Monthly Archives: April 2012

Income Inequality

I would say that one of the most often discussed topics lately is income inequality in America. Dozens of charts and graphs have been generated both by the Conservatives and the Liberals. I was going to include lots of these graphics in my discussion but then I realized they are all available to all of us out there on the web and that they are beside the point. All the charts and graphs show that, indeed, the money is concentrated among a small group of people and that the increase at the top has been in the range of 390-400% while the rest of us have gained little or nothing. (The stock market climbed from 11,000+ in January, 2011 to 13,000+ in March of 2012, yet my monthly pension check decreased by $5 per month.)
On April 16th of 2012 the NYT published an article by Annie Lowrey that summarized the results of a study by Piketty and Saez, 2 French economists who went through all tax and other numerical records for America from the present back to 1913. They conclude that the gap between the rich and everyone else was only this great once before and that was just before the Great Depression. Of course now everyone is arguing about whether the study is accurate or flawed.
The point of this flurry of charts and graphs is to determine how the rich got so rich. The Conservatives say it had nothing to do with skewed tax rates and tax codes and business subsidies and regulations favoring business and the wealthy. They insist that they earned their bucks through their own hard labor, they are not going to feel guilty about it, and they are not planning to pay any more money to deadbeats.
The Liberals believe that it is clear when so much money is concentrated in the pockets of so few that something in the society is out of kilter and we need to find some way to even out the distribution of money in the future. (My chart above is from a liberal media source, Mother Jones and can be found in an article called “It’s the Inequality, Stupid” along with many more charts and graphs.)
What are the chances that in times of such great divisiveness these two groups will even accept each others’ charts and graphs? It doesn’t really matter whose data tells us most about the causes of income inequality.  A society where such inequality exists and continues over a long period of time does not work and cannot survive.
We know what happens when the wealthy don’t prop up the poor. Sewers run down the centers of streets. Vermin take over towns and spread disease. The poor become ever poorer and they no longer attend schools. People live without pride and without hope. The hopelessness at the bottom drags the society down. Whole areas of towns and cities become off limits to people who are more well-off (except for those adventurous rich who like to troll the depths). This is what it used to be like. Even then churches and private groups tried to help the poor. It was not enough then and it will not be enough now.
We have populations that are exponentially larger than they were the last time these conditions pertained. The church is not nearly as powerful as it was then. Since those days we have learned that societies that want to survive and thrive must look after their most vulnerable citizens. We even thought we had found programs that would help us help ourselves in times when we were in a vulnerable position, programs that now seem at risk. It took us centuries to become so enlightened. We know it has given us and other countries that live in a similarly enlightened manner the best quality of life ever enjoyed. We have almost wiped out most contagious diseases (at least the dangerous ones). We live in an almost compulsively hygienic society with excellent plumbing and plenty of hot and cold and clean running water. It is our pride that all America citizens enjoy a lifestyle found only in nations who look after their young, their old, and their less fortunate.
You don’t even need to help support those less fortunate than yourself for reasons of charity. There are more than enough really selfish reasons to contribute a larger percentage of you wealth, whether it came from skewed financials or not, to keep the world livable. Our wealthy Americans are also our most educated Americans. They understand that there are all kinds of repercussions in a society where the wealth is concentrated at the top which make it more than smart to plow some cash back into the society in which they live. Perhaps, however, I am giving them too much credit.
This belief that they are creating a new class of people in our society who see relying on government programs as a viable way to finance an indolent lifestyle probably does have some merit. Ending all government programs and throwing everyone into the deep end of the pool is not what I or anyone else would call a plan. Putting everyone at the mercy of the private sector whose sole goal is profit for the company and the stock holders is not going to work as a plan for providing services. Too many people will not be able to afford it or will opt out. Private sector competition is not helping to keep our costs at reasonable levels, instead corporations compete to see who can profit the most without sending their customers fleeing for the hills.
If we are patient for a little while we can see how a sort of public-private mix will work. Patience is not exactly our strong suit right now. As for the freeloaders who have lost touch with the great American dream that hard work and perseverance and a dash of innovation will produce not only a living but also a sense of pride and a family legacy – wouldn’t praise, encouragement and some programs that require them to “get a life” work better than making everyone suffer for the indolence of this small (but growing) group of people who are gaming the system.

