Posts Tagged ‘ politics ’

Falling Barriers

october surprise coverI’m a writer. I write for work, strictly professional stuff. I’ve always wanted to write fiction, though, or rather, I wanted to tell stories. I started as a 10 year old kid, listening to the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar and dreaming of recreating the movie, shot by shot, in my desert home of Hermosillo, Sonora, where my father served in the American Consulate. I only had a Super 8 movie camera then, and the camera I had didn’t have the luxurious feature of sound. My plan, then, was to shoot a silent version, with my actors lip synced to the soundtrack LP (ask your parents if you don’t know what an LP is). That dream never came about because my family moved back to the States before I could get my act together.

Back in the States, I made little films–mostly special effects shots that never matched the beauty that inspired me in Star Wars and Space:1999. I blew up a lot of plastic models with cheap firecrackers shot against a black piece of fabric. When I got to college, I enrolled in film classes, and shot a crappy 16 millimeter movie with some friends. The exposure was all over the map, but it was fun.

I gave up film making at the urging of the professional diplomats in my family who told me my affinity for languages and time living overseas made me a good fit for political science or area studies. I dutifully studied Russian, and then Chinese. They were right. I found a good job as a researcher, and was pretty happy. I got to write for a living, telling stories, but I never got over my love of movies.

On my birthday in 2001, my then-wife gave me a slim book about screenwriting. She told me to follow my dreams. It was a very kind gift. I read the book, and followed its step by step instructions on how to turn my story ideas into a screenplay. Three years of writing during vacations later, I had a finished draft of a screenplay, Honor Bound. I shopped it around, entered the script in contests, and won some. It didn’t sell, though. I didn’t care. I was proud of having written a viable work. I knew that the thing that separated writers from everyone else was text on a page.

Older and wiser, I had abandoned the idea of being an auteur. Having managed people as an Army officer, I knew that being in charge wasn’t the most fun one could have. Telling stories was cost-free. All I needed was a word processor and my imagination. I had produced a viable story, and I thought about the next one.

A few years passed, and I made another realization: I didn’t have to be a screenwriter. I just needed to tell stories. I could lose the very particular style of the screenwriter and just tell a story. I was seized with the alarming changes I had seen in American politics, and wanted to tell a story that captured what I saw. I thought about telling the story of an American coup, but couldn’t see a credible plot. I just didn’t see any group in government organizing to depose a sitting president. Then it struck me: a coup might not be possible, but clearly private citizens were trying to engineer elections in their favor. I started drafting a story in the spring of 2011, and tinkered with it over the following months.

As the 2012 election got going in earnest, I saw some of the ideas I had coming to pass. I thought to myself that if I didn’t do something fast, my prescient story idea could quickly seem like hindsight if I ever committed my ideas to print. At the same time, I noticed that Amazon was giving authors the freedom to publish their work and sell it in the world’s biggest bookstore.

I had an insight: I could get my story out to a huge audience in chapter form. This would also  force me to get off my ass and finish my story.

Months later, I’ve published each chapter of October Surprise as it was finished, giving it away for free thanks to Amazon’s brilliant Kindle Direct Publishing plan, and now the whole book is available as a Kindle download for 99 cents on Amazon. I’m extremely pleased to have finished my first book, and I’m amazed that I’m in the world’s biggest bookstore without having to convince a publisher that my story is any good. The audience can decide.

That said, the market has spoken. When the book was free, 435 people downloaded it. Now that it’s 99 cents, I’ve only had three downloads. I’m learning about marketing, something that a publisher would normally take care of, but it’s not that big a deal. I have a campaign going on Facebook that is beautifully tailored. I pay only for clicks to my ad, and I don’t spend more than $10 a day. Likewise, I have a campaign going on Twitter. Similar deal. Compared to the money I would have spent sending my manuscript to publishers, there’s no question about the way to go. Wish me luck, and read my book!

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Mazel Tov!

