Kevin Drum - December 2011

Half of Hugo is a Good Movie. But Which Half?

| Thu Dec. 29, 2011 12:46 PM EST

There are some slight spoilers here, so don't read on if you haven't seen Hugo and want to remain surprised. But here is Jonah Goldberg's assessment:

The film begins magically and you can tell it is a true labor of love. The whole thing is beautiful. The child actors are excellent. Sasha Baron Cohen flirts with greatness. But for all the loving detail and the directorial confidence, the whole thing strikes me as . . . self-indulgent.

I never read the book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret), so maybe the fault lies in the material itself. But I doubt it. The movie begins wonderfully, following young Hugo as he lives and works in a French train station (Gare Montparnasse). It teases — one could even say seduces — the audience into thinking we’re about to be swept away into a magical tale akin to the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the book, not the movie). Instead, it becomes an at times didactic treatise on the wonders of film and, yes, the burning need for film preservation. There’s no real magic, just fairly heavy-handed allusions to the magic of cinema. It’s all very meta if you ask me.

Since Jonah and I disagree about nearly everything else, I suppose it's appropriate that I had almost precisely the opposite reaction to Hugo. The first half of the film disappointed me: it rambled tediously, provided no real sense of why I should care about Hugo or anyone else, and the narrative was driven by the most ridiculous kind of coincidence mongering. And Sasha Baron Cohen? I thought he came very close to ruining the film entirely.

But in the second half, when the coincidences are over and the plot is finally allowed to move forward more naturally, driven by the needs of the characters rather than the need to set up the premise, the whole movie turns a corner. It's by turns fascinating, touching, and interesting in a genuinely historical way. Sure, I guess you could say it was all about the burning need for film preservation, but only in the same way that Hamlet was about the burning need for better governance structures in Denmark.

But I'll agree with Jonah in one respect: the film's marketing does indeed make it seem like some kind of fantasy-based children's movie. This is pretty blatant misrepresentation, and I'd swear there are one or two short, entirely gratuitous scenes in the movie that are there solely to provide fodder for the trailers. There's no fantasy in Hugo, just an earthbound story that could stand to have been told a bit better at the beginning and that should have ditched Sasha Baron Cohen completely.

Better than most movies these days, though. I didn't swoon over it — and, as usual, I didn't feel like 3D added anything to the experience — but it's worth seeing. Just be sure to go in expecting less enchantment than the ads suggest.

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The ECB's Mysterious Plan to Rescue Italy

| Thu Dec. 29, 2011 12:08 PM EST

Matt Yglesias provides a nickel summary of the ECB's latest plan for rescuing Italy and other troubled countries in the eurozone:

Basically, as an alternative to directly guaranteeing the Italian government affordable loans the ECB is guaranteeing super-cheap loans to European banks. The banks are then able to plow that money into government debt at a profit and the strong demand for government debt assures that borrowing costs fall. This achieves two goals. On the one hand, the ECB can be bailing out the Italian fiscal situations while maintaining the legal fiction that this isn't what they're doing. On the other hand, precisely because doing it this backwards way creates profits for banks, the ECB is de facto engineering a taxpayer-financed bailout of Europe's banks.

....The whole thing is incredibly slimey and I have to suspect that it will end poorly, but for the time being at least it's working.

Because I'm a simpleminded person and don't understand the intricacies of high finance, I too think this will end poorly. And it will end poorly for a very simpleminded reason: no matter how cheap the ECB's loans are, there are only just so many Italian bonds that European banks want to buy. At some point — and this point is probably not all that far away — Europe's banks will realize that nothing structural has changed, Italy is still in trouble, they have an awful lot of Italian bonds on their books, and 5.6% isn't a high enough yield to buy more of them no matter how cheaply they're getting their money. And then they'll stop, and yields will go right back up.

There is, besides this, something else that puzzles me. The reason this plan is supposed to work is because the ECB is providing European banks with cheap money. But money is already cheap. American banks, for example, can raise money for next to nothing. So why aren't American banks loading up on Italian bonds? Is it just because of the added exchange rate risk, which eurozone banks don't have to worry about? That doesn't seem really plausible. So what's going on? Either Italian bonds are worth buying at 5.6% or they're not, and this shouldn't fundamentally depend on whether you're a European bank, an American bank, or a Saudi Arabian bank.

This whole thing is very mysterious. I will continue to watch with skepticism that it will work, and a sense of wonder if it does.

Warren Buffett Gets Gamed at His Own Meeting

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 8:23 PM EST

The Sage of Omaha is annoyed:

Among investors, there are few prizes more coveted than the opportunity to ask Warren Buffett a question at Berkshire Hathaway's annual shareholders meeting. But this year, Fidelity Investments mysteriously claimed more than its fair share.

