It’s our fault the economy sucks

Let’s look back ten years or so. Ford and GM were huge, successful corporations making millions of cars all over the world. Hyundai was a joke, a car that people bought because they couldn’t afford a nice car. Since then, Hyundai has focused on making affordable cars that people want to drive. Ford and GM have focused on making bigger and bigger SUVs and complaining about union wages. So where are we now? Ford and GM are financially insolvent, in need of giant government bailouts. Hyundai is leaving behind their joke reputation and making some pretty decent cars. But why is this our fault? It’s because we are so focused on the sound bytes. When the big three car execs went to Washington with their hands out, what did we report on and talk about? The fact that they flew their corporate jets. Yes, this is a good symbol of the misplaced priorities. But it is such an insignificant part of the problem. It’s not like leaving the corporate jet at home, or even selling it, would have suddenly made GM profitable. Those execs are absurdly rich. Get over it. I know we’re jealous. But even if we make them take pay cuts, we’re still going to be making the same money we do now. The real problem is that, due to mismanagement, failure to plan ahead, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the business they’re in, these execs have gotten into a position where it is better for the country as a whole if we give them millions of dollars. They can’t take all the blame for that – some of it is certainly on us. But to focus on the corporate jets as anything more than a symbol of their incompetence is to brush the real issues under the rug as soon as there’s something we can latch onto and get really fired up about. The issue at hand is that the American car companies don’t make compelling cars (In this country, anyway) and have lost the reputation for quality they used to have. They like to use the unions as an excuse, but the unions are rational human beings who depend on American car companies to make their living – you can negotiate with them and work something out. If you can’t, you’re probably not trying hard enough. If Hyundai can do it, so can you. No more excuses from the Big Three.

As much as it sucks, we still have to pay the contracts they signed

When I first heard about the giant “golden parachutes” that were supposed to go to the CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – in the neighborhood of $10 million each – I was pretty mad. After the government stepped in to bail them out, we, the taxpayers, were on the hook for these ridiculous firing bonuses. These two men had been in charge of the two companies when it was decided that they couldn’t go on without a government bailout – even if they didn’t start the practices that led them here, they certainly must have been aware of what was going on. Now, after their mismanagement and incompetence, taxpayers were going to pay them more than most of us will make in a lifetime. But then a friend pointed out that we can’t pick and chose which employee payments get made when disaster happens. The government has just stepped in and said, “We’re renegotiating the employment contracts retroactively because it’s too much money”. Partly I’m torn. It is really infuriating that these guys will get so much money for utterly failing at their jobs. It’s infuriating that we’ll have to pay for it. But it’s not the government’s place to come in and change the game at this point. Yes, the government is paying some or all of the bills. But if we wanted that sort of control over what happened at Fannie and Freddie, we should have created the Department of Secondary Mortgages. Then the “CEOs” would be appointees and we could make political statements and fire them without resorting to just telling them that the legal contracts they signed are null and void just because we say so.

The unintended consequences of blocking webmail

No matter how hard you try, you can’t effectively block anything on the internet. My favorite angry tech geeks just mentioned the great quote from John Gilmore, “the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” That’s not exactly what happened when they blocked webmail at work, but it might as well have been. There’s a free wifi signal in our building provided by the DC government. I have no idea why it’s there, or who it’s meant to serve, but it’s been great for me. However, it goes in and out a lot. You have to authenticate with an email address every time it drops you, and sometimes that would happen every few minutes. It could be really frustrating, especially when I really needed that connection. It was the only connection I had for the laptop where I do all my work, and when it wasn’t working, I couldn’t get to source control, I couldn’t do all sorts of necessary work tasks. So, when they blocked webmail on the official work network, the DC wifi took a beating. They started blocking on a Monday, and through Wednesday, the DC wifi was totally useless. Even when it would successfully authenticate me, it wouldn’t let me do anything. What happened next? Whoever runs that wifi network must have upgraded some equipment, because now that connection is better than it’s ever been. They must have gotten complaints from whoever is actually supposed to be using that network, and took steps to improve it. And now I have a pretty reliable connection. It hurts my argument that work needs to buy me a Blackberry, but I didn’t really need a Blackberry. In some sense, everyone wins here. People aren’t checking webmail on the official work network. As misguided a security policy as that is, it remains their right to block webmail. And I have a better uncensored connection that helps me be more productive at work. Clearly I’m not the only one using it, and the others undoubtedly benefit from the increased quality of the wifi service. More and more, we have to realize that everything is available on the internet. You can accept that, figure out how it affects your business, and move forward. Or you can waste resources fighting against it until you realize that no amount of censorship, lawsuits, or new laws will ever stop the flood of information.

