Sunday, August 21, 2016

The greatest mystery franchise of our time

Tonight is the end of the chapter for Inspector Lewis. It has been terrific to spend some time with Lewis and Hathaway this summer, especially since their original intention was to end the series in 2014 (at least in the US). The Morse franchise has extended since 1987 and Kevin Whatley has spanned two of the entries. He will be missed but the time has probably come. Like Ian Rankin’s Rebus, the real-world does call for retirement at some point. And tonight Inspector Lewis will leave the Thames Valley PD. Having read every world written by Colin Dexter, I have had these characters as old friends for over 30 years.

What makes this franchise so special is the loving kindness shown by the author, producers, actors and fans to each other. When John Thaw was nearing his end from cancer, Colin Dexter wrote the death of Inspector Morse because he could not see his character live past that of his human incarnation. In fact Dexter has prevented the original Morse from ever being revived now that Thaw has passed. The books were clever and Dexter created a character right from the tradition of Hammett and Chandler. But Morse was not just a hard drinking detective, he was an intellectual frequently doing crosswords and listening to Opera. Morse had the difficult life of one who say through the clutter to cut to the heart of the dirty secrets kept by those who did wrong, frequently murder. It was left to Robbie Lewis to maintain the family and live in the “regular world”.

The connection is shown in smaller ways that fans can appreciate. In the third installment of the series, the prequel Endeavour, Thaw’s daughter Abigail plays a newspaper editor that maintains an easy friendship with the young Morse. In Shaun Evans’ Endeavour one sees the heart of Morse; alone, misunderstood, brainy, artistic and committed to the work of clearing mysteries. It is possible that the franchise can move forward based on Hathaway played by Laurence Fox. Dexter himself at age 85 is still consulting on Endeavour and why not more? If it could continue with the same kind of respect for the origins … no easy stories with all the complexity and subtlety of great mysteries. That would make for more great Sunday nights.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Oh my word pundits are fools

One of the themes that is emerging in the last half of the delegate selection process on the Democratic side is the open versus closed state issue. The statement goes something like this ... "Bernie Sanders has done well with independents in open primaries but in New York there is a closed primary where only Democrats can vote and that will help Hillary Clinton". Except the premise is totally wrong because voters are a bit smarter than pundits give them credit for ...

New York State Dem Enrollment ... 5.2 Million
New York State Repub Enrollment ... 2.7 Million
New York State Indepen Enrollment ... 475 Thousand


Massachusetts Dem Enrollment ... 1.5 Million
Massachusetts Repub Enrollment ... 468 Thousand
Massachusetts Indepen Enrollment ... 2.27 Million (technically called Unenrolled in either)

See the difference? In New York where Independents can't vote in primaries almost nobody enrolls as an Independent. In Massachusetts where you can vote in either primary tons of folks register that way even if they have a leaning or commitment to one party or another.

Institutional structures matter. Apparently not to pundits however.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Why Pundits are always wrong

As I write the voters of New Hampshire are voting in the first real primary of the season (though the Republican system in Iowa is pretty close) and the pundits are hard at work predicting meaning at an uncertain outcome. On the Republican side the race has been fairly well conceded to Donald Trump even though he does not have the sort of on the ground organization that is usually associated with victory in New Hampshire. The issue that the pundits want to speculate on is who comes in second, third, fourth, whatever. And then attach significance to the order of finish even though in a country with a general election electorate of 130 Million voters the difference between second and fourth is minuscule.

On the Democratic side the issue has been conceded to Bernie Sanders and the pundits are trying to set a standard that he must win by double digits to "meet" expectations. This of course is absurd as this is the first real vote where they are getting counted (as opposed to the fiasco in Iowa where by definition nobody knows who actually corralled the most people at the polls) so in a two way race it is usually fairly clear who gets the most votes and the most delegates. In this case a win should be  win.

But what is the importance of the win? Small. As the nominating process is long and complicated and has barely begun. Primaries and Caucuses will stretch into the late Spring even though a huge chunk of delegates is selected by mid March. What will winnow the Republican field? When the money dries up for the respective candidates. Those that have a well funded superpac can go a distance into the schedule. Typically it is when the donor money disappears that candidates "suspend" their campaigns and try to balance their books. If the suppress is funded, well then they can keep going.

