Archive for December 2013

Movies that don’t make Sense

That would be most of them. Apparently they are making most movies for the addled 13-year old mind. Fight scenes are mind numbing. Every seen a real fight? Somebody hits the other guy in the face, his jaw is broken, he lost two teeth, and there is blood everywhere. Oh, and the guy who hit him has a broken hand. The same can be said for car chase scenes. The Bourne Legacy was a movie without a real plot and just a repeat of the fight/flight scene except moved from Spain to the Philippines. Come on people, we need a plot. It is called a story.

I watched Elysium the other night and I was wondering what they were thinking. All the rich people moved off Earth and live in a Earth like habitat in orbit. Now with all that technology couldn’t they have just fixed earth? Then they had all these robot cops who were running earth, but up in space habitat, they had a flight control center controlled by people. Couldn’t robots do it? This was one unbelievable fight scene to the next with no real plot. Somehow they were going to reprogram the logic on the earth habitat so that everyone was a citizen and then those trapped on earth would be freed. Couldn’t they just program it back? Somehow a change in computer code will result in human justice?

It reminded me of Avatar. Now I enjoyed the movie, but the ending left me wondering what they were thinking. I mean yeah, they threw the bad guys off the planet and protected the natural wonders from their mining machines, but wouldn’t the bad guys come back with bigger bombs? If it is about the money, it is about the money. There was no recognition from the money grubbers that there is something more precious in the life that evolved on that planet than in the minerals they could extract. Okay, maybe in the sequel.

But my favorite is the battle machines. We think people are going to be controlling these things or waving swords or some other nonsense? Computers and machines will fight the wars (see drones in Afghanistan) and with machines with computers that are all faster and better than human reactions, and we will be screwed. Think we could sustain the g-forces those machines can? Remember that Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk and sidekicks end up on a planet where machines hunt them down and shot them. That is the real future of war should we persist in engaging in it.

I did see a movie the other night that was worth its weight in gold though. Not one chase scene, no fights, or threatening villains. Just a little girl observing life and weighing whether it was worth living. It was a French film called the Hedgehog. In the end the conclusion was that death is final and life is to be lived to its fullest, risks, neurosis and all. It was about the human condition and connecting. All the rest is escapism and violence for the sake of escapism. It teaches us nothing. That’s all I have for 2013. I think I will go watch some mindless violence called football and build up testosterone so I will be up to freeway driving. Happy New Year.

Muddled Thinking

Employment is falling, so they say, and is down, but is it really?  Numbers at or about 7% really don’t reflect all those who are not looking at work anymore and when those are considered that number almost doubles. Then you have to ask, okay so there are only 3 applicants for every job, but what kind of jobs?  Crappy jobs at little more than the minimum wage.  We are not recovering in any meaningful sense as income inequity continues to grow.

And when you look at important categories of unemployment, the picture gets bleaker.  Long term unemployment has not reduced at all and youth unemployment is at almost 21%.  Does that sound like a recovery to you?  Yet Wall Street is at record highs.  Get the disconnect?  Our pundits who are insulated from this experience (along with our politicians) cheer the recovery and we wonder what recovery.

One of the prime examples of this muddled thinking is Thomas Friedman’s Welcome to the Sharing Economyas chronicled by Steven Strauss.  He taughts the ability in this new economy of being able to sell rooms in your house or market other equipment you might have in a sharing economy .  But instead of asking if this is really a good thing, Friedman simply marvels at the  business acumen of the company who can make money selling our privacy.  As Strauss points out,

We’ll achieve a brave new world where each of us will be (in Mr. Friedman’s words) a “micro-entrepreneur.” That’s kind of like being a real entrepreneur, except you won’t have: a regular salary, paid vacations, employer-provided health insurance, or a chance of getting rich from an IPO. Being a “micro-entrepreneur” in this brave new world seems instead just a euphemism for being an employee, except with reduced compensation, job security, benefits and protections…So “welcome” to the sharing economy — also known as the collapse of the American Dream.

