Monday, April 29, 2013

Mad Men Season Six - Meditations In An Actual Emergency

Mad Men has done major national events - the 1960 Presidential election framed an all night Sterling Coo blowout complete with a Creme de Menthe tainted water cooler [1] and Margaret Sterling's wedding took place just after the Kennedy Assassination [2]. But unlike those episodes, where the high drama of current events served as the backdrop for the storyline, in The Flood the national tragedy of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination was the story, washing away everything else and instilling a leaden cloud as tangible as the smoke that formed over the city. 

On the broad strokes, there was (sadly) an authenticity we could all appreciate - the saturation media coverage, the sense of anxiety and fear, of not knowing what to do or how to act (and Harry Crane's agita over potential lost billings over pre-empted network programming!) that we have all felt from Sandy Hook to Boston, 9/11 to Virginia Tech. The use of media, radio, television and the clackity-clack of Abe's typewriter was as subtle as a sledgehammer and discursive in its mood setting. It was as if characters were vibrating at a slightly higher frequency and unsure what to do - Don fretted that Sylvia, on a last minute jag to Washington, D.C. was caught in the rioting that took place there; Peggy's real estate agent tried to leverage the tragedy to low ball a bid on an apartment and Henry took the opportunity as a sign that he needed to recalibrate his political ambition. At the office, Pete and Harry got into a shouting match, with the former accusing the latter of racism, while Roger brought in a potential client who wanted to market his insurance products at the tip of a Molotov cocktail. 

And like life, whatever mundane things that were going on until the moment that BIG THING happened immediately became superfluous - from Ginzo's worst. first. date. ever. ("I've never had sex. Not even once. Oh Ginzo, you charmer) to Peggy's flirtatious side eye to Ted at the awards ceremony. Megan's victory plaque at the same event for her Heinz pitch sat mournfully on the Draper family couch, forgotten, and Bobby's scab picking at the bedroom wallpaper (he's nothing if not consistent - he broke the Draper family record player back in Season 2 [3]) was just another minor way the Drapers' middle child annoyed his parents.  

And within that tragedy, character was revealed and refracted through new and different lenses. Pete took umbrage at Harry's concern over lost advertising revenue [4] and attempted to console his estranged wife Trudy (to no avail).  Left on his own, the pied a tierre that was going to be his City "shag pad" is now just a lonely one bedroom apartment where he grimly orders carry out. Don, immersed in a drama of his own making, is dismissive of his own children until Bobby reacts viscerally to their little evening of hooky at a back-to-back viewing of Planet of the Apes. Although still a boy, Bobby connects the cinematic destruction of America with what he is seeing outside Don's car window. 

Bobby also knows that people go to movies when they are sad, but Don, in a heart breaking scene late in the episode confesses an ugly truth to Megan - that he doesn't love his children or fears he cannot love them, that he feared his own father feigned love toward him as a young boy [5] and that when faced with reacting to something his son did that actually made him feel emotion, Don struggled to process it. I thought this scene between Don and Megan was one of their best, not just of this season, but of their "relationship." It harkened back to an earlier time in their marriage when Megan was unafraid to question and push Don over his shortcomings (in this case, his drinking and seeming alienation from his children) and Don was open to her voice and her presence. There was a poignancy and intimacy between Don and Megan that has been missing from much of their interaction this season even as viewers could not help but feel the remove between them. 

As much time as Don has spent burying the lie of his Dick Whitman past, it is clear that it is not the swapping of dog tags that he wants hidden from the world, but his inability to cope with the fall out from his difficult childhood. Indeed, the impact of his hard scrabble roots has been juxtaposed just a few times, but each at a critical moment [6]. Here, Don's burden is weightiest. The screen practically sags with his inconsolability - it is not just that wretched childhood that burdens him, it is a deeper weariness. At another trying time, he was able to compartmentalize tragedy writ large (the JFK assassination) and small (his divorce from Betty) to tell Peggy that seeing a changed world when others do not is a valuable thing [7]. Now, he can only look sadly at an empty bottle of Canadian Club, a crumpled packet of Lucky's, and across a scarred landscape from the balcony of his Park Avenue penthouse apartment.

While Don searched for answers that have long eluded him, The Flood was not without its optimism. Abe casually mentions to Peggy that he's given thought to where he'd like to raise their children, offering a subtle grace note as she vents about losing out on the apartment she bid on. Ginzo's dad lectures him about people finding people in times of crisis and I for one thought Ginzo's extreme awkwardness and his date's coy flirtation was kind of charming. When Harry tells Betty he is going to run for the State Senate, Betty eyes a dress from her younger (and skinnier) times. It's all they could have done to cue the Rocky theme as she gazed into the mirror, envisioning herself svelte and on the arm of her politically influential husband. 

In this way, we see something we know to be true - that even in the middle of extreme turmoil, life goes on. But the benefit of knowing how the events being portrayed in Mad Men unfold merely serves to prepare us for the societal meltdown that was kindled in the wake of MLK's shooting. We know, even if Don, Roger and the others do not, that this is just the beginning, and not the end, of the insanity of 1968. 


