Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Why Obama Shook Raul Castro's Hand, in One Graph

The media is in a tizzy over Obama shaking Raul Castro's hand.  John McCain called it "appeasement." The New York Times is looking for signs of an American-Cuban rapprochement.  Here at 4:17 A.M., however, we prefer a more empirical approach.  Click the picture for a graph that explains everything:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Unpaid internships are a bad deal for workers, unless you're rich

I have to admit, I was fairly horrified by Yglesias's recent piece in defense of unpaid internships. He seems to think that opposition to the practice is primarily rooted in a desire by currently-working unpaid interns to improve their compensation and standing:
Critics of the unpaid internship seem to assume that tighter regulation would simply mean today’s interns would magically become paid employees. In some cases, that might happen. But many positions would simply be eliminated. More to the point, those positions that were converted into paid ones would likely be given to different people than the unpaid interns of today. There’s a reason there are lots of paid internships and salaried entry-level jobs in the world—you can recruit better people by offering money, so if you have to offer money, you’ll go after those people rather than the current pool of underexperienced students and recent graduates. 
 Matt's way, way off the mark here. Everyone knows that many working interns would lose their jobs if the practice were curtailed; in many ways that would be exactly the point of reform. The concern over unpaid internships is not just over the interns themselves. Sure, they get a pretty raw deal, but that's not the real issue. The deeper problem is that unpaid internships effectively screen out people who can't work for free, distorting the labor market in favor of those who already have some degree of economic security. In the meantime, capable-but-economically-disadvantaged workers are forced into less-competitive, higher-paid positions where employers have to provide compensation in order to attract qualified applicants.

Before getting into the fairness issue, it's also worth mentioning that unpaid internships do hurt low-end workers as a class. One way to think about this is to think about who loses what if unpaid internships go away. Potential interns lose nothing financially, but do lose the opportunity to earn job experience which could eventually translate into financial gain. But of course the interns only receive the financial gain if they do ultimately find their way into a paid position. Since killing off internships would probably actually increase the number of paid positions available (though not at a 1:1 ratio), the financial opportunity available to this class of workers would increase, just in a different distribution than before.

Employers, however, would unequivocally lose out. They'd have to pay to get something they were previously getting for free. That payment would represent a net transfer of wealth from employer to employees, even before distributional consequences are examined.

And what about those distributional consequences? Matt sort of implicitly handwaves away this concern by presupposing that employers will replace internships with higher educational requirements, effectively recreating the same dynamic where the wealthy are favored, but I'm not sure there's any real evidence that this is the case. After all, employers seeking interns still make an effort to hire the most-qualified applicant, so it's not like unpaid internships necessarily reduce the problem of overcredentialing or competitive advantages conferred by a degree. Rich kids aren't skipping college or grad school in order to take an imternship; they're just doing both. What's more, while Matt correctly speculates that a post-internship world would favor more-experienced applicants over less-experienced applicants (a dystopia otherwise known as "meritocracy"), employers still need to fill their lower ranks eventually. Getting rid of unpaid internships would simply remove the windfall employers receive by hiring affluent young workers who don't demand pay. There are obvious problems with a system where employers can benefit financially by giving their most sought-after entry-level positions to workers already possessing significant financial resources, and yet that's precisely the system unpaid internships create. The rich kids are getting enough help already, thanks.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


I really feel like it's worth breaking this blog's employment-induced hiatus to note...

the filibuster is dead

dead dead dead

it actually happened

after all these years

the filibuster is gone






...not completely dead.  But a big chunk of it is, and the life expectancy of the remainder has got to be pretty short at this point.

Today's vote only eliminates the filibuster with regards to non-Supreme Court judicial nominations, so executive appointments can still be vetoed by a Senate minority, as can, you know, actual legislation.  But: the biggest obstacle to removing the filibuster was the taboo against removing the filibuster.  As today's vote proved, the Senate, if it felt sufficiently motivated, could override that taboo any time it pleased.  And now the taboo is broken.  That means, almost certainly, one of the parties will, in the future, break it again, and with even less fuss. And again, and again, until every vestige of the whole dumb rule is thoroughly expunged from the legislative process.

And there are a lot of factors speeding that day along.  Democrats know that the increasingly polarized GOP probably won't hesitate to deploy the nuclear option if they recapture the Senate, so they have a real incentive to go ahead and fire first, as it were.  (Indeed, that calculation seems to be largely responsible for today's vote.)  And today's vote isn't likely to cow Republicans into cooperating on legislation or appointments--though cooperation would probably better preserve their influence for the time being--but might well induce even more intransigence.  Now that the Senate majority has discovered its own strength, the further breakdown of trust and cooperation can only lead inexorably towards true majority rule in the chamber.

This is just fantastic, guys.  Really.  Congratulations!  America is 30% more democratic than when you woke up this morning.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The lie on Times front page

The headline and first half of the blurb are true.  The last bit--"in part because the plans come with serious trade-offs"--simply isn't.  To the extent that the subsidies have been ignored, it's because the problems with the federal exchanges, and then Republican hysteria over the individual market, have attracted all the media attention and drowned out anyone who points out the law's many positive features.  Most signs suggest the media doesn't actually understand the law very well and tends to report on it by looking at whatever aspect is generating the most heat at any given moment.

It's a tiny thing but it's irritating because the Times is straight-out lying.  It's lying to give itself cover for a journalistic omission.  What really happened is that the paper, like the rest of the media, first focused on the (justifiable) bipartisan anger over the broken exchanges, and then focused on the (unjustifable) GOP anger over cancelled individual policies, and finally seems to be catching up with reality.  But it won't say that, so instead it's made up a completely fictional policy rationale for a political phenomenon.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Boehner saves himself

One of the odder consequences of the shutdown is that I'm visiting National Review Online many times per day, because it's basically the only outlet with any access to the House GOP.  Here's an interesting passage from Jonathan Strong's reporting today:
While some on the right have been sniping about peripheral issues, Boehner largely embraced the playbook put together by conservatives like Senators Ted Cruz, who wanted to use the continuing-resolution bill to wage a fight over Obamacare. 
So now that the fight has been lost, it’s not Boehner whom they blame, but the GOP’s moderates, who pushed to end the government shutdown earlier. 
“Actually I think the speaker stood up and said ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ I remember at conference on Thursday he said ‘there’s only one way out of this, and that’s to win.’ Well, that’s not the way it ended up,” says Representative Tim Huelskamp. 
“But it’s pretty hard when he has a circle of 20 people that step up every day and say, ‘can we surrender today, Mr. Speaker? Can we just go away? Can we make it easy?’ I mean, whining and whining. I would say surrender caucus, but it’s a whiner caucus. And all they do is whine about the battle, as if they thought being elected to Washington was going to be an easy job,” he says.
There are two interesting things to take away from this article.

The first is that Boehner has successfully threaded the needle.  By shutting down the government until the last possible second, he's convinced his caucus that he'll go to bat for them and the only thing holding him back is the weenies in the center.  That's an amazing bit of political judo.  Virtually everyone sees Boehner's inability to unite his party around a single set of demands as being tremendously damaging for Republicans, but by holding fast and letting the damage occur, Boehner has deflected the blame (at least within his own party) on to moderates.  Conversely, if he'd folded early and saved the party the embarrassment, there'd be people calling for his head.

The other takeaway?  It sure seems a lot like Boehner shut down the country for two weeks, skirted with the threat of default, raised US borrowing costs, slowed job growth, and undermined Americans' confidence in their government and economy, all for the sake of saving his job.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Democrats still shouldn't budge

Again and again, the Republican Party has attempted to persuade Harry Reid and President Obama to give up something for nothing.  Cruz was laughed off stage.  Boehner got nowhere.  Now, it's Paul Ryan's turn to convince the Democrats that this hostage situation is not one.

The usual suspects on the right are, as always, impressed by Ryan's policy prentensions.  But beneath a thin veneer of wonkspeak, he's just selling the same crappy bargain as everyone else.  No one left of center is fooled, least of all Jonathan Chait:
Ryan has certainly ratcheted back his most audacious demands. He does not propose destroying Obamacare and does not propose the deep cuts targeting programs for the poorest Americans that are the most noxious feature of his budget. (“This isn't a grand bargain,” he writes. “For that, we need a complete rethinking of government's approach to helping the most vulnerable, and a complete rethinking of government's approach to health care.”) While smaller in ambition, his current plan is equally one-sided. 
Ryan is offering to use the cuts that Obama put forward in his compromise budget from last spring. But that budget was explicitly made as a middle-ground offer, and the cuts were contingent upon Republicans agreeing to reduce tax deductions along with them. Ryan isn’t offering any revenue. He’s offering to pocket the concessions, full stop.
The shutdown is already a farce, but the right keeps taking it up a notch.  As the standoff continues, the impression created is increasingly one of dire mismatch in the two sides' comprehension of the fight, roughly analogous to, for example, an M1 tank falling through a hole in time and landing in King Arthur's court.  Against this interloper the lords and ladies are currently summoning a series of self-professed mystics, warlocks, and wizards, each inspiring greater awe from the faithful than the last, but to the educated eyes of our wayward crew, each more clownish than before.  And every challenger is no easier or more difficult to dispatch than the previous.  Before us now comes Ryan the Mighty, Wielder of Graphs, Prime Wonk, glory to his house! A man who is no way a charlatan enamored of his own abilities, relying on deceptions that are completely transparent to the minimally enlightened.

