$300 Million Earmarked to Educate Scott Walker

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WI Governor Scott Walker transfixed by a small blinking light

Madison, WI

In an unprecedented move Wednesday morning, the Wisconsin State Legislature approved a $300 million emergency spending bill to educate Governor Scott Walker.

Citing Governor Walker’s history of cutting the state’s education budget by $1.2 billion and his support for drug-testing welfare recipients even after such programs were shown to be failures in Florida, Tennessee, and Utah, the bill’s supporters are hoping the program will move governance back onto more solid footing and jump start the state’s faltering economy.

“Look, Act 10 was one thing. Most of us just thought he was screwing around trying to rally the base or whatever. Gutting public sector unions was all in good fun. We kinda went along for the ride on that one,” claimed Senate Majority Leader Scott L. Fitzgerald (R – Juneau ) “But then things just kept coming. Turning down the High Speed Rail money. Killing the wind farm project. The kicker for me was refusing the Medicaid expansion. We gave up hundreds of millions of dollars on that one while running a deficit. That’s when we all started to wonder if maybe he just didn’t know any better.”

A tipping point was reached for many during the Governor’s recent trade mission to Great Britain. When asked by a member of the British press about the theory of evolution, Governor Walker was unable to provide an answer. “Who fumbles the evolution question these days?” asked Fitzgerald. “You either say ‘I believe in evolution’ or you say ‘I’m no scientist’ and give the camera a little wink to let the Bible thumpers know you’re throwing them a bone. This is first-semester poli-sci stuff. How can you be running for President and not have any answer?”

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D- La Crosse) expects the bipartisan bill to be signed by Walker himself later this afternoon in the usual manner of slipping it among the Governor’s growing stack of travel expense reports.

“He won’t even notice. Short term, it’s not going to do our projected $2 billion state budget shortfall any favors,” Shilling said of the emergency measure. “But what choice do we have, really? The deficit is exploding and he’s still trying to pass more tax cuts. The man is a menace in his current condition.”

When pressed about the spiraling cost of the bill, Shilling directed us to the Dean of UW Madison’s School of Education, Julie Underwood. “$300 million is certainly a lot, but after several weeks of evaluations, it is our best estimate to provide for this student’s special needs, so long as we can get it in before his new budget cuts take effect.”

“At first, we thought it would be a simple matter of picking up where Governor Walker left off after he dropped out of Marquette. Unfortunately, the… gaps in his knowledge proved larger than anyone feared. We have to go all the way back to kindergarten, but we hope to cover his grade school courses Billy Madison style in less than three months.”

Asked about the cost of educating the Wisconsin electorate, who has willingly elected Walker three times in five years, Underwood was less enthusiastic. “Oh God, that would bankrupt the entire country. Let’s just focus on the Governor for now and hope it does the trick.”

The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative

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Okay, so the title is a bit of click bait. Fiscal conservatives aren’t a myth, exactly, but recent events in my home state of Wisconsin have helped to drive home just how rare the species has become in the modern political landscape.

With the birth of the tea-party in 2009, it appeared a genuine, grassroots movement towards grater fiscal responsibility and restraint was in the cards. Sure, they just happened to spring up at the same time the scary, black, Muslim, illegal immigrant broke the centuries-long streak of honest, God-fearing white dudes in the White House or whatever, but I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The reality, however, has been very different. In actual practice, the Tea Party and conservative movement in general appear to have little interest in supporting sane fiscal policy. The examples are legion. Here in WI, GOP Governor and hater of education, Scott Walker, has in recent weeks come out in favor of drug testing the state’s welfare recipients and those collecting unemployment insurance. The most common justification for this policy is to save taxpayers money by removing drug abusers from the welfare rolls on the assumption that if they have money for drugs, they should have money for food, etc.

But like so many ideologically driven policies that sound great in a sound-byte, the reality is much different. Wisconsin is not the first state to try this testing policy. Florida and Tennessee among others have previously implemented drug-testing laws. Florida’s law was short-lived. After a successful legal challenge, it was overturned on the grounds that drug testing welfare recipients amounted to a violation of our 4th Amendment protections against unwarranted searches, a viewpoint I share.

