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by Rob Horning

27 Mar 2009

Economist Willem Buiter, who also serves as a highly engaging and polemical blogger for FT, wants to know why more bankers and board members are not being perp-walked.

It is clear that the vast majority of the large border-crossing banks are continuing to exploit every accounting trick in the book to avoid recognising the marked-to-market losses on their dodgy assets.  With most banks cursed with paper-thin equity cushions in relation to their assets, a more intense, let alone a quasi-forensic scrutiny of the balance sheet by a nosy expert paid for and acting on behalf of the government shareholder could easily precipitate a move from partial to full state ownership and thence into insolvency and an orderly restructuring or liquidation.
Too many bank insiders have exploited their monopoly of information and the control it bestows on them, to enrich themselves by robbing their shareholders blind.  There has been a spectacular failure of corporate governance.  Boards have foresaken their fiduciary duties.  Surely, even the liability insurance taken out by board members ought not to shelter those who are guilty of, at best, such willful negligence and dereliction of duty?  Where are the class actions suits by disgruntled shareholders? Where are the board members in handcuffs?
Now that there is no meat left on the shareholder drumstick, the rogue managers and employees are going after a piece of the really juicy bird - the ever-patient tax payer.  I hope they choke on it.

These are good questions, and it would seem imperative that some punishment be doled out to some deserving scapegoats at some point, if only to defuse populist anger. The fact that all the malefactors in this crisis can’t be punished shouldn’t prevent authorities from singling out a few and laying the groundwork for the “few bad apples” argument—i.e., it wasn’t that the whole system was bad; there were just a few naughty bankers who abused our trust.

Paul Krugman, in his editorial today, will have none of that—it sounds as though he wants, like Lionel Hutz, to put the system on trial. He describes securitization as a scheme to enrich financial intermediaries with no value added in terms of risk management or beneficial capital allocation:

Underlying the glamorous new world of finance was the process of securitization. Loans no longer stayed with the lender. Instead, they were sold on to others, who sliced, diced and puréed individual debts to synthesize new assets. Subprime mortgages, credit card debts, car loans — all went into the financial system’s juicer. Out the other end, supposedly, came sweet-tasting AAA investments. And financial wizards were lavishly rewarded for overseeing the process.
But the wizards were frauds, whether they knew it or not, and their magic turned out to be no more than a collection of cheap stage tricks. Above all, the key promise of securitization — that it would make the financial system more robust by spreading risk more widely — turned out to be a lie. Banks used securitization to increase their risk, not reduce it, and in the process they made the economy more, not less, vulnerable to financial disruption.
Sooner or later, things were bound to go wrong, and eventually they did. Bear Stearns failed; Lehman failed; but most of all, securitization failed.

Economist Arnold Kling concurs, adding the codicil that securitization has always been a perversion of free-market principles. “My view is that securitization of mortgages would never have emerged in a free market.  Instead, it came from our country’s industrial policy supporting housing.  Every major advance in mortgage securitization was a regulatory/accounting gimmick, encouraged or created in Washington.” The insane promotion of homeowning for its own sake has caused no end of trouble. Perhaps, as this Boston Globe thinkpiece suggests, we’re ready to move away from that ideology and stop subsidizing housing to the detriment of the rest of the economy.

Anyway, Krugman is wary of the few bad apples scenario, worrying that “the underlying vision” of the Obama administration “remains that of a financial system more or less the same as it was two years ago, albeit somewhat tamed by new rules.” But that system, in his view, has proven a failure, and isn’t worth saving. What will replace it though? Is he perhaps edging closer to Steven Waldman’s idea of replacing credit administered by banks with a system of flat transfers for consumers, and investment trusts and locally targeted “narrow banks” for businesses. When mainstream discussion reaches that point, we’ll know then that we are truly verging on a new New Deal. 

by PopMatters Staff

27 Mar 2009

Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers release their new record Lost Channels next week and are heading out on the road on release date in support of it. “Pulling on a Line” is their latest video and has been a smash at AAA and college radio.

TOUR DATES
Mar 31 - Seattle @ The Tractor Tavern
Apr 01 - Portland @ Doug Fir
Apr 03 - San Francisco @ The Bottom of the Hill
Apr 04 - Los Angeles @ Spaceland
Apr 05 - Tucson @ Plush
Apr 07 - Austin @ Stubbs Bar-B-Q
Apr 08 - Denton @ Hailey’s
Apr 10 - Atlanta @ The Earl
Apr 11 - Asheville @ The Earl (all ages)
Apr 13 - Charlottesville @ Gravity Lounge
Apr 14 - Washington @ Black Cat
Apr 15 - Philadelphia @ Johnny Brenda’s
Apr 16 - Northampton @ Iron Horse Music Hall
Apr 17 - New York City @ The Bowery Ballroom
Apr 18 - Cambridge @ The Brattle Theater
Apr 20 - Newport @ The Southgate House
Apr 21 - Chicago @ Schubas
Apr 22 - Minneapolis @ 7th Street Entry
Apr 23 - Madison @ High Noon Saloon

All Tour Dates With Kate Maki

by Bill Gibron

27 Mar 2009

It’s a part of life we generally don’t think about - mostly because it reminds us of our own morality, and because of the gruesome nature of the business. For most, we didn’t even know it existed. Yet every time a crime occurs, every time a person, famous or forgotten, takes their own life or that of another, someone has to come along and clean up the mess. No, the police don’t do it, and local law enforcement doesn’t typically provide post-investigation housekeeping under the “serve and protect” slogan. Someone has to come along and dispose of the debris and make something civilized out of an event horrific. For the characters in the new indie comedy Sunshine Cleaning, working the post-mortem detail is kind of a happy accident. Unfortunately, it’s about the only joy these individuals, or this movie, manages to harbor.

