Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy New Year from Windsor McCay and Little Nemo

Make it a good one. 

Originally posted at Mippyville.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

This could go poorly

This is Joseph

Seattle voted for extra money to improve transit service in Seattle via a special Seattle-only levee.  This seemed to be a promising improvement in administration -- jurisdictions that wanted more service could pay for it.  This isn't working out quite so well in practice:
This isn’t surprising, as the suburban and small town/rural parts of Metro’s service area are over-represented on the board, and they’re simply fighting for their interests. But the risk to the (high-performing, heavily used, high farebox-recovery*) core Seattle routes might be more palatable given that Seattle’s prop 1 funded service hours make Seattle seem flush with service, such that they can afford to give it up. To take Prop 1 money and use it to pay for non-Seattle routes would be flatly illegal, but to achieve the same allocation of service hours through a change to the service revision guidelines isn’t. If this has a significant impact on future service allocations, it’ll be in the direction of reducing frequency in Seattle, keeping the kind of frequency that might support car-free living out of reach, while subsidizing commuter bus service that makes autocentric (for all but commuting to work) sprawl more viable.
This approach, if it remains, is a very bad use of incentives.  The places that decided not to fund additional services get them via a change in the service revision guidelines simply means that Seattle is paying for everyone's transit.  That isn't exactly a good basis to make future transportation policy on as this would eventually make the Seattle folks think they are being played for suckers. 

Hopefully wiser heads will prevail. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

As currently implemented, MOOCs make no economic sense

Dean Dad does, of course, have a dog in this fight, but his arguments are completely sound, particularly regarding the strangely neglected CLEP option.

 Quick, which is the better deal:

    Watch videos online and pay $649 for three credits.
    Take a class with a human being and pay $252 for three credits.


That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course.  To the extent that folks watched MOOCs in the same way that they watch, say, TED talks, I don’t see the harm in it.  But to the extent that the partnership was supposed to be about opening pathways to bachelor’s degrees, it doesn’t come close to comparing to the already-established route of starting at a community college -- in this case, I used the tuition rate of Maricopa Community College, the largest feeder to ASU -- and transferring.

The program didn’t even follow the usual “script” for “disruptive innovations.”  It came in at a higher cost than a respected, existing alternative.  That’s not how disruption is supposed to work.  I have to wonder at the implied invisibility of the single largest sector of American higher education, but that’s another discussion. 

ASU was essentially trying to charge premium prices for Prior Learning Assessment and hope nobody would notice.  A savvy student could simply watch the MOOC and then take a CLEP exam for credit for less than a hundred bucks.  I admire the audacity of the effort, though I admire more the clarity with which most people saw it. 

Monday, December 28, 2015

I have serious doubts about the 1964 analogy, but ...

If you have to make the analogy,  I think it works better with Cruz than Trump.

The invaluable Robert Bateman provides the background:
Last night, Senator Ted Cruz demonstrated the depth of his ignorance about all things military when he said (and quoting him exactly is important):
BLITZER: Would you carpet bomb Raqqa the ISIS Capital, where there are a lot of civilians? CRUZ: You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops, you use air power directed, and you have embedded special forces to direct the air power. But the object isn't to level a city, the object is to kill the ISIS terrorists...
Except earlier Cruz said, like, with his outside voice, this: 
We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out."
I don't know if you caught that. Senator Ted Cruz proposed that as President of the United States, he would use nuclear weapons to bomb, indiscriminately, civilian population centers where ISIS holds people hostage. 

Carpet bombing is a tactic, and a measure of last resort. It is also now widely understood to be effectively illegal under the Law of Armed Conflict, which would make the United States' use of this tactic a war crime. It is different from precision bombing, guided by Special Operations Forces, the standard tactic for our armed forces today.


Today, with precision weapons, we drop bombs that go precisely where we want them. We do not drop unguided bombs indiscriminately on civilian population centers, as we have in the past. We, unlike some others, have precision weapons now. The Law of Armed Conflict is pretty clear that if precision is an option, you are not allowed to "carpet bomb" in civilian areas. (You are not allowed to anyway, but there is a mitigating factor that deals with "proportionality" as well. We'll leave that for another time.) ISIS, for its part, does not occupy a whole lot of conventional military-like defensive positions out in the desert either. Its operatives are embedded in the population centers, the villages, towns, and cities. Flattening entire cities to kill a few dozen or even a hundred ISIS fighters would be "disproportionate," just as it would be if we were fighting a conventional military force.

But there is one place the analogy definitely breaks down. Goldwater was, when you got past the scary stuff, likeable. 

From Josh Marshall:
Cruz, on the other hand, is not likable. And thoroughly unlikeable people do not win the presidency.

As I've written, in part from personal experience, there does not seem to be any social milieu in which Cruz has spent any amount of time in in which virtually everyone didn't dislike him. College, Law School, high profile legal work, Senate, etc. He has the uncanny and almost ingenious ability to radiate both intensely grating insincerity with wildly convincing true-believer-ism. His political appeal is geared to people who are alienated and angry enough that the mix of aggression, indifference, and exploitativeness he radiates is one that these people can identify with.

