Saturday, October 18, 2014

People Who Love New York City, And How Money Killed Creativity

When you live this close to the Big Apple, you’re bound to have THAT friend. You know the one: they absolutely LOVE New York City and hate anyone who doesn’t. And even that’s an understatement. It becomes clear over the course of your friendship that this person’s affinity for the iconic metropolis may, in fact, border on psychological codependency. According to their smug, elitist ideology, all the best things come from the bowels of the “greatest city in the world”: the best food, the best music, the best fine art, the best drugs—hell even the homeless population is cooler than you.

This was exactly the crap I was listening to from a long-time friend who, on a consistent basis, employs a school of encouragement which requires she degrade me by insisting that I’m wasting my time and talent in New Jersey.

“There are so many amazing people out here for you to meet. Everything is a new experience because in the city you meet so many new people all the time. You need to quit your job and come out here to write and do music full-time.”

This was par for the course. For years she had been my biggest cheerleader and confidant until moving to New York, at which time, by default, she became all-knowing of things “amazing”.

It would later come to my attention that “new experiences” and “meeting new people all the time” were excerpts taken from the pages of after-work drinking binges at dive bars, where horny men higher up in her company were eager to offer cocaine and sexual advances.

“I don’t need to write in New York City. I’ve been writing just fine here in New Jersey.” I said.

Someone who loves New York City cannot stand that you don’t love it as much as they do. This, more than anything, becomes a personal insult to their sense of self, and ultimately, your difference in preference becomes the focus of their efforts rather what you REALLY want.

“You should be here Matt. I’ve always believed in your talent, but you’re just wasting it out there in Jersey. No one ever did anything great in New Jersey. All the best artists and musicians start here. I’ve tried to be supportive, but I don’t know what else to tell you. I’m so glad I left Jersey.” (At this point I wondered if she knew that John Lennon was actually English, even though he was shot in New York)

People who scold you about NOT living in New York always make it a point to highlight how it was the best decision of their lives to move in with four strangers, work 60 hours a week for rent, and remain broke nearly 100% of the time.

For the record, I do enjoy New York City. I was fifteen when I snuck into a concert to watch Weezer play at Roseland Ballroom. Since then, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the kind of adventures only a big city can offer. There’s a unique high produced by the anonymity of urban life that also feels strangely personal. I suppose the effect is something like going out to a cafe to be alone; you can be alone at home, but home demands too much of your attention because it’s familiar. Somehow, there’s an inexplicable privacy to be found in being publicly ignored by millions of people. I like that. But from a creative standpoint, I just can’t imagine how struggling to pay rent for a room the size of a closet is going to help me write any better.

The financial strain imposed upon middle-class New Yorkers makes money the focus of their world. For me, I can’t create under such circumstances. When money becomes the focus of my daily life—constantly working for “never enough money”—the playfulness and exploratory nature of writing doesn’t flow freely. This is where the relationship between money and creativity gets really interesting.

The Starving Artist.

There was an interesting article I shared on social media last week, donning the title, “Why I Got Out Of New York City”. The author interviewed long-time New Yorkers who described the desperate state of a doomed cityscape whose culture has been flatten by a relentless addiction to money. Over the last 30-years, financialization, the war on wages, and the continued rise of the 1% spawned a high-income housing boom whose epicenter has now spread to the outer boroughs. No longer able to reap the benefits of New York’s once-famous “cheap rent” and low cost of living, today’s writers, musicians, and artists are less diverse and more likely from family money. The result is the funneling of food, music, and art culture through the “money-looking glass”, where only the interests and approval of the elite class are served, and where “creatives” look to master branding first and worry about content later.

Cashing In and Checking Out.

Few outings to the movie theatre have ever really tempted me to end my life. But, if you’re ever looking to waste 95 minutes of your life, watch Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Despite what respectable attempts the first movie made at paying homage to the game franchise, the sequel was nothing short of a blatant cash-in. This one review pretty much says it all, and nearly had me rushed to the ER for stitches after laughing so hard. The reviewer nails the film’s rage-inducing deficiencies as a problem with creativity and effort related to fast-money, where cashing-in on a fad and checking out on quality produces a film best used as a method of torture.

Where Are The Guitars And Drums?

If you have any serious doubts about the creative health of monetized arts, just turn on the radio. Bass guitars and acoustic drum sets are nearly unheard of these days. Oh sure, you could buy the album online, but you’ll never hear the original on your favorite FM station. That’s because everything  your car tuner picks up is either Electronic Dance Music or an EDM remix of a song’s original version. Try to hear the ORIGINAL version of a popular song on the radio—it’s next to impossible if it’s not already some form of HipHop/Electronica/EDM. Any music composed with guitars and drums is instantly remixed with screw-loosening pulsar star kicks and baselines from the Andromeda Galaxy. If you’re skeptical about the quality of art this EDM revolution brings to real musical acts, consider the reverse translation and try sitting through the live performance of Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”. It’s thin, limp, and lacking, leaving the audience member excruciatingly unsatisfied and slightly embarrassed for the band.

Taylor Swift may sound good as a electronic pop-star, and her shift from country rock to EDM pop may be a signal of a “maturing and evolving” artist, but it’s more likely the result of a desperate music industry looking to adopt a formula that generates safe revenue—not risky innovation. In the end, the death of her original sound (whether you liked it or not) results in far less diversity in the music world.

Reboot Causalities.

Much like the music industry, as film studios search for ways to streamline creative formulas that yield steady profits, ultimate diversity suffers. This is easily observed in the amount of “reboots” that have come to the big screen. Each one, not necessarily as successful as the original, aims to peg down guaranteed profits by piggybacking the former high earnings of its predecessor.

