Noah Millman

The End Of Blogging – And The Need For One Big Paywall

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Forgive me if I see Andrew Sullivan’s departure from blogging as more than just a routine retirement by a pioneer in a new media field. Rather, I see it as an extremely negative omen for that very field.

Andrew Sullivan was not just one of the pioneers in creating the blogging form, and in demonstrating how you create a personal brand on the web. Beyond that, he was one of the first to understand that what he was doing, most fundamentally, was not writing, or even editing, but curating – organizing the vast trackless swamp of the internet into material that his audience would be interested in.

And beyond that, he was pioneering a business model that I believed held the best hope for anybody getting paid for producing “content” in the age of on-line distribution. He asked his audience to pay, to subscribe to what amounts to “the web as I see it.”

I say that that is the best hope for anybody getting paid for producing content based on the following syllogism.

First, there are only three ways to monetize traffic. Either you give everything away for free and sell advertising. Or you get people to pay for specific content. Or you get people to pay for a subscription to a whole suite of content.

The problem with the first is that on-line advertising is massively deleterious to the on-line reading (and watching and listening) experience. And it doesn’t work very well in terms of motivating purchases. And most efforts to mitigate the one or the other are massively corrupting of the creative or journalistic enterprise (as Sullivan was well-aware).

The problem with paying for specific content is that you don’t know whether the content is worth purchasing until after you’ve purchased it, which creates a substantial barrier to purchase. If you’re talking about a feature film for which you can consult Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes or whatever to learn whether it’s likely to suit, that’s one thing. But if you’re talking about a news article, or a web short, or a poem, that’s not an option.

The problem with subscriptions is that, generally, the way they are enforced is by creating a paywall around the content. Nothing gets inside the wall unless it was worth paying for up-front. And once it’s inside the wall, the only way to access it is to be a subscriber. This creates a two-tier world where most people are producing and distributing stuff without compensation, hoping to get them “hosted” by sites that don’t pay them, and eventually to “graduate” to paid work. But the prevalence of so much free work means that there is constant, brutal pressure on compensation for content-creators.

The solution to this dilemma is one that I’ve described – with apologies to “Big Bill” Haywood – as One Big Paywall. In very broad strokes, this would be a scheme whereby content-creators band together to require micro-payments from content aggregators for traffic driven their way, in exchange for not cluttering up access to that content with extraneous advertising and the like. Such a scheme would make it possible for content-creators to put their material out there for general consumption without worrying about either hiding it behind a paywall or getting paid nothing.

Without going into a great deal of detail of my thoughts about how to bootstrap into such a scheme, I’ve long felt that it depended, ultimately, on the success of curators in turning themselves into subscription services. A free curator is always going to pursue a mass audience, and this will skew the kind of content (and advertising) that it features toward the lowest-common denominator. A subscription service has the possibility of pursuing a niche audience – and niches can be quite lucrative. And much of the most interesting content is going to be aimed at some kind of niche.

Andrew Sullivan was my test case, in a way. If he was able to “make it” on a standalone basis, with a subscription model, then it was possible. If it’s possible, other people will do it – not exactly the same way, but with variations. And once it’s clear that it’s a “thing,” one could pursue my idea of One Big Paywall – because there would be moneymaking curators to negotiate with, and with whom the content-creators signing up for such a scheme would have a natural symbiosis.

But we don’t know whether he made it. It’s too soon to know. All we know is that it didn’t go bust immediately, and that there was no way to keep the venture going without Andrew Sullivan consistently and obsessively at the helm.

That’s a very negative fact for the future of that model. There just aren’t very many people like Sullivan in the world, who combine his speed as a writer, his breadth of taste, his skills as an editor, his manic energy, his head for the business side – it’s just a huge conglomeration of valuable traits. And he didn’t institutionalize them the way Steve Jobs or Walt Disney or Harold Ross did in their own various ways. Even though Andrew Sullivan did only a small fraction of the writing or the curating of the Daily Dish, without him blogging full time, apparently, there is no Dish.

I’ve been told that, in order to build a real, monetizable audience on the web, I need to post at least three times a day. Obviously, some of my colleagues here do exactly that. But it’s a completely insane demand. Virtually none of the critics or opinion-writers of yore could have met it – and those that could have would probably have destroyed themselves doing so, to say nothing of destroying their lives. The only reason anyone adheres to such a standard is precisely that there is no reliable way to monetize good work as such.

I probably sound like Leon Wieseltier here, but I could not disagree with him more. I have no interest – none – in preening lamentations for the great age of culture now past and gone. I loathe nostalgia – but I also recognize that culture is shaped by market structure, and that the market structure we have – and which is a consequence of decisions made a long time ago, some consciously but many unconsciously – is exceptionally brutal to anyone trying to make a living writing, making music, shooting movies, while also providing more ready opportunities to “break in” than ever before. I want to retain the latter while mitigating the former. That means changing the market structure, not posing as a solon while manifesting mostly ignorance.

Andrew Sullivan’s retirement is a blow personally, because, while I never met him, he has always been generous in linking to me, both here and at my prior perches. That he has been so generous in spite of the fact that my first on-line interaction with him was acrimonious in the extreme (and unnecessarily personal – on my part) is a testament to his admirable ability to look past the sort of thing that would lead many successful people (particularly in media) to hold a lifelong grudge, simply because what Sullivan cared about most was whether the work was interesting – to him and to the readership he cultivated. But that’s not the main reason his departure is a blow. The main reason is that the torch has not been passed. There is nobody else out there doing what Andrew Sullivan did, nor is there any prospect for someone to do it. There’s nobody else I can think of who I would say: if he or she links to me regularly, then people will read what I write.

