Landmark FCC Decision Is A Victory For Freedom Of Expression And Free Enterprise

In what PoltiFact calls ” a significant accomplishment for Obama” and a “Promise Kept,” the FCC has voted for major changes to help guarantee a free and open Internet. Net neutrality is important for freedom of expression, including helping small blogs such as this to continue, important for small business, and important to maintain the lifestyle we are becoming accustomed to, such as streaming video as an alternative to often exorbitant cable rates.

Net neutrality is a tremendous victory for freedom of expression and free enterprise. Not surprisingly, conservatives have been spreading the untrue talking points of the large telecommunications companies which fear seeing their power diminished. Whenever the goals of the powerful conflict with the best interests of the nation, we know which side conservatives will invariably side with.

There are all sorts of false claims being spread by conservatives about net neutrality, such as that it will lead to $15 billion in new taxes and will lead to either Barack Obama or the United Nations (depending upon the source) controlling the Internet. In other words, this sounds like lots of right wing conspiracy theories we have already heard.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler disputed conservative claims that the new regulations are intended to regulate communication on the Internet:

This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concept: openness, expression and an absence of gatekeepers telling them what they can do, where they can go and what they can think.

The Fact Checker at The Washington Post called the claims of higher taxes false. Ron Wyden, who wrote the Internet Tax Freedom Act, debunked conservative claims that the FCC’s action would invalidate the law and result in higher taxes. This ban on taxes in will expire in October, but there is nothing stopping Congress from renewing it.

AP’s fact checking included the following:

THE CLAIM: “President Obama’s plan marks a monumental shift toward government control of the Internet.” — Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai.

THE FACTS: It’s a shift for sure, but the FCC hasn’t proposed regulating Internet content or controlling access to websites. The question is how to regulate Internet service so providers don’t block or slow web traffic for financial gain.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says the only way to do that is to subject retail Internet service to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. That would expand FCC power significantly by allowing regulators to step in if there were allegations of harm to consumers. But it’s a reach to suggest that these new powers equate to a government takeover.

Also worth noting is that the FCC is independent from the administration. While Obama has put pressure on the FCC to enact tougher regulations, and he appointed Wheeler to head the agency, this is not the president’s call.

After debunking additional claims, the article explained why this change is now needed, and not necessarily a break from previous administrations:

THE CLAIM: The FCC plan “represents a stunning reversal of the policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations.” It will backtrack on “decades of bipartisan agreement to limit Internet regulation.” — Former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell in an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal.

THE FACTS: The question of Internet “fast lanes” is far more pressing for Obama than it ever was for Clinton or Bush. In 2000, only 3 percent of American households had broadband access, compared with 70 percent by 2013, according to the Pew Research Center.

It wasn’t until President George W. Bush’s second term, in 2005, that YouTube became available and video services like Netflix became more popular. By the time the FCC voted in 2008 against Comcast for throttling Web traffic, Bush was nearing the end of his presidency.

For those who might find this all boring, here is a more entertaining explanation of net neutrality from John Oliver:

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The Importance Of Net Neutrality To A Free Market

 Net Neutrality

A free and open Internet is essential both for many forms of communication and for conducting business. This is another example of Democrats supporting the free market against efforts of some Republicans who, despite their misleading rhetoric and false claims, have been pursing an agenda of destroying the free market in the United States to establish a plutocracy.

I have seen many more scholarly articles on the importance of net neutrality. For those who do not understand the repercussions, this explanation from Chad Dickerson, CEO of Etsy, might put matters in perspective. Following is an excerpt, but I suggest reading his full article:

“Free and open” was what made the Internet work then, and it’s a critical principle now. I didn’t have to ask permission to build my first websites. I had unfettered access to materials that helped me teach myself how to code. As I learned more, I quickly came to understand that the Internet was so much more than a network of cables and wires that connected computers around the world. It was a platform for the purest expression of freedom, openness and possibility that I had experienced in my life.

Those early experiences on the Internet inspired me to pursue a successful career in technology, and connected me with people and knowledge from all over the world. Mine is a common story and one we need to protect for future generations.

Etsy now hosts over 1.3 million sellers, 88% of whom are women, most of them sole proprietors working out of their homes. Individually they may be small, but together they sold over $1.35 billion worth of goods in 2013. That’s the power of the Internet. But it only works if net neutrality — the idea that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally — is protected…

Without strong rules, Etsy and the people who depend on our platform would suffer. We charge just 20 cents to list an item and take only 3.5% of every transaction. If broadband companies can charge websites for priority access to consumers, we’d likely have to choose between increasing our fees or leaving Etsy sellers in the slow lane.

Make no mistake, speed impacts the bottom line. Research from Google and others demonstrates that delays of milliseconds have long-term negative impacts on revenue. If people click on an Etsy seller’s shop and perceive images loading slowly, they will click away, and that seller will lose the sale. This isn’t just about a high-bandwidth service such as video. It’s about any business that depends on the Internet to reach consumers, including the entrepreneurs on Etsy.

