Snarky Behavior

Entries tagged as ‘democracy’

Sarah Palin

August 29, 2008 · 1 Comment

My friends…choosing a woman makes sense, but methinks the vetting process of Kay Bailey Hutchinson must have gone terribly wrong.  It’s hard to attack Obama for being inexperienced when your own Veep has less than 2 years in a major political office.

Alaskan politics is about oil, and an Alaskan VP means drilling in ANWAR.  All of the eggs are now in the “lower the price of gasoline” and “reduce dependency on foreign oil” baskets.  Let it be remembered that Hillary Clinton tried this approach, and lost.

I’d like to think that Americans are more intelligent, and that their problems more substantial, than to vote on the promise of cheaper gas.  And if not, I’m willing to forfeit this experiment in democracy for good.

Categories: Opinion
Tagged: , , , , ,

Register to Vote

June 25, 2008 · Leave a Comment

Why not do it early?

Print out this form from US Election Assistance Commission.  Easy breezy.

Categories: Neato
Tagged: , ,

Why is Tide the most expensive detergent? Is it worth it?

January 26, 2008 · 6 Comments

Waiting for the South Carolina results to come in, I am struck by how silly some of the pundit analysis comes across when dissecting voter preferences. 

Now that the field has been whittled down to two front-runners for each party, we are left with narrowly defined either/or considerations to explain the “rational choice” between Candidate A and Candidate B.  This reductive analysis seeks to find justifications for expressing preference between two similarly marketed products (i.e. Pepsi v. Coke). 

In fact, I just heard Keith Olberman refer to the “Clinton brand” as a potential panacea to the economic anxiety many voters are now experiencing.  Buying the Clinton “brand” thereby reinforces the voters’ self-image as someone whose primary concern for the future is economic security.

When people approach an election the same way they approach a consumer choice, it’s destructive to democracy.  It reduces the candidates, it atomizes the electorate, and it biases our “rational choice.”

But that’s neither here nor there… back to the question at hand.     

I ran across a conversation at Marginal Revolution asking the question:  Why is Tide so Popular? 

I thought… no really, why is Tide so popular?  Why do I buy Tide instead of Gain, which is cheaper?  What does Tide say about me, as a person? 

It’s more expensive, so I presume it’s the highest quality product.  I like to think that I can afford the highest quality, because I’d prefer that my clothes be as soft and clean and fresh as possible. 

But is that a reasonable assumption?  What if Proctor and Gamble just spends more on branding/marketing?  What if all laundry detergents are essentially the same mix of chemicals, with different bells and whistles? 

Well, here’s the breakdown, from the comments section.  VERY interesting stuff:

As a former market research service provider a Home and Beauty Care company most often butting heads with P&G in the Laundry Category, I have a lot of perspective on it based off findings. And bear with me, when it comes to market research I have pretty robust information:

* Echoing the sentiments and actual reports above of many, P&G detergents typically perform better in terms of both cleaning and the conditioning of clothing. Granted, we now wash clothes in modern america not to clean them per se, but to “refresh them”.

* The “mere refresh” needs as opposed to “Deep cleaning” being a priority opens the door for price segments in lower tiers for consumners: A&H, Xtra, Purex, Store Brands that do significant volume, even if dollars are more modest. Testimony to this is P&G has a 55-60% share of sales dollars, but a 40-45% volume share of sales since its products are premium largely.

* P&G manages their Fabric Cleaners, Conditioners (By the way, Downey is their brand and is by far number one conditioner), and Dryer Sheets (By the way, Bounce/Downey is the number one/two brand by far there too) as a massive portfolio, with each targeting certain segments:

** Tide is the best performer, most expensive, most high end benefits included.

** Gain is the experiential and frgrance brand, and has strong ethnic performance: quality and an experience. BTW, it challenges for status of 2nd biggest brand itself.

