Friday, December 09, 2016

Everyone involved in this story is getting exactly what they deserve. It's a Xmas Miracle!

We have only one time ever bought the "hot toy" for a kid when it came out: long ago we got up really early and went and waited to buy a Playstation Portable for The Boy, who really wanted one. I don't recall that it made a Golden Light from Heaven (TM) shine down on us or anything, so probably it wasn't really worth even that minimal effort.

I think parents who overpay for toys are stupid, and I think parents who place such an emphasis on providing material things to their kids that they do anything more than some minimal effort to get them a toy they want are probably not good parents.  But people that take advantage of the dumb & desperate (TM) are just as bad, which is why I found this news to be The True Meaning Of Xmas:

Author Buys Up $23,500 Worth Of Hatchimals And Parents Are Furious

Says the Huffington Post headline. Cue the Xmas music: *All I want for Xmas is... * 

as we come on a montage of shop windows dusted with snow amid bustling shoppers who pass to and fro,  their happy arms laden with gifts for their wives and gifts for their children to brighten their lives.

But wait, what's that discordant sound that I hear? A stampede of parents all shouting in fear

Some people turn to bake sales or GoFundMe accounts to raise money. But for author Sara Gruen, she looked to this season’s must-have children’s toy.
Gruen, who wrote the New York Times best-selling novel “Water for Elephants,” is facing online fury among parents after buying up $23,500 worth of Hatchimal toys only to resell them at higher prices as a so-called fundraiser,

"We can't let her do that!" their voices cry out, as far and away all the parents do shout. "OUR KIDS need those toys, need them now, don't you see? Without them, what can we put out under our tree?"

Hatchimals, which are Furby-like birds that pop out of eggs, first hit shelves with a price tag of $49.99 but have since ballooned to more than $200, making it a nightmare for cash-strapped parents to get their hands on for the holidays.
Gruen insists her price hike on the more than 150 toys is not for personal gain and that any profit made will go towards the $150,000 she has spent towards trying to free a man behind bars. She didn’t identify the man but told Philly Voice that he will be the focus of a “Making A Murderer”-type documentary series she’s working on.

A sketchy fund-raiser, an author whose pages haven't been on the best-seller lists for, like ages? A scandal is brewing, with parents and toys and Amazon policies all making noise!

In a Facebook post announcing her toys’ sale, Gruen wrote that the moment she first heard about Hatchimals she saw the next Cabbage Patch Kids doll. In the days following Black Friday she went to work buying them up, despite the toys already selling for well over their original market value.
“I figured I could still sell them at a profit and put a dent in the extremely hefty lawyer fees I’m accruing in my fight to get the wrongfully convicted man’s case back before the Supreme Court. So far, so good, right?” she wrote.
She said her cloaked fundraiser hit trouble, however, when she tried to resell the toys on eBay, only to learn that the website limits individuals’ Hatchimal sales to three per week. Other websites like Amazon and Bonanza had similar regulations.

Hey lady, that's not what Xmas is about! Xmas isn't getting some murderer out. It's not about profits and lawyers and fees: it's about all these parents whose presents you've seized!  These parents, they just want to show that they care, and this toy will get those kids out of their hair! That's why they'll pay as much as double the price, but asking for triple? Well: that's just not nice.  You'll get your comeuppance, get payback galore, for this Hatchimal plan has made Xmas a WAR!

Fearing “financial ruin,” as she called it, she turned to a Facebook plea for Hatchimal-hunters to visit her Shopify site where they’re listed for $189 each.
“I have a fortune invested, only one venue to offload them, and in only three weeks they will magically transform into useless pumpkins that will take up space in my office FOREVER, and have caused my financial ruin,” she wrote in her Facebook plea.
It’s not clear exactly how many she purchased. Her Facebook page states 166 though the Philly Voice reported 156. Based on those numbers, if she sells all of them, she should pull in approximately $29,000 or $31,000, respectively. After subtracting the amount she paid per toy (not including taxes if it’s not already included), her estimated profit would be around $6,000 or $7,000.
Though many people appear to have reached out to her to snag one of the furry creatures ― some of the toys on her Shopify site are listed as “sold out” ― others have expressed anger while accusing her of “exploiting families” and “preying off desperation” before the holidays. 

