U.S. has a Budget at last! So, what’s in it? How does it affect you?

President Obama paying a visit to U.S. troops stationed in Hawaii. Image from Getty Images.

President Obama paying a visit to U.S. troops stationed in Hawaii. Image from Getty Images.

For the first time since 2009, the United States federal government actually has a budget. On Thursday, President Obama signed a budget deal establishing federal spending levels for two years. The deal had earlier this month passed the House by a 332-94 vote and then passed the Senate by a 64-36 vote. Until now, the federal government had funded itself through a series of so-called “continuing resolutions”, essentially just agreements to keep spending at current levels, and the failure to pass one this October is what caused this year’s government shutdown. The shutdown crisis gave Congress record-low approval ratings; only 9% of Americans approve of how Congress has done its job, according to Gallup. Members of Congress hope that this deal and the removal of the threat of another shutdown will see their approval start to rebound.

You can read the full text of the new budget here.

The bipartisan deal, proposed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), explicitly does not strike the long-sought-after “grand bargain” to settle the national debt through tax and entitlement reform. Instead, the new budget focuses its energies on capping the federal government’s discretionary spending: they can’t spend more than $1.012 trillion next year and $1.014 trillion in 2015. The deal also addresses the sequester, a series of automatic and highly unpopular spending cuts that took effect starting this year. While those cuts that have already been put in place will remain, further sequester cuts scheduled for the next two years will be cancelled.

The budget deal does include some sweeping cuts to reach its target spending levels, though, and some of these are proving to be quite unpopular. Veterans of the U.S. armed forces that are under the age of 62 will see a lower cost-of-living adjustment to their benefits. Currently, veterans’ benefits are tied to the inflation rate, going up as prices for rent, bills, gas, groceries, and so on go up (hence the name). The budget deal will reduce this rate of increase by 1%, so if they would have been entitled to a 2% increase in benefits next year before the bill passed, now they will only receive a 1% increase. While this measure is expected to save as much as $6 billion over ten years, critics and veterans’ groups have described the measure as Congress practically “turning their back” on veterans. By one estimate, the new budget could potentially cut as much as 20% of a veteran’s benefits, depending on when he or she retires. In defending their decision, the House Budget Committee claims they are simply bringing veterans’ benefits into line with the benefits other federal government employees receive upon retirement.

The new budget deal also lets a highly popular unemployment insurance program expire. Normally, when someone loses his or her job, state governments allow him or her to keep receiving some pay for up to 26 weeks while he or she looks for work. In 2008, a temporary federal government program was enacted that extended these benefits for a further 47 weeks. That program expires today, automatically cutting aid to 1.3 million unemployed Americans, and potentially affecting as many as 4.9 million people by the end of next year. Allowing the program expire will save $19 billion, and Congressional Republicans insist that it is time to let the program go, now that unemployment is down to 7.3%. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told reporters “I do support unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that they’re paid for. If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers. When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.” The Washington Post reports that it currently takes 35 weeks for an average job-hunter to find employment.

Here are some of the other highlights of the new budget:

  • Security fees charged to airline passengers at airports will go up to $5.60 per one-way trip. This will save $12.6 billion over 10 years.
  • It will raise the pension contributions of newly-hired federal employees, and make changes to the way federal employees can receive health benefits, raising or saving a total of $9 billion over 10 years.
  • Companies that pay the federal government to guarantee their employees’ pensions will have to pay more, saving $7.9 billion over 10 years.
  • Going through customs to get into the United States will still cost money. The deal allows Customs and Border Protection to keep charging fees through 2023, saving $6.8 billion.
  • There will be some changes to certain federal student loans. Student loans from non-profit lenders used to be counted as “mandatory spending”. Now, they will be categorized as “discretionary spending”, meaning they will be based on amounts set by Congress. This will save $3.1 billion.
  • Federal contractors’ pay will be capped at $487,000 per employee.
  • State Medicaid programs will be allowed to delay payment to doctors for a patient’s treatment, provided that doing so won’t actually affect the patient’s care. This will save $1.4 billion over 10 years.
  • Access to Social Security death records will be restricted to reduce the risk of identity theft problems.

To be clear, the budget bill only sets how much money the federal government can spend in total. It does not determine where, specifically, our tax money will go. That decision will be made by Congress in the coming weeks through a series of so-called “appropriations” bills that must be passed by Jan. 15 to avoid another government shutdown. The deal also doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, a measure that Congress must pass by February in order to prevent the U.S. government from defaulting and being unable to pay its bills.

