Tuesday, August 25, 2009

China kicking our ass and Ben Bernanke again

Hey kids! James Call: Expert returns. Still awaiting your questions, but in the meantime, here's some fun updates!!! If by "fun," you mean, "severely depressing". Enjoy!

Today in the Chinese Have Been Superior to Us with a Few Exceptions for About 4,000 Years so Why Stop Now

It looks like the Chinese are poised to kick our ass in the solar panel market. Solar and wind energy would seem like THE industry to be developing, old-school style, to bring America into the 21st Century with a new industrial base, and to generate JOBS. But hey, who needs jobs, right? Especially high-paying manufacturing jobs? Not almost 10% of Americans, right?

Today in Fed Chairmanship

Ben Bernanke has being reappointed. No big surprise there. He's been an usually open chairman, for which he has my respect; perhaps he'll help shatter some of the Secrets of the Temple (everyone go read that book, now, it's way more intense than the Harry Potter franchise, I promise). However, Simon Johnson, who is way smarter than me, has a pretty unpleasant forecast for Bernanke's next term... basically, a new bubble, this time in Asia.

Not sure who SHOULD be appointed, though. Is the Punisher available?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Brazil "Nationalizes" Its (Major) Oil (Discovery), and Liberals Up in Arms

James Call: Expert here! A reminder: I am still looking for your questions. But for today, I'll just spiel through this haze of claritin some of our more exciting goings-on.

Today in 2nd-World Countries Nationalizing Oil

So, hey, good news! Brazil has declared that Petrobras (Brazil's oil company, and a notable player in the exciting world of oil companies, sort of the "John Stewart Green Lantern" to the international oil industry's "JLA") straight-up gets the rights to the remainder of the massive deep-sea oil deposits off its coast, which were discovered in 2007. About 38% of these deposits have already been bid away, including to foreign developers. The rest is for BRAZIL!

This is pretty huge shit, becaus the world hasn't weaned itself off of oil yet, and these fields are expected to be amongst the world's more significant oil resources for the, uh, remainder of the oil age, probably. Unless the oil age ends up lasting another century instead of just another four to five decades or so...

The risk to whitey (i.e., consumers, globally) is that Petrobras will bungle the extraction process and not get the oil to the market. This has happened with state-owned oil companies numerous times before. Look at Venezuela's PDVSA if you want, or look at Iran, which has to actually import oil when it should be a major exporter. State-run oil companies just don't get the job done the way private companies do.

But: private companies also tend not to give one solitary shit how the countries they operate in fare. For all that output has dropped in the wake of Hugo Chavez's takeover of PDVSA, the profits from that oil company now go to Venezuela itself. There's plenty of reasons to oppose Chavez, but there's no denying that PDVSA is now working for Venezuela and not the other way around.

So I say good for Brazil. If Petrobras can't get the oil out of the ground in time, well then, oil prices will just have to rise, globally, which will encourage investment in the fuels and energy sources of the future, which is much better than relying on a 19th century energy source proven to be a finite resource, anyways.

Today in Health Care Reform

I have to give some props to the mainstream so-called "liberal" media, for actually acting like liberals, for a change, and sticking it to Prez Obama for backing down on the public option. Specifically, Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow demonstrated some real cojones on calling Obama on his shit. A health care bill without the public option is weak stuff, and those shitty little "co-ops" aren't going to cut it.

Perhaps these House liberals will surprise us and not back down in threatening to scuttle any bill without a public option? We can get a bill with a public option through the Senate; we just have to live with zero GOP votes, and use reconciliation. It'll be tight, but we can do it. The question is, would Obama lean on the swing Senators to get the job done?

Nate Silver thinks we're being too hard on Obama, not being realistic (by "we" I mean "we liberals who feel betrayed that he's abandoning the public option"), and Mr. Silver is always worth listening to. However, he's also prone to often take a pro-statist, almost anti-progressive view of how business should be conducted in Washington, and I have to disagree with him. I think Pelosi threatening to pull the plug on the whole bill is exactly what is needed.

I don't think Obama is genuine about wanting a public option, but if he is - and he still says he is - then it's time to do this bill through reconciliation, not the normal procedure, because the GOP is going to oppose the health care bill even WITHOUT the public option. So might as well cut them out of the whole process. The Dems, and Obama, will enjoy a 5-point poll bounce once health care reform gets passed - so sez former Prez Clinton, and I have to give Bill Clinton props for political saavy (most of the time), if nothing else. People will completely forget about "socialism" once they have cheap, reliable health care.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bye Bye Public Option and other shitty news

On a day when James Call: Expert is locked in a death-struggle he appears to be losing with a collection agency, it's very appropriate that the public option, perhaps the one policy item we had the most right to feel hopeful about, in the wake of the 2008 elections, is now more-or-less officially kaput.

Today in Health Care Reform

So yeah, over the weekend, Obama and crew (specifically Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius) basically threw the public option under the rug. Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota said that the public option "never" had the votes to pass in the Senate, and Obama et al are basically giving him and his ilk the nod, albeit still ostensibly saying the public option is the best way to go.

Paul Krugman and Nate Silver don't seem too depressed about it; in order to avoid being depressed myself, I'm deferring to their expertise. But we now know that even if health care reform does result in expanded coverage, especially to folks like me, with pre-existing conditions, it's going to do very little for cost, which should be a major concern, and may very well lead to calls a few decades down the line to do away with the entire thing.

The big question now is whether anything will be done to rein in the vicious cycle of doctors charging insurance companies for big-item, frivolous treatments. This will require cracking the whip on both doctors and insurers, and I'm not sure anyone in government has the backbone to do that, at this point. Still, this is one of the major problems driving cost, and to rectify this problem doesn't require spending any money at all. It just requires the will to stand up to these constituencies. Something we haven't seen a whole lot of so far, sadly.

Very, very disappointing.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Why We're in This Mess

Ok! Today I'm just gonna straight-up QUOTE A BLOG to highlight an overlooked subject... hell, a subject that no one even talks about, for some reason, in this country: wage growth.

In the 1990s, Japan was in the shitter in a manner very similar to where we are today. As someone who currently feels he can't leave his job, because to do so would be borderline suicidal, since there are no other options out there, these 4 paragraphs really hit home. The bolding, italics, etc., are mine. This is from the Conceptual Guerilla blog (the author is "unlawflcombatnt"), and in turn is derived from the book "Greenspan's Fraud" by Ravi Batra:

Japan experienced extremely rapid growth between 1960 and 1975. During that time there was a 168% increase in per capita GDP. Their per capita GDP increased from $2,139 in 1960 to $5,750 in 1975. Real wages increased 217% during that time. Manufacturing productivity increased 264% during these 15 years. Japan prospered and its economy grew during this period because wages, which create demand, kept up with productivity, which creates supply. There was sufficient WAGE-FINANCED demand to stimulate production. And the necessary demand was maintained by consumer income, not consumer borrowing.

After 1975, productivity growth began to outpace wage growth. The result was a much slower growth in GDP. Between 1975 and 1990, productivity increased 3% more than wages per year. During that period, wages increased 27%, while productivity increased 86%. The per capita GDP increase was 64% from 1975 to 1990. Less of the wealth produced by Japanese workers was being shared with them. As a result, business profits soared, increasing money available for investment. This caused Japanese investors to over-invest in both the stock market and housing. Japanese stock markets and real estate values soared as a result of this over-investment. Meanwhile, there was insufficient wage-financed demand to keep up with this capital investment. This necessitated increased levels of borrowing to maintain the demand that wages could not maintain.

