While watching the speech, I tweeted that "Obama sounds remarkably similar to the CEOs I used to listen to on earnings calls: the ones with mediocre EPS and a failing business model." This wasn't a crack at Obama, or Democrats; it was a reaction to the content. And after watching the responses, the impression lingers--indeed, maybe it's strengthened.
The nation is facing some really difficult problems, particularly on the fiscal front. There's no longer any way to put it off; pretty soon, the government is going to have to start making some very hard choices about taxes and spending. No matter what it chooses, that probably means lower economic growth, angry voters, and some real loss on the part of whoever's ox is gored.
Listening to earnings calls means listening to quite a few CEOs in analogous situations. Often, the situations they are in are largely not of their making, or indeed anyone's fault at all. But they are expected to fix it. And too often, they can't, at least not yet. Think of Rick Wagoner, and the other managers at GM who knew they were on the road to disaster, but couldn't exit without the consent of stakeholders who weren't quite ready to believe it was necessary.
Faced with that situation, what does the CEO say? He puts the best face on things. I once listened to the head of a biotech company which was burning cash every quarter, had no good research prospects in the pipeline, and had already capitalized (i.e. sold) the income streams from their existing intellectual property. Despite the fact that this was obviously patently insane, he spent quite a lot of time detailing his plans for the future of the company. What was he supposed to say? "Sell my stock now, guys!"
Everyone on the call knew that the future of the company lay in bankruptcy court or a fire-sale liquidation, but bizarrely, they sort of went along with it. Of course, for obvious reasons, there weren't really a lot of dedicated analysts dialing in.
The government's situation is not quite that bad. But it's pretty bad. The underlying economy is, I think, ultimately fine, but the structural problems with the government's finances are driving it rapidly towards an unpleasant denouement. Like a CEO with a stuck company, however, he can't just say that. Stating the obvious would make things worse, as customers and creditors decide that the end really is nigh, and it's time to get out while they still can.
So what do those CEOs do? They spend a lot of time talking about their company's proud history, even if that history only stretches back a few years. They lavish extravagant praise on their awesome, dedicated workforce. And they deftly avoid talking about the big problems, for which they have no solutions, by talking about strategic areas for potential growth ("green jobs"), and going over a laundry list of new initiatives that do nothing to solve any of the core problems. When they are forced to talk about the core problems--and if the company is big enough to attract analyst coverage, they will rudely draw his attention to the problematic areas on the financial statements during the Q&A--he responds in vague generalities that restate the problem as if doing so constituted a solution:
To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.
The absolute favorite tactic, however, is the management reorganization. You may be in a saturated market where your second-rate franchisees are slowly destroying your brand, making it impossible to attract higher-quality franchisees . . . but that's nothing that can't be fixed by creating a new Chief Strategy Officer under the CEO, and giving that officer oversight of marketing, research, and HR. Perhaps a much larger competitor whose cost structure allows them to undercut your prices by 32% has entered your niche, but can they really withstand the fearsome might of your ISO 9000 certification and your new cross-functional product teams? The government regulators who just outlawed your three top-selling products and made two-thirds of your capital plant obsolete may be powerful--but not as powerful as your revolutionary sales force compensation scheme!
You can't blame the dodges, but they are a warning sign. Not that the CEO is a bad CEO, but that the CEO is in a bad situation he can't fix.
It's not that Obama doesn't know how to fix the problems; I think that like most people in Washington, he understands the broad parameters within which the fixes will be carried out. But he can't make Congress do it before there's an actual crisis. And saying all of this is all too likely to trigger the crisis--a crisis he'd much rather would happen during someone else's presidency. So he tells us what we want to hear: that we need to find a way to fix Social Security without, y'know, changing it in any way. And will you look at those green jobs! I think we're going to have a bumper crop!
The reason he does this, of course, is that like the analysts on all of those calls, we let him. Indeed, we actively, even eagerly, participate in the denial. After all, if we knew how to fix the company, we'd be CEOs, not sitting on the couch kvetching about their nonsense.
A challenge based on four words of the law amounts to little more than politics dressed up as a legal argument.
The Supreme Court is about to decide another blockbuster case arising under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The specific issue is whether federal-tax subsidies are available to people who purchase health insurance from exchanges operated by the federal government or instead whether such subsidies are available only from exchanges established by the states. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell would most likely cripple the ACA in over thirty states and deprive millions of people of health insurance.
That the Supreme Court even agreed to hear the case is the result of an improbable conjunction of events. Two committed opponents of the ACA seized upon four words of the law out of almost 1000 pages, and through their persistent and energetic work, created a powerful soundbite that appealed to die-hard opponents of the ACA. They then took that sound bite and dressed it up in highly technical arguments about statutory interpretation that might well change how healthcare is paid for in the United States. But the soundbite is inaccurate, and the technical window dressing shouldn’t obscure the fact that the argument is based on a faulty reading of the text of the entire law as well as a misleading account of how and why the law was passed. At bottom, King v. Burwell is a political challenge to the ACA dressed up in legal garb.
