Archive for September, 2009

My Inner Conservative

By , 28 September, 2009, 1 Comment

It’s a cruel coincidence that William Safire died on a Sunday. That’s the day of the week on which Safire used to educate us “On Language,” in the eponymous NYTimes magazine column.

That column is one of the first bits of journalism I remember reading. Almost as soon I learned to write in paragraphs (in middle school), my father started clipping “On Language” for me each weekend, insisting I memorize the new vocabulary words Safire introduced, and helping me make sense of adult concepts when they arose in his tangents on contemporary culture.

Yet the most important thing I gleaned from Safire was not the specifics of his linguisitic teachings or cultural musings. It was his love, in both language and the broader culture, for structure. Safire’s columns not only defended the rules of the English language from absurd newfangled coinages, or the rules of culture from (in his eyes) moral dissolution, but also the notion of rules from those who value rule-breaking.

That is what made Safire a conservative: not the specific rules he valued, but the fact that he valued rules and encouraged us to think twice, and deeply, about our motives and their implications before changing them.

If there is a conservative vein in my body, it is that I too like rules and structures. It is what drives my love of government and business institutions, my nostalgia for cultural canons in education, my concern for establishment media and my belief in the value of academic expertise. That I would like these institutions to devote themselves to liberal goals is what keeps me on the political left, but in Safire’s world, it was structure and not content that mattered. His passing is one more sign that the institutionalist worldview is in decline.

International Week

By , 26 September, 2009, 4 Comments

The madness of Qaddafi aside, there was some value to this weeks UN and G20 meetings: they introduced the world to Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

Readers of this blog will know that I am skeptical of 44, because I see him as representing the rise of the liberal-tarian left at the expense of liberal institutionalists like myself. In foreign policy, however, Obama has endorsed the institutionalist path, memorably promising during the campaign that he would negotiate with any and all world leaders instead of taking unilateral action and would engage international institutions to combat international problems like climate change.

I had struggled to reconcile this with his professed love of diffuse power. Now I understand: Obama thinks of governance as consensus building amongst individuals. As a result, his vision of international institutions is much the same as his vision of Congress, as a place we go to engage in banter until we arrive at broad and general consensus, rather than as a place for realpolitik dealmaking around concrete specifics.

Bloggers Should be Seen and Heard

By , 22 September, 2009, No Comment

So believes video website Bloggingheads.tv, which I’ve plugged and linked to on this page many-a-time before. Basically, the site pairs journalists, policy folk and and academics on video chats and then plays back the conversations in a split screen. The result: long-ish wonky chats that show us what broadcast TV would look like if they didn’t edit every interview down to its 10 second soundbyte.

Anyway, they’re now letting fans video-blog on the site, albeit with some weird masking that is supposed to anonymize lay folk, but really just makes everyone look weird. Ironically enough, the debut ‘amateur’ ‘vloggers were professional journos–Portland-based Ethan Epstein, and myself (!)–discussing (what else?) the future of media.
Watch the video below, and let us know what you think, either here or on BHTV’s comments forum.

Vikram Pandit needs PR 101

By , 21 September, 2009, No Comment

The other night I attended a Q&A; between BusinessWeek editor Steve Adler and Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit. It was part of a series called “Captains of Industry” and I’ve been to some talks with other business leaders in the past. Usually Adler focuses on their personal story and character, rather than on the specifics of the business they run. This can work in interviewees’ interest: they BENEFIT from being candid/controversial/self-deprecating to counter popular perceptions of business leaders as cold and calculating and give wise-older-person guidance to the mostly young professionals who seem to populate the audience.

Now in Pandit’s case, the setup for personal storytelling seems ideal–his unpopularity is stunning, there are tons of young confused would-be financiers in New York hungry for advice, and he’s got a great narrative: an Indian immigrant running an American giant at a time when India is on the rise.

But instead, Pandit flat-out refused to answer questions about himself as a person, almost as though he didn’t understand that it was to answer those questions that he was there. Even Adler seemed flummoxed–I’ve never seen him or anyone actually admit mid-interview that the chat wasn’t going to plan. It didn’t diminish my already considerable esteem for him as a reporter: after all, the questions he asked were much tougher than the drivel Charlie Rose put to Pandit in the fall. Indeed, it somewhat comforted me as a young reporter that even veteran aces get phased sometime by their sources.