1. Nixon v. Kennedy, Season 1, Episode 12. 
2. The Grown-Ups, Season 3, Episode 12. 
3. Three Sundays, Season 2, Episode 4.
4. This is not the first time Pete has shown an uncharacteristic charity toward his fellow man. Back in Season 3, he attempted to pitch TV manufacturer Admiral on direct marketing to the black community. The Fog, Season 3, Episode 5. 
5. And who could blame him? His mother named him "Dick" and suggested his penis be boiled in hog fat (Out of Town, Season 3, Episode 1) and Archie was a dishonorable man (The Hobo Code, Season 1, Episode 8). 
6. The flashback revealing Archie's "dishonor" takes place as Don's affair with Midge is dissolving (The Hobo Code, supra); Archie appears to Don in a hallucination while Don is in a motel with a runaway couple out to rob him after he has a fight with Betty (Seven Twenty-Three, Season 3, Episode 7); Archie's death is examined while Don is in the process of divorcing Betty and forming Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (Shut the Door. Have a Seat, Season 3, Episode 13); and Don reveals how his father passed away to Peggy the night Anna dies (The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7). 
7. Shut the Door. Have a Seat, supra. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Mad Men Season Six - Sinners and Saints

In an hour that plunged both feet into the counter-culture, To Have and To Hold trafficked in the oldest of sins - betrayal, envy and greed. In its way, the fourth episode of Mad Men's Sixth Season condensed much of what we consider the seven deadly sins in one tidy hour. Don, carrying on a passionate affair with Sylvia, cannot stomach the idea that Megan's soap opera character has a love scene. Stan, whose casual gossip tip about Heinz led to Peggy's betrayal of his confidence, expresses his distaste for her conduct in no uncertain terms. And the agency engages in its own betrayal, having promised not to go after the business, it does so - resulting in the loss of their actual Heinz account. Meanwhile, Don's secretary Dawn does a favor for Harry's secretary Scarlett by punching her out of the office at the end of the day when she leaves early and is caught in her lie. Joan's friend Kate visits from out of town and cheats on her husband. Harry, frustrated at not getting the respect he thinks he is owed, envious of Joan and desiring more power (not to mention money) has a temper tantrum in front of the partners, dissing Joan and the manner in which she attained her partnership. In fact, the only two people living honestly are soap opera scribe Mel and his wife Arlene, who attempt to solicit Don and Megan into a night of spouse swapping, only to be rebuffed. And everywhere, marijuana was in the air, psychedelic colors bloomed and the relentless drumbeat of Vietnam grew ever closer. 

Don's disapproval of Megan's love scene is unsurprising. Where once he chided Betty for purchasing a bikini at a country club 4th of July celebration [1], he now reprimands Megan for kissing another actor as part of a chaste love scene. The screaming hypocrisy of Don's incessant philandering is obviously what makes his behavior the more egregious, but with Megan, it seems like he resents her (modest) success and mindlessly continues his cheating ways. Bad pennies have a way of turning up, but casting "Corinne" as a scheming maid is a curious choice. Megan, innocent but alluring in her cleaning outfit, is not unfamiliar with scrubbing carpets on her hands and knees [2]; however, the Draper marriage, like that white carpet she scrubbed some time ago, has quickly soiled and Megan has seen her role in Don's life devolve ever since he left her high and dry at an upstate Howard Johnson's [3]. When Don stings Megan by observing that she "kisses people for money" we might as well be back in the whorehouse where Don was conceived [4] or the brothel he grew up in. [5]

But Don's casual use of a double standard in his marital life is just one way that the Pleasantville effect [6] was shown in a way more glaring than even Roger's LSD trip last season. [7] Indeed, To Have And To Hold featured the full range of the burgeoning counter culture. Consider Dawn, Don's secretary. For the past season plus, she's been a peripheral character with a steady Eddie demeanor and competent manner rarely seen in Don's assistant. Now, we know Dawn is deeply unhappy with her job, the incessant drinking that goes on in the office, and the sense of everyday terror that the secretaries (crying at their desks) and ad men (crying in the elevator) endure. Overlaying her sense of dread is the fact that she finds it hard to meet men, it going without saying that there are few (no?) other black employees at SCDP. 

Here, the writers handled race relations with a defter hand than last season's water balloon incident [8] and allowed the scenery and dialogue to speak for itself. When Dawn does a favor for Harry's secretary Scarlett, punching her time card at the end of the evening even though Scarlett left early to shop for fellow assistant Clara's gift, the two women react far differently when their ruse is exposed. Scarlett is fired but gets Harry to champion her, leading to her reinstatement. Dawn, mindful of losing a job, even one she does not like, is apologetic, offering to have her pay docked for the time Scarlett took. Scarlett strutted through the halls of SCDP after Harry got her job back; Dawn humbly took responsibility for the violation and was rewarded by Joan with greater responsibility (about more shortly). 

