Wednesday, October 25, 2017

From the Archives: Redneck Minstrelsy, Dan Whitney’s Assumption of the Southern Good Ol’ Boy “Larry the Cable Guy”

Note: The below (eh-hem) "essay" was written for the MUSL 151 course I took in 2012, the spring of my senior year.  I decided to dig it up after reading Kevin Williamson's recent "The White-Minstrel Show."

Minstrelsy was the most popular and influential form of 19th century American entertainment; it was the progenitor of popular music, vaudeville, musicals, and stand-up comedy. Overtly racist, actors (originally white but later black as well) in blackface relied upon and perpetuated stereotypes of Southern slaves to coerce laughs from their well-to-do white audience members. The minstrelsy tradition eventually extended its reach overseas and troupes toured in Europe and South Africa. With roots so strong, the offshoots of minstrelsy have survived to affect how America markets and consumes entertainment today. Flavor of Love with Flava Flav, The Simple Life with heiresses Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, and the Jersey Shore each bring aspects of the minstrelsy tradition to modern culture. This paper will focus on the act of a Nebraskan who moved to Florida as a teenager and, with a trove of fart jokes and an intuitive sense of Southern white indignation with political correctness, became America’s favorite redneck.

Larry the Cable Guy’s meteoric rise from floundering radio host in the Florida panhandle to comedy super star hit critical mass seven years ago when he featured as the fourth act among Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, and Ron White on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. The movie born of the tour flopped in theaters but was resurrected on Wal-mart shelves, selling over four million, and cable TV, becoming one of the highest rated programs in Comedy Central’s history. The success spurred two additional movies and a television show. Though each of the comedians did extremely well by the franchise, the unsophisticated humor of Larry the Cable Guy, which stood in sharp contrast to the more satirical humor of Foxworthy, Engvall, and White, carried his voice the furthest. Larry went on to star in three films, Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector (2006), Delta Farce (2007), and Witless Protection (2008), as well as lend his distinct accent and grammar to the extremely popular character Mater the tow-truck in Pixar's Cars series. In addition to touring, Larry now produces and hosts the television show Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy. In its second season, episodes have included “Naked Cowboys & Reptile Wrangling,” “Larry & the Superpig,” and “Larry Breeds Mules.” After earning $20 million dollars in the previous tax year, Forbes named Larry to its list of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Celebrities” in May 2011.

Larry’s humor largely consists of one-liners and offers a simplistic commentary on culture as seen through Larry’s slightly twisted and unfiltered middle-American lenses. On stage and television, he appears in boots, blue jeans, baseball cap, and signature plaid shirts cut off at the shoulder that show a distinct farmer’s tan (which, how he maintains given his aversion to sleeves, is a question best not asked). The Official Larry the Cable Guy Website offers a great encapsulation of the comedian. Upon loading, a digitized Larry manning -- the gas grill on a lawn littered with garden gnomes and air darts --welcomes you to his website, and, to be sure,
“it’s a good un ... chock full of fart jokes and titty jokes and stuff that makes the world go ‘round. And if you don’t like that, then you’re probably just one of those uptight, white, politically correct dickweeds, and we don’t want to deal with you anyways.”
Not surprisingly, the website’s primary theme is a glorification of the redneck culture for which Larry has humbly become the unofficial ambassador, including a flash game to whack Larry’s sister’s dermatological moles.

That a fictional character, essentially the classic “country bumpkin” with a few more dirty jokes, could become one of today’s most influential celebrities says as much about the audience’s view of the world as it does the ability of Daniel Lawrence Whitney, the creator, voice, and face of Larry the Cable Guy, to so thoroughly adopt it. Parts of Whitney’s biography closely identify with those of Larry; Whitney is from a rural state and grew up on a pig farm. However, it might surprise his fans to learn that despite Larry’s thick Southern accent and rejection of proper subject-verb agreement, Whitney’s home state is Nebraska, he is the son of a preacher (farming was not the family’s main source of income), and he received a private high school education. At age 16 the Whitney’s moved to Florida, and Whitney made a conscious effort to hone his Southern accent, the first development in the creation of Larry the Cable Guy, based on the speech of his college roommates in Georgia.