By 1990 there was a huge Japanese stock market bubble and real estate bubble. And in 1990 this overvaluation all came crashing down. The Japanese economy has still not recovered 15 years later. By 2003, the Japanese stock market was still 80% below its peak in 1990. From 1990 thru 2002, per capita GDP increased 13%. Compare that with the 168% increase between 1960 and 1975. Compare this latter 15-year increase with the 59% increase during the 27 years from 1975 to 2002. Japan's per capita GDP increased 3 times as much during the 15 years prior to 1975, than it did during the 27 years after 1975. The pre-1975 rate of increase was 5 times faster than the post-1975 increase.

What caused this slowdown? The rise in the wage-productivity gap. Worker income that could have been put to good use buying Japanese goods was siphoned off as corporate profits. Since the benefits of investment capital are limited by consumer demand, the result was over-investment of Japanese stock and housing markets, and maintenance of consumer demand by borrowing.

Now if you look at any US wage/productivity gap chart, you'll notice the gap starts kicking in at the beginning of the Reagan years, and never lets up:

Now, I want to apologize for basically ripping off another blog wholesale, but this is important stuff, for the 15-20 of you who read this here bad boy, and after all, I can't cry over health care reform everyday. This is, actually, in the end, MORE IMPORTANT (or at least, just as) than health care reform, because if wages grew in tandem with productivity, like they're supposed to, a lot more of us could afford to buy health care from our current system (private insurers who charge you an arm and a leg) anyways.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why Bother Being Democrats? And other musings

Hey kids! James Call: Expert has a super budy day today, and can't grace you with his bounteous knowledge and esteemed judgment. But he does have some super-groovy links that you should just read for yourselves! Bookmark them, they're borderline important!

1. Iraq's Shiites aren't flipping the hell out as assorted Sunnis (not all Sunnis, mind you) continue to terrorize them (I typed that non-ironically!) Turns out having a theology that is centered around suffering, even more so than Catholicism, is good for building up patience - such as the patience to endure people attacking you for no reason.

2. The mob's goin' after Sen. Specter, who's my favorite turncoat Republican. Ooops! Maybe you shoulda stuck around the Grand Old Party of Xenophobes and Dipshits, Arlen!...

3. After all, more and more Dem Senators are beginning to vote like Republicans on key issues. Sort of makes you wonder what the point of having a Dem majority is, right? Also: when are these folks gonna flip GOP? 2010, if the numbers look right? Time will tell...

4. To counter GOP screams of "socialism," Dems are being encouraged to "villify" insurance companies. Sounds good to me! Private insurers are a bunch of scum whose sole concern is the bottom line, which, as often as possible, means screwing the insured out of proper coverage. But, it is worth noting, insurance companies have some legitimate complaints with doctors bilking the system. Drs. in turn have some legitimate gripes with being underpaid by insurance companies, which thus encourages them to bilk! The losers, of course, are the poor shmucks paying for insurance. Health care reform MUST tackle these subjects, and, strangely, none of the plans out of committee so far touch the subject.

And those are enough links for you. Also, China has a major problem with trash incinerators, but we don't have time for that, and the above of plenty of reading for now.

Live long and prosper or die young and stay pretty!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fighting Segregtion

James Call: Expert returns, trying to get high on his OWN supply and not the supply of mankind! Tally ho!

Today in Unexpected Good News

I've been pretty critical of President Obama so far. Despite his (initial) overwhelming popularity, and transcendant political stature, he's squandered a lot of political capital capitulating to the Powers That Typically Be: Big Finance, the insurance industry, Republicans in general, etc.

Still, I think the Prez has the ability to do some pretty impressive and valuable things under the radar of the national media and political party apparati, on issues that people simply don't pay attention to. He's already reversed the trend on stem cell research and signed a major modernized GI Bill, one that doesn't ask our soliders to go kill and possibly die and then come home to enjoy unemployment, potential homelessness, and PTSD.

And today it looks like the Obama administration's shift on national housing policy is bearing fruit, as the Anti-Discrimination Center has won an historic lawsuit in Westchester county ordering local officials to make more housing available along racial lines to the middle and lower class (but not necessarily the "super-poor").

It was found in the suit that despite the availability of plentiful public housing in Westchester county, it wasn't being offered to Blacks or Hispanics. This is a very important point: it's not a matter of Rich People vs. Poor People this time, it's a matter of Whites vs. Non-Whites, and Westchester was basically told to get its shit together and get some more minorities into these de facto segregated neighborhoods.

If it was just Westchester county, this wouldn't be huuuuuuge news, but its thought that this lawsuit will provide a template for future rulings across the entire nation. And that, to me, is very good news. In this country, Africans were bought here as slaves, became "Black" people, and were kept Down on the Farm at the end of slavery by segregation, all over the course a few hundred years. Many folks like to think that the end of legal segregation is the end of the story, but it's not: being Stuck in the Ghetto and limited by lack of jobs and education is every bit as stifling as being Down on the Farm. Lifting black people up out of poverty is the remaining part of the "trilogy" of ending the horseshit that his been, historically, foisted on Africans brought to this country against their will. That's my opinion.

That similar benefits should be extended to Hispanics, and any other discriminated-against racial group, especially of a lower wealth level, should go without saying (but doesn't always, does it?).

Even those who would favor, in theory, increased racial integration get a little queasy at the premise of "social engineering," which is another reason this lawsuit is potentially such major good news. President Obama, or any President (even a "more white" one) couldn't very well make a big hoopla and go before Congress and the American people and try to pass an "Integration Bill". You think the cries of "socialism" over the bailout/health care reform/yadda yadda are bad NOW? I'd hate to see that one.

But do this quietly, while the media and parties are distracted by other huge issues, and put it slowly into place?

Man, that would be a coup comparable to that enacted by the Bush administration, when it basically staffed the entire Judiciary with wacko fundamentalists who had passed political litmus tests. Except, you know, really, really good news, as opposed to really evil, destructive-of-the-fabric-of-our-Republic news.

Call me a communist... I just think that people should not have the right to raise their children away from other children of other races. This is the 21st century, right? I mean, racial pride, at this point?!? The nation state is dying at the hands of global capital - why should we allow the segregation of races? Further, why should we allow people to think that their race counts for anything other than literal sky color and perhaps eye pigment, etc? Genetics has already disproven the premise that your races matters, scientifically, at all. It's just fucking stupid to think otherwise, and it allows the elite who are destroying the nation state with global capital to create pre-nation state-style divisions amongst those said elite would exploit.

Anyways, read the article to get the details.

Today in Understatements of the Year

Meanwhile, in less good news, listen to what this dingleberry had to say about the Obama administration's attempts to negotiate with terror, er, excuse me, Republicans:

"The expectation was that things have gotten so bad in the last 16 years that there would be consensus on the need to act this time," said Howard Paster, who was Mr. Clinton's chief lobbyist in 1993. "That was a mistake, that assumption." (NY Times, 8/11/09)

Gee, YA THINK?!? Dude, you are talking about building consensus with the Republican party, a party that hasn't cooperated with the Democrats in approximately 30 years. A party that will only compromise if you are willing to literally SHUT DOWN THE GOVERNMENT like Clinton was forced to in the 90s.

Cooperate with these people?!? Get a goddamn clue!*

This is why I'm a communist sympathizer.