Second is simply ideology. Cruz is way too rightwing for a national campaign. This is almost mathematical. He's very right wing and unlike George W. Bush presents his hard right politics in a pure and unmediated form. That is a recipe for a staggering defeat in a national election. Just as importantly, I do not think Cruz is either temperamentally capable, interested or able to significant shift off those views in a general election. Part of it is character and part of it is simply that he's created to long a paper trail. There is no credible softer, gentler Ted Cruz who cares about people like you.

He would certainly have impassioned and intense support from the base of his party and some of the more conservative elements of the financial services community - something that Trump might struggle with. But beyond that he would have great difficulty.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Miami: the new Venice?

This is Joseph

I had known that Miami was in trouble due to the flat topography and the low distance above sea level.  What I had not realized was how much the limestone structure that South Florida is built on would be a problem by instantly raising the water table.  This article nails it:
“We have a triple whammy,” he said. “One whammy is sea-level rise. Another whammy is the water table comes up higher, too. And in this area the higher the water table, the less space you have to absorb storm water. The third whammy is if the rainfall extremes change, and become more extreme. There are other whammies probably that I haven’t mentioned. Someone said the other day, ‘The water comes from six sides in Florida.’ ”
This just seems to be set up to make flooding routine and will likely take out the local drinking water too (as sea water invades the limestone).   Why is this not a matter of bigger concern? 

I'm rather hoping it is not another case of Easter Island and Trees.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Principal agent problems

This is Joseph.

I am not usually all that bright but this new law confuses me:
The second provision relates to a campaign by investors and Democrats to prod the SEC into forcing corporations to disclose their political spending. The idea gained steam from a 2011 petition by a group of corporate law experts arguing that the Citizens United decision made corporate disclosure especially urgent. The petition has attracted 1.2 million public comments, the most in the SEC's history. The budget bill prohibits the agency from spending any funds to "finalize, issue, or implement" any rule on disclosure of political contributions.
As the petition observed, shareholder interest in such disclosure was so strong that more than half the companies in the Standard & Poor's 100 index had voluntarily adopted the policy by 2011. But the pace of adoption had slowed considerably in recent years, suggesting that SEC action is needed.

Indeed, the Supreme Court in Citizens United placed great weight on the value of disclosure -- perhaps naively so. "With the advent of the Internet," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, "prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters." Disclosure would enable shareholders to "determine whether their corporation’s political speech advances the corporation’s interest in making profits, and citizens can see whether elected officials are 'in the pocket’ of so-called moneyed interests."

But as the law professors noted, this system doesn't work unless shareholders "have information about the company’s political speech....Absent disclosure, shareholders are unable to hold directors and executives accountable when they spend corporate funds on politics in a way that departs from shareholder interests."
Now, stop me if you have heard this before but don't the shareholders actually own the company?  How does allowing the managers of a company (owned by other people) conceal information about the use of corporate resources help matters?  Companies are already dealing with a host of principal agent problems but these can only be compounded by allowing these things to do done in secret.  If the political goals of the company advance the interests of the shareholders then should this not be the sort of thing that corporate executives should be able to easily justify? 

I can understand that transparency can be hard and that some forms of corporate practice need to be kept secret.  But this is a direct category of spending company profits (e.g. potential shareholder value) on what could be distinct from the best interests of the shareholders. 

Why would we not want more transparency?

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Albert and Pogo's Christmas

Before Doonesbury, there was Pogo. Throughout the Post-War era, Walt Kelly's sharp but gentle political satire (best summed up by Kelly's line "We have met the enemy and he is us.") was obligatory reading for anyone who followed the news.

But before the comic strip, there were children's funny animal comic books like this. You won't find any explicit political commentary, but that doesn't mean they couldn't be subversive in their own way.

Via Mippyville.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Public subsidy of health care costs

This is Joseph

I was reading a fact checking article, and I encountered a very important set of cost estimates that bear repeating.  The OECD estimates health care costs.  It's not surprising that total US health care costs are very high.  What I found more useful to think about was the amounts that the United States ($4,197), the United Kingdom ($2,802), and France ($3,247) spent in terms of public support for health care.  Yes, the US already leads in government provided health care costs (as well as being more than double total costs for either of these countries).

Now I know that this example doesn't give many clues as to how to fix these high costs.  However, it does really start to make the question of whether market forces are really reducing costs in the health care sector seem critical.

I should also point out, that the UK has a very lean system and people may legitimately question if it is too lean for emulation on this side of the pond.  It works, but it makes some painful choices,  However, French health care (almost exactly half in total cost what the US pays) has a very good reputation (even among Libertarians) and may be a place where we can learn a lot about how to decrease total heath care expenses while keeping up the higher level of service that is a clear revealed preference in the United States.

The last piece here is the cost of innovation.  It's a complex topic, but it is clear that some cases of increased costs for medical services, like drugs, are not entirely about innovation but may involve some elements of profit-taking as well.  Insofar as there are innovations that won't exist if Americans do not subsidize them (thus making life better for everyone), it is worth asking if a) this is really the best way to generate these innovations and b) if there is not a way we couldn't average the costs out among other advanced nations based on treaties (it's got to be worth a try, right?).

Happy Holidays!

