ACCUMULATING PERIPHERALS


More on newspapers and sports betting by mattsteinglass
October 30, 2009, 11:27 pm
Filed under: Libertarianism, Media

It turns out the sports betting-saves-journalism concept is the brainchild of Mortimer Zuckerman, publisher of the Daily News. Apparently Maureen Dowd referenced the idea last week. Matt Welch of libertarian standard-bearer Reason doesn’t like the idea because, true to the libertarian credos, he thinks online gambling should be legal for everyone.

My attitude towards gambling is about the same as my attitude towards heroin: people shouldn’t be prosecuted for engaging in it recreationally, but there shouldn’t be a legal industry developing or advertising it, and the government should do whatever it can to discourage it and to offer rehab to those unfortunate enough to get addicted to it. We have developed a habit in America of funding public goods by granting monopolies to engage in public evils. We do this because we’re unwilling to pay enough taxes to support the social goods we want as a society. There are very limited cases where this is acceptable, but in general, it’s a lousy way to run a society and a ridiculously distorted way to run an economy.



Funding the news through sports betting? Seriously? by mattsteinglass
October 30, 2009, 11:10 pm
Filed under: Media

The other day I had a conversation with a guy who’s in touch with some people who are proposing to fund newspapers by allowing them to host online sports betting. (I.e. giving them a monopoly on sports betting.)

The consensus is that the 10% dropoff in subscriptions this year and 20% drop in ad revenue are the harbingers of doom for the newspaper industry. Daniel Gross objects here. Megan McArdle repeats the conventional wisdom here. I think Megan’s story makes more sense.

Specifically, I don’t think the idea of funding the news by allowing news organizations to host online gambling makes much sense because of the diagnosis Clay Shirky presents here:

The institutions harrying newspapers — Monster and Match and Craigslist— all have the logic that if you want to list a job or sell a bike, you don’t go to the place that’s printing news from Antananarivo and the crossword puzzle. You go to the place that’s good for listing jobs and selling bikes. And so if you had a good idea for a business, you wouldn’t launch it in order to give the profits to the newsroom. You’d launch it in order to give the profits to the shareholders.

Basically, the logic of the internet disaggregates this kind of stuff. The idea of funding newsrooms through online sports betting is the kind of arbitrary coupling that the internet tends to uncouple. If you had a company whose revenue came entirely from sports betting and it had to make some decisions about how much of that revenue to spend on news reporting, the chances are it would constantly cut the amount it spent on reporting and increase the amount it spent on advertising its betting services, or take it as profit, or whatever. Under the old newspaper model, people bought the paper to read the stories, and got the ads on the side. But people who want to do online betting don’t come to a site to read about Iran or the mayoral race and then do some sports betting on the side. They come to the site to bet on sports. Trying to couple that to newsgathering doesn’t make any sense and isn’t going to work.



Gore Vidal is a pretty funny guy by mattsteinglass
October 29, 2009, 5:38 am
Filed under: Entertainment, Politics

…who’s been getting just about everything wrong most of the time for the past sixty years, and apparently still is. His track record of predictions is woefully low-average. You can always get a few hits being relentlessly cynical, because things really are pretty ridiculous most of the time. But the things is, most people actually do care how things turn out. So if you’re a wit and bon vivant who doesn’t care about anything, you’ll generally get them quite wrong.



What if they gave an information war and nobody came? by mattsteinglass

Communications professor Nancy Snow flirts with the prize for most ridiculous concern-trolling of the week:

So my student Jennie wondered what I thought about certain members of the Obama administration telling other news networks not to treat Fox like a real news organization.

My response was this:

It’s utterly ridiculous for the Obama administration to call out Fox News Channel. They don’t know what they are up against; it’s not just a cable news network.

Many FNC viewers consider themselves part of a social movement. Whether or not one agrees with everything discussed on FNC isn’t the point.

