Saturday, December 18, 2004

What the Dickens: Some Modest Thoughts on A Christmas Carol

"I don't know why I keep doing this Christmas thing," a newly single friend of mine told me the other day. "I don't have little kids, and I don't care about it myself anymore. It's a hassle. I have to put lights on my house, mail Christmas cards, and throw up decorations and Christmas trees everywhere. I really don't know why I bother."

I have only one answer for my friend: People like us do "this Christmas thing" because we're too scared to quit. And much of that fear, I suspect, is the result of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

For those of you who haven't seen, read, smelled or otherwise imbibed Dickens's vicious little tale, here's a quick recap: Ebenezer Scrooge, a miser who runs a lending house with the help of his underpaid employee Bob Cratchit, believes that Christmas is a "humbug" -- in other words, a fraud. He is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who informs him that a grim and unhappy afterlife awaits him unless he repents of his shrewd business practice, and embraces some nonprofit charity work instead. Marley announces the arrival of three spirits who will help Scrooge reform: Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet-To-Come. Christmas Past arrives to show Scrooge his generally miserable life (leavened only by a few fleeting moments of happiness with his old employer Fezziwig). Christmas Present introduces us to Cratchit's son Tiny Tim, who provides the book with its gooiest sentimental moments. Christmas Yet-To-Come shows a Christmas in the near future -- one gathers it's the following year -- where Scrooge and Tiny Tim have died. In the end, the miser is so rattled by the thought of impending death that, like a good consumerist, he embarks on a holiday spending spree.

Of course, behind Scrooge's Yuletide reform lurks the Ghost of Christmas Coercion. Marley sets up the basic threat: Scrooge's insufficient devotion to the holidays has turned him into a marked man. By failing to keep Christmas in the proper way -- a burst of conspicuous consumption -- he has doomed himself to languish Dickens's hell, rattling chains of economic investment and thrift for all eternity as his fellow human beings suffer around him. That Scrooge's amassment of wealth may also have created wealth does not occur to Dickens, whose view of economic realities throughout his oeuvre is two-dimensional at best. All the same, Dickens helped to provide several founding myths for contemporary European socialism, in which wealth exists solely so that it can be redistributed among the people.

Yet Scrooge may be forgiven for not wishing to commemorate the season with binge shopping. Christmas is a tragic time for him. The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge that most of the defining events in his biography -- for good, but more often for ill -- occurred during the holiday season. Years of childhood abuse and neglect are hinted at, along with a beloved sister who dies in childbirth. Scrooge's adulthood isn't much better: The love of Scrooge's life abandons him just in time to trim the tree with a new beau, and his business partner expires suddenly on Christmas Eve. Of course, the ghost isn't trying to gain a better understanding of Scrooge's character, and neither are we. Dickens's incessant moralism doesn't let up for a minute, and his feints at sympathy are basically designed to soften Scrooge's character, before the remaining ghosts make him an offer he can't refuse.

The Ghost of Christmas Present puts the screws to his prey, lacing Yuletide cheer with dire warnings of class revolt. Most film and television versions of A Christmas Carol omit the most ominous of these: Christmas Present keeps two children, allegorical personifications of Want and Ignorance, concealed beneath his robe. He informs Scrooge that "on his brow [of Ignorance] I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased." He's referring to a ghost of another kind, the "specter" of socialist revolution that Marx would claim was "haunting Europe." It's no coincidence that A Christmas Carol was written less than five years before Marx's Communist Manifesto. Again, the Ghost's argument rests on coercion: If rich persons like Scrooge do not redistribute their wealth, the poor will take it from them by force. (Eventually, individuals were found inadequate for the sheer scale of income redistribution, and government gradually took over.)

There's another, even less savory element in the Christmas Present segment. Cratchit's crippled son, Tiny Tim, awakens paternal feelings within Scrooge. Now the ghosts have another important bargaining chip. They can hold little Tim hostage. Christmas Present raises the stakes: "Man," said the Ghost, "if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant .... It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child ...." If Scrooge won't fork over the cash for his own soul, maybe he'll do it to save the kid.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come drives home these threats of theft and death with a vengeance. Scrooge is shown a future Christmas -- one guesses it's the very next year -- in which both he and Tiny Tim have died. The point, it seems, is to show that what happened to Marley is about to happen to him: Scrooge can be "disappeared," and no one will know or care. We see a primal scene of class revolt enacted on a distressingly intimate scale, as the resentful poor of London steal Scrooge's possessions, and debtors rejoice at his passing. The final thrust occurs when the ghost points to Scrooge's own grave:

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name: EBENEZER SCROOGE.
"Am I the man who lay upon the bed?" he cried, upon his knees.
The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.

