Kevin Drum - August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Box Office

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 5:27 PM EDT

John Scalzi tries to figure out why Scott Pilgrim vs. the World didn't do very well on its opening weekend:

What is the core audience of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Well, when I saw it this weekend, the members of the audience were mostly under 30 and (visually) equally distributed between stereotypical nerds and stereotypical hipsters. There were enough snarky T-shirts and chunky black-frame glasses to fill a coffee shop next to an Apple store.

But only enough of them to fill that one coffee shop — and this is the problem, commercially speaking. Nerds and hipsters love what they love, and, while they love it, they love it with the white-hot intensity of a thousand obsessive-compulsive suns (and when they stop loving it, they hate you for still loving it — but that's another column entirely). But hipsters and nerds — and the occasional hipster nerds — aren't in themselves a big enough audience to move the box-office needle any appreciable distance.

This is a fine observation, but I'd like to propose an alternative. Or a complement, perhaps: it just wasn't a very good movie. Not terrible. Just not very good.

Now, I know what you're thinking. I'm not the target audience for a "postmodern hipster-nerd fantasy." I'm a bit of a nerd, and I like fantasy fine, but I'm middle-aged, aggressively un-postmodern, and even more aggressively un-hipster. So maybe I just didn't get it.

Well, sure. It was probably never likely to make my all-time top ten list. But my reaction was actually a lot simpler than that. The plot of the film, such as it is, concerns Scott Pilgrim's series of fights against his would-be girlfriend's seven evil exes. Fine. So half an hour into the movie we have the first of these stylized videogame fights. Wam bam slam tinkle tinkle. Scott Pilgrim wins. Hooray! And immediately — immediately — I thought, "Six more of these? I wonder how they're going to create seven fight scenes that are different enough to stay interesting?"

I don't think I'm giving anything away to say, they don't. The fights aren't identical, and all of them have a quirk or two that might make you smile ironically, but basically they're all the same thing. And there's only so much of that you can take. There's some sweet stuff in between the fights, the dialog isn't bad, and the characters are goofy and sort of endearing. But after the first half hour, two-thirds of the movie is just a series of nearly identical stylized combat scenes. I don't know if it was ever likely to break out beyond its core audience, but I think it needed a lot more narrative and lot less fight to have even a chance.

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The Deal

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 12:43 PM EDT

Bob Somerby is following the latest Social Security chatter and hopes that Paul Krugman can explain how the trust fund works in an understandable way:

The trust fund is just an accounting fiction — a pile of worthless IOUs! Generations of voters have been misled by such skillfully-wrought presentations.

....Krugman is our most valuable player by far — our only player at the top of the press corps. Can he disentangle the trust fund scam in a way average people will understand? We don’t know, and it isn’t his job; no player should be expected to carry the ball on every play from scrimmage. Tomorrow, we’ll offer our own ideas at how the “there-is-no-trust-fund nonsense” might best be approached, in a way average people can follow.

Well, hell, I'll take a crack at it. Here's the simple version.

In 1983, when we last reformed Social Security, we made an implicit deal between two groups of American taxpayers. Call them Groups A and B. For about 30 years, Group A would pay higher taxes than necessary, thus allowing Group B to reduce their tax rates. Then, for about 30 years after that, Group A would pay lower taxes than necessary and Group B would make up for this with higher tax rates.

This might have been a squirrelly deal to make. But it doesn't matter. It's the deal we made. And it's obviously unfair to change it halfway through.

So who is Group A? It's people who pay Social Security payroll taxes, which mostly means working and middle class taxpayers. And who is Group B? It's people who pay federal income taxes, which mostly means the well-off and the rich. For nearly 30 years, Group A has been overpaying payroll taxes, and that's allowed the government to lower income tax rates. The implicit promise of the 1983 deal is that sometime in the next few years, this is going to flip. Group A will begin underpaying payroll taxes, and the rich, who have reaped the benefits of their overpayment for 30 years, will make good on their half of the deal by paying higher income tax rates to make up the difference.

The physical embodiment of this deal is the Social Security trust fund. Group A overpaid and built up a pile of bonds in the trust fund. Those bonds are a promise by Group B to repay the money. That promise is going to start coming due in a few years, and it's hardly surprising that Group B isn't as excited about the deal now as it was in 1983. It's never as much fun paying off a loan as it is to spend the money in the first place.

But pay it off they must. The rich have been getting a loan from the middle class for decades, and the loan papers are the Social Security trust fund bonds that George W. Bush is admiring in the photograph above. Anybody who claims the trust fund is a myth is basically saying it's OK for the rich to renege on that loan.

But surely no one would ever say such a thing. Right?

POSTSCRIPT: Still not simple enough? Help out in comments! How can we make this explanation even easier to follow without losing the basic accuracy of the story? Suggestions welcome.

No Right to Build a Mosque

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 10:45 AM EDT

OK, fine. There's nothing much going on today, so let's talk about the Park51 mosque project. We already know that a large majority of Americans are opposed to building it, but here are the results of an Economist poll on a slightly different question:

Whether or not you think the Islamic cultural centre and mosque should be built near the World Trade Center site, do you think that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque there?

Technically, I think the wording of this question should have been turned around: not whether Muslims have the right to build a mosque on Park Place, but whether the government has the constitutional right to stop them from building a mosque on Park Place.

Still, I think everyone probably understands what this means, and it's just depressing as hell. It's one thing to oppose the mosque just because you don't like the idea, but to deny that Muslims even have a constitutional right to build it? That should be a no-brainer. Of course they do. You can picket the site, you can boycott their sponsors, you can vote against politicians who speak in favor of it, and you can scream all you like on blogs and Fox News. But how can anyone not accept, at a bare minimum, that the constitution protects their basic right to build a house of worship the same way it protects their opponents' right to protest it?

The News Today, Oh Boy

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 10:07 AM EDT

So I guess the biggest news today is that unemployment claims are up and the number of people who think Obama is a Muslim is also up — which is, perhaps, not entirely a coincidence. Oh, and Dr. Laura is quitting her radio show.

Well, I guess I can always post another ad from my collection of old comic books. Which would you like, a Daisy air rifle ad or a Charles Atlas ad? 

A Place For Nothing, and Nothing in Its Place

| Thu Aug. 19, 2010 12:29 AM EDT

The latest on the airline front:

American Airlines, in the quest for more non-ticket revenue, on Wednesday began charging customers who want to sit in the first few rows of coach on domestic flights.

Customers who pay the fee, which ranges from $19 to $39, will be among the first to board, giving them a chance to snag coveted overhead bins. As passengers carry on luggage to avoid baggage fees, overhead space has become harder to find.

To summarize, then: (1) Airlines spent years hassling customers about their carry-on bags and persuading them to check their luggage instead. (2) After that finally started to work, they suddenly began charging for checked luggage. (3) As customers scurried to adapt once again, overhead space disappeared. (4) So now they begin charging for early boarding to avoid the crush of bags in the overhead bin.

Has there ever before been an industry that's so actively tried to piss off their entire customer base? You almost have to admire it in a Bizarro-capitalism kind of way.

First, Assume a Can Opener.....

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 3:57 PM EDT

Matt Steinglass reviews a proposal from Simon Johnson and James Kwak to put our fiscal house in order:

First, introduce a value-added tax and lower the ceiling on the mortgage interest deduction from $1m to something more reasonable....Second, carbon pricing, either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade....Third, introduce a Financial Activities Tax, which could raise 0.5% to 1% of GDP.

....And finally—here's the tough one—entitlement reform. As Messrs Johnson and Kwak say, Social Security needs to be tweaked a bit as it goes from 4.8% to 6.2% of GDP with the aging of the population. Medicare and Medicaid, on the other hand, need major reform to figure out how to stop paying for medical care that doesn't make people healthier, while reducing costs on what we do buy. This is a book-length issue on its own and all we can do is note the necessity of doing it.

So, that last one seems like a doozy, but the other three look entirely reasonable. There's no reason why a rational political system shouldn't be able to tackle such reforms in a non-ideological and collaborative fashion. Nothing of that sort has happened in my lifetime, so far as I can remember, but there's a first time for everything.

Hold on. I'm a big fat tax-and-spend liberal, but even I have a hard time swallowing this. Adding three big new taxes and slashing the home mortgage deduction is "eminently doable" but tackling Medicare reform is a "doozy"? Seems like there's a pretty big thumb on the scale here.

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Krugman and the Bubble

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 1:06 PM EDT

On his blog today, Paul Krugman reprints a chart of housing prices rising like a hockey stick in the mid-aughts and then hits back against critics who say the bubble couldn't have been predicted:

Given this kind of picture — and given the fact that the late-80s rise in southern California was, in fact, a bubble — how could you not be very worried? And when you looked at the rationalizations for high housing prices being given at the time, it was obvious that they were questionable.

Sorry: the evidence just screamed bubble. No excuses for those who didn’t want to hear it.

OK. But did Krugman call the bubble? My recollection from his NYT columns, anyway, is that he didn't really get concerned about it until mid-2005, which was only half a year before the market peaked. If the evidence was screaming bubble any earlier than that, why wasn't he screaming too? Or was it happening somewhere other than his columns?

