Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Automata" - A Film Review

The year is 2044. After several years of war, famine, disease and climate change the human population that once dominated the planet at 7 billion persons is now near extinction with only 21 million survivors and even fewer living in conditions of any kind of normal human existence.

Early on during these catastrophic changes a few major corporations banded together with the goal of creating robots to help humans survive the odds and continue as a species. To ensure the bots would continue their programmed purpose two primary protocols were built into their software:

1. At no time, or in any circumstance would a robot harm a human being.

2. At no time, or under any circumstance would a robot hurt another robot, repair a robot except under human supervision and following strict guidelines, and, under no circumstance will a robot engage in self repair or self improvement.

An insurance agency called ROC was instituted to ensure that these two primary protocols would never be violated by humans or robots. The agency was tasked with rooting out any transgressors, be they human or automata. If an infraction was discovered the agent would report to ROC and a human task force of special police would be unleashed to deal with it. As the years progressed the human population continued to dwindle while the robotic numbers increased by the millions across the globe.

In time robotic evolution unfolded to the point where one particular bot became self aware and was no longer limited to the programming initiated by the two primary protocols. This is where the film begins and the adventure starts for one such ROC agent, Jacq Vaucan, portrayed by Antonio Banderas (Desperado, The Expendables 3).

Joining Banderas is a strong supporting cast that include Dylan McDermott (Hostages, Stalker), a ROC security cop with an unbridled hatred for bots, Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Last Man Standing) as Vaucan’s immediate supervisor and friend at ROC and Melanie Griffith (Working Girl, Cherry 2000) who stars as a freelance robotics engineer and also the voice of one of the main robotic characters named Cleo. Javier Bardem (Skyfall, No Country For Old Men) also lends his voice work to one of the other main robots in the film.

I was torn by this film. It certainly wasn’t one of the finest films Banderas has been in over his long career. With a resume like Philadelphia, The Mambo Kings, Evita, Frida and stage appearances in Phantom of the Opera, making Automata might seem like several steps down the ladder. The film was quite predictable, the script was interesting but certainly not revelatory and the ending also lacked originality ... but ... I still kind of liked it. I didn’t love it, but I did enjoy it enough to sit through 109 minutes of it. I was never bored at any point in the film to turn away and do something else. It did make me want to hang in there until the end credits even though about halfway into it I was pretty sure how it would end ... and I was right in my assumption.

If I rate this films in increments I’m tempted to give it a much higher standing than if I were to scale it on the whole. But, my job is to give an opinion of the entire product from beginning to end and with that in mind on a scale of 1 to 10 I would give Automata a 4. Director Gabe Ibanez had great intentions, the right casting and from the looks of the special effects on the robots he certainly had the money to make a really classic science fiction apocalyptic film but sadly he - or it - fell short.

That all being said, I can still recommend this movie to the die hard sci-fi fan. It is still a relatively entertaining movie (just over look Banderas’ eating unmelted chocolate in searing desert heat). It has already made its very limited US run and isn’t set for a European release until January 2015. However, the hardy fan can find it now on iTunes or on Amazon Instant Video.

Goodbye – Hello from Netflix

Sci-fi and other genre related programming on Netflix: Streaming giant prepares to unload some and embrace others

Thanksgiving is over and many are now feeling the soothing effects of tryptophan from devouring the sacrificial turkey. Netflix takes this euphoric time of the year to take away what it has graciously given.

Every December the live streaming service removes a large portion of its programming but it also showers its subscribers with a bevy of new offerings and this season is no different.

Saying goodbye to the live stream this year are such fan favorites as "Star Trek: Generations," "The Serpent and the Rainbow," "The Sci-Fi Boys," "RoboCop 2," "Count Yorga: Vampire" and the sequel "The Return of Count Yorga." Also soon to disappear in just a matter of days will be "Mission Impossible III," "Event Horizon," "Audrey Rose," "Johnny Mnemonic" and "Invaders From Mars." Finally you will have to say so long to "The Vampire Lovers" and "Night of the Creeps."