Obama Blinked – Discuss

“Did you see that?”
“Obama blinked.”
“What could that mean?”
“Blinking can be a sign of a number of things. It could be that he is copying Lincoln or Ronald Reagan. I hear both of those two also blinked.

It could be a secret message to Mr. Putin in Russia about the nefarious plan they have cooked up for after Obama’s reelection.

Maybe he blinked to avoid the darts that are constantly flying in his direction.
Maybe this is a signal to the late night talk shows that he is ready to make another appearance.”

“Well, I’m sure it has some significance and he needs to stop it.”

The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart – Book

Amusing – this book is sweet and amusing. The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart is a story of loss, a story of accidental rescue, and a story of love. Hebe and Balthazar Jones lost their young son, Milo, the light of their lives. Now they avoid each other because the sorrow and guilt are too great and they go through the motions of life. They arise and dress each day and go to their jobs. Doesn’t sound very amusing, does it?
However these two have jobs that are anything but ordinary and they are the kind of people who try to do their jobs, who have a sense of responsibility. Not only do they have unusual jobs but because of Balthazar’s job they live in a very unlikely place. They live in the Tower of London, which is really an area populated by a number of towers, all at one time or another, jails. Balthazar is a Beefeater; he works for the Queen of England. It is his job to dress up in one of those red uniforms and show tourists around the tower grounds spouting history, a job he used to love before he lost Milo. Now his depression is causing him to be less than enthusiastic.

Hebe, Balthazar’s wife, works in the “lost and found” office of the London Underground where everyday new objects that were lost or abandoned by riders are brought in by employees of the Tube or by citizens who find these amazingly inexplicable objects. Although Hebe likes her job she does not find the Towers a hospitable place to live. All the dampness and chill, all the ghosts of historical people who had stayed in the Towers before being tortured, hung, or beheaded, are not attributes to feed the domestic spirit in a housewife and mom. She still misses their old house and resents Balthazar for making them move, and, because Milo died at the Towers, blames her husband for her grief and loss. Milo, on the other hand, loved the Towers as did Mrs. Cook, the family’s ancient tortoise.

When the Queen decides to house some her exotic menagerie at the Towers and to put Balthazar in charge events unravel and are eventually re-knit, order is restored through entertaining chaos. Brits apparently enjoy eccentricity and, in this case, I also found the eccentricity of the characters and the setting charming, and quite satisfying.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka – Book

In the book The Buddha in the Attic Julie Otsuka writes about mail order brides who come from Japan clutching pictures of men they have already married but whom they have never met or women who will marry the men they have been writing to as soon as they arrive in America. Since there are as many stories as there are women, Ms. Otsuka decides to structure her historically based novel on all of the stories she has encountered in her research on these brave and often hapless brides, and she has done plenty of research.  She does not choose one main character but gives us pieces of all the stories of all the women that she has read about. On the boat the woman do not have one mass experience, each woman goes through her own little hell just as each woman has come from a different background in Japan. Some women miss their families, some don’t. Some have been used to luxury, some haven’t. Some have been ill-used, some have been treasured. Some have worked hard in their parents’ fields or shops before they ever left Japan to go to America.

We are with these women when they land in California after their long journey. We are with them when they meet their husbands or potential husbands and when they realize that their husbands have exaggerated their success and their youth and their handsomeness. They leave with these strangers and we follow them to their wedding nights which are shocking to some, disgusting to others, tender to some, not so tender to others, or perhaps something just to be gotten through. They go with their husbands who often have no homes, who live in the fields of the farmers they plant for or prune for or pick for.

