Why economic growth is better than “equality”

Amity Shlaes:

Free marketeers may sometimes win elections, but they are not winning U.S. history. In recent years, the consensus regarding the American past has slipped leftward, and then leftward again. No longer is American history a story of opportunity, or of military or domestic triumph. Ours has become, rather, a story of wrongs, racial and social. Today, any historical figure who failed at any time to support abolition, or, worse, took the Confederate side in the Civil War, must be expunged from history. Wrongs must be righted, and equality of result enforced.

The equality campaign spills over into a less obvious field, one that might otherwise provide a useful check upon the nonempirical claims of the humanities: economics. In a discipline that once showcased the power of markets, an axiom is taking hold: equal incomes lead to general prosperity and point toward utopia. Teachers, book review editors, and especially professors withhold any evidence to the contrary. Universities lead the shift, and the population follows. Today, millennials, those born between 1981 and 2000, outnumber baby boomers by the millions, and polls suggest that they support redistribution specifically, and government action generally, more than their predecessors do. A 2014 Reason/Rupe poll found 48 percent of millennials agreeing that government should “do more” to solve problems, whereas 37 percent said that government was doing “too many things.” A full 58 percent of the youngest of millennials, those 18–24 when surveyed, held a “positive” view of socialism, in dramatic contrast with their parents: only 23 percent of those aged 55 to 64 viewed socialism positively.

At least for now, most progressives acknowledge that markets and economic growth are necessary. But progressives in academia contend that growth has proved itself secondary to equality efforts—something to be exploited, rather than appreciated. Not just nationally, but worldwide, policymakers and the press regard the subordination of growth to equality to be a benign practice, as in the recent line in the Indian periodical Mint: a policy aimed at “reducing inequality need not hurt growth.”

The redistributionist impulse has brought to the fore metrics such as the Gini coefficient, named after the ur-redistributor, Corrado Gini, an Italian social scientist who developed an early statistical measure of income distribution a century ago. A society where a single plutocrat earns all the income ranks a pure “1” on the Gini scale; one in which all earnings are perfectly equally distributed, the old Scandinavian ideal, scores a “0” by the Gini test. The Gini Index has been renamed or updated numerous times, but the principle remains the same. Income distribution and redistribution seem so crucial to progressives that French economist Thomas Piketty built an international bestseller around it, the wildly lauded Capital.

Through Gini’s lens, we now rank past eras. Decades in which policy endeavored or managed to even out and equalize earnings—the 1930s under Franklin Roosevelt, the 1960s under Lyndon Johnson—score high. Decades where policymakers focused on growth before equality, such as the 1920s, fare poorly. Decades about which social-justice advocates aren’t sure what to say—the 1970s, say—simply drop from the discussion. In the same hierarchy, federal debt moves down as a concern because austerity to reduce debt could hinder redistribution. Lately, advocates of economically progressive history have made taking any position other than theirs a dangerous practice. Academic culture longs to topple the idols of markets, just as it longs to topple statutes of Robert E. Lee.

But progressives have their metrics wrong and their story backward. The geeky Gini metric fails to capture the American economic dynamic: in our country, innovative bursts lead to great wealth, which then moves to the rest of the population. Equality campaigns don’t lead automatically to prosperity; instead, prosperity leads to a higher standard of living and, eventually, in democracies, to greater equality. The late Simon Kuznets, who posited that societies that grow economically eventually become more equal, was right: growth cannot be assumed. Prioritizing equality over markets and growth hurts markets and growth and, most important, the low earners for whom social-justice advocates claim to fight. Government debt matters as well. Those who ring the equality theme so loudly deprive their own constituents, whose goals are usually much more concrete: educational opportunity, homes, better electronics, and, most of all, jobs. Translated into policy, the equality impulse takes our future hostage.

Touring American history with an eye on growth, not equality, has become so unusual that doing so almost feels like driving on the wrong side of the road. Nonetheless, a review trip through the decades is useful because the evidence for growth is right there, in our own American past. Four decades, especially, warrant examination: the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1960s, and the 1970s.

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What … is … this?

I have decided I am tired of writing about politics for the rest of the week.

One of the most infamous moments of TV before the “Star Wars Holiday Special” was this, uh, performance from William Shatner …

… during the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards.

There, is, however, an actual story to this, or so this Facebook post (taken, the writer claims, from Shatner’s autobiography) claims:

Shatner was rehearsing and during a pause he took a cigarette break with some of the crew. He was the center of attention, of course, and they got to talking about Bernie Taupin being at the show, and Shatner grabbed a chair and did what he called “Frank Sinatra doing Elton John,” performing Rocketman. He had the entire crew in stitches and they desperately wanted to get it on film, but eventualy it was suggested that he should do it for the show. It would be a brilliant comedy bit.

Because of the way the stage was situated, Shatner couldn’t tell what the reaction of the crowd was when he performed it. He just assumed everyone had a good laugh and moved on with the show.

He picked the paper up the next morning to see that the media and the audience were raving about his brilliant, artistic, dramatic performance, and how he wowed the crowd with his passion and artistic interpretation… It was supposed to be a joke, and they totally took it seriously.

