Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 

Latest Posts

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

Anger seems to be building about the imminent government bailout of the players and institutions caught up in the burst housing bubble. BusinessWeek‘s recession roundup piece this week touches on the brewing unrest (though only to make them seem a bit like wild-eyed radicals):


The airwaves and blogosphere are alive with people who say nothing should be done. They argue that intervening now would only delay the inevitable liquidation of credit-fueled excesses. “Under proposed bailouts, responsible people lose and have to give their money to gamblers, liars, and sleazy lenders,” says the widely followed Patrick.net housing blog.


This fury makes for the possibility of an otherwise unlikely shift in political orientation for the non-homeowning chumps who are going to end up being punished for their circumspection during the bubble’s inflation. Latte-sipping liberals like myself are ordinarily unlikely to pay much attention to the government-hating complaints of libertarians, but this passage from economist Arnold Kling at Econlog seemed to strike a chord with me:


There was some predatory borrowing going on in addition to predatory lending. And the worst lending mistakes were made by the least regulated segment of the market. So you have inexperienced amateur real estate speculators getting financing from Rolex-wearing mortgage brokers who sell the loans to 24-year-old Beamer-driving Wall Street investment bankers. Why can’t the rest of us just sit back and watch them all get what they deserve?
Instead, we get the Treasury and Congress coming up with “plans” to rewrite mortgages. These brilliant solutions contribute to making the mortgage securities market totally illiquid, because now nobody has any idea what the cash flows are going be under the (make them up as you go along) rules.



Earlier in this crisis, when the Fed was not handing out billions to investment bankers, I would have scoffed at the phrase predatory borrowing as a conservative sophism designed to conceal how ignorant but hopeful first-time buyers were led into deep water by unscrupulous mortgage brokers. The state, the media, and business all linked arms to tout home ownership as the only legitimate path to bourgeois security and fulfillment of the true American dream (the “ownership society”), and then aflame with that ideology, eventual subprime borrowers scrambled to get themselves some of that sweet home equity. Who could blame them? The abuses of the lending industry were so egregious, it was easy to overlook the overreaching by borrowers who were just trying to live the dream that had been foisted on them.


Seemingly everyone endorsed this program—the state, the banks, the press, your friends and neighbors—so now the sentiment appears to be that everyone should pitch in to clean up now that the program has been revealed to be a total mess. The housing bubble was a shared social problem that derived from people with laudable intentions but misguided methods. That’s BusinessWeek’s view:


There’s a social aspect, too. Concentrated foreclosures, voluntary and otherwise, can destroy neighborhoods because abandonment increases decay and crime. And the housing crash undermines the social compact. “Talk about the rich vs. the poor was to some extent buffered by rising house prices. Now all you have to do is stare at your paycheck and your negative home equity,” frets University of Chicago Graduate School of Business economist Raghuram G. Rajan.


But I am having a harder and harder time accepting that “social compact”, or maintaining sympathy for borrowers in over their heads in homes (which incidentally have destroyed the countryside in which I was raised) that have far more space than they need. They were under ideological pressure to keep up, but somehow I resisted. If the housing problems exacerbates tensions between rich and poor, that might even be a good thing for getting some measures through to ameliorate income inequality in general. But instead we are getting measures that are worsening it.


So I agree with Kling when he writes this:


The people who most deserve to be in homes now are the people who decided in 2005 and 2006 that they could not afford the then-prevailing house prices or who decided to at least wait to accumulate a down payment. If you can sort out the predatory borrowers from the victims of predatory lenders sufficiently well to identify the latter, then the best thing that you can do with taxpayer money is to write checks for those victims.
The way I see it, government has served primarily to prolong and exacerbate the problem.


Sadly, there is little solace at this point in feeling like a smarty-pants for staying out of trouble and being resistant to the dominant ideology, when those in trouble are still getting the love and attention from the government in the form of tax breaks and handouts and, now, most likely, bailouts. It’s becoming easier and easier to lump the borrowers in with the brokers and bankers who exploited the dream at the expense, it turns out, of skeptics and habitual rule-followers who thought twice about liar loans or thought it would be insane to expect home prices to continue to double every 18 months. The borrowers fueled the fire that is now burning through my money and the state’s diverting it from investments that might help me much more directly.


Yes, preventing the Great Depression II is a worthwhile cause, but one that should have been forestalled by all the regulatory checks and balances in place to manage the economy. Instead, we had a Fed and treasury Department also wrapped up in ideology during the bubble-building years: they refused to regulate the exploding lending industry and kept rates unreasonably low for too long to keep lenders awash in cheap money, which inevitably found its way into hyperinflated home values. And if the expected bailouts come through, moral hazard will reign supreme, as will the underlying fantasia about the importance of owning homes.