To soften the blow for sci-fi/horror and fantasy genre fans the omnipotent Netflix will be adding a host of new programming that may soothe the savage beast that lies within its live streaming viewers. Beginning December 1 and throughout that special holiday month look for the addition of "I, Frankenstein," "Dark Skies," "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones," "The Village," "A Haunted House" and … wait for it … "Sharknado 2: The Second One." One film I am looking forward to that will now be available on the service is "Knights of Badassdom" starring the Emmy winner "Game of Thrones" Peter Dinklage. Also on the list of new entries are "American Horror Story: Coven," "Out of Time" and the supernatural thriller "Oculus" starring Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan and everybody’s favorite Battlestar babe Katee Sackhoff.

Finally, Netflix has been really burning up the entertainment world with its originally produced programs such as the multi-award winning "House of Cards," "Orange Is the New Black" and "Lilyhammer." The streaming giant hopes to continue its track record with a new online series called "Marco Polo" with a bright new cast of young up and comers headlined by Lorenzo Richelmy (Borgia, Fat Cat) in the title role of the famed 13th Century explorer noted for opening up the first East-West trade route to China in the midst of all the "greed, betrayal" and sexual tension running rampant in the court of the notorious Kublai Khan. "Marco Polo" will debut on December 12.

Prepare for a new season of binge watching your favorite series’ and films while being introduced to a line of new programming.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Facts in Journalism or Truth in Journalism

Journalism’s First Obligation Is To the Truth

Is there a difference between truth and fact?

To apply the trade of journalism words and how they are used is of utmost importance. A colleague of mine once stated that in journalism “facts are sacred.” While I would agree with the surface of that lofty statement I would also challenge its implied veracity. Facts are indeed sacred but in journalism there is yet a higher calling than just accumulating and revealing facts. The art of good journalism is not only making known the facts of the subject so much as encountering its essence or what I would term the revelation of the truth to be found therein.

Therefore, the higher calling of a journalist is not the uncovering of facts, though it is a prerequisite that some journalists excel in better than others. However, the higher state involves the subtlety of exposing the truth. Make no mistake there is an almost invisible difference between the two.

Facts, like numbers on a graph, can be manipulated, laid out, put in place in such an order or particular position for the purpose of misleading or influencing the reader. That has become all-too apparent in so many of the news stories in newspapers or those delivered by television talking heads in our modern virtual world. Journalism is rife with fact laid upon facts. Read this paper and learn the facts from this slant, turn on the television set and watch the factual news from that point of view. Don’t like what you are hearing or seeing, then turn the channel and get your facts delivered from an angle that is more pleasing to you.

The problem with calling facts sacred is that they are no longer sacred at all. They have become information that can be influenced and sadly, even become distorted information. They are indeed facts, they are the “reality” however, they are what all reality in journalism has become -- perceived reality -- not necessarily what is actual.

The goal of every journalist must be the truth. Truth doesn't ignore the facts. However, it doesn’t place them on some idolized pedestal either. Truth embraces the facts. Truth verifies facts and raises them above the level of simple platitudes. Truth should be the foundational principle of every journalist whether they are reporting on really important news concerning legality, politics, life and death or even those lesser topics like entertainment and sports.

Truth and facts never bump heads but may not always agree with one another depending on how the facts are being presented. A journalist can have all the facts and still be in error. Facts require an interpretation whereas truth is a principle of actuality and truism of existence and character. Facts can be misused and delivered in such a way as to be false or misleading. Truth can never be wrongly guided.

When all is said and done every journalist should desire to be of a truthful character, present the facts of their story in such a light as to reveal the truth, and nothing but the truth, and then even if someone may wish to argue the facts of their position the truth behind its revelation will stand.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Doctor Who the Movie - Two Decades Later

It has been nearly 20 years since Doctor Who the Movie went into production. Pre-production began in 1994 and it aired on American television May 14, 1996. Directed by Geoffrey Sax, it was shown two weeks later in the UK on BBC.

It starred Paul McGann (Luther) as the Eighth Doctor with Eric Roberts portraying the Doctor’s most formidable enemy The Master. The main cast was rounded out with Daphne Ashbrook and Yee Jee Tso as the pseudo companions. This would be the only TV outing with McGann as the famous Time Lord, except for that brief regeneration scene in the 2013 episode “The Night of the Doctor” in which McGann regenerates into John Hurt’s The War Doctor.

