Mission_Impossible_singleSo, Tom Cruise says to his girlfriend when she gives him a hug: Hey, watch the ribs.

He’s just been in a fiery helicopter crash in the Kashmir mountains, scaled sheer cliffs to avoid plunging to his death, fought a life-and-death battle with a bad guy who wanted to destroy the world, and all he’s got is some sore ribs. His face hardly has a scratch.

And so ends Mission: Impossible — Fallout, the current far-and-away top grossing movie, which I went to see because there’s something compelling about the franchise that has been lighting audiences’ fuses ever since Mr. Phelps watched the first tape-recorded message self-destruct in 1966.

Well. Since this is the latest episode, I suppose I should have put a spoiler alert at the beginning of the post. But really, did you think Tom Cruise was going to bite it at the end of a Mission: Impossible movie?

The enjoyment in watching this kind of movie, anyway, is to find out how the IMF team is going to get out of it in one piece, and accomplish the mission, which we can tell at the outset is pretty much impossible. Ordinary spies couldn’t do it, the whole thing’s too outrageous.

For one thing, they don’t know how to make face masks that turn them into carbon copies of the bad guys. That can be a detriment when the future of the world is at stake.

The members of the IMF know that if they get it wrong, we’ll all be washing our clothes down at the radioactive creek.

It’s true that the action scenes are over the top in Mission: Impossible — Fallout. The stunts are overblown and absurd, especially to someone who’s tripped over a garden hose in their backyard or stubbed their toe walking down the hallway to the bathroom.

But it’s inspiring to see that someone can be in a raging gun battle, ride a motorcycle at 70 mph against congested city traffic, blow through red lights, slam head-first into a car and get thrown off the bike, skid 20 yards on the pavement, get up and jump into a sewer where a boat is waiting and hook back up with his pals without so much as a how-d’-do.

Good stuff.

One of the main reasons I went was to hear the theme song played on a professional big screen audio system. It was written by Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin, who still gets prominent credit in Fallout and all of the other franchise films. And rightfully so, since it’s the absolute best TV show theme song ever, hands-down, one theory being that the beginning of the piece is the musical version of Morse code for M.I. — dah-dah-dit-dit.

This is not your ordinary action flick, though. Mission: Impossible — Fallout explores much deeper social issues and will be analyzed in-depth by many film critics in the weeks and months to come.

Well actually no … but I had you for a second, hey?

All right, try this one. In Fallout, the bad guys are intent on destroying the old world order. Sound vaguely familiar?

Question. How come so many people want to go topsy-turvy on the old world order these days? What exactly is so horrible about how the world order has evolved, with the end of the cold war, a western emphasis on human rights and at least a nod toward political and economic equality?

Are the movie’s writers reminding us that the world order is slipping away? That it seems impossible to save it?

Should we try to keep what we’ve got and make improvements on that rather than start from scratch? Because that could lead to who knows what?

Maybe that’s our mission, should we choose to accept it.

Image: Mission: Impossible single via Wikipedia

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UPDATE II: The Fed is fashioning economic policy based on data collected from social media sources, which is highly misleading, a stock market researcher tells CNBC. An A+ economy? Try B- ….

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UPDATE: Forty percent of U.S. adults don’t have the money to cover a $400 emergency expense, The Washington Post reports. “Wages in the United States, especially for workers who aren’t managers, have stagnated for two decades, making it difficult to save for emergencies, let alone save to buy a home or take extra classes to get ahead,” the paper said.

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The Economy is humming right along, the government wants you to know. Unemployment was at 3.9 percent in April, the lowest since 2000.

The stock market seems to have regained its footing after a topsy-turvy last couple of months. Interest rates are rising but remain relatively low.

Turns out there are a few hairs in the soup, however.

Zillow, an online real estate data base, released an analysis last week showing that almost a quarter of all millennials, age 24-36, live with their parents, a jump from 13.5 percent in 2005.

“As rents outpaced incomes over the past decade, young people turned to their families in large numbers to ease the housing cost crunch,” Zillow senior economist Aaron Terrazas said in a news release.

