Weekly Movie Recommendation

Do see:

My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Really all you need to know is that it co-stars this guy from The Princess Bride:

The entire movie takes place at a dinner with two old friends: the Sicilian up there and another dude, Andre Gregory. Each one is playing a version of their real selves. Gregory is like your most talkative, craziest, and most well-travled friend all rolled up into one guy and then stuffed inside your one uncle who really knows how to carry a story. Watching a two-hour dinner conversation seems like it would be boring, but it is endlessly watchable. Plus, it is directed by Louis Malle, an important director who teamed up with Jacques Cousteau on a separate film. This is a classic.

21 Jump Street

Yea, I said it. Watch it fools. This is one of the biggest cinematic surprises I’ve seen in a while. The film smartly parodies itself along with every other action movie ever made. It borders on slapstick or, perhaps, becoming the latest installment in the Naked Gun series, but stays just on the proper side of that line and succeeds widely. It also surprisingly earns its “R” rating with vulgar (but hilarious) language.

Le Samurai (France, 1967)

Midway through the film Jef, the main character, explains what he must do: “At the payoff they tried to kill me. Now I have to find them before they find me.” I won’t tell you what happens before or after, but the movie is in French, features the 1967 French version of Halle Berry, is about a contract killer, and is part of the Criterion Collection. What else do you need to know? It features real tension and action without all the unnecessary car chases. True suspense thriller.

Don’t see:

Jeff Who Lives at Home

Yea, I was kinda surprised it wasn’t better too. It takes some very smart people to make a movie this bad, but the Duplass brothers were up to the task. It’s so self-aware it’s almost postmodern. Ostensibly, the film is about a family, each of whom is looking for meaning in a life that’s proved to be less than they dreamed. In reality, it’s about trying to make a cutesy Little Miss Sunshine-style independentish coming-of-age film with good music. It features a strange deus ex machina imported from Crash. If your mother-in-law gets you the DVD for Christmas give it a spin one night when you don’t have much going on.

Magic Mike

Meh. It was alright. Liked the non-conventional ending without emotional payoff. Matthew McConaughey is pretty epic and the rest of the cast does a good job. Story loses steam during the second half and most of the film is pretty predicable. In fact, you probably already know most of what is going to happen just trying to imagine the film in your mind. Except imagine it not as funny. No, even less funny. Has some muscled dudes if you’re into that kind of thing, but I’ve seen hotter. Anything with Matt Damon, for example. “Matt Damon! Matt Damon!” Might also be worth a rental, but slide it way down your list.

Bias at the NY Times?

Via Stephen Dubner from Freakonomics:

I love the New York Times (and not just because I used to work there) but goodness gracious, this kind of thing really hurts its credibility.

An article about News Corp.’s decision to split off its publishing business (including the Wall Street Journal) from its entertainment business contains the following sentence:

“Both companies would maintain their controversial dual-class share stock structure, which enables the Murdoch family to control nearly 40 percent of the voting power.”

Well, guess what other family-run news organization maintains a dual-class share stock structure? Yes, the New York Times — as well as the Washington Post and others, as Rupert Murdoch pointed out in announcing News Corp.’s move. This fact, however, isn’t mentioned in the Times article. But here’s the reality: given the turmoil in the newspaper business in general and at the Times in particular, it’d be easy to argue that if anyone’s dual-class ownership is “controversial,” it is the Times‘s more than the Journal‘s.

I’m with Dubner. I love the NY TImes (especially the NY Times Magazine) and read it regularly. It is an important and storied institution in journalism. But I too sometimes find hints of bias in its pages or in interviews with its journalists. I suppose this is no insult to the Times, every paper surely suffers from the same issue. I agree very much with what Russ Roberts said recently in an interview with science journalist Ed Yong:

I think most economists, most academics, most medical researchers, most physicists see themselves as searchers for truth. But they don’t act that way. That’s how we see ourselves. That’s a form of self-deception. There’s an element of truth to it; it’s not a lie. But we, of course, are affected by hundreds of other things: our incentives to be published, to get tenure, to be famous, to be lauded, to be respected. And these things clash, obviously, and I think it’s true of journalists, too.

I’ve taught a lot of journalists, and they say what you [Ed Yong] just said with such fervor: “Our job is to seek the truth.” That is your job, in some way, I guess. It’s certainly the way many journalists see themselves. But of course it’s not exactly how they act. And that’s because, as an economist I see their incentives to act truthfully are not always so strong.

So, to take an obvious example, in political coverage if you tell a journalist that he’s got a political bias, I think it’s like telling him he’s a child molester. It’s one of the most horrifying things you can accuse a journalist of. And their response is, “No, I’m not biased, that would be a violation of my ethical code.” They get angry and they yell at you. And of course, it’s very important, and it took me a while to realize this, but journalists want to feel they are searchers for truth. Just like we economists and academics want to feel we are. But we need to sometimes step back and realize the incentives working on us consciously and subconsciously are sometimes not so much pushing us in that direction. And we ought to maybe just be aware of the fact that what we say about ourselves and how we behave are not actually the same.

Inequality in America – Introduction

This is going to be the first in a series of posts looking into the problem of income inequality, which is obviously extremely prominent in public discourse at the moment.

The problem has several parts:

First, we must establish the existence and degree of income inequality. This can, at times, get technical because, to take one common measure, whether the median income has grown since 1979 depends on whose income you are considering (individuals, households, households adjusted for changes in family size, or tax units), whether the measure considers pre- or post-tax income, whether benefits are included, and other technical adjustments such as proper use of a “deflator” to account for changes in real prices over the interim. Likewise, which metric is chosen — income, consumption, or wealth — can further effect the results. In short, different assumptions can yield vastly different answers to questions of inequality.

Second, it is important to understand why income inequality might be important. The phenomenon’s effects are obviously germaine to any debate on the issue since, if inequality didn’t matter, there would be little relevance in further investigation outside the joy of a pure intelectual exercise. To these ends economists and political scientists have offered a variety of persuasive arguments for rebalancing income — concerns about distribution of political power, for instance.

Third, we must understand what factors determine income inequality. Here we must get past mistaken notions of a “fixed pie” of economic wealth being hogged by corporations and wealthy individuals. While there are a variety of plausible explanations for increasing inequality — greater returns to advanced technical skills and education, for example — I think it is safe to say that even most left-leaning economists do not take seriously the notion of a small group of robber barrions extracting rents from the proletariat as any sort of reasonable explanation. The exception, perhaps, is the extreme rent-seeking that occurred in the financial industry in recent years. Nevertheless, despite relatively isolated cases of extraction by a few financial investors, broad-based movements such as Occupy Wall Street indict more generally corporations and corporate executives. True, these individuals have enjoyed extraordinary gains in recent years, but by and large they did not come at our expense.

Lastly, it is important to discuss policy recommendations to stem inequality. Tax reform is one obvious and common policy suggestion as are changes to corporate governance structures or more general social improvements such as better education.

I am writing this series of posts both to educate myself and my readers. I have a great number of varying sources concerning the topic and I thought it was time to bring them together in a systematic review and study of the literature.