December 30, 2017

My Movie Project

A couple of months ago, I completed a longstanding project. My goal was to watch every movie on the list of the top 100 American movies compiled by American Film Institute. I was working with the 2007 version of the list, which updates a 1998 list.

AFI’s 100 Years 100 Movies
Before I began this project, I had already seen nearly three-quarters of the movies on the AFI list. Most of  the titles I had to find were in the bottom half of the list. Completing the project mostly required my getting DVDs or Blu-ray disks from Netflix. My final movie, Do the Right Thing, was streamed from Amazon. (This turned out to be one of my least enjoyed, by the way.)

Some of my favorite movies were not on the list, as they were not American. (A movie was deemed “American” if it were financed with American money, even if were otherwise “foreign.”) Thus, for example, Truffaut’s Day for Night was not on the list, though it may not have made the list anyway. Neither was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

It is interesting to compare the two lists nearly a decade apart. Certain films moved around on the list, some, both recent and not, were added, and 23 films were dropped. (The Wikipedia article for the first list analyzes differences between the two.) I was surprised that The Birth of a Nation was dropped. For good or ill, it was certainly influential, even though I did not like it. I would like to have seen Doctor Zhivago kept, as well as Fantasia, each of which greatly influenced me personally. My top pick would have been Casablanca, which dropped from second to third place over the decade.

My movie project gave me an excuse to experience some excellent movies I would not have seen otherwise. I now have an increased appreciation of Charlie Chaplin, for example. My concept of the Western was definitely stretched through experiencing Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch. (Watch these at your own risk.) I also saw movies, such as Spartacus, which I should have seen a long time ago.

The movie that was my happiest discovery was F.W. Murnau’s 1927 film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The movie straddled the silent and sound eras. There is no spoken dialogue—speech is conveyed through title cards—but there is an original synchronized soundtrack containing music and sound effects. (Sunrise used the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system.) The movie succeeds despite its being a silent picture. It is a touching fable of conjugal love and rural vs. urban tensions. Sunrise won several awards at the first Academy Awards ceremony, including Best Unique and Artistic Picture.

If you are at all interest in cinema, consider a project similar to mine. There are many more worthy movies out there, of course, but the AFI list will help you hold your own in cocktail party conversations as long as the topic of recent movies doesn’t come up. If you are not much of a movie fan and haven’t seen many movies on the list, the project will take a while.

December 21, 2017

More Legislative Reforms

The passage of the Republicans’ tax bill is a complete lesson in how not to create new laws. Nothing about the process that resulted in the passing of this bill can be viewed as desirable, reasonable, or moral. Readers of this blog are likely to accept that as self-evident fact, so I won’t belabor the point.

About three weeks ago, I suggested that Senators and Representatives should actually read the bills on which they vote. (See A Commonsense Legislative Reform.) In this essay, I want to suggest two additional reforms that, though radical, would likely produce better laws and perhaps even better lawmakers.

Reform 1

Every word in a bill should be formally attributed to a particular legislator.

Moreover, if a single word is changed—often a significant matter—that change should be attributed to someone. Crafting a bill is sometimes a committee effort, but someone needs to take responsibility for the words on paper. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to ascribe some text to more than one person, but to attribute it to a large number of legislators would militate against the strict accountability this proposal attempts to create. Voters should know when their representatives are responsible for particular provisions.

This reform is especially aimed at making legislators accountable for last-minute changes to a bill done to help special interests. Such small last-minute changes have a way of sneaking under the legislative radar. The reform would, of course, have more general beneficial effects.

In times past, my suggestion might have been impractical. Computers, however, can hyperlink text in various ways to facilitate this reform.

Reform 2

Each individual provision of a bill should be accompanied by (1) a statement of the issue or problem it purports to address and (2) an explanation of how the particular provision is expected to improve the state of affairs described in the aforementioned statement.

This proposed reform is the more important one. Admittedly, it would be onerous to implement, and it would be useless if the rationales demanded were not required at a very low level. One might go even further, making explicit the overall purpose of a bill and requiring that all provisions address the problems and expected outcomes of the bill generally.

The benefits of this reform are legion. As does my first suggested reform, this one improves accountability. Moreover, it encourages debate about the actual mechanics of a provision, as opposed to mere assertions that one provision is “better” or “worse” than another. It is therefore likely to result in better and more transparent legislation and more edifying debate in the halls of Congress. The required expected outcome provides a standard against which the empirical results of the bill-become-law may be measured. This feedback would encourage the repeal of bad or ineffective laws and the improvement of good or effective ones. Documenting the problems being solved and the mechanisms by which legislation attempts to provide solutions would surely slow down the legislative machinery. Given our recent congressional experience, that would seem not to be a bad thing.


