Les Miz: One Vulcan’s Perspective

Saw Les Miserables tonight. I commend it to you as a very well-produced piece of cinema. Top-notch performances, beautiful singing voices (except for Russell Crowe, although he was more adequate than I was led to believe) and a revelation from Ann Hathaway, who demonstrates in a single three-minute shot that she is the most talented actress working in movies today. What other actress can play light comedy a la Princess Diaries, move on to sultry menace in The Dark Knight Rises, and then deliver a performance of unparalleled pathos that dominates a two-and-a-half-hour film long after her character dies? A remarkable talent, that one.

But here’s my problem. As I watched this, I certainly appreciated all the skill and artistry on display, but, inexplicably, I never once found myself emotionally invested in the goings on. As Ann Hathaway delivered her stunning star turn, all I could think was, “Golly, that Ann Hathaway, she’s really, really good at this.” I never once thought, “Oh, Fontine! Your suffering moves me so! Does anyone have a hankie?”

I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with me. I think I’m part Vulcan.

I was an actor once. I grew up immersed in musical theatre, so it surprises me how little patience I now have for it. I always find myself deconstructing it while it’s happening. I ask myself if these people know they’re singing. Do they live in a universe where orchestral music rises up out of the ether to accompany their swelling emotions? If they were to meet each other in the street the next day, would they say, “Remember when you sang that song of undying love to me?” Or would they just sing a new song, or reprise the old one? Do they sing while they brush their teeth? It’s such a strangely artificial world these people live in, and it bears only a passing resemblance to mine.

It’s also something that’s much easier to accept on a stage than it is on a screen.

Theatre, by its very nature, is already artificial, and it requires greater suspension of disbelief. The flip side to that, though, is that living human beings are in the same room with you sharing the story, which gives live theatre an immediacy and a power that is impossible to replicate on film. Ann Hathaway was amazing, yes, but her work was done on this project months and months ago. She’s moved on. I’m willing to forgive a multitude of sins against reality when I’m sharing the experience with real performers in real time. I’m even able to figure out a way to overlook that musicians stand ready to accompany their every thought.

In a movie like this one, though, that becomes a much harder hurdle for me to overcome. The choice to film the vocals live instead of pre-recording everything was probably the right one, but it only served to remind me how weird it was that these people were singing to each other instead of speaking. Everything on screen looks startlingly real – people are dirty, they have bad teeth, and when Jean Valjean carries Marius through the sewers, he’s covered in what looks like very real crap. And in the midst of all that reality, they’re singing rhyming couplets to each other? How does that work? I just couldn’t get past that.

It’s not just the music, though. It’s also the melodrama. I don’t swoon anymore when two young strangers glance at each other in the street for ten seconds fall madly in love and would rather die than be parted. That’s just kind of stupid. What happens when she finds out he snores and he finds out she farts in bed?

I also find it too convenient that this handful of characters improbably intersect their lives with each other in ways that tie all their experiences up in tidy little bows by the end. To cite just one example, the Thenardiers, who have already shared several life-altering encounters with Valjean, just happen to stumble on the guy one more time in the sewers, and then they show up at Marius’ wedding and confess the precise bit of information that resolves every major conflict in the show? Boy, that’s handy! This tale is replete with such unlikely coincidences, and when you pile them on top of the ethereal orchestra, it just makes it very hard for me to care.

That said, I can get fully invested in superhero movies where people turn green and grow three feet every time they get angry, or space operas where fat old men in toupees save the universe, or anything with hobbits. (I need to write a review of The Hobbit. Short take on it: I loved it, despite the fact that it was clearly padded with filler. I even loved the filler.) So I can be moved by things that are wildly out of sync with reality. My problem is musicals, I guess. Except I loved The Muppets, which was a musical. But it knew it was a musical and didn’t take itself seriously at all. So maybe that’s the problem. Except I love The Sound of Music to death, and it takes itself very, very seriously. So maybe my problem is just with Les Miz. Except I just saw it at the Utah Shakespearean Festival this past summer and really dug it.

So, to sum up, I’m sorry I’ve wasted your time. I have no overarching conclusion here that would make my opinion on this subject consistent at all. I just watched a tremendously well-produced piece of entertainment and came away utterly unmoved. I had hoped that writing this would help me understand why, but, alas, I remain a mystery to myself.

