Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Money Value of Time, Or, Why Almost Everyone Undervalues Their Own Time

Image source.

This post from the Mint blog got me thinking about how almost everyone undervalues their time. I've posted several articles that reference peculiar behaviors that people engage in because they undervalue their time, but I've never posted an article on the phenomenon itself, so I figured now's as good a time as any to rectify that oversight.

The post discusses a dad's tale of volunteering for a book fair at his daughter's school:
My daughter’s school holds an annual book fair to raise money to buy library books and I volunteered to coordinate it this year. A local bookstore brings over crates of books and kids come in throughout the week to buy them. Proceeds are split between the bookstore and the library.
In short, the book fair is a big, fun lesson in literacy, generosity, fractions and decimals, all bound up. What could be so bad about that?
Here’s the problem: I ended up taking almost the whole week off work, unpaid, to sit in the library selling books. I’m not complaining about that, though. Who wouldn’t prefer to hang out with kids, reading books, instead of working?
Conservatively, however, I missed out on billing $600 worth of work; call it $450 after taxes. The book fair raised about $150 for the library. If I’d gone to work and just donated my paycheck, the library could have bought a lot more new books.
Even though I thought I knew better, I became the walking incarnation of the conclusion of a famous economics paper:
“The inherent ambiguity of the value of time promotes accommodation and rationalization and may explain the rather obvious observation that most people are a lot more willing to waste time than money.”
Granted, maybe he got such enjoyment out of his volunteer work that it made more sense for him to do the volunteer work than to donate an entire week's pay to the school library - but I doubt it. People enjoy giving away money to worthy causes, as well as volunteering, and giving away three times as much money as he "earned" by volunteering would have probably given him greater satisfaction.

This is just a small example of people being very willing to waste their time, apparently without worrying about the fact that their time is a finite resource, just like their money. Here are some other examples of people (irrationally) wasting time that have appeared on this blog:
  1. People drive around, wasting both time and money (in the form of gasoline), in order to save a few cents per gallon at the gasoline pump - a truly silly, wasteful endeavor. Unless gas in your area are EXTREMELY variable (and I can almost guarantee that they're not), it's almost always in your best interest to fill up at the gas station that takes you the least time and distance out of your way.
  2. People waste astounding amounts of time (and, again, money in the form of gasoline) commuting - $28,760 for a family in the DC area, I estimated a while back. People tolerate (long) commutes because they think they want a stand-alone house with a yard, because houses in the suburbs are cheaper than houses downtown (though this conclusion usually doesn't take into account the costs of commuting, especially the time lost), or for some other reason. As someone who lives in downtown, that's good for me - the fact that people don't value their time properly essentially means that they are subsidizing my downtown lifestyle by making housing in downtown cheaper than it should be. Thanks, everybody!
  3. The very existence of this blog might be an example of me undervaluing my own time. By now, I have spent hundreds of hours researching and writing the almost 300 posts on this blog, and God knows I don't make any money from it - in fact, this blog actually costs me money. But, I'd argue that this blog isn't a byproduct of me undervaluing my time like the above examples - I write it primarily for my own amusement and generally enjoy the process, and I greatly enjoy my readership and the feedback I receive on my posts. On the other hand, if I could get tons of outside consulting gigs that would fill my spare time and that wouldn't get me fired from my regular job (not an inconsiderable feat, unfortunately), I'd probably blog a little less and work a little more - so perhaps I am still undervaluing my time a bit.
Why is it so common for humans to undervalue our time?

I'm not a philosopher (if you are, feel free to give your own explanation in the comments), but one possible series of explanations could be born from our collective desire to deny the inevitability of our own death. We waste our time as a kind of collective denial mechanism, brandishing our wasted time as a shield or badge that shows God, the universe, nature, etc. that we're special and that we're not going to die. I'll leave this line of explanation to others who are better equipped than I to elaborate on it.

Another possibility is that we are simply deeply irrational beings who fear losses more than we value gains (for more information, look up prospect theory). That is, losing $100 makes us twice as unhappy as gaining $100 makes us happy. Time is an extremely intangible resource, so it's hard for most people to understand properly; and if you don't understand something properly, you can't value it properly. Therefore, people are far less afraid of wasting (i.e. losing) time than they are losing something tangible, like money, even though their time might be more valuable.