The other muddled thinking example comes from the Huffington Post:

The U.S. population grew by just 0.72 percent in the year ended July 1, 2013, the Census Bureau reported Monday. That’s the slowest growth rate since 1937. Population growth has hovered at super-low levels for the past few years, according to William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan research organization. The trend is “troubling,” Frey said, and is due largely to the weak economy.

“This real sharp decline has to do with recession-related issues,” Frey said. “Fewer people come into the country because there aren’t as many jobs, and people are postponing child-bearing.”…Typically in a strong economy, workers and immigrants travel to where the jobs are, but the Census data show they’re not really moving, Frey said.

Now let’s think about this.  Clearly with more jobs and a thriving economy, social mobility and economic inequality both improve.  But does that mean that we need more and more people?  Is our economy dependent on ever increasing populations to buy things and does that drives us to a China that is now so congested they are polluting their farm land? Is an ever growing population sustainable?  Sooner or later we have to address these issues.

Certainly we have shown that immigration actually helps the economy by providing workers willing to do stoop labor as a way up the social ladder, and as new consumers to bolster our economy.  But when does population finally overburden the resources of Mother Earth?  Maybe we just need to have more of the existing population with more income to spend.  Oh, wait, that would mean maybe the super rich might have to become the very rich and we can’t have that can we?

In the near term we may need more immigrants, but the idea of an ever growing population seems to be short sighted for the long term viability of the human race, but just great for the bottomline in today’s balance sheet.  No wonder we can’t ever do anything smart. It might cost us a buck today.

Who Said it Best Today: Bernie Sanders on Reality

I picked up the paper this morning to note that the US is falling behind in broadband speed (we rank 35 out of 148 countries in bandwidth), weather phenomenum (tornados, floods, typhoons, global warming) was occurring at record highs, oh, and job prospects are up if you consider the $7.25 minimum wage a living wage. Meanwhile there was a story about how Republicans might have a chance at regaining the Senate. That’s right, the people who got us here and won’t do anything to help fix our problems and we still have half the country wanting to vote for them. Connecting the dots apparently is not their strong suit.

Well, one of my heroes, Bernie Sanders, wrote a blog this morning that kind of sums up where we are and what we need to do. It is kind of funny in a way that he clearly connects the dots where half our country fails to be able to do this:

In my view, the main cause of congressional dysfunction is an extreme right-wing Republican party whose main goal is to protect the wealthy and powerful. There is no tax break for the rich or large corporations that they don’t like. There is no program which protects working families — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, affordable housing, etc. — that they don’t want to cut.

But the Democrats (with whom I caucus as an Independent) are most certainly not without fault. In the Senate, they have tolerated Republican obstructionism for much too long and allowed major legislation to fail for lack of 60 votes. They have failed to bring forth a strong and consistent agenda which addresses the economic crises facing the vast majority of our struggling population, and have not rallied the people in support of that agenda.

He then goes on to point out the real crises we face and what he (and I) think we need to do about it. You know, jobs, inequality, the environment, infrastructure, all the stuff the Republicans ignore. Too bad we don’t have more Bernie Sanders in Congress. Bernie and I can dream, or as Senator Sanders put it so well:

This is a tough and historical moment in American history. Despair is not an option. We must stand together as brothers and sisters and fight for the America our people deserve.

Adios MF’s

Since it is the end of the year which in a continuum of space and time is kind of meaningless, but which gets it meaning form the human need for new beginnings, I thought I would share with you some things I would like to say goodbye to forever, but probably won’t:

  • Checkers at the grocery asking me how I will spend my day. They don’t really care and I don’t need a new friend who doesn’t really care. I always wanted to answer that question with something like, “I think I am going to go home, lie in the living room naked, eating M&Ms and watch porn,” just to see their face…
  • Anyone else on the highway when I am driving. I really have to work on that tolerance thing since most other drivers are oblivious to what is going on around them and I need to get into that Zen thing. On the other hand, it looks like most of the rest of them have also emptied their brains
  • News show hosts whose question goes on forever and the poor guest got the question after the first sentence and is trying to interrupt to answer it, then when the guest does get his/her chance, he/she gets interrupted by the host because they are out of time
  • When my computer decides to update itself or some other housekeeping function while I am trying to do something and I am wondering who actually controls this thing. I probably shouldn’t even get started on auto correct
  • TV series that I get into and then they pull the plug on and leave me dangling. There ought to be a law that says if you have a show that is cancelled then you have to have one two-hour special to tie up loose ends.
  • Speaking of TV series, those like Hostage and The Following where shit happens and then things get worse. That is what we need in a depressed economy, a show that reflects our lives
  • Satellite Internet (because there is no other choice) that keeps telling you that you are about to exceed your bandwidth limitation and you know it was because your computer downloaded some massive update to its operating system last night
  • TV weather forecasters who tell us we are going to have a warm sunny weekend with this cheery, isn’t this wonderful attitude, when we are facing the driest year on record. There does not seem to be a connection of cause and effect to rain and the growing season. Maybe that is why they can so easily deny global warming
  • Republicans who can only criticize, but not help craft a better idea. It is like a guest at Thanksgiving who sees the wonderful bounty you have laid out and can only comment that the beans are cold or the Turkey is not brown enough. Oh, and one other apt analogy: You can bet they will never offer to cook (or propose programs that would work)
  • People on Facebook who change their picture every 30 seconds trying to figure out who they are. Oh, and let’s not forget the incessant baby pictures by people who don’t think the rest of us raised kids and theirs is the center of our world. Trust me on this one: They grow up and ditch you so you had better have some other interests
  • Going to a website to look at a certain item maybe to purchase and then having every other page you go to on the web spilling over with ads for that item. Heaven forbid I ever mistakenly go to some porn site and then get ads for weird sex popping up at inconvenient times
  • And my favorite, the annual adjustment to my federal retirement annuity.  I got a 1.5% Cost of living raise or an increase of $40/month.  But my share of health care increased by 13% ($67) so actuality my monthly annuity decreased by a total of $27.  It is the same thing every year.  At this rate, in 72 years, I will owe them money.  Anybody think a chained CPI is a good idea?

Finally there’s year end taxes, my knees always hurting, getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, the never ending diet (If nature wanted us to be slim, why did it make food taste so good?), prunning, election campaign ads, and when the propane truck shows up to refill the tank and drain my bank account. I guess it is just life and I had better get use to it.

Context

I have some fairly firm beliefs about where we should be heading next year. They come down on the decidedly progressive side of things, arrived at through examination of where we have been and where we need to go. I think they are based upon data and analysis. So do the people who think just the opposite. So whose data do we believe?

My point is that we are all myopic about how we see things based upon our basic beliefs about how the world works. Some less so than others. On a fundamental level most people understand this and is why compromise and “the middle road” are seen as desirable to most people. And no I am not talking about the Michele Bachmanns or Louie Gomezs of the world, because they are truly loony and able to disregard large amounts of established facts (Steve King and Sarah Palin fit right into this group). And I am not talking about Anne Coulter or Rush Limbaugh who say what they say to make a buck. I am talking about you, me, and your neighbor.

We see things in terms of the context in which we understand how the world works. And we see the way the world works in terms of how we need to see the world work and that, as Shakespeare once wrote, is the rub. When how the world actually works and how we see it working become two distinct realities (or fantasies), then our political outlook is fashioned by how we need to see the world work which could be counter to the actual reality. I would hope that my context for what I believe is in line with reality, but my neighbor who disagrees with me, feels the same way. In a world where we can not agree on an established fact like global warming, you can see how powerful and distorting is our need to make the world conform to our model.

When Mitt Romney ran for president and made his famous 47% comment and the makers and takers argument, we saw in naked light what conservatives generally believe. The order and justice in the world is established by hard work and discipline, if you work hard you will be rewarded, and the obvious reverse of that, if you are poor you are lazy. To not believe that for a conservative is to release chaos into the world they thought was so ordered and to threaten their very safety. Fox News is an extreme example of how we then choose and select our facts to reinforce those beliefs. This coupled with our chosen circle of friends and community lead to a reinforcing loop that reinforces the context in which we see the world.

