Friday, April 04, 2008

It's curious how much the "Country Is Going in the Right Direction" curve resembles the Laffer Curve

According to the New York Times/CBS poll, the percentage of people thinking the country is going in the right direction is at an all time low since they started asking this question in the early nineties. It's especially striking because public opinion usually hits its low point only in the months and years after an economic downturn, not at the start. Good for McCain that he probably doesn't waste a lot of time looking at charts like this, or he might have nightmares.

Something struck me as familiar about that line that goes up, peaks after 9/11, and then plummets. Then I realized what it was. Do some data smoothing and round off the jagged edges, and the curve closely approximates the theoretical Laffer Curve, much beloved of certain economists who are not fond of taxes. (And a real "laugher" it was, as this was the theoretical underpinning of supply side economics and the relentless tax cutting that began under Reagan and resumed under Bush, though they no longer referred to the Laffer Curve, which had pretty much been laughed off the economic stage).

I won't speculate about any possible causal connection, but it is interesting to note that, while the real Laffer Curve is symmetrical and eventually returns to its original baseline, the "things are going to hell in a handbasket" curve just keeps falling. We need to give it a name so it can be enshrined in the annals of economic theory. Maybe we could call it the You Cannot Fool All of the People All of the Time Curve.

All together now, let's fight terrorism by keeping an eye out for photographers who seem odd

Terrorism is a serious matter. Terrorists use cameras in planning their attacks, so we all need to keep an eye out for photographers who seem odd. Use your judgment. Do they look shifty, twitchy or nervous? Do they have a sullen, hangdog, guilty look? Do they exhibit a Middle Eastern appearance? Are they brown? Our national security depends on your vigilance. You can't be too careful.

That seems to be what this poster issued by the Metropolitan Police of London seems to be saying (click on image to enlarge). It's an open-ended invitation to profile the people you see around you. I came across it at an interesting Flickr group called Photography Is Not a Crime, showcasing photographs that got photographers in trouble with police or security guards, along with the stories behind the pictures. The member who posted it also put up this link to a wonderful satirical "counter-poster."

Nothing like creating a climate of fear to keep the public in line and voting for politicians who promise them security while they take away their liberties. And, of course, it's stupid. Sure, terrorists sometimes use cameras. Who doesn't? But anybody scouting out a target would use a small, unobtrusive high resolution point-and-shoot indistinguishable from millions of other cameras used by tourists and local residents. With a 10-megapixel camera with a good zoom lens they could stand far away from the significant detail they wish to photograph and snap it completely unobtrusively. The whole thing is stupid.

The folly is compounded by the fact, noted by a commenter at Photography Is Not a Crime, that many security guards automatically equate camera size with danger. Generally, people using point-and-shoots can shoot almost anywhere, as long as they don't fire the flash where they're not supposed to. But anybody using a prosumer or professional DSLR with a big lens is likely to be challenged in the most unlikely place. That was certainly my experience at the Kastenmeier Federal Courthouse in Madison. I had photographed this striking red and blue example of Kenton Peters architecture many times with a point and shoot. No problem. But the first time I approached the building with a DSLR and a honking big 10-20mm Sigma ultrawide zoom, security came rushing out of the building to confront me..

Eventually the ice does go away

Ice Breaking Up on Lake Wingra
Ice breaking up on Lake Wingra, as seen from Vilas Park. Trees on the other side of the lake are in the UW Arboretum.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

I thought the new Clinton mashup was hilarious

I saw the new Hillary mashup on the Today show this morning. I thought it was hilarious. You know, the one that parodies the famous 3:00 a.m. ringing phone spot, except that this time there's a worried looking family on the other end, clearly about to be evicted from their foreclosed home. There's also an older dude, going over papers, probably about to file bankruptcy. But Hillary is right there , looking cool and poised and answering the red phone at 3:00 a.m. She'll deal with it.

