Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Other Dropout

Obviously, the big domestic news is Dede Scozzafava dropping out of the NY-23 race. The early, basic read this is: what a victory for the right-wing. That’s true, as far as the basics go. But a lot of people seem to be subscribing to this position: “Of course, the fate of one congressional district that Republicans have held for more than a century might be less meaningful, in the long run, than the victory conservative activists have scored over their party’s establishment.”

But I don’t think it’s quite true that the establishment really got behind Scozzafava. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney both got behind Scozzafava, but they’re not really establishment, more outliers and oddballs. The NRCC and RNC backed Scozzafava, but of course they did—if they dropped Scozzafava, what a damaging admission to the party’s reputation that would be: any recruited candidate would have to look askance at their promises. So the support for Scozzafava was extremely weak, especially when compared to this list.

Contrast that to the last major primary challenge that the Democrats had—Sen. Joe Lieberman—which the activists achieved only a temporary victory over Joe, due at least in part to support and/or benign neglect from the party establishment, and you have to come to the conclusion that the Republican Party is extraordinarily responsive to its base. They’ve apparently decided to embrace the flight forward strategy, to ignore their internal contradictions and to take a holiday from history.

More linkeage

The New York Times has a story about problems with Paris’s bike-sharing program, Velib’. I loved Velib’ so, when I was in Paris, so it’s a real shame to see it running into problems. It’s also quite strange, I think, because central Paris is not, in general, a particularly crime-ridden region. I’m not sure I buy the explanations given in the article, however.

Alyssa Rosenberg lodges her complaints against the biopic. Here’s the key point: “Simply because people are or were famous, simply because they produced interesting work, doesn't mean they are themselves inherently fascinating.” I’d extend that: just because someone is inherently interesting doesn’t mean that every period of that person’s life is interesting—certainly Napoleon: The Early Years would not be particularly intriguing. Makers of biopics should also avoid musicians, particularly, since good actors aren’t necessarily good singers, and any biopic of a musician that neglects music will likely fail; makers of biopics should also avoid facilely political films (I haven’t seen Milk, and everyone whose taste I trust likes it, so I assume I would too, but that kind of subject can easily turn into Crash or Lions for Lambs…or whatever that Robert Redford dreck was called, at least in the wrong hands. But remember this: in the right hands, there are no indefensible artistic choices.)

More financial reform stuff: Geithner makes dubious claims about his reform (he claims he doesn’t want bailout authority, which is bs), while Brad Sherman makes some cogent points about the Treasury bill. The bill will greatly increase the power of the unelected technocrats, and their record in this whole mess is at best ambiguous.

Last, Chinese authors join in the anti-Google Books mess. Perhaps it’s time for Larry Page to learn to write Chinese (so that he might write into the People’s Daily?).

Dropping Out, Election-style

Two big election drop-outs today: Dede Scozzafava, for one, but the bigger is Abdullah Abdullah. Of course his reasoning is sound. Consider this: let’s suppose, hypothetically, that an American politician died and there needed to be a special election to replace that politician. And we’ll suppose that politician died on October 26 (i.e. the day that Karzai agreed to the run-off). Would that election be scheduled for November 7 (i.e. the day that the runoff was supposed to happened)? No, because that would be crazy. First of all, and most basically, it would be too quick a period to organize the election—i.e. polling places, etc. Second, and more morally, it wouldn’t be enough time to do a real campaign. Now, if you can't do it in a stable democracy, what makes you think you can do it in a country with barely any infrastructure, whose last election was marred by fraud (which was the whole point of your having the runoff anyway!)?

Of course it wouldn’t have worked. But it might have lent the Afghan government a modicum of legitimacy. The New York Times has reported that Abdullah’s considering denouncing Karzai. That would be really bad, as opposed to his “bowing out gracefully,” which would be merely bad. Either way, it worsens already bad fundamentals and further calls into question the entire enterprise.

Disliking Basketball

A couple of days ago Tyler Cowen posted a suggestion from a reader on how to make basketball better that bugged me:
Here is my simple thought: games should be played as best 4 out of 7 periods -- perhaps 7 minutes each or perhaps slightly varied period lengths, 6 - 8 minutes long. Maybe the number or usage of timeouts or foul-outs would need to be fiddled with. Maybe playoffs would be slightly different. But that's pretty much it. The best part of a basketball game is almost always the last few minutes, and it seems like the incentives for exciting play would persist more throughly under this design. Teams would need more endurance and deeper benches, but that seems like a good thing. Other than obsoleting old records and the tradition of the game, I can't think of any downside. Maybe marginal cost v. marginal benefit, à la owners/players wouldn't extract much more money from fans but would have to work harder? Maybe the length of games would vary too much for broadcasters to be happy? But still, a *much* more exciting game. [emphasis mine]

What bugs me so much about this complaint is that you hear it so often; a related variation is that players only try hard in the last few minutes of the game. The variation is especially ridiculous, but the first bugs me nevertheless because basketball’s such an entertaining game for me to watch, from minute 1 to minute 48.

Putting aside the merits of the proposal—it’s so radical that it will never get implemented—the spirit in which it’s made is what interests me. Basketball is a rhythm game for me; the enjoyment is in comparing possessions to one another. It’s all in the slight variations that produce big effects. It’s the way one player’s play will rise and fall in conjunction with the rest of his team. The basketball-as-jazz metaphor captures a lot of what’s to love about the game: you have a team, and each member of the team is indispensable, and yet certain members of the team will be featured at certain times, creating an interesting tension between individuality and teamwork. The problem here is that the aesthetics of the game demand a long, sustained attention span. Basketball demands either nearly-total attention, or, conversely, nearly none at all—background noise or attention whereby highlights are picked out for you.

There’s the familiar complaint that the modern world has eroded attention spans that I don’t think is quite accurate, so I’ll leave that aside. People naturally have different attention spans for different products, and most, then, are not equipped to pay close attention to a thing for long periods of time, which is where basketball purists get the biggest awards.

Contrast that to baseball and football. Both of these sports deliver entertainment in quanta: people complain about the time it takes between pitches in baseball and the time between plays in football, but I think that that makes the sport far more digestible for more people. TV also plays a role in making each sport digestible: the standard television view in baseball distorts pitches and doesn’t show defensive alignments, subtleties that are interesting to the purist but possibly confusing to the casual fan. For football, the view is constantly distorted: pre-snap, producers rarely allow adjustments to be seen, and the safeties are usually safely hidden offscreen; post-snap, you rarely see any of the receivers running their routes. So in each of the major two other sports, information is carefully filtered for you, the viewer, to make a more easily enjoyable viewing experience.

Not so basketball. Play is continuous; there are timeouts, granted, but within play the only real breaks are free throws or brief inbounds plays. And here the breaks are so unpredictable that they don’t allow for a mental break—if you take a mental break you might well miss something important. Furthermore, there’s no hidden information: on the majority of plays, all ten players are on screen and their movements aren’t obscured by the camera. It’s a more difficult game to follow: you have the ball, of course, but as any experienced basketball viewer will tell you, most of the important stuff happens off the ball anyway.

Basketball is a sport to be watched by purists, more so than any sport. I think this is the source of many of the erroneous complaints you hear about basketball. There are people who prefer college basketball exclusively to the NBA; people who believe players are lazy, crooks, or criminals; people who mysteriously prefer the NBA of the sixties (they called traveling back then). There’s a lot of golden-age detractors about the NBA. The source of all of these complaints is a mistaken wish for simplicity: college players are simpler, purer than pro players; the past was simpler than the present, and it was a purer age too. Purists (diehards is probably the better term here, come to think of it) know that the simplicity of the sport cannot be separated from the complexity and so they appreciate it all the more. Whether or not this is a sustainable strategy remains to be seen.

Going to the original comment, it’s striking that basketball is perceived to be in a state of constant crisis (in comparison to the simpler age) that leads people to propose goofy things that like seriously. If I proposed that football eliminate kicking, no one would think over the merits despite the fact it’s not an entirely weird proposition. People want to simplify what they don’t understand.

Links for morning

Sadly, Afghanistan continues to produce bad news. The Los Angeles Times notes that Abdullah Abdullah is threatening to boycott the runoff if assurances aren’t made that the election will go well. (Note: on MSNBC, whenever they talk about Afghanistan, one of their foreign correspondents comes on and says something along the lines of “I don’t see any indications that there’s an election going on.” Then, there’s this New York Times article which notes that the election is on “the backs of donkeys,” and includes this confidence-bolstering quotation: “There is very little time,” said Mr. Masood, the top election official in Badakhshan Province. “I have to hire 130 district coordinators by tomorrow.”) Meanwhile, Obama’s meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday was apparently on the subject of whether “sending more forces might affect the health of the military, already strained by eight years of war.” Good question! Wish we’d asked ourselves that one earlier, before the war began to acquire an inexorable momentum.

