Monday, October 31, 2011

Monday Musings of Musingness

It's Monday. I blog. Let's muse.


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Yesterday, in an anonymously (albeit extensively) sourced piece, Politico shed light on prior allegations, probably sexual harassment allegations, against Herman Cain. All that is really known is two employees of the National Restaurant Association were given five figure settlements and left the associations. To which:

The story dropped on Sunday night, right before Cain was scheduled to have a big press day. Clearly this was coordinated by one of the rival campaigns (likely Romney or Perry's). But was this wise. Until/unless one of the women comes forward with damning testimony, this looks like a baseless allegation. Echoes of Anita Hill only help Cain's candidacy with primary voters.

A payout to avoid legal action is far from an admission of guilt. As hush money goes, five figures is small shakes, and might explain...

...Cain's unscripted reaction to the revelation was indignation, which is understandable, but unbecoming of a candidate. If Cain is the eventual nominee, its good he's getting this out of the way now, but if he thinks Obama and his media lapdogs aren't going to pull every gotcha in the book, he's wildly naive.

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In an effort to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street movement, President Obama announce a plan to restructure and forgive student loans. For regular schmoes like you and I, nothing has changed. The changes apply only to loans taken out after 2008. The biggest change is a provision that caps student loan payments to a low percentage of discretionary income and cancels debt after ten years for students who work for government or in the non-profit sector.

This will have the following effects:

- It will effectively provide free education to government sector employees. Who was asking for this? Why should I pay for it? Can anyone defend this?

- It will drive up tuition costs. While a small percentage of graduates find employment in the cutthroat public and non-profit sectors, many idealistic young people BELIEVE they will. They will borrow in accordance with their belief they will not have to repay the vast majority of their loans. That means more demand, which will drive up college costs for our children.

- Existing public sector employees will be forced to acquire more advanced degrees in an effort to remain competitive against a new crop of hyper-educated idealists.

- The forgiven debts will cost trillions of dollars. Here's how that will go. Because Obama is reassigning student debts to the federal government, and those debts won't be forgiven for another decade, he is able to treat this as a profit generator. As such he doesn't need congressional approval. Mark my words, when the bubble bursts (15-17 years from now), and Congress is forced to pay for the mess, Democrats will blame Republicans for the collapse. Lack of regulation.

- Seriously, what the hell?

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I'm late to the game in commenting on the Netflix brouhaha, but I've got opinions, and I think this is part of a broader phenomenon.

What Netflix is trying to do is get customers to pay more for a lower quality product. Usually, this is the sort of effort one expects from a company in its death throes. They raise prices and slash offerings in an attempt to gain some liquidity before declaring bankruptcy or shuttering. Company's will often raise prices, but usually pair the hike with new offerings or, better yet, craft a new offering and wait for users gravitate to it (see: Apple).

Netflix, in an effort to unseat Blockbuster, started offering streaming movies online for free through its existing mail service. Ordinarily, when companies bolster their offering to knock off a competitor, they gradually increase prices. For whatever reason, Netflix did not do this.

So, faced with the need to substantially increase prices, Netflix already faced a problem. However, they compounded the error by trying to kill two birds with one stone. Netflix has made no secret of its desire to phase out mail service entirely. As such, they applied the price hike directly to that offering. This had the (presumably unintended) impact of also quantifying the cost of the streaming service, which most customers regarded as a freebie.

Frankly, unless you have kids and/or no taste, Netflix streaming service is of very little value. And it's getting worse, with the departure of a couple key partners.

Netflix could have achieved a better result had they landed 2-3 key partnerships (a la Warner Brothers) and launched a Netflix Plus service, for an added premium. Using the increased revenues, they could have fortified their library to attract new customers.

Instead, they lost 800,000 subscribers. Further, and more damaging in the long term, they started a discussion about the value of their streaming service. Right or wrong, people are making up their minds about whether the service is valuable, and it's going to take a lot to change their minds.

The lesson: If you build it they will come. If companies work to produce a quality offering, the price point question settles itself. Such is the virtue of free markets. Trying to shoehorn your existing customer base into the product you would rather be offering never works.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Everything I hate about everything

So, there's this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKo6V01_Nk8

Basically, Jamie Wilson, the standup reporter for Fox Portland, expressly sympathizes with the Portland occupiers. To which, a few points:

She blatantly supports the protestors. Objective journalism is a myth. Also, it is not ironic she reports for her local Fox affiliate. Seriously, that's just not how the system goes. Anyone who ties Fox News as a cable channel to local affiliates via bias does not know what they are talking about.

My problem is Jamie, who has chosen an awfully competitive career, laments her expensive education. Look, sweetheart, being on TV doesn't pay well, because for every one of you, there are 10,000 of you.