And who is this Harry Crane we see in the late winter of 1968? Aside from his ridiculous side burns and lecherous mien, we could not have seen his volcanic explosion at the partners coming. When Ken disturbs Harry's monday morning coffee and danish with complaints from his father-in-law that people don't like Dow Chemical Harry springs into action. He swoops in with what the reactionaries at the company think is a swell idea - a variety show with Broadway Joe Namath (not a Don Draper favorite [9]) and Joey Heatherton. For co-opting an icon of the counter-culture for establishment needs Dow ponies up $150,000, but the idea itself is absurd. Here, as in Don's Great Depression era attitude toward female chastity, the "adults" are completely out of step with the reality of youth culture. A football player will no more make the American people forget about napalm being used in Vietnam than a couple of commercial spots featuring Dow's "family friendly" products. 

When Harry returns triumphant to the office, Scarlett is decamping with her things. When he sees Joan in the partners' meeting, he directs a tart dressing down of her in front of the assembled group, blatantly calling out the method in which she received her promotion and questioning why his value to the company is not recognized. As a power play, his timing was good, but his personality, noxious and oily, causes Bert to observe that he (Bert) and Harry are nothing alike, even though Bert once did an earlier generation's version of Harry's job. Instead of a partnership, Harry nets a year's worth of salary in the form of a full commission on the pitch. 

Joan mostly took Harry's barbs without cracking, but in one episode, her conflicted experience as SCDP's newest partner was brought into sharp relief. Her social skills are as deft as ever, guiding an out-of-town friend toward a one-night stand at an otherwise vanilla restaurant straight out of 1950s Americana that dissolves into a psychedelia infused after hours club where casual hook ups set to dizzying lights could not have been more with the times.  Joan's mother boasts of her daughter's status as "a partner at a Madison Avenue advertising firm," but Harry's diatribe affirms something Joan has always felt - under (and de) valued [10]. 

But it is Joan's friend who makes Joan realize the choices are not binary, that she does not either have to feel like a secretary or an all powerful master of the universe, but as someone whose seat at the table speaks for itself and to act accordingly. It is a keen observation and one Joan takes to heart. Instead of stewing over Scarlett's imperious strut, she makes a much bolder, albeit more subtle decision - handing the keys to the storage closet and time card machine to Dawn - entrusting the woman with considerable responsibility that the latter takes as a thank you but Joan argues is a punishment. Joan's climb up the corporate ladder was one that stemmed from a place of need, but now that she's there, maneuvering in that rarefied air will be a challenge, but by opening the door to Dawn, she echoes something that was spoken about less than a year ago by our First Lady - that if you get through a door, you reach back and extend your hand to others. 

To Have and To Hold also offered our first image of mentor and protégée, as Don and Peggy went head-to-head pitching Timmy, the Heinz Ketchup Guy. The CGC pitch was itself the result of skullduggery, but Peggy's blatant cribbing of Don's observation that if "you do not like the conversation, change the subject" [11] was what seemed to devastate him more than her pitch, which Don could not help but eavesdrop on while it was being delivered. These were rich scenes, underplayed by the actors involved, which only served to heighten the awkwardness of the encounter. When the two groups run into each other at a bar afterwards, Ken bursts in to inform the group that Raymond has canceled the baked beans account, and before anyone could get to Twitter with a Ted Chaough thought bubble of stealing the business, Pete makes the same observation. Ken's not-so subtle reference to loyalty was aimed at Don and Pete, but the shrapnel nailed his former partner in crime Peggy, whose underhandedness is what landed CGC the pitch opportunity in the first place. 

This was an hour of television practically marinating in deceit - it was unpleasant to watch. From Timmy, licking his finger to wedge his wedding ring off before a night on the town to Pete's offering of his shag pad to Don, you almost needed a Silkwood shower to wipe the grime off. Joan was unapologetic about her assignation, but her married friend felt deep regret. Harry was contemptuous and churlish toward one and all and his secretary thought nothing of accepting his influence to help her remain employed. Megan's big career leap may have been a simple ruse by a couple in an open marriage to spice up their own sex life, but Don would no sooner accept the couple's invitation to some after hours wife swapping than his wife's pretend behavior on a TV show. Sylvia may pray for Don to find peace, but To Have and To Hold suggests that neither he nor anyone else is likely to find any soon. 


1. Maidenform, Season 2, Episode 6. 
2. A Little Kiss, Part 2, Season 5, Episode 2.
3. Far Away Places, Season 5, Episode 6. 
4. Out of Town, Season 3, Episode 1.
5. The Collaborators, Season 6, Episode 3.
6. A 1998 movie featuring a small town's transformation from 1950s black and white to 1960s technicolor and the use of that device as an allegory for societal change. 
7. Far Away Places, supra. 
8.  A Little Kiss, Part 1 and Part 2, Season 5, Episodes 1 & 2.
9. The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7. 
10. Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13.
11. Blowing Smoke, Season 4, Episode 12.  

