Browsing the blog archives for February, 2009.

Finding Humor in Porn Statistics


A little humor from the folks at the Journal of Economic Perspectives.  OK, they don’t mean it has humor.  Their article “Red Light States: Who Buys Online Adult Entertainment?” is a serious work looking at the various socioeconomic factors driving pornography consumption or as they say:

For economists, the adult entertainment industry offers several aspects of
interest. On the production side, for example, the adult entertainment industry has
repeatedly proven to be among the first to adopt new imaging technologies. For
example, Johnson (1996) concludes that adult videos spurred early purchases of
home video cassette recorders. More recently, as studios evaluated competing
high-definition DVD formats HD-DVD and Blu-ray, at least some studios chose
Blu-ray upon observing that adult studios favored that format (Mearian, 2006).
Looking back, adult entertainment was an early adopter of a wide variety of
image-related technologies—including ancient sculpture (Diver, 2005), the book
(Moulton, 2000), and the photograph (Loth, 1961).

Still, it’s not hard to find humor in the reams of data contained in the report.  The top state in Internet porn subscriptions per broadband user:  Utah.  Numbers two and three: Alaska and Mississippi.  Those are really red states consuming all that porn.  OK, Hawaii comes in at number four, but then comes Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Dakota and Louisiana.  See any pattern there?  Maybe those blue state folks are just better at finding free porn. 

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Jindal’s Response and What is Says About the Conservative Movement

education, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

After President Obama’s address, the latest “rising star” of the Republican Party took the stage to present the party response.  Bobby Jindal’s speech has been pretty widely panned with pundits commenting unfavorably on his delivery, diction, stage presence, etc, but in terms of respresenting current Conservative thought, it was right on the money.  Skip all the window dressing and look at the meat of his address. Here is what I take away about Conservative views on government, taxes, education, science and defense.

Role of government

Governor Jindal starts with this story:

During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office, I’d never seen him so angry. He was yelling into the phone: “Well, I’m the Sheriff and if you don’t like it you can come and arrest me!” I asked him: “Sheriff, what’s got you so mad?” He told me that he had put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up ready to go, when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn’t go out on the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration. I told him, “Sheriff, that’s ridiculous.” And before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone: “Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!” Harry just told the boaters to ignore the bureaucrats and go start rescuing people.

There is a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens.

The point here: Government is an obstacle to be overcome.  This particular story is pretty ironic.  My father was one of the late sheriff Lee’s deputies in the mid eighties and if there is one thing that is beyond doubt is that Lee was a politician through and through, the most influential politician in Jefferson Parish from the 80’s until his recent death.  Jindal praises Lee’s work organizing relief while at the same time implying that government is the problem.  The Governor envisions a world where the government is too small to help so that the “compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens” can shine through.

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Jim Bunning Death Watch, Part 1

Politics, US Politics

In his career, Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) has worn a variety of hats.  He started out as a major league baseball player, where he pitched for the Detroit Tigers and Philadelphia Phillies and was good enough to end up in the Hall of Fame.  He then went into politics in his home state of Kentucky, serving in the state legislature before being elected to congress and then, in 1998, winning a senate seat that he successfully defended in 2004.  And now, it appears, he’s a cancer specialist.

During a wide-ranging 30-minute speech on Saturday [Feb. 21] at the Hardin County Republican Party’s Lincoln Day Dinner, Bunning said he supports conservative judges “and that’s going to be in place very shortly because Ruth Bader Ginsburg … has cancer.”

“Bad cancer. The kind that you don’t get better from,” he told a crowd of about 100 at the old State Theater.

“Even though she was operated on, usually, nine months is the longest that anybody would live after (being diagnosed) with pancreatic cancer,” he said.

Bunning: "How many fingers am I holding up? Two? Two is correct."

Evidently, Bunning’s service in the senate alongside Bill Frist has given the Kentucky senator the same ability to make long-distance medical evaluations as Frist displayed during the Terri Schiavo affair.  Frist, it should be recalled, admitted that he had diagnosed Schiavo “based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office.”  He concluded that Schiavo, despite her persistent vegetative state and extensive brain damage, “certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli.”