Cup-Noodles-1.jpg“But even as the labor market has improved, the family safety net has yet to unwind. Living with parents may allow young adults to pursue work or a passion that may not be especially lucrative, or save enough money for first and last month’s rent or a down payment on a home of their own.”

The percentages vary quite a bit by region. For example, in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area of South Florida, the percentage shot from 15.6 percent in 2005 to 33.4 percent in 2016. In Orlando, the percentage more than doubled, from 10.1 percent to 24 percent.

In Chicago, it went from 15.8 percent to 26.1 percent; in Minneapolis, the rate jumped from 8.5 percent to 16.5 percent; and in Denver, it went from 8.9 percent to 15 percent. Los Angeles: 18.4 percent to 30.2 percent.

This week, United Way published a study showcasing what the organization calls “ALICE” families — that’s an acronym for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. They are above the poverty level but can’t afford what the news website Axios calls “the basics of a middle-class lifestyle”: rent, transportation, child care and a cell phone.

This group constitutes an astounding 40 percent of the American population, according to United Way.

“These are households with adults who are working but earning too little — 66% of Americans earn less than $20 an hour, or about $40,000 a year if they are working full-time,” reports Axios.

What about the historically low unemployment rate?

Job growth reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics household survey offers very little meaningful information about the quality of the jobs that are being created. A 10-hour-per-week job with no benefits is counted the same as a full-time manufacturing job with health insurance and other bennies. (See the explanation by David Stockman, President Reagan’s former budget director, who writes the financial blog Contra Corner.)

So. We’re supposed to jump for joy that a bunch of jobs have been created that involve dancing around outside a vape shop with a sign to lure drivers into the store.

Sure, you take what you can get, but it’s not enough to build up savings to pay first month, last month, and security deposit on an apartment that’s probably going to cost at least $1,000 a month plus utilities, maintain a car and have enough left over to put some Raman Noodles on the table.

Obviously, many millennials, and others, are finding decent, living-wage jobs. But according to the Zillow survey, 28 percent of recent college grads are living with their parents — up from 19 percent in 2005. And no wonder, since even just getting a bachelor’s degree can leave graduates with student loan debt as high as $59,000.

Speaking of which, you have to give part of the credit for economic growth to an explosion of household debt — $13.5 trillion at the end of 2017, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. That’s the highest on record, CNBC reports.

A big part of the mix is student loan debt, which is now the second-largest percentage of household debt behind mortgage debt. Student loan debt stood at 1.38 trillion, up $68 billion from 2016.

That edges out auto loan debt at $1.22 trillion.

And while we’re on the subject, subprime car loans are now being packaged into securities and sold to investors. Sound familiar?

And the beat goes on. On March 9, a New York Times headline read: “The Economy Is Looking Awfully Strong.” March 20: “Up, Up, Up Goes the Economy.”

The Washington Post reported: “The U.S. economy turned in a surprisingly strong performance last year, new data show …”

“Unemployment and inflation fell last year while wages and salaries rose at their quickest pace in five years, according to a series of recent government reports. The reports suggest that troubles in housing and manufacturing, though painful for many people, have not caused the widespread economic damage that many experts had feared.”

Oh, hold on. That story was published on February 1, 2007.

Oops.

Cup of noodles image credit: Rainer Zenz via Wikimedia Commons)

If you needed a reminder about the state of American politics in 2018, the exchange between former Vice President Biden and President Trump this week summed things up nicely.

Biden, in a Miami speech, said Tuesday: “They asked me would I like to debate this gentleman, and I said no. I said, ‘If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.”

PlaygroundRulesWashDC_fixperspectiveTrump tweeted on Thursday: “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me, for the second time, with physical assault. He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way. Don’t threaten people Joe!”

Biden should reply that he’s rubber and Trump is glue. Or to Trump’s description of him as crazy and weak, he could say: “I know you are but what am I?

All of this, while the stock market teeters, a trade war looms, unprecedented amounts of debt are being downloaded onto the U.S. economy, and Congress can barely agree on a budget.

It does make you wonder whether Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un might devolve into a mud wrestling match.

Trump is often compared to Nixon, but Nixon had a baked-in respect for the American system of government and a sense of public decorum.

