Economics

In support of net neutrality

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

I wrote a letter in support of net neutrality and Title II classification of Internet Service Providers to the FCC. For background on this FCC vote, you can read this Arstechnica explainer.

You can add your own comment in support of net neutrality to the FCC at the URL gofccyourself.org. To clarify some terms:

  • “net neutrality” is a term coined by Tim Wu (author of “The Master Switch” and “The Attention Merchants”) which describes a legal principle that “Internet service providers and governments regulating the Internet should treat all data on the Internet the same, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication.”
  • “title II” is a part of the Communications Act of 1934 that establishes that certain forms of communication infrastructure are “common carriers”, which means that in delivering Internet service, the ISPs “cannot discriminate [content/services], that is refuse the service unless there is some compelling reason.”

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Chomsky on the media and “objectivity”

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

Chomsky — the same one behind “Manufacturing Consent”, an excellent analysis of newspaper and TV journalism in the pre-Internet era — walks us through a structural analysis of modern media here:

There is a concept of “objectivity” to which journalists are supposed to adhere: report honestly what is “within the Beltway” — that is, what is considered acceptable by major power centers, state and private. Departing from that framework is “biased.” There are to be sure exceptions, but there extensive documentation showing that this framework is upheld with quite impressive consistency. It can be changed in so many ways.

He suggests one way to get out of this structural “objectivity bias” — something that Jay Rosen refers to as “the view from nowhere” — is to change its underlying incentive scheme.

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Improving a surface interpretation of “big data”

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

A silly little piece appeared in The New York Times discussing a hypothesis of a Harvard economics professor that Apple might slow down its operating system ahead of major product releases in an attempt to encourage consumers to upgrade.

One of his students used Google Trends data to investigate this hypothesis. In the article, two graphs are compared — one that shows Google Trends search volume for “iPhone Slow” and the other for “Samsung Galaxy slow”.

iphone_slow

It is shown that the spikes in searches for slow operation of Apple’s products seem to correlate with new iPhone release dates, whereas there are no search spikes in the data for the Samsung Galaxy.

samsung_galaxy_slow

These graphs are horribly misleading on their own. Both products have grown in popularity over the years, so the increase in search volume over time reflects nothing more than their widespread mainstream popularity. This could have easily been removed from the graphs by adjusting these trendlines relative to the “base” searches, e.g. “iPhone” and “Samsung Galaxy”. In the graphs as shown, it’s hard to tell whether little spikes are actually hidden within the compressed and precise trendline for the Samsung Galaxy.

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Obama: a man, or an idea?

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012

I would never have thought, graduating college in 2006 with the Bush years in full swing, that we would be only two years away from Democrat control of the presidency for two full terms.

The election yesterday was important because it was a rejection of the repugnant brand of conservatism that argues government should have no ambition beyond self-immolation and individuals should have no ambition beyond themselves.

Obama is a flawed leader, but he is a deft politician. He has managed to win a national debate about a moral truth in society. One newspaper declared, “A Liberal America”, but it’s more like “A Mixed Economy America”.

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Idleness

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

NYTimes has a good article today about work and idleness, “The Busy Trap”.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

[…]

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

One of the commenters on this story pointed me toward a much older essay by Bertrand Russel, “In Praise of Idleness”.

If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

[…]

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

[…]

The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.

[…]

The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure, they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.

Each essay is very much worth reading.

Wall Street (the movie), 25 years later

Friday, December 16th, 2011

I recently watched Oliver Stone’s Wall Street again. It really is amazing how relevant this movie is in 2011, ~25 years after its original release in 1987.

This speech, in particular, is a knockout, given the recent Occupy Wall Street movement:

Bud: How much is enough, Gordon? When does it all end, huh? How many yachts can you water-ski behind? How much is enough, huh?
Gekko: It’s not a question of enough, pal. It’s a Zero Sum game – somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn’t lost or made, it’s simply transferred – from one perception to another. Like magic. This painting here? I bought it ten years ago for sixty thousand dollars. I could sell it today for six hundred. The illusion has become real, and the more real it becomes, the more desperately they want it. Capitalism at its finest.
Bud: How much is enough, Gordon?
Gekko: The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars. One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons – and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. It’s bullshit. You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip. We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it. Now, you’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, buddy? It’s the free market. And you’re a part of it.

