Monday, August 31, 2015

Fashion Shock -- Denim Is Back!

You don't have to spend much time with fashion magazines to recognize the constancy of denim.  Every year we read that denim is back in fashion.

Here is a hot denim jacket from 2013.

Here is a hot denim jacket from 2014.

And here is a hot denim jacket from earlier this year.

Plus ca change . . . .

I think we read a lot about denim -- particularly designer denim -- lately because so many women have adopted exercise wear as their everyday wardrobes. Yoga pants, running shorts and pilates leggings are easy to wear and appropriate for everything from coffee with friends to Costco runs to workout classes.

The design community seems to want women to start wearing regular clothes again.  If this means fashion denim, so be it.  I have the impression that many new looks are being thrown out in the hope that at least some of them will gain traction with fashionistas.  The results seem to me to be mixed.  

One idea has been to make denim more dressy.   Here is an example from London earlier this year.

I haven't been to London lately, and so I can't say whether English women have adopted this kind of thing wholesale.  But I doubt it. 

Another theme that is being pushed, worldwide, is "double denim" -- denim shirts or jackets with denim pants or skirts.  

My take is that double denim is a good wardrobe choice for a rancher, but not so good for everybody else.  Girls, don't try this at home.

The tight jeans and denim leggings that skinny gals have worn for the last several years will continue to be fashionable, but this year's models have "raw hems," for a lightly fringy look.

If you still like skinny jeans, you could buy one of these, or, easier, you could cut the hems off an older pair that you already own.  An added plus would be that your older jeans will end above the ankle, like the ones in the pictures. 

The basic jean look of the moment, theoretically anyway, is the "boyfriend" jean.  This is how one fashion magazine suggest pairing such a jean with a double denim shirt and an offbeat jacket.

Ugh. If an outfit looks this unflattering on a fashion model, I can only imagine the unfortunate results on less lovely women.  Approach boyfriend jeans with caution, I say.  


Then there are denim jumpsuits.  You might want to invest in one of these if you work in an automotive plant.

Finally, the one trend in jeans that has lasted for just about forever is the Levi's 501 jean.  The button-front high-waisted model is virtually unchanged from its 1947 iteration, and it is not expensive.  There is also a steady demand for "vintage" 501s, as seen below.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Men and Women Are Equal

A new phenomenon in Times Square this year has upset all the usual fuddy-duddies who don't want anyone to have any fun. 

It is "desnudas," attractive young women who strut around in bikini bottoms, feather headdresses and body paint in lieu of shirts. For about $20, they pose for snapshots with teenage boys (see below) or older guys who enjoy looking at and being photographed with naked women. 

Desnudas is said to be the Spanish word for "nudes."  It is also the Spanish word for "obvious," which may be more appropriate.

News reports say the desnudas have "assistants," men who paint their breasts, hold their clothes, protect them from creepy guys and apply pressure to men who do not pay appropriate gratuities.  (There is another, less flattering name for guys like these who work the darker end of the money-for-sex continuum.)

Desnudas join an already raucous crew of costumed Disney and Muppets characters, a self-described naked cowboy who in fact wears tighty whities and strums a guitar, would-be stand-up artists passing out coupons for discount comedy shows and vagrants seeking alms from the thousands of tourists who flock to Times Square each day.

The almost naked women seem to attract good custom -- reportedly, $200 to $300 daily -- while the Elmos and Spidermen in $150 costumes compete with each other and are lucky to collect $60 or so.  
(In fact, some costumed characters have moved to the Battery and Coney Island to work those crowds.  Others now troll Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco and and the Las Vegas strip, confirming a theme of mine that Americans consign tourists to the most unpleasant locations in every city.)

The Times Square Alliance, a chamber of commerce-type group, reports that 80 percent of its complaints this year are about desnudas.  The mayor has said he would like to get rid of the desnudas and to jackhammer up the square's pedestrian plazas, which were established during the former mayor's tenure.  The governor seems to share the view. (Both men have daughters, which may influence their thinking.)

