One of Those Charts

The last time we had a big overhaul of the federal tax code was in 1986. Back then, the poorest 90 percent of the population owned 3 1/2 times as much as the richest 1/10th of 1 percent. I’ll say that again. In 1986, the net worth of the least wealthy 90% of Americans was 3.5 times the net worth of the richest 0.1%.

That’s not the America we live in today. As of 2013, the richest 1/10th of 1 percent owned as much as the poorest 90 percent. To repeat: the net worth of the richest 0.1% was the same as the net worth of the poorest 90%. 

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I’m sure the red line goes even higher now and the blue line goes lower. We should keep this astounding economic inequality in mind when we have the opportunity to vote eleven months from now. That will be eleven months after the Republicans ram through another overhaul of the tax code, one that helps the richest Americans get even richer.

In a Way, It All Turned Out For The Best (Wolf of Wall Street Edition)

Even for Netflix customers, curiosity sometimes wins out and it’s worth $1.28 to rent a DVD from one of those big vending machines at the grocery store. That’s how we ended up watching The Wolf of Wall Street the other night, instead of waiting to see how long a “Very long wait” would be. Unfortunately, the minority of critics who said The Wolf of Wall Street is a bad movie were right.

Maybe it was a good idea for Martin Scorsese to use the story of these crooked stock brokers if he wanted to make another Goodfellas. But he ended up with a movie that is ridiculously long (3 hours) and repetitious. It isn’t funny or suspenseful. It’s merely excessive. Since I never cared about the characters, I should have given up, like I did with Scorsese’s Shutter Island. But since I’ve seen almost all of his movies (all the way back to 1967’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door), I kept watching (in three installments), partly out of respect and partly to see if it would get better. It didn’t. It was just more of the same.  

If you’re open to watching a movie about terrible people who look like they’re having a wonderful time, consider watching Goodfellas again. But not The Wolf of Wall Street.

Needing to return the DVD to the store in order to avoid being charged another $1.28, I figured I’d use the trip to buy some more milk. The wait at the express lane wasn’t too long, but the best part of the transaction was when the clerk handed me the receipt and announced that I had just saved $1.40 on my purchase. Simply by using my A&P customer card. 

But wait! That meant my rental of The Wolf of Wall Street and subsequent visit to the store had returned a profit of over 9%! Not bad at all!

Of course, there was the time spent traveling to the store, the cost of gasoline and three hours of weak entertainment that could have been better spent. But if you put all that on one side, and balance it with the curiosity I satisfied, the knowledge I gained and that 12 cent profit, it all turned out pretty darn well. 

Plus, if I convince just one of you to skip The Wolf of Wall Street, our collective life on Earth will be a little bit better (“saving the world since 2012”). Unless you could have made a profit.

After a Major Event, Life Goes On, But Surreptitiously

gnote1A major event? Yes, finally replacing my aging but handy Blackberry with a new Android smartphone (good-bye, Verizon, you bloodsuckers!).

Some might say it’s only a phone. It feels more like a lifestyle. You can’t do that anymore. Do this now. How do I do that? Guess! Or download an app. Which app? That app! Wait, what did I just do? I must have touched something. Oh, no!

Come on, why do you zoom in on Google Maps by pinching your fingers together instead of spreading them apart? Isn’t spreading them apart a more expansive gesture? And why can’t I spread my fingers apart in the prescribed way? It’s probably a genetic defect. Those of us who can easily carry out the correct two-finger spreading motion are now better-suited to getting around and finding mates. The rest of us will tend to stay put and die alone. If only I could remember the Alternate Zoom Technique:

In addition to pinching the screen to zoom, you can also double-tap on your map, hold, and then scroll down to zoom in, or scroll up to zoom out.

Coincidentally, the New York Times reported more from the Snowden Files today:

When a smartphone user opens Angry Birds, the popular game application, and starts slinging birds at chortling green pigs, spy agencies have plotted how to lurk in the background to snatch data revealing the player’s location, age, sex and other personal information, according to secret British intelligence documents.