** Cheer is a the Color-Safe premium brand

** Dreft is the Baby, non-irritating brand

** ERA is the Budget Brand to compete in that segment

* Consumer segmentation studies and a Decision Trees suggests that with Laundry category the first decision is whether you are a Tide customer or not. Then, if not, you typically believe “All are the same”/”I am poor” and your decision is based on price. This harms mid-level brands such as ALL or Wisk that try and have a hybrid of some quality and innovation, but competitive mid-level pricing.

* Consumers pay more and get excited over high order benefits that Tide is a leader in providing new versions of on a yearly basis. What are those? High Efficiency, With Touch of Downey, With Bleach Alternative, With Color Protector, Free & Clear, Cold Wash, Scented, Various Sizes, etc. By the way, when you bu yany of these, note the number of loads per bottle changes (lower), even if bottle is same size. that’s their marging boosting! Only ALL sometimes comes out with benefits such as these first. (Small and mighty, anti-allergen)

* Shelf-Sets and sales are dictated by P&G due to their demanding share. If shelves were organized by TYPE rather than BRAND, it would help smaller brands and change consumer mentality about choice of product. Scented onlyt first, then High efficiencies, THEN with Bleaches, etc. Insrtead, you have the ubiquitous wall of orange taking up the whole section.

* Also, P&G’s budget for discounts and specials is much larger, as well as tie-ins with its other leading brands Febreze, Downey, and Bounce that synergistically boost each other.

This all said, the biggest challenge for Tide and P&G go-forward is the changing face of the US consumer (Hispanic, etc.), the rising costs of raw materials (partial petroleum basis for liquid detergents), sales rise only as population does (no new markets or consumers), quality ceasing to be a key differentiator.

People alluded to Heinz’s dominance as well – there are small chips in the facade, they always must remain vigilant. Remember, Heinz doesn’t compete with Ketchup only – it competes with all condiments. mayo, Vinegar, Ranch, Mustard…Staying relevant is important.

Categories: Uncategorized
Tagged: , , , ,

Dropping Out of the Electoral College

January 16, 2008 · 3 Comments

It’s really incredible that it took our nation over 230 years to realize that this was a good idea:

Instead of a state awarding its electors to the top vote-getter in that state’s winner-take-all presidential election, the state would give its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

Of course, this just means the 2012 presidential campaign will run into the billions of dollars.  But at least it’s more democratic.

Categories: Uncategorized
Tagged: , , ,

Welcome to the 21st Century…

January 15, 2008 · 1 Comment

… where State Capitalism reigns supreme.

Less than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the West’s gleeful jig-dancing on the grave of communism, state capitalism is suddenly threatening the autonomy of the global “free” market. Wall Street’s elite banks, longtime freedom fighters for deregulation and scorners of all government intervention in the marketplace, are now begging, cup in hand, for aid from a gallery of regimes that includes some of the most authoritarian and undemocratic governments on the planet.

In Monday’s Financial Times, Jeffrey Garten, a professor of international trade and finance at the Yale School of Management, is distraught.

In the late 18th century, capitalism was replacing feudalism. In the 20th century, freer markets won the day. Now the world is flirting with another big transformation in the philosophy and rules of global commerce. Unlike the changes of the past, this new trajectory does not represent progress.

But is this change in philosophy really a huge surprise?  That people– especially people in relatively homogenous societies– are willing to sacrifice freedom in return for economic progress? 

Strong institutions beget strong economies.  Asia has recognized that the liberalization of trade in Latin America has not delivered what it promised, mostly because Latin America lacked the instititonal capacity to support the burden of free markets. 

More people in China have been brought out of abject poverty in the last 20 years than in the history of the world… combined.  Clearly there is some merit to the economic path China has chosen for itself.

Is state capitalism sustainable?  Probably not.  Eventually, a middle class wants political representation.  Eventually, hierarchical systems erode due to fraud, corruption and beauracracy. 

But is state capitalism a great means to play catch-up with the first world?  It sure looks like it.  Especially when American industry out-leverages its own markets with complicated debt instruments.

