Monday, September 29, 2014

Pay your auto loan or don't drive!!!

I generally think that if you take out a loan you should adhere to the legally enforceable terms of the contact. So if you agree to pay X dollars back per month then you really should pay X dollars back per month. It irritates me when people borrow money from me and find all sorts of creative reasons why they should not pay it back. I think this is true regardless of financial status. Pay what you owe. A deal is a deal. That said, depending on what the loan or service was, the creditor can encounter difficulty getting repayment. The Federal government and to a lesser extent state governments have fewer problems getting money owed from you as they have the power to just TAKE money from your account, seize your assets, tell your employer or bank to stop giving you money and put you in prison. That will get your attention. Utility providers can shutoff service for non payment. Customers notice that. Loan officers operating outside the law can send unpleasant people to your home or workplace to threaten physical harm if they don't immediately receive payment. Getting your shins cracked with a baseball bat or having your hands broken can provide financial clarity. Some other creditors, say lenders on auto loans, don't have the ability to immediately and seamlessly compel payment. They loaned money on a quickly depreciating asset. Many people don't give car loans priority over housing or food costs. The debtor can easily move his car to another state. To repossess the asset, depending on state law, the creditor usually has to go to court to obtain a judgment before hiring some semi-reputable people to retrieve the vehicle. This could all be messy and costly. In some zip codes if someone hears or sees someone breaking into their car, they will shoot first and ask questions later. So what's a creditor to do?

Well imagine if instead of having to go through the hassle of sending out multiple dunning letters, taking people to court and spending money on repo men, a creditor could ensure that the debtor was interested in, even eager to pay the creditor on time and in full each and every month for the life of the loan? How would someone do that you ask? Well the creditor would just install a handy dandy gadget which prevents the auto from running if the creditor has not been paid.  

The thermometer showed a 103.5-degree fever, and her 10-year-old’s asthma was flaring up. Mary Bolender, who lives in Las Vegas, needed to get her daughter to an emergency room, but her 2005 Chrysler van would not start. The cause was not a mechanical problem — it was her lender. Ms. Bolender was three days behind on her monthly car payment. Her lender, C.A.G. Acceptance of Mesa, Ariz., remotely activated a device in her car’s dashboard that prevented her car from starting. Before she could get back on the road, she had to pay more than $389, money she did not have that morning in March. 

“I felt absolutely helpless,” said Ms. Bolender, a single mother who stopped working to care for her daughter. It was not the only time this happened: Her car was shut down that March, once in April and again in June. This new technology is bringing auto loans — and Wall Street’s version of Big Brother — into the lives of people with credit scores battered by the financial downturn. Auto loans to borrowers considered subprime, those with credit scores at or below 640, have spiked in the last five years. The jump has been driven in large part by the demand among investors for securities backed by the loans, which offer high returns at a time of low interest rates. Roughly 25 percent of all new auto loans made last year were subprime, and the volume of subprime auto loans reached more than $145 billion in the first three months of this year. 

Last year, Nevada’s Legislature heard testimony from T. Candice Smith, 31, who said she thought she was going to die when her car suddenly shut down, sending her careening across a three-lane Las Vegas highway. “It was horrifying,” she recalled.
Ms. Smith said that her lender, C.A.G. Acceptance, had remotely activated her ignition interruption device.
“It’s a safety hazard for the driver and for all others on the road,” said her lawyer, Sophia A. Medina, with the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.
This is a good example of how poverty is quite profitable for certain segments of our population. Although these devices are currently only being used on those customers unfortunate enough to be entangled in sketchy subprime loans I would predict it's only a matter of time before usage is expanded to the entire consumer auto loan market. In short you might have a 800 FICO score and be willing to put down 80% of the car's value as a down payment. But a bank might still decide that it can reduce risk by insisting that all of its loans must include shutoff devices. I wouldn't like that. But it's not just enlightened self-interest that would make me oppose these devices. It might be funny from afar if, as described in the article, Joe Sixpack is embarrassed as a deadbeat in front of his lady. It's not so funny when a car shuts off while it's being driven. It's not funny when a car won't start when a police or fire vehicle needs to get in front of it. There's no humor in a a non-working car when someone needs to get to the hospital or there is some other emergency. When I am on the road I try to be as vigilant as possible to protect myself and the lives of others. Part of that protection is a societal interest in ensuring that other drivers are licensed and that their cars work. I don't want to be on the road with other cars that could suddenly shut off. That's an unnecessary risk for us all. The lenders are making unnecessary and dangerous intrusions into our privacy and our safety. I understand their interest in receiving timely payments. But there are other concerns against which those must be balanced. Electronic shutoff devices are a bad idea.

Should electronic shutoff devices be outlawed?

Would you buy a car if your loan included this device as a requirement?

Are these people just examples of poor financial acumen?

Should the Federal government get involved in regulating these devices?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Movie Reviews: The Equalizer, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The Equalizer
directed by Antoine Fuqua
Do not f*** with people you do not know. This goes double if they happen to be Denzel Washington. That's pretty much the only message here. It's a simple enough mantra but one that evidently needed to be hammered home to a few people with leaky brains. Although I enjoyed this film it didn't need to run for over two hours. Washington is effective as McCall. It's hard to believe that the man is almost 60 years old. Given that the original Equalizer hero was also a bit past his prime I guess that's ok. Although this is based on the television series and is in its way an origin story for the McCall character the obvious comparison will be made to Man on Fire. Well in this movie the young lady in peril is not really an angel. She's more of a broken angel while Washington's character is far from despondent, suicidal or alcoholic. Although he may regret some actions he took in a past life they certainly don't force him into self-destructive activities. It is somewhat ironic that Denzel Washington made his debut in Death Wish as an uncredited alley mugger and now all these years later he's playing the secretly dangerous older gentleman with a hidden past. So much of Washington's acting here is wordless. There's a lot that his character lets people know just via his body language, and facial tics or expressions. In the seventies and eighties films it was often the Italian-American Mafia that was portrayed as being the dangerous organized business savvy baddies. Blacks or Hispanics were shown as the street thugs with a surfeit of testosterone and a constant need to show proof of same. In many modern films both roles have been given to the Russian Mafia. In film, these fellows all walk around with muscles on their muscles, slicked back hair, tattoos on just about every conceivable inch of their body and are always looking for a chance to hurt someone. Aggressive masculinity is how they roll. As Charlie Daniels might say they are mean as a snake, sneaky as a cat and belligerent when they speak.