In the war on Christmas, it was the evangelicals who took the first shot (literally)

I grew up in the Bible Belt and spent all of my formative years arguing with fundamentalists so I feel comfortable with the following claim: in the past 40 years, the conservative movement has had a larger impact on the evangelical community than the evangelical community has had on the conservative movement. Obviously in these situations, influence always runs both ways, but the changes on one side have been greater and far more strategically useful. The very fact that we have an alliance between conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons says volumes.

Evangelicals have also been convinced to abandon other positions that did not play well on Fox News. Around this time of year, when my thoughts go back to childhood Christmases, one position in particular always comes to mind.
[Courtesy of Joe Bob Briggs]

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Why I am unlikely to write a naked emperor post about Talking Points Memo

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Donald Trump managed to make most of the media's Very Serious People look awfully foolish, but a few pundits have managed to be remarkably prescient. Paul Krugman was quick to push back against Nate Cohn's multiple announcements of Trump's demise (no doubt pissing off his editors at the NYT, but what's one more black mark at this point?). Jonathan Chait also deserves credit for sharp analyses that broke from the pack. Charles Pierce has had a good run too.

That said, I don't think anyone's done better on the Trump beat than Josh Marshall, though he's been notably reticent about taking victory laps. From the beginning, Marshall has had the best grasp of the relationship between Trump and the Republican base.
Again and again over the last six months we've seen Donald Trump take memes and messages which are either implicit in mainstream Republican politics or explicit on the fringes of conservatism and make them loud and explicit. That might be on bashing Mexican immigrants, banning Muslims or any number of other examples. Now we're seeing the same thing with Vladimir Putin.

As I've written on a number of occasions and as many others have noticed, US Republicans are really, really into Vladimir Putin. Yes, yes, they think he's a menace, threatening us in Ukraine and Syria and so forth, overmanning President Obama on various fronts. But it's been pretty clear that for many Republicans, while they decry him as evil and awful, they actually like the way he acts. He doesn't pussyfoot around. He doesn't do nuance. If he doesn't get respect, he invades. He doesn't dilly-dally around in Syria, he just goes in and starts shooting. My erstwhile pals over at Bloomberg news several weeks ago had a lede that read something to the effect of, Barack Obama has been hemming and hawing about a Syria no fly zone for years, Putin just took over the skies overnight.


Trump is now on this, too. First saying he's proud to have the admiration of such a respected leader like Vladimir Putin. And this morning, well, if Putin occasionally has to kill a domestic critic, at least he knows how to lead.

Monday, December 21, 2015

"The world’s first $200 million STAR WARS fan-film"

[Appeared previously in the pop culture blog.]

I'm not planning to see the new Star Wars film (I'm assuming you've heard about it). I'll probably catch some of it eventually on TV or via some streaming service, but I don't anticipate paying any money for it or giving it two plus dedicated hours of my time. This isn't because I didn't care for the last three or because I haven't liked anything I've seen from the director. I didn't and I haven't but those are minor points. I don't want to see the latest Star Wars film because, with the possible exception of another Genndy Tartakovsky short, I don't want to see any new Star Wars films.

The original trilogy was an attempt by what was then "new Hollywood" to reinvent the classic swashbuckler. It was, of course, incredibly successful commercially and reasonably successful artistically, though the various elements – – Errol Flynn meets Joseph Campbell meets, a bit later, David Lean – – never really coalesced and the problem got only worse as the series progressed .

Where the franchise does still hold some interest is as a cultural and marketing phenomena. I'll have more to say about the marketing later; for the cultural, the best take I've seen comes from Bob Chipman. Chipman is a good critic but he's also something more valuable and more difficult to find: a broadly knowledgeable and self-aware fanboy.

Viewed objectively, the prequels are “bad films” for the same reasons that plenty of other (substantially worse!) special-effects blockbusters are bad films: Poorly scripted, badly acted, tonally askew, etc. But as a young-ish fanboy back in the day, what really bugged me was that they didn’t “feel” STAR WARS enough, by which of course I mean that they didn’t remain slavishly devoted to the aesthetic and trappings I’d grown up obsessed with and didn’t throw out nearly enough references and callbacks and, well… “Star Wars” stuff. Whatever bad things you can say about THE PHANTOM MENACE, you can’t accuse George Lucas of pandering to the audience – that was ATTACK OF THE CLONES

My point is: I’ve long held a sneaky (and depressing) suspicion that if the prequels had been exactly as lacking on a technical filmmaking and storytelling level BUT had also been suitably packed to the gills with the requisite amount of fan-service, said fans would’ve largely overlooked those flaws and still be arguing their merits today.

And I’d been worried that I’d get a chance to test this hypothesis ever since it became clear that Disney and Lucasfilm were intent on selling THE FORCE AWAKENS based almost-exclusively around proving that they’d been listening to the last decade-plus of fanboy complaints; with a pre-release hype machine that ignored almost all discussion of story, themes or characters in favor of: “We’re using practical effects and models again!” “NO midichlorians!” “X-Wings and Tie-Fighters and Storm Troopers and The Falcon!” “Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie are all back!” Heck, they even went so far as to hire JJ Abrams – a remarkably UN-remarkable talent whose only skillset of genuine note is being an exceptional mimic of the style and feel of other peoples’ movies. If ever there was going to be a recipe to make O.G. STAR WARS fans spontaneously combust with joy *regardless* of whether or not the movie was actually any damn good, this was it.