* Tip o' the hat to Chuck Schumer, too, who is getting more vocal about the premise that "we may have to do this without Republican help" (paraphrased). The Democrats control 2 branches of the government; it is time to finally WIELD that power and stop pussyfooting around.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Very Important Question

An anonymous reader asks:

Mr. Call, my wife and I recently enjoyed a threesome with a monied Count, but we woke up the next day naked in Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon, along with TV's David Hyde Pierce and deceased mathematician David Hilbert. Shouldn't the Count apologize? Or are we expected to contact him and arrange for a second date?

Second date.

And can I just add, this happens to me ALL THE TIME.

A Very Important Question

An anonymous reader asks:

Mr. Call, and wife and I recently enjoyed a threesome with a monied Count, but we woke up the next day naked in Pioneer Square in Portland, Oregon, along with TV's David Hyde Pierce and deceased mathematician David Hilbert. Shouldn't the Count apologize? Or are we expected to contact him and arrange for a second date?

Second date.

And can I just add, this happens to me ALL THE TIME.

The Devil's Moon and other topics

James Call: Expert! Answering your questions with his TOTAL KNOWLEDGE OF ALL SUBJECTS!

Today in the Moon

Reader "Will" asks:

What's with the moon? Why is it sometimes freakin' RED? Also, why does it sometimes look GIANT like it's going to crash into the Earth?

(I may have taken some liberties with Will's exact wording of the question.)

Very good question, Will! I'll tell you why. In a nutshell, the Sun is always shining the full visible spectrum of light on the moon. That's why, on a clear night, the moon looks white: because all the colors (this should be familiar to you Green Lantern fans) are combined into white, and reflected off the moon. Bear in mind one of my favorite science factoids: nothing has intrinsic color, everything is simply reflected light. Smoke some weed and meditate on THAT concept, buckos. Anyways...

The blue/green spectrum of the rainbow consists of shorter wavelengths, and these wavelengths can be filtered out by atmosphere, in much the same way that bass frequencies carry more easily between walls than higher frequencies do (which is why the neighbor doesn't need to turn down their music at night, just their bass, really, though most people don't realize this). So when there's plenty of atmosphere, only the red/orange light reflecting off the moon can filter through to our eyesight.

When farmers are burning the fields to make them fertile again, etc., there's more smoke (atmosphere) in the sky. That's why the blood-red moon is also called the "Harvest Moon". Of course, it should really be renamed the "Failure of Industrialism Moon" because that's what it is these days. You see a lot of Harvest Moonage in NYC, LA, and other large metropolitan areas, because all the emissions from congestion are creating more atmosphere and filtering out the blue/green light.

In short, the more red moons we see, the more pollution we are living amidst!

NOW: why does the moon appear to be so fucking HUGE somethings? This is a simple matter of perspective. The moon is always, to our eyesight, the same size. However, when it's up in the sky, we compare it to the field of the sky, which is quite vast. Therefore, the moon appears small and less significant, something we could easily blow up with nuclear missles to test our manhood as a species. On the other hand, when the moon is rising over the horizon, we may compare it to nearby buildings, trees, etc., which is why it appears berserkly huge at times.

And that, my friends, is your science for today. Please bear in mind the "Harvest Moon" should be differentiated from the "Blue Moon," which you see standing alone, and the "Poison Moon," which you laugh in the face of.

Today in Declining Birth Rates

Hey, two days after I posted my blog, look what All the News that's Fit to Print is reporting on!

Today in Finally Some Good News for the Obama Administration

Whoa, hey, the jobless rate finally DECLINED! In July! From 9.5% to 9.4%!


Certainly a sign that everything works perfectly in our system and that health care reform, cap and trade, and financial regulation are all completely unnecessary. I'm sure CNBC would agree with me.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sorry We Have No Blog Today ♫

Too much headache, too little time to comment. Real briefly:

Today in Health Care Reform

Paul Krugman catches some flak over criticizing Rasmussen Reports for underestimating public support for health care reform. Unfortunately, while Krugman is right 90% of the time, Rasmussen also is, and on this score, Rasmussen wins. It's one of the most accurate pollsters out there. And public support for health care reform is pretty low.

"John Boehner of Sector 2814. You have been chosen for your ability to instill great fear."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

No Baby Boom, No Cry and other nonsense

James Call: Expert returns to discuss all the latest issues, plus shit that's just plain pissing him off!

Today in Shamelessness

So apparently, some woman on the Taconic Parkway, Diane Schuler, got plastered on vodka and high on pot, and then got in her car, resulting in an accident that took the lives of her daughter, 3 of her nieces, and 3 other innocent people. The NY Daily News plastered a big ol' picture of Schuler on their front page, with the headline "HOW COULD SHE".

Now, one has to ask: if Schuler has any conscience at all, any shred of human feeling in her heart, won't she be living in a personal hell for the next many years? She should never have done what she did, and she should pay the legal price, but unless she's a complete sociopath, the crushing guilt of such an incident is going to be very apt punishment for what she's done.

Is it REALLY necessary for the Daily News to plaster her face on the front page of a paper that is read by millions of New Yorkers, and seen by millions more? Does that serve any productive fucking function? When there are SERIOUS issues afoot - health care reform, rising joblessness, the dangerous situation in Afghanistan - the Daily News is going to waste very expensive front page publication time lambasting some woman who has to live with her grief for the rest of her life anyways?!?!

The people who publish and edit the Daily News should be hacked to death by machetes.

Today in Malthusianism

Reader "Lindsey" asks:

It seems many folks I know are having a baby or have recently adopted a dog. Despite generalized frustration, depression and an economy in shambles, it seems affection is a currency in these-here harsh-times. Do you think that the current economic crisis will spawn a neo-baby boom? Are there any stats available about the current birth rate in the US, and if so, how does it compare to the post-war boom? What are your thoughts? additionally, do you foresee any dystopic/Swiftian implications with this possible neo-baby boom?

To answer, in brief: no, yes, favorably, I'll tell you, and no.

First off, the last recorded data point, around October 2008, indicates a very slight decline in the US fertility rate. After a "baby boomlet" in 2006-2007, births are down slightly. And bear in mind, that's nine months after February 2008, when the recession/depression was just in its first phase. It's continuing full steam ahead, so one would expect the birth rate to decline further.

Now, the poorly educated tend to have more children than the well educated, and we certainly have more jobless folks these days. But these are the newly poor: many are bright enough to use birth control, and in this country, most aren't mainline Catholics anyways. So I would not expect these newly poor to be cranking out the kids. On the contracy, I think the fertility rate will decline further, as people (wisely) decide not to have kids whom they cannot provide for.

Here's a pretty succinct article on the matter.

It's probably for the best that our national birth rate declines. First of all, this is mostly the white birth rate. Latinos and blacks will continue to have a higher fertility rate for the time being, which will level the social playing field a bit. Although, honestly, I'd go for everyone's fertility level declining: we do not need more children in this country. Part of what allows America to enjoy the opulence it does is that the individual American consumes a much larger portion of world's wealth than he/she generates. It's why we're hated across most of the globe, after all. And it's why we have such nice tennis shoes.

That being said, even if we were to experience a doubling in population, from roughly 300 billion to roughly 600 billion people, I still wouldn't worry. This is an incredibly affluent country, and we can take it. The problem is the division of the allocation of resources within the population, not the overall size of the population. The only dystopian effect I could envision is if unemployment hit something like 20% for several generations, leading to a rise in fertility amongst the immobile poor. That would lead to a Mexico-like situation, which nobody wants. But still, hardly an India-like situation.

Honestly, I expect the overall birthrate to decline. Few formerly middle class families are going to want to bring children into the world in this day and age. I could be wrong, but I'll put money on that.

Reality is more frightening than dystopia, of course...