Some spoiler-y speculation on the final three episodes
With only three episodes left to go, Game of Thrones looks as though it once again has a lot of ground to cover before wrapping up a season. And so, for the curious and impatient among you, I’ll do my best to offer some quasi-informed speculation about what we might reasonably expect in these final weeks.
Note: I haven’t seen any of the remaining episodes, but I have read the books. The first five items below are spoiler-y, but the predictions in them do not derive from the George R. R. Martin novels. Rather, they’re guesswork based on what’s already happened on the show and on tidbits scattered across the web: a behind-the-scenes photo here, a close-read of a trailer there. (They could all, of course, turn out to be completely wrong.) The last four items, however, are based at least in part on events that take place in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, so non-book-readers may want to skip them. And obviously anyone, book-reader or not, who’d prefer to go into these final episodes without preconceptions—who doesn’t want to know at least some of what will (probably) happen—should stop reading now.
People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.
This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?”he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
To be far from home in a major, diverse metropolis such as New York or Los Angeles is one thing. But those who have landed in small cities across the Midwest face a whole other sort of isolation.
CINCINNATI—When they were deciding where to settle down and raise a family, Lorena Mora-Mowry, a lawyer from Venezuela, and her husband Paul, a mechanical engineer from California, performed extensive research. Based on reports they read in magazines and brochures, they decided that Cincinnati, with its low cost of living, access to arts and the outdoors, and strong schools, would be a good place to live. They moved here in 1995.
It was a difficult transition from (relatively) open-minded, Latino-heavy Southern California to Cincinnati, where just about everybody was either white or black, and where immigrants were a rarity. Mora-Mowry tried to speak to people in stores, but they could never understand her accent, and she hated the long, cold winters.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life. We've grown more adept at shaping these underground shelters and passages over the millennia, and today we dig for hundreds of reasons. We excavate to find both literal and cultural treasures, digging mines and unearthing archaeological discoveries. We use caverns for stable storage, for entertainment, and for an effective shelter from natural and man-made disasters. And as the planet's surface becomes ever more crowded, and national borders are closed, tunnels provide pathways for our vehicles and for smugglers of every kind. Collected below are more recent subterranean scenes from around the world.
The danger of uploading one’s consciousness to a computer without a suicide switch
Imagine a supercomputer so advanced that it could hold the contents of a human brain. The Google engineer Ray Kurzweil famously believes that this will be possible by 2045. Organized technologists are seeking to transfer human personalities to non-biological carriers, “extending life, including to the point of immortality.” My gut says that they’ll never get there. But say I’m wrong. Were it possible, would you upload the contents of your brain to a computer before death, extending your conscious moments on this earth indefinitely? Or would you die as your ancestors did, passing into nothingness or an unknown beyond human comprehension?
The promise of a radically extended lifespan, or even immortality, would tempt many. But it seems to me that they’d be risking something very much like hell on earth.
This week, we have photos of the oppressive heatwave in India, a high walkway made of musical glass planks in China, an aerial view of Chicago at night, rescued baby iguanas in Costa Rica, the 88th annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, and much more.
Can a political system be democratically legitimate without being democratic?
The flaws in China’s political system are obvious. The government doesn’t even make a pretense of holding national elections and punishes those who openly call for multiparty rule. The press is heavily censored and the Internet is blocked. Top leaders are unconstrained by the rule of law. Even more worrisome, repression has been ramped up since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, suggesting that the regime is increasingly worried about its legitimacy.
Some China experts—most recently David Shambaugh of George Washington University—interpret these ominous signs as evidence that the Chinese political system is on the verge of collapse. But such an outcome is highly unlikely in the near future. The Communist Party is firmly in power, its top leader is popular, and no political alternative currently claims widespread support. And what would happen if the Party’s power did indeed crumble? The most likely result, in my view, would be rule by a populist strongman backed by elements of the country’s security and military forces. The new ruler might seek to buttress his legitimacy by launching military adventures abroad. President Xi would look tame by comparison.
The former speaker of the House is charged with lying to federal agents and evading financial reporting requirements in what appears to be a case of blackmail.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been indicted on charges of lying to FBI agents and evading federal financial-reporting requirements.
Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was speaker from 1999 to 2007. BuzzFeed’s John Stanton, who first reported on the indictment, notes that there were several high-profile congressional scandals in those years. Illinois is also a notorious hotbed for political corruption, as Roland Burris, Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, and Jesse Jackson Jr. can attest.
But reading between the lines of the indictment against Hastert suggests a darker story than political corruption. In or about 2010, according to the indictment, Hastert—a former high-school teacher and coach—met with an unnamed individual from Yorkville, Hastert’s hometown. They “discussed past misconduct by defendant against Individual A that had occurred years earlier.” In effect, Hastert fell victim to blackmail, the indictment alleges: He “agreed to provide Individual A $3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.” (Since leaving the House, Hastert has become a highly paid lobbyist.)