Friday, December 9, 2011

Divide and conquer

A brilliant new bit of Republican strategy has come out just in time for the holiday season, as reported on by Rachel Maddow of MSNBC. In this time for goodwill toward your fellow man and the spirit of giving, the GOP is doing their best to crack the already shaky unity of the 99% down below.

What is being proposed is an extension of the payroll tax cut, a little bit of a boost for the extra expenses around the holidays. Like a Christmas bonus from the federal government! Sounds great! But how in the world are they planning to do this in the midst of an economic crisis that has nearly left the fed in default? By hacking off unemployment benefits at the knees. With the money they will save on unemployment spending by tightening eligibility and reducing benefit duration by almost 40 weeks, they'll toss us a few pence to spend on a scrawny Christmas goose.

The problem is that this pits us against our own. No matter how the vote on this initiative falls, there is going to be anger directed at exactly the people with whom we should be uniting. At any moment, in this economy, you can lose your job. There virtually is nothing like "job security" any more. If your company can find someone to do your work for cheaper, they'll have you out on your ass, saying something about "tightening our belts" and waving tiny American flags to show that they only meant it in patriotism. If this vote goes through, we've just forsaken our unemployed for a minuscule pay-day, leaving them even worse off than before and ourselves gaining very little at their expense. But I don't think that's what Republican leaders are counting on.

No, I believe they are counting on this measure being voted down, because it gives them more firepower than ever. If it is voted that unemployment benefits need to stand where they are, it will halt this tax break for the rest of the working and middle class. And that is a brilliant way to insinuate even more resentment and anger into the working 99%'s feelings against their non-working brethren. Divide and conquer. If you can get friends to turn against friends in need for their own self-interest... well, you've just reinvented the American Dream. Those defending unemployment will be socialists and those defending the tax cut will be heroes--who are you going to vote for? It's a brilliant see-saw measure that is worthy of some kind of complex-but-extremely-boring dystopian political movie plot. Shame that Philip K. Dick isn't still around to write it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The myth of job creation

You've been hearing it non-stop for the entire past election cycle (and, really, much before that), but now that the top-earning 1% in our country are coming under serious fire by the Occupy Movement, it's been trotted out more than ever: the claim that the rich create jobs, so for us to spur the economy, we must pretty much just let them do whatever they please.

Besides the fact that that is a ridiculously fatalistic view of economics, it's also an extremely twisted statement spiked with a logical fallacy. Yes, the rich do give us jobs. Without the companies that the rich own and operate, very few of us would have jobs indeed. Whether that is inherently fair or not is a different discussion completely, but it's just how our system works, so that much of the statement is true. However, the kind of talk that we're hearing now is a convolution of this fact. Rich people do not just create jobs because they are rich and run those companies who employ us. The fact that they are rich has nothing to do with the actual creation of jobs; they are simply the tools, not the catalyst. The catalyst that creates jobs is a basic principle of economics, one that has somehow been ignored as this argument has come to a boil.

It's called supply and demand.

Just because you have a boatload of money and a company that is doing well does not more jobs create. You've got the ability to hire more people, sure, but you're not going to do so unless the demand for your product or service is also growing. Herman Cain, the one who has reverted to this empty buzz-phrase the most, should understand this concept the best. He was the CEO of a major American pizza chain, Godfather's Pizza. Now, we don't have Godfather's Pizza in Pittsburgh, but we do have another local chain called Vocelli Pizza that I can reference as an analogous example.

There are, within the immediate city limits, three Vocelli locations, as well as numerous others out in the suburbs. The three city locations are in Lawrenceville, Oakland and Downtown, and have served the community for many years. If Mr. Vocelli wished to, with his power as a very rich man, he could "create jobs" by building a fourth location, say in Shadyside. But without the demand, what is the point of creating more supply? It would be a foolish move for him to open another location in the city, because the three locations that exist already supply plenty of pizza to fit the demand. Pumping all that money into another location when the consumer could simply drive five more minutes to the already existing Oakland location? That's a terrible business plan, one destined for failure. So he can't just create jobs out of thin air. If he did what the Republican candidates are claiming the rich business owners can do, there would be a Vocelli Pizza on every corner in Pittsburgh, and they'd all go out of business within months because they wouldn't each be selling enough pizza to stay afloat.