Which make me very sad, for any younger versions of myself out there looking to give what they have to give, creatively, and to get something for it, without being fatally consumed by the endeavor.

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Gay Bob, Christian Bob, Empathy and Tolerance

I read with interest Rod Dreher’s piece about the “Gay Bob, Christian Bob” parable. And I’m reluctant to pour any amount of cold water on something so obviously well-intentioned. But I’m afraid I have to – a bit.

(Before I start, let me say that I’m not interested in litigating the question of who is more persecuted, gays or traditional Christians,  in today’s society. Not because I don’t have opinions on the subject – I do – but because that’s not where I want to go with this piece.)

First, let’s change things up a little bit. Let’s say one of the Bobs is not a friendly, neighborly gay man, but a friendly, normal seeming fellow who is also an active pedophile who preys on pre-pubescent girls. How does the dialogue go now?

Let’s be clear: I’m not equating homosexuality with pedophilia. I am doing exactly the opposite. I’m pointing out how the effectiveness of the dialogue depends on our already having classified both sides as being within the realm of the tolerable as opposed to the intolerable. Christian Bob, if he met pedophile Bob, would be horrified – and the horror would not be lessened, but heightened, if pedophile Bob had been a good neighbor, helping with the trash and so forth. It would be heightened, not lessened, if pedophile Bob complained about being thought a monster, but seemed to take those kinds of nasty comments in stride. All of this would scare the bejeezus out of Christian Bob. The fact that, in the dialogue as written, nothing like that happens, says that Christian Bob already sees gay Bob as fundamentally different from pedophile Bob. In whatever way he continues to believe gay Bob is deeply wrong in the way he lives his life, he doesn’t see him as truly monstrous.

The dialogue builds to a moment of empathy – both Bobs see that the other Bob’s situation is analogous to his. Much of that empathy is built on the recognition that both have experiences of not being understood, of being treated as weird or even monstrous. But of course, the other part is that they each recognize that this treatment is unjustified. Absent that element, the dialogue never gets going.

But let’s take this a little bit further. Let’s say you are a member of the American armed forces living in Afghanistan. Your “neighbor” has just married a nine-year-old girl, and plans to initiate her sexually so as to seal her to him. How does the dialogue go now?

I think one can make a very plausible case for tolerance in that case. The serviceman may need this man’s good will – and he’s not going to get it if he makes it clear that he finds his Afghan neighbor morally abhorrent. And let’s be honest – he’s not going to be able to behave that way unless he convinces himself that his Afghan neighbor has his good points, and is not actually a monster. And he might indeed have his good points – be a gracious host, a fiercely loyal fighter, a loving father and husband, notwithstanding the whole child rape thing. Serviceman Bob might not go so far as to say: hey, this guy is really just like me, if I think about it. Then again, he might – he might conclude: if I were raised here, I’d do much the same (and – remembering who he is – thank God I was not raised here). Either way, we can no longer say that the act of pedophilia as such is intolerable – merely that, if we’re talking about our neighbor in Akron, we’re not willing to tolerate it, but if we’re talking about our neighbor in Kandahar, we are.

Now – let’s look at the other side. What if the other Bob isn’t an evangelical Christian, but a member of the Christian Identity movement, an arguably neo-Nazi type cult? Could agnostic gay Bob tolerate such a neighbor, even if he helped out with the trash? I don’t think so.

Ok, well what if they are in neighboring prison cells? What can each Bob tolerate now? Can they find their way to a dialogue that allows for some measure of mutual respect? Or do they have to try to kill each other on sight? I think the case for tolerance is pretty manifest.

Why am I going through these iterations? To make the point that what we are willing to tolerate and what we are not willing to tolerate is highly context-dependent – and that that context affects our actual beliefs, not just how we behave. The mere fact that Mike Cosper can construct the dialogue that he did implies a great deal about Cosper’s feelings about both characters. He already believes that there’s no reason a gay man or a traditional Christian can’t be a good neighbor. Possibly he believes that because he has had good neighbors who are both. But he also already believes that their private views and practices do not negate the meaning of that good neighborliness – as he surely would if, in the context as given, traditional Christian Bob discovered his “good” neighbor was a pedophile, or if gay agnostic Bob discovered his “good” neighbor was a member of a neo-Nazi pseudo-Christian cult.

Of course, in either of the latter cases, the “discovery” would be a matter of some moment. neo-Nazi Bob is probably not open about his views in the way that evangelical Christian Bob is. Pedophile Bob is probably not open about his sexual orientation in the way that gay Bob is. But neo-Nazi prisoner Bob is open about his views – he’s got them tattooed on his chest. And our Pashtun preparing to deflower his child bride – he’s not hiding his plans either.

That’s precisely why the gay rights movement has been so insistent that coming out of the closet is a fundamentally radical and necessary act. It is hard, socially, to anathematize something open and admitted. Openness puts a choice on you: be a lousy neighbor, or openly affirm your tolerance. Cosper has decided to be a good neighbor and openly affirm his tolerance.