That’s why I, along with many others in the startup and public-interest communities, started encouraging the FCC to establish new rules protecting real net neutrality under the strongest legal authority available to them — Title II of the Communications Act — allowing them to ban paid prioritization, throttling and blocking. The previous rules were overturned by the courts because the FCC used the wrong legal authority to justify them. This time, we want them to get it right.

 

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Bloomberg News Shows That Obamacare Is Not A Job-Killer As Republicans Claim

I’ve discussed many times, most recently yesterday, how the conservative arguments against the Affordable Care Act don’t hold up. Their predictions of doom have also consistently failed to come about. Bloomberg News looked at the effect of Obamacare on corporate profits, finding only a small effect, debunking the conservative claims that Obamacare is a job killer. It also helps that one of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act has a lower increase in premiums than has been seen in the past:

The biggest entitlement legislation in a generation is causing barely a ripple in corporate America.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — otherwise known as Obamacare — is putting such a small dent in the profits of U.S. companies that many refer to its impact as “not material” or “not significant,” according to a Bloomberg review of conference-call transcripts and interviews with major U.S. employers.

That’s even after a provision went into effect this year requiring companies with 50 or more full-time workers to provide coverage, and after more workers are choosing to enroll in existing company coverage because of another requirement that all Americans get insured.

“It’s just part of doing business,” said Bob Shearer, chief financial officer of VF Corp., which owns the North Face and Vans apparel brands. “Obamacare has added costs, but not so much that we felt we had to talk about it specifically.”

The collective shrug from the nation’s biggest employers undermines the arguments of Republicans, who call the law a job-killer as they seek its repeal.

While U.S. health-care costs continued to rise faster than inflation in the five years since the law was passed, their rate of growth has slowed. Employers spent an average of $11,204 per worker for health benefits in 2014, up 4.6 percent from a year earlier, according to Mercer LLC. That growth rate was 6.1 percent or more each year from 1998 to 2011.

Enrollment in insurance policies purchased on the exchanges has also beaten expectations. The Hill reports, “The administration announced on Tuesday that 11.4 million people had signed up ahead of Sunday’s deadline, a figure that puts the administration on track to beat its goal of 9.1 million enrollees. Republicans have been largely silent on the numbers.”

Taken together, these two reports are further evidence that the Affordable Care Act is helping to both increase the number of people insured and restrain health care costs.

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The Conservative Con Game

If you ever subscribed to any conservative magazines you most likely wound up on their mailing lists which try to sell all sorts of snake oil to gullible conservatives. They often tie it into conservative philosophy/paranoia, such as selling gold based upon warnings about the imminent economic collapse. Their predictions are essentially unchanged from the 1960’s when I first became aware of them, and probably began far earlier. Rick Perlstein has described how they use their mailing lists to con their supporters.

This is hardly surprising considering how gullible one must be to be a conservative these days as they ignore science, economics, and any other facts which contradict their views. They deny evolution, climate change, and basic science whenever convenient. They promote conspiracy theories without evidence, such as their bogus claims about Benghazi, ACORN, and the IRS. Believe it or not, there are lots of conservatives who believe all their claims, supplying cover when wealthy right wingers promote government policies designed to enrich themselves, while hurting everyone else, based upon Voodoo economic theories which don’t hold up in the real world.

Sometimes a conservative starts to figure out that they are being conned, but they generally miss the big picture. Right Wing News looked at fund raising by conservative groups:

Reports about sleazy activities by conservative groups have not exactly been in short supply over the last couple of years. Damaging stories have popped up on the Daily Beast, Mother Jones, Washington Post, the Politico and at the Daily Caller among other outlets. Additionally, for those of us who have a lot of friends in the Tea Party and among grassroots conservatives, stories of abuse have become rampant.

In the past many conservatives ignored such stories, figuring they were just liberal hit pieces. Right Wing News demonstrated that (as liberals had long realized) many conservative groups were ripping off donors to pocket the money rather than use it for actual candidates. The article concludes:

How many conservative candidates lost in 2014 because of a lack of funds? How many of them came up short in primaries, lost winnable seats or desperately tried to fight off better-funded challengers? How much of a difference would another 50 million dollars have made last year?  That’s a very relevant question because the 10 PACs at the bottom of this list spent $54,318,498 and only paid out $3,621,896 to help get Republicans elected. If that same $54,318,498 had gone to the Club for Growth Action PAC and it had been as efficient with it as it was with the money it had, $47,800,278 would have gone to Republican candidates instead of the meager $3,621,896 that those candidates received from those 10 PACs during this cycle. The conservative movement has a right to expect more than this from the PACs that are representing it.

The post has received considerable attention with conservatives being willing to accept data from a conservative blog which they might have ignored from other sources. For example, Jonah Goldberg covered this at National Review under the title The Right Wing Scam Machine.

Now if they would only realize that the entire conservative movement is a giant scam which pushes false information to promote their goals. Their followers are being told lies far beyond such dishonest fundraising. Unfortunately those who see the tip of the iceberg are totally missing the real problem.

