THE NEGOTIATOR

Posted in Rants on June 30th, 2011 by Ed

For someone who likes politics and devotes the better share of his life to the subject I sure do a great job of ignoring significant aspects of it on occasion. This bothers me. I feel like I should be biting my nails and paying rapt attention to the "negotiations" over the debt ceiling, but I honestly could not care less. This situation is a good example of how Washington politics are starting to feel a lot like Kabuki theater and very little like a functional, representative, multiparty government. We all said six months ago that Obama would cave on Social Security and Medicare, then cave on demanding tax increases, and then cave on any other damn thing the GOP dreams up at the last second and demands with a hearty "Ha ha, what else can we make this idiot agree to?" laugh.

Paul Krugman:

So, here’s where we are on the debt limit discussions: Democrats have agreed to large spending cuts, but are holding out for doing something about:

a rule that lets businesses value their inventory at less than they bought it for in order to lower their tax burden, a loophole that lets hedge-fund managers count their income as capital gains and pay a 15 percent marginal tax rate, the tax treatment of private jets, oil and gas subsidies, and a limit on itemized deductions for the wealthy.

And Republicans walked out.

Think about it. There’s a significant chance that failing to raise the debt limit could provoke a renewed financial crisis — and Republicans would rather take that chance than allow a reduction in tax breaks on corporate jets.

What this says to me is that Obama cannot, must not, concede here. If he does, he’s signaling that the GOP can extract even the most outrageous demands; he’s setting himself up for endless blackmail. A line has to be drawn somewhere; it should have been drawn last fall; but to concede now would effectively mean the end of the presidency.

Let's check back next week to recap how he caved on all that and more. Krugman's comment, of course, overlooks the important reality that even if Obama "draws the line" here he has already given up so much that only in Mushy Centrist Fantasy Land could he conceive of this as anything but a total, humiliating defeat. "Woo! We drew the line at tax breaks on corporate jets!" isn't exactly going to impress anyone. He turned the debt ceiling negotiations, if they can be so called, into yet another round of buying into right-wing talking points and cheerleading austerity in the vain quest to impress everyone with how Bipartisany he can be. Great.

Even Kevin Drum, the Obama-worshipping proponent of the 12th-level chess theory (that Obama's constant caving and Eisenhower Republicanism is actually some kind of complex, byzantine strategy to achieve liberal policy outcomes), has thrown in the towel and admitted that a focus on cutting spending is in fact exactly what Obama and Harry Reid want. He pulls a good quote from Yglesias:

There was a brief opportunity for the President to dig in his heels and simply refuse to compromise. Then the debate rapidly would have become “can John Boehner round up the votes in his caucus necessary to avoid a default.” Instead, the White House conceded the unprecedented point that even though Boehner and Obama agreed about the desirability of raising the debt ceiling that the White House should make concessions to the Speaker in order to obtain it.

Let's recap the Barack Obama school of governing and negotiation. First, you get the Republicans to admit that it's totally unthinkable and utterly insane to let the government default. Second, agree that 50% of the problem – the entire revenue side – is off the table. Third, let the GOP beat concession after concession out of you by bluffing about default. Fourth, get "concessions" from the GOP – in this case, I'll bet you $100 on Obama obtaining "defense cuts" that amount to snipping a few staplers and pencils from the Pentagon budget – that hand the Republicans a ready-made "He's a-cuttin' the Army while our brave men and women are in harm's way!!" talking point. Fifth, go to the electorate in 2012 with the message that sure, I and the rest of the Democrats signed off on hacking up Social Security and Medicare, but, um, the Republicans wanted to cut them a little more than we ultimately allowed. That sounds like a winner, right? The Mighty Democrats fought bravely to make sure that your benefit cuts would be slightly smaller.

Good luck with that, idiot. This presidency has been like watching a man commit suicide for three years. At first you're in a frenzy yelling "Stop! Don't do that to yourself!" but after a while you just want him to hurry up and get it the hell over with already.