So let me get this straight. It’s “utterly ridiculous” for the administration to decide “not to treat Fox like a real news organization,” because Fox is “not just a cable news network”, it’s “part of a social movement”. I.e., it’s not a real news organization.

I think there’s a real problem with communications and media professionals having their heads so far up inside their own semiotic orifices that they are unable to recognize what the frack is actually going on. It’s like we’re back in 1998-9 in full Lewinsky/”earth tones” mode.



Actually I rather stressed the immorality of unprovoked invasions by mattsteinglass
October 19, 2009, 1:41 pm
Filed under: Iran, Iraq

Christopher Hitchens is hardly worth mentioning these days on the subject of foreign policy, but for some reason they still let him write columns on the subject, so here’s mentioning:

Go look this up, and you will discover that those who didn’t want to confront Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein would always stress the awesome power of violence that they had at their command.

Yeah, no, that’s actually not true. As I recall it was sort of the people who wanted us to invade Iraq who kept talking about Saddam Hussein’s awesome power of violence, viz., the WMDs that turned out not to exist. Those of us who didn’t want to invade Iraq tended to focus on the fact that invading a country that hasn’t attacked you, or really even done anything that would constitute a legitimate provocation, is illegal, because it’s illegal, and immoral, because it entails killing a lot of people (including children) for no good reason, and foolish, because it leads to consequences that may spiral horrifically out of control in unpredictable ways. I for one didn’t really have a smidgen of doubt, watching the tanks roll in on March 21, 2003, that they’d be in Baghdad pretty soon; but the fact that your enemy is weak isn’t usually considered sufficient justification for waging war upon him.



My cold, dead tentacles by mattsteinglass
October 19, 2009, 10:48 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’d just like to go on record as saying, with regard to the new NRA push-polls, that I think America’s gun policies should be dictated by Hillary Clinton and Robert Mugabe.

Which third-world dictator do you think should team up with Hillary Clinton to dictate America’s gun policies?

[poll id="2"]



How much is a coral reef worth? by mattsteinglass

I posted the other day at Democracy in America on Brad Johnson’s response to CBO head Doug Elmendorf’s scoring of the GDP impact of global warming. As an example of the catastrophic climate change Elmendorf seemed to underplay, Johnson listed “widespread coral reef mortality.” And that immediately seemed to me like a really wimpy argument that wouldn’t convince the average centrist American of the dangers of climate change. When you’re talking about strong government action to restrict CO2 emissions, the danger that more coral reefs will die probably just won’t move the average American focus group’s dials.

Why is that?

Nha Trang Bay, 17/10/2009

Nha Trang Bay, 17/10/2009

Yesterday, I went out scuba diving with my wife in Nha Trang. Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay are being hopelessly overfished by thousands of small- to medium-sized Vietnamese fishing boats. At night, the spotlights of the boats lined up off the coast look like a superhighway. (They focus the lights on the water to attract fish.) But the provincial government has established a Marine Protected Area to preserve the local coral reefs, and they’ve largely succeeded in stopping the dynamite-fishing and cyanide-fishing that local fishermen used to practice. So the scuba diving off Nha Trang is still pretty nice. My wife and I went out with a group of about 16 people, organized by the very excellent Rainbow Divers, and we dropped down to 13 meters or so and saw a whole bunch of stuff that looked more or less like what you’d expect from “Little Nemo.” I did, in fact, see some Tomato Clownfish, along with trumpetfish, angelfish, two different species of lionfish, some crazy anemones that seemed to grow inside a protective bright-blue bag, and several species from a family of very strange bright-colored sea slugs called Nudibranches, which Vietnam is famous for.

Coral reefs everywhere are threatened by global warming, with its attendant increasing sea acidity, rising water temperatures, and rising sea levels. The question Johnson and Elmendorf were clashing over, though, was the impact of such changes on GDP over time. Elmendorf had stated that it didn’t seem unreasonable to estimate that global temperature increases of 7 degrees Fahrenheit would lead to a maximum reduction in US GDP of about 3% by 2100. A rise of 11 degrees, well within IPCC estimates, might lead to a drop in US GDP of 5%, and global GDP of 10%. Johnson thinks this idea is crazy, and that economic impact would have to be higher.

