Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The National Democrats have to get their act together - Now!

The time for improving the health care reform bill is over. The Democrats have to pass what they have spent all of last year squabbling over as the Republicans have sat on the side trying to destroy the bill (and President Obama) totally. Steve Benen describes the political imperatives now facing the national Democratic Party.
"President Obama is still the most popular political figure in Washington, and enjoys more support than either political party and either congressional delegation.

For Republicans, this creates a strong incentive to block any and all progress -- the more they can destroy American politics, the more the president appears ineffective. Undermining Obama's presidency improves their chances of winning additional power.

For Democrats, this should create the opposite incentive -- the more successful Obama is, the better off they'll be. The more they argue amongst themselves, or delay (or deliberately kill) key parts of the party's agenda, the more they drag Obama's support down.

Dems' success is inextricably tied to Obama's standing. As Ezra noted last week, this should point Democratic lawmakers in the right direction on health care, though the message isn't getting through.
If health-care reform dies, the media will try and explain the Democrats' failure. That means they'll spend a lot of time talking about what Obama has done wrong. If Democrats had simply refused to freak out and moved quickly to pass the Senate bill, there would be endless stories on what Obama did right, and how the Democrats finally passed this longtime priority.

Even putting aside all the moral arguments for passing this bill -- all the lives and homes it will save -- a crassly political calculation should have left Democrats rushing towards passage."
Right now it doesn't look like the federal government works any more. At the same time, the problems facing America - including the health care insurance crisis - are building up and in the great Neo-Hoover non-action and incompetence tradition of the Republican Bush administration are not being addressed.

The trouble is, the Democrats are an undisciplined and selfish lot who would rather squabble and run to give interviews to the media (to demonstrate how important each of the leakers is) than actually get any legislation accomplished. They are in their little Washington D.C. bubble where their status is determined by how many times they appear on the TV talk shows rather than what legislation they join the herd to vote for and pass.

Out here in the hinterlands the politicians really don't matter, but the legislation does. It's too late now to make any changes in the bill that is the only possible one to pass both houses - the Senate bill. So it's time.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Even the Chinese are following the NBC night show disaster

Who cares about the Jay Leno - Conan O'Brien - NBC fiasco? Let's just say that if it really matters to you it's time to get a life. But it's a symptom of a major cultural change that America is going through. It's not just a political argument between NBC, Leno and O'Brien. It's another step in the collapse of broadcast TV. Writer's strike. Reality shows. Decline in quality scripted shows. Switch to the clearly inferior HD TV. Newspapers aren't the only media suffering from a sharp decline in advertising revenue. It looks to me like broadcast TV is going the way of daily newspapers.

First though, consider the NBC - late night TV crisis from the Chinese point of view.

Huh? Chinese? How did they get involved? Who knows, but they have posted this very entertaining U-Tube video cartoon that explains it all. As is appropriate to the unimportance of the subject, it's in Chinese. Don't worry. That doesn't matter because the cartoonist or cartoonists have captured the story beautifully.

Does this really matter? No. But it's the car wreck on the freeway we all slow down and look across the media at as we pass it. But for those of us who have watched broadcast TV go from a rich family's toy in the 50% to the required utility in every room that it has been for more than the last generation, this is broadcast TV's death rattle.

It became obvious several years ago when "reality" TV replaced one of the three hours of night time scripted dramas. It was disgusting, but the networks were desperate for broadcast air fillers which were CHEAP and could survive on the reduced advertising revenue that the networks finally realized were all they could get. But reality TV has gone as far as it could. Where could NBC (especially) get more low cost schlock to fill prime time air with? Well, they had Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien at night and both were doing well. They each cost about 1/3rd what a scripted show costs per hour. Conan apparently forced the issue five years ago when he threatened to jump networks to FOX and compete head-to-head with Jay Leno.

