Monday, February 25, 2008

The Miracle of the Oscars

I don't watch much television -- sometimes only if the Cubs are winning in the playoffs -- but when I do turn on the cranial vacuum tube, it's either to catch the State of the Union address (to see what evil lurks in the heart of men) or the Oscars.

The Academy Awards have long been a favorite of mine because I always root for the underdog (all Cubs fans have this defective gene). I'm not always on board with the name-brand actors, actresses, directors and producers. I want to see some unheralded talent come out of nowhere and grab the golden boy and have their lives changed overnight.

It happened to Diablo Cody of Lemont, Illinois, the former Ms. Brook Busey-Hunt. She went from an office drone and exotic dancer to writing a sparkling screenplay for "Juno," featuring the unknown (until recently) Ellen Page, formerly of Nova Scotia. The film has grossed more than $100 million, even though the plot was politically incorrect (teenage pregnancy) and neither the actress nor screenwriter had really worked with director Jason Reitman before. Both women were original talents who didn't exactly climb up the Hollywood ladder, nor did they spring out of some Disney marketing machine. Bravo to them and for someone who believed in their talent.

Speaking of Disney, the company's "Enchanted" sported two nominated best songs, bland ditties at best, although I'm sure Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken got handsome paychecks for their mediocare offerings. But who won? A Dublin busker and a Czech pianist in a movie shot with hand-held cameras for less than $100,000. The romatic duo from "Once" stole the auric statuette from the Disney cartel with heartfelt harmonies and genuine emotion. The whole movie was a love affair based on music. When was the last time you saw that emerge from Hollywood?

And then there were the Brothers Coen, so relaxed in their raft of acceptance speeches that they seemed like they couldn't wait to get back to their hotels for a snooze. Their greatest revelation was that they were making movies since they were kids. One of their first epics was going to the Minneapolis airport to shoot a super-8 extravaganza. Along the way they gave us gems like "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing," "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" and stinkers like "Barton Fink" and "The Big Lebowski." The Minnesota-born Coens rarely follow formulas and they always present a side of American life few imagine. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis both heralded from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Now the Coens are doing the state proud, yet again.

And how about "Taxi to the Dark Side," the documentary about an innocent Afghan cab driver tortured to death by the U.S. military? Notice in the trailer in the Oscar show the frozen image of George W. Bush and the filmmaker's stirring thank you and admonition that "we can turn this country around?"

There are real miracles to behold in this world and certainly the Oscars love to pat the movie industry on the back in this feast of self-love. Movies don't change history, but they certainly can depict it in a way we can understand it. "There Will Be Blood" was based on the brief California oil rush and the rapacious nature of robber barons. The original novel was by Sinclair Lewis. Then there was the Coen Brothers screenplay that was based on the book by esteemed writer Cormac McCarthy. Hollywood can go deep when it wants to -- and certainly doesn't lack surprises -- as long as the best minds in the business stay away from Hollywood convention.

Now for another miracle. The Cubs haven't won the world series in a century. As I scout their prospects during spring training in Arizona, believe me, the movie I have in mind would be a film I think more than 3 million folks would want to see. More merchandising opportunities than Star Wars or Transformers!

Hollywood: I have a script in hand. Producers, my new email is I would be happy to collaborate and I work fast. I'm not cheap, but I've been working on the story for about 40 years, so I know it inside and out. What's it about? A miracle that was a century in the making.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Tax Reform Happening in Illinois

When I'm not hard at work at my day job, I work with the Citizens Action Project, which is trying to reform taxation in Illinois.

Yesterday at our community's Byron Colby Barn, we made history. We not only co-wrote an Illinois General Assembly bill that will make home assessments more transparent -- Senate Bill 2820 -- we heard a scintillating proposal on how to reform taxation in Illinois that benefits education.

First, we want to thank our ally Senator Michael Bond for introducing the bill in the Senate on Friday. He assures us that it has a good chance of getting out of committee and it's gotten the nod from Democratic party leadership. Sen. Bond immediately garnered the support of State Rep. Ed Sullivan, Jr., also the Fremont Township assessor. Both gentlemen presented details of the bill yesterday to widespread acclaim. Sen. Bond and Dick Hosteny worked together closely on this landmark piece of legislation.