In response to the GOP's succession of magical champions, the best option the Democrats have is education through repetition.  Ryan's budgeteering should get no more reaction and no more favor than Cruz's ranting or Boehner's grousing.  The players might change but the deal should remain the same: reopening the government is okay, and so is a clean CR, but further negotiations will not begin until these things occur.  Calling negotiations "a bargain on entitlements and sequestration" makes no difference; whatever you call it, Ryan's offer should be treated as if it were no more persuasive than Cruz's demand that Obamacare be scrubbed from existence--because it isn't, and for the same reasons.

That doesn't mean rejecting everything Republicans put forward.  While maintaining their conviction not to negotiate, Democrats should support any GOP effort to fund the government or extend the debt ceiling without condition--even for a short span of time.  Thus far the Democrats have seemed reluctant to do this, rightly fearing that their opponents are only seeking to set up a similar crisis in the immediate future, in order to make further demands.  But so what if they are?  It should already be established--and should be continually established, with the collapse of each successive offer to reduce the ransom price--that no demands will be honored.  Future demands included.  If Republicans want to repeatedly subject America to fiscal crisis so they can go on television and make pointless, hopeless, deeply unpopular ultimatums, Democrats can't stop them.  But they can ensure that these episodes serve only as pieces of national theater, and in doing so force Republicans to weight their political cost against their gain, which is nothing.

This approach also has the advantage of being a good deal easier to explain than the current negotiating posture, which seems to be something along the lines of "We won't negotiate unless you stop taking hostages for a while."  At that point the debate naturally devolves to "What is a sufficient period of time to get you negotiating," which benefits no one.  The correct approach is, instead, "We're happy to let you release any hostages you feel like, but we won't ever give you anything for them," which forces the GOP to decide if all this is really worth it.

So if you're a Democratic congressional leader or President Obama and you're reading my blog, here's what you need to do.  Go on TV and lay down two simple rules.
  1. You will pass any unconditional extension of the debt ceiling or extension of government funding.
  2. During periods in which the threat of default is hanging over our heads, or the government is shut down, you will not negotiate on budget issues, Obamacare, or anything else.  
Even the pre-modern political thinkers of the GOP should be able to understand those conditions.  And then, just wait.  After they've exhausted every spell and sorcery in their arsenal, and you still haven't budged, and they realize just how foolish they've been looking, you might actually get some results.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The "partial" government shutdown

Has anyone else noticed this?  The government shutdown is no longer a shutdown, but a "partial shutdown," at least according to certain major media outlets.  I first saw the term on some TV network, CNN maybe, and didn't think much of it.  But now the shutdown is being described as "partial" on the front page of the NYT, and earlier I saw the phrase in the Star Tribune too.

I guess it's not literally inaccurate.  The government has not ceased to exist.  Certainly many people are still working in government positions, though they're largely not getting paid for it.  So, yeah, in that sense, I suppose the shutdown might be understood as not complete, and therefore partial?

But still.  The current situation is very much what people mean and envision when they talk about a "government shutdown."  Moreover, it's basically what happened in previous shutdowns.  Talking about it as if it's partial implies that the government could somehow shut even further down, something that wouldn't have any real precedent or relation to previous standoffs.

And what makes the NYT's choice to adopt this particular usage at this particular moment especially questionable is that a major GOP talking point throughout the crisis has been that the government isn't really closed.  Instead, its faithful say, Obama has been selectively, vindictively closing down the most-loved and most visible federal institutions--national parks, the WWII memorial, Amber Alerts--in an effort to punish Republican intransigence.  The wild implausibility of this theory aside, it's been embraced by the right, with Fox News talking about a government "slimdown" and propagating a number of increasingly unhinged stories about Obama's willingness to selectively fund various (sometimes fictional) government bodies.  The theory is also feeding into a vague sense among conservatives that an unending government shutdown would be a great way to make de facto cuts to government services, because anything that was truly important, Obama would just leave open.

In that light, the NYT's new language doesn't look quite so much like a stab at accuracy as a sop to the right.  It avoids the reality that the government really is in almost every sense shut down, and enables conservatives to cling to their loony pet theory unchallenged by facts.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Here are the strategies the Republicans should adopt, but won't

Hey, Republicans, you don't have a strategy for the shutdown.  That much is clear from your inept negotiating, your publicity stunts, and, of course the already-famous quote from Rep. Stutzman: "We're not going to be disrespected.  We've got to get something out of this.  And I don't know what that even is."  But that's okay, it's never too late to start thinking ahead!  Might I suggest a couple of approaches?

1.  If you're absolutely, absolutely determined to take this thing down to the wire, go ahead and raise the debt ceiling already.  I know, I know--you crazy kids think it's giving you leverage over the president.  Sure, you tell yourselves, he's ignoring you now, but come Oct. 15th, he'll have to listen.

Well, he won't.  The fiasco in 2011 taught President Obama that messing with the debt ceiling is playing with fire.  He set off a whole string of budget-related crises and didn't have a thing to show for it.  Keeping the government closed is bad, but default would be catastrophic; as long as the debt ceiling is in the mix, the administration is going to be heavily focused on breaking the your party's delusion that default makes a great bargaining chip.  

Raising the ceiling muddles the administration's mission a little bit.  Governments have a history of shutting down over policy disagreement, and as a result, there's less fear about setting a new, bad precedent.  The shutdown makes life more difficult for everyone, and without the artificial deadline imposed by the debt ceiling, it could potentially drag on for many weeks or months.  It's an environment where you really might be able to force an exhausted administration to make some concessions.  Not closing-down-Obamacare type concessions, but, in Rep. Stutzman's words, "something."

Oh, and what's more, the debt ceiling's long shadow is endangering your own coalition.  There's almost no doubt that a large faction within in your own party desperately wants to avoid default, because default would be a disaster. Many of those people are also skeptical about the wisdom of the shutdown. But right now, they don't seem to have much appetite for concerted resistance: breaking with the party could potentially cause them all manner of trouble, up to and including losing their seats.  Once the full faith and credit of the United States is threatened, however, some of these moderates might well be willing to take one for the team.  (By "team," I mean "America.")  They lose their job, but they get to be heroes.   

So raise the debt ceiling.  It'll firm up your ranks and strengthen your hand.

2.  What's that?  You can't?  The Tea Party faction wouldn't vote for it?  Well, then you ought to just abandon this thing as soon as possible.  If you can't prolong the shutdown for ages and ages (and again, unless you raise the debt ceiling, everyone knows it'll end by Oct. 17th), you should probably just give up now.  The longer you wait, the worse your position gets.  Voters get angrier.  More and more dissent emerges in the party.  The media becomes increasingly willing to blame you, and you alone, for all the bad stuff that's happening.  You get the gist.  

In fact, as a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, I'm a little concerned that it'll end too early.  Too many House members will wise up and abandon Boehner, leading to a quick CR.  The whole affair will ultimately be prosecuted in the media after the fact, which is a much friendlier environment for you.  It'll devolve into he-said-she-said, Obama-was-mean-and-the-GOP-was-unreasonable, and by election time, everyone will have forgotten just how crappy you are at your job.  

You could totally speed this process along, though!  You just have to give up!

So, anyway, there are your options.  Raise the debt ceiling now, or call the whole thing off.  Something tells me you won't take either of them, but trust me, soon enough, you'll wish you had.

The failure of the American political system

Lots of talk today on the ol' blogosphere about the problem with American constitutional governance, predicated in part by the death of political scientist Juan Linz, and in part, of course, by the shutdown.  The best take is easily Dylan Matthews' on Wonkblog, and I highly suggest you read it.

