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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Economists Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy recently mounted a defense of income inequality on the grounds that it is a sign of increased returns to human capital—in other words, better-educated and higher-skilled people made more, which is as it should be. Hence they view progressive taxation as being tantamount to a tax on ability.


For many, the solution to an increase in inequality is to make the tax structure more progressive—raise taxes on high-income households and reduce taxes on low-income households. While this may sound sensible, it is not. Would these same indi­viduals advocate a tax on going to college and a subsidy for dropping out of high school in response to the increased importance of education? We think not. Yet shifting the tax structure has exactly this effect.



This seems hardly an exact analogy. Those in favor of progressive taxation would likely favor redistributing some of that money so that others could afford to acquire the skills and education that created the gap in the first place.


But the underlying question of whether an egalitarian distribution of outcomes rather than opportunities is possible (and desirable) remains—can these concepts be neatly separated, as is often the tendency? Becker and Murphy’s argument relies on the idea that merit is on the whole rewarded and they have an impressive battery of graphs and statistics to support that case that I’m not remotely qualified to critique. The implication that we live in a merit-rewarding society seems to require many codicils and exceptions and hedges, most of which revolve around what constitutes merit (being born rich and connected—this has obvious value and constitutes a kind of human capital; is it being lumped in with the human capital of education? If this kind of old-boys network facilitates productivity, should it be condemned or does it have merit, by that definition?) So my mind turned to a more abstract question: Is inequality a matter of the return coming from relative differences in skills in a population, or is the return absolute to the skills themselves, no matter how widely they are distributed? If the former is the case, then this would ultimately impinge on equal opportunity, as those with advantages will in accordance with rationally seek to consolidate them rather than let others catch up. Those left behind initially will remain behind, because the meaning and value of the skills they acquire is always defined in relation to those ahead of them, who are presumably maintaining their skills lead.


This is especially the case with education, where the abilities acquired are less significant than the signaling value of the institutions involved. At the Economist‘s blog, Will Wilkinson, citing Bryan Caplan, makes the point


that university diplomas mostly function to signal prior competence, and that time and money spent in school is largely wasted. If [Caplan]‘s right, Becker and Murphy’s emphasis may be misguided, and I suspect Bryan may in fact be right, despite the fact that he’s never won a Nobel or Clark prize and wears shorts in the winter. In which case it strikes me that there is a huge entrepreneurial opportunity for whomever can come up with an alternative scheme of credible human capital certification.  Who cares if people develop their skills by attending classes at their local college, listening to free lectures from MIT, learning on the job, or by sitting in their mom’s basement gaining mad hacking skilz? I don’t. But employers do.


 


The point is, signaling communicates relative rather than absolute values—the Harvard degree has more credibility than the State U. degree, and if we made it such that everyone could get a Harvard degree, some new elite institution would arise to take its place. Whereas the human capital that enhances productivity and quality of life relates not to the signals, which preserve class distinction, but to the actual skills—the ability to build useful machines and develop useful medicines and so on. The question then becomes do we need the class system to motivate people to pursue the skills, and does coasting on the signaling power at one’s disposal—the habitus and social capital and networking connections—inhibit the development of their actual capabilities such that they are incompetent when they wind up in power (a certain North American world leader comes to mind). All of this makes me wonder if an alternative human capital certification program is even possible given our current set of social relations—the University of Phoenixes of the world don’t seem in any danger of supplanting Princeton and Yale anytime soon, but the blogosphere may prove a viable arena for autodidacts to build their reputation. (Or destroy it.)


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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Musings on the Ethics of Contemporary Journalism

In late March, Kathy Sierra, a blogger writing about Web design, cognition, and computers, was threatened with chilling, sexually graphic messages on her blog,Creating Passionate Users. Chris Locke, aka Rageboy, hosted some of these comments on his blog. These posts created a firestorm about sexist discourse in the Blogosphere. Melissa McNamara from CBS News has recapped in Blogophile how industry insiders feel about these developments.


Sierra responded and implicated Locke in the terrifying messages. Locke’s response eventually led to an amicable joint statement by both bloggers, and hopefully, this incident will produce positive outcomes. The robust discussions about free speech, civility, blog protocol, and online journalism ethics are an inspiring start, but the online community needs concrete results, not simply discussion.


I’m not keeping my fingers crossed.


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Wednesday, May 9, 2007


It’s hard to figure out just what the Spider-Man franchise has left to accomplish. After a record breaking weekend, earning more in three days than any other film in history, and inaugurating the Summer 2007 movie season, it seems the seminal comic book series has more than done its job. That the final installment in this sequence of adventures (Sony has already announced plans for 4, 5 and 6) is also a very good popcorn entertainment should be icing on the commercial cake. And for the most part, it is. While fans have started web board wars over various elements director Sam Raimi and the gang got wrong, the mainstream moviegoer is lining up to plunk down their recreational dosh. And for the most part, they won’t be disappointed.


