THE FREEDOM TO KEEP FREEDOM FREE FROM MEANINGLESSNESS

The other day in a post about some of the recent activities of Google’s Sergey Brin, we postulated a new Iron Law of the modern era: When rich guys talk about freedom, hold on to your wallet. They are almost always talking about ways to make themselves more free to get more money. Or at least more of something that they want.

Here’s another example, this time from the speech that Mitt Romney gave at last week’s convention of the National Rifle Association. “Freedom is the victim of unbounded government appetite and so is economic growth and job growth and wage growth,” Romney said. “And as government takes more and more, there’s less and less incentive to take risk and to invest and to innovate and to hire people.”

First, one man’s inadequate return is another man’s golden opportunity. Last week I was at a newspaper stand the day after the big Mega Millions jackpot was won. A customer asked the lottery agent how much the new pot was worth. “A million,” the agent replied. “About $500,000 after taxes.”

“$500,000,” snorted the customer. “Hardly worth it.”

I guess there are more than a few people like that customer–and Romney–but clearly a lot of other people bought tickets, even for that scrimpy amount. it seems to me that the world is full of people who are willing to accept various rates of return for their investments. Next month a whole crowd of people are likely to be assembled to buy Facebook stock, and I doubt that even one of them will be slowed by the unsettled state of the Bush tax cuts. They will have visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, and the thought that the government would get its cut will dissuade them not a jot or tittle.

What I think the tax levels do affect is a corporation’s decision about where to locate. I would call that a different problem, but I can see where Romney would say that high taxes affect his freedom to headquarter his company in the USA without paying a portion of profits in taxes (or without staffing up the tax department, a la General Electric, and filing a ten thousand page tax return that completely eliminates the company’s tax charges.)

But this general conception of freedom as something that is being threatened by the government is an odd complaint to have, particularly in a flourishing democracy. First, you can rhetorically manipulate this idea of freedom so that it means anything. Laws against Grand Theft Auto limit my freedom to steal a Jaguar. No one is crying about that. Besides, while freedom may be what government limits, t is surely also what government bestows: the government preserves our freedom not to be killed by terrorists, or to be robbed by predators, or swindled by unscrupulous financiers, or poisoned by people who would carelessly allow e. coli bacteria into by hamburgers, or worked to death by avaricious managers. Surely even Romney would acknowledge that government helps secure our freedom from want, our freedom from fear, and our freedom of self-expression. Second, freedom isn’t even necessarily the thing we value most. Part of living in a democracy is accepting that one doesn’t always get one’s way, and that sacrificing that kind of total freedom one might enjoy in a state of nature is the price we pay for the benefits of living in a society. Freedom is not the highest and best good; ask anybody who is reasonably happily married.

Hey you don’t need to be Frank Luntz to play this game. Everything we value can be expressed as a freedom of, from or to do something, and everything we dislike can be expressed as limit on a freedom. (“A freedom not to eat broccoli,” as Justice Scalia might observe.) But if freedom is going to mean anything in our discussions, it can’t be bandied about promiscuously, like it was a catch phrase form an Adam Sandler movie.

Or from a Mitt Romney speech.

GET ME REWRITE

In Psychology Today, Jonathan Gottschall offers an article that will come as a consolation to all writers: even the great one struggle. In proof, he offers some telling pages from some highly celebrated novels. In order: First, Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust; Couples, by John Updike; Crash, by J.G. Ballard; Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens; The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard.





SERGEY BRIN: MEET THE NEW BOSS. . .

Here is an Iron Law of the modern era: When rich guys talk about freedom, hold on to your wallet. They are almost always talking about ways to make themselves more free to get more money.

Case in point: in an interview with The Guardian on Sunday, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, said that the principles of openness and universal access that underpinned the creation of the internet are under threat. “Very powerful forces have lined up against the open internet on all sides and around the world”. Brin says that the threats come from governments increasingly trying to control access and communication by their citizens; the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy; and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.

Brin has accumulated a fortune that Forbes says is worth $18.7 billion, by creating a powerful research tool that has almost achieved monopoly status in its ability to help find information. And what he seems to be objecting to is the ability of others to infringe on his monopoly.

Brin seems most reasonable when he objects to government interference in the ability of its citizens to use the web. Everyone hopes that the efforts of China, Iran, Russia, North Korea and Saudi Arabia soon collapses in failure. But Brin objects not only to traditionally authoritarian states, but also to Great Britain, which plans to monitor social media and web use. The UK is doing this in response to concerns about terrorism and about criminal activity. Now, anyone with half a brain knows that whenever a government monitors its citizens, the government itself has to be watched with a close and skeptical eye. But fighting terrorism, child pornography and cyber-bullying are activities squarely within the legitimate police power of the state. Do we want to stop terrorists from conspiring in restaurants but allow them to plot away in cyberspace? Don’t be daft.

