An awful lot of journalists were fired between 2015-17 because their companies went with a "video strategy" influenced strongly by Facebook's claimed video ad revenues and Facebook's direct encouragement of their media partners to pivot to video and away from a written product.
That didn't pan out the way anyone expected, however. Video engagement was far lower than expected and revenues followed suit. As a result of all of this a lot of video editors and producers were fired, joining their print journalism colleagues on the unemployment line. Online media, in many respects, is a flaming hole in the ground at the moment.
Why did the video strategy -- which Facebook claimed was the Way and the Truth -- not pan out?
Facebook knew by January 2015 that its video-ad metrics had problems, and understood the nature of the issue within a few months, but sat on that information for more than a year, the plaintiffs claimed in an amended complaint Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Oakland . . . Facebook in 2016 revealed the metrics problem, saying it had “recently discovered” it. The firm told some advertisers that it had probably overestimated the average time spent watching video ads by 60 percent to 80 percent. Tuesday’s filing alleged that Facebook had instead inflated average ad-watching time by 150 percent to 900 percent.
To be clear: the current state of affairs in online media is largely the fault of media companies for desperately and stupidly chasing trends that even a moment's reflection should've revealed were idiotic (note: NO ONE prefers video news content online over print), but it sure as shit doesn't help that Facebook, allegedly, was lying to everyone about user behavior and ad revenues.
This story was originally written for Bloomberg BusinessWeek over the summer. Instead of running it they turned it into a highly-truncated cartoon thing that, being honest, was pretty darn clever and probably more appropriate for the subject matter than a 3,000-word story.
Still, I'd like to have the words I wrote for it all preserved someplace, so here they are.
On March 11, 2015, an anonymous tip was texted to the Franklin County Kentucky Sheriff’s Department that Gilbert “Toby” Curtsinger, a longtime employee of the Buffalo Trace distillery had some stolen barrels of bourbon on his property. A search warrant was executed and deputies drove out to Curtsinger’s house on a winding country road west of Frankfort. Stolen bourbon is not unusual in bourbon country, but Franklin County Sheriff Pat Melton believed that this tip was about something more than your typical bootlegger. He believed that it might be leading him to the Pappy Van Winkle Bandit.
If you’re even a casual consumer of bourbon, chances are you’ve heard of Pappy Van Winkle. It’s the rarest of the many varieties of bourbon made by the Buffalo Trace Distillery and, indeed, the rarest bourbon variety of them all. Pappy, as it is known colloquially, is extraordinarily hard to find. Just 8,000 barrels are produced each year, compared to the millions of barrels of mass market brands like Jim Beam or its Tennessee cousin, Jack Daniel’s. Bar patrons pay upwards of $100 for a single pour. Aficionados who are lucky enough to win lotteries for the privilege of buying it at retail snap up bottles for as much as $300. Those not so fortunate, but who still want the stuff, routinely pay thousands for a bottle on the black market.
On October 15, 2013 Buffalo Trace reported that a little over 200 bottles of Pappy, with a market value of around $26,000, had gone missing. Sheriff Melton characterized it as a “heist,” and characterized the stolen product as “The Mac Daddy” of bourbon. The theft made international headlines, with bourbon enthusiasts inside and outside of the industry speculating about who did it, marveling at the audaciousness of it all and, perhaps, wondering if the theft made it more or less likely that they themselves could get their hands on a bottle. When that tip came in, pointing a finger at a man who had inside access to the place where Pappy was born, Sheriff Melton believed he was about to crack the bourbon crime of the century.
Do you like bourbon? Then I have a story for you.
Some of you may remember The Great Pappy Van Winkle Heist from back in 2013. Hundreds of bottles of the most expensive, most highly sought-after bourbon known to man, Pappy Van Winkle was reported stolen. Coming as it did amidst an unprecedented boom in the popularity of bourbon, it made national news. International news even.
In 2015, Franklin County, Kentucky Sheriff Pat Melton claimed to crack the case. A criminal syndicate was behind it, he said. Racketeering! Guns! Drugs! Serious, serious business. Over a half dozen arrested. A man named Toby Curtsinger the alleged kingpin. The assailants faced decades in prison under state RICO laws. It was a major, major deal and, once again, made news around the globe.
And then, three years later, it was no longer big news at all. It wasn't even all that big of a crime.
One person had charges dropped against them. Everyone else pleaded guilty, with all but one serving no jail time whatsoever. The alleged kingpin, Toby Curtsinger, was sentenced to 15 years. He served 30 days and was released on shock probation just this past weekend.
What made the case turn into almost nothing, with almost no jail time? The fact that there really was no Pappy Van Winkle Heist at all. At least not as it was portrayed.
I am the first and so far the only person I know of to speak to Toby Curtsinger about the case on the record. He invited me to Frankfort to interview him back in January. He told me everything. The reality is far more interesting than the coverage, even if it's nowhere close to being as sexy. I did a short writeup of it for it for Bloomberg-Business Week, which they illustrated into a fun little cartoony bit.
The short version: people in distilleries have been stealing bourbon forever. People have been stealing Pappy for years too. No one really paid it much mind. The alleged Heist was mostly a function of an overzealous employee noticing the inventory being off by 200 bottles and calling the police because he was worried he'd get in trouble. Note: the inventory was always off, usually by more than 200 bottles, and there is almost no chance anyone would've gotten in trouble for it, let alone noticed it. Buffalo Trace would almost certainly have done what they always did in such instances: written the missing bottles off as "breakage." Once the police were called, however, it was a big deal and it all spiraled from there.