Maybe there’s a song in that…

Do the Facts Matter?

I graduated from the University of Southern California in 1993. The year before, final exams were canceled because the school couldn’t guarantee the safety of its students in the midst of the Rodney King riots. My friends and I holed up in my aunt and uncle’s house in Bel Air for three days as we watched the city burn on television.

During my senior year at SC, I lived in a house on the corner of Hoover and 32nd Street, an area where armed gang members outnumber armed policemen by a ratio of 20 to 1. The sound of gunfire was a nightly occurrence, and I remember the one night I actually saw the sound of the blasts accompanied by tiny little flecks of light right outside my window. I realized that that gun held at a slightly different angle would’ve put me directly in the path of those bullets. A sobering moment, indeed.

A fellow student told me she used to call the police every time she heard gunshots. Finally, the officer on duty one night said to her, “Look, don’t you know where you are? Call me when you find a body.”

Still, despite the obvious dangers, I did not own a gun personally, nor did I have any desire to do so. A guy like me who spends an average of 30 minutes a day looking for his keys isn’t the kind of dude you want to entrust with an object designed to kill people. I don’t like guns. If banning them would prevent or even decrease the incidence of carnage and murder, I’d be the first in line to make it happen, Second Amendment be damned.

So when one monster after another unleashes hell on earth and slaughters innocents, I find myself very uncomfortable defending gun rights. Unfortunately, the facts don’t leave me any other choice.

A 2007 research study conducted at Harvard University, hardly the center of the right-wing conspiracy, concluded that most popular assumptions about the correlation between gun availability and gun violence are predicated on false premises. From the study:

There is a compound assertion that (a) guns are uniquely available in the United States compared with other modern developed nations, which is why (b) the United States has by far the highest murder rate. Though these assertions have been endlessly repeated, statement (b) is, in fact, false and statement (a) is substantially so.

The researchers conclude that there is a correlation between gun ownership and murder, but it’s precisely the opposite of what the conventional wisdom would have you believe. Where gun ownership increases, violence and murder decrease. It seems those who are stymied by gun laws are not the ones who willfully slaughter children. In addition, monsters tend to thrive in so-called “gun-free zones” because they know they will not encounter any opposition from the law-abiding.

My brother-in-law wrote a column on this subject in today’s Deseret News. I quote him at length:

I am not a gun owner or a hunter, but I have friends who are members of the American gun culture in good standing. These are people who gleefully take a buck home every season, raise their children to use firearms, own handguns for self-defense and pledge symbolic allegiance to the Second Amendment and an armed citizenry ready to violently resist tyranny. They have been raised in a world of guns, and they live in a world of guns.

These also are not the kind of people who start shooting innocent children, nor does their culture encourage such things. They imagine the gun owner as a defender of the weak and a provider for the family. They do not exalt the nihilistic tough guy mowing down innocents with automatic weapons. The soil from which that cultural image springs lies elsewhere.

All of this is true, but none of it is emotionally satisfying. We all saw horror, and we all want the horror squashed, destroyed, and vanquished forever. That’s why banning guns feels good. It feels like it will make guns go away and save lives. But feelings aren’t facts. Gun bans don’t save lives. They exacerbate the very problem they are designed to solve.

I wish it were otherwise. But it isn’t. Shouldn’t that make a difference in how we approach this problem?

Defending Nu Trek

First off, I still think the villain is going to be Gary Mitchell, but yes, I’m hedging my bets here. On Facebook, a friend asked if I was as confident about this prediction as I had been about Romney.

Ouch.

The answer is no – I was much more confident, and much more wrong, about Romney. So if it’s not Gary Mitchell, then let it be known that I acknowledged that possibility here and now. But I still think it’s Mitchell. In Nate Silver terms, I think there’s a 74% probability of Mitchellness.

I’m already wrong on one score, though.

I had anticipated that the first nine minutes being shown in front of The Hobbit would be a retelling of “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” It isn’t. Reviews have started to come in with regard to the first nine minutes, and they describe a totally different scene that seems to encompass most of what we’ve seen in the teaser. There’s the volcano stuff, the leap off the cliff on the red ivy world, and the Enterprise coming up out of the water. There’s also a scene where Mitchell – sorry, Cumberbatch’s character, whose identity still isn’t revealed – shows up at a London hospital wearing a Starfleet uniform and promising he has the godlike power to cure some guy’s daughter. They ask him point blank who he is, and they – and we – don’t get an answer. But it rules out several candidates.

