The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Invisible Man

To begin, consider Robert Caro's descriptions in The Power Broker of the influence of image in reporting, made plain from his examination of the case of Robert Moses. Mr. Moses's often underhanded tactics had been overlooked by the New York press for thirty years, and the falsehoods common in his press releases had been passed unchecked to a public with no way of detecting them. The media's own inertia gave this image a self-perpetuating momentum of its own. Even when scandals broke into the press, the image hampered their investigation:
There had still been many editors and reporters unwilling to face the falseness [sic] of the image they had helped create. There had still been newspapers -- most notably, of course, the Times -- that had shrunk back from the investigations into Title I....
The media's new awareness was particularly significant because it is so strongly influenced by the images that are its own creation. For years, articles about Robert Moses had been researched, written and played in the light of the image of Robert Moses as hero.
[Emphasis mine.] These errors did not arise from any media bias, but from the fact that journalists are a fairly closed group of not very bright people who share many common beliefs. Their preconceptions, which generally agree with those of their associates, are reinforced every time they read the paper. Inconvenient truths are dismissed due to confirmation bias; unexpected facts have a hard time reaching the public.

With this in mind, consider the current press image of Barack Obama. I have no reason to believe ill of him; but I have little information. All I know about Mr. Obama is what I read in the papers; which is to say, all I know is the image. And that is all I will ever know.

The press narrative of Mr. Obama's character is now established. Facts which do not fit will be passed over by researchers, or questioned at every level of the editing process, making them very unlikely to percolate into public view. Instead, we will be given reinforcement of the narrative, presented as "news" just as if it, in fact, contained something new. We will be told nothing, and then reminded how much we have been told.


Kevin Drum discovers the Starship Troopers argument (see these comments), and presents it with his customary clarity.

There is also an interesting turn of phrase in the Lawrence O'Donnell post Mr. Drum debunks:

Just like George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney, we are all combat cowards.
For symmetry, of course, the name of Al Gore should be added to that list.  But Mr. Gore's career, unlike Mr. Clinton's, just might not be spent; and Mr. O'Donnell cannot bring himself to criticize a live Democrat.

Duncan Black's commentary on Mr. O'Donnell's post is limited to "heh-indeedy" [sic].

[Cross-posted from Chequer-Board.]

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


A headline in the San Francisco Chronicle:
Pelosi's all smiles through a rough House transition
This would be news if Mrs. Pelosi's features remained capable of assuming any other expression.

Private Enterprise

After years of declining standards, government-enforced unselectivity, and determined dumbing down of exams, Britain's independent schools are joining with Cambridge to do something about it:
Eton is among at least 100 leading independent schools to have shown strong interest in the Pre-U. Others include Harrow, Dulwich College, Winchester and Charterhouse.

But there are fears of the creation of a two-tier examination system for rich and poor pupils, with independent schools opting for the Pre-U and state schools remaining with the discredited A-level system.

Graham Able, Master of Dulwich College, who is on a steering group advising on the Pre-U, said the diploma would better prepare pupils for university....

Barnaby Lenon, Head Master of Harrow, said that A levels were flawed because too many pupils got top grades, examiners made too many mistakes when marking and coursework was vulnerable to cheats.

Tuition at English universities, including "Oxbridge" [Oxford and Cambridge, collectively], has historically been free [i.e., paid by the state] for British nationals. The state tuition payments have been set at the same level for all universities. Within the past decade, Oxbridge and other universities with something to sell have been allowed to institute "top-up fees" which are limited by law to 3000 GBP [5700 USD, but with the purchasing power of about 3600] per year. The Government has made clear that fees beyond this will be punished by the withdrawal of the government tuition subsidy. Cambridge, which is at this point financially and academically stronger than Oxford, has debated making the change anyway, but so far has not.

Meanwhile, the government-mandated "A levels" [a set of subject tests, roughly comparable to AP tests, taken by each British student at the end of his pre-university schooling] have been steadily dumbed down, and their utility to the top universities is dwindling. A new best grade, "A*" [the grade A is not to be confused with the A in A-levels], has been instituted, but it has quickly been caught up in the overall grade inflation.

There is an informal Ivy League alphabet: "A is for Average, B is for Bad, ..." In Britain this grade inflation is government-mandated.

[Cross-posted from Chequer-Board.]

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Builder

Mr. Caro's vast biography, The Power Broker, is subtitled "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York." It casts Mr. Moses's career as an arc away from idealism into corruption; his main part headings show this clearly.

The first part of the book, describing Mr. Moses's college career -- he was a brilliant and omnivorous learner, an idealist almost untouched by practicality, and a terrible poet -- and early work for New York's good government organizations, is listless and manages, I think, to miss a large point. Mr. Caro notes (truthfully, I assume) that Mr. Moses in later life spoke little about his early, idealistically driven, and unsuccessful ventures; but he assumes the older Moses was silent because of the unflattering contrast with his newer, pragmatic (or corrupt) style. It is equally possible, and fits better with what I understand of people, that the older Moses was silent out of embarrassment for his earlier willful ignorance, for his having made unnecessary mistakes due to feckless arrogance and haste.

The next three hundred pages or so ("The Rise to Power" and most of "The Use of Power") are simply gripping. Mr. Moses was rescued from having to work for a living by Governor Al Smith and his political advisor, Belle Moskowitz; he led the rewriting of New York's constitution, which Mr. Smith championed into law; and he found something he wanted to do in the reconstituted government: parks. In the process, he first offended and then accomodated New York's resident powers, the robber barons along Long Island's North Shore. He fought his corner with an incredible variety of (often illegal) tactics, which Mr. Caro manages to describe in detail without losing the drive of his narrative. "After you fought Robert Moses," said opposing attorney and later power broker Kingsland Macy, "fighting anybody else was easy."

