Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Art of the Pirouette

It's no secret that I will be voting to re-elect President Obama. But despite what some will claim, I'm not making that choice because I think he's perfect or because I think Democrats can do no wrong. I have been disappointed in a number of choices that he's made over his first term. Even allowing that some of these issues were outside his control, something most of his opponents would never admit publicly, I'm not really happy about the way some things have gone. I'm also not comfortable with a straight party line vote, but that's most likely what I'll do. Again, not because of some idealized view of Democrats, believe me. I'm quite aware that they can be as untrustworthy as their colleagues across the aisle.

But, in the end, the Republican party has forced me into this. They have offered no level headed, logical alternatives. Many of their premier voices utter such nonsense that it amazes me that they have any supporters at all. And it's not just Representative Todd Aikin and his "legitimate rape" idiocy. It's not just VA Governor Bob McDonnell's bill to force women to have an internal, vaginal ultrasound for daring to exercise their Constitutional rights. A procedure that could be argued is all but rape itself, since it would have resulted in non-consensual, penetration of a women simply to humiliate her for making a legal choice. It's not just the bizarre, time warp that has us actually discussing the wisdom of contraception in 2012. It isn't just economic 'plans' that rely more on magic than solid, empirical evidence and basic common sense. No, it's all of this and more. The storm of insanity from the Right would be awe inspiring if it wasn't so scary.

It's scary because a surprising number of Americans have jettisoned critical thinking for empty, emotional rhetoric that is about rousing anger, not informing the voting public. And the master of this trade is none other than Willard 'Mitt' Romney. This will be a historic election, no matter the outcome, but not for any of the reasons you probably think. I have been shocked and amazed at Romney's audacity. His deadpan, almost eerie ability to say whatever seems correct for that specific time and place. I'm not talking about the time tested political skill of focusing a message for your audience or even misdirection or exaggeration. I mean perfect, gold medal worthy pirouettes from black to white and back again, all in the blink of an eye. Not simply framing his policies to his audience, but to say one thing to one group in the morning and then declare something completely different to another. Sometimes completely reversing positions! Just doing that would be impressive enough, but he does it with such absolute belief. As if he truly doesn't remember what he said months, days or even hours ago.

Before the internet and the days of multiple cable news channels, this would not have been possible. It would have been a disaster, since there were limited media outlets so any reversals would be clear to just about everyone. But these days, you can get away with it. There's so much noise and so much partisan compartmentalization that large portions of the voting public will never know that a candidate's remarks, reported by CNN, were contradicted by others they made on Fox only hours later. It's the pinnacle of the art of telling people what they want to hear. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it's the low point of that strategy, because it does not serve the country well. If Romney wins, and I'm scared to death he might, it will signal the end of any sort of accountability for political candidates. It will usher in an era where candidates will lie to our faces as a standard political tactic and we will elect individuals about whom we can be sure of nothing, except their desire for political power. Some will argue that we've always had that, but I don't believe that's true. Up till now there have been limits beyond which few politicians would go. And those that did often paid a high price for it. Gov. Romney brings an entirely new level of dishonesty to the game.

Look, I make no secret that I believe a Romney-Ryan victory would be a disaster for the country. Neither has shown any hint of the type of level headed, pragmatic thinking that is required of a President. Neither seems to have the vaguest understanding of foreign policy or how to work with our Allies rather than dictate to them. Their economic plans still hinge on cutting revenue, i.e. cutting taxes, and only later negotiating a way to pay for them. And both of these men have shown a staggering comfort with telling bald faced and easily provable lies at the drop of a hat. Some of you reading may sneer and claim that Obama has done the same, but that would be just as much of a lie. I have no doubt there are examples of exaggeration or political fancy footwork from the Administration. But I think you'd have a difficult time finding many, if any, examples of the President saying one thing to an audience in the morning and contradicting himself completely eight hours later. Given a few minutes, I could dig up several such examples of this with Romney, and I'm not exaggerating. There are sites and blogs that have long lists of quotes and video links that chronicle his dishonesty from his first Senate run to the current campaign. You can watch and read as his seemingly sincere beliefs magically change to fit whatever audience he's attempting to win over. Even if you kinda like the guy, how in this wide world can you trust anything he says at this point? The only thing about Governor Romney that I have absolute certainty about is that he wants to be President. That alone should NOT be enough!

Land of the Gullible

I received an email forward the other day that reminded me why so many Americans believe so many astonishing things. The email was supposedly from a September 2008 edition of 'Meet the Press' where Senator Obama was being questioned about his stance on the National Anthem. Strangely it was also attributed, at the bottom, as being from a Washington Post columnist as well, which should have been a tip-off to readers that something wasn't quite right. The text contains explosive statements about Obama's plan to disarm America and that the flag is a symbol of oppression and so on. Suffice it to say that you would be hard pressed to find many Americans who wouldn't be shocked by the comments attributed to, then, candidate Obama.

The only problem is that it's completely made up! The actual guests on that edition of 'Meet the Press' were Sen. Joe Biden and Tom Friedman. According to info on this urban legend from, a site that is sort of a Myth Busters for rumors and other misinformation, the seeds for this doozie were sown by a political columnist's satirical "Semi News" feature. A feature explicitly subtitled, "A Satirical Look at Recent News". Yet, either by ignorance or intentional design, this piece was used to mislead gullible people into thinking Senator Obama was about to replace the national anthem with 'I'd like to teach the world to sing." No, seriously, that was one of the so-called quotes!

I know I shouldn't be, but I'm still amazed that this story could have been taken seriously. Though, to be fair, I'm just as amazed that people think an African prince wants to give them millions of dollars or that a long lost acquaintance you've never heard of is desperate to have sex with you, and by the way she's a hot redhead with a "killer bod". What makes these things insidious is that they play to our weaknesses. If you weren't lonely, then you'd be a lot less likely to believe an email from some anonymous, sex obsessed woman. If you didn't already have deep seated distrust of Senator/President Obama then you'd never be taken in by an email claiming that he wants "to disarm America to the level of acceptance to our Middle East Brethren." They play to our own prejudices. In that way they can be a bit of a wake up call, alerting us to some of the thoughts, desires and concerns that lurk just beneath the surface of our conscious mind.

We're all gullible to some degree, otherwise advertising agencies would all be out of business and Miller Lite ads wouldn't feature armies of busty, scantily clad women. The important point is to recognize our own biases and factor that knowledge into our decision making. If you recognize that you have a knee-jerk response to anything related to a particular person, then be honest enough with yourself to acknowledge it as the baseless emotional response it is. We all have this problem to some degree, as it's part of being an emotional creature. But it's pointless, and sometimes self destructive, to let it rule your actions. Maybe you do dislike President Obama, but just make sure your disagreement is based on actual policies and positions and not a bunch of lies and urban legends designed to play to your emotions and trick you into following someone else's agenda.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Paying Taxes

Mitt Romney's comments in a recently released video have once more brought us back to the tired and completely misunderstood subject of who does or doesn't pay taxes. This is stupid for all sorts of reasons. It's also, like many items involving public policy, way more complicated than it's represented. Let's take a look at some important facts.

The way it's almost always put is that at least 40% of American's don't pay any taxes. This is complete and utter bull, and should be obviously so to anyone with a functioning frontal lobe. Everyone pays taxes. That's right, every single American and every single person who lives in this country pays taxes. Think I'm crazy? Take a breath and think about it for a moment. Every 5 year old who buys a candy bar pays sales tax, just like every illegal immigrant who buys groceries. Many Americans, pay taxes on property they own, including cars. Anyone earning a paycheck pays payroll taxes. And yes, a lot of us pay federal income taxes. Oh, and don't forget state and local taxes. Even if you didn't pay Federal income taxes, nobody gets a free ride, despite what the talking heads want you to think.

But even if we only focus on just Federal income taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), even the bottom fifth of American households average a 4% income tax rate, according to 2007 numbers. A not insignificant amount when you consider they are only making around $18000 a year as it is. Incidentally, numerous tax cuts and short duration programs instituted in the 2009 Recovery Act, among other legislation, have inflated things a bit making the numbers over the last few years swell abnormally. Also consider that many who actually don't pay Federal income taxes are in that position, not because they are freeloaders, but because they make such a pittance. But wait, not every income tax avoiding person is even poor! Some are just able to take advantage of a tax code that is littered with loopholes designed specifically for this purpose. Who's responsible for that? Well, many of the same people who thump their chests about the freeloaders!

Am I the only one who finds it disgusting to hear millionaires whine that people barely earning enough to get by aren't paying enough taxes? Mitt Romney, all by himself, earns enough each year to raise 400 low income individuals into line with the national median income. Yet he thinks someone who doesn't make enough to qualify for income tax is a freeloader? Why aren't politicians and pundits laughed off the stage for saying things like this?

