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Thursday, Aug 24, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

The first video off the new Mountain Goats album, Get Lonely, directed by Brick director Rian Johnson.


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Thursday, Aug 24, 2006

UN Ambassador turned Wal-Mart shill Andrew Young got himself fired from his spokesperson job by making these comments to the Los Angeles Sentinel, which had asked if he was concerned about the megaretailer putting mom-and-pop stores out of business: “Well, I think they should; they ran the ‘mom and pop’ stores out of my neighborhood. But you see, those are the people who have been overcharging us, selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they’ve ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it’s Arabs; very few black people own these stores.” The racial stereotyping in these comments have earned few defenders, but Matt Yglesias wondered in this American Prospect story whether anyone should bother defending bodegas themselves.


There’s a reason, after all, that mom and pop are so perpetually under threat of being driven out of business by large retail chains—mom and pop sell sub-standard goods for somewhat premium prices. Not because they’re bad people, but because they’re stuck with an intrinsically difficult business model. Lacking substantial economies of scale, mom and pop can’t beat the big boys on price. So they take advantage of convenience. They are, metaphorically speaking, everywhere—their stores dot a city’s landscape like oases in the urban retail desert. And if you don’t own a car, sooner or later you’ll find yourself in need of something or other and lacking the time or energy to make it to a far-off supermarket. You’ll find yourself overpaying for fairly crappy wares. Not, again, because mom and pop hate you—it’s just the only business model that works for them.



Yglesias seems to imply that as a “market exchange” bodega shopping is purely voluntaristic, but that’s true only for those with reasonable alternatives. But in fact bodegas are not “everywhere.” In most cities, those outside the poorest of areas have reasonably responsible, corporate-owned chain convenience stores to choose from (like Wawa in Philadelphia) with brand reputations at stake, if not 24-hour grocery stores. The rotten-milk-and-expired-food style stores seem to survive only where there’s poverty. If you are too poor to afford a car, you may find yourself living in a neighborhood that supermarkets won’t deign to do business in, and the bodega will be your only option. It seems unfiar to suggest it’s lazy to shop in bodegas under these circumstances. People in these areas aren’t looking for anything more convenient than not having to spend several hours to make a grocery store trip. Subtract the racism and Young’s point seems to have been that if Wal-Mart moved into these neighborhoods and purged them of price gougers, everyone might be better off. The bodegas get away with raising prices in those instances because they are willing to do business in places larger corporations have deemed too risky, not necessarily because people are too lazy. As Ezra Klein writes, that bodegas “survive at all is not a commentary on immigrant greed but on the lack of decent supermarkets and food suppliers willing to open into impoverished areas.” So bodegas are the unfortunate place where all the misery of the impoverished neighborhood is quantified and tacked on to life’s necessaries as a kind of survival tax, helping things continue to spirial ever downward. I’m sympathetic to Yglesias’s point that mom-and-pop stores (like independent bookstores) are unduly romaticized. There is nothing romantic about life on razor-thin margins in last-resort neighborhoods. 


And it’s not as though bodega owners have a full panoply of business options among which they are free to choose, either. Klein links to this extremely informative post by Steven Teles in which he explains why immigrants end up running corner stores.


A number of folks commented on Mike’s post about Andrew Young, essentially asking why African-Americans don’t run corner stores and coffee shops. I don’t know much about coffee shops, but let’s take three categories of small businesses that immigrants tend to concentrate on: corner shops, dry cleaners, and doughnut shops. What do all these have in common? First, they are very low margin enterprises. They are only profitable if you can drive hourly wages down very low. This is possible if you engage in what I call (and refer to in my co-edited book called Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy in the US and UK) “self-exploitation.” These are enterprises that work mainly if you can make yourself and your family the labor pool, and make up for low average hourly wages with extremely long hours, both on the part of the owner and their family (whose labor is not directly compensated and not taxed). These type of enterprises don’t work for African-Americans for two reasons. First, their reserve wage is above the (very low) effective hourly wage that these enterprises provide. Second, given their family structure, most African-Americans don’t have recourse to uncompensated family labor. There’s also a third factor, which is access to capital—many of these enterprises are originally capitalized through rotating capital arrangements, which depend on the high level of social trust that comes from fairly tight-knit immigrant communities. A more speculative fourth factor is that these enterprises often work because consumption among the relevant immigrant groups is often highly suppressed—closer to the level of their countries of origin than the US norm.
One way of summing up the reason that African-Americans aren’t found in substantial numbers in these sorts of niches is that they are so thoroughly assimilated, in their expectations of return on labor, family structure, individualism, consumption patterns, etc. One doesn’t need to explain the phenomenon under examination by recourse to the peculiar character of African-Americans—in fact, it is the phenomenon of low-margin immigrant businesses that has more of a cultural grounding. This can be seen in the fact that very few second-generation immigrants are found in such jobs. They “work” in providing an economic bridge into the American market economy, but they are almost always transitional—the second generation moves into the mainstream economy, typically through education. This is true both in Britain and the United States.