(And, by the way, I am not blind to the fact that the neo-Nazi prisoner’s openness, and the Pashtun child-deflowerer’s openness, are each built on a structure of violence. The child bride does not have the opportunity to be open in the way that her husband is. Neither does the gay man who submits to the neo-Nazi’s “protection” in prison. That’s tangential to my point, but I wanted to make it clear in passing.)

The surface lesson Cosper is trying to draw is that those inclined to persecute gay people in the name of Christianity, or Christians in the name of gay rights, should see the analogy of their respective social positions and, without changing their views of what is True with a capital “T,” let that empathetic analogy lead them to tolerance and mutual respect. But below the surface, something deeper is going on. Openness has forced a conversation. Quiet hostility is no longer a choice. One must be openly, frankly hostile – or affirm that the other is deserving of respect, and honor.

Two final points.

First, the dialogue couldn’t happen with pedophile or neo-Nazi Bob because neither would be sufficiently open – sufficiently ready to “come out” to the other Bob. And if one of them was so open, it would cause immediate disorientation. Gay Bob, faced with open, friendly Nazi Bob, would not suddenly say, “wow – he’s like me, even though he’s a Nazi. I guess Nazism is just one of those things I just have to tolerate while agreeing to disagree.” He would say, “holy cow – I’ve got a neighbor who’s an open, avowed Nazi! What the heck am I going to do now?” Ditto for Christian Bob faced with alarmingly open pedophile Bob. And if either Bob, alarmed, went around to his other neighbors to get a sense of what everyone else was thinking of doing, and they all didn’t see what the big deal was, he would start to seriously worry if he was being gaslighted.

I have a funny feeling that there are a lot of people out there in America who feel precisely that way.

Second, Dreher talks a lot about the Benedict Option, about insulating, protecting oneself from the baleful influences of the culture. How does he square that impulse with the dialogue that he seems to admire? If I am right that it is openness, and not just good-neighborliness, that forces that conversation, and makes the empathy possible, how does he square achieving that openness with that impulse to insulate?

 

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A Follow-Up On “Two Days, One Night”

Based on the comments I received, I think I may have been misunderstood a bit in my piece on the film, “Two Days, One Night.” Allow me to clarify a few things:

Some readers apparently thought I was endorsing the view that businesses should always pursue the bottom line, with no other considerations. I do not believe that. I don’t think that a “purely capitalist framework” inevitably “improves things for everyone.” Rather, I was saying that within such a framework – i.e., within a certain set of given assumptions and assuming institutional arrangements that reflect those assumptions – it’s clear what the business is supposed to do, and why. Reject those assumptions – or assert that existing arrangements don’t actually reflect those assumptions – and you may also reject the conclusion. As I do. As I thought was clear.

Some readers argued that the film had nothing to do with workplace democracy. The workers are not owners. Management decided the terms of the vote – there was no choice to have no layoffs, still get a bonus, and have less profit, nor were other choices like reducing some employees’ hours, reducing management compensation, or any other alternative put on the table. Only two choices were given: lay off Sandra and get a bonus, or keep Sandra and lose the bonus.

This is, indeed, far from a perfect description of workplace democracy. But consider the way our actual electoral democracy works. Who selects the choices we, the electorate, have to choose from? One of the features of democracy – and a basis of criticism thereof since the time of Pericles – is that it empowers those who are good at swaying opinion, and one way you sway opinion is by structuring choices. Unless we are imagining a world in which management simply ceases to exist (which would be a world more radically decentralized than most of us would ever seriously contemplate), the potential exists for management to play these kinds of games.

I admit, I assumed that the formal reason why a vote was happening at all had something to do with workplace democracy. Perhaps management is obliged to get worker approval for layoffs? In the absence of such a rule, I can’t imagine why management went through the trouble and turmoil – why not simply lay her off and be done with it? Therefore, I read the film as showing how such rules – which might have been intended to give workers more of a say in their workplaces – can play out in practice under conditions of scarcity and competition. I think I was correct in doing so.

Finally, some readers argued that this just proves solidarity is impossible so long as we have the profit motive. But the profit motive is just that – a motive. If you’ve got a plan for abolishing avarice, along with lust and pride and anger and the rest of them, clue me in. Scarcity and competition are objective conditions in the world. If solidarity is impossible under those conditions, then solidarity is impossible. I’m not that much of a pessimist.

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Who Would Vote For a Peace Candidate?

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It’s been instructive to watch the maneuvering of the Republican field of candidates, and of the Republican party in general, in the pre-primary phase of the 2016 election.

Jeb Bush enters the race with the formidable advantages and disadvantages of his last name. But rather than move to distance himself from his brother’s foreign policy disasters, he’s shown every indication of believing that, whatever the failures of execution, the strategic and moral framework within which they unfolded was correct, and that the big problem with President Obama foreign policy has been that it is insufficiently muscular in its activism.

Mitt Romney enters the race with the formidable advantages and disadvantages of his 2012 run. A significant part of his motivation appears to be the belief that, on foreign policy specifically, he predicted all the problems that have bedeviled America and the world in Obama’s second term, and that his own omnidirectional belligerence would have worked out much better than the President’s approach.

All of the other Republican candidates need to establish that they can play at the level of these two in terms of national credibility. Some – like Marco Rubio or Rick Santorum – are true-believing hawks. Others – like Scott Walker, who I felt before Iowa had the best chance to “break out” of the pack as an establishment-acceptable alternative to the better-known leaders – who are in a position either to stake out distinctive territory in foreign policy or to largely avoid the subject, have chosen instead to stake out stridently hawkish positions across the board, without much thought or concern.

