Monday, September 30, 2019

Overproduction of elites

This is Joseph

I was talking to Mark, and he noted that the elites in a lot of areas come from a surprisingly narrow background.  They all went to top schools and/or lived in key places. We were discussing what this meant, and to me it is a symptom of something we mostly get wrong as a society.

There is a tendency to talk of there being a shortage of people, for example as a way to justify high CEO pay. And maybe there is some shortage of good people with the "right background" but this sort of background homogeneity is much more aligned with elite overproduction.

Let me give what I think is a good example of elite underproduction:Union officers in the Civil War. It is pretty clear that West Point was dominated by the Southern elite at the time of the Civil War, leaving the Union with a serious deficit of competent officers. So look at some of the people who become important officers: a college professor and a person struggling with alcoholism. It is a good marker of a shortage of people with the key skills when you see people from a wide variety of backgrounds being given a chance. Mark talked about the US job market in 1997, when people from a wide range of backgrounds could get jobs just by showing interest and competence -- so you would see people in jobs quite unrelated to what they were trained in or from very diverse backgrounds.

If there really was a critical shortage of CEOs, you'd see high school teachers taking on business careers and nobody would care what school your MBA came from.

Instead, what you have are 10 trained people for every job.  This has long been true for much of the academic world. Being from a top school, for example, becomes a lot more important as a way of winnowing the field once it is flooded with competent people. Look at how unusual it was for Elizabeth Warren to be at Harvard:
Former Harvard colleagues say Warren’s background stood out at the institution, where graduates routinely clerk for Supreme Court justices. For years, she was the only tenured professor on the law faculty who had attended a public law school in the U.S.
That is a sign of there being too many competent people, so that schools can afford narrow recruitment criterion and still get top people.

Now, where this matter is public policy. We should be asking about how to respond to elite overproduction (often something that causes much social tension) and about how to equalize opportunity.  But I think the idea that we are short of good people for top employment opportunities (in general, small exceptions may exist) is daft.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Imagining the future of 1960

Always interesting to see how the various decades of the 20th Century viewed progress. We tend to focus on the turn of the century and the post-war era. This film from GM promoting their 1940 World's Fair pavilion is a good reminder that the Depression hadn't managed to dampen the faith in a technology-driven future.

Note also the connection drawn between the closing of the American frontier and the opening of the technological one.

If you're impatient, the cool model work starts around 9:00.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Trump and the GOP -- Jenga time

Talking with a friend earlier about the day's events. He felt that we had reached the point where it was clearly in the Republicans' interest to start to turn on Trump. I disagreed. My take was that it would be in the GOP's interest to have some distance from the man, but probably not enough so to justify the cost of getting away.

With Watergate, the process was relatively painless, but things are different. Trump has the ability and the temperament to inflict tremendous damage on the party. The Republicans have got to unwind a cult of personality without triggering an intra-party civil war.

I'm  honestly at a loss for how to approach this enormous game of political Jenga. An anonymous senate vote might actually help, working along the same principal as giving one soldier in a firing squad a blank cartridge, but I don't think we can take it seriously (though Campos maybe does just a little).

Here's what we had to say a couple of years ago about the danger Trump presented to the GOP. If anything, I think it's gotten worse.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

GOP Game Theory -- things are still different

"It's probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."

    LBJ on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover,

[UPDATE: The conversation continues with The nuclear moose option and The Republicans' 3 x 3 existential threat.]

Let's start with a prediction:
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted on Tuesday that Republicans will split with President Trump within months unless the administration changes course.0
"My prediction is he keeps up on this path...within three, four months you're going to see a whole lot of Republicans breaking with him," Schumer said during an interview with ABC's "The View."
Schumer argued while most GOP lawmakers aren't yet willing to break publicly from the White House, they are privately having "real problems" with Trump's policies in his first month.

"A lot of the Republicans, they're mainstream people. ... They will feel they have no choice but to break with him," he said.
GOP leadership are largely dismissing any early signs of discord between Congress and the White House as they slowly try to make progress on an ambitious agenda.

Ed Kilgore, however, points out that Trump may not be as toxic as many people think:

So while it is hard to deny that Trump is amazingly unpopular for a new president, unless his approval ratings trend farther down the way even those of popular presidents typically do, his party may not suffer the kind of humiliation Democrats experienced in 2010. For all the shock Trump has consistently inspired with his behavior as president, there’s not much objective reason for Republican politicians to panic and begin abandoning him based on his current public standing. But in this as in so many other respects, we are talking about an unprecedented chief executive, so the collapse some in the media and the Democratic Party perceive as already underway could yet arrive.

The relationship between the Trump/Bannon White House and the GOP legislature is perhaps uniquely suited for a textbook game theory analysis. In pretty much all previous cases,  relationships between presidents and Congress have been complicated by numerous factors other than naked self-interest--ideological, partisan, personal, cultural--but this time it's different. With a few isolated exceptions, there is no deeply held common ground between the White House and Capitol Hill. The current arrangement is strictly based on people getting things they care about in exchange for things they don't.