This goes for social work, non-profit paper shifting, political campaigns, and just about any other job that does not require a particular skill. These jobs are competitive because we have an unskilled workforce that does not enjoy blue collar labor.

If you are pretty enough (Portland goggles) to find yourself on TV, you are not the 99%. You have a job others would die for, and your job is essentially redundant to boot.

If I'm Jamie Wilson, I keep my (Portland) pretty mouth shut and enjoy the ride.

Moneyday Musings

It's Monday. Baby's in day care. Hoping she finally acquires a superpower.

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Barack Obama announced he would be committing our tax dollars to bailing out student loans. That's nice. I'm glad we have a dictatorship model so the President can offer goodies directly to movements he is trying to co-opt.

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Let me be clear; I want Occupy Wall Street to fail. I've heard the spiel about how they have disparate aims, lack a cohesive message, and don't rally around any particular ideology.

So what? What is clear is that they are outraged by perceived injustice, and see the expansion of a government as a remedy. They've lost me right there.

But if they hadn't, I do not at all find it reassuring when a group favors government expansion, but does not know what it wants. Such a group is especially vulnerable to co-option.

I've told I am to disregard my concern, and simply support the group because they oppose "injustice". But I don't think we perceive the same injustices. Economic redistribution qua redistribution is not the same thing, and the unthinking support of that cause has led to some of history's greatest injustices.

Our middle class essentially* has more purchasing power than the middle class of any other country in the world. Is it perfect? No, but there exists the strong possibility the government will make it worse.

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*-Is Luxembourg really a country? Not in any sense material to this discussion**.

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**-Look at their growth industries, for example.

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I feel like the last half of Layla should be playing in the Middle East right now. Next, we're going to find Ahmadinejad in a freezer, hanging on a meat hook.

The best thing about the death of Gaddafi is we no longer have to endure the journalistic parlor game of "spelling Gaddafi's name counter-intuitively". Between this and the death of Usama Bin Laden, fully 10 percent of foreign correspondents will now be forced to retire.

Ironically, now that Obama has done a little bit to earn his Peace Prize, he will never again be considered for one. The key to winning the affections of the Nobel committee is to talk loudly and leave your stick at home.

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Caught Moneyball on Saturday. Some observations:

-A film about the 2002 Oakland Athletics that doesn't mention Barry Zito (who won the Cy Young Award), Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder is a bit like a movie about the 1980s Celtics that makes no mention of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale or Robert Parish. This movie is about the Rosencrantz's and Guildensterns.

-From a Moneyball perspective, trading Carlos Pena to make room for Scott Hatteberg made no sense. Pena was 24, and more productive offensively than Hatteberg had been the prior season. He wound up making less than 1/4th of what the Athletics wound up paying Hatteberg, while being more productive at the plate. The only defense for playing Hatteberg would be the notion a guy hits better when he's not facing the pressure to catch, for which there is no evidence.

-In Hatteberg's defense, the movie makes him out to be an incompetent first basement. He was actually better than Pena, and substantially better than that year's Gold Glove winner (John Olerud for some reason). The transition from catcher to the corners isn't particularly hard; Craig Biggio went from Catcher to 2nd base, won several gold gloves, and actually deserved one of them.

-The 2002 Athletics performed well above their Pythagorean expectation, while the Boston Red Sox and Anaheim Angels performed well below their expectations. In short, the Athletics needed a fair amount of luck to make the playoffs.

-Trading Jeremy Giambi had absolutely nothing to do with Moneyball, and everything to do with the intangibles. The movie basically throws that fact in our face, while eliding it at the same time. At a certain point, the sleight of hand shows contempt for moviegoers.

-Did a real life sportscaster actually suggest the Twins won that playoff series by playing the right kind of baseball? A team that had Christian Guzman and Luis Rivas manning the infield? Even Twins fans will concede that was probably the worst baseball team to ever win a playoff series.

Good movie, but having been aware of the advanced stats movement in baseball for over a decade, it's hard not to notice the fiction component of the non-fiction.

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That's all. Go back to Facebook.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A reasonable critique of an unreasonable critique of the unreasonable

I forthrightly reject reason, I guess.

I should backtrack.

See, there exists a peculiar breed of popular Christian, one who fails to garner influence in broader secular pursuits, and also fails to gain traction in theological circles, but manages to garner acclaim as a sort of human Venn diagram, fusing faith and culture. Some, like Billy Baldwin, endear themselves to the former by criticizing the latter. They are reviled, which is fine.

Others take to the culture to criticize the faith. Rob Bell is the perfect example. A mediocre creative writer, and a nominal Christian thinker, he rose to prominence writing a trifling book questioning the notion of eternal torment. He will now have the opportunity to produce (about six episodes of) a spiritual comic drama in conjunction with the producer of Lost.