But here’s the thing: killing all the coral reefs off Nha Trang wouldn’t really impact the global economy that much. My wife and I paid $50 each to dive for the morning. There were perhaps 20 divers on the boat, and some of them were paying for more expensive training dives; let’s say the boat was worth $2000 in revenue. Dozens of boats of divers go out in Nha Trang every day. Add in the hotel rooms, meals, and transit consumed by all of those divers, and you’ve got…an industry that still isn’t bringing in very much money. The entire tourism economy of Nha Trang is projected to bring in about 1.3 billion Vietnam dong, or a bit over $70 million, in 2010, according to (somewhat out-of-date but probably ballpark accurate) government figures. Vietnam’s GDP is just $85 billion or so, so that’s significant on a national scale, but not a global one.

So what are the reefs of Nha Trang worth?

They’re priceless. The inability to measure anything except in terms of dollar value in a retail consumer economy is a disease, a kind of contagious psychosis. It’s one that has invaded the global consciousness to an increasing degree over the past three decades. It’s time for that to stop. As I noted in the Democracy in America post, Iraq has recently been increasing its GDP by plundering its ancient ruins and selling off priceless antiquities. There is no way for a dollar-value calculus to make it look more profitable for Iraq to preserve the ruins of Ur than to sell them off piece by piece to the highest bidder. But if we now actually embrace a value system that says those ruins should actually be plundered and sold off, then we are a sick and degenerate society.

Towards the end of our first dive yesterday, our guide, Tran, motioned us over and began poking around under a rock with a length of PVC hose he carried for such purposes. There was something flat and spotted underneath, brown, green, and yellow; I couldn’t figure it out. Was it a big crab? After a few more pokes it started to move a bit, and then finally it launched itself out and began swimming away. It was a Hawksbill Turtle, about two feet long,  like the ones in “Little Nemo”. It looked back at me; I could almost hear it say “Dude!” And then it swam away, extraordinary, priceless, and contributing not a cent to the world’s GDP.



Controlling health care costs should not be done on the backs of the working poor by mattsteinglass
October 18, 2009, 12:06 am
Filed under: Health, Libertarianism

Megan McArdle writes that the claim “We will control health care costs, because we have to”

is a disturbingly common argument heard when one points out that the costs of the domestic programs we have are so far impervious to cost control.  Apparently, it is safe to enact a program that is going to blow a 10-gauge hole in the Federal budget, because the mere fact that we can’t currently afford to pay for it will force us to, um, do something.

Both the House and the Senate health care reform bills pay for themselves, according to the CBO. So it’s not clear what program Megan thinks will “blow a 10-gauge hole in the Federal budget.” But here’s the broader point: the US is going to have to shrink the amount the government pays for health care. This is true whether or not we create universal health insurance, because growth in Medicare and Medicaid costs will bankrupt the government otherwise over the next 2 decades. The question is who will pay for this shrinking of the amount we pay for health care. Under the current system, the following groups are paying for it: the working poor, who are gradually being priced out of the private health insurance market but don’t qualify for Medicaid. And the sick, who are slowly being kicked out of private health insurance at any point where insurers can find a legal loophole that enable them to kick them out. To be more precise, then, it’s the unlucky sick who are paying, those who get fired while sick, whose business go bankrupt while they’re sick, who filled out something wrong on a form that gets their coverage rescinded, etc.