In reality, the "Heist" was a snapshot in time, made possible by antiquated security and quality control at the Buffalo Trace Distillery, not uncommon at most distilleries until relatively recently. If not for a local sheriff (since voted out of office) trying to make himself look good and the Buffalo Trace Distillery realizing, after the fact, that it was the best free advertising Pappy Van Winkle ever got, none of this would've made even local news. In the end, of course, this was also all made possible by a crazy cocktail culture-fueled bourbon bubble characterized by marks paying thousands for a bottle of wheated bourbon that, 20 years ago, was being sold in novelty, collectable crocks with cartoon hillbillies on it. That sort of dynamic tends to incentivize a black market and tends to help pedestrian stories make the headlines.
Oh, and despite being portrayed as the "Pappy Van Winkle Bandit" none of the charges against Toby Curtsinger actually involved Pappy Van Winkle. He was popped for possessing five barrels of stolen Wild Turkey. It truly was the Pappy Van Winkle Heist that wasn't.
Finally: I actually did a much, much longer and in-depth writeup of all of this that, for various reasons, didn't work for Bloomberg, but I'm happy they ran with this at least. I may be writing up the longer version someplace, even if I only end up putting it on this blog.
I am just as intrigued by autonomous vehicles as the next guy. Everything I've read about them suggests that they'll relieve congestion and improve safety, and I both hope and believe that to be true. Our roads are clogged and anything to unclog them -- and to improve efficiency, confer environmental benefits and cost savings compared to the current shape of our car-obsessed culture -- would be a good thing.
But while it's one thing to view autonomous vehicles as replacements for non-autonomous vehicles on existing roadways, it's another thing altogether to say that we should literally rip up existing mass transit tracks and fill the tunnels with them.
Oh yes, someone is saying that. Peter Wayner in The Atlantic, writing about how, rather than fix New York's aging, overtaxed and increasingly unreliable subway system, we replace it with autonomous vehicles:
The New York City subway is a miracle, especially at 3 a.m. on a Friday night. But the system is also falling apart, and it’s going to cost billions to keep the old trains running: $19 billion, at least according to one estimate from city planners. The time has come to give up on the 19th-century idea of public transportation, and leap for the autonomous future . . .
I'm less interested in the specific pros and cons of such a plan -- hey, we put a man on the moon, so why not a driverless Uber underneath Sixth Avenue? -- than I am in the assumptions and preferences which underlie it.
The premise of this idea -- one which has been astoundingly popular across the political spectrum over the past several decades -- is that it's simply unreasonable to expect our society to build and maintain great public works. That taxes are inherently bad and that raising them to provide goods and services for the well being of people is simply out of the question. It assumes, more specifically, that we simply cannot or should not fix New York's subway system because it's too hard. Too expensive. Not sexy. "Yes, the subway has been one of the marvels of the industrialized world for over a century," the article basically argues, "but it'll cost money and require work to maintain it so let's go with Project: Jetsons."
It's so very sad to see such a mindset. One which doesn't even attempt to push back, not even a little, against the mindless "government bad, taxes bad, private sector good" dogma which has permeated public discourse since the 1980s. One that completely ignores not just the immediate and obvious benefits of public transit, but which doesn't even begin to comprehend the second, third and fourth-order impacts public transit has had, particularly in New York. The city, as we know it, would not exist without the subway system. One would think that grappling with that fact would be required before one talks about replacing it with a bunch of Teslas in a tube.
It's also worth noting that this cars-on-the-7-line idea is intended to be operated by private companies on a for-profit basis. The article talks about how such an idea would take New York back to its roots, noting that the subway system was once a patchwork of private companies (the IRT and BMT, etc.) and public entities (the city-run IND) running competing lines. It might be useful for the author to note, however, that that system ended in the 1940s, with the city taking over and eventually creating a public transit authority to run it all, because the private companies had little interest in cooperating or serving the public effectively. Put simply: private ownership of public transit simply didn't work.
Any transit idea, however fun and futuristic it sounds, that does not appreciate the shortcomings private sector solutions have historically had when attempting to confront large scale public needs is fatally flawed. Any plan which does not appreciate the negative social, economic and even democratic impacts of a private, profit-driven system organized around individually-tailored and custom-priced trips, as opposed to moving masses of people along common corridors, is either hopelessly naive or intentionally tailored to sew inequality.
Most countries treat mass transit systems as national assets. They openly acknowledge the fact that public works require public investment in the form of tax dollars in order to deliver goods people want and need. They do not apologize for it, fetishize private investment or bend over backwards to invent crazy new systems from whole cloth when a near-perfect model -- time-tested and, however worse for wear these days, historically reliable -- is already in place. They do not act like it is a bad thing for people, through governmental authority, to build things via collective action. They recognize that public works are not, first and foremost, aimed at profit-generation, and for that reason they cannot, by definition, be the responsibility of those in the business, first and foremost, of profit-creation. For that reason, their transit systems tend to be far more useful and far better run than ours do.
We should fix the existing subways and build new ones where they are needed. We should build on what has worked in the past and fix that which is not working now. We must dispense with the idea that we can somehow disrupt our way out of having to pay for, build and maintain the sorts of large-scale public works which benefit society via public means.
We must, above all else, acknowledge that when it comes to building a civilization, there are no shortcuts.
Once when I was a little boy, a lightbulb burned out in a lamp in our house. As my dad changed the lightbulb I asked him why they don't make lightbulbs that last forever. He said, "if they did that, the people who make lightbulbs wouldn't make any money."
I didn't think too hard about that answer at the time, but I thought about it right after I read this story from Tae Kim at CNBC, about something a Goldman Sachs analyst wrote in a report to biotech company executives last week.
The report, entitled "The Genome Revolution," asks, "is curing patients a sustainable business model?" The answer is no, at least not in the long run:
"The potential to deliver 'one shot cures' is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically-engineered cell therapy and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies. While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow."