That’s one story. Cover Me has another interpretation:

William Shatner’s take on the classic Elton John/Bernie Taupin tune “Rocket Man” has an awesome power—people know it without ever having heard it. It seems to exist in our culture purely as a punchline, a go-to gag to illustrate the depth to which Shatner’s career had fallen post-Star Trek. And this is a joke everybody’s in on—sources as diverse as Beck (in his video for “Where It’s At“), Freakazoid, and Family Guy have all taken a few shots at Shatner for this one. But is it really so awful?

At the very least, there’s no denying that Shatner’s “Rocket Man” is very, very weird. The man who was Captain Kirk performed this song as a tribute to Bernie Taupin at the 1978 Saturn Awards ceremony, and audiences have wondered why ever since. …

Truthfully, even if you’re going in academically, it’s hard not to laugh at parts of Shatner’s cover. Whether it’s the overly-serious delivery when he proclaims he just doesn’t understand science at 2:30 or the arrival of Dancing Kirk at 3:18, sections of this song (if not the whole thing) are just hilarious. I can’t imagine a more appropriate first response than confused guffawing.

But, after all, that’s only a first response.

This is not to deny that Shatner’s cover isn’t funny, because it is. But I think it’s more than that. The key to understanding where Bill is coming from here is in how the song is staged—there’s three different Shatners singing, each with a different tone and cadence. Shatner #1 is calm and cool, smoking a cigarette and acting aloof, describing his space-faring job as he might any other profession. Shatner #2 speaks boldly, like he’s channeling the spirit of an adventurer about to conquer the great unknown, but sometimes there’s a crack in his voice or a downturn in his expression that indicates he may be feigning the enthusiasm. Shatner #3 is a dancing fool, totally jubilant about his job—he gets to hang out in outer space! It’s an interesting dissection of the multi-faceted feelings of this song’s narrator,  bolstered by the fact that Starfleet Captain James T. Kirk is the one delivering the lines.

What makes Shatner’s “Rocket Man” so funny is its over-earnestness. It takes itself veryseriously. That’s also what makes it charming. In a way, it offers a handy prism through which to view the whole of Shatner’s career. It’s like that scene in Star Trek III where Klingon leader Kruge (played by Christopher Lloyd) murders Kirk’s son in cold blood. Shatner, standing taut on the bridge of his ship, stumbles back, falls into a slumped position on his captain’s chair, and utters (in the standard Shatner cadence) “You Klingon bastard…you killed my son. You Klingon bastard!” If you only look at that scene, it’s kind of funny and ridiculous, but if you’re caught up in the reality of the movie, I think it’s actually some pretty powerful acting. You rarely see a confident leader like Kirk so deflated. My point is that something can be both a little silly and an interesting performance piece, depending on how one wants to look at it.

I think Shatner’s “Rocket Man” is both of those things. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have some fun with it, but if you can get past all that, there is actually something kind of interesting going on. On Has Been, his 2004 collaboration with Ben Folds, Shatner proved that he can make legitimately good music. Maybe that was apparent all along, if only we’d looked.

William Shatner’s “spoken-word” version of Rocket Man made an extraordinary impact; I can only describe it as unforgettable. Initially, Shatner appears sitting on a stool, taking drags from a cigarette. An orchestra plays the melody in the background, while Shatner recites the lyrics.

Shatner over-emphasizes the line “I’m gonna be high as a kite by then,” lest anyone miss the drug allusions in that phrase. Later, using “Chroma Key” video technology, we see three different versions of Shatner. They are intended to represent three different facets of the Rocket Man’s personality. So we get the cynical hipster smoking a cigarette; a second Shatner exhibiting concern and bewilderment; and a third “swinger” persona.

One has to admit, this is one of the great moments on live television. It has been relentlessly spoofed, presumably because of Shatner’s over-the-top reading. I believe this is somewhat unfair. Whether or not one is impressed by the piece, Shatner made a serious attempt to capture the essence of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin tune.

But Shatner’s performance seems to invite parody. Among other efforts, it has been lampooned by The Simpsons and by comedian Chris Elliot on Late Night with David Letterman.

Here we will show Seth McFarlane’s take-off on Shatner’s version of Rocket Man. In an episode of the TV show Family Guy, baby Stewie Griffin reprises this song, with the voice provided by McFarlane himself.

This is virtually a word-for-word re-creation of Shatner’s performance, even including three different incarnations of Stewie.

Although William Shatner became famous for his spoken-word pieces, he also became a laughing-stock. Shatner could have taken this as a slap in the face; however, he took the criticism in stride, and showed an endearing capacity to laugh at himself.

William Shatner has profited handsomely from his willingness to take a joke. He poked fun at his Capt. Kirk role in appearances on Saturday Night Live and subsequent spoofs in movies like Airplane II and National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1.

Shatner’s character Denny Crane on The Practice and later reprised on Boston Legal was sufficiently self-referential that it is sometimes hard to separate the TV character from the Shatner send-up. For several years now Shatner has been starring (and parodying himself) as the spokesman for Priceline.com.

William Shatner has shown that you can make a ton of money if you have the ability to laugh at yourself. Our hope for Mr. Shatner is that he “live long and prosper.”

Well, Shatner has so far; he has outlived all but three other members of the original cast. And, of course …

The quotable King

My favorite Martin Luther King quotes, some of which you may not read or hear on Martin Luther King Jr. Day:

A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.

