Archive for April, 2011

The Thinker

How to achieve an accountable government

After having spent decades largely ignoring the problem, the exploding federal deficit is suddenly on the minds of Congress. It’s so on their minds that they have forgotten to work on other things, like creating jobs. This new deficit fever is especially surprising given that Republicans are leading the bandwagon, since their deficit spending caused most of our debt. Moreover, one of their heroes, Dick Cheney, famously said deficits don’t matter.

While debt matters, I doubt our increasing indebtedness is what is driving these new deficit hawks. What matters is that a vote on the debt ceiling can be used to restrain the size of government, and Republicans passionately care about that. The same senators and representatives, who just a few years ago were voting for programs to increase the debt, and just last December agreed to extend tax cuts for the rich and lower social security withholdings, are now threatening not to extend the debt ceiling next month.

Something does need to be done about controlling our debt, but intelligently, not stupidly. I consider myself a fiscal conservative. That does not mean I am also ideologically aligned with “small government”.  I simply believe that, in general, government should to live within our means. To me this does not mean we necessarily cut spending to match expected receipts. If we as a nation decide we have priorities, like addressing global climate change, and that requires raising taxes, then I am okay with raising taxes. I suspect we would be long gone from both Iraq and Afghanistan had we had “pay as you go” wars. In fact, the Iraq war probably would never have started, and our debt would be at least a trillion dollars less.

There are times when reducing deficit spending is counterproductive, and that may still be true today. We know enough about economics now to know that spending money stimulates others to spend money, which helps the economy grow and creates jobs. If our federal deficit is about $1.5 trillion a year, taking that much spending out of our economy suddenly will be like throwing sand into our nation’s engine. This effect can be observed in Great Britain, which chose sudden and severe austerity. It is finding its unemployment rate soaring, its GDP declining and its taxes much higher. Perhaps they had no choice given how overextended they were. At least in the short-term, austerity is causing immense suffering for no obvious reward. In general, debt is undesirable, but is it more undesirable than negative growth and increased unemployment? Shocks to any system are rarely beneficial.

To me it makes much more sense to come to consensus on national deficit goals and systematically work toward them. A pragmatic goal would be to have a balanced budget in five years and a credible bipartisan law in place that gets us there. How to make it credible? It could be that the president’s budget has to meet the yearly goal, and first be scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which asserts it as financially sound. If the deficit is $1.5 trillion, reducing debt by $300 million a year should be doable, particularly if it allows for taxes to be increased if spending is also cut. While we are easing off the economy’s gas pedal, perhaps the country will perk up enough where that growth will provide more tax revenues, thus making spending cuts less draconian. Why put our nation through needless pain?

I think our debt speaks to two larger problems. The first is political dysfunction for which traditionally deficit spending has been the consequence. In addition, we often spend tax money inefficiently or on “nice to have programs” of marginal value. We already have organizations like the General Accountability Office (GAO) and the CBO that exist to inform policymakers on whether programs are effective or not. The problem is Congress rarely takes their advice.

We already know how to intelligently solve most of these problems; we just lack the will to do it. Medicare, for example, wastes tens of billions of dollars a year by paying fraudulent bills. It probably cannot be solved by audits alone, as the volume of billing makes it impossible to root out all fraud. Systemic change is needed instead. There is also a lot of waste when we pay providers for unneeded services and tests. Doctors complain they don’t earn enough from Medicare reimbursement to be profitable. The evidence is overwhelming that they make up for it by adding additional tests and procedures.  Consequently, Medicare needs to reward efficient health care based on satisfactory outcomes. Medical practices suspected of a lot of bogus billing should be audited, prosecuted when possible and publicly scorned if they bill for markedly more procedures per patient than most practices. Ironically, even with its waste, Medicare is still far more efficient and cost effective than private health insurance. If we could find effective and cost effective ways to deliver health care in the United States, and cap defense spending to inflation, then most of the other problems would solve themselves.

I favor automatic sunset provisions for all programs unless they can be independently shown to be achieving their objectives for the agreed upon budget. New programs should be established with clear goals, with expected outcomes required within defined timeframes. These accountability criteria should be part of the legislation. The CBO should provide language for objective criteria that the program would have to meet and it should be inserted into an accountability part of any spending legislation. The GAO should be the independent arbiter of whether the programs actually met their goals. If they did not, programs would automatically sunset unless Congress granted an extension. This too would do a lot to align our government toward being efficient by building efficiency into the system.

This is similar to how I manage my own financial life. Government is more complicated of course, but these principles are solid and should scale. If we could actually govern like this, then maybe no one would talk about out of control government again.

 
The Thinker

A question of monetary confidence

In my last post, I was feeling a bit dazzled because on paper my wife and I became millionaires, although just barely. I found our new wealth somewhat suspect, in part because stock prices seemed surreally high and the dollar was steadily sinking in value. The dollar simply isn’t worth what it once was and the trends suggest it may never recover its wealth in relation to other currencies. In addition, prices for commodities are soaring. No wonder I felt deflated reaching the milestone. It’s not how much money you have that matters; it’s what it will buy. It won’t buy a mansion in Beverly Hills with a cement pool in the backyard, that’s for sure.

When communism fell in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia experienced incredible hyperinflation. It currency essentially became worthless. In October 1993, the government tried to solve the problem by printing new money. One new dinar became one million old dinars. Not coincidentally, the country fell apart, but not before we observers got an abject lesson in the meaning of money, two lessons of which I opined on some years ago. My take was that a currency is only as valuable as people’s confidence in it. Attempts to prop up the dinar failed miserably and triggered a horrendous inflation and a depression. Once balkanized (literally) into separate countries, former Yugoslavians found their new country’s currency and leadership were more trusted than the old dinar and communists, and things began to recover. What didn’t recover was the country of Yugoslavia, which dissolved. It was always a country on paper more than in fact, and existed mostly due to Soviet support and because of the heavy hand of its military and secret police.

The steady decline in the value of the dollar against other currencies thus should be worrisome. For some, America is undergoing a slow loss of confidence. With enough rumored whispers, some official institutions will take notice. Standard & Poor took notice recently and issued a warning that in two years the U.S. would lose its AAA bond rating if it did not get its deficits under control. Right now, federal deficits are causing concerns about the solvency of our currency.