"People would love a lightbulb that lasts forever," the report basically says, "and it would be great for society. But you would make less money if you made one of those." Except, instead of lightbulbs, it's cures for hepatitis of diabetes or what have you. The report goes on to outline ways these companies could make more money if they focus on chronic therapies rather then cures, not because it's better for the world, but because it's better for the bottom line.
The report hit the news the other day and since then I've seen a good amount of outrage about it on Twitter. It seems perverse to many that an analyst from an investment bank would tell biotech company executives that curing diseases is not as good for "sustained cash flow" as treating a recurring stream of customers who never are cured but always need expensive medical products.
Such outrage is misplaced. Or at least not sufficiently placed. We should not merely or even primarily be outraged at the Goldman Sachs analyst. What he said is completely true. That doesn't get him off the hook, of course, as "I was just doing what I was asked to do" is not, last I checked, a "get out of morality free" card, but that's not the end of the discussion. What's outrageous is that we willingly accept a medical system in which what he wrote in that report can be completely true. One in which "cash flow" rather than "tremendous value for patients and society" is the priority and in which those two things are at odds.
The medical establishment -- including providers, the pharmaceutical industry and biotech firms -- has long been caught in a fundamental dilemma between the need to cure and treat the sick and the pursuit of market-based wealth. These actors have improved and extended the life for millions of people through their products and services, yet the need to make entrepreneurial decisions is frequently at odds with the advancement of public health, particularly the health of the poor. Striking a balance between those allegedly equal imperatives is why biotech firms do things like hire Goldman Sachs analysts to tell them what to do. Well, that and putting the hard, moral and ethical calculations inherent in this dilemma in someone else's hands.
Motives aside, the lines of debate on this tend to break down between (a) pro-market actors arguing that, if not for the profit motive, biotech firms and pharmaceutical companies would not research and develop lifesaving cures and drugs; and (b) those who find profiting off of the lives and health of others to be immoral on the other. The former group tends to believe in the market like the devout believe in a god, believing that it will provide all that we need if we merely have sufficient faith. The latter group is often naive about what, exactly, motivates human beings to do anything.
The market is not just, of course. It creates "winners" and for there to be "winners" there must be "losers." In the context of people's lives and health, the existence of "losers" is obscene. Likewise, most people are not inherently altruistic. Depending on people to simply do the right thing, however noble, is misguided.
Typically at this point in the discussion someone will bring up Jonas Salk, who famously eschewed patenting the polio vaccine despite the fact he could have made billions of dollars if he had. When asked why he did this, Salk famously said that "the people" owned the patent and asked, rhetorically, "would you patent the sun?” Salk truly believed that, by the way. He considered his work to be a "moral commitment" -- his words -- and devoted the rest of his life to trying to make the world a better and healthier place when he could've spent it sitting on boards, hitting the lecture circuit and raking in boatloads of cash. I tend to think he's the exception, not the rule, when it comes to this sort of thinking.
Either way, it did not require someone as altruistic as Salk was for the polio vaccine to be developed. Salk's research, after all, was not free. It was funded by donations from The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis -- the March of Dimes -- which represented a massive mobilization of the public, spurred on strongly by FDR and the federal government. Rather than R&D losses willingly taken in the hopes of future profits to help recoup those costs, the polio vaccine was financed on the front end by hundreds of millions of donations. As I said, Salk truly was an altruist, but it's also the case that if he had patented the vaccine, he'd be double-dipping in a sense. The public, in large part, had already paid for it, the work was done and then society benefitted, massively.
I will not pretend to have all of the answers about how to best structure our medical and public health system. I appreciate that innovators require incentives and funding to innovate and that depending on altruism to solve society's problems is unrealistic. I do not believe, however, that Goldman Sachs analysts are privy to the only means by which innovators can innovate and I do not believe that the market is as omnipotent as Goldman Sachs analysts believe, especially when it comes to public health, where the ultimate rewards are not and should not be financial ones.
Don't believe people when they tell you that taking the profit motive away from science that science will cease to exist. Don't believe them when they tell you that the market will provide optimal outcomes. We have plenty of counterexamples to both of these spurious assertions and we can do better than we are doing to deliver the goods which benefit humanity.
I spend a lot of time browsing real estate websites. I'm not in the market to move. I'm not coveting a big fancy house or anything. I just find it fascinating to see how much house is available for how much in whatever place I happen to be thinking about or whatever place I have just passed through. It's a time-killer more than anything.
This morning I found myself looking at San Francisco real estate. Given how stupidly expensive it is there, I limited my search to apartments and condos under 1,500 square feet in a neighborhood I'm somewhat familiar with, Alamo Square/Divisadero. I stayed there on a trip a couple of years ago and it just sprang to mind.
I found a place that caught my eye. The sort of place I often think about moving into once my kids go away to college: an old apartment building with character in a walkable neighborhood. Multiple places, actually, as the building, which has recently been renovated, had several 1-2 bedroom units for sale, all of which retained just enough historic elements to bring one joy but sufficient modern conveniences to make life pleasant. This is it:
That's about as San Francisco as you can get, right?
It's San Francisco in price too, obviously, as the cheapest place -- an 800 square foot one bedroom -- is over $800K and the larger ones range from $1 million to nearly $2 million. That's pretty silly in most of the rest of the country, but if you're familiar with the San Francisco real estate market you realize it's par for the course. Heck, within that world these places are probably something of a bargain if you can believe it. In related news, my desire to move to San Francisco, once quite strong, disappeared about 10 years ago.