In this climate, the Democratic presidential candidates seem to be saying the wrong things and the Republican candidate the apparently sensible thing:


In the Presidential race, Republican Senator John McCain doesn’t want to bail out either side, favoring private workouts between borrowers and lenders. Here’s how he summed up his feelings on Mar.11: “It is not the government’s role to bail out investors…or lending institutions who didn’t do their job.” Democratic Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both tilt toward homeowners, but Clinton is more aggressive, calling for a voluntary 5-year freeze on subprime mortgage rates and a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures.


No one likes foreclosures—everybody involved loses. But no one likes deadbeats either. And no one likes ridiculously unaffordable prices for residential real estate. And homeowners who can’t afford the mortgages they signed up for—credulously or not—are not automatically victims. The real victims are the renters, who are seeing their rents increase with inflation while jobs become scarcer. That pool includes a lot of urbanites who you’d expect to lean Democratic, and they are probably more vulnerable than they would be ordinarily to some clever rhetoric from the Republicans. But then again, nothing about the current politicos in the G.O.P. leads me to believe that the party has the savvy or the inclination to make the pitch.


So the enemies of the ownership society have no place to turn.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008

Anyone who’s writing about a multi-stage festival is jiving you when they say they’re really reporting on it.  Unless they cloned themselves to do the rounds, the truth is that they caught a fraction of what was offered up.  At best, the writer is gonna fish for some kind of angle and sum-up moments that cover the whole festival but read a few of those articles and other than mentioning a few of the same bands, it sounds like these scribes attended different fests.  What usually gets written up are the buzz bands of the moment, big marquee names and maybe if they’re lucky, a handful of mostly unknown acts (I did that myself on my other blog).  At just about every panel at SXSW that I’ve done, a question always comes up from an inspiring musician or label about what they need to do to get noticed in this onslaught of music.  Ideally, the right answer would be “write good songs” but the truth is that you can just as easily (or more easily) make it on a good sound or a good appearance.  But what the hell does it mean for a band to get noticed in 2008?


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 18, 2008
Banana Pepper Martinis is L.B. Jeffries' weekly in-depth look at video gaming. This week, a study of the role of magic in games.


For all the fantasy trappings that dominate video games, it’s kind of surprising that there aren’t many games that push the boundaries of what magic could do in a video game. I’m going to operate on the loose definition of magic as “a supernatural ability to interact with your environment” both for the sake of argument and to illustrate a greater problem with video games & magic. Simply put, a supernatural force that is supposed to give me the ability to do anything does not, in video games, seem to do much except be an elaborate light switch.


Every RPG that comes out, every action game that uses magic, is confined by one simple paradox: it’s only for combat. In Hexen magic was little more than a different kind of gun that the player used. In games like Final Fantasy or Baldur’s Gate, magic mostly served as a different method of attack. In both Diablos, it can’t even be used inside of town, much less for anything besides killing. All that magic really boils down to in games is variations on attacking, healing, shields, flying, fear spells, etc. Okay, flying is cool, but BESIDES that, you start to get the idea that most wizards in video games tend to be very bloody minded people. Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic comes to mind as an exemption, but it was little more than a dialogue option that tended to kill the conversation in that instance. I’m not shitting on magical combat in video games, mind you. I’m just noting the fact that all elements in combat, whether it be an RPG or a shooter, involve kill or be killed. You’re either hurting someone or enhancing your ability to hurt someone. Again, that’s not a problem, but for something with the interactive potential of magic to be reduced to a boomstick…it kind of leaves you wondering. After all, a gun does not have a lot of variety even in real life. You’re either shooting it or you’re not, leaving it to be little more than the interactive equivalent of a light switch. Why should magic be trapped along the same principles? Would it be possible for someone to feature magic in a game that wasn’t expressly pre-determined to just go boom (or help me go boom) all the time?


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Mar 17, 2008


South Park has always been a show about contrasts. On the one hand, creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have loved to wallow in the infantile juvenilia that make a series about foul mouthed grade schoolers so much fun. It’s a combination of toilet humor and gross out gratuity that these men have truly mastered. But there is also the savvy, satiric side to their work, a clear cut social commentary conceit that often cuts to the very funny bone of otherwise sensitive, hot button issues. It’s why, unlike Seth McFarlane and other Family Guy pretenders, Parker and Stone remains solid comic geniuses. Clear proof of this exists in the three-part trilogy from Season 11 entitled Imaginationland. Turned into a direct-to-DVD “movie” by Paramount to capitalize on Park‘s continued success, it stands as one of the best things this animated anarchy has ever accomplished.