What should pundits look for in the returns beyond who is winning and losing? The total vote in the respective primaries. Compare the D's to 2008 (288K) when the total vote climbed significantly over 2004 (220K). For the R's against 2008 and 2012. In 2008 the R turnout was 239K. In 2012 it was 248K. So in neither 2008 or 2012 did the Republican vote total reach that of the Democratic total in 2008. Significantly, President Obama carried the state both times. Which party has more excitement this time? There are 882K total voters so well over 50% participate and the Secretary of State is predicting 231 K for the Dems and 262K for the Reps. Let's hope he is wrong.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

How the Iowa Caucus is like Major League Baseball

Institutional arrangements matter and in turn they help us predict and understand outcomes of policy and elections. In the case of the upcoming Iowa caucus those rules vary between the parties and one must wonder if those important differences are too complex for the accompanying media narrative. So like Major League Baseball the two parties/leagues have different rules (thinking designated hitter here).

In Iowa on the democratic side the caucus is a caucus. Participants gather and listen to people give brief talks on behalf of the various candidates and then huddle in corners for their respective candidates. The goal is to elect delegates to a county caucus as the first step in the process of selecting national convention delegates, a process that won't be completed for several months. All indications are that the number of people attending the caucus will be pretty evenly split between Sanders and Clinton with almost nobody caucusing for former Governor O'Malley. This is critical as to have a viable group to elect a delegate(s) to the county convention you must have at least 15% of the attendees of your precinct in your group. As O'Malley is polling at less than 5% he will have very few precincts where his supporters make a group above the threshold. In a close race it could be determinant as to where his supporters go ... Of course there is the option of going home or being in a larger uncommitted group. But there are always rumors of deals among the campaigns ... Say like if you support Sanders to help him win the precinct his supporters will elect your folks to the county convention.

The fascinating question is always which set of numbers will the press use to create the narrative? Is it caucus goers when they huddle or the results of delegate elections? Here are figures from The New York Times in 2008 where the results were results as state convention equivalents. This style of reporting basically eliminates less popular candidates. (The candidates not Obama, Edwards or Clinton split 3.1%.)

On the Republican side the caucus has an additional step. When caucus goers arrive they participate in a straw poll which allows them to indicate their first choice preference.In the same Times link they were indicated for the Republicans. Note for example, eventual nominee John McCain came in fourth with 13.1%. If the results were reported based on state delegate equivalents elected (like in the Democratic race) then McCain would have faired worse as he might have not been viable in half the locations. Would that weak of a showing enabled McCain to win the New Hampshire primary shortly thereafter?

These rules have an impact on tactics, spin and reporting. In the end one must remember that the Iowa event is not an election it is by design a gathering of the hard core party faithful, a party possibly crashed by newly enthusiastic "outsiders". The final Des Moines Register poll is out and the trend continues as described above. Trump leading Cruz for the R's and Clinton with a slight lead over Sanders for the D's. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

GE is coming to Boston and it is a very bad deal

It was announced today that General Electric picked Boston as the site for a new corporate headquarters fleeing its long time base in Fairfield County, CT. While the final site has not been picked it looks like there are two contenders in the Seaport District of Boston. So the irony is that they probably picked the only other spot in New England where property values are as high as Fairfield County. So it is not surprising that along with the announcement came word that the City of Boston and Commonwealth of Massachusetts are promising tax incentives of up to $150 Million dollars over some period of time (probably 20 years) to sweeten the pot.

graphic from Citizens for Tax Justice

Keep in mind that this is the same GE, one of the largest firms by market value in the US, which had over $90 Billion in cash at the end of 2014. And now they must get millions of dollars per year to relocate to one of the hottest commercial and residential neighborhoods in North America. There is no way that these incentives will ever be worth the money payed out to this firm. While Boston is chronically underfunding its schools and Massachusetts is looking at a billion dollar hole for next year's budget it might make more sense for GE to be giving money to the government. The only hope is that since GE doesn't really deign to pay state taxes anyway so that the incentives which are based on state income taxes won't ever be used. That leaves Boston holding the bag for the property taxes forgiven as part of the horrendous TIF.

As I will have a longer piece coming soon to this point I won't belabor it here but these incentives are most effective at making politicians look good in the face of weak coordination of job and workforce development efforts. Smiling and holding a big pair of scissors is good for big votes. It is not good for public finances or public policy.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Year in Film ... All Roads Cross in Ex-Machina

I suppose it should be no surprise that given previous posts about film ... that two of the three actors that made the year 2015 would be Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac. The third would be the Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson. Given that he is the son of the great Brendan Gleeson, it might not come as a huge upset that he is an accomplished actor but given this list of films in the past year ...

