May 22, 2014

How politicians are like soccer goalkeepers

Filed under: Media, Politics, Soccer — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:33

At Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, Stephen Gordon talks about the odd distribution of goalie decisions on penalty kicks and how they’re quite similar to politicians:

Goaltenders jumped in more than 90% penalty kicks in the sample: the frequency of staying put was only 6.3%. Kickers, on the other hand, distributed their targets in roughly equal proportions.

The goaltenders’ strategy was not wholly ineffective: when the kicker aimed left or right (71.4% of the time), goaltenders guessed correctly 6 times out of 11. But the fact remains that the frequency of the goaltender staying put (6.3%) is much smaller that the frequency of kicks aimed down the middle (28.7%).


This doesn’t mean that goaltenders should never jump. What it does mean is that goaltenders jump far too often. Why?

Bar-Eli et al suggest an explanation: ‘action bias’. This is presented as an example of Kahneman and Miller’s (1986) [PDF] ‘norm bias’. Goaltenders believe is is less bad to follow the ‘norm’ (i.e., to jump) and fail than to not jump and fail. In other words, goaltender think that jumping and missing is less costly than not jumping and missing.

Which brings us to economic policy. Politicians are continually demanded to ‘do something’ about a kaleidoscopic array of grievances, and the norm in these cases is to promise to do something. As far as politicians and most voters are concerned, doing something is better than doing nothing — even when doing nothing is the correct response.

In many cases — possibly the majority of cases — doing nothing is the smart move. A recent example is the concern about the so-called ‘skill shortage’. When firms complain that they can’t get the workers they want at the wages they are willing to pay, the correct response is to do nothing: the market response to a labour shortage is to let wages increase.

But doing nothing is almost always bad politics: it is invariably interpreted as a lack of concern, and this perceived indifference will be pounced upon by other political parties. A politician who promises to act polls better than one who promises to do nothing.

A goalkeeper who fails to jump looks like an idiot if the ball goes left or right. The fans roar their disapproval and the keeper learns that doing the dramatic-but-wrong thing is better for his reputation than the non-dramatic (but more likely to be correct) non-action. Politicians also learn that the media will turn themselves purple denouncing the lack of action (even when that’s the correct decision) and short-term polling numbers move in the wrong direction.

As Calvin Coolidge is reported to have said, “Don’t just do something; stand there.” But even if you’re right not to take action, it will be harder to bear up under the criticism of the “do something” crowd.

April 16, 2014

Thought experiment – in media reports, replace “scientist” with “some guy”

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:38

Frank Fleming makes an interesting point:

Our society holds scientists in high esteem. When scientists say something — whether it’s about the composition of matter, the beginning of the universe, or who would win a fight between a giant gorilla and a T. Rex — we all sit up and listen. And it doesn’t matter if they say something that sounds completely ridiculous; as long as a statement is preceded with “scientists say,” we assume it is truth.

There’s just one problem with that: There are no such things as scientists.

Okay, you’re probably saying, “What? Scientists are real! I’ve seen them before! There’s even a famous, blurry photo of a man in a lab coat walking through the woods.” Well, yes, there are people known as scientists and who call themselves such, but the word is pretty much meaningless.


Which brings us back to our problem. So much of science these days seems to be built on faith — faith being something that doesn’t have anything to do with science. Yet everyone apparently has faith that all these scientists we hear about follow good methods and are smart and logical and unbiased — when we can’t actually know any of that. So often news articles contain phrases such as, “scientists say,” “scientists have proven,” “scientists agree” — and people treat those phrases like they mean something by themselves, when they don’t mean anything at all. It’s like if you wanted music for your wedding, and someone came up to you and said, “I know a guy. He’s a musician.”

“What instrument does he play?”

“He’s a musician.”

“Is he any good?”

“He’s a musician.”

You see, when other occupations are vaguely described, we know to ask questions, but because we have blind faith in science, such reason is lost when we hear the term “scientist.” Which is why I’m arguing that for the sake of better scientific understanding, we should get rid of the word and simply replace it with “some guy.”

It’s not exactly a new phenomenon: Robert Heinlein put these words in the mouth of Lazarus Long, “Most ‘scientists’ are bottle washers and button sorters.” It was true then, and if anything it’s even more true now as we have so many more people working in scientific fields.