Turns out, it was no accident—and the Oracle of Omaha is none too pleased about being outfoxed on his own turf. Now he is turning the tables. "There's no question they figured out how to game the system," Mr. Buffett says. He said he didn't like Fidelity's ploy because "it's not in the spirit of the meeting."

Hey, guess what, Warren? You could solve this problem by making yourself available for questions more often than once a year. You're the one who created the incentive for this mess. You can uncreate it any time you want.

Public Service Announcement

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 7:47 PM EST

Rick Santorum will not be the next president of the United States. That is all. 

Orcs for Romney!

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 4:13 PM EST

This is political correctness run amok. CNN and Time should be ashamed of themselves.

But if you really must know, apparently Iowa's orc community prefers Mitt Romney over Ron Paul, 25%-22%.

Kevin's Rules of Elision Revealed!

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 3:08 PM EST

A few days ago I got one of my oddest requests ever: a regular reader wanted to know just what my rules were for using ellipses. As a blogger who quotes other people's material all the time, I use ellipses a lot, and it's true that I use them in different ways depending on just what I've elided. But there's method to my madness! And since this is the slowest news week of the year, today I'm giving away my secrets.

And make no mistake: this is not official MoJo style. It's not AP style. I don't even know if there are any official-ish rules for indicating that you've snipped passages out of quoted material. But here's how I do it. I expect this to be my most controversial post ever.

What I'm Snipping

How I Do It


Entire paragraph

.... at beginning of next paragraph

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness [etc.]

....It was the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five [etc.]

Why I do it: An ellipsis isn't normally used at the beginning of a paragraph, so this usage makes it extremely obvious that something has been left out. An ellipsis at the end of a paragraph can be missed if you're reading in a hurry.

I've been doing this for ten years now, and as near as I can tell not a single other person has adopted my convention. However, this is the sad fate of many unheralded geniuses, and all I can do is persevere.

Entire sentence


Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys' house....This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it.

Phrase or short passage within a sentence


Call me Ishmael. Some years ago [...] having little or no money in my purse [etc.]

One or two words, usually for purely grammatical reasons


Original: My friend Dr. Marc likes to say that Democrats are stupid and that Republicans are evil.

Snippet: Democrats are stupid and [] Republicans are evil.

Words at beginning of sentence

...., but no bracket for capital letters

Original: Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

Snippet:  ....There was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

Why I do it: The ellipsis already indicates that text has been removed, so brackets around the first letter are unnecessary. With the exception of legal texts where absolute precision is paramount, I think using brackets around a single letter (i.e., [T]here) is generally ugly, distracting, and superfluous.

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Top Ten Ignored Religion Stories of 2011

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 1:10 PM EST

Ed Kilgore recommends Peter Laarman's top ten list of ignored stories in the world of religion. I can't say I really understand why I should care that Southern Baptists are apparently becoming more Calvinist (#3 on the list), but even so, this is more interesting than, say, the top ten celeb fashions of 2011 or the top ten Republican hostage taking incidents. And this one certainly deserves a bigger spotlight:

6. Upside-Down Ideas About Religious Liberty

The dramatic new push for religious liberty exemptions for faith-connected providers of taxpayer-supported health services underscores the radical way in which understandings of religious liberty have changed in recent years. It's not that the push for exemptions hasn't made the news; it's that no one is writing (at least in the MSM) about the radical nature of the shift. In the past, the social service arms of religious bodies understood that if they wanted public money they would need to honor public law regarding the disposition of the money: i.e., provide the full range of mandated services on a universal basis. We used to say to objectors, “If you don’t like the mandate, don’t take the money.”

Apparently such a commonsensical response is now insufficiently deferential to religion. More and more people seem willing to say that if a Catholic health care provider doesn’t “believe” in providing reproductive health care to women, that private belief can trump public law. This is a particularly thorny problem because of the many regional health care system mergers involving Catholic partners: there are now many places in the country where, if a dominant provider that toes the bishops’ line won’t provide the service, area women will be out of luck and deprived of benefits they are entitled to receive by law. Does anyone defer to them? Afraid not.

I'm not sure I'd say this has been entirely ignored in the mainstream media, but it certainly gets less attention than it has at some times in the past, despite the fact that it's a problem that's continued to grow and continued to expand. A decade ago it was mostly restricted to abortion services, but since then its tentacles have spread to just about anything that religious conservatives simply don't like very much. It's also one of those things that can be strongly influenced by executive orders, which means it depends a lot on who happens to be president. Just another reason to care about what happens next November.