My best friend is getting married, the last holdout among my childhood gang. His mother’s admonishment, “Don’t get married until you’re 30…and then think twice!” definitely stuck with him. But even if he had wanted to get married before now, he couldn’t have, because my best friend, Josh Moss, is gay. Because Josh lives in New York, as of last night, he has the same rights under the law as the rest of us. No better, no worse, certainly not a “special” right. Yes, Josh and his partner Wilson will now be free to share property and make decisions about their lives as the rest of us do, and yes, they’ll be free to screw up and have bad marriages and divorce as the rest of us do. Josh can tell you about the beauty of this most prosaic and yet fundamental of civil rights in his own words, in a beautifully written article on Portfolio.com, where he is the editor.

The remarkable victory in New York provided a striking window into where we are as a nation when it comes to respecting the rights of our fellow citizens. On the one hand, we had the increasingly strained and hypocritical complaints from Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who somehow feared that a secular, legal contract was more of a threat to civilization than the nightmare of child abuse in the church allowed by his brothers of the cloth. On the other hand, we had the plain-spoken truth of Republican State Senator Roy McDonald, who reacted to the pressure from Dolan and other social conservatives by saying “Well, f— it, I don’t care what you think. I’m trying to do the right thing.”

For me personally, aside from looking forward to an epic wedding ceremony and reception, I think about what got me past my own, mistaken moral reasoning, many years ago. I was raised to believe that being gay meant you were “disordered,” as the Catholic Church still teaches, or otherwise abnormal. In freshman year of college, when Josh and I were roommates and I didn’t know that he was gay, I glibly came home from a psych 101 class and pronounced to Josh that homosexuality was simply abnormal psychology. That Josh still managed to come out to me a short time later was a testament to his love for me as a friend, and to his moral courage. I spent a day lining up my abstract moral and “scientific” judgment on one side, and the fact that Josh as a gay man was the same person who had been my friend through thick and thin, a person who was so like me that people sometimes mistook us for one another. At the end of that day, the abstract fell away to reality, and I never looked back. People who still cling to the idea of homosexuality being some kind of perversion or disease can only be so lucky as I was. Or, more elegantly, they could just take a look at it, listen to others’ stories, and do the right thing, as Sen. McDonald did.

A Tale of Two Pranks

When the news broke yesterday morning about an NPR fund-raiser being caught on tape saying bad things about Republicans and the Tea Party, I immediately thought about how just last month, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had also been caught on tape saying bad things about Democrats. Walker had also been caught on tape possibly indicating he had considered disrupting peaceful protests with “troublemakers” but had decided against it not because of any legal or ethical concerns, but because it might backfire politically. Walker also appeared to indicate he was open to accepting a free trip to California from someone claiming to be a political donor.

I was puzzled at the time by the lack of coverage of the Walker incident by journalists. The New York Times, for example, focused on the fact that Walker had been tricked by a liberal blogger, referring frequently to the incident as a “prank.” The Times consistently downplayed the substance of Walker’s taped comments, beginning with the first piece on the subject, “Walker Receives Prank Call From Koch Impersonator,” which appeared in the Caucus Blog of the Times. The headline makes Walker passive, a victim, the direct object of the subject in this passive voice construction, “Koch Impersonator.” Thus, the focus of the story is the impersonator and not Walker. In fairness, the blog piece included most of the important substance of the call, but the “troublemakers” comment is not mentioned until the eighth paragraph. The story later made it out of the blog and into the U.S. section of the Times web site, but only as part of a larger wrap-up of the political conflict in Wisconsin, “Standoffs, Protests, and a Prank Call.” As the headline indicates, the piece dealt with Walker’s comments last (in the 17th paragraph), and then in the context of the governor as the victim of a hoax. And that was pretty much it. The Times seemed to have decided that the fact that Walker’s comments shouldn’t be taken seriously, even though he is an elected official saying things privately at odds with his public statements, because a) he was duped by a prankster into making the comments, and/or b) because they were inconsequential. Fair enough.

