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Thursday, July 31, 2003

Neal Pollack on Gay Marriage

Tired of all those serious, intellectual articles and blog entries on gay marriage popping up everywhere? Then check out Neal Pollack for a change of pace.

Trading Deadline

Well, the Red Sox are really going for it all. They now have too many pitchers (memo to Ramiro Mendoza: you might want to pack up your things now to save time), but I'm pleased all the same that the front office has the guts to try everything they can. Suppan should help solidify the rotation.

There are no links to articles up just yet, but it looks like the Red Sox get Jeff Suppan from the Pirates for Freddy Sanchez and another minor leaguer. In a bizarre twist, they also get back Brandon Lyon and the minor leaguer they had traded to Pittsburgh just last week. There may be cash or another player to be named involved in this too. ESPN has it covered.

Boston has done far better than the Yankees with the trading this month. New York picked up Aaron Boone today from Cincinatti, which means Robin Ventura, whose had an off year, is no longer the starter. They get some pop from Boone, but people were saying they were looking for a right fielder after getting rid of Mondesi the other day, and that didn't happen. Even though I think they'll be fine with Karim Garcia and Ruben Sierra, it's nice to think they might not be getting everything they want this year. The Red Sox have been outmaneuvering them, it seems. The Yankees got another reliever from the Reds too.

Lions Update

The Detroit Lions are angry over being fined by the NFL for not interviewing any black coaching candidates, and I back them. Still, I can't find much in the national sports press criticizing the NFL's decision.

Fox Sports, which has TV rights to the NFC, has a roundtable audio discussion on the Lions' page at foxsports.com. SI.com takes a similarly conciliatory approach, with B. Duane Cross suggesting black candidates should always take the opportunity to interview, a suggestion unlikely to ruffle any feathers. MSNBC probably goes the furthest in criticizing the NFL, though Dave Goldberg remains thoughtful and even-handed. CBS makes no mention of the fine on their Lions' page (they also need to keep in the good graces of the league for TV's sake). And no mention on Detroit's NFL.com page either.

Poll Again

MSNBC's take on the same poll written up in today's WSJ is somewhat more pessimistic. Compare their headline, "Doubts rise on credibility of evidence for Iraq war", with the Journal's, "Bush Retains Strong Support, Poll Finds." I guess it's a matter of emphasis.

Installation Street Scene

Joanna Weiss has an article in the Globe today similar to the post I put up late last night about the people outside the cathedral yesterday. I guess the "Welcome" people were from East Boston after all.

GDP growth 2.4%

The new GDP number just came out, and it's good news, beating the last few quarters as well as expectations. Weekly jobless claims also dropped by 3,000 last week, another reason for optimism. Stocks should climb on this news, but we still will have to see what the unemployment number says tomorrow morning.

Jubak on the economy's mixed signals

Jim Jubak's latest CNBC column does a good job explaining some of the contrary-seeming evidence we're seeing regarding the recovery that may be on the way (see post on Samuelson below for more on this issue). In particular, Jubak explains why consumer confidence is falling as Wall Street analysts' expectations are rising:

"So why such different reads on the future from consumers on Main Street and analysts on Wall Street?

"The conventional explanation is that consumers are pessimistic because their emotions are so heavily influenced by the continued high level of unemployment. If you’re worried about keeping your job, and many people are these days, then you’re likely to be pessimistic about the future.

"Wall Street tends to dismiss the jobs worry. Unemployment is a lagging indicator. The number of unemployed actually keeps rising for a while even as the economy recovers because an improving economy draws workers who had given up looking for a job back into the hunt. Since companies are reluctant to hire new workers until they’re convinced a real recovery is under way, the number of people employed doesn’t rise during the early stages of a recovery either."

However, he doesn't have much of a resolution to the puzzling question of whether a recovery is coming for the second half of the year or not:

"A third of the way through the third quarter, the recovery remains hard to identify. So investors looking for guidance on the market have their choice of consumers, who may be too backward-looking, and analysts, who may be too forward-looking. One side or the other will be wrong. Investors just don’t know which yet."

I believe that it's impossible to answer the recovery question given the available evidence and economic knowledge. As always, investments should be made for the long term, not as bets on what will happen just over the next few months.

WSJ Bush Poll Numbers

Thursday's Wall Street Journal has results of a new WSJ/NBC News poll, which is good news for the administration:

"The survey showed that a solid 66% of Americans approve of Mr. Bush's handling of the war on terrorism, though approval of his foreign policy is a less robust 55%. Some 37% say that postwar events have diminished their trust in Mr. Bush 'somewhat' or 'a great deal,' but an identical proportion say their trust in the president has increased. And by a margin of 56% to 30%, Americans say Democrats are 'mostly playing politics' about the administration's rationale for war rather than offering 'legitimate criticism.'

"Even more striking is the fact that continuing casualties -- at least 110 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq since Mr. Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1 -- haven't eroded public support for the military's continued role in Iraq. Roughly seven in 10 Americans say the U.S. should have taken action to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and nearly six in 10 say U.S. troops should remain in Iraq as long as necessary, even if the reconstruction process takes five years.

"The survey suggested that public attitudes have been buoyed by the recent killings of Saddam Hussein's two sons. Sixty percent of Americans say that development will make it easier to establish a stable, democratic government in Iraq, though a majority continues to believe that capturing or killing Mr. Hussein himself is necessary to conclude the war successfully...

"Beyond steady public support for the war, the White House is benefiting from a modest increase in public assessments of economic conditions. Some 45% of Americans say the economy will improve over the next year, nearly triple the number who expect it to get worse. That is a significantly more optimistic assessment than Americans expressed in January. Confidence in the stock market continues rising in tandem with share prices on Wall Street, and Americans embrace the White House-backed push in Congress to add prescription-drug benefits to Medicare.

"Growing deficits still pose a potential economic threat, and Mr. Bush acknowledged that his tax cuts caused about 25% of this year's expected deficit of more than $450 billion. But the survey showed that, by a 60%-to-35% margin, the public considers stimulating the economy a higher priority that controlling the deficit.

"The survey isn't uniformly gloomy for Democrats. Though Mr. Bush's 56% approval rating exceeds Mr. Clinton's 47% showing from July 1995, it's below the 67% mark President George H.W. Bush received in July 1991 in advance of his losing 1992 campaign. By a 45%-to-36% plurality, Americans say they are likely to back Mr. Bush in 2004 over the Democratic candidates, a significantly narrower margin that his more than 20 percentage point edge in April after the war had begun. In prospective matchups with former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Mr. Bush leads by 15 percentage points or more.

"With the electorate still polarized along partisan lines, the poll shows that Democrats enter the 2004 campaign with advantages on such significant issues as handling the economy, education and health care. Even on tax policy, three tax cuts have left Mr. Bush only breaking even with his Democratic adversaries.

"Yet those Democratic advantages are smaller than the huge gap in Republicans' favor on the security issues that have moved to the forefront of American politics since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. By margins of more than 2 to 1, Americans prefer Mr. Bush and his party on both the war on terrorism and homeland security. The latter finding is especially unwelcome news for Democrats since party leaders in Congress as well as the 2004 presidential field have repeatedly accused Mr. Bush of shortchanging homeland security while promoting his drive for regime change in Iraq."

This all says to me that, despite the energy of some Democrats in attacking the president over Iraq and the economy, Bush is winning the public opinion battle (I know this may be difficult to keep in mind if you read too many blogs). Here's the 7-page PDF with full poll results, though you may need an online WSJ subscription to get at it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The Installation

During my "lunch" break at work today, I walked a few blocks toward the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where the installation mass for Boston's new archbishop, Sean O'Malley, was in progress (as expected, Boston.com has exhaustive coverage).

I saw a group of people playing some instruments, dancing and chanting something unintelligible at the intersection of Washington Street with Union Park Street. They had a big banner that said "Welcome" to O' Malley, and I had a strange feeling they were not from Boston. At the other Washington Street Corner of the cathedral were the protesters, most of whom were not around at 12:45 or so, when I passed through. They must have been getting lunch before returning to their posts to bother the people coming out after mass. They had left some of their angry signs on the ground there. In between the two groups were all of the TV trucks (some of which were also on side streets) and a platform with all of the TV stations' remote locations set up. Most of the TV people were also milling around since they would not be on the air for another half hour or so. I was taken aback by the sight of such a media gathering in front of such establishments as Foodies Urban Market and Harry O's.

A strange thing I noticed is that along Union Park Street and Washington, the police presence was very heavy and barricades blocked traffic. But on the other side of the cathedral, I was able to walk right up some steps to look into a side door at the mass in progress, and no one bothered me. I was one of very few people who was just there looking around and didn't have a TV report to do or any strong feelings toward the church. I guess most people don't venture down into the South End all that much. I know I didn't before I started my job.

A final note on the protesters: I have mixed feelings about them. I think they have done a real service by holding the archidiocese's feet to the fire on the abuse issue, and without them we would not have seen such progress. I get the sense that some of them will never be satisfied with the church's response though, which was evident in signs I saw that suggested all bishops are corrupt, O'Malley is a bad guy, etc. If Jesus himself were there today, I think some of the protesters would've jeered him. And the press is playing up their presence too much, I feel. Pictures like this make it look like they were a big angry mob, but if the photographer were to step back, you could see they really weren't that big or imposing of a crowd. I guess reporters like to make things exciting when it comes to protests.

