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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Prompted by James Surowiecki’s most recent New Yorker column, the econoblogosphere has been discussing this paper about purchasing power and income inequality. Says Surowiecki, “In a recent paper on the effect of trade with China, the University of Chicago economists Christian Broda and John Romalis estimate that poor Americans devote around forty per cent more of their spending to ‘non-durable goods’ than rich Americans do. That means that lower-income Americans get a much bigger benefit from the lower prices that trade with China has brought.” Broda and Romalis’s University of Chicago colleague Steven Leavitt (of Freakonomics fame) chimes in, highlighting the counterintuitive idea that “Inequality has not grown over the last decade — at least not very much. What we think is a rise in inequality is merely an artifact of how we measure things.”  Which in turn delights Cato Institute scholar Will Wilkinson, who’s anxious to rebut critics of rising income inequality: “If you think economic inequality matters, that’s because you think relative economic well-being matters.  If you think economic well-being matters, then what you care about is consumption, not income. So what you’re worried about, my egalitarian friend, is consumption inequality. If the trend in consumption inequality is flat, will you please make a note of it?” That’s all in line with the libertarian ideology that holds that we can’t jeopardize the outsize rewards reaped from capitalism’s “creative destruction” with any sort of regulation lest we hamper society’s “dynamism.” (That’s also why unreconstructed Randians like Alan Greenspan don’t want to do anything to forestall bubbles.)


Somewhat bizarrely, Leavitt argues (perhaps following the paper’s argument, though the abstract draws few interpretive conclusions) that because the lower-income bracket’s basket of goods has seen less inflation than the basket of goods typical for wealthier people, that inequality between the two groups has been mitigated. Felix Salmon questions the numbers here, but there seems to be a strange methodological assumption as well. Poor people haven’t chosen to buy the cheapening goods before the fact; they by them because they have to, because they are already cheap and not because they prefer them. So they may experience less inflation, but their stagnant incomes mean they don’t have the ability to price themselves into a different (and possibly more satisfying, more status conferring) level of consumption. I don’t know about you, but wouldn’t you want the rich person’s basket anyway, assuming you could afford it? Would you prefer clothes from SoHo boutiques or from Factory 2 U? Leavitt’s logic seems to be that you can enrich yourself de facto by buying cheap things, a la the Ernest and Julio Gallo commercial where the sybarite fat cat drinking cheap wine purrs, “How do you think I got so rich?” I don’t feel particularly rich when I go to the 99-cent store to buy recycling bags and am surrounded by mind-boggling amount of cheap crap available—instead I feel thankful that I don’t have to do my ordinary shopping there. It reminds me why it’s so comforting to be in luxury-retail zones, where clutter and sensory assault is minimized and precious retail space is wasted conspicuously. Less, in certain contexts, is much more. I’d suppose I would rather be in a position to enjoy fewer luxuries and revel in the experience they provide than be in a position where I couldn’t even dream about buying such experiences at all.


As economist Lane Kenworthy argues


Consumption is worth paying attention to. But income is important in its own right because it confers capabilities to make choices. What matters, in this view, is what you are able to buy rather than what you want to buy. If a rich person with expensive tastes gets an extra $100,000, she can continue buying high-end clothes and gadgets. Or she can choose to purchase low-end Chinese-made products and save the difference. Suggesting that if she opts for the former there has been no rise in inequality is not very compelling.



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Tuesday, May 20, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Scarlett Johansson
Falling Down [Video] [Listening Party]


Coldplay
Violet Hill [Video]


The Presets
This Boys in Love [MP3]
     


Langhorne Slim
Rebel Side of Heaven [MP3]
     


Tickley Feather
Tonight Is the Nite [MP3]
     


The Cure
The Only One [Video]


Mates of State
My Only Offer [MP3]
     


Impossible Shapes
Hey [MP3]
     


Common Market
Red Leaves [MP3]
     



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Monday, May 19, 2008
In part 7 of L.B. Jeffries' series, the previously-defined classification system is applied to a few well-known games


So with all these definitions, variables, and conflicting goals for what games should be, what is the role of the Zarathustran process? How does it work? Essentially, you’re analyzing the experience of the game itself. The important shift that critics must be aware of is that they are no longer judging the game by just one single element. How do the plot, player input, and game design work together to make the experience? Although a game may be extremely cutscene heavy, should this plot device work well to create a powerful experience then that isn’t a flaw. If a game has strange controls, do those ultimately improve the game or make the player feel like they have less input? The application is to see these things as means rather than ends in video games.

With that in mind, we’ll go through the process a few times. One of the more interesting examples of a player’s input facilitating an experience is Gunstar Heroes. The game’s a first person experience, despite the heavy elements of third person setting. It makes this shift by putting the emphasis on the game design of power-ups. You have two power-up slots and one of them is set for the duration of playtime. The second can be picked up during a level and will change the way your gun works. There’s a pretty impressive array of strategies as a result of this that lets the player truly individualize his own approach to the game. Whereas one may prefer the weak but auto-targeting attack, another might opt for the light saber combination. What it adds to the experience itself is that the player-input gives two kinds of positive feedback because you’re relying on strategy and reflexes. You don’t beat Gunstar Heroes, you figure it out. And as a result, the game design features a remarkable shift in connection that improves it.


