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Sunday, January 15, 2017

So goes the circus

Sometimes an event must be understood in a broader context, and that's how I see the announcement that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is ending its 146-year run.

It was once considered acceptable for a zoo to place animals in small cages permanently. Anyone my age remembers those. I always found them more depressing than interesting. The San Diego Zoo led a change toward open-air exhibits without cages, and among others they were followed by the North Carolina Zoo. It's better, although there is the perennial complaint at the NC Zoo that the animals are often hard to see in their faux naturale habitats.

The movie Blackfish gave focus for criticism of SeaWorld's holding killer whales in captivity. Attendance at these shows has been dropping and SeaWorld, if for no other reason than economics, will phase them out — at its parks in the U.S., at least.

I blogged a year ago about the decision of RBBB to drop its elephants. What became obvious to Feld Entertainment since then is that not enough people are interested in seeing an elephant-free circus. Attendance is driven mostly by children, and in a world where children have access to spectacular videos of animals on YouTube and are accustomed to more active entertainment such as video games, RBBB had already seen a drop in attendance before their decision to withdraw elephants. Feld saw correctly, I think, that attempts to reduce further the costs of the circus would be futile because even fewer customers would patronize what remained. Saving a business by downsizing it has a low probability of success.

RBBB will be in Raleigh next month… my final opportunity to see it. Will I go with no children in tow? I'll have to think about that.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Hands off the weather forecasters

On Friday the weather forecast for Raleigh had a high probability of snow. It didn't. Now the ire of some citizens — particularly those who bought sleds for their children — is directed against weather forecasters. Since few people personally know anyone who works for the National Weather Service, they select weather broadcasters on television as targets.

Greg Fishel, by anyone's account the preeminent TV weather broadcaster in the Triangle, posted this to his Facebook page:

The public varies in their individual tolerances of ambiguity. I wish people were more tolerant of it. Ask any physicist and you'll be told that ambiguity is the essential fact of nature. But my experience around the world tells me that Americans are uniquely intolerant of ambiguity, compared to citizens of other countries. Odds are that a citizen of France would simply have shrugged off yesterday's no-snow with a c'est la vie. We see intolerance of ambiguity in Americans' reactions to religion, too.

As a society America could benefit from better education about probability in our schools. Suppose you flip a coin ten times and you get ten heads. What's the probability of a tail on the next flip? 50%, assuming the coin is fair, but lots of people would not answer the question correctly. In a similar manner we have many citizens playing government-sponsored lotteries and attending casinos with the sincere expectation of walking out with more money than they brought in. I can enjoy a casino for the experience and the perks, but I know going in that there is an overwhelming probability of leaving some of my money behind. Neither do many of us understand what it means when the weather forecast says there's a 90% probability of snow.

Another point: the American media have created a TMZ-like approach to personalities where we build them up to unreasonable levels and then enjoy skewering them when they turn out to be fallible, error-prone people just like us. This is bizarre.

I agree with Greg Fishel's post… except in one respect. His employer, WRAL-TV, incessantly promotes its weather forecasters and thereby sets them up for failure. The station owner and general manager should re-think their approach. Forecasting the weather is inherently risky; it's not like reading the news that has already happened. Most sportswriters are reluctant to predict the outcomes of games, and indeed most sportswriters don't care (truth be told) who wins and who loses anyway. They prefer to describe the game in the present or the past tense, as journalists do. Weather broadcasters are in a precarious position, and overly promoting them is unfair.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

How corporate lawyers really are

At my request I'm now working part-time for my employer. The change is a transition toward eventual retirement, and it gives me more time to pursue other interests including this blog. The piece of work that I relinquished was in my employer's law department, where I previously was responsible for our global programs on "compliance" — meaning anti-corruption laws and export controls.

In the course of those responsibilities and going back as far as the early 1980s, I have worked closely with in-house lawyers and outside counsel. Perhaps this is not a surprise, given my father's background. I never seriously entertained becoming a lawyer myself, but I did read all my dad's textbooks from law school and I've always found it easy to work with lawyers. In the process I've been exposed to at least two hundred of them. Of course, these are lawyers practicing in specific areas such as purchase and sale contracts, intellectual property, and "M&A" (mergers and acquisitions)… specialties that don't usually make their way into movie and TV portrayals that focus on criminal law, negligence suits, constitutional law, family law, and the like. But I want to offer a few video clips that remind me of the kinds of lawyers that I have worked with. You'll see no courtrooms in these clips; that's not my world. No Denny Crane, either.

I'll begin with an excellent portrayal of an eloquent in-house corporate lawyer, taken from 1982's Absence of Malice centered on Sally Field's dramatic role.

