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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

In the course of an argument about income and substitution effects between economists Greg Mankiw and Robert Frank playing out on Mankiw’s blog, Frank raises the notion of context externalities, which I thought was a helpful way of reframing the question I keep coming back to of whether there’s a route to a more direct (a.k.a. “authentic”) experience of consumption, and if that route is even desirable.

As decades of behavioral evidence clearly demonstrates, virtually every evaluation is heavily shaped by local context. As Richard Layard put it, “In a poor society a man proves to his wife that he loves her by giving her a rose, but in a rich society he must give a dozen roses.” Because evaluation drives consumer choice, context is an important determinant of consumer demand. The upshot is that almost every consumer choice generates significant context externalities.
Consider, for example, a job applicant’s decision about how much to spend on an interview suit. His goal is to make a favorable impression. But his ability to do so depends far less on the absolute quality of his suit than on how it compares with those worn by other applicants. And when he spends more on a suit, he shifts the context within which other candidates will be evaluated.

Context externalities are pervasive. A good school, for instance, is one that compares favorably with other schools in the same local environment. The amount parents must spend to ensure that their children attend such a school is thus an increasing function of the amounts spent by other parents. The evaluations that guide an employer’s promotion decisions are similarly dependent on context. A worker’s odds of promotion depend less on his absolute performance than on how well he performs relative to his coworkers.

The dependence of evaluation on context lays waste to any presumption that individual decisions about how many hours to work or how much to spend on interview suits will be socially optimal. The general result predicted by theory is that if context shapes evaluation more heavily in some domains than others, too many resources will flow to the most context-sensitive domains and too few to the least context-sensitive domains.

I put in bold the sentence that started me thinking about whether there is anyway to disrupt that evaluation process and thereby restore a sense of agency to the individual (one’s consumerism would no longer be a matter beyond one’s personal control) while snuffing out these externalities. Those with an undying faith in the sovereignty of the individual might argue that a force of will is sufficient to put an end to such evaluation, that personal weakness is what drives invidious comparison. This has the ring of common sense (“What do you care what anyone else thinks? Why are you so insecure?”), but the fact that it seems like common sense should be enough to make us wonder how ideologically driven the reaction is.

Anyway I need to read further to see what solutions have been devised to control these externalities, and whether or not they are battling human nature itself.

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Monday, Apr 30, 2007

This is getaway week. The time when just about everyone in the country in which I live goes off to explore, experience, exploit, and exhume the esoteric and exotic, moving into and through places they normally don’t traverse. Perhaps it really ought to be called “X Time”, but it’s not.

Instead, it goes by the moniker “Golden Week” and golden it is—as it is a period in which 4 national holidays are strategically linked with a couple of weekends to form nearly 10 days of free time. And if one displays a little moxie, has accrued some on-the-job brownie points, and is in possession of an understanding boss, then a strategic sick day or two can transform this fortnight into a truly golden time, indeed.

If so, and strung together as an undivided whole, Golden Week enables Japanese to reconnect with the idea that they might actually be alive. Imagine that. Something more than automatons who are accorded a mere 18 paid days off per year—but hey: enough to rank them ahead of the paltry entitlements of fellow Asian work-a-holics residing in Hong Kong (7 days), Singapore (7 days), Taiwan (7 days), and South Korea (10 working days).

Be thankful for small favors. Count your blessings. Luck to the fortunate. Whatever works.


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Monday, Apr 30, 2007

While we here at SE&L typically hate those smarmy know it alls that throw their considered opinion in your face, we’re about to be guilty of the same thing. That’s because it’s a clear “I told you so” situation this week. In preparation for war with the big summer movies, the studios are pulling out all the stops, presenting prime DVD titles to compete for your expendable cash concerns. This Tuesday alone we have two major Awards season wannabes, a pair of meaningful mainstream efforts, and one of the most anticipated box sets in the history of the medium, among many, many others. These five releases by themselves indicate that the next 16 weeks will be a windfall of hotly anticipated offerings. The only problem will be finding the time to enjoy both the big screen and home theater experience. Whatever you decide, you shouldn’t miss the SE&L selection for 1 May. It’s an incredible cinematic statement:

Little Children

Imagine the David Lynch of his Blue Velvet period without the ugly underneath, or better yet, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People reshaped as a satire, and you have an idea of this amazing slam of suburbia by In the Bedroom‘s Todd Field. This lackadaisical look at how biology blinds people to both their feelings and their flaws represents one of the most insightful examinations of the human condition ever cast upon celluloid. It was also one of 2006’s most criminally underrated films, with some considering it nothing more than a soap opera with slight social substance. But buried beneath the sequences of sex and unspoken emotions lies a narrative unable to control its simmering contempt. Using the pedophile character played brilliantly by Jackie Earle Haley as a catalyst, Field forms an argument against getting lost in your offspring. While he recognizes the vile nature of such a pervert, he also blasts the parents who pretend that child safety usurps everything else in a community. The result is a conflict of interests that turns into an epic battle between hysteria and hypocrisy.