Does Khan have the power to heal people’s daughters? No. Talosians? Horta? No. Garth of Izar? Not likely. Trelane? Maybe, but this isn’t his style. Some other names being bandied about – Charlie X? He would have the capacity, but, again, the Starfleet/Kirk connection doesn’t work. Soran? No. Sybok? No. Harry Mudd? Please. Shinzon or Picard? Please, no.

Mitchell could do it, though. Mitchell thinks he’s God. And thus I still think it’s Mitchell. (Modifying my prediction to 73.8% likely Mitchellality.) They’ll have to introduce some kind of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” flashback to make it work, though, much like the first movie retold the whole “Countdown” comics storyline in Old Spock’s flashback. I thought that would happen at the beginning, but, again, I was wrong. Very wrong. Very, very wrong indeed. Those of you coming to this blog expecting rightness will be very sorely disappointed, but only in terms of politics and everything else.

A few thoughts in defense of this movie. My Esteemed Colleague, who I have gratuitously mentioned a number of times, took to Facebook and shredded the trailer. I quote his curmudgeonly assessment as follows, with some minor blatant and arbitrary censorship:

Just saw the trailer for that counterfeit that is blasphemously calling itself a new star trek movie. Abrams is a %$#@ing joke who doesn’t understand Star Trek in the least, and has no clue what Roddenberry was about. It looks %$#@ing awful. Awful, awful, awful. Seriously — why are they out to massacre Star Trek? Star Trek is not about “action”. It’s about cerebral utopia. I don’t want to see some g-d-ed version of Independence Day. They aren’t even wearing their uniforms in this trailer. This sucks ass.

Maybe I should have taken the word “ass” out. But I didn’t. It’s biblical – deal with it.

Again, my recent track record on predictions has shaken my confidence, so I can’t, in all certainty, say that My Esteemed Colleague has gotten it wrong here. The movie may very well suck. I don’t think it will, however, as I don’t think the previous film sucked, nor do I think the film defiled Star Trek in the same way that the Ron Moore Battlestar Galactica remake is GINO – i.e. Galactica In Name Only. At the time, My Esteemed Colleague seemed to qualifiedly enjoy the film, too, although his estimation of the film may have soured over the years.

But a couple of things stand out in the review. First, the idea that Star Trek is not about “action” strikes me as a skewed observation. It’s only correct in the sense that Trek doesn’t generally focus on action, but the idea that good Trek is devoid of action is not supported by the show’s track record. The original series had as much or more action than any series of its time, and Kirk got in his fair share of roundhouse kicks in his day. True, the action wasn’t generally cosmic in scope, but that was primarily a budgetary problem more than anything else. By the time they got to the big screen, there was action aplenty, particularly in what is unarguably the best piece of Trek ever filmed, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (TWOK). The producers’ biggest regret is that Khan and Kirk, because of budgetary considerations, never got the full-on action, face-to-face confrontation that everybody wanted, but it would be hard to say that such a scene would have detracted from Trek’s utopian vision.

And this is my biggest quibble with My Esteemed Colleague’s assessment. I don’t think good Trek was ever about “cerebral utopia.” I think good Trek -again, TWOK is the template. That movie worked largely because these people weren’t utopian – that even as technology advances, human nature stays essentially unchanged. Kirk still fears aging and death; mortality looms large as sacrifices are made, and vengeance and hatred remain real and destructive. A utopian society that purges all such things may be desirable in practical terms, but, dramatically, it’s really, really boring. That’s one of the reasons, incidentally, why I don’t have much of a desire to revisit many of the Next Generation (TNG) episodes, as Roddenberry’s idea that interpersonal conflict wouldn’t exist in three to four hundred years led to bland, flat, interchangeable characters. Indeed, some of the best of TNG came when they bent or broke those rules – Picard as Ahab in First Contact comes to mind.