While I’m certainly elated to watch vintage comic heroes fight crime in real-time, reboot plot quality, pace, and character development seem to produce a less-than stellar performance and a lot more “What the hell were they thinking?”

Save Harry Potter.

Harry Potter isn’t over yet and I don’t understand why. I stumbled upon the cryptic revival of the series through the reported anagram posted by author, J. K. Rowling, on Twitter. Apparently, the coded message was deciphered as “"Harry returns! Won't say any details now. A week off. No comment." Now, me personally, I don’t much care for young British men in glasses, waving their magic wands about. But as a creative person, you’d be insane to deny the awesome imaginative quality of the Harry Potter world. J. K. Rowling’s vision of a magical realm beyond modern banality ranks up there with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Respect.

Yet still, an eye-rolling sigh of disgust manages to escape me. The Harry Potter story is one of great integrity, born at hands of an underclass woman whose personal adversity has acquired nearly as much fame as her beloved characters. That’s why I can’t help but groan at the thought of Harry making a “comeback”. What does he need to come back from, exactly? He’s already a winner. This skinny little English twit practically kickstarted a whole new renaissance period for grammar school kids around the world. For years on end Harry was the sole reason kids actually finished their summer reading assignments. Brilliant.

Facts are facts: Harry Potter is a legend. So why is it that his creators feel so compelled to force this young man to shave his face clean, tuck his balls between his legs, and take up that silly wooden stick once more in the presence of millions?

As I sit here typing these words, I relax into the back of my chair and settle into a deep pool of depressive revolt. I can’t help but conduct a quiet mental protest: Another Harry Potter? They can’t just let the story end with dignity. They've just got to bring him back so that an already exclusive group of wealthy people can make an extra $500 million destroying every last bit of credibility the series has left. Bloody Tasteless.


There’s nothing wrong with money. I love capitalism. But the value of capitalism shouldn’t trump other valuable assets of our culture. Fine art, music, film, and literature are among the most important and influential mediums by which our humanity is supported and shared. Yet the increasing monetary incentives now tied to entire creativity industries have produced a bottle-neck of production that releases more content that’s “revenue safe” rather than risky. In effect, the ideas and adopted messages of our culture have become less diverse, more homogenized in order to keep the money machine rolling.

But there are some things most people don’t consider. When revenues are on the line, creative industries adopt models that set profit “targets”, tight deadlines, and consequences for falling “under budget” (this, simply meaning that someone above you isn’t going to get a bonus, so they’ll eliminate your job and give someone else your workload just to get it). The resulting corporate culture becomes an endless campaign of crisis after crisis, where hitting this quarter’s revenue goal doesn’t put an end to the pressure—it perpetuates it. The problem is that, while financial incentives work well for straight-forward physical tasks, they don’t work well for creative tasks.

Money kills creativity because using it as an incentive forces people to focus, and focusing makes people less able to think laterally. Simply put: people think more logically rather than creativity when money becomes the goal. Thinking logically is great for some tasks, but creative thinking requires one to think “outside of the box”. The other component to attaching financial goals to creative works is that it often involves restricting time and resources, which are ultimate creativity killers.

If you’re still skeptical about the role of money in the death of creativity, check out this guy's story and consider the Candle Problem first presented by Karl Duncker in 1945. This isn’t just some crazy anti-corporate rhetoric—there’s real empirical science behind this idea.

So until we can successfully liberate artists from the restrictions imposed by money as a culture and as an “incentive”, we’ll have to get used to watching shitty reboots, listening to mind-numbing dance beats, and the monotony of homogenous expression that exist only to serve our corporate masters.

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

6 Reasons Why Free College Tuition Would Save America

Student-loan debt sucks. And I don’t mean that as a euphemism; I literally mean it sucks. More specifically, education debt sucks a ton of investment capital potential out of the American economy. If higher education in the United States were free, it would mean an instant trillion-dollar investment in private enterprise as well as consumer marketplaces. Perhaps more importantly though, it would be a direct investment in the future prosperity of citizens and their families.

I can hear the groaning now from public deficit hawks lurking in the back: 
“The national deficit is already trillions of dollars in debt as it is. You can’t seriously be talking about spending MORE money.” 

Well, let’s get one thing straight: Spending isn’t the issue. HOW and WHAT you spend on is totally the difference between good spending and “BAD” spending. A trillion-dollar investment in free education for the young minds of American who will later start companies without debt, is completely different than, say, spending $6 trillion on a decade-long war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now, I’m not saying that money spent on defense isn’t necessary (though I happen to disagree with those two conflicts). What I’m saying is: IF you’re going to justify spending six times the cost of free higher-education for your entire country, on military defense/offense, I think we can all agree that educating our nation’s future leaders is worth a fraction of that cost.

What’s really remarkable is how resistant U.S. policy has been to include higher education as a necessity for its citizens. The U.S. has long been a pioneer of access to a standardized public education, hosting a literacy rate of nearly 99% amongst its populace. Why then would access to the so-obviously-necessary degrees of higher education be restricted to either A.) the rich or B.) the middle-class/soon-to-be-working-poor who are willing accrue debt that will take nearly 20 years to repay? It would seem that a nation so concerned with being “number one” would WANT to provide its citizens the advantages necessary to be just that.

Part of the issue is that most people don’t understand the adverse implications of student-loan debt all that well, so it’s difficult to grasp just how much of a disadvantage it is to be an American graduate. The other part is that of American ideology. Values of the self-made, independent man/woman are deeply infused with a sense of moral fiber that demands we owe NOTHING to ANYONE. This timeless American sense of identity then translates to an ironclad philosophy that says: no matter what, you pay your debts. If you think about it, it’s a pretty ingenious way to tap into the psyche of the peoples’ conscience to ensure that you’re gonna get that money—that, and laws passed by President Bush which state the only way to write off student debt is permanent disability or death. Thanks W. 