I'm inclined to put more stock into the second explanation than the first (though you're welcome to posit more explanations in the comments). Part of the reason for this is that several notable economists (highly rational people) place very high values on their time - from $400 per hour up to $5000 per hour. Those are the rates they've decided to charge if a random stranger from the Interwebz wants to talk to them. They assume that talking to a random stranger will probably not be the most pleasant of tasks, so that's the price these rational people put on talking to a random stranger for an hour versus, for example, having an extra hour of playtime with their children, reading a book they want to read, watching a TV show they want to watch, playing a video game they want to play, writing blog posts, etc. Some people would look at some of those alternative activities and conclude that they are themselves wastes of time - but the point is that it's generally a good idea to have some idea of the marginal value of your own time and use that value to help guide decisions about what you do.

I rather suspect that if more people thought that way, people would live closer to where they work; gas consumption and air pollution would decrease dramatically; the world would function far more efficiently; and everyone would be happier. And the first step is for you to stop undervaluing your own time!

(A useful corollary to this is to think about what you buy in terms of the hours of work you had to put in to buy something - for example, if people started thinking in terms of coffee and lunch bought at the office as costing them ~5.5 hours per week rather than $70 per week, they'd probably pack their lunch and coffee more often. [Note: hour-to-cash conversion done with the U.S. median hourly wage, accounting for taxes and the like.])

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stories Told by Income, Corporate, Capital Gains Tax Rates from 1916-2010

From the always excellent VisualizingEconomics, we have the following graph of marginal income, corporate, and capital gains taxes over time:

Click on the above image for HUGE version.

[Note: VisualizingEconomcs updated the above chart for 2011, but since I couldn't find an easy way to link to a high-resolution version, I put the year old version above.]

The above chart tells a number of very interesting stories, at least to me:
  1. America has always privileged capital over labor (in the sense that capital gains have always been taxed at rates far lower than those for income, except for a brief period in the late 1980s). There is nothing inherently wrong with that, and it probably encourages capital formation, to some extent (thought to what extent is subject to serious debate) - but it is interesting to note that America has always valued capital over labor, in spite of any American rhetoric to the contrary.
  2. During the golden era of economic growth in the United States, from the end of World War II until the mid to late-1970s, marginal tax rates were set at a level that would today be considered punitive, socialist, communist, and a whole host of other nasty, inaccurate, derogatory terms. Yet, during that time, entrepreneurs still innovated, executives and workers alike still went to work, and businesses were founded, died, and flourished. This leaves me to believe that hysterical tales of how incredibly responsive people are to marginal tax rates are probably wildly overblown - I suspect that Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerburg, Mitt Romney, and pretty much any other wealthy person would continue to work just as hard if his last million in income were taxed at 70% (the rate under Nixon) or 50% (the rate under Reagan) as they do being taxed at ~35% now (or at ~15% now, if most of your income comes as capital gains, like Buffet or Romney).
  3. The era of ultra-low marginal tax rates on all forms of income is a relatively modern phenomenon - this trend didn't start until the late 1970s/early 1980s. Perhaps it's just coincidence, but this is about the same time that the U.S. economy stopped working for the poorest 80-90% of Americans - and the U.S. economy still isn't working well for the bottom 90% or so of Americans, and it's only working really well for the top 1% (or, even more so, the top 0.1%). If your economy isn't working well for more than 90% of your populace, it's probably time to rethink the way your economy works. Hell, even billionaire fat cats admit that the U.S. economy would be healthier and that the country would be more prosperous if the U.S. had extremely high marginal tax rates.
  4. In times of war, Congress usually raises taxes substantially in order to fund the war effort. The only time this hasn't happened was when the Bush Administration led the U.S. into war against Afghanistan and Iraq - while at the same time cutting taxes, instead of raising them! This unprecedented situation was the cause of much of the explosion is U.S. government debt in the past decade.
  5. Even though the economy has not been working for most Americans for the past three decades or so, the U.S. has continued to get richer and richer as a country (though most of the income gains have gone to the people at the top of the income distribution). As a country gets richer and has more resources at its disposal, it's only reasonable and rational that its citizens come to expect for the government to do MORE for its citizens, not less - especially since many of the things citizens want can only be accomplished through a massively coordinated effort that only a government can provide (or that a government can provide most efficiently / must subsidize or promote heavily) - for example, highways, high-speed rail, security and public safety, an economic safety net, health care, clean air, clean water, etc. In this sense, conservatives who advocate for smaller government are battling against the tide of history, and despite occasional short-term victories, I wager they'll lose in the long run.
So, yes, there are a lot of interesting stories buried in this little chart. What stories does it tell you?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why Do Americans Prefer Cheap Food? And Why Eat So Much of It?