If investors are wary of the U.S. dollar, so far they don’t seem to be slacking off purchasing dollars via U.S. Treasury bills. If you have surplus you have to save it somewhere, and you also want some of it to be a stash of money, so you can spend it quickly if needed. The currency needs to be in something reasonably stable. The major choices are the dollar, the Euro, the Yen and the Chinese Yuan. It’s unclear if the Euro will be around in a decade. The Japanese Yen looks suspect, particularly since their devastating nuclear accident. The Yuan is as stable as the Chinese government, but in part because they own so many dollars, inflation is becoming a serious problem that could discount their currency and maybe take down the government. The dollar is not a perfectly safe bet anymore, but it is still safer than other currencies. So many want to buy dollars as a monetary hedge, and that it is keeping interest rates artificially low, likely exacerbating the dollar’s fall.

Most commodities are priced internationally in dollars. Oil is the most prominent example, and oil recently topped $110 a barrel. A good part of its price rise is uncertainty in the oil market, but it is also due to oil being traded in dollars. If oil is in demand and the dollar is cheap, oil will cost more dollars. The same can be said for most traded commodities, particularly food. Rioting in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere may be due in part to the high cost of foodstuffs priced in dollars and the inability of people to afford the inflated prices. The same is true here in the United States. One reason obesity is epidemic in this country is that unhealthy food is much cheaper to buy, in part due to subsidies.

Loss of confidence in the dollar is also probably pushing up stock prices, and helps explain my millionaire status. Why would this happen? What do you do if you are concerned that the dollar you have today may be worth ninety cents next month, but you have enough cash for an emergency? You try to invest that dollar today in something tangible and profitable instead. That is my suspicion. While a recovery is underway, it is a weak recovery and there are no real signs that it is going to turn into a roaring recovery. How to explain exorbitant stock prices? I explain it as we are bidding up the price of businesses because we have more confidence in their retaining long-term value in than than in the U.S. government.

This works fine unless instead of a currency decline there is a currency collapse. Is there a way to anticipate a currency collapse? Porter Stansberry sure thinks so, and he says he is spending his own money to try to warn others. Others think he is just running another scam. I spent about an hour listening to his pitch over the weekend. Unfortunately, there is no fast forward button and he likes to reiterate his points endlessly. I ran out of time and interest, but if you are patient enough and paranoid enough, he has suggestions on how to protect yourself from what he feels will be a major collapse of the dollar and the economy over the next few years. The “good stuff” apparently requires purchasing his report. So I doubt he is acting out of the goodness of his heart.

I agree with Stansberry on one point: if the dollar really did collapse, it would take down not just the U.S. economy but also most of the world economy, at least for quite a while, probably for years. Having a ready supply of Yen, Yuan and Euros to pay for life’s expenses instead of using dollars probably won’t help that much. We’re all tied together now; there are no safe harbors. If the U.S. dollar goes on life support, my suspicion is most other currencies will as well, because so much commerce is traded in dollars which are traded for local currencies. The good news is I have a third of an acre for my lawn. I could become my own farmer until the depression caused by a dollar collapse is all over, providing of course I can rent a tiller and enclose my backyard in twelve feet high fencing with barbed wire to keep out hordes of desperate and hungry people. Or I can do what everyone else will do and procure things with possibly hyper inflated dollars.

Can a dollar currency collapse really happen here in the USA? Perhaps. No one really knows if such a scenario will happen, but it can be triggered if enough people think it will happen. The dollar is as solid as our faith in it and our institutions, which at the moment is low. Arguably people, like Porter Stansberry are rooting for it as a way to acquire wealth by spreading fear. A dollar collapse is possible, of course, but so many have so much currency valued in dollars that no one really has incentive to root for its collapse, except, possibly al Qaeda. Which is probably why Standard & Poor issued its warning. It is trying to make politicians do their jobs.

My suspicion is that the root of investors’ concerns is not the deficit itself, but the underlying problem the deficit exposes. Until now, when parties could not compromise, the difference was charged to the future in the form of deficits, because there was always agreement to extend the debt ceiling. That seems to be changing. What would normally happen in dire circumstances like this would be we would find our better nature, and move toward compromise and shared sacrifice. So far, there is not much evidence that this will happen. My suspicion is that if we can affect a meaningful compromise where all parties have real skin in the game, it will remove most of the financial jitters underpinning the drop in the dollar.

Unfortunately, what’s much more likely to happen is a high stakes game of poker that ends badly. It is already well underway. I am no more prescient than anyone else how it will play out with a vote to raise the debt ceiling. I suspect it will get raised, with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and in small, tortuous increments and play out like a bad horror movie. I can say that if we reach a point where the United States cannot come together politically to raise the debt ceiling and find real middle ground on raising taxes and reducing expenses (and yes it will take both), I will need my own vegetable garden with its twelve foot fence and maybe even a gun or two and a bulletproof vest. If that happens, unfortunately, it will be too late for all of us.

 
The Thinker

Who wants to be a millionaire?

Not me, at least I never set out with the goal to be a millionaire. When I entered adulthood around 1978 with less than a thousand dollars in my savings account and $5000 or so in student debt, the idea of me being a millionaire someday seemed preposterous. The only millionaire I knew was a character on TV named Jed Clampett, and he had a mansion in Beverly Hills and a cement pond in the back. I kept my expectations more modest. Perhaps I could afford to go into hock for a townhouse, which my wife and I finally did at age twenty-nine. At the time I felt very much overextended, and I was. The first time I wrote a mortgage payment check, my hand actually shook. I had never written a check for that large an amount before and writing a check that big once a month was scary and sobering.

Today, on Good Friday of all days, I updated our accounts in Quicken and found that we had become millionaires. Quicken told me today that our net worth is $1,000,531.14. Approximately. I looked around. Nope, I wasn’t living in Beverly Hills. Nope, Texas Tea was not responsible for our amazing wealth. Nope, no cement pond in the backyard either, although after heavy rains we do get a transient pond, which occasionally will be inhabited by feathered friends. No BMW in our driveway. No butler to fetch my coat. No maid service either; I still clean our toilets. We do have a lawn service. Maybe in 2011 that is one clue you can use to judge if someone is a millionaire. In my case, it is because I am just lazy.

And I still pinch pennies, although not as hard as I used to. There was a time when I kept track of all my cash expenses in a little notebook because I had to make my GS-5 salary stretch to the next payday. Perhaps as a result toward the mid 1980s I started tracking income and expenses. Around 1990 bought a version of Quicken for an antiquated operating system called MS-DOS. Back then our net worth was about $20,000. Still, I had no expectation of someday being a millionaire. For much of the last twenty years I didn’t see how it could possibly happen. Life was just so darned expensive! There were all these massive payments, for the mortgage, for childcare, and to keep our house from falling apart. I needed loans to live my lifestyle, principally car loans, and later home improvement loans. How on earth did we become millionaires?