Robert McCall (Washington) is a shift worker/supervisor at a huge hardware box store. Think Home Depot or Lowes. He's circumspect about his past work but is friendly and helpful to everyone he works with, especially Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) an overweight co-worker who dreams of becoming a security guard. McCall encourages Ralphie to eat less and exercise more. He even works out with him on his time off. McCall is a spartan man who avoids sugar, likes everything organized and does not waste time. He uses his stopwatch religiously.

Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a Russian born Boston area prostitute. She infrequently runs into McCall at an all night diner/coffee shop which they both like. Alina, who goes by the street name of Teri, views the place as a brief respite from her job. McCall, in what is likely a hint of a burdened conscience or simple grief, has trouble sleeping. He reads constantly, usually classic books like "The Old Man and The Sea" or "Invisible Man". McCall does not lust after or judge Alina, who wants to escape whoring and become a singer. Alina appreciates being able to talk to a man without sex or violence being involved. These late night chats are often interrupted by Alina's work. Aline occasionally shows up with bruises or welts. One day, enraged by her attitude, her pimps beat her so badly she winds up in the hospital. Armed only with a business card McCall goes to reason with her pimps. He offers them what he considers a fair amount to let Alina leave the business. Well as the Godfather would say you can't reason with some people.  So the pimps and thugs see the other side of McCall's personality. To paraphrase Wolverine, McCall's the best at what he does. But what he does isn't very nice.

These events attract the attention of the primary Russian Mafia troubleshooter Teddy (Martin Csokas) who was perfect for this role. Teddy must find McCall and deal with him painfully, publicly and permanently. Detective Masters (David Harbour) is a corrupt cop assigned to squire Teddy around as he tries to discover who McCall is and where he might be. This movie was quite heavy on the violence but I don't recall there being much in the way of sex or nudity. Although Washington is slightly showing his age, his character's actions remain believable if only because he's constantly out thinking everybody. Once he's committed to an action that's it. It reminded me of the Liam Neeson character in the first Taken. Washington is ice to Neeson's fire but they would make a hell of a team if anyone ever did a crossover/mashup. Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo play a married couple from McCall's previous life. I thought they were underused. Basically there won't be a lot of surprises for you here but if you like action movies this is a decent one. You will have to ignore the action film cliches though. Does the hero ever RUN away from an explosion he created? Of course not. He walks away because he's a bad motherf- shut your mouth! Although Fuqua tells more than shows Washington can effectively imply menace just by putting a tool back on the shelf.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Captain America has a long history. I have relatives who could quote you chapter and verse. I don't know all the backstory. But unfamiliarity with Marvel lore won't hinder film enjoyment. I thought the film was too long at about 136 minutes. It tried to wring some pathos from some betrayals I didn't care about. Nevertheless it was consistently entertaining. One pertinent question was how does Captain America or Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) adapt to a world in which everything he believed in has changed or disappeared. His peers are all dead or dying. This could leave a man a bit disoriented. This is occasionally played for laughs in regard to gender roles or music, but there's a more serious underpinning. The movie has some important things to say about our world. In the film world as in ours, the US military-industrial complex reigns virtually supreme. It can be difficult to tell who is the good guy or bad guy when the "good guys" claim the right to monitor communications across the planet, make war without Congressional or UN sanction, transfer intelligence and military equipment to other states without Congressional or Presidential approval, murder American citizens without warrant or trial and kidnap and torture "terror suspects" without any judicial oversight.

Captain America is first and foremost a soldier. He likes order and appreciates a clear chain of command. He favors simple direct solutions. He's not overly fond of complexity, secrecy, or lying for the "greater good". He makes very sharp distinctions between what's good and bad. This moral clarity means that he's having increasing difficulty working for S.H.I.E.L.D. , the intelligence/counterinsurgency/law enforcement organization headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Fury has no such qualms about his work and neither does one of his favorite agents Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Black Widow and Captain America have a friendship that could have been more were she not already pledged to Hawkeye. Romanoff is amused by Rogers' forties' sensibilities. She shares tips about dealing with modern women. Captain America probably shouldn't be working for an organization such as S.H.I.E.L.D. but as I wrote he's a patriot who's used to following orders. Romanoff also believes in following orders but unlike Rogers is not that concerned with questioning or challenging morality. Although the Black Widow is still sexy (she is after all played by Scarlett Johansson) things are toned down. I don't recall a plethora of downblouse shots. 
Although this film is a superhero movie and features the normal genre conventions of explosions,  feats that defy physics and human biology and so on it's much more centered in reality and the modern day than your run of the mill Marvel film. This is brought home when Nick Fury narrowly escapes assassination in a setpiece reminiscent of Sonny Corleone's murder. He flees to Captain America's apartment where he tells Rogers not to trust anyone, that S.H.I.E.L.D has been compromised and that they're all being monitored. And just like that the film takes a welcome and impressive shift into full blown conspiracy theory mode. Fury has been followed by his would be assassins. They succeed in killing him. Rogers chases the sniper only to find that the unknown assailant's speed and strength seemingly matches his own. The new head of S.H.I.E.L.D. (although I'm unclear as to whether he was the civilian head all along while Fury was operational chief) is Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). Pierce is cool, calm, and collected. He thinks that Fury was murdered in order to stop a particular project. Pierce intends to see that the project continues and Fury's killers are captured.  Piece is suspicious of Fury's final visit to Rogers. Redford is really smooth. Redford brings a certain charm and gravitas which grounds the movie in realism.