As the originator and principal author of the bill, the Citizens Action Project, a grassroots, bi-partisan taxpayer's non-profit group, sees this as the first step in opening up the black box of assessments not only in Lake County, but statewide (and beyond). The act proposes to:

• Clearly state percentage changes in land and building value compared to the previous year
• Provides detailed components of the median neighborhood assessed valuation. How much are you above or below the average in your community? Our proposal forces assessors to tell you, so that you know how much your assessment varies from the local and township average.
• The bill will trigger direct disclosure from the assessor if your value is at least 10% above that of the neighborhood. All explanations must be in plain English.
• The bill requires that the County Board of Review provide you with all of the necessary information to appeal your assessment.

The object of this bill is to make assessors accountable, their methods transparent and their valuations fair. While it's far from perfect, it's a strong start and the only legislation to date to address these issues.

We wrote this bill with your help and the guidance of our white paper (see, which we published in July of last year and presented to the county board. Despite its veracity and in-depth insights on the broken assessment process, the board has done nothing to remedy the situation. Minor changes were made to the Lake county assessor's website, but the process remains unchanged and the chief county assessor has avoided any significant reforms.

Since we wrote the white paper, we've seen assessments of our neighbors in the oldest part of Grayslake climb up to 200%. And neighbors from all over the county have contacted us telling us that our finding that the assessment process is opaque and unfair is right on track.

Take Action

What can you do now? Here's one of the letters you can send to your Illinois state and county representatives:

Dear Representative [insert last name]:

As a constituent of yours, I urge you to take an active role in supporting SB2820, The Homestead Assessment Transparency Act.

For the average homeowner in Lake County, the assessment practices which we endure have become intolerable. These practices, which vary from township to township, are totally hidden from the citizens and requests for explanations or clarifications are met with obscure, incomplete and unintelligible responses.

In short, we are kept in the dark. We need open, understandable and documented assessment standards.

You can help us reform assessment practices: SB2820 goes a long way in making the assessment process transparent. It mandates complete disclosure of assessment methods and tells homeowners if their home's valuation is above or below the average of their neighborhood. If it deviates 10% or more, the assessor has to tell us why -- in plain English.

I agree with the goals of the Citizens Action Project ( in their efforts to bring Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency to the assessment practices within Lake County. The assessments on real property severely impact all homeowners. We need legislation that puts in place uniform, documented appraisal practices as well as oversight to ensure compliance to these documented practices.


You Can Help

We are a non-partisan, non-profit citizen advocacy group. That means we lobby for you. We will be tackling numerous public-interest issues in the future, but we will need your help. You can help yourself in two ways: Through your time or a donation. While you can't deduct your donation, we will tell you how we are going to spend it. We’ve racked up some bills to do the white paper and we hope to go forward. We need to cover expenses incurred in our non-profit registration (still in progress), printing and other services.

If you choose to donate, please send a check to Frank Mynard, treasurer, Citizens Action Project, PO Box 932, Grayslake, IL 60030.

As for your time, you can either volunteer -- all of our directors and officers currently donate their time -- or become a citizen lobbyist. We have some form letters on our website so that you can contact county and state officials. Let them know how you feel. We have some suggestions for changes. Keep watching our website for news and future developments.


Now for something completely different, well almost.

As if our new legislation weren't enough, we also heard an exciting new proposal from Ralph Martire, the executive director of the Chicago think tank Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. Martire's extensive presentation (I have copies and they are yours for the asking), covered the basic question of why state revenues aren't enough to adequately fund education and other essential services.

In Martire's view, although Illinois ranks fifth nationally with a gross state product of $600 billion -- greater than that of the single economies of Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Greece, Portugal and Saudi Arabia -- it can't pony up enough money to meet its goals for education funding. Why? Because the state's revenues have not been keeping up with inflation-adjusted costs of running the government and education budgets.

What about the lottery and gambling revenues? They have been going into education coffers, but they were intended as a supplement, so the base revenues that were supplanted by gaming funds were not replaced.

Don't we endure high taxes as it is? Not really. Illinois' total tax burden, which includes local and state taxes, is 45th in the nation. It's the second-lowest tax burden in the Midwest. As you know, several states have been struggling with reforming taxation. Florida, Texas and New Jersey have all either enacted or considered major reform legislation.

Martire's proposal is contained in Senate Bill 750. It would make the state income tax more progressive. As a result, schools would get more than $600 million and there would be property-tax rebates for a portion of school levies on your tax bill.

There's much to discuss in this bill. On its surface, it's a tax swap, shifting the burden from local taxpayers to those with an ability to pay statewide. So instead of a "flat" state income tax, it would rise from 3% to 5%, a rate that would still place Illinois in the lower tier of state income taxation. Lower-income households would receive a tax credit.

