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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

At BusinessWeek‘s website is this debate between economists Nouriel Roubini and Tyler Cowen about what, if anything, should be done about predatory lending. The debate hinges on whether it’s okay for firms to exploit the financial ignorance of a populace—whether it’s okay to base your business model on other people’s stupidity. In general, this seems bad to me, because it gives people a vested interest in the stupidity of others, which ultimately disserves society as a whole. the predatory lenders profit at the expense of the general well-being of society, assuming society profits from having smart people in it who understand how to make economic exchange more efficient and are more capable of watching out for their own interests. This is essentially what Roubini is arguing when he suggests unrest and misery in subprime credit markets can spill over and present us all with a recession. The ignorance of borrowers and the cupidity of lenders don’t merely affect those involved in the exploitative arrangements, but they have macro effects.

The case for predatory lending is that, well, they are better than loan sharks, to whom bad credit risks would have to turn for their needs. But this doesn’t address the real problem, which is how unscrupulous lenders use deceptive practices to put borrowers in debt traps. Borrowers fail to understand the ramifications of the loans they agree to and aren’t aware of alternatives. To Cowen, this is a matter of choices: some individuals choose to be ignorant (it costs more in time and effort than it is worth to them—financial stupidity is valuable), and choose bad loans, and we shouldn’t force them to do otherwise and trample on their right to make bad decisions. (Alas, freedom means freedom to fail.) Writes Cowen: “Government cannot protect us from every possible form of our own stupidity, and it’s often counter-productive for it to try.” The thing is, deception can make almost any of us look stupid after the fact; the line between deception and opportunity is hard to draw. Is hiding fees deceptive or just good business sense? The emotional pressures and desperation involved in emergency borrowing are sure to cloud judgment and invite lenders to cut corners or make misleading promises that may not be deceptive on paper but are surely deceptive in practice, in the moment. The definition of what constitutes deception can be especially nebulous, making it far from a simple proposition to restrict government’s role to be “to ensure transparency of terms and protect against fraud” as Cowen recommends.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Saddle up shoppers – this is going to be one confusing (and cash draining) DVD roundup. On top of the titles chosen by SE&L as representing the releases to look out for, there are dozens of previously available offerings (Goodfellas, Natural Born Killers, The Omega Man) making a reappearance on the medium for absolutely no good reason. In fact, we can’t tell if these are merely re-priced reprints looking for a little budget buying power, or barebones versions of still available special editions. Whatever the case, make sure you’re paying attention as you pick through the digital doggies waiting to be corralled. Indeed, you might wind up with a busted bronco instead of a magnificent mustang. Of course, you can avoid all the confusion and simply stick with this week’s prize pony, an overlooked masterwork that deserves to be the premium pick of 15 May:

The Fountain

Darren Aronofsky deserves SO much better. When he first pitched this time travel love story five years ago, he had Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and a $70 million budget ready to realize his dream. Come 2006, he had to settle for a magnificent Hugh Jackman, an equally radiant Rachel Weisz, and a clear critical and commercial conundrum. More or less dismissed during its theatrical release, what most audience members saw as self-indulgent and confusing was actually the makings of a post-modern masterpiece. There have been lots of cinematic stories about death and the loss of a loved one, but nothing has done a better job of tapping into the internal struggle over the acceptance of same than this fascinating film. Aronosfky’s decision to go as lo-tech as possible with his F/X gives the entire production an earthy, natural glow, and the passion between his characters is palpable. Ignore it if you must, but decades from now it will be listed among the medium’s greats. Guaranteed.

Other Titles of Interest


It contains a cast of British acting heavyweights – Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Sir John Gielgud – and a story of substantive historical significance. But when it came time for the 1965 Academy to divvy up trophies, its 12 nominations could only manage a single screenplay win. So what beat this otherwise exceptional period drama – why, the lightweight musical mediocrity known as My Fair Lady.


Okay, this was a TV movie, so we’re sort of violating our own ‘theatrical only’ rules. But Mickey Rooney was just so good as a mentally handicapped man finally escaping his life under institutional control. With a VERY young Dennis Quaid as the documentary filmmaker that helps Bill out, it remains a weeper that definitely earns its emotions. The sequel was equally satisfying.

The Dead Girl

A lot has been written about this under the radar indie drama – and almost all of it has been better than good. Using the identity of the title entity as a means of tying many divergent characters and storylines together, actress Karen Moncrieff’s second full length feature crackles with a complexity and collection of perfect performances that few Hollywood efforts just can’t achieve.

Pan’s Labyrinth

The left over Oscar argument from 2007 will always be whether Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others deserved to win the award for Best Foreign Film over this clear fan favorite. After revisiting it recently on home video, it is obvious that Guillermo Del Toro’s adult fairytale about war and sacrifice is a stellar motion picture. In fact, its timeless nature will keep it considered long after Lives is forgotten.

Stomp the Yard

The black college tradition of stepping definitely deserves more than this hackneyed formula film, especially given director Sylvain White’s remarkable way with a camera. He brings an energy and a vitality to the ‘dance’ sequences, experimenting with shot selection and post-production optics to tweak convention. Too bad the rest of the movie is so routine.

And Now for Something Completely Different
Tex Avery’s Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection

Finally! Every other half-baked animated creature seems to be getting a major DVD release these days, and yet Tex Avery’s dour hound dog always gets left behind. It’s hard to describe what makes Droopy so incredible – his hurdy gurdy nerdy voice, the intensely violent physical comedy that forms his humor, or the hyper-stylized way Avery and his crew realized his pen and ink personality. Whatever the reasons, this two disc set – offering 24 theatrical shorts and a bevy of added content – promises to make fans of the zany animator and his prized pooch happy indeed. We here at SE&L are smiling all the way to the brick and mortar. Now, if they could only find a way to bring the complete Screwy Squirrel to the digital medium.