As a means to start a different conversation, I’ve developed the short list below which makes a case for just how bad student-loan debt is and how its absence would yield a stronger, more competitive America—the kind of America everyone keeps talking about but never seems to find anymore.

1.) Debt Destroys Growth

Just after WWI, France drafted the Treaty of Versailles, which demanded that Germany pay a ridiculous sum of 132 billion Marks in war reparations (roughly the equivalent of some $440 billion today). All the smart economists of the day nearly shit their pants and tried to persuade France to forgive the majority of war debt owed, therefore, shrinking Germany’s payment to that of a more manageable fraction of total GDP. But France was pissed, and instead, ignored good reason and demanded the full amount. As a result of costing Germany more than its annual GDP, inflation ballooned, destroyed German growth, and the resulting economic austerity paved the way for Adolf Hitler. The moral of the story is that not ALL debt collection is created equal, especially if that debt hinders overall growth.

One of the problems with student-loan debt is that too many people have it. As higher-education has become nearly the only doorway to a living wage, earning a degree or two is practically a necessity for survival. The other problem is that the repayment of college debt drains wealth from the majority and funnels it to only a handful of lenders. From an economic perspective, this is a BAD thing. True growth requires that a majority of people have wealth enough to invest in today’s economy—you can’t buy a car, much less start a business, with $50k in student-loan debt. And, by the time the debt gets paid in full, the economy has changed, investment opportunities have moved on, and inflation has destroyed the power of any “savings” you may have stored away. When the majority’s wealth is squeezed for the economic benefit of a few, you’re going to have a growth problem adding up to a value far greater than the original debt itself.

2.) A Not-So-Great Investment (Anymore)

If I gave you 50k and a choice to invest it in either a B.A. or a house, which would you choose? If you chose the degree, you might be dead in the water. The interesting thing about higher-education is that it’s not THAT great of an investment in terms of guaranteed rate of return. What I mean to say is: it’s more likely that you will get a better return on a $50k investment in real-estate than on a college degree. This doesn’t mean to say that a higher-education degree is a worthless investment, it simply means that dollar-for-dollar, you’re more likely to see a better return with that 10% down payment on a mortgage. This is especially true of those students who have 50k or more in student-loan debt, as the interest payments alone could force you to pay nearly the cost of a small house or condo. With the house or condo you’d have a place to live and an asset with the potential to increase its value. With a B.A. you MIGHT get a job that MAYBE pays just above the poverty line, and you probably won’t be able to afford a place to live. Yikes.

It used to be that a college education was a “good investment”, the idea being that the investment almost GUARANTEED a livable wage beyond the loan debt. Back when college tuition payments represented a significantly smaller portion of total annual income, it WAS a good investment. But things have changed. The last 30 years have been cruel to the average wage earner and generous to the pockets of higher learning business models. From the year 2000 onward, college graduates saw a slip of 3.1% in hourly wages, while the average buying power of earned income (adjusted for inflation) has slipped below that of the 1950’s. Meanwhile, since 1978, the cost of college tuition fees in the U.S. have risen 1,120% (yes that’s one-thousand one-hundred twenty)—nearly four times as fast as the consumer price index. Compare this increase to that of medical expenses, which rose 601%, and food, 244%.

In the job market, as desperate workers clamor to find jobs to pay off all that student-loan debt, wages are just low enough to question the value of an investment in higher-education. Real-estate on the other hand, well, everyone needs a place to live and work. In the end, it could be the more solid choice to throw your money at.

3.) The International Disadvantage.

If you’re American, right now you probably wish you were German. The Fatherland has recently declared that all tuition for its citizens will be free. They say there’s a fine line between genius and insanity—I’d say Germany’s move is genius. Making higher education a national financial commitment puts the brilliant young minds of your nation far ahead of the competition. As often as there is speculation about international student performance soaring above that of the American graduate, that isn’t the real issue here. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to start a business, but you do need the money to the hire the talent. The true international disadvantage American students face is financial. When German students finish their degrees, they’ll have the kind of financial “clean-slate” and wages that provides the confidence necessary to start a company. In contrast, to the dismay of the average American graduate, the burden of being $30k+ in the red is just heartbreaking enough to convince them to wait 10 years, working for someone else. The danger of debt is not only resources, but time. In the time it takes an American to clear enough debt to be able to start their own business, a German would have at least a 15-year head start.

4.) Brain Drain.

There’s a book out there called “Smart People Should Build Things: How to Restore Our Culture of Achievement, Build a Path for Entrepreneurs, and Create New Jobs in America”, by Andrew Yang. The book basically talks about how the best and the brightest minds coming out of American education are NOT starting their own companies, or joining promising start-ups. One of the reasons the author discovers, is because these students are graduating with such crushing debt (as many brilliants minds often attend prestigious private institutions). Because they require steady income to afford their monthly student-loan payments, they take high-paying jobs in the financial or technology sectors rather than building new, innovative enterprises. This is an important realization because one of the crucial aspects of “creating jobs” has to do with building new companies. Current billionaires and the expansion of timeless corporate entities aren’t the ONLY source of new jobs (though, they would love for you to believe that). Jobs can also come from innovative start-ups spawned by middle-class men and women.

5.) No Domestic Competition.

Remember all those companies American graduates are NOT starting because of student-loan debt? Well, that’s one of the reasons you’re paying more for goods and services to a few monopoly-like companies. When average Americans don’t have wealth enough to invest in new business ventures, inevitably there will be fewer and fewer choices in the consumer marketplace. Fewer challengers in the market means you’ll pay $50 for a t-shirt and $150/month for cable because the few stores and providers who service you don’t have to worry about a new innovative company that doesn’t care AS much about thinner profit margins. If Americans want to see the cost of living slow its skyrocket ascent, new businesses will have to enter the market in order to challenge the established order.

