Monday, October 28, 2013

The Legacy of Lou Reed

Alas, over the next decade we will probably lose many of the remaining important figures in rock ‘n’ roll from the 1960s and early 1970s, with today seeing the passing of singer, guitarist, and songwriter Lou Reed, solo artist and former member of the Velvet Underground. Reed was well-known for his songs portraying street life, most often in his hometown of New York City, as well as his ability to switch from droning, feedback-ridden guitar playing to tender ballads.

One could argue that the Velvet Underground are the ‘consensus’ greatest band in the history of American rock ‘n’ roll*, or at least the most influential. I don’t have the inclination to draw a Jack Black-style family tree to test that claim, but I will note that the most important tendencies in the Velvets’ music have become general tendencies in American alternative or underground rock over the past 40 years – though of course there are exceptions. First, American alternative rock has tended to be quite literate, even if the lyrics have often not been as straightforward as Reed’s ‘short story’ approach. Second, the Velvet Underground’s use of both heavy, droning noise and simple 1950s pop structures are pretty much the main tendencies informing American indie music even today. Third, another of Reed’s main contribution was to, as Andy Warhol requested, leave the ‘dirty words’ in, showing the darker aspects of the sex ‘n’ drugs lifestyle. Three-chord rock would likely still be fairly common without Lou Reed, but it would probably be a whole lot cleaner.

I’m not as across Lou Reed’s solo work – in part, because there is so much more of it – with ‘Transformer’, ‘Berlin’, ‘Songs for Drella’, and some of his more well-known tracks (such as ‘Coney Island Baby’) forming the majority of my knowledge of that part of his career. From what I have heard, it is in large part an extension of his VU-stuff, which is not to say that it is unoriginal, but that he was able to establish a definite style that served him well throughout his career. I’ll have to go back and listen to more of it, as I imagine many people will over the next several weeks.

But even from what I have heard there are so many great songs – ‘Heroin’, ‘What Goes On’, ‘Oh! Sweet Nuthin’’, ‘Vicious’, ‘Street Hassle’, ‘Perfect Day’ and so on … Lou Reed’s music may have been far blacker than the Beatles or the Beach Boys, but in its own way, it possibly brought as much joy to those who appreciated it.

*In the 1990s it looked like Velvets-fans R.E.M. might grab that title, but critical favour seems to have shifted away from them over the past fifteen years. Somewhat perversely, if they had stopped making records after ‘Automatic For The People’ they probably would have taken the top spot.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Predictions for the 2013-14 NBA Season

Given that I got almost every single NBA prediction wrong last year, severely overestimating the voting influence of the New York media, you’d think I would give this a miss this season. But there were three important things I got right: the two Conference champions (Miami and San Antonio), and the eventual NBA champion (Miami). And that has given me enough encouragement to try again. So here are some more hoops predictions to laugh at during April 2014:

MVP: Yes, I picked against LeBron James last season. I thought New York’s improvement last season – which incidentally, did happen - would be enough to get the media behind Carmelo Anthony, even if he didn’t deserve it. In fairness, I did say LeBron would have the better season, and Carmelo actually did end up getting the one vote that didn’t go to James for the exact reason I thought he would get the majority of votes.

So surely I’ve learnt my lesson, and will back the best player on the planet this season, right? Not so fast. I think the Heat might take a backward step this season, and voter fatigue for James must surely soon set in. I’m actually going to pick LA Clippers point guard Chris Paul to take home the trophy. The Clippers won a lot of games last season, and I think they’ll win over 60 games this season, which given this is the Clippers is almost barely conceivable. And I think that will swing voters Paul’s way. Plus, it would really annoy Lakers fans, which is another reason for wanting it to happen.

All-NBA Teams: 1st – Paul, James Harden (Houston), James, Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City), Dwight Howard (Houston); 2nd – Derrick Rose (Chicago) , Kyrie Irving (Cleveland), Blake Griffin (LA Clippers), Kevin Love (Minnesota), Marc Gasol (Memphis); 3rd – Paul George (Indiana), Tony Parker (San Antonio), Carmelo Anthony (New York), Greg Monroe (Detroit), Joakim Noah (Chicago).