This is an unacceptable way to pay for the rising cost of health care — by denying coverage to the working poor and the unlucky sick. Before we decide how we’re going to cut government spending on health care, we have to ensure that everyone in the country has health insurance. And the method of saving money should not be, by and large, to cut services to the poor. We in the US believe that no one should go without health insurance or basic, decent health care because they are too poor to afford it. That’s why we have Medicaid and Medicare. It is utterly irrational to continue to guarantee large overpayments to seniors on Medicare Advantage while the working poor are gradually forced to go without health insurance entirely. We need to set up a system that guarantees that everyone gets health insurance. Then we can start making cuts, once there’s a way for such cuts to be shared by everyone, on the basis of solidarity, rather than just cutting the throats of the working class.



The individual in society, pt. one zillion by mattsteinglass
October 15, 2009, 10:46 pm
Filed under: Libertarianism

Commenter johnbr asks whether it’s fair to say that I “have little faith in people’s abilities to think for themselves and overcome societal/structural pressures so they can ‘do the right thing’  (in this case, eat right and exercise).”

I think there are two ways to respond to this. The first is that in many habit-forming areas of life, evidence shows that individual rational benefits-maximizing decisionmaking just doesn’t influence behavior very much. These include sexual behavior, eating behavior, exercise and smoking. And that fact is reflected in common-sense wisdom (“I just couldn’t help myself”, or basically any area where people talk about having trouble controlling or disciplining themselves). Such behavior may shift as social norms shift, but it’s unlikely to shift because individuals just decide to change. Then there’s another type of behavior: transportation or other infrastructure-determined behavior, where individual choice is only of limited relevance because the decisions about what options will be available (and how easily) are made at a collective level. If I live in LA, it’s hard to decide to commute by bike. If I live in Amsterdam, it’s hard to decide to commute by car. Neither is impossible, but the different communities have decided to build different kinds of roads and housing so the choices are skewed in opposite directions.

Note that this is crazy, because LA has fabulous weather for biking 300 days out of the year, while Amsterdam has lousy weather for biking 150 days out of the year.

But the second point is that I actually don’t know really know what johnbr means by having faith in individuals’ ability to overcome societal pressure. I mean, given the current socioeconomic incentives, people are currently acting the way they’re acting, across some distribution of behaviors described on a curve. And they’re likely to go on acting pretty much the same way, on average, unless something about the socioeconomic incentives changes. From 1980 to 2004, obesity rates among adults in the US doubled, and rates among children tripled; over 30% of Americans are currently obese. Were they choosing to become obese? Given that 58% say they want to lose weight, that seems unlikely.

So this leaves you with three options. Either you think society should take actions that will change the infrastructure and the socioeconomic incentives such that individuals’ behavior will shift to, for example, make people healthier and less obese. Or you think that individuals’ behavior is by definition optimal right now, since this is what individuals are in fact doing, and the statement “Americans are fatter than they should be” is meaningless. Or, finally, you think that while the current overall situation may not be optimal, it is individuals’ own faults if they’re in situations they don’t like, and society shouldn’t do anything to make it easier for them to get out of it. I find this a passive and morally vindictive attitude towards life. But the idea that people’s “ability to think for themselves and overcome societal pressures” presents a possible solution to large-scale, population-level problems seems to me literally incomprehensible. Individual people sometimes abruptly get up off the couch and get their acts together, though even there, they almost always do so only if there are social resources to back them up. But the idea that 15% of America’s adult population could all abruptly get up off the couch and get their acts together because they all made the same individual decision to do so seems to me not to reflect any of the kinds of things that ever happen in human societies. It’s like thinking that the unemployment rate could drop from 10% to 5% if Americans would just get up off their butts and find jobs.



TV me by mattsteinglass
October 15, 2009, 11:18 am
Filed under: Environment, TV, Vietnam

I will be on PBS’s “Worldfocus” tonight (Thursday), reporting on improved cookstoves to fight global warming in Vietnam. The show airs in New York on WNET-13 from 6-6:30 pm, for other times in the US consult the website.

The piece is a 3-minute short I produced with the excellent documentary filmmaker Ted Burger, whose work on Buddhism in China is completely amazing and hopefully will be available on the internet soon.

Add: Direct link to the segment here.




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