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Thursday, Apr 19, 2007

As someone who has groused about the negative savings rate in America (it seems indicative of competitive consumption for its own sake that yields little in well-being, and signals a muted lack of faith in the future), I feel obliged to present a contrary view. Writing at Slate, Henry Blodget makes the case that a rational response to the American tax system is to spend as much as possible.


The problem is how we tax investment gains. Over the past 80 years, the average annual return on Treasury bills (a proxy for savings accounts) has been 3.7 percent per year. Inflation, meanwhile, has averaged 3.1 percent per year. This combination has produced a “real return” of a paltry 0.6 percent per year. If you got to keep that 0.6 percent, you might still have an incentive to save: A $616 real gain on $10,000 in 10 years wouldn’t be much, but it would at least be $616 more than you have now. Unless you’re so poor that you’re exempt from taxes, however, or so flush that you can afford to lock up cash for decades in a tax-deferred annuity or retirement account, you won’t be keeping that 0.6 percent. You’ll be giving all of it—and probably more—to the government.


Blodget proposes making savings taxfree, which makes some sense if you think about middle class folk building up little nest eggs. But you have to consider who would really benefit from tax free savings—those with massive estates or inherited wealth. If we stop taxing interest and dividends, more tax dollars would have to come from levies on income—what John Edwards is talking about when he complains that we tax work instead of wealth. Such a tax scheme would create incentives to elude work as much as possible, or at least disguise work as some other form of income (say, stock options).


The other alternative is to tax consumption instead of income—through a sales tax or VAT. But then you run into the problem that such taxes are typically regressive (the burden of them is proportionally heavier on those with less income). Perhaps that complaint becomes less ignificant when we consider that our current system is getting more regressive as we speak.


Nonetheless, if one believes that consumption has negative externalities, as Robert Frank argues here, and one accepts the economists’ prescription of taxes to rectify externalities, then the policy course is plain. Writes Frank:


In Luxury Fever, I suggested that we scrap our current progressive tax on income in favor of a far more steeply progressive tax on consumption. Because total consumption for each family can be measured as the simple difference between the amount it earns each year (as currently reported to the IRS) and the amount it saves, such a tax would be relatively easy to administer. And if the tax were coupled with a large standard deduction (say $7,500 per person) and had low marginal tax rates on low levels of consumption, it would be even less burdensome for the poor than our current income tax.


More important, it would provide top earners with strong incentives to save more and limit the rate at which they increase the size of their mansions. Their doing so would reinforce the incentives on those just below the top to do likewise, and so on all the way down. Phased in gradually, this tax would slowly reduce the share of national income devoted to consumption and increase the corresponding share devoted to investment. Total spending would continue at levels sufficient to maintain full employment, and greater investment would lead to more rapid growth in productivity.


Of course, taxing consumption (which people associate with rewards, pleasure, etc.) is never going to be as politically feasible as taxing work (which people all too often associate with drudgery, humiliation, subservience, and boredom). And it seems doubtful that changes in our attitude would follow from changes in the incentives generated by tax policy. The same problem seems to beset any potential tax on carbon consumption—our attitudes toward gasoline consumption won’t change as fast as our attitudes toward the politicians who levied the tax—they have everything to lose and nothing to gain. (but the respect of future generations grateful to still have an inhabitable coastline. But then, what’s that worth now?)


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Thursday, Apr 19, 2007

It’s great that Ornette Coleman was honored by the Pulitzer board but looking back at his history and their history reveals some unpleasant truths about said board.


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Thursday, Apr 19, 2007

As the civil war rages on in Iraq, Congress and the Executive Branch seem unable to come to a consensus on the issue. The President has threatened to veto the recent supplemental spending bill, initiating a near stalemate in Washington. Meanwhile the ’08 presidential hopefuls are attempting to mold their own viable strategy for ending the conflict. Unfortunately, their rhetoric does not seem likely the shed any new light on this dire situation.