Categories: Uncategorized
Tagged: , , , , , ,

The Referendum of Hope

January 4, 2008 · 1 Comment

Of Barack Obama’s speeches’, Ezra Klein comments:

Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment, as if history has stopped flowing passively by, and, just for an instant, contracted around you, made you aware of its presence, and your role in it. He is not the Word made flesh, but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair. The other great leaders I’ve heard guide us towards a better politics, but Obama is, at his best, able to call us back to our highest selves, to the place where America exists as a glittering ideal, and where we, its honored inhabitants, seem capable of achieving it, and thus of sharing in its meaning and transcendence.

It seems a vote for Obama, aside from his stance on the issues, is a referendum on the identity of America.  The vote for Obama is truly a progressive vote in the sense that it represents an urgent and hopeful desire to (finally) “move on” from the ugly and bitter legacies of previous generations and administrations.  The Iowans who kicked off this election told the rest of the country three important things:

1.  America is post-racism.   Not to say that racism doesn’t exist in America, only that Americans are tired of allowing this legacy perpetuate as a latent and lingering issue that divides and defines us.  We are ready to move on.  We are desperate to move forward.  For all of the talk of “electability,” only 10% of Iowans claimed it as the determining factor in their vote.

2.  America is genuine in accepting and practicing a “moral authority.”  A vote for Obama is a statement to the rest of the world: “We are not the country our foreign policy over the past 5 years has painted us as.”  We do not condone torture.  We do not fear monger.  We are a strong nation based on tolerance, on ingenuity, on hard work, on freedom and democracy.

3 .  America is ready to explore the issues that unite us, and find common ground on the issues that divide us.  Most importantly, a vote for Obama is a vote for a new brand of politics.  There are those who are cynical of bipartisanship.  There are those who champion partisanship, because it makes people more politically aware of our differences and alternatives in policy decisions.  But the good people of Iowa have told the cynics to shove it.  We pledge allegiance to America, not its political factions.

A vote for Obama is a vote for the harder path, the higher ground. A vote for Obama expects more from America then what we’ve seen or known.  I hope he sweeps through New Hampshire and beyond.

Categories: Uncategorized
Tagged: , , ,

The Republican Machine

December 27, 2007 · 1 Comment

I’ve finished my whirlwind Christmas break in Iowa and the primary was a big topic of discussion around the Host household.  My stepmother particularly had some interesting things to say which I feel are worth sharing because my parents probably represent a decent sample of your typical upper-middle class, white, aging household that the candidates are busily pandering to.

Let me preface her comments with the following: despite the fact that I lived in Washington, attend a policy school, download 3 political podcasts, read several pundit blogs and related weekly magazines, and was stuck in a hotel for 24 hours in Chicago watching Meet the Press and Charlie Rose, my knowledge and opinion of the political race cannot reasonably compare to that of my stepmothers. 

(Well, at least according to her.)

My step-mother is the type of person who laments the fact that the media refuses to report on substantive issues, but holds no particularly active interest in substantive issues, and reads US Weekly religiously.  I can remember her watching the OJ Simpson trial daily and rhetorically asking nobody in particular, “why do they keep on showing this trash?”  

I think when it boils down to it she is one of several Iowans whose most important “issue” is how electable the Democratic candidate is in 2008 against “The Republican Machine.”  

Whereas in New Hampshire the voters choose according to whom is most appealing to them, Iowans choose the candidate whom they perceive is most appealing to everyone else.  Which is why you have so many undecided voters, even this late in the game.  New Hampshire wants to propel the best candidate forward, to generate momentum for a potential darkhorse, whereas Iowans just want to pick the inevitable winner.

With “electability” in mind, the logical candidate, by my step-mother’s reasoning, is Hilary Clinton.  She believes Clinton is the most battle tested and has a lower “floor” in terms of how far she can fall in the face of negative campaigning by the Republican Machine.  Barack Obama, she believes, would not withstand such concentrated attacks for the duration of a full political cycle.

