Renowned film critic Roger Ebert died yesterday at the age of 70. He'd been battling cancer for years, and the cancer came back one time too many.
I remember Ebert well. In 1970, when he was a young man working for the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert was invited to participate in the University of Colorado's Conference On World Affairs (CWA), a week-long event he would attend for the next 40 years. I attended that conference from about 1997 until 2006, when I left Boulder and moved back to Pittsburgh, where I had grown up.
I talked to Ebert several times over those years; he was a familiar figure to lots of people at CU during the 2nd week of April. He was argumentative, opinionated, outspoken and always entertaining. I liked Ebert. He loved going to those conferences, where he got to talk about all sorts of things, not just films. Every year he presented a "Cinema Interruptus" in which a film Ebert selected could be picked apart by hundreds of "critics" sitting in the dark in CU's Mackey Auditorium [image top left]. I remember the year we watched Dark City, which was my favorite over the years.
Ironically, Ebert died on the eve of this year's conference, which begins Monday April 8. He last attended the CWA in 2010.
The keynote speaker at this year's CWA is Hedrick Smith, the author of Who Stole The American Dream? I have not read the book, but it appears that it documents in great detail the dismantling of America's middle class over these last 40 years. For example, Smith compiled a long timeline of important but often unheralded crimes like these—
1978 — Two major bills alter the economic landscape for decades to come. One is an obscure insert in the tax code, paragraph 401(k), initially intended to authorize supplemental executive retirement plans and later extended by the Reagan administration to rank and file workers. The other change updates U.S. bankruptcy laws, giving management control during corporate bankruptcy, paving the way for bankruptcies in the 1990s and 2000s that canceled provisions of union contracts.
1980 — Congress passes a deregulatory bill that overrules state usury laws and effectively abolishes limits on interest rates for first mortgages, paving the way for the future subprime mortgage boom.
1981 — President Reagan pushes through tax cuts that heavily favor the wealthy, dropping the top personal income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent, the capital gains rate from 28 percent to 20 percent, and the corporate rate from 46 percent to 35 percent. The Reagan tax cuts add $1 trillion in income for the super rich 1 percent during the 1980s, and another $1 trillion in each successive decade. The Forbes 400 Richest Americans triple their net worth between 1978 to 1990, thanks to the Reagan tax cuts.
1982 — President Reagan persuades Congress to pass a law authorizing the exotic loans that will become the hallmarks of the 2000s housing boom. The law permits loans never previously allowed: adjustable rate mortgages, or ARMs, with ballooning interest rates, 100 percent financing;; and “negative amortization” that permits banks to charge high fees and interest rates and allow minimal payments, causing many people to go deeper into debt, and stripping equity out of many homes.
This is only a small sample of the timeline, which starts in 1913 and ends in 2011-2012. If you want to know who stole the American dream, Smith is going to tell you exactly who did it and how they did it. Historical events like these speak for themselves. I don't usually talk about the past in such great detail. I prefer to take America's past for what it is, and talk about the toxic fall-out. Probably I assume too much. Only a person who is ignorant of the past 40 years, or a person who can not discern the meaning of our recent history, or one of the winners, could possibly think America is not fucked up beyond all repair (FUBAR).
Here's another one.
1973 — The productivity of U.S. workers rises 96 percent since 1945, and average hourly compensation rises in tandem—94 percent from 1945 to 1973. Average Americans share in the nation’s prosperity.
In the next three decades, from 1973 to 2011, worker productivity rises another 80 percent but hourly compensation rises only 10 percent. Ordinary Americans are cut out of their share of the nation’s economic gains.
In this historical context, does it really matter what the latest jobs numbers are? Does it matter how retail sales did last month? It does not.
That's why I loved the Conference on World Affairs. And Roger Ebert was always a big part of that conference. I miss attending the conference, and I'll miss Ebert too.
Below we have Smith being interviewed about the book on PBS on October 1, 2012. The PBS conversation is a bit dry, and doesn't quite capture the spirit of the America's fall from grace, so I've also included a George Carlin classic.
Have a nice weekend.