A Conversation with White Folks

Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA - Justice for Jamar Response Action

Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, USA – Justice for Jamar Response Action

Hey, white people! What’s our problem? Why have we broken society so badly?

There’s no other way to put it. This mess is all white people’s fault. And yeah, that has to include me, too. We’re all complicit.

What exactly am I talking about? Well, let’s run down the events of the last couple months or so, at least as of this writing.

Back in March, Louisville, Kentucky police kicked in the door of EMT and nursing student Breonna Taylor with no warning, and no announcement. Her boyfriend was understandably scared, and shot at what he assumed were home invaders. The police returned fire, killing Taylor. The drugs they bashed the door in to find belonged to someone who had already been arrested, and as a result, a young black woman died because of this mistake. The FBI has opened an investigation, but as of this writing, none of the police officers involved have faced charges.

About four weeks ago, cell phone video footage was released that showed a young black man named Ahmaud Arbery being gunned down in a suburban street in Georgia by two white men. This incident actually occurred on February 23, but the assailants weren’t arrested or charged until the video filmed by a third man came to light.

On May 25, cell phone footage circulated social media (and then regular media) of a white woman in Central Park in New York ranting at the black man filming her, threatening to call the police, and then actually doing so, while loudly and intentionally making sure to reference the man’s race. She made it clear she was hoping that the police would treat him harshly. It turned out her dangerous tantrum was a response to his mild request that she leash her loose dog.

On the same day, George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was killed by police while he was being detained. The officer who killed him knelt on his neck for several minutes while he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, and continued to choke him for several more minutes even after he lost consciousness. This killing was somewhat reminiscent of the 2014 killing of Eric Garner in New York. Garner was also choked by police until he died, all while pleading for his life.

In response to these incidents, there have been many demonstrations and protests across the United States. Some have been peaceful, others more violent. Police have been accused of exacerbating and even starting the violence in some of these situations. Tensions are high, made even worse by the current COVID-19 pandemic. The current leadership in the White House has not been helpful, with the President tweeting his anger at protesters while ignoring the reasons for the protests.

So, what exactly is going on?

Well, the long explanation for these issues is complicated, and systemic, and difficult to simplify.

But the truth is that it mostly boils down to the persistent white supremacy that continues to plague our nation.

Violence directed at people of color is nothing new in the United States, and at times, such violence leads to mass protest. But the current wave of demonstrations is bigger and more sustained than any in recent memory. It seems like, just possibly, that last straw finally landed on the camel.

Initially, I was going to write about both racism and police policies. And as I wrote, I realized that while the need for reforming American police forces is urgent, and does intertwine heavily with issues of race, it’s also a bigger topic that deserves more words than I can fit into a readable piece here. I will get to it. For now, however, I want to talk primarily about racism in America.

But when I talk about racism, I mean that I need to talk to white people, specifically in the United States. I’m aware that racism exists across the globe, and different countries have different kinds of problems. But the kind of racial strife I can speak about is here in my home country. And I can say it’s been a problem since… well, before the beginning. Racism is built into the fabric of this nation. Colonial expansion, native extermination and forced relocation, slavery, Jim Crow… the list is endless. I’m not going to delve too much into history.

I am going to make a plea though. Specifically to my fellow white folks.

I need to ask you all something.

Are you tired of this? Are you tired of protests, of anger, of riots, of constant political debates, of accusations of racism, of the fact that this kind of thing keeps happening on a large scale every few years? Are you bothered by the unrest?

Good. I am, too.

But how do we make it stop? Well, we first need to acknowledge why this stuff keeps occurring. That tends to go missing from white criticisms of these demonstrations. I can say that it’s clearly not because of crime, outside agitators (even if they can occasionally assist), or people of color “playing the race card.”


You ever notice when someone you know keeps complaining about their relationship problems, and over and over they say the fault with the chaos in their lives is other people? Their ex is always crazy, their friend screwed them over, their boss just doesn’t understand, and so on and so on. But their friends – outside observers – can see it clearly. If everyone is always mad at a person, and has the same complaints about them, it may just be that the problem is that person.

Same goes with racial injustice. People of color aren’t just “playing the race card.” They aren’t kneeling, or marching, or striking, or fighting every damn day because they’re the ones screwing up. These things don’t keep happening due to bad luck or bad behavior on the part of the victims. Cities are currently being torn apart (during the worst pandemic in at least 50 years, no less) because of white supremacy. It’s because of the actions (and inactions) of white people.

And the most upsetting part is that the people to blame CAN fix this.

White people, please listen.

Black Lives Matter didn’t form because white lives don’t. It formed because those in power – almost always white – haven’t been treating black lives as equal to white ones. The Los Angeles riots in 1992 didn’t occur because of some inherent criminality of black people. Philadelphia police didn’t bomb an entire city block in 1985 as a reasonable measure to counteract criminal activity.

Nothing is happening in a vacuum. Unrest doesn’t occur for fun, or because people just can’t help themselves. Folks are angry, scared, and tired of being treated like second-class citizens. People can only take injustice for so long.

Yeah, it’s true that legal prohibitions against racial discrimination have existed nationally for decades. Defenders of the status quo love to bring that up. “Show me what laws currently in force discriminate against black folks,” is a question I’ve been asked repeatedly by white bigots. That argument assumes that all it takes to make up for 400 years of oppression is a handful of laws (enforced mostly by white people). In the eyes of these people, the Civil Rights Act was the final step, and now any progress is entirely up to the oppressed to figure out, and that those in power have already acquiesced to share power equally.

But that’s not how it’s worked. Legally ending Jim Crow hasn’t stopped other kinds of discrimination and even outright oppression from occurring. Those with the most power don’t need explicit laws to keep themselves in power. They simply need those who look like themselves (powerful and not), to help support the status quo. Police, elected officials, business owners – these groups all contribute to systemic racism. But they wouldn’t be able to if they didn’t have implicit support from “ordinary citizens.” And most of these “ordinary folks” are… drum roll please… white folks.

I get it. I really do. You don’t think of yourself as racist. You don’t actively seek to harm people of color. You think Martin Luther King was a cool guy. You may have voted for Obama. You have a black friend. Maybe even two.

But black Americans are still suffering. And you, me, and the rest of us need to do a lot more than not hate them for who they are. “Not being racist” by itself is passive. It’s not enough. It doesn’t prevent police from pulling black drivers over more often than white ones. It doesn’t prevent the court system from handing down significantly harsher sentences for the same crimes. It doesn’t keep landlords, realtors, lenders, and employers from requiring far more from black and brown applicants than from white ones.

If you really don’t consider yourself a racist, then you need to care about these issues.

It’s not enough to not be terrible to people of color.

We (as in my fellow white folks) have to hold each other accountable. We need to focus our political, economic, and social power on those of us running society’s institutions. We have to be the ones to demand better.

Instead of being mad at “riots” and “looters,” be upset at the system that drove folks to this level of unrest.

My fellow white folks, we can absolutely make these problems better. But it won’t always be easy. We have to be ready to feel uncomfortable. We need to be prepared to be called out, and called to task for our own complicity in a biased system. We need to know when to shut our mouths and listen. We need to understand that our position as the “default” American is unsustainable. We need to learn to share.

Support businesses owned by people of color. Donate to civil rights organizations. Vote for candidates – particularly POC candidates – who run for office on an anti-racist platform. Volunteer for their campaigns. Write letters.

But even more than that, you need to focus on your fellow white folks. Don’t try to place yourself in the center of anti-racist movements. Black and brown folks don’t need us to tell them about racism. They already know. But we can work on ourselves. We have to be willing to call out racist language and behavior when we see it. That includes our friends, coworkers, our weird uncle, and even the loud dude on the bus. We have to be willing to take a stand.

I’m not saying start fist fights. Escalation can be tricky, and sometimes it can be a risk to speak up to those you don’t know. But we definitely need to start saying something, when we can. We need to make it socially, politically, and economically intolerable to be racist in our society. Us white folks have that ability, if we want it. We just have to be willing to stand up against other white people. We have to be uncomfortable, and make others uncomfortable. We have to put in the work.

We also need to be able to step aside when needed, and not make this about us. We shouldn’t jump front and center in the anti-racist struggle when we’re working with people of color. By all means, volunteer to help, and step forward when asked. But we first need to be most active and assertive with each other. Posting on social media, or writing long-winded blog posts like this are fine, but generally require minimal sacrifice. The real challenge is to be willing to disrupt our own social circles, and our own lives.

There are tons of good resources for what white folks can do to help fight against racism. Please check out these links here, here, and here, for actions we can take now.

But the fight starts with ourselves. If we want to make this a more equitable world, we need to stick our own necks out, and push back against the worst in our own circles.

Posted in Governance, Law Enforcement, Media, Politics, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Skewed Endorsement

Shortly after the 2016 election, I put together a list of possible Democratic contenders for the 2020 election. Obviously, it was still quite premature at that point to speculate on who would challenge Donald Trump when he hadn’t even yet been inaugurated. Nonetheless, it was a fun and somewhat comforting exercise.

More than three years later, we have arrived at the Iowa caucus, and the race has been running in earnest for the past year.

My original plan was to write out lengthy profiles of every single Democratic primary candidate, providing commentary, my own personal pros and cons, and an overall assessment. The problem was that twenty-nine of these maniacs eventually announced their candidacy for the nomination. And I really only seriously considered around a half dozen of them. After a few weeks of tinkering, I found myself slogging past the 4,000 word mark, and I had only written parts of about eight profiles. My lack of brevity, combined with the glut of available information conspired to make my original plan… unrealistic.

In the end, I found myself wanting to concentrate on explaining why my favorite of the bunch is the best choice for the nomination, and would make the best president. Some of the others deserve mention, and one in particular will feature prominently as a point of comparison. But in the end, this is about one candidate.

Late in 2018 through the spring of 2019, my personal front runner shifted frequently as new candidates waded into the fray. I did my best to keep an open mind, rationalizing there was plenty of time to make a decision. Over the next year, twenty-nine “major” candidates announced their campaigns for the Democratic nomination, and as of this writing (2/3/20), 17 have dropped out.

Update (2/17/20): 21 have now dropped out, leaving 8 still in the race, just before the Nevada caucus. 

The candidates varied widely in experience, ideology, and seriousness. Some seemed interesting at first, then less so as I learned about them. At different points throughout the first half of 2019, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Jay Inslee, and Kirsten Gillibrand all jumped to the top of my consideration, and then dropped back down.

Even as I learned more about each candidate, one in particular stood out as the most consistently impressive to me.

Elizabeth Warren not only has the most comprehensive policy positions (and the best ones in my view), but she also has by far the most thoughtful notions on what it will take to implement her policies. She’s given a great deal of thought to the structure of our government, what reforms are currently possible, and what needs to be done to ensure policy can be made. Many candidates have good ideas of what we should do. Relatively few have articulated how we should do it.

Before becoming a senator, Warren was tasked with putting together the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a federal agency she had championed for years. It’s no small feat to conceive of an entire federal agency as a private citizen, and not only see it successfully created, but be the person who actually made it happen. The process of creating the CFPB was painful and acrimonious, and made her enemies in both parties. But she did it. No other candidate in the 2020 race can say they’ve actually organized and constructed any of the bureaus or policies they propose. The ability to understand the process of enacting meaningful change can be the difference between an ineffective leader and a transformational one.

The centerpiece of Senator Warren’s campaign has been her overarching anti-corruption policy. This amounts to a large number of sweeping reforms designed to reduce the impact of corruption in government, business, and most importantly, where the two intersect. She has effectively made the argument that progressive policies are difficult to pass, and even moreso to enforce, when the systems tasked with implementing them are operating in bad faith.

Her experience with the CFPB (along with much of her prior academic work) has made her uniquely suited to understanding the regulatory process, how money and power influence governance, and what is necessary to reform the systems.

Her anti-corruption agenda includes numerous policy proposals, including more effectively regulating defense procurement, new antitrust policy, an “economic patriotism” plan, and so many more. But it’s not just corruption. Child care, student debt, private prisons, climate change; every policy is aggressive and well thought out.

Compared to her competitors, she has the most comprehensive agenda for creating serious, progressive change in the United States. Her vaunted (and occasionally mocked) “plans” aren’t just a gimmick. She knows how governments operate, she knows what needs to be repaired, and she understands how to do it.

I liked Julian Castro’s commitment to racial justice and opportunity for immigrants.

I appreciated Jay Inslee’s laser focus on climate change.

I thought Cory Booker’s own policy proposals were unique and worth strong consideration.

I believed Kamala Harris had a toughness lacking in most of her opponents, and showed a willingness to learn and grow.

Eric Swalwell and Beto O’Rourke both meaningfully shifted the discussion on firearms proliferation in the US.

All of these candidates brought important ideas to the race, and each are impressive in their own way.

But none of them could match Warren.

There is one candidate who I haven’t yet addressed.

I supported him in the 2016 primary, and have followed his career with great interest since the late 1990s.

The elephant in the room (or should I say donkey?) is her nearest ideological match in the race – Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. To many of his supporters, he represents a purer and clearer version of Warren. She is seen by many as basically “Bernie-lite.” Some in the Sanders camp view her even less charitably, seeing her verbal commitment to capitalism and her party affiliation from thirty years ago as a sign of untrustworthiness.

On the surface, Bernie Sanders presents a similar policy agenda to Warren. There are a few areas where he certainly tacks harder to the left than she, although there are certainly a few that go the other way, too. But he also presents a unique philosophical viewpoint that entrances many. He isn’t nearly as far left as many of his most vocal fans, but to them, he represents the best possible step in the direction they want to see.

I used to feel the same way.

Let me backtrack slightly.

I turned 18 in the summer of 2000, and registered to vote within days of my birthday. I had supported Bill Bradley’s primary campaign, but I was a couple months too young to get to vote for him. In 2004, I was an enthusiastic Howard Dean supporter, though he was mostly out of it by the time Missouri voted. In 2008, I supported Obama from the start (although I had hoped Al Gore might jump in the race). In 2016, I went all-in for Bernie Sanders.

Clearly, my record of supporting the eventual nominee is not particularly strong. But I generally pulled for the person I viewed as the most progressive voice in the race. I have always advocated for fundamental changes to the way this nation is governed, and I’ve been drawn to candidates who could best articulate my own (admittedly inconsistent) ideological vision.

That said, I also have a pragmatic streak. I have never believed half-measures are worthless. Sometimes, compromise is necessary, especially when attempting to balance the wants and needs of 330 million people. There will always be people who don’t agree. Ideally, we win them to our side, or at least help them despite themselves – but we can’t pretend they don’t exist.

When Bernie ran in 2016, I was initially excited. I thought that for once, a candidate was clearly elucidating the real problems in America, and was managing to convince a large percentage of people that words like “socialism” may not be that scary.

I had a faint, probably naïve, hope that Sanders might even represent the beginning of the end of the Reagan political/economic era; the quasi-libertarian corporatist cult that has amounted to the dominant American ideology since around the 1976 Republican Convention, and only slightly softened by the Democratic presidents serving during the era.

Then he lost, and I found myself constantly arguing with people who struggled with that loss, even to the point of inventing conspiracy theories and refusing to support the “half-measure” that would still result in progress. Hillary Clinton was easily the best realistic option for America after July of 2016, and many refused to accept that.

I don’t think that bitter Bernie Bros are the sole reason she isn’t president now, but they didn’t help, either. And Donald Trump has been, well… look around. Check out the Supreme Court, and what will happen there over the next few years.

Sometimes we don’t always get what we want. And sometimes we have to compromise to get even some of what we want.

It’s now 2020. And Bernie is back. But now, so is someone ideologically close(ish) to him, who also possesses the experience and knowledge to make that ideology effective.

But we can’t talk about supporting Warren in 2020 without explaining why I believe she is a better choice than Sanders. So let me go ahead and just get this out of the way.

One of the issues with comparing these candidates is how people (myself sometimes included) tend to conflate policy and philosophy. If one just grabs a list of policy positions, simplifies them enough to fit checkboxes on a spreadsheet, and then lines up all the candidates, one would find most of them match 85 percent or more across the board. Bernie Sanders fans roll their eyes (or yell on Twitter) when someone points out that Bernie and Elizabeth Warren match up on most commonly recognized policy positions. The thing is, on the surface, they clearly do.

In 2016, Bernie and Hillary Clinton matched up on 85ish percent of the media-discussed issues. Maybe more. Hell, it’s easy to cherry pick a large swath of positions and demonstrate for any particular argument that say… Kamala Harris, or Kirsten Gillibrand sit comfortably to Bernie’s left.

The counter to the policy comparison point is twofold. For one, there is a lot of nuance beyond the checkbox. Partisans of individual candidates will happily point to their person “getting there first,” when it’s noted that two candidates hold identical views on a particular topic. And in many cases, one candidate wants to take a position farther than the other, or to a different degree. But more importantly (and yes, we’re mostly talking Bernie here), is the philosophical comparison.

Warren and Sanders end up at a lot of the same conclusions in terms of what they want to see from government policy. But how they get there matters a great deal to many. Bernie and Elizabeth see the world in largely different ways. Both are concerned about the inequality, oppression, and exploitation of the poor and middle classes by the wealthy. But to Bernie, it’s an indictment of an entire economic system, political system, and even worldview. To Warren, it’s a sign of wayward political decisions, that can be remedied by better political decisions.

She isn’t less serious about the problems than Bernie, and she (largely) wants to prescribe similar fixes. But she doesn’t see the need for a new economic framework to arrive at the required fixes, the way Bernie does.

Are Sanders and Warren on the same page? Well, yes. And also no. The practical results of their preferred policies may not end up looking all that different. But the ride to get there will.