DAMSEL IN DISTRESS

Posted in Rants on June 29th, 2011 by Ed

Being in Indiana for a couple of days has put me squarely in the epicenter of a severe outbreak of Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS). If "Help! Missing!" posters could bring someone back to life, we'd have like 15 Lauren Spierers by now. The case is not only a matter of tremendous local interest and controversy but it is fodder for the national media as well – CBS, CNN, Fox News, USA Today, and on and on. Three observations:

1. Remind me again why we care? Let me rephrase that: remind me again why we care selectively. People who like to pretend that our society is classless and post-racial and all that other sweet sounding pap need look no further than Jessica Lynch, Natalie Holloway, JonBenet Ramsey, etc etc for contradictory evidence. Finding exact statistics or reliable estimates is difficult, but the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists 920 female children who have gone missing in the last five years and have not been found. If we were to get a number including male children, adults, missing persons who were eventually found, and cases that never get reported, we would see that literally thousands of people go missing every year. Why do we fixate on a handful of them?

2. Good question, Ed. Let me answer that: because as individuals and as a society, we divide our fellow Americans into Innocent Victims and People Who Had It Coming. When young, pretty, upper/upper-middle class blond girls go missing it's a huge tragedy because We think that isn't supposed to happen to her. That's only supposed to happen to the underclass we stridently ignore. No one cares when a young black teenager disappears because, well, that's what the media and society at large expect to happen to black kids. You know, the girls all get murdered by their Pimps and eventually the boys all get shot in drive-bys or end up in prison. And We lack sympathy because We rationalize the decision to blame the victims: their parents are all Welfare Queens or they choose to live in poverty and kill each other like animals so hey, what else do you expect to happen?

Hispanic kids can disappear without notice because Hispanics are generally the invisible underclass (and backbone) of the urban economy. Besides, how can we search for some Mexican kid – they all look the same anyway!!!! Ha ha ha. But what a tragedy about poor Lauren. It's not the crime that shocks us but the shattering of our expectations. Being the victim of violence is practically the birthright of little Ebony or Luis. Lauren's birthright was wealth and privilege, so it's jarring to the average suburban Nancy Grace fan to see that she won't get it.

3. Lest you think this hoopla is harmless, the media circus and public attention impact the way the police/prosecutors operate. In fact, it guarantees that the case will be nearly impossible to resolve. When the public works itself into a frenzy over the matter the police go under the microscope – why can't they find that poor girl? They know they have to charge someone. In Spierer's case, they're just dying to charge one of the men who were with her before she disappeared. As a result, not one of them is going to cooperate with the investigation and offer information that may be useful. Every one of them has a lawyer and instructions not to say one single word (which I don't criticize – people who offer information in high-pressure situations like this usually find themselves suspects in short order). Let me throw a hypothetical at you.

Let's say I walk Lauren back to her apartment. I see her get in someone else's car and then no one ever sees her again. I tell the police "I was alone with her, and I'm the last person to see her before she disappeared. I saw her get in a car with someone I didn't know and that's all I know." That sounds like a helpful thing, right? I might even be able to describe the car or the driver. That kind of information could move the case toward a resolution. But these days – and given the mindset of cops/elected officials – the more likely outcome is that I find myself a suspect or perhaps even charged with murder for A) admitting to being the last person who saw her and B) offering information that can't be corroborated in a case where the cops desperately need to charge someone – anyone – to mollify the public. So of course my lawyer instructs me on the only logical course of action: say absolutely nothing to the police or anyone else. It doesn't matter that you're innocent and you're trying to help; they'll pin everything on you in a heartbeat if you give them the opportunity.

And with that, I'm already angry at myself for having been sucked into devoting 780 words to this case. As sad as her disappearance is for her family, the cold reality is that what happened to her is unfortunately common. I'm not any more or less concerned about her family and her fate simply because her parents are loaded and she was pretty.

I DON'T EVEN KNOW ANYMORE

Posted in Rants on June 28th, 2011 by Ed

(Full disclosure: I've had a festival of bad movies (including Mac & Me and Battlefield: Earth, both of which I've written about) named in my honor and I recently watched Left Behind: The Movie in its entirety. I exempt myself from none of this critique.)