My only quibble was that it left too much to the imagination. It could have used some words for Hillary when she gets on the phone. Something like this:
Stay calm, and above all, don't leave your house! We have everything under control. Federal agents are securing the perimeter at this moment. We have a jet standing by at Andrews and our crisis team will take off in ten minutes -- a mortgage banker with new loan documents, an attorney with a briefcase full of injunctions and a federal judge to approve them, as well as an accountant and a financial planner to help you get your books in order. We'll have you out of this situation before the sun rises. What? . . . Oh, no it's nothing. I was already up. A president has to answer a lot of phone calls at 3:00. It goes with the turf.
But even without the words, it was a work of pure comic genius. Here, I'll just check online to see who did it. Oh, never mind. It's real.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Wisconsin April Fool's Day prank: Hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters disappear between Feb. 19 and April 1

It was a mystery where they went, because they faded away so very quietly. There was no announcement. They didn't leave a note. Nobody saw them go. There were no long lines of backed up traffic on the Interstate. Airport traffic was normal. They just up and vanished -- and because they vanished, a dirty right-wing, pro-business racist smear campaign of misrepresentation and deception succeeded in giving conservatives the balance of power on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in yesterday's statewide election.

They definitely disappeared. Just do the math: In the Feb. 19 Wisconsin presidential primary, Barack Obama got 646,851 votes. Hillary Clinton was the runner-up with 453,954 votes. The two candidates, not even including the other Democrats still on the ballot, accounted for more than 1.1 million votes. In comparison, the combined total yesterday for Supreme Court challenger Mike Gableman (411,272) and incumbent Louis Butler(391,549) was roughly 803,000. Both Obama and Clinton individually outpolled the winner, and together they had 800,000-plus more votes than Butler.

You can quibble about how many Democratic voters disappeared. The Feb. 19 total was probably inflated by independents and Republicans crossing over. Go ahead. Knock off 300,000 or so of the total as not being "real" Democrats, although they voted Democratic in the Feb. primary. That still leaves 500,000 Democrats who did not show up at the polls to vote for an embattled liberal high court justice fighting a malicious smear campaign fueled by big-money interests. Granted, the race in technically non-partisan. But the battle was fought so ferociously it was clear to everyone who was backing whom and what was at stake.

The sad irony is that Butler did not need all those Democratic votes. A mere 20,0000 more votes would have given him the victory. If a mere 4% of the "missing" Democrats had shown up, Butler would have won. But the missing voters were nowhere to be found. They had disappeared.

The missing were all people who voted for change and against Republican rule on Feb. 19. The vast majority voted for the first real contender to be the nation's first black president. The others voted for the first real contender to be the nation's first woman president. They were good people who braved the February cold to put their principles on the line and vote for hope. And then, yesterday, they played one of the great April Fool's pranks of all time. By staying away from the polls they allowed the state Supreme Court to be sold to the highest bidder in a dirty, rigged auction. And while many Americans are thrilled by the prospect of the U.S. electing its first black president this fall, Wisconsin Democrats were unable to show up in sufficient numbers to keep the state's first black Supreme Court justice from being unceremoniously kicked off the high court.

All this happened while the netroots were otherwise preoccupied. They hardly noticed the disappearing Democrats. The liberal blogosphere was too busy with a fierce and divisive race for the Democratic presidential nomination and the resulting name calling, flame wars and broken friendships.

Has Karl Rove been able to stop cackling with glee? I doubt it. Will the presidential campaign be so dirty it makes the Wisconsin judicial race seem like child's play? Will Republican surrogates play the race card while McCain sails serenely above the fray? You can count on it.

Will Democrats wake up? I hope so.

Crossposted at Daily Kos with, naturally, a lot more comments.

Going to the polls in Madison felt like being a character in the latest John Grisham novel

Spring Election Polling Place in Madison's Dudgeon School
When we went to vote last night in the spring election, our polling place in Madison's Dudgeon School building was cheerful and colorful and the windows looked out on a fading violet spring sky. But something was off. There was an eerie stillness. Turnout in spring elections is traditionally light, but I wondered whether certain dark forces had succeeded in further depressing turnout for their own nefarious ends. The room was was empty of voters before T and I arrived, and it was empty after we left.