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

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

We often hear this framed in terms of Trump supporters making trouble in the primaries, but that's pre-2016 thinking. This goes far deeper. In addition to a seemingly total lack of interpersonal, temperamental, and rhetorical constraints, Trump is highly popular with a large segment of the base. In the event of an intra-party war, some of this support would undoubtedly peel away, but a substantial portion would stay.

Keep in mind, all of this takes place in the context of a troubling demographic tide for the Republicans. Their strategic response to this has been to maximize turnout within the party while suppressing the vote on the other side. It has been a shrewd strategy but it leaves little margin for error.  Trump has the ability to drive a wedge between a significant chunk of the base and the GOP for at least the next few cycles, possibly enough to threaten the viability of the party.

The closest analogy that comes to mind is the Democrats and Vietnam, but that was a rift in a big-tent loosely organized party. The 21st Century GOP is a small tent party that depends on discipline and entrenchment strategies. It's not clear that it would survive a civil war.

Given that, I suspect the next year or two will prove Schumer wrong. There is some evidence that the president's polling has stabilized, perhaps even rebounded a bit, but even if the numbers go back into free fall, Republicans in the House and the Senate will be extremely reluctant to break from Trump with anything more than isolated or cosmetic challenges.

This isn't just a question of not wanting Trump outside the tent pissing in; this is a question of not wanting Trump outside the tent tossing grenades. 

The Stag Hunt Framework

I have a feeling this conversation is about to become relevant again, so this might be a good time to reintroduce some concepts.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Metablogging -- stag hunts, misalignment, principal agents and all that jazz

Shortly after Josh Marshall posted this analysis of recent events in the GOP, Joseph called me up to compare reactions. We've been having this conversation for so many years that much of it has devolved into a self-referential shorthand. As an illustration, at one point, after a fairly long-winded comment by me, Joseph simply said "Stag hunt." and tossed the ball back to me and we moved on to the next topic.

We agreed (with, I assume, fingers crossed on both ends of the line) that we'd write some posts on the subject, but I'm starting to think that it might be more useful to step back for a minute and talk about how we've been framing the question of what's going on in the Republican Party (politically, not socially or in terms of policy. Those are entirely different metaposts).

For years now, the two of us have been talking about the post-Tea Party GOP in terms of a multi-player stag hunt. Over the past few years the stakes (particularly the costs of failure) have increased. At the same time, participation rates required to take down the stag have also increased. As a result, progressively smaller groups have gained the power to kill the enterprise. (In a different conversation Joseph pointed out that, in a military context, shooting deserters is also a predictable result of this situation.) We could dig deeper into examples and implications (particularly with respect to the trade off between the power of an alliance vs. its stability) but for now I want to limit the discussion to framing.

(there might also be a place here to talk about symmetry breaking, but I'd need to give that some thought first.)

Another way of looking at the story we've found useful is to look at misalignment of interests, especially what looks to us two non-economists as a particularly nasty two-level principal agent problem where a small group of big donors determine the pool of viable candidates and a relatively small but coherent subgroup of the primary voters make the purchasing decisions for the entire party. You'll notice that, like the stag hunt frame, under this scenario small groups can acquire disproportionate power.

And of course there's the mandatory Influence reference, framing the story in terms of social psychology. If you check out the chapters on commitment and consistency, social proof, and scarcity you'll find all sorts of applicable discussions of the ways groups united by a common belief system deal with ideological challenges and the loss of dominance.

Nothing particularly fresh or profound here, but these idea have proven a pretty good framework recently. I'm not saying they should be the basis of the standard narrative -- I'm not sure there should be a standard narrative -- but they do come in handy. More importantly, I think you can make the case that too little of the public discourse is spent examining underlying assumptions and asking about the different ways to frame our questions.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Twilight of the Unicorns -- WeWork ReCap

I don't think I'll have enough time for this one. I've had years to point out the dubious claims and questionable business logic of companies like Uber, Netflix,Tesla/Solar City and whoever's promising a hyperloop this week, but when I find perhaps the purest example of a 21st bullshit and hype company, the damned thing starts to collapse the moment it gets on my radar.

  Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Tom Braithwaite points out there's plenty of blame to go around.
 Even as he elevates sanctimoniousness to an art form, Mr Neumann has withdrawn massive amounts of cash from his pre-IPO, pre-profit company and embraced huge conflicts of interest.

He has taken out $700m in share sales and loans. He charged the company $5.9m for the trademark “We”. He part-owned four properties that were leased to the company for $8m last year.

It is easy to mock Mr Neumann. But others share responsibility. To lay all the blame at his door is to fall into the old trap of seeing all unicorns through the prism of their founder-gods.

There is a board, which is supposed to provide checks and balances. In descending order of tenure: Bruce Dunlevie, a founding partner at venture capital firm Benchmark, who has been there since July 2012; Steven Langman, co-founder of private equity firm Rhône; Lew Frankfort, former chief executive of luxury goods brand Coach; John Zhao, chief executive of Chinese investment firm Hony Capital; Mark Schwartz, former Goldman Sachs Asia head; and Ron Fisher, a SoftBank director, who joined in November 2017.