Of the dozens of things that drive me crazy about politics, the gradual assimilation of our political process with the worst aspects of pop culture has to rank near the top. Over the past decade, as we've transitioned from the postmodern/ironic fads (hipsters listening to Paula Abdul and wearing hideous outdated fashions, Hollywood remaking all manner of 1970s schlock, etc.) to some sort of bizarre post-ironic age in which it is no longer possible to tell the difference between enjoying something because it's good or because it's kitschy. It's the difference between Showgirls – which was intended to be a real movie and ended up being unbelievably bad – and Snakes on a Plane, the makers of which intended to make a movie as bad as possible, capable of being enjoyed only with a wink and a nudge. We live in an era in which taking everything that people hate about advertising, bundling it into a single horrific package, and turning the volume up to 11 results in the birth of a wildly popular cultural phenomenon. Basically, this:

Is your homemade mohawk serious or a joke? Do you actually like The Darkness and Justin Timberlake or are they just, you know, awesomely bad? Are you enjoying Say Yes to the Dress or do you find yourself explaining it to your fellow snark aesthetes as a "guilty pleasure" or entertainment-by-trainwreck? Does the stuff on our TV, headphones, and bookshelves represent the best efforts of creative people, the end result of which may be either good or bad, or something cynically designed for you to enjoy how bad it is? Is that viral video an actual flash mob or just a shrewd viral marketing campaign crafted to look organic? I don't even know anymore, dude.

Maybe this phenomenon doesn't bother you. Maybe it does. I would argue that it's detrimental but if and how people enjoy watching Firefly isn't exactly an issue of Earth-shattering importance. Who ends up in the White House might be.

In a year in which not one but two separate Reality TV Stars have been treated with the utmost seriousness by the Beltway media as potential presidential candidates – fortunately Trump and, apparently, Palin are unlikely to run but happy to milk the free publicity – it is hard not to see similar trends creeping into politics. Is/Was "The Donald" a serious candidate or was his might-be candidacy all a big joke? It's impossible to tell because there is no difference. The media and public see reality TV stardom as a perfectly plausible credential for the White House…because what happens on reality shows is "real", right? So why wouldn't the guy who picks the right apprentice or the woman with all that folksy Lil' Abner-esque wisdom be a serious candidate?

Even among the field of declared candidates it is somewhat complicated to distinguish the Serious candidates from those that would have been dismissed as charlatans in the past. James Stockdale openly laughed about how he had no business being in a presidential debate while Sarah Palin's camp got indignant at the mere suggestion that she didn't belong. Everyone laughs at Mike Gravel, Alan Keyes, Lyndon LaRouche, or Dennis Kucinich when they run, but no one uses the Sunday shows as a platform to announce that, come on, people, Michelle Bachmann cannot be a serious option in any electorate that hasn't completely lost its goddamn mind.

When Trump was badgering Obama during the spring – coincidentally enough, across a time period that began with the first episode of The Apprentice and ended with its season finale – very few things were as depressing as watching the White House and media establishment respond in earnest. "This is a publicity stunt, and who the fuck is Donald Trump?" would have been the sum total of my response. However, a media, political system, and culture unable to distinguish the charlatans from the actual players has no choice but to take the former seriously despite common sense and all evidence to the contrary.

EVERYTHING MUST GO

Posted in Rants on June 27th, 2011 by Ed

Remember back in May and June of 2010 when, amidst violent protests that produced some corpses, the Greek government agreed to impose a number of austerity measures of the kind favored by the IMF? Sure, the deep cuts in social services, pensions, and public sector salaries/benefits hurt quite a bit. However, the painful adjustment was worth it – a little over one year later the Greek economy is clawing its way back to health.

Wait. Let me check something.

No, actually Greece is more screwed than ever.

Don't worry, though. The IMF is charging over the hill like a knight and shining armor to save Greece (again!) with more helpful fiscal policy reforms. This time the magic elixir – It'll fix everything, really! – is a mass privatization program. Nothing says "building a strong economy for the future" like a fire sale of public assets. Maybe if we're lucky we'll get the chance to buy an airport or two on eBay.

