Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for June 2011

Greece, at the Keynesian Endpoint

Smart money says Greece will calm down in a week or so.

Europe and its respective banks will come up with some kind of delay tactic and push the day of reckoning back a month or two.

I can’t imagine what this compromise will be, but these guys have gotten so good at hiding consequences and shifting money around, only a fool would bet against them.

They can push it back for another month or another year, but eventually something will have to be done about Greek debt. The banks, the governments, the creditors, and the politicians involved will come up with some kind of solution and that solution will become the model for all the toppling dominoes that come after.

The reckoning will be slow but inevitable. The welfare states of Europe have finally reached the Keynesian Endpoint. These economies are so screwed up, so crippled by waste and malinvestment, the amount of stimulus required to sustain the bubble is greater than the amount these nations are able to borrow.

Libertarians have stumbled over this for decades because we always expect the collapse too soon. We see the fundamental contradictions in these economic models and say, “Well, that won’t last.”

Libertarians have been predicting the failure of the Euro since 1999. The model is fundamentally unsound, but they’ve held it together for a decade, and if they can figure out a way to kick the PIIGS out, they may hold on for a decade more.

Consider the Soviet Union. Mises knew the experiment was doomed in 1921, but it took 70 years for the contradictions to catch up with reality. In that time the Soviet Union used force, fear, nuclear brinksmanship and sheer weight of numbers to become a worldwide superpower. The flaws in the system were evident from day one, but they kept the plates spinning for a lifetime.

People wasted their whole lives waiting for this impossible system to break down, and when it finally did, no one was more surprised than the economists.

The modern welfare state isn’t quite as old as Communism, and mixed socialism isn’t nearly as fragile as the real thing. Our prices may be insane but we still have them.

This Greek thing may fizzle in a few days, or we may be facing a full-on Berlin Wall moment, as the contradictions inherent in the welfare state finally become too obvious to ignore.

Greece was the birthplace of democracy, and it may be the place where democracy starts to die. What happens when people take to the streets demanding the impossible? Ask any ten people on that street today and I’ll bet eight of them believe that things can go on just as they are, if the people just want it enough.

There’s no fundamental problem here, the politicians just aren’t listening to us. We don’t need tax hikes, we don’t need spending cuts, we just need to elect a group of politicians who will stand up and say, “No! Screw your austerity measures! We’re going to keep things just the way they are.”

France and Germany will throw up their hands and say, “We give up! The Greek people have spoken! Give them the credit card back.”

But that’s not going to happen. That’s what these rioters don’t understand. They still think this is a political problem. But we have stepped beyond the bounds of politics and entered the realm of finance. The Greek voters can vote any crazy shit they want on each other, but they can’t make France and Germany give them money.

They can’t force the bond market to pretend they have good credit when they don’t. All they can do is default, or leave the EU entirely. Sounds fun, but the moment they do that, Greece becomes a third world country again.

Imagine what the world must look like to these Greek politicians. For decades politics has been an awesome job. All you had to do was get elected and hand out money all day. All you had to do was sit at your desk and write checks from an infinite pool of money. Go home for brandy and a cigar and spend all night thinking up new ways to say “Yes!”

But then somebody pulled the credit card. Goldman Sachs is on the phone telling you you have to say No. Not only can you not hand out new money, you have to go back to your constituents and ask for most of it back!

You made promises based on somebody else’s credit, and that credit has just run out.

(I suspect politics will be a lot less fun now that the default answer has shifted from “Yes!” to “No!” And it’s going to be a lot harder to find people to run for office now that the job has changed. How will we know when politicians have finally accepted reality? Expect resignations, lots and lots of resignations.)

This is the real lesson we’re about to learn from Greece. Who really controls a democratic country — the people in the streets, or the guys who hold the credit card?

The citizens can riot, I suppose, but I’m afraid these protests are going to look a lot like Egypt. You can’t stage a revolution from the Middle Class. Send out the police, bust a few heads, spread some tear gas around, and these guys will go straight back to their homes. The people who protest for more welfare aren’t the kind of people who start revolutions.

They’ll kick out the old politicians, but the new ones won’t be any better. The new guys can promise whatever they want on the campaign trail, but they can’t make the money come back. Voters will elect people who say they can make the money come back, but none of them actually can.