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Measles Outbreak Shows How Republicans Have A Serious Problem With Science And Facts

Statements from many prominent Republicans, including Chris Christie and Rand Paul, on the measles outbreak have served to remind people that Republicans really are the Party of Stupid. This follows recent problems with Republicans ignoring the science to promote hysteria in response to Ebola.  As The New York Times wrote:

The vaccination controversy is a twist on an old problem for the Republican Party: how to approach matters that have largely been settled among scientists but are not widely accepted by conservatives.

It is a dance Republican candidates often do when they hedge their answers about whether evolution should be taught in schools. It is what makes the fight over global warming such a liability for their party, and what led last year to a widely criticized response to the Ebola scare.

As concern spread about an Ebola outbreak in the United States, physicians criticized Republican lawmakers — including Mr. Christie — who called for strict quarantines of people who may have been exposed to the virus. In some cases, Republicans proposed banning people who had been to the hardest-hit West African countries from entering the United States, even though public health officials warned that would only make it more difficult to stop Ebola’s spread.

On climate change, the party has struggled with how to position itself, with some Republicans inviting mockery for questioning the established science that human activity is contributing to rising temperatures and sea levels.

There are two types of misinformation being spread by conservatives regarding vaccines. The most extreme is to deny the basic science, claiming that vaccines do not work or are harmful. Some limit their arguments to denying the public health dangers resulting when some people refuse to vaccinate their children, often on libertarian grounds. While herd immunity has generally protected Americans from the effects of some refusing vaccines, the current measles outbreak shows what can happen. This also highlights a major problem with libertarianism. Sometimes, as even Fox’s Megyn Kelly has argued, “some things do require some involvement of Big Brother.”

It is also hard for Chris Christie to hide behind any libertarian justification for allowing parents to refuse to vaccinate their children after he involuntarily quarantined nurse Kaci Hickox despite the lack of either legal or medical justification.

It does make it much worse for the Republicans when they show similar problems with science and facts on other issues, not limited to evolution, climate change, vaccines, and Ebola. As I discussed yesterday, Republicans are also basing their attempts to restrict abortion rights on pseudo-science, such as claiming that a fetus can feel pain before it has developed a cerebral cortex, and framing the debate around unscientific claims that there is a definite point when life begins.

While economics is not as exact a science, there is ample data which disputes Republican Voodoo Economics. Tax cuts on the wealthy do not pay for themselves, do not stimulate the economy, and do not lead to wealth trickling down. The multiplier effect of government spending on economic development, along with the benefits of giving tax breaks to the poor and middle class, as opposed to the wealthy, often provide far greater benefit. These are among the reasons that the economy does so much better under Democrats than Republicans.

We are still seeing the disastrous effects of Republicans ignoring the facts in Iraq to go to war.

Facts matter, and Republican denial of the facts do not change this. What does happen is that we all suffer when Republicans decide public policy while denying science and facts.

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The Republicans Now Have A God Problem

If you listen to Republicans, they are running to uphold moral values based upon Christianity. Many Republican candidates in the past have even claimed that god wanted them to run, and have cited god to justify their policies. Suddenly it is no longer the case that the Republicans are running on god’s platform. Amy Davidson looked at God and the GOP at The New Yorker:

Indeed, other potential G.O.P. candidates are now having to recalculate how another religion figures into the equation. There has never been a Catholic Republican nominee for the White House (the Mormons, interestingly, got there first), although there may be one this year, with a field that includes Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush, who converted to Catholicism, his wife’s faith, some twenty years ago. For them, the issue is not one of religious bigotry, such as John F. Kennedy faced in his 1960 campaign, with insinuations of adherence to secret Papist instructions. In a way, it’s the opposite: the very public agenda of the all too authentic Pope Francis.

Early signs of trouble came in the summer of 2013, when the new Pope, speaking with reporters about gays in the Church, asked, “Who am I to judge?” The conservative wing of the Party had relied on his predecessors to do just that. Then he proved much less reticent about issuing a verdict on capitalism. In an apostolic exhortation issued at the end of 2013, he labelled trickle-down economic theories “crude and naïve.” The problems of the poor, he said, had to be “radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality.” That went quite a ways beyond the sort of tepid proposals for job creation and “family formation” that Romney made on the Midway, and the response from Republicans has involved a certain amount of rationalization. “The guy is from Argentina—they haven’t had real capitalism,” Paul Ryan, Romney’s former running mate, and a Catholic, said.

“It’s sometimes very difficult to listen to the Pope,” Santorum noted last month, after Francis, in remarks about “responsible parenting”—widely interpreted as an opening for a discussion on family planning—said that there was no need for Catholics to be “like rabbits.” Santorum echoed Ryan’s suggestion that Argentine exceptionalism might be at work: “I don’t know what the Pope was referring to there. Maybe he’s speaking to people in the Third World.” On that front, when it emerged that Francis had been instrumental in the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba, Jeb Bush criticized the deal, and Senator Marco Rubio, also a Catholic, said that he’d like the Pope to “take up the cause of freedom and democracy.”