The IMF (and its proxies in the European Commission) isn't exactly a new actor on the global financial stage. It sure is interesting, though, to see its "Structural Adjustment Program" – basically a shock doctrine of the usual neoliberal jerk-off material – put to work on an industrialized, first-world nation. Their routine of coming to countries in their darkest hour offering a financial rescue package in exchange for Koch-ifying their government and letting global investors strip mine the nation's assets is not new. It has been happening to small, underdeveloped countries for decades. It works wonders. Just ask Haiti.

These international organizations intervening in domestic financial crises aren't evil, as some detractors claim. It's simply a matter of understanding their purpose. Their sole concern in every instance is to make sure the banks and financial institutions get repaid. That's it. It's not about rescuing Greece's economy or protecting future generations from debt. It's about preventing the country from defaulting on its debt at all costs. And the only alternative to accepting the poisoned chalice of loans from the IMF/EU/Germany/etc. for a country in Greece's current situation is to default.

I'm not exactly Johnny the Economist, but I understand the consequences of default on a national scale to be quite dire (if Argentina's example is generalizable). Nonetheless part of me wishes that Greece would look calmly and rationally at the history of countries that have accepted this kind of "structural adjustment" in return for a bailout loan before deciding whether to proceed with such radical changes. Is default a better option? Maybe, maybe not. I doubt that it is. The point is that no one bothers to ask the question. The conversation never takes place. All proposals to alleviate the crisis proceed from the ironclad assumption that the banks' money must be protected at all costs. The kingpins in the global financial community warn sternly of the consequences of default, and certainly there would be many for Greeks of all social and financial classes. That said, the consequences of the Fire Sale privatization and austerity plan are considerable as well, especially given that as Greece's own experience last summer argues, such plans don't actually work.

It isn't about what "works", though. It's about seizing opportunities to institutionalize conservative dogma, eliminate welfare states, and pursue the kind of failed low tax strategies that produce such a windfall for the top 1% and do so little to promote long term economic growth. So check back next summer when we find ourselves in the same situation yet again; after the Greeks have auctioned off the airports and highways and power/water supplies and anything else of value, then what?

THANKS FOR THE OASIS

Posted in Rants on June 23rd, 2011 by Ed

In a few weeks I'll be flying to Las Vegas for Mike Konczal's bachelor party. It will be my 3rd trip to that man-made colossus in the middle of the desert. I've also been to Phoenix four or five times, which is something one endures in furtherance of being a Cardinals fan. I've also been through most of New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and southern California. Generally I like the Southwest immensely, although I must admit that Vegas is more depressing than fun in my opinion. What never escapes me whenever I visit these places, though, is the stark reality that none of it should be there. It's a desert.

The cities of that region, especially Las Vegas and Phoenix, are growing exponentially. In 1900, Las Vegas didn't have a single permanent structure. It was a tent mining camp of 50 souls. In 1930 it was a barren railroad depot of 5,100. In 1960, well into the development of its glitzy casino and entertainment image, it held 64,000 people. In 2010 the Las Vegas metro area (including Henderson and North Las Vegas) checked in at 2,100,000 permanent residents. Phoenix was slightly bigger historically. In 1950 it had a population of 106,000. In 2010, Phoenix and its massive, sprawling, contiguous suburbs (Mesa, Chandler, Tempe, Glendale, Gilbert, etc.) totaled 4,200,000 residents. This represents an increase of 900,000 in just ten years following the 2000 Census. And I won't even get into Los Angeles, the Imperial Valley, and southern California.

There is one and only one reason that this kind of unprecedented growth has been possible:

That isn't an oversimplification; no Hoover Dam, no Phoenix. No Las Vegas. No Los Angeles. Vegas and Phoenix barely existed in 1900 because they're in the middle of a goddamn desert. There is no water and there were no power resources. The dam brought the electricity and fresh water that allowed the growth of infrastructure, industry, and population in places that could not otherwise have any of it. Now, for a million bonus points, who built the Hoover Dam?

A) The Free Market
B) The Federal Government
C) State and Local Government

Congratulations, B is correct!

