2009

On Dilbert, Part Two.

Here’s a link to “On Dilbert, Part One.” I started writing what was going to be a longer post, had something else to do, decided to publish the post as was with the intent to finish it up in the next few days. Well, that clearly didn’t happen. Earlier this year, I resolved to write Part Two, but whenever I sat down to do it, I couldn’t remember what the rest of the article was supposed to be about. Happily, while going through some boxes, I found the book that had led me to write the article in the first place.

Here’s where I left off:

I think that every person has a tendency to think that something about him is unique; this uniqueness sets him apart from the rest of humanity and it creates a sense of entitlement. In this case, we have a comic strip that touches people in such a way that many people feel it truly belongs to them and them alone. (“Them alone”? I’ll have to consult a grammatician.) We’ll go from there next time.

Apparently “next time” meant “more than three years from now.” Oh well.

A week or so before I wrote Part One, I read In Our Hands. The author, Murray, is libertarian but is resigned to the belief that the welfare state will never go away. He proposes that as long as we’re stuck with a massive federal welfare system (which includes payments to poor households, Medicare, Social Security, loans and grants for college education, subsidies for corporations, and so on and so forth), we may as well make it as simple, as transparent, as democratic, and as conducive to freedom as possible.

Here’s the super-short version of his plan, which he calls “The Plan”:

1. Get rid of every type of federal welfare program–food stamps, TANF, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, scholarships, college grants, corporate subsidies, agricultural subsidies, bailouts, you name it.
2. Replace them with a (roughly) equal monthly stipend to every American citizen age 21 or older, who isn’t in jail.

He gets a little more specific in the book. For instance, Murray’s annual payment would vary based on income, from $5,000 for the highest earners up to $10,000 for those who earn less than $25,000 per year. Also, he would require each individual to spend at least $3,000 of that stipend on health insurance. He claims that five-to-ten years after initiating The Plan, the total annual expenditure would drop below what would have been spent by the welfare state as it currently exists.

And after you pay for the health care, you’re free to do as you wish with that stipend. Spend it on a car. Spend it on school. Spend it on food. Spend it on housing. Save it for retirement, so that you’ll have extra cash in addition to the stipend you’ll keep receiving when you retire. Aside from the stipend on health insurance, you’d be free to do as you wish. You’d know that everybody is getting approximately the same benefit, you could plan ahead with greater certainty and clarity about what’s coming from the federal government, you’d have a better idea of how much the government is spending and how it’s spending it, the jobs of the federal welfare bureaucracies would be simplified and streamlined, and you wouldn’t have to jump through as many hoops to get the same money from the government as everyone else. And there’d certainly be less for the politicians and voters to argue about.

And that’s why, despite the savings, the efficiency, the simplicity and the appeal to equality and democracy, nothing resembling The Plan will ever happen in this country.

Not because of disagreement over the age of eligibility. Not because of disagreement over the size of the stipend, or what income level should receive how much money. Not because of arguing over how to pay for it. Not because of the argument over whether immigrants, prisoners or convicts should be included. You can iron out those details relatively easily.

The Plan will never happen because it doesn’t play to our vanity.

Here’s the admittedly flimsy connection to Dilbert I tried to draw: “Yeah, Dilbert’s funny, but to truly appreciate it, you really have to be a ___________,” parallels “Yeah, everyone’s equal and everyone has needs, but the government should pay for my _________ because it’s more important than…”

Under The Plan, politicians wouldn’t be able to manipulate that sense of entitlement or vanity. It would greatly reduce, if not eliminate, politicians’ ability to cater to special interests. Politicians would no longer be able to scare the elderly by claiming their Social Security or Medicare payments were at risk, or parents of high school kids by claiming their Pell Grants or scholarships were at risk, or corn farmers by saying their subsidies are at risk.

But it would also greatly reduce, if not eliminate, individuals’, families’, and businesses’ ability to claim special necessity or privilege. Voters would never go for the Plan, because we as special interests–maybe you’re elderly, or you have a kid about to go to college, or you have a corn farm dependent on ethanol subsidies–are so much more special and important than everyone else.

You might say, “I’m not a special interest!” Yes, you are. That is, to everyone else, you are. Kind of like it’s worthwhile and valuable to bring federal dollars to your congressional district because you need to rebuild a stadium, because without that stadium the team goes away and without the team, the local economy hurts–but if those same dollars go to another district’s stadium, it’s “wasteful pork barrel spending.”

The Plan would make federal spending more understandable, more controllable, and more equitable. It would transform federal and state politics by radically reducing the appeal to our vanity and to special interests–which includes all of us. Making the Plan a reality would require ego-displacement of unfathomable proportion. It’ll never happen.

Okay, so the connection between Dilbert and “a radical transformation of the federal welfare system” is a bit of a stretch. It probably would have been a lot smoother if I’d just written the whole thing at once back in aught-six. That’s procrastination and forgetfulness for you.