NBC delayed his move by promising Conan the Tonight show in five years. They bought Leno's agreement by telling him he could have five hours per weeknight in prime time instead. NBC kept both shows with their audiences and it had the advantage of sharply lower production costs for for one of the three prime time weeknight hours. The number I have seen quoted is that Leno costs about $100 million to produce five nights a week for a season where a scripted drama to fill those hours costs about $300 million.

Did replacing a scripted drama the last night of prime time lose audience? Apparently. But NBC decided that the loss of audience could be accepted because it brought the production costs in under the level of the revenue they were getting from advertisers for that time period.

Only - Gack! - the affiliate stations make a lot of their money from the advertisers paying for the night time news, and the Jay Leno show did not feed as big an audience into those late night news shows. The affiliates were losing a lot of money so that NBC could bring their third hour of prime time production costs in under what the advertising revenue covered. Translation - NBC profited in part by lowering the audience and revenue to the affiliates who followed that last prime time hour. The affiliates looked at the results of NBC's brilliant strategy and revolted. They determine what actually appears on the local TV screen, so they threatened to pull prime time Leno and replace it with - I don't know. Star Trek reruns? I love Lucy? More reality shows? Whatever. It wouldn't be revenue to NBC. It would be revenue to the affiliate stations. They are the actual owners of your TV screen in broadcast TV. Prime time Jay Leno was fired.

I knew something was wrong when so-called reality TV crap replaced quality scripted shows. Prime time was reduced from three hours a night to two hours on weeknights with reruns on Saturdays and some Sundays. That was not the result of a writer's strike. It was clearly caused by declining advertising revenue. The networks wanted to shift some of the production costs to writers and the writer's guild objected. The networks then took the opportunity to blame the writers for the collapse of the industry.

The NBC - Jay Leno - Conan O'Brien has been a bunch of sturm und drang about damned little that matters. Except for one thing. The sturm und drang is at it's base all about the death of broadcast TV. Leno and O'Brien just put familiar faces on the end of the industry.

One last thing I had wondered about. Broadcast TV made the shift from a technologically stable long-term broadcast technology to High Definition last year. Some customers may have made the switch OK, but in my experience it has been a disaster. I've completely lost half the channels I used to watch and the remaining ones flicker on and off erratically, often freezing for several words. Was the switch to Hi-Def a plot to force broadcast customers to buy overpriced subscription TV instead? That's still my best bet. Someone apparently thought it was a good idea, and the FCC is captive to the industry so they forced it through. Trust the Republicans to get the government to screw the customers so that the business persons can blame the government for the economic disaster they caused instead of taking responsibility themselves for what they did.

I am not an expert on the media. This is just what I have observed in recent years watching broadcast TV and I am trying to find an explanation for the degradation of the medium. So far this makes some sense of it to me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

TV political news "reporting" has failed.

It's long been clear that there is little political news being presented to the American public through television. It's a bit of a surprise to realize just how simple the problem is, but it is explained easily and briefly by Steve Benen at the Political Animal.
In recent years, the media has created a truly bizarre dynamic -- news consumers who want to hear a bunch of politicians make a lot of claims can watch television news interviews, and news consumers who want to know if those claims are accurate can go online.

At that point, television news stops informing the public, and simply becomes literally nothing more than a conduit for talking points and pretty pictures. Viewers who want to learn accurate information about current events are told they must go elsewhere -- it's not CNN's job to tell you the facts; it's CNN's job to tell you what "both sides" think about the facts.
So the so-called "political news" from television is nothing more than a Jerry Springer show consisting of "He said. She said" presented without context or history that would provide any perspective.

The Journalism schools apparently love this failed system, and so do the lying politicians. No one else does.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

2010 is going to be another bad year economically

I have doubted that the current so-called good news about the American economy have meant much more than that the inadequate stimulus funds supported by the feds lowered interest rates and expanded money supply was working. The trouble is, there has not been any real expansion of the consumer market. There won't be until somehow the number of jobs starts increasing.

So now Paul Krugman agrees with me.
During the good years of the last decade, such as they were, growth was driven by a housing boom and a consumer spending surge. Neither is coming back. There can’t be a new housing boom while the nation is still strewn with vacant houses and apartments left behind by the previous boom, and consumers — who are $11 trillion poorer than they were before the housing bust — are in no position to return to the buy-now-save-never habits of yore.

