Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Chicago political primer

I've lived almost my entire life in and around Chicago, so I'm pretty accustomed to how politics works around here (though I'm certainly no expert). I guess it's natural that I would forget that other people don't understand it, which would explain some recent outrage. Let me take one issue and try to frame it in Chicago/Illinois politic-think.

As a base for this discussion, I will try to convey some sense of the power of Mayor Richard M. Daley. He has been the mayor of the city of Chicago (by the way, it is always said that way, the city of Chicago, I guess so it won't be confused with the state of Chicago) for 19 years, and he will be mayor as long as he wants to be. His father was mayor for 21 years, and it is very likely that his son will take over for him. But numbers don't come close to explaining the hold he has over this city.

Let me put it this way: Daley has the ultimate power, in that he doesn't have to involve himself in any issue he doesn't want to. During the recent transit crisis, in which it appeared that thousands of Chicagoans would have serious problems getting to work, the mayor was absent. Even though there are few things more basic to the livability of a large city than moving people around it, Mayor Daley did nothing to break through the logjam in Springfield - he didn't have to, or want to, so he didn't.

Nothing of any importance occurs outside of the mayoral purview. Only the incredibly naive believe otherwise. Therefore, if you want to accomplish something, if you want to be someone in Chicago or Illinois politics, you go through the mayor. The remarkably inept current governor of Illinois is there largely because he married the daughter of a stooge alderman.

Now let me tell the stories of two people, two young men who wanted to make a difference.

The first grew up wealthy, the son of a utility company executive (again, I can only imperfectly relate how important the leaders of public utilities are in Chicago, but they are extremely important, and need to have very close ties to the mayor). The young lad went off to a Big Ten school, where he, as young people will, became suffused with the power of change. There was a war on, and society seemed to be turning, and many students of the time joined groups, marched, burned draft cards.

But this young man was a high achiever, and hooked up with a group that believed bombs were useful instruments of change. (I know, we call them terrorists these days, but it was a different time.) After three of his friends blew themselves up, he and his future wife went on the run. About ten years later, he turned himself in, and all charges ended up being dropped due to misconduct by the prosecutors.

He went back to school, made himself into something of an expert in education, and came back to Chicago to teach. In no small part because of his family ties, he has become an important figure in school reform, and has been praised by, that's right, Mayor Daley. Despite his past, he's got serious juice, so much so that he can be unrepentant about his past and not see any diminution in his power.

The second man didn't have any connection to Chicago until he was 23 or 24, worked as a community organizer, then, after three years, went east to get a law degree from Harvard, then returned to Chicago. (An important note here: you might think that a Harvard J.D. would be a real plus, but it absolutely isn't in Chicago. You're far better off with a degree from Loyola or DePaul; you can't trust those high-falutin' Ivy League lawyers.)

Within six years, this young man, articulate, intelligent, persuasive, had worked his way into the Illinois Senate. He tried for the U.S. House, failed, then ran for the U.S. Senate. He was up against a very attractive Republican candidate. The Republican wasn't ideal, as he had two graduate degrees from Harvard, but he had redeemed himself by retiring from an investment banking company and taking a job as a teacher in a Chicago high school. He was articulate, intelligent, and persuasive.

(By the way, Republicans can do fine in state-wide office, despite the fact that the Daleys are Democrats. The issue is, will they do anything to hurt Chicago? Almost no one will, so there is no conflict; Mayor Daley might not openly support a Republican for Congress or governor, but he won't necessarily have a problem with it.)

The Republican did turn out to have a problem; he had been married to a glamorous actress, and, apparently, had wanted to take her to (and "in") sex clubs in various cities. He dropped out, and the Illinois Republican Party, having no uncorrupted candidates, imported a fringe (if perpetual) candidate from out of state, who lost big to our young man.

After a couple of years in the Senate, this young man decided to run for president, a preposterous idea if ever there was one.

By now it's painfully obvious to anyone that I'm talking about William Ayres and Barack Obama, two men that have been linked, most obviously in the painful Democratic debate in Pennsylvania a couple of weeks ago. And I think I've given enough context to understand the dynamic.

On the one hand, you have a man with a, to say the least, checkered past, but one who's parlayed his connections into remarkable success. He knows the right people, most notably the mayor of the city of Chicago, and has a long list of accomplishments.

On the other hand, you have a man with no family connections, no background in this city - he doesn't come from Bridgeport, or Palos, or even Lincoln Park, and he sure didn't bring a lot of money he could spread around.

Again, remember that Chicago isn't close to being a meritocracy, and it doesn't pretend to be. If Obama had any chance of effecting change through politics, he would have to do it through the system. Being African-American wasn't necessarily a problem, not any more, but he certainly had to play within the system, pay tribute where needed.

And he meets Bill Ayres. This is a guy who knows the right people, moves in the right circles. No one cares about his past, inexplicable as that might be - he's a good person to know, and he lives right around the corner.

Explain to me how Barack Obama turns him away. Explain to me, given the context I've described, how Obama purses his lips and says coldly to a friend of Mayor Daley, "I will not associate with you because of your past." How, indeed?

[Personal disclaimer here: a good friend of my mother was related to one of the members of the Weather Underground, one of those who was blown up. I guess that makes me unsuitable for any future political positions.]

(By the way, this post was "inspired" by a Matthew Yglesias post from yesterday. He questioned how Ayres could have this "banal-yet-prominent position on the scene." I hope I've given the reader some idea as to how this has happened.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Boycott, girlcott, we all cott

Via Andrew Sullivan, John Hinderaker on Power Line:
Barack Obama has boycotted Fox News for the past two years. Obama's boycott ended today, as he was interviewed by Chris Wallace. The result suggests that Obama had nothing to fear from the ostensibly hostile crowd at Fox.
I didn't see the Fox interview with Obama, so I'll assume that what I've heard is right, that he did a good job. No, my point today has to do with the word "boycott."

When did "boycott" change from a group action to an individual one? Apparently, it has, but I didn't notice it until a few weeks ago when various politicians (e.g., Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton) began urging President Bush to boycott the Olympic opening ceremonies.

I have always understood "boycott" to refer to the action of a group, refusing to buy products or do business with some offending party. I'll grant the definition in a number of dictionaries I consulted do not entirely specify a group: from American Heritage, "To abstain from or act together in abstaining from using, buying, or dealing with as an expression of protest or disfavor or as a means of coercion," though the word "together" is there.

The first time I remember the use of "boycott" was the grape boycott organized by Cesar Chavez. In all the years since, though, I can never remember it being applied to the actions of a single person.

The question is, is this change in usage meant to aggrandize the person or the event? Do we talk about Obama or Bush boycotting something because we want to make them more important, or because we want to make more out of what is a matter of individual choice to call attention to the issue?

Given the identity of the callers in the cases above, I'm assuming the latter. But if it's a "boycott" without a statement of larger principle, is it even important? If Bush decided not to attend the Beijing Olympics out of solidarity with Tibetans or Sudanese (and what in his presidency would make anyone believe that these are sufficient reasons to get him to do anything?), we would hardly expect him to call out the Chinese directly - he would cite "scheduling conflicts" or "ranch brush emergency," anything but risking a Chinese loss of face.

Or maybe it's a way of embarrassing the "boycotter." Clinton and Pelosi don't think Bush will accede, so they make an issue of it and inflate it further by using the term, "boycott." Similarly, Power Line isn't traditionally a pro-Obama blog, so they, in effect, ridicule him subtly by terming his previous failures to appear on Fox as a "boycott" (though Hinderaker was fairly positive, to his credit, while still insisting that McCain would win in November).

I don't profess to fully understand this, but I know that, when I refuse to do business at one company or another, I'll feel a little more proud thinking that I'm boycotting.

Monday, April 28, 2008

In loco agentis

I was finishing reading a Sports Illustrated from a couple of weeks ago, and one of the articles concerned the rehab of University of Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon. Dixon tore his ACL this past season, likely moving down in the NFL draft (he was drafted yesterday in the fifth round). I've seen him on TV a couple of times, he is a very exciting player, and I wish him the best in his recovery.

The article opens with a description of the University of Oregon training facility:
...looks like the spa at a five-star boutique hotel, if all the guests were between 18 and 23 and the bulk of them weighed more than 300 pounds. The floors are finished oak, the walls smoked glass, the lighting soothingly dim. The 15,000-square-foot complex includes 25 stainless steel massage tables, a pharmacy lit with green neon and examination rooms for a dentist and an ophthalmologist.
Dixon is running on an underwater treadmill, while a university intern records him, then posts the footage to Dixon's website "so that NFL coaches, scouts and general managers can monitor the progress of his surgically repaired left knee."