Admittedly, I was in a paranoid frame of mind. I already felt like a bit player in the latest John Grisham novel, The Appeal, which was reviewed in Sunday's NYT Book Review by Steven Brill.
Grisham sticks with his formula for the villains in “The Appeal.” But he paints a more complicated picture of the heroes, while making an important point about how the justice system in more than half of the 50 states is increasingly threatened by the kind of big-money gutter politics that have made so many Americans disgusted with Washington.
Grisham's novel is about an attempted corporate takeover of the Mississippi Supreme Court, and when I read the review, I was struck by the similarity to our own Supreme Court race in Wisconsin, one of our dirtiest judicial contests in years.

That's what got me wondering about the low turnout. The big-bucks mudslinging campaign with which Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) and other business interests attempted to unseat Justice Louis Butler seemed to me to have three goals: 1) Turn voters against Butler with a racist, misleading saturation campaign of TV commercials portraying him as favoring a black rapist who went on to rape again. 2) Force Butler to go negative against challenger Mike Gableman in self defense, which he eventually did. 3) Voter suppression: Provoke a general slimefest to make the general public so angry at both candidates they don't vote, giving WMC voters more leverage in an election most voters tune out.

Paul Soglin has been blogging about this race almost nonstop, including this thoughtful post the other day about the changes in Wisconsin politics the last decade and a half.
Wisconsin politics charged in the 1990's. The undercurrent was previously there, but the nasty forces that worked into organizations like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) were unleashed in the new century when Governor Thompson went to Washington and the extreme right-wing took over the Republican Party and its front organizations. And where there were no clandestine operations, they created new ones.

We know the outcome. The readers of Waxing America need only go through previous posts to see the documentation of sinister groups that lie and ruin the reputations of people and institutions in their effort to destroy government and create a corporate socialism that sucks the life out of public education, city hall, and the courthouse.
Yesterday Soglin's approach turned satirical -- simply a short, Swiftian list of bullet points: Why I Am Voting Today for Michael Gableman. Read it and weep.

Wisconsin is one of about 30 states that don't appoint Supreme Court justices, but instead still elect them. As Brill points out in his review, this is a recipe for disaster, since judicial elections, with their sparse turnouts and voters who know little about the candidates are ripe for abuse by special interests.
It’s bad enough that those in our executive and legislative branches can take contributions from people who have business before them to finance elections quarterbacked by spinmeisters and filled with phony attack ads. But the notion of obscure judges — charged with ruling objectively on crucial, complicated points of law — being showered with millions from lawyers, litigants and other special interests who have cases before them is worse.
No system is perfect, and appointing judges also creates its own potential for abuse. Still, it's hard to imagine anything any worse than this year's nonstop bombardment by money and mud. Amending our state constitution may be an idea whose time has come. But it wasn't on the ballot last night. When I went to the polls and played my assigned role in the legal thriller this race has become, I did the only thing I could do: I voted for the good guy.

PS: Long after I went to bed the good guy lost. The smears against our first African-American state Supreme Court justice did their job. Butler became the first incumbent high court justice to be defeated in more than 40 years. Wisconsin now has a conservative Supreme Court majority. Tell me again how America has changed, and this is going to be a great year for Democrats.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Hyping Paulson's big regulatory reform reshuffle

Will Treasury Secretary Paulson's newly announced changes quell the unrest in the financial markets? Yes, if the plan's success can be measured by the hype it triggered in the media.
March 31 (Bloomberg) -- Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson proposed the broadest overhaul of U.S. financial regulation since the Great Depression, saying the system for overseeing American capitalism needs to be better prepared for "inevitable market disruptions."