Rogers and Romanoff continue their investigation into Fury's death. They run afoul of the military-industrial complex and more sinister forces behind it. They attract the attention of an operative known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). They must seek help from another former soldier named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) with his own secrets. This film did a wonderful job of tying up many different conspiracy theories with Rogers' own past. It also walked the fine line between condemning the security state which we increasingly find ourselves living under and conceding that even in a democracy, some secrets must remain. The question is and always has been just how much freedom would you sacrifice in order to maintain your safety and security. I never was much of a Captain America or Superman fan as both characters seemed too impossibly straitlaced but this film showed that even goody two-shoes guys can have internal conflicts and character growth. This film has non-explicit violence. In the movie Kill Bill Volume 2, Pai Mei forces Beatrix Kiddo to learn how to throw a devastating punch from only 2-3 inches away. She doesn't see the point of this technique. Pai Mei dismisses her objections asking her what would she do if her enemy was only a short distance from her. In an elevator scene that IIRC was also in one of the Die Hard films, Captain America illustrates how to fight in close quarters. Other actors featured include Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Hayley Atwell, Gary Shandling, Toby Jones,  Emily Van Camp, Maximiliano Hernandez. Marvel godfather Stan Lee makes his customary cameo.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book Reviews: The Scythe, Saint Camber

The Scythe
by Balogun Ojetade
I am continuing my research into modern pulp, especially pulp that seeks to redress or rectify some of classic pulp's shortcomings around race and other hot button topics. So I read this book shortly after finishing the Black Pulp collection reviewed here. Anyway I enjoyed this book but not as much as the Black Pulp collection. The Scythe is a short novel, (novella?) that tells the story of the title character, a black doctor in 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma. Well if you know your history you know that the 1920s saw the Harlem Renaissance and ever so slight halting black progress. However it was also very close to the nadir of American racism. White supremacy was unquestioned in almost every facet of American life. Many whites were only vaguely aware that some black people didn't care for this state of affairs. You can read about the so-called race riots of Tulsa here. I say so-called because a) it was actually a pogrom and b) unlike our modern conception of race riots it was actually whites running amok, killing, shooting, looting, robbing and raping. The interesting thing about the Tulsa attack, if anything can be considered "interesting" when detailing such an atrocity is that it showed that the strain of "do for self" black political thought, that is "run your own businesses", "don't beg for government assistance" and "hire and work for your own people" which was shared and promulgated by people as politically diverse as Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Dr. Claude Anderson, Zora Neale Hurston and some modern black conservatives, had some very real limits and drawbacks. It's good to do for self and be self-sufficient whenever possible. But if racist whites decide that your success is a threat or intolerable insult and you must be literally beaten down into economic dependency or even eliminated, then what do you do? Unless you're ready, willing and able to meet fire with fire you will lose everything you hold dear. Economic success without political progress and the ability and willingness to defend yourself and your property is meaningless.

That concept of self-defense permeates the book, primarily expressed via the author's deep knowledge of martial arts. The titular hero is a black doctor named A.C. Jackson, who in keeping with his oath to serve all, regardless of race or status, is murdered during the Tulsa riots. This is no spoiler as it occurs in the first few pages. It's also no spoiler to reveal that the doctor is resurrected, well at least somewhat resurrected, by the spirit Ikukuklu, who is the scythe of the Grim Reaper or Death. Ikukulu is fascinated by how grimly humans cling on to life. He has decided that he would like to experience life for himself, at least for a while. So he offers to bring back Dr. Jackson from death as long as Ikukulu can hitch a ride. The side effect is that Dr. Jackson will have access to many of Ikukulu's abilities, which are extensive and of course paranormal. When Jackson comes back from the dead he starts calling himself The Scythe and of course seeks revenge on those who murdered him. But he doesn't stop there with his do-good actions. Jackson finds himself entangled in conspiracies that include the Klan, vampires, gangsters, ancient African gods and demons and a sexy Haitian femme fatale. This book was ok. I thought that it had a bit too much dialogue. There's very little in The Scythe that's not dialogue. There are some writers who tend to be all about setup and description and atmosphere. That's not an issue here. It's is a pulp novel so I wasn't expecting too much exposition or description but I think I wanted a little bit more. I wanted to feel the era of the twenties more than I did. The large print book is about 150 pages. You also get an additional origin short story of a character in The Scythe as well as some interesting author explanation of why he writes and how he understands his genre.

Saint Camber
by Katherine Kurtz
This is the second book in the Legends of Camber series. This series is a prequel to the Deryni Rising series. It was published after the Deryni Rising series although I read it first. I actually like this series better than the Deryni Rising series because the characters here were a little more, oh what's the word? I wouldn't say well rounded because that certainly wouldn't be the case. There's more of a sense of danger. Additionally I appreciated the various moral dilemmas. There's some serious questions on what makes a person good. If someone enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act asks if you are hiding any slaves what would you answer? Assuming that they are indeed hiding slaves, many "good" people would lie and say no with a clear conscience. That's a pretty easy question. But what if you're an undercover agent somewhere? To keep your cover and save the lives of your countrymen you must engage in activities that are unethical or illegal. How far can you go in breaking the rules before you're no better than whatever evil you're facing? To bring it back to the Fugitive Slave Act example you might well kill the racist law enforcer who discovered that you were hiding slaves in your home. After all he's an adult and signed up for his wicked job. But what if he brings his seven year old daughter along and she's the one who notices the hidden door in the kitchen? What then? Things may not be so clear cut. That's the place where Saint Camber spends most of its time. Just like George R.R.Martin did years later Kurtz brings us the story of what happens after the evil king is overthrown. As it turns out not everyone lives happily ever after.

As discussed in a review of the first book in this series, the Deryni are a race of humans who are visually indistinguishable from normal humans. However they have both inherent paranormal mental powers and a genetic affinity for externalized "magic" powers. They take these abilities for granted the same way a fish doesn't think about its gills. The Deryni are a significant minority. The evil Deryni King Imre ruled the Kingdom of Gwynedd until he was overthrown in a coup led by the powerful Deryni noble Camber of Culdi. Camber got involved in the revolution for both ideological (he's a patriot who hates bullies) and personal reasons (the Deryni King murdered his son). Camber found a scion of the previous human dynasty, a human priest named Cinhil, and placed him on the throne over the man's feeble objections.
Unfortunately Queen Ariella, the dead king's sister (and lover and mother of his child) escaped Camber and fled to a different kingdom, where augmented by her Deryni Gwynedd loyalists, renegade business interests, foreign relatives and mercenaries, she's preparing an invasion of Gwynedd.

