Wednesday, January 13, 2016

#sotu : Look, I like President Obama but...

Hey, make no mistake, I'm positive the country is in far better shape than it would have been with anyone else in office the past 7 years.

It's an undisputed fact that given a largely hostile congress over 3/4 of his presidency, great things have at least been attempted.

  • I don't deny that getting healthcare for those that didn't even have the option because of a pre-existing condition or lack of an employer sponsored plan is a good thing.
  • I don't deny that throwing a lifeline to the American auto industry saved the last vestige of American manufacturing.
  • I don't deny that because of programs like HARP and mortgage lending reform families are still in their homes.
  • I don't deny that there's been some improvement in how student loan programs are administered.
  • I don't deny that some people that didn't have work after the financial meltdown have managed to find something.

But let's get real here.  

There's a lot of fuzzy math and hollow declarations of victory to consider.  Let's start with the thing that makes everyone's world go round, money...

Banking reform has been largely toothless and your money can be just as much at risk as it was before the crash.  Worse, many of the people who caused the financial crisis are still holding the reigns and are even richer today than they were 8 years ago.

It's no secret that the top 3% hold more than 1/2 the nation's wealth and that's not going to change anytime soon. The tax rate isn't going to move if you're a billionaire and in spite of claims to the contrary there's little desire on either side of the aisle to change that when campaign coffers are frequently filled by that top 3%.

Many of which made their billions on subprime lending, oil futures and predatory credit and collection practices.  The rest made their money on Wall street which favors those businesses that keep their overhead low ( AKA Wages) and profits high.  So what has the Obama presidency done about all this inequity?

The "Consumer Financial Protection Bureau" or CFPB.  Look, the old dogs haven't changed their tricks.  The best that can be said of the CFPB is that your credit card statement is a little easier to read.  Oh yeah, and they win "symbolic" lawsuits against defunct diploma mills.  


It hasn't stopped abusive junk debt buyers from hounding hapless victims over debts long past any statute of limitations.  The only defense, an expensive legal action or bankruptcy..  With millions still in financial distress due to the financial meltdown, look for this to only get worse over the next few decades.

Speaking of money, don't get me started on student loans.  There's been a lot of flowery, happy talk over President Obama's tenure but unless you're a newly minted high school graduate don't expect much relief.

Yes it's true.  Under this President Federally backed student loans are now administered by the Department of Education not greedy "servicers" who made billions by fleecing borrowers.  A practice that was often in collusion with private schools with shady reputations charging more per credit hour than Princeton or Harvard.

But if you're not 20 something, things aren't much different.  Yes, your payments may be tied to your income and not exceed 10% but that's been available  for over a decade.  It was one of the options you had when you consolidated your school loans.  Which many did mostly because their interest rate was higher than they were paying for their mortgage and frequently so was the monthly payment.

Still, nothing's been done or even mentioned about the last remaining loophole that all those "servicers"  milk.  That being the scourge of capitalized interest which over time can swell a $25000 loan to $40000 over a decade.  If your student loan originated sometime around Bush 2's second term or before then you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Of course the reason most people go to college is to get a better job.  Nobody wants to be relying on Walmart or Burger King to support a family.  Yet that's the bulk of all those "new" jobs out there unless you count the dead end $10 per hour jobs that have sprung up in call centers in all of those "right to work" states.  

Every State of the Union address uses fuzzy math.  Speech writers pick and choose the most favorable of statistics to present a glowing picture.  Only once in the past century has a sitting president had to admit that the state of the union wasn't so hot.  Say what you will about Gerald Ford but at least he was honest about it!

So when I keep hearing about that magical 5% unemployment rate it drives me insane.  Much like President Bush 41's clueless V.P, Dan Quayle pointing to a Help Wanted sign at a Burger King as a sign of economic recovery on the 1992 campaign trail I don't see the substance in the numbers.  It's still harder than it should be for talented people to get the kind of work that they not only deserve but in most cases went into substantial debt for.  

What those numbers don't count are the millions who've given up not because of laziness but rather due to a lack of opportunities.  It's a common practice in technical fields, for example, to post positions with no intention of filling them in hopes of importing cheaper talent through work visas.  A practice nobody has addressed in any substantial way.  CEO's decry the lack of skilled labor pools while simultaneously dismissing experienced but "expensive" talent.

Lest we forget those who've long since fallen off the unemployment rolls.  2008 was almost a decade ago and many still haven't recovered.  Nor are they counted.

More fuzzy math.  According to the White House's own website the current rate of Americans without health insurance has dropped to 8.8%.  An attractive number to campaign on but just like the unemployment figures, largely meaningless.

The Affordable Care Act was supposed to get everyone medical insurance at an affordable rate.  Thing is, the only way the government can possibly know how many people are covered with any degree of certainty is through tax filings.  It asks you right on the form and if you answer in the negative then you get to figure out your penalty.

But if you're making less than $11000, chances are you're not filing taxes and considering many people are only finding low wage part time work that number could be huge.  

More fuzzy math.  Worse, many of those who've signed up for the ACA have found that their premiums and co-pays have in some cases doubled. 