The fact that there isn't a floundering Godfather's Pizza in every single two-horse town in America goes to show that, no matter what he says on television, Herman Cain does understand this. There just isn't enough demand to drive that kind of growth and job creation--and the ultimate irony is that the 99% are not paid enough to create that demand. Maybe not in terms of pizza, but in the purchasing of many other goods and services. The less we are paid and more we are taxed (while the inverse is true for the richest Americans), the less we are able to buy. The rich can only create jobs if the rest of us are clamoring for the things that those jobs produce. And right now, we can't afford to do so.

The only way for jobs to be "created" outside of this system is for the government to do so, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did with the Civilian Conservation Corps and many of the other New Deal initiatives. In the public sector, demand can be eschewed, the supply being not economic but a sense of greater good. Development of infrastructure, of highways and railways and parks, investing in our future rather than the immediate profits of now. That is the kind of job creation we should be rallying behind as we continue to see unemployment rise. We cannot depend upon corporations to look out for our best interests, and why should they?

Businesses are about making money, not about taking care of people. It doesn't necessarily make them evil, but it is a fact that we need to understand before we put them on a pedestal and worship their almighty power to provide for us. That's some 19th century, pre-union, company town crazy talk, but it's found its way into our national zeitgeist once more. And this time we're cheering it on! Have we really forgotten how hard we've worked to get away from selling our soul to the company store, as we now cheerlead for these companies and lay ourselves out on the altar, praying they toss us some bread? It is we that provide for them, not the other way around.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tax Responsibility

Looking back at yesterday’s blog, I believe that the graph I posted warrants a little bit more attention. What the graph displays is the difference in the percentage of tax to the upper-most and bottom-most brackets of our tax system over the last century, and as you can see, we have had a raucous relationship with the taxation of the rich, while at the same time, have found the taxation of the poor to be relatively consistent. The importance of this differentiation becomes readily apparent when you explore the deep canyons of the red “rich” line, and realize what events happen to fall within them. Namely, the Great Depression and then later, the Reagan/Bush tax cuts (and consequent 2008 Depression). For your convenience, I’ve now plotted both depressions on the graph:

Now, it would be silly and inaccurate to put the blame completely on the taxation patterns of the rich for our economic recessions, but the graph illustrates an undeniable trend. After periods of deregulation and “free market” expansion, in which the rich see their personal investments increase and responsibility to the greater good decrease, we have been left, as a nation, in dire straits. In response to the Great Depression (which barely made a dent in the pocketbooks of those supremely rich) Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted the New Deal and increased the tax responsibility of the rich to bring the rest of our country back from the brink of extinction. That is what we need now.

“Tax responsibilty” would be a good phrase to use in the Occupation protests. Because that is what we are talking about when we talk about increasing tax rates. It’s not about wanting to tax the rich just because we don’t think they deserve the money—it’s about making them accountable to the country they live in. What the upper eschelons of society do now is take, take and take. We work for almost free, well under a living wage, for companies that have stifled our unions, cancelled our health care and cut back our benefits. We have come full circle to the days of Andrew Mellon and Henry Clay Frick, where workers are a mere commodity, easily replaced if they dissent.

And all the while, our masters have gotten richer and stronger, pulling more and more money out of the government whose strings they somehow still inexplicably pull. They put money into trusts, reinvest into tax shelters or simply keep money overseas, avoiding taxation on their wealth. They skirt the rules and avoid their civic duties and then have the gall to call us unpatriotic in our protests. We need to demand tax responsibility for all. If you make more, your responsibility to this nation should be greater. It is, after all, the freedoms of this country that allow you to make that money in the first place. The 99% pays more than our fair share--it’s about time we demand that the 1% do the same.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How this tax thing works

It’s time for a little economics lesson.

Recently, it came to my attention that no one really understands how taxes work. Yes, we pay them to the government and they use the money to buy things, like war for example. Some people seem to forget that they also pay for things like street signs, street lights, sidewalks and streets, but that’s a topic for another entry entirely.

With the Occupy Movement starting up and people finally taking notice of how badly the economy of this country skews to the upper echelons, it is important that we understand not only where our tax dollars go, but also how they are paid in, and what creates the income disparity to begin with. This subject is extremely important to the discourse that needs to take place about the massive and continually growing gap between the super rich and everyone else, and it is often so convoluted by those who wish to devolve honest debate into the screaming of buzzwords.