However, Florida’s law was in effect for long enough to test the law’s fiscal justifications. As it happens, of the people tested, only 2.6% of them failed the test, a rate far lower than the admitted drug use of the population as a whole. Not only did Florida’s experience prove many of the stereotypes about welfare recipients being drug-addled lay-abouts completely wrong, but in the final calculus, the process of drug-testing the entire welfare population actually cost state taxpayers more money than what they saved by denying benefits to the tiny percentage of people who failed the test.

Meanwhile Tennessee’s law remains intact for the time being, but their experience trying to catch drug abusers among their welfare population has proven to be even more futile. In the first month of testing, among the 800 people who applied for welfare assistance, only one failed the testing regime. Not one percent, one person total. And while that number is sure to grow in the coming months, a rate of 0.12% isn’t exactly knocking the cover off the ball.

So in review, drug-testing welfare recipients has not only been found unconstitutional by multiple appeals courts, but its central economic justification is actually counter-productive, costing taxpayers more money than doing nothing. If you’re genuinely worried about fiscal responsibility in government, real-world data says you cannot support these laws.

Yet in spite of these objective facts, drug testing people who need temporary welfare assistance remains overwhelmingly popular among self-identified conservatives. Nor is drug-testing the only example of so called conservatives supporting policies that actively tips our national balance sheet further into the red.

On the subject of contraceptive coverage, conservatives similarly undermine their own claimed values of fiscal sanity. As reported by the Brookings Institute, every dollar society spends on family planning services and comprehensive sex education leads to a savings of anywhere between two and six dollars of future costs. It’s not hard to understand why. It’s a lot cheaper to buy a lot of condoms and BC pills than it is to pay for the medical costs of an unintended pregnancy, or to then pay to feed that child into adulthood through the welfare and Medicaid systems.

Texas experienced this directly when they cut family planning spending by $73 million, and then suffered a $230 million spike in Medicaid spending. So what are conservatives doing? Pushing to cut even more family planning services, embrace abstinence only education programs that actually increase teen pregnancy, and do everything they can to drive women’s health clinics out of business across the country.

In case after case, from the popularity of expanding defense spending and excitement for fresh military engagements in Iraq, Iran, and Russia, to the refusal of many GOP controlled states to accept the Medicaid expansion at the cost of billions denied to their state budgets and local economies, conservative voters and politicians consistently support policies and take actions that worsen our nation’s finances and put additional burdens on their citizens.

At last count, the GOP lead House has voted fifty-six times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, despite the fact the ACA is already bending down the healthcare cost curve, has extended the solvency of the Medicare Trust Fund by years, and is projected to save just under a trillion dollars (with a T) off the long-term debt. Repealing the ACA would cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars, yet they have no plans for what to replace it with once it’s repealed to plug the hole.

On marijuana , which has been proven in both CO and WA states to be immensely successful in creating tax revenue while reducing government spending on law enforcement and incarceration, conservatives continue to oppose legalization.

Even on the topic of same-sex marriage, which has been shown to have a small but measurable positive economic impact on those states where it’s legal, conservative politicians continue to stand in opposition even as support among conservative voters grows.

I’m not saying that a policy’s economic impact should be the only consideration for self-proclaimed conservatives to weigh on the important issues facing our country. Nor am I necessarily saying that their policy proposals are wrong just because they cost more money, (I tend to think they’re wrong for a whole host of other reasons). However, in almost every instance I can think of, when so called conservatives are asked to prioritize the economic impact of their policies, fiscal reality takes a backseat to either religious or ideological purity. Indeed, the one piece of near universal economic policy gospel among conservatives is slashing taxes, especially for the very wealthy, despite the fact cutting taxes (which are already at or near historic lows) simply slashes government revenue and further exacerbates our deficit, growing the debt.

Which is why I can no longer take the claims of the GOP and Tea Party as being the natural stewards of fiscal responsibility and economic heath seriously. In poll after poll of their members, social issues take precedence over fiscal impact every time.

Maybe there are real fiscal conservatives out there, hiding in the brush, afraid to speak out in opposition to drug testing welfare recipients, or in support of wider contraceptive access. Maybe there are some genuine limited-government types who extend their love of freedom and liberty to minorities, women, homosexuals, and the poor instead of only those Americans who can trace their ancestry to landed southern gentry.

People like me, for example. If you happen to see another one of these magical unicorns, let me know. It’s getting pretty lonely out here.

8 Things Comics Want Audiences to Know

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Comedian

Hey, audiences, we love you. We really do. We couldn’t do this comedy thing without you. Well, I guess we could, but telling jokes to an empty room is not fun for us. Trust me, we’ve all done it.