All-Star Teams: East – Rose, Dwyane Wade (Miami), James, Anthony, Noah (starters), George, Monroe, Irving, Al Horford (Atlanta), Chris Bosh (Miami), Luol Deng (Chicago), Josh Smith (Detroit); West: Paul, Kobe Bryant (LA Lakers), Durant, Griffin, Howard (starters), Love, Parker, Gasol, Stephen Curry (Golden State), Anthony Davis (New Orleans), Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas), Mike Conley (Memphis).

Most Improved Player: Oh, I don’t know … let’s go for Andre Drummond (Detroit), because he’s awesome and he should get an increase in minutes.

Sixth Man of Year: Jarrett Jack (Cleveland).

Defensive Player of the Year: Howard. The Houston Rockets are going to kill it this year.

Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers (LA Clippers)

Western Conference Champion: Houston.

Eastern Conference Champion: Miami. Meaning that, if I’m right, the Finals will feature both LeBron and Dwight Howard, and the internet will explode.

Champion: I actually think Houston will do it, with Howard winning Finals MVP. Or maybe I just want Lakers fans to have the worst season ever.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Recent Structural Changes in Employment in Australia

This month the Productivity Commission released a report (or more accurately, a supplement to its annual report) on ‘structural change’ in Australia’s economy over the past decade. The phenomenon of structural change has gotten some more notice here over the past few years, particularly from the Reserve Bank of Australia, with production in Australia shifting towards the mining industry.

But why do we care? Well, as the Commission’s report says there are benefits and costs to us from this type of change. On the plus side, resources should be flowing towards the areas of the economy where they are of highest use, therefore raising the value of what Australia produces. This includes workers moving to where they are of highest use, although this concept is often not all that palatable given the human element involved. Which brings us to the costs of structural change – there are costs from moving resources around, including workers, and some of these will find themselves unemployed, at least in the short-term.

Of course changes like this go on constantly, so by structural change we mean something bigger and more lasting than, say, a local clothes shop closing down, as much as that might initially suck for the shop’s owner and staff. Without having an exact definition, we can think of it as something like, for example, one sector increasing its share of Australia’s economic activity by 5 percentage points over several years, while another contracts by the same amount. The RBA showed a few years back, using ‘structural change indices’, that the rate of structural change appeared to have increased in recent years, although by how much depends on which economic variable you look at (i.e. output, employment or investment), and there had been increases of similar magnitude before.

In terms of employment, the Productivity Commission report shows that the recent boom in natural resources in Australia ‘has not been associated with an unprecedented rate of structural change in employment’ (p. 69). Employment has shifted from agriculture and manufacturing towards mining, and also the services sector, which is perhaps less well-known given that you do not tend to hear about a ‘services boom’ in Australia. These trends though have been going on for some time, as the Commission’s report illustrates, and some of them are not unique to Australia – the shift from manufacturing to services for example is common among the most-developed countries. Some of these service jobs will be in relatively low-paying sectors such as retail and hospitality, but others will be in relatively high-paying sectors such as professional services.

Across states, the Commission's report shows that the redistribution of employment is also not at an unprecedented level. The redistribution of employment across states is typically lower than that across sectors; which is interesting, and may or may not be surprising depending on whether you think people are more likely to move from manufacturing to services than from, say, Victoria to Queensland. The report concludes there is evidence that disparities in unemployment across regions have decreased during the 2000s (though they widened slightly between 2008 and 2012).

The report has quite a large section on recent trends in labour adjustments and mobility. Essentially, these trends are what you would expect given the shifts in overall employment between sectors – e.g. manufacturing is attracting fewer new workers.