 


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Wednesday, Aug 23, 2006



As the Internet continues to buzz, albeit moderately, about the so-called “failure” of Snakes on a Plane, one issue seems to be getting all the attention – New Line’s decision to bow to web pressure and change Snakes rating from a kid friendly PG-13 to a far harder R. For those unfamiliar with the story, SoaP was originally going by the title Pacific Air 121, purposefully toning down the violence, and hemming in star Sam Jackson’s tendency to break out in badass expletives. When the geek squad got a hold of this information, they promised rebellion. They convinced New Line to ditch the dopey name and unleash Jackson’s inner epithet. But it wasn’t until the film was finished and the PG-13 version was screened, that all involved knew that such a youth-oriented rating was about to doom the film. So following Internet suggestions, the violence was amped up and the entire tone driven darker, and less dopey.


Naturally, once the less than spectacular box office returns were announced, people started looking for scapegoats. As with most Tinsel Town missteps, the rating became the prime suspect. So-called insiders argued that a PG-13 guaranteed a wider demographic, and allowed the most dollar-oriented film fans, the 14 to 17 years olds to freely attend the film. Parents chimed in, stating that it was a “shame” that their bratlings couldn’t attend a movie that they had been interested in since it first became infamous on the web. Unfortunately, all of this fails to address the primary reason Snakes sunk – New Line got stingy and relied on tech dorks to market its movie. Here’s betting the brainiac who thought that up is clearing out his or her desk right now.


But the whole PG-13 issue raises a much larger, much broader concern, one that Hollywood doesn’t want to really address, outright. In many ways, the studios are practicing a kind of cultural ageism. They figure if you’re over 20, single, or married without yet spawning children, and want to see genre offerings like action, horror and thrillers, you better be prepared to sit at the cinematic kids’ table. They have no intention of providing adult entertainment for adults – they assume that if you don’t want to be part of the juvenile crowd, you can simply buy or rent the DVD a few months down the line. The film biz is more or less convinced that giving everything a PG-13 is the panacea that cures all of the industries box office ills. After all, teens don’t have taste – they wait for one of the many style conscious entities (MTV, YouTube) to tell them what’s cool, and then they flock to it like proverbial, profit-margin sheep.


Now this is all well and good for the bottom line, but the truth is that such a greenback oriented mentality is corrupting, and even killing, the movie-going experience. More than the emerging technology in home theater, the ADD addled outlook of your average “got to have my Blackberry” film fan, or the sequel/remake strategy that has the weekly premieres feeling like a bad case of déja vu (starring Densel Washington, apparently), this stopgap rating is ruining the integrity of the cinematic aesthetic. The argument is simple to understand – it’s kind of like entertainment utilitarianism. Filmmakers are being forced to bend their ideas and vision to provide the greatest marketing good for the greatest number of filmgoers. And aside from the pre and tween set (who aren’t prohibited outright, and get a healthy does of hackneyed CGI every few weeks, anyway) PG-13 delivers such a bland universality.


Well, kind of. In essence, PG-13 is as useless as the X. All it really does is tell anyone who’s interested that the film they are about to see is not quite an “R”. It doesn’t define limits the way the original G/PG/R system suggested, and in reality, confused the concept of what content satisfied the “Parental Guidance” standard. Before the arrival of the censorship stopgap, films with a PG rating frequently featured nudity, violence and foul language. Even films like Beetlejuice and Big had the notorious “F” word as part of their almost all-ages aspects. While it’s true that time and temperament affects the MPAA as much as actual material (Clerks II barely batted a rating’s board eye toward its easy R, while the original got smacked with a still stinging NC-17), the fine line between what mandates the addition of a ‘13’ is so subjective that it’s hard to get a handle on.


