Friday, June 29, 2012

Marathon badassery, revisited (Things that are awesome)

People who (regularly) run marathons amaze me, and always have. I've run exactly one marathon, and the training for it alone nearly drove me insane. It also took me a very long time to recover. That's why I'm always more than willing to give a shout out to the crazy people who do crazy things at marathons--the Chilean miner, the pregnant lady and the 100-year old man, the Marine who ran with a gas mask on, and the guys who destroy course records on brutal courses.

In that tradition, I introduce you all to Julie Weiss.
A Santa Monica, California woman who lost her dad to cancer says she will stop at nothing to raise money for research -- so other families won't have to endure what she's endured. 
Julie Weiss is on a mission to run 52 marathons in 52 weeks. 
"My body's getting used to this. I'm changing my diet, becoming more healthy and learning to run more efficiently," Weiss said. 
Her father died of pancreatic cancer in 2010, just one week before the biggest moment in Weiss' running career: qualifying for the Boston Marathon. 
Weiss is part of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network's TEAMHOPE. 
Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States and one of the least funded for research, according to TEAMHOPE. 
"My goal is a million dollars," Weiss said. 
Her website, marathongoddess.com, has already raised more than $100,000 towards that goal. 
"When people tell me I'm crazy or nuts, it means I'm on the right track and doing something good."
After watching the video in the link, it seems like she's got an awesome attitude and a really healthy approach to her (completely insane) goal. And given the demands she's putting on her body, she's also pretty much cruising--she's been running anywhere between a 4:40 and a 5:30 marathon, which is impressive by any measure, especially without real recovery time.

Of course, since she's qualified for Boston before, she's obviously a skilled runner, which she would have to be in order to think that something like this is a good idea. So send this woman some good vibes, because she certainly deserves them. And if you're into that sort of thing, throw a little donation her way via her website.

[KSDK]


Clip of the Week

Is it a thin week for clips? Yeah, it is, but I did give you a nice little Rick Santelli rant yesterday, so that has to count for something, right?

At any rate, here's this week's animal-related clip, which will teach you not to mess with killer whales. Honestly, I sorta feel bad for the seal in this clip. Poor guy never had a chance. And if you're into making and eating unnecessarily complicated and intricate breakfasts (like, for example, these), you can check out this video for the world's most ridiculous bagel.

But this week, we're going the baseball route. This year is pretty unique in that there are two impossibly young kids in MLB doing some pretty impressive things. In the world of baseball with the minor league system and all that, that's incredibly rare.

I already featured the Nationals' 19-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper in this post, but I haven't said anything yet about the Angels' 20-year-old outfielder Mike Trout. That changes now. This kid is putting up incredible numbers so far this year, and he's also making plays like this. So this is your Clip of the Week, because I can't do that.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The lipstick effect

Remember when I told you that all studies were B.S.? Forget everything I said. This series of studies is awesome, and I absolutely love that the result has been replicated in multiple experiments. Brought to my attention by Tyler Cowen:
In 2008, when many companies reported record declines in sales amidst a global economic recession, L’Oréal, one of the world’s largest cosmetic manufacturers, was somehow immune to the downturn. In fact, L’Oréal enjoyed a sales growth of 5.3% that year—why? Why was L’Oréal the apparent beneficiary of a worldwide economic crisis? 
Dating back to the Great Depression, times of recession have consistently yielded anomalous gains for the beauty products industry, even while consumers reign in spending on household goods and recreational products. Journalists have dubbed this curiosity the “lipstick effect.” I recently sought to test the lipstick effect in a series of studies, the results of which were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Our findings confirmed that the lipstick effect is not only real, but deeply rooted in women’s mating psychology... 
Four separate experiments, along with real-world data... consistently supported the lipstick effect, as college-age women, when primed with news of economic instability, reported an increased desire to buy attractiveness-enhancing goods, along with a decreased desire to purchase goods that do not enhance one’s physical appearance. Our experiments also found that this increased desire for beauty products, clothing and accessories was fully mediated by a heightened preference for mates with resources. 
While many journalists who have written about the lipstick effect have theorized that it represents women’s therapeutic spending on cheap indulgences, we found that the lipstick effect applies specifically to products that enhance beauty, even when those products are more expensive. Recession cues increased women’s desire to buy high-end cosmetics and designer clothing, but not to buy budget-line beauty products, which were rated less effective at improving one’s appearance. 
Furthermore, we discovered that the lipstick effect and a woman’s desire to attract a mate with resources are unrelated to her independent resource access. Women of both higher and lower socioeconomic status expressed an increased desire to buy luxury beauty products when primed with recession cues. This suggests that an uncertain economic climate leads women to heighten mate attraction effort irrespective of their own resource need.
This cracks me up. What's funny about these studies is that I'm absolutely certain that what's going on is completely subconscious--the women probably don't even realize what they're doing, but do it anyway. Such is the wonder of our amazing brains, and the strange cross-wirings that generations of evolution have created.

As much as we all like to think that we are agents of our own destiny, making rational decisions based on complete information, consumer psychology studies consistently find the opposite. We are in fact subject to and guided by a strange mix of psychological motivations, many of which we don't even realize or recognize. Intelligent marketers take advantage of these psychological neuroses, consistently advertising to us in ways that we don't even notice. Good stuff.

[Scientific American]
(h/t Marginal Revolution)

Santelli on Obamacare

I'm going to mostly avoid the discussion on today's Supreme Court ruling regarding the Affordable Care Act,  primarily because the issue has become so politically charged that I believe honest and respectful discourse is essentially impossible right now.

To summarize my own beliefs (which are admittedly based upon partial information, because full information has been hard to come by when it comes to this bear of a law), I think that the law as written is destined to fail regardless of its constitutionality, simply because it fails to address any of the root causes behind ever-increasing healthcare costs--if anything, it perpetuates and expands them. I appreciate the attempt to try to help, but I think the government's mostly-good intentions will go horrifically unrewarded here. Ironically, I think that's actually a good thing long term, because I think that it will eventually force a more complete overhaul of the system, rather than a simple tweaking of it (which is what I believe Obamacare to be). A complete overhaul is necessary, so anything that brings us closer to it is a good thing.

As for today's decision, the best response I've seen yet comes from CNBC's Rick Santelli. I missed watching this live, because I was over on CNN watching that network throw up all over itself by screwing up the scoop --another tough day for a struggling media outlet, although Fox News made the same mistake--but I'm glad my friends at ZeroHedge gave me the heads up. As usual, Santelli has a pretty interesting take on things, and I think he's dead on.

 [ZeroHedge]

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Adios, BCS

Given my past rants about college football and how broken things are, I have to at least mention yesterday's major development that promises to reshape the NCAA landscape. Beginning in 2014, Division 1 football (the "FBS", whatever) will have a four-team playoff system, scrapping the badly flawed BCS system.

