Friday, July 18, 2014

July 17th, 2014. A Day to Ponder.

July 17th, 2014. It was a day of incomprehensible sorrow. Malaysian airlines flight 17 was shot down. The Israeli invasion of Gaza will kill many. Men. Women. Children. All dying. Indiscriminate killing—the kind of psychotic behavior that gives you a knot in your stomach. The behavior that causes you to embrace your family with honesty. It makes every word immeasurably more meaningful. “I love you.” Our voice will be deeper, interwoven with a touch of worry. worry.

We think to ourself, “What makes people do such horrifying things?” “Why must people perpetuate suffering?” “What makes me better?” “Why?”

We will never know how the future would have greeted the people aboard MH17. How many people they would have touched, hurt, and loved. We will never know what kind of life the dead children of Gaza would have lived. Where they would have traveled. How often they would have cried. We might never know why people do what they do, but we still feel. We feel the loss as though we knew the victims of these crimes. In a way, we do know them. We are human. We are alive. We feel. We hurt. We see ourselves in them.

Odds are that tomorrow will be better. The sun will rise, and wipe away the pain. Most people will move on with their lives. Most people.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Inflation of College Tuition Costs

College tuition costs in the United States have gone up more than 500% since 1985. As can be seen in the chart, the inflation of college tuition has outpaced medical costs, housing, fossil fuels, and the consumer price index (CPI)—the general goods and services inflation index.

College education affordability encapsulates a multitude of complexities that needs to be understood before definitive reasons for tuition growth can be evaluated. However, with that being said, there is one main reason I’d like to highlight that is partially responsible for the recent raises in college tuition rates.

Decreased state and local funding for college education.

When the recession hit, state/local funding for universities was one of the first sectors of the budget that state legislatures cut. According to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report released last month, states are spending on average 23% less on every student compared to pre-recession funding levels (Adjusted for inflation).

Now as basic economics dictate, the costs in lost revenue (funding) are predictably passed on to the consumer, which of course is the student. Now if the university financing was in a pure economic system—which for the purposes of this explanation is a free market—the nearly 200% increase in tuition rates would cause less people to attend universities, which would in theory force universities to be more efficient so that they could lower tuition prices and attract more “customers” (students).

But, this pure economic system doesn’t exist—and if it were to, it would likely cause a class divide of prospective students, where the affluent could afford college and the poor could not, thus reenforcing present day economic inequality with even more educational inequality. As well, the market wouldn’t move at the speed needed and we would end up with fewer college students, which as a whole isn’t advantageous in a globalized and competitive economy.

Source: New York Fed

The question must then be asked, what stopped the inevitable decrease in overall college attendance? The federal government. The feds directly subsidize college tuition via grants, and student loans. In 2010, Obama signed a bill that expanded student access to federal pell grants. And since 2005 total student loan debt has more than doubled. Most would agree that pell grants are good policy, but when the government artificially props up university attendance through loans, the universities—and states—have no immediate reason to make college actually affordable, because they know that the federal government will pick up the tab, and the students will keep coming.

There is a specific hypocrisy that is present in the debate over both college tuition inflation, and CPI inflation. In 2011 Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) cut $250 million dollars from the University of Wisconsin education system. That comes out to a 21% cut in total UW funding, of which a lot of the increase cost ended up with students. Essentially what Governor Walker did is cause the inflation of tuition costs through the reduction of the subsidization of higher education.

The hypocrisy doesn’t lay directly with Scott Walker, but more with his big business supporters. The Koch brothers’ organizations have famously supported Governor Walker with endless campaign donations and are a campaign finance force inside the republican party. As has been so artfully demonstrated in Daniel Schulman’s book: Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, the Koch brothers are resound proponents of practically completely free market enterprise. Which is an an economic wing that opposes loose money policies like the current quantitative easing being utilized by the federal reserve. The Koch brothers even wrote in an email to their employees warning about “runaway inflation”.