The most important thing about the assessment and collection of taxes are tax brackets. You’ve probably heard of them before, and if you’re currently reading this, it is likely that you exist in the first one. Where you fall in the series of five tax brackets is based on your gross income (less deductions and such), and are divided as such:

Now, most of you probably already know this, especially if you file your own taxes. And you know that it is based on this bracket system that your income tax rate is determined. You’ve no doubt heard a lot about income tax rates in the recent months, and what you know is that with each increasing bracket, the tax rates increase as well, from the first bracket’s rate of 15% to the last one’s at 39.6%. What you’ve also no doubt heard is that this is unfair. Even if the rich do make more money, why shouldn’t we all be taxed at the same rate? How is it fair that they pay over double what the lowest bracket pays on their income? All that this tax scheme is doing is taking more money the harder you work.

It’s not, they don’t, and we do.

What is so often glossed over is how the tax brackets operate. If you make $100,000 a year (falling into the middle of Bracket 3), you don’t get taxed 31% rate on your entire income--the bracket only applies to the money that is taxed in that bracket. Namely, $10,850, or the difference between your $100,000 income and the cut-off point of Bracket 2. The same goes for Bracket 1. No matter how much money you make, the first $37k of your income is only taxed at 15%, then the next couple tens of thousands at 28%, and so on and so forth. It’s a graduated tax system, which means we all get taxed the same amount on the money that we similarly make. The head of BNY Mellon and I pay the same amount of tax on our comparable income, and it is only once he skips upward in the scale that he pays more. And as you climb into the upper reaches of the bracket system, the numbers become neglible.

No, really, look at how the margins shrink as they increase. Between the first two, we see a nine point increase, then as we climb into the realm of upper management and junior executives, the increases shrink to four points each. The final jump, to the world of the top-level execs making a quarter million and infinitely upward, isn’t even a full four points. What the fuck?

The reason most of us are unaware of this issue is that we never get out of that first bracket. Ours, therefore, is a flat tax. No matter how hard you work, unless you’re getting a boatload of overtime, you’re paying in 15% for the rest of your blue-collar life. Unless you are consistently bumping up into Bracket 2, you’ll likely never even consider how the system operates, and you’ll surely never explore the piddling rate at which the upper brackets are taxed and how ridiculously unfair that is. It wasn’t always that way, either. With every new conservative regime that has taken control of our country, the upper rates have shrank and shrank. In the mid-80s, when my good friend Curtis Faith had an income reaching into the top-most bracket, taxes there were around 50%. Before that, they were much higher, as evidenced by the following graph:

As you can see, the rates throughout the “best years” of our country were gargantuanly higher. Not only have those rates shrunk significantly with the increasingly conservative, isolationist approaches government has taken toward our economy, but when the Reagan and Bush tax cuts went into effect three decades ago, we found the lowest tax brackets actually raised and the disparity of wealth increased as the gap in taxation shrank to an all-time low. Now, as economists try to argue for rolling-back the upper-end George W. Bush tax cuts and allow the top bracket to rise to a slightly more reasonable rate, conservatives argue tooth and nail against it, even as the evidence against the economic effectiveness of willy-nilly tax slashing piles up against them.

The reason we need to understand these things is to truly understand what we are fighting for. The Occupy Movement has a great thing going for them, and it is just beginning, but we need to be clear in our message so as to not be spun by those who wish for us to fail. We don’t want to tax people more, we want to tax them progressively. We want to tax them fairly. This discussion about income tax has not even taken into consideration the topic of capital gains taxes—the very bane of the rich and conservative set, which they have repeatedly tried to excise to further benefit themselves. But that, again, is a topic for another post.

To those Occupying, again this is my call: Be strong and be clear. Educate yourself and use that knowledge as a weapon. Be able to answer the questions that will be asked of you, and answer them with passion and with respect. This is how we win this war. We are not an angry mob; we are angry, but we come with purpose. Not to smash windows but to talk. To explain. To feel. And that is all we ask: for someone to listen, to understand and to feel for us as well.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Think globally, protest locally

Yesterday began two brand-new legs of the Occupy movement: one in London and one here at home in Pittsburgh. The movement, which began on Wall Street mere weeks ago, has grown exponentially and is finally coming to represent a well-rounded anger that we're feeling, worldwide, at those who make all of the decisions for us, who tell us that we are nothing with their actions though they still pay lip service to our hopes and dreams. Unlike the way Fox News and USA Today have attempted to represent it, the Occupations are not anarchist rally, it's not a hyper-leftist movement--it is by nature a progressive stand, yes, but it has nothing to do with partisan politics. It is about class warfare, and there are plenty of Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians and Socialists alike down here in the muck to fight.

