Archive for September, 2011
Teaching international relations at a public liberal arts university, I’m constantly surprised by how little most students know about the world outside the US. There are always a few who had teachers that opened their eyes to the cultural and historical diversity of the world, but few really comprehend much about what goes on outside our borders.
Conversely, there is generally pretty good knowledge about American history and US politics. Education majors planning to teach high school civics and social science need to take courses in US history and American government; if they take world politics or comparative politics it’s as an elective (and state requirements leave them little room for electives). Thus the bias against teaching about the world outside the US is shaped in part by how we educate future teachers — and that’s influenced by state requirements, what’s tested for the ‘no child left behind’ program, and political pressures to focus on knowledge about the US.
If I could choose three things I would like students to understand coming out of high school it would be:
1. A general understanding of the intellectual history of western civilization.
2. Comprehension of political geography — how the world is divided, and the wars, colonialism, and agreements that shaped the basic structure of the world today. This need not be detailed, but at least a framework into which knowledge in college could be plugged.
3. An understanding of cultural diversity to work against bigotry, knee jerk phobias, and cultural chauvinism.
Recognizing the difficulty in adding to what students already have to know, I’d even argue that this could be taught in a semester course titled something like “Global Studies.” Each of these proposed ‘units’ could be one or even two courses. I’m suggesting a broad overview that prepares them for detailed work in college, and awakens an interest to keep learning and growing also among those who don’t go on to higher education.
Unit One: Who we are. A brief look at the themes and conflicts in western thought harkening back to Plato and Aristotle. Students should understand a bit about the history of Christianity as that religion shaped western thought, including the ethics and core values of people who are now atheists or follow other beliefs. The influence of the reformation, the themes of the enlightenment, and the rise of secularism would follow. These are complex topics, but in an intellectual history one need not learn all the details of the philosophies and intricate disputes. Again, at this level students would only need a basic understanding that “who we are” is the result of 2000 years of cultural history. What seems “natural” and “self-evident” to us comes from deep cultural biases that have shaped the West. Understanding that “who we are” isn’t “the one people who see reality as it truly is” will make it easier to understand and appreciate other cultural perspectives.
Unit Two: Political Geography: This would start in Europe (and could mesh with unit one) and focus on core concepts that would be spread to the rest of the planet. I’d suggest Napoleon and nationalism, colonialism, the causes of WWI and WWII (avoiding the simplistic ‘blame Hitler the madman’ crap) and the Cold War. Included would be an emphasis on each continent and its own development. After this unit students would know “where we are” globally, and have a sense of how and why the world is as it is.
Unit Three: Cultural Perspectives: Given current events, it is fundamental for students to understand at least the basics of Islamic and Chinese culture. These are two great cultural civilizations that are not going to go away and will not be defeated by the West. The fear that some people have, or the ‘enemy image’ the media often promotes are counter productive. We’re going to have to co-exist and cooperate with people of other cultures. I’d go into some depth on China and the Islamic world, enough for students to recognize that those cultures developed much like ours, only with some different traditions and core beliefs. They’d also grapple with cultural relativism — we need to understand other cultures on their own terms, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up value judgments. How to do that is difficult, especially since we can’t simply assume our superiority. I think there should be brief considerations of other cultures — Latin America, an overview of the diversity of Africa south of the Islamic world — but there isn’t a need at this level to learn everything. As long as students understand how to look at different cultures and have a sense of global diversity, they’ll be able to build on that in college.
In terms of standardize tests I’d recommend they cover basics of Islamic and Chinese culture/history, key historical developments of the planet (outside US history) and some of the major concepts of western intellectual history. It probably would not be difficult to develop a template of core concepts and facts that high school students should know before continuing on to college or joining the workforce.
Right now the country reacts to events and problems with uncertainty, easily swayed by demagogic rhetoric and emotion. Fear of others, envy, anger, and blame fly easily. People grasp for simple answers. It can be expressed as hope for a better future, such as that which elected President Obama, or a desire to return to a simpler past as put forth by the tea party. But clear thinking is impossible without knowledge.
Some might question whether one high school course or inclusion on a standardized test would make a difference. I think if done well, expanding peoples’ knowledge about the world will quite often spur people to become interested in learning more on their own — to travel, read about other places, and become life long learners. Ultimately we can’t create an educated society by simply changing how schools or universities function. Rather, schools and universities have to awaken a desire by students to want to continue to learn and grow, consistently questioning their beliefs and ideals. Knowledge is what makes life interesting and enjoyable; if people stop questioning and rethinking/expanding their beliefs, they stagnate and become bitter. When people keep learning, life becomes a joy.
