Monday, October 22, 2012

Bond Atomically

There's something going on akin to the 1960 "Missile Gap" issue - Kennedy said that the Soviets had more missiles than the US, and Nixon, being the Vice-President, knew this was untrue but knew that he couldn't say so because the information on missile numbers was classified.

Similarly, Obama can't acknowledge the very successful cyberworm attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (which the administration denies but there are books, articles etc about it), nor can he mention whatever number of covert operations are in progress. Consider, for example, if this election had occured in April, 2011, when Obama knew Bin Laden's location and was planning to execute an operation against him - Romney could have hammered him for not having caught Bin Laden, and Obama would have had to keep quiet.

Beyond the Iranian worm attack, I can't really begin to speculate what kind of stuff Obama's hands are tied on, but it's an interesting angle to consider.

That said, Obama looks strong on foreign policy. It's unlikely that any of the real "third rail" issues will come up, just like they didn't in debates one and two - surveillance, drone attacks and shadow wars. If they do, expect them to be dealt with superficially.

By the way, anybody who has not read Bob Woodward's book about the Afghan strategy review, Obama's Wars, is doing themselves a disservice.

Friday, October 05, 2012

What Color Is Your Lambo, 2012 Edition

Again we reach the time where month-to-month economic data, ignored for years at a time, data only tangentially related to the power of executive office, becomes the basis upon which we make long-term political decisions.  Some new unemployment numbers came out today, they look good for the President, especially in light of his punch-pulling, wonky performance in the first presidential debate.

I think that people vastly overestimate the control the President has over many elements of the economy, especially the stock market.  However, people tend to use some of these indicators as measurements of the President's success, especially right around election time.

"It's the economy, stupid," as James Carville memorably said.  Obama got a boost in 2008 from bad numbers rolling out in the early fall.  Reagan destroyed Carter in 1980's stagflating economy.

This year, if Romney is to charge back, it will be on the strength of bad economic news as he follows the standard challenger's game-plan - assail the incumbent as the cause of any and all things bad in the country.  Write some checks with your mouth that your ass may or may not be able to cash once you get elected.  Obama did the same to the GOP in 2008, and found out that steering the economy isn't quite the same as ordering an admiral where to take his aircraft carrier.  Perhaps this is because the President is really just the people's elected zeitgeist, one who is expected to set the tone for the country through his or her leadership.

This all reminds me of a recent Freakonomics podcast (which was in fact an updated reprise of a 2010 podcast).  If you want to know what people as diverse as Don Rumsfeld, Joe Maddon, John Ashcroft and a whole crapload of economists think about the actual power (or lack thereof) of the presidency, check out this March, 2012 episode of Freakonomics Radio.  Rumsfeld's opinions are perhaps the most interesting.  As much as I dislike the guy's personality and politics, he has been either an advisor to or cabinet member for every GOP president since Nixon.

Freakonomics Radio, March 29, 2012 - The Power of the President

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Potholes In My Lawn

There's a Philly story getting around and on the national news.  The gist is this - a coffee shop owner and developer named Ori Feibush kept bugging the city to take better care of an adjacent abandoned lot and eventually built what looks like a patio behind his shop.  He's maintaining the lot, he put a lot of money into it.  The City said something to the effect of "you can't do that, we're suing you for trespassing etc.,"  City looks bad.

Here's my take on it, having worked for a while in affordable housing development in Philly - much of the time dealing with vacant land.

It's easy to say "This guy is trying to make things better and the city is preventing him from doing so."   It's not so simple.  The City is not just wantonly punishing do-gooders - they actually have a pretty good plan when it comes to vacant land, and under very difficult circumstances.

What the city is trying to do is take this vacant land which they probably inherited from a private citizen or company because somebody abandoned it or stopped paying taxes on it) and try to redevelop it in a way that's best for the economic vitality of the neighborhood and at a profit to the city and its stakeholders. It doesn't always work out that way, but fact of the matter is that it's not Feibush's call. He is right to demand better maintenance on it, but he can't put physical improvements on something that doesn't belong to him.

I looked up the properties in question on the Bureau of Revision and Taxes website.  The lot appears to be three properties at 20th and Annin Streets, addressed 2002-2006.  One is owned by the city (since 1976), one by a developer and one by a private indivudial.  The private entities bought them in the 2000s, likely as investments for future development.

So the City has had this land for almost 40 years.  The neighborhood is finally a desirable place to do development.  Most likely, the City and various neighborhood associations will wait for some development plans to come from the private developers and weigh in with planning commission and neighborhood association concerns during the permitting and zoning processes.  Then, the City will try to sell the land and consolidate it with whatever project might be going on.  As you can tell, they aren't in the business of rushing this sort of thing.

Fortunately, over the last decade or so, the City has started to treat vacant land as more of an "asset."  They maintain it much better than before, mainly to keep from draining value from adjacent properties.  They have a partnership with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society that allows them to do so.  Anybody who has seen a mowed lot or split rail fencing along a vacant property knows of the effect of the program.  There are still big problems with land consolidation, undervaluation and red tape, but there have been vast improvements and they are considered relatively innovative nationally.

Whether the City was maintaining the 20th and Annin lot to appropriate standards, I don't know.  But what I do know is that you can't just build on stuff you don't own and then throw a fit when the owner has a problem with it.  This is the "you can pick your nose, you can pick your friends, you can't pick your friend's nose" thing.  Just because the City doesn't clean a lot to your specifications or coffee-shop-launch timetables doesn't mean you can call yourself a martyr when you pour a new sidewalk on public property and get yelled at for it.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Cover Story in Philadelphia Weekly

After a several year hiatus, I made my return this week to the Philadelphia Weekly.  Did it in style too, with a cover story about a Philadelphia activist software developer and his Shazam-like app for deciphering political advertisement provenance.