I pointed out that Obama also had a much higher ceiling in terms of how high he could rise.  He has much lower negatives than Clinton and appeals much more strongly to the independent voters of this country, especially college educated white men.  The same college educated white men (like my father) who voted for Bush in 2000, and have regreted that decision ever since.

My step-mother got defensive and said the only reason Clinton has such high negatives is because she is a woman.  

I conceded that she was probably right, that Clinton was held to an unfair standard, especially by other women, because she was a woman. 

Then we dropped the subject and moved on to more appropriate topics for a family dinner.

I was left wondering though, if the direction (and abrupt ending) to our conversation would be the nature of the public debate as this campaign continues.  That is to say, is it possible (or probable) that the Democratic candidate (presuming it is either Hillary or Obama) will bait The Republican Machine into overly negative campaigning, and then counter-punch with “these criticisms are unfair and would never be charged against a white male”?

I think such a strategy could destroy a candidate like Giuliani or even Mitt Romney, who might be perceived as political machinists.  But if such charges were made against Mike Huckabee, and the original smears were appropriately distanced from his campaign, the strategy could conceivably backfire.  In fact, if Huckabee were the Republican candidate, the right could bait the left into the distractor issue of equal treatment by sex/ethnicity, then pour on fierce denials, wrapped in Christian values of tolerance and brotherhood. 

Suddenly then, Obama/Clinton becomes the divisive figure, by virtue of the fact that his/her race/gender causes the nation to collectively ask itself whether it is “ready” for a black/woman president. 

This anxiety sways guilty liberal voters (who were likely already in pocket) but the Christians become apprehensive… are they ready for four years of an internal dialogue of whether they are “fair” in their assessments/criticisms of the American president? 

This is the same confounding anxiety that hiring managers must face, that academic deans must consider when recruiting faculty, and admissions directors mut weigh when selecting the student body.  It is an issue so sensitive that you must address it before you can dismiss it. 

It then comes to pass that the same mentality that causes Ann Coltier to call the white American male “the Jew of liberal-facism” will motivate Christians to vote Huckabee. Because these voters are accustomed over the past 16 years to being vehemently critical of their president, and they are more comfortable being angry at a white male then they are at a woman/black male, Christians will independently decide that the country “isn’t ready” for X kind of president.  And because most voters decide based on the bandwagon (picking the winner), Mike Huckabee might steal an election that nobody thought the Republicans had a shot at.

So I hope Romney pulls away, the counter-valent skepticism (a Mormon?) will off-set between the parties, and we can collectively celebrate our diversity. 

Categories: Uncategorized
Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Dropping Knowledge: Stating the Obvious

November 26, 2007 · 1 Comment

oil map of world

One thing I’ve learned studying IR Theory is that most decisions at their core are based on the theory of structural realism. That is to say, at a minimum all states make decisions to ensure their survival, and that states with greater capacities will seek to increase their capabilities (also known as “power maximization”). Great powers constrain each others’ maximization pursuits, resulting in what is known as a “balance of power.”

In today’s world, the key to power is oil. This point tends to get vastly understated in the discussions we have about current affairs. For example:

1. When we talk about the rising cost of oil (which is now flirting with $100 per barrel), we tend to neglect two important facts: first, that the price elasticity of demand for oil is extremely inelastic. That is to say, it doesn’t matter how much oil prices drop or rise, the quantity demanded remains the same. As President Bush said in this years’ State of the Union Address: “Our nation has an oil addiction.” And it’s not just our country, although we’ve got it the worst. It’s a global addiction.

Second, addiction by its very definition implies lack of control. Which brings us back full circle to the original point: whomever controls oil, controls the world. From the perspective of industry, this is because the factors of production of almost every sector include components that are sensitive to oil prices. These price sensitivities can have a direct impact on cost, as in manufacturing, or an indirect impact (via transportation costs), as in technology. And every sector has varying degrees of energy costs. So the more sensitive an industry is to oil prices, the more power whomever controls the oil supply has over that industry.