Meanwhile, the echoes of the financial crisis might well drown out any recovery: there’s going to be a possible injunction against AIG’s California assets (difficult to tell how serious the lawsuit is, though), GMAC wants more bailout funds (despite cash for clunkers!), and there’s going to be a renewed foreclosure crisis. The good news is not so good—yes, GDP growth was 3.5%, but that means little because wages and job growth were nearly nonexistent. John Cassidy calls the recovery “Made in Washington,” but its sources are distinctly dubious: rather than investing in infrastructure and building our capabilities for the future, we decided to rely on cash for clunkers and the artificially low interest rates propping up the housing markets and financial firms (how a financial firm could go broke with the number of subsidies it’s getting these days is beyond me.) Noam Scheiber sums up the dilemma well: “[W]hen people look out and see both an abysmal labor market and a big deficit, it's probably doubly frustrating: The government isn't doing anything to help the average voter find a job (or keep one) and it's piling on debt in the process--must be lining the pockets of special interests or something. But, as Matt says, the source of the anger isn't the deficit; it's the labor market. The deficit only adds insult to injury, and it does you no good to deal with the insult without treating the injury.”

Jack Shafer notes the Politico’s move into the Washington market and suggests that it move into the sports market. That’s a good idea, probably. He includes this intriguing fact: “(In Chicago, the ESPN site already bests the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times' sports sites for unique users, according to Sports Business Journal.)” One market it would behoove ESPN to expand to is the Bay Area. You’ve got a wealthy region, with tons of teams: two NFL, two MLB, two Pac-10, one NHL, one NBA. That’s up there with New York and LA for cumulative number of teams supported. Furthermore, the Bay Area lacks a definitive sports site. The Chronicle’s coverage is good, and the Mercury-News boasts decent bloggers, but neither of them is comprehensive, and worse, none of them is funny. To make good traffic with sports on the Internet, you essentially have to be one of three things: be comprehensive (e.g. TrueHoop), be funny (e.g. Basketbawful or The Blowtorch), or be wonky/nerdy (e.g. Smart Football or FreeDarko). The Bay Area lacks one site that does any of these things, and yet the raw talent is there. Good business opportunity there for one of the big players. (And, with all the layoffs at newspapers, there’s tons of talent available—like Jack Curtis.) Think about it, guys.

Lastly, Daniel Indiviglio does yeoman’s work in dissecting the House Financial Services bill. There’s some good in it but a lot to worry about. Read it through; I dare you not to be worried about increased Federal Reserve power. Given the regulatory morass we've got, I think it's a mistake to trust technocratic rule here--the governmental agencies will be so insulated from popular will and attention that it's difficult to imagine a countervailing force to regulatory capture.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hip-Hop Weirdness

The Root takes time to celebrate Q-Tip’s Kamaal The Abstract. It’s an interesting album, with a ton of jazzy riffs, flights of fancy…and only so-so rapping. Better, of course, is Q-Tip’s more recent album The Renaissance. Nevertheless, as I think the author of the piece mentions, these two albums are representative of a trend change in hip-hop: the weirdness of hip-hop. The article calls out the usual suspects—your Gnarls Barkleys, Andre 3000s, Kanye Wests, et. al—but it leaves out the extent to which weird hip-hop has really captured the mainstream: Drake and Lil Wayne, are the guys I’m thinking of. They…croon their lyrics almost, not quite singing nor quite rap either. Even the Roots crew is getting involved:

The song’s repetitive strumming calls to mind one of those Jack Johnson bro type artists, but it serves as the beat here; it’s extremely effective for me.

As with all trends, this is both positive and negative. I think the new crooning is a sign of cross-pollination: hip-hop is updating and extending the number of genres it’s using as an influence. For all the derision directed at 808s and Heartbreak, I thought Kanye did a great job mixing organic sounds and artificial ones, in a way you don’t hear in a lot of other music.

That’s the positive. The negative is, in a lot of ways, Drake. I enjoy Drake’s music; it’s fun. But his flow isn’t diversified; he raps in exactly one way that, admittedly, serves the particular needs of the moment well. (The Nate Dogg of today?) Lil Wayne is more talented than Drake—lyrically, thoughtfully—but falls into similar traps at time, relying overmuch on his distinctive delivery and not on a diversity of different ideas and flow. You hate to namecheck the greats to insult everyone else, but Nas and Jay-Z in their youth show you how it’s done.

I think the style, by emphasizing the slow, whacked-out flows, loses very little on its first listen, but a lot on subsequent listens, relative to other, older forms of hip-hop. One of the joys of listening to skilled rappers over and over again are the new ways of taking old lyrics; I most recently experienced that with Lupe Fiasco. But, you know, time moves on and the culture doesn’t need to please just me. Sadly.

Google's going back into investment

Maybe the most reliable investor in our infrastructure these days is Google. So it’s good to see them planning on acquiring companies, debuting music search, GPS, voice, etc. Now, as always, you have to debate size, heft and effect: we obviously don’t want Google to own information. I’m particularly ambivalent with Google Books, but of course I’m pro-Google. And its food.

Of particular interest is this: " Ads targeted toward Web-user behavior are of growing interest for Google. Media6Degrees, Lotame, and 33Across all use data obtained from the social relationships of Web users to serve them more relevant ads. For example, Google could use Lotame's technology to help advertisers deliver ads based on interests shared on social network MySpace, owned by News Corp. "There's a lot of interest in this ad optimization world," says Linda Gridley, CEO of New York investment bank Gridley & Co. "Advertisers are demanding better targeting capabilities." Media6Degrees, Lotame, and 33Across all declined to comment on the possibility of a sale." If Google can crack the code of ads...we may see the resurgence of newspapers off of that knowledge. Or they could die as planned.


Buzz Bissinger, purveyor of Internet crankiness, is too often a bore or a curmudgeon without consequence. But unlike, say, Andy Rooney, Buzz makes it up on other occasions: Friday Night Lights is one of the best sports books ever, for example. And he’s nailed it twice recently: on the NBA age limit, and on Philadelphia sports. I will say that his description of Philly reminded me overmuch of Rochester in uncomfortable ways (this may be why I’m quick to defend Philly against the frequent abuse that’s aimed at it)

New York Review of Books contributes a report on our prisons, and the substantial burdens it places on our economy. Particularly striking is this: our increased incarceration rate is “…attributable to increased offending rates, but to increased punitiveness. Being "tough on crime" became a political mandate. State and federal legislatures imposed mandatory minimum sentences; abolished or radically restricted parole; and adopted "three strikes" laws that exact life imprisonment for a third offense, even when the offense is as minor as stealing a slice of pizza. Comparing the ratio of convictions to "index crimes" such as murder, rape, and burglary between 1975 and 1999 reveals that, holding crime constant, the United States became five times more punitive.” I think “holding crime constant” does a lot of work in this paragraph—the fact is that crime was indeed a problem during parts of this period, but certainly our prisons are too big. As the article details, it really drains the capabilities of our people, meaning we have deprived ourselves of so many talents. It reminds me of this McKinsey report that analogizes our difficulties in education to a “permanent recession.”

Tyler Cowen’s reasons why we can’t do cost control in health care is worrying and apt. Here are two that are particularly interesting: “Americans have the "anything I want, whenever I want it" mentality of consumer spending. Look at Sunday closing laws in Europe” and “Tying health insurance to employment makes it harder for people to see what they are really paying and how much it lowers their net wage.” Broadly, Americans have no idea what they’re missing out on with our health care system, and it’s a real failure of messaging that this fact hasn’t been repeated over and over until we’re sick of it: the average American’s health care spending is $1.7 million over his/her lifetime. That’s $1.7 million in lost compensation. We’ve been wondering where the American middle class’s paycheck went over the past business cycle—it went into health care costs. And yet Americans don’t realize this, which is why there was such resistance to managed care during the 90s.

Ben Heineman wisely points out that shareholders are part of the problem; that they focus too much on short-term gains, and that they generally act as silent partners. This, of course, is the problem with compensating executives in stock. The biggest thing that can be done to fix finance is cultural; sadly, no one quite knows how to do that.

Andrew Sullivan ably dissects David Brooks’s most recent column by noting the relevant tenacity is the American public’s. He goes on to note “Obama needs to make a decision not about whether he has the tenacity, but whether the American people and future presidents will be willing to sustain a decades-long occupation of one of the least politically mature cultures in a mountainous and hard-to-reach landscape ... with no guarantee of success even with the largest number of troops now envisaged.” And, indeed, why should the American public have that tenacity? Not only are the benefits uncertain, but so too are the costs: we tell ourselves that the Taliban could take over, which will lead inexorably to al-Qaeda, which will lead inexorably to Pakistan falling, which will lead inexorably to terrorists with bombs; and yet, we also tell ourselves that the Afghan people are persuadable, that, in particular, the warlords and footsoldiers of the Taliban have only weak attachments to their leaders (I’ve heard the “we can buy them off” argument so often on TV). Well, if they can be bought off so easily, who’s to say they will continue to stick with the Taliban on their own accord? Who’s to say that the Taliban can conquer the country with a band of mercenaries? Who’s to say that, with a withdrawn American presence, Pakistan’s radicals will sustain their strength? I don’t know the answer, but I haven’t seen any serious treatment of these questions either.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Groundhog Day, Change, Politics

I was thinking about Groundhog Day recently and I realized really belatedly that it was really about change. What’s interesting, of course, about it, is not necessarily the specific content of the change—yay, misanthrope becomes caring (and don’t get me started on the whole small-town glorification part)—but the mechanism of the change.

