Friday, April 28, 2017

That's right, a Rube Goldberg machine as narrative medium

From Gizmodo's Andrew Liszewski:

Biisuke Ball’s Big Adventure is actually a sequel to an earlier Rube Goldberg machine featuring the adventures of Biisuke, Biita, and Biigoro, three colored balls who somehow have more personality than most action stars. This adventure, which involves sneaking through camps and foiling traps, only plays out for about three-and-a-half minutes, but if Hollywood is reading this, we’d gladly sit through two hours of this in a movie theater.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

All of the great ones make sacrifices

I'm planning to come back and connect this to some larger points, but for now I decided to get a quick post in to beat the Gizmodo rush.

From CNBC [emphasis added]:
In fact, a crucial decision Elon Musk was forced to make in 2010 when, by his own account, the billionaire was broke, is one of the reasons Musk has been able to cash in on Tesla's rapid share rise this year: Musk held on to shares at the very moment when a sale to raise cash would have made financial sense.

Musk, who had $200 million in cash at one point, invested "his last cent in his businesses" and said in a 2010 divorce proceeding, "About four months ago, I ran out of cash." Musk told the New York Times' DealBook at that time, "I could have either done a rushed private stock sale or borrowed money from friends."

It's a dilemma that many entrepreneurs face, but there is a big difference between the options available to Musk and the options available to most business owners. Musk was able to live on $200,000 a month in loans from billionaire friends — while still flying in a private jet — rather than sell any of his Tesla stake. Though the root of the problem is the same: intangible assets or, in other words, a business owner who is "asset rich" and "cash poor." And it can lead business owners to the most difficult decision of all: having to sell a piece or even all of their company.

Singapore Health Care Costs

This is Joseph

Ezra Klein has a very good Vox article on US versus Singaporean health care systems in terms of health care cost control.  The real crux of the issue is here:

According to the World Bank, in 2014 Singapore spent $2,752 per person on health care. America spent $9,403. Given this, it’s worth asking a few questions about what Singapore’s model really has to teach the US.
Are Singaporeans really more exposed to health costs than Americans? The basic argument for the Singaporean system is that Singaporeans, through Medisave and the deductibles in Medishield, pay more of the cost of their care, and so hold costs down. Americans, by contrast, have their care paid for by insurers and employers and the government, and so they have little incentive to act like shoppers and push back on prices. But is that actually true?
I doubt it. The chasm in total spending is the first problem. Health care prices are so much lower in Singapore that Singaporeans would have to pay for three times more of their care to feel as much total expense as Americans do. Given the growing size of deductibles and copays in the US, I doubt that’s true now, if it ever was. (It’s worth noting that, on average, Singaporeans are richer than Americans, so the issue here is not that we have more money to blow on health care.)
According to Singapore’s data, in 2008 cash and Medisave financed a bit less than half of the system’s total costs. Let’s say, generously, that’s $1,200 in annual spending. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average deductible in employer health plans is now $1,478 — and that’s to say nothing of premiums, copays, etc. And of course, average deductibles outside the employer market are much, much higher.
The key issue that Mr. Klein's article rests on is that people in Singapore are wealthier than Americans.  So you can make some pretty good inferences about their health care costs being translated to the United States, as it avoids the issue of whether or not we spend more on health care because we have more to spend.  Americans spend 3.4 times as much on health care as Singapore which means the funding instruments that Singapore uses would need to be scaled up.

So Medisave (between 7 and 9.5% of income) would translate to 24 to 32% of income (maybe more as Americans are poorer so there would still likely be shortfall), and then you would have to pay Medishield premiums (hard to imagine these are less than 10% if they also have to be 3.4 times as large). This is before payroll taxes (say 15%), income taxes and sales taxes, in terms of the total government mandated spending and taxation.  This seems very high and would immediately make the United States a very high tax country (remember Medisave is a government mandate).

The other amazing point in the passage above is that deductibles in the US now exceed total costs in Singapore (by a fair bit).  This gives absolutely no evidence that increasing the amount of  "skin in the game" is going to accomplish anything like a transition to a lower cost system (if the cost to consumers is what matters we already exceed what Singapore spends, and our costs do not appear to be rapidly declining).  We have talked before about how the health care system resists patients bargain shopping (or even identifying real costs in advance) and has a monopoly on many services (like pharmaceutical medications).

If we want to reduce costs then we really need new ideas (government regulation?).  Because just passing costs to the consumer isn't doing much to reduce total costs, relative to other health care systems.  This is not to say that there is nothing to be done, but that increasing costs to consumers increases suffering and is having little effect.  Perhaps the redesign of the ACA (AHCA), as it continues to undergo revision, should grapple with creative ways to improve the affordability of health care in the United States.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

More on the possible WGA strike

[Thanks to the scheduling function, my posts can be out of date before they even show up.]

Ken Levine has another interesting and somewhat counterintuitive piece on the possible upcoming writers strike.

One of the strange dynamics of labor politics in general and of this story in particular is the asymmetry of organization and homogeneity. As Levine has noted previously, when we say "producers," we are not talking about the names you see at the end of your favorite TV series. We are mainly talking about the major studios. That means on the management side you have a handful of similar players with similar interests.

On the other side you have a large and remarkably diverse group of writers. In terms of career and economic interests, they range from well-established names at the top of the heap to journeymen who work semi-regularly and support themselves to part-timers (often hyphenated actors, writers and producers) and newbies who are just breaking in. As a result, the impact of a strike varies greatly from segment to segment.

Of course, in labor negotiations, the reality of solidarity is often less important than the perception...
I know it sounds strange, but the best way for WGA members to AVOID a strike is to vote YES to authorize it.

Huh? you may be saying.

Here's why:  Management is just waiting to see how committed the WGA is to strike.   If the Guild sends a resounding message that it is solidly behind our negotiating committee the producers will be way more willing to hammer out a deal and be done with it.   They don't really want a strike either.  They're making $51 billion in profit a year -- why throw a monkey wrench into that?

If however, the Guild does not give Strike Authorization, or even tepid support, then the producers will let us go on strike, let us suffer, and then give us nothing -- knowing the membership is apt to cave.    The worst of both worlds.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A duopoly never provides “sufficient competition”

As follow-up to our earlier post on the inability of market forces to fix airlines, Gizmodo's Libby Watson opens up her evisceration of the current head of the FCC with a great example of someone who doesn't understand how competition and free markets work.

The Federal Communications Commission voted today to eliminate price caps on broadband services for businesses, schools, libraries, and hospitals, known as Business Data Services (BDS). The argument advanced by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, and the big telecoms who wanted this rule repealed, was that there is already “sufficient competition” in this market, and these price caps were getting in the way of the beautiful free market doing its thing. (As Motherboard noted, the Obama-era FCC pointed to research showing that 97 percent of BDS locations are served by just two providers, which doesn’t sound a lot like sufficient competition.) Without price caps and competition, incumbent providers can charge as much as they want to schools and libraries, who of course have been getting a free ride on providing internet to children for too long. Even freedom-loving Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotton asked the FCC to slow their roll on this proposal.

Friday, April 21, 2017

I love this helicopter

Michael Ballaban writing for the Gawker remnant Jalopnik:

The K-Max actually went through an initial production run from 1991 to 2003, and the main reason for the weird rotor configuration is that there’s no need for a tail rotor, which saps power that could instead be used for generating vertical lift. Having two main rotors which spin in opposite directions cancels out the need for a tail rotor to push against the torque of one big main rotor, much like you’d see on another heavy-lifting helicopter, the CH-47 Chinook.

But the Chinook isn’t designed specifically as a heavy lifting machine. It’s a huge, multi-purpose helicopter designed for a variety of missions, which helps explain its fore-and aft rotor layout. The K-Max, on the other hand, is designed specifically to carry loads slung underneath it via a long cable, and that necessitates it being small, narrow, and, well, weird,

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"Southwest, where we beat the competition, not the customers."

[Part of a flight attendant's closing announcement Thursday]

Just to review:
On Sunday, a man was forcibly dragged off a United flight headed from Chicago to Louisville after he refused to give up his seat to a United employee who “needed to be in Louisville” for a flight the following day, The Courier-Journal reports.