Sure we all thought it funny when Dwight pulled this trick, but that was The Office and that was Dwight's schtick. In real life, things like this just aren't that funny, using your Facebook to take all their money. You're worse than Sylvester McMonkey McBean: maybe we should shove you in your Star-Off Machine!

We won't take this sitting down, ma'am, we just can't. Why, we'll go on Facebook and post up a RANT! That will (we are sure) change your miserly ways: we'll hit you from all sides, we'll post them for days! We'll talk about charities, parents and kids, about what you are not and 'bout what Xmas is:

and when its all over, the dust has all settled, when we're huddling in Starbucks (TM) feeling nettled, when Xmas is nearing and we've got no toys, no Hatchimals magic for our girls and boys, we'll look to the sky and see star after star, blazing with glory from near and from far. We'll all join our hands and we'll all start to sing, remembering Xmas is not about things, it's not about presents and who can get what, it's not about buying or spending a lot
HA HA we're just kidding, that's all a nice thought, all that singing and starlight and love and what not. But this is America, 2016, and people are greedy and stupid and mean.
God bless us, every one! 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Sorry Democrats, election victories are for closers.

For years now we have been hearing about the need for campaign finance reform, and how campaign finance laws are distorting elections. Funny how that has stopped being an issue what with Hillary! raising over $1,000,000,000 mostly from megadonorr giving to superPACs (where was Colbert's snarky attack on that?)

No, instead the new Dem talking point is the Electoral College, and how it doesn't reflect the "popular vote." Here are some results to consider:

In eight battleground states, the winner received less than 50% of the vote.  Hillary! got all electoral votes from Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Virginia despite not winning the majority of the popular vote in those states. In Maine, Hillary! got 3 of the state's 4 electoral votes despite getting only 47.9% of the vote to Trump's 45.2%.  Hillary! is not claiming, surely, that she should not get those electoral votes.

The idea that the 'popular' vote is better than the 'electoral vote' is belied by the fact that Nixon and Warren Harding were both popular vote winners, while neither Lincoln nor Kennedy won the popular vote by a majority.  The idea that the Founding Fathers wanted free electors rather than electors bound by popular vote in their state or district was roundly rejected by those same Founding Fathers just after the Constitution was ratified, as the Founders began passing laws to bind electors to the popular vote.

The Electoral College also had nothing to do with the Dems being unable to pick up more than the 2 seats they gained this election; the Republicans had 10 first-term Senators up for re-election, and held 24 of the 34 seats being elected. The Dems successfully challenged two of those. That's not the fault of the Electoral College. That's the fault of Dems sitting at home rather than voting, and the Dems failing to support down-ballot candidates. A greater focus on the Senate might have helped put a Dem majority in place there to serve as a roadblock for Trump's Supreme Court justices and the dismantling of Medicare. As it is, Dems lost that opportunity, and choose to blame the Electoral College for it.

There are many reasons why Democrats don't vote. But there is only one reason why Democrats lose elections, and that is because Democrats don't vote.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Books 86 and 87: Making stories out of nothing at all.

It occurred to me as I got ready to write this post that As She Climbed Across The Table and The Pretty Good Jim's Journal Treasury are actually flip sides of the same storytelling coin.

Both of them (wait, here's the clever bit) are about nothing, after all: As She Climbed is about a woman who falls in love with a black hole, while Jim's Journal is a comic strip about more or less nothing at all: the minutiae of Jim's life, literally: in many strips he talks about cooking a hot dog, or watching his cat play with a leaf.

What makes them so interesting is how the two entirely-disparate works demonstrate good and bad writing -- As She Climbed being (mostly) bad (in a way) and Jim being somehow mostly good.

As She Climbed Across The Table is lowkey scifi: set in an unnamed college, it follows Phillip, whose girlfriend Alice is a physicist. At the outset of the story, a colleague of Alice's creates a sort of universe that 'fails to detach,' and creates a black hole of sorts in the lab: it doesn't suck everything in, but selectively takes some things and not others. Alice, studying it, falls in love with the black hole and out of love with Phillip, and the story is mostly Phillip's attempts to understand what is going on.

