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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006

A few charts and graphs from recent NYTimes articles to llustrate the income inequality situation:

And here’s one from today’s WSJ:

These come from articles tracking two trendy themes in the business press: One is the question of whether the slightly rich resent the ultra rich? A recent article in Fortune kicked off this meme. The other is summed up by the hed of Eduardo Porter’s Sunday NYTimes story linked above: “If All the Slices Are Equal, Will the Pie Shrink?”—if we divvy up the fruits of economic growth to benefit capital and labor, will the results stifle growth overall? These are variations of the same issue really: Does the invidious comparison that gross inequality prompts create healthy incentives to achieve or does it create widespread unhappiness and discontent with the overall system? Should the less fortunate simply ignore the greater gains of the wealthy and be pleased that the rising tide allegedly lifts all boats? Porter explains, “A shrinking share of the nation’s economic spoils will not only reduce workers’ stake in the current social setup; it will leave them with few resources for investment in economically crucial items like education. Rising inequality will also hamper teamwork. And it may ultimately destroy incentives. If the rewards of economic growth are monopolized by the very top earners, the rest of us may find little reason to make an effort.” The stories about the rich vs. the superrich reveal how this resentment is drifting upward as more and more income is commanded by the economy’s “superstars”—those who, as Sherwin Rosen argues, have suceeded in leveraging a small difference in talent across a huge economy to yield massive gains over the slightly less talented. And then once these superstars have established themselves the fundamental attribution error and network effects kick in to keep them on top. The result, as Porter suggests, is a greater incentive to cheat and resort to white-collar crime—when some CEOs’ incomes seem criminally high already, it may foster a climate of permissive criminality (backdating stock options, etc.) among the rest of the executives trying to keep up.

So what to do? This chart from WSJ has a helpful catalog of the Democratic Party’s ideas:

Ezra Klein, who thinks income inequality is primarily a symptom of the working class’s lack of political power, would probably emphasize the “strengthen union clout” aspect of this—one possibility is to pass a card-check law, which would allow unions to better organize. Whether the ideas about taxation strike you as any good probably depends on how important you regard income incentives in spurring individuals to make efforts to innovate—I tend to think (perhaps naively) that people are motivated by some kind of recognition that money is only a proxy for. Perhaps if people could be paid in meaning…

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Tuesday, Nov 21, 2006

I’ve said it plenty of times but it bears repeating- millions of people who own MP3 players and even the ol’ portable CD players are making themselves deaf by blasting the volume on their little devices for hours on end.  If you won’t take my word for it, maybe you’ll believe the New York Times blog: Could Turn It Down, No?

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Monday, Nov 20, 2006

This week starts the hit or miss hodge podge that seems to signal the start of true holiday splurge spending. While you won’t see sunlight-lacking losers camping out to get any of these new releases, here’s SE&L‘s guarantee that at least a couple of the titles will be around a lot longer than some bug-filled video gaming fad gadget. So while you’re waiting for your Wii or wondering why you stood in line for 72 hours just to get another Sony product that requires tech support moments after it’s unwrapped, perhaps the purchase of a new digital product or two will cure that nagging buyer’s remorse. Criterion provides yet another stellar example of fine foreign filmmaking, and a former Presidential candidate argues for a more environmentally friendly approach to our destructive self-centered lifestyle (guess he’s happy about all that Styrofoam and cardboard packaging heading toward municipal landfills nationwide, huh?). Granted, there’s another example of microprocessor mediocrity posing as animation, and a couple of clunky comedies on tap, so beware. Specifically, the slapdash collection of titles for 21 November include:

The Double Life of Veronique: Criterion Collection

After his epic TV series based on the Ten Commandments (1989’s Dekalog), Polish director Krsysztof Kieslowski was looking for another way to explore spirituality and its place in the world. He decided to craft a complex exploration of duality and parallelism featuring two identical women living similar lives in different parts of the planet. Veronique/Weronika both have magical singing voices. They are also both burdened with a biological birth defect that eventually turns fatal. What follows is a mysterious meditation on the connectivity between human beings and the possibility of unlinked lives still being inseparable and intertwined. Though he followed up this film with his remarkable Red/Blue/White trilogy, many consider this to be Kieslowski’s crowning achievement. Criterion obviously believes so, considering the solid special edition treatment it gives the title.

