Friday, August 30, 2013

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES: A FILM COMMENTARY

By Ronald Fox

Best Years of Our Lives

Occasionally Phronesis will offer film commentaries. Though we are not film critics, sometimes a film with a strong political message may inspire a commentary. Such is the case with the 1947 film, The Best Years of Our Lives. I’ve seen this film many times before, but only after watching it again recently did I come to fully appreciate what a great and enduring film it is. This isn’t just my opinion, as the film won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, and earned as astonishing, for the time, $11 million.

Best Years tells the story of three soldiers returning to the same town from World War II: Captain Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews), an Army Air Force bombardier, Army sergeant Al Stephenson (played by Fredric March), and Homer Parish (played by Harold Russell), who was in the navy. Each is gripped with fear and uncertainties about returning to “normalcy.” Fred returns to a beautiful wife (Virginia Mayo) who has been working in clubs while he was away, Al to a loving wife and family and position in a bank, and Homer to his family and fiancé. Each, however, has been scarred by the war. Fred has recurring nightmares about his bombing missions. Al has taken to drinking, and Homer has lost his hands in an explosion on ship and now has two hooks for hands. Their chance meeting after the war turns into a close friendship and a sharing of their respective post-war difficulties.
 
The film centers on the struggles of Fred, Al and Homer trying to readjust to civilian life. Fred has difficulty finding work because his skills, “killing Japs,” are not relevant to a new workplace environment that now places a premium on education, training, specialized skills, and experience. He can’t please his party-animal wife, whom he finds has developed a taste for the good life, and, other men.

Al returns to his family and job at the bank, but he is uneasy re-connecting emotionally with his faithful wife (Myrna Loy), nor his son, who doesn’t seem to appreciate the war relics he brought home and pesters him with questions about Hiroshima and atomic energy, which his high school teacher had told him needs to be controlled, “or else.” At the bank, Al discovers it has adopted a policy of requiring collateral before granting loans, something most of his fellow returning soldiers lack. He is pressured to deny loans to veterans whom he believes are of strong character and can be trusted to repay.

Homer’s fiancé and parents are uneasy with his disfigurement, though they try hard not to show it. All three are returning to an America they find cold, unwelcoming, and less optimistic about the future. They all feel like misfits, unneeded relics of the past, a point that was powerfully illustrated in a scene near the end of the movie when Fred is strolling through a junkyard of dismantled B-17s, the planes he flew during the war. Like Fred, they had served their purpose, but were now unfit for the new era.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Response To "Anonymous" Regarding Reagan and Contemporary Republicans

By Ronald Fox



I received the following comment from "anonymous" on my posting on Reagan and contemporary Republicans:

“I have heard in the past that it was actually Gorbachev who proposed dismantling all nukes (?) Jeb Bush offered some similar thoughts; stating that neither Reagan nor his father could earn the GOP presidential nomination in today's world. Sad. On the other hand, could a moderate Democrat like Bill Clinton get his party's nod in today's world? I have my doubts.”

Below is my response to what he/she had heard about who proposed dismantling all nukes:

Thanks for your response. I’m not surprised you’ve heard that it was actually Gorbachev who proposed the total elimination of all nuclear weapons. Many people continue to believe, including those who like and dislike Reagan, that he was manipulated by Gorbachev when they met in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October of 1986 into agreeing to abolish all nuclear weapons. The naïve, idealist Reagan was simply no match for the knowledgeable and sophisticated Gorbachev, who led him along like a dog on a leash. It has been said that Reagan really didn’t fully understand the magnitude of what he almost agreed to do. The historical record, however, does not support the view that Reagan was an unwitting bystander in the abolition drama, or that Gorbachev was the driving force behind the proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Below is the true story.  (For an in depth account of what occurred in Reykjavik, I strongly recommend Jonathan Shell’s, The Seventh Decade.)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