To his chagrin Camber finds that humans in general and King Cinhil in particular are not exactly grateful that Deryni rebels overthrew the evil Deryni ruler and handed power back to a human regime. In fact they're not grateful at all. Cinhil profoundly resents Camber for pulling him from his previous career as an ascetic and celibate monk. Cinhil thinks that he's betrayed God by becoming king. Cinhil has little appreciation for the bigger picture or for doing the necessary to produce an heir.  If not quite a bigot Cinhil is well on his way to becoming one. The depressed king vacillates between bitter "why can't you make the decision and leave me alone"  and "oh you Deryni all think you're so f****** smart" moods. Other humans are starting to feel entitled as the newly empowered majority to request more concessions from Deryni. Some requests are more akin to demands. 
When the one Deryni whom Cinhil semi-tolerates is killed in the battle with Ariella, Camber has a choice to make, one which will determine the fate of the kingdoms, the Deryni and his own legacy. Unlike works by Abercrombie and Martin, Kurtz posits a world where religion and the church are extremely powerful. But it's not just religious temporal power which informs the world Kurtz has created. People actually believe in God. People try to do the right thing. Even people who make mistakes or commit evil acts attempt to justify them by appeals to God. Faith matters. So there's a realism here that is occasionally missing in other fantasy novels. Not everyone is a cynical self-interested scoundrel. Anyone remotely familiar with Christian (primarily Catholic) doctrine, ritual and organization will find all of that echoed in this book. Mass is both a religious and political event. There are orders of religious knights. My small print edition was around 375-400 pages.

Why Fall Is My Favorite Season!

What does fall or autumn mean to you? Fall is my favorite season. I think this could be some ancient preference encoded in my DNA. Fall means that another year's harvest has been successfully gathered. It's time to reap in the bounty and get ready for winter. Fall means that I no longer have to mow the lawn every four or five days. That's great because I can save some time on the weekends or weekday evenings for more important things. The cooler weather means I can stop running the home air conditioning. I don't usually turn the heat on until sometime in mid November. So there is a two to three month period where my electric and heating bills are extremely low. Money saved always makes me happy. Fall means gray skies, rain and overcast days but it can also provide sunny days which lack summer's overwhelming heat and humidity. There's nothing worse than working in a building during the summer when the central air fails and you swiftly become aware of the unpleasant aromas arising from your fellow human beings. And they would likely say the same about you. Summer can be just sort of a stinky season all day every day, particularly if you have to work outside, work with people who don't believe in deodorant or your job requires constant movement. Fall stops that from happening. In fall you no longer have the irritating experience of running your home AC all day long only to see the inside temperature stubbornly remain around 74 degrees. 

While even someone like myself who generally dislikes summer must admit there is something comforting about walking thru the neighborhood on a summer night and hearing the low hum of crickets chattering to each other I find it is even more enjoyable to walk thru that same neighborhood on a fall night and hear silence. The days get shorter. Things get cooler. You can actually think. I get more energized in both my work life and personal life. It's easier to fall asleep and stay asleep. There's something special about getting the house ready for winter. You must make sure that you, your home and loved ones are all prepared for the approaching ice, snow and cold. Did you replace that warped door? Will that window frame make it through the winter? Fall means trips to apple orchards for apple fritters, various fruit pies, hayrides, syrup, apple cider, apple juice, applesauce, hard candies, brownies and of course apples! There's very little you can't make with apples. You can learn a lot about the food chain by taking some trips to farms and farmer's markets. Although I didn't appreciate it as much as I should have accompanying my father on Saturday morning trips to Eastern Market was fun. I think it's important to see where our food comes from. Unfortunately no matter where you live it has become more difficult to do this but the fall apple harvest makes me feel more connected to the food chain, even if this is an illusion sold by corporate agribusiness. Fall means football. Whether it's going to see your nephew or cousin play in a high school game, hearing people pound the drums on Friday night for the upcoming college game on Saturday or settling in to watch the NFL games on Sunday, watching football remains an exciting activity for me. Football is my favorite sport. 

I think that the greatest benefit of fall, particularly if you live in a continental climate such as any part of the Midwest or most of the northern US, is the changing colors of the trees. Just like humans and other animals, the trees are shutting down food production and storing energy for the winter ahead. We benefit from seeing all the crazy colors produced during this process. Although I am not a photographer sometimes I can't help but stop to take pictures of the wondrous changes occurring all around us. Eventually there is a bleakness to fall, a time when all the leaves have fallen off the trees but the snow has yet to arrive. Everything is just gray. Nevertheless, I even like that time. I have never understood why anyone needs mood altering substances, legal or otherwise, when there is just so much natural beauty out there. If you are a busy person climbing the corporate ladder and working 80 hours a week or if you are someone who works 100 hours a week but already has the corner office, fancy title and income because you're the smartest or biggest wolf in the pack I still hope that you take time out from your busy day as Master/Mistress of the universe to marvel at the elegance and artistry that is nature. Because one day sooner than you might think you won't be able to do that. So what are you waiting for? Get off the computer, go out and enjoy the world already!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Scottish Vote For Independence Fails

In a vote that was watched closely by independence movements in Europe and throughout the world, the people of Scotland decided to remain as part of the United Kingdom instead of breaking away to become an independent state. The final vote in favor of remaining British was a decisive 55-44. There were plenty of good economic arguments for staying together and obviously a strong nationalist interest in forging ahead separately. I think that not only did the economics not make sense but that also there wasn't quite the fierce level of simmering hostility or just "difference"  which is normally required to break apart a state. Unlike, say multi-ethnic states in Eastern Europe, Eastern Africa or the Middle East, the Union of Scotland and England dating back to 1707 has been pretty stable. I didn't think there was enough fire in the belly on the parts of the Scots to separate from England. I have a few friends who are Scottish residents as well as a few acquaintances descended from recent Scottish immigrants. It will be interesting over the next few days to see what they thought of this vote and of course how they voted, if eligible. Although every independence movement is different, with its own peculiar set of real or imagined historical grievances, ethnic, racial, religious or geographical identities and planned goals for the future, just about every separatist movement would have gotten a real boost if Scotland's independence had become something real in 2014 instead of remaining a memory. Nevertheless this is another example of the power of nationalism and memory in the modern world.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Unintended Consequences: New York Lesbian Mothers and Kansas Conservatives

By the time I was a teen my father no longer practiced corporal punishment on me. He thought it was no longer effective on me and disrespectful to both of us. However one of his favorite sayings when he thought I (or anyone else regardless of age or relationship) was about to do something ill-advised was to throw up his hands and declare "You can do whatever you want to do. You're (almost) grown." Left unsaid was the sentence "But don't come crying to me when it doesn't work out, dummy!" I've adopted that saying and use it often. I was reminded of this advice while reading two stories concerning recent events in New York and Kansas. In each instance, policy changes that were implemented have proven to have some consequences which were either not fully anticipated (New York) or were the exact opposite of what was promised (Kansas). This doesn't necessarily prove that the policy changes were stupid ideas, though my bias would make me argue that's definitely the case in the Kansas situation. But it does show that before people make legal or policy changes they do need to think things through a little more carefully. Fewer people would get hurt and bloggers wouldn't have fodder for quick posts before devoting their undivided attention to their day job. Both stories showed that good intentions don't necessarily lead to good results.  Both stories also illuminated that liberals and conservatives can be equally dogmatic and/or have blind spots when it comes to certain base principles.