Thomas B. Edsall has provided a depressing analysis of the just-passed tax bill in The New York Times. (See “You Cannot Be Too Cynical About the Republican Tax Bill.”) In it, he points out that some provisions were inserted for the benefit of particular legislators, but, often, one cannot tell this for sure. Additionally, some provisions of the bill have no obvious rationale, and different parts of the bill may actually operate in different directions. My proposals, particularly the second one, assays to head off such anomalies.

Of course, the bill in question was produced by a totally rogue process, and, if Republicans are allowed to get away with this kind of law-making, our democracy is doomed. We can and must do better.

Whither Episode Nine?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi poster
Star Wars: The Last Jedi poster
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Some have suggested that the Star Wars movies are intended as fairy tales for our times. I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi a few days ago. The ending brought to mind the current state of our two political parties. Think of the First Order as the Trump administration and the Congress, and the Rebel Alliance, whose principals escape with reduced numbers by the skin of their teeth, as the Democrats.

The depressing ending of The Last Jedi raises the question of what will happen in the final ninth episode of the Star Wars saga. It is natural to expect the good guys, downtrodden but not defeated, to triumph in the end. Perhaps a more powerful, relevant, and, at this point, logical, ending would see the final destruction of the Rebel Alliance and the triumph of the First Order.

Will Disney actually forego a happily-ever-after ending?

December 19, 2017

The Tax Bill Cometh

It seems likely that, contrary to all reasonable calculus, the Congress will pass the regressive Republican tax “reform” bill tonight or tomorrow. The cynical interpretation of this is that our legislature is driven completely by self-interest—by the desire to satisfy their donor clients on one hand, and the siren-call of personal financial self-interest, on the other. The most generous interpretation is that our Senators and Representatives are clueless.

What GOP legislators have been saying in interviews is that (1) the tax code is being simplified, (2) the middle class will get a big tax cut, (3) corporations will get a big tax cut, and (4) corporations will repatriate money stashed abroad.

Well, the more than 500-page bill will not simplify taxes. (No doubt, administrative rulings will expand the number of words needed to explain federal taxes.) The middle class, qua class, gets no tax cut. Some will benefit; others will not. Individual tax provisions go away in a few years, in any case. Corporations will indeed get a big tax cut, and there is a bipartisan consensus that a cut is in order, though maybe not a 40% one. No one really knows what will happen to corporate money abroad. (Firms like Apple don’t need the money in the U.S.; they have plenty on hand that isn’t being used.)

Although Republicans mostly avoid saying it, the party has an unshakable, but empirically unsupportable, faith—“belief” is surely the wrong word—in trickle-down economics. Republicans repeatedly tell us that the tax bill will grow the economy, but they fail to explain by what magical process this is supposed to happen. Never have the benefits of reduced taxes really trickled down to those who most need a break. But, of course, history may come out differently this time.

Apparently, large corporations, newly flushed with money, are supposed to invest in new plant, hire more workers, and slash prices, all leading to economic growth and universal happiness.

Yeah, right!

Expectations for tax bill

December 17, 2017

Banned Words

It was reported yesterday that the Trump administration has banned the use of seven words or phrases by the CDC, namely, “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.” A secret government-wide banned-word list has not been disclosed before now.

Banned words
Click on image for a larger one

December 11, 2017

On Being a Proud Christian Democrat

The media often act as though “Christian” means “evangelical Christian.” When commentary on current affairs is desired from a Christian perspective, it is more likely than not that reporters will call upon someone from a very conservative Protestant denomination to deliver it. It often seems as though the media, mainstream or otherwise, are oblivious to the existence of more traditional Christian perspectives. When was the last time you heard someone interviewed who claimed to be a “liberal Christian”?

This state of affairs has bothered me for a long time, but two related matters set me off today. First, of course, is the Alabama Senate election that takes place tomorrow pitting Democrat Doug Jones against Republican Roy Moore. Moore’s strong support among “Christian conservatives” or “white evangelicals” has repeatedly (and properly) been remarked upon. Not much has been heard from Christians who not only do not support Moore but who also reject the sort of Christianity he is known for wearing on his sleeve.