All the really cool people seem to believe the desnudas should not be criticized or shamed for plying their trade, or their secondary sex organs, because men and women are equal.


The general logic is this:  Men are allowed to walk around topless wherever they want, and so it is only fair for women to be able to do the same thing.

I could be described as a "First Amendment nut," and I get it.  Strutting around half-dressed or naked can be understood as expression.  Substituting body paint for a shirt can be described as art.  There is no legal way to ban this activity.

In fact, there seems to be broad public support for the idea that aggressive panhandling in Times Square may be a problem but desnudas are not.

Last week, New York's annual topless parade of 300 women made a special detour through Times Square to show solidarity with the desnudas.  

(Interestingly, the parade is a group activity in part because individual women do not go out topless for fear of encounters with lecherous men; maybe the point of the topless parade is to change this dynamic.  This is not an issue that interests me.) 

The city's newspapers, with the exception of one owned by a man who also owns an office building in Times Square, are neutral to fine with desnudas.  From a New York Times editorial:

     "Times Square has an old reputation as a crossroads of bad behavior.
     But is it really being overrun again by vice? By pimps, prostitutes, muggers,
     drug dealers, bootleggers, pornographers or even card-game hustlers?
     Not even close."

People who are uncomfortable with the desnuda phenomenon are ridiculed and reminded that breasts are natural.  There are frequent mentions of European beaches where women often sunbathe topless.  On the other hand, European sunbathers don't solicit money for photographs in Potsdamer Platz or the Piazza San Marco.

The most broadly expressed view is that Americans are a bunch of judgmental, Puritanical yahoos.  In fact, this may be true.    

But I have a few questions.

     -- What do you do if you are a tourist with children?  Times Square is home to the
     world's biggest Toys R Us store, outfitted with a Ferris wheel inside.  If you want 
     to attend family-oriented Broadway shows -- Lion King, Matilda the Musical or
      Aladdin, say -- you pretty much have to go through Times Square.  
             How do you tell a six-year-old that naked women selling pictures of themselves 
     is natural because of equality and the First Amendment?  
             (For that matter, how do you explain the difference between TV Elmo and 
     hustler Elmo in an old, smelly costume when hustler Elmo moves in for a hug?)

     -- What if a dominatrix paraded a lightly leather-clad submissive man through 
     Times  Square to complete his humiliation?   Or a dominant man did the same 
     with a leashed woman wearing a black leather collar?  Would this be cool?

     -- What if a Times Square beggar adopted a new approach -- sitting naked on the
     sidewalk with a clever sign:  "Need money for clothes"?

     -- What if a topless, spray-painted guy set up shop in Times Square?  Would he 
     score hundreds of dollars in tips from horny women?  Would he require a female
     "assistant" to protect him from his admirers? 

Equality can be a bitch sometimes.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Men and Women Are Different

Yesterday was the 95th anniversary of the day American women got the right to vote.  Certainly that was and is a good idea, but relations between the sexes remain fraught.

Simply put, women and men are different.  Several recent news articles reinforce this fact.  

"Tinder and the Dawn of the 'Dating Apocalypse,'"
                                                                                    by Nancy Jo Sales 
                                                                                                 Vanity Fair
                                                                                       September 2015 

The writer interviewed millennial women and men on the new trend of hooking up after meeting -- well, exchanging pictures and emojis  if not names or biographies -- on "dating" apps like Tinder, Hinging, Happening or OKCupid. 

Some vignettes:

In a bar in New York's East Village:

        -- The tables are filled with young women and men drinking sake and beer and intermittently checking their phones and swiping. "Agh, look at this," says Kelly, 26, who’s sitting at a table with friends, holding up a message she received from a guy on OkCupid. "I want to have you on all fours," it says, going on to propose a graphic sexual scene. 'I’ve never met this person,' says Kelly.

        -- I hooked up with three girls, thanks to the Internet, off of Tinder, in the course of four nights, and I spent a total of $80 on all three girls,” Nick relays proudly. He goes on to describe each date, one of which he says began with the young woman asking him on Tinder to “ ‘come over and smoke [weed] and watch a movie.’ I know what that means,” he says, grinning.
        “We talk for a total of maybe 10 to 15 minutes,” he says. “We hook up. Afterwards she goes, ‘Oh my God, I swear I wasn’t gonna have sex with you.’ And I was like, Well, you did a pretty shitty job of that one.”
        “They all say that,” the guys say, chuckling.

      -- I ask if they’re aware of the double standard that’s often applied to women when it comes to sex. “The double standard is real,” Nick says. “If I’m a guy and I’m going out and fucking a different girl every night, my friends are gonna give me high-fives and we’re gonna crack a beer and talk about it. Girls do the same, but they get judged. I don’t want it to be like that, but sometimes the world is the way it is and I can’t change it, so I just embrace it.”
     They all say they don’t want to be in relationships. “I don’t want one,” says Nick. “I don’t want to have to deal with all that—stuff.”
     “You can’t be selfish in a relationship,” Brian says. “It feels good just to do what I want.

      -- Men talk about the nudes they receive from women. They show off the nudes. “Tit pics and booty pics,” said Austin, 22, a college student in Indiana. “My phone is full of ‘em.”
     And what about unsolicited dick pics? “They want to see your dick,” insists Adam, 23, a male model in New York. “They get excited from it. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re huge.’ ”
     No woman I talked to said she had ever asked for one. And yet, “If you’re a girl who’s trying to date, it’s normal to get dick pics all the time,” said Olivia, 24, a Brandeis graduate. “It’s like we have dicks flying at us.”

"Almost None of the Women in the Ashley Madison Database Ever Used the Site," 
                                                                                                            by Annalee Newitz 
                                                                                                                August 26, 2015

Ashley Madison is another hookup website for people who are married or in committed relationships but do not want to quit, well, dating.  I learned about it for the first time late last year in a conversation, over wine, with a woman whose ex-husband had paid for his membership with their joint credit card.

A couple weeks ago the website was hacked by a group called Impact Team, which released boatloads of data, making for much embarrassment and many gotcha news reports.

The most interesting thing:  Even though membership is free for women, very few women sign up.  In addition, the hackers suggested that thousands of women's signups were bogus, apparently made up by Ashley Madison's operators.  

Newitz, named above, did a deep dive into the data and concluded that that Ashley Madison was more about men's fantasies than action and that women weren't particularly interested. Her conclusions:

     -- The number of people who checked their Ashley Madison messages, by sex:
                        Men         20,269,675
                        Women             1,492

     -- The number who used the site's chat system, by sex:
                        Men          11,030,920
                        Women              2,409

"Overall," the article concludes, "the picture is grim indeed.  Out of 5.5 million female contacts, roughly zero percent had ever shown any kind of activity at all, after the day they were created."

"Ernie Loves Julia. And Layla.  And Tuti. and Kumi and Suki"
                                                                                             by Michael Winerip 
                                                                                             New York Times
                                                                                             August 27, 2015

Inspired perhaps by the baby pandas' arrival a few days ago in Washington, D.C, a New York reporter visited a gorilla and his troop at the Bronx Zoo.  He talked with Patrick Thomas, who runs the zoo, and with Carl Safina, author of a recent book called "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel."

The silverback gorilla under discussion, Ernie, has five mates who have given him four offspring in the last 18 months.

The reporter inquired whether Ernie loved all his mates.  "Or is he only in it for the sex?"

He got two answers:

The zoo director said, "I personally wouldn't use the word 'love' to describe the relationship."

Author Safina disagreed:  "We have the same brain chemicals that create mood and motivation in all vertebrates.  The only logical conclusion is that their experience is similar."

And while Ernie is not monogamous, he was described as a pretty good guy who tended to his children as well as his mates, who might leave him if they were unhappy. 

In fact, according to the Safina, "Lions and elephants make gorillas look like family men."

A quote:

"Of course there are plenty of men who behave like elephants.  'There's sex without bonding in humans and other animals," . . . . "Is there any romance in a one-night stand?  Well yes, some, but it's not very high quality, very deep or long-lasting.'"


The last article digresses into a discussion of wolves.  A male wolf seeks a specific mate and bonds with her.  The two raise their young together and, according to author Safina, "appear to have relationships more durable than humans who have divorce." 

Perhaps we should rethink the term "wolf" as it is now used to describe human men. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

A new movie, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," has been out in limited release for about three weeks now.  It has earned largely enthusiastic reviews, but sales are building slowly -- $425,000 so far.

Based on a "book in worlds and pictures" of the same name, it is the story of 15-year-old Minnie's first sexual experiences with her mother's boyfriend and then other men and of her drug and alcohol use with friends and adults in 1975.   

Filmmaker Marielle Heller took the book, skimmed over and skipped some of its darkest parts and turned it into a film script with a more upbeat ending that suggests the girl learns from her experiences and by the end has a plan and goals for her adult life.  

The movie is well written and well acted and has very good cinematography. It doesn't flinch in its depiction of 1975 San Francisco, a pre-herpes and pre-AIDS heyday of casual sex and drug use.    


"The novel is life-specific, but what makes (the title's teenager) Minnie — on the page and now on the screen — greater than any one girl is how she tells her own story in her own soaringly alive voice."                                                                                                 
                                                                                                                Manohla Dargis
                                                                                                               New York Times

"In a less complex film, Monroe (the mother's boyfriend who sleeps with the heroine) would be portrayed as a skeevy creep with no redeeming qualities. But Peter SkarsgĂ„ard, a tremendously appealing actor, destabilizes that by bringing a sweetness to Monroe, and an almost childlike dissatisfaction with his life, all of which gets focused on the eager Minnie who latches onto him like a barnacle. The relationship is, of course, hugely imbalanced, manipulative on both sides, and emotionally explosive. Monroe's behavior is, indeed, gross. For Minnie, the revelation that someone desires her almost literally blows her mind." 
                                                                                                               Sheila O'Malley

 "What’s shocking and refreshing about 'Diary of a Teenage Girl' is that it judges all its characters equally and on their actions, refusing to moralize while still allowing Minnie to find her own moral compass. It’s a long process, appalling and touching and, at times, refreshingly raunchy. Heller acknowledges the double helix of desire — of body and soul — that drives her heroine. 'Someone wants me,' Minnie marvels while the affair with Monroe is still fresh. 'Someone wants to have sex. With me.'"
                                                                                                                         Ty Burr
                                                                                                                 Boston Globe

The Author

Phoebe Gloeckner wrote the "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" book and based it on her own youth.  She now is a professional artist with daughters of her own.  

When the film was released, she was interviewed by Whitney Joiner for  Gloeckner acknowledged that her book and the movie have very different themes.  A couple of her comments:

"I had two books, "A Child's Life" and "Diary".  The first one suggests Minnie's background more, and it is not happy.  She's always a child amongst adults, but treated in an adult way and never really feels love.  Maybe that is not expressed in the film.  You kind of don't want to understand where her hypersexuality comes from.  And I'm afraid that it suggests that all teenage girls are hypersexual and will respond at the drop of a pin to you know, anybody doing anything."

"The reviews describe a celebration of adolescent female sexuality. She knows what she wants, so she goes after it. But the thing is, Minnie was quite a virgin and had never even kissed anyone at that point. Maybe it had to be that way, or else she would have seemed like a victim.
    "And it has a really happy ending. It’s implied that she’s getting along with her mother. I think in films you have to have that happy ending or audiences are upset."

Observations -- Book

I read "The Diary of a Teenage Girl."  Its storyline runs from unusual to deeply creepy, but it is interesting at least for breaking new ground. I cannot recall another first-person narration of a 15-year-old girl's introduction to sex, wild sex, more sex and drug abuse.   So much for those namby-pamby adolescent heroines of days past.   

Readers generally like the book, but I am not sure it is destined to become a staple of the American canon.  

This may be a good thing.  Any literature professor who asked college students to read it would need to spend many weeks compiling a voluminous list of trigger warnings about the scenes therein.  Today's new-Victorian coeds who have found Ovid's "Metamorphoses" disturbing would be shattered by events described on just about every page of this matter-of-fact story. 