Only Rand Paul still seems to be looking for distinctive foreign policy ground, but increasingly he seems to be trying to have things both ways – to push the envelope in a less-hawkish direction by reassuring his audience that he has the same Jacksonian instincts they do.

What I take from all of the above is the conclusion that, whatever the polls may say, the people with power in the Republican party believe that there is far more electoral risk in deviating from the hawkish line than from embracing it. So I feel confident in saying that the next Presidential election looks overwhelmingly likely to feature a hawkish Democrat (Hillary Clinton) facing off against a hawkish Republican.

When faced with this kind of situation, it is tempting to fantasize about alternatives. In the context of the Democratic party contest, I’ve done some of that fantasizing myself. So: what if a serious candidate ran on a third party peace platform? What would be the consequence?

Taking the fantasy seriously for a moment, I immediately have to ask myself: who is the candidate? How is he or she perceived in more general ideological terms? Dennis Kucinich and Pat Buchanan could both plausibly describe themselves as peace candidates. But I very much doubt there are many voters who would seriously vote for one who would also seriously vote for the other.

Successful third party candidacies – meaning, ones that succeeded in shaping subsequent politics – have to scramble the allegiances of established blocs of voters, so that both parties sit up and take notice, and ask themselves: how can we win those who may be suddenly up for grabs? Ross Perot did that in 1992; he not only facilitated Bill Clinton’s victory, but moved the national conversation about the budget decisively in his direction. George Wallace did it in 1968; he not only facilitated Richard Nixon’s victory, but moved the national conversation about crime decisively in his direction. Is there any plausible candidate who would have a similar impact in 2016? Who could force the two major parties to reckon with an up-for-grabs bloc of voters not being represented by the major party candidates in contention?

Well, another way to put that is: can you imagine a significant number of Democratic-leaning voters, liberals or moderates, voting for a peace candidate who felt culturally Republican and/or who failed to pass a set of liberal litmus tests (say he’s against the ACA, or against abortion or gay marriage, or goes around waving the tenth amendment at rallies)? Can you imagine a significant number of Republican-leaning voters, conservatives or moderates, voting for a peace candidate who felt like a cultural Democrat and/or who failed to pass a set of conservative litmus tests (say she’s robustly in favor of higher income taxes, or open borders, or says one of our most important challenges today is ending rape culture)? Or, alternatively, is there some cultural and political type that crosses those boundaries in interesting ways?

The more I think about it, the more I think the answer to this question is “no.” That is to say: when you poll Americans about whether they want to see a more or less active foreign policy, you can get numbers that suggest there’s an opening for someone to run on such a platform – and that such a constituency exists in both parties. But this is an electoral illusion.

The peace constituency in the Democratic party is a left-edge constituency that is not going to consider voting against Hillary Clinton or any other popular Democrat in favor of someone more centrist-seeming – or even culturally Republican – who happens to be in favor of a significantly more restrained foreign policy. Foreign policy is just one of a host of issues where they are to the left of their party’s center; it’s not a trump card.

Meanwhile, I increasingly suspect that there is no actual peace constituency in the Republican party, but rather a below-the-surface unease about the kinds of people who are making decisions about war and peace for our country. And part of the price of admission to proving you are the right kind of person to trust with our national security is believing in American exceptionalism and standing with our allies and all of that – that is to say: speaking the language of the hawks. Yes, there are fringe groups of libertarians and paleoconservatives and the like who are genuinely opposed to the Washington consensus and its even more hawkish movement conservative variants, but (a) they are tiny; and (b) many of them, like left-wing Democrats, would not vote for someone whose views on other issues they strongly opposed even if they agreed on foreign policy.

So if we do see a third party alternative running on a peace platform, I would expect that candidate to receive very few votes. And I would expect that result to be touted as proof that the American people favor the hawkish consensus.

All of which also makes it harder for a peace candidate to get any traction within one of the two major parties – since the candidates know that such positioning doesn’t help them win votes from the center, and there’s no real ability to reach around and grab from the opposing party’s fringe.

Sorry for the depressing analysis. On the bright side, we only got a few inches of snow here in Brooklyn, so the apocalypse is not upon us quite yet.

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The Soul of Man Under the Mixed Economy

Marion Cotillard runs the gauntlet of her co-workers in the Dardennes' "Two Days, One Night."
Marion Cotillard runs the gauntlet of her co-workers in the Dardennes' "Two Days, One Night."

On the recommendation of TAC‘s own Eve Tushnet, I went to see “Two Days, One Night” this past week – and I heartily second her strong endorsement of the film, and of Marion Cotillard’s performance.

It’s interesting (if unsurprising, to me) that Tushnet focused as strongly as she did on the spiritual dimension of the film, reading it primarily as a story of overcoming depression. It certainly is that. But it’s also a fascinating study of the central principle of socialism, and how that principle operates – and fails to operate – in practice, in a country (Belgium) and an economic system where socialism is neither a dirty word nor a foundational ideology. That central principle is solidarity.

The film opens on Sandra (Cotillard) being notified on Friday afternoon by a colleague that she has lost her job as the result of a vote by her fellow workers. Management gave them a choice: the company could afford either to pay bonuses or to lay off one worker, and she was chosen for the axe (likely because she had already been absent from work for some time as she battled a severe depression). The vote was 14-to-16 in favor of getting bonuses.

