Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On the Tea Party

I recently read Glenn Beck's book, Common Sense. He trashes Bush, McCain, Clinton, Pelosi, T.R, and Progressives. I agree with many of Beck's ideas re: fiscal responsibility, but he delivers almost all of his ideas in sound bites, using extreme examples. He's the flip side of Al Sharpton, so I'm not surprised that Sharpton and Beck had competing rallies in D.C. on the same day.

At the same time, I get very disappointed when people try to discredit the Tea Party using irrelevant information, such as their alleged funding sources. Below are excerpts from an online discussion I had re: the Tea Party's alleged connection with the libertarian Koch family:

Lawyer: It is really necessary to look behind Beck to see where the money for Beck and the Tea Party is coming from.

Me: I don't approve of ad hominem attacks. I prefer to look at ideas and the people involved in a movement. If you want to discredit the Tea Party, you should refer to polls showing that 50+% of the Tea Party approves of George Bush II. One can't be pro-fiscal responsibility and pro-Bush II.

Also, arguing that the Tea Party movement is bad because of its association with pro-business billionaires is like saying Obama is bad because Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor to his campaign, or that Obama is anti-American because of his association with Jeremiah Wright. Lawyers ought to eschew "associational arguments," which divert attention from substantive issues.

Lawyer: I am not sure what you mean by "ad hominem"--I use it to mean an irrelevant fact that has nothing to do with the discussion. Clearly the Tea Party discredits themselves as you point out; just as clearly they are disorganized and we cannot always impute the beliefs of some of them to all of them. BUT we can look at the source of their funding (which goes to all of them) from Fox News to Dick Army to right-wing businessmen. This is the same group that spent millions attacking Clinton and funded the "Whitewater Investigation," as well as the various sexual allegations and the impeachment.

Me: absent an employee or contractor relationship, what direct bearing does someone's funding source have on his/her ideas? For example, I have a blog. If Glenn Beck started paying me 1000 bucks a month to advertise on my blog and diverted traffic to my blog, how does that change the legitimacy or integrity of my ideas? At most, you could argue that my funding sources make it more difficult to criticize my financial backers, but when you also say the Tea Party is "disorganized," you cannot reasonably rely on the "conflict of interest" argument.

Lawyer: Well yes and no. But you did not START your blog with a grant from Glen Beck and yes IF you want to keep getting the money you would have to compromise your principles. And I only say (correctly) that the Tea Party is disorganized because I don't want to say that they are all racist dogs because some of their gun-loving redneck wackos are in fact racists and proud of it. BUT, clearly there is a struggle on the right for control of the Tea Party types. Look at what has happened in Nevada and in Kentucky where the GOP is now controlling the Tea Party and moving it into the mainstream. That is why I look to the money, because money is all about control. The Tea Party gets about 500% more publicity than they deserve. The Media is all hyped up on "change" and anti-incumbent feeling, when in fact reality does not bear that out. The money (and help from Fox in particular) keeps them in the spotlight when an objective analysis would tell they they have very little political power but do have a lot of media and money power. I predict they will die out and/or be irrelevant by this time next year, because the money people will be moving away from the radical right and back into the traditional GOP.

Me: I guess we'll see in a year if you're right about the Tea Party. For the record, I think the Tea Party will eventually become a viable political third party. I, for one, would be happy to see someone break the monopoly of the Republicrats.

Lawyer: You know I hope you are right. I would love to see the U.S with at least three real political parties as in the UK and Canada. I would even more love it see the U.S. with 5 or 6 real parties. The French talk about voting with your heart in the first round and with your head in the second round. I would like that.

Corporate Attorney: I think I agree with "Lawyer" about revealing the source of funding (which, from my understanding, has come in significant amounts from the Koch brothers, two oil billionaires). I don't see this as an ad hominem attack; instead, it is an examination of these ideological leaders.

Entities with large sources of funding their agenda's interests have proven their ability to shape the political discussion in this country. We saw it with the healthcare debate, where many of these people didn't even know why they opposed it, and those who did were factually misinformed about specifics of the bill (recall "death panels", "jailtime for lack of insurance", "it's socialism!", "keep government hands off my Medicare!", etc etc.). To me, the fact that this opposition grew so large is not because of the factual nature of the claims, its because of the big money behind the claims. This impacts our democracy. I don't mean that we should criminally go after these financial backers, but they should be exposed.

Another example is the ability to get such large numbers of the lower 95% of income earners to advocate the interests of the upper 5% of earners when it comes to taxation. I don't believe this is coincidence, I believe that it comes from the scripts handed down by the financial backers of this movement.

I think exposing the influence behind the Tea Party message is important to exposing the lies and insincerity as well. Just my opinion.

Me: any argument that relies on showing your opponent lacks free will and is being led on by the nose will fail to convince the other side and will harden your opponent's stance. The only thing such an "argument" will accomplish is to make the proponent of the "argument" feel better and self-satisfied about his own position. The inefficacy and counter-productiveness of charging someone with special interest bias instead of arguing the merits of his position is why lawyers (and gentlemen) should avoid making subtle ad hominem attacks.
Corporate Attorney: I don't propose that this financing is a negation of arguments that have merit. I propose that it is an exposure of the sources of misinformation and lies. Also, I don't believe that many of the Tea Party movement is actually going to be convinced by a discussion that is founded upon logic and facts. I personally don't believe that many of them (not all, of course) are sincerely expressing their motives. I believe many of these people are the same people who were chanting "TERRORIST!" "KILL HIM!" "N-WORD!", etc at the McCain rallies. They simply found a home, and continue this type of attack under the guise of "issues".

I don't say this as an ad hominem attack, I say this because I am unable to debate such claims as "death panels", the "bill pays for illegals", "there will be jailtime for those who don't buy insurance", "Obama is a Muslim", the birther movement, etc. I strongly believe all of these movements are connected by their sources of funding. Its not cheap to make a substantial part of America believe that a man who sat in a Christian church for 20 years, whose "spiritual mentor" was a Christian, married a Christian woman, baptized his children Christians and eats swine is a Muslim (I guess the larger question is "so what if he is? Is it a crime?"). This takes a lot of money.

Again, to me the source of money is more about finding the source of misinformation, which cannot be debated beyond demonstrating those facts to be false (although the message is usually lost by that time, see ACORN and Sherrod videos), it's more about finding the source of propaganda and misinformation.

Me: stupid people exist in every movement and in every large group. You cannot discredit an entire movement or large group by pointing to the idiots in the group. To do so is like arguing that Islam and all Muslims are evil because of the 9/11 hijackers, or all Jews are dishonest because of Madoff, i.e., specious and irrational.

Most reasonable people understand that it is unfair to ascribe the idiocy of some members of a group to the entire group. Thus, until you can prove that a majority of Tea Party members believe that Obama is a Muslim, etc. you are merely speculating, and speculation has no place in an honest, fair discussion.

The Philosopher: Nonetheless, there is no more valid directive in politics than to "follow the money." Following the money leads to the conclusion that the "Tea Party" is far from a spontaneous uprising of grassroots citizens; in fact, It is as clear as an example of Astroturfing as you'll find.

Koch-financed "Americans for Prosperity" delivered 40 busloads of "independent protesters" to Washington, D.C. for a march. Note especially the signs the paid staffers made for their passengers to carry, bearing AFP slogans, made with a media producer's knowledge of how colors and letters will appear on camera and (better yet) handprinted so as to lend to the illusion that an angry citizen made it rather than a PR flack. Best line is the AFP PR rep to his "protestors": "We've got donuts and everything for you guys!" (Note also that this is only AFP buses; this doesn't include all of the crowds that were bused in by Dick Armey's "FreedomWorks," also originally funded by the Koch brothers.

Of course, this is nothing new. During the Clinton era, billionaire industrialist Richard Mellon Scaife spent hundreds of millions in his efforts to destroy the Clintons, with such allegations as Hillary murdered Vince Foster after a liaison at their secret love nest, then had his body dumped in a park and framing it as a suicide because Foster "knew too much;" that the Clintons' Christmas tree was decorated with cocaine spoons, that Clinton personally oversaw cocaine smuggling from Nicaragua to a small airport in Arkansas, and of course let's not forget the Whitewater investigation, etc.

There is no doubt many Americans are sympathetic to the "Tea Party" cause, but they must realize that there really *is* no "Tea Party." It's Astroturf, and it's brilliantly evil Astroturf at that: it convinces a certain type of poor and middle class Archie Bunker/Joe Sixpack American to rage in the streets for fear that the Republic will be destroyed and America crumble into a pre-1989 Eastern European Communists concrete wasteland, should the multimillionaires and multibillionaires funding the "Tea Party" be subject to a 2% tax increase (which is *still* less than the rate the ultrawealthy paid under Ronald Reagan.)

Me: all you've done is portray the Tea Party's arguments in the least nuanced, least flattering light possible in order to knock them down. This is called "making strawmen." Anyone can do it.

As for the idea that Tea Party members are willing to accept the support of PR people, what does that have to do with the substance of their beliefs or opinions? Are you saying that if I let a rich woman tell me what to wear to a party, the opinions I share at the party are somehow automatically invalid? Aren't you being just as bad as Glenn Beck by not evaluating the Tea Party's arguments on their merits and by painting the other side in the worst possible light?

The Philosopher: The invective has grown so fierce (...and I'm as guilty as anyone!) that it's rare to find room for reasonable discussion of politics and policy. And it is all too easy to scream at the TV and extrapolate the beliefs of those we've never met, be they hippie or redneck or centrist; that hurts us all.

I know what you mean about ad homs and strawmen. I wish we could conduct the nation's business in the manner of Atticus Finch, but I fear we're doomed now to live in a Karl Rove world, where anger, volume, and specious/falsified data rule the day.

It's so hard to rely on reason, especially when there is so much rage. If we are to survive, ultimately, then reason must again supplant that rage. We all have souls, we all hunger, and we all thirst; what unites us is greater than that which divides us...

I don't like using absolutes, but there really *are* no merits to Tea Party arguments. It's just a yet more populist redo of Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz' "Contract with America" of 1994. It's a new veneer on Reaganite trickle-down economics, now newly repackaged as tri-cornered hat/puffy shirt/Gadsden flag cosplay for those who really know absolutely no history of the Founders beyond out-of-context quotes trumpeted on FreeRepublic, Drudge, FOX, e-mail chain letters, et. al. Beck is the single worst offender. He fetishizes the Founders, so much so that he appropriates the "Common Sense" title from Thomas Paine, then devotes over half of "his" book to a reprinting of it. This pads his book out like a high school kid looking to stretch out a term paper while simultaneously wrapping himself in the cloak of the Founders. And hey, it doesn't hurt profits that Paine's work is in the public domain.

Another example: consider healthcare. 17 years ago we were told by a massive, extremely well-funded alliance of insurance corporations and Gingrich Republicans that Clinton's "pay or play" health plan was the dark, wicked heart of socialism that would cause America to crumble into ash; the Republican alternative at that time was the "Individual Mandate," or requiring every American to purchase private health insurance.

So, now in 2010 we've passed the 1993 Republican plan, but now the right has redefined it as the road to serfdom.

A professor of mine once played us Country Joe McDonald's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" from Woodstock. After the song, the professor told us in his calm and measured manner, "The Vietnam protestors were right. It was a pointless and unwinnable war. But you don't win people to your cause by telling them they are a bunch of schmucks." That was a moment of great clarity for me.

And yet, it's hard to see the vast majority of the Tea Party crowd as anything but [schmucks]. They believe their income taxes have gone up under "that socialist Obama," when in fact they've gotten a tax cut. They decry spending a few hundred million repairing American roads and bridges that have been been neglected for decades, but multiple trillions of dollars spent on fabricated, counterproductive wars in which thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqs/Afghans are killed don't even cause them to bat an eyelash. They blame Obama for TARP, when it was a Bush initiative, and the root of the problem was Sen. Phil Gramm's 1998 repeal of New Deal banking laws (signed by Clinton) which had prevented such a crash for over 60 years. Less than ten years after the deregulation, the financial system suffered its 2008 crash and the American taxpayer was put on the hook for $2 trillion; and yet Obama, who would not take office for another 4 months, is blamed.

How can you employ reason with people who not only lack it, but are scornful of it as an academic affectation? The Tea Party has nothing but anger. It's no different than the 10-15% that backed George Wallace in 1968, or (even more accurately) that 20% Ross Perot garnered in 1992 and 12% in 1996. Remember how Perot pledged that "restoring America" was now his life's calling, and though (of course) it had nothing to do with him as an individual, he would now fund his dream, the "U-nited We Stand, America" 3rd party, in perpetuity? He's been MIA for 14 years now.

Nonetheless, I hope you're right about the Tea Party becoming a valid 3rd party. This will cause a crucial portion (10%-15%?) of the Conservative base to slip away from the Republicans, thus ensuring that more reasoned voices will direct the debate. I know it's rude and wrong to paint this subset of the electorate as dimwits, but frankly they've done nothing to convince us otherwise. Being purely pragmatic about it, I wish them well, because the Republicans who have exploited their allegiance for the past 30+ years cannot win on a national level without them.

Insofar as knocking over strawmen, many strawmen need to be knocked over! A better description might be "knocking over scarecrows," scarecrows erected at great expense by self-interested Titans of Finance in order to scare people into voting in direct opposition to their own best interests. If they are kept in a constant state of fear ("socialism!" "czars!" "illegal Mexicans!" "anchor babies!" "terror babies!" "they hate us for our freedom!" "terrorists!" "Social Security is bankrupt!" "liberals!" "taxes!" "mushroom clouds over Washington and DC!" "yellowcake uranium!" "flag-burning!" "weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and we know exactly where!", et cetera, ad nausea) they won't notice they've been screwed ten ways to Sunday, and then vote for the very people who whipped them into the paranoiac frenzy in the first place under the guise of "we'll keep you safe."

Public Defender: Bush, McCain, Clinton, Pelosi, T.R. (seriously, he trashed Teddy Roosevelt, the president who gave us the national parks?), the Progressives. So everyone is wrong except for Beck. I'm sure that's accurate.

Me: if Beck believes that Congress is inefficient and corrupt, it's not unreasonable for him to blame everyone there.

The Techie: a public figure's funding is not entirely an ad hominem argument. If the argument is that someone is receiving money because it is good for those giving the money, that is not a logically flawed argument.

"Follow the money" is valid for politicians as no one gives them money for nothing. There is always a trade or expectation of support for any sufficiently large expenditure.

For instance, if several senators are supporting an "environmental" bill but are being payed large sums by big oil, it is not logically flawed to assume you need to dig deeper into the real effects of said legislation, and that it might not be what it seems, despite their arguments being sound.

The same logic applies to those who make their money off being a public personality such as Beck and Limbaugh. For instance Beck makes a lot of arguments which on the surface seem non secular but are very much aimed at promoting specific religious ideals.

Me: I agree Glenn Beck doesn't respect separation of church and state, but why not discuss his ideas directly? Examining someone's funding sources may reveal conflicts of interest, but alleging a conflict of interest is not an argument. At most, it's like character evidence, i.e., making a personal attack, which draws attention away from the content of his ideas.

The Philosopher: The larger question is "how do you employ reason, measure, and balance with those who would seem to lack all three?"

If they are not willing to return mutual civility and insist on clinging to obvious fabrications (birth certificate conspiracy theories,) what is their due in public discourse?

Obama has to his infinite credit remained Lincolnian.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ryan Dawkins on Park51

Ryan Dawkins writes a very interesting piece about the Park51 project (aka Muslim Community Center near Ground Zero):

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I especially liked the quotes from George W. Bush.

Note: the following is a list of prominent people and entities opposing the Park51 project. I call them "Americans for Selective Constitutional Application": Carly Fiorina, Investors' Business Daily (IBD), Newt Gingrich, John McCain, Anti-Defamation League, the WSJ's James Taranto, Rep. Peter T. King, Rep. Rick Lazio, John Bolton, Howard Dean, Rudy Giuliani, Geert Wilders, Gary Berntsen, Jordan Sekulow, Michael Grimm, Andrew Breitbart, Ilario Pantano, Gov. David Paterson, Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Michelle Malkin, and more...

I am most disappointed in McCain and Gingrich.

At least I can rely on Ron Paul's consistent brilliance:

It is repeatedly said that 64% of the people, after listening to the political demagogues, don’t want the mosque to be built. What would we do if 75% of the people insist that no more Catholic churches be built in New York City? The point being is that majorities can become oppressors of minority rights as well as individual dictators. Statistics of support is irrelevant when it comes to the purpose of government in a free society-—protecting liberty...This is all about hate and Islamaphobia.

Thank you, Mr. Paul. Props also to Roger Ebert.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Seeking Alpha's Editor-in-Chief

SeekingAlpha's Editor-in-Chief Eli Hoffmann and myself at a S.F. event. If I had just two words to describe him, I'd go with "driven" and "professorial"--the perfect combo for an editor-in-chief.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Megan McArdle on Government Pensions

Megan McArdle, on public pensions:

For decades, politicians have promised lavish pension benefits in return for the support of the public sector unions—-promises that they, unlike their counterparts in the private sector, did not have to cover by setting aside a reasonably large asset base. Now the bills are coming due, and many funds are disastrously underfunded. The California state pension system, for example, has only 60 percent of the assets needed to pay its obligations through 2042.

(from The Atlantic, August 2010)

Politicians have sold out the next generation of workers. Unfortunately, many of the workers on the hook for public pensions have had no say in the process--they were either too young or too uneducated to understand what their parents and politicians were doing.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Alice in Wonderland: the Gov's Hiring Process (Special Union Edition)

I knew California's public sector unions had major influence, but I didn't realize just how much until recently.   I wrote this post after I had an interview with the courthouse for a courtroom clerk job--not a law clerk, but a courtroom clerk--which is akin to a court's office manager.

The courtroom clerk job requires scheduling dates, taking phone calls from the public, marking some forms, filing documents, and running interference for the judge. Also, if there is a jury trial, the courtroom clerk marks the exhibits, swears in witnesses, handles the lawyers' requests, and reads the verdict. It's not known as an overly challenging job, but it is honest work, and it comes with the usual California government employee gold-plated benefits, i.e., dental insurance, medical, pension, union protection. Also, the salary for the clerk position--which requires three years of admin work in a law firm or courthouse and no college degree--pays about as much as a non-profit attorney position in the Bay Area. So I applied, thinking if I wanted to start a family someday, the benefits would come in handy. (And God knows dental work for growing children isn't cheap.) Plus, why not see the glory that is the Santa Clara County Superior Court hiring system?

The first step was a test, but the test's instructions indicated that I would be disqualified if I discussed the content of the exam. Therefore, I am not going to discuss the questions. Instead, I am going to tell you about completely unrelated tests that I remember taking in elementary school and elsewhere. To the extent you, my dear reader, somehow associate anything about my elementary school or other academic tests with the Santa Clara County Superior Court's courtroom clerk test, you are speculating and are going down a path I do not recommend.

In any case, one of my elementary school tests, as I remember, had questions like, "64 divided by 8." Oh, and I could not use a calculator in elementary school. Also, it wasn't multiple choice. But that was back in elementary school. Some questions were slightly harder--in elementary school--such as, "120,000 + 85,405 + 7,443." Again, back in the day, they didn't let us bring calculators to the test.

I also remember taking grammar tests in elementary school. I remember questions like, "Identify the problem with the following sentence: 'Each of the idiots who crafted this exam are to be fired.'" (Did you catch it? "Each" is singular, so "are" should be replaced with "is.") Other questions related to the difference between "affect" and "effect" or involved other common mistakes. Now, can you imagine if 40% of a test contained these kinds of questions? Well, back in elementary school, I wouldn't mind one bit.

Going to another unrelated topic, as an adult, sometimes I'd apply for a job and would have to take a personality test. I loved those questions, especially when the corporation would ask me something like, "In your capacity as a police officer, how should you treat members of the public?" a) punch them in the face every chance you get; b) if asked a question, act self-important and flash the badge two inches from the person's face; c) make sure you let unsupervised children play with your loaded gun whenever they ask; or d) remember that your job is to serve the public. I had a good time taking those tests, but can you imagine if those kinds of questions constituted 20% of an employment test?

I also remember taking some tests that were insanely hard, to the point where the questions had no relation to the job itself. For example, I had a very difficult biology class at UC Davis with a new professor. So many people did poorly on his final exam, if you scored something like 35/100, you got an "A-." I've never understood why anyone would put arcane questions on a multiple choice exam. They don't seem to measure anything except luck.

Can you imagine a test that asked you questions like, "President Calvin Coolidge was President Number a) 28; b) 29; or c) 30"? I mean, let's assume you want to hire a secretary or office manager for a history professor. How would someone knowing this obscure fact have any relevance to the job? Wouldn't most people just guess and take their 33.3% chances? In any case, I am good with obscure as well as general questions, so I usually do well on written tests. In fact, if I had a test with 50 questions, I'd probably get 46 or 47 out of 50 most of the time.

So I passed the court's initial exam. Regardless of an exam's difficulty level, if it's the only objective part of the hiring process, it makes sense to use the results to narrow the field considerably. (I would also hope the questions would get harder at some point if too many people were receiving high scores.) Otherwise, the objective part of the exam serves only to eliminate complete morons, causing the hiring process to be based primarily on subjective criteria. (Can you imagine hiring a civil engineer based mainly on how he or she interviews? Drive over those California bridges carefully, okay?)

After the initial exam came an interview (at only 20 minutes an interview, I am guessing 25+ out of 60 applicants passed the written test). During my interview, I was never told that anything was confidential, so I am going to tell you all about it.

First, four people interviewed me. All very nice ladies, one African-American, two Latinas, and one Caucasian (Tracy or Tracey H.). The Caucasian was the head of Human Resources and appeared to be in charge. At least two of the other three ladies were associated with unions, such as the court reporters' union. I thought it was fascinating that union members got to decide which courtroom personnel make it to the final stages of the hiring process. Isn't California government wonderful?

The interview had four questions. The first one was your basic, "Tell us about your experience, education, etc." So I explained I'd been to law school and have always worked in law firms where, in addition to the complex legal work, I either did all the administrative work or had no dedicated admin staff. I explained that I wasn't your typical lawyer--I work directly with very diverse groups of people and usually handle cases for the (disappearing) middle class and the poor. I was concerned about being deemed overqualified, so I made sure to mention that I hoped to meet someone and start a family one day, and I wanted to be able to offer stability, consistent working hours, and benefits--none of which was possible if I kept doing 30 to 40 hours/week of admin work and another 30 to 40 hours/week of legal work. In essence, I'd be doing similar work as a courtroom clerk, but my future kids would get braces and the chance to see me before 11:00PM. So far, so good.

The next item asked what I would do if I disagreed with a judge's order. I explained that 1) as a courtroom clerk, it wasn't my place to do anything; 2) I would file the order and mail it to the parties, unless instructed otherwise; and 3) if one of the parties disagreed with the order, s/he could file a motion for reconsideration or an appeal. (I realize the court is trying to eliminate morons, but wasn't that the point of the first test?)

The third question was a little strange, but at least it was more difficult. It asked me what I would do if the phone was ringing, an attorney had come up to me and wanted to ask me a question, and I had just missed the judge's order. It didn't provide any background information, i.e., is this a CMC or law and motion? (A CMC usually requires the courtroom clerk to fill in a form with the next court date, while a law and motion matter usually has a written order prepared by a law clerk or a judge.) Also, in practice, the deputy would stop an attorney interfering in the middle of a hearing, so unless a lawyer managed to get past the deputy, the above scenario would never happen in an open session.

I was a little stumped on this one, because the question required some background information about the judge's preferences, type of hearing, etc. I answered that I would pick up the phone (if it's ringing, it might be distracting, so I thought I should pick it up), tell the caller court was in session, and s/he should leave me a voicemail or call back later, and then ask the lawyer to give the deputy a note with his or her issues (usually, the deputy passes notes between counsel and the clerk). But I still have a problem--I've missed the judge's order, and it's the clerk's job to make sure the judge's order is recorded properly.

I should have answered that I would check with the court reporter when the open session finished, but that answer didn't come to me, and not all hearings have court reporters. So I answered that I would make a note about the line number of the case and check the file later to see what happened. If the file was unhelpful, I would ask the judge about the case. It wasn't a great answer, but the question was unduly vague. In practice, the courtroom clerk would know whether he or she could interrupt the session and ask the judge a quick question, or use some other method blessed by the judge.

The last item asked me if I had any questions or comments. I said that while I wouldn't actively volunteer any information, I would be in a position to assist the court when it came to diversity because of my experience dealing with so many different groups of people. I've heard judges grossly mispronounce names and have seen other judges lack basic understanding about particular cultures, and it's embarrassing to everyone involved. (Well, at least it would be embarrassing if the judge had the empathy or knowledge to know that s/he had made a mistake, but some judges don't have the highest emotional IQs. Remember: they used to be lawyers--a generally prickly lot--and now they're lawyers with political connections and pensions--meaning they've upgraded to satisfied, powerful, and prickly.)

I also indicated I had a Westlaw contract up for renewal in two days, and asked whether I would hear back before then. This question created a tizzy. One of the interviewers smiled ominously. Tracey H. seemed put off. I'm not sure if any of them knew that Westlaw legal research contracts usually have to be renewed for one or two year periods and have much different pricing based on the contract length. Basically, unless I could figure out if I had been eliminated or hired prior to Friday, I ran the risk of spending several thousand dollars on a contract I might not need to use. In a normal interview, a company would probably say, "Well, we have other candidates to evaluate and other steps to go through, and we weren't planning on deciding the finalists so soon, but we'll try to get back to you as soon as possible." That's what a normal private employer would do, but this is the government. They don't have to give a damn.

On the way up, I asked Tracey H. about the number of positions available. She said it depended, which seemed sort of vague, especially because she'd been so chatty previously. (I am speculating, but I don't think the court knows the expected start/hire date for the job, or she would have been more specific.) She also said the next step would be to narrow the field to seven candidates, and then there would also be a hands-on test. On the way to the interview, she shook my hand, but on the way out, she did not shake my hand. My last question had definitely changed the tenor of the interview, and I don't expect to make the final cut--even though my initial test score was most likely in the top five, and no one else applying probably has a law degree. Now, is it possible my last question gave off a presumptive vibe? Absolutely, but nothing up to that point indicated that it would take four to five months (or more) to choose someone for an admin position. Besides, this is the government, not a private company--if they're spending taxpayer funds (some of which I've contributed), should they really be acting as if I'm being presumptuous by asking a simple question?

After the interview, I left the HR specialist a message thanking her for her time and telling her I appreciated her professionalism and her colleagues' professionalism. I also asked when applicants would need to be available if they made the next cut, and when the expected start date would be for the eventual hiree. I said I wanted to make sure I would be available if I managed to make the next step. Over 48 hours later, I've received no return phone call.

Oh, I almost forgot--aside from my experience with diverse groups, I am a "four-fer"--a minority based on religious, ethnic, immigration, and other status.  While the court loves talking about diversity, at the end of the day, it's still a breath of fresh Orange County, California when it comes to visible positions. There's nothing necessarily wrong with having a slice of country club O.C. in the middle of San Jose, California, but why persist with the disingenuous diversity talk? Why not be honest and tell people that the government isn't looking to hire based on merit, but other qualities, like social agreeableness? God forbid if an employee might rock the boat and offer new ways of doing things. I used to wonder why Santa Clara County Superior Court has been behind the curve on multiple issues. It adopted online tentative rulings very late (much later than Placer County), still doesn't have its orders and pleadings online like Alameda County, and recently incorporated a new judicial mediation program that Santa Cruz County had at least five years ago.