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Mad Men Season Six - The Art of Deception

"It's All About What It Looks Like, Isn't It?" - Pete Campbell

Against the backdrop of a Vietcong sneak attack that we now know as the Tet Offensive, The Collaborators was full of ambushes and subterfuge where blurred lines were crossed and re-crossed and deception to oneself and others destructive to heart and home. Office gossip about Heinz passed from Stan to Peggy, whose boss thought nothing of taking that little nugget of information and leveraging it to his advantage. Megan, six weeks pregnant with Don's child, miscarries, but keeps the secret from him until after she has shared it with Sylvia, who feels guilt over her liaison with Don. Pete, happily ensconced in his pied a tierre in the city has sex with Cos Cob neighbor Brenda but is exposed when the woman's husband beats her. Trudy, whose "don't ask, don't tell" policy dates to Pete's sexual assault on an au pair in their building [1], immediately tosses Pete out on his ear.

But if there is narrative ballast to be found, it is clear that Matt Weiner draws our attention back to Don. Arnie can't seem to make it through a meal without being called away, which makes his wife the perfect target for Don's aging Lothario. He's already fulfilling Dr. Faye Miller's observation that he only likes "the beginnings of things," [2] drifting away from Megan and quite clear in his intentions with Sylvia - and while there may be some bizarre fidelity to Don's edict to live each day like it is his last, to compartmentalize "this" from everything else, he simply tumbles down the same rabbit hole that ejected him from Ossining and his first marriage. Don surely chuckled inside when Sylvia admonished that neither of them "fall in love," for her experience in this type of deception may be new, but his track record is long and he knows how this story ends. When Megan shares the news of her miscarriage with Don, his reaction to the question of whether he wants children is anodyne, "I want what you want." Well, of course he does. Two kids in his first marriage didn't slow him down, why would one? 

For the first time in a long time [3] we flash back to young Dick Whitman's childhood. We pick up his backstory as he and Abigail [4] move in with her sister, who lives in a brothel. [5] Abigail is pregnant with Adam but that does not stop house "rooster" Uncle Mack from having his way with her, or stop Dick from peeping into their liaison. That an adult Dick Whitman would be conflicted and compulsive about his sexual desires and a "whore child" who is then exposed to the very lifestyle that conceived him may have intimacy and commitment issues is unsurprising. Perhaps this is where Don's view of the world as largely transactional stems from, believing that all problems are solved with money. [6]

As a counterpoint to Don's predations, the maintenance of his grudge against Herb, the lecherous car salesman whose vote was secured for the Jaguar account by providing him an evening with Joan [7], has an odd nobility. When Herb hatches a scheme for the SCDP team to foist on the car executives, Don deftly undermines it, maneuvering the other Jaguar members into overruling the agency's recommendation. The hearty "fuck you" handshake he gives Herb as he walks out of the meeting more than makes up for the temper tantrum Pete pulls on him afterwards. 

And Pete has every reason to be hot. His reaction to Don's performance is merely displaced aggression at his own impotence, something that has been his fatal flaw. Pete has stewed in Don's shadow for nearly a decade and his attempts at everything from blackmail to slipping into Don's adulterer's ways have always fallen short. It is no surprise that when given the chance to have his pick of role playing with a prostitute, Pete chose to be her "king," [8] but Pete's is a history of a man without a kingdom. At root, it is unclear what Pete wants in life. Back in Season 2, he professed his love for Peggy, telling her it was she who he should have "chosen" instead of Trudy [9], and lashed out at his father-in-law for pulling his company's advertising because Pete seemed unfocused on starting a family. [10] 

As the years passed, Pete seemed to have found some equilibrium, but domesticity has not suited him whatsoever. He telegraphed his own marriage's demise when he referred to it as a "temporary bandage on a permanent wound," [11] but Pete's is a prison of his own making. Cos Cob may be an emotional cemetery without the aromas or noises of New York City, but Pete's yearning is for more than just a bakery's chocolates or the Botanical Gardens. Addicts are told "when I focus on what I want, I focus on what I do not have" and Pete focuses all of his attention on the things he does not have - the recognition he thinks he deserves, the affection he wants or the have-his-cake-and-eat-it-too dual life that Don pulled off so effortlessly for so long. And like an addict that engages in compulsive behavior that death spirals, Pete's shenanigans finally caught up to him. Trudy, who made vague reference to permitting indiscretions, cannot countenance suburban scandal that affects her ability to plan the Easter egg roll or 4th of July celebration. She kicks Pete out after finding out he had sex with a neighbor and he is left to get bootlicking junior account man Bob Benson to surreptitiously buy him toilet paper, too ashamed to admit he is now on his own. 

Meanwhile, the dark arts of advertising carry on. Peggy and Stan, whose relationship started so tempestuously [12] carry on late night phone chats as each toils away at their job. Except now, Stan has shared what he thinks is harmless office gossip that Peggy passes along to her boss, who is all too happy to use it to try and secure "the Coca-Cola of condiments." Peggy rightly sees the murky morality behind taking advantage of this type of "intelligence," but Ted sees his tactics as proper in the skirmishes that occur between agencies. In this way, Peggy and Ted perceive their jobs much differently. He is obsessed with negative comments, perceived slights and juvenile gags at his competitors' expense [13] and she sees her job not as a game or her role as a soldier in a battle between two mens' egos, but as a career. [14] That these missed signals, and more importantly, these tactics, might come back to haunt Stan and/or Peggy goes without saying. 

