Kevin Drum - June 2010

The Decline and Fall of Adult Movies

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 5:04 PM EDT

Ross Douthat on summer popcorn movies:

On the 35th anniversary of the great white blockbuster, John Podhoretz has an essay blaming the unprecedented box-office success of “Jaws” for the rise of the lousy, disposable summer tent-pole movie. In his review of “Toy Story 3,” David Edelstein takes a different tack, arguing that if you want to trace Hollywood’s decline into dreck like “The A-Team” and the umpteen “Shrek” sequels, “the beginning of the end was ‘Star Wars,’ synthetic then as now, clever but never exhilarating, infinitely merchandisable.”

My father was a professor of film history and criticism (among other things), and he felt pretty much the same way. I remember asking him what he thought of Star Wars a few years after it came out, and after he made some negative comment or another I told him I thought it was a terrific film. He didn't really agree, but he did say that his real problem wasn't with Star Wars per se — which, after all, was something of an homage to the Buck Rogers serials of his youth — but with what Star Wars had done to movies. Everyone wanted to make the next Star Wars now, but too often that just meant simpleminded stories and lots of special effects and not much more.

Well, I still think he was wrong about Star Wars, and I think he was probably wrong about its impact too. Douthat again:

You know what? An awful lot of the middlebrow blockbusters of the 1980s were really, really good. If you just look at the 15 years after Spielberg’s great white shark first terrorized bathers and moviegoers, the legacy of “Jaws” and “Stars Wars” includes the Indiana Jones saga, the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Ghostbusters,” “Top Gun,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Alien” and “Aliens,” Tim Burton’s Batman movies, “Die Hard,” “The Hunt for Red October” and “E.T.,” among other entertainments. That’s a pretty impressive roster of popcorn movies.

....It’s only really in the 2000s, in fact, that sequel-itis, the comic-book obsession, and the corrupting influence of special-effects — as well the siphoning of highbrow talent to television networks — created a box-office landscape dominated by movies that (to quote Edelstein’s indictment) “cost hundreds of millions and are not so much made as microengineered.” (Of the 25 highest-grossing movies of the last decade, only “Avatar” and “Finding Nemo” weren’t based on pre-existing properties.) And blaming “Jaws” and “Star Wars” for creativity-killing trends that came to fruition 30 years later seems like an enormous stretch.

I think that's pretty much right.  Star Wars was a different kind of blockbuster than, say, Ben Hur or Gone With the Wind, but blockbusters have always been with us. The difference now isn't really related either to the rise of special effects or the popularity of science-fiction-inspired themes, it's related to the fact that adults barely go to the movies anymore. Blockbusters today are geared almost exclusively to the 18-29 year old demographic, and that demo simply demands a different kind of movie. It's a cohort that's interested in video games, comic books, and plenty of adrenaline, and if that's the audience for your product then those are the kinds of movies you're going to produce. It has nothing to do with the success of Jaws or Star Wars.

There is, of course, always a chicken and egg problem here. Did adults abandon movies because movies got juvenile? Or did movies get juvenile because adults abanonded them? I've never come to a firm conclusion about this myself, but I suspect it's more the latter. As a social experience — for dates, for hanging out with your friends, for getting out of the house — movies are as good as they've ever been. And that's a big part of what kids want out of their pastimes. But adults? They mostly just want to relax with a bit of good entertainment, and they have a whole lot of other options for that these days. Options that, from an adult point of view, are generally superior.

So that leaves kids as the primary audience for movies, and moviemakers have responded by making movies for kids. That's too bad for the dwindling number of us who are over 30 but still like going to movies, but I don't blame George Lucas for that. I blame him for Howard the Duck and the second Star Wars trilogy, but not for Transformers II.

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Is McChrystal's Mess Really Obama's Fault?

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 2:49 PM EDT

Jackson Diehl makes the case that Gen. Stanley McChrystal isn't to blame for exposing his staff's feuds with President Obama in Rolling Stone this week. Obama is:

If anyone deserves blame for the latest airing of the administration’s internal feuds over Afghanistan, it is President Obama. For months Obama has tolerated deep divisions between his military and civilian aides over how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he announced last December.

