Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The (Bad) Economics of Legal Practice

I've been kicking around some reactions to a discussion a while back at LGM about the realities of simply "hanging out a shingle" if you're an unemployed lawyer, but a more recent post Paul Campos provides a somber economic context for would-be law firm start-ups:
In 1989, legal services accounted for approximately $157 billion, in 2005 dollars, of US GDP. In 2011 that same figure (again in 2005 dollars) was $156 billion. Over this time GDP increased by 68% in constant dollars, which means that, as a share of the economy, the legal sector shrank by approximately 41% over the past two decades....

The most striking contrast between the situation in law and medicine is, that while economic demand for legal services has, relatively speaking, been contracting radically (note to law school administrators: economic demand = people having enough money to pay for something they’re willing to use that money to pay for), that for medical services has gone through the roof. Between 1980 and 2008, the proportion of American GDP devoted to the health care sector increased by an astounding 77.8%.
The legal industry had a bit of a boom in the late 1980's, followed by a recession in the early 1990's. It may be that 1989 was a peak year, which would make it a weaker point of reference for comparison. But the gist of Campos's statistic is consistent with my own experiences, and what I hear when I talk to (very) small firm and solo lawyers - more lawyers are completing for work, from a pool of clients who are less and less able to pay for those services. In the community where I practiced, in the late 1980's pretty much anybody could come up with a retainer for a lawyer for a divorce or misdemeanor case. By the late 1990's they were borrowing from friends and family or maxing out the cash advances on their credit cards. These days, according to the lawyers I've spoken with, a typical prospective client has no savings and no remaining credit, and their extended family is equally tapped out. And a lot of the clients who can still afford to pay a retainer are bargain hunting.

It's not that you can't do it... and if you're of the mindset that "the time to start a business is during a recession", the legal industry is largely in recession. But in states like Michigan, for small, local firms and solos serving "ordinary people", that recession has been the 20+ year process suggested by Campos's statistic. Getting started in an environment where you have to both get clients who might prefer somebody more experienced or (perhaps and) cheaper, and where even after (and perhaps because) you've proved your skill you'll have a difficult time getting referrals worth taking from other lawyers in the community? How much of an uphill battle are you prepared to wage? And, frankly, love of the law doesn't pay the bills - if you have that much entrepreneurial spirit, why not direct it at something that is likely to return a greater value?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

David Brooks and the Progressive Regressive Tax

Lost among the commentary on David Brooks' (lack of) grasp of budgetary details and proposals, is this:
My fantasy package, and I’m not running for office, would include a progressive consumption tax, and it would have chained CPI, and it would have a pretty big means-test of Medicare.
Many have pointed out that means-testing Medicare won't have a significant impact on expenditures, as the wealthy consume health care at roughly the same rate as everybody else. The "chained CPI" idea is meant to reduce Social Security benefits over the long term which, needless to say, will have the most pronounced impact on the poor. But seriously, a progressive consumption tax? The whole reason that factions of the political right are in love with a "consumption tax" is that it's inherently regressive. Take that away, and what's the point?

Brooks' reminds me of the people who want to impose a mileage tax on automobiles. You could simply increase gas taxes - which would also have the impact of placing a higher tax burden on larger, heavier vehicles and thus encourage people to shift to smaller, lighter, more efficient vehicles. But why not create an entirely new tax to accomplish part of what could be better achieved by adjusting the rate of an existing tax? If you want to raise additional tax revenue in a progressive manner without hammering the population of citizens that lives paycheck to paycheck, why impose a "consumption tax", imposing upon business an additional system of collection and remittance, with associated complicates system of exemptions or rebates to make it "progressive", when you can simply raise the already-progressive income tax rate and better accomplish your goal?

Unless, of course, the "progressive" part of your plan is a deceit - something to fool the masses before you hit them with a new, regressive tax. (Just as means testing Medicare and diminishing the return on Social Security might be seen as less about balancing the budget and more about undermining the present broad support those programs have as a result of their universality?)

Isn't There a Word For....

A smart, superficially charismatic guy who will lie without conscience about even the most trivial issue if he perceives advantage, no hint of conscience or remorse, and act like you're wronging him when you call him out... I swear there's a psychological term....

Is it Really 'Picking a Fight' if the Other Guy Doesn't Notice

Michael Gerson, in an effort to redeem his former employer's record, has to go all the way back to an early campaign speech.
In the summer of 1999, George W. Bush chose the first major policy speech of his presidential campaign to pick a fight with Grover Norquist. Bush flatly rejected the “destructive” view “that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved” — a vision the Texas governor dismissed as having “no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than leave us alone.”
As they say, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose. The fact that the only significant evidence Gerson can find to support his notion that Bush was standing up to the anti-tax crowd comes from a campaign speech is telling.

For some reason Gerson didn't link to the actual speech, but it's available online. The speech was part of Bush's attempt to reinvent himself as a "compassionate conservative", a concept to which he offered little more than lip service.1 Once Bush took office it wasn't that "deficits don't matter" because we need to "carry a message of hope and renewal to every community in this country". It was "deficits dont' matter" because Bush wanted to expand spending on Medicare (something Mitt Romney might cynically characterize as "buying votes") and massive tax cuts for the wealthy, even if it meant that the deficit would go through the roof.

Gerson relies upon the conceit that a single campaign speech in which Bush supposedly picked a fight with Norquist should be read in a vacuum. As if the only person whose opinion matters in the entire Republican hierarchy is a single anti-tax zealot. Given a choice between a Democratic President who was disinclined to cut taxes and would have tried to maintain budget balance, and a Republican candidate who was promising massive tax cuts for the rich even if it meant going back to deficit spending, who do you think Norquist would choose? And... one suspects Norquist was receiving assurances behind-the-scenes.
Twice in the past week, Bush has sharply criticized his party. A week ago, he charged that congressional Republicans were trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor." On Tuesday in New York, he said that his party has been too negative, too pessimistic and too enamored of believing that free markets can solve social problems while ignoring the role of government....

Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, said the Bush speech was not even discussed at the weekly meeting of conservative activists that he hosts each Wednesday.
"What, me worry?"
1. I don't want to be unfair here - perhaps Bush sincerely believed in the "compassionate conservative" concept that he made a cornerstone of his campaign. But if he did, he either quickly changed his mind once in office or decided that it wasn't a concept worth pursuing.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Protecting Your Apple in the Big Apple

Apple is reportedly working with the NYPD to help locate stolen iPhones and iPads.

Last time I was in NYC, there was an unsavory looking character standing near the turnstiles of the subway. My wife took out her cell phone and his eyes lit up... followed by a change of expression that said to me, "Oh crap, it's a Blackberry."

Blue Collar Careers Aren't as Easy or Available as Some Assume

I recently had to replace our range, as the old one started to produce error messages and the "cheap" repair didn't resolve the problem. Due to the fact that the original owner of this house picked a downdraft, slide-in range, I went with the most recent model of the same range. My hope was that the new range could be installed in the same manner as the old - the ventilation unit itself that sits below the range hasn't been changed. Alas... the new range was wider than the old range (and we have granite countertops) and the amount of clearance beneath the range has been reduced. So... the vent has to be reconstructed to allow for a slightly different placement of the fan and to allow the power cord to clear the vent duct.

I initially called around to try to find a handyman to cut the granite about 1/2 inch so that the oven would slide into the opening. Of the ten or so contractors I called, less than half called back and only one was willing to do (or should I say, subcontract) the work. He didn't want to send the granite subcontractor along unless he came along and, although the granite contractor was willing to charge a $200 flat fee (I expect that was a marked up rate) he wanted to accompany the granite contractor and charge a fee for the trip out and an additional hourly fee. It became pretty clear during our conversation that it was a package deal - he was not going to send the granite guy out unless he got to tag along, and that his fees for supervising were apt to meet or exceed the fees of the guy doing the work.