And so it goes. At its core, Mad Men is about lying - to others and to yourself - in the service of ensuring that the surface looks shiny and new, which makes the fact that the main characters work in advertising so exquisitely apt. People may do anything to avoid feeling anxious [15], or want to apply calamine lotion that scratches the itch of "newness" [16] but doing so helps them avoid dealing with the more mundane job of figuring out what it is they truly want and who they really are. When Don's identity theft was nearly exposed in Season 4, Dr. Miller, who had done so much to draw Don out, suggested that addressing some of his unresolved feelings might help him. Doing so, she told him, might help him feel more "comfortable" with his life. "And then what?" he asks. "Then you're stuck trying to be a person just like the rest of us." [17] We all know how that worked out. 

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1. Souvenir, Season 3, Episode 8. Though it should be noted, there is no suggestion Trudy knew of Pete's reprehensible attack on poor Gudrun. 

2.  Tomorrowland, Season 4, Episode 13. 

3. Season 3 was bookended with flashbacks to Don's conception and birth (Out of Town, Season 3, Episode 1) and his father's death (Shut the Door, Have A Seat, Season 3, Episode 13).

4.  Archie's wife is not Don's mother, a prostitute who died in childbirth is. While some say that makes Abigail Don's step-mother, I'm not sure that the term is apt. 

5.  Don made reference to his upbringing in a whore house. See, Signal 30, Season 5, Episode 5.

6. Don gives Sylvia money after one of their early morning assignations. He also paid a prostitute for sex (Public Relations, Season 4, Episode 1 and The Good News Season 4, Episode 3) and has made other allusions to money as a substitute for, or definition of, acknowledgement and appreciation ("that's what the money's for" - The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7; "I gave you money and I said thank you" - The Beautiful Girls, Season 4, Episode 9).

7.  The Other Woman, Season 5, Episode 11. 

8.  Signal 30, supra. 

9.  Meditations In An Emergency, Season 2, Episode 13. 

10. The Mountain King, Season 2, Episode 12.

11.  The Phantom, Season 5, Episode 13.  

12. Waldorf Stories, Season 4, Episode 6. 

13. After submitting "the letter" to the New York Times, Don receives a prank phone call from Ted, who pretends to be Senator Kennedy. Blowing Smoke, Season 4, Episode 12.  When recruiting Peggy to CGC, he asks her what terrible things have been said about him. Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12. 

14. Commissions and Fees, supra. 

15. The Doorway, Part 2, Season 6, Episode 2. 

16. The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13. 

17. Tomorrowland, supra. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Howard Stern Loses Appeal In $300 Million Lawsuit

In case you missed it, the New York Appellate Division (1st Department), issued its ruling affirming the decision of New York Supreme Court [1] Judge Barbara Kapnick to dismiss, with prejudice, Howard Stern’s $300 million lawsuit against Sirius/XM. [2]

The Appellate Division’s decision was as elegant in its simplicity as in its utter destruction of Stern’s claim that the contract was plain on its face that he was owed all that money for meeting subscriber-based performance bonuses based on his theory that any subscriber to the Sirius or XM service after the date of the two companies’ merger should have counted toward the bonus thresholds outlined in the contract.  

In legal circles, the Appellate Division’s terse, one paragraph ruling is akin to smacking down a pro se litigant who filed a frivolous lawsuit. It is not just that Kapnick’s ruling, which dismissed Stern’s lawsuit at the summary judgment phase [3] was upheld, it is that the Court did not even go through the formalities that typically attend appellate decisions – no recitation of the procedural history, the facts of the case, hell, there is barely any legal precedent cited – just a quick cite to one case and a statement that the plain language of the contract reads in the complete opposite way that Stern claimed.

The Court’s ruling is a full and utter loss for Stern that makes this matter disappear forever. And for this, I can only wonder what Stern and his agent, Don Buchwald, spent in legal fees.


1 In New York, the trial court is referred to as the “Supreme Court.”

90/10 vs. 80/20

As the Senate begins debate over gun control, a common fact mentioned by pundits is that roughly 90% of Americans support background checks as a part of the purchase of a firearm. One GOP Senator, Pat Toomey, agreed to co-sponsor the legislation with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin that would remove the so-called “gun show” loophole and require that all commercial gun transactions be subject to a NICS check. The fact that this idea has such broad public support is mentioned by reporters to show why the ordinarily obstructive GOP is suddenly singing a different tune. Indeed, it is suggested that because there is near universal support for background checks, the likelihood is high that the Toomey/Manchin proposal will be passed by Congress.

I am all for legislators sticking their fingers in the wind and following broad public opinion for positive public policy ends; however, why is that background checks, which 90% support should be passed into law, but cutting Social Security benefits, which is something that 80% oppose are being considered as part of the ever elusive “grand bargain?”