Sorry for the slow posting - this week has been a little rough. But, I did want to get a short post up tonight, so here we have an interesting interactive infographic from comparing total calories consumed per capita by countries; what percentage of income people spend on food, on average; and a bunch of other interesting food facts:

Click on the picture above to be taken to the interactive infographic.

A couple of points stand out from this data presentation: Americans consume more calories on average than any other country, but at the same time, they spend less of their income on food than any other country. Why do Americans prefer cheap food, when they could obviously afford to spend more on food and therefore eat better food?

Cliff Kuang theorizes:
Americans only spend 6.9% of their income on food. Compare that to a country such as Italy, which has a far lower rate of obesity. Italians eat only 100 fewer calories per day than we do--but they spend more than twice [as much of] their income on food ... I would argue that Europeans are willing to pay more for better food because what they eat is so wrapped up with national pride and cultural identity. Why wouldn't you spend the time to buy great ingredients for something homemade if that's how your beloved grandmother did it? Americans, by contrast, have far less of a cultural attachment to the food we eat. We don't have national dishes and food traditions that bind us together in the way of Italy or Greece.
I think he may be on to something. I remember eating a lot of casseroles growing up, and now that I'm an adult, I never make them for myself and I won't ever pass them along to my not-yet-existent children. If anything, my wife and I have mostly reverted to "Old World" food, cooking a lot of different Italian and French dishes, while often throwing South American and Asian into the mix as well.

That doesn't explain the quantity question, however, nor does it account for the fact that immigrants who move to the US usually come to suffer from the same rates of obesity as native-born Americans withing a relatively short period of time.

For my palate, non-American food just tastes so much better and more complex than typical American fare, which, honestly, we pretty much only eat when we're on the road or visiting our parents, at this point.

OK, writing this post has made me salivate - time to go eat the slow-roasted duck my wife made for dinner!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why Government Tech Sux, and Why the Government Doesn't Get Technology

Coming out of the long holiday weekend, I've just got a short post tonight drawing attention to an interesting article on Techdirt, which describes a problem I face every day in my government job:
There's been lots of talk in the past few months about the sheer ignorance of those in goverment on technology issues -- in some cases where elected officials are gleefully, willfully ignorant. Some of them are just out of touch (or old, old-fashioned and have no desire to be in touch). Others, however, do seem to want to keep up on the latest technology. But there's a problem there. The technology the government gives them is so out of date, in many cases they don't understand the technology because they don't know the technology. Now, to be fair, there actually are some government staffers who are really clued in, and who understand all of this stuff deeply. In fact, I recently met some federal government IT staffers, who were quite well informed. But those tend to be the kind of "tech native" folks who would follow technology no matter what, even if their jobs didn't depend on it. Those are the tech natives, the early adopters, etc. 

But the problem is in the much larger group outside of the "tech native" people. It's in the group of folks who want to know about and understand technology, but don't follow it closely. And the big problem here is that the government makes it exceedingly difficult to get new technology in front of these people. Clay Johnson recently had a great post about how this became clear, quite graphically, among techies in the federal government. They'd have two computers on their desks -- an ancient one that the government gave them (with a screensaver showing, because it wasn't actually being used) and a late model Macbook... that they had bought personally to bring into the office to actually do some work. He found out that just the process of buying an official new computer through the government procurement system required at least an 18-month wait.
I have the same problem. A large portion of my job involves analyzing huge, complex data sets - 100GB+ data sets with hundred of millions or billions of records, and to accomplish this task, the government hands me .... a standard issue Dell Latitude E6410.

Dear government: there's a reason that the private sector builds computers costing several $10,000s or even millions to do the kind of analyses that you're asking me to do on an entry-level laptop. Even when I can coax my Dell E6410 into running that kind of analysis (and sometimes I can't, so a requested analysis just doesn't get done), it takes several hours or even days to run such an analysis, during which the Dell cannot be used to do any other task, even something as simple as checking email.

So, similarly to the employees mentioned in the Techdirt article, my work-around is to run most of my actual analysis on my telework days, when I have access to my rather speedy desktop computer, which can run these analyses 30-50 times faster than my government-issued laptop. I'm probably breaking a few IT policies by doing so, but by refusing to buy me the equipment I need to do my job, the government has given me a difficult choice:
  1. Do all my work on my government laptop and waste EPIC amounts of my time. As a highly trained and skilled financial, statistical, and economic analyst, my time is not cheap, and wasting epic amounts of my time translates directly into wasting epic amounts of taxpayer money.
  2. Do as much of my actual number crunching on my personal desktop computer as possible. I can't work as efficiently as I'd like; I'm causing wear on my personal property in service to the government that I'm not being compensated for; and I'm probably breaking several IT policies - but at least I'm getting the work done in as financially responsible a manner as possible, and it prevents me from ripping my hair out in frustration.
Given the choice between these 2 crappy options, I chose door #2.

But, what if I weren't kind enough to donate my personal resources to the government, or, more likely, didn't have a super-fast desktop computer available to run these analyses on?

The government would be wasting tons of money paying me to sit around waiting for my computer to finish running analyses - money that it could stop wasting simply by paying $3-4,000 for a halfway decent computer to run the kinds of analyses I am required to do as part of my job.

That investment would pay for itself in less than 2 months, because of all the money the government would save in the form of my time.

And I have several coworkers who are all in the same situation - but none of them have fast desktop computers to use instead of their government-issued laptops, and/or they don't telework.

Sigh. Government procurement, especially with tech - always penny-wise, pound-foolish.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Once-a-Year Angry Bureaucrat Happy Birthday Bleg, and a Big Thanks to You for Reading

(You can blame Freakonomics for introducing me to the term "bleg.")

Well, the blog is one year old as of yesterday - it's hard to believe that it's already been a year since I started posting about whatever happened to interest me as a way to clarify my own thinking, generate ideas, connect with friends and strangers, and try to contribute to the greater public discourse in some small way.

I've had a great time writing this blog, and I plan to continue to do so for the foreseeable future! According to the sidebar, I've posted 268 articles thus far. There's a lot of great stuff back there in the archives, so if you're relatively new to the site or only visit occasionally, check out the archives or try out the search button and see what you find. I even browse my own archives sometimes and am occasionally surprised by my own past posts! I remain particularly proud of my Wedding Week posts, so be sure to check those out, if you haven't yet.

Obviously, I'm not a professional blogger, and I don't write this blog to make money. I tried putting up ads for a little while to help cover some of the costs of running this blog (yes, this blog requires resources other than my time, which I happily donate), but the ads didn't bring in any meaningful sum and made the place as gaudy as the Vegas strip, so I took them down.

Nevertheless, I'd rather not be in the red as a result of this blog, so I figured I'd go the NPR route and take the blog's birthday as an opportunity to invite any of you all out there who feel so inclined to donate "whatever amount fits your budget," to quote Steve Inskeep, if you value this blog and want to help me pay the bills for running the site.

The best way to contribute is via PayPal to (since PayPal doesn't charge fees for a simple transfer) - but if you don't have a PayPal account, you can donate with any credit card via the Support button on the right.

Whether or not you're inclined to donate to support the site, I am deeply thankful for the support you show me through your readership, comments, questions, insights, disagreements, criticisms, and general engagement.

Thanks, everyone, for a fantastic year - and I look forward to another great year of blogging in 2012!

-The Angry Bureaucrat

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Following Up From Yesterday - America's Changing Booze Consumption, Visualized

It's like the good people at Good read my mind. Just one day after I post about the unintended positive public health benefits that accrue from making wine cheaper, they post the following infographic, showing how Americans' taste for different kinds of booze has been evolving over time:

Click on the image above to view the HUGE version.

So, what does Good's infographic teach us?

Since the mid 1990's, beer consumption (as a percentage of total alcohol consumption) has been trending downward, while consumption of both wine and spirits has been increasing. (Note: as a data person, I'd say you can safely ignore the apparent spike in wine consumption and drop in beer consumption in 2005 - it's far more likely that this result came about as a result of some kind of kinkiness in the data, not in an actual surge and subsequent crash of wine consumption.)

What I find most surprising is that liquor consumption has actually been growing even faster than wine consumption (again, as a percentage of total alcohol consumption) - and the growth of both wine and liquor consumption has come at the expense of beer consumption.