In his History Unfolding post Saturday, historian David Kaiser noted: “Like Trump, Nixon was a narcissist who could not accept any opposition to himself personally or to his policies. He too felt the need to vent his hatred on almost a daily basis. But Nixon had grown up in an era in which bright young men understood that they had to make a good impression on their elders, and keep their nastiest feelings to themselves. In public he almost always maintained an iron self-control, and his aides collaborated in keeping his inner self away from the public.”

But “Trump, on the other hand, grew up while his contemporaries were joyfully tearing down traditional emotional restraints, as well as restrictions on language, clothing styles, and what could be seen and heard in movies and on television. He built his persona on unrestrained excess, and when he entered politics, he built his appeal around unrestrained hatred, free of any code words.”

To put this into additional perspective, imagine a similar discussion between Kennedy and Nixon in the lead-up to the 1960 presidential election.

Suppose Kennedy said he would have beat up Nixon in high school, and then Nixon replied that Kennedy was “weak, both mentally and physically” and that during a fight Kennedy “would go down fast and hard, crying all the way.”

And this would have been reported on the evening news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. They would have had to cut to a Lucky Strike commercial after the clip to figure out what they were going to say next.

American public opinion would have sent Nixon back to clerk at his father’s grocery store in California and Kennedy would have been lucky to get a job organizing yacht races.

Ditto for Nixon-Humphrey, Carter-Ford and Carter-Reagan.

But that was then and this is now, when Americans relish public figures who “tell it like it is.”

All of this could get pretty interesting if Biden runs against Trump in 2020. But if that happens, don’t bother holding the first debate at a university. Have it on a playground.

Playground rules via Wikimedia Commons

British atomic weapon

UPDATE: The CDC announced Friday it was postponing the nuclear preparation workshop in order to hold a session on this year’s flu season. The agency said it would be rescheduled, but didn’t say when, according to The New York Times. It also did not address whether the publicity the January 16 workshop generated in the Times and other large media outlets “influenced its decision to switch topics … or whether its decision was discussed with anyone in the Trump administration,” the newspaper reported.

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You like to see federal and state officials stay on top of potential natural and health disasters with a little advance planning. But I doubt there was a big public sigh of relief after reports that the Centers for Disease Control was holding a workshop this month to discuss community health responses to a “nuclear detonation.”

I don’t think there was a lot of, Oh good, they got this. Now we can get back to Netflix.

The meeting, with four speakers covering topics like “Roadmap to Radiation Preparedness,” and, “Public Health: Preparing for the Unthinkable,” is scheduled for January 16 in Atlanta, where the CDC is based.

By the way, this workshop was planned long before President Trump’s tweet on how his nuclear button was bigger than Kim Jong-un’s, The New York Times says. It’s been in the planning stages since April, a solid three months into the Trump Administration.

We haven’t heard all that much about a nuclear attack since the Cold War ended.

Over the past several decades, most people have concluded that nuclear war would be, not so much a game-changer but a game-ender. Sure, there might be a few survivors hanging out in the Everglades coughing up blood and roasting iguanas, but it wouldn’t be Western Society’s finest hour.

As Jimmy Buffett said about preparation for a nuclear attack: “Don’t be scared, do not cry/ just dive under your desk and kiss your ass goodbye.”

The CDC is a little more optimistic.

“Despite the fear surrounding such an event, planning and preparation can lessen deaths and illness,” the agency’s news release says. “For instance, most people don’t realize that sheltering in place for at least 24 hours is crucial to saving lives and reducing exposure to radiation. While federal, state, and local agencies will lead the immediate response efforts, public health will play a key role in responding.”

I went back and looked at some of the old civil defense films from the 1950s and early 1960s and — I guess not surprisingly — that was their approach as well. The general message was, lay low for a couple of weeks, and then it should be OK to head back to soccer practice.

In Duck and Cover (1951), Burt the Turtle shows everyone how it’s done when an atomic bomb flash occurs.

“It looks something like this,” the narrator says. “There’s a bright flash, brighter than the sun, brighter than anything you’ve ever seen. If you’re not ready and don’t know what to do, it could hurt you in different ways … but, if you duck and cover, like Burt, you’ll be much safer.”