I could rail against the remarkable facilities granted to elite athletes at our educational institutions; Nike founder Phil Knight is largely responsible for this five-star spa, T. Boone Pickens has given many millions to Oklahoma State for sports, and so forth. But I've pretty much given up on this topic. Rich people can do what they want with their money, and, if they choose to dump their millions into winning another game on the gridiron or the hardwood, that's their right (yes, I realize that Knight has financed those contributions largely through sweatshop labor - I don't buy Nike shoes, and that's about all I can do for now).

No, the point of this post comes from this sentence:
For five months Oregon has deployed its considerable resources to another project: reconstructing the quarterback who was once the nation's best and preparing him for the NFL draft on April 26-27.
Here we have a state university, one funded in part by the taxpayers of Oregon (to the tune of $3,232 per student, which the University contends is woefully low - seems OK to me). Yet it devotes time and money to moving one student up in the professional draft, instead of trying to improve its 112th-place standing in the US News & World Report college rankings.

I'm aware of all the arguments, all variants of "we invest in him now, he gives us big donations later." The same points apply to the oft-heard idea that players in the revenue-generating sports should be cut in on the deal, that football and basketball players should be openly paid.

But can't we at least pretend, for four years, that we don't have a privileged class of fast-running, hard-hitting, marginally-thinking young people? Look, I have been a sports fan my whole life, and I accept that the market will reward professional athletes in a disproportional way. I have seen the way that adults fawn over 15-year-olds who can catch a football, distorting their egos forever. Our creation of a deity class of symbolic warriors is complete.

However, there is no reason to officially consecrate this thinking. A public university should at least pretend that all students are equal. If Dennis Dixon needs an intern to chronicle his rehab so he can move up in the draft, let him pay for one. Open these state-of-the-art facilities to every student (actually, other students have a bigger claim, they're actually paying tuition).

Our colleges have done everything they can to move away from in loco parentis, the idea that they have a responsibility to stand in the "place of parents." Fearing lawsuits, administrators look the other way when underage drinking is rife on campus. Heaven forfend they act like adults and enforce regulations on their "customers." (That thinking has even extended to high schools. The high school nearest my house features students smoking across the street; apparently school officials are incapable of walking over and telling the kids to cut it out - after all, they're on private property.)

On the other hand, when a young man has the opportunity to grab a lucrative professional sports career, no expense or attention is too much. In effect, the University of Oregon is acting as an unpaid agent for Dennis Dixon. Don't we all wish the Placement Office would go that extra mile for every single student?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Stuck thoughts

I wonder if anyone else has what I call "stuck thoughts," in which certain situations bring the same thought to mind every single time. For example, if I'm watching Jeopardy, and a Daily Double comes up, I always think, "Daily Double, the 9th of 7" (actually, the numbers may change, but they're always impossible, given the way the game works). I know this comes from when I was a kid, and Art Fleming used to always say when the first Daily Double of Double Jeopardy came up, "Daily Double, the first of two." I, for whatever odd reason, found it amusing to say other numbers.

But here we are, years later, and that thought is still stuck.

Another example: There's a weatherman in Chicago named Jerry Taft. Jerry used to, many years ago, have a big blond perm, and, to me, he looked like nothing so much as Harpo Marx. So, I got in the habit of thinking to myself, "ABC 7 News, with Ron Magers, Kathy Brock, Harpo Taft,...," and that's still there. Jerry hasn't had that much hair in decades, but the thought is still stuck.

I'm sure there's some neurological reason this happens, and I know that some might posit that it's reinforcement; that I think these things because I've thought them before, and it's just stimulus-response. But I hardly ever watch Channel 7 News, and I've had long periods in my life when I haven't watched Jeopardy, but the stuck thought is still in there, waiting to re-emerge at any moment. "9th of 7," "Harpo Taft" - those aren't going anywhere.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Via 37signals, an article on luck and how it is entirely meaningless, ending with, "Your luck, in the end, is pretty much what you choose it to be." This is part of a vast literature, generally written by people who have succeeded, that claims that attitude is everything, that all events bow to the way you handle them. "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade" - "Luck is the residue of design" - "A pound of pluck is worth a ton of luck."

At least as fascinating are the comments attached to the article, which I'll let you read for yourself; suffice it to say that they go back and forth between the people who buy into the author's thinking that luck is something you control by good old positive thinking, and people who think that there are exogenous events which affect outcomes. [Perhaps my favorite:
There is no such thing as luck; it is a delusion we ascribe blame or credit to for the effects of the causes we make. It is no different that blaming the devil, the boss, the spouse, etc. When we take responsibility for our own lives, we make our own “luck.” The cause of being born poor or suffering a hurricane is not so easily seen; it may come from the karma of a previous lifetime.
That's great, reaching for reincarnation as a mechanism to explain luck.]

This is an outgrowth, I think, of the idea that, if you wish real hard and are noble of spirit, that good things will happen to you. It suggests that life is outcome-based, that is, the result is proof of some innate wonderful quality.

It is this line of reasoning that suggests that Bill Gates is somehow a better person than the rest of us; he must be, otherwise he wouldn't have $60 billion. He must be more positive, more clear-thinking than anyone else.

From the article:
Luck is random—that’s what chance means—so they (lucky people) are just as likely to suffer setbacks as anyone else. What’s different is their response. When things go wrong, they quickly look for ways to put them right.
Talk about a misunderstanding of randomness, and a total failure to grasp how luck can create a different plane of existence. You can't argue that being born in Darfur is simply a bad break compared to being born a Kennedy, and that you can catch up just through having the right attitude. The Darfur-born person ends up with a structural set of problems that the Kennedys will never have, and pluck won't ever make up for that.

Most talk of luck is ex post. Successful people don't believe in it, because that would undercut their sheer wonderfulness. Bill Gates can't talk about how lucky he is, even though, had he been born 10 years earlier, or 10 years later, or 8000 miles to the east, he wouldn't be Bill Gates (this is not the time to discuss theories of history, like the "Great man theory").

If unsuccessful people try to talk about it, they are derided, as in the article. They must have an internal problem, a bad attitude, a congenital negative feeling, and, if they'd just "get over it," their luck will change and the world will be better.

I'm not saying anyone should wallow in their misfortune; becoming paralyzed by one's situation is not the way to go. You have to get up and go on, and hope for better things.

But it is insulting to people who've had a bad break (or two, or ten) to imply that they're deficient as people and somehow deserve it. That's the self-aggrandizing philosophy of successful people, and only shows that good luck can demonstrate as many deficiencies as can bad luck.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Definitional uncertainty

Via Mark Thoma, an article titled How Robust is the Current Economic Expansion?, in which the authors study the 2001-07 expansion by looking at several key indicators, and conclude that, with one exception, every one is lower than the average for post-war expansions. The indicators are: GDP, consumption, non-residential fixed investment, net worth, wages and salaries, employment, and corporate profits. Any guesses as to which one of these did better than the average? Yes, that's right, corporate profits, always the best performer during an expansion, did exceptionally well during the Oughts - the average, normally 7.4%, was 10.3% (as a contrast, wages & salaries usually goes up 3.8%; now, 1.9%).

The authors draw the conclusion that the much-ballyhooed (at least by Republicans) tax cuts did not lead to prosperity, and that continuing or expanding them without fiscal discipline would be harmful. "If major tax cuts are deficit-financed, the negative effects of higher long-term deficits are likely to cancel out or outweigh any positive economic effects that might otherwise result from the tax cuts."
We've had a bit of a dust-up over at Carrie's Nation over a post she wrote concerning the H-1B visa issue. I won't go through the back-and-forth, but there is a fellow (I assume it's a fellow, but I can't be certain; this is the Internet) who insists (over the strenuous objections of Carrie, Red Oak, and me) that globalization has helped technical workers, that the tech workplace is healthy for American workers, and that better jobs in the U.S. have been the result. Unfortunately, it appears that discussion has come to an end, even though I found it interesting.
It is becoming obvious that, no matter which candidate the Democrats nominate, the war in Iraq will be a major source of contention in the general election. Both Democrats have pledged to start bringing troops home, Sen. McCain has not made any such pledge and has talked of having some kind of military presence there for as long as 100 years.

More importantly, the two camps can't even agree as to whether we've made any significant progress, even if we limit consideration to the time since George Bush's troop surge. Sectarian violence may be down only because of de facto segregation, and al-Sadr is still running around. The extent to which Iran is influencing events is uncertain. After their performance in Basra, the Iraqi troops still do not seem to be particularly ready to take over the job of policing their own country.

But Bush/McCain insist we're winning.
I was accepted to a couple of law schools, had good grades and test scores. I took a different career path, and haven't really missed the law. But I did take a course in Business Law, and have followed the profession somewhat. One thing that surprises people who don't have some background in it is the extent to which law insists on precise definitions, which you know if you've ever read credit terms or those prescription inserts.

But we've all read and chuckled over those stories about some case being brought because some law was improperly specified. Because the law included "horse" in 1869, the fellow who decides to raise zebras downtown can't be thrown out, even though the intent of the law was clearly to ban all odd-toed ungulates.

