Friday, May 31, 2013

First You Get The Money, Then You Get The Power To Help Others

The point that Dylan Matthews makes here (and which the good folks at 80,000 Hours have been making) is that you may do better things for the world if you go to Wall Street and make a whole messload of money than if you go to poorer regions of the world to help people -- provided that you give a lot of the money to people who are going to those poorer regions of the world to help people. The forces of good need smart well-intentioned volunteers, but they also need smart well-intentioned financial benefactors.

Dylan's article profiles starts off with a guy who's working a hedge fund job to donate money to the Against Malaria Foundation. It's a case study I'd want to mention to a lot of nice folks I've met who have jobs that pay well, but who feel like they aren't doing enough to help others. What I'd tell them is: don't feel like you need to make any kind of career change to help others effectively -- your salary gives you awesome powers already! If you're in position to be an effective donor, that may be the best thing you can do, especially if you're the sort of person who functions better in a nice American city with coffee shops and sewers than in Haiti or Sudan. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

How Can We Reduce Cable Bills? Unbundle Sports

Tim Berners-Lee is mostly right here. Pure a la carte cable pricing wouldn't drastically reduce cable bills. The rise in cable prices is due mostly to affiliate fees, which go mostly to the sports channels. Affiliate fees are collected on a per-subscriber basis, which is why there are frequently contentious negotiations between cable operators and content providers, along with constant nagging to "call your cable operator and ask them to add the Underwater Field Hockey Network". It's also why we've seen an explosion in sports channels in the last few years, as all of the major broadcast networks, some college sports conferences, and even individual sports teams have launched their own cable networks. These organizations are behaving perfectly rationally, given the seemingly insatiable demand for sports programming and the increased relevance of sports to live TV delivery, as more and more viewing moves to DVRs and IP-based delivery mechanisms. This is a pure money grab by the sports channels, but under the circumstances, why should the Pac-12 or the LA Dodgers let ESPN capture all the surplus from the popularity of their programming?

These changes are worst for the consumers who watch only a modest amount of sports programming, or who watch channels that are bundled only with the sports-level tier. We could go a long way towards improving cable by requiring cable companies to put all sports channels on an entirely separate package. A second step would be to require a la carte pricing only for sports channels, though that might lead to lots of arguments about which channels are truly "sports" channels. Is SpeedTV a sports channel? Is the Golf Channel if it only carries live golf for two days a week for half the year?

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Qualified Defense of Silicon Valley Boosterism

Yes, the people who go to TED talks are kind of douchey and overly self-important.
But what's the alternative?Financial innovation? Defense contracting? Pharmaceuticals?
Say what you want about the West Coast techno-utopians , but the primary economic sectors of the East Coast upper middle class are finance, government, pharmaceuticals, and defense contracting. It's not like these lines of business have covered themselves in glory over the past decade.

As Mr. Klein points out, the successful companies in Silicon Valley are primarily solving the needs of businesses. Some of those needs are somewhat shallow and may prove ephemeral -- it's still not clear to me that all this hyper accurate social media marketing will actually produce greater ROI for advertisers -- but many of these startups have very workaday goals around storage, CRM, survey design, or other fairly basic business needs. Meanwhile, the graveyards of venture capital firms are full of "disruptive", "game-changing" startups that couldn't figure out how to marry their ill-conceived vision with either a path from the status quo to their desired future, a sustainable business model, or both.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

When You've Lost The Boy Scouts, Whose Left To Lose?

The county sheriff in a place that voted for Mitt Romney at a rate 18 points
higher than the national average has decided the Boy Scouts of America
aren't conservative enough.

Kootenai County, Idaho is the third-most populous county in Idaho. The County seat, Cour d'Alene, is a modest town of 40,000 people. The county borders Washington State and is only a 45 minute drive from Spokane.

The County Sheriff is considering dropping its sponsorship of the Boy Scouts, now that they've voted to allow openly gay scouts (and, eventually, openly gay scoutmasters). The Girl Scouts have been a noted radical organization for some time, but at the point where conservatives are reading the Boy Scouts of of the movement, we have to start wondering if anybody is safe.

Print Your Meat

I've blogged in the past about the technological developments that I think will end the consumption of meat and other animal products -- the development of cheap synthetic alternatives. I've started to wonder if 3D printing could be the technology that makes all of this work. NASA appears to be getting into printed food as a way to feed astronauts, and as they note, there's room for the technology to become mainstream eventually. Venture capitalists are funding startups that develop the technology.

Early printed food is likely to be mediocre, but as the technology moves forward we'll be printing duplicates of the best ribeye and filet mignon in existence. When the printed meat is cheaper and better, there'll be no reason to do things the barbaric expensive old-fashioned way.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest and Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama greets Jack Hoffman, 7, of Atkinson, Neb., in the Oval Office, April 29, 2013. Hoffman, who is battling pediatric brain cancer, gained national attention after he ran for a 69-yard touchdown during a Nebraska Cornhuskers spring football game. Hoffman holds a football that the President signed for him."