I would also like to note to those who occupy the left end of the party with me, or even those further left – the kind that sneer at liberals as hard as the right does – the entire Democratic Party has shifted pretty hard in your direction on a great number of issues. Some of the leftward movement started during President Obama’s second term, a decent amount of it can be credited to the relative electoral success of Bernie Sanders in 2016, and some is probably a reaction to the current state of the US government. Regardless as to the reason(s), however, the shift is real, and significant.

My favorite examples are the healthcare plans of the current primary candidates.

In 2009, the left half of the Democratic Party was fighting tooth and nail with the centrists just to include a public option in an otherwise center-right, market-based healthcare program. The bones of the ACA originated from the Heritage Foundation in the early 90s, and was somewhat successfully implemented by Mitt Romney in the 2000s, in Massachusetts. And the mere suggestion of adding a fairly small public option was enough to sink the bill entirely.

And this was almost entirely a debate just within the Democratic Party, as the Republicans repeatedly refused to even breathe near these debates, so they could better weaponize the program for the 2010 midterms.

Now, in 2020, among Democratic primary front-runners, the most “moderate” plans go leaps and bounds beyond the Affordable Care Act, and would have been swiftly rejected by even the ideological middle of the party a decade before. Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke (before he dropped out) have both taken up lanes repeatedly described as “centrist” on healthcare, yet both propose public options vastly more robust than what Max Baucus shot down ten years ago.

The positions taken by Sanders and Warren today would have been treated as laughable by most, taken about as seriously as Dennis Kucinich was in 2008.

Democrats have changed, largely for the better. And the progressive wing of the party not only has more power and influence than it used to, but it has more than one serious presidential candidate.

I’m bullish on Warren over Bernie because it appears she has a better understanding of what it takes to successfully implement progressive policies. She has accurately noted the way the Republican party has gamed the system. Gerrymandering, the Senate, the Electoral College, the courts – the GOP is currently set to rule from a minority position for years to come. It would take significant majorities just to win the White House and the Senate, and even then, Trump’s success at appointing judges ensures legislative difficulty for Democrats for a generation.

Medicare-for-All is not going to happen under our current government. It won’t happen with a Sanders administration and a 51-49 Democratic Senate. It won’t happen, especially as long as Bernie remains resistant to institutional reforms, particularly eliminating the filibuster, which allow political minorities to maintain strangleholds on power, despite their lack of popular mandate. Conservatives decry “the tyranny of the majority,” but it comes across as a bad faith argument when they consistently operate via tyranny of the minority.

Ezra Klein recently made an excellent point about this, noting, “You have to make the system governable before you can govern.”

Among all of the Democratic candidates, the only ones who have shown a strong commitment to pushing for serious structural change within the mechanisms of legislation have been Senator Warren, Governor Inslee, and Mayor Buttigieg.

Although, I should note when Mayor Pete was routinely talking about topics like the Electoral College, the setup of the Supreme Court, and the filibuster, he was still running in a largely adjacent lane to Warren, and has since shifted pretty blatantly back toward the political center.

Our current political system clearly favors the Republican Party. The Electoral College provides much greater weight to smaller, generally more conservative states, as does the Senate. Thanks largely to the Electoral College, the Republicans have been able to greatly tilt the partisan lean of the courts at every level in their favor. Thanks in part to House apportionment created in tandem with the Electoral College, the Republicans have had free rein to manipulate the shape of Congressional districts to make it easier for them to win. Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, and have won a disproportionate percentage of the national popular vote in recent Congressional elections, too. But those popular mandates simply don’t translate to political majorities. This antidemocratic flaw will not improve as long as candidates don’t make it a priority,

Not only will it be an uphill battle for a Democrat to win the White House, but keeping it, and then successfully implementing policy will be even more difficult. A Democratic President will have to understand the system working against them, and will need to be able to lead the party, keeping the House, and winning the Senate. It’s going to take someone who can be a team player, and a coalition builder. It’s going to take someone who is willing to give something in order to get something. Someone who can play the game. This is an area where I trust Warren more.

One of Bernie’s selling points, according to his supporters, is his unwavering worldview. He hasn’t changed his mind on anything in 50 years, we hear.

Well, that’s not technically true, but those same supporters tend to wave away the issues where Sanders has evolved. Bernie has definitely shifted leftward on law and order, on immigration, and on guns. Now, I don’t consider his shift on certain policies to be a negative thing. And I don’t think a lack of ideological movement is a virtue. Much has been made of Warren’s shift from generally uninvolved moderate Republican to liberal populist, but even when she was a “Republican,” there’s some evidence her politics and even voting record were more complicated than that.

I’m more impressed with someone who is willing to change their mind when confronted with new information, than with someone who is convinced they’ve always been right, no matter the evidence.

Regardless, Warren hasn’t exactly changed her stances overnight, and Sanders hasn’t been entirely steadfast in his principals, either. And neither truth should be disqualifying. But it does highlight a degree of hypocrisy among those castigating candidates for past positions, while making excuses for their own.

But there’s more to it than where he has and hasn’t changed. His class-focused philosophy has created certain blind spots that deserve deeper analysis.

Senator Sanders has made it clear he believes that ethnic, racial, gender, and orientation-based disparities don’t require nearly as much significant special attention as economic issues.

While he has made strides in this race (especially compared with 2016) to acknowledge and plan for ameliorating systemic biases based around identities, his interviews and debate responses make it clear he doesn’t really get it. The basic worldview he espouses is that the inequalities of our economic system intertwine so thoroughly with every other significant social issue, that reducing economic inequality will inevitably reduce or even eliminate the problems of racism, sexism, etc.

It’s absolutely true that class issues DO mix with other kinds of inequities. But there is almost no evidence to prove that destroying the flaws of capitalism will lead people and systems away from racist outcomes.

Many within the larger Sanders-supporting community have treated “identity politics” as a nuisance, an obstacle in the way of the really important change. Sanders himself has echoed some of this, though he does take pains to acknowledge the real disparities faced by minority groups in America. But in a nation led by a man who explicitly ran on a platform of white male resentment, it’s dangerous to assume that racism, sexism, and anti LGBTQ bigotry should automatically take a back seat to economics.

Ideally, we should be able to tackle both issues. My support for Elizabeth Warren exists in part for her ability to emphasize a need for combating the excesses of the market economy while also addressing systemic social bias in a way that doesn’t relegate those concerns to a mere afterthought.

My support for her is due to her comprehensive command of the mechanisms of government, her deep knowledge of how systemic inequality plagues Americans, and her ambitious efforts to resolve these issues.

It sounds corny as hell… but I believe she legitimately cares about improving the lives of those who need it. And I think she has the ability to do it. Or at least make people care enough to vote out the ghouls who make real change impossible.

That’s the hope, anyway.

I don’t dislike Bernie. If he’s the nominee – and it certainly appears he has a shot – then I’ll support him and work as hard as I can to help him beat Donald Trump.

But the primary is for figuring out who would do the best job of being President. And that would be Senator Elizabeth Warren.

For anyone who has somehow made it this far, I’m also including a mostly-final ranking of the 2020 Democratic candidates. This is simply my personal order of preference. Multiple factors enter into this, including, but not limited to, ideology.

I also consider effectiveness, experience, knowledge, moral clarity, and an admittedly subjective x-factor that would require another 3,000 plus words to adequately explain.

I’ve crossed out those who have dropped out as of February 3rd, 2020, but I still included them on the list for reference, and for an idea of where I’m coming from.

That said, my interest in being thorough has limits. Almost all candidates between 12 and 23 are basically interchangeable for me, and the ranking at that point isn’t precise. And all of the candidates ranked 24th and below would make me strongly consider voting for a third party candidate.

I might eventually put together my notes about the remaining candidates, should they, y’know, remain. But it makes sense to start with the one I actually want to win.

Anyway, as a merciful end to this screed, here is where the 29 “major” candidates rank in my bizarre mind:

  1. Elizabeth Warren
  2. Jay Inslee
  3. Julian Castro
  4. Cory Booker
  5. Kamala Harris
  6. Kirsten Gillibrand
  7. Eric Swalwell
  8. Bernie Sanders
  9. Beto O’Rourke
  10. Bill De Blasio
  11. Pete Buttigieg
  12. Joe Sestak
  13. Seth Moulton
  14. Michael Bennet
  15. Amy Klobuchar
  16. Deval Patrick
  17. Joe Biden
  18. Steve Bullock
  19. Wayne Messam
  20. Tim Ryan
  21. John Hickenlooper
  22. Tom Steyer
  23. John Delaney
  24. Michael Bloomberg
  25. Andrew Yang
  26. Mike Gravel
  27. Richard Ojeda
  28. Tulsi Gabbard
  29. Marianne Williamson
Posted in Budgets, Civil Rights, Economics, environment, foreign policy, Governance, Healthcare, History, immigration, Infrastructure, Law Enforcement, Media, Politics, Rant, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Time To Politicize

Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America - Gun Control Ac

Tony Webster – Minneapolis

“Don’t politicize this tragedy.”

That’s what constantly we hear when someone murders a bunch of people and terrorizes the populace.

Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said as much after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017. So did Sean Hannity of all people, amazingly with a straight face, after the same shooting. Mitch McConnell, the living embodiment of the phrase “bad faith,” made a similar case after that one, as well. Actually, most of the national GOP did at some point after Las Vegas.

After the Parkland, Florida school shooting in 2018, a number of (mostly) right-wing public figures made similar arguments, including Senator Marco Rubio and media grifter Tomi Lahren.

Within just the last week, mass shootings have occurred at a festival in Gilroy, California, a mall in El Paso, Texas, and at a bar in Dayton, Ohio. Predictably, within hours of the third massacre, Senator Tim Scott has already warned us about politicizing these tragedies. John Cornyn took a different route, claiming there’s no answer to the problem of mass shootings. This incredibly dishonest statement would almost be funny, were it not costing lives.

We’re told that it’s important to mourn, to respect the loss of life, to reflect and pray. We should be solemn and not speak too loudly about the actual cause of these tragedies.

And these statements almost always come from someone who happens to be politically, ideologically, and/or financially opposed to resolving the gun violence epidemic in the United States. Funny how that works. They want us to turn politics off as soon as it might start to irritate their constituents, or more importantly, their donors.

In a democratic society (or at least a society that pays lip service to democratic traditions), politics are how problems get resolved. We have to politicize tragedies. We have to discuss their causes, we have to debate their solutions. We have to create laws, and design enforcement.

It’s also important to note that these mass shootings are inherently political.  The far right, white supremacist domestic terrorists that have been the cause of so many of these tragedies have been murdering innocents specifically for political reasons. Terrorism is a political act.  White supremacy is political. Far right ethno-nationalism is political. Killing members of a group specifically because of their group identity is political.

Not all violence is political, but carefully planned, targeted violence generally is.

The National Rifle Association and the firearms manufacturing industry are political. The Congressmonsters who accept money from these groups are political.

When Mitch McConnell or Ted Cruz tells us not to politicize a tragedy, what they’re saying is we should ignore the fact that it’s already political.  They’re telling us not to use the best tools at our disposal for preventing the next one.

Also, it’s totally fair to observe that more than one of these recent acts was at least in part inspired by the ignorant, dishonest, violent, and bigoted rhetoric of the 45th President of the United States.

I’ve discussed this before, and I’m sad to say I have to do so again. Donald Trump has condoned and even encouraged violence from his supporters. Trump isn’t by any means the primary cause of mass shootings. Events like these predate the Declaration of Independence.

But he has provided verbal support to those who commit violent acts in his name. He has defended violent actions. He has directed racist statements at people of color. He has demonized immigrants and refugees. White supremacists have noted that even if he doesn’t publicly identify as one of them, Trump is the closest thing they’ve had to an ally in the White House in generations.

While Donald Trump deserves at least some degree of blame for the intensity of the resurgence in white supremacist violence, the real elephant in the room is far simpler to identify, though apparently not to resolve.


Firearms violence in general is primarily caused by easy access to firearms. This has been confirmed at the state, national, and international level again and again and again.  We already understand the main reason why the United States suffers a severe epidemic of gun violence, even if many are in denial of this fact.

Mass shootings and related terrorist acts are statistically more rare and a bit more complicated. Guns are still part of the equation, but there’s something else to it.

The largest percentage of mass shooters in recent years tend to have specific political motivations. The easy access they have to firearms exists mostly due to political considerations.

It’s all political.

And the solutions, in a nation where we elect those who make the laws, are political solutions.

It’s not wrong to be polite and considerate. If I met the family of a victim of a mass shooting, I would attempt to provide comfort and support before launching into political tirades.

But outside of that very specific scenario, there is no reason to hold the politics. Terrorism is political. Gun policy in America is political. Right wing extremism and white supremacy are political.

I’m going to politicize this. And anyone who cares about reducing the frequency of these tragedies should, too.

If anything, we need to make this more political. We need to shame those we elected into working toward real solutions. And if they happen to be in the pockets of the NRA, or they happen to have white nationalist leanings, then we need to shame the voters into replacing them with decent human beings.

Don’t shy away from politics. It’s not a dirty word. It’s a tool, and it’s one we underutilize.  If we’re scared of politicizing mass shootings, then that means we’re willing to suffer through them.


Posted in Governance, Politics, Quick post, Rant | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hiking Report – Mount McLoughlin

We’re already near the end of July 2019, and I haven’t posted a hiking report yet this year. In fact, I haven’t posted one since my trip to Battle Ax in October of last year. This year I have journeyed to a couple mountains already, but neither one was particularly worthy of a report.

On May 3, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, I made an attempt at Thunder Mountain about 10 miles north of Battle Ax, and was unfortunately thwarted by snow and downed trees on the road to the trailhead. I tried hiking down the road around 3 miles through the snow to the trailhead, but ended up giving up when I realized how much time I was taking just to get to the starting point. I did enjoy some nice views of Battle Ax and Mount Jefferson, but the hike itself was a disappointment.

On June 21, I made another run up Mount Defiance, a little less than a year after the last time I hiked it. This hike was successfully completed, however, the day was mostly overcast, and the really good views of the big Cascade peaks were consistently obscured the entire time.

Defiance was really meant to be a warm-up for my first big hike of the year, anyway. Back during the winter, I mapped out a schedule of possible hikes for 2019. I wanted to challenge myself more than last year, and I wanted to take on some of the higher Cascade volcanoes. I didn’t think I was quite ready for the likes of Hood or Jefferson, though. So, after careful research, I settled on Mount McLoughlin as my first big climb of the year.

Standing at the southern end of Oregon, just 30 miles or so north of California, the trailhead for McLoughlin can be reached in a little under five hours from Portland. I decided to drive out after work on a Thursday, stay the night near Medford, and drive to the trailhead early the next morning. I hoped that a weekday, even a Friday, would be less crowded than a weekend.

I chose McLoughlin for a variety of reasons. It’s a relatively short drive from home, it’s not a technical climb I might not be ready for, and it’s tall enough and difficult enough to feel worthwhile. At 9,495 feet, Mount McLoughlin is the 10th highest mountain in Oregon, and the 6th most prominent. The hike is around 10 miles out-and-back, with just under 4,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s more or less an 80% version of South Sister.

I arrived at the trailhead a few minutes before 7 am on July 19. It was overcast at that point, but the forecast called for clear skies within the following hour or two, so I wasn’t overly worried.

There was a vault toilet and some warning signs about not being dumb and getting lost on the mountain. Also a decent amount of parking space. After a brief inventory check, I got my pack together and set off down the trail.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

There were a bunch of downed trees early in the trail.

Just a few minutes in to the hike was a repeat of the “don’t get lost by taking a shortcut” warning.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

Seemed like good advice to me.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

Just a bit further down the trail was a bridge spanning a surprisingly active river.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

The first two and a half miles were mostly soft dirt and mulch with a fairly gentle incline.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

The first half of the trail is fast and easy. It’s important to remember that this could lead one into a false sense of what lies ahead.

Like several big Cascade hikes, the trail intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

Just over an hour into the hike, I had already made it nearly three miles, on a trail that averages just under five miles each way. But that progress was slowing as the trail grew steeper and rockier, and the elevation rose over 7,000 feet.

It was around this point that I begin seeing signs of encouragement.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

It was also around this point that the forest started thinning, and views around the mountain appeared in the sporadic gaps of the foliage.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

The trail itself was transforming from a dirt path laced with occasional rocks, to mostly gravel with a lot of rocks, to just rocks with a few patches of gravel here and there. This made it trickier to follow. I kept an eye on the map downloaded from the All Trails app, but I wanted to avoid relying on it too heavily. I’ve let GPS access rot my brain while driving already – best to not allow it to become a crutch on hikes. That said, it is good to have tools for navigation while hiking solo through an unknown (to me) area. I also have a compass, and kept a printed map in my pack. But modern trail mobile apps are an amazing resource.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

As the trail turned into a boulder scramble, the best navigation tool turned out to be some decent soul(s) marking paths along many of the rocks. They weren’t consistently marked, but the arrows and white dots littered the mountain enough to help maintain a basic route up toward the summit. The forest continued to thin out, but there wasn’t the abrupt treeline transition that I’ve seen on a few other peaks, such as South Sister. The change was more gradual. Or maybe it wasn’t that as much as the fact that I was really slowing down as I approached mile 4 (and around 8,000 feet), which caused me to see the treeline disappear more gradually than it actually was.

It was also around this point that I noticed there were a huge number of bumblebees flitting about. They were a welcome change of pace from the mosquitoes I encountered sporadically for the first hour of the hike. They also encouraged me to work on my Nic Cage impression – fortunately there weren’t many other hikers around to suffer through that.

