Monday, June 30, 2008

Point-Counterpoint: Will the real Obama please stand up?

Point, by Peter:

“To take a stand, to be passionate--ira et studium--is the politician's element, and above all the element of the political leader…Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say 'In spite of all!' has the calling for politics.”
- Max Weber “Politics as a Vocation”

I am still an Obama supporter…but I am now officially worried.

Not too long ago, I whole-heartedly believed that Obama was the one to turn this country around. I was confident that he was a politician who would refuse to “play the game,” who would not “triangulate,” who would not cave to special interests. And for a while, he lived up to those expectations. He talked straight about the stupidity of the gas tax holiday; he stood up to the warmongers and said “Yes, I will negotiate with Ahmadinejad”; he raised piles of money from average Joes making him less susceptible to the influence of special interest money; he embraced campaign finance reform. The electorate then gave him the incentive to continue down this path when they voted for him over Clinton, the say-anything-to-win candidate who voted for the war in Iraq in order to appear tough, and sponsored a bill making flag-burning illegal in order to appear patriotic. She was the pander candidate; he was the independent thinker.

So what, I ask, is happening to Obama and his spine?

The first clue that Obama might not have what it takes to “change politics in Washington” (as they say) came when he talked of “renegotiating NAFTA” while one of his aids, behind closed doors, told the Canadians not to worry because it was only campaign posturing. Then came his embarrassing speech in front of AIPAC in which he endorsed the saber-rattling tactics towards Iran championed by the neocons in the Bush administration when he said: “ ... There is no greater threat to Israel or peace than Iran... [M]y goal will be to eliminate this threat.” Eliminate? Sounds like Bush-speak to me. Such inflammatory rhetoric is a shocking about-face when compared to his earlier talk of a less belligerent American foreign policy. And now we have a whole host of further caves—all within the span of just a few weeks. They include: 1.) questioning the Supreme Court’s anti-death penalty ruling; 2.) supporting the Supreme Court’s anti-gun control ruling; 3.) voting for the bill that gives telecommunications companies immunity when they help the government spy on Americans; and, last but not least, 4.) backing out of public campaign financing, the centerpiece of the campaign finance bill he previously endorsed.

What, I wonder, will be left of the Obama I dreamed of voting for when November 2nd finally rolls around? With all due respect to Vince Lombardi…in politics, winning isn’t everything. If Obama wants to earn my vote, he must show that he has the guts to stand up for his principles.

Counterpoint, by Dan:

Peter, thank you for your thoughts on this. I’m sure you are giving voice to what a lot of Obama’s progressive supporters feel. But not this progressive supporter. The fact is, Peter, Obama does not have to show that he has the guts to stand up for his principles to earn your vote, and you know it, and he knows it, you both know that you both know it. There’s a limit to this way of thinking, but as you acknowledge, he hasn’t come particularly close to reaching it yet.

What I’m looking for in a Democratic President is the ability to inspire millions of Americans to believe that government isn’t a bad thing, to convincingly communicate the core political ideas of the left, and to thereby promote a shift in the ideological posture of the government, and of the people towards the government. That’s what will get the ball rolling. Just because it feels good to make progress on that front does not mean that it is anything other than a strategic objective, and that it shouldn’t be thought about as a strategic enterprise.

The decision to decline public financing is one of which I particularly approve. I don’t think there’s any valid ethical argument that he should take public financing. No, that’s not quite right – if he said he was going to when he thought he was poor, and now that’s he rich he’s changed his mind, then yes, that raises a valid ethical problem with the decision. Still, candidates for office are most definitely allowed to say they’re going to do something and then do the other thing. What we hope for in those circumstances is that they explain themselves. Obama’s explanation was disingenuous, it’s true – I would have rather he used his awesome rhetorical skill to say what he means to America, which is something that he has done with more candor and forthrightness than any other national politician I’ve ever seen, and which was, in the instance of Iran last summer, when he stuck to his guns about being open to talking with Ahmadinejad, the reason I first decided to vote for him. In this case, that might have taken the form of a more eloquent version of “well, I’m not going to try to win the presidency with $80M when I could try to win it with $300M.”

Being a good politician means being able to convince people that you are right when you don’t agree – that’s political leadership – but it also means having a good sense of when you are able to do that and when you aren’t. I’m sorry, but it means picking your battles. Sometimes I wish politicians who I support would fight fights that they choose not to fight, but the public financing issue isn’t one of them. I’m not even sure what the argument is that has Obama competing according to rules that he wishes governed the process, as opposed to those that actually do. His job is to win the presidency without breaking the rules – both the letter and spirit, sure.

