Friday, December 29, 2023

Twelve years ago at the blog -- We can debate whether LLMs are really learning languages but as long as we factor in cuteness, we will always have the edge.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Yes, another talking baby video, now with informed commentary

This is actually the first half of the conversation. Both come from a blog called Twin Mama Rama and they've generated quite a bit of discussion. I found these two particularly interesting:

Hope Dickinson, MS, CCC-SLP, coordinator of the Speech-Language Pathology Services at Children’s Hospital Boston at Waltham.
These two are babbling, specifically they’re demonstrating a behavior known as “reduplicated babbling,” because the sounds used are repeated, which you can hear in their use of “da-da-da.” In a more informal way, I guess I would describe it as turn-taking with babbling, or conversational babbling.

Play talk is a healthy way for kids to develop language skills


It really demonstrates how very young children communicate and know how a conversation works, even before they have the words to use. They will eventually begin to replace the babbling strings with words. If you listen closely, you’ll even hear a couple of words: One says “mama” when looking at the camera, and one or both say “up” more than once when picking up a foot.

One thing they are using wonderfully is turn taking, as in first one “talks” and then pauses and the other responds. They are also imitating the various intonations we use in conversation and speaking. There is fantastic rise and fall to their pitch and tones. Sentences or exclamations end loudly and emphatically, and there is also some questioning (rising) intonation. They are using gestures to supplement their talking, much like adults do. Their body distance is even very appropriate for most Americans; not too close, but not too far either.

And from the New York Times:

“Some people believe twins have the ability to generate their own detailed language, a twin language, but it doesn’t seem to be true in terms of a fully developed language system,’’ said Stephen Camarata, professor of hearing and speech sciences at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “They are going back and forth and enjoying each other’s company, but they aren’t saying anything specific like ‘Hey, Mom’s videotaping us. Look at her hair.’ “


Dr. Camarata says the video is rich with examples of how children develop language. It’s filled with canonical babbling that sounds like speech because it uses vowels, consonants and syllables to mimic words. Although most healthy babies go through the same phase of language development, most of the time the conversation is one-sided because they are interacting primarily with parents or older siblings. What’s special about the twins’ exchange, he notes, is that each baby has a peer with whom to practice language.

“The thing that is remarkable is that they both have this intonation pattern,’’ he said. “It sounds like they are speaking, making a statement, asking a question. They are using those broader markers we use in language.”

He says it’s possible that the twins are re-enacting conversations they’ve witnessed in the family kitchen.

“Children are very clever at watching and learning from adults,’’ said Dr. Camarata. “You wonder if there hasn’t been a conversation between the husband and wife or other people in the kitchen that they are mimicking. The intonation patterns were almost certainly learned from the parents.”

Dr. Camarata said he finds the video particularly delightful given that he often works with children who have delayed speech as a result of autism or another disability. He said he hopes parents who see the video will be reminded to celebrate the amazing developmental milestones of their own children.

“Here are these children interacting with each other in a very spontaneous and unguided way, and there are a lot of rich things going on that are really cool,’’ he said. “You wonder in this day and age of people programming their child’s activities if we’re losing a little bit of that. I worry that we’re not looking for and celebrating these kinds of spontaneous things that our toddlers do that are really exciting and fun.”

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Straussian collapse, feral disinformation, and the increasingly ineffectual GOP Establishment

See here and here (both from 2017) for our previous Straussian thread, in particular, this.

At some point though (I suspect inevitably), a couple of things happen. First, the believers become leaders. This is become blindingly obvious with Trump, but the children of Fox News have been in control of the party since at least 2010 and the roots go back further. Remember how Dick Cheney insisted while traveling that all hotel televisions be tuned to Fox News?

The second, and possibly more dangerous problem is that a propaganda-fed base has no capacity to self correct, rather it continues follow unsustainable paths that only gain momentum, often exacerbated by ratcheting mechanisms. Soon you reach a point where, even if the leaders accurately perceive the situation and realized the best solution, they can no longer reconcile that reasonable course of action with what the vast majority of their supporters have been told to believe for decades.

For anyone trying to make sense of American politics in these strange days, the good people at This American Life have put together an absolutely essential show about the intra-party turmoil in the Michigan State GOP. Even if you have no interest in the subject, TAL Remains the gold standard for this kind of long form radio journalism and this episode is no exception, but if the current state of the Republican Party and its implications for the nation is something that you've been struggling to understand, this hour will fill in a lot of gaps. 

Glass spells out the basic set-up with remarkably direct, spade = spade language.

Ira Glass

And-- maybe you saw this coming-- Karamo wins. She becomes the head of the Michigan Republican Party, the outsiderist, the grassroots-ist-- not for nothing, the Christianist. And in picking Karamo, Michigan Republicans were saying, basically, what we want as a party is somebody to lead, who, A, believes the election was stolen, and B, has no connection to any establishment political machinery of the past, which is all corrupt.

That kind of purity test is something that you see a lot among Republicans right now. In the House of Representatives in Washington, so many political fights are basically between Republicans who don't want to compromise at all, and everybody else. You see this in other Republican state parties in swing states-- Arizona, Colorado, Georgia. But no state party has taken the flying leap off the cliff that the Michigan Republicans have.

Spoiler alert: It turns out that alliances of election deniers motivated by anger, paranoia, and conspiracy theories aren't all that stable. Throw racism, islamophobia, and purity filters into the mix and things only get worse.

Michigan is one of the largest purple states in the Electoral College. It is very much not a place that the Republicans want to go into 2024 with a dysfunctional and broke organization. 

Listening to what followed, I kept getting flashes of older revolutions that turned ugly. I'm not the history guy here at the blog, but there were moments that felt so familiar, the smallness of the players contrasted with the grand historical moments they saw themselves as key parts of, the rapid formation of factions, each convinced that they were the ones who carried the true message of the revolution, the viciousness and distrust when things fell apart.

Zoe Chace

This is the problem with the coup Warren's trying to pull off. It's the problem that was baked into Karamo's version of the party from the start. This group of people all agree on some basic issues-- election fraud, less immigration, no gun control, abortion is murder, don't tell me when to wear a mask, don't tell my children what to read, and the rent is too damn high.

But what's brought them all together running this party is their lack of trust in any kind of political leadership. They are a very suspicious, conspiracy-minded group. And that's how they look at everything, including each other. Of course they can't agree on who the real enemy is of the cause they all actually believe in.

Warren Carpenter

You lied! You're a liar! You're a liar!

 [You really have to hear this to get the full effect.]

 The segment also illustrates how the once near total control that donors and the Republican establishment held over the party has waned since the rise of Trump.

Zoe Chace

Mark Forton is one of those who wanted a complete break with how it used to be. And how it used to be was that the head of the party was a super-rich Michigan guy, real estate mogul Ron Weiser. In the last few years, the party yearly budget has been something like $20 million, a chunk of which came directly from Weiser, and mostly one other rich family in Michigan-- the Devoses.

Mark Forton

We knew that if the grassroots took over the state party, that the big shooters would go. Not all of them, but we knew the DeVos family would go and Mr. Weiser would go. They're all globalist. They're all part of the same great, big mess that Michigan's in-- you know, bringing in the Chinese, battery factories. So I mean, we know they're globalists.


Trump, particularly Trump's story of a stolen election, plays a huge in the identities of of these people, most of whom seem to have become active since 2016, many as recently as 2020.

Zoe Chace

Warren comes off antagonistic right from the beginning, and a little manic. What he's just done-- leaking documents to the press about Kristina-- it's a big deal, though.