After nearly two decades how does Doctor Who The Movie hold up? Fairly well actually. When it debuted in 1996 the film was proceeded by all the required hype, pomp and celebration, however, Fox in its arrogance decided to put it up against the big series finale of the highly popular “Roseanne” sitcom and the American ratings for the film were dismal. The movie had been touted by Fox to be a cross between “Star Trek” and “The X-Files” with the film to be a backdoor pilot for a future Americanized series. After the poor showing the network backed out and Doctor Who continued its infamous Wilderness Period for another decade.

The ratings for the movie in the UK were excellent and it was well received by the public, however, the press in the UK and US didn’t care for it at all. Following Fox’s lead the BBC also backed off since the production was mainly be driven by American dollars.

The movie had a lot for fans of Doctor Who to love about it. The Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) opened the movie and finally got his regeneration sequence into the Eighth Time Lord. There were plenty of homages to past incarnations of the long running series including tons of Easter Eggs from the first frame to the last. For fans of the show the movie was a nice respite from the viewing malnutrition nearly 10 years of no Who had foisted upon them.

As much as it was loved there was also plenty in the movie for fans and skeptics to dislike about it. Since this was mainly an American production, even though the Doctor continued with a British actor, the rhythm of the film was a bit off and the chemistry between McGann and the characters portrayed by Ashbrook and Tso weren’t fleshed out as much as many had hoped. However, it is likely that would have been resolved had the pilot movie gone to series.

There was also one little part in the film that should have never been allowed to surface. It was only given briefly as an aside but had it lingered it would have changed how we see the Doctor for generations to come. I'm not going to say what it was but since it was in a BBC sanctioned movie it is now canon. Fortunately for us all future showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have totally ignored it and we can only hope it doesn't rear its ugly head again.

The special effects for this film were heads above anything seen in prior Doctor Who episodes. The TARDIS was phenomenal and for the first time since or after fans were treated to just how infinitely massive the Doctor’s police box actually is.

Eric Roberts played The Master just how he should have been — wild, cunning, scary as hell and very much over-the-top.

While this movie was the only on screen stint for McGann as The Doctor when the film wrapped he wasn’t through with the iconic hero. An entire series of Doctor Who comics, books and Audio Episodes was dedicated to the Eighth Doctor with McGann giving voice and characterization to the role.

Looking back I am grateful Fox lost interest and didn’t follow through with a series. While it may have proved interesting to watch for a while, I believe that had Who moved to America it would have lost its very heart and soul and the most endearing thing it possesses — it’s thoroughly British mindset and worldview. There is something special in how the creativity of the English mind works that is quite appealing as has been proven time and again by the worldwide popularity of its programming and especially comedic timing.

The future of Doctor Who looked very dim after this movie failed to gain an adequate audience back in the 1990’s, however, look at what it spawned in the 21st Century. Thanks in no small part to this film Doctor Who has moved from a relatively obscure British phenomena to a mammoth epic experience that continues to touch the lives of countless millions across the globe.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Effects of the Affordable Care Act on Economic Productivity

The topic of my talk today is the economic side effects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), sometimes referred to as Obamacare. Since most of the economy has to do with labor and work, that’s where I’ll start. But, first a caveat. I’m an economist, and I’m going to talk about some parts of this complex law that have an impact on the labor market. Other parts of it relate to health and medicine, and because I’m not a doctor or a biologist, I’m not going to speak to those parts. From an economic or labor-market perspective, I’m going to explain how the costs of the ACA outweigh its benefits. But I can’t measure or estimate its effects on health care. I leave that to others.