April 13, 2014

Japan does not understand how it is perceived overseas

Filed under: Government, History, Japan — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:02

In The Diplomat, Robert Dujarric explains some of the odd behaviour of some Japanese politicians in dealing with and talking about other nations:

… why are outsiders so worried about Japanese militarism?

First, there is the “sheep in wolf’s clothing” posture of the Abe Cabinet. In barely more than a year it has engaged in an endless stream of symbolic or verbal provocations: pilgrimages to Yasukuni, participation at Takeshima Day rites, Abe-appointed NHK governors denying wartime sexual slavery and the Nanjing Massacre, discussions about revisiting the Kono Statement, and a convoluted speech by Deputy Premier Taro Aso on learning from the Fuehrer.

Second, many Japanese politicians don’t know how the rest of the world thinks. A telling example was the prime minister giving a thumbs up from the cockpit of Japanese Air Self Defense jet with tail number 731. That prompted memories of Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731, which performed gruesome experiments on Chinese, other Asians, Russians and some Westerners (and whose leaders received a “get out of jail card” courtesy of the United States). Yet the premier either didn’t notice the markings or didn’t realize what the impact would be, and then failed to fire his entire advance team afterwards. The “731 photo-op” was not unique. Aso’s trip to Yasukuni just after attending the inauguration of President Park Geun-hye of South Korea was another.

Third, Japan has an excellent but minute corps of diplomats and bureaucrats who excel at interaction with foreigners. Beyond this, though, most of its officialdom, including many in the Foreign Ministry, have not received the necessary training to, as the American expression goes, “make friends and influence people” overseas. The root causes lie in the inward-looking education system. Unfortunately, the government is blind to the requirement to provide extensive multi-year “remedial education” to the graduates it hires to ensure they are capable of functioning in a non-Japanese setting.

Also, Japan’s is a “closed shop.” Most Japanese who grew up overseas or have a parent from another country end up working for foreign companies or governments. Those best suited for interacting between Japan and the world are lost to the Japanese state.

Fourth, most Japanese officials view outsiders who criticize the LDP as hostile to Japan as a nation, which is generally not true. During a recent session with a Japanese diplomat, I mentioned a Western journalist in Tokyo. This reporter, whom I would describe as an open-minded left-winger, is neither a supporter of historical revisionism nor of Koizumi-Takenaka economics. Anyone who cares to read his prose will also notice a deep empathy for the Japanese people, an outstanding knowledge of the country, and a passion for Japanese culture. My Japanese interlocutor, however, saw him as a foe.

February 15, 2014

HMS Love Boat, er, I mean HMS Daring

Filed under: Britain, Media, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:40

Sir Humphrey notes the tut-tutting disapproval of other military sites but defends the Royal Navy’s little Valentine Day squib:

HMS Daring as the Love Boat

To mark Valentines Day this year, the Royal Navy put out a small number of press releases showing how some deployed ships like HMS Daring had tried to mark the occasion. For instance, there was a picture of the crew on the flight deck, spelling out an ‘I love you’ message (news release is HERE). This particular story got quite a lot of media attention in the UK press, with a variety of outlets carrying it and giving coverage to the story. But, it also had its detractors — the superb website Think Defence did not appreciate the story, feeling that it perhaps didn’t reflect the RN in a truly professional manner — their views can be found HERE. The view expressed was essentially that in pushing across a human interest story, the RN was not demonstrating itself to be as professional as its peers in other navies, who perhaps did not feel the need to provide equivalent stories.

This debate perhaps goes to the heart of the question about how we can push the case for Defence in the modern UK. To the authors mind, the issue is that what specialists consider of interest, and what the wider public consider of interest is two very different, and often arguably mutually incompatible subjects. Wander into any UK major newsagent and you will come across rack after rack of deeply specialist magazines, often providing immensely technical commentary on the most niche of subjects, ranging from transportation through to outdoor model railways and agricultural vehicles (a favourite story of the author is of when serving in Iraq seeing a friend open a morale package to receive a magazine about tractors, whose review of the novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian complained that while a good read, it would have benefited from far more detail about the tractors). All of these magazines have one thing in common — they write technical articles for a technically minded audience which gets much of the underpinning issues. There are letters pages and articles full of debates on the most minor of points, quite literally arguing over the location of a decimal place or widget. There is an incredible passion and intensity to these debates, but the fact remains that the subject matter remains a deeply niche and specialist interest.