At last, the ghosts have achieved the desired effect: Scrooge is scared straight. He resolves to "honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year." The repentance, of course, forms the tale's epilogue, in which neither Scrooge nor Tiny Tim die. He's proven "better than his word," as Dickens writes, and the three Ghosts of Christmas prove at least as good as theirs.

There's a word for what happens in this story: Blackmail. Scrooge keeps Christmas so that Christmas won't kill him. He supports Cratchit's family so that Tiny Tim won't die. He gives alms to the poor so they won't steal everything he owns. In short, Dickens's A Christmas Carol contains a powerful negative undercurrent, a deep-seated anxiety over the acquisition and preservation of wealth, which has slowly seeped into the very core of the Christmas season.

In a brief preface, Dickens writes, "I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea ...." Contemporary author John Grisham proves how well the old master succeeded, taking Dickens's little game of holiday extortion to a logical extreme in Skipping Christmas. This book presents holiday festivity as a middle-class American duty, something one does regardless of whether one derives any pleasure from it. In Grisham's world, throwing a neighborhood Christmas party, or festooning the house with plastic snowmen, is about as joyful as raking the lawn or delousing the kids. No wonder his protagonist, suggestively named Luther Krank, wants to "skip" these chores and go on a Caribbean cruise with his wife instead.

And like Dickens, Grisham brings his protagonist to the very brink of death as punishment for insufficient merriment. In this case, it's not a Ghost, but a bizarre accident involving a tangle of outdoor Christmas lights and an icy roof, that forces Krank to face his impending mortality. Luckily, his neighbors -- who have previously been hostile to his desire to keep Christmas in his own way, even to the point of staging '60s-style demonstrations on his lawn -- extricate him from the electrical cords, so that Krank is mortified (and badly bruised), but not killed outright.

Small wonder that my friends and I keep "doing the Christmas thing." These days, it's practically a capital offense not to. Implicit in all these tales is the thought that we, the audience, deserve to be punished because of the surplus affluence we possess. We have not done enough, and we cannot do enough, to keep the Christmas spirits appeased. And since the world would doubtless be better if we were adequately suffused with holiday duty, the current sorry state of the world must needs be our fault. Should we dare to doubt these basic "truths" of the season, the pale specter of Christmas ressentiment may stretch forth its bony hand against us as well.

The message, alas, couldn't be clearer: Celebrate Christmas with a smile. Or else.

Friday, December 17, 2004

The Seamy Side of Christmas

I haven't seen much cinema lately, so I've been catching up on television -- particularly Christmas specials and holiday movies of the week. They're cheaply produced for quick consumption, which means that they fall under the same poverty-row rubric as exploitation, sexploitation, leftsploitation "fringe documentaries," and other disposable schlock ground out on the fly. I find all these films fascinating, because for the most part the producers, directors and actors seem completely unaware of the messages they're conveying. To use a psychological metaphor, they seem to bypass the Christmas Superego -- all that "peace on earth, goodwill to men" crap -- and cut straight to the Christmas Id.

In this year's Hallmark movie When Angels Come to Town, two angels, played by Peter Falk and Katey Segal, descend on a New England small town that never existed save in a Norman Rockwell painting, and basically teach the locals how to steal. One store manager is encouraged to "lift" expensive clothes from a display window, so she can give them to a homeless woman who happens to be Segal in disguise. (Got that?) One hopes Segal would be decent enough to return the clothes (since she doesn't exactly need them), but the movie remains unclear on that point. At any rate, this so-called "gift" starts a most improbable trend, as hundreds of shoppers also buy expensive merchandise so they can give it to the homeless. Meanwhile, the angel played by Peter Falk teaches a small boy how to rob cashboxes, in order to reunite the boy with his single and struggling older sister. Since Christmas is a time for family and for generosity, it doesn't really matter who gets hurt in the process.