But, sometimes, this magical relationship between performer and consumer can get a little testy.  Over the weekend, a good friend of mine had an uncomfortable run in with an audience member who had mistaken herself for the next Simon Cowell.

Most of the time, I’ve found that these moments are a direct result of a failure of expectations on either side of the mic. So, to try and fix that, here’s a few things comics on any rung of the ladder would like you to know about writing jokes, performing comedy, and what we need from audiences so we can give you the best show possible:

1) Being funny is hard: This seems obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that not everyone can do what comedians do. For many folks, the idea of public speaking is terrifying enough. The thought of getting on stage and talking frankly about all of your flaws and failures as a human being sounds like the sort of thing that should be banned by the Geneva Conventions against torture. It takes a certain kind of person to get in front of a mic and bear their soul to a group of strangers with the express purpose of getting them to laugh at them.

Even among those of us who do, almost no one is a ‘natural’ talent. Every comic you see in a club or on TV has, in all probability, been carefully, methodically toiling away in relative obscurity for many years honing their sets, their timing, their joke writing, and their ability to read and interact with audiences. And in my (admittedly limited) experience, it’s that last one that takes the most time and really separates the good comics from the great ones.

2) The less you pay, the more you get: I know that sounds backwards, but stick with me. On any given night in the city, there is comedy to be heard. From open mics to showcases to weekend headliners, from basement meet-ups to bar shows to comedy clubs to sold-out arenas, there is every imaginable kind and quality of comedy to be had for those willing to search it out. But here’s something to keep in mind as you go further down the rabbit hole of local comedy. If you’re not paying to see us, we’re probably not getting paid to perform for you. Your average open mic or bar room showcase doesn’t have anything like a budget. If the performers are compensated at all, it’s usually in drink tickets or a small bar tab.

As a result, your free shows attract large numbers of primarily local, non-touring comics still near the beginning of their careers. These events are practice for us. Open mics are where we try out new material, often in large volumes, sifting through trying to find the hidden gems. This is what I mean when I said you get more the less you pay. You’ll see dozens of comics in a night, each getting 3-5 minutes of stage time, and each one trying to polish up the pile of turds they wrote that week. If we walk away from an open mic with one new joke that stuck, we consider it a success.

No, you pay more to see less. Fewer comedians telling fewer jokes, because they are the ones that survived the gauntlet and are worth the price of admission.

3) Nothing personal, but shut the hell up: I know, you think you have a brilliant one-liner, or you heard something on your personal list of “THINGS THAT MUST NEVER BE TOLERATED,” or (and this is the worst of all) you anticipate the punchline and you’re so excited that you just have to blurt it out.

Stop. Just fucking stop.

Here’s the thing. Talking or shouting at a comic during their set is disrespectful as hell. Not just to the man or woman on stage trying their best to entertain you, but to everyone else in the crowd who has come out to support the comedians. Literally no one wants to hear what you have to say. The comic is there to reward the audience with a laughs, a skill that requires focus, split-second timing, and a sharp memory, any one of which can be broken by your interruption. And the audience, in turn, came out to listen to the professionals ply their trade. In case you’re confused, they’re the ones holding the microphone. If that’s not you, keep it to yourself unless the comic is doing crowd work and asks you a direct question.

If you think you have funny things to say, write them down and come back on an open mic night. If you don’t like something you heard on stage, just don’t laugh. We know we’ve screwed up when no one laughs. And if you really must, wait until after the show to explain, calmly and respectfully, why you felt a particular joke was hurtful or inappropriate. You’ll find us appreciative that you didn’t disrupt the show more often than not, and will probably either tweak a joke or explain our motivations for it.

4) We like you a little drunk:

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I’ve played several sober shows for various reasons where there was no alcohol being served. They’re tough. A couple of drinks really helps to lower inhibitions and make people more sociable and receptive. The absence of alcohol generally means colder crowds who are tighter with their laughs. The two-drink minimum in most professional clubs is there to help everyone, from the cocktail servers, to the club owners, to the comedians, and in the end the audiences themselves who end up getting a better show. Laughter is infectious. The more the people around you are doing it, the more you do it, and soon the awkward walls we put up around us come crashing down. So loosen up, relax, and have a couple of drinks.