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Monday, May 19, 2008
It's DVD week here at SE&L. Each day from now until Sunday, we will be looking at some of the latest releases on the format, as well as some unusual or independent off-titles that you may have missed. Reviews will be updated sporadically, so check back often to see what we have to offer. Previously: George Romero invents the zombie film with his 1968 epic Night of the Living Dead Romero updates his vision, brilliantly, with the lo-fi wonder Diary of the Dead An American Whodunit with a Psychic Twist - 1982's The Killing Hour (aka The Clairvoyant) Today: Lucio Fulci gives us another example of his goofy gore noir - 1982's The New York Ripper


In the hierarchy of horror, Lucio Fulci usually falls somewhere between the post-modern macabre of Dario Argento and the creepshow classicism of Mario Bava. He’s not as nauseating as Bava’s son Lamberto, yet never achieved the artistic aplomb of Argento apprentice Michele Soavi. In fact, Fulci is loved more for his appreciation of violence and brutality than anything artistically substantive. From The Beyond to The City of the Living Dead, he created classic ‘double dare’ movies, the kind of gruesome, offal-filled freak outs that had fans cringing in their seats (and hurling in their barf bags). But there was an even sleazier side to the director, something clearly seen in The New York Ripper. While he still piles on the pus, everything else here is drowning in debauchery.


After a dog discovers a decomposing hand near the Hudson river, police detective Fred Williams learns that the victim had recent contact with a strange man speaking in a deranged, duck like voice. Soon, another body is discovered on the Staten Island ferry. With the help of psychological profiler Dr. Paul Davis, Williams starts to rundown a list of suspects. In the meantime, a high society woman with a penchant for rough trade and live sex shows makes intimate recordings for her perverted husband. Elsewhere in the city, a young lady named Fay has a run in with a man with two fingers missing on his hand. Suddenly, this deformed individual is the prime person of interest in the case. As Williams hunts for clues, the killer calls him, taunting him in that silly, sickening way. If he’s not careful, this New York Ripper will destroy everything he knows…and loves.


It goes without saying that if you’ve seen one Fulci giallo, you’ve seen The New York Ripper (recently rereleased on DVD by Blue Underground). As far back as his infamous Don’t Torture a Duckling, he meshed borderline boring police procedurals with momentary lapses into splendiferous gore. Fulci is the father of non sequitor sluice. Give him a standard situation - police fire on a suspect - and you’ll see the person’s head literally explode in an array of arterial ambivalence. It doesn’t matter if it fits the tone of what he’s attempting. As long as he can paint the screen red, Lucio likes. Perhaps that’s why New York Ripper is so much mean spirited fun. While the vast majority of the movie plays like a lampoon of serial killer shockers (the murderer speaks like Donald Duck with a disease), the frequent lapses into outright nastiness more than makes up for the unintentional laughs.

What’s different here though is the reliance on repugnant sexuality and decadent NY-seediness. Any film that has a main character getting a foot job inside a skuzzy dive bar, that perpetrates a horrendous vivisection on a completely nude victim - Heck, almost any Fulci fantasy that explores the corporeal with the cadaverous - is bound to throw fright fans for a loop. We expect a little T&A with our scares, but the disturbed way in which The New York Ripper delivers this material is mind-numbing. If Fulci ever wondered why he wasn’t taken more seriously, the sleazoid subtext here should have been all the proof he needed. This really is a repugnant little reject. 


It’s this deranged dichotomy that works both for and against The New York Ripper. This is a movie where half of what’s onscreen truly satisfies, while the other part seems purposefully set on destroying everything that came before. The mystery is mangled in a series of false leads, ridiculous red herrings, narrative u-turns, and any other perplexing plot pointing the script can offer. On the other hand, the performances win us over, Fulci mixing his cast between accomplished Americans (Jack Hedley, Howard Ross) and Italian imports (Andrea Occhipinti, Paolo Malco). As with most of his films, his female leads are rather weak, passive in their ability to stand on their own. Almanta Suska, as Fay, has a hard time balancing the demands of the role with the reality of the situation. She’s supposed to be a prime suspect, yet never comes across as anything other than whiny and confused.


Sadly, Fulci left us in 1996, meaning that most DVD content must rely on experts and other so-called scholars to fill in the filmmaker’s many creative blanks. That being said, Blue Underground does very little with this release, simply providing some basic information and leaving it at that. Certainly, there is someone out in the fright fan ether that can comment on how the filmmaker came to helm this particular project (he had been on an international roll ever since Zombi in 1979). While always a journeyman, Fulci did hold some particular ambitions, and it would be interesting to learn where The New York Ripper fit into these crazy career plans.