Roddenberry’s unadulterated vision of utopia only made it to the screen once – in the debut film of the franchise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was a noble failure with some provocative ideas, but it was a failure, nonetheless. Good Trek has always found a way to incorporate profundities with rock ‘em, sock ‘em adventure. I have no reason to believe this sequel won’t do the same as it takes the Gary Mitchell tragedy and expands it on a wider, cinematic canvas.

I’m right. If you don’t believe me, just ask President-Elect Romney.

UPDATE: Paramount just released this still from the movie.

In the release, they identify the Cumberbatch character as “John Harrison.”

Who’s John Harrison? I don’t know. Certainly not an iconic TOS character, as we were all led to believe. My guess is that John Harrison is an alias, and that Mitchell has transformed himself to be unrecognizable to his old enemies until the big reveal at the climax – a Talia al Ghul sort of thing. Of course, if he is a shapeshifter, then Garth of Izar makes some sense again. This lowers the Mitchell meter to 64.4% likelihood of Mitchelldom.

And is it just me, or are Kirk and “Harrison” wearing Levis?

It’s Gary Mitchell

So the new Star Trek Into Darkness teasers were released today.

Watch and behold.

Now watch and behold the Japanese version, which exactly the same, except for the mind-blowing Wrath of Khan homage in the final shot.

Good stuff, I think. Yet the web is still abuzz as to who the bad guy is.

The answer is that it’s Gary Mitchell.

We’re talking about this guy:

Allow me to elaborate.

Buzz about the bad guy began years ago, and for quite some time, all we had to go on was a statement by an “insider” who said the following:

“It’s definitely a character that will make fans of TOS excited. Think along the lines of Harry Mudd or Trelane or Gary Mitchell or the Talosians or the Horta. Actually it’s one of those that I named.”

That hasn’t stopped people from saying it’s actually Khan, Ricardo Montalban’s iconic TOS villain who was the baddie in what is still unarguably the best piece of Trek ever put to film. Even now, at the Internet Movie Database, Benedict Bumberbatch, who is playing the new baddie, is listed as playing “Khan (rumored),” despite adamant denials by many.

“It’s not Khan,” insists Simon Pegg, AKA Scotty. “That’s a myth. Everyone’s saying it is, but it’s not.”

No, it’s not. It’s Gary Mitchell. Karl Urban, who played Doctor McCoy, let the cat out of the bag in July when he said, “””[Cumberbatch is] awesome, he’s a great addition, and I think his Gary Mitchell is going to be exemplary.” But then the producers, in the same article, denied it was Mitchell. So who is it?

Well, start with the “insider” perspective. If he’s telling the truth, the baddie is either Harry Mudd, a slovenly con man who was never more than comic relief…


Or it’s Trelane, an effete, foppishly omnipotent child who likes to dress up in Napoleanic getups and play the harpsichord…

Or perhaps a Talosian, aliens with cranial issues…


Or maybe a really grumpy Horta, a big lumpy thingee that eats rocks.

None of these fit at all. Mitchell does. It’s Mitchell.

And who is Mitchell?

Fans recall that our pal Gary was the bad guy in the second pilot episode of the original series – he’s an old friend of Kirk’s that gets godlike powers when they pass through the barrier at the edge of the galaxy, and Kirk is forced to kill him. The episode is “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Spock yells a lot in it, and McCoy hadn’t joined the cast yet. And Mitchell makes a grave for his old friend mistakenly labeled “James R. Kirk.”

I recommend a refresher viewing of the episode – it’s really quite good. (I wish I had a link for you. You used to be able to watch it on YouTube, but they took them all down.)

The producers commissioned a series of comic books that they insist are part of the canon and lead up to the movie, and the first two issues were a note-for-note retelling of “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” only with the Chris Pine cast. The story is identical, except they take out Elizabeth Dehner, Mitchell’s love interest, who helped kill Mitchell originally. This time, Spock nerve pinches Mitchell and Kirk shoots him in the chest with a laser, and then they send his coffin into space a la Wrath of Khan. Dehner was played by Sally Kellerman, and she looked an awful lot like the blonde chick in the trailer, with identical blue shirts and hairdos.

They do mention, for no reason at all, that the blonde lady is an old flame of McCoy’s. Seems like foreshadowing to me.

Yeah, really pretty sure the baddie is Mitchell. 