6.) Slave Wage Forever.

Student-loan debt reaches far and wide across the entire economy. Not only does it affect the price we may pay for goods and services (starting new companies to challenge big monopolies), it also affects salaries. With fewer and fewer jobs being created, this means less competition in the job market for things like benefits and salaries. Without enough employers to challenge the status quo—which happens to operate by the motto “pay people as little as possible”—you won’t see your wages increase anytime soon.

Remember Economics 101? When demand increases, prices increase right? Well, all that really means is that because demand is so high, sellers can CHOOSE to charge higher prices because there is no shortage of buyers. This CHOICE of setting a price is driven by demand. In the job market, it works just the opposite because companies are always looking to cut costs and boost bottom lines. So, as the demand for jobs increases, employers can CHOOSE to pay people less and less because there is no shortage of people willing to work. Also, with so few jobs available employers don’t have to worry about trying to incentivize their workers to stay with yearly raises and good pay packages. They know that the majority of workers will take whatever pay they can get—especially if they have debt. The role of student-loan debt as it relates to wages is particularly disturbing. In a consumer market, one can simply choose NOT to buy an expensive television, but when it comes to paying off debt, the choice isn’t so simple: you have to work. Therefore, people have to accept whatever pay they’re offered, especially when jobs are in short supply.
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Friday, August 29, 2014

Nice Try Puerto Rico. Banks Weren't Born Yesterday.

If you've been following the Doral (NYSE:DRL) versus Puerto Rico saga as closely as I have, you're familiar with all the usual misinformation and disinformation. If you have a Twitter account, you know exactly what I mean. It's the standard confusion cloud perpetuated by bashers and promoters trying to make their buck before the real deal goes down. And that's all well and good. I'm all for making your nut. But it's a bit disconcerting when even the most clean-cut of financial scenarios become subject to the kind of speculation reserved for horse racing. I don't take my hard-earned money to the race track for the same reason I've never hired a dog to do my taxes-I don't trust my finances to animals. That's not smart business.

In the matter of Puerto Rico versus Doral, the burden of responsibility is clear: You pay your debts. Seeking a tax refund of $230 million, which was essentially loaned to the Puerto Rican government years ago, is not a scandalous story by any means-unless of course, for no good reason, the debtor just doesn't want to pay. Now you've got a story, and market-makers love a good story because there's no money in a stalemate. Stable prices brought on by question marks and indecisive investors don't generate profits-volatility does.

Look, let's get one thing straight: Doral is a bank. And if there's one thing banks know best it's credit flow. This is a game of creditors and debtors. That's why when I learned of how Puerto Rico tried to pull the wool over Doral's eyes this week, I couldn't help but think, "Really?"

News came from the online publication, Bloomberg, providing the much-sought-after details of why negotiations broke down just when Puerto Rico and Doral were on the verge of a settlement. By the middle of the article I nearly fell off my chair with laughter. The last time I laughed that hard was in 1996, when a friend of mine sneezed unexpectedly while being yelled at by our teacher. He simultaneously passed gas and the entire class could not stop laughing.

It was revealed by the Bloomberg article that negotiations hit a snag over vouchers as a form of payment, more specifically who was to issue them: Doral or Puerto Rico? Puerto Rico insisted that Doral issue them, while Doral insisted that Puerto Rico issue them.

The Twitter universe exploded with ridiculously exaggerated language like "failure," and even phrases like, "falling apart," and, "on the verge of collapse," all of which were used as a means to suggest that Doral was somehow at a disadvantage. Complete silliness. None of it made any sense, and all of it wreaked of a propaganda campaign aimed at capitalizing on shock language-pretty much business as usual. But when things stop making sense, you've got to start using common sense.

One of the basic sentiments I caught was that Doral was being unreasonable, that they expected too much of Puerto Rico. Well, if expecting PR to take responsibility for paying its own debt is unreasonable, then, yeah, okay. There is, however, good reason for Doral to reject the idea that it should issue the vouchers over Puerto Rico: it's a scam.

Asking Doral to issue the vouchers represents the same kind of underhanded tactics used to convince us that automated telephone menus were created for "customer convenience." If you're a little slow behind the wheel with that one, try navigating an automated telephone menu and let me know just how convenient your experience really was. I'll wait here.

But if you really understand the subtleties well, then you also understand why Doral walked away from such a terrible deal. Asking Doral to issue the vouchers themselves essentially lets Puerto Rico off the hook for a debt it owes by transferring the responsibility of payment to Doral. Think about it.

Rather than Puerto Rico taking the responsibility of paying its own debt by issuing the vouchers, it's asking that Doral raise the money themselves. It's a tricky tactic. That's like if you lent me $5000 and then I told you to go get another job to pay yourself back. I'm not paying back my debt, you are. But I'm the one who should be getting another job.

The message Puerto Rico's offer sends is: "We'll allow you to pay yourself back". That's not true debt repayment because it cancels the initial risk of borrowing the money in the first place. If real life ever worked that way the entire financial system would collapse because the lender would be taking on the responsibility of the borrower in addition to the risk of lending. It's the equivalent of me telling Chase and AT&T, "Hey listen guys, I can't pay you for your services, but if you ever owe me later on in the future, don't worry about it. We're even."

Doral knows that it's more likely to make itself whole if vouchers are issued through the Puerto Rican government, as assets associated with government ties are traditionally attractive-especially when Doral hasn't posted an annual profit since 2005. Yikes! But Puerto Rico knows it's less likely to take a hit if the burden of repayment can be transferred onto Doral's back. It's easier to let go of cash you never had than to give up a chunk of what you already have. But that's Puerto Rico's problem-not Doral's.

