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January 25, 2012

Building a Road Map

The President of the United States cannot really make any laws. Executive Orders are pretty limited in scope and use. Therefore, the President must challenge Congress and the people by being the "big picture" guy and leave the details to those who can write laws.

In last night's State of the Union address, the President laid out what I thought were generally fairly bipartisan challenges and asked Congress to get busy writing the laws that would do what he recommended so that he could sign them into law. During a surprising number of those challenges and "big picture" blueprints, both Republicans and Democrats cheered, stood up, and/or clapped. Yet, when it came time for the Republican responses to the President's address, they pretty much toed the same line they have been for the last 18 months: we are not going to do anything to help this President get reelected.

The problem with this philosophy is that they also are not helping the people they are supposed to serve. Independent polls consistently show approval ratings of Congress at single to very small double digits; otherwise known as the worst in history. Independent polls also show that people want a lot of what the President proposed during his address. The only quibble among the people is on how it gets done, not what needs to be done. Yet the Republicans don't seem to care about this; their agenda is simply to block the President, make him look weak and ineffectual, and to get him out of office.

I used to proudly be a member of the Republican party and voted party often. Bush 2 ("W") changed all that. His politics, in my opinion, were so biased, were so based on helping the few and damning the many, and, in some very specific instances, so illegal and unconstitutional, that I changed my political stance to Refuse to State. Bush was warned about the housing bubble and chose to do nothing. He was warned about Wall Street and chose to remove even more regulations instead of policing the situation. He had a clear objective to go after terrorists and then, by all evidence both at the time and now, manufactured a reason to go into Iraq and get us into a war we couldn't really afford and for which we had no clear plan, strategy, or exit.

I didn't join the Democrat party because I didn't see much better from them. They blindly voted with W for war, without doing their due-diligence or questioning it. They ignored or passed many of the bills that helped W loosen regulations and damage the economy long-term. When I felt W had gone so far as to be provably doing things illegal, I even contact each representative and asked them to start Impeachment proceedings. My reasoning was that the Repubs impeached Clinton for lying, but not really breaking the law. Bush actually broke the law, in my estimation, with his unconstitutional practices toward Muslims in America and detainees everywhere, and he lied to get us into a war, Impeachment proceedings should have started immediately, as this, and the end result of thousands of Americans dead and many more Iraqis killed was much worse than Clinton lying about an affair with an intern. Yet they all wrote back with very weak excuses as to why they didn't feel impeachment was the right choice for that time. Hunh?

America needs help right now. Party politics are at an all-time low, infighting, backstabbing, and rhetoric are at an all-time high. The President consistently has asked for bipartisan cooperation in Congress and he consistently hasn't received it. We, the people, need to start demanding it of our representatives and kick them out of office when they don't perform up to those expectations. We need to be emailing, mailing, phoning, telegraming our representatives with our opinions. I strongly believe that the vast, quiet majority of people can come to a compromise that works for them, regardless of party politics, and get things moving. We just have to push, prod, pull, browbeat, and force our representatives to work toward that same goal.

Americans seem to be in a feedback loop where all they watch, hear, or read are items that share and reinforce their existing opinions. They don't seem to be seeking out antithetical opinions or challenging their thought processes. They don't seem to be questioning their leaders, regardless of party affiliation, and insisting on accountability. We all need to step up and start doing this and make our voices heard. The politicians will come into line or get kicked out of office.

January 17, 2012


What Americans need is for the General Accounting Office to release the base figures for each program the government spends money on, the amount of money received from all taxes in an average year, and then show, preferably in simple graphics, the discrepancy. At this point, the people could then see the huge issue with constantly lowering taxes and why corporations getting a steady stream of tax breaks hurts the economy.

America became great because of the huge middle class. They made enough money, were where there majority of wealth was held, and were constantly consuming more items so that the economy was strong. Now, about 25% of that wealth has moved into the hands of the ultra-rich, which means that the middle class has one quarter less of the wealth with which to pay those taxes, while less than 1% has one quarter more of the wealth with which to pay taxes... and doesn't.

If you could make a simple graph that showed the government spends W on the military, X on social security, Y on medicare, and Z on all the other programs (with the ability to break these out), and then showed how much that taxation brings in, you could then ask Americans which programs to cut or successfully lobby for higher taxes.