Families know, he says, “that even a thin cloth can help protect them. Even a newspaper can save you from a bad burn.”

In Walt Builds a Family Fallout Shelter (1960), Walt gives you simple step-by-step instructions on how to make one out of concrete blocks in your basement.

“You know, this shelter is a real good idea,” Walt tells a couple who came downstairs to see it. “If we would ever have a nuclear war, we could get a heavy fallout even though we were nowhere near the target area. So, Ruth and I got to thinking about it, and figured we’d rather be prepared than sorry.

“Ruth and I can live in here quite comfortably for at least two weeks … and when the grandchildren come this would be a great place to put them.”

Walt ends the video with a bit of whimsy, saying, “now, you really don’t have to paint your walls but my wife thought it would be nice if I did, so I better get busy painting!”

In the drama, Atomic Attack – The Motorola Television Hour (1954), schoolgirl Barbara gets tested for radiation with a Geiger counter by Walter Matthau, who calms her down after he gets a reading by saying: “It’s hardly stirring at all. Just picking up a tiny bit a radioactivity you picked up going from the school into the bus and from the bus to here.”

Barbara notes with excitement that the amount of radiation was below anything that might cause a health problem for her. “Correct,” Matthau says. “I have the honor to report that you are a very well-informed, 100 percent red-blooded American girl!”

In the past, it seems the CDC has discussed apocalypse under a couple of different guises — including the 2011 tongue-in-cheek blog, Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.

“So what do you need to do before zombies…or hurricanes or pandemics for example, actually happen? First of all, you should have an emergency kit in your house. This includes things like water, food, and other supplies to get you through the first couple of days before you can locate a zombie-free refugee camp (or in the event of a natural disaster, it will buy you some time until you are able to make your way to an evacuation shelter or utility lines are restored).”

Other CDC web posts reaching out to the public have centered around weather events, like hurricanes and tornadoes.,

But I was unable to locate another CDC concern about “nuclear detonation.”

Do they know something we don’t? Hopefully not. Maybe it’s just like Walt said, “We’d rather be prepared than sorry.”

 

Photo:  Detonation of Britain’s first atomic weapon on October 3, 1952. Australian War Memorial via Wikimedia Commons

Post headline with apologies to Bob Dylan

Bernie_Sanders_on_a_smartphone_(21580048468)

A young adult captures an image of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders during a September 2015 campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa. (Credit:  Phil Roeder via Wikimedia Commons)

UPDATE: Almost 40 percent of Americans with student loans may default on them by 2023, a new study says. Default rates are much higher among those who have attended a for-profit college.

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We already have class warfare in the U.S. — do we really need generational warfare, too?

Millennials worry that their future is not bright, with continuing trends toward low-wage jobs, high health care costs, and a Social Security system that may not be there when they need it. The cost of going to college is astronomical, and working millennials are finding it difficult to buy a house.

Sometimes, because of student loan debt or just the kind of bad financial decisions that people across all age groups make, their credit scores are so low they can barely qualify to rent an apartment.

The statistics keep pouring in, and they don’t look good.

Writing for Huffington Post’s Highline magazine, Michael Hobbes, explained “Why millennials are facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression.”

He says millennials have taken on 300 percent more debt than their parents, are half as likely as their parents were to own a home when they were their age, and are saddled with a stunning poverty rate of 20 percent. “Based on current trends,” he says, “many of us won’t be able to retire until we’re 75.”

It’s an impressive analysis, especially his conclusion that fundamental changes in the job market — that over the last 40 years, companies have shifted from long-term investment in employees and infrastructure to short-term profit-making and stock run-ups — have taken a heavy toll on millennials.

“The Olds” (the term younger folks use to describe older people who “don’t quite get it,” the Washington Post explains) believe that the millennials’ problems “are all our fault,” he says.

“We got the wrong degree. We spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need … We killed cereal and department stores and golf and napkins and lunch. Mention ‘millennial’ to anyone over 40 and the word ‘entitlement’ will come back at you within seconds, our own intergenerational game of Marco Polo.”