Look, I could dig up numbers to shine a light on this from all sorts of angles, but the point is that this entire line of attack is designed for only one purpose; to pit one group of Americans against another. To convince one demographic that they are doing all the work while the others are taking advantage of them. In the current climate it's being done to convince middle class conservatives that they are the real downtrodden ones and not the so called poor. The entire argument appeals to our baser instincts of suspicion and paranoia. There is little if any factual data to support it and what little there is has been horribly distorted, but that doesn't matter in a political world where lying has become normal. It would be nice if we weren't so gullible, but then again it would be nice if people in positions of authority had a sense of honor and integrity. Oh well, I can dream.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Taylor's Bad Year

Poor Taylor Kitsch. It's not been a good year for the young actor, thus far. Best known for the critically acclaimed NBC series "Friday Night Lights" (2006-2011), he also co-starred in "X-men Origins: Wolverine" as Gambit alongside Hugh Jackman and Leiv Schreiber. This year looked great on paper. Early spring 2012 would bring the (very) big budget, and eagerly awaited cinematic arrival of Edgar Rice Boroughs' Kingdom of Mars books where Kitsch would take the title role in "John Carter". It arrived to mixed reviews and low attendance, though it did ultimately pull in over $250 million. However it was reported to have cost the studio over $200 million to make, so disappointing might be an understatement. Then in the early summer came his starring role in "Battleship", a big budget science fiction adventure based on, of all things, the board game of the same name. It sunk rapidly at the box office with dismal reviews, and like "John Carter" barely made back the cost of production.

While both movies were major disappointments to the studios, they are very different in quality. I saw "John Carter" when it hit the theaters and overall, I liked it. It was well acted, the effects were top notch and it was an interesting story. I think what really knee-capped the film was its own PR. The studio spent a lot of money on ads, including a Super Bowl spot, but the problem was that they never really gave you a sense of what the movie was about. The previews showed aliens and snippets of action, but left the viewer scratching his head as to what the hell was going on. They lacked focus and rather than try and sketch out the premise for viewers, they relied on wowing us with special effect shots. It just wasn't enough. I figure it will make up some fiscal ground on DVD and PPV, but it will best be remembered as a flop. In my opinion "John Carter" was a solid movie that was served badly by the studio's marketing department. It deserved better.

I only just saw "Battleship" on PPV the other night. I'd have to say it deserved every empty seat in the house. It's not that it was horrible, exactly. I mean, it wasn't on the scale of the 2011 remake of "The Three Musketeers," but it wasn't good. However, I would say that, like the last Musketeers flick, the writers deserve the lion's share of ridicule. Though, in fairness, the writers were given a truly herculean task. Take Aliens, a major naval presence and a planet in peril and somehow tether it to a simple, grid based, two dimensional guessing game. What you end up with is a plot strewn with holes and WTF moments. In isolation, some of the choices seem to work, but many fall apart when you roll it all together.

!SPOILER ALERT! (A minor one, anyway)

For example, aliens travel to earth from deep space, yet seem incapable of avoiding a simple satellite collision that destroys one of their ships. I guess whoever planned this little intergalactic excursion skimped on radar. Then they submerge in the Pacific Ocean, and from then on seem capable of only moving in small, though cinematically impressive, hops across the ocean surface. Maybe the salt water washed off the special hull coating that allowed them to fly? And the aliens' most used weapon, though cool looking and destructive to naval vessels, really didn't seem like it would be of much use in any other circumstance. This weapon also seemed to have a propulsion and guidance system little better than conventional artillery and only marginally more destructive, shot for shot.  While you can certainly think up a bunch of imaginative reasons for each anomaly, we shouldn't have to and it's making the viewer work way too hard to justify a shoddy screenplay.  I remember thinking that the showiest alien weapon, a sort of self directing sphere, was very Transformer-like. On reflection, I'd say the entire script was reminiscent of "Transformers." Way more flash than substance.

Two big budget movies, two big budget bombs, and both headlined by Taylor Kitsch. Neither was his fault, of course. He did a good job in "John Carter" and did what he could with the dreck he was given for "Battleship" but I still feel for him just a little. Either of these movies could have been his stepping stone to the movie star 'A' list, but it was not to be. Gotta wonder how that will work out for him. Stars that can bring in the crowds with name recognition alone can get movies made, but what happens when your name is associated with financial disasters? Kevin Costner did manage to pull himself back, at least somewhat, from his "Waterworld" and "The Postman" debacles, but it took quite a while and he's never recaptured the heights of "Dances with Wolves". I hope Taylor weathers things, because I think he is a talented actor and deserves to rise or fall on his performance rather than the studios box office expectations. But only time will tell. As to these two films? I recommend "John Carter", but unless you're looking for mindless special effects or a Mystery Science Theater level viewing experience, don't bother with "Battleship".

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Empty Chair

So, most of you have heard about the odd performance piece Clint Eastwood put on at the Republican National Convention, where he cross examined an imaginary President Obama signified by an empty chair. I like Clint, even if I don't agree with his politics and, as Bill Maher pointed out the other night, he went up there with no prompter and a chair and he got good responses from the audience, so you gotta give him credit for stepping out there. But it wasn't till I was watching The Daily Show with Jon Stewart this weekend that I realized the significance of Eastwood's conversation with the empty chair. A significance that is obviously lost on the Republicans themselves.

As Jon Stewart put it, "Eastwood finally revealed the cognitive dissonance that is the beating heart and soul and fiction of [the Republican] party.   . . . I could never wrap my head around why the world and the President, that the Republicans describe bears so little resemblance to the world and the President that I experience. And now I know why. There is a President Obama that only Republicans can see. And while the President, the rest of us see has issues, apparently this President, invisible to many, is bent on our wholesale destruction." This theory is startlingly true. And it's been true since the campaign began. No, let's be honest, it's been true since January 20th, 2009. The GOP has based the majority of its attacks, not on the actual policies President Obama has championed or put into place, but instead, they have continually referred to a mythical, alternate reality version of Obama. Always exaggerating anything he said or did, and shockingly, often telling outright lies!

I can't even count the number of 'scandals' pushed, and often generated from thin air by Fox News and other GOP leaning sources that were completely untrue. And I mean proven false by objective investigation. But Republicans, and especially Fox News, know one very important thing about Americans and the media. They know that a salacious lie told today will be remembered, even if it's completely debunked tomorrow. Get your version out there first and proclaim it loudly and repeatedly. Then even if irrefutable proof arises later, you simply let it go without comment and your viewers and supporters will never even notice. Any proof offered later will be considered liberal propaganda. It's simple, and it works.

Look, I have a number of issues with Obama and his policies. I'm ticked off that the Gitmo gulag is still in operation. I'm ticked that we have made it OK to execute Americans via drone with little oversight. I'm ticked that we are still expected to be in Afghanistan for years to come, when we really aren't doing any lasting good and really don't have any control over the stability of the Karzai government. I'm pissed that the Bush tax cuts are still in place and continuing to feed the deficit. That's just what comes immediately to mind. Though even some of those items bear the fingerprints of the GOP. My point is that I can understand reasoned disagreement with the policies of this President. What I cannot understand is how much time is spent by Conservatives ranting and raving about policies Obama never proposed or on intentional misinterpretations of policies that actually were implemented. If we can't even agree on the basic facts, then how can we ever agree on anything else?

As an American, you must decide this November who you will support for President. I'm not asking that you blindly vote to reelect Barack Obama. But I do ask that you base your voting decision on facts. Not sound bites. Not some off the cuff remarks by Mike Huckabee or Sean Hannity. Not some unconfirmed headline you read on the Drudge Report. Not a Crossroads GPS funded attack ad. Base it on facts, that is all I ask. Wanna know the details on past and current fiscal policies and how they affect the deficit now and in the future? Actually go to the official sites and find the info! Don't pull it from! Visit the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which is the non-partisan organization that is relied on by both parties for 'scoring' legislation. You want to hear some level-headed analysis of a Supreme Court ruling? Don't wait for Nancy Grace to enlighten you, go to the SCOTUS Blog, where experienced law scholars parse through the dense rulings and discuss the repercussions without adding partisan spin. Hear about a scandal that sounds shocking? Then investigate it through non partisan sources, or at least across a wide swath of sources, to see if maybe the reason it's so shocking is because it's made up! Vote for who you think is best for America, going forward. Just make sure you're basing your decision on factual information and not single sourced from a partisan pundit with an axe to grind.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Question of Disclosure

Mitt Romney has been dogged by a few issues over this campaign, but the one that he can't quite put to bed is his refusal to release more than two years of tax returns. And one of those won't show up till a month or two before election day. Is this odd? Well, it's somewhat out of step with decades of precedent, but there's nothing requiring him to do it. However John McCain is the only other major candidate to release less than three years of returns in the last 34 years, so it could be argued that three years of returns is the traditional minimum.

Now do I think this is a huge issue? Initially, I would have said probably not. But the irony here is that the more Romney digs in his heals on the question, the more interested I become. To paraphrase the old saying, me thinks he doth protest too much. After all, the best way to put it all to rest is to just release a couple more years and tell everyone, politely, to take them and shut up. Nothing stokes curiosity like avoidance. It should also be pointed out that Romney has, at many times during his previous Senate and Gubernatorial campaigns, demanded his opponents release returns. In the case of his Gubernatorial opponent, who had released hers, he even made a point about how her husband hadn't released his returns. The big kicker to this though, is that Romney apparently handed over 23 years worth of returns to John McCain when he was being vetted for the VP slot in 2008. (This is where you would insert the joke about McCain looking at them and promptly turning to Sarah Palin.) But of course we have no idea if the returns had any bearing on McCain's decision at all. The only salient point is that Romney wasn't stingy then, yet now, on the public stage he's getting all shy and retiring.