You see, Rose is a single mother raising a confused and complicated kid named Oscar. She was once the head cheerleader in high school. Now she’s a maid working for the same classmates she used to hang out with. She also maintains a relationship with BMOC turned married police officer Mac. He has promised a divorce, but his ever increasing family seems to suggest otherwise. Desperate to raise enough money to send her son to a fancy private school, Rose decides to get into the business of mopping up crime scenes. Mac helps her with a few connections, and local supply clerk Winston shows her the ropes. Rose then hires on her troubled sister Norah, and together they begin their death-based endeavor. As the jobs get messier and messier, the girls are reminded of the pain they experienced when their mother committed suicide. Another tragic accident will have them questioning their commitment to the business, and each other. 

Sunshine Cleaning is a slice of life carved so thinly it can barely stand up on its own. Without the amazing support of actors Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, this minor microcosm of New Mexican fringe dwelling would fall apart from outright narrative apathy. While many would have you believe this is some amazing indie treasure, sitting right along side Little Miss Sunshine and Juno as grrrl power gems, in reality, this is navel-gazing non-action that only perks up when the obvious is avoided and the truly unusual is explored. This is a movie with many intriguing elements: the burgeoning relationship between Rose and supply store clerk Winston; the tormented past of the girls’ mother; little Oscar’s obvious emotional problems. Yet director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley keep meandering back to material we don’t care about. As a result, the film feels like a lost opportunity.

Even the premise gets underplayed. Crime scene clean-up has got to be a very demanding, very high stress, and very disturbing job, no matter how desensitized you become to the carnage. The sights, the sounds, the significance would be the override theme of any story centering on it. Sunshine Cleaning does pay lip service to the meaning of going from maid to residential mortician, but it’s not enough. Adams talks about “being connected”, while Blunt is more prosaic about removing the last vestiges of a human being from the Earth. Of course all of this based around their own parent’s suicide, but the reality of their reactions remains mute. Only once, where Rose sits and comforts an elderly woman who just lost her husband, does the movie have the kind of emotional impact we’re looking for. The rest of the time, this job simple exists for its inherent quirk value.

As do many of the side characters. Alan Arkin’s presence will remind many of his Oscar winning work in Little Miss, though his flim-flamming figure father here is very poorly defined. So is former football player/boyfriend/police officer Steve Zahn. There is an entire movie to be made about the post-high school downfall of both Mac and Rose, something hinted at during our heroine’s ill-fated reunion with her ex-classmates at a baby shower. But just like the logistics of situations, Sunshine Cleaning pulls back on the personal reigns as well, leaving us frustrated and wanting much, much more. There’s also too much grandstanding obviousness, as when Norah goes “trestling” - which is nothing more than an excuse for getting drunk, climbing a train bridge, and crying as her past washes by in locomotive fueled flashbacks.

This is a movie unsure of its symbolism, unaware of what to do with Winston’s one armed model making, or Oscar’s obsession with binoculars. There is a CB radio that acts as a conduit to the characters’ desire to communicate with the other side, but for the most part, Jeffs makes a joke of such searching. And then there is the last act reveal. In essence, without giving much away, a character creates a situation that he or she could have stepped up and offered early on. It would have probably solved a great many problems for everyone involved, and taken the burden of business acumen away from those unfamiliar with such real world needs. But yet, the script waits until the last ten minutes to pull this plot point out, manipulating the audience into a false sense of affection while creating complicated narrative entanglements that never come loose.

Still, Adams and Blunt make this a brisk, breezy two hours. The chemistry they offer and the performances they deliver act as a buffer for Sunshine Cleaning‘s many misgivings. Had the oddball been tossed aside in favor of more family strife, had the unnecessary subplots been shorn of their overall import, had things been simplified to suggest legitimate desperation instead of the manufactured movie kind, we’d appreciate the effort even more. But sans all these suggested changes, what we wind up with is a pleasant experience marred by little lasting impact. As with many movies that come out each year, Sunshine Cleaning begs the question of whom the intended audience is. Lovers of art house fair will probably feel shorted. Mainstream moviegoers won’t appreciate the overeager eccentricity. The result is a wash - not the best way to judge a potential entertainment.

by Robin Cook

27 Mar 2009

Weirder things have happened. Thursday night at SXSW, the stage at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church was shared by a Dresden Doll and a legendarily raunchy comedienne. Of course, this being a church, they avoided the four-letter words in favor of a sweet-natured tribute to said comedienne’s dog. The next day, the comedienne (Margaret Cho, of course) and Dresden Doll (Amanda Palmer) talked about that show, Cho’s new venture into music, Palmer’s favorite singers, and the role of humor in music. (Yes, as Frank Zappa would tell you, they DO go together.)

 

by Alan Ranta

27 Mar 2009

For the first time in its history, music criticism website Tiny Mix Tapes is actually posting mix tapes for stream or download. Each one comes with unique cover art, and is presented, in true mix tape fashion, as a single continuous side. Themes thus far have ranged from experimental jazz and indie to instrumental hip-hop and electronica. No word yet if Pitchfork is going to start handing out hay shoveling utensils.

Chocolate Grinder
Official mixtapes [MP3s]

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Moving Pixels Podcast: Highbrow, Middle Brow, and Lowbrow in Free-to-Play Gaming

// Moving Pixels

"From the charmingly trashy to the more artistically inclined, there is a wide variety of gaming options in the free-to-play market.

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