A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.

A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable … Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. … I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values — that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that all reality has spiritual control.

Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.

Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.

The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Whatever your life’s work is, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better.

50 years ago tonight

Tonight at 8:30, 7:30 Central time NBC-TV played …

Vanity Fair tells the story of one of Star Trek’s favorite episodes, beginning with …

“The Trouble with Tribbles” was the first professional sale for David Gerrold, a 23-year-old California college student. An unknown budding writer in September 1966 when he saw Star Trek’s first episode, he almost immediately began thinking of story premises. One of them drew on his teenage experiences of raising frogs, mice, rats, and fish. “I loved animals,” recalled Gerrold, now an award-winning author of many science-fiction novels and stories, in a recent interview. “But all of those critters died on me.”

So in February 1967, he drew up a proposal for an episode he called “The Fuzzies.”

“My original conception was, ‘Aliens are always scary. What if they’re cute but we don’t realize they’re dangerous? What if you had white mice or gerbils that got onto the Enterprise and got out of control?’ ”

Gerrold envisioned a real ecological disaster. “My attitude was that it would be whimsical but that we would have a serious threat,” he said. Nowhere in his work was there to be found now-classic slapstick moments, like William Shatner’sCaptain Kirk getting buried in a mountain of tribbles. Gerrold also imagined the buffoonish and chortling Cyrano Jones, the interstellar trader who introduces the beasties to the Enterprise, as a Boris Karloff type. (“You can just see him stroking it and saying, ‘Can I interest you in a harmless little tribble? . . .’ ”)

That mix of comedy within an actually serious situation (as James Doohan observed, Captain Kirk could have lost his command for an admittedly stupdi situation), along with fantastic dialogue (see McCoy and Spock) is what makes this such a great episode.

Merry whenever

Mike Rowe got theological on Tuesday:

Can someone please tell me if this is a work day? If it’s not, why not? And if it is, how come no one is working? What about tomorrow? For that matter, what about the rest of the week? I’ve been asking around, and increasingly, it seems like no one is quite sure what to do when Christmas falls on a Monday. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we celebrated Christmas on the third Thursday of every December, like we do with Thanksgiving every November?

I ran this by the minister at church on Christmas morning, and he was surprisingly supportive. I thought I might get some push-back regarding the embrace of a fungible birthdate for Jesus, but he assured me no one has the faintest idea when the birth actually occurred. This triggered a lively debate among a dozen or so congregants, including a very knowledgeable Elder who explained to all assembled that an angel named Gabriel revealed to a man named Zechariah that his wife – a woman called Elizabeth – would conceive a baby called John (who later become a famous Baptizer,) while Zechariah was performing his priestly duties on the Day of Atonement, also known as Yom Kippur.

At this point, a Deacon named Roger jumped in to explain that Yom Kippur always falls in late September or early October. According to the Gospel of Luke, when Gabriel later announced to Mary that she would conceive Jesus, Mary went to visit Elizabeth, and Elizabeth was at that time in the sixth month of her pregnancy. Ergo, if Elizabeth conceived in late September, and Mary visited her in her sixth month, that means Mary conceived Jesus and visited Elizabeth in late March. And if Mary conceived Jesus in late March, that places his birth sometime in late December.

With great respect to the Elder and the Deacon and the apostle Luke, I commented that “sometime in late December” is no more precise that “the third Thursday of December,” and the choir director seemed to agree, adding that, “If we accept the virgin birth as fact, we should also consider the possibility that Mary’s pregnancy didn’t comport with all the traditional time-frames.”

Soon, the conversation grew animated. I tried to change the subject to the importance of eliminating daylight savings time, but it was too late, so I quietly excused myself from the fray …

Well, there’s an additional time–space continuum issue. Christians commemorate Good Friday, Jesus Christ’s death, and Easter, Jesus Christ’s rising from the dead, on different dates every year. Those days are determined by the Jewish Passover (as depicted in the Gospels, since Jesus was a devout Jew), which itself takes place the first full moon after the vernal equinox. That means that Easter can be anywhere from March 22 (last in 1818, and not again until 2285) to April 25 (last in 1943 and not again until 2038), according to the always accurate Wikipedia. So we celebrate Christmas not knowing if it’s the right date (or if it was just, shall we say, borrowed by the early church from the pagans celebrating, for reasons unknown to anyone stuck in this frozen wasteland, the winter solstice), and we celebrate Easter with only one of those 34 days being the date of the Resurrection.

Ponder all this as you’re toasting the New Year sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning.

Capra, Stewart, and a Christmas classic

No, this is not a blog about “Die Hard.”

Certainly “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which NBC stations will carry Sunday at 7 p.m. Central time, is a Christmas movie. What’s somewhat unexpected about it is that it was considered a box office failure when it first came out, as in making approximately half its production costs at the box office. (Some of that was due to stiff competition around Christmas 1946.)

What’s more interesting is the story behind the movie, particularly its star, James Stewart, as reported by the London Daily Mail:

Jimmy Stewart suffered such extreme PTSD after being a [bomber] pilot in World War II that he acted out his mental distress during ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’.

Stewart played George Bailey in the classic movie and channeled his anger and guilt into the scenes where he rages at his family.

Stewart was haunted by ‘a thousand black memories’ from his time as an Air Force commanding officer that he took with him back to Hollywood after the war.