We follow them through harsh conditions and tragedies and small successes as they raise children who must come with them into the fields or into the businesses or who must fend for themselves while their mothers serve as domestic help in the homes of the well-to-do. We watch the parents begin to own their own farms and businesses and we watch their children become Americans who speak without an accent.
We experience how their success gets completely derailed by the fact that we become enemies with Japan after Pearl Harbor which begins World War II. We experience the increasing distrust of them as experienced by some of their American neighbors. We see the uncertainty and fear that precedes their removal to the internment camps and we see them erased from their neighborhoods and businesses. We see their property eventually stolen by others and we see that when their internment is over they will have to begin all over again. We wonder if we would ever have the stamina and constancy of these Americans of Japanese descent and we hope we won’t have to find out.
This book is deceptively easy to read because the topic is not light and the pictures it paints are plaintive and often harsh. The author’s decision to write in such a way as to tell many stories without actually identifying or following any one mail order bride works very well and helps condense a great variety of experiences into a small space. Why is it called The Buddha in the Attic? I will leave that for you to find out because this one should be on your short list.

FOX and Made-up News

Yesterday I was walking on the treadmill at the Y and I was too far away from the TV that was tuned to CNN so I decided to watch FOX. I usually don’t watch FOX because it gives me a stomach ache, but I decided to see if they were still as biased towards the right as they used to be. Well it only took me about 2 minutes to see that their slant has not changed. Also I now know where all these ridiculous stories that make much ado about nothing are coming from.
First the news reader spent ten minutes discussing the cost to fly Leon Panetta from Afghanistan to California whenever he wants to visit his family. And the cost is eye-popping. There was, throughout the story, an implication that Obama cut a bad deal with Panetta when he talked him into taking over in Afghanistan. There was a long discussion about how a seat in First Class could be rigged up to work for private transportation for Leon Panetta without creating a security risk.
Next the news reader spent fifteen minutes discussing what a huge political blunder it is for Obama to appear on the Jimmy Fallon show and how he has been spending way too much time on TV. They said that Obama is playing to his comfort zone and not taking the risks he should take.
During this same treadmill experience FOX spent fifteen minutes on a story that says that, although Obama likes to compare himself to Ronald Reagan since they both took office during a recession, there is really no comparison. Their data proves that in the Reagan years the job market improved swiftly and the unemployment rate obviously fell just as quickly. Their “facts” do not mention that decades separate these two presidencies and they also just sort of ignore the whole issue of globalization with the exodus of jobs to countries outside America and the continuing weakness in the housing market,  a market which has been troubled since the collapse of the housing bubble. Reagan did not have to deal with either of these unique economic events. Nor did he encounter the partisan divide that has halted Obama’s agenda. His party did not control both houses of Congress, but members of the two parties were willing to compromise. FOX, of course, makes the same conclusions they always make. The only way out of this is to cut taxes and stop the “class warfare”. They don’t mention that they made up the term class warfare to demonize requests for increased taxes from the wealthy. They also don’t mention that the GOP actually began the class wars when the first place they went for budget cuts was to recommend cutting so-called entitlements.
Once these non-stories are created by FOX all the other news media have to treat them as real and these stories live far longer than they should while the dialogue goes back and forth between the right and the left. Fact checkers try to minimize the damages of these “created” issues, but then the story goes blithely on while the facts languish once again in limbo. FOX news is guilty of wasting lots of our time on nonsense and has even occasionally bordered on fomenting violence over what is basically semantic tricks and propaganda.
Pretty amazing to have a whole TV network dedicated 24 hours a day to criticizing the activities of the President of the United States. I’m not really sure why the Democrats cannot put together a channel that is equally critical of the GOP, but perhaps they just like to stick a bit closer to the facts and they hate to waste our time creating one media story after another out of some event that should be basically too minor to be more than a blip on our radar.

Hints for Obama from 007

When I went to the Road Runner home page the other day to read my horoscope I came across this news feed, “Ho Hum Obama on the Brink of Democratic Nomination”.