It took a while for Occupy Pittsburgh to find its legs, but now there are tens of tents set up, housing around a hundred people on the park in front of the BNY Mellon headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh. It also just happens to be located directly behind the hotel where I work. I was concerned about our local chapter of the revolution--that it may be met with apathy or that it would become a long, drawn-out discussion and never physically manifest itself. But the time that it took to get rolling was used brilliantly as an incubation period, and instead of a few more protesters trickling in every day, the march through the city ended with quite a sizable population now respectfully taking up residence on one of the largest American banking institution's front lawn.

The camp is also situated right on the corner of Grant Street and Sixth Avenue, one of the most significant thoroughfares in downtown, so a constant flow of cars is being funneled by the protestors holding signs, banners strung from poles and draped over tents. I was excited to see the Occupiers outside this morning, and I hope to be able to spend some time in the park with them: perhaps around noon or six when the general assemblies are being held. But as thrilled as I was, I worried about the response of the rest of the city. Walking out after work, I passed right by the protest on my way to the bus stop, chatting for a moment with a gentleman on the corner and offering my sincerest support. To my surprise, as I waited for the bus, cars upon cars that were fed from the highway down Grant Street were honking their horns in support. It was an almost-constant blare of horns, issuing from trucks and cars and even a large city maintenance vehicle.

I realized that Pittsburgh is perhaps one of the most interesting cities for this kind of a protest to take place. In New York (and particularly on Wall Street) that richest 1% is really much higher--maybe even 5% or 10%, when you consider the vast amounts of money that move through those particular veins of the Big Apple. Here in Pittsburgh, on the other hand, that 1% is probably more like a .5% or less. This city is built on, and vehemently proud of, its blue-collar ethics and traditions. Here, too, the income gap is much smaller than in New York or in Boston. There just aren't as many multi-millionaires per square acre. So the breeding ground for support is much broader. Provided the media pays fair attention to the protest and what it is about, not spinning it into some kind of anarchist nonsense as has been the case in the past few weeks of OWS, this is exactly the kind of sentiment that can take hold in Pittsburgh. And that warms my heart to an unreal degree.

In a single day of Occupation, before any media has really been by to explore, there is already respect and warmth to this protest. It is honest and it is true. It is simple. It is something we can all understand and something we all can feel. You are, as this revolution will soon show, either for us or against us; not in a pugnacious way, but in the truth of what this whole thing is about. Those people on the lawn, no matter whether you love them, join them, laugh at them or sound off against them, are fighting for your rights. It is selfless and it is true, and we should be so lucky to have people like them sitting in for our rights to be acknowledged.

For more information on the Occupy Movement here and abroad or to find out how you can help in the revolution, please visit occupypittsburgh.org and occupywallst.org, or just go down to Mellon Green, on the corner of Grant and Sixth in the shadow of the BNY Mellon Center and visit with the protesters there.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupation dedication

I have not yet been deeply involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement (or locally, the Occupy Pittsburgh one--the irony being that my shitty job keeps me too busy to do so), but I have been keeping an eye on developments with it. It has warmed my heart to see it grow, and even though it may not be perfect, it stands for something important: that the vast majority of us are getting fucked.

Now, with the most recent Republican debate, the GOP candidates for 2012 have decided that they can see the advantages of steering this anger, much like they did with the Tea Party in 2010, and in less than a week, almost all of the polling candidates have changed their tune, coming to now “understand” the frustrations of the OWS protestors. But have they come out in support of the people on the street? Have they, too, denounced the record profits made and massive bonuses doled out during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Of course not. They’ve got the gall to suggest that protestors should be occupying Pennsylvania Avenue, not Wall Street. “They have basically targeted the wrong target,” said Herman Cain. “It should be against the failed policies of this administration, not Wall Street, is where they should be protesting.”

We live in a twisted world where demanding changes in the businesses that suck the blood of our working nation dry is viewed as “unpatriotic”, but the systematic destruction of our very government itself is something every red-blooded American should be chomping at the bit to do. At the heart of it, OWS really is a partisan movement. It is clearly geared toward the left, just as the Tea Party was geared toward the right. I don’t want to believe that, hoping rather that we can all be outraged at the current coddling big business receives from our increasingly more economically conservative system here in the United States--but I know it isn’t true.