RONALD REAGAN AND CONTEMPORARY REPUBLICANS

By Ronald Fox


Among Republican faithful, Ronald Reagan is, “The Man,” wise, omniscient, inspiring, infallible, an ideologically pure, true believer in conservative principles; the founder of modern conservatism. What Republican candidate for high office wouldn’t want to invoke the Reagan name as his guiding light? Referring to oneself as a Reagan Republican is often all that is needed to establish conservative credentials. But, what does it mean to be a Reagan Republican? Would Ronald Reagan, himself, fit in with today's Republican mainstream?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

F-35 COST EXPLODES: BUSINESS AS USUAL AT THE PENTAGON

By Ronald Fox


My skeptical juices rose when Lt. General Christopher Bognan, Program Manager for the Air Force and Navy’s F-35 fighter aircraft, proudly announced recently that unit cost for the F-35 “continues to come down” and will likely settle in at about $85 million per plane when in full production. His optimistic prediction of reduced unit cost was echoed by Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel in Congressional testimony. The Navy’s commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, Vice Admiral David Dunaway, chimed in that the F-35 was a “fairly mature air vehicle,” suggesting that most of its bugs had been worked out.  The GAO also gave the F-35 (there are differing Air Force and Navy versions) a thumb up for progress, as did the DOD in its most recent Selected Acquisition Report (SAR). The cost savings and good performance news are supposed to result from economies of scale in larger production runs as well as the "learning curve" that comes from experience.  Isn’t it good to hear that our tax dollars are being well and carefully spent? Or are they?

In a recent report, the Center for Defense Information (CDI) exposes such optimistic assessments as pure fiction. Unit costs doubled from $81 million in 2001 to $161 million in 2012, and are estimated by the CDI to be, on average, $219.3 million in 2014 (higher for the Navy version). The boast by General Bogdan that the cost per aircraft will decline to $85 million in 2018 stretches credulity to the limit. The real question, according to the CDI, is how much more they will cost than the projected $219+ million for 2014. Nor is there any evidence to conclude that the F-35 is a “mature airplane,” implying  that it has been thoroughly tested and is on course to be put into operation in the near future. In fact, the aircraft is less than half way through its developmental flight testing, which when completed will have assessed only 17% of its capabilities. The more important and rigorous battlefield testing will not start until 2018, meaning that no meaningful appraisal of its performance can be made until after that testing is completed and reported.

AMERICA’S EXTREME PARTISAN DIVIDE: PART I

By Ronald Fox


I grew up politically, meaning I developed my political consciousness, in the turbulent 1960s. This experience, along with values inculcated in my early family life, left an expansive progressive mark on my political ideology. In those formative years, I frequently stood on principle, or so I positively labeled it; more correctly, I was an impatient idealist who saw compromise with progressive principles an ultimate sin. Neither Republicans nor Democrats appealed to me: the former being hopelessly out of touch with, and callously insensitive to, the struggles of poor and minority peoples, and the latter timid and overly willing to compromise progressive values. But compromise they did, enough to form bipartisan coalitions that moved many pieces of landmark laws on such important issues as civil, voter and labor rights, consumer and environmental protection, and medical care for the poor and aged. Nevertheless, entrenched in my dogmatism I derided the unholy alliances that produced legislation that fell short of my principles and expectations, and took special pleasure in lambasting the Democrats for selling out.

As I grew older, and more cognizant of political realities and possibilities, I became more comfortable with half-loaf compromises. Rather than seeing compromise as evil, a sellout to principle, I began to see them as a necessary condition for effective governing. Such is political maturity, I suppose. Like many others, I took compromise for granted. This is simply what legislators necessarily do, or should do: fight it out on principle and policy, but in the end, find common ground. Oh how things have changed. The gulf between Republicans and Democrats today is deeper and more rigid than I can remember. Both parties seem to believe that the opposing party is always wrong; facts are irrelevant, or just something to be manipulated for partisan gain. Compromise, is a dirty word to today’s extreme partisans. Policy positions aren’t seriously debated; partisan advantage, not problem-solving, is the driving ethos. A discourse that was once relatively civil has become as vehemently adversarial as the European parliamentary parties I once found humorous. Governing in America has become hopelessly gridlocked in a sea of partisan vitriol, a gridlock that has strangled the capacity of our government to address urgent matters and undermined public faith and trust in our political institutions. This is a recipe for disaster.