Today in Super-Depressing Crap

MUUUUUUUUUUUUUCH more frightening, negative future-wise, is the slow decline of the American income standard. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, anyone? Read the article at the link. You'll be sad, er, glad you did.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Grant Morrison vs. Alan Moore and Republican Mobs vs. Civilized People

James Call: Expert, having blown his "month of sobriety" pledge (after a week of sobriety) with drinks last night, is a bit hungover, and therefore will mostly be providing links and brief commentary today. But he's back on the wagon now, so expect more productivity soon!

Today in Very Good but Still Overestimated Comics Writers

You may have heard that Marvel Comics has acquired the rights to "Marvelman," a character made famous by Alan Moore's revisionist, dystopian run on the character in the 1980s in "Warrior" magazine. For those of you not in the know, Moore is the author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell, amongst other works, all of which are top-notch, and none of which have been made into especially good movies. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is in fact an actively terrible movie, although the comics are excellent.

As good as Moore's writing is, when discussing him, many comics fans tend to go a bit overboard, praising Moore as the One True God who can do no wrong, against whom all other comics writers "epically fail". Moore's definitely up there, but there a lot of great comics writers floating around: Dave Sim, Charles Burns, Robert Crumb, Joe Sacco, just to name a few.

Another great writer who is a tad overhyped is Grant Morrison, known for his work on the "X-Men," "Batman," and "Doom Patrol," as well as numerous independent projects: The Filth, We3, and more. Both Moore and Morrison consistently produce "hits". Four times out of five, reading a Moore or Morrison comic, especially a superhero comic, is going to be the equivalent of watching a good hollywood flick, like Die Hard or Back to the Future, and so forth.

Still, rarely is a comic from either writer going to change your life or broaden your intellectual horizons, unless you haven't read ANY literature whatsoever. Every "big concept" that Moore and Morrison touch on have been done to death by authors of books you were assigned in high school, or at least college, long before. Still: judging by a lot of comics fans' praise of the two writers, said fans haven't been doing a lot of fancy book larnin'.

Given the excessive level of praise for the two writers, I therefore find it highly amusing to read a young Grant Morrison rip Alan Moore a new asshole.

Today in Health Care Reform

Well, it's August recess time, so it's time for the GOP to hit the campaign trail and just constantly tear into health reform, screaming "socialism," while Democrats in turn tear into insurance companies, which should be good tit-for-tat.

Except Democrats play nice and Republicans play dirty, so don't expect this to be an even brawl. The chief GOP tactic? Mobs! Bring disruptive little mobs to town hall meetings where Dem legislators are trying to explain health care reform, and ruin them by just screaming the whole time. It worked during the 2000 recount down in Florida, where screaming mobs intimidated the recounters... why not use this tactic to ruin health care reform?

It's gonna be a long, and shitty, 5 weeks.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sir Thomas More and Ollie Cromwell

James Call: Expert here, fighting his window-less office headache with another round of questions from our readers!

Today in Whether Corporations Are Good, Neutral, or Evil

I wanted to just quickly follow up on Geoff's question because I didn't get to over the weekend.

In a nutshell: corporations are driven by the profit motive. They are indifferent to the greater good, and thus often create negative externalities, including pollution, products that cause obesity, etc. However, corporations that manufacture goods have two conflicting interests: they want to lower wage costs, on the one hand, which lower the purchasing power of the consumer (never forget that the worker = the consumer! Most Americans seem to, for some reason...), and yet, at the same time, they want to raise the purchasing power of the consumer, so they can consume more (and more expensive) goods!

This has led in large part to the growth of debtor culture in our country, wherein people live off their mortgages, credit cards, etc., while high-paying jobs are destroyed and/or replaced by lower-paying jobs overseas. This allows for a high consumption rate and a low wage policy...

...until, of course, the house of cards collapse, and we're left here. One would think that saavy corporations of the future would push for a 1940s-1970s scenario, with higher union membership (and thus higher wages/benefits), to recreate a solid consumer culture. But, of course, corporate thinking can be as entrenched as any other kind of thinking - for instance, is it rock and roll without sex and drugs? - and therefore, I wouldn't expect this change overnight.

Still, corporations CAN be made into productive, if not "good" entities. And I'd certainly argue that corporations can do what saintly "small business" cannot. I'd rather shop at a Barnes and Noble than most smaller bookstores, I have to admit. And I'd rather buy my soap from whomever makes Ivory or Dove than rely on some boutique, ne c'est pas?

However, financial institutions do not necessarily provide a productive function. They provide a speculative function. If they can be made to bet conservatively, then they greatly aid productive corporations, but if they engage in destructive speculation, then there's no other way to put it: they are BAD.

A big step towards making them behave better might be the reinstitution of the Glass-Stegall act, or something like it. More on that if you kids would like to hear.

And as always, I hope you're reading your Paul Krugman.

Today in Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas More

Reader "Damian" asks the following question: "It's not really a question... I just want you to explain to me Oliver Cromwell and how he relates to the other cromwell in the movie 'man for all seasons' about Thomas More, are they related?"

They are NOT related. I forget who the Cromwell in Man for All Seasons is, but Sir Thomas More was a contemporary of Henry VIII (you know, the fat man with all the wives, who started his own fucking church because the Pope wouldn't give him a divorce), and Oliver Cromwell was of course the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, who overthrew Charles I, monarch #4 after Henry VIII.

Thomas More wrote "Utopia" and was a big ol' Catholic, and this led to problems for him. The Pope would not annul Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragorn (Henry wanted a male heir which Catherine could not produce, and he was always nailing other chicks, too), because the Pope was being held hostage (true!) by Charles/Carlos V of the Hapsburgs, who was kinda the man at the time - he controlled Spain and Austria, and let's not forget that this was back when Spain was at the height of its New World power - and Catherine was Carlos' aunt.

So Henry was like "F this!" and, after being excommunicated, made it the law of the land that Catholicism, in England, was OUT, and Anglicanism, which is just like Catholicism except lame*, was IN. But Sir Thomas More was a true believer, and so, boom, off with his head. Probably served him right for being a hater against England's Protestants, pre-Henry's excommunication.

By the way, Sir Thomas More and Martin Luther's letters to each other are hella vulgar and LOL-worthy and some dude or gal put 'em on wikipedia, so check 'em out.

* a note: Anglicanism these days is amongst the more benign organized branches of Christianity, so much so that many very conservative African congregations are weighing whether or not to cut themselves off from the Church of England. But it is still lame because what's the point of Catholicism without a Pope? oh well...

Oliver Cromwell was a much more imposing figure. Roughly 100 years after More's time. Cromwell was basically a military guy and a member of Parliament when Parliament got in a spat with Charles I over its prerogatives. Charles was like, "Shut up, I'm the king, leave me along, see you in 11 years," and Parliament grew some cojones and rounded up their own army which took it to Charles, resulting in his execution. This is how the Commonwealth of England was born (not the same as today's Commonwealth, which includes Canadians).

The Parliament ruled for a little bit while Cromwell went and just killed the beejeezus out of folks in Ireland, which was still Catholic (oops) even when the rest of England had Anglicanized it up, and was harboring the exiled royalists. While Cromwell was gone, Parliament dicked around as parliaments are wont to do, and when Cromwell get back, he shut the place down by force, and the Protectorate came to be, with Cromwell declared Lord Protector... for LIFE! He had more power than Charles I ever had.

Thankfully, he eventually died, and his son Richard lost power so quickly they called him "Tumbledown Dick". And then the monarchy came back, under Charles II, but this was a much more mellow monarchy, with Parliament being an almost-equal member of government, so I suppose just like you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, you probably can't make a model for American Representative Democracy without an Irish Genocide or two.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Corporations: Like an Angry Dog, Useful But Best Watched

Reader "Geoff" writes an excellent question that more or less stumps the "expert" today.

