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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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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2006

Vision is hard to come by in films. It takes more than a keen eye for imagery or an imagination doped up on daydreams to fulfill the peculiar promise of cinema. People go to the movies to be transported to places they’ve never been before, to see and experience things that only exist in the most magical regions of the mind’s eye. What they don’t want to see is the same old slop, reprocessed and repackaged to resemble what came down the pipe just a few months ago. Yet over and over again, those talentless titans of Tinsel Town deliver derivative goods, groan inducing retreads of ideas and images that didn’t really work the first time through the viewfinder. Sure, banking on originality is a gamble. But the payoff can be sweeter than sweating out the criticism.

The classic examples all prove the point. Hitchcock may have been the Master of Suspense, but audiences flocked to his films because of their iconic style, not their clockwork plotting. David Lunch sets his world in the unpredictable plain of dreams, and then slowly lets the nightmare limits of the locale seep into the slumber. Quentin Tarantino takes every trick he’s learned from three decades in front of the screen – big or small – and amplifies it through his own engorged ego into something sublime and special. In the Hollywood hierarchy, it would be nice to see a Burton for every Bay, a Gilliam for every glorified video director. But the commonplace commands commerce, and as long as the derivative is driving dollars into the BO coffers, no one is going to be calling for creativity.

It’s the same even in exploitation. The outsider arena of moviemaking did have its prophets, those inspired thinkers who moved beyond the T&A tendencies of the medium to expose the raincoat crowd to something freaky – and not necessarily deaky. But they were the rarity in a business more concerned with the bodkin than the beatific. Though true geniuses like Doris Wishman reinvented the filmic language while staying set inside a certain type of tale (in her case, the nudist and/or roughie realm) others had to seek solace in less trodden paths. Whether it was the gore film, the drug scene, the dippy hippy power of flower or the sexual revolution, these visionaries tried to find a way to get their thoughts and metaphors on screen. Many failed. But those who succeeded have a tasty Technicolor testament to be remembered by.

Fredric Hobbs was such a motion picture maverick. After helming the musical mindfuck called Roseland (about a mystical place where lust and dreams run wild…or maybe it was really a psychiatric institute sex farce) Hobbs wanted to champion environmentalism and government corruption in a showcase that would send a strong message to the Establishment. What he decided to use as his messenger however can only be called “different”. Taking a leaflet out of the “nature run amok” school of schlock and plopping it directly into one of the most offbeat settings ever conceived for a monster mash, (one of those recreationist societies that preserve everything the way it was 100/200 years ago) Godmonster of Indian Flats was born.

The film’s plot is loaded with symbolism, counterculture ideology and some of the oddest ducks this side of an irradiated game preserve. A local mine, once the home of a “legendary” creature, starts leaking a foul smelling gas. Naturally, a pregnant sheep gets a whiff, and before you can say “genetic mutation”, a bloody bulbous fetus makes a fantasy sequence appearance. That’s right, a drunken shepherd, rolled for his money by the denizens of the local dive bar, has a vision with bones and a golden light. One case of the DTs later, and our mangled mutton is born. The resident scientist, who works at the local college cum powerplant ruins, takes the sickly sweater makings back to his lab, where he nurses it back to health with a combination of chemicals and over the top tirades.

Oh course, the local big wig Mayor Silverdale (played by Russ Meyer stalwart Stuart Lancaster in a mannerism so clipped you’re liable to cut yourself on his dialogue) wants to know what’s going on in the rundown wreck of a university. He soon has his own problems to contend with, however. A high-minded businessman from “back East” is in town trying to buy up all the indigenous mining rights. Seems Silverdale wants those little leases for himself. As the two industrialists battle it out for smelting supremacy, the baby beastie grows and gets angry. He breaks out of his flimsy cage and starts stalking the landscape. When Silverdale and his gang can’t kill the creature, they decide to capture it. How else do you expect to charge the public two bits a gander to see this notorious nuclear ewe?

There is absolutely nothing normal about this movie…NOTHING! Don’t let the corporate dealings and entrepreneurial underpinnings fool you – Godmonster of Indian Flats is the strangest, most surreal exploitation movie ever made. It offers up a Six Gun Territory theme park as a township without batting an eye, has its characters dressed like rejects from Disney World’s Diamond Horseshoe Review and infiltrates the insanity with an eight foot, carpet covered sinister sheep that enjoys moonlit dances with the neighborhood Earth mother. Honestly, Hobbs has crafted a certified jaw-dropper here, a film that fails to make a lick of narrative sense but keeps us spellbound in other, less plot-oriented ways. Lancaster is in classic form, playing Silverdale as a laidback loon, a madman too lethargic to go yokel on the locals. And he is surrounded by actors who all believe that this is their Method moment. There is lots of hammy thespianism here, and as the old saying goes; it’s never good to mix your meats.

Indeed, the Godmonster itself is what really sells this silliness. In one classic scene, it slowly ambles up to a group of children playing. As it takes its time attacking, the kids keep looking directly at the camera, waiting for their cue to react. A few screams, a couple of close-ups, a scattering of bratlings and a classic work of crackpot cinema is born. Godmonster of Indian Flats is one of those clichés in the pantheon of pathetic films – it really does need to be seen to be believed. From Silverdale’s elite squad of enforcers that appear like black dressed dandies from a gay rodeo, to the mindbending finale which resolves nothing and seems to infer victory for the villains, Hobbs’ hobbled hoot is hilarious. Disturbing and demented, but uproarious and original nonetheless. Besides, its films like this that prove once and for all that, when you’ve got your own style, substance will only hold you back.

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Wednesday, Sep 27, 2006

As a frequent traveler on New York City’s roadways, I’m a huge believer in aggressive driving—which I define to be taking every advantage other drivers give you to move forward toward your destination. Much like the maximizing selfishness that organizes neoclassical economics, driving aggression provides a simple and predictable principle by which to predict what others will do in any given situation, making navigation through traffic proceed according to a regular logic. This is why driving amidst taxicabs makes me secure—they are most consistent in their maniacal aggressiveness—perhaps since they have an economic motive to do so, and acquire more fares. So it all knits up nicely. Anyway, what this means in practice is that one must be conscious of never showing weakness on the road, never show signs of yielding as lanes merge around an acccident or a construction site, or else you’ll be repeatedly cut off. You can’t let pedestrians start crossing against the light, or else a wave of them will block the intersection. You have to totally habituate yourself to accelerating when approaching an obstacle in your lane so as to get in front of the cars beside you in other lanes—merges happen easier at higher speeds. Most of all you have to trust other drivers will have the sense to avoid you when you have to make a blind merge, say from Roosevelt Avenue or Queens Boulevard onto the BQE, or from the Grand Central onto the Interborough Parkway, possibly the most dangerous interchange on the eastern seaboard. Believing in the good sense of other drivers and presenting them with a uniform code of behavior is all important the more snarled and congested traffic patterns become. Nothing is worse than “polite” deferential drivers, whose eagerness to be liked or to be “fair” introduces all sorts of chaos into the system. Traffic is not about justice; it is about flowCautious drivers, as well, undermine things; they tend to be indecisive, disrupting the flow and creating chain reactions of unpredictability. Worst of all are confused drivers, who forget about the other cars around them as they begin to panic over finding their way. My philosophy is that it’s better to be lost than to crash, Bonfire of the Vanities notwithstanding. Missing your exit, I think, is better than veering across lanes of traffic in the last minute at inappropriately slow speeds because you didn’t know where you were going.

