Month: July, 2013

Braun Over Brains

One piece of Wepfer Wisdom I pass down to my students is cynical and self-indulgent, but today it has been reinforced as containing at least a sliver of truth.

Are you ready? OK, here goes:

Yes, I understand that many don’t really care to read when there are videos and commentaries posted in formats in which the premises and conclusions arrive much more efficiently. However, reading and writing are marital partners, they are communication’s yin and yang. One cannot read well if he or she cannot write well and vice versa (I stole that part from a professor). With that said, cultivating one’s own ability to read, to write, and, by extension, to speak can work wonders for pseudo intelligence. Even if you aren’t an expert on a subject, if you throw in enough four-syllable adjectives, a large enough continent of readers/viewers will deem your intelligence to be adequate for their attention.

I could expand on this, but I won’t. What I want to get at is how perception can trick reality. So Ryan Braun is guilty. He has passively accepted his guilt by receiving the suspension without appeal. Remember his press conference, though? He sure had me fooled. He even alleged, albeit through the backdoor, that Dino Laurenzi tampered with his sample. Full disclosure: I know who he is, and have been enrolled at the same grade/high schools as his son/daughters. It was extremely tough to believe Braun after learning the identity. As a Braun fan, I wanted desperately to believe him, too. But going back to the press conference, it all harkens back to his dense, convincing use of language.

Despite  of the fact that there have been many inaccurate, erroneous, and completely fabricated stories regarding this issue, I have maintained the integrity of the confidentiality of the process…We’re a part of a process where you’re 100 percent guilty until proven innocent, it’s the opposite of the American judicial system and this is not an innocent-until-proven-guilty situation, so if we’re held to that standard, it’s only fair that everybody else is held to that exact same standard.

Read that statement, and then watch the clip. They are equally impressive considering that (often) athletes do not possess the faculty to impress the fans, sports writers, and the general public all while avoiding professional sports’ banal, innocuous lexicon. (“We just put forth a great team effort. These guys are just a great group of guys, and I couldn’t do it alone” –anyone in a team sport) He used enough syllables, spoke with enough conviction that he won back a portion of his fans despite getting off on a technicality.

Politicians work the same way. They are media puppeteers using creative jargon to manipulate the masses for personal benefit. But let’s face it: the evidence strongly indicates that Ryan Braun is a cheater. I guess I don’t care that much. I’m sure he can still be a solid player, and I won’t blacklist him from my shirsey-wearing repertoire. It looks like Braun certainly wasn’t thinking by hooking up with folks at the Biogenesis lab (there’s a pun in that last sentence somewhere I think). I do hope, though, in the aftermath that Mr. Laurenzi gets a sincere apology. I think it will come down to Braun having large enough post-PED balls to do so.

P.S. Training camp opens this week and my mind will be committed elsewhere. This will all blow over, and I’ll be prepping my fantasy league draft. GO PACK GO!

Book Review: The Unwinding by George Packer

Subtitled “An Inner History of the New America,” George Packer provides readers with America’s institutional transformation in the last 40-ish years. He does so not with a chronological timeline, but rather through smaller vignettes, histories of particular individuals who have worked in the industries that have either reformed, evaporated, or prematurely adapted. The main characters to see such a transformation include Tammy Thomas, a native Youngstown, Ohioan and African American who grew up in a city with an economy predicated on manufacturing; Jeff Connaughton, a man who climbed through the ranks to become one of Joe Biden’s top staffers; and Dean Price, a southern entrepreneur whose life’s mantra had been crystalized by Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.

Those are the main characters–they are the repeated story lines that help define our new America. However, Packer also includes two other running threads throughout: Tampa and Silicon Valley. The former is the epicenter of the housing crisis and ground-zero for those affected by the  “Great Recession.” The latter is the history of how housing prices in Silicon Valley went from a modest ~150K to an astounding ~800K. Well, not the prices specifically, but how Silicon Valley became the hub for the information age, the cabal for some of our country’s greatest new thinkers. Silicon Valley’s main character is Peter Theil, the founder of PayPal and now a hedge fund manager (you may have seen him for about 30 seconds in The Social Network where Zuckerberg walks into an office late and poorly dressed at the advice of Sean Parker).