What they might be is dismayed. Indeed, one of the biggest quandaries that develops in this third trip into human arachnid territory is why the formula that worked so well in Spider-Man 2 fails to properly function this time around. The story more or less stays the same – Peter Parker struggles with his new found role as superhero and champion of the people; his relationship with Mary Jane Watson fluctuates between great and grave; he has moments of sage wisdom from his doddering Aunt May; and he’s still trying to disarm Harry Osborn’s seething personal vendetta over the death of his father. Toss in a villain – or in this case, two – and over the top visual stunt piece spectacles (check!) and you’ve got everything that made the 2004 epic a commercial and critical hit.


Well, not quite. For some reason, Spider-Man 3 is an ‘almost’ success. It ‘almost’ captures the wrenching emotion of the divergent character concerns. It ‘almost’ gets us to care about the plight of Flint Marco (our petty criminal/doting dad who ends up molecularized into Sandman), Peter Brock (more or less the cocky doppelganger for Peter and soon to be Venom), or new hottie Gwen Stacy (basic blonde eye candy). It ‘almost’ succeeds in tying up all the loose ends left over from Spider-Man 1 and 2 (even though Doc Ock earns just one single meaningless mention). And it ‘almost’ has us convinced that this trilogy will transcend its blockbuster necessities to mean something more – either as art, precedent, or simply a great way to spend some time at the Cineplex.


But ‘almost’ works both ways, and there are moments when Spider-Man 3 ‘almost’ falls apart completely. For example, the narrative is so fragmented and jumpy – which one would expect considering that the filmmakers are crafting an attempted trilogy out of various parts of the comic book myth – that it never settles down and sails the way Part 2 does. In addition, there is still some sloppy CGI, especially in the rendering of Brock’s space virus alter ego. Because of the character’s VERY late appearance in the story, and lack of significant screen time, we just don’t know what to expect from this being. When it starts slinging webs and acting all spider-like, we are left contemplating why we need two entities who both basically do the same thing. Aren’t there more interesting enemies in the Spider-man repertoire?


Controversy also surrounds the Second Act sequences where we are introduced to Power Mad (or as some have labeled him, Emo) Peter, including a corny “strut” montage and an equally odd dance number in a jazz club. In fact, most of the anger metered onto this movie comes from those who complain about Mary Jane’s TWO solo song spots, or the constant attention to character over chaos. It’s almost as if critics, appreciative of how Part 2 deepened the dynamic between everyone involved, said, “Enough all ready! Let’s get to the good stuff!” But anyone familiar with Raimi knows that he likes to trip up the tone of his films. As early as The Evil Dead series, he’d mix the serious with the silly, the scary with some slapstick. In preparation for what he feels will be a five handkerchief finale, a gut wrenching test of friendship and love, our director just wants to have a little fun.


Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t deliver the stirring, staggering epiphanies we’ve come to expect. The showdown with both Sandman and Venom is so straightforward (fight, stop, fight, stop) and lacking in the invention of the previous skirmishes (Spidey and the Granular One do have a great tête-à-tête amid a maze of subway cars) that it feels like middle act mayhem, designed to keep us occupied until the real conclusion comes along. Even in the initial sequence where Gwen Stacey (and a rather tall skyscraper) is threatened by an industrial crane gone crazy, there is an urgency and invention that’s lacking come showdown time. Still, you have to give Raimi credit. He certainly understands the acrobatic element of Spidey’s skills. The sequences when our hero swoops and soars across the NYC cityscape are thrilling in their sense of motion and wonder.


Another area where critics have gotten it dead wrong is in the acting department – specifically, the consistent dismissal of Tobey Maguire as nothing more than a whiny little manchild. On the contrary, he carries the entire weight of the film on his character’s post-adolescent shoulders. He is as good here as he was in Part 2, and all his emotional responses are earned honestly and specifically. Because of all the splash and fireworks, it’s hard to remember that Peter is actually inside that suit – not just some stunt or CGI element manipulated and mauled at the whim of the narrative. As a result, Maguire captures that ‘other’ aspect - the burden - allowing it to color and shade everything he does. If anything, it is Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane that deserves some straightening out. She’s gone from supportive to selfish in the blink of an eye, and her downfall seems premeditated and wrong. Besides, she agreed to a relationship with Spider-Man post reveal – shouldn’t she grow up a little?