However, we now begin to see OWS painted in a different light, and it is my sincerest hope that the protestors themselves remember those roots as the GOP tries to find a foothold to work their own angle. “I think the people who are protesting on Wall Street break into two groups,” Newt Gingrich said at the last debate. “One is left-wing agitators who would be happy to show up next week on any other topic, and the other is sincere middle-class people who, frankly, are very close to the Tea Party people and actually care.”

I see what you did there.

Occupy protestors the world over: Do not be misled. Your target is the right one. It will be attractive to let into the fold all of those who share your sentiments, your frustrations. But be careful, because some will come as wolves in sheeps clothing. You are the left’s retaliation against the astroturfed uprising of the neo-conservative right, and for that you should be proud. The media has said your message is unclear, but it is simply because the message really is so broad, so simple. Do not allow that to be compromised, to have your anger steered in the wrong direction. You have the roiling frustration of a nation behind you and it is growing with every day, so captain it well and maybe the change we have been so long waiting for can finally be made.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

You'll never be rich

Part of me is impressed that pizza mogul Herman Cain has gotten as far into this Republican primary three-ring circus as he has, and then the rest of me remembers that he's neck-and-neck with a Mormon robot and a woman who makes Sarah Palin look like a rational human being, and I go back to being completely appalled that we don't want people who should run our country running our country--we want ourselves to run our country. Because what's important to the presidency is relatability! Law degrees or experience in public policy? Sounds like some liberal elite faggot shit! What kinda beer does he like??

But Cain really blew my mind after this past debate session, when he explained that the Occupy Wall Street protestors and all of the people who back them, who have ended up tens of thousands of dollars in debt from college with no jobs or prospects to pay it all back, should "blame themselves" for being under- or outright unemployed. It is our own fault, he explained, that we are not rich. Anyone can be rich if they want to be. We're all just shiftless and lazy.

There is a lot wrong with what he said, and most of it is obvious. And better than I can explain that, Bill Maher can in his recent interview with Rachel Maddow, so why not let him?

However, the issue I have with Cain's interpretation of the overeducated and underemployed goes much further, because it is the feeling of many people here in America--not that people like me are necessarily lazy, but that everyonecan be rich someday. Not only is that impossible and silly, and just would not fuel any modern economy by any stretch of imagination--it is also a detrimental approach to our lives.

We live in a society that doesn't realize (and won't let itself realize) just how poor we are. Ask most people and they'll tell you that they're a part of the "middle class." They likely aren't, unless they're at least in some minor management position. Do they work in a factory? A hotel? A restaurant? They're grunts like you and me. But we're convinced we're just one great idea away from being millionaires. It's the American Dream: you work really hard and then you get everything you've ever wanted! We are not poor, we're just "pre-rich" and waiting for our big break. It comes out in how we vote on policy; no hard-working steel mill worker actually has any love for his union-busting company head, but he still votes against his own interests in a progressive tax system because someday he, too, will make $250k a year.

He won't. Most of us never will, even with college degrees. Especially with college degrees, at this point, with the market flooded and debt up to our eyeballs. And the sooner we all realize that, the better off we'll be. You are not a special little snowflake that is so wonderful and so talented and so full of promise. You are a grunt, just like me. At my current job, I make roughly $23k a year. That means it will take me ELEVEN YEARS to make that $250k we're all so sure we're gonna get, by golly. I'll have to work FORTY-FOUR years to make a measly million, and most of that will go into rent, loans, and if I'm ever stupid enough, a car and a house someday. Hopefully someday (soon) I'll find a better job that pays more, but there will still be people working at the hotel where I'm currently employed, working for the same or less than me, right up until the day they die because they can't even afford to retire. Don't believe me? Come on by and I'll introduce you to them.

They'll never be rich, and you won't be either. Not like the people you're protecting. So let go. Be proud of the work you do and understand your place in this life. It can improve the lives of many other people like you, whether you want to admit they're like you or not. We're the 99% after all. That's the majority of us.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Genuinely inauthentic

I don’t even know if I should be writing this.

And that’s a weird thing for me to feel, or at least to admit. This entire blog is pretty much predicated on me being sure of things and then tearing into them with great and reckless disregard. My whole life is pretty much predicated on that. But I felt a tearing of my soul last night, a discrepancy in my own thought process that I can’t get out of my head.