Star Wars
The Revenant
Ex Machina

he has a resume in one year that most actors would be thrilled to have in a career. Typically cast as a sweet if somewhat goofy young man (see About Time) he was unrecognizable as the stern young General Hux in Star Wars. It bodes well for his future success.

The three wonderful young actors were cast together in what might prove to be the film of the year, Ex Machina. They have the three speaking roles (basically) in the story of a young man asked to spend a week evaluating the artificially intelligent life form (Vikander) at the behest of a dark tech mogul (Isaac) in a remote complex shut off from the world. (Nod to Sonaya Mizuno whose unspeaking character plays a major role as well.)

Isaac brought us through Show Me a Hero and for the third year in a row has a film that closes the year and is considered a must see triumph:

Star Wars (2015)
A Most Violent Year (2014)
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

How many hearts swooned (among them several friends on Facebook apparently) at his portrayal of Poe in Star Wars? Any of us interested in politics, social justice and the challenges of urban America marveled at his work as the Mayor of Yonkers.

But 2015 was the year of Vikander. Something I tweeted about in the spring after watching her play Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Her year has been recognized in the press. Vogue and Vanity Fair among them. In US theaters this year ...

Testament of Youth
Man from UNCLE
Ex Machina
The Danish Girl

... plus smaller roles in lesser films. She has been nominated for two Golden Globes (Danish Girl and Ex Machina) which is remarkable because Testament (which was released in the UK in 2014) was a revelation. Somewhat ironically, there is an upcoming documentary about Ingrid Bergman which should bring forward some comparisons. I believe that we will see an amazing career unfold (perhaps the strongest by a woman since Streep?). Vikander brings an energy and character that belies her slight frame and easy beauty. Both Danish Girl and Testament open with long shots of her face. Smart, pained and lovely ... an elegance she can not shake. A future that is promising and broad and deep.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What the FED also did this week

Anyone staying on top of the news knows that the Federal Reserve finally gave the orders to raise interest rates above the zero level, an action long predicted by Fed watchers, bankers and economists. The headlines were about the increase in the target range for the Federal Funds Rate (the rate that banks charge one another for very short term lending) from 0 -.25 to .25 to .5 . While taking this action the Fed expressed optimism about the near term fortunes of the US economy and signaled a slow rise of rates at a pace of about a percent per year. But there were two other announcements in the technical note that should garner some attention.

Other observers, such as Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post and Dean Baker of the CEPR have commented on the political and economic downside of the steps toward higher rates given the changes in US political economy that make one doubt that wage based inflation was anywhere ahead. Typically the Fed will bring the rates up based on concerns about price levels once the economy approaches full employment. The concern with the headline action is that we do not have that strong of a labor market and price inflation is historically low. For example, there is weak demand for commodities across the board keeping prices in check. Wages have seen tepid increases at best.

But hidden in the Fed's message (because the press never writes about this) is another action taken by the Fed to raise a key interest rate ... the interest paid on required and excess reserves. Banks are required to keep money on deposit to the Fed equal to about 10% of their deposits. That is money they are not allowed to lend or invest in another manner. It has to be there to take care of customer demand for their money. If banks get caught short they can temporarily borrow to get back in balance. But starting during the economic crises banks started to accumulate gigantic amounts of excess reserves and a change in law allowed the Fed to start paying interest on those reserves.

Today the amount of excess reserves stands at about $2.4 Trillion (yes with a T). This is a result of the Fed buying securities from the banks as part of its extraordinary measures to fight the crisis. Some of that are capital inflows into the US from foreign depositors as a result of the Euro crisis and instability in global equities and bonds (even negative rates some places). People like parking money in the US even though the return has been low. It is safe.

Since the Fed pays interest on these monies it is also a profit making center for the commercial banks that own these excess reserves. This week the Fed increased that rate to keep pace with the Fed Funds rate. At current levels this means an additional $5 to $6 billion per year in revenues to the banks. Money that might otherwise be returned to the taxpayers. Outside of being friendly to bankers (which sadly the Fed does too often) the technical reason is so that the mountain of reserves doesn't flow speedily into the real economy and spark inflation by a build up of money. The obvious question becomes is this going to continue as further interest rate increases occur? Is this their plan to wind down the positions in cash taken by the banks?

It is ironic that as they take actions to weaken worker wages and employment they take more actions to help banks.