Check it out:  Fact Attack (Philadelphia Weekly)

Oh Shit, There's A Horse In The Hospital

Today I read a piece by Matthew Yglesias on, in which Yglesias asserts that countries that prioritize the export of their music and artistic culture are gaining on the US.  Admittedly, it's kind of off-the-cuff and jokey, but nonetheless, an interesting topic to discuss (though, admittedly, it's difficult to argue with somebody who makes half his points in jest and half in seriousness).  He specifically cites Sweden and Canada, and mentions their active efforts to promote their music internally and abroad through subsidy, support, and health care.  He makes no real analysis of changes in international market share over time, so I can't really treat it as a comparative argument per se.

Here's an excerpt:

I assume things like true single-payer universal health care systems are good for the music sector. Here in the US, if you decide to work part-time at a proper job in order to have more time to devote to artistic pursuits then not only do you have to get by on a low income (which happens everywhere) you're going to find it extremely difficult to get proper health insurance. That's simply a huge risk to be taking for your life, since if you happen to develop a serious illness you'll then be unable to get coverage for it in the future even if you abandon your aspirations in favor of a more traditional career. A band in Canada or Sweden doesn't have that problem.

My problem is not with a suggestion that there is value in subsidizing potential cultural ambassadorship as a sort of economic vanguard into international markets, I just don't really see anything beyond a conjecture of its value.  It doesn't really speak to the larger idea of protectionism either.  However, the broader issue of healthcare-as-competitive-advantage is always worth examining.

As a professional musician/artist, I sure wish I could get affordable healthcare.  Before I was married and invited into the arbitrary club of entitled persons (by the sexually transmitted hetero method), my healthcare was basically a bankruptcy protection plan.  I used it way less than I should have because I had to come out of pocket - I got some cavities, I overpaid for basic care because I did not have group-negotiated rates.  My equivalents in Canada probably didn't have these problems.

Europe has been subsidizing musicans and artists for years but my gut tells me that the overall balance of cultural export from the US remains the same. That is to say, there is still a huge trade imbalance in our favor. Look at the film industry - just because we have thousands of actors working in LA as waiters doesn't mean we aren't making the vast majority of the world's blockbuster hits.

I don't think people were chalking up the 1960s British invasion to the NHS. You can argue that the broad class of under and uninsured people in the US are an economic drain on our healthcare system.  You can argue that there is a disincentive to behave entrepreneurially if healthcare is prohibitively expensive as an individual.  You can frame it in humanistic terms, e.g. "it's not nice to let artists and other unconventionally employed people suffer because they works solo."  But you can't frame in terms of international macro-economics unless you have data.  That said, I'm kind of interested to hear somebody opine on whether Drake put Cappadonna out of work.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Shoutout to Crazy Pills

HuffPo: "Allen West: I've 80 House Democrats Are Communist Party Members"

Not really sure who this Allen West character thinks he is, but he seems just like the kind of guy we could use on the campaign trail against Truman this fall. Although it's possible he was just in Florida lobbying to be manager of the Marlins.

Another day in Florida I suppose.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ties That Bind

Interesting article by Rachael Levy on Slate about issues of ethnic and religious identity in France. The basic gist is that ethnic identity is supposed to subsume French identity, which is pretty different from the American idea that you can be a [something]-American. Therefore, French identity, which was created prior to the emergence of a French multi-ethnic society, is essentially code for "ethnic and religious majority French." Minorities are expected to assimilate or they are aggressively "othered" and contextualized as non-French. Most famously, the question as to weather Dreyfuss could have truly been both French and Jewish was answered in the negative in the early 20th century.

That is basically a permutation on the issue of French identity for Muslims in recent years, but the Toulouse shootings brought the Jewish angle to the fore. I am constantly confronted with striking similarities in the way modern Muslims as compared to frequent historical (and sadly, sometimes current current) instances of anti-Semitism.

It's a reminder that as Muslims and Jews, our differences often blind us to our broad and important similarities.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

My neighborhood brew-pub, Dock Street, is asking local graphic designers to enter a competition to design their newest t-shirt. After they receive the designs, staff and facebook group members will vote for a winner. The winning designer receives some limited edition beer, four t-shirts and exposure to any potential clients who may be paying attention to the voting. Oh, and what the Dock Street site calls "bragging rights."

I have a better idea - stop pretending that you are doing somebody a favor by printing their design on your t-shirt and stop pretending that a handful of beers and a t-shirt are worth anything at cost and just PAY A WORTHY DESIGNER TO CREATE A T-SHIRT DESIGN. It's really transparent to suggest that you are doing anybody a favor - you are Dock Street, a small neighborhood business. The scale of your business does not allow for your crowd-sourcing to reach so many people that the winner of the contest is sure to get tangible free marketing from this.

If you want to be a good neighbor, how about you ask if there are any graphic designers from West Philly (there are tons), and you stimulate your local economy with something that they can spend wherever t-shirts and limited edition beers are not accepted as currency.

You will also get a much better product, because when you pay somebody to design something for you, you can tell them exactly what you want and then they make it to your specifications. But if there's anything we know about business in the 21st Century, it's that everybody wants everything for free.

Crowdsourcing, the act of outsourcing a task to some general and broad population, seems like a slick, 21st century way to do business. Seems like some folks think they can get some kind of cool points for just dropping words they heard Kai Ryssdal use. The only way around this model, in this case, is to tell any graphic designers you know that they ought to keep a little self respect and spend the time they could have spent on Dock Street out there finding clients who pay for good work.

For posterity, since the contest information is on the Dock Street "events" page and there is no permanent post with a URL with the contest rules, here's a screengrab, which contains the awesome line "just for fun and to get your name out there!"