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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Full Emo Prog

News came last Friday that the budget President Obama will send to Capitol Hill today formally calls for the first reduction in benefits for Social Security beneficiaries in the nearly 80 year history of that program. Overall, the President's budget calls for long-term deficit reduction at a ratio of 4 dollars in spending cuts for every 1 dollar of tax increases. In addition to being bad policy, the President's budget is bad politics and represents a betrayal of Democratic principles dating to the Great Depression. Of course, anyone who has followed this President should be unsurprised. At every turn, he has run from the opportunity to harness public opinion to press his advantage and instead conceded negotiating points in the interest of comity with an opposition focused on his political destruction. 

This is hope and change?

Five months ago, President Obama easily won re-election, Democrats in the Senate gained seats and House Democrats garnered a million more votes than their foes, but Nancy Pelosi was denied a second go around as Speaker because state legislatures effectively gerrymandered districts in the GOP's favor. So what has happened since then? Senate Republicans have taken the unprecedented step of filibustering two of Obama's Cabinet nominations, blocked a vote on a nominee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and have already gone back on the so-called "handshake" agreement Senators Reid and McConnell made to avoid more drastic changes to filibuster rules proposed by Senator Jeff Merkley. On the House side, Republicans dug in their heels to allow the so-called "sequester" cuts to happen and passed the latest iteration of the "Ryan Budget," which contains the same blend of austerity, fiscal gimmickry and end-Medicare-as-we-know-it sophistry that the Congressman proposed in 2010, 2011, and 2012. 

On the "fiscal cliff," the President and Republicans had an argument over whether to raise taxes on the top 2% of income earners. Ultimately, they settled on raising income taxes for the top 1% but handed over two MASSIVE giveaways to the wealthy that rarely get reported. The first is the tax on capital gains and dividends, you know, the way Mitt Romney and his ilk make most of their money. Yeah, that. Instead of being taxed as regular income at up to the highest tax rate (39.6%), the President agreed to an eentsy-teensy bump from 15% to 20%. The second hand out is the estate tax. Here, the President agreed to a tax rate of 40% on estates of more than $5 million. As recently as 2000, the rate was 55% and the floor was $675,000. Even under George W. Bush, the tax rate was higher (45%) and kicked in at a lower level ($3.5 million). At its new (and permanent!) level, not only will this tax only impact one-fifth of 1% of estates, but the estate floor is now indexed to inflation, so it will go up as inflation does. Pretty sweet, no? 
While the ultra-rich were getting all kinds of goodies, the President, with the help of Congress, sold out the middle class.  While income tax rates were locked in at Bush-era levels, a middle-class tax increase occurred because the so-called "payroll tax" holiday that lowered FICA withholding from 6.2% to 4.2% was allowed to expire. In other words, what the government gave, it took right back. Meanwhile, the wealthy got tax certainty at a "cost" that most will never feel. In fact, some claim that the slowdown in job growth in March had to do not with the sequester, but the impact of the expiration of the payroll tax cut. This is based on the fact that jobs in the retail sector were lost, suggesting that consumers have less spending power now that the payroll tax holiday is over. 

This matters for several reasons. First, having agreed to permanently extend the Bush-era tax rates for 99% of income earners, the President has essentially locked in future tax revenue at a level that will make it difficult to make needed investments in infrastructure, research and development, education and all the other things that his once message-de-jour of "winning the future" requires. Second, he has made it more difficult for any politician in the future to vote for tax increases at a level below $450,000 because that is now deemed "middle class," which is ludicrous considering people at that income level are literally the "1 percent." In fact, under the President's definition of "middle class tax cuts," at $400,000 per year, the President himself is also "middle class." Absurd. 

But having made such a hash over the fiscal cliff, the President is now compounding his screw up by conceding the argument over taxes and spending entirely to the GOP. He's already cut government deeper than any modern Republican President would have dreamed of doing (more than $2 trillion over 10 years) and is now prepared to do something no Democratic President has ever done - reduce Social Security benefits - and for what?  Closing tax loopholes for rich people who will lobby to get those same loopholes reinstated before the ink is dry on the President's signature while senior citizens living at or near the poverty line will have to make do with less - forever. 

There is simply no rational explanation for this. Social Security is not in danger of insolvency. In fact, it can pay out full benefits for the next 20 years. Instead of pointing out the hypocrisy (not to mention inconsistency) in Republican talking points that say we cannot address an immediate problem (unemployment) but must tackle a long-term problem (Social Security), there is a far more important point the President fails to mention. Instead of figuring out ways to slice a smaller pie, he refuses to propose a simple fix that would ensure the program's solvency forever - removing the FICA deduction on wages. Currently, any income earned over about $113,000 is not subject to the FICA tax; removing that cap, or raising the ceiling to say, $1 million, would be a far more progressive way of addressing this "problem." And even if Republicans balked at this proposal, why not put it out there and negotiate down from removing the cap to lifting it to $200,000, or $300,000? 