At the end of the day, if I don't get the job, I will be fine; however, I'm worried about the unemployed person who applied for the clerk job, is almost at the end of his or her benefit period, and is waiting for a decision. The court closed applications for the clerk position back in mid-June 2010. It doesn't take much time to grade a scannable multiple choice test, so why would it take four months or more to hire a clerk?

And that's when it hit me. Government jobs are not based on need, but on budgetary considerations. The unions demand money for votes, the state provides money, the money has to go somewhere, and if someone isn't hired right away, there are no real consequences to the government entity. Perhaps some work takes a little longer to complete, but the government can take its sweet time because it generally provides non-essential services.

In contrast, a private business usually won't hire someone unless it has a specific need, so when it wants someone, it usually completes the process as soon as possible. That's because a private business can terminate the employee if s/he isn't a good fit before the usual three months probationary period and hire someone else. As for job protection, in the real world, almost no one fires a person who can produce. That's why so many managers get away with murder--the company may have to pay tens of thousands of dollars in settlements, but as long as the manager produces, you don't want him leaving to your competitor.

The fact remains that most government workers do not produce or sell anything, which allows them to avoid accountability. If you don't make or sell anything, how can someone judge your performance? (Other than talking to a manager, who has no power to discipline anyone outside of complex union rules, there isn't really a way to effectively complain about a government employee's performance.) Why, then, should I be surprised if the courtroom clerk position doesn't seem to have a definite hire or start date, and the hiring process seems based more on subjective qualities than my test score, education, and experience?

While I realize every job requires people who can fit into the organization, government union jobs tend not to have clearly measurable performance metrics, so unions can prioritize subjective factors over merit. Another way to analyze the union hiring problem is to think of a world where jobs are determined primarily on subjective criteria. In that world, Mike Huckabee has just as much of a chance of getting the science job as Stephen Hawking, because if the objective test is too easy, Hawking has no real advantage over Huckabee when it comes to proving his superior scientific knowledge. In fact, Hawking is actually disadvantaged by the entire process, which weighs the subsequent interview more heavily than the earlier objective test. (By the way, I'm sure we all know that California teachers' unions love the current system, where there is no way to judge their teaching abilities. Recently, because of the teachers unions' desire to maintain the current non-accountability system, California kids lost millions of federal dollars--again. See Race to the Top article.)

You see, union jobs are like gifts, and the hiring committees view them as such. They know they won't get props for hiring the most talented person, because there isn't a way to measure performance accurately. So they focus on hiring someone agreeable, who may have few other options, and who isn't necessarily the most qualified.

Also, since public sector unions deal with OPM all the time, why should they bother getting the most bang for the buck? After all, it's not their money, and if they hire someone with new ideas or an exceptional work ethic, s/he might show up everyone else. In short, government hiring committees have no incentive to act quickly or to hire the most talented person. For taxpayers, that means if they're lucky, they get an above average employee, and the most talented applicants go elsewhere.

Why should we care? First, there's the basic fairness issue. When a recession hits, a terrible public sector worker has more job protection than an excellent private sector worker--even though the private sector pays for public employees' salaries and benefits.

Second, when a new government employee is hired, taxpayers are really paying for two people--the person and his/her pension. Stated another way, the money paid for the person's pension could be used to hire a new person thirty years down the road, so assuming finite resources, each new government employee takes a job away from someone else in the future. Even if we reform the current system, at least one generation will suffer the trillion-dollar consequences of past pension promises. See Bloomberg article, here: "The effects of altering the [pension] system are limited because most costs arise from benefits promised to workers who are already retired, and wouldn’t be affected by changes to benefits for current employees." In short, promises already made to public sector unions are so large, the government unions have irrevocably harmed at least one generation of Americans.

In an era of declining American birthrates, it's not feasible to have a system where a taxpaying adult is on the hook for someone else's pension even as s/he suffers the loss of a potential job because of the diverted tax revenue used to pay for that pension. If we continue to rely on immigration to maintain a replacement population rate (which helps support future pension obligations), we must ensure our public schools are the best in the world--and that is clearly not the case in California. (In the distant past, America was able to put new immigrants in the coal mines or other manual labor jobs and then their kids would take over their manufacturing jobs, but that system no longer exists. Today, formal education is necessary to move immigrants into upwardly-mobile status.)

Most developed societies become victims of their own success. In Europe, where unionization is heavier than in the States, we can already see major problems. Young people have difficulty finding jobs, even in skilled professions like medicine. At the same time, most native-born European citizens don't want to do menial jobs, so they import persons from poorer countries to maintain their way of life (or, if you're Japan, you stick your head in the sand and continue to oppose immigration...and build human-looking robots). While I support immigration, new immigrants tend to bring new ways of doing things, which upsets the "natural" order and creates tensions--unless a country has the resources and the flexibility to take a long-term view, i.e., to judge immigrants by whether their children assimilate.

To summarize, the natural progression of modern successful societies is as follows: industrialization; women receive equal rights; birthrates decline; unions are eventually formed; taxes are increased to support government union jobs [and tax or other benefits primarily accruing to natives]; native-born citizens refuse to do certain work, requiring the importation of poor people; the new immigrants create cultural tensions; and either society adapts and is able to welcome the new immigrants like the United States has done, or it fails to assimilate the new immigrants and begins a slow, steady decline, like Europe. One common theme in the collapse of a country is public sector unions. See Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money, page 104:

"The Weimar tax system [which led to massive inflation, making the German mark basically worthless] was feeble, not least because the new regime lacked legitimacy among higher income groups who declined to pay the taxes imposed on them. At the same time, public money was spent recklessly, particularly on generous wage settlements for public sector unions."

[Bonus: "As its economy stagnated in the early 2000s, Germany increased competitiveness by working with unions to keep wage increases below productivity growth. Greece, its economy fueled by the cheap government loans that came with eurozone membership, saw labor costs soar [as Greek unions negotiated wage and benefit increases above actual economic growth]." (National Geographic, March 2015 pp. 109)] 

Public sector unions bring with them a culture of no merit, no production, no accountability, and OPM. The larger they get, the more society is forced to rely on higher taxes and immigrants to move the country forward. California has been very lucky to receive many hard-working, smart immigrants in the past thirty years. Without recent immigrants and their children, Yahoo (YHOO), Google (GOOG), eBay (EBAY), Sun Microsystems, and Apple (Steve Jobs is biologically half-Syrian or half-Lebanese) would not exist.

I don't know whether I've been rejected for the court job. When I get the next letter, I'll probably just throw it away. I have no interest in working for an entity that places significant decisions in the hands of four people who don't seem to understand the issues facing a small business with annual contracts and who don't seem intent on moving the hiring process forward in a timely manner.

I'm happy to note, however, that there was a silver lining to the interview. It reminded me that I spend each day trying to help people resolve problems, and I am accountable to my clients every single moment. Even if my future kids have crooked teeth because Daddy doesn't have dental benefits, at least I can tell them that I did my best. Plus, if I had received the clerk position, who knows whether I would have been able to fit into the courthouse's union culture. At least as the owner of a small business, I can strive to make sure that every person who comes into my office is treated honestly, openly, and respectfully--just like I've been doing for the past six years. Now if only the courthouse could meet my standards.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fahrenheit 451: Bradbury on Popular Culture

Ray Bradbury:

I wasn’t worried about freedom, I was worried about people being turned into morons by TV. See, we’ve never had censorship in this country, we’ve never burned books....Fahrenheit’s not about censorship, it’s about the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news, and the proliferation of giant screens, and the bombardment of "factoids."

There you go.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Little Boxes

And the people in the houses
All go to the university,
And they all get put in boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.
And there's doctors and there's lawyers
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

It's a modification of this Malvina Reynolds song, made famous by Pete Seeger.

Speaking of boxes, H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury (April 1924) that the aim of public education is not

to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence...Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim...is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States.

The more things change, the more they stay the same? Sigh.

Team Mark Cuban

Interesting battle between two major bloggers and superstars. Barry Ritholtz compliments Mark Cuban but also points out that Mr. Cuban seems to be contradicting himself unless he has an edge. The original thread is here. I wanted to share my thoughts, and while I am usually on Mr. Ritholtz's side, in this case, he's missed the big picture.

Mr. Cuban has always maintained two overall themes: 1) the stock market has morphed into a casino, far from its original purpose, which was to help entrepreneurs expand their businesses; and 2) financial advisors and Wall Street have so many conflicts of interest, they are inherently dishonest and no longer consider retail investors’ interests. (Quite frankly, both of these themes are 100% correct.)

Mr. Ritholtz's comments seem to hold Mr. Cuban to a strange standard, i.e., If Cuban says the market is rigged and you should be in cash, bonds, or CDs, what exactly is his "edge" in giving this investment advice? The problem is that you don’t need an “edge” to be in cash. For most non-traders, the point of having a cash-centric portfolio is to avoid volatile investments. Mr. Cuban was just pointing out that the average retail investor is usually at a disadvantage in the stock market, meaning s/he should be in cash or another investment that is not subject to the whims of Wall Street bankers.