The all-male composition of the board is just the most glaring example of its tone deafness. The directors signed off on all of Mr Neumann’s efforts to extract money from the company. Belatedly, the group is reversing some of the cavalier decisions and improving corporate governance as it tries to win over public investors. Mr Neumann is returning some of the payments.

Of course, the suffering won't quite be distributed equally.
The fine print is known as a ratchet, and speaks to the opaque nature of private markets and sky-high valuations. The real estate start-up’s parent company was valued at $47 billion after its last funding round from SoftBank.

In the case of the WeWork’s parent company, it was a “partial ratchet” disclosed on page 115 of its S-1 filing. If the stock price comes in below a certain price in the IPO, investors like SoftBank will receive additional shares as compensation.

If triggered, these protections usually result in only a few million dollars worth of extra shares, according to Matthew Kennedy, senior IPO market strategist at Renaissance Capital. But because SoftBank’s latest round was so large and the possible down-round was looking to be less than half of that, the provision was expected to result in the world’s largest IPO ratchet.

“As a result, the founder and employees would see their own shares diluted,” Kennedy said. “It doesn’t look good for common shareholders to see that extra dilution on top of a down around.”

We'll give Stoller the last word.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Bright 2's future not 2 Bright

One of my little blogger's quirks is to make make mental notes of promised developments in stories I'm following, and to Google them from time to time to see if anything has come of them. One of these stories that caught my eye was the too-good-to-be-true roof tiles from Elon Musk. It took a while but that one finally took an interesting turn.

Another big story that suddenly got very quiet was the sequel to the Netflix film Bright. The company announced that it had been a tremendous success, bringing in unprecedented numbers. Bright 2 was announced almost immediately.

Say what you will about Netflix, it's a company that can move quickly when it wants to, and it really wanted a blockbuster franchise, so you would expect an aggressive production schedule. Instead, there were various delays and rescheduling, all handled with an uncharacteristic lack of fanfare from a company that spends billions on marketing and publicity.

And then this.
As it turns out, production was actually slated to take place earlier this year, it just had to get to delayed due to Smith's perennially packed schedule. Lucy Fry, who starred in the first Bright as the magical Tikka, spoke to this week ahead of her new TV series, Godfather of Harlem, and explained why Bright 2 has been on the back burner.

"We were going to do it this year, and then it didn't happen because of Will's schedule," Fry told us. "And I really hope they do another one because I had so much fun making that movie. So, I just hope we get to do it again."

So does that mean it will be rescheduled soon, or is Bright 2 going to be sent to production hell for the foreseeable future? We asked Fry what was in store for Bright 2 going forward and, for now, she's just as in the dark as the rest of us.

"No, I don't know," she said. "I'm sorry! I wish I did know."

When they stop even pretending to want to reschedule, that's a bad sign.

When you look at Netflix's content catalog, things they own rather than merely license for the next 2 to 7 years, you see that it is awfully thin, particularly in the absolutely essential areas of children's programming where their slate of Originals consist almost entirely other people's properties, shows with legs and lots of episodes like friends, and big blockbuster franchises. Of these three, the franchises are probably the least important in terms of bottom line but  arguably the most important in terms of perceived success.

Given this, if Netflix actually believed that the Bright franchise was their chance to fill in that hole in their catalog and to reassure investors that the loss of Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn't going to be a problem, the company would be doing everything in its power to get this next film out as soon as possible, and when a company is spending 10 to 15 billion dollars annually on content and another billion plus on marketing, they can do a hell of a lot.

It's true that Will Smith is a big and busy star, but he is no more big or busy than he was a few years ago, particularly after dropping out of Suicide Squad. If he and Netflix believed this franchise was really going to be that big, they probably would have gotten it done by now, it certainly wouldn't be hanging in the I-don't-know-we'll-see limbo where it currently resides.

Does that mean that Netflix lied about the viewership numbers for the first installment? Probably not though it's a possibility we should always consider. Far more likely that they were selective in the numbers they presented. Hit is not a concept that can be measured with a scalar, especially not in this context. Did people seek out the show or simply go along with the autoplay? What was the impact on churn? What about repeat viewings?  Did people show a preference for this show over other similar programs on the service?

With a major star, a massive marketing budget, and a pricing system where existing members pay no additional charge to see the movie while new members get the first month free, it is not difficult to rack up huge initial viewership numbers. Other numbers matter much more, and the people who have seen those don't seem all that eager to push ahead with this project.

Why should you care? In terms of the film itself, you probably shouldn't. But when dealing with unicorn companies, it's always good to question the official narratives.

Monday, September 23, 2019


This is Joseph

There are two types of democracy that have been tried: direct democracy and representative democracy.  Direct democracy is most famous from Athens, a city state small enough that it was possible for everyone to gather in one place to make decisions. The more advanced representative democracy evolved to allow for geographical distance and to make discussions tractable. The downside is that it insulates specific decisions from direct participation, which creates an opportunity for corruption.  Direct democracy has the disadvantages of "mob rule" where the heat of passion can cause a large group to make poor decisions that are difficult to reverse.