Pilots who flew with him said that became ‘Flak Happy’ during World War II, a term to describe what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Stewart wrestled with the guilt of killing civilians in bomb raids over France and Germany including one instance where they destroyed the wrong city by mistake.

Stewart felt responsible for the death of his men and especially one bloodbath where he lost 13 planes containing 130 men who he knew well.

Stewart’s anguish is laid bare for the first time in author Robert Matzen’s Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the fight for Europe, published by Paladin Communications.

Stewart never spoke  about it, even to other veterans, and bottled up his emotions that came out in the acting parts he chose when he returned to Hollywood.

He acted it out during It’s a Wonderful Life, where character George Bailey unravels in front of his family – the emotional core of the film after a lifetime of setbacks, including being unable to go to war while his brother becomes a decorated hero.

Films like Shenandoah and Winchester 73 allowed Stewart to explore his dark side which was never there before he went to war.

Matzen writes that Stewart’s decision to join the military was less surprising than his decision to become an actor; his grandfather fought in the Civil War and more distant relatives fought in the Revolutionary War

Stewart was finally called up shortly before the assault on Pearl Harbor in 1941 which forced America into the World War II.

Asked by a studio boss why he wanted to give up his life in Hollywood, Stewart said: ‘This country’s conscience is bigger than all the studios in Hollywood put together, and the time will come when we’ll have to fight’.

Stewart was initially put in the Air Force Motion Picture Division because commanders wanted to use him to make films to convince more airmen to sign up.

He was also used for PR stunts until he demanded that he see combat like other airmen.

Stewart’s chance came with the creation of a B-24 bomber group, the 445th, and he was appointed commander of the 703rd squadron.

Matzen writes that the ‘key moment in Jim’s life had arrived. There would never be another like this, not before, not after’.

Speaking to DailyMail.com, Matzen said that Stewart signed up because he ‘felt he had to prove himself, especially with women, to prove he was attractive enough, charming enough’.

He said: ‘He wanted to prove he was responsible enough, that’s the key with him. He wanted to prove he was responsible enough to be an officer, that he could handle this, he could make his dad proud of him’.

According to ‘Mission’, Stewart and the 445th were deployed to Tibenham in East Anglia in England where they would carry out bombing raids on German targets.

Stewart did not stay on the ground and flew with his men.

Unlike other commanding officers Stewart, who was a Captain, took time to get to know his men as he wanted a team atmosphere.

The tactic worked but at a huge personal cost – when they started to be killed off it hit him harder.

Their first mission was to bomb a Nazi submarine facility in the city of Kiel and went off better than Stewart had expected.

As the flight got underway Stewart’s dream was finally realized – he was in combat. 

Matzen writes that he ‘became part of something vital, something like the phalanx of the Roman legions’.

The biggest shock was the flak from anti-aircraft guns.

Matzen writes that the training about it ‘bore no resemblance to the experience’ and their bombers yawed left and right and pitched up and down as explosions went off all around them in the sky.

None of Stewart’s planes were shot down during the raid – but soon the bodies began fall.

During a raid on Bremen, the second largest port in Germany, enemy fighters took down a bomber called ‘Good Nuff’. Of the crew of ten, just three parachuted out.

Not for the first time, Stewart had to write a letter to the parents of the dead airmen saying they were missing and presumed dead.

A mission over Mannheim ended in catastrophe when they lost two planes with 20 men inside.

And as the weeks went on, this all began to weigh heavily on Stewart.

Matzen said: ‘He was a perfectionist and he was so hard on himself. It wasn’t just that he had responsibility for his plane, if he was in a group it was 15-20 planes and it was sometimes 75-100 planes.

‘It just got to him and it got to him pretty fast.

‘Every decision he made was going to preserve life or cost lives. He took back to Hollywood all the stress that he had built up.’

In total Stewart flew 20 missions and the stress manifested itself physically and mentally.

Stewart could not keep his food down which became a problem when he was embarking on draining eight or nine hour missions.

Stewart survived the war on peanut butter and ice cream which meant his diet consisted of just protein and sugar.

Unable to sleep, he became more and more wore down by the demanding flights – that became more and more bloody.

The worst was one that Stewart did not actually fly on, but his squadron did.

The raid on the city of Gotha, Germany, led to the loss of 13 planes, or 130 men all in one go.

Those who survived told horrific tales of bodies flying through the air and planes exploding in front of them.

More more than two hours Nazi fighters ‘poured death and destruction’ at Stewart’s men from every direction.

They used cables with bombs attached to them to bring their bombers down, fired rockets ‘like the Fourth of July’ and fired rockets at will.

Nazi pilots followed the planes as they went down to make sure there were no survivors.

Stewart heard all this and knew that the next day he had to lead the next nearly identical mission.

That night he did not sleep – miraculously his flight was nowhere near as bad.

Perhaps the episode which disturbed Stewart the most was a raid which went terribly wrong.

The 453rd were assigned to bomb a V-1 rocket facility in the northern French village of Siracourt.

The instruments in Stewart’s cockpit malfunctioned and 12 bombers deployed their payloads on the city of Tonnerre instead.

At least 30 tons of general purpose bombs rained down causing unknown numbers of civilian casualties.