Lefties: Time to Brush Up On Energy Awareness

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 12:14 PM EDT

I like to help out my conservative buddies now and again — it's just the kind of guy I am — so here's this month's shot in the arm for righties. You know how you're always getting annoyed about self-righteous greens lecturing you about what you should and shouldn't do to conserve energy and save the planet? Well, apparently you're right. They don't know what they're talking about. A team of researchers recently conducted a survey of how much people know about energy use (cans vs. bottles, turning off lights vs. turning down the heat, etc.) and correlated the results with various personal characteristics. Here's what they learned:

Surprisingly, participants’ self-reported environmental behaviors scale always had a negative coefficient and was significant in three of the five tests, indicating that participants who reported engaging in a greater number of proenvironmental energy-related behaviors had less accurate perceptions.

Italics mine. The table below shows the full results. Basically, positive numbers are good and negative numbers are bad, so the key is to look for things where the numbers are positive or negative across the board. The most accurate perceptions about energy use, it seems, are held by numerate, conservative homeowners who don't bother trying to save energy. On the other hand, participants' NEP score, which is a reflection of environmental attitudes, was largely positively correlated. So what you really want are numerate, conservative homeowners who care about the environment but not enough to actually bother doing anything about it.

Or something. Anyway, conservatives did better. Savor your victory, righties. (Via Felix Salmon, who links to a rather breathless Register summary of the study.)

Drowning in Email

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 11:24 AM EDT

Felix Salmon is unhappy with Google:

Yesterday afternoon, I started wondering why my steady stream of emails seemed to have come to a halt. It didn't take long to get the answer: emails to me were being bounced back to their senders as undeliverable, on the grounds that my Gmail account was over quota. Naturally, I immediately paid Google the $5 they wanted to upgrade to 20 GB of storage from the free 7.5 GB.

What follows is a long post about Google's annoying ways, and I sympathize. But what I'm really curious about is the amount of space apparently used by Google mail. I just checked my mail directory, and it uses 3 GB of space for 110,000 emails (including the associated full-text index files). So either (a) Felix has nearly 300,000 emails in his archive or (b) Google uses a really inefficient storage algorithm for email.

Probably the former. Which is an impressive bucket of email. But I guess it's not surprising. I've got eight years worth of email archived, but the fact is that I delete about 90% of the email I get these days because most of it is auto-generated press releases and so forth. If I didn't bother doing that, I'd probably be well over 7.5 GB too and pushing half a million emails.

That's....disturbing. In the past eight years I've received half a million emails. And I'm probably a piker compared to some. It's amazing that we keep up at all, isn't it?

Our Economic Paradox Continues

| Wed Aug. 18, 2010 10:42 AM EDT

Tyler Cowen says there are three ways that declines in consumer demand can make itself felt, but I'm just going to focus on the first two:

  1. A general decline in spending.
  2. A disproportionate and permanent demand decline for the more income- and wealth-elastic goods, a category which includes many consumer durables and also luxury goods.

The first, he says, can be addressed via stimulus. The second can't. For what it's worth, this is a distinction that's been eating at me for a long time too. One of the things that was clear after the housing bust and the financial collapse of 2008 was that Americans were simply consuming too much. Relative to the rest of the world consumption needed to go down, but in the short term this would be so economically disastrous that we couldn't allow it to happen right away. The Wall Street bailout and the stimulus bill really were necessary.

But our current account deficit, after shrinking a bit in 2009, has started to grow again, and in the long term we can't keep this up. International trade and money flows have to start balancing out eventually, and that means less consumption from the U.S. and more from countries like China.

This has been the contradiction at the heart of fiscal and monetary policy for the past two year. Do we damn the torpedoes and stimulate now, simultaneously swearing on a stack of Bibles that we'll restrain ourselves after we've gotten back on our feet? Or should we gulp hard, work through the pain all at once, and get our economy back on a sustainable track now? Back in 2008, I remember concluding that the trend level of consumption in the U.S. needed to drop 5-10% at some point, and obviously that hasn't happened yet. What's more, even if we wanted to make it happen we're constrained by the policies of export-oriented economies like China's, which have to take the other side of the deal and increase their consumption considerably. That hasn't happened either.

So I still don't know how this all ends. Trying to adjust to a big drop in the trend level of consumption seems suicidal at the moment, and for that reason further stimulus seems like a good idea. But even while acknowledging that, I still wonder when and how we're going to get ourselves back to a sustainable level of economic activity. I don't think the answers are any easier today than they were two years ago.