Rankin/Bass family specials started out benign enough, with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, an allegory of tolerance which many Gay viewers have embraced for its sympathetic treatment of individual difference, as well as for a fey little elf who sounds like Paul Lynde sucking helium. But by the mid-seventies and eighties the specials grew mighty strange. The Night Before Christmas (1974) stars George Gobel, Tammy Grimes, and Joel Grey of Cabaret fame, making it a treasure trove for trivia buffs. What's more notable, though, is that the special shows the vindictive side of St. Nick, who decides to snub an entire town because a local mouse writes a letter to the editor (of the local newspaper) claiming that Santa Claus is a myth. The show features a montage of dejected children, all despairing because Santa doesn't care about them anymore. Clearly someone has to apologize. The point, of course, is to teach an intellectual mouse who has written the offending letter not to think for himself anymore. In the cult of Santa Claus, reason is irrelevant at best, detrimental at worst. One must believe, believe hard -- and most important, believe the same things everyone else does.

A few of these specials even leave a slight aftertaste of anti-Semitism. The Disney/Don Bluth half-hour cartoon Small One (from 1978) features a trio of Jewish merchants who sing a knockabout comic number about cheating their customers, ending with "We never, ever fail when we go to make a sale / We simply cheat a little if we must." The studio had to redub that last line for a video release, but it couldn't change the song's title, "Clink. Clink, Clank, Clank, Get the Money to the Bank." It's difficult to say whether the Rankin/Bass Little Drummer Boy, Book II is anti-Jewish -- though if it is, it's in an extremely roundabout manner. The show features the voice of Zero Mostel, who in a strange bit of miscasting, plays a Roman soldier and tax collector. Mostel sings an elaborate number (by Rankin/Bass standards, anyway) about how "Money, money, money /Makes you poor or makes you rich." The effect is borderline offensive, but one doesn't know quite how to take it, or how far to take it. As far as I know, Mostel was one of the few openly Jewish actors to participate in a Christmas special (for reasons which should now be obvious), and even though he's playing a Gentile, he still sounds like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Thus, this not-so-special special seems to embrace and reject anti-Semitic stereotypes at the same time, which is no easy feat.

For sheer, stiff-necked obstinacy, I sort of admire The Leprechauns' Christmas Gold from the early eighties, which takes a stand against generosity (and showcases that most negligible of holiday chestnuts, the godawful "Christmas in Killarney"). Here, an evil banshee covets the titular treasure -- and apparently will die if she doesn't get it. But she can't obtain the treasure unless its owner gives it to her freely, which sets up the anti-generosity motif. The plot gets even more convoluted and nonsensical from here, so we'll skip to the end: The banshee disguises herself as a damsel in distress, and tricks a naive young man into giving her what she most covets. With gold in hand, the banshee would be able to live forever, except that St. Patrick (yes, that St. Patrick) shows up at the eleventh hour and sends the old biddy to a watery grave. The unconscious message here, as far as I can tell, is that when one is generous, one is more likely to feed vice than nourish virtue: Scrooge had the right idea, it would seem.

This year's "Woodland Critter Christmas" episode of South Park might have titillated viewers with thoughts of a virginal porcupine bearing the Antichrist. (As a cute fuzzy bear puts it, you didn't think God was going to come down and commit bestiality, did you?) Still, if you really want a glimpse of Lord Satan himself, you'll have to go to The Smurfs Christmas Special, a Yuletide flushable from 1981 so rancid that even the all-encompassing IMDB doesn't dare list it. In this grimmest of holiday shows, the devil attacks an old man and kidnaps two children, so that he can take them all to Hell. The Smurfs stop him by singing a song. Ho, ho, ho.

Speaking of Hell, one of the weirdest telefilms ever comes from the unlikely team of Hanna-Barbera Animation and the International Lutheran Laymen's League. The Little Troll Prince offers a thoroughly Calvinistic perspective on Christmas, beginning with an innately depraved troll kingdom in which "bad is good and good is bad." The troll prince is unable to conform to this perverse moral code, perhaps because it's linguistically confusing. Naturally, we are meant to see his nonconformism as a sign that he's predestined for salvation. (Another sign, it seems, is his skin color, because he's the only White guy in Troll-land.) Fortunately, even though all the other trolls are bound for Hell, they don't seem overly bothered about it. Unfortunately, they don't appreciate the good little troll's lectures on virtue, either, so they throw him out on his good little ass. Hilarity ensues -- mostly unintended -- as a group of gnome babies adopt the troll (don't ask) and teach him about divine love with a catchy little ditty: "God loves all he made / Even evil trolls." When the troll finally accepts Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Saviour, he turns into a gnome himself; it seems like a lateral promotion at best. All the same, isn't it reassuring to know that God loves "evil trolls"? Even though they're going to suffer unspeakable eternal torment in the fiery lake of burning sulfur, God loves those trolls just as much as he loves musical Smurfs or satanic bears.

