Snarky Behavior

Entries tagged as ‘new york times’

That’s a Whole Lot of Money

April 9, 2008 · 1 Comment

Joseph Stiglitz has estimated the cost of the Iraq war to be $3 trillion dollars by 2017.

These cost estimates include:

  1. disability and compensation for veterans (1.7 million troops have been deployed to date, with 70,000 wounded or diseased and 120,000 having already sought mental health care);
  2. replenishing the military to its normal level of soldiers and equipment; and,
  3. repaying the debt (with interest) that was raised to pay for this war, which has been fully funded by borrowing.
  4. lost economic contributions of those who went to war
  5. the withdrawal from the economy of family members who quit work to care for loved ones injured in the war
  6. the cost to allies and to Iraq

Now, projecting cost estimates for a destructive exercise like war over long-term periods (including well into the future) can prove to be a debatable task, especially when you’re accounting for opportunity costs (i.e. the lost economic contributions of those who went to war) and significant unknown variables (price of oil, nature of military commitment).  We can’t even agree on civilian death tolls in that country, which should be a far easier task in simple accounting.   So it’s no surprise when such attempts are dismissed or attacked for their methodologies in arriving at such an absurdly large figure.

Most importantly– and this is where journalism tends to do the public a great disservice, I think– is that the figure of a trillion dollars (let alone three trillion) is an entirely unrelatable figure for our democratic republic, which is financing the operation.  (Note:  credit the New York Times for their efforts… although presenting the figure as “what else could we have spent this money on?”, while useful in explaining scale, widens the scope of the issue beyond “why are we spending this much on this particular effort?”)

$3 trillion may not be an “accurate” figure, but I’m willing to give the former chief economist of the World Bank the benefit of the doubt in his estimates. I haven’t read the report and am not sure if the valuation is in present dollar terms (although I assume it is, including future interest payments).  Keep in mind then, that the following calculations are going to be (very) fast and loose… it’s not intended as an exercise in social science, only one in wrapping your arms around the scale of what has transpired:

Our government spends $16 billion per month on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (excluding incurred interest), putting the annual figure at something around $200 billion.  The IMF estimated the nominal GDP of the World’s Economy in 2007 to be $53.35 trillion, $13.8 trillion of which is generated by the United States.  This means that as a share of the world’s economy, government spending on Iraq and Afghanistan amounted to 1.5% of the US’ GDP.  And for what?

Some might argue that Keynesian deficit spending is necessary during a recession, but what percentage of the spending are we recapturing in our economy?  How much of that $16.6 billion per month can we actually count toward our own GDP?

What about the premium costs that war and instability have created in the pricing of oil?

What about the costs to our sluggish economy of higher energy prices?  Higher priced commodities (including food), all around?

The Bush administration initially estimated the reconstruction costs of Iraq in the $50-$100 billion dollar range, with only $1.6 billion required to rehabilitate the oil industry.  Oil revenues would help the reconstruction “pay for itself.”  Now projections suggest that this estimate was off by a scale of over 30 to 60 times the actual cost?

Can you imagine investing in a company where the CEO took on an extremely risky project, estimating tremendous (and long-term) returns, and then misses the capital expenditure by 30 to 60 times the projection?  And not only that, but the business model on which he hopes to rely on for future revenues is extremely volatile, and universally accepted as out of date and in dire need of overhaul within the next 10 years?

Now we find ourselves in a situation where on the one hand,  our country should be trying to develop new utility-scale energy sources (other than fossil fuels), and on the other hand, we’re entirely dependent on a global market for oil to recuperate the massive expenditures for the invasion, occupation, and reconstruction of Iraq.

I believe that’s what’s called “between Iraq and a hard place.”

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Things Not to be Stoked About:

January 7, 2008 · Leave a Comment

The New York Times hiring Bill Kristol for its Opinion page.  Ugh.  I’d be willing to be conscripted if it meant sending this guy to Iraq without body armor.

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What Do You Do, With a BA in English?

November 27, 2007 · 2 Comments

What do you do, with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge…
has earned me this useless degree…

So go the opening lines of “Avenue Q.” A musical that I found extremely relatable two years ago, when I moved to DC with a meager savings account, an over-valued skill-set, and a bohemian apartment on “U” Street.

I’ve heard it said before that “the BA is the new diploma.” The data backs this up. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (my employer, by the way), the total enrollment of students attending two- and four-year degree granting institutions has more than doubled since 1970. During that time, female representation has increased drastically from 40% to 56%.