Bill Murray’s character has to be hit over the head over and over again until he realizes this: your life sucks. Once realizing this, he is trapped by indecision on how, exactly, to make it unsuck—he tries tons of different methods that are wholly ridiculous, including thrill seeking, sucking up creepily to Andie McDowell’s character, etc., etc. And then, finally, he comes to a realization on how to live his life perfectly. But the point here is the basic resistance to change and, once accepted, the ineffectiveness of our efforts.

Past drafts of the story, as they often do, really accentuated the point to the point of obviousness: Murray’s character spends thousands of years stuck in the loop, he spends long periods of time attempting to commit suicide, and other bleak actions of that sort.

You can get stuck personally in these sorts of loops, and we’re stuck societally in this loop right now. Personally the weakness I find myself living in is the ineffectiveness in changing my life. I know I must change; I know the weaknesses I have to address; but methodologically, I’m stuck. How and more importantly how much are mysteries, so I flail. People mistakenly attribute society for these problems, i.e. society promotes messages and values for us that we seek to emulate (this is why rappers are supposed to be bad for us). But this isn’t true, at least not in the way we want it to be. We ourselves collude with society to make it work—I do. I have an imagined place for myself that is based on the way society works: it’s a meeting between my values and society’s to create a fictionalized role for myself that I can strive towards. The amount of dreaming involved in the fiction typically indicates the amount of insanity you have (we’re all a little insane), although it may mean that you’re a visionary. Again, though, we’re apt to flail at reconciling our dreams—which omit crucial details, like plot—with a potential reality. That’s why Groundhog Day is so popular and resonant to this day. (It helps that the premise itself is not merely high concept, but is metaphorical: the best high concept premises are a metaphor for something larger than themselves.)

Where it really hurts is at the societal level. You can have a certain amount of spiritual bankruptcy and still have a solvent society. Our spiritual problems are usually caused by uncertainty in the face of a grand universe that doesn’t have specific plans have particular you; but we all push past that. Nevertheless, at a certain level spiritual bankruptcy risks society’s prosperity. I don’t want to make any grand pronouncements here, but listen: people are flailing and society is too. We don’t know what we want.

We want to believe things are easy; this is well-documented. Take this time—while reading this sentence, perhaps—to chastise yourself for your latest example of magical thinking. (Food is the usual source for me.) Governmentally, we suffer from a similar problem. We’d like to spend a lot of money, then hide it from ourselves. Michael Lind pointed out recently the overreliance on tax credits; that’s simple: it’s a conscious way of hiding a purchase from ourselves, the fiscal equivalent of a credit card purchase. But that’s an easy, simple example.

Look at the polling; it will inevitably reveal a confused nation. Majorities support public options, but oppose health care; majorities want decreased spending, but have no idea what they’d like to cut; and so on. Legislators, too, are similarly confused. Olympia Snowe has become the prime example. I listened to one of her interviews today, and it was infuriatingly confusing: she wants triggers, because she doesn’t want government takeovers (but if it triggers, wouldn’t that imply a governmental takeover?) She touts triggers’ ability to save money, citing its CBO scoring (but doesn’t a public option have a better scoring?). She wants a fiscally responsible bill, but when quizzed directly about the specific taxes in the plan, opposes those too. She reportedly was pushing for more generous subsidies in the Gang of Six negotiations. Olympia Snowe is, we can conclude, confused. I don’t want to single her out; all of them are like this on one subject or another. There is a deep confusion in Washington that mirrors the deep confusion in America broadly.

We want change, but we have no idea how we’re going to get it. Unlike Groundhog Day, though, time will run out.


Iraq continues to disintegrate. You’ve got an op-ed in the New York Times talking about the factionalism and corruption inherent in the government (and obviously this is more a message back home than the domestic readers), you have widespread arrests over this suicide bomb…And, as they say about stocks, the fundamentals are not going well: no new election deal, and the two issues hanging over it. Most reports center on the Kirkuk issue, but Joost Hiltermann brings up an intriguing point: that the government and Ayatollah al-Sistani are feuding over the structure of the elections. al-Sistani is one of the few nearly admirable characters to emerge from this whole mess, and the media has not focused on his role nearly enough.

The New York Review of Books talks about Napoleon’s Louvre raiding the whole world of its art. I remember well taking a semester’s trip to Europe, and being totally in awe of the wonders displayed in the British Museum and the Louvre. The British Museum, in particular, is insane: they have gates from ancient empires and huge lions and what have you, and it’s really amazing that they were able to carry it over in the first place. Nevertheless, there’s a really interesting argument about this: yes, it was a great crime obviously to take the goods, but once they are there? I can’t imagine a better quick education in the ancient world than visiting the British Museum, for example. Maybe that’s selfish—probably that’s selfish—but I don’t think it’s an argument that can be easily dismissed. This quotation: “The Louvre, as imagined by the French Revolution—it opened during the Reign of Terror—and then as realized by Denon under Napoleon, was the first encyclopedic public museum, dedicated to providing a new setting for art objects taken from their original location. They would be displayed in a way that would be instructive to a large public, as well as protective of the objects themselves” should inspire complex feelings, not a quick decision one way or another.

Lastly, this is a pretty crazy anecdote about the world of high school basketball and Jamario Moon:
Was it when he had to literally break out of a three-story brick house in Durham, N.C.?

He and teammate Steven Hunter, who now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies, were at Mt. Zion Academy, a basketball-centric private school he'd been recruited to play for with the promise of grade-fixing and a quick jump to the NBA.

"We had no TV and no phone. We'd practice at the church and go to school at the church and then we'd go back to the dorm, the second floor. There was a dead-bolt lock on the outside and they'd put us up there and lock the door," Moon said. "Steven and I took nails out of the window in the hallway, wiggled out and jumped down. We ran over to McDonald's and I used the pay phone and called home. I said they had to come and get me, it was not what it was supposed to be. It was crazy."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


The New York Times appears to have a leak of the Obama administration Afghanistan strategy: focus on the cities; counterterrorism in the country. Fred Kaplan wrote about this strategy earlier and endorsed it, so I guess it can’t be all bad. Indeed, the Times’ explanation of the strategy makes it seem well-thought out and somewhat realistic, so I suppose it’s not totally reality-denying, as previous war Presidents have been…OH! And now this news from the Times that Karzai’s drug-dealer brother is on the CIA payroll. To state the obvious, that’s very bad for the war effort: both the fact that that’s true, and the fact that that’s known to be true.

Meanwhile, COIN advocates have been dealt a major blow. Their principal talking-point has been the success of the surge in Iraq, but that success has been awfully precarious: the Times reports that the Iraqi parliament is deadlocked over an election law affecting the critical area of Kirkuk, which Kurds and Arabs have been feuding over for years. And Al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for the horrific suicide bombing attack in Baghdad (warning: it’s The Telegraph in the UK, a notoriously iffy media organization.)

The debate on Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail on The Big Money moves into philosophy of history terms: Great Man theory versus The Tides of History theory. And here I’ll go mealy-mouthed: the crisis was coming no matter what, but surely the hands on deck when it comes makes a difference. That’s just common sense. As it turns out, we very much had a motley crew who bumbled very very close to outright catastrophe.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Endgame of Act I of Health Care Reform

Remember back to the President’s big health care speech? He declared in it that he would be the last President to deal with health care. That was an exaggeration, and only really has a chance of being true if he wins a second term (which of course we should devoutly hope). But it’s worth, for that reason, not merely thinking about what’s right and wrong about this bill, but also what would be the best way to set up a second-term bill.

Paul Krugman, in his op-ed today, touched upon this when noting the costs and benefits of the Massachusetts health care plan. Pro? Only 2.6% of Bay Staters are uninsured. A focus group found: “Health reform enabled many of these individuals to take care of their medical needs, to start seeing a doctor, and in some cases to regain their health and control over their lives.” Con? Well, it hasn’t exactly touched the cost control part of the issue, which Krugman delicately understates and continues that Massachusetts is enthusiastic for more health care reform, addressing costs this year by that old standby, a special commission.