There are all sorts of theories for why he's not releasing them, ranging from them showing he paid no taxes to whether they would show something fraudulent. Personally, I think it's likely that the reason he won't release them is because they show that, through purely legal means, he made massive amounts of money and paid shockingly little in taxes. That's probably the real bombshell here, that the wealthy have so many tricks and loopholes these days that they can get away with paying a comparative pittance in taxes. In this economy, that could strike a very sensitive nerve. If people struggling to make ends meet see an incredibly rich candidate who consistently paid tiny sums while they send out more than they can afford, it could stir up a lot of animosity. Americans are fine with wealthy people, contrary to the blather you sometimes heard around the 'Occupy' protests, but they are not very forgiving of people they feel are gaming the system.

I don't think this issue is going away. First because he's probably the richest major party candidate who's ever run for President and it seems perfectly reasonable for his employers to know something about his finances. Second, because he's dug in his heels and that will only make people more suspicious. It's a question of why not show them if you have nothing to hide? As many prominent Republicans have rightly suggested it's best to get it over with now. If there's something embarrassing there get it out in the open and put it to rest, then he can move on. But if Romney thinks he can just keep laughing mechanically and saying 'no' without consequences, he may find that the question will never disappear and instead will nip at the heels of his campaign all the way to November. And every time he has to deal with the question, it will force him onto the defensive. Not a good place to be when you are trying to unseat an incumbent President.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Not So Funny

The other day, a man by the name of Sandy Weill announced on CNBC that "what we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking." Now, at first blush, you may wonder why this is of any significance. He's hardly the first person to suggest this idea, usually referred to as a reinstatement of the Depression era Glass-Steagall act. You may also wonder, who the hell is Sandy Weill, and why do I care?

Funny story, way back in the late 90's Citibank, a large commercial bank, was all excited about merging with Travelers Group and Salomon Brothers, which were insurance and investment institutions, respectively. This was a problem because of the aforementioned Glass-Steagall Act which barred the merging of high risk, securities firms with commercial lending banks that were expected to be safe and stable places to deposit your money. In the end they did merge and through some impressive Congressional jujitsu it was all made legal, after the fact, by repealing Glass-Steagall and voila! Citigroup was formed and became the first Too Big to Fail bank.

Wait, wait, I'm getting to the funny part! Sandy Weill . . . was CEO of Travelers Group and spearheaded the merger, after which he was CEO of Citigroup! Get it? The same idiot who ensured the creation of Too Big to Fail mega-banks is now going on THE financial news network to say that maybe, just maybe we should consider the reinstitution of the very regulations he helped repeal. It's hilarious, right?

For a more in-depth riff on the comedic stylings of Mr. Weill, I suggest this piece from Matt Taibbi.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

By Any Other Name

Well, the verdict is in, much to the relief of the Administration and the chagrin of the GOP. The Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act, aka 'ObamaCare'. Not surprisingly in a 5 to 4 decision, but the actual makeup of that judicial split was a bit unexpected. Instead of Justice Kennedy acting in his usual role as the swing vote between the conservative and the liberal wings of the court, it was Chief Justice Roberts who decided it. That's right, conservative, Bush 43 appointee John Roberts stood up to affirm the constitutionality of health reform!

The Individual Mandate, the item everyone agreed was the keystone of the health reform law that could, if struck down, render the entire effort untenable, survived. Though, surprisingly not under the Commerce Clause, as was assumed. Chief Justice Roberts declared that it did not survive scrutiny under that clause, but was rather covered under the government's tax authority. Of course the GOP has already started its effort to reframe their opposition, based on it being a tax. And we all know what Republicans think of taxes, regardless of how necessary they are to the functioning of a government. They are nothing if not quick off the mark. But the truth is that to you and I, it doesn't really matter whether it's constitutional under the commerce clause, tax authority or the right to keep and bear arms, as long as it is judged to be covered under some part of the Constitution.

So now it's time for anyone who sees 'ObamaCare' as some diabolical, anti-democratic, freedom killing, evil to cry and mourn the death of the Republic. No, really, I'm serious. There are those who actually see it that way. Despite the fact that it actually gives private sector insurance companies even more business, thus working within the capitalistic framework. Despite the government not in any way forcing you to give up any of your current insurance coverage or in any way taking over the actual insurance business. In fact, if you lay out all the individual provisions, and ask people about those pieces completely on their own, you will hear overwhelming support. Go figure.

- Insurance companies can't deny you coverage for pre-existing conditions? Great!

- They cannot kick you off your coverage for getting sick? Excellent!

- Kids can stay on their parents insurance till they are 26? Nice idea!

- Cost free preventative services, to ensure you catch problems early? Oh, yeah!

- A way to compare health plans and have them compete on a level playing field? It's there all right.

- Eliminate lifetime limits? Yep!

- Require insurance companies to use at least 80 - 85% of premiums on actual benefits? Good!

- Increase access to Medicaid for low income Americans? Outstanding!

There is really only one part of the Affordable Care Act that gets GOP hackles up, and it's the one they came up with in the first place! The Individual Mandate. This requires everyone to have insurance coverage of some sort, either employer provided or individually purchased. You know, like many Americans already have to do for car insurance! This provision has been harped on as some sort of tyrannical over-reach, yet in truth it's just another way of saying 'no freeloading'. As it is now, if you don't have insurance, that's your choice, but if you do get sick and show up at the Emergency Room they have to treat you. And the rest of us have to pay for it! Why doesn't anyone in the GOP or on Fox news scream and inveigh about all the cheapskates being given free medical care? It's actually a conservative idea, damn it! Take responsibility for your own healthcare because we don't want to pay for it any more. Someone please explain to me how this is tyranny!

The bottom line is that the current system, with Emergency Rooms used as emergency insurance, is far more socialist than the Affordable Care Act! It gives people a way to get care while foisting the bill on the rest of us. Isn't the Individual Mandate more fair, responsible and downright conservative? So Americans love 99% of the provisions of the law, but some just can't stand 'ObamaCare'. They can't give a cogent reason or articulate their disagreement without using GOP talking points, but they just don't like it. Look, if you have insurance coverage . . . it's not really going to affect you. If you don't, then it will almost certainly help you get it. It will also guarantee the private insurance companies millions of additional customers, thus taking the sting out of their additional requirements under the law. So if you just can't stand 'ObamaCare,' maybe you should take a look at the Affordable Care Act instead.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Vague & Vacuous

I was out running errands the other day and while on the way back to my car I noticed a political bumper sticker. It was for some candidate for Congress, but what grabbed my attention was the tagline.

"Less Government. More Prosperity."

My first thought was that it was obviously a Republican. My second was that this was just the kind of stupid drivel that we've come to expect from our elections. Fourth grade level, useless bullet points that grab voters' attention, yet are absolutely without substance.

"Less Government" is one of those lines that is a conservative staple. It fits the narrative that the government, especially the federal government, is only good at wasting money. Like most catchy political phrases, it strikes its target audience as clear and concise, yet is actually uselessly vague. What the hell does that phrase even mean, anyway? What do you want less of? It's real easy to moan about the evils of government and how bad it is, but when you start to really pin things down, it becomes surprisingly complicated. Well, we can't get rid of the military. If nothing else, it's one of the few categories where America still holds the top spot! Not to mention that it's undeniable that we all "support the troops." Not enough to take care of them when they come home, sometimes badly wounded, or to stop sending them off for deployment after deployment in locations most Americans couldn't care less about, but we'll elbow each other in the ribs to buy them a beer! And, of course, politicians can't call for a reduction without risking being labeled as weak. So the Pentagon is safe.

How about those fascists at the EPA or FDA, with their fixation on keeping our food, air and water at least reasonably safe? I think we can all agree that we need less testing of new drugs or regulations on what chemicals can be dumped in our rivers, right? Anyone? Okay, hmmm. I got it, Medicare! Do we really want to waste money on healthcare for the elderly? They've been here a while, isn't it time to spend on ourselves instead? Okay, maybe not. National Park Service, maybe? They're all just tree hugging socialists, anyway. Then again, it might be nice to have a few areas that can't be used for mining, shopping malls or another Marriott. I guess "less government" isn't so clear a dictate when looked at in detail.

What about "More Prosperity"? Now that is something we can agree on, eh? Hell, yes! I demand more prosperity! It's time we marched out there and let our politicians know that we won't stand for the current level of prosperity any longer. They just need to fix that. You know, just . . . you know, get out there and . . .  fix it! How? Uh, well . . . (crickets chirp happily in the distance). To be blunt, "more prosperity" is about as ignorant as McCain's "Country First" slogan from '08. As if anyone ever called for country second or less prosperity! Slogans like this should be taken almost as seriously as those ads for magic diet pills that melt the fat right off while you watch TV. And yet, there they are, plastered everywhere as if they were universal truths.

But what is so infuriating is that empty platitudes like these actually seem to work! Come on people, wake up. Our political system has degenerated to the point where our politicians are beginning to feel comfortable uttering easily disprovable, bald faced lies on national television. Not just exaggerating or stretching things, but actually declaring in bold language the political equivalent of 2+2=5! And they get uproarious applause. Why? Because they are telling their supporters exactly what they want to hear. And politicians have learned that reinforcing our own prejudices, misconceptions and fears is way easier and more effective than telling the truth.  The truth can be inconvenient and data has an annoying habit of not fitting a canned narrative, but lies fit every single time.

