Five Best Friday Columns
Michael Phillips on the late Roger Ebert, Michael Lind on Obama's Social Security offer, Aaron Ross Powell on the beneficience of government, Matthew Zeitlin on the promise of Bitcoin, and Irin Carmon on Obama's comments on Kamala Harris.
Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune on the late, great Roger Ebert Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert, who died yesterday at the age of 70, "saw, and felt, and described the movies more effectively, more cinematically, and more warmly than just about anyone writing about anything," writes Michael Phillips, a movie critic at the Chicago Tribune, in one of the many tributes to Ebert in the morning papers today. "Even his pans had a warmth to them. Even when you disagreed with Roger you found yourself imagining the movie he saw, and loved (or hated) more than you did." Ebert's approach to film was bursting with love for the medium, part of his total embrace of life itself. "He lived a great, whole-hearted life, in the city he loved, married to the woman he loved, writing about everything he loved," Phillips continues, adding, "Writing about the movies means you get to write about life itself." Ebert's former colleague Richard Roeper, writing at the Sun-Times, put Ebert's impact on American letters succinctly: "If there were a Mount Rushmore of movie critics, we'd start with Roger Ebert."
Michael Lind at Salon on Obama's Social Security offer "Cutting Social Security makes no sense at all in terms of economics or public policy [but] it makes excellent sense in terms of the selfish class interests of the super-rich," says Michael Lind, in his investigation of the Obama administration's anticipated offer to House Speaker John Boehner, which trims Social Security payments using a controversial technique known as "chained CPI." Lind sees no grounds on which Obama should compromise with the Republican project to shrink the welfare state. "According to a February 2013 Pew poll, only 10 percent of Americans want to cut Social Security while 41 percent want to increase Social Security benefits," he notes. "It's time to change the public conversation about retirement security in America to reflect the beliefs and interests of the struggling many, not the fortunate few." It's an uuncertain strategy for the Obama administration, according to Slate's Matt Yglesias, because Obama's proposal also raises taxes: "The core issue is that this is a compromise the GOP has already rejected. They've rejected it in its details, and they've also rejected it as a general concept."
Aaron Ross Powell at Free Thoughts on the beneficence of the government Government doesn't magically make us work together toward a common goal, argues Aaron Ross Powell. Working through the framework that widespread change that positively affects the lives of human beings necessarily requires government intervention, Powell declares that such a premise "reflect[s] the disturbing belief that government is the apotheosis of 'people working together.' In reality, governments are precisely the opposite. Rather than working together through the state, we work against each other" by appropriating the state's force to collect and funnel money to certain causes. "Using the state as the means of coercing others removes moral costs," Powell continues. "We don’t see the coercion our votes lead to, and so the weight of moral responsibility for the state’s actions feels less." Powell points to a post written by The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, concerning the out-sized punishment against a first-time drug offender. "There's no excuse for this monstrous behavior, and yet people—including those who could directly make a difference—go along with it because that’s what the state does," Powell concludes.
Matthew Zeitlin at Bloomberg View on the promise of Bitcoin The invention and adoption of Bitcoin, the state-less digital currency, forces us to ask and answer an important question: What is the purpose of money? Tracing two lines of thought on the origin of money — one rooted in the barter system, another in state authority — Matthew Zeitlin situates Bitcoin in the modern era of currency. "Although the creators and heavy users of Bitcoins tend to be skeptical of the security and value of state-issued fiat currency, the state-centered account for how money came about actually helps explain why Bitcoins have been fairly popular," Zeitlin writes. "Only with powerful computers and sophisticated digital cryptology can a private currency come close to working along side traditional monies." Zeitlin concludes that, absent a state's supervision, Bitcoin will either crash in value or convert into another kind of gold or silver. "Since Bitcoins can only be produced at a predetermined rate, deflation is a constant possibility, or that Bitcoins turn more into a commodity people buy than a currency people use," he says. Less philosophically, it's still really hard to use Bitcoin, as Kevin Roose at New York notes: "All fiat currency is built on trust, and without a reliable infrastructure, it's hard to see how Bitcoin can be trusted enough to become truly legitimate."
Irin Carmon at Salon on President Obama's comments on California Attorney General Kamala Harris When President Obama called California Attorney General Kamala Harris "by far, the best looking attorney general" at a speech Thursday, a debate broke out on Twitter, centered on a tweet by Politico media reporter Dylan Byers, about the way women — especially those with enormous professional accomplishments — are talked about. "Yes, women who seem young and are considered pretty by men obtain certain advantages in our society," writes Irin Carmon, who lays out Obama's troubled history of discussing the looks of women. "That doesn't mean that the purportedly progressive president of the United States needs to do his part to enforce all that." Addressing (and paraphrasing) Byers's tweet, Carmon argues, "it is not 'difficult to call a woman good-looking in public,' not in a world where women’s looks are considered public property, to be commented on, uninvited, whether it’s on the street, in a job interview, or in the press." Jonathan Chait agreed, suggesting at New York that Obama should submit to gender-sensitivity training: "It's not a compliment. And for a president who has become a cultural model for many of his supporters in so many other ways, the example he's setting here is disgraceful."