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by Rob Horning

28 Sep 2009

Steve Waldman has a great post about the Consumer Finance Protection Act, which has just had what’s known as the “vanilla” provisions taken out of it—these are the no-frills straightforward financial products (think 30-year fixed-rate mortgages and low-interest, low-fee credit cards) that banks would have been required to provide alongside of the complicated hidden-option-laden mortgages and the teaser rate cards and all that other junk for suckers who can’t understand financial trickery, i.e. just about everyone. As Waldman explains, the market for financial products is rife with information problems. Consumers don’t understand the market but are compelled to enter into anyway if they want to live “the American dream” of owning a house, just like the hegemonic ideology insists we should.

Consumers know they are at a disadvantage when transacting with banks, and do not believe that reputational constraints or internal controls offer sufficient guarantee of fair-dealing. Status quo financial services should be a classic “lemons” problem, a no-trade equilibrium. Unfortunately, those models of no-trade equilibria don’t take into account that people sometimes really need the products they cannot intelligently buy, and so tolerate large rent extractions if they must in order to transact.
The price of assuring that one is not taken advantage of by financial service providers is not participating in the modern economy. You cannot have a job, because payments are by check or direct deposit. You cannot buy a home or a car, because for the vast majority, those purchases require financing. Try travelling with only cash for plane tickets, hotel rooms, and car rentals. People will “voluntarily” participate in markets rigged against them for the privilege of being normal. And we do, every day.

This is a lot like the health care market, in which consumers are procuring a service about which they must defer to the expert they are procuring it from, trusting that their ethics are sound.

With a vanilla option in place, consumers would able to take some solace that they weren’t being exploited, that instead they would pay a fair, explicit cost for a loan rather than being taken advantage of. Waldman:

Instead of tolerating rent-extraction as a cost of participation, consumers put up with one-size-fits-all products in exchange for peace of mind. Most consumers benefit very little from exotic product features, and I suspect that many are made deeply nervous by the complex contracts they can neither negotiate nor understand, but nevertheless must sign. Vanilla financial products would be extensively vetted and and their characteristics would soon become widely known. Inevitable malfunctions would be loudly discussed in the halls of Congress, rather than hushed-up in rigged private arbitrations. Vanilla products would face discipline both from private markets (no one is suggesting we forbid other flavors) and from a very public political process. Politics and markets are both deeply flawed, but they are flawed in different ways, and we should take advantage of that.

The rationale for a public option in health care is similar—a simple insurance plan that sets a base line that assures that individuals are reasonably covered and won’t be denied coverage when they need it on a technicality. If you want more elaborate coverage, you can do the research and get it. But if you want what has been deemed the basic acceptable standard (with the government protecting you from exploitation) without wading into the intricacies of the insurance market, you can do that too. Of course, if you think government is always the villain and has some incentive in exploiting you, you might be wary of this. But you still have the ability to go the for-profit route if you believe that will guarantee better service.

As Waldman says about the vanilla financial products, “Rather than being anti-market, vanilla financial products would help correct very clear market failures that arise from imperfect information and high search costs. It is the status quo that is anti-market.” The status quo protects the information asymmetries that allow banks and insurance companies to extract rents—that is, earn money simply by being pitiless gate-keepers or by locking people into non-optimal contracts with hidden fees and options that can be exercised against them. With a vanilla option (or public option), as Waldman explains, there is a “commoditized” offering that forces more overt competition from providers (or more unmistakable collusion otherwise). It forces a market for “ostentatious simplicity” as Waldman calls it—forces banks to compete on providing the simplest product for customers craving simplicity. Currently banks have no incentive to do this; it’s more lucrative to take advantage of customers’ confusion. (The same is true of health insurance, and cell-phone service to some degree as well.)

Some might complain that vanilla options incentivize ignorance, or at least remove the penalties for it. It may remove advantages that savvy consumers might be able to take advantage of at the expense of their fellow citizens. But is that the kind of society we want? Personally, I don’t. I don’t want to save a few bucks on my check-ups while other people die of swine flu.

by PC Muñoz

28 Sep 2009

“Dreamlover”
Written by Mariah Carey, Dave Hall, and Walter Afanasieff
From Music Box, Sony Records, 1993

An earlier version of this V-C-V first appeared on pcmunoz.com on January 17, 2006