When fussy Eric Cartman bets cynical Kyle Broflovski that leprechauns do exist, the stakes are rather severe. If Cartman loses, he owes his nemesis $10. If Kyle loses, he must suck Eric’s balls - literally. When a mission into the local woods turns up one of the Irish imps, it looks like the wager is won. But the leprechaun was supposed to warn far off Imaginationland of a terrorist attack, and when he fails to arrive, Al-Qaida starts kicking fictional character ass. Unfortunately, the mayor of the whimsical region has just brought Park boys Stan Marsh, Jimmy Volmer, and Leopold “Butters” Storch for a visit. As Cartman continues his efforts to get Kyle to “pay up”, everyone but Butters escapes. He is used by the terrorists as a tool to open up the gates of the evil side of Imaginationland. In the meantime, the government gets a Stargate style idea to infiltrate the pretend place and put a nuke directly in the Islamic extremist’s way.


For anyone who wonders why, after 12 seasons, South Park remains the best animated show on television, something like Imaginationland is all the proof any defender requires. Drop dead brilliant from beginning to end, and successfully applying the patented production approach of meshing the retarded with the regal, this hour long expanded episode stands as a shining moment for all involved. Parker and Stone have been flawless before, bringing their strangled, surreal sensibility to their big screen First Amendment romp Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and delivering definitive episodes (“Timmy 2000”, “It Hits the Fan”) throughout the course of their decade long run. But nothing can prepare you for the epic scope and sense of fun found here. Digging through a list of fictional characters that everyone recognizes (Raggedy Ann, Mickey Mouse) is one thing. To include religious icons and social symbols pushes everything one step closer to a full fledged masterpiece.


The premise is just as transcendent. The notion that terrorists have “infiltrated our imagination” and that, as a result of their actions, our “imaginations have run wild” resonates as so provocative and profound that it’s amazing no one has thought of it before. The added element of the evil entities provides a solid subtext, as it makes the viewer wonder, what’s worse - a suicide bomber or an unleashed Freddy Krueger. Al Gore gets another Manbearpig moment, and everyone’s favorite Satanic wildlife, the wicked Woodland Critters, show up to soil everything with their amoral attitude. Indeed, it is during these moments, the times when fuzzy little squirrels and cuddly little bunnies are suggesting abominable acts that Parker and Stone really shine.



The bawdy “B” story is equally redolent. Cartman’s obsession with his genitals may seem sick, but as the creators note on the almost full length audio commentary (the longest they’ve ever done, by their own admission), there is nothing sexual here. Instead, it’s all about power and humiliation. Even when our portly provocateur goes to great lengths to double entendre his way through a discussion of Kyle’s contractual obligation, he’s not out for jollies. Instead, it’s a moment of schoolyard triumph - undeniably severe, but like a Momma joke taken to a mouth to scrotum extreme. Parker and Stone want to shock. By doing so, they lay the perfect foundation for their more meaningful ideas.


And Imaginationland is chock full of them. From the government’s over the top reaction to the terrorist attack, to the conspiratorial plan that is supposed to save the day (even if underlings can’t stop giving away its secrets), we see a sensational slam on current US policy throughout. Everything in 2007/2008 is about reaction and armed response. Military lingo and rules of engagement dictate all of our diplomatic positions. When former Vice President Al Gore’s worst nightmare shows up, the baffled generals can only fall back on the atomic remedy. It’s a classic send-up, showing how out of touch with the rest of the world America really is. Even in a fictional domain, it can do little except pick a fight and bring in the big guns. Avoiding the heavy handed approach that most of their contemporaries take, Parker and Stone continue to be some of the best political satirists working today.


But that doesn’t mean Imaginationland lacks the requisite amount of animated awe. The battle scenes between the good and bad characters are excellent, especially when unexpected icons from the past (the Hawaiian Punch pitchman, He Man’s floating wizard buddy Orko) show up to tussle. Blood and cartoon body parts fly! This is the kind of experience one can revisit again and again, seeing something new in each and every viewing. Even better, the provided commentary traces the show’s origins, answers questions about its structure, and suggests that Parker and Stone are equally adept at producing great work both under intense deadlines and when they have plenty of time on their hands. Paramount even tosses in a couple of complementary episodes (“Manbearpig” and “Woodland Critter Christmas”) to make the presentation complete.



With Season 12 just underway, and the series signed up through 2011, here’s hoping our duo has more amazing installments like Imaginationland up their sleeves. As they’ve said in the past, they love to play with the show’s format, finding equal time to let their characters be kids while tackling the major issues of the day. As a pristine example of this mindset, the three part extravaganza stands as one of South Park‘s best. For something that no one thought would or could last this long, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are proving that, just like a certain yellow skinned family from Springfield, the boys of a certain backwater Colorado town could be around for a very, very long time.


 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Mar 17, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Bauhaus
Too Much 21st Century [MP3] (from Go Away White released 4 March)
     


International Bullet Proof Talent [MP3] (from Go Away White released 4 March)
     


Cadence Weapon
Sharks [MP3]
     


Jaymay
Blue Skies [MP3]
     


Foals
Balloons [MP3]
     


Brimstone Howl
Cyclone Boy [MP3]
     


Howlin Rain
Dancer at the End of Time [MP3]
     



Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.