As we've discussed before when it comes to custody and child care disputes the only primary principle that the state generally adheres to is that the man is always wrong and must pay is that the best interests of the child are paramount and the biological parent(s) is (are) responsible for the well being of the child. There are a few exceptions to this insofar as biology but these exceptions are generally to the detriment of the man. In most states if you are a married man and your wife produces a child you are held responsible for the well being of that child even if you prove that your wife was cheating with the mailman. Too bad, so sad, you're the dad. On the other hand if you are a stepfather or boyfriend and your wife or girlfriend has children and you and she break up, generally speaking you won't have financial responsibility, custody or visitation to those children. You can seek it but it's not by any means guaranteed. You're not the biological father. You would have such responsibilities if you adopted the children. A lesbian couple in New York (or rather one half of a lesbian couple) discovered this the hard way when they broke up and the woman who was not the biological mother tried to obtain visitation/custody to the child which they had both parented.
The Marriage Equality Act, which New York State passed in June 2011, allowed Jann Paczkowski to marry her partner, Jamie, with the assurance that “the marriages of same-sex and different-sex couples” would “be treated equally in all respects under the law.” But when the couple separated and Ms. Paczkowski sought joint custody of the 2-year-old boy they were raising together, she discovered the limits of that assurance. On June 30, 2014, a judge in Nassau County family court ruled that Ms. Paczkowski did not have legal standing to seek access to the boy — because even under the Marriage Equality Act, she was not his parent. 
In his decision, Judge Edmund M. Dane acknowledged “inequity” and “imbalance” in the law, adding that if Ms. Paczkowski were a man in the same position, the law might point toward a different ruling. But in the end, he left Jann with no contact with the boy. The decision devastated Ms. Paczkowski, 36. “You can see how angry and upset I am,” she said on a recent afternoon, seated beside her court-appointed lawyer after a morning spent moving cars for an auction house. She had not seen the boy since a brief visit on Mother’s Day. Children born to a married couple are legally presumed to belong to both spouses; for those born before a marriage — like J. and numerous children born to gay parents before the Marriage Equality Act — only the biological parent is presumed to be the parent.
I am not sure that this is some bias against gay people. The law in New York did allow for non-biological parents to adopt the children of their partners. For whatever reason Jann Paczkowski did not do that. So since there was no adoption the state went with Jamie Lechner as the sole parent. Although gays can marry and have children biology only allows one of them to be the biological parent. Heterosexuals are much less likely to have this issue, by definition.  LINK
This can be "fixed" legally but the flip side is that the fix wouldn't just apply to gay couples, who are after all an overwhelming minority of all couples. If New York allows non-biological and non-adoptive "parents" standing in custody or visitation cases that would mean that every girlfriend, boyfriend or ex-spouse would also have standing to sue for custody or visitation in every single type of living arrangement. That might be less than ideal. Or maybe that is what people want. I can't call it. It would also allow biological parents to sue every single boyfriend, girlfriend or ex-spouse for child support. That is definitely a bad idea in my opinion. I mean if you live with someone for a year or so and then decide that it's not working out do you really want them coming after you for support for a child that is not yours? Or perhaps you discover that Mr. or Miss Right is really horribly wrong and a substance abuser to boot so you leave. Should they be able to assert co-parenting rights to your child when they are not the biological or adoptive parent?

Moving to the Midwest, the state of Kansas, under the leadership of Republican Governor Sam Brownback took a shift far to the right on both cultural and economic issues with results that so far, at least economically have been been just short of disastrous.
One of the basic ideas that animates supply side neo-conservative economics is that tax rates on the wealthy, capital and/or corporations are too high. What needs to occur is that the tax rates on these segments of society should be lowered. This will be good for everyone because the wealthy will be inspired to invest more and hire more, available jobs will increase and those nasty government busybodies will have less funding with which to harass decent God fearing Americans. Low taxes= high prosperity. Well Kansas tried that. It didn't work. Instead of budget surpluses, low unemployment and solid revenue streams Kansas finds its job growth lagging the nation's, a gaping hole in its budget that must be plugged and cuts in the state's bond rating which of course means that the cost to borrow money will increase. This is not exactly what Brownback promised when he and his supporters pushed through significant cuts in both income and sales taxes to the point where some people of lower means were paying more in sales taxes than higher income people were paying in income taxes. Prosperity was evidently not just around the corner. Trickle down economics once again failed to deliver the goods. Obviously though I suppose it might depend on what you thought the "goods" were. If your preferred response to gaping revenue cuts is to then cut public spending (i.e. education) even further than possibly everything is working according to plan. The thing is though is that even other Kansas Republicans are starting to admit that things haven't gone according to plan and are beginning to distance themselves from Brownback's agenda. Brownback and his ilk may have tacked too far to the right.
HUTCHINSON, Kan. — In his 40 years living in Kansas, Konrad Hastings cannot remember voting for a Democrat. He is the type who agonizes over big purchases, trying to save as much money as possible. He is against stricter gun laws, opposes abortion in most cases and prefers less government involvement in his life. 
But when he casts his ballot for governor in November, he plans to shun the leader of this state’s conservative movement, the Republican incumbent, Sam Brownback, and vote for the Democratic challenger. 
“He’s leading Kansas down,” said Mr. Hastings, 68, who said he voted for Mr. Brownback four years ago, when he easily won his first term. “We’re going to be bankrupt in two or three years if we keep going his way.” Voters like Mr. Hastings are at the heart of Mr. Brownback’s surprising fight for political survival. Most criticism of Mr. Brownback has centered on the tax cuts, which slashed individual income tax rates and eliminated taxes on nonwage earnings for nearly 200,000 small businesses. The most recent fiscal year ended with state revenues more than $300 million short of expectations. Based on decreased revenue from the tax cuts, the state’s nonpartisan legislative research department estimates that the budget will have to be adjusted by $1.3 billion, either through spending cuts or additional revenue, over the next five years in order to remain balanced.
Opponents of the governor have used this to stoke fears that he would cut vital services. Both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have downgraded Kansas’ credit rating.
People obviously have different ideas about abortion, gay marriage, gun control and so on but when you start messing with their money everyone tends to notice. States are generally required to have balanced budgets so if there is a shortfall either taxes must increase or spending must decline. Different political groups have different preferences for which choices should be made and that's fine. What's not fine is pretending that there is a free lunch. If you cut taxes, generally revenue is going to drop. There is a political class that is entirely invested in pretending that this isn't true but it is. Now the bill is coming due in Kansas.  Governor Brownback has a 7 point lead over his Democratic challenger, which is pretty close for a reliably Republican state like Kansas. Time will tell what political choice Kansans make but once again it should be obvious to people that trickle down economics is very good at cutting taxes on the wealthy, on capitalists or corporations. It is somewhat limited however when it comes to producing prosperity for everyone, all else equal.