And they really seemed to enjoy my hiking poles.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

Just past 8,000 feet, I also found the first patch of snow. The temperature was low 50’s at that point, but it felt much warmer. Another hiker I eventually ran into on the way back down noted he was going to lay down in that patch.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

Most of the trail markings were arrows and dots, but once in a while, X really did mark the spot.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

I was finally getting some really good long-range views at this point. Brown Mountain stands almost directly south.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

Glancing back up the trail, I still had a long way to go – even though the total remaining trail distance was just a mile or so.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

As I ascended, the views kept getting better and better. This was fortunate, since I had to stop and enjoy them frequently. I was finding myself becoming winded faster the higher I went.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

Risking a look back up, it still looked like I had FOREVER to go. The marked trail had taken me noticeably west of both the ridge and the marked path on my app. But I was still moving, and I could see other hikers above and below me following the same route.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

At this point, it was kind of academic. The primary direction I needed to go was UP. Having a trail was nice, but as long as the way was passable, it didn’t really matter much.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

By the time I neared 500 feet of the summit, the path was pretty much just a constant boulder scramble. There were still markings here and there, but I was mostly just following the ridgeline (albeit slightly to the left), and faster climbers.

Speaking of those, I came across a few groups along the way. There was a father-son duo from Nevada. Dad was a geologist, and had been instructing his son to grab a small handful of rocks to take back home as samples. There was another family of a father and two sons – the father eventually had to stop a couple hundred feet from the summit. He yelled to his sons to keep going, though I did help him up over a six foot ledge so he could wait for them in some shade. There was also a solo hiker from Illinois who was wearing headphones, and blasting music loud enough for me to recognize AC/DC obliterating his eardrums. And yet, somehow he was able to carry on a conversation with no problem, despite the music.

While I usually hike solo because it affords me the opportunity to commune with nature human-free, the people I do encounter are almost invariably interesting, thoughtful, and kind-hearted. I’m always impressed with how decent hikers and climbers have been, when I come across them in the middle of nowhere.

After helping the father of two get settled, I paused as well, and took in the view to the south. Off on the horizon, Mount Shasta loomed, partially obscured by clouds.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

The geologist and son had stopped near the summit to take a break. I stopped and chatted with them for a few minutes. As we spoke, Mr. AC/DC stuck his head out from behind a rock above us. He was less than a hundred feet away. “Hey guys, the summit’s right here!” We had been resting just below the top.

It was just a few more steps, then at about 12:15, I stood on top of Mount McLoughlin.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

The overall summit complex consisted of two raised sections, with a tiny col in between. The two summit bulges were less than 100 feet apart. The western peak was just a bit higher. So after dumping my pack at the lower summit, I clambered over a short ledge, past an American flag, and joined the geologist and his son for some views from the true peak of the mountain.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

We traded cameras and took a few photos of each other.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

After they headed back to the lower summit, I remained behind long enough to set the timer on my phone and take my traditional thumbs-up photo. Well, it’s a tradition in that these photos amuse my sister, and I would be a terrible brother if I didn’t take a moment to make her laugh.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

At the top of the lower peak, near the flag, there sat the remains of an old fire lookout station. A couple of old ammo cans sat nestled near a wall. One contained some water and a first aid kit. The other had several notebooks and a couple pens – a trail register.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

I also took a moment to plant my own flag on the summit.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

I settled back down under the lower summit to enjoy a sandwich and some conversation with my fellow hikers. The views were spectacular.

Looking off to the north, Mount Thielsen (left) and Mount Scott (right) sat invitingly.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

The trail back down appeared… daunting.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

After a little more than half an hour eating lunch and talking, we could hear voices from below. There were at least three waves of hikers on their way up – with one group less than five minutes out. AC/DC appeared to be settling in for a nap, but I decided I was ready to get back on the trail. The geologist and son were starting to pack up as well.

I got myself together, grabbed my hat, bid the summit and Mr. Classic Rock adieu, and started clambering back down, high fiving the group of five college-age kids as they passed me.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

The first twenty minutes down consisted of the rock scramble I dealt with going up, but I noticed there was a path along the left side, near the edge of the ridge. It consisted mostly of loose scree, which I had briefly attempted, then rejected on the way up. Picking my way up boulders made more sense going toward the summit, but heading back down, I could boot ski along the ridge, with the boulders to my right, and a sharp drop off to the steep (and still partially snow-covered) scree slope on my left.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

The trail stopped at several ledges, each of which provided great views.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

From there, it was just a slow slog, alternating between the scree slope, and occasional boulder piles that I couldn’t bypass.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

Eventually, I found my way back into the woods, and the path became clearer. I came across some interesting vegetation at around 7,500 feet.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2019

Deeper into the woods, the mosquitoes started back up. This time, they were ferocious and constant. I found myself slapping and scratching my arms and neck pretty much nonstop for the final hour. Fortunately, the last three miles went just as quickly as the first three.

Just a bit before 4:30, I found myself back at the trailhead, shooing skeeters away from my car. I could now check McLoughlin off my list. But I’m pretty certain I’ll be back.

Meanwhile, I’ll be hiking Mount Bailey soon. There should be a report on that one within the next couple weeks. And hopefully, I can finish some of my political posts that have been rotting for the past few months.


Or maybe I’ll just stick to climbing. That’s a lot more fun.

Posted in Adventure, Series | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe


By Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I talk a lot about politics. Sometimes I talk about science, sometimes economics. But usually I stick to discussing topics that tend to be more serious.

That said, sometimes one needs to turn toward more light-hearted topics, at least as a way to prevent insanity. Donald Trump is the U.S. President. The planet is warming, and we aren’t doing nearly enough about it. There are wars all over the globe. We have no shortage of hatred and prejudice directed by almost every possible group of people at almost every other possible group of people. The world isn’t a hellscape everywhere, but we certainly have problems.

If I ignored these issues, I would be guilty of burying my head in the sand. However, since I don’t ignore them (in fact, sometimes I obsess over them), I feel like my sanity is best preserved by enjoying some escapism now and then. And that’s what leads me to the MCU.

I discovered comic books just as I stumbled awkwardly into my teen years. Superheroes in particular appealed to a small, nerdy, timid, unathletic kid. After spending a day in school feeling outcast, being picked on, and failing to be picked for any teams, going home and imagining myself as a physical marvel was a delightful way to occupy my thoughts. Comics were an amazing source of imaginative kindling, stoking the fires of my mind. Much of my fiction writing has centered around people with extraordinary abilities, certainly influenced by my love of comics from my youth. I happily consumed comic book-based movies along with comics (not to mention novels based on those comics), though comic book movies were almost always pretty bad when I was young. Even the best early examples of the genre – like the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, and the first Michael Keaton Batman – were mostly just “good for a comic book movie,” rather than actually good movies.

Then came 2000, and the first X-Men movie. It was arguably the first example of a comic book-based film that could actually stand on its own as a solid film. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was generally thoughtful, reasonably complex, often witty, and well-acted. It was followed by a much-better sequel, as well as two very good Spider-Man films. DC got in on the action with an excellent reboot of Batman in 2005, and by then, comic book movies had been established as potentially legitimately good films. Well, sometimes. There was always Daredevil, and Elektra, and Catwoman, and Ghost Rider, and so on… But I digress.

Due to rather complex financial arrangements that other people have discussed in depth, Marvel Studios did not own the rights to make movies for many of its most popular characters until just the past year. Spider-Man is now able to join the Marvel Studios team, but X-Men and the Fantastic Four belonged to 20th Century Fox and Sony, respectively. But Marvel still had plenty to work with, and beginning in 2008, laid the seeds for a much larger cinematic universe. With the initial success of Iron Man that year, 22 total (mostly) interconnected films have been released, with at least a dozen more planned. The Marvel Cinematic Universe also includes three network television series, six Netflix series, and a Hulu series, and a Freeform series, with several Disney+ shows on the way. All of which work together to maintain the same continuity, and for the most part, do a reasonable job.

I dig the television shows, but they are all a different beast from the movies, and should probably be ranked separately, or even by individual season. As one might have guessed, ranking things like this is fun for me. It provides plenty of opportunity for discussion and debate, and allows me to talk about comics and the MCU, which is usually more fun than discussing Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

FEBRUARY 2018 UPDATE: I have now seen Black Panther, and will add it to this ranking. There are now 18 MCU flicks, and by this summer, there will be 20, with Ant-Man and The Wasp, and Avengers: Infinity War. I will probably continue to update my ranking on this page here, for the time being.

MAY 2018 UPDATE: And now I’ve viewed Avengers: Infinity War, and have updated the rankings accordingly.

JULY 2018 UPDATE: Ant Man and The Wasp is now included in the ranking.

APRIL 2019 UPDATE: I’ve now added Captain Marvel to the list. Also, 20th Century Fox has been purchased by Disney, so I guess the X-Men will probably be showing up in the MCU at some point soon.

JUNE 2019 UPDATE: I’ve finally gotten around to adding Avengers Endgame. There will be one more this summer, when Spider-Man: Far From Home is released.

Many sites have already compared and ranked the MCU films, and I will include links below to some of them. In the meantime, here is my highly-subjective list of the current 22 MCU films. Let readers be warned, spoilers lie ahead:

22.) Thor: The Dark World

I enjoyed the first Thor movie, although I had trouble really getting into its strange mix of magic and gods (aliens?). The sequel, which felt more like obligatory time-killing than a necessary continuation of a character arc, still has the hokey fantasy aspect I didn’t much enjoy, but now includes legitimate boredom. The first half is dull and dour and has a lame villain, wasting an excellent actor. The movie does pick up after it brings Loki into the mix, and the second half alone is almost enough to bring it up a spot or two.

Thor 2 isn’t a bad movie, but it is the only MCU film where I was seriously bored for more than a few minutes. If a movie about gods, superheroes, and magic hammers is made to be dull and unentertaining, then it has committed the most egregious sin possible for  a superhero flick.

Hits: Loki, some humor and action in the second half.

Misses: Slow first half, not enough Loki, boring villain.

21.) Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 may be the most polarizing of the MCU films. One of the below links actually puts it in at Number 1. Several others rank it near the bottom. To me, it was a series of entertaining segments, but poorly tied together, and beset by some really dumb points. Iron Man 3 didn’t have long periods of extended ennui like Thor 2, which kept Tony Stark ranked above the God of Thunder, but it was also kind of stupid in general.

I didn’t mind that Tony Stark spent so much time without the suit, and I actually enjoyed the sudden agency acquired by Pepper Potts near the end. Comic book movies have historically struggled with providing women with interesting roles where they drive the plot and action and don’t end up playing second fiddle. By her character’s definition, she is second fiddle, but the ending did a good job empowering her character.

Beyond that, the big reveal of the villain didn’t really work for me, even though I appreciate what writers Drew Pearce and Shane Black were going for. The powers provided by the Extremis virus were poorly-defined and kind of goofy. The movie itself was oddly paced, and shifted pace too frequently for me. I found it entertaining, but kind of a mess.

Hits: Good character work with Stark and the kid, Pepper saves the day!

Misses: Disjointed, messy, confusing. Poorly-handled twist with the villain.

20.) Iron Man 2

Six months or so after the events of Iron Man, billionaire inventor and industrialist Tony Stark is succumbing to alcohol abuse, and poor health from the arc reactor implanted in his chest, the US government is breathing down his neck regarding his rather cavalier attitude toward wielding advanced weapons technology, and a rival industrialist is attempting to undermine him and steal his secrets. And then a crazy Russian scientist shows up, and everything comes together, blows apart, and kind of becomes a mess for awhile.

I actually kind of like this movie, despite its low ranking on my list (and everyone else’s). I enjoyed the early stuff, with Tony enjoying his new life as a fully-out and public Iron Man, but internally collapsing from radiation poisoning and alcoholism. Yeah, the early fight with Rhodey was unnecessary, and the three villains of Congress, Justin Hammer, and Ivan Vanko are all a bit underwhelming, but the movie is filled with fun moments. The final showdown is pretty brief, and the first fight with Vanko on the racetrack is a bit silly. Scarlett Johansson’s first turn as the Black Widow is mostly wasted. And the secret to Tony’s cure is incredibly contrived. It really isn’t a good movie. But every time I’ve seen it, I end up feeling entertained. The action (when it happens) is fun to watch. And there really is some good character work there, with Tony’s gradual fall and sort-of rebirth. It’s not nearly as good as the movie that preceded it. And it feels like it’s sort of just sitting there, filling time until The Avengers. But I was never bored.

Oh, and special mention to Mickey Rourke, who turns in a bizarre, yet fun appearance as one of the villains. Yeah, his accent is goofy, and his motivations are strained. And it feels like Jon Favreau didn’t direct Rourke so much as just filmed him walking around, being himself. But that made for a scene-theft every time the camera was pointed his way.

Hits: Good character work (as always) by Robert Downey Jr. Fun action sequences.

Misses: Weak villains, underutilized Black Widow, goofy deus ex machina cure for Tony.

19.) Thor

Thor Odinson, the scion of the alien/godly/mystical realm of Asgard, pisses off his dad with his hubris and immaturity, and is forced to redeem himself without his magic hammer, lost among strangers on the primitive planet known as Earth. There, he gets involved with a human scientist, and has to save both his world and Earth from the machinations of his evil brother Loki. Following along so far? For some, they may already be skeptical. This is certainly “high concept.”

Thor is not a bad movie. It’s probably the first on this list that can qualify as at least “pretty good.” Maybe a B- or C+. It’s got some impressive and creative visuals, and the Asgard scenes contain a sense of vastness befitting a realm of demigods. The fish-out-of-water themes are played well (and often hilariously). It’s got impressive pedigree – directed by Kenneth Branagh and co-starring Anthony Hopkins as Odin! It also introduces the best MCU villain by far, Thor’s brother Loki.

It’s also undeniably one of the silliest concepts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And that’s saying something, considering it exists in a realm with talking raccoons, a ridiculous number of blue and green aliens, unfrozen supersoldiers, and sentient AI. Thor’s escapism is certainly fun, but as a fan of pure science fiction, it’s not quite my cup of tea. It blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy, and does it competently, albeit a bit sloppily. The third act is a bit of a letdown, and the movie doesn’t flow as smoothly as some of the other entries on this list.

Chris Hemsworth is perfectly cast as the titular character, and Tom Hiddleston steals every scene as the devious Loki. The movie serves as a solid introduction for what will become mostly a supporting character in the franchise. Not perfect, but it’s the lowest ranked film on this list that I think of as “good.”

Hits: Gorgeous scenery, epic scope, solid humor, the best MCU villain, Anthony Hopkins.

Misses: A bit slow once on Earth, hokey concept, disappointing climax, feels like a chapter in a larger saga rather than a film standing well on its own.

18.) Thor: Ragnarok

Look, Marvel managed to make a (fairly) good Thor movie! The third installment in the franchise-within-a-franchise accomplishes this feat by being the first one to not just understand, but to fully embrace the fact that even for the science fiction/fantasy hybrid that it is – the Marvel take on Thor is a ridiculous concept.

Throughout the larger MCU continuity, particularly the television series Agents of SHIELD, there has been some effort made to establish that Thor and his fellow Asgardians aren’t really gods as much as they are super advanced aliens. Aliens that live for thousands of years, have physical (and sometimes mystical) abilities far beyond those of humans, and… yeah, frequently refer to themselves as gods.

It’s weird.

While nobody would argue that Ant Man or the Hulk are particularly grounded in reality, they have been long established as fitting within the rather loose rules and laws of the Marvel quasi-scientific canon. Thor and his ilk bend that quite a bit. However, Thor Ragnarok goes out of its way to acknowledge the absurdities in the character and his background, and finally let loose and have some fun with it.

Chris Hemsworth is a talented comic actor, and plays his role in a relaxed and wry manner – moreso than we’ve seen previously. As strange situation after strange situation is thrown his way, Thor takes everything in stride, accepting that he inhabits a weird universe.

The plot is straightforward, but well-executed. Thor’s father, Odin, seemingly dies while in quasi-exile on Earth. This – for somewhat strained reasons – causes Thor’s long-lost (maybe half?) sister to reappear. In the tradition of… well, every supervillain ever, Hela embarks on a mission of conquest – specifically back to Asgard. She kicks everyone’s ass, destroys Thor’s hammer, and in the ensuing fight, he finds himself eventually taken prisoner on a faraway world. Naturally, he runs into his old pal Bruce Banner, who has been stuck in his Hulk form for over a year now.

The team-up and eventual rematch are predictable, but fun. The final confrontation isn’t as excessive and bloated as some Marvel flicks, and there’s constant humor throughout… so much so that it almost reduces the impact of some of the more consequential aspects to the plot.

It’s got energy, it’s funny, it’s light – almost too light, but it has a heavy enough villain to keep it from turning into farce. It meanders a bit, especially toward the middle third, but it ends up a fairly satisfying entry into the series.

Hits: Seriously funny dialogue, a good primary villain, pretty epic action.

Misses: Still a silly concept, almost too reliant on comedy, script could be tighter.

17.) Doctor Strange

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Arrogant wealthy genius is injured, forced to become a superhero to survive, then gradually learns how to be a better person, all while mastering his new powers. Nope, this isn’t Iron Man. But the formula is pretty much the same.

The redemption story of the snarky genius thrown into adversity is familiar. If this entry had occurred earlier in the MCU, it may have appeared fresher. On the other hand, Doctor Strange introduces filmgoers to an entirely new aspect of the Marvel universe. Most of the characters introduced up to this point in the MCU had a certain scientific underpinning, far-fetched though they may have been. Doctor Strange largely dispenses with that and jumps into pure mysticism.

