Archive for April, 2011

Although I have to ask, what’s that part where Harry grabs Voldemort and jumps off some ledge into some pit? Clearly that’s not in the book. Though if I had to guess, I’d say it’s at the final Hogwarts fight, after Harry is supposedly dead and right after he takes the invisibility cloak off and reveals himself to Voldemort.

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As I’ve noted before, this economic crisis is worst for the poor and not too terrible for the rich.

Jon Chait properly notes that this may be much of the reason for the shift from job-creation to deficit reduction. For Washington, for Wall Street, for educated elites, for political donors — the economic crisis has ended. For millions on unemployment benefits, the economic crisis won’t get better.

This is part of why the rise in gas prices has been so captivating; the people for whom ends have just started to meet are suddenly pinched at the pump.

The following graph shows unemployment with respect to education level:

Unemployment vs Education through Sept 2010 (via Calculated Risk)

The twisted lens of our politicians means that they see the blue line, when they should be seeing the red line. Our nation now runs a serious risk of a long-term underclass — no diploma, no job, no job training or prospects, and an ever-smaller government safety net. It’s easy for us to sit back and admonish those people for not going to school, not getting a job, etc. But that smugness will not be able to stop the problems that an enormous underclass will create for America. Too bad no one in Washington can hear over the tinkling of champagne glasses from the Correspondents’ Dinner.

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Stendhal thinks releasing the long-form birth certificate was a mistake. Clearly, it is offensive and bad precedent and there never should have been a need for it.

That being said, I was thinking about this news this morning. Was there a political advantage to doing it now? I’m assuming that the White House must have thought so, or else they wouldn’t have done it. After all, it’s been three years since birtherism began. Why now? Here are a few ideas:

(1) The White House had some internal polling information and didn’t like how well Trump and/or birtherism were playing right now.

(2) The White House honestly doesn’t want birtherism playing a big issue during the GOP primaries and the general election. They might think it will highlight too strongly his “otherness.”

But my favorite one is…

(3) Like Anna, Zane, and Stendhal all hint in the comments to Stendhal’s post, the White House suspects that birtherism won’t die with this, which will make it ALL THE MORE RIDICULOUS, ABSURD, AND OFFENSIVE to such voting groups as independents and non-racist assholes when the GOP candidates spend entire debates dragging Romney and Pawlentey and such down into the muck of birtherism.

It’s a gamble of course. Birtherism might mostly die down now. But if it still roars strong, and we still see majorities or pluralities of GOP voters clinging to it, and we still get candidates running for President who believe in it, then it will be so much worse for them now that the White House released it than it would have been if they could have held onto this canard.

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President Obama has released his long-form birth certificate.

Number of birthers this will appease: 0

News cycles that this will consume: A TON

Problems fixed by this: 0

Unfortunate precedents this sets: 1

President Obama, I hate to say it, but you’re doing it wrong. Appeasing the irrational person doesn’t make him or her more rational.

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Mike Eisen is a professor in my department, and he had a great catch the other day. He wanted to procure an out-of-print book on flies, and noticed that while there were many used copies available via Amazon, there were two vendors selling new copies for absurdly high prices. Read his whole post, as it is a great example of observation and deductive scientific reasoning. He noticed that one vendor would price their book at 98% the cost of the competitor, which is a strategy we can all understand. The curious part is that the other vendor would respond to the pricing by increasing theirs to 1.27x that of the first. Because 0.98*1.27 > 1, the prices were converging towards infinity.

But why would the second vendor do this? Eisen offers two hypotheses. One, the second vendor has a lot more reviews, and thus might be charging more because consumers might be willing to pay more to obtain a book through a vendor they consider more reliable. He finds a second possibility more likely: that the second vendor doesn’t actually possess the book. If someone were actually to purchase it from them, they would need to get it from another source, such as the first one, and thus the need to charge 127% their price, with that extra 27% being the profit they’d make. I can think of a third hypothesis. It’s possible that both vendors are owned by the same entity. If you only see one new book price, it can be tough to know if you’re getting a good deal or not, and you might be tempted to get a used copy instead. However, if a dummy second higher price were also listed (i.e. there is still only one new copy of the book in existence), you might now think that the first price is a deal after all. Like Stendhal says in his previous post, our concept or “saving” money now basically means “spending marginally less for a discretionary purchase.”

Also, this story underscores the weird possibilities that can arise from using automated algorithm-based pricing on large websites like Amazon. This is surely not the only time this has happened. On Reddit, someone saw a CD selling for $2.9 billion, and he actually bought it! Amazon responded by canceling the order, and following up with emails and phone calls to verify the matter. While these two examples might seem strange or even funny, it’s more alarming to think that similar automated pricing is probably largely contributing to our entire stock market and thus to the world economy.

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If you haven’t seen TLC’s “Extreme Couponing,” well, there’s not much to see — just families using multiple coupons and paying next-to-nothing for giant piles of groceries they will never use. Still, the show is doing quite well.

Yet, some TV commentators have noted the similarity between these couponers and “hoarders” (subject of their own terrible TLC reality show), who compulsively store items they don’t even need. The similarities are there: most couponers and hoarders begin their compulsive behaviors after some trauma (lost job in couponers’ case; death of loved one in hoarders’); couponers have giant neatly stacked piles of diapers for kids they don’t have, while hoarders have their useless crap in giant piles around their houses.

But more troubling to me is the idea that this show and others of its ilk are “shows for this economic time.” After all, the shows seem to emphasize frugality and thrift, and the featured families tend to be middle-class families caught in hard times. How much, though, are these families really “saving”? “Saving” used to mean actually taking money you have and not spending it. Somehow, American consumer culture has translated “savings” to mean “spending marginally less on a (usually discretionary) purchase.” The success of Groupon, Living Social, and similar online couponing companies have capitalized on this mentality. But if you weren’t going to buy 100 packs of diapers (or dinner at said restaurant on a Groupon) already, are you saving anything? “Saving” is just a synonym for “spending.”

With all the time that these couponers spend planning their attacks and poring through newspaper clippings (similar to Black Friday shoppers), they could be doing something else. Anything else. And all the other things they could be doing might bring them more marginal utility than 1000 toothpaste tubes for ten cents.

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