Stewart’s pilots tried to cover for him but he took the blame himself, something which earned him their ultimate respect.

In all Stewart had served four-and-a-half years during World War II and was awarded the Air Medal with oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Flying Crosses and the Croix de Guerre.

Matzen told DailyMail.com that he interviewed one of the pilots who flew with Stewart who told him that Stewart once said that he had gone ‘flak happy’ and was sent to the ‘flak farm’.

‘Flak happy’ refers to what has now become known as PTSD but was little understood at the time, while the ‘flak farm’ was a treatment center for soldiers.

For Stewart his soul had been ‘ground down to nothing’ and his ‘youth had died’.

When Stewart’s mother Bessie and his father Alex saw him for the first time they were ‘shocked by what they saw – their boy had aged what seemed decades’.

Matzen writes that he was a decorated war hero, was rake thin and had gray hair and a ‘command authority’ that made his father uneasy.

Stewart faced a grim reality: He was 37 but looked 50 and his career as a romantic lead was over. He struggled to find work until director Frank Capra hired him for It’s A Wonderful Life.

Matzen said that it was a lifeline for Stewart and rehabilitated him in the eyes of Hollywood, showing directors that he could still act.

Speaking to DailyMail.com, Matzen said: ‘Jim came back from hell on earth and groped around for a movie to make, and his only offer he had was for what would become the most beloved motion picture in all American culture.

‘In an unlikely life full of unlikely things -this gangly stringbean becoming a movie star and then a war hero -this was the unlikeliest.’

The movie also provided an unlikely outlet for his still raw emotions.

Matzen said: ‘I don’t think he had that kind of capacity before the war. It enabled him to be ferocious and to have that raw emotion.

‘You see it time and time again; I think he would look for scripts where he could demonstrate that rage. I think that was the side of him that in there all the time and that’s how he would let it out.’

Stewart did not leave the military and continued to serve until May 1968 when he retired after 27 years of service during which time he was a bomber pilot during the Vietnam War.

But the memories of World War II never left him and he would see people in the street who reminded him of the airmen who had died under his command.

In ‘Mission’, Matzen writes: ‘Was he still flak happy, on a flak farm? Who could tell what was real after all that had happened over five long years.

‘The nightmares come every night.

‘There was on oxygen at 20,000 feet with 190s zipping past, spraying lead and firing rockets, flak bursting about the cockpit. B-24s hit, burning, spinning out of formation.

‘Bail out! Bail out! Do you see any chutes? How many chutes? Whose ship was it? Oh God, not him?

Not them! Bodies, pieces of bodies smacking off the windshield.

‘And the most frequent dream, an explosion under him and the plane lifted by it and the feeling that this was the end.’

The movie was directed by Frank Capra, of whom University of Nevada Prof. John Marini writes:

Frank Capra was born in Sicily in 1897 and came to America in 1903. Yet by the 1930s, his movies—movies like Mr. Deeds Goes to TownMr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Meet John Doe—were said to embody the best in America. Capra’s films were nominated for 35 Academy Awards and won eight, including two for best picture and three for best director. But Capra’s star faded after the Second World War, and by the end of the revolutionary decade of the 1960s, the actor and director John Cassavettes could say: “Maybe there never was an America in the thirties. Maybe it was all Frank Capra.” By that time, Capra’s films were widely viewed as feel-good fantasies about a country that never was. But is that view correct?

Capra, like Lincoln, believed that our inherited political edifice of liberty and equal rights is a fundamental good. He believed that if our treasure is in the ideas of our fathers, it is the duty of each generation to make those ideas live through the proper kind of education—including through literature and art, including his own art of filmmaking. Accordingly, he believed it is important to celebrate the deeds of those ordinary individuals who continue to exercise the virtues necessary to maintain those ideas.

In celebrating these deeds in his movies, Capra rejected social or economic theories based on progressivism or historicism—theories in which the idea of natural right is replaced with struggles for power based on categories such as race and class. Such theories had taken root not only in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, but elsewhere in the West—especially in the universities. …

Capra was often thought to be a populist. But Capra did not assume that a virtuous opinion existed in the people, or that the people simply needed mobilizing. He was aware that the modern public is created by modern mass media whose techniques spawn mass society, posing a danger to individual freedom. Capra wrote that his films “embodied the rebellious cry of the individual against being trampled into an ort by massiveness—mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, mass conformity.” He did not believe in the use of mass power to improve society or to right historical wrongs. Reform, he thought, must take place through moral regeneration—thus through moral education.

Consider Capra’s 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in which an idealistic man goes to Congress, runs into rampant corruption, becomes despondent, is later inspired at the Lincoln Memorial, decides against hope to stand on principle, and prevails. Capra had doubts about making Mr. Smith. While in Washington preparing for the film, he attended a press conference in which President Roosevelt outlined the great problems facing the nation. Capra wondered whether it was a good time to make a dramatic comedy about Washington politics. In his troubled state he visited the Lincoln Memorial, where he saw a boy reading Lincoln’s words to an elderly man. He decided, he later wrote, that he “must make the film, if only to hear a boy read Lincoln to his grandpa.” He left the Lincoln Memorial that day, he recalled,

with this growing conviction about our film: The more uncertain are the people of the world . . . the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals. The soul of our film would be anchored in Lincoln. Our Jefferson Smith [the film’s lead character, played by Jimmy Stewart] would be a young Abe Lincoln, tailored to the rail-splitter’s simplicity, compassion, ideals, humor. . . . It is never untimely to yank the rope of freedom’s bell.

