Good run Princeton!

Princeton bowed out of the NCAA Tournament today in a last-second loss to the Kentucky Wildcats. Princeton’s seniors stepped up big in the second half and pushing a more talented and heavily favored team. It’s been fun to watch.

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Worrisome news from Israel

Time via Yahoo news reports that “Israeli commandos boarded the container ship Victoria in the Mediterranean. Opening containers listed on the manifest as holding lentils and cotton, the Israelis found 2,400 mortars, 67,000 Kalashnikov rounds, and a half dozen C-704 land-to-sea missiles and radar systems to guide them. There were instruction books in Farsi, the language of Iran.”

This is just one of many recently intercepted weapons shipments being transported from Iran to Hamas and other terrorist organizations. A couple of comments:

1. This is one of several worrisome consequences of the revolt in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak’s government didn’t do a particularly good job of stopping smuggling into Gaza. Without a fully functioning government, however, enforcement has become even less effective. Additional weapons smuggling puts Israeli lives at risk. It also increases Hamas’ power as a spoiler of any potential progress in the West Bank. Progress seems unlikely at this point given the recent murder of Israeli settlers, but a well-armed Hamas isn’t a good thing.

2. It’s pretty inept to leave the Farsi language directions packed inside the containers of weapons if you plan to hide your role in the smuggling. On the other hand, everyone already knows that Iran supplies weapons to terrorists, and nobody has been unwilling to do much about it. Maybe Iran just isn’t that concerned about getting caught.

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This isn’t journalism

AOL’s master plan for traffic and story generation leaked in early February before I was posting on this blog. But it made me angry so I wanted to come back to it now. You can see a lengthy powerpoint detailing the plan on Business Insider among other media outlets that picked up the story. It’s a brief textbook on how to run a content farm, which seems to be AOL’s plan for monetizing its web portal and the newly acquired Huffington Post.

Here’s the gameplan:

1. Pump out tons of stories at low cost using crappy in-house writers or commoditized freelancers paid in the low peanuts.
2. Write them to be incredibly search engine friendly and update frequently to make sure that you’ve chocked it full of keywords.
3. Write long-form journalistic pieces only when you can get them sponsored ahead of time by a high dollar advertiser.
4. Throw in some random (usually unrelated) because video ads generate higher CPMs

This isn’t journalism; it’s content farming with a better brand name than eHow. This is why I get annoyed when people on mediocre tech blogs like GigaOm write breathless blog posts about how the newspaper business model is dead because it can’t compete with the likes of Huffpo (now AOL). The NYT isn’t in the same business as Huffington Post. It’s in the business of actual, long-form journalism including investigative pieces on issues in the US and abroad. This isn’t Sam Stein journalism where you write a new article every day about something that happened at a Congressional committee hearing. These are pieces that get investigated for weeks or months, that require foreign correspondants, that uncover secret government programs like NSA wiretapping. AOL’s team of in-house writers doesn’t come close. It may be journalism according to the definition of the word in Webster’s dictionary, but it’s not the same activity that the New York Times does.

Provisioning a public good like this costs a lot of money. It requires huge staffs of writers and editors. It requires a willingness to let them run with a story even if it won’t pan out right away. It’s exactly the opposite of the “high-volume, low-cost” goal that AOL espouses in this

GigaOm is right; long-form journalism may not be a great business model. You can probably make more money by producing thousands of recycled, low-quality articles that are well optimized for Google search. But the NYT does something that produces significant social benefits (both for other media organizations and for the general public) that isn’t internalized in the price it received for its content. The success of Huffpo/AOL relative to the NYT or WSJ indicates a market failure, not the triumph of a superior product in a truly competitive market place. It suggests the need for government intervention to subsidize the public good that newspapers provide. Maybe a paywall will be enough – I’d gladly pay for NYT content instead of suffering through more SEO babble on the Huffpo.

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Joe Biden gets his own train station!

Joe Biden is known around Washington as “Mr. Amtrak” for his weird devotion to its mediocre rail service. As a Senator, he famously commuted on the train back and forth from Delaware. Somehow this contributed to his image as a man of the people even though a monthly commuter pass from Wilmington to Washington costs $1,134. Not many people can afford to pay $13,608 for their annual commute, but I digress.

