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Archive for April, 2012

*To me it is the 22nd perfect game. And until I stop following baseball (i.e. when I die), I will always add 1 to whatever the official total is. Never forget, Armando Galarraga:

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Over the weekend a friend showed me this commercial:

It’s pretty funny, and it also reminded me instantly of the Old Spice commercial strategy. Off-the-wall, exaggerated claims, coming from a charismatic male lead, delivered while the guy is walking through a scene (or being dynamic in some way.) I tried doing a bit of research on whether the Old Spice commercials from a couple years ago resulted in increased sales for Old Spice, but I found contradictory claims. At best, it seems to have had a rather small effect.

My take is that these commercials are designed to gain a large number of page views. And they clearly work! But do page views translate to purchases of that product? Probably not.

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Do they need our charity?

President Obama has released his tax returns–that ever-strange feature of American politics. Yet, the tax return gives us an interesting view into one bit of our tax law that needs substantial reform: the charitable donation. As you’ll note from my shoddy circling, President Obama donated $5,000 to Sidwell Friends School. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the President’s daughters attend that school.

Now, Sidwell Friends School is a private school with high tuition ($31,960 a year). Do they really need additional funding? Or perhaps, put differently, do they deserve tax-deductible charitable giving?

Furthermore, to what extent can this really be considered charitable giving? Presumably, this is much closer to a quid pro quo relationship — the school, I imagine, strongly encourages parents to donate additional money to the school. Might those parents donate expecting special or different teacher? Might the school have incentives for treating the students of donors differently than those who merely pay tuition?

I’m not impugning the President’s motives here, but his public tax returns give us an opportunity to take a magnifying glass to someone’s tax returns other than our own. Consider that the President and First Lady gave as much money to Sidwell Friends as to any other charity, save the Fisher House Foundation (an excellent organization that runs comfort homes for military and VA hospitals). Does an elite private school really deserve an extra $5,000? Does an Ivy League university? And more importantly, should the American taxpayer be partially financing these types of donations?

We have a system that encourages charitable giving, but does not interrogate closely the reasons or purposes of the charities themselves. As a result, non-profit organizations and charities can easily serve as tax shelters to fund trips, meals, and other expenses for their operators.

The charitable deduction is not necessarily a way of funding charities; it is definitely a way to subsidize (mostly) the rich to make decisions about investments they wish to make. After all, only the rich benefit substantially from the itemized deduction; those of us taking the standard deduction (about 70% of taxpayers) don’t deduct much for our charitable donations. Should we really allow people to deduct for donating to, say, the opera (an organization that overwhelmingly benefits the rich)? The Center for American Progress or the Federalist Society (essentially political advocacy organizations)? Churches and other religious organizations? A private dinner club?

Again, I’m not saying that giving to charity is bad; I myself donate to charities. But, we do need to think more about why we subsidize charities and the outcomes that those subsidies create. Are we OK with subsidizing the ability of the rich to give money to organizations they like? Are the bad outcomes (such as non-profit bloat, fraudulent organizations, tax shelters, and charities that benefit the rich and privileged, etc.) worth the good ones (such as civic participation, communitarian values, market-driven donations, and charities that benefit the poor and underprivileged)? Like I said, I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it’s important that we ask them rather than act as if the charitable deduction must be a universal positive.

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The most popular TED talks tend to be uncontroversial and, to use TED’s own terminology, “jaw-dropping.” People want to stare in wonderment or be blown away by the advances we have made in the sciences or hear about a new discovery.

People don’t like to hear about race, poverty, and justice, so Bryan Stevenson’s TEDTalk is a bit outside of TED’s usual purview of Technology, Entertainment, and Design.

But to me, this fits perfectly into the question of design. When we design something, we must think about its purpose; design is more than attractive chairs. Institutional design determines how we administer justice in our society. What are the values we uphold? What does the design of our systems tell us about the answer to that question?

Stevenson’s talk doesn’t quite answer those questions, but it digs at the heart of what we believe to be a justice system and the shrugging apathy we afford it.

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Why can’t everyone have beautiful things?

Unlike other areas of popular arts — film, music, etc. — where the barriers to entry have gotten lower and the price point has allowed for mass enjoyment, high art remains an area locked away in the homes of the rich and tucked into the sterility of the museum.

I can’t get a Rembrandt or a Rauschenberg to hang in my house, or if I did, it would cost a prohibitive sum. Sure, I could get a poster, but it wouldn’t have the depth or interest of the real thing, or even of a decent copy.

Thomas Kinkade was a philanderer, a hypocrite, and a sanctimonious jackass, but certainly if adultery, hypocrisy, and sanctimoniousness disqualify you for being a great artist, we wouldn’t have many to go around. His art, admittedly, was not the finest of anything — mostly the kind of cozy village scene or sun-dappled coastline that all middle Americans wished their communities looked like: equal parts Dickens, Grovers’ Corner, Hudson Valley School, and pastels (good Lord). It’s a particularly retrograde blend of lens flare and over-luminosity that feels to me like watching a JJ Abrams movie … with glaucoma and a pastel palette.

