Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Debt

West Germany signs up for its 50% debt reduction in 1953
What, exactly, is debt? The question takes on new urgency as, yet again, the economic wise men of the European Union declare that Greece must submit to their terms -- for, after all, is there not a great debt at stake? Not to address it in the EU's terms, clearly, would be irresponsible and disastrous -- and so, their ministers speak to Greece -- the cradle of the civilization they claim to represent -- as one would to a child.

The Greek government has debts, indeed, and Greek banks have still more. But what does this really mean? Nietzsche was hardly the first to notice that the German word for guilt (schuld) derives from the older concept of debt (schulden). In English texts, "forgive us our debts" was an older and more common form of the Lord's Prayer's "forgive us our trespasses." Debt is sin, Christ is our "redeemer," and entrance into the kingdom of heaven is to be -- in these terms -- a forgiveness of debts.

We in the U.S. like to pillory the profligate -- it's almost a national passion. Republicans in the US Congress took the lead in making personal bankruptcy more onerous, and have harped, from the Reagan era to our own, on the evil of deficits, and the need to cover any expense with a parallel cut. It's become almost a mantra with the Tea Party set.

But there's a problem here. For one, the debt of nations is not at all like the debt of people. Ordinary people can't print their own currency, or re-value it, or issue bonds to fund their new chimney. Nations can do this, because they have the larger essential reserves -- a labor force, roads, cities, minerals and other natural resources to generate future wealth, and that creates the ability to evaluate their worth, and trade in it.  But even more than this, the debt of nations is not guilt, nor is their spending like the profligacy of private persons.

Greece has suffered. It has suffered for its overspending (which, as Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has pointed out, was no so much more horrific than that of many other nations), for its failure to live up to the expectations of the creditors who loaned it and its banks generous funds during what seemed to be boom times. The EU forces have imposed austerity to an amazing extent -- cuts in pensions, tax increases, cuts in social services, privatization of national treasures -- its entire economy has shrunk by more than a quarter. If Greece today is less well-prepared to pay back its debts -- or rather, the debts of its banks -- than it was several years ago, it's largely because it's taken the EU prescription of austerity.

And what is "austerity"? Very clearly, it is a special sort of punishment, one reserved to errant nations. They must be made to pay! Even if every last citizen is to starve, even if the cure kills the patient, pay they must. The latest statements from the German finance minister make it quite clear that the goal of the latest agreement, is not to make it more likely to recoup Greek debt -- rather, it is to punish the Greeks.

One should see at a glance how much this sort of "debt" is like "guilt." But there's one way in which "debt" is different, when it's money that's at stake: those who loan money expect a profit from it. They don't lend out of kindness, nor was the debt incurred out of errant sins. They gave because they expected to receive, and then some.

But let's not focus on Greece -- let's look at Ireland, a country which willingly accepted the EU's austerity prescriptions. Now, seven years later, we are told that there are "signs of recovery" -- signs evident to economists, its seems, but hard for the ordinary Irish citizen to see. Any number of years is too much to endure such pain, the more so when all it really does is satisfy the creditors (who, one might imagine, might prefer to be satisfied sooner -- but not, it seems, as much as they prefer the glee of punishing another).

And seven years, interestingly, the the time laid out for Sh'mittah -- the traditional forgiveness of debts in the Jewish Torah. In that year, debts are to be forgiven, and the poor welcomed to glean in the fields. Seems to me it's time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dissolution

Throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, there was one common understanding, in the United States at least: a college education was a good thing. Returning soldiers took advantage of the original GI Bill, and their children took advantage of what was, for a time, a very affordable college education (at least at public colleges and universities). One result was the greatest economic boom in the nation's history, but another was its most educated public. It would be hard for anyone back in the 1980's, (to pick a decade) to imagine a time when college attendance wasn't a reachable ideal and an unquestioned good for anyone who could manage it.

Today, college education is questioned on every front; tuition has risen dramatically, and pundits -- who take for granted that the best way to measure the value of something is in the increased earning power it confers -- declare that a useful trade-school education would be a much better deal. We're told that we have to let go of the idea that college is for everyone, as pressure mounts on public institutions (public in name only, as decades of cuts by state legislatures have meant that most state colleges and universities receive less than 1/3 of their funding from the state). Even those who talk up the importance of college are insisting on "accountability," which means endless rounds of assessments and measurements of "outcomes," and even the supposedly liberal President Obama, and his erstwhile secretary of education, Arne Duncan, wax ecstatic talking up their plans for cradle-to-grave tracking of the correlatrion between education and earnings.

