Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"A Cautionary Analogy, Although It's Kind Of Too Late, Though Hopefully Not For the Next Time"

It happened in 1979.

And again in 2016.

I think.  I could be mistakenly “off-base” with that comparison; let’s see how this turns out.  At the very least, I’ll have some needed practice writing directly to the point, as I am susceptible to extended side trips and literary extraneities, using words like “extraneities” which a red underline reports is not an actual word.  Though it should be.  And there’s my first side trip.  Which I am committed to making my last, an added incentive to keep reading:  It might be fun watching me struggle.

Now…

No, wait.

You have caught me not entirely prepared.  Please excuse me while I do some last-minute research. 

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Okay, I’m back.  And I already found a mistake.

Turns out, it did not happen in 1979.

It happened in 1978. 

Thank you Wikipedia, for allowing me to nitpick myself.

Okay, here’s the story.  During the 1970’s, the country experienced massive inflation, most noteworthily in California, and most noteworthily in California in real estate, wherein property values skyrocketed.

Based on the then-in-place California assessment formula, property taxes inevitably skyrocketed commensurately.   

And some people, particularly Senior Citizens on fixed incomes, got very angry.  (Imagine:  The irate, torch-carrying townspeople in the Frankenstein movies, but the whole country is old.)  Legitimately angry, they believed, because their property taxes had gone through the roof.  Albeit a roof that had become considerably more valuable.

But here’s the thing.  When a stock that you own goes up, you do not pay capital gains taxes on the accrued profits from that stock until it’s sold.  With property taxes, by contrast, you are required to pay on the increased assessed value of your property now. 

That’s the “Wimpy” arrangement backwards.  “I will gladly pay you today from the profits I will receive when I sell my house some time in the future.”  Minus the “gladly.”

And by the way, what if the value of your property subsequently recedes?  In that case, you paid property taxes on a house whose current value is now lower than it was previously assessed. 

It’s a legitimate problem, don’t you think? 

The California legislature seems not to have agreed, the state government doing ostensibly nothing in response to the jacked-up property tax burden generated by skyrocketing inflation.  Indisputably, some homeowners – not an ignorable amount of them though they were ignored nonetheless – were legitimately hurting.

So, along comes “Proposition 13” – “responsively” to its proponents, “cynically self-servingly” to its detractors – branded “The People’s Initiative To Limit Property Taxation” providing a revised formula for property tax assessment that was more “sensibly reasonable” – Read: slashingly lower.  And wouldn’t you know it?

It passed.

With more than 60% of the vote.

And why not?  In the stroke of a ballot initiative, homeowners’ property taxes declined, on average, an estimated 57 per cent.

“Hooray!”

Yeah, but wait.

As of 2009, primarily due to the passage of “Proposition 13”, the amount of tax revenues received by the State of California has been reduced, in aggregate, by five hundred and twenty-eight billion dollars.

So what, you say.  The government wastes money anyway.  They’ll just have to tighten their belts, assiduously cutting their budgetary allotments.

Swellerino.  Except that one of the traditional responsibilities bankrolled by property taxes is schools.  Over night, my five minutes of research reveals, “Proposition 13” cut the allotment received by the California public school system by a third. 

That’s a lot.  Now there was thirty-three percent less funding available for schools.  Think there were possible consequences?

Nope.  There were actual consequences. 

As a result of the slashed budgetary allotment engendered by ”Proposition 13” the California public school system, which in the 60’s ranked as one of the best in the country, plummeted to forty-eighth in the country.  Which, may I remind you, means forty-eighth out of fifty.  Meaning those backwater states in the South? 

A lot of them were better.

There were other collateral damages beyond the funding of public schools – libraries and public parks, for example…

AN AVIARY REPRESENTATIVE:  “Great!  We can’t read and we can’t perch.”

Still, the irate torch-carriers got what they wanted.  To an answerable degree, I believe, because the government closed their eyes and ears to a legitimate concern.

CUT TO:

2016.

The same thing…. argues this chronicler, hopefully persuasively.

Resulting, though admittedly not exclusively, from international trade policies, a substantial constituency is hurting financially.  The government ignores their struggling predicament.  One candidate (at least pretends) he sympathetically “gets it”,

And “Boom!” – he is elected president.

AN AVIARY REPRESENTATIVE:  “Okay.  Now it is more than ‘Just birds’.”

Summing Up Analogically:  There is a legitimate situation.  The elected government sits on it legislative hands.  A colorful “grievance exploiter” jumps into the vacuum… 

And teachers are buying their own chalk. 