As if all that weren’t enough, His Holiness is preparing an encyclical on climate change, to be released in advance of his visit to the United States later this year. In January, he said of global warming, “For the most part, it is man who continuously slaps down nature.” Stephen Moore, of the Heritage Foundation, has written, “On the environment, the pope has allied himself with the far left.” Actually, Francis is very much in the center in terms of scientific opinion, but the leading potential G.O.P. contenders, with the possible exception of Christie, sit somewhere on the climate-change-denial-passivity spectrum—Jeb Bush has said that he is a “skeptic” as to whether the problem is man-made.

In recent decades, liberal Catholic politicians were the ones with a papal problem; both Mario Cuomo and John Kerry had to reckon with the prospect of excommunication for their support of abortion-rights laws. John Paul II, meanwhile, was a favorite of conservatives; despite his often subtle views, he became at times little more than a symbol of anti-Communism and a certain set of social strictures. He cemented an alliance, in the political realm, between conservative Catholics and evangelicals. (Rubio also attends an evangelical church.) Abortion was a significant part of that story. By contrast, the Franciscan moment will push some Republican candidates to make decisions and to have conversations that they would rather avoid.

It will also offer a chance to address the knotty American idea that faith is an incontrovertible component of political authenticity. (Why is the Romney who thinks about God the “real” one?) The corollary should be that nothing is as inauthentic as faith that is only opportunistically professed, something that this Pope, who has extended a hand to atheists, seems to know. Still, the campaign will be defined not by theological questions but by political ones, prominent among them inequality and climate change. Both can have spiritual dimensions and speak to moral issues, such as our obligations to one another. But neither can be solved by faith alone.

For those who buy the false claims which have come from some Republicans in the past that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, it might conceivably cause some problems to see Republican candidates at odds with the Pope’s views on religion. While this could be amusing, most likely it won’t matter. The Republican base, which never allows facts to get in the way of their beliefs, sure aren’t going to alter their view based upon what the Pope says. We have seen how willing they are to ignore science when it conflicts with their views on evolution, climate change, or abortion. Republicans also don’t allow economic data which shows that their beliefs (essentially held as a religion) on economics are total hogwash interfere with this religion, no matter how often the economy performs better under Democrats than Republicans. Still, Republicans who could never justify their policies based upon facts, might lose even more legitimacy when they also lose religious justification for their policies.

While most people, or at least those who respect the desire of the founding fathers to establish a secular state, would not use religious views as justification for public policy decisions, there will at least be a bit of satisfaction in seeing Republicans lose even this basis to justify their absurd positions.

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SciFi Weekend: Parenthood Finale; The Marvel Cinematic Universe; The 100; Arrow; Allegiance; The Americans

Parenthood Finale Table

Parenthood concluded with one of the best television finales of all time. This was an easier show to conclude than some others. It did not have the problem of shows such as The X-Files and Lost, which became so burdened by its mythology that it was impossible for the finale to be satisfying without giving up hope that it would really make sense. The Parenthood finale remained true to the stories to date, not tempted to throw in a surprise which did not fit the series, like with How I Met Your Mother or Dexter.

The final episode concluded the major story lines of the season. Most were handled well, but the solution to Adam search for the job of his dreams was the most contrived, with Kristina suddenly having an opportunity at a non-profit which left the position of headmaster at Chamber’s Academy open for Adam. It made sense for Crosby to run The Luncheonette without Adam. Accountants and attorneys could provide some of the business advice he received when Adam was there full time, even if it didn’t make any sense when Crosby said he would be Adam and Amber would be Crosby. It was rather sudden for Julia and Joel to be offered the chance to adopt Victor’s sister, but such an offer coming suddenly did not seem as unnatural as Kristina’s sudden job opportunity.

There were two other story lines which were more important during the season, and which dominated the finale. Sarah’s wedding turned out to be a perfect way to end the series. Besides being a major event for Sarah, the wedding provided a way to get all the characters together as budget limitations required the absence of characters for parts of the season. Besides being the obvious ending for Sarah’s storyline, it provided a good end point for Max, who got the job as wedding photographer and was also “in the picture.” He even got to dance with a girl. Plus the scenes of Max taking the family pictures was a good way to just get a look at the cast members.

The other major storyline of the season was Zeek’s heart problems which, no matter how much fans tried to deny it, was inevitably going to lead to his death. Any lingering doubt that this would occur were eliminated when I read that it would jump ahead to show the Bravermans in the future. It would have been dishonest to not have Zeek die at some point. His death was handled well as he died peacefully at home a few months after he walked Sarah down the aisle, as can be seen in the video above.

Instead of a sad funeral we jumped ahead to see Zeek’s ashes spread at a baseball diamond, and then the Bravermans did what Zeke would have wanted them to do–play baseball, with the series theme song, Bob Dylan’s Forever Young playing. Then, in one of the greatest endings in television history, we had a combination of how Jason Katims ended his previous show, Friday Night Lights with the ending of Peter Krause’s previous show, Six Feet Under.

