Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise

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Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise

**

 

President Obama’s legacy has been hopelessly distorted by partisanship.

The American Right has spun Obama into something that he never was or tried to be: a Progressive.

Ask a Republican, and he will tell you that the President was an anti-American Socialist Peacenik.

Amusingly, the American Left has decided to defend this Funhouse Mirror version of Obama that never really existed. Ask a Democrat, and she will try to defend his foreign policy on humanitarian grounds and defend his health care plan on Progressive grounds.

The reality is that Barak Obama was as moderate as a leader can be. Every action existed to maintain continuity.

During the heart of the banking crisis, he let political donors at Citigroup choose his cabinet. Sorry, Obama fans, but you can read it for yourself in the leaked email from Citi to John Podesta on Oct 8, 2008. The Obama team was tightly allied with Wall Street from day one.

Obama’s foreign policy was a clever continuation of Bush’s War on Terror. Using drone strikes and covert actions, Obama kept his foot on the pedal of relentless Middle East murder and meddling while reducing the number of American body bags to a more tolerable level.

The Affordable Care Act is little more than a scheme to try to keep the current for-profit system going a few more years by extorting money from young, healthy people who need cash way more than health insurance.

In the end, Obama achieved minimal change. The only question is whether his campaign slogan “Change” was always intended as a cynical irony.

 

Now France has its own Barak Obama. His name is Emmanuel Macron. Macron is young, good-looking, smart, and charismatic. And he’s the living embodiment of the status quo.

“Behind the Rise” is a worshipful documentary that follows his successful candidacy for President. The documentary urges us to fall in love with the man. And urges us not to think too much about what he represents.

Emmanuel Macron is the insider’s insider. First he was an investment banker at Rothschild & Co. More recently, he was Deputy Secretary-General under President Francois Hollande.

Last year, Macron bolted from Hollande’s Party and formed his own Party: En Marche! (which means Onward!). See what he did there? Macron fights tooth and nail to defend the status quo, but he does it under the slick banner of Progressivism.

While Marine Le Pen relentlessly focused on France’s need to leave the EU and reclaim its borders, Macron felt no need to discuss issues at all. Throughout the movie, he mostly just smiles, tries to look dashing, and accuses his opponent of bigotry.

Apparently, Macron was right. He beat Ms. Le Pen in a landslide. Le Pen is the better person, but she was not a great candidate. She did a lousy job of reaching out to France’s growing minority population.

The winner of the France’s next election will be the one who communicates that the choice is not between Christianity and Islam; it’s between the Globalists and the people.

The problems plaguing France are unemployment, unchecked borders, and uncontrolled terrorism. The ultimate victims are poor, peaceful young French Muslims who just want to assimilate and work. They need change more than anyone.

The same bland agreeable nature that made Macron an appealing candidate will make him entirely incapable of leading France through the tough road ahead.

America has already been through this. Even though Barak Obama remained personally popular, his party and the American Establishment itself lost their credibility during his Presidency.

Change is no longer a cynical slogan. It’s a desperate need. The Establishment won with Obama and Macron. But we won’t be fooled anymore.
Après Macron, le déluge.

 

Get Me Roger Stone

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Get Me Roger Stone

****

 

“I am the most qualified. I have the most experience. I am the smartest and the most educated.”

-a foolish candidate for public office

 

I cringe every time I hear a politician say something like that. I loathe the guy saying it, but I still feel for him. That strategy never works.

At best, mentioning your brains and your experience makes you look like a boastful egghead.

At worst, people think you are telling the truth.

Being an experienced politician is not a qualification. It’s a huge strike against you.

It’s like saying: “hey, I’m an experienced thief. Let me guard your money.” Or “hey, I’m experienced at sending your sons to Asia to murder foreigners. Let me be your pastor!”

The American voter is willing to forgive almost anything – except the sin of being an intellectual insider. Roger Stone understands this better than anyone.

Roger Stone loves to show off the big tattoo of Richard Nixon that he has on his back. Stone’s worship of President Nixon makes total sense; Nixon was the master of anti-intellectual political success.

In terms of education, experience, and intellectual prowess, Richard Nixon was second to none. But he never would have told you that. He won a 49-State landslide victory in 1972 based on his personal appeal to the “Great Silent Majority” of working class Americans.

Conservative values only get a candidate so far. Republicans win elections by appealing to the anti-intellectual, anti-Washington, anti-establishment masses.

Roger Stone is the ultimate anti-insider insider. The colorful Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone” presents him as the devious Forest Gump of Republican politics, conveniently popping up in the background at every major event.