The New York Times has an excellent graphic showing alarming statistics:
This should be noted by everyone. Most important points:
Productivity 1949 – 79 Up 117%, productivity 1979-2009 up 80%
Average hourly compensation 1949-79 Up 100%, average hourly compensation 1979-2009 Up 8%
Average hour wage 1949 – 79 Up 72%, average hourly wage 1979-2009 up 7%
(note compensation takes into account benefits)
INCOME GAINS, 1949-79
Bottom Fifth – 122%
Second Fifth – 101%
Third Fifth – 113%
Fourth Fifth – 115%
Top Fifth – 99%
INCOME GAINS 1979 – 2009
Bottom Fifth – -4%
Second Fifth – + 7%
Third Fifth – +15%
Fourth Fifth – + 25%
Top Fifth – + 55%
Debt as a percentage of household wealth leveled off under 70% before taking off in the 1980s and is now at 120%. To earn a decent household income 47% of households had two incomes in 1975, while 71% do now.
The share of the wealth owned by the TOP 1% reached a high of 23.9% in 1928. Even during the days of the robber barons in the 1890s and on it was under 20%. Then it started to decline, and in 1976 reached a low of only 8.9%. Since then it has climbed steadily higher, at 23.5%. The average income of the top one percent is $713,000.
This statistics make an overwhelming and compelling case that the the last three decades have seen the very wealthy get more of the pie, while workers and the middle class get much less — and have to often add another income to keep up.
There is no way one can look at this evidence and say that the price of getting us out of debt should just come from government programs that help the poor and middle class. The wealthy can definitely afford to pay a bit more; they’ve been making out big time the last thirty years.
Sometimes I run across an article that causes my jaw to drop in amazement that anybody would write such a thing. A recent article at the website “American Thinker” is one of them. In that article they say registering the poor to vote is un-American because the poor don’t pay taxes. The article itself, apparently trying to rationalize voter suppression and create resentment of the poor, is a mess. Most of the time it focuses on hard core Marxists of over forty years ago and even Trotskyists. Apparently the author wants to somehow link these to Barack Obama and current democrats.
There are three especially perverse aspects of that argument.
1. The article suggests that the Democrats want the poor to be poor in order to get votes through bribery. In other words, all the rhetoric about wanting equal opportunity, helping those who have difficulty, insuring people get access to quality education and health care — as well as food for children — is a lie: to them, the Democrats don’t care about the poor except to get votes.
That would be despicable if it were true. But Democrats from hardcore activists to people whose political action doesn’t go beyond voting are motivated by a desire for justice and to help people improve their lives. Now, it may be that the Democratic approach is wrong — there are many good arguments one can make against a myriad of social welfare programs. But the argument made in the article in American Thinker does go that route. They say that the poor are just being bribed, that the Democrats are shaking down the rich to buy off the poor.
That is a fascistic argument. I’m not saying that to call names, but fascism essentially operates by trying to deny the existence of politics. Fascism sees politics as mob rule, destined to fail as politicians play populist games to get votes. Therefore fascists try to deny the legitimacy of political differences and instead paint their opponents are morally depraved or fundamentally dishonest. In the article the real issues of how to deal with social problems are defined away; rather you just have bad Democrats trying to bribe greedy poor people.
It’s also an insane argument. The poor rarely vote. You’re not going to win elections by trying to simply give to the poor. The reason Democrats want to register the poor is to get them involved in the process. The more involved you are in the process the more likely you are going to take your community seriously and improve your life. The poor voter is more likely to work his or her way off welfare than one who is alienated. The writers’ argument is not only wrong, if followed (dissuading the poor from voting) it would make the poor more likely to stay dependent on the state.
2. It is clear class warfare, an effort to breed resentment of the poor and cause middle class folk, especially whites, to think that the Democrats simply represent lazy freeloaders. Some poor folk may be lazy, but most working class poor have recently lost a job, have had unexpected health care costs, or really want to find a way to make it on their own. If their kids don’t get a solid education, health care, and basic nutrition, they won’t have a real opportunity to succeed — meaning a perpetual cycle of poverty and an increased chance of crime.