So I figured that the coverage of NPR “fund-raising executive” Ronald Schiller’s comments to people posing as Muslim donors but actually confederates of “Republican provocateur” James O’Keefe, would portray Schiller as the victim of a “prank.” Oddly, this is not the case. Instead, the headline to the first piece in the Times was “NPR Official is Taped Criticizing Republicans” (the original headline has been replaced in the article itself, but if you look at the headline at the top of your browser, this original remains). The passive voice is there, but the NPR official is all alone. He is the sole actor, and the action is his criticism of Republicans. No prank mentioned. This could be an oversight of the headline writer, however, as indicated by the soon changed headline, which as of this writing reads, “Facing Lawmakers’ Fire, NPR Sees New Setback.” The new headline only reaffirms the Times’ take: how the information got out doesn’t matter, what matters is the substance. Schiller said something politically offensive, regardless of how or under what circumstances he said what he said. A closer read of the Times article makes the point clear, as the first sentence in the piece asserts that “NPR was forced into damage control mode on Tuesday after the release of a video that showed one of its fund-raising executives repeatedly criticizing Republicans and Tea Party supporters.”

Why the difference? The episodes are about as similar as you can get, except that the NPR “official” (can you be official when you’re a private employee?) was on his way out the door and was a fund-raiser, and Scott Walker is the governor of a state and is charged with enforcing the law. Is it because the Times is defensively self-censoring to somehow refute right-wing critics like Bill O’Reilly, who calls the Times “about as über left as you can get?” Or do Times editors really see a journalistic reason to treat these two incidents so differently? I can’t find one.

PISA Comparisons Don’t Hold Up to Scrutiny

Yes, as the NYT reports, the Shanghai students did better than the Americans, and we are shamefully, tragically behind our competitors in investing in education. But the idea that this was a valid test of Chinese–or even Shanghai–student performance is absurd. The article notes that the PISA testers “worked with Chinese authorities” but doesn’t question why they would or should have to. It also allows that the Shanghai kids were told the test was important and would reflect on their country. No other kid in the world taking this “standardized” test, and certainly no American, was treated in this way. The author tried to bring some balance by comparing performance by kids in highly educated Massachusetts in 2007, but that says more about the weakness of PISA’s approach than it does about US kids’ performance. How about this: give the test to kids in the most expensive Manhattan private schools, and tell the parents and the kids well ahead of time that the outcome will determine the prestige of their school (and thus the kids’ chances of getting into the best Ivy League schools). That might be comparable to the motivation the Shanghai test subjects, under the eye of Chinese authorities, would have felt.
American students and teachers have enough problems, and we are falling behind. We need to change our culture so that teachers are respected as we respect, say, investment bankers. We need to understand that education is a strategic investment, as the Chinese do. But that doesn’t mean journalists should believe the hype.

You know you need to rethink when…

…you purport to represent Jesus but you sound increasingly like the Chinese Communist Party. Seriously. Take a look:

“With this spirit today we rally close around you, successor to (St.) Peter, bishop of Rome, the unfailing rock of the holy church.” –Cardinal Angelo Sodano to Pope Benedict, 5 April 2010

…let us rally closely around the Party Central Committee and work with one heart and one mind in a joint and unyielding effort to advance the cause of building socialism with Chinese characteristics and create a happier life and a better future for us all!” –Chinese President Jiang Zemin, 8 November 2002

Notably, the Vatican is also taking a page out of the CCP style book in claiming unsubstantiated victimhood at the hand of nameless attackers. Just as criticism or disagreement with Beijing policy necessarily “hurts the feelings of the Chinese people,” so questioning the Vatican’s handling of the most vile of crimes is an anti-Catholic “hate” campaign, an organized “vile defamation operation.”

The faithful deserve better than the brittle spin of the Chinese Politburo, but that’s what they are getting. The similarities speak volumes about what’s wrong with the Vatican.

