and cures of recessions. Yes, it’s good, well-produced and worth sharing.

Did we really have to wait until rap music to find a way to make economics fun and understandable?

Elegy for Peter McWilliams

Persuading people of the value of freedom can sometimes be surprisingly difficult. Those of us who favor freedom are habitually painted as selfish when we demand liberty for ourselves, and (bizarrely) callous when we insist on it for others. So let us never forget Peter McWilliams, an author and advocate who had a talent for framing freedom in terms of compassion and aspiration.

I remember covering McWilliams’s death for Free-Market.Net in 2000 when he succumbed to AIDS and cancer — and to the denial to him by authorities, under threat of the loss of his mother’s home, of the medical marijuana that he was using to control the side-effects of his medication.

Now, a talented (but anonymous) singer-songwriter and curator of the online Peter McWilliams Museum has produced a video tribute to McWilliams that effectively captures the man’s spirit.

Privacy ain’t dead, but your brand is confusing

My latest post for When Falls the Coliseum is up at … well … When Falls the Coliseum. I posit that our concerns about the death of privacy in the online age have less to do with privacy than with keeping the lies we tell about ourselves straight with their intended target audiences.

Check it out here.

Obama for … Pope?

Renegade historian Thaddeus Russell forwards this delightful little tidbit from White House cheerleader … errr … journalist Kevin Drum of Mother Jones.

Obama has been a disappointment on civil liberties and national security issues, but since I frankly don’t think any modern president can buck the national security establishment in any significant way, I haven’t held that too deeply against him. The escalation in Afghanistan has been unfortunate too, but he did warn us about that. The scope of both his conventional escalation and his soaring use of drone attacks in the AfPak region have been disheartening, but it’s hard to complain when he made it so clear during the campaign that he intended to do exactly that.

But now we have Libya. ….

So what should I think about this? If it had been my call, I wouldn’t have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I’d literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he’s smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust him, and I still do.

So, let me get this straight. Drum disagrees with Obama on virtually everything the president has done regarding civil liberties and foreign policy — with the shiny, new war in Libya being just the cherry on top — and he still deferentially bangs his head on the floor because he “literally trust[s] his judgment over my own.” This is basically the doctrine of papal infallibility, isn’t it? The words and policies coming out of the man may be monstrous, but we have to go along because of his direct line to righteousness!

Oh yeah, that kind of tribal, follow-the-leader deference is just inspiring to watch.

Note to any remaining Bushies: Your fanatical devotion to Dear Leader is no longer an embarrassing national outlier.

Time to freshen up the New York Times?

In a shocking move for employees of a New York-based publication, Foster Kamer and Tim Heffernan of Esquire‘s Politics blog have come up with a proposal to improve the New York Times that would actually improve the New York Times.

The conceit of the piece is that, with Bob Herbert and Frank Rich tottering off to spout left-of-center-establishment-stroking platitudes elsewhere, it’s time to thoroughly revamp the gray lady’s op-ed page. There’s a long list of improvements to be made, but the three that stand out for me are suggestions that Frank Rich be replaced by Glenn Greenwald, Maureen Dowd be eighty-sixed in favor of Megan McArdle, and Ross Douthat be retired in favor of Radley Balko. Yes, I often disagree with Greenwald — but he’s a rare liberal who holds to consistent standards and applies them to his nominal allies. He’s also excellent on civil liberties. McArdle can be a little frustrating, but she thinks even uncomfortable topics through without mailing in her pieces. And Balko is, of course, just excellent, and deserves an even more prominent spot than his upcoming gig at the Huffington Post.

Kamer and Heffernan would also slide Paul Krugman off into retirement, substituting Bruce Bartlett in his place. Since even a Magic Eight-Ball would be an improvement on Krugman, that strikes me as a fine idea.

I can’t agree with letting Warren Buffett take Joe Nocera’s spot — do we really need to hear anything more from Buffett? — but overall, it’s an interesting proposal that would definitely spice up the undead corpse of the old establishment mouthpiece.