In each of the matters I cited above, ones that appear to be matters of fact, but generate enormous controversy, a large part of the problem is definitional. What does it mean to have an improving economy? What does it mean to have a thriving technology climate? What does it mean to have success in foreign affairs? More broadly, how do we define America as a nation?

The point is that, if we don't define things precisely, and communicate that understanding to others, we have no chance of having a constructive discussion. Some people, for instance, believe that an economic structure exists for the purpose of providing incentives for moving upwards; others believe that the strength of an economy depends on how well it provides for all citizens. The former will see increasing inequality as a positive thing. The more rich people there are, the more incentive there is for poor people to work hard and move themselves into that class. The latter see the very fact of increasing inequality as building barriers that prevent that movement.

The policy implications are clear. As long as the two groups define the purpose of an economy so differently, they will never be able to reconcile issues. The first group will favor a flat tax, or massive tax breaks for wealth-creating activities. The second will favor a more progressive system of taxation, hoping to even the playing field.

In the first example above, some people honestly believe that high corporate profits and consequent returns to stockholders are the mark of good economic results, so the conclusions of the study I cited will seem wrong to them. For others, who think that one or more of the other measures are the better mark of national progress, they will seize upon those results to claim something has gone severely wrong.

In the second example, the fellow who defines success as whatever is happening right now to the people around him believes that there are no problems with expanding H-1B visas. For those of us taking the longer view, who believe that success involves the well-being of our future selves, and our children, and our grandchildren, we see real potential difficulties down the road.

The third example hinges on the definition of "success" as it's applied to the conflict in Iraq. I'm not sure what the Bush/McCain view of success is there, it seems to keep moving. But, if I had a better idea of their definition, I could more properly evaluate their arguments.

And that's the essential point. If we had to define our terms upfront, we could save a lot of time and determine where and whether we have room to negotiate. If you tell me that your definition of success in Iraq is long-term, stable democracy that radiates out across the Middle East, with free-flowing oil bringing profits to the happy Iraqis, and statues of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in every town square, then I can evaluate your specific recommendations in light of that definition. If your definition is simply to get the heck out and let the Iraqis work it out on their own, that's a very different discussion. But it all comes back to your definition of "success."

There was a time in America when the definition of "nation" was discussed openly. This was relatively early in our history, and we were still working out the relationship of the federal government to the individual states. Right now, we have the same discussion, what is America?

But we're not having it openly; instead, we're using proxy issues to determine what this country is and should become. If you believe that we are purely a land of opportunity, that we provide the freedom to go as far and as high as you can, then you believe that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are the epitomes of the strong American. If you can't be them, then that's a result of personal weakness. America is a meritocracy, and, if you fail, it's the result of personal weakness.

On the other hand, if you tend to see America as a land of fairness, then you believe that the American who has been offshored out of health insurance, living in constant fear that what little he or she has could disappear in a heartbeat, is the prototypical national figure. America is a land of structural barriers in which the privileged game the system to keep themselves at the top.

When an interviewer like Charlie Rose asks a guest, "Is America in decline?," the answer depends totally on the definitions of "America" and "decline." And that would be a far more interesting conversation, whether in an interview or a debate.

It's my sense that a growing number of people answer a question like this on a totally experiential basis. Like our correspondent in my second example above, people look at their immediate circumstances and decide, "no, America can't be in decline, because I'm doing fine." There seems to be less recognition that there are other places and times that need to be rolled into an answer to that question. Perhaps the rise of individualized media has had something to do with that; if you're never forced to look outside of your self-created world, you can't possibly define "America" as anything other than your own experience of America.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

For Carrie: Maybe Americans aren't so good at math

Knowing that Citizen Carrie "enjoys" chronicling the hilarity of the American auto industry, I point her (and anyone else who's reading) to this story from The Numbers Guy at the Wall Street Journal. Essentially, the CEO of Ford, in claiming that his cars simply have too many options for consumers, said that the 128 console options for the Lincoln Navigator would ultimately disappoint the customer, because there was no way the dealer could stock "128 factorial" different cars. So Ford is going to simplify the process by cutting the number of options.

[What I guess this means is that Ford will bundle more of their options, so the customer will be forced to take things they don't want in order to get the things they do want. To their credit, Ford admits that this is a move to cut costs, but, to their detriment, they're also trying to spin it into a benefit for choice-beleaguered consumers. If there's anything which symbolizes the problems of our automakers, it is that, at a time when businesses are trying to customize the "shopping experience" for each customer, the Big 3 are retreating to one-size-fits-all. No, Mr. Mulally, we are not looking for a Model T.]

The problem, of course, is that factorial refers to the arrangements of things. For example, if you have a red, a yellow, and a blue pencil, you can line them up in 3! (! is the symbol for factorial) different ways: RYB, RBY, YRB, YBR, BRY, and BYR. But you can't go to your dealer and ask for the options to be moved around ("I want the speedometer here, the A/C control here,..."), the situation in which factorial would apply.

For car options, the relevant calculation depends on the existence, not the placement. So the ways you can ask for, say, three options are (using * to indicate the lack): RYB, RY*, R*B, R**, *YB, *Y*, **B, or ***. There are 8, and we could find that without listing them by calculating 2^3 (each option is presumably independent of the others, so you can either have it or not, thus there are 2 options, yes or no, for each of the three slots: 2*2*2).

So we are looking at the difference between 128! and 2^128, and the former is much, much bigger (see the article for further discussion). When The Numbers Guy contacted Ford:
“Essentially, your reader is right,” Ford spokesman Mark Truby told me Thursday afternoon, adding that the true number is probably lower. Mr. Mulally “was trying to make a point.”
And here is the epitome of corporate-think. First, the spokesman sticks in an "essentially," a null word that does qualify the statement to a degree. Second, it's explained away by, "trying to make a point"; in other words, the factual content is unimportant as long as the point was made successfully.

One wonders (but not very long) how tolerant Mr. Mulally is when a VP walks into his office and says, "We sold a bunch of cars this month, but the number is unimportant as long as we sold some, 'cause that's my point." Or, perhaps even more importantly, if Mr. Mulally's check comes in minus a couple of zeros.

The most watched ... ever

[Note: this seems, at the beginning, to be a sports post. It really isn't, so hang with it for a minute.]

Sports Illustrated has an interesting book excerpt in the current issue about the NFL championship game of 1958. This game matched the Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants, it went to overtime, and has attained near-legendary status:
This was the game that launched pro football into the stratosphere of billion-dollar franchises and multimillion-dollar player salaries. With 17 future Hall of Famers on the field and on the sidelines, it was watched by a TV audience of 45 million, the largest ever to witness a football game to that point. It remains in the memory of many sports fans.
[The forthcoming book is The Best Game Ever, its writer is Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, and the excerpt is a good one. It focuses on Colts receiver Raymond Berry; if you have any curiosity as to how a receiver and quarterback develop the "mystical connection" that we've read about many times, you'll get a flavor of that here.]

I'm a bit young to remember this game, but the statements in the quote above were part of the commonly-accepted lore of football as I grew up. This was the game that made the NFL what it is today, served as a springboard for the business-ification of sports in general.

The main point that is mentioned is the TV audience, the unprecedented 45 million who watched the game and propelled it into the national consciousness. The excitement of the game and the high level of play hooked a whole generation of people on pro football, luring them away from the popular sports that prevailed at the time (college football, baseball, horse racing, and boxing).

There's a problem there: those 45 million people had to tune in before they knew how exciting the game was going to be. For the game to have created interest in pro football, the viewers would have had to know the game was going to overtime, and that 17 Hall of Famers were playing.

I'm not trying to discount a couple of other factors. It is at least theoretically possible that fewer people were watching at the beginning and, as it became clear that this game was going to be thrilling, viewers called other people ("Turn on your TV, Harold, this is great") and built the audience. Another idea is that there is a little causality problem in the writing, that people tuned in casually and became hooked by the excitement, so this game built the future audience.

I can't evaluate those two things, I think the first is a small effect, the second more plausible, so I still think there is something misleading about the common statements; there was already a growing interest in the game, people were already fascinated enough to turn it on. It may have been a catalyst for the growth of the NFL, but I don't see it as "the cause." (Another factor: the growth in number of TVs was so high during the '50s that the audience would have been higher, even if interest stayed constant.)

What does this have to do with politics, you ask? One of the defenses of last week's Democratic debate is that it was the most-watched of the debates during this primary season. Therefore, despite the minority of wonks who wanted more issue-oriented questions, viewership numbers prove that flag pins and Bill Ayres are important to voters.

Such nonsense. People had to make the decision to watch the debate based on their interest before they turned on the TV. To believe that George and Charlie asked the questions that America wanted asked requires us to believe that 10.7 million people somehow guessed what those questions would be.