And undocumented immigrants wait for a knock on the door.

There are lots of reasons a thing happens.  The rarely mentioned “governmental inaction” deserves prominent placement on the list.

Says I.

What say the assembled readership?

“Right, or stupid?”
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Oh, my God!  It's Queen Victoria's birthday.  And I forgot to get her a present.  

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Accurate But Not Mean"

This morning as I was reading the sports section in the newspaper I was confronted by an example of an issue I had considered writing about today.  That happens a lot, I’ve noticed.  There is something on my mind and suddenly, supportive encouragement pops up everywhere I look.  It’s nice.  Makes me feel in sync with the universe.

Dodgers beat writer Andy McCullough – whose regular coverage I find to be better than the norm – chronicled last night’s ballgame, during which a Pirates pitcher threw a “slider” a Dodgers hitter connected with for a grand slam home run. 

Although working under a punishing deadline, chronicling the major contributor to the Dodgers’ 12-1 victory McCullough took time to show a caring compassion for the defeated.

He dubbed the pitch lofted out of the ballpark “pitiable.”

Not “pitiful.”  Not “inconceivably awful.”  Not “My Aunt Fannie can do better and she’s got arthritis.”

“Pitiable.”

I am reminded of the lyric from the song “Pancho and Lefty” that goes,

“Pancho needs your prayers, its true

But save a few for Lefty too…”

The Dodgers received the advantage.  But the player providing it was a person.

So you know what I did first thing before writing this, which, as I said, I had kind of intended to do but the word “pitiable” seal-the-dealingly said, “Do it”?

I went back to yesterday’s post – written somewhat earlier – and I softened the adjectives.

Overall lowering the vituperative flame, my original effort being best described as “The Wrath of Thor.”

I don’t know what got into me yesterday.  Sometimes, you just get in these pitiable moods.  You see what I did there?  I cribbed Andy McCullough, letting myself compassionately off the hook.  Kind of stylish, don’t you think?  Maybe not, if the object of your generous consideration is you.

Anyway…

I was writing about the rookie TV series Bull, which I thought at first was a winner but as I kept watching went continually downhill. 

And boy, was I angry!

I didn’t even sound like myself.  Yesterday’s published product remains essentially what I believe; I just went back and took the turpentine out of the water.  (That may not mean anything but I really like how it sounds.)

I don’t know, I guess I get mad at myself when I get fooled, and I take my negative feelings out on the “fooler.”  At first, Bull felt excitingly like a “keeper.”  Then I cut open the fish… okay, I’m a little manic, here, due to my still smoldering at the deception.  Which could have actually been self-deception.  Maybe Bull was always what it was and I bamboozled myself into believing it was better.  Noticing its progressive decline could have been me, coming belatedly to my senses.

But did I have to be so hurtful about it? 

Just to prove I am not necessarily that guy – or at least not always necessarily that guy – I offer a brief anecdote that exemplifies the opposite.

A family member solicited my advice, concerning his serious disagreement with his parents over the last, lamented presidential election.  His question was, should he set their political differences aside in the name of family cohesiveness or should he stick to his ideological guns, maintaining an ostracizing separation? 

The words emerging from my mouth in response to his conundrum were these:

“The question is, ‘Who do you want to be like, and who do you not want to be like?’”

Truth be told, I have rarely expressed myself with such illuminating sensitivity.  Truth also be told, however, I have rarely been as aggressively hostile as was reflected in yesterday’s original version of the post, which, now revised, is hardly a valentine, but you should have seen that poisonous diatribe before.

Accuracy defines accuracy.  There’s an immutable standard for telling it – for you, at least – exactly like it is.

But then there are the adjectives, the adverbs, the metaphors and the analogies.  Words that qualify, shave the edges off the extremes, words that, without selling yourself down the river, take considerate thought for their intended target.

There is more than one way of telling the truth.

… is what I’m saying.

Every writer works hard and does the best they know how.

Yesterday, I neglected to think about that.

I shall try to improve on my performance in the future.

Not to do so…


Would be pitiable.

Monday, May 22, 2017

"No Sure Things"


I am thinking about Bull.  But first, I’ll talk about Phyllis.  Because both reflect, to me, a similar difficulty:

An expected hit series that appears to be missing.

Phyllis was spun off (as was Rhoda) from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  A supercilious know-it-all, Phyllis Lindstrom was extracted from Mary and given a half-hour series of her own. 