Local funding for education would increase and things like the unfunded liability for the state pension funds would be paid off over several years.

While it's too soon to tell whether this bill has traction, it's innovative and controversial. Nevertheless, it's time to begin the dialogue. Study it yourself. Go to for more details. Let your elected representatives know what you think.

Friday, February 15, 2008

NIU Shootings: The Real Outrage

The recent shootings at NIU, in which six people died, is more than just a mere tragedy.

My condolences and prayers go to the victims' families and to the NIU community. I almost went to college there and know several graduates, so this is much too close to home.

Once again we wring our hands after yet another mad gunman walks in and shoots strangers in school for some unknown reason. Are guns too plentiful in our society? Sure. You can still buy them at gun shows and through any number of outlets. They are not hard to get -- even if you're mentally ill.

Then the usual bromides get trotted out. Video games are too violent. Movies are too violent. You can even play nasty little shoot-em-ups on your cellphone. Canada doesn't have this kind of gun violence. Neither does Japan nor England. Is it our culture? Although these crimes are still relatively rare in our population, they happen far too frequently. This is not domestic violence. It's deranged people killing at random people they don't know. We don't even have a word for this kind of violence. It goes so far beyond the bounds of rationality, most just fall back on calling it "evil." The Russians have a name for it: "soul sickness."

The bitter irony is that our top researchers are able to plot out "pleasure centers" through neuroimaging of the brain, create and prolong virility and even erase those unwanted wrinkles that start to appear after 30. We're even tinkering with creating synthetic life by reassembling DNA strands.

What's the point of all of this unless we can identify, understand and treat the homocidal impulse? Is there a trigger in the brain that allows us to murder without some form of conscience guiding us? How do we turn this switch off? How do we find the people who are most prone to do this?

Question for our theologians: At what point do we lose our soul and start taking other lives indiscriminately? For our politicians: Have we created a culture of war through the various military actions we've taken in recent years that these madmen feel justified in some way? And how about the social ecology angle: Is this violence inspired by the mass destruction of our planet? More questions than answers, of course, and it's little consolation to the families whose lives have been wrecked by these maniacs.

I know these questions are difficult. Yet they tear at the fabric of our society. The more technology advances, the more our souls remain thorough mysteries. We should stop torturing ourselves with these queries and dedicate research to finding the answers. Our collective soul depends upon it.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Rainforest's Rich Rewards: Costa Rica, Economics and Our Survival

We're just back from Costa Rica, where it struck me that the real crisis of saving rainforests -- and our planet -- is not just about ecology, biodiversity and climate change. It's about economics.

We simply don't have the language yet to describe the need to preserve the environment for economic reasons. Would you call it bio-economics? Green Economics? Semantics aside, this is what's at stake: The rainforests are being carved up for purely economic reasons. And we need to do the math to show to every country the global economic harm done by chopping them down.

You've seen the many warnings on why it's important to preserve these treasures of biodiversity.

* They are tremendous carbon sinks. Because of their abundant variety and depth of plant life, they act as huge sponges for carbon dioxide. When we slash and burn a rainforest, it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While the long-term effects of this damage can only be predicted by computer modelling, we do know the tangible harm is causes now.

* Because there is relatively little topsoil under a rainforest, it's easily eroded. Topsoil loss is a huge problem in every country, but in tropical climates it's especially critical because it is washed away so easily because of the incredible amount of rain pounding away at the ground every day.

* When you lose topsoil, you can forget about long-term agricultural practices. Infertile soil is depleted of nutrients fairly quickly. And to restore fertility, you need to add petrochemical-based fertilizers, which eventually leach into watersheds and destroy the chemical balances of river and ocean systems.

* Topsoil lost through extensive grazing can't be replaced unless you truck it in, which is incredibly expensive and almost never done. Nature naturally restores fertility through decomposition. But that doesn't happen unless the entire system of bacteria, fungi, plant and insect life is in place.

* Rainforests have some role in regulating climate. Barren areas can't absorb atmospheric moisture. so it has to go somewhere else. Does that mean monstrous floods on the Ganges, snowstorms in China or mudslides in California? No one knows for sure, but the amount of water in the atmosphere is a finite quantity. If it's not falling in tropics, the winds will push it somewhere else. We're all part of this huge system. We mess with the balance and everything is off kilter.

