Thursday, August 28, 2014

Billy Joel - Just The Way You Are (Audio)

Times change, and we change a little bit ourselves. 

Back in '77, I was way, way too cool to even acknowledge this song's existence, much less make a value judgment about it, much less actually like it.  In '77 I was too cool even for Jackson Browne.  More commercial acts I was ready to kill with my hands.  No, no, for me it was German trance music, Fripp and Eno, Japanese hipsters, Van Dyke Parks, Afro-Beat and Highlife, Italian Alt/Pop, Reggae and Calypso, some Brazilians.  I was out there. 

Not that I was cool myself.  One must be born cool, and I was not.  But I was hip there for a while.  Cool is a temperament; hip is a lifestyle.  Hip is just a matter of paying attention and keeping up with the latest revelations.  In my defense, I did actually love everything that I supported, and I still do.  That stuff is great. 

But so is Billy Joel.  There, I said it.  This cut is one of my Karaoke hits over here in South East Asia, I sing the hell out of it.  By now I love Jackson Browne too, love the dude a lot.  I can't believe that I used to think he was maudlin and cloyingly sentimental. 

Yes, we change.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Go To College! It'll Be Great!

When I was a young man, and the earth itself has matured considerably since then, college was thought to be the best way to get ahead in the world.  Back then there actually was a middle-class, and a college degree was seen as the key to achieving middle-class status.  Even then college was being oversold. 

In those halcyon days, the middle-class was so vast that it was easy to get in.  Anyone who landed a good union job was in like Flynn.  Any guy, it was mostly guys, who had a job that came with membership in the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers, a job as a big city policeman or fireman, a plumbers union, any construction union, hell, even the National Maritime Union.  You were in:  Welcome to the Middle-Class. 

It’s a lot harder now that the middle-class has been “reduced to the size where it could be drowned in a bathtub,” to paraphrase.  Harder to get in, that is.  The unions are gone, and college, however effective it might have been in the past, no longer does much for your chances. 

This has not prevented a lot of young people from trying.  Not thrilled with pulling coffees down at the Starbucks, or flipping burgers, they are willing to take big-time chances in the (vain) hope of crashing into the middle-class.  Vain hopes like getting a college degree, or, to be on the safe side, multiple college degrees.  It is increasingly obvious that these plans are misguided.  What they are finding out to their chagrin is that all of that college has actually destroyed their chances for happiness, rather than enhancing them.

This happens, of course, through the mechanism of student loan debt. 

Before 1976, tuitions were very reasonable.  Student loans were available, and they were reasonable too.  If you got jammed up somehow, the loans were dischargeable in bankruptcy.  Student loans are, after all, unsecured.  Those were the good old days.  It was easy enough to get a good education without borrowing money at all.  My own university, Queens College of the City University of New York, cost a big twenty-five dollars per semester at that time.  You read that right.  Beyond that you had only to buy the books.  Now that’s reasonable.  It was, like all state and municipal institutions of the time, a way for working class kids to get an education.  Not as a gift, mind you, but because: 1) their parents were building society and not getting rich doing it; and 2) with an education they could make a good living, continue the work of building society, and pay taxes.  No one cares about those things anymore, and tuitions have become astronomical.

It’s an aspect of the modern frisson between Liberty and Equality.  The equality value of free education has been shit-canned in favor of the liberty value of unlimited exploitation of people as a mere economic recourse.  But that’s another story.

By now, a university education is fabulously expensive and of dubious value as a tool for advancement.  How did this all happen?

The Dischargeability of Student Loans in Bankruptcy

 Before 1976:  Student loans are dischargeable in bankruptcy, just like any other unsecured loan.

1976:  Student loans funded by the government or by a non-profit organization (like a university) are dischargeable in bankruptcy after a waiting period of five years.

1990:  The waiting period is extended to seven years, but student loans are still dischargeable.

1998:  The seven year waiting period is eliminated, and student loans from the government or from non-profit organizations are now non-dischargeable for all time. *

2005:  ALL private student loans, from whatever source, are now non-dischargeable. 

*. . . unless for undue hardship.  11 USC 523 (a)(8).  As a practical matter, the undue hardship is almost never, ever granted.  I mean, you’d have to have gone to school to become a deep sea diver and after graduation to have been rendered paraplegic in a traffic accident.  Even then you might not get it, because, after all, you could do consulting or something. 

