Author Archives: reviewsbyrussell

Wealth Gap

I was thinking about this topic even before Obama showcased it in his SOTU (which I haven't listened to yet).  But, here goes:

I don't want to get into a huge ideological argument about redistribution of wealth or job creation. But I am curious about the widening wealth gap, particularly in this country, though this applies over most of the world.

I have no problem with a free labor market, but I am forced to wonder why rich and poor are further apart than they've been since before the Great Depression. What about the market has driven this gap? I have a couple of theories, but none ring true:

Wealth sliding up the scale is an inevitable emergent property of any free market. Money has its own gravity, and it seeks to pool. Artificial interference (income taxes, a culture of philanthropic giving, etc) is required to reverse the trend. I hope we can all agree that uncontrolled upwardly sliding wealth isn't healthy for the economy. Bill Gates needs someone to sell Windows to.

Problem with this theory: It's not an answer. It's an appeal to a mysterious force. I want to understand that mysterious force.

The emergence of India, China, Brazil, et.al. is devaluing most every job that can hop overseas, and company officers are about the only jobs that can't. (Yet.)

Problem with this theory: This would imply that people like plumbers, mechanics, doctors and nurses, people who can't be outsourced, aren't being impacted. I find that unlikely.

It's just temporary, because of the recession. Jobs at the top (and people who are independently wealthy) are disproportionately buffered from the effects.

Problem with this theory: It's got to be a factor, but I don't believe it's the whole story.

Some shift in the culture of compensation at most organizations has driven dollars upward, and the rank-and-file don't have the leverage (job-hopability) to reverse it.

Problem with this theory: I'm not sure how so many organizations all over the country could be impacted similarly, unless this is an unintended consequence of some federal regulation or tax code.

I do think it's ridiculous that a secretary can pay a higher total tax rate than her boss… that's just dumb policy. But I also don't think we need to return to 90% top marginal rate. (Even though that's what it was in the US's crazy-boom-50s.) I'm not interested in taking money away from people. I'm interested in the tweaks that need to be made to the overall system to encourage money, via the market, to find it's way to more people. Maybe that's a pipe dream. But it does seem that something is needed to keep everything sustainable. Another couple of decades like we've just been through, and the US is going to start looking like a third world country.

Russell on the Super Committee

Here's my take on the most (and least) likely scenarios of how the Super Committee will handle the debt reduction project:

Least Likely — They find a solution that both sides can live with, which equitably addresses the problem.  My version? (Though certainly not the only one that fits these criteria.)  Increase the retirement age, reduce SS and drug benefits for the top earners, cut the military by 25%, institute a new, unloopholeable 50% tax on golden parachutes.  (You want to make a ton of cash at a company?  Stick around and earn it, jerk!)

Average Likely — They deadlock and the predetermined $1.2 trillion cuts go into effect.  (Which wouldn't make me cry, incidentally.)

Most Likely — They weasel out somehow.  I mean, they passed the Budget Control Act, they can always repeal it.  Or, they can fudge the numbers to make it look like they're cutting, but they're really significantly overstating future economic growth, or underestimating defense spending, or some other accounting BS.

Why is that one the most likely?  It's not like the debt is top of mind like it was a few months ago.  I mean, come on!  There's a sex scandal in the Republican nominating field and Kim Kardashian just got divorced.  Divorced!  They can quietly screw over our financial future.  And the quieter the better, if you're going the weasel route.  I've got to think that the sheer volume of doom-saying coming out of Washington probably had something to do with those rating drops.

That's just my entirely unfounded opinion.

Red Riding Hood and Battle: Los Angeles

You might wonder, "Russell, why are you reviewing Red Riding Hood and Battle: Los Angles in the same post?" And I would respond, "Mind your own business! This is my review!"

Okay, not really.  What I would say is that in one sense these are two diametrically opposite films, but in another, they're really quite similar.