The show jumped ahead, also in the video above to show the broad outlines of what happens to the Bravermans. There was no ambiguity as in The Sopranos. Adam does become headmaster, eventually handing Max his high school diploma. Crosby does run The Luncheonette. Besides adopting a third child, Julia winds up becoming pregnant with a fourth, and even gets a puppy. Julia and  Joel recreat the original structure of the Braverman family with a younger brother and sister and an older brother and sister. Camille makes it to to inn in France which Zeek had wanted to take her to.

Parenthood - Season 6

Amber’s future is the most exciting. After having her child with Ryan, aka Luke Cafferty of Friday Night  Lights (Matt Lauria), Amber winds up marrying Jason Street (Scott Porter). Ryan even gets his act together and is part of their lives. Scenes with their courtship were shot but got cut from the finale, with Scott Porter’s character named Peter:

“There’s a scene where they meet. Peter and his daughter are at what amounts to a Kidtown, like an indoor jungle gym playtime place. Peter has his daughter and Amber has Zeek. Zeek [named after his grandfather] gets lost in the ball pit and Peter goes bravely in to save him and brings him back to Amber.”

They clicked right away. “They have similar kinds of pasts,” Porter explains. “Both were a little bit wild at one point, and both have kids they maybe weren’t expecting but that were perfectly timed for them. They’re single parents who met and were immediately drawn together.”

While no wedding was actually shot, Porter had no problem imagining the nuptials.

“I imagine it was a very small, intimate wedding. These are two people who are very protective of their families. So pretty small, except for the Braverman side — they come in numbers that most families don’t come in anymore.”

This and other deleted scenes are bound to show up on the DVD set, and some deleted scenes can be found online here.

Matt Lauria and Scott Porter were just two of many former stars of Friday Night Lights who appeared on Parenthood over the years. Yahoo has a slide show, starting with Minka Kelly who both tutored Max and slept with Crosby.

Parenthood - Season 6

This very well might be the end for quality dramas such as Friday Night Lights and Parenthood on network television as I discussed last week. Fortunately cable and streaming networks are doing more quality shows. This topic came up in an interview with Jason Katims at Variety:

It’s unique as a family drama on TV right now. Can you imagine trying to sell it today?

It would be a hard sell to go out and sell a family drama that doesn’t have some sort of twist. There are lot of shows about family, but they’re all couched in other things. This is a straight family drama. It’s unusual in that way. But honestly it was not easy to sell it five years ago. It’s not like anyone was saying let’s have it then. But the TV landscape is changing so rapidly. There’s so much opportunity now, so many different types of outlets — you never know. I’m hoping that there’ll still be a place for shows like this.

The finale provided a broad outline, but also leaves things open to return to their story in the future, either during the period seen or afterwards. Katims is interested, and the new outlets make this more likely in the future.

Given the wealth of platforms on the TV landscape, could you imagine ever revisiting the Bravermans down the road?

Yes, absolutely. Everyone who is doing the show — our writers, our actors, our directors, our producers — we all love doing the show. Everyone would want to do more. There is no one who is angling to get out of doing this thing. I personally would be interested in seeing what happens a few years down the road. I want to know what happens to these people, these characters. If you asked me three years ago, I would say it’s not going to happen. But now there are so many ways of doing things that it’s possible. I would very much be open to that.

Parenthood - Season 6

He also discussed this with E! saying, “I love the idea of doing a reunion movie like Boyhood, where every year, everybody commits a week to doing this project.,” he said. “Maybe it’s not that crazy to think that we could pull something like that off.”

Of course the old episodes are all easily available, both on Netflix and Amazon. I rewatched the pilot later on Thursday night, and this provided a real feeling of going full circle in an episode which introduced the characters. The pilot both had major life events for members of Team Braverman and featured the family at baseball games.

The Bravermans are a fantasy family. It is a family nobody actually has, and it is hard to imagine how Adam and Kristina could have afforded to live in Berkeley, hire private tutors for Max, and afford to send Haddie to Cornell. This universe is still more grounded in reality than the Marvel cinematic universe, with both types of fantasy enjoyable to watch. Digital Spy has some spoilers regarding Avengers: Age of Ultron (trailer above) with more in the full post.

We won’t see the Avengers assemble again (which hopefully also means we’ll be spared a silly alternative UK title). “This movie starts off and the team is together, on a mission, they’re working in tandem, and there are new relationships between them,” explains producer Jeremy Latcham. “Time has passed, so you pick up right in the middle of an action sequence and start trying to catch up.

“I think that’s fun for an audience, to try and figure out, ‘Wait, those two are funny together now, there’s something going on with them, maybe there’s a little tension over there’. You’re showing up at a party when it’s already a little bit started.”

“Bigger” and “darker” are two of the most clichéd terms you can apply to a franchise sequel, but Age of Ultron looks set to earn both – according to Ruffalo, it “makes the first Avengers look like Waiting for Guffman“.

Latcham expands on this by reminding us that much of The Avengers was shot on a small soundstage in Albuquerque, and that its New York City was created “in an old abandoned train station where we’d hung green screen and built part of a bridge.”