O'Malley is getting raves for his thoughtful remarks today during the ceremonies, and they are deserved. My prediction is that he'll do well in fixing the abuse situation but run into some trouble down the road when people start paying attention to how conservative he really is in other areas.

The Ninth Hundred Days

Check out the New Yorker quiz for a few laughs.

Samuelson on Recovery?

Robert Samuelson has a good WP column today in which he does what many pundits and pseudo-economists have been reluctant to do lately--admit he is unclear about whether the economy is headed for recovery or not. His cataloguing of the contradictory indicators is useful, except for a minor gaffe, his claim that, "confidence indicators have increased"--obviously this was written before the decline in consumer confidence was reported yesterday.

Still, it's good to compare Samuelson's candor with the puzzling self-assurance of one of my favorite op-ed writers of all, Paul Krugman, who wrote on Friday that, "There is very little evidence in the data for a strong recovery ready to break out." On Friday, the Dow was up 170 points on strong new home starts data and a rise in durable goods orders. The truth is that there is some evidence of recovery mixed with other signs of weakness, as Samuelson notes.

By the way, this must be a big day over at WaPo. Yesterday their editorial page asked Bush to hold a press conference, and this morning W did just that. Who knew the Post had such influence?

WSJ Trade News

There's an interesting disconnect between the front page and editorial page of the Journal today on trade policy. A front-page article notes the growing concern with China by manufacturing industries and efforts by the political parties to capitalize on the issue. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) laughably claims in the final paragraph, "None of this is protectionist." This piece runs counter to the editorial, "A Free Trade Majority", on last week's congressional passage of trade pacts with Chile and Singapore:

"The 270-156 (Chile) and 272-155 (Singapore) victories are especially notable following last year's 215-212 passage of trade negotiating authority for President Bush. The margins demonstrate that political support increases for specific trade pacts that have tangible economic and foreign-policy benefits. It also shows, contrary to fears heard abroad, that the U.S. is not moving in a protectionist direction."

The truth should favor something between extreme optimism and pessimism. More advanced economies like Chile and Singapore are much easier cases than China; when it comes to trade policy, not all trade partners are equal, not by a long shot.

Blame Game

Today the Globe article "Travaglini Had Hand in Senate's Shortfall" states matter-of-factly in the first paragraph that Trav is "blaming his predecessor for the shortfall." Where is the statement from Trav that he is doing this? There was none in yesterday's article, and there's none today, other than insinuations that that's what he was doing in closed-door meetings with fellow senators yesterday. The focus of today's piece is on some questionable spending linked to Senator Travaglini, which may help explain why he's not taking on Birmingham publicly (for fear of facing such criticism himself), so why does the Globe persist in suggesting that he is? Do they want to build up more tension among state pols than truly exists?

Boston Politics Stuff

Two unrelated items worth posting on:

First, the Globe today seems to be trying to create some tension between the current State Senate President Robert Travaglini and former President Tom Birmingham. "Senate President Facing Predecessor's Fiscal Gap", reads the headline, as if Birmingham is solely responsible for the budget being tight these days. It also misleads somewhat by implying Trav and staff are pissed at Birmingham, which is not supported by the text of the article--no one in Trav's office is on record pointing the finger at Birmingham for the money being short. The Globe seems really to want to concoct the impression that Birmingham was spending freely to help his chances in the governor's race, and the irony is that if Birmingham were governor today, rather than Mitt Romney, we would not be seeing such draconian budget cuts of basic services to the vulnerable in society.

Second, the Boston convention news has been heavy the last few days now that we're less than a year away. Seeing Bill Richardson appointed to a chair position for the convention makes me wonder whether that is in some way an admission that he isn't a contender for vice president. Would it be logistically possible for Richardson to do the work as chairman and also be the VP nominee? He has always impressed me as an up-and-coming Democrat, and I know he had serious consideration in 2000 before nuclear secrets were stolen from Los Alamos under his watch as Energy secretary. But does that episode forever bar him from the national ticket? I saw Richardson on This Week a few months ago and remember thinking he was a winner for the Democrats. I hope his national career may as yet be resurrected. (Of course, perhaps he has already ruled this out, pledged to serve four years in New Mexico [does NM have a four-year term?], etc.).

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Crying Wolf?

In the wake of their big trade for Latrell Sprewell, many people are now saying the Minnesota Timberwolves are headed, finally, for the NBA Playoffs in 2004. I think this speculation is premature given both the strength in the West and the questionable improvement Minnesota has actually achieved here.

Marc Stein wrote this:

"Minnesota has a lineup that has never looked more worthy of the second round of the playoffs... [making] the loudest statement yet to Kevin Garnett that the Wolves are serious about surrounding next summer's marquee free agent with quality talent.

"Instead of saving [Terrell] Brandon's cap-friendly contract for themselves, after previously acquiring Sam Cassell in a trade with Milwaukee and signing Michael Olowokandi, the Wolves have tried to increase their odds of re-signing Garnett by taking on even more salary. As a result, Minnesota suddenly has a variety of scoring options -- don't forget Wally Szczerbiak and Troy Hudson -- to give Garnett the most help he has ever had.

"Of course, it might require KG's unselfish best to make it work, unless another trade follows to, say, move Szczerbiak for more of a role player. All five of Garnett's aforementioned teammates need shots and touches to be effective. Garnett and coach Flip Saunders will be stretched trying to make it all mesh."

And Peter May writes in today's Globe:

"[F]or the first time in franchise history, there is genuine hope and even some modest expectations in Minnesota for the Timberwolves. [GM Kevin] McHale, knowing he had to do something to convince franchise forward Kevin Garnett to stick around after this season, added the aforementioned trio, making the Timberwolves, on paper anyway, a much-improved team. The unknown at this point: Will they be good enough to even get to the second round, or further?"

The deal for Sprewell is certainly bold, but sometimes we can be so blinded by the boldness of personnel moves that we don't fully evaluate how good they are in light of the team's existing roster and needs. Sprewell is definitely a better player than Anthony Peeler, but not necessarily a better fit for the T-Wolves. I thought the Blazers had discredited the front office approach of trying to draft a fantasy team, but that seems to have been the budget-busting approach adopted by the Western powers in this offseason, spurred on by the Lakers acquisitions of Payton and Malone.

Everyone will want the ball in Minnesota. If there's a big last-second shot to be taken, it has to be Garnett's, but will Sam Cassell and Sprewell be OK with this? Cassell is no real upgrade at the point, especially after Troy Hudson's coming out party in this year's playoffs, and now Hudson has been demoted to a backup--how must he feel? And remember, the Spurs (who've made strong moves in recent years) signed Rasho Nesterovic away from Minnesota rather than Michael Olowokandi, an underachiever with the Clippers who has potential to be a top center but no more than that.

Guys like Joe Smith and Peeler gave the Wolves good chemistry last year, I felt. The team may have maxed out the potential of the roster and felt the need to shake things up, but why not wait for Peeler's and Terrell Brandon's contracts to come off the books and have more money to play with later, rather than commit to big money on the Sprewell contract now? May covers the dollar details:

"The Wolves are going for it, lock, stock, and luxury tax. Remember, it was Wolves owner Glen Taylor who delivered the ridiculous contract to Garnett (who'll make a staggering $28 million this season) and, in so doing, basically brought about the 1998-99 lockout. Now, Taylor has a payroll approaching $70 million, which means he will be a big-time luxury tax payer next season.

"McHale said money was never an issue in reloading. The Wolves got Sprewell because they were willing to jettison Terrell Brandon, whose $12-plus million salary comes off the books in February. They gave Olowokandi the full, midlevel exception, which is $4.9 million. They traded Anthony Peeler to get Cassell, and Peeler's salary for 2003-04 is not guaranteed. In other words, Minnesota dealt two players who represent around $15 million in potential savings. And McHale still wants to add another player with the so-called $1 million exception, now starting at $1.5 million."

I think the Wolves have put themselves in a bind here so that they won't be able to make major moves this time next year. And if this roster fails to get a first-round win, Garnett may well leave town next summer. Wouldn't it be nice to have the flexibility financially to do the Garnett deal next year and make some more sound moves, rather than desperately bringing in Sprewell and his bloated contract this year?

I could be totally wrong here. I just think this is a big gamble by the franchise that is not worth taking.

Anti-Catholicism and the Church Abuse Scandal

I just posted a comment over at the blog of Matthew Yglesias regarding the charges of "anti-Catholicism" we've been hearing surrounding the Bill Pryor judicial nomination unpleasantness. I cited this article in today's Boston Globe by Christopher Shea on the Penn State prof Philip Jenkins, who wrote a book on the topic of bias against Catholic belief. With the scathing report put out by Tom Reilly last week and the installation of a new archbishop for Boston coming up this week, I couldn't avoid writing on the church forever. This blog is named after a priest, after all.