People aren’t dumb, just bad at judging actual cost

High gas prices driving small car sales

The trend proves again what we already knew – that people respond to events that hit their wallet, not their conscience.

High gas prices driving small car sales Shocker – with gas getting more and more expensive, people are buying more small cars. While I agree with the above-quoted statement, I think what it really gets at is that people are inherently rational. We just aren’t always good at judging value. It goes well beyond over-valuing brand new Lincoln Navigators with 22″ chrome wheels and heated massage chairs while under-valuing small, efficient, reliable cars. Now, I know that I tend to over-value that feeling of smug self-satisfaction when I walk to work or take the bus home, laughing at the schmucks who drive two hours into Nowhereville, VA. But I also know that a lot of them over-value the sixth bedroom and second acre their house is on as they give up twenty hours a week commuting. Anyway, I hope GM an Ford can figure things out before the European and Japanese and Korean car manufacturers swoop in and totally wipe out the American manufacturers, who seem to have mortgaged their future on the mistaken idea that people would continue to buy high-profit SUVs forever. I hope that GM and Ford can quickly change with the gas prices, and perhaps bring some of the cars they make for overseas markets to the States as the demand changes. But I have to say I’m not that optimistic.

Give Maryland its wine in the mail already

Maryland HB-1260 Killed

The opposition is in the form of big, big money from the liquor distributors. Make no mistake about it, they spend millions to keep consenting adults from getting wine shipped to them.

So, Maryland is one of those crazy states that feels that having wine delivered in the mail is going to somehow be a terrible thing. The primary opposition to the shipping of wine to Maryland is not Maryland wineries, worried about what it might do to their business. The primary opposition is liquor distributors who do not understand the business they are in. If you all would allow me a Techdirt moment here: The business of shipping alcohol in the mail is not a zero sum game. Every case of wine shipped to a customer in Maryland does NOT mean one fewer case of liquor shipped to a customer in Maryland. In fact, I would be willing to bet that people who get wine shipped to their house are much more likely to get liquor shipped to their house, as well. We’re not talking about the market for wine vs. the market for liquor. We’re talking about the market for alcoholic beverages in the mail. If the liquor distributors would stop being jerks, maybe they could get together with the wine distributors and grow the entire market space. But no, they’d rather keep stupid laws on the books and fight with each other. Nice job, guys.

Changes in Columbia Heights

The Washington Post | A Rapid Renaissance in Columbia Heights

Even within the rush of construction that has swept across the District, Columbia Heights’ renaissance is singular, not only because of its scope but because of its locale, a residential neighborhood that is among the region’s most economically and racially diverse.

Sweet. We’re singular. I think they chose that because the connotations of “unique” are too universally positive. “Singular” implies that you could be the only one, but still not that exciting.

Community leaders, said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), envisioned a neighborhood that would serve all residents’ dining and retail needs, and include a kaleidoscope-like civic plaza for the working-class families and professionals who make up the neighborhood’s population, as well as the shoppers streaming in from across the area.

Columbia Heights’ rebirth is not only about the arrival of bricks and mortar at a crossroads that long struggled to recover from the looting and arson that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It’s about the blending of cultures and classes.