Articles and reports on structural change in Australia often seem like they should come with a ‘DON’T PANIC’ sticker on them. The RBA said earlier this year that monetary policy cannot and should not prevent structural change from occurring. The Productivity Commission report gives much the same impression of inevitability. This is not to say that such change should be blindly accepted, but that the relative rise and fall of various sectors has happened before, and will happen again.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Effects of the Australian Fair Pay Commission’s ‘Two-Tiered’ Minimum Wage Decisions

In its 2006 and 2007 minimum wage decisions, the Australian Fair Pay Commission decided upon a ‘two-tiered’ increase to minimum rates of pay in Australia’s federal industrial relations system. Workers on minimum rates of pay earning the equivalent of up to $700 per week received a higher increase in their wages than workers on minimum rates of pay earning the equivalent of more than $700 per week.

In the AFPC’s view, such a decision recognised that low-paid workers are less able than higher-paid workers to bargain for a higher wage than the minimum rate, and therefore are more reliant on increases in minimum rates of pay (see its 2006 reasons for its decision). The AFPC believed that higher-paid employees should be encouraged to move off minimum rates of pay bargain for higher rates.

Note that the AFPC’s predecessor, the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, also awarded two-tiered increases on occasion and it had a consistent practice of awarding flat dollar increases, which are less beneficial to higher-paid employees in terms of maintaining their wages after inflation. Its successor in terms of setting minimum wages, Fair Work Australia/Fair Work Commission, has decided upon percentage increases to minimum rates of pay over the past few years, in order to halt the significant downward trend in the relativities between the lower minimum rates of pay (which typically apply to the lowest skilled labour) and the higher minimum rates of pay (which typically apply to higher skilled labour).

But getting back to the AFPC: did its decision ‘work’, in terms of encouraging bargaining? There isn’t really all that much evidence either way in that regard. One point in favour is that data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Employee Earnings and Hours survey showed that the percentage of employees who are reliant on minimum rates of pay continued to decrease from 19.0 per cent in May 2006 to 15.2 per cent in May 2010. It has since increased again to 16.1 per cent in May 2012. Therefore, the AFPC’s ‘two-tiered’ decisions were associated with an increase in the percentage of Australia’s workforce that was receiving more than minimum rates of pay.

Looking through the distributions of earnings for employees on minimum rates of pay* though, there is a bit of further support that the AFPC’s decisions may have encouraged higher-paid employees to move off award rates of pay. The (biannual) Employee Earnings and Hours survey release has the distribution of weekly earnings for full-time adult employees earning minimum rates of pay, from which we can track this distribution over time (see graph below). As time goes on, and minimum rates of pay are raised, a higher percentage of employees should be found at the higher end of the distribution. We certainly see this from 2000 to 2006, and again from 2010 to 2012. But from 2006 to 2010, the percentage of minimum wage employees earning more than $1000 per week did not increase by much at all. Further, although it is not shown in the graph below, the percentage of employees on minimum rates earning more than $1000 per week actually decreased from 2006 to 2008.

One should be cautious about drawing too much from this: the sample sizes would not be that large, and there could be other factors influencing the distribution (maybe higher-paid employees on minimum rates did not bargain for higher rates but withdrew from the workforce completely). Also, we still saw a bit of an increase in the percentage of adult employees on minimum rates earning between $700 and $900 per week.  Note too that a fair chunk of employees on minimum rates are part-time employees, and these are not included in the above graph.

But what we observe — without knowing the full reasons behind this pattern — is broadly consistent with what the AFPC was trying to achieve through its two-tiered wage increases. Though given that FWC looks like it will maintain the relativities between different minimum rates of pay going forward, perhaps that is the last period for which we will observe this type of pattern for some time.

*I was looking at this as part of a larger article I am drafting (not necessarily for this blog) on the effects of recent minimum wage decisions in Australia, which is how this post originated.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

BEER!![10] – Mountain Goat Brewery Beers

Name: The Mountain Goat Brewery tasting paddle: Hightail Ale, India Pale Ale, Summer Ale, Naz Mocha Porter.