Let's hand over the analysis to ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski, who is probably working off a champagne-fueled hangover today.
This is a momentous day in the history of college football. And thanks to Tuesday's final ratifying vote by the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, a manageable, logical and lonnnnnnnng overdue playoff system makes the traveling squad in 2014. 
As recently as the 2011 BCS National Championship Game, a BCS spokesperson gravely predicted: "Don't be fooled -- a playoff would be the end of the bowls as we know them." When the spokesperson wasn't bashing the idea of a playoff, he was constantly reminding us that the BCS "got it right again." 
And just six months ago, that same spokesperson insisted, "the BCS works well and very well," for all players and fans. 
Yes, it worked so well that 11 conference commissioners and Notre Dame's athletic director gutted the BCS and replaced it with a playoff system, a playoff selection committee, a national championship game that can be bid out to a non-traditional playing site and, eventually, a new brand name. And Tuesday in Washington, D.C., the oversight committee approved it all. 
"It's a best-of-both-worlds result," said Charles W. Steger, Virginia Tech president and chair of the committee. "It captures the excitement of a playoff while protecting the best regular season in sports and also the tradition of the bowls. A four-team playoff doesn't go too far. It goes just the right amount." 
The BCS Championship is about to be euthanized -- may it soon rest in peace. Gone are the ridiculous polls, the computer standings and the automatic qualifier status extended to favored conferences. 
The bowl system? Despite the BCS propaganda of 2011, a playoff isn't going to be "the end of the bowls as we know it." That's the beauty of the new agreement. It works within the bowl system, not outside of it.
Of course, there will still be controversy under the new system, and that's fine. Controversy is a big part of sports--there's frankly little entertainment without it. But there's good controversy and there's bad controversy, and it had become abundantly clear that the BCS was engendering the wrong kind of publicity.


Questions about fairness, favoritism, and opaque selection criteria had become more important than the games themselves, and that's a huge problem. With four teams instead of two, it now becomes that much more unlikely that we'll have anyone who gets outright screwed (like Auburn in 2004). More importantly, the new system should avoid the bizarre situations that we saw in 2000, 2001, 2009, and last year, when several teams had a claim at a spot in the title game, and there was no viable way of choosing which team (or teams) should be chosen.

In the four-team playoff, these dilemmas would almost always be avoidable, and all qualified teams would get the chance to play it out on the field. Yes, there could still be exceptions--2004 and 2009 were bizarre years by any measure--but it won't be an inevitable annual result of a deeply flawed system.

The NCAA still has a lot of problems to address, but at least now the competition on the field won't be one of them. That's a good thing.

[ESPN]

Quote of the Week

There were actually a couple of good candidates this week for Quote of the Week, whihch isn't always the case. If you're not sick of Europe yet (and let's be honest, you are), I thought this quote out of Cyprus was pretty telling as to the current state of things in the global economy.

In a similar vein, I also enjoyed Barry Ritholtz's rhetorical question at the end of this post--in essence, if we'd had a time machine 5 years ago, would it have helped us avoid any of this mess we're in now? I'm honestly not sure that it would have, and that's a problem.

But this week's winner is a guy who's long overdue to be recognized in this space. Buried deep inside this long treatise from economist/blogger Mish Shedlock is a gem of a quote from Yogi Berra, the idiot-savant philosopher/baseball hall of famer. It's a miracle I've gone this long without featuring a Yogi quote, because he's awesome. And this time around, his musing is both insightful and topical

This week's QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."          
                                        - Yogi Berra

Well said, Yogi. Well said.


Monday, June 25, 2012

These illusions kill me

Today's optical illusion relies on basically the same concept as this optical illusion, and yet I was a sucker for it again. Somehow, this one almost seems even more implausible than the first one I posted.


Once again, I had to copy this whole thing into "Paint" and erase everything but the boxes to confirm that I'd been duped (just putting my finger across the page wasn't enough). Indeed, I had been duped. Again. Crazy stuff. One of these days I'll be able to explain these things to myself.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Song of the Week(end)

I realize that I've neglected to post the Song of the Week(end) for the past two weeks, immediately after promising that I'd switch it to the '80s Soundtrack Song of the Week(end). My apologies.

I'll make it up to you today with a trio of '80s soundtrack gems, all of them from the king of the '80s soundtrack, Kenny Loggins. Enjoy, and have a great weekend, people.

Creepy

I've written here before a couple of times about genetically modified foods, and how they frankly terrify me. Without going too deep into my reasons or the details, suffice it to say we have a new winner in the Creepy Food Olympics.
Chinese scientists have genetically modified dairy cows to produce human breast milk, and hope to be selling it in supermarkets within three years. 
The milk produced by the transgenic cows is identical to the human variety and has the same immune-boosting and antibacterial qualities as breast milk, scientists at China's Agricultural University in Beijing say. 
The transgenic herd of 300 was bred by inserting human genes into cloned cow embryos which were then implanted into surrogate cows. 
The technology was similar to that used to produce Dolly the sheep. 
The milk is still undergoing safety tests but with government permission it will be sold to consumers as a more nutritious dairy drink than cow's milk.
And why wouldn't the government give their permission? Governments are experts on unintended consequences, right? If they don't see anything wrong with this, then what could possibly go wrong?

[Sky News]


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Clip of the Week

Clip of the Week time! Let me first say that I strongly considered giving the honor to Nigel Farage for the second straight week, after this great interview with Fox Business. Simply put, Nigel is on fire right now.

But I like variety. Variety like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog at Chicago's Wieners Circle, or crazy kickball highlights. Or, since Euro 2012 soccer is going on over in Poland/Ukraine, I could've given you this amazing goal from England's Danny Welbeck or this even better offering from Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

I also could've gone with a baseball highlight like this catch by the Cubs' Starlin Castro... but we've got plenty of months of baseball left, so we'll save that for October.

Instead, I'm going back to the animal video well, because it's always reliable and oh my god look at that baby duck he's awesome. Be sure to stick around for the money shot around the 40-second mark.

The mess at UVA

Given my status as a UVA alum and Charlottesville resident--as well as a frequent critic of our nation's system of higher education--there's really no way that I can get away without commenting about the recent shitstorm at my (graduate) alma mater (it's always fun when one of my alma maters' presidents gets let go, isn't it?).

But since I don't feel qualified to discuss the situation at any great length--in fact, nobody does, because everything has been done with such an air of secrecy and opacity--and I frankly don't know all that much about Dr. Sullivan (Teresa, I Hardly Knew Ye), I'll chicken out here and just re-post what I believe to be the best piece of commentary I've seen on the matter to date. From Duke sociology professor Kieran Healy, I give you an updated Declaration of Independence.

Charlottesville, June 19th, 2012

The More or Less Unanimous Declaration of the Board of Visitors

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for a Board to dissolve the administrative bands which have connected a President with a University, and to assume for themselves the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and the Bond Market entitle them, it is best to do it secretly, quickly, and in the middle of the night.

However, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation, especially when one is unexpectedly faced with large, angry crowds on the Lawn at two o’clock in the morning and a quite stupendous media shitstorm thereafter.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Universities are endowed by their Donors with certain unalienable Goals, that among these are Strategy, Dynamism, and the pursuit of some sort of Online Degree delivered via the Interwebs,—That to secure these goals, Presidents are appointed, deriving their just powers from the half-baked ideas of idle Billionaires,—That whenever any University President becomes destructive of these Goals, it is the Right of the BoV to institute a new President, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect Strategy, Dynamism, and Strategic Dynamism. Prudence dictates that Presidents only recently established should not be changed for light and transient causes; yet experience hath shewn, that Universities are more disposed to suffer than to right themselves by downsizing obscure departments such as Classics, or German, or—it now appears—Computer Science. Fuck.

Anyway, it is nevertheless our right, it is our duty, to throw off such Presidents, and to provide new Administrators for my future security. Yours! I mean, Your future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of this University; and such is now the necessity which constrains us to alter its former Systems of Government. The history of the present President is one of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the maintenance of some sort of financially viable, intellectually robust, nationally respected institution of higher learning. Such goals are so 20th Century. I read that in Forbes recently. Did I not shew it to you all via e-mail? Perhaps I forgot to attach it. Sorry, where was I? Oh yes. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world:

* She has refused to listen to me when I sent her this US News & World Report article I read about how Technology is Transforming Education.

* She has refused to hire Consultants at extortionate rates, preferring instead to consult experts on her own Faculty—as if a University were the place to find experts of any kind, the very idea. Far better to hire a team consisting mostly of 22 year-olds from McKinsey, they know how to do those 3-D charts in Excel and have you seen their Powerpoints the transitions are cool I like the flame one the best.

* She has called together legislative bodies at places normal, standard, and proximate to the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of keeping the Faculty and university community informed of her plans.

* She did not think Becoming China’s Bitch was a very good book at all.

* She has hired some Officers to implement her goals.

* She has combined with others, like the Provost, to subject us to a set of standards foreign to the understanding of Beach Condo Developers; giving her Assent to their Acts of pretended Administration:

* For Quartering large bodies of actual students among us, instead of on a website somewhere.

* For maintaining Standards without our Consent:

* For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of future consulting deals:

* She has excited domestic insurrections amongst us—have you seen this crowd outside, Helen? It’s really quite large now.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: i.e., by circulating emails amongst a subset of our group, exchanging links to some stuff in Wired Magazine about Stanford, and ginning each other up for her removal. A President whose character is thus marked by every act which may define an intelligent, decisive, forward-looking, and accountable leader, is clearly unfit to be the ruler of a Nationally-ranked University.

We, therefore, the appointed members of the Board of Visitors, in closed session, Assembled in haste and appealing to the Theory of Strategic Dynamism for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of some very wealthy people indeed, solemnly publish and declare, That President Sullivan is removed and that Dean Carl Zeithaml shall henceforth have full Power to Dynamically Strategize, set up Online Learning Working Groups, implement Acquisition and Diversification strategies, contract Knowledge-Based Sources of Competitive Advantage, develop Resource-Based Conceptual and Methodological Frameworks for Global Effectuity, and to do all other Acts and Things which Business School Professors may of right do, gosh it’s a wonder capitalism was able to get off the ground in the first place without their assistance. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence and please God the Governor, we mutually pledge your Reputation, your Fortunes and your sacred Honor.

As a Darden graduate, it's impossible for me to ignore the apparent role of my MBA alma mater in this mess--the "Becoming China's Bitch" reference in Mr. Healy's piece was a direct reference to that role--and I can't say that I'm proud of what I've read. While I think that our nation's education system is in dire need of serious reconsideration--to summarize, this is a step in the right direction, this is the opposite--I similarly think that the Board owes the Charlottesville community, the alumni of the institution, and the active student body a better and more complete explanation for their actions (if not a more active voice in the process).

Blindsiding the world with an announcement like this unequivocally makes the institution weaker, regardless of the ultimate reasons for the action. This controversy is largely a matter of goals vs. process, and in this case the process was for shit. I may even agree with the goals (it's hard to know, given the continued lack of transparency), but as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.


I'm proud to be associated with UVA, in large part because of the response that has followed from this situation. Whether or not Dr. Sullivan is the right leader for UVA for the next decade, this institution has built its reputation on doing things the right way, the respectful way, and the transparent way. None of those dynamics were on display here, and I'm therefore glad that there has been such an incredible backlash.

In order to get people in the broader UVA community to buy in to the drastic change that the Board is seemingly asking for, it is absolutely imperative that the people in that community believe that the Board is acting in good faith. You can't get people to buy in to your vision (whether you're a college board or a nation's president) unless they trust you and think you're worth following--right now, very few people think this Board is worth following, and that's a problem for their vision. As my political hero Otto von Bismarck would tell you, having the right goal simply isn't enough--process matters. This Board has officially learned that lesson the hard way.

[Crooked Timber]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Where the Millionaires Are

Barry Ritholtz shared this fascinating list of the nations in the world with the highest percentage of millionaire households.

15. The Netherlands (Total population 16.7 million; 2.1% millionaire households)
14. Ireland (4.8 million; 2.2%)
13. Oman (2.8 million; 2.5%)
12. Belgium (10.4 million; 2.9%)
11. Japan (125.2 million; 2.9%)


10. Bahrain (1.3 million; 3.2%)
9. Taiwan (23.2 million; 3.2%)
8. Israel (7.8 million; 3.6%)
7. United States (322.4 million; 4.3%)
6. United Arab Emirates (8.3 million; 5.0%)


5. Hong Kong (7.2 million; 8.8%)
4. Switzerland (7.7 million; 9.5%)
3. Kuwait (3.6 million; 11.8%)
2. Qatar (1.9 million; 14.3%)
1. Singapore (4.8 million; 17.1%)


I do have to say, though, I'm not totally sure what to do with this list--there's a lot going on here, and it's tricky to unpack it all. Some of these countries are millionaire-heavy because they have an industry (like, say, oil) that tends to create a lot of them. In others (like Switzerland and possibly Singapore), the explanation seems to have more to do with political considerations that would make those nations more millionaire-friendly--that is, those countries don't create millionaires, they just harbor them after they've already been created elsewhere.

So if I'm a millionaire, should I be going to where there are a lot of me already, or where I'd be a relatively scarce commodity? Seems like my money would go a lot farther in a country where I was the only millionaire in town, right? But I also wouldn't want to become a target. See you in the Netherlands?

[Barry Ritholtz]

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Quote of the Week (Teachers' Edition)

To tee up this week's Quote of the Week, we first need to introduce you to Michelle Apperson. Ms. Apperson, a 6th grade teacher in Sacramento, just had a very big month--first, she was honored as Sacramento's "Teacher of the Year". Then, she was laid off.

So, either the people who give out the "Teacher of the Year" award in Sacramento are sorely mistaken, or something else is going on here. Guess which is the case?

This week's QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"It hurts on a personal level because I really love what I do. But professionally and politically or economically, I get why it happens."
                                         - (Former) Sacramento Teacher of the Year Michelle Apperson

It seems that Ms. Apperson is too diplomatic to actually say why it happens, so I'll step in for her here. It happens because California, like many (or most) places in our country, has a rule in place that ensures that teachers are laid off based on seniority alone, regardless of performance. Ms. Apperson didn't have seniority, so nothing else mattered. She's gone.


These sorts of rules--which are of course championed by teachers' unions from coast to coast--are devastating our nation's education system at a time when it can ill afford any further strains. Time and time again, teachers' unions have fought for greater benefits for themselves (like, for example, lucrative pensions that can't be funded), with little regard for who will have to pay the price down the road. In this case, it's Ms. Apperson (and Sacramento's students) who are paying the price for the unions' negotiated spoils.

I fully appreciate the potential benefits of unions, but in recent years it seems that many of them have been doing more harm to their organizations than good (Detroit certainly comes to mind). It's one thing to fight over the allocation of revenues or profits between management and labor, but quite another when these negotiations begin to sink the whole ship--if a company goes bankrupt, nobody gets paid. Furthermore, I think that public unions are a strange and ugly animal, and I share FDR's belief that they probably shouldn't exist.

Part of the knee-jerk reaction to Ms. Apperson's dismissal was a call for an overhaul of the way that education is funded in this country--in fact, there's a quote in the Yahoo article that I cited which argues exactly that point. But that idea couldn't be more wrong. This isn't a matter of funding, it's a matter of spending, and of what we choose to spend our money on. Do we choose to spend it on the most senior teachers, or on the most accomplished? Do we choose to spend it on current teachers, or on retired teachers in the form of bloated pensions?

No matter how we raise our money, or where we raise it from, there's ultimately only so much to go around, and we simply can't afford to be wasteful. This goes for all forms of government spending, including education, defense, healthcare, infrastructure, etc, etc, etc. Unfortunately, when budget crises hit, we tend to cut in the worst possible places, using the worst possible methods. So we lay off successful teachers, we stop maintaining our roads, and we end up costing ourselves significantly more money in the long run as a result.


Ms. Apperson's case is only the most recent example of an unintended consequence of government budget-cutting. The simple fact is, the more we insist on ignoring the REAL sources of our budgetary problems (at the federal level, it's Medicare, defense spending, and Social Security; at the state level, it's almost always those un-fundable teachers' pensions), we'll end up cutting all of the wrong things and driving ourselves further and further into the ground. We can't nickel-and-dime our way out of these budgetary quagmires--we need to take on the big problems, rather than counter-productively chipping away at the small-but-productive government programs (like, say, NPR) that always end up being easy targets.

If our retired teachers care as much about children now as they did back when they were teaching, then they should be willing to sacrifice at least some of their pensions so that teachers like Ms. Apperson can keep their jobs. But of course, they won't be doing that any time soon, will they? So Ms. Apperson is out of luck, and so are our children. Good times.

[Yahoo]

One chart that sums it all up

This chart (courtesy of the Illusion of Prosperity blog) is one of the most frightening charts I've seen in a long time, and it says quite a bit about what's happened to our economy over the last 50 or so years. The ratio of net worth to debt in our nation is absolutely plummeting, and has been for decades. If you ever wonder why things are the way they are, just call up this chart and remind yourself. See you in 2059!


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Clip of the Week

Okay, tons of material this week. If you've got a few minutes, I highly recommend all of these videos. As always, we'll kick things off with a couple of sports videos, including a perfect game in San Francisco and the worst way I've ever seen to kill a rally.

This weird little video about pollination was mesmerizing, and I got a kick out of this remixed version of Obama singing "Call Me Maybe". I also took a trip down memory lane by watching these old school junk food advertisements (remember the "Always Coca-Cola" ads? I'd completely forgotten about them), and as much as I dislike Apple, I have to give them credit--they're incredibly innovative, and this video gives an example of some of the cool and creative engineering techniques they use to "paint" their devices.

For a long time this week, this remix of Mister Rogers was the frontrunner for Clip of the Week. I think the whole auto-tuned speeches genre/trend is starting to get a little (or a lot) played out, but I think this one was nevertheless a pretty big hit.

But it's not our Clip of the Week, because my man Nigel Farage came along and absolutely killed it with a speech in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. If you're not yet acquainted with Nigel, I suggest you watch this epic takedown of EU President Herman van Rompuy, which may be one of my five favorite YouTube clips ever. In this case, Nigel took on the farce that is the Spanish bailout. In keeping with the European theme that I established earlier this week, Nigel Farage is your Clip of the Week.

Local governments dial up JG Wentworth

While Mayor Bloomberg has been receiving a lot of attention for his proposed soda ban, it's a different Bloomberg proposal that could have a much greater impact on life in Manhattan--despite receiving little fanfare at all (isn't that always the way?). Old friend Matt Taibbi has the scoop:
Readers of my last book, Griftopia, might recall a chapter about the city of Chicago leasing 75 years of its parking meter revenue to a coterie of private investors, some of them from the Middle East. The end result was and is a political obscenity: Native Chicagoans are now completely at the mercy of private interests when it comes to parking rates, collections, even holidays. When elected officials in Illinois can’t shut off the parking meters on Abe Lincoln’s birthday because a bunch of sheiks in Dubai don’t want the revenue stream turned off even for a day, you know something has gone seriously sideways in the national body politic. 
Well, Chicago isn’t alone anymore. Hizzoner Michael Bloomberg in New York has decided to do his own version of the Chicago infrastructure bake sale; the city announced that it is putting up nearly 90,000 parking meters for lease. They’re expecting to get over $11 billion in upfront money from the deal, which is great news if you’re Mike Bloomberg, who gets to use that money to patch current budget holes instead of making tough cuts or raising taxes. The news is less awesome for the next half-dozen New York City mayors, or for the citizens of New York, who now will get to spend most of the 21st century grappling with its increasingly monstrous deficits with a major tributary from the city’s revenue stream shut off. 
A New York parking meter deal, like the Chicago deal, would be a perfect example of the deeply cynical short-term thinking of many American politicians these days. These deals involve a sitting executive selling off a valuable piece of city property at a steep discount to private financial interests (often, to friends or campaign contributors), in order to solve a current cash flow problem that, surprise, surprise, will still be there the year after you finish spending the proceeds of your sale. 
In Chicago’s case, Mayor Richard Daley sold 75 years of meter revenue – worth an estimated $5 billion – for $1.2 billion. So he gets 20 cents on the dollar for the city’s parking meters in 2008, and then in 2009 the city still has a budget problem that’s now worse, because there’s no parking meter revenue anymore, ever. Meanwhile, a bunch of private investors rounded up by Morgan Stanley – these bankers go on road shows here at home and abroad to places like Geneva and the UAE to hawk discount American infrastructure to foreign billionaires and sovereign wealth funds – get to enjoy the fruits of raised rates. In some Chicago neighborhoods, the meter rates went from .25 cents an hour to $1 an hour in the first year of the deal, and then to $1.20 after that.
As Taibbi points out on his own blog, this is basically the government equivalent of dialing up JG Wentworth (877-CASH NOW!! 877-CASH NOW!!) to pull forward future government revenues into the current period. Who cares if I'll be broke in 5 years, it's my money and I need it now!! It's a slightly more desperate version of the privatization of liquor stores proposal put forth in my state two years ago, on a much larger scale with much more at stake.


For what it's worth, according to my math the discount rate implied in selling a revenue stream worth $5 billion for $1.2 billion in present-day cash (as Chicago's Mayor Daley did) is about 5.5%--in other words, the city government is effectively borrowing money at a 5.5% rate, which is.... eh, not great, not terrible. But the loss of control over the property is a significant problem, as the Chicago case has shown. Private parties can and will take advantage of the kindness of government bodies, and they have done so before. Those with foreign allegiances will feel even less shame when they do so--all is fair in love and international business.

We simply can't allow our governments--local, state, or federal--to continually take out mortgages on the nation's property just to plug current budget holes. If they continue to do so, what will be left of our sovereignty at all? Will we be the United States of America in name only, with all future economic production belonging to China or Dubai?

But by all means, New York, please pay no attention to this case. It's way less important than the size of your drink container, so please ignore it entirely, and direct your legal and political might toward challenging stupid and irrelevant nanny laws. Because by the time you realize you've been screwed, it will be far too late to do anything about it.

[Rolling Stone]

Remembering the Dream Team

With the Summer Olympics coming up next month, seemingly everyone is looking back to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the original Dream Team. I honestly can't believe it's already been 20 years--I still remember my Larry Bird #7 Dream Team jersey--but given how much the NBA has changed since then (both for better and for worse), it's somewhat unsurprising. Today's stars grew up watching these guys play, and their influence--especially on the international game--simply can't be overstated.

One of the more interesting retrospectives that I've come across is this GQ "oral history" of the Dream Team, as told by the people who lived it. There's some crazy stuff in there (like the fact that Isiah Thomas wasn't even the first alternate for the Dream Team--Joe Dumars was), and it's always entertaining to hear the input of all of the guys.
[NBA Commissioner David] Stern: The opposing teams were more interested in taking photos with our players than playing against them. 
Nathaniel Butler (official NBA photographer): We were sitting on the baseline. Magic is backing a guy down, and the guy on defense is yelling at his bench, "Now! Now!" And on the bench, one guy's pulling a camera out of his sock and taking a photo of his teammate. 
[Newsday columnist Jan] Hubbard: One time they were playing against Venezuela, and the guy who was guarding Magic kept on saying, "I need your shoes! I need your shoes!" During the game. And Magic goes, "Look, I need my shoes!" 
Lenny Wilkens (Team USA assistant coach): We thought it was funny. But it changed over the years. We always said, "Next time, they won't bring cameras. They'll just bring their basketball."
The whole thing is pretty entertaining, particularly the anecdotes surrounding the team of college all-stars (which, incidentally, was loaded--Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway, Allan Houston, Bobby Hurley, among others) that scrimmaged the Dream Team, with explicit instructions to jack threes like the international teams always did in those days.

I don't think we'll ever see another phenomenon quite like the Dream Team, and I'm glad I got to witness it back then. There are a lot of guys in today's league that definitely would've fit in nicely on that team, but I have to think that a team of today's stars would still have a pretty tough time beating that squad--the competitive drive of those guys was simply off the charts.

[GQ]


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Quote of the Week (Hollande is an idiot edition)

Things are starting to get real (again) over in Europe, with Spanish bailouts and Greek elections and please nobody look at France because we promise things are totally cool there. So this week's Quote of the Week naturally comes from that nape of the woods, where things are starting to get seriously bizarre.

This week's QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"France's new Socialist government is planning to ramp up the cost of laying off workers for companies in the coming months, its labour minister said on Thursday after data showed the jobless rate hit the highest level this century at 10 percent.


'The main idea is to make layoffs so expensive for companies that it's not worth it,' Sapin said in an interview with France Info radio."
                                         - France Labour Minister Michel Sapin, via Reuters

That's a nice idea and all, except that it likely won't work and may in fact be utterly counterproductive.

As Mish Shedlock points out, the main problem here is that by trying to make it very expensive to fire someone, all the French government is doing is making it effectively very expensive to hire someone... therefore, it won't ever be worth hiring anyone unless that person is being woefully underpaid versus the work they're producing.

The plan here suffers from a basic misunderstanding of why businesses hire people and when. A business typically will hire an employee only if that employee brings more value to the firm than he requires in return as compensation--if you effectively increase the amount that the company must pay (either upfront or down the road), then the company will never hire in the first place (unless the government forces the hiring decision upon them... hey, maybe that's next).

Under the French proposal, unless a company can accurately determine its revenues and staffing needs into an infinite future, the risks of having to lay an employee off simply become too great, to where a company will hire only when it becomes absolutely necessary.


If the goal here is to utterly devastate the French economy as it exists today (which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on who you ask...), then the policy is right on target. Otherwise, it's a disaster.

Unfortunately, it might not even be the worst proposal to have come out of France since Hollande's election, given the new president's decision to lower the official retirement age back to 60 from 62. This comes at a time where most countries around the world are increasing their legal retirement ages, with good reason. This chart from The Economist helps to explain why.

There are some inconvenient truths that need to be spoken, but that many in our government (and seemingly everyone in the French government) dare not speak. The simple fact is that as we all live longer, and as our birth rates slow, we are gradually moving to a place where there are more non-productive people living in the world than there are productive people. When you lose this basic balance, the burden falls more and more on governments to provide, but their ability to pay is directly tied to that same shrinking pool of productive workers (i.e. taxpayers). That's bad.

I'll leave the last word on this topic to Malcolm Gladwell, who way back in 1990 penned an article for The Washington Post opining that the budding anti-tobacco campaign could have the perverse effect of effectively bankrupting our nation's pension funds. The funds are probably headed that way anyway, but Gladwell's point nevertheless provides intriguing food for thought. From Gladwell's piece:
"Prevention of disease is obviously something we should strive for," said Health Policy Center economist Gio Gori, who has conducted cost-benefit analysis for a variety of health programs. "But it's not going to be cheap. We will have to pay for those who survive."
The lingering question remains, how will we in fact pay for those people? In France, the answer still seems to be "who cares"? And that's a problem. Here in America, we need to be careful to avoid a similar response, lest we end up where Greece and Spain now find themselves.

[Mish Shedlock]
[Malcolm Gladwell]

Perfect

Seems oddly familiar...

[via]

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Clip of the Week

Clip of the Week time. For those of you who haven't gotten enough Europe, we have this clip courtesy of Barry Ritholtz. He also shared this historical map of Europe, which I remember trying to post way back when but I'm not sure if the link was working. This one works, and it's pretty staggering to see how much the map has changed--I wonder if we're overdue for a new major change. Stay tuned, I guess.

It's also time for the college baseball postseason, and even though my 'Hoos got knocked out last weekend, I was still able to enjoy this no-hitter by Florida's Jonathon Crawford (which was, incidentally, much cooler and more impressive than Johan Santana's no-hitter on the same night). Much love to Crawford's second baseman (Casey Turgeon, who also went 3-for-4 with a 3-run homer in that game) for the awesome grab.

But I have to give a tip of the hat this week to Tiger Woods. Even though most of America has been tripping over itself to jump off of the Tiger bandwagon, I still admire his golf game and think he's incredibly fun to watch. Shots like this one that spurred him to a victory at The Memorial (his second win of the year, 73rd of his career) are why. I can't do that.

Phil Rogers gets the FJM treatment

One of my favorite blogs of all time was the Fire Joe Morgan blog, written in part by The Office/Parks and Recreation writer Michael Schur. FJM is one of the sites that got me reading blogs in the first place, and that inspired me to start one of my own. The FJM formula was simple: find bad sports journalism, tear said journalism apart line by line.

Today, I came across an article in the Chicago Tribune (h/t Red Cowboy) that was simply screaming out for the FJM treatment. Since the true American heroes at FJM are no longer in operation, I'll have to take over for them. Let's see what you've got, Phil Rogers...

Lots of people out there are just waiting to see Theo Epstein fail.

They are? What are their names? Larry Lucchino? Ben Cherington? Paul Sullivan? Not-Theo Epstein? This guy? Please provide examples. It should be easy, given that there's lots of them.

They think he gets too much attention, that his deal with Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts is too sweet. They think he should have received more criticism for a run of failed free-agent signings in Boston that contributed to the Red Sox's 2011 collapse. Heck, maybe they just don't like a baseball man who plays guitar.

Those are reasons, not examples. Actually, you seem to know quite a lot about what these "people" think. Suspiciously so. As though you have some kind of personal, inside information into what these "people" think. Either way, these people must hate Peter Gammons, too. And Bronson Arroyo. And Bernie Williams.

Who knows why people think what they think?

Awesome point! "People" are crazy, right? I'm always telling people that, and people totally agree with me, too. People are weird.

But all of those people have to love Albert Almora, don't they?

Who?

The high school senior from Mater Academy in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., verbally stuck it to Epstein and the Cubs after they grabbed him with the sixth pick of the draft Monday.

Oh.

While the Cubs paid as much due diligence to Almora as anyone else in the 2012 draft — Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and senior vice president Jason McLeod visited him and his family in his home — they apparently missed one or two factors.

The color of the drapes? Whether he wore boxers or briefs? This week's episode of Fear Factor? Waldo?

Either Almora doesn't want to play for the Cubs or he doesn't care how he comes across to Cubs fans, and neither is a good thing.

Weird. Seems like that would've come up in conversation. I wonder what they talked about instead. Probably the European debt crisis.

Asked on a Tuesday conference call with Chicago reporters if he felt any particular significance about being Epstein's first Cubs pick, he shrugged and said he was "just happy to be picked by a major league club.''

If it was a conference call, how could you see him shrug? Was it a video conference call? Either way, shame on this kid for not caring as much about Theo Epstein's legacy as he does about himself. This kid sounds like a real jerk.

And he insists he's strongly considering his scholarship to the University of Miami.

"My main priority now is college,'' Almora said. "I just graduated high school, and I have a full scholarship to the University of Miami. That's all I'm looking forward to right now.''

I'd be looking forward to that, too. Sounds pretty cool. So does playing for the Cubs, but the Cubs haven't offered him a contract yet. So I guess that's really all he can be looking forward to, for now. Until the Cubs offer him a contract. Which they will. Are we done yet?

His agent? Scott Boras. Of course.

Ohhhh, I've heard of him. He's the guy who used to be a pharmacist or something, right? I bet Theo didn't know that Almora's agent was Scott Boras. What an idiot that Theo Epstein is. "People" are right about him.

Playing the Miami card is straight from the textbook for the class "Boras 101, the Art of Negotiating the Best Deal You Can Get.''

Awesome class. I think they teach that at Miami. It's right between recess and lunch. Too bad Almora hasn't gotten there yet to take it. He'd be able to learn a lot about himself.

I don't think anyone should overreact, because Almora almost certainly is going to sign with the Cubs before the July 13 deadline.

Oh. So then why are you writing this article? Is your editor even paying attention?

That's what I think, anyway.

But what do "people" think?

But it's always smart to listen when Boras — or, in this case, a Boras client — is talking. Almora has taken the first step into the territory of J.D. Drew/Philadelphia Phillies, circa 1998, and nobody wants to go there.

Oh, J.D. Drew, yeah I remember him. I'm pretty sure he signed a big contract with the Red Sox once, with that jerk Scott Boras as his agent. I can't remember who the Red Sox GM was then, but man he sure did get fleeced by that wily Boras... I'm sure that GM (whoever he was) will think twice before dealing with him again. Glad you brought that up, awesome point.

Except... that J.D. Drew was drafted out of college, not out of high school, and so he and Almora really aren't comparable at all, because Boras potentially stands to lose a ton if Almora goes to college, because then he can't be drafted again for another 3 years, and there's no guarantee that Almora will still want Boras as his agent then (or that the world will still be standing), so really this is a lot more like the Daisuke Matsuzaka negotiation, which was negotiated between Boras and that guy who used to be the GM of the Red Sox whose name I can't remember, and oh screw it let's just see what other nonsense you feel like writing.


The thing to keep in mind here is that Almora has taken only baby steps so far, and somewhat predictable baby steps at that. Let's see how this plays out before declaring that Epstein fell into a huge trap in passing up one Boras client, Stanford ace Mark Appel, and then staking his first Chicago draft on another one.

Okay, I'll see how things play out. I guess that must be the end of this article then, right?

While I never would question the sincerity of a Boras client engaged in a contract negotiation — well, actually I would do that just about every time

Weird, you're still writing. Wait, why did you say that you wouldn't do something, and then say you'd do exactly that? You didn't need to write either of those things. They canceled each other out. We ended up in the same place that we started. Your editor must still be asleep. This article is retarded.

— the reality is that Almora has spent his childhood training to be a pro baseball player, not unlike Alex Rodriguez.

Also not unlike these guys, who were all drafted in the 4 millionth round of the draft. In fact, it seems hard to believe that anyone could ever get drafted by a Major League Baseball team without spending their childhood training to do so. Except maybe this guy. Wait, what are we talking about again?

And while A-Rod would become such a financial supporter of the Hurricanes that the baseball stadium is named for him, he didn't say no to the Mariners so he could bang the ball around some more with aluminum bats.

I read that sentence 15 times and I still don't get what you're trying to say. Or why it's relevant to this kid or to Theo. Wake your editor up so that he can make some sense of it.

I don't think Almora will say no to the Cubs.

You already said that. I was pretty sure it ended the article, but somehow it didn't.

Not unless …

A: Crane Kenney involves himself in negotiations and the Cubs do something stupid, allowing the talks to become personal.

B: Or Almora's parents get sucked into allowing Boras to use their son as part of a holy war against the draft spending limits contained in baseball's new collective bargaining agreement.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. I officially don't blame your editor for sleeping. This column is terrible. I thought this was about Theo not doing his homework on Almora. Or playing the guitar too much. But now it's about a holy war? I'm confused. Is this kid al-Qaeda?

It's the last point that bears the most consideration.

THEN WHY DIDN'T WE START THE ARTICLE THERE? Why did we have to waste all that time talking about what "people" think and Alex Rodriguez and J.D. Drew and Crane Kenney?

So, you think that Boras might use this kid as a pawn in a fight between himself and Major League Baseball, and that therefore the Cubs should be careful. Nevermind the fact that if Boras is looking for a pawn, the more likely candidate is Appel, who you JUST MENTIONED A COUPLE PARAGRAPHS EARLIER, and who is a college kid who Boras could more easily control, like he threatened to do with Stephen Strasburg three years ago.

You see, there are two Scott Boras clients here, one of whom is straight out of high school and one of whom is not. That matters a great deal, and it just might help explain why Theo would be wary of drafting one, but not wary of drafting the other. Theo has dealt with Boras more than just about any GM in the league by now, including in some very high-profile cases like the Matsuzaka case. He knows how Boras thinks, and he recognizes that his interests and Boras' interests are mostly aligned in the case of Almora, but not in the case of Appel. Theo is not a moron. There is a method to his madness. THESE MEN KNOW EACH OTHER VERY WELL.

Your article is useless. It's just a thin facade for your obvious Theo hatred (I'm sorry, "for people's obvious Theo hatred"), written in the most passive-aggressive, non-accountable way possible.


Boras was beside himself after the draft spending limits were announced in November. He said they would ruin baseball. So how far will he go to challenge the changes the players union, long under the influence of the most powerful agents, signed off on?

I don't know, but I bet that uncertainty explains why Appel fell from the first pick to the eighth pick. Remember, a lot of GMs have negotiated with Boras before. Theo isn't the only one.

Will Boras engage the Pirates in a serious effort to sign Appel, who fell all the way from a chance that his hometown Astros would take him first overall to the eighth pick, or will he see if Appel is outraged sufficiently to challenge the CBA?

Oh hey, you noticed that too! Maybe you really are paying attention.

If it's the latter, dragging Almora into the battle would seem to be a possibility.

Opposite of true. Only an idiot would engage both of his high-profile clients in the same "holy war" in the same year. Boras is no idiot.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Way, way ahead.

Yes. You mentioned that when you said that we should "see how this plays out" before jumping to any conclusions. But then you kept writing for some reason. And jumping to conclusions.

What we can say after Major League Baseball wrapped up its first draft with spending limits is that the CBA seems to have worked almost exactly as Commissioner Bud Selig and some in ownership (including White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf) hoped it would.

Talent was spread around more evenly, as evidenced by the White Sox diving back into the deep end by taking high school players with their first two picks — something they hadn't done since 1984, in large part because they feared Boras or another agent would try to play a shot at college into super-sized bonus demands.

Counter-argument.

Now we will see how all the parts fit together. And if Almora was just taking his agent's advice to sound like he never had daydreamed about being one of Epstein's curse-busters.

Almora really, really, really doesn't care about Theo Epstein or his legacy. I promise. He just wants to play baseball, and presumably to get paid to do so. You're the only one who cares about these things, and your analysis is colored by your obvious anti-Theo bias. Please go away.

[Chicago Tribune]

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Is it the weekend yet?

No? Okay, well let me know when it is. Thanks.


David Einhorn on the Fed and The Simpsons

I don't always agree with hedge fund manager David Einhorn, but the piece that he wrote for The Huffington Post regarding Fed policy is one of the better pieces I've read this year.

It's not easy to take a complex subject and make it easy to understand (not to mention entertaining), but I think Einhorn's pulled it off here. And the fact that he brings The Simpsons into it just makes it all that more appealing to me. I'm easy.

I'll excerpt a couple of sections of it here (basically the beginning and the end), but I seriously suggest that you take a few minutes and read the whole thing. At the very least, it'll help you understand just why the economy can't seem to get out of its own way.
A Jelly Donut is a yummy mid-afternoon energy boost. 
Two Jelly Donuts are an indulgent breakfast. 
Three Jelly Donuts may induce a tummy ache. 
Six Jelly Donuts -- that's an eating disorder. 
Twelve Jelly Donuts is fraternity pledge hazing. 
My point is that you can have too much of a good thing and overdoses are destructive. Chairman Bernanke is presently force-feeding us what seems like the 36th Jelly Donut of easy money and wondering why it isn't giving us energy or making us feel better. Instead of a robust recovery, the economy continues to be sluggish. Last year, when asked why his measures weren't working, he suggested it was "bad luck." 
I don't think luck has anything to do with it. The blame lies in his misunderstanding of human nature. The textbooks presume that easier money will always result in a stronger economy, but that's a bad assumption... 
I think we've reached the point where even Homer can see that the last thing he needs is another Jelly Donut, but the Fed Chairman is oblivious. 
We can all say "D'oh!"
Since I left out the entire guts of the argument, you'll have to go to the full article to see what he's saying. I like the analogy, and I definitely agree with Einhorn's conclusions. The Fed needs to get out of the way, allow the market's price mechanism to work properly (even if that means significant short-term pain), and let the economy begin to heal itself. Doing otherwise will only prolong the pain, and could even create the next crisis--I might in fact argue that it already has.

[Huffington Post]


Quote of the Week

After a couple days of no writing, I'm planning on coming back with a vengeance in the second half of this week. Yeah, I know... good intentions. Whatever.

Either way, it's Quote of the Week time, and this one here is a doozy. I actually considered giving this week's honor to this article, which found that Germans may actually be physically incapable of enjoying life. Now that's a hell of a study right there.

But instead, I'm giving the nod to Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin, who issued one of the facepalmiest quotes of the year so far.

This week's QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I've been saying it for a long time, I will not hire an assistant coach until I see his wife... That's part of the deal. There's a very strong correlation between having the confidence, and going up and talking to a woman, and being quick on your feet and having some personality and confidence and being fun and articulate, than it is walking into a high school and recruiting a kid and selling him."
                                   - Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin

Wow. What's funny about Franklin's line is that there's actually probably some truth to it. It takes a certain personality type to be a successful recruiter, and it doesn't hurt to look at an assistant's life for indications of the guy's personality and salesmanship abilities. But to paraphrase Mallrats... JESUS man, there's some things you just don't talk about in public. I mean seriously, is this idiot trying to get fired?

I'm sure Franklin's wife and two daughters are proud of him right about now--he's not getting any icy stares at the dinner table at all this week. What a clown.


Friday, June 1, 2012

Song of the Week(end)

Don't ask why or how, but I managed to get some ridiculous '80s-rific music stuck in my head today. In trying to get the song out of my head, I only succeeded in getting even more ridiculous '80s movie soundtrack songs in there, and then I realized something--I could go on for years here with the number of amazing '80s movie soundtracks and amazing songs that came from them. So there's a good chance that Song of the Week(end) will turn into '80s Soundtrack Song of the Week(end). I'm excited already just thinking about it.

At any rate, now that your Song of the Week(end) might be taking a permanent turn toward '80s Town, I might as well post up the song that got it all started. Straight off the (original) Footloose soundtrack, this is Bonnie Tyler, with "Holding Out For a Hero". I love the '80s.

Time to write another letter

You know, I'm always ranting on here about the dangers of government overreach and counter-productive policymaking, so much so that you might even think that's all I ever do. Well, it's not. I also enjoy baseball. And golf. So there.

But, you see... when it comes to government policies, there's stupid... and then there's stupid. The e-mail that I received in my inbox last night from the Virginia Department of Transportation and E-ZPass Virginia falls into the latter category.
Dear E-ZPass Customer, 
With Virginia’s E-ZPass program doubling over the next several years as new toll roads open, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is proposing a monthly fee of about $1 per transponder to pay for administrative and operations costs. 
VDOT has the utmost understanding that E-ZPass operations brings convenience and efficiency to toll operations.  E-ZPass allows for electronic toll collection at Virginia toll facilities and lessens the need for manual collection.  However, there is a cost to providing the service to the participating toll facilities, most of which are not operated by VDOT.  The Virginia E-ZPass program is being expanded to support several new toll facilities scheduled or expected to be opened over the next few years.  The cost associated with the enhanced distribution and specialized services for the new facilities and additional transponders requires a new business model. 
The proposed monthly fee would cover costs for:   
- Buying nearly one-half million transponders 
- Implementing a retail program where transponders can be obtained at various stores in Northern Virginia and eventually Hampton Roads 
- Providing service at select DMV locations 
- Upgrading information technology to accommodate the expanded program 
- Account management and processing of toll transactions (managing billing of all transactions) 
- Customer service and the operations of three customer service centers
The fee would also help control costs and manage the selection and demand for E-ZPass transponders.
Okay, you know what... there's just way too much for me to unpack here in a simple blog post, and this one calls for more. In times of true governmental idiocy, there is only one reasonable answer. This requires... another letter to my senators. (Note that this is a draft... I may revise this before sending it out, because I'm not sure if it properly conveys my anger and head-shaking bewilderment in response to this absurd proposal. Also note that I'll be sending this one to State Senators, not U.S. Senators. Whatever).
Dear Senator (fill in name), 
I am writing in regards to the recently proposed monthly E-ZPass fee, as announced to me in an e-mail dated May 31, 2012. The proposed fee is, quite simply, one of the most foolish and counter-productive pieces of government garbage that I have ever encountered.  
Setting aside the patent absurdity and circular nature of the argument that we all should be required to pay a fee for the right to be taxed (it's roughly equivalent to imposing a filing fee on IRS tax returns, which would make little sense), the proposal fails to meet muster in two fundamental ways. 
#1: Don't kill the golden goose 
Regardless of the costs associated with administering the E-ZPass program, it should be self-evident that those costs are lower than the traditional method of physically-manned tollbooths. In fact, the e-mail announcing the proposed fee even conceded this fact, extolling the "convenience and efficiency" that electronic toll collection affords. Therefore, we should be encouraging E-ZPass usage by any means necessary, not discouraging it via the imposition of an added fee
If this fee is indeed imposed, my wife and I will immediately be canceling our E-ZPass accounts and returning to the traditional manual method of paying our tolls. Many others will likely follow suit, which will inevitably increase the burden on the existing manual tollbooths, likely requiring new hiring of tollbooth operators and thereby increasing overall system-wide administrative costs. 
Does it cost money to raise money? Yes, of course. But any well-designed program should be able to comfortably cover its administrative costs, with room to spare. If it cannot, then the program is ill-advised at its inception, and should be scrapped in its entirety. Indeed, if these new toll roads cannot provide a net benefit to VDOT without the imposition of this fee, then the entire program needs to be revisited. Yes, indeed, you need a new business model. Clearly. This isn't it. 
#2: The supposed benefits of the plan are specious 
For the life of me, I cannot understand why E-ZPass would need to open a "retail program" in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads, or anywhere else in the Commonwealth. In the internet age, the wild inefficiency of brick-and-mortar retail outlets has been laid bare for all to see (for examples, please consider Borders Books, Circuit City, and countless other traditional retailers that have failed to thrive in the internet age). It is hard to see why E-ZPass would prove an exception to this rule, and therefore I cannot understand why a retail program would be a necessary or efficient use of program resources. 
The entire benefit of E-ZPass to begin with is that it allows us to save costs on employees needlessly manning tollbooths. If we instead pay employees to needlessly man retail outlets, we end up basically right back where we started from, with an added expense for rent and utilities, to boot. Terrific work, folks. What are we doing here? 
As to the other costs that this fee is attempting to cover, all of these are pre-existing costs that should be built in to the existing toll fee structure. There have always been and will always be administrative costs associated with toll collection. I fail to see why the current expansion of toll roads should increase these in any meaningful way, let alone to a degree that the increased toll collection would not offset the increase.  
I fundamentally do not understand why taxpayers should be asked to pay a fee for the right to pay a toll. It's absurd, it's counter-productive, and it will ultimately prove to cost VDOT more than it saves. This policy is a disaster. If you indeed need a new business model, keep searching. These kinds of deeply flawed business models would lead a private-sector company to bankruptcy. They will do the very same thing to our public sector organizations if they are allowed to pass.
Sincerely, 
The Crimson Cavalier
Well, that should about cover it, right? I don't know, was I clear enough? Bitter enough? What do you think? This government stupidity must end, now. Or else we're seriously screwed.