Now do liberals do this too? Of course we do. But as one person once said, reality has a well known liberal bias. Liberalism is based upon the innate need to try new things. Conservatism is based upon hanging on to old things. We are hardwired to see the world in a new light, to explore. Conservatives are hardwired to hunker down. So reality has a better chance of seeping in with a liberal perspective than a conservative one. Conservatism served us well when the world was a scary place and trying new things could be a lethal walk through the forest. But now it has become an anchor that holds us back from moving forward in a rapidly changing world.

The question for 2014 and our future as a country is to find a way to align reality with the context within what people need to believe so we can move forward. And in this day and age of a media that is more entertainment than real news and analysis, where different outlets cater to a point of view, and you can pick and choose your information outlet to align with the context in which you need to see the world, that becomes quite a challenge.

For instance, some people hate government so they seize on stories like the problems with the Obamacare website as a failure of all government and ignore the failure of UPS and FedEx to meet the Christmas delivery challenge and not see that even in the commercial world, we fall short. Some people terrified of change just hate the whole idea of a black president so they seize on nonsense like he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood born in Kenya. Economics Professors wed to their early research or supported by the financial industry have a very hard time seeing what the 2007 fall said about what they believed and sold to the rest of us. In other words context is a tough nut to crack.

But what challenges this context thing is when your own world that you can touch and feel no longer conforms to the reality you have invented to explain everything. That is the hope for 2014. People are not fat dumb and happy anymore, except the 1%. The rest of us are seeing increasing economic inequality and starting to question our children’s future. Maybe the capitalist model that the conservatives have sold us doesn’t work except for the few. The reality is that there is more social mobility in countries with larger safety nets than in ours. Could it be that we have that socialism thing wrong? For those of us who read data and think deeply about issues, these things are patently obvious. But for the majority of people, their only realization that maybe the world they thought existed did not, is when reality personally impacts their lives.

And that is what I think is starting to happen. And that is why you see the conservatives becoming crazier and more shrill. The world is changing and impacting more and more people who see that change in their personal lives. They have two choices, hang on to the past , ignore reality, and fight to hold on to what they have, or recognize the change and start questioning what we have always assumed to be true. If hanging on to the past is no longer a benefit, but a liability, context starts to change. As more and more people are disenfranchised from economic security, that movement will become a tidal wave. That is what the Right is fighting so hard against, and what I am betting on for a brighter future.

A News Junky’s Hell – The Year in Review

It is that time again when all the news is retreading everything that has happened in the last year. It drives me crazy because I was there for all of it. I got it. I don’t need to hear it again. But then I have to step back and recognized that most people quite frankly weren’t there. How else do you explain their continued support of moronic conservatives who haven’t just run the car into the ditch, they have totaled the car?

So let’s take a look at where we are really at and what that might mean for the future:

  • The debt was proven not to be the problem. We have tons of data that now show that lowering the debt (in both the U.S. and Europe) did not energize the economy. For four years we have been instituting austerity and it has hurt, not helped the economy. But Austerians will never let go of their moral approach to economics, so any improvement must be because of all the suffering we forced everyone else to do
  • We have one of the longest runs of long term unemployment and nobody cares. Republicans did their best imitation of Scrooge with the cutting off of unemployment benefits to the long term unemployed, not even voting on the immigration bill, and cutting food stamps because, well everyone just knows that if you are poor it is your fault
  • It is starting to dawn on folks that we have the greatest economic inequality in the history of the United States and that could be a problem, even the root problem to the lack of jobs and demand. But the deniers are terrified this is a populist argument that rings of socialism and would prefer to focus on jobs. But if the jobs are minimum wage and the people who create those jobs with their spending have no jobs….
  • We have no energy policy and for all the talk, we continue to expand the use and mining of fossil fuels. It is like the problem of global warming does not exist or if it does, well the cause and effect of burning fossil fuels is just not immediate enough for us to do anything about it
  • We have discovered that we have created a surveillance state that makes the novel 1984 look like amateur hour and we have discussions that justify this based upon the increased terrorist threat when this surveillance system has not been shown to enhance our security at all. We just haven’t yet been subject to a grand abuse that would wake everyone up, unless you are a journalist who is reporting on something that is making the government nervous
  • Obamacare is working and more people are being covered and it turns out the website was not the policy itself. The real question is that as we leverage the market place and competition to lower prices, are we just kidding ourselves? The profit motive in health care has been abandoned by every advanced nation on the planet except us and their systems cost half as much as ours
  • That leads me to the list of things which there are simple answers and yet fear and Republicans keep us from doing anything about, and that includes immigration, education, infrastructure, high speed rail, cost of advanced education, declining pensions, and investments in research and development