A Q&A on Vox was more bitter, running under the headline: “How the baby boomers — not millennials — screwed America.”

It’s an interview with Bruce Gibney, author of “A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America.”

“The boomers inherited a rich, dynamic country and have gradually bankrupted it,” Gibney said. “They habitually cut their own taxes and borrow money without any concern for future burdens. They’ve spent virtually all our money and assets on themselves and in the process have left a financial disaster for their children.”

On his show, Morning Joe,  host Joe Scarborough basically echoed the sentiment in a whack at the recently passed tax cut.

“Millennials, you just had $1.5 trillion stolen from you,” he said. “Past Congresses have stolen $20 trillion from you, and over the next ten years, they’re going to steal another $10 trillion from you. And they’re going to die, and then you’re going to be left holding the bill.”

Gibney blames boomers for electing officials responsible for the tax cut — and the “fantasy about trickle-down economics” used to promote the tax package. “They’re still clinging to this dogma, and indeed the latest tax bill is the latest example of that,” he said.

It should be noted, though, that the Pew Research Center reported in summer that millennials and generation Xers — people age 36 to 51 — represented the majority of voters for the first time in 2016.

According to NPR, 69.6 million millennials and gen Xers cast votes in 2016, compared with 67.9 million baby boomers and older generations. And so apparently enough of the younger folks agreed that trickle-down economics deserved another shot, even after the historic flop of the Bush tax cut a decade-and-a-half ago.

Most people think millennials trend Democrat. But NPR says another 2016 study found that young people born between 1980 and 1994 were more likely to identify with conservatives than boomers and Xers at the same age.

The millennials — and to perhaps to a lesser extent the Xers — have legitimate beefs. The cost of college is a national disgrace, and loading college graduates down with crushing debt as they start their careers is a terrible injustice.

Politicians, and a lot of “The Olds” too, will tell you that young people waste their time with unusable degrees. But that’s not true. We don’t need the university system to churn out an endless stream of graduates with degrees in business, management and marketing.

In a society that desperately lacks perspective, the world needs art history majors more than ever.

But the costs of getting that perspective have reached new levels of absurdity. Forbes calls student loan debt “a $1.3 trillion crisis” and notes that total student debt is now higher than credit card debt and car loans. It’s second only to mortgages.

The magazine says 44.2 million U.S. borrowers are dealing with student loan debt. Everyone’s heard anecdotal accounts of people finishing a bachelor’s degree more than $50,000 in debt, or a law or medical degree with $250,000 worth of debt.

Helping people get this under control should be one of the top five issues in national campaigns. Democrats did bring it up in 2016, but it never gained much traction.

On the other hand, as a boomer myself, it won’t surprise anyone that I think Social Security and Medicare should be saved. And not just for The Olds, but for the younger people coming up the line who have already figured out that defined benefit pension plans won’t be around to see them through their senior years. Ditto for retirement health care programs; hence the argument for Medicare.

These programs — which workers pay into — should be around for everybody, not just the silent generation and the boomers.

So I would propose that like-minded boomers join forces with Xers and millennials to address a whole range of social issues, not just those peculiar to one age group.

Class warfare is dog-bites-man. It’s something that has roiled societies, and governments, since the first civilizations were created 5,000 years ago. It waxes and wanes. It certainly seems to be on the increase these days.

But really — is there any reason why a more just society shouldn’t be a cross-generational effort?

After a rather bleak year, there are a few rays of hope for the U.S. individual health insurance market.

The Senate shot down Affordable Care Act repeal bills last week, and now Senate Republicans and Democrats are talking about cooperating on improvements to the existing law.

Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Senator who can hardly be accused of being a wild-eyed liberal, announced a bipartisan meeting in September to stabilize insurance markets in 2018.

Like other parts of the country, a lot of people in Tennessee have come to rely on ACA insurance policies. And Alexander, while a staunch opponent of Obamacare, has no intention of setting them adrift in a sea of uncertainty.

Also, credit Senator John McCain with nixing the most recent bid to strip away the real meat of the ACA, ditching the individual mandate and opening up an opportunity for insurers to squeeze customers with pre-existing conditions. He was one of three Republican senators to oppose the final bill and his dramatic thumbs-down vote became a viral video clip.