We’ll know officially soon enough. The plan is to release the first nine minutes of this film in IMAX in front of The Hobbit. I’m thinking those nine minutes will be will be the filmed version of the first two issues of the Trek comic the writers commissioned, which constitute a beat-for-beat remake of “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” It will be told all flashbacky and speeded up, condensing the episode into a much shorter time frame, and, because it’s a recap of the second TOS pilot, fans will have no problem with it, and director J.J. Abrams will get credit for respecting his source material.

The writers have gone to great lengths to insist that the comics are part of the Trek canon. If so, why start the comics with a simple remake of the Gary Mitchell plot if it weren’t going to have implications for the movie? It also provides a perfect red herring for the producers, since Mitchell dies in it. “Look! Mitchell is dead! Can’t be him, surely. (Wink, wink.)” Much like Spock’s “death” at the beginning of TWOK during the Kobayashi Maru simulation.

Why leave out Dehner from the comic version, and why mention she’s a McCoy ex? Clearly Denner’s going to show up sometime later – pretty sure that’s her up above.

Also, Spock stops Mitchell with a nerve pinch, which is consistent with the first stills we’ve seen from this production. Behold:

the official synopsis released by Paramount lines up with Mitchell quite well:

When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has detonated the fleet and everything it stands for, leaving our world in a state of crisis. With a personal score to settle, Captain Kirk leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one-man weapon of mass destruction. As our heroes are propelled into an epic chess game of life and death, love will be challenged, friendships will be torn apart, and sacrifices must be made for the only family Kirk has left: his crew.

In the comic, the godlike Mitchell is presumed dead, but since he’s, you know, God, he isn’t dead. He’s just really ticked. He returns. Seeking vengeance on Kirk and Spock, who “killed” him. A one-man weapon of mass destruction. It all fits.

Some say, “it can’t be Mitchell, because Mitchell isn’t British.” To use a British word, that’s rubbish. In this reality, Nero’s machinations somehow moved the Mitchells to England before little Gary showed up. Honestly, the accent is such a minor nitpick – and it’s certainly not Khan’s accent.

Again, Khan makes no sense. Not an inside Starfleet guy; no reason for vengeance on Kirk in this continuity, and repeated, emphatic denials from everyone involved with the movie that Cumberbatch isn’t Khan. The glass scene in the Japanese trailer is clearly an homage to TWOK, but why does that mean Khan has to be the villain? Bond films have homages to earlier Bond films, but the appearance of the Connery-era Aston Martin in Skyfall didn’t mean that Javier Bardem was playing Goldfinger.

There’s more speculation out there. Some say its Soran from Star Trek: Generations. Some say Sybok from Star Trek V. Gack. Soran? Sybok? Villains from the two absolutely worst Trek movies ever made? Really? There are legions of fans who insist the atrocity that is Star Trek V isn’t canon. Who on earth would mine that dungheap for a classic villain?

Garth of Izar from the original series is being talked about, and while you probably have no idea who he is, he’s at least plausible, but he’s hardly godlike and not tied as personally to Kirk as Mitchell is. Given the Mitchell appearances in the comic, they seem to be laying the groundwork for Mitchell, who, as the featured player in the episode that started it all, has a more iconic status and a better revenge motive than Garth.

Some are saying perhaps its Jean-Luc Picard or his baddie clone, Shinzon, from Star Trek: Nemesis. The reason? Cumberbatch sounds a lot like Patrick Stewart. That’s really goofy, it seems to me. In practical terms, it requires a convoluted time travel subplot, and why does Picard or Shinzon need revenge on Kirk? And if it’s Shinzon, why is anyone paying attention to the appalling ST: Nemesis now when they completely ignored it when it was foisted on us ten years ago?

It’s Gary Mitchell. And the fact that I know that and care enough to write over 1,300 words about it in the middle of the night makes me a first class geek.

Economic Bedrock Principles

I’m convinced that the greatest challenges we face as a nation are exacerbated by a woeful ignorance of basic economic principles that is not accompanied by an appropriate uncertainty in expressing economic opinions.

In other words, when it comes to economics, our stupidity has done nothing to undermine our confidence.