I took care of the cut myself - I got a dry cut diamond blade for my circular saw, put on appropriate eye, ear and hand protection and a mask, and kicked up a lot of dust. If you're going to try this at home, don't. Or if you do, I suggest using a grinder with a 4" blade instead of a circular saw, for better control. Or maybe you'll be able to rent or borrow a wet saw. The biggest problem I faced was that the guide for the saw sat over the open space, so I had to keep the saw straight and even by holding it that way rather than simply resting the bottom of the saw on the countertop. A grinder would have allowed for greater visibility of the marked line, would have been easier to control (i.e. it's a lot lighter), and likely would have made for a cleaner cut. On the whole, I'll say "not bad for a first job", but not work I'm going to be showing off to my friends. Not that I would have pulled out the range to show off the cut had it turned out better, but you know what I mean. ;-)

I got the range installed and close to level without replacing the vent pipe, but the other day I decided to complete the job. So I pulled out the range, removed the fan, and then removed an aluminum plate the original installer had placed on the wall around the hole for the vent. What did I find? Basically, the original installer had taken a hammer and knocked away the drywall, initially opening the wall in front of a wall stud and drain pipe, and then opening up a large hole to the right of that opening where the vent was installed through the wall. He had pulled all of the insulation out of that space, and cut/hammered a somewhat irregular hole through the wood and brick to the outside. He then used a dryer vent on the outside of the house instead of a proper vent cover for the range. The only thing he did to "seal" his work was to install a caulk line around the dryer vent - which is a good thing, given that he only sank two screws out of the four that were supposed to hold the cover in place. Well, that explains the drafts we would sometimes feel coming out from under the range....

And then I came across this editorial, arguing that "we" dismiss blue collar professions, but that blue collar work can potentially provide better remuneration than a college degree. Let me state up front that I agree with the overall principle - that if you're a student who has significant aptitude and interest in learning a skilled trade, it's perfectly appropriate to consider a trade instead of college - or to not give college a second thought. But at the same time, the conceit of essays such as this tends to be that college is hard but that anybody can learn and perform a skilled trade. So first and foremost, it's important to note that a lot of people in the skilled trades have associates degrees and bachelor's degrees, or have completed training or certification programs. Many skilled trades are physically demanding, and some are quite dangerous. Also, particularly at the laborer level, there's a lot of competition for jobs, sometimes from people who are willing to work for less than minimum wage.

For all I know, the guy who "installed" the vent for my range was paid less than minimum wage, cash under the table. Or perhaps he was paid a hefty installation fee, and chose to shave a couple of hours off of the job by not finishing the job properly. Or perhaps he was paid a substantial hourly wage and took a long lunch. I have no way of knowing. But I will guarantee that the homeowner paid a premium price for the "work". Expanding the pool of available laborers is not a recipe for driving up both quality and wages. It seems more likely to drive wages down without actually creating new job opportunities. You know... like the situation the author is describing for college graduates.

And the math....
At a time when unemployment is at an all-time high and college tuition continues to climb, the old formula no longer upholds. Students emerge with their hard-earned degrees and the college loans to show for it, but for what returns? The majority do not land a six-figure banking job straight out of school. According to the Economic Policy Institute, wages for recent college graduates have not grown over the last decade, and actually dropped from 2007-11. In 2011, that average was just $16.81 per hour, a figure that barely makes a dent into student debt. The average wage for high school graduates is $9.45 per hour, a figure not much lower than that of a newly-minted university graduate, especially after you factor in tuition costs as well as the four years of being out of the workforce.
First, there was never an era in which the majority of college graduates would "land a six-figure banking job straight out of school". Second, $16.81 per hour is roughly $33,620 per year, and $9.45 is roughly $18,900 per year - and the college graduate likely also gets benefits such as paid vacation and health insurance. $9.45 is roughly 59% of $16.81. The author may not see the difference between those two figures as significant, but... I do.
Blue-collar professionals like electricians are enjoying 23% job growth this decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They earn on average $52,910 a year, almost $10 more per hour than recent college grads, and the top 10% earn at least $82,680. Welding, light truck driving and plumbing are just some of the blue-collar fields with similar earning potential, and the vocational training required is a fraction of the cost of a college degree.
First, the fact that the average career electrician makes 10% more than a newly minted college graduate does not make for a strong case that the college graduate was foolish to pursue the degree. Also, you need to consider that union electricians earn considerably more than non-union electricians, roughly $14,000 per year more, and we know which way that trend is going. Further, work as an electrician is physically demanding work. And let's just say, the top 10% of wage earners among college graduates earn a lot more than $82,680. On the whole, plumbers earn a bit less than electricians - and let's not forget that the category includes pipefitters and steamfitters. (Talk to some of those guys about their work-related injuries.) Light truck driving pays roughly $13 per hour, without much of a career path. The "master welders make lots of money" argument isn't particularly new, never mind that a master welder has to work many years to reach that level and will have considerable knowledge of metallurgy, and never mind that you're dealing with high temperatures and molten metal, potentially toxic fumes, potentially explosive materials, and are sometimes performing that work in dangerous locations or cramped spaces. It's "blue collar" so "anybody can do it", right?
If financial freedom is your ultimate endgame, then going into business for yourself can increase earnings exponentially, a message Rich Dad, Poor Dad has been peddling since the beginning of this millennium.
In other words, the author thinks its easy to start and market a business in the skilled trades, based upon the facile analysis of a guy who is really good at hawking books? Hey - the author of the editorial is a freelance writer. How's that exponential increase in earnings coming along?
But do these blue-collar jobs lead to fulfillment? It is certainly an argument I'm sympathetic to. We are told to do what we love; the money will assuredly follow.
I suspect that the author dropped a word or two, and intended to argue that she's concerned that blue collar jobs aren't fulfilling. Well, that's going to depend on the job and the individual performing the job. Also, there are plenty of white collar jobs that are nothing but a grind. If work could be presumed to be fulfilling, they would probably call it something else. Also, I'm not sure who is saying "Do what you love and the money will assuredly follow," but somebody needs to smack them upside the head with reality.

The author concludes,
In this tight job market, we cannot afford to ignore the reality that a college degree is becoming a luxury: one that no longer translates directly to success. It is time we shed our stigmas towards "menial" workers. The irony is that their salaries – and accompanying lifestyles – are anything but.
I'm not aware of any era in which a college degree has automatically translated into financial success, which appears to be the type of success the author is focused upon. Certainly there have been times in the past when college graduates had friendlier job markets and more predictable career paths. Yes, with the cost of college education and the changes of opportunity for college graduates, college (particularly at the tuition rates of private colleges) is increasingly a luxury. Those trends should neither be ignored or diminished, and somebody thinking about college truly should consider, "What else might I do with that time and money that could result in an acceptable career and income?" An approach that is far from novel? Get a job and work while completing your education, borrowing as little money as you possibly can on your path to a degree. If you click with your job, you may even find that you don't need the degree - and if you don't, you are preparing for a future in which you have better options - and work experience.

Technically speaking, we wouldn't shed our... let's say prejudices... against blue collar workers. Yes, some people do look down on blue collar work. I recall a conversation during law school when a classmate, who was moonlighting as a janitor, was instructed by another student that people shouldn't have to do "demeaning" work like being a janitor. (Janitors aren't all that important, you know, because floors and toilets can learn how to clean themselves.) Yes, let's respect that people who work hard for a living deserve respect for their effort, no matter what their job. To me, part of that is recognizing that some of the jobs that fall into the category of "blue collar" require a level of knowledge and sophistication that can meet or exceed that of a lot of jobs that require college degrees, while also requiring significant physical effort and presenting significant risk of injury. Yes, pretty much anybody could have pounded that hole in my kitchen wall, and hidden his lousy workmanship rather than completing the job properly, but that's not the ideal.