The acting is solid, the characters are reasonably interesting, the plot isn’t too convoluted (though some of the dialogue is), and while the finale does suffer from some of the standard bloat that most comic book films have, it also ends with a clever confrontation with the villain, who scores countless “victories,” before realizing he’s being outwitted by a lowly human.

There are some issues. Tilda Swinton’s character was originally a Fu Manchuesque “wise Asian” stereotype in the comics – and a more faithful rendition of the original character would have been problematic in its own right. Nonetheless, when we discuss issues of representation in media, and persistent issues of whitewashing that occur even today, it seems like a glaring problem to cast a Caucasian woman in the role of an Asian man. Of course, this is made maybe a little better (and a little worse) by the fact that Swinton absolutely nails the role, and steals the movie whenever she’s on screen. Insulation through skill.

That issue aside, it is a visually stunning film that almost demands to be seen on the largest possible screen. While quite CGI-heavy, it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or distracting. The plot is pretty familiar, but with new details. It’s a good movie, but not one that elevates over some of the other films in the franchise.

Hits: Jaw-dropping special effects, smoothly-executed plot, interesting concepts.

Misses: Glaring whitewashing issue, familiar plot, so-so villain.

16.) The Incredible Hulk

This one will probably cause the most disagreement among Marvel fans. I personally consider this one to be pretty underrated. If it hadn’t been released within a couple months of The Dark Knight and Iron Man, I believe it would have made more of an impact. It certainly isn’t as good as either movie, but the second attempt to portray the Hulk on the big screen gets most things right.

So, this film is unique in that it’s definitely part of the larger universe, but also includes a handful of nods to the painfully misunderstood Ang Lee-helmed Hulk. It’s not quite a sequel, but it’s not a pure reboot, either. And it’s a bit disconnected from the main bulk of the MCU films, although Tony Stark makes an appearance at the end, helping tie the first two films of the franchise together.

The story follows Bruce Banner (now played by Ed Norton), as he’s hiding from the US government in Brazil, and attempting to figure out a cure for his condition. The opening 20 minutes or so follows Bruce as he works in a factory, learns Portuguese, flirts with a coworker, clashes with other coworkers, learns jiu jitsu, and practices meditation. It’s a relatively low key opening that I think is quite effective in establishing who Bruce is and what he’s trying to accomplish. Quiet setups like this allow us to care more about the character (are you listening, Zack Snyder?)

Eventually, the military finds him (with a nifty foot chase through a favela), leading to the first Hulk-out of the movie (and Bruce’s first in months). He finds his way back to the States, with the military tracking him. He borderline stalks his ex, Betty (who is now dating Leonard Samson), and tries to meet with a fellow scientist Samuel Sterns for help with a cure. General Thaddeus Ross recruits a British-Russian military officer named Emil Blonsky, juices him with super-soldier serum, and sends him out to confront and capture Banner. All these names make for great fan service, and the actors mostly do them justice, particularly William Hurt as Ross, and Tim Blake Nelson in a slighty off-kilter performance as Dr. Sterns (or Mr. Blue). Liv Tyler comes across as being half-asleep portraying Betty, and doesn’t get much to do.

Blonsky is nearly killed, then ends up being treated with what transformed Banner, and becomes a dark, twisted version of the Hulk. The big final fight in Harlem of all places is done quite well, and finally gives a live-action version of the Hulk a truly worthy opponent.

I know this film is considered one of the lower points of the MCU, and even I can admit its not among the best, but I truly believe it’s underappreciated. Reasonably thoughtful dialogue, good acting from most of the cast, a solid look into the torture that Bruce goes through with his transformations, and a worthy (while admittedly undermotivated) villain. It’s not the tour de force that Iron Man turned out to be, but it really was quite good. The production was apparently troubled, and star Ed Norton feuded with Marvel before finally quitting the character, being replaced by one of the original contenders, Mark Ruffalo. Interestingly, the studio wanted David Duchovny in the title role, which would have been… interesting.

Hits: Good action, solid acting and pathos, well-paced

Misses: Betty is wasted, the movie feels shoehorned into the MCU

15.) Ant Man

Stop me if you heard this one. Roguish troublemaker gets in a jam, uses an advanced high-tech suit to get out of said jam, fights corporate takeover from the eventual main villain. Film ends with vastly-more-qualified sidekick gazing wistfully at high-tech suit, vowing to be part of the action next time. Nope, this isn’t Iron Man. Just like Doctor Strange wasn’t, either.

Along with Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange, Marvel seems to be using this movie as a way to test their limits. Yes, bigger name characters could anchor a film, but what about a relatively obscure Silver Age Avenger with the power to… get really small?

Sure, why not?

For the most part it works. Paul Rudd is charming and charismatic as Scott Lang, an ex-con lured into a job as Ant-Man, a superhero with a high-tech suit that enables rapid mass change. It was previously worn by Hank Pym, a billionaire industrialist wearily played by Michael Douglas. Evangeline Lilly is excellent as Pym’s daughter, who is tasked (rather thanklessly) with training Scott to become Ant Man, when she clearly (and quite reasonably) believes she would be better suited to that role. Corey Stoll is just okay as Darren Cross, basically playing the Jeff Bridges role from Iron Man, but without near the menace or gravitas. Michael Pena, T.I., and David Dastmalchian are Scott’s old burglary crew, meeting back up to help him out. Pena in particular provides much of the comic relief of the film. He occasionally nears cartoonishness, but doesn’t quite go that far most of the time. His contributions, along with a clever script and Mr. Rudd, help provide a more light-hearted tone than we have seen in most of these entries. As a result, the movie feels a bit less consequential, but Rudd, Lilly, and Douglas all do an admirable job keeping it grounded. Well, as grounded as a movie about shrinking superheroes can get.

Hits: Paul Rudd, fun set pieces, good sense of humor.

Misses: Fairly weak villain, feels almost too breezy.

14.) Captain America: The First Avenger

The first time I saw this movie, I enjoyed it, but left feeling a bit underwhelmed. However, after repeat viewing, especially after having seen Cap portrayed in four (kind of six) other MCU flicks, I think it looks better.

This is a fairly straight-forward origin story, and almost entirely takes place during World War II. Chris Evans is Steve Rogers, a small, frail kid from Brooklyn with a good heart and an unwavering code of honor and morals. He wants nothing more than to serve his country and fight the Nazis, to the point of lying to pass the physical exams. His best friend Bucky is already in the Army, and serving with distinction. Bucky is everything Steve wants to be; a big, athletic, charismatic ladies man. In his desperation to join, Steve agrees to an experimental procedure, in order to be able to enlist. Despite skepticism from military leaders, Steve’s selflessness and leadership potential make him the best choice to undergo a treatment to make him a “Super-Soldier.” Predictably, bad guys intervene, and disrupt the proceedings while Steve undergoes a transformation to make him the physical pinnacle of human potential. Steve’s transformation is successful, but the formula is lost, and since Steve is the only super soldier, he’s deemed kind of useless. So he spends a large chunk of the movie as a mascot for the Army, touring with the USO, and promoting war bonds as “Captain America,” a largely unfulfilling performance role.

That part of the movie is interesting to me. Turning Steve into the ultimate physical badass, then frustrating him by making him a figurehead at best helped demonstrate not just the importance of teamwork during war, but helped the character progress in a less-predictable way.

How does one make a basically ideal person interesting? Someone with completely honest and pure motives needs to have his ideals challenged, and to have his sense of duty blocked – by circumstance, or conflict, or both. And for the most part, Captain America does a good job of this.

Eventually, Steve gets his chance to see real action, where he naturally thrives, leading a group of veteran soldiers into battle in Europe, meeting (and then losing) Bucky, discovering the first man to undergo a less-successful version of his super-soldier treatment, and eventually sacrificing himself to save the day. There are clear tie-ins with the larger MCU, and a solid coda where Steve discovers that he’s still alive – but it’s now 2011.

When I first saw the movie, I thought there wasn’t enough development of his skills as a soldier and combatant, and we didn’t get to see enough action with Steve as Captain America. And even now, I do feel like that aspect was under-developed. But the more I consider how the Army utilized him, and how Steve’s moral compass was frustrated by his predicament, the more I found myself liking the choices made.

As an origin story, as a period piece, as a war movie, as a morality tale, the movie works. It’s not perfect, and its not deep, but its a good story with a good lead, and a very good supporting cast, particularly Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, who would go to her own (highly underrated) MCU series.

Hits: Great cast, good WWII atmosphere, works as both standalone film and a piece of a larger whole.

Misses: Villain is so-so (typical for MCU), not enough time spent as Cap

13.) Ant Man and The Wasp

For years, conventional cinematic wisdom held that sequels were inevitably inferior to their predecessors. While notable exceptions existed (Godfather II, Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II), they were notable due to their rarity.

So, it’s been interesting to see that within the various sub-franchises in the larger MCU, sequels tend to be better than the first installments. At least, some of them.

Ant Man and the Wasp fits this trend well. Its predecessor was a fairly light-hearted adventure story, with less intense themes compared with some of the other installments in the MCU canon. This installment enjoys much of the same jokey tone as the first one… but the dark points are a little darker and the stakes feel just a bit higher. Also, Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne (the Wasp), is freed up to be the badass only hinted at the first time around.

It starts off with former Ant-Man Scott Lang nearing the end of his house arrest – a punishment induced by his role in assisting Captain America two years earlier during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Part of his punishment includes being forbidden to contact his former mentor Hank Pym, who, along with his daughter (and now the Wasp), is a fugitive in his own right.

But a strange dream/vision hits Scott, and he believes he has connected with Janet van Dyne, Hank’s wife believed lost in the “quantum realm” during a semi-botched mission decades earlier. This vision prompts him to contact Hank, who ends up dragging Scott into his own mission to try to rescue his possibly-stranded wife.

Scott has to dodge his parole officer, remain in the good graces of his ex-wife and her husband, and once again suit up as Ant Man, despite being in the doghouse of both Hank and Hope. Meanwhile, his sidekicks from the first one are back, still in largely broad comedic form. Now, they have a fledgling security business they’re on the verge of losing, and a plot arc that intertwines well with the larger plot.

Further complicating matters are a former colleague of Hank’s (Laurence Fishburne, classing up the place), and a mystery villain with the ability to phase in and out of matter. Walt Goggins is charming and smarmy as a crooked businessman after Hank’s tech.

The movie is essentially a race to find Janet, while dodging cops, crooks, old cronies, and a new super-powered character. It’s fast-paced, the action scenes are inventive and entertaining as hell, and Evangeline Lilly in particular gets a chance to really shine, after being relegated to a disgruntled background role the last time around.

Some of the tone shifts feel abrupt, transitioning from humor to pathos too quickly. And there are some odd plot holes that seem to be acknowledged and then immediately shoved aside (just how does one survive for 25 years in a subatomic world, not to mention remain sane through the process?).

But those quibbles aside, Ant Man and the Wasp made for a solid and fun summer action movie. It made for a welcome change of pace from the relentlessly dark Infinity War (while tying in with that film). Like the first one, the humor is generally clever while occasionally skirting the “too broad” line. The action is exciting, and makes superb use of shrinking/growing – even if the physics behind the transformations is a little murky.

Hits: Exciting, creative, often hilarious.

Misses: Some glaring plot holes, jarring tone shifts.

12.) Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel was faced with unreasonably high expectations well before it was released. The fact that it’s the first MCU film with a female lead in a climate where bigoted internet trolls delight in trashing films for the temerity of not exclusively featuring white men, created a steep hill to climb. So, like Black Panther (and Wonder Woman over in the DCEU) before it, Captain Marvel needed to be legitimately great, or at least very good, in order to satisfy a large segment of moviegoers.

Does it succeed?

Yeah. Mostly. It’s pretty solid. Captain Marvel isn’t as good as either Black Panther or Wonder Woman, but it tells a decent origin story, has some fun moments, some really good performances, some nice fan service, and is visually stunning. The women’s empowerment aspect that has received so much attention is actually fairly subtle, but it is there. It’s there in a way that also serves the story. The movie is about a woman, there are references to everyday societal sexism, and the strongest and most important relationship in the film is between two women (and a girl). And those aspects are certainly important. But if that’s all one is watching for – as either a supporter or detractor, then one is missing quite a bit.

The basic gist – Vers is a member of the Kree military. The Kree, if you haven’t been watching any of these other movies, will likely be gibberish to you, but then why did you get this far in the first place? But in case you want to know, they’re an interstellar power with a lot of enemies, including a shapeshifting species called the Skrulls. She’s not one of them, doesn’t have any memories more than a few years back, and has vaguely defined super powers that she’s gradually learning to wield. Then a mission takes her to a backwater planet called Earth, where everyone looks kind of like her, and she runs into some government authorities who end up helping her along the way. Of course, it turns out she’s actually returned home, and she’s really a human Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers.

I’d recommend viewing the movie to get more detail than that. It’s fun watching a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg play younger versions of Nick Fury and Phil Coulson. Jude Law is decent as her Kree mentor, Ben Mendelsohn works well under a ton of prosthetics as the Skrull leader, and Lashana Lynch is arguably the best part of the movie as Vers/Carol’s former best friend Maria. Well, the cat is pretty great, too. The film has some clunky pacing at times, and many of the notes have been done approximately 21 times before. I wouldn’t call the movie stale, but there’s an inherent risk of repetition in a franchise with nearly two dozen entries. And Annette Bening feels wasted as Vers/Carol’s sort of mentor. There’s potential there, but it feels like she’s only given enough to do to advance the plot.

There has been quite a bit of criticism about the lead character’s relative emotional blankness. While there’s a ring of truth in the observation, it’s also fair to note that the whole point of the character (at first) is that she’s had 3/4 of her life’s memories suppressed. Of course she’s a bit of a blank slate – she can only remember five or six years back! It’s that search for what happened before that enables her arc. And for the most part, it works.

Hits: Well constructed character arc, great supporting performances, spectacular visuals

Misses: The screenplay could be a bit tighter, a few wasted characters

11.) Spider-Man: Homecoming

The second reboot of Spider-Man in just a decade, Spider-Man: Homecoming avoids some of the pitfalls suffered by the Andrew Garfield reboot by not rehashing the origin story we all know so well. In this film, Peter Parker is still a teenager, but he’s now part of a larger universe, and he’s already been in action for a while. At least for a few months, anyway. He’s young (obviously), impatient, and a bit reckless. Played with considerable likeability and amusing naivete by Tom Holland, Peter feels like he’s being held back by his superhero mentor and benefactor, Tony Stark. And he’s not wrong. The movie does a great job showing the frustration and impatience of a teenager with great power and a still-developing sense of responsibility.

Moreso than the prior Spider-Man films, this captures the lives of teenagers in a (mostly) realistic and often quite funny way. The classic Spider-Man problems of finding balance with his personal life, his school life, and his superhero life are done well, and Michael Keaton is terrific as a reasonably believable and sympathetic villain.

Spider-Man: Homecoming ties in well with the larger MCU, but is also clearly meant to stand on its own, existing just a bit separately from the bulk of the larger continuity. It’s fun, energetic, witty, and has an engaging cast. The pacing is a bit inconsistent, and there’s a feeling that a good ten minutes could be trimmed from the runtime. Overall, it’s a solid outing, and is probably now my second favorite Spider-Man film (after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2).

Hits: Likable cast, good humor, one of the better villains

Misses: Could stand tighter pacing

10.) Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

I waffled on where to place the two Guardians films. They are both fun, action-oriented science fiction films with an underlying theme of family. I could very well change my mind the next time I see this one and place it above the original, but for now, GOTG2 goes here.

Despite being a big-budget blockbuster with massive space battles and huge setpieces, it almost feels like a smaller film. Mixed in with the action are long discussions of family and belonging. There’s quite a bit of good character development, and the chemistry developed in the first one continues to improve.

Guardians 2 isn’t paced quite as well as its predecessor, and I generally enjoyed the team origin story a little better than their continuing adventure, but this is a very solid film that actually improved upon the characterization of the first one. Kurt Russell’s Ego and Michael Rooker’s Yondu were served particularly well by the story.

Hits: Excellent character stuff, good dialogue, laudable commitment to themes of family

Misses: Inconsistent pacing, sometimes tries too hard to make us laugh

9.) The Avengers: Age of Ultron

There is a scene halfway through Age of Ultron where the movie slows down, and we are treated to an extended sequence on Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) hidden farm, where the Avengers regroup and lick their wounds. It acts as a sudden departure in tone from where the movie had been, but the shift works. We get to see development from pretty much every character on the team, which in turn allows us to better appreciate and empathize with them. We become invested in their outcomes, because we are given a sense of who they are. So then later events, including death and major trauma, become more impactful. And that is the big difference between the MCU and Zack Snyder’s DCEU. Concentrating on the humanity of these demigods pays off later, rather than leaping from scene to scene, searching for the next iconic moment to film in slow motion.

There are plenty of excellent character moments scattered throughout the film, that not only help keep most members of the massive cast growing as characters, but also make us care what happens to them. Of course, the biggest trauma ends up happening to one of the least developed main characters. And that ties into the biggest problem with the film – too much is happening. There are too many characters, too many scenes, too much plot development shoehorned into one movie. Much of that is necessary, as the Avengers movies tend to be used as the payoff to all the development of the prior series (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and so on). Joss Whedon had a thankless job in many ways, trying to create a successful followup to one of the greatest superhero films ever, and trying to tie together a million plot threads and character arcs. It’s no surprise that making this movie basically broke him.