Yet many people have written that the ratings will lead to more such questioning in the future. We're to believe that other broadcast outlets will look at the ratings and up the "gotcha" factor in future debates. And they probably will, given that logic doesn't seem any more part of the repertoire of newsrooms than anywhere else.

But, we can still argue to the contrary of what I've written if there was an increase in viewership from one hour to the next, as people got wind of the thrill-packed Reverend Wright questioned. No, the ratings actually went down 4% from the first hour to the second. Some of that may be the Idol factor, but we are still left with the basic precept that the ratings prove nothing about how much people liked the questioning. Those who claim otherwise are either trying to spin the outcome or trying to find false significance, whether they're trying to justify ABC's questions or the eternal importance of a football playoff game.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review - The Age of American Unreason

There are few things more mystifying to me than the anti-intellectualism that permeates American culture. We are a country that says it values education, so much so that our national program is called No Child Left Behind, yet we allow our most gifted children to pretty much fend for themselves, even though they're far more likely to find solutions for our problems.

So I was looking forward to reading Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason, a book that attempts to chronicle the current level of anti-intellectual sentiment and the ways in which it has taken root in America. While it was well-written and persuasive, I came away somewhat unmoved. Perhaps it was more my problem than Jacoby's, maybe I have already been so steeped in the fundamental American mistrust of thinking that another book on the subject is incapable of stirring my emotions. Anyone picking up this book is probably already aware of how illiterate, innumerate, iggeographate, and ihhistorate we are, and how little anyone cares.

Having said that, there is a lot of good writing and thinking here, and I recommend this book (if you can stomach it). It falls very much into the tradition of Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (both quoted, with Hofstadter a particular influence on Jacoby).

One problem is that there is no real explication of what an intellectual is; Jacoby does quote Hofstadter: an intellectual "in some sense lives for ideas - which means he has a sense of dedication to the life of the mind which is very much like a religious commitment." At other times, the definition seems to be anyone who thinks rationally, or works in certain jobs. This is not fatal to the basic thesis, but it is a bit off-putting. It would have been interesting for Jacoby to explore the implications of having intellectuals create output which is anti-intellectual.

I'm thinking here of video game developers. Game creators tend to push the envelope of what's possible with almost monastic dedication; they are the very epitome of people who have a near-religious commitment to the life of the mind, but they produce software that is seen by many as corrosive to fostering the same in our young people.

Much of the book is taken up with a history of anti-intellectualism. In an attempt to be comprehensive, Jacoby allows the energy of the book to grind to a near-halt. Some of this background about topics like the rise of social Darwinism or the insight of Emerson is interesting, but it requires a lot to stay with it, especially when no clear-cut conclusion is reached as to why, uniquely among developed countries, the U.S. is so hostile to anything that smacks of intellectual pretense. Taking even the least-restrictive definition of intellectual as a person who tries to think carefully about the world around him or her, it's remarkable how that process is discouraged even in so-called "knowledge jobs."

Even so, let me go through this book and make some observations; in so doing, I hope to convince you to read it despite my somewhat tepid comments so far. I'll start with some thoughts inspired by my reading, if not fully developed within.

Anyone who ponders the American attitude to thought will fairly soon come across the exaltation of common sense. Much of the mythos of America is built around that idea; for example, we recognize Franklin as a coiner of aphorisms that are grounded in common sense, rather than as the multi-faceted genius he really was. Common sense relies on generalizations and inertia, telling us, for instance, that we will continue to enjoy cheap oil, and there's no such thing as global warming.

As a result, we politicize knowledge, allowing science to fall under the domain of people who want to use it to promote an agenda. This is why, as I have discussed several times previously, economics is seen as scientific, rather than as a branch of politics. In actuality, knowledge transcends and exceeds politics.

The problem is, intellectualism is hard. It's difficult to parse someone's false argument, and to express it in a way that won't get you fired or earn funny looks at dinner parties. Specialization is also a factor, as every topic seems to be the domain of an expert, and we're all too willing to transfer one brand of expertise to an unrelated realm. (It is this confusion that allows Congress to be gullible when Bill Gates flogs visa programs. He's not an expert in labor, or economics, but our legislative leaders still genuflect, even when he spouts nonsense.)

And we're not a country that likes hard. Our raging infantilization gets in the way of serious engagement with serious topics. When success, for an adult, is measured in mastering level 13 on a video game, rather than trying to figure out how the candidates' health plans will affect them, intellectualism is no longer even in the ballgame. We've elevated emotional interests into core parts of our selves, to the point where we identify ourselves as, for example, Cubs fans in favor of other, more thoughtful roles.

Jacoby finds three essential sources of anti-intellectualism: the mass media, the rise of Christian fundamentalism, and the failure of public education. None of these criticisms is particularly novel, but she does present them skillfully. Anyone who has questioned whether a picture is really worth a thousand words will find much here: "With a perverted objectivity that gives credence to nonsense, mainstream news outlets have done more to undermine logic and reason that could ever do."

I think Jacoby fails to make enough out of the educationism that has infested our schools. While she acknowledges such abominations as the equal presentation of evolution and "intelligent" design, she mostly misses the self-esteem movement, which has elevated personal discovery over the presentation of truth. "Facts are whatever folks choose to believe" is an attitude that comes directly out of the idea that education consists of placing toddlers in a conceptual room full of "resources," letting them crawl around for 13 years, and intervening only to reward them for stumbling across something, no matter how much value it has. Once you have a couple of generations that has been "taught" in this way, you end up with a self-perpetuating system of ignorance.

Jacoby contends that the political roots of anti-intellectualism run deep, that, from the beginning of our nation, there has been a sense in which it was believed that education was opposed to democracy, that anything elevating one person over another was counter to "all men are created equal." This may explain why there is so much controversy about the term "elitism," in which three well-endowed, well-educated people try to make a case for how regular and down-to-earth they are.

One of the most interesting points in the book is the observation that our separation of church and state may have caused the rise of fundamentalism. In other countries where there was an official state church, it was impossible to maintain society based on "true believers" (most attempts to do so, such as the Inquisition, turned out poorly). Anyone who wasn't tended to embrace secularism and, ultimately, rationalism. On the other hand, our pluralism fostered religious thinking. As that became opposed to the rise of science, we ended up with a significant number of people opposed to paradigm-busting rational thought.

Jacoby touches on, too briefly in my view, the way in which credentialism has actually interfered with true intellectualism. Most advanced degree programs are as dogmatic as any American church; try questioning the free market in an MBA program, or multiculturalism in a PhD program in the humanities, and you'll see what I mean. Furthermore, these institutions of "learning" are contemptuous of the auto-didact, even if their ideas are sound, their thinking rational.

The book takes us through the 1930s to 50s, in which intellectuals embraced Marxism and communism, only to be discredited in the Red scare. I found this section laborious, because it didn't really explain why the entire intellectual class was hoodwinked into profoundly wrong thinking, something which likely provided more of the impetus to opposition than Jacoby credits.

Here, we move into a section of the book which is difficult due to the aforementioned lack of a definition for "intellectual." To argue that the Cold War and space race created a new respect for the intellectual life requires us to believe that the new scientists and engineers were seen in that light. In reality, common people made no connection between the soft-science fellow travelers of the '30s and the hard-science technical minds of the '60s and '70s, and neither did the academy. One does not have to spend much time on a campus to see that the science people have not been fully accepted into the "life of the mind" (despite the fact that they tend to be broader and deeper thinkers).

Another problem has been the rise of specialization, as increasing numbers of people in various disciplines have staked out their own patches of turf. As they have grown away from the large ideas, they have sunk into near-solipsism, so it is harder to find an old-style public intellectual.

One of the strongest parts of the book is the chronicle of the so-called middlebrow culture that came of age in the 1950s. Having lived through this time, Jacoby turns an observant eye on this time when even relatively modest families had aims on something better, through such means as the Book-of-the-Month Club and purchases of encyclopedias. I share her confusion as to why this didn't lead to much true intellectualism, though I grant the rise of television had a lot to do with it (though I think she downplays the hostility of the true intellectual class - once again, the dislike of the auto-didact).

It may occur to you when reading this section that we haven't eliminated the middlebrow, aspirational culture. It's just that we have diverted it from self-education to self-help. Oprah doesn't challenge her viewers to test their beliefs, she bathes them in the warm water of self-acceptance and self-love. We're not buying encyclopedias, we're buying books that tell us that wishing will make it so.

Though I liked this section, it fell down a bit in its lack of definition of highbrow as contrasted to middlebrow. If Faulkner and Fitzgerald were included in that ultimate symbol of middlebrow, the Book-of-the-Month Club, that's setting the bar fairly high. What would constitute elevation from that level that would allow someone to move to highbrow?

Jacoby does a good job of taking us through the upheavals of the 1960s and '70s, though I think she minimizes the effect of the mistrust of government that grew out of Vietnam and Watergate had on the desirability of government service as an outlet for intellectuals. I'm not sure we've really discerned what the true lessons of that tumultuous time were, so her contribution is welcome. Her explication of the loss of agreed-upon standards on evaluation of artistic quality is well-done (though she does not do quite enough to extend it to other domains).

The book moves now into a description of our current time; again, it's well-done without presenting anything essentially new. It's depressing to see how little we know, and downright mystifying to see how quickly we moved from hoping the president (Kennedy) was the intellectual he purported to be, to electing presidents who bent over backwards to show us how profoundly "real" they are (the Bush gentleman's C). We are urged to keep our business memos at grade four on the Flesch readability index, so as not to exclude the stupid, and market forces have driven us to offer university courses in TV appreciation (which doesn't seem to need too much training for the modern-day, media-steeped student).

At any rate, take this book for what it is. Do not read it for its proposed solutions; even Jacoby seems resigned to their unlikelihood. It is yet another text that will not be read by those who need it, but by those who already feel that there is something irreversible and frightening looming just under the waters of the American dream. You may see the monster better after reading the book, but that probably won't keep it from devouring you, your children, or your grandchildren.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Oh, to be unique...

I completed the last post, looked in Google Reader, and saw that Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Ed Kilgore plowed that ground before I did. Of course, I slightly prefer my own take, but they make some good points too (I'll eschew the emoticon, but it's implied).

The debate (again)

I was going to leave it alone, really I was, but then I read Ross Douthat's defense of last week's debate in The Atlantic. His essential point, while far better expressed than David Brooks was able to do, is that the questions of the first 52 minutes "matter because they're personal," because they reveal the inner thoughts and feelings of people to whom we are granting extraordinary power. Douthat believes that specific policy proposals may not matter so much in the long or even medium term (presumably because situations change, new priorities arise), but that trivial-seeming items such as Bush's inability to remember the names of world leaders in 2000 actually end up disclosing important truths about the candidate's ability and direction.

There are essentially two objections to this line of reasoning, I think. First, and it's something that has been missed by a lot of defenders of Charlie and George, most rational people haven't objected to any specific question that was asked (I don't profess to have read every one of the thousands of comments that were posted at ABC, but I saw a good sampling). The problem most of us had was that they spent 52 minutes on things that were not very important. If the debate had been 8 hours long (and, heavens, I'm not advocating that), maybe it's true that we could have wandered through the thicket of who-knew-who-when for close to an hour. But, at a time of profound national challenges, it was irresponsible to spend close to half the time on such things.

Douthat's main point is better reasoned, but I still think it comes up short. The problem is that it is pretty much impossible to figure out which moments have symbolic resonance. It's easy to look back now and claim that Bush's name problem implied that he would be indifferent to the opinions of others, or that his speech at Bob Jones University implied that he would be all too beholden to the Christian right, but that's picking out a couple of events. These campaigns are so long that anyone could probably find events to support whatever interpretation is desired.

I picked Douthat's Bush examples, but he does find a couple from the other side of the aisle, but I don't think that fare any better. He cites Hillary's name changes as evidence of her "echt-feminist principle and political opportunism." I might agree with that now, but, at the time, it could have been seen (and was) as a demonstration of her responsiveness to social norms; had subsequent events been different, the deconstruction would be too.

My point is that, unless this reading leads us to an unequivocal conclusion, we can only get hints from these kinds of actions, and this can be immensely misleading. I don't know how close Obama is to Bill Ayres; my sense of the importance of this is colored by my previous feeling toward Barack, and he's not likely to say anything which will change that (oh, if he had said he felt that Ayres' actions were great and wonderful, I might blink, but is that going to happen, and should ABC be circling around and hoping so?).

I said much the same thing in my review of Jacob Weisberg's book (also cited by Douthat). Weisberg's thesis that Bush's actions can be explained in terms of his family dynamic is fascinating, likely true, but, unless it gives us a way to anticipate what he will do, it has little current (but great historic) value. Whether a candidate wears a flag pin or not falls into the same category, it implies anything you want to believe, and, thus, nothing.
An additional note: I wouldn't have been satisfied even if the ABC boys had asked two hours of questions of substance, because they would still have been framed and constrained in the usual ways. I would love to see the moderators ask larger questions, questions that get at the heart of the philosophy of the candidates. It would be far more potentially useful to hear the answers to questions such as, "What will be your Administration's philosophy about Europe?," or, "What do we tell our children when they ask what career they can go into?" I'm sure any thinking person can come up with quite a few more, and they would have a chance to reveal something about the candidates that doesn't come verbatim from the stump speech.

Review - The Science of Michael Crichton

I admit it, I enjoy books that have titles like, The Science of..., with the dots filled in with the name of an author or TV show. A book like this about the Star Trek series of TV shows and movies will discuss subjects like, "Can there be a transporter?" or "Could Vulcans and humans intermarry?"

Books of this type, especially those with several authors, generally discuss these topics in one of two ways: either the author does a detailed critique of the science in the story, or writes an overview of what is known with a brief nod to the source. While the former can have a certain snarky joy to it, I find the second kind more fulfilling, as an author with knowledge of the topic gives a current overview of it. Given the relatively low quality of science reporting in our major dailies and periodicals, this can be a good source (yes, I understand that having to use a TV show to get into the topic is somewhat sad, but these books, at their best, can give a 20 page summary of a scientific issue in fine form).

For the most part, The Science of Michael Crichton: An Unauthorized Exploration into the Real Science Behind the Fictional Worlds of Michael Crichton (TSMC), edited by Kevin R. Grazier, features essays of the latter type. The real scientists and science writers behind these articles generally use the Crichton subjects as springboards into describing state-of-the-art thinking.

My disclaimer: I loved Crichton's debut, The Andromeda Strain, a (for me) fascinating exploration of the implications of an alien life form and its effect on humans in a small town in Arizona. It had enough science to fascinate the young me, and I was willing to overlook the stereotypical characters and clunky writing. Unfortunately, I have found subsequent works in the Crichton oeuvre disappointing; as he has become more of a brand name, the flaws have taken on more importance. There are also other authors plumbing somewhat the same ground who write stories with more resonance, and manage to say something about human beings as well (see the best of Greg Bear, as one example).

TSMC contains essays that are all somewhat critical of the science used in the novels - some are more understanding of the needs of the fiction author than others. That scientists are of necessity the villains seems acceptable to some, other authors seem to have a problem with that. And that may get at the heart of my feeling (and the writer of the pertinent essay, Sergio Pistoi) that The Andromeda Strain is Crichton's best. It is the one that presents scientists in a generally positive light.

The brilliant Ray Kurzweil writes an essay that uses Crichton's The Terminal Man as a springboard to his controversial opinions about the eventual fusion of human and computer. You won't find out much about the book, but you will certainly have something to think about. Steven Gulie uses the same book (odd, because The Terminal Man was not one of Crichton's most prominent works) to write the most affecting essay, as he describes his own experience with brain implants to treat Parkinson's disease.

As we move on in time, it is clear that Crichton departs ever further from real science, as he misrepresents the fields of anthropology (in Eaters of the Dead), animal behavior (Congo), physics (Timeline), nanotechnology (Prey), climatology (State of Fear), and biotechnology (Next). What is most troubling is the increasing hostility of this Harvard Medical School graduate to science itself.

I can't personally speak to every essay's criticism, because I haven't read every one of the Crichton novels covered in this book. But, when such a best-selling and influential author decries global warming, and does so with apparently sketchy evidence (in one case, he draws exactly the wrong conclusion from a study), then he has gone from science fiction into political commentary of a most curious sort. It may be good to have a knowledgeable author writing cautionary tales about an over-reliance on unproven technology, but that gives that author a special responsibility to get the facts right. In particular, for someone who has written a book that uses chaos theory as a major plot point, then ignores the possible chaotic implications of global warning in another book, seems incongruous.

Anyway, TSMC is a good read, even if you are not familiar with every Crichton novel covered. You will get a gentle introduction to many current scientific issues, and that's positive.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I know how we can help

The Chicago Tribune had a front page story in Sunday's paper titled, Outsourced to India: Stress. It's a heart-wrenching tale of the suffering endured by Indians in trying to cope with the challenge of doing call center work. We begin with the saga of Vamsi:
After two years working nights at a U.S. company's computer call center, Vamsi knew it was time to quit when his 6-year-old son brought home a school portrait he'd drawn of his father, asleep in bed.

"He was asked to draw a picture of his mom and dad, and he drew me sleeping. That's the only way he ever saw me," remembers the 31-year-old, who like many southern Indians goes by only one name. "He never saw me doing anything else."
Of course, it's not just Vamsi:
Indians may have taken over three-quarters of the world's call-center jobs, but they've also taken on the stresses of those jobs: weight gain, depression, boredom and, often, relationship troubles.