Obama is as good at being inspirational as he is bad at the day-to-day work of governing unless you believe, as I have come to, that Obama is not particularly "liberal." In fact, his domestic agenda is closer to George H.W. Bush than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and yet, time and again, liberals and progressives (and I count myself among them) have been roped in by the soaring rhetoric only to be deflated by the mundane reality that this is not a President who relishes a fight like Bill Clinton, who stared down Republicans in 1995, or is willing to cleave the opposition like Ronald Reagan. Having come to D.C. unschooled in its ways and shown little interest in mastering the dark arts once he arrived, Obama has essentially been winging it, relying on calm, cool reasoning to carry the day against a party that gets traction for easily debunked tropes like "death panels" and "takers versus makers." 

And while this battle brews in Washington, the corporate elites are less and less interested in the outcome. My own view of Wall Street's aggressive move this year is that the wealthiest in our society now have the one thing they wanted - "tax certainty" - they could give a shit about whether sequestration, Obamacare or any of the other shiny objects that Washington focuses on happen or not. Companies were already healing faster than the overall economy and because much of corporate profit is now made overseas, what happens in our nation's capital affects them less and less. Having had wealth redistributed to them in ways unseen since before the Great Depression already, the squeeze felt by the fiscal cliff deal will barely be felt. It is no coincidence that companies that cater to the wealthy (think luxury cars and private jets) are doing quite well even as "uncertainty" allegedly roils our economy. 

And so it goes. A party that has lost the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections and, at the national level is about as popular as herpes has driven fiscal policy in ways it never could (or suggested) while one of its own was President. They continue to block nominations that were once de rigueur and set new standards for obstruction every time the gavel is banged to bring either the House or Senate to order. Now, if they'll have the common sense to say "yes" to a 4:1 cut/tax increase proposal made by the President, Republicans will put the last nail in the progressive coffin. Of course, if they say "no," that's ok too - the President will undoubtedly make them an even better offer. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Mad Men Season Six - The Ninth Circle of Hell

"Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood." - Dante Alighieri "The Inferno"

The sixth season of Mad Men began with all the subtlety of a kick to the head. Death, lingering and in shadow until Lane Pryce committed suicide, is now front and center. Don Draper, who did not so much find himself alone in that dark wood midway through his life's journey as having lived most of his life in it, is consumed with his mortality. On the other hand, Roger Sterling, who never wanted for a single thing in life, has been parachuted into that same foreboding place grasping for answers. 

Much of the season premiere presents Don and Roger as counterpoints in search of deeper meaning. The last time we heard Don in voice over, he was collecting the last of his belongings from his former marital home in Ossining, wizened and world weary over the life lessons he had learned. [1] Now, eight months removed from Lane's death, Don is immersed in an interior world far grimmer than infidelity or trouble with drink. No, Don has gone from doodling nooses and equating a Saturday night in the suburbs to blowing his brains out to externalizing his emotional baggage through red flags that are as big and bright as day. 

That Don would struggle with mortality is unsurprising. His own birth resulted in his mother's death and he was tarred with the label of "whore child" during his hardscrabble roots. His father, a "dishonorable man" [2], was killed in a freak accident in front of him [3], and a young Dick Whitman reached for a new life when an accidental explosion in Korea killed Lt. Don Draper. [4]  The death of Anna Draper consumed Don - a loss of "the only person who truly" knew him [5] and he felt responsible for Lane's suicide, having fired Lane for embezzling money from the firm. [6]

Now, Don ruminates openly about death and the hereafter. His ad campaign for The Royal Hawaiian hotel, a crown jewel of Sheraton, alludes to heaven and paradise, but in ways that strike his clients as morbid. That Don latches on to the idea of shedding one's skin is unsurprising. He has done it many times himself - from assuming Lt. Draper's identity to his charade of suburban domesticity, down the rabbit hole of slightly lecherous divorcee and back to marital bliss, Don's entire persona is about reinvention. Now he has simply gone from ephemeral "handprints on glass = nostalgia" [7] to showing an equally fleeting image - of footprints in sand, leading out to a watery beyond. While Don may see poetry in his advertising imagery, in his personal life, there is no deftness to his fear of mortality. Don drunkenly harangues his doorman into telling him about his near death experience, demanding to know whether the doorman "saw" anything. When the doorman tries to clarify that he was never in fact "dead," Don demurs, claiming the man had in fact died. 

Roger, on the other hand, has been touched by death directly. He had not one but two heart attacks [8] and opens this season coping with his mother's death. Long ago, when he and Don were contemplating the meaning of life, it was Don who spoke with a "you only live once" bravado that Roger interpreted as a green light to leave his first wife Mona for second wife Jane. [9] Now, Roger simply sees people out to pick his pocket. He quickly sizes up Mona and his daughter Margaret as running a scam to get him to invest in a business endeavor for son-in-law Brooks yet misses Jane's gracious gesture of offering back his mother's wedding ring. In therapy, as in life, Roger is, well, Roger - wise cracking and unserious, yearning for some deeper meaning he has searched for in the bottom of a bottle of Stolichnaya, the arms of younger lovers and LSD-soaked sugar cubes, and left wanting when no explanation satisfies him. In the end, it is the death of his shoeshine man that finally cracks Roger's exterior as he crumples in a heap in his office when handed the man's kit. 