Been reading through your blog, must say I'm a fan! Here's my questions:

Especially during the recession, we keep hearing how awful large corporations are, and how their recklessness and greed has brought unspeakable harm to taxpayers. From finance to the auto industry, even the food industry, everyone seems to be in it for a buck at the expense ... Read Moreof everyone else. Are there any rays of corporate hope out there? Any large, for profit companies who have maintained business ethics, remained transparent when dealing with consumers and have generally not been evil? Or is capitalism really this bad...

Well, ok. It is the way of James Call: Expert to smarmily summarize the answers to questions about which a lot can be written. So I'm going to do just that.

In terms of our current crisis, which is a big one, the truth is that most corporations are actually just fine. Or rather, no worse than usual. Corporations, after all, allow economies of scale that tend to raise our standard of living and employ buttloads of people.

I would argue, and many Keynesians and socialists would as well, that our severely crippled Labor situation in this country is the big problem, NOT the size and scope of corporations per se.

One needs to distinguish between Finance and Industry. Finance has been out of control, and is the "villain" of our current times. People tend to get up in arms and conflate auto manufacturers, for example, with big finance. The two are extremely different. Big Auto actually manufactures a product that is sold on the market. Maybe it doesn't do so very well, and maybe we should be relying on mass transit instead of the automobile now that it's the 21st century for fuck's sake, but still, until the government steps up and invests seriously in mass transit on a national scale, which it seems to lack the will to do, we're still going to need cars. Therefore, the auto manufacturers are making something we need. And employing people at pretty decent wages to do so. I'd consider the Big 3 auto manufacturers, as flawed as they are, "useful" and even "not evil".

Not so much Finance. Of course, without loans from banks business couldn't run. But Finance has been involved in a series of escalating shell games for decades now, essentially one financial institution at a time combining assorted loans and selling them to OTHER financial institutions, and claiming a profit. They aren't actually -producing- anything, they're just shuffling loans around.

And they're also -mixing loans up-, so that the good cannot be distinguished from the bad. So now ALL the major financial institutions essentially have money in every aspect of the economy, rather than having more limited portfolios. This is why institutions become "too big to fail".

So the challenge of our times to is to make financial institutions, moreso than other corporate entities, specifically: 1.) More transparent, and 2.) Smaller, so that when they fail, they don't pull down the whole fucking economy with them.

I could go on, but honestly, there's a much better source for easy-to-understand financial and economic analysis on the internet, and it's The Baseline Scenario, which I read daily, and has great introductory articles on how modern finance, and our economy as a whole, works. Still, in a nutshell: regardless of the very-difficult-to-follow complexities of finance, it all kind of boils down to a shell game and a ponzi scheme played with the entire economy as the stakes.

Finance used to be fine when it was regulated, and the government explicitly forbid severe gambling with the lifeblood of the economy. I can get into this further, later, if you'd like... I'm trying to keep this short and simple.

One last point on finance: It used to be a much smaller portion of our overall economy. Financial earnings in 2007 constituted 40% of GDP, I believe, but don't quote me on that. Used to be in the ballpark of 10-15% back in the 50s-70s.

As for whether corporations are evil, in general? I'd have to say that the corporation is geared towards maximizing profits for the shareholders, and that social concerns, externalities, etc., simply don't matter to the corporation, and that is why the government must IMPOSE such considerations on large corporations. This seems to be true across the board. I'm flummoxed to think of an example where this is not the case.

That's not to say that Google, General Motors, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, etc., can't be useful. It is to say, however, that whether or not they're Good for Society is of no concern to the shareholders, and that's why they have to be closely watched, and swatted down upon occasion.

Even a worker-owned company like Saturn (which I wish I knew more about, honestly) still produces cars, which may not be in the best long-term interests of society, right?

I'm rambling at this point. It's an excellent question and I wish I had a more concrete answer. If you take away anything from this blog post, make it this: at this point in time, the corporations that make your cars and computers, despite the sheer amount of oil they consume, or the companies that manufacture your tennis shoes, despite the child labor they may be employing, are less destructive to the world than Finance, which has us all by the nuts and really seems to care not one jot.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Top 5 Congresspeople, and Luthor vs. Cheney vs. Corleone

Welcome back to James Call: Expert, where today we have some questions! Again from reader "Damian". Who is this mysterious seeker of knowledge???

Who are your top 5 congresspeople?

What a good question! It's pretty easy to answer this one right off the top of my head.

1. Representative Barney Frank

Barney Frank is just fucking AWESOME. He is, without question, one of the funniest dudes in the legislature, period. He has made numerous guest appearances on Fox News, where he gives those fuckers better than he gets. He is loud, brash, consistently funny, and openly gay, with a "Yeah I'm fucking gay, deal with it assholes!!!" attitude, which is, to my heterosexual ears, the best way to go about it. Not only that, he's very progressive from your average American standpoint on fiscal regulation. He gives a bit politically, but he seems to know who the bad guys are and how to corral them up. Along with Sen. Chris Dodd (not one of my faves, but still, not bad), he has produced fairly progressive, strong, proposals for regulation of the financial sector, which have, of course, been watered down by the Obama administration. :(

Conclusion: Barney Frank is like the gay Guy Gardner of Congress. He's funnier than a good number of stand-up comics, and in fact, if he had a stand-up routine, I think I would pay up to $50 to see that shit.

2. Representative Dennis Kucinich

Dennis Kucinich is Our Hero, the only Real progressive in a sea of phonies. Bill Clinton declared the party of FDR dead a long time ago, but Kucinich didn't seem to get the memo. It's easy to figure out what's wrong in American politics, but rarely do we hear articulated what is right. The media decided early on that Kucinich was not a viable Presidential candidate, but go back and watch the primary debates from the past 2 elections and ask yourself which candidate you'd vote for, which one is saying the right thing. Obama may be the official Hope candidate, but Kucinich really is the candidate of someone who wants this country to be the Best it can be, to stand up for liberty and justice for all. To stand up for the working man. Sounds corny, but it's true. It's too bad he's written off without a hearing.

OH, plus, his wife is steaming hot, and like 6 foot something. Whereas Dennis is this real small eccentric. Gives us single idealist males hope for the future.

Conclusion: Kucinich represents the best strand of American political thought, and so therefore, naturally, nobody listens to him.

3. Speaker Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi is not without the taint of corruption, just like all powerful politicians are. However, she's on our side, and she DOESN'T PUT UP WITH SHIT. While Harry Reid putters around in the Senate, Nancy gets her way every damn time. She is also happy to play the bad guy, which is refreshing, since President Obama (understandably, perhaps) isn't. We'll see how health care reform, cap and trade, and all the other major issues shake down, but if it wasn't for Pelosi, a strong progressive option might not even be on the table.

Recently, Cindy Sheehan, who was an awesome demonstrator and hero of sorts during the Bush years, ran against Pelosi out in California. Look, it's understandable from a purist liberal viewpoint why one would object to Majordomo Pelosi and go with Sheehan, or someone more "clean". But come on, she's a fucking warhammer, and she's on our side on the major issues. I'd never vote for Sheehan over Pelosi, much like I'd never launch a Senatorial campaign against this guy...