As for the conclusion that "[blue collar] salaries – and accompanying lifestyles – are anything but".... I suspect the author means to suggest that they're not insubstantial, as opposed to not menial. Yes, you can make a decent income in certain skilled trades, but those jobs are not immune to recessions, nor are they immune to anti-union efforts. I know a lot of college graduates, and a lot of people in the skilled trades. The former group has weathered the "great recession" without much visible impact. It's harder to find a job if you're unemployed, it's harder to find a new job if you want to change jobs, but on the whole they have kept their jobs and wages. The skilled tradespeople on the other hand... a builder who had to reinvent his business, bringing in significantly lower profits, when the new housing market collapsed in his area. A finish carpenter whose business collapsed, and who ended up losing his home to foreclosure (and he does really good work. A painting, tiling and drywalling team that can't earn a living wage, because they are consistently underbid for work by people who barely know how to hold a paintbrush. They would have done an immaculate job installing that vent, were they around at the time, but... it's not only private customers who want to pay the lowest bid. Try starting and maintaining a business in that environment.

The Federal Government is Not a Business

Matt Miller writes,
It’s hard to know which is stupider: the coming sequester cuts or the arguments being made to avoid them.
He later proposes,
Luckily, even though it looks like Democrats and Republicans have tied themselves into a political knot on the sequester, there’s still a way out. They can simultaneously re-enact a payroll tax cut equal to or greater than the sequester and call it a day.
Which makes it difficult to argue with his initial argument. No, in fairness Miller is engaging in a bit of hyperbole, proposing a "solution" that "would be so perfectly cockeyed, herky-jerky and devoid of anything resembling an economic 'strategy' that it would be a perfect fit for this moment." But given that he started out by treating political hyperbole as if it represented serious policy positions, a bit of turnaround seems fair.

Miller makes a significant mistake, though, when he confuses budget cutting in private industry with budget cutting in government. Sure, there's a simplistic "In a large organization, if you have full discretion to identify and eliminate waste, and to identify and fire the least productive workers, you can maintain or even improve efficiency while cutting expenditures." But that's usually not what happens in private industry, even though private industry is normally far less constrained than government when it comes to making cuts and firing workers.
When I worked as a management consultant as a younger man I was involved in a few cost-cutting efforts at large, admired companies. I knew of many more from colleagues. These were never happy exercises. Some people lost their jobs. But it was a truism that even well-run firms could cut 10 percent (and often far more) of their expenses with scant impact on the quality of their products or services, or on their “seed corn” for the future.

That’s just the way large organizations are. Over time, various accretions of people and activity take place during periods of growth. And that’s in the private sector, where competition and the profit motive act as continuous prods to efficiency (just think of how many firms went through much larger cuts during the Great Recession only to come back stronger). In government, the organizational tendency toward endless expansion is much greater.
Let's note first of all that a lot of the "management consulting" Miller describes is not acutally about identifying inefficiency, reporting it to the company that hired you as a consultant, and letting them act on your report. A substantial amount of that work involves being retained to provide cover for management decisions that have already been made. "Here's what we are going to do. Now go out, analyze our business, and 'objectively' report back to us that we need to make those changes." It's not unlike the rating agencies who rate garbage bonds as AAA because they don't want to lose the work - you do what you're paid to do.

But let's assume that Miller's employer was different from the norm, and all of its clients retained it to provide arm's length reports. "We don't care what you find - just find our inefficiencies and report back to us so that we can make our company more efficient." In such a scenario, Miller's team would spend a great many hours, billing substantial fees, to perform their investigation and analysis, and would provide detailed reports to support their recommendations to management. Does Miller believe that such an effort is being made in every single government agency that is going to be hit by the sequester? Agencies will have, for the most part, made an effort to prepare for the sequester, but under the circumstances we can expect that their preparations are going to be ad hoc, and colored by the hope that the sequester is avoided.

Note also that Miller speaks of "well-run firms" - as if that's the typical client of a management consulting firm brought in to legitimize budget cuts. Let's think for a moment about how various "well-run firms" have managed to save that 10% over the past few decades. Hewlett Packard cut its R&D budget and went from being a well-run firm that led in product design and quality to... pretty average for the industry. Seriously, though, a well-run company might identify factories that could be closed or consolidated, jobs that could be outsourced, product lines that could be eliminated - or marketed more effectively. How much of that does Miller believes applies to the federal government?

If you read on, the answer appears to be "All that, and more!" Yes, let's think about those firms that were "strengthened" by the Great Recession - like G.M. and Chrysler. Heck, AIG isn't doing too badly these days, either. So maybe the solution is a government bailout of the government? Or a managed bankruptcy that allows the government to shut down the least productive states, just as G.M. shed product lines and dealerships. "Sorry, New Mexico, West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama - we've been subsidizing you too long. And Hawaii, Alabama, Alaska, Montana, South Carolina and Maine - you had better shape up fast!" Maybe we could deport the least productive 10% of the population? We'll be smaller, but stronger, right?

It's important to recall, also, that the sequester is all about numbers, not about efficiencies, and does nothing to create efficiencies between agencies or to overcome politics. A management consultant might say to the government, "You know, you could create a lot of efficiency, reduce staff and cost, and ease the regulatory burden for business if you merged the SEC and the CFTC." I would respond, "I can't disagree, but that is not likely to happen before they start having snowball fights in Hades." The sequester is apt to put pressure on a lot of the wrong places. Miller complains that the government will somehow find a way to maintain all vital functions, such that it's wrong for the President to suggest that any vital functions are threatened, but that's an article of faith. Miller is looking at the government in toto, but not every government agency is presently well-staffed or well-funded relative to its mission.

Miller complains "When independent or Democratic business people in high-tax states such as New York or California hear the president say the feds can’t possibly endure a 5 percent cut but instead need to hike effective top marginal tax rates beyond the mid-50s level to which Washington’s last fiscal deal just raised them, it turns what should be a winning economic showdown for the president into one that leaves influential constituencies wondering if Obama 'gets it.'" Surely Miller does not believe that Obama's tax reforms raised Mitt Romney's effective tax rate to @55%. Or that of California billionaire Warren Buffett. Or that of New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg. I suspect that if you were to show Miller's example to one of those "independent or Democratic business people" they would "get it" - they would tell you that Miller is looking for the most exceptional cases, pointing to them due to their high state and local taxes, to try to confuse his readers about the magnitude of the federal tax increases and into believing that their situation is representative of the nation as a whole. (Assuming they don't chuckle and explain that their "tax guy" is better than Miller thinks.)

If Miller believes that we can easily and harmlessly cut 5% of government spending, without affecting the core missions of the federal government, I think a much better article would be one in which he outlines those achievable budget cuts. Put that "management consulting" experience to good use....

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Netflix Strategy and House of Cards

Seth Godin makes the argument that Netflix made a marketing mistake with its release of the entire first season of House of Cards:
HBO understands this, and used shows like the Sopranos to build subscriptions. The day after each episode, people at work would talk about what happened the night before. Not two days later, or four days later, but the very next day. If you didn't watch or didn't have HBO, you felt left out....

Today, of course, we don't wait for work the next day. We talk about it now. And the mistake Netflix made was that they didn't drip. They didn't queue it up for their viewers, didn't coordinate and sync the buzz. In short: they didn't tell you WHEN to talk about it. If "spoiler alert" comes up too often, then we're afraid to speak and afraid to listen (depending on where we are in the viewing cycle).
While I agree that Netflix might have generated some buzz by releasing the episodes on a weekly basis, and that the buzz could draw in new viewers, I think that they both recognized the different expectations of their viewers and also the difficulty of establishing the required level of viewership and buzz in that manner. For example, I've read a number of reviews in which the writer commented that he didn't really get hooked until the fifth or sixth episode. Also, it's not particularly unusual for Netflix to provide TV content, one season at a time, so it has viewers who are used to the luxury of being able to watch all of the episodes from a particular season over a short period of time.