Nicely done, way to get the MLK Jr. reference in there. It shows the author cares about poor black people.

The new luxury apartments along 14th Street join the neighborhood’s existing stock of subsidized housing, much of it preserved and rehabilitated by officials who feared that the poor would be forced out.

Never mind that other cities have had great success with spreading subsidized housing out all over the place so you don’t create these little clusters surrounded by new condos. If everything is spread out, you have this glaring reminder every day that people in those buildings are poor and people in these buildings are rich. That’s not how you build a diverse, integrated community.

Black residents made up just over half the neighborhood’s population in the 2000 Census, although their share had declined since the previous count while the numbers of Hispanic and white people grew. From 2000 to 2005, home buyers’ median income rose from $76,000 to $103,000, according to the Urban Institute .

I’m not sure why you cherry pick home buyers’ median income, unless you’re afraid to mention that the overall median income is less than half that.

“Columbia Heights potentially is the manifestation of Dr. King’s vision,” said William Jordan, a resident of more than 20 years. “You have the potential not just for token integration but for a critical mass of old and young, low-income and affluent.” But Jordan questioned whether that spectrum can withstand economic pressures. “Can this last longer than half a generation?” he asked.

No. Not unless you do something about the schools so that the young middle class doesn’t move to the suburbs as soon as they have school-age children.

A few blocks south, in a concrete-paved park at 14th and Girard streets, talk of the neighborhood’s changes can be heard at tables where men play whist and checkers. The park is across from a new condominium building and down the street from where two homicides occurred last year. Graham has secured city funds to renovate the park, a plan that includes installing a fence that would block access at night. Although Graham said a broad spectrum of residents support the design, including park regulars, some say they feel insulted by the District’s attempt to impose control over a spot they consider a second living room, and they see a connection between the fence and all the new development.

This park has a really bad reputation that I don’t think is deserved at all. It happens to be at an intersection where a lot of crime happens, but most of the people who use the park are older, longtime residents. They’re not committing the crimes. But almost every building visible from the park is subsidized housing. Fencing in the park and closing it at night is just going to move the problem down a block or two, and insult the people who’ve been hanging out in that park for years. I love to see positive changes in the neighborhood, but flowery articles that focus on the new money coming in and gloss over the problems under the surface aren’t really helping anyone.

Trent Reznor and alternative business models

NIN – Ghosts

Nine Inch Nails presents Ghosts I – IV, a brand new 36 track instrumental collection available right now. Almost two hours of new music composed and recorded over an intense ten week period last fall, Ghosts I – IV sprawls Nine Inch Nails across a variety of new terrain.

New Nine Inch Nails album announced today. I’m a little annoyed that I didn’t get an email, since I am signed up for the mailing list. Luckily, Gizmodo and Techdirt let me know. This is pretty cool. He’s releasing the first nine tracks as free downloads. $5 gets you all 36 downloads, DRM-free. $10 gets you the downloads now, and the cds when they’re released April 1. There are two other options at $75 and $300 that I’m probably not interested in. I’m sure the recording industry is watching this carefully. If this works for Nine Inch Nails, others will try similar things. Radiohead’s “pay what you want” experiment worked well, I think. It reinforces the idea that people are not opposed to paying for music from bands they like. We just don’t like to be treated as criminals just for listening to music. Anyway, I encourage you to download the free tracks. If you don’t like them, no loss. If you do, buy the rest. Think of it as listening to a few tracks at a friend’s house to see if you like the band, and then getting the cd when you find out that the band is awesome. Except in this case, your “friend” is Trent Reznor, and his “house” is

GAAAH! Unwanted mental image!

Swimming Naked When The Tide Goes Out « Jon Taplin’s Blog

What Buffet didn’t say, but I will, is that the Bush-McCain Republican economic policies can qualify as “financial folly” and they are are going to be naked, clinging to each other as the tide rolls out this summer.