Zoe Chace

How are you? You got a lot going on?

Warren Carpenter

Well-- [LAUGHS] It's like you didn't read the news or something.

Zoe Chace

"It's like you didn't read the news or something," he says. That morning, the morning we spoke, September 29, Detroit News reporter Craig Mauger, an eminently fair and lightning-fast journalist, published a write-up of all the documents Warren had sent him.

The article begins, "The Michigan Republican Party had about $35,000 in its bank account in August, according to internal records that flashed new warning signs about the dire state of the GOP's finances." This is followed shortly by a quote from a former state GOP official-- "These numbers demonstrate that the party isn't just broke, but broken."

Warren is also extensively quoted in the article, which is a big betrayal of Kristina, talking to a journalist who, in her view, is just in league with the establishment trying to take her out. Warren says he dabbled in Republican politics before this movement took off, worked on a statewide campaign over 10 years ago, but not much since then, until Trump.

He loves Trump, calls him Big Daddy, and had that school board come-to-Jesus so many Republicans did around the COVID protocols-- masking in schools kind of thing. He went to January 6 after he thought he saw the election get stolen. Says he didn't go inside the Capitol, but he had such an intense experience there, that not long after, he had a mental breakdown, as he puts it.


Functional institutions will have mechanisms in place, some explicitly spelled out others implicit but still effectively in place, that will keep most of the incompetent, disloyal, and crazy out of leadership positions. When these mechanisms break down, the institution becomes a danger to itself and often to others.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Ten years ago at the blog -- the one time I told a major thought leader to go screw himself, Andrew Gelman decided to write a post on it.

The annual party described below did not survive the pandemic, which was perhaps just as well. It had been going on forever and was already showing its age before the plague hit.

You can find Gelman's comments here. Our follow-up post from 2014 is scheduled for tomorrow.


Friday, December 27, 2013

A holiday message from the creative class to Richard Florida -- screw you

Last Saturday was the big party of the year for the LA hot jazz/country blues scene. Droves of musicians, actors, writers and directors converge on a small house in Venice Beach, along with a smattering of historians and engineers (sound and software). Every year, numerous people make an allusion to the stateroom scene in Night at the Opera (and with this crowd, everyone gets the reference). There weren't any famous faces (unless you're really into jazz or roots music), but it was an accomplished crowd with Grammys, Broadway credits, glowing NYT, WSJ and NPR reviews and numerous impressive collaborations.

A few hours in, it struck me that almost all of the people at this party fell squarely into Richard Florida's creative class. In fact, most of the people I associate with on a regular basis fall into Florida's rather broad definition. What I heard last night further reinforced some things I've been observing for years now about the disconnect between the picture painted by pundits and social commentators and what it actually means to make a living through creativity in today's economy. It's a complicated situation but I think I can boil the gist down into the following fairly brief statement:

Screw you, Florida.
The super- creative core of this new class includes scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers, and architects, as well as the "thought leadership" of modern society: nonfiction writers, editors, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts, and other opinion-makers.
From "The Rise of the Creative Class" by Richard Florida

Florida paints a bright picture of these people and their future, with rapidly increasing numbers, influence and wealth. He goes so far as to say "Places that succeed in attracting and retaining creative class people prosper; those that fail don't." It wass hard to read something by Florida and not envy that rising class, at least it was until it hit me that he was talking about me and people I knew and our lives weren't going nearly as well as he suggested. As Thomas Frank put it "The creative class has never been more screwed."

Except for a few special cases, this may be the worst time to make a living in the arts since the emergence of modern newspapers and general interest magazines and other mass media a hundred and twenty years ago (even in the depression you had the WPA -- “Artists have to eat too”). Though we now have tools that make creating and disseminating art easier than ever, no one has come up with a viable business model that supports creation in today's economy.

With the exception of a few select areas where you can find lots of wealthy patrons, it's just not a reasonable career path. At the party this weekend, out of dozens of nationally and internationally recognized musicians, perhaps three or four were making a middle-class or better living at their craft; most were either getting by on very modest means and/or had day jobs.   Artistic professions used to have teaching to fall back on but those jobs have been getting crappier and yet harder to find over the past thirty or so years.

The picture is somewhat brighter on the STEM side, but not that much brighter. The collapse of teaching has hit us too. In the private sector, it's hit-or-miss if you're not flavor of the month and even if you are among the lucky few:

Companies (including the hungry ones) have gotten surprisingly picky;

You'll probably need a graduate degree (and the debt that goes with it);

There's little security even while you're hot;

The specialists who get the most money are also the most vulnerable to changes in tech and taste.

In other words, it's a lottery ticket and, considering the odds, the pay-off isn't all that great.

Florida's framework has rather publicly come crashing down lately, but, even at its peak, it never stood up to serious scrutiny. Like most of the utopian urbanists, his collection of anecdotes, cherry-picked statistics and wildly unjustified causal inference was only convincing because people wanted to be convinced.


Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Boxing Day blogging - - Jay Powell's wonderful Christmas present and a test for American journalists

 From Mike Konczal:


You are going to hear a lot of buts and qualifiers downplaying this news, but barring a major downward revision in the numbers, we have achieved the mythical soft landing with strong GDP growth, low unemployment, and an inflation rate below what we had when Joe Biden took office. No one knows if the good times will continue but happily ever after was never part of the definition. Jay Powell's Fed policy and Joe Biden's economic policy have managed to pull something off that almost all economists were telling us was impossible as recently as one year ago.

Based on any reasonable and consistent standard for newsworthiness, this should be getting huge headlines. Will it get them? 


And maybe not...

(and, yes, I am saying that the  New York Times is more reluctant to publish good news for Biden than the Wall Street Journal is, at least if we leave out the WSJ opinion page.)

When it comes to misperceptions about the economy, the United States is not just terribly misinformed, it is uniquely misinformed. (From the Financial Times)


 This is an issue of potentially catastrophic political implications and while there are probably three or four major causes, journalists have to bear a substantial part of the blame here. There are a handful of exceptions, the Los Angeles Times, American Public Media's Marketplace, TPM, individuals like John Harwood, but overall coverage of the economy has gone from alarmist and sensationalistic about the rise in inflation to far, far quieter about its impressive drop, while stories about shockingly good employment numbers and a decline in things like the racial wealth Gap  were pushed below the fold.

One of the great unquestioned truisms of journalism is that the unexpected and unusual is newsworthy. Man bites dog is the standard shorthand. But in 2023, we saw one of the most expectation-defying economic stories of the past hundred plus years, in terms of good news, most unexpected. The soft landing was perhaps the ultimate cryptid of economics , what we've described before as a Yeti and a Sasquatch riding a Loch Ness Monster , and while it was happening, many major developments were given less coverage than a literal dog bites man story.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Merry Christmas from Little Nemo


And make sure to drive safely.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Twelve years ago at the blog -- depressingly little has changed

There has been some improvement. That excellent LA Times series has finally gotten ocean acidification into the conversation, but it is usually mentioned in passing and, as far as I can tell, it still doesn't get the coverage in the NYT that the threat of rising sea level to West Coast cities, despite almost all of our cities having a higher elevation than New York.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A few more thoughts on journalistic conformity

I complained in an earlier post that journalists have recently shown an alarming tendency to converge on a small set of standard stories when covering a major topic -- small sets that more often than not leave out things that we readers really ought to know about. Here's another example.

There are at least two potentially serious consequences to the amount of carbon we've been pumping into the atmosphere. The first is global warming. The second is the chemical and biological changes in the oceans.

Though it's difficult to compare the likely impact of phenomena this big and complex, the second problem is arguably on a level with the first, a point driven home in the LA Times' Pulitzer-winning series on the subject:
As industrial activity pumps massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the environment, more of the gas is being absorbed by the oceans. As a result, seawater is becoming more acidic, and a variety of sea creatures await the same dismal fate as Fabry's pteropods.

The greenhouse gas, best known for accumulating in the atmosphere and heating the planet, is entering the ocean at a rate of nearly 1 million tons per hour — 10 times the natural rate.

Scientists report that the seas are more acidic today than they have been in at least 650,000 years. At the current rate of increase, ocean acidity is expected, by the end of this century, to be 2 1/2 times what it was before the Industrial Revolution began 200 years ago. Such a change would devastate many species of fish and other animals that have thrived in chemically stable seawater for millions of years.

Less likely to be harmed are algae, bacteria and other primitive forms of life that are already proliferating at the expense of fish, marine mammals and corals.

In a matter of decades, the world's remaining coral reefs could be too brittle to withstand pounding waves. Shells could become too fragile to protect their occupants. By the end of the century, much of the polar ocean is expected to be as acidified as the water that did such damage to the pteropods aboard the Discoverer.

Some marine biologists predict that altered acid levels will disrupt fisheries by melting away the bottom rungs of the food chain — tiny planktonic plants and animals that provide the basic nutrition for all living things in the sea.
And we haven't even gotten to the primeval toxic slime (you really do need to read the whole series).

Given their common origin, comparable severity and potential for synergistic effects, topics like acidification should show up frequently in stories about global warming. Not all the time, but I would expect to see it in at least fifteen or twenty percent of the stories. It is simply a pairing that journalists to make on a fairly regular basis, but while a search of the last twelve months of the New York Times for "climate change" produces 10,509 hits, a search on '"climate change" acidification' over the same period produces 15.

(If we do a quick, back-of-the-envelope hypothesis test on the null that most journalists are well-informed, hard-working, independent thinkers...)

The specific tragedy here is that, for all the ink that's been spilled on the impacts of carbon emissions, all we really get in the vast majority of cases are simply the same handful of stories endlessly recycled. We read dozens of articles but since the writers have converged on a tiny number of narratives we remain ill-informed.

The general tragedy is that this is the way almost all journalism works these days. Through a lack of independent thinking (often augmented by laziness and a lack of rigor), journalists quickly settle on a small number of templates which they seldom stray from, even though these templates leave out important aspect of the larger story. Stories on the environmental impacts of carbon leave out the oceans; stories on the economics of cable don't mention broadcast television; stories about the free spending ways of countries like Greece and Spain omit the fact that Spain was running a surplus before the crisis.

It would be easy to find more examples. Finding counter-examples is the tough one.


Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Bidenomics and the NYT: Revenge of the Petruchio liberals


With apologies to regular readers who have heard this too many times already. The New York Times has, more than any other news organization with the possible exception of NPR, fully internalized the "if I keep his beer cold and the house clean, maybe he won't hit me anymore" mentality in response to conservative critics. The paper has fully equated the concept of bias with the possibility of making Republicans mad at them. Good news for the Democrats is underplayed; bad news is bumped to the front page, and the editors choose the most damaging framing for Biden as a default setting.

Though the NYT likes to boast about the diversity of opinions it publishes, with a handful exceptions, there are only a few acceptable narratives. The pretense of diversity only holds if you look only at the left-right spectrum, and even then not too closely. Far right figures like Tom Cotton, Brett Stephens, and Ann Coulter are given pretty much free reign, nominally liberal writers are expected to both-sides every question, and voices from the left tend to be Petruchio liberals, spending more time sniping at the mainstream Democrats than at the increasingly extreme republicans.

Petruchio liberals attack Democrats and, in effect, support Republicans because any real world proposal from a Biden or an Obama or a Pelosi meant to advance any progressive objective will inevitably fall short of their standards. To endorse a plan that is in any way short of perfect represents an unacceptable compromise of principle. Needless to say, these people are impossible to satisfy.

This NYT opinion piece by Karen Petrou is a minor classic of the genre. Damning criticism of the Democrats garnished with great performative concern for the disadvantaged and the left behind, supported by non-arguments and distorted statistics, dismissive of liberal accomplishments, strangely oblivious to the fact that, by the standards laid out by the author, in every case the republican policies would be worse.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the column is what it leaves out. Evidence of a good economy isn't explained away; it is omitted entirely. In a piece about income inequality, the word "employment" appears one time. "Jobs" doesn't appear at all. Likewise, the terms "union," "taxes," or "student loan." are also missing.

Instead, we get a lot of generalities.

The West Wing may believe Bidenomics is working because the macroeconomic gurus at the Federal Reserve are telling the White House it’s working. But Bidenomics has failed to create sufficient tangible improvement in the lives of most voters in a world in which groceries still cost more than they did a year ago, average rent and mortgage rates have spiked and health and child care grow ever more unaffordable. Mr. Biden cannot win in 2024 unless he speaks to the economy as it is, not as he wishes it was.

Make a note of the charge of scoring points by ignoring the way the economy really is. We'll be getting back to that one.

Although the Fed’s most recent Survey of Consumer Finances showed that wealth inequality has dipped a bit because of recent generous federal spending, income inequality is worse than ever. For most Americans, a sense of financial well-being doesn’t come from capital returns in the stock market or even from house price appreciation. It comes in each paycheck and benefit payment and is challenged by each bill and receipt from the supermarket. Paychecks are falling shorter and shorter for more and more households [Wages are slightly outpacing inflation, but let's not get bogged down with details -- MP], no matter the seemingly record high employment data the White House also likes to trumpet. [Thus concluding Petrou's entire discussion of the job market -- MP]

 Let's check in with the LA Times indispensable Michael Hiltzik.

“Bidenomics didn’t just promise economic growth,” wrote economists at the progressive Roosevelt Institute in a recent newsletter; “it promised a transition from the era of trickle-down, neoliberal economics to a new paradigm that focused on improving the wages and livelihoods of working- and middle-class people.” They titled their post: “It’s working.”

Indeed, as I reported in July, lower-income workers have been the chief beneficiaries of Bidenomics. Economists David Autor of MIT and Arindrajit Dube and Annie McGrew of the University of Massachusetts determined in a paper published in March that lower-income workers had recovered about 25% of the increase in wage inequality that had built up over the previous four decades.

Organized labor seems to have experienced a renaissance, or at least the glimmer of one. Unions won more representation elections, 641, in the first half of 2022 than they had in the same period for 20 years. The victory by the United Auto Workers over the Big Three automakers after the recent strike may be a harbinger of more victories to come, but even if not, it’s certainly a high water mark for union activism over recent decades.

If you'd rather get your economic takes from the NYT, back in June, David Leonhardt did a similar story about the racial wage gap shrinking though, being one of the paper's good soldiers, he managed to write an entire column largely about the success of Biden's economy without ever mentioning the name "Biden."

 There's also a time travel element to Petrou's criticisms. Joe still hasn't gone back to the 80s and prevented the Reagan administration.

Mr. Biden ignores the inequality at the heart of Bidenomics at his political peril. America’s top 1 percent always got far more than 1 percent of national income and wealth, but they have rarely gotten as much as they do now. The most recent data shows that the top 1 percent now owns 31.4 percent of American wealth, more than that of the entire bottom 90 percent. Between 1975 and 2018, American adults at the median income saw their paychecks go up at less than one-third the rate of G.D.P. growth while those with incomes at the 99th percentile saw their earnings rise nearly twice as fast as G.D.P.

About that "inequality at the heart of Bidenomics" line. Despite spending an entire column attacking Biden's economic policy in general, we have to wait till the last paragraph to find one specific policy mentioned, and it is a very curious choice.

On Nov. 9, the Biden administration’s Office of Management and Budget issued a rule instructing federal agencies in no uncertain terms to consider the impact of the standards they promulgate on economic inequality. Mr. Biden’s political advisers should do the same over the coming year, recasting Bidenomics to truly support the middle class instead of continuing to stand proudly atop an economy in which growth goes to those who already have a lot, not those who work hard yet still are in need.

  I've read over this paragraph multiple times trying to get a grip on what Petrou is trying to say here. Literally the only specific policy she mentions is one she strongly endorses, nor does she give any specific policy that Biden should be doing but isn't. The closest she comes is repeatedly attacking Biden for taking credit for parts of the economy that are going remarkably well.

 This and every other conversation about the economy needs to start with the fact that we appear to be in the middle of the fabled soft landing, which is roughly the economic equivalent of seeing a bigfoot and a yeti riding Nessie. The conventional wisdom going into this was that taming inflation would require a period of severe economic pain. You'd think that avoiding that would make Ms. Petrou happy. You'd be wrong.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The NYT's Election Trilemma

The dilemma the New York Times and other news organizations that follow its lead face with a Trump Biden matchup is genuinely painful for them:

On one hand, second Trump Administration would mean an authoritarian, anti-democratic, arguably fascist state. This is not just speculation; this is what the candidate himself has explicitly promised. It is difficult to imagine a responsible journalist not doing everything in their power to stop this. On the other hand, going all out in support of Biden would go against longstanding and deeply held ideas about the role of the press, ideas that go to the very heart of the New York Times' sense of identity.
The NYT and many other journalists and news organizations have fully internalized fifty years of intense and focused conservative manipulation and working the ref. They have come to genuinely believe that bias largely boils down to saying things that make Republicans angry. We saw this play out with what we thought at the time were lower stakes back in 2016. The Washington Post explicitly took the position that the old standards and ethics were flawed and it would be far too costly to hold on to them given the risk that Trump presented. The New York Times took the position, also explicitly, that there was nothing wrong with the old standards and it had no intention of abandoning them. (Some current and former NYT journalists have even convinced themselves that the country went off the rails because the paper didn't hold to these old standards tightly enough.)

As we discussed before, barring a major black swan event, this will be a Biden Trump race, leaving journalists with only two realistic choices. If, however, we aren't constrained by realism, then there is a third: go all in on supporting Trump's rivals in the primary.

Since the paper's de facto definition of bias is largely limited to doing anything that helps Democrats and hurts Republicans, writing slanted news stories and wishful analytics does not violate this ethical code. No major conservative can accuse them of being anti-GOP because they are writing puff pieces for Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. Quite the opposite, the Republican establishment would overwhelmingly prefer either of those candidates to Donald Trump.

It is the nature of cognitive dissonance that people faced with ugly choices on one hand and an unrealistic but appealing choice on the other, will not only make themselves believe in the unbelievable, they will fanatically embrace it.

In this case, the New York Times has abandoned their nominal ethical standards of balance and objectivity across the reporting, analysis, and commentary. The results have been predictably embarrassing. the paper has run data analyses arguing that being crushed by Trump in the polls was actually great news for DeSantis. They have managed to collect the world's most unrepresentative focus group. They have run multiple pieces insisting that Haley breaking 10% and coming off as better than Ramaswamy put her on the fast track to the White House.

But as entertaining as this has been, it looks like reality is finally coming for the narrative.

 Donald Trump is now the GOP establishment
Analysis by Harry Enten

Monday, December 18, 2023

Friday, December 15, 2023

Before you read all the think pieces that are about to come out discussing Netflix's latest data dump, you should probably get some context first

Here's the press statement and Excel table that has been generating all the excitement.

Since launching our weekly Top 10 and Most Popular lists in 2021, Netflix has provided more information about what people are watching than any other streamer except YouTube. And now we believe it’s time to go further. 

Starting today we will publish What We Watched: A Netflix Engagement Report twice a year. This is a comprehensive report of what people watched on Netflix over a six month period1, including: 

  • Hours viewed for every title — original and licensed — watched for over 50,000 hours2

  • The premiere date3 for any Netflix TV series or film; and 

  • Whether a title was available globally. 

In total, this report covers more than 18,000 titles — representing 99% of all viewing on Netflix — and nearly 100 billion hours viewed.

If you haven't been following streaming closely there are a few subtleties here you are likely to miss.

From the get-go Netflix is characteristically spinning this to the best possible advantage. While it is possible that the famously opaque and sometimes deceptive company has suddenly decided that openness is the best policy, this decision probably has a lot to do with the fact that they and all the other streamers are about to be forced to release far more viewership data than they have in the past due to recent contracts with the writers and actors guilds, and have decided to get out in front things and spin them as much as possible to their advantage.

To be fair, this is a major improvement in transparency and, for those seriously following the industry, very useful data. However, television and particularly streaming is a complicated business and a naive reading of these numbers, which you will certainly get from a lot of the upcoming think pieces, is likely to be misleading for a number of reasons.

From a subscription service business standpoint, total series viewing hours is not the most important or even the second most important metric. While there is a relationship between what you watch and what convinces you to sign up then not cancel the next month, it is complicated and sometimes counterintuitive.

For more than 70 years, television has always been a medium more about what we are willing to watch rather than what we want to watch. These numbers tell us a lot about the willing, not so much about the want.

Personal example. About a year ago, I decided I really wanted to revisit Justified so I signed up for Hulu (I grew up in the Ozarks, culturally not that far from Harlan County and while I didn't know people like the characters in the show, I knew people who knew those people). I ran through all the episodes fairly quickly and enjoyed it immensely, then looked through the streamer's other options and killed some time for a couple of months before dropping the service. If you were just going by my viewing numbers, the Elmore Leonard adaptation would be at or near the top but it wouldn't particularly jump out at you. I was using a "might as well see what they've got" criterion since I wasn't planning to stick around that long. I watched anything I thought I might like so I logged quite a few hours

From an enrollment and churn standpoint, however, Justified was the only show that really mattered. Everything else I watched at best kept me on the service for one additional month, which when you figure in the costs of those shows, was very much a losing proposition for Hulu.

Netflix has always been secretive and sometimes misleading about the data it releases, particularly regarding the drivers of members signing up and dropping off. A few years ago, the company even went so far as to claim that it didn't even look at churn and therefore couldn't be expected to release detailed numbers to investors, a claim which everyone I know who works in this or related industries insist had to be a lie.

If these numbers don't tell us much about the drivers of the industry, don't they at least tell us something about ourselves as a society based on what we choose to watch?

Not as much as you might think.

For starters, we have spiky data combining shows with very different viewing distributions in a way that is guaranteed to produce unrepresentative snapshots. Perhaps not coincidentally, these distortions happen to serve the narrative that Netflix and the other streamers have been pushing.

Anytime your window covers a period of time less than a year, the top 100 shows will be dominated by new, heavily promoted releases while older shows will show up considerably lower. If, however, you take the long view and look at two or three years worth of data, the picture will shift. Shows like NCIS or the Gilmore Girls may not break the top 100 in any given short period, but they will turn in consistently strong numbers year after year while many, probably most, of the hot, buzzy shows will see their numbers sharply as soon as their moment in the sun passes.

This is analogous to a discovery that Barnes & Noble made many years ago, back in the pre-Amazon times, where they realized that titles like Great Expectations or Huckleberry Finn were never among their top sellers for any given week but the titles that did hit the top of the charts often ended up in the remainder bins. That was why the company went into the classics publishing business and had a long and highly probable run with it that to a lesser extent continues to this day.

One interesting example here is the viewing hours for the last season of the Crown. This is one of the best known and most hyped and critically lauded shows that Netflix has ever run and it has been presented as a huge hit. According to the Excel table, the official release of the final season was in the second week of November, 2022. We don't know what the numbers look like that year, but we do know the total hours that the show got between January and June of this year. It was in 152nd place. the next best rated season was at 388. While we can't say for sure, it's reasonable to assume that if the time frame had been shifted a couple of months, the season would have broken the top ten or at least the top twenty.

For a more extreme case, three years ago Tiger King was on of the biggest hits the service had seen. In the first six months of this year, the first and second seasons ranked 4,133 and 6,632 respectively in viewing hours.

Authors of think pieces on this data should also remember that there are some very heavy thumbs on these scales. Netflix has spent literally billions on marketing and PR, almost all of it going to a relatively small number of shows that were seen as potential hits, or were potential sources of hype and awards. Disney has spent even more over that same time period. 

And if you still believe that your streaming service's recommendation algorithm is driven strictly by your preferences and viewing habits, rather than whatever the service is trying to push at the moment, you are a sweet and trusting person and I hope you never change. 

When you zoom back enough to see past the spikes and take into account the inflation factor of marketing and PR, it appears that people still like to watch AMC dramas and CBS police procedurals.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

But he's not a jolly little elf

Over at the Atlantic, Barton Gellman has a long profile up of long-time lord of Ithuvania, Peter Thiel. The good news is that it appears to be one of those credulous, fawning pieces that produce such a wealth of fodder for mockery. The bad news is that it's behind a rather solid paywall. The additional good news is that, over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Shakezula has collected some of the highlights.

Here are my favorites.

Thiel grew up reading a great deal of science fiction and fantasy—Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke. But especially Tolkien; he has said that he read the Lord of the Rings trilogy at least 10 times. Tolkien’s influence on his worldview is obvious: Middle-earth is an arena of struggle for ultimate power, largely without government, where extraordinary individuals rise to fulfill their destinies. Also, there are immortal elves who live apart from men in a magical sheltered valley.

    Did his dream of eternal life trace to The Lord of the Rings? I wondered.

    Yes, Thiel said, perking up. “There are all these ways where trying to live unnaturally long goes haywire” in Tolkien’s works. But you also have the elves. “And then there are sort of all these questions, you know: How are the elves different from the humans in Tolkien? And they’re basically—I think the main difference is just, they’re humans that don’t die.”
    “So why can’t we be elves?” I asked.

    Thiel nodded reverently, his expression a blend of hope and chagrin.

    “Why can’t we be elves?” he said.


Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The calculation

I'm sure I've referred to this in passing, but I don't believe I've done a dedicated post on it.

The behavior of non-MAGA Republicans can be explained strictly in terms of party interest without resorting to questions of principle, ideology, or legislative goals. The big assertion here is that almost all intelligent, sane observers within the party believe that in the long term Donald Trump will be bad for the GOP, but removing him or even opposing him would cause serious short-term damage. When it appears that the cost of opposition is relatively low, the establishment turns against him. When the cost appears prohibitively high they line up behind him.
That's the calculation and it's more or less all you need to remember to understand the modern GOP.

Once you take this as a given, the swings in behavior that have confused so many political commentators suddenly make perfect sense, particularly around January 6th. In the days following the insurrection, it was easy to find Republicans willing to speak out both against Trump and the mob behind him, but, with a number of exceptions so small you can count them on one hand, every one of these Republican politicians has reversed his or her position. This shift goes from puzzling to perfectly logical if you remember the widespread conventional wisdom at the time that Trump's base would abandon him fairly shortly after the humiliation of losing, that these demonstrations were a last gasp of the movement.

If you go back and read the commentary and the conversations at the time, you will see that the consensus opinion was that the cult of personality would soon unravel with Donald Trump defeated and out of power. This position was even held by one of the authors of this blog. In a number of conversations between the two of us, Joseph argued quite convincingly that Donald Trump would not be able to maintain the same level of loyalty from his followers, while I took the other side. I feel a little bad about mentioning this -- we have very few serious disagreements and, when we do, Joseph probably has a better track record than I do after the dust settles -- but it goes to show how widespread the perception of a sinking Trump was.

As late as 2022, this was still the standard narrative in the establishment press with countless Trump is sinking in the polls articles appearing in places like the New York Times, Politico, and Slate ("Hear Me Out: Trump Won’t Run Again"). In the GOP itself, however, reality came for this argument much sooner as Republican politicians quickly realized that the former president's hold on the party was showing no signs of going away. If anything, the widespread belief that the election had been stolen had actually strengthened his standing. Attempting to force him out, even if it could be done, would have entailed a devastating, possibly fatal cost on the party. Merely standing up to him was seen as a risk not worth taking.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that other factors such as principle, ideology, achieving legislative goals, etc played no role in the various positions that the Republican establishment has taken toward Donald Trump since he declared his candidacy in 2015. I'm just saying that you don't need to factor them in. Looking at Trump's perceived hold on the party and thinking through the calculation is both necessary and sufficient ish

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Norman Lear and Roger Ailes

I've noticed for a while now that journalists' views of partisan dynamics seem to have formed and gelled sometime in the mid to late seventies and for many have not changed since. They still hold a world view where the two political parties were basically symmetric in terms of ideological diversity and good intentions, while there were extremists like Goldwater and corrupt players like Nixon, the GOP as a whole was dominated by good old-fashioned cloth coat Republicans like Bob Dole who were more interested in governing than ideology. It was even a time when the term "liberal Republican" was used without irony.

Speaking of irony, even Watergate arguably helped the party in the long term a couple of ways, both by senior Republicans insisting that Nixon be held accountable and by creating what we've called the "Watergate debt," the sense that, having brought down an administration from one party, should look for a chance to balance the scales. While almost no one working today was around during the early seventies, numerous veteran journalists have confirmed that this was very much a thing in the newsrooms of the Whitewater era.

You could also make an excellent case for the press and the media in general being considerably to the left of the median voter and possibly biased against the Republican Party. The recent passing of Norman Lear reminds us just how Stark the disconnect was. There was a national uproar when All in the Family's
Carroll O'Connor publicly came out in support of McGovern. Shows like Maude, the Jeffersons, MASH, Barney Miller, and Soap featured story lines about abortion, interracial marriages, LGBT characters and other controversial issues, usually from at least an implicitly liberal view often not shared at the time by the general public . This is also the decade when Pauline Kael observed, with her often misquoted nobody I know voted for Nixon comment, that elite journalists and literati were highly unrepresentative of the general public.

For an excellent look at what it took to get these LGBT stories on the screen, check out Matt Baume's YouTube channel.

 The seventies were also, probably not coincidentally, when Roger Ailes and the rest of Nixon's young, McLuhan obsessed media team started formulating the the outline of the media strategy that would serve the Conservative Movement remarkably well from the late seventies till the rise of rouge right-wing media and feral disinformation in the Trump years.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

To understand Trump, you have to understand right-wing media. To underestand right-wing media, you have to understand...

It is a fairly safe bet that nobody knows more about the business of comedy in the mid-20th century than Kliph Nesteroff. No one has conducted more interviews. No one has researched the subject so deeply. A few years ago, Nesteroff wrote a fascinating, in-depth piece on the widely known but little discussed relationship between the show Laugh-In and the Nixon White House.

If you have any interest in politics or media, you should read the whole thing( including the end notes and comments), but if you're in a hurry, I've pulled a few sections that are particularly relevant to our recent discussion of the 2016 election.

The Comedy Writer That Helped Elect Richard M. Nixon

Laugh-In is commonly considered a reflection of the late sixties youth sensibility, but closer examination reveals a much different picture. It was, in essence, an establishment show, profiting from the anti-establishment sentiment running through America. Moderated by the comedy team of Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Laugh-In was old in style, but draped in the popular fashion of the day.  ...   Whereas Tom Smothers found himself on Nixon's enemies list, Rowan and Martin found themselves on Nixon's guest list.   ...   In 1969 Dan Rowan said of Laugh-In's chief scribe [Paul Keyes], "President Nixon calls him four or five times a week and when he's in San Clemente, Paul's always there. He is very close to the administration on a personal and on a political basis." A generation of vociferous anti-Nixonites, enraptured by everything Laugh-In had to offer each Monday night, was none the wiser.


Laugh-In debuted on January 22, 1968. The show's format was conceived by George Schlatter and featured an odd melding of fast editing in the vintage Olsen and Johnson Hellzapoppin' milieu alongside a colorful "Summer of Love" design. The hosts were the comedy team Rowan and Martin, who had been busily plodding through show business with minor success   ....   "George Schlatter wanted Digby Wolfe for head writer," remembered Dick Martin. "We said, 'No, no, no, no. No way.'   ...  We brought in Paul Keyes from The Dean Martin Show ... we insisted that he be the head writer." And contrary to the earnest insistence of some, Laugh-In was innocuous as far as political satire was concerned.5 Richard Nixon was referenced, but the show never dared to take him to task for the aggressive foreign policy enraging the nation. Compared to other political television comedy of the decade like That Was the Week That Was or The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Laugh-In possessed a toothless bite.

But the left-wing and right-wing jokes that Laugh-In showcased were very tame considering the upheaval in the country at the time. The Smothers Brothers appeared to be speaking truth to power whereas Laugh-In was simply speaking. Perhaps a contemporary analogy is the difference between Stephen Colbert's roasting of President Bush at the White House Correspondents Dinner and the following year's performance by Rich Little.


The "sock it to me" bit in question was conceived for Laugh-In's 1968-69 season premiere, less than two months before election day. "He would do anything to get elected," says George Schlatter. "Paul Keyes convinced him that it was good for his image to appear in the midst of this kind of avalanche, this tsunami of youth and vitality." Erickson explained that Nixon "showed up surrounded by his staff, whom he consulted about everything. Asked to say [Laugh-In catchphrase] 'What's a bippy?' Nixon huddled with his entourage and decided against it - he didn't know what 'bippy' meant, and really didn't want to find out. Likewise vetoed was 'Good Night, Dick.' After much deliberation, 'Sock it to me?' was the one Dick Nixon finally approved." It aired September 16, 1968. Schlatter recalls the afternoon with trepidation and not just because it was difficult to direct the cardboard candidate.


Scholarship remains undecided about whether the "sock it to me" bit actually pushed Nixon over the top, but the argument is largely irrelevant. Nixon's "sock it to me" was simply the culmination of a year's worth of work orchestrated by Paul Keyes and his savvy team of media manipulators.   ...   Officially, Keyes was merely a joke contributor, but the reality was much more. The forty-four-year-old was Richard Nixon's new master of media control along with an impressive team of Marshall McLuhan adherents that included Raymond Price, Harry Treleaven and a twenty-eight-year-old producer from The Mike Douglas Show named Roger Ailes; the future wunderkind behind Fox News.

Raymond Price joined Nixon's media stalwarts after a long tenure as an editorial writer for The New York Herald Tribune. Price was hired as Nixon's speechwriter, but he was quickly consumed less with Nixon's words and more with his image. Price, too, was a devotee of Marshall McLuhan and wasted no time in applying his theories to the hopeless candidate. Speaking about the nation's aversion to the withered politico, Price said, "The response is to the image not the man. It's not what's there that counts, it's what's projected ... it's not what he projects but rather what the voter receives. It's not the man we have to change, but rather the received impression." Professor McLuhan would have awarded Price a gold star. Unable to cure an awkward man, the Price-Keyes strategy was to make sure Nixon acknowledged his maladroit persona.

Roger Ailes was hired by Nixon after the two hit it off during the politician's 1967 appearance on The Mike Douglas Show, which Ailes had been producing. Ailes says his objective from day one was to put to rest the public's impression that Nixon was "a bore, a pain in the ass ... Let's face it, a lot people think Nixon is dull ... [That he] was forty-two years old the day he was born ... Now you put him on television, you've got a problem right away. He's a funny-looking guy. He looks like somebody hung him in a closet overnight." Marshall McLuhan's treatise Understanding Media was immediately circulated to everyone in the office with a key passage highlighted: "The success of any TV performer depends on his achieving a low-pressure style of presentation, although getting his act on the air may require much high-pressure organization."


Friday, May 19, 2017

Understanding Ailes

This Gawker (R.I.P) article does an excellent job showing the connection between Ailes, the Nixon White House and the beginnings of the social engineering experiment we call the conservative movement (of which Ailes was a primary architect):

Roger Ailes' Secret Nixon-Era Blueprint for Fox News by John Cook [The original article is no longer available but you can get at least most of it here and here]

While this Sherman interview for Marketplace is the best concise take I've heard on the rise of Fox News.


Monday, December 11, 2023

Twelve years ago at the blog -- some of us were getting worried about the press's ability to handle misinformation and disinformation...

But we still weren't ready for what was coming.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Cascading failure

"A cascading failure is a failure in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of a part can trigger the failure of successive parts."


Here's Paul Krugman again railing against the cult of balance:

All indications are, however, that Campaign 2012 will make Campaign 2000 look like a model of truthfulness. And all indications are that the press won’t know what to do — or, worse, that they will know what to do, which is act as stenographers and refuse to tell readers and listeners when candidates lie. Because to do otherwise when the parties aren’t equally at fault — and they won’t be — would be “biased”.

This will be true even of those news organizations specifically charged with fact-checking. Yes, they’ll call out some lies — but they’ll also claim that some perfectly reasonable statements are lies, in order to keep their precious balance. This is already happening: as Igor Volsky points out, one of the finalists for Politifact’s Lie of the Year is a Democratic claim — that Republicans want to abolish Medicare — that happens to be entirely true.

While Bruce Bartlett discusses how reliable sources of information have been dismantled because they've been politically inconvenient:
In addition to decimating committee budgets, he also abolished two really useful Congressional agencies, the Office of Technology Assessment and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The former brought high-level scientific expertise to bear on legislative issues and the latter gave state and local governments an important voice in Congressional deliberations.

The amount of money involved was trivial even in terms of Congress’s budget. Mr. Gingrich’s real purpose was to centralize power in the speaker’s office, which was staffed with young right-wing zealots who followed his orders without question. Lacking the staff resources to challenge Mr. Gingrich, the committees could offer no resistance and his agenda was simply rubber-stamped.

Unfortunately, Gingrichism lives on. Republican Congressional leaders continually criticize every Congressional agency that stands in their way. In addition to the C.B.O., one often hears attacks on the Congressional Research Service, the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Government Accountability Office.

Lately, the G.A.O. has been the prime target. Appropriators are cutting its budget by $42 million, forcing furloughs and cutbacks in investigations that identify billions of dollars in savings yearly. So misguided is this effort that Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma and one of the most conservative members of Congress, came to the agency’s defense.

And Andrew Gelman (and countless others) have pointed out numerous cases that suggest there is no real consequence when a journalist doesn't bother to get even the most basic and easily-checked facts right.

I don't want to push this analogy too far -- there are some important dissimilarities -- but all sorts of failures have grown more common in what you might call our feedback system, the channels we use to get the information we, as a democracy, need to make informed collective decisions. Worse yet, these failures have the potential to trigger and intensify each other, leading to catastrophic results.

1. Reliable information sources like the CBO are undermined;

2. An increasing amount of our information comes from unreliable subsidized sources like Heritage;

3. Journalists suffer no penalty for publishing inaccurate information;

4. Journalists also fashion for themselves an incredibly self-serving ethical rule that lets them, in the name of balance, avoid the consequences that would have to be faced if they honestly assigned responsibility for screw-ups;

5. A growing tendency to converge on a narrative makes the media easier to manipulate.

All these things are serious. All are getting worse. And if we don't do something about them, I think we're all pretty much screwed.

p.s. I added a link to number 4


Friday, December 8, 2023

Five years ago at the blog -- cool pictures of old submarines

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Launching the USS Holland -- my big regret is that I couldn't work in a reference to the dynamite gun

Perhaps even more than the airplane, submarines are the perfect example of how a wave of enabling technologies at the end of the 19th century suddenly made the long dreamed of both possible and practical. Experiments in the field went back literally hundreds of years.

But it wasn't until the last third of the 19th century that a set of four advances – – one revolutionary in the field of naval warfare, the other three revolutionary period – – would make submarines a major military factor. Whitehead torpedoes, Bessemer steel, electric batteries and motors, and internal combustion made the modern version of the craft possible.

The models being developed by most of the major powers around 1900 were, in broad strokes, the same basic configuration as those that would patrol the oceans for more than 50 years until the launch of the Nautilus. There would, of course, be great progress. The subs of World War I would be far more sophisticated than those of 15 years earlier, just as the subs of World War II would surpass those of the previous generation, but the underlying approach would remain fundamentally the same.

The following article, complete with very cool illustrations, comes from Scientific American (December 28, 1901). Just to give you an idea how quickly things were moving at the time, the same issue has two news items on major advances in wireless telegraphy including Marconi's announcement of the first successful transatlantic radio transmission, accepted as authentic by "Mr. Edison" and prompting a cable of congratulations from "Prof. Bell" who graciously offered his house on the coast of Nova Scotia as a site for future experiments.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

More on Elon's DealBook interview - - he really does talk that way

If you've only been indirectly following the career of Elon Musk, you probably assume that many of the more over-the-top descriptions you've heard are hyperbole. In some cases, this may be true, but when we talk about Musk having a messiah complex, we literally mean that he frequently describes himself and his actions in explicitly messianic terms. He frames himself as the savior of the planet. He talks about how much he loves humanity, how his work is going to save mankind.

As an unsurprising corollary, anyone who does anything to hurt or anger Musk, anyone who does anything to interfere with his plans is seen as an enemy of humanity. This doesn't just apply to things like making rockets or promoting renewable energy. Anything that hurts any of Musk's businesses will be judged harshly by history

Drew Magary writing for SFGate:

“Don’t advertise,” he said to the audience. “If someone is going to try to blackmail me with advertising? Blackmail me with money? Go f—k yourself. Go. F—k. Yourself. Is that clear? I hope it is. Hey Bob [Iger, CEO of Disney]! If you’re in the audience. That’s how I feel. Don’t advertise.”

“I understand that,” Sorkin told Musk with the utmost professionalism. “But there’s a reality too, right? I mean [X CEO] Linda Yaccarino is right here and she’s got to sell advertising!”

Musk, who appeared both high and made of plywood, responded with a reality of his own:

“Actually, what this advertising boycott is going to do is, it’s going to kill the company. And the whole world will know that those advertisers killed the company, and we will document it in great detail.”

Here Musk looked out to the audience, expecting vehement agreement, perhaps even applause. He was greeted with dead silence instead. Sorkin, still residing in the correct reality, told Musk, “But those advertisers, I imagine they’re going to say, ‘WE didn’t kill the company.’”

And here is where Musk revealed his delusion to all. “Oh yeah?” he shot back. “Tell it to Earth.”

The Earth will condemn you for letting the company formerly known as Twitter go bankrupt.

Musk talks like this all the time and it doesn't take very long for it to start to get creepy, drink the Flavor-Aid / go meet Hale–Bopp  creepy, all the more disturbing coming from one of the world's richest men.


Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Marshall and Chait have also noticed that Haley's hype doesn't match her prospects

Circling back to last month's Nikki Haley thread (see here and here to catch up), let's check in with two of the smartest political observers, starting with Josh Marshall.

 Haley In Unstoppable Drive Toward Second Place
November 28, 2023

We’re back to another of those comical developments in the Republican Party and it’s relationship with its leader, Donald Trump. This morning the Koch Network announced it is supporting Nikki Haley, former South Carolina Governor and the latest forlorn hope of the billionaires who fund the GOP. She joins the heap of broken political bodies like Ron DeSantis, Glenn Youngkin and others. It raises the question: Does this completely not matter or mostly not matter? It may surprise you to learn that I’m only at “mostly doesn’t matter.” There may actually be some limited significance.

When I first started writing this post I decided to double check the latest polls. Haley is in the midst of a meteoric rise in pundit and GOP elite esteem. Lots of observers point either to polls or other evidence suggesting that if only Haley could win the nomination she’d be a lock to beat President Biden. (I actually doubt that’s true. But that’s a different story.) Candidly, I was surprised by just how much Trump is now crushing the entire GOP field. Trump is no longer sitting at about 50% or so in a big field, what by really any measure is more than enough to make him nominee. He’s now consistently 10% or 15% higher. He’s no longer at 50% support. He’s now usually 50% or more ahead of the second place vote getter.

What Haley is now accomplishing is being on the verge of surpassing the crumpled carcass of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Enough to win the small trinket, not the full stuffed animal at the fair.

Seeing these polls I was momentarily struck by pangs of “who am I kidding” going with “mostly” versus “completely.” But I’m persevering.

One point almost everyone leaves out of these discussions is the small but nontrivial possibility that Trump will drop out of the race due to health or legal issues (or flight from the latter). The possibility does make second place a bit more desirable, but it would be a bit simplistic to say that everyone moves up one space if Trump collapses on stage. As Chait points out, Haley has some issues in this department.


 Nikki Haley’s Rocket Ride to Second Place

December 2, 2023

In April, Sarah Longwell of The Bulwark wrote what is still one of the most insightful reports about the Republican electorate. Longwell, strategic director of Republican Voters Against Trump, has sat through hundreds of focus groups to understand the mental state of the party. Her primary conclusion is that most GOP voters see the Trump era not as an interregnum but as a kind of revolutionary event she calls “Year Zero.”

“The Republican party has been irretrievably altered,” she wrote, “and, as one GOP voter put it succinctly, ‘We’re never going back.’” Such voters have bought into Trump’s argument that the party leaders who preceded him were weak losers. (This argument conveniently absolves Trump of blame for his own losses — he was sabotaged by the Establishment, you see.) “If you forged your political identity pre-Trump, then you belong to a GOP establishment now loathed by a majority of Republican primary voters,” she concluded. “Even if you agree with Trump. Even if you worked for Trump. Even if you were on Trump’s ticket as his vice president.

Longwell laid out a roster of Republican politicians whom the voters could never accept for this reason. The first name on her list was Nikki Haley.

 As we mentioned before, even when Haley panders to the base, she still can't shake the RINO label.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Elon's cunning plan

We've been questioning the myth of Elon Musk for about a decade now, starting back when only a handful of other commoners were taking that position, and one of the things we've learned is that explaining his actions is always going to be far more complicated for those who insist on holding on to the Elon is a genius axiom.


Peter Coy writing for the NYT [Emphasis added]:

Again, it’s plausible and even probable that Musk has simply made a series of bad choices. As smart as he is, he does have an impulsive streak and a lot of anger inside of him. At the DealBook Summit, he admitted that endorsing the antisemitic tweet was a mistake. He told the interviewer, Andrew Ross Sorkin, that he had “demons” in his mind stemming from an unhappy childhood.

But let’s get to the weird theory that Musk is doing all of this deliberately in a way that benefits him in the long run. It starts with the fact that he realized soon after he bid for the company that it was a mistake and tried to back out of the deal, but wasn’t able to extricate himself. So he was uncomfortable with owning X to start with. Then he made management mistakes, such as firing essential employees. And, crucially, interest rates rose sharply, raising the cost of servicing the bank loans he took on to finance the deal.

Let's stop for a moment and correct a small but non-trivial point. There is no evidence that Musk was ''uncomfortable with owning X." There is tons of evidence that he was uncomfortable with the amount of money he had to pay for it. As Alex Heath observed in the Verge "Everyone knew that Twitter wasn’t worth $44 billion when Elon Musk bought it a year ago." To those of us following at the time, the pattern was familiar. Musk was talking big on Twitter, someone called him on it and he tried to weasel out. (Remember how his promise that Tesla would design and manufacture all the ventilators ICUs needed in the pandemic ended with him shipping a few hospitals some off-the-shelf CPAP machines?)

... There’s something in finance called gambling for resurrection. It’s when you’re down so far that you don’t have much more to lose, so you’re willing to take big risks in the hope of recouping your losses. The theory is that Musk is gambling for resurrection with a triple bank shot that probably won’t work — but just might.

The main proponent of the crazy-like-a-fox theory, as far as I can tell, is Eric Talley, a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in corporate law, governance and finance. I interviewed him on Thursday. He admitted, “I am still uncertain myself” whether Musk is engaged in “a diabolical strategy embedded in a four-dimensional chess move” or just being erratic.

If it is 4-D chess, he said, it’s that Musk is trying to harm X in the short run to get the banks that have lent him money to accept that they will have to “restructure” what he owes them — that is, lower the interest rates, extend the payment periods or write off some of the debt altogether. Once that dirty deed is done, he could then focus on getting the less indebted company back on a growth path.

The risk in such a strategy, of course, is that Musk would succeed in talking the company down [we'll be coming back to why this isn't really a case of talking a company down later -- MP], but not in talking it back up, leaving his stake in the company worth little to nothing. As Talley put it to me: “To hit the right window on this you need to create a temporary degree of acid indigestion on the part of your creditors, take advantage of that, and hope that the pyrotechnics that you set off don’t ignite the whole company and cause it to lose all its value.”

This is a horrendously complicated deal and unfortunately Joseph is our finance guy, but the Fast Company article by Allan Sloan which Coy cited has a good overview.

Now, to some math. Even though $44 billion is the number you usually see for how much Musk and his coinvestors paid for Twitter, that doesn’t include $2.5 billion of deal-related costs.That makes the total cost $46.5 billion. 

If you subtract the $13 billion that Musk had Twitter borrow to help pay for the takeover, it means Musk and his coinvestors paid a combined $33.5 billion for their stock in X. Subtract the $7.14 billion that his coinvestors paid, and you see that Musk paid about $26.36 billion. Apply a 64.7% loss to that, and—voila!—Musk is down a bit more than $17 billion.

What value is Musk placing on the company? According to a story broken by Fortune, the restricted stock units that Musk is offering to some employees value X’s stock at $19 billion.

The big question is whether that $19 billion is above and beyond the $13 billion of debt on the company. Neither the company nor Musk will say. But based on my years of parsing corporate finances, my bet is that the $19 billion is above and beyond the debt. This would value the company at $32 billion, down substantially from the original $46.5 billion.

By contrast, the value that Fidelity is placing on its funds’ holdings of X place the value of the equity at $11.8 billion: 35.3% of the $33.5 billion that Musk and his coinvestors put into the takeover. That would value the company at a bit less than $25 billion.

 This article came out a month ago, before Musk endorsed the "Jews will not replace us" conspiracy theory...

... then told his largest advertisers to "go fuck yourself. ... Go. Fuck. Yourself." Valuation of a non-publicly traded company is tricky, but there is little doubt that Twitter is worth far less than it was when Sloan did his analysis. 

Even if Musk could manage to get out from under that $13 billion, his vulpine craziness will still leave him billions in the hole from his original investment, but past that there is the underlying absurdity of describing this as talking the company down. There are certainly situations where savvy CEOs might want to lower people's perceptions of their companies' prospects and profitability, possibly even going so far as to reduce those profits for awhile, but what's happening here is closer to this exchange from an old issue of Mad:

"Then I'll convince him he's killing me."


"By dying."

While Musk has floated some ideas about moving from the ad-based model, they have been too unworkable or inchoate (or, impressively, in some cases both) to treat seriously. Twitter is and will remain an advertising dependent social network for the foreseeable future. As such, its viability relies on its brand and reputation and on its relationship with advertisers and content providers. Not only has the foundation of the company been undermined, perhaps irredeemably by Musk, but the source of the damage is the public face of the company and there is virtually no chance of him being removed.  

Coy and Talley do acknowledge how unlikely their scenario is, but the very fact that they feel the need to waste their time and ours, not to mention a chunk of valuable NYT real estate on this is a reminder of just how reluctant the establishment press is to acknowledge the obvious when it comes to Elon Musk and the larger category of tech messiahs. 

As you dig into the Silicon Valley/VC story, it becomes more and more clear that while you can find brilliant minds and true visionaries, the majority aren't exceptionally bright or insightful. Convincing ourselves that these people are all geniuses and thought leaders, treating every buzz-word laden utterance as a profundity, credulously accepting every incredible claim has proven a costly mistake.

Particularly when you're dealing with a self-mythologizing narcissist.

p.s. This just in:

NEW via @claireatki: Sources close to X are telling me that there’s been a wave of resignations from Linda Yaccarino’s sales team.. 
The flood of resignations from some senior and some junior ad staff came after X distributed November bonus checks. One of the people exiting was in the midst of content deals aimed at growing X’s presence in the media world. 
One person said there are barely any staff working at the X office beyond CEO Yaccarino, top aide Joe Benarroch and Carrie Stimmel, global agency leader. 
“It’s been miserable and losing money,” said one person familiar with conversations with the team.