Much of the blame for this state of affairs lays at the feet of the media. In the olden days of TV news, it was just the three major networks and their news departments were not there to make money. Actually they weren't expected to be profitable. They were more in the way of a public service. Now we have news and comment oozing out of every TV, newspaper, computer, tablet and phone without end, but it's all about selling ad space. It's all about entertainment and making the viewers feel better about themselves so they'll buy more product. Each political party picks their preferred outlets and pundits, then ignores everyone else. A grand echo chamber, where nobody is asked tough questions because everyone involved is on the same team. If not politically so, then at least they are teamed up in feeding their viewers acceptable ideas that won't upset them. Instead of pointing out the facts, allowing us to decide based on objective data, it's about keeping the viewers happy and thus the sponsors happy. We can't even agree on the basic facts any more, so I can't imagine how we can ever work together to solve the very real and pressing problems we face.

The bottom line is that we aren't really as far apart as it usually seems. If we could dispense with the easy slogans and let go of our reflexive hatred, I think Americans of all views could make this work. But we are not just fighting our own habitual responses. It's also a struggle against all the forces out there that benefit from the conflict. The media that is trying to sell ad space. Those in positions of influence who are more focused on their own personal or business success rather than the overall success of the nation. And also the politicians whose overriding concern is reelection and keeping their donors happy. What's the solution? Question those you support as well as those you oppose. Listen to both sides, even when you don't want to. If someone you like says something that seems at all odd, look into it. Even if you generally trust a certain source of information, that doesn't mean they are always right or that they don't have an agenda. The one way we can pull out of this partisan nose-dive is for people on both sides to call out the lunacy in their own party. Stupid is still stupid, no matter who says it or what channel it's on.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Too Much Ad'ing

I've just about had it with online ads. I realize that it's the only way for a lot of websites to make money and it's certainly the only reason a social networking site like Facebook is supposedly worth enough to create an IPO feeding frenzy. I'm not complaining about ads in general as they are necessary and, once in a blue moon, even useful. But the madness has to stop! There are only so many places to post, staple, tape or bury ads while still maintaining a page's basic usefulness. I think we've now passed that point of sanity and moved into the land of marketing chaos.

I remember the first moment things were getting out of control. I'm sitting there, reading a post somewhere about something and, like everyone who spends a lot of time online, I'm quick to notice hyperlinks. So, there I am, reading along and I notice a blue, underlined word and out of reflex I hover the pointer over it, intending to see what the link points to. Before I can even think about actually clicking it, a big window pops up with some advertisement that vaguely relates to the highlighted word! Only afterwards did I notice the double-underline that seems to denote these 'ad mines' that are deployed all over the place nowadays.  Next came the 'mouse trap' ads that lurk innocently along the margins just waiting for an unwary mouse pointer to wander close and then they pounce, opening up a big, expanded ad across a third of the web page. These also took me by surprise the first time. It only takes a little sloppy mouse work in the wrong place to yank you out of whatever you were doing. Sometimes you're lucky and the ad will snap back when you drag your pointer back to neutral ground, but often you have to find the ghostly little 'X' in one corner or the other of the ad to make it go away. So now, not only do I have to avoid passing the pointer over double underlined words scattered throughout most of the articles I read, but I also have to carefully circumnavigate the entire ad section to avoid accidentally tripping one of them as well. Makes for a pleasant reading experience, as you can imagine.

But that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg! It's no longer unusual for a page to contain ads with embedded movies. And not just movies you can choose to play if you happen to be interested in the product. I'm talking movies that just autostart as soon as the page loads. At least so far, most run without sound unless you click on it. Thank Gaia for small favors! But some just start blaring away at whatever volume your computer happens to be set to. Or maybe, as I've run into recently, the page loads normally, but after a second it darkens and a movie will open in the middle of the page and start playing.  In some cases you can't even close the ad till it plays a certain length of time, thus holding the contents of the page hostage. Once you get to the page though, it's still not clear sailing. Huffington Post, for example, has a really annoying ad strategy. Sporadically they will have a huge banner across the very top of the page, usually for something like a big movie opening. So far so good, as you can just scroll down and go about your business. But not so fast!  Just about the time you see an article you might want to read . . . presto, the ad retracts and the entire page slides upwards, taking what you were reading with it. That one is particularly infuriating and I've gotten so I just let the page load and wait 30 seconds or so till all the shifting is done before actually looking at anything. It's a stupid way to do it, as it just annoys people which is not generally a good marketing tool.

Even if you avoid the movies, mouse traps, ad mines and timed animations, the advertisers have still more tricks for you. In recent years I've seen more of the in-line, stealth ads sneaking in. As odd as it may sound to combine 'stealth' and 'ad' in the same description, it fits. These ads are carefully placed throughout the text of the article and sometimes even look, at a glance anyway, like they are part of it.  There will be an extra line or two and a very low key 'sponsor' note, but usually not enough to be obvious till you start to read it and wonder why the article on Greece's money troubles seems to now be advising you on mortgage opportunities! Imagine reading Moby Dick only to stumble over ads for Holland America cruises and you get the idea.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of marketing tricks to be found in the wild, but they are some of the most invasive. And with the rise of Google and Facebook, among others, the ads we see are eerily targeted. I did some searches six months ago or so, for a laptop bag and I still see ads from one of the companies I visited popping up on all sorts of pages now. Sure I could clear all the browser cookies and probably give my stalkers the slip, briefly at least, but I find it annoying that I have to. I also find it annoying how long page load times have gotten for some sites due to the dozens of highly visual ads that frame, and sometimes infiltrate, the articles themselves. Some of these pages are, graphically speaking, 95% ads or more!

One other thing the online ad onslaught has brought us is 'click bait'. Articles that either exist almost entirely as a lure for readers or pages that are crafted so the article takes up the maximum amount of pages. The most obvious form of the lure strategy is to use an title that is usually somewhat, if not wildly misleading. We've all seen a title that grabbed us only to find out that it had little bearing on the actual story. But it got you to click on it, so the advertising god was appeased. The other appeasement trick is to create slide show 'articles' where you usually have a picture and maybe a short paragraph of text on each page. This often manifests in things like 'The Top 10 . . .' or '5 Ways to a better . . .' and other similar variations. More often than not you'll find these lists to be generally brainless. Filled with either obvious or highly subjective and inflammatory information. In any case, you are unlikely to get anything of substance from them. The web site itself however, will rack up huge number of page hits and thus, making itself look like a great place to advertise!

As I said, I know we can't get away from relying on ad revenues to fund our online world, but is it too much to ask to back it down to sane levels? I keep trying to imagine what things would be like if we applied the current online marketing strategies to our everyday lives. Imagine sidewalks, where every square was an advertising tile that lit up with targeted ads as you stepped on them. Imagine phone calls with brief pauses in conversation so we could hear a word from our sponsors based on the current topic of discussion. Imagine TV shows where the characters turn to the camera unexpectedly to extol the virtues of the new Subaru WRX they just bought. Wait a sec! That one I've already seen. The SciFi, er . . . I mean SyFy channel tried that a few years ago with their original series Eureka. It was a horrible thing to see, and they seemed to realize that quickly as the practice ceased after a few episodes. The point is that I think we've already hit the saturation point with online ads. I regularly find myself thinking, "I will NEVER buy anything from this company", after encountering some of the more egregious marketing traps. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is reticent to click ads at all. I mean, who wants to be stalked by some company you were vaguely curious about for ten seconds one day? Who wants to encourage strategies that annoy the hell out of you? The marketing brain trust needs to remember that there is a fine line between enticing us with products and just generally pissing us off.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Who Do You Trust?

What is it about conservatives? I'm constantly running into these weird conflicting narratives. Ideologies that seem to be in complete opposition to each other. One of the strangest is the Government vs. Private debate. It's no secret that it's accepted conservative dogma that the government is usually wrong and that it does more harm than good. Basically an overall distrust of government involvement, sometimes elevated to an almost paranoid level. Yet the same people who can't say the word 'government' without spitting, seem to have utmost trust in the conduct of the private sector.

I recently commented on a story related to the EPA and ended up in a 'conversation' with someone who seemed to believe that the EPA was following some grand "Obama Doctrine" and "Imposing their societal designs on free and prosperous people, dictating how we live, controlling our every movement in our personal life." Yet, on the other hand, "the Free markets are a wonder and transform society into a prosperous, innovative, imaginative society."  So while the government is bad and untrustworthy, trying to control our every movement, the free market is the panacea from which all good comes. At least according to more than a few conservatives.

