Masquerade

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A nice epic historical drama, of the sort that Asians (in this case, South Koreans) seem to do so much better than we do. If you're up to reading subtitles for over two hours, and aren't averse to sorting out characters where everyone (sorry) kinda looks alike, check it out.

It's set in 17th-century Korea; the King, Gwang-hae, has a fine line to tread between contentious factions in his own country and the superior military power of China and Japan. He's extremely (and, it turns out, justifiably) paranoid about his personal safety.

Which leads him to assign his trusted advisors with a desperate task: to find a reasonable double, who can take his place in risky situations (like dinner, where the food could be poisoned). They find Ha-seon, a bawdy song-and-dance man employed at the local whorehouse. He's an obvious physical double, but nearly a polar opposite from the King in every other way: cowardly, impulsive, and, uh, not that smart.

But he gets hired, of course. (It helps that Ha-Seon doesn't really grasp what he's getting into, or his likely fate.) And there are some really funny bits as he gamely attempts to act royally.

But he grows in the role. When the King is mysteriously taken ill, everyone has no choice but to make the best of the situation. Surprising everyone, most of all himself, Ha-seon finds himself righting wrongs, fighting injustice, standing up for the nation: things that the King himself had failed to do. Which, of course, puts him in more danger.

It's also gorgeous. The men wear funny hats.

Cinnamon Skin

[Amazon Link]

One of my reading projects is near the end. Cinnamon Skin is the penultimate novel in John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series. I see the books are in the process of being reissued in paperback, with an introduction by Lee Child. And truly, I see some similarities between Child's hero Jack Reacher and Travis.

In the previous book, Travis's economist sidekick Meyer was deeply traumatized in the final showdown with the villain. He's still under a dark cloud here, morosely schlepping up to Canada to give a lecture series. But things get worse: Meyer lends his yacht, the John Maynard Keynes, to his newlywed niece, Norma and her husband Evan. Headed out from the slip to do some fishing, the Keynes blows up, obliterating all souls aboard. Soon afterward, a terrorist group takes credit for the bomb, revenge for Meyer's giving advice to Chile's dictatorship years previous.

So inept terrorists miss their target, killing some unintended victims instead. A neat story, but some little things about it nag Travis. Eventually he and Meyer get a bead on the actual baddie, trying to get on his elusive, murderous, trail. This takes them here and there: Texas, upstate New York, finally down to Mayan ruins near Cancún. Suspense builds, and there is a thrilling and satisfying climax.

Along the way, MacDonald expertly paints the locales and people they meet. Even minor characters come alive as actual people. Jeez, I miss him.

It's short: my book club hardcover from the mid-80s is slightly over 200 pages. Today's publishing contracts demand more, I think. But not better.

Hey, just a thought: Carl Hiaasen's next book should be titled Cinnamon Skink, in tribute to John D. Whattya think?

Carol Shea-Porter: If the Car Won't Start, Maybe Slashing the Tires Would Help

Sorry, Sanitation People It's been a long time (mid-June) since we last looked at one of "Carol's Column's", penned by my own CongressCritter and perpetual toothache, Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH01). Her 700-800 word theses are primarily aimed at the op-ed pages of our local newspapers, but also appear at her government-provided website.

Her mid-June column was about student loans. On July 1, she emitted another column on the same topic, where she managed to say precisely nothing new or interesting: just the same tired finger-pointing, lame talking points, scare tactics, and sloganeering. Not worth a response.

On August 6 her column bemoaned Congressional gridlock. As if that's a bad thing. Nevertheless, she and her colleagues were blameless; it was all the Republicans' fault, especially those awful "Tea Party" Republicans. At least Carol believes in transparent government: her column was transparently partisan. Also not worth refuting at length here, but even my local paper, Foster's Daily Democrat considered it to be a case of "Kettle calls the pot black"

But it's time for Pun Salad to get back in the saddle. Carol's current column is titled Time for a Jump Start (hence our clever illustration); As always: I am reproducing her entire column here, lest I be accused of quoting out of context. Carol's words are (appropriately) on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

Our economy has been slowly but steadily recovering. However, too many people still cannot find work, and most workers are experiencing flat wages, even though corporate profits are at an all time high. They watch the stock market and corporate pay and bonuses skyrocketing, and feel left behind. They believe government and media don't care and are not even noticing. Are they right? Carol brushes against an insight here, but her ideology won't allow her to look at it squarely. Simply put: a lot of domestic firms have discovered that they can chug along just fine with fewer workers, and not giving significant raises to the ones left over.

Carol wants you to know that she "cares" about this, of course. She "cares" quite a bit about any issue that allows her to rail against her usual array of villains: Republicans, corporations, the private economy.

But actually caring about citizens who can't find jobs? Eh, not so much.

They are correct that they are being left behind, but they are not the only ones noticing and talking about it. Just a few short years ago, when some economists, politicians, and advocates first started talking about how the economy seemed to favor only the corporations and the wealthiest, they were attacked and accused of conducting class warfare. However, now all of the mainstream newspapers and economic observers are talking about it also. The American Dream is in danger. Note Carol's word choice here. The (saintly) folks on her side are merely "noticing" and "talking about" the issue. The (nasty) other side "attacked and accused". They're probably racist Tea Partiers.

But her memory is just convenient. In fact, leftist demagogues have yammered about this stuff forever, and managed to get plenty of "mainstream" media outlets to take them seriously all along.