It’s not clear that the same can be said for Bunning.  Kentucky’s junior senator has been known to exhibit inexplicably bizarre behavior during his time in office.  In his 2004 reelection campaign, he said that his Democratic opponent, Dan Mongiardo, the son of Italian immigrants, “looked like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.”  Bunning also confessed that he wasn’t much of a news junkie: “Let me explain something: I don’t watch the national news, and I don’t read the paper. I haven’t done that for the last six weeks. I watch Fox News to get my information.” That led to charges that Bunning was “out of touch,” which prompted a Nixonian denial: “That’s unfair. You know it is.  Of course I’m not out of touch.”  Note to aspiring politicians: when you have to assure voters that, really, you’re not all that out of touch, you’re doing something wrong.

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Moving house

Image used under CC license from augustusoz

Image used under CC license from augustusoz

Excuse the brief administrative intermezzo, but I am moving blogs. From now on, you can find me blogging on a day-to-day basis at Cogitamus.

To kick things off there, I posted an updated analysis of how the stimulus bill is polling – and what may explain the differences in results between different polls on the question.

If you tended to enjoy my posts here, do by all means keep reading Observationalism, but consider adding Cogitamus to your feed as well!

I’ll surely still drop in here for the occasional guest post, and Observationalism will continue to offer the rapier wit of Joefromchicago, the keen observations of Engineer, and the insightful posts of the others.

I’ve had a lot of fun here getting into blogging for the first time; I’m glad my peers at Observationalism created the opportunity to do so!


Cartoonist Makes a Monkey out of New York Post


As Sigmund Freud might say: sometimes, a chimp is just a chimp.

Sean Delonas, editorial cartoonist for the New York Post, stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism when, on February 18, the Post published this cartoon:

Now, to those who may be viewing this cartoon years from today, this cartoon is, no doubt, absolutely inexplicable, so some explanation is necessary.  See, there was a lady in Connecticut whose pet chimp Travis went on a rampage and seriously injured a neighbor who had been called over to subdue it.  Police were called to the scene and they shot Travis dead.  Two days later, Delonas draws a cartoon that links the chimp shooting (still in the news — remember, this is the New York Post we’re dealing with here) and the financial stimulus package proposed by President Obama and passed by congress on February 17.

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Santelli: The Hope of Audacity

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

The term chutzpah — a Hebrew term for shameless audacity — is often defined by analogy: it’s like a man who murders his parents and then pleads for leniency because he’s an orphan.  Or it might be like a man who complains about the financial irresponsibility of average citizens while being cheered on by a bunch of derivatives traders.

Im the problem?  No, YOURE the problem!

Rick Santelli: "I'm the problem? No, YOU'RE the problem!"

That man was Rick Santelli, a financial affairs commentator for CNBC, member of the Chicago Board of Trade, and a former executive at Drexel Burnham Lambert, a firm driven into bankruptcy in the 1990s due to financially irresponsible trading in junk bonds.  Santelli, in what has become an anguished cri de cour for the conservative “what, me worry?” crowd, complained on a recent broadcast that the government stimulus package was “promoting bad behavior” by rewarding home buyers who can’t afford their mortgage payments (or, in Santelli’s words, the “losers”).  As Santelli put it:

You know, the new administration’s big on computers and technology– How about this, President and new administration? Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages; or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water?

Again, let me point out: Santelli was saying this on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade.  Certainly, it was possible for him to find a more ironic location from which to deliver this diatribe (one of the trading rooms at Bear Stearns comes to mind), but probably not one more convenient for his daily commute into the Loop.

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Who Pays for Healthcare?

US Politics

If President Obama’s campaign promises are worth going by, there is going to be a healthcare debate in the United States in the next couple of years.  Now’s the time to ask “who pays?”  The annual health care cost in the US passed the $2 trillion mark in 2006 and is rising at twice the cost of inflation.  If the government moves to a more universal health care system, won’t that move that cost onto the taxpayer?  The answer is that the citizens of the United States are already paying all the costs of our health care system.  Our employers, the primary sources of health insurance in the United States, pay third parties to pay for our health care, then immediately pass those costs along to their customers.  Every plane ticket you buy is paying for some healthcare.  That GM car?  Lots of health care built in there.  Banking services, ditto.  Taxes to state and local governments go to paying for health care for their employees.  Indigent care in hospital emergency rooms?  Paid for with tax dollars or higher fees for paying customers and that money comes from us.  WE ARE ALREADY PAYING THE ENTIRE COST OF OUR HEALTHCARE SYSTEM!

In some cases, those costs are killing off American businesses.  GM doesn’t need help because they don’t make good cars.  OK, the Japanese have a quality advantage, but the reality is that Detroit has caught up a lot over the last two decades and US cars have been climbing in the quality rankings for over a decade.  GM is saddled with $2,000 per car in costs for retired employees that their competitors don’t have to pay, and lot of that is healthcare.  Not only do we pay for that cost when we buy a car, we pay again in lost jobs, lower salaries and bailout money.  It’s like paying your mortgage a little several times a day instead of once a month.  It doesn’t make it cost any less.  It probably drives up expenses.  But it hides the cost.  You may feel better about it, but it still means that at the end of the month you are wondering where your money went.

Let’s put aside all the political debate and just look at costs.  It’s cheaper to treat a cavity at the dentist office than it is to treat an abscess in the emergency room.  Cheaper to pay for pre-natal care than a problem delivery.  Cheaper to pay for a flu vaccine than treat the flu.  A single payer system is a more cost effective way to deliver healthcare in this country and it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a single dime more.  We’re paying it already.

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Fear the Vlad

Culture, European Politics, Politics

(Yes, I know everyone else already tried out a month or two ago…)

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Roberts: Supreme Court Works Best When Everyone Is Like Me

Politics, US Politics

“For the first time in its history, every member of the United States Supreme Court is a former federal appeals court judge. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., in a lively and surprising talk a couple of weeks ago, said that development might be a good thing.”  So writes Adam Liptak, the supreme court correspondent of the New York Times.

They dress alike, they act alike ...

"They laugh alike, they walk alike, at times they even talk alike ..."

It’s not clear why this is such a good thing, although I suppose homogeneity becomes much more attractive when everyone looks a lot like you.  It is unlikely that the composition of the high court has ever been so uniform as it is today.  Not only are all nine justices former federal appellate court judges, four of them served on the same circuit bench.  Indeed, only Anthony Kennedy and John Paul Stevens served in federal courts outside of the Washington-Philadelphia-New York triangle.  Granted, with the addition of a woman and a black man, the court’s group photo no longer looks exactly like the fortieth reunion of a Princeton eating club, but it could be a class reunion photo for Harvard Law School — after all, five of the justices graduated from there.

This is a far cry from the days when there was, unofficially, a “New York seat” or a “southern seat” or a “New England seat” or even a “Jewish seat” on the supreme court (there’s still a “Catholic seat,” to be sure, but it’s currently being occupied by five of the nine justices).  More disturbing, none of the justices has ever served as a trial court judge, despite the fact that the supreme court routinely reviews the performance of those judges and determines whether they made the right decisions — decisions that the justices themselves have never had to make.  It’s rather like having a sport where none of the referees has actually played the game.

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Obama’s First Foreign Policy Success

International Politics, Politics

Less than a month in, President Obama can claim his first foreign policy success, if only quietly.  During the run up to the election, Obama said he was willing to have discussions with countries the US has been avoiding for decades, notably Iran.  After the election, he reiterated the point, tossing a bomb shell into Iranian politics.  For the last several years, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad has scored political points pitting himself against a politically inept Bush administration.  At every turn, Ahmadinejad has come out on top in the view of his constituents and the larger Muslim world that is his major theater of operations.  Whether he was allowing himself to be battered by aggressive university crowds in the US (see how poor the hospitality is in the US) or refusing to correct poor translations in the NY Times (Ahmadinejad never said anything remotely like Israel “should be wiped off the face of the Earth”), he effortlessly outwitted his US opponents who weren’t able or willing to put in the effort to court Muslim opinion.  Those efforts have been critical to his administration because the tide of economic discontent that brought him into power is still there and growing.  In a country with huge oil reserves, there are routine power outages in Tehran.  The economy continues to sputter and the best and brightest in Iran leave. If he could have prompted a military strike, his reelection would probably have been guaranteed.

But the Obama administration presented Ahmadinejad with a new challenge and so far he seems not to know how to handle it.  Apparently, Ahmadinejad perceived Obama’s open hand remark as a weakness because his first response was an anti-US tirade perhaps meant to test which way the Obama team would jump.  But the Obama team didn’t jump, not to a reflexively defensive position, nor to an aggressive position.  That open hand just sits out there.  Ahmadinejad’s demands for apologies seemed to get no where in the international press with some outlets pointing out that the Clinton administration had already apologized for just about everything where Iran was concerned.  Without a radical US response, grumblings in Iran’s progressive communities started to percolate.  Former President Khatami, a well known reformist, had been vacillating on whether to jump into this year’s election, but with Ahmadinejad’s fiery late January speech failing to rouse, Khatami decided to toss his hat into the ring, offering the Iranian people a real, sharp choice in how they want their country to proceed.  Last week, Ahmadinejad had to backtrack, saying

The Iranian nation is prepared to talk. However, these talks should be held in a fair atmosphere in which there is mutual respect.

This seems to be the first diplomatic round the US has won since Ahmadinejad has come to power.  The rhetoric has failed, at least temporarily.  Between now and June, the Iranian people will have to look at that extended hand to determine if they want to reach out for it.  Not that a Khatami victory will change the world overnight.  Despite real efforts from the Clinton administration, Khatami could not overcome interference from the theocracy to affect real change in the ’90s.  Still, it’s a chance and that is more than we had last month.


Redditors to the rescue

Culture, Economy, Media / journalism, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

A Redditor started a Wiki on the stimulus bill. The purpose: to translate its provisions into ordinary language so regular people can understand it, filtering out the legalese. And to sort out exactly how much money is assigned to what and whom.

The initiative got some 870 up votes (and lots of discussion) on Reddit, and it seems like a fair spread of people is now working on the Wiki. I thought it was interesting: both the idea and the resonance it had. Citizenship in action?

Of course, as with every Wiki, the risk of pranks and manipulation looms rather large. But at least, as one commenter notes, it seems like an interesting social experiment. And even just the act of creating it should acquaint a bunch of people with the specifics of the bill, maybe better than many of the Congressmen who had to vote on it hours after the final version was released.

It’s also distinct from a partisan initiative like (offline right now), which was sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.

No idea how useful or complete it will become. For one, while the site links to the post-conference version of the bill, it also notes that it is still largely based on the version that was passed by the House on 28 January. Whereas the bill was of course significantly modified since – first by the Senate, which made changes that according to Krugman would have created 600,000 jobs less than the original House bill, and then by the conference, which crafted a compromise between the two bills.

I’d also worry about reinventing the wheel. For example, as noted in the Reddit thread, the CBO already created a table, stretching for a few pages, that summarises the stimulus expenses, year by year, by section of the bill. (Table 2 in the enclosures of this letter from the CBO director to Nancy Pelosi.)

But still I thought it was great. At best it will make for a very neat tool, and at worst it will still, as initiative, be an encouraging sign of the times.

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Pithy criticism

Politics, US Politics

TNR The Plank commenter WoodyBombay on Judd Gregg’s withdrawal of his nomination for the Commerce Secretary post (the timing of which led at least some to suspect bad faith):

I hope that’s the last scorpion Obama ferries across the river for a while.

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