4. Senator Chuck Fucking Schumer

Schumer unseated D'Amato, who was a fairly notorious and powerful Republican pig, out here in New York about a decade ago, and he's kicked ass ever since, the Machiavellian way. Naturally he's largely in the pocket of the hedge funds, which is, of course, very depressing. But he has positioned himself, as LBJ did, as the only man who can tell powerful interests how it's going to be, because after all, he is their defender. He represents Wall St. in the Senate, but he's also consistently for notably stronger regulation of finance, to a pretty surprising extent given his financial backing. And when he talks, finance has to listen. He's a strongman and he's got that evil look on his face that makes you think ice runs through his veins and that he wrestles snakes for fun. My kinda guy.

Conclusion: Pelosi and Schumer aren't saints, far from it. But they're badasses who don't put up with any bullshit, typically very canny legislators, and they're on our side. I'd hate to run into either of 'em in an alley.

Senator Bernie Sanders

Finally, I have to go with Bernie Sanders, who is a fucking SOCIALIST. And OUT socialist. Forget being gay, that's like calling yourself a communist!!! He is an independent from Vermont who caucases with the Dems, but in the end analysis, he's a socialist. That's even better than Kucinich! His AFL-CIO rating is 100%, which is a very good thing.

Conclusion: Vermont is the best state in the union.

Who would win in a fight: Lex Luthor, Dick Cheney, or Michael Corleone?

WOW! What a battle. This is a real tough one, so let's assess each of the participants.

Lex Luthor

Luthor is a genius inventor and a very wily schemer. He has no problem acquiring a bunch of kryponite or even inventing a kryptonite variant of his own, fusing it into some insane battle armor, and going toe-to-toe with Superman or Darkseid or any other insanely powerful beings, yet at the same time, he prefers to destroy his foes through intrigue and wiles.

Still, his ego is his downfall. Luthor, like Doctor Doom and plenty of other villains we can name, wants to concieve THE most treacherous plot imaginable. He wouldn't just walk into a room and shoot Superman dead. No, he'd have to dangle his superiority in front of his victim and gloat for a bit first, leading his plots to become unnecessarily weighed down by convolutions, and thus, vulnerable to exingencies. This is why he's bested time and time again, despite often having basically insurmountable advantages.

Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney, moreso than Luthor and just as much as Corleone, is willing to bide his time for DECADES to attain his goals. He simply never goes away and never loses sight of his ultimate objectives. And he has a big leg up over any opponents by allying himself with the most powerful facet of modern society - the military/industrial complex. By being on this side of history, he guarantees himself rock-solid support and far more resources than his opponents. Further, he is a saavy wielder of these resources. And his moral clarity and total lack of insight allow him to sleep at night while preparing torture plans during office hours.

Still, Cheney has one critical, Machiavellian weakness: he does not make himself beloved by the public. It must be said he is a plain-dealing villain. The public perception of heroism, which Luthor often has, is a huge boost to the schemer, who is able to operate in the night so much more effectively than someone who actively inspires distrust, as Cheney does, and who seems to actually revel in it. Because of his outwardly evil persona, there will ALWAYS be someone watching Dick Cheney, which limits his operations considerably.

Michael Corleone

Finally, we come to Michael Corleone, a man who took up the mantle of his father and brought himself, without tears, to a position totally unlike himself, never once looking back. Willing to kill his own brother in cold blood. A man to whom no-one can ever truly be close. Willing to expand his business and his empire using conventions that the old guard would consider shameful, off-limits. And yet, not a man who makes a scene. Corleone tends to pick battles he knows he will win, and he doesn't yap off about it or need public victories to satiate his ego. He walks softly and carries a big stick.

He also eliminates his enemies all at once, not piecemeal.

And that is why MICHAEL CORLEONE is the winner of this epic battle. Because the schemes of Luthor are too convoluted, and the schemes of Cheney are not well-hidden. But Corleone's hand cannot be seen in his actions, and his has no ego to satiate; his ego was killed with his soul years ago, when he adopted his father's role (much to his father's dismay, sadly, which is why the Godfather is such a great flick).

Still: what a fucking battle!!!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Where's Ya Plan At?!? and Sally Floyd

Welcome back to James Call: Expert!

Today in Health Care Reform

Well, since Baucus still hasn't moved his plan out of the Finance Committee, even though everyone knows what's in it, more or less, Pelosi and Hoyer in the House have decided that -they- can't move -their- bill, and might not do so before the August recess.

That's going to mean the Dems will have no plan to hype during the August recess, whereas the GOP will be able to spend extra time railing against "socialism," and folks, they're ahead in the polls...

More predictably great writing by Nate Silver on the subject today, definitely a "Must Skim" even if you don't want to read the whole thing, and I also strongly encourage you check out David Leonhart's article in the NY Times on why we have to tax health benefits is also revealing, although I don't see why we don't just -mandate- a fee-for-results rather than fee-for-service system (which is what we have now, wherein doctors prescribe expensive and often pointless treatments in order to rake in the scrilla, as opposed to earning money for actually fixing people's health).

Reading about health care reform everyday makes me nauseous.

Today In Housing Figures

Apparently the decline in housing costs is ending. Could be illusory, though. This is probably good for the economy, although the housing bubble was a big part of what got us in this mess in the first place, so...

Today in Comic Books

Reader "Damian" asks "Hey what the hell ever happened to Sally Floyd?"

Sally Floyd was this alcoholic chick reporter who had had a miscarriage who debuted in this "Decimation" mini-series, in which she interviews mutants who have lost their superpowers as a result of "M-Day" (wherein mutants lost their superpowers. You can google it. It was big shit.).

She was a fairly relatable protagonist at the time, but unfortunately her next appearance was in the severe hit or severe miss "Civil War: Front Line," in which Sally accosts Captain America, who was leading the resistance against a Patriot Act-like "Superhero Registration Act," for being out of touch with America by not having a myspace, and not supporting Bushism, essentially.

Paul Jenkins, who scripted this scene, got a lot of flack for Sally's extremely vacuous argument, although honestly, I found her vacuuity alarmingly similar to much of what I hear from my fellow Americans, and therefore, not unrealistic. Still, it did make the character look (cue Larry David voice) pretty, pretty, pretty stupid.

Next, Sally popped up as a reporter at the Front Line newspaper, which veteran Daily Bugle ex-reporter Ben Urich (the feller who figured out that Daredevil was Matt Murdoch, back in the day) founded in opposition to Dexter Bennett's The DB! (which took over from J. Jonah Jameson's Daily Bugle). Or maybe he founded it in response to some anti-Spider Man editorial of JJJ's... I can't remember, and it really doesn't matter. The point is, Front Line is the Marvel equivalent of the Village Voice, I guess, with The DB! being more like the NY Post.

And that's what Sally Floyd is up to. I can't remember if she's working on anything specifically herself these days, and really, who cares?

Sally Floyd is still, as far as I know, hungover.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

More Shitty Health Care News and the Metal Men

Welcome back to James Call: Expert. For the record, I'm not really an expert in anything, just a cranky guy with the NY Times and a blog. Rock on!

Today In Health Care Reform

SUMMARY: The Baucus health care bill sucks and is a political loser.

Well, looks like Max Baucus moved the Senate bill out of the Finance Committee, so we know what it will look like.

It should cost less than $1 trillion, but it includes no public plan and no mandate for employers to purchase health insurance for their employees. It DOES, however, provide an individual mandate, so that you, the consumer, have to buy health insurance. And some, but not all, employers are required to offer subsidies to you to help you buy your health insurance: but only up to 300% of the poverty level, or $32,490.