A friendly co-worker convinces the manager that the original vote was tainted, and he agrees to a re-vote on Monday by secret ballot. The rest of the movie chronicles Sandra’s struggle – with her co-workers and with the lurking black cloud of her depression – to win enough votes to keep her job.

The whole thing is pretty inconceivable in an American context where hiring and firing decisions are either entirely at management discretion or are determined by the outcome of an adversarial contest between organized workers and management. In a purely capitalist framework, the obviously proper thing for the company to do is lay off one worker, whether Sandra or someone else. That makes the business more efficient, and decisions across the economy that improve enterprise efficiency make possible an increase in the overall output of the economy, which implies greater aggregate wealth. Sandra herself may struggle financially in the short term, but that struggle is part of a process that improves things for everyone. Not that such a conclusion will make Sandra feel any better about being laid off.

But in the film, that decision goes not to management, but to the workers themselves. Management simply presents the workers with the facts: the company faces increased competition from Asia; the company can hit its production targets with 16 rather than 17 workers; and by laying off one worker there is room to pay all the remainder more. The workers then have to decide, collectively, what to do. And the “right” decision – even if we take the principle of solidarity seriously – becomes much blurrier.

I say it becomes blurrier, rather than inverted, because I presume the facts are honestly presented. That is to say: I presume that the company really is facing competition and really can’t afford to raise wages without increasing productivity, which, in this case, means laying off one worker. More than one of Sandra’s colleagues expresses to her their fear that, if they vote to keep her, it’ll just mean that one of them will get laid off instead. This is not an idle fear.

The most compelling objection to socialism as an economic model, from Hayek on down, has been an information theory objection. It’s just not possible for a command and control model to process information remotely as efficiently as the price mechanism does. But this objection doesn’t pose the same problem for decentralized models of worker control, including the various varieties of distributism and syndicalism. Advocates of these models often assert that they will result in a more just social order not only because they will mean a fairer distribution of the returns to capital, but because worker-ownership as such will have positive social effects in terms of social cohesion – in terms of solidarity. I’ve made those kinds of arguments myself, in fact.

“Two Days, One Night” complicates that pleasant story – indeed, arguably refutes it. Workplace democracy, under conditions of scarcity and competition, doesn’t lead to solidarity and collective decision-making. Some workers put their personal relationships with Sandra above their economic self interest. Others do the opposite. The workers are divided, not united, and they are divided by the effects of need and sentiment, not by different views of the interests of the collective. (It doesn’t help that management, as we come to understand fairly quickly, is using collective decision-making as a passive-aggressive tool for manipulating the workers. But this is also a strike against the structure of the workplace more than it is against management – after all, what would you expect management to do?)

The film ends by when Sandra is given a choice, and she makes it, and feels good about it. On a spiritual level, and on the level of her human relationships, it’s clear she’s made a good choice, and, moreover, that she’s come to be able to make it because of the personal and social journey she went on over the weekend, with herself, her husband, and her co-workers. But on the level of political economy, the choice rejects the structure within which her workplace, and the film, has been operating. It is a rejection of the responsibility of collective decision-making, in favor of solidarity on a humane, personal level. And the alternative to collective decision-making is giving that job to the discretion of management.

So what might be the political implications of Sandra’s journey?

Over the past generation, labor and social democratic parties across Europe have earned credibility as stewards of the economic system partly by abandoning the idea that they specifically represent the interests of workers, and instead implementing neoliberal policies aimed at making their economies more efficient. In the wake of the financial crisis, there’s been something of a crisis on the left, over whether they sold their birthrights for a mess of pottage that wasn’t nearly as filling as promised. But this feeling actually pre-dates the crisis, and may have validity even if it could be determined that, in terms of policy and politics, the leaders of the left actually made the best decisions possible for their countries.

Those most-likely to receive a pink slip do, in fact, need solidarity, need someone who cares first and foremost about their interests. By definition, it is going to be harder to get that solidarity from someone who is also responsible for the interests of the collective. If solidarity really is the bedrock principle of socialism, then there may be something yet to be said for the adversarial model, over those that promise a more harmonious system of economic relations.

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The King Is Dead – Long Live the King

I don’t have much to say about the passing of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as such. One presumes that, contrary to some headlines, the transition of power from one brother to another will be relatively uneventful. Saudi Arabia is not a locked box; the United States has extensive contacts throughout the royal family, and undoubtedly has a very clear idea already of how Salman intends to rule the kingdom and what he intends to do – which, I presume, is not very much; the House of Saud is an extraordinarily conservative bunch and the default conservative thing to do in all circumstances is nothing.

The passing of the baton from 90-year-old Abdullah to 78-year-old (and ailing) Salman inevitably recalls the gerontocratic post-Brezhnev years in the Soviet Union. But as a family business that happens to own a country rather than an ideologically-inflected bureaucratic state, the kingdom can’t really bring forth a Gorbachev. Which is probably a good thing; Gorbachev attempted to reform a failing Soviet state by opening it up, and what followed was a catastrophic collapse, ultimately leading to a return to authoritarianism masked by the forms of democracy. What Saudi royal would even consider opening up the kingdom after observing recent history in Egypt, the ongoing chaos in Iraq and Syria, and the eruption of Yemen? And lest we forget, there are restive Shiites in the kingdom as well – right where the oil is.