Passenger Audra Bridges, who uploaded a video of the incident to Facebook, told the newspaper that United initially offered customers $400 and a hotel room if they offered to take a flight the next day at 3pm. Nobody chose to give up the seat that they paid for, so United upped the ante to $800 after passengers boarded, announcing that the flight would not leave until four stand-by United employees had seats. After there were still no takers, a manager allegedly told passengers that a computer would select four passengers to be kicked off the flight.

As many people have pointed out, United could easily have avoided all this if they hadn't arbitrarily capped their offer at $800, a fairly low ceiling given the potential inconvenience for the travelers. We often hear libertarian pundits and freshwater economists arguing that we could take care of all of air travels problems with less regulation and more airports, but when an industry reaches the point where it avoids obvious market-based solutions, expecting that industry to be fixed by more market-based solutions is naïve bordering on delusional.

Markets can be exceptionally powerful and effective tools for aligning incentives and allocating resources, but they are not magic. The people who think that they are should be granted no more respect or attention then is given to people who believed in any other kind of magic.

The auto industry makes a useful point of comparison here. Relative to the airline industry, it is more responsive, innovative, and customer focused. This is because the conditions necessary for having a well functioning and efficient market are much better met.

We have vigorous international competition. True, this is slightly undercut by the way we license dealerships, but the overall result is still far better than the airlines could ever hope to achieve. Furthermore, there are few principal agent problems (unlike the case with business air travel). The pricing is more opaque than it should be, but nothing like the roulette wheel of buying an airline ticket.

And there is one other factor that is extremely important but which seldom gets mentioned: the car buying process is relatively unconstrained. There is usually a great deal of flexibility as to when and where you can buy a car. That ability to walk away shifts considerable power back to the consumer and makes for more informed and rational decisions.

None of this is meant to hold up the automobile industry as a model of perfect capitalism. There is a great deal of room for improvement, but at least it makes sense to talk about automobiles in these econ 101 terms. Airlines aren't even close. With the possible exception of a handful of very large markets such as Los Angeles/Orange, you will never be able to get enough airlines, flights, and airports to achieve the necessary critical mass of options and competition. No one has proposed a level of expansion that would give most Americans a range of choices whenever and where ever they need to go, which means talk of market-based solutions is premature at best.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

“Special Ed School Vouchers May Come With Hidden Costs”

With the hiring of Dana Goldstein, the New York Times has definitely upped its game in education coverage.
For many parents with disabled children in public school systems, the lure of the private school voucher is strong.

Vouchers for special needs students have been endorsed by the Trump administration, and they are often heavily promoted by state education departments and by private schools, which rely on them for tuition dollars. So for families that feel as if they are sinking amid academic struggles and behavioral meltdowns, they may seem like a life raft. And often they are.

But there’s a catch. By accepting the vouchers, families may be unknowingly giving up their rights to the very help they were hoping to gain. The government is still footing the bill, but when students use vouchers to get into private school, they lose most of the protections of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

Many parents, among them Tamiko Walker, learn this the hard way. Only after her son, who has a speech and language disability, got a scholarship from the John M. McKay voucher program in Florida did she learn that he had forfeited most of his rights.

“Once you take those McKay funds and you go to a private school, you’re no longer covered under IDEA — and I don’t understand why,” Ms. Walker said.

In the meantime, public schools and states are able to transfer out children who put a big drain on their budgets, while some private schools end up with students they are not equipped to handle, sometimes asking them to leave. And none of this is against the rules.

“The private schools are not breaking the law,” said Julie Weatherly, a special-education lawyer who consults for school districts in Florida and other states. “The law provides no accountability measures.”

McKay is the largest of 10 such disability scholarship programs across the country. It serves over 30,000 children who have special needs. At the Senate confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s education secretary, she cited research from the conservative Manhattan Institute, saying that “93 percent of the parents utilizing that voucher are very, very pleased with it.”

Legal experts say parents who use the vouchers are largely unaware that by participating in programs like McKay, they are waiving most of their children’s rights under IDEA, the landmark 1975 federal civil rights law. Depending on the voucher program, the rights being waived can include the right to a free education; the right to the same level of special-education services that a child would be eligible for in a public school; the right to a state-certified or college-educated teacher; and the right to a hearing to dispute disciplinary action against a child.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The rise of the secular evangelicalism started a long time ago

The following excerpts from a NYT piece on Alabama by Alan Blinder have gotten quite a bit of coverage:
But others said it had become clear that for conservative Christians, the cultural and political issues that define modern conservative politics mattered at least as much as moral piety. That was why, they suggested, Mr. Bentley was able to cling to his job for nearly 13 months after his reputation as a paragon of probity came under fire.

“The idea that moral hypocrisy hurts you among evangelical voters is not true, if you’re sound on all of the fundamentals,” said Wayne Flynt, an ordained Baptist minister and one of Alabama’s pre-eminent historians. “Being sound on the fundamentals depends on what the evangelical community has decided the fundamentals have become. At this time, what is fundamental is hating liberals, hating Obama, hating abortion and hating same-sex marriage.”

Even before Mr. Bentley’s resignation, there was a budding movement among religious conservatives here to combat malfeasance in state government that has extended well beyond the governor’s office. Mr. Bentley’s departure could strengthen that effort, Mr. Flynt said, even as he noted that he was startled by the long-muted response of evangelicals to the governor’s troubles.

“Secular culture is eroding evangelicalism to the point where it takes us one full year to get rid of the governor because of all of these conflicting pressures,” he said. “He would have been out the door in an hour in the 1940s.”

As far as I have seen, though, none of the people posting and commenting on the story have bothered to dig into Flynt's writings, which is a shame, because the context here is important, particularly with respect to his ideas about the corrupting influence of social reactionaries on the evangelical movement.

The segregationists' argument was almost wholly cultural, and not religious at all. Tallahassee's First Baptist Church made a political case, since it was the major church for the political establishment in the state's capital. A lot of really overt racism in that church was political. Older church members who were inactive showed up to cast ballots in the 1964 church vote on integration. They showed up that night and voted, and we didn't recognize many of them.

At that same time I was working a lot on labor history. I wrote a paper on the 1908 transit strike in Pensacola. And I actually did research for a full-scale book on labor in Florida. One of the things I ran across was the fact that so many of these labor leaders were coming from Nazarene churches. They were also members of working-class Baptist churches. Labor in the South absorbed this extraordinarily powerful reform ethos of evangelical religion. Labor leaders in the West Virginia Coal Mine Strike of 1920, or the Birmingham Strike of 1919-1921 quoted the 25th chapter of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount, and referred to the life of Christ. All those strikes were informed by the ethos of the Gospel. This was not Marxism. If they were socialists, they were Christian socialists, but their radicalism was a radicalism born of the church and the very literal teachings of Jesus. You could argue that they were fundamentalists�in terms of their believing that every word of the Bible was literally true�but when they quoted Jesus they picked passages that didn't make polite society feel good.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Trying to get a handle on the plagiarism discussion

I believe I'm on the record as not having much taste for the topic. This is especially true in the case of Neil Gorsuch  (I'm still focused on the ability to combine Evangelical extremism with a stunningly unchristian deference to wealth and power), but it's a debate we seem to be stuck with and I've been meaning to take a little time to clean up my stand on things for a long while now. The current discussion is all too often muddled, illogical, hypocritical, and just plain silly. In order to have a productive conversation, there are some lines we need to lay out and some issues we need to address.

The disparity between severity and punishment:
As we have been over many times before, bad journalism exacts a disturbing cost. It can distort markets, undermine scientific and technological progress, and corrupt democracy. If you start to list the journalistic sins that have caused the greatest damage, plagiarism will almost never break the top five. Despite this, it is perhaps the one sin that is the most readily and heavily punished.

The twin crimes of plagiarism:
We generally say that plagiarism is wrong because it entails theft and misrepresentation. In one of the many contradictions of the debate, misrepresentation is, in most cases, only disapproved of if it comes with theft (theft without misrepresentation of authorship is piracy and is definitely frowned upon). Big name writers frequently have assistants do most of their actual work (or ghosts who do all of it). PR agents often send press puff pieces to friendly reporters who add nothing but their bylines. Co-authors often contribute nothing to academic papers. All of these practices are designed to mislead the reader, but compared to plagiarism, they get almost no criticism, at least partially because of …

The victimology of plagiarism:
It’s useful at this point to think in somewhat simplified terms of three major stakeholders, journalists, subjects and readers/viewers. If you look at the evolution of journalistic standards over the past few decades, you’ll notice a trend favoring the interests of the first and dismissing the interests of the third.  Laziness and inaccuracy are primarily crimes against the reader and therefore have little consequences (which explains the career of Alessandra Stanley). Plagiarism is mainly a crime against other journalists.

The comically narrow definition of plagiarism:
Outside of academia (where the rules are somewhat different), when you hear about someone getting in trouble for plagiarism, you can be almost certain that it is for a very specific kind.

Writing consist of any number of elements that, with one notable exception, you are allowed to steal, and even rewarded for doing so. Style, arguments, conclusions, imagery, language. As long as you hew  closely to the standard narrative and borrow from "the right people," your work will be celebrated with awards, promotions, and sweet gigs on TV news shows. The only kind of plagiarism that get you into trouble is copying the wording of some passage. As long as you sufficiently paraphrase the work you are recycling, you will be fine. If anything, your lack of orthogonality will be appreciated by the rest of the industry.

None of this is meant as a defense of plagiarism. It's sleazy and slothful, but the discussion of it and of journalistic ethics in general have become hopeless, and given the importance of good journalism, that's a huge problem.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Friday video inversions

Bach seems to survive the transformation nicely, but I think this is more interesting with a more familiar tune.

Für Elise is one of those pieces that almost everyone knows but often only as "that really pretty Beethoven piece (that's not Moonlight Sonata )" so you might want to listen to at least a few bars of the original before proceeding (or the whole thing -- you can afford the two and a half minutes).

Now, with  the original fresh in your mind, check out the inversion.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Bialystock's Paradox as explained by Jonathan Chait

For a while now, we've been talking about the parallels between the Producers and the current situation facing the GOP. ("When you win, people expect you to start fulfilling obligations, and when you've been making promises you can't keep...")

We were doing this as an excuse to post old movie clips and avoid writing actual posts, but Jonathan Chait has taken things to the next level and made serious case for the idea that "Before This Is Over, Republicans Are Going to Wish Hillary Clinton Won."

Imagine what the political world would look like for Republicans had Hillary Clinton won the election. Clinton had dragged her dispirited base to the polls by promising a far more liberal domestic agenda than Barack Obama had delivered, but she would have had no means to enact it. As the first president in 28 years to take office without the benefit of a Congress in her own party’s hands, she’d have been staring at a dead-on-arrival legislative agenda, all the low-hanging executive orders having already been picked by her predecessor, and years of scandalmongering hearings already teed up. The morale of the Democratic base, which had barely tolerated the compromises of the Obama era and already fallen into mutual recriminations by 2016, would have disintegrated altogether. The 2018 midterms would be a Republican bloodbath, with a Senate map promising enormous gains to the Republican Party, which would go into the 2020 elections having learned the lessons of Trump’s defeat and staring at full control of government with, potentially, a filibuster-proof Senate majority.


The Republican Party recovered from its cratering under the Bush administration by having the good fortune to lose control of the White House at precisely the moment that a global financial crisis began to inflict deep, ruinous pain upon the public. They used that backlash to gain control of Congress and stymie Obama’s agenda, especially any measures to hasten the recovery or patch up Obamacare, frustrating his supporters. A sense of how deeply the GOP’s position depended upon not holding the White House can be seen in public support for Obamacare. The unpopularity of the law has been the bedrock of the Republican strategy for nearly eight years. Republican control of government has made it … popular.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

“New Choice!”

Ken Levine, who knows a bit about coming up with new ideas (having worked on MASH, CHEERS, FRASIER, THE SIMPSONS, WINGS, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND, BECKER, DHARMA & GREG ... ) is a big fan of improv classes as a training ground for writers.
There was another great exercise for comedy writers in Andy Goldberg’s improv class recently. This one was called “New Choice!” Two people would do a scene and periodically someone would say something and Andy would interrupt with “New Choice!” The performer then had to devise an alternate line. If Andy wasn’t satisfied he’d again bark “New Choice!” Sometimes it would take two or three lines before the scene was allowed to proceed.


Me and Fred are in a Costco.

Fred: What are you here to buy?
Me: Cheerios.
Andy: New choice!
Me: 300 rolls of toilet paper.
Andy: New choice!
Me: A case of Trojans and a dozen oysters.

Later in the scene:

Fred: I don’t have cash. Do you take American Express?
Andy: New choice!
Fred: Do you take the Diner’s Club card?
Andy: New choice!
Fred: Do you take second-party Group-ons?

You get the idea.

There's an analogous skill that's essential for anyone who teaches mathematics to the non-mathematical: when students don't get something, you should be able to come up with an alternate explanation that uses completely different words and examples.

With all due respect to the demands of rigor and correct terminology, if you can't find different ways of explaining a problem or mathematical concept, you either lack fundamental communication skills or you don't understand what you're talking about.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

They just want to help their children overcome the disadvantages of being rich in 21st Century America

Those Title I kids get all the breaks.

From Dana Goldstein:

Craig Foster, a school board member from Malibu who favors separation, said parents voluntarily giving money wanted to see the fruits of their donations.

An ideal PTA system gives a parent “the opportunity to put your money where your heart is,” said Mr. Foster, a former managing director at Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse. “It has to be an emotional appeal, and it has to be for the benefit of the donor.”

Indeed, the powerful appeal of helping one’s own child has turned the apple-pie PTA into a mirror of society’s larger stratification. According to a new report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group, schools that serve just one-tenth of 1 percent of American students collect 10 percent of the estimated $425 million that PTAs raise nationwide each year.

And those schools, not surprisingly, are some of the least needy, according to the study, which analyzed PTA tax returns from 2013 and student demographics. The richest PTA in the nation, with $2 million in revenue, was at Highland Park High School in a suburb of Dallas, where no one qualified for free or discounted lunch. (Nationwide, about half of public school students are eligible.)

Only 9 percent qualified at the second-richest, Public School 87 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where the PTA’s revenue exceeded $1.5 million. The money was used to pay for dance, yoga, chess, and math and literacy coaching.

Leaders at several overachieving PTAs also said their generosity addressed another kind of inequality: Their schools did not benefit from Title I, the federal taxpayer-funded program for schools that serve large numbers of poor children.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Is allowing a strike in the middle of a bubble ever a good idea?

Sitcom veteran Ken Levine has an excellent (if not unbiased) post on the possible upcoming writer's strike. You should read the whole thing, but there's one particular aspect I want to focus on here.

As we have been saying for years, there is an increasingly obvious content bubble in scripted television programs. Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and the stunningly mismanaged Hulu get most of the attention (largely because they spend ungodly amounts of money on marketing and PR to garner that coverage), but the old-style cable channels may well be a bigger factor. Now everyone from MTV to the History Channel insist on getting in on the act regardless of how badly scripted shows might fit in with their format and programming strategy.

Even taking into account the growth in overseas markets, it is next to impossible to come up with a scenario where the audience size can continue to support the explosive growth in production costs. If content has already expanded past the point where the market can support it, we have a bubble, which would imply that the smart strategy is to extract as much money as quickly as possible. With that in mind, the studios may be playing a very dangerous game.

The AMPTP (producers) completely control the situation. If they feel it’s inconvenient or too costly for a strike they negotiate a fair contract and move on. If they feel there’s something they don’t wish to give up or they want to be punitive and it’s worth the disruption they’ll push us to a strike. So don’t kid yourself --

THEY orchestrate the strike not the WGA.

Likewise, during a strike, when they feel it’s gone on long enough they settle and everybody goes back to work. Usually, it’s not a table of twenty negotiators that hammer things out; it’s a back room with four people. For years, Lew Wasserman, the head of Universal was that guy.

Writers have less leverage than other guilds. That's a fact.  When actors or directors go on strike the industry immediately stops dead. When writers go on strike stockpiled scripts can still be shot.

Since we don’t have as much leverage we generally do get screwed more often. That too is just a fact.

The AMPTP has a lot to lose with a strike. They’re making $51 billion in profits these days. Way up from past years. That’s a pretty nice incentive to keep things going as is.

Friday, April 7, 2017

We haven't talked about the content bubble for a while...

Don't get me wrong, as a viewer, I'm pleased with all the choices, but from a business standpoint, this got silly quite a while back..

Like so much of our economy, the content bubble is largely driven by hype and CEO dick-measuring. At least in the US, the market is beyond saturated and  the present levels, let alone growth curve is unsustainable.

In other words, enjoy it while it lasts.

P.S. After scheduling this, I heard a public radio segment about Emmy season. It turns out that the people who have to watch all of these shows can't find the time to watch all of these shows.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Two terrible things that are absolutely horrifying together

Another example that illustrates two threads. The first thread involves the dangerous implications of allowing a handful of people to acquire unchallenged and perhaps unprecedented wealth and resulting power. The second involves the consequences when a Straussian media strategy designed to keep the electoral cannon fodder angry and paranoid unexpectedly starts feeding the misinformation to the people who make decisions.

From Jane Mayer's excellent New Yorker profile of Robert Mercer:
Private money has long played a big role in American elections. When there were limits on how much a single donor could give, however, it was much harder for an individual to have a decisive impact. Now, Potter said, “a single billionaire can write an eight-figure check and put not just their thumb but their whole hand on the scale—and we often have no idea who they are.” He continued, “Suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy—to sweep everything else off the table—even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.”

This concentration of unchecked political power is bad enough under ordinary circumstances, but it's downright terrifying when the billionaire in question is one big box of crazy. According to Mayer's account, the last presidential election may have been decided by someone who actually believes the wackiest conspiracy theories of late-night conservative talk radio and alt-right websites.

Patterson said that his relationship with Mercer has always been collegial. In 1993, Patterson, at that time a Renaissance executive, recruited Mercer from I.B.M., and they worked together for the next eight years. But Patterson doesn’t share Mercer’s libertarian views, or what he regards as his susceptibility to conspiracy theories about Bill and Hillary Clinton. During Bill Clinton’s Presidency, Patterson recalled, Mercer insisted at a staff luncheon that Clinton had participated in a secret drug-running scheme with the C.I.A. The plot supposedly operated out of an airport in Mena, Arkansas. “Bob told me he believed that the Clintons were involved in murders connected to it,” Patterson said. Two other sources told me that, in recent years, they had heard Mercer claim that the Clintons have had opponents murdered.

The Mena story is one of several dark fantasies put forth in the nineties by The American Spectator, an archconservative magazine. According to Patterson, Mercer read the publication at the time. David Brock, a former Spectator writer who is now a liberal activist, told me that the alleged Mena conspiracy was based on a single dubious source, and was easily disproved by flight records. “It’s extremely telling that Mercer would believe that,” Brock said. “It says something about his conspiratorial frame of mind, and the fringe circle he was in. We at the Spectator called them Clinton Crazies.”

Patterson also recalled Mercer arguing that, during the Gulf War, the U.S. should simply have taken Iraq’s oil, “since it was there.” Trump, too, has said that the U.S. should have “kept the oil.” Expropriating another country’s natural resources is a violation of international law. Another onetime senior employee at Renaissance recalls hearing Mercer downplay the dangers posed by nuclear war. Mercer, speaking of the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, argued that, outside of the immediate blast zones, the radiation actually made Japanese citizens healthier. The National Academy of Sciences has found no evidence to support this notion. Nevertheless, according to the onetime employee, Mercer, who is a proponent of nuclear power, “was very excited about the idea, and felt that it meant nuclear accidents weren’t such a big deal.”

Mercer strongly supported the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Trump’s Attorney General. Many civil-rights groups opposed the nomination, pointing out that Sessions has in the past expressed racist views. Mercer, for his part, has argued that the Civil Rights Act, in 1964, was a major mistake. According to the onetime Renaissance employee, Mercer has asserted repeatedly that African-Americans were better off economically before the civil-rights movement. (Few scholars agree.) He has also said that the problem of racism in America is exaggerated. The source said that, not long ago, he heard Mercer proclaim that there are no white racists in America today, only black racists. (Mercer, meanwhile, has supported a super PAC, Black Americans for a Better Future, whose goal is to “get more Blacks involved in the Republican Party.”)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"Left of Boom"

Even if Robert Bateman were a dull and clumsy writer, he would still be well worth your time. Between his military background, his historical knowledge, and his sharp eye, he's one of the best analyst when it comes to war and diplomacy. Fortunately though, he also turns out some damned fineprose . He more than holds his own with Charles Pierce, which is a high bar to clear.

In particular, he has an excellent year for the soldiers bluntly poetic turn of phrase.

I plan to use this one again.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the teams who focused on defeating the IED threat coined the term "Left of Boom." In other words, if you look at a timeline of an event with "Boom" in the middle, it is most productive to focus efforts on events to the left of that point. Stopping the explosion is a better way to save lives than adding more and more armor. The same concept applies to defeating missiles.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Picking up on the self-driving thread

Following up on Joseph's earlier post, Timothy B. Lee displayed a devotion to the standard narrative on autonomous vehicles that bordered on Procrustean. Consequently, he got lots of the story wrong. Unfortunately, that is pretty much the going style when reporting on the topic. I don't want to get sucked into a point by point response, but there is one aspect I'd like to hit because it's ubiquitous in technology reporting and it's been bothering me for a long time. With only isolated exceptions, journalists covering technology have no grasp of how implementation works.

Consider the following from Lee:
It seems inevitable that lax regulation of self-driving cars will lead to some preventable deaths. Still, there’s a good argument that today’s permissive regulatory environment is the best approach.

The reason: While self-driving cars are potentially dangerous, human drivers are definitely dangerous.

“It's so easy to immediately focus on self-driving cars as the new and the scary and forget that every day 100 people die on the road,” Smith said. He says that about 90 percent of those fatalities are caused by human error — errors that self-driving cars could avoid some day.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that autonomy is not a yes/no proposition; it's a scalar. Here is the standard metric:
A classification system based on six different levels (ranging from none to fully automated systems) was published in 2014 by SAE International, an automotive standardization body, as J3016, Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to On-Road Motor Vehicle Automated Driving Systems.[22][23] This classification system is based on the amount of driver intervention and attentiveness required, rather than the vehicle capabilities, although these are very closely related. In the United States in 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a formal classification system,[24] but abandoned this system when it adopted the SAE standard in September 2016.

SAE automated vehicle classifications:

    Level 0: Automated system has no vehicle control, but may issue warnings.
    Level 1: Driver must be ready to take control at any time. Automated system may include features such as Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Parking Assistance with automated steering, and Lane Keeping Assistance (LKA) Type II in any combination.
    Level 2: The driver is obliged to detect objects and events and respond if the automated system fails to respond properly. The automated system executes accelerating, braking, and steering. The automated system can deactivate immediately upon takeover by the driver.
    Level 3: Within known, limited environments (such as freeways), the driver can safely turn their attention away from driving tasks, but must still be prepared to take control when needed.
    Level 4: The automated system can control the vehicle in all but a few environments such as severe weather. The driver must enable the automated system only when it is safe to do so. When enabled, driver attention is not required.
    Level 5: Other than setting the destination and starting the system, no human intervention is required. The automatic system can drive to any location where it is legal to drive and make its own decisions.

 Lee is jumping from one end of the scale to the other mid-argument. The improvements in safety start at level 1 and, if anything, tend to flatten out as you approach level 4.  If your car takes control of the wheel when you start to drift out of a lane and applies the brakes when you are about to hit something or someone, then you have already achieved most of your gains in this area.

With regulation, the situation is just the opposite. It isn't till around Level 4 that the serious legal concerns start kicking in, and not until you get to the stage of readily available driverless (as compared to self-driving) vehicles that the issues become truly daunting. Strictly from a technological standpoint, we still have quite a ways to go.

For the record, there are still any number of compelling reasons to fully develop this functionality – – for example, Uber's widely hyped plan to use autonomous vehicles to alleviate labor costs makes no sense if the cars still have to have licensed drivers behind the wheel – – but Lee's safety argument simply doesn't hold water.

Monday, April 3, 2017

On the plus side, "red teams" do sound cool

We'll need to come back and dig into this story more later. It is simply too big and hits too many issues to manage in one pass. Lots of long-running thread converge on this one: the dangerous decline in scientific standards; the war on data; the conservative movement's failure to control the misinformation flow;  the way that the movement's social engineering experiment has cultivated a conspiracy mindset.

In the meantime, check out Chelsea Harvey's account in the Washington Post:

Prominent scientists operating outside the scientific consensus on climate change urged Congress on Wednesday to fund “red teams” to investigate “natural” causes of global warming and challenge the findings of the United Nations’ climate science panel.

The suggestion for a counter-investigative science force — or red team approach — was  presented in prepared testimony by scientists known for questioning the influence of human activity on global warming. It comes at a time when President Trump and other members of the administration have expressed doubt about the accepted science of climate change, and are considering drastic cuts to  federal funding for scientific research.

A main mission of red teams would be to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change, including the work of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose reports are widely considered the authority on climate science.

“One way to aid Congress in understanding more of the climate issue than what is produced by biased ‘official’ panels of the climate establishment is to organize and fund credible ‘red teams’ that look at issues such as natural variability, the failure of climate models and the huge benefits to society from affordable energy, carbon-based and otherwise,” said witness John Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, in his prepared testimony. “I would expect such a team would offer to Congress some very different conclusions regarding the human impacts on climate.”

Wednesday’s hearing, which focused on “the scientific method and process as it relates to climate change” is the latest in a series of recent House science committee hearings to challenge the existence or seriousness of climate change. In their prepared testimonies Wednesday, witnesses called by the committee’s Republican majority suggested that organizations like the IPCC present a biased view of climate change, and do not represent the views of the entire scientific community.


But climate scientist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, called as a witness at Wednesday’s hearing by the committee’s Democratic minority, said such bias claims are “hogwash.” Policymakers who suggest a need for alternative views on climate change are cherry-picking the science they choose to trust, Mann said.

“These folks start out with their ideology and then work backwards to decide which science they like and which they don’t,” he said in an emailed comment to The Washington Post. “But that’s not how scientific research works. It’s not a buffet where you get to selectively pick and choose what to believe. It’s not about belief. It’s about evidence.”

Friday, March 31, 2017

It's been too long since we've watched a video of a railgun test

Jalopnik's Kristen Lee catches us up.

Of course, I'm still holding out for something a bit more ambitious.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Jon Chait and game theory

This is Joseph

Jon Chait:
If Republicans are telling Democrats that any attempt to filibuster the Republican nominee will lead to the Republicans abolishing the filibuster, it stands to reason that the filibuster is not worth keeping around. What value is there in a weapon one’s adversary can disarm at any time?
This is absolutely correct.  Leaving the filibuster in place under these conditions is silly.  After all, the next supreme court nomination could also have the filibuster removed if the Democrats objected.  And, say what you will about the specifics of the Merrick Garland episode, but it really does seem to create a situation where the opposing party has the moral authority to object to the nominee.

So if it is left in place but never used then what is its purpose?  At this point it seems to be to maximize the chance that Democrats suffer the odium of removing the filibuster.  Now, it might be that the current nominee should be confirmed on the merits -- that is a very different question.   It is fine to not filibuster Neil Gorsuch because one finds him to be within the acceptable parameters of a supreme court nominee.  Of course you shouldn't filibuster for no reason.

But the idea that you would avoid filibustering just so that you can avoid filibustering in the future seems like a poor strategy.  That there is even a discussion of this I find odd.  If the method can be removed by a majority vote, and the opposition party has already signaled that they are willing to do so, then the only chance of saving it is to use it and have members of the opposition decide not to repeal it.

It is odd that this issue is even being discussed.

US Healthcare reform

This is Joseph.

I want to highlight a couple of issues about free market health care

But in health care, the cheapest, highest-performing systems all do the same thing — they let government set prices centrally. That’s true in the UK’s absurdly inexpensive, and fully socialized, health care system; but it’s also true in the Singaporean system, which conservatives often hold up as a model. 
Hell, it’s even true in the American system! Medicare and Medicaid pay much less for health services than private insurers. That’s one reason Obamacare relied so heavily on the Medicaid expansion — Democrats couldn’t afford to subsidize private insurance for everyone who needed it, and so they turned to the cheaper insurance Medicaid offered. Even now, the part of Obamacare that needs more money is the part based on conservative ideas — the regulated marketplaces where people buy private insurance.
 Now it is true that we cannot presume all government run systems will be inexpensive and high functioning.  But it is a tough problem for the free marketeers that they are, unless price isn't also an object.

I also want to highlight a practical problem:
The loophole that makes our system the enormous clusterbang that it is results from Republicans not having the courage to back up their tough talk on people who can't afford health care. As long as the law requires Emergency Rooms to take people irrespective of ability to pay, the system we use today is guaranteed to be an expensive mess. A system that requires people to buy insurance from a for-profit insurance industry or face a penalty is going to leave some people uncovered. Those people are going to get sick and get in car accidents just like everyone else. When they do, they end up getting services they have no intention of or ability to pay for. The costs get passed on to everyone else. This is why health care in the U.S. has been such a disaster – because we treat it like an industry rather than a social service.
The logical solution is to have a single-payer system in which people don't have to go to the ER when they have the flu because it's the only service provider they have access to that can't reject them for being uninsured and poor. The alternative, though, is for the Republicans to sack up and change the law that requires ERs to take uninsured patients. If they really are committed to the idea of health care as a product, the provision of which is governed by the invisible hand, then go all the way. Tell people, "If you don't have insurance, the ER will leave you outside on the sidewalk and lock the door. Hospitals don't have to treat you anymore, even if you're comatose, until they determine what you can afford."
 This is just one more of the series of information problems that accompany private health care transactions.  The classic one is trying to get prices or estimates for the cost of medical care.  Now I strong disagree with the author above that it would ever be ethical to cut people off of emergency care, but it is a logical outcome of fully free market care.

But you also providers being unsure of just how much care a patient can afford.  Just imagine having a heart attack and having forgot one's wallet.  No care for a rapidly fatal medical condition because you can't get anyone to get your wallet to the hospital in time.  Or imagine having equity in your house but it being too long of a process to free it up to pay for cancer treatment.  To some extent a very carefully regulated insurance market can help.  But surely everyone can see how easily rescission of medical insurance could be a problem -- even the debate could make the costs moot (as the patient has expired).

Furthermore, what does a fully private market think about "self-educated" doctors?  Is not the AMA a government regulation reducing free market activity?  But who would want the system that produces incredibly proficient providers and really sets a floor on quality to go away?

These sorts of deep structural problems (high cost) and information issues (price and so forth) make the provision of fully private medical care unlikely.  Given that, the real question is what results do we want to have.  If we want inexpensive and effective than one has to look much more closely at expanding Medicare and Medicaid, which are the current options with these features.

And a more expensive system is fine, but we should own up to that and accept that we are going to spending more on health care.  And given the high levels of cost, at some level a lot of that has to be sourced from public funds.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Without precedent, beyond analogy

Sometimes, the best examples come after the post has run. Last month  we made the following point about attempts to draw analogies between Trump and a couple of 20th Century Republicans.
There's already been lots of discussion about the Trump/Goldwater analogy and a fair amount, more recently, about the Trump/Nixon analogy. Both of these provide some interesting points to explore, but what strikes me is most important here is where the analogies fail. At the risk of oversimplifying, the extremism of Barry Goldwater and the corruption and abuse of power of the Nixon administration both qualified as comparable threats to the Republican Party. The GOP was able to weather these threats with no lasting damage in large part because it successfully distanced itself from both men.

Along these lines, check out the following from Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein fame:
Bernstein called back to President Nixon's Watergate scandal, and said the "heroes" of the scandal were the Republicans in Congress. "The heroes of Watergate were really Republicans, they were Republicans in the House and the Senate who wanted this investigated to the bottom: What did the president know and when did he know it," he said. "That's what we're not seeing here. We're not seeing it from the Republicans on the Hill who are consumed by supposedly looking for leaks."

We can go back and forth as to whether or not Bernstein is overstating the heroism here, but what matters for this discussion is perception, and clearly the GOP was able to create a perceived distance between its legislators and the Nixon White House. If Russia does end up playing a significant role in the end of the Trump administration, it is fairly safe to assume that future Bernsteins will not describe Devin Nunes as a hero of the process.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Maybe Paltrow and Tom Brady* could go into business together

In journalism, as in all things, there is no such thing as an original sin. Press-release pseudo-reporting and publicist ghostwriters have been around as long as newspapers have. That does not mean, however, that things are not getting worse. Not only does the previously mentioned flack-to-hack ratio continue to grow, but we have started down the dangerous road of legitimizing these behaviors.

Even if this "interview" was with a qualified expert offering products of real value, this would still cross numerous ethical lines. In this case, those lines are way past the horizon.

Kristen V. Brown writing for Gizmodo:

Gwyneth Paltrow, high priestess of sex-dust smoothies and $66 jade vagina eggs, is back with some more pseudoscientific health advice that you should definitely never follow.

This time, though, Paltrow is peddling a new line of completely unproven nutritional supplements from the cover of Women’s Health magazine. Yes, a magazine with the word ‘health’ in its title actually put a woman who once advocated for vaginal steaming on its cover.

“I think women in modern society don’t feel very well. The number one thing women say is ‘I’m exhausted and I don’t know why!’ I want to get to the bottom of why that is,” Paltrow said in a completely uncritical Q&A published by the magazine, which by the way was not labeled as advertising but was actually written by one of her employees.

Paltrow was gracing the cover to promote Goop Wellness, a new brand of nutritional supplements she is launching to “address the most common health complaints” she hears from women.

* In case you missed the title reference.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Self driving cars

This is Joseph

Over at Vox, Timothy B. Lee makes an argument about self-driving cars:
We don’t have enough data yet to say how today’s self-driving cars compare with today’s human drivers. What does seem likely, however, is that self-driving software will steadily get better over time, while human drivers won’t. And the sooner we reach the point where computers are safer than human drivers, the sooner we can start saving lives.
He talks about this partially in the context of Uber, which has a culture that is very tolerant of risk taking.  However, I think that the idealism in this viewpoint may be too strong.

If we were talking about computer driven trains, where one of the outcomes can be "stop the train and wait for a human" But I think that there are several issues here that should be considered when arguing for self-driving cares being necessarily safer.

1) I would expect there to be a period of transition where human and self-driving cars share the road.  The cars need to be able to handle the human drivers, where tricks like inter-vehicle communication are not going to work

2) Infrastructure is quite varied and tends to break.  How do self-driving cars handle a broken streetlight system or roads without markings, or badly parked cares?  Working 99% of the time is not enough if occasionally there is a disruption.  Right now most adults are very proficient at driving -- what if that skill stops being common among passengers?

3) Is silicon valley reliable enough?  Remember, running on software are vulnerable to issues like bad software updates.  It seems like special pleading to claim that a bad patch should be treated as an exception.  People aren't supposed to drive drunk but they do and the resulting mayhem is laid at the feet of cars (and rightly so).

4) How things work at scale is a whole different issue.  To make a lot of this stuff work we need to have strong regulation.  Look at the bitcoin problems -- fine for a secondary currency but imagine if the hard fork issue hit the US dollar?  What do you do if there are multiple protocols for self-driving cars that don't necessarily play nice with each other?

5) What happens when the car doesn't work?  Your iPhone can become a brick.  Do we really want to be on hold waiting to find out why the software system in the car isn't working?

None of this is to say that I don't like self-driving cars.  Insofar as they can make pubic transit possible for older and sick members of society then it will be a positive good.  It's not impossible to imagine ways that this technology can really help matters (automating parallel parking plays to all of the computer strengths and many drivers dislike it already).  But regulation seems to be the way to go, and it really would make me feel better if the people who spent decades making cars safe (traditional car companies) were more involved.

I would be surprised if Mark didn't have thoughts too.

Friday, March 24, 2017

R.I.P. Chuck Berry

This has always been my favorite,

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Does this solution work at scale? A question we should ask more

This is Joseph

Lawyers, guns, and Money points to this article by Emmie Martin.  It details the journey of a young woman out of student debt.  To make a long story short, it was based on three things: 1) large gifts from family, 2) a high paying job in an inexpensive area, and 3) getting lucky as a small landlord (things go much worse if tenants destroy the rental unit).

But the piece I want to consider is this one:
Back home in Joliet, Illinois, Horton took a job as an operations manager at the nonprofit her mother runs. The salary was comparable to what she made in DC, but the cost of living was drastically less.
Ignoring the family angle (her mother's nonprofit!), the idea here is well understood.  If you can keep the same salary in a less expensive city that is as good as a pay raise.  If that city happens to be the same one as childhood friends and family, that can compensate for the costs of a smaller community (less social contacts, less to do) by becoming engaged in existing social networks.  Now add a job that may well be fulfilling, and the small community can be a lot more appealing.

However, it is almost always the case that one will earn less money in a smaller city or community.  The tricks that let one actually do move to a small town with a full salary (e.g. professor jobs in college towns) almost always do miraculous things to improve personal finances.

But this isn't a solution that can work at scale.  Just like anyone can be a millionaire is not the same as everyone can be a millionaire.  So an interesting note on personal finance, if you can make it work, but it really shows how limited the options to escape a large debt really are, given how much family assistance was needed to make this plan work.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"Nobody told me there would be a test!"

The good people at Gizmodo pass on a clever (although, I suspect, doomed) idea for improving the quality of our online discourse:

From Bryan Menegus:

Over the years, conventional wisdom for how to deal with comment sections has changed a few times as publishers walked the line between promoting open conversation and stemming abuse. Sign-ins, badging, upvotes, paid and unpaid moderators—they’ve all been tried. Now, NRKbeta, the tech-focused arm of Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, has a new idea: a reading comprehension test.

It’s no great secret that comments sections tend to bring out the worst in people. NRKbeta’s solution asks readers to “reply to a quiz” if they’re intent on commenting. “We try to keep the questions easy and as neutral as possible,” Ståle Grut, a journalist with NRKbeta, told Gizmodo. The net result, hopefully, is higher value comments and less bickering.

But these short multiple choice questions do more than ensure commenters actually bothered to read the article they’re commenting on. Taking the time to answer things acts as a sort of mental chill out period to keep people from spewing their immediate gut reaction to headlines. “If we could make sure people at least had read the story before lashing out, the comments might become a bit more valuable for everybody,” Grut said. “The international attention shows that people really are keen on trying to solve problems with the comments section.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

It's always reassuring when Josh Marshall agrees with you

We did a post last month on game theory and the relationship between Trump and the GOP [emphasis added]:

However, while the relationship is simple in those terms, it is dauntingly complex in terms of the pros and cons of staying versus going. If the Republicans stand with Trump, he will probably sign any piece of legislation that comes across his desk (with this White House, "probably" is always a necessary qualifier). This comes at the cost of losing their ability to distance themselves from and increasingly unpopular and scandal-ridden administration.

Some of that distance might be clawed back by public criticism of the president and by high-profile hearings, but those steps bring even greater risks. Trump has no interest in the GOP's legislative agenda, no loyalty to the party, and no particular affection for its leaders. Worse still, as Josh Marshall has frequently noted, Trump has the bully's instinctive tendency to go after the vulnerable. There is a limit to the damage he can inflict on the Democrats, but he is in a position to literally destroy the Republican Party.

Last  week, Josh Marshall made a similar point in the excellent post, Ryan Alone:

 That makes the situation volatile and unpredictable. Trump's ideological commitment to this bill? Basically zero. Trump's commitment to being loved and not looking stupid? Incalculable. Trump seems at least temporarily imprinted with the access/freedom Ryan mantra. But there's every reason to think that is just skin deep. Trump may not care in any deep sense about millions of people losing their insurance coverage. But he did say his genius and deal making power would make things awesome for everyone. He wants everyone happy and loving him. This bill is not good for that agenda.

Monday, March 20, 2017

How did the press develop a top quartile worldview?

Admittedly, it is always dangerous going to Business Insider for a representative anecdote, but this is a conversation we've been having for a long time. You can find plenty of examples in this blog, in the Monkey Cage, and in the currently dormant food blog.

Pretty much everywhere you look, journalists tend to describe things from the implicit point of view of the well-off and well-connected. This has been particularly striking when the supposed purpose of the article is advising people on how to get by on a limited budget.

Over at Lawyers Guns and Money, DJ W points out a perfect example from a Business Insider article titled "How one 31-year-old paid off $220,000 in student loans in 3 years." [as excerpted by LGM]

    She had toyed with the idea of moving back in with her parents to save on rent, and when her father had a stroke in 2013, she knew it was time to make the transition.

    Back home in Joliet, Illinois, Horton took a job as an operations manager at the nonprofit her mother runs. 


    Horton’s mother gave the couple a condo that she had purchased at an auction for $13,000 as a wedding gift. It became crucial in wiping away the hefty student-loan tab.

    Horton and her husband lived in the condo for three months, but then they decided to move in with her grandparents down the street and started renting out the condo to bring in extra income.

    When Horton’s grandparents moved south, she returned to her parents’ house, refusing to live in one of her rental properties because they were bringing in extra income.

    To anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of taking on student loans — or paying back any debt they’ve incurred — Horton has a simple message: “I just want them to feel empowered that they can pay if off. If I can do it, anybody can.“

Friday, March 17, 2017

Bialystock's Paradox: Paul Ryan, Supergenius edition

Paul Krugman makes an essential point about the press's favorite serious Republican idea man:
Start with Ezra Klein, who speculates that Ryan has advanced this ludicrous plan in the hope and expectation that it won’t pass. His reasoning is that Ryan is too skilled an operator to get caught off-guard as he seems to have:

    Paul Ryan isn’t an amateur. He is, arguably, the most skilled policy entrepreneur of his generation. He is known for winning support from political actors and policy validators who normally reject his brand of conservatism. The backing he’s built for past proposals comes from painstaking work talking to allies, working on plans with them, preparing them for what he’ll release, hearing out their concerns, constructing processes where they feel heard, and so on. He’s good at this kind of thing. But he didn’t put in the work here. And there are consequences to that.

But has Ryan ever put together major legislation with any real chance of passage? Yes, he made a name for himself with big budget proposals that received adoring press coverage. But these were never remotely operational — they were filled not just with magic asterisks — tax loophole closing to be determined later, cost savings to be achieved via means to be determined later — but with elements, like converting Medicare into a voucher system, that would have drawn immense flack if they got anywhere close to actually happening.

In other words, he has never offered real plans for overhauling social insurance, just things that sound like plans but are basically just advertisements for some imaginary plan that might eventually be produced. Actually pulling together a coalition to get stuff done? Has he ever managed that?

What I’d say is that Ryan is not, in fact, a policy entrepreneur. He’s just a self-promoter, someone who has successfully sold a credulous media on a character he plays: Paul Ryan, Serious, Honest Conservative Policy Wonk. This is really his first test at real policymaking, which is a very different process. There’s nothing strange about his inability to pull off the real thing, as opposed to the act.

Picking up the Producers thread again, Ryan's accounting has only slipped by up to this point because he was never involved with a hit. As long as his budgets and proposals had no real chance of passing, they had no real chance of facing serious scrutiny.

Yes, that is a relatively youthful William Hickey.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

iPhones versus health care

This is Joseph.

There was a recent comment to the Jason Chaffetz's comments that people might allocate resources to health care instead of iPhones.  This is such a huge admission of ignorance as to how expensive the United States health care system is that it is hard to know where to start.

For example, Duncan Black argues that smart phones are actually a pretty major part of basic needs in modern America:
A new phone high end phone costs 500-800 bucks. If I could buy health insurance (Real, not bullshit) for my family for that I'd happily give up my new phone. Of course, the two years ago high end model phone costs $200. The somewhat shittier and not quite latest and greatest can probably be had for 50 bucks. Your older brother can probably give you a handmedown for free. So, phones are not really that expensive (service is in the US because of our shitty noncompetitive market and lax regulation, go to Yurp and pay 20 bucks per month max). Also they're the only way lots of people have regular internet access, so they're pretty much necessary. Smartphones are not luxury items, they're required. 
I like this take because it weaves in a second piece to the puzzle -- monthly service costs are high in the United States.  The more marginally housing somebody is, the less they can afford to have things like land-line telephones (that come with expensive connection charges that presume people are not mobile).  If you needed one item to connect to the outside world, the thing that can act as a phone, gives you a stable phone number, allows you to send texts, and allows you to interface with the internet solves a lot of problems all by itself.  And when you consider used phones then the comparison gets even sillier.

But there is another piece to this puzzle.  Health care costs in the United States are opaque, literally to the point that I couldn't imagine a way to parody them.  Look at this video from Vox (youtube here).  At the end of the process of trying to find out how much it would cost to give birth in a hospital (any hospital), spending hours on the phone trying to get this price quote, the final bill was off by a factor of two.  So you can't realistically price shop in the United States for a foreseeable medical expense (let alone an emergency room visit).

It's not really a case of putting "skin in the game".  People often can only find out prices after the service has been provided -- especially since the system is filled with all sorts of little details that are difficult to estimate ahead of time (how many $50 ibuprofen will you need and is there is a reason you can't bring your own supply?).

There is an important conversation about providing health care in the United States.  But it centers around comparative costs, pricing transparency, the inflexibility of moving with current employer sponsored health care, and how to handle people with economic insufficiency.  It's not an accident that "single payer" style systems are brought up a lot -- they directly attack all of the major problems.  Maybe not the only solution, but trading in smart phones isn't looking like a good deal either.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

“Raised the IQ of both places”

 We are talking about journalistic standards rather than IQ scores, but other than that, the old joke certainly holds.

From Politico via LGM:
    The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is joining CNN Politics as a reporter and editor at large, with a digital presence and an on-air role.

    Cillizza is leaving behind the blog known as The Fix he built at the Post over more than a decade. The Fix has since expanded and now includes a team of bloggers and editors. Cillizza will also be ending his role as a contributor at MSNBC when he joins CNN.

While Cillizza is probably a bit better than average for CNN, his departure represents an enormous improvement in the Washington Post. Under the leadership of Marty Baron, the Post has become the nation's best newspaper, particularly over the past year. The Fix has long been, not just the worst part of a great paper, but more or less ground zero for the kind of self-serving, pseudo-sophisticated journalism that is partially responsible for the rise of Trump.

We've previously recommended Jay Rosen's essential essay on the cult of the savvy. It is no coincidence that  Cillizza is the most prominent example:

This is what led to the cult of the savvy, my term for the ideology and political style that journalists like Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin spread through their work. The savvy severs any lingering solidarity between journalists as the providers of information, and voters as decision-makers in need of it. The savvy sets up — so it can speak to and cultivate — a third group between these two: close followers of the game. The most common term for them is “political junkies.” The site that Cillizza runs was created by that term. It’s called The Fix because that’s what political junkies need: their fix of inside-the-game news.

Junkies are not normal, but they accept their deformed status because it comes with compensations. They get to feel superior to ordinary voters, who are the objects of technique and of the savvy analyst’s smart read on what is likely to work in the next election. For while the junkies can hope to understand the game and how it operates, the voters are merely operated on. Not only does the savvy sever any solidarity between political journalists and the public they were once supposed to inform, it also draws a portion of the attentive public into emotional alliance with the ad makers, poll takers, claim fakers and buck rakers within the political class— the people who, as Max Weber put it in his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation,” live off politics.

But we’re not done. The savvy sets up a fifth group. (The first four: savvy journalists, political junkies, masters of the game, and an abstraction, The Voters.) These are the people who, as Weber put it, live for politics. They are involved as determined participants, not just occasional voters. Whereas the junkies can hope for admission to the secrets of the game (by taking cues from Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin and the guys at Politico) the activists are hopelessly deluded, always placing their own ideology before the cold hard facts.

So this is what the savvy in the press do. Cultivate the political junkies. Dismiss and ridicule the activists, the “partisans.” Assess the tactics by which the masters of the game struggle to win. Turn the voters into an object, the behavior of which is subject to a kind of law that savvy journalists feel entitled to write. Here’s Cillizza, writing one:

    “Remember that most voters — people who don’t follow this stuff as closely as me, you or, likely, most people we know — make their decisions based on 30-second TV ads.”

I’ll remember, Chris. Your assignment: Inhale that sentence, click this link and behold how badly our political journalists have lost the plot.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Picking up immediately where we left off with the war on data

In our last installment, we talked about how delegitimizing trustworthy sources of data and analysis is a fundamental part of Straussianism. What we did not get around to mentioning was that, once the reliable sources have been discredited, less reliable but more malleable alternatives can be put in their place.