So far, so good.

However, there is a new fad of mixing these two types of government, and it seems to bring the downsides of both. For example, the US has several states (Washington, California) that allow ballot initiatives to bar tax increases. This tends to have distorting economic effects and starves the state of revenue.  The UK had a referendum on leaving the UK, that created an ongoing crisis because it didn't specify how it was going to leave.  In the absence of a specific plan, all sorts of positive assumptions are plausible since you don't have to look at the fine details.

Worst of all, the representatives have to sort this out, creating situations that nobody likes and often causing no end of political headaches. And, unlike a body of representatives, which refreshes every few years, these decisions are often permanent until repealed. Like a lot of "simple" solutions, referendums create a lot of problems, unless the goal is for government to work poorly.

Just a thought for the day.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Though I have to admit it will be cool seeing Hanks driving the crawler

We've previously made the point that many, perhaps most, of the technological breakthroughs that are presented as being just around the corner as we round out the first quarter century of the new millennium are taken often unaltered from the sci-fi tropes, images, and perhaps most notably toys of the post-war era. Willy Ley models, GI Joe Spacemen and the elaborate vehicles of Major Matt Mason.

So perhaps inevitably...
Tom Hanks is headed back to outer space.

The Oscar winner is set to star in a feature film based on a Mattel action figure from the 1960s called Major Matt Mason, numerous insiders familiar with the project tell Variety. The film is set up at Paramount Pictures.

Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who previously worked with Hanks on “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons,” will adapt the script from a short story about the character from Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon. Mattel Films is co-producing with the studio.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Health Insurance Addiction

This is Joseph

This exchange on twitter was surreal:

So, first of all, let me say for the record that there are a lot of drugs that cost more than $4 out of pocket. This is in a market with very little price transparency. There are going to be a few cases you encounter where an insurance plan charges for a medication than self-pay. But the effort to identify them is likely to be extremely hard.

The other issue is costs in the US are very high, in general. I had to self-pay for a medical appointment in Canada recently and it was $50 CAD. Fifteen years ago when I did this in Seattle it was $275 USD. For precisely the same reason: getting an antibiotic for an infection with about 10 minutes of medical contact. There is a reason people are terrified of having a major exposure to health care costs.

It is also the case that I don't think an open market in health care has ever been tried in the United States in the modern era. Licensing and immigration rules mean that foreign and self trained medical doctors cannot rush into this lucrative market. Prescriptions are held by gate-keepers. Nobody can self-treat an infection, even if they manage to guess correctly what is required. Hospital emergency rooms are closing and there is not an emerging low cost substitute (a sign of a market that is not open). Those that remain are now handing out "surprise bills", even to those with insurance.

This is not to say that single payer is a miracle solution. In a system like this it insures big losers all over the place and I don't think that can be overlooked.  But the idea that the problem with the current system is "insurance" seems like a bad one unless there is a very radical libertarian reform. I would be interested in seeing such an approach, but I suspect that market forces would be crueler to the health care industry profits than any government regulated approach.

Anyway, a tweet strength that brought me back from retirement.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Michael Hiltzik eviscerates WeWork's business model.

Hiltzik has always had a gift for seeing through bullshit narratives of transformation and disruption. Here he takes a hard look at WeWork and finds that it's even worse than we thought
The key point to keep in mind about WeWork, when the baroque deal-making and new age blather is backed out, is that its business model seems almost to be begging to blow itself into smithereens. Boiled down, it amounts to WeWork acquiring office space in bulk via leases with an average term of 15 years, and subleasing it out via tenant contracts (excuse me, “memberships”) with average terms of 15 months. WeWork acknowledges that “in many cases, our members may terminate their membership agreements ... upon as little notice as one calendar month.”

Aficionados of economic history will recognize that the mismatch of long-term liabilities and short-term assets underlies pretty much every financial crash ever, including the crash of 2008. In this case, a downturn could result in WeWork’s tenant base evaporating, leaving it on the hook for lease obligations it estimates at $47.2 billion. WeWork tries to put rouge on this ogre by stating that in a downturn, after all, the cost of leases and construction will be lower.

Real estate experts unsnowed by WeWork’s touchy-feelism don’t buy this. One is the Chicago-based entrepreneur Sam Zell, who told CNBC this month that he had invested in a similar subleasing company once and has the scars to prove it. “Every single company in this space has gone broke,” he said. “Why is this any different?” During the period he owned Tribune Co., then the parent of The Times, Zell may have shown himself to be singularly maladroit as a newspaper proprietor, but there’s no point pretending that he doesn’t know real estate.

Nor is WeWork’s model anything new. Back in the 1970s, for example, there was Los Angeles-based Attorneys Office Management, which provided small-time lawyers with offices equipped with receptionists, clerical staff and law libraries they couldn’t afford on their own. The spaces were known as “Fegen Suites” after the firm’s chairman, Paul Fegen (pronounced “fee-jun”), an attorney. But the company went bankrupt in 1983 during a real estate crash. Fegen was later disbarred for mishandling several client accounts and has since resurfaced as a professional magician.