BUT! My hypothesis will have to wait for another day. Because in spite of all that (and, if we’re being far, probably because of some of it) STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is a pretty damn good movie. And since it in no way needed to be, I suppose that’s damn impressive in its own right.

Make no mistake though: What we’ve got here is effectively the world’s first $200 million STAR WARS fan-film – and I don’t use that designation to be flippant nor entirely critical. THE FORCE AWAKENS is scratching a nostalgia itch out of pure profit motive, but for good or ill the attachment generations of filmgoers have to the sights, sounds and characters of the original trilogy is a real, palpable thing that exists on a level above the base toy-salesmanship that grew to feed off of it. Yes, the narrative is pretty much a leisurely stroll down memory lane (with frequent detours onto Homage Avenue) but mostly feels organic and natural about it at least until you stop and start questioning the coincidences that have always been a big part of the series’ storytelling.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Our annual Toys-for-Tots post

[Slightly modified from last year.]

A good Christmas can do a lot to take the edge off of a bad year both for children and their parents (and a lot of families are having a bad year). It's the season to pick up a few toys, drop them by the fire station and make some people feel good about themselves during what can be one of the toughest times of the year.

If you're new to the Toys-for-Tots concept, here are the rules I normally use when shopping:

The gifts should be nice enough to sit alone under a tree. The child who gets nothing else should still feel that he or she had a special Christmas. A large stuffed animal, a big metal truck, a large can of Legos with enough pieces to keep up with an active imagination. You can get any of these for around twenty or thirty bucks at Target, Wal-Mart or Costco. Toys-R-Us had some good sales last year;

Shop smart. The better the deals the more toys can go in your cart;

No batteries. (I'm a strong believer in kid power);*

Speaking of kid power, it's impossible to be sedentary while playing with a basketball;

No toys that need lots of accessories;

For games, you're generally better off going with a classic;

No movie or TV show tie-ins. (This one's kind of a personal quirk and I will make some exceptions like Sesame Street);

Look for something durable. These will have to last;

For smaller children, you really can't beat Fisher Price and PlaySkool. Both companies have mastered the art of coming up with cleverly designed toys that children love and that will stand up to generations of energetic and creative play.

* I'd like to soften this position just bit. It's okay for a toy to use batteries, just not to need them. Fisher Price and PlaySkool have both gotten into the habit of adding lights and sounds to classic toys, but when the batteries die, the toys live on, still powered by the energy of children at play.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Believe it or not, I was working on a post arguing that mainstream journalism had declined in quality when this came up

[Update: the message appears to be getting through, at least to public editor Margaret Sullivan.]

There is no publication in the country, perhaps even in the world, with a reputation like that of the New York Times. It is almost universally considered the standard for American newspapers. For that reason, I would argue that journalistic lapses at the New York Times should, in effect, count triple. First, there is the damage that always comes from bad journalism, second there is the additional impact of having unreliable news coming from what is considered a reliable source, and third there is the chilling effect on the standards of other publications. "If they can cut corners, why can't we?"

That is why developments like these are so troubling. Here's Josh Marshall:
I was talking about this with one of our editors as I came back to New York on the train yesterday. And one key piece of reporting was this piece in The New York Times which reported: None of the background checks "uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad."

That seems pretty clear cut. Now it also appears to be false. And as Erik Wemple notes here, it's a huge difference, much more than a simple difference between posting a private message and posting on your timeline. One set of facts is roughly the equivalent to finding out after the fact that Malik had discussed jihad with friends via email. The other makes the entire government counter-terrorism operation seem incompetent. Even unintentionally, it amounts to mainstream media disinformation.

The Times is kinda sorta correcting itself now and saying it will look into how it got this wrong. The LATimes, which actually got the key fact right, is also in CYA mode.


I say this with some discomfort. Because I have many friends at the Times. And I am certain I will hear from them. But I highlight this because it is a pattern with the Times - to some extent with the elite media generally, but particularly the Times.

Back when I was reporting on 9/11 and the Iraq War and all the different elements of counter-terrorism and national security policy in the early Bush years, I would do my own reporting but also pore over the best reporting to find nuggets of factual details I would weave, with links and credit, into what I was writing on TPM. The Post was simply peerless for this, a constant wealth of information. The Journal was too, though not quite as full as the Post. And there were of course many others, Knight-Ridder, various newspapers, blogs, etc. But the Times was consistently poor.

Or perhaps a better way to put it was that it was poor for my needs. It aimed at such a general audience and seemed focused on writing the broad, definitive piece that articles were published with such a level of vagueness that there weren't a lot of factual details to work with.

So it wasn't that they were wrong or inaccurate necessarily - just vague and unspecific.

Except when they were totally wrong. We know all about Judith Miller's reporting and that of many others' at the Times that credulously accepted bespoke 'leaks' from government officials in the years just after 9/11. Then there was this more recent example of the FBI criminal probe into Hillary Clinton which turned out not to exist.

But what may bother me even more than this inaccurate and shoddy work is the apparent lack of concern from the NYT. Not only are we seeing the same careless and unprofessional mistakes, we are seeing them made by the same people.

