Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Free for now...Free for now...

The famous words to the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" are being sung by today by corporations. “Corporations are people” said GOP Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney this summer. The Supreme Court started the idea a few years ago when it struck down provisions of the McCain–Feingold Act that prohibited all corporations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications.” The hat trick in personifying corporations is the Protect IP Act in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress.

This legislation allows the government to order service providers to block websites for infringing links posted by any users. It becomes a felony with a potential 5 year sentence to stream a copyrighted work that would cost more than $2,500 to license, even if you are a totally noncommercial user, e.g. singing a pop song on Facebook. Thousands of sites that are legal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act would face new legal threats. The DNS privacy currently enjoyed will change so that sites can be tracked. China and Iran already use the revised DNS process.

Recently I’ve been doing a shortened version of this written blog as a 3-minute video. As I’m recording let’s say one my neighbors has a party and they crank up the volume to some really popular song and because my windows are open a snippet of the music gets recorded in the background. Once I upload my video, I’ve just committed a felony and am going to jail. If that wasn’t silly enough, the Government could then direct Google, Bing, Yahoo and service providers like Time Warner, Verizon, etc. to remove my blog from the Internet. Extreme and hyperbolic? Maybe, but that’s what these bills allow for.

Today when somebody is upset, frustrated or want to make a point, the Internet is the soapbox of choice. Think of virtually any major product or company and there will exist a “ihateFILLINBLANK.com” version of their site or a “FILLINBLANKsucks.com” that details the complaints. Because the FILLINBLANK is the trademark and copyright name of a corporate entity, this legislation would permit the government to shut down the site. I could ask the government to shut down www.CraigCooganSucks.com and send those people to jail.

I’ve spent the majority of my professional career working in and around major entertainment studios and providers. As a blogger I am a content creator. There is tremendous value in protecting the creator’s legal and fiscal recourse to their work. Do some people use copyrighted material for their own financial gain? I’m sure there are plenty of examples. Should it be stopped? Of course. This legislation isn’t the answer to any legitimate complaint or issue of misused copyright. It’s about control and further equalizing business interests with individual rights.

Corporations are not people. They are entities made up of people. Corporations serve a vital function in society by providing goods, services, employment and, yes, profit to the shareholders and communities they serve. Let’s not diminish their importance and role in society. The granting of an entity equal standing with individuals is, however, extremely problematic. This legislation is the most recent example where individual rights (freedom of expression) are supplanted by corporate protection.

The “fair use” principle allows for the protection of copyrighted work while giving limited exceptions based on a series of tests. The concept originated in 1709 and is embedded in the Constitution. It has been modified over the years, and perhaps now in the Digital Age a further clarification of “fair use” is in order.

Instead of a common-sense modification of “fair use” 38 members of the Senate and 23 members of Congress are cosponsors of these Acts that would strip away fundamental freedoms. How could this happen? 54% of the Senate and 36% of Congress are lawyers.  It is not unexpected with so many lawyers in an institution that makes laws that creating new laws is the path chosen as opposed to modifying existing processes. With corporate funding legal for political races it is also not surprising that bills to protect those corporations sprout up.

It seems ridiculous…Onion-like, or even a sketch from Saturday Night Live…that such clear violations of freedom of speech could be seriously considered, let alone that so many elected leaders would support legislation that undermines the First Amendment in such a boldfaced fashion. That is the disconnect that exists in today’s politics. That is why Congress has a 9% approval rate. That is why you, dear reader, must give thanks this Thanksgiving for the freedoms that we still have and you must, please, contact your legislator and tell them to keep the Internet free forever, free forever, God Almighty keep it free forever.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Puritan Sex

Sex sells. (The sun also rises every day.) This marketing and journalistic mantra has infiltrated all elements of society. The outfits (or lack thereof) on many of the local news’ Weather and Traffic women leave little to the imagination. Suggestive models and seductive music are used to promote everything from hamburgers to insurance. Americans’ relationship with sex is complicated. On the one hand that sex entices people is good because it draws viewers, attention and dollars. But on the other hand there is a prurient attitude that suggests issues of sex, sexuality and sexual expression should not public. That inherent conflict is bound to cause problems.

Anybody who has had even the most remote interaction with children knows that there is a delicate balance between setting boundaries and creating an invitation to naughtiness. So it is not surprising that using the allure of sex is impactful – since it’s considered a no-no in polite society. Just like telling the little tyke not to do something or to do something distasteful in order to build strong ‘character.’

Institutions and individuals that hold themselves to a ‘high moral standard’ are often those who are later discovered engaging in the very thing which they purport to condemn. The most recent exhibit: Germany’s largest bookseller (after Amazon) is wholly owned by the Catholic Church and sells thousands of pornographic titles (Call Me Slut!, Take Me Here, Take Me Now! and Lawyer's Whore) and lingerie.

