Saturday, October 25, 2008

Small business owner for Obama.

The trickle down economic policies of George W. Bush and John McCain are killing my small business.

My company, Singers and Stompers LLC, provides music education and live music entertainment for children. I market to daycare facilities and perform live shows at venues like the Portland Children’s Museum and at private parties.

Few would argue that music education for children is extremely important. But it’s cut from household budgets pretty quickly when people fear they’re about to lose their house or their car, or if they’re worried about paying down credit card debt, or if they’re worried about how they’ll pay for their next meal.

A tax cut for oil companies, John McCain? Really? A $700,000 tax cut for millionaire CEOs? That’s what you think is going to help small businesses and stimulate the economy?

Mr. McCain, let me tell you how it looks from where I stand. In order for my small business to be successful, I need customers. I need to keep existing customers and bring new ones on board. The only way existing and potential customers can afford services like mine, services that aren’t necessary for survival, is if they have a little money to spare after the groceries and bills have been bought and paid for.

That’s why Barack Obama is focusing his tax cuts where they’ll do the most good: on the middle class. Under the leadership of Barack Obama, millions of American households will see $1,000 or more in tax cuts.

Putting that $1,000 back into the hands of as many hard working, middle class families as possible is the best thing that can happen for my business. For many families that $1,000 might just mean the difference between being able to afford music classes or not – between being able to hire me to play at their child’s birthday party, or not.

But the good news for me doesn’t stop there. Not only will Obama stimulate the economy by getting money back in the hands of the middle class, where it belongs, he will also cut or freeze taxes for 99% of small business owners, including me. This will allow me to reinvest in my own company, create jobs, and do my part to help jumpstart this economy.

I just moved to Oregon from Arizona a few months ago. While in AZ, John McCain was my Senator, and by and large I respected him and his policies. I don’t recognize the man who is currently running for president under that name. His values are not my values and his economic and tax policies help the rich disproportionately. That’s wealth redistribution the wrong way.

I want to be financially stable. I want to provide for my family. I want to create jobs that pay a living wage and offer income and stability to hardworking Americans. The only way I can do those things is if we end the catastrophic economic failure that has been the last eight years.

Ben Thompson
Owner and Co-Director, Singers and Stompers LLC

(I just sent the preceding letter to over a dozen newspapers in Oregon as well as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, LA Times, and the Washington Post. You can send your own letter, quickly and easily here:

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Review of the Oliver Stone film, W.

If you are hoping for an unrelenting, unforgiving, unapologetically scathing indictment of W's administration, then this movie will likely leave you feeling mildly disappointed. If, on the other hand, you're hoping for a film which stands as a glowing review of Bush's performance while in office and a lasting monument to his achievements as a president and an American, then...well I can't begin to conceive of how you could hope for something like that. And this movie will likely leave you feeling much more than mildly disappointed.

Josh Brolin's performance as W is convincing and engaging. He manages to capture that most inexplicable of Bush characteristics -- the down-home charm wrapped in a righteous celebration of willful ignorance. Watching Brolin's portrayal of Bush I found myself asking the same question I've been pondering almost daily for soon-to-be eight long years: How did someone that stupid become that powerful?

Richard Dreyfus also turned in a fantastic (ly creepy) performance as "Vice" Dick Cheney. What makes his portrayal work is that he isn't doing an impersonation; he is just being Cheney. You can feel the greed and deception oozing from his pores. I'm not sure how an actor captures that, but I say Dreyfus did it.

The same cannot be said of many of the other performances. Condie, Rummsey, Wolfie, Brother George -- their characters all felt forced by the actors portraying them. Like when Frank Caliendo goes for an impersonation that's just not quite in his bag of tricks. The mannerisms are all there, but it looks like an impression. You don't see the character because you're too distracted by the person playing the character.