Here's Charles Pierce:
The New York Times has a serious source pollution problem. As is now obvious, somebody fed the paper bad information on San Bernardino murderess Tashfeen Malik's social media habits. It was said that she was posting jihadist screeds on Facebook. The Times hyped the scoop by stating pretty clearly that the government—and the administration running it—slipped up. It was the inspiration for endless bloviating about how "political correctness is killing people" at Tuesday night's Republican debate. Then comes FBI director James Comey to say that, no, there were no public Facebook posts that the government missed because there weren't any at all.

More than a few people have noted that two of the three reporters who were fed this story also had their bylines on the notorious (and thoroughly debunked) piece about how the FBI had launched a "criminal inquiry" into Hillary Rodham Clinton's alleged mishandling of classified materials in her e-mails. Pretty clearly, somebody's peddling bad information and its apparent purpose is to submarine both the current Democratic administration and the prospective one. I'm more concerned about that than I am about the Times' having fallen for it. If the same source is responsible for both of these debacles, then that source should be outed by the reporters who currently are twisting in the wind.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fall flashback -- If I were writing it today I'd make more of Romano's title -- "This is the way Trump ends"

[I wrote this back in September. It got lost in the confusion until I started digging through the ever-growing draft pile. Apologies for the delay.]

I've meaning to drop the naked emperor thread for a while but I keep coming across interesting examples of the different ways that the respectable, non-partisan press tries to deal with Donald Trump while maintaining all the bizarre conventions it has come to rely on over the past few decades.

The latest case comes from Yahoo's Andrew Romano (late of Newsweek), who manages to come up with an end-of-Trump narrative that doesn't rely on repeating the name Herman Cain over and over. The rise of Trump makes the mainstream press corp incredibly uncomfortable (for reasons that, as discussed previously, have remarkably little to do with him promoting xenophobia and racist birther conspiracy theories).  Romano (who is very conventional -- just look at the Newsweek link) does his best to tell a story with a reassuring ending. Unfortunately, getting there entails various painful-to-watch contortions.

It's bad enough when you have to build you thesis around a handful of man-in-the-street quotes, but when those quotes don't even support your thesis...
Before the battleship event, I walked up and down the long line of ticket holders— an estimated 800 supporters paid as much as $1,000 to behold the candidate in the flesh — and asked a simple question: What do you like most about Trump? Everybody gave me the same answer. Each person phrased it differently, but it all basically boiled down to one thing — the single characteristic, more than wealth, fame or narcissism, that best defines the Donald.


Trump disrespects politics. He disrespects the process. He disrespects the rhetoric. He disrespects his fellow candidates. And his fans love that, because they really, really disrespect politics, too.

“It’s his frankness,” said Mark Gutierrez, a Marine Corp veteran and retired L.A. Water and Power employee. “He’s not worried about being politically correct. He’s just going to tell it like it is. The things that people are feeling, he’s saying.”

His wife, Darlene, nodded. “There’s too much political correctness,” she told me. “People are tired of listening to all these meek and regular promises that the candidates make every four years. Trump just says, ‘This is the way it’s going to be.’”

Further back in the line, a clothing designer named Gina Calabrase echoed what the Gutierrezes were saying. “Instead of being wishy-washy, Trump makes decisions,” Calabrase explained. “He’s saying things that a lot of people aren’t going to like. Usually, a politician would back off in that case. But Trump sticks to it. He owns it — like it or not.”
When Trump supporters talk about their candidate being frank and decisive, Romano hears "disrespect." This probably tells us far more about the reporter than about the reportee.

I really don't snack that much

From Ken Levine:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea – – another example of the strange economics of filmmaking technology

As previously mentioned, the digital revolution has increased the productivity of pretty much everybody involved in the filmmaking process but the greatest impact has been in the field of visual effects. The time and money required to get the impressive and impossible on the screen have decreased by orders of magnitude. Which makes it all the more strange that increasingly visual effects are causing long delays and huge cost overruns.

From Deadline (emphasis added):
In fact, the biggest problem for ITHOTS was its lofty production cost. I understand that the cost originally started at $85M but swelled as the director and his crew contended with the challenges of shooting on the water (always costly), followed by VFX which was the primary reason why the film was delayed from its original March 13 date to December 11.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Distracted by the large flock of black swans

[I'm rushing this out and scheduling an early posting because, as previously suggested, Jonathan Chait is writing a very sharp series of post along these lines and I'm afraid he's is going to beat me to the punch.]

In recent years, a large part of the foundation of the GOP strategy has been the assumption that, if you get base voters angry enough and frightened enough, they will show up to vote (even in off year elections) and they will never vote for the Democrat (even when they really dislike the Republican candidate).

Capitalizing on that assumption has always been something of a balancing act, particularly when you constantly attack the legitimacy of the electoral system ("The system is rigged!" "The last election was stolen!" "Make sure to vote!"). With the advent of the Tea Party movement, it's gotten even more difficult to maintain that balance.

I don't want to get sucked into trying to guess what constitute reasonable probabilities here – – I'm just throwing out scenarios – – but it certainly does seem likely that, if he doesn't get the nomination and does not choose to run as an independent, Trump will still make trouble and things will get ugly.

