A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Jonathan Franzen Is So Unlikeable He’s Now Ruining Things Besides Literature

by evanmcmurry

Apparently Jonathan Franzen stinks up an otherwise-fine birder documentary:

The film’s human characters (aside from Jonathan Franzen) are quirky and funny, their eyes constantly darting around after birds as they’re talking to the narrator. Here’s Chris Cooper, a handsome young black man (not all birders are white retirees) whose friends complain that they never see him from March to May. He lists seven pleasures of birding to explain why he spends migration season in the park (No. 1: the beauty of the birds). No. 7 is the unicorn effect: “After you’ve been birding for a little while, you become familiar with a bird from seeing it in the field guide, but you’ve never seen it in real life. It takes on a mythological status. Then, one day, there it is in real life, almost like a unicorn walking out of the forest.”

And here’s Jonathan Franzen on birding: “I thought it was embarrassing. I still think it’s embarrassing, a little bit. You’re basically defenseless. You’ve got your binoculars up and you’re looking at something nobody else is looking at, and everybody else is looking at you and thinking, what a dweeb.” 

Jonathan Franzen, nobody is looking at you. You’re in New York City. A guy in cowboy boots and underpants plays guitar for tips in Times Square, and another guy walks around town with a cat perched on his head. Carrying a pair of binoculars is not exactly letting your freak flag fly.

Wanna hate him a little more? Here you go:

Franzen has somehow managed to swallow his shame long enough to have developed considerable skill as a birder and to experience true joy in nature, at least fleetingly. But even this joy brings Franzen agita: “My response to this happiness, naturally, was to worry that I was in the grip of something diseased and bad and wrong. An addiction. Every morning, driving to an office I’d borrowed in Santa Cruz, I would wrestle with the urge to stop and bird for ‘a few minutes.’”

Hey, whatever keeps him from writing. (via Slate)

BREAKING: Chicago Is No Longer Part Of America

by evanmcmurry

John Sununu, Obama needs to be more American, blah blah blah. Old news by now. But THIS:

[Obama] has no idea how the American system functions. And we shouldn’t be surprised about that, because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia, another set of years in Indonesia, and, frankly, when he came to the U.S., he worked as a community organizer, which is a socialized structure, and then got into politics in Chicago. [EA]

Republicans have been dying to relocate Chicago out of the United States and into some far off Socialivikistan since May of 2008. Sununu just placed it somewhere slightly west of Indonesia, close enough for their purposes. And so everything Obama touches turns to “Other,” including a city so American that Saul Bellow planted his citizenship flag in it.

Ex-Red Sox Players Continue To Punish Red Sox For Trading Them

by evanmcmurry

YOUK with a three-run shot last night. Without it, Sox (Red) would have won 5-3.

Josh Reddick, by the by, one of last year’s more exciting rookies, is currently leading the Oakland As in batting average, home runs (20!), RBIs, runs, and OPS. For you more visual learners:

Reddick made life very difficult for the Sox when they were in Oakland a couple months ago.

Meanwhile, Andrew Bailey is still on the DL, and Brad Lillibridge has a .125 batting average with no RBIs; YOUK now has more RBIs in Fenway as a White Sox than Lillibridge does as a Red Sox.

So, good trades all around.

“The Dark Knight Rises” Trolls Are Here To Protect Capitalism From The Rest Of Us

by evanmcmurry

The kinship fanboys feel with their films—I’m talking the people who wait breathlessly for 30 second trailers and all that—is almost cute until you remember that major studio films are far and away products first and works of creativity a distant, distant second. The Dark Knight Rises cost $250 million to make, a 66% increase from The Dark Knight, which itself grossed half a billion dollars, slightly more than the GDP of American Somoa. When studios are tossing about the yearly production of small nations, the resulting films are much more units of late capitalism than they are acts of expression, no matter how dark Christopher Nolan is.

So when the fanboys mobilize to attack a critic who dares write a bad review, their nasty, unrelenting salvos (in this case, including death threats) come to seem less like the actions of a group committed to auteur expression and more like those of unwitting capitalist foot soldiers. “Hey you—unhand that $250 million film!”