The Supreme Court calls this “The Chilling Effect” – the moment where speech of any kind is so hindered by outrageous or ambiguous restriction that the only safe path is none at all. While they’ve denied it for years, the media has so glorified the importance of the MPAA’s approval that newspapers won’t print ads for film’s featuring too much sex and/or violence, and trailers/movie posters aren’t permitted for general audience consumption until the board has had their say. Even worse, theaters and other entertainment outlets (read: national chain video stores) will fail to offer certain films if their rating goes against these moralized marketing strategies. While they make it very clear that no film has to follow its suggestions, the MPAA system is set up in such a way that to ignore them is to commit a kind of professional seppuku. If direct and indirect advertising bans and the inability to book play dates aren’t outright suppression, they’re pretty damn close.


So most movies and makers contractually pre-determine a rating, using their crack business acumen and any other form of glorified guessing to determine an appropriate approach to a project. Genre usually helps define the parameters, with drama being the most open ended and animation the most closed. In between are conflicting categories, from the always in flux comedy to the growing ever stricter horror film. Yet the cold fact is that most films don’t strive for a PG-13: they usually backdoor their way into it. They film the material they want, create the effects and the imagery that they believe works within the context of their movie, and then toss the entire enterprise at the MPAA like a compulsive gambler hoping to avoid another ‘snake eyes’ washout – and by doing so, they begin the process of amusement micromanagement.


With the buffer of a PG-13, and it’s perceived bankability, a kind of cinematic bait and switch beings. As stated before, it occurs with the most frequency in horror films. Unless a hard R is agreed upon and accepted (Hostel, Saw, Silent Hill), most movie macabre is purposefully fashioned to give the ratings system ample editing fodder. Scares are left intact and gore remains plentiful, all in full knowledge that they will be snipped and clipped out of existence later on. The goal is simple – get that 13. A regular PG, once a sign of some amiable adult content, now argues for the random fart joke. It’s been Disney-fied and declassified. R, of course, is a no-no, especially in our responsibility shirking society that wants to prevent anyone from understanding the truth about the real world.


No, PG-13 is the ultimate stopgap, a financial safety net that allows for a film to open to the broadest possible audience – and in some manner of backwards logic – to create the quickest connection to a target fanbase. Yet this fails to take into consideration two important elements (1) the needs of the moviegoer and (2) the needs of the genre. Horror cannot survive without the visceral and textural aspects of terror. Eradicating them to fit a non-standardized score robs the genre of its real reason for being. Some say, “No, PG-13 can be just as frightening as an R”. Bollocks! By this argument, The Exorcist would be a much better movie without all the probable NC-17 level vileness it offers.  Or even better, if we could just clean up the original Night of the Living Dead (and it’s sensational sequels) or Tobe Hooper’s initial Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we’d have UNIVERSALLY appreciated mainstream classics.


Huh? Gearing material to a specific set of individuals is understandable, but not very intelligent. What if your dream teen demographic is uninterested in vampire/werewolf wars, or the ongoing haunting of a curse-riddled home? Does shaving the story of its more potent scares really make it more acceptable to the disconnected and the inattentive? And worse, what does it do to the film itself? Could we even tolerate the new The Hills Have Eyes had the narrative not wandered over into the nauseating nuclear village sequence, or do we really prefer The Fog remake approach to terror, with all the killings either quick-cut, or occurring off camera to guarantee the MPAA’s incredibly mixed blessing. Granted, both sides have valid reasons for why they do what they do, but does using a score as the source of inspiration really help the internal structure of your story - and, doesn’t it question outright the capacity of your audience?


Seems like Snakes on a Plane may be more important than anyone on the ‘Net even imagined. Aside from all the web log marketing snafus and peer-to-peer pressure, it has laid the seeds of a debate that has been simmering for a while. There are many who feel that the PG-13 rating is a parental godsend, the kind of sage second-handed advice that makes raising kids in the post-millennial mêlée of the nu-media that much less impossible. Others, naturally, despise the notion of art being altered for the sake of a perceived payday. Whatever the rationale, the reality is actually a corrupt combination of the two. The MPAA’s PG-13 is a demographic determinate. Sadly, it censures as much as it suggests, pushing us closer and closer to a homogenized version of the cinematic arts. There may come a day when every film is a probable PG-13, whether they began that way or not. Unfortunately, we appear to be closer to that manner of filmic future shock than we care to admit.


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Wednesday, Aug 23, 2006

Think it was funny and/or disgusting when the religious right crowed that gays and lesbians caused the September 11th attacks.  Well, prepare to barf again.  It turns out that hip-hop and dance music can be bad for your health: Researchers link music tastes to HIV risks.  I guess that means that if you just listen to classical music and have promiscuous relationships, you’re in the clear, right?  It was easy to laugh at this ridiculous study until a lot of publications deemed it worthy to report on.  See why people don’t trust the media?


