Archive for 2011

Press Clips: Must Reads for the End of the World

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Today’s post is dedicated to Vincent A. Musetto, the old-school copy editor who crafted the greatest headline in the history of the world, “Headless Body in Topless Bar.”

After 40 years at the New York Post, Musetto got what the paper called  “an affectionate send-off by his colleagues,” which sounds kinda effete and fuzzy for a Murdoch tab, but maybe they want to soften their image after SERIALLY HACKING THE CELL PHONES OF DEAD KIDS, or something.

Musetto’s farewell celebration not only included toasts to his iconic slammer, but also afforded him a chance to argue that “Topless” was only the second best of his career, behind “Granny Executed in Her Pink Pajamas.”

We started ruminating about headlines while struggling to write one about  the D.C. debt mess (an issue that came home in a personal way last night, when our CFO texted to say he was leaving for Uruguay with two suitcases full of cash and recommending we do the same).

The Post’s own efforts – “Debt Men Talking” and “Congress Has Lost Its Mind” – seemed a tad pedestrian, and our own drafts – “Debt Kooks Doom Planet,”  “Obama to Self: Drop Dead” and “Big Run on Uruguay Tix” – aren’t quite right either.

So please, if you have a suggestion for an iconic headline about the debt crisis, send it our way. And don’t forget to enclose cash. Hurry. Don’t forget the cash.

All you need to know: All across the media landscape, we see one of the most hokey, hoary and hardy MSM perennials blooming like stinkweed on the median strip. Whenever a news story gets too complicated to explain within the eight-second attention span of whoever it is that’s running the Page 1 meeting this week, and who, in any case, is running late for an appointment in HR to go through the new layoff list, it’s time for the old Q&A.

The basic conceit of the Q&A feature is that the average (dumbass) reader is scratching his (dumbass) head over the paper’s recent spate of confusing stories about a confusing topic, all of which appear to have been translated from the Swedish  – “goldarnit Maude, I just don’t get how the trigger mechanism for cuts in Harry Reid’s plan is different than in Boehner II.”

At which point the paper helpfully affects what elitist editors imagine a (dumbass) reader’s vernacular voice sounds like and then answers all these (dumbass) questions in a jiffy.

Just now, your best bet for a debt crisis Q&A is Washpost whiz kid Ezra Klein, who actually appears to understand this stuff; the NYT version popped up yesterday, but actually seems to muddy the waters even more, probably because it’s aimed at the average Times reader, a hedge fund manager who lives in Greenwich and is now on his way to Uruguay.

In any case, you’re better off with the Calbuzz version:

Q: Isn’t this all the media’s fault?

A: Yes.

The roots of the “crisis” lie in the MSM’s addiction to “balanced reporting,” according to which the views of, say, the world’s leading economists are “balanced” by those of some yahoo congressman from Meadow Muffin, Mississippi with an IQ of 12.

Instead of telling the truth – Obama has caved so completely to Republicans that he’s now to the right of GOP voters, but Tea Party thugs are still intent on stealing his lunch money and throwing his pants on the top of the school bus – they keep feeding their false equivalence meme, like this whopper from CNN:

They’re all talking, but no one is compromising, at least publicly. Democratic and GOP leaders appear unwilling to bend on proposals to raise the debt ceiling.

Q: Is Obama really that much of a wimp?

A: Yes.

Despite the utter absence of evidence, the president astonishingly maintains the view that if the Republicans would just think about the facts, darn it, they’d slap their heads, shout “Now we get it!” and ink a deal with him pronto. Why else would the leader of the free world interrupt “The Bachelorette” to urge everyone to call their congressmanPut another way:

He apparent really believes—still!—in civic-republican notions of government as an arena for reasoned deliberation. That he could still think this is akin to a child believing in Santa Claus until he’s 15—but apparently he does.

Q: Isn’t there something he could do?

A: Yes.

Pretend he’s the president. Instead of acting like a moonlighting muni court mediator trying to avert a City Hall janitor’s strike, he could invoke Section 4 of the 14th Amendment to extend the debt ceiling for, as one leading constitutional scholar put it:

“At the point at which the economy is melting down, who cares what the Supreme Court is going to say?” Professor Balkin said. “It’s the president’s duty to save the Republic.”

Q: Aren’t the writings of German sociologist and political economist Max Weber particularly relevant to the situation?

A: Yes.