If Netflix releases the entire second season of House of Cards at once, I'll agree with Godin - they don't "get it". But if, as I suspect, they start releasing their original material on a week-by-week basis, I think it's fair to say that the release of the complete first season was a strategic move. While Godin may be correct that an HBO-style strategy would have been better from the outset, I think a compelling case can be made that Netflix needs to establish itself as a producer of high quality original programming and get its members hooked on its original, streamed content before it shifts to a more traditional schedule for releasing new episodes.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

David Brooks Discovers ST:TNG?

David Brooks brings us some observations about data:
  • Data struggles with the social.

  • Data struggles with context.

  • Data creates bigger haystacks (misleading correlations).

  • Data favors memes over masterpieces (recognizing, but not predicting, human reactions to novelty).

  • Data obscures values (appearing disinterested, but skewed by value choices in construction and interpretation).

As pretty much everybody knows, Star Trek: The Next Generation included an android character, Lt. Commander Data, who was involved in plot lines that illustrate all of Brooks' claims... and more. It's great, though, that Brooks is catching up with the concepts underlying a character from a twenty-year-old science fiction series. Or perhaps he's reinventing the wheel?

Brooks makes one more claim about data:
Big data has trouble with big problems. If you are trying to figure out which e-mail produces the most campaign contributions, you can do a randomized control experiment. But let’s say you are trying to stimulate an economy in a recession. You don’t have an alternate society to use as a control group. For example, we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.
The fact that you don't have a control group is not a problem with your data. Your data can be very good, and highly predictive of future events without a control group. Or not. For some purposes, having a control group is very useful but the fact that you don't always have a control group does not reveal a problem with the data itself. Moreover, having a control group won't help you decide whether or not to stimulate the economy in a recession, because you can't run your experiment, roll back the clock and start over based upon the outcome.

Brooks appears to be attempting to justify in retrospect his incorrect assertions and assumptions about the economy, and his attacks on economists like Paul Krugman whose positions, in retrospect, have proved far more accurate than those favored by Brooks. But here's the thing: There are only so many ways for a government to stimulate the economy. The debate was not between those who wanted more stimulation of the economy and those who wanted less - those who argued for more recognized pretty early that they had lost the debate, even if the data suggests that they were correct that the stimulus bill that passed was too small. The argument was between stimulating the economy and austerity, and all Brooks needs to do to see some pretty good points of comparison is to compare what happened in the U.S. to what happened in Europe and the U.K. where austerity proved counter-productive.

The argument that "as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides" is also not evidence of a failure of the data. It's evidence of epistemic closure. If your reaction to being presented with facts that contradict the positions you've taken for years, both in terms of the outcome of the U.S. stimulus bill and the U.K./European austerity measures, is "I don't care what the data says," the problem is with you. If you examine the data and find that the manner of its collection, issues of incompleteness, or similar factors leave certain questions unresolved, great. Let's find a way to collect better data to test your theories, independently or as compared to others, in the future. But if you attempt to justify a refusal to look at the data by arguing that it's impossible to draw any conclusions from past economic data without a control group, that you should not be judged by the fact that most or all of your predictions proved to be incorrect, and that people should not trust their lying eyes but should instead consider that austerity might have worked even better than the stimulus bill in a theoretical parallel universe... you may have a future writing science fiction shows, but you have no business writing about economics.

Update: LGM's Scott Lemieux reminds us of Brooks' criticism of Nate Silver, as well as his past reliance upon incorrect data.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Wrong Two Words to Keep Sick Food Service Workers at Home

I have sympathy for the argument presented in the Post, that food service workers should receive sick time:
Woong Chang was working as a bartender in an upscale Washington restaurant in 2009 when he started feeling symptoms of what turned out to be H1N1, or swine flu. Despite having a fever, a swollen throat and congestion that made it hard to breathe, he went to work. “Looking back on it now, I most definitely should not have gone into work, but I literally could not afford to miss a day,” he explains....

One way to limit the transmission of viruses is to keep sick people at home and out of their workplaces. Individuals with paid sick leave are more likely to stay home to recuperate, sparing their co-workers and the public from exposure to their illnesses....

Why don’t servers and bartenders just stay home when they’re sick? With the national median earnings for wait staff at less than $9 an hour, many can’t afford to.
I think it's safe to say that nobody eating at a restaurant wants to be served by a sick employee. And granting sick time to low-wage food service workers may seem like an easy way to avoid that from happening. But alas, it's not that simple.

First, it is routine in many places of work to treat a sick day as a personal day or paid holiday. There is no reason to believe that food service workers are going to behave differently than workers in other fields of employment. Employers can place a check on sick days - requiring, for example, a doctor's note - but the cost of seeing a doctor can easily exceed the wages that would be earned during the missed day of work. Prohibit doctor's notes and you guarantee that what you're really providing to most employees are paid vacation days, which can be taken without notice or concern for the employer's schedule.

Second, if employees treat the sick days as vacation days, you're back in the same situation you were in to begin with - they won't have any sic time remaining when they actually get sick. They're back to choosing between giving up a day's wages or working while ill. Many will continue to work while ill.

Third, assuming he saves his sick days for actual illness, somebody like Mr. Chang will have to consider, "Should I take my sick time now, or later"? Mr. Chang might call in sick, miss a day or two, and... then what? He will have to consider, up-front, whether he would be better off working while feeling a little bit sick or risk missing shifts after his sick time is exhausted if his condition worsens or if he gets more seriously ill on a future date before he accrues additional sick time.

But wait a second. Have you ever worked with somebody who is coming down with the flu? Did they look healthy to you? Did they sound healthy? Were they working with their traditional level of energy and enthusiasm? I doubt it. And that's where the following two words come into play: "Go home."

The fact that nobody told Mr. Chang to go home suggests to me that his co-workers and supervisor preferred to have a sick employee working that night than to scramble to cover his shift or work short-handed.
In a 2009-10 D.C. Restaurant Opportunities Center survey of restaurant workers, 79 percent said they lacked paid sick days and 59 percent reported preparing, cooking or serving food while sick. That’s a lot of servers potentially sneezing into your salad.
Do you believe that no co-worker or supervisor noticed that any of those workers were sick? Yes, it can seem a bit unfair to send somebody home when they really need their $9/hour, particularly if they need the money and don't have or have exhausted their sick time, but that is true in any work setting and for pretty much everybody else on the planet it beats the alternative.

Fred Hiatt's Gang Misses the Point

In a rather churlish, unsigned editorial, immediately after suggesting that President Obama did not intervene in Syria due to political concerns,1, the Washington Post Editorial Board complains,
Mr. Obama’s reasons for quashing the Syria plan were surely not purely political. But the president’s only public explanation for his resistance, in a recent interview with the New Republic, amounted to excuse-making. He wondered why he should concern himself with Syria and not the civil war in the Congo, as if the United States cannot intervene in any war unless it does in all; he asked whether providing weapons to rebels would “trigger even worse violence,” ignoring the testimony of his own aides that, under his present policy, the carnage “every day . . . it gets worse,” as new Secretary of State John F. Kerry put it.
What the President actually said was,
Every morning, I have what's called the PDB—presidential daily briefing—and our intelligence and national security teams come in here and they essentially brief me on the events of the previous day. And very rarely is there good news. And a big chunk of my day is occupied by news of war, terrorism, ethnic clashes, violence done to innocents. And what I have to constantly wrestle with is where and when can the United States intervene or act in ways that advance our national interest, advance our security, and speak to our highest ideals and sense of common humanity.

And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?

Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good.
Hiatt's editorial board plucks out the one statement, the comparison to the Congo war, and ignores the rest. Why? Because it's easier to misunderstand or misrepresent that last statement, and thereby to advance the editorial position of the Washington Post, as opposed to responding to any other point the President made... or giving that statement an accurate reading.