For decades, each generation has done better than the one before. Better education and pay resulted in a higher standard of living. This formula spurred innovation, economic growth, and more millionaires, as Americans reached for their piece of the dream. Work hard, dream big, succeed. But lately, that formula is unreliable. Our economy is 70% consumer driven, so it relies on more Americans earning more money, but with wages flat, workers have not been able to drive the economy like before. This is a problem for all of us. USA Today's May 5, 2013 article, "Profits don't flow through to wages", quotes Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics: "Ultimately, for the economy to thrive we need everyone participating." This article reports that, "Workers who rely on paychecks for their income have been running in place, financially speaking. Adjusting for inflation, an average worker who was paid $49,650 at the end of 2009 is making about $545 less now—and that's before taxes and deductions." The USA Today article Carol references is here. The authors, Paul Davidson and John Waggoner, are slightly less clueless than Carol about the issue. But they, like Carol, Point With Alarm to the disconnect between rising stock prices/corporate profitability, and employee compensation as if there is—nay, should be—some sort of mathematically necessary correlation between them.

But there's not. Few employers are in the charity business. If it makes economic sense to hire more workers, or to give their existing workers significant raises, they will. Otherwise they won't.

There are things government can do about this. The most effective strategy would involve a search-and-destroy mission against existing government disincentives to employment. Like, for example, Obamacare. Unfortunately, Carol strongly approves of those disincentives.

It doesn't matter: she can continue to Point With Alarm, which is all she really wants to do anyway.

CNN Money covered this story in 2011, titling it, "How the middle class became the under class." They wrote, "Middle-class incomes have been stagnant for at least a generation, while the wealthiest tier has surged ahead at lightning speed." They added, "Meanwhile, the richest 1% of Americans—those making $380,000 or more—have seen their incomes grow 33% over the last 20 years, leaving average Americans in the dust." CNN Money cites the reasons other articles cite as well—globalization of the economy, technology, erosion of unions and collective bargaining, etc. It also reports that, "Tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration and extended under Obama were also a major windfall for the nation's richest." The CNN Money story referenced by Carol is here, written by one Annalyn Censky. Even though it's 2.5 years old, it's more up Carol's alley, a complete array of left-wing talking points and uncritical quotes from obvious partisans.

Again: Carol's more interested in stirring the demagogic pot than in actually doing anything to spur employment and wages.

An International Business Times article, “US Worker Productivity Is Rising Faster Than Wage Growth,” says it all. They wrote, "U.S. companies have been getting more out of fewer employees, but those workers aren't enjoying a corresponding increase in their wages." They also quoted Gary Burtless, senior fellow in economic studies at The Brookings Institute, who told CNN, "A bigger share of what businesses in the U.S. are producing is going to the owners of the firms and the people who lent money to the firm, and a smaller share is going to workers." Referenced article is here. Again, the question-begging premise is that productivity "should be" inexorably tied to wage levels and employment.

Why assume that? Well, it allows Carol and her ilk to dodge around why that disconnect might be happening. It's much more politically useful to implicitly or explicitly point the finger at rich, greedy capitalists. Essentially: "you're doing poorly because they are doing better."

For example…

These are not left-wing organizations. These are middle to conservative groups who are highlighting a problem in America—the vanishing middle class. When a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) earns 380 times what the average worker earns, when a CEO earns in one hour what the employee earns in one month, something is wrong, and we need to work on this. My suggestion would be for Carol to get out of politics and start up her own enlightened corporation. One where the CEO/worker pay disparity will be less than 380. Obviously, that's the road to business success!

Won't happen, though. Carol's complete economic illiteracy would shatter on any contact with the free market. In politics, however, you can make a very decent living out of that ignorance.

But about that "vanishing middle class": 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the book The Facts of Socialism, by socialist Jessie Wallace Hughan. In it (page 88) she refers to the "vanishing middle class" as if it were a done deal, a known fact, an inevitable outcome.

For lefties, the American middle class has been vanishing for a real long time. It's a completely immortal trope, even though the middle class stubbornly refuses to vanish.

We need to examine trade agreements, end unfair tax breaks, and fix what conservative Oklahoma Senator Coburn wrote about in his report, “Subsidies of the Rich and Famous.” We must raise the minimum wage to provide more buying power for individuals, which will also help small businesses. We could lower the corporate tax rate, which is merely a suggestion anyway, since so few corporations actually pay at that rate, but then we need to actually collect those taxes. CNN Money reported on August 12, 2008, that nearly two-thirds of U.S. companies paid zero federal income taxes, and that outrage continues today. Encourage and reward corporations that create jobs here instead of parking their profits off shore. Invest in our nation's aging infrastructure. We need to work together—small businesses and large ones, every level of government, educational institutions and non-profits—to turn this around. Finally, Carol handwaves at various things that government could do. But they mostly illustrate how idea-free the current crop of Democrats are. It's a laundry list of stuff they've been advocating for years and years. Nothing she proposes will credibly incentivize the private economy to improve the employment picture.

  • "Examine trade agreements" is (probably) code for "erecting trade barriers". In theory, this might make employment better for a favored fraction; in practice it would make us all poorer.
  • I love Senator Coburn. The report Carol mentions is here (PDF). While it's full of good ideas, there are no recommendations in there that would directly help employment or wages.
  • Of course, raising the minimum wage is a disincentive to hiring and will (again) make us all poorer.
  • Carol proposes to do something about corporate taxation, but there's only a vague muddle instead of concrete proposals. Punish some, reward others? Our current labyrinthine corporate tax code is the result of doing just that for decades. Will anything Carol's proposing cause businesses to turn around and hire more people or increase wages? Um, no. Probably the opposite.
  • Bemoaning "aging infrastructure" is the latest incarnation of Obama's "shovel-ready projects". As always, Carol has complete faith in the power of government to invest money more wisely than the private market. This faith is immune to evidence or reason.

I do not have all the answers. Nobody does. But I know fairness is at our core, and we need to restore this truly American value. In fact, Carol has no credible answers. As our headline indicates: to "jump start" the economy, she'd start by slashing the tires.

Last Modified 2017-12-01 10:41 AM EST