When watching Mr. Smith, it is important to notice where Capra locates the corruption. FDR customarily attacked “economic royalists,” or the private corruption of corporations and monopolies. For FDR, the solution to corruption was to be found through the government and through the unions, which would combat the economic forces of the private sphere. But in Mr. Smith, Capra located the corruption not in the private but in the political sphere—it was the politicians who had usurped the institutions of government on behalf of their own interests and the special interests. When Smith goes to Washington he reveres a Senator from his state who had been a friend of his father. Smith’s father, a newspaperman, had been killed while defending an independent prospector against a mining syndicate that was likely in cahoots with the union. Capra, like Smith and his father, understood America in terms of a common good—a good established by the principles of equality and liberty as the foundation of individual rights.

The setting of Mr. Smith is deliberately timeless. There is no mention of the Depression or of impending war. There is no indication of partisanship. What Capra hopes to bring to life are the words that have been carved in stone on Washington, D.C.’s monuments, but which are now forgotten. That is Jefferson Smith’s purpose as well. In a central scene in the movie, gazing at the lighted dome of the Capitol, Smith says:

… boys forget what their country means by just reading “the land of the free” in history books. Then they get to be men, they forget even more. Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried in books. … Men should hold it up in front of them every single day … and say, “I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t. I can. And my children will.”

What Smith is advocating in the film is the establishment of a boys camp that will teach them about the principles of their country. Moreover, it is not to be paid for by the taxpayers, but with a loan from the government to be paid for by the boys themselves. At the climax of Smith’s battle in the Senate, he says this:

Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome—that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes. … You won’t just see scenery. You’ll see … what man’s carved out for himself after centuries of fighting … for something better than just jungle law—fighting so he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent—like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see. There’s no place out there for graft or greed or lies—or compromise with human liberties. And if that’s what the grown-ups have done with this world that was given to them, then we better get those boys camps started fast and see what the kids can do. It’s not too late. … Great principles don’t get lost once they come to light. They’re right here. You just
have to see them again
.

For Capra, like Lincoln, the problem is how to make people see the principles again.

The politicians in Washington in 1939 did not like their portrayal in Mr. Smith. Many tried to keep the movie from being shown. Capra thought it to be a ringing defense of democracy—and the people agreed. It was a tremendous success, not only in America, but throughout the world. In 1942, a month before the Nazi occupation of France was to begin, the Vichy government asked the French people what films they wanted to see before American and British films were banned by the Germans. The great majority wanted to see Mr. Smith. One theater in Paris played the movie for 30 straight nights.

By the time America entered World War II, Capra had become America’s most popular director and was president of the Screen Directors Guild. Yet four days after Pearl Harbor he left Hollywood to join the Armed Forces. He was sent to Washington and was given an office next to the Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall. Marshall was worried that millions of men would be conscripted, many right off of the farm, having little idea of the reason for the war. He assigned Capra to make “a series of documented, factual-information films—the first in our history—that will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting.” Capra was nearly cowed by the assignment. He had never made a documentary. But after giving it some thought, he brilliantly dramatized the difference between the countries at war by using their own films and documentaries, in this way illustrating the character and danger of tyranny.

After the war, with the danger gone, it became increasingly clear that American intellectuals, who had rejected the political principles of the American Founding, had not understood the phenomenon of tyranny. For them, it was simply historical conditions that had established the distinction between right and wrong—or between friend and enemy—during the war. For them, in fighting the Nazis, America had simply been fighting a social movement. Subsequently, they looked on those who still revered America’s Founding principles as representing a reactionary economic and social movement to be opposed here at home. For the same reason, Capra’s wartime documentaries—known collectively as Why We Fight—came to be seen merely as propaganda.

Capra never thought of his documentaries as propaganda. He saw them as recognizing the permanent human problems—those problems that reveal the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, justice and injustice. The fundamental distinction in politics is between freedom and slavery or democracy and tyranny. Winston Churchill said of Capra’s wartime documentaries, “I have never seen or read any more powerful statement of our cause or of our rightful case against the Nazi tyranny.” In his view, they were not propaganda at all. Churchill insisted that they be shown to every British soldier and in every theater in England. At the end of the war in 1945, General Marshall awarded Capra the Distinguished Service Medal. And on Churchill’s recommendation, Capra was awarded the Order of the British Empire Medal in 1962.

Capra’s last great movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, was made in 1946. Shortly before making it, he said, “There are just two things that are important. One is to strengthen the individual’s belief in himself, and the other, even more important right now, is to combat a modern trend toward atheism.” This movie, he wrote, summed up his philosophy of filmmaking: “First, to exalt the worth of the individual; to champion man—plead his causes, protest any degradation of his dignity, spirit or divinity.” Capra understood that Hollywood would be changing, because the culture and society had begun to change. The historical and personal categories of class and race had become political, and self-expression and self-indulgence had replaced those civic virtues that require self-restraint. In his 1971 autobiography—imagine what he would think today—he wrote that “practically all the Hollywood filmmaking of today is stooping to cheap salacious pornography in a crazy bastardization of a great art to compete for the ‘patronage’ of deviates.”