....A scathing memo by [Karl] Eikenberry describing Karzai as an unreliable partner was leaked to the press last fall....Biden, for his part, gave an interview to Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter in which he said that in July of next year “you are going to see a whole lot of [U.S. troops] moving out.” Yet as Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates tartly pointed out over the weekend, “that absolutely has not been decided.”

This is pretty weak tea. Whoever leaked Eikenberry's memo shouldn't have done it, but that leak happened before Obama decided on his Afghanistan strategy. The memo itself was merely Eikenberry offering his blunt advice in an ongoing debate, which is entirely proper. And Biden, speaking shortly after the final decision on Afghanistan was announced (the exact timing is unclear from Alter's book), was just giving a slightly aggressive take on a strategy that everyone had already agreed to: namely that troop withdrawals would begin in July 2011. He didn't publicly criticize the strategy or McChrystal or anyone else. Gates's "tart" statement came months later and only under prodding from an interviewer.

As Diehl says, we all know perfectly well that there are tensions between McChrystal and some members of the White House staff over our Afghanistan strategy. That's been obvious for over a year, ever since the strategy started being being hashed out. But that's entirely normal, and there's a big, big difference between being on one end of a policy fight (perfectly OK) and later publicly trashing everyone you disagreed with (not OK). And there's an even bigger difference between a civilian doing it (imprudent at best, sleazy at worst) and a general officer doing it (idiotic at best, insubordinate at worst). Even if Obama should be managing staff tensions over Afghanistan better, which is at least a defensible position to take, blaming the Rolling Stone debacle on him just won't fly. This is McChrystal's mess.

Chart of the Day: Obama's Shakedown

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 2:20 PM EDT

Via Steven Taylor, this chart shows what happened to BP's stock price after President Obama finished his infamous shakedown session with BP last Wednesday. Apparently, after brutally assaulting BP's leadership with threats of Chicago style anti-business thuggery, the market rejoiced, sending BP's stock up more than two points in the space of a few hours.

In any case, as Dave Weigel has pointed out, the escrow account was hardly Obama's idea in the first place:

On Thursday, Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao told me that he pressed BP on the fund idea a month ago, inspired by the example of Exxon after its 1989 spill off the coast of Alaska. And on Friday I talked with Ray McKinney, another engineer, who is running for Congress in Georgia against Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.). McKinney stressed that there was no serious disagreement about the escrow issue, and said Democrats were concocting a political debate when all that mattered was making BP pay and investigating the disaster.

Are Democrats concocting a political debate? No. I suppose they're reveling in a political debate that's mostly been handed to them on a silver platter by tone deaf Republicans, but that's a different thing. All Obama did was announce the fund. It was Republicans who made it into yet another media firestorm.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Tea Party

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 1:26 PM EDT

Matthew Continetti has a good piece in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard about the schizophrenic nature of the tea party movement, and it's worth reading. But even as he goes into considerable depth about the tension and turmoil in a movement that (in his description) is torn between a Dr. Jekyll side represented by ur-tea-partier Rick Santelli and a Mr. Hyde side represented by clownish conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck, I don't think he truly gives the muddle this produces the attention it deserves. Take this passage:

First, the Tea Party is unified by the pervasive sense that the country is wildly off course.

....Second, the Tea Party is unified in opposition to the policies that it believes put America in its current predicament. It’s opposed to bailouts, which favor the wealthy and connected. It’s opposed to out-of-control spending at every level of government. It’s opposed to an expansive state that subsidizes bad behavior while accruing more and more power for itself, opposed to a limitless government that nonetheless fails in the basic duties of securing the borders, regulating the financial sector, and keeping America safe.

....But there are also signs that the Tea Party is in the middle of a tumultuous adolescence. Its activists haven’t had much to say, for example, on the topic of the big banks. A recent Washington Post poll showed it losing support....There is the palpable anxiety among sympathizers that if the Tea Party did gain power, it would be unable to shape its diverse sentiments into a programmatic agenda.