I’ve written before about the constraints on opportunity that arise as a direct result of inaffordable higher education. Here’s the scary trifecta:

1. Average annual tuition of 4-year private institutions has increased from $9228 in 1986 to $27,317 in 2006 (not adjusted for inflation).

2. The average total amount borrowed by students to finance a 4-year degree (as measured in 2001 constant dollars) increased from $12,100 in 1993 to $19,300 in 2000.

3. The median income for a male graduate (as measured in constant 2004 dollars) has only increased from $46,300 in 1980 to $48,400 in 2005. And incomes are on the decline since 2000. Note that the average income for a high-school grad in 1980 was $38,800.

So… I borrowed $16,000 to finance my undergraduate degree, and will likely require (worst case) a staggering $114,000 to finance my Masters. Which not only begs the question: why the hell did I get a liberal arts degree in History, but why does anyone pursue anything else?

Clearly I’m on the high end of the spectrum for tuition, debt burden, and (please God) should also be on the high-end for income earners. So my case is atypical. But there are students at Columbia who do not face the same financial considerations, because their educations are subsidized by financial aid and awards.

I’m not going to play the reverse-discrimination card here, especially since I turned down a hefty fellowship from the Elliot School at GW to attend SIPA, but as a disinterested observation, it does seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy for white men, who are last in line for financial aid purposes, to pursue careers that inevitably reinforce the over-representation of “old white men” who sit in boardrooms chalk full of white haired or bald guys who look identical to each other (even though most of those guys are legacies who probably never even had debt).

My point is, there is a substitution effect for dedication/effort/expectations for every less dollar of debt burden… the more indebted someone is, the more they will value their job, work for performance bonuses, take less days off, rise the ranks, etc. Debt is a strong motivational factor. Which is why I’m up writing crappy blog posts instead of preparing for my in-class debate tomorrow.

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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.

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The Genius of Arcade Fire

October 11, 2007 · 3 Comments

I don’t have a very refined taste in music.  That is to say, I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a “music enthusiast” (a euphemistic term I created for my roommate Andrew because “hipster” chaffed him so much).

For that reason I don’t usually pontificate on my opinions of music.  My reference knowledge is shallow, my history somewhat embarrassing, and my preferences extremely embarrassing (I had to clear my “most played” folder on iTunes to knock Kelly Clarkson from pole position… now it’s Too $hort, Andre Nickatina, and Mac Dre).

While I’m not an “early adopter” of music, and tend to stay within the realm of familiarity, I do take some pride in being able to recognize good, important music when I hear it.  And Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible is good, important music.

I’m not necessarily new to the party about Arcade Fire… I’ve listened to them casually without being particularly cognizant of just how outrageously popular and successful they had become.  They toured New York this past weekend and I was actually surprised to find some fairly yuppie people chattering on about how excited they were for a band I thought was popular only amongst Brits and indie-types.

Continuing on this “generational divide” bent I’ve been on of late, while we let ourselves be categorized as self-obsessed, self-entitled, narcissistic know-it-alls by our parents’ generation, it’s Arcade Fire that is resonating with us: collectivizing our frustrations, our cynicisms, our impotent despondencies in the face of hierarchical and bureaucratic authorities, our impatience and annoyance with assuming control from a generation that in many ways, has proven poor stewardship over the world we must inherit.

Listen to the words of Windowsill, and know our generation:

Don’t wanna give ‘em my name and address,
Don’t wanna see what happens next,
Don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more.

I don’t wanna live with my father’s debt,
You can’t forgive what you can’t forget,
I don’t wanna live in my father’s house no more.
Don’t wanna fight in a holy war,
Don’t want the salesmen knocking at my door,
I don’t wanna live in America no more.
‘Cause the tide is high,
and it’s rising still,
And I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill.

So, Tom Friedman… if one day you’re going to write about how your generation is passing the financial buck on the war it decided upon, and the next day you’re going to criticize American youth for not participating in public demonstrations of protest…. well perhaps you’re answering your own question.

Did I mention I no longer take him seriously? 

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David Brooks Gets it Right

October 10, 2007 · 3 Comments

In response to my “generational” musings, Ross brought this article to my attention. It does a much better job of articulating the point I was trying to make.

David Brooks is quickly becoming the only NY Times Opinion Editor I can take seriously. Krugman (who used to be my hero) is obnoxiously riding a partisan wave, Friedman is back-peddling, Kristof is AWOL, Frank Rich insists on turning the NY Times into US Weekly, and Maureen Dowd continues to be WTF?

Ok, maybe that’s a little harsh. These people are all brilliant conversation starters. Except for Dowd. She’s terrible. If I were a woman, I would be deeply offended that the only female perspective on staff is hers.