Christmas exploitation is a longstanding tradition on the boob tube, but it's also a marvelous way to explore the quivering underbelly of the world's favorite religious holiday. It can be a beautiful time, at least for some of us. But, gentle readers (or is that Gentile readers?), this holiday also seethes with anger and resentiment, and comes complete with visions of death, absolute evil, and Hell itself. Christmas is also a repository of genuinely backward thinking, from racism and fanaticism on the social right, to socialism and anti-industrialization on the left. As Christians everywhere celebrate the joys of the season, perhaps we should acknowledge the other, nastier side as well.

Update (12/21): A loyal reader provides a perfect closing thought:

I think that the reasons nobody really wants to explore the weird side of Christmas are that A: it's not generally acknowledged to be the point of the holiday, and B: you get into the "this is Jesus Christ, whose destiny is to be tortured to death" aspect of the Christian faith. On the other hand, my parents go to a Lutheran church, and I was around during Advent last year. I noticed that the service music was all very downbeat, all slow tempos and sustained notes in minor keys. I said to my Mom "what are we doing here, singing the Christmas dirges?" This is the same section of the Lutheran songbook which contains "God Preserve Our Dying Race."

Well, that would certainly explain The Little Troll Prince.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Kinsley on Social Security

Uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan has just published Michael Kinsley's argument against privatizing Social Security on his website. But something about the post simply doesn't make sense, and as a former writing teacher and ECON 101 graduate, I think I can point out what went wrong, where, and perhaps even why. Kinsley's thesis is basically circular -- privatization won't work because it can't work, and it can't work because it won't work. And the reason it's circular, I suspect, is that most of his supporting claims can't withstand basic scrutiny.

For example, Kinsley states that "Greater economic growth requires either more capital to invest, or smarter investment of the same amount of capital. Privatization will not lead to either of these." This blanket assertion nicely sidesteps the question of whether individuals should be allowed to invest their money as they see fit. After all, if government bureaucrats can invest my money at a greater rate of return than I can, it would hardly be in my best interest to tell them no. But many investors, myself included, are not so certain that the money we deposit into Social Security will yield any return at all. Unless something happens to thin the ranks of baby boomers in the next few years, we're going to end up paying for a lot of Wal-Mart greeters and Florida condo colonies, none of which will have any bearing on what will happen to us when we retire.

Kinsley never addresses the main issue about our current system of "collectivized" Social Security -- namely, that most Americans under thirty-five strongly suspect that the system will collapse at about the time we're eligible to draw from it. We're not talking about a zero-percent rate of return: We're talking about no return whatsoever. If Kinsley worries that a privatized Social Security will give Americans a reduced rate of return in the short term, he never addresses the question of looming disaster under our present system in the long term.

That said, Kinsley is absolutely right to note that Social Security is classified as general revenue, just like any other federal tax. If Americans suddenly claimed that this money belonged not to the government, but to the individual citizens who earned it, we'd lose an important cushion for deficit spending. We might have to cut some mass-transit or fine-arts programs (or worse, slash a few social entitlements) to bring the deficit to a manageable level. For my part, I have no problem with any of this. I understand that Kinsley is a liberal, and the very thought of reduced revenues and limited government gives him the heebie-jeebies. But for the sake of his own argument, he must consider what might happen if, just perhaps, taxes were not increased dollar-for-dollar to match revenue from Social Security. Surely under those circumstances, the privatization of Social Security could "work."

Instead of responding to the obvious objection, Kinsley retreats to a classic authoritarian position, which he states so boldly that my jaw dropped in amazement: "The only change in decision-making about capital investment is that the decisions about some fraction of the capital stock will be made by people with little or no financial experience. Maybe this will not be the disaster that some critics predict." Maybe it won't, maybe it will: but I think we can tell which side Kinsley favors. He's saying that you, gentle reader, are too stupid -- or rather, inexperienced -- to manage your own money. (This kind of thinking cost liberals the last election.)

