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Archive for March, 2012

One theme on this blog is a certain level of generational warfare, for lack of a better term. The idea that our policies have been carefully crafted to benefit the older and wealthy at the expense of the young and poor. You tend to hear people focus on the rich/poor distinction, but the age difference plays an equally important role. There’s a new article in Esquire that explores this. Here’s the opener:

“Twenty-five years ago young Americans had a chance. In 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much as the younger generation.”

One astounding fact it reports is that it is estimated that 85% of 2010 college graduates returned to their parents houses, carrying with them an average of $25,250 in debt. The debt I can believe, but… 85%?!?! That seems so amazingly high. Must it include people who return home briefly before heading out for a new job or opportunity? I know the market for young people is awful, but I still find 85% very difficult to believe. Or am I being naive?

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There’s much hand-wringing today from liberals regarding the oral arguments for the Health Care Cases, with Jeffrey Toobin calling the oral argument a “train wreck” for liberals, and Dahlia Lithwick fairly pessimistic about the affair.

It’s worth asking, though, whether these oral arguments will matter at all. In smaller cases, the Court may actually care about the quality of arguments floated at oral argument, in order to better define the contours of the case for them. Let’s not kid ourselves; the Justices didn’t need to ask any questions today to get the answers they were looking for.

That’s not to say that oral arguments don’t show some sign of the arguments to come, but that’s only the case if the lawyer is totally blindsided by the arguments. For example, inĀ United States v. Lopez, the first case since the New Deal to actually limit Congress’s Commerce Clause powers, everyone assumed that the case, which involved Gun-Free School Zones, was a no-brainer. After all, no one had challenged Commerce Clause power seriously in 60 years. But then, in the first few minutes, Justice O’Connor (the then swing Justice) asked then-Solicitor General Drew Days whether there were any limits to Congress’s Commerce power. It was a shock at the time, because everyone assumed it was a settled question.

By the time of the Health Care cases, these issues are well-known and in the open, so when Solicitor General Verrelli got the question today, he was ready with responses, even though commentators found his performance wanting.

My point is that from oral argument alone, particularly in cases where the stakes are as high as this, you can understand almost nothing. This is the grand theater of the Supreme Court, but honestly, the operation of the Court is behind closed doors and won’t really be known for a decade or so (or more).

Justice Thomas is often criticized for not speaking during oral arguments, but he’s just not willing to acknowledge that it’s mostly a sham. Justice Thomas knows he won’t learn anything from oral arguments, and that much of it is about showing off for the Justices, not about developing theories of law.

We agonize over and parse the oral arguments becauseĀ that’s all we have. Tea leaf reading must occupy us while the Supreme Court does the debating in chambers.

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2012: a great year for movies

Last night I saw The Hunger Games, which I thought was quite solid. Good enough to make me want to read the second and third books in the trilogy (especially because this will supposedly take me about a day to do). When I was watching the previews for it, I was reminded that 2012 really ought to be an incredible year for film. Check it out:

Brave – Pixar’s next

The Dark Knight Rises – Nolan’s sequel to the Dark Knight

Django Unchained – Tarantino’s film about a freed slave and a German bountyhunter who go up against an evil plantation owner (DiCaprio)

The Hobbit – part 1 of 2

Lincoln – Spielberg directs Daniel Day Lewis

Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson’s first live-action film since Darjeerling Unlimited in 2007

Prometheus – Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) returns to the genre he pioneered, supposedly an Alien prequel

Other films that will generate buzz, but don’t appeal to me as much:

The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, Bourne Legacy, The Dictator, The Great Gatsby, Men in Black 3, Skyfall (James Bond)

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With modern materials, motors, etc., humans have apparently achieved flight like birds, flappy wings and all.

I wonder often about path-dependency and determination, particularly when it comes to inventions and innovations. For example, if there had been more advanced fabrics and miniaturized motors in the early 1900s, would we have seen flappy flight before fixed wing flight? Or did we need fixed-wing flight to get miniaturized motors? It would seem impossible to imagine a world with flight, but without fixed-wing flight. Yet, is it really so implausible? Certainly experimenters at the time liked the idea. With different materials, who knows what they could have done?

When the term “thinking outside the box” is bandied about, I always wonder who among the human race will actually go out and do the crazy thing that everyone thinks is stupid. Apparently this guy. Also these dudes. Flying looks fantastic:

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Much has been said in the last week over Rush Limbaugh, his calling Sandra Fluke a “slut,” the ensuing withdrawing of advertisers (ThinkProgress says it’s up to 45 now), Rush’s apology, and whether it was sincere.