Can they actually be completely missing the problem with this argument? Big Government is bad, yet Big Business isn't? Why is Exxon any more trustworthy than Congress? What makes General Electric more noble and honest? I think it goes back to my theory that perception is 9/10 of reality. We're bombarded by all the stupidity, the wastefulness and the corruption of our government on a continual basis. The news trumpets it and comedians mine it for laughter. But with big business, it's different. Unlike the President, the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader, most of us have no clue who's heading up Bank of America or Wells Fargo. Go up to any random person on the street and ask them their thoughts on Brian Moynihan, Jamie Dimon or Vikram Pandit and note the blank expressions.  Yet these men run the top three financial institutions in the country (B of A, JP Morgan Chase & Citi Group respectively) with combined assets approaching six and a half trillion dollars!  Functionally, these are three of the most powerful people in America, yet few even recognize their names. Add to that the fact that when a business does something wrong you rarely hear anything about it. Just about every financial firm has been fined repeatedly, even over just the last few years, for wrongdoing and outright fraud, yet they are usually able to finagle a simple fine without actually admitting any wrongdoing. This is something that boggles my mind, actually. And the fine is usually far less than what the company made by using those shady practices in the first place, thus providing no incentive to do the right thing in the future.

So naturally, we perceive business as being more upstanding, because Conan O'Brian hasn't done many jokes about Goldman Sachs latest $22 million fine. You see the joke is that they conspired to  . . . never mind, it's not really that funny actually. I understand that we like to look up at these money making machines in awe, but simply being successful doesn't make you trustworthy or moral. In fact, I've been lectured on more than one occasion by someone telling me that I shouldn't expect corporations to make moral decisions! So if they can't be expected to do the right thing for anyone but themselves, then why would you extend them such trust? The only thing Citi Group can be trusted to do, is make money. And it's that very laser focus on profit, above all else,  that should inspire extra oversight and not extra latitude.

Look, I don't have any special trust in government but contrary to the conservative narrative, government does do some things right. Scenic gems like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon are protected and remain open to any American to enjoy, without being draped in mansions and sprawling resorts. Criminal plots are stopped and their perpetrators removed from the streets by the FBI and Federal Marshals every day.  American seniors are able to get basic health insurance, rather than facing the gauntlet of private providers, because of Medicare. Rivers don't generally catch fire anymore and companies can't release known toxins into the atmosphere since the EPA was signed into being by that liberal icon Richard Nixon. We have few outbreaks of food born illness since the FDA started setting standards for food preparation, and when they do occur they are quickly tracked to the source and dealt with.

Government can be overbearing. It can be wasteful. It can be corrupt, but it also performs many services that we all take for granted. The free market also provides many invaluable services to individuals and the country at large, but it is also willing to ignore the common good and long term effects of their activities in the quest for profit. Neither is wholly good or wholly bad and neither can be trusted to operate without supervision. The Founders knew that about government and that's why they constructed the American system with interlocking checks and balances. We have to stay vigilant and do the same with big business, because they represent just as much of a danger to the nation as an overbearing federal government.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

NC Amendment 1

I currently reside in North Carolina and today I am furious with the people of this state. On Tuesday, elections were held. Mostly political primaries for various state and federal positions, but there was one other item nestled on the back of my ballot. It was a vote on a state constitutional amendment that was touted by its supporters as protecting traditional marriage. Primarily it was aimed as outlawing gay marriage, but that was not all it did.

The most prominent part of this amendment would ban gay marriage by using the now familiar blather about "defining marriage as between a man and a woman." This wasn't the only thing it did, but we'll get to that shortly. One of many things about this amendment that is idiotic, goes to the fact that gay marriage is already illegal by law in the state of NC. Which begs the question of why there needed to be an amendment to the state constitution to double secret probation ban it? Is that like installing a second deadbolt to give extra protection from the rampaging horde of homosexuals who are coming to make you marry them?

I will never understand this. Oh, I get why homosexuality makes some uncomfortable. That's a no-brainer! It's different and doesn't fit our Hollywood spun fantasies of romance and marriage. But so what? A lot of things weren't 'normal' until they were. And at the end of the day, this had very little to do with heterosexual couples. The gay community isn't trying to force straight people to be gay! Allowing gay marriage will have no effect on your straight relationship at all. This isn't really about preserving the so called "tradition of marriage". A tradition that at times, not so far in the past, was as much about property, alliances and preserving the family name as any modern idea of romance. That's right, this noble tradition also brings with it a history of female subjugation too. But we prefer to forget those inconvenient facts, don't we?

This whole issue has less to do with preserving some fantasy ideal of marriage and more to do with ostracizing people you don't like or that make you feel uncomfortable. I understand that homosexuality can be uncomfortable to some and even offensive. But so frelling what?! There are all sorts of things that offend me, including that sanctimonious, glassy eyed, smiling blonde bobblehead who I watched babble gleefully about the passage of Amendment 1 Tuesday night. But, while the idea of administering therapeutic shock therapy did flit through my mind, I never thought that I should fight to outlaw her right to stand there and spout idiotic statements. You see I have this crazy idea that all Americans are created equal and that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Radical, I know. Come to think of it, I must have read that somewhere.

But, as I hinted at earlier, this amendment was more far reaching than just continuing to treat gay Americans as less worthy. It also contained language that I doubt many who voted for it even looked at. They just heard that it banned gay marriage and in their rush to limit the rights of their fellow citizens they failed to notice what else its passage would do.  But don't listen to me. Here's an excerpt from a paper on the potential legal impact of this amendment written by four professors from the UNC School of Law. Emphasis is mine.

"Taken as a whole, the bill’s language is sufficiently vague, and its scope significantly unclear, that it would enmesh our courts in years of litigation to untangle its appropriate meaning. Moreover the eventual result of judicial interpretation of the Amendment would be uncertain. It could, however, be interpreted to upend completely the very minimal legal rights, obligations, and protections now available to unmarried couples, whether same-sex or opposite-sex."

Such as . . .

"The Amendment could prevent courts from enforcing private agreements between unmarried couples, and end-of-life arrangements, such as wills, trusts and powers of attorney executed by unmarried couples; unsettle current custody law; invalidate rights and protections currently provided to unmarried couples under North Carolina’s domestic violence laws; undercut municipalities’ decisions to recognize domestic partnerships and undermine private employers’ efforts to attract top employees to North Carolina by providing employee benefits to domestic partners. It certainly will spur litigation, discourage same-sex and opposite-sex unmarried couples from living and working in North Carolina"

So congratulations North Carolina! Not only have you redundantly banned gay marriage, but you have likely stripped the legal rights and protections from heterosexual unmarried couples as well! Do you feel proud and more complete as a human being now that you have not just kept in place restrictions on those icky gay people but also removed protections from ALL unmarried couples? What other group can you think of to strip of rights? Anyone . . . Anyone?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Tale of Two Movies

About a month ago I was looking for something to watch one evening and found myself scrolling through the PPV movie listing. I ended up choosing the 2011, big budget re-make of 'The Three Musketeers'. It follows at least ten other big screen adaptations of the original novel, stretching back to the early days of film. Not too surprising, since the excellent book by Alexandre Dumas has everything a moviegoer could want in a film; adventure, action, heroes, villains, honor, suspense, cloak & dagger politics (with real daggers!) and even a touch of romance. Now I'd seen the previews for this rendition before its release and had been a little leery of what looked like some over the top FX and stunt work, but thought, "why not? It's only $5."

It became obvious, less than two minutes into the very first scene that a mistake had been made. And by mistake, I mean the fact that the script had not been burned immediately thus saving us all from a foolish waste of time and money. To say the film was a disaster would be an understatement. But it wasn't just the stupid plot points and dialogue, it was the obvious attempt to take the core story and make it 'bigger' and 'bolder' so it could match recent action adventures like the Mission Impossible franchise. In fact, it felt like MI was exactly what they were trying to emulate. The fancy gadgets, many patently impossible for the 17th Century, the gratuitous use of elaborate slow motion action sequences and the 'elite team saves the world' plot all come straight out of the 21st century action playbook. Ironically, all the attempts to 'update' the production did nothing but destroy the things that made The Three Musketeers such a great story. I felt none of the brotherly camaraderie that marked the original story. It was just too contrived and too slick to allow any serious emotion to creep in. Without that, it's just hollow and mechanical.

I can't really lay too much blame on the actors, either. I'd say that it was actually pretty well cast, for the most part. But no matter the actor's skills, they couldn't make bad dialogue work or make the unexpectedly contemporary language and phrasing less jarring. It was as if the screenwriters randomly forgot in what time period the film was taking place and each time it occurred I was yanked out of the moment. Did Cardinal Richelieu just say, "yep"?! I lay the blame for this embarrassment solely at the feet of the screenwriters and the director. Suffice it to say that it was one of the worst, big budget Hollywood productions I've ever seen. I've seen worse films, but those were all 'B' movies so at least I wasn't surprised.

Contrast this disaster with, in my opinion, the best Three Musketeers adaptation, Richard Lester's two part, star studded production from 1973-74. Its cast list included Charlton Heston, Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Michael York, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain and others. It holds surprisingly close to the original text, hence the need for two parts which were dubbed 'The Three Musketeers' and 'The Four Musketeers'. They didn't try to make the time period more glamorous than it was, letting you see the grittiness of early 1600s Paris. It also eschewed attempts to update the story to fit modern standards and instead let you see the myopia and narcissism of the French and British aristocracy contrasted with the other levels of French society from servant to soldier to spy to Cardinal and King. It also had some top notch sword play. Not the silly, dainty slapping of blades, but real brawls. Fights that utilized numerous styles that transcended simple fencing. Put simply, it felt authentic.