Worse, for the legions in India busy helping Americans reboot their hard drives or refinance their mortgages, the problems are often more severe, both because of cultural differences and because the work, by virtue of time differences with the U.S., largely takes place at night.

"There are a lot of pressures on people. The jobs are very stressful and not very creative," said Karuna Baskar, a director of, a Bangalore-based counseling service that was contracted by 27 mainly information technology and call-center offices in India to work with troubled employees.
America is truly the cruelest country, creating fat, sad, bored, divorced Indians because of our insatiable need to make our computers work or try to pare a few dollars off our house payments.
As more and more Indians spend their nights drinking too many colas, trying to sound like Americans and dealing with impatient clients on the other end of the phone line, "it's very clearly showing up in health problems and also tiredness and irritability," Baskar said. "At work and with their families, they're more irritable than they should be, and that's affecting their relationships."
I know, maybe we can set our alarms for 3 AM and call them then, so they can work normal hours.
Indian call centers and other outsourcing companies now employ more than 1.6 million people, mainly young Indian college graduates, who earn relatively high salaries. But the fast-paced, repetitive work is creating a growing number of stresses, some of them peculiarly Indian.

In a nation where dating among young people is still the exception, and most marriages are arranged, 20-something outsourcing workers can be both excited and confused to find themselves out at night with attractive co-workers, even if they're simply sitting in the next cubicle wearing a headset.

Archana Bisht, a director of, remembers counseling a young man who proposed marriage to the young woman working next to him, only to become depressed and confused when she indignantly refused.

"The girl is friendly, and in their minds they've already decided she's the one to marry," Bisht said. "And when she says no, they go through all the emotions of the breakup of a relationship even though there wasn't any relationship."
It's hard for me to work up much sympathy for someone who, in any culture, has that kind of thinking at work. It is interesting to see that, in India, counseling is offered to workers, when that benefit is less often available here.

But maybe it is too hard to work around this kind of schedule, even though you're doing your best to take care of yourself:
"After working, the [employees] party for the rest of the time," Anbumani Ramadoss, the national minister of health and family welfare, said at a public meeting late last year. "We don't want these young people to burn out."
Oh. Well, what of our friend Vamsi, surely he isn't partying?
The combined effect of sleep deprivation, alcohol, cigarettes, junk food and a sedentary lifestyle at the keyboard "is killing people," said Vamsi, who has since left his job as a call-center worker for a U.S. computer firm in Hyderabad. "People are killing themselves."

Relationships are also feeling the strain. During the years he worked at Dell, Vamsi said, his wife worked a day job, so "by the time I started going to the office, she was set to hit the sack," he said. And when his son told teachers his father didn't go to work but only slept all day, "it was pretty embarrassing," he remembers. The boy "never saw me doing anything else," he admitted. With so many problems, "you can imagine the life. There was no life," he said.
Having worked in and around a couple of call centers, I know the American response to these problems is, "Man up, or get out." I imagine a lot of the stress comes from that hard-line attitude:
Call centers also are experimenting with setting up full-service dormitories for young employees, aimed at giving them a quiet place to sleep during the day and providing services like cafeterias offering healthy meals, gym access and other recreational facilities, said Deepakshi Jha, a spokeswoman with Nasscom, a leading trade industry group for India's call-center and information technology companies.
I don't recall American companies bending over this far backwards for American call center employees.

[I thought of juxtaposing this with an article by the same writer, Laurie Goering, from four days ago. In that one, Goering discusses child labor in India, how perhaps as many as 40 million children under the age of 14 work, perfectly legally, in jobs that pay maybe as much as $5 a day. Of course, this is presented as a problem for American countries - again, keep in mind it's legal for children to be used in this way. But the only common threads are that India's economic miracle seems to be riding on the backs of their most vulnerable people, and that we should feel responsible.]

I really am at a loss here. I don't really understand the point of the article - are we supposed to feel bad that our infernal calls are forcing these bright young men and women to take jobs that are killing them? This is a country that has pushed itself to take these jobs from other nations, and now finds there are problems in doing so.

We are a country that estimates that, among the top 10 jobs for growth over the next 10 years, will be: retail salespersons, customer service representatives, food preparation and serving workers, office clerks, home care aides, janitors, and nursing aides. How many of the companies who employ these people will set up dormitories, cafeterias, and gyms for these workers?

Also, where are the bright-eyed, high-test-scoring, excited young Indians whom Tom Friedman esteems so highly? How does his description of the future high-performance workers square with the picture presented in the Tribune? I would really like to know how I, as an American, am supposed to feel.

[Edited: I received a comment from someone who thought I mischaracterized the story of the gentleman who proposed to his cube neighbor. The point seemed well-taken, in that the article didn't fully support my wording, so I changed it.]

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Offshoring follies

I generally like the blog, Beat the Press, which is the product of Dean Baker. Baker is considered a "lefty" economist, but I find him to be at his best when he applies generally accepted economic principles to situations that call for clarity; it's difficult to see how people can argue with Baker on things like, "The argument from high-tech employers, that they simply can't get enough high tech workers in the United States is ridiculous on its face," but they do. And his argument comes directly from theory that pretty much all economists accept.

Or this recent post, in which Baker points out some ways in which health care is not currently anything close to being a free market, and how the consequences of making it so would lead in some obvious, but unacceptable, ways. For example, a true free market would drop many licensing barriers, and doctor salaries would fall. Another implication is that less money would flow to the drug and insurance companies. Baker's essential point, that John McCain is wrong in talking about bringing free market principles to health, is a little overtly political for my taste, McCain is not alone in saying that. But the basic logic is sound, and based on simple principles (greater supply of doctors without a sudden increase in demand would lower prices).

So I was a little surprised when Baker wrote today about outsourcing and, while I think it's good that he mentions it (we've heard almost nothing in the endless campaign), he draws a conclusion or two that I find problematic.

He's referring to an article in the New York Times by Louis Uchitelle, who is one of the few mainstream business writers who deals regularly with the topic of offshoring (his book, The Disposable American, is an excellent look at the problem; sadly, his proposed solutions are unrealistic and unlikely).

Uchitelle has come in for some criticism; for example, there is this 2005 screed from supply-sider Larry Kudlow, which, in retrospect, actually does more for Uchitelle than against (admittedly, the Kudlow article is three years old, but it is remarkable just how wrong he was about the long-term prospects for the economy).

Nevertheless, the Times article talks about the loss of the $20 an hour job, and is, on the whole, quite perceptive about how those jobs, traditionally the road to the middle class, are disappearing in our offshored, two-tiered, temp-jobbed economy. Most unusual is the mention of the commonly-stated magic bullet:
The nation’s political leaders — Democrats and Republicans alike — have argued that education and training are a route back to middle-class wages for those who have fallen out. But the demand isn’t sufficient to absorb all the workers that the leaders would educate. Even now, roughly 15 percent of college-educated workers find themselves in jobs for which they are overqualified, the Economic Policy Institute reports, and many of these jobs pay less than $20 an hour.
Where Baker finds a place to criticize is here:
Add outsourcing to the list, and the off-shoring of such middle-income work as computer programming and radiology.
However the article mistakenly lists the offshoring of high-paying jobs like radiology as part of the story explaining the loss of middle class security. In fact, radiologists would typically be in the top 1 percent of wage earners. They have been beneficiaries of the lower wages received by manufacturing workers. These lower wages have been largely passed on in lower prices.
Now I will grant that the inclusion of radiologists in the article was unnecessary and distracting. One survey of salaries suggests that, after five years, a radiologist is making more than $200,000 a year, and that sure isn't middle class. But I would also argue that these lower prices from which the radiologist is seeing benefit is minor, and it's not really all that much of an advantage.

Worse yet, Baker goes on to say:
Those who are upset about the wage losses of middle class workers should applaud the outsourcing of high-end jobs, like those of radiologists. This outsourcing will put downward pressure on the wages of these high-end workers, leading to lower prices, which will increase the real wages of autoworkers, retail clerks, custodians and other low and middle income workers.
I would question whether we'll actually see radiology costs come down, as the increasingly profit-motivated medical industry sees the tele-outsourcing of X-ray reading as a new profit center, rather than as a means to cut costs and pass that along to the consumer.

More importantly, Baker misses the aspirational quality of many in the middle class. That $20/hour job is a means to an end for a lot of people, allowing them to make a life for their children that permits them to go beyond and grab an upper-class job for themselves. If we take away the "high-end vocational" professions, it is not at all clear to me what we offer as the future. Without the middle, and much of the high end, what are people supposed to do?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

I'm better than everything!!

I've had occasion to think about Thomas Friedman's book, The World is Flat, since my review of it, and I failed to talk about something in sufficient detail. Friedman's idea of a strategy for Americans is that we should each make ourselves over, that our current method of choosing careers is wrong. If you go into a job that anyone can do, then it will be someone cheaper who will do it. So don't do that.