What's your take on these two stories?

Do you think that a non-biological gay parent should be treated the same as a biological heterosexual parent?

Will Governor Brownback be re-elected? Are tax cuts the way to prosperity?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Reviews: Mr. Mercedes, Dead Wrong

Mr. Mercedes
by Stephen King
I've been reading a lot of Stephen King's works lately. Someday I will get around to reading what some people say is King's masterpiece, The Dark Tower series, but I didn't have time for all that. So Mr. Mercedes it was. This book is about 400 pages. There are no supernatural elements so if you're unable to suspend disbelief to enter the world of vampires and curses, ghosts and multidimensional demons, then this might be safe reading for you. King called this book his first hardboiled detective tale. King provides some detailed descriptions and some very realistic characterizations, generally. He also stumbles in creating a black character. Here, the black character, despite being a teenager of very high intelligence, is a person who finds it amusingly ironic to speak to the white protagonist in 1930s Stepin Fetchit dialect. The teen claims to do this because he's upper middle class, likely going to an Ivy League school and worries that he's not really living the true "black experience". This is senseless. I grew up middle class. My brother is a Harvard grad. Last I checked there were about seven first or second degree family members on both sides who are attorneys or doctors. We rarely had doubts about who we were or what society was all about and if we did we certainly wouldn't have expressed them by speaking Amos-n-Andy dialect to a white man old enough to be our grandfather. NOBODY in either parent's family thought poverty or dysfunction was the real black experience. Also, my parents wouldn't have allowed me to hang around alone with any adult man, regardless of race. Alarm bells would have gone off. "So Shady, where do you think you're going? Oh Dad, I'm just going over to Mr. Hodges' house to hang out and do things I can't talk to you about". Right. Don't get me wrong. I know that good friends can racially or ethnically mock themselves and each other. I've seen/heard it. But my experience has been that such banter is done by long time intimate friends or lovers with enough history to know that no malice is meant. 

I just couldn't buy that a sixty something white retired cop and a black teenager would have had such trust and history. And certain black conservatives not withstanding I don't know any black people who would find it amusing to refer to their employer to his face and in front of other whites as "Massa So-and-So".

We learn the killer's identity almost immediately. The suspense is in whether the hero and his boy wonder sidekick, his younger love interest, and her OCD afflicted cousin will discover the bad guy's identity and/or protect themselves, the general public and their loved ones from the killer. It seems as if incest is becoming more popular as a literary marker of evil.
Brady Hartsfield, a nondescript looking computer tech, stole a Mercedes. For fun he ran over numerous people at a job fair. He was never caught. Brady is a sociopath. He considers other people cattle. He enjoys proving to himself daily that he is smarter than and thus superior to everyone else. He lives with his mother, Deborah Ann, an alcoholic former cheerleader who is losing her shape. Nevertheless, Deborah Ann, a racist like Brady, loves her son. She loves him so much that she provides Brady grateful "release" when he gets fierce intense throbbing... uh... headaches. They haven't done THAT final thing yet but they've done other things. They never discuss their sin with each other. King doesn't go into detailed specifics about what they actually do. The duo has even worse secrets.
Former police detective Bill Hodges was assigned to the case but could not solve it. Now retired, depressed, moving quickly from overweight to obese, and estranged from his remaining family he spends his days watching Jerry Springer, Judge Judy and contemplating suicide. Bill gets a note from Brady taunting him for not solving the case and threatening to cause more havoc. But Bill doesn't commit suicide as Brady intended. Instead Bill has found purpose. With the help of local teen computer genius Jerome Robinson and the sexy Janey Patterson, a relative of one of Brady's victims, Bill launches his own investigation. However Bill is limited because he's no longer a police officer. He may be a former brother in blue but there is very little active duty officers like less than non-cops interfering in their investigations, lying to them and withholding evidence. If his former co-workers find out what he's up to it won't be pretty. Over the computer and elsewhere Bill and Brady play out a deadly cat-and-mouse game. Each attempts to figure out what makes the other tick. Each tries to goad their opponent into making a critical mistake. You will enjoy how Bill picks up little bits and pieces of information from what Brady writes and what Brady does not write. Brady loves hiding in plain sight. He thinks he maintains a public persona of a helpful cheerful fellow. He almost never drops his masks. Speaking of masks there is a shout out to Pennywise in IT.

King's eye for phrasing is in full effect here. It's amazing how some writers can so easily and accurately describe things of deep mystery and complexity while others have great trouble informing you that the sky is blue. If you've ever had to attend a funeral of someone you cared for then King's description of a woman crying after her sister's funeral sounding like "the hoarse cries of a crow in a cornfield" may bring back some unpleasant memories. King flows so effortlessly that you don't want the story to stop. King also gives interesting insights into the challenges of aging. If you are fascinated by two men matching wits for all the marbles you may enjoy this story. Brady reminded me of a similar King character in The Stand, Harold Lauder. His final plans are almost exactly the same as Lauder's and for many of the same reasons.

