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Tuesday, Apr 8, 2008

Yes, I know, enough with the housing market already. Once upon a time, this blog was about criticizing consumer culture, and how it had become, for all intents and purposes, popular culture. But in my defense, housing is a consumer good, is the consumer good in the American economy right now, and the most important thing going on, consumerism wise, is how we have propped up various irrational ways to go about securing shelter (owning rather than renting, as I went on about in this column last week) with ideology and fantasy and predatory opportunities. The recent “innovative” use of housing to anchor massive borrowing (via home equity lines of credit, etc.) is a prominent manifestation of the shifts in attitude that have led to consumer spending enlarging so dramatically (while saving has plummeted to less than zero). Without easy credit, there is no spending revolution, perhaps there is no cultural move toward compulsive shopping and there is more space for other aspects of life, or other approaches to coping with life’s flux than buying things.


Anyway, Yves Smith links to this interview with Joshua Rosner, a financial risk analyst. (If you don’t read this sort of thing often, you might be surprised by the skepticism, verging on contempt, both the interviewer and interviewee have for the mainstream media and politicians and credulous ordinary folk in general. This haute banker tone of arrogant cynicism can be a selling point for me, depending on my mood.) What ensues is a discussion of further trouble on the credit-market front, with the housing-market problems front and center. They agree that the housing market has to a large degree become nationalized, and the justification for this is less practical than ideological:


Rosner: ... I continue to believe that we are going to see further downward pressure on home prices—regardless of what the Congress believes or intends or manipulates. Unless we actually nationalize the housing industry, there is not much we can do to avoid the downward correction in home values.
The IRA: But haven’t we already largely nationalized the home market already? ... During the Joint Economic Committee hearing last week, when Chairman Bernanke appeared prior to the BSC session, Senator John Sununu (R-NH) talked about the various federal government programs already in place for housing. It took him almost five minutes of soliloquy to go through them all.
Rosner: That’s right. We have a universe of government programs to encourage home ownership, but we need to reconsider the benefits of getting people into homes and how to craft government policies to make these markets more rather than less stable. Historically home ownership was seen as a way to make better neighbors and stronger communities. We need to go back and look at what aspects of home ownership were responsible for conferring these benefits. Since the late 1930, home owners generally took out 30-year fixed rate mortgages which were illiquid instruments tied to illiquid assets, namely the home, which required the borrower to make monthly payments of principal and interest into what was effectively a forced savings plan.
The IRA: You’re talking about our grandparents. And they basically could not modify the mortgage or even move easily.
Rosner: Correct. Other than moving, they could not extract equity. And when they purchased the house, they could not do so without having a substantial amount of equity going into the transaction. I would argue that it was those features that benefit society and support, from a Washington policy perspective, the social importance of home ownership.


Back in the old days, this was the plan: A family makes a longterm investment in a house, builds up equity in it over a lifetime and uses that as the bedrock of their retirement nest egg. The government fostered this vision as a companion to Social Security. Buying a house, committing to a long slog of mortgage payments, was a way of forcing yourself to save in the face of all the blandishments and temptations of a consumer society. But this wouldn’t do, especially after the stock market bubble popped. Hence, a policy of low interest rates and easy credit in the aftermath, leading to a speculative bubble in home prices—the rapid rise of which made a house anot a lifetime investment but something to flip, or at the very least refinance.


Rosner: There is an aspect of this that nobody in Washington is talking about. Let’s go back to the prior model of home ownership. Typically a family bought a home around the time of family formation. So you got married and then you and your wife bought a house. You had your kids in that house. And you had a 30-year fixed rate mortgage and every month you made a payment of principal and interest. That process usually began in the late-twenties to early thirties of a person’s life. That meant that at about the age of 60, the home owner was able to have a mortgage burning party. So as they retired, their expenses fell and the value of their unencumbered assets had risen. They had a real asset to supplement their pension, pay for grandchildren’s college, etc. Because we have allowed this model to change, the U.S. faces a huge burden in the future that we have not yet even begun to talk about in Washington.