Keep in mind, Trump's base started out as the birther movement. They came into this primed to see conspiracies against them. Now the RNC has given them what appears to be an actual conspiracy to focus on.

I don't think we can entirely rule out the possibility of Trump calling for a boycott of the vote to protest his treatment but even if it doesn't come to that, it seems probable that, should we see a great deal of bitterness and paranoia after the convention, the result will not help Republican turnout.

What kind of magnitude would we be talking about? It's still too early to say and even if it weren't, I wouldn't feel qualified to speculate, but it would be an interesting conversation to follow among political scientists.

At the very least, the possibility of something big happening down-ballot, though perhaps still not likely, is more likely than it was in the days before Trump.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Damn you, Jonathan Chait

I've been meaning to write a post walking through the different scenarios for the GOP primary (working title: "I was distracted by the flock of black swans"):

I. Trump gets the nomination

II. Trump doesn't and instead
     A. Fades away and/or decides to play nice (that second one just got even less likely)
     B. Runs as an independent
     C. Causes as much trouble as possible

Unfortunately, while I've been procrastinating, Chait has been writing, producing a string of really sharp posts that are on track to anticipate all of the major points I wanted to make. He already gave us the definitive brief analysis of Scenario I and today he covers most of what I wanted to say about II.B.

Chait is the only news analyst I've seen so far who is seriously thinking through the GOP's dilemma: they can't afford to keep Trump but they can't afford to lose his supporters. The Republican model requires very high turn-out from the base. Pissing off a large segment of those voters could have significant consequences.

Chait actually goes so far as to suggest that the party's best way out of this dilemma might be the much-feared third party run:
2. A Trump independent candidacy would have down-ballot benefits for the party. Trump would split apart the Republican vote at the presidential level, but the socially conservative white working-class voters who turn out to vote for him would overwhelmingly pull the lever for Republicans in Congress (and in state elections). The deepest risk Republicans face is the prospect of an electoral wipeout that puts its control of Congress at risk. An independent Trump candidacy would close off such a prospect.

"Confessions of a Republican," Johnson, 1964

I don't want to draw too strong an analogy here -- this is a very different time --but there certainly are parallels. Compare this with the wording of some recent Brooks' columns on the Donald. Of course, the acid test for Brooks will come if Trump or Cruz gets the nomination.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Brooks on a good day

Critics of David Brooks (myself included) have a tendency to focus solely on the stumbles, those times when the misdirection fails, the shtick grows thin , and the factual misstatements becoome simply too blatant to ignore.

This does a disservice to Brooks, but more importantly, it undercuts the effectiveness of the criticisms. Even if you do not like David Brooks (particularly if you don't like David Brooks) you should, from time to time, check out what he does on a good day.

Last Friday's column provides a good example. The central thesis is, at best, disingenuous – – though Trump remains a longshot, you cannot completely rule out the possibility of a nomination – – but once you get past the basic dishonesty of the title, the rest of the article is about as smooth and well executed as anyone could hope for.

Take the opening analogy:
A little while ago I went rug shopping. Four rugs were laid out on the floor and among them was one with a pink motif that was dazzlingly beautiful. It was complex and sophisticated. If you had asked me at that moment which rug I wanted, I would have said the pink one.

This conviction lasted about five minutes. But then my mentality flipped and I started asking some questions. Would the furniture go with this rug? Would this rug clash with the wall hangings? Would I get tired of its electric vibrancy?

Suddenly a subtler and more prosaic blue rug grabbed center stage. The rugs had not changed, but suddenly I wanted the blue rug. The pink rug had done an excellent job of being eye-popping on its own. The blue rug was doing an excellent job of being a rug I could enjoy living with.
The rug story is simple and accessible, but it does a good job capturing the underlying dynamic. Home furnishings are definitely an area where most of us tend to initially gravitate toward the flashy before having second thoughts and opting for the more tasteful. It is not at all unreasonable to suggest that voting might follow a similar pattern .

The rest of the piece follows very much in the same thing. Reasonable, thoughtful and scholarly, making good points and citing the right people, from Nate Silver to Montaigne. No one is better at projecting a calm, professorial tone than Brooks, even when he's whistling past the graveyard.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Whose budget plans are more realistic, Trump or Kasich? (this is not a rhetorical question)*

Nor is it one with an obvious answer, at least not according Jonathan Chait, who takes apart all of the candidate's claims, starting with his habit of taking credit for the balanced budgets of the nineties:
The key element of the Kasich myth is the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which he credits with producing surpluses in the 1990s. “I balanced the budget in Washington as a chief architect,” he claimed at the last Republican debate, echoing a frequent boast. Kasich’s iteration of his origin story is almost a pure inversion of fiscal reality.

Kasich, in other words, opposed the two main laws that created the balanced budget in the 1990s, and supported one that had nothing to do with it. He continues to maintain that he would oppose any tax increase, even a budget deal that combined a 10-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes. 

It is worth taking a moment to note that most of the same publications and often the same journalists who labeled Al Gore a self-aggrandizing fabulist for making entirely accurate statements about supporting the early funding of the internet have largely allowed Kasich's fables to go unchallenged.