Talented actress.  Shining creative auspices – Phyllis was conceived and developed by Emmy-winning producers Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels.  I’d bet on those pedigreed bloodlines.  The problem, possibly suspected but rigorously ignored (“Hey, they’re giving us a show!”):

It was a flimsy vehicle for a series. 

A snippity landlady with a successful dermatologist husband is transformed into a financially strapped widow living through the beneficence of her now late husband’s in-laws.  Even the (comedically intended) theme song was a downer, its payoff after an upbeat Mame-type set-up including, “Who charms the clams on Fisherman’s Wharf right out of their shells?” concludes, “Phyllis… it sure isn’t you.”

Compare that with “You’re going to make it after all” and you can immediately see what the show’s up against.

Still… Cloris Leachman, decorated writers, a strong supporting cast (including the wonderful Barbara Colby who was tragically killed early in the show’s production.)  By conventional standards, Phyllis appeared earmarked for success.  But the premise was… what exactly was the premise? 

Unlike Seinfeld, Phyllis was a show about nothing… but not in a good way.

Despite a sparklingly beginning and a necessary mid-course structural adjustment, Phyllis’s ratings trended increasingly downward.  The show was finally cancelled after two seasons – a loudly trumpeted though thinly conceived disappointment.

(Note:  I wrote numerous episodes of Phyllis, creating in the process the character of crusty Senior Citizen “Mother Dexter” which, my random research reveals, purportedly kept the series afloat, until the actress (Judith Lowry) playing the grumpy octogenarian passed away.  I had no idea people held that opinion.) 

Primary Lesson Concerning Phyllis’s Demise:  Downbeat characters should never headline their own shows.  {At least not in 1976.}  Inevitably, the obligation of carrying the storyline exposes their negative, “One Trick Pony” limitations.  Thankfully, and wisely, there was no Seinfeld spinoff called Costanza.)

Which brings me to Bull.

A show I liked at the beginning – as I did Phyllis – but by the end of its first season, I was shaking my head and hollering for the check.

Another projected “sure thing.”  Again, with noteworthy auspices:

Writer Paul Attanasio.  (House, Homicide: Life on the Street, movies like Donnie Brasco and Quiz Show.)  Steven Spielberg (Who requires no parenthetical enhancement.)  Dr. Phil McGraw (on whose early career Bull was ostensibly based.)  Actor Michael Weatherly (NCIS, which I have never seen, but its great popularity –  as with Mary and Cloris Leachman – made Weatherly ripe for promotion to a show-carrying opportunity.)

Bull is about a successful, high tech jury consultant whose firm-provided targeted data and psychological insights create courtroom strategies to help their accused clients win their cases.

I enjoyed the Bull pilot, though I have an ideological antipathy towards jury consultants.  Strategizing an “edge” for your client relates tangentially, if at all, to the achievement of justice.  Plus, you have to be rich to afford one, an indigent defendant provided with an attorney if they cannot afford one, but not provided with a jury consultant. 

But that’s just extraneous blah-blah.  I am talking about the show here, which, as the season progressed, muted my enthusiasm with its noticeable decline.

An early episode involves a female commercial airline pilot accused of negligence whose exoneration is achieved by exposing the jury’s unconscious “gender bias” towards female pilots.

That one was interesting. 

But surprisingly quickly, the show got noticeably “stunty”, the way hit sitcoms like Happy Days and Everybody Loves Raymond went on fancy “vacations.”  The thing is, those shows did that late into their runs, when they were running out of ideas.  The “red flagging” difference is that this was Bull veered precariously from its series template in its debuting season.

Suddenly the trial itself is no longer front and center.  It was like those Scottish engineers on those old-time steam engines, somebody in charge was shouting, “We need more pooer!” 

So now, instead of just cliff-hanging courtroom combat, It’s that Bull’s ex-wife – or nemesis archrival – is a central participant.  Or his assistant’s former mentor.  Or another assistant’s old boyfriend. 

A driverless car runs crazily out of control.  A desperate woman blows up Bull’s facility, taking the trapped cast of series regulars hostage.

A “hostage” show?  That’s like a “Fifth Season” episode.  And they’re doing it “Episode Eleven.”

It’s crazy.  Where the heck have they left to go? 

The plan seemed shortsighted and futile.  How many regulars will have significant people from their past requiring the urgent necessity of a jury consultant? 