If all else works then a forced impersonation is forgivable. They can't all be as solid as Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin. But in this context the weak impersonations are distracting and ultimately make parts of the movie feel like a too slow SNL skit without a punch line.

Many will say that this is a story about a son's haphazard attempt to please his father and live up to the legacy that was handed to him. To me this is a movie about the corrupting forces of religion, greed, and ignorance and how those forces, and the people corrupted by them, changed the world forever.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The right way to build a campfire

Your ultimate objective is a nice bed of coals, not a huge blaze. Towering flames are for bonfire kegger parties on your friend's uncle's farm. In camping situations, huge blazes are dangerous and disrespectful to your fellow campers. Coals are where the heat is, they produce no smoke (all the moisture has burned off), and once you have a good bed of coals you can allow your fire to burn down without adding fuel for up to 6 or 8 hours and still have enough heat to start a fire again just by blowing on it. Without coals your fire is a strong breeze or an ill timed wet log away from extinction.

It's all about preparation. Gather lots and lots of kindling. If you're not sure how much, then gather twice as much as you think you'll need. The smaller the better, the dryer the better, the more the better.

Use paper, birch bark, dry leaves, grass, or shavings from a dry split log to start a small flame. Slowly and carefully add more of this fire-starting material -- no sticks yet.

When your flame is a few inches high and a few inches around at the base you can start adding the smallest of your kindling. Make sure not to add anything too damp, too green, too big, or too much too fast. Keep adding small to medium twigs (nothing much bigger around than a pencil) until your flame is 12 inches high and 12" around at the base.

By now you have some coals going so you can be more generous and less picky with what you put on. Still nothing bigger than an inch around though.

If your flame begins to die down a little just throw on a handful of smaller stuff then throw more medium sticks on top of that. (Aren't you glad you had some small dry stuff "left over?")

Up to this point you've been adding wood in a more-or-less tepee shape. Now that you have a decent bed of coals it's time to make your log cabin. The log cabin allows oxygen to get to the whole fire. A tepee cuts off air to the middle, which is right where you need it most. Tepee is okay for the small twigs, which burn up in a flash, but for the bigger sticks and logs a cabin is the way to go.

I like working in threes. Three log splits -- quartered logs, or smaller -- placed on an X axis, then three more on a Y axis set 90 degrees to the X, then finally another three splits on the X axis.

If you have to use a stick put it between two splits. The splits will be flatter and less likely to roll and shift.

As your cabin collapses (every 15 to 30 minutes) just reshape it to a stable platform as best you can and add layers to the top as needed. I like to take a leather welders glove camping with me. It enables me to reach right into the fire to more easily manipulate the logs. The glove also works great for protecting your hand from hooks and or teeth while landing larger fish. (Ever tried to land a 40" Northern Pike in a canoe with no net and 8lb. test line on a bass rod? A leather glove really helps.)

Stop adding wood to the fire when you think you are 30 minutes or less from turning in. You will be dousing the fire with water before you go to bed and you don't want to leave the next camper one or more huge, wet, nasty, unburned logs in the middle of the fire-pit.

Got a better way to build and keep a campfire? Let's hear it!

Until then -- Happy camping!

Friday, September 19, 2008

The lie of trickle down economics

Ronald Reagan is often credited with popularizing "trickle down" economics -- the theory that the best way to help average citizens in this country is to offer huge tax breaks to large corporations. The logic goes that those companies will use the extra money to create more, better paying jobs for Americans, thereby allowing the money to "trickle down" to us, the American people.

The famous and lauded economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, noted that "trickle-down economics" had been tried before in the United States in the 1890s but under a different name. They called it the "horse and sparrow theory." He wrote that trickle down economics was a new name for, "...what an older and less elegant generation called the horse-and-sparrow theory: If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows."[1] Galbraith stated that the "horse and sparrow" theory was at least partly to blame for the Panic of 1896. A panic not too dissimilar from the one "trickle down" economics has caused here in late 2008. Over a hundred years later and we're still trying the same failed economic theory -- but this time under a new name.

