Monday, May 24, 2010

Calvin & Hobbes on Miranda rights

Maybe old John McCain has a point after all?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Using a marketing perspective to predict LeBron’s next destination

To figure out where LeBron is going to play in 2010-11, you need only look at this picture of him:

Disregard all the non-Bill Simmons sports analysts you’ve been reading. The picture above shows that LeBron will indeed be returning to Cleveland next year. And in fact, I’m going to predict that he signs with Cleveland for less money so they can build a better team.

Seeing LeBron in his sweater-and-hipster-glasses get-up--and I mean this in a good way--it makes me think he's trying to craft an image for a specific variety of American--specifically, members of the hip 18-35 middle class who have the disposable income to buy his stuff. If we know two things about LeBron James's personality, it's that he wants to be loved, and he's a good marketer. Bron Bron has already cultivated a likable, clean, and decidedly un-gangster image that has endeared him to mainstream America. And what better way to cement that image than to stick with Cleveland and be known as the guy who turned down more money in order to bring a championship to his hometown team? It brands him the ultimate good guy in basketball.

Some have argued that if LeBron wants the spotlight, he’ll head to the big city lights of New York or New Jersey. But they’re forgetting one thing: he’s LeBron James. As one of the most famous athletes on the planet, the marginal increase in his celebrity from moving out of slow-paced Cleveland to a media circus like New York is essentially zero. In other words, when you're an international celebrity, the size of the local media market is pretty irrelevant.

So with apologies to the Knicks, Nets, Heat, Clips, Bulls, Mavs (personally, I’d like to see LeBron put his Mavericks jersey on), and all the other monosyllabic teams vying for him: my bet is that LeBron opts to brand himself as “the good guy who refused to abandon his hometown team. LeBron is sticking with the Cavs, for better or for worse. Unless he comes to the Wizards to hang out with other hipster glasses on U Street.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Economic insanity at the grocery store

Today I walked into the Giant grocery store across the street from my apartment to buy some strawberries. But something struck me as strange: while one pound of strawberries cost $2.99, the two pound package cost a whopping $6.99—more than twice as much!

Never in my life have I seen a business charging you MORE to buy more of its product. Either Giant has stumbled upon some economic law (or magic) that can somehow justify a volume markup (in which case it’s time to buy up Giant’s stock), or Giant's shoppers are extraordinarily bad at math—and the store is only too happy to part them from their cash.

UPDATE- A friend alerted me to a third possibility: this could make an excellent arbitrage opportunity. Find a bunch of empty two pound baskets, buy up all the one-pounders, load the strawberries into the two-pound baskets, and return them to the store, enjoying the $1 per basket profit. Of course, the obvious issues here are (1) Giant doesn't take returns of fresh fruit, and (2) they'd see the one-pound packages on the receipt and know what I was up to. Nevertheless, it's a good quality to have: a nose trained to sniff out arbitrage opportunities will lead one day to riches.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Please somebody ban the phrase "judicial activism"

Nothing bores me quite like a Supreme Court nomination. The opposition party questions the nominee's credentials. The credentials come out to be impeccable. Pro-lifers or pro-choicers wave their arms around. After some formalities, the nominee eventually gets confirmed. *YAWN*

That said, there is a phrase that gets me to no end in these debates, and that's "judicial activism."

Opponents of activism typically say something like "it's the judge's job to interpret the law, not to make the law." Conservatives accuse liberal justices of "legislating from the bench." Liberals counter with statistics showing that actually, conservative justices overturn more laws.

The truth is, "judicial activism" is one of those topics where everyone is wrong (except me), because the phrase itself is a meaningless term. The idea that there is a single, True meaning of a law has no basis in reality, because ultimately, the meaning of any text is up to some human's interpretation. How do you interpret a law's meaning without making some kind of value judgment? What is the "true" meaning of a term like "cruel and unusual punishment"? Answer: it's up to someone's interpretation.

Simply put, there is no logical way to claim that one judge is more activist than another, because any time you interpret something, you are committing an interpretive act. The phrase "judicial activism" is a tautology, and I could follow judicial nominations happily if it were dropped from political discourse.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Love that dirty water: Time to invest in infrastructure

The other day I was talking to someone who works for an advocacy group dedicated to ramping up infrastructure investment. He said that the major reason efforts have been slow so far is because infrastructure just isn't "sexy."

Well there's not much less sexy than untreated pond water coming out of your faucet. Amazingly, thanks to a catastrophically burst water line, that's the situation 2 million Bostonians find themselves in:

Nearly 2 million residents of Greater Boston lost their supply of clean drinking water when a huge pipe abruptly burst yesterday, prompting authorities to declare a state of emergency and to impose a sweeping order for homeowners and businesses to boil the untreated water now flowing from their taps.

Governor Deval Patrick said residents in Boston and 29 other communities east of Weston should boil water for at least a minute before drinking it to avoid the risk of getting sick. He also asked bottled water companies and the National Guard to help make clean water available to residents in the affected communities.