Jackpot!

Karl Giberson, a former Physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College, which lists among its prominent alumni, um, Karl Giberson, has carved out a nice little niche on opinion pages nationwide, taking Christians to task for their anti-intellectualism. We are anti-intellectual, you see, because many of us don't agree with him on the issues of evolution and global warming.

Evolution and global warming, of course, are the only extant expressions of human reason. The collective fields of history, philosophy, theology and science, to say nothing of drama and art, have yielded no basis for intellectual inquiry, much as they have tried. We once managed to harness the power of penicilin, but that knowledge was lost to the ages.

Of course, the secular media hues to the theory of evolution and the (highly-political) narrative on global warming, and Giberson has rode the grey duck wave to prominence. For example, there's this. Highlights:

"THE Republican presidential field has become a showcase of evangelical anti-intellectualism. Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann deny that climate change is real and caused by humans. "

But Mitt Romney is the frontrunner, and is the one being showcased.

"The two candidates who espouse the greatest support for science, Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., happen to be Mormons, a faith regarded with mistrust by many Christians. "

This is incoherent. Mitt Romney is the front runner, meaning he has the most support, and does seem to agree with the anthropogenic global warming narrative. However, many Christians mistrust Mormonism. What do those two facts have to do with each other? Are Christians alone in not trusting Mormonism? Is that evidence of being anti-intellectual?

Shouldn't a self-described intellectual be able to craft a succinct opening paragraph? Isn't the ability to frame an argument part and parcel of the expression of human reason?

" The rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism, textbook evidence of an unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious. "

Which again, the evidence for this phenomenon is three candidates for office who doubt the existence of anthropogenic global warming and the fact evangelicals join the vast majority of the free world in mistrusting the tenets of Joseph Smith.

"Evangelicalism at its best seeks a biblically grounded expression of Christianity that is intellectually engaged, humble and forward-looking. In contrast, fundamentalism is literalistic, overconfident and reactionary."

Nothing says humility like taking to the pages of the New York Times to label millions of faithful Christians as anti-intellectual reactionaries. Also, how does literalism stand in opposition to science?

"(evangelicals) have been scarred by the elimination of prayer in schools; the removal of nativity scenes from public places; the increasing legitimacy of abortion and homosexuality; the persistence of pornography and drug abuse; and acceptance of other religions and of atheism.

Is there any evidence evangelicals have been scarred by these phenomena? Certainly the "persistence" (editor: from one intellectual to another, the word you are looking for is "prevalence") of pornography and drug abuse is concerning. I'd like some evidence for the scarring part, though. Granted, Giberson is no scient... Oh, wait. Yeah, I'd like some evidence.

"Evangelicals who disagree, like Francis S. Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, are excoriated on the group’s Web Site. "

Whereas Giberson takes to the New York Times to do his excoriating.

"Though his education consists of a B.A. in religious education from Oral Roberts University and his scholarly blunders have drawn criticism from evangelical historians like John Fea, "

Giberson got his B.A. from, um, Eastern Nazarene College, which is pretty much Oral Roberts' backup school. And his area of expertise is Physics. People in glass houses, Karl.

"A defender of spanking children and of traditional roles for the sexes, he has accused the American Psychological Association, which in 2000 disavowed reparative therapy to “cure” homosexuality, of caving in to gay pressure. "

Whereas intellectuals like Giberson are part of the movement to ban spanking, on the absurd basis there is no difference between spanking your child and beating them. You know, because the failure to distinguish on order of magnitude is reasonable.

"They pepper their presentations with so many Bible verses that their messages appear to be straight out of Scripture; to many, they seem like prophets, anointed by God. "

To whom are men like Dobson regarded as prophets anointed by God? Where is the evidence for this position? What is intellectual about this smear. I meet Giberson's (facile) definition of an anti-intellectual, but I have had plenty negative to say about James Dobson.

By the way, go to Biologos, the organization founded by Giberson, and try to make an argument that is even remotely critical of the man. For someone so decidedly unserious, this dude has some serious adherents.

"Scholars like Dr. Collins and Mr. Noll, and publications like Books & Culture, Sojourners and The Christian Century, offer an alternative to the self-anointed leaders. They recognize that the Bible does not condemn evolution and says next to nothing about gay marriage. "

Setting aside the idea that Sojourners is a beacon of intellectualism, that last bit is bizarre. The bible repeatedly condemns homosexuality. Insofar as condemning homosexual behavior implicitly condemns the practice of gay marriage, such that there really should be any need to elucidate the connection, this seems intentionally obtuse.