But there’s some reason to believe that Krugman was understating matters. The National Journal came out with a review of Massachusetts’ health care plan in July, with this damning graf:
The price of the four insurance plans offered under Commonwealth Care rose 9.4 percent in 2009, according to the report done for the Physicians for a National Health Program. The study's authors said that the law has done nothing to stem the overuse of high-tech care and the "underdevelopment" of primary care. "Indeed, one little-known provision of the reform actually shifted resources away from primary care by lowering Medicaid payment rates for such services, while raising them for high-tech, tertiary-care services," they said.

[emphasis mine, because this is an issue that Gawande focuses on in his McAllen, Texas New Yorker article].

Now, the various Democratic politicians emphasize in the article that putting the good stuff, the stuff people like, the stuff to cover people, is what ought to be done first, before getting to the cost control part (i.e. Act II of Health Care Reform), and this may be true.

The problem was that it is incredibly difficult to engage people’s attentions for any sustained period of time in this day and age. People’s impatience, furthermore, might doom any bill before we’re ready to get to the tough choices part of the deal (i.e. the part where people lose money, and blameless people lose jobs for the good of everyone, etc.).

As it turns out, Sen. Harry Reid’s compromise just might have saved the day. As Ezra Klein points out, the bill is an extraordinarily conservative, tentative reform: the opt-out public option will only available to people who can use the exchanges, which is the uninsured and the small-business-employed (I believe. Unless the details have changed.). The point is, if these things are good—and there’s no reason to believe they’re not (well, there is, but chances are if you’ve read this far, you agree)—then the public will clamor for them. And there will be no good excuse—why is a health insurance exchange where I can shop for different options only available to a limited subset? Why can’t everyone use it? (I have been exposed to too much Dylan Ratigan, maybe.) Well, there’s no good answer to that question. Which is why those programs will eventually be extended.

The key is to make it sooner rather than later. Every year that it’s delayed, health care cost inflation will eat another person’s raise, a raise that could have been put to better use. However, Reid’s bill contains an excellent method of sustaining attention: the opt-out’s deadline, state-by-state is 2014. We know, from interviews with Senators Schumer, Durbin and Brown that progressive public pressure was critical to their being any sort of public option in the bill at all. Well, from now until 2014 (that’s three election cycles that the public option, and therefore health care generally, will be a central issue!), that intense public pressure may be able to bubble and froth over until we’re ready for Act II: The Final Countdown.


Here’s what you really, really, really should be reading…

Jerome Groopman
on the changes in medical culture:
At the conference, an animated discussion followed, and I heard how changes in the culture of medicine were altering the ways that the young doctors interacted with their patients. One woman said that she spent less and less time conversing with her patients. Instead, she felt glued to a computer screen, checking off boxes on an electronic medical record to document a voluminous set of required "quality of care" measures, many of them not clearly relevant to her patient's problems. Another resident talked about how so-called "work rounds" were frequently conducted in a closed conference room with a computer rather than at the patient's bedside.

The relationship of medicine to technology, specifically record-keeping, will be very interesting to watch evolve. From anecdotal experience, I know older doctors are notoriously resistant to adopting new technology that would save lives (electronic prescriptions, e.g.—one state has adopted a law mandating clear doctor handwriting).

The big media-related news is the hammer-to-the-forehead news that newspaper circulation fell by 10.6% year-over-year. It has provoked more than a little bit of elegiac prose; Josh Marshall writes “A ten percent decline year over year is the rate of a mode of distribution going out of existence.” I think we’ve missed the real news here though; after all, there are more readers of The New York Times than ever before. No, the real news is that newspapers lost money year-over-year on its online advertising. That’s while Yahoo! and Google gained advertising revenue and Internet advertising as a whole increased. That’s also while companies like the New York Times enjoy a brand advantage in catering to big brands, particularly luxury brands, that Yahoo! and Google have yet to touch. So while an old medium may be dying, a new medium is struggling to stay alive as an infant.

In related news, Damon Linker wonders whether online writing encourages reflection, both on the part of the writer and the reader. I suspect online writing serves a distinct niche: the need to know news quickly, to build a story serially in a way that was impossible before. People who talk about snack food have termed it “hyperpalatable”, i.e. snack food that addicts you through its salty-fatty-sugary goodness. Online news is the same way: there’s no problem with reading one slideshow a day; it’s OK to do two slideshows sometime…but if you look at nothing but slideshows all day long, you probably haven’t learned much. Ultimately, that’s the danger. That said, I think that’s a minority at this point. The Internet is still a net benefit. As to deeply considered reflective stories and reading—listen, I’ve written a novel that I’ll be shopping around at some point, I’d better hope that that’s the case. And I do: when you are deluged by small stories, you have to wonder, what’s important here? What does it add up to? (Sometimes nothing.)

If we’re going to miss newspapers, we’ll miss them for this story: a two-parter by the Seattle Times on Washington Mutual. Frankly, it’s a perfect story: most of us stopped caring about WaMu a while ago, but the Times kept on pushing because it’s their city and their bank and it was a necessary story to follow up on. There are so many great paragraphs I hesitate to excerpt just one, but two anecdotes must be.
"Someone in Florida had made a second-mortgage loan to O.J. Simpson, and I just about blew my top, because there was this huge judgment against him from his wife's parents," she recalled. Simpson had been acquitted of killing his wife Nicole and her friend but was later found liable for their deaths in a civil lawsuit; that judgment took precedence over other debts, such as if Simpson defaulted on his WaMu loan.

There’s a bubble mentality right there. That’s ultimately, I think, what this came down to: the culture collectively whipping itself into insanity. And here’s why you should be worried about Feinberg’s stock-payment strategy:
And even more than most chief executives, insiders say, [WaMu CEO] Killinger was focused on WaMu's stock price as the company's — and his — primary gauge of success. "Kerry's view of himself was tied to a constant increase in the stock price," Chapman said. "He was fixated on it."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reform Follies

Despite what some might think, Robert Reich has it exactly right when he says that the administration’s financial reforms are entirely inadequate. Here’s the money graf:
And now there are five -- five Wall Street behemoths, bigger than they were before the Great Meltdown, paying fatter salaries and bonuses to retain their so-called"talent," and raking in huge profits. The biggest difference between now and last October is these biggies didn't know then that they were too big to fail and the government would bail them out if they got into trouble. Now they do. And like a giant, gawking adolescent who's just discovered he can crash the Lexus convertible his rich dad gave him and the next morning have a new one waiting in his driveway courtesy of a dad who can't say no, the biggies will drive even faster now, taking even bigger risks.

Here’s another money quotation by the Inspector General of TARP:
“I think actually what’s changed is in the other direction,” the refreshingly candid Mr. Barofsky said. “These banks that were too big to fail, are now bigger. Government has sponsored and supported several mergers that made them larger. And that guaranteed that implicit guarantee of moral hazard. The idea that the government is not going to let these banks fail, which was implicit a year ago, its now explicit.”

Now, to be fair, some sort of resolution authority—which according to New York Times, the administration is prepared to unveil this week—is a good, necessary reform. Banks must be able to be made bankrupt, and an advanced resolution authority is a good way to disentagle the web that connects banks. But it’s the equivalent of dealing with a heart attack patient with a weight problem by making sure there’s always an ambulance near him: you’re attacking the problem at the end of the chain rather than the beginning. By the time the bank has failed, it has speculated, cheated regular people, and generally wasted otherwise-talented people’s time. Its bloated size consumes resources better used by others. The problem must be attacked earlier. I’ve talked earlier about pay, which is somewhat iffy as an incentive (but certainly worth taxing highly and progressively), but there are two other critical areas that must be reformed: derivatives and consumer finance.

Start with derivatives. Going off that Farm Lobby piece I’ve posted earlier, it seems the House Agriculture Committee has passed a derivatives regulation that exempts all straight hedges—i.e. a hedge done by a nonfinancial company for locking in a certain price (e.g. a farmer entering into a futures contract). From my understanding, that’s also the case in Barney Frank’s bill. (Sen. Maria Cantwell seems to show up on Morning Meeting specifically to complain about this, and she’s not shy about naming names, and good for her.) Now, in of itself, this isn’t objectionable: hedging is a legitimate business activity that helps everyone out, generally. The problem, however, is that one is OK; imagine many many claims having to be paid at once due to a fluctuation (say, an oil shock): that’s a recipe for problems. There are a few ways of getting around this, I think: a cap on the total value for both buyer and seller of a derivative (over which and it would have to be on the clearinghouse/exchange and therefore disclosed and public). But there’s no question that this would lead to all sorts of shenanigans (for example: would Enron count as a financial company under the rubric of this bill? This is just a shot in the dark in the type of problems that I can imagine arising.)

Let’s move on to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Great name. Inspires confidence, doesn’t it? Sadly, it has very limited enforcement powers, as Mike Konczal and Felix Salmon have ably demonstrated. Now, to be fair, it’s not a total wash, but it’s also not as robust as you’d like it to be.

Overall, I’m very pessimistic about the ability of the Obama administration to get a handle on this critical matter. And the next crash is coming sooner rather than later. Consider the crashes:
80’s: junk bonds, Black Monday, Savings and Loans Debacle
90’s: Savings and Loans, Mexican near-default, “Asian Flu”, Long-Term Capital Management, Tech bubble.
00’s: Tech bubble, the Great Recession
That’s a lot. And by the way, some of these were relatively minor (the tech bubble sucked, yes, but wasn’t completely terrible) and some of these were underappreciated in their potential impact (i.e. Long-Term Capital Management, which had the capability to take down the financial system). This is not to neglect the numerous examples of insider trading, private equity shenanigans, and the other means of legal graft that permeated the period. It’s a rotten culture, the whole way through—it’s enough so I thought, seeing on him on TV, “Hmm….can we get Eliot Spitzer back?”

More Links

Via Andrew Sullivan, Julian Sanchez lambastes Obama’s security state policy:
We know the rules by now, the strange conventions and stilted Kabuki scripts that govern our cartoon facsimile of a national security debate. The Obama administration makes vague, reassuring noises about constraining executive power and protecting civil liberties, but then merrily adopts whatever appalling policy George W. Bush put in place. Conservatives hit the panic button on the right-wing noise machine anyway, keeping the delicate ecosystem in balance by creating the false impression that something has changed. We've watched the formula play out with Guant√°namo Bay, torture prosecutions and the invocation of "state secrets." We appear to be on the verge of doing the same with national security surveillance.

This is old, but I didn’t previously notice Mike Konczal advancing the thesis that debt-strapped new graduates are the new indentured servants. It’s timely, of course, because of Pete Orszag noting the terrible impact the recession will have on new college graduates. The combination of high unemployment, lower wages and high debt among a group who are usually touted as the future, the future leaders of America (and perhaps even The World), etc., etc., is not a good one, and serious efforts oughta be made to correct the problem—starting with allowing student loans to be dischargeable by bankruptcy.

I’ve been posing rhetorical questions about where the waste in government is, without an answer. Apparently the answer is this: Big Corn.

Tyler Cowen has an interesting op-ed in the New York Times today. Two grafs I like, the other ones are a little more iffy. I’ll just excerpt the ones I like, ok?
The fiscal reality is that not all income groups can receive equal subsidies; as a family earns more, its subsidy would probably decrease, eventually falling to zero. But then we are taking money away from the poor as they climb into higher income categories. This is a disincentive to earn more, and the strength of the disincentive increases with our initial generosity. For many people, the health insurance aid would phase out when food stamps, housing vouchers and the earned income tax credit also end and the personal income tax kicks in.

We’re often told that America should copy the health care institutions of Western Europe. Yet we’re failing to copy the single most important lesson from those systems — namely, to put cost control first. Instead, we’re putting our foot on the gas pedal and ratcheting up the fiscal pressures on the system, in the hope that someday, somehow, it will all work out.

Apparently Tyler doesn’t think the “voluntary pilot program” to end fee for service will do all that much good. Weird, huh?

Frank Rich says that the Balloon Boy hoax’s real story was our credulousness. That’s only too true. But then he claims we ought to pity the Heenes in their desperation for fame and money, which goes to far. Listen, there are desperate people the world ‘round who avoid launching a balloon and costing the state tons of money. But yes, the balloon story was absolutely transfixing and I blame myself for my personal rubbernecking.

Breaking down the rest of Stanford's schedule

But the real goal this year is SomeBowl or Bust! And, at 5-3, we’re just one win away from enjoying the charms of the Poinsetta Bowl in San Diego. However, we’ve obviously got an intimidating schedule coming up: vs. Oregon, @USC, vs. Cal, vs. Notre Dame. We will probably be underdogs in each of these games—though we have a puncher’s chance in all of them—so let’s break down each of these games for the possibility of the upset.

vs. Oregon
Pros for upset: It’s off a bye week, so we will be rested and presumably with tons of tricks and traps ready—it’s what Bill Simmons memorably called a “Kitchen Sink Game,” a game where you throw everything and the kitchen sink at the problem. Meanwhile, regardless of the result, Oregon will be coming off of a Kitchen Sink game of its own, against USC. And, perhaps most interestingly (though not at the time) Oregon only barely beat us last year, winning on a last-chance drive. That was at Oregon, so the shift to Stanford is definitely worth something. Then you ask yourself, which team has improved the most over the last year? Oregon’s good, maybe the best in the Pac-10…but Andrew Luck’s inclusion moves the offense from “mediocre” to “potential juggernaut.” (By the way, Toby, coming back for 2010 means the offense becomes “awesome juggernaut.” You’ll own every relevant Stanford rushing record. Just think about it.)

Cons for upset: They have a good offense with a lot of speed and we’ve seen that movie before. Also a good defense. Also good special teams. They’re probably the best in the Pac-10.

Odds of upset, pulled out of ass: 30%

Pros for upset: It’s USC.

Cons for upset: It’s USC.

Odds of upset, pulled out of ass:: 10%, if that.

vs. Cal
Pros for upset: You have to begin with Kevin Riley, shaky quarterback. Also, Cal’s wideouts suck. So the Cal passing game ain’t all that and a bag of chips. Plus that, Cal’s defense? Secretly very bad. They’ve given up 400 yards in four straight games. The first two games of this streak—Oregon and USC—were bad, but understandable. The third, UCLA, was odd but not totally out of the realm of the unreasonable. The last, against Wazzou (in Berkeley!), is simply unacceptable. A true freshman playing for Wazzou threw for 354 yards! That’s terrible!

Cons for upset: Jahvid Best speed to edge oh god.

Odds of upset, pulled out of ass:: 45%

vs. Notre Dame
Pros for upset: Their defense sucks and they’re traveling cross-country.

Cons for upset: Jimmy Clausen is overrated, but you don’t need to be that good to rip up Stanford’s defense.

Odds of upset, pulled out of ass: 40%

Now, for those keeping score at home, that means Stanford is cumulatively favored to win and go bowling for the first time since 2001. Let’s go upset someone.

Stanford vs. Arizona State, a Review

So everybody’s happy about yesterday’s Stanford game, right? It was clearly a good game; both sides of the ball played well. However, what was really striking about the game, for how good the offense was, it could have been better: Arizona State was daring us throughout the game to throw deep, and we took them up on the dare several times, only to fail by several mishaps. I’ve heard the number 0-7 to Owusu on deep patterns; I have no way of confirming this, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?

Still, Stanford rolled what was statistically a very good defense, and our defense did its job. It’s tough to say whether the improvement on defense—particularly the new corners—was related to the fact that Danny Sullivan sucks, or whether the improvement is something that is more portable. Sadly, it’s probably a little of both, and how much it’s the latter will determine our season more than any other factor.

It’s also a game that gives you a nice happy feeling about the future, specifically Andrew Luck. As Dennis Erickson said after the game, “He’s a heck of a player. He has a chance to be a great one.” That’s succinct, and it’s perfect. To wit, Andrew Luck is good now, but he can get much better, nice as that is to contemplate. Here’s how:

1) YAC throws. You look at an elite quarterback, like Sam Bradford, and he throws a ball that’s not just catchable, but that lets the receiver run after the catch. Now, if the route specifically calls for running after the catch (e.g. a bubble screen), then Luck is fine; however on other throws, you’d like to see him throw into the route more.
2) Audible. I don’t believe I saw Luck audible once. Now, Harbaugh and Shaw are good playcallers, but they aren’t perfect: stubbornness, in particular, is their vice. They often become too fixated on rushing Toby Gerhart, often to the detriment of second-half performance: if the whole stadium knows you’re rushing, then you need to throw a changeup. No matter how blatantly obvious it was that the wideouts enjoyed single coverage on the outside, Luck didn’t audible out. This kind of bugged me.
3) Being aware of the rush. Luck is incredibly mobile—I mean incredibly in the old sense of the word, i.e. unbelievable, because it’s unbelievable how he gets the rushes/avoidance of the rush that he does. But sometimes—and I’m thinking of those consecutive sacks against UCLA—he can be a little unaware of the rush.
4) More accurate throws. He’s thrown behind or in weird positions at some disconcerting times. Folds into my point in number 1.

And Luck’s—and the offense generally—performance will be improved by doing two things. First, is scheme-wise: there’s a formation we’ve been sitting on for a while, and that’s the 4 WR, 1 RB formation. We’ve only thrown out of it. But imagine running out of it: that will put the defense in a real dilemma, and likely result in a Toby vs. DB matchup (that’s good, for those of us keeping track). The other thing is more long-range: that’s the wideout position. Whalen is a fine possession receiver who can get deep. I have no quarrel with him. Increasingly, though, Owusu looks like the rich man’s Doug Baldwin. The biggest problem, however, might be this: Andrew Luck can technically leave after next season. The rule for eligibility in the NFL draft is three years after high school, so redshirt sophomores are eligible. Naturally, we hope for this to resolve well, so that all these problems can be sorted out (I mean, can you imagine Luck and an elite wideout together?)