Watch the full speech on YouTube here.

Understanding Wisconsin protests with big language data

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

I made an interesting discovery today.

“Free Market” vs. “Labor Union” in Google Ngram Book Viewer

Explains why no one has heard of labor unions and everyone is raving about the free market 🙂

(by the way, you can download the entire dataset behind this neat little Google Labs project)

JPMorgan Chase, “valid” $39 overlimit fees, and humanity

Friday, October 30th, 2009

In addition to running Parse.ly, I also run a small consulting business, Aleph Point, Inc. In the course of working on client jobs, I sometimes have to make business purchases, which I always pay in full at the end of every month. I have never carried a balance on my credit card and I never intend to.

When I signed up for a business checking account at Chase, the branch manager who I worked with (and who now no longer works there) encouraged me to sign up for a business credit card, as well. I thought, hey, why not — I’m just going to use it for small purchases like monthly hosting fees and the like.

Recently, I made a relatively large purchase at Best Buy for a client, which I was going to be reimbursed for. It was about $200. I already had a balance of $350 on my account, and a few days later my account was closing for the month.

When I looked over my account information a few days later, I found a strange charge. $39 OVERLIMIT FEE. What’s that, I thought?

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A video interview with John Kenneth Galbraith

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

I wrote about John Kenneth Galbraith earlier, but just recently found this video on YouTube. A reflective 1-hour interview with the man that discusses his long career as a professor, advisor, and economic theorist. Well worth a listen.

A Conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith — April 27, 1986

Is media slant determined by the market?

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

In “Lean Left? Lean Right? News media may take cues from customers” by Chicago School professor Austan Goolsbee, we are given yet another argument for market determinism, this time with regard to the slant of the media.

One of the most interesting things coming out of research on the economics of the media industry has been the notion that media slant may simply reflect business rather than politics.

The author then cites a few Chicago School studies that analyze the media in terms of slant of articles vs. readership. They find that readership is a stronger indicator of slant than ownership or big corporate donations. But then the dangerous conclusions begin.

[…] there is certainly good news in the finding. If slant comes from customers, then the views of the owners and the reporters do not matter. We do not need to fear that some partisan billionaire will buy up newspapers and use them for propaganda.”

This is a little presumptuous. Of course there is a fear of a partisan billionaire buying up all the newspapers. In history, we had William Randolph Hearst. In modern times, we have Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. He owned all the media in that country, slanted it, and then maintained control over it while presiding as Prime Minister. The market, for all its virtues, cannot solve these problems.

Let’s take one angle. Partisan billionaires can control the slant of their writing just by controlling the kinds of journalists they hire.

For example, let’s assume Rupert Murdoch would not hire very many bleeding-heart liberals to work as financial reporters in the WSJ. WSJ’s staff becomes more right-leaning, therefore there is a partisan slant. I’m not saying this is actually true, but it’s quite absurd to claim it isn’t likely, or that reporters only choose their slant based upon their readership’s expectations.

So although politicians from both sides tend to accuse the news media of partisanship and negativity, the data suggests that they ought to blame the public. The papers basically reflect what their readers want to hear.

Ick. This is the classic chicken and egg problem. It assumes that the public exists in a vacuum, and that the public’s opinions are not influenced by the media. Of course, this vacuum does not exist. The public may have views in alignment with the newspaper precisely because the newspaper shaped the views of the public. In other words, if I read the WSJ every morning on my way to work, I may very well start voting Republican. It’s not that the WSJ reflects my opinion: it’s that my opinion and the WSJ’s start to converge, since the WSJ is influencing my opinion.

The whole point of propaganda is that you don’t realize it’s propaganda while you’re reading it. Did Pravda just “represent what the worker’s wanted to hear”? According to this analysis, it certainly could have: I’m sure workers would have declared that their personal views were in line with Pravda’s slant.

As much as researchers of the Chicago School of Economics would love to believe the market can explain the media’s slant, I don’t buy it. That said, the market is certainly a factor — just not the only one, and IMO, not the primary one.