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.