5) But not too drunk:

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Look. We’re all adults here. We’ve all had a few too many. We’ve all done things with a lampshade or an intern that we would later come to regret. But if you do this at a comedy show, odds are you’re going to mutate into the loud talker/heckler from #3 and a lot of bad things are going to happen. The comic is going to embarrass you in front of your friends, then security is going to throw you into a snowbank. So relax, but don’t start building shot glass pyramids.

6) We can’t see you: Seriously. If you’ve never been on a stage, the lights are almost blinding. Add in the fact the rest of the room is dark and the human eye just doesn’t know what to do with itself. You know when you’re driving late at night and the asshole in the oncoming lane doesn’t know when to dim his brights? It’s like that, except for anywhere from five minuets to an hour. Oh, and they’re often hot as balls up there. We usually can’t see more than a few rows into the audience with any level of detail, so if you go to see your friend and they don’t acknowledge you until after the show, they’re not being a jerk. You should have sat up front anyway, this isn’t a school bus with the cool kids at the back.

7) The “Line” doesn’t exist: We’ve all heard about the scandals that erupt when a comic goes over “The Line” ™. Usually, the line is crossed in regards to jokes of a sexual or racial nature, or other hot button issues like rape, abortion, etc. But here’s the thing, the line is a completely arbitrary construct. It does not exist in the real world, and is based entirely on the collective judgment of that crowd, in that room, at that hour.

I have seen comedians joke about every subject that you’ve been told are “never funny” and absolutely slaughter with them. I watched a man not two weeks ago strangling his microphone stand with the mic cord, pretending to be a parent murdering their own child for being creepy. I’m the father of a three year old girl. That joke should be over my line, but it wasn’t. The amount of groundwork he’d put into laying out the joke, coupled with the trust he’d built up with the audience and his general zany persona on stage had all created a situation where the audience was not only comfortable going along with the premise, but empathized enough with it to reward him with enormous laughter, myself included.

The same is true of any other subject or situation. The line is crossed when a comic fails to do their job of building trust with their audience and finding ways to give the audience permission to laugh. The line is entirely contextual. Jokes a gay man can tell with impunity a straight man could get booed for if they’re not careful. What’s different? Trust and permission. And it takes a lot of practice to figure out how to ride the edge. Some people never manage it, but the truth is riding the line is where the best, most impactful comedy and social commentary comes from. So when someone finds themselves on the other side of it unexpectedly, give them the benefit of the doubt before you decide to go rip them apart on Twitter and start leveling accusations at their character.

8) Hosting/Guest spots are the hardest part of the show: If you’ve ever been to a comedy club, you’re probably familiar with the show format. It goes something like this: A host comes out and welcomes/thanks you for coming, makes a bunch of announcements, then goes on to tell between 8-12 minutes of their own material. Then you might get a special “Guest” comic that appears to do 5-10 minutes of material. After that the “Feature” comic appears to do 20-25 minutes, and finally the “Headliner” closes everything up with 40-60 minutes and we call it a night.

Odds are the Headliner is the only name you’ve ever heard before and maybe the feature act. Those two are professional comics. They are busy touring the country, even the world. They aren’t making a killing doing it, but they’re living the dream. So who are these other two knuckle heads?

Well, let me tell you. The guest comic is almost invariably a local comic who has gotten good enough to catch the attention of the club manager or booker. They aren’t being paid, they may not even be getting free drinks. The guest spot is the first stepping stone in the comedy world to bigger things. Think of it as an audition. Guest comics are trying to make an impression in a very short amount of time in front of an audience who isn’t there to see them and probably doesn’t know or care who they are. It’s probable that they’ve been in front of a genuine club audience fewer that a half dozen times. It may even be their first time. A good set means they get to try it again on the way to hosting a night or weekend, a bad set may push them back down the list and cost them months of work to build back up again. Guest spots are under a great deal of pressure to perform, yet have the least experience doing so. It’s a tough gig.

The host isn’t much better. Hosts are usually the guest comics that survived and are given more responsibility. They are usually paid a small amount for their work, but not always. They are trying to build up their reputation enough to become a feature act. They have to step out in front of a cold crowd who’s drink orders are still being delivered, and remember not only their material, but the club announcements and the other comics names and accolades. This is about where I am at the moment, and while it’s a lot of fun, it’s also pretty stressful and nerve-wracking.