But with that said, I think even his depiction of the underlying problem is a little more complicated than it needs to be.  The fact is, you don't have to be a political scientist to find the fault in America's political system.  The difficulty is easily described in very simple terms:
-Political systems exist in order to drive government decision-making.  
-In order to do so, they have to be able to resolve contests between competing proposals by different agents. 
-An idealized political system would have a process to resolve a dispute between any two agents or groups of agents (i.e., political parties). 
-Veto points occur when a political system contains a process which requires the mutual consent of two agents, and has no means of resolving a dispute between those agents on how to proceed.  Any time this happens, there exists the potential for deadlock, if the agents disagree.   
-Deadlocks at veto points have to be resolved externally.  Because there is no legitimate political process to call on when they occur, participants have no option but to appeal to outside forces to help resolve the conflict, with unpredictable effects.  This includes everything from fuzzy concepts like "legitimacy" to public opinion to seriously destabilizing stuff like military intervention. 
-This process will eventually result in extra-political actions that destroy the system in question.
Some number of veto points are probably inevitable in any government, the result of the messy process of building a state.  But the American system is basically unique for containing many frequently-encountered veto points at a high level.  The filibuster is one.  The bicameral house is another.  And the division between executive and legislative power is a third.  (The judiciary, by contrast, fares pretty well in this analysis: its ability to overrule and be overruled by the other branches is well-understood.)

So why has the American government survived so long?  With the disclaimer that I'm not a political scientist, here are some guesses.

First off, it hasn't.  Not only was the country eventually split in half by civil war, the American political system has gone through a number of dramatic shifts over time, as different branches and agencies became more or less important in governance.  One of the ironies of Americans' insistence on preserving our relatively old constitution is that doing so has helped disguise what are otherwise some pretty striking discontinuities in the workings of politics.

Second, the relative longevity of American government has allowed the development of norms which help prevent deadlocked political actors from turning to the most extreme external measures.  Or, in plain english, it's unlikely anyone in this country would support a military coup to override a filibuster.

Third, diffuse parties.  Check the Matthews post for more.  Still, I think this is overrated: it's not like legislative party politics has ever been the only potential sticking point in the system.

Finally, our veto points, while very real, usually cause inaction, not crisis.  Deadlocks just mean nothing happens.  This has bizarre, anti-democratic consequences--frequently, it's impossible to get anything done, even if each and every person in Congress prefers action--but it also means that failures don't result in escalating efforts to break the stalemate; instead, they return us to the status quo, which was (presumably) a functioning equilibrium.  In other words, the ability of the political system to automatically elect not to proceed might have insulated it from its other great failings.

But here's the problem: in the current crisis, in order to preserve the status quo, the government must affirmatively elect to proceed.  If Congress can't move forward, the government will slowly erode away and we'll default on our debt.  It's a bad time to find ourselves exposed to America's full array of constitutional flaws, and it's hard to think any of this can end very well.

The life expectancy of the debt ceiling

Yglesias today, on the importance of not negotiating on the debt ceiling:
Michael Grunwald from Time was on Twitter earlier today pounding the message that ultimately a deal has to be made and Obama should be willing to pay some price in order to avert the disaster of a debt ceiling breach. That's fine if Obama's personal reputation is the only thing at stake. You really don't want to be the guy who presided over an unprecedented catastrophe and might make some small or even mid-sized concession to Republicans to avoid it.  
But from the standpoint of the country as a whole, a debt ceiling breach in 2013 is no more disastrous than a breach in 2017 or 2022. And the problem with "cutting a deal" with Republicans is that it essentially makes an eventual breach inevitable.  
If the hostage-taking gambit works, then it will be used over and over again until it goes wrong. The only responsible thing for Obama to do is to struggle with all his might to take this gambit off the table now and forever. 
Matt's not wrong about the dangers of negotiating.  But I don't quite agree that appeasement leads inexorably to default.  That assertion relies pretty heavily on the assumption that debt ceiling standoffs will replay themselves over and over until someone finally either stands their ground, or alternatively, goofs up the timeline and inadvertently sends the country into default.  Assuming that debt ceiling crises recur, either is plausible, and possibly inevitable.

But it's hard not to think that the debt ceiling itself is in its last years.  At best, it's constant irritant to the governing party, and at worst, it's a ticking time bomb.  The next time either party establishes complete control of both houses and the presidency, I bet the debt ceiling is immediately written out of law, in a safe, non-controversial manner, with no platinum coins or 14th Amendment debates involved.

In that light, Grunwald's strategy looks a little better: he wants us to keep the bomb from going off, until such time as we can disarm it safely.

Broadly speaking, though, I'm still pretty sympathetic to Yglesias's hard-line view.  The problem isn't the unavoidability of default so much as it's the extent of the GOP's demands this time around.  After all, it might be many years before either party is in a position to do away with the debt ceiling.  In the meantime, the GOP has demonstrated that negotiating only leads to greater demands and more frequent standoffs; if we pursue Grunwald's strategy, there's no telling how badly civil society will need to be gutted in order to keep time on the clock. The debt ceiling has a short life expectancy, but a country where the minority rules by crisis-induced fiat has an even shorter one.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The one weird old trick to make driving in traffic quicker and less frustrating

On Wonkblog today, a collection of traffic engineering factoids, including one about humanity's collective rejection of a driving technique that would indisputably improve their lives: zipper merging.
We're all basically idiots when it comes to merging. Whenever a road shrinks from two lanes to one, it would actually be most efficient for everyone to stay in their lane right until the point where the lanes converge and then execute a "zipper merge." But most drivers feel bad about doing this and tend to shift over to the open lane early. This causes congestion.
Here in Minnesota, the Department of Transportation has instituted a "Don't Be Minnesota Nice!" campaign to encourage zipper merging.  Ten minutes on I-94 will confirm the campaign's failure.

So that's my little tip to make driving more tolerable for everyone: learn when zipper merging is appropriate, and use it!  I zipper merge without apology, and I can report back that it is fantastic.  Few things are worse than sitting in traffic; likewise, few things are better than roaring down a completely-empty exit lane, blowing by hundreds of stopped cars, and knowing it's all for the common good.  Zipper merging makes your life easier and, while other drivers may not appreciate it, it makes their lives easier too. There aren't many times in day-to-day life you can feel absolutely certain that you're doing The Right Thing and remain secure in your decision in the face of other people's disapproval.  But here, you are not only entitled to act with smug confidence that your own superior knowledge gives you the privilege to skip to the end of the line, but you're actively encouraged to do so by authorities.  Relish the opportunity.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Today's most ridiculous news story

Somehow, it wasn't anything Ted Cruz said.

No, it's this:
The Federal Open Markets Committee released its decision not to taper bond purchases last Wednesday at exactly 2 p.m. eastern time. The news should have taken 7 milliseconds to travel at the speed of light from Washington to Chicago. But Chicago markets began moving in response to that news only 3 milliseconds after 2p.m. Is news traveling faster than the speed of light now? 
The time difference at stake is way less than a blink of an eye (it takes a person 300 or 400 million milliseconds to do that), but in trading, it matters. Trading computers are so smart now that you can plug high-speed data feeds into them, and the computers will "analyze the news as it comes in and execute pre-programed trading strategies," CNBC reports. Again, in Chicago, trades shouldn't have happened until 7 milliseconds after 2p.m. But Nanex Research, a firm that "has been at the forefront of discovering market abuses, particularly in the area of high-frequency trading," discovered a buying increase in the eMini futures market in Chicago just 3 milliseconds after 2p.m. Gold futures started accelerating just 1 or 2 milliseconds after 2p.m. 
The Fed is now investigating whether or not a media organization may have leaked the "no taper" news early. CNBC reported on Tuesday on the conditions surrounding the embargoed news — reporters were literally locked in a room in Washington at 1:45p.m. on Wednesday. The reporters got copies of the Fed's statement at 1:50p.m., but were not allowed to breathe a word of it until 2p.m. (according to the national atomic clock in Colorado).
I was part of of pretty long debate today about whether this is something we should care about.  And I really just can't see how it is.  It's definitely true that the Fed's announcements are important for the market; billions of dollars are riding on the FOMC's decisions.  It's also true that enough money is on the line to encourage Wall Street to take some pretty ridiculous measures.  But what's that to us?  For everyone that isn't a giant firm, the whole exercise is pretty aggressively zero-sum. So if banks want to invest tens of millions of dollars in setting up communications systems that will transmit the Fed's decisions back to their trading computers and make trades at speeds that approach the absolute physical limit, well, so be it. Why should we pay any attention to this absurd game?

And building from that, why should the Federal Reserve, a government body, be so invested in setting up safeguards that ensure a level playing field?  All the security measures--reporters must remain in a locked room, unable to speak, until an exact precise moment as determined by an atomic clock--are disturbingly solicitous of the interests of a handful of Wall Street banks.

Lots of market-moving information is communicated by the government in lopsided, asynchronous ways.  The best example of this is Supreme Court decisions, of which there are dozens every year with potentially major economic consequences.  Despite this, you don't see some sort of strange system where all the Supreme Court reporters are lined up at the starting line, waiting for Roberts to fire a pistol and signal the precise moment everyone is allowed to call the networks.  Instead, everyone piles into a courtroom, the judges read an opinion, and if someone figures out the holding first, so be it.  If they screw up and report the wrong result, that's also something that can happen.  In the end, it doesn't matter to America whether Trader A or Trader B gets an arbitrage opportunity, so long as someone takes it eventually.  The market will take care of itself.

And I mean, where does this end?  Like, have we factored in the speed of sound? The time it takes for a reporter's voice to travel to a phone receiver might disadvantage the reporter vis-a-vis another reporter who, say, uses a series of light signals and video chat.  What about reporters sitting towards the back of the room?  Their signals have to travel further than someone communicating over a shorter length of wire!  Yes, the difference is minuscule... but once you're talking about the the amount of time it takes light to travel from DC to Chicago, stupid little things like this become relevant.

To me, the fact that the Fed is wringing its hands over this stuff demonstrates badly misplaced priorities.  Because really, what's the philosophy behind doing it the way we currently we do it?  Fairness?  It's true, the current system does make sure everyone has a equal opportunity to arbitrage FOMC announcements--provided, of course, you've got a bleeding-edge supercomputer and a billion dollars in investment capital.  I'm sure some bank would cry foul if FOMC decisions were reported, by, say, Bernanke standing in front of a TV camera and reading off a sheet of paper.  It's not fair, they'd moan.  Citibank's guy was standing closer and heard first, and those .0215 seconds made ALL the difference.  To which we ought to respond, So friggin what?  This is the game you got into, and you're not allowed to complain if you lost.  Your stupid play, your money, your problem. 

The Star Tribune thinks this video will make you into an Islamic radical

Here's how the Minneapolis paper describes an August video aimed at recruiting Minnesotans to the Somalian terrorist group Al-Shabab:
The 40-minute recruiting video is as slick as any marketing tool for the twenty-something male demographic: patriotic music, commitment to a greater good, guns, even the promise of enjoying life in “the real Disneyland.”
Skim through it and judge for yourself:

Did you somehow resist the call to jihad?  Or are you booking a flight to Mogadishu as we speak?

I probably should have something more sophisticated to say about this, but, honestly, the main thing I'm feeling is embarrassed for my hometown paper's utter cluelessness.  Maybe Al-Shabab will continue to draw recruits from Cedar-Riverside, but I'd hesitate to ascribe their success to marketing savvy.  But what do I know?  I'm a twenty-something male; play a little patriotic music and my brain turns to mush.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Slate redesign redux

Thinking a little bit more about why the new front page is such a mess, the biggest problem is that there's no discernible hierarchy of importance.  This is particularly frustrating as you travel further down the page.  Years of reading newspapers have taught us that the most important stuff A. gets the biggest headlines, and B. is placed at the top of the page, meaning that it's possible to read a publication at a desired level of detail.  If you've only got a few minutes, or just don't care that much about the publication in question, you can peruse the top-level stuff; the longer you've got or more interested you are, the further down the page you can travel.

But the Slate redesign turns all this on its head by placing big features, with pictures and everything, at seemingly random intervals on the page.  As my earlier post tried to demonstrate, there's no real obvious throughline that lets you skim the page and get the most important stuff.  There are some hierarchical elements, in the form of lists (most recent, most shared, most viewed, etc.), but these are also scattered seemingly at random around the page; their relation to each other isn't clear.  Making matters worse, advertising panes are intermixed with content panes quite freely; the only way to know what not to click is to actually read the ads and recognize that's what they are.  This is consistently irritating and feels like a waste of time, though I'm sure advertisers themselves prefer it.

All in all, it takes a process that used to be quick and frictionless--check Slate.com for three seconds, see if there's anything of interest, move on--and makes it quite a bit more labor-intensive.  I'm sure the web designers hope this will encourage people to spend more time browsing the page, but if anything, the increased time cost of visiting the site will probably result in me checking it less habitually.  Just anecdotally, there's a bad precedent here: a year ago, The New Republic went through a startlingly similar redesign, changing from a newspaper-esque format to a Web 2.0, super-tablet-friendly format much like Slate's; the consequence is that TNR changed, overnight, from a site I visited daily to a site I visit maybe once a month.  That's what happens when you value form, and faddish web design, over function.

GTA V's artistic achievement

Leigh Alexander has a lot of smart things to say about GTA V, but she ultimately gets sidetracked by the GTA-that-was and misses what's exhilarating about the GTA-that-is.

She's making a common mistake: the old GTA was a parody of modern society, but the joke's wearing thin.  A lot of people think that means the series is on the downslope.  They're wrong.  It no longer needs to be about tearing through a satirical America as an amoral force of nature.  The achievement of the GTA series, circa 2013, isn't the crime-movie storylines or the lousy, juvenile humor even the transgressive freedom it gives you. As Alexander notices, the game doesn't actually seem especially interested in giving the player complete, unrestricted freedom these days.  Even its signature free-form crime-sprees are toned down: you can still behave like an abhorrent, murdering psychopath if you please, but the game actively works to guilt you out of it, and, for the first time ever, running from the police will trigger a heavier crackdown, a process which can pretty quickly spiral out of control (much like real life), meaning it really behooves aspiring bandits to keep a low profile unless they have some sort of express criminal objective (again, much like real life).

But that's all okay.  Because what's notable about the modern-day Grand Theft Auto series is the really, really remarkable sense of place that it creates. Making a fake place seem real--particularly one that's as wide open as GTA's world--is something that's exceptionally difficult to do, but is also something that's easy to overlook if you don't play a lot of video games. The old GTAs were impressive in their time, but large chunks of them felt artificial--stuff wasn't laid out quite right, buildings were too close together, too small, too big, whatever. The world was impressive for a video game but it still felt like a video game. GTA V, more than any game I've ever played, almost certainly more than any game ever made, feels translated directly from the real world, a feat which is all the more impressive because its Los Santos is, at best, only an echo of a real city. It's an incredible display of observation and artistry, building something in two years out of a whole cloth that can be mistaken for a city built by millions of people over centuries.

People get fixated on the game aspect of the game and miss this. If GTA V's Los Santos were a sculpture, no one would mistake the staggering artistic achievement on display. But it is a sculpture, just one that exists in a conceptual space instead of a physical space. And it's more than a sculpture--it contains a multiplicity of systems, designed to emulate, as perfectly as possible, the real rhythms of modern life. Traffic flows. Pedestrians wander around, talk to each other. Yesterday I saw a traffic accident in the middle of an intersection; cars stopped and a few minutes later an ambulance arrived.  And I saw it in the game, too.

The recreation goes beyond the visual or the tangible. GTA V simulates an entire social network. Everything that happens in the game is continually commented upon in the game's fake social networks; make someone angry and you can go read them tweeting about it. Where a normal narrative concerns itself only with the things that happen directly in the audience's view, GTA continually updates a web of optional interactions, ancillary to the main plotline, that do nothing but maintain the illusion of a real, invisible set of social relationships.

Consider: one of the game's main playable characters is Michael, a retired mobster attempting to salvage a rocky relationship with his children. Playing temporarily as one of Michael's younger criminal associates, on a whim, I called Michael's son, Jimmy. Jimmy confessed to me something he'd never say directly to his dad: that he was worried about his father, and was particularly worried about his reinititiation into the criminal fraternity.

Think about that: this is a completely optional, easily overlooked moment. There was no particular reason to call Jimmy at that moment, and there were a dozen other people I could have called instead. I bet 98% of GTA players never make that call, never find out that Jimmy cares more about his dad than he lets on, or that he feels more comfortable opening up to the younger gangster than his family. And there's no doubt a thousand other, similar interactions I've missed. They're out there; in some sense, they exist, even if I don't see or explore them, alongside the vast swathes of physical geography in the game that I'll probably never encounter.

So yeah, GTA V is a lot of things, but it's not disappointing.  Compared to a lot of art in a lot of mediums, GTA V might fall short--but that's only because there's no good word for the medium it's still inventing.

The Slate redesign: a reading journey

I'm sure Slate's new look has been carefully tailored to look pretty on tablets and garner the absolute maximum number of links, but it sure fails on the "not giving readers a headache" front.