It is still something of a mystery so I went investigating. One major factor: stocks have recovered. In fact they recovered so well I suspect they are currently overvalued, so my millionaire status may not last too long. In addition, thanks to the recession and all our deficit spending, the dollar has declined precipitously. Which means that a million dollars today is probably the equivalent of $750,000 or so a few years ago, based on what we can actually buy with it. I doubt our purchasing power has gone up that much since the recession began.

We became millionaires principally by holding steady jobs and steadily advancing in our careers, which at least in my case finally got me to a comfortable salary. We did it by investing in us, specifically our educations (a graduate degree for me in 1999, and a bachelor’s degree for my wife the same year). When our income allowed, we saved as much as we could. It also came from living for a few more decades. If you do your best to consistently follow a sound financial strategy, your net worth tends to grow. Another likely factor: having just one child.

It is also true that we were either lucky or canny. I had no idea that when I moved to the Washington D.C. region in 1978 that it would be financially rewarding, at least compared to other places in the country. The high cost of living appalled me, but I had the good fortune to settle in Fairfax County, Virginia, a prosperous county full of beltway bandits and clean industries, mostly of the software kind. It is a place where good jobs were as fungible as money and never required the hassle and expense of moving. While I often groaned while making my house payments, my property values steadily appreciated over the years. Real estate as an investment rarely returns more than inflation, but our house, purchased for $191,000 in 1993 is worth $460,000 today. I expect it at least held its value. We were also lucky. We generally bought in buyers’ markets, getting good value for our money. We could have easily ended up underwater, like many homeowners today. We weren’t bright enough back then to time our real estate transactions to the market.

Building net worth takes tenacity and well-practiced self-denial. It often meant buying used cars when I lusted after new cars, and when buying new cars, buying practical cars like Toyotas and Hondas instead of Lexus and Mercedes Benz. It meant gritting my teeth and adding a couple of hundred dollars to my mortgage payment every month. It meant living somewhat below my income; our single-family house with a one-car garage is modest living. It meant avoiding shiny new toys like cell phones until they got dirt-cheap. My cell phone is currently a $10 model from Virgin Mobile. I still don’t own a smartphone. Since I am by a computer most of the day anyhow, paying $50-$100 a month for an iPhone or Android device seems a poor value.

I still constantly scan the market for real value. Consumer Reports recently recommended the Ooma Internet phone for those of us with landlines who are already paying for high speed internet. I guess we don’t need a landline but we are used to having one for its clarity and reliability, attributes I don’t associate with a cell phone. I currently spend $25-$35 a month for a landline, which includes modest long distance charges. With my Ooma, after paying $249.99 to buy it, I will spend less than $4 a month, all of it going for taxes. I can do all the local and long distance calling within the United States I want for free, forever. My effective cost for a landline will go from $30 a month to $5 a month. Free from my bundle with the cable company, I will now get to play a bidding war between Verizon and Cox for my high-speed Internet and HD TV service.

While we may be “millionaires”, most of our wealth is not easily touched. Our house remains theoretical wealth until we sell it and/or we own it free and clear. ($75,000 to go!) About half of our wealth is invested in retirement assets that we cannot touch without penalties. Perhaps that is why even though we are millionaires I still tread cautiously financially. The kind of wealth where you can rarely think about how much money you are spending still eludes us, and always will.

 
The Thinker

Ding ding ding went the light rail

Gasoline is back at four dollars a gallon. I am still smiling because my 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid continues to purr along nicely, averaging about thirty-five miles per gallon around town and forty plus miles per gallon on the highway. If gas stays at these prices for long, Americans will probably reluctantly start purchasing hybrids again. Yet, much of the growth in car sales over the last year has been from Americans resuming bad habits by buying those behemoth SUVs like the Ford Explorers and Lincoln Navigators. You would think we would have learned by now.

We may pine to live farther away from the city, but it is increasingly becoming a privilege only for the rich. This was brought home to me by a recent report on NPR, also carried by MSNBC, about a woman in Montana named Myriam Garcia. She is forced to carpool forty-five miles to Helena, Montana to do ordinary things like buy groceries. Between high gas prices and the economy she cannot afford to drive alone anymore, so she looks to neighbors going into town and commutes with them. In fact, the further you get from a city, the more your life is tied to your automobile. As oil supply remains about the same but demand keeps increasing, it’s easy to see why cities are luring people back to them. Cities have the virtue of being relatively efficient, and one way they are more efficient is they have networks of buses, subways and (increasingly) light rail to connect them together.

You may not realize it if you don’t travel much, but there is a light rail craze underway in American cities. As I travel relatively frequently, I see it more often than not in the cities I visit. I particularly see it in Denver, which I visit at least twice a year. Lakewood sits on Denver’s outer edge. Business takes me to the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood. Over the last few years, I have noticed a lot of light rail construction. Last year I watched a light rail bridge being constructed over Route 6. This year I saw tracks for the light rail mostly in place and ramps and overpasses for the light rail also being constructed. I haven’t checked if light rail is going all the way out to Denver International Airport, but I expect it will get there eventually. It’s quite a haul from DIA to Lakewood, but I expect within a few years I will be able to take light rail from the airport to Lakewood, obviating the need to take the Supershuttle. I noticed a new light rail station is under construction at the Denver Federal Center. I can probably walk from there to my hotel without much difficulty.

The whole Denver area has been very public transportation-friendly for decades. Denver’s RTD (Regional Transportation District) is very commuter-friendly. It addition to local buses it has regional buses, some that take commuters deep into the Rocky Mountains where they can still enjoy a rural life while earning money to pay for it in the city. I took a regional bus from Lakewood to visit my brother in Boulder a couple of weeks ago. It cost five dollars for a thirty plus mile trip. I enjoyed a lovely scenic ride through the Rocky Mountain foothills as well at no extra charge. My bus stop was about a thousand feet from my hotel. Many employers in the Denver area offer subsidies so their employees can take RTD buses and light rail.

You don’t have to be too bright to figure out that the Denver area is smartly positioning itself for the future. Those cities that will prosper in the 21st century will be cities like Denver, but also Portland (Oregon), Baltimore, Washington D.C., Boston, New York and now Los Angeles. Washington D.C. has had Metrorail since the 1970s but its high cost makes its reach limited. Inside the city, the D.C. City Council is wisely putting in streetcars along K Street and other streets to go places the Metro will not but faster than the local buses. Out here in the suburbs where I live, a Metrorail extension is well underway that by the end of this decade will extend well past Washington Dulles airport. I will live three miles from a new Metrorail station.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Washington region was one of only two regions that reported increases in housing prices last year. I know my house’s price has begun to recover. Fortunately, I have no immediate plans to sell it but I do have confidence that when I do, it will be in high demand because my neighborhood will be conveniently connected to the larger community.

