Sunday, December 16, 2012

America's Cliff Hanger

As the end of 2012 approaches, politicians, economists, and the greater American public in general wait with abated breath at the oncoming fiscal cliff that is about to sweep across the United States. This surely qualifies as an economic phenomenon that is bound to affect the greater part of the world. Or is it? Perhaps America’s Cliff Hanger knows a thing or two. I’ll get to that.
Could it be even possible that this so-called fiscal cliff is nothing more than a figment of one person’s genetically risk averse mind? But also a mind that is creative, with a nationalistic inner motivation? Whatever his drive and determination was, the US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke effectively captured the attention of lawmakers and the broader public when he used the term “fiscal cliff” earlier this year to describe the country’s impending economic progression into recession at the end of this year. It was a very bipartisan move from Bernanke at that time and sounded like a really good idea too.
Why not use a very real and sizable public threat to rally bickering politicians into compromising and collaboration? Except that the threat didn’t work. The purpose of threatening American politicians and lawmakers of a fiscal cliff was to force a cooperative outcome in an increasingly uncooperative undertaking. But this backfired in the absence of a credible enforcer and an insufficient amount of mutual assurances. In the end, the parties involved felt that they had more to gain from the uncooperative behaviour. The perception that came from sheer public pressure caused politicians on both sides of the US Congress political divide to view any compromise as a sign of weakness.
So what is this “fiscal cliff” that has stirred up an entire nation so much? It is basically the very combination of tax increases and spending cuts that is scheduled to begin at the end of this year after the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. It is not surprising that the term “fiscal cliff” was abused by the media to whip up a financial hysteria among the populace. The media, after all, thrive on dramatic headlines. Its dramatization of the impending financial and economic outlook in the US is akin to the Y2K sensation more than a decade ago.
To coin such an outlook to that of a “cliff” is to say that if you stepped off an edge, you would fall very fast without any control at all to your relative speed, and fall very hard, and then not get up for a very, very long time. This is Bernanke’s dramatic version.
But we all know that in reality, the scheduled financial changes resemble more of a fluid problem – a kind of fiscal “slope” if you will. Income withholding takes a long time to adjust so the full effect of tax increases will not be felt immediately. The government also has discretion regarding the implementation of spending cuts, which will be in phases and within the government’s control. This is the non-dramatic version.
America and the world could really use a little less drama from the media. The usage of words here to describe the country’s financial situation matters greatly because it sends people into panic – people in places of high power, reach and influence. That is why there are even talks of people who want to make big cuts in Social Security and Medicare – the country’s two main entitlement programs. This creates a mentality of self-preservation and survival within the government; if we are about to head off a cliff, extreme measures need to be taken. Cutting pensions, unemployment benefits and health care certainly qualifies as completely inappropriate and unnecessary.
In a less extreme scenario, the very people who refuse to consider raising taxes – Republicans in the US Congress’ House of Representatives – will then suddenly find themselves with a very weak hand indeed, if faced with a fiscal slope instead. Be that as it may, the House Republicans will persistently refuse to vote for any increases in tax rates during the current lame-duck congressional session.
So, it’s very unlikely that congressional Democrats and Republicans will come to an agreement in extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, while allowing them to expire for the rich. They will keep on bickering with each other legislatively until the last week of the year, then step onto the brink of the supposed “cliff” and see who blinks at the last moment.
But it won’t be either the Democrats or the Republicans who blink. On the contrary, and transcending the line-up of the Congress – enters America’s very own Cliff Hanger star – Obama, who will step off the “cliff” and take the fall, but not in the way our minds traditionally associate a fall with. The President has the power to make an executive decision and veto any extension of the Bush-era tax cuts that will expire by the end of this year.
How does the single act of an individual will uphold the fiscal legislative democracy of this country? When the tax rates have been restored to its previous level, Obama could present his own tax-cut plans that will provide a greater benefit to lower-income Americans, as was promised during his presidential re-election campaign.
