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Guns vs. Butter | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Guns vs. Butter

My new Think Again column is a sad lament for lack Republican voice in the media and a tribute to Joel Kotkin’s brilliant analysis of that terrible problem. It’s called  “The ‘Virtually Voiceless’” and it’s here.

In my Nation column, I offer my dissent in the MSM celebration of Andrew Sullivan. That’s here.

Alter-reviews: Jazz at Lincoln Center “Birth of the Cool” celebration, Miles Davis Bootleg release, Volume II, Nixon in China….

Tempted to say I had a “cool” weekend at Jazz at Lincoln Center last week, but I’m not quite that corny. Anyway, this J@LC Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis spent the weekend playing a set that was half Gerry Mulligan and half John Lewis, who, together with Miles and with arranger Gil Evans most prominently, came together to take jazz in this new direction in the late 1940s. Both Lewis and Mulligan had played with the orchestra—I saw a wonderful show with Lewis in the late 90s—but this show did what J@LC does best, which is to marry the classic with the contemporary. In this case, it did so through the combination of the Orchestra and the 26-year-old NOLA pianist Jonathan Batiste. The show also benefited enormously from Wynton’s skills as a host speaking both historically and personally about the musicians and the composers in between each song. Seeing jazz in Rose Hall—the only concert hall in the world built specifically for jazz—is like seeing a classical music concert except that people are not so dressed up. Wynton’s personality helps a great deal in transforming this big beautiful hall into a “house of swing.”

I have to say, however, I am partial to the much more intimate Jazz@LC Allen Room, both for its intimate size and its wonderful view of Columbus Circle behind the musicians. And the following night, I got to see pianist Bill Charlap lead not only fine band but also offer a history of jazz lesson with the great Basie sax man Frank Wess, national treasure, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, singer Mary Stallings and vibraphonist Steve Nelson. He had his regular band, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Kenny Washington, along with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist Gary Smulyan, trombonist Jason Jackson, Bob Stewart (tuba), and Jeff Scott (French horn). They played plenty of Lewis and Mulligan, augmented by any number of tunes, and again, benefitted from Charlap’s commitment to giving the audience some context for the songs and their arrangements as well as the amazing musicans and the georgous music proper respect.... It was almost perfect night, except that they don’t let you bring drinks into the hall.

For more from J@LC, go here, please.

And speaking of Miles: Since there really is a Miles Davis, there is always more Miles, and my friends at Sony Legacy have found and cleaned up a new edition of the Miles Davis Bootleg Series from Miles's Third Great Quintet, known also as the "Lost" Band of 1968-1970 and featuring Miles, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, a band that never recorded in the studio. It’s the nucleus of the “Bitches Brew” band, which, in my Philistinic opinion, is where the whole world started going to Hell. (Right afterward, that is, I like the album a great deal.) Anyway, this band was recorded in three separate concerts including sets at the Antibes Jazz Festival, in Stockholm, as part of "The Newport Jazz Festival In Europe," plus a 46-minute performance at the Berlin Philharmonie, which is included on a color DVD. What’s not to like? Well, perhaps the packaging, but I’ll let you know about that all-important factor once it’s out.

And there’s no reason for anyone to trust my judgment when it comes to opera, but John Adams’s Nixon in China is really a lot of fun and Nonesuch has just released the Metropolitan Opera's performance it with the composer conducting, on Blu-ray and DVD together in one package. It’s staged by Peter Sellars, and stars James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, a role he created at the opera's world premiere in 1987. Great? I dunno. But fun, yep, especially for what it does to Henry. Check it out. Nothing sounds better than Blu-ray.

Now here’s Reed:

Guns vs. Butter

by Reed Richardson

Tune into any recent Sunday morning news panel or peruse the op-eds of esteemed Washington insiders these days and you’re likely to hear the same refrain: “Entitlements” simply must be fixed, solved, saved—take your pick—lest they mortally wreck our country’s future. Though these same folks typically exercise their rhetorical muscles by engaging in aggrieved, psychodrama analogies or squeezing every last drop out of the political horserace, when they do deign to examine actual policy, they seemingly can’t help but break out their rusty abaci to try to deliver nothing but bad news about Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

As such, even the occasion of the presidential Inauguration this week presented the perfect venue to publicly bemoan the costs of our social safety net. That President Obama did not avail himself of this opportunity did not sit well with some in Washington. That he actually had the gall to champion these programs instead of making “hard choices” that would whittle away at them drew cries of “collectivism” from some quarters. This is merely disingenuous posturing, though. For all this media agita over our non-discretionary fiscal obligations is, notably, never accompanied by a similar, big-picture focus on the largest line item in our discretionary spending—the defense budget.