The automobile age is clearly not over, particularly in places like China and India where they are getting a taste for personal mobility. But its gradual decline is not too hard to discern because as cheap oil ends permanently we will have to find more efficient ways to live, so living closer to places you need to go will become important. A savvy real estate prospector only needs to look at these trends to understand where to invest. My suggestion: vacant lots in and just outside the city.

As I approach retirement age, I too am rethinking my retirement based on these new trends. At one time I thought a city like Helena, Montana might be a good place to retire. Now I realize it is too small and too remote. It is too risky a place to live on a fixed income. Where I live now would be ideal, except I won’t need a house this big much longer, and I am already annoyed by the hassle of maintaining a house. Wherever I end up, it is likely to be closer in, not further away from civilization. Frequently running buses or a light rail station will need to be nearby. It will be in or around a transportation-friendly city, allowing me to get where I need to go by public transportation without undo hassle. Preferably, the street will have a bike path on one side. Hopefully, it will also have a culture and values that match my own. There are plenty of places still to visit, but two candidate cities come to mind based on what I have seen so far: Boulder, Colorado where my brother is already living and Portland, Oregon. Both cities meet my prerequisites. Boulder probably ranks higher for the convenience of family nearby and it is not in an earthquake zone. (Water and wildfires are a concern, however.)

I have pretty much decided that I can cross off my list any city without light rail, or at least firm plans in place to add light rail. These cities get it. As more of us try to fit on the same planet, we need to connect more, not just in cyberspace, but also in real life. It will be a Back to the Future experience. For light rail is essentially the trolley reborn. The DC Trolley Museum, which I visited six years ago with my father, rather than being the past, is now a harbinger of our future. I feel like Judy Garland in Meet Me in Saint Louis. I can’t wait to get on board.

 
The Thinker

Republicans are still happily insane

Happy Tax Day! Okay, I doubt any of you are glad to pay your income taxes, but civilization does not come free. Even if I ended up paying $16,589 in federal income taxes in 2010 and $6566 in state income taxes, I only resent paying my share of taxes when multi-billion conglomerates like General Electric, which made tens of billions of dollars in profits last year paid virtually no federal income taxes. Wherever she is, Leona Helmsley is smiling today. I must be one of the little people.

I have become convinced that if you are a Republican you can be convinced that the federal government can be run on a dollar a year. It’s easy, really. First you have to scope down the federal government so they get out of pesky duties like food safety, air traffic control and defending the country. Instead of civil servants drawing salaries, they can emulate Afghani civil servants and depend on corruption instead; it’s so much cheaper! As a civil servant, I need to be entrepreneurial. Like most IT (information technology) types, I get paid to move bits around. Since I am the gatekeeper for a lot of public data, I should put up a tollbooth in lieu of a salary, maybe $100,000 a year for The Weather Channel to get to our data. It’s probably less than what they spend on lobbying anyhow. That alone should almost cover my salary. Others in our organization could do likewise. The $1? That would be a donation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that they can mail in (the Post Office, of course, would be privatized). $1 is a bargain compared to what they spend now on lobbying.

I’m being facetious, of course, but to think like a Republican you have be so wedded to ideology that you can no longer see the forest through the trees. That was why I was so amused by this article, which really told me nothing I did not know before, but did stimulate some new thoughts. The Washington Post article basically says that many Republican consider removing any tax break to be a tax hike. No, really, this is not a joke.

For example, many Republicans assert that if we remove agricultural subsidies for farming conglomerates, this would be a tax increase. Even Saint Ronald would have choked on a jellybean had some Republican made that wacky assertion back in the 1980s. Sadly, this is what passes for conventional wisdom among Republicans and Tea Partiers these days and this is a topic of serious concern among Republicans in Congress, the Post reports, who are realizing they might actually have to make a deal with Democrats someday. Apparently there are still some Republicans in Congress with enough functional brain cells to realize this is total nonsense, but they cannot seem to convince the rabid anti-tax crowd that it is nonsense.

You would think that if this assertion were valid then what is sauce for the goose would be sauce for the gander. For example, any rent subsidy for a struggling family or any low income heating assistance payment that got cut in order to reduce our deficit would also be a tax increase. After all, if a corporate farmer doesn’t get his $1,000,000 subsidy from Uncle Sam, that doesn’t mean his company really pays more in taxes, it just means that he doesn’t get free money anymore. But if you think this is a tax increase, following Republican logic, taking away a heating subsidy from a poor family is also a tax increase. It just all figures to a Republican or Tea Partier! Yep, two plus two now equals five. It’s the newest math, and it’s great because this newest math is a heck of a way to lower the cost of teaching our children arithmetic. Whatever answer gives you the answer you want to hear is correct! This new math saves even more money because we also no longer have to teach our children critical thinking which, obviously, Republicans never approved of either. It’s sort of like teaching evolution. Tsk, tsk.

What Republicans really mean, of course, is that removing a subsidy is a “tax hike” only if it is a constituency that they care about, i.e. someone who votes reliably Republican. Of course they are concerned about small businessmen, which is why if they had their way they would never pay a dime in taxes, because even a dime in taxes might mean they would never expand their business. In fact we need to give them money, which is why communities across the country give all sorts of taxpayer incentives so businesses will settle pretty please in their area.

The few sober Republicans still out there are realizing that while they would like to cut the size of government and heap even more government largess on the wealthy, eventually government must live within its means and it is not possible to do it solely on the backs of the disenfranchised. So at best some subsidies will have to be moved around. Maybe, since food is in short supply and food prices are very high, agricultural subsidies are wholly unnecessary. Maybe that money could be shifted to something else, like to fix a decrepit bridge or something, which might be using the money wisely. But when you suffer from cognitive dissonance then of course it becomes, no! That would be a tax increase! And Saint Ronald said taxes must never be increased! (Which is a laugh, because Reagan signed many tax increases into law, including tax increases that kept the Social Security system solvent.)

Reagan believed that Americans were taxed too much. He did not say that America could flourish without taxes at all! He did not want to drown the federal government in a bathtub, like Grover Norquist. In fact, he expanded the government, and by not raising taxes enough he produced what were then record deficits.

I am guilty of being left-brained here, but it seems to me that if you refuse to cut wasteful spending like agricultural subsidies to your corporate agricultural buddies, enough of your spending goes to places like this and you don’t raise taxes, rather than close the deficit you expand it. In short, you simply make the deficit worse rather than make it better. But if you are going to claim that ending any subsidy is a tax increase and you bozos are running government, then we may as well put up the white flag. Standard and Poor (which seems to be getting a clue) may as well rate U.S. Treasury Bonds as junk bonds. Abandon all hope, ye investors of government securities! Maybe the U.S. Treasury will pay interest in Confederate dollars. Now there’s a currency a Republican can believe in!