Say it with me, “When it finally comes time to cut spending, it won’t matter who the president is.”

And that is life at the Keynesian Endpoint. What happens when voters demand the impossible? In the old days this would be simple. Germany and France would demand repayment of their debt and if the Greeks didn’t cough it up, the bigger countries would invade.

Good old-fashioned military conquest. How many of our wars have actually been large-scale debt collections? (Most of them? All of them? I’d look it up but I’m not sure I could sleep tonight.)

Military conquest isn’t really a “thing” anymore. I suspect we’ll end up with some European Union “supervisors” sent over to “help the Greek transition” to austerity. They’ll have bodyguards, of course. And politicians that oppose them, well, I’ll be very interested to see what happens to them.

This is all just a Greek thing, of course, an isolated scenario that has no bearing on Spain, Ireland, Italy, or Portugal.

And it certainly has no relevance for the United States. We don’t need any pushy foreign countries buying our debt. We invented a bank to do that for us. Nope, no austerity for us. We’ll just keep adding zeroes to the end of prices until our debt goes away.

We won’t even have to print new money. None of that tacky Zimbabwe shit for us. We do all this on computers now.

Imagine how efficient hyperinflation will be in the age of the Internet. We can change prices as fast as we want and machines will do the math.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 17, 2011 at 01:12

Posted in Politics

Rainn Wilson turns manboy avenger in “Super”

Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in "Super"My generation is obsessed with the idea of bringing comic book heroes into the adult world, forever trying to mix childhood power fantasies with adult realism.

GenX moviegoers are themselves a curious mix of light and dark. On one hand, we long to lose ourselves in fantasy, immersing ourselves in films like “Avatar” and “Lord of the Rings.” While on the other, we revel in darkness and depravity, struggling to redeem dark themes and anti-heroes with touches of absurdity and humor.

I’d say Quentin Tarantino is the ultimate GenX filmmaker. “Pulp Fiction” is a perfect mix of light and dark — adult sleaze delivered in a candy coating of pop culture and noir clich├ęs.

Super” is another attempt to mix comic book idealism with real world angst. When Frank D’Arbo’s wife leaves him for a smooth-talking drug dealer, he decides to find a comic book solution to his real world problem.

Inspired by a TV hero named “The Holy Avenger” (played by an awkward, dreamlike Nathan Fillion) Frank decides to sew a costume and become “The Crimson Bolt.”

Anyone who tried this in real life would quickly become The Crimson Stain, but this isn’t a genre tribute like “Kick Ass.” This is a surreal fairy tale about loss and desperation, told through the eyes of an emotionally-shattered beta male.

The film is hard to love because it can never quite decide what kind of film it is. It’s too serious to be funny and too funny to be taken seriously.

“Kick Ass” tried the same trick and succeeded only because it abandoned realism in the third act and went full comic book for the finale.

“Super” never goes full-on superhero, it’s just mildly improbable throughout. Frank suffers random beatings and gunshot wounds, only becoming bulletproof for the triumphant (and disturbing) finale.

The film has its own kind of integrity because Frank really is mentally ill. He spends the whole movie walking the line between heroism and sociopathy, proving that every Batman must have a little Joker in him as well.

This is particularly well done in the film’s finale, when Frank does “the right thing” in a very bad guy way. A tonal failure if you’re trying to appeal to a GenX audience, but wicked fun if you’re trying to provoke them.

“Super” is constantly pushing and pulling on our expectations, veering wildly between slapstick comedy and buzzkilling gore. Most superhero films pander to the audience. This one seems calculated to provoke them.

The most provocative element for me was how the film used Ellen Page. Libby starts out as a screenwriter’s fantasy, an emotionally-retarded geek girl who works in a comic book store. If they’d cast a plainer actress it might have worked, but Page is way too hot for the role.

This is a shame because her performance was amazing. Libby is exactly the kind of thrill-seeking comic book geek who would fall for Frank, but Page is so pretty her looks seemed to be fighting against her dialog.

Wilson hits a dozen strong emotional notes in the film, but his treatment of Libby was my favorite bit. He insisted on treating her like a kid sidekick, while the audience was seeing a young woman.

In this sense, Frank’s mental illness gives him a kind of purity. He’s not merely pretending or lying to himself. He’s so in love with his wife, so blinded by religious conviction, so committed to his own insane course of action, he can’t see Libby as an adult, even when she forces the issue.