See you now the ballad of Marshall Fine, whose site crashed today because he posted the world’s first bad review of the Dark Knight Rises. The reaction to his review has been so bad that Rotten Tomatoes has pulled the review and disabled comments. Keep in mind, 99% of these people commenting haven’t actually seen the movie yet. They’re rushing to the defense of a film that cost exponentially more than they and everybody they know will make in their lifetimes combined—and cost that in the midst of the worst recession in generations—and they don’t even know what they’re defending. (It’s as if some superstructure is replicating ideology through culture!)

There’s something noxious about a film franchise getting to increase its budget by 2/3 while state legislatures everywhere are cutting social services. I’m not saying “We should take DKR’s budget and give it to a fire department.” What I’m saying is that spending would reflect priorities more if our discourse reflected them more, if we circled the wagons around the vitality of civil society with the same intensity as we did the seventh Batman movie of the past 30 years. Instead, we have the limitless energies of intelligent, connected, culturally-savvy young people attacking a critic who probably makes $45K a year in defense of a movie that cost 556 years’ worth of his salary, and will make twice that. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Full disclosure: I will see DKR and most likely enjoy it.

Addendum: Reverse Troll! Eric Snider posted this to Rotten Tomatoes, from which he was subsequently banned:

Taxation Russian Roulette

by pdxblake

When I wrote a post arguing that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy should be allowed to expire, I wondered what ridiculous argument the Republicans would come back with to respond to Patty Murray’s  suggestion that the whole law could expire if the high end tax cuts were not extended.

And it’s in.  Mitch McConnell said “What’s becoming increasingly apparent … is that our Democratic friends are willing to play Russian Roulette with our economy,” while John Kyl went further: “It’s actually worse than Sen. McConnell said because Russian Roulette implies that you’ve got 5 chances out of 6 that you won’t kill yourself”.

The idea that not extending tax cuts for the wealthy would be playing Russian Roulette with the economy is ridiculous.  There is some justification that the economy could be hurt if the entire tax cuts are allowed to expire, but that should, if anything, lead to the Republicans shifting their position on either the tax cuts or on their attempts to shift the defense cuts from sequestration onto discretionary spending.

Of course, they won’t actually bring a reasonable attitude to the table, and will steadfastly oppose anything that doesn’t give a continued tax break to their rich donors, and especially something that might help President Obama’s reelection chances.  Their logic is twisted enough so that they are “raising taxes” (shocked face) if they let a bill expire on schedule (even if they voted for the bill in the first place).

Instead, the Republicans are likely to play brinksmanship themselves, much as they did with the debt ceiling last August when Republican intransigence nearly led to a US default and in any case led the US to get a downgrade because of its dysfunctional political system (which I might add, is nearly all one sided).

Virginia v Abortion Clinics, A Play In Infinite Acts

by evanmcmurry

After an ill-conceived experiment in Mississippi, states are back to using the cloak of “concern for women’s health” to pass non-sensical abortion restrictions. Yesterday, a Virginia law that would require all clinics that provide abortions—including the 20 clinics already standing—to meet the “strict architectural standards” of new hospitals just cleared an important administrative hurdle. The law’s implementation will force most of the existing clinics to close, as they could not possibly have been built in compliance with a future regulation. Which, of course, is exactly the point, but all parties involved are maintaining that the regulation is in the interest of women’s health:

“The women of Virginia deserve safety in any medical situation, abortion included…The abortion industry should want to provide the best standards of care for their clients.”  (via the Virginia-Pilot)

Note the lack of explanation. The “undue burden” part of Casey v. Planned Parenthood has been so narrowly applied by the courts that states need only invoke the motive of protecting women to pass any restriction they want, no matter how onerous, or how irrelevant to women’s heath. What forcing 20 existing clinics conform to regulations on new construction has to do with women’s health doesn’t matter; the claim need only be made.