For the rich to resent the poor is perversion. It’s the “haves” looking down their nose and scoffing at those who do not do as well, and then telling them “you should have no voice in the political system because you’re a loser.” When President Obama wants to close a few loopholes people scream that he’s demonizing the rich — which he’s not. The rich do very well in the US, we have the wealthiest top ten percent of income earners in the world by far. Our bottom 10% are closer to third world states, and even our bottom sixty percent aren’t that well off relative to other countries. If there’s class warfare, it’s coming from the right.
3. The argument ignores reality. Another blogger linked an article the other day from the CATO institute. Like the American Thinker article, it plays rhetorical games but ignores reality. Their claim:
Did you know that in Denmark, the poorest 30 percent pay 14.1 percent of all taxes and the richest pay 48.7 percent, while in the United States, the poorest 30 percent pay just 6.1 percent of all taxes and the richest 30 percent pay a whopping 65.3 percent?
From there the author asserts that our poorest pay less and get more, while our wealthy are bled. Of course, the reality is quite different. First, Scandinavian countries have poor pay in and then get more reimbursement — it’s only the reforms of Ronald Reagan that actually ended the poor paying in first. Reagan was proud to get the poor off the tax roles.
However, to measure progressivity the only way is to look at the GINI index and see the before tax and transfer and after tax and transfer rate. The GINI index measures income distribution. 0 would be everyone earning the same, 1.00 would be one person with everything and another with nothing.
The US pre-tax and transfer GINI index is at .46, while Sweden is at .43, and Denmark and Norway are at .42. That means pre-tax they are slightly more even in income distribution, but not much. Germany has a bigger pre-tax gap between the rich and the poor than the US at .51.
After tax the US GINI index moves to .38 — a modest improvement. After taxes and transfers Denmark is at .23. That’s right, taxes and transfers equalize wealth dramatically, the gap between the rich and the poor is least in all the industrialized world. This means the poor are much more even with the rich in Denmark. Sweden is also at .23, Norway is at .28, while Germany’s disparity narrows from .51 to .30. All of those systems are much more progressive than the US. Most wealth stays with the rich here, the gap between the rich and the poor is higher in the US than ALL other OECD states except Portugal, with which we’re tied. Poland is slightly better at .37 after taxes and transfers.
These arguments are signs that far right are relying on false arguments, based on distortion. They do not have facts on their side. It isn’t bad for the poor to vote, we do have the largest gap between the rich and poor, and our wealthy are doing very well.
This doesn’t mean Democratic programs work. This doesn’t even mean that the Republicans don’t have better ideas. It’s only that people making these kinds of arguments (glibly, talk radio style arguments) don’t even try to engage Democratic ideas or support Republican ones. They evade the real issues and appeal to emotion, often with very misleading information. The left spins as well, neither side is immune from the temptation to twist things their way. But these examples are a bit over the top, especially the desire to demonize the poor in the American Thinker article. It’s another example of how the far right is ‘jumping the shark’ and may be past its peak.
For the first time in my life I am teaching a course about the intellectual history of western thought. It is HON 101, the introductory Honors seminar, originally designed by a now departed philosophy professor. The way it was taught at the start was to focus primarily on Plato and the Greeks, as philosophers generally consider that to be core knowledge that all educated individuals should have.
However, that person is gone, and there are no full time Philosophy professors able to teach the course. Moreover, there is no reason why that should be the introduction to the honors program. I offered to teach it in a different way, as a course in intellectual history. In it we’ll read bits from Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Copernicus, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Newton, Galileo, Pascal, Grotius, Hobbes, Bayle, Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Vico, Burke, Bentham, Mill, Mazzini, Wallace, Huxley, Chamberlain, Nietzsche, Freud, Heisenberg and Fromm (we’ll actually read a whole book from Fromm — Escape from Freedom).
This may seem a stretch for a professor of Political Science, but for the last 15 years I’ve had a side interest in understanding the development of western thought, realizing that it is impossible to truly understand who we are as a culture without learning about the ‘great conversation’ that has been going on for over 2000 years. I’ve got a good group of students and the course is off to a great start.
To start the course we look at the foundations of western thought: Plato, Aristotle and Jesus (or Hebrew thought brought into the Roman Empire via Christianity). Plato’s idealism (or better, Platonic realism) and Aristotle’s more wordly realism not only set up the core of future philosophical debates but will reflect fundamental directions in western thought via their influence on the Roman Catholic church. Augustine’s neo-platonism will define early Church teachings, while Aquinas will bring in Aristotle.