“Super” gives us one of the hottest cosplay seduction scenes ever filmed and then ruins it, almost immediately, with a terrible scene of realistic violence.

The scenes are framed so you can’t remember one without the other, so your brain gets stuck in a quantum state, constantly switching back and forth between brutal realism and sexy costumed fun.

I think this is the real point of “Super.” The film isn’t trying to teach us or entertain us; it’s trying to confuse us, to screw with our expectations and intentionally dredge up conflicting emotions.

This isn’t a dark morality tale or a costumed romp. It’s a little bit of both, swirled in a bowl but never quite mixing together.

I can’t say I enjoyed “Super” but I’m going to remember it. I’ll remember the sharp cuts between fantasy and realism, and I’ll remember the angry, queasy feeling it left me with, as I tried to fit the story into a clean narrative box.

“Super” was funny, dark, violent and confusing. With any other film those shifts in tone would be a kind of failure, but with “Super” I think they were the whole point.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 5, 2011 at 02:27

Posted in Comics, Culture, Movies

A Tribute to James Royal Berry (1967-1999)

Royal Berry should have turned 44 yesterday, but we lost him at 31.

I can’t say we were close friends, but he left such an impression on me, I feel like there should be something on the Internet to mark his passing, something more than a formal obituary.

An obituary can’t capture the best things about Royal because Royal was a geek — one of the most brilliant, creative, hardworking examples of geekdom I have ever seen.

Royal was a whirling dervish of creative energy. He had that indefinable “thing” that turns men into entrepreneurs and captains of industry. He had the essential courage of a small businessman, the fierce desire to try new things and make money on his own terms.

In the late ’80s he made a BBS game called “The Pit” — one of the first BBS games to feature color graphics and PVP combat. In Lubbock I believe it was THE first, based on a highly addictive gladiatorial arena model. I did some writing for Royal, back in the day, and I frequently wish I could go back and do it better.

I was a bit in awe of Royal back then, but I didn’t really understand him, and I didn’t know enough about video games to really understand what he needed.

The world had just discovered “Doom” and “Castle Wolfenstein.” Royal was experimenting with 3-D graphics, grappling with concepts that were a decade away from mainstream popularity.

Royal was always a bit ahead of his time, and we lost him right before the world got interesting. I can only imagine what he would have done with iPads, smart phones and an app store full of mobile games.

Royal was also my first Game Master — the guy who took me through my first dungeon crawls and taught me the unique mix of discipline and storytelling that makes a good DM.

That’s what I remember most — the incredible wit and energy that Royal brought to gaming. He brought characters to life and ruled the table with an iron fist. As Dungeon Master he was wicked and merciless and terrifying. I liked to run soft, cooperative games that coddled players and fudged things in their favor.

Royal was my opposite — random, heartless and utterly unpredictable. He never cheated, he never fudged, and he was never blatantly cruel, but he was as impartial and uncaring as the big bad world itself.

He inspired genuine respect and genuine fear as we huddled around the table, knowing our characters could die at any moment, at the mercy of rules and dice.

I admired Royal as a programmer and an entrepreneur, but looking back, what I miss most is having him at the head of that table, performing for a crowd of happy gamers — juggling six different kinds of intrigue, intercepting secret notes, and unleashing plot twists that kept us all on the edge of our seats.

One of my favorite memories from high school was a roleplaying “duel” we fought to settle a bet between two groups of rival gamers. We built it up like the Superbowl and spent weeks trash talking each other beforehand.

We planned an epic battle between a dozen characters and “hired” Royal to adjudicate. This is my favorite memory of Royal because we really did treat him like a Judge. This was a fight between two camps of mortal enemies but there was one thing we could all agree on — we knew we could trust Royal Berry to handle it right.

We didn’t use the word “integrity” back then, but we knew even in this silly context that James R. Berry was a man of honor.

I wish I had known him better. If I’d been a little less intimated by him, we could have been better friends.

The world will remember James Berry as a programmer, an entrepreneur and an online gaming pioneer, but I miss Royal the trickster, Royal the storyteller, Royal the entertainer — cracking jokes and rolling dice with a twinkle in his eye.

Happy birthday, Royal. We miss you.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 2, 2011 at 11:45

Posted in Best Of