Politics

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.

Engineers don’t become engineers

Monday, September 5th, 2011

And, sadly, our top engineering graduates don’t always become engineers. They move into finance or management consulting — both of which pay far higher salaries than engineering. I have seen the dilemma that my engineering students at at Duke University have faced. Do they take a job in civil engineering that pays $70,000, or join big Wall Street financial firm and make $120,000? With the hefty student loans that hang over their heads, most have made the financially sensible decision. In some years, half of our graduates have ended up taking jobs outside of engineering. Instead of developing new types of medical devices, renewable energy sources and ways to sustain the environment, my most brilliant students are designing new ways to help our investment banks engineer the financial system.

[...] We also need to make the engineering profession “cool” again, with the same sense of excitement and urgency in engineering and science that we saw during the Sputnik days. Back then, engineering was considered essential to the nation’s survival. Engineers and scientists were national heroes. It’s not that we don’t have problems to solve. The economy is in dire straits. Natural resources such as food, water, and crude oil are becoming scarce. Drug-resistant bacteria threaten us with doomsday plagues. But we’re not offering our best minds incentive to solve them.

From Mr. President, there is no engineer shortage.

Luckily this is happening already in high tech in NYC, thanks to awesome programs like HackNY and collabraCode (both of which my startup Parse.ly formally supported). As much as it pains me to say it, I also think The Social Network may be seen as a cultural catalyst for software engineers becoming “cool”.

But high tech is only a small piece of the puzzle — we need the same active marketing for students’ minds in biotech, education, medical research, civil engineering, etc.

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)

Switching from Chase

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Andrew Leonard of Salon.com has written an article about switching from Chase to a local community bank, in response to HuffPo’s MoveYourMoney campaign.

I’ve written on this blog multiple times about my frustration with Chase bank, but it’s interesting to see someone with as big a readership as Andrew Leonard writing about it. Are commercial big banks’ days numbered?

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?

Read the rest of this entry »

Atul Gawande (MD/author) on the cost of health care in this excellent New Yorker piece

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009
Click to read “The Cost Conundrum” @ The New Yorker

Will a new, national insurance plan solve the essential problem of the rising cost of health care?  According to Atul Gawande, it won't.  What is needed is nothing short of a complete cultural shift in the community of practicing medical doctors and the organizations/institutions that provide care.  From the article:

Providing health care is like building a house. The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of coördination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later? Getting the country’s best electrician on the job (he trained at Harvard, somebody tells you) isn’t going to solve this problem. Nor will changing the person who writes him the check.

Check it out. 

The End of Philosophy?

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

David Brooks has written a column for the NYTimes entitled, “The End of Philosophy”. The basic thrust of the article is that moral reasoning is less about reasoning and more about intuition. In other words, morality is more like aesthetics than logic.

A representative section:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it.

The major hole I see in Brooks’ article — and argument — is what he himself recognizes here:

Moral intuitions have primacy, Haidt argues, but they are not dictators. There are times, often the most important moments in our lives, when in fact we do use reason to override moral intuitions, and often those reasons — along with new intuitions — come from our friends.

It’s true that moral intuitions may have evolutionary (or other) roots distinct from reason, but that’s why they’re called “intuitions.” Brooks recognizes that at the “most important moments in our lives”, we cast those intuitions aside. Well, doesn’t that suggest that there exists a moral “right answer” outside our intuitions? Perhaps people should use reason to override impulse at more mundane moments of their lives, too. For example, when deciding whether one deserves those alligator skin shoes, or whether the dying children in Africa might be better candidates for that money.

There have been many attempts in recent years to justify the less rational sloppy moral thinking of individuals by pointing to evolution and saying that an individuals’ beliefs are just derived from their primordial roots. I simply disagree with this line of reasoning. The fact that you can override your moral impulses means that at times you must! I much prefer to frame my decisions in terms of Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “radical” or “unlimited” freedom. And with that freedom comes responsibility.

Brooks quotes Haidt,

The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.

My analogy is that moral intuitions are more like the inmates in a psychotic ward. In people who don’t think their moral choices through, “the inmates are running the asylum.”

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

The media blackout of Ralph Nader

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

I haven’t done a formal analysis of this yet. Just an informal one using a NYTimes.com search for Ralph Nader.

On July 1, 2008, CNN published a poll that put Ralph Nader at 6%. On February 24, 2008, Ralph Nader formally announced his bid for presidency on “Meet the Press.” What happened in the intervening four months?

Not much, according to the ‘liberal’ NYTimes. In the days following Nader’s announcement, the NYTimes had a bit of activity. You can see the full details by looking at the newspaper’s Ralph Nader feed. Two articles were published immediately after the announcement, one merely rehashing the “Meet the Press” discussion. The second one was more interesting, as it appeared as an editorial and was called, “Ralph Nader: Going, Going, not Gone”. In it, Eleanor Randolph repeats the typical diatribe about Ralph Nader ‘spoiling’ the 2000 election, seemingly with detachment, but then points to Bush’s presidency as being a regrettable outcome. Here’s a select piece:

Many Democrats still believe, bitterly but without conclusive evidence, that Mr. Nader siphoned off a lot of Democratic votes in the 2000 presidential election. He argued that the main candidates, George W. Bush and Al Gore, were nothing more than “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” two peas in a pod, no daylight between them.

The Republican Tweedle won the presidency, and the Bush administration went on to gut, hobble or hamstring many of the safety agencies that Mr. Nader had fought so hard to create. Mr. Gore got a Nobel Peace Prize for raising concern about global warming.

If there is a stronger word for whoops, it certainly applies here. But that does not seem to cast a shadow on the Nader enthusiasms.

Bob Herbert’s Op-Ed, “A Driving Force”, published the same day, seems to recognize Nader’s ‘right to run,’ but also points out, somberly, how Democrats despise and Republicans will encourage his run to force another ‘spoiler’ outcome. This was followed by a couple of narrow-interest pieces, one on Nader supporters (entitled “Trying Times for Remaining Nader Faithful”) and one about Nader’s vice presidential pick, Matt Gonzales. This news activity all occurred at the end of February.

In the intervening 4 months, there hasn’t been a single news article covering Nader’s campaign in The New York Times. Not one. I think it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a day that has passed since February where there were any fewer than two or three articles on the other presidential candidates.

There have been a couple of Nader mentions buried deep within other articles, but no mention of the fact that Nader has secured access to quite a few state ballots. No background on his campaign or profile of his person. No interviews with him, his vice presidential pick, staffers, or anyone else involved with his campaign. And no mention of this remarkable number — 6% in a national opinion poll by CNN. That’s 6% despite no coverage in the NYTimes, and not much coverage elsewhere in the Mainstream Media.

Is this a media blackout? Well, there is no other way to classify it.

Related to my last post, who determines the content of the news: journalists and editors (and their masters), or we, the people? If the news really reflects our interest, why is it that 6% of the political news coverage of the last four months hasn’t been about Nader? I’m not asking for there to be equal news coverage as Obama or McCain. But why not at least an in-depth article or two? This is a presidential candidate making a serious run. Nader also has better credentials and deeper experience with Washington and politics than Obama or McCain. Why is it that the media continues to ignore him? I know there’s at least one explanation, but the effects still baffle me.

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.