"Our major financial services companies are becoming larger, more complex and more difficult to manage," Paulson said in remarks at the Treasury in Washington. "The real threat to market stability is below ground, at the root level where the health of financial firms is intertwined."
Paul Krugman is unconvinced. He thinks Paulson is tinkering with the parts of the system that aren't broken but not addressing the real problems at all.
Thus, in a draft of a speech to be delivered on Monday, Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, declares, “I do not believe it is fair or accurate to blame our regulatory structure for the current turmoil.”

And sure enough, according to the executive summary of the new administration plan, regulation will be limited to institutions that receive explicit federal guarantees — that is, institutions that are already regulated, and have not been the source of today’s problems. As for the rest, it blithely declares that “market discipline is the most effective tool to limit systemic risk.”
Biggest regulatory overhaul since the Great Depression, or one more Bush administration shell game? Stay tuned.

Print journalism as we know it is dying as surely as this frozen relic in Lake Mendota

Print Journalism As We have Always Known It Is Dying

Peter Patau Photo

This newspaper that spent the last few months being torn apart by the ice and snow of a hard winter on Lake Mendota seems emblematic of what is happening to the practice of print journalism as we know it -- everywhere, not just in Madison, where we're losing a dead tree daily in less than a month. The industry has been pounded by forces beyond its control, and the dead trees are dying a second death.

Here in Madison The Capital Times will stop publishing as a print daily newspaper on April 26, continuing as an internet newspaper with two print supplements per week that will appear in the Wisconsin State Journal. It already seems to be a kind of ghost newspaper, since a lot of familiar names are gone. Columnist Doug Moe jumped ship for the State Journal. Others have taken buyouts and left. There's more freelance and wire service copy filling the gap.

Although the announcement of the daily's planned reincarnation on the internet was filled with optimistic predictions of a proud future, it feels as if The Capital Times, an outspoken progressive voice in Madison for the better part of a century, is dying before our eyes. It had seemed inevitable, simply a matter of time, for a long time, but I already miss it and can't shake a sharp sense of loss. Part of it is personal. I've been a subscriber for years and years -- which probably says as much about me and my demographics as the paper itself.

But it's more than a personal loss. For years now, Madison has been unique for a city our size in having two competitive daily newspapers, a fact that added greatly to our local political discourse. But the way Madisonians get their news has been changing for a long time. News is moving to the internet, where a variety of media share a stage that had once belonged almost exclusively to print journalists. And news has become a more interactive process as Web 2.0 applications make possible a far richer reader interaction than was ever possible with an occasional letter to the editor of a newspaper.

Eric Alterman writes about the future of newspapers in this week's New Yorker. He notes how quickly the landscape is changing, and how it realigns the way we process news. Among other things, the somewhat artificial American conventions of "objective journalism" are likely be replaced by different kinds of practices and expectations.

The young have been occupying this territory for some time, but for some of us it will be a very different world than the one we grew up in.
And so we are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism. The transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of “news”––and each with its own set of “truths” upon which to base debate and discussion––will mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of “facts” by which to conduct our politics. News will become increasingly “red” or “blue.” This is not utterly new. Before Adolph Ochs took over the Times, in 1896, and issued his famous “without fear or favor” declaration, the American scene was dominated by brazenly partisan newspapers. And the news cultures of many European nations long ago embraced the notion of competing narratives for different political communities, with individual newspapers reflecting the views of each faction. It may not be entirely coincidental that these nations enjoy a level of political engagement that dwarfs that of the United States.
I've been getting most of my news online for years, and my head tells me the change is probably a good thing, but my heart will still yearn for the paper that will never come.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Kansas Jayhawks hold off scrappy Davidson Wildcats in UW Memorial Union Rathskeller

Wildcats Pounce on Jayhawks in UW Memorial Union Rathskeller
The large-screen TV in the UW's Memorial Union Rathskeller Sunday afternoon showed "Cinderella Team" Davidson putting up a scrappy fight against Kansas that went down to a final shot at the buzzer before losing, 59-57. It was the Elite Eight game in which Badger fans had expected to see Wisconsin take on Kansas -- before Davidson upset the Badgers Friday.