Some accused McCain of being hypocritical because he actually voted for the first repeal-and-replace bill considered by the Senate, the one drafted by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell behind closed doors.

But McCain’s positions were consistent. He returned to Washington to vote in favor of opening debate on a replacement bill, a measure that passed with a 51-50 margin with Vice President Pence casting a tie-breaker. That’s because McCain is a right-of-center politician, but he believes in the American system of government.

So he approved starting the debate, and supported the McConnell bill because senators had an opportunity to debate it in open session. He voted against the final “skinny” bill for two reasons. One, the bill was a sham because nobody in Congress — either in the House or the Senate — wanted it passed into law. So why would you vote for something that you don’t want passed into law?

At the same time, the no vote allowed McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, to stick it to President Trump for the rather nasty comment during the campaign: “I like people who weren’t captured.”

McCain knew Trump would be watching the video of his vote, and if he could have done it, he probably would have liked to have looked directly into the camera when he pointed thumbs down.

His vote was really a twofer. It was principled, yet at the same time it carried an element of revenge for McCain.

The potential winners — more or less coincidentally, I suppose — are Americans who rely on the individual health insurance market. Because if Alexander and other Republicans can rally enough support for a fix-it bill, customers will be looking at a lot more options next year along with more moderate price increases.

There’s still a long way to go, but if enough bipartisan support comes together there won’t be any “holes” in the insurance exchange — counties where there are no insurance choices. That was a very real possibility that market analysts have been warning about.

It still could happen if insurance companies go into the enrollment period rattled by fear of the unknown.

Long-term solutions to the U.S. health care fiasco remain elusive, and the best we can hope for is a clearer picture for 2018. We’ll take what we can get.

Computer_Keyboard_MOD_45155531

So the Russians get accused of hacking the U.S. election, and when the new U.S. president meets the Russian president he says: “Hey! I got an idea — let’s sign a cybersecurity agreement!”

And the Russian president says: “Da! You send cybersecurity protocols and information, and we send you ours later!”

And the U.S. president says: “OK! It’s a deal!”

And folks, that’s how a historic cyber-pact was born … or is it AN HISTORIC cyber-security pact, we’ll have to ask those beady-eyed intellectuals over at CNN.

“I’m sure that Vladimir Putin could be of enormous assistance in that effort since he is doing the hacking,” Sen. John McCain said on Face The Nation Sunday.

Sure, there might be some hand-wringing in the U.S. this week since it appears the country is getting the bum’s rush and may be more vulnerable than ever to hackers.

But there’s a bright side to all of this. Administration incompetence may have driven a silver spike into the Republican agenda on health care. We’re not out of the woods, but there are rumblings that Senate leaders may have to do something previously unthinkable on the health care issue: Work with Democrats!

There’s no question that the health care system has to be fixed. It may not exactly be in a death spiral, as critics suggest, but premiums for 2018 are poised to rocket upwards due in large part to all of the uncertainty.

Insurers currently have no idea what 2018 will look like — whether they will be required to provide coverage for the basic problems spelled out in the Affordable Care Act, or whether young, healthy people will drop health insurance without the ACA mandate.

Insurance companies don’t even know, from month-to-month, whether the federal government will continue to pay the subsidies offered in the 2017 plans.

So if it is imploding, guess whose hands are on the detonator?

Sen. Mitch McConnell has a 52-seat Senate majority along with a handy-dandy vice president ready to step in with a tie-breaker. But even within his own party, there are deep ideological differences and trying to pull them all together is like herding cats.

The Los Angeles Times said Monday: “Trump has further complicated McConnell’s task, giving mixed signals about how he wants to proceed.”

First the president wanted to repeal and replace. Then he switched gears and said maybe Obamacare should just be repealed. At one point he called the replacement bill passed by the House “mean” — a week or so after celebrating its passage in a Rose Garden high-five-fest.

Contrary to popular myth, the swamp has not been drained and there are more alligators than ever. But if they’re bickering among themselves maybe they won’t notice the folks who are trying to pick their way ever-so-carefully to the other side.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons