Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Unbearable Lugubriousness of NBA TV scheduling

Sadly, we haven't yet happened on the TV utopia of anytime, anywhere, anyplace, so we have to suffer the NBA's TV scheduling. And this year's has, I think, been particularly unbearable. Take the late game, Dallas and Phoenix. These two teams aren't particularly interesting this year, and they have very little chance of winning the title. The reason they're on is a legacy effect: Dallas vs. Phoenix was once a marquee matchup, so it's a marquee matchup now. The NBA's TV scheduling can't keep up with the pace of events. That's a shame.

Playing Hardball

Constitutional hardball is a concept I think we should become familiar with:
The practice has three characteristics: it involves arguments and behavior by political actors (including judges, although their role is less interesting than that of other political actors) that are defensible – though sometimes only barely so – by standard constitutional doctrine; it is inconsistent with settled pre-constitutional understandings; and it involves extremely high stakes (control over the national government as a whole)

Compare and contrast with David Axelrod here—he complains about Republican obstructionism, and says “there will be consequences,” but is vague about what they are. But it’s tough to see what they are: the average American doesn’t think about the filibuster, and isn’t aware of their importance in legislative politics. And it would take quite a lot long to educate Americans on the subject.

The consequences that Axelrod speaks of, the only way for Republicans to grasp them, is to play constitutional hardball: use reconciliation for as much as possible. I’m aware this can be a clunky way of doing things, but the key here is that you’re doing things as opposed to doing nothing. The former might or might not get you re-elected and might or might not result in good policy; the latter, on the other hand, will lose you your job and result in no policy whatsoever. Play hardball.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Panic, Then Trade For Shaq

One of the paradigmatic errors of the 21st century (aw hell, let’s say human history) is what I’ll call the “Trading For Shaq” error.

I have to start with a caveat: Miami trading for Shaq was not an error of this kind. Shaq was not yet the Shaq of this error. No, “Trading For Shaq” will always refer to the Phoenix Suns trading for Shaq.* The blunder is a specific kind and context. It represents a surrender to conventional wisdom. The Suns for three solid years were joyous rulebreakers, winning basketball games in a way that most assumed you couldn’t, in that day and age. And yet something always stood in their way. I say something because, well, the point of this error is that there’s a matter of interpretation about what, exactly, has gone wrong. You could note an extraordinary run of bad luck: Joe Johnson’s broken face (year one), Amare Stoudemire’s bad knees (year two), the near-brawl (year three). You could make the case that few contending teams in recent memory have suffered as comprehensive a string of bad luck. Alternatively—if you’re Suns GM Steve Kerr—the team couldn’t win the championship because something in its essence prevented it, and that something was missing The Big Man. Defense Wins Championships. And other maxims of this sort. Kerr became GM after playing for the Spurs, from which he became an devotee of conventional wisdom. Having become a devotee, he decided to surrender to conventional wisdom: he couldn’t imagine a team winning by rules other than the conventional one, so he sought to remake the team in the image of those conventional rules.

*Curiously, the Cavaliers repeated the mistake, and the Cavaliers are run by another set of Spurs alumni. In fact, the only team that’s been run really well by Spurs alumni is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Interesting, don’t you think?

Obviously, it didn’t work out. The team was stuck in between the two models, which meant it was practically dysfunctional (which it remains, even though Shaq has been jettisoned). Worst of all, it failed to understand the specific context of why the Spurs model worked: Manu Ginobili’s a freewheelin’ kind of guy (who took the crunch time shots), Parker couldn’t shoot, and Duncan always had a big man sidekick to help him on defense. And because of that, Kerr failed to understand why bringing Shaq over wouldn’t work: namely, though you’re trading for him to “provide a presence in the post”you’re your allegedly defenseless team, Shaq also doesn’t play defense.* Instead he lived his life by maxims—The Game Slows Down In The Playoffs And You Must Throw It Into The Post—and other people’s perceptions of his own team. And he ruined a team that should’ve been much better than it is.

*As the Cavaliers will find out to their pain at some point in this postseason. I don’t know if Shaq’s lack of defense will kill them against the Hawks, Magic or Lakers, but someone will kill the Cavs by exploiting Shaq on the pick-and-roll or—god forbid—the pick-and-pop. And then LeBron will leave and the Cavaliers will become an object lesson in mismanaging your business by not thinking about your future

It’s an error that’s proven to be surprisingly common, if you think about it. The recent example, of course, is the Obama-Don’t-Call-It-A-Spending-Freeze proposal. In fact, let’s turn to the spin on the subject (courtesy Jared Bernstein via Brad DeLong), someone who’s had to pretend shit sandwiches are wonderfully progressive, hearty organic meals far too many times for my comfort and presumably his):
1. It's not a freeze--not something that leaves the level and distribution of non-security defense spending frozen at its current level and in its previous pattern.
2. It's not even a cap--it's not a plan, if congress refuses to dial down the things that Obama wants to dial down, to take the excess out of other program categories.
3. It's not even a set of guidelines--it's not an aspirational set of spending levels because it does not include the initiatives the president wants to "undertake right away [to] jump-start job creation. In his words and deeds, the President has made clear that recovery comes first..."
Ah, well then. This is a perfect example of a “Trading For Shaq” panic theory. The thinking is muddled. It appears to be for other people’s consumption and other people’s perception of you—the “aspirational” part really gives that away. All sorts of excuses have been made: it’s symbolic, it’s a commitment for the bond markets blah blah blah. But these excuses fail: the small size of the cuts indicates their fundamental unseriousness. You wonder how any reasonably smart person, having worked for so long on it, could have come up with it.

The “Trading For Shaq” error is even more widespread than that. I don’t want to make a sweeping generalization, but there’s a fairly high subset of liberal arts majors going to law school for “Trading For Shaq” reason: they want to go into the law because, hell, it’s someone else’s idea of a good profession for you. Since its roots lie in insecurity and other people’s perception, the error is as widespread as that, i.e. human nature.

I’d say usually objective observers can figure out an error of this type immediately. And that’s maybe the saddest part of it all: it’s a blunder that’s apparent to everyone but the person making the blunder.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Linkism for your Anger

The Obama Idiocy continues: he says his lack of transparency on health care was a mistake. It appears Obama is determined to misunderstand every aspect of his problems. Meanwhile, Brad De Long discovers that the only policy that looked within shouting distance of good—the child care tax credit expansion—is basically a fraud. Both of these leads me to co-sign this
Through bad times and good times for the president, there was one word I never associated with him and his approach to the challenges facing the country: gimmick. But this is a bright shining gimmick that advertises a lack of seriousness to both near-term economic weakness and long-run budget problems. This is decidedly not what is needed right now. If this is the best the president can do, Democrats, and the country, are in for a very long few years.

And add this…When the hell did Dick Morris get on the White House payroll?

Anyway, I think it’s about time for progressives to figure out what they can do outside of government. It’s pretty clear at this point that the government and the people who typically get elected to serve in it are badly broken. But progressive goals were only partially about government. Liberals have a variety of goals that they’ve looked to government to solve, but it’s not as if the government is the only entity that can. It’s time for progressives to think about how to get their goals achieved without government.

Meanwhile, our Afghanistan strategy is scarcely doing better. We’ve persisted in attacking Helmand Province, which shouldn’t—by COIN doctrine—be the focus at all. And someone decided to leak the full Eikenberry memos to the President, in which he absolutely trashes the Afghanistan strategy.

There is one small, small bit of good news: it looks like we’ll get high speed rail between Tampa and Orlando! WOOO! Clearly why I waited out in the cutting cold on January 20, 2009. Anyway, the odd thing about this is it shows all the savvy that I associated with the Obama administration: it’s located in a part of the country that’s enduring tough times economically, and conveniently located in a pinkish state. Also, it appears to be a substantively good project. That’s well done, all around. Weird to see something well executed these days.

This op-ed by Roberto Saviano (the journalist who wrote Gomorrah, a book I’ve been meaning to read for years now) is very good. Also depressing.

It’s odd for me to agree with Sean Wilentz on anything, but I agree with him on this: Ulysses S. Grant was a much better President than he’s given credit for.

Barack Obama Then:

....yeah, about that spending freeze you announced.

(To be fair, the proposal is an overall freeze that will allow shifting spending within departments. But will the right be scrupulous about the "to be fair" in noting this contradiction then articulating their own philosophy? Should I answer this question or have you sprained your neck nodding already?)

(From Brad DeLong)

Idiots, More.

Who knew the “idiots” series would require another entry so quickly? But apparently it does: the Obama administration is proposing freezing discretionary spending for the next 3 years in non-security areas. It’s a profoundly unserious policy proposal that fails from a policy perspective; worst of all, the pandering it represents reveals a terrible appreciation of politics.

Start with the policy. Here’s the claim that administration officials are making:
President Obama will propose freezing non-security discretionary government spending for the next three years, a sweeping plan to attempt deficit reduction that will save taxpayers $250 billion over 10 years.

When the administration releases its budget next week, the discretionary spending for government agencies from Health and Human Services to the Department of Treasury will be frozen at its 2010 level in fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013.

If you’re going to do deficit reduction, do it for real: the long-term deficit problem is, as Pete Orszag notes, $9 trillion. The debt level is projected to rise to 300% of GDP by 2050. These are serious numbers. $250 over 10 years is nothing. Worse, it fails to address any of the drivers of the deficits: the drivers of the deficits are the aging of America, economic stagnation, and most importantly, health care.

Nor will this cut have anything to do with helping the economy. That $250 billion—in 2011, 2012, 2013—will suck money out of people’s pockets at a time that the economy should be ramping up. It’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

But the sums are so small that the economic impact may be less than the negative political impact. It’s in that that the most pernicious effects will be shown: in a stroke, Obama has successfully confirmed every negative stereotype about Democrats and confirmed every Republican storyline. That the funding of Health and Human Services—which, you know, only helps people’s health and funds life-saving research—is somehow less important than defense funding (only the most bloated part of government). That deficit-cutting is of the highest importance. That Keynesianism is not a valid economic system. And because the cutting is so nonserious, you know what Republicans will do: demand more cuts. And by the professed logic of the Obama administration, this will be hard to deny.

Since the policy is so nonserious and exactly the opposite of what is needed right now—I can’t even imagine Summers and Geithner stumping right now—it is most likely pandering. And what awful pandering it is. It’s pandering that feeds people’s worst instincts. Deficits weren’t a political problem during most of the Aughts. Why? People felt they were dong OK. People only fixate on deficits when they think they’re not doing well. Naturally, your conclusion should be to help people do well economically; it shouldn’t be to indulge them. Yet the administration has decided to indulge them.

I voted for Obama and contributed money to get health care; not to have it stalled. I voted for a sensible economic policy; not a dumb one. I voted for an administration that would remain steady and even-keeled in a crisis; not one that overreact to the slightest difficulty. Sadly it appears I didn’t get what I voted for.


In the now long-running series of “Idiots,” where we wonder—how and why are Democrats such idiots?—we have another entry: Obama to endorse deficit reduction commission bill. Idiots, is really the only rational response you can have to this.

The short response to this development is the H.L. Mencken quotation: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Of course, there’s simply no way this is a good idea: there’s no way cutting the deficit will lead to less unemployment. It just won’t happen. And surely Obama knows that the source of the long-term deficit isn’t entitlements, it’s health care costs. Surely he knows it because he’s made the argument himself.

This looks like the type of pandering that would be risible if it weren’t dangerous. But since it’s the latter, it’s got a dark humor about it: let’s all cater to people’s mistaken whims! People always think the deficit is a problem, but—I guarantee this—will oppose any specific way of getting it done. The worst part about this is that Obama can come out and stake out a strong position on something that makes no sense, but can’t come out and support a health care bill that would actually improve people’s lives and reduce the deficit (which was the point of all this, right?!?). Which is why Democrats are…idiots.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Here's a Super Bowl angle that might or might not become stale and crusty by February 7: Peyton Manning, traitor (turncoat? ironic opponent?). Manning's accumulated, if accidentally, a record of opposing his dad's old teams: he went to Tennessee rather than Ole Miss, and here he is about to oppose the Saints.

Fortunately for America generally and New Orleans specifically, the Saints will win.

Linkism, End of Week Variety

A great Slate article—not counterintuitive but on an underexplored issue—how can we tell how good cornerbacks are?

Here’s an interesting blog post on the demise of newspapers (I realize this describes roughly 20,000 blog posts, but, uh…there you have it.) Why not show you a graf?

I once gave a talk to a group of business executives about coverage of 9/11. My assignment back then was to profile the hijackers. My editor’s instructions were to go wherever I needed to go and stay as long as I needed to stay. Neither of us imagined the reporting would take three years and require travel to twenty countries on four continents. But it did. In the middle of my talk one of the executives interrupted. “This is fascinating,” he said, “but I can’t help asking: How does it cost out?” It doesn’t, of course. There isn’t much a newspaper does that pays for itself. I suppose you could think about this sort of reporting as brand management, reminding your readers you’re a serious organization. But without the subsidy of the monopoly profits, there will be less and less of this kind of coverage, if any at all.

Michael Pettis discusses the numbers out of 4Q for China.

Wal-Mart is cutting 11,200 jobs. Very worrying, I think: Wal-Mart—like, say, the Dollar Store or fast food—is supposed to be doing well in this economy, and the economy is supposed to be in the doldrums at this point, rather than outright crisis. Worth monitoring.

From the new media front lines: e-books priced at $0 becoming best-“sellers.”

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Late Night Linkism

This series from the Guardian about the early rock-n-rollers (with younger pop stars talking about them) offers some fun reads, and at any rate led me to this Smokey Robinson rendition of Norah Jones’s “Don’t Know Why”:

This review of three books on China is useless in the first half and offers some useful tidbits in the second. But the first half has this pretty amusingly wrong line:
Moreover, projections of a Chinese modernity that will eventually become hegemonic not only forget the inherently self-limiting character of any strongly defined national culture, they further ignore the especially intense Chinese insistence, familiar to anyone who has been in the country, on the uniqueness of China. Few contemporary cultures, save perhaps Japan, are so self-consciously resistant to international comparison, so convinced of the inimitability of their own forms and traditions.

Clearly the reviewer—who apparently teaches history at UCLA—hasn’t paid much attention to the US, which is typically as self-satisfied as any nation. (Recent examples: Republicans insisting the American health care system is the best in the world, and it seems as if every time I watch sports on TV, announcers will burst into hosannas about the wonderfulness of our helping Haiti, and how great the US is for doing it, and the greatness of our military for helping out, and the generosity of the American people and on and on and on practically to exasperation—I say practically because American efforts in Haiti are great, and it’s the singular ability of a sports announcer to annoy the listener with things that are probably true.)

I think this article on radiation treatment for cancer is very sad, and underscores many of the problems we’ve got in our health care system. It covers two awful stories that I hope are exceptional, but here are the general problems they cover:
Regulators and researchers can only guess how often radiotherapy accidents occur. With no single agency overseeing medical radiation, there is no central clearinghouse of cases. Accidents are chronically underreported, records show, and some states do not require that they be reported at all.

Patients who wish to vet New York radiotherapy centers before selecting one cannot do so, because the state will not disclose where or how often medical mistakes occur.

To encourage hospitals to report medical mistakes, the State Legislature — with the support of the hospital industry — agreed in the 1980s to shield the identity of institutions making those mistakes. The law is so strict that even federal officials who regulate certain forms of radiotherapy cannot, under normal circumstances, have access to those names.

These three paragraphs show simply one of the basic problems with our health care system: we just don’t have a lot of data. We don’t know what treatments are particularly effective or particularly prone to accident, we don’t know—aside from the exceptional—which hospitals are good and which aren’t so good. We simply don’t have very good empirics. What we do know is that there’s a great deal of needless waste and suffering: hospital infections are needlessly high, drugs are routinely misused, and patients don’t have many options in terms of what doctor they see and which hospital they visit, and don’t have much beyond fuzzy heuristics to make judgments about what choices they do have. It’s just awful.

I do have to compliment the Times’s reporting here, which is very thorough and effective. For all the appreciation of the new media internet ventures--and having worked at one, I love it—there aren’t a lot (if any?) of new media startups that have the resources to publish an article like this. So, a well-earned kudos. I wish that online advertising could pay for this kind of journalism on its own, but it appears it can’t yet (and won’t ever?)

The rap supergroup

This song got me thinking about supergroups in rap:

Namely, that there aren’t many, if any. I suppose you could say there’s been a recent surge in them, with this song being the other:

But, again, not that many supergroups (defined here as a group made up of artists who were individually successful before becoming a group; in other words, Outkast and Wu-Tang Clan don’t count nyah nyah nyah). You really have to mourn this never-born supergroup:

Now, what’s up with that? Rappers are perfectly content to appear on other prominent rapper’s albums. They’re even, on occasion, perfectly content to upstage the other rapper (e.g. “Renegade”—which, by the way, is the noblest killing there is: it’s not like Jay-Z’s verse is terrible or anything. In fact, he gets off the best line of the song—“I drove by the fork in the road and went straight” is just awesome.). So ego is at best an incomplete explanation. If anything, they’d be able to generate more buzz and more gratification by unifying, to judge by the rapturous reception of Swagga Like Us and Forever, which feature one exceptional verse between them (i.e. T.I.’s in Swagga Like Us.). Maybe, based on this evidence, I shouldn’t wish for a supergroup, but I remain intrigued by all three of these songs, and intrigued that you could make an album of songs like this. Make it happen.

Crisis And Opportunity

Citing a book I’ve always meant to read but haven’t yet—Benjamin Friedman’s The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth--Matthew Yglesias makes a very interesting point: that a crisis doesn’t represent an opportunity; that people become more selfish, clannish, and parochial—attitudes that don’t correlate well with liberalism—as bad times visit them. The implication here is that a recession is a bad time to attempt major liberal reform, and indeed Yglesias thinks that the attitude that crisis represents opportunity is borne out of a “simplistic reading of the New Deal.”

It’s an interesting idea, but let's take a look at the historical evidence. Here are the periods in American history I associate with major reform: the Jacksonian period*, the Civil War, the Progressive period, the New Deal and the Great Society. Of these five, three began in periods that were economically expansionary—Jacksonian, Progressive, and Great Society—but three had a feeling of general crisis. Those were the Civil War, the Progressive period, and the New Deal—people forget this now, but the Progressive period was punctuated in its early days by strikes, class warfare, financial crises (e.g. Panic of 1907), general inequality, and corrupt government, all of which engendered a feeling in the Progressive intelligentsia that Something had gone very Wrong. And of course the Great Society’s achievements basically all took place in an America that had a very…interesting feeling: Kennedy had just been assassinated and those Communists were always a problem (on the other hand, the true crises of the 60s occurred after the Great Society’s signature legislative achievements were enacted).

*Note: I hate to use the term “Jacksonian period” because Andrew Jackson was a jerk and not a very good President besides. He had few achievements and many blunders. But significant progress did occur during the period and historians have chosen to call it that and…jeez. Just don’t call him a good President. In fact, of all the Presidents on our money, Jackson is just slightly ahead of Kennedy as an undeserving honoree. I’d love to kick both off their money and put some different figures on. But this is a subject for sometime else: Jackson, not great President. I refuse to endorse the conventional wisdom on that point.

So consider the historical evidence mixed on the point of “crises produce opportunity.” Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that we wasted an opportunity in 2009: Democrats had 60 seats. That’s more than enough.

Weekend Linkism

This article on the Supreme Court's misguided decision to invalidate McCain-Feingold is so, so key.

Apparently we're giving drone technology to the Pakistanis. There's no possible way this can go wrong, right?

The obvious opinion to have on Bernanke.

And this:
Fifty-nine senators, representing...some 63 percent of the American public, accompanied by a large House majority and a president recently elected with 70 million votes, cannot enact changes in the nation's health-care system that have been debated for decades.
A 59-41 margin is not enough for a change of this magnitude.

Five Justices of the Supreme Court, outvoting their four colleagues, can work a fundamental change in election law that goes far beyond the issues presented by the parties to the case...Courts always have the option of deciding cases narrowly or broadly. The breadth of this one, reaching far beyond the merits of the case so as to enact the majority Justices' views, is staggering even to a non-lawyer like me. A one-person margin* is enough for a change of this magnitude.

In the least accountable branch of government, the narrowest margin prevails; in our elected legislative branch, substantial majorities are neutered. My current article strikes a somewhat optimistic tone, in concluding that the only truly broken part of our country is its system of government. (Everyone on Earth would like to imitate America's universities. No one is copying our current governmental machinery.) But that brokenness will require some creativity to repair, and soon.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Linkism Sure To Piss You Off

Pop quiz: whose bonds are cheaper to insure—Kazhakstan's or California's? The fact I posed this question tips you off to the answer, doesn’t it?

This liveblog of the Google earnings call has some interesting tidbits like: “Of course, Google is not going to give any specific metrics on YouTube. But the home page was "nearly sold out" in the fourth quarter.” And: “[Eric Schmidt] does say that Google is "in conversations with the Chinese government" but that its "business in China is today unchanged." Google is following the laws and offering censored results right now. "We remain quite committed to being there." This seems stronger than most coverage has suggested.”

This article on Swopo and other auction sites has this broader, thought-provoking point:
The logic of the smoke-screen economy operates in almost every area of consumer life. You see it when you make a phone call or buy an airplane ticket. On Expedia (EXPE) you will be quoted one rate for a hotel reservation and another rate for a nonrefundable reservation for the same room. Is the price better or worse than the Travelocity price that falls somewhere in between? Just how much more does your Continental (CAL) ticket cost if you have two bags than a ticket on Southwest (LUV) (a baggage fee outlier that still doesn't charge for the first two)? And if you are, say, moving, and have four pieces of luggage, go ahead and try to compare the prices onAmerican versus Delta. Not only does your flight turn out to be more expensive than you expected, but you end up unsure of whether you got the best price in the first place.

Almost every segment of the economy has its own version of this creeping price-fog. Take electronics retailing, long one of the more brutally price-competitive parts of the economy (just ask the defunct Circuit City). It's easy enough, for instance, to compare prices on a printer or a computer and see if Best Buy (BBY) or Amazon (AMZN) has the best deal. But wait a second. Printers generally don't come with cables anymore, so you'll need to add that. And if you only checked the price of the printer, decided it was competitive, and dashed into your local Best Buy to get it, you'll find that the cable (something you're much less likely to have checked on the Web) will set you back an astounding $28.89.

John Hodgman is either the best or second best Daily Show correspondent, and this article explaining Goldman Sachs’s control of the world is up to his hilarious standards.

Here’s an article on China’s Sovereign Wealth Fund.

A Foreign Policy article makes the case that we’ll see a lot more damaging leaking this year from discontented Obama administration figures. Right on cue, someone reveals Tim Geithner is unhappy with the proposed financial regulations. Jerk. And Simon Johnson notes that the new proposed financial regulations, high-quality as they were, won’t reduce the size of the legacy Too Big To Fail Banks. What, exactly, is the point of the regulations then?!?

China Aggregation

Here’s two intriguing pieces on China:

Here, The First:
Democracy is the outcome most Westerners prefer, in the hope that China’s policies in Tibet and Xinjiang might soften, human rights improve, and cooperation with the West increase in fields like the environment, public health, and global trade and finance. But democratization could also make China’s policies more nationalistic, both vis-à-vis its internal minorities and toward outside powers like Japan and the West. The implications of a Chinese political collapse for the outside world would likewise be mixed, but in many ways negative. An economic downturn would ensue. Ethnic breakaway movements would surge. Cross-border environmental, refugee, public-health and crime issues would move to the forefront. A military regime, if one took power, would be more assertive about territorial disputes. Of one thing we can be sure: a Soviet-style breakup is not in the cards, for the national minorities in China constitute only 6 or 7 percent of the population and lack the demographic clout or institutional separateness required to set themselves free.

And, the second:
Google’s clash with China is about much more than the fate of a single, powerful firm. The company’s decision to pull out of China, unless the government there changes its policies on censorship, is a harbinger of increasingly stormy relations between the US and China.

The reason that the Google case is so significant is because it suggests that the assumptions on which US policy to China have been based since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 could be plain wrong. The US has accepted – even welcomed – China’s emergence as a giant economic power because American policymakers convinced themselves that economic opening would lead to political liberalisation in China.

So far, the facts are refusing to conform to the theory. China has continued to censor new and old media, but this has hardly condemned it to “dismal economic failure”. On the contrary, China is now the world’s second largest economy and its largest exporter, with foreign reserves above $2,000bn. But all this economic growth shows little sign of provoking the political changes anticipated by Bush and Clinton. If anything, the Chinese government seems to be getting more repressive. Liu Xiaobo, a leading Chinese dissident, was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison for his involvement in the Charter 08 movement that advocates democratic reforms.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Felix Salmon attacks the NYT paywall from a new angle: that it’s designed to shore up the print subscription base. He also mentions this fact:
Gapper makes great play of the fact that websites can target ads more accurately when readers are registered, but you can’t target ads at readers who no longer exist. And the NYT is a mass-market general news publication: it’s not the kind of place where high-end business-to-business advertisers will pay $90 CPMs to reach C-suite executives. Or if it is, the numbers involved would be so small that they wouldn’t make a visible dent in its overall online advertising revenues.

Could it be that the mass-market general news publication—even a spectacularly successful one from the content perspective—can’t survive in our media environment. That is, won’t a mass-market general news publication’s audience be too big to successfully target a lucrative demographic? I think it’s plausible, right? Just a little bit? Or am I crazy.

Evan Osnos circulates a post from a Baidu engineer that was censored in China. Very interesting.

Jeffrey Toobin asks, “What’s the matter with the judges?” You might expect this is to devolve into a Senate-bashing genre exercise, either on my end or his—but it’s at least partially Obama’s fault (though the Senate has been slow about getting its votes together).

The Guardian writes that the British Museum is a museum to emulate. And it’s true. I’d say the British Museum is either my favorite or second favorite museum I’ve been to, worldwide, because a) it’s got so, so much stuff and so many antiquities and b) they’re so accessible. I remember when I went there were docents with various artifacts from their storage room , and you could touch them and feel their heft and their age as the docent explained, in detail, what was going on: I touched a Roman coin and a Mongolian belt buckle. It was cool in a way these words don’t indicate.

Testimony from a Democratic Senate aide should up your loathing level vis-à-vis Democrats.

And Nouriel Roubini makes clear what we’re in for:
If America’s Democrats lose in the mid-term elections this November, there is a risk of persistent fiscal deficits as Republicans veto tax increases while Democrats veto spending cuts. Monetizing the fiscal deficits would then become the path of least resistance: running the printing presses is much easier than politically painful deficit reduction.

But if the US does use the inflation tax as a way to reduce the real value of its public debt, the risk of a disorderly collapse of the US dollar would rise significantly. America’s foreign creditors would not accept a sharp reduction in their dollar assets’ real value that debasement of the dollar via inflation and devaluation would entail. A disorderly rush to the exit could lead to a dollar collapse, a spike in long-term interest rates, and a severe double dip recession.

The Old Media, and various financial manipulations

As it turns out, this New York Times Magazine article has some valuable points about the publishing industry (incidentally, it’s also a fairly good profile):
Like movie studios, publishing houses have long built their businesses on top of blockbusters. But never in the history of publishing has the blockbuster been so big. Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.

The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.

Ah, financial wizardry thinking it can rewrite the rules of an old industry. As you know from reading earlier, a similar thing happened in newspapers: MediaNews Group is one example, but Sam Zell is another. Zell bought the Chicago Tribue and Los Angeles Times in 2007. His plan to revitalize those papers? Was it figuring out how to deal with the new media environment? No. Here’s what it was (incidentally, this profile is excellent):
The day I visited, Zell was in a buoyant mood. He had just got off the phone with Rupert Murdoch, who was confident that Dow Jones would soon accept his bid of five billion dollars to acquire the company. (Murdoch and Zell have been friendly for about five years, but, according to a source close to Murdoch, he has been courting Zell lately because he wants to buy a stake in Newsday.) “Compare Dow Jones to Tribune,” Zell began. “Rupert is paying a huge price. In our case, we’re paying what we think is a very attractive price—so our point of entry in this transaction is such that we have a lot of optionality. In other words, for his deal to work for him, it has to meet perfection, or close to it. We don’t need perfection for our deal to work. This deal is not a bet that newspaper readership is about to spike up.” Rather, he said, his assumption was that “the growth would come in other areas”—such as broadcasting and digital media—“and that over time, if we did the right thing, we could stabilize newspaper income.” Murdoch’s bid of sixty dollars a share represented a sixty-seven-per-cent premium on Dow Jones’s stock price, but Zell chose to overlook the fact that his transaction, unlike Murdoch’s, was highly leveraged; when the deal is done, Tribune will have thirteen billion dollars of debt—the most encumbered balance sheet in the newspaper industry. If profits increase and the company is able to pay down the debt, Zell’s return on the deal would be extraordinary.

In order to make his acquisition of Tribune financially viable, Zell devised a structure, never before implemented in a deal this large, that would enable the company to pay essentially no taxes. Tribune’s directors were incredulous when Zell first proposed the idea but eventually concluded that it could work. According to his plan, Tribune would buy out the public shareholders and then become a Subchapter S corporation, which pays no corporate income tax but must pass all taxable income through to shareholders. The novelty of the scheme is that the sole shareholder would be an employee-stock-ownership plan, or ESOP, which also pays no taxes. (When employees leave the company or retire, they will pay taxes on their ESOP income.) Thus a large amount of cash, which otherwise would have been used to pay taxes, is freed to pay down debt.

This is critical, given the level of debt that the buyout is imposing on the company. Zell’s initial investment of two hundred and fifty million dollars—for which he received a two-hundred-million-dollar promissory note and fifty million dollars in stock—will be redeemed when the deal closes. At that point, Zell will make a new investment of three hundred and fifteen million dollars, in the form of a two-hundred-and-twenty-five-million-dollar, eleven-year loan, plus ninety million dollars for the right to buy forty per cent of the company for between five hundred and six hundred million dollars in the next fifteen years. In the meantime, he will become Tribune’s chairman, with effective control over its daily operations. Zell’s final contribution thus represents less than four per cent of the total value of the deal. Moreover, Zell’s outlay, as debt, would have some protection in the event of bankruptcy; the employees’ shares, as equity, would not.

The deal epitomizes what Zell always seeks: potential for great profit, acceptable risk, and an ingenious tax advantage. To quantify the risk, Zell evaluated each of Tribune’s assets and concluded that in a worst-case scenario the company was worth about fifty dollars a share. (Under the terms of the deal, Zell will pay shareholders thirty-four dollars a share.) Had Tribune’s employees been invited to assess their risk, they might have reached a different conclusion. If the company is unable to service its debt, it could go bankrupt. (Zell argues that employees’ jobs are already in jeopardy because the company’s revenues have fallen so sharply, and that, by taking the company private and removing it from the glare of public markets, he can reverse the decline.) In addition, the majority of company contributions to employees’ retirement funds will now be made not to 401(k)s but to the ESOP, in the form of company stock; many employees will have a less diversified portfolio, and one that is heavily invested in a company that is saddled with debt. Of course, if the company does well, its workers will profit handsomely. In an interview with several reporters for the Chicago Tribune last April, Zell summed up the arrangement with characteristic candor, saying, “It’s not going to change my life style, no matter what happens. It’s likely to change yours significantly.”

Distrust businessmen with funny financial manipulation. (e.g. Michael Heisley and the Grizzlies.)

Anyway, it’s tough to argue that the old media would have been in great shape had guys like Zell and the various private equity guys not decided to prey on those old media companies, but they would have been in much better shape: obviously they wouldn’t have to service as much of the old, legacy debt and they could potentially borrow some now to invest in the new, beckoning media future.

You Too, Obama

You lose. I hope you enjoy being a one-term failure. I won't; neither will the country.

Barney Frank Is Dead To Me Now

Eff you, Frank.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Linkism: What Brown Did To Me Edition

This Barney Frank statement post-Brown is really disappointing and confirms all my worries: if Frank feels this way, we can be certain Ben Nelson (et. al.) feel like mass conversion to Republicanism combined with a reeducation camp. I really don’t even have the will for invective at this point.

Compare and contrast: this narrative of an anti-Khamenei Ayatollah and this account of a visit to Qom.

Tyler Cowen has some provocative thoughts about Haiti.

This book review will have you feeling chipper about the possibility of the promised high speed rail utopia that will never ever materialize or even start.

Also, here's an account of the fall of the Washington Post, which is criticized for its inability to focus: web or print? politics or hyperlocal? Ironically, the post itself embraces the worst of the web on its first page, borrowing the annoying habit of of placing irrelevant links in the middle of the page. Shame on you, TNR (but well-reported!)

The "What It All Means Post" I've Been Advising Myself Not To Write And You Not To Read (Though I Believe You Should Read This)

James Fallows wrote a really good article about declinist thought in America, coming up with the thesis (and documentation) that Americans are something like genetically prone to believing that their country is in decline. And he also mentions the many wonderful things we Americans have to be proud of. The problem here, of course, is that America actually is in decline and actually does have really serious problems. And as they say in the mutual fund commercials, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

By the end of the article, Fallows wisely fixes upon our government as the source of the problems and specifically hones in on the Senate. Because that’s where the problems are, natch. And obviously he couldn’t have known this while writing the article, but the Scott Brown election is a probable extension of the trend. Since Brown will likely act like every other Republican—that is, filibustering and holding to no end—then the Senate’s pace will slow from constipated to epically backed up. Seeing as people probably voted for Brown and against Coakley (at least partially) because of the constipated pace in the first place, it’s hard to see how electing Brown will clear things up much. In fact, it will probably exacerbate the trend: more and more Republicans will get elected; as the upper chamber reaches rough parity, less and less will get done, barring a radical change in the political dynamics of the Senate specifically and the country generally.

And the problems we’re facing had the gall to be long-term, conceptual, abstract ones: that is, the health care cost problem, the fiscal problem, the environmental problem, the education problem, the financial system problem and the infrastructure problem. While there’s an unemployment problem right now, it will dodder its way into something resembling full employment sometime in the nearish to medium-term future (ah, the confidence). That problem is temporary, cyclical and recurring; the other problems listed above are hard, durable ones that strike against the old foundations of the system.

If there’s anything that’s hard to get people to concentrate on, it’s problems that will bite us in the ass not now, but ten years from now. So it will be hard to do anything about them, and the system will slump into do-nothingism. And because most people (I assume) will not realize what rules (e.g. filibusters and holds) cause the system to have slumped into do-nothingism, they will be unable to organize against it…which will further entrench do-nothingism. In essence, we have a combination of problems almost uniquely suited to defeat our system.

Unless, of course, we strike against the rules. Some have proposed getting together with Republicans and banning filibusters at some agreed-upon date in the future, to prevent accusations that the rules change will benefit one party specifically. That’s one method. But waiting say four or five years won’t solve the problems; for the climate change problem, specifically, it will intensify the problem. In fact, it will likely make that particular problem unsolvable (according to what I’ve read). So it really has to be solved right now. Sadly, the only way that gets solved is coup-like activity. And that’s unacceptable. So really, we’re in an unacceptable situation with no good solutions. Yay.

Because I Can't Follow My Own Advice

Apparently some Democrats (Evan Bayh cough cough) believe that this election shows the problems of liberals forcing themselves on America. Which is odd, seeing as every liberal I know wishes we could force ourselves on America and thinks 2009 was a wasted opportunity for liberalism. But anyway, there's some speculation that Democrats may revert to form and use this as an excuse to a) not pass health care reform and b) not do anything else, for that matter. Because, as we know, not solving people's problems is an excellent way to get voted back into office.

I think it's appropriate now for liberals to begin our "I Told You So" list. Conservatives are very good at this, as we've seen (e.g. underpants bomber), and this is one thing liberals should emulate. When Democrats get voted out of office in 2010 because unemployment is too high, clearly the correct response is "I Told You So." When climate change makes the world less livable and less stable, clearly the correct response is "I Told You So." Feel free to make up your own "I Told You So" scenarios.

What's really frustrating is that in a few months we just know this whole frustrating cycle will be repeated: Democrats will do nothing and their do-nothingism will somehow indict liberalism rather than, say, do-nothingism. Democrats never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Buckle In--We're About To Hit Some Turbulence

A bullshit storm approaches with Brown winning the Senate seat in Massachusetts. I advise not turning on the TV to news of any kind or, indeed, reading the political internet. Just don't do it. So much is wrong and all of it is infuriating.

Auto-Tune The News Is A National Treasure

Monday, January 18, 2010

End-of-day Linkism

This Room For Debate on China’s innovation/research strategy has some provocative points (variously, even). It’s quite good, but it makes me wonder: how will the blogs fall under the pay strategy of the Times? Will they count those against the meter? Because if there’s anything that doesn’t fit the whole premium-value, premium-cost model, it’s the vast majority of blogs (very much including the Times, although Dealbook could probably attract paying subscribers).

I think this Daily Dish post is valuable to remind everyone that Iraq isn’t yet stable or resemble the fine Western-style democracy flowering that was the goal in the first place. And maybe you could keep that in mind when thinking about Afghanistan (speaking of, doesn’t it seem as if there hasn’t been a lot of news out of there recently?)

Foreign Policy publishes three useful articles. The first, on Senatorial-dysfunction preventing approval of key foreign affairs nominees, is usually depressing and fulfills the demands of the now-burgeoning genre. Then these two 2010-in-foresight pieces are too alarmist, but raise good points: the price of oil will likely choke any robust recovery and global trade integration isn’t proceeding as smoothly as we like.

And Massachusetts corruption is funny:
There’s no better illustration of the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s decrepitude than its state legislators. For most state parties, the legislature is an incubator for political talent and the place to develop a deep political bench, but for Massachusetts Democrats, it’s been a breeding ground for pathological behavior and corruption. The last three speakers of the Massachusetts House of Representatives — Democrats all in a legislative body their party has now controlled for 55 years — have had to resign because of scandals that resulted in their indictments. Meanwhile, over in the State Senate, in the last two years, one Democrat lost his job after beingarrested for sexual assault; another was forced from office after FBI surveillance cameras caught her stuffing a $1,000 bribe into her bra; and a third (and my personal favorite) recently bid the Senate adieu after a three-month stretch during which he was involved in a hit-and-run car crash that injured a 13-year-old boy, failed a breathalyzer test he had to take as part of the house arrest he was under stemming from the hit-and-run, and then tried to blame the failed test on the alcohol in his toothpaste — an explanation the judge rejected in sending him to jail, which finally led to his resignation.

But what states, at this point, don’t have hilarious corruption stories?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a young journalist.

Oh Where, Oh Where Have My Big Brands Gone?

Here’s a fact that sums up the current media dilemma better than anything:
In the US market, between August 2008 and August 2009, the amount spent online by brands decreased by 2%, as the money spent on top social networks and top blogging sites increased by 119%. Unfortunately, this is done on the cheap: based on 2009 revenue estimates, Facebook is grossing about $1.5 per user and per year in ad revenue. Just to put things in an unpleasant perspective, this compares to the $647 a newspaper such as the Washington Post gets from its print advertising for each of its buyers or subscribers. Make that $215 for each of its readers assuming a rate of three readers per copy. (This is based on the full 2008 year).
Brand advertising is only the key to the media’s moneymaking strategy, of course. Think about the ads you consume when you turn on the TV or read a (dead-tree) newspaper: they’re brand advertisements. There are some local businesses, of course, but it’s a minority.

And while the big brands might be spending more on social networking and blogging sites, it’s certainly not the majority. In fact, the majority of ads, near as I can tell, is teeth-whitening, waist-losing, muscle-building, single-seeking, get-rich-quick-scheming: a list of the paranoias and obsessions of the 21st century American mind, basically. The ads on TV and magazines and what have you are like that too, but they’re more subtle about it. Which is the problem for the old media: the ads of online advertising are by and large outright, obviously useless (with occasionally useful exceptions, i.e. sometimes on Google) whereas the ads of old media were only subtly useless (again, with exceptions). And, if you’re a big brand, you prefer subtly useless because it’s better to trick people that way—if you trick people in the way that the “Lose twenty pounds if you obey this one simple rule” folks do, they will presumably become angry which hurts your brand. So it’s an open question, which may not be answerable, as to how to get the big brands back in the mood of tricking people subtly.

Anyway, it’s one that many sectors of the media largely ignored in the past decade. Check out this report on the MediaNews Group’s prepackaged bankruptcy in the Nieman Lab of Journalism. The MediaNews Group owns a bunch of newspapers, like the San Jose Mercury News, so they’re right in front of the sclerosis. Like the Chicago Tribune’s Sam Zell, MediaNews Group was concerned with financial manipulation….:
The financial wizard behind the company’s financial maneuvers was Jody Lodovic, who became chief financial officer in the early 1990s and rose to become president. Together, Singleton and Lodovic created partnerships with Gannett in Texas and New Mexico and with Gannett and Stephens Media in California to which each company contributed its newspapers, with MediaNews assuming the management. They pioneered the concept of “clusters” of papers that could realize economies of scale. They deftly exploited joint operating agreements in Detroit, Charleston, W.V., York, Penn., Salt Lake City and ultimately in Denver at the conclusion of a long battle between MediaNews’ flagship paper, the Denver Post, and the Rocky Mountain News. At times, when cash was tight or they got offers they couldn’t refuse, they sold papers, including the original New Jersey cluster dear to Dick Scudder’s heart.

For Singleton, the elimination of most his company’s debt is a long-delayed goal. As early as 1996, at a retreat for the group’s management and publishers, he outlined strategies including a few more years of acquisitions followed by a push to reduce debt. But somehow, acquisition opportunities kept coming along, and debt reduction was put off. Singleton began to feel that at some point, there would be only two or three newspaper companies left standing, and he wanted MediaNews to be one. To be in the running, the company had to keep growing. Ultimately, revenue tanked not long after the final big deals with McClatchy and Hearst, and MediaNews found itself in workoutlast April. Given the complexity of its financial structure, it’s not surprising that it took eight months to package the bankruptcy.

…rather than the actual product:
The elimination of most of his debt gives [Singleton] an opportunity to rebuild newspaper operations that have been hammered for years by revenue declines and the company’s inability to invest adequately in its future (many of the papers are still operating on content management systems installed as Y2K solutions). Whether he, or Lodovic, will have the vision to turn the company into a truly digital enterprise is an open question. Singleton has an understanding of the web (he helped lead the formation of the Yahoo Newspaper Consortium), but he’s not an active computer user. He has often expressed faith in the future of print, and has strongly espoused charging for content in order to protect the print side of the business: “I think print’s going to be important for a long time…Print is still the meat. Online’s the salt and pepper.”

Ah. Well then. It may be that the online trend is a tsunami that will swallow up well-managed and not-so-well-managed concerns alike, but I’d rather be well-managed than not. And certainly I don’t trust this guy to do it. Sadly I think a lot of media people are like this in kind if not in degree. Which is why things may get worse before they get better.

Odd And Unfair Expectations

Marcus Thompson II writes a really odd article titled "Does The NBA Really Represent Dr. King?" Fortunately it's not a tired thugs-with-guns piece--though it touches on that--but nevertheless, no matter how positively the article is disposed towards NBA vis-a-vis Martin Luther King, it's an odd article because why should one sports league in particular feel compelled to represent the values of King? It only makes sense in an NBA-is-the-black-league paradigm, which is pretty annoying. It's also an odd expectation to have of a league, seeing as athletes are mostly entertainers. (To be fair, the league appears to be making extensive efforts to associate itself with MLK, which I disagree with for the same reasons). Here are some informative comparisons:

"Does Hollywood Really Represent Abraham Lincoln?"
"Does MLB Really Represent Bill Gates?"
"Does The NFL Really Represent The Military?" (Like NBA and MLK, the NFL makes every effort to make you think the military and the NFL are intertwined).

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Results-Oriented Thinking

So one coach went for it on 4th down and one the game; the other went for it on 4th and two and lost it. Both coaches went for it because they would win the game if their team converted. Naturally, the latter coach, Belichick, was criticized loudly from every corner; the former, Rex Ryan, barely received comment on it at all.

The basic problem here is results-oriented thinking: people tend to criticize others based on the results of an action as opposed to the probable results of the action at the time it was tried. Intellectually we realize this—hindsight is 20/20 is a cliché after all—but we generally aren’t very good at putting it into practice. Not something I’m very fond of at all.

Linkism, Linkology, Linx

I think this Foreign Policy article making the case that Google’s leaving China is an extension of China’s protectionism is plausible, at the very least (though I’m not sure it’s correct—for this narrative to hold true, I’d think China would deliberately, brazenly provoke Google to get it to leave, which it didn’t; in fact, its initial reactions seemed to guarded to me. But what do I know?)

From the interesting-in-retrospect file: David Leonhardt New York Times Magazine article from the 2008 Presidential campaign re: Obama’s economic plans.

Mike Konczal on the financial crisis inquiry panel; the subject—how consumer finance failed. Also, he enlightens with a little history on stagnating wages during the Aughts.

This review of a Louis Menand book on universities gets off some choice lines. Here’s the first graf:
The state of higher education in America is one of those things, like the airline industry or publishing, that's always in crisis. The academy is too distant from the concerns of everyday life, or else it's too politically engaged. The academy has become completely irrelevant, except for the fact that it's too relevant. We ought to be grateful to our universities for this. Academic wrongheadedness is one of the few things people across the political and cultural spectrum can agree upon.

That’s just good writing. Should be in every writing textbook under “Good examples of starting off your essay.” Also, good points abound.

Gregory Mankiw talkz inflation.

Cliches I Hate

If your article, column or essay relies on the "every kid on the soccer team gets a trophy" trope, I will immediately stop reading it. All I know is, my bookshelf isn't exactly stacked with participation trophies, and that's all I'd be eligible for in my extended youth athletic career.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Linkism Of The Saturday Night Variety

Time publishes two articles on health care: one good, one bad. The good one is about biologic drugs and the fight to keep the exclusivity period 10 years instead of 12, which would speed up the process for generic (i.e. cheaper) drugs. Anyway, I found this graf to be fairly remarkable:
Among the biologics industry's most high-profile advocates has been former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, who is consulting for a law firm that has a deep roster of biologics clients. In July he wrote an Op-Ed in the Hill newspaper arguing for a "commonsense and fair approach" to give biologics companies at least 12 years of exclusivity. ("I wouldn't do this if I didn't believe it," Dean, a physician, said in an interview.) His former campaign manager Joe Trippi echoed Dean's views on a Huffington Post blog without disclosing that he had been paid by BIO to create two Web campaigns. (He also says his views predated his paycheck.)

Remember: the lobbying culture has its tentacles everywhere.

Meanwhile, this article on the possible federalization of the Medicare expansion costs of the health care bill is incredibly dumb. It complains (well, it has people complain for the writer) how the bill would make the federal government pay more and might make the federal government overweening (the same objection as the public option). To start my complaint off, the article doesn’t even make an attempt to balance out the objections to the pro- point. It simply complains, but it uses the usual tired he-says she-says structure of mainstream journalism. So the approach is all wrong. Also, the article is wrong.

The latter concern is one I disagree with, but not at least there’s an argument there. The former concern is evidence of not thinking hard enough, if at all. (It only makes gestures at the actual concern by saying stuff like it could relieve “unwelcome pressures” for the states without actually talking about what they are—if you know what’s being talked about, you know what’s going on---if you don’t, you’re confused.) Listen: because Medicaid expansion is happening, someone has to pay for it. In fact, it would answer the article’s complaint—but have the same total cost and hence achieve nothing—to have the states handle all the costs. But to do this just to answer the article’s complaint would be the type of accounting gimmickry we all hate in Washington. So, since the money must be paid for by someone (unless you don’t think expansion of coverage is a good idea, which is an entirely different argument altogether), you have to ask, well, who’s the best entity to pay for it? And….as it turns out, it’s the federal government! Whenever we hit a recession, states cut costs because they have to balance the budget (which is also dumb, but…an argument for a different time). And when they have to balance the budget, where do they go to? Well, since poor people—who are covered by Medicaid—aren’t exactly the most important constituency for politicians to serve, they typically cut Medicaid. Which means poor people lose their health insurance just when they’re losing their jobs or receiving a pay cut. And that’s really bad. On the other hand, the federal government has a much greater ability to borrow money and it’s not obligated to balance the budget. We know the federal government can run Medicaid because Medicare is one of the better-run federal government agencies (even better run than private insurance, but that’s not much of an accomplishment). So, essentially, there’s no real objection that makes any sense to federalizing Medicaid costs.

On the other hand, this Jonah Lehrer post makes the case for different “primes” for genius in different fields (poets tend to do well young, he says; novelists are middle-aged beasts, which means you can expect my best output in 2025 or so, unless the Mayans kill us all.) Malcolm Gladwell, on the other hand, wrote a really good article on accomplishment, and made the case that some artists are early bloomers, some are late ones. It’s an interesting counterpoint; you should read both.

And Steven Pearlstein argues for a financial transactions tax.

Why Were There So Many Movies This Year...

...about people taking over other bodies and using them as (oh, it's unavoidable) avatars? Kind of a weird little coincidence, don't you think? In case you've forgotten...

Beware of people bearing polls

The entrail-readers have already begun issuing their interpretations of the Coakley-Brown race. Liberal commentators (like, say, my dad) often claim that because Obama hasn’t been liberal enough, it’s responsible for the problem Coakley has. Conservative commentators claim exactly the opposite. Centrist commentators think he should have been more centrist. Everyone has their pet theory, and the problem with polls is that they can support any kind of interpretation you want to draw.

Well, not any kind. You can believe people’s opinions in polls as to how they’ll vote, but not why they’ll vote in a particular way. It’s really difficult to do why just on polls alone, because then you’ll discover that the American people are—at least in the ways they answer poll questions--…confused about politics and their ideology.

Let’s take this Suffolk poll analyzed by a post (you’ll note that all the post does is analyze who’s ahead). According to this poll, there’s a non-trivial percentage of Massachusetts voters who believe these things: they like Obama, Scott Brown, Martha Coakley, Bill Clinton, support the Massachusetts health care law, believe it unaffordable, oppose the national health care law and believe it unaffordable. I’d describe that as confusion. And you can probably look at the crosstabs of any poll and come to similar conclusions.

The point here is to be wary of people bearing polls to support their own ideological proclivities. The cynical explanation is that they’ve got an agenda to shill for. But I suspect part of it is a failure of recognition: the entrail-readers, who are ideological, look at other people and see other ideologues like themselves, when those other people tend to say “Yes” to every question so they can move on from political matters. (Here’s a good essay on undecided voters by Chris Hayes.) It’s perilous then to look into their minds and assume a similar political junkie-dom and infer complicated exaplanation. People are strange, and explanations are difficult.

If I might do a little entrail-reading myself, here’s my explanation for why the race is as close as it is: Scott Brown might win because everyone thinks Martha Coakley will win. Question 28 asks, who do you think will win the race (in pollerese): 60% believe Coakley will win. Well, I suspect a pretty large percentage of those Coakley-will-win voters are casting Brown votes as an eff you to the powers that be. Please don’t take this explanation as an explanation.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Going West (He's Made That Pun Before, Right?)

One of the underrated aspects of Kanye West’s career at this point is the actual music. (IMMA LET YOU FINISH, BUT KANYE WEST’S BS IS THE BEST BS OF ALL TIME! OF ALL TIME!). I’m sorry, I didn’t get enough of those jokes in at the time, so I couldn’t quite resist this time around. Anyway, it’s not his lyrics that are underrated, it’s the actual production, and the specific way it anticipated later developments.

Take his first album, The College Dropout:

The influence was somewhat limited there to other hip-hop artists. The lush orchestration of Late Registration also mostly influenced a guy like Lupe Fiasco, and that’s it. It was with Graduation (and that possibly faked feud with 50 Cent) where he really started influencing pop music generally:

What this video shows (as well as the music itself) is Kanye’s biggest talent, which is repurposing and simplifying (in an elegant way) other musical tradition. In this case, it’s Daft Punk and their pet obsessions, i.e. robots, Japan and odd hints of Nietzsche. Now you can hear that europop sound practically every time you turn on the radio (see: Lady Gaga, who is a white Kanye West, combined with some Madonna.). His most recent album, 808s and Heartbreak, was…interesting in its relationship to pop music. Kanye made an album that should have been a bomb: it was strange and unconventional. Like this song:

I love the spare synths and the warm taiko drums together: they shouldn’t work together, but they do so well (the buddy film of music?) Maybe the only element of 808s to catch on broadly was AutoTune, and you hear a lot less of that nowadays. Well, you hear less of it obviously as AutoTune; obviously they’re covertly deploying it.

Then of course came West’s myriad controversies, and it seems that West has hit a dry period. That’s all right, but it’s worth asking how West will reinvent his music for another album.

Links, Links, Links

I think this Dr. Saturday appreciation of Toby Gerhart is right on point. It’s worth knowing what we’re going to lose as a running back; it’ll be a long time before Stanford sees another runner with as much power, violence and determination.

James Fallows’s reader writes about how the Haiti situation demonstrates the difference between the United States and China.

Financial reform is rapidly becoming as depressing as health care reform, and the tea partiers haven’t even started focusing on it. Here, Republicans have cut a deal with Mark Warner to create a clumsy, slow resolution authority for non-bank financial bankruptcy. And why do they want a slow, clumsy resolution authority that will make it harder and slower to resolve bankruptcies of these firms, which would be particularly bad in a financial crisis, which might ensure a bailout as opposed to a (relatively) orderly unwinding? Do I need to tell you, or are you cynical enough to answer the rhetorical question on your own?

Here’s more data in the stagnant-wages-caused-the-financial-crisis thesis.

This New York Times article reveals some interesting details about the China-spying-on-Gmail story.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

On the Too Big To Fail Tax

Obama's proposed a Too Big To Fail tax, against banks with more than $50 billion in assets. Good for him. There's one problem with the tax: he only wants it to gather $100 billion or so (to repay TARP money) and then it will expire. That's a problem. It should be permanent, and it would both modestly reduce the deficit, as well as discourage banks to become Too Big To Fail in the first place.

But here's another tax that Obama should be using on the financial industry: a modest financial transactions tax, to encourage financial firms to not trade as much (while not affecting the day trader or buy-and-holder).

He's Got That Ambition, Baby, Look In His Eyes

Both of these movie trailers leave you stunned with their ambition. That is, they’re so ambitious, they leave you wondering—how did this movie get made? One of these movies is artistically ambitious, the other is, well, ambitious (showing chutzpah) in wanting our money.

Decade in Review: The Politics

I think Chris Hayes makes a good point here:
American progressives were the first to identify that something was deeply wrong with the direction the country was heading in [during the Aughts] and the first to provide a working hypothesis for the cause: George W. Bush. During the initial wave of antiwar mobilization, in 2002, much of the ire focused on Bush himself. But as the decade stretched on, the causal account of the country's problems grew outward in concentric circles: from Bush to his administration (most significantly, Cheney) to the Republican Party to--finally (and not inaccurately)--the entire project of conservative governance.

As much of the country came to share some version of this view (tenuously, but share it they did), the result was a series of Democratic electoral sweeps and a generation of Americans, the Millennials, with more liberal views than any of their elder cohorts. But it always seemed possible that the sheer reactionary insanity of the Bush administration would have a conservatizing effect on the American polity. Because things had gone so wrong, it was a more than natural reaction to long for the good old days; the Clinton years, characterized by deregulation and bubbles, seemed tantalizingly placid and prosperous in retrospect. The atavistic imperialism of the Bush administration had a way of making the pre-Bush foreign policy of soft imperialism and subtle bullying look positively saintly.

Toward the end of the decade, as the establishment definitively rebuked Bush and sought to distance itself from his failures, the big-tent center-left coalition took on an influential constituency--the Colin Powells and Warren Buffetts--who didn't want reform so much as they wanted restoration. This was reflected in a strange internal tension in the Obama campaign rhetoric that simultaneously promised both: change you can believe in and, as Obama said at a March 2008 appearance in Pennsylvania, a foreign policy that is "actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush's father."

If the working hypothesis that bound this unwieldy coalition together--independents, most liberals and the Washington establishment--was that the nation's troubles were chiefly caused by the occupants of the White House, then this past year has served as a kind of natural experiment. We changed the independent variable (the party and people in power) and can observe the results. It is hard, I think, to come to any conclusion but that the former hypothesis was insufficient.

Well, here’s why: the Establishment agreed that the problem was Bush and that’s all. Meanwhile, the Obama administration hasn’t necessarily gotten the most it could have out of the deal: considering that the campaign received the endorsements of Warren Buffett and Colin Powell, did the campaign really win enough votes? Obama won 53% of the vote, which is a sizeable win by any measure…but it in no way won everyone to the left of Colin Powell. It didn’t win the type of landslide win associated with earlier liberal and progressive reformers.

Such a landslide would have contributed to the always-amorphous “mandate,” and specifically might have at least slightly disempowered the special interests. Rahm liked to say, before the Inauguration “never waste a good crisis,” and it’s become standard to quip that it has, in fact, been wasted. The sense of crisis is gone. And, moreover, even while the crisis feeling was still in the air—I at least remember it still there in early 2009—the interests had not decided to stand down, nor were the discredited both popularly and within Congress.

And why should they have? Ultimately it’s all about the structure of power within government, and our government rewards truculence. Our government had a different set of institutional norms before; now it doesn’t. The norms it’s now acquired are arguably truer or more internally consistent, but what they aren’t is consistent with the government we’ve inherited. That might be the biggest interest of all.

Thursday Linkism

Do read Mike Konczal’s summaries of the financial crisis investigatory committee’s hearings. Some commentators have been deriding it as a show trial or as not producing interesting material; I disagree wholeheartedly as I think reading these summaries will show.

The Wall Street Journal has a couple of good articles in the wake of this Google-China fight: one about Levi’s decision to leave China in the 1980s, the other about Chinese business norms.

And China isn’t the only government Google’s run afoul of: France wants to tax them and stop Google Books and is generally doing its best to live up to otherwise untrue stereotypes.

Also, this GQ reconstruction of how Marvin Harrison allegedly shot two men is chilling and a great piece of journalism.


I watched Bridge on the River Kwai this evening, and it really struck me how, despite its reputation, World War II has a surprising number of works of art that portray the heroes in a cynical light. There’s Bridge, Catch-22, and at least one other example that I’m forgetting…At any rate, I think it’s interesting that Catch-22, for instance, isn’t really taught as an anti-war book, probably due to WWII’s rep as “the good war.” Meanwhile, something like All Quiet On The Western Front or Apocalypse Now is rightly seen as being of a piece of anti-war art, and used almost as much for historical as artistic purposes.

Bridge is in many ways an ambiguous movie: for one, the POWs in the camp that Alec Guinness’s character runs would in no way support him as strongly as they do…in fact, they’d probably hate his guts for making him work as hard as he does. For two, William Holden plays the cynic very well…but why the sudden conversion towards finishing the war? It’s the sort of thing that happens in movies and stories of this kind, but it feels almost artificial.

At any rate, his aggressiveness in opposing, if not the war, his personal participation in it, is something of a rebuke to those easy nostrums about the Greatest Generation.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Why America became a power; why China isn’t there yet (and may never get there).

An interesting perspective on why Google may leave China:
Google's overriding business goal is to encourage us to devote more of our time and entrust more of our personal information to the Internet, particularly to the online "computing cloud" that is displacing the PC hard drive as the center of personal computing. The more that we use the Net, the more Google learns about us, the more frequently it shows us its ads, and the more money it makes. In order to continue to expand the time people spend online, Google and other Internet companies have to make the Net feel like a safe, well-protected space. If our trust in the Web is undermined in any way, we’ll retreat from the network and seek out different ways to communicate, compute, and otherwise store and process data. The consequences for Google's business would be devastating.
It’s sold as “less pure than you think” but I think this is a perfectly admirable motive: it’s both good for business and good for welfare if the Internet is a safe neighborhood.

2008: the year entrepreneurship died.

A good look at the theology of the Green Movement in Iran. Would’ve liked to see if Sistani played a role in any of this…

And Now Some Actual Lane Kiffin-related thoughts

It's hard or difficult to tell how well Kiffin does or even What It All Means.

There are four phases to college coaching, so far as I can tell: recruiting, developing, scheming, game-day coaching. Recruiting-wise, the staff he's put together should be great, no question. But recruiting was already great with Carroll. Kiffin's development skills are difficult to assess, since he's never been in any place long enough to actually develop anyone. Scheme-wise, defense should be top-notch, but defensive scheming was already great with Carroll. Offensively, apparently Norm Chow is being given a Godfather money offer to come. And I think there might be some problems there. For one, he and Kiffin clashed when they were on the same staff, and that was when Kiffin was a subordinate. What happens now that Kiffin's ahead of him on the hierarchy? For two, Norm Chow has undoubtedly coordinated some great offenses. But his last great offense was 2004. That's a long time ago. I'm not saying this is necessarily true, but I think you do have to wonder whether he's lost his fastball.

I mean, watching UCLA this year, at no point have I been like, that's a well-designed play or nice playcall there. The offensive talent wasn't great, true, but there were some decent-to-good players. I'm just not sure.

The point is, we can really only point to two areas where we're sure the prospective coaching staff will equal Carroll's. The rest is uncertain.

You also have to realize this: Carroll dominated the Pac-10, no question, but it became harder and harder as the coaching quality improved. I don't think the rest of the nation has quite caught on to this fact, but the average coaching quality in the Pac-10 is very high, I think. It's hard for me to single out one guy and say, he's just an awful coach. So from that perspective, it'll definitely be harder for USC.

I guess what I'm excited for is the overhype of USC next year. That should be fun, right? I guarantee the country will talk itself into USC, top-15 team. It's possible that they're that, but it's more likely they're a mid-tier Pac-10 team next year. People agreed that the reason USC was not up to its usual standards was: a) freshman QB and b) lots of guys leaving. And I think people have placed too much emphasis on a) and not enough on b). Barkley wasn't bad enough to be the sole or even most important determinant. So I lean towards b). And if you lean towards b), then you have to be very pessimistic about next year re: USC, because they're losing: their defensive backfield, two of their three best running backs, their best wideout (and offensive player), three offensive linemen, their starting TE, their best defensive lineman. That's a lot of guys. We know USC has a lot of talent behind them, but is the talent ready? We don't know that at all. So as I said earlier, I'm really excited to beat USC at Stanford Stadium and should I be employed then, I'll make it a point to come.

And that's not even accounting for sanctions. Momentum is more important in perception than reality, except when perception defines reality. So here's a hypothetical scenario (which is not unlikely, in my opinion): USC goes a disappointing 7-5 next year. The NCAA brings down the hammer along the lines of 10 lost scholarships and two years' postseason ban. Either of these things are survivable separately. But together? It might create a perception that USC is heading downhill, leading to worse recruiting...which is how perception defines reality. Not implausible, I think.

Meanwhile, you almost have to admire the move, from both sides (excepting Tennessee). Both sides are essentially declaring, "I don't give a fuck, I just want to win." Both sides had to know that they, collectively, would be wearing the Snidely Whiplash mustache in perpetuity. That's why I have trouble being angry, really, the villainy is too brazen to anger me.

And the whole ordeal really illustrates the selective outrage of the media. Let's be real. Lane Kiffin's biggest error was to leave Tennessee. There are certain programs that the media wants to win (USC, Notre Dame, Michigan, Alabama, etc.). Just below that are programs that the media is aware of. Tennessee is one of them. So they're aware of the screw-job Kiffin gave them. But if you're not on one of those levels--even if it's irrational that you're not--then the media just won't care if you do a screw-job. It's pretty easily shown. People were seriously suggesting Steve Sarkisian and DeWayne Walker for the job. Well, that's the same problem, if you want to take the media's complaints seriously. Both had been at the schools for only one year. Both hadn't really accomplished much there (5-7 and 3-10, respectively). And both would be breaking promises to recruits, players, fans, coaches, etc. But because UW and New Mexico State aren't programs the media is aware of in the same way as Tennessee--even though it makes no sense in UW's case, given its history--it wouldn't matter. Another example. The media has pretty much covered Urban Meyer in exalted, high terms. But, hell, he left Bowling State after 2 year and Utah after 2. That's better than leaving after one year, but not that much better, right? Meyer's players get into trouble all the time. And yet his media coverage is great. It's an odd, odd little paradox, how some facts can be massaged to create entirely different impressions.

Part of the problem is that Lane Kiffin just looks like a punk. And he does. Which is why I'm very excited to beat USC next year. Unless Harbaugh leaves (and, for the record, the media will in no way show us any remorse. Stanford teams are supposed to be bad. I'm not even sure the media is aware that Stanford's football history is not that bad...certainly on the level of, if not better than, West Virginia's, and we saw the sob stories that came out over the Rich Rodriguez thing.). And you never know where the roving eye will fall on next.