It’s a good thing I am not the President because I would not be able to keep my mouth shut. When Speaker John Boehner came to visit me in the Oval Office and started spouting this nonsense, I would be dialing up 911 and having them cart him over to Saint Elizabeth’s. Maybe he could share a room with John Hinkley. The therapy would start with remedial math.

I’m sorry, Republicans. For the most part you are wonderful people personally, considerate neighbors and I appreciate how well you tend to your lawn and lustily sing songs praising Jesus. But if you believe that cutting a subsidy to your moneyed friends is a tax increase, you are insane. But then again, this is not news to me.

 
The Thinker

Republicans are their own worst enemy

During the health care reform debate in 2009 and 2010, Republicans repeatedly asserted that Democrats were misreading the American public. They didn’t want “socialized medicine”. Democrats pressed ahead anyhow, the Affordable Care Act was signed into law and 87 new Republicans, including many die-hard Tea Party candidates joined the House. Even today, support for the law is mixed with about half of America in favor of it and half opposed to it. My suspicion is that many of those who are opposed to it simply don’t know the key details of the law.

Thursday, House Republicans did something bold, audacious and very, very stupid. They passed the so-called Ryan budget plan for 2012, named after its author Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Chairman. His plan would essentially kill Medicare as we have come to know it, and replace it with a voucher that could be used to help buy insurance on the private market. The bill was passed with all but four Republicans voting for the bill, and all Democrats either voting against it or abstaining. In doing so, they fundamentally misread America’s concerns about Medicare. It would not surprise me if the impressive gains Republicans made in the last election were wiped out in the next. Republicans overreached not just badly, but stupidly.

Republicans acted like only the Tea Party mattered, as if Independents were not going to be a factor in the next election. They acted knowing that their vote would be symbolic, since it would not be embraced by the Senate and would be vetoed by the President.  Now House Republicans have to go back to their districts and persuade both fellow Republicans and Independents to reelect them.

The most reliable voting block for Republicans are fellow Republicans, but only a minority is aligned with the Tea Party and many are quite moderate. More importantly, Republicans tend to be older than the electorate at large. Senior citizens vote disproportionately for Republicans, so they are a crucial part of their base. Senior citizens also depend on Medicare and Social Security. Many senior citizens also belong to AARP, which has come out in favor of the Affordable Care Act. While Ryan’s plan would apply only to those born after 1956, seniors now have to ask themselves: if Republicans had their way would they cut their fee for service Medicare plan in the future? The answer now is maybe. Most of them will not pay attention to the details. All they will hear is, “Republicans are trying to take away my Medicare!” They will be frightened and be much more inclined to do something unusual: vote for those who pledge to protect Medicare, like the Democrats in Congress, which at least in the House went unanimously on record as being opposed to the plan.

In short, Republicans voted to appease their extreme base, not to position themselves for a longer fight. To fundamentally change Medicare, they need a Republican House, a filibuster proof Senate and a Republican president. Right now they have one out of three and with this stupid and very unwise vote they stand a good likelihood of having zero out of three after the 2012 election.

Not all Republicans are independently wealthy, although many wish they could be. However much they might want to avoid “socialism” like Medicare, they too depend on it being there for them. My mother-in-law’s husband is a perfect example: a reliable Republican, a former greens keeper at an Arizona country club whose retirement income is basically social security and a reverse mortgage. What would his life look like if instead of an open ended Medicare program he had to depend on a health care voucher instead? The man is in his eighties and in failing health. He recently spent more than two weeks in the hospital suffering from a mysterious internal bleeding. Medicare picked up his costs. Do you think any insurance company would insure him at his age for any amount of money? I would not bet on it, but I would bet that if it were possible, whatever check he got from the government would not begin to cut it. The message to him is clear: Republicans want to destroy me financially and force my wife and me into poverty.

Perhaps the sell would have been easier if Republicans had concentrated on Medicaid reform instead. Republicans certainly don’t care about poor people, so he would have no problem cutting their benefits. And while Ryan’s plan claims it won’t affect current seniors, the fact that it changes the fundamental Medicare contract should make him nervous. The same is true with independents, like my brother in law who is about to turn sixty. He is the owner of a small business in Arizona. The recession took its toll on his business. Like his stepfather, he will largely depend on Social Security and Medicare to get by as he ages. He does not have vast sums of savings accumulated to carry him over in the event of a medical issue. He likes the fact that Republicans are small business friendly, but these actions add more uncertainty to his life, not engender the sort of murky entrepreneurial prosperity that Republicans claim. He has no incentive to vote Republican.

It turns out that Republicans, bless them, are their own worst enemies. They have given Democrats an issue to use against them relentlessly in the campaign ahead. No less than the famed pollster Charlie Cook agrees. President Obama, in the meantime, used the week to set forth his own, much more moderate vision of entitlement reform. In a powerful and well-received speech, he outlined an approach to entitlement reform that is centrist and is oriented around recommendations by chairs of his bipartisan deficit reduction commission. Rather than be extreme, his approach is mainstream. It works to reform Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid rather than abolish them.

To make the situation even worse for Republicans, not one potential Republican candidate for President comes close to being a moderate. Even if there were such a candidate, they could not win the nomination. Which means, as I advocated, the 2012 election will be framed as one of moderates vs. extremes, with Democrats holding the moderate card. Ably abetted by Republicans not caring about those outside of their base, Democrats should rebound nicely in the 2012 election. The House’s large Republican majority may quickly dissipate. Democrats will have a harder time retaining control of the Senate, given the 2:1 advantage Republicans have with Democrats retiring and up for reelection. Given the strong dynamics now in play due to this very stupid vote, their situation now looks much more hopeful.

House Republicans have to learn when to shut up and sit on your hands. Thursday’s vote was a case in point.

 
The Thinker

Dancing the Furlough Kabuki

Much to my surprise, the government shutdown I anticipated last week never happened. The snarling, obfuscation and “my way or the highway” statements on Friday suggested (at best) a weekend with the federal government shutdown. Much of the noise was apparently posturing. A deal was struck late on Friday. Another continuing resolution was passed by both houses and hurriedly signed by the President. Staff worked through the weekend writing the bill both houses of Congress will vote on this week to cover federal discretionary spending through the end of September. Its passage is not assured, but seems likely.