Here’s what I mean. Back when we were thinking about the Chris Owusu Experience, the Chronicle’s beat writer talked to Oaks Christian’s coach, who said, jokingly, “I was afraid of him fumbling because he had done that a little bit in practice. If I had let him run back kickoffs, we probably would have been 114-8 [instead of 111-11-1].”

Well, as it turns out, he was right. Let’s look at Owusu, game-by-game, since the UCLA game.
UCLA: fumble lost on end-around.
Oregon State: Sure touchdown dropped on first play of game.
Arizona: easy drop on fourth-and-1, two drops on final drive of the game.
Arizona State: nothing so egregious, but a drop of a potential TD passs.
That’s basically one hands-related issue per game since the Washington game. That appears to be a trend, my friends. Now, to be fair. Owusu is young yet, maybe hands can be acquired. I don’t know. But I do know that one of the positions Jim Harbaugh has recruited extravagantly well at is wideout. There will be improvement.

Speaking of Harbaugh’s extravagantly good recruiting, we have to note that a quality corner committed last night, named Keanu Nelson (great name!). He’s rated a top-50 CB by scouts and rivals, and the #44 athlete by ESPN. And, to continue the theme of Jim Harbaugh’s recruitment, we have to spend a moment reflecting on the next great Stanford running back: Stepfan Taylor. Did he look great last night or what? He just has pure running back instincts, and he gets in gear quickly. I hope that Harbaugh can split carries more evenly down the stretch, to keep Toby fresh. Because he’ll need to be fresh for the stretch. This was an A effort, and if we bring one more A effort against the upcoming schedule, we’ll be bowl-bound again.

Links for the afternoon/evening

So, what’s interesting today?

Andrew Sullivan posted yesterday on the disgraceful state of vaccinations and posited that the effect is due to anti-vaccine, anti-science campaigns. Possibly, but consider France (warning: article in French) has little support for vaccination campaigns: 49% definitely won’t get vaccinated against H1N1. This may merely be an H1N1 thing, or it may be more general; I think it's tough to make a specific conclusion here.

The New York Times notes the terrible effects of Britain’s surveillance state:
But the intrusions visited on Jenny Paton, a 40-year-old mother of three, were startling just the same. Suspecting Ms. Paton of falsifying her address to get her daughter into the neighborhood school, local officials here began a covert surveillance operation. They obtained her telephone billing records. And for more than three weeks in 2008, an officer from the Poole education department secretly followed her, noting on a log the movements of the “female and three children” and the “target vehicle” (that would be Ms. Paton, her daughters and their car).

The Bygone Bureau writes about literary signaling, and what book you should pretend to like in order to impress listeners. Hilarious the whole way through.

Jason Zengerle calls Rory Stewart the “T.E. Lawrence of Afghanistan.” It’s a very good profile, and this jumped out at me:
"I think counterinsurgency has become this very, very funny catchall," he complains. "One of the ways in which it operates ideologically is that it’s very, very good at bringing on board humanitarians and academics, because it’s always saying it’s not just a military solution, or we need to do hearts and minds, we need to look at development, we ought to be cautious as to aerial bombardment. So you get this situation where it neutralizes a lot of criticism. It in fact incorporates an enormous number of people who, in previous interventions or theaters, have been quite critical of military operations."

Read the whole thing.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More on Karzai

Ahmed Rashid buries the lede in his post on Karzai’s being convinced to accept a runoff. He writes, “Karzai intensely dislikes the other White House players [i.e. Biden, Emanuel, James Jones, etc.] because they have hurt his ego by dishonoring him and criticizing him in public. Over such knowledge and niceties does the world turn and turn again.

I always appreciate the role of fortune and chance, but this is neither. Karzai has had his feelings hurt over the public criticism, and that’s fair, but consider by contrast Obama, who despite deeply vituperative criticism has admirably continued diplomacy with Iran. The point is, that if you are an important person who is responsible for other people’s fates, you must not allow personal feelings to interfere with that. If you succeed, no one will remember that criticism.

Rashid links to a damning Guardian article that reveals how deeply unsuited Karzai is to be leading Afghanistan. A long procession of figures, anonymous and named, trash Karzai as a person and as a leader, calling him dithering, possessed of a huge ego, and “too nice.” Now obviously sour grapes should not in of themselves lead us to believe a leader incompetent; otherwise we’d have to take Obama less seriously because Cheney dislikes him. But with that and the serious reports of: Karzai’s brother’s corruption, whereby:
Rumours have abounded for years about some of Karzai's brothers, most notably Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the provincial council in Kandahar. Last year the New York Times quoted White House officials saying Ahmed Wali was involved in drug trafficking - an allegation he denies.

More recently, public attention has focused on Mahmoud Karzai, a man who spent most of his life in political exile in the US running restaurants. Despite his relatively limited business experience, in the last seven years he has become one of Afghanistan's leading tycoons, with shares in the country's biggest bank, property developments, and control of one of the country's biggest industrial assets, a cement plant north of Kabul.

Does not exactly inspire confidence.

The problem is that the alternative may not be much better; there’s speculation that Abdullah may cause increased ethnic tension. I agree with COIN advocates that good government is a prerequisite for crushing an insurgency, but I’m not sure you can build a good government in any sort of reasonable time frame, particularly in a society as poor as Afghanistan.

Stanford Football, Oct. 24

Let’s focus on less consequential matters, right? Stanford football has proven time and time again that, on the verge of national consequence, that it doesn’t want to matter nationally. That’s cruel, but the pun was there. The truth is, the team is improving, and that’s all this jaded fan has to cling to.

It’s easy to wonder what might have been these past few weeks: if Owusu can hang on to a pass, if Doug Baldwin can hang to a pass, if blah blah blah. But here’s the other part of the equation: the defense. It’s been fairly maligned these past two weeks, but I prefer to think of it as a mystery. This defense, after all, locked down Jake Locker and his Husky offense, holding it to 7 offensive points. That’s pretty good. Look at their other outings; they’re no slouches. The defense did a pretty good job against UCLA too, and they’ve had some decent offensive outings too.

The variable in this—besides road play, of course—is injuries. They have ravaged the defense, making a D-line that was declared to be the best in years look puny: Masifilo out, Bulcke out, Lorig out. Howell is out. Debniak, whom the coaches raved about and played well on special teams, hasn’t seen action all season. Maybe, just maybe, the defense is an average unit with everyone in it.

And, with our offense, all you need is average.

I expect an easy win against Arizona State, but Stanford knows how to disappoint.

Reform and Lobbying (Divide and Conquer?)

Let’s simplify here. Obama has three main tasks in domestic reform: health care, climate change, and financial reform. Each of these reforms—no matter how they’re done—creates winners and losers. And anytime there are winners and losers in Washington, you can expect lobbying and jockeying for favor. So it’s interesting to look at the varying reactions to reform by affected interests.

Financial reform has frankly played out exactly as you’d expect. Bankruptcy reform, a critical portion of any effective financial reform, was sunk and Dick Durbin declared after its failure that banks ”frankly own the place”. This makes sense, even if it’s infuriating.

Relatively, climate change and health care reform are a lot weirder.

Health care reform, done right, should create opposing lobbies, some benefiting, some losing. And while there have been some groups lobbying for health care reform, it’s frankly odd to see no manufacturers or other big employers lobbying for health care reform. The point has been made over and over again: wages and health care are intimately related, and it’s odd that large employers wouldn’t lobby more ferociously to see their costs reduced. The problems brought up in Atul Gawande’s brilliant New Yorker article have not been forcefully addressed: Orszag’s OMB blog makes mention of bundled payments instead of fee for service at which the heart leaps, only to be dashed on the rocks when you learn that it is a “national, voluntary pilot program.” “Voluntary pilot program” means unh-unh, not going to happen. If it had a realistic chance of happening, of course, the AMA would be strongly against health care reform; instead, they were bought off.

The reticence of firms that are disadvantaged by health care to lobby is striking in contrast to climate change, where tons of companies have been leaving the Chamber of Commerce over its willfully dumb climate change strategy. Some of the firms, of course, have interests in a climate changed world: Exelon is heavily invested in nuclear energy, and so you’d expect them to benefit from a carbon-taxed world; PG&E benefits, because of decoupling, from saving energy, so you’d expect them to want aggressive action to save energy too. But companies like Nike and Apple leaving make far less sense; there’s been some speculation that it’s merely PR related, but that’s not a convincing explanation—I mean, just over half of Americans believe the world is warming.

All and all, they’re some weird times we’re living in.

Links For The Afternoon

Lots of good reads available for your (rainy, here) Saturday morning.

Start off with this book review of ”The Nature of Technology”, which looks intriguing and edifying as a book. “Everything emerges out of technology,” the author declares, and it’s difficult to disagree—except how does technology emerge? What social environment? To impose my own biases, we need a fairer society, one that encourages entrepreneurialism by having a fairer safety net. Something to think about there.