Here’s the thing: Pandit had a few decent and interesting things to say about Citi itself, successfully avoiding the ugly truth about the company without outright lying. That made me think he was operating in the persona required of him at a CEO conference call, where hedging is key and ‘no comment’ is sometimes appropriate. He seemed to simply not understand that what this event called for was precisely the opposite. Is that Pandit’s stupidity, or a massive PR fail at Citigroup where someone forgot to brief the boss about what to do? (I’ve seen this problem before–there are many executives who seem not to understand how much they benefit from taking a side, even if its risky, in their answers to questions, and how much more cynical and hostile press coverage gets when they try to please.)

Watch the video and let me know what you think. It’s about an hour long, so if you’re rushed, these are some highlights (not verbatim, I don’t type that fast):

Labour’s Last Best Hope

By , 17 September, 2009, No Comment

I’m a guest blogger today at one of my favorite sites, Brit political blog Fast Talk Express. The occasion is the one year anniversary and 100th post. (Full disclosure: the Fast Talker is a good friend). In my post I offer up some advice for Labour as it navigates, and looks beyond, the upcoming 2010 elections.


The conventional wisdom on the failure of Blairite Labour is that, in trying to attract centrists on the old political spectrum, it alienated its traditional base and split the party into sectarian feuds. I believe the failure is better seen along the new political spectrum—Blair positioned Labour in the middle of this new axis, trying to retain the old coalition of economic statists and social progresives, while courting simultaneously defense hawks and free-marketeers. The result was just incoherence.

Instead, Labour should wear its roots proudly as the party of institutions, making the offensive, not the defensive economic and social case for big government as well as big defense when needed. It should not abandon social progressives but it should outshine Cameron in his own professed quest to leave the culture wars be. Instead, Labour should fold social issues under the mantle of government institutions, making the economic arguments in favor of expanding rights, for example, and accepting that conservative social institutions–including big business–sometimes have meaningful contributions to make.”

Read the rest of the post here.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

By , 16 September, 2009, No Comment

Mixed results today of my recent bets on the future of media.

1. BusinessWeek’s potential buyers have turned in their bids, and BW’s own media writer Jon Fine is on the story. It looks like vanity buyers (aka Wasserstein) have pulled out, and real media companies (aka Bloomberg) are back in the lead, but the LBO firms are hanging on. When I blogged about this earlier in the summer, I said I was rooting for Bloomberg over the LBO folks, so, so far, I’m winning.

BW staffers appear to be grieving for Wasserstein because they believe a vanity buyer would be a more patient investor than even a media firm; I disagree–the example of Sam Zell suggests that vanity buyers behave more like LBO firms in trying to squeeze fast profits, not because they need the money, but because the vanity buyer psychology works something like “Oooh I want a shiny media gem to wear in my crown. If I buy a rusted media gem I must make it shiny.” Wasserstein figured out BW wouldn’t be shiny (ie a gold mine) anytime soon, and walked away.

BW staffers also appear weary of Bloomberg in particular because they think he will be unfriendly to BW’s newer ventures into social media, basically creating networks for managers to discuss their industry and trends. While I think this a cool feature, I think the best thing BW has to offer isn’t that; it’s their investigative unit and wide angle coverage; Bloomberg is a luxury outfit that has shown willingness to spend a lot of money on reporting. That can only be to BW’s benefit. Moreover, BW’s focus on news managers can use will serve as a complement, not a competitor, to Bloomberg’s focus on use investors can use.

Fingers crossed that this works out.

2. Mark Zuckerberg blogs that Facebook now has positive free cash flow. That means it’s taking in more cash than it’s paying out, but it doesn’t mean the company is profitable yet, since there are lots of non-cash expenses like debt that FCF won’t reflect. That doesn’t quite erase my suspicions about their Ponzi-ness (Ponzi schemes, by definition, have lots of positive FCF when they are growing), but it does give me pause about writing off their potential to develop a real business. I’ll think this one over again and be back.

3. Google announces FastFlip, a platform that basically lets you read media pages in their designed form. That makes it easier for publications to give you the user experience of reading an old fashioned glossy mag, and yes, the feature looks pretty damn cool, but it also means that Google can sell ads not only against content on its pages, or on the pages of its partners, but over, above and outside whole websites that may have their own ads. It’s meta-advertising, and supports my long-standing conviction that Google’s macromarket strategy precludes any publishers’ attempts to figure out an ad strategy for content sites.