The key economic concept required to understand the labor market effects of the ACA is what economists call “tax distortions.” Tax distortions are changes in behavior on the part of businesses or households for the purpose of reducing their taxes or increasing their subsidies. We call them distortions because they don’t occur for real business or real personal reasons. They occur because of the tax code. A prime example of a tax policy that creates distortions is the ethanol subsidy—technically it is a credit, not a subsidy—whereby gasoline refiners are subsidized on the basis of how many gallons of gas they produce with ethanol. Because of this subsidy, businesses change the type of gas they produce and deliver, people change the type of gas they use—which affects engines—and corn is used for ethanol instead of as feed or food. Nor do the distortions stop there. Arguably, food prices are increased due to the reallocation of corn to different uses—and when food prices are higher, restaurants and households do things differently. There are distortions economy-wide, all for the chasing of a subsidy.

To be clear, just because taxes cause distortions doesn’t mean that we should never have taxes. It just means that in order to get the full picture when it comes to policies like an ethanol subsidy or laws such as the ACA, we need to take into account the tax distortions in order to ensure that the benefits we are seeking exceed the costs.

The Employer Mandate/Penalty/Tax

So what are the tax distortions that emanate from the ACA? Here let me simply focus on two aspects of the law: the employer mandate or employer penalty—the requirement that employers of a certain size either provide health insurance for full-time employees or pay a penalty for not doing so; and the exchanges—sometimes they’re called marketplaces—where people can purchase health insurance separate from their employer. The mandate or penalty is intended, of course, to encourage employers to provide health insurance. And the exchanges are where the major government assistance is provided, since those who purchase insurance in an exchange typically receive a tax credit. As I’ll explain, taken together, the penalty on employers and the subsidies in the exchanges add up to a tax on full-time employment—a tax that you pay if you work full time but not if you work part time or don’t work at all. And the problem with that, of course, is that by taxing full-time work—which is the same as subsidizing part-time work and unemployment—you get less of the former and more of the latter two.

How does this full-time employment tax work with regard to the employer mandate? As I mentioned, the penalty applies only in the case of full-time employees and only to employers that don’t offer health coverage, and it applies only in those months during which those full-time employees are on the payroll. If an employee cuts back to part-time work, the employer no longer has to pay the penalty. The dollar amount of the penalty doesn’t depend on whether the employee is rich, poor, or middle class—if he works full time, the employer must either provide insurance or pay the penalty. And the penalty is indexed to health insurance costs, so every year those costs increase more than the economy and more than wages, the penalty will increase more than the economy and more than wages.

The current penalty is usually described as $2,000 per year per full-time employee. But it’s really more than that, because the penalty, unlike wages, is not deductible from business taxes. So in terms of a salary equivalent, the penalty is closer to $3,000 a head. Needless to say, this penalty reduces competition in the labor market: It discourages employers from competing for full-time employees—which, if you’re an employee, is a bad deal. Also there are a lot of employers who are not going to pay the penalty because they don’t meet the size threshold of 50 or more employees, and employees are going to suffer because these small employers won’t want to become large employers and therefore subject to the penalty.

Furthermore, this mandate or penalty—and by this time it should be clear that we can think of it as a tax on having a full-time employee—disproportionately harms low-skill workers. Think about it this way: How many hours does a worker have to work each week to produce the $3,000-per-year of value to justify keeping his job or being hired? For a minimum-wage worker, that comes to eight hours a week, all year round—one day of work a week for the government due to the ACA alone. Higher-skilled employees can obviously produce $3,000 worth of value in less time, so the penalty will have less of an impact on them.

Subsidized Health Insurance Exchanges

What of the tax distortions that come from the subsidized health insurance exchanges or marketplaces? To begin to think about this, imagine paying full price for your health care. How does full price work? Well, you pay the full price. The health care provider doesn’t look at your tax return and adjust the bill accordingly. So we would never call paying full price for health care an income tax of any kind. Or imagine there is a discount on the full price—for instance, 30 percent off for everybody, regardless of income. In that case it’s still not an income tax. No matter how much you earn, you pay the same price. But what if the discount (or subsidy) is tied to your employment situation? Not to your income, but to your employment situation. That’s how the exchanges work. If you have a full-time job with an employer that offers coverage—which is the case for most employees in our economy—you don’t get the subsidy offered through the exchanges. If you want to get the subsidy, you need to become a part-time worker or spend time off the job. In other words, this discount, too, is a tax on full-time employment. Of course, no politician ever calls it a tax. But when you are in a group of people that doesn’t receive a subsidy that people in another group receive, that’s a tax.