How will Obama’s new tax-cut package be different from the one before? It is a simple process of linear mathematical efficiency – of identifying the constant and the variable to form a replicating model. Benjamin Franklin once shared that “in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. And we know that nothing is more volatile than the economy. So tax cuts will be linked to the state of the economy. As employment recovers, tax cuts will wind down. Conversely, a larger tax cut could be proposed should the economy outlook in 2013 is anticipated to be weaker. Either way, this approach gives America’s long-term fiscal prospects a more viable solution.
What will then happen to the congressional gridlock in Washington? A smart leader is a person who gets you to do what he wants, by making you think it was your own choice. So, the House Republicans will now be presented with a choice – do they vote against Obama’s tax cuts week after week that would actually help millions of Americans while letting the economy decline? Or do they vote for a deal that cut taxes relative to where they would be otherwise? The latter choice gives the House Republicans leverage over the tax cut rates, while consigning them to Obama’s tax-cut package. With this, the House Republicans not only endorse a deal that supports the economy, but also restores revenue to the level preceding that of the disastrous Bushonomics experiment. And restoring revenues to the country was the centrepiece of Romney’s Republican presidential campaign. This is a win-win scenario for the US Congress as a whole.
If and when the US vetoes the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts and enact the Obama tax cuts, I’d be curious to see how Obama’s plan to tax the upper 2% income earners can help fix the economy. Because that figure will bring in $80 billion a year – the government currently spends approximately $10 billion a day, where $4 billion is borrowed. In short, taxing the super-rich will run the government for 8 days!
So how does this add up? While tax cuts are increased for the super-rich and decreased for the middle class, spending cuts will even the scale a little on the other end of the fiscal spectrum. But Obama has also been known to put in place spending cuts on the table that are greater than what would normally please his electoral base.
In the end, as America heads steadily down the fiscal slope in early 2013, the big question remains whether they can strengthen revenue in an appropriate manner that is consistent with its renewed economic growth. Because this very fiscal slope will give Obama the edge to turn the historical partisan political gridlock in Washington around and even possibly bend history in the process, culminating in a potential economic decline, rather than an economic recession.
On a somber note, my thoughts go out to the tragedy of the Connecticut school shooting for the 28 lives lost, including 20 children.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


I woke up this morning fresh from the memory of the conversation I had with an old friend from overseas last night. We caught up on each other’s life events, talked about our plans and briefly skirted on the idea of our own future possibilities.
When I woke this morning, I had this sense of illusory weight and drag on my being and psyche. My mind could only zero in on this singular thought that became to form – how much of our life is spent lost in waiting?
Too much.
We wait for our friends. We can’t wait to be out of the traffic jam. We wait in lines. We can’t wait for our dreams to come true. We wait for the perfect person to come along. We can’t wait to have a better life. We wait for the day we achieve our goals and make them a reality.
And we keep waiting on. Thinking that the good life we’ve always wanted is coming, and soon enough we’ll be there.
But what if we stopped waiting for things to happen? What if we stopped trying to make our dreams come true? What if we stopped wishing and hoping and expecting? And what if, that good life you’ve always wanted is already here? And the only thing you got to do is stop looking ahead and just realize, just notice what you already have.
Just look at where you are right now physically in this very moment, and in your life. Instead of searching for good things to happen or striving so hard to make something good come true, just take a pause. Is it already good? Is it great? If yes, then you are already in that very “future". So why bother looking towards that future then? Unless you don’t think what you have is already great. Then maybe you’re not noticing the right things in the right details.
When you are stuck in traffic, most of us will catch ourselves thinking “I can’t wait to get there!” But think again. Aren’t you already there? Where is there? There is where in the middle of a jam-packed highway, you see clouds and trees and you can appreciate its natural beauty with your own tired eyes. There is when you feel your legs are tired from the long driving hours, but you realize it’s an opportunity to feel your legs. And there is what you do with your eyes and legs after the jam is over; awesome stuff where many of us take for granted – where we often think it sucks.