For instance, there are those who insist that we can balance the budget by slashing the Defense Department. “Don’t cut entitlements like Social Security and Medicare; cut defense instead!” Well, OK – except we spend three times as much on entitlement programs than we do on defense, and that disparity will continue to grow exponentially as more baby boomers retire. And since our federal budget deficit last year was about $400 billion than the entire defense budget, you can see where, mathematically, it all goes awry. If you completely eliminate the Defense Department – indeed, if you wipe out the entirety of the discretionary federal budget – you will still have a budget deficit if you leave entitlements untouched.

So, that said, I get very frustrated with people who demand I “respect their opinion” when their opinion is objectively, factually incorrect. I don’t respect the opinion of those who think we can balance the budget solely through defense cuts, just like I don’t have any regard for the musings of those who believe 2+2 equals 5, or 2+2 usually equals 4 but sometimes equals 5, or 2+2 equals Bette Davis or Joan Crawford or any other cast member for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.

People can think such things, certainly, but those people are wrong.

Thus I readily concede that there is tremendous room for opinion on economic matters, but such opinions have to be rooted in a common set of facts to earn my respect. This is true in every field of human endeavor. You may have many opinions about the sky, but if you think the sky is pink and not blue, then there’s no point in trying to engage you in discussion about sky-related matters. You’re proceeding from a false assumption that will warp all of your later conclusions, and without an agreed-upon frame of reference, our discussions will be fruitless.

I bring all this up as prelude to a declaration of economic fact, which is as follows:

Taxation stifles economic activity.

Our good friend Paul Krugman and his ilk have gone to great lengths to cite data showing strong economic growth in periods of high taxation, and the not-so-subtle implication is that Republicans and other foul creatures are flat wrong when they acknowledge the undeniable truth that taxation stifles economic activity. Notice that Krugman doesn’t have the chutzpah to openly claim that taxation encourages economic activity. He would never suggest, for instance, that the way to get a small business off the ground is to sic the IRS on it. Instead, he just offers two separate data points – i.e. there was stronger economic growth under Clinton than Bush I, and there were higher taxes under Clinton than Bush I – and allow the ignorant and the gullible to draw a helpfully incorrect conclusion.

But the fact remains that taxation stifles economic activity.

“But, Stallion, how do you explain that the economy grew under Clinton with his higher taxes?” I explain it by saying that taxation is not the only element contributing to – or detracting from – the country’s growth rate. Under Clinton, the Internet unleashed the most powerful burst of economic innovation since the Industrial Revolution, creating a frenzy of economic activity that Bubba’s higher taxes did not have the power to squash.

Would economic growth in the 90s would have been even stronger if the tax rates had been even higher? If taxes had been lower, would that have squelched the dot com bubble? No and no. There’s no way to argue otherwise.

And I can prove it.

An economy is not a closed system, and a myriad of factors come into play in determining whether or not a country will grow. So, for purposes of this experiment, let’s close the system and control for everything but taxes.

I offer you, for sale, two widgets.

Physically, these widgets are identical in every way. Indeed, there is no possible way to distinguish between the two, except the purchase of one includes a paltry 2% sales tax. The other widget will be sold tax-free. Other than the tax, the price is exactly the same. Assuming you are in the market for such widgets, which widget do you buy?

Easy. You buy the less expensive one. You will always buy the less expensive one. And lo and behold, the tax undeniably stifled economic activity. Case closed.

“Not true, Stallion! I might buy the more expensive one.”

You might?

“Sure! Maybe my brother made it, and it has sentimental value. Or maybe I just want to show what an arrogant jerk you are and buy the more expensive one just to prove you wrong. There are a whole number of reasons why I might buy the one with the tax.”

But those reasons prove my point. To pay the higher price, some other factor has to come into play – in this instance, sentiment or spite. If all such factors truly are equal, and you don’t see any possibility of zinging me with your vengeful widgetry, the higher price discourages the sale. Every time. Every single time.

Taxation stifles economic activity.

The question then becomes whether the economy is strong enough to weather such stifling.  (Stiflement?) And that’s a discussion that can produce a plethora of opinions. But if you try to pretend that Republicans are just expressing their opinion when they say taxation stifles economic activity, and your opposite and incorrect opinion is just as valid as their correct one, then you’re simply wrong.

2+2 never equals Bette Davis. Furthermore, I don’t care what kind of eyes she has.