None of which is to suggest that America needs to hold fast to its Saudi card for fear of the deluge that would follow any change in the kingdom. On the contrary – America’s goal should be to moderate the closeness of our ties to Saudi Arabia without causing any kind of a rupture in relations. The strength of those ties will wane naturally over time for economic reasons – as, on the one hand, American dependence on imported oil has ended, and we slowly transition to a post-fossil-fuel economy; and, on the other hand, as the world progressively transitions away from the dollar as the exclusive reserve currency. Geopolitical crises may accelerate or retard that movement, but the secular trend remains toward a less-close relationship.

Meanwhile, we should not let those crises disturb that trend unnecessarily – but the passing of the crown provides the Saudis with an opportunity to try to turn some of those crises to their advantage. Iran is supporting a burgeoning Shiite rebellion in Yemen, and opposing a burgeoning Sunni rebellion in Syria, both actions that the Saudi monarchy views as profound threats. They will ask the administration to affirm commitments made by previous administrations to previous Saudi leaders – and to extend these commitments – as a way of demonstrating American confidence in our relationship with Saudi Arabia during a time of transition. Such commitments will be a relatively cheap-seeming consolation prize to offer in the context of any kind of administration rebuff to Saudi pressure to scuttle our nuclear negotiations with Iran. Whatever we do offer, we should be wary of anything that might be plausibly interpreted as a renewal of our commitment to oust Assad from Syria, or a new commitment to intervene in Yemen on the side of the government.

We’re walking a fine line, trying to improve relations with Iran without giving the impression that we are giving a green light to Iranian troublemaking. But that’s the line we have to walk if we want to avoid either a costly and ultimately pointless confrontation with Iran or a further acceleration of the descent of the region into chaos and sectarian warfare. And we have to keep that line in mind as we reaffirm our multi-decade friendship with Saudi Arabia at this time of transition.

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Restructuring Higher Education

My latest column for The Week is up. In it, I speculate about the likely effects of making community college free – assuming that the administration’s plan is enacted, and actually works as it is intended:

If the administration program succeeds, and participating community colleges offer more programs eligible for transfer to four-year institutions — tuition-free to all comers — then that option will become much more attractive for this sort of student [the marginal student barely able to afford to attend a four-year degree program]. Community college enrollment may well grow — but a large fraction of that growth may come from students who might otherwise have gone directly to a four-year institution.

What effect might that have, in turn, on those four-year institutions? All else being equal, one would assume that, if a supplier enters the market with a free product or service that is of acceptable quality, other market participants will respond either by focusing on a more quality-oriented market segment (willing and able to pay a premium for a premium product), or by exiting the market entirely.

If the administration’s proposal succeeds, for-profit colleges will have a harder time staying in business; it’s hard to compete with free. But it is equally reasonable to assume that four-year public institutions, perpetually strapped for funds, will decline to compete to keep those students most attracted by a fully transferable two-year degree. Rationally, they will reorient their own “business models” around a higher percentage of transfer students, with a higher percentage of non-transfer students being either ineligible for significant financial assistance, or of distinctly higher academic standing.

This is, of course, speculative – the plan is not going to be passed by this Congress, and if it were enacted it might not work as intended. I’m trying to tease out what the likely effects would be if it did work as intended – if the law passed, states eagerly signed up, and community colleges responded to incentives to restructure their programs to meet the eligibility criteria.

To be clear, it’s not obvious to me that a restructuring of community colleges to be more academically serious would be a bad thing, if the goal is to make higher education cheaper without sacrificing quality. But if the goal is to enable people to go to college who currently do not, I wonder whether the proposal will be that effective. Poor students, after all, are frequently attending community colleges for free now. And even if they benefit from the elimination of tuition, the eligibility criteria could inadvertently make it harder for them to remain enrolled.

Some folks have worried that community colleges will engage in rampant grade inflation to keep their graduation rates up (and thus remain eligible for subsidies). That could happen – but the requirement that credits be readily transferable to a four-year institution might prevent that eventuality. But another way to keep graduation rates up is to “fire” or “manage out” failing students, a process observed at many charter schools. The administration proposal includes money for remediation – but high-performing charter schools frequently do the same. Who knows where the bulk of the incentives will ultimately lie?

In any event, I concluded the piece with a throwaway line about the “class divide” running through the student body in higher education, and I want to complicate that view slightly. It is entirely likely that a poorer student, struggling to stay financially afloat at State U, might be better off spending two or three years at a community college and then transferring to State U. I mean that not just in financial terms but in social terms – at the community college she would be around more people like her, and when she transferred to State U she might be better prepared, socially, to handle this novel social environment. The class divide already runs through State U, and runs pretty deep.

But I do think it would change State U if the pool of poorer first-year students shrank significantly, particularly if state governments responded by reorienting their budgets to treat community colleges as the “proper” academic path for poorer students. And I also worry about the position of remedial students at community colleges if the college mission is re-oriented around transfer students.

To be clear: I’m not ultimately making an argument against the proposal, either against making community college free or against the eligibility criteria. I’m just teasing out possible unintended effects. Other proposals would undoubtedly have different unintended effects. Policy is rarely about finding a program with no downsides or unintended effects; it’s about finding one that is on-balance worthwhile, and being aware of those possible downsides so they can be mitigated.