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Monday, May 14, 2007
by Edward Wasserman [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

The Wall Street Journal gave itself a black eye last month by withholding the sensational news that media baron Rupert Murdoch was trying to buy its owner, Dow Jones & Co. Murdoch submitted a $5 billion bid in mid-April to the Dow board. Journal editors learned about it around that time but didn’t tell their readers until after the story was broken by cable network CNBC two weeks later.

Why did the world’s top business newspaper sit on one of the year’s top business stories? The tale, disclosed initially not by the Journal, but by its uptown rival, The New York Times, is full of ironies: Murdoch emasculating the news organization he was pledging to protect; professional duty stumbling over company loyalty; a tenet of journalistic principle fashioned into a gag to silence a newsroom and keep it from its core mission—getting publicly significant information before the public.

Here’s what happened, according to The Times and a later account in the Journal.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Zygmunt Bauman offers two defining principles of Leftism, something that seemed pertinent after the detour into Hegemony and Socialist Strategy over the weekend.

The first assumption is that it is the duty of the community to insure its individual members against individual misfortune. And the second is that, just as the carrying capacity of a bridge is measured by the strength of its weakest support, so the quality of a society should be measured by the quality of life of its weakest members. These two constant and non-negotiable assumptions set the left on a perpetual collision course with the realities of the human condition under the rule of capitalism; they necessarily lead to charges against the capitalist order, with its twin sins of wastefulness and immorality, manifested in social injustice.

In other words, leftist politics are a matter of supplying a social safety net and inverting the assumption that socioeconomic benefits trickle down from the top, after the wealthiest of society are given the leeway to pursue their greed to the utmost. Wealth provides a wider latitude of opportunity, and those on the Right tend to argue that inhibiting those opportunities compromises possibilities for everyone on down the totem pole. But if Bauman’s principles are respected, we must consider the person in society with the least social and financial and human capital as the focus of our concerns. Capitalist society’s failure to enhance these people’s capital is what makes it guilty of “wastefulness and immorality”—strange charges when you consider capitalism’s heedless drive for efficiency is generally its operating principle. Capitalism tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, who then use their enlarged opportunities to continue to consolidate their advantages. Political disagreements often revolve around whether this process generates opportunities for everyone else, has no particular net effect on opportunity, or positively harms those left behind. That in turn hinges on how one views the problems of relative wealth, egalitarianism, environmental risk, community solidarity, ambition’s place in meritocracy, the danger of moral hazard in social protections, and so on. To my mind, the most compelling argument regarding the dangers of economic inequality is that it yields political inequality; the wealthy are able to seize control of government and use it to protect their interests at the expense of opportunity for others—social mobility is inhibited and democratic processes devolve into sham practices, with consumer choice masquerading as political choice, and prosperity of the “look how many flat-screen TVs Americans bought” sort supplanting freedom. So in a statement like this”

Unless closely watched and checked, markets tend to produce a lot of waste and lead to the deepening polarisation of human conditions and life prospects. They also generate insecurity, promoting and reinforcing feelings of abandonment, alienation and loneliness.

I would want the remark about waste clarified, given some kind of measure. It may be that capitalism’s hostility to waste, its tendency to label nonproductive behavior as inefficient and wasteful, that yields the polarization, the alienation, the loneliness. Capitalism’s view of waste needs to be set against a leftist version that’s persuasive, a definition of waste that hinges on a sense of a wasted life, of insecurity as wasted, counterproductive and socially corrosive mental energy.

Bauman translates his two defining principles into this definition:

The left is best described as a stance of permanent criticism of the realities of social life, which always fall short of the values a society professes and promises to serve. The left is not committed to any specific model of human togetherness: the sole model it refuses to tolerate is a regime that deems itself perfect - or at least the best of all possible worlds - and therefore immune to questioning.

This definition shows Bauman has assimilated of Laclau and Mouffe’s point of there being no given, natural inevitable constituency for socialism, and it hearkens to the notion of permanent revolution. He seems to elevate critical thinking to the level of an end in itself, not necessarily because critical thinking is a practice commensurate with the dignity of humankind (which is why I’d advocate it for its own sake) but because of a realist assessment of what’s possible. This is akin to Zizek’s prescription for “pessimistic leftism”, touched on in this brief interview.

But ultimately he conceives of Leftism’s mission to promulgate the “social state”—something like Sweden. Which means the left must come up with an answer to the ammunition provided by stories like this one, which suggests the incentives in the Swedish system are creating freeloaders rather than the fully dignified humans we leftists would like to see.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

When Time magazine published their infamous “Is God dead?” cover story in 1966, editors across the continent learned a valuable lesson: God sells. And controversial stories about God sell more. Just ask Dan Brown. Or Richard Dawkins.

With his atheist manifesto, The God Delusion, dominating bestseller lists since it was first published in September, Dawkins has been at the centre of nearly every God (or rather, anti-God) story recently published.The articles all seem to tell us the same thing: Science and religion are at odds. The Intelligent Design debacle made a lot of people angry. Religion and God are bearing the brunt of their anger. Atheism is hot and Richard Dawkins is the man who lit the flame. (Here, to prove that this subject is newsworthy, some other prominent atheists are mentioned, usually philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and neuroscience grad student Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Aspiring freelancers take note: three=trend.) Religion is the cause of most of the world’s violence, the Atheists say. Stalin and Hitler were Atheists, the religionists say. Hmmm, the writer says.



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