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Fringe Dodges a Bullet

I think Fringe is one of the smartest shows on TV. They're juggling a freaky premise (two alternate universes are trying to survive under the shadow of possible demise) and some subtle character work at the same time.

But the multiverse they've constructed assumes that for every person 'here', there's an exact duplicate 'there'. Same looks, same age, same name. That makes it fun for the actors, most of whom get to play alternate versions of themselves. But that also presupposes that every couple has their children at the exact same time… and has for all of history. If any one person has a different set of offspring anywhere in history, the entire doppelganger concept falls apart.

In the recent episode "6B", the climax relied on the situation of an elderly couple having children in one universe, and no children in the other. In fact, they had at least two, since they were referred to as "the girls".  Uh-oh! The entire construction of this multiverse may be faulty!

But wait. The Walter from 'here' broke into 'there' to steal Peter. That, theortically, means that everything from that moment on (in 1985) is up for grabs. Children born after 1985 wouldn't necessarily have doppelgangers.

In the episode, the old woman claim to have been with her husband since they were 20, and said they were together "almost 45 years". That means she's almost 65.  1985 was twenty-six years ago, when she was almost 39. She might have had two children (even twins) at such an age.

Bullet dodged! All is right with the multiverse!

Of course, I haven't dodged the bullet of excessive geekiness. But that's okay, too.  That ship sailed long before 1985.

Russell’s 2010 Movie Wrap Up

What am I waiting for?!

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Skyline

The sky is far from the limit.

There are so many things to dislike about this film, I have to address them in the order that they appear on screen.  (This review will have many spoilers.  If you want the spoiler free version, here it is: "Don't see it.  The best stuff is in the trailer.")

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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Oh, Gordon, how we’ve missed you!

(This review is kind of out of date, but I wanted to get it up before I did my year end wrap up…)

In 1987, Gordon Gekko taught us that “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”  Nobody remembers the whole quote.  All they remember is “Greed is good.”  And this sequel is kind of like that memory.  It’s not as complex and engaging and filled with family drama and angst as the original.  It’s a simpler tale, told well all the same.

Gekko has done his time in prison, and is now hawking his new book which (prophetically, since this takes place in 2008) anticipates the sub-prime bust that dropped us smack dab into the Great Recession.  (Do you hate that term as much as I do?)

Gekko’s daughter Winnie (played by the remarkable Carey Mulligan) has tried to put her father’s troubles behind her, mostly by starting up a left-wing activist website with the terrible name “The Frozen Truth”.  But she certainly hasn’t backed away from Wall Street enough to, you know, leave New York.  Or not date Jake (Shia LaBeouf) who is (you guessed it) a Wall Street analyst.  And just so we are reminded of the whole Enron debacle, the screenwriters made Jake an expert in energy.

The film juggles quite a few plot balls.  Jake is on a quest to avenge the professional destruction of his mentor (Frank Langella) by a sort of mini-Gekko (Josh Brolin).  He’s trying to wean his mother (Susan Sarandon) off of her real estate tweaking.  He’s trying to marry Winnie.  He’s trying to finance the next phase of human development in laser-assisted fusion.  But all of these are secondary to his primary fascination: Gordon Gekko.

Ostensibly to help heal the rift between Gekko and his fiancé, Jake befriends Gordon.  But it’s clear from the outset that he worships the guy.  The central mystery of the film isn’t whether Jake will get the girl or destroy the bad guy or save the world.  The central mystery is whether Gekko has really been rehabilitated, whether he’ll help Jake or screw him over.

This is a pretty clever construction.  It gives all the heavy lifting to Shia, and leaves Michael Douglas to come in a few minutes at a time and be awesome.  And awesome he is.  By the climax of the film, I was really not sure which way he’d jump.  Some things he said and did were just like the Gordon of old, and others were a picture of an old man trying desperately to reconnect with anything from his pre-incarceration life.

Oliver Stone has done many superior films, not to mention some real turdballs (I’m looking at you, Natural Born Killers), but this one is, I think, certainly above average.