I won't bash Catholicism (at least not more than I did in the comment), easy as that would be as someone raised Catholic who doesn't go to church or believe church doctrine. A lot of people seem to want to slam the church these days, and a lot of that is warranted, given the way church leaders covered up so much sexual abuse of kids. When does it become overly opportunistic, though? Attacking the church, we must recall, helps to advance the agendas of a lot of people, as Jenkins notes in an apt comparison of the "constructed" predator priest to the "constructed" violent crime epidemic conservatives rode to power in the 1980s.

I'm always in favor of winning an argument on the merits, rather than by cultivating fear, and the case that the sexual abuse in the church signals the need to overturn such policies as priestly celibacy and opposition to contraception and homosexuality does not exist. Those things should be argued against in their own right, not by associating them with the scary priest who molested some children.

Some of the criticism-fest is convenient too, sparing other public institutions from blame. Governor Mitt Romney, in the wake of Reilly's report this week, made public comments that there must be some way to hold Boston church leaders criminally accountable for their actions. However, "Finding No. 2" from the AG's report was that, "The Investigation Did Not Produce Evidence Sufficient to Charge the Archdiocese or Senior Managers with Crimes Under Applicable State Law." Reilly repeated that claim on the O'Reilly Factor (confusing I know--Reilly interviewed by O'Reilly) Thursday night (I wish I could find the transcript; O'Reilly at one point said something like "Jesus himself said in the Bible, if you mess with kids, watch out.").

The truth is that there was a loophole in the law that exempted clergy from the child abuse reporting rules. This was a huge failing on the part of the Massachusetts state government to leave this loophole open for decades while hundreds of children were abused. Everyone wants to lay all of the blame at the church's door, when in fact better oversight could have prevented a lot of suffering. This Slate Explainer article has details on "Why Isn't Boston's Cardinal Law in Jail?"

That said, the Catholic church has a major problem in terms of how it is perceived. I think a lot of people have gleefully bashed the church because they have a lot of pent-up negative feelings toward it. The subtitle to the Globe article is "Philip Jenkins argues that anti-Catholic bigotry is on the rise--even among Catholics." If Catholics themselves are anti-Catholic, then it's not just a case of outsiders hating Catholics, but a more fundamental problem with the religion itself.

The opening of Shea's article is illuminating:

"Georgetown University's commencement ceremonies were a squirmy, uncomfortable affair this spring, and for once the sweltering D.C. weather had nothing to do with it. Picture the single mom, the gay uncle, the cohabitating field hockey player, sated from a celebratory Saturday breakfast, settling into the folding chairs on the quad to hear some heartening words from the honored speaker of the day. He was Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, and his theme was supposed to be Muslim-Christian relations. Instead, the cardinal delivered a ferocious harangue on American sexual mores that singed his audience's ears.

"'In many parts of the world, the family is under siege,' Arinze railed, leaving little doubt about which part he meant. '... It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions, and cut in two by divorce.' A female theology professor got up and stalked off the stage. Previously unabashed fornicators in the crowd eyed one another uneasily."

And this speaker, with a message that is so remarkably out of step with modern American mores, could be the next pope: Jenkins says, "Americans may look back with nostalgia to the good old days of Pope John Paul II." The spat over the gay Anglican bishop in New Hampshire is also indicative of the divide that is growing between many Americans and their churches. Many people, especially in more liberal areas like Boston, have reached an accomodation by going to church without actually living according to the pope's commands, but any disruption of this delicate arrangement can lead to conflict.

This state of affairs, I believe, is the larger challenge that faces Sean O'Malley and the next generation of church leaders, beyond simply the settlement with abuse victims. Even though O'Malley has received adulatory press so far, that can quickly change, and the Globe ran a mildly hostile article just yesterday regarding an incident when he was in Fall River. I hope O'Malley enjoys the party on Wednesday because he has a tough job ahead of him.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

The Identity of Kobe's Accuser

No, I'm not revealing it, I'm just writing about whether it should be made public in the press, a hot topic of discussion the past few days. And I know, I'm far overdue for another Kobe post.

Howard Kurtz offers a good round-up of the discussion on the topic in his Media Notes column from yesterday. Kurtz himself seems to think the identity should not be publicized, harkening back to the "sorry" example of the outing of William Kennedy Smith's accuser in 1991. He presents the main argument, that withholding the name of the alleged victim encourages more victims to come forward, while also citing others who think naming Kobe and not his accuser is unfair.

This is a tough one because both claims seem to have some validity at first. We want to live in a society in which victims of crime feel comfortable enough to come forward, and we also want the legal matter to proceed in such a way as not to favor one side over the other.

But it seems that a lot of this kind of debate takes place in a vacuum, ignoring the extensive, boundary-testing (or -crossing, some might say) media coverage that already exists. The accuser's name is out there, posted on numerous web sites (which I won't link to) along with plenty of other personal info. If you want to know the identity of Kobe's accuser, you can. And the mainstream press has told us tons of details in the last week, from the fact that she tried out for American Idol to the news she overdosed on pills. Is knowing her name or seeing her picture really going to be that damaging on top of everything else?

For these reasons, I don't think the "reluctance to come forward" argument holds here because any other woman in the future who considers bringing a rape charge against a famous man will know that even if your name isn't on the nightly news, details of your personal life and damaging rumors will be everywhere in the media. Maybe the argument made sense years ago, before the Internet and 24-hour cable news, but it certainly doesn't today. Major media outlets may still feel uncomfortable saying her name, and I have no problem with editorial decisions on their part to withhold it. They just shouldn't feel like they're saving the justice system.

The other side of the coin is that naming Kobe and not his accuser really isn't an issue either. I think she has actually received worse press coverage than Kobe, perhaps because she is less well known than he, making rumors more difficult to refute. In any event, the revelations of her troubled past should be just as damaging to the prosecution's case as the publicity surrounding Kobe's family troubles. Both sides, named or nameless, are being dragged through the mud.

The judge in the case issued a gag order Thursday. It seems ridiculously late, given what has already been said, but also it brings into question the rationale for such an order at all, especially given the draconian controls that would be required to hold back today's ravenous coverage. A huge media bonanza like the Kobe Bryant case always eventually generates coverage of the coverge, a soul-searching exercise in which reporters examine their own role in the drama unfolding. I wonder whether we are all too pessimistic at times about the consequences of all of this, and whether the media overestimates its influence. In short, I want to believe the MSNBC (one of the better sources for Kobe case info, by the way) opinion piece by Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center:

"In truth, there's little that courts can do to stem the flow of prejudicial publicity. Yesterday, a judge limited what attorneys in the Bryant case can say to the press. But those orders don't--and shouldn't--apply to cable-television pundits and talk-show hosts. Judges can seal documents, but that can hide facts from public view and let rumors run wild.

"Yet for all the concern about media overkill and public fascination with these cases, justice really depends upon what happens inside the courtoom. No matter what they've read or heard outside, jurors are sworn to consider only the evidence they've seen in court and to deliver a fair and impartial verdict.

"In the end, the key to a fair trial rests where it always has: in the hands of a capable judge and a conscientious jury."

Lions Fine Unjustified

The NFL yesterday fined the Detroit Liions for not interviewing any black candidates for their coaching vacancy prior to hiring Steve Mariucci. The policy in the league is that teams must interview at least one minority (read black) during their coaching search process, a rule put in place not long ago to appease critics who complain about the small number of coaches of color.

The NFL does have only three black coaches today, a very small number considering the quantity of black players and blacks otherwise closely involved with the game over the years. That fact, however, should not prevent the Detroit Lions from hiring the man they want to hire to be their next coach.

The 49ers were crazy to fire Steve Mariucci, a proven winner as a coach, and the Lions, knowing about Mariucci's strong track record and ties to Michigan, acted quickly to get their man. Initially this offseason, the Lions said they were keeping Marty Mornhinweg; they only fired him when Mariucci suddenly became available. The team acted fast to court Mariucci out of concern he might otherwise go to another team. The Lions knew about the rule to interview blacks, but none of the black candidates they contacted were willing to come in because they knew Mariucci had the job. Detroit acted quickly to do what was best for their team, they tried to comply with the NFL's silly rule, and now President Matt Millen is hit with a $200,000 fine.

Here's an excerpt from the SI.com news article linked above:

"After coach Marty Mornhinweg was fired by the Lions in January, Mariucci was the only person interviewed for the job. The team said five minority candidates turned down interviews because it appeared inevitable Mariucci would be hired.

"'While certain of the difficulties that you encountered in seeking to schedule interviews with minority candidates were beyond your control, you did not take sufficient steps to satisfy the commitment that you had made,' [Nfl Commissioner] Tagliabue wrote...

"'The Detroit Lions gave mere lip service to the agreed-upon minority hiring process, treating it almost as if a nuisance to their hiring of Steve Mariucci,' [Gene] Upshaw [exec dir of NFLPA] said at the time. 'The minority candidates were never given a fair chance to interview. In this case, the Lions' position is indefensible.'"

The NFL is wrong here. Mariucci was far and away the best candidate available in the Lions eyes, and a Dennis Green or Ted Cottrell would have had to be the greatest interview of all time to win the position. I think it is more insulting to coaches to bring them in to fulfill a quota in a hiring process than to admit up front they are not at the top of the list.

And so far I see nothing on ESPN.com or SI.com criticizing the ruling. I guess the race issue is too hot for these media organizations to touch, and they want to stay on the NFL's good side. Being denounced by Jesse Jackson or Johnnie Cochran is no fun either, even when you are right. I had to pull up the Detroit Free Press to find a columnist willing to take on this fine in Drew Sharp:

"The league admonished honesty when it ridiculously levied a $200,000 fine on Lions president Matt Millen for violating the league's minority hiring policy. He had the audacity to think he had to move swiftly to sweep up Steve Mariucci...

"The league needs to concentrate its efforts on teams that pursue first-time NFL head coaches, not penalize teams that target a proven winner.

"The San Francisco 49ers' search for Mariucci's successor was more insulting to the spirit of the policy than anything Millen did. The 49ers sent out early signals that they were looking for a fresh face, catering to some of the league's most impressive coordinators. They interviewed capable minority candidates such as New York Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and deserving white candidates like their own defensive coordinator, Jim Mora Jr.

"But those discussions were a smoke screen to conceal the 49ers' real objective, which was to convince Dennis Erickson to return to the NFL.

"The NFL apparently didn't think this deceit was worthy of sanction, though, particularly for a franchise considered one of the league's shining lights.

"Dennis Green's actions in all this aren't above reproach, either.

"The former Vikings coach bailed out Dallas and Jacksonville when the NFL inquired about the validity of his interviews with those teams. The Cowboys' search wasn't really open. It was a no-holds-barred push to lure Bill Parcells out of retirement, and Green knew that, but he declined to blow the whistle.

"The Jaguars' interest in Green was strictly window dressing because they wanted new coaching blood. Again, Green signed off on the Jaguars' claims that they interviewed properly for the opening. And then Jacksonville hired Jack Del Rio.

"So why didn't Green extend the Lions the same courtesy?

"Those close to Green say he approached the Lions last December about replacing Mornhinweg, but there was no interest. Green and Mariucci share the same agents, so Green knew that overtures from Millen last January were intended to cover Millen's own rear with the league, making Millen no different from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

"But it seems Green just wanted to stick it to Millen and the Lions, and he wouldn't interview with them."

I hope some in the national media can find the courage to join Sharp in criticizing the NFL's poor policy in this area.

Friday, July 25, 2003

The Politicization of US Regulatory Agencies

The Economist has an interesting leader and business article on this subject in the new issue, prompted by the House vote against the FCC media ownership rules. They explore reasons for increased politicization of regulatory decisions and hold that the agencies should be allowed to make choices without congressional interference and with better guidance from the president:

"One reason why political interference in regulatory policy may be spreading is that political funding from big business has risen sharply in recent years, and donors want results. Today's ruling Republicans play the regulatory game particularly well. Tom DeLay, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, is a master at extracting special-interest funding. Mr Bush's team is full of ex-officials from heavily regulated utilities.

"The deregulation over two decades ago of airlines and the trucking industry involved government stepping out of the way, says Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution. The deregulation of the telecoms and electricity industries in the 1990s, on the other hand, entailed regulators prising open monopolised markets, against the wishes of incumbents. That necessitated a system of 'managed' competition, with elaborate rulebooks to set terms of access, pricing and so on, subject to periodic revision. This has created incentives for firms to lobby politicians in hopes of changing rules in their favour. In telecoms, where the rules are reviewed every three years, arcane rulings by the FCC can boost or harm even the biggest firms, and create or destroy smaller fry...

"It is tempting to blame the regulators. Harvey Pitt, the SEC's ex-head, was roasted for his clumsy political skills. The FCC's Mr Powell now faces similar charges. It might be fairer to blame George Bush... Without protection from on high, regulators are exposed to the whims of Congress. So it is hardly surprising that, despite their best intentions, they start to behave like politicians with short time horizons instead of technocrats implementing long-term policy. With all that lobby cash sloshing about, it seems it has become too difficult for politicians such as Mr Bush to give policy a clear direction."

On theoretical grounds, the Economist's argument is sound, though in these cases, following their preferred course would have left Pitt and Powell unchallenged, and that, in my view, would have led to bad policy outcomes. If the regulatory agency does not overstep its bounds, no Congressional action follows, but when the agency usurps effective legislative power in some area, the legislature should have the right to check the executive's authority, as it has in these examples.

Harvey Pitt was trying to make a law passed by Congress ineffective by naming an official who would almost certainly not have enforced the law as members intended. Powell's actions at FCC could have re-made the media landscape in such a way that adversely impacted many citizens and interest groups, and the reps responded accordingly to protect their voters' interests--this was not (400-21) a party-line vote by any stretch. In extreme cases of an agency misbehaving, Congress can act to eliminate it, as in the case of the legislators currently trying to dissolve the Federal Elections Commission.

Greater interest group involvement in lobbying the regulators has led to more politically controversial regulatory decisions, which has in turn brought the legislative branch into the picture out of necessity, despite the general undesirability of having the legislators there. Rather than regretting that Pitt and Powell were mistreated by politicians, as the Economist does, we should focus on averting future fiascos by increasing institutional safeguards so that lobbyists and political forces do not infiltrate the agencies in the first place.

Textile Tariffs

These may be coming, reports NYT, after industry officials formally requested government protection from Chinese imports today. There is no doubt that the US textile companies have had a terrible time of late:

"According to the Labor Department, about 270,000 textile and apparel workers, or about a quarter of the industry, have lost their jobs over the last two years."

I disagree, however, with the response:

"'This industry is literally flat on its back, and if the government doesn't do something about it, we're going to disappear,' said Cass Johnson, a spokesman for the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, an industry lobbying group in Washington...

"'I have long maintained that China cheats on trade agreements,' Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in a statement. 'The practices of Chinese companies and the policies of the Chinese government are illegal and give them an unfair advantage in the textile market.'"

The high degree of Congressional involvement means that district-level concerns, rather than the broader benefits to the whole country, rule the day on most trade disputes. If China wants to sell us cheaper textiles than those we produce at home, American consumers gain. The cost is the lost jobs in the industry, but every credible economist knows that the benefits of free trade outweigh the costs. Rather than erecting trade barriers that will create inefficiencies in world production, not to mention prompt retaliation and anger within the WTO (they would likely rule the tariffs illegal, as they did recently on steel), the US needs to redistribute some of the national economic gain from trade in textiles to the displaced workers, providing them with adequate unemployment and health insurance as well as job training programs to help them switch industries.

Textile manufacturing is not a growth industry for the 21st century economy. The only question is whether we will allow production to be redistributed toward developing economies like China now, or prolong the death pangs of the industry (again like steel) through protectionist measures that will ultimately prove unsuccessful and highly costly. The alternative path of bolstering the social safety net is preferable because it will cost less in the long run, promoting both a more harmonious global trading order and a more compassionate society at home.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Krugman Views

Tyler Cowen has an interesting post on economists' views of Paul Krugman over at the Volokh Conspiracy. He confirms my notion that Krugman is a very good writer though not a revolutionary theorist.

David Aldridge's Honest Column

I applaud David Aldridge for admitting that he doesn't really know Kobe Bryant, despite the good impression he has had of Kobe from their past contact. Maybe reporters will really learn this time around about their detachment from the people they cover.

Confidence and Stock Market Valuation

Justin Lahart checks in at CNN Money with an interesting article comparing the opinions of institutional investors and individual investors on the value of the stock market, noting the pros think the market is cheap right now, as measure by Robert Shiller's survey. Lahart is skeptical of this:

"Shiller's indexes are giving off a similar signal to the readings on sentiment maintained by Merrill Lynch's strategist group. Based on Wall Street strategists' stock and bond allocations, the 'sell side indicator' is not flashing as high levels of bullishness as back in late 2000 (when stocks were a real steal, apparently), but it is still quite high historically. Merrill chief U.S. strategist Rich Bernstein says that, as a contrary indicator, the sell side indicator is the best market-timing barometer he's found. Independent analysis by Santa Clara finance professor Meir Statman has shown it works well.

"So, we know what the pros think, but what about what Wall Streeters affectionately call the 'dumb money'--individual investors? Shiller's been keeping an eye on them as well, and they too are rather bullish. But not quite as bullish as their smart-money peers when it comes to valuations. In fact, they thought the stock market was a better value back in the fall than it is now.

"Maybe they're not so dumb after all."

Before you go out and short the market, note that during the 1990s both the institutional and individual investors lost confidence in the market, so the individuals are hardly right all the time. Still the historical data do appear to show that doing the opposite of institutional sentiment works. Shiller's site notes:

"Confidence in the valuation of the market trended downward for both individual and institutional investors between 1989 and 1999. This downtrend in confidence was reversed after the peak in the stock market in early 2000, and confidence was soon back to levels typical of the 1990s. Since September 11 and the beginnings of the Enron affair, valuation confidence has diverged between individual and institutional investors: individual investors have grown more confident, institutional investors less confident."

Statman's working paper on confidence and stock returns is available here.

The Budget Deficit

David Broder thinks we have a real crisis on our hands with the budget deficits projected to be huge this year and into the future. He is outraged that the Bushies say the deficit is manageable, and he calls for a public education campaign on the subject, modeled after Ross Perot's infomercials in 1992. He's right that deficits are bad news, but Broder's response is puzzling to me coming from a guy who is so revered and experienced.

First off, he shouldn't be shocked by the Bush administration tactics. They have a pattern of deception (oh God, I sound like Krugman) on economic policy that has been established the past few years with the way they've sold the tax cuts, blamed Clinton for the recession and more. They know exactly what they are doing, which is a repeat of Reagan's trick in the '80s--cutting the tax base so that long-term federal spending must come down. They are forcing future administrations to make the government smaller, a goal of the American right.

And second, Broder's treatment of Ross Perot as some sort of wonderful economic educator is strange too. Perot certainly got people riled up, but he also used very flawed economic logic during his campaign (and after), especially with regard to NAFTA. I don't think it's healthy to build up a reliance that once a decade a crazy billionaire will come along, buy up TV time, and educate the public about economics. That isn't necessary, either, because stronger leadership by the Democrats on fiscal policy in opposing Bush's destructive ways would do the same job.

Monday, July 21, 2003

Travel

I'm gone at the ass crack of dawn on a business trip. Next post Wednesday late night or Thursday.

Time on Kobe

Time magazine has a good Kobe story that manages to present the relevant facts and issues in an interesting and compelling manner without implicitly favoring him or portraying him in a bad light. Author Richard Corliss is a veteran reporter, and his professionalism shows with this work.

The Dean Effect

Ryan Lizza writes in the latest New Republic on the possible implicationsof Howard Dean's emergence for the other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president. The Kerry campaign argues unconvincingly that Dean's strength helps them by defining the race, and Lizza, quoting several times from campaign manager Jim Jordan, makes the interesting comparison of Kerry's strategy to that of George Bush in 2000 fending off John McCain. The point in dispute:

"This leads to the final part of Kerry's strategy: containing Dean as the candidate of the liberal fringe. Jordan argues, 'The data that's emerging shows very, very clearly that our largest structural advantage is that Senator Kerry is drawing support across the ideological and economic spectrum that's unlike every other candidate. Dean is drawing his support almost entirely from the left wing of the party. [Dick] Gephardt is drawing his support almost entirely from downscale and blue-collar voters.' If this is true--and a pair of recent Zogby polls of New Hampshire and Iowa voters supports the thesis--it's significant, because the current conventional wisdom is that Dean and Kerry are fighting over the same small group of elite, liberal voters with neither of them expanding outside that base. 'That's empirically not true,' Jordan insists.

"The assumption that it is true is driving the strategies of all the other campaigns, however. None of the other candidates seem frightened by Kerry's and Dean's top-tier statuses as long as both men are fighting to win over the left-liberal wing of the party. 'They are vying over the same votes,' says an aide to a rival campaign. 'We're going to send them two left-handed boxing gloves.' 'Dean and Kerry appeal to the same demographics,' says a top Gephardt adviser, 'white, well-educated, eastern, liberal voters--NPR listeners, Volvo drivers.'"

Why are the non-Kerry folks right on this? First of all Jordan's reliance on poll data at this stage is questionable. Polls in general are not so illuminating at this stage, much less polls with extensive breakdowns by demographic groups. In the end, when people start really paying attention to the race, the support from groups may well fit a pattern that is plausible though just not evident in the data quite yet, such as the thesis put forth by Gephardt's aide.

Second, geography strongly suggests a Kerry-Dean showdown in New Hampshire, a state bordering the home states of each candidate. A loss in your own back yard looks very bad, and I think the loser in New Hampshire will suffer a crippling blow in terms of people simply no longer believing he can win the nomination.

TNR has another article this week arguing that Dean is bad for the Democratic party, and it is only available to subscribers.

Good NRO Kobe Article

I promise not to post on everything being written about Bryant, but it obviously is the story obsessing me at the moment, and "Jack Dunphy" at NRO has a splendid essay comparing the case to the OJ Simpson trial and bashing the media for its financially motivated saturation coverage. Dunphy, interestingly enough, is the nom de cyber for an anonymous LAPD officer, and he criticizes OJ prosecutor Marcia Clark in the column.

Almost There

ESPN's NFL training camp coverage is up!

Phil Taylor chimes in

There is a temptation to draw some larger moral from the Kobe Bryant story, which I feel writers should resist. Phil Taylor succumbs in this article, beginning with a story of an unnamed athlete planting an unwanted kiss on a woman in the locker room after a game:

"I don't know if that's what happened between Bryant and that young woman in the hotel room. The two of them are probably the only ones who will ever truly know whether it was sexual assault, as she says, or consensual sex, as he says. But I do know that all too often this is how it happens with sports figures and women. Bryant wouldn't be the first athlete who was unable or unwilling to recognize the difference between warmth and lust displayed by a member of the opposite sex."

The press corps, now seemingly tired of the "Kobe is better than others" angle, especially in light of his admission of adultery, is skewing things the opposite way in pieces like Taylor's, seeing Bryant as emblematic of larger ills. Neither approach is correct. Kobe is one guy, probably not so typical of the rest of the league. We don't know as yet whether he assaulted the alleged victim or not, and making Kobe some sort of poster child for bad behavior is way premature.

I know Taylor is not explicitly doing this, but the pattern of saying "We don't really know what happened with Kobe" and then going on with generalizations about the problems with athletes is just the same. Readers come away with the impression that Kobe Bryant is a bad guy who does this sort of thing. SportsCenter made the same mistake Friday night by doing a story cataloguing athletes' troubles with the law. More will power is necessary along press row.

The Globe's Bogeymen

The Globe is still trying to squeeze more out of the Bulger story with today's op-ed by a retired "Spotlight" series editor concerning 75 State Street. The desperate attempts to pin a perjury charge on Bulger with regard to events decades in the past is clear evidence of the Globe's antipathy toward the UMass prez.

Meanwhile, today's Beacon Hill villain, Tom Finneran, is losing his grip on power, according to a "news" article running above the fold in the City/Region section. Rich Klein writes, "Finneran has a long reach in Massachusetts politics, so any sign that his storied grip is slipping could mean a change in direction for the state." The Globe seems to want to contribute to that impression by running biased stories under the guise of news.

Halliburton Asbestos Claims

The Wall Street Journal of all sources seems to be unfairly targeting Halliburton with an article alleging they have delayed settling asbestos claims in hopes that Congress may pass a national settlement that will be cheaper for them:

"Plaintiffs' attorneys allege that Halliburton has stalled so that it can see if Congress comes up with a legislative resolution for the hundreds of thousands of asbestos claims plaguing about 8,000 U.S. companies. A Senate panel has approved a national trust, but it isn't clear how far the proposal will go in Congress. A congressional solution is likely to be cheaper than the plan Halliburton has hammered out."

Don't get me wrong, I dislike Dick Cheney's cronies as much as the next reasonable person, but I also know that this behavior is not unique to Halliburton. My law student sister is working at a firm for the summer and says that delaying tactics are being used by everyone with asbestos issues pending. I wonder if any of the legal brains out there could devise a way to avoid such situations in which lawyers use red-tape to prolong matters while waiting for legislative action. Some lawyers may know a way, though sharing it with the world may cut their fees too, so who knows if they would be willing to share it.

Also...

Kevin Jackson has a much better Page 2 column on the case. Except the silly contention he was surprised when Bill Clinton's infidelity was revealed.

Eric Neel on Bryant

Eric Neel has an overwritten column on Kobe on Page 2:

"We believed in the Kobe idea, and now we wonder whether it will resurface, and who it will be named for.

"We worry that this might be the last of it, actually, worry that the Kobe idea was so strong, so seemingly impervious, and yet it foundered ...

"But we put that thought out of our heads.

"You ask us if maybe this is a chance to let go, to find the virtues, to cultivate the idea, somewhere other than in the body and spirit of a baller.

"We can't hear you. We're meditating on the game, pondering the idea. And, on a channel so deep within us it is barely noticeable at first, sure enough, a name starts to vibrate in our ears.

"LeBron. The LeBron idea. Yes. Surely this one will last forever."

Well, I saw LeBron play last night, and he was nothing special. Can we please not treat this as an apocalyptic event?

DNC Bush ad

The DNC's Bush ad about Iraqi intelligence is now airing in Madison, Wisconsin:

"Republicans urged broadcasters not to carry the ad, set to be aired initially Monday in Madison, Wis., then elsewhere; they called it 'deliberately false and misleading.'"

That's like calling the kettle black.

Newsweek Kobe Piece

Who is the real Kobe Bryant? Newsweek has a rather dark answer to that question. It looks like the press may be turning on him here, and I would counsel, once again, for not assuming anything either way. An excerpt:

"Bryant’s tendency to isolate himself (coupled with his tendency to hog the ball) is strangely at odds with his public persona as the squeaky-clean Laker who speaks Italian and is faultlessly polite to everyone from reporters to hangers-on. But being a loner hasn’t endeared him to his teammates, and he’s had numerous run-ins with coach Phil Jackson, who’s criticized him in the press for a lack of maturity and an 'all about me' attitude. The alienation doesn’t end at the locker-room door: after marrying an 18-year-old high-school student in April 2001, Bryant became temporarily estranged from his parents and two older sisters, who quickly moved back to their hometown of Philadelphia in a show of protest. 'His family did not at all approve of the marriage,' says a friend of Bryant’s."