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Thursday, Apr 19, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Patrick Wolf
The Magic Position (promo mix) [MP3]
     


Arctic Monkeys
Brianstorm


Jay-Z + Biggie
Allure (Ratatat remix) [MP3]
     


Black Moth Super Rainbow
Sun Lips [MP3]
     


Drippy Eye (Octopus Project remix) [MP3]
     


The Boggs
Arm in Arm [MP3]
     



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Wednesday, Apr 18, 2007

No other medium is more suited for magnifying physical beauty than the cinema. Women in particular are the darlings of this particular art form. Beautiful actresses are synonymous with the movies.  The majority of the industry’s glamour is linked to starlets, so much so that the entire Academy Awards Ceremony is more of a showcase for their poise and resplendent gowns than it is for the outstanding films and performances of that year. The enchantment of the medium is the enduring memory of images, and many are of beautiful faces: Audrey Hepburn’s pixie grin as she tilts her sunglasses in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Greta Garbo’s stony, enigmatic face in the closing shot of Queen Christina, Grace Kelly smiling surreptitiously behind the steering wheel in To Catch a Thief


Indian cinema’s leading ladies are a bevy of Old World beauties. India’s rich, varied history - Dravidian, Persian, Vedic, Mughal - are all etched on their faces and bearing. While the Bollywood Sex Goddesses, voluptuous curves and saucer-shaped eyes, look like they’ve stepped out of an ancient temple carving, the Bollywood Beauties look like they’ve climbed out of a Rajput miniature painting: delicate, dewy-eyed, and demure.
They each impart a graceful forbearance to their acting, allowing the audience to linger on faces with admiration and to be awed by their talent.


Nargis is the grand dame of this lot, her entire presence and persona setting the precedence for all the other stars who followed her. Emerging as the leading actress of the ‘40s, just as Indian cinema was in its early stages, steadily growing into a commercial powerhouse, Nargis stood out like a pillar of loveliness against her formidable leading man, Raj Kapoor. She would star opposite other popular stars like Dilip Kumar and Sunil Dutt, but it was Kapoor with whom she would make the most movies and form the most lasting relationship. Their real-life story in some ways resembles the romance of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey, a prodigious, absorbing working relationship that resulted in their best performances, but was restrained by the confines of society (Kapoor was married, and divorce in the ‘40s would have ruined him as a star).


Still, Nargis’s elegance and statuesque beauty made her an icon for hundreds of women. But in the late ‘50s, Nargis made a dramatic change in her screen persona by taking on the role of the beleagured village matriarch Durga in Mehboob Khan’s salt-of-the-earth epic, Mother India. Many critics questioned the casting: could Nargis, famous for playing sophisticated socialites, take on such an unsparing role? Nargis knew it was the role of a lifetime: part Scarlett O’Hara, part Stella Dallas, it was one of those fabled, charismatic strong women parts (like resilient frontier wife, or the chipper, but hardscrabble Homefront widow) coveted by actresses at that time. And she played Durga with such quivering intensity and passion that it elevated the movie to mythic status, with Nargis as the body and soul of a country coming into its own power after Independence.


Meena Kumari and Madhubala were both masterful in period roles. Their inwardness and tempered sensuality was a throwback to the vision of Mughal princesses, adorned in jewels, shrouded in veils. Kumari shone in tragic, suffering wife or mistress roles; she was one of the few Indian actresses who could register despair without making it look contrived or artificial. Her most memorable role, Pakeezah (“The Pure One”) has her playing, like Garbo in Camille, the misunderstood courtesan, striving for the love of a nobleman who is forbidden to marry her. Shortly after Pakeezah was completed, Kumari died due to a lifelong heart condition. In her most emotionally wrenching scenes, one can’t help but marvel at her acting, and feel a tinge of sadness at the pain, both mental and physical, she must have been experiencing throughout.


Madhubala graced the screen in a number of hit films in the ‘50s, but it was her role as the willful slave girl torn between the Indian Emperor, Akbar, and his son, heir to the throne, Salim, in K. Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam that made her a part of movie legend. No one song has been sung or copied as often as Madhubala’s rendition of “Pyaar Kiya To Darnaa Kya?” (“If you’ve fallen in love, what is there to fear?”), sung in defiance to the Emperor who challenged her love for his son. It was a bold, memorable part and all of India loved her for it.