The Guardian contributes a very affecting look at Madagascar, ravaged by climate change already. It’s very much the first domino to fall, but hopefully only the last. Stories like this certainly lend the geoengineering debate a more than academic cast.

Marginal Revolution notes Norway’s impending disclosure of “nearly every taxpayer’s” tax data. Tabarrok posits it may decrease conspicuous consumption, which is possible; on the other hand, I suspect it will lead to incredible outrage as every employee with a puffed-up opinion of him- or herself (which is to say, everyone) will compare paystubs, which of course means resentment on a grand scale. But maybe the Scandinavians are better than us. Who knows, we shall see.

Zimbabwe’s police have raided the house of aides to Prime Minister Tsvangirai. It appears the power struggle is intensifying, and it appears Tsvangirai’s decision to allow Mugabe control of the army and police was a mistake. For broader context, check out the New York Review of Book’s fine article.

It’s been widely noted that the Class of 2009 will be screwed over its entire life for the bad luck of graduating in 2009. There’s a very simple reason for this, I think: not merely are jobs difficult to come by, but a lot of people (certainly I know what the feeling is) will know this and settle for a job you don’t want, which probably leads to personal discontent and well as (societally speaking) little productivity. By the way, how cool is it that the OMB has a blog?

The hollowing-out of American government continues. Now Arizona appears ready to put its prisons into the hands of private contractors. Tax-farmers have already made a return from medieval and Renaissance times, and the government appears willing to outsource all its vital tasks. And yet, for all the poor service, what has it gotten us? A still-manageable public debt, but one that will become a big problem if left untouched. James Fallow's nightmare scenario is fast becoming more plausible.

Hulu is going from a great service to a poor one. Rupert, in his madness, seems to be taking Hulu to a subscription-based service. Of course, with the yanking of Arrested Development from Hulu, this move seems to be the culmination of a long series of hostilities. With Comcast buying NBC Universal (and having a directly competing digital video service), it looks like the Age of Hulu is doomed. Subscription-for-Hulu will not, of course, work. Subscriptions only work if you offer an a) high-quality service and b) a service which can’t easily be replicated. Well, a) is certainly true, but b) is not: I could list all the sites where you can illegally get video but we’re all savvy here, right?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Links for the day

David Jackson makes a great point in “The Art of the Impossible: Building Megaprojects.” I sympathize, of course, with Jacobs—you can’t destroy neighborhoods. But neighborhoods also require updating for new times. Unfortunately, our infrastructural updating has been lacking. To take a local example, just say “Second Avenue Subway” to any New Yorker, and that’ll demonstrate what I mean—New Yorkers have been waiting since the twenties for one. You compare Japan’s, China’s, Europe’s updating of their high speed rails, and you think, why can’t we? Unfortunately, our government seems to be lacking the vigor to do anything substantive these days.

Matt Bai’s profile of Jon Corzine underscores an important point: it really sucks to be a governor. You’re mostly blamed or praised based on the whims of the economy and broader national trends, and you can’t really do much. Corzine says in the article that what he’d really wanted to do was build preschools for everyone. And yet, and yet, no. And you wonder, with dysfunctional states like New Jersey and California, states that have such riches to exploit, why they cannot apply themselves to big projects that would create still more riches? Where’s the waste to be cut? How can the governments be made better? I haven’t really seen an in-depth, serious examination of that issue—probably my fault more than the literature’s—and I’d love to.

I haven’t yet read this article criticizing my boy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his cozy relationships with dictators, but I find this kind of criticism tiring. Artists who create beauty can also have moral flaws, commit moral turpitude. It doesn’t affect their art. That also doesn’t let them off the hook for criticism or punishment—i.e. Roman Polanski. But I don’t think the flaws indict the art any more than the art ennobles the flaws.

NBA Preview: The Innovator’s Dilemma—Solved?

It seems NBA teams got religion over the offseason: Whittsitism. Bob Whittsit was, of course, the GM of the JailBlazers whose motto seemed to be, “Why not add another star?” Indeed, why not? We witnessed a splurge by the top teams on acquisitions that lived up to St. Whittsit over the offseason. Perhaps none of the moves were quite so bizarre as Whittsit’s moves—in fact, quite a few were pretty smart!—but a large number of teams spent big bucks and took big risks for very uncertain rewards.

I’ve been struggling to explain this behavior, hell, for months now, and it still doesn’t make sense. But here’s my attempt. It’s a lot easier to be Sam Presti than Mitch Kupchak, as Kevin Pritchard is finding out now. It’s easier because if you have a sucky team, you get to clean house, pick high and take on intriguing talents. That’s the easy part. You get a break of a few weeks. Now, Sam Presti has managed the process really well, but still: he hasn’t had to pay anyone. He hasn’t had to make tough decisions on the direction of the team. It’s all youth. Youth is fun. Now, Mitch Kupchak has it harder.

Here’s where The Innovator’s Dilemma comes in. Basically—to bastardize the concept completely for my purposes particularly (i.e. please don’t take my word for it exclusively)—companies that are on top generally find it difficult to innovate and introduce a disruptive technology to market. An example: it would (hypothetically) probably a weird idea for the Post Office to introduce e-mail—it kills their own business. (Again, very simplified example and not 100% accurate, just meant to get the point across). Essentially, NBA teams overcame complacency and tried to innovate.

The Lakers knew that with a few different calls, the Rockets and Nuggets series would have been different. With different injuries, the Magic or Celtics could have done better. The Cavaliers know all these same things. And everybody knows that they know. So the “true” result of last season is effectively a real mystery: we had four titans ready to battle it out, but we never got the donnybrook we fans deserved. And the teams know that. So, instead, they convinced themselves that upgrades were necessary.

And they were available too! With the financial crisis ripping holes in everybody’s balance sheets, bargains were available everywhere, in the NBA economy and the real one. It’s easy, when everything’s on sale, to talk yourself into bad purchases.

There were six teams that made—to my mind—really huge moves, and not coincidentally, they’re the best six teams in the league. They’re the Cavaliers, Celtics, Lakers, Magic, Spurs, Trail Blazers. Half of these teams made smart moves; half of them did not (well, an exception to the Blazers.)

The half that did—Magic, Blazers, Celtics—acquired good players at cheap prices. The players they did acquire fit in with their schemes. Wallace in the Celtic’s defensive scheme is going to cause everyone problems, and his reticence to go into the post is fine—Garnett doesn’t either. It gives the Celtics (potentially) a terrifying three-man big man rotation: anytime Perkins, Garnett and Wallace are your top three, you know you have a ton of options. The Magic signed everyone but Brett Favre, but it worked: they focused on guys who can shoot threes, are versatile, and play decent defense. Vince Carter for Turkoglu makes a ton of sense, and Matt Barnes and Ryan Anderson were born to play for the Magic. The Magic had the best defense last year, and do you realize that their presumed starting lineup (Nelson/Carter/Pietrus/Lewis/Howard) features four players who can put up 20 at any given time? It’s very true. Additionally, Dwight Howard is a top-five player and may become better. (Incidentally, the Magic are my title-winning pick). Everyone agrees about the Spurs’ offseason—it was good—Richard Jefferson should acclimate fine, DaJuan Blair is going to be excellent, etc. etc. Their main question, sadly, is age, and I think basketball fans everywhere—religious and secular alike—said a prayer for Manu Ginobili to make a full recovery.

What those three teams share—in my account at least—is a coherence to their offseason moves. The other three teams didn’t do that. Start with the Blazers. Their offseason suffers mostly from opportunity cost: why, oh, why would you sign Andre Miller when you could have signed Ramon Sessions? Doesn’t that make far more sense for everyone involved? Miller is good, but he doesn’t work for Portland: Miller’s a guard who can’t shoot but loves the fast-paced game; Portland likes and needs guards to space the floor, and plays incredibly slow. It’s a bad marriage. But I don’t think Miller figures as prominently into Portland’s plans as the Cavalier’s acquisitions and the Lakers’. Start with the Cavs. Parker and Moon are fine players, each, and should ameliorate their problems with Rashard Lewis, but that’s weak tea. Besides, Shaq is a player whom I expect to have a significant negative influence in Cleveland.

The stats look fine for Shaq, I grant you, but it’s what he does outside of that that makes me suspicious. For one, Shaq has grown slow: slow about changing ends, slow about defense, slow on offense. That’s bad. On offense, his moves are still effective, but lack the old explosiveness. Every second that Shaq is holding the ball and sizing up the defense is a second that LeBron isn’t doing LeBron things. And while LeBron should be working more off-the-ball, Shaq is probably the wrong player for LeBron to be playing off of: Shaq’s passing, still good, has definitely decreased recently (only 9.2% Assist Rate last season). This isn’t even getting into his defense, particularly his pick-and-roll defense. It’s awful. He can’t hedge, he barely moves—and this is supposed to be the solution to the Magic? The Lewis-Howard pick-roll is going to annihilate the Cavs, should they meet again in the postseason. That’s not even getting into the offcourt issues: Shaq’s moving from the Suns’ exceptional trainers to the Cavs’ (presumably) average ones, meaning he’ll be missing games. Then there’s the fact that Shaq has played for four teams now, before the Cavs. That’s a lot, for an all-time great. And, at every stop, he’s left with acrimony. Shaq still thinks he’s the Man of Steel and all that, but he should think of himself as a rich man’s Joel Przybilla.

