Opinion

The Great Debate

Oscar’s State of the Union: It’s guilt!

The Oscars, which will be presented Sunday, do something more than honor the “best” films. They give us a glimpse into ourselves. Our movies, especially those that strike a national nerve, as Oscar nominees often do, are an expression of the nation’s collective consciousness, providing what you might call an annual Oscar State of the Union. They tell us where we stand. And this year’s State of the Union seems consumed with one issue: guilt.

When you look at the nine Best Picture nominees, you discover that the majority are not only deeply ambivalent about the United States, but that they suggest we Americans aren’t all that comfortable with ourselves either. We doubt ourselves and our values — even those things we ostensibly celebrate. We feel conflicted. We are haunted by guilt, consumed by remorse.

This is most apparent is the Oscar favorite, 12 Years a Slave, which taps one of the deepest sources of national guilt — slavery. The film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), suffers the ritual humiliations, but these are dramatically heightened by the fact that he was a free man who has been enslaved and tortured, and that even by traditional American standards he is vastly superior to his tormentors. If he starts the film as a figure of dignity and resistance, he becomes a symbol of national shame as well.

It may be no accident in these times of vituperation and anger that the film most likely to take home the Oscar is the film that most reminds us of our cruelty and most directly addresses our atrophied conscience.

Captain Phillips, starring Tom Hanks as the resourceful commander of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates, deals more obliquely with a similar issue, this time internationally. On its face, it is a gritty docu-thriller. But its subtext touches on the motives of the Somalis who wind up kidnapping Phillips. When Phillips questions the leader as to why he has taken him hostage, the man answers that he doesn’t live in America — meaning he doesn’t have options.

Is one Robert Downey worth two Jennifer Lawrences?

Economist Greg Mankiw recently published a column in the New York Times, holding up the actor Robert Downey Jr. as an example of why many deserve outsize pay. Why should we begrudge Downey a $50 million payday for The Avengers? The film brought in $1.5 billion globally. Downey’s take was a mere 3 percent of the haul.

It certainly sounds like a reasonable sum when put that way. What, after all, is a little income inequality when it comes to talent and the ability to get people to pay for a movie and popcorn? But when you see Jennifer Lawrence sashay down the red carpet this Sunday at the Oscars, you might want to pause for a moment to consider the Hunger Games franchise, the status of women in Hollywood, and which sex our society believes deserves monster paychecks.

Hunger Games producers first signed Lawrence to a deal in 2011. She was still a relative unknown, albeit one with an Oscar nomination on her credits. So they could sign her to play the lead, Katniss Everdeen, for less than $1 million — a relative pittance for such a high-profile movie.

On minimum wage: Mind the Gap

Just 24 hours after Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25 would deal a “devastating blow to the very people that need help most,” Gap Inc. announced it would raise employees’ minimum pay to $10 per hour by next year.

In striking contrast to the alarms sounded by McConnell, Gap chief executive officer Glenn Murphy emphasized the benefits of this pay raise for the company’s lowest-paid workers. He described it as a “strategic investment to do more for our employees” — one that  will help “attract and retain a skilled, enthusiastic and engaged workforce.”

If there’s a lesson in the recent tug-of-war over the Congressional Budget Office’s report estimating the impact of a federal minimum wage increase, it’s that despite the dire predictions made by opponents of raising the minimum wage, many CEOs have already seen that higher wages are good for business.

What Felix Salmon gets wrong about public pensions

Felix Salmon has recently posted a creative critique of my foundation‘s pension reform efforts, and specifically of Mayor Chuck Reed’s ballot initiative in California. As is true with any complex policy debate, simplified criticisms make good headlines but miss precisely the nuance that makes these problems challenging and controversial.

Here is the crux of Salmon’s argument: Current public retirement systems severely backload benefits, as illustrated by LJAF’s own analysis, which Salmon includes in his article in graph form. He argues that any proposal that seeks to renegotiate prospective benefits, such as the Reed proposal in California, is inherently unfair because it fails to recognize the benefits that workers rightly expect under the system, and it provides jurisdictions the power to renege on their promises to employees. Salmon then uses a simplistic but attractive analogy to argue in favor of what is known as the “California Rule.” He argues that entering into a pension system is like being given restricted stock — a concept he calls “restricted pension units” (RPUs) — and that these RPUs, granted at the beginning of a career, mature over the course of a worker’s 25-to-30-year tenure. If a worker walks away from employment, she forfeits the right to earn additional benefits under the system, but as long as she is employed, she is guaranteed to earn benefits under the same RPUs (pension parameters) that were in place when she was hired.

Let’s start with the points on which Salmon and I agree. We both believe that public pension plans should work differently than they do today. Under current plans, workers generally earn meager benefits for much of their careers, and only become eligible for a significant retirement benefit after 25 or more years of work for the same employer. This back-loading of benefits means that many public workers are retirement insecure for many years of their working lives. In fact, most of these workers, who will not stay for the requisite 25-plus years, will never achieve the level of retirement security promised under the current system.

The first woman president is not about the past

Want to know the latest meme in U.S. politics? Here it is: Hillary Clinton is a candidate of the past.

It’s been spreading through the political press. Now Republicans are beginning to echo it.

“Elections are almost always about the future,” says the Washington Post, “and Clinton is, for better and worse, a candidate of the past.” The woman who ran for president most recently, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), contrasts Clinton with President Barack Obama. Obama, she told Politico, was “new and different,” while Clinton is an old-timer less likely to excite voters.