Sorry, Virginia, Santa Claus can’t pull money out of his ass to fund Medicaid

Medicaid is a big topic of conversation in my house. That’s not because we’re on it — it’s because my wife’s pediatric practice is up to its eyeballs in patients on AHCCCS, Arizona’s implementation of the program. Encouraged by federal matching dollars, Arizona, over the years, expanded the program to cover a big percentage of the states population. AHCCCS patients now constitute a majority of my wife’s patients.

Like most states in these less-flush times, Arizona is now scrambling to rein-in spending. There are a couple of ways that state legislators can do it, but given the degree to which expenditures have ballooned over the years, they’re all going to hurt. Depending on the choices that legislators make, my wife’s practice could very well go under.

But I’m preparing rather than complaining, because I can’t think of a painless alternative. States are hobbled by the federal government’s rules in the extent to which they can cut Medicaid costs. That means states are looking for federal waivers — and even considering dropping out of Medicaid.

To put things in perspective, here’s a history of Arizona’s tax revenues (PDF) over the past few years.

(All numbers in thousands of dollars)

Preliminary FY 2010

Actual FY 2009

Actual FY 2008


Actual FY 2007

Tax revenues have been shrinking, consistently, since 2007, though state number crunchers are (optimistically) predicting a small increase for 2011.

Total General Fund revenues are rather higher, given the sugar-daddy relationship of the federal government to the states. Once you add in such line items as “Net revenue enhancements/one-time adj.” — an item that has gone from zero in 2001 to over two billion dollars in 2010 — total General Fund revenues have still dropped from $9,625,786.0 in 2007 to $8,322,087.3 in 2010.

Which is to say, that even heavily subsidized by an itself-broke federal government, Arizona’s state government is … well … a bit tight.

Actual expenditures are way the hell higher, largely because of yet more federal money and because of borrowing. You can see what that means in terms of who cuts the checks in this chart (Source here):

And all that shrinking pool of money is pretty heavily committed to some specific programs.

That’s right. AHCCCS — Arizona’s implementation of Medicaid — consumes 26% of the original FY 2011 budget. It’s been growing steadily for years — from 17% of expenditures in 2007 to 30% of the latest figures (after cuts in other areas of the budget). That’s in budgets based largely on subsidies and fantasy. And a big chunk of those federal subsidies is scheduled to disappear this year. Reports the New York Times, “On July 1, the enhanced federal aid will disappear, causing an overnight increase of between one-fourth and one-third in each state’s share of Medicaid’s costs.”

Oh … Did I make explicit the fact that Arizona’s state government has been spending more than it takes in? Yeah. Except for a few flush years in the middle of the decade (real estate was very good to Arizona, for a while) Arizona has been purchasing red ink by the tanker truck. It’s really pretty impressive.

What makes this even sadder is that most of the people on Medicaid’s rolls are (relatively) blameless. Yes, there are scam artists here and there, but most of these people have limited means, and quite rationally took advantage of a program that offered them medical coverage at little cost to themselves. Few of us stop to look at  the meta picture when we sign up for attractive deals, and so a growing proportion of Arizona’s (and America’s) population has been growing dependent on a government program that has become increasingly economically non-viable.

And the medical practices that serve that population are also dependent on a program that is spending dollars that don’t exist.

Of course, it was easy to expand Medicaid by playing the compassion card, especially when it came to covering children. Who wants children to suffer, no matter what choices their parents have made? Wave a few photos of wide-eyed tots, make a few promises, and …

And millions of people have become dependent on programs that are unsustainable.

Here’s the thing. Forget about arguments over the proper role of government. If politicians and their enablers make promises that lead people to depend on government for things that it can’t possibly continue to provide, those oh-so-caring demagogues are not compassionate, they’re pricks.