Creating and selling erotic materials is not illegal. It is, in fact, an industry that generates billions of dollars each year. The disclosure about the German publisher is only interesting and compelling because of the apparent hypocrisy of its owner, the Catholic Church.  Three days after the public disclosure the Church issued a statement condemning pornography “saying the practice denigrates women and represents ‘a serious lack of humanity.’" Prior to this particular discovery the Catholic Church has a long history of stringent statements and behavior restrictions on human sexuality.

Closer to home sex has derailed plenty of political careers. From Representative Anthony Weiner sending pictures of himself to others to former Presidential Candidate Gary Hart’s extramarital affair there are example and example of individuals doing things with others that they don’t want to be public. Herman Cain is the latest to have an accusation hurled at him for inappropriate behavior. It seems almost a guarantee that if a politician claims ‘strong family values’ that there will inevitably be some claim that disproves the concept. Maybe it’s time that the role of sex in American life no longer be considered private, but rather public and OK to talk about.  (Cue fire & brimstone.)

It is vital that we distinguish what a sex scandal is, though. Too often incidents fall under the ‘sex scandal’ umbrella when they, in fact, having nothing to do with sex. Accusations such as rape, assault and molestation of children do not belong in the more palatable ‘scandal’ descriptor. If somebody has consensual sex with another person outside of their marriage commitment, that might be a ‘sex scandal’ and is certainly amusing to peep into.  If somebody attacks another – that is a crime.  The media must accurately report on newsworthy items, but it is not appropriate for the media to decide what is a scandal and what is a crime.

Religion and government have been arbiters of what is permissible between people since the dawn of humankind. Societies have different standards on the same issue. Look at the age of consent for sexual relations. Angola’s age of consent is 12. China it’s 14. In the US it’s anywhere from 16 to 18 depending on the state.

How can one society determine that a 12-year old can have sex while in another country that same 12-year old would be a victim? The simplistic answer is that each of these communities has made determinations based on what works for them. Tradition, education and communal expectations are all contributors to how an individual’s sexual expression and guide the rules of that society.

We only need to look at the issue of homosexuality in America for an example. The past 30+ years of the modern gay rights movement has had an impact on people’s opinions. Gallup shows that support for consenting adults to engage in gay/lesbian relations has gone from 43% approving in 1978 to 64% approving in 2010. This shift has occurred because of visibility of LGBT people and experiences in the media, ongoing political discussion and legions of people coming out. And there’s more to go.

Issues around sex could use the same open airing as LGBT issues have had. Our politics should be about the policy and not the policy-maker. Na├»ve? Probably. Likely to change? Not any time soon.  Puritan sex wins.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I’ve got your number

What a week! Earth welcomed its 7 billionth person.  (Hi to Danica May Camacho!) Global debt hit $40.6 trillion. (Putting millions, billions and trillions into context: the average person takes 672 million breaths in a lifetime.)  In the U.S. there are 300 million people and total debt just passed $15 trillion. That’s essentially $50,000 per person. Given that the average American household income per the U.S. Census Bureau is $49,455 - each American basically owes one dollar for every dollar they earn in a year. But the really important number is that there are 350 shopping days until Election 2012.


                                                                 video summary of Blog
This week marks the one year point when the quadrennial Presidential contest will be held. This election season is estimated to cost $8 billion, up from the $5.3 billion from 2008.  The 2008 Presidential winner, Barak Obama, spent $7.39 per vote. McCain spent $5.78. If the estimate for 2012 is right then the winning candidate will spend approximately $10 per vote.  

What will Americans get for all of this money? A constant barrage of back-and-forth between the two major parties. “The rich must pay their fair share.” “We do not have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.” Democrats will accuse Republicans of being heartless capitalists out to balance the books on the backs of the poor and needy. Republicans will accuse Democrats of being tax and spend liberals who have recklessly destroyed capitalism and are steering the nation towards socialism and extinction.  For all of the hyperbole it's all rather predictable.

Election 2012 will produce a popular vote that is nearly 50/50 as they have been for most the history of the USA. There will be a hard fought fight over a few thousand votes in Florida or Nevada or some other “swing state” that will determine the Electoral College victor. It’s guaranteed. The campaigns (most of which have been in full swing for over a year) are angling for every possible vote.

A recent New York University School of Law analysis by the Brennan School for Justice found that new voting restrictions may affect more than 5 million votes. 63% of the electoral votes in 2012 (191 out of 270) are impacted by a change in the voting rules since the 2008. Both parties are trying to jerry-rig the results. (The harder it is for people to vote, the easier it is to control the result?)  From the Brennan study:
  • 34 states introduced legislation that would require voters to show photo identification in order to vote. Eleven percent of American citizens do not possess a government-issued photo ID.
  • At least 13 states introduced bills to end highly popular Election Day and same-day voter registration, limit voter registration efforts, and reduce other registration opportunities.
  • At least nine states introduced bills to reduce their early voting periods, and four tried to reduce absentee voting opportunities.