We all don’t realize this but we participate in the miracle of life, daily. We often succumb to the belief that all these things are routine, dull, predictable and mundane. If your legs are tired, pull over, rest at a stop and stretch. Stare up blankly into the sky and soak in its beauty. Realize the very eyes and legs that were tired and aching, are also the very eyes and legs that gave you this possibility to do what you just did. Then recognize that they actually don’t suck at all, they are awesome.
We like to set goals in our life. And that’s just how the most of us are brought up. We imagine what these little dreams of our future will be like and focus on them every day. We keep working on them and eventually yes, we do get closer and closer to that great future. But when you’re finally there, then what? You set your next goal? And then the next? And the next?
It just never ends. The very so-called forward-looking attitude you’ve fostered to drive you over the years doesn’t end when you get to that goal. It only ends when you have no longer any life left, and then there’s no future to look forward to.
The only way it can end is for you to stop looking towards that goal now, and look at where you are instead. We often confuse our dreams and goals with what is real. The goal may sound great: make a million dollars, buy a fancy house, complete a big project, work out and get a nice body, etc. But the truth is that all these are fantasies. And when it finally comes true, it won’t happen as how you’ve always imagined it. It will somewhat still feel like a normal life – the same life you had before achieving these goals. Life won’t be better, and never will be until you change your mindset from desiring a better life, to realizing that life is already incredible.
What would you do if you don’t have anything you want? Some of us continue to wait for the perfect person to come along. That person may or may not show up. But the tragedy isn’t in not finding that dream lover. It is that you’re waiting for happiness. Just remember that they aren’t better than what you already have, which is a ridiculously unlikely event called life.
So live your life and not be caught up in the expectations of living instead.
When you achieve this, you realize a certain kind of living form. Perhaps something like a feeling of waitless-ness. It is like the feeling of blood rushing to your head, because your heart doesn’t have anything to pump against. And it’s awesome.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Project Peeks: Noah (Where's My Ark?)

What is the first thing in your mind when the words Bible and movie appear together in the same sentence? I hope you didn’t think it was Armageddon. Although I wouldn’t put it past Michael Bay to transform anything or anyone, even their religion and girlfriends.
But when was the last time you remember being treated to a biblical movie? Maybe most of you will vaguely recall the widely-popular and highly-controversial movie The Passion of the Christ back in 2004 by Mel “Mad Max” Gibson. Mad Max? You will see my point as you read down. And if you haven’t seen this movie, then you haven’t missed much. Except probably not watch one of the most graphical, violent and edifying piece of artistic interpretation of arguably one of the most well-known chapters in the Bible – the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
Given the nature of The Passion, the elements of this movie were much confined to its drama genre, but thankfully it was anything but boring. This is expected of course, given the chronicle-filled nature of the Bible. It is no wonder that most biblical movies (with the very few notable exception of some like The Passion, Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments), have never been globally successful in a done-to-death genre.
Most successful films’ formula in recent times spells only one word – epic. It is an easy formula because the epic genre is mainly a derivative of fantasy, and money. Lots and lots of money. But how do you apply that into a biblical chronicle? And make lots and lots of money?
You pray, you go to church and you do charities in the name of God. Ok, I was kidding.
That is why when Noah, Darren Aronofsky’s next film was announced this year, I thought that the Black Swan director was making a traditional version of the familiar tale. The only thing that is going to be traditional about Noah is Aronofsky’s penchant for controversial movies that are often associated with violent, bleak and depressing subject matter. He even loses the word “Ark” from the traditional title.
So no, Noah is not going to be a retelling of the biblical figure as much as the most of us would like to think it is going to be. A close adaptation of the chronicle of Noah’s Ark; now wouldn’t that have been boring and predictable, with no money? Just like how The Passion was biblically inaccurate but artistically resonant, graphically encapsulating, and faithful to the New Testament, Noah will accomplish the same for the Old Testament.
Before I go on, I wish to point out that Aronofsky is a genius for making this movie. The pieces all fall into place. Aside from his childhood fascination with Noah’s story from the Bible, here is what I’ve spotted: what Mel Gibson did for The Passion, Noah will do the same for Mad Max (the character, not the film; although both are the same). Confused yet?