I am a person who loves music. Not all music but most. Especially good music, played by talented people who care about the music they are playing. That’s inevitably the best kind of music—-that which the performers truly feel. But what if the whole thing is an act? What if the great music they are playing, and really in themselves truly feeling, is just something they’ve created out of thin air? Something wholly and completely inauthentic to their own experiences? Does that negate the talent? The love? The sound?

I should specify: I’m not talking about metal music here, nor am I talking about rock or punk or even ska. Those genres, to me, can exist in a vacuum. You need not be from Providence, Rhode Island to play spazzcore art-rock (though it probably helps). What I am talking about is the kind of music that is born out of a specific culture—-one that resides firmly in a context that cannot (or at least should not) be shifted. I am talking about genres like reggae, blues or Irish balladry. Or, specifically in this case, folk and country.

The overarching name for this kind of music, regardless of its specific sound or historical context, is “roots” music. More often than not, it ends up as a starting point from which other similarly-inspired music branches out. But roots music is the core. It is created with urgency, in response to a time or a place, to a condition of a people. In the specific case of folk and country, you'll find the roots deep in the south, with songs about union strikes and God’s green earth, about whiskey and women and what it means to be poor and down on your luck. Through all the changes country music has gone through over the decades it has existed (changes I’ve railed on before in this blog), some of those core values have remained, though nearly invariably bastardized over the changing eras.

So when a brand new roots country band plays a show, I should be excited. The band that I saw last night was unbelievable. They played the crowd like you’d imagine Johnny Cash to have when he brought the roof down at Folsom State Prison. Their singer and guitarist was perfect: his twang, his antics, his rolled up high-water jeans and shit-kicker boots. He shredded through bluegrass and blues numbers, touching on a little bit of old-school white-soul in between with his organ player, and by the end of it all, had the crowd do-si-do-ing around the floor, stomping their feet and screaming wildly. So where’s he from? What is so deep in his blood to make him holler and jive like that? Memphis? Charleston? Denver, at least? Nope: the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh.

And now I have a problem.

Because he’s never lived on a farm. His friends assured me that it’s his dream to own a farm someday, and I assured them that after a single day of baling hay, he’ll haul his spurs straight back to the suburbs. I don’t know him personally, but I’ll gather that he’s never really had financial hardship in his life, a hard-knock blue-collar job or even cousins from the south. In the case of another local country-folk band, I can say without a doubt that all of these things are true, because I do actually know them personally.

But should that matter? I can’t tell. I have no idea. On one hand, it matters to me more than anything. Last night, knowing what I knew, I just couldn’t fully appreciate or enjoy the music. It smacked of such inauthenticity to me. Each pose the singer struck was out of a handbook; when he took a moment to put down his guitar at the end of the set and introduce each member of the band, it was like watching a parody of so many country bands that toured their way through my little hometown in the sticks of Central Pennsylvania where I actually have baled hay, where I’ve raised chickens and lived, for the first few years of my life, on a pig farm. And I don’t even think I’m real enough to make roots music without a proper sense of self-aware irony. If you’ve ever heard the country band I played with, you’ll quickly notice the lyrics are all matters of fiction—pieces of a mythology we created, not unlike that of Ziggy Stardust. We admitted the fakery, embraced it. We weren’t parodies but simply characters.

On the other hand, the band last night was really good. Is that what matters? It’s just music after all. Should I just take it at face value? I would with metal or rock or techno. But can you imagine a white reggae band that recorded an album without even having visited Jamaica or befriending a black guy? I can: they’re named 311 and are from Omaha, Nebraska, and they deserve to be the butt of any joke that you can think of. It’s hard to take roots music at face value, because it is, by nature of the very music itself, something that must be absorbed much more deeply.

But if the music is good, better than that of the “country” musicians that actually do hail from hard-luck families in the Deep South, which is really worth more? A college kid from Pittsburgh who can wail like Waylon, or a starry-eyed Alabama girl who croons like Christina Aguilera? Does authenticity count? And if it does, who is more authentic? Should this kid be forced to live in a decrepit trailer park outside of Shreveport for ten years before he's allowed to play another show? Would that be enough for me? If I'd heard that story, I'd have called foul even more. He just moved so he could make that music, what a load of hooey! So what would be enough? Would he need to be born into it? Or is just the desire and the love enough?