If you truly want to gum up the workings of government, keep dribbling out money to agencies week by week with no idea of how you will ultimately be permitted to spend it. This “gumming the gears up” strategy seems to have worked well so far, from the perspective of someone nested inside the federal bureaucracy. We have spent all sorts of time and money just figuring how to shutdown gracefully if required to do so. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s like trying to turn off an aircraft carrier. It can be done but happens only when it is decommissioned, so no one bothers to figure out how to do it. Guidance on who was essential, who was not and what the rules would be for a furlough were confusing and were constantly shifting. What systems needed to be maintained and which could be stood down during the furlough were also subject to great change. All sorts of preliminary and revised guidance documents came down, many of which were lengthy and could not be read fully in the time required. On Friday there were last minute meetings by senior leadership in my organization, resulting in even more last minute meetings with staff that still left questions open. It seemed at one point that if you were “nonessential” you could not even read your work email after midnight on Friday.

I was in Denver on business all week, which made it even more confusing. I monitored email and listened in on conference calls all while trying to work in a conference room but I received little clarity. In the middle of the afternoon on Friday, I finally boarded a bus to Boulder to spend the weekend with my brother. I left convinced that if I saw my office on Monday it would only be to issue furlough notices to my employees, return my laptop computer and get my own furlough notice. Fortunately, my airfare home was prepaid, but we were warned that if a shutdown happened then our government credit cards could not be used after midnight last Friday. My travel expenses, like baggage and shuttle fees, might come out of my own pocket.

One thing was for sure: I was “nonessential”. I remember reading some news report where some citizen who was asked about the shutdown said that we should get rid of all nonessential people in the government. Think of all the money that could be saved! I am sure this citizen was one of many with the same opinion. Here’s the reality: essential people cannot do their work for long without nonessential people. Take the human resources office, for example. They are likely all nonessential employees. The essential employee though has to hope he does not get a workplace injury, because someone in HR would need to facilitate a claim. Similar things are true about my job and my “nonessential” staff. One sailor may be able to maintain the rigging on a small ship, or even a large ship in a calm sea. It’s in stormier seas that you need extra crew. Moreover, no sailor will stay for long on a ship where the cook does not have meals ready in the galley. No autopilot mode can last forever. Eventually, many other people are needed to keep the whole thing working. An immense amount of coordination is needed to run government lawfully and in a planned and systematic fashion.

So using terms like “essential” and “nonessential” were probably not the best choice of words. “Critical” and “noncritical” would have been better. In my office, only one person was deemed essential, and it was not a manager. It was a technical guy who could troubleshoot problems with our critical servers. In the event of a shutdown, we were told it was against regulations to check our email. Why? We would be working and we could not be compensated for “nonessential” activities, therefore it was unlawful to do so. How do you move from nonessential to essential? Someone who is essential has to tell you that you are essential, and then you are only allowed to work until your essential work is done, and then you go off the clock. Oh, and don’t expect to be compensated until after the shutdown is over.

You would think that if you are furloughed, nonessential and unpaid to boot, then you should be able to be a free agent during the furlough. If I wanted to earn some extra income working the French fry vat at the local McDonalds, I should be able to do so. Not so fast! There are rules for these sorts of things. If my agency suddenly is funded, then I still may be nonessential but I must report to work. Nor can I volunteer my time while furloughed, or take a paid or unpaid vacation because I need to be available if something essential does come up. Nor can I file for unemployment, at least not immediately, because in Virginia where I live I have to wait two weeks. In short being furloughed doesn’t mean that you are out of a job, just that there is no money to pay you and you cannot work. Technically, you remain employed, but you don’t earn a salary and need to stay close to home. Oh, and you can’t call your supervisor because they are nonessential too. In short, being furloughed is a Catch 22. In theory, you could be on furlough for years, draw no salary, and yet be unable to accept another job.

In the 1995-1996 shutdowns, in the end it did not matter. Congress subsequently reimbursed employees who were nonessential as if they had actually worked. This time if a furlough happens everyone agrees reimbursement won’t happen. In some sense, this is unfair, but not to the taxpayer who sees no point in paying anyone who is not working. It is unfair from the perspective of a federal employee who is willing to work, cannot and is not allowed to do any other work as well. Their only option is to quit the federal government altogether. Unfortunately, with HR being nonessential, there is no way to quit until the furlough is over. You can’t even call your boss to say, “I quit!” So starting a new job during your furlough is in some sense, illegal.

So far these procedures have been all moot, but I imagine they will occur, and probably sooner rather than later. The federal debt limit must be raised soon, which offers Republicans more opportunities for furlough shenanigans. Then there is the FY12 budget, whose passage will make the FY11 budget look like a cakewalk. Perhaps clarity will return after the 2012 elections. I have some hope that by then voters will be so sick of extreme polarity that they will vote sensible moderates into office. I’d best not count on it.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Adjustment Bureau

Sometimes if you are lucky a movie can hit all the right notes. The result can leave you all tingly: just delighted to have enjoyed a well executed movie. The result is that you leave the theater with the same well satisfied experience as eating an excellent meal at a five star restaurant.

That was my experience watching The Adjustment Bureau Wednesday night in Golden, Colorado. For me, it hit all the right notes. I won’t say it necessarily will for you as well but it should. Certainly there are better movies than The Adjustment Bureau. What I find to be excellent and what I really like are two different things. I really enjoy a good romance and I enjoy good science fiction, so marrying the two is win-win. Unlike my recent second viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was as sterile as a Clorox Wipe, The Adjustment Bureau is a science fiction/romance movie full of intrigue and passion.

In fact, many of the premises in The Adjustment Bureau are not entirely novel. There are snippets of other movies and shows here that will seem familiar. There are elements of The Matrix movies as mysterious guys in suits (and hats in this case) seem to be busy manipulating reality, or its approximation. There is a little bit of Star Trek as well, at least the episode City on the Edge of Forever, which many Trekkers say was the finest show from the original series. And there is plenty of boy meets girl and falls passionately but peculiarly in love with her. Here we get a big twist, for forces of The Adjustment Bureau are going to extraordinary lengths to keep them apart. Their romance is interfering with a much larger and more important agenda for mankind.

Matt Damon was busy last year. He won many plaudits, including an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in Invictus. Also in 2010, he played LaBoeuf in the wonderful remake of True Grit. In The Adjustment Bureau he plays David Norris, a telegenic people’s choice candidate whose passion is politics, particularly the high of running for office. David has the distinction of being the youngest congressman ever elected, representing his home borough of Brooklyn. Now he is running to be senator, but his campaign is struck down at the last minute by an inopportune picture of himself as a college-aged youth mooning people.