Yet, the art snobs who look at Kinkade with disdain ignore that Kinkade dedicated himself to a market that they had largely ignored — what the 99 percent actually want. Now, to be fair, Kinkade’s pricing system of tiered “limited editions” definitely created the same kinds of pricing and financing schemes that the housing bubble did, where “investors” believed (and still believe) that their paintings’ value will inevitably rise. But like predatory lenders and developers, he was addressing a demand unaddressed by the broader market — Americans wanted beautiful things that they could show off to people who entered their houses, and they wanted to look at beautiful things on a daily basis.

The art world refused to provide that, focusing on the Venetian Bienniale and “big art,” on skyrocketing prices for Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons and their titillating ilk. Much of the great art since the Renaissance was founded on a clientele of the small businessman and the petit bourgeois, from the local merchants who commissioned Dutch masters to paint their portraits to the tiny collectors dotted across Provence who picked up Cezannes and Van Goghs. Today, the art world has returned to the Renaissance-era patron, the super-client rather than the myriad horde.

Matt Yglesias has a schtick about lower-quality goods in higher-quantity, which raise overall utility and satisfaction. I don’t know if I always buy that argument, but in Kinkade’s case, he was producing an inferior good that was able to reach many more people, the store-brand art that you could enjoy in your home on a regular basis.

Kinkade was no saint, but he highlighted a problem with the way that visual arts in particular conceive of their purpose and their audience. Rembrandt and Warhol had no problem churning out work from a factory to give more product to a yearning populace. Instead, the art world of today is largely frozen in private collections and snooty museums, only occasionally glimpsed by the rest of us. Kinkade gave us art in the shopping mall, art through the mail, art a click away. Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Liechtenstein thought they were making mass art, but it was Kinkade who truly brought it to the masses. For that, he deserves our recognition, even if not our gratitude.

P.S. If you haven’t read the Susan Orlean piece on Kinkade, it’s worth the (long) read.

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Part of the business-inspired charter school model that I find strange is the attempt to equate schools with businesses generally. Certainly there are similarities between organizations, and paths to success may be similar, but they are organizations aimed at fundamentally different goals with very different social roles. So when I see an article like “Why School Principals Need More Authority,” well, I’m not so sure.

In the article, Finn notes that unlike CEOs, principals don’t have much control over schools. But in the business world, where CEOs do have a fair amount of control, small businesses fail all the time! OK, so maybe not a fair comparison. Surely, there would still be power from the district to mandate certain curriculum, standards, etc. But if that’s the case, in what sense is the principal really more like a “CEO”? Principal autonomy sounds like it frees principals of crippling mandates and regulations, but it also releases them from a variety of obligations that we might want to keep. Really, a principal more resembles a branch manager of a franchise or maybe a franchisee, where the company/district sets out some set of standards, and the individual managers/principals attempt to meet those standards within constraints set by both market and central office.

Yet, even here, it’s worth wondering whether simply increasing autonomy does anything to boost performance. Historically, budget control has zinged back and forth between schools, district offices, and increasingly, federal grant money. Yet, there are always movements to pull it back the other way. When people worried about the quality of schools within a district, they clamored for district offices to take more control of the pursestrings. When people worried about the bureaucracy of the central office, they clamored for schools to have more control. Schools are torn in two directions — in one, reformers try to create autonomous schools (as with Joel Klein in New York or John White in New Orleans); in the other, reformers try to create reforms from the top-down by attaching them to district, state, or federal funding.

Giving principals more autonomy vs less autonomy doesn’t solve a lot of fundamental problems. If you think that by tweaking their budgets a bit and wriggling out of regulations, principals can turn their schools into successes, then by all means, go for it. But I doubt the managerial capacity of most principals, the sufficiency of resources to actually meet loftier goals, and the efficacy of “creativity” to overcome big budget gaps. For a corporate analogy (which seems to be all the rage), with or without restrictions, branch manager success depends on a lot more than mere autonomy. And failure of a branch for a corporation has a lot fewer negative third-party effects than, say, the failure of a school for multiple years.

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When the government decides that it can completely strip search you for anything, even an incorrect suspicion of not paying a fine despite your possession of proof that you have in fact paid the fine, and even despite your crimes having nothing to do with possessing contraband substances, whatever, that’s fine.

But when the government devises a mandate which, when combined with subsidies and a ban on excluding those with preexisting conditions, is designed to increase access to health insurance for tens of millions of people, FUCK THAT GOVERNMENT OVERREACH STRIKE IT DOWN.

Got it?

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