This leaves the Lakers. I’m surprised I haven’t heard this justifying analogy more: that since Phil Jackson handled Dennis Rodman well, he should be fine with Artest. This is probably because it’s a pretty insane analogy: though Artest and Rodman are at similar levels of crazy, there are several key, illuminating differences between the two. First, Jackson coached Rodman at the peak of his powers. Now Jackson is old, perpetually injured, and has mused about skipping road trips. That’s got to affect how well he’s able to deal with Artest’s antics. The second key difference is this: Rodman was a clown off-court, but a saint on it. According to Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps, Rodman immediately understood the Triangle Offense and played mostly for his defense and rebounding. Artest, on the other hand, has been brought in to do defense and rebounding, but has never been able to resist the temptation of the pull-up 17 footer with a hand in his face. He will overdribble, and that kills the Triangle, more so than other offenses. I expect trouble. I expect Pau Gasol to be shafted even more than in other years. (Side note: Pau Gasol might just be the most underappreciated player in the league. He is absolutely perfect for this team and this offense. And yet even his team refuses to appreciate that: I counted something like ten separate instances in the 2009 playoffs in which Derek Fisher chose to shoot a bad three rather than pass to a set-up Pau Gasol. But Gasol is so, so very perfect in that offense, and the only two players on the Lakers who appear to like playing with one another are Gasol and Odom. It’s true.)

Obviously, time will tell what happens with this season. But I appreciate the effort teams have brought to the table to try to transcend their flaws. Earlier, they were timid. Now, they appear far more aggressive—too aggressive, if anything. But I’m excited and intrigued for this season.

NBA Finals: Magic over Spurs
Conference Finals: Magic over Cavaliers; Spurs over Lakers

Eastern Conference Standings
Who cares? (in all seriousness, Wizards)
Who cares? (in all seriousness, Heat)
Who cares? (in all seriousness, 76ers)
Who cares? (in all seriousness, Hawks)

Western Conference Standings

Day Two, Post-Feinberg, Feeling Apocalyptic

So I almost posted about Feinberg’s bombshell yesterday about the executive pay cuts, but decided not to; I wanted more details. And now that more details have come out, I’m very unconvinced about this: more will be necessary. Noam Scheiber has done some good reporting on tracking down some of the details, and they dissatisfy me: pay is going to be in stock options that take a long time to vest.

It certainly seems to achieve its goals, if you’re of the incentivist persuasion—that incentives should be able to dictate the path of these institutions onto a more sober, measured one. If you believe in the magic of incentives, the plan is inadequate; if you’re more skeptical, the plan is really inadequate.

Let’s say you believe in the power of incentives. I certainly do. Well, though Hold Fast did an able job of pointing out the essential cluelessness of Joe Nocera’s recent column, Nocera did have several excellent points, one of which is that only a minority of employees are affected at a minority of firms. The problem, however, with the financial titans, incentive-wise, was not just at the top; it was evenly distributed. If you’re not a fan of speculation, then Citi’s $100 million man ought to piss you off (note: subscription required, and would Hall’s take-home pay have been affected by Feinberg’s pay cut—was he a qualifying executive? An interesting question.) Whether or not Hall was a qualifying executive, he’s emblematic of the fact that obscure traders can ring up big bonuses and might not otherwise qualify for pay caps and the incentives of vested stocks. (Moreover, what happened to that discussion we were all having with the problems of the stock market providing inappropriate incentives too? You know, the bias for short-term profits etc. etc.?)

Furthermore, it’s clear that the very structure of pay incentives must be reformed, not merely executive pay. As Daniel Gross notes, bonuses come out of revenue in finance, not profits. I think the misaligned incentives are obvious here, I won’t dwell overlong on the point…

But it’s not at all clear that the incentives are the problem anyway. Nocera points out in his column that
“Over at Goldman Sachs — where compensation practices aren’t exactly being heaped in praise these days — partners made no more than $220,000 in cash last year and the rest in stock. And the firm’s partners have to hold onto 75 percent of their stock until they retire.”

Again, this falls under the same problem as earlier—the real problem may be the grunts, not just the generals—but it exposes another one: Goldman has this compensation plan, but as Richard Posner and others note, Goldman’s mostly making its money out of speculation anyway. (Might it have something about the implicit guarantee that financial firms enjoy these days?)

Well, it might, but on the other hand, it might not. Recall that Lehman Brothers employees were wiped out completely, and Bear Sterns employees took a big haircut in their forced sale ($2 a share!). So that should, in theory, put some fear into the hearts of the traders: the government might arbitrarily jerk you around to if you don’t shape up. (I mean, in the next crash, don’t you think the government might bend over backwards not to favor Goldman? I know, probably not…but the thought crossed your mind, didn’t it?)

I suspect the real explanation for Wall Street’s lapse back into bad habits is subtler. There are incentive problems, directly related to the big guarantees the government gives financial firms. These may be unavoidable, and if so, finance should give up a big part of the upside. But I suspect that the real problem is sociological. Calvin Trillin and Noam Scheiber did an excellent job covering this, so it bears repeating: the people who go to Wall Street are pretty smart, and they expect above all to make money. People aren’t generally interested in credit default swaps; they are, however, interested in luxury. At Wall Street, they’re there to get it, and they can play around with other people’s money to get it.

That’s why I’ve become increasingly convinced that the first part of any banking reform should be (but won’t be) a reinstatement of Glass-Steagall. If you separate investment from commercial banking, you at least deprive investment banks of the ability to play around with deposits. And you minimize the ability of investment banks sucking down commerce in its vortex.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Links for the day

Again, here’s what I think you ought to be reading.

The New Yorker’s profile of James Cameron. It successfully shows him insane, and it worries me quite a bit about film generally. One of the themes of the profile is Cameron’s relationships with his producers—for most films, adversarial; for this one, Avatar, the producer seems slavishly on-message and slavishly brown-nosing. This is probably how the film came to cost $240 million. I suspect it will fail; it’s really hard, after advertising and all that, to recoup that kind of money. If it does, it will reinforce a message I wish Hollywood would listen to. Hollywood might conclude from this failure that ambitious films are bad and that shlock should rule. That’s wrong; this is the message it should take: the concept can be as ambitious as you want, but the financing should always be cheap. Terminator cost $6 million in those day’s dollars; 40 Year Old Virgin was under twenty mil, I believe, and Knocked Up was under thirty million, while District 9 was pretty cheap too. Now, none of these are what you’d call all-time classics—these movies often get made by accident—but they are more than solid experiences at the movie theater, and they all made oodles of money. No conflict here! They just kept it cheap. Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner has labored under constricted budgets for a while, and there’s a quote in a profile of him (probably in the Vanity Fair one) where he says that working under a budget can enhance creativity. That’s undoubtedly true. Most of the time, there’s very little reason to need more than $50 million.*

(*Note: this is a number pulled directly out of my ass.)

Bill Simmons continues with his book promotion with a couple of interesting pieces. There’s an excerpt from his new book that’s good, but somewhat shorn of context. Then there’s an interview he did with Huffington Post The entire thing is intriguing, but I want to focus on one answer—probably for another day.

Allegedly, John Wall is “battling eligibility issues.” Come on. We all know how this is going to work out. Wall will be approved, Kentucky will do great things, then “sketchy things” (relative to the NCAA’s standards of sketchy—and remember, the NCAA is the organization that banned bagels and cream cheese for post game buffets) will come out and the school will be punished. Officially, wins will be wiped about, but who gives a shit when the memories will sustain us? Save this and refer back to this in two years or so. I feel pretty confident on this.

Brad DeLong posts six pressing policy issues. To be clear, these aren’t run-of-the-mill pressing policy issues, they’re issues with world-historical importance. And yet the system—I’m sure of this—not address it. The circulatory system of policy once worked well, but we’ve gorged for too long and the circulatory system is full of gunk. Yes, in the analogy, we are headed for a heart attack. It’s clear from various public comments by administration officials and congresspeople that the problem is well understood, but the folkways and rules of the system prevent any substantive solutions.

Two good FreeDarko pieces for your time. Joey posts about growing old with the NBA. I’m younger than he and too young to think of myself as old, but I sometimes wake up and compare myself to my peers, real and imagined, and think unfavorably—time has passed me by. That’s the melancholy I get from that NBA post. The other, a Bethlehem Shoals piece, is so incomparably FreeDarko that I can neither expand upon or summarize it.