Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lincoln: The Movie

As mentioned in my last post, we went to see Lincoln this past weekend.  It blew me away.  I never thought that a movie about political maneuvering would be so engrossing, but it was.  The acting on all counts was superb.  Our local reviewer thought the script was a bit heavy-handed, but I certainly didn't.  Conflicting goals, weighty decisions, and a serious situation don't lend themselves to levity.

The focus of the movie is on a few weeks in early 1865.  Lincoln was just re-elected as President.  He wants to use his new political capital to push the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives (it had already been approved by the Senate).  The amendment had the general support of most Republicans, who were the liberals of the time, and was staunchly opposed by the Democrats, who were the conservative party.  There were not enough votes safely in hand for the amendment to be approved.  At the same time, Lincoln was trying to end the war with the southern states.  These two goals were in conflict.  If the amendment was approved, Southern states would see it as an assault on their economy and would fight longer/harder.  If the war was ended before the amendment passed, then there would be little or no interest in passing the amendment.  So Lincoln's dilemma was: end the war, or pass the amendment?

Lincoln chose to pass the amendment first.  Apparently, although this was not specifically stated, he believed that the war would end within months anyway, so he had a very small window of opportunity to end slavery in the United States forever.  So he deliberately held off on peace talks with representatives of the southern states while he cajoled, pressured, bought off, and intimidated Republican and Democrat representatives into voting for the amendment.

All of this is history.  What is remarkable about the movie is how well it portrays how messy politics can be while pursuing high goals.  Daniel Day-Lewis is fabulous as Lincoln.  He looks like him, talks the way we've been told Lincoln talked, and acts the way we've been told Lincoln acted.  He is magnificent.  Sally Field is perfect as his wife Mary and gives a stunning performance.  Tommy Lee Jones did a great job as Thaddeus Stevens, and James Spader excelled as one of the President's arm-twisters.  There were no slackers in this movie.  Everybody brought their "A" game.  When you're in a Steven Spielberg movie about the greatest President ever, that's just what you do.

So after the fluff of Skyfall, it was good to see a really strong, deep, meaningful movie.  Kudos to all for creating such a landmark film.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Watching Movies

We went to our favorite movie theater yesterday to watch Skyfall, the new James Bond movie.  Going to the movies is something that I really appreciate after a year in Afghanistan.  This theater is a good multi-plex: big screen, clean and comfortable seats, huge buckets of popcorn with free refills, and a good sound system.  Quite a bit different from the Kandahar Air Field version, which was a projector, a T-wall, and whatever fold-up chair you brought!

Skyfall was a lot of fun.  It's your basic action flick.  Don't go looking for deep meanings in Bond movies.  Daniel Craig is the best Bond by far (my opinion) and he did a thoroughly creditable job.  So did Judy Dench as M.  There were lots of amazing chases, vicious fights, blowing stuff up, beautiful women, and more ammo expended that during the entire Iraq war.  What more could you ask for?

Out in the lobby, we saw a poster for the upcoming Jack Reacher movie.  We've read a bunch of the Reacher novels.  He's a former Army MP officer who is now out of the service.  He has no fixed home and wanders around the country, and wherever he goes, he finds serial killers on the loose, and kills them.  Reacher novels are the guilty pleasures you read at the beach, and they have even fewer redeeming qualities than Bond movies.  The problem with this movie, in my opinion, is the casting.  Reacher is a big guy, dark, brooding, monosyllabic.  A young Robert Mitchum would be the perfect guy for the role.  Maybe Daniel Craig with dark hair.  Instead, they cast Tom Cruise.  I mean, Tom Cruise?  Reacher is not a pretty little boy and I just don't see Cruise doing the role justice.  But what the heck, we'll go see it anyway.

Speaking of Cruise, last night we watched A Few Good Men.  This movie came out a couple of years after I had been stationed in Guantanamo Bay, so I had a special interest in it.  I think the courtroom scene with Jack Nicholson is one of the classic scenes of all moviedom.  Both actors were on the top of their form.  Much of the rest of the movie is just okay, but it's worth it for that one scene.