Despite his problems with the Weimar Constitution, not to mention the Spanish flu Max’s thoughts on social theory and methodological antipositivism hit the nail on the head, the New Yorker noted:

The sociologist Max Weber, in his 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation,” drew a distinction between “the ethic of responsibility” and “the ethic of ultimate ends”—between those who act from a sense of practical consequence and those who act from higher conviction, regardless of consequences. These ethics are tragically opposed, but the true calling of politics requires a union of the two. On its own, the ethic of responsibility can become a devotion to technically correct procedure, while the ethic of ultimate ends can become fanaticism. Weber’s terms perfectly capture the toxic dynamic between the President, who takes responsibility as an end in itself, and the Republicans in Congress, who are destructively consumed with their own dogma. Neither side can be said to possess what Weber calls a “leader’s personality.” Responsibility without conviction is weak, but it is sane. Conviction without responsibility, in the current incarnation of the Republican Party, is raving mad.

Q: Anything else we need to know?

A: Best prices on California to Uruguay flights here.

Space capsule special: ICYMI here’s Kurt Loder’s oh-so-hip 1995 report on the newfangled internets thing.

A River of Denial: Climate Change, Taxes & Debt

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

It’s not surprising to learn, from the Public Policy Institute of California, that people throughout the state look less favorably at nuclear power since the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan,  that they remain divided by party on the question of drilling offshore, or that they strongly support auto fuel efficiency standards and state regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

No, the number in PPIC’s most recent survey that jumped out at us was this: more than one third of Republican likely voters in California believe “the effects of global warming . . . will never happen.” We kid you not.

That this is so actually makes perfect sense. There exists in the population a substantial group of people for whom denial has become an ideological construct. These are individuals who refuse to accept, or minimize, or avoid responsibility for certain uncomfortable facts despite overwhelming evidence.

Once the realm of psychoanalysis – first postulated by Sigmund Freud and researched by his daughter Anna – denial has evolved into a political theology, provoked and goaded by mercenary pseudoscientists and right-wing yakkers.

It is the ideology of denial that underlay the thinking in Sacramento that without extending modest taxes enacted by a Republican governor, California could avoid tragic cutbacks to education, higher education and social services. It’s the ideology that is guiding tea-party-petrified congresspeople to insist that it will not matter if the “full faith and credit” of the United States government is downgraded to junk-bond status.

It is, of course, a form of madness. But it has become the world view of a significant body of people. It’s this ideological world view – certain, rigid and unyielding — that prevents any form of reasonable and productive compromise in our political systems.

This is what former Vice President Al Gore was talking about the other day when he wrote:

Dramatic changes in the way we communicate with one another about issues affecting the common good have diminished the role of reason and fact-based analysis, encouraging ideological extremists to construct their own alternative version of reality and defend it against fact-based reasoning.

It’s what the New York Times was talking about in an editorial titled “A Denial of Reality:”

How can so many Republican lawmakers justify pushing their country toward catastrophic default just to score ideological points? The answer can be found in their statements and writings: They are constructing an alternative reality far different from that of most Americans.

The mainstream news media, including the New York Times itself, bears much of the blame for the rise of this alternate reality for its chicken-livered failure to label falsehoods, to deconstruct false equivalencies, to call out chicanery and manipulation – in short, to seek to maintain its “neutrality” when one side presents facts and the other presents fiction. In today’s pitched battle against aggressive, willful ignorance, emulating Switzerland during World War II won’t cut it.

If you don’t believe that denial is ideological, look at the findings PPIC pulled out for Calbuzz. Here’s the question:

Which of the following statements reflects your view of when the effects of global warming will begin to happen: They have already begun to happen; they will start happening within a few years; they will start happening within your lifetime; they will not happen in your lifetime but will affect future generations; they will never happen.

Likely Party Reg Ideology
Voters Dem Rep Ind Lib Mod Con
Already begun 57 73 35 61 79 61 36
Few years 3 5 1 4 4 4 2
Lifetime 8 10 7 5 9 9 6
Future generations 10 6 14 13 4 12 14
Never 18 5 35 14 3 11 36
Don’t know 4 1 7 4 0 4 6


On the one hand you have Democrats and independents, liberals and moderates. On the other hand you have Republicans and conservatives. This is what the Calbuzz Department of Abacus Cadabra calls “significant.”

(BTW: We think “climate change” is a more appropriate term than “global warming,” but that’s another discussion.)

There are lots of other interesting findings in the PPIC survey, including this:

In a year that has seen both lingering economic distress and extreme weather across the nation, most Californians continue to support the state’s climate change policy. Most believe global warming is a serious threat to the state’s future economy, with 47 percent seeing it as a very serious threat and 28 percent saying it is somewhat serious.

The principle behind AB 32—the California law requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020—enjoys majority support (67% favor, 21% oppose, 11% don’t know). Most (57%) believe that the state government should make its own policies, separate from the federal government’s, to address global warming.