Why we should worry about the future of men

If you’re an American man you’re more likely to be unemployed than your female counterparts. Today more than 4.3 million Americans are considered “long-term unemployed” — out of work for more than 27 weeks. Fifty-six percent of them are men. The Great Recession emasculated generations of men, displacing many of them from the labor force and undermining their financial security. The effects may be felt for decades.

But does that mean the end of men and the rise of women, as author Hanna Rosin has suggested? Not quite. Male unemployment hasn’t come at the expense of women’s success; it reflects deeper structural changes felt by everyone. Technology and globalization has rendered many better-paying jobs, traditionally held by men, obsolete. Both men and women have the potential to thrive, but in order for that to happen we need policy that complements the modern labor market — rather than hold it back.

Even before the 2008 recession, male labor force participation had been declining while more women went to work. This trend was heightened early in the recession because men experienced the brunt of unemployment, losing jobs in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing. These jobs disappear more rapidly during recessions, when weaker firms need to shed workers.

from Jack Shafer:

Supermarket tabloid gets hoodwinked by imposter!!!

The National Enquirer got its nosey-parker proboscis bloodied this month after its big Philip Seymour Hoffman "scoop" was promptly revealed to be a hoax.

Only three days after Hoffman died, the tabloid reported that playwright David Bar Katz -- the friend who discovered Hoffman's dead body -- and Hoffman were lovers. It also alleged that Katz watched Hoffman freebase cocaine the evening before his death and had repeatedly witnessed his friend's use of heroin.

The source for the Enquirer's piece? Katz himself, according to the tabloid. But when Katz immediately stepped forward, denied any such interview took place, denied being Hoffman's lover, denied having watched him do cocaine or heroin, and sued the Enquirer for $50 million, the newspaper retracted the story and apologized. It has now settled with Katz and will fund a foundation that will make annual grants of $45,000 to unproduced playwrights to honor Hoffman. The Enquirer also took out a full-page ad in today's New York Times to state that it had been fooled by an imposter who "falsely and convincingly claimed to be Mr. Katz." The tabloid apologized and has pledged continued support of the playwright prize.

Reasons to miss the political bosses

CREDIT: Matt Mahurin

The late Democratic Senator George S. McGovern and today’s Republican Tea Party activists might not have a great deal to say to each other — they both represented their party’s extremes. For that very reason, however they have one thing in common: Their rise to prominence defied the wishes of their respective party’s establishment.

Forced to fling open the doors to their smoke-filled back rooms, party leaders no longer possess their once-vaunted power over the careers of would-be presidents, governors, county legislators, and even, yes, the occasional dog-catcher.

Into this political breach marches the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the lobbying arm of big business, which recently announced its intention to campaign aggressively for mainstream, Republican incumbents faced with challenges from Tea Party members. The Chamber is hardly the only private organization looking to impose discipline and order over post-boss politics. Other groups are also seeking to do this, including Friends for an American Majority, a group of wealthy donors led by Paul Singer, a New York billionaire, and the American Opportunity Alliance.

FDR set the terms for labor executive orders

Many critics have called President Barack Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage for federally contracted workers an unprecedented bold action. The president bypassed a gridlocked Congress to increase pay to $10.10 an hour — and raise labor standards for the only federal workers directly within his authority.

This move is a significant step in combating income inequality. The federal government is the largest low-wage job creator — with more than 2 million low-wage workers. That’s more than Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined.

This move is bold, yes. But not unprecedented. The path to this solution was paved more than 70 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

from Felix Salmon:

Can bitcoin capitalize on the death of Mt Gox?

In November, I said that I was waiting for bitcoin to get boring -- and it certainly isn’t boring yet. The death of Mt Gox has created headlines saying things like “Bitcoin future in doubt” and “Mt. Gox Meltdown Spells Doom for Bitcoin”; those, in turn, have sparked their own backlash of people saying that in fact this development is one of the best things that could have happened to the cryptocurrency.

The truth of the matter is that it’s too early to tell. Mt Gox was a unique institution in the bitcoin universe: it was there from the beginning, and people have been moaning about it from the beginning. It was always a badly-run and far too opaque institution; if bitcoin is ever going to really take off -- if Ben Horowitz is going to win his socks -- then the death of Mt Gox was surely necessary sooner or later. At the same time, however, Mt Gox was for many years the cleanest dirty shirt in the bitcoinverse, and historically accounted for the lion’s share of trading in the currency. That’s one of the reasons why it somehow managed to be sitting on such an enormous lode of bitcoins at the time it went belly-up.

The rumor is that 744,408 bitcoins are “missing due to malleability-related theft which went unnoticed for several years”; that’s hundreds of millions of dollars that have been stolen, and it’s almost impossible to believe that Mt Gox was so incompetent as to not be aware, for years, of a nine-figure hole on its balance sheet. Instead, it quietly sold itself not only as a trading venue but also as a wallet service: store your bitcoins with us, they’re safe here. So long as the number of people using Mt Gox as a wallet was greater than the number of bitcoins that had been stolen, the service could continue. But then, when the run started, Mt Gox collapsed -- inevitably -- in a matter of days. It’s a Ponzi scheme, essentially -- just one that looks like it was driven by theft rather than avarice.

  •