Observations -- Movie

"The Diary of a Teenage Girl" film, a story about a 15 year-old-girl, has received an R rating (unfit for viewers under age 17) because of "strong sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, drug use, language and drinking -- all involving teens."  

I saw the movie last week in an early weekday showing.  (I like empty theaters.) I was one of five people in the place, and I was the only woman. 

The other four viewers were middle-aged and older guys, each sitting alone.   Made me wonder if the movie, which reviewers describe as non-prurient and having a feminist girl-power theme, is attracting a different audience than its makers intended. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

Millennials and Cars -- California

Southern California used to be the car capital of the United States.  Mustangs, muscle cars, and sports cars were seen as emblems of youth culture.  The Beach Boys and the Eagles sang songs about driving the California freeways in the 1960s and 1970s.

No more.

The last automotive pop song I can remember is "Pink Cadillac" which was recorded by Bruce Springsteen, who probably never drove such a car himself.  That was in 1998 in New Jersey, where Bruce lives with his family, including, I have read, a dressage riding daughter with an expensive horse.

A couple years ago, Time magazine quoted research from the University of Michigan that "bolsters the idea that younger Americans are much less interested in car ownership than their older siblings, parents and grandparents."  By 2011, Time said, Baby Boomers "were 15 times more likely to purchase new vehicles than young millennials (ages 18 to 24), and even consumers ages 75 and up have been buying cars at higher rates than groups ages 18 to 24 and 25 to 34."

In fact, there are many other expenses competing for the young consumer's dollar -- school loans, expensive apartment rents, gym memberships and wifi/phone packages that can run as high as the monthly lease payment on a car.

I've noticed this in California this summer.  Here are the kinds of cars young people are driving:

Big expensive cars cars -- Mercedes sedans, BMW5s and up, Lexus models and Teslas -- still prowl the streets, but they seem to be piloted by entertainment executives, lawyers and real estate agents who want to project images of wealth and influence.

And of course there are fast, hot two-seater sports cars.  Nowadays, though, most of them seem to be driven by old guys.

The last time I filled up our car, there was a sleek, black Porsche ahead of me.  Two gray-haired guys were in it.  The schlubby-looking driver wore a tee shirt, shorts and a long, gray ponytail.   If you're a young millennial who wants to look cool, buying a car favored by guys like this may not be an aspiration of yours.   

I can think of several other reasons for these changes in the tastes of younger drivers:

     -- Everyone has an Uber account.  Depending on your location and where you work 
         (especially San Francisco), it's much cheaper to take public transit or Uber than to
         buy and park a car.

     -- Young men who in the past might have grown up working on their dad's cars 
        or their own fixer-uppers are more likely now to be building social media
        platforms.  Plus, most newer cars have so many electronic elements (that cannot
        be fixed but only replaced) that they can be serviced only at car dealerships.

     -- California gas taxes make driving expensive even in these days of lower oil prices.
         Last I read, the average price here was $3.625 a gallon, more than a dollar over 
         the national average.  In California cities, the prices are higher still.  


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

California Driving

Here is a busy Los Angeles Freeway, the 405, which runs north from the city's west side to the San Fernando Valley and south toward San Diego.  The 405 pretty much functions as a parking lot at all hours, every day of the week.

There is at least one ritual drivers need to understand before attempting to travel on freeways like the 405.  That is how to get on the freeway.

Getting on the Freeway

In less-populated areas, drivers simply drive to a marked on-ramp and enter the freeway.  This never happens in Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, freeway ramps are crowded, and so are the side streets leading to freeway ramps.  

The usual procedure is to get in the line of cars leading to the freeway ramp and inch your way forward.  In many cases, there will be 10 or more cars ahead of you.

As you approach the entry ramp you will notice many cars speeding in the lane beside your line until they get right near freeway entrance, at which point their drivers activate their turn signals and cut into the line.  Almost half of all cars enter Los Angeles freeways in this manner.

(The same thing happens as you approach a freeway exit.  Your long line to the off-ramp will be cut repeatedly by important drivers who don't have as much time to wait as you do.  This will make exiting the freeway take twice as you think it will.)

I read once that this long-line-plus-cut-in business makes freeways more efficient.  That may be so, but it's annoying to say the least.  It also may explain why LA laws forbid loaded guns in the passenger compartments of vehicles. 

HOV Lanes

California's traffic wizards originated the idea of encouraging people to double up when traveling by setting aside HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes on the far left lanes of freeways for cars carrying two or more two or more passengers.  The plan was to reduce the number of cars on the road.  Here is the concept.

This innovation has been copied in other states and Canada. You may have seen HOV lanes on freeways in your state.  

Last weekend the Significant Other and I took the 405 freeway/parking lot south to visit friends in San Diego.  Since there were two of us, we took advantage of the HOV lane.  Here is how it looked.  

As was the case on our drive, the HOV lane on the far left of the freeway was in many spots more crowded than the other lanes.  Hmm.

(Now legislators are talking about further initiatives to reduce traffic.  These include more busses, more trains, more HOV lanes, more access to HOV lanes for fuel-sipping cars and the like.  We'll see how that works.)

City Streets

In California it is legal to make a right turn after stopping at a red traffic signal.  You are not required to sit at the light until the signal turns green.

People from the East, where turning right on red is almost universally banned, are intrigued and then charmed by this opportunity.  Until they learn to act on it, however, they are harassed by multiple honking horns from the cars behind them.

California is also the home of the California stop.  When a California driver reaches a stop sign, the usual procedure is to slow down, then drive past the sign.  I first made a California stop in my teen years when I had a learner's permit and was driving with my father.  Unfortunately this happened in the state of Oregon.  This earned me my first traffic violation. 


Los Angeles for many years was famed -- or perhaps defamed -- for its enforcement of pedestrian crossing laws.  If you crossed an empty street against the light or not in a marked crosswalk, you got a ticket. 

For a few years in the early part of this century, the police department lightened up on this enforcement, to the delight of jaywalking New Yorkers in town for visits.  (Jaywalking is a public sport in eastern states.)

Recently, I read that the LAPD has returned to its old ways.  Since a jaywalking ticket can set a pedestrian back $200, it's probably just as well to cross streets when the light says you can.

Another interesting thing -- very different from East Coast practices anyway -- is that Los Angeles drivers stop for pedestrians.  When a walker steps a foot off a curb, all the cars in both directions come to a stop and wait until the pedestrian crosses the road.  Even people who are not infirm old ladies or unattended children get this deference.  

Visitors from New York are always surprised by this, which happens only rarely there.  In fact, New York City drivers, especially taxi drivers, seem to have adopted the California stop with unfortunate results; more than half the traffic deaths in the city are of pedestrians hit by cars.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Pay Your Damn Taxes

Yesterday I went to a farmer's market.  After buying tomatoes, peaches, Brussels sprouts and figs, I found a sun hat that I liked and asked the vendor whether I could pay for it with my credit card.

"If you pay cash, it'll cost $25," she said.  "But I'll have to charge you sales tax if you pay by credit card."

"Let's do this legally," I said.  

The sales tax in our California town is a ridiculous 9.5 percent.  I don't like paying it, but I'm not willing to collaborate in fraud to save money.

More and more these days, though, I feel like a sucker.


Here are some of the people and businesses that have asked me to be paid in cash for goods and services in recent years:

Golf pros
A religious tutor
An optometrist
Manicure shops
Car repair shops
A driveway coating service
Several house cleaners

I'm sure there are others that I'm forgetting; the phenomenon has become so common that I've lost track.

In our family, we have a deal.  We pay all our taxes, including the ones we don't like.  We expect people who do business with us to do the same thing.  And now we tell them so.


Nobody has any idea how big the underground economy is in this country.  Some researchers think it doubled, from $1 trillion to $2 trillion, between the beginning of the Great Recession and the end of the 2012 fiscal year.  

