The Senate Republican tax bill

This week, senators on Capitol Hill debated passing the controversial new Senate Republican tax bill, known officially as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, or colloquially as the Trump Tax Cuts. According to the official website of the United States Congress, the bill “amends the Internal Revenue Code to reduce tax rates and modify policies, credits, and deductions for individuals and businesses.” The Internal Revenue Code encompasses all domestic tax laws. Put simply, the goal of this bill is to reduce taxes for American individuals and businesses; a controversial goal indeed. The bill already passed a procedural vote on Wednesday, Nov 29, 52-48 and is expected to pass, finally, Friday, Dec 1, according to CNN Politics. In light of this information, it is important that we look at the details of the tax bill, which will undoubtedly affect millions of Americans.

The Senate tax bill differs from the House tax bill, which already passed on November 16, according to PolitiFact. The primary measures of the Senate bill are to lower individual and couple tax rates for the middle class, reduce corporate income tax from 35% to 20%, and to only tax income earned within US borders (PolitiFact). The idea is that these measures will create new jobs and businesses or, in the words of Donald Trump, perhaps the bill’s greatest champion, “Our focus is on helping the folks who work in the mail rooms and the machine shops of America, the plumbers, the carpenters, the cops, the teachers, the truck drivers… the people that like me best.” (St. Charles, Missouri, 11/29/17). The tax bill will also close certain tax loopholes that allow the rich to evade paying, including one highlighted by Donald Trump, in the same speech, that makes corporations pay less the more they reward their CEO’s with excessive bonuses, according to the Huffington Post.

These things may sound good, and certainly many Americans and 52% of the Senate think they are, but others argue they are not. According to Vox, the tax bill creates at least 5 big problems; it will create $1.5 in national debt over the first decade, it limits the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) which could create a “health insurance crisis,” it creates new loopholes for tax evasion despite closing others, it is designed to be more expensive or less effective than promised overtime, and most importantly, “According to the Tax Policy Center, by 2027 more than 75 percent of the tax cuts’ benefits will accrue to the top 5 percent of the income distribution, with more than 60 percent of the total gains going to the top 1 percent.” The tax bill, which has been promoted by President Trump, and other Senate Republicans, as a boon to the blue-collar worker and small business owner, may only benefit the very richest in our society.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 49% of Americans that were aware of the bill opposed it, 29% supported it, and 22% said they did not know. These results, which show an increase in the percent in opposition from 41% on October 24, are shocking after witnessing the unanimous, explosive cheering, and applause at President Trump’s Wednesday speech, and begs the perennial question, “Do lawmakers really have the people’s or even their own constituency’s concerns in mind?”

As of the writing of this article, Republican senators are still scrambling to rewrite the bill before an imminent vote, according to Politico. All we can do now is wait.

Film review: Blade Runner 2049

★★☆☆

***Article Contains Spoilers***

Before watching Blade Runner 2049, I had never seen the original Blade Runner. To many who had, Blade Runner 2049 is the sequel to a science-fiction classic and defining movie of a generation. To me, it is just another Hollywood film.

Blade Runner 2049 has received mostly excellent reviews from Blade Runner fans old and new, and it’s not hard to see why. The new film does what the original did and more, and to fans, that’s a miracle. But to me, it’s a disappointment.

To be certain, Blade Runner 2049 is a stylish, smart film, but it’s neither beautiful nor profound. It has been called “visually stunning” by a multitude of critics and “deep” by most. But glossy, realistic graphics are not beautiful by that virtue, and simply bringing-up philosophical concepts is not profound.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, now over 90 years-old, with its grand Futurist city and equally-grand capitalism, is the obvious predecessor to the original Blade Runner. The new film proffers the same apparently imminent, bleak vision of the future we have been fed for the past century. The city is updated, shinier now, but it is still the same city. Suffice it to say, the vision is no longer fresh, compelling, or believable.

The original Blade Runner score, composed by ambient-electronic music pioneer Vangelis, has been replaced in the new Blade Runner by a bombastic and overwrought orchestral score composed by Hans Zimmer. Vangelis’s score was forward-thinking and remains fresh; Zimmer’s is another score by Zimmer. How is it that, as time draws on, sci-fi becomes less inspired in all aspects?

At 163 minutes, for a film with an absurdly sociopathic comic-book villain, action-movie violence, a holographic girlfriend, and a secret that could “break the world,” Blade Runner 2049 is also a remarkably boring and drab drama. K (Ryan Gosling), the film’s protagonist, is not unsympathetic because he’s (spoiler alert) a replicant (robot), but because he has zero charisma. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is now old and bitter, no longer the romantic hero he was in the original, and plays a smaller role in the film than one wished or expected. Our villain, arch-capitalist Niander Wallace, played by the ever-intimidating Jared Leto (I kid), is more of a parody than a genuine terror, with his casual gratuitous cruelty and incessant Biblical allegory. There is also Mariette, possibly the film’s most intriguing character, a street-urchin prostitute and, as we later find out, a replicant revolutionary. Her role in the film is minimal, but I would gladly watch Blade Runner 2049 again if it were written from her perspective.