Lastly, Packer includes even smaller vignettes–contemporary prominent figures in American culture: Jay Z, Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Sam Walton, Andrew Breitbart, Colin Powell, Alice Waters, Robert Rubin, and Elizabeth Warren. Having read Andrew Breitbart’s Righteous IndignationI was already privy to much of the source material that Packer provides. His role as a media magnate can’t go unnoticed, and perhaps I thought his role in modern media was still understated. (In Righteous Indignation, the section where Breitbart outlines his panel discussion on Real Time with Bill Maher is positively riveting). My favorite mini-history is probably Speaker Gingrich’s. During the height of Gingrich’s power,  I was much more focused on Tommy Pickles and what the rest of the Rugrats were doing, but I have since followed his political footprint. The chapter was a nice insight as to what the term “career politician” actually means. We throw it around as a pejorative platitude; however, you actually see someone who’s a master at character assassination, someone–as stated in the novel–holds a cache of terms that can be strung together to fire up a base. It became known as the Gingrich lexicon:

He recruited Republican candidates around the country and trained them with his own words and ideas on video tapes and cassettes, like a motivational speaker, understanding the language was key to power. His memos included vocabulary lessons: if you discuss your opponent with words like betray bizarre bosses bureaucratic liberal lie limit(s) obsolete pathetic radical shame sick stagnation…you had [Democrats] on the defensive,

The main story I found most fascinating was Jeff Cannoughton. He started as an idealist, a bonafide “Biden guy.” (He became inspired when he heard Biden speak while he was a college student in Alabama) He first worked on Wall Street, a place where he discovered the inner workings of the financial system all while making himself a nice payout. Eventually the idea of working for Senator Joe Biden began to itch far too much, and he worked for the Senator as a staffer. In my opinion, there can’t enough news about low, mid, or even high-level staffers for seasoned politicians. The idealism that Cannoughton started with started to fade. He noticed that the same joke Biden opened his speech to a youthful Cannoughton hadn’t  changed. Biden was using the same ice-breaking material for decades. During the impending financial crisis, Cannoughton grew increasingly frustrated by the Washington gridlock. He was convinced that money had far too much influence on politics. Oddly enough, Cannoughton left Biden to work on K-street as a lobbyist.

This was the biggest eye opener for me. If you’ve seen House of Cards on Netflix, you may have noticed how quick politicians will throw each other under the bus in order to climb the ladder (cue Littlefinger in Game of Thrones). As a correlary, one will see how political ideologies don’t quite matter once dollars and cents are involved. Cannoughton had maintained the ideals of Democrats for years. Once he got a job working as lobbyist, he used his networking to work alongside Republicans to represent the interests of their clients regardless of ideology. Here are few tidbits that summarize the place that lobbying had/has in Washington:

Wealth added to their power, power swelled their wealth. They connected special interests to party officials using the adhesive of fundraising. They ate breakfast with politicians, lunch with the heads of trade associations, and dinner with other Professional Democrats. Behind their desks were ‘power walls’–photo galleries showing them smiling next to the highest ranking politicians they knew. Their loyalty was to the firm first, then their former boss in politics, then their party, and then–if he was a Democrat–the president.

Or, how about couples in Washington?

Certain couples belonged to the subset of Washington’s permanent class having to do with the financial sector, the Wall Street–Washington axis–Treasury officials, Banking Committee staffers, regulators. Connaughton called it the blob. Members of the financial blob were unusually tight with one another. In the case of one couple, the husband was an ex-lobbyist who worked on a key Senate committee, the wife an ex-Treasury official who went over to the SEC. They networked night and day, playing the long game, and when the two of them decided to cash in for good, they would be worth a lot of money.

To paraphrase, principles don’t exist inside the beltway of the D.C. elites. Political talking points are merely the pieces to the chess board that is our current political landscape. The best man or woman for the job is negligible. Ever wonder why Susan Rice was at first nominated for Secretary of State before John Kerry? Based on my latest read, I’d say she was climbing that ladder by voluntarily taking a few shots (Benghazi) for Obama and in turn was promised the Secretary of State job. As I read Cannoughton’s story, House of Cards became less and less fictional. Rep. Underwood’s relationship with his wife made much more sense. Its basis as a professional relationship became palpably real.

Meanwhile, in the land of actual people known as the continental United States, people are suffering. Tammy Thomas, who managed to raise two children on a factory job by herself, was now struggling for work. The steel mills that peppered the Youngstown area were now being sold and liquidated to other companies. The jobs were leaving, and people were suffering. Dean Price, an entrepreneur whose goal was to take advantage of peak oil (the point at which oil production has hit it’s peak–supply will no longer be able to keep up with demand–and oil prices will soar) and locally manufacture biodiesel was perhaps ahead of his time. Also, people in Tampa, Florida are foreclosing at a record rate. Some of the blame rests in Washington’s Community Reinvestment Act, which ostensibly gave away loans to people unable to pay them. To compound that, banks were packaging these piss-poor loans in what are called “Mortgaged-Backed Securities.” The mortgages were so sliced and diced that it was simply impossible the trace where the original mortgage belonged. Housing prices soared, people flipped homes, families bought these artificially inflated homes, and then the market crashed. Suddenly the only real middle class asset–a home–became worth a fraction of what it was payed for. Your 500K house can now only sell for 200K. All while politicians and lobbyists muck it up to create meaningless legislation. (While working in a high-ranking staff position for then Senator Ted Kaufman, Cannoughton described Biden and Obama as “financial illiterates.”)