The demographic breakdowns are more predictable - men prefer beer and women prefer wine; young people drink the most liquor; the Midwest prefers beer; and college grads like their vino.

But, the long-term trend suggests that wine consumption is up and will continue rising, and this could, rather unintentionally, end up giving the US a not insignificant public health dividend.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fun Public Policy - Making Wine Cheaper Might Help Curb Binge Drinking

Well, that's counter-intuitive, via Ezra Klein:
In a working paper for the American Association of Wine Economists, Rickard and his team start off by looking at the states that allow grocery stores to sell wine, versus those that limit such sales to liquor stores. The increased competition of grocery stores selling wine, unsurprisingly, correlates with both lower wine prices and higher rates of wine consumption.

There’s a surprising, public health benefit that grows out of that: States where wine makes up a larger part of total alcohol consumption tend to have lower rates of traffic fatalities.
[I didn't realize there was an American Association of Wine Economists. I guess there really is an association for absolutely everything.]

I'll be the first to point out that correlation does not equal causation, but this is a pretty impressive chart, demonstrating the obvious correlation between consuming more wine as a percentage of total alcohol consumption and fewer traffic fatalities:

From the report, p. 13:
Overall, these results indicate that an increase in beer and spirit consumption, as a share of total alcohol consumption, increases traffic fatalities whereas an increase in wine consumption as a share of total alcohol consumption decreases traffic fatalities.
But what might be the causal relationship between these two variables, wine as a percentage of total alcohol consumption and traffic fatalities? A 2007 study from the Journal of Preventative Medicine found that wine is the form of alcohol that is least likely to be consumed in an episode of binge drinking, accounting for only 10 percent of all binge-drinking episodes, while beer accounted for two-thirds of all binge-drinking episodes. As binge drinking leads almost certainly to intoxication, I suppose it should actually come as no surprise that higher consumption of wine relative to other booze leads to fewer extremely intoxicated people and therefore to fewer traffic fatalities.

While it remains true that higher total alcohol consumption correlates with more traffic fatalities, as one would expect, it seems that the composition of what people drink matters, from a public policy perspective. Bizarrely enough, raising the price of beer and spirits and lowering the price of wine, thereby shifting alcohol consumption away from beer and spirits and towards wine while not increasing total alcohol consumption, might have rather large public health benefits in the form of reduced traffic fatalities. And that's in addition to the other health effects that moderate wine (especially red wine) consumption can bestow.

So, put down the beer and liquor bottles and raise your glass - cheers!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Romney Says American Politics Is Only for the Rich, and He's Probably Right

I hope this will be my last post about Mitt Romney for a while, but I just couldn't let this one slide.

Many commentators, both on the left and on the right, noted that this may prove to be yet another embarrassing statement that Romney's campaign will come to regret. From the most recent Republican debate last Sunday morning:
Romney said his father, Michigan Governor George Romney, had told him, "Mitt, never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage... If you find yourself in a position when you can serve, why you ought to have a responsibility to do so if you think you can make a difference," he recalled his father telling him. "Also, don't get in politics if your kids are still young because it might turn their heads."
A few seconds later, he bragged about his run against Teddy Kennedy. "I was happy he had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me," he said.
Watch the video for yourself here:

I'll do my best to ignore the quip about being "happy [Kennedy] had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me," though to me, that is a telltale sign of someone small-minded and vindictive - not exactly the main qualities we want to have in our Commander-in-Chief.

The more important idea is that Romney believes that American politics should be the province of only the rich - and he may be right.

A few months ago, the University of California at Santa Cruz published a study on wealth, income, and power, focusing on income inequality in the USA and the intersection of income inequality with Congress and people in power in the US. This was the most powerful graphic to come out of the study:

Nearly half of Congress is in the top 1% of US wealth holders, and almost all of Congress is in the top 10%. So, it shouldn't come as much surprise that U.S. laws favor the wealthy - for the most part, it's the wealthy who are writing and passing the laws in the first place. It's rather logical that the rich super-majority in Congress would consistently pass laws that benefit themselves - that's only rational self-interest.

In a similar vein, here's a great infographic from Good comparing the actual composition of Congress to what the composition of Congress would be if it actually reflected the demographic makeup of the USA:

Click on the graphic above for the huge version.

So, there is a disproportionally large number of rich, white, male Protestants, Jews, and Catholics in Congress, while the poor, women, Hispanics, Asians, and people with no religious affiliation are particularly underrepresented.