His advice boils down to, specialize so as to become invaluable, do something that no one else can do as well. Or, become adaptable, which Friedman leaves a little vague, but essentially boils down to acquiring skills that will work in every situation.

Let's say you're talking to a young man or woman poised at the brink of making decisions that will define their futures. What do I study?, they ask you. Since you have been fully steeped in Friedman-ology, you know enough not to give them a straight vocational answer (unless you suspect they might be ideally suited to home health care). So you urge them to, wait, to be adaptable...which one?

Of course, there's essentially no answer. One cannot predict what specialization will be worth money and non-outsourceable in 5 years, much less 20 or 30. When you have a world in which medical care can be sourced to other countries, there are no eternals.

And what skills make you adaptable? One might say writing, but we can see that proficiency in that skill is less important than it used to be. An ability to deal with people, what falls under the term "emotional intelligence," maybe, but there is some controversy over whether that can really be taught, and you're still left up in the air as to what major to pick. I can't think of any others that don't have similar flaws.

It's not even clear that working toward a job such as New York Times columnist is worthwhile. The next Thomas Friedman may well be Rahul or Li-Chin, based in Mumbai or Shanghai, closer to where the international action is, but able to turn out Big Think pieces (and charge very little for them).

Some would say that we will just need to steel ourselves for five or six careers in our lifetimes. I will ask the question I ask of such proposals, What is the mechanism by which this will be accomplished? I will probably return to this point another day; for now I leave it as an exercise for the reader.

Back to the original point, we have a dilemma. There is no coherent piece of advice we can give to that young person, no path we can suggest for them that is not fraught with risk. Perhaps that's a way of keeping a society vital, to throw everything up in the air constantly, keep everyone on his or her toes. But it's difficult to think of that as the national goal, to continually call everyone to change their hopes and dreams, and change their skills and attributes as the market demands.

Because then you subsume experience to the market, commoditize everything, assign no value to an actual skill, and, at that point, the only real talent is marketing yourself, turning yourself into a brand. And there is my advice to the young person: Make yourself into a brand, but a flexible one. And then I walk quickly away, hoping there will be no follow-up question, because to that I have no answer at all.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The right choice

So what do we make of the news Thursday that AT&T is devoting $100 million over four years to reduce the high school dropout rate (story here)?

I've been pretty critical of AT&T Chairman, CEO, and President Randall Stephenson (here, for example) for his inability to solve the problem of hiring customer service people, jobs that AT&T moved overseas in the first place. Then, in a burst of national pride, the company said in 2006 that it would bring 5000 jobs back. They've filled only 1400 of those positions and, according to Mr. Stephenson, can't do better because the high school dropout rate is high (our students are "defective") and there's no reason American companies have to hire locally ("I know you don't like hearing that, but that's the way it is").

My real criticism of Mr. Stephenson is that anyone who makes his kind of money should be a problem-solver. If your goal is to hire 5000 people, then you find a way to do it. You raise the starting salary. You provide a good working environment. You offer education benefits. You hire good customer service personnel away from other companies. You do something to find the source of the problem and take steps to solve it.

What you don't do is stand in front of a business group and whine about it. Let's say you give an assignment to one of your employees, maybe you tell a regional manager to increase sales in his area by 10%. When he or she comes back to you in a year and says, "I couldn't do it, my customers are too dumb to know that they should sign up for our wonderful services," would Mr. Stephenson find that an acceptable reason?

So it was clear to me that Mr. Stephenson didn't see the retrieval of these jobs as a real priority, as a problem to be solved. And many people were more aggrieved than I:
AT&T is "trying," according to the article, to return 5,000 customer service jobs to the United States from India. However Stephenson claims that out of the 300 million people in this country he's having a hard time finding 5,000 who are up to snuff. He cites high school dropout rates in some areas of 50%, although he doesn't say where the dropout rate is that high. people from America, with it's "50% dropout rate" aren't good enough, but people from a country where many have no schooling at all are?

Additionally he let it slide that Americans with university engineering degrees don't cut it, either. "We're able to do new product engineering in Bangalore (India) as easily as we're able to do it in Austin, Texas. I know you don't like hearing that, but that's the way it is," the article quotes him as saying.

Do you think maybe the real motivation here is that while someone doing customer service work for AT&T in the United States makes up to $29,000, the people in India make $2,000? Do you think it's because in the United States we have the Communications Workers of America, where if you feel like you're getting the shaft on your job you have a place to turn to for help, whereas in India they take it up the butt because the alternative is to go back to starving in the desert?

Yeah, "Unions drive jobs overseas." Pardon that engineering graduate from MIT if he has $200,000 in student loans to pay back, a $350 a month car payment, and the average price of a home for his family is $300,000. Don't forget that $50 tank of gas he has to buy to go to work and his $4 a gallon milk. He might have a hard time matching the Bangalore guy's $2,000 price.
(That from Art's Bar and Grill.)

But now, AT&T is putting $25 million a year into helping young people stay in high school. The easiest thing in the world would be to put on the cynical hat, to assume that this is just a smokescreen to divert us from Mr. Stephenson's comments or his large salary. And that may well be true.

You can pick nits with the programs, as well. It's not clear to me that we need "dropout prevention summits" run by Colin Powell's organization. The data is unclear as to how many students really do drop out, and I don't know if the goal is to create a climate in which students want to stay in school, or to attract dropouts back to school. And the "shadowing" program, in which 100,000 students will spend 4 hours apiece following AT&T employees around to get "a firsthand look at the skills they will need to succeed" sounds to me like a weak version of "Take Your Children to Work Day."

But it's something, and, PR stunt or not, it's an attempt to, in a classic corporate way, address the situation.

Then today I read this:
Telecom giant AT&T plans to lay off 1.5 percent of its employees, primarily in management, in an effort to streamline its operations, the company announced Friday.

AT&T had about 310,000 employees at the end of 2007, meaning the layoffs would affect about 4,650 workers.
Note: I worked for AT&T about 15 years ago, and pretty much everyone in Bell Laboratories was classified as management because the salary scales required it. Even entry-level developers were "managers." I don't know if they still do things that way, but I'm guessing that some non-managers will be included in the layoffs, so their attempts to sugar-coat this situation ("oh, they're all just well-paid, do-nothing managers") is likely not true.

In summary, we have a major company that's going to give money for summits, which should create jobs for "summit organizers," but have an uncertain effect on dropout rates. We have money for schools and nonprofit organizations, with no clear linkage as to how that keeps students in school. And we have a shadowing program, where 100,000 people will get to spend half a day seeing what real people do for a living (and we hope that none of these kids will be assigned to someone who is laid off while they're there, even if that would be the best possible lesson they could get about the 21st century working world).

On the other hand, we have 4,650 people who will be laid off, which (at a national average family size of 3.14) comes to 14,600 people who will be directly affected, and some greater number of people working in businesses that depend on the former AT&T-ers as customers will be hurt. The communities in which these people will likely be damaged as some number of them have to move in search of work. Some of these folks will see permanent impairment to their careers, because whatever they specialized in is now being done solely in another country.

What is the sum total of these two announcements? I don't know, I can't say what the tax implications of the dropout program are. What I do know is that, if those 4,650 people make any more than an average of $5,376 a year, then AT&T more than paid for Thursday's announcement with Friday's announcement.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


It seems to be my day for short posts. Matt Yglesias posts about polls, pointing out (based on a Zogby poll that has Obama down only one percentage point in Pennsylvania) that there are perverse incentives for the dramatic, non-intuitive result:
This illustrates a real problem with the public polling game, namely the lack of incentives to get things right. Presumably there's some level of consistent wrongness at which people stop giving you the links, readership, buzz, and whatever else it is you're looking for but it's really not clear where that is. And, indeed, for your average media poll where the objective is to produce an "interesting" article accompanying the poll, you're probably better off being wrong.
That's fine, as far as it goes, but it misses something else important. We all pretty much blow by the sampling error that is printed with these polls, the plus or minus 4% or whatever. What we fail to appreciate is that the listed error refers to a confidence level, a number that's never printed. 95% is pretty standard in science, so what that means is that there is a 95% probability that the result is within 4 percentage points of reality.

This is really important, and I don't think most people have any idea that this is the truth. If a poll comes out that says Hillary leads Barack 55%-45% in Pennsylvania, and the error is plus/minus 4%, the tendency is to assume that Hillary's support is anywhere from 51-59%, so she'll win for sure.

No, what this says is there is a 95% probability that Hillary's true support lies between 51% and 59%. There's a 5% chance that the true number falls outside of that range. If you take 20 polls, you would expect one of them to be blatantly wrong. It is possible, but not very, that you happen to talk to 500 people, 400 of whom are supporters of Hillary. You publish your poll: "Hill's support up to 80%/Clinton's running away with PA." The pundits seize on that number, make their ponderous statements on momentum and electability, possibly even changing the results.