In their globe-spanning surveillance for terrorism suspects and other targets, the National Security Agency and its British counterpart have been trying to exploit a basic byproduct of modern telecommunications: With each new generation of mobile phone technology, ever greater amounts of personal data pour onto networks where spies can pick it up….

[Among] the most valuable of those unintended intelligence tools are so-called leaky apps that spew everything from users’ smartphone identification codes to where they have been that day.

Fortunately, I don’t play with angry birds. But Google Maps is said to be one of the best sources of information for the intelligence agencies. The Times quotes a secret report from Britain’s G.C.H.Q. suggesting that “anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a G.C.H.Q. system”. Thank you. No problem.

We know that corporations collect whatever information they can about us. Now we know that the NSA and GCHQ are doing the same.

But assuming that we don’t want to stop using our phones or the internet and we can’t get our governments to stop this spying, we can take some solace in the fact that these people are collecting so much data, they don’t know what to do with it. Most of us will never stand out in the crowd.

However, if you happen to be planning a terrorist attack, or want to tell the President he or she is a jerk, you should definitely avoid Angry Birds. Or communicate the old-fashioned way:

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Money: a Better Explanation for the NJ Bridge Scandal

The biggest mystery about the Fort Lee, New Jersey, bridge scandal isn’t whether our governor, who is well-known as a loudmouthed, hotheaded bully, was behind the whole thing. The biggest mystery is why Christie or his inner circle would bother messing with Fort Lee at all. Why was it “time for some traffic in Fort Lee”? Because the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee (population 35,000, the 23rd largest city in the state) didn’t endorse Christie’s reelection? It doesn’t make any sense.

No, a much better explanation is offered by Steve Kornacki, a journalist who knows New Jersey politics. He suggests that the reason for creating that massive days-long traffic jam may have been to interfere with a billion-dollar real estate development that just happens to sit at the Fort Lee entrance to the George Washington Bridge.

As Kornacki explains, the development is premised on excellent access to the bridge and New York City. With one access lane instead of three, the location would be significantly less valuable. If the closure lasted any length of time, the deal might have collapsed. If the deal collapsed, the lanes could then be reopened, allowing some other real estate developer to jump in.

Or maybe it was merely a way to extort some campaign contributions from the kind of people politicians love – in this case, rich people who develop real estate.

One way or another, those traffic lanes involve serious money!

On top of that, it’s clear from Kornacki’s report that Christie and his minions knew about the development and access to the bridge. They’re on record suggesting the access should be limited. That’s why they keep bringing up the “traffic study” nobody else knows anything about. 

But it wasn’t a traffic study at all. It looks more like a traffic demonstration: this is what will happen to your major real estate development if we cut access to the bridge by 67%. This would explain why they kept the traffic jam going for days. They had to show they meant business!

Of course, it isn’t clear yet why Christie or his pals would want to use their power this way. But it shouldn’t be surprising if it’s eventually revealed that the fate of a billion dollar real estate deal – and who will profit from that deal – had much more to do with it than some stupid revenge against a Democratic mayor who didn’t endorse the reelection of our Republican governor (even though our governor is known to be a especially vindictive).

Chalk one up for the freedom of the press, even if money had nothing to do with it.

The video with Steve Kornacki’s quite interesting report is here at the aptly-named Crooks and Liars site.

Update:  The New York Times reports that the Christie administration became very cooperative with Jersey City’s Democratic mayor, even setting up a whole day of meetings with top state officials, after Christie asked the mayor for his endorsement. When the mayor announced he wasn’t going to endorse Christie’s reelection, the state officials immediately canceled their day of meetings. So maybe Christie and his inner circle were just playing politics in Fort Lee (although playing it very badly).

Meanwhile, the Federal government is looking into Christie’s use of hurricane Sandy relief funds, some of which were used to run TV advertising encouraging tourists to return to the Jersey Shore. Two ad agencies bid on the project. Christie picked the campaign in which he himself would appear, even though it cost a couple million dollars more than the other bid. Christie was running for reelection at the time, so he must have figured it was federal money well-spent.