Of course, as the years go by, and as the ‘Net expands in the appreciation of the wrongfully marginalized, Lucio Fulci may yet find his place among the horror beloved. Of course, you have to get past all the cheesy comedies, weirdo westerns, and other genre jumps the director created over his decades in the industry. The New York Ripper doesn’t help or hurt his cause, mostly because blood blots out the substantial shortcomings. Still, if you really want to see what this director is all about, take a gander at his straight ahead horror romps. They are much more satisfying from a fright and filth standpoint. Films like this one are not really an anomaly. But they do underscore the reason why Fulci remains a valued, if underappreciated auteur. 


FILM:



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Monday, May 19, 2008

Tanta at Calculated Risk does us the service of dismantling the bizarre recent NYT editorial fretting over the “psychological scarring” brought on by foreclosure by economist Robert Shiller, once a stern critic of “irrational exuberance” who seems to have become an apologist for the homeownership cult and the property buyers who went in over their heads.. Foreclosure is no doubt painful, but I vigorously disagree with the idea that people skeptical of bailouts are “cynics”. And this preposterous piece of ownership society propaganda made my eyeballs melt: “Homeownership is fundamental part of a sense of belonging to a country.” Really? “People instinctively understand that homeownership conveys good feelings about belonging in our society, and that such feelings matter enormously, not only to our economic success but also to the pleasure we can take in it.” Owning a home is “instinctual”? Aarrrgghhh. Not only am I not a real citizen, but I have faulty human instincts. Perhaps I should be interred somewhere to protect the ownership society at large. Then, Shiller wries,


The psychologist William James wrote in 1890 that “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.”
Homeownership is thus an extension of self; if one owns a part of a country, one tends to feel at one with that country. Policy makers around the world have long known that, and hence have supported the growth of homeownership.


Apparently Shiller thinks we should adjust laws to help men’s Selves feel sure of all their possessions, not just their houses but their women as well. If he owns her, he will feel at one with her, and isn’t that a recipe for a good marriage?


As Tanta says:


I’m actually, you know, in favor of some sympathy for homeowners, but one thing that does get in the way of that for a lot of us is, well, the rather disgusting shallowness that a lot of them displayed on the way up. There is this whole part of our culture that has sprung into being since 1890 that takes a rather severe view of conspicuous consumption, unbridled materialism, and totally self-defeating use of debt to buy McMansions, if not yachts. We were treated to a fair amount of that kind of thing in the last few years. In fact, we had Dr. Shiller explaining to us last year that a lot of folks just wanted to get rich, quick, in real estate.
It is undeniably true, I assert, that not everyone was a speculatin’ spend-thrift maxing out the HELOCs to buy more toys, and that part of our problem today with public opinion is that we extend our (quite proper) disgust for these latter-day Yuppies to the entire class “homeowner.” But it is surely an odd way to engage our sympathies for the non-speculator class to speak of it in Jamesian terms as the man whose self is defined by his Stuff, and whose psychological pain is felt most acutely when he recognizes that he is now just like the riff-raff.
It’s worse than odd—it’s downright reactionary—to then go on to that evocation of homeownership as good citizenship and good citizenship as “feel[ing] at one with [the] country.” This puts a rather sinister light on Shiller’s earlier insistence that we need to make sure people don’t get too “cynical.”


Amen.


At Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith also mocks this ludicrous editorial:


This piece illustrates much of what is wrong-headed about the “rescue the homeowner” concept. First, attempting to prop up assets at levels not supported by the underlying economics (in this case, incomes) does not work (see here for an illustration). The prices will in the end revert to a sustainable level, if not trade below them for a while in some (perhaps even many) markets. Japan is an extreme example of the consequences: low growth due to good capital being thrown after bad and delays in clearing out bad loans and recapitalizing the financial system so it could get back to its job of funding productive enterprise.
Second, keeping housing expensive hurts first-time buyers, such as the young and the lower income. It not only makes it more difficult for them to engineer a purchase, but in communities which participated in the housing boom, assures that their housing investment will be lousy, if not a loser. It’s unlikely to appreciate from an inflated level; the best outcome would be for it to hold its nominal value for a long time while its real value gets eroded by inflation.


Then, in response to Shiller’s call for a salve on the wounded psyches of distressed homeowners, she adds:


Moving if you are a kid sucks. But Shiller wouldn’t argue that government intervention is called for to prevent family relocations due to getting a new job, divorce, deciding to be closer to aging parents. Note that other forms of financial trauma that might lead to a residential downsizing also fail to merit government subsidies, such as a renter having to move into even smaller digs (or moving in with parents or children) due to a job loss, high medical bills, or overspending. No, thanks to the sanctity of homeownership, giving up a house you can’t afford is a tragedy deserving of Federal aid, while other forms of psychological or financial loss don’t cut it.


That’s it in a nutshell. Homeownership is seen as something we must protect at all costs, even for people who overreached; poverty, homelessness, health insurance, etc., etc., etc.—not so much. The cult of homeownership has too many people brainwashed. Economist Tim Duy, looking at how out of whack home prices have become in Bend, Oregon, puts it succinctly in a very concrete context: “the magnitude of the misalignment in Bend is quite remarkable, and in my mind represents a complete failure of social policy. This is especially the case when policy has turned homeownership into a moral imperative, creating a culture that equates renting with failure and granite countertops with success.”


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