It's clear that Doral knew what they were doing all along, as there were only ever two possible outcomes that made any sense:

A.) Puerto Rico settles on an acceptable cash amount.

B.) Through trial, Puerto Rico is ordered to issue vouchers of a greater amount.

Either way, Doral wins.

Read More "Nice Try Puerto Rico. Banks Weren't Born Yesterday."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

5 Hot-Button Topics Americans Don't Understand

1.) A private healthcare system IS the problem. 

Imagine that, tomorrow, women all over the world went insane and decided that they no longer cared for designer bags. What would happen? The lack of demand would crash the price of brands like Prada and Louis Vuitton, and soon, Walmart could afford to bag your groceries with Michael Kors. That's the private marketplace.

What most Americans don't realize is that the result of a privatized healthcare system effectively treats healthcare like Coach products, with the ASSUMPTION that—like fashionable accessories—demand for healthcare is optional. Only, it’s not.

People don't need wallets and hand bags with someone else’s name all over them; they need healthcare. And because getting sick or injured is a matter of "when" and not "if", unlike the demand for handbags and exotic sunglasses, private healthcare services don't have to be competitive in the marketplace. This is especially true when healthcare facilities and hospitals set big price tags with very little differences in cost. Ask yourself why your cable bill is so outrageous. It's probably because your area only has one or two providers. But it's ALSO because those few cable service providers have been known to work in collusion, agreeing not to enter one another's service areas in order to eliminate price competition. It's a pretty awesome thing when your ONLY enemy becomes an ally by refusing to lower their prices, too—good for corporate profits. For customers it means insane price hikes with no help in sight.

But that kind of stuff only happens in nonessential markets, right? People don't NEED cable, so it's okay to put a premium on luxury. Sadly, the situation is even worse when it comes to privatizing the necessities of a civilization—like water. Providing a monopoly service like healthcare and water not only drives up prices like crazy, it also degrades the quality of products and services, and destroys future investment in better technology. I know what you're thinking:

"Private enterprise are more efficient and better at driving research and development for better technology because that leads to making more money". 

It's a popular sound bite from the capitalist dogma of U.S. economics. But big investments cost big money—the kind of money that eats into profits. Private enterprises delivering a monopoly service like water or healthcare won't make such investments so long as it can make money using the same 'ol tricks. And why would private industry want the MOST efficient healthcare? Creating that "wonder pill" or "miracle procedure" that cures everything in one visit would put you out of business the next day.

When I was living in Japan, my healthcare experience was ten times more efficient than in the United States. (Japan's healthcare costs are price controlled by the government.) When I went to have my chest X-rayed, the doctor simply walked me across the hall, only to show me the result on his computer screen a mere five seconds later! I didn't have to take a prescription to a separate imaging company and wait days for the results to be transferred over. Private healthcare in the U.S. actually promotes inefficiency by fragmenting services. There's ALWAYS got to be middle man—or five—because EVERYONE HAS to get their cut of the astronomical profits. When we say "efficiency" in private healthcare markets, we simply mean dedicated services that cut costs for healthcare providers who don't have to invest in imaging technology or labs. In this way, "efficiency" simply means bigger profit margins—not better healthcare.

If you're still skeptical, check out this research on the dangers of privatizing essential services, and then, ask someone from Europe about their water. In 2010, the U.N. declared water and sanitation as a human right. It only took a 25-year rule of private water contracts, astronomical prices, and nearly zero investment in water infrastructure by private industry to sway all of Europe to abolish privatization.

Like water, healthcare is a human necessity. And no privatized human necessity in the history of the world has EVER been the cheaper alternative to public control. PERIOD. Healthcare as a commodity of private enterprise is EXACTLY why healthcare costs are so high. It's also why healthcare outcomes in the U.S. are comparable or WORSE than other developed nations, where medical care is a human right for the public to invest in and not a matter for private markets to manipulate and neglect for the sake of profits.

2.) No. Guns are NOT like cars.

If I have to hear one more person compare deaths by cars to deaths by guns in an attempt to rationalize deaths caused by shootings, I'm going to scream.

The "cars kill just as many people as guns, therefore guns are no greater a danger than cars" argument is one used by pro-gun supporters to flatten data, creating the illusion that because the body counts are similar, death by automobiles and firearms are equal. (They aren't). But, by making the two data groups appear similar, the offensive attack becomes:

"If deaths by cars and guns are the same, why are you discriminating against guns? Should we then also get rid of cars?" 

Complete lunacy. 

This is the same logic that leads NSA anti-terrorist efforts to arrest fiction authors who research "how to make a bomb" or "how to conceal a weapon" on Google—the raw data is there, but there's no protocol for making real-world sense of its relevance.

What the numbers lack are a discussion about intent and purpose—two extremely important factors when considering technology that kills, but requires human operators. As the saying goes: "guns don't kill people, people kill people". Gun laws are meant to govern people—not the guns themselves. But there's another subtle piece of the puzzle.

A pro-go advocate once told me that if gun deaths caused by gang violence and suicide were EXCLUDED from the statistics, the numbers would be negligible. I almost lost my damn mind when I heard this.

Essentially what this argument says is: "Let's only count deaths by firearms which include accidents by responsible, white, gun owners." 

Disregarding gang-related homicide rates deliberately marginalizes racial minorities and reserves the discussion of gun control for whites only. The attitude necessary to exclude gun deaths related to minorities is one that says: "As long as the majority of gun deaths only affects non-whites, there's no need to protect everyone with tougher gun laws." This reasoning also marginalizes the losses families sustain when members take their own lives. By concluding that purposeful acts of homicide and suicide are not "real" firearm deaths we can pretty much exclude addressing the majority of problems concerning mass shootings and depression in men—which is exactly what the whole "Cars = Guns" campaign aims to do.