But if all of this brooding and heaviness felt disorienting, it was because so much of the show has changed from Easter to Christmas 1967. It was difficult to simply get your bearings as a sea change occurred in everything from the firm's architecture to the cast's wardrobe. Facial hair abounds - from Stan Rizzo's burly beard to Abe Drexler's channeling of a young Frank Zappa. Roger, until now impeccable in grey or navy three-piece suits, now dons a royal blue blazer and creeping sideburns. Pot is now smoked openly in the office and through Betty's quixotic trip to the East Village, we see the clear social and cultural divide that will tear the country apart. That this episode was framed around New Years 1968 seems deeply intentional. Instead of standing for something we typically associate a "new year" with - rebirth, a new start, opportunity - so much of The Doorway meditated on just the opposite - death, finality, and loss. 

Indeed, the dissonance between "the world" and "the show" is what I found so difficult to follow on first viewing. Burt Peterson, last seen getting fired from Sterling Cooper at the beginning of Season 3 [10], has re-emerged as head of accounts at CGC. Random new characters appeared, their provenance, much less importance, entirely unclear. We are introduced to someone named "Bob Benson," a junior account man at SCDP, who may be Pete Campbell 2.0 or just someone who flitted into the show never to be seen again. Sally's friend Sandy may be the daughter of Betty's cancer-stricken friend [11], but whether she serves as a simple vehicle through which Betty more firmly embraces a darker persona (not to mention hair color) remains to be seen. Because the show demands investment by the viewer into these connections without knowing if they will pay off in deeper character development, The Doorway felt like sensory overload.
Meanwhile, another signature Mad Men maneuver added to the confusion. Storyline development "off camera" included the securing of the elusive Dow Chemical account, the firm's expansion to a second floor in the Time-Life Building and Megan's career advancement from a Butler Shoe advertisement to recurring character on a popular soap opera. Don and Megan have made friends with building neighbors Dr. and Mrs. Rosen and the window dressing of new copywriters at both SCDP and CGC may be mere fillers or turn out to become important supporting members of the cast. One never knows. [12]

In this swirl, Peggy Olson was the calm center. She is, as Ted put it, "good in a crisis," whether it's Abe's adverse reaction to vegetarian food or a client's concern about a negative association between an advertising campaign and the actions of GIs in Vietnam. The season premiere was Peggy's time to shine. She is a young creative director ("copy chief") already comfortable with both ends of the job - driving her underlings to come up with better ideas on the one hand and mollifying executives on the other. She even has time to keep up with Stan, and has, according to him, caught Ted's eye for something other than her ability to think on her feet. 

As a set piece for Season 6, the two-hour season premiere felt more like a four course meal - deeply satisfying but leaving the viewer with that uncomfortable feeling of having eaten too much. Having inundated the audience with so much information for two hours, Weiner pulled a trick out of his playbook that harkened all the way back to the show's very first episode. There, as here, all was not as it seemed. In Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, we first see Don with Midge and assume she is his girlfriend or wife. It is not until the end of the episode that we find out Midge is his mistress and Betty his wife. In The Doorway, it is the opposite - we assume Don to be faithful until the end of the show, when we learn he is engaging in an active affair with Dr. Rosen's wife, Sylvia. But Don as an aging Lothario is a far cry from his swinging days of the early 1960s, when he casually told Rachel Menken that he was "living like there was no tomorrow, because there isn't one." [13] What was glib and flirtatious then, now seems foreboding and ominous, a sign of darker days ahead. 

End Notes

1. "When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere; just ask him. If you listen, he will tell you how he got there; how he forgot where he was going and then he woke up. If you listen, he will tell you about the time he thought he was an angel or dreamt of being perfect and then he will smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world is not perfect. We are flawed because we want so much more; we are ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had." - The Summer Man, Season 4, Episode 8. 

2. The Hobo Code, Season 1, Episode 8.

3.  Shut the Door, Have a Seat, Season 3, Episode 13.

4. Nixon v. Kennedy, Season 1, Episode 12.

5. The Suitcase, Season 4, Episode 7.

6. Commissions and Fees, Season 5, Episode 12 and The Phantom, Season 5, Episode 13. 

7. The Wheel, Season 1, Episode 13.

8. Long Weekend, Season 1, Episode 10 and Indian Summer, Season 1, Episode 11. 

9. "It's your life, you don't know how long it's going to be, but you know it has a bad ending. You have to move forward, as soon as you can figure out what that is." - Six Month Leave, Season 2, Episode 9. 

10. Out of Town, Season 3, Episode 1. 

11. Tea Leaves, Season 5, Episode 3. 

12. Allison spent more than two seasons as Don's secretary with little ado, slept with him early in Season 4 and was gone shortly thereafter. Conversely, Megan, who was the most minor of minor characters through much of Season 4, emerges in the last few episodes to become Don's second wife. 

13. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Season 1, Episode 1.