Italics mine. Here's the thing: as near as I can tell, tea partiers are not, in fact, especially put out by bailouts to the wealthy. Santelli's founding rant, as Continetti points out, was aimed at homeowners being bailed out of mortgages they couldn't afford. And as Continetti himself admits just a few sentences later, tea partiers don't have much to say about Wall Street banks. That's pretty odd for a movement supposedly opposed to big bailouts. The reality is quite different: if the tea partiers are really upset that Congress hasn't yet reined in the financial sector, they sure have a funny way of showing it. All the evidence I've seen suggests just the opposite: most tea partiers think not that Obama's financial reform proposals are too modest, but that they verge on socialism. They think he wants to take over the banks the same way he took over the car companies.

Ditto for securing the borders — though here the schizophrenia is a little more explicable. Tea partiers do indeed seem to be temperamentally outraged by illegal immigration, but Dick Armey and FreedomWorks, who are big tea party funders, aren't. So that's tamped things down a bit on the immigration front. (Though obviously that could change if immigration becomes a front-and-center legislative issue later this year.)

In other words, the inchoate rage of the tea party movement is, if anything, even worse than Continetti says. Tea partiers are, obviously outraged about Obama, outraged at his "socialism," and outraged at the increasing deficit and the social programs it funds. But there's simply not much evidence that they're really outraged at Wall Street or at the business community in general. Nor are they outraged by two foreign wars and skyrocketing military spending. Nor are they outraged by the obvious possibilities for government overreach that are inherent in things like massive warrantless wiretap programs and a less than robust attitude toward constitutional rights for anyone suspected of terrorism.

No, what they're outraged by is having to pay taxes that fund social services they don't approve of and having to tolerate social change that alarms them. And whether it's Glenn Beck or Rick Santelli or anyone else that's the face of the movement, this is, at its core, the same thing that the middle class right has been outraged about for decades whenever a Democrat is in office. There's really no need to make this more complicated than it is.

(But the piece is still worth reading. Continetti's take is an honest one, and some of his insights are worthwhile and intriguing. I just don't think the big picture is quite as complicated as he makes it out to be.)

Media Coverage of Healthcare Reform

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 12:16 PM EDT

Pew has done a study (here) that looks at media coverage of healthcare reform, and the good news is that there was a lot of coverage of healthcare reform. Some of it was even substantive. But Igor Volsky isn't impressed:

Health coverage in the far more influential mainstream press did very little to serve the public interest and as the debate progressed, Americans became more, not less, confused about the policy. “A solid majority of Americans consistently said the health care debate was hard to understand — a number that increased from 63% in July 2009 to 69% in December 2009, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center for the People & Press.”

Actually, it's pretty natural that people would become more confused as time goes by no matter how good or bad the coverage was. Hell, I was more confused as time went by. Proposals come and go, amendments are offered and rejected, negotiation sessions drag on, studies are issued, and as the broad outlines take shape small details become ever more important. But there's more to it than that, as another part of the Pew study demonstrates:

To a great extent, the health care debate was a talk show story, getting the most attention from the ideological cable and radio hosts.

....In the talk show sector, the subject was more than twice as big as it was in the media overall, filling 31% of the airtime from June 2009 through March 2010 versus 14% generally. On those shows, no other subject was deemed nearly as newsworthy. The No. 2 talk story in that time frame was the economy, all the way back at 7%.

....A month-by-month breakdown of health care coverage in the talk show sector reveals a major increase during the dog days of summer. In August, when the town hall protests exploded, 60% of all the talk show airtime was devoted to health care. (The second-biggest talk show topic, terrorism, was at 5% that month). In September, health care filled 39% of their airtime, and in October, it was still high at 30%.

