Articles of the Week: 3/27/17–4/1/17

The New Yorker
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” — Dr. Seuss

Society has never accepted the concept of death. It consumes us. Time and again we tell ourselves all of the usual lies. We do not fear death because we shall live eternally in the afterlife. Or because we have lived long, full, regretless lives. We know that our children will succeed us. And if a person is forward-thinking, she can leave behind something greater than one lifespan: a legacy, the symbol of one’s merit. Unlike humans, symbols do not have expiration dates.

Then all of our subsequent actions betray our deceit.

We rap about it . We sing about it. We write about it. We pray about it. We make show, after show, after show, after show about it. But we never truly accept it. We don’t get over it.

The Black Mirror

If death was merely, “getting out of one car, and into another,” as John Lennon famously said, then we would not keep individuals hooked up to life support, breathing in artificial breathes that preserve nothing but the blood-dispersing rhythm of the human heart. People would not go to such extreme lengths to remain alive.

The National Academy of Medicine’s Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity will award at least twenty-five million dollars for breakthroughs in the field. But sitting in Norman Lear’s (94) swanky living room, a who’s who of doctors, celebrities and Silicon Valley elite were not concerned with just living a bit longer, they openly spoke of evading death entirely. The piece is a great survey of how humans have been trying and failing to evade death over the past century.

Norman Lear…closed the night by saying, “Seven years ago, I wrote a pilot script for a TV show called ‘Guess Who Died?,’ about people at a retirement community. I just learned today that it’s on its way to being made.” The audience demographics were catching up to him: by 2020, for the first time, there will be more people on Earth over the age of sixty-five than under the age of five.

This article is good at highlighting three major challenges that the movie industry will be facing over the next several years.

(1) The Release Window

Last year, the talk at CinemaCon was all about Screening Room. Backed by Sean Parker of Napster and Facebook, the startup wanted to release movies in the home at the same time they debuted in theaters for $50 a rental. It boasted anti-piracy technology and the promise of cutting theater owners in on a slice of the digital revenue, but, for the most part, exhibitors weren’t interested. They feared that what Parker and his partner Prem Akkaraju were proposing was too radical. If it became popular, it might make people think twice about going to the movies, persuading them to skip the multiplexes for the convenience of home.

However, studios are once again pressuring theaters to shorten the typical 3-month exclusivity window. To them, it makes little sense to have a 3-month window when most of a movie’s sales are made within the first two months. This is a fair point, but if potential moviegoers know that a film will be available for high quality viewing at home within a month of its box office release, they may just choose to wait it out as theater owners fear. In that scenario, only films such as Star Wars or other films that practically demand IMAX viewing will be spared. Though, we are already in an era of the haves and havenots at the box office. Seldom do we see “moderate” successes. Films either flop miserably or defy expectations. Maybe this would help to mitigate that process and change expectations.

(2) Power Vacuum at the Studios

Three of the seven top studios are undergoing massive shakeups. By the time 2017 ends, Warner Bros. could be looking at a new corporate parent. Time Warner, which currently owns the studio, is in the process of selling itself to AT&T in a $85.4-billion deal that still needs to receive government approval. If that takes place, it will give Warner Bros.’ films a direct pipeline to AT&T’s millions of subscribers, potentially shaking up its business model. These movies could be seen as an inducement for subscribers to keep their phone service, making box office one part of a larger value proposition. Often, a merger means a shakeup in the corporate ranks, so it remains to be seen who from Warner Bros. will be making the trip over to AT&T.

(3) The Trump Effect

The movie business has grown increasingly international in scope and complexion. At the same time, the election of President Donald Trump was fueled by an economic populism that is insular and protectionist. President Trump has openly flirted with the idea of having a trade war with China and is considering imposing high tariffs on imports. His administration has made toughening immigration laws a staple of its agenda, from erecting border walls to instituting travel bans on immigrants from certain Muslim-dominated countries.

As of yet, there are no signs that Trump has had an effect on the box office. But if he does encourage a mentality of strictly buying or supporting “American,” international consumers and markets may respond accordingly.

Since November many have suggested that the nine years of Berlusconi rule scattered between 1994 and 2011 were Rome’s own “Trump moment.” Italians often rue their record in “exporting” such lamentable phenomena as 1920s fascism and 1990s Berlusconism, and indeed there is much to learn from what this new right achieved in its homeland before spreading abroad. This is all the more important when we consider that Berlusconi was not, as his opponents expected in 1994, simply exposed as a charlatan upon reaching high office. Rather, he succeeded in making lasting changes to Italian political life, including the near destruction of the Left.
The Berlusconi comparison should be understood within its specific limits. The United States in 2017 is not the same as 1990s Italy. Today there is turmoil and political realignment across the globe, but we can hardly assume that the weakest links in the chain are holding up to the more powerful and stable states a mirror of their own future. Berlusconi’s Italy and, on the other end of the political spectrum, Syriza in Greece are test beds for broader dynamics, not models which later parties or leaders are doomed to copy.
Still, in the face of a potentially much more dangerous Trump the US left would do well to learn some lessons from Berlusconism.

The takeaway is that being anti-Trump is not enough to reinvigorate the left. By focusing primarily on Berlusconi’s character, the Italian left failed to properly prioritize the issues that it wanted addressed and was unable to form a coalition to rally around those issues. The article serves as a great survey on the damage a narcissistic charlatan can cause if the opposition chooses the wrong course of attack.