What’s left? A boom in business investment would be really helpful right now. But it’s hard to see where such a boom would come from: industry is awash in excess capacity, and commercial rents are plunging in the face of a huge oversupply of office space.

Can exports come to the rescue? For a while, a falling U.S. trade deficit helped cushion the economic slump. But the deficit is widening again, in part because China and other surplus countries are refusing to let their currencies adjust.

So the odds are that any good economic news you hear in the near future will be a blip, not an indication that we’re on our way to sustained recovery. But will policy makers misinterpret the news and repeat the mistakes of 1937? Actually, they already are.

The Obama fiscal stimulus plan is expected to have its peak effect on G.D.P. and jobs around the middle of this year, then start fading out. That’s far too early: why withdraw support in the face of continuing mass unemployment? Congress should have enacted a second round of stimulus months ago, when it became clear that the slump was going to be deeper and longer than originally expected. But nothing was done — and the illusory good numbers we’re about to see will probably head off any further possibility of action.

Meanwhile, all the talk at the Fed is about the need for an “exit strategy” from its efforts to support the economy. One of those efforts, purchases of long-term U.S. government debt, has already come to an end. It’s widely expected that another, purchases of mortgage-backed securities, will end in a few months. This amounts to a monetary tightening, even if the Fed doesn’t raise interest rates directly — and there’s a lot of pressure on Mr. Bernanke to do that too.

Will the Fed realize, before it’s too late, that the job of fighting the slump isn’t finished? Will Congress do the same? If they don’t, 2010 will be a year that began in false economic hope and ended in grief.
That's not good news. I hope Krugman is wrong, but if he is I don't see where it comes from.

A non-discrimanatory solution to air flight security

Matt Yglesias writes today about the question that is greatly exercising the minds at the national review. That question? It's "Why shouldn't we formally discriminate against Muslims (i.e., “profiling”) who are flying on American airlines?"

Matt offers some good arguments why we shouldn't do it.
...the strategic costs of becoming a country that engages in systematic formal discrimination against Muslims are rather high. I would like to live in a country where if a teenage American Muslim reads on a message board somewhere that the United States is a racist country hell-bent on persecuting Islam that he thinks “no it isn’t” not “that’s why I got singled out for strip searches when we went on vacation last winter.” Nor do I want the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority to come under political pressure at home to divest from US firms because Emirati citizens who visit the US are being treated unfairly. Right now if a talented Bangladeshi scientist is weighing offers between an American and a European university, I can honestly tell him he’ll find the US a more welcoming place—that’s a strength we have as a society and as a country, and not something we should be eager to give up.

The United States is a gigantic, diverse country that does business and policy all around the world. Air travel in this country is as safe as it’s ever been. Taking reasonable steps to make it safer would be nice, but cutting ourselves off from a huge swathe of the world and poisoning relations with 1.5 billion Muslims is going to be much worse than an exploding airplane. We could enhance security by making everyone fly naked, but common sense is that it wouldn’t be worth it.
But let me suggest that the throwaway line there "We could enhance security by making everyone fly naked, but common sense is that it wouldn’t be worth it." does suggest a solution.

We should have everyone who is going to get on a plane enter a room before boarding and remove all their clothes. Then they step into the next room where they are issued an airline-approved passenger's uniform with flight slippers for the flight. Their clothes and all carry-on baggage would then be packaged together and shipped (separately on non-passenger aircraft) to their destinations where they could pick it up upon arrival. That way everyone is discriminated against equally.

That might work, although it would give a whole new set of meanings to the announcement by the airline "I'm sorry, but we cannot find your luggage."

Friday, January 01, 2010

A prediction for 2010

Jon Taplin offers an interesting prediction for the election in 2010. It's based on what FDR did in 1934.

Since Obama prides himself on taking the long view I'll bet he has had similar advice. Go read it.