Every other character is forgettable, except Joi, the aforementioned hologram. She (it?) is cute, bubbly, and completely devoted to K (she was programmed, after all). But she is, as the film ceaselessly emphasizes, just a hologram. It’s hard to care very much about a character who can be “played” and “paused” at any time by her master, err, boyfriend. It’s not hard to see why some critics have pegged this Blade Runner as misogynist.

Despite its flaws, it would not be fair to dismiss Blade Runner 2049 entirely. As previously stated, it is undeniably stylish and smart. There are a few particularly exhilarating moments, such as when K and Deckard duel in front of a holographic Elvis. They trade witticisms and the action is entertaining in the most authentic way. It is a pastiche, but a worthy one. If Blade Runner 2049 worried less about being seen as so serious and embraced this side of its personality more, maybe it wouldn’t be so frustratingly middlebrow. The film’s big twist near the end also felt remarkably genuine and affecting. However, it killed all the momentum the film had, leaving it to end with an awkward 40-minute epilogue.

Although they are undeveloped, and at this point tired staples of smart sci-fi, the philosophical concepts Blade Runner 2049 brings up are certainly worth discussing. They are “What are the socioeconomic implications of modernization?” and, “What makes us human, with respect to AI?” Blade Runner 2049 makes three claims; modernization will further the social divide between men and women concurrently with the rise of AI, and this will inevitably lead to the oppression of the lower classes (the former, which is apparent in the modern world, is more intriguing than the latter, which thus far history has proven to be false). Also, the defining characteristic of humanity is that it is self-sacrificial, not necessarily that human women can give birth. The last claim would be more interesting if it didn’t result in the protagonist sacrificing himself for what is the most contrived, sappy ending I have seen in a film in years.

At first glance, Blade Runner 2049 appears to me to be a film unsure of what it wants to be; an unabashedly lowbrow sci-fi flick, or a lofty philosophical drama. But, I know that’s false; Blade Runner 2049 set out specifically to fill a certain niche (The Matrix, The Shawshank Redemption, The Dark Knight, etc.) of thoroughly entertaining movies that keep you thinking throughout. It’s a shame it couldn’t live up to those standards.

The opioid crisis and President Trump’s reaction

In a speech given on October 26, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a “nationwide public health emergency.” This is not just a description, as it may seem, but a legal act which allows the allocation of a certain number of funds towards combatting the crisis, through the Public Health Services Act (CNN). However, that number is pitifully low; only $57,000, according to the Washington Post. President Trump could have declared the crisis a national disaster, another type of national health emergency declaration which holds more weight and makes more funding available (CNN). Because of this, and other comments, Trump’s reaction to the opioid crisis has been highly controversial.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids are a class of drugs including legal drugs such as common prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), codeine (cough syrup), morphine, etc., and illegal street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. Opioids are especially popular among young people, and were the cited cause of death of an estimated 62,497 Americans in 2016, according to Vox. As shown in the graph taken from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of opioid-related deaths has been rising steadily since 2000.

The opioid crisis began in the late 1990’s, according to NIDA, when pharmaceutical companies began promoting opioids as non-addictive painkillers (which was false), and doctors began prescribing them more liberally. Also, as reported by Medpage Today, during this time, popular medical philosophy changed in ways that may have exacerbated the crisis. Treating pain came to be seen as almost as important as treating illnesses themselves. Medical organizations such as the United States Department of Veteran Affairs and the Joint Commission officially recognized pain as the “fifth vital sign,” on par with body temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rate.

Despite this, some have pointed out that prescription opioids may not be the leading cause of the crisis. According to the New York Post, most opioid-abusers (more than 75% of pill users, most heroin addicts) were never prescribed pain medication for an injury or illness, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and emergency room records show only 13% of opioid-overdose victims began using opioids because of pain according to the medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Also controversial, has been President Trump’s promise of an aggressive anti-drug (specifically anti-opioid) campaign targeted at youth as a primary strategy against the crisis. The New York Times article “Just Say No to Opioids? Ads Could Actually Make Things Worse” explains how campaigns like these in the past were actually ineffective or even detrimental. The authors cite a study of 200,000 youth aged 9 to 18 that shows that those exposed to more anti-drug campaigns were actually more skeptical about the harmfulness of marijuana and that they should avoid it. The New York Times explains that more subtle add campaigns such as “truth.” which made drugs seem “uncool” were actually more effective than those that made them seem scary. However, the New York Post article “Deadly myths of the opioid epidemic,” provides other statistics that say otherwise. Graphic, aggressive anti-smoking ads from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “cut smoking among youth and convinced 400,000 smokers to quit for good.”