Off to celebrate the New Year. 2009 Resolution #6, check.

Ghost dream.

Last night’s dream:

A co-worker tells me she’s arranged for me to tryout for Cruz Azul, a professional soccer team based in Mexico City. This strikes me as odd on for three reasons. First, I’m not a fan of Mexican soccer. Second, I’ve never been close to being good enough to play pro. And third, I’m about 60 pounds heavier than my ideal playing weight, and 10 years older than my ideal playing age. But what the heck, it’s an opportunity to get out of the country, to visit Mexico, to see some high-quality soccer and have a good time, right?

My reaction strikes me as odd, because I’d have to employ my least favorite mode of travel, flight, to get to Mexico City, and because I’m not a big fan of huge cities or anyplace outside America. But I decide to go anyways. Will I make the team? No, but it’ll be a fun time and besides, what’s the worst that can happen?

It’s about a month later and I’m dead. I am a ghost haunting an apartment in Charlotte, North Carolina, where four people live: three roommates in their 20s or 30s, and the young son of the oldest roommate, none of whom I knew when I was alive. All I know is that I was murdered in Mexico.

I know nothing else. I don’t know how long I’ve been dead. I don’t know who did it. I don’t know why or how I was murdered. I don’t know if my family’s been informed. I don’t know why I’m in Charlotte. I don’t even know these poor schleps I’m haunting.

Actually, “haunting” doesn’t seem to be the right word. The roommates and the son seem to be perfectly comfortable around me. They talk to me without any fear and without any sense that I’m imposing on them–I don’t eat or sleep, so their bills are the same. They go about their business and let me go about mine, which is figuring out exactly what I should do about my predicament.

I can’t tell how much time is passing, but I haven’t tried leaving the apartment yet. Nobody’s home right now; they’re at work and school. I’m trying to figure out what exactly I can do before I try going outside. I work on using computer keyboards and telephone keypads. I can’t remember e-mail addresses or telephone numbers–they’re all entered onto contact lists on the computer and speed-dials on the cell phones, so I haven’t had to remember them.

I remember only two phone numbers. The first is the landline at Dad’s house, which is the one phone he never picks up. I don’t bother calling. The second is my work number. I dial, and for one mad moment wonder if I could get my old teaching job back. Then I worry that because of the state’s class-size legislation, they might not allow me to teach because they might not be allowed to include dead teachers in figuring out the class-size ratios.

The automated system picks up and some anonymous, robotic-sounding woman tells me to dial the extension of the person I’m trying to reach. I punch in the code to check my voicemail. I hear my own recorded voice say, “Vincent Viscariello,” and wait for the robotic woman to tell me to punch in my passcode.

Instead, the robotic woman says, “Murdered.”

It means someone back home knows I’m dead. I’m stunned to hear it, even though it’s no surprise at this point. I keep the phone to my ear and listen to the hum of recorded silence. Now what?

I go to the website of my hometown newspaper to try and find an obituary. No luck–not because I can’t operate the keyboard, but because the website is so poorly designed I can’t navigate my way around it.

Then a sense of peace befalls me. I can’t be hurt–at least not by anything tangible. I can find out who did this and avenge my own death or turn them in, I can communicate with my friends and family, and I have the time to do it–

I’m in front of an old friend, “Karl Winter,” who asks, “Don’t you think people in your position have tried this before? Do you know anyone who has successfully plotted with the dead? Aren’t you wasting your time?” The peace is gone.

My hauntees come home. I ask them to give me a ride to Jacksonville. One of them is perfectly willing to do it, but then he says, “Wait, I was thinking of Tallahassee, because I have to go to Tallahassee for work anyways. I can’t fit Jacksonville in.”

I tell them that I’m a ghost, and I’ll haunt them for real if nobody gives me a ride down to Jacksonville. It’s only about six, seven hours and after that they’ll never have to see me again. Alas, they’re still more worried about missing work than they are about getting haunted.

I tell them that I will let them have every last cent in my bank accounts if they’ll give me a ride down to Jacksonville. One of them points out that my accounts have probably been frozen since my death, and that if not, it’d look pretty darn suspicious if some poor folks from Charlotte suddenly emptied my accounts.

I assure them that one way or another, they’ll get compensated for the lost time at work. After enough begging and cajoling, one of them agrees to drive me to Jacksonville. I don’t know what’s waiting for me there, no idea what I’ll do when I get then, and no idea how much time I have left before

I woke up.

My review of The Road.

WARNING: Spoilers and spoiler-text ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet and do not wish to have any clue or hint revealed unto you, don’t read this post. To view the spoiler-text, move the cursor over the black marks. Also, I didn’t call this “On The Road” because that’s a Kerouac title. I don’t think anyone would mistake one of my blog entries for a modern beat classic, but better safe than sorry.