If the 26 years since Reagan was first elected have proven anything, it's that this economic theory, regardless the name you give it, is a sham. It's nothing more than a very thinly veiled excuse for the richest Americans to increase their personal holdings while shipping our jobs overseas in order to -- you guessed it -- increase their personal holdings. It's a return to the feudal system and we are the serfs. And the worst part? If you voted republican in any of the presidential elections since 1982 then you were voting for the guys who put the feudal lords back up on the hill and put us, the American people, back in the fields. Sorry, the truth hurts. But don't feel bad, you're not to blame -- they are. They were lying to you. They might have believed that their theory truly would help America as a whole, but their ignorance does not excuse the lie. They should have known better if they were going to run for president.

So that's the lie. But what is the truth?

The truth is that lowering the tax burden on Americans in a down economy is very important. That's why Obama will dramatically CUT taxes for everyone making less than $226,981 annually. If you make more than that, up to $603,402, then congratulations! -- you are doing well in this great nation and you will see neither a decrease nor increase in your Federal taxes. If you are one of the exceptionally fortunate 2 or so percent of Americans who make $603,403 or above then you will see a tax increase. I'm sorry, I know you really wanted to re-do the third-floor bathrooms in the Maui house this year -- but we're fighting an expensive war and people are losing their jobs and homes so it'll have to wait a couple years. Count your blessing, quit your whining, and get over it.

So under Obama, about 95% of Americans, those making $226,980 or less, will get a substantial tax cut. About 3%, those making between $226,981 and $603,402, will stay where they're at. And the 2% or so making $603,403 and up will see a tax increase.

Under McCain, the biggest Tax cuts go to the richest Americans. Period.

It's just sad.

The most amazing thing about the lie of trickle down economics is that the proponents of the lie could never get elected without the support of poor and middle class Americans. But why would people making less than $100,000 or $200,000 a year vote for candidate who promises to give the biggest tax cuts (remember tax money is OUR money) to corporations and the richest Americans? Common sense tells us and the real world application of this economic theory has proven time and time again that corporations and their wealthy leaders by and large do not use the tax cuts for the greater good. They use them for huge salaries, bonuses, and golden parachutes for themselves. So why do we keep voting for those who promise to keep that theory rolling?

The answer is simple. It's because every time they tell us how the democrats want to increase taxes on the wealthiest 3% of Americans, they simultaneously tell you that you could one day soon be one one of those wealthy few, if only you work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps. (Never mind that almost all the folks selling that line inherited their riches.)

The 95% percent of us who get screwed by giving all our tax money to CEOs are the ones who drive the economy. Those fat cats just kept taking, and taking, and eventually found that the consumers for the products that their companies built were all broke. Same for the folks paying the mortgages on the homes bought with loans from the fat cat's banks.

What good does your huge corporate tax cut do you if the bank you own is sitting on 10 billion dollars worth of loans that can't and won't be repaid?

Obviously the CEOs have golden parachutes and will retire to their yachts and Italian villas.

As for the rest of us? Were left to pick up the pieces.

How do we start picking up the pieces?

First: If a guy says we need to cut taxes for corporations in order to revive the economy -- DON'T VOTE FOR HIM. Unless you make over $650,000 a year. Then you should vote for McCain. I'm confident that the other %98 of us can handle it.

[1] Galbraith, John Kenneth (February 4, 1982) "Recession Economics." New York Review of Books Volume 29, Number 1.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Every year since I was 12 years old I've gone camping for a week with my father in Quetico provincial park, in Ontario, Canada. I'm now 32, so that makes 20 years of wilderness canoeing and backpacking in a fairly remote area. I've learned a great deal about a surprising breadth of subjects from these trips. Not just about camping, but about life in general.