It’s not entirely inconceivable that WeWork has broken a code that remained opaque to Fegen and the real estate types familiar to Zell. Neumann certainly wins plaudits as a salesman. As my colleague Roger Vincent reported in May, some big office space developers have taken a look at WeWork’s business model and done it the ultimate compliment of copying it — offering tenants more flexible leases and occupancy amenities.

That’s not great news for WeWork, because it underscores that in real estate, there’s nothing new under the sun, or at least nothing that can’t be replicated. Indeed, even without competition from old line real estate firms, WeWork faced competition from other venture-funded office rental firms.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Tuesday Tweets



And finally, there's a metaphor here somewhere.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Four years ago (more or less) -- Fringe candidates

By this point, it has been widely acknowledged that the coverage of the 2016 campaign by the mainstream press was bad. There were certainly exceptions -- The Washington Post did exceptional work and there were other bright spots as well -- But the overall story is one of distractions, triviality, unexplored leads, and disastrous results. This seems like a good time to look back at that coverage and ask ourselves what the press has learned and what it hasn't.

Recently, Marianne Williamson, the very definition of a fringe candidate, was the subject of a slew of puff pieces from The New York Times not to mention an in-depth profile from The New Yorker Radio Hour. Andrew Yang, though not a fringe candidate is certainly a marginal one, yet he too has been receiving a disproportionate amount of coverage lately.

How does this compare to the handling of marginal candidates in the last presidential election?

Friday, June 5, 2015

The internet has made historical revisionism so much easier

[UPDATE: Brad DeLong found an arguably more embarrassing example from the National Journal.]

This may be the best example of New York Times political reporting you will see you all day.

It started as a standard narrative journalism/puff piece. Amy Chozick and Trip Gabriel used a handful of anecdotes and a couple of well-received speeches to build a breathless account of political underdog Carly Fiorina surging toward the lead.

Hack political writers love this narrative. They also gravitate toward positive stories about candidates with whom they are comfortable. When I say "comfortable" I am talking about culture not politics. I will try to back this up in future posts, but I have long argued that left/right biases are far less common than more significant biases involving class, race, religion, region, education, etc. While the New York Times probably disagrees with most of Fiorina's politics, they are more than comfortable with almost everything else about her, from her prominent family to her CEO background to her wealth and extravagant lifestyle.

So far, all of this is just another day at the office for the New York Times election beat. Soon after the piece ran, however, people started to notice that the writers had really buried their lede. Deep in the story, it was revealed that Fiorina's surge was not quite as substantial as the headline suggested.

From paragraph 8 (as pointed out by Duncan Black):
While supporters in Iowa noted that she had doubled her standing in state polls, it was a statistically insignificant change from 1 percent to 2 percent, according to a Quinnipiac University Poll released May 6. (That may seem piddling, but the same poll had Mr. Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, also at 2 percent, while 5 percent supported Mr. Bush.)
It is one thing to have a paragraph in the middle of your story that completely undercuts your premise; it is quite another to have people point out a paragraph in the middle of your story that completely undercuts your premise. A quick rewrite was definitely in order.

The resulting headline doesn't make a lot of sense -- if the polls are a reflection of the state's voters, Iowans appear to be swoon-shrugging over Fiorina -- but it does partially inoculate the story from further mockery.

Of course, the NYT has standards. They don't just rewrite a published story without even acknowledging it. The original headline is right there at the bottom of the page.

In small print and pale gray letters.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Shaw on dirty money

Not saying I agree with GBS on this (never entirely sure that he agrees with himself), but it does seem relevant to some recent debates.

Doesn't read Major Barbara anymore?

From Wikipedia:
An officer of The Salvation Army, Major Barbara Undershaft, becomes disillusioned when her Christian denomination accepts money from an armaments manufacturer (her father) and a whisky distiller. She eventually decides that bringing a message of salvation to people who have plenty will be more fulfilling and genuine than converting the starving in return for bread.

Although Barbara initially regards the Salvation Army's acceptance of Undershaft's money as hypocrisy, Shaw did not intend that it should be thought so by the audience. Shaw wrote a preface for the play's publication, in which he derided the idea that charities should only take money from "morally pure" sources, arguing that using money to benefit the poor will have more practical benefit than ethical niceties. He points out that donations can always be used for good whatever their provenance, and he quotes a Salvation Army officer, "they would take money from the devil himself and be only too glad to get it out of his hands and into God's."

Thursday, September 12, 2019

I always used pith helmets in my version, but other than that...

Christopher Ingraham is a Washington Post writer who recently wrote a memoir about moving his family to a small town in Minnesota. He makes a lot of good points but this one actually echoes something I've been complaining about for a couple of years now using basically the same language.
You know, I think a big problem with a lot of coverage of rural and small-town places is we often just send reporters in, and they go on these kind of safari expeditions - right? - and they come back a day or a week later with this, you know, the secret knowledge of these long-lost rural tribes.