So as we approach the New Year and the News channels are doing their low budget reporting of what we already know happened, all I can think about is that song from the 60s, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and the chorus:

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls have picked them everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn
?

Apparently never.

Christmas 2013

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Lightner Vineyards

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Lightner Vineyards

Conservative bashing will recommence after a respectful day of peace and goodwill 

Who Said it Worst Today: Bill Keller – Center Left and Left-Left

Bill Keller wrote an absolutely ghastly op-ed in the New York Times, explaining it to us Lucy, and he hasn’t got a clue. He is of the school of the Turd Way, oh sorry, the Third Way, which are the policies of the Democrats in the 90s that bought into the Republican shifting money to the wealthy and if we listen to him, he would have us go back to those good old days. He oversimplifies the left-left as just wanting to tax the rich and the center-left as the more market place oriented group that wants to do common sense things like cut Medicare and Social Security.

The good news is that Dean Baker saw this and did a wonderful analysis of all of the VSP (Very Serious Person) nonsense. As he so eloquently pointed out:

The amazing part of the story is that Keller’s center-left heroes are precisely the reason why the economy is not growing the way it did for most of the last century. Keller perhaps missed it, but it was the center-left that set the economy on a bubble driven growth path in the 1990s. The demand generated by the stock bubble was used to fill the hole created both by lower consumption spending due to the upward redistribution of income and the exploding trade deficit which resulted from Clinton’s high dollar policy.

Or even better:

Finally Keller repeats one of my favorite center-left lies. (Sorry, I don’t feel like mincing words to be polite just now.) He tells readers:

“centrists favor measures to slow the growth of entitlements: using a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) formula that more accurately reflects how people spend,…”

Really? Keller knows that the chained consumer price index more accurately reflects the spending patterns of people on Social Security? Yes, I know Keller didn’t specify that he was referring to the spending patterns of people on Social Security, he referred to people generically, but no one should waste any time on this sophistry. The point of having a cost-of-living adjustment is to maintain the purchasing power of Social Security checks. To do this the measure must be based on the cost of living of people on Social Security, not the basket of goods and services consumed by people in Equatorial Guinea.

And finally:

In sum, it is actually fairly easy to summarize the distinction between Keller’s center-left and his left-left. His center-left wants to continue the policies that have led to a massive upward redistribution of income over the last three decades. The left-left wants to reverse these policies and replace them with policies that will lead to more equitable and more rapid growth.

It amazes me that people can be so oblivious to the changes that are happening around them and want to drag us back to the 90s and Bill Clinton. But as Dean pointed out, they simply set up the dynamics of the crash in 2007. We have a ton of data now that shows this thinking is wrong, but they persist. He represents what is holding back the Democratic Party and America.

On another note, one pundit today was noting that the Right (Ryan and others) are talking about poverty and may be setting up 2014/2016 to try to appeal to other than their old fat white base. The problem with that analysis is that while they are talking about poverty, they are not presenting any real policies that would address the issues other than lower taxes, less regulation, and more flow down which has worked out so well. If we just continue these policies with more vigor that have led to the larger transfer of wealth in the history of the United States, unfettered by those crazy Democrats, I am sure there will be more and more minimum wage jobs for everyone. I am so excited!