The Watergate Hearings: 19-year old Roger Stone was there (he played a very minor dirty trick against Nixon’s GOP Primary competitor Pete McCloskey).

The Conservative triumph in 1980: Roger Stone was there (he was Reagan’s regional campaign director for the Northeast).

The 2000 Contested Election: Roger Stone was there (Stone claims that he organized a pro-Bush rally that intimidated Florida election workers from changing the results of the recount).

And if you don’t hate him enough already, Democrat readers, check this out: Roger Stone founded one of the original Super PACs in 1978 to run independently funded attack ads.

And he founded Black, Manafort, and Stone – a shamelessly greedy DC lobbying firm that represented the interests of anyone willing to pay them. Stone’s list of clients included Third World dictators like Ferdinand Marcos and Mobutu Sese Seko.

The neat thing about Roger Stone is that he doesn’t try to justify or explain away any of his villainy. If anything, he proudly over-emphasizes his evil achievements. It is better to be infamous, Stone proclaims, than not famous at all.

Though he works for Republicans, Roger Stone is far from a Conservative. He used to go to Swingers parties with his libertine wife. He enthusiastically supports Marijuana legalization.

He was pro-gay marriage long before any Republican (or any member of the Clinton family) supported it. There’s a surprising scene where Roger Stone proudly marches in a Pride Parade. He gets booed the entire time.

You can hate him all you want, but you must respect him. Roger Stone knows better than anyone how you win elections in the United States.

It definitely is not by claiming to be the smartest and the most experienced candidate. Just ask Roger Stone’s latest protégé: President Trump.

silence

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Silence

***1/2

 

The history of religion during the past 1000 years is the story of Islam and Christianity.

Muslim and Christian missionaries have tirelessly spread their faiths to all corners of the earth. Indonesia is 87% Muslim. There are more ethnic Indians who are Muslim than there are total people in North America. 30% of South Koreans are Christians. There are even 50 million Christians in Red China.

There is exactly one civilized country on the planet that has not been touched by the cross or the crescent: Japan.

From business suits to central banking to baseball, Japan has often been eager to adopt Western customs. But when it comes to Western Gods, Japan has always said “no” harder than a three year old listening to Amy Winehouse.

The question is why.

My theory is that the Japanese commitment to Family Unity is not consistent with religious conversion.

In America, if your brother has a religious conversion and is happy with his new faith, you are probably going to be happy for him. In Japan, if your brother has a personal religious conversion unrelated to the family, he is a traitor who has betrayed his father and his ancestors.

In Japan, the social necessity to get along with your group is more important than religion, faith, and truth.

Anyway, that’s just my theory as to why Japan never became Christian. Martin Scorsese has a different theory.

“Silence” tells the story of two Jesuit Priests – Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) – who make a perilous journey to 17th Century Japan. They know full well that Christianity is punishable by death in Japan. But there is a rumor that their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced the faith, and the young priests are driven by the need to save him.

In Japan, the Priests meet two types of people: Desperate Christian peasants who are brave but ignorant. And the Japanese authorities, who are smart, civilized, philosophical, and focused on their task of ridding their homeland of outside influences.

“Silence” is a long, harrowing movie. It’s a personal story of faith that is clearly meaningful to writer/director Scorsese. As a young man, Martin Scorsese almost became a Priest. And you can feel his love of Christ mixed with anguish and doubt as expressed through poor Rodrigues.

But though Scorsese’s heart is with the Christians, his mind is with the Japanese. When the Inquisitor engages Rodrigues, he tries to gently help the Priest understand how unwise it would be for him to let Westerners have too much influence over his subjects. Rodrigues sounds like a selfish simpleton, speaking only in theological dogmas and ignoring the Inquisitor’s concerns.

Perhaps my theory that Christianity is inconsistent with Japanese culture is nonsense. “Silence” makes a stronger argument about why Western religion never took hold in Japan.

In the end: the Japanese aren’t Christian because their leaders didn’t want them to be. And they had the organization and strength of will to stomp out Western influences in a way that no one else could.

The Wizard of Lies

 

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The Wizard of Lies

***1/2

 

I have discovered the most suspicious sentence in the English language:

“I am a Money Manager; give me your money.”

Money Managers are charlatans.

“I am an expert at investing,” he says. Of course he isn’t, though.

You already know for certain that the Money Manager isn’t actually great at investing. If he was, he would be wealthy already and wouldn’t need to be wasting his time conning you.