The passage of the legislation to build it took many years and was vociferously opposed by private utilities in Arizona and California (Nevada basically had no population to speak of until the Dam) because they feared competition from government electricity. They used allies in the media, particularly Hearst and Chandler, to label the project as socialism. Eventually Republicans in California realized that the overall economic growth of the state would be more beneficial in the long run than parochial concerns about the profits of Southern California Edison, and they threw support behind the bill that Calvin Coolidge eventually signed. In the long run I'd say that thousand-percent growth of population and industry in the Southwest has made local utilities more money than they lost to Socialist Electricity.

It casts the reactionary, ultraconservative politics of Arizona, Orange County, Utah, and Nevada in high relief to point out that the coyote population would outnumber the humans in the region if not for Big Government doing what private industry would not – elevate national, long term interests over short term profit. It also underscores how dramatically politics have changed over time, although much does remain the same. For example, Congress is no longer willing to elevate long term economic growth – say, the kind private industry might experience if the government took on the burden of providing health care for the population – over the limited, shortsighted interests of a small, powerful lobby.

PLACEHOLDER

Posted in Quick Hits on June 22nd, 2011 by Ed

For the first time in over two years I am taking a little time off of work (emphasis on "little", as I'll still be working while I'm visiting people) to travel back to the Midwest. I'll still be updating daily, so it shouldn't make any difference here. Between packing, finishing up some stuff at work, and preparing for a Big Show (opening for Dan Telfer) I'm on the weeds.

Given that the last three posts have generated a silly amount of incoming link traffic I'm going to punt Wednesday's post to Thursday and use today to catch up. It seems like a lot of discussions from recent posts are ongoing and there's plenty to keep the incoming traffic busy. So it's a good time for a weekday off.

Gin and Tacos | Promote Your Page Too

CODE

Posted in Rants on June 21st, 2011 by Ed

Looks like our old pal Neal Boortz is in some hot water after letting his mask slip off for a few minutes on air the other day:

(Atlanta) is starting to look like a garbage heap. And we got too damn many urban thugs, yo, ruining the quality of life for everybody. And I'll tell you what it's gonna take. You people, you are – you need to have a gun. You need to have training. You need to know how to use that gun. You need to get a permit to carry that gun. And you do in fact need to carry that gun and we need to see some dead thugs littering the landscape in Atlanta. We need to see the next guy that tries to carjack you shot dead right where he stands. We need more dead thugs in this city.

And:

This city harbors an urban culture of violence. And I want you to look around. You drive into the city. The railroad overpass is on the downtown connector covered with graffiti. And that– That is just an advertisement for everybody coming into this town that we really don't give a damn about those who would screw up our quality of life around here. We really just don't care. We don't care enough to paint over graffiti on the overpasses that come into our city, advertising welcome to Atlanta, here's some of our finest graffiti, from some of our finest urban thugs and their little gang signs.

The technique of using coded language to make racial appeals only works if sufficiently subtle. Unfortunately Boortz isn't bright enough to pull that off, instead ham-fistedly using terms like "urban" and "thugs" in place of "black". On the plus side, he gets his point across very effectively: his listeners should shoot some black people next time they leave the suburbs and venture into Atlanta.

Unsubtle racism aside, note the argument he is making here. Big cities like Atlanta are hellholes because there is too much crime (implicitly read: too many black people). But if "crime" is a key determinant of quality of life in a given place, small town 'murica certainly isn't the answer; since the 1970s a number of social forces – the meth epidemic, deregulation, supply side economics, Evangelical political militancy – have conspired to make the average small, rural town as much of a pit of despair as any big city. Among the boarded up storefronts, randomly exploding meth labs, third world teen pregnancy rates, and elderly, deranged population of fundamentalists, I'd take my chances with "urban thugs" in Atlanta over Pigsknuckle, Georgia.

What kind of community isn't a hellhole, Neal? Implicitly – and unsurprisingly given his audience – he is arguing that The Big City is wicked in comparison to its suburbs. In other words, Atlanta should be more like East Cobb and Sandy Springs…you know, where everyone has tons of money.