Jim's Journal meanwhile is the story of Jim, a quiet guy who goes to college, then graduates (maybe? it's not clear) and gets a job at a copy shop. Eventually Jim gets married and then goes to work at a grocery store. Recurring characters include Jim's college roommates Tony and Steve, and a couple of coworkers and classmates and a few of Jim's relatives.

The shtick, as it were, for Jim, is that the comic is adamantly about nothing:

There's lots more than that.

So the thing is, Jim's Journal is actually more... compelling reading, I'm going to say: compelling, in a weird way.  Because with As She Climbed, for most of the book, I found myself not really caring about what happened to those people.

Part of it may simply be the characters. Like the pampered rich jerks in The Nest, Phillip and Alice seem part of a world I don't care about, and one which seems troubled only by its own peculiar, and largely self-inflicted, troubles. It's hard for me to care about the troubles of a rich person. Money may not make you happy, but it removes obstacles to happiness and helps cope with troubles.

Sweetie and I were discussing this once, and here was how I pointed it out. Her dad and her (now deceased) stepmom live in Oakland. We live in Wisconsin. When her stepmom died, she really wanted to go to the funeral, but it was pretty expensive and ultimately we decided it wasn't something we could afford.  Having more money wouldn't have saved her stepmom, but it would have helped ease Sweetie's mind about what to do.  If you are rich and your child gets sick or your girlfriend leaves you, money might not buy them back -- but at least you don't also have to worry about getting evicted or having your car repossessed.

And the troubles Phillip and Alice have are not troubles that are universal, or that could be cared about; maybe it's partly the unreality of the situation -- she falls in love with a black hole, after all -- but it's also partly that these are people about whom we are given little reason to care. Most of their relationship exists for us because we are told it exists for us; the black hole is created, and Alice falls in love, in about chapter 1, and we barely know these two and are barely given any reason to care about them. Phillip is falling apart, but we only understand why because he tells us it's making him fall apart. So a couple of academics, who we're told had a great relationship, ran into trouble when one essentially got superdevoted to her job. OK now what?

Jim, on the other hand, lives the kind of life we all basically live, only he lives it better. It's not even a life of quiet desperation. It's a life of quiet contentment. Literally the most important thing we learn about Jim is that he got married, and that is covered in one strip. He also takes a cross country trip in which very little is related about the trip itself. (He takes two I think, and both are similarly banal.)

There's a touch of Jim in me, I think; I'm a guy who at times likes the regular, the little stuff. I have staunchly defended chain restaurants, for example, because sometimes I just want to know what I'm getting and don't feel like having an adventure; for all the parts of me that wanted to go to Morocco and eat a sheep's eyeball, there are a lot of offsetting parts of me who look back on a day spent sitting on the beach near the zoo, watching Mr F and Mr Bunches splash around and think that was one of the most perfect days I could've had.  When I'm not reading books about women who fall in love with black holes, I'm re-re-re-watching Seinfeld episodes.  So I can empathize with Jim.

But the bigger part of it is that with Jim, the story was somehow compelling despite being aggressively anti-narrative. Whenever something exciting seems like it might happen to Jim (like the brief episode where a woman seems to be flirting with Jim in the copy shop, and Ruth, his wife happens to meet her) the story shies away from it; Jim and his friends take trips to small towns or go see movies, try to write a script for a sitcom for a few days, talk about actresses they like, but nothing ever happens, and yet the story keeps moving along, somehow, without it even intending to be a story. Nobody seems to end up better off or worse off; when the strip ended Jim was married but living basically the same life; Tony was still single and flitting from exciting goal to exciting goal -- he last wanted to be an astronaut but at one point was superexcited about the world of telemarketing. We don't even know what Steve does, and yet all of them felt real to me.