In other words, if you're earning more than $32,490 a year, you won't get a dime to buy health insurance, oh, and by the way, there's no public plan, meaning no cheap alternative to the private plans floating around. So if you're like most people, earning around $50k a year, you now -have- to buy health insurance, but it's not going to be any cheaper than it is today.

Oh and hey, by the way, with the employer mandate not present but subsidies now offered, a lot of employers are going to drop their traditional insurance plans.

This bill sucks donkey dick, and is estimated to cover only 16 million uninsured.

Now throw the public option and employer mandate back in, and the total cost of the bill comes to about $1.024 trillion. However, it now covers 37 million uninsured. But of course, you're now over the mystical 1 trillion USD price point.

Funny how these "bipartisan" assholes didn't worry about the 1.3 trillion USD pricetag for the Bush tax cuts, which generated a miniscule amount of economic activity (about 30 cents to the dollar).

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer aren't getting the House plan out there this week. But when they do (next week?) they better damn well have a public plan and an employer mandate in there.

Dems are placing a losing bet on bipartisanship, given that the result of bipartisanship is something like the Baucus bill. Good ol' Nate Silver puts it pretty damn well:

** Just to underscore this point: when it scored a similar bill, the CBO estimated that 15 million people would lose their employer-provided coverage. Most of these people are likely to be lower-to-middle income persons with somewhat tenuous employment situations, a group that tends classically to be swing voters.

Now, how are those 15 million people going to feel about health care reform when they find out that:

a) Although the bill was supposed to guarantee access to health insurance, they've in fact lost theirs;
b) They're required to buy an expensive, private plan on their own, or to pay a fine;
c) They're probably not getting any government assistance;
d) They certainly don't have any Medicare-like alternative to fall back upon;
e) All of this cost the country about $1 trillion dollars.

You think those 15 million people are going to vote for the Democrats again, like, ever?

Today In the Taliban Kicking Our Ass

Here's why the Taliban is kicking our ass. From the NY Times front page. Emphasis mine.

"About four dozen landlords [from the Swat valley in Pakistan, scene of recent heavy fighting] were singled out over the past two years by [Taliban] militants in a strategy intended to foment a class struggle. In some areas, the Taliban rewarded the landless peasants with profits of the crops of the landlords. Some resentful peasants even signed up as the Taliban's shock troops."

Don't fight a land war AND a class war in Asia, folks.

Today in My Foot

There's something wrong with my foot. I think I may need a new pair of business shoes. It's all sore on one side. I sort of think I should soak my feet in warm water at night, except my mom used to do that and I think that would be kind of weird. I also had blisters up the wazoo this weekend, but then, I did a lot of walking.

Today in Last Night's Dreams

More violent nightmares, this time involving a snake that I had to capture. One of my ex-girlfriends was there. Other details hazy.

Today In Comic Books

To get the taste of Zero Hour out of my mouth, I went back and read some of the "Showcase Presents: The Metal Men" book which I still haven't finished, but which totally rocks.

Marvel and DC have published a lot of these "Essential" and "Showcase" volumes, affordable black and white reprints of comics from the Silver Age (the late 50s through the 60s) with more than 20 comics in one volume for less than $20. This is a great deal for completists and nerds.

It has to be said, the Marvel Essentials hold up a lot better over time. Some are completely pointless - don't waste your money on Essential Ms. Marvel; Ms. Marvel has always been boring and pointless - but many of them are actually borderline-essential for the comic book reader. Kirby's Fantastic Four, Ditko's Spider Man and Dr. Strange, and Claremont's X-Men spring to mind. Lots of other good ones, too.

DC's Showcase editions are far more ridiculous. Try reading the Showcase Superman, Green Lantern, or Flash. Try it. I dare you. That shit was just completely ridiculous. These characters have all been revamped to be "serious," but while you can take Spider Man vs. Doctor Octopus somewhat seriously, there is no way in hell you can take the Flash vs. Killer Cloud seriously. Or Superman flying around with a lion's head instead of a human head. Try it.

Of course, some of the fun is in the total absurdity of these early Silver Age comics, but I digress.

The Metal Men Showcase edition is a different deal. Metal Men isn't really a superhero comic. It's a sitcom starting a bunch of robots (the Metal Men) with faulty "responsometers" built by the sexist Dr. Will Magnus. They do fight bad guys, but the point of the comic is in the interaction between the characters, especially Platinum, aka Tina, and Dr. Magnus.

See, Tina has a faulty responsometer and thinks she's a real girl, and Dr. Magnus knows she's "just a crazy robot who thinks she's a woman!" But Tina is always cooking him dinner, and crying, and doing other traditional hypersensitive-woman stuff that just drives Dr. Magnus nuts. And Dr. Magnus (who smokes a pipe, like a Real Man) in turn talks to Tina like men of that era talked to women, i.e., in a meanspirited and demeaning manner. But sometimes he does slip up and call Tina a woman (not a robot) and despite his sexist and anti-robot attitude, he does have a tender spot for her, and always rebuilds her with a "faulty" responsometer whenever she melts down fighting a giant robot or creature made of living chemicals, etc. Needless to say: comedy ensues.

While those two are the star of the show, there's also plenty of yuks from the mercurial (ha ha ha) Mercury, who's convinced he's better than the other Metal Men, and the insecure Tin, who is, in classic corny Hollywood fashion, far braver than he acts.

The linework, by Ross Andru, is great - the Metal Men are very expressive, moreso, I'd say, than characters drawn by Gil Kane or Ditko or Kirby or any of the biggies. And since it's pretty damn hard to take the concept of the Metal Men seriously from the get-go, it's much easier to enjoy the whole shtick, whereas those other old superheroes are supposed to be noble, actual heroes, in some regard.

Definitely worth your $15, but impossible (and unnecessary) to read in one sitting, as there is no over-arching story arc, just a bunch of Tina trying to get Dr. Magnus to take her out on a date, and Mercury bitching about the other Metal Men. OH, and giant robots from other planets.

Today's Recommended Download

"Requiem for Adam" by Terry Riley. Scary stuff! But interesting to listen to.

UPDATE: Today in People Are Fucking Illiterates

Just read this. It's only 3 paragraphs long.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Brand New Day for James Call Expert (BND for JCE)

Wow! It's been a long time since I updated this thing, and tried switching to the podcast format, which was difficult to keep up with week after week, especially with only a handful of devoted and lovely listeners. Being stuck in the toil and drudgery of this office, I'm going back to the blog, and hopefully I'll be keeping this sunnovabitch updated daily.

The format's going to be a little different: y'all can email me questions which I will comment on, but if I don't get any questions, I'm going to plow ahead with a few default categories.

Today In Healthcare Reform

SUMMARY: People incorrectly think that the government is going to take over their individual health care, and that it's going to cost a lot of money. Both points are wrong, but that's the new conventional wisdom, and that's why health care reform is most likely doomed.

There isn't actually any new news today, Monday July 27, but in terms of "current affairs," as it were, I think you can mark healthcare reform as either "completely doomed" or "severely fucked".

Nate Silver at Five Thirty Eight thinks the August recess may actually provide a cooling down period for the news cycle, allowing it to shift to some other topic (maybe another slieugh of celebrity deaths, hopefully) and for the "the government is going to take over your healthcare" meme to die out. But as smart as Mr. Silver is, I think he may be suffering from Hopeful Democrat Syndrome, which afflicts all of us from time to time, and may be overestimating the intelligence of the American Public.

Health care reform was favored by a majority of Americans, but now, according to Rasmussen Reports (tied with Quinnipac as the nation's most reliable pollster), a narrow majority opposes health care reform, for the classic (incorrect) reason: that the government is going to "take over" health care, and take away your insurance (provided you have it, which fewer and fewer people do each year). It is irrational, but the power of Fear is greater than the power of Hope.