Observe: one's man journey through the front page.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Krugman on health care costs

You should check out this excellent blog post from Paul Krugman, which, in a few short paragraphs, distills out some of the fundamental questions affecting American health policy:
Everyone who’s serious about the budget realizes that to the extent we do have a long-run fiscal problem — which we do, although it’s far from apocalyptic — it’s mainly about health care costs. And then there’s much wringing of hands about how nobody knows how to control health costs, so maybe we should just give people vouchers, and if they still can’t afford insurance, too bad.  
 Meanwhile, we have ample evidence that we do know how to control health costs. Every other advanced country does it better than we do — and Medicaid does it far better than private insurance, and better than Medicare too. It does it by being willing to say no, which lets it extract lower prices and refuse some low-payoff medical procedures.  
 Ah, but you say, Medicaid patients have trouble finding doctors who’ll take them. Yes, sometimes, although it’s a greatly exaggerated issue. Also, middle-class patients would surely be unhappy if transferred from the open-handedness of Medicare to the penny-pinching of Medicaid.  
But the problems of access, such as they are, would largely go away if most of the health insurance system were run like Medicaid, since doctors wouldn’t have so many patients able and willing to pay more. And as for complaints about reduced choice, let’s think about this for a moment. First you say that our health cost problems are so severe that we must abandon any notion that Americans are entitled to necessary care, and go over to a voucher system that would leave many Americans out in the cold. Then, informed that we can actually control costs pretty well, while maintaining a universal guarantee, by slightly reducing choice and convenience, you declare this an unconscionable horror.
Of course, the underlying point here is one that anyone with even a vague awareness of health policy has known for a long time: health care spending isn't driven by who gets care so much as it's driven by what kind of care they're getting.  As a result, expanding access doesn't fix cost growth--or necessarily worsen it, either.  The bad thing about this is that, as Krugman says, it forces us to make genuinely hard choices about rationing care.  The nice thing about this is that it frees us up to listen to our consciences when confronting questions of access.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Some stray thoughts about GTA V

With every iteration, Rockstar's worlds become more real.  This is no exception.  It's not the big stuff--I haven't had time to see the big stuff--but the little things, like how the underside of a freeway overpass, or a alleyway closed off with a chain-link fence, feel a little unsafe.  At one point I saw a white building across a wide, slightly unkempt plaza, and immediately knew it was a government building.  On closer inspection, it was a county courthouse.  It's a tiny thing but a remarkable achievement, capturing a place so well on so many levels that it bypasses the need for exposition or explanation feels like a direct extension of the actual world.

It's stuff like that which makes playing Grand Theft Auto such a joy.  I'm weird like this, but I invariably think the first few hours of a new GTA game are the best.  That's because the game usually has you doing small stuff: go to the store, buy some things, climb over a fence to steal a bike.  There aren't huge shootouts, there aren't explosions, there aren't over-the-top antics; I spend of my early time on foot walking down city streets, getting lost, getting hassled by bums.  This has the counterintuitive effect of making the game seem enormous.  It's a sensation that's difficult to describe: fiddling with tiny details in one corner of a world that goes on practically forever.  Games feel small when you hit their edges, which are usually hidden just out of view.  Here, there isn't an edge to be found.  GTA isn't the only series that starts you off, say, walking to your friend's house, but it's the only one where, instead of walking to his house and watching television, I could, if I wanted, keep walking, for hours and hours, eventually out of the city, past beaches and forests and small towns and national parks, watching the people and topography change, until eventually I ended up somewhere every bit as real as where I started, but totally different.

Unfortunately, a lot of people find these relatively sedate opening chapters boring.  They want to get right to the good part, which, for most, it seems, isn't appreciating the incredible world-in-a-bottle that Rockstar has made, but shooting lots of police officers, stealing their cars, and smashing them into other cars.  Frustratingly, Rockstar has listened to these people this time around.  So the game's prologue is a bank heist, resulting in a shootout with dozens of police.  The third mission also results in a ridiculous shootout.  As always with the current-gen GTAs, mass murder strains uneasily against Rockstar's narrative aspirations; for instance, the latter shootout is precipitated, absurdly, by the player's ill-advised attempt to repossess a motorbike.  After being cornered by the owners, the player's buddy draws a pistol and a major battle erupts.  The player's character quite reasonably shouts that "It's only a bike!" and "I'd rather have gotten beaten up than gotten into a gunfight!" but I don't expect these tossed-off appeals to common decency and common sense to prevent similar slaughters from recurring dozens of times over the course of the game. I find it frustrating: is the world so dull that, after simulating it in intricate detail, we only want to shoot it up?

Stop all the networking

The last few months of being a thoroughly jobless individual has raised my awareness of some of the weirder features of the culture of unemployment, circa 2013.  Among these, perhaps nothing is as weird as the obsession with networking, as exemplified by the totally ubiquitous, and, to the best of my knowledge, utterly useless LinkedIn.

I didn't even have a LinkedIn account until relatively recently, when I was told in no uncertain terms by a former professor that I must get one, shaming me into creating a profile.

But I still don't really understand what's happening here.  On my profile is my résumé.  While there's nothing wrong with my résumé, and I'm more than willing to show it to anyone that wants it, I can't think of circumstance where I felt that someone wanted to see my résumé, but wasn't able to.  In fact, I suspect that I, like most job-seekers, have the opposite problem: I frequently want to show people my résumé, but no one really cares to see it.  So why does it need to be posted on the internet, again?

My intuition that LinkedIn isn't really helping me get a job was all-but-confirmed by Ann Friedman's excellent article for The Baffler recently.  It casts the site as, in essence, a slightly scammy attempt to promote useless self-help pieces:
LinkedIn’s architects are self-aware enough to know that, even in the age of social-media following, some of us must be leaders. In October, the site enabled users to “follow” a handpicked set of “thought leaders.” LinkedIn has given this “select group” permission “to write long-form content on LinkedIn and have their words and sharing activity be followed by our 187 million members.” So far, 190 leaders have made the cut. The “most-followed influencers” are familiar names to anyone who’s ever killed time in an airport bookstore: Richard Branson, Deepak Chopra, Arianna Huffington, Tony Robbins...
[M]ost of the thought-leading counsel on offer at LinkedIn boils down to search-engine-friendly, evergreen nuggets of business advice. An article titled “Three Pieces of Career Advice That Changed My Life” is illustrated with stock photos showing street signs at the corner of “Opportunity Blvd.” and “Career Dr.” At this very promising intersection, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner explains that readers can do anything they put their minds to, that technology will come to rule everything, and that changing lives is a better goal than merely pushing paper around. This set of warmed-over management nostrums is one of the all-time top five “influencer posts” on the site.
Really, though, there's a bit more to LinkedIn than that.  The site predates its "thought leader" pieces, and the networking craze predates LinkedIn.  The idea that networking is the foundation of the job search is endemic in university career offices, for instance.  My law school sponsors an unending stream of networking events, where desperate students can rub elbows with employers.

What's strange about the emphasis on networking is that it leaves out an incredibly important step: the part where someone gets hired.  It's employment through osmosis: it relies on the inexplicable logic that the knowing of people with jobs will eventually transmute into a job itself.

How that happens, no one seems to be able to say.  I know because I've asked.  Career specialists who give very clear, very straightforward advice on where to go, what to say, and how to act in order to make connections starting speaking in vague generalities when you ask them what to do with those connections.  Massage them, apparently.  It's the final and most crucial step in the process, which is a very odd time to suddenly get circumspect.

It's not really their fault, though.  The right way to get hired is obvious, but as the Friedman article intimates, no one wants to hear it.  The most direct and reliable (though by no means foolproof) route to employment remains the same as ever:
  1. Find an employer with an available position.
  2. Apply for that position.
  3. Be the most qualified applicant and give a good interview.
The problem with this, from a career advice perspective, is that it places a lot of importance on factors outside the job-seeker's control: employers, competing job-seekers, macroeconomic policymakers, etc.  That's not very heartening for people who want jobs, and not very helpful if you want to sell services teaching those people how to improve their employment prospects.  As a result, the career industry has placed undue amounts of emphasis on a handful of factors that influence hiring indirectly, factors that only increase the odds of finding a position marginally.  

Over time, the industry's laser focus on factors within the job-seeker's control has taken on a life of its own, with huge expenditures of time and effort on almost comically narrow aspects of the process.  Consider résumé writing, something for which you can currently find services, courses, and other guidance.  Lost in the barrage of tips, tricks, and techniques is the simple reality that a résumé is just a list of qualifications and those are what are ultimately being judged, not whether the applicant is correctly performing a ritual of composition.

LinkedIn and networking services are just another manifestation of this.  Making connections--particularly offline connections--isn't useless, of course, but it only helps at the margin, and like most marginal improvements, there are diminishing returns.  A person with 900 LinkedIn connections isn't a compulsively employable juggernaut who employers deny at their own risk.  In fact, at some point, one has to question whether the time spent getting to know potential employers or finding job leads might not have been better spent just learning some substantive skills.

But to a person who wants a job in an economy where jobs are hard to come by, learning substantive skills  feels, ironically, like a pretty circuitous path to employment, and one with little guarantee of material reward.  By contrast, networking feels like leaving no stone unturned.  Small wonder that so many pursue it so relentlessly.

(As an aside,there are a lot of parallels in this respect between the career industry and the personal finance industry.  As described in Pound Foolish, Helaine Olen's indictment of personal finance, most people's long-run financial outlooks are determined by large-scale factors thoroughly out of their control: market performance, national employment trends, the inner workings of the pension and retirement industries. But that's discomfiting to average Americans with no control over the financial landscape, leading to the emergence of a booming advice industry, with endless financial self-help books, gurus, and courses. In these, investment celebrities like Suze Orman preach, essentially, a variant of the prosperity gospel: be smart with your money, and you will inevitably prosper.  The problem is that even smart use of retirement accounts can't save you when the stock market tanks six months before you retire, so in many cases this advice amounts to little more than a mystical belief that financial prudence will result in karmic rewards.  Even in optimistic cases, the cost of the advice will usually outstrip any predictable gains it could produce, and even the best advice can't protect working men and women from economic calamities outside their control.)

Monday, September 16, 2013

Well this is terrible

Ever wonder what it would be like if a sinister-looking clown were wandering your neighborhood, standing menacingly in the street and looking into your house?  Northampton, England doesn't have to wonder, because someone is doing that and blah blah blah look you can get the details here but all you really need to see is this picture.  LOOK AT THIS PICTURE:

I've got nothing to add here but "Oh my god no no no no no no no."

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A deep comic malaise: the coming viral video crisis

My fellow citizens.

Hours ago, The Fox by Ylvis reached 28.4 million Youtube hits.  In doing so, it surpassed one of the all-time greatest veterans of Youtube--the infamous Star Wars kid.

According to current projections, The Fox will eclipse Double Rainbow's 38 million hits in slightly over 72 hours.  From there, we can only speculate about its trajectory.

The Fox is only the latest example of a growing danger to the enjoyment of internet videos: resource depletion.

In the early, heady days of viral internet memes, hilarious content seemed inexhaustible.  The internet was the proverbial horn of plenty, capable of producing comic material to satisfy the needs of all humanity.

We know now that this early understanding was only a mirage.  It was the combination of two trends, which are both reaching their natural conclusion.

First, viral video pioneers had access to an enormous backlog of pre-internet materials.  Home video tapes, old infomercials, long-forgotten films, all could be strip-mined for comic value.  This created an exaggerated impression of the availability of movies of funny things happening.

But inevitably that stockpile is being exhausted.  Already the amount of pre-internet material reaching the public's consciousness is shrinking.  More cannot be produced.  One day we will simply run out.

Second, inefficient distribution has helped create a false impression of abundance.  Initially, videos were circulated by literal word of mouth, or shared on file-sharing sites.  The process was slow.  Only after years did the joke begin to wear out.  Star Wars Kid was posted on Youtube in 2006, averaging only four million hits a year.

But the process began to accelerate.  Double Rainbow was posted in 2010 and has averaged almost ten million hits a year, peaking early on with six hundred thousand views per day.  According to top scholars, "Double rainbow what does it mean" had been drained of all comic value by early 2010.  The phrase was rapidly retired, and today only persists in needy populations, like high school Facebook friends or your grandmother.

And distribution continues to accelerate, dramatically.

Three days after it was posted, The Fox received four million views in a day.  If current trends were to hold, by the time Christmas arrives, it will have as many views as people live in America. At that point, "What does the fox say?" will inspire only apathy, and perhaps despair.

In some ways, this alarming trend is a triumph of American ingenuity.  We have developed ever more centralized technologies for the sharing of viral content--first Youtube itself, then Twitter, then Facebook's news feed, and finally, Buzzfeed.

But as a consequence, the days when a group of friends would gather around a computer, sharing their favorite hilarious clips, are long over.  Today, within hours of first appearing, a video is wrenched out of its natural habitat, and, after being processed through a long chain of distributors, served to millions of viewers. Industrial-scale exploitation of the video continues relentlessly, with no respect for the integrity of the video's comedy, until the source is exhausted and discarded.

As this process grows ever faster, and our reserves diminish, a dark day approaches: the moment when our capacity for viewing internet videos will outstrip our ability to find or create them.

When that day finally comes, who knows what effects it will have on American society?  We risk entering a period of extended comic malaise, in which truly enjoyable memes appear only sporadically, and are eagerly pounced on by the ravening masses, dissected and rendered inert within hours.

How we will compensate for this sudden decline in our quality of life?  Perhaps we will warm ourselves by the light of artificially-manufactured substitutes, dreamed up by late-night comedians to fill the void in our hearts.  Maybe we'll settle for diminished quality of viral content, subsisting on half a loaf where we once had a whole one.

But rest assured, my fellow Americans, unless something is done, this crisis is coming.

Many of the nation's top thinkers are working on this problem.  For years, they have been experimenting with methods for extracting more efficient comedy from smaller amounts of precursor material, and while results have been mixed, there is some cause for optimism.

I'm sure at this point many of you are wondering if you can do your own small part to help out.  You can, by carefully considering any undiscriminating use of Facebook, Twitter, and other sites.  Oversharing on these networks speeds the crisis, and further inflates the fortunes of those who would thoughtlessly burn through our viral resources. We must collectively guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the meme-industrial complex.

It won't be easy.  The strength of America is in the inexhaustible resources of its people, not its exhaustible reserves of cell phone videos.  By working together, combining American ingenuity with its tradition of self-reliance, we can build a bright, sustainable future, one where our children, and our children's children, can enjoy watching internet cats as much as we have.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The ghost of the patriarchy

The patriarchy has been a hot topic lately--first with this Hanna Roisin post claiming that it's dead, and now with Matt Yglesias's response, saying that, if it's dead, there sure are a lot of men still running things.

Yglesias points out that men control the vast majority of the business world; for instance, 95% of Fortune 1000 companies have male CEOs.  (He leaves this out, but men also dominate politics, composing 83% of Congress and presiding over an amazing winning streak of 44 straight presidents.)  He argues that it doesn't really matter whether discrimination is the cause of this imbalance, because men are the de facto leaders of society either way.  

He might be right about that, but I'm still wary about his approach, citing gender disparities at the very tip top of our social institutions without evidence that these disparities are creating problems for women somewhere further down the line.  The problem is that there are at least two mechanisms which will tend to concentrate the effects of discrimination and other obstacles for women at the top of the professional ladder, such that, even if the patriarchy is truly on its last legs, its lingering remnants will be most visible in the apex of the political and business worlds.  

Mechanism one: the composition of the top tier of society is a lagging indicator, reflecting social attitudes from previous decades as much as attitudes from today.  

The key here is that leaders (business, political, or otherwise) are rarely selected from a pool composed of everyone in society.  Instead, candidates for these positions selected from a class of notables situated just below the top.  The people in that class are selected from a group below them, and so on.  Climbing all the way up the ladder usually takes half a lifetime or more.  

As a result, when the groups near the top are composed primarily of men, that, to some extent, is because the people entering business or politics thirty years ago were primarily men.  Whatever challenges women face today, the obstacles confronting them were far more severe in the past.  And since the highest levels of professional success often take the longest to reach, they reach further into the past than any other.

Mechanism two: small pressures against promotion can compound over multiple tiers of advancement.  Even if any given woman at any given level of professional success is only mildly disadvantaged in comparison to her male counterparts, the actual proportion of women will shrink at each level.  

I threw together a quick example on Excel.  It's artificial but it should illustrate my point.  We start with ten million people--let's say the population of a whole state.  Ten percent of the population then advances to the first tier of achievement; ten percent of that group advances to Tier 2, and so on.  Women's opportunity for advancement is slightly less than if they were being selected at random: they only have a nine percent chance of doing so.

By the time you've selected the top ten most successful members of the population, they're 73% male.  Depressingly, that's still better than real life, although real life probably has more than seven levels and this demonstration makes no attempt to incorporate the historical factors above.  But the point should be clear: you can't really determine the degree of the pressures against women simply by looking at how many women have been promoted to the highest levels; indeed, you're much better off looking at pressures felt at the very bottom.  

These two points can probably be read as both support for Matt's argument and as a mild critique of it.  On one hand, they demonstrate how important it is, if we want society to be truly equitable from top to bottom, to purge even mild bias from our institutions.  Small pressures at the bottom of society can have major impacts at the top, and the effects of discrimination can long outlive discrimination itself.  Even small factors, like mostly-male boards of directors, might have more of an effect than we'd think.

On the other hand, we do need to be careful when interpreting one-dimensional statistics like "The number of CEOs who are women."  Those statistics might remain unpromising long after the ground has shifted beneath them, in favor of more equitable advancement for women.  Politicians and CEOs can't really be used as shorthand for the rest of America, and, ironically, the average working women might find that her workplace is a lot less imbalanced than the average female CEO.  Even if the patriarchy is dead, its ghost might live on for a span, in corporate boardrooms and the Senate.  

Because of this, if we want to make the argument that the gender imbalance at the top of society is not evidence of a patriarchal order, but has patriarchal effects, it needs to be made directly.  As a personal aside, I actually find that case pretty intuitively compelling, but recognize that it's significantly more difficult to demonstrate empirically.  It's hard to say whether a society with a greater number of powerful women would work much differently from our own, because we've never had one.  But for the same reason, it remains very plausible that it might.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The problem with public polls about Syria

It's Iraq.
A new Associated Press poll shows a majority of Americans oppose a U.S. strike on Syria, despite a weeks-long Obama administration campaign to respond to chemical weapons attacks the U.S. blames on President Bashar Assad's regime. Most of those surveyed said they believe even limited U.S. attacks — as President Barack Obama has promised — would lead to a long-term commitment of military forces in Syria.   
That's from here.

There are lots and lots of reasons to be skeptical of a Syria strike, but the danger of the U.S. getting bogged down in a long-term engagement has to be low on the list.  Absolutely everyone, top to bottom, thinks that a lengthy commitment in Syria is a terrible, horrible idea.

Nonetheless, the possibility looms large in the public consciousness.  It's availability bias: when people think of war in the Middle East, and when they hear their leaders reassuring them that an operation will be quick and painless for Americans, they immediately think of the disastrous Iraq War.  Nevermind that the last time this debate played out, things went almost precisely according to plan.  Nevermind that there are countless important distinctions between an unprovoked invasion of Iraq and an air campaign to chastise the use of real, honest-to-god WMDs.  The collective opinions of large masses of people are only able to incorporate a certain level of nuance; apparently not enough to differentiate between Syria and Iraq.

These polls aren't meaningless.  Politicians have an obligation to faithfully represent the views of their constituents, even if their constituents are wrong.  Beyond that, the political climate plays an important role in the politics of the Syrian civil war, making Obama's job harder and giving Assad a bargaining chip, and maybe even a sympathetic ear.  But it's clear that polls like this are taking gauge of past events more than they're reflecting future possibilities.  

Did John Kerry accidentally prevent the war?

The latest news on the Syria front is that Russia and Syria are considering a deal with the U.S. wherein Syria turns over its chemical weapons, and the U.S. keeps its planes and bombs on the ground at home.  I really hope this happens, for a variety of reasons:
  1. It would prevent the U.S. from getting involved in an ugly war, saving lives, money, and the like.

  2. It would make me look really smart, because I predicted it.
Really, I did!  Look at my post from August 31st:
A couple important elements of this plan are getting widely overlooked. One is time. Congress won't vote for at least a week, which means military strikes aren't going to happen for a while... That gives Assad a chance to react, which isn't an entirely a bad thing. Knowing he's in a bad spot, he's got a chance to forestall action against him by changing his current war footing--no compromise, total war--to something more acceptable to the United States. 
No one can question anymore that Obama is willing to attack Syria, even if an attack on Syria may or may not happen. And there's at least a good chance that it'll end with strikes being authorized. For Assad, it's not a shot across the bow, it's Russian Roulette, and the barrel is spinning. It's clever, because it demonstrates Obama's resolve without firing a shot. Combine that with the timing issue above, and it might force concessions from Syria without actual war.
Of course, before I get too big on myself, we have to remember that these negotiations could still go anywhere, or nowhere.  Syria hasn't proven itself the most reliable country to work with, and Assad is clearly under a lot of different pressures at the moment.  Russia is famously difficult as well.  The Syrian government obviously thinks its chemical weapon stockpiles provide it with some advantage, or it wouldn't have accumulated them; the idea that it would freely relinquish them in the middle of an existential conflict seems a little far-fetched.

Another strange aspect of this development is that appears to have been entirely accidental, arising from an apparently unplanned remark by John Kerry.

Now, that's not proof that it is accidental, because even if this were a carefully constructed gambit by the Obama administration, it would have to look inadvertent.  The reason why is simple: Assad's sincere belief that U.S. warplanes are on the way is creating pressure to negotiate.  If he discovers that the U.S. diplomatic strategy is a clever bluff intended from the outset to force a non-military settlement, he'd no longer feel that pressure, and we'd return to the "If you're going to hit me, then hit me!" standoff of two weeks ago.

With that said, if I were President Obama, and, having convinced the world that I wanted to bomb Syria, were trying to send out diplomatic feelers to Assad, a bumbling public remark from the Secretary of State isn't how I'd do it.  So I do think in all likelihood this sequence has just been a happy accident: the administration tripping into the opportunity it unknowingly created.  Still, worse things have happened.  Let's hope for a happy ending.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Why to be skeptical of a Summers Fed nomination

Wonkblog on Larry Summers:
At Harvard, Summers gave an infamous speech about women in math and science that came across as suggesting, as he later acknowledged, that the leader of one of the world’s top universities didn’t think women were quite as talented in these fields as men. His defenders argued he was just trying to stir intellectual debate and was actually making a narrower statistical point, raising the question of whether women were less likely than men to produce the very best (and very worst) mathematicians and scientists. Summers concluded he engaged in an act of “ spectacular imprudence.”  
At the White House, he drove many colleagues crazy with endless debates. When he thought someone else had a bad argument, he’d declare, “You’ll get killed!” He made people think he favored nationalizing banks, when he didn’t. He wanted to shape not only economic policy but health care and energy. Some of his former colleagues say the style led to dysfunction. Christy Romer, former chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, told me she’s not sure Summers has the “the managerial skills and personality to win over a large committee” that is the Fed.
Here's the thing, though: the problem with Summers isn't the things he says.  It's the things he's done, or, to be more exact, the lack of them.  This is a man who spent most of his adult life at the absolute pinnacle of American society, teaching at and subsequently running Harvard, serving as Treasury Secretary, and advising the president during the financial crisis.  He's had endless opportunities to distinguish himself as a public servant.  He hasn't.  He's been okay, but I can't think of a brilliant policy idea that anyone ascribed to Larry Summers.  He's come across as clever but never as particularly prescient, deeply insightful, or even, despite his penchant for iconoclasm, an especially novel thinker.  He's just a really smart dude who made good, with the help of a very successful family.

Would he be okay as Fed Chairman?  Yeah, sure, maybe.  But is there anything to recommend him over the many, many thousands of other smart dudes (or dudettes!) in America?

There's another thing about Summers, too.  The traits described in the Wonkblog post are those of someone enamored of his own intelligence.  He's not wrong, but that's still dangerous.  Larry Summers might be a bona fide genius, but the world has a knack for humbling geniuses.  Policy on a large scale is frequently beyond the comprehension of the smartest economist; intelligence becomes a weakness when it convinces someone that they're seeing more clearly than the rest of us.

Policymakers ought to start with the mantra "Everyone's stupid, and most of all me." Summers' seems to go something more like "Everyone's stupid.  But not me."

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Can airlines survive a classless society? Maybe not. Can they survive without first class? Yes.

As previously established, this blog is firmly anti-price discrimination.  So it was with interest that I read this post from Rory Sutherland, defending price discrimination in airfares as a necessary evil, and encouraging that other services emulate their practices.

Sutherland's basic point is this: by dividing airplanes into first-class and coach-class seating, airlines are able to attract wealthy, high-paying passengers who subsidize most of the cost of air travel.  As a result, airlines can sell tickets to the rest of us plebes at improbably affordable prices.  (Although he doesn't use the term, what he's describing is textbook price discrimination: selling more expensive tickets to people who are willing to pay more.)  He goes on to suggest that a similar two-tiered system could be replicated elsewhere; that we'd be able to provide more subways, school buses, and other niceties if society was a little less sensitive to class divisions in our services:
I sometimes suggest that we would similarly benefit from having different classes of travel on the London Underground. If the first two carriages in each train cost three times as much as the others but offered free Wi-Fi, and were furnished not with basic seats but with the sumptuousness of an Edwardian-era New Orleans brothel, you could afford to run more trains. Almost everyone finds this idea repellent. 
But I’d like to issue a challenge to any libertarians, economists, ethicists or software gurus reading this column. How do you get people with wildly differing willingness or ability to pay to fund some common good other than through redistributive taxation?
He's right in part and wrong in part.  Building off Sutherland's point, Felix Salmon does better: he points out that price discrimination exists both between first- and coach-class customers, and among them.  Two people sitting in the same might have paid wildly different amounts for their ticket.

To the extent that price discrimination is occasionally necessary, Felix gives a far better example.  Maintaining certain for-profit services might require a degree of "redistributive taxation" in the form of price discrimination, but that price discrimination can't be used to justify class distinctions in services.  Class distinctions simply wouldn't accomplish what Sutherland thinks they would.

This is the part where I use strained hypotheticals to show you what I mean.  (What can I say? Law school habits die hard.)

So imagine that you own an airline that flies three routes every day. It's expensive to provide those routes and you'll only make back your costs if you fill at least a third of them with high-paying customers.  Fortunately for you, high-paying customers like the flexibility your airline provides (three routes! Every day!), so each day all the rich people in town choose one of the routes and fly it.  You don't know in advance which one they'll pick, so you have to maintain all three.  And after they buy their tickets, you may as well sell tickets on the other routes to low-paying customers--you can’t get rid of the routes without losing your core clientele, and there’s no reason to not make an easy buck or two on the excess capacity.

In that situation, it can accurately be said that high-paying passengers are subsidizing the low-paying passengers.  Selling tickets to the rich is the airlines' raison d'être.  The airline was built for them; the rest of us get to come along for the ride, which is ultimately good for us.

You might point out that this is highly unrealistic.  In real life, maybe you'd expect the profit-generating customers to split more-or-less evenly between the three routes.  But if that's the case, it's virtually guaranteed that a large portion of the capacity along each route will be used to fly loss-generating customers.  In this instance, you're better off just reducing capacity overall; i.e., buy smaller planes.

One way to think about this is to realize that in order for a rational airline owner to spend money providing any given seat, there must be some chance that a profit-generating customer will fill it.

Another way of looking at it is to realize that if the value of a service for profit-generating customers is its capacity, and if that required capacity is in excess of what profit-generating customers can consume, then you'd expect de facto price discrimination that benefits society at large.  By selling tickets at continually lower prices until all seats are filled, the airline ensures it is generating the maximum possible profit from its available resources.  Some of the seats might be sold at a loss--the airline would save money by not producing the seat and therefore not selling the ticket--but the required capacity isn't created, no one, rich or poor, would buy a ticket.

It's not just transportation.  Salmon's post talks at length about price discrimination in the newspaper industry, which is a pretty good example of another service with similar characteristics.  A lot of a newspaper's credibility and currency are derived from the scale and scope of its readership; this is a big part of why, for instance, the New York Times is better-regarded paper than the Toledo Blade.  But the number of profitable subscribers to the Times is far smaller than the number of readers required to maintain its current global reach.  So it makes sense to institute a system in which wealthy customers are encouraged to pay full price while other customers can avail themselves of bargains or visit the site for free or sneak past the paywall.

So far, so good.  But here's the problem with Sutherland's argument: this logic only works when the consumers of a particular service are undifferentiated.  When you know that a service is mostly attracting profit-generating or loss-generating customers, then the reasoning breaks down.

Think again about the three air routes above.  Now, let's imagine that our airline enhances one of the routes with luxury service, free drinks and food, spacious seating arrangements, and the rest.  In doing so, it hopes to consistently attract the rich passengers to that route.  That's all well and good--it's certainly the airline's prerogative to do this if it wants.  But since it now knows its profitable customers will end up flying the one route and not the two others, why even maintain the second two?  They're losing money!  It's better off scrapping them.

Alternatively, the airline could create two classes of seat on every plane.  One provides excellent service to the rich, and one provides minimal service for everyone else.  But again, if you know which part of your service will attract profitable customers, why provide the rest of your service to everyone else?  Once again, you ought to just buy smaller planes.

Or think about newspapers again.  If papers know that both classes of consumer are attracted to the whole product, then price discrimination sounds like a good idea.  But what happens if they discover that rich subscribers are mainly reading the real estate section, while poor moochers are mainly reading the funnies?  Why spend money producing the funnies?

In short, it's unlikely that a private firm would provide a service that its knows will be consumed at a loss.  This makes intuitive sense, it's worth noting.  It also shows the defect in Sutherland's reasoning.  In all of his examples, services are split into two tiers: a fancy service for the rich and a crappy service for the poor.  But as a mechanism for cross-subsidization, tiered service doesn't work--the service provider is always better off just providing the upper tier.

One might counter that Sutherland didn't mean that low-paying consumers are truly loss-generating. But if that's the case, it's hard to see what the benefit of price discrimination is to the rest of us.  If none of the tickets are in any respect losing money, the service provider can still profitably provide the same level of service with standardized (and for some people, lower) prices.  It's true that expensive tickets might help subsidize cheap ones while holding profits constant, but I'm dubious that this forms a great case for the social necessity of  price discrimination.

Of course, all this raises the question of why some services are tiered.  And there are couple of answers to that.  First, there is still an element of price discrimination here--of the consumer-gouging kind.  Even if it's not strictly necessary to keep your firm afloat, price discrimination is still a good way to make a few extra dollars on the back of hapless consumers.  Second, I'm sure there's some profit in creating services tailored to certain needs.  Some people just want first-class seating; others want cramped, cheap seats; airlines cater to both in various degrees.  And within those categories, Sutherland's argument works just fine.  Airlines need a certain capacity of each seating class, and fill any excess with bargain tickets sold to low-paying customers.  The problem is that, while possibly necessary to sustain the industry, this practice is also necessarily invisible to consumers.

You might wonder why I care so much about this relatively esoteric point.  There are a few reasons.  First, as I've said before, price discrimination is actively harmful to consumers, so we need to be careful about rationalizing its widespread adoption.  Thinking through the problem in detail helps us see when certain forms of price discrimination are and are not necessary; I think we can safely say, for instance, that airlines can exist just fine without dividing their passengers into castes.  Besides, class divisions in society seem generally pretty corrosive, so arguments in favor of them ought to be tested.

But more broadly, I just don't believe policymakers think enough about the mechanics of consumer spending.  Companies sink tons of research and money into creating novel ways to squeeze a few dollars more out of each consumer purchase, and no one bats an eye.  People accept as an obvious truth that price discrimination and similar transactional innovations can change behavior on the producer side of the supply and demand curve.  But people rarely consider that these things have an equal and opposite effects on consumers.  Depressed consumer purchasing incentives and reduced consumer surplus are every bit as real and worthy of discussion as sales tactics--so let's discuss them.

No, this was not the most successful summer in Hollywood's history

It was, you might have heard, a summer of discontent for movie studios, as audiences endured (or, rather, ignored) flop after flop, like R.I.P.D., Turbo, The Lone Ranger, and White House Down. Does this represent the death of something more than Ryan Reynold's leading-man dreams? Is it the death of the entire modern Hollywood business model? "The summer-blockbuster strategy itself may have tanked," Catherine Rampell writes in the New York Times Magazine.  
But Hollywood's summer blockbuster strategy -- essentially: adapt books, make sequels -- didn't really "tank." In fact, it was the biggest summer in history, in nominal dollars.
Relatedly, in nominal terms, the most successful movies of all time were probably the German Expressionist masterpieces of the early 1920s.   Unless Zimbabwe has a film industry I don't know about.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A bad prognosis for Syria

For a smart quantitative take on the effects of a Syria intervention, head over to the cryptically-named bennstancil.com (presumably operated by one Ben N. Stancil). 
[D]o existing civil wars become more violent after an intervention?  
The limited historical record indicates that it’s relatively rare - but it’s even less rare that they reduce violence. A conflict with an intervention was preceded by a civil war in 28 instances. In four cases, the conflict became more violent during the year of the intervention compared to the year prior. Twenty-three stayed the same, while only 1 declined. (Including conflicts that are already major conflicts in this sample is potentially problematic, however, because these conflicts have already reached this dataset’s upper bound of violence. For minor conflicts, 4 of 16 increased in violence, while zero decreased.)
Violence, however, isn’t the only measure of a conflict. There are other potential benefits to interventions, such as bringing the conflict to an end more quickly. From this perspective, history isn’t in favor of the interventionists. Only 8 of the 28 conflicts ended in two years following the intervention, with many lasting much longer (75% of those that endured lasted at least seven years following the intervention year). Furthermore, conflicts don’t appear to end more quickly if the intervener remains present either - in the 20 cases in which conflict endured, 10 reverted back to civil wars, and 10 continued as interventions, with roughly equal portions of each lasting seven or more years.
As the post accurately points out, this doesn't do much to explain causation.  It may be that intervening in civil wars makes them more violent, or it may be that foreign military powers are reluctant to get involved in any but the worst civil wars.  Either way, though, it's just more hard evidence in support of what everyone already fears: the Syria situation is a disaster and it's unlikely to get much better anytime soon.