“The stock market is complicated,” he says. “You can’t do it yourself!” Of course you can, though.

I have a brief project for you: Go to www.cnbc.com and search for three companies. Any three…I’ll give you a few minutes…

Welcome back. Did you notice how those random companies have gone up during the past year? And during the past 5 years. And 10 years.

Stocks go up. People in the market make money. It’s pretty sweet. You don’t need a snake oil salesman in a suit to make your money grow. You can do it yourself.

 

In the end, a person who is thinking of giving her life savings to a Money Manager needs to ask herself one question: who does she trust more: herself? Or the Money Manager?

“The Wizard of Lies” answers that question emphatically.

 

The HBO film chronicles one gut-wrenching year in the life America’s most famous Money Manager: Bernie Madoff.

Thousands of people trusted Madoff (Robert DeNiro) with their life savings. These people thought they were wealthy and smart. It turns out they were only wealthy. Soon they were neither.

Bernie Madoff conned chumps into giving him $65 billion. They thought that Madoff was a master investor who had figured out how make double digit gains even during Bear Markets.

Madoff was a master of the Ponzi scheme. He made rich dupes eager to fork over their fortune. And instead of investing the money, he just kept it. He sent his clients statements showing how much profit Madoff had made them. But the financial statements were lies. They really had nothing.

Director Barry Levinson argues that Bernie Madoff had nothing, too. Sure, he had piles of other people’s money. But the cost of his wealth was a gigantic secret that he had to keep from his family.

Lying was Bernie Madoff’s greatest skill. By systemically lying to his wife and children to keep them from being accessories to his crimes, lying became Madoff’s greatest virtue. Ultimately, he succeeded.

It can be argued that Bernie Madoff was a good father. He provided for his family. His sons weren’t arrested after the Ponzi scheme was uncovered, even though they had been working in Madoff’s firm for decades.

Bernie Madoff saved his sons from prison. He couldn’t protect them from the Media, however. The horror of “The Wizard of Lies” isn’t the many super wealthy people who messed up and became less wealthy; it is the one American family that got torn apart by scandal.

De Niro’s Bernie Madoff says that it is no coincidence that he was arrested just as the 2008 financial meltdown hit. He claims that he is just a scapegoat for a broken system.

And he has a point. In the end, what did Madoff really accomplish? He took wealth from millionaires and billionaires and redistributed it – not unlike that other old guy named Bernie wants to do.

Meanwhile, what were Madoff’s clients expecting? They were looking for him to pick stocks in a rigged market where the investor always wins and the American worker always loses.

“The Wizard of Lies” dares to ask the question. Was Bernie Madoff a thieving sociopath? Or was he a Money Manager?

American Experience: The Big Burn

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American Experience: The Big Burn

***

 

We need to Save the Trees!

Deforestation has ravaged our once great forests. The dwindling tree population is choking the oxygen-starved atmosphere.

Sorry, environmentalists: I’m being sarcastic. Every word of that last paragraph is false.

First, a solid majority of new atmospheric oxygen is produced by water-dwelling pytoplankton. If you love trees and walks through the forest, that is perfect understandable. Scientifically speaking, however, we don’t need trees to survive.

Second, North America has way more trees than it had at the turn of the 20th Century. Right here in Central Vermont, deer sightings used to make the newspaper. Hubbard Park was a big, treeless field.

What happened? Did Conservationist save the day? Nope: the automobile was invented.

In the 19th Century, millions of acres of arable land were used for fields to feed horses. As horses were replaced by Model Ts, those fields became forests. Tree-Huggers should pause to hug a Ford Focus; it did more to save the trees than the US Forest Service.

Indeed, “The Big Burn” shows that the US Forest Service has been misguided from the very beginning.

In 1905, The US Forest Service was founded by patrician Progressives who valued idealism more than common sense, and trees more than people.

The fledgling Federal agency sent intrepid young men far and wide. US Forest Rangers even found their way to the remote Bitterroot region of Western Montana and Northern Idaho. When Rangers told the hearty locals that they were no longer allowed to use the vast forest for clearcutting and strip-mining, they were furious.

As the PBS documentary “The Big Burn” reluctantly admits, the Forest Service’s rules that chose trees over people ended up being a disaster for both trees and people.

 

The summer of 1910 was bone dry in the Bitterroot. When a heat-lightning storm ignited a dry patch of trees, the largest fire in the history of the Hemisphere began.

Despite its remote location, America quickly recognized the size and the seriousness of the blaze. Women and children were bustled out; Federal Troops rushed in.