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Three Questions For J. C. Chandor

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac (making sustained eye contact) in "A Most Violent Year
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac (making sustained eye contact) in "A Most Violent Year

I count myself a big booster of J.C. Chandor on his rapid rise through the ranks of American filmmakers. His first feature – “Margin Call” – is the only film I’ve ever seen to accurately depict the Wall Street that I knew when I worked there (by which I mean: he gets the culture right; the terminological details don’t really matter). His second feature – “All Is Lost” – was a daring cinematic venture, but also an intriguing meditation on the Randian myth of the self-sufficiency of the captains of industry.

His most recent film, “A Most Violent Year,” however, left me puzzled, and dissatisfied. I have a funny feeling that, for the first time, Chandor is either trying to do something that I don’t understand, or that he’s tried to make a relatively conventional movie, and simply failed. My respect for his intelligence and creativity inclines me toward the first explanation. Hence my list of questions.

1. The film is set in 1981, at the time the peak year for violent crime in New York history. This violence was largely of the un-organized variety, and fueled a broad public perception that New York was descending into chaos. ”Escape From New York” premiered that year, for God’s sake.

But there is remarkably little violence in “A Most Violent Year,” and the violence we do see is of the organized variety – a turf war between mobbed-up heating oil companies that carved up their territory generations ago. The city we see feels almost empty – there’s no hint of the frenzied crush of humanity that we get from “Dog Day Afternoon” or “Serpico,” not even when we make our way through a graffiti-festooned subway car as part of a chase sequence that is the only point in the film where the adrenaline really gets flowing. The police never shoot at an armed suspect fleeing a shootout on the 59th-street bridge – and when that suspect later changes his mind about turning himself in, and runs, the police are once again flat-footed, and nobody is terribly concerned or surprised.

Was this all an unavoidable consequence of working with a low budget? And if the latter, why set the film in a period with so much cinematic resonance? Or was the choice deliberate, and is Chandor suggesting that the movies of the time made the city more lurid than it really was?

2. Oscar Isaac appears to be doing something of a young Pacino imitation. He speaks slowly, deliberately, precisely, as if barely husbanding a great deal of energy and potential for violence. But he almost descends into parody, what with enunciating of every consonant and refusing to use contractions. (I was reminded of Matt Damon’s diction in “True Grit” more than once – but there I know the delivery was supposed to be funny.)

Moreover, what his character, Abel Morales, actually says is frequently emptily portentous. For example: when he calls together his various rivals, at least one of whom he knows is stealing from him, and tells them simply: “Stop it. Now.” The tone suggests a quiet, very serious threat. But no actual threat is delivered. Just as with the scenes when he tells his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) that he’ll “take care of” any threats to them or their kids, I get the sense that he’s all bluff. That he thinks he can win any contest by sheer force of sustained eye contact.

Which might have been Chandor’s point. That, after all, is the main technique Morales teaches his own salesmen – maintain eye contact for longer than is comfortable and you’ll close. Perhaps that’s really his only trick. Was that what Chandor intended, I wonder – to send up the whole Pacino myth by pointing out how much of it is nothing more than intense brown eyes? And that this intensity is the only reason we ever bought into Michael Corleone – and all his subsequent defining roles – in the first place? (And, perhaps, is the only reason we take business people seriously as well?)

3. The more I thought about the plot, the more it seemed that the stakes of the film are exceptionally low. Consider: in the opening sequence, we learn that Morales is taking a huge risk in putting down a $1 million deposit on a piece of waterfront property. He has 30 days to deliver another $1.5 million or he will lose the property to a competitor. Leave aside the oddity of this contract – we’re introduced into a world where Morales is daring to go toe-to-toe with bigger, tougher competitors and muscle them out of a property vital to their future prosperity. If he fails, he loses everything.

So the initial stakes are financial, but significant within that realm. One assumes – particularly given the title – that the stakes will only escalate from there to something more personal. But, in fact, every time the stakes appear to rise, they actually reveal that they were never that high in the first place. Thugs who bring guns to his house, and to hijack his trucks, never fire them – and certainly never intended to. Indeed, the thugs are generally polite and even helpful whenever they get into conversation. Perhaps Morales is right not to worry about the violence – that it’s all so much bluff and theater.

As Morales himself describes it, his reluctance to fight violence with violence is pragmatic – he will lose the bank loan if he comes under public scrutiny and they think he is mobbed up like his competitors. But when charges are brought against Morales’s company for corrupt practices, the bank stands with him. And when the bank, later, does drop him, Morales simply goes and gets the money he needs from his competitors – the same competitors who, supposedly, were so desperate to get the property for themselves.

When he doesn’t get the money quickly enough – the seller of the property gives him a grace period of three days to pull it all together. When his wife reveals that she’s been stealing from their company and socking the money away for a rainy day, Morales is furious, fearing this might get him in trouble with the D.A. who is investigating him (David Oyelowo). But it doesn’t. Once he’s closed on the property, and has a clear future as an important local businessman, the D.A. quietly offers to downgrade the charges in exchange for political support. Most notably, when Morales figures out which competitor has been stealing from him, his competitor rolls over and pays him whatever he asks with barely a whimper.

It seems that all that was ever really at stake was Morales’s self-image as someone who could achieve all his goals on the basis of pure sustained eye-contact. His competitors weren’t really determined to ruin him. Nobody was really going to get personally violent. If all went well, he’d get the property free and clear for a great price. But because his competitors made it hurt, he got the property on somewhat worse terms and he has to take on one of them as a partner (and he would have had to take on another if his wife hadn’t socked away money for a rainy day).