While it is obvious that the 2012 elections is shaping up to be far less exciting than the 2008 election, it also seems true that we are beginning to expect elections that resemble action flicks. So President Obama I am offering a few pointers for the 2012 election. Sorry, considering the way things are going of late and considering how much we all like Michelle, my suggestions will not include any womanizing, although in every other way you are welcome to act like 007.

Hint 1: Get a Presidential sports car, American made of course, so no Maserati’s (unless they are now being made in America), but here are some very nice examples:

I prefer the Corvette, but you have some latitude here.

Hint 2:  Wear you tuxedo – it looks nice and puts you in a league with other 00’s

Hint 3: Pose with guns and flames, but don’t actually shoot anything.

Hint 4: People on the Internet suggest that your drink should be a variation on a chocolatini called an Obamatini. While this drink is a little complex for the man on the go, even a President and a candidate has a little time to kick back (no casinos though).

Hint 5: Get a car elevator that is better than the one Mitt Romney is getting. Get one like that one in Mumbai in the movie Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol for the White House. Perhaps Warren can foot the bill. He probably likes a little razzle dazzle in a campaign. It could be better than the bat cave.

Hint 6: Race at least one cabin cruiser (perhaps a souped up one, but not a cigarette boat) down the Potomac perferably at dusk with fireworks. This outfit looks good for cruising too so wear this.

That should do it for the action part. You will have to decide how to fit all the speeches about jobs and budgets into this 007 format without creating a buzz kill. Keep it brief, keep it exciting, and don’t worry too much about the content. Let the action affirm your manliness and your whimsical yet strong talent at taking down the bad guys, oops, I mean the opposition. It’s what the public wants, drama and testosterone. Keep the expenses down though please.

Since no one seems able to comment on my blog I will put my sister, Bonnie’s comment here. She says, “Ha, Ha! I like your style. Of course then would have to face all the auto makers, the non-drinkers, the economists for using so much gas in a frivolous purchase (the boat), and the general public for wasting so much time on social activities.”

Laughing in Church

I never thought much about the Secret Service because it never seemed necessary. They were superheroes (and heroines) who always seemed like the guards in front of Buckingham Palace. When they were on duty no one could distract them; they were focused on one thing and one thing only, protecting their charge. I never even pictured what the Secret Service did when they were off duty (except for glimpses in the movie The Bodyguard, which was, after all, fiction.) I guess I thought about them the same way I thought about my teachers in grade school. They tucked themselves away in a closet, closed their eyes and shut down until their services were required once again.
This is the first hint I have heard of Secret Service agents misbehaving and I must say they did a really outstanding job of misbehaving. They fought, in a very noticeable way, over paying for services from a woman when they had apparently agreed to a much higher price before services were rendered. Tacky and trashy and stupid; superheroes tarnished, security compromised, even our President’s safety could have been endangered. In an era of terrorists this type of lapse is more egregious than usual. Why did it happen? Are we so “me” oriented that loyalty to duty and country is secondary? Has anything like this happened before but without our knowledge? Is the training of agents not as rigorous as it once was? Is modern America just too “Porky’s” to expect men to make a serious commitment to a lifestyle that is known for its seriousness (I don’t think any female agents were involved in this.)
I do take the dereliction of these Secret Agents as a frightening lapse in judgment and the performance of duties. However, I too live in modern America and I have seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Airplane, so I find myself sort of laughing in church when I see something like the ad that Spirit Airlines published and which has now been pulled, but which I saw on CNN yesterday. I apologize in advance to Susan Collins, but it did make me laugh. My only defense is that a spoof is designed to be funny. It still doesn’t get those agents off the hook though.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – Movie