The President was responding to the argument often made, and explicitly made in the editorial board's argument, that "we have to do something because people are dying." It may be an unpleasant reality to face, but the President was pointing out the fact that people are dying in nations other than Syria and the U.S. cannot intervene everywhere. The implied invitation to Hiatt's crew is not to snivel, "that's excuse-making", but to explain why Syria is different. Why do they favor intervening in Syria to "save lives" when they are content to let the Congo region bleed?

Also, concern that arming factions in Syria could make the conflict worse is not overcome by the argument that things are getting worse without intervention. The Post makes no attempt to counter the President's position, or even to argue that intervention would be more likely to stabilize the region or in a worst-case scenario be a wash. If you're headed toward a brick wall at 60 MPH, stepping on the accelerator will worsen the situation. That doesn't change at 70 MPH or 80 MPH - the situation still gets worse.

It's reasonable to infer from its past editorial positions that the Post is not particularly concerned about the post-war, because if the "moderate" groups that are armed to topple Assad turn out to be... not so moderate when they take control of the country, or are ultimately defeated by more radical forces, they would be content to have the U.S. invade and occupy Syria. For those of us who aren't as eager to have the U.S. invade nations in the Middle East, though, it makes sense to avoid taking steps that can further destabilize the region or necessitate another unnecessary $trillon military adventure.
1. The editorial claims, "So why was the Petraeus plan rejected? According to the Times, Mr. Petraeus and Ms. Clinton were rebuffed when they presented the plan to the White House. At the time, Mr. Obama was in the midst of an reelection campaign in which he frequently assured voters that “the tide of war is receding."

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

If You Want to Defend Torture, Start By Admitting That It's Torture

Going back a few weeks, George Will wrote an editorial with a number of similarities to Richard Cohen's piece on the morality of torture, particularly in the manner in which Will substitutes his experience in a movie theater for fact-based argument. Will opens with the sympathetic quotation of Col. Nathan Jessep, Jack Nicholson's character from A Few Good Men,
“I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.”
That diatribe was, of course, the lead-in to the film's Perry Mason moment, when Jessup confesses to ordering the abuse of an enlisted man who ended up dead. Will seems particularly taken with the quote, "You [expletive] people... you have no idea how to defend a nation", never mind that Jessup is addressing a military court martial. Sure, it's a movie and Jessup's speech is directed at the movie audience, but his on screen attack is directed at other military officers. Jessup's honor falls short of helping the two enlisted men who carried out his directive avoid being prosecuted for murder. If Will's argument is that there should be no checks on men who believe themselves to be acting in the best interest of the nation, Jessup by this point having rejected the opinions of every other officer who suggested an alternative to the Code Red, having excused himself from the confines of the Marine Corps' regulations and Uniform Code of Military Justice, having happily allowed two enlisted men to be looking at lengthy prison terms for carrying out his orders, and having repeatedly perjured himself on the stand and repeatedly disparaged the other military officers involved in the legal proceeding, he has every right to attempt that argument. But were Will to explore some of our nation's history, including how we came to have a civilian in the role of Commander in Chief, he might come to realize that in fact a Colonel, even one who is extraordinarily self-assured, even one who is doing important work, is and should be answerable to higher authorities.

Switching over to Zero Dark Thirty, Will informs us,
Viewers will know going in how the movie ends. They will not know how they will feel when seeing an American tell a detainee, “When you lie to me I hurt you,” and proceed to do so.
Frankly, "When you lie to me I hurt you," makes for better film than "When I think you have information you're not sharing, I'll keep you awake for 180 hours," but... call it poetic license. But contrary to Will's suggestion, most viewers will have seen plenty of dramatizations that involve torture, including torture committed by Americans. Kiefer Sutherland (whose character disagreed with Jessup's approach in A Few Good Men) made something of a career of it in his series, "24". Another season, another ticking time bomb. The difference is that this is supposed to be "based on a true story", and that unlike other films based upon true stories this one is... I don't know... more graphic? Easier to confuse with a documentary?

As is his wont, Will likes to overstate the benefits of torture, blithely reciting the claims of various Bush Administration officials about how tidbits of relevant information were gleaned from the torture of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, including "the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden". Will implies a straight line from the disclosure of that nickname in 2003 to the killing of Bin Laden some eight years later. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the "ticking timebomb" defense. We cannot know at this juncture whether the nickname of Bin Laden's courier would have been obtained from Mohammed without the use of torture, but we can reasonably conclude that either the name was not of much help to the investigation or that Mohammed poured out so much information under torture that the key to finding Bin Laden was buried in a mountain of irrelevant disclosures, with wild goose chases taking priority over the identification of the courier.

The question of whether torture "works" depends both on the tactics the torturer is willing to use, and also upon the torturer's goal. For example, let's say I want to know what the enemy is up to, and I have 100 enemy operatives in custody. If I am willing to torture all of them, I can start looking for commonalities among their disclosures. Sure, there's a chance that they will have been fed misinformation and not have the information I'm looking for, but odds are I'll learn something useful. Or I'll be able to test their stories and, if my information is good, use torture to punish what I believe to be errors or inaccuracies in the hope that the subject will become terrified of being caught in a lie. It's similar to the manner in which police divide suspects and interrogate them separately, then lie about what the other suspects have said or disclosed in order to try to trick the others. Except with torture. Sure, I may end up torturing people to try to get them to disclose something that they know nothing about, and if I'm not careful I can inadvertently feed them the answers to the questions that will stop the torture and mistake their new answers for actionable intelligence, but if I torture enough people in enough circumstances I will get names, locations, and other information that turn out to be valid. And if I break down the wrong door, shoot the wrong person, pick up and torture an innocent person based upon a bad tip, well, "I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it."

Similarly, I may not care if the person I'm torturing tells the truth. I may want that person to lie. To pose for propaganda pictures or a film, to make or sign a confession to crimes, or to simply be too frightened to ever stand against me or my regime in the future lest he again be picked up and tortured.

Will lectures us,
Viewers of “Zero Dark Thirty” can decide whether or which “enhanced interrogation” measures depicted — slaps, sleep deprivation, humiliation, waterboarding — constitute, in plain English, torture. And they can ponder whether any or all of them would be wrong even if effective.
Sorry, but that's a cop-out. We would not see the situation as ambiguous if a police agency used those techniques to elicit confessions from a criminal suspect, particularly if it were an American citizen being tortured by a police agency in the developing world. We would not see the situation as ambiguous if those techniques were being applied to a U.S. solider in enemy custody. Let's not forget how few seconds it took for Christopher Hitchens to change his position from "waterboarding can't be that bad," to "it's torture." (For the record, sixteen.) If somebody were to put a bag over Will's head, strip him naked, transport him to a remote location, and apply the techniques he describes, I'm somehow not thinking that his subsequent column would be so deferential, "my readers can decide for themselves if the 'enhanced interrogation' measures I describe constitute, in plain English, torture". He would have an opinion.

Will shouldn't be so afraid to take a stand. After all, if these techniques were simply another form of acceptable interrogation, we wouldn't need the euphemisms and we wouldn't be talking about "tough choices" or quoting Colonel Jessup for the principle that "anything goes in the name of freedom". No small part of the reason we're still having this discussion is that men like Michael Mukasey and Bush Administration lickspittles like Marc Theissen refuse to acknowledge the truth of what we were doing, while prominent commentators like George Will provide them with cover. How can he talk about "facing up to what we did" if he's not even willing to hang a name on it?

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Michel Singh's Bad Advice on Iran

The New York Times has published an editorial by Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and, during G.W. Bush's second term, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council. Singh apparently hopes to convince the Obama Administration to adopt a posture that Bush rejected, hoping that Obama will demand a degree of capitulation from Iran that the government would see as a humiliation and lock himself into taking military action of Iran does not capitulate.
The reasons for failure in all the approaches share a common thread: Iran shrank from any broad bilateral thaw because it feared engagement with the United States more than it feared confrontation.