And according to Mitt Romney, that's the way it should be, thank you very much - now get back to work, you plebeians, and be grateful for the benevolent leadership of your economic and moral superiors!

But seriously - given 1) how much money it takes to run for office in the US, 2) that there's little public support for election campaigns, and 3) that the Republicans are trying to dismantle public funding of elections completely, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it's mainly the rich (or, more specifically, people with lots of rich friends, who are themselves almost certain to be rich) who can and do participate in and win elections. This is a serious problem for American democracy - noteably, one that we've been struggling with since the founding of our country, when only land-owning white males could vote and hold office. Thankfully, it's not that bad anymore, but we still have a long way to go before the American political process is truly open to all - and people (particularly politicians) with attitudes similar to that of Mitt Romney's do nothing to help America form a more perfect union.

Monday, January 9, 2012

One Year After the Tuscon Shooting, We've Learned Exactly Nothing

See this crazy guy? It's only a matter of
time until there are more crazies like him.

I published this post a year ago, right after the terrible shooting in Tuscon, Arizona on January 8, 2011. I'm guessing most people remember the general story - Jared Lee Loughner shot 18 people, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and left 6 people dead.

I read this post again as I was pondering what to say on the anniversary of this tragic crime, and I'm reminded that we Americans have learned almost nothing from the shooting. Almost nothing has changed. We're still just biding our time until something like this happens again. Calls for renewed bipartisanship, so prevalent in the days and weeks following the shooting, have fallen on deaf ears in Congress (mostly on deaf ears amongst the Tea Partiers in Congress). And American political discourse remains stupid.

The basic realities behind the Tuscon shooting are just as true today as they were a year ago:
  • the mental health system in this country sucks. Everyone who ever met this kid Jared Lee Loughner knew that he was extremely unbalanced and probably needed mental health help, but for some reason he didn't get the help he needed.
  • as a country, we have decided that citizens should have access to practically unlimited quantities of assault weapons and ammunition. We don't even regulate guns as seriously as we regulate toys.
If you combine those two lessons, it is not hard to conclude that massacres like this are inevitable. We are a big country with lots of people, and a tiny fraction of those people are batsh*t crazy. If you give batsh*t crazy people access to assault weapons, this country will occasionally face massacres like that in Tucson - it's a statistical inevitability. So, unless the U.S. wants to completely change its approach to mental health and/or assault weapons in the hands of citizens, we are just going to have to get used to paying the price of the occasional massacre. Since the U.S. is a pretty violent society, I'm guessing that we'll just stick with the status quo and act "shocked, shocked I tell you" when things like this happen, even though a quick statistical analysis demonstrates that massacres like this are inevitable.

On the bright side, one might say that American political discourse isn't quite as stupid as it was a year ago - Glenn Beck was finally booted from Fox News, and Sarah Palin has mostly disappeared from the political scene. Even though I'm sure Palin will find her way back sooner or later, these developments have made American political discourse a little less stupid - though now we have to contend with a Republican front-runner who seems to be a compulsive liar. Oh well, we can't win them all.

If you want to read my original post on the Tuscon shooting, click this link.

Why Does Mitt Romney Lie So Much?


I honestly don't mean this post as an attack on Mitt Romney's character - I am genuinely puzzled as to why the man lies so much. Because he does lie - a lot.

And I'm not talking about Romney's epic flip-flopping on issues that matter to many conservatives, including abortion, gun control, stem cell research, DADT, and carbon emissions. It should be obvious to everyone having half a brain that Romney is one of those politicians who will say anything to get elected - otherwise, there's no way that he could have gone from being governor of Massachusetts to being the main contender for the Republican nomination for President. You can call him a flip-flopper, but personally, I understand the guy - he's obviously hungry for power and doesn't care what he has to say or do to get it. If you're comfortable voting for that kind of guy, that's fine.

But what has really baffled me recently, especially during the two recent back-to-back Republican primary debates this weekend, is how much and often Romney straight out lies - effortlessly and without hesitation or shame - and how no one seems to notice, or if they notice, at least not to care. Some of these lies are big, but most of the big lies are tired, demonstrably false lies propegated by all Republican presidential candidates. In repeating these lies, Romney is just echoing the general Republican untruths on these topics:
What is almost more disconcerting is that Romney also tells a lot of little lies, for seemingly no reason whatsoever - and he tells them effortlessly and without hesitation, and no one seems to notice or call him on it.