Winning isn’t everything, but losing ends up being the only thing.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Campaign Finance Less-form

Yesterday, the Supreme Court stuck down the so-called “millionaire’s amendment” to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. The amendment basically said that when a candidate for congress is facing a self-funding rich person, he or she can raise money from individual donors in increments up to $6900, which is triple the usual limit of $2300. In a 5-4 decision, the highest court in the land said this was too meddlesome.

The highest court in my head also returns a 5-4 decision – it’s close, but I go the other way.

The elephant in the campaign finance room is the Buckley v. Valeo decision from 1976, which basically said that political money equals political speech. But only sometimes. Money does not equal speech when you are spending it on someone else’s campaign, it only equals speech when you are spending it on your own campaign. This makes some sense – it seems like a more serious restriction on speech to say you can’t pay for advertising to tell people about yourself than to say that you can’t pay for advertising about someone else. But the admission that it must be constitutional to limit spending money to advertise about someone else admits either that money isn’t exactly speech, or that clean elections are a public good that can sometimes compete with free speech. Both are probably true to some extent. Either way, saying nothing about the just-ness of the Buckley decision, it draws a line with the pen of judgment, making it somewhat arbitrary.

But if we’re going to draw the line there, then you have to wrestle with the gaping hole in fairness that is rip-open-able by rich people, who are much more likely to be able to become elected representatives by virtue of the fact that they can buy it. Not good. Not good at all. If we aren’t going to allow lawmakers to limit spending by individuals on their own campaigns, and if we aren’t happy with rich people having an advantage in elections by virtue of being rich, there are really a limited number of options left on the table. The millionaire’s amendment is one of them. A strong system of public financing is another.

Alito's argument, writing for the majority, is that you can’t have different contribution rules based on the different strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. Let’s admit it; that’s a damn good point. $2300 when you are running against John and $6900 when you are running against Jim is trouble, and we want to do as little of that kind of thing as possible. I’m not sure the millionaire’s amendment takes the right approach. But if we insist on the money-speech connection, there is no simple outcome that is 100% democratically satisfying. The millionaire’s amendment is not free of arbitrary-ness, but neither is Buckley. The majority is right to be troubled by the millionaire’s amendment. But I think they are wrong not to be at least as troubled by the fact that, in 2006, the average net worth of the 435 US House members was about $5 million.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sorry, Sorry and Economics, Economics

This would have more credibility had we posted it earlier, but we're coming up on our 100th post and have been trying to figure out a redesign and relaunch of the site. So, please forgive, and stay tuned.

I also have two random economics thoughts, one topical and one not.

Topical: Exxon v. Baker, one of yesterday's Supreme Court decisions, addressed a popular topic in the area of tort reform - punitive damages. In a lawsuit, most damages tend to be compensatory; that is to say, they compensate the plaintiff for losses, be they physical, financial, or even intangible. A punitive damage is levied on top of compensatory ones, because of the egregious behavior of the defendant. Maybe you already know this. In any case. Exxon addressed the reasonableness of punitive damages (in the test case, stemming from the Valdez spill), and ultimately provided a curiously mathy standard for it - a maximum ratio of 1:1 (punitive: compensatory).
But perhaps a bigger source of un-reasonableness in punitive damages, bigger than confusion about their limits, is the nature of their payment. (I'd like to issue a caveat here, and that is punitive damages probably aren't awarded all that often, and worries about them, especially from right-of-center tort attackers, tend to strike me as bogeymanesque.) They are paid to the plaintiff by the defendant, just as compensatory damages would be. This is a little off, I think. The plaintiff, already having been compensated for losses both concrete and intangible, has no further claim on the punitive damages. Rather, the punitive damages need only be paid by the defendant, to punish him; they don't need to be paid to any one person. The requirements of justice are simply that he forgo such-and-such amount of money. So who should get it? Well, when we seek to punish egregious behavior beyond its economic costs, we're treating the egregiousness as a negative externality. It is a cost borne by society - therefore, the public should get it. What would that do? I think so long as a plaintiff's attorney is getting a 40% contingency on that amount, it won't really affect how often they're requested or awarded. But there is something grotesque about a private plaintiff's attorney getting such a big chunk of the public's money. Maybe we'd need a cap too.