Mr. Moses's devotion to Mr. Smith is evoked with poignant descriptions of his tireless maneuvering in support of the latter's doomed attempt at the 1932 Democratic Presidential nomination, and his creation of the Central Park Zoo as a gift to his now-powerless patron (who was given a passkey). Mr. Caro has managed to fuse a variety of sources and firsthand recollections into a clear and compelling narrative.

The turning point of Mr. Moses's career was his creation, using all his bill-drafting skills, of the Triborough Bridge Authority, a brilliant Trojan Horse which created, with the power of the State behind it, a monopoly corporation which the State could not control. "The authority shall have power from time to time to refund any bonds by the issuance of new bonds, whether the bonds to be refunded have or have not matured, and may issue bonds partly to refund bonds then outstanding and partly for any other corporate purpose." This gave the Authority power to roll its debt forward -- thus ensuring that it would not have to cease operation because all bonds had been paid off -- and to use any new money to start new projects. Triborough became immortal.

Mr. Caro makes a case that this change, which gave Mr. Moses power independent of the wishes of the voting public, was a key step on his march into corruption. Some of his evidence is strong; at other times, just when it should be strongest, it is strangely lacking. The key chapter is "One Mile", where Mr. Caro focuses on the decision to build a section of the Cross-Bronx Expressway through the apartments of East Tremont, rather than along the north edge of Crotona Park. He gives a valid description of the terrible plight of those families caught in the path of the demolition; but he also blames the choice of route for degradation of the uncondemned remainder of the neighborhood (which would have been affected regardless of the route) and for landlords' unwillingness to repair and refurbish (largely driven by rent control). Finally, he cannot come up with any satisfactory means for passing judgement on the route, and reverts to circular reasoning: whatever Mr. Moses's motives might have been, he says, the fact that they were Mr. Moses's alone (QED) shows that they cannot have been the result of a good decision-making process (QED).

In "The Loss of Power", Mr. Caro describes Mr. Moses's overthrow by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The Governor is portrayed as a competing visionary, with some suggestion that he saw more clearly the need for public transportation; however, the facts poking up through this veneer seem to show that he was just a wealthier, younger, and less scrupulous power-seeker than Mr. Moses himself. Mr. Rockefeller did rely on his personal fortune to gain political power; he did install his brother in powerful posts vacated by Mr. Moses; and he did overspend the state budget and then overspend the bonds issued to cover the deficit. In this and in the acerbic depiction of the ruinous Mayor John Lindsay, Mr. Caro's book foretells the budget crisis which had not, at the time of publication, arrived.

Mr. Moses was overly loyal to his subordinates and delegates, two of whom -- the corrupt financier Mike Shanahan, who largely oversaw Mr. Moses's disastrous involvement with Title I housing projects, and the functionary Stuart "Mustache" Constable, who helped squander his popularity -- were instrumental in the eventual loss of Triborough's protective veneer of fawning media coverage. There is a clear villain in Mr. Caro's book: the New York press, and especially the New York Times, which for decades invested in the narrative of Robert Moses as a fearless and effective champion of the people, and substituted that narrative for any diligence, however minimal, on whatever press releases Mr. Moses sent them. At no point in his rise or fall was any of the press (with the possible exception of the Post) interested in truth or objectivity; they simply switched from one narrative to another. And at no time was the Times interested even in reporting events of interest; it did favors for the friend of its publisher, and later barked from the back of the pack of attackers only to protect its own reputation. Even now this is a chilling reminder of the press's powerful incentives against reporting unexpected truths, favorable or otherwise, about any famous figure.

The Power Broker is huge (1100 pages) and sometimes rambling; but it is all worth reading, and the incredible adventure of Mr. Moses's rise to power is the best biographical narrative I have ever read. It will change the way you think about your workplace, your city, your highways, and especially your newspaper.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Negative-Sum Games

Burglars obtaining stolen goods must generally sell them for far less than their retail value; most of the victim's loss is transferred to the fence [or pawnbroker] or to the final receiver, while the burglar generally reaps only about 20% [M.A.R. Kleiman's guess; see footnote 4 here].

But this is almost marvellously efficient compared to the efforts of Mel Weiss and William Lerach. Having shaken down American corporations for a total of $45 billion in settlements, mostly under contingency arrangements giving their firm up to 30% of a settlement -- and generally taking much more -- one would expect the firm's leaders to have made billions. Apparently not:

On average, investors recovered only about 15 cents of every lost dollar, while Milberg Weiss routinely pocketed millions. Weiss and Lerach saw their personal takes soar from $3.4 million apiece in 1990 to $16 million in 1995. During the 1990s, both men earned more than $100 million. Bitter executives came to view it all as an extortion racket - they called it getting "Lerached."

It looks like these guys managed to siphon off less than 1% of what they extracted. What were they thinking?

[HT: David Bernstein.]

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Domain Specialists

In the London Times, we find a discussion of UBS's recent trading losses:
[UBS] continued to buy government bonds early in the third quarter on the expectation that the Federal Reserve would carry on raising rates.
In words of one syllable: high rates mean low prices [oops]. A buyer wants price to rise. [In fact, UBS shorted the bonds.]

Presumably journalists of all stripes possess this kind of expertise in their specialties. Just imagine.

Brand Dilution

How the ACLU threw itself away, at Chequer-Board.