For example, during the debate this morning, Newt accused Romney of lying in his ads in Iowa. Romney responded by saying that he hadn't seen any of the ads Newt was talking about (since they were actually run by a SuperPAC, not Romney's campaign), but seconds later, he turns around and not only admits that he's seen at least one of the ads, but he describes it in detail. Watch the moment, via ThinkProgress:

OK, if Romney saw the ad, why did he initially lie about it? I mean, I'm sure the ad probably played at least a hundred times while Romney was in Iowa recently - if he was anywhere near a TV, he probably saw it. Why lie about it? There just seems to be no point to the lie, other than to lie for sport, or out of habit, like a bad kid who lies about everything just because he can, or to see whether he can get away with it.

There was also Romney's casual lie about Obama being personally responsible for putting 25 million people out of work - which is so preposterous that the only reason no one was horrified by this ridiculous lie is because everyone on the right is buying into the same lie and everyone on the left expects this kind of dishonesty from Romney and the other Republican presidential candidates. If Obama is really powerful enough to employ or dis-employ 25 million people personally, then he should just summon fire to rain down on the next Republican debate and wipe out all his rivals. (Sarcasm alert is in effect for the previous sentence, in case you missed it.)

Even though it's obvious that Romney will never be my man (seeing as how I would prefer Gingrich), the real problem is that I will not and, indeed, cannot ever trust the man, on a very basic level. I just can't trust a guy who lies so easily and frequently about so many matters, both big and small, often for no apparent reason. After all, if he's lying about Obama's record, about his own record at Bain, and about whether or not he watched a political ad, what else will he lie to the American people about? Just about anything, I fear.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Banned 14-yr Old SNL Cartoon About Media Ownership Is Even Truer Today

Today, I came across the following cartoon, first (and only) aired by Saturday Night Live 14 years ago. Here's the video, originally from SNL, more recently from, via reddit:

About the video:
The 1998 Robert Smigel animated short film "Conspiracy Theory Rock", part of a March 1998 "TV Funhouse" segment, has been removed from all subsequent airings of the Saturday Night Live episode where it originally appeared. Michaels' claimed the edit was done because it "wasn't funny". The film is a scathing critique of corporate media ownership, including NBC's ownership by General Electric/Westinghouse.
Watch the video - it's no wonder that GE cut the cartoon from all subsequent airings of that SNL episode and has never broadcast it since the first showing. I'm amazed it made it on the air the first time.

And since the cartoon originally aired, concentration of media ownership in the US has only gotten more extreme:


So, it makes sense that GE has tried to ban the cartoon and ensure it never sees the light of day again - it's similar to a situation like the Republicans deciding to run a bunch of TV ads highlighting how screwed the middle class in the US has become ever since the US government started adopting Republican economic policies - all it would accomplish is GE shooting itself in the foot.

But, thanks to the Interwebz, we can spread this video far and wide to remind everyone of the extent to which a few extremely large and powerful corporations shape the public discourse, dictate popular culture, decide what is newsworthy, and can make at least a large minority of people believe almost anything they want - and that it's only going to get worse until Congress and/or the FCC decide to change things. I won't hold my breath.

Want to fight back? Make like me and ditch your TV (and your cable bill). The Internet is a better, more diverse, and more international source of news and entertainment than your TV - though these companies control much of the content online as well. Sigh ...

To learn more about the concentration of media ownership in the USA, check out this infographic, from the University of Minnesota (click on the picture for huge version):

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

American Democracy Is Shockingly Expensive - Up to $70,700/Vote In Iowa Yesterday

The results from the Iowa caucuses are in, with almost no surprises.

Mitt Romney, ever the Republican's least favorite front runner, picked up a smaller share of the Iowa caucus vote in 2012 (24.6%) than he did in 2008 (25.2%), though he did manage to convince all of 66 more people to vote for him in the course of 5 years of campaigning in Iowa - congrats, Mitt!

The latest not-Romney, Rick Santorum (I'd suggest against Googling his name) came in a very close second, a mere 8 votes behind Romney.

Perhaps the biggest winner of the night was Ron Paul - he was expected to do relatively well, but he grabbed more than twice the share of the vote (21.4%) than he managed to grab in 2008 (10.0%). But, I predict that if Ron Paul becomes a serious threat to the Republican Establishment's poster-boy Romney, the Establishment will put the smack down on Paul, just like they did Gingrich, and I bet they'll be just as effective in ending Paul's candidacy as they did Gingrich's.

