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Friday, Sep 29, 2006

In my post about aggressive driving, I mentioned that particular species of economic reasoning that holds you are less safe if you wear seat belts, because you will drive more recklessly—you diminish your incentive to be careful by having taken safety procautions earlier. Steven Landsburg makes that classic case in the first chapter of The Armchair Economist. Mark Thoma has another example here, where he links to a study that reveals “Cyclists who wear helmets are more likely to be knocked off their bicycles than those who do not, according to research. Motorists give helmeted cyclists less leeway than bare-headed riders because they assume that they are more proficient. They give a wider berth to those they think do not look like ‘proper’ cyclists, including women, than to kitted-out ‘lycra-clad warriors.’ ” Tyler Cowen takes the opportunity to remind readers of the Tullock Effect, which argues that the most important safety device one could add to a car is a spike mounted on the steering wheel pointed at the driver’s heart.


This is precisely the sort of economic thinking that non-economists find baffling, if not repellant, because it seems smugly contrarian, mimicking the perversity tropes that Alfred Hirschman has identified as the hallmarks of reactionary rhetoric. Not only do helmets not make you safer, they put you at greater risk. When you make your silly little attempts at affecting what will happen to you, you actually undermine yourself. But economists aren’t typically reactionaries. They seem to prefer to see themselves as radical truth-tellers, burning away clouds of rationalization and demogoguery to reveal the consequences of incentives at work. But I wonder if there isn’t some kind of risk compensation going on for economists themselves, snug in the safety of their own mathematical models, protecting from the ambiguities in the world that they have rendered invisible.


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Friday, Sep 29, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

“Though the Byrds only reached the popular heights of the Beatles, the Who, and the Stones for a short period in the mid-’60s, their influence is arguably greater than any of their peers.  Their folk jangle still resonates in bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, R.E.M., and the Jayhawks.  And, if you wanted to take a wider view, you could say that everyone labeled red dirt, space rock, cosmic rock, alt-country, or just plain folk owes some debt to the Byrds.”—Michael Franco, PopMatters review: The Byrds, There Is a Season


The Byrds—Turn, Turn, Turn [The Ed Sullivan Show, 1965]


The Byrds—Mr. Tambourine Man [The Ed Sullivan Show, 1965]


The Byrds—I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better [Hullabaloo, 1965]


The Byrds—All I Really Want to Do [Top of the Pops, 1965]


The Byrds—The Bells of Rhymney


The Byrds—Eight Miles High


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Friday, Sep 29, 2006
by PopMatters Staff

PopMatters Sponsor


A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS opens in theatres in New York and LA this Friday.


This Sundance and Venice Film Festival award winner stars Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBeouf, Chazz Palminteri, Step Up’s Channing Tatum,  Dianne Wiest and Rosario Dawson. 
[Official Web Site | MySpace]


A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints—Official Trailer


Trailer at Apple


Sundance Channel’s Festival Dailies - In the Can: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints


A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints - 100 Degrees


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Thursday, Sep 28, 2006

It’s beginning to sound like a SE&L mantra, but September’s last gasp as a source of small screen entertainment is overloaded with spotty selections – a below average animated flop, a startling personal/political drama, a flashy, mostly fictional bounty hunter biopic and a repeat of one of 2005’s biggest box office hits. And again, each one sits at the center of your favorite pay cable channel’s schedule this weekend, providing their own unique value and allure. Some may argue that this is typical of the movie networks’ programming style – mix and match until you find the proper combination of publicity and propaganda to rake in the regulars. At least each film featured offers something interesting, be it a revisionist look at science fiction action or an attempted CG update of a classic kiddie story. But the best bet is actually an off the radar effort providing one of our most gifted serious actors an intriguing individual to inhabit. That is also tells the relatively unknown true story about a man so disillusioned with the ‘70s that he would take out his frustration on the country’s commander in chief is another substantive selling point. If that subject seems too weighty however, the rest of the picks pack enough escapist entertainment to keep you calm for hours. Available for sampling the weekend of 29 September are:


HBOWar of the Worlds

Like an aging superstar stud, wandering onto a far more youthful playing field in preparation for showing the novices how the big boys do it, Steven Spielberg stepped up to bat in 2005 and blasted one out of the park with this smart, savvy remake/update. Juxtaposing fantasy with reality has always been one of the Blockbuster King’s greatest artistic strengths, but no one could have anticipated the “life during wartime” routine he used here. Instead of overpowering us with action and effects, Spielberg decided to keep everything within the POV of its main character – absentee dad Ray Ferrier. The result is a unique approach to spectacle, a cinematic twist that has planes crashing off screen and major battles playing out just beyond the character’s line of sight. Granted, HBO and Cinemax have milked this movie for months now – it premiered ages ago – but there’s no time like the present to revisit this stellar example of Spielberg’s motion picture prowess. Worlds is one of his more rousing successes. (Premieres Saturday 30 September, 8:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


CinemaxDomino

The filmic fates were just not ready to smile on this sleek Tony Scott style-fest. During the pre-release publicity, it was revealed that some of the storyline here was “enhanced” (read: massively altered) to smooth over some of real life bounty hunter Domino Harvey’s less than genial cinematic traits. Then, near the end of June 2005, Harvey was found dead, the victim of an accidental overdose. Nothing ruins your otherwise routine ‘rock ‘em, sock ‘em’ action pic more than an air of unease and the purposeful avoidance of your subject’s possible personal problems. What was supposed to be a break out turn for actress Keira Knightley – a chance to move away from all the frilly dresses and dainty accents – quickly de-evolved into a contrasting creation seemingly insensitive to Harvey’s plentiful personal demons. Though turns by a newly revitalized Mickey Rourke and Delroy Lindo helped keep this superficial ship afloat, this film is a clear case of fact overpowering the forces of fiction. (Premieres Saturday 30 September, 10:00pm EST).