This is the exact type of move that Mississippi may have endangered when it didn’t even bother to invent an excuse for its most recent abortion restriction that mandated OBGYNs who perform abortions have admitting privileges in local hospitals (the hospitals refused their requests, completing the trap). The bill was such a blatant attempt to close the last remaining abortion clinic in MS that a George W Bush appointed judge struck it down, citing a complete lack of evidence that it was enacted in the interests of women’s health.

The question now is whether Mississippi just accidentally tipped the entire pro-life movement’s hand—i.e., can the motives of a legislature that passes a bill like Virginia’s now be taken credulously, when their play is so obvious? It’s like catching someone at a poker table cheating; how much are you going to believe their next hand of four aces?

It will be interesting to see if higher courts strike down Mississippi’s law for good, and how broadly they write their opinion if/when they do so; they may decide Mississippi has gone too far, and that Casey needs to be applied more actively to all abortion restrictions. If so, it would be nice poetic justice if this bill Virginia just passed is struck down because it doesn’t meet the demands of a future law.

Romney May Have Used “Loss Harvesting” To Avoid Paying Taxes. What The Crap Is That?

by evanmcmurry

The current theory about why Romney won’t release his tax returns is that he didn’t pay any taxes in 2008 or 2009. Via Ezra Klein:

But Daniel Shaviro, a tax professor at New York University, isn’t so sure [Romney paid taxes]. “I think there’s an excellent chance that [Romney] didn’t pay any taxes in 2008 or 2009,” he says. But to get from a small federal tax liability to no federal tax liability, Romney would have needed to engage in incredibly aggressive tax planning. Shaviro mentions picking loser investments to get some benefits from “loss harvesting,” unusual tax shelters, and a bevy of other stuff that, frankly, I don’t totally understand.

Hold up! “Loss harvesting?” What the crap is that? Here’s the Wall Street Journal:

In the midst of market turmoil, it is easy to forget how generous the U.S. tax code is to investors. Not only is the 15% top rate on long-term capital gains less than half the top 35% rate that wage earners pay on their salary, but the rules also provide a way to use losses to reduce or even wipe out tax on current and future gains—raising overall returns.

Here is the gist: Say Tom bought $10,000 worth of the Acme Fund 14 months ago. He still likes the fund, but now his shares are worth $7,000. If he sells, he can rebuy a similar fund right away and book a $3,000 loss to offset taxes on other gains or even his wages.

If the fund recovers, Tom may owe slightly higher capital-gains tax far down the road. Meanwhile, he has sheltered $3,000 from taxes today at rates as high as 35% and has extra money to invest.

Advisers call such sales “tax-loss harvesting” and recommend them to investors with taxable accounts. (It doesn’t apply in tax-favored retirement accounts.) “Loss harvesting is a terrific benefit,” says Joel Dickson, a tax specialist at Vanguard Group, “and we urge investors to take Uncle Sam up on it.”

To be clear, these are actual losses suffered by the shareholder. But in this case, you sell a stock you already own but that’s lost money, and buy one identical to it; you end up with the same amount of stock, but you’ve written off the losses in the meantime, a tax write-off that can be applied to wages or profits elsewhere. Mike Bloomberg, for instance, used loss harvesting to pay no taxes in 2010, and some are so good at gaming the system that they use the tax credit to buy better stocks, recoup the benefits, and then transfer the remainder to someone in a lower bracket to avoid paying higher taxes on the gains from the better stocks they bought from the tax credit they got from the loss.

Remember, this is the tax code that’s supposed to be so unfair to “job creators” that they can’t create jobs.

There’s nothing illegal, or even that shady, about loss harvesting, but its optics, from its name on down, are terrible, starting with the fact that the rich have so many advantages they can even make money on losing money, and have so gamed the tax code that they can shirk their share coming and going.

What’s most amazing about this is that if Mitt Romney did engage in loss harvesting (we don’t know if he did because he won’t release his tax returns), he did it while gearing up for his 2012 run for president, knowing full well his fiscal behavior would become an issue if he got anywhere close to the White House. A good argument that Romney won’t be able to put country before profit can be made from the fact that he was unable to resist putting profit before his own presidential run.