H6: Diary of a Serial Killer

Here’s an unusual twist on the whole insane spree killer genre – a Spanish style Psycho. Antonio inherits a hotel from an unknown relative, and decides to use the place to “purify” his guests. Many critics call what follows a hacienda Hostel, with excessive bloodletting and vivisected body parts taking the place of cinematic subtlety and character development. First time director Martín Garrido Barón obviously believes that imitation is the sincerest form of cinematic flattery since he patently rips off several better known horror films. Gorehounds may groove on all the excess vein vodka tossed at the camera, and some may cotton to the overall atmosphere of dread, depravity and darkness. Still, this is a very one note nod to the worst parts of post-modern macabre.

Ice Age: The Meltdown

Just what sugared-up kids, already cranky over the impending holidays, need – more of Fox’s famously fussy (and unfunny) CGI candy. When we last left the characters in this quasi-clever take on prehistory, Manfred, Sid and Diego had just delivered the Eskimo brat to his beleaguered parents and all was right with the frozen tundra. This time around, the ice is melting and a massive wall of water is threatening the indigenous anthropomorphic population. Under-age aimed hi-jinx supposedly ensue. Responsible for the rash of clever creatures with famous voices phase of 3-D animation, Fox must feel really good about the bountiful box office receipts each installment of this franchise creates (yep – Part Three is on the way). But good cash flow does not a classic make. Instead, this is more of the same crude, crass commercialism that is more or less destroying the entire cartoon category.

An Inconvenient Truth

All jokes about former Vice President Al Gore, big screen idol aside (Futurama already confirmed his star power, after all) this intriguing documentary – really nothing more than Gore’s multimedia lecture presentation fleshed out for film – is a wake-up call for anyone on the fence about global warming. Showing how hurricanes like Katrina will become the norm, not the aberration, in coming years, as well as arguing for the flooding of major US cities should the polar ice caps continue to melt, this may be the most frightening cinematic experience of the year.  The scariest thing, of course, is that it all is scientifically provable. Argue over the man’s previous record as a member of Clinton’s clan, or challenge his way with words, but the plain fact is we humans are killing the planet in the name of our own sense of entitlement. It’s a thought that makes the title even more apropos.


A Miracle on 34th Street: Special Edition*
Hold up – don’t worry. This isn’t the irritating John Hughes remake from 1994, or the baffling TV version featuring David Hartman and Sebastian Cabot from the mid-‘70s. No siree, this is it – the resplendent real deal. Perhaps one of the best holiday films of all time, the original Miracle mixes the magic of the holiday season with the cynicism already creeping into the cultural mindset to create a classic comic entertainment. Edmund Gwenn is so convincing as the mystery man who professes to being the real Santa that he’ll even have you believing in his benevolent bowl full of jelly-ness. Thankfully, Oscar acknowledged his efforts with a much deserved Best Supporting Actor trophy. The rest of the cast ain’t too shabby either – especially little Natalie Wood as the precious little pessimist that eventually melts under St. Nick’s spell.

When Match Point came out last year, you could hear Woody Allen fans worldwide exhale, releasing a significant sigh of relief. After a string of subpar films (Hollywood Ending, Melinda and Melinda, etc.) he seemed to have turned the corner and was back making important motion pictures again. Unfortunately, Scoop indicates that it may be time to take that deep breath back. Even with an amazing pair of leads (humans beings don’t get anymore attractive than Hugh Jackman and Scarlett Johansson) and the familiar Allen setting of a murder mystery, the frequently inconsistent auteur created another creaky, stilted effort. Some fear that Allen, now in his fifth decade of filmmaking, has lost his artistic edge. Others feel that his “one film a year” schedule is responsible for his slumps. Whatever the case, there’s no need to stop the presses over this lame effort.