And despite all of that, to my eyes, this movie works. Despite the huge cast, most of the characters had plenty to do. The quieter moments were all pretty much perfect. The individual setpieces were often spectacular. And despite some critical complaints, I thought James Spader’s Ultron was a damn good villain. Yeah, his motivation could have been fleshed out a bit more, but he proved to be a challenge for our heroes, and was portrayed with both menace and humor.

Age of Ultron was a bit sloppier than the first Avengers, and bit overstuffed. But so much of it worked. Great character work abounded. And it was frequently a visual joy to watch.

Hits: Character development, action scenes, clever introduction to Vision

Misses: Too much going on to keep the plot moving smoothly

8.) Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy was an example of Marvel taking a risk, throwing an out-of-left-field idea out there and seeing if it would work. And by and large, it worked better than anyone could have expected. Officially based on a relatively obscure comic from the ’70s, Guardians is what happens when a studio tries to make an Avengers and Star Wars mash up, mixes in a great ’70s pop soundtrack, throws in far more humor than almost any other recent comic book adaptation, shakes it up, and sees what happens.

The main characters all receive compelling backstories, the action is exciting, and the plot moves along quite nicely. The dialogue suffers from a bit too much technobabble, and there are a few points where they seemed to try too hard to squeeze in a joke (or several). And in the recent Marvel tradition, the villains are rather underdeveloped. We know they want power, and one of them wants to kill her sister… but we aren’t really given much reason to care. But overall, this was not just a fun surprise – it was a shock to see such goofy, obscure source material work so well on the big screen. Guardians of the Galaxy showed what could happen when Marvel decided to take a risk. They swung for the fences, and hit the ball all the way to Xandar.

Hits: Great lead characters, spectacular visuals, great soundtrack

Misses: Yet another set of weak villains, Star Trek Voyager levels of expository technobabble

7.) Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is officially the third Captain America movie, but it could arguably be considered the third Avengers movie, too. Loosely based on the “Civil War” plotline from the comics, it acts as a followup to basically every big event that occurred in the MCU up to that point. Consequences are a major theme of this film. Some science fiction and action movies have failed to demonstrate the effects of huge battles that lay waste to cities. In those films, collateral damage is often merely used as eye candy, not as a reason to discuss issues of control and fallibility.

In Civil War, the effects of the previous films is what gets the plot moving. A fight with a former SHIELD agent in Africa kills a building full of innocents. The US government (along with the UN), bring up the reasonable point that these massively powerful people are largely unregulated and unsupervised, and in several cases, untrained. Perhaps some supervision would be wise, they argue.

The film does a good job presenting the pro-superhero-regulation argument fairly and thoughtfully – but this movie is still about Captain America and why he thinks answering to the United Nations is bullshit.

Personally, I still think Iron Man has a better argument, but Cap is cooler… which is weird to say. But he is. And this whole movie – while presenting thoughtful moral dilemmas – is really about the airport scene. About 2/3 of the way through, a massive fight between every member of the Avengers (minus the two who could single-handedly turn the course of the fight) completely takes over the film. And what a battle it is. Every character gets something to do. There’s humor, pathos, and amazing action. It may feel a bit like fan fiction – but it’s really GOOD fan fiction.

Hits: One of the best movie fight scenes ever, a legitimate discussion of superhero collateral damage (you listening DC?)

Misses: There are a lot of characters here, and some are underdeveloped

6.) The Avengers

The Avengers was the culmination of what was known as “Phase One” of the MCU. Iron Man, Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America set it up, and The Avengers tied it all together.

And it was a near-masterpiece.

A mysterious… cube thing called the Tesseract is… well, not quite a Macguffin, but also not really the point. But it does help get the ball rolling as Thor’s asshole brother Loki agrees to steal it from Earth in exchange for an alien army that he’ll use to invade Earth.

Bear with me here, it still turns out great.

Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, puts together all of the most powerful people he can find into a team to fight Loki and his soon-to-arrive army. And that’s pretty much it. The final 40 minutes or so involve the invasion and the team finally putting their squabbles aside to repel it. Joss Whedon wrote and directed it, and it’s definitely the Buffy creator at the absolute peak of his powers. The dialogue is sharp and clever, and the plot manages to work despite a weak opening 20 minutes and a blue sky beam finale. It puts together the characters developed (rather unevenly) in prior installments in a way that makes sense.

And that final action sequence – yeah, it’s heavy on excessive collateral damage, it’s full of easily dispatched, disposable infantry, and again, it ends in a blue sky beam… but great dialogue, solid directing, and well-developed characters enable it all to work.

The Avengers could easily have been a mess, but instead, it’s one of the best superhero films ever made.

Hits: Action, humor, characterization, dialogue, Loki!

Misses: Tropey ending

5.) Iron Man

This is where it all began. Tony Stark snarked his way into the public imagination, and made the idea of a “cinematic universe” feasible. Everything that happened since only happened because this movie was both a critical and commercial success.

Robert Downey Jr is perfectly cast as Tony Stark, a youngish gazillionaire industrialist celebrity who is a Bill Gates with sex appeal merged with Howard Hughes, minus 90% of the emotional issues. He’s all wit and ego and brilliance. He happily parties, drinks, schmoozes with celebrities and the military, and, oh yes, builds weapons for that military. While demonstrating his newest toy in Afghanistan, Stark is captured by a fairly generic terrorist organization. He’s badly injured, and forced to recreate his new weapon for the group, while trying not to die in a cave.

The original comic had pretty much the same origin story, except it was in Vietnam. Updated times, same old story. Anyway, Tony decides to use his brilliant mind to do something different. He builds a suit of armor powered by a miniaturized fusion reactor (basically), and fights his way to freedom.

Seeing his weapons used by terrorists in bloody conflicts halfway around the world causes an epiphany. Tony decides to rebuild his suit of armor, this time sleeker and shinier, and uses it to do good – primarily by ridding the world of his weapons. At the same time, as the official head of his company, he has decided to change its focus away from weapons, which doesn’t sit too well with his number two man, a surprisingly menacing Jeff Bridges.

Bridges plays Obadiah Stane (I love these names), who figures out what Tony is doing with his spare time, and ends up stealing the reactor that’s keeping Tony alive from those wounds incurred back in Afghanistan. He builds his own suit of armor, and we get the inevitable final confrontation.

I’ve seen some rankings where Iron Man is acknowledged as the MCU OG, but then demoted, arguing it doesn’t hold up all that well anymore. I can’t get behind that. I think this flick is still one of the very best superhero films ever made. The dialogue is still sharp, the plot is well-executed, the villain is underrated, and Robert Downey Jr owns every inch of the screen for every second he’s on it. This film was released around the same time as The Dark Knight, and while it’s very different in tone and style, I think it’s just as well-made, and probably more entertaining.

Hits: RDJ, great villain, great character arc for Stark, well-written

Misses: Not much… maybe the terrorists come a bit too close to stereotype for comfort.

4.) Avengers: Infinity War

Well, here we have it… the culmination of 19 films stretched over 10 years, with dozens of characters and plot threads that eventually wound their way to this point. A movie like this can only be pulled off if the world building and character development leading up to it has been executed thoughtfully and carefully. We need to care about these characters, and about the world(s) they inhabit. And then, if that hurdle has been cleared, the movie itself needs to be able to tie up these ends in a worthwhile manner.

I can say that the first step has definitely been accomplished, especially in the larger sense. The fact that these movies warrant rankings and retrospectives is proof that the world has been developed successfully.

As for the second requirement – I can say that Infinity War does succeed, but with a few caveats. Most of the film’s flaws are structural and almost impossible to avoid. The MCU has already had three good-sized crossover events, but this one was the film to tie all of the other elements together, including characters and threads introduced in the other big crossovers. Melding these threads in a satisfactory manner without neglecting certain characters and ideas was next to impossible. Indeed, a handful of characters don’t even make the film (Ant Man, Wasp, Hawkeye, Valkyrie), and a few others don’t have much to do. Thor, Doctor Strange, and Iron Man seem to have the most going on, with strong support from Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Nebula, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Gamora.  Everyone else is just there for a few lines and some punching. So distribution is uneven, but some of that may have been intentional.

Part of the problem is that this movie was set up as the first part of a two-parter, and much of its success rides on the success of the sequel. We’ve seen plenty of situations where that sort of gamble failed – would we have looked at Matrix Reloaded more kindly if Matrix Revolutions wasn’t such a mess?  Of course, Infinity War is a far stronger movie than either of The Matrix sequels, but it’s still difficult to gauge on its own without knowing what happens next – since it is directly tied to a sequel. As it currently stands, it feels incomplete as a standalone movie, which is the primary reason it doesn’t vault to number 1 on my list. That said, it speaks highly of the positive aspects of the film that it still deserves consideration for the best of the MCU. Indeed, I struggled exactly where to place it, considering all spots from 1 through 5. If it weren’t set up as a cliffhanger reliant on another film to resolve the plot, then it may have even been better than 1 and 2 on my list.

As for the good stuff – there’s plenty. As I mentioned, it does ably tie together dozens of threads and ideas. It creates interesting team-ups between characters who’ve seldom or never interacted before. And it gives us the backstory to what may be the most complex and interesting villain in the MCU. Certainly the most formidable. Early in the film, the single most powerful character – the Hulk – goes toe to toe with Josh Brolin’s Thanos – and is beaten to a pulp in seconds. This helps set the tone early that this threat is a serious one. From then on, it becomes a race between Thanos and the heroes of Earth (and a few other planets) to prevent Thanos from acquiring plot devices – er, Infinity Stones – from earlier films, and obtaining his true goal. We gain insight into his backstory with Gamora and Nebula from the Guardians of the Galaxy films, and while his side is never presented as “the good” side, his motivations come from an understandable place. It’s the conflict between the pragmatism of Thanos and the “we don’t trade lives” mentality of the painfully noble Steve Rogers that really makes this film.

The very best MCU films had a moral or philosophical debate at their core. They were “about” something deeper than strong people punching each other. Black Panther contained musings about race and class, as well as debates about isolationism, imperialism, and glasnost. Avengers: Age of Ultron discussed hubris and scientific overreach. Captain America: Civil War debated the need for government oversight and public accountability. Captain America: The Winter Soldier argued over the excesses of the national security state. The conclusions were not always clear, and the debates were sometimes unsubtle, but the discussions were definitely there.

That’s where Infinity War joins the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This Vox article summarized the debate quite well, but in short, it’s Kant versus Bentham. The Kantian ethos of unwavering moral principles versus utilitarianism. Thanos has seized on the idea that sacrificing half the population of the universe will end up improving the quality of life for everyone else. The heroes of the story obviously oppose this idea, but the “leader” of at least one segment of the Avengers – Captain America – goes to the opposite end of the spectrum – no lives shall be sacrificed, even for the greater good. I have the feeling he’s not counting himself in this equation, which may be a major plot point with Avengers 4 – but that’s another discussion. Infinity War doesn’t discuss the philosophy in such explicit terms, but the ideas are there. And it’s quite fascinating.

Avengers: Infinity War handles a nearly impossible task about as well as it can. It shoehorns in almost every character that matters, it has the most impressive villain in the series, it sets up the inevitable sequel, and it’s forced to neglect some of the other major characters in the process. It manages to be the bleakest Marvel film to date, but with plenty of humor and wit woven throughout the pain. Its structural limitations prevent it from being the number 1 on this list, but everything else is so good that its still close.

Hits: Best MCU villain yet, real emotional and physical stakes, epic scope, dazzling action

Misses: Necessary short-shrift for some characters, feels incomplete.

3.) Black Panther

Believe the hype. This is a damn good movie. Black Panther was released with enormous expectations, and by and large, it delivers. Most of the film takes place just weeks after the events of Captain America: Civil War, but there are also flashbacks to 1992, and to thousands of years ago, during an inventive animated opening sequence.

Black Panther manages to juggle so many concepts – race relations (in the United States, but also in Africa, and around the globe), international politics, imperialism, technological advancement, vengeance, justice, and honor. But it is also a superhero movie that has to fit within a larger universe. And then, it’s also an introduction to Wakanda – a nation that the prior MCU films hinted at and referenced, but we now get to see in its full glory.

Following up on the events of Civil War,  T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, the recently-assassinated King of Wakanda, returns home to take the mantle of leadership, There’s so much to cover here, that in this short capsule I cannot properly do it justice. But there are debates at home, where Wakanda has been in self-imposed isolation from the world, enjoying social and technological advancement decades ahead of the rest of the world (maybe save for Stark and SHIELD, but that’s a whole different discussion). T’Challa wants to use their advancements to help the other nations around the globe. Others in Wakanda want to remain isolated, and still more want to give the imperialists and colonizers around the world a taste of their own medicine. It’s thoughtful, nuanced debate, and it continues when the villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens shows up. He’s T’Challa’s cousin, raised in California, trained as a special forces soldier, and brought up to believe that people of African descent around the world should directly benefit from Wakandan technology, and use it… well, it ends up being for conquest, although justified in terms of liberation. His origin and beliefs are complex and sympathetic, and his mission is highly personal, which are the essential ingredients for a great villain. As far as he’s concerned, he’s the hero. It also helps that Michael B. Jordan does an excellent job with the role, making for a fun contrast with the serene and wise-beyond-his years air of Chadwick Boseman, in the title role.

I also shouldn’t fail to mention the group of women who make these adventures possible. Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, a Wakandan spy (and T’Challa’s ex), Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of the Wakandan elite security forces, and Letitia Wright as Shuri, who is basically Q from the Bond movies and Tony Stark rolled into one – she designs the technologies that help make Wakanda such a paradise, and also happens to be T’Challa’s younger sister. Angela Bassett also plays a key role as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother. All are interesting, well-developed characters that are important to the story. Not one is there to be saved by the male heroes, and indeed, the reverse happens more than once.

I had some trouble deciding exactly where to place this. It is truly an excellent movie even without the deeper themes… but those deeper themes are what elevates it above most other Marvel fare – even some of the really good ones. I ended up placing it just above Iron Man, because while they both involved a scion of technological advancement coming to terms with the role of that advancement in the larger world – Black Panther went deeper.

It’s not a flawless film, but sort of like the only MCU film I ranked above it (and the one below), the nitpicks were just that – nitpicks. Minor issues only. The pacing was a little rough during the final third, and some of the action sequences suffered from the same quasi-weightlessness that has bedeviled CGI action for years. Also, the big reveal at the Jabari mountain felt a little too easy. But other than those minor quibbles, this was about as good as it could possibly be.

Hits: Excellent direction, superb performances, more nuanced themes than most superhero movies, gorgeous scenery, one of the two or three best MCU villains ever.

Misses: Very little. Slightly bloated final act, odd physics in some action scenes.

2.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Here we go. The number one movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe… until I had to demote it in May 2019. You’ll see why in the next one, but for now, this is still one of the best.

Where “Captain America: The First Avenger was a period piece and war movie, “Winter Soldier” is a spy movie mixed with a heavy dose of political thriller. It’s smart, thoughtful, and exciting. It continues Steve Rogers’ character arc, and continues the feat the first installment pulled off – making a nearly ideal person interesting.

It’s been over a year since the events of The Avengers, and about three years since he became Unfrozen Super Soldier. Captain America is now an agent of SHIELD, commanding teams around the world, kicking ass, taking names, and slowly feeling more and more disillusioned with being a part of the modern national security state. He works with Natasha Romanoff, who is the Black Widow from Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. She develops well as a character here, both on her own merits, and in her friendship with Steve. She’s more jaded than he is, but her outlook is rubbing off on him. And she is clearly charmed by his honesty and decency. Also joining the team is Sam Wilson, a former paratrooper who has access to a winged jet pack that has all sorts of fancy toys on it… basically he’s Iron Man without the armor.

Then the plot gets going. SHIELD falls apart from within, while Cap tracks a mysterious operative with a metal arm who seems to be as fast and strong as Cap himself. Nick Fury is apparently assassinated after a fun car chase through Washington DC. The coup within SHIELD is a long time coming, it seems, and Fury’s boss is behind it. Robert Redford is excellent as Alexander Pearce, a government bureaucrat who’s been a bad guy all along.

Eventually, Cap is able to connect the upheaval at SHIELD with the metal armed operative, who turns out to be his brainwashed best friend, Bucky. A slightly convoluted scheme involving a new kind of helicarrier is put into motion, and it’s tremendously exciting watching Steve, Natasha, and Sam work together to try to foil it. The movie moves right along, and doesn’t feel like there’s much fat on it, despite its 136 minute runtime. There are some rather convenient moments for our heroes, and the takeover of SHIELD was never set up by prior films, but otherwise, this is superbly crafted film. It’s serious, dark, and cynical, but with enough humor to keep it from becoming bleak.

Hits: Chris Evans is excellent, the action is fast, but filmed clearly – not too many Bourne-style quick cuts. Compelling villains, good chemistry between the leads, and a mature tone for a comic book movie.

Misses: Not much. The SHIELD collapse kind of came out of nowhere, and the Strucker reveal was a bit far-fetched, but otherwise, there was little wrong here.

1.) Avengers: Endgame

I struggled more with where to place this one than any other film on this list. I struggled an embarrassingly long time considering these aren’t exactly issues of war and peace. I’m just one nerd obsessively ranking comic book movies. It’s not that deep. Well, until it is that deep. After viewing the 21 movies that led up to this one, it’s pretty easy to become emotionally invested in many of these characters. And how this movie handled that investment is (mostly) why it takes the top spot.

Okay, so this one picks up just a few weeks after the events of Avengers: Infinity War. Thanos managed to obtain all of the Infinity Stones, snapped his fingers, and eliminated 50% of all life in the universe. And he left the survivors to pick up the pieces. Captain Marvel shows up, having answered Nick Fury’s cosmic page from the after credits sequence of Infinity War. She helps spur the remaining Avengers on to finding Thanos, taking the Infinity Stones back, and undoing The Snap. Except that when they find Thanos, he’s destroyed the stones so they can never be used again. His demise shortly after is decidedly unsatisfying – which is the point. There’s no undoing what Thanos did, and the survivors just have to live with it.