As can be seen in the first chart above, the only inflation that is “running away uncontrollably” is the inflation of tuition costs, partially due to cuts that they support and contributed to. Now, I’d like to present an alternative reason why they don’t care about tuition inflation, but do seem to care about CPI inflation. Tuition inflation affects the lesser priviledged among us more than it does the affluent. Even with tuition hikes, the upper class still won’t have a problem affording the best schools around. While, tuition hikes saddle more and more middle class students with student loan debt that can hinder their economic future.

You want to know what does affect the affluent? CPI inflation. If “runaway inflation” were to occur, the US economy would collapse as the Weimar Republic’s did. There’s no need to worry about that sort of inflation nowadays, but I think this insight can give a peak into the logic of people like the Koch brothers. The reason why they care about CPI inflation, and not tuition inflation is because they are looking out for their interests, and to hell with yours.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Amazon doesn't care, Writers and Consumers Beware

David Streitfeld’s article in today’s New York Times entitled, “Writers Feel an Amazon-Hachette Spat” uncovers the repulsive negotiating tactics Amazon has utilized against the New York publishing company Hachette Book Group.

“Among Amazon’s tactics against Hachette, some of which it has been employing for months, are charging more for its books and suggesting that readers might enjoy instead a book from another author. If customers for some reason persist and buy a Hachette book anyway, Amazon is saying it will take weeks to deliver it.”

These tactics have affected a wide variety of writers from famed non-fiction writer Malcolm Gladwell, to science fiction writer Michael J. Sullivan, to author Marla Heller whose diet book was in Amazon’s top 300 at the beginning of the spat between the two companies; the book is now in the top 3000. Streitfeld says, “The Authors Guild said it had received about 15 complaints Friday from Hachette authors involving more than 150 titles.”

The tactics used by Amazon are not just repulsive, but clear evidence of the dominance that Amazon has on the market. This ordeal has clearly shown that Amazon won’t hesitate to harm their sellers, or consumers if the result is a benefit in their bottom line. I wonder if Jeff Bezos thought about the harm that such actions would do before his company lashed out at these writers? No matter what the answer is to the question, we have a serious problem on our hands.

That’s not to say that Hachette isn’t being stubborn, or unrealistic in their demands; for all we know the negotiating situation could be completely Hachette’s fault. Even still though, I think the important thing to recognize in this situation is that Amazon has availed themselves as a company that is okay with a bit of collateral damage—as long as their bottom line is sound.

This is something that writers should pay attention to because their potential success could be on the line. Writers spend years of their lives creating a book, and in publishing, timing is of huge importance. Don’t use Walmart-esque tactics against writers and consumers to get your way. Actions like this could could easily doom the sales of a title and undermine a writer’s ability to make a living in an already tenuous literary market.

I suppose the reaction that I have towards this story is born out of a fear for the future. If there is no legal recourse for these writers, then what’s to stop Amazon from doing this again? I suppose pressure from consumers is the only option, but with Amazon’s current market share, I don’t see a consumer backlash coming to fruition.

With as much innovation that Silicon Valley has produced, I wonder if in the end, it will be consumed by the same forces of greed and indifference that have so plagued capitalism. Until I start to see a trend in the opposite direction, I fear that we will have another Wall Street to contend with. But, instead of a expensive Armani suit, it’ll be jeans and a pullover.

What Inflation Hawkery Teaches Us About Journalism

Tuesday, Matt O’Brien, Economics writer at the Washington Post’s wonkblog, wrote a piece entitled, “There’s still no reason to be afraid of the inflation monster”. In the piece he lays out how the inflation hawks have been eagerly searching for evidence of the “inevitable” inflation monster that will wipe out wealth in the US.