Thus, criticizing Mr. Cuban for his lack of an investment “edge” seems nonsensical, because he’s not giving investment advice–as Mr. Ritholtz himself admits. Mr. Cuban is just trying to guide people to a savings vehicle that does not require an edge. Now, if someone wanted to criticize Mr. Cuban in non-straw-man fashion, s/he could mention two things:

1) in the absence of 8% money market accounts, bonds and CDs, most of us rely on stock market gains to fund our retirements, because most of us don’t have billions of dollars in the bank; in other words, after a certain financial point, one does not need to subject himself to the whims of Wall Street (I still remember Ted Turner saying that he keeps all his money in Treasuries). However, since most people are not in Mr. Cuban’s financial position, his advice seems questionable in the absence of persistent deflation; and

2) being in cash has been a terrible move over the long run (30+ years) due to inflation, and therefore Mr. Cuban’s advice is not helpful to retail investors who lack billions of dollars for retirement. In short, Mr. Cuban’s 10 year time horizon is too short and conveniently selective, because under Bogle’s, Graham’s and Buffett’s theories, investors should be prepared to hold stocks for 30+ years to smooth out returns.

Perhaps Mr. Ritholtz is trying to start something with Mr. Cuban to get more readers. As an avid fan of both men, I have no problems with his strategy. I also continue to wonder if the average long-term investor is best served by Mr. Cuban's all-cash advice.

Update: Kedrosky interview (6/29/10) with Mark Cuban here:

So that’s when I kind of gave up my widows and orphans approach and started trading stocks and that was the early 90s and it worked out very, very, very well for me. I think I took that $3 million, which is about $2 million after tax, and turned it into about 10x, just having boom years. Which a lot of people did in technology in the 90s and that was just, you know, from probably 1990 to 1995.

Ah, the 90's. Good times.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Barry Ritholtz: Look Out Below?

According to today's post, hedge fund manager and author Barry Ritholtz says: 

We have been mostly cash since May 5th (as much as 100% then, 50% cash in June). We are now over 80% cash, and are looking for a move down towards 950 on the SPX. 

950 on the S&P 500 means a 20% drop from today's prices. Still, don't HPQ and some other tech names seem tempting at current (8/24/10) prices? Mr. Ritholtz seems to be betting that the Democrats--which control both the White House and Congress--will do nothing about a 20% stock market decline, even with elections arriving soon. 

More from Barry Ritholtz here

Disclosure: I own shares of HPQ.

Police Transparency

San Jose City Councilmember Pete Constant's office left me a message last week. I called back, and one of his staff wanted to confirm my contact information. I confirmed his office had my correct email address and contact information. Then, right before the end of the conversation, I was asked if my mom was the head of the household. I said yes--after all, what son doesn't think his mom rules the household? (And we all know if momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy, right?)

I've been thinking more about Mr. Constant and his vote against police transparency. Basically, Mr. Constant was one of the deciding votes in a 6-5 vote overruling the Sunshine Task Force's recommendations on police records. When I asked him why he voted against police transparency, he indicated that he followed the lead of the police department and D.A.'s office, and they told him that residents' privacy interests could be negatively impacted. (At the time of the vote, Dolores Carr, who is married to a former SJPD officer, was the D.A.) It appears the police department and/or D.A.'s office may have been less than forthcoming with Mr. Constant, who seems to have accepted their opinions at face value. As I've written before, the Task Force's recommendation would not have negatively impacted privacy interests. In short, six Councilmembers--including Mayor Chuck Reed--voted against government transparency, even after some of them ran on a platform of government transparency.

In retrospect, I don't know why I was surprised to hear Mr. Constant follow the SJPD's lead. It's no secret that Mr. Constant--who will be term-limited out of his current Council position--has his sights set on the Santa Clara County Sheriff's position. To win that election, he needs the support of the police unions. Although Mr. Constant and his family are beneficiaries of multiple government pensions, Mr. Constant continues to be attracted to public service and/or government power. Why should we care?

America was founded on a system of checks and balances. A Councilmember is supposed to represent the people, not the police. If Mr. Constant didn't bother doing his due diligence when he was representing the people of San Jose, how will he act if he is in charge of the police? Although Mr. Constant deserves kudos for his generally high work ethic, I hope he has another chance to show us whether his loyalties reside with local police unions or San Jose residents. And I hope he--and Chuck Reed--get it right next time.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Excellent Wedding Ideas

I recently attended a wonderful wedding at Casa Real, located in Pleasanton, CA. So many couples seem to think they need a huge, expensive bash, but this couple managed to throw an excellent, fun wedding without breaking the bank. Here's how they did it:

1. Guests could get pictures taken in a photo booth at the reception. The booth would print out two sets of pictures--one for you, and the other for an album for the bride and groom. Guests could use props and accessories, such as an Afro wig or Elton-John-style sunglasses. On paper, I admit it sounds gauche, but everyone I saw had a great time using the booth. Plus, each guest had an instant souvenir.

2. The food was served family-style, which cut costs. Each table received plates or bowls with beef, salmon, mashed potatoes, and green peas. The food was simple but tasty.

3. Instead of having a big wedding cake, the bride and groom had a small wedding cake for themselves and cupcakes for guests. (See picture above.) In addition to cupcakes, guests could go to another table and get five different kinds of large gourmet cookies. Guests could also take cookies home in a small paper pouch.

4. There was an open bar, and most people ordered the suggested drink, which was a cranberry mojito.

5. The simplicity of the wedding allowed guests to focus on the speeches and the bride and groom. One of the best parts included a game between the bride and groom. They had to bring their chairs to the middle of the hall, sit with their backs against each other, and exchange one shoe. (Each person now has one shoe from the groom and one shoe from the bride, and neither person can see each other.)

The best man would then ask questions, and both the bride and groom would have to raise a shoe in response. For example, "Who controls the remote?" "Who hogs the bed?" "Who wears the pants in the relationship?" "Whose side of the room is messier?" And so on. (Some questions caused the groom to raise both shoes, much to the delight of the audience.)

6. Instead of having coffee delivered directly to the table, guests could go to a table and get their own coffee or tea. I found this arrangement more convenient than most weddings, where I would often want more coffee and would have to flag someone down to get a cup.

7. The DJ was great--he played mostly pop music, and I liked most of the songs he played. (It was a long time since I'd heard the Jackson Five's ABC.)

I had a great time, and I encourage more couples to ditch the fancy, cookie-cutter wedding bash and go with a simple, more creative experience.

Friday, August 20, 2010

FibreChannel v. Ethernet and Cloud Computing

I am asking for your feedback. Please use the "comments" section if you're able to assist me.

I've been studying how data is stored on the internet, more specifically storage area networking and Ethernet solutions for enterprises and service providers. There appears to be a debate about the future of FibreChannel technology. This debate centers on the limitations of FibreChannel ("FC") moving beyond certain speed limitations. Apparently, FC cannot keep up with the next generation Ethernet solutions, which can go up to 100 Gbps.

FC has an option called FCoE, or FibreChannel over Ethernet, which is designed to integrate future Ethernet applications and services. Questions:

1. What do you see as the future of FC in the context of the Ethernet threat?

2. Do you believe FCoE will convince IT professionals and CIOs to continue to rely on FibreChannel?

3. Please explain FC's ability to adapt to the increasing cloud computing universe. Can FC and FCoE adapt well to a universe where most apps and storage may migrate to a cloud computing platform?

4. Do you see FC able to continue growing over the next four years?

Update: some initial feedback indicates that FC is indeed viable, but FC drives may not be cost-effective for most businesses. Reasons given were 1) cheaper alternatives such as "load-balancing" and "distributed storage"; and 2) while FC scales as well as other storage technologies, it costs more and requires more specialized equipment for little benefit. Any further thoughts would be appreciated.

Weimar Republic and Nuclear Weapons

I love witty remarks. On CBS Marketwatch's website, someone named "Daft" posted the following comment about America's current economic malaise, and I had to share:

Doom? Whatever.

Look no further than the Weimar Republic. Everyone was fine in Germany. Sure, economic collapse, but life went on.

Then they decided to have that guy lead the country back to greatness.

The diff? We have cool nuclear weapons 'n stuff... who will be that guy for us?

Thankfully, most of us are able to find the humor in "Daft's" comment, which probably means we're doing okay--for now.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bread and Circuses: the Muslim Center near Ground Zero

Props to Eboo Patel, Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Corps, for the following exchange:

http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/08/16/cnn [Update: broken link.] 

(If an ad appears, remove it by clicking "close" or the "x" in the corner.)

Patel: I have to tell you that this [i.e., telling a Muslim group they can build a mosque, just not near Ground Zero] seems a little like telling black people 50 years ago: you can sit anywhere on the bus you like - just not in the front.

Lemon: I think that's apples and oranges - I don't think that black people were behind a Terrorist plot to kill people and drive planes into a building. That's a completely different circumstance.

Patel: And American Muslims were not behind the terrorist plot either.

Lemon seems to have forgotten about the Black Panthers. Should the U.S. in the 60's have been able to impose Jim Crow laws and/or segregation on all African-Americans because one small but vocal group of African-Americans advocated violent methods? Of course not. However, when Muslims are involved, logical thinking seems to go out the window.