Arguably Defence is in a similar position to this — it is an organisation full of technical equipment, and engages in all manner of activities which people can take either an immensely superficial view, or spend many years becoming world class experts in. The problem is how to meet the interests of the experts, without losing the interest of the wider audience, who may have little to no idea of what the MOD really does all day. To an interested audience which inherently understands the importance of things like why the deployment of HMS Daring to the Far East was important, and why it achieved a tremendous amount of good for the RN, this sort of press release may well seem embarrassing — after all, who wants to see pictures of sailors missing their families when we could see press releases issued discussing whether there is sufficient space in the T45 hull to adopt a Mk141 launcher for VLS TLAM behind the PAAMS launcher but only if CEC were put onboard and the 114mm gun were downgraded to a 76mm OTO Melara — a complete exaggeration, but indicative of the sort of immensely technical debate which can be found in certain parts of the internet or specialist magazines.

January 23, 2014

Machinima falls for the old “novelty death warrant” trick

Filed under: Business, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:10

At Techdirt, Timothy Geigner recounts the potential PR disaster facing Machinima after they attempted to buy positive coverage from their own contributors for the Xbox One:

It began with a thread on NeoGAF that included text from an email Machinima was sending out to their partners which offered bonus CPM (cost per thousand views, the standard way advertising is priced) payments on videos covering Microsoft’s new console. Their requirements for this “promotion” in the email were already problematic, including gameplay footage from an Xbox One game, a mention of playing the game on the Xbox One console in the video, and a vague reference to following the “guidelines listed in the assignment.” Just in those lines, most journalists would find deal-killers. While the line on whether or not YouTube video makers covering games like this being journalists may be a bit blurry, there’s little doubt that thousands of YouTubers look to these folks for help on their purchasing decisions. In other words, they’re fame rests squarely on their reputations for honest reviews. Minus those reputations, these people have no following.

Which is what makes the details in those “guidelines” mentioned above so misguided.

    Now here’s where we enter really sketchy territory: Ars Technica tracked down a copy of Machinima‘s contract for the promotion, and there’s one line that stands out: “You may not say anything negative or disparaging about Machinima, Xbox One or any of its Games in your Campaign Video.” What’s more, these YouTubers can’t even be transparent about this arrangement, according to the contract:

    “You agree to keep confidential at all times all matters relating to this Agreement, including, without limitation, the Promotional Requirements, and the CPM Compensation, listed above. You understand that You may not post a copy of this Agreement or any terms thereof online or share them with any third party (other than a legal or financial representative). You agree that You have read the Nondisclosure Agreement (attached hereto and marked as Exhibit “A”) and You understand and agree to all of terms of the Nondisclosure Agreement, which is incorporated as part of this Agreement.”

Hear that sound? That’s the sound of this entire promotion exploding with enough payload-force to also take out both the guilty and innocent Machinima video-producers. What this does is put everyone under suspicion. Given what we said about the importance of reputations above, this could be the meteor that destroys Machinima‘s world.

Yes, if you’re following along a home, the post title is a Blackadder reference.

January 2, 2014

QotD: Why progressive policy ideas get more media attention

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:34

When it comes to crafting winning political narratives, progressives have a natural advantage over conservatives. That’s because progressives have a free hand to project rosy visions of the future while conservatives must constantly defend against progressives’ distorted depictions of the past.

Two fundamental techniques undergird progressives’ success at narrative spinning. The first is skillful framing of the debate through investing heavily in public opinion making machinery. This disarms critics while giving lawmakers cover to vote for bills they’ve neither read nor understood. Thus framed, policies are judged only by their stated intentions, never their actual results. This allows politicians to promote new pieces of legislation named for their lofty objectives, even if the thousands of pages of vague and contradictory content deliver just the opposite.

The second is dodging all responsibility for failure. This is accomplished by blaming insufficient resources, the prior administration, the greedy 1 percent, sabotage by Republicans, or even the people’s obdurate failure to appreciate the progressive benefits conferred upon them. When the going gets tough, reality can be dismissed with a slogan. Forward!

