SIMPLIFIED CHINESE

Posted in Quick Hits on May 30th, 2012 by Ed

Today was almost one of those exhausting, soul-crushing essays you all love so much, but at present I lack the emotional energy to finish it. Instead, some quick musings on China triumphalism in the media. To a lesser extent the same points apply to India, although there are some key differences.

If you even occasionally consume news these days, you might be as sick as I am of the "Rise of China/India" narrative. It dominates publications like Time and U.S. News, making readers feel as though they have learned something useful about foreign policy even though it is largely empty calories. Nothing says "Deadline approaching" quite like this story; blah blah emerging middle class, blah blah biggest economy in the world by 20XX, blah blah new superpower. How many times do we need to read this? More importantly, is anyone planning on questioning the underlying assumptions?

Yes, China is a large and rapidly growing economic power. The storyline encourages us to see it as The Next Superpower. The commentators see a military, population, and economic colossus that will soon dwarf the United States and EU. I see a country with staggering problems that has mastered the art of mortgaging the future for short-term gains (as has the United States, of course). I see a country, middle class with shiny new luxury cars aside, that is overwhelmingly poor and unindustrialized outside of urban areas. I see a country that has polluted itself and exhausted its natural resources on a scale that makes the U.S. look like it is run by Greenpeace in comparison. I see a country with a population that it will struggle to feed at current rates of growth and a booming economy based on its status as a Third World plantation for cheap labor; multinational corporations are heavily invested in China, but they're keeping one eye on the emergency exits at all times. I see a government that lives in the past, understands the outside world only haltingly, and is paranoid beyond belief. I see a large military armed to the teeth…with indigenous knockoffs of 1970s-vintage Soviet equipment.

I'm the farthest thing from a China expert and I may be wrong with some or all of these characterizations. My point is merely that the basic narrative with which we're being repeatedly hit over the head does not hold up very well to even casual scrutiny.

OCCAM MUST HAVE BEEN A LIBERAL

Posted in Ed vs. Logical Fallacies on May 29th, 2012 by Ed

The political environment has been made slightly more tolerable over the past year by the crippling blow dealt to birtherism by the President's long form birth certificate. All but the most hardcore right wing conspiracy theorists – the "No Planes" part of the far right, if you will – have abandoned the idea that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii. This is not to say, of course, that they have accepted his legitimacy as an elected official or as an American. Using the Conservative Scientific Method (start with the conclusion and work backwards, disregarding any evidence to the contrary) it is still perfectly logical to conclude that Obama is an interloper and a fraud. If he wasn't born in Kenya, then he must have been raised Muslim. If he wasn't raised Muslim, then he must have cheated his way into college. If he didn't cheat his way into college, then Harvard only took him because he was black. And so on. The conclusion always remains the same even though everything leading up to it changes: He is Not One of Us. He is a hoax. He is illegitimate. Somehow.

The latest theory – circulated mostly through forwarded emails from your insane relatives – focuses on a promotional pamphlet printed by a literary agency in 1991. In it, the short bio clip identifies Obama as born in Kenya and raised in Hawaii. This is confirmed real and is not a clumsy photoshop:

The literary agent has stated that this was a mistake. It's not hard to picture a 23 year old assistant editor seeing the Kenyan father and assuming that Obama himself was born there.

"This was nothing more than a fact checking error by me–an agency assistant at the time," Goderich wrote in an emailed statement to Yahoo News. "There was never any information given to us by Obama in any of his correspondence or other communications suggesting in any way that he was born in Kenya and not Hawaii. I hope you can communicate to your readers that this was a simple mistake and nothing more."

Nonetheless, anything stating that Obama was born in Kenya is bound to ignite a firestorm. Yet logic would suggest that a birth certificate, along with the other documented evidence, trumps some press release. Compounding the difficulty in making a big deal out of this, most conservatives have already buried the birther theory. But leave it to Breitbart (from beyond the grave) to turn this into a new conspiracy theory:

Andrew Breitbart was never a "Birther," and Breitbart News is a site that has never advocated the narrative of "Birtherism." In fact, Andrew believed, as we do, that President Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961…

Yet Andrew also believed that the complicit mainstream media had refused to examine President Obama's ideological past, or the carefully crafted persona he and his advisers had constructed for him. It is evidence–not of the President's foreign origin, but that Barack Obama's public persona has perhaps been presented differently at different times.

OK. Here's how it works.

Barack Obama was not born in Kenya, but he said he was in order to move himself up the academic ladder. His grades (which have not been released to the public, an integral part of this theory) at Occidental College were not good enough to get him into Columbia, nor were his Columbia grades sufficient to get him into Harvard Law School. So he lied and claimed Kenyan birth on his applications, which (per the theory) gave him some sort of advantage in the admissions process. Thus "birtherism" was all Obama's fault. People suspected he might have been born in Kenya because he said that was the case when it suited his purposes.

So here are the two potential explanations:

1. A literary agent made a mistake.
2. Obama lied about his citizenship / nationality / place of birth over a 15 year period as part of a conspiracy to advance his academic and professional goals.

Both of these are plausible. Given that, the law of parsimony would lead us to the one that requires the fewest assumptions, unproven assertions, and leaps in logic. In short, which one is simpler? Which is more plausible? It's possible that the "Obama lied" theory is correct. But it seems pretty unlikely compared to the alternative explanations.

If a theory this convoluted is necessary to make sense of your predetermined conclusions, there is a good chance that you're making shit up. That obvious fact is remarkably easy to overlook if you're 100% convinced that Barack Obama is a fraud. The phrase Unnecessarily Complex does not enter into your thinking. You will develop some theory, find evidence somewhere, and substitute "likely" for "plausible" to make sense of it all. And no matter what Obama says, does, or makes public, this parade of inane conspiracies will never stop.

JOIN US BEFORE THE STOCK BOTTOMS OUT

Posted in Quick Hits on May 25th, 2012 by Ed

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NPF: PEYOTE SUBSTITUTE

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 25th, 2012 by Ed

I turned 13 in 1991, so my teenage years overlap the heart of the 1990s perfectly. Let's put it this way: I have an impressive collection of flannels, thermals, and Docs. If I have mastery of any pop culture knowledge, it would be from the 1990-1996 era. These were my junior high and high school years, and not coincidentally my years of peak TV/radio consumption, video game playing, and the like. I recall most things that were on TV, in theaters, or in heavy rotation on MTV/rock radio at the time. With these years alone am I anything other than useless during the pop culture portions of trivia competitions.

Combined with my explicit love for a good old fashioned trainwreck, I have absolutely no idea how I managed to miss the Jim J and Tammy Faye Show. Just so we're all clear…that's Jim J. Bullock, star of 1980s powerhouse sitcoms like Too Close for Comfort and ALF, and Tammy Faye Bakker, ex-wife of televangelist and fraud enthusiast Jim Bakker. Watch this. Please.

OK. A couple things here.

Watching this video clip gives me the overwhelming feeling that I have accidentally consumed a significant quantity of peyote. What is going on here? Is this a real thing or a Saturday Night Live skit? What possessed someone someone to greenlight this thundering shitshow? And most importantly, how did I not know about this when it happened?

The studio audience looks lost, confused, heavily sedated, or all three. They look like someone grabbed them off the street and promised them that it would be fun to sit in a studio audience for some unnamed talk show…only for the show to begin and the enormity of their error in judgment to become apparent. But by then it is too late.

Did this actually happen, or have I been the victim of an elaborate prank? Tammy Faye looks like John Wayne Gacy and Jim J was clearly up all night doing poppers with the sword swallower. I cannot believe that someone involved in the production – which, based on the overall "snuff film" ambiance of this video, could not have been many people – didn't euthanize this thing halfway through the filming. You'd think one of the cameramen or segment producers would just stand up and say "Stop. Everyone stop. Return to your homes." or possibly chaining all of the exits shut from the outside and setting the studio on fire.

What network aired this monstrosity? Are there other things this horrible out there that have escaped my attention? I thought I had the bases covered. I was wrong. After seeing this, I will never be the same.

MISNOMER

Posted in Quick Hits on May 23rd, 2012 by Ed

A key part of the financial recovery of General Motors is attributable to the success of its various brands in China. You've been hit over the head with enough emerging-markets-new-middle-class stuff about China and India to last a lifetime, so let's skip to the good part.

While the brands – Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, etc. – and models are often familiar, GM cars sold in China are almost all made in China by the GM Shanghai division. In other words, the Buick Regal sold in China is made in Fushun, while the Regal sold in North America is made in Oshawa, Ontario (and the European version, rebadged as the Opel Insignia, is made in Russelsheim, Germany). The net result is that the car costs approximately the same in these different markets; the Chinese Regal goes for 150k – 250k RMB, or about $23,000 – $39,000 USD, on par with the US/Canada price.

Chinese-made vehicles are not sold in the US, as consumers are (rightly) skeptical of them. American- or European-made vehicles are not sold in China because of Chinese tariff policy (and, not insignificantly, because nonexistent Chinese safety regulations allow stripped China-only versions of the vehicles to be made at a considerable cost savings. Cue the hilarious Chinese Crash Test footage.) One exception for GM is full-sized trucks. None are made in China, but the American-made models are exported and offered to Chinese consumers. With all taxes and import duties, an American-made GMC Sierra Denali ($45-$50,000 in the US) retails in China for 850,000 RMB…or $135,000 USD.

"Free trade" really is a misleading term, as it implies that goods and services are being exchanged for other goods and services. In practice China sends us millions of shipping containers and we send them a small number of incredibly expensive luxury items. More accurately, they send us cheap shit and we send them our jobs. That doesn't seem like such a great deal.

UP NEXT, INVESTING TIPS FROM JAMIE DIMON

Posted in Election 2012, Rants on May 22nd, 2012 by Ed

There are few universal truths in this postmodern world in which nothing is what it seems and we constantly struggle to determine if our society is being serious or if it is attempting some sort of winking, ironic metacommentary on, like, the media, dude. One thing you can take to the bank, however, is that when Bill Kristol gives you advice, you should do the exact opposite. 180°. Literal, polar, diametric opposition. If he tells you to bet on black, the ball will land on red. If he says to try the fish, get the steak. If he says it's sunny, bring your umbrella. If he touts the Yankees, bet on the Red Sox. If he's gripping his chest and gasping for breath in a really, eerily convincing impression of a man having a heart attack, don't call 9-1-1.

In short, Bill Kristol has the longest, most baffling track record of obtaining paid, high profile media gigs from which to offer his opinions without ever having been right about anything. And rarely is he merely wrong – more often he is profoundly, even staggeringly wrong. Dewey defeats Truman wrong. "They can't hit anything from this distance" wrong. "Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau" wrong. He manages to be wrong so completely and his predictions plow into the side of the mountain at such spectacular speed that we can scarcely comprehend how anyone takes him seriously. That he has not been laughed into an institution for the mentally unwell is difficult to believe.

So when Bill Kristol concern trolls writes a "sincere" column recommending that Obama replace Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton, the one and only correct course of action for the President is to do the exact opposite:

For our part, we'd like to see a decisive triumph for Romney and his running mate over two formidable representatives of contemporary liberalism, rather than a discounted victory over a flawed ticket with only one strong candidate. So we sincerely suggest to President Obama: Dump Joe Biden.

We're sure the thought has occurred to the president. He knows his undisciplined vice president did him no service by popping off about same-sex marriage on Meet the Press, thereby forcing Obama to engage the issue prematurely. Instead of making his announcement of his evolution in a well-prepared speech for which the groundwork had been laid, the president arranged a rushed interview in which he rather inarticulately expressed his personal view in a way that persuaded no one who wasn't already convinced.

…Who should replace Biden? Everyone knows the answer. Hillary Clinton received nearly 18 million votes in the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination. Her rating in a Washington Post survey a couple of weeks ago was 65 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable. Biden hurts Obama. She would help him.

What's more, she'd help with precisely the undecided voters Obama needs in November. Many of them are white, working- and middle-class Americans who supported her in the 2008 primaries. They overcame their disappointment at Clinton's defeat to vote for Obama that November. But many became disillusioned and voted Republican in 2010, producing that year's GOP landslide. Barack Obama needs to win back as many of them as possible in 2012. They voted for Hillary Clinton once. Surely they'd be more likely to return to Obama if given the opportunity to vote for her again as part of the ticket.

Ignore the obvious for a moment – Obama has way to justify making desperation moves at this point, Obama and Hillary personally hate each other, Obama wants Bill Clinton as far away from the White House as possible, Hillary as a candidate is actually a deeply polarizing and rather unpopular figure – and look at this from a purely Kristol-centric perspective. If Bill Kristol thinks this is the right move, then it is the worst idea since the Edsel. I temper that last remark only to the extent that it is unfair to the Edsel, which, despite being almost comically ugly and saddled with a chrome vagina for a grille, actually worked.

HELD BACK

Posted in Rants on May 20th, 2012 by Ed

Life has a tendency to rebel against our attempts to make it unfold according to a schedule. Try as we might to think ahead and plan for the future, there are always enough unforeseen detours to take us off our predetermined course. Part of aging and becoming wiser is realizing that life gets in the way of the best laid plans. This is not to say that falling off the schedule is without consequences. New data is showing what we already know to be the case, at least intuitively: pre-Great Recession college graduates found jobs more quickly and earned more when compared to post-GR graduates. With voluntary exits from the workforce slowing to a trickle, young people hired in 2012 will also have a harder time advancing in their careers than previous generations. In short, perhaps it is unavoidable that the Classes of 2009-2012 will end up wasting two or three years of their lives doing grunt work until finding a decent job, but that delay represents a loss of earnings and a loss of professional capital that young workers will never make back.

While I've had the good fortune of being continuously gainfully employed throughout the downturn, this is one topic on which I think my example is somewhat illustrative. I began looking for a tenure-track job in 2008 and found one four years and hundreds of applications later in early 2012. In the interim, I worked in a temporary position with all the concomitant benefits – no opportunity for advancement, low salary, high workload, no resources, etc. Compare this course of events to an alternate history in which 2008 was a modal year for the job market in my field. Not landing a real job at the outset has cost me, over this four year period, a conservative estimate of $50-60,000 in salary that I will never earn back (picture the value of that amount, for example, invested until retirement age) and a lengthy delay in beginning the long, slow process of career advancement. If I go up for tenure before I'm 40 it will be a miracle, compared to the more common practice of doing it in one's early 30s. Don't weep for me; I don't live in a cardboard box and I'm not going hungry, but the point holds that the delay in getting started in a profession is a costly one with both short- and long-term consequences.

There's no amount of elbow grease or bootstrap pulling that can make up for two, three, or even five years after graduation spent living in Mom and Dad's basement, making coffee for $7.75/hr, or "interning" (i.e., working for free). Those are wasted years, in the economic sense, that you will never get back. And this is becoming a disturbingly common experience for heavily indebted college graduates. Some combination of unemployment, substantial underemployment, or continued dependence on parental resources (if available) are the rule rather than the exception no matter how we slice the data.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this is not the economic cost to young workers but the psychological shift that accompanies changing expectations. Not only are things not improving, but it's getting to a point at which no one really expects them to improve. Failing to find a career or at least a decently compensated job is the new normal, much as moving back in with the parents now fails to raise eyebrows. Young adults enter the Real World for which college supposedly prepares them with a sense of fatalism and a stunted process of personal and social maturation. Moving back in with the parents, for example, halts the process of learning basic adult skills – living on one's own, cooking, paying bills, budgeting, and so on – that the school-to-work transition is supposed to encourage. Not only are young people losing income that they will never regain, but they are potentially extending an adolescence that already lasts too long in our society (with its college culture that encourages juvenile, irresponsible behavior into one's early twenties).

The solution is not specific to this demographic. Instead, their success depends on stronger demand for workers overall. While the weak economy continues to hurt nearly everyone in some way, it will be easier for those of us already on the train to hold on during the bumpy ride than it will be for young people chasing the train on foot to get aboard.

MEA CULPA

Posted in Quick Hits on May 18th, 2012 by Ed

It has been over a year since I had back-to-back weekdays without a post. The condensed summer session began on Tuesday and it's taking me a few days to adjust to the schedule, i.e., not to fall asleep at 11 PM. Please excuse the inconvenience while we remodel our store to better serve you.

IN DA CLUB

Posted in Quick Hits on May 16th, 2012 by Ed

The mantra of pay-for-performance is a cornerstone of the free market religion – people should get paid for what they accomplish, not merely for showing up. Shouldn't we pay teachers based on what percentage of their students make the grade? Of course we should! That's how the rest of the world works. Unless you happen to be un- or self-employed the odds are good that your job is subject to a number of performance-based caveats, as this kind of thinking has permeated the economy in every field from fruit-picking to medicine. True, we're not all working piece rate yet, but the Paul Ryans and Rick Scotts of the world are clearly pushing in that direction.

Performance-based salary and job evaluation schemes are popping up everywhere except, of course, among the people pushing to implement them. Congressional or state legislative salaries remain based on the divine right of kings, and CEO/Job Creator pay has been uncoupled completely from performance under the mantra of rewarding Producers in a manner that will continue to give them incentives to bestow their wisdom upon us. One of the most hilarious examples from the Bush years was General Motors' continued lavish rewarding of the executives who were running the company in the ground. Of course we have to pony up top dollar for brilliant talent like Rick Wagoner, a guy who managed to make Roger Smith look like Bill Gates while pocketing about $100 million in compensation. Talent like that doesn't come cheap.

One of Obama's brief Wall Street love interests, Jaime Dimon, just pocketed $23,000,000 in extra compensation for leading JP Morgan to a $2 billion quarterly loss. And the kicker is that the compensation package was approved in a shareholders' vote. I guess that whole "maximizing shareholder value" thing, the Commandment that has done more to turn this country into Dogpatch than anything else in the last three decades, doesn't apply when it comes to doling out money at the top.

We might expect that the shareholders would be inclined to save money rather than spend it, and certainly to avoid rewarding people who perform so poorly. But a stockholders' meeting is little more than a boys' club operating under the pretext of a transparent process of corporate governance. The kind of heavy-hitting institutional shareholders who decide these votes – mutual fund managers, fellow banking executives, and so on – are either in Dimon's position or expect to be there someday if they can make it to the other side of the shark tank. Perhaps getting to the top, into a position like Dimon's, is so difficult and unpleasant that the people who manage to do it feel entitled to endless compensation to make it all seem worth it.

Or maybe it's just a bunch of assholes born into money, rooming together at prep school, getting the same Gentlemen's B at Harvard or Yale, and using Old Money and family connections to land jobs for which they are woefully unqualified, emerging from their life of privilege with a profound sense of entitlement and a belief in their own greatness that borders on sociopathy. In either case, like so many aspects of our political, economic, and social systems the idea of performance-based compensation and employment standards apply only to the little people.

THE PARANOID ANDROID

Posted in Rants on May 15th, 2012 by Ed

On Monday the Senate passed a bill, expected to be passed through the House and rubber-stamped by the President, to mandate Electronic Data Recorders - EDRs or "black boxes" – in all new cars sold in the U.S. beginning in 2015. Be sure to stock up on 2014 cars, which are sure to skyrocket in value among survivalists and the internet's legion of libertarian commandos.

I'm not one to laugh at privacy / 4th Amendment concerns very often, and such things should generally be taken seriously. There is a curious tendency for Patriotic types to obsess over the loss of individual freedoms only when there is a Democrat in office – It was all "If you haven't done anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about!" from 2000 to 2008 – but for the most part I assume they are sincere if a bit paranoid. I suppose I could get more worked up about it myself if not for reality (75% of cars already have an EDR or EDR-like device, and the law mostly affects the format of the data already being collected) or the fact that I've long since abandoned any illusions of privacy when modern technology is involved. It's a war that was never really fought and, short of living-off-the-grid type strategies for opting out of the world, we've already lost.

There are plenty of people who will hear about this law and assume that The Government is going to be tracking your location 24-7. Aside from the misplaced anger (this is more about information-grabbing by insurers, not the state) there's the little problem that your smartphone is probably already doing this. And if it isn't, it's certainly capable of being used for that purpose. Ditto those neat GPS units that are fast becoming standard features in new cars, which are connected to a Department of Defense satellite network and could presumably be used to harvest copious data from your vehicle. Outside of your car, we already live with the reality of Google, Facebook, and all of our favorite internet tubes are treating us like cows to be milked for data that will be sold to advertisers. And we compound the problem by providing copious information (Account numbers, SSN, passwords, credit cards, etc.) in the course of banking, paying bills, shopping, buying insurance, and everything else online. That data's all secure, right?

I can't say I'm happy about the presence of another electronic data harvesting device in my life, but I can't be alone in getting somewhat numb to it. If someone – the NSA, State Farm, Google, the Illuminati, cabals of Jewish bankers – wants to collect information about my whereabouts they're perfectly capable of doing so already. Even if you ditch the iPhone, things like DARPA's terrifying Total Information Awareness project, which uses city-sized networks of cameras to track an individual's location based solely on gait recognition. So yeah, the technology to keep constant tabs on you already exists and we're going to have enough trouble fighting the big stuff in the coming years – CCTV systems, for example – so there's no point in wasting our time freaking out about things that are blown out of proportion and ultimately irrelevant.