Also, this isn't a zoning issue, because if this facility had been a church, no one would care. The only reason this development is being singled out is because of the minority religious affiliation of the developer and the project. Therefore, Park51 involves a Constitutional issue, and a test of whether a majority of residents can force a religious minority to segregate themselves to areas they find acceptable.

By the way, below is a link to one of Park51's major investors:

http://cordobahouse.com/about-us/ [Update: I've replaced the link. Former link no longer worked.] 

The page opens with a quote from Jewish-American scholar Elie Wiesel. Maybe I'm naive, but I'm happy with any Muslim group that quotes Elie Wiesel and wants to "heal conflict between Islamic and Western communities by...empowering women."

Overall, my opinion is that this is a local issue in NY where the local government officials are acting properly, and we need to be focusing on other issues, like the economy and the wars. We have thousands of American soldiers sweltering in the Middle Eastern heat; Pakistanis dying because of a major flood; the Taliban still in existence; Israel threatening to unilaterally bomb Iranian nuclear energy sites; and a massive deficit. Remember those real problems? Perhaps the government no longer needs to spend money on bread and circuses. They seem to have passed that job to the American media.

Bonus: more here. [Update: broken link.] I swear I wrote the post above before looking at the link. Like I said, bread and circuses.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Red Pill Edition: Is Yahoo's Carol Bartz the One?

Dear CEO Carol Bartz:

I'm going to give you the blue pill first. You've done a wonderful job fixing many of Yahoo's dysfunctions. Before you arrived, Yahoo users were bombarded with "new-old" ideas, like "Yahoo 360" (a second-tier version of Facebook); constant recycling of entertainment news; and technical glitches too numerous to recount here.

Lest anyone of us forget, you run a fine, trail-blazing company. As I remember, Yahoo was the first major company to offer free lifetime email accounts and to make it easier for laypeople to use internet resources. Yahoo's actions a decade ago helped expand the internet and set the stage for billions of people worldwide to communicate with each other.

And don't think I haven't noticed your take-charge business style. After I complained publicly about all the entertainment news on your home page, you fixed it within a few weeks. Yahoo's home page no longer seems to constantly feature stories involving the Kardashians and Paris Hilton. (From the bottom of my heart, thank you. And thank you for finally fixing many of the glitches in Yahoo's calendar.) Also, just when I thought Yahoo's fantasy sports couldn't get any better, you outdid yourself yet again (the new linear stat graphs are wonderful).

Yet, as you know, Yahoo still has problems. I want to make sure these problems are on your radar screen, so it's time to take the red pill.

Problem 1: Yahoo Tailors its Content to Maximize Eyeballs, another Way of Saying it Emphasizes the Lowest Common Denominator, i.e., Superficial Content over Substance

At this year's annual meeting, I told you Yahoo's front page had gotten so asinine, I had switched to your main competitor's home page. I'm still not back, because for the most part, your front page features stories I've seen before or items I don't care about. In the future, content will be king, and right now, you mostly recycle other people's content based on popularity. Well, it turns out the popular kids on the internet love asinine, superficial stories, and when you move with that crowd, you lose credibility with the nerds, geeks, jocks, goths, rebels, and recluses--i.e., everyone but the cheerleaders and their admiring followers. Is that really the direction you want to go? Headfirst into the land of the average and the Simpsons' Ralph Wiggum?

And do you really think advertisers want to display ads on a website that has no focus? Wouldn't it make more sense to break up Yahoo into multiple sites, where you could tailor content (and ads) to more specific groups of people? Google uses AdWords to tailor its advertising to specific users--what do you have that can compete with AdWords?

Problem 2: Hateful Comments

Your desire for mass appeal extends to the comments section of your articles, which you do not actively monitor. As a result, Yahoo's comments sections are filled with the backwards side of America. Few other reputable websites would allow the comments I saw on August 17, 2010 on Yahoo:

"DON'T BE GAY!!" on an article discussing a Mississippi school district's policy forbidding women from wearing tuxedos for senior yearbook portraits.

"Something needs to be done about the black problem. Why can,t [sic] the scientfic [sic] community get together and figure out a way to stop the pieces of scum from reproducing?" From Bill in Sacramento, on an article where an African-American mother killed her children ("SC mom killed kids, dumped car in river"). [Note: the person who wrote the comment should have looked up 1994's Susan Smith case before associating race with child murder.]

Re: article titled, "World Bank pledges $900 million in flood aid to Pakistan": "Helping any Muslim controlled country, is like a U.S. soldier who sees a wounded enemy soldier on the ground and (being compassionant) [sic] decides to reach down and lift him up for medical treatment. Then, as soon as the person is lifted, the booby trapped bomb underneath him goes off killing him and many fellow soldiers as a result of his (compassion)and stupidity. Only a fool will be compassionate to his enemy. Kill them where they stand, or lay for that matter. The Pakistanie's [sic] harbor the taliban, fellow muslims. Muslims supply money to the Taliban, fellow muslims. Do we owe them any donations? Yes. a quick bullet to the head." This comment received 5 "thumbs up" and 0 "thumbs down." At the same time, another more intelligent comment--"Taliban terrorists? It's innocent people who are dieing [sic] from this flood, such as farmers, women and children"--received 3 "thumbs down" and only 1 "thumbs up."

"He [President Obama] will never reform them [Fannie and Freddie Mac] as it disperses too much money to the black race." Comment in article titled, "Obama seeks new design for housing, Fannie/Freddie." 8 "thumbs up" and 5 "thumbs down."

"My son bought his 1st home last summer and still has yet to receive his $8,000.00 credit, in fact it was denied. So a 25 yr old man hurried to buy a house for this extension and government decided he didn't qualify, Maybe because he was white?" Same article, 6 "thumbs up" and 1 "thumbs down."

I will stop there, but I hope you see the problem. As you expand, you should be careful that your quality control doesn't deteriorate. I once saw a baiting, anti-Muslim post you featured prominently on your website. I've come to expect that kind of sensationalism from Rep. Rick Lazio, Rep. Peter T. King, and their ilk, but I expect Yahoo not to lend its imprimatur to such content. And I don't want to see overtly hate-filled messages of any kind when I go to your website. Is that so much to ask? How hard can it be to hire several hundred part-timers to monitor and screen the comments pages to ensure your website becomes a more civilized place? I know you won't get as many "page hits" and you'll be accused of being elitist, but several other media websites already monitor comments, and I bet their users actually spend time reading the comments.

And yes, I know you have a dilemma, because many people like reading the comments sections precisely because of all the idiots who post. Even so, for those of us who aren't as easily amused, there must be a way for us to read comments without being subjected to idiots. (See idea above, about breaking up Yahoo into different sections tailored to different sets of people.)

If you really want to think outside the box, try this: administer a worldwide, voluntary multiple-choice test to Yahoo users. Make it a big event, where you either have people take the test at physical sites, or you give users passwords and allow everyone to take the test at the exact same time online. Include content from many different disciplines, such as economics (What is a positive externality?);sports (Which team did Barry Sanders play for?); entertainment (Who is married to Jennifer Lopez?); and so on. Based on the number of correct answers, you can then offer users an option of joining exclusive pages tailored to their knowledge and interests. If you handle this right, someone's Yahoo test score could become part of America's rite of passage, just like someone's SAT score. Besides, wouldn't advertisers love gaining access to more specific groups of users?

Problem 3: Videos that manage to play the commercials perfectly fine, but when it comes to the actual content, the video freezes. Also, videos that lack captioning, which excludes millions of people worldwide.

Before dealing with the comments problem, you can fix an easier issue--namely, your video streaming (especially in the sports section). In order for advertisers to trust your site, they need to know that users will click on Yahoo videos and watch their commercials. When users click on Yahoo videos, they expect to see something fun, unique, and relevant.

Yahoo's responsibility isn't just to offer interesting videos and clips, but to ensure that both the ad and the content play properly. You're doing well when it comes to streaming the commercials, but not when it comes to the actual content. I can't tell you how many times I've sat through a commercial, hoping to see a fun sports moment, only to have the video freeze on me. If my computer can play your commercials perfectly, why does it have a problem playing the actual content? If you don't fix this problem, I won't click on any of your videos. After all, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice...

Also, why doesn't Yahoo offer closed captioning for its videos? Hulu, Youtube, TED, and Google all manage to caption their online videos. Why can't you do the same thing?

Problem 4: Lack of Focus. Who are you?

Right now, you're the John Dewey of the Internet. You've dumbed it down so everyone can play. That was great ten years ago, but it's no longer sufficient to be a mere content aggregator. To be fair, one of the best sites on the internet today is Rivals.com, your college sports page. Unfortunately, Rivals.com seems to be your only example of consistently interesting Yahoo-generated content.

When you do have excellent content, we notice. A long time ago, you had an article following up with the players on George Mason's 2006 "Cinderella" basketball team. Josh Peter's article was one of the best articles I've ever read, and you owned the content. So what did you do with Mr. Peter? I have no idea. He's still listed as one of your reporters, but he hasn't written anything since November 2009. Instead of giving Mr. Peter (or Michael Silver) major publicity, someone decided to give Dan Wetzel valuable virtual estate on Yahoo Sports--even though the quality of his "reporting" and writing has been steadily declining (perhaps because he was busy writing a book or two).