Indeed, for every ten times a supposedly serious member of the Beltway media advocates trimming Social Security benefits or calls for boosting Medicare’s eligibility age, odds are they won’t have made even a single mention of our immense defense budget. That budget, by the way, though a bit smaller than it was during peak of the Iraq war, is still bigger than the next ten largest countries’ defense expenditures combined.

To really understand the asymmetrical mindset at work here one need only look at the drastically different ways the media looks at raising the debt ceiling versus the looming sequestration cuts. The former was broadly accepted among pundits as a reasonable lever Republicans could pull to force a long overdue debate about reining in government spending (rather than a extreme, hostage-taking tactic aimed at undermining the social safety net). By contrast, public debate over the sequester’s heavy defense cuts has been universally focused on avoiding the cuts and putting money back in. For a country in the midst of a fiscal crisis, these contradictory positions speak volumes about our national priorities.

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Granted, the 2011 Budget Control Act’s $500 billion in sequestration cuts to the Defense Department over the next decade are the epitome of crude, reckless policymaking. This was, of course, by design. Everyone recognizes that slashing veteran’s benefits and military pay at the same rate as bloated procurement programs and weapons systems of dubious value is a bad idea. What’s missing, however, is any mainstream political debate about how to replace the sequester’s slash-it-all-and-let-DoD-sort-it-out approach with more reasonable, merit-based cuts.

The Project for Defense Alternatives released such a strategic review—called “discriminate defense”—last fall. It roughly matches the sequestration in terms of budget savings—$550 billion through 2022—as part of its plan for a more efficient post-Afghanistan War military that is only 20 percent smaller than today’s. This is by no means draconian, as it would take a cut of nearly twice that size over the same duration just to bring the defense budget in lines with its historical average.

If you’ve never heard of this plan, you have a pretty good excuse. Both Capitol Hill politicians and Beltway pundits rarely demonstrate any appetite for critically examining the defense budget the way they do domestic spending. Certainly, highlighting fraud, waste, and abuse within Medicare and Medicaid are valid ways to ensure our government functions properly. But good luck hearing much talk from the same Sunday morning crowd about the necessity of “cutting back” the untold billions frittered away by the DoD, like $640 billion it will spend over the next decade on maintaining a redundant and increasingly obsolete nuclear weapons arsenal. Then there’s the $190 billion in cost overruns for the scandal-plagued F-35 fighter program. Or what about the $500-million Littoral Combat Ship that, belying its name, the Congressional Research Service recently concluded was “not capable of surviving a hostile combat environment.” We’re ordering a fleet of 20 of those.

As a result of this skewed groupthink, the establishment media is undoubtedly defining the political boundaries of reasonable debate on the budget and, despite their claims of objectivity, are pushing a set of defense-friendly policy prescriptions that closely align with conservative ideology. Case in point, our punditocracy’s continued enchantment with former GOP vice presidential nominee Representative Paul Ryan. That the media allows Ryan to maintain a reputation as a “brilliant,” “numbers guy” who is honestly concerned about the national debt is a sad joke. This, after all, is the same Ryan who is willing to end Medicare as we know it to lower the deficit, yet his 2012 “Path to Prosperity” budget tried to shovel more money—$7 billion, to be exact—at the Pentagon than even its profligate procurers has asked for. (That same budget would have cut $11 billion from veterans benefits and, notably, didn’t even include the word “veteran.”)

This myopia on the part of Congress isn’t excusable but it is explicable. They’re getting paid—in the form of campaign donations—to protect defense spending from the same kind of scrutiny that befalls the social safety net. As Jill Lepore’s insightul essay in this week’s New Yorker demonstrates, a not insignificant portion of Capitol Hill views defending the defense budget as a kind of noble cause, albeit one that undoubtedly provides handsome financial windfalls:

“There are some in government who want to use the military to pay for the rest, to protect the sacred cow that is entitlement spending,” [House Armed Service Committee Chair Buck] McKeon said, in his opening remarks, referring to Social Security and Medicare. “Not only should that be a non-starter from a national-security and economic perspective, but it should also be a non-starter from a moral perspective.” Cuts should be made, he said, not to “the protector of our prosperity” but to “the driver of the debt.”

That an inconvenient fact like Social Security does not contribute one dime to the national debt doesn’t register with someone like McKeon isn’t surprising. Especially not when he believes, or at least says he believes, he’s on a moral mission to preserve the funding of the defense of our nation. Which also has the added side effect of preserving his funding, as McKeon’s top ten political donors all come from the defense industry.

But who will lobby on behalf of those who rely, or who will rely—almost everyone, in other words—on our nation’s social safety net at some point? In our democracy, the press should increasingly be the ones accepting that duty and broadening that discussion. Unfortunately, our media elite have become inured to their own one-sidedness involving what we spend our immense wealth on and why. When it comes to choosing between satiating our military and satisfying our citizenry their preference is all too clear. The former should get whatever it wants and the latter, well...let them eat yellowcake.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson(at)gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

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