Everyone has had some sort of personal issues or conflicts with family in the past. This has nothing to do with whether he is a rapist.

Meanwhile, the smearing of the accuser is well under way with the revelation that she overdosed on pills two months ago, according to a friend. This is going to get really ugly, I'm afraid.

Hastert's Economics

Dennis Hastert's appearance on Meet the Press was poor on Sunday. Not only did he claim we'd found "tons" of uranium in Iraq, he gave this inarticulate response on the budget:

"MR. RUSSERT: ...looking at the high cost of occupation in Iraq and the needs we have in this country, would it not have been better to have smaller tax cuts in order to keep down the deficits and fulfill the obligations we have with terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan and so forth?
REP. HASTERT: Well, you know, if you’ve got a hot horse and he’s asked to go out and do work for you, and you don’t have a lot of oats and you only feed him a half a pound of oats a day, he doesn’t do very much work. To get that horse to work, you’ve got to feed him enough. And the tax cuts have to be adequate enough so this economy will work. And basically, that economic growth bill was targeted, it was focused, to get people’s confidence up and them consuming, focused to get people to invest again—and that’s what is happening—and focused to get businesses to create jobs. And, you know, that’s where the focus is. It’s going to take some time to work, but you have to solve the problem before you have a result."

Hastert is such a stooge. It is amazing he is speaker.

Kwame Brown

I realize after reading Tony Kornheiser that Kwame Brown didn't play in the summer league game today because he had only planned to play in three of the games. Kornheiser rips him for this:

"Are you kidding me, Kwame? You played in three summer league games, and then blew off the other three? I know you had agreed to play in only three games, and weren't contractually obliged to play all six. But don't you think you're sending the wrong message by playing three stinking games?

"Kwame, bubbeleh, I like you. I think you're a sweet, well-meaning kid. I'm willing to believe Michael Jordan and Doug Collins didn't understand how to deal with a teenager, and harassed you, hectored you and made you nuts. That's why I'm ready to look beyond the fact that in your first two seasons with the Wizards you've been El Poocho. I was thinking with the new regime -- Ernie Grunfeld and Eddie Jordan -- in place you might respond with a brand new attitude and a breakout year. Which is what everybody has been waiting for and hoping for, considering you were, hello, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. (I mean, really, your numbers were so small it's like you're on the metric system.)

"So it's somewhat troubling to learn you chose not to play the final three summer league games with your Wizards teammates. What are you doing instead, working out on PlayStation 2?"

With this negative atmosphere surrounding him, Kwame Brown may eventually be traded from the Wizards. And as we've learned in cases like Jermaine O'Neal and Tracy McGrady, a lot of high school-to-NBA players only make it big professionally with their second team. Washington trades him at their own peril.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

The LeBron Show

I just returned from Umass-Boston, site of the Boston summer league, where I saw LeBron James and the Cavs lose to the Wizards, 80-76. LeBron had nine points, two rebounds and one assist in 24 minutes, shooting just 2-for-14 (full box score here). He was 5-of-8 on free throws, including two big misses with 15.6 seconds left and Washington leading 77-75. Then with 8 seconds to go and down 79-75, he hit one of two. Some in the crowd were yelling "overrated" and other unkind things by the end. I did not see any evidence that the thigh injury James sustained in yesterday's game was hobbling him, but I do wonder because he missed a bunch of makeable shots.

James did not score until about a minute into the second period (the quarters were 10 minutes long). When he went to the free throw line moments later, lots of flash bulbs were popping. When James entered the gym for the first time, coming through a narrow path between fans lining the way in, he alone had police officers both in front of and behind him. Then he started playing and people wondered what all the fuss was about. The one real highlight for him was a breakaway dunk in the 3rd that he got off the backboard from Darius Miles. James and Miles also played "can you top this" with some fancy dunks in warm-ups, eliciting ooohhhs from the crowd.

Juan Dixon, who despite a significant size disadvantage was guarding James much of the game, stole the show with a game-high 24 points. Dixon was clearly the best player on the floor. Miles was good too, though quiet in the second half until he made an unbelievable flying-dunk putback on the second free throw miss by James, only to have it not counted because he was pushing off a guy beneath him. Just the athleticism he showed to do that deserved a point at least. Carlos Boozer was solid for the Cavs too, with 16 points and 18 boards. No one from Washington could keep him off the backboard. The Wiz won without having first-round pick Jarvis Hayes and Kwame Brown available. Steve Blake looked like a legit NBA point with 10 assists. DeSagana Diop is way too slow ever to be any good--he had zero points.

In the first game, the Nets beat the Celtics; even in summer league New Jersey has Boston's number. The C's top pick, Marcus Banks, is quick as hell, and surprisingly he nailed some jumpers too, but he wasn't assertive enough on offense, I felt. The stat page shows he had 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting, and he should've shot more. Lenny Cooke was extremely active on the boards and athletic around the rim finishing. He ended up with 14 points, 13 rebounds and some in the crowd chanting "Lenny!" The Nets, though, looked more comfortable playing with another. As in the regular season and playoffs, they had good passing and got lots of layups against the porous Celtics D. Jim O'Brien, sitting courtside, must have had flashbacks.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

About

I've moved the "About the Blogger" paragraphs to my GeoCities site to keep the side panel from getting too cluttered. Eventually I plan on linking to some longer writings of mine that I'll put over at Geocities as well.

BlogSnob

I've added a BlogSnob link to the right-side links section. Follow it to different sites that, like this one, have signed up for the link exchange. If you want more info or would like to consider joining yourself to generate better traffic for your site, visit BlogSnob here.

In today's Globe

It's Saturday, so I actually had a chance to sit down and read the Globe thoroughly. Here's my summary.

Worst Item: I know it's important to mention that Mayor Tom Menino will have surgery to remove a growth from his back, but the extent of the coverage is a bit much. Do we really need a diagram of where the growth is? (Such a diagram is in the print edition; I don't see it online)

Best Item: The piece about Finneran opponents losing out on funding for courts in their districts is the most interesting read in the paper, in my humble opinion. I actually like the Speaker, unlike many other Massachusetts liberals, who basically think he is the devil incarnate. This time, however, I think the Globe has caught him doing something unambiguously tyrannical. Why restore funding to six districts but not two others, where the reps happen to have strongly opposed your controversial legislative pay plan? Why adjourn before midnight when time remained to pass the overrides for those courts? I don't exactly trust the Globe to give Finneran's side of the story, though a member of the House leadership was interviewed for the article and he doesn't give any real explanation other than it was late. A. Stephen Tobin was presiding at the time of adjournment:

"'It was a long day, and we had done a ton of overrides. When the dean of the House got up and asked to adjourn, it just seemed like an appropriate time,' Tobin said. Funding for the Natick and Ipswich courts 'was not a question we were thinking about,' he said."

Mitt Romney must be torn over how to react. On one hand he loves bashing the legislature for behavior like this, while on the other, he should be happy at least these two budget vetoes of his were sustained.

Sports: Bob Ryan checks in with a mediocre column on Kobe Bryant. For some reason he tries to predict how things might play out, which is pointless at this stage.

WWZN "The Zone" sports talk radio is cutting staff in a sign that the days of two sports talk stations in Boston may be numbered. Even as sports-crazy as Boston is, the media coverage on TV, radio and print has outgrown demand, I feel. In theory having multiple outlets is good, but I think the cutthroat competition among the talking heads has actually led to a deterioration of the discussion in the last few years, and it is inevitable that someone will have to fold eventually. WWZN, with a bare bones staff, is now easy to sell, explains the Globe piece.

And it looks like the Celtics will re-sign free agent Walter McCarty soon ("within 24 hours" the article suggests), a move that should please fans, who would've been seriously pissed if fan favorite "Waltah "had ended up elsewhere. McCarty is much better on the Celtics than he would be on other teams. He and the C's are a good match for one another, and it looks like the parties are recognizing that and settling on a contract.

Bill Maher Special

HBO airs Bill Maher's new comedy special tomorrow night at 10. It promises to be a funny and thought-provoking take on recent events. His Friday night show "Real Time" resumes next week on HBO as well.

A Contentious Day

Well, what happened today? Kobe Bryant was charged with sexual assault, a British weapons expert caught in the middle of the controversy over Iraqi intelligence was found dead, and, to top it off, members of Congress got into a verbal confrontation (the police were called). Instead of a lazy summer Friday, this was a day for conflict.

Yahoo covers the childishness at Congress, along with most other news sites by now. I'm sure someone will compare this with the pre-Civil War fight on the House floor in which a southern congressman beat a northerner with a fireplace poker (at least I think those are the details, if memory serves).

The Brit, David Kelly, was recently grilled by Parliament over whether he was the source of a BBC report that Blair government officials had intentionally "sexed up" intelligence (the British have a way with words sometimes). It looks like a suicide so far--the guy probably couldn't stand the public pressure--but I expect the conspiracy theorists to eat this one up. I'll be interested to see what bizarre accusations follow, though of course it's terrible that this man is dead.