O’Brien says:

“First, it was the national debt and the Fed’s bond-buying that were supposed to bring us back to 1970s America, if not 1920s Germany. Then, when that turned out to be wrong, it was only supposed to be a matter of time until it was right — if it wasn’t already, and government bureaucrats were just hiding it! But now, with PCE inflation at 1.1 percent, even the most diehard inflation hawks realize they need a new story. So, worrying about rising prices is out. Instead, worrying about rising wages is in.”

He goes on to talk about how a Monday Wall Street Journal piece lacks evidential basis for its claims about building wage pressure, and that the piece even acknowledges its own lack of evidence to back up its claims.

It would appear to me, that the sort of inflation hawkery that O’Brien is thoroughly and rightfully ridiculing, is emblematic of a broader issue in journalism. Not letting the data be the sole director of an analytical deconstruction, but rather looking for data that reaffirms a fundamental belief. When one looks for data to verify a preconceived notion about a policy, they pigeon hole themselves into only finding things that concur with their preconceived notions. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. They will at times even ignore the most glaring of red flags. It’s punditry, not journalism.

The best example of this is Lara Logan’s 60 minutes piece on the Benghazi attack. Joe Hagan’s feature in this week’s NY Mag profiles Logan, and chronicles the debacle. According to Hagan’s reporting, when Logan was asked whether Dylan Davies—the report’s main source who was later proved to have lied about his account of incident—was believable. She said that Davies was one of the “best guys you’ll ever meet”. Whether she blinded herself to the idea that Davies was lying because of the trust that she built with servicemen and contractors like him throughout her years in Iraq and Afghanistan, or because she innately believed that the Obama Administration’s response to the terror attack was inadequate, the fact of the matter is, that she was blinded because of unverified preconceived notions brought into the reporting process.

The problem isn’t necessarily that journalists are biased, because we all think things, especially when we spend so much of our time participating in an 24 hour environment of dialogue. The problem is when those thoughts, whether through a feeling of righteousness, or self-worth, become bigger than the fact-finding impulse within ourselves. The yearning for truth, and not validation of a truth that you project on the world. That is the true meaning of journalism.

Love, Charlie Chaplin and a New Wave Forward

Before you read on, you must listen to this speech given by Charlie Chaplin in the 1940 film, The Great Dictator.

Silence. That’s the reaction I had when I first heard the culmination of his words. What did I just listen to? The fast paced nature of his communicatory style left me analyzing his words as a big mass of ever-present truth. He almost bounces elements of truth from one intellectual plain to another. Bouncing back and forth until the friction between his words evolve into something moving. Evolve into something so close, yet so far.

Even 74 years on, I feel that he was talking to me. He died in 1977. I was born in 1992. He had no incling of my existence. But yet he did. He wasn’t just speaking to me. He was speaking to all of us. Everyone who has, and will ever live. He manages to break time, and provide a forward looking perspective that will give all humans—past and present—hope in their despair. A sort of human despair that might always be. Maybe we will never be able to eliminate injustice, but why not try. I see beauty in his possible ignorance. The hope that love and kindness will chart the ultimate path.

As an american, it’s easy to look at Charlie Chaplin and practically idealize the beauty of his speech. What’s harder to fathom is why we kicked him out of our country. In 1952, Charlie Chaplin was banished from the US, likely for his progressive ideals that some saw as Marxist. He was no where near a perfect man. I am nowhere near perfect. You are nowhere near perfect. We are all flawed. That is the nature of humanity. But, humanity consists of other things too. Love. Something so innately human, and so powerful. Call me ignorant. Call me an idealistic. I won’t give up on love. With regards to Charlie, my last question is. As Americans, who are we kicking out now?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Reimagined Hobby Lobby Case, The Danger of Undermining American Law

On Tuesday March 25th, the Supreme Court heard arguments on Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius, a highly anticipated case regarding the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate—which requires for-profit companies to offer insurance plans that pay for contraceptives.