I love Mariah Carey for all kinds of reasons. For starters, she’s a technically amazing vocalist, capable of notes most vocalists can only hope to reach via a healthy dose of “digital assistance”. She’s also a steely, determined artist who wouldn’t let consecutive project failures and public embarrassments defeat her spirit. And of course, I appreciate that she’s a serious, savvy songwriter, who has worked with everyone from Carole King to Kanye West. After a rough patch around the year 2001, Carey spent a few years as the butt of mean-spirited (read: hatin’) jokes and undeserved write-offs. Fans like myself were not surprised at all when she re-emerged on the scene in 2005 with a wildly successful straight-out R&B album, The Emancipation of Mimi, a spectacular platter of choice grooves, killer vocals, and a fun vibe that recalls the ‘90s hit I will discuss here, “Dreamlover”.

“Dreamlover” is pure, frothy pop. It flows along so sweetly and lightly, it’s easy to dismiss the wide-eyed innocence which the lyric imparts. With her talk of rainbows, charm bracelets, music boxes, and butterflies, I’ve always thought Mariah Carey seems to possess a kind of little-girl spirit which most female songwriters don’t dare conjure, for fear of being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, or mocked by “serious” songwriting peers and critics. One might conjecture that Carey’s use of these images is simply a calculated manipulation of her focus-group tested demographic (young females), or, worse, an indication of a kind of stunted emotional growth, but I happen to be of the opinion that she really likes that kinda stuff. Her covers of Journey’s “Open Arms” and Def Leppard’s big-haired suburban classic “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” support this theory, as far I’m concerned. Carey’s penchant for this imagery of course completely precludes her from ever earning the type of indie-cred heaped upon more appropriately-cool songwriters like PJ Harvey, Ani DiFranco, or the early, pre-pop-stardom-grab incarnation of Liz Phair, but it certainly does not warrant automatic dismissal of her work as an artist.

by Evan Sawdey

28 Sep 2009

For the longest time, Matt O’Hare has paid his dues by taking on one of the most thankless jobs in mankind’s history: theatrical sound designer.

Gathering rare and sometimes impossible-to-find songs, crafting sound effects and elaborate cues meant to be triggered at moments notice, and sometimes even writing songs specifically for a show can be a positively daunting effort. The person who can successfully tackle an effects-heavy production like Mnemonic or The Skriker is worthy of a medal of some sort, but—for the musically-inclined—sound designing is nothing short of the ultimate training ground for bigger things.

It is here where you have to deal with meeting specific challenges, often having to reach far outside your comfort zone to get results. It is through this process that Matt O’Hare has been able to hone his craft, learning everything he can before applying it to his own music. Back in 2006, O’Hare was once quoted as saying that he rarely writes music for himself, simply because he found it much easier to write for pre-existing material, like his score for the Hangar Theater production of Art built almost entirely out of soft guitar harmonics. Yet after tackling an expansive, ambitious design for the Trinity Rep/Brown production of The Maids in February of this year, O’Hare gradually began working on 1983, his first album under the pseudonym Motorcycles Are Everywhere.

What’s amazing about this little electro-rock gem is just how well it all holds together.  Playing every instrument himself, O’Hare manages to keep things propulsive, never once coming off like a laptop-rock project some kid did in his spare time.

by Kirstie Shanley

27 Sep 2009

French four-piece Phoenix are on the rise.  Take the fact that the band was originally booked to play Chicago’s 2,500 person capacity Riviera Theater, but it sold out so quickly that the show was then moved to the larger Aragon Ballroom, with it’s 4,500 person capacity, and easily sold out as well.  One reason for this surge in popularity is certainly due to the fact that their newest release, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is filled to the brim with pop tunes guaranteed to make any cynic get up and dance.  While their three previous releases captured some of this spirit their fourth accomplishes it more fully, as if the band has been steadily evolving and reached a high point in its continuum.

 

by Bill Gibron

27 Sep 2009

The search for enlightenment is part of the human experience. It’s the reason for religion, the basis for a billion self-help guides, and the excuse for so much of our own inner turmoil. We want to believe there is some purpose to life, that within a realm of a million minor difficulties and rewards, there’s a big picture plot as to why we exist. Of course, many would argue that faith is the opiate of the masses, that organized belief has done more damage than good, and that within a time frame encompassing thousands of years, priests and prophets have provided very little to further our understanding.