And finally today, we learn that Kobe Bryant is fighting for his life as well. ESPN has wall-to-wall coverage, from the Bryant statement, to bios of the attorneys involved (he has retained the lawyer for JonBenet Ramsey's parents), to a Darren Rovell piece on the endorsement fallout. But the best thing I've found written on the case so far is Tony Kornheiser's column from tomorrow's Washington Post.

Kornheiser is spot on with his explanation of the reaction people are having to this case. He notes the good will Kobe has built up over the years, but he also makes the realistic concession, as I have urged we must all do previously on this site, that we don't really know star athletes like Bryant, much as we like to think we do:

"Last week Bryant told the Los Angeles Times, 'You know me. You know I'd never do anything like that.' And we want to believe him, because to our knowledge Kobe Bryant hasn't ever done anything like that. He hasn't done anything more scandalous than occasionally take too many shots and not get Shaq enough shots. Kobe is just about the most likable young man in the NBA.

"But of course we don't really know him. The truth is we don't really know any of the athletes we so eagerly and comfortably revere. We don't really even know the people who live next door to us, or down the street from us or across the hall from us."

Bravo, Tony K. We will now see all of the evidence presented at trial and be able to judge for ourselves whether the charge is valid. We are all ignorant of what really happened until then.

Friday, July 18, 2003

The Recession Isn't Over

The smarties over at the NBER seem to think that the recession of 2001 started in March and ended in November of that year. They define recession as follows:

"A recession is a period of falling economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales... There is no fixed rule about what weights are assigned to the various indicators, or about what other measures contribute information to the process."

So clearly this is a subjective call, even if the NBER has been anointed the official arbiter of such things. And according to press reports, there was a lot of debate within the NBER (WSJ subscriber link) about whether to actually declare the end date of the recession despite the weak job market that has persisted and even worsened since November '01:

"Thursday's declaration by the NBER -- a private, nonprofit economic research group that is considered the official arbiter of recession timing -- came after a lengthy internal debate over whether there can be an economic recovery if the labor market continues to contract. The bureau's answer: a decisive yes... 'This is meaningless from the point of view of people worried about their jobs, but meaningful for economic researchers,' said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington think tank."

With all due respect to the NBER folks, who are far more accomplished economists than I ever will be, employment deserves a stronger weighting here. It reminds me of the eternal question, What if there was a party and no one came? What would happen if there was a recovery, and no jobs came? People's economic well-being would deteriorate, and the "recovery" would be meaningless to them, which is where we find ourselves.

I support a recession definition that has applicability to the man on the street rather than just applicability to the latest edition of the American Economic Review.

NBA Round-up

Lots of offseason NBA goodies on ESPN.com...

Apparently the announcement on whether Kobe Bryant will be charged with sex assault will come at 5pm tomorrow. Was it really necessary to drag his name through the mud for two weeks before even deciding on whether to proceed with charges? If they come out and say they're not charging him, expect the Colorado cops to be pilloried from all sides.

The guys who must be happiest about the Kobe story are Jerry Stackhouse and Damon Stoudemire, both of whom were arrested recently with barely anyone noticing. Of course, they're not as big as Kobe, but also it's too much to ask people to follow the legal troubles of multiple NBAers at the same time, isn't it?

In other legal news, Antoine Walker will not be charged in connection with an argument he had with a fan toward the end of the Celtics Game 4 loss to New Jersey. Mitch Lawrence also seems to think trading for Walker could do the Knicks some good--more a reflection of how bad the Knicks are than how good Walker is. I do hope the Celtics move Walker, even for some spare parts from the Knicks, because I feel he's peaked out as a player and the Celtics aren't going any farther with him trying to fill a star role.

And finally, check out the video clip of the interview with Gary Payton and Karl Malone (who both officially signed and had a press conference in LA today) on the ESPN NBA main page. They admit that anything less than a championship is a failure, which is true but also interesting to hear stated so bluntly by the guys involved. They seem to recognize they're going to be options 3 and 4 in LA, though they still think they can get 20 a game--we'll see. And GP basically challenges Shaq to get in shape too--a gutsy way to publicly call out a new teammate.

The Online Search Business

The Economist has an article on Yahoo's acquisition of Overture, pointing to the rise of ad revenues for preferred search rankings, rather than for banner ads or pop-ups, as a driving force behind the deal:

"Overture, launched in 1997 as GoTo.com, pioneered this advertising model, variously known as 'paid search' or 'pay-per-click'. Its main service is as an auction room for advertisers, whose bidding determines how prominently their link is displayed. Overture then gives these lists to such clients as Yahoo!, and shares with them the advertising revenues once the clicking starts. The total paid-search market is now worth some $2 billion a year, compared with about $8 billion for other, more conventional online advertising, and it is growing furiously.

"This explains the success of Overture, and also of Google, which last year launched a similar service (in its system, advertisers move up the list of sponsored links not only by bidding more money but also by getting more clicks). Overture considers Google's process sufficiently similar that it is suing for patent infringement. Other portals generally use one of the two as partners—MSN uses Overture, AOL uses Google, and so on.

"In Yahoo!'s case, this was getting awkward. Relying on Overture for almost 20% of its revenues in the past two quarters, it had become too 'dependent' on another firm, says Denise Garcia at Gartner, a research outfit. Yahoo! has also been farming out many of its searches to Google, which would leave it further exposed if their thorny relationship soured further."

This makes me wonder whether over-commercialization of the online search may hurt the integrity of those searches, lead to worse search results, then declining usage, and may eventually eliminate (or at least constrain) the original source of the revenues.

This comes on the heels of an extended discussion of Google's hegemony--Tom Friedman even compared Google to God in a prominent NYT op-ed a few weeks ago. Now Slate has an article by Steven Johnson on the flaws in Google, and complaint #1 is that search results skew too heavily toward stores and away from information, which may foreshadow larger problems:

"Google is replicating one of the problems experienced by some of the big portals—sites like Lycos and Infoseek—during the boom years. They sold so much real estate on their pages to online stores and other advertisers that their results became less reliable, which gave Google its opening in the first place. Now the same thing is happening again, only it's happening organically, without Google manipulating the integrity of its search engine."

Hopefully there is some way the online search gurus can find to make enough money without sacrificing the quality of their product for the long term. The dotcom graveyard is full of cautionary tales.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Hiring on Wall Street

Everyone knows this has been near nonexistent for the last few years. Could it be picking up? A CNN Money piece explores the possibility. There have been some strong earnings reports from the financials in recent days, which makes one wonder.

All-Star Ratings Follow-Up

ESPN reports the ratings for the All-Star game were the same as last year, despite Fox's efforts with the "this time it counts" ads, etc.

Weill's Dividend Windfall

The announcement of Sandy Weill's successor deserves a longer post, but for now I will just point out an interesting tidbit from the end of tomorrow's NYT article:

"Mr. Weill owns 22,777,290 shares of Citigroup, with a market value of more than $1 billion. Just two days before Mr. Weill said he would step down, the company raised its dividend by 75 percent. His annual dividend checks will now total $31,888,206."

The timing seems a bit suspicious to me, or maybe the times wants to create that impression.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

All-Star Game

Fox reporters during the telecast last night kept interviewing players and coaches, asking "Do you feel any extra intensity tonight?" in reference to the new wrinkle that the winning league would get home-field advantage in the World Series. The guys I saw interviewed all basically said no, they always played hard in the past too, and I believe them. The home-field change was a ratings ploy by Fox (I'll be interested to see if it worked when the numbers come out), nothing more. That said, we actually got a fairly exciting game by luck alone.

Garrett Anderson is finally getting some recognition too after winning the home run contest and then the MVP last night. Somehow this guy was the best player on the team that won the World Series last year, and he still doesn't get mentioned as a big star. He isn't a loudmouth, which may be why--isn't it nice who our media decide who should be our "stars"?

Romney's Fit

Mitt Romney gets front-page coverage in the Boston Globe today for his diatribe against legislators who voted to override his veto of a budget section, which allowed certain exemptions to the English immersion ballot initiative passed last fall with Romney's backing.

This is another example of Romney trying to govern via press conference rather than negotiating with his counterparts in the legislature. If all his job required was a slick media campaign, Romney would be a good executive, but unfortunately for him, there's more to the job than that. Threatening to campaign against legislators who disagree with him on specific issues because of their honest views, and labeling them "arrogant" (oh the irony!) is not how he should be approaching the policy-making process in my view.

The Globe's editorial page makes a convincing case that this is not the legislature overruling the will of the people, as Romney would simplistically have us believe:

"The ballot question passed last fall because bilingual education needed a drastic overhaul, as demonstrated by the poor MCAS scores of English learners. Voters chose immersion rather than letting a reform law passed earlier that year by the Legislature take effect.

"But in putting together their reform package, the legislators paid more attention to what works for English learners than the state Department of Education had under the last three governors. The legislators learned that two-way programs work well, and their bill gave the programs a ringing endorsement. Romney should hold off on his crusade against the lawmakers for violating the voters' will until he has spent as much time as the legislators did in talking to students, parents, teachers, and school administrators about the two-way programs."