So please, pay attention to the host and the guest comics. They have a lot riding on the outcome of the show, even more that the headliner in some respects. Throw them a laugh when they earn it, and when you’re filing out of the room, shake their hand and let them know their work was appreciated.

I’ve got more to say, but this post has gone on a lot longer than I planned, so it’ll have to wait for another day. And comics, feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.

After the Draft: Let’s Talk Money

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There’s been a movement among authors lately to be more open and transparent about what they earn.  Jim C. Hines has been sharing an annual report for seven years already, while Hugo winner Kameron Hurley made waves last week with her own blog post.

The purpose of these reports is not to boast. Far from it. Instead, these authors and many others are trying to give aspiring writers more realistic expectations of what a career in publishing looks like. And if more people understand that not all creatives are swimming in Scrooge McDuck money, just maybe a reader or two will think twice about torrenting or otherwise pirating the next book they want to read.

I support this drive towards greater transparency, so I’ve decided to add my own data points to the conversation. As readers of the blog will know, I’ve recently signed my very first book deal with Angry Robot Books for my debut novel THE ARK and a sequel. Here’s the final deal:

THE ARK (Fall 2015)

Advance: £3,000 ($4,500 at current exchange rate)

TRIDENT’S FORGE (Summer 2016)

Advance: £3,000 ($4,500 at current exchange rate)

As far as I can tell, these advances are a little on the low end for a debut author from a major publisher, but that is not a reflection on Angry Robot Books’ generosity. In the case of this deal, my agent and I decided to take smaller advances in exchange for retaining audio rights. This gives us opportunities for more sales in the future and multiple revenue streams, although there are certainly no guarantees.

I think I’ll follow Jim’s example and make this a yearly report for those who are interested, and I encourage other writers to do the same.

Hating Football Doesn’t Make You a Better Nerd

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With another Super Bowl Sunday upon us, my social media feeds are again reminding me of the truly bizarre, self-imposed wall that exists between so much of nerdom and sports.

I am a massive nerd. I am also a massive football fan.

These are not contradictory stances. One does not exclude you from being the other. Growing up in WI, it was simply assumed that one was a Packers fan. It’s a religion up here, something that binds us all together and helps to get us through not only the long winters, but family gatherings that would otherwise be incredibly awkward. During football season, we didn’t bother playing D&D on Sundays, because the elven ranger, dwarven defender, and halfling rogue were ALL watching Brett Favre. That’s just the way it was, and still is.

So it was truly  striking and alien to me when I started traveling to cons throughout the country to see the dismissive, outright hostile attitude so many geeks display towards anything pro-sports. There are those among our community that actually take pride in their complete, self-enforced ignorance of what are the most popular passtimes in our society.

This attitude is the antithesis of everything I understand being a nerd to mean.

Let me tell you something about being a geek, maybe the best part, actually. Being a geek means not having to be embarrassed about the things that you love. It means you can shout your enthusiasm from the rooftops without caring what the mundanes think about it. It means being part of a community that doesn’t judge you for your over-the-top devotion to the strange, the off-beat, the obscure.

So why do some of us think it’s okay to be so dismissive, even antagonistic towards the love of things slightly more mainstream? I have a secret; sports fans are some of the biggest geeks out there. You want endless lists of stats to memorize? They have you covered. Merchandise to collect? Done. Throngs of rabid fans who will sit out hours or days in freezing temperatures for tickets? Honey, you have no idea. Cosplay? Have you seen a Buffalo Wind Wings on game day?

They’re no different, and no better or worse, than the rest of us. Sure, the guys huddled around their laptops in the sports bar drafting their fantasy team may not recognize the parallels to a basement full of guys rolling character sheets, but they’re still there. So stop pretending there are different strata of geekdom, or that some types of nerdiness are less legitimate than others. That reeks of the same type of arrogant elitism and entitlement that so many of us chaffed under back in school.

I am a geek about many things. I wear my Packer Superbowl XLV hat as proudly as I display my One Ring armband tattoo. And that’s okay.

This is not to say that nerds shouldn’t have opinions about sports, even negative opinions, about racist team names, or drug abuse, or concussion scandals, or the scourge of domestic violence. Absolutely you can, and should voice your opinions on these issues to try and shape the culture of professional sports and their impact on our society going forward.

But don’t pretend that remaining deliberately ignorant of a thing somehow makes you better or more enlightened than those who embrace it.

When is that ever true?