So far I have oversimplified things, because there isn’t just one subsidy for everybody in the exchanges. The subsidy depends on your income. So there’s also an income tax built in. The more you earn, the less of a discount you get. Indeed, if you earn enough, the discount disappears. The folks analyzing this law in Washington made the mistake of focusing only on the income-tax aspect of the subsidy. There will be only eight million people in the exchanges, they figured, so eight million people now have a new income tax. That’s no big deal, they thought. They were oblivious to the fact that they were implementing a full-time employment tax on the majority of American workers. In all of the economic analyses of the ACA, there was no mention of this full-time employment tax—despite the fact that it’s the single biggest tax in the law.

In describing the size of this tax, again I find it useful to think in terms of how many hours per week somebody has to work to create enough value to replace the government subsidy he is losing because of his full-time status. There are a number of full-time workers who may have to work ten, 20, or even 30 hours a week to create the value they would get for free if they worked part time or didn’t work under the ACA. In the old days, working part time meant you earned less, and your family had less to spend than if you worked full time. Under this new system, on the other hand, if you have a family of four and make $26 an hour, dropping to part time can actually improve your financial condition by qualifying you for well over $1,000 per month in subsidies through the health care exchanges—an amount that exceeds what you would make by working the extra eleven hours per week. This is an economically perverse situation.

We have decades of research showing that when you tax something, you get less of it. So if you tax labor, you get less labor. By that I mean on average—I don’t mean that every worker responds to every labor tax. That’s obviously not the case. But on average, if you tax labor you get less labor. As a result of the ACA, then, we are going to have fewer people working and less value created overall.

Nor will the loss of productivity end there. As with the ethanol example, there will be more and more tax distortions from the ACA as it continues to roll out. Businesses will change the way they do business, whether it’s by bending over backwards to stay below 50 employees or by having more part-time employees and fewer full-time employees—not because these policies create value or satisfy customers, but because they avoid penalties or enhance subsidies. The Chicago Cubs baseball team changed over to more part-time employees this past summer, and as a result there was a day when the grounds crew couldn’t handle the weather—reducing the value of the game for the fans in general. Incentives and disincentives in the tax code ripple through the economy in unimaginable ways.

This has not been well understood. Some analysts, for instance, have argued that not many employers, relatively speaking, are going to end up paying the penalty, so the harm of the penalty will be limited. And that’s just wrong. Adam Smith pointed out in The Wealth of Nations that if there’s a type of employment that’s evidently either more advantageous or less advantageous than other types of employment, so many people would crowd into it in the former case, or desert it in the latter case, that its advantages would soon return to the level of the other types. In terms of the ACA, whereas only some workers will experience the penalty directly, it will be felt across the economy because workers will move out of the penalized businesses—and customers will do the same, since those penalties are passed on to them in the form of higher costs. We’ll all experience it. Economists and politicians who looked at this law made the mistake of basing their analyses on models in which nothing matters except what happens directly to the individual worker and his employer. That is not how economics works.

*****

In summary, the ACA has three major taxes in it. Two are taxes on full-time employment and the other is a tax on income. They may be implicit, they may be hidden, politicians may not call them taxes, but that’s what they are. Their economic impact on workers varies widely, affecting low-skill workers the most. They create all kinds of productivity problems and will have visible and permanent effects on the economy. I have estimated that employment will be three percent less over the long term because of the ACA, and that national income—or GDP, if you like to think of it that way—will be two percent less. If you look at the productivity costs alone—forgetting the fact that there will be a number of people not working anymore—they come to $6,000 per person who gets health insurance because of the law. And I’m not beginning to count the payments needed for health care providers.

In conclusion, I can make you this promise: If you like your weak economy, you can keep your weak economy.

[“Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.”]

ABOUT the AUTHOR:

CASEY MULLIGAN, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago in 1993. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard University and Clemson University, and is affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research, the George J. Stigler Center for the Study of the Economy and the State, and the Population Research Center.

He has written for the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, and is the author of three books, including "Side Effects: The Economic Consequences of the Health Reform."