Bill Frezza, “2013: The Year The Progressive Narrative Collided With Reality”, Forbes, 2013-12-30

December 21, 2013

I’m starting to think that Megan McArdle is a bit jaundiced about Obamacare

Filed under: Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 11:27

Otherwise, how can you account for running a column titled like this?

Obamacare Initiates Self-Destruction Sequence

On Wednesday, Politico’s Carrie Budoff Brown reported that the administration was saying fewer than 500,000 people had actually lost insurance due to Obamacare-induced cancellations. This struck me as a strange leak: Half a million is a lot less than many people (including me) have been estimating, but it is still not a small number, and the administration has tended to sit on negative information until the last possible moment.

Yesterday, we had a more official announcement from the administration: Anyone who has had their policies cancelled will be exempt from the individual mandate next year. The administration is also allowing those people to buy catastrophic plans, even if they’re over 30.

What to make of these two statements? On the one hand, the administration is trying to minimize the number of people who have been affected by cancellations, and on the other hand, it is unveiling a fix to the problem of cancellations. And these are not minor changes.


The White House is focused on winning the news cycle, day by day, not the kind of detached technocratic policymaking that they, and the law’s other supporters, hoped this law would embody. Does your fix create problems later, cause costs to spiral or people to drop out of the insurance market, or lead to political pressure to expand the fixes in ways that critically undermine the law? Well, that’s preferable to sudden death right now.

However incoherent these fixes may seem, they send two messages, loud and clear. The first is that although liberal pundits may think that the law is a done deal, impossible to repeal, the administration does not believe that. The willingness to take large risks with the program’s stability indicates that the administration thinks it has a huge amount to lose — that the White House is in a battle for the program’s very existence, not a few marginal House and Senate seats.

And the second is that enrollment probably isn’t what the administration was hoping. I don’t know that we’ll start Jan. 1 with fewer people insured than we had a year ago, but this certainly shouldn’t make us optimistic. It’s not like people who lost their insurance due to Obamacare, and now can’t afford to replace their policy, are going to be happy that they’re exempted from the mandate; they’re still going to be pretty mad. This is at best, damage control. Which suggests that the administration is expecting a fair amount of damage.

November 25, 2013

What hasn’t been told in the official story about drone hit on USS Chancellorsville

Filed under: Military, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Recently the guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville was hit by a target drone that reported malfunctioned. There were some injuries onboard, but none were said to be serious and the ship was safe and could continue operations. However, as this post shows, there are some pretty big open questions based on what the US Navy’s public relations department has shared:

The Navy tells us the drone malfunctioned, and apparently the combat system on the ship had no problems if the ship remains capable of operations, so based on those details of the press release the officers and crew of the USS Chancellorsville tracked the target missile drone — during the radar tracking exercise — apparently as it scored a direct hit into side of the ship.

But the ship was unable to defend itself? I get it that the safety systems were probably engaged that would prevent the full capabilities of the AEGIS combat system from being employed against the rogue drone, but what about the independent close-in point defenses of the cruiser?

The official story, based on the details as released officially, is that the most advanced AEGIS warship in the world tracked a direct hit by a missile drone and was apparently unable to defend itself successfully. Did the ship even try to defend itself from a rogue drone? We don’t know, because the press release focuses on telling the public the technology of the ship is sufficient enough for the ship to conduct normal operations, but tells us no details at all regarding what the crew did or did not do to defend the ship from a direct hit.

There is a detail that is omitted in the official press release, and because it is a detail of the incident known at the time of the press release, we can only assume the omission is intentional for purposes of protecting a reputation. The ships officers and crew apparently did try to defend the ship. The CIWS apparently fired at the BQM-74 but was unsuccessful in defending the ship. That detail matters, because the omission of that detail is the difference between protecting the reputation of the ships officers and crew who tried to defend the ship, or protecting the reputation of a piece of technology that was unsuccessful — for unknown reasons — in performing the technologies primary role as the last line of defense for the ship.

You can understand why a detail like that would fail to make the cut for what the PR department wanted to release to the media.

H/T to John Donovan for the link.