"But when the faith of so many Americans becomes an occasion to embrace discredited, ridiculous and even dangerous ideas, we must not be afraid to speak out, even if it means criticizing fellow Christians."

Yeah, this work was a veritable profile in courage. I'm sure it will be subject to scrutiny by those who would otherwise support Giberson, and so he will lose stature as a result of confronting his fear. Hmmm... It appears it has been linked to and universally lauded across the Internet. Never mind.

There are, indeed, Christian intellectuals across the ideological and theological spectrums. Tim Keller (Bucknell) is one. Greg Boyd (Yale) is another. Kurt Wise (University of Chicago) is another, and happens to believe some of those aforementioned dangerous ideas. They are intelligent men who address the full force of their opponents arguments, rather than taking to the opinion pages to excoriate them.

Karl Giberson (Eastern Nazarene College... Is that even accredited?) is a gadfly, a faux intellect who leverages the mere fact of his paradoxical ideas to garner acclaim for himself. Contemporary culture adores gadflies. History forgets them.

There's a reason for that.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Monday Musings: Occupied!

I'm back. I think. I have a college degree and opinions, so everyone should listen to me, or so I am told.

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I have been told that Occupy Wall Street is not a socialist or communist movement, and that this criticism is unfair and/or point missing. But why? Consider:

1) This movement is the brainchild of AdBusters, an anti-business organization out of Canada.
2) It's leaders and speakers are socialists and communists, by and large.
3) It's loose agenda, if enacted in it's present form, will require a $10-20 trillion investment by the federal government, matching our GDP in its entirety.
4) From it's anti-capitalist roots, it now draws the majority of its funding from the labor movement.
5) The name of the movement evokes the idea of the people taking arms against free enterprise.

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, has the anatomy and physiology of a duck, behaves like a duck, and mates with other ducks, is it really so untoward to call it a duck?

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A common complaint of the OWS movement is the combination of high student loans and unemployment. Many graduates were sold on the idea earning a college degree was the path to employment.

In fairness, our government conspired with the education industry to sell these kids a bill of goods. Now that everyone with a pulse also has a degree, the possession of one has become as essential as it is inessential.

The problem is this. Too many post-secondary institutions are taking tuition dollars from students pursuing degrees that are irrelevant to the job market. Often, these degrees are interdisciplinary, which has a number of benefits. In addition for allowing for a greater variety of courses, interdisciplinary degrees conveniently relieve the student of the burden of taking the more advanced courses in each subject.

In good economic times, students reconcile themselves to degrees in, say, Peace Studies (yes, that's a thing) by convincing themselves employers want well-rounded employees. Besides, they are learning the critical thinking skills necessary to be an outstanding global citizen.

A few problems. If your ideas and presuppositions are never challenged, and these programs are tailor-made to coalesce with youthful ideals, you never learn to think critically. There is a difference between critical thinking and simply having an opinion.

Further, if you do not possess a skill, your critical thinking will have no forum. In truth, Wall Street is "occupied" by those who have a strong grasp of economics. If you do not understand economic systems, nobody will call upon you to shape them. No amount of protesting is going to get you a spot at the big table. You cannot annex business in this country (yet).

If these graduates do not feel empowered by the current system, it is because they misunderstand the nature of power. In a free market, knowledge is power, and if you majored in gender studies, you probably don't have any.

The fact is, plumbers are more valuable than kids who have strong opinions about gender equality. When was the last time you looked in the phone book for someone who could write a thesis?

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To which, perhaps that explains why Occupy is so opposed to capitalism. In capitalism, nobody is really valued for ideas and philosophies. Capitalism is an accomplishment-based platform. It does not measure good intentions. The only way to tip the scales is to create a big government fiefdom, nurturing and preserving those with big ideas about how to shape society, and enforcing the collective wisdom of the gender-studies types by fiat.

History suggests these government enclaves gradually consolidate power. After all, critical thinking about society is work far more noble than unclogging toilets, and should be empowered accordingly. It should be obvious why this is dangerous, and why it worries conservatives, but I'm not sure it is to some people.

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I find in galling the mere assertion Tea Party activists were speaking in racist "code" was sufficient to label the movement as bigoted, but actual, on-camera outbursts of anti-Semitism are not supposed to be indicative of the whole.

As well, Tea Partiers were accused of "incivility" and inciting violence on the basis of, well, nothing. Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street has literally engaged in violence, and we're supposed to ignore that fact and look to the aims of the broader movement.

I know the media has its biases, but don't expect me to take you or your ideas very seriously as a person if you claimed the Tea Party had blood on its hands, but let Occupy off scot-free.

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Not that I take calls to civility seriously anyway.

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That's it. Breaking three months of baby-induced blog-silence was enough. Now back to your day jobs (or lack thereof, if you are occupying).