While practicing his concession speech in a vacant men’s room, he discovers the place is not quite empty as he hoped. A woman (Elise Sellas, played by Emily Blunt) has been quietly occupying a stall for some time. She needed some private time too, because she is eluding hotel security for crashing a wedding party at the hotel. Elise is just delightful: funny, acerbic and a bit self deprecating; in short she and David are a complete match mentally, physically and emotionally. Within minutes they are kissing but he does not have time to get her name or number. Elise does throw him off his game, and he ends up giving a completely different concession speech, one which immediately puts him back in the running in some future election.

All this should be good news, except David is lovesick and has no way to find the woman he fell in love with. However, fate intervenes and she unexpectedly shows up on a city bus. He gets her name and a phone number, and then jumps off the bus to start a new corporate job. He enters the building so mindless that he does not notice that everyone is frozen in place. When he enters his new boss’s office he finds him frozen but with guys in suits and hats busy scanning his brain. When they see him they react in horror. He was not supposed to arrive until seven minutes later. The guys from The Adjustment Bureau are discovered tuning the present to create a different future. Moreover, David’s brain is unusually resilient to a mindwash, so they end up telling him the truth. The Adjustment Bureau has a mission to keep mankind from imploding, and this involves making subtle manipulations to history to make certain outcomes happen. David must do his best to forget what he has seen and above all else he must forget about this new love that has come into his life.

Okay, enough of the plot giveaways. This should be more than enough to tempt you because apparently the only thing David cares more about now than politics is Elise, but the men from The Adjustment Bureau have burned the card with her name and phone number. This plus eight million New Yorkers should keep David and Elise from ever meeting again. David despondently continues with life until three years later, when again by chance and against “the plan” they bump into each other again.

What do you do if you find your love again but you know that loving and marrying her will mean her rising career as a dancer will degrade to that of teaching ballet to kindergarteners and your fast path to President of the United States will disappear as well? To say the least, it feels like a Hobson’s choice. In short, it’s not unlike the choice Captain James T. Kirk had with Edith Keeler. Only there are more dimensions to this choice that Captain Kirk ever had to deal with, which will be unveiled as the movie unfolds.

Perhaps like Captain Kirk, David needs a Corbomite Maneuver, which David does his best to pull off, despite the certainty of failure and high likelihood of brain erasure if he gets too far. One thing is for sure: David and Elise really, really belong together. The actors have great chemistry together but who can argue with these mysterious guys with magic hats, funky tablet books and an unseen chairman who controls all?

The movie is based on a story by the late eclectic science fiction author Philip K. Dick. It was a story that should have been made into a movie many years ago, but was worth the wait because this movie is done so well. It is romantic, it is heartfelt, it is bittersweet, it is intriguing, it is mysterious, it will make your heart pound at points, it is wonderful and it is a really good time rolled all into one. Anthony Mackie plays the pivotal role of agent Harry Mitchell, a superbeing with a heart.

The movie is tremendous fun and one of the most enjoyable movies I have seen in years. I bet you will feel the same way.

3.4 on my four-point scale, with some extra tenths of a point thrown in just for pure enjoyment.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

No sense of proportion

After six weeks or so of stalling, it appears that the federal government will “shut down” at midnight on Friday. It’s déjà vu for some of us who make our living as public servants. Given that the fiscal clock runs out in twenty four hours, it’s unlikely that some acceptable continuing resolution or fiscal year 2011 appropriation bill will somehow emerge, pass both houses of Congress and get signed into law so quickly. Which leaves us pondering really the imponderable: how long will it last this time?

Some think that it will be over by Monday morning, as this has happened in the past. The theory goes something like this: Republicans need to shutdown the government to satisfy the Tea Party, but once the government is actually shutdown, the base is miraculously satisfied enough that the House, Senate and the White House can agree on a bill that will win enough grudging support to bring government back to life by Monday morning. Except for possibly canceling the Cherry Blossom parade, the impact would not be felt in any meaningful way until Monday anyhow. Those of us with longer memories remember the shutdowns of 1995 and 1996, and see House Republicans this time in an even ornerier mood than then, so for us it’s best to husband cash and to try not to panic.

One thing I am confident about: Republicans will come to rue their “my way or the highway” high stakes brinkmanship. It does make the Tea Party and conservative base happy, because Republicans are a party of that believes in sadism for anyone not like them. But the fact remains the House is not the entirety of Congress and the President is a Democrat. No one side gets everything. It has never been this way in the past. A shutdown of any length is not going to change this fact. Moreover, poll after poll shows the public having a bad case of buyers’ remorse from the 2010 election. The longer a shutdown goes on, the steeper the political price that Republicans will pay. Those less motivated by ideology can see that the political winds have already shifted.

If Democrats have trouble governing because they devolve into too many factions, Republicans have trouble governing because they are too united and have no sense of proportion. Taking no prisoners may make them feel good for a while, but it wins them no new political support. As evident in Wisconsin and elsewhere, mainstream America is aghast by the current Republican overreach. They elected Republicans on the hope that they would help grow the economy and jobs. Jobs seem to be the last thing on their agenda. Instead they are hopelessly entangled in causes that the public does not care about. Defunding Planned Parenthood and bringing the government to a halt is more important than creating jobs?

What this shutdown will show, if it lasts for more than a week, is exactly what Republicans fear most: the value of government. It is one thing to furlough a relatively highly paid civil servant like me. It’s another thing to put America’s soldiers on half pay, most of who are already living from paycheck to paycheck. These people comprise a significant portion of their base; they are the last people they should be pissing off. But that’s just the start of it. Tell Mr. & Mrs. Taxpayer that their income tax refund, which they really need, will join a growing backlog of claims. Senior citizens vote disproportionately for Republicans, but if they need to file for Social Security, or try to claim a disability benefit, they will be out of luck. Then there are all our national parks that will be shuttered. It’s going to be like the Iran Hostage crisis. The media will cover it 24/7. “It’s Day 11 of the government shutdown and Mr. and Mrs. Jones from Camden, New Jersey are here at the gates of Yellowstone Park, furious that they cannot visit the park they had long planned to see.” Camera crews will be queued in front of the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument and Yellowstone Park as the 80,000 visitors a day trying to use our national parks cannot. It’s going to be terrible PR.

Who will they hold to blame? A party that already went more than half way to accommodate Republican demands? Or a party that won’t budge one inch from a hard-line position on both deep spending cuts in discretionary spending and who insist on tilting at windmills by cutting programs like Head Start, programs Americans overwhelmingly approve of? It’s not hard to see who will get the blame, and from the headwinds in Wisconsin and elsewhere the public will echo the same theme: Republicans have no sense of proportion and are being completely unreasonable. The only question will be how much damage Republicans will choose to inflict on their brand before they move toward actual compromise. If the Tea Party has its way, their miscalculations will quickly put Democrats back in charge of Congress and the White House in 2012 as well as render their whole movement as obsolete as Glenn Beck’s soon to be canceled TV show.