Whether or not you think prescription drugs are the primary cause of the opioid crisis, or whether anti-drug ad campaigns should be graphic or social (or should not exist at all), it is apparent that it will require more than $57,000 in allocated funding to defeat the opioid crisis. Now is the moment for all branches of the government to show with their actions, not just rhetoric, how serious they believe the opioid crisis to be.

 

The 2017 wildfire crisis

Image: Damage in Coffey Park, Santa Rosa after wildfire (NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/western-wildfires/one-killed-major-wildfires-ignite-overnight-across-northern-california-n809206)

Since October 8, firefighters in California have responded to 250 new wildfires. In 2017, 7980 fires have burned 1,046,995 acres of land in California, according to CAL FIRE. One wildfire, the Tubbs Fire, has broken the record for most destructive wildfire in the history of California, burning 36,793 acres, destroying 5300 structures, and killing 22 civilians as also reported by CAL FIRE. In total, the wildfires have killed 42 civilians, according to CNBC. These wildfires pose serious questions about the nature of climate change and how we should treat our environment, as well as questions about how the government should respond to natural disasters.

In an article by Scientific American entitled “Scientists See Climate Change in California’s Wildfires,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain explains how climate change exacerbated the California wildfire crisis. The summer of 2017 was the warmest in more than 100 years, which dried out vegetation which in turn acted as fuel for the fires. This drying out of vegetation is also related to California’s recent historic drought, also linked to climate change. Additionally, strong winds blew the fires farther and into urban areas.

In the same article, climate scientist LeRoy Westerling says that climate models predict California to have continuing cycles of drought and rainfall due to climate change, a deadly combination when it comes to wildfires.

On October 19, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation to combat wildfires in California and elsewhere, according to The Hill. Among other things, the bill would include a program for the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department agencies to treat the most potentially dangerous areas for wildfires by removing dried vegetation, which might drastically decrease wildfire destruction for reasons previously explained. It would also provide $100 million to prepare against wildfires for communities most threatened by potential wildfires. This would be in addition to $576.5 million in disaster relief funds for wildfire recovery recently approved by The House.

The wildfire crisis is not just a Californian phenomenon. So far this year, The Hill has reported that over 50,000 wildfires have burned over 8.8 million acres in the United States, a massive increase over the average number of acres burned per year over the last 10 years, which is only 6 million. As well as wildfires, hurricanes and other natural disasters have also been occurring at an alarming rate in the United States. We must work as a country with our government to respond to these situations and aim to prevent them in the future by addressing their root causes, including climate change.

You can donate here to help two of the counties most affected by the California wildfire crisis: https://www.gofundme.com/napa-sonoma-fires

For information on how to contact Minnesota senators to discuss wildfire prevention and relief, click here: https://www.senate.gov/senators/contact/senators_cfm.cfm?State=MN

 

 

Should school start later? High school students weigh in

The St. Paul Public School district is planning a controversial vote on November 15 to change school start times for most high school students from 7:30 AM to 8:30 AM, for the 2018-2019 school year, according to the Pioneer Press. Changing school start times for the district has been discussed for years and the vote has been pushed back several times.

The SPPS district supporters of later start times for high school students cite studies that claim later sleep patterns, prevalent among high school students, have a biological basis. This results in 69% of high school students not getting 8 hours of sleep a night, when they should be getting at least 9. They contend also that later school start times do not affect when high school students fall asleep (according to the SPPS website page on the topic). Also on their website, they claim that an 8:30 AM start time is better academically, causing more students to score “proficient” on MCA math tests.

Those against later start times explain that implementing them will be costly and ineffective. According to the Pioneer Press, adding the necessary additional bus routes will cost the district at least 2 million dollars per year, and Metro Transit cannot afford to help without money from the state. They also protest that high school students will get home too late, especially if they are enrolled in extracurricular activities. The district admits that if school start times are changed, high school students who take care of siblings in elementary school may be unable to, as most elementary school start times would move from 8:30 AM to 7:30 AM, causing their school days to end earlier than high school students’.

But, how do high school students feel about later start times? Their opinions are often overlooked in this discussion. Below are interviews of four 9th grade students who gave their opinions on the topic.

Miranda Bade

I want the start times to stay the same. I’m involved in sports after school and it is nice to get home early. If the start times change to 8:30 AM I would get home later. This makes it hard to do go to practice and get all of my homework done. Getting off of school earlier makes it so I have more time after school to do things and to get stuff done.