Building upon his almost entirely imagined record as mastermind of the 1990s budget surplus, Kasich touts what he and his press clippings call his “plan” to balance the budget in eight years. In actuality, it is not a plan at all. Kasich has a bunch of numbers for spending, but he does not say what he would do to arrive at those numbers. For instance, he would freeze all domestic discretionary spending, a wide catch-all category of general federal spending on scientific research, infrastructure, law enforcement, and many other things. This spending has absorbed deep cuts for several years — so deep, in fact, that Republicans in Congress have had trouble funding tolerable savings and compromised on a plan to cancel out some of the additional cutting. Kasich proposes to hold spending on this category constant in nominal dollars, which means that, accounting for population growth and inflation, services will have to be reduced every year. Kasich does not specify how he would allocate those service cuts.


Balancing that off is Kasich’s plan to cut taxes. There is not yet an official score for the cost of Kasich’s plan, a fact that by itself nullifies the campaign's claim to have a plan to balance the budget. You can't bring revenues and outlays into line if you have no idea what revenue levels will be. Imagine a business claiming it has a target date for breaking even, and then conceding it has no idea whatsoever what its earnings will be.

By the eyeball test, the scale of the revenue lost by Kasich's tax cuts will be absolutely massive. Kasich would cut the top tax rate to 28 percent from its current 39.6 percent rate. He would cut the capital gains tax rate from 25 percent to 15 percent, cut the estate tax rate from 40 percent to zero, cut the business tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, and allow businesses to immediately write off the full cost of all investments — a tax cut for the rich of a scale never before seen in American history. Kasich would also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, which is nice, though it further raises questions as to where he will find the trillions of dollars in savings to pay for all this. Kasich’s campaign tells me that he believes deep tax cuts will encourage faster growth, undeterred by the clear past failure of his beliefs about tax rates and growth.

In sum, it is inaccurate to say Kasich has a plan to balance the budget. It would be accurate to say that he is promising to eliminate the deficit, but he has a plan to dramatically increase it, at least if you define plan to mean the actual change to taxes and spending that he has specified.

As we've frequently noted before, today's journalists love not just narratives, but specifically simplistic, cliched narratives. Once they have latched onto one of these stories, they will go to great lengths to maintain it. This goes beyond selection bias. Many, perhaps most, reporters and editors will actively play down those facts that contradict conventional wisdom and play up or even invent facts that support it (not to name any names).

The press has long since made its casting decisions when it comes to Kasich. Frank, mature, moderate, dull but reliable. Nothing he says or does at this point is going to change the spin. He can lay out a supply-sider vision so extreme it would have both Reagan and Kemp spinning in their graves. He can insist the science is undecided on global warming. He can propose a new federal agency to spread Judeo-Christian values throughout the world as a way to combat the Islamic State. None of this will matter.

That's how typecasting works.

* I wrote this a few days a few days ago before Trump upped the crazy yet again. I might have approached this differently today and probably used a different title, but I still stand by the main points.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Note to self:

Start checking Michael Hiltzik's column on a regular basis.

Solving the inversion crisis: How the U.S. can keep companies at home

What George F. Will gets wrong about the progressive income tax

And following up on the last post...

The attack on climate change scientists continues in Washington

The war on data

I've been sitting on this for a while, trying to decide how best to weave it into one of our ongoing threads about the increasingly blatant attacks on important scientific research, about how the conservative movement's experiment in information management has broken down causing the propaganda and conspiracy theories intended for the foot soldiers to propagate among the generals, about the ever clearer absurdity of the establishment press's insistence that both parties are equally to blame.

But there is simply too much here. Just read it.

The House science committee is worse than the Benghazi committee by David Roberts

Monday, December 7, 2015

This American Life had two thirds of a great episode on marketing

Don't get me wrong. The whole episode (569: Put a Bow on It) is very good, but only two of the three segments concern branding and marketing. The first explores the process behind developing the increasingly bizarre junk food hybrids that are coming to dominate the industry.

Zoe Chace
There are a few reasons that guys like these are churning through these food mashups right now. One big one is fast food is losing market share to places like Chipotle, Panera, more upscale, healthier. So a way for fast food to compete is to go in the other direction-- downscale, greasier, sell to their core customers, 18 to 34-year-old guys. Though industry analysts told me it's nearly as many women as men.

And of course, there's money to be made in selling a sandwich that makes people want to take a picture of themselves while they eat it, but only to a point. The question is, will they eat it twice? The Double Down, you know the one where the chicken is the bun, as groundbreaking as it was, it didn't sell that great after people tried it once. Brad, Bruce, Mark, and Eric say it's too expensive to roll out a new product that you'd never order twice.

This is a taco that's the talk of the town.

Zoe Chace
What they want is something that food industry people say Taco Bell did better than anybody in 2012, when they released that taco whose shell was a Dorito.

It's what one marketing consultant calls a marriage made in belly busting heaven. Doritos, the Super Bowl brand that helped turn America into a nation of chunky chip munchers, providing a nacho cheese flavored shell.

Zoe Chace
The Doritos Locos Taco sold and sold and sold and sold-- $375 million in its first year. This is an amazing year for Taco Bell. Every sandwich that arrives on our plates here in Hardee's test kitchen, that is the goal.

From a marketing standpoint, the most interesting part was the way the experts considered both the appeal of the food and the salability of the concept.