“Coming up, a family man takes one last shot at his dream,” is the way Daly introduces one contestant this season, Josh Hoyer. This is a strange thing to say, considering Hoyer is already a working musician, with a band, Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal, that has toured internationally. This isn’t to criticize Hoyer, or the many other contestants over the years who already made a living through music, for striving for more. But it is to criticize the show for reinforcing the pernicious idea that moderate success doing what you love is not the modern American Dream — superstardom is.
“Survey research from the United States has revealed that becoming famous is now viewed as a key part of the American dream,” writes Timothy Caulfield in his 2016 book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty & Happiness. For the book, Caulfield went to an American Idol audition and found that “the vast majority [of those auditioning] seem to be swinging for the fences. Big-time fame is the goal.”
But unlike American Idol, The Voice has yet to prove that it can help deliver big-time fame to anyone. Some previous winners like Cassadee Pope, Danielle Bradbery, and Sawyer Fredericks have released records, and last season’s winner, Sundance Head, is going on tour with his coach Blake Shelton, but there’s nary a Kelly Clarkson or Jennifer Hudson to be found among The Voice’s graduating classes. Six years and 12 seasons of The Voice have yet to produce a star with the visibility or name recognition of Idol’s biggest hitters.

The Voice is perhaps the most cynical seller of the “American Dream.” It begins with judges choosing contestants with their backs turned. This anonymity, and genuine excitement expressed by the chosen few and their families, create a heart-warming moment. But at the end of the day, the contestants are sold false promises. There is no guarantee that their team leader will vote to bring them to the next round. Some singers are already professionals and have a built in advantage. And even if one wins, there is no evidence that stardom or any considerable degree of money awaits them. The biggest beneficiaries may be the hosts themselves, who are given another platform to demonstrate their celebrity and promote their brand. In hindsight, this might be the most American show on television.

The authors found that after taking into account the observable differences between male and female dentists — such as age, hours worked, number of children, and self-employment — the pay gap was still there. And the difference in earnings for female dentists was much larger than that of female doctors and lawyers.

Maybe, just maybe, we might have to embrace Iceland’s model. It appears that sexism is so ingrained in our society that we cannot explain it, even when we can quantify it.

Still ain’t trippin’, love to see young blacks get money
Spend time out the hood, take they moms out the hood
Hit my boys off with jobs, no more livin’ hard
Barbeques every day, drivin’ fancy cars
Still gon’ get mine regardless

-Dr. Dre

Forbes has managed to monetize watching another man’s pockets. It doesn’t even matter if they’re accurate (they’re not). We love to hear about how the rich and famous live and about how much they’re making. I’m not sure why. It’s some sort of masochistic vein in our society. With that said, in this case, I hope Forbes is telling the truth.

If Democrats want a winning platform in the years ahead, Jeff Spross argues in the current issue of the journal Democracy, they ought to counter President Donald Trump’s rhetoric with a concrete offer to every American who wants dignity and a decent living: a federally funded job. Spross, an economics and business writer for The Week, makes a thorough case for a universal job guarantee, writing that “a job is not merely a delivery mechanism for income that can be replaced by an alternative source. It’s a fundamental way that people assert their dignity, stake their claim in society, and understand their mutual obligations to one another.”

But Jonathan Malesic argues that this entire premise is flawed.

But the moral underpinning of Spross’s case is also its greatest vulnerability. The job guarantee rests on the assumption that people deserve wealth only if they work for it — a widely-held view in America, but one that has two shortcomings that perpetuate injustice.
First, a guaranteed job, “with benefits and a living wage, to every American willing and able to work,” as Spross describes it, does not do much good for Americans who are not able to work. Our current system gives support to the disabled only grudgingly, and Social Security Disability Insurance comes with a measure of suspicion and resentment. People who care for children or other family members full-time get nothing.
The second shortcoming is that in the digital age, wealth is not only created by workers and owners. Productivity derives not only from labor and hard capital, but also from social capital — the matrix of beliefs, values, and customs that members of a society share. In his 2016 book The Wealth of Humans, Ryan Avent argues that values like tolerance and the rule of law — which no one can claim as exclusively theirs — make it easy to do business in America. They make American labor and capital more productive.

This argument of “universal income” versus a guaranteed job is not new. And ultimately, given the extent and rate of automation, it may be the job debate of the future more so than minimum wage or the concept of at-will employment.

Swanson provides a detailed review of theologian Harvey Cox’s “The Market as God” (a study of how our belief in the free market has become a religion unto itself).

Granting such powers to the market has been denounced as idolatry by no less a spiritual authority than Pope Francis. In his apostolic exhortation of 2013, the pontiff inveighed against the guardians of “the deified market,” arguing that any defense of trickle-down economics “expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” More recently, this sentiment was interrogated by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, who joins the ranks of scholars who have been engrossed by the totem powers of faith and the market. But unlike someone like Max Weber — who argued that the austerity of mainline churches nurtured the origins of capitalism — Cox instead views the free market as its own autonomous religion, a bewildering system of codes and myths that steers the behaviors of its adherents. In his recent book, The Market as God, he sets out to demonstrate that this religion is as comprehensive as any major faith, complete with sacraments (advertisements), prophets (Adam Smith), and even eschatology (Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History).

However, Swanson admits that book finds itself off track at times and fails to provide new solutions.

But the book also veers into a host of arcana that seems, at best, tangentially related to his thesis, including the ways in which the architecture of mega-churches has come to resemble the floor plans of suburban malls; the behavioral similarities between marquee pastors and industry CEOs; the special realm of hell that Dante reserved for usurers; and the extent to which religious holidays have been transformed into saturnalias of consumer spending.

Regardless, it’s worth reading for the parallels between Judeo-Christian peoples, their history and how we perceive free market economics today.

The skinny: Going to elite colleges isn’t all that important, unless of course, you come from a low-income background and are a person of color who may not have a connection to the networks that elite colleges provide. Given the fact that very few of those individuals attend elite colleges anyway, the impact of these institutions is overstated. But, of course, if you are that sort of individual, your investment just might be worth it (this is what I tell myself).

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