Boring Investment Advice for the New Year

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 12:41 PM EST

If you have money to invest, the most important thing you can do is pay off your credit cards and any other high-interest loans you might have. But if you've done that, then you have to decide what to do with the money you have left over. Felix Salmon recommends that you follow Henry Blodget's advice, which is conceptually simple:

  • Invest in a diversified portfolio of low-cost index funds
  • Rebalance automatically when the allocations get out of whack

Now, Felix complains that rebalancing is harder than it should be, and he's right. At the same time, it's not that hard. For most of us, it's really not important to rebalance more than once a year at most, and it's not as if you have to get your balancing perfect to three decimal places. If you've decided, for example, that you want to be invested 50% in stocks and 50% in bonds, and at the end of the year you're 55% stocks and 45% bonds, don't worry about it. That's close enough. If it gets farther out of whack at the end of the next year, then move some money around. Choose a round number that gets you close to your target and you're done. This doesn't have to be a constant battle.

Does this sound a little too cavalier? It's not. After all, how sure are you about your targets in the first place? Did you really have a compelling reason to choose 50/50? Or could it have been 60/40 if a few neurons had fired differently on the day you decided this? The fact is that there's just a lot of inherent slop in this stuff for us non-experts.

Of course, this gets a little harder if you have enough money that you want to diversify into half a dozen different funds and your targets are a little more complicated. But if you have that much money, you can probably also afford to pay someone to watch it more carefully for you. For most of us, simpler is better. You're way better off with a simple plan that gets you 80% of what you want than a complex plan that gets you 95% of what you want. That's because (a) that 95% figure is a mirage anyway, and (b) unless you're anal retentive and actively like fiddling with numbers, you're a lot more likely to actually follow the simpler plan. And any plan you follow is better than a plan you don't.

The Slippery Slope of Drone Warfare

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 12:15 PM EST

Greg Miller has a long piece in the Washington Post today about the meteoric growth of America's drone program under the Obama administration. It's well worth reading, largely because it so seldom gets any serious discussion aside from periodic spasms of attention when some foreign government complains that a bunch of civilians have been killed by a drone attack. That attention is fleeting, though, because drones have also been responsible for decimating the al-Qaeda network in the Middle East:

Those results, delivered with unprecedented precision from aircraft that put no American pilots at risk, may help explain why the drone campaign has never attracted as much scrutiny as the detention or interrogation programs of the George W. Bush era. Although human rights advocates and others are increasingly critical of the drone program, the level of public debate remains muted.

Senior Democrats barely blink at the idea that a president from their party has assembled such a highly efficient machine for the targeted killing of suspected terrorists. It is a measure of the extent to which the drone campaign has become an awkward open secret in Washington that even those inclined to express misgivings can only allude to a program that, officially, they are not allowed to discuss.

....Another reason for the lack of extensive debate is secrecy. The White House has refused to divulge details about the structure of the drone program or, with rare exceptions, who has been killed. White House and CIA officials declined to speak for attribution for this article.

The two bolded passages have long struck me as key, underdiscussed issues. I remain convinced that manned fighters would attract far more attention than drones, and we've allowed ourselves to be lulled into indifference simply because of the video game nature of the drone program. This is reinforced by the fact that there's essentially no partisan opposition any longer. Republicans are in favor of anything that kills more bad guys, regardless of collateral damage, and Democrats are unwilling to make trouble for a president of their own party. Put those two things together, and drones have become stealth weapons both politically and technologically.

The truth is that I'm not sure what to think of all this. The bulk of the U.S. drone program has been in Afghanistan, where we're fighting a declared war, and in Pakistan and Yemen, where drone strikes are carried out with the cooperation of the host country. (Though that may finally be ending in Pakistan.) But I wonder how long that will last. Somalia is next on the list, and an administration official tells Miller that it's an inviting target not because the host government would cooperate, but because there’s basically no host government to worry about. That's one more step along a slippery slope to simply using drones wherever we want because nobody is really paying much attention. That's not a slope we should be happy to slide down.

RomneyBot Upgraded for Iowa Primary

| Wed Dec. 28, 2011 11:27 AM EST

The New York Times reviews Mitt Romney 2.0 today in much the same way you'd review a new version of an iPad or an update of Microsoft Word. Verdict: He's layered a slightly retooled UI onto the same old chassis, and it's an awkward fit. The man can't make small talk, tosses weird wonkery around whether it's appropriate or not, and doesn't seem to quite understand the concept of humor. Occasionally, though, I think this serves him well:

A few moments later, a voter named David Rivers asked Mr. Romney whether there would be place for Mr. Paul, a Texas congressman, in a Romney White House. Mr. Romney treated the question as a joke, letting out a laugh and walking on by.

“I was actually kind of serious,” Mr. Rivers said in an interview afterward.

Seriously, what the hell can you say to something like that? I'm thinking of making him ambassador to Mars? Really, a nervous chuckle and a quick getaway was the only decent response.