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Dropping Knowledge: Relative Deprivation

August 6, 2007 · 2 Comments

Dropping Knowledge: where I “laymenize” an important aspect of social science.

Seat-belts on. I’m about to enter a stratosphere that is way above my head. Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer.

Ok. Anyone who has ever visited another country for an extended period of time will tell you that one of the major unexpected benefits of travel abroad is learning about your OWN country and culture in the process, via comparison. That is to say, travel gives you a fresh perspective with which you may reexamine how your own society behaves, chooses to organize itself, interacts, etc.

Yesterday when I wrote about Michael Moore’s SICKO, I neglected to mention that Moore uses a similar tactic by introducing middle- and working-class Americans to other countries’ perspectives and systems, so that we might re-evaluate our own preconceptions.

Americans are socialized to believe that they are the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world– that this success is predicated upon our system of government and economy, which ensure freedom and liberty, and allow for equality in opportunity. So it follows that when Americans discover that they aren’t the bees’ knees in major categories which evaluate standards of living, they tend to get pissed off about it.

The “hey look what they have!” is a powerful motivational and emotive tactic. The message elicits a gamut of emotions: pride, surprise, betrayal, anger, indignity – and most of all, jealousy. The fragile human ego cannot tolerate being slighted or unjustly recognized within the hierarchy of society. This “oversight” has been the motivating cause of revolutions from Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr.

The same phenomenon I’ve discussed above from a sociological perspective is termed in Economics as “relative deprivation: the discontent people feel when they compare their positions to those of other similarly situated and find out that they have less than they deserve. It is a condition that is measured by comparing one group’s situation to the situations of those who are more advantaged. And it’s also known as “unfulfilled rising expectations.”

There’s an important debate going on in our country right now and the heart of the issue is relative deprivation. I’m too much of a simpleton to weigh all of the factors, but I can identify the major variables: Hedge fund managers, protected behind the veil of their privately managed companies, are reaping historically unheard of annual profits. Their massive income is further skewing the distribution of wealth in our country, and pushing social norms (and prices) of luxury goods ridiculously skyward.

Think of it this way: the higher you rise in the income bracket, the less you can accurately evaluate the absolute value of a dollar, because the relative value is so depressed (i.e., you stop understanding the difference between a $20 tip and a $100 tip when you’re wiping your ass with both bills). You can then single-handedly set the price on luxury goods, to make those items truly exclusive.

And when you’re paying eight-figures or for a flat in Manhattan or an estate in the Hamptons which were previously listed in the seven-figures range, it logically follows (and again, I’m no economist) that you’ve dictated the ceiling price for the entire housing market in New York, which then trickles down to schleps like me who are looking for a shared-apartment in Harlem.

If there’s one thing American’s HATE, it’s getting a raw-deal. We expect to be compensated exactly what we deserve, to be able to obtain a certain lifestyle if we dedicate ourselves to achieving it. When the over-class unintentionally takes away our society’s ability to guarantee the “rags to riches” ideal, or at least maintain some potential for upward social mobility, the proverbial shit hits the proverbial fan.

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Digging Up a Story

July 11, 2007 · 1 Comment


There is a term within (and somewhat recognizably without) the public relations industry called “earned media.”

Media is earned when a professional manages to pitch a product, brand, quote, idea or concept to a journalist of an established outlet, who then integrates that product, brand, quote, idea or concept into an informational article.

On the whole, “earned media” is somewhere between 10 and 100 times more valuable to a given company than a paid-advertisement. You read that right. (Keep in mind 87% of all statistics are made up on the spot).

:) Seriously though, earned media is gold. Paid media is crap.

You see, readers are trained to avoid paid-advertisements. And when they do read them, readers are trained to practice restraint and skepticism.

Readers are not trained to suspect that the stories themselves are embedded with advertisements; that a “press release” is just that; a ghost-written news-vertisement that PR firms write on behalf of health and tech companies looking to hawk their wares to sometimes lazy journalists with tight deadlines at TIME, USA Today, and all the rest of the major outlets.

[Aside: I could write a whole other post about how public relations firms cover everyone's asses but their own, and how, in an age of increasing transparency, that particular industry is at risk of losing credibility (and therefore relevance) if it doesn't start doing a better job of explaining itself.]

Anyway, one of the unintended consequences of paying a PR middle-man to write the story that the established journalist gets credit for, is that the compensation stream never fully reaches the publication that runs the earned media. That is to say: because companies don’t see a worthwhile ROI on paid media, they’ll pay just enough in job-postings to keep classifieds going, and just enough in print-advertisement to keep the publication afloat (and help maintain their brand’s reputation as an added benefit).