For example, let us say that America spends 10 dollars on military spending. Then let us say it spends 5 on social security, 3 on Medicare (and related programs), and about 5 on all other programs. That means we spend a total of 23 dollars on the government programs. But, right now and for the last about 15 years, we have only been bringing in about 18-20 dollars on average. So we are spending more than we bring in, regardless of the state of the economy. The government ONLY brings in money via taxes, so either we have to cut those programs or we have to bring in more taxes. This would be a simple way to get Americans talking about that simple necessity: does the government really need to spend so much on the military? Does it need to spend so much on social security and medicare? Does it need to spend so much on all the other, smaller programs? It would allow the people to see and chose what to keep and what to cut or eliminate more obviously. But, I believe, in the end you will still have a discrepancy between the dollars brought in and the dollars spent, so the GAO could then show what a small change in everyone's taxes would do to defray the costs of the programs the majority has decided to keep.

It used to be that, in terms of percentages, the middle class had the vast majority of the money held by the vast majority of the people, so having a small taxation rate was not felt by any one person too much. Taking 15% of $35,000 from 150 million taxable middle-class people was enough to hit or exceed the budget needed by the government. However, since a quarter of the wealth has left the middle class and fewer of the middle-class are currently working, that money has to be made up somehow. Taxation should, quite simply, follow the money; whoever has the money/wealth needs to pay the taxes in order to keep the economy strong and the government functioning. If that money has moved from the middle class, then wherever it has moved to is where the gov't needs to collect the money. Right now, that money is in the hands of the ultra-rich, so the ultra-rich need to make approximately a quarter more in taxation payments to the government until such time as that money moves to someone else.

It is actually a fairly simple equation. And having one quarter of all of the wealth of America moving from the hands of the majority into the hands of a(n extreme) minority means that you are asking the majority to pay more of a tax burden with a quarter less money. Which, in turn, moves more money to the minority and means the majority has to pay even more with even less... it becomes an endless cycle until there is no middle-class, just the ultra-rich and the poor. And this hurts the entire nation and will collapse the economy.

What made America the strongest nation in the world for so many years was the strong middle class. By having the majority of its people in a position to consume (spend money), you could fund a government without overly hurting any one person with a tax burden. Because of this, people had the ability to move between economic strata and go from poor to middle-class to wealthy to ultra-wealthy. Without this strong middle class and without having the majority of the wealth of the nation in the hands of the majority, movement between economic strata becomes much more difficult, the majority has to pay more and more to keep the government functioning, and the very rich get richer while every other strata gets poorer.

And, with all those tax breaks and incentives the government has given the ultra-rich to create jobs and add wealth to the economy, what have they done with that? Across the board they have kept the money, moved jobs overseas, or fired workers such that we have record unemployment. This is what the ultra-rich have done for going on 30 years now, regardless of which party is in office. All this does is move more money out of the middle-class, making it even harder for the government to function.

Here's my plan: after 30 years of not living up to what the government wants them to do, let us enforce some rules on the incentives we give the ultra-rich to create jobs. If, after 1 year of incentives the ultra-rich do not have demonstrable X percentage of new jobs created, they must pay back the incentive in full, plus interest, and they move to the next higher tax bracket for a year. They can reapply for a tax incentive after all the owed money is paid back and they have paid the new, higher tax rate for a minimum of six months. At that point, the same rules apply. And, the more of a tax break they ask for, the more job creation they must be able to demonstrate. As the economy righted itself and a stronger middle-class was re-established, we'd have to modify the rules to be about economic processes outside of job growth. But we should continue to keep the emphasis on maintaining a strong economic foundation and the middle-class is key to that... as has been proven by over 100 years of American history.

I think, with this plan, you'd suddenly see a lot of support jobs come back from India. I think you'd see quite  a few manufacturing jobs return to America from China, Mexico, and elsewhere. It would be in their best interest to have those jobs here and to give wealth back to the middle-class so that they (the ultra-rich) don't have to pay the taxes. And, frankly, a strong middle-class makes the rich richer, as the middle-class picks up and starts consuming again.

It really is a simple equation in the end.

January 4, 2012

SOPA Explained

American politicians cannot understand the internet. They are primarily old, white males who are taking literally millions of dollars from the entertainment industry to put SOPA in place and end the Internet as we know it today. In addition, the restrictions put in place are so nebulously explained and so widespread in content that it would allow the RIAA, MPAA and others to effectively control all content on the internet, internationally.

To explain why this is bad, I figure we need an analogy that these old "I'm not a nerd" politicians, who are ignoring reams and reams of data provided by those who created and who continue to innovate the Internet, can understand. Since most of them are idiots, but likely drive, I think using the roadway system in America as an example.