It’s difficult the tell, but it seems Packer leans left. The book, though, is not polemic. Instead, it presents exact histories and asks the reader to think about it. I certainly found the lobbying industry in Washington to be an absolute farce. Though I understand the basis for the Citizens United case, I can’t help but think that lobbying has actually disenfranchised free speech. Real entrepreneurs–the ones who create something from nothing–must face the reality of failure all while established rank and file politicians create their own exclusive Facebook where political ideology is more of a brand than a way of life. Those same entrepreneurs must have their interests represented in Washington to increase their chance at success (grants, favorable legislation, etc.). Ayn Rand was also on to something with Wesley Mouch, the sleazy Washington insider.

Though I have ideas for how to solve such a function, I’m sure they’d be far too radical for those of whom only keep a house in their home district to maintain a seat in the capitol. I vote to decentralize Washington. Why, besides the White House, do representatives need to be there for more than a couple weeks a year? We are in the age of information, where FaceTime has revolutionized long-distance relationships. You can’t tell me there isn’t a way to create a hyper-secure encrypted communication line between Senators and Congressmen/women. Detach these people from the beltway. Make them live within their own mistakes or successes. Also, please tell me with a straight face that government isn’t too big. I dare you.

Green Energy: Where Politics and Advertising Meet

 

This morning, Breitbart News posted an article on environmental researcher Ozzie Zehner’s latest findings that posit, from construction to destruction, electric vehicles are more harmful to the environment than standard gas-powered vehicles.

Zehner’s findings suggest looking at the damage to the environment a car does comprehensively–from its beginnings as a manufactured piece of metal to its eventual resting place in a junkyard. When taking all of these factors into account, one must consider the impact of disposing the car batteries and the frequent charging, which draws power from sources that are fueled by, among other things, coal. To that end, buying a Chevy Volt, for example, will be more harmful to the environment than a Hyundai Sonata. The economic benefits of the latter–alongside this newfound suggestion that a Sonata is also more environmentally friendly–offer very little real purpose for the electric car outside, of course, the stigma that comes with being “green.”

Zehner furthers this point by looking at what Justin Beiber’s manager, Scooter Braun, said to him when Bieber was given a car on his 18th birthday: “We wanted to make sure, since you love cars, that when you are on the road you are always looking environmentally friendly, and we decided to get you a car that would make you stand out a little bit.”

Certainly  the narrative trumps the facts. Consumers who drive hybrids, notably the Prius, are the same as the ones who drive jacked-up trucks in the city. It’s a statement.

In reviewing Zehner’s blog and a Huffington Post book review, it appears that Zehner himself isn’t against the use of alternative energy. He is more concerned with the market forces that are imposed on the energy market via government intervention:

“It’s what I call a boomerang effect. When we subsidize wind power or any other energy technology, this exerts a downward pressure on energy prices, and demand subsequently strengthens. We return to where we started — with high demand and so-called insufficient supply. Taller or more efficient wind turbines are just another way of throwing [the boomerang] harder.”

When government subsidizes energy, particularly green energy, it’s hiding the true cost of energy. Demand strengthens because price has been artificially lowered. It’s not truly changing consumer habits, but it is changing how much taxpayer money is pumped into the system.

In fact, Zehrner’s bottom-line thesis is a cultural one. He suggests the rate at which we procreate “happens to be a rate that is appropriate for the aggregate ecological endowment for our planet.” Fewer consumers on the planet simply correlates to less consuming.

My bottom line thesis is a little different: Green energy has become a message and an advertisement. It’s the chicken and egg theory. I don’t quite remember if it was first a phenomenal advertising speil to get consumers feeling good about how they consume energy or an idea propagated by media types (a la Gore). Either way, I’m a little scared that green energy is simply an advertisement co-opted by a media as an irrefutable factual platform.

Think about it this way: consumers buy Ray-Ban sunglasses because of the identity, status, and “coolness” associated with them. They obviously don’t buy them for price tag. And their performance as an ocular light shield isn’t substantially better than what one would find at Gander Mountain.  They are buying the name “Ray-Ban” and the stigma associated with them, and that is great. Now, let’s substitute some key terms and see how it translates.

Consumers buy a Toyota Prius because of the “greenness” associated with it. They obviously don’t buy it for the price tag. And its performance as a green machine isn’t substantially better than what one would find on a cheaper gas-powered car. They are buying the name “Prius” and the stigma associated with it, and that is…scary. We’ve reached the intersection between dogma and stigma. I can only imagine how happy Don Draper would be to have the cooperation of political pundits and government officials to push products that he represents.