Kinsley's claims about investors in stocks versus investors in bonds also demonstrate a general unawareness of how investors behave over time. Investors, no matter how naive, tend to change their mode of investment over time, in order to address their changing financial needs. Young people buy risky, high-yield stocks: They figure that even if they lose some of their principal through market volatility, they still have time to make it back. As investors get older and more affluent, they move to safer, lower-yield stocks, or to commodities like real estate which increase in value over time. They still desire a solid rate of return, but they can no longer tolerate major losses or setbacks. Then, as investors approach retirement, they gradually transfer their money into guaranteed investments, like bank CDs and government bonds. That way, they can live off the interest once they retire, leaving the principal to the next generation.

Now, if your income is middle-class or higher, this sort of investment is a relatively simple matter. Even after taxes, you'll probably have some surplus income which you can use to plan for the future (and for most of us, the process of planning involves chatting every few months with a broker, nothing more). If you're among the working poor, however, you have a big problem. With collectivized Social Security, government soaks up your disposable income before you have a chance to save or invest it, so that your net worth remains perpetually low. The greatest beneficiaries of privatization might be the working poor, who need to keep what they make. Alas, Kinsley never acknowledges, let alone responds to, this most basic reason for privatization. I wonder what, if anything, he could say about it.

Much of Kinsley's argument is based on asssertions of "zero-sum gain" in the marketplace, and it's the same Marxist doctrine we've heard before -- that the wealthy make their money by picking the pockets of the poor, that for every winner in the marketplace there must be a corresponding loser, that increased savings doesn't necessarily lead to new or greater overall wealth, that directed economies are healthier than free and unguided markets. Since none of these claims can stand up to basic, real-world economics, Kinsley is left in the end with little more than his own circular logic to guide him, and I'm afraid it doesn't take him (or us) very far.

Update (2:45 p.m.): A loyal reader from Arkansas -- who, unlike me, actually has a hand in making legislation -- weighs in:

I think Michael Kinsley does a decent job of explaining why economically the privatization of social security won't work.  More importantly, I don't see how it could work politically.

The Bush administration says it won't raise FICA premiums to pay for SS "reform."  The money will therefore have to come from cuts.  You said you're more than willing to accept those cuts.  Fair enough.  Next question: what will be cut?  We like to think that cuts in discretionary spending and silly federal pork-barrel programs can pay for stuff like SS reform, but it can't.  Most of the federal budget is taken up by three large programs: (1) Medicare/medicaid; (2) SS; and (3) the military.  Which of those will we cut?  The military?  Good luck -- no Republican Congress would do this in peacetime, much less wartime.  SS?  Bush has promised he won't reduce payouts under SS, and the whole point of privatization is to keep the payments rolling out in the future.  Health care?  The entire medical industry -- now mostly supported by federal payouts -- would revolt. The intellectually dishonest approach of the Bush administration is to propose an "ownership society" supported by the federal government and then not to explain how taxes will be raised or budgets cut to pay for it.

I think the more fundamental question is: what is the purpose of Social Security?  Is it to (1) provide a savings vehicle for retirement, where we should be allowed to maximize our individual returns?  Or is it to (2) provide a minimum safety net to every working American in the golden years through forced savings, so we as a society we won't have to deal with the problem of hordes of 70-year-olds with no means of support.  The traditional answer has been (2), but the Bush administration apparently buys into (1).  I would argue that the federal government provides plenty of tax-advantaged savings programs already through IRAs, 401(k)s, college savings accounts, etc. I don't know why we need to turn Social Security into the same thing.  Again, if we don't like the federal government forcing us to pay into a program, manage our money for us, and then pay us at the end, end it altogether, don't create some silly hybrid that's not fiscally sound.

What's my idea to save SS? Treat it like a public pension program of the sort that have been around for years in local and state governments since the early 20th century.  Individuals don't choose investments like in a 401(k), but professional managers have more discretion to invest funds.  A local example would be the Arkansas Teachers Retirement System, which has been well-administered and certainly has less unfunded liability than SS. The investments would need to be more conservative than traditional pension plans, but even investment in federally insured mortgages would lead to much larger returns than we are currently seeing in Social Security.