Not only are the locations real this time – they’re also global. “The Avengers saved New York, but the Avengers aren’t just about America,” Latcham says. “They’re here to protect this blue rock that we all live on.”

Hence Age of Ultron‘s globe-trotting remit, which sees various strands of the gang show up in South Africa, Northern Italy (playing as Eastern Europe) and South Korea among other places. In preparation for one particularly spectacular set piece, producers asked the South Korean government for permission to shut down Seoul’s equivalent of the M1 for two weeks. They complied.

avengers-age-of-ultron-quicksilver-scarlett-witch

The movie adds Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to the Avengers, but they start out on Ultron’s side.

New recruits Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) initially join forces with James Spader’s Ultron against the Avengers, creating a very different balance of power than solo villain Loki. “Instead of Ultron giving a lot of speeches so everybody knows what he’s thinking, it’d be nice if he had some allies,” Latcham explains.

“The story that Joss put together with these two kids is really sweet and poignant, and you really understand why they would start on this side of the line. It’s a great journey that they go on, from being these rough and tumble kids in Eastern Europe who blame the West, and the Avengers for the plight, the power structure of the world that keeps kids like them down. Over the course of it they realize maybe the Avengers are here for good reason.”

But the brother-sister duo have legitimate beef with one Avenger in particular. “Our characters have a lot of anger, especially towards Tony Stark, and we want revenge,” says Olsen. “We meet Ultron, and he’s someone who preaches peace and… believes what we believe, which is that the Avengers create destruction and that Tony Stark’s bomb is responsible for killing our parents.”

Unsurprisingly, their alliance with Ultron ends up turning sour, and Olsen reveals that “my character ends up really having to deal with her ignorance. A lot of problems that happen towards the end of the film are her responsibility.”

Age of Ultron also leads into the next Captain America movie and the situation leading to the upcoming civil war is explained:

Much of the Avengers’ problem boils down to their lack of a clear leader post-Winter Soldier. “SHIELD has fallen apart, so this movie becomes Tony Stark and Steve Rogers trying to put the Avengers together without a parental unit like Nick Fury hovering over them,” explains Latcham. “What you realize is that these are guys who work best with rules, and probably do need some adult supervision.”And as anybody who watched the first film can guess, Tony and Cap aren’t an ideal leadership pairing. “Tony has been paying for everything, designing stuff, building new toys, he’s the benefactor of the whole thing. But Steve Rogers is very much in charge of operations and missions, he’s the moral compass,” Latcham goes on. “But how long can Tony Stark have someone else be in charge?” In other words, groundwork is being distinctly laid for the Stark vs Rogers core of Civil War.

Avengers Age of Ultron Spoilers

Joss Whedon has helped create a fantastic universe with the Marvel characters but has been talking about moving on, and creating a new universe:

“I would never rule anything out, because I like working here. By the same token, the biggest thing for me is that I need to do something that I create myself. It’s been way too long since I created a universe. The last thing I did before The Avengers was [directing an episode of] Glee, and in between I did Much Ado About Nothing. So I haven’t created my own universe for over five years. That feels wrong.”

The Marvel universe is not limited to the Avengers and other movie series from Marvel Studios as other studios have the rights to some of the Marvel characters. Fox has the rights to X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and there is talk that their worlds will ultimately intersect. Information on the upcoming X-Men and Fantastic Four movies here and here respectively.

Sony owns the rights to Spider-Man and we learned during the recent leaks of their email that there was talk of Marvel Studios getting partial rights to the character. Blastr argues that it might have actually been a good thing that Marvel Studios did not own the rights to all of the Marvel characters:

It’s easy to forget that back in the mid-2000s, Marvel Studios was one heck of a risky proposition. After partnering with outside studios for years, the company finally decided that, if they wanted good movies based on their comics (and the winner’s share of the box-office bucks that come with them), they’d have to make ‘em themselves. There was just one problem: They’d already sold off any franchise with obvious big-screen potential, most notably Spider-Man, X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

So Marvel decided to dig deep. The comic universe has always thrived on variety and a world populated with extremely interesting and damaged heroes, so they decided to apply that model to film. Iron Man and Hulk were arguably the most bankable heroes left on the bench, so Marvel pumped every dime it had into those two projects and prayed for a hit. Luckily for all of us, Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau caught lighting in a bottle with Iron Man in 2008. More than $585 million later, we were well on our way toward The Avengers.

Since Marvel didn’t have the luxury of a sure-fire star like Spider-Man — who is currently the most lucrative comic-book character in existence, with more than $1.3 billion in licensing revenue in 2013 alone — they had to work with characters who might not have ever gotten a shot otherwise. Just think: If Marvel could have made splashy Spider-Man and X-Men movies, do you think we’d have ever gotten something as creatively quirky as Guardians of the Galaxy (or Ant-Man), or the risky period-set romp that was Captain America: The First Avenger? Maybe somewhere down the line, but a lot of the limited focus (and release slots) would almost certainly be eaten up by those larger properties. 