All this happens quite early in the film. Afterward, we catch up with the remaining Avengers… five years later. Yeah, they went all-in on The Snap. Half of life in the universe is gone, and everyone has to live with the consequences of that. It’s clear for anyone paying attention that at least most of the “snapped” heroes will return, but it’s a credit to screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely that they can subvert audience expectations and not make resolution easy.

We spend a great deal of time with the survivors, letting them deal with the aftermath of a world-shaking event. Eventually, Ant-Man appears, having spent a couple hours (from his point of view) in the Quantum Realm, completely missing out on the events of Infinity War. He shocks the remaining Avengers with his return, but they quickly figure out that his stint in the Quantum Realm (amazing how terms like that can be made to seem almost not ridiculous) can provide a road map to practical time travel. They figure they can travel back in time to prevent Thanos from using the Infinity Stones, or at least using the stones to undo The Snap. They take their idea to Tony Stark, who probably had the best post-Snap life. He now has a young daughter and a relatively idyllic family life with Pepper Potts. He’s not so keen on helping his former teammates undo the last five years, which have worked out well for him. So they go to Bruce Banner, who has also forged a pretty solid life for himself, figuring out how to integrate his mind and humanity into the body of the Hulk. He’s more willing to help, but can’t quite figure out how to use Ant Man’s tech to time travel on his own. Tony has an epiphany of sorts, and ends up helping after all. The team (mostly) gets back together, and we enjoy a fun sci-fi caper they amusingly dub “the time heist.”

The team splits up, using the Quantum Realm to travel back to different points in time – mostly corresponding with events from past MCU films. We see the events of The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor 2, but from new perspectives. It’s all immensely inventive, entertaining, and also somewhat heartbreaking at times. Eventually the team gets their hands on past versions of the Stones, and brings them back to 2024. In the course of this, Black Widow loses her life, and the 2014 version of Thanos catches wind of their plot. He brings his army to Earth, where they have a final showdown against the Avengers, who have managed to Snap the missing back to life – albeit five years after they disappeared.

What transpires next is arguably the most exciting half hour in the entire MCU canon. Pretty much everyone gets a big moment, Thanos is defeated, the good guys return (mostly), and Tony Stark sacrifices himself in the best possible way.

This film is number one on my list because it manages to tie 21 movies together in a way that satisfies 90% of the possible character arcs, leaves open further adventures for many of them, and provides a deeply satisfying end to Iron Man and Captain America – one via heroic death, and for the latter – a second chance at the life he always wanted.

Despite the three hour (!) runtime, Endgame never feels slow or bloated. Some characters do get short shrift, but this was meant to be a sendoff for the original six Avengers, and only one of them feels slighted by the results. I still think it would have been more fitting to kill off Hawkeye instead of Black Widow. The tragedy of his post-Snap life, and the return of his family at the end would have been made more impactful by his death. And truthfully, it feels like Nat always deserved better. It would have been nice to see her relatively obscure toiling throughout the series finally rewarded in the end.

The time travel itself gets a bit convoluted, and while there are some attempts at waving away the inherent issues with potential paradoxes and alternate timelines; it’s best not to focus too much on the details. The whole thing unravels if one tugs too hard on the threads. It’s not quite as messy as the Terminator franchise or the first two seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise, but it really is best not to dwell overly long on it.

This movie ranks number one for me in spite of the resolution of Hawkeye and Black Widow, and even with the awkward time-travel problems. Even with those issues, it managed to tie together an enormous, decade long franchise that spanned something like 50 hours of film. It was full of fan service, but none of it felt cheap. They had earned it. Remember when I praised the farmhouse scenes of Age of Ultron, because they helped us care more about these characters? Well, that made the payoff of Endgame all the richer. And I will also mention that I actually cheered a little – as did the whole theater – when Captain America picked up Thor’s hammer. It was a moment of badass triumph – but it was also a nod to an earlier film, and an acknowledgement that Steve was worthy. And so were the fans for sticking it out. Thor’s “I knew it!” as Steve bashes Thanos with Mjolnir alone is worth a top five spot for me.

Avengers: Endgame only works because of the work of the prior films in the franchise. It may not be the absolute best film by itself, but as a finale for the first decade of the MCU, it ties everything together with more emotional and visceral heft than I could have hoped. In a vacuum it may not quite be number one, but as the endgame – ahem – of these films, it rises to the top.

Hits: An emotionally satisfying conclusion to a massive series of plots and characters, the best action sequence in the entire series, thoughtful consequences, and well-earned fan service.

Misses: Black Widow’s arc ended in disappointing fashion, and the time travel never completely makes sense.

So there you have it. Until  Spider-Man: Far From Home is released later year, this is it for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m sure there will be many who don’t agree with me… indeed, my list varies from several of these others. But I know what I like, and I believe I’ve supported my positions.

Now, I suppose I should get back to the real world. Well, maybe after I watch Winter Soldier one more time…







Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies Ranked — From Worst to Best



Posted in Entertainment | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Guess Women Are People?

Normally, when I’m asked for my opinion on the topic of abortion, I usually just respond with something along the lines of “My opinion is irrelevant, because I can’t have one. I don’t get a say. I’m not capable of getting pregnant.

Something like that.

Generally, that feels like the right answer. The problem is that it’s an easy, privileged stance to take. Abortion laws will never affect me directly. I can afford to sit out the argument. And I will admit, I frequently use that rationale specifically in order to avoid an argument.

I don’t relish confrontation on topics that elicit strong emotions. I will still engage in confrontation if I feel it’s necessary, but I try to avoid it when possible.

The thing is, it really isn’t possible anymore. Not if I value basic human decency.

In the past few months, several states have begun debating and passing laws that restrict, or even ban abortion outright.

  • Ohio, which has already dabbled in gradually more draconian restrictions on women’s bodily autonomy, passed a law in April that forbids abortions after a fetal “heartbeat” is detected, which usually occurs around the five or six week mark. This is well before many women even know they’re pregnant. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. This law gained quite a bit of attention due to the plight of an eleven-year-old child in Ohio who was raped repeatedly and impregnated by an adult man, but would be prohibited from seeking an abortion under this state law.
  • The governor of Georgia recently signed a similar law, although that version does include the rape and incest exceptions.
  • Kentucky and Mississippi passed identical laws in the last few months. Iowa passed their anti-woman law a year ago.
  • Alabama, always innovators, decided to forgo state legislature rules while ramming a near-total abortion ban through. This one makes exceptions only for certain medical situations. Not content with merely oppressing women in need, the law also included provisions that would punish abortion providers with up to 99 years in prison. That part managed to offend the likes of Pat Robertson and Tomi Lahren, two individuals rarely concerned with basic human rights.
  • My home state decided to embarrass itself once more by passing an eight week abortion ban, which will almost certainly be signed by the governor in the very near future.

So, it looks like a bunch of places run by Republicans have decided that now is a really good time to tell women they aren’t legally allowed to make decisions about their own bodies. And it appears the true goal is to spark a legal challenge to one or more of these laws, in order to force them through the courts all the way up to the Supreme Court, so we can eventually see a fresh challenge to the precedent set by Roe v. Wade 46 years ago. With the recent additions of anti-abortion hardliners Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the high court, abortion opponents like their odds in the upcoming battle.

That’s what’s been happening. This leads to a few, slightly scattered thoughts of my own:

  • Life begins at conception” has always struck me as a somewhat inane argument. By “life,” what exactly are we referring to? We certainly aren’t talking about human life. When an egg is fertilized, one of several scenarios can occur – only one of which eventually leads to a fully-formed human. At the magic six week “heartbeat” point, the embryo is smaller than a pea, and is visually identical to a similarly-matured chicken embryo.  Humans, it should be noted, eat quite a few chickens. Chickens also have hearts, which doesn’t seem to prevent their consumption. Okay, I’m getting off track here…
  • As noted above, many women have no clue that they’re pregnant after six weeks. The time between periods fluctuates, sometimes pretty widely, and having a period two weeks late without being pregnant is hardly a record.
  • The point of practical fetus viability doesn’t happen until 24 weeks or so into a pregnancy, and even then, it’s a less-than-even proposition until closer to 27 weeks.
  • According to the CDC, 91% of abortions are performed in the first trimester, which ends at 13 weeks. This is still during the “it might only be a chicken” phase of development. Second and third trimester abortions usually occur due to medical emergencies.
  • A six, eight, or even thirteen week old embryo is not a human being. It could become one, given the right circumstances. But that collection of cells is not imbued with some mystic personhood that grants it autonomy over the human person it happens to being growing in.

The people who describe abortion as “murdering babies” simply don’t have the facts right. Those same people often claim to be motivated by their religious belief, and in the United States, that usually (though not always) means Christianity. Of course, the Bible doesn’t say a thing about abortion. But it does heartily endorse a death penalty for people who… checks notes… commit adultery, curse their parents, let their ox wander free, work on the Sabbath, become a female sorcerer, blaspheme, and engage in fortune telling/astrology.

So, it seems difficult to take Biblical justification seriously on this, or any other modern issue. Of course, the First Amendment also has something to say about religious justification for law, as much as that pains Christian conservatives to hear.

By the way, I’d love to meet a female sorcerer. Sounds badass.

But all this talk is just ignoring the real point. Women in America are people. They are people, and they should enjoy the same right to control their own bodies as men (also people) do. I know this point has been made repeatedly on social media, but its entirely fair to note that the same anti-woman fanatics passing these barbaric laws would throw massive tantrums if someone seriously proposed a law requiring the men who impregnated these women to become the (eventual) child’s legal guardian.

This isn’t about protecting “life,” or unborn children. These laws, and this attempt at reshaping Constitutional precedent, is about asserting control over women. Oh, I’m sure there are those who are sincerely and single-mindedly focused on imaginary dead children, but regardless of motivation, the net effect is the same. 51ish percent of the population will likely soon have fewer rights than the minority. Naturally, some of the lawmakers pushing to limit women’s personal autonomy are happy for the existence of abortion when its personally convenient. But that blatant hypocrisy should enrage everyone even further.

It’s not that I’m “pro-choice.” Labels like that tend to dumb down the conversation. Self-described “pro-life” people are often fine with capital punishment, and many don’t seem to care about public support for needy children after the moment of birth. The label itself is stupid.

What I consider myself is “feminist,” if a label is required. Whatever it is that might be growing inside a woman isn’t mine to control. It doesn’t belong to the state. It doesn’t belong to anyone who isn’t her. It’s part of that individual woman, until the point that it isn’t anymore.

Why is it so hard for some people to recognize the value of the person that’s carrying the amorphous blob of cells that they prefer to cherish? Why does the unformed embryo deserve more rights than the adult human woman?

It’s already horrifying to think about forcing raped children to give birth to the product of that rape. It’s a travesty to think that a woman who is unprepared for a child, emotionally, financially, or in any other way, would be forced to carry that child to birth when she… simply can’t.

This is patriarchal authoritarianism.

Using religion to justify it doesn’t make it better.

Okay, so now here I’m bringing it back to myself. Please forgive the self indulgence.

I have long believed that abortion shouldn’t be a point of political debate. After Roe v. Wade, it should have been settled on the political front, and then should have become a private healthcare concern. When people have tried to get me to talk about the topic, I lean into that perspective. “It’s not my decision, I have no say.”

My avoidance of this debate was my idea of prudence. But it wasn’t that. It was cowardice. I wanted to be able to express my general support for women without taking a real stand.

I still believe I shouldn’t have a say. But that assumes a far more just society than the one we live in now.

I’m a straight, white, middle-class, cisgender male between the age of 30 and 40. Other than not being wealthy, I pretty much enjoy the ultimate level of privilege in American society. If I truly care about the rights about everyone else, it behooves me to not just speak up, but to implore other similarly privileged people to use that privilege they have for something constructive.

My fellow men, we need to start pushing back against this. If we care at all about the rights of the other half of our planet, we need to do what we can to fight this oppression. Our sisters on this planet have just as much right to enjoy life and liberty as we do. Don’t stand on the sideline. Fight with them. Protest. Contact your Congressperson. Vote for pro-equality candidates. Donate to NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Make it socially unacceptable to oppress people who don’t enjoy our privileges. Confront misogyny wherever you see it.

While you’re at it, please confront all other forms of bigotry, too. It’s important to approach this in an intersectional way.

My fellow men, we simply cannot allow the worst of us to oppress women. If we care at all about them, we have to use the advantages we have hoarded for ourselves to make the world more equal. Don’t let some ignorant asshole state legislators push women’s rights back fifty years.

Fight for women. We don’t deserve them if we don’t fight.

Posted in Civil Rights, Politics, Quick post, Rant, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sticks and Stones

“I’d like to punch him in his face.”

“Maybe he should have been roughed up.”

“Part of the problem is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”

“I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself or if other people will.”

“The audience hit back. That’s what we need a little bit more of.”

“If you do (hurt him), I’ll defend you in court, don’t worry about it.”

“Knock the crap out of him, would you? I promise you, I will pay your legal fees.”

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people maybe there is, I don’t know.”

“When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just seen them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.'”

“Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type!”

Those gems all came from the current American President. And many of these quotes occurred before 63 million Americans decided he was the best possible choice to become President.

Donald Trump has explicitly encouraged and condoned violence by and from his supporters. This is indisputable. Sarah Sanders can deny it all she wants, but in this age of instant communication and 24 hour news – there’s video footage of pretty much every moment where Trump exhorts others to commit violence against his political opponents. He also sometimes expresses an urge to commit said violence himself. Regarding that part, it’s fair to note that his reaction to the rare moments he’s faced a physical threat have been, we’ll say… less-than-valiant, casting some doubt on his professed bravado.

The President doesn’t like it when he’s asked to take responsibility for his words. He recently complained that President Obama wasn’t blamed for causing the church shooting in Charleston. Never mind the obvious point that the Charleston shooting was an attack on African Americans by a white supremacist – which is unlikely to be something done by a supporter of the first black American President. Also never mind the next most obvious point that Barack Obama never encouraged his supporters to commit acts of violence. The real problem is that Trump doesn’t seem to connect the dots between his rhetoric and the crimes committed in the name of his lies and conspiracies. With his complaint that Obama wasn’t asked the same questions, he makes it appear that he thinks this is just about political points and not about the effect words can have.

Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand the power of his position, or comprehend that when one is President, words mean more than just entertainment for adoring crowds. One can be irresponsible with speech. Trump clearly doesn’t get this.

When he tells his supporters he’ll help them if they assault a protester – then he assumes a degree of responsibility if they carry out that act. In the emotional and hyperbolic world of politics, words can be far more powerful than mere rhetoric. They can inspire, they can dismay, they can delight, they can terrify. And they can incite.

But it’s more complicated than that. A president’s words can also cultivate attitudes. They don’t have to be directives in order to inspire action. And they certainly don’t have to be truthful to convince.

When President Obama stood in front of a crowd and really got going – he could stir emotions. Yeah, he might piss off a detractor or two, but when he was on – the man could lift up the hearts of those who listened. He conveyed a sense of optimism and belonging that meant a great deal to many people. He understood the power of words – and largely used it for good.

It’s hard to say if Trump really grasps the power of his words – but he has to know that he has the ability to motivate a crowd. He just doesn’t seem to comprehend the consequences.

Where Obama sought to raise people up – Trump gleefully brings them down. He taunts. He teases. He lies. He mocks. He frequently lapses into incoherence.

And even when he isn’t directly telling people to hurt others, he’s telling them who they should hate and fear.

Possibly more insidious than the literal incitement is the indirect stuff – the rhetoric he uses to anger his supporters. He lies incessantly, but to the true believers, the fact checkers are the real liars.

Trump has been a dedicated student of the Newt Gingrich playbook. He doesn’t just tell people his political opponents are wrong or misguided or even dishonest.

Instead, he says members of the Democratic Party are treasonous and un-American.

He tells his supporters that the “Democrat Party” is an actual threat to the nation; “They are not just extreme, they are frankly dangerous, and they are crazy.”

He claims the Democratic Party is “the party of crime,” and is “anti-police.”

In one particular speech in Iowa, Trump described the opposition party as “unhinged,” “an angry mob,” “wacko,” “too extreme,” and “too dangerous to govern.” He also claimed the party would destroy individual businesses, coddle violent gangs, and throw the nation into chaos.

It’s not just his political opposition. He says the mainstream media is the “enemy of the people.” This seems to be a response to journalists doing their jobs, and holding him accountable for his words and actions. He even used that particular phrase just days after CNN offices suffered an attempted letter bomb attack. He blamed the media for violence committed against them.

It’s quite possible Trump doesn’t understand what he’s saying. It’s possible that he doesn’t realize how serious accusations of treason and insanity really are. It’s also possible he knows perfectly well that accusing his mainstream partners in governance of attempting to literally destroy the nation they’ve been tasked with running has major ramifications. He obviously understands that his supporters take this stuff to heart. Whether he thinks it actually leads to violence is less certain. But he knows this creates anger and fear. And that’s exactly what has fueled his entire political career.

But wait, there’s more!

He’s not just telling Americans that the largest mainstream political party in the United States is made up of a bunch of psychotic radicals bent on destroying the American dream.

He’s also telling Americans that outsiders from other countries are ready to invade the States, rape, steal, spread disease, and murder innocent Americans. He started his presidential run telling voters that people from Mexico who enter the US are rapists bringing drugs and crime. He talked about what a drain immigrants are on the economy. And he’s only continued from there. He has a habit of punching down, demonizing those who are in the most distress and who need the most help.