The Parable of the Rolling Stones

In my post about Paul Krugman, I noted that taxes don’t create prosperity. That provoked a response today from a thoughtful commentor named Levi, a reply which included the following observation:

“In 2010 93% of the income gains went to the top 1%.”

I have not done any independent research to confirm this statistic, but I have no reason to doubt its veracity. Setting aside the fact that this has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not taxes create prosperity – they don’t – I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me to express how I feel about that particular disparity and income inequality in general. Fact is, I’m totally cool with it. And here’s why.

Imagine a setting where you and your friend bump into an all-powerful genie who decides to magically set your income for the rest of your lives. But rather than accommodate your wishes, the genie offers two possible scenarios instead. In the first, you would make $100,000 a year, while your friend would make $1 million a year. In the second, both of you would make $40,000 per year.

Which do you choose? Easy. #1. You choose #1.

What? You don’t choose #1? Who in their right mind would choose scenario #2?  In scenario #1, the million made by your friend doesn’t come out of your pocket, so why would you forego 60 grand’s worth of income just to spite him/her? I do not understand that at all. I would much rather have more myself than insist that I and someone else have less just to satisfy some abstract concept of equality. Or is envy strong enough to persuade you to impoverish yourself at your friend’s expense? Again, that makes absolutely no sense to me.

The problem, it seems to me, is that too many people, and, implicitly, our friend Levi here, assume that any excess wealth that the 1% generate is coming out of the pockets of the poor. It isn’t. If income inequality actually were an issue of divvying up a finite pot, then it would definitely be a cause for concern. But the pot isn’t finite, and it’s not a question of divvying; it’s a question as to whether or not there’s going to be a pot at all.

To understand this, consider The Parable of the Rolling Stones.

2012 marks the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary. As they approach their 70th birthdays, the Stones have chosen to commemorate the occasion by performing at a handful of concerts in London and New York and charging an obscene amount of money for the tickets thereto. The end result will be a flurry of economic activity, which will benefit thousands of people, including various ticket vendors, marketers, stadium workers, T-shirt manufacturers, et al, but, most of all, it will greatly benefit four guys named Mick, Keith, Ron, and Charlie, who will likely pocket the lion’s share of all revenue generated, perhaps not 93% of all of it, but certainly close.

In our parable, however, a certain Whiner comes forth to decry the Stones’ greed, insisting that all monies should be distributed equally. Who are we to decide that Mick Jagger should thusly receive such a bounty when the guy selling keychains with Mick’s cartoon lips on them only gets twenty bucks an hour? Inequality, wails the Whiner! And thus the Whiner, along with other champions of fairness, did fashion a financial structure in which the highest and mightiest Rolling Stone received no more remuneration than the lowliest Keychain Vendor. And there was much rejoicing… until there was no more show.

Yes, for it seems that the mightiest of the Rolling Stones decided that it wasn’t worth their time to put on such a splendid spectacle without an accompanying obscenely massive compensation package, and thus they did cancel the concerts and all accompanying economic activity attached thereto. Instead of receiving the hefty compensation promised by the Whiner, the Keychain Vendor did verily receive nothing at all. The Keychain Vendor then longed for the $20 per hour he might have gotten had he not thrown in with the Whiner and stirred the pot, but alas.

And thus did fairness fell financial felicity for Stones, Whiners, and Keychain Vendors alike. Amen.

That’s how it works. That’s how it always works. When fairness becomes the preeminent value, everyone suffers, but at least they suffer equally. The only way to create income equality is to tear down the incomes of the highest earners.

This is true, incidentally, in non-financial fields of human endeavor, too. Is it fair that Lebron James is a much, much better basketball player than I am? No. So how to make us athletically equal? There’s no way to make me as physically capable as Mr. James, so you’d have to make Mr. James considerably less capable, with methods that might include tire irons administered to key body parts. Why would you want to do that? You achieve nothing and destroy much, all in the name of an elusive and unobtainable “fairness” or “equality” that does nothing but diminish.

So back to economics. The goal should not be to make incomes more equal. The goal should be to make all incomes higher and improve everyone’s quality of life. When there’s a way to make the poor richer, then it’s usually worth doing even if it makes the rich a whole lot richer along the way.

By the way, Keith Richards has been dead since 1977 and nobody’s noticed.