It’s Getting Better All the Time

By , 15 September, 2009, 1 Comment

Before turning in for the night, I feel I ought to join the voices toasting the anniversary of Lehman’s collapse. I’ll leave serious analysis of where we are, and how much remains to be solved, to other bloggers and other days. My thoughts are more mundane.

Yesterday, when the President delivered Wall Street hotshots a lunchtime lecture about the need for regulatory and compensation reform, I noticed one thing: I was watching CNBC, and the market didn’t blink once during his address. In fact, it seemed to perk up during that half-hour (noon to 12:30), and stay up throughout the afternoon.

This morning, Ben Bernanke had a similar result when he addressed econo-wonks during the first half hour of trading.

Why does this matter? This time last year, every time any government official–Bush, Paulson, Bernanke–got on camera with the intention to restore calm, investors panicked. On days when there was no other economic news, regulators opening their mouths were singlehandedly making the situation worse.
That is not to say that Bernanke and Obama going on the conference circuit now has any real economic value, but simply to point out that the non-effects of their speeches show that we are all a lot less jittery, and that’s a good thing.

Trying to Save Health Care Reform

By , 10 September, 2009, 1 Comment

The speech exceeded expectations. As I’ve argued in earlier posts, there are only two routes to achieving GUARANTEED universal coverage: an individual mandate and an employer mandate, both with subsidies for the poor. There are also only two routes to finance those subsidies: massive regulatory overhaul or economies of scale in a state-supported public insurance system. Any plan that tries to compromise by having a mandate without a finance mechanism won’t be able to achieve universal coverage goals; any plan that doesn’t have a mandate isn’t even trying.

Since the presidential campaign, Obama has promised to achieve the liberal goal of universal coverage while speaking the conservative language of efficiency, positing universal coverage as a possible byproduct. Then, when challenged from the Left, he would try to hedge it by offering universal mandates without a finance mechanism, afraid to commit to either regulatory overhaul or a public option.

That changed last night.

Google-opoly: A New Twist

By , 8 September, 2009, No Comment

I spent the weekend engaged in an interesting snark-fest with Jeff Jarvis in the comments section of his blog. Jarvis was complaining about the many requests he gets from journalists working on ‘anti-Google’ stories looking for a quote. It’s not surprising that he gets the requests, since he’s written a book advocating Google’s business model as a blueprint for all companies. Indeed, I reached out to Jarvis for my own Google story a few weeks ago, but he was understandably busy.

Jarvis’ accusation was that journos are fabricating news stories out of scant fact in order to exorcise our own curmudgeonly demons when it comes to living in a digital world. I’d admit that bias plays a role in the tone of coverage of Google, but since most of the queries he referenced are about ANTITRUST stories, I’m not sure bias actually drives the decision TO cover Google in the first place or that the facts behind those stories are as thin as Jarvis suggests. Those stories only arise AFTER the government somewhere decides to investigate Google; then we report on the investigation. And as far as I know, no journalist has reported on a non-existent lawsuit yet. So I’m really not sure what Jarvis was ‘kvetching about, despite trying to get some clarity from him multiple times.

To the contrary, I’m even more convinced that the regulators have a real case to make against Google than I was when I first got into my tussle with Jarvis a few days ago.

Health Care, Revisited

By , 5 September, 2009, 2 Comments

Before the President addresses Congress on Wednesday, I thought it was time to revisit health care reform.

Throughout the town-hall melodrama this summer, I have been struck by the focus, from liberals and conservatives alike, on the politics, rather than the policy merits, of reform. To some degree, that is the legacy of Hillarycare: the Clinton administration went so deep into closed-door policy sessions to actually produce a pretty decent bill, that they forgot to sell their plan politically and alienated all the constituencies they needed to get it passed.

Obama, by contrast, has become so preoccupied by having something—anything—to show for himself by year’s end, that he has tried to float above the policy debate, be all things to all people, and avoid tying himself to any specific proposals. (This is a recurrent problem with Obama’s liberal-tarian decision-making process.)

The result is that the right has been able to destroy all the major bills with surface-level claims about their political or ideological implications rather than engaging with their content.