Meanwhile, the longer the shutdown lasts, the more it hurts independent businesses, the states and the private sector, those Republicans claim to care about. The federal contractors they champion who live off the federal dole will start to lay off workers and find their profits sinking. The hotels, restaurants and other service providers who cater to those who enjoy our national parks will find themselves in increasingly greater financial distress. The states, which depend on federal revenue sharing to shore up their Medicaid expenses, will have to pay for these services out of pocket when they are already financially stretched. Tourists planning that trip to France will not be happy when they find that all but emergency passports are nonessential services but their pre-purchased airline tickets are nonrefundable. A sustained shutdown is a great way to slow down our economic recovery just when it is gaining traction. In addition to about 800,000 federal employees with no incomes, many more will also feel the pain. The unemployment rate is likely to jump if it goes on for several weeks. Economic pain will spread more every week it endures as all those who support these services lose business and employment.

A  shutdown of any sustained length will simply boomerang against Republicans. The longer it goes on the more damage it will do to their brand. Ironically, a shutdown is a trap of their own making, which is wholly preventable. A smarter political party would be making measured moves toward implementing their agenda by finding issues that resonate with Main Street America so they can build their majorities. They would not be jumping into perilous waters, such as proposing massive changes to Medicare and Medicaid which have no chance of becoming law but simply show them as being obstinate.

If we must have a shutdown for Republicans to learn this lesson once again, well, I guess bring it on. John Boehner must be suffering from long term memory loss to allow this to happen to his party, given that he witnessed what happened the last time.

To quote Forrest Gump: Stupid is as stupid does. Blind and reckless ideology will be the Republican Party’s undoing one more time. The good news for Republicans: voters have no sense of collective memory, so they will probably put them back into power again before too long. Then the same pointless cycle can play out until our great republic finally devolves into chaos and dust.

 
The Thinker

Second Viewing: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

If you want to feel old, see 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1968 movie that framed science fiction for decades, and remember that once you actually saw it in a theater when it was a first run movie. When you are eleven years old, men are orbiting the moon and are ready to land on it less than a year later and you are entranced with everything related to the space program, seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey is something of a mind-blowing experience.

Seeing this movie again forty-three years later was a much more curious experience. It left me feeling sad, wistful as well as seeing a number of flaws in a movie that at age eleven seemed flawless. In spite of the HAL 9000 computer’s paranoid and homicidal tendencies aboard the Discovery One, the year 2001 we actually got was quite horrid overall, whereas the 2001 Arthur C. Clarke imagined was far more hopeful and looked far more interesting.

2001: A Space Odyssey and the year 2001 both dealt with aliens. In the movie there were surreal but never fully seen uber-gods who millions of years earlier saw some potential in a bunch of hairy primates camped next to watering holes on the African steppes. The real aliens in 2001 turned out to be crazed Muslims who used airplanes as giant matchsticks to torch New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Serve me an uber-god and one starchild instead, please.

It is fun forty-three years later to see how close Clarke and Kubrick came to getting it right. Their vision of 2001 was not unlike Gene Roddenberry’s, though not as breathlessly hopeful. It was a world where our toys were all shiny and new, space travel seemed routine, the International Space Station consisted of large and spinning flying wheels high above the earth rather than portions of fuselages bolted together. Despite the Russians hanging around in lounge chairs outside an orbital Howard Johnsons, Kubrick’s 2001 felt fundamentally American. You could tell from the Pan Am clipper shuttles and the uniformly white cast. It was a Clean for Gene future where poverty was out and well clipped hair was in. It was a world where the Bell Company was still around and doing business in videocalls and where you didn’t mind that much watching Stanley Kubrick’s annoying four year old daughter squirm in front of a camera while the earth cart wheeled in the background.

Things just worked in this future, with the exception of HAL 9000 computers. People were civilized, speaking always in measured tones. It was a world where constructing multiple colonies on the moon was no big thing. It was a world where people seemed surreally cerebral and never raised their voices. Applause was polite but muted. For me this kind of world still has a lot to offer me, in spite of its plasticity.

Kubrick brought us a vision of the future too good to be real, just like Julie Andrews singing up Alpine meadows was too good to be real three years earlier. And yet, like Star Trek, it felt somehow possible. The world we actually got was far uglier and messier, but interesting in its own ways. Kubrick envisioned a world where technology was integrated into everything, but what we got was actually more than what Kubrick could envision. Still, that Kubrick got as much of it right as he did speaks well to his legacy.

Most people would agree that 2001: A Space Odyssey was a landmark film. Certainly we had never seen anything like it before. It was grown up, coherent, gloriously rendered and seemed plausible. Moreover, it told a profound story. The irony is though that it told a story largely devoid of emotion. The apes touch the edge of the monolith and jump up and down in excitement. Dr. Floyd goes to the moon to touch it with his gloved hands and it is done with a professional curiosity.

Forty-three years later I see flaws in the movie. It is too unemotional, which is why its successor 2010 (1984) was in many ways the better movie. Dr. Floyd’s speech at Clavius is called a great speech when he says almost nothing. The guy at the registration desk of the Howard Johnson’s at the space station is busy shuffling papers, not looking at a flat panel monitor. Overall, Kubrick seems swept away with special effects, which at that time involved slow motion time lapse photography with models. He also seemed insistent to introduce us to weightlessness by having shapely flight attendants with Velcro slippers hug the carpet. The movie is not completely devoid of humor. We get to watch Dr. Floyd ponder the baffling instructions for using a zero gravity toilet. And for really the first time we get to marvel at how a director could do things like place real tiny people in an observation bay window while a lunar shuttle lands in an enormous landing pad. Kubrick largely lets special effects overwhelm the story.

Still, even in the year 2011 the movie remains reasonably mesmerizing. It is not entirely obvious what the movie means, and much of the dialog is pure noise that adds nothing to the plot, but all these years later it still grabs you. It feels in a genre by itself and you cannot help but flow with the glorious music mostly conducted by Herbert von Karajan. All these years later the amazing cut from a bone rising in the air to a satellite in earth orbit still take your breath away. The space ballet of a Pan Am Clipper shuttle making a rolling motion to berth in the space station’s dock, or a lunar shuttle making a gentle one sixth earth gravity landing on the moon still kindles an appreciation for a delicious symbiosis between art and physics. The film often feels ponderously slow, but that is part of its charm. It remains a classic, somewhat flawed, but a classic nonetheless.

 

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