From the perspective of the consumer, rising oil prices are also felt directly (at the pump and airport), and indirectly, by both a constrained budget set (more money spent on gas means less for movies, clothes, etc.) and by the increased prices for consumer goods (the costs of which are passed along by producers). You know what they call the combination of rising prices, low interests rates, and decreased purchasing power? Inflation.

2. If I lost you above, I shouldn’t have. Go back and read it again. I’m just stating the obvious here. The first point was meant to establish just how important of a position the global control of oil is to whomever can secure it. Take a look at the map above. You see how little oil Europe has? China? The US? India? The less oil a country has, the more it is willing to give up to get oil. The more globally integrated oil is within consumption and factors of production, the more dependent consumers and producers become on oil.

Now take a look at this map. Notice how many US military bases are in the Middle East? You think that’s a coincidence?

3. The logical “next steps” everyone seems to recognize, especially given the environmental considerations of oil, is the pursuit of “alternative” sources of energy. There is of course some game theory to this though. Even if there were a cost-effective substitute for oil (and there most certainly is not, at least yet), the transition costs of adopting that alternative source across sectors would be enormous. And the countries that undertook such an enterprise would be buried by the “cheaters” who continued to use oil (and at an even lesser price due to drop-out of demand). No, oil is a fixed commodity, and unless we find some form of global governance to ration it (highly unlikely), it seems the race is on to squeeze the orange and horde the juice before its all gone in the next 25 years or so.

In the meantime, there is evidence to believe that the financial markets are grossly distorting the price of oil by placing a premium on the political risks associated with its extraction. Based on global supply and demand, it is argued that the price should not be any higher than $60 per barrel. Speculative trading creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where oil rises to $100 because traders spread unsubstantiated rumors that China and India are insatiable, or Nigeria/Venezuela/Iran are unstable. The consumer ultimately suffers here for the reasons mentioned previously, including inflationary risks, and even risks of recession.

All of this information is extremely relevant when we consider the following foreign policy “debates.”

1.)  Iran and Nuclear Energy– Notice how much oil Iran has?  Notice how much they consume?  It would be economically advantageous if they were to consume nuclear energy and maximize foreign oil sales.  When hawks argue about Iran “obtaining nuclear weapons,” they’re really pushing an agenda that says “Iran holds the potential to leverage and balance the oil oligarchy, and once they obtain nukes we can’t foment a regime change.”

2.)  “Democratizing the Middle East”– The so called “Bush Doctrine” is a fanciful liberal justification for a realist policy.  Oil rich countries really only have two options:  1) illiberal autocracies (Saudi Arabia) or 2.)  illiberal democracies (Venezuela).  The distribution of wealth obtained from a natural resource is complicated in state systems because the citizens of the state feel entitled to the financial windfalls in some form or another.  Elites must either find their power base internally (by implementing fiscally irresponsible, short-term, socialist programs) or externally (by charging rent to the United States in return for a strong military presence or other forms of foreign “aid”).

3.)  Iraq — With the above point in mind, the US objective has become to contain the sectarian violence within the confines of Baghdad.  Let politics play out on a political stage, but keep the pipelines flowing in the fringe regions.  A true power-sharing constitutional government isn’t possible as long as the US is present: because the emergent elites are reliant on the US for security provision, they will never have popular support, and vice versa.  Not to say the US prefers a disorganized central government, only that it benefits from one.  Our presence is justified for as long as there is insecurity.

So that was my Thanksgiving dinner conversation with my parents to justify my expensive Ivy education.  No solutions provided, only a survey analysis.  My stepmother thinks that Hillary will have solutions to these problems.  I introduced her to Mark Penn, the next Karl Rove.  She’s no longer so optimistic.