There's a lesson there, for storytelling. It's not that characters have to be likeable or stories have to be exciting. Jim is a blank slate, really; he's neither likeable nor unlikeable, really. Tony is unlikeable, Ruth is likeable, Steve is neutral, but overall these are characters about whom we know little (and probably read more into the tea leaves we are given than might be warranted.)(Which, let's not underestimate that: to the extent that we are filling in the blanks ourselves, Jim's Journal helps us create the story in a way that makes the neutral feel personal, not a bad trick.)

Phillip and Alice seem likeable enough for people I don't care about, as well. And their story is much more interesting; who wouldn't be caught up in a black hole with international scientists pushing cats into it and everybody and their brother trying to crawl through it?  But the story itself never grows very compelling, despite all that going on, because I just didn't care, in the end, about Phillip and Alice and the rest.

Jim and Ruth and Tony and Steve make us care about them -- like or dislike -- so their boring stories become more interesting than Phillip and Alice's story, which is exciting but feels completely unrelatable. Hearing what happened to Phillip and Alice is like reading about Kim Kardashian's jewelry heist: momentarily interesting, maybe, but of no importance in my life and nothing I can really care about for very long.

It might have been different if Phillip and Alice's relationship was more real; maybe Lethem could've let the relationship grow and not move so quickly into the black hole stuff, brought it along a bit more. Like All The Birds In The Sky, which it reminded me of, Lethem seems to not trust his characters to carry the story, and instead has to keep throwing events at us, papering over the relationships and emotions and drives of his characters, packing the story full of quirkiness.  But that's just a trick to keep you reading when you would otherwise not; if you think about the great stories that you love, or at least if I think about the great stories that I love, even the most momentous stories have characters who made you want to find out what good (or bad) things happen to them. If the characters don't feel real, or aren't someone you care about one way or the other, packing a ton of story around them ultimately won't help.  Even The Lord Of The Rings spent a ton of time on character; by the end, the friendship between Frodo and Sam is astounding, and the way the characters grow and interact helps make that story more than just a swords-and-sorcery bland epic.  But As She Climbed (and All The Birds, for that matter) have characters that could've been interesting, only they weren't, so the story seemed to suffer.

That's surprising for me, because two of Lethem's earlier books I read -- Girl In Landscape and You Don't Love Me Yet -- were compelling and featured great characters, people whose lives were similarly out-of-touch with mine (a girl on another planet, in the first, and a woman who works in a performance art piece and has a rock band in the second, as examples) but they felt real and I wanted to know how things went.  But there's none of that life in As She Climbed -- and Jim's Journal is packed full of it.

The only reason I'm not feeling completely ripped off by As She Climbed is that Lethem manages to make the finale of the book so amazing that it somewhat rescues the rest of the book; about 80% of As She Climbed is basically dreary; it's just more internal academia with tell-don't-show characterization. But the ending to the story, which I won't spoil, saves the book and moves it from a must-avoid to a you-should-probably-read-it-sometime. (It's lucky for Lethem the book is short, and at least pleasantly written; I wouldn't recommend people read it otherwise but it'll be quick work and the work you do to get to the ending is worth the payoff.)

As for Jim's Journal? I think people should read that, too, although it's a more polarizing work; it's the kind of thing where people either instantly love it or instantly hate it, mostly, and if you don't like it it's almost impossible to explain why it's so good to people who love it. There were strips in the book where I laughed out loud even though I could never have explained to anyone why they were funny to me.

Overall, as I said, it's interesting to contrast the two books: Jim's intense effort to be about nothing at all ends up making the characters feel more alive and universal, and drives an anti-narrative into being, while As She Climbed's intense effort to turn nothing into a story has the exact opposite effect, as if the black hole sucked in all the interesting parts of the story but left the dry words on the page behind, stripped of any meaning.

While I was writing this, I was thinking about some other things I read or saw that seemed to help make this point. The other night I watched The Foot Fist Way, a goofy story about a small town mini-mall tae kwon do teacher whose wife keeps cheating on him and who gets to at one point meet his hero, a loser-ish B-movie karate guy, with the inevitably disappointing result.  At the end of the movie, I got a little emotional-feeling about the main character, despite the fact that he is mostly unlikeable and would be considered a loser by pretty much everyone who meets him; the movie made me care about what was happening to him and his weird little sad life, and I got invested in it enough that when it ended, I was genuinely emotionally affected.