So Atlanta should be more like its suburbs, where the high financial bar for entry creates some of the wealthiest communities in the nation (GA-06 is one of the 10 wealthiest districts).

But income inequality is not a problem and income redistribution is the great Satan.

My butt itches.

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ENTHUSIASM

Posted in Rants on June 20th, 2011 by Ed

Generally I prefer not to blog about my academic work, partly because I'm convinced that this site is going to get me fired someday but largely because what I do isn't very interesting to…humans, I think, unless they are political scientists. But in the process of collecting data for a new project, I came across some interesting stats on 2010.

One thing that I find amazing about the literature in political science is how little we know about non-voters. We have a decent-plus understanding of voters' preferences, ideological tendencies, and so on, and the same cannot be said about the substantial portion of the potential electorate that doesn't participate. Things like exit polls, for example, are integral to post-election analysis (both popular and academic) and they exclude non-voters by definition. There is some new interesting work on the voter/non-voter divide (Diana Mutz has a book coming out soon) but for decades we've been assuming, or arguing with varying degrees of success, that the preferences of the two groups are essentially the same. I have always found this patently stupid.

Lately I've been doing a lot of research into creative ways to show evidence of differential turnout – the idea that overall turnout doesn't change much from election to election but different groups of people are voting each time. For example, Obama Mania and the lameness of the McCain campaign made a lot of Republicans stay home in 2008, whereas in 2004 Republicans were highly energized while the Democrats had a hard time rallying turnout behind John Kerry. I've always considered this the most plausible explanation for changes in election outcomes over time. And in theory this narrative explains 2010 very well; Democratic voters got all fired up and turned out in droves in 2008. Then two years of Obama being a big ol' letdown to the left and a hideous monster to the right led us to 2010, when Democratic-leaning voters were apathetic and the GOP/Tea Party brimmed with enthusiasm. Makes sense, but does it match the data?

The Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) is a new, very large sample survey that has been a real boon to voting behavior research. In 2010 the sample was over 55,000 whereas the old stand-by (American National Election Study) has about 1200. Briefly setting aside the valid question about whether people report voter turnout honestly on surveys – hint: they don't – here is a breakdown of self-reported ideology among voters and non-voters in the 2010 CCES sample. Click any graph to embiggen:

It is hardly surprising that a much larger percentage of non-voters consider themselves "middle of the road", as apathy toward participation is often a by-product of apathy toward politics in general. But note how a considerably larger portion of voters consider themselves "conservative" or "very conservative" – more than double the share of non-voters in each category. Compare that to 2006 – when the ideology question had only five categories instead of seven, but you get the picture:

In the last midterm the ideological distribution of voters and non-voters is quite similar, with voters only slightly more conservative than non-voters. Even more interesting, here is the ideological placement of Barack Obama among voters and non-voters. In other words, survey participants are also asked to identify how they would describe the ideology of major political figures like the President, their reps in Congress, and so on:

Wow. I checked these number about five times because they are so lopsided. Of people who reported voting in 2010, more than half described Obama as "very liberal" whereas barely 25% of non-voters described him that way. The question is subjective, of course, but that's the point. The people who voted in 2010 appear to be disproportionately drawn from the ranks of people who think Barack "The Eisenhower Republican" Obama is the commie-libro-marxisocialist child of Fidel Castro and ACORN. Unfortunately the same question is not available from 2006 re: George W. Bush. They did ask a generic presidential approval rating question, though:

Again we see a roughly similar distribution – voters exceeded non-voters at the extreme points, i.e. they were more likely than non-voters to either really like or really dislike Bush. What we don't see is the heavily skewed distribution we see in the 2010 Obama Ideology question (although it bears re-emphasizing the differences in the two questions).

This small slice of the CCES data from 2010 supports the hypothesis that voters and non-voters were ideologically dissimilar and had very different perceptions of the incumbent President and Congress. It suggests that finding a way to recreate the enthusiasm for participation that Democratic-minded people showed in 2008 – or even 2006, when voters and non-voters were essentially even – is a necessary component of Obama and his party avoiding disaster in 2012. Something tells me that slogans and slick marketing won't be enough this time.