Yes, Marvel would probably be making better movies than what’s out there now (especially on the Spider-Man front), but for me, I wouldn’t trade the epic Marvel Universe we have now for the chance at some better Spider-Man movies. Not by a long shot. The fact that Marvel didn’t have Spider-Man in its stable was the catalyst to bring characters like Iron Man and Thor to life, and gave Marvel the confidence to try something as seemingly insane as a film starring Rocket Raccoon and Groot. The only thing they could control was making the best movies possible, and since the characters were mid-tier, they had to be extremely good.

He has a good point that the way Marvel built the Avengers with characters starting with lesser characters like Iron Man worked out well. However, now that this has been established, Marvel Studios (as part of Disney) is probably big enough to hire the crew to put out an even larger number of movies. Plus it would be worth sacrificing some of the planned movies with minor characters if it meant having Spider-Man movies of the quality of other movies from Marvel Studios.

100-1

Briefly looking at other shows on last week, I was glad to see that the cast and crew of The 100 agree that the plan for Bellamy to infiltrate Mt. Weather “sucked.” I can accept writing a script with characters doing foolish things, as people do foolish things, as long as the writers are doing this intentionally. More on upcoming plans for The 100 in the linked interview.

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I am also glad that it was intentional that Team Arrow was so weak without Oliver. It would be especially unrealistic if Laurel was suddenly an effective crime fighter like her sister, who had years of training. Marc Guggenheim discussed Arrow and The Flash in an interview with Assignment X. Guggenheim also tied Arrow into contemporary politics:

AX: How much do you weigh referencing ARROW as a modern-day Robin Hood?

GUGGENHEIM: There’s an interesting thing that’s happening in the country right now, where you’re talking about one percent versus ninety-nine percent, haves versus have-nots. Poverty and whatnot has become a political issue, which is interesting, because to me, it was always an issue on both sides of the aisle, how we distribute wealth in this country. It’s a little scary to me that it’s become this polarizing political thing. That’s not the country I grew up in, so it’s weird also to be writing on a show that’s clearly dealing with that issue head-on. Obviously, GREEN ARROW is inspired by Robin Hood and we’re playing around with those elements, but you go it’s more about social justice than it is about politics. At least, that’s what the show should be about.

AX: Aren’t social justice and politics sort of the same thing?

GUGGENHEIM: Well, the point I’m making actually is that social justice has become a political issue in a way that it never has been in this country. Obviously, yes, there’s always been a political divide, we’ve always had disagreements in terms of how to address these issues, but it just feels like the disagreements have become so vitriolic and the differences have become so severe that it’s taken on a different cast than it used to have.

NBC plans to air Allegiance on Thursday nights in place of Parenthood. It sure sounds like a rip off of The Americans, even if its producers deny it. I’m sure there will be differences, like on The Americans the Russians are after the daughter, but on Allegiance they want to turn the son into a spy. It seems better to place such a scenario with undercover Russian spies in the 1980’s, like The Americans, as opposed to present day.

The Americans started its season with another excellent episode, and is ranked by may critics as the top show currently on television. I doubt that Allegiance will be anywhere as good, either as a spy show or as a family drama. If you haven’t seen it, call in sick for the next two days and binge on the first two seasons on Amazon Prime to catch up.

And, finally, a nine year-old in Texas was suspended from school for threatening to make a classmate disappear. He had just watched The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies and claimed to have the one ring to rule them all.

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Will The State Of The Union Address Matter After This Week?

Obama SOTU

I certainly liked Obama’s State of the Union Address while listening to it. In a room dominated by Republicans, Obama was once again the adult in the room–the sensible one interested in governing and not bogged down in extremist ideology. His economic numbers provided real evidence of success, despite Republican obstructionism, and Obama was right in addressing the need to extend the benefits of economic recovery to more in the middle class.

The question is whether the speech, and Obama’s aggressiveness on policy matters, will make a difference matters beyond this week. David Corn summed up some of my concerns:

Barack Obama is very good at getting elected president (two for two!) and pretty darn good at policy (Obamacare; the stimulus; the auto industry rescue; Wall Street reform; ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; Cuba; immigration reform executive action; dumping DOMA; middle-class tax cuts; new EPA limits on emissions that cause climate change; banning torture; downsizing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and killing Osama bin Laden). But there’s one key piece of the job description where he’s fallen short: shaping the ongoing political narrative of the nation.

The president is the country’s storyteller in chief. And despite his inspiring powers of oratory (see Campaign 2008) and his savvy understanding of the importance of values in political salesmanship (see Campaign 2012), Obama, as his aides concede, has not effectively sold the nation on his own accomplishments, and, simultaneously, he has failed to establish an overarching public plot line that explains the gridlock in Washington as the result of GOP obstructionists blocking him on important issues where public opinion is in his favor. With his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Obama had one last chance to take a swing at forging this narrative. Though he did adopt a muscular stance in presenting a forceful and vigorous vision—going on offense in the fourth quarter of his presidency, as his advisers have put it—the president let the Republicans off easy.