But, the big bucks are going to the PR guy hawking the product, not to the publication that runs the story. This is especially the case in trade publications (weekly/monthly magazines like Car and Driver or PC World Magazine). Companies really only get the bang for their buck when these publication includes a feature article on their products.

Thus, in some sort of asymmetrically symbiotic relationship (if that makes sense), companies leach off of established publications as outlets of dissemination for their products and services, without actually fairly paying them for featuring their content. Of course, specialty or trade publications are dependent on scooping and reporting on items new to the market (like the iPhone), so what leverage do they really have? Not much.

Why does this matter?

It always amuses me when old media reports on new media. It’s like a Baskin Robbins employee telling a customer: “did you know Ben and Jerry’s is giving away free ice-cream all week? They are! And it’s glorious!”

Well, the New York Times continues to do just that by reporting its man-crush on The Huffington Post. (Yes…in my head, these publications are male-gender specific. The NYT is an effeminate Yankee, and the Huffington Post is Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Arianna on HGH. I can’t explain why, so don’t ask.)

This matters because the Huffington Post, as a collection of small “i” independent bloggers, is not limited by the same content-restrictions as is the Times. Most notably, they can mix news and opinion. And whereas the Times keeps a “top 10 most e-mailed list” to aggregate stories based on popularity, the Post continually shuffles popular stories to the top of its home-page. This makes that page EXTREMELY more valuable in terms of advertising space, because the eyeballs are concentrated on one space, and not shifting, sorting and scanning through articles.

Great, right? Articles ranked on popularity cut out the necessity of a PR-middle man to “pitch” ideas, because the cream will rise to the top, right?

Well, not exactly.

Have you looked at Digg.com? The articles that “rise” are still only indicative of the users that actually either read certain publications or are technologically saavy enough to use news-aggregators. The biggest “diggers” are un/under-employed techies who live second lives and exploit polygons.

So as the tail of news consumption grows longer, what new conduits will companies use to reach a diversified audience? Will they continue to explicitly rely on PR professionals? Will they start pitching to diggers themselves?*

Who knows?

This is actually already happening… I read an article about how companies have approached the most influential diggers, including 13-year old snot nose punks who sit on their computer all day. Makes… me… ang-ry.

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I Don’t Want to Live in a World without Burritos

July 9, 2007 · Leave a Comment

Congratulations to the New York Times editorial board for finally growing a pair. Puberty is a special time when your budding gonads slowly descend, your voice deepens, and you start to question authority. I’m verklempt.

In no instance is the axiom “the opposite of progress is Congress” more true than on the issue of Iraq. Democrats sent a timetable to the White House knowing full well it would be vetoed, and would lack the required super-majority to override. And the President continues to conveniently push-back his benchmarked expectations until he sees a clear turnaround.

In my previous post, I initially intended to inquire why it was so easy for the media and general population to pick-up and run with the immigration issue, while the question of Iraq is handled with kid-gloves. Why does Lou Dobbs have a conniption at the mention of “amnesty,” but talks over Iraq as if it were verbal cud?

It’s weird, right? Why can’t people get angry over the war without being cast as hysterical?

I think there are a lot of reasons, but most importantly is the fundamental misunderstanding or misconstruing of sectarian violence and targeted terrorism. Most people aren’t sure why our troops are there, other than we invaded on false urgency, made a mess of things, and should stay until things have settled down. Um, let’s ask Britain how that worked for them in Israel.

Another unfortunate pawn in the debate are our troops themselves. Do you ever notice how uncomfortable politicians get when the talk about the “cost” of the war financially without first mentioning the cost in bodies? Nearly 4,000 American soldiers have died, and nearly 20,000 have been wounded.

Now, I don’t want to sound crass, because these are professional soldiers who bravely enlisted during a time of war. As long as they are overseas they will have my support, admiration and respect. But a soldier’s sacrifice should not obfuscate how much this war is costing our nation in real dollars. And at $200 million per day, and an estimated $1.7 trillion overall… this war is very, very expensive.

As a tax-payer, why can’t I (or anyone besides Ron Paul) get viscerally angry at that price-tag?

Because the soldiers are giving their lives, and you can’t put a price on that, and nobody wants to be the beatnik hippie who spits on their veterans, so it’s best if you just don’t bring it up at all. (Hold on… let me remove the silver spoon from my mouth… there we are). Plus there are those (and I used to be one of them) that still think Iraq is strategically salvageable to secure a viable source of foreign oil for years to come.