There are interesting data points that suggest that under-the-table activity has been increasing.  One is that the amount of cash (dollar bills and the like) in circulation grew by 50 percent between 2007 and 2012, much faster than inflation and counter to an assumed trend that credit cards were fast replacing cash in daily transactions. Another is that consumer spending has increased even in periods where official job growth has been nil or very low.  

If the underground economy held flat at $2 trillion from 2012 to 2014 (and my guess is that it actually grew), taxes collected would have increased by an estimated $400 billion to $500 billion.  The 2014 federal deficit, $485 billion, might have been a surplus instead.   

So we're talking real money here. 


People working in the underground economy include immigrants without papers, people who "can't afford" to pay their taxes and people on disability looking for income that won't disqualify them from receiving benefits.  And then there are the small contractors who quote one price for on-the-books work and a lower price if payment comes in a check made out to "cash."

You can understand why people would do this.  Taxes take a big bite out paychecks now.  If you are self-employed, 15.3 percent of what you make goes straight to Social Security and Medicare contributions.  In California, state income taxes kick in at 8 percent around $40,000 and 9.3 percent at $50,000.  Then there are federal taxes.  

Plus, if you keep your reported income at a low level, you become eligible for health insurance subsidies and earned income tax credits.  (Between 22 percent and 40 percent of EITC payments are estimated to be sent to people committing fraud, which over time is likely to weaken support for a program that intuitively seems like a pretty good idea.)

It also is probable that employers who pay workers in cash -- who cut corners -- may not be highly ethical.  If you get injured on the job, there will be no workers comp insurance to cover you until you can go back to work.  If the employer decides not to pay you his or her promised wage, you won't have legal recourse to collect the money you are owed.  


People tend to get defensive and rationalize unscrupulous behavior.  

In cases where they don't want to pay taxes or child support payments, they claim poverty. Times are hard when money is short, I know, but I reported every single dollar of my free-lance income during years when I was an underpaid ink-stained wretch.  My sympathy is limited.

I have even less patience for people who hire workers under the table.  Several years ago, one of the wealthiest women I know recommended a contractor to me.  When he insisted on being paid with checks made out to cash, I told him no and called her back to ask what she had been thinking.

"Well, I pay my housekeeper under the table," she said.  That seemed to be the extent of her reasoning.  I ended the call.

Later I wished I had pointed out that her family certainly had an accountant who could have drawn up the necessary tax forms.  It easily could have paid both sides of the housekeeper's payroll taxes to give the woman Social Security in her retirement.  Heck, this family could have provided the woman with health insurance and not missed the money.  

But no; cheating was easier.


Friday, August 14, 2015

Compton, Movie and City

The hottest movie release this weekend is "Straight Outta Compton," a musical biopic of the group N.W.A. -- Niggas Wit Attitudes -- and named for NWA's 1988 breakout album.  The album moved the epicenter of hip hop from its New York roots to the West Coast and established gangsta rap as the sound of its moment.

The themes of the album remain current: inner-city violence, black anger and minority alienation from the broader culture.  One famous song is "Fuck tha Police." 

Almost two generations have grown up listening to rap, a subset of the broader hip hop movement, and so the potential "Compton" audience is expected to be large enough to make the film this weekend's box office winner.  (It doesn't hurt that the other major release, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.", is a reboot of a long-forgotten television program from the 1970s.)

Universal Studios has promoted the hell out of "Compton" and is footing the bill for extra security at its screenings.  Reviews are generally very positive, but California critics who know something about rap and Compton are a teensy bit less effusive.  Some samples: 

      "Alternately riveting and wearying, up-to-the-minute relevant as well as self-
      mythologizingly self-indulgent — as much of a heroic origins story as anything 
      out of the Marvel factory — 'Straight Outta Compton' ends up juggling more 
      story lines and moods than it can handle."
                                                                         Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times 

      "A conventional music-world biopic in outline, but intensely human and 
      personal in its characterizations and attention to detail, director F. Gary Gray’s 
      movie is a feast for hip-hop connoisseurs and novices alike as it charts the West 
      Coast rap superstars’ meteoric rise, fractious in-fighting and discovery that the 
      music business can be as savage as the inner-city streets."
                                                                                           Scott Foundas, Variety