Dead Wrong
by Richard Belzer and David Wayne
I am open to different explanations for key historical events. Some people would call these explanations conspiracy theories. I can pretty much detail when I became at least willing to consider alternative explanations. It all began when I was around eight or nine years old. I read in the World Book Encyclopedia that Jack Ruby was a nightclub owner who killed Lee Harvey Oswald, that disaffected Marine sniper who murdered JFK, because Ruby was distraught with grief and wanted to spare Jackie Kennedy the trauma of a trial. It wasn't until later that I learned that Ruby was actually a Chicago Outfit associate who ran strip clubs and prostitutes and had several contacts with Dallas police. It wasn't until later that I learned that the rifle allegedly used to kill JFK was a piece of garbage that couldn't consistently hit the broad side of a barn in a master sniper's hands, which Oswald was not. It wasn't until later that I learned that three bullets probably could not have caused the mayhem inflicted. It wasn't until later that I learned that people identifying themselves as Secret Service agents were on the grassy knoll but that the Secret Service said none of its agents were on the knoll. It wasn't until later that I learned of the calvacade of witnesses who had suspicious deaths shortly after November 22, 1963. It wasn't until later that I learned of various men calling themselves Lee Harvey Oswald were behaving oddly in 1962-1963. Most of these men looked nothing like Lee Harvey Oswald. So learning all of this and more in the years since reading the World Book Encyclopedia entry made me at least willing to wonder if the official explanation and the evidence for certain things added up. I suppose eventually either way you get to faith on some things but then again we know that officials lie. If the Chicago Police and FBI lied about their murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton, and we know that they did, what else are people in positions of power lying about? 

This book, written by actor, comedian, writer and gadfly Richard Belzer and investigative journalist David Wayne, seeks to show you exactly what else the powers that be are lying about or have lied about. I don't agree with all of their conclusions but as the old joke goes just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Dead Wrong examines and rejects the mainstream wisdom on some of the stranger mysterious deaths or assassinations over the past half-century or so. This includes the Kennedy Brothers, MLK ,Marilyn Monroe, Fred Hampton, and many more lesser known figures such as Henry Marshall and Frank Olsen. Investigator Marshall was a whistleblower on Department of Agriculture shenanigans that led to high ranking people, including LBJ. After Marshall refused a promotion, seeing it as a bribe, he was found dead on his farm shot with his own rifle. Marshall had been shot five times with a bolt-action rifle but the initial verdict by the local politically connected county sheriff and justice of the peace was suicide! They ordered the body buried without an autopsy. It wasn't until one of the LBJ associates was arrested and charged with fraud and conspiracy that a grand jury ordered Marshall's body exhumed. It was discovered that he had suffered a blow to the head and had had a high level of carbon monoxide in his body before being shot. The ruling of suicide was overturned. This book is stuffed full of facts and interesting allusions but is aimed at the skeptic or person who only has casual interest in these matters. It's an interesting read nonetheless and may make you excited to dig deeper into these matters. Are you ready to take the red pill?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Do the Right Thing!

Do you think you are a moral person? You probably do. There are very few people who consciously think of themselves as evil, immoral or heartless. Even people who kill puppies for a living usually have what they see as good reasons for doing so. From time to time we all have to make decisions, some small and some large about what sort of people we are. Generally these are not difficult and life altering major decisions like telling your dying friend that his wife cheated on him and he has been raising another man's children or escaping a sinking ship and realizing that the lifeboat only has enough room for two other people when you have three kids. All the same morals are morals no matter how minor the decisions seem to be. The choices we make in situations both big and small define the sort of people that we are trying to become. There aren't necessarily right answers to many of these questions but there are probably some answers that may seem right to you. Some questions are purely hypothetical; others are drawn from real life experiences, albeit not necessarily mine. What's the right thing to do in the following ten situations?
You're out in public. You notice that a highly attractive member of the opposite sex has some writing on a body part normally not visible to the general public. This could be a very important message. If this person didn't wish for you to read the writings on their (insert body part here) they wouldn't have ventured out dressed as they did, would they? So what do you do? Avert your eyes? Take a quick look and move on? Openly leer? Politely inform the person that they are showing more flesh than they may realize? Or saunter over to ask the person what the message says as you can't quite make it out from your vantage point? 
You are with your unmarried significant other at an important family event. You think that s/he could be the ONE. This is your first chance to make an impression on their family. Your honey's parent makes an offhand comment to you on a sensitive topic (race/religion/culture/politics) that makes you see red. You wonder how a person this stupid manages to dress themselves every morning. But your special rider thinks their parent hung the moon. S/he told you beforehand that their parent had different views than you. S/he asked you to be nice. Arguing with their parent might destroy your relationship with Miss/Mr. Wonderful. So what do you do? Do you pretend agreement? Say nothing? Gracefully change the subject? Or let this ignoramus know how dumb they are? Would your answer change if you were married?

At the grocery store you buy something cheap. The cashier makes a mistake. He returns too much change. E.g, he gives you back two $10 bills when your expected change was $2.10. Do you point out the mistake and return the money? Or do you take the money and keep it moving? After all it's not your fault he can't count.
You're on a company critical project. You discover a catastrophic flaw. You need time to correct the problem. You may need to redesign everything. Without a fix you KNOW there will be massive failures, bad publicity, legal consequences, and increased costs. You tell your boss. Your boss says the project has been delayed long enough. She insists that you cut corners to make the target date. She doesn't trust your analysis. She says any problems can be fixed later. This is not a debate. She informs you that you will meet the date. She warns you against going to upper management, ownership or the press. The boss says this issue is closed. All she wants to hear from you is "Yes. We will meet the date". Getting on her bad side is a career limiting move. She has a long memory and highly placed friends throughout the company. So what do you do?
You're attending a company training event. This week long class is required for your next promotion. You must create and deliver a multimedia presentation on various business cases. The instructor wants teamwork. He has randomly assigned everyone partners. The instructor will judge you on the final presentation and on cooperation with your partner. Your partner is a man infamous throughout the entire department for ignoring basic American hygiene. He last showered during the Clinton Administration. Soap, toothpaste, deodorant and daily clothing changes are foreign concepts to him. He can make you nauseous. The other students know this and definitely won't switch partners with you. What do you do? Grit it out without complaining? Tell the instructor that you can't work with this person? Or angrily tell Mr. Skunk that unused soap is worthless soap?