The characterization of Whitney’s act as minstrelsy is not perfect. Whitney does do a deadpan job of imitating the worst stereotypes of the Southern redneck. However, his media is marketed as much to the audience he imitates as it is to anybody outside of it. Nineteenth century blackface minstrelsy was a way for whites to dehumanize and to distance themselves from blacks and the tortures they suffered under slavery. There is no real reason to believe that Southern blacks, Northern whites, or Southwestern Hispanics watch Larry’s comedy for any more value than the slapstick jokes. If there is a cultural identification that occurs, it is by Southern, conservative, blue-collar whites whose median incomes have soared in recent decades towards parity with the traditionally richer Northern and Western for the first time since Reconstruction. The new wealth brought with it a search for a means of asserting an independent, tough-minded culture that could succeed without surrendering to political correctness or losing touch with its rural, unpolished roots. A native Mississippian, I worry what it means for the region’s educational aspirations when every other Southern high school male student’s 4x4 pick-up sports a “git-r-dun” bumper sticker. Long the home of the country’s most important and original contributions to music and literature, I believe Southerners can find a more authentic Southern figure to rally around than a Nebraskan with a learned accent.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Corporate Tax Rate Reading List

  1. White House CEA Report: "Corporate Tax Reform and Wages – Theory and Evidence
  2. Larry Summers: "Hassett’s flawed analysis of Trump tax plan"
  3. Greg Mankiw provides a simplified modelCasey Mulligan and John Cochrane provide additional algebra.
  4. Paul Krugman opts for a more graphical exploration, but the substance of the math is much the same.  Elsewhere, Krugman takes a more polemic approach.
  5. Larry Summers responds.  Might as well check out Vox (no, not that Vox) and Angry Bear, too.
  6. For longer primary source reading, try Summers (1981) and Gravelle (2011), both referenced throughout the above.
The key dispute here is (a) left-leaning economists believe tax reform is just tax cuts for the wealthy and (b) right-leaning economists think tax reform will boost wages.  If you read that and said, "But those are not really directly opposing views; how can you call that a dispute?," welcome to the blogosphere!  It's good to have it back.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Lunch atop the Amalfi Coast

The hike from Positano's ferry was a bother and a half: 4.5 miles, 2,500 ft change in elevation, and blaring sunshine.  But the restaurant at La Ginestra was worth it.

Pushing through the dusty and exposed final few hundred yards uphill is rewarded with a stop at Chiesa Santa Maria del Castello, an earthy pungence from unseen cattle, and, more importantly, a water spigot.  Mind the bees, though.  An iron spiral stairwell provides access to the church roof.  I'm not sure if you should climb it, but I do know no one will stop you.

The air here feels about 20 degrees cooler than the base of the mountain.  Cool off a bit, and walk the last stretch of blessedly gentle asphalt to La Ginestra.  Unlike in Positano's twisting alleys and stairwells, Google can find you and point the way here.

La Ginestra may appear empty.  Is this yet another establishment closed for the tipico August vacation?  No.  Simply wander a bit, calling "Ciao" and "Hello" until a short sexagenarian woman appears.  She only speaks Italian, but has a good ear for Spanglish.  Ask for a seat outside (pointing suffices) to enjoy the breeze and the view of Naples bay.

Like any Michelin rated restaurant, there is no menu.  You will enjoy what the chef prepares.  I had an antipasto of mozzarella, soft white bread, eggplant, fried green beans, prosciutto, and a lovely fried dumpling whose name I never caught.  Next course was a sumptuous eggplant pasta in alfredo, sprinkled with basil and Parmesan.

Google translates the style "contadina" as "peasant," yet it is the epitome of pleasant.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Whose Impeachment Is It Anyway?

Some of you might think the country is in an impeachin' mood.  Some of you might think the lyin' media is out to sully your president by any means possible.  Add to the ever-growing mound of evidence of partisanship the popularity of googling "impeachment" by Trump's margin of victory in each state.

Time may be the final judge, but the House of Representatives is the more immediate authority.  Not to dwell on the obvious, but it is worth recalling that the Democrats controlled the House during the Watergate investigation, and the GOP during Bill Clinton's impeachment hearing.  Last week, Justin Amash (R-MI) became the first Republican Congressman to endorse an independent investigation between the administration's ties to Russia (WaPo).  Michigan also happens to be the state where Trump's victory was narrowest, and among those where "impeachment" searches are most popular of states Trump won.  Democrats would do well to pressure Representatives in similarly placed states like Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The March for Science

On Saturday tens of thousands of people who couldn't score a two if they took the AP Chemistry exam tomorrow and haven't read an NEJM article in their lifetimes gathered to denounce their political opposites as anti-science.  Over at Slate, FOAMcast's Jeremy Faust (who moonlights as a physician at Brigham and Women's) summed it up nicely:

Being “pro-science” has become a bizarre cultural phenomenon in which liberals (and other members of the cultural elite) engage in public displays of self-reckoned intelligence as a kind of performance art, while demonstrating zero evidence to justify it. 

It's tempting to read both too much and too little into any one march or protest.  I'll limit my observation to this: the March for Science is the clearest sign yet that the peak of American progressivism as an intellectual movement is behind us.

There have been hints of this in recent years, such as when Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century became a top-selling book, with vanishingly few purchasers making it past page 70 of 700.  I'd venture those who are among the "seriously, I'm going to finish when I have more free time," group were disproportionately represented at the March for Science, where the burdens of hefty white papers could be brushed aside in favor of hefting white posterboard.