So again, I wonder: is this part of Chandor’s point? That these “high-stakes” business dealings only feel that way because of the atmospherics we surround them with? That, in reality, we’re generally talking about the difference between doing fine and doing fantastically well, between being the sole boss or having partners, between doing it “the most right way” or having to cut a few corners?

I could ask more questions of this ilk. Over and over, this film felt to me that it was subverting the expectations we have of the genre and the period, but I couldn’t tell to what end. If Chandor really was trying to make an homage to the great New York movies of the 1970s, stories of crime and corruption and battles for supremacy over a feverish and perhaps-dying city, then “A Most Violent Year” is simply a failure. But if he was trying to say, “no, it wasn’t really like that; it was honestly more like this, with much lower stakes than the lighting, score and line delivery would suggest” – well, he got what he wanted. But I’m not sure how satisfying a successful result really is as a cinematic experience.

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And The Nominees Are . . .

Well, the official nominations are out, and my predictions are batting . . . ok.

What am I surprised that I got wrong?

Well, clearly I overestimated Academy support for “Gone Girl” and “Selma.” And I underestimated Academy support for “American Sniper” and – in a big surprise to me, since I worried I was showing too much love for the film - “Foxcatcher.” That’s partly a consequence of not having seen some of these films. I still haven’t seen “Gone Girl,” “American Sniper” or “Selma.” Perhaps, had I seen them, I would have made better predictions – but perhaps not.

Nonetheless, I am not shocked that “Selma” has been “snubbed” – I had the feeling that most people didn’t really love the film. Indeed, I suspect that the Best Picture nomination is itself a kind of consolation prize, that voters were reluctant to shut it out altogether from the major categories. I understand why some observers are troubled by the unbearable whiteness of this year’s awards. But it isn’t fair for a single film to shoulder so much expectation. If it’s a problem, the problem originated not in this year’s voters but in casting and financing decisions made years before.

I’m a little surprised that “Foxcatcher” got so much love – more than I even expected. But I’m even more surprised that it got so much love and didn’t get a nomination for Best Picture. It had some of the best acting (2 nominations), some of the best directing, and one of the best screenplays – but it wasn’t one of the best pictures? It’s like the reverse of “Argo,” which was nominated (and won!) for Best Picture but was shut out of the other major categories.

I’m glad to see that “Whiplash,” a very interesting film that I’m still thinking about, earned a Best Picture nomination, which I did not predict (but probably should have, over either “Gone Girl” or “Nightcrawler”). Most of the other picks I got wrong across the various categories I don’t feel too bad about – either there was no obvious pick or I hadn’t seen the relevant films or both.

But the biggest shock of all, to me, is no Editing nomination for “Birdman.” Did the Academy voters actually think it was all one take? I’m genuinely mystified.

I’ll make some predictions about winners, and announce my own rooting interests in same, after I’ve seen a greater percentage of the films.

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Jeb Bush Is the GOP Front-Runner: A Syllogism

1. Either Mitt Romney’s entry into the race is completely ridiculous and sad, or it is not at all ridiculous, forcing the rest of the field to respond to the challenge of his entry.

2. Since there is a real question about this matter, Mitt Romney cannot himself be the frontrunner.

3. If his entry is not ridiculous, then anyone who does not want Romney to be President now has to very quickly rally behind someone who clearly can beat him and unite the party, so as to prevent a recurrence of the 2012 primaries.

4. Jeb Bush is the only candidate currently running who clearly fits that bill: capable of raising a lot of money very quickly, possessed of near-universal name-recognition, and acceptable to both the establishment and a significant segment of the grassroots (specifically, religious conservatives).

5. Hence, if Romney’s entry is not ridiculous, Jeb Bush is the front-runner.

6. If, on the other hand, Mitt Romney’s entry into the race is ridiculous, then his main impact on the race will be on the early phase of the “invisible primary.” His entry will make it difficult for Romney donors and influential backers to say yes to somebody else, even if they take their time saying yes to him because of his ridiculousness.

7. Jeb Bush, however, has (as noted) a substantial network of his own (and through his family) that he can draw on and (as noted) near universal name-recognition. None of the other major contenders comes close in that regard.

8. Hence, Romney’s entry – even if it is ridiculous – hurts the other potential establishment-acceptable candidates (like Chris Christie and Scott Walker) in this early phase of the contest much more than it hurts potential insurgent candidates like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul or Mike Huckabee.

9. An insurgent candidate by definition cannot be the front-runner until the insurgency has demonstrated very substantial successes in the field – and certainly not during the invisible primary phase.

10. Hence, if Romney’s entry is ridiculous, Jeb Bush is the front-runner.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, by “front-runner” I mean “shortest odds to win” not necessarily “more likely than not to win” much less “prohibitive favorite.” Saying “there is no front-runner” means that you think the odds are pretty well even across a group of candidates.

My syllogism above is therefore compatible with Daniel Larison’s proposition that Romney’s entry makes it somewhat more likely that an insurgent candidate will take the nomination – provided that you also recognize that there are multiple insurgent candidates (so you are comparing one candidate’s odds with the cumulative odds on any member of a group) and that, with or without Romney in the race, none of the insurgents have very good odds of winning the nomination.

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