Thursday, March 31, 2011

Clip of the Week

Early in the week, I thought the Clip of the Week was a cinch--overlooking this video of some pretty impressive soccer ball juggling, I was all set to give Clip of the Week to this video of a youth soccer team on an island village in Thailand building its own (floating) soccer field and developing into a champion team against all odds. (For what it's worth, I still recommend that you watch the soccer videos, especially the floating field.)

But then on Tuesday night, at the UVA-George Washington baseball game, I witnessed one of the rarest accomplishments in the sporting world--a perfect game. Will Roberts, a junior pitcher from Richmond who had enjoyed only modest success in his first two seasons, pitched the game of his life, allowing just one ball to be hit out of the infield en route to only the 8th NCAA Division I perfect game since 1957.

The atmosphere in the park was incredible, and the end of the game was indescribably emotional--if you didn't get a little teary-eyed watching the team lift Roberts on their shoulders, then you just don't like sports. In all my years of watching and playing baseball, I'd never witnessed a perfect game, and I may never again. I'm glad I was there for this one. Congratulations, Will.

Root, root, root for the Tigers

Well it's finally Opening Day today (though not for my Red Sox, for that I'll have to wait a day), and we'll kick things off this afternoon in the Bronx, where the Yankees host the Tigers at the new Yankee Stadium. I'll of course be rooting for the Tigers, because I always root against the Yankees, but this time around I've got a pretty good reason why you should too:
On Thursday, the New York Yankees begin their regular season at Yankee Stadium, a gleaming $1.5 billion behemoth that opened in the Bronx in 2009 as the new home of one of the richest franchises in sports.
But next to the stadium is a lingering eyesore – a protracted construction project that was supposed to have been transformed into three public ball fields months ahead of opening day. Instead, some coaches and neighborhood residents say, it remains a joyless Mudville...
The city promised to build the fields, which are starting to take shape directly across 161st Street to the south of the stadium, to replace others that were bulldozed in 2006 to make way for the stadium.
The razed fields, in Macombs Dam Park, were the only regulation baseball diamonds nearby, and were home to neighborhood pickup games and youth leagues, and to teams from schools like All Hallows High School, a parochial institution several blocks away.
“We’ve gone five years now with no ball fields here,” said Sean Sullivan, 55, the principal of All Hallows and a coach of its baseball team, which has spent five years scouring the city for home fields. “They took the parks away from my kids, and now our team is a bunch of gypsies.”
The team, which played part of its 2009 season in Staten Island, is still searching for a site for its league opener on April 7.
The fields were originally to be completed late last year, as the centerpiece of Heritage Field, a 10-acre park where the former Yankee Stadium stood. But the groundbreaking was delayed until last June, and city officials now say the fields will not open until fall 2011.
“They built the new stadium in record time, but building replacement parkland for the community is literally dragging,” said Helen Foster, who represents the neighborhood on the City Council.
That's pretty weak. Admittedly, the majority of the anger is directed at the city and not the Yankees, and that's probably fair. Having lived in New York for several years (and worked in the shadow of Ground Zero), I recognize how ridiculous that city can be when it comes to political boondoggles getting in the way of projects (see Freedom Tower, Second Avenue Subway).

And in fairness to the Yankees, they don't seem to be completely blind to the blight they've caused:
A Yankees spokeswoman said the team donated $10 million to the parks replacement project in 2010, and gave $5.6 million worth of donations – including ballpark events, tickets and merchandise – to various Bronx organizations. The team also helped provide buses for local schools, including All Hallows, in 2009, she said.
But really, that donation might sound great to us common folk for whom $10 million is a lot of money, but it's a pittance for the Yankees, especially in comparison to the $1.5 billion price tag of the building that caused this problem in the first place.

The team's annual revenues (pre-revenue sharing) are pegged somewhere around $600 million, which means that the $10 million they donated to the parks project is roughly the equivalent of a couple of playoff games (which they would've gotten back had they not choked against the Rangers in last year's ALCS). In other words, it's a rounding error.

With the weight that the Yankees are clearly capable of throwing around in the Bronx (they got the ballpark project started and finished in a hurry, didn't they?), there's clearly more they can be doing to fast-track this process. But they've got their ballpark built, and they now seem not to really care about the neighborhood around them. So as a result, fields that were supposed to look like this (a year ago):

Instead look like this today:

Now, I'm not saying any of the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball wouldn't do just about the same thing in similar circumstances, so maybe my position here is unfair (it's certainly far from unbiased). But today, when you watch the Yankees playing in their $1.5 billion playground, just keep in mind what's going on across the street, and the Little League teams without a home for their Opening Days. Maybe for one day, you'll feel like booing the Yankees too.

[New York Times]

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sometimes, the consumer does win

Alright, I'm always harping on the need for innovation (and entrepreneurship) to get us out of our economic doldrums. So much so that I'm not even going to bother linking to my old rants--if you've read me before, you need no reminder of my views. I usually harp about the lack of innovation, and how consolidation of industries limits competition and drives down the overall level of innovation, thus essentially screwing the consumer.

This is not one of those times. This is awesome:

This is the second major announcement by Amazon this month, following on the heels of their "free streaming video for Amazon Prime customers" offer (admittedly it's limited to select titles, but I've watched Syriana, Man On Wire, and Exit Through the Gift Shop for free this month, while paying only a combined $5 to rent The Fighter and The Prestige... and I've gotten $300 dollars worth of products, including a propane grill, shipped to me for free. Yeah, I'm an Amazon Prime fanboy--so be it).

Amazon is one of the few companies that I truly admire right now. They've got brains, they've got guts, and they truly do try to innovate and provide value to their customers in creative new ways. Their products (and their site arrangement) might not be as pretty as their competitors, but they're every bit as functional, and in some ways better (most notably, they don't "protect" their audio files like iTunes does so that they can't be played on non-Apple media players, which is bulls**t). And their prices can't be beat.

Ultimately, I admire any company with the stones to take on both Netflix and Apple in the same month. Maybe it will work out for them, maybe it won't--but any company that stared down the dot-com bubble burst and survived isn't a company I'd bet against.

Revisiting old themes as always

Old issues never really go away, they just sort of hide for a while, then crop up at surprising (and sometimes inopportune) times. That's the case when it comes to corporate taxation, which I first attempted to tackle five months ago with respect to Google. At the time I said:
Bloomberg estimates that the total impact of Google's unpaid taxes has boosted its stock price by nearly $100 per share--about a 20% increase over what it would be absent preferential tax treatment. That increase is subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, and also disproportionately benefits the rich who own GOOG stock over the poor who don't. We need to crack down on this, and we need to do it now."
Well, um... strike one.

That's right, GE somehow paid no federal taxes whatsoever (in fact, they actually got a tax CREDIT) in 2010 despite reporting a $14 billion (yeah, that's right, $14 billion) profit to its shareholders. So, you know... yeah. I'm speechless. Anyone else wanna take a turn at ranting? I'm kinda tired of it.

[Rolling Stone]
(h/t reader Andrew)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Quote of the Week

Sometimes, when you're a big internet star like me, you can expect there to be a few imitators along the way. That's how I know I've officially arrived, with this week's launching of The Red Cowboy blog. An original Crimson Cavalier reader and an old friend (we've been to battle together a few times, and have the wounds to prove it), The Red Cowboy is everything I'm not--rich, attractive, single, hip, laid-back, and maybe just a little bit crazy. But don't take my word for it. Listen to the man himself:


"So consider The Red Cowboy the casual or more easy going version of The Crimson Cavalier. A place you come to educate yourself about the more enjoyable things in life, share your opinions, and politely argue amongst friends. Of course, always remember that a tie always goes to the Cowboy."
                                          - The Red Cowboy

Or, as my wife so eloquently put it, "so after people read your blog and get depressed about the state of the world, they can go over to his blog and forget about everything you wrote?" Perfect. Well said, honey. You're a dear. The Red Cowboy is what The Crimson Cavalier becomes when he's had a rough week and tipped back a few too many. Sounds great.

But all kidding aside, go read the man. Whether your iTunes library is out of date or you need to know which baseball movie to watch to get yourself psyched up for Opening Day, he's your go-to source. Just don't blame me when you can't get the new Lupe song out of your head--I feel your pain.

Liar loans and prosecution

This article was everywhere over the weekend (seriously, I'm pretty sure every financial, economic, and current events blogger I read linked to this article), and I'm nothing if not a bandwagoner, so here goes. If Joe Nocera's story doesn't make your blood boil, nothing will--or you're Angelo Mozilo.
A few weeks ago, when the Justice Department decided not to prosecute Angelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that none of the big fish were likely to go to prison for their roles in the financial crisis.  Soon after that column ran, I received an e-mail from a man named Richard Engle, who informed me that I was wrong. There was, in fact, someone behind bars for what he’d supposedly done during the subprime bubble. It was his 48-year-old son, Charlie.
On Valentine’s Day, the elder Mr. Engle said, his son had entered a minimum-security prison in Beaver, W.Va., to begin serving a 21-month sentence for mortgage fraud. He then proceeded to tell me the tale of how federal agents nabbed his son — a tale he backed up with reams of documents and records that suggest, if nothing else, that when the federal government is truly motivated, there is no mountain it won’t move to prosecute someone it wants to nail. And it was definitely motivated to nail Charlie Engle.
Mr. Engle’s is a tale worth telling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its punch line. Was Mr. Engle convicted of running a crooked subprime company? Was he a mortgage broker who trafficked in predatory loans? A Wall Street huckster who sold toxic assets?
No. Charlie Engle wasn’t a seller of bad mortgages. He was a borrower. And the “mortgage fraud” for which he was prosecuted was something that literally millions of Americans did during the subprime bubble. Supposedly, he lied on two liar loans.

Nocera goes on to describe--in sordid details--the extraordinary lengths that government stooges went to in order to prosecute Engle, a reformed drug addict who had turned his life around to become one of the world's best ultra-marathoners.

I really can't do the story justice either in excerpts or in paraphrasing, so you'll really have to read the whole article (trust me, it's worth it). Even the staunchest supporter of government regulation would be disturbed by the Stasi-like tactics employed by the investigators on the case, and how far they went to prosecute an individual while letting the corporations on the other side of the coin get away scot-free.

The approach taken in this case--described by Barry Ritholtz as "Prosecute Guppie; Let the Sharks Roam Free" is exactly the same wrong-headed approach that has led our "War on Drugs" to be such an epic failure. Untold millions of dollars have been wasted trying to criminalize and discourage consumption and small-time criminals, with a comparatively small amount of effort spent tackling organized crime and the drug-pushers who enable and encourage the behavior we are trying to eradicate.

Unfortunately, government doesn't seem to have learned its lesson, either in the War on Drugs or in its application of strategies in other scenarios like the "liar loan" case written about here. Our government is supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people, but increasingly it is becoming one of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation. There's simply no other reasonable explanation for this troubling double standard. Free Charlie Engle.

[New York Times]

Monday, March 28, 2011

Math be damned, bring it on Final Four

Last week I linked to a post over at the FiveThirtyEight blog talking about the strange mathematics of the NCAA tournament, and why it's bad to be an 8 seed (and ironically better to be an 11 seed).

Butler seemed not to care about any of that, as last year's runner-up plowed right through their bracket's 1 seed (Pittsburgh) and 2 seed (Florida) to return to the Final Four, becoming the first 8 seed to make it to the promised land since 2000 (when two 8s managed the feat).

Of course, 11 seed Virginia Commonwealth seemed to back up the study's thesis with its advance to the Final Four, but the study didn't exactly account for VCU's play-in game, which made VCU the first team to ever require 5 tournament wins in order to reach the national semis--the math on that, clearly, is worse than drawing an 8 seed or a 9 seed.

So take your pick--neither of these teams is mathematically supposed to be here, but now one of them is guaranteed to play for the title. For Butler, that would be familiar territory, for VCU--not so much. This year's Final Four should be historically fun to watch, and it's already etched its name in the record books. Since the tournament's expansion beyond its old 32-team format, this year's quartet marks the first time that no 1 seeds or 2 seeds were present, and the combined seeds of the four participants (3+4+8+11=26) are the highest in history, blowing out the previous high from 2000 (1+5+8+8=22).

In summary, I've never been more excited to have been made to look foolish; this is why I love sports. None of this was supposed to be possible, and yet here we are. (Also, in a year where I successfully picked only 3 of the Elite 8 and 1 of the Final Four, I somehow still have a chance to finish in the money in both of my bracket pools--go figure.)

As one final note before we put college basketball to bed for a few days, note that if this was football, the National Championship would be played in late April between Ohio State and Kansas, and VCU-Butler would be played on a blue field in Idaho with nobody watching. Yeah, basketball wins. Take a hike, BCS.

Tech Bubble 2.0?

A New York Times article today wonders if we're stealthily entering a new tech bubble, with many of the same warning signs that accompanied the original late-'90s hysteria (emphasis mine).
Banks pouring money into technology funds, wealthy clients and institutions clamoring to get pieces of start-ups, expectations of stock market debuts building — as Wall Street’s machinery kicks into second gear, some investors with memories of the Internet bust a decade earlier are wondering whether this sudden burst of activity spells danger for the industry once again.
With all this exuberance, valuations are soaring. Investments in Facebook and Zynga have more than quintupled the implied worth of each company in the last two years. The social shopping site Groupon is said to be considering an initial public offering that would value the company at $25 billion. Less than a year ago, the company was valued at $1.4 billion.
“I worry that investors think every social company will be as good as Facebook,” said Roger McNamee, a managing director of Elevation Partners and an investor in Facebook, who co-founded the private equity fund Silver Lake Partners in 1999 at the height of the boom. “You have an attractive set of companies right now, but it would be surprising if the next wave of social companies had as much impact as the first.”

What's interesting about this go-around is that these deals have so far been done outside the formal capital market structure, which means that the usual buyers and sellers are unable to do their bidding in the traditional manner. The result is that there is an effective monopoly on the companies' shares, and any interested buyer is forced to pay whatever usurious price the seller (let's call him "Mark") requests.

This dynamic definitely helps add fuel to the speculative fire, and it could potentially make any bubble particularly painful if it does burst--it could also eventually make it exceedingly difficult for these companies to do a traditional IPO in the future, lest the market price the shares at a significant discount to these heavily-skewed private market transactions.

Investors beware--with Facebook trying its best to rewrite the rules of our financial markets, there is significant risk to anyone who owns equity in these companies (not that I think any of you do, unless you happen to be international men of mystery with large undisclosed ownership stakes in private equity firms--which I suppose is theoretically possible). I'm not saying with certainty that Facebook is overvalued, I'm just saying that until real two-sided trading develops, any and all valuations are suspect.

[NY Times]

Friday, March 25, 2011

A trend that needs to change

I've been pretty vocal here before about the need for entrepreneurship and innovation (I mean real innovation, not consumption vehicles like iPads or new "innovative" financial products) to bring us out of our "jobless recovery" into a real recovery, because we can't rely on our big corporations to do so. So far, not so good...
The recession caused a sharp decline in new business start-ups, intensifying job market losses and potentially putting future economic growth at risk.
The Census Bureau on Wednesday said that 403,765 new firms were started in the 12 months ended March 2009, down 17.3% from a year earlier and the fewest on records that begin in 1977.
New businesses are an important source of new jobs — without them, there would be no job growth at all. Indeed, the new Census data show that one of the reasons that the job market declines were so severe in the recession was the dearth of start-ups. Firms less than a year old employed 2.3 million people in March 2009 whereas as a year earlier start-ups employed 3 million people.
In past recessions, start-ups didn’t take nearly as large a hit as they did in the downturn that began at the end of 2007, notes John Haltiwanger, a University of Maryland economist who has worked extensively with the Census start-up data. Even in the deep recession that ended in late 1982, start-up activity held up fairly well. “Start-ups weren’t immune, but the guys in the garages were going to try to do what they were going to do no matter what,” said Mr. Haltiwanger.
Unfortunately, things seem to be going in exactly the wrong direction. The Journal article attributes a significant amount of the dropoff in startups to a lack of financing from venture capital firms, banks, etc., but I think that's overly simplistic.

I think that this generation (my generation), in large part because of an excess of student loan debt, is extremely risk-averse and afraid to put their careers on the line for something that might not pan out. They tend to take the safe play, which increasingly isn't actually as safe (or as fulfilling) as it might appear. But sooner or later, I don't think they're going to have a choice. The big companies aren't going to start hiring any time soon, and more people are graduating from college (and high school) every day.

Some of the young and unemployed will eventually have no choice but to band together and start new ventures, and our country will be the better for it. It just isn't happening yet. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

[Wall Street Journal]

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Clip of the Week

The Onion. Facebook. Brilliant.

CIA's 'Facebook' Program Dramatically Cut Agency's Costs

Web "astroturfing" and the dangers of anonymity

Last week, at the height of the panic surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan (the panic has passed, the danger hasn't), I wrote a post about the dangers of blind reliance on "expert" analysis. I think that issues with verifying the authenticity of sources and information are extremely difficult to resolve on the internet, and that most internet users probably overestimate the journalistic integrity of the sources they read most often.

This overestimation can be extremely dangerous, and it leaves internet users highly vulnerable to manipulation by people or groups with agendas. As can typically be expected, where a vulnerability exists, a predator enters. The Guardian's George Monbiot writes (emphasis mine):
Every month more evidence piles up, suggesting that online comment threads and forums are being hijacked by people who aren't what they seem.
The anonymity of the web gives companies and governments golden opportunities to run astroturf operations: fake grassroots campaigns that create the impression that large numbers of people are demanding or opposing particular policies. This deception is most likely to occur where the interests of companies or governments come into conflict with the interests of the public. For example, there's a long history of tobacco companies creating astroturf groups to fight attempts to regulate them...
After I wrote about online astroturfing in December, I was contacted by a whistleblower. He was part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them.
Like the other members of the team, he posed as a disinterested member of the public. Or, to be more accurate, as a crowd of disinterested members of the public: he used 70 personas, both to avoid detection and to create the impression there was widespread support for his pro-corporate arguments. I'll reveal more about what he told me when I've finished the investigation I'm working on.
It now seems that these operations are more widespread, more sophisticated and more automated than most of us had guessed. Emails obtained by political hackers from a US cyber-security firm called HBGary Federal suggest that a remarkable technological armoury is being deployed to drown out the voices of real people.
This is not good. Operations like this can and do go just about anywhere--from posting overly beneficial product reviews on e-commerce sites to infiltrating message boards to dominating the "Comments" sections of influential blogs, there are literally hundreds of ways in which corporations and agencies can take advantage of our blind faith in the wisdom of internet crowds.

The power of the internet's crowdsourcing capabilities is immense, but it is also easily perverted and compromised. This then threatens to take us back to square one, where the only opinions we can trust are those that are closest to us, which can be easily verified. That's not a good place to end up. Therefore it's ultimately on us as consumers of internet content to verify, verify, and verify some more. It's too bad, but it's where we are.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A tale of two athletes

Over the past week, a number of inspirational sports-related stories have drawn my attention, and two of them held my attention because they were so jarringly different. Here's the first one, which caught my attention as a (recently minted) distance runner:
A 400-pound sumo wrestler made history Sunday becoming the heaviest person to finish a marathon.
Kelly Gneiting, 40, grabbed a Guinness World Record at the Los Angeles Marathon after he plodded across the finish line drenched in rain and with a time of 9:48:52.
"I did it, but it was hell. Pure hell," Gneiting told the Los Angeles Times...
Gneiting, 40, weighed 400 pounds before the race and 396.2 pounds after he used a combination of running and walking to conquer 26.2 miles in pounding rain and fierce wind.
The Idaho native crushed the previous world record for marathon weight - 275 pounds - and also set a personal record beating his 2008 L.A. Marathon time of 11:52:11 by more than two hours.
My first response is the natural one, "good for him". I understand the desire to "climb the mountain", so to speak, and to do something you never thought you would (or could). That's why I decided to train for and run the Boston Marathon last year, so it's a familiar sentiment (though I weigh a couple hundred pounds less). This guy refused to let his weight be an obstacle, and he ran through blisters and pouring rain to get to his goal. Cool.

But that wasn't the end of the story.
Gneiting, who calls himself "The Fat Man," is 6-feet tall and has a 60-inch waist. And he has a sense of pride to match his heft.
"I honestly think I'm one of the best athletes in the world," Gneiting told the Los Angeles Times last week before the race.
Okay, okay, easy there tiger. You finished the marathon, and good for you.

But let's be serious here, "fattest man to finish a marathon" is sort of a dubious distinction. It's kind of like being rated as the dumbest U.S. President (oh hey there Warren G. Harding, what's going on buddy?), or the worst playoff team in history. And when your finishing time for the marathon paces out to over a 22-minute mile--slower than most people's typical walking pace--I wouldn't get too uppity about your achievements.

As for the best athlete in the world... well, I'd say this guy has a pretty fair argument:
Arizona State's Anthony Robles hopped off the mat at the NCAA wrestling tournament after a perfect season. Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, familiar with perfect seasons, notched the Nittany Lions' first team title since 1953. And an ex-Penn Stater brought Arizona State another title with a pin of one of Sanderson's young stars.
Born with one leg, Robles took the 125-pound title Saturday night with a 7-1 win over defending champion Matt McDonough of Iowa. Robles' three-day performance here earned him the Outstanding Wrestler award.
For Robles, it was the finish to a 36-0 senior season and a journey begun when he took up wrestling as a high school freshman in Mesa, Ariz. He was anything but a dominator at the start.
"I was a terrible wrestler, only about 90 pounds, but my mom told me God made me for a reason, and I believe that reason was for wrestling," says Robles, who was given a standing ovation on the podium by a sellout crowd of 17,687 at the Wells Fargo Center.
Okay, yeah. Enough said. When it comes to overcoming obstacles and doing things that nobody thought possible, Anthony Robles > Kelly Gneiting. And it's not even close. Congratulations, Anthony. You are the man.

[NY Daily News]
[USA Today]

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Quote of the Week

So this one's not gonna be your typical current events-related Quote of the Week, because current events right now all seem to be too depressing, frightening, or infuriating, and I'm just not in that type of mood today.

No, today it's officially Spring, and it's warm outside and the birds are chirping, and there's (Spring Training) baseball on TV and the Yankees are losing. Yes, it's a good day to be alive. So let's hand this one over to an old quotable friend (which reminds me, I really need to read his autobiography).


"It's spring fever. That's what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want - oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!" 
                                   - Mark Twain 

Overthrowing democracy

With all the dramatic foreign events of the past week or so, a bunch of important domestic issues have taken a back seat and slipped below the radar (Wisconsin teachers anyone?). But that certainly doesn't mean the stories have lost relevance, nor does it imply that there aren't crucial developments that deserve our attention.

Developments like this one:
Michigan lawmakers are on the verge of approving a bill that would enable the governor to appoint "emergency managers" -- officials with unilateral power to make sweeping changes to cities facing financial troubles.
Under the legislation, the Michigan Messenger reports, the governor could declare a "financial emergency" in towns or school districts. He could then appoint a manager to fire local elected officials, break contracts, seize and sell assets, eliminate services - and even eliminate whole cities or school districts without any public input.
In fact, Michigan lawmakers already did approve the bill, and it was signed into law by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder late last week. It's a very troubling development.
Democracy is full of gray areas, in terms of what powers are and are not delegated to our elected officials. Many of our politicians take advantage of these gray areas, for example by authorizing the use of force against a foreign nation without Congressional approval or any demonstrated imminent threat to national security. Oh, but um, I digress.

The point is that while certain gray areas are seemingly inevitable, some restrictions are absolute--for example, elected officials certainly are not imbued with the right to appoint a dictator. It's pretty much the basic definition of democracy, and yet that's exactly what this bill represents. The "emergency manager" is nothing but a dictator appointed by a democratically elected official. I'm pretty sure that whole last sentence was a giant oxymoron, and yet here we are.

The basic problem here is that we, as citizens, cannot allow our system of law and democracy to be overthrown simply because there is an "emergency". For one, it should and must not be entrusted to those in power to determine what does and does not constitute an emergency--to do so would open the door to all kinds of political opportunism, and the endgame should be fairly clear. Can't get a bill passed? Fine. Figure out a way to declare an emergency, even if it means creating one, or at least inspiring a media frenzy that creates the perception of one. Wag the Dog, here we come.

Furthermore, true times of crisis are the times in which protecting our democratic principles is the most crucial. To suggest that our rights are somehow expendable in the circumstances when we in fact need them most is disturbing. Recall that our nation's revolution was fought largely on the basis of this type of political relativism/opportunism, and multiple Constitutional amendments were drafted as a result.

It's become a bit disturbing to me how willing many of us have become to sacrifice personal, financial, and civil liberties in the face of "threats", whether real or perceived. We began this process in earnest after September 11th, and now we continue to watch our politicians take advantage of us because it's "too important" to get in their way. I think that this represents laziness on the part of our politicians--instead of using true leadership to get us out of ugly situations, they resort to stale power grabs to push whatever agenda they feel like. I have to think that eventually, American voters will wake up to what is going on--if not them, then at least maybe the Judicial branch.

But then again, Arizona basically said they were seceding a couple months ago, and nobody noticed. This is how democracies die--slowly, without anybody noticing, with the implied consent of the people via their complete apathy. We shouldn't be rising up in protest to protect our benefits or pension plans; we should be rising up in protest to protect our right to a real, actual representative government. But more and more, we seem unwilling to do so, and trust our politicians to save us from ourselves. They won't.

[CBS News]

Monday, March 21, 2011

How I'm contributing to Bolivian obesity

Yes, you read that headline properly. It's sometimes odd to consider how individual actions can have impacts on people in cities, states, and countries that we know little about and have never visited, but such is life in the increasingly flat world in which we all live. In the same way that weather conditions in Australia can have a significant impact on global food prices, seemingly innocuous decisions and behavioral shifts by American consumers can have wide-ranging effects around the world.

That was the essence of this article from the New York Times, which discussed the very strange dynamic that has taken hold in Bolivia as a result of the American consumer's growing taste for quinoa, a food that I eat quite a bit of.
With an exceptional balance of amino acids, quinoa... is virtually unrivaled in the plant or animal kingdom for its life-sustaining nutrients.
But while Bolivians have lived off it for centuries, quinoa remained little more than a curiosity outside the Andes for years, found in health food shops and studied by researchers — until recently.
Now demand for quinoa is soaring in rich countries, as American and European consumers discover the “lost crop” of the Incas. The surge has helped raise farmers’ incomes here in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. But there has been a notable trade-off: Fewer Bolivians can now afford it, hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.
The shift offers a glimpse into the consequences of rising global food prices and changing eating habits in both prosperous and developing nations. While quinoa prices have almost tripled over the past five years, Bolivia’s consumption of the staple fell 34 percent over the same period, according to the country’s agricultural ministry.
The resulting quandary — local farmers earn more, but fewer Bolivians reap quinoa’s nutritional rewards — has nutritionists and public officials grasping for solutions.
Ironically enough, many Bolivian farmers are using their financial windfall from quinoa exports to buy cheap processed American foods like white bread and Coca-Cola, causing a spike in malnutrition rates.

So perversely, by looking out for my own health and nutrition, I'm in fact indirectly causing a deterioration in the health of the very people who enable my decision. Kinda sucks when you think about it, but what is the alternative? Yes, I could figure out a way to grow my own quinoa, but doing so would deprive the Bolivians of their income--it seems like the conscientious American consumer's options are to either contribute to Bolivian poverty or else contribute to Bolivian obesity. Which is better? Does it matter?

These are always difficult questions to answer, and I struggle with them a lot. Here in America, we often try to save the world, but sometimes our actions end up doing more harm than good. Does that failure mean that we're better off doing nothing, or is there value to our good intentions? I'm ambivalent... what do you think?

[New York Times]

R.I.P. Knut

Sad news over the weekend from Germany (justifiably buried behind more pressing news stories from Libya and Japan), where Knut--the polar bear born into captivity in Berlin four years ago who drew international admirers--died suddenly on Saturday. Knut was the most popular bear in the world upon his birth, but died in relative obscurity at an unusually young age. R.I.P. little buddy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

When being bad is good

As you know if you've followed me for a while, I'm a bit of a sports stat nerd, and I'm a sucker for anything that highlights the intersection between math/statistics and sports. In that vein, this item from Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog was one of the most well-done statistical pieces about sports and strategy that I've ever read.

In short, Silver wonders if--and proves that--it's in fact significantly better to draw an 11 seed in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament (hello, Gonzaga) than to draw an 8 or a 9 seed. In fact, an 8 or a 9 is pretty much the worst seed you could possibly draw--only the lowly 16 seeds (you know, the directional schools that you've never heard of unless you happen to be an alum) are in a worse competitive position.

The reason, as Silver points out, is that the winner of the 8 vs. 9 game earns the dubious privilege of playing their region's #1 seed in their next game. This matters a good deal, because the #1 seeds tend to be dramatically better than the 2, 3, and 4 seeds in their bracket--in other words, you want to avoid playing the #1 at all costs. Silver explains:
The root of the problem is that the relationship between team strength and seeds is not linear. Instead, the No. 1 seeds (and to some extent the No. 2 seeds) are often quite a lot better than anyone else in the field. They are also especially dangerous in the first two rounds because, under the “pod” system the N.C.A.A. adopted in 2002, these teams will almost always play within a few hundred miles of their campuses in what may amount to a de facto home game. It is worth going to some length to avoid facing one of these teams as long as possible, hoping that you get lucky and that someone else knocks them off.
The graphic that follows shows the average computer power rating, by seed, for teams playing in the tournament since 2003. These ratings also include a geographic adjustment. In the first two rounds, as we’ve mentioned, the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds (and sometimes the No. 3 seed) are generally placed at tournament sites that are close to their campuses, which further increases their advantage...

That little "S" curve in the chart (but most notably, the steepness between the 1 and the 4 seed) turns out to cause a good deal of havoc in seeding strategy. Without boring you too much with the mathematical details (you can read the whole thing if you're really interested), here's what your actual probability is of making it to the Sweet 16, Elite 8, and Final 4, based only on your seed (the Final 4 chart has been truncated to eliminate the high-probability top 4 seeds and focus only on the differences in the mid-range):

As you can see, even the 15 seed (this year: Long Island University, Northern Colorado, Akron, and UC-Santa Barbara) has a better shot of making it to the promised land than does the 8 seed (George Mason, Michigan, UNLV, and last year's runner-up, Butler). That's counter-intuitive, but the math doesn't lie.

As Silver points out, this is quite the problem, because it creates a bit of an incentive to lose--as long as you know you're likely to make the tournament field (which is common for a big-conference team), you're better off juuuuust sneaking in than you are fighting for every last win down the stretch. It's a similar problem to the "tanking to get a better draft pick" dynamic that the NFL and NBA have battled with over the years, and that has led the NBA to institute--and then constantly tweak--a "Draft Lottery" system.

So while it may be fun to watch that 8 vs. 9 game (yup), and we do every once in a while see an 8 or a 9 topple a #1, it's definitely not a good spot to find yourself on Selection Sunday. And, yes, Villanova, we know that you were an 8 seed back in the first year of the 64-team field. But George Mason (2006) and LSU (1986) were 11 seeds. So shhhhhhhhhh.


Pretty cool

This short video comes courtesy of Barry Ritholtz, and it provides a very well-edited short history of the art of movie title pages. It's pretty cool to see the evolution from static pages to complex animated designs with high relevance to the story to follow. Barry was nice enough to list out all of the included movies, a list which I've copied below. Enjoy.

Phantom of the Opera
King Kong
Modern Times
My Man Godfrey
Make Way For Tomorrow
Citizen Kane
The Maltese Falcon
Gun Crazy
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Lady in the Lake
Fallen Angel
The Thing
Singing in the Rain
The Man with the Golden Arm
Anatomy of a Murder
North by Northwest
Grand Prix
To Kill A Mockingbird
Dr. No
The Pink Panther
Dr. Strangelove
Soylent Green
Mean Streets
Star Wars
Saturday Night Fever
Raging Bull
The Terminator
The Untouchables
Do The Right Thing
Forrest Gump
The Naked Gun
Cape Fear
Reservoir Dogs
Natural Born Killers
The Island of Dr. Moreau
Donnie Brasco
Mission Impossible
Dawn of the Dead
Fight Club
Catch Me If You Can
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
The Fall
Casino Royale
Six Feet Under
Mad Men
Iron Man
The Kingdom
Sherlock Holmes
Up In The Air
Scott Pilgrim vs the World
Robin Hood
The Social Network
Enter The Void

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Clip of the Week

There was a lot of stuff to go around this week--there were some stunning videos from Japan (seriously, watch that), this terrific documentary teaser, a ridiculous clip from "Thailand's Got Talent", and even a highly amusing montage of animals playing basketball (yes, you heard me right) set to the tune of "One Shining Moment".

But it's St. Patrick's Day, it's been a long week, I could really use a beer or thirty, and this clip makes me smile every time. Happy St. Pat's to all my Irish peoples, from Animal and the gang.

Misinformation and the reliance on "experts"

The events of this week at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan--and the resultant panic in world financial markets--reminded me just how fickle and easily frightened people can be when they are dealing with things they don't understand. Along those same lines, it is amazing how powerful the voice of an "expert" can be in times like these, and how careful people in those positions must be with their words.

The first example of this "expert" dynamic comes courtesy of Barry Ritholtz, who passes along the curious case of MIT "research scientist" Josef Oehmen.
The tragedy in Japan is still unfolding. To those of you who are curious as to how your own brains operate, and what various reactions mean to your investments, this is what we might call a teachable moment.
Back on March 13th, Ron Dodson sent me a Tweet touting an “MIT scientist’s take on Japan.”
I clicked over to read this blog post — titled “Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors” — and was immediately suspicious. It was the FIRST and ONLY blog post from this individual. It had 100+ comments in a few hours (so much for taking years to develop a following).
Given it was only a few hours old post, I was surprised to see that Google showed it been reposted over 30,000 times elsewhere on the web...
My curiosity sent me to MIT’s site, to look up their faculty list. The author of the post was  Josef  Oehmen “LAI Research Scientist.” The first paragraph made clear what his Nuclear Physics bonafides:  He had none. “The main research interest of Dr. Josef Oehmen is risk management in the value chain.”
WTF?  Value Chain?
That was where my search ended. There was no expertise in either Nuclear energy, Physics, or anything else even remotely relevant, and I tweeted as much (here).
I thought that would be the end of it, but smart people who should know better (Cramer, Tom Keene) kept on Retweeting it.
Last last night Rob Bullerwell gave me [a] heads up that Oehmen’s post was a sham: Posted on the site Genius Now was The Strange Case of Josef Oehmen.
It's somewhat disturbing how much traction this piece got, simply because this guy seemed to be an expert. "MIT research scientist" sounds impressive, so we're all tempted to take his word on the matter because he's probably smart. 
But the man knows absolutely nothing about nuclear power plants or nuclear reactors in general (he's trained in mechanical engineering), and even less about this plant in particular. He is privy to zero information about breaking news or events in Japan, and everything he writes is thus basically a hunch. It's irresponsible journalism at its best, and yet "real" journalists who should know better went about re-tweeting it and sending it along as though it was concrete news. Journalistic responsibility does not cease just because you're dealing in the land of Twitter--you need to check and re-check your sources, just as you would in any other journalistic setting.
Then, the very next day, Guenther Oettinger, the European Union's commissioner for energy, drove home the point of the dangers of misinformed "expert analysis".
U.S. stocks sank deeper into the red on Wednesday after the European Union's energy chief warned of "possible catastrophic events" at Japan's nuclear plants...
Stocks deepened modest losses on Wednesday after Guenther Oettinger, the European Union's commissioner for energy, told a European Parliament committee that a nuclear power plant in Japan is "effectively out of control," and that the situation could continue to deteriorate.
"In the coming hours there could be further catastrophic events which could pose a threat to the lives of people on the island," he said.
Traders said the remarks fanned anxieties simmering in the market.
"I think it's this word of a catastrophic nuclear event--we're still sniffing out," said Joseph Saluzzi at Themis Trading LLC. "In this type of market this news moves quickly--flash crash type stuff."
The market gradually pared its losses as traders digested the remarks as analysis, rather than breaking news.
Spokespeople for the commissioner quickly scrambled to clarify that he had no specific knowledge of any breaking news at the Japanese plant, and that he was essentially speaking of the cuff in generalities. It certainly didn't sound that way, and the damage to markets and psyches was already done.

There are really two lessons to be learned here. First, be very careful about jumping to conclusions and having knee-jerk reactions to what seems to be "expert" analysis. Experts often do not possess nearly as much information as they profess to have, and their reports and analysis must always be vetted for accuracy and thoroughness. Nothing, from anyone, no matter how much of an "expert" they are, can be taken at face value.

And as for all you "experts" out there, be careful. Know that people look to you for information about things that they do not understand during times of crisis. Understand that any off-hand remark could be misconstrued, blown out of proportion, or simply spread rapidly in ways you might not have expected. With great power comes great responsibility.

My best wishes go out to all those affected in Japan.

[The Big Picture]
[Wall Street Journal]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On Japanese culture

In the aftermath of the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami, one of the more interesting dynamics for me has been the series of reports that essentially no looting whatsoever has taken place in the affected areas. This is definitely a remarkable observation, especially in contrast to the widespread looting following dramatic disasters in other nations (most notably the Chilean earthquake and Hurricane Katrina).

The apparent show of solidarity certainly speaks well of the Japanese people, and it also seems to present a learning opportunity for the rest of the world. The question for all of us is, what makes the Japanese different? Jim Picht at the Washington Times passed along a provocative--and somewhat controversial--take on the matter.
There's substantial internet chatter on the subject, and the chatter is disturbing. The answer most people seem to settle on is, "race." Many argue that Japanese homogeneity is a strength, diversity a weakness. The Japanese aren't looting because they're all one big happy culture with none of the predation that occurs when people of different cultures look longingly at each others' possessions.
I'm not sure I completely buy the underlying thesis here; I think that there are factors far beyond simply race and ethnicity that explain the dramatic difference between Japanese self-sacrifice and team emphasis (the "bushido" code) and America's "rugged individualism". That said, there's something to the idea that "same likes same", and Picht's piece got me to think more broadly about the role of American multiculturalism, and whether the myth of the "melting pot" has indeed been a net positive for our country at large.

Throughout our nation's history, we have struggled with issues of race and ethnicity (not to mention religion), often pretending that we are tolerant when in fact we display quite the opposite in our actions. One of the perceived benefits of diversity and multiculturalism--whether in an academic, cultural, or professional setting--is that the fusion of different ideas can breed innovation, creativity, and productivity that would otherwise be impossible. And having spent a lot of time in diverse environments, I have definitely seen and experienced the diversity "idea cauldron" at its best.

But at times, these varying "different ideas" simply breed conflict and resentment, and can in fact be counter-productive to the task at hand. Just staying in the business world, homogeneous Japan is by many measures light years ahead of the United States in terms of innovation, especially in the technological realm (most notably robotics and consumer electronics). Could it be that we in the United States are overstating the benefits of cultural and intellectual diversity? If multiculturalism doesn't help us to innovate and progress as a society--but does breed racism and resentment--what's the point? Does it just mean we have a better selection of restaurants?

Throughout our nation's history, we have in fact generally been quite suspicious and dismissive of the immigrant class--we treated the post-potato famine Irish as if they were less than human, and today we deride Mexicans and other Hispanics as "wetbacks", often assuming they are illegal immigrants even if they are in fact legal and hard-working.

The more I thought about the matter, the more I began to wonder if the benefits to our society from immigration and multiculturalism might be purely economic. The fact is, a large portion of this nation was built and developed largely on the basis of free slave labor, a dynamic that has become even more clear to me since I moved from New England to Virginia. Many of the South's most beautiful buildings were either directly built by slave labor, or at the very least built using financial gains from the tobacco business, an industry made lucrative by that same unpaid labor class. (Yes, I spent the weekend at a wedding at Duke University, a beautiful campus and institution financed in large part by tobacco money, so my mind was already on this topic).

I wonder whether our nation has ever really recovered--economically speaking--from the abolition of slavery. Whether or not we like it, we NEED an underpaid working class in order for the rest of us to profit and prosper the way that we are used to. But as that working class grows and develops in power and influence--like the Irish so famously did--we need to find a new underclass to fill the thankless jobs they once performed. Naturally, we typically turn to the newest immigrant class for that role--and when they're not available for some reason, we look overseas to China or India or name-your-oppressed-impoverished-country.

I really hope that our history of immigration and multiculturalism aren't so crass and simplistic as my last paragraph may have suggested, but I do wonder if America is less of a melting pot and more of an economic exploitation machine. You work hard at a slave wage, I profit and enjoy the fruits of your labor. So I put it to you--what ARE the long-term benefits of American multiculturalism?

[Washington Times]

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Quote of the Week

Busy day today (market's going nuts with all the happenings over in Japan), so I'll just fast-forward right to the Quote of the Week. This week, it's a dubious award, being shared by two obviously tone-deaf Twitterers (Tweeters? Tweeterers? Twits? Whatever, who cares...).

Comedian Gilbert Gottfried and WNBA player Cappie Pondexter both took some well-deserved heat this week for their incredibly ill-advised tweets about the situation in Japan. Gottfried, for his part, was fired from his long-running gig as the Aflac duck in the TV commercials, due in large part to the fact that a reported 75% of Aflac's business comes from Japan.

Pondexter, meanwhile, should have known better--her alma mater was once at the center of a well-publicized scandal involving racist (and sexist) remarks made by radio personality Don Imus about the Rutgers womens' basketball team, comments that ultimately got Imus fired. Apparently, being a victim (or being close to victims) of racism doesn't necessarily preclude one from behaving in a racist manner oneself. Good to know.


"Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them."
                             - Comedian Gilbert Gottfried
"What if God was tired of the way they treated their own people in there own country! Idk guys he makes no mistakes... u just never knw! They did pearl harbor so u can't expect anything less."
                             - New York Liberty guard Cappie Pondexter (everything sic-ed)

I honestly had my misgivings about posting either of these fools' tweets, because doing so is giving them the attention they apparently deperately need. But whatever, I'm not one who likes to let idiocy go unpunished. These two have earned your scorn.


Monday, March 14, 2011

The iPad will solve all your food and energy needs

I've been consistently outspoken here about my opposition to inflationary Fed policy, largely in hopes that more people would start to take notice and rise up against the overt manipulation of our economy and financial markets. Clearly I don't think that my rantings here have had a broad impact, but it does seem that a wider set of Americans are starting to recognize that inflation (and the policies that create it) benefits a select few at the expense of the majority. From Reuters (emphasis mine):
New York Fed President William Dudley told business leaders in Queens, New York, that the economic outlook has improved in the past six months.
But he said, the Fed is still "very far away" from achieving its dual mandate of high employment and price stability...
Dudley faced persistent questions from the audience on food inflation. The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said people forget that even as the price of food is rising, other prices are falling. He mentioned the price of the iPad 2, prompting guffaws from the audience.
In his speech, Dudley said some of the commodity price rises are likely to be temporary and unlikely to feed through into a sustained rise in inflation.
"While rising commodity prices may be giving some of you a bad headache, they are not likely to lead to a sustained rise in inflation to levels inconsistent with our dual mandate," Dudley said.
Hey, Dudley--you can't eat an iPad, dude. I mean, you could, but... you probably shouldn't.

Yes, you're right, deflation exists and is well-ingrained in many industries and markets, high-tech being one of the most obvious. That's because of innovation, which is something that seems to be in short supply in our country in many other industries. But that doesn't mean that inflation doesn't exist in very damaging ways in other arenas--most notably food and energy, which is incidentally where most Americans spend the majority of their paychecks.

I've mentioned here before how the Fed's focus on "core" inflation is terribly misguided, and this Reuters piece seems to show that many other people are waking up to that reality. We don't buy iPads every day, and that's especially true when we can't afford to eat the way we used to. If non-discretionary costs are rising, we no longer have any money left over to buy the discretionary goods (iPads, etc.), which not only makes that deflationary data irrelevant but in fact drives their prices down, further fueling the myth that inflation is "not widespread".

In short, ignoring food and energy costs in calculating inflation isn't just misleading--it misses the whole point. The prices of discretionary goods are derived entirely by how much money people have left over once they've covered their basic necessities--drive up the prices of the necessities, and the other goods will fall in price. So to look at one without the other is IRRELEVANT. Got it? Okay, cool. That should be a simple concept for a former chief economist at Goldman Sachs, but apparently it's not.

Though, of course, with 14% of Americans already on food stamps, maybe food prices don't matter all that much anyway. All they're really doing is costing our Federal government money, and they've got plenty of that to go around... right?

(h/t Naked Capitalism)

Friday, March 11, 2011


I'm on the road for the day (heading down to North Carolina for a wedding), so my posts will probably be sparse. To keep yourselves entertained, feel free to enjoy this video from yesterday's first game of the ACC Basketball Tournament in Greensboro. Yes, that's my Virginia Cavaliers, blowing a statistically unblowable lead against Miami. Somehow, watching the highlights is even more painful than having to watch it live. Guh.

I will now cheer myself up by watching reruns of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS while chugging a bottle of Drano. Good times, thanks UVA.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Clip of the Week

I've been sitting on this clip for about a month now, as I've been posting other things that I found more interesting in the meantime. But given my obsession with the quirks of the human brain, I had to post this sooner or later.

It's a clip of Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic artist who is well known for being able to accurately recreate landscapes--right down to very minute details--after just one viewing. He gained significant fame when--at the age of 11--the BBC followed his successful attempt to draw an aerial view of London after just one helicopter ride. This time, the "living camera" was set loose in Rome, Italy. His resulting panoramic representation of the city is jaw-dropping.

(h/t Barry Ritholtz)

More bad journalism (and bad science)

Earlier this week, I wrote (okay, ranted) about how brutally skewed and factually inaccurate much of the media rhetoric surrounding the Wisconsin teachers' union situation has been and continues to be (side note: yesterday's Republican maneuver was definitely a somewhat dirty manipulation of the political process, but so too was the Democrats' decision to flee the state--this is what happens when politicians negotiate in bad faith and try to exploit legal's bad news for all concerned).

In that post, I took a few shots at my old favorite punching bag on the left, Paul Krugman. Now, if I spent all of my time on this blog talking about bad journalism from politically-skewed publications and writers, I'd never write about anything else. But when bad journalism and bad science come together, I can't help myself. So, in the name of promoting good science (and also political neutrality), I'm going to balance out my Krugman rant with a similar diatribe against the "Bible of the right", the Weekly Standard. In a blog post that was teased on the Drudge Report, Mark Hemingway wrote:
Ah, January of 2009. Hope was in the air, but more importantly, gas was under two dollars a gallon. Since then gas prices, have gone up 67 percent and it's an ominously upward trend. Interestingly enough, the Heritage Foundation also took a look at the first 26 months of Bush's presidency -- gas only rose 7 percent during that time frame.

Okay, that's true--technically speaking. But it's also horribly misleading. I certainly don't think that President Obama's energy policy is particularly sustainable or comprehensive, but to pillory him for rising gas prices without providing a lick of context is--you guessed it--bad science.

Setting aside the vague "Figures are adjusted for inflation" note that makes the chart difficult to adequately decipher, the movements of gas prices are, in and of themselves, not particularly useful information. The fact that gas prices rose "only 7 percent" during the first two years of the Bush presidency is reflective of the fact that he took over a booming economy, only to see it crater over the next two years in the wake of 9/11.

When the economy is in the doldrums, the gas price tends to be it was in January of 2009, when Obama took office. Whether or not you believe in the sustainability of the economic recovery that has taken place over the last two years (oh yeah, Happy Anniversary, market bottom), the fact is that prices in nearly all markets have skyrocketed--in large part resulting from Fed policy, over which Obama has no direct control.

If you add another piece of information to this puzzle--namely, the price of the S&P 500 index over the same two time frames--a decidedly different picture emerges. To wit:

As you can see, Bush's 7% rise in gas prices was accompanied by a dramatic 37% drop in the stock market, whereas Obama's 67% rise in gas prices was matched by a 55% stock rally. Sure, gas prices were under two dollars a gallon in January 2009, but so was Ford's stock price ($1.80 then, over $14 now).

With that added piece of information, you could in fact even make the argument that Bush's rising gas price despite a falling market was reflective of WORSE energy policy than Obama's "rising prices everywhere" phenomenon--the relative outperformance of gas prices versus stock prices was much more dramatic under Bush. But by omitting this crucially important piece of information, Mr. Hemingway has made the same "mistake" that Paul Krugman made in his Texas-Wisconsin education comparison, thereby making any fair analysis impossible (unless you've got a fact-checker at the ready).

I often hear people parrot Mark Twain's old line that there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. I disagree. Statistics don't lie--only terribly biased journalists who improperly use them to prove a point do. Krugman and Hemingway, you're both damned liars, and you know it. Stop trying to mislead the public.

[Weekly Standard]
[Google Finance]

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Could the SEC be a self-funding organization?

Following up on this item from last week, I came across this post, which compared the SEC's total budget (currently $1.1 billion annually) to some other banking industry figures of note. The list definitely helps put some things into perspective as far as what the SEC is up against, and probably helps explain why financial crime has not been more heavily prosecuted.

The original post is a bit wordy, so I'll excerpt Barry Ritholtz's paraphrase instead:
1. Bank of America spent over $2 billion on marketing in 2010.
2. JPMorgan’s litigation reserves: $4 billion (Q3 2010) 
3. Goldman Sachs Q4 2010 compensation and benefits: $2.3 billion 
4. Note that Goldman Sach’s $550 million fine last year was about HALF of the SEC’s proposed budget. 
5. JPM spent $1.2 billion in Q4 2010 on technology, communications and equipment expenses. 
6. As a reward for Bank of America’s purchase of Merrill Lynch’s rotting carcass, the government gave it a $20 billlion TARP loan. 
7. Citi’s marketing and advertising cost the bank $1.6 billion in 2010. 
8. The SEC now must regulate hedge funds, manage their registration, etc. In Q4 2010, the hedge fund industry added $149 billion in new assets. 
9. AIG recieved loans, guarantees and bailouts worth $185 billion dollars. 
10. Cheers! Americans spent $4.7 billion on beer, wine and liquor in the month of December 2010.
I think the one that stands out to me most on that list is #4--the Goldman Sachs fine in 2010 (which was widely considered to be just a slap on the wrist) was in an amount large enough to cover a full half of the SEC's annual operating budget.

Given how many violations continue to occur (both in the foreclosure arena and elsewhere) in the banking industry, I wonder whether a properly-manned SEC could in fact be self-funding. I certainly don't mean to propose a Stasi-like SEC which scours the earth and turns firms upside down in search of fineable offenses so as to cover the expenses of an over-extended government (actually, as a fund manager, that thought terrifies me)... but I do think that it's a concept that warrants mentioning as long as the issue of SEC funding is being debated.

If the SEC is working properly (which, as of now, it most assuredly is not), it should in fact be (at least partially) a self-funding organization, much like the IRS's audit division. I think our friends in Washington often miss this point when they look at line items in the budget simply as "costs"--some of these "costs" can in fact be revenue-generating, and eliminating them will not necessarily make the whole entity more profitable. I compare it to a struggling company trying to balance its books by slashing its marketing expenditure--it's not gonna work. Anyway, it's food for thought...

(h/t The Big Picture)

On drugs and health insurance

I've written here before about America's seeming love affair with prescription drugs, and how it seems like the interests of our largest pharmaceutical companies seem to have taken precedence over the interests of the public health. This article from the New York Times, published last weekend, demonstrated another element to the problem, describing the role of the insurance companies in the process of determining and dispensing medical care.
Alone with his psychiatrist, the patient confided that his newborn had serious health problems, his distraught wife was screaming at him and he had started drinking again. With his life and second marriage falling apart, the man said he needed help.
But the psychiatrist, Dr. Donald Levin, stopped him and said: “Hold it. I’m not your therapist. I could adjust your medications, but I don’t think that’s appropriate.”
Like many of the nation’s 48,000 psychiatrists, Dr. Levin, in large part because of changes in how much insurance will pay, no longer provides talk therapy, the form of psychiatry popularized by Sigmund Freud that dominated the profession for decades. Instead, he prescribes medication, usually after a brief consultation with each patient. So Dr. Levin sent the man away with a referral to a less costly therapist and a personal crisis unexplored and unresolved.
Medicine is rapidly changing in the United States from a cottage industry to one dominated by large hospital groups and corporations, but the new efficiencies can be accompanied by a telling loss of intimacy between doctors and patients. And no specialty has suffered this loss more profoundly than psychiatry.
The Times article goes on to report that as of 2005, only 11% of psychiatrists provided any kind of talk therapy at all, a figure that has probably declined further in recent years. As mentioned above, the impact of insurance companies is likely to blame.
Recent studies suggest that talk therapy may be as good as or better than drugs in the treatment of depression, but fewer than half of depressed patients now get such therapy compared with the vast majority 20 years ago. Insurance company reimbursement rates and policies that discourage talk therapy are part of the reason. A psychiatrist can earn $150 for three 15-minute medication visits compared with $90 for a 45-minute talk therapy session.
Of course, there are thousands of psychiatrists who still offer talk therapy to all their patients, but they care mostly for the worried wealthy who pay in cash. In New York City, for instance, a select group of psychiatrists charge $600 or more per hour to treat investment bankers, and top child psychiatrists charge $2,000 and more for initial evaluations.
That last paragraph is a bit disturbing, and seemingly part of a broader trend. Say what you will about mental health issues, and whether or not psychological disorders have become overdiagnosed--we should all be able to agree that the treatment choices available to us should be determined by our doctor and our own personal preferences, not by the whims of the insurance companies who we are now forced to use as an intermediary.

It's somehow unsurprising that insurance company policies tend to steer us toward the choices that most benefit large pharmaceutical companies. When two large corporations--a pharmaceutical company and an insurance company--get together, do we really expect that an individual's health is the first priority? I certainly don't, and it's a big part of why I believe that solving our health care problems must not rely on insurance companies' determinations of what constitutes proper treatment.

[New York Times]