Hobby Lobby is owned by the Green family, devoted Southern Baptists who don’t believe in contraception. In the case, Hobby Lobby is arguing that the contraception mandate violates their 1st amendment rights—because don’t forget corporations are people—by making them pay for their employee’s contraception; which goes against the Green family’s religious beliefs.

The arguments seemed to play out as predicted. The four liberal justices, Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg and Breyer, will likely side with Sebelius. The four conservative justices, Alito, Scalia, Roberts and Thomas, will likely side with Hobby Lobby. That leaves Kennedy, the swing justice who as predicted, could go either way. With the possibility of the court siding with Hobby Lobby, I would like to portrait an alternate vision.

Let’s suppose that instead of the challenger being Hobby Lobby, it was Furniture World. A furniture company that has 150 stores across the country. As well, let’s suppose that instead of the Green family, we had the Kazim family; who are descendants of Saudi Arabian immigrants. The third and final supposition we are going to make, is that instead of the contraception mandate, the Kazims are challenging the ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act). The Kazim family believes that the ENDA violates their religious beliefs because it mandates the treatment of Men and Women as equals, which isn’t in accordance with their faith. They are petitioning the court to declare the ENDA unconstitutional due to the previously stated percieved 1st amendment violations.

For the conservatives on the court, it would be one thing to rule on the side of Hobby Lobby because they truly believe that laws that infringe on all people’s religious rights should be done away with. However, I don’t believe that to be the case. Is there any doubt, that if the Greens were instead the Kazims, that the conservatives on the court would vehemently oppose the challenger’s argument? The case would have likely have been handled in the lower courts, and not even made it to the highest court in the land. I believe that the conservatives support Hobby Lobby’s case, because they can identify with the Greens’ beliefs—which run in line with hyper-conservative platform. This presents a judicial hypocrisy, and contributes to the right wing idea that America is a Christian nation; a notion that directly contradicts the establishment clause of the constitution. The court as a institution cannot favor a particular creed in such an obvious manner. If this bias persists, the Supreme Court will start to lose its credibility as the impartial court of last resort.

These two cases—one fictional, and one factual—can be interpreted to be of the same judicial vein. Which is to say, that if the Supreme Court allows Hobby Lobby an exemption from the contraception mandate, then they would also have to allow Furniture World to have a similar exemption.

If the court sides with Hobby Lobby, they could undermine the effectiveness of laws that infringe on a company’s owner’s religious beliefs. Religious beliefs that—under American law—are undefinable. We can’t say that someone’s beliefs aren’t religious as that would violate the 1st amendment. In essence, religious belief can be any belief, no matter how radical.

Typically I find the slippery slope argument to be logically lazy, but when it comes to judicial jurisprudence, precedent is what matters. And when blind adherence to precedent exists, the slopes can get icy.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Vox Interview with Susan Crawford Explored

Today, Ezra Klein—Editor & Chief at—sat down with Susan Crawford, author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. The main theme was whether or not the there should be a public option for the internet. It was a truly enlightening conversation, and I would highly recommend giving it a watch.

In the interview they wrangled with various important topics. For example, how a 1GB per second fiber telecom infrastructure could be a platform for the next economy, or how the current telecom monopolies like Comcast and Time Warner are diminishing America's overall internet accessibility, and how a lack of competition in the telecom industry is causing America's rank in internet speed to drop to 28th worldwide. However, the one thing I feel was left out was how faster internet speeds will increase productivity.

Even just from an anecdotal perspective, it would make sense that with faster internet comes at least a marginal increase in productivity. This doesn't even account for enhancements in technology based in a fiber infrastructure that will allow us to be more innovative and efficient. Imagine sitting down at your desk, and everything works 100 times faster. The fact of the matter is, if we have faster internet speeds, we will get more done.

A public option for the internet is truly a great idea. The critics will call it socialism, and a "Government takeover of the internet", but let's not forget who invented the internet in the first place. The importance of enhancing our broadband capabilities cannot be understated. Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner be warned, because I foresee anti-trust laws coming your way.