In 1982, when he was in his 85th year, Capra was awarded the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. In his acceptance speech, he touched on the things that had been most important in his life. He spoke of celebrating his sixth birthday in steerage on a 13-day voyage across the Atlantic. He recalled the lack of privacy and ventilation, and the terrible smell. But he also remembered the ship’s arrival in New York Harbor, when his father brought him on deck and showed him the Statue of Liberty: “Cicco look!” his illiterate peasant father had said. “Look at that! That’s the greatest light since the star of Bethlehem! That’s the light of freedom! Remember that. Freedom.” Capra remembered. In his speech to the Hollywood elite so many years later, he revealed his formula for moviemaking. He said: “The art of Frank Capra is very, very simple. It’s the love of people. Add two simple ideals to this love of people—the freedom of each individual and the equal importance of each individual—and you have the principle upon which I based all my films.”

It is hard to think of a better way to describe Frank Capra’s view of the world, and America’s place in fulfilling its purpose, than to turn to another great American who made his living in the world of motion pictures. Ronald Reagan was a friend and admirer of Frank Capra. They were very much alike. The inscription that Reagan had carved on his tombstone could have been written by Capra: “I know in my heart that man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there is purpose and worth to each and every life.” Both Capra and Reagan looked to a benevolent and enduring Providence, and the best in man’s nature, as the ultimate grounds of political right. For them, as for Lincoln, America was more than a geographical location or a place where citizens shared a common blood or religion, or belonged to a common culture or tradition. America was a place where an enlightened understanding of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” had made it possible to establish those principles of civil and religious liberty that gave “purpose and worth to each and every life.”

Capra was aware that the moral foundations established by those principles, as well as belief in God, had become endangered by the transformations in American life following World War II. He saw the necessity of reviving the moral education necessary to preserve the conditions of freedom, because he understood that in a democracy, the people must not only participate in the rule of others, they must also learn to govern themselves.

In his last and most personal tribute to his adopted country, Capra recalled his family’s arrival at Union Station in Los Angeles after their long journey across America in 1903. When they got off the train, his mother and father got on their knees and kissed the ground. Capra’s last words to his assembled audience were these: “For America, for just allowing me to live here, I kiss the ground.” Capra did not believe that he had a right to be a citizen of America. Rather he was grateful for the privilege of living in America. He understood that freedom not only offers economic opportunity, but establishes a duty for all citizens—a duty to preserve the conditions of freedom not only for themselves, but for their posterity. Only those willing to bear the burdens of freedom have a right to its rewards.

For Capra, the real America was to be understood in terms of its virtues, which are derived from its principles. In his view, his art was dedicated to keeping those virtues alive—by making those principles live again in the speeches and deeds of that most uncommon phenomenon of human history, the American common man. It was the simple, unsophisticated, small-town common American that Capra celebrated in his films. But for Capra, as for his friend John Ford, no one epitomized this phenomenon better than Abraham Lincoln.

Stayin’ aliiiiiiiii-hiiiiii-hi-hi-hi-hiiiiiiiiii-ive

A dance-off to raise money for a high school scholarship fund and sports program prompted these thoughts that combine the theme song, the movie from which came that theme song, a famous American poet, a famous American rock band, one of the first famed teen novels taught in many schools today, and myself as a middle-schooler.

I apologize in advance for this earworm …

… though this song from that movie is better:

A car you can’t have, but an engine you can have

What, you may ask, is this?

These are, according to the Hot Wheels Wiki:

The Overbored 454 is a Hot Wheels Original Model by Phil Riehlman. This model resembles a 70’s Chevelle SS that has been tuned. With its 5.0 V8 Psycho Maxter engine with 845 horsepower and a top speed of 275 mph, this muscle car will rule the American street races.

With what engine? According to the YouTube video (and you might want to turn down the volume before you view it) …

This model resembles a 70’s Chevelle SS that has been tuned. With its I-6 (Inline Six) Psycho Maxter engine with 845 horsepower and a top speed of 245 mph (394 km/h), this muscle car will rule the American street races.

Yes, we are discussing a Hot Wheels car here. But fiction requires verisimilitude, defined as “the appearance of being true or real.” (So ignore that 275 mph claim.) It is true that the Chevelle SS was a trim package, but according to this only 7,000 of the Chevelle SS were made with a Chevy six-cylinder engine, and likely none after the mid-1960s.

The Overbored 454 is supposed to be based on a 1970s SS, of course, such as …

1970
1971
1972

… although to me it looks like a non-SS, though a related car — a mid-1970s Laguna S3, due to the sloped nose:

1975
1976

Back to the engine. The six a Chevelle SS might have had was introduced in 1962 for the new Chevy II compact (which means it probably powered my parents’ Nova sedan and wagon), in 194-, 230- or 250-cubic-inch sizes, with gas and air measured through a one- or two-barrel carburetor, producing at most 155 gross horsepower. (There also was a 292 six available, but sold only in trucks and vans.) It replaced the old “Stovebolt” six that powered the first two years of Corvettes. Maybe it could be bored out to 5 liters (about 305 cubic inches, but even with a supercharger and being “tuned” the idea that you could get 845 horsepower out of that engine is laughable, even in toys.