Since I’m going to spend the rest of the day with the image of George Bush and John McCain, nude and hugging each other at the beach, seared into my brain, I wanted to make sure that you all are, too. I don’t really know enough about the economy to really speak intelligently about the state of the nation (I know, ignorance has never stopped me before). But I do know that Columbia Heights is feeling the housing market difficulties. There are two large buildings of new condos that have been converted to apartments. One of them, Allegro, converted after taking deposits from many buyers, and is now refunding them. And there have been complaints on the Columbia Heights community forum about home tax assessments going down. A few years ago, it would have been unheard of for a home in the DC metro area to actually lose value. Usually, they say, the DC area is insulated against recession because so much of the money around here comes from the federal government, which isn’t going anywhere. There will always be people here, and there will always be jobs here, even if the economy is terrible. Columbia Heights is probably less insulated because it’s currently “transitional”, and so there is a lot of upheaval and a lot of young people moving in. These young people often have huge mortgages, and probably aren’t tied to their home as much as someone older might be. Without kids and whatnot, it’s much easier for them to pack up and move somewhere cheaper if it gets tough here. And that’s not even looking at the low income residents of Columbia Heights. The median household income here is below $40,000, I believe. Well more than half of the neighborhood isn’t even mentioned when you talk about home sale prices because they don’t make nearly enough money to even consider buying. The wife and I are lucky in that we have some room to cut back if things get much worse. We have some savings, and we’re living within our means (Even though she complains about my credit card bill). Plus we have families to fall back on if we ever got into trouble. But many people aren’t in that situation, and are getting into real trouble. All this to say that, while I would love to see the Bush administration get what it deserves (A 0% approval rating and universal recognition that the last seven-plus years have been an unmitigated disaster), I would rather see the economy improve and people stop losing their homes.

Giving stuff away

The nature of free

As I tried to explain in the Guardian interview, the problem isn’t that books are given away or that people read books they haven’t paid for. The problem is that the majority of people don’t read for pleasure.

Here is yet another author talking about how giving away books for free is a good thing, and tends to increase sales of other books. John Scalzi talks about this often. So does Charles Stross, and Cory Doctorow. And Techdirt talks about the value of giving away infinite goods to generate interest in scarce ones. I first read Scalzi’s Agent to the Stars shared free online, and then bought some of his other stuff. I first read Stross’ Accelerando shared free online, and now preorder his novels before they even come out. And I first read Gaiman when I got Anansi Boys from the library. My long-winded point here is that I have frequently purchased books because I read something the author had shared for free and I liked it. So I sought out more from that author. When someone finally makes a reasonably priced, non-DRMed ebook reader, I’ll do this even more. I have a bunch of free books saved on my hard drive that I haven’t read because I don’t want to sit at the computer to read a novel. Give me a good way to get that book over into the big fluffy chair in the sunroom, and I’ll be thrilled. However, I quoted Gaiman up above for a reason. It is interesting that he says that most people don’t read for pleasure. I don’t know how true that is in general, but I know many of my friends don’t read much or at all. I’ve gotten shocked reactions from people when I tell them that I get books out of the library (Although not so much lately now that I’m driving to work and don’t have an hour on the Metro to read every day). It’s too bad that people don’t read more. I have fond memories of reading while growing up. It was great to not even hear my mom calling me because I was so wrapped up in the book. See, kids, that’s a great excuse for ignoring your mom. Try it sometime. Edit: I should have checked Techdirt before I posted this. They have an article on this very subject up right now. And now Cory Doctorow mentions the very same Gaiman post up on Boing Boing. If I link to a post that links to a post that I already linked to, maybe we can create an infinite loop that creates an vortex in the internet which will spit out the Ghost of Christmas Past to visit the CEO’s of Sony, Time Warner, Random House, Apple, Adobe, and all the other DRM-mongers and show them the error of their ways. Then we’ll all wake up Christmas morning with open source ebook readers under the tree and thousands of free ebooks waiting at Amazon. Do you read for pleasure? Fiction? Non-fiction?