A couple of nights ago, we watched the new Spiderman.  This one was much better than the previous versions, in my opinion.  It stuck more closely to the original storyline, with Peter Parker as a high school kid, and in this movie, he behaved more like a teenager with serious issues.  So in addition to the great special effects and fight scenes, it had a bit of substance to it.  Good stuff.

Next weekend, we're going to go see Lincoln.  In between, we'll see what Janis has lined up with Netflix.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Studio Strolling

Now that the election is behind us, and all the political ads are finally off the TV (thank God!), we've been able to refocus on more routine things.  One of those is art.  Yesterday, Janis and I went down to the River Arts District in Asheville for the twice-annual Studio Stroll.

The River Arts District is Asheville's old industrial area.  It consists of a bunch of warehouses, factories, and mills, some dating back over 100 years, nestled along the river and the railroad tracks.  Most of the industries closed up back in the 50's to 80's, and beginning in the 90's, artists began moving in.  They started opening their studios once a year to the public to show what they were doing.  Later, they expanded to twice a year, once in June and again in November.

Back in 2003, right after I completed my studies at UNCA, I moved into the Cotton Mill Studios down in the River Arts District.  My studio partner was Christine Dougherty, and she's still there.  I worked in our studio pretty much full-time for the next five years.  For three of those years ('04, '05, and '06), I was the President of the River District Artists.  We had about 40 artists when I started and over 70 when I turned over the reins to Barbara Perez.  Now there are about 190.  It's amazing to me how the number of artists has grown so much.  The entire neighborhood has changed as well.  A number of restaurants have moved in, starting with Clingman Cafe, then 12 Bones (one of the nation's really great barbecue places), and more recently White Duck Taco Shop.  The Wedge Brewery, a first-rate microbrewery, opened as well.  Meanwhile, many of the old industrial businesses closed or moved out.  AVL Technologies, which makes satellite communications equipment (some of which made its way to my little base in Afghanistan) moved to a different location.  Most worrying, Dave Steel closed and tore down all its buildings.  Now it's a large, empty plot of land right in the middle of the District, just crying for a developer to come in and build some huge monstrosity that will drive up property values and rents and drive out the artists.

For years, Christine and I opened our studio to the public during the strolls.  That meant that I had to be in the studio all day long to talk to visitors and was unable to go around and see all the great art that was being done around me.  But a year and a half ago, in anticipation of going to Afghanistan, I moved out of the studio.  Now that my time deployed is over and I'm back in town, that means I can go to the Strolls and actually stroll.  So, yesterday, we did.

We went to several buildings and visited with old friends and new artists that I'd never met.  In the Wedge building, we visited our old friend Cindy Walton, who's doing some beautiful cold wax paintings.  Cindy and I were students together at UNCA and she has really hit her stride with these artworks.  In the Phil Mechanic Studios building, we visited the head mistress, Jolene Mechanic, and saw some really strong post-apocalyptic paintings by Brian Mashburn.

We went over to Odyssey Center for the Ceramic Arts and brought home two beautiful small ceramic pieces by Tish Cook.  In another building, we visited with our friend Carol Bomer.  Carol and I exhibited together in a gallery in Hendersonville years ago and I've loved her work ever since.  Yesterday, we brought one of her paintings home with us.

From personal experience, I can say that Studio Strolls are much more enjoyable when you're strolling rather than stuck in the studio.  It was wonderful to see so many old friends and new artists.  There's a lot of really strong work being done here.  It's one of the reasons I love this city.

I think we'll go back today.  

