A Quick Billion Dollars For The Avengers

It’s obvious that The Avengers has struck a chord with me, and with movie audiences generally.  Only three weeks after its release, it has racked up an impressive $1 billion in box-office receipts.

Imagine — $1 billion.  Even by today’s standards, that is a huge amount of money.  What is it about this  movie that has made it so appealing to so many people?  (Russell, who is here for an all-too-brief short visit, is going to see it tonight, and I’m betting he’ll enjoy himself, too.)

It’s important not to overthink these things.  The Avengers is a very good summer movie.  There will always be an audience for movies that feature good-looking women and men in skin-tight suits.  There are worse things than watching Scarlett Johannson fight bad guys in a sleek black outfit.  And there also will always be people who want to see bad guys beaten by heroes, and do so through some impressive explosions and serious ass-kicking.  When the Hulk gets to throw around a stuffed shirt evil god like a rag doll, you can’t help but cheer.

I also think, though, that the success of escapist fare — which is what The Avengers is — often turns on the mood of the general populace.  Things are tough right now.  In Europe, governments are toppling and currencies are failing.  In America, the recession lingers, and lingers.  Unresolved threats can be found on just about every continent.  In short, the world is especially fertile territory for an escapist film right now.  We’d all rather watch Iron Man save the world through one selfless act than focus on those long-term problems that never seem to get solved.

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California On The Brink

California is teetering on the precipice.  Yesterday Governor Jerry Brown said the state is facing a $16 billion budget deficit.  He proposed some spending cuts to make up the shortfall and asked voters to vote to raise taxes, “temporarily.”

If I were a California voter, I’d be a bit skeptical of Brown’s budget figures.  He forecast a $9.2 billion deficit in January; only four months later that amount has nearly doubled.  His budget also assumes economic growth, a sharp increase in new home construction, and $1.5 billion from Facebook’s initial public offering.  The Governor’s budget also counts on the use of one-time funds, and assumes that he will be able to convince state employee unions to accept a reduced workweek and that he will be able to convince the Democrats in the California state legislature to cut spending on social services.  Notably, Governor Brown also refuses to cut spending on a high-speed rail program.

In short, it’s the by-now-familiar scenario where voters are asked to approve “temporary” increases to the sales tax and income tax on the promise of cuts that never quite materialize.  Brown’s budget contemplates spending $91.4 billion.  Can’t California assign priorities and just cut those programs at the bottom of that priority list?  Rather than relying on phony promises of reduced workweeks and percentage cuts, or overly optimistic growth forecasts, how about making tough decisions and ending programs altogether?  How about firing employees, rather than negotiating to trim their workweek?  How about cutting the dreamy high-speed rail program in the face of budget realities?

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece contrasting how New Jersey Governor Chris Christie dealt the deficit he inherited with Brown’s approach.  Christie ended a high-speed rail program as an unaffordable luxury.  Christie vetoed tax increases as economically suicidal.  Christie was able to close New Jersey’s budget deficit without raising taxes.  Why can’t California make similarly tough decisions?

That Failed Drive-Thru Dry Cleaner Concept

Recently Kish asked me to stop by the dry cleaners to pick up some clothing.  “Just go to the drive-thru window,” she added helpfully.

Eh?  A drive-thru dry cleaners?  Intrigued, I drove to the side of the dry cleaner shop, where there was an open door rather than a drive-thru window.  I summoned the clerk, gave her our name, and then watched for minutes as she moved the moving hanger line around for several loops, looking for our clothing.  It was vaguely embarrassing to see into the rear of the store as she searched, like looking through an open door into a stranger’s kitchen and seeing them eating at their table.  After she found our clothing, the clerk came back over to the open door and handed me the hangers.

At that point I realized that the drive-thru concept really didn’t work.  Unlike a bag of burgers or a Coke, clothes on hangers aren’t easily passed through the driver’s side window.  You have to wrangle the hangers through, dragging the clothes against the side of the car.  And once they are inside, what do you do?  Leave them bunched up in your lap?  Toss them into the passenger seat?  From a sitting position in the driver’s seat, only a contortionist could reach around and hang them on the hooks above the back seat windows.  So, I had to open the door, clumsily get out with the clothes — which, of course, defeats the entire purpose of a drive-thru — and hang them properly.  The lady watched my fumbling performance, probably chuckling inwardly at a show she’s seen over and over again.

Are Americans really so lazy that we demand that a drive-thru option be available for every imaginable consumer business?  Here are two simple rules that should be applied to determine whether a drive-thru concept is well-suited to the business.  First, does the business sell a product that can be delivered comfortably through a driver’s side window?  Second, can a reasonably coordinated driver do something with the product without ruining it?

I’m hoping these two simple rules prevent doomed yet irritating business ideas like drive-thru haircuts, drive-thru tailors, and drive-thru wedding cake bakeries.