Here’s the short version of my review: go see it. You’ll like it, but then go read the book. Beware: Cormac McCarthy deliberately uses minimal punctuation in the book.

Here’s the longer version:

On Friday, I was complaining, as I am wont to do, to a buddy of mine that The Road wasn’t playing anywhere nearby. I got online to find the nearest showing and was pleased to learn that finally, some Jacksonville theaters were playing it in about 20 minutes. I hung up the phone in the middle of whatever whatsisname was blathering about,  hopped in the ‘Rolla, drove up to some theater near Regency, bought some Milk Duds, and sat in the middle of the seats.

It’s unusual to find movies that equal or surpass the source material, so I expected to be a little bit disappointed. Well, John Hillcoat directed a decent movie, but sure enough, I was a little bit disappointed.

The best thing about the movie was the casting. Some might say that with a story full of nameless characters with almost no background given, it’d be difficult to screw up the casting. Maybe so, but these actors seemed lifted straight from the pages of the book. Viggo Mortenson was great as the Man–a learned man in the old world, and a desperate scavenger in the new one. He probably could have lost a few more pounds to more fully achieve that starving-to-death-at-the-end-of-the-world look. Kodi Smit-McPhee was a little older than I envisioned when I read the book, but he was excellent as the Boy. Good thing, too–if that role had been miscast, it would have ruined the whole movie because the audience would be rooting for his demise. I was worried that being as young as he is, he would over-emote and be totally void of subtlety. Nope. No problems at all. He wasn’t obnoxiously earnest or overly weepy, he gave quizzical looks that weren’t exaggerated… he was believable. Garret Dillahunt was also believable, disturbingly so, as the gang member in the woods. One could revile and feel great sympathy for Michael K. Williams as the Thief, and Robert Duvall was memorable as the somewhat nihilistic Old Man.

Now, on to the nitpicks:

The cast had two weak links: first, Charlize Theron. Actually, I don’t know if that was a casting problem, or if the director simply mishandled her scenes. She came across as empty and hopeless when necessary, i.e., after the world-ending event, but she came across that way beforehand, too. The end of the world seemed to have no emotional impact on her–she was already doomed.

The other casting problem was Guy Pearce. He looked and acted more like one of the cannibal gangsters from earlier in the movie than he did the Veteran in the book. Perhaps that was the director’s intention: to keep us guessing about whether the Boy would be saved or eaten. But in the book, it seemed that the reader was supposed to know that the Veteran was a good guy, and the question was whether the Boy had developed the judgement and the trust to figure that out. Meh. A minor nitpick.

Music: There was too much music. The only music should have been in the flashbacks, and maybe a piano scene. The music during the present-day scenes kept me from truly absorbing the bleakness of the situation. Maybe the lack of music was an expectation left over from the last Cormac McCarthy movie, No Country for Old Men, but it would have fit this movie a lot better.

Color: I don’t know much about processing film or lighting and such, but there was too much green in this movie. There was too much blue in the ocean. Everything needed to look deader.

Editing: I think the flashback to the night of the event should not have been the very first scene. It should have appeared in roughly the same spot as in the book… somewhat early, but after we’d seen the general condition of the world. After the Coca-Cola incident. After seeing the house the Man grew up in. After some of the Boy’s questions about the old world, to remind us that he’d never known the old world.

For what was supposed to be an R-rated, horrifying movie, the director left out some of the most horrifying scenes. Where was the scene were they hid from the long caravan, complete with gang colors, slave-drawn wagons full of the spoils of war, catamites in chains and marching pregnant women? Where was the man who’d been struck by lightning, who couldn’t be helped? And where was the cannibals’ rotisserie–which also made you wonder a little bit about the pregnant women?

A lot of really good dialogue and narration was missing–I wanted to hear more of the musing over the nature of the world, I wanted to see more of the argument between the Man and the Wife over how (or whether) to handle the new world, I wanted more of the God-talk. Most of all, I wanted to hear the final paragraph of the book read over a shot of trout swimming through a stream, with something green and bright on the banks.

Finally, I didn’t like the change of location for the final scene. McCarthy had the Man die in the woods near, appropriately, the road, with the Veteran approaching from, again appropriately, the road. Hillcoat had the Man die on the beach, with the Veteran approaching from further down the beach. Still a good scene, I just thought that particular scene needed to be truer to the novel.

I must give Hillcoat credit for a particular change from the book: the Man and Boy don’t make a clean escape from the cannibal’s house. Hillcoat’s version of the scene brings the Man’s greatest fear much closer to fruition than McCarthy does.

I’d like to get hold of Hillcoat and the producers and convince them to shoot a few more scenes, shuffle some scenes around, get Viggo to do some more narration and maybe Cormac McCarthy himself to read the final paragraph, but since that is highly unlikely I’ll just make do with this adaptation as is. Overall, I’m glad I finally saw it. The Road is a good movie–go see it. The Road is a treasure of a book–go read it.