Todays' Kitsch Cover is Karmin performing Chris Brown's (yeah, sorry, but this is too ridiculous) "Look at Me Now". On the Ellen show. So, that's a thing.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Stern to Seattle: Drop Dead

"This is going to be short for me. I have a game to get to in Oklahoma City"
Christ, what an asshole.
I don't follow basketball that closely, but now that Chris Hansen's bid to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle is officially dead, it's worth digging into the subtle differences in arena financing that give the NBA a strong reason to stay in California, even if such a move is not in the interest of current Kings' ownership.

On the surface, the two financing packages look fairly similar. The Seattle group would have bought the Kings in a deal valuing the franchise at $561 milllion; the new ownership group in Sacramento (if the Maloof family will sell to them) values the franchise at $525 million. Public financing costs in Seattle would have reached $200 million out of $490 million in total costs, or just over 40%; in Sacramento, the public's bill will hit $250 million out of $447 million, or 55% of costs.

So from the public's perspective, the Seattle financing arrangements are superior, though only slightly--what's $50 million between friends!-- but the story gets more complicated as we dig deeper. Here's a wire report on the signing of Seattle's public financing bill:
The plan calls for a $490 million arena built in the area where Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field are located, with $200 million coming in public financing. The public investment would be paid back with rent money and admissions taxes from the arena, and if that money falls short, Hansen would be responsible for making up the rest. Other investors include Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer and two members of the Nordstrom department store family.

As part of the renegotiated agreement, Hansen has also agreed to divert a portion of arena revenues into a pool of money to help with transportation projects in the neighborhood around the arenas.
Compare this to what Sacramento will do for the new Kings' ownership, according to the local Business Journal:
Most of the city's $258 million contribution -- $212.5 million -- would come from the city's off-street parking assets. The city would form a nonprofit corporation to own the parking lots and structures; the nonprofit would issue bonds to finance the arena. The bonds would be repaid through the city's hotel taxes and other sources, the city's report said.
The rest of the city's contribution would come from:
  • Sacramento's parking infrastructure fund: $1.5 million
  • A rebate on sales taxes generated by the arena construction: $1 million
  • Funds set aside for downtown development from the city's share of proceeds from sale of the Sheraton Grand: $5 million.
  • Land transfers to the arena investors: $38 million. [The Seattle ownership group has already purchased the land it would need -- ed] This would include 100 acres the city owns near the current arena in Natomas.
Investors would contribute a 5 percent ticket surcharge to the city, cover operating expenses and improvements, and share profits with the city.
The city would agree to help the investors get necessary entitlements to develop up to 1.5 million square feet of commercial and residential space around the Downtown Plaza site -- a project worth more thant $500 million, according to the term sheet. This would include 475,000 square feet of office, 300,000 square feet of retail, 250 hotel rooms, and 600 units of apartments or condominiums.
The city report emphasizes that the city's general fund would not be hurt by the deal. The $9 million that the parking assets now contribute every year to the city's budget would be covered in part by the 5 percent ticket surcharge [would generate $1.5-3 million per year if the Kings sell out every game--ed.], the city's estimated share of arena profits -- $1 million a year -- and various tax revenues that the project would create.
The most charitable thing you can say about the Kings' arrangement is that they might actually turn the arena into a lynchpin of downtown redevelopment. A less charitable framing would be that the city has just given away almost $40 million in prime real estate. But more immediately, it seems likely Sacramento will find it difficult to make up the funding shortfall caused by diverting parking revenues. They're banking on a significant increase in tax revenue resulting from keeping an existing sports team in place. Meanwhile repayments from construction of a new arena in Seattle would basically come straight out of the ownership group's pocket.

In the end, had the NBA let Hansen buy the team and move them to Seattle, whenever the owners Memphis or Charlotte or New Orleans (or perhaps, some day, Oklahoma City) decide that they'd like to move to a more profitable media market like Las Vegas or Baltimore, local officials would be able to point to Seattle and say "we want the deal they got". And that's bad for the NBA, because it means that the surplus generated by sports teams would be more equitably divided between owners and the public.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Chema Madoz Takes Nifty Photos

If you haven't gotten your daily dose of clever pretty things on the internet, I recommend this.

A Reminder

During the height of America's long national nightmare
of journalistic obsession with the Lewinsky affair, the press corps
wasted not just President Clinton's time but also that of Prime
Minister Tony Blair. I suspect we will be treated to another
round of this "spectacle" today.
Today is a very good day to re-read "Why Americans Hate the Media" by James Fallows. Especially if you have written anything on either Benghazi or the IRS's investigations into right-leaning 501c4 organizations, or if there's an off chance you might ask a question during the Obama-Cameron joint press conference.

Gallup's polling on the most important issue facing America shows that, as is often the case, the economy is towards the top. But if you got your news from a typical political reporter, you'd think the most pressing issues in the country were, in some order: Benghazi, immigration, and potential impropriety at the IRS, with gun violence somewhere on the back burner.

If an alien scouting mission landed on Earth today and read the news, they would report back "no need to invade. Wait a decade or two and civilization will destroy itself."