James Franco also suffers a bit as well. His post-trauma transformation from a seething ball of rage to a dithering amnesiac with a forced smile is a real contrivance. Instead of making Harry a total head case, maneuvering the people around him to earn their trust (before destroying them), he’s just a good guy gone bad who turns into a bad guy gone good. The camaraderie element to this storyline is the film’s strongest facet (it is reminiscent of the bond shared by the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) but whole portions of the Peter/Harry/MJ triangle seem repetitive and unnecessary.


The rest of the cast is definitely driven to the very edges of the action. J.K. Simmons, so good as J. Jonah Jameson, is reduced to a couple of cameo spots, while James Cromwell (as Police Chief Stacy) is only around to provide Gwen a paternal face. As the villains, Topher Grace is wonderfully smarmy as desperate (and dangerous) Brock, while Thomas Haden Church is more concrete than complexity as Marco. Even when Raimi stops the action cold to give his Sandman room to wax about his sick little girl, the schmaltz seems totally tacked on. Indeed, why did this evildoer have to have a backstory, any way? What happened to the good old days where insane psychopaths wanted to take over the world because…well, because they are insane psychopaths. Had more time been spent on making Sandman/Flint a formidable foe, and not turning up the empathy factor, perhaps his presence as a baddie would have more impact. As a result, he’s sketchy throughout.


Overall, Spider-Man 3 drops down below the previous installment in the hierarchy. It’s shocking how shaky Raimi’s ideals appear this time around. Back at the beginning of this entire series, his storytelling scheme was unique and undeniable. He would push the maudlin and the mawkish as far as he could, then save the psychology structure by making the action supplement and strengthen the sentiment. This made everything feel complementary and complete. The balance he maintained so well over the previous two entries is really out of whack here – so much so that the moments of middling mediocrity compete to overpower the inherent greatness of his vision. In some ways, this is the way Peter Parker’s story was meant to end. As a reluctant hero, he was ill-prepared to take on the challenges of being a champion. As a big screen figure, he appears equally incapable of fully exemplifying the genre’s best aspects. Still, he ‘almost’ gets it – and that’s good enough for now…and Spider-Man 3.


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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Need any proof that the entertainment industry has a death wish?  Look no further than this Reuters article: Old media turns combative against new media.  Yes, that’s right- they’ve become even more clueless about modern culture than your grandfather.  The only problem is that your grandfather probably (hopefully) doesn’t have to know about his own biz yet is dangerously, pathologically ignorant of it.


But it gets worse.  With the blessing of the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, some states are now cracking down on the practice of selling used CD’s, no doubt the number one scourge which is ravaging America now: see this Ars Technica article for more details.  Might it occur to the biz that like the RIAA downloading lawsuits, such an ill-advised crackdown will turn yet more people away from music or at least legally approved methods of accessing music?  Probably not.  Does it also occur to them that the money lost over CD sales will NEVER be turned around into sales of new CD’s?  Probably not.  Used CD’s are bought up for a reason- many people who buy them aren’t THAT interested in an artist or an album to pay full price for a new copy.  If they can’t buy the music used, why would they run out and buy a new copy?  They won’t and they’ll probably turn to download and not necessarily the type that the industry approves of.


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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Tim Harford, the Financial Times’ economics columnist, writes about rent exhaustion in his most recent column.


there’s the ”curse of the free lunch” - or what a more strait-laced economist would call ”rent exhaustion”. It works like this: I fly somewhere deserving - say, Dar es Salaam - and hand out dollar bills to strangers. I’ll do it next Tuesday, starting at noon; please form an orderly queue. This would be guaranteed to produce a long line of people. Someone who made a dollar an hour would be willing to queue for up to an hour; someone on a dollar a day would be willing to queue for a day.
At least the people who found it worthwhile to queue would be poorer than those who didn’t. But many in the queue would surely be better off earning it by doing something productive. Each dollar I gave away would be worth only a few cents once you subtracted the cost of the recipient’s time - by trying to get the handout, they are destroying much of its value.


It seemed awfully shallow to be thinking of this in juxtaposition with people living on less than a dollar a day, but this analysis made me think of the huge amount of time I have spent chasing deals—in thrift stores or sales or wherever—that was not adequately compensated for by the actual value of what I ended up with. When I was a student and had little money but lots of time (I wasn’t an especially serious student, I suppose) I was susceptible to schemes that allowed me to waste lots of time for a little bit of gain. Killing time was an end in itself for me then, which is regrettable—which is the thing for which I tend to be looking for somebody other than myself to blame. Hence the following…


The costs of chasing deals (like opportunity costs) are not immediately apparent, a fact which marketers and retailers routinely exploit when they promise free gifts or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities or rebates or money-back guarantees or what have you—they get you to pay in effort what you save in money, while potentially earning your gratitude at the same time (as well as making the brands in question more familiar to you through the arduousness of the process).


 


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