Now look what else Brin objects to: the attempts of entertainment companies to fight piracy. Where is freedom under threat here? I don’t think stopping people from stealing the work of other people is a threat against freedom. It’s a pollution of the language to think otherwise. Brin also objects to the tight control Facebook and Apple exert over their platforms. “There’s a lot to be lost,” he said. “For example, all the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can’t search it.” He says that under such rules, he and co-founder Larry Page would not have been able to create Google. “You have to play by their rules, which are really restrictive,” he said. “The kind of environment that we developed Google in, the reason that we were able to develop a search engine, is the web was so open. Once you get too many rules, that will stifle innovation.”

It seems to me that the main reason Brin is objecting to other people protecting their property is that it makes his property less valuable. He says that he’s concerned that having these kinds of regulations will stifle innovation. I’m sure he’s right. Look how locks and safes have stifled growth and innovation in the field of bank robbery.

It was interesting to place Brin’s spirited defense of freedom in light of Google’s announcement last week that it was going to split its stock. It seems that the freedom that Brin so staunchly champions in cyberspace is not something he values as much on such real world places as Wall Street. As Andrew Ross Sorkin reported in The New York Times on Monday (speaking of places that probably wished it could have preserved the value of its intellectual property on the internet), Brin, Page and company chairman Eric Schmidt “cleverly” created the stock split so that Google could issue a special new class of shares to current shareholders. The catch: the new class of shares has no voting rights. “In other words, the entire point of the stock split was to solidify the founders’ control of the company by diminishing the future voting power of the shareholders. So even as the founders continue a plan to sell some of their shares over the next three years through a program they enacted in 2009 and the company continues to issue new shares to employees, they have developed a plan to retain an iron grip over Google.” This decision will be put before shareholders at the company’s annual meeting, but since these three principles own two-thirds of the company, the result is a foregone conclusion: with every new non-voting share they sell, the voting shares they retain will be all the more powerful. “At a time when shareholders are increasingly seeking a bigger voice and more democracy,” says Sorkin, “Google is going the other way.”

It’s not threats to freedom that Brin wants to stop. It’s threats to his power.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

BETTER ADVICE FOR BLOOMIE

Like Neptune and Jupiter, there is gaseousness in the atmosphere of the planet Thomas L. Friedman, but we are nonetheless confident that intelligent life resides there. Quite intelligent, in fact; most days we are confident that we’ve learned something from reading Friedman’s columns, which usually deliver a much-needed macro view of America’s position.

Still, there are days when Friedman writes a column that makes you think that instead of making another trip to talk to small businessmen in Bangalore or economic planners in China, he should spend a political season at the knee of the county chairman of a political party or with the chief of staff of some US Senator, and learn something about votes, and how they’re cast and how they’re counted.

In today’s column in The New York Times, Friedman–perhaps seeking inspiration and finding himself sitting on it?–rides in a taxi that hits some potholes outside Union Station, and from there quickly moves to expressing the fond wish that New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg commit a selfless act of patriotism and spend tens of millions of dollars running as a third party candidate for president. “This election has to be about those hard choices, smart investments and shared sacrifices — how we set our economy on a clear-cut path of near-term, job-growing improvements in infrastructure and education and on a long-term pathway to serious fiscal, tax and entitlement reform. The next president has to have a mandate to do all of this. But, today, neither party is generating that mandate . . . .That’s why I still believe that the national debate would benefit from the entrance of a substantial independent candidate — like the straight-talking, socially moderate and fiscally conservative Bloomberg — who could challenge, and maybe even improve, both major-party presidential candidates by speaking honestly about what is needed to restore the foundations of America’s global leadership before we implode.”

Bloomberg doesn’t have to win in order to pull off this miracle, says Friedman, “or even stay in the race to the very end. Simply by running, participating in the debates and doing respectably in the polls — 15 to 20 percent — he could change the dynamic of the election.” The other candidates and Congress would gravitate towards him. “And, by taking part in the televised debates, he could impose a dose of reality on the election that would otherwise be missing.”