Editor's note: As New York Post financial analyst John Crudele explained in 1996, the Arkansas Teachers Retirement System may not be the best argument in favor of government pension programs. It certainly appears secure at the moment, however, and part of the reason may be that, unlike Social Security, the Teachers Retirement System is not compulsory. (My own parents are both retired teachers, but my mother elected to pay into this system while my father chose not to.) The voluntary nature of this pension program means that the professional investors who manage it have a powerful incentive to invest wisely as well as a degree of accountability to individual employees unknown within the vast, labyrinthine Social Security Administration. Even if we changed Social Security into a sort of universal pension program, as my reader suggests, it still wouldn't be voluntary. So there would be no market incentive for those managing the program to invest wisely, or maintain its overall solvency.

More important, though, is my reader's contention that Social Security "provide[s] a minimum safety net to every working American in the golden years through forced savings, so we as a society we won't have to deal with the problem of hordes of 70-year-olds with no means of support." Social Security is not a savings program, forced or otherwise -- and if you think it is, gentle reader, just try to "withdraw" the money you've deposited over the years. It's time we viewed Social Security for what it truly is: a tax, and a pretty regressive one at that. As with all tax revenue, the government spends our Social Security payments as soon as it gets them. There's no new wealth created, no economic growth. The money just goes away.

But my reader is keenly attuned to political reality, and raises a terrific point about limited-government rhetoric. Talk is cheap; politics is expensive. I, too, would like to know what we'll cut to pay for Social Security, whether it's privatized or not. Bush seems to think that increases in economic growth will take care of future budget shortfalls all by themselves, which strikes me as intellectually dishonest (and would be considered risible if the president were to say it outright). Clearly we need to cut something; perhaps we could start with that Medicare drug benefit ...

Update (12/20): Here's another letter from another interested reader.

You said, "Much of Kinsley's argument is based on asssertions of "zero-sum gain" in the marketplace, and it's the same Marxist doctrine we've heard before ...." Kinsley says no such thing. All he said was that every dollar taken from SS and placed into a private savings account must be replaced by a dollar taken from the private sector to cover the deficit. That is not a blanket "zero-sum gain in the total marketplace," but rather a plain and obvious fact in this specific case. Moreover, SS makes its money not by picking the pockets of the poor, but by causing non-SS investments (which belong disproportionately to the well off) to go down.

I probably should have made this point more clear.

Kinsley's "zero-sum gain" assumptions have to do with stocks vs. bonds: Kinsley assumes that if demand for one goes up, demand for the other will go down. That's true if the overall amount of money in the market remains the same -- which is why, when Greenspan announces a drop in interest rates, the stock market goes up. But Social Security privatization will create a greater number of investors, thus directing more money toward the market. This leads to a greater demand for stocks and bonds, which means that both go up in the short term. What's more, greater investment leads to economic growth and new wealth, which keeps the markets high in the long term.

Kinsley believes that richer investors in stocks will make money off poorer investors who place their money in bonds. This is where his Marxism comes in: Kinsley seems to think the rich make their money by picking the pockets of the poor. I suspect that my loyal reader displays a few Marxist tendencies in his last sentence, when he notes that Social Security "makes its money ... by causing non-SS investments (which belong disproportionately to the well off) to go down." If he is writing this in support of collectivized Social Security -- and I presume he is -- he believes this is a good thing: Social Security (which belongs to the poor) goes up because the market (which is controlled by the rich) goes down: Thus the poor make their money by picking the pockets of the rich, which is precisely how Marx would have it.

Again, this isn't how the market works -- or how Social Security works, for that matter. I've already discussed how Social Security doesn't "make" money at all; it merely transfers money from one group of people to another (with considerable transfer costs to pay for a growing bureaucracy). I've also mentioned how Social Security keeps the working poor in working poverty, by soaking up the surplus income they earn. Social Security doesn't cause market investments to go down; it reduces money available for new investment, which holds the market back.

When we talk about "the market," we're not talking about impersonal forces that caress the fat cats and crush the little guys. We're talking about decisions made by anyone who earns and/or invests money. If individual wage-earners and investors have fewer choices, and benefit less by them, then we say that "the market" suffers. If, on the other hand, these people have more choices, and reap a greater benefit through their actions, we say "the market" is thriving.