This was true of both liberal and conservative talk shows, but of course conservative talks shows generally dwarf their liberal counterparts in audience size. And the study concludes that conservative talkers were far more successful at spreading their memes than the liberals were — though frankly, I'm surprised that liberals were as successful as they were. And I'm very surprised that the "rationing" meme was as muted as it was. I would have figured that for the #1 spot, to be honest.

In any case, my guess is that any issue that's heavy talk show fodder is almost bound to produce poor coverage in the mainstream media. Like it or not, talk shows generate talking points and talking points drive politics. And the mainstream media covers politics. This is just the world we live in.

McChrystal Coming to DC to Apologize

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 11:17 AM EDT

Following the devastating Rolling Stone piece in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides trashed half of official Washington, the general feeling in the twittersphere seems to be that McChrystal, who is flying to Washington DC today to meet with a "furious" President Obama, is seriously fucked. The Guardian's reporters, however, disagree:

The official was unable to say how long the general would be away, but did say that McChrystal believed he had largely "sorted" the situation after immediately calling the people he had attacked in the profile to apologise.

Earlier today, McChrystal attended a meeting with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, Eikenberry and Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative who McChrystal also belittled in the magazine article.

A US diplomat said that while "the story sucked" and that McChrystal "running amok" was embarrassing, the row would not affect policy or the way the men worked together.

Two things are going to happen following this debacle. Either high-ranking field officers are going to clamp down hard on in-depth journalist access to their aides or else high-ranking field officers are going to clamp down hard on their own aides.1 After all, in the Rolling Stone piece that's caused McChrystal all the heartburn, it wasn't primarily McChrystal's own words that were the big problem. It was lots of juvenile taunting from his aides, much of it apparently during social gatherings where they had been drinking. And there's a simple lesson there: anyone who lets a reporter follow them around to a bar where they plan to drink the evening away is an idiot. It doesn't really matter what the ground rules are or even whether there was some miscommunication about what could and couldn't be quoted. It's just stupid.

Anyway, my guess is that after already firing David McKiernan last year Obama really can't afford to assign a third general to Afghanistan, so McChrystal's job is probably safe. But this sure isn't going to help his credibility with Hamid Karzai or anyone else he has to work with. McChrystal had an almost impossible job already, and now it's just gotten that much worse.

1Especially considering that this is the second time this has happened in two years. Remember Fox Fallon?

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The McChrystal PR Campaign Goes Awry

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 1:30 AM EDT

So, um, how are things going in Afghanistan?

An article out this week in "Rolling Stone" magazine depicts Gen. Stanley McChrystal as a lone wolf on the outs with many important figures in the Obama administration and unable to convince even some of his own soldiers that his strategy can win the war. A band of McChrystal's profane, irreverent aides are quoted mocking Vice President Joe Biden and Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

....The article claims McChrystal has seized control of the war "by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House."

Ouch. The Wall Street Journal describes the piece this way:

Comments in the article attributed to anonymous McChrystal aides are particularly harsh towards some senior members of the Obama administration, including National Security Adviser James Jones, and other leading politicians, like Sens. John Kerry (D., Mass.) and John McCain (R., Ariz). They also make some unflattering references to President Barack Obama himself, saying the president didn’t seem to know who McChrystal was when he appointed him to run the war early last year.

Apparently McChrystal's biggest beef is with Karl Eikenberry, which is hardly surprising since Eikenberry leaked a cable last year that essentially said McChrystal's strategy for Afghanistan was hopeless. Marc Ambinder provides some background here, and ends with this: "Within hours after today's Rolling Stone story broke, McChrystal was called by the White House, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were not happy." I don't suppose they were.

Claire McCaskill's War on Secret Holds

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 9:26 PM EDT

This is interesting: apparently Sen. Claire McCaskill (D–Mo.) thinks she's rounded up enough votes to eliminate the practice of secret holds. I had no idea this was even on anyone's radar. However, Jamelle Bouie doesn't think this will really make much difference:

I have no idea if McCaskill’s hold legislation will make it through the Senate; senators are very reluctant to give up their power, and this would diminish the ways in which individual senators can impose their preferences on the entire chamber. And of the possible avenues for reforming the hold, this isn’t my first choice. Like Jonathan Bernstein (of the fantastic Plain Blog About Politics), I’m not convinced that secrecy is the problem with the hold....Rather, the problem is that there are too many holds. Obstructionist senators are abusing Senate norms, and it’s not clear that McCaskill’s bill will address that core dilemma.