This blog will serve as my means of getting some of these lessons, concepts, and ideas down. This is mostly for my own sake, but I hope that as the amount of information here expands it will become an increasingly valuable resource for people who have a curiosity about this world, this universe, and our station in both.

The impetus for this blog came while I was camping with some friends some time ago. I watched in amusement as they placed three large logs on top of some paper and leaves and tried repeatedly and futilely to start a fire. When I advised that they needed to get a small fire going with lots of small pieces, then gradually work up to larger sticks, and eventually logs, I was amazed to find that they scorned the audacity of my interruption. They remarked that there was no one right way to build a fire and proceeded to argue with each other about whether the logs should in a tepee formation or a log cabin.

I was dumbfounded.

There is a right way to build a fire. I know this. I know this because I've had to do it in the rain. I've had to do it in a hurry, I've had to do it with limited resources, and I've had to do it to keep warm -- even to fight back hypothermia -- not just to roast marshmallows. It is true that there are many actions that will eventually, under the right circumstances, create a fire. Most of these ways will take too long, make too much smoke, not create a nice bed of coals, and most importantly, will never work when you need a fire most -- when you are cold and wet and in a hurry to build a fire.

This knowledge doesn't make me better than other people in general -- just better than most people at building fires.

What I'm getting at is that we as a society, we as a species, have forgotten how to do simple, fundamental things that make us uniquely human. Fire, as much as any other single invention or advancement, is what separates us from other primates. It, along with clothing, kept us warm so we could stop growing hair. It enabled us to cook food, thereby expanding our diets and allowing for greater diversity and abundance in what we could eat. It provided relative safety and security at night so that we could sleep.

And now we are forgetting how to make it.

That led me to wonder, "What else are we forgetting how to do?"

Everyone is looking for a guide book on how to live a balanced, happy life. We buy self-help books, we go to seminars, we seek the advice of strangers, and, perhaps above all else, we look to the heavens for answers.

We read the Bible, Koran, Torah, the Vedas and countless other spiritual sacred texts. We believe, because we are told every day, that one of these books holds the key to happiness and joy -- even everlasting life and glory.

The follower of each sect will often hold firm to the belief that theirs is the only correct, true, or righteous path to heaven, enlightenment, happiness, nirvana, salvation, etc.

But what if all you seek is a guidebook on day to day living in this crazy, ever-changing world of ours?

In the past, the existence of religions made sense. People needed a way to explain the inexplicable and, more importantly, a way to convince their fellow humans to live a certain way: Be nice to each other. Don't kill anybody. Don't touch the skin of a dead pig -- it's unclean. These were things that had to be spelled out in simple language that everyone could understand.

Increasingly however, the dogmas and rituals that go along with most organized religions make less and less sense to more and more people. This is because most of the teachings are 2,000 or more years old. The only reason it took us this long to, at least partially, shake off the smothering blanket of religious dogmas is that we all belong to societies that were founded by the purveyors of those religions and their dogmas.

What we need is a place where you can get simple, actionable advice on how to live your life in a sustainable, productive, and balanced manner.

Obviously I do not claim to have all the answers. As I have a worthwhile epiphany I will post it here. If you have an answer to a simple everyday problem, please, please, please share. Eventually I hope that this blog becomes a place where we can together create a manual for living a balanced life. We must have the humility to know that we should look to our past to unlock some of the secrets of our future. At the same time we must recognize that this crucial moment in history, a moment when a scientific discovery in Geneva on Tuesday can be shared with a middle school classroom in Kansas City on Thursday, allows us to break free from those parts of our society which simply do not work.

We get to choose which behaviors we want to teach to our children. They will emulate us and pass on the stories we tell them. Will you teach your children how to build a fire, how to wage a war, how to grow a crop, how to responsibly drive a car, how and when to make babies and raise them, how to safely use the internet?

Just like building a fire, these are all things that there is a right way to do. In some cases the right way is to simply stop doing it. This is a place where we can all talk about what those ways are.