This marginalization of homicide and suicide by guns also discounts the nature and relationship of gun-related deaths versus their automobile counterparts:

Suggesting that deaths by automobiles and firearms are the same implies that each method has an equal chance of causing an ACCIDENTAL death. However, after examining the INTENT and PURPOSE of owning an automobile versus the INTENT and PURPOSE of owning a firearm, we begin to see a much different picture in which deaths by cars are much MORE LIKLEY to be an accident. It is MORE often the case that deaths by guns are a purposeful act.

I have yet to learn of someone purchasing a pogo-stick for the purpose of opening a can of beans. That's not the most efficient way to use one, nor is it an intended purpose of its creation. But, even if someone had managed to achieve such a task, it most certainly would be an anomaly and not the norm. Cars are not typically obtained for the INTENDED PURPOSE of killing another human being. Cars are made for transportation, but the ONLY purpose for creating or purchasing a gun is to harm or kill. This is a significant point, as it also paints a vivid portrait of the TYPE of person who buys a car verses someone who buys a gun.

Prior to purchasing a firearm, the buyer has already accepted the very grave responsibility that they may harm and possibly kill another person. More importantly, these people are WILLING to take a life, and intend to be ready to do so. These are truths which are necessary and self-evident in the purchasing of a firearm. They are not necessarily the experience of those who purchase cars. It is not the case that someone looking to kill plans to buy a car to carry out that intent; they seek out a gun.

A simple thought experiment can help to elucidate the core issue, as the car buyer and firearm buyer could very well be the same person. It's proof that cars and guns are NOT interchangeable at all.

Imagine someone who owns BOTH a car AND a firearm; which would they likely use to kill themselves or someone else if they had the intent to do so?

Now imagine someone who owns a car but NOT a firearm; should they have the impulse to kill themselves or someone else, do you think they would use their car, instead? In the absence of a gun, how much more likely are they to use their car to kill themselves or someone else? 

Death by cars and death by guns have nothing to do with each other. We need stricter gun laws. Period.

3.) Providing birth control to women is NOT a violation of your religious freedom.

For a country founded on freedom, U.S. citizens sure have a hard time understanding just exactly what freedom means. And in recent times, Americans have seen a great tidal wave of sweeping perversion which has successfully turned our basic liberties into political tools of democratic subversion. Simply put: there are a lot of jerks out there with a lot of money, twisting the words of the constitution so that they can make even MORE money.

Religious freedom: the right which allows PERSONS to practice religious beliefs without fear of persecution. For those of us with a pulse, this means that in the eyes of government, religion is not a detail by which citizens are governed or judged. One cannot be thrown in jail or slighted for worshiping any particular invisible being of their choice. It's a pretty straight forward concept with little room for misinterpretation.

You'd think that the healthcare benefits an employer provides for its workers has little to do with religious freedom—but you'd be wrong. Corporations are now exercising their 1st Amendment right to deny female workers birth control through provided healthcare plans. That's right. Amazingly, private enterprise has found a clever way to save a boatload of cash by becoming self-appointed messengers of powerful unseen deities. In adopting an official religion, sleazy companies like Hobby Lobby can claim that having to provide birth control for women would be a violation of their religious freedom. Nice angle, bro.

How the hell are corporations, people, you ask? 

Well, all of the insanity that eventually led to the perversion of religious freedom began when the political action committee, Citizens United, won a controversial Supreme Court case. The outcome of that victory determined that corporations were, indeed, "people". Take a moment to put that in your bowl and smoke it. Forget everything you know about human beings, folks: Corporations are now people.

Yet, even if you accept that corporations are people, even if you believe that corporations should be allowed to circumvent basic responsibilities to society by invoking the teachings of their chosen gods, there is still a problem with how the ideology of religious freedom is exercised within this context.

For a christian company, the case for preventing female employees from receiving coverage for birth control is that the deliberate aborting/prevention of a life is murder, according to a chosen set of beliefs. We could get into the scientific nuances of how contraception works or even how to define "when life begins", but the folly is much more simple and precludes the need for an MD altogether.

The argument against limiting access to birth control is this:

merely allowing the CHOICE for women to USE birth control is not the same as preventing/aborting pregnancies yourself. (The Bible does, however,  emphasize the importance of free will, as in, the point of following the commandments is that one has the ability to MAKE the CHOICE to obey.) And yet, what corporate America has essentially done in exercising their "religious freedom", is deny females (who may not even identify as Christian), the right to CHOOSE whether or not to use birth control. This means that if a given female employee does not hold the same views as their employer, when it comes to exercising THEIR personal views, they are being discriminated against.

I saw an amazing post the other day that really summed up this dilemma, and I've tailored it to reflect this message:

"Claiming that someone else's choice to use birth control is against YOUR religion is like being angry at someone for eating a doughnut because YOU'RE on a diet."

Corporation or person—you don't get to make MY choices based on YOUR beliefs.

The inherent integrity of religious freedom requires the EQUAL chance for everyone to express their own views. If corporations can effectively create an environment which makes the practice of "unpopular" views more difficult, that my friends, is oppression—the very same religious oppression corporations are claiming to rally against.

4.) Raising the Minimum wage will NOT kill jobs. But it might grow them.

Don't even think about raising the minimum wage—you'll kill jobs. 

This is the exact mantra that spews—uninterrupted—from the mouths of every PR machine representing private enterprise. Whether you're a right-wing political hopeful, or a Harvard professor of economics whose yearly income is partly derived from corporate funded "research", the rhetoric is the same.