Now, two new DVDs from Alive Mind Media (a copy whose ad copy stresses their commitment to releasing “specialty documentary programming in the areas of enlightened consciousness, secular spirituality and culture”) hope to dispel some myths while making the mysteries of spirituality a whole lot less enigmatic. So…Help Me God centers on Simon Cole and his cross-country quest to discover the power and glory of a Higher Authority. His genial, 52 minute road trip takes him all across America, exposing both theological acceptance and fundamentalist rage.

Meditate and Destroy focuses on former bad boy turned author and Buddhist teacher Noah Levine. As much a teaching tool as a mini-biography, we learn of the drug addled and crime filled life that transformed this self-proclaimed punk into a force for good in the realm of spiritual guidance. While Levine’s story has much more dramatic punch, it is frequently compromised by director Sarah Fisher’s desire to hard sell the man’s ‘ministry’ and teachings. Cole, on the other hand creates a Religulous like experience in which questions of dogmatic inconsistency provide fodder for humor - and occasional insight.

Indeed, So…Help Me God accomplishes the basic tenets of its set-up. Cole comes across as good natured and genuine, never openly confronting his hosts like HBO pundit Bill Maher did during his documentary. Certainly he lets the subjects spewing hate hang themselves with obvious clarity (a family of rabid homosexual hating zealots are exposed for the robot minding morons they are), but he also wants to understand and experience the substance of religious devotion. After speaking with all manner of types - Muslim, Jew, Hindi, Buddhist, etc. - he decides to confront his quandary head on. Setting up a tent in the desert, he explores the reasons and the need for faith. His last act revelation falls in line with the rest of So…Help Me God‘s direct designs.

Cole also does a great service to those who truly feel the need for God without all the organized and ritualized trappings. The doubters deliver arguments just as compelling as the converted, while hot button topics like choice, sexual orientation, and Biblical interpretation also receive a fair and balanced treatment. The only downside here is the length - at 52 minutes, Cole just scratches the surface. He puts across a fairly flawless preamble to what could be a much longer and more sophisticated overview (Satanists, Wiccans, and Atheists are left out of the mix, for example). Still, by shining a light on the need for answers within a world striving to complicated and confuse, So…Help Me God becomes a telling individual explanation.

Oddly enough, Mediate and Destroy does the same thing, only in a far less compelling manner. No doubt about it - Levine is a persuasive presence. Taking after his noted father (both have a marvelous gift for gab and the prescient application of same) we see him speaking to various groups and gatherings, all the while focusing on the journey through Hell he put himself through as a youth. In between are talking head interviews that expand on what Levine teaches while supporting his updated dynamic. The biographical elements are a bit scattered, our subjects tales of youthful indiscretion and crack fueled violence supposedly showcasing how far he’s come. While they offer such sustenance, they often become unnecessary reminders.

His entire persona, from the punk rock patina to the amazing body art, suggests the entire battle without getting into every detail. Even better, when Levine starts counseling a specific group of individuals, his examples and heart-felt anecdotes deliver the message loud and clear. During these specific scenes, when others explain their pain and suffering, Meditate and Destroy really finds its purpose. We can see how Levine’s words move and inspire these people and the battles scars they all carry just beneath the surface makes them just as compelling as their teacher. Sometimes, the backstory blinds us to the teachings inherent in Buddhism, but as a way of getting the too hip and the too insular into spirituality, this is a fascinating film.

Indeed, what both So…Help Me God and Meditate and Destroy do best is remove the smug, self-important aura off of faith. They argue that people don’t have to be part of some centuries old community to get in touch with their own inner light. Cole specifically shows that forging your own path, investigating and dissection the various approach to religion might just be the best way to discover what’s really important to you. On the other hand, Levine has clearly found something that works for his always tenuous sobriety. And since he comes across as both serious and enthusiastic to share, we fall into his words and thoughts with ease. While So…Help Me God is the much more pleasurable experience, Meditate and Destroy goes deeper into the question of belief and its halting, healing power.

Still, one can see a viewer sitting through each of these films and finding fault with many issues. Indeed, for someone living in the pragmatic and the practical, the notion of turning over any control, even a small amount of metaphysical or psychological, would seem specious. And when Cole discovers the truth about his quest, we often wonder if that’s the reality behind the various versions of faith. Still, as Noah Levine points out over and over again in his teaching, life is not about unqualified happiness. It’s about suffering, and learning how to confront and defeat said struggle on a daily basis. For most, religion is a plausible panacea. As So…Help Me God and Meditate and Destroy disclose, there may be better ways toward achieving peace outside of such strict convictions.

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