After that look at the ancient foundations we begin with a film — The Final Days of Sophie Scholl, which I wrote about as “moral courage.” I ask students to watch the film and try to identify philosophical and moral dilemmas and how people on each side look at the issue. I want them to try to understand the Nazi perspective too — it’s easy to just dismiss what we know to be wrong and even evil; trying to understand why people thought that way is important. They are also to think about what freedom meant. The West has created great good with democracy and individual rights; in fact the notion of “individualism’ is a western construct. But it has also been shown to be capable of great evil. The holocaust,communism, and colonialism has all come from the West.
Obviously, a one semester course cannot do justice to the nuances of western thought. But it can give students a kind of scaffolding upon which to plug in their future education. It’s not just learning facts and ideas, but seeing how they fit in the framework of the cultural conversation that’s defined who we are. They’ll learn to understand different perspectives and thus become immune to ideological rigidity. There are a lot of people who waste their lives and minds believing in a “cause” or an “ism,” not realizing they’ve become trapped in a pseudo-religion like Marxism or “Objectivism.”
A lot of people want to find or at least think they have the “right” answer. Psychologically that can be very important for some people, uncertainty is difficult. Others bask in the sense that they’ve figured out the truth and enjoy the idea that they are superior to all those who don’t see the truth they think they grasp. But uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of western thought; certainty only comes with a leap of faith — and even then it’s subjective certainty. If that leap of faith is wrong, then one is certain but wrong.
Grasping that is the real source of wisdom — it goes back to Socrates, and the claim that “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” What is delightful about the quote is that it also shows the limits of even logic. The petty logician would say that the quote contains a contradiction — how can he know one thing and yet know nothing? But that’s the point — even our linguistic constructions are frail and limited. What appears to be a contradiction in our linguistic constructions shows only their limits, not a true contradiction in reality. That shows any philosophical system to be a house of cards, built upon language usage which by definition is vague, arbitrary and creates false boundaries and barriers.
Once one realizes that the claim of certainty is the true sign of foolishness and ignorance it becomes possible to understand diverse perspectives and have a true capacity to critically assess and understand how the world can be seen in a myriad of ways, sensitive to context and recognizing the limits of human understanding. We have only our senses and intuition. Our senses perceive a small portion of reality; our intuition is subjective. Beyond that, we have imperfect language to communicate ideas. We do our best with what we have, but if we don’t understand its limits and the diverse ways it can be used we can be deluded into false certainty and blindness.
Yet there is a sense of satisfaction in accepting uncertainty and letting go of the desire to “be right” and “know for sure.” It is liberating to be able to survey a multitude of perspectives and understand them, and then craft one’s own “best guess” with the knowledge that there is no answer card. You bet your life, you make your own choices, and all the dogmatists and ideologues out there are simply deluded fools. Only someone who knows the limits of their capacity to truly understand reality keeps an open mind and recognizes the joy of learning and growing. And that’s the goal of a course like this — to inspire students to recognize the joy of life long learning.
President Obama announced last week plans to speak next Wednesday night to Congress in order to propose a bi-partisan set of steps to address the number one issue facing the country: jobs. When such a request is made, normally the decorum is for the Congress to accept — having the President come to speak on the biggest issue facing the country, and to offer suggestions on how to move forward is a big deal.
Instead, after initially signalling acceptance (which is why the White House went public) Speaker Boehner changed his mind, and decided that he would not accept Obama coming on Wednesday and instead invited him for Thursday. This would mean he’d have to speak earlier since at 8:30 EDT much of the country would be watching the Packers-Saints game, a rematch of the Super Bowl to open the 2011 NFL season.
The reason was totally political. First, many Republicans are still in a tea party “take no prisoners” mood, and rather than working to solve the country’s problems their most important job is to try to defeat and humiliate Obama. If they can make him change the date of his speech he looks weak, and they act big and tough. It’s rather pathetic, but apparently for some this brings great satisfaction.
A less convincing reason is that a Republican primary debate was being held. I believe a few have already been held, and primary debates in the late summer of the year before the election are hardly big events. Viewership is limited to only the political junkies, and it’s on cable. In terms of relative importance, the debate is meaningless — and could easily be moved if they really wanted to.