Desperate men aboard the last train out of town were forced off their cars at gunpoint. Uncle Sam needed them to fight the fire, the soldiers said.

But those men were just being sent to their deaths. There was no fighting The Big Burn. By the time the blaze burned itself out, a layer of soot coated the ground as far away as Iceland. Ships in the Pacific Ocean couldn’t navigate because the air was so thick with smoke.

The only thing that could have stopped this fire in its tracks was a stretch of barren, treeless land. You know, the kind that you get when you allow people to clear cut a section of forest or build a strip mine.

In the end, the greatest boon to American forests was the invention of the internal combustion engine. And the greatest disaster was made worse by the myopic machinations of the US Forest Service.

We don’t need to Save the Trees. Take a drive down I89 and look around you. They are doing just fine without our help.

 

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

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Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

****

 

Alcoa makes money by producing aluminum and selling it.

Ford makes money by building automobiles with that aluminum and selling them.

Exxon-Mobil makes money by selling gasoline to the people driving those Fords.

How did Enron make money? To this day, nobody knows for sure. And that’s the problem.

In “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” documentarian Alex Gibney explores the historic rise and fall of one of America’s most dishonest companies.

Gibney does a terrific job of explaining a twisted financial tale. And he blames all of us for accepting the perverse Wall Street culture that allowed it to happen.

The fatal flaw of Wall Street is that the stock market expects every corporation to make more money than last year. In fact, every quarter is expected to be a record-breaking earnings bonanza. A CEO knows that his company needs to keep growing or the stock will tank.

The guys who ran Enron – Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay – came up with a brilliant plan to always beat earnings expectations: they made up the numbers.

While Ford can’t claim to have sold a million more F-150s than it actually did, a company like Enron could fudge its numbers with impunity because no one really understood how it made money.

Enron’s business was to take advantage of the recently deregulated energy markets by buying and selling natural gas and electricity. How much money can you make as gamblers in an energy casino? Common sense says you’d lose money as often as you’d make it. According to Enron’s accounting books, they were raking it in.

The system made it disturbingly easy for them.

Enron was legally reporting their earnings using the Mark to Market method. In Mark to Market, a company signs a business deal and can report the profit that they expect to make from that deal as immediate actual profit.

Enron signed a deal with Blockbuster Video to buy and sell excess broadband bandwidth. That very quarter, Enron reported $10 billion from the business. In reality, trading broadband as a commodity was desperately stupid and they lost $billions. But the huge reported profit was already part of the official Enron bottom line.

Meanwhile, Enron retained its reputation as a top company by rewarding Wall Street analysts who wrote positive stories and attacking anyone who dared to publish a “Sell” rating on the stock.

Therefore, it was a surprise to everyone when the stock price plummeted from 90 in 2000 to less than 1. Well, everyone except for Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay, who sneakily cashed out their Enron shares before the crash.

The documentary doesn’t demonize the guys who ran Enron into the ground. Alex Gibney argues that Enron is just a symptom of a broken system where naughty companies are allowed to run amok.

We should be grateful to the wonderful companies that produce real products that make our world a better place. And we should be suspicious of corporations that produce nothing but money.

“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” is a first-rate documentary. It makes a very complicated story understandable. And it warns us that it will absolutely happen again.

Silicon Cowboys

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Silicon Cowboys

****

 

Ten thousand years ago, man developed written language. Written language allowed for the advancement of technology, the growth of cities, and the creation of lasting civilizations.

Five hundred years ago, a German invented the printing press. Suddenly, Western Europeans became the most educated and the most intellectually rebellious people in world history. Within a generation, another German guy permanently destroyed the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church.

Forty years ago, nobody had a computer in their home, on their desk at work, or in their pocket. Now we all do. The universal availability of personal computers is as revolutionary to human communication as the invention of the printing press and the written word itself.

“Silicon Cowboys” tells the scintillating story of some American underdogs who spearheaded the computer revolution.

In 1982, three nerdy friends quit their jobs at Texas Instruments and in order to start a company of their own. They almost opened a Mexican restaurant (seriously), but they ultimately decided to build a factory in Houston and produce computers. They called the company Compaq.

At the dawn of the PC era, there were several companies selling home computers. The problem was, the companies were all separate from each other and it was hard for a new user to decide which PC universe to dive into.

Compaq’s brilliant innovation was to make its computers completely compatible with IBM. Now, if a consumer already owned a bunch of IBM software and had learned how to use it, he could buy a Compaq for his next device and feel right at home.