But the political proposals to aid the housing crisis are not focused on restoring this kind of sobriety to the market. (The Institutional Risk Analyst calls the political discussion “idiotic rhetoric coming from political candidates from both parties about ‘restoring the American Dream.’ “) Instead, they are efforts to protect prices from falling, which does preserve the forced savings of traditional homeowners but also vindicates the speculators, all at the expense of taxpayers, either directly or indirectly. The underlying issue is that home prices are way out of line with economic growth generally, and that fictitious growth has already been consumed. Now, home prices must fall back in line with growth (with economic pain distributed in proportion to that earlier overconsumption) or the government will have to continue to prop up the illusion (by nationalizing the lending industry, for example) and divert funds to sustain it. That pain will be felt nationwide—whether through a worthless dollar, rampant inflation, tax increases, or pared social services.


Update: At Slate, Daniel Gross also hates the tax-benefit proposals to help the housing industry.


The proposal to give new tax breaks to homebuilders and banks is yet another example of the pernicious trend of privatizing profit and socializing losses, which is gnawing away at faith in the system.


Amen to that. Gross really deplores the tax-loss carryback extension, which lets now-failing homebuilders backdate their losses to recoup tax payments they made when the business was booming. It’s the same story over again; those who were prudent during the bubble are shafted while speculators are protected:


The proposed tax break is hard to justify for several reasons. It does nothing for slow and steady companies that keep their heads and simply rack up profits year after year—and pay their taxes accordingly. Rather, it rewards the most reckless participants in the bubble.


The lesson our government is trying to teach us? Be as reckless as possible lest you miss out. Recklessness is what keeps America on the economic cutting edge, after all.


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Tuesday, Apr 8, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Glue Girls [MP3]
     


Think I Wanna Die [MP3]
     


The Breeders
Bang On [MP3]
     


Nina Simone
Revolution [MP3]
     


Clinic
The Witch [Video]


Woods
Baleen Plate Lullaby [MP3]
     


The Sword
Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians [MP3]
     


Pacifika
Me Cai [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


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Tuesday, Apr 8, 2008
by Robin Cook

Former Small Faces keyboardist and Rolling Stones sideman Ian McLagan has called Austin home since the 1990s. And, as he says, it’s a welcome change from the weather back in England. Today, McLagan leads the Bump Band, who backed Bonnie Raitt on her 1982 album Green Light, and you can count on them to appear at SXSW each year.  His newest album, Never Say Never, is out now, and includes songs dedicated to his wife Kim, who died in 2006. Following the Bump Band’s set at Antone’s, McLagan was in high spirits as he talked about his amazingly diverse career.—Robin Cook



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Tuesday, Apr 8, 2008

Can it be that this bastion of folk music from the sixties is being reborn on the web?  It’s great timing considering that No Depression and Harp have recently disappeared.  Broadside is back now with a Pete Seeger interview, a George Bush coloring book and a new tune from Harry Shearer (from the Simpsons and Spinal Tap but here in folkie guise).  Welcome back.


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Monday, Apr 7, 2008


It is 1978, over two years since a conflict between China and Russia resulted in the release of bio-chemical weapons that have destroyed almost the entire population of the planet. We meet the apparent sole survivor, a scientist named Robert Neville who injected himself with a vaccine before the destruction came. He is now immune and stuck spending his days in the never-ending chores of survival. When it’s light, he forages for food and seeks signs of other life. He also hunts for the headquarters of The Family, a dark loving group of disease-altered mutants who want to kill Neville. Their leader, the crazy, charismatic Matthias, sees Neville as a personification of the technological evil that led the world to destroy itself. He wants to be the one who wipes out this “human plague” once and for all. Their battles of weapons and wills consume their lives.


That is, until Neville runs into Lisa and Dutch, two additional survivors who are caring for a group of kids. Unlike Neville, they are all infected with the germ. But they have not changed as quickly as The Family, meaning there is still time for Neville to find a cure. As he battles to find a way to keep Lisa’s brother Ritchie from “turning,” the mutants up their campaign against their mortal enemy. But not everyone can survive the terrors, the torment, and the treachery of being the last one left on Earth. Someone will be The Omega Man.