And that is how Noah will turn out. This is Aronofsky’s Noah. He is going to be a Mad Max-style warrior placed in a pseudo-apocalyptic world where he has to face and survive six-armed giants. Intrigued already?
He isn’t the patriarchal prophet you remember from the Bible. This is a warrior out of the depths of ancient time; a world where pity has no place. A place marked by violence and barbarism. A fighter and also a healer who is subjected to imminent visions of the end of the world consumed by an endless wave of deluge. Absorbed yet?
For a movie this religiously epic, you need an equally epic cast with a balanced mix. So let me roll down the red carpet and present Sir Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly and Ema Watson. And no, I’m sorry to disappoint but even Hopkins is way too old to be playing Noah. That honour rolls nicely to Russell Crowe of Luxley (please excuse his last on-screen disaster of Robin Hood). And yes, for the first time in more than a decade, Crowe and Connelly will be reunited on-screen to work that magic thing they got going so well for them in A Beautiful Mind. Impressed yet?
You can have a peek at the look and feel of this upcoming religious epic movie at the end of this article by checking out the video showcasing the graphic novel written by Aronofsky. It is published in French and drawn by Marvel and DC comics veteran artist Henrichon; created to help promote the film to Paramount Pictures. Unless you read French, just appreciate the gravity of the graphics and its dark undertone here – the score also tells you a bit about the mood and bleakness of this movie.
Noah is scheduled for release on the 28th of March, 2014.
Click below for the graphic novel showcase:

A Windowed Cry

Most people wonder what it really means to grow up. But what most people fail to realize, when asking this, is that the real question should be what does growing up really means? There is a very distinct and fundamental difference here in asking this question, using the very same words but phrased in a totally different order.
What does it really means to grow up? Your typical answers for this would be varied: experiences, failures, responsibilities, achievements, self-redefinition and so on. All are easy answers to an otherwise literal question.
What does growing up really means then? Now, the answer to this would be something! And something totally unexpected too. Because it depends on what you believe in.
And what I truly believe in? Is that we never really grow up. It is something I’ve seen it with my own eyes. In friends, with the people you work with, people you tolerate, families and even strangers.
What I really see is that we all just learn how to act better as we age. And that is what growing up really means, I think – we become better at acting out our feelings to the people we care about, and the people we tolerate. Yes, we all yearn to have at least that someone in life whom we can share everything and anything with, and we do it, almost completely. But here is the truth: we never really reveal ourselves fully even to our loved ones.
And that’s ok. It’s not selfish. It’s not strange. It’s not even hypocritical. It’s just the way we are; it’s in our nature to sometimes keep even the smallest of mystery to ourselves. We are not hiding. We are….searching.
That is why a child’s words are the purest in form and definition. That is why many of us often find the simplest and truest of wisdom in a child’s utterances. It is not that they are innocent words; they are just unscripted words – unbiased by the mental filters we grown-ups have been accustomed to put on over the years.
It is why the strongest bond with our children is made during their early years, not later. It is in those years where they reveal the most to us. They laugh the hardest and cry the loudest. And these two physical emotions are the best measure to a person’s true self.
A laugh may tell us who someone is when they are around others, but a cry is what really reveals them. That is why we do our crying in private.
Everyone wears a mask and every so often, each of us stand in front of a mirror and look at ourselves. We stare at us. Some look past themselves. Others look into themselves. And then there are those who look at their own superficial bodies and faces for beauty to them are skin-deep. But true beauty goes deeper. Only tears reveal a person’s true self. That is why our eyes are the only window into our souls. That is why we never cry in front of mirrors.
Each of us believe that we share our innermost-self to the people closest to us, when we cry privately in their presence, but little do most of us see it – we still pretend at a subconsciously emotional level because we still try to keep something for ourselves during this most intimate moment.
We try to open up when we shed a tear
Hoping others will see our age without fear
But what the mirrors fail to try
Is to reveal this act that is called a windowed cry