If you want to watch a film that is pretty much a perfect homage to a 50’s film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the one to see. Even the color quality of the film is retro and makes me think I am sitting back in that Hollywood Theater on the main street in my small town where I watched Doris Day movies and Cary Grant movies, and many more.
This is a cerebral spy film, not at all an action flick. Although Gary Oldman is great as the spy George Smiley, made famous by John le Carre, the rest of the pack are hard to tell apart, except for the man who heads “Witchcraft” and Colin Firth. They are all “suits”.
It is also difficult to follow the plot, which is about who is the Russian “mole” in the British Secret Service. Even when the movie ended I was not sure the right man had been identified. This is the way spy books (and probably real spies) operated before the end of the Cold War. The political jockeying, the backstabbing and the sell-outs are probably much more like real spycraft than any of the events in the Bourne movies, but are not quite as entertaining to watch.
I’m not saying don’t watch it. For one dollar plus from the Red Box it is well worth the price and you probably won’t begrudge your time. I’m just saying that if you find it a bit confusing and a tad bit slow, you are not alone. I remember enjoying the book. You might want to read the book and then watch the film.

The Iron Lady – Movie

I recently rented The Iron Lady from the Red Box. It stars Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher, the only female Prime Minister in England so far and the longest serving PM who was in office from 1979 until she resigned in 1990. She was Prime Minister through some very tumultuous times: some rather violent strikes by coal miners and labor unions, some rather violent attacks on England by the IRA, a rather serious recession, and a rather small war against Argentina for the Falklands.
The movie does not begin when she is at the peak of her power. It begins as she is starting her descent into dementia. She was really in love with her husband Denis Thatcher (played by Jim Broadbent) and, although he has died, she continues to speak with him and experience him as if he is still alive, although she must know he is not because she hides her “relationship” from the assistants who live with her and from her daughter, Carol (played by Olivia Coleman) and her son Mark (who we never meet). We see Mrs. Thatcher’s romance with her husband and her rise through the Tory party in flashbacks. She is a classic conservative who espouses deregulation of the financial sector, flexible labor markets, the privatization of state-owned companies, and reducing the power and influence of the trade unions. Although the war with the Falkland Islands and perhaps the PM’s policies do bring the country out of recession, Margaret Thatcher’s government is often deeply unpopular and she does not always get along well with others. England is swept by one wave of violence after another. Finally, when Mrs. Thatcher refuses to entertain the possibility of joining the European Union and adopting a single currency (the Euro), she resigns her office (which she was about to lose anyway).
While it is sad to see a once powerful figure in decline, she remains such an Iron Lady that it is difficult to feel the poignancy of her situation, but I loved the interplay between Margaret and her dead husband, Denis, and I loved learning all that history that I paid so little attention to the first time around. Watching things unfold day-to-day on the news is not the same as the overview you get in hindsight. The flashback was the perfect film conceit for this excellent movie.
We study history so we can look to the past to inform us about the future. We in America are getting ready for an election and we are trying to decide if the path the Conservatives are recommending is a good one. Listen to what Margaret Thatcher had to say about entitlements according to Wikipedia and see if it sounds familiar. It should. We have been listening to the GOP tell us almost this exact same thing.

Thatcher defined her own political philosophy, in a major and controversial break with One Nation Conservatives like her predecessor Edward Heath,[218] in her statement to Douglas Keay, published in Woman’s Own magazine in September 1987:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations.[219]
Was Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reign good for the UK? Well she did bring the country out of recession, which I sure Brits appreciated, but the eleven years she was in office saw way too many violent demonstrations to be considered a slam dunk and in the end she was almost forced to resign. After seeing the movie, I can’t imagine why we would want to go there. Watch the movie and see what history has to say to you.

