Jasper Smith

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Archive for April 2007

America’s non-savers

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Over at Ezra’s place there’s a discussion of why people save so little these days. As for myself, I suspect 90% of the gap in savings between the 30-year old of today and the 30-year old of 1950 can be explained by:

a) Social Security: Although it was around in 1950 (if memory serves me right the first recipient received her first check in 1940), its effects hadn’t yet permeated the culture, and depending on it was a new phenomenon. Traditionally, if you did’t have, say, three or four years income put away in savings by the time you approached retirement age, you were really risking penury. Not that Social Security alone can give most people today a comfortable retirement, of course, but it is a huge help, especially if your house is paid off (and you’re covered by Medicare).

b) Medicare: for the same reason as “a” but maybe even more so.

c) Medicaid: for the same reason as “a” and “b” but definitely even more so.

d) Unemployment insurance: I wouldn’t want to live on it for very long, but its existence sure makes the proverbial rainy day fund seem like much less of a necessity.

e) Health insurance: it’s a lot more common than in the America of sixty years ago, even with recent slippage. And that slippage is unlikely to prompt people to save, because for most people, self-insuring is a completely unrealistic option: your only hope is to pray you don’t get sick, and hope emergency care in your area is competent.

f) Aggressive mortgage lending: there’s simply not much need to save aggressively for a down payment these days when you can buy a home for 5% down or less. If you can’t afford a home in your area with even today’s easy mortgage financing, then you probably need to move to a different area (and millions of Americans do just that).

g) Student loans and government subsidization of post-secondary education: sure, in real terms, elite schools (and even not-so-elite schools) are more expensive than ever before, but the student loan lending industry is also bigger than ever before. Parents simply aren’t really required (not if they don’t mind their progeny taking on lots of debt) to save for their kids’ education if they don’t want to or cannot afford to do so. A client of mine recently revealed that his student debt (including dental school and post-grad studies at a very prestigious Ivy League institution) totaled in the neighborhood of $500,000.

Yup, there’s a reason we don’t save any more. The major life events once upon a time we needed to save for are now taken care of by borrowing, or by the government.

Written by Jasper

April 4, 2007 at 8:54 pm

Posted in Culture, Economics, Policy

Film review: Fahrenheit 9/11

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Well, I finally had the good sense to sign up for Netflix. It’s. The. Best. Thing. Ever. My queue tops out at about seventy films as of right now. Make that seventy DVDs, for a good number of my requests are from the world of television (I just finished season II of HBO’s incomparable The Wire, for instance, and eagerly await season III this week).

Anyway, this afternoon I caught a movie I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time, Fahrenheit 9/11. Now, I don’t see eye to eye with Michael Moore on every single issue, but even when I disagree with him, I’ve generally found the director to be a talented storyteller and compelling polemicist. Bowling for Columbine, for instance, was a film I genuinely liked. Moore still had an air of “underdog” about him — and it was therefore easy to sympathize with his narrative, and the case he was trying to make.

Unfortunately, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a different sort of film altogether. For starters, the humor that has helped make Moore’s criticisms so biting in the past is used less frequently, and often comes across as heavy-handed. Indeed, the entire film is pervaded by a sense of “heaviness”; Moore’s doesn’t utilize the light, delicate, and richly humorous touch he’s employed in the past. Rather, his technique is to pound the viewer into submission with a relentless barrage of accusations and insinuations targeting the Bush administration. While few would argue against the proposition that said administration deserves plenty of criticism, ninety minutes of this fare doesn’t exactly lend itself to something called entertainment. Not unless, of course, it’s handled very deftly. But Michael Moore doesn’t display much of the deftness or artistry he has in the past.

One of the biggest problems with the film is the director’s frequent, but less than compelling use of his own narrator’s voice as the prime engine moving along the “story.” But this is highly problematic, because an hour and a half of hearing Moore’s voice-over accompanying news footage of this or that Bush outrage simply doesn’t provide the same level of effectiveness or entertainment available in previous Moore efforts, where we were treated to the often hillarious, moving, and searingly effective spectacle of the overweight, slightly disheveled “everyman” giving the high and mighty their comeuppance as he relentlessly stocks them with his camera and microphone.

In Fahrenheit, there’s precious little of this “stocking” (indeed we seldom see Moore at all), and far too much of his voice droning on and on and on as he comments on montages pulled from the news. As a film making technique, it’s simply doesn’t provide the same effectiveness or entertainment value as viewing Moore’s dogged attempts to stick his microphone in the faces of the ethically and morally challenged empty suits he has targeted in the past. Indeed, Moore finally does treat us to one such scene in Fahrenheit as he attempts — to hilarious effect — to sandbag various members of Congress while eliciting their opinions about the desirability of urging their own children to sign up for duty in Iraq. It’s a very funny, highly effective scene. But alas, we’re treated to very little of this highly entertaining vintage Michael Moore.

Another flaw with Fahrenheit is its simple lack of cohesiveness. There’s lots of insinuating and not-so-subtle accusing going on, but we’re left wondering just exactly what is the central point Moore is trying to make. Is he claiming that Bush stole the 2000 election? Or that Bush was behind the September 11th attacks? Is he claiming that Bush is incompetent? Does he contend that US troops are war criminals? The unfocused accusations and insinuations, in other words, sprawl so broadly and touch upon so many different topics, they frankly lose their bite and their sharpness. Mr. Moore could truly have used the services of a competent script editor, and perhaps even an accomplished and skilled assistant director.

Regrettably, the finished product packs neither as strong a punch as Bush critics would want, nor provides the general viewing public with much in the way of entertainment value. Thus, this flabby, unfocused, and poorly edited film doesn’t really work that well even as a fiery polemic against the presidency of George W. Bush. And as a feature film designed to entertain, it fares even worse. I was disappointed by Fahrenheit 9/11.

Written by Jasper

April 1, 2007 at 7:39 pm

Posted in Culture, Iraq, Politics, Reviews