October 23, 2013

Game company provokes a massive Streisand Effect

Filed under: Business, Gaming, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In Hit and Run, Scott Shackford explains how Wild Games Studio learned (the hard way) about the Streisand Effect:

The game [Day One: Garry’s Incident] is getting terrible reviews, and YouTube is host to a ton of them. The reviews may actually be a little bit of a challenge to find now thanks to Wild Games Studio’s response to one particular review. A gentleman by the name of TotalBiscuit (no, really, that’s his … okay, fine, his real name is John Bain) is probably one of the most successful video game critics on the Internet. His YouTube channel boasts just shy of 1.3 million subscribers. He sampled the game on October 1 and did not find it enjoyable (Sample of response to the game: “Screw everything about this!”).

Video game reviews on YouTube allow critics to do something they can’t do through blog posts or print reviews: They can actually play and demonstrate the game in action in the video. This is a boon for consumers looking to spend their game money on a quality product as the game market grows and grows and grows. It’s also a boon for good game developers, as there’s nothing like the sight of a reviewer with a big audience enjoying your product to push folks off the fence in your favor. For bad games, though, it has the potential to devastate more than those old-fashioned reviews, as video watchers can actually see how terrible the problems are.

Wild Games Studio made their problems even worse by trying to retaliate against Bain. They made a copyright claim against him on YouTube, using a flimsy excuse that he monetizes the videos with advertising (Bain manages a living with his game journalism and announcing) and thus cannot use their assets without their permission. The studio succeeded. YouTube yanked the review. Furthermore, YouTube’s copyright-protection system threatens users that their channel will be deleted if they get three of these takedown claims. In Bain’s case, that would result in the removal of hundreds of videos.

I first encountered TotalBiscuit’s YouTube channel during the Guild Wars 2 beta period, and quite enjoyed his iconoclastic views of the game. I’m happy to hear that this particular thuggish attempt to shut him down has failed, and largely due to the response of gamers and his channel subscribers.

October 22, 2013

China’s not-so-foolish consistency

Filed under: China, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:22

The Naval Diplomat reminds us about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip about “foolish consistency” being “the hobgoblin of little minds” and makes the point that China’s consistency may not qualify as foolish at all:

Last week Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao of Project 2049 Institute published a longish report profiling the PLA General Political Department. Like all good analysts, Mark and Russell telegraph their thesis at the outset, subtitling the monograph “Political Warfare with Chinese Characteristics.”

A term that pops us repeatedly in the text is the “three warfares,” namely legal, psychological, and media warfare. The Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng appears to have been the first to look into the concept in a serious way. I did some research on it a couple of years back. To oversimplify, Chinese officialdom — not just the diplomatic apparatus but also the PLA — has undertaken a concerted effort to bend opinion among various target audiences. International law and the media are two channels through which it influences these audiences, prosecuting psychological operations.

In one sense, the three-warfares concept is innocuous. Any government worth its salt tries to project a favorable image abroad, swaying popular and elite opinion in its interests. That’s what public diplomacy is all about. But the notion of three warfares waged constantly, in peacetime, by all arms of the Chinese Communist regime, including a far-from-apolitical military, should give foreign observers pause. It bespeaks a combative temperament toward the wider world, and a single-minded zeal toward messaging. In all likelihood, ulterior motives are at work even in routine interactions with mainland interlocutors.

June 20, 2013

Colby Cosh on re-visiting the TWA 800 crash investigation

Filed under: Government, Media, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:39

I remember there were lots of “shoot-down” speculations about the loss of TWA flight 800 off the coast of Long Island in 1996, and that the formal investigation seemed unusually inconclusive, but I didn’t know that the National Transportation Safety Board was considering re-opening the investigation after all this time:

Many witnesses insisted they had seen a streak of light ascend toward the plane before it exploded, creating an initial suspicion that TWA 800 had been brought down by a missile. That is the theory favoured by the “Independent Researchers.” Although they are very careful about referring to “an external explosion” as their pet alternative to the official story — which is that an electrical short circuit blew up a fuel tank — it is clear enough that they are thinking “missile”. And it is clear enough that they suspect the investigation was obfuscated at the behest of powerful forces in the government, either because terrorists had succeeded in embarrassing its intelligence-gathering or because the explosion was actually the result of a military accident. Much is made of the radar signature of a mysterious craft that appeared on the surface of the water briefly at around the time of the disaster.