I’m not leading up to an answer here. Usually in my blog I’ll spit out a bunch of these leading questions to slam home my point in the end. But today there is none. I have no idea how I should feel. I don’t even know how I do feel, whether it’s how I should or not. I can’t form an opinion.

Jeez. What am I becoming?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Get on the bus, Gus

The beginning of this year marked another service cut for the badly-limping Port Authority of Allegheny County. Routes were changed or cut and lots of bus drivers were laid off, and as winter grows steadily winter-er, it seems that another cut is on the horizon, possibly to include one of the brand-new routes that finally connected Lawrenceville to Oakland (aka, the Five Guys Express).

It breaks my heart, really, because I think that public transit is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure that can exist in a city. It's the veins through which a city's lifeblood flows. Buses allow a great number of us mobility enough to get to our jobs, to grocery stores--to fuel the economy of the city without being dragged down by the costs of owning a car. Frankly, I'd guess that most of us taking the bus couldn't even afford a car if we wanted to own one (I know I couldn't), so the bus really is the only viable option to get us back and forth between the places we need to go.

I, for one, depend upon the bus system here in the city. Without them, I could not get to work. I love to bike, but I can't do that in a suit, or when it's snowing. A car just isn't an option for me. If not for the bus system here in Pittsburgh, I'm not sure what I would do, and it is with that kind of great appreciation and understanding that I say this now:

Fuck the motherfucking bus drivers here in Pittsburgh. Fuck them to death.

You would think that they'd be on their best behavior, knowing that it could be them that next gets the axe. But these smarmy motherfuckers don't even understand the purpose of their jobs. They really don't, and it was proven to me yet again today. It comes with the territory, making up to $90,000 dollars a year. No wonder they think they're hot shit that can do no wrong--they are. But at the very least, making more than what many professors in Pittsburgh make, they should at least know what the fuck their role is. So I, as a concerned and level-headed citizen of this great city, am here to remind them.

You are here to take people from Point A to Point B, and often, back again. Remember that part up above where I talked about how we all depend on you to get us around? THAT'S YOUR JOB. What isn't your job is just driving around in a goddamn circle all day. You've got a route to run, yes--a route on which YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO PICK UP PEOPLE AND THEN TAKE THEM ELSEWHERE. If the city just needed someone to drive around in circles all day, they'd build a NASCAR track, you jackass. So when I'm a block away from the stop, running late to work, and I ask you what number your bus is because it isn't even prominently displayed on your beat old jalopy, you can at least have the KINDNESS TO ANSWER ME INSTEAD OF WAVING ME OFF WITH THAT LITTLE "PSH-PSH" HAND MOTION.

I understand that you've got to keep to a schedule, but really, let's be frank with each other: you don't. You get caught in traffic, you have emergencies. Sometimes you're a little late or a little early, but when you start showing up fifteen minutes early to a stop and cruising right through it, someone should reassess your timetable. If you're running early, chill out for a few minutes at the next stop and get back on schedule. If you're running a little late, put that gas pedal down and make up some time. Your timetable is set up so that you can auto-correct whenever you need to. You aren't a train.

Because you're not just running a route. People are depending on you, not only to get there relatively close to the time you're scheduled, but to pick them up at all. Would it be so bad to let us on a block away from the stop if we're running after you, screaming and begging to get on? Do you not get that that's your entire purpose, to let those people get on and get to work, even if it's not laid out, word-for-word in your job description? Do you have no heart? I hardly think you need to possess a passion for public transit to become a bus driver, but would it hurt to have a soul? At least the tiniest desire to help people get from place to place on the machine that you pilot? I mean, are we not paying you enough?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Here's a bat-ter idea

It seems that Christopher Nolan has finally officially announced the third in his Batman reboot trilogy, and it is being called Dark Knight Rises, which, to no one’s surprise whatsoever, has really turned out the boner jokes in full force. But that’s not the important thing about this final installment: we all knew it was coming (ha!), the question has always just been over who he’d trot out as the big final villains this time around.

Batman movies have had a long and confusing relationship with the actual comic itself, following or breaking canon, directors picking out their victims pretty much willy-nilly. The first run of Tim Burton movies were solid flicks, featuring first the Joker, and then Catwoman and the Penguin. When Joel Schumacher took over the franchise, he added nipples to the batsuit and gave us an interesting pair in the Riddler and Two-Face, then decided to finish out his tenure with Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and some vague attempt at Bane, much to the dismay of anyone with eyeballs and a memory.