The voting age population turnout in 2008 was 56.9%. Just over half of Americans over 18 who could vote did so. Compare that to Tunisia. In December 2010 the small country bordered by Algeria and Libya launched the “Arab Spring” with its people demonstrating for change and peacefully overthrowing the ruling party. In late October 2011 the emerging democracy held its national election. More than 90 percent of eligible voters voted.

Americans no longer perceive voting as impactful. (That may be because it isn't!)  More likely the political stalemate results in little change. It may be because the promise of candidates are rarely met with their results as elected leaders. Money is an element. So is cynicism. It may be after 236 years it’s no longer considered a vital component of being a citizen.

I have a friend who loves going to the polling station on Election Day, waiting in line and going into the cardboard and plywood booth to color in the circles of the ballot. The pageantry and ceremony of the process is exciting. Once. Maybe twice. Then most people just want to do their duty. Voting should as easy as using an ATM, not like going to the Post Office.

Democracy is the process by which we measure our freedoms. Participation is the contribution we make to preserve those liberties. We must as a nation, and as a people, practice our commitment to these ideals through more than lip service, sound-bite campaigning and expensive marketing and branding efforts that provide an illusion of patriotism. We must find ways to include people in the process. The cost of exclusion may well be democracy itself. That’s a number we can’t afford.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

It’s all Greek to US

I love Greece --- the country, though the 1970's musical is fun too. I enjoyed “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and even went to see the quasi-sequel “My Life in Ruins” that aptly describes what is happening there now. I was fortunate to visit the beautiful islands of Santorini and Mykanos a few years back. I’m not a big fan of their Salad, but I do appreciate how they do the dishes.

The tradition of breaking of plates is considered a part of "kefi" - the irrepressible expression of emotion and joy. There has been little joy in Greece for some time. The financial crisis has been especially dramatic in Greece.


In 1974 Greeks, with the help of their Turkish neighbors, overthrew the military dictatorship that had ruled since 1967. Greek governments since then have run significant deficits in order to finance public sector jobs, pensions and other social benefits. Few people pay taxes. Since 1993 the country has had debt to GDP ratios in excess of 100% - meaning that the country borrows more than it brings in during any year. 

The Euro was introduced in 1999 and is the official currency of the Eurozone which is made up of 27 countries. The Euro eliminated many different currencies and is the second largest economy in the world with more coins and banknotes in circulation than the U.S. Dollar. There are criteria that each member country agreed to in order to be part of the Eurozone and the currency…including having a debt ratio of less than 60%.

Greece joined the Eurozone in 2001 and converted the drachma to the Euro. During this period the government misreported the country's official economic statistics in order to stay in compliance with the monetary guidelines.  Currently the debt to GDP ratio is 116%. ht

Financial rating companies like Standard & Poors converted the bonds that the Greek government had sold (the debt) to junk status. Investors wary of potentially losing their money stopped investing and the Greeks ran out of cash and had to turn to their neighbors in the Eurozone for help. Europeans helped out with a number of strings attached. So for the past couple of years every time Greece needed money the Eurozone would dictate austerity measures which impact the lives of everyday Greeks.

Finally after months of the possibility that Greece would default on all of its obligations and every investor would lose everything…the banks and Europeans agreed to take 50% reduction in what they are owed in order to loan new money but Greece would have to meet further austerity metrics. The world breathed a sigh of relief. And then this week the Greek Prime Minister said that he’d allow a popular vote by the people of Greece to either pass the proposal, stay in the Eurozone, or obtain some other approval – none of which is likely to pass given the protests and discord other austerity measures have had.

The essence of capitalism is risk/reward. If you invest in something and it pays off, then you get a great reward. If you invest in something and it tanks, then you take a loss. It really is that simple. The concept only works because there is a consequence for risk. Take a risk and it fails then there must be failure. That just hasn’t been the case since George W. Bush (#43) said to CNN in 2008: “I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system.”  Bush instigated and supported a series of bailouts that took away any responsibility the institutions had for their own actions. President Obama continued and expanded them.

Today ordinary Greek citizens are living the consequence of their governments actions by losing lifelong pensions and other social promises that had been made over the past 40 years. Eurozone leaders are beside themselves over the idea of a popular vote to ratify the bailout. Since the Eurozone is passing a large part of the consequence onto the people, it will not be surprising when the people opt not to bear that responsibility alone and will want the rest of Europe (and the world) to do so.  Nobody likes the risk side of capitalism.

The U.S. debt to GDP ratio was 92.7% in 2010 and is expected to exceed 100% in 2011. Standard and Poors dropped the AAA+ rating for U.S. bonds. Benefit programs that have been part of a social contract with Americans for generations are being changed. People are demonstrating in the streets. Will there be a consequence to the U.S. Government for its actions over the past 40 years? Or will free market principles be sacrificed again? Consider the Greek crisis a prequel of things to come. It’s all Greek to US.