This is basically right, of course: holds are the problem, not secret holds specifically. Still, I guess there are two ways of looking at McCaskill's bill. The first is that senators wouldn't bother fighting against it if they didn't really care whether their holds were public or not. So they must care. And if they care about their holds being public, then taking away secret holds should make holds less common. Unfortunately, the second way of looking at this is that if it were really going to make a difference, McCaskill wouldn't have even a prayer of getting 67 votes. Republicans have shown an impressive ability to maintain a united front even on fairly innocuous issues, so if they're divided this issue must be really innocuous.

So which is it? Beats me. But I hope McCaskill gets the votes regardless. The Senate is a public body and its official actions ought to be public whether or not it actually changes anyone's behavior. Besides, you never know what use watchdog groups will be able to make of public records on holds. At the very least, it will force legislators to defend their holds, and I think they're going to have a harder time doing that repeatedly with a camera in their face than they might think. In the end, I'll bet that making holds public will reduce their numbers noticeably. Not dramatically, maybe, but enough to be well worth doing.

Interchange Fee Regulation (Partially) Survives

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 5:45 PM EDT

Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) has apparently reached a deal that would mostly keep his amendment to regulate debit card interchange fees intact in the final financial reform bill. The original version regulated both the fees charged to merchants and the fees charged to banks:

The House will seek to maintain the Senate’s proposed cap on debit-card interchange, or “swipe” fees, according to Representative Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat leading talks to produce a final regulatory overhaul bill. The plan from Senator Richard Durbin would empower the Federal Reserve to set fees charged to merchants that are “reasonable and proportional” to the cost of processing debit transactions.

....The compromise prevents the Fed from regulating “network fees” that Visa and MasterCard charge to banks on each transaction as long as the fees aren’t used to “circumvent” interchange regulation, according to Durbin, the Illinois Democrat and majority whip. Reloadable prepaid cards, including those used to disburse government benefits, would be exempt.

This isn't too bad as these things go. Merchants and consumers really don't have much bargaining power when it comes to interchange fees, so regulations there make sense. Big banks, however, do, so letting them fight it out with Visa and Mastercard on their own sounds OK to me. (Though the additional language adds complexity that banks will almost certainly find some way to exploit. That's unfortunate.)

I wouldn't mind seeing some regulation of credit card interchange fees as well, but that wasn't in Durbin's amendment to begin with and it's a secondary issue. Debit card interchange fees are the bigger abuse since banks are literally doing nothing there except moving money from one account to another. Add this to the recent rules reining in overdraft fees and we've made some real progress on the consumer finance front. We only got about half of what we should have, but that's better than nothing.

Afghanistan Update

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 2:19 PM EDT

I don't really know what to make of this, but here's the latest from Afghanistan:

Britain's special envoy to Afghanistan, known for his scepticism about the western war effort and his support for peace talks with the Taliban, has stepped down just a month before a critical international conference in Kabul. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles has taken "extended leave", a spokesman for the British high commission in Islamabad said today. He has been replaced on a temporary basis by Karen Pierce, the Foreign Office director for South Asia and Afghanistan.
 

....Cowper-Coles, who also had Pakistan in his remit as special envoy, clashed in recent months with senior NATO and US officials over his insistence that the military-driven counter-insurgency effort was headed for failure, and that talks with the Taliban should be prioritised.

Presumably the U.S. approach can now proceed without any kibitzing from doubters. In related news, the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran reports that some Afghan villagers are starting to revolt against the Taliban, and on Sunday Rahm Emanuel confirmed that Obama still plans to begin the U.S. military drawdown in July 2011, as planned.