Here’s a dose of reality: the most likely beneficiary of a Bloomberg Third Party candidacy would be the far right. This is the most retrograde part of the electorate, the group most opposed to tax hikes, but also to the very idea of government with an activist agenda. Bloomberg would take votes away from Obama, and deny him the a portion of the moderate suburban vote that is uncomfortable of not outright alarmed by the right wing having such a big influence over the GOP. Romney’s dilemma right now is that he has to run to the middle to win, and his party isn’t keen to follow. But because Bloomberg is likely to absorb those votes, Romney could win a lot of swing states with around 40% of the vote, which means he wouldn’t have to move much at all. Romney would win, but he wouldn’t have a mandate to enact Bloomberg’s proposals. He wouldn’t have a mandate at all. The right wing would.

Here’s another dose of reality. Thanks to a third party candidate named Ralph Nader, America got the presidency of George W. Bush, ten years of war, mismanagement of the economy, and Supreme Court justices named John Roberts and Samuel Alito.

If Friedman is serious about this new sidelight of being Mike Bloomberg’s career counselor, may I suggest that he urge Bloomie not to spend his money in pyrrhic run for the presidency, and encourage Mike to become an investor. He should invest in the depleted stock of the Republican party in the northeast and Middle Atlantic and midwest and the Pacific coast states, and rebuild it into a going concern. Build a forward-thinking party in those places that will provide an alternative to the far right of the GOP and to the excesses of the Democrats. Create a party that is pro-business (not pro-billionare), pro-growth (not anti-tax), pro-Main Street (not pro-Wall Street), and pro-education and pro-opportunity, but skeptical about big government. It would be a large, inclusive party, with the kind of values Bloomberg at his best articulated during the Islamic Center controversy.

Bloomberg shouldn’t run a campaign in which not only he and his ideas would certainly lose. He should build a party that could actually elect him.

THE RIFLE

I doubt that anyone but me cares, but 35 years ago tonight, I saw the most exciting hockey game of my life. MY beloved Philadelphia Flyers were facing the estimable Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals. This was one of the terrific but star-crossed Leaf teams featuring Daryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull, Mike Palmateer, Tiger Williams and others worthies. The year before, the teams had literally brawled through a seven-game quarterfinal series in which the Flyers prevailed enroute to the Cup Finals, and this year, Toronto seemed determined to avenge the loss. They came into the Spectrum and won the first two games, placing the Flyers at a huge disadvantage going back to Maple Leaf Gardens. In a very fine Game Three, though, the Flyers won 4-3, on a Rick MacLeish goal in overtime, which set up Sunday night’s pivotal Game Four, where either the Flyers would knot the series coming back to Philly, or the Leafs would gain a stranglehold.

The Flyers held the edge early on a first period power play goal by Bobby Clarke, but soon the Leafs came back. McDonald scored twice and Salming added a power play goals, and though Reggie Leach (my favorite) added one for the Flyers, the second period ended with the Leafs ahead. In the third, the Leafs pulled further ahead, with the phenomenal McDonald scoring in the sixth minute and again in the twelfth. Down now 5 to 2, the Flyers became unhinged, and veterans Gary Dornhoeffer and Ross Lonsberry took cheap, nasty penalties. With seven minutes left, the Flyers looked a way that they seldom looked–discouraged, frustrated, beaten.

Then the amazement began. A suddenly roused Flyers began a relentless attack. Clunky Mel Bridgman, never a big scorer, put one past Palmateer at 14:11. Not sucha big deal, but the Flyers kept fighting. At 18:11, Tom Bladon, the defenseman with the heavy slap shot, scored from the point. A mere sixteen seconds later, the indomitable Clarke poked one from a scramble in front of the net, and the Flyers had tied the score.

The overtime period was terribly tense, end to end action with each side taking eight shots. The Flyers even had to kill a penalty when Bob Kelly went off for tripping. But with the period almost over, Leach and MacLeish broke down the right wing, and from the right circle, Leach blasted a shot past Palmateer. Incredible.

The Flyers took the next two games and the series, before losing, alas, to the Bruins in the semi-finals. We were sorry not to have our rematch with Montreal, but for 35 years, we have had the amazing Game Four, and the overtime blast by The Rifle.

JUSTICE FOR LINDA RONSTADT!

The 27th annual induction ceremony of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held on Saturday. Seventeen entities–individual performers, bands and behind-the-scenes influences–were inducted, raising the total number of inductees to near 300 (I’m a little tentative about my ability to perform addition the Rock and roll way) and the the total number of human beings to over 700.

None of them is named Linda Ronstadt.