This idea of "the market" doesn't just apply to the wealthy; it's for everyone -- because it is everyone. And it's high time our government started working with us instead of against us.

Monday, December 13, 2004

DVD Watch: Return of the King: Special Extended Edition

Peter Jackson's extended cut of Return of the King, the third and final part of his Lord of the Rings series, arrives on DVD tomorrow. I'm pleased to inform you, gentle readers, that it was more than worth the wait. On the whole, the "extended cuts" of these films have been superior to the theatrical versions. But in the case of Return of the King, the difference is so great as to leave me wondering why the theatrical cut was ever released in the first place.

During ROTK's theatrical run, I noted that the narrative seemed choppy, and that important characters from the earlier two films disappeared for extended periods of time. In addition, several minor characters seemed unmotivated or undermotivated, the battle scenes felt chaotic and impersonal, and a few major plot threads (like, for example, the fate of the wizard Saruman) were left unresolved. Luckily, Jackson has resolved most of these flaws in his extended cut: Character development is much improved, even among secondary figures, and lead characters from the other two films never disappear entirely from the story arc. Several additional scenes -- such as the final confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman, or Aragorn's attempt to contact dark lord Sauron through a glowing black orb -- clarify the action: The events in this film make far more sense from a strategic point of view, now that Jackson has deigned to explain their context in full. Still, as enormous as the battle scenes get in Return of the King, none of them match (or even approach) the Helm's Deep sequence in Two Towers for sheer kinetic fury or dramatic impact. Such, I suppose, is the law of diminishing returns.

As with the other two films, Jackson adds plenty of sick jokes and takes considerable liberties with the original text, both of which are sure to enrage Tolkien purists. (No references to dwarf-tossing, alas.) Yet ROTK does something which I find much tougher to forgive: It frequently succumbs to excessive solemnity, even sentimentality -- as in Gandalf's sappy speech to Pippin, when he posits a fair, green Heaven straight out of your local Hallmark store. This sprinkling of schmaltz may have made Jackson respectable enough to receive his Best Director Oscar, but it also makes ROTK the least of the Jackson-Tolkien trilogy.

That said, it's still one of the best DVDs of the year. So why complain?

Update (12/15): Tolkien devotee Alan Sullivan expresses my point far more succinctly: "With this final film, one discerns more clearly than ever how the exigencies of theatrical release forced Peter Jackson to brutalize his creation." Of course, Jackson doesn't need any particular incentiveto brutalize his creations, as anyone who has seen Bad Taste or The Frighteners is well aware. Even his arthouse fare, such as Heavenly Creatures or Forgotten Silver, contains a deliberate streak of physical cruelty: Heavenly Creatures goes heavy on the sheep's blood during a climactic murder scene (the lead characters are practically drenched in it), while Forgotten Silver praises a fictional silent comedian who pulls random passersby off the street and knocks them down.

Jackson's delight in wanton cinematic cruelty reminds me of no one so much as Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, another smart-assed, low-budget horror hack who embraces highbrow and lowbrow with equal vigor, and therefore has proven ideally suited to blockbuster filmmaking. Raimi got his start with the vicious Evil Dead, in which a young woman is raped by trees. The film ends when the last survivor of an all-night zombie attack is killed by a tracking camera (luckily, he's resurrected in the even gorier Evil Dead 2). But despite one scene in Spider-Man 2 that recalls the grindhouse fury of the Evil Dead oeuvre, Raimi seems to have abandoned his own nastiness in the transition to the mainstream.

I suspect that Jackson's Lord of the Rings draws its cinematic power from a clash of sensibilities, as New Zealand's master of film schlock grapples with a tweedy mid-century British linguist. Tolkien is a genteel storyteller, and Jackson's directorial style is unapologetically vicious -- which means that the film's battle of good against evil (or rather, decency against brutality) plays out on a stylistic as well as a narrative level. Under the circumstances, it's surprising that Tolkien wins out as often as he does: The old linguist has considerable fight in him after all, and more than holds his own in the fight. Here his world view triumphs; here Jackson has his nasty way. But even though the linguist's NPR-ish sensibility finally triumphs (as perhaps it must, given Tolkien's position of literary privilege), gorehounds like me will always look back with fondness to those "Jacksonian" beheadings, burnings, disembowelments, and mutilations -- sick, disgusting touches on which the director has lavished loving care, god bless 'im.

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