Nontopical: Dares as a Veblen good. A Veblen good is one which demand has a direct, instead of the typically inverse, relationship to price. A Veblen good tends to be something snobby, something where greater price leads to greater sales because people like its expensiveness. What do I mean by calling dares a Veblen good? Well, let me back up. I've started a new job and I'm back in a writers' room - a place of many food dares. It occurred to me, when I was asked how much it would take for me to drink a quart of fat free half-and-half, that the number of dares you'd do for free is probably greater than the number you'd do for just one dollar. In other words, there are some dares you'd do for free, but as soon as payment gets involved, $1 is insulting, and you wouldn't do them again until the price was raised to, oh, depending on your station in life, $5. You're losing, not gaining utility, from dollars 1 through 4, and the supply curve has a little dip in it at the beginning.

Since this is on the low end and not the high end, and since it's about supply (of dares) rather than demand (for Cristal), maybe we need a term other than "Veblen good." Suggestions? Did you make it this far in the post?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Electoral Math I

Finally, an election that makes sense! Enough of this electing 75% of delegates to county, then state, then national conventions, and apportioning their allocation sometimes by popular vote, sometimes by popular vote in congressional districts, sometimes by caucus, and sometimes by all three, with the remaining 25% allowed to exercise their judgment outside of the normal one-person-one-vote strictures. God, that was confusing and open to interpretation. No, give me a straightforward, no-nonsense, small-state over-weighted apportionment of electors to an electoral college that picks the President. Simple, even.

So here’s what we’re gonna do. I’ve thrown together this spreadsheet, which is now a google spreadsheet, and you can go download it and play around with it. It’s a list of states, with their number of electoral votes, and you can move them around between the two candidates to see what happens to the total – ie, who gets crowned president. Make sure to check out the various tabs, which represent different scenarios. But first I’ll tell you what I’ve found, so you’ll have something to refute.

As you can see if you go to the spreadsheet, I’ve divided things up into two groups – states that are in play, and states that aren’t. That’s not to say that Obama couldn’t win Alabama, it just means that this exercise is pointless if Obama wins Alabama, because he’d also win almost everything else.

Let’s start with your garden-variety Bush-Kerry redux - give Obama New Mexico and Iowa, but keep everything else the same. Obama’s supposed rust belt problem keeps him from taking Ohio, but doesn’t hurt him enough to lose Pennsylvania, and his potential strength in the interior west and/or south never really materializes. This is, in some ways, the most conservative map we could imagine. McCain wins it by a slim margin – just one Colorado, Missouri, or Virginia would be enough to change the result. But those are tough gets in a tight race.

Now let’s shake things up. What if those same rust belt problems cost Obama either Michigan or Pennsylvania, which have 17 and 21 votes respectively? In that case, he needs to show some real strength in the west and the plains. He wouldn’t necessarily need all of Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia, but he’s need four of them. And not the four that doesn’t include Virginia – the largest of the group at 13. And if he loses BOTH MI and PA? Well, then he’d have to make like Columbus and capture North Carolina or Georgia, as well as all the above. New map shnew map, I don’t want to count on Georgia. Georgia? You think Ty Cobb, godresthissoul, would vote for Obama?

Al Gore and John Kerry made the Mason-Dixon line look like the DMZ, and since Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada all together have fewer votes than any one of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, everything other than those three was more or less molding – win two out of those three, and you had the White House. Obama may struggle in Democratic strongholds, however, and threaten hostile territory elsewhere, making the map much more fluid than in the past. I’d love to see some Pickle readers playing around with the numbers and sharing their take…

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Happy Loving Day!

Picked up from Pickle Reader Julie James' gchat message thing (can someone please coin a pithy name for that thing?), this surely must be the most underapreciated holiday, well, at least in June:

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What Goes Around

The fact that I put $80.08 worth of gas in my car (very large tank) yesterday has me thinking, like everyone else across the planet, about fuel efficiency. You probably already know some of the basics - 55 mph, take 'er easy on the AC (although if the only alternative is rolling down the windows, the added aerodynamic drag can actually make AC the more efficient option).
But it also turns out a great way to tackle aggregate fuel efficiency is the replacement of traffic-lighted intersections with roundabouts (traffic circles). As you recall from your high school physics, accelerating something takes a great deal more force - and therefore more fuel - than maintaining its speed. So a good traffic scheme minimizes braking and acceleration, which is what you have in a roundabout.
This page cites studies that show a roundabout represents about a 30% reduction in emissions (and therefore increased efficiency) compared with the signalized intersection it would replace. It's safer (for motorists and pedestrians) than a signalized intersection as well, because speeds are lower.
This is not to say they are completely without dangers, though:

Postscript. Maybe everyone knows this already, because my googling for this post shows me there was a story about it yesterday on no less than All Things Considered.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Kindle or Kindling?