This section taken from lexisnexis.com.

This is a Problem for All of Us

Americans today are afraid that they are being squeezed out of the middle-class.  That’s if they had already made it to the comfortable lifestyle that defines it.  Younger people are afraid that they’ll never be able to duplicate the standard of living that they had living with their parents as children, or, let’s say, as dependents, because by now many of them can’t afford to move out in the first place. 

Young people today are desperate to go to college in the hopes that they can someday have that comfortable lifestyle.   And they are willing to borrow money to do so, without really working the numbers to see if it’s worth it.  The resulting problem will affect us all.

Student debt is now over one trillion dollars, and is on schedule to more than double over the next ten years.  What are these kids thinking?  Many students are borrowing amounts that will be impossible to ever pay back.  Their lives have effectively been ruined by student debt.  (More on this later.)

As I mentioned, tuition in general was very reasonable up to about 1976.  But what has happened since then?  Tuitions have spiraled out of control, that’s what’s happened.  University tuition has doubled since 2004, and it has been going up dramatically since the ‘70’s.  Going up far out of line with inflation in general.  And it’s no coincidence. 

Every time student loans have become less dischargeable in bankruptcy, tuitions have gone up.  Doubled since 2004, you say?  Consider that in 2006 congress, in its infinite wisdom, passed the Federal Direct PLUS loan program, which allowed any graduate student in an accredited program of professional education to borrow 100% of the tuition, plus living expenses, for the duration of the program.   How amazing is that?  Students now routinely run up student loan debt levels of one hundred thousand, or up to two hundred thousand dollars.  All of this carries interest charges that are not gentle, rendering the outstanding balance very difficult to bring down with anything short of heroic monthly payments.

All of this is terrible for the student borrower; it is terrible for parents who find their children drawn into this trap; and it is terrible for society in general.  It is only a wonderful thing for the vested interests that make billions of dollars from the business of it. 

The Greatest Deal in History

The current situation in the student debt business is the greatest business advantage in history.  Institutions of higher learning can charge whatever tuition they want to, and pay themselves as much as they want to, and the Federal government will then loan their students 100% of their tuition for the duration of the program.  The institution gets the cash on the barrelhead, and the Fed’s (read: taxpayers) assume all of the risks for ultimate collection. 

No one should be surprised at the proliferation of for-profit universities, especially professional degree universities.  This is a capitalist’s dream of avarice.  No authority seems to be willing to discourage these universities from enticing students with lies about their future earnings potential either.  Nor are they discouraged from raising tuition to science fiction levels or paying themselves astronomical salaries.

The answer to the question,  “What Was Congress Thinking?” when they rendered student loans non-dischargeable or when they passed the Direct PLUS loan program shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.  Just follow the money.  Who benefits?  The lenders and the universities.  Who suffers?  The borrowing students and the taxpayers. 

Some Background

It is instructive to consider why we had such debtor-friendly bankruptcy laws in the first place.

America now is a big, strong, rich country, and it is all of those things in spades.  Recall, though, that in the beginning the United States was none of those things.  Only the distance and the ocean allowed us to preserve our independence until we were strong enough to do so without them.  The recent experience of colonization made the Americans feel like have-nots in a world of haves.  This feeling was reflected in the laws of the new country.

Many English laws were kept on the books, but many that were thought to be unfair, or to favor moneyed interests, were modified.  One such was the English bankruptcy laws.  There were still debtors’ prisons in England.  The U.S. did not want to go with that practice. 

Over the years our bankruptcy laws became more and more debtor friendly, culminating in the laws that were in effect up to 1976.  In a simple Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the debtor was allowed to keep certain property and all non-secured debt was discharged, i.e., washed away completely, never to return. 

This was not done in a spirit of altruism; there were hard-nosed economic reasons for it.  It allowed people to move on, to start new things, new businesses, to buy homes and cars, to keep the economy moving forward.  Keeping people saddled with old, unpayable debt was a drag on the economy.  This was a public policy decision.  (Google: Walt Disney, bankruptcy.)