Other Titles of Interest

Alpha Dog

Justin Timberlake is such an industry made star that the leap from music to movies is not so shocking as it is standard operating procedure. What is dreadful is how amazingly lame he is as an actor. His first major performance in Edison Force was universal mocked, and his work in Southland Tales and Black Snake Moan has been equally unimpressive. Oddly enough, critics had some good things to say about this kiddy crime story, including some kind words for Mr. N’Sync himself. For the sake of his career before the cameras let’s hope they’re right.


It was poised to be the blockbuster event of awards season, a surefire hit that would earn not only critical praise and commercial success, but a boatload of Oscars as well. Apparently, no one told that to the Academy, resulting in a one of three ratio. Jennifer Hudson walked away with her mandatory Supporting Actress statuette, but Eddie Murphy and the film’s trio of nominated songs were shut out. Some even saw the snub as part of Hollywood’s continuing anti-minority slant. It’s up to DVD to save this film’s reputation, or prove the pundits right. 

The Films of Alejandro Jodorowsky

It’s cult film Holy Grail time as Anchor Bay unleashes this sensational box set from one of cinema’s most heralded and misunderstood outsiders. Featuring Fando y Lis, The Holy Mountain, and that amazing Midnight movie El Topo, this collection will have old fans foaming and new converts convinced that Jodorowsky is some kind of visionary god. Toss in a mountain of bonus features and digital extras and you instantly have one of 2007’s best DVD releases. 

The Hitcher (2007)

It’s obvious that Hollywood is running out of ‘classic’ horror movies to remake when they choose titles like this one to revamp. The original, with Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh has its defenders, but it was more notorious than noteworthy. Now, Sean Bean and a couple of no name kids make up the tenuous trio playing cat and mouse suspense games along the open road. Don’t expect much, and you’ll enjoy this generic genre effort just fine.


The second to last film in Berry Gordy’s push to have then girlfriend Diana Ross become a major movie star. Unfortunately, the most memorable aspect of this tale of a ghetto gal who works her way into the world of kitschy high fashion (this is the ‘70s, remember) is the title song. Otherwise, co-stars Anthony Perkins and Billy Dee Williams are wasted here. And then there’s the completely dated clothing Ross creates. This was Gordy’s folly from beginning to end.

And Now for Something Completely Different
Illegal Aliens

Some folks just can’t die with dignity. Apparently having one’s name dragged through every civil court between LA and the Bahamas is not enough. All that speculation on the manner in which you finally merged with the infinite didn’t satisfy the scandal sheets. No, that notorious non-entity Anna Nicole Smith had to go a leave us a final film to keep her tabloid temperature raging above boiling. Feeling like an obvious knockoff of that ‘80s entry Earth Girls Are Easy (except with the gender roles reversed), this is a turgid tale of some wayward extraterrestrials that come to our planet, morph into ‘smokin’ hot babes’ (the PR’s words) and try to protect the populace from an evil cosmic force. Anna, of course, is the bumbling dumb blonde member of the crew. Some who’ve already seen this film say it’s a sad send-off for a pseudo-celebrity who deserved better. Others like the fact that, somehow, Anna’s managing to get the last laugh.


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Monday, Apr 30, 2007

Glad to collect money from non-members

I’m not particularly surprised to hear that the RIAA isn’t being fair and square with the industry but it’s worth noting when it’s scamming on such a huge level.  See this Daily Kos article about their SoundExchange system for online radio and how they’re probably reaping bucks even from non-members: Is the RIAA Pulling a Scam on the Music Industry?

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Monday, Apr 30, 2007

Reflections on student media

As thoughts and prayers flow toward the Virginia Tech family, I wonder about the future of campus life.

In the aftermath of April 16’s massacre, threats have been sent to terrorize campuses and cause severe disruptions to many schools. The most publicized occurred in Yuba City, California. The website reports that according to Sutter County Sheriff Jim Denney, “a 28-year-old man told a pastor Wednesday night (April 18) that ‘he had some sort of explosive device and he was going to make the incident at Virginia Tech look mild by comparison.’” The suspect later surrendered. Nevertheless, many communities are still reeling, and specifically, as colleges react and identify new methods of dealing with such tragedies, their leaders must consider the roles of student media, particularly college newspapers.

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