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Why I'm For Obama, Part 2: The Deficit

One of the hot-button issues in the election is the deficit.  Republicans have been lambasting Obama and the Democrats over the size of the deficit.  As is always the case, the truth is buried under sound bites, inflamed rhetoric, and complete falsehoods.  Two years ago, during the mid-term elections, it was also an issue, and I did my own study of the deficit.  I wanted to strip away all the hype and figure out what was really going on, how bad the deficit really was, how it got that way, and how to turn it around.  I ignored political grandstanding as much as possible and focused on hard facts.  Then I wrote a blog post about my findings.  It turned out to be fairly long, wonky, and full of numbers.  But the key points were these:
- Federal expenditures have averaged around 20% of the country's GDP over the past 60 years or so.  Revenues have usually been a notch or two lower, meaning we usually have run a deficit.
- When President Bush took office, we had a balanced budget, with a surplus of $153B.  The budget and revenues were 21.2% of the GDP, slightly higher than the long-term norm.
- When President Bush left office, the figures were way out of kilter.  Revenues had shrunk to 13.5% of  GDP while expenditures had risen to 24.7%.  In dollar terms, this resulted in a deficit of $1.4 trillion, which was only $400B less than the entire federal budget of eight years previous.
- Obama's budget for 2010 was slightly improved: expenditures of 25.1% of GDP, revenues of 17.4%, and a deficit of $1.17T.

Numbers tell only part of the story.  The huge imbalances of the Bush years resulted from several factors: the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, two wars, and fallout from the financial crisis (reductions in tax incomes, increases in social safety net expenditures, and comparatively minor expenditures from the stimulus and bailout).  Obama inherited all of those factors as they were getting worse.  Over the past couple of years, though, one war has ended and the second is winding down, the improving economy is reducing requirements for social safety net expenditures, and the stimulus and bailout are over.  I would have expected the projected budget deficit come down, and it has, but not enough.

Two years after my original blog post, both parties are still locked in a vicious dogfight over how to improve the economy and reduce the deficit.  The result is that no clear path has emerged.  Both sides voted for a "poison pill" budget that mandated massive cuts if Congress and the President were unable to agree on a more politically-acceptable solution.  Of course they weren't, so now we're facing the so-called fiscal cliff, in which spending cuts (split evenly between defense and social spending) and tax increases automatically kick in on January 1, 2013.  It's hard to find numbers I can believe in, as they're all over the board, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the deficit would be reduced by about $487B (to about $650B) in 2013 if the "fiscal cliff" is implemented.

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth on both sides about the impact these spending cuts and tax increases would have, and rightly so.  However painful they are, though, they're nowhere near enough. To get to a balanced budget will require much, much more in both spending cuts and revenue increases.  For example, the current GDP is about $15.8T.  The federal government's historical average of 20% of GDP means its revenues and expenditures should be $3.16T.  To get to that level would require spending cuts of $640B and revenue increases of $660B.  That's a lot of cuts and a lot of tax increases. Implementing them would be extremely painful, even over a period of years, and that's if our frickin' politicians in Washington will quit their irresponsible partisan war and get to work.

The challenges are huge:
- Mandatory spending programs, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest on the national debt, and others) take up about two thirds of the government's spending and it's growing.  Congress must agree on reforms to make Social Security sustainable, rein in costs on Medicare and Medicaid, and  ensure the long-term survivability of the programs.  That means significantly reducing benefits and costs.
- Discretionary spending takes up about a third of the federal spending.  Over half of that goes for defense.  Spending for social programs is where the Republicans are targeting their cuts while increasing spending on defense.  However, if we completely eliminated all discretionary spending (education, roads, Hurricane Sandy assistance, the FAA, CIA, health, and so on) while keeping defense steady, we'd still run a half-trillion dollar deficit.  Which means that defense has to be cut as well.  Significantly.

All of this is a very long-winded (sorry) way of laying out the deficit problem.  So why do I say Obama will do a better job of reducing it than Romney will?  Because Obama has already shown himself to be a pragmatic deal-maker.  In budget talks with Republican leaders in 2011, Obama gave them 90% of what they wanted.  The Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, killed the deal by adamantly refusing to consider any sort of tax increase.  On the contrary, they want to cut taxes further, which really just fuels the deficit fire.  As I noted above, the only way to get the deficit down is through an equal measure of spending cuts and revenue increases.  Obama is ready to do it.  The Republicans won't.