Let's get one thing straight: the only thing the Public Option will do for you is
lower your health care costs. It's a government-run program that competes with private plans. Your health insurance, if you have it, is not going to be "taken" from you. However, if the public plan, comparatively, kicks fucking ass compared to your expensive private insurance plan, then you might indeed switch over to the public option. And if enough people switch, that might mean the end of your insurance company.

And you know what? Fuck your insurance company.

If your insurance company wants to shape up and insure the sick as well as the healthy, and charge you a cheaper premium, well then, great. Good for them. If they're incapable of offering a better deal than the government, though, one has to ask: do they deserve to live? Isn't the spirit of capitalism that the weak and inefficient die out?

Another fallacy that's floating around and gaining credence - in fact, this is the dominant belief, even amongst seemingly intelligent people (who need to read a bit fucking more... if you have a spare half hour a day and an internet connection, the NY Times is online for FREE) - is that health care reform is really, really expensive: more expensive than doing nothing. It's going to lead to higher taxes, and, well, nobody wants that.

TRUE, except that right now your business is most likely paying for your health care. And because your business is paying for that, it is NOT giving you that money in the form of raises. Instead, you're getting health insurance. So: lift that burden from business by offering a public plan, and your business now has extra money to raise your salary. You pay more taxes, but you earn more money, as well.

Of course, really, the rich need to pay more taxes than the middle class for this to work. This, again, is anathema to a lot of folks, who fail to realize that the rich, especially the ultra-rich, are a pernicious class who should be taxed on general principle, the principle being to stop them from using their money to perpetuate a perenially stratified society. But I digress...

One benefit to the wage-tax (price) spiral outlined in the scenario above is that it is inflationary - just what the doctor ordered given our current deflationary spiral. That's another huge fallacy that's floating around and seems to have credence these days: that inflation is a huge threat. Inflation is the LAST thing we need to be worried about right now. The precise opposite is true: deflation is out of control, as people purchase fewer things, businesses have less money, which leads to them cutting jobs and wages, which leads to fewer purchases, etc.

Alright, I've already rambled on enough. The point is: Kent Conrad and Max Baucus, and the Blue Dog/"moderate" Democrat Senators in general, are your new enemies, for life, and they are the problems, not Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, no matter what the assorted dipshits of the world might tell you.

Today In Obscure Comic Books You Really Don't Have to Read

Other than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Uncle Scrooge, I didn't really read comic books as a kid (comic strips, that's a different story). I actually got into the habit of reading Marvel comics in my early/mid-20s, aided by the notorious Dr. Damian Lanahan-Kalish. It all started innocently enough, with Brian Michael Bendis' Daredevil and a little X-Men on the side, but years later, my habit is totally out of control, as I read around 15 comics weekly, mostly stuff from Marvel (Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, etc.) and DC (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.).

It's part of hipster nerd catchet to read comics, so I can do so without any outward shame, but one does have to have to draw the line somewhere, and one's knowledge of "continuity" can only go so far before one has to recognize that one has a problem. "Continuity," in comic book lingo, refers in essence to the minutiae of where a comic book character is at any point in time, what their status is, whether they're good or evil, still going by Green Latnern or perhaps Warrior, etc.

I think I've reached my personal line in the sand with DC's now out-of-continuity but once-upon-a-time-very-important "Zero Hour".

I have almost Zero positive things to say about Zero Hour, but let me synopsize.

The whole thing starts at at Vanishing Point, which is a physical space station-esque facility at the literal end of time. Time doesn't move there (somehow). That part of the story is fine - Vanishing Point is a totally valid, cool, sci fi concept. It doesn't even matter that Rip Hunter (or some other dude named Hunter?) has been done up to look EXACTLY like Cable, who, you will see if you google, is one of the most ridiculous comic book characters of all time, or that the other protagonist present is the completely forgettable Waverider, who can ride the waves of time but still manages to never know what the hell is going on.

It's when you find out who the first villain of the piece is that the story begins to diminish in value in terms of how you, the reader, are spending your time. That villain would be Extant, who is - get this - a combination of one form of Waverider, plus the heros Hawk and Dove, but not normal, mainline Hawk, but a Hawk who knows that in the future he will become the villain Monarch, and seems just, uh, totally OK with that prospect.

Have you ever heard of Hawk and Dove? No, right? Or if you have at least heard of them, do you give two shits about them? I'm gonna guess "no" again, right? Then why in God's name would you care about a villain who is the combined, future form of both these characters? Unless you were, of course, given one, by cohesive writing. But Zero Hour doesn't bother with trivialities such as "establishing character" or "contextualizing story elements for the reader". Nope, it just plunges full steam ahead, as Extant begins destroying time, for some reason - both the past, and the future.

Of course, Extant isn't the REAL big baddie. That would be Hal Jordan in his Parallax guise. Hal Jordan, formerly Green Lantern, has gone all hella evil, and now exists in a somewhat Evil God-like state. But hey, check it out, he wants to atone for what he's done in the past by destroying the universe and recreating it as a kind of paradise. For this, he needs Extant (reason unclear).

He actually succeeds in the Destroying the Universe part of his plan, but then who shows up to stop him but Superman, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, etc.: the Good Guys. But hey, get this... the Good Guys are trying to STOP Parallax. He's already destroyed the freakin' universe, but Superman puts his foot down: "No, Jordan!!! You can't play God!!! You're not God!!!"

Hey Superman: THE UNIVERSE IS FREAKIN' DESTROYED. Hal Jordan here wants to at the vert least create -a- universe. Wouldn't that be nice? And he has the power to create one without genocides, without war, without every unnecessary death and ounce of suffering that's even gone down. But in your book, that's Wrong. Because Good Guys Don't Play God.

It is the ultimate expression of soppy, moralistic, DC superhero writing, and a big part of the reason why there are just as many Punisher and Wolverine fans as there are Superman fans these days. LET HIM RECREATE THE DAMN UNIVERSE, SUPES. Please.

Anyways, needless to say, Parallax gets taken down, and then something happens - can't remember what, and who cares - and the universe gets recreated. Mind you, before he's taken down it's quite unclear that this is at all possible. At the end of the day, everything goes back to normal, with a few small exceptions, which are now completely irrelevant, as two later Reality Altering events have occurred ("Infinite Crisis" and "Final Crisis"), rendering "Zero Hour" moot.

Oh, and the Spectre and Metron are involved.

My conclusion: don't read this, even if you're a continuity obsessed nerd, like I am. It just doesn't matter at this point to any of the characters involved, it makes little to no sense, all the characters are written in a vaguely irritating and absolutely unlikeable manner, and they dressed Rip Hunter up to look like fuckin' CABLE.

For a much more gratifying Pathetic Nerd experience, read this article on Legend of Zelda continuity.

Today's Recommended Download

Make sure you have a copy of "Chase Me" by Confunkshun in your music collection. Might I also recommend, also by the woefully underrated Confunkshun, "Ffun" and "Got to be Enough". I even have a soft spot for the incredibly syrupy "Love's Train".

Today In Last Night's Dreams

Last night I had totally crazy dreams. It started out with my looking for a new apartment, I'm pretty sure, in this mythical part of town that's supposed to be Oakland, I guess? Except it looks nothing like Oakland. In any event, I can't remember most of the dream, except that at one point the Black Widow (a Marvel character) died an especially gruesome death, eviscerated by a madman with a butcher knife. I saw the whole thing in real time, and woke up sweating and horrified.