Well, it’s not. It’s a sunk cost. As much as it pains me to admit, liberal economic theory is too optimistic to expect a democracy to exist in an single-resource economy (see: Iran, Afghanistan, Columbia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia). And the global spotlight is too intense to set up another puppet government.

So on the issue of Iraq, we walk on egg-shells, waiting for someone, anyone to take a strong position, admitting failure, citing cost-benefit analysis.

But on immigration, any yahoo can openly and eagerly hate on an illegal alien. And we can shoot down policy reforms willy-nilly, even if it means accepting the status quo.

And that, is the Dobbsian theory.

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On Civil Society and the Internet

June 25, 2007 · 1 Comment

This photo cracks me up.

There’s been a lot said and written (especially vis a vis the Democratic primary debates) about how to best approach the emerging threat of a totalitarian, hostile and nuclear Iran.

It’s a complicated issue. The long and short of it is:

  1. We went to war with Iraq on false information.
  2. The Bush administration underestimated the fallout of a power vacuum in a post-Saddam Iraq.
  3. The same group thinking and jingoism that justified that war in the first place is now dog-piling in the “told you so” camp.
  4. The administration has failed to see immediate returns in the surge and is now spinning the extended conflict as a proxy war with Iran.

This leaves us in a tough spot. Is the Bush Doctrine of preemptive regime change a failure in principle, or in its execution? What constitutes an imminent threat? Are we really ready to add a third front to this war?

Watching the Democratic debates, every single candidate was loathe to suggest anything but “diplomatic” tactics against an aggressive Iran. Well, the New York Times Magazine suggests that diplomacy may do more harm than good in a piece titled Hard Realities of Soft Power.

In the article, the former director of Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council says the following of US aid to Iranian NGOs:

“I was worried about the safety of those on the receiving end of the funds. But I also just wondered if this was feasible. I don’t see how a U.S. government that has been absent from Tehran for 30 years is capable of formulating a program that will have a positive effect… This may have been a very high profile, sexy project, but the likelihood of real impact was minimal.”

Now I certainly won’t purport to be an expert on the Middle East. But one of the (many) things I learned in Cuba was that in a closed society, anti-American rhetoric can completely sustain a regime. Every Cuban was vividly aware of the meddling role the United States had played in the history of their country. I am certain that Iran perpetuates and plays off the same suspicions to its citizens. Therefore, any organization that receives funding from the US, humanitarian or not, is going to be painted as a subversive front.

However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t make the effort. When the Shah was ousted from power in 1979, the intelligence community in the US was caught with its collective pants around its (swollen) ankles. Frankly, I’m hesitant to take the NSC’s evaluation as the end-all-be-all.

My take is this: for four years I lived in Westwood, which along with Brentwood and Beverly Hills is known as “Tehrangeles.” I can attest first-hand that Persian exiles living in the United States are, shall we say, “ostentatiously frivolous” with their money, much like Cuban exiles in Miami. That is to say, there are lots of designer sunglasses being purchased.

Clearly these are cross-sections of the upper-echelons which had the most to lose from a Revolution. These two ethnic groups have not only fully assimilated into the American mainstream, but have dynamically changed it. The speedy transitions suggest that the value systems of our respective cultures are not as fundamentally different as we might have otherwise assumed. Or, at least, it is misleading to paint entire populations with a broad brush, especially in non-democracies.

Moreover, this (once again) proves the universal preference for individual liberties:

There is a mass movement. There is a silent majority that does not want this regime. We’re experiencing a slow 1978 in the context of Iranian history.

As Iran Cracks Down on Dissent, we as Americans should take note. The regime is extremely insecure, and rightfully so. Controlling a society in an Information Age is no easy task.

I find it extremely interesting that Google is stepping up to the plate on this issue. In their new Public Policy blog, they outline a position that state censorship should be considered a trade-barrier.

Now, we already have a “Radio Marti” broadcast in Cuba and a “Voice of America” in Iran. The fundamental assumption of Voice of America is that the societies to which it is broadcasting are not free and that the best thing you can do to advance their freedom is to show them what fair reporting is like and, along the way, show them the good news about American values.

It’s fascinating to me that Google and its ilk could be the new Radio Free Europe of our generation. Certainly there are steps a government (like China) can take to restrict internet access, but there are also counter-measures such as IP-blocking allowing for private browsing. In China’s case, they have learned the lessons of history and are at least somewhat relaxed in allowing a space for a (monitored) civil society. This is not the case in Iran.

As Al Gore says, the internet, for all its excesses, holds the potential as the great equalizer.

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