The other thing was We Are Become Pals, a weirdly awesome story by the duo who used to write A Softer World. As the blurb on the Tumblr reads, it's a story about two friends. I read it a long time ago and still remember it -- not for the plot, which was kind of fantastical and involved I think explosions and the like -- but for the friendship between the two main characters. Having read it nearly two years ago, I still have a good feeling about it, even though I can't remember the plot at all.

Those are examples of stories that trusted their characters more than the plot. You've got to have some reason to care about a story, and that reason is always the characters in the story. All the bells and whistles, all the blind men and sexy therapists and student protests and lab cats and office parties and the like in the world can't make you care about a story, while the complete lack of all of those things is no impediment to caring.

We Have Enough Money, 1: Simply having a HATCHIMAL Xmastime.

To help shake things up, and to avoid the notion that Trump is the only bad thing going on in America right now, I'm going to mix in some We Have Enough Moneys and Bad Republicans and the rest with the ongoing Trumpocalypse.

We Have Enough Money is a protest against those people who say we have to cut the federal budget or restrict social spending or (as Trump and the GOP now appear likely to do) eliminate Medicare.

The federal government in 2016 expects to spend $3,950,000,000,000. We expect to take in $3,340,000,000,000 in tax revenues this year.  As of 8:11 a.m. Central Time today, the US has 325,061,315 people. What that means is that we collect about $10,274.98 per person in tax revenues, and people (not corporations) pay taxes. To make up the difference in revenues, we would need $650,000,000,000 in additional taxes; or, on average, about another $2,000 bucks per person alive in the US -- or $16,000 from a family of 8, like mine (counting the grandkid.) There are 5 taxpayers in my family right now, so if you increased taxes on each of us $3,200, we'd be doing our share to end the budget deficit.  (As I pointed out yesterday, though, there are 268,000 people, roughly, who bring in $1,000,000 or more gross income per year, so if you took, say, $10,000 from each of them and then the rest from us, you'd reduce the burden on middle class people and still make up the deficit, but that's not the point right now.)

The point right now is this: many people will say "it's not fair to take extra money from the rich," because they believe what has been sold as fair, and what has been sold as fair is that everyone should "pay the same amount,"  -- that if you and I and Trump each pay 10% of our income as taxes, that's 'fair,' and even more fair if we all pay just $10,000 -- even though 10% hurts me more than Trump, far more. Take 10% away from someone making $50,000 and year and you leave that person with $45,000 a year to live on. Take 10% away from someone making $1,000,000 per year and you leave that person with $900,000 to live on.

Other people will say they can't afford a tax increase. $3,200 per year in tax increases is $61 per week, so to do my fair share of the deficit I'd have to pay $61 more per week in taxes, and so would every other tax payer in the US.

That's where Hatchimals come in. You may have heard of Hatchimals.  They're the hot toy this year, a sort of pet that hatches from an egg and then has to be cared for, like a Tamagotchi only IRL.  Hatchimals cost about $60 apiece, and are sold out pretty much everywhere you go.

Sales figures for Hatchimals aren't in yet, but going by past toy crazes, we can guess how many were likely sold. In 2009, at the height of the Great Recession, 100,000 "Zhu Zhu Pets" were sold by retailers in the first week of December alone. Those sold for $12 apiece, though. 1,000,000 or so "Tickle Me Elmos" were sold at the height of that craze, retailing for $30.

Let's assume people have a finite amount of money to spend on Xmas, so they would only buy half as many "Hatchimals" as they would "Tickle Me Elmos," spending the same amount of money. That's not how Xmas actually works for most people, but let's play pretend.  After all, we're only pretending that most people would read this far into this post anyway.

If we assume that every year people will spend the same amount on the hot toy, and set Tickle Me Elmo as the index, then every year people will spend $30,000,000 on buying a single toy for their kids. And not even a very good toy at that, but that's how much people spend.

That's only nine cents per person, on average, so we don't save very much money if we just have people stop buying "Tickle Me Elmos" and instead pay slightly higher taxes, and the effect is minimal.

But what if we look at what people spend on Xmas as a whole? Our country spends $465,000,000,000 per year on just extras as Xmas: presents and decorations and parties and the like. That's $1,430 per person on Xmas extras per year.  That's nearly one-half the total amount of extra payments it would take just to make up the deficit.

So if you need $3200 per person, one possibility would be to spend just, say, two hundred dollars less on Xmas per person per year.

When we were younger, and dumber, Sweetie and I would go out Xmas shopping a couple times before we'd bought all our presents. We'd get some ideas and then go bum around a mall and stores and buy a bunch of stuff. We bought things like karate lessons, and calendars for the kids, and a bunch of sort of nonsense like that. What kid wants a calendar for Xmas? That didn't stop us from spending $50 buying a calendar for each kid's room.

One year, we said wait, we're spending a lot of money on Xmas, and started using our heads; we sat down to set up a budget for presents, and determine what kind of presents people really wanted, and the end result was that we spent less money, and people were actually (we think at least) happier with the results.

True, there weren't sprawling piles of presents laid out everywhere, but there also weren't boxes of junk hauled to the trash in February, stuff nobody wanted thrown away.

The point isn't, really, to get people to spend less, though. The point is to note that even though everyone says we have no money whatsoever to do something like care for the homeless or keep our national parks running, we have enough money. Any country that spends $30,000,000 on a stupid hatching egg toy that'll be discarded before the end of the year owes its citizens better than we give now.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Book 85: The More Things Stay The Same, The More They Stay The Same.

With Magic Kingdom For Sale: Sold! I realized that even books can fall into the 1980s, and that the 1980s is, in fact, its own genre.  It's something I kind of knew already, but was driven home by the Netflix series Stranger Things, and now by Magic Kingdom For Sale: Sold!.

The 1980s' as I think of it in the fantasy/scifi genre is marked by mostly lighthearted, or at least lighterhearted, stories, primarily stories of people who find themselves thrust into an adventure by chance -- but it turns out to be the kind of thing they've always longed for, even if they didn't know it. The protagonist might feel that he or she is something special, or might just long for something more than they have now, but their lives seem destined for nothingness until... lightning strikes.

In movies, it's Back To The Future and Star Wars and E.T. and The Last Starfighter that really feel 1980s to me; in books it's things like Spellsinger and the Split Infinity trilogy by Piers Anthony and this one by Terry Pratchett that seem to be the platonic ideals of the field.

It's interesting to think of it that way, that there's a specific kind of storytelling that feels 1980s, in a way that other types do not.  Lord Of The Rings, for example, doesn't fit in because it's too serious and weighty.  Some of the books I like a lot (like Footfall or Startide Rising) that came out roughly around that time also don't feel 1980s, even though they're good.  They don't have the same feel to them that I described.  Certain books that have come out since then have the 1980s feel to them -- Harry Potter does, for example.

You could, of course, blame it on Star Wars, especially since Star Wars is destined to go on to be the one thing that is remembered about the 20th century, and may well last as the only thing remembered about the 1000-1999s, making George Lucas the 30th Century's Shakespeare. Imagine: future progeny of mine will whine and say why do we have to learn The Empire Strikes Back anyway, all they do is talk funny. And Star Wars has a big part in shaping 1980s scifi & fantasy, but that begs the question of whether Star Wars created the 1980s feel or simply mirrored it as nearly perfectly as it can be; that is: did people particularly love Star Wars because it created something knew they hadn't known existed, or did they love it because it seemed to crystallize how they already felt? I suspect it's a little of both.

In terms of how the 1980s might spawn this particular genre, it needs to be deconstructed a bit, I think, by comparing similar works which fall on either side of the line. Like Harry Potter and the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Both involve multiple-volume stories of an orphan with some sort of special destiny having to learn about the world and eventually take part in a war, but Harry Potter feels 1980s while Dark Materials doesn't. I think that might be because the latter is a more serious story; it feels like the author is trying to work through a point and examine things like religion and God and society; Harry Potter meanwhile just feels like it's telling a story, and any points are secondary.

Then consider  Star Wars versus Battlestar Galactica, the latter of which doesn't feel 1980s to me; in part that's because there's no newcomer, no Skywalker, and in part its because the story is far more epic and serious (even in the cheesier first go-round for the series) than Star Wars; sure, Star Wars has the Death Star and the Empire and the like, but Battlestar had the last desperate remnants of humanity crammed into a ragtag fleet wandering through space, so the stakes were higher in Battlestar than in Star Wars. If Luke had never left Tatooine, the Death Star might still have been blown up or might not, but there would still be humans and they'd still live lives that might not be all bad.

(Still living a life that might not be all bad even if you're under the dominion of an evil empire is how we're all spending at least the next four years, and how we've spent 8 of the first sixteen years of this milennia, after all.)

So from those two examples, you get additional 1980s-ish things you need: the lone hero who longs for a greater destiny, a somewhat lighthearted feel, and a storyline that doesn't take on (explicitly) weighty issues and which doesn't make the stakes too high.  As I think through things that feel 1980s I think that nails it.

From that perspective, Magic Kingdom For Sale: Sold hits all its marks.  Ben Holiday is a lawyer whose wife died 2 years ago in an accident, leaving him alone and drifting, lost-ish, through his late 30s, when one day he comes across an ad in a high-end Xmas gift catalog offering to let him buy a magic kingdom of his own to be king of; all it would cost is $1,000,000

The book came out in 1986, and out of curiosity I checked to see whether one million bucks was way more than I thought it might be worth back then; an inflation calendar says a million bucks back in 1986 is about $2,200,000 now, so: no, I correctly sussed it: a million bucks wasn't all that much back in 1986, relatively speaking.

Or was it? I checked to see how many millionaires there were in that decade, and found that the number of millionaires in the US soared during the 1980s; there were 4,414 millionaires in the United States in 1980, and 63,642 in 1990.   (That linked article, from 1992, notes that Congress that year approved a tax on millionaires to pay for programs to fight child abuse and hunger; the same tax had been vetoed by Bush I earlier that year.) Just FYI, by 2010 that number had grown to 268,000, a number that was actually down from 2007.

A million dollars, it seems, is sort of the marathon of income; I noted a while back that given the rise of "Iron Man" competitions and other extreme endurance races, running a marathon alone doesn't seem to be the staggering feat it once did.  Back when I could run without nearly dying, I ran some 5K races. Nobody does 5K any more. If you're not doing at least a marathon, you're nothing. And marathoners in 2016 are the 5Kers of 1991: bottom rung of runners. Millionaires are that for money makers; the top 1% of income earners make have average adjusted gross income of nearly $2,000,000 per year now.

That alone shows what changed in the 1980s: a million dollars in the 1980s was more than just a million dollars: it was an extreme; only 4,000 people in the entire country made a million dollars a year in 1980.

It wasn't until 1957 that an actor was paid a million bucks for making one movie. (It was William Holden, for Bridge on the River Kwai).  By the early 1980s, Jane Fonda was making $2,000,000 to costar in 9 To 5; Brad Pitt's pay for Fight Club was roughly 17 times what movie stars made back in the 1950s.

In 1968, the four Beatles' combined worth was about a million pounds, which I think is roughly $2,000,000.  Adele is reportedly worth $125,000,000 right now.

There might have been lots of reasons why incomes took off (reasons beyond Reaganomics, which I think we can all agree have been disastrous for society) like that, why there would be 63,000 people making a million bucks a year as we went into the 1990s, things ranging from the advent of cable TV and VCRs (and thus a new income stream for movies and sports) to changes in how stars operate (the studio system slowly lost control) to the start of free agency in sports to the Internet allowing people to retain control of their creative output and hence the money, too, but it looks like it was the 1980s when everything just began to spring free, and maybe Reaganomics was the sole reason for that; it certainly seems that nowadays it's anathema to consider any limitations on income via taxes, and where the government regulates it does so in an extremely limited way: consider the interventionism of Obamacare versus the creation of Social Security. I wonder if we could get Social Security created today? I doubt it.

Horatio Alger's 'rags to riches' stories grew prominent in The Gilded Age; his stories were marked by a stroke of luck which befell the protagonist, raising him up to middle class status (with some hard work, of course, because: America.)  There's something similar at work in the Star Wars, 1980s-feel books and movies, as I noted.  The hero longs for something more, and that something usually drops into his or her lap by chance: R2D2 crashed on Tatooine and was bought by Luke; Ben Holiday gets a gift catalog that his wife used to like.

Ben, of course, buys the kingdom, only to find out that it's nothing like he imagined; it's magical, sure, but it's falling apart and nobody respects him as the king, in part because the sale is intended to be a scam: the seller, the son of the 'old king', is selling the throne to people he figures will fail so that he can get rich in another world. Ben, though, seems to be more than the loser the scammers pegged him for, and sets out to hold on to his throne and save the kingdom -- but he has to learn how to control the magic and eventually face off against the "Iron Mark," a demon who lives in a netherworld and covets the kingdom himself.

You can see the same familiar arc of that story in numerous 1980s works: the loser (or so-called loser) who has to face a personal challenge embodied by something external: Bif is Marty McFly's lack of confidence, Voldemort is Harry Potter's insecurity about his background, and the Iron Mark is Ben Holiday's fear of failure. (On a literary note, that fear of failure seems to jump out of nowhere. At the outset, Ben's major reason for buying the kingdom is that his life seems empty and drifting without his wife; midway through the book we're told that Ben has this mortal fear of failure or something like it, but it's hard to see that in the Ben we first meet, one who has built a successful law firm and is a millionaire, after all, expertise and money gained from suing companies on behalf of individuals).

(And as I re-read this book and realized that, I wondered if my own choice of careers was affected by my memories of Ben Holiday back when I was 17 or so?)

There' s no secret why I like the 1980s style; I was raised on it, after all; my entire ethos has been shaped by the way stories unfolded in the 1980s, and just as 80s music feels right to me, the 1980s story feels right to me, too.

But what's sad is that, as it turns out, all those 1980s victories were a bit hollow, weren't they? Elliott went back to his old regular life; ET never came back.  Harry Potter, as I understand it, has a cursed child and wizards are still hidden. After Luke helped blow up the second Death Star, it turns out the Empire never went away and in fact might be stronger than ever.  That's the dark underbelly of the 1980s stories: they don't, ultimately, mean anything.  In Battlestar they found Earth. In His Dark Materials they saved (literally) the entire set of universes, forever. But in Star Wars there's always another Death Star.

Magic Kingdom For Sale: Sold! ends with Ben Holiday celebrating [spoiler alert I guess?] his victory over the Iron Mark, but noting that there was still a lot of work to be done and that things weren't even close to perfect yet.  It's something to think about, if you go re-watch Star Wars: as they're marching up those steps to get their medals, off on the other side of the galaxy Vader's getting onto his Star Destroyer, dusting himself off, and just coming right back at them.

After the Gilded Age, we got unions and worker safety rules and a 40 hour workweek (which was invented by a rich industrialist; he wanted his workers to have time off so they would buy his products and use them). After the Great Depression we got Social Security. After World War II we got Medicaid and Civil Rights.  After the 1980s we got...

I'm not going to finish that thought.

Trumpocalypse 8: “Young, healthy and wealthy people may do quite well under this vision of health care reform,” said Larry Levitt, a senior vice president at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “But the people who are older and poorer and sicker could do a lot worse.”

Donald Trump promised, as a candidate to leave entitlements alone.

Then he nominated for Health and Human Services secretary "Dr" Tom Price.

"Dr." Tom, currently a congressman, wants to: privatize Medicare, to give seniors a fixed amount of money to purchase insurance with, and reduce federal controls on how states spend money the government gives them for Medicare and Medicaid.

Vouchers were a pet project for Romney/Ryan in 2012. A nonpartisan study of their proposal found that more than half of all seniors would suffer increased health care costs under that plan. The highest costs would have been about $6,000 more per year.

Sorry, Bob 4 Trump!!