Normally at this point I'd click out of Zillow and move on to more productive things. Something about that building was sticking with me, though, so I decided to do some searching to see what else I could find out about it. The first non-real estate listing I found was this story at Hoodline.com from early 2015. In relevant part:
1500 McAllister St., one of the buildings damaged in the fire which raged near Alamo Square last month, has been purchased by SF real estate mogul Russell Flynn. The fire affected approximately 17 units and displacing 25 residents, including two families with small children, and the future remains uncertain for the displaced residents . . . Flynn may be known to Hoodline readers as the owner of 493 Haight Street, located on the corner on Haight and Fillmore. That same building burned down in a fiery blaze in 2011, and took two years to rebuild.
I don't know if this Flynn character, who at the time owned thousands of rental units in San Francisco, still owns the building or if he flipped it to the people now selling the expensive condos. I have no comment whatsoever about that last paragraph, in which I detect an insinuation which some of the commenters to the article took up afterward. Safer to leave that sort of thing alone.
I do know, though, that those residents with the rent-controlled apartments from early 2015 all appear to be long gone. I also know that the owner now stands to make several million dollars on the sales of these nice units, each of which carry with them HOA fees that are probably around what the rents used to be on the apartments. Talk about a windfall, right?
I do know one other thing, and I know it for certain: You cannot have a functioning civil society in cities in which only the rich can afford to live.
If the only people who can buy or rent in your city are executives, professionals and single twenty somethings either living five to a house or working 80 hours a week down in Silicon Valley, your city is not whole. For a city to be whole it has to include construction workers and cashiers and firemen and librarians and store clerks and teachers and bartenders and cab drivers. It has to include people with families. It has to have room for both the rich and the poor, the white collar and the blue collar. It cannot rely on a refugee work force trekking into the city from an hour or two away each day and leaving it each night.
After thinking through all of this, I clicked back on the listings for 1500 McAllister Street. I looked at the lovely bay windows, high ceilings and wood floors. I admired the classic exterior. Then I took a virtual walk through the neighborhood via Google Street View, and passed by the nice bars, shops and cafes I went to when I visited there a couple of years ago. I imagined my stuff in one of those apartments and I imagined sitting in one of those cafes, maybe with my laptop, procrastinating on an article I was being paid to write by sending an email off to one of my kids, away at college. I then left the cafe and headed back toward "home," but not before ending up at Alamo Square, a block away, looking out over the Painted Ladies at the San Francisco skyline.
And I wondered how such a beautiful city got so broken.
Are you watching the World Series? Oh, I'm sorry, "The World Series Presented by YouTube TV?" If you are, than you're well aware of just how intrusive the ads are this year. Some distract the viewer from in-game action. Others make one question whether the media covering the Series is bought and paid for.
I wrote about it all this morning over at the baseball site.
This afternoon Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple Inc., said of Apple stores, “we don’t call them stores anymore, we call then town squares, because they’re gathering places.”
Ahrendts' comment could simply be written off as hubristic marketing-speak, but to me it's an unwittingly sad comment about how, in the current age, a luxury goods story can and does serve as a rough proxy for a public square and how, concurrently, civic society continues to be degraded.
While a small number of very rich people have always been able to keep themselves separate and apart from the masses, a larger and larger number of people are using money, technology and education to insulate themselves from the sort of everyday life all citizens once lived. Elite status, VIP sections, priority lines, “Cadillac” healthcare plans, private schools and all manner of other luxuries available to the professional and technological classes create a situation in which a larger swath of the well-educated and at least moderately well-to-do have created what amounts to a separate class apart from the rest of the country. A class that carries with it insidious assumptions, conscious or otherwise, that the affluent and educated are demographically superior to the poor. Or, perhaps, that the affluent and educated are the only people who even exist.
While, admittedly, there has always been some semblance of a class system in this country, the instances in which people come together in commons spaces -- in train stations, post offices, hospitals, libraries, public schools, museums and retail spaces -- has decreased dramatically. What's more, there was once a time in this country where the class divisions we had were at denied and diminished out of either shame or idealism born of the notion that the United States is not a class-based society. Today that conceit has been disposed of almost entirely, with “success” being increasingly equated with one's ability to buy one’s way out of the public sphere altogether.
We live in isolated and increasingly homogenous and cloistered communities. We have made it so that those with access to the gifts of the technological age can do their shopping, their banking and their interaction with the government via electronic means without ever having to encounter the general public or, at the very least, the part of the general public unlike themselves. The increasing power of a small handful of technology companies is exacerbating this trend, turning even basic acts of life, such as buying groceries, into a class-based pursuit.
As a result of all of this, the public sphere of life has broken down in many important ways. We do not come together as a society across economic classes in anything approaching the way we did even as recently as the early 1980s, let alone the way we did in previous decades. This is bad for democracy and social health because, when we do not interact with the whole of society in meaningful ways, we are no longer truly stakeholders in the whole of society. We are, at best, voyeurs, intellectually lamenting that which has befallen our fellow man, yet not really being invested in it in any real sense. When you encounter those in different circumstances than yourself only virtually, you can simply click away. Or you can just choose not to click in the first place.
Which brings me back to Apple. The nearest Apple store to me is in a place called Easton Town Center. It's a mall, but one of those outdoor malls that apes a cityscape, built on what used to be farmland out by the freeway outerbelt. There are storefronts and parking meters and sidewalks and all of that, but it's all private property. While it's a fake city, it holds the sorts of community events -- Christmas caroling, arts fairs, outdoor performances and the like -- that once took place in my town's real public spaces. Except it's not truly a community event given that no one has much business being there unless one is shopping or dining out at one of the luxury goods stores on its premises, and that's obviously not for everyone. And, of course, since it's private property, they can kick out anyone they want to for basically any reason or for no reason whatsoever.
Which certainly puts Apple's claim that its stores, a great number of which are located in places like Easton, are "town squares" in a different light. A light that is sadly telling of what our society has come to in this day and age.
The coal mines are not going to reopen. The textile mills are not going to come back. Deindustrialization of the Midwest is not going to be reversed. At least not completely. While outsourcing gets most of the attention -- and while Donald Trump and the Republicans blame immigration and outsourcing for the decimation of job prospects in once-thriving industries -- it is the obsolescence of some industries, such as fossil fuel extraction, and the automation of others, such as manufacturing, which has been the biggest factor in unemployment and underemployment of the working class.
It is important for leaders, entrepreneurs and workers in areas hit hard by automation and obsolescence in legacy industries -- places like Ohio -- to stop looking to the past for economic prosperity. It is time for us to look toward the future. A huge part of the future will be -- and must be -- about energy. About increasing our energy independence and about making energy systems smarter, more economical, and more efficient. It's also about grasping the economic potential of new, clean, modern energy sources.
This is not about environmentalism, even if clean energy will, obviously, provide environmental benefits. It's about bringing Ohio fully and squarely into the advanced energy economy. It's about creating good jobs with good benefits in an industrial sector that is large, still growing and diversified.
According to a recent study (via Vox) the advanced energy industry brought in $1.4 trillion in revenue last year, globally. That's nearly twice the size of the airline industry, as large as the apparel industry, and close to global spending on media, including newspapers, movies and video games. It brought in $200 billion in the United States alone, which is nearly double that of beer sales, the same as domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing, and approaching revenues realized by wholesale consumer electronics.
While that may surprise you, know that we're not just talking about some small business building solar panels in some office park. The advanced energy industry includes:
You can read the breakdowns of each of these sectors and the current trends here.
The advanced energy industry is not just huge, but it's growing. In fact, it's growing much faster than the world economy overall (7 percent vs. 3.1 percent). In the United States advanced energy is up 28 percent since 2010 and the industry now supports 3.3 million jobs here at home. To give some perspective: the solar power industry alone accounts for 260,077 jobs. Coal mining, coal transportation, and coal-fired power plant combustion account for about 174,000 jobs combined.
Donald Trump and the Republican party don't want to talk about the advanced energy industry and none of their proposals seem geared toward supporting it or incentivizing its growth. Quite the opposite, actually. They view it as a fad at best, a liberal conspiracy at worst, lumping it in with social issues and the greater culture war. Hippie stuff they only care about in Berkeley, Austin or Ann Arbor. Indeed, they seem to take as some sort of personal affront to American values.
But it's not personal, it's strictly business. The business of energy generation, management, transportation and storage. The business of electric vehicles and electric vehicle fueling stations. The business of smart engineering and smart construction, from I-beams to HVAC units to security systems. It's about all of the allied and support industries which create and support these technologies. It's about tech workers, office workers, tradesmen and laborers. About white collar and blue collar, all working for a greener future, both environmentally and economically speaking.
Why would anyone say no to that? And why isn't anyone in Columbus or in Washington saying yes to it?
The new iPhone was unveiled today.
The big news is that it does not have a headphone jack. You’ll need to use wireless headphones, which Apple is calling “AirPods” or else you can use wired headphones using their lightning cable and an adapter. You cannot, however, use regular headphones and there is no longer a standard aux cable.
This is causing a great deal of sturm und drang, with people alternatively freaking out on social media about losing their AirPods or racing to top each other in jokes at Apple’s expense.
Of course, there are also a lot of people defending this move by Apple as visionary, because there are some people who will say anything Apple does is visionary. Apple marketing exec Phill Schiller went so far as to say that the move “comes down to one word – courage.” Which, um, sure. The takeaway here, I think, is that both complainers and backers of every technological change overstate their cases, often in ridiculous ways.
I think it ultimately comes down to this: if you think of an iPhone as a stepping stone across the Great River of Technological Advancement one must ford on The Path to Paradise or something, wireless is necessary and cool and – dare I say it?! – courageous. If you think of an iPhone as a consumer product that you use as a tool to get you through your day, much like a vacuum cleaner or your car, not having a headphone jack is a pain in the ass. It’s that simple.
You have to accept some balance in that whole calculus, of course. The customer isn’t always right. Indeed, it’s often the case that end users have to be prodded, often sharply, into trying new things that will, in fact, make their lives easier one day. But it’s also the case that companies which lose sight of the fact that, hey, people use their products for a reason, eventually run into trouble when he products stop being useful and practical. This is especially true of companies who are making money hand over fist, face little competition and forget how demand curves work. Ask a GM executive from the 1960s and 1970s about that.
I’m certainly no technology expert, but I think the move into wireless headphones mostly serves Apple’s interests, not the interest of its customers. Maybe Apple has learned that its customers will go along with anything even if they aren’t being well-served. Maybe it has managed to convince enough of them that they are really buying that stepping stone across the Great River of Technological Advancement and not a simple consumer product. As an Apple product user myself, I am well aware that there are some cultlike tendencies among our kind that have basically given Apple a license to print money in ways few if any companies ever have had.
But I think it’s a mistake to assume that Apple is infallible when it comes to this kind of stuff. It may have more money than God and it may have assumed a place in our culture that makes it seem like something more than a company selling gadgets to customers, but it’s still just a company selling gadgets to customers. It strikes me that, perhaps, it should think a bit harder about what customers want and ease up a bit on what it thinks customers will adapt to. At some point it’s going to lose a bet on that score.
The current controversy over the price of the EpiPen, manufactured by Mylan, Inc. is quite instructive with respect to the nature of capitalism.
Mylan’s CEO, Heather Bresch, is the daughter of United States Senator Joe Manchin, himself a scion of a notable political family in my home state of West Virginia. Bresch was given her entry-level job at Mylan on the recommendation of her father, who was then West Virginia’s Secretary of State. I’m sure he was just listed on the bottom of the resume and Mylan called him and that he in no way reached out to a company that had operations regulated by the State of West Virginia in order to put a word in for his daughter.