It makes for a wonderful case study in the way conspiracy theories arise. The FBI was permitted to horn in on the NTSB investigation precisely because, and only because, there were so many witnesses offering contradictory accounts of the explosion. That, in turn, allows the Independent Researchers to hang upon the FBI every error, imperfection, and bit of official superciliousness perpetrated in the course of the investigation. The bureaucracy’s sincere desire to rule out a crime if no crime took place becomes, in the eyes of skeptics, circumstantial evidence of a crime concealed.

[. . .]

The NTSB’s respectful response to the Independent Researcher petition raises the question of whether there might exist a “Snowden Effect” resulting from the revelations recently made by a certain four-eyed former tech contractor for the National Security Agency. The TWA 800 conspiracists/countertheorists have been hard at work almost since the evening of the accident/incident. They have a filmed documentary in the works — which is, incidentally, a sizable point against them in my personal ledger: I observe an increasingly unshakeable rule of thumb that all documentaries are, if not lies, then practically indistinguishable from lies. (If you wish to disagree, I ask only that you send me a five-minute video clip of you doing or saying absolutely anything, and allow me to apply the composition, colour and film-grain effects, editing, and music of my choice.) Obviously they are not taking advantage, per se, of the climate of hostility and paranoia created by Edward Snowden’s account of the American security state. They were already hostile and paranoid.

But Snowden’s globally televised dissident activity may serve to create a more receptive audience for conspiracy theories about the U.S.A. It might, on the other hand, make American government agencies more aware of their public image and more eager to at least appear somewhat libertarian and sensible, a bit less like servants of bloodthirsty alien lizard-beings. And, then again, there’s a third possibility: Snowden’s audacity might shame other officials trying to retire with secrets in their bosom into stepping forward sooner. I think I have, unfortunately, listed these conceivable Snowden Effects in the order of their real likelihood.

June 9, 2013

Jim Souhan has drunk the Purple Kool-Aid

Filed under: Football, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:24

In the Twin Cities, Jim Souhan has always been a voice of reason among the sports writers, rarely falling into the trap of optimism about the Minnesota Vikings. His carefully cynical, humourous approach has always set him apart from the herd. Until now

For decades, when you left the Vikings’ Winter Park facility, you needed a long shower. Maybe even a luffa.

You were constantly confronted with the ugly realities of an ugly business, from ownership and management infighting to angry and sometimes felonious players. Paranoia often ruled, and often for good reason. The Vikings had a lot to hide.

These days, the franchise that brought you such great hits as Denny Green’s Basement Tapes, The Love Boat, the Original Whizzinator and “Straight Cash, Homey,” has become the kind of place you wouldn’t mind bringing your children.

Wednesday, while enjoying 100 percent player attendance at an OTA for the first time in memory, the Vikings played host to a bunch of Special Olympic athletes, kids who are competing in Punt, Pass & Kick. While that’s not exactly a new development — Green pushed players to be active in the community — the atmosphere at Winter Park has changed.

It used to be like “Game of Thrones.” Now it’s more “Cheers,” with Jared Allen as Norm.

Winter Park has become a place of genial professionalism. The organization has achieved remarkable stability among key employees on all levels, and the team’s best players also tend to be their most gracious representatives when dealing with the public and media. Leslie Frazier might be the friendliest coach in football, and Adrian Peterson might be the friendliest superstar in sports.

May 30, 2013

A valuable lightning rod – Eric Holder as Attorney General

Filed under: Government, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:27

In the Daily Beast, Nick Gillespie explains why Eric Holder may not be the worst attorney general ever, but he’s doing exactly what an attorney general is expected to do — taking heat off the president:

Eric Holder may not be the worst attorney general in American history, but he is the most recent — which amounts to nearly the same thing.

Despite its exalted status as the nation’s “top cop,” the job is best understood as a dumping ground for intermittently competent bulldogs who take out the president’s trash and act as his public-relations human shield. That was the basic duty of George W. Bush’s troika of torture apologists: John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Mukasey. Ashcroft went so far after the 9/11 attacks as to argue that dissent itself verged on the unconstitutional.

[. . .]