PopMatters Review

You, Me and Dupree
If there were such a thing as crudeness copyright infringement, the Farrelly Brothers would be up to their necks in proactive litigation right about now. Still milking the There’s Something About Mary school of basic bodily humor, the siblings Russo (Joe and Anthony) use the overdone concepts of non-erotic male bonding and arrested development to create another crass, humorless entry in the worn-out ‘wild and crazy guy’ cinematic sub-category. Heck, even Mary‘s Matt Dillion is along for the redundant ride. Instead of finding inventive ways to have title slacker Dupree interact with his old buddy (Dillion) and his newlywed wife (the completely lost Kate Hudson), the Russo’s rely on cliché and formula to find the funny. All they manage to uncover is the continuing funeral march that is the sound of big screen wit in creative freefall.

And Now for Something Completely Different:

In a weekly addition to Who’s Minding the Store, SE&L will feature an off title disc worth checking out. For 21 November:

Grand Theft Auto: Tricked Out Edition*
Desperate to break into directing after years as a well-considered child star, little Ronny Howard struck a deal with Indie icon Roger Corman. If he starred in the producer’s car wreck actioner Eat My Dust, the mogul would give the kid a chance behind the camera. The result was a sequel of sorts, the vehicular quickie Grand Theft Auto. Typical of the mid-‘70s drive-in diversions that relied on stunts more than story to draw heavy petters to the passion pits, Howard actually showed some inventive cinematic style here, experimenting with shot selection and scene length to keep his narrative on maximum overdrive. While he’s now earned an Oscar and some critical kudos for his big budget Hollywood histrionics, GTA will always be a favored starting point. And this new DVD even features a Corman/Howard commentary – how cool is that?

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Monday, Nov 20, 2006
by PopMatters Staff
Gertie Fox

Gertie Fox


“Gertie Fox is a group of four L.A. guys who channel the twang of The Band and The Byrds with the modern unkempt fortes of legends like Built to Spill and Archers of Loaf. In-fact, if the U.S. needs its own Wolf Parade, Gertie Fox may be able to take on that task, but there’s a certain sense of restraint and general comfort in the music that sets this quartet apart from the pack. If the sunny daydream haze of Grandaddy was your blanket at night, Gertie Fox’s An Imaginary Meeting in the Woods may help ease the mourning and introduce you to a new band of soothing string-pluckers that make laid-back pop for the college set.”—Fanatic Promotion

Keepin’ on Track [MP3]
Mansions [MP3]

Stream full album An Imaginary Meeting in the Woods (self-released).  Click on the graphic below.

Gertie Fox: An Imaginary Meeting in the Woods - ENTER
(This site requires Flash.  To download the lastest version, click here.  A high-speed internet connection is also recommended.)

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Monday, Nov 20, 2006

FT columnist Tim Harford had a column recently about breakfast cereal—exciting as that may sound, it’s actually about price targeting and spontaneous collusion. His point about cereal: the various brands are more or less arbitrary distnctions that have little to do with the grain products inside the box: “Most price-targeting strategies include a deliberately low-quality product at a low price. In the high-tech industry, this is often a professional piece of kit with the good bits disabled, but in the supermarket, it is simply the ‘value’ range, packaged to look like an air-drop from the World Food Programme. You might think that spoiling the look or performance of a product is a bad way to make money, but it’s simply a way of keeping the rich or careless customers buying the premium products.” Thus, poor people wind up using poor-looking goods, in a sort of postmodern variation on sumptuary laws; only those who have no choice end up with junky looking stuff—even cereal boxes—with marks them as poor in the eyes of society and keeps the pressure on the rest of us to consume more attractively. Retailers are thoughtful enough to withhold any sort of brightness—even in package design, though it wouldn’t cost them more—from the lives of the poor, because their squalor is more useful to them to threaten bigger spenders with. Class distinctions are carried out even in banalities like cereal boxes—perhaps primarily through such everyday near-invisible things.