* Biodiversity is critical because every plant and animal has a role in making the system work. Hummingbirds help fertilize flowers. Millipedes help aid decomposition. Snakes keep the rodent population in check. Darwin was so right about each living thing having its own niche. All living things are team players and don't even know it, but we sure do. The rainforest, with its massive population of flora and fauna, is the New York, London and Shanghai of the living world system.

Costa Rica brought home these concepts because I could see living things in their environment. I saw a millipede doing its work. I watched a hummingbird sit on her eggs. I spied two rare Quetzals in the wild. You can't get this in a Disney theme park.

In addition to seeing and listening to this natural symphony, I could see how fragile it all is, a glass menagerie of flora and fauna. Costa Rica, which has nominally protected one quarter of its land in preserves, is only the size of West Virginia. Since it doesn't have the resources to buy all the land it needs to keep it out of the hands of developers, it's still quite vulnerable. Poaching is a huge problem. The most remote areas are inaccessible because the local road system is awful -- not that that is a bad thing. I couldn't use my cellphone or wireless internet in some of the most splendid areas on the tops of mountains and it didn't bother me a whit.

You can fly over the mid-section of Costa Rica in a half hour, in which time you will have traveled from the warm, blue waters of the Pacific to the steamy Caribbean Sea. It's literally the waist that connects North and South America, but what a slim, sensuous mid-section it is!

There are 12 climatic/life zones in Costa Rica, meaning that you can go from an alpine cloud forest where the humidity is constant, to a dry grassland in a matter of minutes. Monteverde, which is a mile high, is the most famous of the cloud forests and consists of a patchwork of reserves from the Arenal Volcano to Santa Elena, a bohemian enclave with a view of the Pacific.

Such splendor in Monteverde can not be adequately described in words. It's the poster child for biodiversity: 400 bird, 100 mammal, 120 amphibians/reptile and 3,000 plant species occupy this region where the moisture of the Caribbean creeps over the Tilaran range then condenses on the forest canopy when it hits the hotter air of the Pacific. When I was touring the Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso (, I saw two rare, resplendent Queztals, a tarantula, howler monkeys, hummingbirds and dozens of migrating songbirds. You felt enveloped by life, even though I was wearing four layers and my hands felt cold.

I love this chorus of life, but not because I'm an eco-spectator. I relish the questions we need to ask and a search for the answers. We need a new philosophy and economic science that somehow values these living systems so that we have a universal measure like a dollar or a Euro. I know that these entities are priceless. We may be able to document their genomes or even reproduce them through genetic science, but how do we re-insert them into a living system and make them working parts of the eco-sphere once they're gone? What ecologists say about the rainforest is true: There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of species yet to be discovered and catalogued and we have no clue how they fit into the grand network of life. I'm certainly on board with the idea of preserving them for their own sake, but we need to make a much better argument to governments, policymakers, ranchers, farmers and developers that these species have bio-economic values.

On the last day of our visit, my family and I witnessed a heroic sunset over the Pacific from our bungalow. Monkeys screeched in the trees outside our window. Iguanas waltzed through the resturant next door. Even in our man-made environment -- an anthroscape -- we could see the vulnerability of the coastline going north. Much of the vegetation was gone. Someone was burning several acres. Was it for a ranch? A new condo building? A luxury home? Suppose there was a tax imposed on anyone destroying habitat or topsoil that would be channeled into buying land for the sake of protecting it? Or maybe the tax would be doubled if the home or commercial site diminished biodiversity, watershed quality, plant life volume or impacted climate change.

Okay, if you're in the real estate business, a little black light goes on in your head: If it costs too much to build, then nobody will and Third World countries will remain poor, jobs won't be created and tourists won't come. That's not true. Costa Rica is a case in point. The tiny country once grew bananas. A blight knocked out that industry and United Fruit left. Then they tried ranching. When the price of beef plummets that no longer makes sense, even though once the land is carved up for cattle it can't be fully restored.

Then the enlightened folks in San Jose seized on the big idea: Why not preserve their greatest assets (note the economic term) and see if anyone shows up. The results have been spectacular. Eco-Tourism is their top business, bringing in more than 1.6 million visitors a year. Those tourists spend money, hire drivers, tour guides and other service professionals, then tell other First-World folks what a terrific place Costa Rica is.

So here we stand. The rainforest can be profitable. It is an asset. It can provide return on investment. I know this sounds coarse, but this is the language we need to use. It may make the difference between preserving our planet -- or watching it be devoured.