Categories: Uncategorized
Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

The Blogger’s Imperative: Always Consider the Alternative

November 16, 2007 · Leave a Comment

Reader’s Note:  I intended to post this on the Huffington Post but in retrospect it’s probably too meta.  I do think that there is a place for ombudsman-like impartial eye for bloggers, especially as blogging sites become primary destinations for news and information.

The Huffington Post’s recent admission of first-time profitability marks an important occasion in today’s media landscape. 

More than any other outlet, the Huffington Post represents what Al Gore terms “the Marketplace of Ideas.”  The web-site’s only compensatory incentive to its contributing bloggers is the platform itself, a conduit through which competitive voices can be heard and considered.  The opinions that most resonate with the readership rise to front-page prominence, while lesser viewpoints simply fall by the wayside. 

A general imperative for consumers of information is to “always consider the source.”  In this sense, the Huffington Post holds a powerful comparative advantage over established media outlets, which are increasingly characterized by thinly veiled ideological slants or biases, or are otherwise beholden to the advertising interests that sustain their business models.  That is to say, opinions on the Huffington Post can be evaluated on their face, with a lesser degree of suspicion as to the vested interests or motivations of the authorship.

The successful “networked democracy” that the Huffington Post has achieved is certainly a worthy cause for celebration.  However, as the outlet gains prominence and increased readership, the very model which has made it a success threatens to dilute its cause and purpose.  Let us consider future challenges to the web-site:

  1. First, the extremely low entry-barriers for contribution arouse cause for concern as to the quality of the product, and a super-saturation in the “marketplace.”
  2. Second, the powerful reach of the outlet provides opportunities to amplify and distort opinions and ideas that are simply bad or ill-informed. 
  3. Third, the insular debates of the community may devolve into an in-group dynamic that threatens the logical norms by which arguments are framed.
  4. Fourth, the “publish or perish” cycle accelerates the process of due-consideration of important ideas and arguments.  1,800 writers are constantly competing for the advancement of issues to “the next topic.”
  5. Fifth, and most importantly, the high number of contributers and low-entry barriers for contribution diminish the accountability of each individual to provide responsible, well-reasoned opinions.  A democratic exchange of ideas shouldn’t be throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.  It should be at once a constructive and critical exercise. 

With respect to the fifth point, let us remember and consider the words of the late Norman Mailer, who explained its danger to Charlie Rose:

“Democracy is noble, and because it’s noble it’s always in danger.  Nobility is always in danger.  Democracy is perishable.  I think the natural government for most people, given the perversities and the depths of human nature, the ugly depths, is facism.  Facism is a natural state.  Because it’s easier.  It’s easier, and if you have any resentment, your resentment can be focused.  The hardest thing in a democracy is knowing whether your resentment has any point to it or not.”

Mailer’s words ring true posthumously in the current context if we consider this web-site to be a “networked democracy.”  It is far easier to focus our opinions and resentments around polar arguments than it is to find a constructive point of departure from these criticisms.

If then it is the imperative of the informed consumer of information is to “always consider the source,” it seems the imperative of the blogger is to “always consider the alternative.”  The strength of any democratic exercise lies in the extent to which all parties recognize their rights and responsibilities to maintain the integrity of the democratic structure.  Mediocrity, group-think, laziness, distrust, subterfuge, and a lack of comity – or reciprocity in constructive arguments – threaten to degrade that structure. 

The expansion of the blogger’s legitimacy therefore must be accompanied by a self-disciplined commitment to provide high-quality, progressive, and well-reasoned opinions.  Although we are all entitled to our own opinions, and assured the right to express them, we must also recognize our responsibility to do so constructively, lest our “networked democracy” degrade into “networked facism.”

Categories: Uncategorized
Tagged: , , , , , , ,

More On: Oil Distortions

November 4, 2007 · Leave a Comment

For those interested in the idea behind rentier states , how difficult governance is in sole-resource economies, and the megalomaniacal appeal of Hugo Chavez, check out this article.  Not exactly well written, but certainly very interesting.  Thanks to Faraj for the heads up.

Categories: Uncategorized
Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,