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Attention Threadless Shoppers

It's often inadvisable to make judgments about individuals on the basis of personal appearance. But sometimes personal appearance is a choice, or the result of choices, and these choices reveal significant things about people. On this note, I wanted to share pictures of 2012 Obama campaign CTO Harper Reed, who had previously worked at Threadless, and 2012 Romney digital director Zac Moffatt, from consulting firm Targeted Victory. Even without the logo behind Moffatt, it isn't hard to tell who is who.

I've said to people that the Romney campaign's difficulty with digital stuff was a result of bad Republican views on gay marriage. To set up your internet stuff properly, you need highly motivated young people. That's a solidly Democratic demographic these days, in part because of the parties' views on social issues. As long as Republicans are doing poorly with the young, they're not going to get enough of the Harper Reeds of the world to volunteer or work cheaply for them, and their stuff won't work as well.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Happy Birthday, Ezra!

Facebook tells me that today is Ezra Klein's birthday. I think he might even turn 30 this year, but I may be getting ahead of myself. In his honor, here's a chart showing the progress of his age.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Late-Term Abortions are For Medical Reasons. Today.

Ed Kilgore's now-two-week-old piece on the impossibility of a compromise on abortion rights reaches the right conclusion—that a political compromise on abortion would be primarily opposed from the right rather than the left (though the last time this was tried, during Bill Clinton's second term, it was brought down by a mostly-right-but-partially-left coalition). But it gets there through reasoning that relies on facts not in evidence:
Suppose it were possible to engineer a permanent national deal (it’s not, but just consider it as a thought experiment) wherein in exchange for a strictly enforced ban on post-viability abortions that didn’t involve direct threats to the life of the mother, we’d also start treating all forms of contraception and pre-viability abortions not only as legal, but as medical procedures that would be publicly funded just like other medical procedures, under normal (not prohibitive) inspection and regulatory regimes? I suspect a large number of pro-choice folk would go for that kind of deal, which isn’t that different from the situation in much of Europe. It would reflect the fact that most late-term abortions happen not because some bad girl has had sex and now finds motherhood inconvenient, but because she hasn’t had meaningful access to contraception, Plan B, or early-term abortions.

But would any antichoice activists go along with it? No. Because they don’t really care about late-term abortions other than as a lever to move public opinion away from legalized abortion generally.
My gripe here is that neither "some bad girl has had sex and now finds motherhood inconvenient" nor "she hasn't had meaningful access to contraception, Plan B, or early-term abortions" are the the root cause for most late-term abortions.

Just use your common sense. To carry a fetus to 26 weeks, you have endured first trimester morning sickness and other sickness, significant weight gain, increased fatigue, and myriad other discomforts. For crying out loud, if that's not evidence that someone is trying to have a kid, I don't know what is.

What's more, current constitutional law already allows states to put significant restrictions on late-term abortions, which they certainly do. Let's go all the way back to Roe v Wade itself (hang in there, legal pedants, we're getting to you):
For the stage subsequent to viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe [ban—ed.], abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother
Legal pedants will note that Roe's standards have been superseded by Planned Parenthood v Casey, which allows states even more leeway in enacting abortion-restricting legislation. As interpreted by current members of the Court, even if a regulation is arbitrary, not-medically sound, and amounts to a de facto ban on late-term abortions, it might still pass constitutional muster.

2nd trimester ultrasounds are usually performed at 16-20 weeks
of pregnancy. If the ultrasound reveals the possibility of certain fetal
anomalies, additional testing is needed to determine the exact
nature of the defect. Only then, if testing revealed a lethal or
significantly impairing defect, would the potential parent need to
consider terminating the pregnancy,
In reality, the remaining late-term abortion providers limit their practice primarily to cases where the patient is at serious risk of death or injury themselves, or where the patient is carrying a fetus with a severe abnormalities—something that's either lethal or would grossly impair their quality of life. You can read more about this in Esquire's lengthy profile of Colorado late-term abortion provider Warren Hernn.

At the same time that advances in medicine have pushed fetal viability earlier and earlier, other advances have improved our ability to detect fetal defects. Some of these abnormalities cannot be detected until later in the pregnancy. To have the legislature substitute its judgement for those of the parents and medical professionals is to consign them to the potentially much more emotionally painful experience of giving birth to a severely deformed child and having it die within the first few years of its life.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Teenage Mutant Ninja PIGS

I've been wondering why we haven't seen more coordination between the governments of the troubled high-unemployment economies on the periphery of the Eurozone. What I'm thinking about is Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain all getting together and coming up with a general proposal for looser money or other economic stimulus in the Eurozone, with the implicit threat that if they don't get what they want, they'll all leave. (And join the Yen! If you haven't heard, they're turning it into Beef!)

If all of them can get behind a proposal, that would give it a kind of credibility that individual ultimata might not have. I'm not sure how much bigger a threat they all pose coming together, because a lot of people are worried when the Greece issue comes up that they'd better deal with it or it's the beginning of everybody leaving, which suggests that Greece is wielding a pretty big threat even without buy-in from the others. And I'm guessing that it would look impressive to a domestic audience, as it's a pretty clear sign that you're doing something.