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Wednesday, Aug 23, 2006

Every so often, despite devoting almost every inch of column space to the pursuit of money, the business press feels the need to run a concessionary piece about how money can’t buy you happiness. This article about money and happiness, from last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, seemed to touch a nerve with libertarians and economists around the blogosphere. The article draws on happiness research conducted by behavioral economists and hedonic psychologists and the like to make the usual points about money only providing additional happiness up to the level of material security, at which point the hedonic treadmill (our rapid adaptation to improvements) and comparative dissatisfaction (our inability to keep up with a ever-receding-and-improving cast of Joneses) set in. That’s all familiar stuff, but what seemed to grab everyone’s attention, though (me included), was this quote from professor Daniel Gilbert (whose recent book Stumbling on Happiness collects and elaborates these findings, and had already spurred a similar article in New York magazine a few months ago): “Money itself doesn’t make you happy. What can make you happy is what you do with it. There’s a lot of data that suggests experiences are better than durable goods.” In other words, buying memories, which become more valuable as they get older, is better than buying things, which deterioriate over time, causing their owners great anxiety. That is why it is better to travel or to contrive ways to get together and do things with friends. Owning stuff just gives us the pleasure of watching it decay.


This makes perfect sense to me: I think of all the grief my old laptop has given me over the years—protecting it from viruses, installing software, making network cards work with it, replacing its battery which rapidly lost interest in holding a charge. Now it’s so feeble as to be utterly worthless and it sits in a bag in my closet unused, waiting to be junked. I needed the computer (sort of) for various reasons, but it don’t think of it as having generated a “flow of experiences” for me, as economist Bryan Caplan suggests. If anything it generated the fear he admits to: “whenever I worry about being robbed over vacation, my first thought is the sorrow of seeing my CD shelves empty.” That which is useful isn’t necessarily that which gives pleasurable memories, plus the repetition of experience from goods one owns destroys the singularity of the memories created. Also ownership seems to give us the feeling of having potential experience held in abeyance, which seems to nullify any prior experiences with the thing owned. When I think of the laptop, I think of what must still be done with it, not what great things it let me do in the past; and I think of those future tasks as duties, owed to myself and requiring my effort. I take whatever experience an owned good gives me for granted even before I make that experience happen. In some ways, this is why owning a film on DVD tends to ruin it for me; I never end up watching it even though the idea in acquiring it was that I could watch it over and over again. What pleasure I get from owning the DVD is knowing that I could watch it over and over again but don’t actually have to. Ownership becomes an acceptable substitute for actual experience. (Maybe this is why I’m waiting to get Gilbert’s book out from the library to read it.)


Will Wilkinson offers this defense of experiences over goods:


Two points. (1) Market egalitarianism. Qualitiative differences between cheap and expensive consumer goods is almost nil. There is almost no experiential difference between a cheap TV and a “nice” TV. If Deadwood is good on a $2,000 plasma screen on HBO, it’s 98% as good on your sister’s giveaway used 19-inch, a $35 DVD player, and Netflix. The extra expenditure buys almost nothing in terms of the quality of experience. Same with the music. For $4.95 a month, I can get I’m guessing 75% of of Bryan’s CD collection on Yahoo. Capitalism makes money worth much less when it comes to manufactured non-positional goods. (2) Adaptation. The mind is a novelty whore — a change detector. Consciousness loses its grip on the added quality of a premium picture, sound system, etc., very fast. The cheap, almost perfect substitute for an expensive stereo is a cheap stereo. The cheap substitute for an exquisite meal at the best restaurant in Paris is… what? IHOP in Arlington? A great memory and a great story is an ongoing flow of positive experience.



The term market egalitarianism smuggles some dubious associations into the argument (I don’t think the fact that we can all possibly buy comparable TVs makes us all equal in any meaningful way—purchasing power isn’t quite synonymous with political power) but the rest seems right. If we are looking to buy status or novelty, consumer goods are likely to disappoint us. As Jane Galt at Asymmetrical Information writes, “Status-hunting via material goods is a zero-sum game, and unless you’re Bill Gates, the odds are you’re going to lose. With a little mental discipline (okay, a lot) you can stop playing that game, and force yourself to concentrate on the things that really give you joy, rather than simply creating a transitory gleam of envy in someone else’s eye.” And If we are looking for utility, we can find generally it on the cheap. But perhaps most important, utility is not necessary equivalent to happiness—maximizing utility seems like defensive behavior, an anxious protection of certain standards one has adapted to, whereas happiness is something else, an absence of self-consciousness in the midst of experience, and the subsequent ability to remember later how that felt.


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