Listen, when you find quality, you need to keep it. With a little more placement and internal advertising, you could have the next Bill Simmons. I mean, you're the 800 lb gorilla when it comes to online eyeballs. If you have a great writer, you can take him or her to the next level. And if you hire good journalists and writers, at some point, Rivals.com could be the next ESPN.com. You just need to dream big and aim high, and unfortunately, I don't see that visionary attitude right now at Yahoo.

I happen to be available part-time if you want someone to help you with quality control or editing, but journalism majors nationwide will work for peanuts and resume filler. Why aren't you cherry-picking the best ones and using them? Bring back journalism so Americans don't have to rely exclusively on Bloomberg, the BBC, the Christian Science Monitor, and Al-Jazeera for real news. And yes, I know you're ahead of me in this regard. You're already using articles from Seeking Alpha and the Christian Science Monitor to bolster your content, but you could be doing so much more. You don't even need to focus on journalism to expand your content. Why not have a site similar to The Onion? The writers from that website probably aren't making tons of money, so why can't Yahoo create unique content if The Onion can do it?

That's all I have for now, Ms. Bartz. I used to have a small crush on former President/CFO Susan Decker, but it turns out, she wasn't the One. If Yahoo is the Matrix, then shareholders are hoping you are Neo. Please don't fail us. The internet needs you, journalism needs you, and America's readers need you. I know it's in you. And I know that some people will be afraid of change, even though being a generalized content aggregator does not confer a competitive advantage in today's online marketplace.

I don't know the future. I'm not here to tell you how the internet revolution is going to end. I'm just hoping you're going to show me a world without the old Yahoo. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. How we get there is a choice we leave to you.


Matthew Rafat

Disclosure: at the time of publication, I had an insignificant number of Yahoo (YHOO) shares.

Judge Posner on Unions

Judge Posner on unions:


A principal goal of unions of course is to raise wages, though in doing so it causes employment to fall by raising the cost of labor relative to the cost of capital. Keynes emphasized (though the point was not original with him) that workers strongly resist cuts in their nominal wages, where “nominal” means the dollar amount of the wages and is contrasted with “real,” which means the purchasing power of the wage. In an economic downturn, an employer who thinks it infeasible to reduce the nominal wages of his employees will have to lay off workers so that his costs of production are not excessive in relation to the diminished demand for his product. Therefore the higher the nominal wages of employees, the more unemployment will be generated by an economic downturn.

Judge Posner has brilliantly summarized a very difficult issue. More on unions here.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Union Arbitration = No Transparency

Most of the time, when our politicians make decisions, the process is open and transparent. That openness allows voters and residents to oppose shady or unreasonable deals. In contrast to the normal principle of transparency, most of California's government unions negotiated compensation packages behind closed doors (via arbitration). About two years ago, the California Supreme Court issued a decision (mostly) rejecting the government unions' claims to privacy protection, finally forcing the unions to disclose their generous compensation packages. Since then, most Californians have been shocked to see union workers receiving benefits far above the norm in the private sector. Consider the following scenario:

Blackwater operatives come to San Jose, call for a private meeting, and tell the Council that they have information about a possible impending attack. Blackwater then demands, in private, $2,000/yr from each resident and his or her child for the next 60 years to help the city avoid the attack. The Council, behind closed doors, agrees. Later, someone becomes upset with his increasing taxes and sues the City to figure out what is going on with the budget. Two years later, after much litigation, the state Supreme Court forces the Council to reveal the Blackwater deal to the public.

Should voters be able to revoke or modify the private deal because they may have received some benefit from Blackwater and because Blackwater employees may have relied on expected future income? Keep in mind that the the deal affects the voters' children (i.e., like government pension promises, the private deal forces our children to pay higher taxes in the future).

The union arbitration system--under which the unions received their generous pay packages--is similar to the scenario above. The pay was privately negotiated and not subject to any real checks and balances. In fact, the hypothetical scenario above is generous to the unions and their enabling city council members, because the gun-to-your-head factor mitigates the government's acquiescence. Sadly, at this time, cities and counties cannot do much legally about the private promises they've made to unions except for declaring bankruptcy.

The union arbitration system is terrible for taxpayers. The only other political issue that boils my blood more is gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is where the two major political parties carve up voting districts to avoid competition. It's like Microsoft and Google got together one day and said, "You get these areas on the West Coast, and we'll get these areas on the East Coast, and we both agree not to sell our products in each other's areas." If that actually happened, we would be outraged. Why aren't we more outraged about gerrymandering?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I Have a Story

[This post first published in 2014]

East San Jose, CA -- Thanksgiving

I HAVE A STORY. I don't like Thanksgiving. I don't like turkey, and while I like pumpkin pie, eating an entire pie in one sitting isn't a great feeling. So I go out for pho in East San Jose, and afterwards, a nicely dressed 75 years old man (I'm guessing the age, b/c it's hard to tell the age of black adults) with a cane asks me, "Do you know where the Alum Rock station is?"
Me: "The VTA? No, but let me look it up on Google Maps. You're going to walk there? [He nods] Well, it's 35 minutes."
Him: That's fine.
Me: I'll take you there.
Him: Ok.
[Talking in car]
Me: What do you do?
Him: I'm ex-military.
Me: Which branch?
Him: Marine Corps.
Me: Were you stationed overseas?
Him: [chuckles] Yeah. Southeast Asia.
Me: I'm guessing Vietnam.
Him: Two tours.
Me: [not sure what to say] You know, most of what I know about that, b/c of my age, is from movies and documentaries.
Him: [silence]
Me: [changing subject] You like the restaurants around here?
Him: Yeah, but they can't cook as well as me.
Me: Oh yeah? What's your specialty?
Him: Everything!
[We somehow end up at a dead end. I decide I'll just take him to his destination.]
Me: You got kids?
Him: 7 kids. [He lists all their names and states they live in] One's a cook, youngest one's out here, she's not sure what she wants to do, and then [voice becomes exasperated] there's my other son. Every family gotta have an outlaw. He did 6 months in jail.
[We arrive at Veteran's Housing in East San Jose, near James Lick High School. I drop him off right at the door. We exchange goodbyes. Waiting outside and enjoying the night air is a man in a wheelchair with no legs.]

Los Gatos, CA -- North Dakota

I HAVE A STORY. I visited a Medicare-funded physical rehab clinic. I saw an older lady with a walker outside on the sidewalk and asked directions to the entrance. She asked me about the room number and then said, "I'll walk with you if you like." I said, "Sure."
Her: I've been here for 17 years. Who are you visiting? I had a brain aneurysm, and I've been living here since.
Me: Are you originally from here? What caused the aneurysm?
Her: They don't know, but they think it's genetic. I came here from North Dakota. I guess you can tell by my accent. [giggles]
Me: Sounds like Minne-so-ta.
Her: They always exaggerate it in movies. We don't talk quite that bad! And we don't say, "Oooh" at the end of every sentence. [imitates exaggerated accent][Stops, checks walkie talkie, confirms something with the speaker]
Me: You ever miss North Dakota?
Her: My friends are here. I've gotten used to it. But when people get old, they get mental issues. I had someone say he was a terrorist and he threatened to kill me. But he was asking me a question! I was just responding to his question! [smiles]
[We walk inside, she reaches up and touches the top of a low hanging ceiling.]
Her: You've got to watch out for this. Some people have hit their heads. Oh, is that your friend's room? How do you pronounce the name?

Sunnyvale, CA -- Wrestling
I HAVE A STORY. I have a Groupon for $25 for sushi. I go in after I have coffee nearby, and the owner tells me, you need to have 2 ppl. I tell him it's my first time, and whether I bring two ppl or just myself, I'm only going to order 2 rolls. He argues with me. I say 2 ppl isn't in the requirements section (though it's in the title "Sushi for 2"). And logically, doesn't he want me to try the sushi and let people know if it's any good? He says it has to be 2 ppl. Even though we're going to order 2 rolls either way? Apparently, yes. I tell him he's not being logical, and he tells me I'm not being logical. I write a slightly negative Yelp check-in comment.
I walk back to the coffeeshop and ask a random high school guy to come have sushi with me for free. He's with two girls, but he's done studying and comes with me. We sit down, and some idiot waitress comes by and asks how many we are. I say "Two." (The record is silent as to whether I add a large smirk.) The girls text the guy, telling him they think it's "sketchy." He says everything's cool...but it gets better. He's a wrestler! And a big fan, too. We talk about the top H.S. teams now (Gilroy, Fremont, Wilcox) and about Olympic contenders like Jordan Burroughs (apparently he actually lost to a Russian!). The owner stops by and is now polite. The high school guy is so nice, he only has two pieces of sushi and asks if we can bring some for his two friends. We bring back sushi for the two girls. He's a hero, I've had my sushi, and I've made a new friend I can talk wrestling with.
I'll say it again--wrestlers are a class apart.   

Campbell, CA -- Military

HAVE A STORY. I meet with a long-time friend for coffee at Starbucks. We are outside and talk about dating, life, careers, and the usual. An older man, casually dressed, about 5'8" and in his 50s with a "beer belly" approaches us. He politely says, "I don't mean to interrupt your conversation with her, but I have a request."   

Him: "I have a Starbucks gift card. It has $18.58 on it. You can check it inside if you want. It's valid. My daughter has cancer, so my fiance and I came here from Arizona to see her. We need some gas money to get back. You pay me whatever you want for it."   

