Sorry posts have been few and far between over the past month. I’ve been busier than in a good long while:

-I became a one-man farmer’s market in my hometown and sold a respectable amount of lychee grown in my mom’s backyard. At peak ripeness, this was some of the best I’d ever tasted.

-After some terrifying stroke-like symptoms I was diagnosed with a bout of vestibular neuronitis, which fortunately seems to have mostly subsided but sidelined me for awhile.

-Started the science education I made a point of avoiding in the past. Jury’s still out on whether my lapse in judgment was back then or now.

-Ate seven courses of beef. Mmmmm.


I was an impressionable child

When it came to food, at least. Here are three things with very good marketing that I’m now very glad my mother never allowed me to consume:

1. Long John Silver. Good lord they made that fish look tasty on TV. How on earth does this chain stay in business?

2. Lucky Charms. The freeze-dried marshmallow is not half as delicious as it appears when an animated leprechaun is firing magical rainbows into it.

3. Sunny Delight. It looked like orange juice, only much, much more refreshing. In real life, this beverage tastes like Rust Belt sadness covered liberally in high fructose corn syrup.

Have One Doubt, They Call it Treason

The Rashard Mendenhall dustup has been a good illustration of the ultranationalism that runs through even the nonpolitical media. (Quick recap: Mendenhall, a pro football player, made two or three tweets after the bin Laden raid. The first, and what I took to be his main point, expressed disgust at the public celebrations of bin Laden’s death simply because it’s disgusting and dehumanizing to celebrate anyone’s violent death. The followups were murkier and oddly qualified his main point to the effect that people hadn’t heard bin Laden’s side of the argument – plus there was a dash of 9/11 trutherism thrown in.) Predictable media firestorm resulted, with endorsements lost, etc., etc. After their cowardly behavior I’m not hurrying to buy Champion sportswear anytime soon, by the way. Based on what I’ve seen, I have a hard time believing that the later tweets were really what caused this controversy. Merely dissenting on the acceptability of dancing in the streets after the killing was what set everything off.

The ESPN roundtable on the whole dumb affair (video at the above link) is pretty predictably boneheaded, but I did think Scoop Jackson got close to the mark here by noting that most professional athletes haven’t really been trained on their employers’ policies on social media, so every single incident ends up being dealt with ad hoc and players are never told exactly what the boundaries of acceptability are. Personally, I think the key to the whole “should celebrity athletes tweet” debate  is that those boundaries themselves are  virtually impossible to define –  an employer like the NFL simply cannot always know in advance what’s going to be “controversial” and what isn’t. A tweet about buying your spouse a fur coat could pass without incident, or it could result in PETA going on the warpath.  The really big determinant of a “controversy” is how big a megaphone the offended people have. With that in mind, I come down firmly on the side of player freedom: let the damn athletes tweet. God forbid they might say something that makes their fans rethink their opinions once in awhile.

Service Industry Shell Games

On the subject of universities, Matt Yglesias notes that rather than attract more customers or increase productivity by upselling existing customers, “schools are more often trying to ditch their existing customer base in favor of obtaining a different, more prestigious set of customers.” The one observation I would have about this is that this particular business model seems to be most widely seen in businesses whose services are of dubious value. By “dubious value” I don’t mean that that the service rendered is worthless, exactly, but that the service rendered has a much more questionable relevance to the customer’s desired outcome than is generally assumed.

Most people aren’t going to college to learn how to think, despite the glossy brochures full of ivory-tower talk that the admissions office sends out. They’re going because a degree is the gateway to securing a middle-class or better lifestyle, even though the jobs they’ll end up taking usually require exactly zero of the knowledge they learned in college. And the same is true of, say, old-style ad agencies and investment banks – due to the particular idiosyncrasies of how those sectors evolved, they’re able to operate hugely profitable and largely unaccountable businesses despite it being unclear why their customers really need them at all to accomplish their ultimate goals.

The Chess Game of the Crazies

Ben Wallace-Wells’s profile of Paul Krugman contains this frustratingly imprecise paragraph:

There are times, however, when the consequences of Krugman’s perspective, the darkness of his view of American politics, come into view. In the health-care-reform debate, he saw evidence of “racial hate-mongering.” When the crazed assassin Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords in January, Krugman saw intimations of a broader disorder to come. “The harshness and the incipient violence are very real,” he told me. The liberal historian Michael Kazin, of Georgetown, told me he thought Krugman’s account of the right succumbed to the old Marxist flaw of false consciousness: “Unlike what Krugman says, conservatism is not some kind of smoke screen for another agenda.” In his 2007 book The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman was plainer still: “Yes, Virginia,” he wrote, “there is a vast right-wing conspiracy.”

For starters, I went back and reread the passage in question in Krugman’s book and I think that Wallace-Wells has misread Krugman in his final sentence. My take, and I think Krugman’s, is that the stoking of the paranoid style in American politics, that is, feeding the dangerous, true-believing right-wing crazies, is a tactical maneuver on the part of the relatively small number of economic plutocrats who effectively rule the the GOP and the broader conservative movement.  There are tons of obvious benefits to this – not only does having a vigorous undercurrent of extremist nuts, fueled by talk radio frothers, scare the crap out of lawmakers, but it also furthers a broader political goal of distracting America’s white majority into voting against its economic interests. The passage in the book supports this interpretation – Krugman’s point here is about the institutional structure of the conservative movement, not its ultimate aims. Wallace-Wells seems to be claiming that Krugman thinks that conservatism is about producing social disorder and chaos as an end in itself – a strange and dubious idea.

With that in mind, I’m not sure there is really as much disagreement between Kazin and Krugman as Wallace-Wells has set up here. But if there is, Krugman seems to have the better of the argument. The point is that the conservative movement has, for the last 50 years, been spectacularly bad at achieving its social goals in spite of spectacular success at its economic goals. Given that track record, it’s hard for me to see how the center-left consensus on this that Krugman subscribes to is wrong: the conservative movement is happy to pursue its stated aims on abortion and crime and drugs, but when push comes to shove they’ll always take a back seat to tax cut maximalism and goodies for big business.

Why having no health insurance sucks

Yglesias notes that the $94000 “income” figure in Ross Douthat’s recent column includes the value of health insurance, but there are a couple implications from this that he doesn’t discuss. One is that this stat is just a terrible measure of wealth, and the reason is that as health care costs increase as they have been doing, so will the number, canceling out any value derived from this form of “compensation.” The other is that this really makes it clear how badly off you become  if you lose your health insurance. Bankruptcy risks aside, this is tens of thousands of dollars worth of “compensation” that evaporate in an instant relative to the compensation one’s peers are receiving.

Tax simplification

As I prepare to get up early to start dialing the IRS tomorrow because apparently someone else has already filed a return using my Social Security Number, it occurs to me that this is an underrated case for tax return simplification. As many of the leading lights of the liberal blogosphere are fond of pointing out at this time, most people shouldn’t have to file returns the way we do now – instead you should just get a statement from the IRS of what you owe/are owed since they already have all your income information. But one side benefit of this would be that proactive tax statements from the IRS will largely kill the kind of identity theft issue I seem to be facing right now. Fewer taxpayers having to submit SSNs to the IRS means fewer bogus, stolen, or mistaken SSNs being submitted to the IRS. Everyone wins – honest taxpayers have easier and safer filing, and the government wastes fewer resources on sorting out these kinds of messes.