Since it was first published in 1954, Richard Matheson’s grim story of the last man on earth and his battle to survive has become a prized cinematic commodity. Back in 2002, Ridley Scott was developing I Am Legend to star a pumped up Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sets were designed and effects prepared. Fans couldn’t wait to see the Blade Runner visionary’s take on the material. Eventually, the plans for that version of the novel were scuttled, and Will Smith pegged Constantine director Francis Lawrence to jerryrig his own schizophrenic adaptation of the tome. Luckily, there are still two other movies out there, both with their own set of motion picture setbacks. Each one tried to capture Matheson’s sense of isolation and menace, and for the most part, each one more or less succeeded.


Vincent Price starred in the Italian-made The Last Man on Earth, a decent little B-movie from 1964 that sought to stick to as many of the epic notions that the novel envisioned without bankrupting the budget. And then there was 1971’s The Omega Man, the Charlton Heston sci-fi vehicle that marked the A-list superstar’s second foray into the realm of future shock (with 1968’s Planet of the Apes behind him and 1973’s Soylent Green looming ahead). Given a name symbolizing its place in the Greek alphabet (Omega is the 24th and last letter) and modifying Matheson’s story of vampires out for blood to a more socially consciousness, anti-war, and proliferation statement, this effective, if occasionally eccentric, take on the material has long been a cult favorite. Some buy the changes in the story and find the new, idealistic enemies threatening indeed. Others simply shake their head and wonder when someone will give the gifted Matheson his due.


The Omega Man does so many things right that when the two things it gets completely wrong rear their ugly, ill-considered heads it’s almost enough to destroy the entire film. Director Boris Sagal, a veteran of television, does one of the better jobs of conveying a post-Armageddon environment for his characters to function in. It is rare when his abandoned streets and empty shops feel like back lots or sound stages. There is an attention to detail (the beginning of vegetation overgrowth, masses of intertwined cobwebs) that really sells the isolation and desertion. Never once is the spell broken. And then he finds an actor who seems to purposefully carry the weight and fate of the world on his broad, beefy shoulders.


Heston is a very physical actor, a presence that’s not model attractive or body builder perfect, but does resonate a strong, heroic determination. Frankly, if the risk had been taken to simply let Chuck be the last ACTUAL person on the planet, he could pull it off brilliantly. Even reduced to stagy sequences of externalized internal monologues, he sells the silly characteristic very well. Heston is often accused of over the top scenery chewing, and anyone who remembers the ending of Green or the “damn dirty ape” histrionics of Planet will tend to agree.


But in The Omega Man, we see a much more subtle, subdued protagonist, a man battling the outer threat of the gang of mutants known as “The Family” as well as the personal demons of loneliness and dogged preparedness. It requires him to turn the bravura down several notches and still remain powerful and potent. And Heston rises to the occasion flawlessly.


It’s just too bad, then, that the flaws in the film are so near fatal. Some people argue that, while not novel specific, the fiendish force of The Family makes the perfect frightening foil for Heston’s Robert Neville. But aside from the times when they mock him, calling his name out in childlike singsong from the shadows, the overall effect of these diseased drones is campy, not creepy. It’s like being trapped in a cult full of giggly albino Earth-First luddites.


As their leader, Anthony Zerbe gives both Charles Manson (who seems to have been an obvious model) and the Rev. Jim Jones a run for their rhetoric with his “back to the basics” balderdash. His and his clan’s motivation (no more science or technology, including the wheel!) seems stupid, self-righteous, and downright suicidal, and their stark lack of skin pigmentation will probably only scare those people who find clowns, or Edgar Winter, unnerving. If they didn’t try to stab or set fire to Heston, the only thing he would have to fear from them is being pontificated to death.


The other weak link is Ritchie, the young black boy saved from “the plague” by Neville’s scientific discoveries (and, to some extent, his sister Lisa). Their presence in Chuck’s life seems superfluous to all that is going on, as if to add a humanizing and womanizing angle to Neville’s non-stop battle for survival. Indeed, time and The Family’s terrorizing of Heston seems to stop so he can treat the child and do a little repopulating with Lisa. The fact that they are associated with Dutch, a hippie ex-medical student biker who harbors, “Christ-like,” a group of orphaned children, shows the sanctimonious tone that undermines the potential thrill and chills to be had. When it’s lean and mean, The Omega Man is an effective and evocative thriller. When it’s heavy handed and preachy, it’s stifling.


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