So when a “caravan” of refugees from Central America were slowly making their way up the length of Mexico on foot, desperately hoping to reach the American border so they could (legally) request asylum – Trump was all over it.

Never mind the fact that groups like the caravan have made this pilgrimage many times over the years, including during Trump’s watch. And never mind the well-established statistics that show immigrants (irrespective of documentation status) commit fewer crimes than their native-born counterparts and tend to pay more in taxes than they receive in services.

What’s important is that Trump was telling us this ragtag group of maybe three or four thousand impoverished, malnourished refugees fleeing oppression was a dangerous swarm intent on crashing through American borders and changing our way of life.

“I would like to provide an update to the American people regarding the crisis on our southern border and crisis it is. People are rushing our border.”

Well, no. No, they weren’t. This specific group was more than a month away at the soonest (when he was yelling the loudest), and it was estimated that only around 20% were even going to make it to the border. And when some of them did eventually arrive, it was at a legal entry point, and they ended up being attacked from the American side.

Guess what, though?

Telling Americans they’re under threat of invasion – even when this is easily debunked – works. It seriously works to inspire dangerous and emotional responses. As of the midterm election week, several hundred civilian vigilantes acting like a quasi-militia were making their way to the border. In their eyes, they were a private border patrol. Local landowners generally don’t care for them. The real Border Patrol usually considers them a nuisance at best and harmful at worst.

But they were acting on what they considered to be a call to arms from Donald Trump. And yeah, they were most definitely armed. Who knows what would have happened if the caravan had arrived at the same place these groups were congregating. Adding armed, mostly-untrained, and unregulated civilians to the situation is pretty much never a recipe for a positive outcome. Remember the Minutemen of the Bush era? While they eventually fizzled out, there was plenty of violence and abuse from that militia group, including a couple murders. There’s little reason to think this would end up being any better.

Words often lead to actions. Emotional words designed to terrify often lead to terrified actions. Which means violence. As mentioned above, it doesn’t have to be a directive in order to inspire violence. Sometimes the words just need to help fan the flames of fear.

As Trump rants about the incoming invasion, his administration’s propaganda arm, FOX News (and assorted right-wing media such as Breitbart) repeats and amplifies his claims. Other people with prominent voices repeat this bullshit. Television, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, AM radio – the game of hysterical telephone continues and grows. And some people decide the situation is dire enough that they need to act.

Cesar Sayoc, a rabid Trump supporter, rage-filled conspiracy-theory believer, and small-time grifter, sent at least 16 pipe bombs through the mail at Democratic politicians and liberal political figures. No fatalities occurred, and he was caught fairly easily. He’s currently being indicted on 30 counts – which will likely put him in prison for the rest of his life. And his actions were inspired by the kind of conspiracy theories people like Trump have peddled for years. He appeared to have been a massive fan of Trump and his policies. Trump himself seemed either unwilling, or unable to acknowledge his part in this.

Robert Bowers killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. His motive appeared to be a mixture of general anti-Semitism and more specific anger at Jewish support for refugees. He blamed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for assisting the migrant caravan, or as he saw them, “invaders” sent to “kill our people.” Bowers himself was not a fan of Trump because he believed Trump was too moderate, and was “a globalist.” But the kind of fear mongering that Trump both encouraged and partook in certainly affected Bowers and his worldview. He believed he was committing this act of terrorism to save what he saw as “his people.”

Gregory Bush attempted to gain access to a black church in Kentucky. When he failed to do that, he walked into a nearby Kroger grocery store, and shot and killed two black people. He intentionally didn’t fire on an armed white person who confronted him, telling the man, “whites don’t kill whites.” He appeared to hold right wing political views and at least some degree of racism. The Justice Department agreed that his crime was motivated by racial hatred, and charged him with hate crimes alongside his other charges.

Three men were caught attempting to bomb an apartment complex in Garden City, Kansas, where a large number of Somali immigrants lived. Their motivation was primarily based around an extreme Islamophobia, and they wished for Muslims to be completely removed and barred from the United States. During their trial, their lawyer explicitly blamed Trump’s rhetoric as the final impetus behind their attempted actions.

Of course, not every violent incident can be directly tied to fear-mongering rhetoric from Trump or from his enablers. And plenty of violence – including right-wing inspired violence – occurred well before Donald Trump became President.

But that doesn’t mean what he says is helping. In fact, right-wing violence has gotten noticeably worse.

The FBI reported that hate crimes increased 17% in 2017, with a particularly large jump of 37% against Jewish people, and an increase of 24% against Latinos. It should be noted that the FBI’s analysis of hate crimes likely underreports the total number of such crimes, and the true number could be far higher.

It’s also been reported that the “safe spaces” of college campuses have been anything but for Jewish students, as blatantly anti-Semitic harassment has shot up at colleges around the country.

And breakdowns of domestic terrorism have shown that right-wing-motivated terror made up two-thirds of the total incidents in the US in 2017. Much of the long-term analysis has shown right-wing terror to have picked up in response to the Obama presidency, but it has apparently accelerated under Trump.

And of course, without specific confessions or manifestos from perpetrators, it’s not possible to entirely link Donald Trump’s exhortations of violence to individual acts. Not all of them, anyway.

But we can say the circumstantial evidence is strong that Trump’s words and actions have encouraged an uptick in political violence. And the constant repetition of his positions from his supporters in the media and in government make things worse. Right wing politicians and media figures spent weeks telling their supporters that Central American refugees were a legitimate threat to their safety. And in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers treated these claims seriously – in particular feeding off the constant anti-Semitic dog whistling that accompanied much of the doomsaying.

Just a decade and a half ago, the claims that immigrants and refugees represented a threat to national security, health, and safety were mostly relegated to the confines of the extreme right, especially online. Websites like Stormfront and Infowars peddled this hateful nonsense. The strongly conservative Republican president of that time went out of his way to utilize inclusive rhetoric when discussing immigration. He scolded those who capitalized on anti-Islamic bigotry in the wake of 9/11. It’s true that his policies didn’t always match his lofty phrasing – but George W Bush did put some effort into discouraging anger and violence.

Times changed quickly.

A significant percentage of Republican politicians now run explicitly bigoted and xenophobic campaigns. And while their success has been mixed, the success of Trump has emboldened the bigots. Expect to see more of the same in 2020.

As the nation evolves, so does the backlash. Americans are increasingly aware of the history of racism and bigotry that helped shape the US, and many are aware of how lingering attitudes and systemic bias continues to negatively affect non-whites, LGBTQ citizens, and women. But the realization has also hit those who aren’t ready or willing to evolve. Plenty of people are uncomfortable with change, and feel defensive about losing status as the default ethnicity/gender/orientation. And when those people find themselves with a spokesperson in the White House, they find what might be the ultimate validation.

It’s not just Trump. The Republican Party largely backs him up. When Trump throws around George Soros conspiracy theories, major figures within the party echo him. People like Kevin McCarthy and Ron DeSantis jumped on that bandwagon, and managed to ride it to victory. And his most vocal critics in the party are officially retiring, giving Trump a tighter hold on the GOP, and even less accountability than before the 2018 election.

Lies and fear-mongering aren’t new to American politics. And while politically-inspired violence has been relatively rare – it isn’t new, either. But there has been a change. Leaders on the national level are choosing their words less carefully. We have a president who threatens to jail political opponents, and directly encourages his supporters to act violently. And when violence does occur, he blames the victims.

And it’s not getting better. He recently bullied the news networks into airing an Oval Office address where he – once again – lied to the American public about the dangers of undocumented immigrants moving across the US-Mexico border.  He’s still stoking fear, because it’s the only tactic he knows. Lying about immigrants is how he started his campaign for president, and he’ll probably be doing it on his last day in office.

The Democratic Party has recently won back control of the House of Representatives. The President is barely capable of doing anything competently. And the Democrats have several potential candidates who could defeat Trump in 2020, if Robert Mueller doesn’t help push him out sooner. Hope isn’t lost. But there’s still anger in the air. And people are susceptible to acting irrationally when angry. I would hope the better angels of our nature prevail, and we resist giving into our fears. And maybe, on a nation-wide scale, that hope might be eventually justified. But it only takes one person, or a few, to make things catastrophically worse for everyone. We can’t allow our leaders and representatives to encourage them.

Posted in Civil Rights, foreign policy, Governance, immigration, Law Enforcement, Media, Politics, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to Explain Taxes and Influence Republicans

Bear with me here. I need to talk about something really exciting. Hold on to your seats as we dive into the exciting world of… marginal tax rates!

Okay, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I regret to inform any reader that this really is going to be about taxes. More specifically, this is about what appears to be a common misunderstanding about taxes in America.

But before I really dive in, let me give some background.

It starts with an interview.

Newly elected United States Representative (and all-around badass) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was interviewed on 60 Minutes last weekend. The interview was pretty wide-ranging, but there was one point in particular that seemed to get a lot of attention.

Representative Ocasio-Cortez explained that programs she championed could be funded by an increase in the top marginal income tax rate. This is not a new idea, of course. Just a few years ago, President Obama pushed a modest increase in the top marginal rate to 39% from the Bush era (which has been subsequently dropped to to 37% under Trump).

But what Ocasio-Cortez proposed was far more dramatic. Instead of a restoration of the Obama-era rate, or even a moderate increase over that number, she suggested 70%.

This notion was immediately attacked. Naturally.

Seventy percent? How dare you demand hardworking Americans pay a majority of their income in taxes! That’s just leftist fantasy, according to Louisiana Congressman (and white supremacist party-goer) Steve Scalise.

Right-wing gadfly and government drowner Grover Norquist equated a 70% top marginal rate to slavery.

Others have made similar comments. Many – mostly on the right – are aghast at such a lofty number. Does this silly girl (yeah, many have gone there) not know anything?

Well, yeah, seems like she does.

There appears to be two misconceptions that I’ve seen regarding income tax rates in America.

Let me preface this with the aside that I’ve heard these particular misunderstandings for years, well before a certain freshman Congresswoman decided to actually speak up about what really isn’t a radical idea.

The first misunderstanding is that this is a weird, radical, extreme left wing notion.

Well, no. The top marginal rate on the highest incomes was raised to over 90% during World War II, and that leftist crazy Dwight Eisenhower saw fit to keep the rate at that level throughout his presidency.

In the early 60s, John Kennedy managed to get the top rate lowered – all the way down to 70%. It was reduced to around 50% under Jimmy Carter, and then under Reagan, the rate dropped all the way into the high 20s.

Since then, it’s gone up and down, but never north of 40%. Meanwhile, government revenues have declined, and the gap between the wealthy and the poor has grown at an enormous rate.

And for the most part, the economy boomed during the era of seventy-to-ninety percent. Inequality was lower than now, and the middle class grew. Tax rates on the super-wealthy were not holding America back.

Several legitimately brilliant economists have come to the conclusion that the optimal top rate is much higher than what we currently have. Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez calculated that a 73% rate would bring in the highest possible revenue without reaching the point where the wealthy become disincentivized from trying to earn more. Saez also collaborated with Thomas Piketty and Stefanie Stantcheva, and came up with a potential top optimal range between 71 and 83 percent, depending on certain scenarios. Benjamin Lockwood went with a range of 70 to 90 percent.

The Laffer Curve isn’t entirely wrong. There likely is a point where the top rate becomes so high that it ends up resulting in decreased revenue. But that rate is far higher than what Arthur Laffer claimed, and his conclusion (cut rates on the rich!) has been proven dead wrong by… well, reality.

There’s more than enough theoretical and historical evidence to show that a serious bump in the top tax rate will be good for the majority of taxpayers, and the economy as a whole.

This isn’t a crazy concept.

The second misconception is one that both the aforementioned Scalise and Norquist appear to have made – and one that I’ve seen for ages, often from people like Scalise who should know better.

The top marginal rate is not the same as the effective rate. A rich person paying a 70% tax rate would not be paying that much overall, because with a progressive income tax, people only pay the specific rate for the amount of money they earn in each income bracket.

I love spreadsheets. Yeah, I’m weird. But I think many would agree that this may be best explained visually. I would imagine my last paragraph made any reader’s eyes glaze over. So check this out:

Under the current American tax scheme, at the federal income tax level, there are seven income brackets, each with a different percentage rate. It looks more or less like this:

Bracket Lower Upper Percent
1 0 9,525 10%
2 9,526 38,700 12%
3 38,701 82,500 22%
4 82,501 157,500 24%
5 157,501 200,000 32%
6 200,001 500,000 35%
7 500,001 unlimited 37%

Imagine a guy who makes good money, but isn’t necessarily stinking rich. We’ll say he brings in $250,000 in pre-tax income in a year. We’ll call him Rich. You know, because he’s kind of… ah, forget it.

Anyway, Rich is taxed at 10 percent for the first $9,525 of his income, 12% for the next $21,974, and so on. So his taxes for the year can be broken down thusly:

Bracket Total Tax
1 952.50
2 3,501.00
3 9,635.78
4 17,999.76
5 13,599.68
6 17,499.65
Total 63,188.37

Rich’s final bracket is the 35 percent bracket – but he’s not actually paying 35 percent on all his income. His final percentage, when all is calculated, comes to 25.28%. It’s not all that complicated. It took me 5 minutes with Excel to put this together. The number of tax brackets and the individual rates have never been the reason for the complexity of the US tax code. Any time a political figure announces a tax plan with fewer brackets as a way to simplify the code is completely missing the real problem. Doing that is like clipping your toenails as a way to lose weight. It will technically do something, but it won’t be significant.

Anyway, a bracket with a higher top rate will also not lead Rich to necessarily pay an enormous amount more. At least, not in a way that’s going to ruin his life.

Proposed progressive changes to the income tax have often added more brackets, and increased the rates on the higher levels. Often, the brackets at the bottom manage to see a decrease, too. A 70 percent top rate could actually mean a middle and lower class tax cut, depending on how it’s done.

I’m not a tax policy expert. I can barely budget my own expenses. I couldn’t tell anyone what the optimal rates within a new, more progressive bracket should be. But in a hypothetical world where we elect a progressive president and a Democratic Senate in 2020, Ocasio-Cortez becomes Speaker of the House by 2026 (when she’s gearing up for her 2028 presidential run), we could see real change to taxes in America. In a potential compromise situation, where we add a few brackets and lower the rate on the first five, someone like Rich might even enjoy a slight tax cut. For example:

Bracket Lower Upper Percent
1 0 12,000 8%
2 12,001 45,000 10%
3 45,001 90,000 18%
4 90,001 150,000 22%
5 150,001 200,000 30%
6 200,001 500,000 38%
7 500,001 1,000,000 42%
8 1,000,001 5,000,000 45%
9 5,000,001 10,000,000 55%
10 10,000,001 unlimited 65%

In this scenario, we have a top marginal rate of 65 percent. And Rich’s top bracket has seen an increase from 35 to 38 percent. But Rich is actually saving a little money. The lower rates bring his total rate from 25 down to around 23%:

Bracket Total Tax
1 960.00
2 3,299.90
3 8,099.82
4 13,199.78
5 14,999.70
6 18,999.62
Total 59,558.82

Good for Rich.

But in this same scenario, we’re going to introduce Rich’s boss, Gilded. Call him Gil for short. Now, Gil owns the company. He’s bringing in 12.5 million bucks a year. He’s doing very well for himself. Under our current tax system, his effective rate isn’t much different from the top marginal rate, because most of his income is in the top bracket (over $500,001). He’s paying 36.7% of his income in federal taxes. Well, he probably isn’t, but that’s another issue entirely.

Bracket Total Tax
1 952.50
2 3,501.00
3 9,635.78
4 17,999.76
5 13,599.68
6 104,999.65
7 4,439,999.63
Total 4,590,688.00

Right now, Gil is officially forking over around four and a half million dollars to the Feds, out of his original twelve and a half. Under the hypothetical progressive changes I  presented above, he’s suddenly set to pay quite a bit more.

Bracket Total Tax
1 960.00
2 3,299.90
3 8,099.82
4 13,199.78
5 14,999.70
6 113,999.62
7 209,999.58
8 1,799,999.55
9 2,749,999.45
10 1,624,999.35
Total 6,539,556.75

That big top bracket doesn’t start until the 10 millionth dollar earned. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described it, the tippy-top. So, for a guy making 12.5 million, the bracket doesn’t do that much. But we’ve filled in the gap some below that, so Gil is definitely paying his share. His top marginal rate is 65 percent, and he ends up with an effective overall rate of 52 percent. That’s another two million bucks that go to the government, and will ideally be redistributed to those who could use it.

And Gil still has 6 million bucks in his pocket after federal income taxes. Even after state, local, and payroll taxes, Gil is still probably 5 million richer at the end of the year than he was at the start. Don’t feel bad for Gil. And his employee Rich ended up saving four grand!

As for the super-wealthy – the kind that see hundreds of millions of dollars a year (or more), they aren’t going to suddenly become poor. Actually, most of the super rich aren’t earning their money from W-2s. Federal income tax will matter less than corporate taxes and capital gains taxes – which is another topic worth discussing.

But in the meantime, for anyone who managed to stay awake through all of this, I hope it helped explain how graduated income taxes work. A seventy percent tax doesn’t actually mean someone is paying that much in overall taxes. And for those who end up paying close to that, their wealth renders the impact pretty much moot.

Don’t believe the outrage. Don’t believe the exaggerations. A higher top marginal rate isn’t a radical idea. And it’s not going to hurt the economy.