Bresch rose through Mylan’s ranks astonishingly quickly. Perhaps due to her MBA degree from West Virginia University. A degree, it should be noted, which she did not earn. Indeed, it was bogusly awarded and then rescinded because it was revealed that then-president of WVU, Michael Garrison, gave it to her despite the fact that she had completed less than half of the coursework required for the degree. Garrison, it should be noted, is a family friend of the Manchins and business associate of Bresch’s.
Don’t you think for a moment that justice wasn’t done in that case, however. Garrison was forced out of office due to the Bresch degree scandal and is now forced to practice law. He recently represented a company which sued to get a municipal law rescinded which prevented it from operating a horizontal hydraulic fracking drill adjacent to the city’s water supply.
All of that aside, Bresch has long led Mylan to great profits and a soaring stock price which, to be clear, is the job of a CEO. Those profits and that stock price, however, are due mostly to the combination of the monopoly Mylan has on the EpiPen and Bresch’s total lack of compunction about using that monopoly to jack up the price of the pen, which is a literal life-saving device. Hey, even bogus MBA holders can grok the concept of inelastic demand. If you can’t understand that, go read a book, dudes.
Unfortunately, bogus and real MBA holders alike, while masters of certain economic concepts, have a hard time grasping other economic concepts. Such as the one that holds that “there is no such thing as a free lunch:”
“Mylan noted in an email to Business Insider that about 80% of people with commercial insurance who also used a “My EpiPen Savings Card” received the device for $0.”
See? They’re not gouging all of their patients. Just the ones without insurance, which our capitalist society has decided is a privilege, not a right. If you HAVE insurance it’s free! Unless of course you count how much your premiums are jacked up due to insurers passing along the costs they are being charged by Mylan and their counterparts for this kind of gouging.
Now that all of this is emerging into a national controversy, Bresch is being attacked for the price of the EpiPen and because of the 600%+ raise she gave herself after raising the price. She is being defended by her peers, however, as someone who is merely following the accepted norms of capitalism:
That’s quite an endorsement coming from Mr. Shkreli. Not that he’s at all wrong about the values and nature of capitalism. Indeed, he knows them quite well.
Oh well. I suspect all of this will blow over soon. In some cases this kind of controversy would turn into a show-hearing before Congress, but given that that Bresch is a Senator’s daughter I doubt that will happen. And even if it does, I suspect nothing further will happen because Mylan and Bresch are doing everything by the capitalist book.
Even if most people don’t always realize or acknowledge that, in a capitalist society, favoritism, privilege, fraud, greed and the shielding from, as opposed to the engaging in, competition is the book.
I was born in Flint, Michigan. I lived there until I was 11, when we moved to Parkersburg, West Virginia. I lived there for three years and then moved to Beckley, West Virginia where I graduated high school and got married. When people ask me where I’m from I usually say Beckley, but I’m a Flint native and consider Flint, Parkersburg and Beckley to all be my home. They all took their turns and played their part in forming me and making me the person I would eventually become.
I had a good childhood. A happy childhood. I was lucky in that my parents always had stable jobs and a stable income. Such things were not necessarily the norm in Flint or West Virginia. Our society is so socially and racially segregated and we rarely see or acknowledge people in different classes than our own, but it was always a bit easier to see it in places like Flint and West Virginia. Those places were smaller and are poorer than most places with fewer school districts and neighborhoods and clubs and restaurants which allow people to keep their distance from those who are different and poorer than they are. I had a good and happy childhood but I grew up with and was friends with people who didn’t. I saw people who worked their asses off, had almost nothing to show for it and had no one listening to them when they were faced with hard times or injustice.
In Flint, factories closed and no one cared. In fact, people mocked those who were put out of work and blamed them for their own misfortune. In West Virginia people were lucky if all the coal mines did was close. If they stayed open a long time, way worse things could happen. Over time people in Flint and West Virginia would come to accept this as normal. An implicit social contract was torn up by one party to it without the other party knowing, but eventually it was just accepted that factories and mines closed and hard work took its toll because that’s just how things go. Hell, if it wasn’t part of the deal, wouldn’t someone be held accountable for it? No one was ever held accountable, so it must simply be the way things are.
But putting people out of work or putting them at risk in jobs everyone knows, on some level, to be dangerous is one thing. Actively poisoning them and killing them has to be something else though, right?
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In 2000 I worked at a law firm in Columbus, Ohio with a sophisticated environmental practice. I didn’t do that stuff, but the woman in the office next to me did. I heard her mention Parkersburg one day and asked her about it. It seems the firm represented DuPont and they had some issues down at their Washington Works facility just south of the place I lived from the 6th to the 9th grade. A toxic chemical known as C8 had poisoned the water supply – Lubeck water, which is the water which came to my house – and people were getting sick and dying. Babies were deformed. DuPont had known about it since the 60s. The water had been known to be contaminated since 1984, the year I moved there. It was “under control,” the woman in the office next to mine told me. I took that to mean legally under control, not environmentally, because that’s what “under control” means to a lawyer.
I thought of all of the times I drank that water out of the tap of my South Parkersburg home or out of the drinking fountains at Blennerhassett Junior High. I thought back to my Little League team which played at DuPont field, smack right dab in between the DuPont Washington Works plant and the Borg Warner chemical plant right next door. Like the Pittsburgh skyline is to the outfield of PNC Park where the Pirates play the smoke stacks and cooling towers of those chemical plants were to my Little League field. And there was a smell to the place. Not necessarily an unpleasant smell. Nothing that would drive people away. But certainly a unique smell. An unnatural one which to this day I can immediately bring to mind. Thank goodness, I thought in 2000, that all of that was “under control.”
