Dept. of Futurism
May 5th, 2014

Jon Evans has another entry in the post-scarcity economy genre here. It continues to amaze me that people not named Matthew Yglesias can write passages like this:

I’ve been arguing for some time now that the combination of new technology and old capitalism will soon drastically worsen inequality. It seems to me that technology will soon destroy jobs faster than it creates them, if it hasn’t started to already. Which is a good thing! Most of the jobs it destroys are bad, and most of the ones it creates are good.

What classifies a job as “good” or “bad”? Who has done the tabulation of jobs destroyed by technology versus created by technology? What, exactly, is the distribution of “good” and “bad” jobs in each of the created and destroyed columns?

Like so much of the tech-futurist press, this is all just taken as given because . . . internet!

As I’ve mentioned before, “post-scarcity economics” didn’t arrive yesterday. It’s been bouncing around the popular press and sci-fi writers for at last three quarters of a century. I’d be interested in knowing to what extent these boomlets coincide with moments of relative prosperity (or hardship) in the real world. Do our futurists tend to be more optimistic about the future when the here-and-now is gilded, or hard? Or is there no correlation between techno-utopian fantasy economics and real economics?


Francis Is Magic!
April 28th, 2014

From Peggy Noonan:

Everyone keeps talking about the Francis Effect. The pope has captured the world’s imagination with his warmth, apparent merriness and palpable affection for those who are poor and imprisoned, in whatever way—jail, loneliness, illness, disability. An American cardinal smiles and shakes his head when he tells me that nowadays his seminaries are full.

Boy, that really is some effect. Francis assumed the throne of Peter on March 13, 2013 and just 13 months later, the “seminaries are full.” This suggests three possibilities:

(1) The Francis Effect is so powerful that within weeks of his ascension, a generation of young men suddenly decided to enter the priesthood because of him.

(2) A rising wave of vocations has been nurtured and seeded in the American Church by other, hardline, pontiffs who led the Church for the vast majority of these young men’s lives.

(3) Or, once again you have Catholics who should know better talking nonsense.

If there was a Francis Effect, it wouldn’t be hard to measure. Look at Church attendance year over year, from March 2012 to March 2013 and so on. Do the same thing with giving. Then look to enrollment in the vocations, numbers of baptisms, etc.

The fact that no one touting the Francis Effect actually shows any of these elementary numbers is pretty suggestive.

Update: Rod Dreher notes a particularly silly tweet from Pope Francis, who may or may not be angling to become the patron saint of Vox Dot Com.

And remember, I’m one of the bleeding hearts who thinks that “inequality” is a real problem.

Update 2: From Galley Friend L.B. in the comments:

Pew Research actually did a survey of American Catholics in March and found, as you might suspect, that the “Francis Effect” is bunk, at least when it comes to tangible stuff like Mass attendance or going to confession, as opposed to people just saying “He’s the Greatest Pope Eh-vur!”

Money quote: “But despite the pope’s popularity and the widespread perception that he is a change for the better, it is less clear whether there has been a so-called ‘Francis effect,’ a discernible change in the way American Catholics approach their faith. There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic. Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass. And the survey finds no evidence that large numbers of Catholics are going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities more often.”


Putting a Quarter in the Asymmetrical Information Machine
December 13th, 2012

Today’s WSJ piece on Apple talking with TV suppliers seems like the most solid evidence we’ve had that there might actually be an Apple TV coming down the tracks at some point. Yet I’ve been reasonably persuaded by many of the Apple TV skeptics that an actual television set doesn’t really jibe with APPL’s economics. I’d be very interested to hear someone smart (like Megan McArdle) walk through the various business challenges the TV market would represent to APPL. The rough list, to my mind, goes something like this:

* Most of APPL’s products are intended to be replaced on a semi-regular cycle. They want you to buy a new iPhone (and iPad) every 12 to 24 months and new laptop/desktops every 24 to 36 months. To that end, they have an aggressive product refresh cycle adding new features and designs every year or so. And they’re able to do this in large part because APPL customers are able to take advantage of a brisk secondary market for used products which defrays the cost of upgrade. You can afford to buy the iPhone 5 because someone on eBay will give you a few hundred bucks for your iPhone 4s.

I wonder what the typical TV replacement cycle is for an American household. My guess–and it’s nothing more than a guess–is that it’s a good bit longer than 36 months. If APPL jumped into the TV market, could they make the economics work on a longer product cycle? Or are they dependent on needing repeat buyers to help lower their manufacture and R&D costs? Or would they try to lure consumers into replacing their TV sets as often as they do their cell phones?

* How would consumers react to an Apple TV set if it was going to be refreshed and improved annually? Would they take to replacing their TVs more regularly, or would it prompt them to postpone purchase because they’re afraid of missing a key feature set in the next iteration?

* Would their be a secondary market for older Apple TVs, or does shipping large-screen panels make this a less attractive option for secondary buyers?

* Those are the hardware questions. From a “software” perspective, the biggest challenge would seem to be untangling broadcast rights. If the Holy Grail of an Apple TV is making channels and/or individual programs something like apps, which you purchase and then consume as you go (and this is a giant assumption), I can’t see how APPL achieves that without unbundling TV packages.

* A la carte channel subscriptions have been The Dream for a long, long time. But instead of moving toward an a la carte system over the years, we’ve actually moved further away from it. Sure, you’d rather only get the 30 channels you really want from Comcast–even if you had to pay almost the same amount you’re now paying for 500 channels that you don’t want. But from Comcast’s perspective (and the perspective of the media companies which own all of those channels) they’d much rather force you to buy the bundle. Their entire business model is based on bundling–forcing you to buy the little-watched networks if you’re going to get the most-watched networks–because it gives them more platforms and space for advertising. Time-Warner, Disney, Viacom, et al, know their business. It’s not clear what APPL could possibly offer them to make them begin to abandon it in favor of a model which would primarily benefit APPL.

* And if an Apple TV didn’t break up the bundling model, then what could it really offer consumers that the Apple set-top box doesn’t already give them? A better UI? TIVO on steroids? A TV panel that does Facetime? I’m not sure how much value there is to be added if the underlying economic systems of cable and advertising stay in place. In a strange way, the xBox is basically doing all of this stuff already. APPL could almost certainly do it better. But they don’t really need to actually be selling the panel if that’s the scope of their ambition.

Like I said, I’d be really interested in smart thoughts about this.


The Day After Tomorrow Thread (Will Be Updated Throughout the Day)
November 7th, 2012

(1) Jennifer Rubin, 8/30/12:

Mitt Romney accepted the nomination of his party for president with a speech that showed he can rise to an occasion, and let us see a side of him that was compelling and heartbreaking. . . .

When Romney arrived, dramatically walking through the hall, it was a reminder how determined some in the party had been not to like him. No more. . . .

The speech was succinct and clear, providing a contrast to the president, about whom Romney said had no real plan to revive the economy. It was a mirror image of the speaker: well organized, sentimental, reasoned and optimistic. The irony is the Mitt Romney we’ve seen on the trail is not complicated or “weird” or lacking warmth or even out of touch. He is, like many men of his generation, somewhat reserved and in a cultural time warp. Tonight, he also showed some mettle and spine.

After nearly four years of high-flying rhetoric, “coolness” and a failure by the chief executive to execute, Romney is hoping that the convention, followed by the debates, will be sufficient to reassure voters who have had it with Obama. Tonight he took a step in the right direction.

Jennifer Rubin, 11/7/12:

Until October it was the Perils of Pauline campaign. It moved in fits and starts on foreign policy. The message was rarely consistent from day to day. Gobs of ads were aired to no apparent effect. The convention speech was a huge missed opportunity.

(2) Some people think I’m exaggerating when I say that Romney was the worst candidate to win his party’s nomination since WWII. Can everyone agree that John McCain was a terrible candidate, or at least that he ran a terrible campaign? (I love McCain myself, but that doesn’t mean he was a great candidate.) Can we agree that McCain ran in one of the most challenging environments possible–two wars, financial crisis, opposing the historic first black nominee? And Romney’s environment has been quite favorable–can we agree on that?

If Romney had merely been able to hold onto all of the McCain ’08 vote–he would have won the popular vote . Other candidates that we think of as being weak–Dukakis, Gore, Dole, Stevenson–what they all have in common is that before losing the presidency they won a bunch of elections.

On the other hand the 48 percent of the vote Romney won last night was one of his better electoral showings.

The first duty of a politician is to win elections. Mitt Romney spent the last 18 years losing contests, to a variety of opponents ranging, in terms of ability, ideology, and resources, from Ted Kennedy to Rick Santorum.

(3) Santino makes a good point:

One final note, to Republicans: Just remember, whichever pet issue you have that the base disagrees with, that’s the one we need to change in order to ensure success going forward. So, you know, argue extremely loudly, preferably on Twitter, about it for the next few weeks.

Oh yes. Remember: Always be suspicious of paths to salvation which track personal preference.

(4) On this same line of thinking, please understand that when I say Mitt Romney was a historically bad candidate, it’s not because I thought he wasn’t conservative enough, or moderate enough, or because I had someone else in mind. (Okay, that last one’s a lie. Mitch Daniels, obvs.) But I do think it’s important to knock down the canard that Romney was the best candidate available. For one thing, Romney himself heavily influenced the pool of candidates by sucking up money and firing warning shots across the bows of potential rivals. But for another, let me just pose you this hypothetical:

It’s December 2011 and I come back to you in a time machine from the future. I won’t tell you whether or not he wins, but I will tell you that if Mitt Romney is the nominee in 2012, he will get more than 2 million fewer votes than John McCain did in 2008. Then I leave it up to you: You can go with Romney and hope that’s good enough, or you can pick whoever’s behind Door #2–Perry, Santorum, Pawlenty, Gingrich, Huntsman, whoever. We can’t prove counterfactual history, but I suspect most people would have rolled the dice with Door #2 on the theory of how much worse could it get?

Finally, I hesitate to say this, because it’s basically an argument to authority, but I’d suggest that if you spent a lot of time following presidential candidates around it significantly reinforced the sense that Romney was not, qua candidate, the best available player. I suspect that most people who say he wasn’t so bad as a politician haven’t spent a lot of time watching these guys up close. In person, the glare off his shortcomings was blinding.

(5) Over the last few weeks I’ve missed my friend Dean Barnett even more than usual. Dean, who began writing as Soxblogger and came to work with me at the magazine, was Romney’s single best advocate. Totally, completely in the tank for Romney–but cheerful and transparent and funny; good-humored and straight-shooting. He didn’t insult your intelligence with idiotic spin. And he genuinely believed in Romney’s abilities as a governing executive.

For the most part, the media boosters who glommed on to Romney this time around were . . . less attractive. And persuasive. But the single most striking thing is that the arguments mounted on behalf of Romney were almost always about process: He’s the most electable. He’s the only one able to raise enough money. He’s the only one with a national infrastructure. It was rare to hear one of Romney’s boosters explain how Romney’s vision for the country or capabilities uniquely qualified him for the job of president.

There was, to my mind, only one qualitative argument generally made in favor of Romney: that his management experience made him uniquely qualified to be president. He was a “turn-around artist.” A “genius CEO.” Now even the claim that his private-sector ability to master organizations and rescue them was a variation on process. And it always struck me as a little dubious. For one thing, it’s not immediately clear how the skill set of the private-sector executive transfers to the job of managing the executive branch of the U.S. government. CEOs say jump and everyone around them says how high. The president says jump and half of Congress tries to countermand the order while getting him fired and the other branch of government gets to decide whether jumping is even theoretically allowed.

But at least this was a falsifiable claim. And the fact that Romney could not master even his own campaign organization in order to win an incredibly winnable election demonstrates–incontrovertiably–that it wasn’t true. If he was a turn-around artist, he would be president-elect right now.

Most political campaigns aren’t invalidated by a loss. A candidate puts forward an idea or a worldview and it can stand whether or not it’s embraced by voters. It has its own truth. But in the wake of his loss Romney’s campaign now looks ludicrous. He simply can’t be a “genius” of managing and salvaging and not win. (Orca.)

(6) Romney now exits public life, stage right, leaving the smallest footprint of any man to win his party’s nomination in, at least, a century. He was not a war hero like John McCain or a Senate bull like Bob Dole. He does not leave behind a guiding core ideology that others might nurture and grow, like Barry Goldwater. Even Michael Dukakis and John Kerry spent years in harness to public service. George McGovern served his country with distinction and issued warnings about the nature of government that look prescient today. Hubert Humphrey held nearly every office there was and Adlai Stevenson was a genuine intellectual.

Mitt Romney was a governor for two years before deciding to run for president. He passed a healthcare law that became the forerunner of Obamacare. He made a lot of money. Seen in this light, it’s still a little shocking that he was entrusted with the Republican party’s standard.

(7) Ann Coulter is very smart but I don’t even know how to respond to this:

Romney was the perfect candidate, and he was the president this country needed right now. It’s less disheartening that a president who wrecked American health care, quadrupled gas prices, added $6 trillion to the national debt and gave us an 8 percent unemployment rate can squeak out re-election than that America will never have Romney as our president.

Indeed, Romney is one of the best presidential candidates the Republicans have ever fielded. Blaming the candidate may be fun, but it’s delusional and won’t help us avoid making the same mistakes in the future.


Great Moments in Law Enforcement
July 1st, 2011

Another day, another instance of cops behaving very, very badly. I’d buy the Gormogons insistence that cops are by and large good people and good professionals if you didn’t see stories like this all the time. Are there good cops out there? Sure! Just like there are good journalists and trial lawyers.


Great Moments in Law Enforcement
May 20th, 2011

Police try to arrest man for carrying a gun, legally. Threaten to kill him. Are forced to release him after checking on the law.

Man posts an audio recording of the episode on the internet.

District attorney has man arrested for exposing police failure to understand the laws they are supposed to enforce.

You really have to listen to the audio–the police talk like gangsters, while the “perp” talks like a professional. The really damning thing here isn’t that the cops don’t know the laws they’re charged with upholding–it’s that they act not like mistaken professionals (everyone makes mistakes), but like semi-psychotic thugs.

Maybe this conflict of gun-rights with law enforcement will finally convince some conservatives to question their blind support of cops. It’ll be like feminists discovering that abortion is sometimes used to commit gendercide against little girls!


American Narcissus–Updated
November 15th, 2010

Over at the Standard I’ve got a medium-sized piece on President Obama’s vanity. There’s nothing really new in–it’s mostly a compendium of stuff we’ve all seen for the last two years, but tied together and in one place. Mind you, it’s an incomplete list. And the catalogue keeps growing.

Mentioning the piece, Scott Johnson adds a few bits, my favorite being that Obama’s vanity “almost disposes of the speculation that Obama is a Muslim. The man can’t be a Muslim; he worships himself.” Scott also notes a line from Obama in India about the Mahatma, MLK, and, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But here’s Scott: “Obama gives us history in the form of an arc bending inevitably toward himself.”

The Belmont Club’s Richard Fernandez also adds a much more literate and philosophical riff, contrasting Obama’s sense of self with that of Churchill, who was never bashful about his own merits:

Both men saw themselves as agents of greatness. Where they differed was where they ascribed its source.  That and the fact that Lincoln and Churchill have already achieved that mantle of greatness which Obama so confidently believes is his. In the case of Lincoln and Churchill their presentiments are confirmed by the fact that they fulfilled them. They have already walked the walk. And now we see the talk was true. In the president’s case his claims have not yet been confirmed by events. . . .

It may be that his presentiment will prove true, though perhaps he  should have waited until those events actually took place before claiming the due. But that would have been for lesser men, for minds less certain of their powers. And the central point of Jonathan Last’s entire essay was that for Barack Obama, destiny shone so clearly before him that he could touch it and hold it in his hand.  And therein lies the danger. For if fate can promise, it can also betray.  The three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth knew that some things should only be reckoned in the end.

And the great Jennifer Rubin teases out some of the implications of Obama’s vanity-driven administration:

the colossal failure of his international endeavors, specifically his Muslim Outreach, is traceable to the faulty notion that one can construct a nation’s foreign policy based on the persona of its president. It sounds daft — why would the Israelis and Palestinian simply reach a deal because Obama has arrived on the scene? Why would the mullahs be enticed to curb their nuclear and hegemonic ambitions because he allegedly ”understands” the Muslim World? The Ego has made hash out of foreign policy because he believes, as the saying goes, that the world revolves around him. He can’t imagine that rivals, foes, and allies are immune to his charms.

Among the anecdotes I left out was a scene I witnessed at an Obama campaign rally before the Nevada caucus in 2008. Michelle Obama was introducing her husband to a crowded school cafetorium (?) and she said made a very concerted point of the following: “Barack is one of the smartest men we will see in our lifetime.”

Now look, many (most?) wives have idealized visions of their husbands. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s quite good. And perhaps even necessary for the survival of the species. But it’s one thing to think that your spouse is better looking, or more charming, or more intelligent than he really is. And it’s another to insist–to a room full of people–that he’s a Stephen Hawking-level genius. Even if we were to stipulate that Barack Obama is really, really, really smart–maybe the smartest guy ever in American politics (which, by the by, is almost certainly not true), you could walk into the cafeteria at MIT right now, swing a bat, and knock over three people who have 20 IQ points on him.

Exit question: The piece came out online Saturday morning. What’s the over-under on the “uppity” charge? Tuesday?

PS: I may update this thread through the day.

Update 7:02: A reader passes along this fantastic bit from a 2004 Ryan Lizza profile of Obama in the Atlantic:

I couldn’t help noticing, when we sat down to talk in the dilapidated storefront that houses his Springfield campaign headquarters, that the blue-pen drawing he’d doodled on his newspaper during fundraising calls was a portrait of himself.


July 29th, 2005

The above lyrics for “All You Need Is Love” were in the process of being sold off by music auctioneer Cooper Owen in London last night (no word yet on the final bidder). The Washington Post quotes that company’s director, Ted Owen, who calls it “the Holy Grail of Beatles lyrics. It’s probably one of the few remaining Beatles lyrics in private collectors’ hands and one of the most important musical manuscripts in existence. It was the anthem of the peace movement … the anthem of 1967.”

Hey man, is that Freedom Rock? Well turn it up, dude!

And just like Freedom Rock, the lyrics for peace, love, and happiness do cost money. And not $19.95 plus shipping and handling, either. To be specific, the lyrics are estimated to be worth between $870,000 and $1 million.

Ironic, isn’t it?

And yet the part that bothers me is not so much the value (or overvalue), but rather Owen’s statement that it is “the Holy Grail of Beatles lyrics.” Personally, I’d rank them below the lyrics for “Eleanor Rigby” and “Things We Said Today” at the very least.

Besides that, there were much more interesting objects at auction last night. If I were a rich man (and kept my money in a big brown bag inside a zoo), I’d have spent it all on the Vox Continental organ Lennon played at Shea Stadium. (And if it actually works, I’d call over Billy Preston for a jam session, assuming Billy is still alive.)


Ratzinger Rules!
April 13th, 2005

Galley Friend DBM has passed on this link to the official website of the Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club. (The link actually takes you to the merchandise page, in which fans of the papal frontrunner can purchase beer steins, t-shirts, and hats expressing their support for His Eminence.)