There’s no reason to believe that Holder will be sent packing anytime soon or that he’s somehow at cross-purposes with the president. Obama has voiced nothing but support for his attorney general, which means that there’s every reason to keep questioning Holder’s truthfulness. One of his first actions upon taking office was to underscore the Obama administration’s position that federal resources would not be targeted at medical-marijuana users and providers who complied with laws in states where the stuff is legal. The result? A record number of raids against medical-marijuana dispensaries in California and elsewhere in Obama’s “war on weed.” And yet Holder continues to insist, as he did last year before Congress, that “we limit our enforcement efforts to those individuals and organizations that are acting out of conformity with state laws.” So Holder is either out of touch with reality or following a script scribbled together in the Oval Office. Neither prospect is comforting given that Obama’s DOJ has yet to state its position regarding the full legalization of pot in Colorado and Washington state.

It’s daunting to remember that Holder served as a deputy attorney general in Janet Reno’s Justice Department during the Clinton years. What lessons in self-preservation and executive-branch overreach might he have learned under Reno, the second-longest-serving attorney general in American history and surely one of the worst?

Recall that Reno was at best Clinton’s third pick for the position, being selected only after his first two selections were undone by revelations that they had employed illegal aliens as nannies. Reno’s tenure was marked by horrifyingly misguided law-enforcement debacles such as the deadly standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, and the armed raid to separate 6-year-old Elián González from his American relatives and return him to his father in Cuba. But she held on as a political lightning rod, absorbing political punishment before it could reach her boss.

May 14, 2013

Is this week’s Scandalpalooza actually a “big bath” move?

Filed under: Business, Government, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 13:22

Megan McArdle explains what a “big bath” is and how the current rash of scandals might be a political version of this financial accounting trick:

I confess, when I woke up this morning, I half expected to find that Obama had confessed to being one of our lizard overlords, or made an offhand mention of the time he’d had the CIA price out a drone attack on Mitt Romney’s headquarters. Between Benghazi, the discovery that Kathleen Sebelius has been leaning on insurers to finance their Obamacare PR, uncovery of a freelance political inquisition by the IRS, and last night’s revelation that the Department of Justice had been trolling through the phone records of AP reporters, this has been the most scandalicious week in living memory. I mean, sure, none of it rises to the level of Watergate. But while the gravity may pale in comparison, the volume is breathtaking. So breathtaking that it’s tempting to think that the administration is doing this deliberately.

In finance, there’s an art known as “Big Bath Accounting” which is used to manage earnings expectations. Here’s how it works: if you know you’re going to have a bad quarter, you look around for anything else that might go wrong in the future, and you decide to “recognize” that bad news now. Inventory looking a little stale? Write it down, man! Customers getting a little slow to pay? Now would be a good time to write off their accounts as bad debt. Is there some uncertainty in the projections about depletable assets like oil stores? For heaven’s sake, why not use the low end of the projections rather than the medium or high end? And we should really book some sort of charge to account for the risk that the Yellowstone supervolcano will explode, killing hundreds of thousands and covering the entire western half of the United States in volcanic ash, and in the process severely dampening demand for our premium line of Wyoming-themed memorabilia.

Corporations call this “cleaning up the balance sheet”. Accounting professors call it things I can’t print because this is a family blog.

QotD: Litmus testing political scandals

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:27

Dear friends in the media.

Come on.

I mean, come on.

You and I know what’s going with the Benghazi thing. Let me share something that I first put into play during the “was Anthony Weiner’s Twitter account hacked” debate, but that comes from watching the Lewinsky scandal, the where-did–Mark-Sanford-go scandal, the why-is-David-Wu-dressed-in-a-tiger-suit scandal, and a wide variety of wrongdoing committed by politicians:

When there is evidence of scandalous or bizarre behavior on the part of a political figure, and no reasonable explanation is revealed within 24 to 48 hours, then the truth is probably as bad as everyone suspects.

Nobody withholds exculpatory information. Nobody who’s been accused of something wrong waits for “just the right moment” to unveil information that proves the charge baseless. Political figures never choose to deliberately let themselves twist in the wind. It’s not the instinctive psychological reaction to being falsely accused, it’s not what any public communications professional would recommend, and to use one of our president’s favorite justifications, it’s just common sense.

Jim Geraghty, “The Mask Is Ripped Off of ‘Hope and Change'”, National Review, 2013-05-14

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