I would rather have legislators, who spend all their time thinking through the minutiae of policy issues, making education policy decisions than the people I see on the bus. The ballot initiative craze is part of the Republican strategy to push their agenda through well-funded TV campaigns, rather than cultivating grassroots organizations that might actually elect a veto-proof majority for Romney in the legislature. Such campaigns play on popular prejudices, not an actual understanding of the policy details at hand. A referendum can be useful for gauging the general public mood on an issue everyone is familiar with, but not for the detail work.

I applaud the legislature for standing up against the sound-bite machine in the corner office. And I encourage Romney to stop campaigning and start governing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Busy Week

I'm going to Pennsylvania for business on Wednesday and Thursday. Depending on how busy work is, this may be my last post until Friday.

Ari Fleischer Departs

WaPo has an article about the beating Ari Fleischer took in his final press briefing at the White House today. Funny part:

"Then, after 53 tense minutes, the briefing was over, and so was Fleischer's work at the White House. Bob Deans of Cox News Service rose to say that he had brought Fleischer a cake. 'We've received assurances that it's not yellow cake,' Deans said. 'But that doesn't prove that it's not yellow cake.'"

On a more serious note, one thing I can say that's good about Fleischer is that he really seemed to believe in what he was doing. I read another article on him earlier today in which he said he couldn't have done the job without back Bush 100%, and on days like today, with the crap the press secretary has to put up with, we see how true that is.

I had a chance to see Fleischer as part of a student group two years ago, and in person he comes across as a definite true believer. He told us the story of how he became a big fan of Ronald Reagan while he was studying at Middlebury in the 1980s.

Speaking of Prep Stars...

LeBron James had 25 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists tonight in the summer league at UMass-Boston, but the Celtics still beat the Cavs. I will be heading down to see LeBron on Sunday, and years from now I will be able to tell people I saw James play in a 2500-seat arena.

Webber's Ordeal Over

As most of you who care doubtless know by now, Chris Webber struck a plea deal today, admitting to criminal contempt in order to avoid stiffer charges. The case concerned Webber's past financial dealings with a booster and whether he lied to a grand jury about those dealings.

I really feel for Chris Webber. This was a guy who came out of high school as one of the most hyped prep stars ever, and he has had so many tough experiences since then, from calling a time-out his team didn't have in the NCAA title game, to his troubles in Golden State and Washington, to his knee injury this year that cost his team a great chance at a championship.

Some of the accounts of today's legal proceedings mention poignantly that Webber was hobbling around the courthouse on crutches due to the lingering effects of that knee surgery. I sincerely hope that today's events help Webber to put the legal wrangling behind him and to focus on a positive future. The case has already taken a serious toll, though, including wiping from the historical record any victories from Webber's time at the Uniersity of Michigan.

The New York Times Magazine's profile of Webber earlier this year was a revealing portrait. Webber told the author he just wanted "no more drama" in his life. The glare of the public spotlight has rarely been good for Webber, unfortunately. Here's hoping the next we hear of Chris Webber is something good, both for his sake and for the lesson he can teach us about keeping the faith.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Do P/E Ratios Matter?

CNBC reports on one analyst who thinks not:

"Forget all the talk about stocks being expensive. They're one-third below their fair value, says one quantitative analyst.

"The problem is that so much of the valuation talk centers around price-to-earnings ratios, which do in fact show that the market is trading at high levels. But Craig Callahan, chief investment officer of the ICON family of funds, dismisses P/E ratios.

"'The stock market is a reflection of future expectations, not historical norms,' he says. 'Perfect hindsight seems to tell investors that the market is too expensive and they should sell or wait to get back in. Relying on this simple valuation tool simply does not work.'

"Callahan's proprietary valuation grid pays scant attention to P/E multiples. It summarizes a host of other valuation measures, including earnings estimates and interest rates, into what ICON calls a U.S. market value/price ratio. It currently indicates stock prices are 33% below fair value."

This comes in the wake of articles in the Sunday NYT and Monday WSJ that raised the specter of overvaluation. First, from E.S. Browning's Monday Journal piece:

"The monster stock rally that has been under way for nine months is starting to take on a familiar look -- maybe too familiar.

"The Nasdaq Composite Index, the technology-laden index that rocketed up during the stock bubble, is up 56% since October, eclipsing the Dow Jones Industrial Average's 25% gain.

"Cisco Systems has doubled in value, as have Sun Microsystems, Amazon.com and the Dow Jones Internet Index as a whole. Juniper Networks and Yahoo have more than tripled. Rambus has quadrupled. PMC-Sierra has quintupled.

"In a further flashback to the days of Internet mania, stocks in money-losing companies again are doing better than those of profitable companies, says research and brokerage firm International Strategy & Investment. Of 1,500 large, medium and small stocks tracked by Standard & Poor's, the 195 that lost money over the past year are up 101% on average since Oct. 9, while the 1,305 that made money are up an average of 42%.

"How can this be happening again? With memories still fresh of the catastrophic bear market that sent the Nasdaq composite down 78% from high to low, it is surprising to see investors jumping back into the same stocks that hurt so many people so badly.

"One explanation is that Wall Street today is populated with fast-money investors who have become more interested in short-term pops than in long-term investments. For months now, some of the best short-term runups have come from the beaten-down Nasdaq names.

"'There are 5,000 mutual funds and 6,000 hedge funds in this country,' says stock strategist Jason Trennert at ISI. They increasingly are judged on their ability to stay ahead of competitors, month by month, quarter by quarter.

"Hedge funds, private investment funds that cater to the wealthy and often make risky short-term bets, today account for 35% to 40% of all stock trading, analysts and traders estimate. Even at mutual funds, money managers who fall behind competitors are under severe pressure to catch up.

"When volatile Nasdaq stocks staged sharp gains in October and again in March, many professional investors were skeptical and fell behind. To catch up, many decided to buy the most volatile tech stocks they could stomach, in hopes they would beat the rest.

"'Hedge-fund managers and traditional money managers alike really piled into them to make up for some lost ground,' Mr. Trennert says.

"Nasdaq stocks again seem to be trading on momentum rather than on business performance. The entire Nasdaq 100 index, which groups 100 of the biggest Nasdaq stocks, now sells for more than 240 times its companies' earnings for the past year, according to market-research firm Birinyi Associates. It trades at 38 times forecasts for its companies' earnings next year. The Dow industrials, by comparison, trade at 29 times past earnings and 18 times forecast earnings.

"'It is hard to justify paying 200 times earnings for anything,' Mr. Trennert says. His firm is advising clients to "sell some of the highfliers and move toward stocks with stronger cash flow," he says. But he acknowledges that, so far, that has been bad advice, as the speculative companies, including those without earnings, have continued to out-gain the solid ones."

And from Gretchen Morgenson's article in Sunday's Times:

"David Bianco, accounting analyst at UBS in New York, said: 'The quality of earnings for the S.& P. 500, from an accounting standpoint, is the worst it has been in more than a decade.' And he has done the work to prove it.

"The slide is largely the result of aggressive accounting practices in three areas, he said. First are so-called special charges, which companies say are one-time events from re-structurings or asset impairments, but which may actually include recurring operational costs that should be deducted from revenue. Second is the choice many companies have made not to subtract the costs of stock options from their results, and finally, there are those rosy pension assumptions--inflating pension earnings or masking pension costs--that improve corporate earnings.

"Taken together, earnings at many companies are not what many investors think they are, Mr. Bianco said. As a result, these company shares sport a higher cost, in the form of a price-earnings ratio, than investors believe.

"He analyzed results at each of the S.& P. 500 companies over the last 11 years, viewing earnings and accounting practices over an entire economic cycle. Then, he adjusted the companies' reported earnings for special charges, stock-option grants and overly rosy pension assumptions. What he found was that in 1991, the adjusted earnings were roughly 18 percent less than those the companies reported to shareholders: $15.91 a share versus $19.50 a share.

"Shifting to 2002, the difference grows vast: earnings adjusted for the funny stuff were 41 percent less than the profits reported to investors.

"So while investors may have thought that they were paying roughly 19 times the earnings of S.& P. companies to own the index last year, they were really paying almost 25 times profits after adjustments for the three items.

"At individual companies the numbers become even more troubling. Texas Instruments, which analysts expect to earn roughly 35 cents a share this year, would earn 10 cents a share if Mr. Bianco's adjustments were made. That increases its price-earnings ratio from 54 to 188, based on Friday's close. And at eBay, Mr. Bianco figures that while analysts forecast its profit at $1.46 a share, the figure would drop to 57 cents this year if adjusted by his method. That ramps up eBay's price-earnings ratio from 77 to 198."

I am more inclined to side with those who see valuations as rather high right now. Whether this will lead to a correction down the road is unclear, however. Many investors seem to be betting on a recovery that hasn't really arrived full force yet, but may well come. If that happens, valuations could seem a lot more reasonable by the end of the year.

I think that historical P/E ratios do matter, too. The "this time is different" refrain is a dangerous delusion, as it was during the 1990s bubble. It has, at least, gotten ICON some publicity, I suppose, and if the run up continues in the coming months they may have ample opportunity to gloat. In the long run--and I don't know how long that will be--the more staid logic generally holds, though.