Harford is sort of a go-to guy on price targeting—his Slate column about Starbucks’ tortuous price points covers some of the same basic ideas, namely that retailers seek to charge different customers what they are willing to pay, not what they have decided a product is actually worth. (Another way of saying that is what a product is worth is what a customer will pay; thanks to marginal calculations, we are all beyond use value). WSJ has an article (on an obviously slow news day—right next to an article on “gift” as a verb) highlighting another industry in which this occurs—beer. The reason Molson Coors can charge more for its “craft” beer, Blue Moon, is not because it costs them more to make it, but because they know people who care about the way beer tastes will be willing to pay more for it. Period. “the craft segment represents a desirable demographic of young, educated, affluent beer drinkers willing to shell out more for their brew. And big brewers are eager to tap this market.” (If you want use your taste in beer drinking to actually fight corporations like Molson Coors, check out Fermenting Revolution by Chris O’ Brien.) Along these same lines, in Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan proposes an experiment of asking the people sitting around you on an airplane what they paid for their tickets. It would seem as though the cost of flying has less to do with jet fuel and pilots’ wages than with the context surrounding when you bought a ticket.

Price targeting seems more nefarious to me than it probably should, because it makes me suspect that it is in fact my responsibility if I get “ripped off”—if those words even have any meaning once you’ve adopted this viewpoint. If we always pay what we are willing to, then we can’t get ripped off, even if the next person in line pays half as much for the same product. But then I get bothered by how producers sabotage their own goods 9Harford offers the example of third-class rail and ugly packaging)  to create pricing points based on fear and shame. You are expected to be afraid of what you might suffer if you let yourself consume the “lower” grade of good. Also, price targeting creates incentives for disinformation campaigns, for the manufacture of consumer idiocy, though perhaps I should see this as an opportunity to let those who don’t research their purchases thoroughly (the Internet does allow one to make price comparisons and gather product reviews fairly easily) subsidize my consumption to the degree of their ignorance. I could readopt the attitude I had when I lived in Vegas, when I was happy about all the slot-machine-playing suckers allowing me to enjoy over-the-top absurdist architecture and $5.99 prime-rib dinners. There’s no income tax in Nevada, but there is a stupidity tax.

But then I wonder if that isn’t the real trap here, the false satisfaction one feels in “beating” the system that has in fact contained you. If I let myself glory in other consumer’s stupidity or ignorance, then I have given myself incentive to keep them ignorant and aligned myself with the retailers rather than those like me, fellow consumers. If everybody follows suit, then we remain collectively ignorant at war with each other rather than with the retailiers trying to stratify and bamboozle us. (That’s why tuangou seems strangely appealing in theory.) This war of all against all caters to our individualism and reinforces competitiveness as the default mode of social interaction among peers. Shopping, which seems more and more the primary social activity, becomes a zero-sum game among consumers; we have no reason to cooperate. I gain when you lose. I fly cheaper when you pay more for your ticket. And I can think I’m a deserving winner and you are a deserving loser. This isn’t a big deal with airline tickets, when it comes to our annual salaries or general class prerogatives, it becomes a bigger deal. This kind of thinking leads people to conclude that the poor are simply stupid rather than structurally disadvantaged; being poor, as this Ezra Klein post shows, is matter of having no safety net, no margin for error or bad luck in situations that are already stacked against you due to inherited disadvantages.

Harford’s other point is about de facto collusion:

But economists have studied the breakfast cereal market. Richard Schmalensee, who analysed the US breakfast cereal market when it was under anti-trust investigation in the late 1970s, found that the proliferation of brands was simply a way of avoiding good honest price competition. Each new brand staked out new ground and discouraged competitors from entering. Economist Aviv Nevo reached similar conclusions more recently. He believes that although a few large companies supply most of the cereal market, there is no conspiracy at work. There does not need to be: the practices of price-targeting and product proliferation are enough to keep margins high and competitors at bay.

Just as price targeting encourages individuals to compete, it invites firms to cooperate. This echoes a point Slee makes in No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart about cooperation between firms. Without explicit communication, dominant firms in a industry with few players can quickly figure out how to anticipate each other’s moves and avoid the prisoner’s dilemma of price-cutting wars by signalling reciprocation and retribution, by making their reactions predictable and reliable over time. Thus, as Slee points out, things like low-price guarantees and loyalty plans and inexplicable brand proliferations from the same company are actually ways by which firms tell each other not to compete for each other’s customers by lowering prices.

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