I moved down to Beckley in 1988. My ex-wife and all of her family is from down there and it was down there where I truly grew up and where I truly began to understand and appreciate how hard some people worked and how hard some people’s lives were. My wife’s grandfather had black lung from years in the mines. My father in-law was a construction worker who inhaled crystalline silica for years and whose death from respiratory failure can likely be traced back to that. On April 5, 2010, Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, not far from Beckley, blew up. Twenty-nine out of thirty-one miners at the site were killed. One of the 29 miners killed was the father of one of my other in-laws.
On January 9, 2014 something called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol was released from a facility run by a company called “Freedom Industries” straight into the Elk River near Charleston, West Virginia. It contaminated the water of nine nearby counties, all now home to people I knew and loved back then or, at the very least, home to people like the ones I knew and loved. 300,000 people in a state with a population of only 1.85 million people were told to avoid using their water for cooking, drinking, or bathing for an extended period. Schools and businesses were closed. Hospitals activated emergency measures.
In 2014, in a cost-savings move, Flint’s water supply was changed from the long-used, long-reliable Detroit water system to a new system drawing water directly from the Flint River. After the change Flint’s water was suddenly riddled with lead contamination. Between 6,000 and 12,000 residents were found to have severely high levels of lead in the blood, leading to serious health problems. It’s also suspected that the water change is the culprit behind an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 10 people and affected another 77. As I write this the politicians involved are shifting and denying blame. No one seems to have a plan about how to deliver non-toxic water to the people of Flint.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Things were under control down in Parkersburg, but only for a while. In 2015 DuPont’s release of C8 into the Lubeck water supply finally came to be known by a great number of people and only then did DuPont start facing some modicum of legal judgment for it. Not much of one – their settlements and the jury awards so far have been dwarfed by even a partial year’s worth of revenue from DuPont – but, for the first time in 50 years of knowingly poisoning their own workers, their families and their neighbors, something was being done about it, however small.
Black lung settlements come and go in West Virginia. Some families count on them as part of their basic economic plan and many miners affected by it simply pass on the money to their children and grandchildren in order to help them put food on the table and to keep them out of the mines themselves. As for Upper Big Branch, it was eventually ruled that the explosion was entirely preventable but the unlawful policies and practices of Massey Energy made it inevitable. Practices which were deemed to be intentional and knowingly dangerous and were designed to save money. The government issued 369 citations. Millions in fines were leveled and millions in settlements were paid. One superintendent was convicted of a crime. Fraud. The fines and settlements were small compared to Massey’s revenue, however, and are generally considered a cost of doing business Massey willingly accepted. The criminal sanction was nearly nothing in the face of 29 deaths which were eminently preventable.
My ex-in-law whose dad died in the blast got a sizable settlement. It’s all gone now. I’ve lost touch with him, but from what I hear he’s leading a aimless and sad existence. Massey Energy can put a cost on human life and budget around it, but the son of a dead coal miner can’t do that as easily. As for my father in law: I miss him every day and wish my children got a chance to know their grandfather. Especially my son, his namesake, who was born five months after he died.
Up in Charleston, due to 30-some years of a certain sort of person and a certain sort of politician demonizing government regulation, the chemical spill into the Elk River was deemed to not legally be “hazardous,” thereby preventing all manner of EPA measures designed to be triggered by hazardous situations. Days afterward “Freedom Industries” declared bankruptcy to avoid any liability. A new company working with the same chemicals and with the same phone numbers and addresses registered to do business there soon after. It still operates today and similar, albeit smaller spills of the same chemical happen from time to time. No one was ever held accountable for the big spill.
Up in Flint? Well, that’s still going on, but so far it looks like much the same thing will go down. The politicians currently shifting blame are mostly hiding behind their curious and rare immunity from Freedom of Information Act responsibilities and so who knew what and when about the deadly poison sent through the taps of the people of Flint may never be known. If I were a betting man I’d not lay much on anyone truly responsible for this disaster to have their political or business careers ended and even less on anyone going to jail over it. Meanwhile, I expect many more people will die in Flint because the water they need to drink to survive is toxic. Lead has a way of lingering.
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I don’t pay close attention to what has gone on in Flint and in West Virginia because I’m an environmental activist or a good person or some committed social justice warrior. I’ve only paid close attention to it because, at some point, the names of the places where these crimes have occurred are familiar to me and caught my attention when they hit the news. Such things happen all over the place all the time and they’re lost on me or at least quickly forgotten, just as what’s going on in Flint and what has happened in West Virginia may be lost on you either now or eventually. It’s human nature, I suppose. Our lives are busy and full and the world is a big place filled with all manner of injustice. We only have the capacity to see so much of it or, even if we do see it, we only have so much capacity to care.
But this stuff happens every day. It happens in marginal places which are, invariably, home to poor people. People who don’t fund political campaigns or sit on boards of directors or play golf with those who do down at the club. For most of us, these people are abstractions or stereotypes. Poor blacks who, to some, are a demographic category more than they are actual people. Or dumb rednecks who are easily written off unless or until some regulation-hating politician needs them to bring their guns and trucks and bibles to a campaign stop so he can show just how much he loves freedom and the common man. They’re used at best but usually ignored and are always, always the victims of these atrocities.
I’d wish that we can do better. But after all of this time, I doubt we can. And I doubt most people care. They don’t care about Flint. They don’t care about Parkersburg. They don’t care about Beckley or Charleston or the Elk River. And thus such things will happen again and again and again.
The men’s personal care aisle at your local discount store looks like this now:
Look at all of that black and dark gray and midnight blue! It’s everywhere, from body wash to deodorant to tampons and soda. This morning Allison alerted me to the fact that they’re doing this for sunscreen now. According to the product information, it’s “formulated for men’s unique sun care needs.” The only difference between it and every other sunscreen I’ve ever seen is the fact that it features a “contemporary, masculine scent.” Who knew that all of the other sunscreen had an old lady smell?