The internet is very like the roadways in America. There are nodes and servers equivalent to cities and towns spaced here and there, with connections between them that carry data, like the highways, freeways, and streets that connect those cities and towns to each other. Right now, without SOPA, the internet works just like the roadway system: you can travel from city to city, from state to state and from coast to coast without anyone stopping you for no reason. If they suspect you are doing something wrong, the cops have to have probable cause, get a warrant, and then pull you over as you drive along. And the cops only pull over your car; it is very rare that they have to shut down an entire street.

SOPA will change all that. SOPA makes it so that the cops can pull you over for virtually no reason. "You've been driving between this city and that city an awful lot, which is suspect behavior, so we're shutting you down and checking into everything you've done to make sure you aren't doing something wrong."

SOPA also makes it so that if someone anywhere buys a billboard and puts it up next to Interstate 10 in Los Angeles, the police have the right to shut down the entire interstate, from LA to Florida. They don't just look for the person who posted the billboard; everyone on the Interstate is assumed guilty, the interstate itself is shut down, and no one can use it.

Now, the area where my analogy falls down is this: Interstate 10 only goes from California to Florida. Imagine that it actually continues on to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, South America and then back to North America. Now you can see how shutting down the entire freeway can affect the entire world, not just Americans.

Do we need to curtail our rights, especially to freedom of speech and freedom from illegal search and seizure, among others, in order to catch a very small number who misuse the internet?

What the RIAA, MPAA, and the other companies like Disney that have signed on as proponents of this bill and are paying our Congressmen absurd amounts to pass are not realizing or are ignoring outright are:

  1. Online piracy is an incredibly small percentage of overall usage. Every independent (i.e., not paid for by the entertainment industry) report states this categorically. Even those reports done by groups in the pockets of the MPAA, RIAA, and others have to be incredibly doctored in order to support their results. These reports do not consider the many who download movies and music illegally, like it, and buy the album, DVD, or whatever legally later. It does not consider much easier, simpler means of piracy, like getting a Netflix subscription and then copying the DVDs a person receives each week.
  2. There are plenty of technological systems in place where these companies can legally sell and provide their data reasonably. and iTunes stores prove this; people are willing to pay reasonable amounts for access to the data they want. These companies choose not to use them, choose to hinder or subvert these systems if they do use them, choose not to sell them at reasonable rates, and they want Congress to allow them to continue using old technology and practices that never worked when dealing with an increasingly savvy purchasing public.
  3. Technology allows individuals to bypass the MPAA and RIAA altogether, and publish directly to their audience (be it music, movies, art, etc.). Artists can no circumvent these old establishments and make money directly, one to one, with their audience. This is the real root of the problem that SOPA is designed to fix. The entertainment industry is bleeding money, cannot reconfigure itself for a new technological truth, and doesn't want to lose decades of power and influence over the public.
The last point is this: the internet is out there. The entire world uses it. If America passes SOPA it will be a huge knock and will affect the entire world. Entire websites will be shut down by SOPA agents for one or two bad apples breaking the rules. The tenuous world economy will spiral into flames.

But the people will not stand for it for long. A new, different, and once again unregulated internet will crop up, as people rebel. You cannot put the genie back in the bottle at this point. Too many people have the technology and know how to use it.

Each American (and even those who aren't) should contact their representative and state clearly, "I'm not in favor of piracy, but I'm also not in favor of SOPA." There are plenty of laws already in place that actually do what SOPA claims to intend; let's try actually using those.

Contact your representatives through:

January 3, 2012

Movie Round Up, 2011

My annual round up of movies I saw in the theater over the preceding year.

True Grit (1/13/11)
An excellent movie. Deserving of the awards it reaped. I felt that Hailee Steinfeld deserved more credit -- she was the centerpiece of the movie and held it together extremely well. I look forward to seeing more from her. My one complaint was that I sometimes couldn't understand Jeff Bridges.

The King's Speech (1/30/11)
Incredible acting highlights this movie. Each of the main three stars are superb in their roles. The direction was a tad uneven, as sometimes the director went for subtlety and other times just the mundane shot. Some characters seemed miscast (like the brother, played by Guy Pierce, who is a fine actor and a favorite of mine, but was not right for that role). It certainly deserved the Oscars it won.

Limitless (4/5/11)
I really enjoyed this movie. I thought all the performances were dead on, including Bradley Cooper, an actor I don't normally like all that much. I enjoyed the plot and thought most of it worked even when it was a bit over the top. DeNiro gave one of his better late-career acting jobs in this.