Whenever you hear really hardline statements against change, ask yourself:

Who would benefit most if things stayed THE SAME.

In this case, the answer is clear: low wages means more money for big business and the rich elite, and less economic and bargaining power for the middle-class.

Labor costs are among the highest costs incurred by corporate entities; it's also one of the easiest costs to cut. All an employer has to do to cut labor costs and increase profits is demand that MORE work be done by fewer employees (pretty much everything we're experiencing today). That being said, it's no surprise that employee workloads have gone up. But no one gets double the pay for doing double the work.

Minimum wage has been inadequate for about three decades, and the economic recession of 2008 has become the proverbial monkey on everyone's back ever since. So why now has minimum wage become a national spotlight?

For a long time the debate over raising the minimum wage wasn't exactly a center stage event, primarily for two reasons:

A.)  High employment rates and easy credit in the the 90's and early 2000's hid the true impact of declining wages.

B.)  Previous raises in minimum wages were too small and far between for any impacts to be easily noticeable. 

Whatever the origins of America's continued economic malaise, the debate over wage increases as a possible solution requires an enormous filter to clear out all the noise. Propaganda machines of the political right and private persuasions have pumped serious money into campaigns that hammer "wage increases = job cuts" mantras into the minds of average workers.

It's an effective tactic up until the moment wage increases actually spur job growth—then the jig is up. New data has delivered a huge blow to wage suppression rhetoric, as recent job growth since January 2014 has proven strongest in the 13 states that successfully increased their minimum wages. What's more is that nine out of those thirteen have posted growth above the median job growth of ALL states. That means that jobs didn't just grow faster in those states, they grew faster at a rate that was higher than the majority.

What? You mean higher pay to a majority of workers equals more spending, which leads to higher production that requires more workers? 


5.) Vaccination is not REALLY necessary.

Immunization culture in the U.S. is pretty hot right now. But that's because vaccinating is presented more like a mandatory order than a precautionary choice of health. What's more alarming is the reaction to those who choose NOT to vaccinate; the call to vaccinate has taken on a "bully" kind of rhetoric where those who choose not to participate are vilified with charges of being stupid, or paranoid conspiracy theorists, etc. What I find interesting is that even when persons who do not vaccinate offer reasons that aren't related to conspiracy theories, exercising one's individual right to decide what goes inside their body, they are still met with hostility.

The one and ONLY line of defense that has gained traction against personal choice is "Herd Immunization." In fact, herd immunization is THE ONLY logical way to win the argument for vaccination use because when you use Armageddon as a deterrent, it's usually pretty effective. 

Herd immunization is an idea that suggests that at an effective level of 95% immunization, a population can prevent a contagion from spreading. According to its advocates, if persons choose NOT to vaccinate, they put the entire population in jeopardy for an epidemic or pandemic as immunization levels drop below that 95% effective rate. Wow. 

How would YOU like to be the reason the entire human race fell to small pox? 

Better get vaccinated.

This is the general discourse by which anti-vaccinators are vilified, and it's very effective.

Few people understand that Herd Immunization is merely a THEORY—it's not a fact. But that doesn't matter because it's an extremely clever theory. It's clever because it's essentially impossible to disprove, which is exactly what anti-vaccinators would have to do in order to challenge the immense pressure to immunize.

Imagine that you were trying to find a shampoo that made your hair feel healthier, and you go to the store and buy 1,000 bottles from different companies. Then imagine that, in your desperation for beautiful hair you started using multiple brands at once. How would you ever know which brand really made the difference? How could you ever convince yourself that one brand performed worse than any other? Oh well, you'd have to just keep using them all, because at that point, it wouldn't matter which one did the trick so long as you've achieved the results you wanted.

Now apply the shampoo scenario to vaccination. Besides vaccination, there have been countless of other advances in medicine and hygiene which may have contributed to the reduction of communicable diseases.

Think about it:

The only way one could ever really question the truth of Herd Immunization is if there was an all-out epidemic/pandemic while vaccination practices exist. As long as there are no Armageddon-scale outbreaks, vaccination can continue to take credit for the "containment" of horrible disease. And with the profound leaps made in sanitation and hygiene practices, its unlikely that an outbreak would ever occur.

You see?  Genius.

What success herd immunization claims in the battle against infectious disease can easy be explained as serendipitous accolades resulting from improved sanitation and hygiene practices. Hand washing and other sanitation practices which provide protection against bodily fluids, more than anything, have contributed to a decline in some of the most communicable ailments.

Evidence that Herd Immunization doesn't hold water exists in the details. In the 1960's, vaccination was proposed as a "one shot, immunization for life" by leading medical experts. That proposal is at the crux of Herd Immunization, as 95% population MUST be immunized at ALL times. This means that if, at any point, a population falls below that 95% effective immunization rate, there will be rapid outbreaks. Well, there's a problem with that.

In the 1990's, modern medicine revealed that, well actually, no, vaccinations didn't last for a lifetime and that people should be RE-immunized anywhere between 2-10 years (depending on each person's individual immune system response.) Now factor in illegal immigrants, foreign-born citizens, Americans who can't afford healthcare, and Americans who just don't RE-vaccinate. These populations combined with baby boomer numbers easily project vaccination and RE-vaccintation well below the 95% effective rate necessary for Herd Immunization to be valid.

Simply put: if Herd Immunization was a fact, we would be in the midst of a firestorm of epidemics. We aren't. And if you're keen on citing outbreaks in other third world countries, consider a lack of sanitation practices, access to clean water, and access to protective measures such as contraception and latex.

I'll decide what goes in my body, thanks.