There is one point I’d like to add to. And it’s that I have little doubt – sad though this may be – that if all Rush had done was to call Sandra Fluke a slut, this would not have become nearly the story it has been. Similar things have happened before (examples: Ed Schultz and Laura Ingraham, or Bill Maher and Sarah Palin). No, the real kicker was when he said this:

“So Miss Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

That. That right there. It’s fucked up, isn’t it? Rush Limbaugh said that he’s entitled to get masturbation material because “we” are paying for her contraceptives and “thus” for her to have sex. Ignore the fact that she wants private entities – insurers – to cover contraceptives (as opposed to taxpayers). Ignore the fact that women on the pill take exactly the same amount of it whether they have sex once per month or five times per day. Even after ignoring those things, you have something so obviously creepy that there is no defense of it. In fact, it’s so bad, that in nearly every article about the controversy, you will only see reference to the “slut” and “prostitute” comments and not about the sex video (example). It’s like people prefer to pretend that it never happened.

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Yes. Yes, they will.

Before Apple unveiled the new iPad today, Yglesias asked a few questions over at Slate. The third of them was: “Will reviewers underestimate the value of incremental change?

And my answer is that, yes, they always do. As Yglesias writes: “The iPhone 4S was roundly panned on its release, since it was “only” an iPhone 4 box with a faster chip and a better camera and upgraded software. And yet it turned out that a better version of an already successful product was a recipe for … a huge sales success!” This is exactly right. The people who review new Apple products tend to be tech-inclined people who already own all the previous products, anyway. And for them the key question is whether the new product is worth shelling out another few hundred dollars for the incremental improvements. But that’s not why so many people buy these new products.

Take me, for example. I had no smart phone, but had been considering getting one. I had eyed the iPhone 4 for a while, and had slowly convinced myself that it was worth getting. Then, the iPhone 4S came out. And all of the sudden, I could get a new iPhone with a faster chip, better camera, Siri, and all for the same price I had nearly already convinced myself to pay for the old one. All of the sudden, it felt like a no-brainer.

I predict a similar huge success for Apple with the new iPad. The early reviews sound similar to the disappointment that greeted the new iPhone. But this new iPad isn’t for them. It’s for the people who were on the verge of spending $500 for an iPad 2. Now all of the sudden they can spend the same amount of money for an iPad with way better resolution, a faster chip, and a better camera. I never worshiped at the temple of Jobs, but Apple is damn good at this stuff.

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The word on the street is that baseball will change its playoffs so that 10 teams get in instead of 8. I hate this change. Here’s why.

First, a recap. Currently there are two leagues, each with three divisions. The winner of each division makes the playoffs, and of the teams that remain, the one with the best record is the wild card, so they get in, too. So that’s four per league for eight total. Then, there are four series in which the first team to win three games (i.e. best of five) advances to the next round, where it becomes a best of 7 until the end.

The new policy is that of the teams that didn’t win their division, the top two – instead of the top one – will make the playoffs. But the two wild card teams per league will play a one-game sudden death playoff to determine who goes on to the next round. The idea is to give a more significant disadvantage to teams that don’t win their division**.

I hate this for a few reasons. First, it feels like a change designed to make sure that both the Yankees and Red Sox – two of the biggest market teams – always make the playoffs. In the last decade, here’s how that would have played out. Listed first is what happened, and listed in parentheses is how it would have played out with this new rule.

2011 – Yankees made it (Red Sox would, too)

2010 – Yankees made it (Red Sox would, too)

2009 – both made it

2008 – Red Sox made it (Yankees would, too)

2007 – both made it

2006 – Yankees made it (Red Sox would *not*)

2005 – both made it

2004 – both made it

2003 – both made it

2002 – Yankees made it (Red Sox would have tied for a play-in)

These are two good teams, as evidenced by their both making the playoffs 5 out of 10 years. But of the 5 times one of them did not, this rule would have propelled the other team into the playoffs 4 times. I’m pretty sure this is not a coincidence, especially as it affects them in 3 of the past 4 years. In other words, I think talk of this rule became more serious as soon as Tampa Bay became a permanent legitimate threat in their division.

But my semi-irrational dislike of Boston (and to a lesser extent New York) aside, I still don’t like this rule. Baseball is rather special in that only 8 teams make the playoffs out of 30. The NFL has 12, and hockey and basketball each have 16. But the limit in baseball makes sense. Baseball is a long, hard slog: 162 games over the course of many months. And that’s enough time to have filtered out most of the noise and randomness and settle on which teams are the very best. Decades ago, only two teams made the playoffs. Then it jumped to 4, and then to 8. These changes have been popular, but it needs to stop. Why bother with such a long, hard season if so many teams make the playoffs? Most fans will acknowledge this truth of baseball: that even with best-of-7 game series, randomness and luck will frequently allow inferior teams to win. The more teams that get in, the more this happens. And the more it happens, the more I think it stops being exciting and becomes unfair, gimmicky, and motivated solely by profits.

**My answer to this point is simple: make all rounds best of 7. That will increase the odds that the truly better team will win and advance. So it ought to disfavor the wild card teams in most years.

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