Note: Like Unstoppable the year before, I'm not sure why this film didn't do better in the theater. All the elements were there and yet the film barely made back its budget. I think it may go on to have a decent life in rentals/sales.

Thor (5/18/11)
This was a fun comic-book movie. Hemsworth was excellent as the God of Thunder and Tom Hiddleston was incredible as Loki. The effects were excellent. The story was a bit dodgy at times, and Portman, normally a favorite of mine, seemed miscast here. Branagh's direction held the whole thing together and made it work.

Note: Hiddleston's performance was surprisingly nuanced and powerful for a "comic-book movie." Maybe not worthy of any sort of acting award nomination, but I would argue it is close. He shows pathos, empathy, rage, loss -- sometimes all in the same scene. I'm going to keep an eye out for his name in the future.

Super 8 (6/25/11)
The parts of this movie about the children growing up, growing together and apart, and making a cheesy zombie movie in the 1970s are fabulous. The parts about an alien that is killing/stealing people and items and wants to go home were dull and uninteresting. It is really too bad that JJ Abrams didn't trust that his coming of age story was interesting enough to hold an audience and he added the alien. Not a bad film, at all, but could have been an incredible kids come of age movie up there with Stand By Me.

Note: Elle Fanning was incredible in this movie. Expect great things from her.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (7/31/11)
A very satisfying ending to a very good series. It hit all the right notes from the novel, even as it changed some things in order to fit with the screen story being told (which varied and changed from the books to some degree). At this point, I'm not going to convert any haters out there, so I'll just say if you liked the HP movie series, this will be a satisfying conclusion to it.

Captain America: The First Avenger (8/1/11)
This was a very good comic-book movie. Probably a top 10 all-time comic book movie. It has the "golly-gee-whiz" feeling that you want in this type of movie, added to a fairly coherent story and plot. All the actors are at least solid if not very good in their respective roles. There were some over-done plot points, and the ending needed to be better written (Why couldn't he fly away in one of the smaller jets? Why couldn't he actually land the plane?), but it hit solidly on most cylinders and was fun to watch. What made this movie especially nice is that it was fun for adults and inoffensive enough for younger children to watch and enjoy.

Note: I wish there had been more scenes with Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones. They had such great chemistry and played off each other so well, I wanted more of them on screen.

Hugo (11/27/11)
This was an incredibly well-directed movie, with a solid story, excellent acting, and stunning visual effects. I felt the opening 45 minutes of the film were a bit long and some of the side stories could have been trimmed or done away with entirely. I will not be surprised to see this on end of the year best lists nor if it gets nominated for multiple rewards.

The Muppets (11/28/11)
I really enjoyed this movie. It had laughs, a good plot, in-jokes for long-time fans, and some surprisingly good music. My one complaint is that Kermit wasn't Kermit in the film. Usually, in any Muppet adventure, Kermit is the source of optimism and hope, the one who urges them to continue in the face of long odds. In this film, Kermit is defeated and sad and the new muppet, Walter, takes his place as the one with an unending well of hope.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (12/26/11)
A stylish thriller/whodunnit with excellent acting from Mara and Craig. It adheres much more closely to the novel of the same name, which will allow any subsequent sequels to also stick more closely to the original source material (the Swedish movies veered sharply, making each new movie go farther afield from the source). The Reznor soundtrack was annoying, not because it was bad or out of place, but because it was constantly there. There were few scenes with no soundtrack to let the actors, the film, or the scene breathe.

Strangely, I felt that Fincher's direction, while not at all bad, was somewhat pedestrian. There were few interesting angles or cuts, few stylish uses of color, and no surprises. This is not what I expect from him.

Note: I will be surprised if Mara doesn't get acting nominations and awards for her stint as Lisbeth.

Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (1/1/12)
A very good action flick, with a decent plot, good acting, and stylish direction. My one complaint is that most of the action scenes go on a bit too long. After the second or even third "drop the case/almost slip and fall/swerve around something" moment in each scene, the audience gets the point. Move on. However, almost no shaky-cam, so that's a plus.

Overall, it was a good year for the movies I chose to see in the theater. However, I noted that there were fewer movies I wanted to see in the theater and many I would otherwise have seen, I decided against due to poor ratings and Rotten Tomatoes scores. This year looks to be more of the same -- I'm only seeing a few movies that are "must see" theater movies, and a bunch that will likely be rentals later.