Who Said it Best Today: Elisabeth Rosenthal – The High Cost of Healthcare

One of the things that absolutely drives me batty is our approach to healthcare. It is an insane and failed system and as Ms. Roenthal points out in her article, Health Care’s Road to Ruin, we have not done much to address the fundamental problems with its costs. As she points out:

There was Fred Abrahams, 77, a skier who had surgery on both ankles for arthritis — one in New York for more than $200,000 and one in New Hampshire for less than $40,000. There was Matthew Landman, 41, billed more than $100,000 for antivenin administered in an E.R. after a small rattlesnake bite.

There is no rhyme or reason to costs and the patient has very little ability to even get cost comparisons, unless they go to another country. While she points out that Obamacare is a step toward trying to fix that problem, she points out that it does not address the root cause:

But the nation is fundamentally handicapped in its quest for cheaper health care: All other developed countries rely on a large degree of direct government intervention, negotiation or rate-setting to achieve lower-priced medical treatment for all citizens. That is not politically acceptable here. “A lot of the complexity of the Affordable Care Act arises from the political need in the U.S. to rely on the private market to provide health care access,” said Dr. David Blumenthal, a former adviser to President Obama and president of the Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based foundation that focuses on health care.

And when you ask, as I do every day, why we can’t understand that the rest of the world is fundamentally working better than we are in healthcare and why we can’t adopt some of what they are doing you come back the the bottom line. No, I mean really the bottom line, it is all about the money:

With half a billion dollars spent by medical lobbyists each year, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, our fragmented profit-driven system is effectively insulated from many of the forces that control spending elsewhere. Even Medicare is not allowed to negotiate drug prices for its tens of millions of beneficiaries, and Americans are forbidden by law to re-import medicines made domestically and sold more cheaply abroad.

Like the other problems we face in this country where the solutions are simple, but politically impossible, it is all about the money and who is spending to protect their piece of the pie. Once again we come back to the question of is it about jobs or economic inequality, jobs or populism, and the answer is we can’t have either until we correct both. In a society where money is power and free speech is a function of that power, we will never get the fixes we need until more of us share in it.

Freedom of Speech

I have been thinking some more about the Duck Dynasty free speech claim by the Right. The Right claims that the show’s lead character, after expressing homophobic and racist ideas, was thrown off of the show to stifle his free speech. Now on the face of it, that does seem true and is why the Right and many others are confused about this issue. I mean after all, wasn’t he just expressing his religious (and moronic) views about homosexuals? Not too many people try to defend this nitwit for his comments about happy slaves.

So let’s turn it around. How should his free speech be protected? Should we demand that he be given back his platform on A&E to spout his beliefs? What does that say about A&E’s freedom to hire and fire who they see fit? Do the sponsors who might take an economic hit have to be forced to continue to support the show so Duckman’s idiocy is protected? So how should we as a country and nation protect his speech? Does that mean that he should not be subject to the consequences of the views he holds? Can he still write a blog on the internet about his lunatic ideas? Sure. He just can’t force other people to be tolerant of his intolerance.

And that is exactly what the Right wants. They see it as political correctness run amuck. But in their protection of his rights to be a buffoon, they are trampling on everyone else’s rights to turn away. Or said another way which the Right might actually get if they thought about it, with every right comes responsibilities. You can, in this country, hold pretty much any stupid idea you want. But then comes the responsibilities thing. You have to be responsible for the consequences if your speech offends. The Right doesn’t think there should be any consequences and wants to stifle the rights of others to protect this fruitcake from his harmful opinions. That is not protecting free speech, that is thought control.

Oh, and one other thing we might want to consider. Somehow in this country we look at wealth as an indicator of worth. Well these good old boys are quite wealthy and the views expressed by their clueless leader should show you that ignorance abounds anywhere and money can just insulate you from reality. Oh and you can just choose to never read my blog, and most do, so should I demand that you are trampling on my free speech rights because you are probably showing good taste?