When Nolan took over the franchise, he decided to go with a more realistic approach to the comics, one that was darker and more serious than Schumacher’s, but not as impressionistic or gothic as Burton’s. In that, he decided only to choose villains that fit to this standard. There wouldn’t be a Penguin or a Killer Croc, characters who fall too far outside the realm of realism. Instead we got the criminally underappreciated Scarecrow in Batman Begins, an excellent and untapped choice for a brand new start to the rather repetitive cycle in which Batman movies had begun to spin. Then, of course, with The Dark Knight, he brought us the Joker, the most iconic of all Batman villains, in perhaps, an even more memorable performance by Heath Ledger than Jack Nicholson’s in Tim Burton’s first movie. Along with him was a far more realistic Two-Face, one that really spoke to the horror of Harvey Dent’s twisted character.

All in all, Nolan had delivered astoundingly well on his promise, and it appears that in Dark Knight Rises, he will continue to do the same. In the announcement this week, we found out who our last pair of nasties will be: Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and Tom Hardy as Bane. An interesting pair, no doubt. I certainly can’t complain about Anne or Tom showing up in any movie. And yes, Catwoman is a classic, how could we expect him to skip her in what is likely the last of his Batman flicks? And Bane is yet untested, a favorite of the fan-faithful, and though he appeared briefly in Batman & Robin, his role should hardly be counted at all. So what do I think? Oh, I’ll tell you what I think…

At the end of The Dark Knight, we have Maggie Gyllenhaal gettin’ all blowed up, the Joker dying, and Batman feeling like a big fat sack of shit. While Catwoman is certainly a great prescription for Batman to find his mojo back, how about we actually tie these last two movies together a bit? Ever since I left the theatre at the end of the last film, I had one character in mind, and I knew exactly how I’d write her in:

Harley Quinn.

Stick with me now.

I know it wouldn’t be anywhere near canonical, but out of the rubble of the last movie, we see a new villain rise, hell-bent on revenge for the fallen Joker. She’s a mystery, her face shrouded in greasepaint, but she wants Batman dead and will take down Gotham with him, no matter the cost. Sure, she can invite Bane along for the trip, because frankly, Bane deserves a second chance. So Harley Quinn and her venom-jacked cohort wreak havoc through town at a level even the Joker couldn’t imagine as Batman struggles to know what he is, trying to come to terms with his loss of Rachel and his world crumbling around him. I mean, yeah, she's not Catwoman, but that broad's been done to death (sorry boutcha, Halle Berry). Nolan's not one to stand on ceremony anyway, and with Bane in the mix and his fresh, modern take on the franchise, Nolan could really do Harley well, especially as the movie comes to its teeth-chattering, explosion-filled close.

Because, finally, in the most climactic scene of the entire trilogy, when Batman at long last has a chance to do away with this menace to society that has so definitively broken him, Harley’s makeup is smeared away, and she is revealed to be none other than Rachel Dawes. She didn’t die in the explosion at all. Instead, suffering from a hyper-intensified state of Stockholm Syndrome, augmented by perhaps drugs (let’s tie ol’ Dr. Crane back into this!) or by a head injury or just the Joker’s own insanity, she fell in love with the Joker and went bat-shit (pun completely intended), when she found out he was dead, dedicating herself, along with all of the Joker cronies and Gotham under-dwellers left, to utterly decimate Batman once and for all.

Can you imagine that moment? When Batman has nothing left to live for, a completely broken man, about to go back on his moral standard and actually kill Harley Quinn, only to find out that she is Rachel? That she doesn’t remember him, and that, as they are struggling high atop Gotham on some precarious ledge, she is still wild-eyed and spitting as he is falling back in love and has no idea what to do because she is no longer herself?? He can’t kill her, he can’t even arrest her. WHAT DOES HE DO?? ARE YOUR PISSING YOUR PANTS YET?? It wouldn’t just be the most amazing possible end to the movie, but such an epic, heart-breaking, all-encompassing end to the trilogy that would feel so complete, so perfect, that someone might actually leave the franchise well enough alone for a few goddamn years for once, goddamnit.

So Nolan, get at me brother. There’s still time to change a couple of things around. Tell the Academy to start etching your name on that Oscar.