The crisis began around 10 a.m. [Saturday] when a 10-foot-wide pipe in Weston sprang a leak, which worsened throughout the afternoon and eventually cut off Greater Boston from the Quabbin Reservoir, where most of its water supply is stored.

Maybe this will bring some public attention to America's infrastructure crisis.

The other interesting angle on this story is from a friend of mine in the area:

What amazes me is that people are fighting each other for bottled water and waiting in 2 mile car lines for 3+ hours to get water, when you can just boil a few gallons in about 10 mins and be all set for a couple of days. I shudder at the thought of how people would behave in an actual emergency.

Score one for the bottled water marketers.

Of course the real crisis is that Dunkin Donuts was unable to serve coffee. Panic!

Government is the problem until you need a solution: some belated thoughts on the BP-Transocean oil catastrophe

As black oil oozes toward Louisiana's coast, it's worth remembering what the state's governor said a year ago deriding the federal government's role in disaster relief:

Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us.

Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina -- we have our doubts...

The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens. We are grateful for the support we have received from across the nation for the ongoing recovery efforts. This spirit got Louisiana through the hurricanes and this spirit will get our nation through the storms we face today...

Democratic leaders in Washington -- they place their hope in the federal government. We place our hope in you, the American people. In the end, it comes down to an honest and fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government. We oppose the National Democratic view that says the way to strengthen our country is to increase dependence on government. We believe the way to strengthen our country is to restrain spending in Washington, to empower individuals and small businesses to grow our economy and to create jobs.

Today, not only has government rescued us from the economic storm, but another disaster--this one caused by very large businesses that were empowered to grow their earnings from the ocean deep--has put Louisiana's coasts in its cross-hairs, forcing Governor Jindal to beg the federal government for help:

Governor Jindal today met with DHS Sec. Napolitano, Dept. of Interior Sec. Salazar, EPA Administrator Jackson, White House Energy Dir. Browner, Coast Guard's Admiral Landry, and BP officials at the Shell Robert Training & Conference Center in Robert, LA. The Governor received an update on the efforts to respond to the oil spilling into the Gulf and stressed the need for federal support resources that have already been requested by the state from federal agencies.

Governor Jindal said, “I appreciate Secretary Salazar, Secretary Napolitano and Secretary Jackson for coming down to Louisiana and seeing first-hand the response efforts. As I told the President yesterday, we’re urging the federal government and BP to deploy more resources to help mitigate the impact of the oil spill that is threatening the coast of our state...

I do have concerns that BP’s current resources are not adequate to meet the three challenges we face and I have urged them to seek more help.”

Well well well, look who's come crawling back.

Okay, that's too snarky for a serious situation. Truth be told, I applaud Governor Jindal's change of heart--and I mean that. The reason is that Governor Jindal has learned a key lesson the hard way--a lesson that's so far eluded his tea party compatriots. The lesson, simply put, is that for some problems, government is the only viable solution.

It's not that government can solve all our problems. It can't. I agree with the Governor that in most cases, the strength of our nation is found in our people and businesses rather than our government. But there are some problems that are too big for compassionate individuals--and too unprofitable for enterprising businesses--to address. In other cases problems result from a failure of collective action, in which behaviors beneficial to individuals cause collective harm to the group. And it's in these situations that government has to step in.

Hurricane Katrina was the epitome of such disasters: an act of Nature brought on by no fault or laziness of the people it devastated, and which wrought destruction on a scale beyond the capacity of individuals and businesses to cope.

Similarly, the BP-Transocean oil volcano seems likely to outstrip the resources of even the world's 4th largest company, threatening unmitigated disaster to the innocent inhabitants of the Gulf Coast--human and otherwise. And unfortunately, as Governor Jindal is finding out, it seems the federal government will have to play a larger role in cleaning up BP's mess than any of us would like it to in an ideal world.

(Of course, disaster mitigation isn't the government's only tool for preventing oil spills from reaching the shore--a far easier solution is preventing such drilling in the first place. Then again, prevention's a tough strategy when then-Representative Jindal was busy sponsoring the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act of 2006 (H.R. 4761)to open even more ocean to drilling. Maybe that's one he wants to reconsider as well).

The bottom line: None of us wants a bailout (at least those of us who are not publicly-traded investment banks), and no one enjoys having the government tell them what to do. No one wants to beg the government for help, and few find life on the dole fulfilling. But sometimes there's no other way to solve a problem than government action--when disaster strikes, it's just a little more obvious.

Is it not the fundamental role of government to protect its citizens from external threats, whether imposed by a foreign army, a profit-seeking company, or Nature herself? If Tea Partiers decry the role of the government in responding to disasters like Katrina and BP-Transocean (Rush Limbaugh, for instance, said that the oil spill should be "left alone and left out there"), then what exactly do they think government should do? Besides torture, tap phones, and harass Hispanics, of course.


Yes, government creates jobs

Fight Club and coal company death panels: the value of a statistical life