Throughout his presidency, as the GOP has consistently sought to block him, Obama has responded inconsistently. He often has pleaded for reason and looked to craft a deal—frequently (and justifiably) to prevent a hit to the economy. (This was the adult-in-the-room strategy.) At times, he has praised House Speaker John Boehner, while pointing to Boehner’s tea party wing as the cause of the partisan paralysis. And then he has occasionally—but not too often—flashed anger and slammed Republicans for being irresponsible and reckless (the debt ceiling scuffle, the assorted government shutdown showdowns). He has not presented a steady and stark tale in which he stars as the fighter for the middle- and lower-income Americans who are stymied repeatedly by always-say-no Republicans aligned with plutocrats, the gun lobby, corporate polluters, and other foes of progress. Consequently, he has often borne blame for the sluggish economy and the mess in Washington, with the Democratic Party paying the price for the dips in his approval rating.

For this to have meaning, Obama must stick to pushing his views, and the Democratic Party must be there behind him. The reaction of the Democratic Party has been even more inconsistent than Obama’s. Here’s what I thought during the speech:

Of course the general election is an entirely different ballgame than the midterms, and Democrats who thought there was benefit in running as Republican-lite in a midterm election where the big contests were in the red states might act more boldly. Or maybe not.

On the other hand, maybe we should just be happy that Obama had a good speech, the positive results from his policies are real, and that the speech was well accepted. Beyond that, I’m not sure that a State of the Union address ever really matters all that much.

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Obama Approval Now Rises To Reagan-Levels As Economy Improves

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An ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Obama’s approval reaching 50% on the eve of his State of the Union Address:

Obama’s overall approval rating now stands at 50 percent, the highest in a Post-ABC poll since the spring of 2013. His standing is nine points higher than in December and seven points higher than in October, just before Republicans captured control of the Senate, increased their House majority to its highest level in eight decades and recorded advances in the states.

The Post-ABC survey puts the president’s approval rating slightly higher than some other recent public polls. But most have shown improvement since the November elections as the president has moved aggressively and unilaterally on issues such as immigration and climate change.

A breakdown of the poll also shows greater support for Obama than for Republicans on the issues, which could be significant now that Obama will be facing a Republican-controlled Congress. These numbers put him well on course to exceed Ronald Reagan’s approval at this point in his presidency, which is quite an improvement after the many comparisons to George Bush’s approval ratings last year.

It is far too early to predict where his popularity will be at the time of the 2016 election. Nate Cohn, looking at his average improvement and not this specific poll, wrote on the political impact Obama’s popularity might have on the 2016 election:

There is a well-established relationship between the pace of economic growth and a president’s approval ratings, and Mr. Obama is clearly benefiting from signs of accelerating economic growth. For the first time since the start of the recession, more Americans believe the economic conditions are good or excellent than poor. Consumer confidence rose to an 11-year high last week, according to the University of Michigan consumer sentiment index…

Only a handful of modern elections have not had an incumbent president on the ballot. In these contests, the president’s approval ratings are unsurprisingly less important than when a president is running for re-election. So Mr. Obama’s approval ratings will matter in 2016, but it is hard to say exactly how much.

The balance of evidence suggests that the break-even point for the presidential party’s odds of victory is at or nearly 50 percent approval. If the only thing you knew about the 2016 election was Mr. Obama’s approval rating on Election Day, you might guess that the Democrats had a 37 percent chance of holding the White House with a 46 percent rating — rather than a 23 percent chance with a 41 percent rating. The difference between 41 and 46 might be worth between one and two percentage points to the Democratic candidate in 2016 — the difference between a close race and a modest but clear Republican victory.

Mr. Obama’s surge among Hispanic voters might be particularly telling. It is a sign that Democratic-leaning voters dissatisfied with Mr. Obama’s performance might not be so disillusioned that they can’t be lured back to the Democrats by the issues and messages that brought them to the party in the first place. The president’s ratings among liberals and Democrats remain mediocre — perhaps only in the low 70s and low 80s, respectively — suggesting that there are additional, low-hanging opportunities for Mr. Obama and his party’s next nominee.

 

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Goals Of The New Republican Congress: Repeal Obamacare Despite Success In Lowering Uninsured, Declare War On Math, Promote Pseudoscience To Restrict Abortion

Uninsured 2015

While Republicans are probably on the verge of voting yet again to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and will continue to make false claims that it has been a failure, Gallup shows once again how successful the law has been. The uninsured rate has fallen to 12.9 percent, down from 17.1 percent a year ago. The open enrollment period for 2015 remains open making it likely that the uninsured will fall further, especially if there is a last minute surge in people enrolling as last year. The number will further increase if more states go ahead and accept the expanded Medicaid program, and more people are also likely to receive insurance from employers with the trend towards decreased unemployment. Gallup also found that most who have obtained insurance plan to continue coverage, either through the same or a different insurance company.

Even before the inevitable vote to repeal Obamacare, the new Republican controlled Congress has declared war on math, as Jonathan Chait described it, and have introduced a national ban on abortions after twenty weeks. I recently discussed the pseudo-science used by Republicans to justify this, and there is more at Think Progress.

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