Regardless of claims to the contrary, the only thing the Affordable Care act has done is to swell the coffers of insurance companies and punish those who often find the penalty cheaper than the insurance premiums!   It's a plan the Insurance companies love.  And why not?  It was their lobbyists that influenced the legislation and effectively killed any hope of a single payer, nationalized health care system.  Add a profit motive to a government mandated program and a whole lot of nothing happens.  Sure there's a few who benefit, good for them but most of us haven't.

The saddest part of the whole speech came near the end where the President essentially told working age people in their 40's and 50's, tough luck.  Too bad if you found your personal economy destroyed by a few greedy people peddling mortgages to Burger King employees.  If you're over 40 your best bet is to just wait it out till Social Security kicks in.  So much for hope and change.

It's not that I think President Obama is a bad president.  In fact I'm confident that he was the right guy at the right time.  Anyone else would likely have seen the "Great Recession" truly descend into another "Great Depression." 

Still, even the President had to grudgingly admit that all this economic growth has benefited those at the top of the money tree the most.  The rest of us are still fighting over scraps. 

You can thank a congress more concerned with vendettas and cronyism than meaningful legislation for that.  The past 8 years have been more about who gets to marry who and dismantling healthcare reforms than anything else.  Expect more of the same if another Democrat takes over.  It's been an 8 year grudge match that even extended to his own party.  So it's no wonder that much of President Obama's agenda has amounted to less than was hoped for.

While the President's speech was hopeful and steadfast in his determination he knows that with a lame duck presidency and an obstinate congress his words will ultimately  ring hollow.  Look at the speech as nothing more than a platform for his successor,

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

As I write this it's late in the day on January 10th.  As such I have no fear of spoiling anything for those who haven't yet experienced the latest installment of the goings on in the Star Wars universe.

The movie premiered on December 17th for some and the 18th for everyone else.  The buzz around it has been deafening. Everywhere you went online you were reminded of the return of Star Wars to the forefront of popular culture.

Trident light sabers, BB8 toy robots and an avalanche of related kitsch has been showing up everywhere from geek toys to cereal boxes. 

Which should have been your first warning.  Just like video games, the ratio of hype to content in a movie is directly proportional to the level of disappointment.

In a word the movie was...meh.

Which flies in the face of current pop culture, I know...

How could anyone not embrace and revel in a new Star Wars movie! One who's greatest hope is that it's not another awful prequel.

If the Star Wars Prequels were forgettable embarrassments to the franchise, The Force Awakens is a taciturn acknowledgement of their failure.  A half-hearted apology consisting of copious visual effects, a  rehashed story line from a A New Hope peppered with uninspiring performances from forgettable stand ins. 

Rey is the new Luke, Finn and Poe an amalgamation of Han Solo, Kylo Ren the new Vader and Snoke an analog to the Emperor. 

The appearance of original trilogy characters Han, Leia and eventually Luke were little more than a bone thrown to diehard fans and filler for an otherwise deep plot hole.   Is it not obvious that Luke will function as the Obi Wan Kenobi to Rey's Luke Skywalker?  Can anyone doubt that the newly widowed  Leia will likely become an analog of the often forgotten Mon Mothma,  Leader of the Rebel Alliance in the original trilogy. 

Yes, I've let the big secret slip.  Han Solo is dead.  His freewheeling ways brought to an end at the hands of his own son Benjamin Solo AKA Kylo Ren.

And what of Kylo Ren?  The spoiled brat given to childish outbursts of rage when he isn't worshiping his fallen hero, Darth Vader.

What of Rey?  Whose kid is she anyway?  She connects with Luke Skywalker's light saber but can finish Han Solo's sentences and can fly the Millennium Falcon like a seasoned veteran even though she supposedly had no clue how to fly a space ship and no knowledge of the Force.

The bones for the faithful were everywhere from a mothballed Millennium Falcon springing to life to Luke's training orb rolling around in front of the holographic game table.  Even the backdrops recalled the parched landscape of Tattooine and the barren icy wastes of Hoth but with different names.  Even the nemesis weapon of the First Order, the Starkiller is nothing but the Death Star on steroids.

Honestly, who cares?  The whole thing felt like fan fiction on a big budget.

If this movie is anything it's at best a bridge between what we knew and what we'll be forced to accept.  That being an overly processed and weakly developed storyline borrowing heavily from its predecessors but repackaged for an audience that craves CGI effects and politically correct storylines that inspire little reflection. 

The questions left after the closing credits are inconsequential.  The experience during the previous 2 or so hours left me frequently checking my watch as I awaited my release.
It's not a bad movie but it's not a great movie either. 

I like a good story.  I didn't get one with The Force Awakens.  I honestly enjoyed Episode 3 of the prequels better.  If the best praise I can offer is: "At least it's not another prequel." It's not exactly a ringing endorsement.  It had its moments but in the end I really couldn't get invested in the well being of any of the characters including what amounted to little more than extended cameos of the original cast.

Go, see the movie, enjoy yourself but don't expect too much.  Keep in mind that even though it's now reached the status of the highest grossing movie of all time, the previous holders of that title included Avatar and Episode 1. 

This movie is popular only because it's got Star Wars in the title.  I don't expect the next two to do as well unless they plan on waiting another 10 years between releases.

This is not the Star Wars Movie you're looking for...