Unusual Christmas Traditions from Around the World

Christmas tree image from Fanpop

It’s my favorite time of year again! Huzzah for Christmas trees, egg nog, stockings hung on the fireplace, and a general spirit of goodwill to all humankind! Christmas is celebrated by billions of people all around the world – there are only 35 countries around the world that don’t recognize the holiday. Of course, with so many people in so many countries celebrating the day, it is only natural that there are a multitude of regional and local traditions that have become a part of Christmastime in one particular place. Here are a few holiday traditions from around the world that I find the most interesting.

Santa Claus is a Canadian (according to Canada)

Image from Operation Letter To Santa

How seriously does Canada take Christmas? They take it so seriously, they gave Canadian citizenship to Santa Claus. Jason Kenney, Canada’s former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, declared Santa to be a Canadian in 2008. On top of that, Canada’s postal service tells children around the world to send their Christmas lists to Santa via his Canadian post code they assigned just for him: HOH OHO.

This all may sound like jolly fun, but there is a serious side to it. Canada currently claims the North Pole is part of its sovereign territory, a claim that is disputed by other nations with ambitions to lay their hands on Arctic oil and fisheries, such as Russia and Denmark. Earlier this month, when Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the creation of “combat-ready” Arctic military units, Canada’s government vowed to “defend the North Pole and Santa Claus”.

Sheesh, what happened to “Peace on Earth”, Canada?

The Philippines has a really, really long Christmas season

Paskong Pinoy image from the Philippine Embassy to the USA

When it comes to taking Christmas seriously, though, it’s hard to top the Philippines, whose Christmas season is the world’s longest. It begins in September and doesn’t end until the third Sunday in January!

Just like Neiman Marcus!

Just like Neiman Marcus!

The festivities begin with Christmas carols and parties, and the hanging of star-shaped decorations called paróls that represent the Star of Bethlehem. The more religious will participate in daily pre-dawn masses known as Simbang Gabi that could start as early as 3 a.m. and last from December 16 to Christmas Eve. Even after Christmas Day, there is still plenty of celebrating to do: there’s Holy Innocents’ Day on December 28, which children celebrate by playing pranks on each other; Three Kings’ Day on January 6, where children receive gifts in shoes that they leave out overnight; and The Feast of the Black Nazarene on January 9, which is marked with religious parades. The final end to the months of celebration is The Feast of Santo Niño on the third Sunday in January.

I love Christmas, but boy does that all sound exhausting.

In Eastern Europe, Santa has a Devilish Companion

That's okay, I didn't need to sleep tonight.

That’s okay, I didn’t need to sleep tonight.

Meet Krampus, the anti-Santa that haunts the nightmares of children across eastern Europe. While Saint Nick gives gifts and presents to all the good boys and girls, Krampus’s job is to punish all the bad boys and girls who have misbehaved throughout the year. Children are told that Krampus will beat them with a birch stick or with chains, then snatch them up into his basket to be taken down to you-know-where.

In some European cities, a special festival is held in Krampus’s honor, known as Krampusknacht. Adult party-goers will dress up in their best Krampus costumes and parade through the streets, sometimes carrying torches for extra-scary effect. Now that’s a much more menacing threat than coal in your stocking.

The City of Medellín, Colombia, Puts your Christmas Lights to Shame

Lights of Medellin 1 from Alejandra Zapata

In 1955, the new electrical power company for the city of Medellín, Colombia decided to decorate the streets with Christmas lights to celebrate the holidays. Ever since, the “Lighting of Medellín” has become a bigger and bigger deal, to the point of absolute insanity. Just look at some of these:

Lighting of Medellin 2 from SajoR

Lights of Medellin 3 from SajoR

Lights of Medellin 4 from SajoR

This year alone, the city was adorned with 27 million bulbs hanging from 472 miles of wire. No wonder the city made National Geographic’s list of Top 10 Places to see Holiday Lights, and the city receives tens of thousands of tourists in December! Consider my mind blown.

Merry Christmas, everyone, no matter how you celebrate it!

Holiday Shopping Guide for Action Flick Fans: “Olympus Has Fallen” vs “White House Down”

Olympus Has Fallen poster from IMDBWhite House Down poster from IMDBThis is the time of year for egg nog, decorating the tree, hanging mistletoe, and braving the cold and the crowds to find that perfect gift for your friends and family. To that end, this year I’m going to give you all a holiday shopping guide to help you find the perfect Blu-Ray or DVD for the action movie fan in your life.