But in the midst of this neo-utilitarian fervor, something has been forgotten. As Mark Thomason wrote in a comment on a recent New York Times editorial,
I send my kids to college as a growth experience. It changes them, in good ways. I hope they do well financially, but I am not sending them to a trade school, I'm sending them to complete their education and complete growing up. It did me a lot of good, and it is doing them a lot of good.
The only difficulty is that this good -- which I agree is the most important aspect of a college education -- is very difficult to quantify. It doesn't necessarily lead to higher earnings; those who are inspired by their college experience to undertake creative careers in the arts, or work for a better society, often find they're earning a great deal less. But their personal satisfaction, and benefits to the world of their labors, though not necessarily tangible or measurable, are certainly vital.

All this puts me in mind of a much earlier moment when a large number of institutions whose work was universally understood as contributing to the greater good came under government pressure to prove that worth. Secured in beautiful gothic buildings, supplied with dormitories for their residents, dining  halls for their meals, and chapels for their worship, the inhabitants of these institutions little dreamt that, in a few short years, their buildings would be reduced to roofless rubble -- and by their own king. Thomas Cromwell (yes, that one -- whose career is revisited in Hilary Mantel's recent novels) sent out "visitors" to investigate the practices at these places, and the reports that came back were damning: the people there were not following their own rules, they were living lives of suspicious comfort, and worse yet -- by providing spiritual services to their neighbors, they were perpetuating false superstitions and scurrilous beliefs.

The king, Henry VIII, used these reports as the justification for what would, earlier in his own reign, have been an unthinkable act. He, with the collusion of Parliament and a few strokes of a pen, dissolved all the monsateries of England, seized their buildings and properties, and sent troops to round up the valuables. The golden altar furniture and books were added to the King's own collections, while the buildings and land were given to his political allies as their personal estates. The monks and nuns were supposed to receive pensions, but there seems no record of many collecting them. What the King's men left behind, local villagers pillaged, finding new uses for door-hinges and window glass. The lead that had protected the roofs was rolled up and hauled away (it being a valuable metal at the time), and before long, the unprotected beams and boards rotted and collapsed.

To add to the irony, some of the funds raised by some these closures were used to fund colleges and endowments, including what later became Christ Church at Oxford.

I know it sounds crazy --  how could such a thing happen today? But I think it's a cautionary tale, especially for a population which seems unable to resist the siren-song of mere utilitarian value.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Blurred Lines

Blurred lines, indeed. The jury verdict of 7.4 million dollars against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke offers yet another example of how juries -- that is to say, how most people -- misunderstand originality in music. Because, in fact, music is by its very nature unoriginal -- every melody line, every hook, every grace note is but a variation on a number of ancient themes, progressions, and melodies. And in fact, that's why we like music -- precisely because it feels both new and familiar. As former Vandals drummer and present-day entertainment lawyer Joe Escalante remarked to the LA Times, it's a dark day for creativity, and in the end, this will be a net loss for music fans" -- but "good news for lawyers and the bitter everywhere."

There are, contrary to popular belief, only a limited number of musical possibilities out there. Nearly all pop music is in 4/4 time, and relies upon a number of common 'progressions' -- chord sequences -- I/V/vi/IV, I/V/vi/iii (the "Pachebel's Canon/Lighter Shade of Pale progression), vi/V/IV/V, and so on. There are a few less common ones, and of course jazz and other genres use a wider variety of them than popular music (though, it's been argued, all jazz essentially derives from the basic blues pattern). Within these, there' a restricted number of possible melodies -- many, but far from infinite -- and, like some robot throwing vast amounts of spaghetti against the fridge to see if it sticks, songwriters and composers have tried out them all. Some, it seems, are stickier than others -- and stickiness is what listeners want, after all -- so they are turned to repeatedly.

So of course we've been here before. And before. And before. Perhaps the most egregious example until now was the case of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" vs. the Chiffons "He's So Fine" -- or, as it's officially known, "Bright Tunes Music vs. Harrisongs Music" -- details at USC's fabulous Music Copyright Infringement Resource). In that case, it came down to a few of what were called 'grace notes'(actually appoggiatura), which suggested the possibility of what the judge called 'unconscious  borrowing.' The damages awarded for this were spectacular: 1.6 million dollars -- 6.5 million in today's currency, nearly as much as the Gaye case.

Such an award is justified by its champions as discouraging 'illegal' infringements, but in fact it does no such thing. If they had lawyers enough, there are tens of thousands of songs whose authorship could be litigated in this way -- and almost any new pop song you can imagine would be a fresh candidate. Instead, it will stifle creativity -- Harrison himself admitted he was 'too paranoid' to write any new material for years after the lawsuit --by preventing the natural and inexorable process of fusing the old and the new that's what Joni Mitchell called 'the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.'

Part of the problem is the way music copyright is handled. The songwriter rights, also known as publishing rights, date back to the era when sheet music sales were a key source of revenue. That's not true today, but these underlying rights still apply, since any recording of them -- including the 'original' one -- relies on a license to to 'use' them. It's why, when "My Sweet Lord" was in dispute, the parties weren't Harrison himself or the Chiffons, but Harrisongs and Bright Tunes, the music's publishers. And, when boiled down to sheet music, songs look a lot more similar than they in fact are -- since part of what makes a song a hit is the arrangement and performance of a particular version. Ins some cases, a cover version does better than the original -- Richie Havens's "Here Comes the Sun," for instance, was a bigger hit on the charts than Harrison's own version -- but in that case, the 'publisher' portion of the royalties went to Harrison anyway -- as would be the case with any covers.

But the problem is, almost all music is a 'cover' of something. Boiled down to sheet music, the similarities are greater than the differences -- but in this modern era, when sheet music isn't even printed in most cases, this hardly seems the point.

What we need, I'd argue, is the throw out the entire existing copyright system for music. Get rid of the 'sandwich' -- publishing rights/performance rights/broadcast rights/non-earthbound communication rights -- and replace it with a system in which 10% of all royalties for all new songs are placed in a fund available to those who can make a case for similarity to older ones; damages should be capped. Then, pay a fixed portion for any performance or rebroadcast, accounting for the (divided) writing royalties. This may sound complex, but in fact, it's been tacitly done within the industry for decades -- which is why cases such as the Gaye/Williams/Thicke one are rare. Let's 'fess up, folks -- when it comes to pop music, there really isn't anything new under the sun.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Burst

There are still places on this earth where people do burst into song.

I was in Dundalk, Ireland, in an ordinary, nondescript Italian restaurant on the high street, with some friends who were there attending a conference, along with a few other miscellaneous diners, when suddenly a woman at a table nearby, probably in her forties or so, let out with the refrain to Cat Stevens’s “Moonshadow” – and at once we were all, instantly, “leapin’ and hoppin’” along. The strange thing was that the waiters and waitresses took no notice of it; she sang, and we all came in on the chorus. At the end of it, there was applause, and people looked ‘round the room at one another, and someone called out “Well, give us another song!” And someone did.

This would never, of course, happen where I live, in the United States. Here, no one bursts into song, except maybe in a Karaoke bar, and badly. If you were to start singing at the top of your lungs in a TGI Friday’s or a Pizza Hut, people would think you were crazy, and before long the police would be called, and you’d be taken away to face charges.

But here, in Ireland, it's understood that people do do such things, and that it's a perfect part of the ordinary. People could, actually, burst into song in a public place, and just as in an episode of  “Pennies from Heaven,” the other diners – if they didn’t join in themselves – would just carry on with their business as though it were the most usual thing in the world.

*     *     *     *     *

Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, I was subjected to my parents’ deep and inexhaustible love of musicals. Living far from New York, we never actually went to one, but they blared forth from the stereo all the same. “My Fair Lady” – “Oklahoma!” – “The Most Happy Fella” – “The Pajama Game” – “The Mikado” – “Carousel” – “South Pacific” – the list seemed endless. My mother loved them, and my father loved them even more, turning out all the lights in the living room and turning up the stereo as far as it would go without distortion. “We are gentlemen of Japan!” … “All I want is a room somewhere” … “A p'liceman’s lot is not a happy one” …“Some enchanted evening” … there was an instant drama in every line, and though I hated the music itself, some portion of its feeling got under my skin, and planted a kind of weird seed for the future. I remember hating these songs, the darkened room, the way that my father would, from his prostrate position on the couch, quiver quietly with tears.

But now, decades later, when I hear these same songs, I’m the one that's weeping. Not for the fate of poor little Buttercup, or Liza Doolittle, or Billy Bigelow -- but for the lost world in which people indeed did burst into song. And in that world, it now seems to me, there was such a tremendous reservoir of pent-up emotions, such a backlog of heartache, that it was absolutely impossible to speak – it could only be sung. And yet, once the final lines had finished and the strings faded, everyone went back to their ordinary, pent-up ways – and it was this final loss, the loss of the miraculous world of people actually singing about their feelings, that touched me the most. For even then, when such things were common knowledge, they failed to transform the world with their beauty; people went back to ugliness, got on with their tawdry lives, and if asked would probably have said “Singin’? I didn’t hear no singin’! Did you, pal?”

All of this came rushing back to me recently on when I re-watched the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven with Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. I’d seen it when it first came out in a theatre – a lonesome one, populated only by myself and the love of my life, two little old ladies, and an usher collecting for the Jimmy fund. Somehow, the lip-synching made these songs work, and made the self-representation tragedy of singing one’s heart out a double loss – for the voice these actors sang with was not their own. Of course, that was often true in the classic Hollywood era, when Marni Nixon provided the voice for everyone from Deborah Kerr to Audrey Hepburn, but I never knew that back then. Later, of course, I saw Singin’ in the Rain and realized what a strange fate it was to be the unknown voice of a famous actress. It’s an uncanny kind of real-time pathos that goes back at least to Cyrano de Bergerac and right up through Disney’s Little Mermaid: to watch another woo one’s love with one’s own words, or voice. It’s a kind of tourture, really.

Some years seeing the 1981 film, I tracked down a copy of the BBC series with Bob Hoskins. Until then, I hadn’t realized how heavy-handed the irony was – that a man who sold love-songs for a living could be, not just a low-grade jerk, but a complete asshole – so that the transformations he underwent, and witnessed were a sort of false, cruel magic, one in which the kiss of song transformed toad-like people into temporary princes, not because they were really princes inside, but because they and the whole goddamned world were so deeply, perversely, incurably toad-like that this formed for them a kind of cruel joke. I wondered whether Dennis Potter was a cruel man, or whether, in the manner of other dark comedies, it was meant to be humorous.  His genius, I decided, was that it didn’t matter – it worked either way.

But what's happened to musicals today? It's strange to realize that Pennies from Heaven was in fact the very last musical produced by MGM before its long descent into financial ruin and dissolution, its legendary film library sold to Ted Turner, and then to Warner's. It was Disney -- or, more properly, Ashman and Menken -- who revived the musical feature film in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. Somehow, bursting into song had become something that was too much for any human actor; it had transcended that world and moved into animation. Even Broadway was swept by this phenomenon, as adaptations of Disney films have been among the highest-grossing and longest-running stage musicals.

There are exceptions, it's true, but they're rare. I have to confess that Stephen Sondheim, for all his storied career, has always left me cold. His melodies never quite soar; like tethered birds, they tweet too close to the ground, and are soon forgotten. Wicked -- which I've seen in its current incarnation at the Gershwin -- is transcedent on stage, but the soundtrack doesn't really do it for me. There's soaring -- who can forget their first experience of "Defying Gravity"? -- but without the visuals, the music itself sounds overblown and frantic.

And then there's Glee. Many love it. I loathe it. Not because it lacks magical moments of bursting into song, but because there are too many. You can't just constantly be bursting into song; as Alan Jay Lerner put it,
"A man's life is made up of thousands and thousands of little pieces. In writing fiction, you select 20 or 30 of them. In a musical, you select even fewer than that."
And that to me is what a musical is -- a series of dramatic moments, carefully curated. But a serial musical is like a serial killer -- you never know when it will strike again; we live in dread instead of wonder. Each song must count, must form the peak of one of the mountains of our existence. We mustn't descend too soon to our tawdry, toad-like world -- we must allow these shadows of our better selves to burst, to break, to echo down the corridors of everyday life, daring to sing out loud.