Not unrelatedly, the March for Science speaks to the influence reddit (or whatever site succeeds it as the internets staple open forum) can have on the future of progressivism.  The idea and momentum for the March, after all, were both begotten on reddit.  In this form, the new progressivism consists of sharing headlines that affirm important ideological tenants.  Anecdotal affirmation and pithy quips ensue, with the best being upvoted in the comments.  Links to the underlying articles are appreciated. Clicking through, however, is really not necessary.  It is in this disposition that the semi-official mission of the March for Science referenced the importance of scientific inclusiveness twice as often as science eduction, and the best coverage of the March were photo albums of the cleverest posters and profiles of science celebrities.

I doubt many progressives would take kindly to my interpretation, but it could be seen as the consequence of an otherwise healthy evolution that the home base of progressivism is becoming more accessible as it becomes more popular.  While Brookings blogs wane, Bernie bros wax.  Young college grads crowding into gentrified neighborhoods seem more and more than willing to put their faith in designated technocrats with thousand page rulebooks as their preferred form of government.  The Trump administration will push more into that camp, without exactly necessitating any deeply intellectual opposition.  Facades of intellectual detachment will increase in value as a tribal countersignal to Trump's unconvincing embrace of hokey Americana.  Intellectualism itself will be championed, in spirit, from afar.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Cash and Stranger Lives Stated versus Revealed Preferences

My roommate recently posed a hypothetical dilemma: Imagine I am a mischievous powerful alien, or if realism helps, a social scientist at a university with the world's worst IRB process.

I offer you $100,000 with the following condition: one (randomly chosen person) will die upon your taking custody of the cash.  Do you take it?

To emphasize: the person is chosen at random from the entire global population.  A twenty-something Indian is more likely than a nonagenarian Norwegian, but no guarantees either way.  Given an average of 150,000 deaths everyday, you would only be increasing that by 0.0007 percent, but that 0.0007 percent is on you and your $100,000.

What do you do?

Go ahead and think before you read on.  I'm going to do a few spacer paragraphs so your eye doesn't jump ahead to my thoughts and bias you.

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Ready?  Need a few minutes?  No rush here.

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Okay, here we go.

I've repeated the question a few times in conversation, and so far no one has said they would take the cash.  Yet consider this: a number of highly-effective non-profits have estimated their marginal costs of saving a life to be a few thousand dollars.  (Granted, taking non-profits' word for it is not objection-free, and there is some thorniness to measuring what's known as a Quality-adjusted Life Year in the academic lit, but I don't think the numbers wildly attached from reality.)

I find this remarkable.  Why might it be someone would turn down $100,000 they don't have to save a life (in theory), but aren't willing to part with $5,000 they do have to do the same (in practice)?

1.  We're not as altruistic as we would like (others?) to think we are, and we really would take the $100,000 if the offer were credible.
2.  It's psychologically easier to opt out of committing an evil act than is to commit to an altruistic one.
3. It's psychologically easier to part with money never owned than money previously earned.
4. People don't have good information on the costs of saving a life, overestimating them by a few orders of magnitude.

These aren't mutually exclusive, but I'd like to think #4 is both important and easily correctable.  With that in mind, I'll make a plug  for the effective altruism movement, which encourages people to give more money specifically to effective charities.  The website The Life You Can Save points to several.  Unsurprisingly, these cluster in health care in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

From the archives: Executive intimidation of the judiciary

Among John Podesta's leaked emails was exchange re: King v Burwell from Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress (a progressive think tank whose work I enjoy):

I mentioned this to John some time back, but think it's a bit more current now.
It is most likely that this decision has already been made by the Court, but on the off chance that history is repeating itself, then it's possible they are still deciding (last time, seems like Roberts went from striking the mandate to supporting it in the weeks before). As Jennifer will remember, it was pretty critical that the President threw the gauntlet down last time on the Court, warning them in the first case that it would politicize the role of the Court for them to rule against the ACA. As a close reader of the case, I honestly believe that was vital to scaring Roberts off.
In this case, I'm not arguing that Hillary spend a lot of time attacking the Court. I do think it would be very helpful to all of our interest in a decision affirming the law, for Roberts and perhaps Kennedy to see negative political consequences to ruling against the government.
Therefore, I think it would be helpful to have a story of how progressives and Hillary would make the Supreme Court an election issue (which would be a ready argument for liberals) if the Court rules against the government. It's not that you wish that happens. But that would be the necessary consequence of a negative decision...the Court itself would become a hugely important political issue.
At CAP Action, we can get that story started. But kinda rests on you guys to make it stick.
What do you think? If you want to proceed, we should move soon.
Let me know thoughts. And I'm happy to discuss.