This issue, you may recall, was one Calbuzz pointed to throughout the governor’s race last year as a problem for Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, who cast themselves against California’s historic climate change legislation and thus on the wrong side of an issue on which they could have appeared more moderate.

But that’s the ongoing problem for Republicans in California: how to get themselves on the side of touchstone issues, like climate change, where most of the voters are. Complicating the challenge, for thoughtful Republicans, is the ignoramus wing of their party that is driven by denial.

Calbuzz Prepares for Default of the US Government

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

While the Republicans in Washington hold the American economy hostage, while California’s non-partisan political boundary drafters prepare to be drawn and quartered by whoever gets his ox gored, while San Francisco debates the pros and cons of an anti-Semitic movement against foreskin removal, the Calbuzz Department of Recreation, Relaxation and Retribution has mandated a one-day furlough. For all the bean-counters among our readers, that’s unpaid leave — the perfect analog to our unpaid everything else.

Feeding Frenzy Alert: CA Retailers vs E-tailers

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Back in 1998, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, Amazon.com was just four years old and Jeff Bezos (nee Jeffrey Preston Jorgensen) was not yet worth $18 billion, there was a debate in Sacramento about collecting taxes on sales over the internets. Some of us Calbuzzers – we name no names — engaged in that debate, arguing that California should do nothing to slow down the growth of internet sales, which was an infant business.

But as our friend, the sage Peter Schrag, wrote last week:  “that was then and this is now.”  Now, Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) is a  multinational electronic commerce company and the world’s largest online retailer, with nearly three times the Internet sales revenue of the runner up, Staples, Inc., as of January 2010.

And a bully.

We say this with no joy, as we are happy Amazon customers and, until recently, this space was even one of those internet sites that collected a couple of pennies if you clicked on their ad and went to their site to buy something.

But with California now scratching and scrounging for every nickel it can rub together to pay for schools, universities, highways, state parks, prisons, social services and everything else, the potential to collect $200 million in sales taxes on internet sales has become a reasonable proposition.

Which is exactly what the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown concluded in June when they passed and he signed ABX1 28, requiring any internet merchant with a physical “nexus” in the state to collect and pay sales taxes.

Amazon immediately cut off its California “affiliates” (including us) and began to qualify a referendum on the law that would exempt it from collecting the same sales taxes that brick-and-mortar retailers – like Walmart, Target, Macy’s and Your Neighborhood Bookstore Anywhere — are required to collect.

The power of  “no.” Calling its measure “a referendum on jobs and investment,” Amazon – apparently advised by Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Gross & Leoni – has worded the measure so that in order not to overturn the tax, a voter would have to vote “yes” to keep it. This, as loyal Calbuzzers recognize, is exactly the brilliant scheme we advised Gov. Brown to implement for a vote on the state budget, since a “yes” vote is about three times harder to obtain in an election than a “no” vote.

Imagine Amazon’s campaign: “Vote NO on new taxes.” How hard is that?

(BTW: We wonder if the sad-but-predictable death of Amy Winehouse will trigger a sudden surge of demand at Amazon for CDs by other rock stars who self-destructed at 27, like Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. But we digress).

Whether Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Home Depot, Best Buy and every other retailer with actual stores in California, will form a committee to fight on the other side is yet unclear. Some of the people we understand are possibly lining up on the pro-internet sales tax side – Democrats who work with the labor-friendly, resource-hungry Legislature – would make strange bedfellows with big-box corporate types. But so much money may be thrown at this measure it’s not clear political consultants will be all that picky about whom they lie down with.

As for the public, the best measure to date comes from a new poll by the LA Times and USC that found voters split 46-49% against the tax – which, in our view, puts Amazon in the driver’s seat at the start, since they’ve got the “no” side.

What happened to the sales tax? What’s pathetic about the issue is, as Institutional Knowledge Keeper Dan Walters has observed, sales taxes no longer account for the bulk of California’s revenues as they once did.

As Walters wrote: “The state’s consumer economy has shifted to non-taxed services and, to a much lesser extent, online sales. Or to put it another way, were taxable sales at the same relative level today as they were in 1981, the state would be getting another $20 billion a year in revenue, thus wiping out its chronic budget deficit.

Surely internet sales should now be taxed like sales at in-ground stores. That’s just a matter of fairness to businesses that operate in California. But sooner or later, Sacramento is going to have to consider lowering the rate and extending sales taxes to services, which have become the greater force in our economy.

The “blue-ribbon” commission headed by Gerald Parsky back in 2009 could have made a recommendation that would have moved us in that direction, except that it was so beholden to conservative interests, the commission’s proposals were tainted before they could get to the Legislature.

In the meantime, watch out for a feeding frenzy, as retailers and their highly-paid consultants start gobbling one another.