What I found most surprising, however, is how starkly the Iowa Republican caucus illustrated the absurd amounts of money required to be a serious Presidential contender in the USA. Total spending on Iowa TV ads in the Republican caucus was $15.6 million in 2012, up from $11.75 million in 2008, a whopping increase of 32.8%! All to try to grab a slice of about 120,000 voters, for an average cost of $130/vote. Forget stocks and bonds - if the Republicans lose this year, I'm going to invest in Iowa TV ad spending futures for 2016.

It gets even more amazing when you look at how much each candidate paid for each of the votes they received (the chart is in dollars, and comes via the Atlantic):


And for the total amounts the different candidates spent on TV (including money spent by the SuperPACs supporting the candidates), we have this graphic from Buzzfeed:

This graphic actually gives us a lot of interesting information, beyond the raw totals. Practically all of the PAC money went to Perry and Romney, telling us that they were obviously the Republican establishment's choice candidates. Now that the Perry campaign has all but fizzled out, I think we can expect even more vicious Establishment attacks against all remaining non-Romney candidates to kick them out of the race for good. There's a small chance that Santorum could come from behind for the win and be blessed by the Establishment, but I doubt it.

Seriously - how can anyone vote for a guy that tweets this picture
to the entire world?

The graphic (well, both graphics, actually) show the extent to which the Bachmann campaign has/had absolutely no money whatsoever. It's no surprise that she's given up her campaign less than 24 hours after the Iowa results were announced.

On the other hand, the graphics are slightly reassuring in that they show that it is impossible to simply buy all elections in the USA - otherwise, Perry would have won, hands down. That's not to say that money isn't crucially important in American politics - of course it is; otherwise, candidates wouldn't spend so much time trying to raise it - but it's good to see that, once in a while, any random person with lots of money can't simply buy the election that he or she is looking to buy.

But, my favorite way of thinking about these numbers is thinking in terms of the number of dollars spent per additional vote garnered since 2008. Since only Ron Paul and Mitt Romney ran in 2008, I can only calculate this number for these candidates. Paul paid about $190 per additional vote - that seems high to me, but it's nothing compared to the whopping $70,700 per additional vote that Romney paid!

It's a good thing Romney's worth more than $200 million and has a lot of very rich Republicans looking to get him elected President - if each additional vote in the 2012 primaries costs him $70,700, winning the Republican nomination is going to get very expensive very quickly.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happy New Year, and A Blog You Should Read - "A Human Capitalist"

Happy New Year, everyone!

I will admit that I'm having a bit of trouble getting back into the swing of things, both professionally and in the blogosphere - after a week and a half off, I felt like I needed another week and a half off.

I promise I'll get back to the regular blogging grindstone soon (probably tomorrow), but in the meantime, I wanted to share an excellent blog with you, written by one of my fellow students from grad school - "A Human Capitalist." I'm rather ashamed to admit that I just recently stumbled across her blog - my apologies, Sarah, and I'll definitely be following your writing from now on.

She blogs about business, data, development, entrepreneurship, and other interesting, relevant, and important topics. In case you're wondering what perspective she brings to the table, here is an excerpt from the page describing her beliefs:
  • At their best, businesses solve big enough problems that people are willing to pay money to have them solved.  This makes the world better.
  • The best businesses talk to and about their customers all the time.  As a result, they “make things people want.”
  • They also have a point of view about the future and how they will fit into it.  They compete on the attributes that they believe will matter rather than on those on which their competitors compete.
  • Much of human progress and most of human knowledge derives from the quest for good explanations.
  • The two most powerful forces for improving explanations and accumulating knowledge are the scientific method and a low cycle time.  Historically, academia has used the scientific method and business has opted for low cycle time data-based management.  For the first time in history, it is becoming possible to do both.
  • There is no more a substitute for anthropology than there is for knowing, in aggregate, what the big picture looks like.
  • Big, private data sets will become one of the most valuable assets for research in the future.
Ah, data - I'm a fan, since analysis of big data sets is currently paying my bills. But, I've recently started to fantasize about moving to California and getting into venture capital and/or venture philanthropy. Let me know if you decide to make that move, Sarah - I'll go in with you.