What really stands out about the 70's production, in comparison to the 2011 version, is that it's not trying to be more than it is. There are no gratuitous explosions or superhuman feats. The Musketeers were master swordsmen to be sure, but they got injured and they fought dirty. The '70's films focused heavily on the core story of protecting the Queen from the Cardinal's machinations and D'Artagnon's ongoing attempts to protect his love, Constance, from Milady's revenge. The clash of England vs. France was an important but tertiary plot. Contrast that with the 2011 version's grandiose theme of laughingly unbelievable airborne DaVinci war machines and you see a prime example of one of Hollywood's biggest issues of late. If the movie is classified as 'Action', then it has to be huge and filled with pyrotechnics and special effects. The heroes have to be almost invincible and capable of inhuman feats. And worst of all, the plot and dialogue are all but an afterthought. I can't count the number of films I've seen that were mediocre, but that could have been great if they had really made an effort on the plot. Instead far too many filmmakers seem fine with 'good enough'.

I don't know if the situation is worse now than 30 years ago, but it seems that way. I think the late '80s and early 90's marked the beginning of the trend and the mastering of computer effects in the early 2000s only cemented the bad practices. Instead of the special effects and stunts adding flavor to the film, too often nowadays they are the film. I don't suppose this is likely to change anytime soon. At least not as long as these monstrosities generally make money. But it is a sad state of affairs to see so many action films become little more than big budget B movies.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

False Equivalence

Several weeks ago Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam allowed an education bill to pass into law without his signature. This law, often referred to by critics as the 'Monkey Bill' in reference to the 1925 'Scopes Monkey Trial,' allows the discussion of alternative scientific ideas in classrooms. On the surface, this seems innocuous and perhaps even pointless to enact as law, but the one thing it does is open the door just a crack to challenge scientific theories such as evolution and climate change.

Here's an excerpt from the Bill Summary: "This bill prohibits the state board of education and any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or principal or administrator from prohibiting any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming."

Don't get me wrong, I am all for discussion and debate in general, even more so in an academic setting. But I don't think grade school science class is the place for such free wheeling, anything goes exchanges. School, particularly grade school, is there to, as quickly and efficiently as possible, build up a student's basic foundational knowledge of the currently accepted theories and practices. With this foundation they can then bound off in whatever direction life and their own imagination takes them. This includes challenging the validity of the accepted wisdom. My main problem with this law is that by saying it's OK to debate pretty much any idea in class, it quietly creates a false equivalency between supported scientific theories and faith based beliefs.

Look, we don't know everything and sometimes our reality gets turned upside down with new discoveries, but you can't teach on the basis of 'might' or 'could'. You go with what, so far, seems to be correct and encourage kids to always question and evaluate based on new data. Science is about what can be supported by data and observation and is also repeatable. It is not about belief or faith. And don't forget that teaching evolution does not preclude students considering other ideas, but you don't start students off by telling them any crackpot idea is as valid as a theory put forward by decades of scientific study! If someone wants to believe in creationism or its modern cousin, intelligent design, that's their right. But that is no basis for grade school science class! What's next? Do we spend hours of limited class time on an alternate explanation for why we don't fall off a spherical stellar body? This is just another attempt to artificially elevate unsupported beliefs, usually theological based, to the level of science. They are not the same thing, no matter how much some wish it were so.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Message Obscured

On Wednesday, Democratic Strategist and DNC adviser Hilary Rosen set off an uproar with a comment about Mitt Romney's wife Anne. In an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, talking about the GOP's recent issues with women voters, Rosen was quoted as saying, "Guess what, his wife has actually never worked a day in her life.” This prompted Anne Romney herself to dive onto Twitter to respond, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work." This was followed by the automatic and predictable avalanche of tweets, comments and press releases, with conservatives using the gaff to claim Democrats don't respect Mothers and liberals falling all over each other in an attempt to distance themselves from Rosen.

There is no doubt that the sentence, taken in isolation, came off as insulting to stay at home moms, but let's just pause for a moment and take a deep, cleansing breath. Before we pile on, perhaps it would be prudent to review the entire relevant section of that interview. Rosen was speaking about Mitt Romney and what she sees as his disconnect with women:

"What you have is, Mitt Romney running around the country saying, “Well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues. And when I listen to my wife, that’s what I’m hearing."

Guess what: his wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kind of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school, and why do we worry about their future."

There are still some questionable wording choices, but taken in context I think her point comes across clearly. This is very much a case of the message being obscured by the wording. Yes, it came off as rather insulting, but the substance was entirely valid. Rosen was speaking in direct response to some of Romney's recent comments, such as this: "My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own and also with me, and she reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy." Ruth Marcus, at the Washington Post put it well in an online article on Tuesday when she commented on this quote, "Note to candidate: Women aren’t a foreign country. You don’t need an interpreter to talk to them. Even if you’re not fluent in their language, they might appreciate if you gave it a try." Rosen was obviously following a similar path with her comments. The problem was that she was sloppy in how she put it and should have been more careful in choosing her words. After all, she does this for a living. But we shouldn't let that obscure the valid argument that she was making. And, make no mistake, it is valid.

Now I have nothing but respect for any parent, not to mention one who raises five kids, but this hardly makes her the avatar for the America woman!  It's not easy to forget that while Anne may have had to deal with a lot of the same parenting issues as average Americans, that was about the only thing she has in common with them.  In March, during a Fox News interview, Anne said, “We can be poor in spirit, and I don’t even consider myself wealthy, which is an interesting thing, it can be here today and gone tomorrow.” In fact it is "an interesting thing" since Mitt Romney's net worth is estimated to be in the $200 million range. That's wealthy by anyone's yard stick! To put that kind of number into some context, Romney makes more in a day than the average American makes all year. This isn't to say that being rich, even this level of rich, is wrong or something to be ashamed of, but both Romneys should at least be aware how much distance this puts between them and at least 99.5% of American voters. Romney's comments, making his wife his prime source on women's issues, just seems to show once again how removed from everyone else’s reality this family is.

Look, the Romneys are very wealthy and there is nothing wrong with that. But Mitt Romney is running for President of the entire United States, not just the top tier. And while nobody should expect him to have first hand experience with living paycheck to paycheck, we should expect him to make an effort to pay some attention. Yet just about every time he opens his mouth, out comes another line that illustrates a man who seemingly has no awareness of what most of the country is actually going through. Comments holding Anne Romney up as his window into the souls of women is more of the same. It shows once again a complete disconnect from the life most American's live. Rosen's error was in how she phrased it, but her underlying sentiment was dead on.  Anne Romney is about as in touch with the concerns of a single Mom in Arkansas as Mitt Romney is with an unemployed construction worker in Baton Rouge. And what's worse, they don't really seem to care.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Socially Unacceptable

So the other day I'm flipping through some NPR stories and come across one titled, 'Employers Ask Job Seekers For Facebook Passwords'. Unlike some stories where the sensational headline turns out to be, well . . . sensational, this one was dead on. Apparently requests for access to your Facebook account by prospective employers have become more common lately, especially, though not exclusively, in law enforcement areas.

This floored me! I tried to imagine the cojones it would take for an interviewer to ask for your ID and password. This goes way beyond just poking around your public profile, and while I'm not thrilled at that, at least it is your PUBLIC social life. But this is actually asking to be given full access to poke around in your private life. It's understandable that an employer would want to know as much about you as they could, but there are limits. Or at least there should be! In fact there are questions that are illegal to ask directly, for general employment, such as national origin, marital status, religion or sexual orientation. Now consider how many of those off-limits questions would be quickly answered with only a few minutes perusal of your private social profile? Most, if not all of them, right?

Now some places apparently go for the softer approach and just ask you to login for them, during the interview. Sort of like a neighbor asking to be let into your house and then wandering around to look through your drawers, cabinets and receipts. The other 'soft' approach is to ask you to 'Friend' an HR account. Now this sounds a little less invasive at first, but not if you really think about it. After all, even those who have locked down their privacy settings usually continue to allow their Friends to have access to their profiles. So, in effect they get pretty much the same access.

I read several articles on this subject and none of them noted a very insidious side to this. Consider this, if they log in as you, they also get pretty much full access to ALL your online friends' info as well. So if you give up your login, for all functional purposes you are also giving up your friends' at the same time. Imagine if a friend of yours works at this company and clued you in about the open position. When you give HR your login, you have now allowed them to poke through your friend's profile without his consent or even knowledge. Even if you only Friend HR, they will still have significant access to the private info on all of your friends.

So what is the possible justification for this invasion of privacy? Twenty years ago employers got along just fine with the usual sources of info such as personal & professional references, previous employer contacts and your interview. So it's not as if they have less info than before, and in fact, with public online sources they have far more info than they ever had in the past. So what gives them any right to ask for still more? What's next, the keys to my apartment? Password to my email accounts? A tap on my phone calls? We are applying for a job, not indentured servitude! This is obviously one of those times when technology has outpaced the law. Since it's not technically illegal, companies will ask. And while it may be considered voluntary, in a tight job market, is it . . . really? If you've been out of work for months, or even longer, can you afford to stand on principle and say no? Sure, they may tell you that refusing won't affect your chances, but can you be sure?