“Resistance” to the West — and especially to the United States — was a founding principle of Iran’s Islamic regime. And while Iran has gradually normalized relations with many European and Asian allies of Washington, it has not done so with the United States itself, just as it has not with America’s ally Israel. To lose those two nations as enemies would be to undermine one of the regime’s ideological raisons d’être.
In other words, according to Singh, the U.S. has any number of allies who are able to reach out to Iran, but that Iran is going to reflexively reject engagement with the United States. Singh complains that the present round of sanctions are not likely to accomplish more than we've already seen. He complains that Iran's compliance with Israeli and U.S. "red lines" on its nuclear program allow it to control when those nations might launch a military attack.

He concludes that the U.S. should negotiate a new track of negotiations with Iran, outside of the current multilateral talks, to address all of the issues with Iran that trouble the United States. He also proposes that we arm-twist our allies to toughen their sanctions on Iran, never mind what that might mean for the progress or outcome of current talks, while telling Iran that they'll support any military action the U.S. chooses to take, while supporting Iranian dissident groups. I suspect that Singh hopes that such a move would cause Iran to walk away from the bargaining table. While pretending to be concerned that "whoever is on the Iranian side actually comes ready to bargain" his actual concern appears to be that Iran will reach an agreement - one of the type he describes as "a narrow technical accord rather than a more fundamental reorientation".

In short, Singh appears to be arguing that the U.S. should pressure the states presently negotiating with Iran to increase sanctions in a manner that is likely to poison any progress. Despite expressing that any such move would trigger reflexive Iranian opposition, he proposes that the U.S. submit to Iran a list of grievances that it wants addressed through separate talks, a move that is likely to undermine the multilateral talks (because Singh clearly wants the U.S. to insist upon concessions that he does not believe will result from a negotiated agreement) while demanding concessions far beyond what anybody (including, and perhaps especially, Singh) believes Iran would find acceptable even if not demanded by the United States. He appears to hope that the U.S. demand will be a new "red line" for military action, or that the collapse of negotiations likely to result from new demands, new sanctions, and new threats would leave the U.S. with "no choice" but to attack Iran.

The question of how to handle states such as Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan, nations that have significant military power and nuclear technology and are hostile to the United States, is not one that lends itself to easy answers. I may be reading too much of a subtext into Singh's argument. Perhaps he truly believes that a nation he paints as likely to reflexively reject any such effort will suddenly become pliant and cooperative if we thump our chest hard enough and make enough threats. But to me, it seems like Singh hopes to create a context in which the United States paints itself into a corner, either having to look like Iran called its bluff or go to war, and that he's hoping for war. Singh might argue that there's a chance that his approach would work - that unlike every other regime in recent history that has faced a similar set of threats and despite his own characterization of its leadership, Iran will capitulate. But it's a "Wish in one hand, crap in the other" scenario - the odds of Iranian capitulation are vanishingly small, such that Singh's proposal is best regarded as a sure path to war.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Mrs. Carter?

Very traditional, and all but....
Beyonce has wisely chosen the day following her Super Bowl triumph to announce world tour dates for 2013, with UK dates in April and May. So far, so expected, but there is one surprise. She's called the tour "The Mrs. Carter Show", a reference to her 2008 marriage to Jay Z (aka Shawn Knowles-Carter; Jay Z is rumoured to have taken on Beyonce's surname 'Knowles' in 2009).
Why doesn't she just call herself Beyonce-Z?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Mamet's Plays vs. Political Commentary

I've seen David Mamet interviewed, so I know he's no slouch. He seems to be writing his political drivel in earnest, so I can't say that he's a fraud. So what does that leave me with? Some form of narcissism crossed with life in a self-imposed bubble. Back when Mamet "came out" as a conservative, he did so through an essay that reflected a surprising lack of depth and intellectual rigor. But the surprise is not that a smart person can be foolish, or that his initial comments on a subject that he has consistently overlooked will demonstrate the fact that he's new to the issues. The surprise is that somebody whose work suggests that he grapples with serious issues would be so inept at grappling with actual issues.

Five years later, Mamet shows no more sophistication as a political thinker than he did on day one, and if anything his positions are even further removed from objective fact and history. My inference is this: Mamet is good at picking up on serious issues, and of creating fictional scenarios that expand upon those issues, but he's not particularly good at relating his scenarios to reality. Meanwhile, he restricts himself to a circle of similarly minded people who gush over his brilliance, but have no greater knowledge or capacity for analysis than he does. That appears to have been true when he was coasting through life giving essentially no thought to politics except for occasionally fuming that NPR was too sympathetic to Palestinians.

Paul Waldman opines,
To be clear, the point isn't that Mamet is conservative, even though it's true that the overwhelming majority of artists are liberal, so that makes him unusual. The point is that he brings to his political analysis none of the things that make him a good playwright. It would be one thing if Mamet was, let's say, a widely admired painter or photographer who turned out to have simplistic political views. Visual artists sometimes disappoint their fans by not being particularly eloquent when they're called upon to discuss their work, but words are not their tools. A playwright, on the other hand, spends his time studying and manipulating language, ideas, and characters. That someone who has produced insightful art about corners of American life and the human condition more broadly would then turn around and offer political analysis with all the sophistication of the twelfth caller to Sean Hannity's radio show this afternoon is profoundly puzzling.

But it's a good reminder of something: Political writing is a craft, just like writing plays. Pretty much everyone who has ever read a newspaper thinks they could do it as well or better than those who do it for a living, but most of the time they can't. David Mamet spent a lot of time and energy working on his craft, but the fact that he got famous doing it doesn't mean he has any opinions about or analysis of politics that anyone would gain anything from hearing.
I agree with the latter part more than the former. That is, I agree that somebody who has great gifts in one area may lack gifts or skills in another. But I think the things that make Mamet an interesting playwright and screenwriter are the same things that make him a terrible political analyst.

I have enjoyed a lot of Mamet's work, but I have the impression from some of his work that he tell into the same sort of trap that we have seen with other writers, that of thinking he's smarter than his audience. Works like The Spanish Prisoner succeed based upon the strength of the acting, the "solution" to the protagonist's problem was obvious and I find it a bit painful at times to watch "brilliant" characters do one stupid thing after another when the solution is right before their eyes - and when the character finally figures it out, rather than applying a logical ending (not very dramatically interesting) he resorts to the deus ex machina. Even in works I like a lot more, such as The Verdict, Mamet demonstrates little patience with reality. When he needs to force an outcome, his characters do what is necessary to force the outcome - absurd evidentiary rulings, a "feel good" jury verdict without regard for what would happen on appeal. But in Mamet's better dramatic work, the deviations from reality are a form of poetic license. It's not important that the courtroom scenes are often absurd, because the goal isn't realism - Mamet is showing us the flaws of the characters, the arbitrariness of the legal system, how a case can turn more on the personality of the judge than on the law and facts.... And sometimes he's just spinning a ridiculous yarn about one con game or another, with uneven results.

To me, it seems that Mamet is doing the same thing in his political commentary that he does in his scripts, but that he has somehow lost track of the difference between spinning an entertaining yarn that happens to address some important issues and speaking about the real world. Much of Mamet's fiction leaves me with the impression that he does little research, that he's not interested in interviewing experts or poring over books to try to determine if his stories are plausible or if he could accomplish the same dramatic effect while hewing closer to what actually might happen in real life. His political writing displays a similar disdain for research - he'll go with the common wisdom, the buzz from his sycophants and adherents, with reality being less important than belief, perhaps justified by the narcissistic conceit that "If my friends and I believe it, it must be true."

From his political "conversion",
The Constitution, written by men with some experience of actual government, assumes that the chief executive will work to be king, the Parliament will scheme to sell off the silverware, and the judiciary will consider itself Olympian and do everything it can to much improve (destroy) the work of the other two branches. So the Constitution pits them against each other, in the attempt not to achieve stasis, but rather to allow for the constant corrections necessary to prevent one branch from getting too much power for too long.
From his latest screed,
The Founding Fathers, far from being ideologues, were not even politicians. They were an assortment of businessmen, writers, teachers, planters; men, in short, who knew something of the world, which is to say, of Human Nature. Their struggle to draft a set of rules acceptable to each other was based on the assumption that we human beings, in the mass, are no damned good—that we are biddable, easily confused, and that we may easily be motivated by a Politician, which is to say, a huckster, mounting a soapbox and inflaming our passions.
Has Mamet truly grown less informed about government over the past five years? Perhaps he floats in a circle of ignoramuses, and their ignorance is catching. Or perhaps he doesn't want to let the facts, even facts he has previously acknowledged, get in the way of his story. I recognize that many of Mamet's factual errors, such as his ignorance of Marxism, may simply be that - repeating the conventional wisdom of his new circle of peers, a reflection of the aforementioned conceit, "If we believe it, it must be right." But with mistakes like "The Founding Fathers... were not even politicians" it's difficult to imagine that Mamet even cares about whether his assertions of fact are correct. For the story he's telling, it's better that the founding fathers be non-ideological non-politicians so, just as with the fictional characters of one of his plays, he changes the facts and personalities to fit his story.

Another flaw of Mamet's political analysis? His logic is terrible. One small example,
As rules by the Government are one-size-fits-all, any governmental determination of an individual’s abilities must be based on a bureaucratic assessment of the lowest possible denominator. The government, for example, has determined that black people (somehow) have fewer abilities than white people, and, so, must be given certain preferences. Anyone acquainted with both black and white people knows this assessment is not only absurd but monstrous. And yet it is the law.
Except government rules are not "one size fits all". Even if they were "one size fits all," that would not necessitate that a "any governmental determination of an individual’s abilities" (whatever Mamet means by that) "must be based on a bureaucratic assessment of the lowest possible denominator". Mamet statement about race is absurd. It appears that he's alluding to affirmative action and civil rights laws, but those programs are not predicated upon a government determination "that black people (somehow) have fewer abilities than white people". They're predicated upon this nation's history of institutionalized racial inequality and racial discrimination. Based upon Mamet's false and absurd distortions, anti-discrimination laws become "monstrous", proof that the government can't believe what everybody knows, that the races are equal in every respect. And yet, in a wonderfully ambiguous flourish "it" is "the law".

Mamet continues,
President Obama, in his reelection campaign, referred frequently to the “needs” of himself and his opponent, alleging that each has more money than he “needs.”

But where in the Constitution is it written that the Government is in charge of determining “needs”? And note that the president did not say “I have more money than I need,” but “You and I have more than we need.” Who elected him to speak for another citizen?
We can start from, is Obama's statement true or false? Does Mamet believe that the President has insufficient money to meet his needs? Does he believe that Mitt Romney is struggling by on his quarter billion dollar fortune, barely able to keep the heat on in his five houses? From any reasonable standpoint the President was correct. But facts are boring, right? So Mamet goes off on a tear about how the Constitution does not place the government in charge of determining "needs". And after that non sequitur whines that the President is speaking for another person. As if Romney denied the charge. As if any person with a brain between his ears would dispute the charge. And then what he seems to think is his pièce de résistance, his brilliant and irrefutable point, "Who elected [the President] to speak for another citizen?" (Well, you see, David, we live under this system of government referred to as a representative democracy, and we do in fact elect our representatives to speak for us.) And yes, it gets worse from there - for the President to suggest that Romney has more money than he needs is the same thing as the government imposing "one-size-fits-all", never mind that the President was speaking about treating different classes of people (notably the ultra-rich) differently than the average working stiff. And there is no difference between that and slavery.

Mamet makes one ridiculous assertion after another.
What possible purpose in declaring schools “gun-free zones”? Who bringing a gun, with evil intent, into a school would be deterred by the sign?
The purpose of the law, of course, is to allow the police to stop and detain, and when appropriate prosecute and imprison, somebody who brings a firearm into the gun-free zone. If it's not illegal to have a gun in a school zone, the police are constrained in their ability to act before the gun is drawn.
We need more armed citizens in the schools.
Why? Because Mamet says so? And this is a universal truth? A school with a gang problem will be a better and safer place if every kid above the age of 18 has the right to bring a gun to school?
Walk down Madison Avenue in New York. Many posh stores have, on view, or behind a two-way mirror, an armed guard. Walk into most any pawnshop, jewelry story, currency exchange, gold store in the country, and there will be an armed guard nearby. Why? As currency, jewelry, gold are precious. Who complains about the presence of these armed guards? And is this wealth more precious than our children?
Actually, no, in most such stores there are no armed guards. But where they are, it's to protect against robbery. Fundamentally, Mamet knows the difference between children, money, precious metals and jewels - not one of the scam artists in any of his plays or movies has mused over whether it would be better to scam somebody out of a valuable patent, tens of thousands of dollars, $millions in gold, or their kids. I doubt we would have to explain to Mamet that just because banks transport cash and securities in armored cars, it does not follow that we need to replace the nation's school buses with armored cars. Businesses don't invest in bulletproof glass and armed security because they are protecting against obscure risk and enjoy wasting money, but because due to the nature of their operations they are under genuine risk of armed robbery.
Q. How many accidental shootings occurred last year in jewelry stores, or on any premises with armed security guards?
I'm not sure how many of the shootings were accidental, but it would seem quite a number - often by somebody who disarms the security guard. ("In 23% of shootings within the ED, the weapon was a security officer’s gun taken by the perpetrator."). As if we needed further confirmation that Mamet does no research and has little interest in facts. Mamet believes that all that is involved in having armed security in schools is "the cost of a pistol (several hundred dollars), and a few hours of training (that’s all the security guards get)" - reflecting his deep ignorance both of the cost of gun ownership and maintenance, and of the actual and continuing training required to make sure that the person with the gun has the necessary skills to use it safely and appropriately.

Did I mention Mamet's inaccurate claim that the President "just passed a bill that extends to him and his family protection, around the clock and for life, by the Secret Service". Does Mamet even know how a bill is passed? That the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans? Apparently not. Mamet makes the absurd assertion that by recognizing that the President and his family have different security needs than the average American, the government is "regulat[ing] gun ownership based on its assessment of needs", which is... Marxism. Wait - you thought Marxism was when the government treated all people as if they were the same, and that "one size fits all" solutions were tantamount to slavery? That was paragraphs ago. Things have changed. And is Mamet seriously suggesting that the only solution that avoids Marxism is to either extend Secret Service protection to everybody in the nation, or to leave the President unprotected? To the extent that you try to find logical coherence in his arguments, yes, in fact he is.

Getting back to Mamet's plays for a moment, some defend his often stilted, stylized dialog as being "how people talk in real life." I've met a lot of people in my life and none speak in the manner of the characters of, say, House of Games. But the manner in which Mamet spins into a verbal frenzy, taking the President's true statement about Romney's wealth and, in a matter of a few sentences, equating it with slavery? Perhaps the reason I don't think Mamet's dialog is realistic is that I can't hear the voices in his head.

Waldman's commentary on the craft of political analysis is fair to a point, that people underestimate what is involved in writing good political commentary, but if we look at the most commercially successful political analysts of the day we often see little of that craft in their work. If I open a newspaper, I might find Charles Krauthammer opening a column with a dig at the President's use of a teleprompter, an absurd, racially-tinged attack that long ago passed its expiration date. I might find George Will spouting off about how climate change is a myth, with no more interest in the facts than Mamet. And if I flip open a Newsweek... make that click open... I might find... Mamet.

Sorry to say, the biggest money makers in the world of political commentary are charlatants - Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the like - and many of the faces pushed upon us by the "respectable" media are well past their prime, or were never up to the task. Many of the best political analysts would struggle to get a column published by a major newspaper or to get invited to sit among the talking heads on a televised panel or news show. The shocking part is less that Newsweek is so eager to gain readers that it posts an editorial that is on par with an episode of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo". The shocking part is how many people who you would think would have more respect for themselves eagerly line up to play the role of Honey Boo Boo.

Collective Action - Aspiration vs. Reality

Charles Lane wrote a column recently in which he complained that "collective action" is overrated:
[T]he gist [of Mancur Olson's argument] is that large numbers of people do not naturally band together to secure common interests. In fact, the larger the group, the less likely it is to act in a truly collective manner.

As Olson explained, the interests that unite large groups are necessarily of the lowest-common-denominator variety. Therefore the concrete benefits of collective action to any individual are usually small compared with the costs — in time, effort and money — of participation. “Free-riding” is a constant threat — as the difficulties of collecting union dues illustrates.

By contrast, small groups are good at collective action. It costs less to organize a few people around a narrow, but intensely felt, shared concern.
Lane suggests that Olson's thesis is supported by the existence of lobbyists and "special-interest groups that swarm Congress", seeking favorable legislation. He also speaks as if this is a new thing, or that the recognition of diverse interests and competing factions didn't arise until Olson published his 1965 book.

I agree with the general thesis that, the larger the group, the more difficult it is to achieve consensus, and that the difficulty compounds as you try to achieve consensus on a greater number of issues or across a broad range of subjects. Lane is also correct that factions tend to look out for their own self-interest, "whether or not success comes at the larger society’s expense". Lane is correct that groups that self-select for a specific purpose (e.g., to lobby Congress for a favorable tax law, or a protectionist regulation that protects them from competition) can be effective at advancing their agenda. They tend to be even more successful when they are well-funded.

However, he runs into trouble when he attempts to turn his critique of collective action into a critique of stable democracies and, more specifically, the Obama Administration. Turning to a later book by Olson, Lane argues,
His paradoxical, and deeply depressing, conclusion: Political stability is a curse of sorts, because, over time, stable societies accumulate interest groups, with all the distortion and complexity that breeds. “On balance,” he wrote, “special-interest organizations and collusions reduce efficiency and aggregate income . . . and make political life more divisive.”
Lane diagnoses the United States with that "British disease", with too many factions looking out for their own self-interest, with the result that the bargaining table is "too crowded to agree on the problem, much less a solution."

But if we step back for a moment, the foundation of the Lane/Olson "British disease" thesis is weak. First, Britain's fall from its status as a dominant world power followed the collapse of colonialism and its involvement in two world wars. Over that same period the U.K. underwent a massive social transformation. Its likely that the social transformation did lead to a greater number of voices vying for the attention of Parliament, but Britain's decline began long before, under a class-based power structure that was far less responsive to many of those voices, so it's difficult to even find a meaningful correlation, let alone causation. To focus on an increased number of "special interests" while ignoring the economic drivers of Britain's shrinking influence is to miss the forest for the trees.

Further, if it is in fact true that older democracies become ineffecient due to their being overwhelmed by a proliferation of special interests, where can we find the modern, nimble democracies not yet weighted down by faction? France's Fifth Republic? Greece passed its most recent Constitution in 1975 - what should we make of that? Which of the democracies borne of the fall of the Iron Curtain are exemplars of the efficiency and lack of faction that Lane attributes to long-term stability?

In criticizing the President, Lane also misses the entire point of appeals to unity and collective action. It's not that the President is lacks "realism". It's that he, like every President who came before him, recognizes that you don't unify the people or inspire the type of solutions Lane claims he favors by telling the people, "We're hopelessly divided by faction, we have no chance of solving tough issues, so 'every man for himself,' 'good luck and thanks for all the fish.'" The notion of the people as a collective, pulling together, is part of the preamble to the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,[note 1] promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Divisions among the citizenry, and the need to nonetheless pull together, have been part of presidential rhetoric from the time of George Washington:
Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.

But these considerations, however powerfully they address themselves to your sensibility, are greatly outweighed by those which apply more immediately to your interest. Here every portion of our country finds the most commanding motives for carefully guarding and preserving the union of the whole.
Lyndon Johnson:
This is one nation. What happens in Selma and Cincinnati is a matter of legitimate concern to every American. But let each of us look within our own hearts and our own communities and let each of us put our shoulder to the wheel to root out injustice wherever it exists. As we meet here in this peaceful historic chamber tonight, men from the South, some of whom were at Iwo Jima, men from the North who have carried Old Glory to the far corners of the world and who brought it back without a stain on it, men from the east and from the west are all fighting together without regard to religion or color or region in Vietnam.
Jimmy Carter:
With God’s help and for the sake of our nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.
I suspect that Lane has been thinking about the issue of faction and how it impedes government action, and has a better column hidden somewhere inside his head, but made the poor choice of trying to build his case based upon a flawed thesis about the "British disease", presidential rhetoric that is consistent with that of every other president, and the conceit that the concept of faction and competing interests is relatively new to politics. Lane also overlooks the dark side of faction, with its "us versus them" thinking, and although he acknowledges "", he elides from his column any mention of wedge issues and the manner in which political factions and parties attempt to create and exaggerate differences between groups in order to prevent political change or progress. Sometimes it's the rhetoric Lane criticizes, that of unity and common interest, that allows for the type of change he claims to endorse.

Lane betrays his actual complaint when he engages in the language of his own faction, that of the Very Serious Person:
But the president’s paean to collective action lacked Olson’s realism. The question is not just how much more government we need or want, if any. It’s also how much more government we can afford, in light of its purposes and given the risks Olson identified — which have already materialized in the form of unsustainable but politically untouchable entitlement programs.
The question for Lane, though, is not how much government we can afford, because his faction is unconcerned with how government could provide the same level of service at a substantially lower cost. Were Lane to break out of the groupthink of his faction he would acknowledge (as has his paper) that the only government "entitlement" that is projected to be unsustainable is Medicare, while Social Security can be made sustainable for the indefinite future with relatively modest changes. Fixing Medicare? Lane's own newspaper doesn't think the problems are all that difficult to fix, but it's also telling that Lane isn't advocating the immediate, significant cost savings that could come from emulating the better national health insurance plans of other western democracies.

At the end of it all, Lane does a pretty good job of evidencing his larger point, that it's difficult to find solutions when people won't look past their self-interest. He grouses that the President isn't sufficiently serious about entitlement reform while failing to admit that President Obama keeps offering Reagan-style Social Security reforms that will keep its books in balance, despite the howls of factions on the left. He similarly ignores the fact that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) attempts to improve the quality of Medicare while reducing costs, and that its cost-saving measures would be stronger but for the obstructionism and demagoguery of the Republican Party. And of course, he fails to note that Obama was ready to enter into a "grand bargain" with the Republicans on taxes, spending and entitlements but... the Republicans walked away from negotiations.

I can't argue with Lane's feelings - we would all feel better if the government stopped listening to anybody else, and honed in on what we, individually, believed to be in the best interest of the nation. I guess it needs to be said: that's not realistic.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Distorted Reports of Future Health Insurance Costs

My wife brought to my attention the breathless claim presently coming from right-wing ideologues, courtesy of CNSNews.com, a site that is comprised of little but hyper-partisan dog whistles,
The Internal Revenue Service issued a report Wednesday in which it estimated that under Obamacare, the least expensive health insurance plan available to a family in 2016 would cost $20,000 annually according to CNSNews.com.
If you investigate, what do you actually find? You don't find a projection of future health insurance costs. You find an example of how the regulation works using a set of arbitrarily selected, largely round numbers. (See page 70.)

I don't know if the people behind this story are fools or frauds... at this point, it's likely some of each... but if you care about appearing informed it's not something you should fall for.