Specifically, I am going to clear up some of the confusion you may find when browsing your local department store. As you look through the “Action” aisle, you will probably notice that there are two movies that look like they are basically the same movie. Both are about terrorists attacking the White House and kidnapping the president, with one lone secret service agent stuck behind enemy lines who must save the day. Olympus Has Fallen was released by Millennium Films and directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter). White House Down was released by Columbia Pictures and directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, 2012).

Why in the world did two groups of people wind up making movies with an identical premise in the same year? Who knows? All that matters, though, is whether the movies are any good. Time to compare them side-by-side to see which one is better!

The Tone and Style

It makes sense that when you take the same premise but interpret it in different ways, one of the most important differences is the tones and styles of the different directors. For Olympus Has Fallen, Fuqua chose to make his movie dark, serious, and gritty. He does not shy away from violence or brutality, and does a pretty good job showing realistic shootouts and fight scenes. It’s clear that Fuqua wants his movie to call back to some of the most famous violent and gritty action movies of the 1980s, like Die Hard or the early Rambo movies.

Olympus Has Fallen image from Collider

It’s also clear that this movie has a love of guns, military hardware, special ops protocol, and command-and-control procedures. Maybe the goal was to make the film feel as real as possible, but it pads out the running time with long stretches where we just see soldiers in full combat gear doing soldier-y things like chatting on the radio and looking at the enemy through their sniper scopes. I appreciate the idea, but after not too terribly long, these sorts of shots get boring and repetitive. Maybe fans of the Call of Duty games might enjoy this stuff, but I felt like it was an unnecessary distraction.

White House Down image from Ashvegas

White House Down, meanwhile, goes in the exact opposite direction. The name of the game with this movie is “campy”. This film has some of the silliest, most ludicrous moments I’ve seen in a movie in a long time, and that’s from a guy that reviewed Thor: The Dark World. I mean, some of this is “Adam West-era Batman” goofy. At one point, this movie’s president fires an RPG from his presidential limousine. Really.

And the dialogue! The first half-hour or so of this movie has some of the most embarrassing dialogue I have witnessed. I repeatedly covered my face in disbelief, thinking, “Did they really just say that?” I’m not against campy by any means, I sometimes like campy movies, but it can be overdone.

Edge: Olympus Has Fallen. As much as I think they go on too long with the Call of Duty stuff, the realistic and gritty tone is, for the most part, well-handled. Emmerich’s idea to turn his movie into goofy, campy action schlock could have been fun, but he just takes it a bit too far in some places.

The Characters

For the most part, I like movies where things blow up. However, one thing I have found is that you can throw as many explosions on the screen as you want, unless I have a reason to care about the characters, it will all turn into a big, boring blur that I have no emotional investment in.

Are you listening, Michael Bay?

Are you listening, Michael Bay?

How do the characters in these movies stack up? Well, Olympus Has Fallen stars Gerard Butler as Mike Banning, a Secret Service agent who used to be a part of the president’s protection squad, until one fateful night when he had to make a split-second decision to save the president and as a result indirectly killed the First Lady. He was transferred to a desk job, until one fateful day when he happened to be on the scene when terrorists attacked the White House. That sounds like a whole lot of baggage for him to carry, and might have made for an interesting character arc. Instead, it is only briefly mentioned a handful of times, and mostly has no relevance to the plot. Banning spends most of the movie as just “generic action hero”, single-handedly taking down the very same bad guys that defeated the rest of the Secret Service because of course he does. He’s just a body to fill a role, not somebody that feels relatable or real.

In fact, almost all of the characters in Olympus feel like cardboard cut-outs. The villain has no other personality than “generic action villain”, and the other characters feel like they’re just there to move the plot along. In fact, it’s worse than that: in multiple instances throughout the movie, the characters make bone-headed, indefensibly stupid decisions that only serve to push the plot along and raise the stakes. Time and time again, the president (played by Aaron Eckhart) and Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) actually just straight-up give the terrorists what they want. It smacks of lazy writing.

As campy as White House Down is, at least its characters have actual personalities. They feel fleshed-out and complex, with interesting personality quirks and believable motivations. Well, apart from one obligatory “child-in-danger” character performed by Joey King, who comes across throughout the film as more annoying than anything else. Still, for the most part I found myself actually invested in the trials and tribulations of the characters in White House Down.