This is a clear overreach by employers, in my opinion. Because there is more info out there than in the past, some companies feel justified in trying to get at it, even if it supposed to be private. And that's why we have privacy protections. We need them to limit how deeply an employer can dig and restricts information that the employer has no right or need to know. Incidentally, Democrats in the House of Representatives attempted to add a provision to a bill last week that would have let the FCC restrict employers from asking for this sort of access. It was soundly defeated. So, at least for now, we are left to ponder this very disturbing trend.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Through the Looking Glass

We all have our own particular views and they are certainly not going to be in step with everyone else's. However, there is a point where a viewpoint departs so far from reality that it does no one any good. Case in point is a recent post on the American Thinker blog titled, 'Fluke and Liberals' Bodyguard of Lies'. It touches on the uproar over the contraceptives debate (it is 2012, right?) and the Congressional testimony of Sandra Fluke. As you probably know by now, she's the Georgetown law student that Rush Limbaugh raked over the coals, on-air, for three straight days a few weeks ago. Picking and choosing his words in such a way as to belittle and insult her in every way he could, including referring to her as a 'slut' and a 'prostitute', among others. I had some warning of the kind of piece it was, but wanted to read it anyway. Either I have an insatiable curiosity for the views of others or I'm a glutton for punishment. Probably a little of both. The American Thinker article was indeed pretty eye opening and my amazement, and irritation if I'm to be honest, began with the second sentence, which summed up the author's bias, misinterpretations and a complete misunderstanding of what a Liberal actually is.

"Because liberals are at war with American society and their true beliefs are repugnant to most Americans, liberals constantly conceal the truth of their beliefs with sweet-sounding lies."

I don't know about you, but my first thought was, "Wow!" There is so much wrong with that one sentence that it's difficult to even know where to start. Most surprising to me is that the author obviously, truly believes this. But it's just so . . . out there. When I look for an example of a fringy, right wing, through the looking glass mind set, this would be exhibit 'A'. I give him credit for stepping off with vim and vigor. None whatsoever for accuracy or critical thinking, but boy does he have the unwavering, absolutist swagger down to a 'T'!

I won't play point, counterpoint with the entire post, though believe me I would dearly love to. To be fair to the author, I give him props for imaginative use of rarely utilized metaphors and historical personalities. I mean, really, when was the last time you read something that called out Nietzsche, Caligula or Quetzalcoatl, much less all of them?! Though, to be a bit critical, these and other historical references felt rather forced. More a way to show how well read he was than to actually illustrate or illuminate his point. As such, you will also find references to Communism, Nazis, Roman Emperors, 'true evil' and other pointless and silly hyperbolic statements.

One of the points that the author harps on incessantly, in his aforementioned wild and historically mismatched way, is that it's wrong to require religiously associated, public institutions to offer insurance coverage to their employees that goes against a religious belief of the institution. Specifically that Catholic hospitals and universities shouldn't have to offer contraception coverage for their employees. This is utter, one dimensional nonsense! It only makes any sense at all if these are closed institutions that hire ONLY devout Catholics. Otherwise it is the employees who are having their rights infringed based on a theological tenant that they may not agree with! Does the author think that every employee of these institutions is required to convert to Catholicism as a requirement for employment? If not, then what gives the employer the right to restrict employee insurance options based on their own moral views? By that logic everyone would be beholden to their employer's moral judgements for their medical coverage.

As far as I'm concerned, and I think this fits with the general Liberal viewpoint, I think everyone should be able to practice their faith and live their lives as they see fit. But your right to do that ends when it infringes on my rights. That's what living together in a democracy is all about. We are all different, with different moral foundations and considerations, but we have to live together. The only way that works in a free society is to set the limit of your faith and moral views at the point where my rights begin. I respect Catholics right to practice their faith and live life based on their beliefs, but that doesn't mean they can enforce those beliefs on anyone else, especially non-Catholics.

Contrary to the authors bizarrely distorted theory about Liberals, they aren't trying to force anyone to sell their soul. They just want to limit your ability to force your morals onto someone else in the guise of religious or personal freedom. And that is what this is all about. The author has made the classic mistake of getting so worked up about what he sees as wrong that he's neglected to step back and consider it objectively. He fails to even glance at the other side of the argument. It's so much easier for him to mount his high horse and whine about how horrible Liberals are for saying a religious organization can't force its secular employees to live by its moral code. Boohoo! I'm afraid he has it backwards. But seeing both sides takes so much more energy and is nowhere near as satisfying as a good, full throated pity party!

The author's whole post, while well written and, forgive the pun, liberally seeded with historic markers, is 180 degrees out of line. To claim Liberals are secret totalitarian monsters at a time when the State and Federal government are replete with conservatives attempting to legislate morality is mind blowing. That's why this post was so tough to read. It was like reading an article from an alternate universe, where everything is reversed. And just like Limbaugh, the author seems to have no idea what Ms. Fluke was even testifying about. She spent the majority of her testimony speaking specifically about the use of birth control pills, not for contraception, but as a medical treatment. Even I know that birth control pills are often prescribed for non-sexual reasons! So this is indeed a women's health issue and not, as some brainless prats have claimed, a matter of too much casual sex. As Ms. Fluke stated in her full testimony:

"This is the message that not requiring coverage of contraception sends. A woman’s reproductive healthcare isn’t a necessity, isn’t a priority. These are not feelings that male fellow students experience. And they’re not burdens that male students must shoulder."

Despite using Ms. Fluke's name in just about every paragraph, in the end, the author's post is less about the Fluke/Limbaugh controversy than it is a letter of condemnation, denouncing anyone with the slightest progressive leaning. His accusations of intolerance and "liberal faith" are made up out of his fevered imagination. The piece is muddled even more by his obvious confusion between Liberals and the small group of activist Atheists when he starts blathering about such things as opposition to nativity scenes on public land. Something that only a minority of Liberals give any thought to. Then there is the Sharia law nonsense that only reinforces the author's warped thinking. Yes, there are Liberals who are a little 'out there'. Yes there are Liberals who will fight to stop nativity scenes from going up in front of the county courthouse. But the majority of Liberals are happy to let others live their lives as they wish, unless it infringes on someone else's rights. As I've stated, the author's thinking is way out of whack when compared to reality, but I wouldn't go out on a limb and declare that ALL Conservatives are this, or ALL Conservatives are that. There's a great line from the movie Gettysburg that I've always liked and it seems to fit well here. "Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time." I'm afraid that's exactly what the author of the American Thinker post is doing, judging 'Liberals', as a group, based on his own highly skewed caricature. Reality, you see, is a bit more complex.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Over the years, as I've posted opinion pieces and commented on various online articles, I have often been chided for being 'partisan'. That got me thinking about what it really means to be 'partisan'. Well, the best place to start when debating terminology is, of course, a dictionary. This is the primary definition of 'Partisan', according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

"a firm adherent to a party, faction, cause, or person; especially : one exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance."

Now the first part of that is pretty light-weight and would apply to any political preference. So I'm assuming that we're more focused on the second part. That's the real issue. Not that you have an opinion, but whether that opinion is supported and rational. Do you consider other views or do you cleve to your own despite all evidence?

By that reasoning, which you are free to dispute, I don't believe I am partisan, as a general rule. Sure I rail against conservative policies and Republicans, but I do so because I disagree with the point in question, not simply because they are conservatives and Republicans. It doesn't mean I mindlessly support Democrats and liberals on all issues. The truth is, the reason I'm usually in opposition to conservative positions is simple; they don't make sense. It's not that I dream Democratic dreams, or that I have a man-crush on President Obama. It's that conservative policies are so often focused on effect instead of effectiveness.

For example, I do not support gay rights because I'm in thrall to the Gay Liberation Front! I support it because it is right and just to do so. Because, while I respect anyone's right to be personally grossed out by the idea of homosexuality, I will never accept the view that a gay individual is any less of a person or citizen than anyone else simply because of who they are attracted to.

I don't support every Democratic or liberal idea, but I do find myself on that side of more arguments than not. Doesn't make me partisan, just means I have opinions that are more liberal than conservative. But the important distinction is that I take each issue as it comes and then make a decision based on the information and what makes sense to me. I don't do it because Rachel Maddow tells me to, though I will value the insight I get from her opinion because she has earned my trust and respect. Others have not. Yes I have a lot to say about certain people and the noxious drivel they produce, but that's not because they are the 'other side', it's because they are wrong. Or at least they continually champion ideas that don't make sense to me.

What inspires my most frustrated rants are ideas or policies that do not seem to follow any logical thread. Or put another way, it's like someone declaring triumphantly that their equation equals 100, yet no matter how many times I look at the numbers, they only add up to 83. A great example is the financial collapse. I am amazed when I stumble upon people who will declare with absolute sincerity that the root of the problem was government interference and how the banks were forced to give out mortgages to people who couldn't afford them. Huh? Sure it fits a certain preconceived notion about 'big government', but it makes no sense! There were no Congressional or Presidential orders issued to the banks demanding they grant $500K mortgages to couples earning $20K a year. It never happened. It's a figment of their imaginations. Not to mention that the financial industry has tremendous lobbying power, and they would never let something like that pass in the first place. No matter how often or loudly some individuals proclaim it to be true, it just doesn't add up. Unfortunately that won't stop them from continuing to declare it as fact.