Of course in reality it’s all in the packaging. Give something a dark, bold color and men will be more likely to buy it, it seems.
This is our fault, gentlemen. I mean, rail all you want against the companies which produce this stuff or the stores which sell it for being dumb about gender roles and attitudes, but P&G and Target are rational actors. Their goal is to sell as much crap as they can, and if the black packaging didn’t improve sales, they wouldn’t package things in black like they have been. It’s all on us, fellas. We’re voting with our wallets and our wallets seem to be saying “if I get body wash in a steel-gray bottle, no one will think I am a homosexual and/or a woman.”
If there’s any validity to that – if buying things “formulated for men” and packaged in bold dark colors determines one’s masculinity – I’m utterly screwed. This is my current preferred line of personal care products. Literally everything I use on a daily basis:
That’s a pretty darn bright bunch of bottles! To the extent they have photos on them, they’re in soft focus! I see at least three with some floral motif!
But the packaging isn’t the worst part. Take a look at that deodorant. It’s Sure solid Unscented. I have used it, and no other deodorant, since I was a teenager in the 1980s. It has always served me well. However, about a year ago, I had a crisis: I couldn’t find it. None of the stores near me had it in stock for a few weeks and signs saying “coming soon with a fresh new look!” were attached to its usual place on the shelves. Soon, its place was gone entirely and, if I were not a hoarder with multiple sticks of it under my sink, I would have run out and I would have had to choose a new deodorant for the first time since the Reagan Administration.
But, thankfully, I found it again. It was now in the “women’s deodorant” section.
It was there, in the somewhat effeminate packaging you see above (it used to look more like this). Seeing as though it was unscented, I bought it anyway and compared it to my last stick of the old version. Same stuff, 100%, as it was back when the commercials for it featured firefighters and middle linebackers singing “raise your hand if you’re Sure!” Just now, Sure is apparently for women.
Or is it?
That’s from Sure’s UK website. I haven’t seen those manly deodorants or their excessively manly scents like “Quantum,” “Active,” “Adventure,” and “Cobalt” here it the United States yet. But I’m guessing I will soon. Sure needs to get on the dark products gravy train just like everyone else.
When I do see it, I’ll be Sure to continue to pass it up and buy two sticks of the women’s deodorant. And perhaps a couple boxes of tampons for extra measure.
Back at George Washington I had a law professor named Lawrence E. Mitchell. He was my corporate finance professor. And we learned an awful lot about corporate finance. The real takeaway from the class, however, was Professor Mitchell’s teachings about dicey corporate accounting practices.
This was in the mid-90s, years before Enron and all of those other book-cooking corporations crumbled under the weight of their Alice in Wonderland balance sheets. Professor Mitchell was WAY ahead of the game on this stuff, though, noting how rampant and wrong it was that corporations were valuing things as assets when they really were costs, setting themselves as virtual ponzi schemes designed to pay executives now and screw investors later and the like.
I found all of that incredibly useful as a lawyer. Indeed, I remember and use the concepts from that class more than any other class I took at GW. And not just in legal practice – when all of the corporate scandals began in the early 2000s, I knew exactly what was going on thanks to Professor Mitchell. The man, quite literally, wrote the book on corporate irresponsibility and I am a much smarter and well-informed person because of him.
Flash forward to today and I read an editorial in the New York Times from one Lawrence E. Mitchell. I had lost track of him over the years, but he is now the dean of Case Western Reserve Law school in Cleveland. His editorial is about how, contrary to the growing sentiment over the past few years, law school is a good investment:
For at least two years, the popular press, bloggers and a few sensationalist law professors have turned American law schools into the new investment banks. We entice bright young students into our academic clutches. Succubus-like, when we’ve taken what we want from them, we return them to the mean and barren streets to fend for themselves.
I realize a dean of a law school has to say such things, but the cold hard reality is that, unlike it was for me and my friends back in the 1990s, law school is no longer a good investment for most people. It’s a piss-poor one, actually, and unless you (a) have rich parents or already have the money saved to pay the exorbitant tuition; or (b) have a great chance of getting a well-paying job due to family or personal connections in private practice, law school is a sucker’s bet.
If you choose to go to law school, you will go into outrageous amounts of debt and you will come out facing a job market that no longer hands out jobs with six-figure salaries as if they were samples of Genral Tso’s chicken at the food court. It’s brutal out there, and new graduates are killing each other for increasingly scarce and increasingly lower-paying jobs, all the while law schools – which are used by universities as profit centers – belch thousands of new graduates into the job market each May.
To be fair, later in the editorial, Dean Mitchell notes that the market is rough and that it may be wrong to focus on that first job out of law school. Look beyond that first job out of law school, he says, to the rewards that will come later.
There is some truth to that part. Indeed, I’m the living embodiment of a law school education helping one do things other than practice law. But as I have noted quite often, the road I traveled is not an easily replicable one. Indeed, if it wasn’t for sheer dumb luck and the unexpected and possibly undeserved generosity of other people at a couple of key times in my journey, I never would have made it. Oh, and I also had the benefit of 11 well-paid years in private practice before that – with jobs obtained in a radically different legal job market than the one exists today – to help me along the way and to give me the comfort to take the sorts of risks I took to get to where I am.
So as I sit here this afternoon, I am more than a little dumbfounded. Dumbfounded that the man who taught me everything I know about financial mismanagement, shady accounting and corporate ponzi schemes – the man who, more than anything else, warned me against anyone who would classify something as an asset when it truly represents a cost – is in the New York Times advocating that students continue to go into crazy law school debt and defending what has become, in essence, an educational ponzi scheme, all because he believes this thing that is literally bankrupting students is truly an asset.
But hey, I bet there will be more applications for Case Western as a result.