Down‘s lead character is John Cale (Channing Tatum), a man applying for a job at the Secret Service on the day that everything goes down. Unlike Olympus‘s “generic guy”, Cale is actually a believable hero in that he is torn between trying to save his daughter or trying to save the president, ultimately trying to do both and repeatedly failing at both. It also helps that his character has good on-screen chemistry with President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), with some truly funny banter between the two. Even the villain, played by James Woods, is a fascinating and unpredictable character that trades one-liners with his minions.

Edge: White House Down. Campy as it may be, I’d rather watch a movie with personalities than cardboard cut-outs.

The Politics. Oh, the Politics.

Obama and Boehner image from The Telegraph

I suppose you can’t have an action movie about terrorists capturing the White House without at least having to give lip service to politics. Your villains have to have a motivation, right? On the other hand, once you bring politics into your movie, you open up a closet full of gelatin that will come crashing down on your film. Your audience won’t separate the political stance your movie ends up taking from the actual film as a whole any more than you can get gelatin out of your carpet.

How did each movie address this issue? Well, Olympus plays it as safe as humanly possible. The president, Speaker, and other politicians that this movie depicts are just empty shells. Are they Republicans or Democrats? Where do they stand on the issues? This movie won’t say. The closest hint we get is a quick, throwaway line about the president’s connections to Wall Street – but politicians have been accused of being in big business’s pockets for generations.

Even the identities and motivations of the enemy is as vanilla as it comes. Early on, it is shown that tensions are high between North and South Korea. Well, tensions are always high between North and South Korea, nothing new there. The event prompting the attack is a visit by the Prime Minister of South Korea, and all the assailants are Koreans. Is this all a North Korean plot? After all, I think there are few countries as “safe” to portray as the villain as North Korea.

"Don't they just look friendly?"

“Don’t they just look friendly?”

But even that isn’t the case – it turns out the villains are part of a completely separate, fictional Korean terrorist group not affiliated with North or South! Gosh, I don’t think they could have played it safer if they tried!

Again, White House Down proves to be the polar opposite. Rather than play it safe politically, Down embraces the political angle. From the very opening, when we are first introduced to President Sawyer, and we are told that he is fighting an uphill battle to get some magic world peace treaty signed, it is abundantly clear that this is a caricature of the President Obama that liberal Americans hoped they were voting for back in 2008. Oh, and then it turns out the villains are all paranoid right-wingers and white supremacists in league with the military-industrial complex.

Seriously, bro?

Seriously, bro?

Edge: Olympus Has Fallen. I’m sorry, but White House Down seems to almost revel in the knowledge that it will offend some people’s political leanings. There are times and places to be openly political, but in this case I’d rather take the safe route.

Is it Entertaining?

At last, we come to the most important question of all. The point of an action movie is to entertain, excite, and thrill its audience. Do these movies deliver?

In the case of Olympus Has Fallen, the answer is clear: NO. Absolutely not.

Olympus is a boring, confused mess of a movie. It is plagued by terrible dialogue, lazy writing, and long stretches of nothing worthwhile going on. It is formulaic to a fault. Its characters are empty-shell non-personalities, who are also apparently idiots. It was about as cliché as it gets. Not even the presence of Morgan Freeman is able to save this dud.

What about White House Down?

Actually, in spite of the overly campy tone, the embarrassing moments early in the film, and the blatant politics, I still liked White House Down better. The writing was much more clever, the characters were much more memorable, it was clear that everybody was putting in their best efforts, and Jamie Foxx in particular seemed to just love this role. I actually remembered the characters’ names in Down; I had to look up the names of Olympus‘s characters. Now, what does that tell you?

Edge: White House Down kept me engaged and invested, while Olympus just bored me. I guess I’d rather laugh at a bad movie than be bored by it.

So, which one should I buy?

Neither.

Ultimately, these are both terrible movies. They are terrible for different reasons, to be sure. Olympus is just a paint-by-numbers action film with no heart. Down is over-the-top schlock that seems to revel in how silly it is. Yes, if I had to watch one again it would certainly be White House Down, but just because it is a better film than Olympus doesn’t make it a good one.

I simply can’t recommend either of these movies. Maybe you should just get your friend or relative Iron Man 3 instead.

AUDREY: Our Matriarch

A biography about the life of my grandmother, Audrey Gregory.

 

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