And I think that kind of reporting and storytelling, it really enhances these supposed divisions between small-town America and everywhere else. And I hope if this book does anything, it demystifies small towns and rural America.
A lot of commentators have complained about these "diner stories" but the main objection often seems to be that journalists deigned to talk to the hicks. Yes, I realize that rural Americans are a relatively small group, but other, much smaller yet more affluent segments get considerably more attention.

I find these pieces so infuriating because they are shallow, simplistic and patronizing. They will give you no insights into the politics or culture of the regions. They certainly won't help you see where things are going.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Eric Levitz: "On Climate, Sanders and Warren Must Go Nuclear"

At the moment, the debate about the biggest problem facing our planet is centered on a masturbatory exercise over the appropriate tone to use when discussing the crisis, as if finding the right wording was either a necessary or sufficient condition for solving a problem. We do not have time for this.

This, on thee other hand, we should make time for. You don't have to agree with Levitz here, but you need to hear him out.

To honor its commitments under the Paris Agreement, the U.S. will need to slash its carbon emissions by at least 2.6 percent a year, every year, between now and 2025. Our nation has never come close to decarbonizing at that rapid of a pace. What’s more, to keep our promise — without making life worse for ordinary Americans — we will need to achieve such unprecedented emission cuts while sustaining economic growth and political stability. Of the United Nations’ 193 member states, 192 have never pulled off anything like that.

But France has. In fact, it pulled off something better: Between 1979 and 1988, the French cut their carbon emissions by an average annual rate of 2.9 percent. Over that same period, France reduced the carbon intensity of its energy system by 4.5 percent, by far the largest decline any country has achieved in a single decade. And it did all this without abandoning economic growth, or having to found a sixth republic, or even seeing its streets vandalized by anarcho-populists in yellow jackets.

Given the scale of this success — and the dearth of other precedents for rapid decarbonization — you might think that the French model would boast a central place in the Democratic Party’s 2020 climate debate. If so, you would be badly mistaken. France’s energy policy in the 1980s may be an exceptionally encouraging precedent, but it was also a centrally planned energy transition that involved replacing the bulk of that nation’s electricity providers with state-owned nuclear power plants. And that is an ideologically displeasing model for centrists and (some) leftists, alike.
Nuclear power plants currently meet about 20 percent of America’s electricity needs, making it by far the largest source of non-carbon electricity in our country. As we’ve seen, nuclear energy was responsible for the most successful decarbonization effort in recorded history. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified four model pathways for avoiding more than 1.5-degree warming. Three involve increasing nuclear’s share of primary energy provision by between 150 and 500 percent, while the other envisions keeping its share about where it is now. Sanders and Warren defend the expansiveness of their climate agendas on the grounds that the IPCC’s findings demand nothing less. And yet, their ostensible support for phasing out nuclear is antithetical to that organization’s own recommendations (as is Sanders’s opposition to investing in carbon capture).

It is extremely expensive and time-consuming to build new nuclear power plants. Thus, one can reasonably insist that the necessary funds would be better spent on other green initiatives. But there is no credible argument for decommissioning existing plants. And if the crisis is as severe as Sanders, Warren, and the United Nations suggest, then there isn’t really a credible argument against throwing at least some public capital at “Hail Mary” advanced nuclear technologies like small-scale reactors that could — at least theoretically — deliver safe, affordable nuclear energy at scale. The technology is simply too promising to ignore, especially considering the current limitations of renewables. As science writer (and democratic socialist) Leigh Phillips notes, “Nuclear power has an emissions intensity as low as that of onshore wind … but unlike wind can power hospitals 24/7.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Tuesday Tweets

As you might guessed, I'm going to push back on the importance of this one.

And we'll be coming back to this one as well.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Of course, Nissan never bolted wheels to the sides of a Leaf and ran it down a tunnel, so they're still behind on that front

There was from the beginning a tendency to cut Elon Musk considerable slack for the bullshit because it seemed to be in the service of good causes such as space exploration, electric vehicles, and solar energy, but it was recognized as bullshit. When you got past the fanboys, serious, knowledgeable people never bought into the narrative. In emails and private conversations, they’d describe Musk as a “flake,” point out his habit of taking credit for other people’s work, remind you that most of the breakthroughs consisted of incremental improvements on decades-old tech (much of which had been liberated from TRW).

Eventually it became apparent that turning a blind eye to even seemingly benign crap can have consequences, particularly when it enables a charismatic con man with a messiah complex, but by the time the dangers became evident, the myth was too entrenched and (just as importantly) too well constructed. The lies reinforced each other. Dating back to PayPal, every accomplishment of his career had been inflated, so that now each new impossible claim was followed by a list of all the impossible things Musk has done before.

One of the key steps for the building of this myth has been equating electric vehicles with Tesla. The rise of the EV is a good thing in the short term and an inevitability in the long term (barring some big and completely unexpected breakthrough). Musk’s company made some important contributions in terms of technology and, more importantly, brand (all joking aside, opening the midlife crisis market to  EVs was a big deal)

But all too often the press treated Tesla as the EV company. Nissan (in some ways just as major a player) went largely unmentioned. Models from other companies that predated Tesla were ignored, as was ongoing work across the industry. All of this created the impression that Musk and associates had an enormous lead which helped push the stock price into the stratosphere and helped shore up the myth of the “real life Tony Stark.”