From Ed Kilgore:

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for the abolition of CBO back in January, most observers probably chuckled at the old bomb-thrower insisting that an objective assessment of GOP plans would screw everything up. Now that’s rapidly becoming the conventional wisdom. Keep in mind that Republicans, after taking control of both congressional chambers in 2014, hired CBO’s current director, George W. Bush administration veteran Keith Hall. It’s safe to say that Hall hardly resembles Gingrich’s description of CBO as a “left-wing, corrupt, bureaucratic defender of big government and liberalism.”

So what’s the solution? Republicans seem to have found an alternative source of authoritative-sounding numbers that is more ideologically reliable: the Office of Management and Budget, which is directly under the control of the president.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Washington Press Corps and the "Watergate debt"

I don't want to exaggerate the magnitude of this, but I have come around to the notion that one of the factors, albeit perhaps a small one, that helps explain the bizarre behavior of mainstream journalists toward Republican scandal over the past quarter century is the sense that the press corps owes one to the GOP after Watergate.

The scandal was the one instance in American history where a president was forced to resign and investigative journalism was arguably the main driver. The press aggressively pursued the story and the coverage was, at the very least, sometimes colored by the personal dislike that many journalists felt toward Nixon.

As the years passed and the former president (deservedly or not) manage to rehabilitate some of his reputation, the idea seemed to take root in the press corps that they needed to balance the scales. The idea was nurtured by the Republicans and conservative media but I don't believe it was planted by them. Like its sister belief, the biased liberal media theory, it was an idea born of and trapped in the 70s.

The Iran Contra scandal was both symptom and aggravating factor.  There were hesitation marks all over the reporting, and while some of these can be attributed to the extraordinary popularity and charisma of Ronald Reagan, the timidity of the press is still notable. Nonetheless, despite the relatively gentle handling, it was still another case of journalists pursuing a Republican scandal.

By comparison, the election of Bill Clinton seemed to represented almost a perfect opportunity to balance things out. Not only was Clinton a Democrat, he also was an outsider (which threatened the livelihood of veteran reporters whose status rested on their DC Rolodexes) and a Southern boy from the wrong side of the tracks (which played on deep-seated regional and, more importantly, class prejudices).

I was in or around Arkansas through the 90s and I remember a constant sense of amazement. Perhaps it was just my naivety, but I was completely unprepared for how low supposedly respectable journalists were willing to go once they'd committed to a narrative, even if it meant crawling in bed with the remnants of the state's  segregationist movement (I still remember my revulsion seeing the Washington press corps elevate Jim Johnson to elder statesman).

I've argued before that the bad journalism that took root during Whitewater was a contributing factor and possibly necessary condition for the Bush presidency, the build-up to Iraq, and a general undermining of democracy that culminated with the election of Donald Trump. It would be ironicc if misplaced guilt over great journalism helped contribute to the decline of the profession.

For related oints, check out thee following from Charles Pierce and Frontline.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Take a deep breath, relax

For the sake of mental health, it would probably behoove all of us to take occasional breaks from the political scene. Here is some wonderful Americana up from the great Jerry Goldsmith.

Both films are excellent, but I especially want to praise the second, not because it is necessarily better, but because it is un-deservedly obscure. A true gem of a movie.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The War on Data -- Trump-Care edition

This mostly speaks for itself but here are a few quick points:

After the election, a lot of people started asking how this could happen. A big part of the answer is that, if you neglect and/or undermine fundamental institutions, bad things happen;

This thread is closely intertwined with our discussion of Straussianism and the noble lie. If you believe that the masses can't process the truth and often need to be misled, your first order of business is discrediting and dismantling respected institutions that provide the public with trustworthy data;

We've been on this beat a long time.

Alice Ollstein writing for TPM:
On Wednesday morning, two powerful House committees began marking up the bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act despite the fact that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has not yet crunched the numbers on what the plan would cost or how many people would lose their health insurance if it passes.

The Republican authors of the bills refused to say this week if the number of uninsured Americans would grow or shrink under their proposals. Independent estimates of how many people would lose insurance range between two to four million and tens of millions of people. As for how much the plan would cost the federal government, Republican leaders offered no numbers—only vague assurances that it will be "fiscally responsible."

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told reporters Wednesday that he was not sure when the CBO would release its analysis of the bills, but said he hoped it would be next week, before the bill came to the House floor for a vote. But ahead of that vague release date, rank-and-file Republicans are casting doubt on the agency's judgement.

"The CBO is consistently inconsistent," Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) told TPM. "They can't predict the actual results of a 10-year window, because life changes so quickly. So I don't put that much weight on a CBO score."

Over on the House side, Rep. David Brat (R-VA) laughed when TPM asked about the rush to mark up the bill without knowing its cost or impact. "The CBO, they've scored everything wrong for decades," he said.

Emerging from a closed-door meeting of the Republican caucus, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) agreed. "To tell you the truth, the CBO, I don't see where they get it right," he told TPM. "I don't know what variables or parameters they use to score things. I don't have a lot of confidence in the CBO process."

Asked whose report he would rely on if not that of the non-partisan office, Thompson replied, "Trust me, this bill will be subject to all kinds of alternative analysis."

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Jason Chaffetz and the sewage metaphor

This illustrates the point we made earlier, namely most of the leadership of the Republican Party and the conservative movement are now drinking out of the wrong pipe.

From Chaffetz to low-income Americans: Buy health care, not iPhones by Christopher Wilson
“Americans have choices, and they’ve got to make a choice,” said Chaffetz in a Tuesday interview with CNN, “so maybe rather than getting that new iPhone they just love and spending hundreds of dollars on that they should invest in their own health care. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves.”

“Well, what we’re trying to say — and maybe I didn’t say it as smoothly as I possibly could — but people need to make a conscious choice, and I believe in self-reliance. And they’re going to have to make those decisions.”

Chaffetz has been under fire for the last two months in his role as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, as constituents chanted, “Do your job!” at a February town hall meeting. Chaffetz said the majority of those in attendance were paid outsiders.

Regular viewers of FOXNews (and this goes triple for consumers of more extreme conservative media) have been told constantly that the world is rife with anti-Republican conspiracies propped up by liberal media, that conservative protests are grassroots expressions of the silent majority rather than Astroturf, and that the poor routinely dine on steak and lobster then rush out to buy the most expensive consumer electronics, all on the taxpayers' dime.

Having that retiree in Florida or Arizona believe these things has been of great benefit to the GOP over the past decade or two, but it is potentially quite dangerous when the leaders and spokespeople of the party believe it too.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Ayn Rand on native American rights

This is Joseph.

Ayn Rand on the settling of North America:
The citizens in it have individual rights, but the country has no rights and so anyone has the right to invade it, because rights are not recognized in that country; and no individual or country can have its cake and eat it too--that is, you can't claim one should respect the "rights" of Indians, when they had no concept of rights and no respect for rights. But let's suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages--which they certainly were not. What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existnece (sic); for their "right" to keep part of the earth untouched--to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it's great that some of them did.
 This quote is so brutal that I wondered if it might have been fabricated.  But, it seems to be sourced correctly to a speech at West Point Military Academy.

If we presuppose that this quote is an accurate view of Ayn Rand's views, then it has some really big implications.  It rejects group rights, which really isn't a big surprise to anyone who has read Atlas Shrugged.  What is more concerning is the individual rights of the American Indians.  It's not at all clear that these people lived in savagery, and there is good evidence that Europeans mostly come into contact with the survivors of a plague, aka smallpox.  Some degree of social degradation could be expected in these circumstances.

What is the most challenging element here is the notion that the "civilized" European was justified in expropriating land (i.e., property) based on cultural superiority.  And this expropriation had a great deal of force involved.

It creates a notion that force is justified to claim property if one is more culturally advanced.  That would totally change the thrust of her philosophy, given that there is no entity that can decide who can arbitrate this distinction, meaning that the winners are likely to declare themselves socially superior.  This is a collapse into force-based conquest when different groups come into contact.

To me this is a critical point of weakness in the Randian viewpoint, if this is how it looks at inter-cultural conflict.  It's only moral justification is the ideal that property rights have a key element in the ability of complex societies to function.  But if the conflict between groups is to be arbitrated by force, then you really don't have much distinction from feudalism, which had strong property rights and an ideal of enforcing/expanding them by force.

I wonder to what extent this was a "one off" line of thinking?