Surprised? I sure was. I just assumed that at some point along the line, the best, most accomplished, most amazing interpreter of rock’s greatest composers would have received recognition from the Hall. It just stands to reason; other worthies whose gifts simply do not measure up are there. Bonnie Raitt, say? Jackson Browne? Tom Waits? Their talents are amazing, but Ronstadt’s vocal range and interpretive aptitude are beyond compare. And given that this is a Hall of Fame, after all, it seems that an organization that finds room for anonymous record producers and unnamed Crickets and Miracles just might find space for someone who has amassed 11 Grammy Awards and a score of magazine covers and stacks of gold and platinum records. But bringing up these distinctions seems crass, and vain, as though they might merit her induction when all that it really would take, should take, is to hear her recordings. Linda Ronstadt could–can–just flat out sing: an impeccable performer, a peerless interpreter, with amazing taste. If all she had recorded was her early hit Long, Long Time, and she would be remembered for having sung one of the four or five
best torch songs ever, but she of course has given us so much more. She helped define country rock (and did Silver Threads and Golden Needles ever rock!), establish California rock (Desperado), interpret Motown with great versions of Tracks of My Tears and Heat Wave, reintroduce audiences to Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Doris Troy, The Everly Brothers and The Exciters, showcase songwriters like Warren Zevon (Carmelita, Poor Poor Pitiful Me) J.D. Souther (Prisoner in Disguise), Lowell George (Willin’), Randy Newman (Sail Away), Neil Young (Birds) and The McGarrigle Sisters (Heart Like a Wheel).

It’s true that the Hall of Fame has a bias in favor of artists who wrote their own material, or who at least recorded the best known versions of the material they picked (it’s also true that rock in general has a bias against women.) Taking ownership of material wasn’t really Ronstadt’s game. She has not written a great deal, and it’s not like her version of say, Tracks of My Tears makes you forget that Smokey Robinson and the Miracles made a hit version of it (although her late ballads, the great Cry Like a Windstorm and her duet with Aaron Neville Don’t Know Much will never be identified with anyone else.) But it’s wrong to diminish Ronstadt for this; instead, she should be appreciated for being an incredible curator, a peerless interpreter. If singing perfect songs is an impediment to induction in the Hall of Fame, then indeed, she is guilty.

At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ronstadt will kiss off the Hall of Fame when it finally gets around to come calling (hey, she might already have.) What does she need them for? And really, at this point, her absence says more about the Hall’s blockheadedness than any shortcoming on her part. And if she has a need to review the history of rock, she can listen to her records, where she’ll find British Invasion groups, Motown, Stax, the Brill Building, the Club Troubador, Nashville, the New Wave. She is the Hall of Fame.

WILDCATS!

My poor girl Cara had to work during the NCAA Finals last night, but as she says, thank God for streaming. And thank God, also, that the post-victory party was still going on after she got off work. Here she is, left, with her roommate Nicole, celebrating in Lexington. As she put it on Facebook, “YES NCAA MENS BASKETBALL CHAMPS!!! I LOVE MY SCHOOL AND I LOVE MY CATS!!!! BEST WAY TO FINISH UP MY FRESHMAN YEAR!” Not to be a buzzkill, dear, but I suppose it’s my job: the year is over when finals are over.

INTO THE STUDIO

On Friday, more baby steps were taken in the effort to turn The Coup into a musical, when composer David Berger, lyricist Paul Mendenhall and I joined three singers, about ten musicians, and a cadre of sound technicians in recording several of the songs that David and Paul have written for the show. The recording studio was located on the third floor of a building at 48th and 7th. Kind of shabby building, but state of the art equipment inside. It made me think that when Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin went into the back of Del Floria’s humble tailor shop, yes, they might have been slipping into UNCLE headquarters.

David had assembled a band of about ten musicians to perform behind the singers. I am told that this is kind of unusual these days–on these demo records, it’s often just a piano backing the singers. I heard at three songs in total, and a part of another. I liked the music. It’s very jazzy; one romantic number was described, I think accurately, as “very Billy Strayhorn.” Paul’s lyrics are intelligent and witty. The difference between reading them and hearing them performed is amazing; they take on a whole life of their own.

The singers were very good. I only heard Bill Nolte sing in an ensemble piece, so I really didn’t get a good idea of his voice. But Bruce Warren and Jessica Molaskey were very strong. It was impressive to hear how they progressed from take to take. The first take was usually a very straight rendition of the song. Then with each take, they began adding little inflections and variation; by the fourth take, they were really performing the numbers, really acting the lyrics. It’s really incredible how talented these people are.

We should finish the recording this week, followed by another week or so to mix the record. Then the script, the songs and the demo record will go to various people up the food chain–to some producers, who regularly invest and raise money, and to some directors, whose interest would attract investors.

And then we’ll see. . .

(Top photo: Bruce, Bill, Jessica, Paul, me’ Middle left: David, through a glass and darkly, conducts the band; middle right: David and the producer Glenn discuss a take.)