I’ll admit that I knew better, and I’ve been sweating the arrival of the day of reckoning ever since learning the extent of my wife’s practice’s AHCCCS-dependency. We’re resilient though, and I expect my family to land on its feet.

But the people who will really suffer are those who have few means, and who could have made other arrangements and planned their lives differently if they hadn’t been led to depend on grandiose and unsustainable promises.

Outraged squawks over CPAC a good sign for libertarians

When you find yourself the target of a vigorous campaign of ostracism and marginalization, you can be pretty certain you’re getting under people’s skin.

Writing of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza insists that libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul was a “loser” at the event, despite coming in first in the presidential straw poll with 30% of the vote. Why? Because “his speech – heavy on talk of defunding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as odd pronouncements such as ‘Government should never be able to do anything you can’t do’ – displayed the limits of his reach within the GOP.”

But New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who pulled 6% in the same poll was a “winner.” And there was no mention of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson — the other libertarian in the race — who tied Christie and came in first among second-choice picks.

Young Americans for Freedom, the once-lively conservative campus organization that has become a bit of a footnote, promptly expelled Paul, who served on the organization’s board for two decades. The group cited Paul’s long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy views, saying they “border on treason.” In this, YAF replayed ancient history, since the four-decades-past split between libertarian and conservative elements in YAF, which culminated at a meeting in St. Louis amidst violent recriminations over war and the draft, largely gave rise to the modern, independent libertarian movement.

Almost at the same moment, a talk radio/Fox New pundit accused “disrespectful libertarians” of “hijack[ing]” the CPAC poll. He added that “libertarians are the worst form of political affiliation in the nation. Combining the desire of economic greed, with the amoral desire to promote any behavior regardless of its cost to our culture.” And a Forbes columnist penned a borderline-incoherent piece denouncing Paul and libertarians (in fairness, all of his pieces seem to dance at the outer limits of rational thought).

It’s clear that most mainstream journalists are flat-out uncomfortable with libertarians and libertarian ideas. I think this stems as much from an ideological discomfort with criticism of state power as it does with lazy inertia — covering Team Red and Team Blue is easy; covering different shades of political opinion and a rising movement driven by ideas that fall outside the traditional mainstream and therefore require some actual thought is hard. This explains the eagerness of Cillizza and many of his colleagues to dismiss a political rockstar like Ron Paul, an emerging figure like Gary Johnson, and their apparently inexplicable appeal (without some actual effort that might lead to understanding) to enthusiastic supporters, many of them young. If there’s an actual political shift underway, some reporters are going to have to get off their asses and do some reporting; much simpler to write it all off as an aberration and hope for the best.

As for YAF and company … Many conservatives seem wedded to the idea that their movement is necessarily one of grouchy old white people who like to blow things up and hate on gays. I don’t understand the attraction of militarism and social intolerance, but then I never did — that’s why I’m not a conservative. As the political “right” (really free-marketeers and fans of limited government) shows a bit of life and the Republican Party recaptures the House of Representatives, authoritarian conservatives want to control the brand and push non-interventionists, anti-statists, the socially tolerant and civil libertarians to the fringes or out of the conversation altogether.

Well … Why not let them? That is, why not make explicit (again) the break between libertarians (and the libertarian-leaning) on the one hand, and the bigoted hawks on the other? Is there really that much to lose? After all, CPAC has become more libertarian in recent years, and welcomed gay groups this year, because that’s what the attendees want. The attendees pushing for this ideological shift are mainly young people driven by a desire for smaller government, individual liberty and peace. These “disrespectful” young people (have young people ever been anything else?) ticking off the murderous old homophobes are mostly supporters of Ron Paul — and now Gary Johnson — because those men speak their language.

If there was comparable energy among the intolerant warmongers, they wouldn’t be bitching that their meet-and-greet, which achieved record attendance this year, was hijacked.

But instead of being pushed away, how about doing the pushing? It’s time to marginalize the bigots and warmongers and celebrate the fact that momentum is, at least for the moment, with supporters of peace and freedom.