Dean Jagger won an Academy Award for his performance as Maj. Harvey Stovall, a lawyer in civilian life but adjutant to the Commanding General, 918th Bomb Group, U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. The movie is 1949's Twelve O'Clock High. Sometimes a corporate lawyer's most important contribution is advising his or her client on matters that aren't strictly legal — in this case, about using bureaucracy and accepting risk. Both are abundant in real life.

As for contract negotiations, watch this hilarious scene from 1976's Network. It's satire, of course, but the dialog of the lawyers was written and played "straight". Warning, language is NSFW. I've been in negotiations that really were close to this and I wished I'd brought a 9 mm.

Friday, December 30, 2016

More than loss of a hospital

Yesterday a hospital was demolished in Belhaven, North Carolina after years of controversy. I don't know whether demolition of this hospital was the best decision, but the affair does bring to mind several points.

Belhaven is tiny, population 1600. Like many areas in North Carolina between I-95 and the Atlantic coast, it is depopulating, it is majority African-American, and it is far from prosperous. Unfortunately, it is also geographically isolated. The nearest hospital emergency room (for my British readers, "ER" in the U.S. means "A&E" where you live) is an hour away. Carrie Fisher's life slipped away in less time than that, despite intervention.

Hospitals like the former one in Belhaven that serve a high proportion of Medicare and Medicaid patients face a very difficult financial problem because the allowable reimbursements in those programs are so low. Even WakeMed in Raleigh struggles with this — one reason why WakeMed competes so vigorously against UNC-Rex and Duke for high-spending cardiac patients who are privately insured. I am not a fan of employer-paid healthcare, and there is something to be said for the single-payer model. However, if every hospital in the nation were to have its income restricted to Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, nearly all of them would quickly go bankrupt. I am not surprised that the hospital in Belhaven was impossible to keep open.

Aside from the beach communities, much of eastern NC has entered a death spiral. The tax base in many counties cannot sustain quality schools. Jobs paying more than minimum wage are scarce. Internet access is slow. Shopping for anything besides gasoline, bread, and milk is difficult. Health care is increasingly centralized, with many residents facing a long drive just to reach a dentist or an OB/GYN (much less an ER). These factors encourage more people to move out and discourage others from moving in, even though real estate prices are cheap.

The British have a useful word to describe this: deprivation. The word is rarely used here, perhaps because Americans in better circumstances prefer to believe that there is little or no deprivation in America and that people who find themselves in deprivation have only themselves to blame.

State government's response to this scenario is minimal. NCDOT proposes road improvements to make the areas more attractive to large businesses, but I question whether that will work by itself. State funding for schools isn't sufficient in the absence of substantial county funding, and the state's community college system that could help these people is consistently under-funded while the state's university system (largely inaccessible to the Belhavens) gets billions of dollars.

Not a happy situation. The question is, can our deeply divided state and national governments — which reflect our deeply divided citizenry — do anything constructive to help these areas… or do we simply let them rot.

Monday, December 19, 2016

An unsatisfying plurality

There's a lot of discussion about the Electoral College vis-à-vis direct, nationwide popular vote to choose the President… healthy discussion. I ran a spreadsheet model that may interest you because it's a plausible scenario by which a candidate can win only seven states and still win the presidency. If a candidate gets:
  • 60% of the vote in California and New York,
  • 55% of the vote in Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio, and
  • 45% of the vote in every other state,
he or she wins. One can construct other scenarios where even fewer than seven states are needed, but those are less plausible so I will omit them. What makes this possible? Over half the votes in last month's election were cast in just ten states.

If you're a campaign manager, the message is very clear: focus on the most populous states which become the new "swing states". Candidate appearances, media buys, etc are more efficient in terms of votes per dollar expended in the most populous states (and even in the most populous metro areas of those states). It will happen naturally. If people in New Mexico complain that they never see a presidential candidate, changing to popular vote will not address their complaint because they will surely never see one. Republicans in the District of Columbia — the most futile actors in national politics, by far — will still have no clout because they are such a microscopic percentage of the national electorate.

In the Electoral College, at least thirteen states are required to prevail under the current apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. Even Jimmy Carter and John Kennedy won more than 20 states each, and they had the smallest number of states in their victory column of any election in the last 100 years. That's the way it should be, I think. The nation is called the United States of America. It's not a nation that is subdivided into states for administrative convenience; it's a nation formed by the union of sovereign states — one reason why what happens at the North Carolina General Assembly and other state legislatures is so important. I don't believe that allowing a small number of states to determine the outcome of a national election is wise, even if it is technically still a democratic process.

My fellow Democrats, we simply have to find ways to win under the rules as they are. We have done so before, and we will do so again. In the meantime let's focus our energy on practical battles where our energy can make a difference. And remember that in 1992 Bill Clinton won only with 43% of the popular vote (!!) but 69% of the Electoral College. This knife cuts both ways.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

It's the economy... somewhat (Part I)

I've read 101 explanations of why Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Most of them are plausible, although many of them reflect the particular concerns of the individuals or groups suggesting them. Are any of them actually true? It's hard to say. When an election is that close, small things can indeed decide the outcome. Therefore I have been very careful in latching onto any particular explanation because there is such a diversity of plausible explanations.

Now I've found one:

from a new study described in this article at Brookings.

The horizontal axis is year of birth, and the vertical axis is the percentage of people born in that year whose income exceeds their parents' income. The graph says, basically, that when viewed on a generation-by-generation basis, American income has flat-lined; and if the overall probability is 50%, a substantial number of young people are in fact making less than their parents did.

I suspect this has much do to with the loss of high-paying blue collar jobs — many of them in the manufacturing sector — and their replacement by low-paying jobs in the retail sector. The push for a higher minimum wage is a strong indicator of this replacement; in the past, the minimum wage was not a factor in as many households as it is now.

The phenomenon is worse in some states than others, and in particular it's bad in the so-called Rust Belt states:

Bear that in mind as you look at this somewhat-truncated map from TIME magazine:

It shows, on a county-by-county basis, the difference between each county's vote in the 2012 presidential election and the 2016 presidential election. The counties in dark red are the ones that voted for Trump much more strongly than they voted for Romney in 2012. Counties in blue voted for Clinton more strongly than for Obama in 2012, especially the counties in dark blue (there aren't many).

In much of the country, like the South and the far West, there wasn't much difference between 2016 and 2012. But wow, look at the region from Minnesota-Iowa-Missouri eastward to Pennsylvania and upper New York state. To my eye there's a strong correlation between those counties in dark red and the regional variations in the study that Brookings describes. Correlation is not causality, but if I had to place my bet on why Trump won, I'd choose this explanation over any other that I've seen.

My hypothesis is simple: people who are anxious or angry about the economy will voice that anger at the polls, regardless of any other factors. It happened to George H.W. Bush who fell from an 89% approval rating in February 1991 to 22% in July 1992 — opening the door for Ross Perot, the forerunner of Trump, to have his 15 minutes.

What can Trump actually do to improve the economy? Wait for Part II.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Traditional grocery items from the deep South

Fifteen or twenty years ago I saw an indie film whose title I don't remember. It was shot in a former Communist state in central Europe after the Soviet Union dissolved. Western foodstuffs had replaced the previous dreary products on shelves in grocery stores, but the residents lamented the loss of some old favorites.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I feel like that. Here are some grocery items that I remember from my youth in central Alabama. Some, perhaps many of them are still produced although finding them in North Carolina is tricky.

The standard mayonnaise in my household was Blue Plate, a brand from New Orleans.

Another brand from New Orleans. "Tea" meant iced tea, always, and 95% of the time it was sweet iced tea. (For us, "ski" meant water ski and "skate" meant roller skate.) I didn't have a cup of "hot" tea until I was in college.

Everyone's choice for biscuits, wasn't it? Martha White was founded in Nashville, Tenn. But White Lily would do.

Royal Crown Cola operated from Columbus, Ga. There was a Coca-Cola bottler in my home town, but we seldom had Coke at home.

Many syrups were available, with a wide range of tastes. I preferred a honey-flavored syrup like Golden Eagle, made then and now in Fayette, Ala. Before 9-11, when I visited my parents I would grab a jar of Golden Eagle and take it back home with me on the airplane. An acceptable alternative is Yellow Label.

Whitfield Pickles were made in Montgomery. This is one of the few graphics I could find. I believe the company closed its Montgomery manufacturing operation in the 1970s.

Tom's peanuts were another Columbus, Ga. product. The alternative was Lance.

Everyone who watched the Bear Bryant Show on Sunday afternoon will remember the bags of Golden Flake potato chips from Birmingham.

Yet another New Orleans brand. Although Atlanta outgrew New Orleans after World War II, Louisiana products continued to dominate Alabama and Mississippi grocery stores for a long time. One reason: we shopped at Delchamps, a chain of stores based in Mobile, Ala. not far from New Orleans.

A staple that came from south Texas.

I have never been a coffee drinker, but my parents were. Maxwell House originated in Nashville, Tenn. and at one time had several manufacturing plants across the South.
What always went onto my toast or into my grits.

The local source for sausage and hot dogs. Often gave factory tours to elementary schools.

Enjoy the week!