PopMatters Review


StarzChicken Little

This is it? This is the reason Disney decided to dump 2-D animation for the far more artistically infinite (and fiscally viable) CGI process? If so, someone needs to grab a drawing board out of the dumpster and start rethinking this crackpot cartooning decision, A.S.A.P. If this unnecessary update of the classic children’s nursery rhyme feels a little familiar, it’s because its alien-influenced narrative is highly reminiscent of 2001’s Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Besides, the House of Mouse understands almost instinctively how to micromanage all the fun out of its supposedly timeless family fare. With an over reliance on obvious pop culture references, showboating stunt casting, and a lack of legitimate charm, it’s no wonder Pixar’s John Lassiter was brought in to save the company’s pen and ink product. Without him, this dumb cluck’s sky wouldn’t be the only thing falling. (Premieres Saturday 30 September, 9:00pm EST).


ShowTOOThe Assassination of Richard Nixon

Based on a startling true story that most US citizens probably never knew existed, the illusions to 9/11 may have undermined this amazing movie’s potential popularity. Sean Penn plays a disgruntled member of the ‘70s rat race, looking to any target for his failing American Dream. Finally fed up, he decides to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House. As history, there are many things amiss with this otherwise insightful drama. But as a pure psychological portrait, graced with another carefully considered bravura turn by the always interesting Penn, this is a stunning look at mental despair and human humiliation. While we may never know what drives a supposedly normal person to acts of outrageous self and social destruction, Assassination at least begins the process of understanding. If you failed to catch this compelling effort the first time it aired, now is your chance to play a little historical catch up. (Saturday 30 September, 9pm EST)


PopMatters Review


Seven Films, Seven Days

For October, the off title idea is simple – pick a different cable channel each and every day, and then find a film worth watching. While it sounds a little like an exercise in entertainment archeology, you’d be surprised at the broad range of potential motion picture repasts in the offing. Therefore, the first seven selections unearthed this week include:



30 September – Team America: World Police
South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone prove that clever social satire can come in any form, be it animated – or in this case – a full blown puppet production. (The Movie Channel – 9:30PM EST)


1 October – The Owl and the Pussycat
In order to establish her acting chops, determined diva Barbra Streisand took on the role here of a hooker with a heart of sarcasm. It remains one of her best efforts. (Flix – 6:15PM EST)


2 October – Scarface (Edited Version)
How do you make an uber-violent crime epic into a comedy? Strip away all the swear words, and giggle at the silly substitutions overdubbed onto Oliver Stone’s script. (American Movie Classics – 8PM EST)


3 October – Annie Hall
Woody Allen won multiple Oscars for this considered comedy. While a little dated from today’s relationship standards, Hall is still very funny, and very insightful. (Turner Classic Movies – 8PM EST)


4 October – Murphy’s Romance
An aging James Garner woos a determined, if directionless Sally Field. Sparks, and stellar performances, fly. (Encore Love – 9PM EST)


5 October – A Sound of Thunder
Need a break from all the GOOD sci-fi/fantasy flooding the motion picture marketplace? Then give this below-average B-movie a try. (Action Max – 10:30PM EST)


6 October – Cast Away
Tom Hanks stars as a Fed-Ex man stranded on a desert island. Once this movie moves to the mainland, it looses a lot of its dramatic drawing power and punch. (TNT – 8PM EST)


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Thursday, Sep 28, 2006

The front page of Monday’s Wall Street Journal is the gift that keeps on giving to me. Another article there discusses the problems America may face because of its enormous current-accounts deficit, and explans it all much better than I could in the last column I wrote. It’s extremely surprising to see something this bearish in WSJ; it’s like a stiff dose of fiscal castor oil. Here’s the lead:


Over the past several years, Americans and their government enjoyed one of the best deals in international finance: They borrowed trillions of dollars from abroad to buy flat-panel TVs, build homes and fight wars, but as those borrowings mounted, the nation’s payments on its net foreign debt barely budged. Now, however, the easy money is coming to an end. As interest rates rise, America’s debt payments are starting to climb—so much so that for the first time in at least 90 years, the U.S. is paying noticeably more to its foreign creditors than it receives from its investments abroad.



So what, right? The significance of this is that “in years to come, a growing share of whatever prosperity the nation achieves probably will be sent abroad in the form of debt-service payments. That means Americans will have to work harder to maintain the same living standards—or cut back sharply to pay down the debt.” Says economist Nouriel Roubini: “Your standard of living is going to be reduced unless you work much harder. The longer we wait to adjust our consumption and reduce our debt, the bigger will be the impact on our consumption in the future.” So the heedless consumption of today is coming at the expense of posterity—we’re consuming the sweat of our children’s brow. This will cause an especially thorny difficulty if we fail to have those children—which, if you believe demographical doommongers like Laurence J. Kotlikoff, is already a problem. See also here for a chart explaining why Americans should forget about retiring.


And this also puts the future of our economy in the hands of China. China’s borderline irrational predilection for our T-bills at a lower rate of return then they could investing in their own country has permitted our spending binge— “Foreigners have been willing to accept a much lower return on relatively safe U.S. investments than U.S. investors have earned on their assets abroad. Take, for example, China, which since 2001 has invested some $250 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds yielding around 5% or less—part of a strategy to boost its exports by keeping its currency cheap in relation to the dollar.” If China decides to start dumping this debt, it would roil the dollar and send its value plummeting, diminishing our precious purchasing power. Now, it’s not really in China’s interest to do so; American consumers have helped fuel the their healthy growth rates. But they’ve been known to do some counterproductive things in the past.


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