Even more fascinating from a marketing perspective is the third segment. TAL called up the best advertising and PR people in the business and asked them what they would propose if Volkswagen had engaged them to rehabilitate its badly damaged brand. There is a Jack in the Box connection with both segments, but surprisingly it's stronger in the third (strong enough that you might want to check out the videos before listening to the episode).

Friday, December 4, 2015

Obscure comic book heroes battle (the idea of) cost disease

Before we get started, one big caveat: the piece I'm linking to seems to be based on rumors and speculation. Back in the Nineteenth Century, newspaper stories often started with the disclaimer "Important if true." For stories like this, we probably start with "interesting if true."

Fans of the DC Television Universe might have some reason to worry. While the creation of the first season of Legends of Tomorrow is underway, it has come out that the CW may have overextended themselves in regards to budget. It seems that the first season of the Legends of Tomorrow is more expensive than the network originally anticipated. Intel from Bleeding Cool is now claiming that the CW may be nixing the idea of a second season, knowing that show will likely continue to become more expensive as it grows. Yikes.


What is it about Legends of Tomorrow that makes it so much more expensive than its predecessor? I can only imagine the multitude of visual and special effects are what is taking such a toll on its budget. Afterall, in a show that revolves around time travel, and where each protagonist has a unique set of superpowers, the effects team must have their hands full. Maybe having one superpowered lead in both Arrow and The Flash allowed for a more budget-friendly production, rather than having to stretch funds across a baker's dozen worth of heroes.
Assuming both the rumor and the speculation are sound (and there's lots of other evidence that Hollywood has a growing problem with budget spirals), this raises some perplexing questions.

These days, the explanation de jour for cost spirals is...
Baumol's cost disease (also known as the Baumol Effect) is a phenomenon described by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen in the 1960s. It involves a rise of salaries in jobs that have experienced no increase of labor productivity in response to rising salaries in other jobs which did experience such labor productivity growth. This seemingly goes against the theory in classical economics that wages are closely tied to labor productivity changes.
If there's an economist in house, I'd greatly appreciate a knowledgeable take on this, but it would seem we should a disproportionate amount of money going to the people who have had the smallest gains in productivity.

As mentioned before, technology has improved productivity in film and video by orders of magnitude. These changes have affected every part of the industry but the biggest jump has been in what used to be called special effects. Ray Harryhausen's standard answer to the question "can you do ______" was that he could do anything if given the time and the money, and that was largely true. What has changed is mainly speed and cost.

Here's the weird part, though. The budgets are usually spiraling out of control not because studios are spending that much more on people like writers (whose productivity hasn't grown that much), but because they are pouring money into those areas where productivity has exploded.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

XKCD polio

In addition to making an important point about an important world health initiative, Randall Munroe does a beautiful job satirizing the common impulse to abandon the effective for the trendy.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Argument by outlier

Perhaps "argument" is going a bit far -- the ideas don't really cohere enough to qualify for that -- but you have to grant the outlier part.

Kevin Carey has just discovered that people who stack up normal debt getting a bachelor's, then take out more loans to go to law school and don't graduate, then take out more loans to go to grad school and don't graduate (and also use student loans for other things like child care), then get a life-threatening autoimmune disease, then get screwed in a divorce and then take a string of low paying jobs and make a number of really bad financial decisions can rack up quite a tab.

We should probably stop here for now. There is nothing instructive in the case of Carey's example, Liz Kelley. The only lesson one can reasonably draw here is that people with bad luck and incredibly bad judgement tend to fare poorly in life.

Joseph and I are planning to come back to the rest of Carey's hopelessly muddled reasoning later. That's not to say that everything he says is wrong (life is not a knight/knave puzzle). The system is horrible, just not necessarily for the reasons he gives. Subsidizing higher education through student loans creates all sorts of perverse incentives, it sends too much money to undeserving institutions and it allows a few people like Kelley to spend far too much taxpayer money. It isn't difficult to argue against this system, but if the NYT Upshot wants to maintain its reputation, the paper should probably find someone other than Carey to make the case.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Kruzno -- the beta

Back when I was teaching secondary mathematics, I made extensive use of games and puzzles. In addition to building a pretty good collection, I also developed a few of my own. Of the board games for the, the one that played the best and got the most positive feedback was a hexagonal checkers variant called Kruzno.

A while back, I decided to put together a beta version of the game and see what kind of response it got. I commissioned a well qualified and quite reasonable professional to do the art. I had a local company produce a small run of boards and boxes, but I decided to forgo custom pieces and instead stick with chessmen which were available off-the-shelf (it is far easier to do a small inexpensive batch of paper products then plastic products).

The project has since been pushed to the back burner, at least until I have the time to put together a mobile version of the game. In the meantime, I decided to set up a fulfillment-by-Amazon store (which is a surprisingly low maintenance option if you want to try some small scale retailing).

I hate to oversell a beta, but I am quite proud of the game and besides, every house should have a hex board. I will be going up the abstract strategy thread again both here and at the teaching site, so if any of the upcoming discussions make you curious, drop by the Amazon page and take a look.

I haven't posted this in a while...

... which is a shame because there's a useful lesson here: even the guy with an axe draws the line somewhere.