It sounds simple, but this nifty little change started a chain reaction, transforming PCs from a niche product into the machines that run our lives.

Compaq also made its first computer portable. Granted, the Compaq Portable weighed 28 pounds. But it had a durable plastic shell and a leather strap so that business people could take it to and from the office.

Those three Texas pals – who almost opened a Mexican restaurant – had started a chain reaction that would end with half the human race carrying little computers in their pocket at all times.

The most entertaining part of this thoroughly entertaining documentary is when we see how savvy Compaq was at marketing.

So, it’s 1983. You’re selling a $3000 luxury product aimed at the 30- something nerds who can afford it. Who is the perfect pitchman?

Two words: John. Cleese.

The 70-minute film does not skimp on the footage of John Cleese’s charmingly irreverent ad campaign that transformed Compaq from underdog outsider to Wall Street mega-titan.

“Silicon Valley” is a joyous little film that celebrates an American company that made a billion dollars, gave hundreds of Texans solid factory jobs, and changed the world forever.

For the record, I am not saying that the computer revolution was a good thing. I saw “Terminator.” And I don’t like how addicted I am to my iPhone. But the revolution is here, it’s irreversible, and it’s as important to human history as the Printing Press. “Silicon Cowboys” is an interesting story about the guys who did it.

New York Doll

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 New York Doll

                                               ***1/2

     When I was a young man, I decided that my life would be easier if I didn’t have children. So I never did.

     Now, twenty years later, I have learned the truth: my decision to abstain from reproduction was even more wise than I had even imagined.

     People without children have more freedom, more money, more options, more time, and more sleep.

     People without children have less stress and less worry.

     Seemingly, the only advantage that people with kids have is that their lives have built-in meaning. Childless adults have far less responsibility, but we have one big challenge: find meaning to our lives.

     “New York Doll” is an open-minded documentary about one man’s search for meaning during his last days.

     The story begins back in 1973. In the early 70s, American rock and roll was at its lowest point. Boring Prog rock and heavy metal ruled the airwaves.

     Into this artistic void stormed The New York Dolls. Musically, they were an amalgamation of the Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones that had just passed and the punk rock that was to come. But it was their public persona that made them infamous and influential.

     The New York Dolls dressed in women’s clothing.

     They dressed in women’s clothing, but they weren’t drag queens. And they weren’t cross-dressers in any conventional sense. They dressed like drugged-up, poorly made-up prostitutes.

Their look was too weird for the American top-40. But they inspired a generation of punks, hair metal bands, and brave weirdos. Mick Jones of the Clash sings their praises. Morrissey was the President of the New York Dolls UK fan club.

       You’d think that being part of a legendary rock band would be enough to give a man meaning to his life. Well: yes and no.

     Arthur “Killer” Kane was the bassist for the New York Dolls and the subject of this documentary.

     The memory of the New York Dolls is always fighting a war inside Arthur Kane’s head, with pride in constant battle with regret. As Kane succumbed to obscurity and poverty, he saw his old friend David Johansen (the Dolls’ lead singer) become rich and famous.

                      While watching “Scrooged” (in which Johansen plays the Ghost of Christmas Past), the former rocker hit rock bottom. He drank so much that his wife left him for good and he jumped out his third story window.

                  During his long hospital stay, Killer Kane turned to Mormonism. Yes, Mormonism. “New York Doll” wasn’t produced by VH-1. It was directed by Kane’s Mormon friend Greg Whiteley.

                  The Mormon Church saved Kane’s life and gave him a much-needed job away from the music industry. It is funny to see how well the former hedonist Kane got along with the innocent old ladies at the Family Research Library where he worked.

                  It would have been easy for Greg Whiteley to say that the Mormon Church saved Arthur Kane and leave it at that. But, to the filmmaker’s credit, “New York Doll” shows that the Church gave Kane stability – but not meaning.

                  Jesus is going to save his soul, Whiteley concludes. But for peace in this life, Kane needed rock and roll redemption. “New York Doll” goes from mundane to magical when Kane gets a call from Morrissey.

                 55 year old Killer Kane was invited to reunite with The Dolls for Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival in London. The final act of “New York Doll” is bittersweet and life-affirming.

                 “New York Doll” shows that it is possible for a childless man to find meaning in this crazy world. But it definitely isn’t easy. I’m not sure I’ve found meaning just yet. But getting to write for this wonderful newspaper is good start. Plus I’ve never changed a baby’s diaper. Not once.