A good friend has privately told you that the thrill is gone from their marriage. He or she is cheating. They are entirely unrepentant. Their spouse is completely clueless and still believes that Mr./Mrs. Cheater is wonderful. The cheater just wanted to vent. They don't want their spouse to know. They don't want THAT headache right now, especially since they're on their way to the no-tell motel. You are also REALLY good friends with their spouse and routinely see them, both with and without their adulterous other half. The faithful spouse believes that you are righteous. They would see your silence as a horrible betrayal. So what do you do? Mind your own business and let grown people work it out? Tell the other spouse what's going on?
You're at an impasse on a work assignment. Your task must be completed tomorrow but that looks unlikely. Your boss has gone home. There is another more experienced, higher ranking person who could immediately provide the solution. However, in the past when you asked him for help, he made a Broadway production of how busy he was. He said that if you wanted him to do your job for you then he wanted your salary. He ultimately gave you the answer you needed but not without a humiliating dressing down disguised as humor. You can ask him for assistance, eat a big load of crap, get the answers you need and meet deadlines. Or you can continue to fly solo. You'll stay late and will probably miss your project time commitments anyway even if you do eventually find the answer. Your boss will be VERY upset with you if you miss your deadlines. So what do you do?


Walking through a grocery store aisle you see a person knock an entire section of items off the shelf. They do not put anything back on the shelf and just continue on their way. What do you do? Do you also ignore the items on the floor because you didn't create the mess. Do you confront the person who knocked the items over? Do you start putting things back yourself?
You have a valuable investment. Selling it won't permit you to retire but you will be able to improve your savings, carry out some home improvement projects, and provide seed capital for your long postponed Evil Overlord project to rule the world. But before selling the asset and admiring your fat wallet you learn that a close family member (but not your spouse/sibling/parent) is in a serious financial jam. Rescuing them will cost roughly the expected profit from your asset sale. Do you help your kin? It will take years to recoup the lost cash. Do you stick to your original plans? Would your answer change if it were a first degree relative?

You've had a long hard day at work. You're dead on your feet. You're taking crowded public transportation home. You're about 20 minutes away from your stop. Fortunately you found a seat. Standing people are packed together like sardines. A visibly pregnant woman gets on the vehicle. There are no open seats. No one offers her a seat. She's in front of you. She's not verbally asking for your seat but she is making eye contact with you. Do you offer your seat? Is your answer dependent on your age or gender?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

President Obama Approval Ratings and Leadership

I am not a President Obama partisan. I supported other candidates. I think the President has been a more or less average President. I have been severely disappointed on his foreign policy and civil liberties moves. I think that by instinct and training the President is too often cautious when he should be bold. That aside, given the nature of the United States political economy one would have been foolish to expect any President, let alone the first Black President to have been a fire breathing transformative figure of justice for race, gender, class or any other issue that is near and dear to the Left. That's just not how things work, despite what Cornel West says. It's not original to me and I can't remember where I read it but just recently I perused something that claimed (perhaps jokingly, perhaps not) that just as soon as any US President is inaugurated he is shown an unreleased tape of the events in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963 and asked if he has any questions. I don't know about that but for whatever reason President Obama has been something of a disappointment to some notable progressive figures, most recently filmmaker Michael Moore. For some reason some white progressives always seem to be surprised and vaguely disappointed that not every black politician is Nat Turner Malcolm X the 3rd, a fire breathing reject from a 70s blaxploitation movie who's here to kick a$$ and stick it to the Man. I'm not entirely sure such a man would have been elected President. Nah, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't have been. But it's not just rotund Michiganians that the President has to worry about pleasing. His approval ratings for leadership have reached new lows just as he plans to address the nation this evening to discuss his strategy for dealing with the group ISIS.
Barack Obama’s rating for strong leadership has dropped to a new low in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, hammered by criticism of his work on international crises and a stalled domestic agenda alike. With the midterm elections looming, Americans by a 10-point margin, 52-42 percent, see his presidency more as a failure than a success.
Just 38 percent now approve of Obama’s handling of international affairs, down 8 percentage points since July to a career low; 56 percent disapprove, a majority for the first time. Fifty-two percent say he’s been too cautious in dealing with Islamic insurgents in Iraq and Syria. And the public is ahead of Obama in support for a military response to that crisis, with 65 percent in favor of extending U.S. air strikes to Syria.  
Now you can always find reasons to blame the guy in the Big Seat before you for leaving you a big old s*** sandwich to chow down on. Almost every President does that, especially if the previous President was a member of the opposite party. Heck, even if the previous President was a member of your party, would be Presidents often find it prudent to distance themselves policy wise, just ask Hillary Clinton. I think that the Iraq war pursued by President Bush and the entire Mid-East policy pursued by previous Presidents have been utter failures. ISIS would not exist as it does now had the US not invaded Iraq and unwittingly released and restoked ethnic and religious tensions across the region. Unlike what Cheney and other neocons claimed, invading Iraq did not lead to peaceful multiparty democracies in the Middle East. But that's not important now. President Obama is in charge. He will have to convince people that he knows what he's doing and that he has a coherent and applicable foreign policy strategy. Ironically, Congress, which has the constitutional power to declare war and end funding for war, has been in hiding on the issue, scared to say yea or nay. It is much safer to effectively vote "Present" and then blame the President if things turn out bad or say you were with him all along if things work out. That's a failing in our system.

Nevertheless whether it is "optics" as the President and his supporters dismissively term it or an actual "failure of leadership" as trained conservative critics bray on command, there does seem to me to be a certain hesitation, a certain reluctance, a willingness to "lead from behind" which can be somewhat offsetting to the American public. As pointed out in the ABC NEWS link though the saving grace for the President is that the Republicans in Congress and Congress in general are seen in an even worse light. Their constant "no" on everything and their embrace of racialized ugliness have left Republicans in a bad place, nationally. Also I think that people forget sometimes, in part because of the 24-7 news cycle and constant "scandal that fizzles out", that we do not live under a parliamentary system. Even if almost everyone thinks the President is the worst President ever and the Democrats get slaughtered in the midterms, absent impeachment and conviction, President Obama still has two years and change left in his term. He's not going anywhere.

Still, from a purely partisan perspective, it might help Democrats heck it might help the country, if the President could provide or be seen to provide some stronger leadership and clarity. I don't understand how he can claim he doesn't need congressional approval for war in Libya, turn around and say he probably does need it in Syria and now hint that he may not need it for Iraq and Syria. You have to give your supporters something to rally for, not just constantly say the other guys are worse. Although that may be true I'm not sure that gets people to the polls in November or helps your party keep the White House in 2016.

What do you think?

Do you think the President has provided strong leadership?

Do you have any serious disappointments with the President?

If you could talk to him what you like to him to say in his speech tonight? Will you watch his speech?

What policy changes would you ask him to make? What can he do to improve the public perception of his leadership?