The second thing that upset me today was a discussion on the WAMU program 1A, which is carried by many NPR stations.“What Roy Moore Reveals About The Religious Right” was a conversation among host Joshua Johnson and several self-identified evangelicals. The 1-hour discussion never suggested that there are other Christian perspectives that differ quite substantially from those being expressed.

I believe that evangelical Christians have given Christianity a bad name. Not all Christians read the Bible with mindless literalness, consider abortion murder, believe that the poor reap what they deserve, consider homosexuality a grave sin, and support the Republican Party no matter what it supports or what its members do. Somehow, it is difficult to communicate this fact through the media.

An essay on my modest blog will not change the public perception of Christianity, but I can stake out my own position and make it easier for others on the Web to do the same. This led me to create the graphic below. I realize, of course, that one can be a non-evangelical Christian and still be a Republican, but my picture aims to make as sharp a contrast as possible to Christians who seem joined at the hip to the Republican Party.

For the foreseeable future, my new graphic (see below) will appear on my blog in the right margin. Click on the image below for a larger view and feel free to use it elsewhere to proclaim that you are both Christian and a Democrat.

Staunchly Christian/Proudly Democrat

December 2, 2017

An Atomic Anniversary

On this day, December 2, 1942, 75 years ago, Chicago Pile-1 produced the world’s first artificial self-sustained nuclear chain reaction. CP-1 (see picture below) was built of uranium, graphite, and wood. Control rods, which were intended to prevent a runaway reaction, were fabricated of cadmium. The pile was developed under the direction of physicist Enrico Fermi and was an early part of the Manhattan Project, the secret government program to develop the atomic bomb.

Chicago Pile-1
Chicago Pile-1 (Click on this and the picture below for larger images.)

CP-1 was built under the West Stands of Stagg Field on the University of Chicago campus. By the time I entered the university, CP-1 was long gone. The site is now marked by the massive bronze sculpture “Nuclear Energy” created by English artist Henry Moore.

Nuclear Energy
“Nuclear Energy” by Henry Moore

More information about Chicago Pile-1 can be found on Wikipedia.

It need hardly be said that learning how to create nuclear chain reactions has been a mixed blessing. Its ultimate effect on humanity—indeed on the entire planet—remains to be seen. For now, the concluding words of Stephen Vincent Benét’s John Brown’s Body seem appropriate:
If you at last must have a word to say,
Say neither, in their way,
“It is a deadly magic and accursed,”
Nor “It is blest,” but only “It is here.”

December 1, 2017

A Commonsense Legislative Reform

The tax bill nearing passage in the Senate runs to nearly 500 pages and includes text written in nearly indecipherable longhand in the margins. Democratic senators have complained that they have had no time to read the bill. In fact, it is certainly the case that nobody has read the entire bill on which senators are expected to vote.

This reminds me of a legislative reform I have long thought appropriate. It is this:
No legislator should be allowed to vote on a bill unless he or she attests in writing and under oath to having read it all.
This is, I suggest, perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, since senators and representatives have a tenuous relationship with the truth, it would probably be necessary to give legislators a test administered by a non-partisan third party to assure that their attestations are factual.

Lacking such assurance in the present case, I suspect that many GOP senators will regret their votes when they realize what they have foisted upon the American people.

God help us!

Waiting for “Tax Reform”

As I write this, I am waiting to see if there are at least two Republicans in the Senate who will vote against the “tax reform” bill that is a giveaway to the rich and to large corporations. I am not hopeful. Despite the concern of the so-called deficit hawks and the plea for “regular order” from Senator John McCain (who has indicated he will vote for the bill), I expect that the bill will pass in the Senate, perhaps tonight. I pray that it will not, but integrity seems to be in short supply among Republican senators.

It is likely that no senator has read the bill being voted on in its entirety. There have been no hearings where interested parties could express opinions on what should be in a tax bill. There have been no contributions from Democrats. All the independent analyses of the bill say that it will do little to increase GDP and will greatly enlarge the federal deficit. But GOP leaders are marching forward knowing that most voters opposed this bill. The bill is, however, the darling of big Republican donors and the ignorant know-nothings who are Trump’s base.

God help us if this execrable bill passes. That would not make it law, but it would move the process along of writing it into law.

Below is my take on how bills become law in the Age of Trump. It is a sad process. (Feel free to use this graphic elsewhere. Click on it for a larger version.)

How a Bill Becomes a Law: 2017 Edition