In 1976 all of this began to change.  Public policy itself changed.  Congress, our esteemed leaders, began to listen to the bitter complaining of the banks and to make the discharging of unsecured debts harder and harder.  By now we have a growing class of debt slaves, people who are married to high levels of debt with little or no hope of ever rising above the tide. 

The Law School Example

(Disclaimer:  I am a lawyer.  I graduated from law school in 1991, at the age of forty-three.  My own experience was not typical, and did not reflect the situation described hereinafter.) 

I read a good article last week called “The Law School Scam,” by Paul Campos, in the Atlantic Magazine.  Very good article, Google will still pull it up.  I have cut most of this post from whole cloth, but I did lift a couple of stats from Mr. Campos.

The modern law school experience is the perfect storm of this student debt crisis, and it is a crisis.  Law school is the perfect intersection of inflated tuitions, easy loans, for-profit institutions or non-profits that act like for-profits, and exorbitant promises of future riches made to prospective students. 

It is now becoming common knowledge that being a lawyer is not as great as it is cracked up to be.  I will spare you a reading of the facts of employment as a lawyer, sufficient to say that it is not fun.  In the movies, and on TV, we are treated mostly to lawyers in big firm situations and lawyers in very successful private practices.  Both are relatively rare in the big picture of the legal world. 

Applications are down, so getting into a law school in the first place is now easier than ever.

Admissions standards are at an all-time low, and the information in the article was a shock to me.  It’s a massive bait-and-switch operation.  Students are being admitted who will have little chance of passing a bar exam, in the event that they finish law school at all.  The risk of these students never even entering the law profession is born entirely by the students and by the taxpayers who are the guarantors of the loans. 

My tuition at a rather good law school from ’88 to ’91 was in the neighborhood of fifteen thousand dollars per year.   I was also lucky enough to get a 25% break on the tuition.  I got a very good legal education, my graduating class had a bar passage rate in the high eighties, and that’s mostly for the famously difficult California bar exam.  Tuition at my school is now three times as much money as it was only twenty-three years ago.   Law schools in America now cost between forty and fifty thousand dollars for one year.  With all of this money, 100% of it, plus living expenses, easily available in non-dischargeable student loans, many if not most students are graduating with $200,000 in debt that will become their first priority for years and decades.  Many will never be able to pay it off.

Those big firm lawyers, those few, those (way too) proud, they make some good money, they can handle it.  The “very successful” private practice lawyers can make more, lots more in some instances, but they are very few and far between.  Most new lawyers by far, the ones who work at all, go to work for small law firms for between $45,000 and $65,000 per year.  Even the upper end of that will net you a big less-than-four-thousand-per-month.  Try paying off $200,000 on that. 

Conclusion

The law school thing is just the extreme example.  The real scam is with student loans in general.  Students are enticed into going to school, essentially frightened into borrowing money in a desperate attempt to get a better place in the world.  Schools cynically admit them and charge them unconscionable tuition for the privilege.  Politicians pass legislation to help the lenders and those who run the institutions of “higher learning.”  (No adjective on politicians, because I could not think of anything mild and non-threatening.) 

Those politicians have already put taxpayers on the hook for a trillion dollars, with an additional trillion scheduled to come on line in the next ten years. 

The number of young people who are caught in trap is growing as we speak.  They will be prevented from participating fully in American life and the American economy, from buying houses and cars, from starting businesses. 

The inevitable end to all of this will not be pretty.  

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Godzilla 2014: Second Viewing

Many times the first viewing of a movie is seen through rose colored glasses.  Watching movies like Godzilla, and loving them like I unabashedly do, the willing suspension of disbelief may obscure flaws in the movie that will become apparent in later viewings.  Nothing like that happened in this case.

The DVD became available this week and I got hold of one.  A nice letter boxed version.  I watched it on my Samsung flat-screen (not new, and only 26 inch). 

I still approve of the narrative, the characters and the dialog.

I still think that the new monsters are among the best in the canon and that the new Godzilla is epic.

I still think that it's a good movie, as opposed to merely a good Godzilla movie.  Only this one and the first one (original edit) are good movies in this unqualified sense.  (Well, maybe Rodan too.) 

The acting is very good; the direction is very good; and the story is excellent. 