I'm not going to dwell on other sources of error, like poorly-designed polls - read the story of Literary Digest in 1936 for all you need to know about that.

Keep in mind that the foregoing applies to scientifically-designed polls. The Internet click polls and local news phone-in (and IM-in) polls are far worse; there's nothing real that you can determine from them, and they should be regarded as noise.

One more on the debate

I've seen several more comments on last night's Democratic debate. Brad DeLong provides a couple of links to columns by Greg Mitchell and Tom Shales which are quite good. On the other hand, the peculiar David Brooks sullies the New York Times with his odd take on the proceedings:
I thought the questions were excellent. The journalist’s job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities. Almost every question tonight did that. The candidates each looked foolish at times, but that’s their own fault.
If that is the belief of a prominent journalist as to what journalism is, I strongly recommend that Mr. Brooks leave his post immediately, pick up a camera, and become a paparazzo, free to make his subjects "uncomfortable."

Maybe the best overall words I read on the subject came from across the ocean, from a Guardian column by Niall Stanage. I was motivated to leave a comment (reproduced here):
As an American who was appalled by last night's debate, I commend Mr. Stanage for his insight. While every point he has made is trenchant and well-chosen, this one: "And, more generally, if the views of every person with whom a presidential candidate has ever interacted are to be judged as possible disqualifiers from office, America's political future would look very impoverished indeed," struck me as particularly appropriate.

Politics is essentially the art of engagement, and that involves dealing with people who may not conform to your belief, of whom you may not approve. The idea of absolutism is antithetical to politics; would it be better for Hillary to walk out of a church in which her pastor made offensive remarks, or should she attempt to enlighten the pastor, building on the good work the church is doing? If the former, does the same apply to a meeting with Putin, or dare I say, Mr. Brown, if they express a sentiment with which she disagrees? Should she just walk away?

No one lives in a bubble in which he or she can control all interactions, least of all a political leader. Perhaps we can control our self-righteousness long enough to understand that.

Flag pins, weather, and America-loving

Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast didn't even watch the travesty last night, and still got it exactly right.

Li'l George and Uncle Charlie


I generally don't comment on things unless I have something interesting to say (well, that's my opinion), and I have nothing novel to add to what other people have already written about tonight's Democratic debate. But sometimes you see something so amazing that you cannot help but tossing in the two cents (or tossing the cookies).

I'm not going to talk about who won or lost; each candidate had some strong moments, each had somewhat awkward ones. I already am looking at them through a prism of preference, so I'm probably not going to be able to be totally objective.

It's the coverage and the questioning that seems to me to have been incontrovertibly appalling. First of all, what's with Chelsea Clinton being lit like Glenn Close in The Natural. The rest of the audience looked as if it was about 20 feet below the ocean in dark blue-green tones. But there was a key light on Chelsea, and the director went to a shot of her quite often. Leaving aside the question of her photogenicity, it seems an odd choice to focus on the erstwhile First Daughter so much.

More important was the questioning by ABC "journalists" Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. (Actually, maybe we can explain the Chelsea thing; Charlie and Chelsea both went to the Sidwell Friends School, so the Chelsea show was just a shout-out from one alum to another.)

Perhaps my favorite moment was when Charlie admitted that Hillary hadn't gotten enough time, this after the boys had spent most of the time on Barack's statements and associations ("Is it true, Senator Obama, that you have driven by Al Capone's residence? Doesn't that show a lack of judgment on your part?").

This is a country, as I have stated before, with profound challenges. I know it's way too much to ask to think that these well-paid pundits could ask candidates for the office of the leader of the free world anything significant, like how Americans can maintain their standing in the world when low-cost providers can compete for jobs and products. Or how we will react when one of our new world friends tries to exercise their clout by, say, invading Taiwan, threatening us with, "no toys for Christmas."

But I do expect more that half of two hours to be devoted to an approximation of real issues, rather than trying to one-up Tim Russert in the "gotcha" game. People in Pennsylvania, and across this country, have real problems, and it doesn't matter what Hillary said about Bosnia, or whether Barack wears a flag pin, or whether Barack has sat on a board with a former member of the Weather Underground. Even if these issues do speak to character, hey, as they say in court, "asked and answered." I have my reservations about Hillary's truthfulness - the Bosnia story is just plain weird - but we gain nothing by hearing yet another rehash of her justifications.

You might as well let Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter host one of these things, or maybe Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. ABC would get bigger ratings, the questions wouldn't be more inane, and at least the network could preserve some dignity by having a fallback position ("we won't make the mistake of having Ms. Spears moderate again, but we still have respected journalist Charles Gibson in the wings"). Horrible, simply horrible.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Two posts

Citizen Carrie, after an absence of about a week and a half, has returned to the blogosphere with two well-researched posts about important issues. The first, from last night, chronicles in detail the nauseating story of the last five weeks where the entire apparatus of the government we pay for has been marshaled to crush the careers of technologically-minded Americans. CC has assembled every step in the process, from the March 12 star turn by Bill Gates in front of Congress to the April 14 H-1B lottery. Read the post, especially if you have the stomach to see just how active and adroit our government can be when it feels those tech company dollars flowing into the coffers.

CC's second post, shorter but no less important, discusses the myths surrounding our nation's schools. The supposed crisis, promulgated by ideologues and educationists, has been used by our 'leaders" to justify the sellout described above. I'm not a big fan of our educational system, it neglects the most gifted under the theory that, "they'll do OK anyway," it tends to emphasize the wrong things in pandering to the "latest thing."

But the "crisis" has been shamelessly used to support a political agenda, and to create endless change that enriches consultants and experts. Very little has been done to look at the reality of our schools; that we still can't determine the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind after seven years is scandalous, especially with all the people who are making a living off the numbers it generates. If you want to be introduced to the shoddy basis for the claims of abject school failure, take a look at Citizen Carrie's post.

We're going to pump you up

Via Kevin Drum, an article by attorney Phillip Carter, who spent time in Iraq with the U.S. Army, discussing the president's most recent comments about the war:
If security conditions improve, we'll stay longer in order to consolidate those gains and facilitate political progress. And if security conditions deteriorate, we'll stay in order to restore order and prevent chaos. How exactly does this translate into anything other than an indefinite stay in Iraq?
Carter goes on to quote Bush from a Friday interview with Martha Raddatz of ABC:

RADDATZ: But the overall thing -- when you say, "We're winning," you know what the American people hear. You know how that will play.

BUSH: Well, yes. I think we -- and I wanted -- that's as much trying to bolster the spirits of the people in the field as well as -- look, you can't have the commander in chief say to a bunch of kids who are sacrificing either, "It's not worth it," or, "You're losing." I mean, what does that do for morale? I'm the commander in chief of the military as well, obviously, as, you know, somebody who speaks to the country. And if you look at my remarks, they were balanced. They weren't Pollyannaish.

Carter has a problem with this:
The dissonance between the rhetoric from Washington and our experience in Iraq was stark. We knew the ground truth. Being deceived by our senior political leaders certainly didn't change that, nor did it help morale at all. If anything, it hurt morale by undermining confidence in the chain of command. Put bluntly, if you can't trust your generals and political leaders to tell you and your families the truth, how can you trust them at all?

It's disappointing to hear now, two years after the fact, that the president was knowingly bull----ing us the whole time. And that he justified such dishonesty in the name of supporting the troops and protecting their morale. That's an insult to America's men and women in uniform (and their families), who deserve to be told the truth by their political leaders about what's going on. It's also an insult to us, as voters, who deserve the truth so we can make the right decisions in the voting booth.
But, of course, this is the spirit of the times. People in power, across all walks of life, tell the people what they think they want to hear, especially if it lets them get out of the room without having to answer tough questions. I worked in a company in which the CEO would conduct these town hall meetings, where he or another executive would speak about something, usually very positively, then take questions from the employees. Invariably, as this company slid down into the post-tech boom abyss, real events would contradict the rosy picture within a week or two of the town hall meeting.

One time, the CEO said that he had seen no plans for future layoffs. That may have been true, but the plans must have been put in the limo for his trip back to HQ, because they came pretty soon after that statement.

Look, "morale" is a smokescreen. Everyone in that company knew fully well how poorly things were going, and, if they had missed it, they got it after the first round of layoffs. Morale was lousy, but we didn't have a lot of alternatives as to where we might go.

If you have a brain, you realize that your "leadership" is either lying to you, or very, very stupid (and you can never rule out both). And these lies aren't strategic, they aren't part of a plan to maintain the spirit of the workforce. They're simply ways of avoiding an unpleasant subject.

We're hearing the same rhetoric about the current economic difficulties. If we'd just stay positive, spend those rebate checks on consumer goods, and keep in that mellow mood, everything will turn out OK.

Except that it won't, and no amount of cheerleading will change those fundamental realities.
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