Some series get better as they discover their natural “groove.”  To my sensibilities, Bull seemed to be getting progressively worse.  Where’s the depth of characterization?  Where’s the narrative relatability?  Where’s the credible acting?  (Although substandard writing can leave even capable actors vulnerable to embarrassment.  After all, the disheartening dialogue is emerging out of their mouths.)

Still, Bull’s remains a quantifiable success.  (As, at this juncture, was Phyllis.)  Though there are some indications of audience erosion.

I feel worried for the producers.  (Which is the kind of empathetic person I am.)
They have this glorious opportunity.  But their show is demonstrably leaking oil.

And what about that title?  I am starting to wonder.  Is this show subliminally “bull”?

(Vindicating Credibility Note:  I recently had lunch with an hour-show writing acquaintance whose luminous credits include House, The Mentalist and The Good Wife who confided that he had turned down working on Bull, realizing, earlier than I did it, its inescapable stumbling block; namely that it’s shiny balloon filled with camouflagingly hot air.  So forget me.  A certifiable hotshot thinks it’s no good.  I feel eminently vindicated.  Though I take no pleasure in my assessment.) 

Friday, May 19, 2017

"Woe Is Them - Tee Hee"

Shameful Confession Off The Top:  I get a lip-smacking enjoyment watching bamboozlers feel the pressure.

Network television executives.

This time of the year, they put on a suit and they go to a theater, where they try to convince advertisers to buy commercial time on new TV series the advertisers have only seen snippets of.  It’s like “Mail Order Bride”, but they show you the ankle.

No shocking surprise here.  It’s hucksters.   An American institution.  Hucksters sold people the West without mentioning the Indians.  Or if they did, it was,

“They won’t hurt you.  They’re colorful.”

You have to be nervous, demanding “up front” agreements – hence the annual event’s appellation, “The Up Fronts” – for series audiences have yet to show they’ll tune in for, armed only with bright smiles and catchy slogans, like,

“We Fooled ‘Em Last Year – Let’s Do It Again!”

Showing supreme confidence in untested merchandise, however, is the subsidiary stressor in this enterprise.  There are considerably bigger fish to have nightmares about. 

Put simply, viewers in growing numbers, especially the highly coveted younger viewers, have abandoned television for the Internet and, I don’t know, trying new drugs.  (That might be gratuitous, and if it is, I apologize.  For all I know, they might be perfectly content with the old drugs.)

Going back to the point… quickly...

While constantly tinkering with demographic subtleties, networks substantially set their advertising rates the way they always have – based on how many people are watching the shows, the more people watching, the higher the ad rates.

The problem is, and everyone knows it…

Less people are watching. 

Studies indicate that the 18-49 viewership alone has plummeted from 36% to 28%.  That’s a drop of… lemme see… 

That’s a really big drop.

Compounding the agony, many remaining viewers now subscribe to services allowing them to “fast-forward” through the commercials.  (By the way, even at the beginning we had a way to avoid watching commercials.  We called it, “going to the bathroom.”)

Despite this cascading erosion of viewership, television executives have to buoyantly pretend at the “Up Fronts” that everything is beautiful.  It isn’t.  It’s the The Wizard of Oz backwards.

“Pay no attention to the man (or woman) in front of the curtain.”

It’s just the craziest thing I have ever heard.  Networks are selling their customers a sieve they confidently proclaim can hold water.  Horse traders hawking a three-legged pony, trumpeting the cost-saving advantage of “one less horseshoe.” 

You don’t need Jimmy Kimmel at these shindigs.  It’s like, “Send in the clowns;
Don’t bother they’re here.”

Networks, asking advertisers to pay more money for smaller audiences.  That’s

“Buy M & M’s.  There’s less in the box but we’re charging you extra!

Maybe if you say it with gusto people go with the enthusiasm.

“Less for more?  Sign me up!”

The reasonable version of the argument:

“Yes, the size of viewership is smaller.  (Which does not mean that current television viewers are shorter.)  But television still brings more people to one venue than anywhere else.”

The reasonable rebuttal:

“It’s less people!  And you’re jacking up the prices?”

I get a headache just thinking about that.  I mean, how does that feel, being that “Front Person”, peddling that malarkey?

“What did you do today, Mommy?”

“I went on stage and lied to thousands of people.”

(Who are fully aware they are being lied to.  Then they all have drinks and eat meatballs on a toothpick.)

I have no idea how they do it – selling a pea and charging for a pumpkin.

Paraphrasing what I once head-shakingly proclaimed about my own (arguably more admirable) line of endeavor,


“There must be an easier to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”