I was a bit anxious about this movie before it was released.  I love Godzilla movies, almost all of them, and the thought of people playing with the character annoys me.  (It had been done before.)  It was a relief to me that this movie is reverential to the character and the spirit of the original. 

Additionally, it is a great movie. 

Gratitude.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Not A Movie Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

I went to see this movie for, let's say, social reasons.  My expectations were low.  In the end, I had a very good time and had lots of laughs.  I would have to say: I liked this movie. 

Watching the trailer beforehand I had gotten the idea that maybe Megan Fox had made some progress in the acting game, as opposed to the Movie Star game or the Great Looking Woman game.  Nope, sorry, the six seconds in the trailer in which it appears that she is actually acting are nowhere else replicated in the movie.  Sorry about that.  She is decorative, but then again, so is nice wallpaper. 

I'm not a fan of product placement, but some instances are more objectionable than others.  It is most objectionable, and highly out of character, and an affront to the great city of New York, to think that the turtles in question would be excited to see a pizza from Pizza Hut.  That would be beyond even my powerful ability to suspend disbelief.  I watch Godzilla movies for the fifteenth time with rapt attention, but Pizza Hut?  Mercy, please. 

This movie gets a terrible break on the IMDB, but it did okay on Rotten Tomatoes.  It doesn't belong on either a best of list or a worst of list.  It's a movie!  It's just a movie!  You'll laugh!  If you, like I did, know someone who wants to go to see this movie, go ahead, see it.  Not the worst way to spend an afternoon. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Professor Longhair - Rum And Coca-Cola

This is the other end of the mood spectrum from the cut below.  FUN, writ large, in the universal language of music.

'Fess was way too much altogether.  "What key do you like to play in?"  'Fess considers the question and says, "well, I probably play in all of 'em."  He sure plays the hell out of "Rum and Coca-Cola," forwards, backwards and inside out for good measure.

He's been gone now for quite a while, and things sure have changed.  I don't want to start criticizing modern music, but I don't really have to, now do I?  You know what I was going to say.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Percy Mayfield - Life Is Suicide

Percy Mayfield, the "Poet of the Blues."  Ray Charles was a fan . . . you should be too. 

Percy could go all the way dark in some of these songs.  Check out "The River's Invitation," yep, that's what it's about, "if you can't find your baby, come and make your home with me." 

So, "Life Is Suicide," is that an oxymoron?  in bad taste?  or just the truth?  I mean, you know where we all end up. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robin Williams Is Not Depressed Anymore

This is not a Robin Williams tribute, I don’t have a license to provide that.  This is a commiseration, brother to brother. 

Another brother carried away by depression.  The ever thinning ranks!  Wish us luck, those of us who still struggle.  That is, if you haven’t run out of patience with our “doom and gloom,” and that is, if you had any patience in the first place!  Get over it!  What do you have to be depressed about?  I would go on, but it would get personal very quickly. 

They say that heart disease is the “hidden killer,” but at least when you die from heart disease the living will believe that you had an actual condition that led to your death.  They may even be compassionate, unless, of course, they’re too busy blaming that on you too.  After all, you ate butter or something.  People can be cold.  There are many ways to die from depression, but for many people there are even more ways to prove that depression had nothing to do with it, or, in the alternative, that it was your own damn fault.
 
The terrible truth:  while it is easy to imagine what it is like to suffer from some terrible cancer, as easy as it would be to imagine dying from a heart attack or a stroke, it is difficult, ten times as difficult, for the unexperienced to imagine what it is like to suffer from major depression. 

Yes, I’m going to split hairs here and dismiss mere situational depression.  If a beloved parent dies unexpectedly, a bereaved son or daughter may suffer from depression-like symptoms, for a time.  That is a horse of an entirely different color.  Life will reassert itself in these erstwhile sufferers, and they will regain their cheerful demeanor.  Sufferers of major, or clinical depression, are not so lucky.  For them it is a lifetime sentence. 

I feel bad about Robin Williams, but part of me is envious of him.  He had a good life.  There were ups and downs, and his personal life got a bit messy from time to time, but it was a good life after all.  He left behind a few children who seem to have loved him, and his third and final wife seems like a nice woman who loved him.  Good for him!  I’m very glad that he had those things.  He also leaves behind a body of work that anyone would be proud of, a lifetime of entertaining us that we should be eternally grateful for, and a sterling reputation as one of the funniest people ever to walk in the shoes of the show business.  Most of us would be very proud of, and satisfied with, that legacy.  If I took the same route as Robin, all that I would leave behind would be a few things that no one wants, with nary a ripple in the larger pool. 