But Monday’s WSJ article about Belgium’s traffic problems made me wonder about the limitations of my driving philosophy. The opening of the article is great:

The intersection outside Isabelle de Bruyn’s row house in a quiet residential neighborhood here is a typical Belgian crossroads. It has no stop signs. Now and then, cars collide outside her front door.
“The air bags explode. One car flipped over in the street. Part of one car ended up here,” says Ms. de Bruyn, a real-estate agent, pointing to her front steps. Her brother-in-law, Christophe de Bruyn, adds: “In America, they have stop signs. I think that’s a good idea for Belgium, too.”
The suggestion isn’t popular at the Belgian transport ministry. “We’d have to put signs at every crossroads,” says spokeswoman Els Bruggeman. “We have lots of intersections.”

I love that—we can’t put up signs;  there are too many intersections! There’s an almost touching faith on display about the good sense of drivers, of humans in general, that they don’t need a sign telling them what to do at every juncture. It’s as though Belgium is refusing to acknowledge that society has become so complex as to require bureaucracy to administer it. And signage has the potential probelm of making people less cognizant than they should be; if they start to rely on signs to dictate all their driving behavior, they stop using common sense and stop being so alert. This sort of counterintuitive reasoning, favored by libertarian economists, is usually brought out to explain why wearing seat belts or helmets makes you less safe (you and others around you feel safer and all let their guard down) or why social welfare programs generate moral hazards. Any kind of shared social responsibility (dictated by signs or prompted by legislation or manners and mores) theoretically erodes personal responsibility and the state of total vigilance we are presumed to adopt in the state of nature.

So it would seem like Belgium should have the safest streets around, with everyone personally responsible at every moment for how to proceed, based on a simple guiding principle, yield to the driver on the right. The emphasis on personal responsibility quickly leads drivers to escalate the principle into the kind of relentless aggression I was just advocating, an egomaniacal pursuit of maximizing one’s traffic advantage. This has not so salutary results:

A driver in Belgium who stops to look both ways at an intersection loses the legal right to proceed first. Such caution might seem prudent, given the lack of stop signs. But a driver who merely taps his brakes can find that his pause has sent a dangerous signal to other drivers: Any sign of hesitation often spurs other drivers to hit the gas in a race to get through the crossing first. The result is a game of chicken at crossings, where to slow down is to “show weakness,” says Belgian traffic court lawyer Virginie Delannoy. Neither driver wants to lose this traffic game, she says, adding: “And then, bam!”

Traffic becomes yet another zero-sum game, another quotidian task turned into an occasion for intense competition for its own sake.

So all this leads me to think that my attitude towawrd aggressive driving contributes to the general spread of a “There’s no such thing as society” mentality that rejects social safety nets, etiquette, and so on that makes social existence run more smoothly in a spirit of mutual cooperation and occasional sacrifice. Yet I can’t imagine venturing out onto the FDR Drive with a different attitude; I can’t imagine not believing that the collective welfare is better served by my selfish committment to thrusting myself forward at every possible instance. Am I under the spell of ideology when behind the wheel—in the quintessentially American role of individual driver, of my own car and destiny—or am I really a small-government conservative in what I do, if not in what I say?

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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2006

From the User’s Guide to Indian Films Intro

The movies described in the User’s Guide are the hit list of Indian cinema. They’re not only the best films of all time, but they give you the best glimpse of what Indians enjoy, their sense of tragedy and comedy, their aspirations, their regrets. In short, it’s a visual chronicle of Indian society in the last 50 years. Enjoy.