So the President again is reaching out to Republicans, set to offer a bi-partisan approach on jobs, and Boehner is again acting childish. The GOP muffed a huge compromise that would have cut spending by $4 trillion and brought non-military domestic spending to the lowest level than anytime since Eisenhower, all because they couldn’t accept closing a few tax loopholes on the very wealthy. Given the massive shift of wealth from the middle class to the most wealthy, the idea that the cost of getting the budget in line should be born by the working middle class and poor while those who benefited the most and have the lowest tax rates in the industrialized world should play nothing is perverse.
The left hated Obama’s compromise. They correctly noted it was the kind of compromise you’d expect a moderate Republican to propose, with Democrats proposing an increase on actual tax rates. Obama knew that was impossible for the Republicans to support so he offered something he thought anybody could accept.
Nope, the GOP is in a no-compromise, slash and burn mode, with tough talk, bravado, and anti-Obama rhetoric that reaches absurd heights not seen since the right’s attacks on Clinton in the early 90s. Perhaps a bit drunk on the success of the 2010 election, it’s all political, all partisan, and more extreme than the Republican party at any time since the early fifties. It’s not all Republicans, it’s just that the tea party wing has the moderates running scared.
Eisenhower once responded to a Democratic call to cut taxes by saying cutting taxes when you have budget problems is wrong — Eisenhower was trying to keep the budget under control. Republicans always had the anti-tax wing of the party, but it was small; the tea party partisanship, often very extreme, anti-government and ideological, rarely dominates the party. Again, only in the early 50s during the McCarthy era has the GOP drifted into such extreme territory. Fiscal conservatism traditionally trumped anti-tax ideology for conservatives.
Most people know I was once a Republican. I was a state officer of the South Dakota College Republicans. I was at the Detroit convention that nominated Ronald Reagan, and I worked for a Republican Senator in the eighties. It’s not just that the party moved away from me, though I did like Ford and Dole, but I also started to study advanced economics and political science, and realized that a lot of the free market slogans of the GOP are simply wrong. The market is not magic, without a state to regulate and guide it the powerful elite will dominate and control — third world conditions happen without a good legal regulatory system. Those who try to defend a total free market approach always drift into abstract theroy; it doesn’t work in the real world. I also rejected the Jerry Falwell “moral majority” idea, which seemed to be big government at its worst — trying to implement religious ideals with the power of the state.
Yet I resisted the Democrats. I voted third party most of the time and yearned for a perspective where community is taken seriously and ideology gives way to practical problem solving. There is a wing of the Republican party that believes that way (Jon Huntsman is probably the best example – and I’ve voted for both my moderate Republican Senators), but right now they are being shouted down by the ideologues. Preisdent Obama (and earlier President Clinton) are moderate/pragmatic Democrats who often angered their left wing, but yet have been villified as “socialists” and “unamerican” by the far right. Talk radio sets the meme, and many on the right follow, egged on by partisan blogs.
John Boehner’s snub of the President is the latest example of this effort to humiliate, put roadblocks in front of, and refuse to compromise with the Democrats. For the left wing of the Democratic party, this is fine — it proves that you can’t work with the Republicans like Obama is trying to do, so therefore it’s better to simply match their partisanship and play hardball. Obama’s resisted that. I believe he sees the office of the Presidency as above that — and he’s right.
I think this may be the point where the right wing of the GOP has jumped the shark. As the rhetoric remains shrill, and Obama takes the bully pulpit to make a call for bipartisanship to solve the country’s problems, the Republican primary is going to give the Democrats oodles of material for the general election. Given what I wrote about a few days ago on the 13 keys, Obama is in a stronger position than Republicans realize. Moreover, his current disapproval ratings are driven up by people on the left who are disappointed with Obama’s centrism. Most will come home in 2012, especially in swing states during an emotional campaign. And don’t forget the way the Republicans are making it relatively easy for Obama to get Latino votes — their stance on immigration or in some cases “English as the national language” make a group that should lend the Republicans considerable support a solid Democratic bloc.