Brewery: Mountain Goat.

Place Of Origin: North Road, Richmond, VIC.

Type: Hightail: amber ale; India Pale Ale: India pale ale; Summer Ale: session ale; Naz Mocha Porter: porter.

Alcohol Content: Hightail: 4.5%; India Pale Ale: 6.2%; Summer Ale: 4.7%; Naz Mocha Porter: 5.2%.

Why I Bought It: Because breweries and paddles go together like paddles and pops. Turns out though it was only just over ten bucks for the four beers though, which I thought was a pretty good deal.

Taste: In order of which I drank them: fruity, light, dark, mochaportery.

What I did while drinking it: Shared my concern with my fellow drinkers that my hair was not growing back as fast as it usually does after my most recent haircut. I then felt somewhat better by looking around the brewery, and seeing the shining lights of hairlines receding at much faster rates than mine.

What I did after drinking it: I was quite glad this was one brewery within stumbling distance of where I was going.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 67

MUSIC: Bo Diddley’s guide to surviving life.

Image: youtube
SPORTS: Adults stealing baseball from kids. Evil.

BOOKS: Tim Harford on the effects of online reviews.

MUSIC: Are Kings of Leon Pitchfork’s most disliked band? See the evidence here, here, here, here, and here.

MUSIC: And talking about Pitchfork, what was with this review? (The review itself, not necessarily the rating.)

MUSIC: And this one?

MUSIC: And this one too? (Don’t bother reading all the way through these.)

MUSIC: And this one? It’s like the reviewer, like me, didn’t know what on earth At The Drive In were actually on about, and tried to hide that fact.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Wooden Finger Five: October 2013

London Grammar sound so much like another particular London band that their albums should come with an ‘X’ on the cover (the xx, for those who don’t recognise the allusion). ‘Strong’ is the (ahem) strongest track off their first album. Singer Hannah Reid’s voice might be reminiscent of a thousand X-Factor contestants, but the way she delivers the line ‘I’ve never been so wrong’ hints at a wellspring of regret that most of those other kiddies can only dream of expressing.

2.    AM (album) – Arctic Monkeys

The Monkeys’ new album got a rare, but not wholly unexpected, 10/10 from New Musical Express. It’s not quite that good, but it’s my favourite album by the band so far, with the possible exception of their previous album, ‘Suck It And See’. I always thought the early Arctic Monkeys albums were a bit overrated, and I think they’ve been a better band ever since their stint with Josh Homme as producer. Even post-Homme, there’s a heavier Queens of the Stone Age-like edge to their sound now, rather than them coming across like a bunch of teenage boys shouting out the clever lyrics they scribbled down at the pub.

Eric Clapton had ‘Layla’, the Kinks had ‘Lola’, Oasis had ‘Lyla’, and the Maccabees continue to show what the best syllable is in the pop language (except for maybe ‘na’ and ‘yeah’). Coming from their album ‘Given To The Wild’, this track makes me think of a camera racing across blue sky and open plains. For others it might make them think of ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’ books.

It was hard to pick where the Arcade Fire might go after ‘The Suburbs’ – this track manages to seem like a natural progression and a sharp left turn at the same time. It grooves along for over seven and a half minutes, not really shifting around that much, but it still might well be the most compelling Arcade Fire track since ‘Rebellion (Lies)’. David Bowie does backing vocals and Regine Chassagne sings in French, adding to ‘Reflektor’s’ THIS IS IMPORTANT! Factor.    
Sugar are kind of the forgotten group of early ‘90s US alternative rock, in part because they were spawned out of mid ‘80s US alternative rock, with leader Bob Mould previously having been part of Husker Du. Their album ‘Copper Blue’ though is as good as anything produced by younger similar bands of the period. Think a more accomplished Urge Overkill, or a less manic Frank Black. ‘Hoover Dam’ veers more towards ‘arena rock’ than some of Sugar’s other output, but does it brilliantly.