And then, we are reminded, Robin Williams resorted to self-medication to deal with his “demons.”  (I do love this subtle semantic demonization of all depression sufferers.)  I resort to it myself!  And who could blame us for seeking islands of rest in the storm of our lives?  Alcohol is a woefully inadequate tool for any of its usual uses, but it does work at some level.  I have often referred to alcohol as a place, not so much an intoxicant as a separate reality that you can go to almost at will.  A couple of cocktails and you are somewhere else, all of the rules have changed, things may seem more tolerable, certain habitual behaviors may fade into the background.  Throw in a couple of Percocets and you’re on another planet altogether.  There are available drugs and combinations that will deliver you to other universes.  It’s all temporary of course, and it does no lasting good, but it works. 

Non-sufferers, you . . . oh!  I almost said a bad word!  Non-sufferers are very hard on us for self-medicating.  Sometimes they go so far as to suggest that the self-medicating behavior is the very CAUSE of our depression.  This putting of the cart before the horse serves two purposes:  for one thing, it proves that they are better than the sufferer; and for another thing, it proves that the sufferer is responsible for his or her own condition.  This works for the non-sufferer on several levels.  It restores order to their world, and it allows them to withdraw support and affection from the sufferer without drawing blame upon themselves.  I have experienced this phenomenon, and I condemn it.  If there were a God, It would visit the practitioners with boils. 

Oh! But don’t we have wonderful new medicines with which to combat depression?  SSRI’s, and endorphin enhancers?  My reading on the subject mirrors my own experience:  they do work, but only for a few years.  By then the brain has compensated and it’s back to the Merry-Go-Round. 

Depression and suicide go hand in glove.   Depressed people kill themselves when they reach the “I can’t do this anymore” moment.  The terrible instant when the entire horizon is taken up with a cry of “not another fucking minute!”  It’s a horrible thing, and it does probably have a bad effect on those loved ones left behind, but perhaps it’s not exclusively horrible.  It does, after all, end the suffering.  Maybe people who kill themselves get exactly what they want.  Should we be happy for them?  Or at least, should we not understand that in exercising the power that they had over their own lives they might have been achieving something that they really wanted?  Something that had been long denied them?  Isn’t Peace a wonderful gift? 

I see that Robin Williams once said in an interview that he would sometimes hear a little voice when he was standing at some high place, a little voice telling him to “jump.”  We hear that little voice frequently over the course of our lives, we sufferers.  It presents itself as a reasonable alternative to going on living.  So it is no surprise that many people finally give in to the suggestion. 

I don’t endorse suicide as a solution to depression.  To depression sufferers I only offer that death comes soon enough anyway, on its own motion, and there’s no real need to hurry it along.  That is the blessing and the curse of this earthly life:  as terrible as it is, it doesn’t go on for very long. 

There is some talk in the media that the suicide of such a beloved figure as Robin Williams will lead society to a new understanding of depression, and it is tempting to think that it might.  That would be nice.  Destigmatization would be nice; new and better drugs might be an achievable goal; easier affordable access to appropriate counseling would certainly help.  Let’s face it though, society famously lacks compassion regarding depressives.  Get over it!  That’s the common cry from the non-sufferers.  As though we chose to be depressed, and could just as easily chose to not be depressed anymore.  Family and friends expend their stores of compassion before long, if they had any compassion to begin with.  America in particular is not generous with money towards problems that are nebulous if not invisible, nor is America generous in spirit to those who exhibit a condition that renders them “others.”  It is likely that nothing will change just because Robin Williams killed himself. 


I say to those who suffer from depression, please carry on.  Please live.  Please take any and all available measures to protect yourselves from the worst effects of your affliction.  Learn to spot your triggers and pull back from your usual negative reactions to them; learn to comfort yourselves; learn about your condition in the hopes that understanding will make the suffering easier to bear; recall that you do not suffer alone.  Please be as happy as you can be.  Love yourselves, as I love you, my brothers and sisters.  Please live.