      "By the time Tupac and Snoop bop past in seconds-long cameos, it's clear 
      that 'Straight Outta Compton' is at once too padded and too thin.  It's as if the 
      story of these real-life legends was so unruly and dangerous that the 
      filmmakers became the cops, forcing it into submission." 
                                                                                    Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly

      "But the sheer force of "Straight Outta Compton" steamrolls its flaws. Director Gray, 
      who is from Compton and made a name for himself directing some of hip-hop's 
      best music videos, has given us a movie that feels honest and urgent. Yes, 'Compton' 
      is told from the point of view of those who come out looking the best in the end. 
      But even if it is a somewhat one-sided story, it is still a vital one that's well-told."
                                                                       Tony Hicks, San Jose Mercury News

Black Musicians and Biopics

The rich vein of African American struggle has been paired with the achievements of major black musicians in some pretty good movies.  The first of these, "Lady Sings the Blues", starred Diana Ross as Billie Holliday and was a big hit in 1972.  The pace of releases picked up in the late 1980s.

"Bird", a 1988 Charlie Parker biopic by jazz fan Clint Eastwood, was well reviewed even if it did not sell tickets in huge numbers.

In 1993, Ike and Tina Turner's personal problems and musical triumphs were the focuses of "What's Love Got to Do with It".

"Ray," a 2004 bio of the legendary Ray Charles," was actor Jamie Foxx's own star turn.

Rap star Notorious B.I.G., ne Christopher Wallace, who was shot dead in 1997, was the subject of "Notorious" in 2009. 

Compton, Then and Now

Compton is a city of about 96,000 residents located on 10 square miles in the southern part of Los Angeles County.

When the "Straight Outta Compton" album was released, the city was was majority African American, and it was regarded as one of the most violent in the country. Today the population has shifted.  Compton now is two-thirds to three-quarters Hispanic (estimates vary), but it still is a dangerous place.

Official statistics show a crescendo and then small decline in crime beginning 35 years ago.  

                                        Murder/                                Violent
                                      Manslaughter                       Crime Total
                     1980                56                                     2,192

                     1985                57                                     2,532

                     1990                82                                     3,143

                     1995                79                                     1,525

Murder rates have continued to decline, but Compton remains far more dangerous than most cities. 

Virtually all the victims are shot to death.  

Aggravating the situation is the sad fact that most of Compton's homicides -- 59 percent on average in recent years -- are not "closed."  There are seldom legal consequences for murder.

Investigating detectives have said their work often is frustrated by the longstanding local culture, a code of silence that makes it hard to identify and prosecute murderers. 

 "It’s one of those frustrating cases out of Compton; it’s the same in South L.A.,” a detective told a reporter in an interview about a killing earlier this year. “You don’t get a lot of cooperation. Nobody talks to the cops. My partner and I walked up and down the street, around the corner, trying to drum up information, leaving fliers.  Nothing.”

Still, there are reasons for hope.  The city's old, ineffective and possibly corrupt government was shaken up in 2012 with the election of Aja Brown, who holds two degrees in governance and urban policy. She has set high goals for her hometown, suggesting recently that if Brooklyn, NY could make a comeback, surely Compton could do the same.

Compton was teetering toward bankruptcy before Brown's election, but her first budget resulted in a surplus and the city has begun to pay down debts.  An e-commerce project that includes jobs and training programs is planned.  Property values have increased, based at least in part on Compton's proximity to LA's burgeoning downtown and Los Angeles International Airport.

And Brown has recruited Dr. Dre, one of musicians profiled in the new movie and a very wealthy man since the sale of his headphone company, Beats by Dre, to Apple for $3 billion. Dre, like Compton, has a past he prefers to forget -- specifically the brutal beating of a female journalist that did not make it into the film, or at least into its final cut. 

But he remembers his roots.  He has pledged to donate the profits from his new album, ("Compton"), to arts programs for children in the city that launched him.