Enough Already

The republic did not dissolve last night. We had a vote, and the majority ruled. Moreover, by the yardstick currently in vogue, we became “socialist” as early as the 1930s or as late as the 1960s. I remember communism and totalitarianism. I spent a long time studying them. Using such terms to describe American politicians cheapens the suffering of people who lived and often died under such systems. Unless and until you are willing to cast the least of your brothers and sisters into the street to die without medical attention, you have bought into “socialism,” American style. If you are not personally prepared to pull that plug, to watch people die without medical intervention, make peace with the fact that you will pay a tax to provide universal health care, either in the form of higher insurance premiums to pay for emergency room care, or in the form of government subsidies to help people buy insurance. Pick your poison.

While we’re on the subject, how did the move to take the country to war in Iraq, and subsequently to fund that war off-budget for years, elude all of us who are now so concerned about the deficit?

Why Mortgages Don’t Get Renegotiated

As I have watched the second bubble of my adult life decimate the value of my home, one question has eluded me: why would lenders that want to maximize profit not bargain with their mortgage customers? After all, businesses renegotiate debt as a matter of course, and arguably lenders stand to profit more from cutting a deal and keeping a customer than from foreclosure, which drives down asset values. As an example close to home, a foreclosed house in my neighborhood is about to be auctioned. It’s a nice place. The person who was living there took pretty good care of it, and there was no vandalism or stripping as happens so often now in foreclosures here. The real estate agent who has the listing on the house draws attention to the fact that the house sold in 2006 for $416,000. The agent’s logic speaks to the persistent madness of the bubble–what bearing does the 2006 sale price have on the current or future value of the home? Absolutely none. But I digress. The reason I wanted to cite the 2006 sales price is because today, the lender that owns the house is willing to accept $99,000 as the minimum auction bid on the house. Sure, it will probably sell for more than that–the listing is currently at $275,000, down from $299,000–but assuming the lender’s ex-customer owed $300,000 on the property, the bank is now willing to accept 33 cents on the dollar. It makes no sense. If they had instead met the borrower halfway, might both parties be better off? Of course.

So why does this continue to happen? I’ve been asking myself and friends this question, but got no decent answer. Greed and evil would seem to be great explanations, but greed would seem to make a lender play a good game, then blink rather than foreclose and become the owner of a sharply less valuable property. I can’t think of any other business in which lenders deliberately and consistently devalue their assets. Finally, the good folks at Slate provided an answer:

If foreclosure is so costly, why don’t lenders avoid this cost through renegotiation? Renegotiations aren’t happening because so many mortgages are securitized. In the old days, if you wanted to renegotiate your loan, you just called your bank. Now you have to deal with the loan servicer, who acts on behalf of the thousands of mortgage-security holders who have a right to a share of your payment. The loan servicer gains little and loses a lot if it attempts to renegotiate a loan. Securities holders don’t trust servicers and threaten to sue them if they renegotiate loans; servicers usually don’t lose much money if the mortgage defaults.

Finally, an answer. Yes, the securitization of the housing market, the market perversion that wiped out billions of dollars of taxpayer wealth and that has cost billions more in taxpayer bailouts, is the gift that keeps on giving. The fact that nobody really owns our homes makes it impossible for the people who receive our mortgage check to cut a deal with us. They are free to foreclose, but face legal action if they try to renegotiate mortgages. This is exactly the opposite of what we need. What can we do? Fortunately, the authors of the Slate article propose an elegant, market-friendly, and fair solution:

The solution to this problem is for the government to force renegotiations to occur. A simple plan could do this. The plan would give all homeowners who live in a ZIP code where house prices have dropped more than 20 percent the option to have their mortgage reduced to the current market value of the house. In exchange, these homeowners would yield to their lenders 50 percent of the future appreciation of the house. To avoid any gaming and future moral hazard, both the current and the future value of the house will be determined by multiplying the purchase price and the variation in the housing price index. So if you bought your house for $300,000, and the average house in your ZIP code has lost 20 percent of its value, then your new house is assumed to have a value of $240,000. If your mortgage was $280,000, now it is $240,000 (the new value of the house). You are no longer underwater.

It’s beautiful, but you should read the rest of the article to see just how much sense it makes. We are going to have to do something like this, because otherwise the lenders are simply going to continue to run home values into the ground. They are on autopilot, which is scarier than just thinking they were stupid or evil.