Waheeda Rahman was the cerebral darling of the ‘60s. There was a fierce intelligence to her performances that echoes some of Jodie Foster’s brittle assertiveness and some of Nicole Kidman’s wary grace in her latter day performances (The Hours, The Human Stain). She is effective in Guru Dutt masterpieces, Kaagaz ke Phool and Chaudvin ka Chand as the love-interest aware of the dangers of self-indulgence and defying societal norms, and she dazzles more recently in Rang de Basanti (2006), as the mother seeking justice for her murdered son.


Sharmila Tagore is remembered now for being a ‘60s fashion plate, the Audrey Hepburn of Indian cinema. Indeed, Sharmila seemed to take many of her visual cues from Hepburn’s late ‘50s/early ‘60s roles, playing the demure pixie who entranced the graceful leading men of the era, Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, and Shashi Kapoor. But Sharmila’s career is full of work in masterful art films from directors like Satyajit Ray and Mira Nair. From her first role at the age of 14, as the young bride in Ray’s The World of Apu to one of her most memorable recent roles, as the matriarch expelled from Uganda, who learns to accept her daughter’s independence and inter-racial romance in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala.


Preity Zinta - the bubbly actress who according to popular myth was discovered by director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, The Golden Age) when she was coming to pick up a friend who auditioned for one his movies. Now one of Bollywood’s biggest movie stars, she incites bouts of mass hysteria among Punjabis whenever she passes through Heathrow Airport. There’s a Sandra Dee quality to her sprightliness and a bit of Bette Davis in her imperious beauty. For all her onscreen energy, few directors have been able to harness it toward a captivating performance. Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chata Hai (“The Heart Wants…”) and his marvelous, underrated, Lakshya (“The Calling”), and Karan Johar’s Kal Ho Naa Ho (“Tomorrow May Never Come”) show Preity at her best, nonconformist, feisty, smart, witty and at the same time feminine: the modern Indian woman. More recently, Yash Chopra’s lavish Veer-Zaara shows acting Preity in Meena Kumari-mode, Old-World and elusive.


Who would have guessed what an international sensation Aishwarya Rai would be? The star of Gurinder Chada’s screwball Jane Austen spin-off, Bride and Prejudice, a member of the Grand Jury of the Cannes Film Festival, and a multi-million dollar contract with L’Oreal comestics? She is the awe and envy of her peers, living proof that India has truly gone global. Starting off in pretty girlfriend parts in a string of forgettable films, Aishwarya’s raw talent, her brilliant dancing - fluid and expressive - her spirit, and her staggering good looks attracted directors who saw in her the embodiment of Old World India eroded by modernity.  Sanjay Leela Bhansali cast her in her most beloved parts in both Hum Dil De Chuke Sanaam (“Darling, You Stolen My Heart”) and Devdas. Playing traditional Indian women, clad in beautiful saris and jewels, who conceal the anguish and resentment at their confined roles, Aishwarya showed Indian audiences an aspect of women they had often overlooked. Her finest role, in Rituparno Ghose’s Choker Bali (“Sand in the Eye”) was a revelation; she gave us a portrait of a young widow in 1890s Calcutta damaged not by grief but by society’s prejudice, and how that prejudice transmogrifies her into a creature hell-bent on revenge and gratification. Only in her 30s, Aishwariya has many more chapters in her career ahead of her.


But remember, the stars in this segment are not here only because they’re beautiful. They’ve all risen above being judged by their appearance to be taken seriously as actresses. It would be clichéd to say their inner loveliness is what matters the most, but it is what makes these particular performers last in our memory. Long after their makeup and clothes have lost their trendiness, the quality of their performances will linger for us to enjoy and marvel.



Nargis, early ‘50s



Meena Kumari, Sahib bibi aur Ghulam, early ‘60s



Madhubala, Mughal-E-Azam, early ‘60s



Waheeda Rahman, Chaudvin ka Chand, ‘60s



Sharmila Tagore, An Evening in Paris, ‘60s



Preity Zinta, c. 2005



Aishwariya Rai, Choker Bali, c. 2003


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