This, to me, is what being partisan is all about. Standing by a notion despite all evidence against it. Championing a theory that is unsupported by the facts. In short, someone "exhibiting blind, prejudiced, and unreasoning allegiance" to a political party or popular theory simply because it fits the narrative you are comfortable with. Look, sometimes the facts are just against you. Sometimes no matter how much you wish they proved your side right, they just don't. When that happens, you step back and re-evaluate.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Platform in Knots

I can't be the only one who gets dizzy trying to follow some of the twisted and contradictory Republican policy positions. I've always noted a few that didn't make sense, but it seems to be getting worse. I'm not sure if it's because they are trying to appeal to too many different groups within the party or not, but it sure is confusing.

The backbone of conservative thinking is 'small government'. The idea that the federal government only does the minimum needed. It's generally talked about as keeping the government out of your life. And yet, there appear to be a number of caveats to this idea. They are famously on record for wanting to remove regulations on financial institutions, roll back environmental protections and any number of other corporate related areas. Yet, oddly, the small government zeal ends rather abruptly at the edge of your personal life. And it is odd, since I would think that keeping government out of your personal business would be more important than keeping it out of corporate business.

And yet there are GOP led initiatives to deny, by law, the right of two people who love each other from getting married simply because they are the same sex. The reason for this seems to always boil down to either theological interpretations or just the fact that it makes some people uncomfortable. Neither is a good reason to deny citizens the same rights as their fellow Americans. There are a lot of things in this world that make me uncomfortable, but you don't see me trying to make them all illegal. I've always loosely interpreted the idea of 'liberty' as the right to live your life as you want, as long as it doesn't violate someone else's rights. Two men or two women getting married has no impact on the rights of Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee or any other conservative, as far as I can tell. So, to my mind, it's not any of their business. I'm sorry, but being creeped out by homosexuality doesn't give you the right to make gay Americans second class citizens.

Then we have the fringes of the anti-abortion debate. Since the conservatives haven't been able to overturn Roe v. Wade after 40 years, they decided to make the process as psychologically and physically stressful as possible for any woman attempting to exercise their Constitutional rights. So we end up with bills like the one Virginia proposed recently. It would have had the VA state government dictate medically unnecessary procedures, even against medical advice or the objections of the patient, to include an INTERNAL, vaginal ultrasound. In other words, a state government wanted to force a woman to undergo a procedure whereby she is penetrated against her will. That's what you call a government that's not just small enough to drown in a tub, but actually small enough to fit inside a vagina! The bill was only scuttled, after passing all the way to the Governor's desk, due to a sudden deluge of national attention and outrage. Similar bills, without the penetration component, have already passed in a number of other states. These exist for only one purpose, to coerce and psychologically abuse a woman when she is at her most vulnerable. Sounds exactly like small government to me!

This election cycle we've seen yet another example of twisted policy, this time about birth control of all things. Yes, we are suddenly debating the availability of birth control in the year 2012. When did this become controversial, outside of Vatican City? Condoms have been in use since perhaps as far back as the 15th century, in some form or another, and female contraception has a history that stretches to ancient Egypt. This isn't a 'Liberal' agenda item, it's established and accepted history. One thing it isn't though is the business of any government or faith to dictate! I'm unable to grasp how a party that claims to value individual liberty can turn around and begin making noises about the legality of birth control. But the discussion gets really psychedelic when people like Rick Santorum starts babbling about the availability of birth control being related to increases in abortion rates. Huh?! I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure that contraception, by its very design and definition, prevents fertilization of an egg and thus any resulting fetus. If you're against abortion, than you damn well should be Pro-Contraception!! Just trying to parse the conservative logic on this is enough to induce a migraine.

On yet another front is the constant push to wedge theology into government and use that to dictate a specific moral view for the entire country. Santorum, and he's hardly alone in this mindset, recently declared that, "We have Judeo-Christian values that are based on biblical truth. ... And those truths don't change just because people's attitudes may change". First off, who's this 'we' of which you speak? Not sure if he realizes this or not, but America's citizens represent just about every theological point on the compass. In other words, 'we' aren't all 'Judeo-Christian,' shocking as that may be to hear. Secondly, I'm sorry, I was under the impression that the Constitution was based on the laws of man, not a completely unsupported theological text filled with barbaric customs that include stoning, fratricide and slavery, among many others. Shall we bring those back too? After all, they are also "biblical truth," are they not? Oh, I forgot! You get to pick and choose what parts to live by, don't you? Look, if you are for small government, you can't then be for dictating theology as policy or as the basis for national law. Faith is a personal choice and that's where it should begin and end.

It's this sort of contradictory thinking that drives me nuts, short drive that it is. I don't expect absolute consistency, but this is just a spaghetti bowl of random ideas. Maybe it stems from trying to house both ultra-conservative evangelicals under the same roof as secular moderates. But whatever the reason, it's insane. To paraphrase a line from one of my favorite movies, you keep using that phrase, 'small government.' "I don't think it means what you think it means."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Legal Fiction

Most people are at least familiar with Stephen Colbert's name, even if you've never watched a single episode of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. That's probably because the man is a self promotional machine. For example, back in 2009 NASA did a poll to decide on a name for the newest node added to the ISS (International Space Station). Colbert exhorted his viewers to vote and ultimately he actually topped the list. NASA did, ultimately choose to name it 'Tranquility' but Colbert still got his name in space. NASA named the treadmill that would be housed in that node after him. Well, to be accurate they named it the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. In his typical deadpan, Colbert responded that:

"I think a treadmill is better than a node ... because the node is just a box for the treadmill. Nobody says, 'Hey, my mom bought me a Nike box.' They want the shoes that are inside."

While it may seem frivolous on the surface, the incident did draw more attention to the often forgotten ISS and NASA in general. And ultimately I think that's what he wanted all along. Celebrities have long used their popular reach to raise awareness of a cause, Colbert just does it with his own unique, over the top, faux conservative flair.

This election season, Colbert is using the same sort of technique to draw attention to something that is far more important to our democracy, campaign finance. Specifically the practical results of the Supreme Court's so called 'Citizen's United' decision. Over the last year, Colbert has, in the guise of his uber-Conservative on-screen persona, laid bare the real world implications of that decision. It began with his declaration that he would be forming his own 'Super PAC,' a political action committee that is allowed to raise unlimited donations from any individual, group or business. While Super PACs are required to disclose donors, like regular PACs, they can usually take advantage of technicalities to delay disclosure far longer and sometimes even until after the election itself, thus making the disclosure more academic than enlightening. In successive episodes throughout the year Colbert went through the process, always doing so with his lawyer, Trevor Potter, on hand to show that there was a serious legal footing to the segment. As Potter said in an interview with NPR in September 2011,

"It's not a joke. Because, as he has put it, he wanted to bring people in behind the curtain so they could see [how superPACs] actually worked and what they actually did."

He certainly does that. To watch these segments is to see the threadbare legal fiction that has been created to allow cash to pour into our political system with minimal oversight. Literally, it requires only a few sheets of paper to be signed in order to 'upgrade' a regular PAC, which operates under more restrictive rules, to be a Super PAC. From what I can tell, it takes more effort and paperwork to setup a one man, home business than it does to setup a Super PAC that can collect and administer donations into the tens of millions of dollars. And the home business probably requires more oversight!

One of the other fictions at work here is that a candidate cannot directly coordinate with a Super PAC. The operative word here is 'directly,' as most of the current gang of Super PACs are actually being run by close associates and, in many cases, former senior campaign staffers! Not a lot of separation there, thus making the Super PAC, functionally, just an extension of the candidate's formal campaign apparatus. Colbert pointed this out in a recent episode, with his usual comedic twist. During a very brief 'campaign' to run for President of the United States of South Carolina, he transferred control of his SuperPAC to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. A few days later he spoke to his audience about not being able to directly coordinate with Stewart about the Super PAC's activities and then proceeded to openly ponder what Stewart might do with all that Super PAC money. Indirectly mocking Newt Gingrich's earlier press conference where he 'called on' the Super PAC supporting his campaign to not run a particular ad in its current form. This is apparently not coordinating. It seems that as long as the campaign staff doesn't meet with Super PAC representatives or call them up directly, you can coordinate via the media to your heart's content. Thus this so called restriction is merely a minor inconvenience rather than an actual impediment.

There are a lot of things we need in our electoral system, but more money sure isn't one of them. What benefit does our Republic actually gain from hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign donations? Does it ensure just and fair elections? Does it give us candidates who are more dedicated to serving the people? Does it help provide us with unbiased facts on, not just what the candidates say they stand for, but what they've actually done? Does it make elected officials more trustworthy? That would be a 'No' on all accounts. What it does accomplish is to ensure our elected politicians feel indebted to those who flooded their campaigns with cash and not the rule of law or service to their constituents.  It allows the candidates to overwhelm the voters with a flood of propaganda that neither informs nor educates them, but simply hammers them with repetitious soundbites and wild hyperbole. It all but guarantees that, if elected and faced with a choice between safeguarding their constituents or smoothing the way for a lavish donor, that the voter will almost always lose. There is no doubt that money is one of the greatest corrupting forces in this world and the one place we do NOT need more corruption is our government! There's a saying 'that everyone has their price' and as long as we allow private money to run rampant in our electoral system we will ensure that politicians are consistently able to achieve their particular asking price.