A defeat in 2012 (especially if a significant number House seats are lost — which is very possible) would be a repudiation of the tea party rhetoric and the extremist wing of the party. Right now the extremists know they have power in primaries and are scaring the moderates. I suspect this is their peak. Obama got Bin Laden, had success in Libya and may have success in Syria before the election. As he makes a push on jobs there is some evidence that the economy is slowly moving forward. Given how bad economic conditions have been, Obama’s personal popularity has remained surprisingly high. If the Republicans lose, moderates like Olympia Snowe, Scott Brown (if he gets re-elected) and Jon Huntsman can offer a new vision for the party and be poised to have a couple very good election cycles.
Because if the GOP is Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Rick Perry…well, that appeals to a small segment of the population and is not the stuff of a major party.
There’s an old Polish proverb that says when your mind is in the past, listen to the sound of a watch being wound.
Well, that one was never on Banacek, but there a number of them listed here. Or watch them:
Before he was Colonel Hannibal Smith of the A-Team but after enjoying Breakfast at Tiffanys with Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard played Thomas Banacek in a two year 16 episode series in 1972-73 (the same time Styx was making those Wooden Nickel albums). I just purchased the DVD collection of the series and find it as enjoyable as I remember, one of my favorite series of all time, even if it had such a short run.
Peppard played millionaire free lance insurance investigator Thomas Banacek, a sauve and sophisticated puzzle solver of Polish descent (despite an oddly Czech sounding last name, pronounced Banachek). The show, set in Boston, always started with an impossible crime. Something got stolen when protection was tight, when there was no conceivable way a thief could have made the heist. During the show as you watch Banacek investigate, you’re also trying to figure out just how it was done.
I think what makes the show is the personality Peppard gives Banacek. He’s a tad arrogant and smug, but always in a pleasant way. He keeps his cool, has a good sense of humor, luck with the ladies, and he irritates the insurance investigators who inevitably are angry that Banacek is on the case. As a freelancer he gets 10% of what the insurance companies would have had to pay out (sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — and that’s 1972 dollars!) if he solves it, while the insurance guys slave for a salary.
There is of course always a beautiful woman involved in some way. But what makes Banacek so appealing (and a role model when I watched the show — not in its original run but a few years later on re-runs) is his calm self confidence, amusement at the follies going on around him, and his refusal to work for anyone but himself. He guarded his independence quite fiercely, even with the ladies.
It was mostly a cerebral show. Banacek got in fights but they were brief and usually he used wits over braun to come out ahead. In one scene the guy who would later play “Jaws” in the James Bond movies is trying to beat him up, and Banacek doesn’t have a chance. He manages to briefly elude “Jaws” and then puts his billfold with $100 bills hanging out in the engine of a junked car. When the crook, thinking Banacek gone, reaches in to get it, he slams down the hood and is able to knock out “Jaws.” He then calmly takes his billfold back and walks away. The show was about the puzzle, the bad guys were often insiders manipulating the situation.
Banacek had a chauffeur, a likable Sicilian named Jay Drury, played by Ralph Manza. He helped provide humor — and the show had a lot of subtle dry humor (another reason I love it). Banacek also had a friend who was owner of a bookstore that specialized in rare books, played by Murray Matheson. He would do research for Banacek, and again added humorous banter. A very short example:
Banacek, being wealthy, had a telephone in his car. He’d have to call the mobile operator to connect him and his cars were vintage models. It all demonstrated that he had fine taste, wealth and knew how to live.
I also like how he was fundamentally moral and ethical (unless you’re one of those who thinks a single man shouldn’t mess with women before marriage) yet also didn’t make it emotional. He might smile when a villain says or does something bad, not in a happy way but in a bemused “that guy’s got a problem” manner. He’d talk to them in a friendly, respectful way, even if he despised them and was plotting their arrest. It was as if he were above it all, amused by the spectacle and the fact that he could make lots of money solving puzzles that others could not.
Almost always the plots involved personality flaws of the villains (or even the victims) which Banacek would see through and manipulate to his advantage. The psychological twists add to the mystery and the humor to make a thoroughly delightful show.
Still, the core was Banacek, affable, smiling, never losing his cool and always having a witty (if at times smug) come back to insults and efforts to put him down (such as how the investigators from the insurance companies would purposefully mispronounce his name). When someone mentions the hostility from the company’s investigator is reply is always the same: such hostility is an “occupational hazard.” It was agreat show — and worth purchasing on DVD! If you want some samples, here is a scene where he encounters Margot Kidder, who would later go on to play Lois Lane (with a Superman reference six years before she’d get that role):
Here’s another clip: enjoy!