Peter McHie

Personally, I think it would be a great decision to change the start times to 8:30 AM. I, for one have a difficult time waking up so early, and because of this I feel like it might be impacting my performance at school, even if it’s only a little. Also, my general demeanor/attitude towards school in general is infuenced by the early start time as I often feel very sad/angry in the mornings. I’m sure that having extra time to sleep would change that. Other students probably feel the same as I do.

Celia Morris

I don’t want start times to change because of after school activities. I play volleyball in the fall and track in the spring. If start time was to go later I would come home from my sports at 5:30 PM and on game nights I might get home as late as 10:30-11:00 PM, with lots of homework left to do. This might leave me to going to bed around 1 AM or 2 AM.

Ryder Hefferan

I would vote against changing the time, because I personally feel comfortable with waking up that early to go to school and I love having as much free time as I do after school. But, I do understand that some people would sacrifice free time for more hours of sleep.

Would you call the police if you witnessed a murder?

In 1964, The New York Times published Martin Gansberg’s now famous article “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” about the killing of Catherine Genovese. It claimed that thirty-eight people witnessed a murder (of a woman some of them knew) and did not intervene, giving lazy excuses for their lack of action afterward.

Later, the title was proven partially false in another New York Times article, but the story still led to the formulation of the bystander effect theory; a theory in psychology which, according to Psychology Today, posits that observers in emergency situations are less likely to intervene the more other observers there are around them, even observers who would be likely to intervene if they were alone. The phenomenon is prevalent and well-documented. It has even been discovered in the behavior of five-year-olds in a study published by the Association for Psychological Science. According to Psychology Today, Psychologists explain the bystander effect for many reasons, but namely that in emergency situations humans’ sense of personal responsibility is diffused when surrounded by other bystanders, and that humans model their behavior off of those around them, so if no one is intervening they are unlikely to.

The popular ABC primetime show What Would You Do? features many examples of the phenomenon, staging offensive acts in public and seeing how bystanders react. Often on the show, large groups of bystanders react late, or do not react at all.

Last week, Ms. Ostendorf’s English 9 Accelerated class read “38 Who Saw Murder…” and learned about the bystander effect. They watched the following video demonstrating and discussing the effect:

From “Coolpsychologist” on YouTube: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=OSsPfbup0ac

Below are excerpts from interviews of three students in Ms. Ostendorf’s class. They gave their opinions on “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…” and the bystander effect, commenting on where it manifests in their lives.

Jack Malek, 14

What was your initial reaction to reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…”?

I was really surprised to read that thirty-eight people saw a woman get killed that they knew and they did nothing about it, they did nothing to save her.

Do you think the bystander effect is a real phenomenon?

I do. This is happening right here and this story is a perfect example. Because people think when they see something, and there are a lot of people around that someone else is going to do something about it. So, this is a perfect example.

Did reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…” lead you to question yourself?

I questioned myself, “Have I ever been a part of the bystander effect? Have I ever done this? Have I ever been part of this phenomenon?”

Do you think you would have reacted in this situation surrounded by other bystanders? Would you now?

After reading this story, yes. But, I don’t know if I would have been part of the bystander effect before.

Otto Schmidt, 14

What was your initial reaction to reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…”?

I was somewhat shocked and surprised that the people didn’t help when needed, but after thinking about the story and realizing the circumstances of it being the nighttime and people not really wanting to help and thinking somebody else would, I wasn’t super surprised by the outcome.

Did reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…” lead you to question yourself?

It definitely made me think more about ignoring, not just when people are in need but ignoring a lot of things, or just doing things because everybody else is doing them even though maybe it’s not the right thing to do.

Before you learned about this, do you think you would have reacted the same way as the other 38 people if you were in that situation?

Probably.

How would you react now?

At the very least, it would lead me to think about what happened here. And then, to act.

Henry Aerts, 14

What was your initial reaction to reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…”?

Honestly kind of shocked but in a way I was also kind of not surprised. Because, I’ve seen people doing that where someone is in need but no one helps, they just walk by because they think that someone else will help them or they just don’t want to get involved. So, I’ve seen that kind of thing before.

How do you see the bystander effect in your personal life?

For example, when the teacher asks a question in class, a lot of times no one says anything because they think that someone else is going to answer it, but then in the end it just goes awkward and silent because no one can answer it, thinking that someone else would.

Did reading “Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder…” lead you to question yourself?

Yeah, it kind of did. Because, I wasn’t sure if I would have done anything different. Maybe I would have called the police, I don’t know.

How would you react now?

If it happened tonight, I would definitely call.

Hopefully, with more knowledge about the bystander effect, people will begin to intervene more in emergency situations, even when surrounded by others.