A special treat for the Pickle today: The debut, in full-post form if not in comment form – of Sarah Rotman Epps. Sarah is a media analyst at Forrester Research, and she often teaches me fascinating and insightful things about media, communications, the internet, and the world. Accordingly, when I read Krugman’s column about the Amazon Kindle this morning – re-raising the profound question “whither the book?” – I wondered if Sarah might have some thoughts she’s like to share. She did. Here they are:

Hello Pickle Nation. I agree with the central premise that the economics of content are swinging largely towards free for consumers and ad-supported; it's the subject of Long Tail author Chris Anderson's new book.

It's not true that all content has to be free; I'm working on a market sizing now that shows that consumers do pay for certain things (case in point: Rock Band song downloads, 7M of which have sold so far). But this is certainly the exception and not the rule. Even the videogame industry is experimenting with free, full-length ad-supported games to adjust to the rampant piracy of PC games (example: Battlefield, a major release from EA).

As for whether Kindle will be a game-changer for eBooks, I don't know. According to Forrester's data, only 5% of US consumers own or have used an eBook device (Kindle or otherwise). People who have used it give it rave reviews; they love the paper-quality screen and the ability to download books in real time. But the appeal of the device right now is for tech-optimist early adopters who also like to read; there's another fairly sizable segment (34% of US online consumers, according to Forrester's data) that "reads a lot, but prefers real books" (I personally am in this group; the last thing my book needs is a battery and I do really like paper, however nostalgic that may be--call me Clarisse from Fahrenheit 451; I'd rather be her than Mildred.).

Pickle readers, we'd love to hear your thoughts--are you a Clarisse or a Mildred? Have you used the Kindle? Do you need another battery-operated device in your life?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

How much is 4.5 million?

Flipping through my NYT this morning, I noticed that Toyota has an ad proclaiming their millionth Prius sold. Which they claim means that 4.5 million tons of CO2 emissions have been avoided. How much is that? Let's put it in perspective.

Well, in what I think is one of the clearest, simplest, most useful academic formulations of the scope of the climate challenge, Robert Socolow from Princeton uses the concept of the "stabilization wedge." The basic idea is that business-as-usual sees the atmosphere's CO2 intensity climbing through mid-century, but we actually need it reduced by mid-century, so if you can picture it in your mind or click on the link, on a graph of CO2 intensity on the y-axis and time on the x-axis, three points form a triangle: where we are now, where we are headed, and where we need to be headed. Things we do to reduce CO2 emissions can be thought of as wedges taken out of that triangle. The good news is that Socolow identifies enough existing technologies that can be deployed on a large enough scale to cover the necessary stabilization wedges. The bad news is that none of them are very easy at all. You can of course chop it up any way you see fit, but Socolow defines one stabalization wedge as 1 billion tons of CO2 avoided per year by 2050 - that is, by 2050, whatever you did to get that wedge has to be saving you 1 gigaton of CO2 emissions every year. We need somewhere between 10 and 20 of those.

So where does that millionth Prius leave us? 4.5 million tons is about one half of one percent of a wedge. Oh, and that's only if it's all CO2 avoided in a single year. Which it isn't. Happy Thursday.

No no, I shouldn't do that. The good news is that hybrid sales have accelerated every year, so I'm guessing that, if their 4.5 million figure is accurate (who knows, it's advertisement), the existing Prius fleet is probably saving something like 2 or 3 megatons a year right now. And the fleet is growing. And hybrids are getting cheaper and better. So this is really just another data point with the same bottom line: we can beat this, but we really really need to get on it. Think kitchen sink, people. Kitchen sink.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

It's hard not to be snarky today...

Here at The Pickle we try to look forward, not back. But given the difference between what actually happened last night and what would have happened had Hillary conceded that Barack will be the nominee and left the VP shenanigans for another day, it doesn't seem too indulgent to relay what Pickle contributor Sarah Rotman Epps* pointed out about last night:

Compare the video footage of Hillary hugging Bill vs. Obama hugging Michelle after their respective speeches. You can read their lips and see what they're saying.

Hillary to Bill: "Thank you."
Bill to Hillary: "You're welcome."

Michelle to Obama: "I love you."
Obama to Michelle: "I love you too."

Of course, Michelle's name is Obama also, but we'll let that slide. The important thing is that we're being snarky. It reminds me of my comment from Super Tuesday about how the McCains looked creepy hugging onstage, especially when contrasted with last night's Michelle/Barack fist pound.