Snippets 6

The GSA Debauch/Secret Service Indiscretions
I don’t think Obama told GSA employees to go out and throw a big party and Presidents don’t usually do this kind of agency oversight but these activities show a lack of respect, if not for the President, then for the people of the United States. Obviously, at the very least, we are not all on the same page. This kind of satirical “morale boosting” can be found in the same corner of the American psyche which appreciates movies like Hangover. It is a very fun and naughty part of us sometimes but can also be seen as “deeply gross” and sophomoric. It would seem to be obvious that this nonsense does not really belong in the workplace or in the military or anywhere in the professional sphere. And even though boys (and girls) may just want to have fun, sometimes what seems like good entertainment does not necessarily reflect well on America. This same spirit probably brought down the Secret Service in Columbia with the same negative effects on the United States and the President.
The “attack” on Ann Romney
I must admit that Ann Romney appears much more casual and “real” than her husband Mitt. She has been through a lot and people like her. But talk about the media blowing things out of proportion – Yikes! I bet Hillary Rosen is ready to be a stay-at-home mom. She is supposed to be a savvy political communicator and she was not. But an awful lot of “spin” happened here. We know what Hillary Rosen really meant and we are all for women who wish to stay home and raise children. Ms. Rosen, did not, I believe, intend to criticize any stay-at-home moms and that is not what she really wanted to say about Ann Romney. But what is really clear here is that this incident does not even out the attacks the Republicans have made on women – not even close.
The Buffett Rule Bites the Dust
Too bad, because, although it wouldn’t have done much for the budget, it would have cracked open the issues of tax increases. The “up” side of this was that the idea for the “rule” did not come from the administration, but from the billionaires. Possibly an overhaul of the tax code, including deductions, subsidies and loopholes would be a better approach, but is way out of the realm of likely bipartisan endeavors at the present time.
News sources seem to believe that the case against George Zimmerman will be dismissed once a judge has actually accepted the case. I cannot even imagine that this would be considered acceptable to Trayvon’s parents and supporters. We’re waiting to see what happens. George Zimmerman seems remorseful and I’m not convinced that he is a criminal, but I’m pretty sure he, however accidentally, committed a criminal act. Zimmerman has a bond hearing tomorrow.
Ted Nugent, I Used to Like You
What a loose cannon Ted Nugent is. His remarks about Obama seemed to come out of nowhere like a brain fart, which accidentally showed what a nutburger Nugent really is (although he has always been against Obama, this time he may have gone too far). Really, he will either kill himself or get arrested if Obama is elected? The President and Hillary Clinton are criminals? At least if you dribble drivel you could back it up with some of the reasons for your statements. Since the Republicans have Obama so far up the creek that he can’t move, how much can even be laid at Obama’s feet? And you may argue that this shows how powerful the Republicans are, but I think it just shows how far they will go to sabotage Obama, even if their activities harm America.
Flight Crew – What’s Up?
Is someone feeding our flight crews psychotropic drugs? We had two incidents of craziness in March and now we have a new one in April. A copilot over Switzerland woke after a too long nap and mistook Venus for an enemy plane. He put the plane into a steep nose dive which caused havoc in the passenger cabin until the pilot made the correction. This is just getting weird.
Miscellaneous Snippets
I could go on; there was a lot of little-big news this week: one hundred thirty-three tornadoes in one day with five people dead.
 Dick Clark succumbs to a massive heart attack as we remember our youthful years spent watching TV to see the latest dance moves and our latest musical stars perform our favorite hits on American Bandstand.
The LA Times publishes photos taken two years ago in which American soldiers posed with trophy body parts of enemy soldiers killed while planting an IED (I’m sure there have never been more cameras in wars than there have been in Iraq and Afghanistan now that we have cell and digital camera that can download almost immediately to computers. It is only surprising that it took two years for the pictures to come to light.) Wars are not exactly civilized pursuits. Although this kind of thing is quite bestial and primitive, I am guessing things like this have also happened in previous wars just without the internet.
Keep an eye on what happens with the Keystone Pipeline over the next couple of days. They have changed the route of the pipeline somewhat, although I have not seen the map in enough detail, but they are trying to pass a bill that keeps Obama out of the loop. It has already passed the House. I assume the Senate will put the kibosh on it. How can the Democrats pass a bill that is so insulting to the President. The GOP seems to have rigged the bill to fail so they can heap more criticism on Obama. We shall see.