Posted in Budgets, Economics, Governance, Media, Myths and misconceptions, Politics, Quick post | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Real Voter Fraud Looks Like

A little over two years ago, I wrote a piece discussing voter fraud in America. More specifically, I explained that voter fraud is, more or less, fake news.

This was written in the context of Donald Trump, late in his presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton, attempting to cast doubt on the fairness of a potential loss – which at that point in late October still seemed a likely bet.

I explained how Republicans commissioned multiple studies over the past 20 or so years, trying to prove that voter fraud was a serious problem that required serious restrictions. And every single study eventually showed that voter fraud was more rare than lightning strikes and shark attacks.

Well, two years later, in the 9th Congressional District of North Carolina, running along the southern edge of the state up against the border of South Carolina, there’s some reason to think we might actually be seeing a real case of massive voter fraud. Well, more accurately in this case, election fraud. The kind on a scale that can –  and may have – altered an election.

And in this case, the culprit appears to be Republicans. Yes, those same paragons of virtue who gnash their collective fangs endlessly at the notion of millions of undocumented immigrants lining up to vote, somehow undetected. Those noble souls seem to have benefited from some sort of electoral trickery.

A shock you say? How could this be? It’s not like any Republicans have ever been hypocritical before.

Anyway, we don’t yet have all the details, but what is known looks suspicious.

On November 7, nearly a full day after polls closed, Republican Mark Harris appeared to narrowly edge Democrat Dan McCready by just over 1,800 votes out of 281,889 votes officially cast. McCready conceded the election, and both candidates agreed to work together for the future of the district, and mouthed a few other bipartisan platitudes.

It seemed that it was just one close race out of many, overshadowed by the historic implications of the 2018 midterms. There was more talk about the House majority shifting to the Democrats than one Republican-leaning district in North Carolina remaining in the hands of the GOP.

But then, in the aftermath of the larger election, stories started leaking out of the district. In the weeks leading up to the election, multiple people in Bladen and Robeson counties near the South Carolina border reported people knocking on their doors and requesting their absentee ballots. Many of these people had received absentee ballots in the mail that they never requested. The ballots were often collected without having been filled out.

The fact that there were so many absentee ballots was unusual. In six out of eight counties in the district, less than three percent of the ballots cast were of the absentee variety. But in Bladen County, more than seven percent of the ballots were absentee. And to reiterate – this was one of the two counties where people reported strange visitors offering to turn in their absentee ballots for them.

And it gets worse. Throughout the district, in each county, absentee ballots trended noticeably more Democratic than the in-person votes. 24 points more Democratic, to be precise. But not in Bladen County. There, the absentee ballots were eight points more Republican than the rest of the votes. Based on the number of votes Harris received in Bladen County alone – he would have to have received the vote of every single registered Republican, every independent, and a sizable number of Democrats. This is in a district that ended up virtually 50-50. It should also be noted that Bladen County had by far the most requested absentee ballots that ended up being unreturned – even more than more populous counties.

At this point, it should be pretty clear why this stinks. The numbers stick out like a sore thumb. It’s possible of course, that this could be county-related. Bladen County encountered similar absentee ballot shenanigans in the Republican primary in 2018, as well as the 2016 general election. That could mean an issue with the county that doesn’t necessarily require fraud.

But it IS highly unusual. Certainly enough to warrant further investigation.

Now, it’s not entirely clear that these issues swung the election, even if it can be proven to be a matter of fraud. Over the course of the counting, that initial 1,800 vote gap was whittled down to just 905 votes between Harris and McCready. But the total number of absentee ballots accepted in Bladen County numbered just 684, and 258 of those officially went to McCready. So, in Bladen County alone, even if there was actual fraud from the absentee ballots, it would not have meant the “real” tally automatically indicates a McCready win.

However, as always, there’s still more to the story. In Robeson County, nearly 1,200 requested absentee ballots were never returned. Some of that is normal, but it is an awfully large total number, and it could indicate some sort of ballot destruction.

Between the two counties at the heart of this controversy, some 1,364 total absentee ballots were cast, and 1,673 more were requested and not returned. 3,037 total ballots against a 905 vote gap. So it is conceivable that absentee ballot trickery in two counties was indeed enough to throw a tight election.

Leslie McCrae Dowless, a contractor on the Harris campaign, appears to have been the architect of the requests for additional absentee ballots in Bladen County. Back in 2016, Dowless himself spent quite a bit of energy alleging voter fraud in his own race for soil and water commissioner – a charge he never proved, or which he even provided evidence. His questionable behavior raised some eyebrows two years ago, and it seems he can’t quite quit shady electoral practices. In recent days, a woman named Ginger Eason has claimed that Dowless paid her to pick up absentee ballots – which she said she had no idea was an illegal act. Since then, a second woman has come forward with an identical story.

The election itself has not been certified, and McCready has withdrawn his concession. The state elections board has a hearing scheduled on December 21st, and they could eventually recommend the district hold a new election. There are a few things not yet known. We don’t know just how much the Harris campaign knew about what Dowless appeared to be doing. We don’t know what happened to the unreturned ballots. We don’t know if other counties in the district were affected by any of this. It’s possible the state elections board could have some of that information by the 21st. It’s also possible they won’t need it.

So, I’ve thrown a lot of information out here. It’s all kind of ugly and suspicious. It certainly looks like potential fraud. But here’s the thing – this isn’t remotely what the Republican Party has been railing about since Newt Gingrich ran roughshod through the Capitol Building. Harsh and restrictive ID laws would have done nothing to prevent this incident from occurring. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the Republicans from doubling down on more ID laws in response to what may be their own fraud. Indeed, North Carolina in particular has been a test ground for explicitly racist anti-voter laws pushed by the GOP.  And, it should also be noted that while they have been crying voter fraud, what they appear to have committed is more accurately described as election fraud.

So, the Republican Party has pushed the “voter fraud is real and scary” lie on Americans for years, and when it finally looks like a form of election fraud might have happened on a large scale for real – um, looks like they’re the ones who did it. And as a response, they manage to lie about it, and then try to spin it as vindication at the same damn time.

I know, I know, calling the party of Mitch McConnell a bunch of lying hypocrites is beyond redundant. They’re hypocrisy-proof. This is the party that shut down the government over deficit spending (during a time when deficit spending was actually a good idea), and then proceeded to blow all budgeting out of the water as soon as they took power (and it was then a worse idea). This is the party that spent an entire year refusing to participate in the lengthy process of putting together the Affordable Care Act, all the while screaming that it was being “rushed through Congress.” For a year. And then, as soon as they ran everything, they spent a couple days slamming through a massive overhaul of the tax system without allowing the minority party a chance to read the whole thing. They tried the same thing when attempting to repeal the very ACA that they refused to work on.

So yeah, even that was probably a waste of a paragraph. We know the Republican Party doesn’t take anything about governing seriously. As long as people they disagree with have trouble participating in the voting and governing process, nothing else really matters.

There’s a whole other piece I want to work on about how the Republican Party has basically perfected the art of minority rule, and manage to run most of the federal and state governments while losing most of the votes (although 2018 cut into that a bit). That’s gonna be a long one, and I’ve already likely exhausted the patience of any reader by now. But I do want to say that a big part of how the GOP manages to control so much despite having lost 6 of the last 7 presidential popular votes is exactly what I’m talking about here. Not necessarily election fraud, as it’s still is a rare occurrence. But, by scaring the right people in the right places, they can pass laws which disproportionately affect poor people and people of color. They can play dirty tricks to keep their political opponents from participating in the system. And they can do more or less what they accuse their opponents of doing. Yeah, there’s more to it than that. As always.

But hey, it sure looks from here that a Republican operative managed to commit election fraud on a scale that his party has falsely claimed is a widespread occurrence. It remains to be seen whether it swung the election, or whether it will be overturned.

But we can say this; the GOP is really good at one thing. They’re absolute masters of warning us what they’re going to end up doing. Runaway spending, capitulation toward hostile foreign powers, corruption, extreme partisanship, and now voter fraud.

It might be projection. But we can treat it as a warning.

Posted in Governance, Law Enforcement, Media, Myths and misconceptions, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hiking Report – Battle Ax Mountain

After scaling South Sister at the end of August, I noted that I wasn’t sure I would be able to do another higher-altitude hike before the weather turned cold.

Well, I still felt like I had another hike in me. And the weather hasn’t been that bad yet. I had a couple relatively close hikes in mind. One in particular, Olallie Butte, looked promising. At 7,200 feet, it’s the highest point between Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson, it has a decent trail that goes all the way to the summit, and it isn’t that far away.

Then, I started reading up on it. Apparently, some years ago, a treaty was settled between the US government and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, and the Reservation took over part of the Willamette National Forest. That part included two thirds of the Olallie Butte trail, including the summit.

People do still hike that trail, but all signage has been removed, and the Reservation seems to discourage it. Attempting to ask Warm Springs officials what the official policy is goes nowhere. So while I haven’t heard of any issues climbing it, I also felt somewhat uncomfortable doing so when the people in charge of the land clearly didn’t encourage hikers. Especially since I was planning on taking pictures and writing about the experience.

Maybe next year, if I can get a firm okay from a reservation official, I might head out there. But in the meantime, I’d rather avoid being that guy. So, I looked elsewhere.

I really wasn’t looking for anything strenuous, but I was hoping for some good vistas. While perusing OregonHikers, I was excited to run across Battle Ax, a 5,558 ft shield volcano standing at the south end of the Bull of the Woods Wilderness, about 20 miles northwest of Mount Jefferson. It’s only about two hours away from Portland, and apparently has amazing views of the Cascades from the top. Sounded perfect. There were some warnings about the quality of the final six mile stretch of gravel road leading to the trailhead, but I figured if my car could handle the obstacle course leading to the Bluff Mountain-Silver Star hike, this should be fine.

I initially eyed Sunday, October 7, but the weather was cloudy and cool… not so great if I wanted vistas. So I waited a little longer.

Last weekend, I found myself with a free Saturday, clear skies, and highs predicted in the fifties Fahrenheit.


I woke up at 5 AM two Saturdays ago (the 13th), grabbed my pre-packed bag, layered up for the 36 degree (2°C) start, and headed out into the dark.

At about 7:45 am, I turned onto FR 4697, and started rattling uphill. Yeah… the road was bad. My Acura coupe is not an off-road vehicle. But going slow, easing around rocks and washouts, and taking steep points at angles kept me from doing any damage.

It felt like it took forever, but there was nobody else on the road, so I wasn’t annoying some dude in a Jeep stuck behind me.

After nearly 7 miles and maybe 35 minutes, I finally reached the “trailhead,” which was just a slightly wider piece of road a couple hundred feet beyond a fork. The left side went down to Elk Lake and a campground. The right side had the parking area and a rapidly deteriorating (seriously) road. Technically, there was parking farther down, too, but I was pushing my luck as it was.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

I parked, grabbed my pack, and started down the road. After about a third of a mile, a steep and narrow trail veered up into the woods to my right. It was marked with a fairly small sign, though they did include another tiny sign just a few feet further up the path.

A small permit station stood just beyond the second sign, but it was in some disrepair, and no longer contained any permits. I figured I was okay without one.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The trail veered through the woods, moving inexorably upwards. It wasn’t quite as steep as some of the other hikes I managed this year, but the terrain felt pretty similar. After the first half mile or so, it felt like I could have been on Dog Mountain, or Saddle Mountain, or almost anywhere else in the region.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

About 20 minutes in, I finally got my first glimpse of Mount Jefferson through a gap in the trees. As it was backlit by the rising sun, few details were visible, but the outline was impressive.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

It didn’t take long for me to start warming up. I unzipped my jacket and removed my gloves within the first half hour. It may still have been under 40 degrees, but it felt warmer.

Maybe the trail was steeper than I realized.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Parts of the early section of trail were made of a mulch-like material that was quite forgiving on the joints. Thus far, it was the easiest hike I attempted this year.

The ground was damp in parts, and I passed a sizable tarn after the first couple of switchbacks.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The path leveled near the tarn, and then quickly steepened just past it.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

In a particularly marshy area, massive trees loomed imposingly over me.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Autumn colors brightened the underbrush.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

There was a noticeable layer of frost on sections of the trail.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

This was odd, in part because the temperature was a bit above freezing – and rising. Also odd because other sections before and after were damp, muddy, and occasionally covered in actual running water.

In fact, there were a handful of segments I encountered about an hour into the hike that made me think I had stepped off the trail and into a stream or creek.

Water poured down parts of the trail, causing me to backtrack briefly. It appeared to be a creekbed, but further exploration indicated I was still on the trail, albeit a mildly flooded section.

It wasn’t quite like parts of Mount Defiance or South Sister – where the tail disappeared altogether. But the trail did become far less clear at points.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

By 9:00, I was coming across a lot of early autumn color – mostly in the underbrush.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Many of these photos don’t do the color justice.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

At one point, I got a nice view of Olallie Butte.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The foliage continued to do its thing.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Around 9:20, I came across a footbridge between two tarns.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Just beyond was a marshy field, a hybrid of tarn and meadow.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The path gradually became rockier.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

At 9:40, I came up to a big talus slope. There was a trail worn into it, but it was sketchy at points.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

As I made my way across the boulders, a sizable rock gave way beneath my foot. I caught myself before sliding off the edge of the trail, banging my knee into another rock.

“Idiot,” I cursed to myself. “In Latin, Jehovah begins with an ‘I’!”

I pulled myself back up, and made my way across, my good-natured grumbling giving way to a partial recitation of the greatest movie of 1989.

Despite my self-amused reverie, I indulged a glance back up from where I came. I could see the bulk of Battle Ax receding from view.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

I understood that the trail would soon double back, and head toward the summit. However, it was slightly discouraging to realize that I had to continue away from my destination before I could actually conquer it.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Another great view of the outline of Mount Jefferson, still mostly backlit.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

At 9:52, I reached a four-way trail junction. A campsite lay directly ahead, and paths leading off into the Bull of the Woods Wilderness veered to the left and right.

A sharp left, basically going backwards, led upward, back toward the mountain. After a short break for a snack, I made my way up the trail.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

It wasn’t long before I was passing back across the big talus field – this time from higher up.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

As I made my way back toward Battle Ax, the views improved. Here is Mount Jefferson on the left, and I believe Three Fingered Jack on the right.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Interesting rock formations appeared on the slopes.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The trail got steeper, and began switching back.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The path moved to the right side of a ridge, and became fairly strenuous.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

At 10:35, after a bunch of switchbacks, there was an outcropping facing north-ish. Mount Hood finally became visible, in all its picturesque glory.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

At this point, the switchbacks ended, and I found myself heading mostly south, along the final summit ridge. I was at least 5,400 feet now, and for a while, I could see the summit not far off.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

As I hoped, the views were spectacular. To the right and below was the bulk of Mount Beachie. Back north, Mount Hood continued to loom impressively behind me.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

At 1050, I had to pick my way around a sizable rock formation, and found myself on the summit. The bare supports of what used to be a lookout tour were all that remained of a human presence at the top.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Well, that, and an Army Corps of Engineers marker.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

All around me, the views were gorgeous. The sun illuminated Mount Jefferson in greater detail as it ascended in the sky.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

To the southeast, the Three Sisters peaked over the horizon. On the right, the South Sister waived at me. Or maybe I did the waving.

Yeah, I really enjoyed that climb.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Here’s a sharper, albeit more distant shot of the Sisters, with Three Fingered Jack on the left.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

And waaaaay off in the distance, Mount Adams stood silent watch over the Cascades.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

My obligatory summit selfie.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

One last view of Mount Hood to the north.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

After 30 minutes on the summit, a bunch of photos, and some lunch, I got one last nice shot of Jefferson, with Elk Lake peaking out from behind a rocky outcropping.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

As I hit the trail to head back down and complete the loop, I could see a stocky black Lab with an elaborate harness and pack strapped around its torso. A short distance behind was a single hiker. The Lab greeted me with enthusiasm, and received well-deserved pats for her effort. The hiker who belonged to her chatted briefly with me. Then I was on my way. They would be the only people (as dogs are people too) I would come across during the entire hike.

The trail down was a series of moderately steep switchbacks, initially quite exposed. Excellent views of Jefferson continued for a while.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

I also had some great views of Mount Beachie as I eased down from the summit.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Beachie could be hiked about as quickly as Battle Ax, and the trails for each met back up at a saddle near the road. If I gave myself more time, I might have considered a twofer.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

One more good view of Elk Lake appeared. The photo doesn’t show it, but I could see the wind pushing small waves across the surface of the lake.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

I managed to get a final decent glimpse of the distant Three Sisters before they disappeared below the horizon. Another shot at the South Sister will be a must next year, but I’m hoping to make attempts on the other two by 2020 or 2021. I need to work on route-finding and technical climbing.

And make a few climbing friends.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

I started descending into denser forest, but I had one last really good glimpse of Mount Jefferson, now seen in greater detail with the sun basically directly overhead.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The rest of the descent was pretty easy.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Around a quarter past 12, I reached the Beachie Saddle. It was a big wide open area that looked like a parking spot. I had the option to make a run up Mount Beachie here, or make a left and head back to the car.

I was tired, and had two hours to drive to get home, so I elected to be lame. Maybe next year…


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The final stretch of road started off decently, but eventually became impassable for vehicles.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

At 12:30, I reached the passable part of the road, and at 12:40 I was back at my car.

This was the shortest, emptiest, and quietest hike of the year for me. Just under 1,800 feet of elevation gain (and then subsequent loss), about 6 total miles, one hiker, and one friendly dog, in just over four hours and twenty minutes.

While not particularly challenging, I recommend Battle Ax for the solitude and the spectacular vistas. I will likely be back in the future.

Posted in Adventure, Series | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment