Adonis Diaries

Archive for March 2nd, 2014

What “Ghostbusters” have to do with Republican economic policy? And anti-government sentiments?

Ghostbusters, the greatest movie ever made about Republican economic policy

The death yesterday of Harold Ramis, the co-writer and co-star of Ghostbusters, has prompted encomiums for the iconic 1980s film.
Ghostbusters ideology isn’t about tracking and getting rid of ghosts.
It’s also about the power of the US private sector and the magic of market discipline to transform anyone—even effete, over-educated academics—into heroes.
Matt Phillips @MatthewPhillips posted on ZUULUNOMICS this February 25, 2014
Shown in this scene from the 1984 movie "Ghostbusters" are Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, center, and Harold Ramis. (AP Photo)

The private sector saves the day. AP Photo

Ghostbusters is a favorite of mine as well. But I just can’t believe how few people recognize the movie—which was released 30 years ago this June—for what it is: a Reaganite carnival of ideological triumph.

It’s hard to believe Ghostbusters was intended to be a pro-business, anti-government polemic.

Dan Aykroyd co-wrote the film with Ramis, whose previous flicks—such as Animal HouseStripesCaddyshack—are filled with liberal digs at establishment authority figures.

But the Ivan Reitman masterpiece was made in a certain time and place. And the movie is worth reconsidering now—almost three decades after its release—if only because it so perfectly captured one of the rare moments when the supertanker of American public opinion clearly changes course.

When Ghostbusters was released in June 1984, Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election victory to a second term as president was still a few months away. But the ideological ascent of Reagan-style conservatism—cuts to taxes and social programs, boosts for military spending and heaping helpings of anti-government rhetoric—was nearly complete. And Ghostbusters is stuffed with Reaganomics.

This scene has several references.

Shaky lending from banks that were increasingly lightly regulated under Reagan sent US household debt levels soaring after he took office.

Economic growth in the 1980s was fueled in part by a burst of consumer debt and bad banking practices—culminating in the savings and loan collapse—that looks pretty familiar.

That’s exactly how the Ghostbusters got the financing they need to open.

One can’t help but wonder about the underwriting standards at Manhattan City Bank that enabled the Ghostbusters to get a loan.


Dr. Venkman’s elevator pitch on paranormal eliminations as a potential player in the defense industry shouldn’t be glossed over either, as defense spending boomed under Reagan, helping to drive the US deficit to heights previously seen only during wartime.

It would have been hard to imagine this kind of upbeat flick resonating with Americans if it had been released 18 months earlier.

In December 1982, unemployment was hanging around 11%, the highest since the Great Depression. While down from the peaks of the 1970s, inflation was still eating deeply into American incomes.

When pollsters asked Americans that month if the US was going in the right direction, or was off track, only 36% thought the US was in “drive” rather than “reverse.” Even though president Jimmy Carter had been booted from office in 1980, the country was still mired in the malaise that was associated with his administration.

And yet, by October 1984—on the eve of the presidential vote—America had radically regained its mojo, with 61% of Americans responding that things in the country were moving in the right direction.


What happened?

Well there’s a few answers: A surge in patriotic sentiment surrounding the 1983 US invasion of Grenada.

The pageantry of  the 1984 cross-country torch relay, which carried the Olympic flame to Los Angeles, the site of 1984 summer games, might have played a part. (As did the dominance of the US in those Soviet-boycotted games.)

And, who knows, perhaps Ghostbusters, the biggest grossing film of the year, just generally put people in a good mood.

But let’s be honest. Only one thing happened that really mattered. The US economic growth improved sharply and unemployment plummeted.

For the record, nobody knows exactly why. (And more to the point, no one ever really knows why any economy does anything.)

Republican economists argue that tax cuts and other supply-side policies helped drive growth.

Democratic economists—who argue that the success of Reaganomics is largely a myth—point out that the Federal Reserve, which caused the recession intentionally in order to rein-in inflation, basically restarted economic growth by taking its foot off the brake.

For our purposes it really doesn’t matter. The fact is, the US economy staged a huge turnaround on Reagan’s watch. America started really feeling good again for the first time since the early 1960s. And Reagan and his ideas got the credit.

As a direct result Democrats lost the advantage they had long held over Republicans on questions of managing the economy, which was part of a much-larger realignment of the American electorate that took shape under Reagan.


But it wasn’t economic policy proposals and Reaganomics that resonated with the American public. It was the anti-government—specifically anti-federal-government—rhetoric.

Even the most obtuse Ghostbusters fanboy has to concede one thing. The real villain in Ghostbusters isn’t Gozer the Gozerian. It’s a bureaucrat from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Seriously, it’s the government—specifically the federal government—personified in the odious William Peck of the EPA, that unleashes hell on New York. Dangerously ignorant of what it takes to run a small business, Peck—played by William Atherton, the Laurence Olivier of prickish ’80s movie antagonists (see Die Hard)—cuts the power supply to the containment unit where Aykroyd & Company store their busted specters. The politics of this scene couldn’t be more clear.

Yes, Peck’s over-reach is a necessary plot point setting up the film’s final confrontation. But really, that confrontation isn’t between the Ghostbusters and the Stay Puft Mashmallow Man. It’s a conflict between these two: Venkman—representing the private sector—and Walter Peck as the federal government.

​ YouTube

We all know what happens. The private sector saves the day.

So what have we learned from this—perhaps overly long—meditation on a landmark piece of American pop cinema? Well, in one way, we learned that the 1980s were a long time ago, something Ramis’s death drove home this week. But, in a broader sense, we’re still very much living in the Reagan era.

The fact that Ghostbusters is almost 30 years old is a reminder that Americans really don’t make big changes in their thinking too often.

Prior to Reagan, the only comparable rethinking of American political values came during president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal—when the idea that big government was the only way to pull the country out of its troubles carried the day.

During the Reagan years, a small-government, pro-business philosophy became much more prominent in national opinion, as Gallup survey data in the chart below show. Indeed, by some measures the anti-government turn in American public opinion took during the Reagan years has only gotten sharper over the subsequent decades.


Critics might point out that Ghostbusters doesn’t accurately reflect the fact that there’s a large gap between what Americans say they believe and how they actwhen disasters really strike. (Americans hold an overwhelmingly positive view offederal government disaster relief efforts.)

And that’s true. But, well, lighten up. It’s just a movie.

Do you love your customers?

There are two ways people think about this:

  • We love our customers because they pay us money. (Inherent here is customers = money = love.)
  • We love our customers, and sometimes there’s a transaction.

The second behavior is very different indeed from the first.

In the first case, customers are the means to an end, profit.

In the second, the organization exists to serve customers, and profit is both an enabler and a possible side effect.

It’s easy to argue that without compensation, there can be no service.

Taking that to an extreme, working to maximize the short-term value of each transaction rarely scales.

If you hoard information, for example, today your prospects will simply click and find it somewhere else. If you seek to charge above average prices for below average products, your customers will discover this, and let the world know.

In a free market (I like to call it Libre Market for its political connotation) with plenty of information, it’s very hard to succeed merely by loving the money your customers pay you.

I think it’s fascinating to note that some of the most successful organizations of our time got there by focusing obsessively on service, viewing compensation as an afterthought or a side effect.

As marketing gets more and more expensive, it turns out that caring for people is a useful shortcut to trust, which leads to all the other things that a growing organization seeks.

Your customers can tell.

Posted by Seth Godin on February 03, 2014

The four horsemen of mediocrity

Deniability–“They decided, created, commanded or blocked. Not my fault.”

Helplessness–“My boss won’t let me.”

Contempt–“They don’t pay me enough to put up with the likes of these customers.”

Fear–“It’s good enough, it’s not worth the risk, people will talk, this might not work…”

The industrial age brought compliance and compliance brought fear and fear brought us mediocrity.

The good news about fear is that once you see it, feel it and dance with it, you have a huge opportunity, the chance to make it better.

Posted by Seth Godin on January 30, 2014

Cheering you on when you lose

Who is waiting at the finish line, and who will be cheering for you at the final banquet, even when you don’t win?

Especially when you don’t win…

I’m not talking about the sometime fan who rewards the winner, or the logo-wearing baseball fan who shows up when the team is in contention…

I’m wondering about the person that is in it for your effort and your passion and your tears.

Almost nothing is more important to the artist who dares to leap. [HT to Mara]

Posted by Seth Godin on January 29, 2014

Married couples got to pay the clergy institutions

Not happy about having to travel to Cyprus to get a civil marriage?

Last year, Lebanese couples applied an ancient law, from the French mandated period, which remained on the Books, in order to carry out civil marriage.

All they had to do is to demand that their religion be scraped from their civil records.

Lebanon’s justice minister may have an answer for modern couples to marry civilly and keep their religion on the civil records.

On Jan. 29, 2014, Shakib Qortbawi introduced a draft law that would allow couples in Lebanon to marry under a civil law, without leaving the country, or having to cross out their religion on their civil records.

With the obligation to pay about $350 for the clergy institutions in order to recoup the lost profit.

Paying the clergy is not the way to go. And it is too late, Mr. minister

Nadim Houry published in The daily Sta this feb. 7, 2014:


The draft law would not introduce a Lebanese civil code.

Rather, it would allow couples to choose any foreign civil law by which to marry, as long as the law does not contradict “public order and general morals.”

But there’s a catch: Each couple would have to pay the state the equivalent of $333 to be disbursed to the religious courts of the husband’s religion.

Is this draft law a step forward for supporters of civil marriage in Lebanon?

Should advocates of civil marriage go along with the payment of such a fee to religious courts to get the religious official bodies to agree to the proposal?

It is important to first understand how civil marriage currently works in Lebanon.

The law currently recognizes such marriages even though the country does not have a civil code.

Until recently, this has meant that anyone who wished to have a civil marriage would have to travel abroad to marry and get their foreign-enacted civil marriage recognized in Lebanon.

Lebanese have resorted to such foreign civil marriages in large numbers, with data from the Cypriot Embassy in Lebanon indicating that more than 800 Lebanese couples married in Cyprus in 2011.

When I got married in Cyprus in 2009, the couples that were married before and after us in the office of the Cypriot public official were Lebanese.

Despite the increasing popularity of civil marriages enacted abroad, this approach has limitations.

Traveling abroad is inconvenient and some couples cannot afford the trip. And many people are unaware that if both spouses are Muslim, Lebanese Islamic courts may not recognize the civil marriage and may apply their own rules in divorce or child custody cases based on a 1939 official decree.

In a breakthrough for civil marriage in Lebanon in February 2013, the Lebanese authorities approved the registration of a civil marriage contracted in Lebanon between Kholoud Succariyeh and Nidal Darwish after the couple removed their religious affiliation from their civil records.

This couple, acting on the advice of a longtime activist for civil marriage, argued that by removing their religious affiliations from their civil records, they had the right under Lebanese law to a civil marriage and that Lebanon’s failure to enact such a law did not revoke that right.

The couple notarized their marriage before a Lebanese public notary and chose to have it governed by French civil law. The Lebanese authorities recognized the validity of their legal reasoning and registered the marriage.

More couples have now removed their religious affiliations from their civil records and filed to have their locally enacted marriage contract recognized in Lebanon.

Qortbawi’s draft law seeks to allow couples to marry in Lebanon using a foreign civil code of their choice without removing their religious affiliations from their civil records, as Succariyeh and Darwish had to. The draft law would also repeal the 1939 decree that limits the ability of two Muslims to have a civil marriage in Lebanon.

The draft’s main shortcoming is that it fails to introduce an optional civil personal status code for Lebanon that would cover marriage, divorce, custody and other family law provisions.

Activists and civil society organizations have long demanded this, in part because of the systematic discrimination against women in all of Lebanon’s religious personal-status laws.

In fact, a draft code proposed by local civil society groups has been sitting in parliament since March 2011.

In statements to the media, Qortbawi recognized the inherent limitations of his proposal, but argued that in the “current atmosphere in the country, it was not possible to put forward a complete package for civil marriage.”

The minister’s remark raises a question relevant to reform attempts from electoral law to women’s rights.

Given the dysfunctional nature of politics in the country today, should reformists restrict their ambitions to partial and imperfect advances that appear feasible?

There is no evident answer to that question and reasonable people can disagree in their assessments.

My own view is that when it comes to civil marriage in Lebanon – a recurring idea since at least 1951, when the Beirut Bar Association went on strike to demand an optional civil marriage law – the time has come for a concerted push to adopt an optional Lebanese civil personal status code.

If anything, there is an urgent need to counter the country’s sectarianism by enacting laws such as the civil code that would treat all Lebanese equally.

Regardless of one’s position about the best strategy to advance civil marriage in Lebanon, what to make of the proposal in the draft law that the state collect a $333 marriage fee and give it to the religious courts of the husband’s confession – unless the husband is not Lebanese, in which case the fee goes to the religious court of the wife’s confession?

The draft law does not explain the rationale for such a payment.

In a recent media interview, Qortbawi said, “It’s not our job to cut everything from them [the religious courts], because also, they need money. This is to tell them, ‘This is not against you.’

But we should reject payments to sweeten the deal for religious courts.

Religious courts in Lebanon already get a great deal of support from the state, with little or no oversight from the state’s judicial bodies.

For instance, Lebanese citizens already pay the budget of Islamic courts – a tradition going back to the Ottoman times – with no effective government supervision.

The reason many Lebanese say they support civil marriage is to reduce the influence of religious institutions on their lives, to promote equality among Lebanese citizens and to eliminate discrimination against women under the current religious personal status codes.

For many Lebanese couples, the choice to seek a civil marriage is a way to reject the imposition of religious laws and institutions by Lebanon’s confessional system.

So why would a law meant to facilitate civil marriage actually fund religious courts, instead of the civil courts that will oversee such civil marriages?

These civil courts are grossly underfunded, and their workload will presumably increase as a result of additional civil marriages.

The minister may be right that Lebanon needs to take gradual steps to enact a civil law. But these gradual steps should be guided by a clear strategy of building up civil institutions and promoting equality among Lebanese citizens.

To ask the Lebanese to pay religious courts for the right to a civil marriage will not bring us closer to those goals.

Nadim Houry is head of the Beirut office of Human Rights Watch and is its deputy Middle East and North Africa director. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 07, 2014, on page 7.

Read more:
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::




March 2014

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