Week 9: Dil Chata Hai (“The Heart Wants…”)
2001, Color, Hindi
Dir: Farhan Akhtar
It was India’s first yuppie movie. Dil Chata Hai was so hip and “modern” that audiences referred to it as a Hollywood movie dubbed in Hindi. The influence of Doug Liman’s Swingers and the John Hughes movies of the ‘80s pervades Farhan Akhtar’s coming of age story about three wealthy Bombayites fresh out of college and experiencing love for the first time. Akash (Aamir Khan), Sameer (Saif Ali Khan) and Siddharth (Akshaye Khanna), who have been friends since childhood, find their relationship threatened by Siddharth’s attraction to a lovely, but emotionally damaged divorcee.  The three guys finally find romance, and each has an accompanying musical number according to true Bollywood fashion. The attractive leads and the beautiful locations in Goa and Sydney aside, the songs are the high point of Dil Chata Hai. Buoyant, catchy, sophisticated, they prove that long-time screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar (Farhan’s dad), a staple the ‘70s and ‘80s, only got better with age. One particular song, “Woh Ladki Hai Kahan” (“Where is That Girl”), is a rare delight. Sameer takes his new girlfriend Pooja to the movies and as the film starts they envision themselves as the leads in the movie they’re watching, dancing through time, tap-dancing on a black and white soundstage, twisting on a beach, and frolicking along a picturesque mountainside like the famous heroes and heroines of past Hindi movies. It’s one of those glorious musical numbers where everything, the song, the chemistry between the dancers, the timing, is perfect. Dil Chata Hai was a refreshing aberration from more traditional, ritual-laced family fare to more stylish, progressive movies for upper-middle class audiences.

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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2006

When it comes to Wal-Mart, I can get fully behind critiques that attack its monosoponic powers or its systematic suppression of unionization efforts or its failure to provide adequate benefits. I can even understand the rationale behind Chicago’s attempt to force big-box stores like Wal-Mart to pay a “living wage.” But I draw the line at fighting Wal-Mart because it’s somehow uncool to shop there: this WSJ story, which details how urban environments are trying to prevent Wal-Mart from opening in their midst, cites Boston mayor Thomas Minino claiming that “Wal-Mart does not suit the clientele we have in the city of Boston.” If that were really the case, why make any efforts to prevent them from opening? The store would just go out of business when the clientele fails to materialize. But the mayor knows all too well the store would succeed and be a magnet for lower-income families, for whom the store’s cheap goods often provide a real boost in living standards. The mayor favors Target, but not because of its wages or benefits: “It’s a different image they have in how they market their product and the appearance of their stores,” he says. “That’s a lot to do with it, the image of the store.” In other words, middle-class shoppers come to Target, whose presence in your neighborhood is likely to improve your property values rather than call them into question. With this classically smug latte-liberal utterance, Minino justifies the cynical culture-war griping of many a Republican reactionary. Ooh, we don’t want Wal-Mart’s trailer-trash reputation in our precious city, it just wouldn’t be Bostonian. What would the brahmins think? It makes every one who has ever complained about Wal-Mart seem a little bit more hypocritical in the eyes of its defenders, as they suspect these kind of aesthetic niceties lie at the root of every protest.

In fact, that’s probably part of the reason this story is above the fold on page one of the Journal, and these mayoral quotes feature prominantly and early. (It even forced an especially amusing A-hed story, about Belgium’s lack of stop signs and the resulting frequency of crashes, down below the fold.) It presents such a perfect picture of those politicos and urbanites who reject Wal-Mart as snobs, and Wal-Mart as the unfortunate victim of unfair discrimiation. A city commissioner from Miami is even quoted saying, “I feel bad for Wal-Mart, but that’s their image.” No one needs to “feel bad” for Wal-Mart, which remains the largest American retailer by a long stretch, in large part because of its successful efforts to broadcast loud and clear its image as a ruthless discounter. Wal-Mart would love to portray itself as a victim of its own irresistibility. The WSJ and Boston’s mayor have conspired to oblige, and to make anti-Wal-Mart agitation seem like a variant of the same bourgeois busybodism that animates homeowners’ associations who fret about people who fail to mow their lawns with sufficient frequency.

But the reason to organize against Wal-Mart is never because it is popular or déclassé; such trivial motives will inevitably trivialize the entire effort. You can’t snub the people who shop at Wal-Mart as the wrong sort of people and then complain about the wages the company pays to those very same people; chances are the class bigotry does much more damage than Wal-Mart’s business practices ever could do. 

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