AMERICA’S EXTREME PARTISAN DIVIDE: PART II

By Ronald Fox


In this second part of my essay on the partisan divide, I will discuss several factors I believe have contributed to America’s extreme polarization, beginning with those most frequently mentioned and ending with what evidence points to is the most important causal factor.

Gerrymandering
It is conventional wisdom, shared amongst politicians, media sorts, and a large segment of the American public that the sharp polarization that plagues American politics is a result of gerrymandering. This is when state legislatures, which in most states are responsible for drawing district boundaries after the decennial census, craft districts that guarantee victory for one party or the other. These so-called “safe districts” dominate our electoral landscape. By making districts more homogeneous and less competitive, it is argued that candidates are consequently freer to take more extreme positions, pandering to their bases while ignoring moderate and independent voters.

Pandering to one’s ideological base has become mandatory; to do otherwise runs the risk of inspiring a spirited and ideologically “purer” primary challenger. So, it is argued, with competition reduced gerrymandered districts reward extreme wings of both parties; moderates are squeezed out and the two parties become more deeply partisan and polarized. In this environment partisanship rigidifies and compromise becomes a taboo. This theory sounds so plausible it is no surprise so many  embrace it. Unfortunately, it is not supported by evidence. Research by Nolan McCarty and other political scientists has shown that gerrymandering has, at best, had only a small effect on polarization.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

GUN REGULATION IN AMERICA




Most Americans would agree that the U.S. has a problem with guns. I don’t believe I need to cite any statistics to support this statement – the recent horrific shootings in Colorado and Connecticut should be enough for anyone to support a reasoned debate on the issue of gun violence and gun control.
What is the nature of this problem, and how should we as Americans go about solving it? [Full disclosure: I am a gun owner (shotguns). I was in the military where I received rifle training, and I currently belong to a gun club where I enjoy recreational shooting. I used to go bird and rabbit hunting with my father and brother both as a child and an adult. I do not belong to the National Rifle Association.] As described in one of my earlier postings (Wicked Problems), gun violence is a “wicked” problem, meaning that it is connected to other complex problems, so any proposed solution to gun violence can only help us make progress on solving this problem, not actually eliminate it. Efforts to reduce gun violence, such as those currently underway in the Congress and some state legislatures, are unlikely to result in the systemic solution that is needed.

WICKED PROBLEMS



While listening to President Obama’s State of the Union Address last February, I was struck by the long list of problems he wants the country to tackle during his second term. It is clear that the United States faces many daunting and even dangerous challenges, and it was heartening to see Obama speaking optimistically about both our opportunities and chances of success. Sadly, however, I don’t believe that we will make much progress in solving our biggest problems, no matter how hard the President, Congress, and others try. This is because our country faces a large number of “wicked problems.”

A wicked problem is a social problem that is difficult if not impossible to solve because of incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of different interests and perspectives involved, and the problem’s interconnectedness to other problems. Horst Rittel, one of the first to formalize a theory of wicked problems, cites ten characteristics of these complicated social issues. When you read them, you get the sense that no governing body can solve the kinds of problems mentioned in the State of the Union Address: gun violence, immigration, unemployment, war, international cooperation, and so on. But yet wicked problems are the very problems we need to solve, or at least mitigate, if we want to enjoy our future rather than merely survive it.

DOES THE U.S. NEED A MINIMUM WAGE?


Once more we are witnessing displeasure with the minimum wage. Low-wage fast-food and retail workers from eight cities who staged walkouts earlier this year are calling for a national day of strikes on August 29. The workers are calling for a wage of $15 an hour and the right to form a union.

Is a minimum wage good or bad for the U.S. economy? Free-market adherents believe that there should be no minimum wage at all. According to this view, employers should offer wages that cover their marginal costs, and they should only raise wages when it is necessary to attract or retain high-quality workers. Employers should not have to pay their workers an arbitrary minimum wage set by the government. On the other hand, those who believe in the value of a minimum wage argue that employers are obligated to pay wages that afford workers a "decent" living.