Amtrak has returned the favor today by naming the new train station in Wilmington after their long-time benefactor. The Hill notes that more than half the cost of the station came from federal stimulus dollars. I can’t help but be annoyed at this sort of thing. Maybe we ought to have a law that prohibits naming things after sitting politicians.

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Disasters and democratic governance

Great post over at Volokh on Democratic governments and how they handle disasters. Overall, they do better than non-democracies because governments have stronger incentives to be responsive to peoples’ needs. But politicians tend to prioritize highly visible post-disaster rebuilding at the expense of less visible disaster preparedness spending that might be more cost effective but doesn’t grab as many voters. Read the whole thing, it’s a really interesting writeup.

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“Palestinian Queers for BDS”

Yes, that’s a real thing. A whole organization devoted to Palestinian homosexuals advocating for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. They’ve even got a website. From their “About” page:

a group of Palestinian queer activists who live in the Palestinian Occupied Territory and inside Israel, who came together to promote and stand for the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, that was launched in July 2005. As an integral part of Palestinian society we believe that the struggle for sexual and gender diversity is interconnected with the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

This seems rather insane:

Israel offers far more rights and freedoms to its homosexual citizens than any Arab government ever has. Israel has allowed homosexual adoptions and recognizes gay marriages from other states even if it does not yet grant gay marriage licenses domestically. It’s society is highly tolerant, and more than 60% of its people support gay marriage.

By contrast, most Middle Eastern governments (including the Palestinian Authority) prosecute homosexuality and sodomy as an offense against Islam. And the PA doesn’t come close to the Hamas view on gay rights. Its leadership has argued that tolerance of homosexuality justifies terrorism against Israel and the West. Maybe PQbds should reconsider who they’re boycotting.

If you want to try to untangle the madness, there’s a lengthy interview with the organization’s leadership here. It doesn’t say much, but it does at least convince me that the organization isn’t an elaborate joke.

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The future deserves a vote – part 1

This post distills the argument in my thesis down to a few hundred words. The thesis contains a fairly long discussion of previous theoretical and empirical work on the issue of intergenerational transfer and then performs some new quantitive work to justify some of these arguments. If you want to read more, let me know. But I’lll distill the arguments out here.

The federal government makes decisions all the time that impact the lives of young and unborn people. When it runs large budget deficits to fund present consumption rather than investment, it imposes higher taxes on future generations to pay them off. When it ignores problems like climate change, it imposes the costs of climate instability not on today’s voters (most of whom will be dead by 2050 or so) but on today’s young people and they’re children who face the worst of the problem.

Though profoundly impacted by today’s federal policy, these young and unborn persons have no say in the decision-making process that selects them. They must rely on their elders to make unselfish decisions for their benefit. So far, they’ve been sorely disappointed. Budget deficits have skyrocketed both on an annual basis and in terms of aggregate debt-to-gdp ratio. Even the rosiest of budget projections don’t show them returning to reasonable rates for some time.

Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will be insolvent in the next several decades, but no politician will touch them. As Tip O’Neil put it, they are the “third-rail of American politics.” Cap-and-trade legislation to tax carbon emissions and curtail climate change couldn’t pass the senate even with 59 Democrats in it. Similar legislation would be dead on arrival today.

This selfishness shouldn’t surprise anyone. Most voting models are based on a “rational choice” assumption that people vote for policies and candidates that serve their own interests. For most of today’s electorate, raising taxes or cutting consumption today for the benefit of future generations isn’t a self-interested policy choice. Those who would support a more forward looking approach to these inter-generational issues are mostly too young to vote or not yet alive at all.

As a matter of policy, it’s tough to figure out how to represent these people’s interests. We can’t give ten-year-olds voting rights. At best, they would vote for their parents’ candidate; at worst, they’d pick something completely nuts like The Rent is Too Damn High Party. Unborn persons are even trickier. I’ve got a whole bunch of slightly crazy ideas for how to do this, but I’m pretty sure that none of them would be politically feasible or palatable to the general public.

Look for some of those in part 2 of this post.

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