Me: [to friend] "You drink more Starbucks than me. I usually get my coffee at McDonald's and my espresso at indie coffee shops. Sounds like a good deal--$15 for $19?"   

Him: "You can go check it."   

Her: [takes card, goes inside to check it]    

Me: "Where in Arizona are you from?"   

Him: "Nearby Phoenix...place called Glendale. I'm ex-military."  

Me: "I know about Glendale. An acquaintance of mine owns some houses there."

Him: [takes out his driver's license, shows it to me--it's from Arizona] "I used to own houses there, too. I used to have a county job."

Me: "Where did you serve? What was your rank?"

Him: "I served in Iraq and Afghanistan, three tours. I was E-8(?). I killed people." [the last few words are said shakily, with a mixture of hesitation and resignation]

"I have this hernia..." [lifts shirt and shows it to me--though I've never seen a hernia, it is in the lower middle of his stomach and looks serious.]

Her: [comes back, puts gift card on bench] "It has $18.68 on it."

Him: [laughs] "See, I lied. It's got ten cents more than I thought!" [Note: in my experience, lower-level ex-military personnel are generally honest.]

Me: [to friend] "Do you want to buy it?"

Her: "Hmmm, not really." [I realize she was checking the balance for me, not herself.]

Me: "Thank you, but it looks like she doesn't want it."

Him: [takes gift card back, walks away, goes inside, comes out, makes same pitch to someone reading outside, but it doesn't work. Sits next to his fiance and says, with a tinge of frustration, "She [my friend] changed her mind about it." The fiance, a slender woman, calmly motions for him to sit next to her.]

[My friend and I say goodbye.]

Me: [I head inside to break a larger denomination bill, but the line is really long. I take out all the small bills I have, which is less than $10. Unfortunately, I forget that my friend had given me some smaller bills earlier. I come out and hand the bills to the man.] "Hey, sorry about this, but these are all the small bills I have." [I start to walk away after giving him the bills and wave goodbye.] 

Him: [immediately gets up, puts hand in his pocket to get gift card]

Me: "Oh, keep the card. It's cool. I don't want it."

Him: [surprised] "Hey, thank you." [Walks up to me, gives me a firm handshake and then a big hug. I realize immediately he may not be in the best shape, but his arms are still very, very strong.]  [We are still embracing, but are now face-to-face. At this point, I'm mentally not there anymore. I can't process why such a small gesture is causing this level of appreciation. I tell him it's not that much money. He continues speaking and lifts up his shirt sleeve to show me a tattoo on his arm.] 

"This is of my daughter...I have another one of the American flag on my back..." [I am smiling, but I no longer hear him because I don't understand his response to such a small gesture. And then this happens.]  "I love you, man." 

Me: "Hey, don't worry about it, man. It's all good. Take care of yourself." 

[Me, trying to find my car, having a really hard time. Finally find my car, which is about 15 yards in front of the Starbucks. I sit down in my car. I think about going back and just giving him the larger denomination bill I have, but I'm discombobulated. I don't know whether he'll even accept my money. After a few minutes, I drive away. After a while, I realize I don't know where I'm driving. I go to McDonald's to get some coffee, thinking that reading a book will help clear my head. It does not. I head home.] 


Follow-up: I am used to video-game tough guys berating me online for being anti-war. I am used to stories where people like Chris Kyle (aka American Sniper) are presented as idealistic heroes capable of doing no wrong and who have no regrets about whom they killed. Until today, however, I never met anyone who made me realize the victims of the United States Military are not just innocent civilians living abroad, but many of our soldiers themselves.

I don't know this man's full story. I wish I'd gotten his information. Some ex-service members are not necessarily proud of killing others, but they had a task to do and they did it. When we praise all soldiers or the military in general, we sometimes forget that the individuals who return home may not have themselves believed in the mission. In addition, when we attack those who criticize the military, we forget that all of us have the same objectives--security and long term peace, which cannot be achieved by an unlimited budget, a poorly defined long term plan, or perpetual war. Most of all, we forget that some Americans did what they were told to do, and they deserve more than mere words or unthinking veneration. Men and women who return from war deserve a public who, at the very least, will send them back only if necessary, and who despise war and what it does to everyone involved.

Update: Another friend thinks this might have been a scam. It appears like a perfect sob story--daughter with cancer, etc. But I think I finally understand his disproportionate response to my small gesture: I believed him. Most people thought he's trying to scam them. Now his desire to show me evidence--the AZ license, the tattoos...it all makes sense.

I felt terrible and uneasy after this situation.  The idea that only a few dollars would make a man--who has a seemingly nice woman and who once had a good job--so happy really unnerved me.  Only when I figured out the possible reason for his disproportionate reaction--that I believed him where so many others had not--was I able to settle down. 

S.F. -- on the way to a movie, Don't Think I've Forgotten

Me: [on busy SF bus, sees older man move through] "Would you like my seat?"
Him: "No thank you. One time, someone offered me his seat because he thought I was 72. Do I look 72?"
Me: "No. You look 64."
Woman: [taps my shoulder, smiles] "You're in dangerous territory with age."
Him: "I'm 62."
[Seats open up as people leave, he sits next to me.]
Him: "I'm a Marine. Served in Vietnam. Got out in 72."
Me: "I'm going to see a movie about Cambodia tonight."
Him: "The Cambodians were killing millions back then. You know, I just found out my ship (USS Paul Revere) was exposed to Agent Orange. [Shows me computer printout.]
I have PTSD. Can't even fill out a job application. But I got a disability pension of $2900 a month. Without it, I'd probably kill myself. My dad is a WWII vet. Doesn't want to give his son the credit he deserves.
Hey, she looks Cambodian. [Points to a young woman on bus.] I think she's looking at you. [Big laugh.] You single?"
Me: "Yes."
Him: "My wife is Indo-Chinese. Met her at a bus stop. She'll find you someone. Call me. [Gives me his number.] Semper Fi."
Me: "Semper Fi."

Santa Clara, CA -- Coolest Professor Ever

Me, to my law school professor: Did you experience any discrimination in your life?
Him: I was the only Latino in my law school. I get asked that question often. I tell people, "My friend's grandmother was very racist. She told me all the time, 'Be careful of white Americans. They are unclean and lack manners.'" 
Later, when I was working with rural legal aid, the police picked me up along with some undocumented farmworkers. I was dressed in the official uniform of a legal aid lawyer: jeans and a shirt. I showed the officer my bar card. He looked at it, didn't know what it was, and told me he didn't care. I then remembered my friend's grandmother: "White Americans lack manners." 

Toronto, Canada -- Manners 

In Toronto's St. Lawrence Market. Looking for a place to sit. Hands full with food and a drink. Older man motions for me to sit across the table in an empty plastic chair.
Me: "Where are you from?"

Him: "I come from a country that no longer exists."

Me: "Yugoslavia?"

Him: "No. Let me tell you a story. When I was younger, I would help Madam [motions to his French wife] any way I could. One day, I assisted a woman who was famous, but I didn't know her. When I finished helping her, she asked me the same question, and I gave her the same response."

Me: "Why doesn't your country exist anymore?"

Him: "I'm Egyptian. I'm Christian. When I was growing up, people had manners."

Me: "But the old always say the same thing about the young, in every generation. Did anyone bother you growing up in Egypt?"

Him: "No one bothered me. They wouldn't dare. You see, in old Egypt, people would address each other by titles or by Mr. and Mrs. No one would take a tip. I would offer sometimes, but no one would accept in Egypt. I miss the common decency of the common man in the street."

Me: "You're right. You were the only person who motioned for me to sit down." [Gets up to leave.]

Him: "Good luck to you."
San Jose, CA -- Computer Problems

Me, day after after helping cousin with laptop: "I just remembered. Did you turn on your firewall?" Younger cousin: "Yes. I turn it off?" Me: "What? No! You are supposed to turn it on. What the hell? This is why you have viruses. You don't know what a firewall is?" Her: "Oh come on, of course I know." Me: "Then why did you say you were going to turn it off?" Mom, interjecting: "What is a fireball?" Me: [doubling over in laughter] END SCENE. 

Krakow Airport -- Immigration (2017) 

Me, with Polish guy in airport. He’s friendly and in his late 20’s. Me: “In America, we heard 60,000 people marched in Poland recently against refugees and also chanted, ‘Poland for white people.’” Him: “Not true. They [the majority] never said such things. The TV spreads something a few people said. We do not want economic migrants. They just want cash [welfare]. If you want to work, you are welcome here.” Me: “When the Germans invaded Poland, many Poles fled to America, especially Chicago. Even though they were poor, America accepted hundreds of thousands of them. Now, Poland is part of NATO, and NATO initiated a war in Syria, causing Syrians to flee. But you won’t accept them?” Him: “We like anyone who works. You work hard, we like you.” Me: “Ah, so the Poles who went to America worked hard, which is true. But do you remember 5, 10 years ago, the EU did not want Polish workers. The UK unions and people said the Poles work too hard, for less money, and they are lowering our wages.” Him: [Looks surprised] Me: [Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. People everywhere fear change.] END SCENE.

More Airport Stories (2017)

Me, to German man on my airline, after discussing his Indonesian wife: "What's love to you?"

Him: "Someone is [always] waiting for you."