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NPF: THE LOST ARTS

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 17th, 2011 by Ed

By now you have probably seen the trailer for the latest installment in the "Hollywood ran out of ideas 25 years ago so here's the 917351st comic book superhero movie but hey, at least it isn't a remake" series, better known as Green Lantern. If you haven't had the pleasure, here you go:

OK.

Look at how stupid that looks.

No, I don't mean the acting, the plot, or the idea of making a film out of a B-squad comic book hero from the 1950s. I mean look at it. The cartoon-meets-Sega Genesis visual effects. The green screened everything. It is all clearly the product of the finest technology available to visual artists and filmmakers. And it's terrible. It's completely awful – fake, sterile, and desperate to make up for its fake sterility by jamming as much crap and kabloom-y effects as possible into every single frame of the film. Now contrast that with another film about people in outer space, one made without the benefits of quad core Mac G5s: 2001: A Space Odyssey (embedding disabled, so click through to see the Blue Danube docking sequence).

That was made with plastic models, a camera, and moving objects held in place with wires. Which one looks more "realistic" to you? Which one allows you to suspend your disbelief and feel like you're watching something that's really happening? Which one looks like what it is supposed to look like?

Sometimes I feel like CGI is killing movies. And sometimes it's so obvious that it ceases to be subjective.

I understand that there's a line between filmmaking as a skill and as a craft. Skill allows you to churn out a product that meets the prevailing contemporary standards, makes a buttload of money, and is immediately forgotten. Five years later it looks painfully, even embarrassingly dated. Craftsmanship produces something that holds up over time. Return of the Jedi was the product of craftsmen. The prequel trilogy is crass, mass produced garbage filmed in an empty warehouse.

Talented directors can do great things with CGI and other visual effects technology. Even in a bad movie, someone who knows how to use it can create a distinctive visual style immediately identified with the film (i.e., 300). It can also be used to seamlessly blend the real world with the director's imagination (Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sin City, Harry Potter, etc). Or it can be used to make Avatar and The Phantom Menace.

The fundamental problem is that CGI, rather that being a tool that allows directors to explore new creative possibilities, just enables laziness. The original Star Wars films were made with thousands of man-hours of tiny models. The scenes in 2001 took months to shoot to create the desired look. The original King Kong relied on the laborious stop-motion technique with its models (and rear screen projections for city skylines, another Golden Era technique that is now all but lost). Why bother now? Just click some buttons, hire some graphic designers, and make the entire movie inside a computer.

The other problem with CGI is that it's too easy. Consider the original King Kong compared to the christawful 2005 remake. In the first film every frame of the ape required hours of labor working with delicate sets and models, which in turn required dozens of hours of work to make. It encouraged the filmmakers to use the titular creature sparingly. If it's all digital, then why not have King Kong in every damn scene? Why not have him knock a few buildings down? Hell, it's all just clicks on a mouse. Another example, of course, is the new-vs-old Star Wars trilogies. If you have to build an enormous Imperial Cruiser model, you're probably going to shoot the scene with ONE Imperial Cruiser…because you don't want to build a second one unless it's absolutely necessary. So the original trilogy had a sense of economy. It was sparse. In the prequels, why have one ship when you could have…(*click click click*)…a hundred ships??? Isn't that way better? See how much it improves the experience to jam as much blinking, exploding shit as humanly possible into the frame?

I understand that a movie like Green Lantern is not intended to be a great work of art. It's a product churned out for the purpose of being merchandised to death. But the annual summer blockbusters are symptoms of the continuous dumbing down of the visual aspects of filmmaking. Twenty years ago even the summer blockbusters required some actual imagination and craftsmanship. Now "special effects" is synonymous with digital effects, and moviemaking treats the human actors as an inconvenience to be dealt with as quickly as possible and plugged into the laughably unbelievable, visually insulting movie that exists only inside someone's PC. The result is ugly. Very, very ugly. As film is a visual medium, producing something this ugly is counterproductive at best.