Read More "5 Hot-Button Topics Americans Don't Understand"

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why Going To The Movies Makes Us Depressed

Yes. I went to go see that tear jerking piece of emotional porn, The Fault in Our Stars. The title is as romantically provocative as it is an awkward reference to ninth grade Shakespearean literature you could barely read—the kind that has two spoiled brats dying too young for a conflict easily remedied by growing the pair of balls necessary to tell their parents,
"We're gonna bone whether you like it or not." 

I've always been a sucker for and a fan of romantic strife, though I can't help but wonder if Romeo and Juliet had gotten it wrong in the first place. Maybe there's nothing really all that romantic about a love cut short by death. Maybe there's no good reason that a room full of people should buy a twelve-dollar ticket to frustration and misery. I don't know about you, but when I'm looking to pleasure myself it usually ends with an orgasm—not a popcorn bag full of tears.

Take a moment to step back and examine just how spirit-crushing all of this is: here are two people who finally have this perfect thing, something that everybody spends their entire lives trying to find. But then, no. Fate decides to roll over on them and collect on a bad karma debt, saying, "OH HELL NO". I have serious problems with this because I can't help but understand the universal message here to be a subtle FU to the dreamers within us. It's a serious blow dealt to anyone who imagines that maybe, just maybe, they might get what they really want. Essentially, the Fault In Our Stars makes the age-old claim to a heartbreaking axiom which concludes that, actually, we can't have what we want.

But there's another phenomenon that comes with these kinds of movies that proves to be far more impactful. In a story of love ended by cancer it's hard not to assume that this IS the point of the story. There becomes an intense focus on big dramatic events and the belief that these are the most important things that move us. Big love, big cancer, and big death have emerged as ultimate examples of what it means to REALLY feel. It's gotten so that we've come to demand these outrageous displays of greatness ruined so that we, too, can experience SOMETHING of significance in our lives (even if we're merely spectators). And then, we forget about the small things and how they used to move us. There's a certain degree of tragedy found in the realization that it might take disaster and pure doom to elicit any kind of genuine reaction from our hearts.

But that's where a lot of people miss it. And that's where the meat of this rambling starts to sizzle.

Actually, people don't love these kinds of movies because death is romantic. They don't go home with heartache because their biggest fantasy involves contracting a terminal illness that will one day separate them from loved ones. People go home crying and depressed the moment they realize their lives lack the little things, those everyday experiences which seem impossible to find: a friendly visit, genuine concern, phone calls, kind words, a response when we reach out to others. The real heartache begins with the dissonance felt in witnessing real human connections on screen; it pales in comparison to our everyday experiences. So much of what we long for is simply for the world to RESPOND when we call upon it and our fellow human beings.

So, the whole cancer gig makes for great choke ups and hand holding, but it's not the star of the show. We KNOW that one of these kids is going to die. This is not a new concept to audiences. But, cancer is not the reigning heavyweight champion punching at our hearts while we soak up tears with greasy theatre napkins. The real star of the show, the reason we all go home wanting more in our own lives, is because of the little things. As audience members, throughout the story, we have this very intense feeling that the people we are watching are DEEPLY cared for by others: Augustus actually answers Hazel's texts, he reads a book she cares deeply about and cites it numerous times, friends come over, friends support each other, people say comforting things at just the right time.

Compare these amazing events of everyday connectedness to our own experiences: people don't really text back when you need them, people are too busy to come over, people don't have the time, energy, or extra income to entertain guests or go out with friends often enough. Our everyday experiences of feeling connected are just the opposite. We feel DISconnected. People seem to NOT want to get involved. Our friends and family seem exhausted, with very little room for anything other than just getting by.

Our envy of Hazel and Augustus isn't so much that they loved and lost what (arguably) became this fantastically perfect love affair. What we envy is that they enjoy a reality that seems so much more of what we want in our lives everyday. When it comes to family, friends, and experiences that let us know we are truly cared for by others, fulfillment is rare.

It's also important to note that this phenomenon of depression caused by the cinema doesn't exclusively belong to tragic love stories. Remember James Cameron's AVATAR? If you don't, it's that movie with a planet full of blue people that humanity is destroying for money (pretty much what we're doing to ourselves now, but with way cooler technology)

Anyway. Immediately after the film's release, the Internet exploded with forums of people who had come down with depressive symptoms related to the disappointment of returning to a bland life of being ignored and disconnected. The real event of "Avatar Blues" was a well documented phenomenon whose link to our common feelings of disconnection was not overlooked. Fans immediately understood what was going on. AVATAR featured a race and tribe culture in which EVERYONE was important. Wanting to be a member of the Navi wasn't a desire rooted in schizophrenia; it was a desire reflective of our own innate feelings of wanting to be part of the group. We want to belong and we want to FEEL like we belong.

Feeling disconnected wasn't always such a pervasive experience. There was a time when people sat down at the dinner table, watched TV together, and called each other for a chat. The ideal connectedness portrayed on the silver screen isn't a new idea—it's a throwback projection of what life once resembled before we started working too hard, texting too much, and filling up our schedules with less intimate affairs. Modern art continues to reflect and imitate a life we no longer remember. Where the normalization of human disconnection has occurred, the longing for a simpler life that makes us feel more in touch ensues within our subconscious.

With regard to the kind of emotional reactions evoked by such dramatic movie plots, there's some dark humor here, actually. This is the awkward situation created by manufactured ideology: you get to pay a high premium for an experience that was once better, simpler, and free. That's why we're paying extra to eat organic crops in a food environment dominated by "superior" genetic modification—so science doesn't give us cancer. But it doesn't have to be that way. We don't have to rely on simulated experiences to remember our humanity. We can be better humans. We can advocate for stronger connections. All we have to do is turn off the television, come out of the dark spaces, drift from the blinking lights, and get back to what we're best at: being human.

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