OK, only general election posts from me from now on...

*Disclosure: Sarah, a media industry analyst and smart cookie, is in negotations with The Pickle on an exclusive 10-post guest blogger series.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Tomorrow's Election in California

I asked my friend Jay Chen, all-around SoCal politico and specifically School Board Member, Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, for his take on Proposition 98 and 99, which are being offered to California voters tomorrow. I thought his response was extremely insightful, and with his permission, here it is:

I think propositions are a bad idea in general. Asking voters to
create laws based on five sentence descriptions, with little thought
to cost or funding, is poor policy. It defeats the purpose of
electing legislators who are supposed to be doing this work for us.
It also gives more power to the wealthy interests that can afford to
pay for signature collecting. So if in doubt I say vote no on the

99 was created to confuse voters from passing 98. 99 doesn't really
change the status quo. 98 can halt some corruption; sometimes you
have private developers who will donate big bucks to politicians, who
will in turn give them land on the cheap to develop that was acquired
through eminent domain. Big developers do stand to gain quite a bit
from eminent domain, and I think 98 will put a clamp on that. Then
again, the developments they create also benefit their surroundings
through increased tax revenues, enhanced property values, and enhanced
quality of life (usually). So I'm not sure it's always a bad thing
for private developers to benefit from eminent domain because their
developments tend to create more benefits down the line.

As for rent control, I think there need to be some adjustments
housing laws to it to make it easier for landlords to get rid of
really bad tenants, but I wouldn't support the complete eradication of
rent control.

Here are some objective views on the two ballots:

If in doubt, just vote no.

**end of transmission**

I particularly agree with Jay's position on propositions in general. I am a better-than-average informed voter, but I certainly don't think I know enough to contribute to decisions on, for example, whether or not to have a bond issue. We're all well aware of the problems with how a bill becomes a law, but at least elected representatives are (ostensibly) informed and educated. Of course, we as a society are disturbingly anti-knowledge and anti-expertise, so I don't suppose we'll be throwing out propositions any time soon.

A "no" vote motivated by skepticism of the process shouldn't be confused with a non-vote coming out of apathy or disgust. A lot of people describe the latter kind of vote as one still having political content. To me, that seems almost definitionally untrue.

Side note: I've learned the perils of moving too fast and posting too much, and that's not what's happening here. So don't get the wrong message; I'm not trying to rush things by posting twice in a day. It's just that this is timely. I will return to the desert/oasis model of posting very soon, don't you worry.

Dropping Some Marine Science

I really enjoyed this op-ed, appearing in yesterday’s NYT, urging a greater public understanding of science. (I hesitate to start off with that because I feel all I ever link to are NYT articles.)

Angelenos, if you’re looking for a way to expand your understanding of science, but also maybe music or poetry or design, then go east, young man, to the Machine Project (here in Echo Park).

I went to their program on Friday – it was a lecture on sea slugs, followed by a performance from an electronica-ish band that had composed a song about sea slugs for the occasion. It was gratis, and fascinating. Did you know:

-There are some sea slugs that eat sea anemones and jellyfish, and their digestive systems isolate the nematocysts (the stinging cells that cover these animals’ tentacles), and don’t digest them, so that the slug can collect them and use them for itself!

-On the other side of the dietary spectrum, some sea slugs that eat algae can isolate the chloroplasts (the organelles within plant cells where photosynthesis is carried out), not digest them, and collect them and use them, i.e. live off the energy created by the continuing photosynthesis! And there’s a twist. Chloroplasts are similar to mitochondria in that they have their own DNA, but a chloroplast does not contain all of the DNA it requires to function – it would soon die if removed from the cell. Enter the retrovirus. There is a retrovirus that infects these algae-eating sea slugs that provides them with the extra DNA required to extend the life of the stolen chloroplasts for up to nine months. Eventually the retrovirus taketh away by killing the slug, but what a ride.

-Sea slugs are all simultaneous hermaphrodites, possessing both male and female sex organs at the same time. There is a particular kind of slug (actually the algae-eating kind referenced above) that has sex in an awfully violent way, using a method called hypodermic insemination. The penis of the slug is tipped with a needle, which it jams into any slug it can find (sometimes the wrong species, and sometimes itself), injecting sperm directly into the body of its mate, into any location on the mate’s body. The sperm then swim through the body of the mate, eventually making their way to the egg.

Past programs of the Machine Project include Build Your Own Robot, and Etymology & Entomology (two speakers, one on language, one on bugs, followed by refreshments of Edamame and Entenmann’s).