Besides that, what does “454” refer to if not to Chevy’s 454 V-8? That engine was the biggest of Chevy’s commercially available big-block V-8s. The second of the two big-blocks started at 396 cubic inches in the 1965 Corvette, grew to 427 cubic inches, then reached its zenith at 454 cubic inches in 1970. (My former neighbor’s 1970 Corvette owner’s manual listed an optional LS-7 465-cubic-inch 454, though it was never sold by Chevy. The Chevelle SS 454 had to do with just 450 stated horsepower.) That engine wasn’t available in cars after 1976, but it was available in trucks up to the SS 454 half-ton pickup to 1993.

The 454 got sixth place in one online poll of the greatest engines of all time. (Number one was, of course, the Chevy small-block, a version of which still powers Corvettes, Camaros, pickups, SUVs and vans.)

It shouldn’t be news that you can get a lot of horsepower from a 454.

My late friend and broadcast partner Frank, who once sold Chevrolets, could tell you more about 454s, I imagine, than I can without research. Even though Chevy sold 454-powered Chevelles, I imagine they must have been very nose-heavy, since aluminum blocks and heads weren’t perfected yet. Of course, the point of muscle cars was shoving the most horsepower possible into a mid-size (and sometimes compact) car. Such things as handling and braking weren’t priorities. (Imagine driving one of those in the era of drum brakes.) We won’t even discuss gas mileage.

Even though you haven’t been able to buy a big-block in a car in 40 years and a truck in almost 25, it turns out you can still buy a big-block engine from Chevy, with horsepower ranging from 406 from a 502 (for $7,566) to the ZZ572 720R Deluxe, which for $18,531 (minus a $250 rebate from Chevy through Dec. 31) will deliver 727 horsepower to your Chevelle or anything else you can fit it in. According to Chevy, though, the engine requires 110 octane gas and is “suitable for limited forays on the street.” Worse, the 720-horsepower ZZ572 is available with only, in GM’s Connect & Cruise package (with another $500 or $750 rebate through Dec. 31), an automatic transmission.

If you can sacrifice 100 horsepower and can spend another $100 (really), the 620-horsepower ZZ572 can be equipped with a six-speed manual transmission. Or, for $2,000 less, you could make do with just 502 horsepower in the fuel-injected Ram Jet 502. As you know, God intended us to drive V-8s and sticks.

The funny thing about this blog about an imaginary car is that it is based on a car whose resurrection keeps getting rumored, including last year:

If you believe these online sources, GM is also about to bring out a new Pontiac GTO …

… and Oldsmobile 442 too …

… to compete against the upcoming Ford Torino …

… and Mercury Cougar:

 

No news 54 years later

My high school political science teacher writes:

I taught high school history and social studies classes for thirty-five years. For almost all of those years I taught required 9th grade US history classes. Eventually I got pretty good at it. Each quarter one of the units involved the production of an essay that propounded a thesis, supported the thesis with evidence properly footnoted, and a conclusion flowing from the argument. Since these were 9thgraders I supplied packets of primary and secondary sources for them to use although they were free to find other materials. Of the topics I gave them the most popular by far was the assassination of JFK. Since I used that subject year after year I became very familiar with the various conspiracy theories and the evidence (or, rather, the lack thereof) supporting them. There is really no reason to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was not the only shooter that day in Dallas. All of the alternate theories were answered long ago and it requires a genuine unwillingness to consider the evidence to believe otherwise. Peter Jennings’ ABC documentary (2003) effectively dealt with all of the questions regarding a second gunman or an alternate assassin firing from somewhere other than the Schoolbook Depository. A thorough debunking of the various conspiracy theories can be found in Gerald Posner’s Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (1993). If your understanding of the issues is based on Oliver Stone’s movie, look further.

The President has decided to release the remaining documents relating to the investigation of the assassination. As of [Oct. 28] he has ordered that all those remaining should be released holding back only the names and addresses of people still living. I predict that nothing new of importance will be revealed. Was Oswald himself part of a conspiracy? People who know the most about him are doubtful that he could have worked in concert with anyone. From today’s London Times:
Farris Rookstool, a former FBI analyst who spent nine years reading 500,000 pages of documents in the bureau’s Kennedy collection, said the notion that Russia controlled Oswald was seductive but flawed.
“I did the interviews with the KGB, the first FBI-authorised face-to-face meetings, and I can tell you they thought Oswald was just as crazy as we did. I don’t think they were trying to wash their hands of being involved with him but they were just being very candid. Oleg Nechiporenko [a KGB officer who also met Oswald in Mexico City] said they called him ‘the Tornado’ because he was spiralling out of control.
“If you strip Oswald down and look at him as just a human, he had antisocial personality disorders, he had a childlike understanding of world history and he didn’t take orders very well.
“When he was in Russia they did a two-year electronic surveillance on him and they finally realised the guy was an idiot. They thought this guy is obviously not an American double agent or false flag or a dangle. When they folded their operation over there they gave him 72 hours to leave the country.”
There are still people who believe Stanton had Lincoln assassinated or that Spain blew up the Maine in Havana harbor and there will always be people who think a professional assassin might have chosen an exposed position behind the wall of a public parking lot and fired over the heads of people lining a parade route.