From Michael J. Coren:

    Yet Tesla’s ambitions will require more than owning the US market. Overseas, the Nissan Leaf remains the world’s most popular electric car. It has racked up 400,000 in cumulative sales, Nissan announced this March, and is on track to hit half a million next year. Since 2013, the Leaf has averaged about 50,000 in annual global sales, a number that surged to more than 85,000 in 2018.

    Unlike Tesla, Nissan has manufacturing plants around the world. Three of them, in Japan, England, and the US (Tennessee), produce the Leaf, allowing the hatchback to be modified for local markets. To keep costs low, much of the tooling and assembly lines exist in shared facilities. That’s kept the Leaf’s price at $29,990 for a standard 2019 model, and as low as $11,000 for a used model from 2015.

    While Tesla flaunts its style, Nissan owes its success to those low prices and functionality. The dynamic playing out in the global EV market resembles the war over smartphones. Apple has grabbed the high-end of the market with powerful, high-priced iPhones running its iOS operating system, while Google’s Android owns most of the rest. There’s a stark domestic and international split in market share. In the US, Apple has about 40% of US mobile operating systems. Overseas, Android commands 76% thanks to its functional, low-cost appeal (eclipsing Apple’s 22% share).
Of course, being the Apple of EVs would normally be a good thing, but when expectations are this high, any reasonable outcome is a letdown.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Thinking about how times have changed

This isn't a sentiment you associate with Southern Rock these days.

Hand guns are made for killin'
They ain't no good for nothin' else
And if you like to drink your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself
So why don't we dump 'em people
To the bottom of the sea
Before some ol' fool come around here
Wanna shoot either you or me

Mr. Saturday night special
You got a barrel that's blue and cold
You ain't good for nothin'
But put a man six feet in a hole

Songwriters: Edward C. King / Ronnie Van Zant
Saturday Night Special lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Thursday, September 5, 2019

We need to talk more about WeWork.

God knows, we've said our share of mean things about Uber and Lyft and Netflix and Tesla, but for all of the confusion and myth-making that drove those valuations to their current sky high values, even I have to admit that there was at least the possibility of the promise of something big behind each of those companies. The rise of the smartphone made new models of personal transportation possible. We can argue whether the dominant business model will be all-you-can-stream or a la carte or heavily tiered or advertiser-driven, but there is little question that more and more video viewing will be done online. The future of cars is both electric and autonomous.

By comparison, you almost have to admire the pure distilled bullshit of WeWork. There is nothing to ground this business model, no recent or even promised technological advance, no big innovation, nothing but the CEO babble and Ted Talk happy speak so in vogue in Silicon Valley these days.

Here via Brad Delong, Ben Thompson spells out the inevitable corruption and self-dealing that goes with this sort of scam.

The tech industry generally speaking is hardly a model for good corporate governance, but WeWork takes the absurdity an entirely different level. For example: WeWork paid its own CEO, Adam Neumann, $5.9 million for the 'We' trademark.... WeWork previously gave Neumann loans to buy properties that WeWork then rented. WeWork has hired several of Neumann’s relatives, and Neumann’s wife would be one of three members of a committee tasked to replace Neumann if he were to die or become permanently disabled over the next decade. Neumann has three different types of shares that guarantee him majority voting power.... Neumann has already reportedly cashed out 700 million of his holdings via sales and loans. Everything taken together hints at a completely unaccountable executive looting a company that is running as quickly as it can from massive losses that may very well be fatal whenever the next recession hits.... The WeWork bull case and bear case... both are the logical conclusion of effectively unlimited capital. The bull case is that WeWork has seized the opportunity presented by that capital to make a credible play to be the office of choice for companies all over the world, effectively intermediating and commoditizing traditional landlords. It is utterly audacious, and for that reason free of competition. The bear case, meanwhile, is that unlimited capital has resulted in a complete lack of accountability and a predictable litany of abuses, both in terms of corporate risk-taking and personal rent-seeking...

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Has it really been just two years since Bodega Vending forever disrupted retail?

I don't remember what brought it to mind but I got to wondering what happened to Bodega, the company that was going to revolutionize the convenience store industry and kill off the mom-and-pop store. The short answer appears to be nothing much. They appear to have burned through their PR budget about a year ago. Other than a few stories when they changed their name to the incredibly bland Stockwell, they have basically dropped of the map.

The company is still a going concern but it appears not by much. They only have presences in four cities though they promise more are coming "(very) soon." The website (which looks like something form GoDaddy) doesn't have a lot of details past that. It does have a jobs page with eleven listings of which seven are part-time.

All of which is making Helen Rosner look pretty good about now.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Fighting Gresham's law of journalism -- more "yes, it is just a god damn vending machine" blogging

Just to review, a few days ago, there was a great deal of fanfare around an article by Elizabeth Segran from Fast Company magazine entitled:

Two Ex-Googlers Want To Make Bodegas And Mom-And-Pop Corner Stores Obsolete

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the article was a bad piece of business and technology journalism. It credulously accepted what should have been incredible claims from an entrepreneur with an enormous interest in hyping the story. The response was largely divided between writers who were understandably offended by the cultural insensitivity and those who unquestioningly accepted the idea that a line of low functionality vending machines (no refrigeration, no hot food or beverages, not set up for cash transactions) presented an immediate threat to convenience stores and other small retail outlets. More than a few commentators managed to fall into both camps.

The problem here is not that all of the coverage of the Bodega Vending Machine Co. was bad; it is that the bad got most of the oxygen. This is primarily a business story (the technological aspect is trivial), and it has produced some excellent business writing, but it appears that the coverage is another example of Gresham's law of journalism: the crappy crowds out the good.

The best of the clear eyed analyses probably comes from  Helen Rosner, a smart, knowledgeable writer who explained in crushing detail the major flaws in the Bodega business plan.
Bodega’s product is, fundamentally, a vending machine. (Well, maybe it’s a mini-bar — open access to product, in fancy places, with a presumed audience that’s affluent and design-minded.) Vending machines are a unique form of commerce, mostly defined by the lack of human interaction at the point of transaction. This kind of unmanned retail operation has a long history (the vending history timeline on the website of NAMA, the National Automatic Merchandising Association, kicks off with Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty; it is delightful), with efficiency as its primary appeal. A tiny, self-contained store without an employee saves all sorts of overhead: Less required real estate, lower payroll, shockingly greater likelihood that shoplifters will be crushed to death.

These efficiencies aren’t gravy, though; they’re essential. They work by way of a simple economy of scale: If you run a few dozen machines (or a few thousand), it becomes possible to buy your products at a discount, to warehouse the products more effectively, and to both fill and repair your vending units in a more streamlined way. These businesses live or die by logistics.

This is where things seem likely to fall apart for Bodega. Even with their wifi connections and app-connected camera sensors, the units themselves are still just offering consumers a basic model of unmanned commerce — only with smaller, fancier machines to process the transactions. What Bodega does offer as a differentiator are the number of unique products per unit (100, the average vending machine has 20-40), and the promise that the products will not just be tailored to their general environments — protein bars in the gym, tampons in a sorority house — but to their specific users. A promise of “machine learning” will, as Fast Company explains, “constantly reassess the 100 most-needed items in that community.”

At 100,000 units — the scale McDonald and Rajan envision — that’s ten million items that are active at a time, plus reserve products for restocking, plus new products to introduce as the “machine learning” (I’m sorry, I just can’t) cycles out low performers. Across specialized markets and user-informed preferences, the number of SKUs (industry shorthand for a stocked product, rather than an individual unit of that product) that Bodega would be dealing with would quickly climb into the thousands.
Labor is not a minor issue, with a company like this one. “Unmanned retail” isn’t a precisely accurate phrase: There may not be a person ringing up your transaction, but there are plenty of people working to maintain a system that allows that absence — even the famous midcentury automats were just the outward storefront of a working, fully-staffed kitchen. Bodega’s warehouses will need to be staffed. The trucks will need to be driven. The Bodegas themselves will need to be manually restocked — each can, bottle, and box placed one by one onto each unit’s shelves. Many traditional vending machine companies employ restockers who double as machine repairers. Will a Bodega restocker be trained to fix a busted computer-vision camera?

Rosner closes with a wonderfully pithy and honest summary of what is probably Bodega's real business plan.
In Silicon Valley, Bodega’s success will not be measured by how well it truly replaces the stores it wants to eliminate — by how many lives it makes better, how many jobs it creates, how many communities it strengthens, or how many families it serves. Like most startups, its success will depend on whether its founders and investors make money, either by cashing in with an IPO or selling to a bigger company for a tidy profit.


Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Tuesday Tweets

It's true that you regret things you didn't do more than things you do. Think of all of the mean things I could have been saying about WeWorks.

Nocera has long been one of the best on this beat.

Important to note that many of the areas most vulnerable to tropical cyclones also have the lowest coastal elevation.



The damage done by the lapses at the New York Times  is greatly exacerbated by its standing as the paper of record. If the paper and The Washington Post would switch positions in just this one aspect, it would do a tremendous amount of good.

Along the same lines.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Happy Labor Day

Look for the Union Label

The ILGWU sponsored a contest among its members in the 1970s for an advertising jingle to advocate buying ILGWU-made garments. The winner was Look for the union label.[9][10] The Union's "Look for the Union Label" song went as follows:

    Look for the union label
    When you are buying a coat, dress, or blouse,
    Remember somewhere our union's sewing,
    Our wages going to feed the kids and run the house,
    We work hard, but who's complaining?
    Thanks to the ILG, we're paying our way,
    So always look for the union label,
    It says we're able to make it in the USA!

The commercial featuring the famous song was parodied on a late-1970s episode of Saturday Night Live in a fake commercial for The Dope Growers Union and on the March 19, 1977, episode (#10.22) of The Carol Burnett Show. It was also parodied in the South Park episode "Freak Strike" (2002).