Inflation Chicken Littles

Dean BakerIf there is one thing that binds all the rich together it is their obsession with inflation. The situation is very simple. If you work for a living, you need a job. Modest inflation is good for the job market. But if you own for a living, then inflation is bad. That’s because the stuff you own loses value. A reasonable society would balance those two interests. Indeed, the Federal Reserve is explicitly supposed to keep both inflation and unemployment low. This is its “dual mandate.” But in practice, as long as unemployment isn’t ridiculously high, the Fed doesn’t seem to care. Effectively, they have a single mandate and that is to keep inflation at 2%.

Given that the power elites want low inflation, there is a whole pundit industry that is constantly searching for any signs that inflation is on the rise. What’s especially awful about this is that the Fed has almost magical powers to stop inflation. So there is no real need to stop inflation before it starts. But to listen to these people, we will go from 2% inflation to Zimbabwe overnight and all the bonds of the rich people will be worthless.

This actually demonstrates what’s going on. If inflation is allowed to tick up one percentage point for a couple of months, it will cost bond holders a bit of money. But that doesn’t even begin to offset the huge damage done to workers when the Federal Reserve slams the breaks on the economy to head off the rich losing a few pennies. I think it is really important to remember this the next time you hear someone ranting about inflation being just around the corner.

Recently, Dean Baker has been highlighting a new set of arguments, most recently, The Quit Rate, the Fed, and Braindead Employers. It’s about the fact that the rate at which people quit their jobs has gone up slightly. Generally, people rarely quit jobs when the economy is bad because it’s hard to find another. So these people argue that an uptick in the quit rate means that inflation is just around the corner. But as Baker points out, even with the uptick, the quit rate is still below its level during the worst of the 2001 recession.

More important, Baker made an interesting observation. Maybe people are quitting just because employers are being particularly awful during these bad times. After all, high unemployment is great for employers: they get to choose the very best workers and they get to pay them less. Baker goes on to provide a fanciful mechanism by which this might happen: employees feeling mistreated by wage stagnation.

I’m sure you have seen one or more stories about this or that company or industry that just can’t find skilled employees. But the truth is that these complaints are all nonsense. If companies really were desperate for skilled employees, wages would be rising. And we aren’t seeing it, except in a few rarefied areas like sewing machine use. So Baker concluded:

Maybe employers really don’t understand that if they offered higher wages they would get more workers applying for jobs. After all, no one gives you a test in basic economics to become a boss. If that is the case, we would expect the failure to raise wages would lead to more unhappy workers and more quits. This would be true even if the labor market is weak.

So maybe the answer to the riddle of a higher than expected quit rate is a change in behavior among employers rather than a change in the labor force. It’s at least as good as the other theories out there.

Most likely the uptick in the quit rate means nothing at all. If you sniff around employment and financial data enough, you are bound to find some random bit of information to make your case that the Fed must raise interest rates to slow the economy. That’s what these people do. But they should never be listened to. We should start fighting inflation when the inflation rate really does start to rise. Personally, I think the Fed’s inflation target should be 4%, not 2%. So I think the Fed ought to allow inflation to get quite high before pulling back. But the inflation Chicken Littles really want deflation. They are looking out for their “clients” and not at all for the economy as a whole. And they should be treated accordingly.

Joe Biden Gets a Dwarf Planet

Joe BidenAs you probably know, I’m a fan of Joe Biden. But this isn’t because of his policy ideas. He’s quite all right in that area, but there are a number of things I don’t like. For example, he has always been a “tough on crime” guy, and that has led to our extreme prison problems and the racial inequality that has gone along with them. But Biden is probably the best retail politician in America. No one seems as genuine as he does.

It’s always strange to me that conservatives paint him as a joke—like the Democratic version of Dan Quayle. But in Biden’s “gaffes,” I see authenticity. It may be part of his political brilliance, but all these unscripted moments just highlight that he is basically a decent guy. We don’t get comments about how God wanted a woman to be raped. Just the same, if you actually look at Bidens “gaffes,” there isn’t much there. Just as with Quayle, the media are always circling, looking for something they can grab to further their ultimately thin narrative.

Biden does demonstrate a certain friendly ethnocentrism. In the 2008 campaign, he said of Obama, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” That definitely boarders on racism and it is the worst thing I’ve ever heard him say. But generally, what are called gaffes are just kind of odd and often charming. That’s certainly the case with most of those on Time‘s Top 10 Joe Biden Gaffes. For example:

Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am to be Vice President of the United States of America. Let’s get that straight. She’s a truly close personal friend. She is qualified to be President of the United States of America. She’s easily qualified to be Vice President of the United States of America. Quite frankly, it might have been a better pick than me. But she’s first rate.

All this is to say that when it comes to politicians, Joe Biden is one of the better ones. So it was with much delight that I learned that scientists are calling the detached trans-Neptunian object 2012 VP113 “Biden.” Clearly, they have nicknamed the object because of the “VP.” But it rather fits because the object is unusual. It orbits at a huge distance from the sun: never closer than 80 AUs (distance from the earth to the sun). That’s the largest of any object known. For contrast, Pluto gets within 30 AUs from the sun. It is assumed to be an ice planetoid with a diameter of roughly 300 miles—about a quarter the size of Pluto. And given that it is probably spherical, it would be considered a dwarf planet.

VP113 and Sedna
The paths of 2012 VP113 (red) and Sedna (orange), with the Kuiper Belt (blue) and the planets (purple)

I think it would be totally awesome if the name Biden sticks. It just makes sense. We have a planetoid zipping around the solar system, doing its own thing without much of a care what other people think. I’m fond of saying we should build statues to great people like Richard Stallman and Matilda Joslyn Gage. Well, Biden needs his own dwarf planet!

Cons Think Colbert Is a Double Agent

Stephen ColbertDigby sent me to this very interesting study that shows exactly what I’ve known for a long time, The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report. For those who do not know it, The Colbert Report is more or less a parody of Bill O’Reilly’s The Factor. It is to right wing opinion shows what The Daily Show is to news shows. The whole gag is that Colbert is extremely conservative and stubbornly resistant to facts. He says that he thinks with his gut. He also coined the word “truthiness,” which means, “A quality characterizing a ‘truth’ that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively ‘from the gut’ or because it ‘feels right’ without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.”

But this is not how everyone perceives the show. With a group of 332 participants, the researchers found that when conservatives watch the show, they thought that Colbert was something like a double agent:

Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.

What is especially interesting about this is that Colbert commonly says things on his show that would be considered totally unacceptable if they were taken straight. For example, he recently started the “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” If there were any question whatsoever that Colbert really believed that, I would not watch the show. And that’s but one example. So the fact that people watch him thinking it’s satire of satire is extremely troubling.

But the fact is that I’ve known this about his show. I’ve commented about it to friends. It bothers me that a sizable section of his studio audience seems not to get the joke. The joke they get is the outrageous guy just telling it like it is. It disturbs me because most politically active people can put a nice face on conservatism. Take Paul Ryan: he always claims that his policies that seem to be bad for the poor are actually good for them. And maybe he really thinks that. But the conservative voter is the guy who watches The Colbert Report and thinks that “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” is a valid attack on Chinese Americans.

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Apologies to Fra Bartolomeo

Madonna in Glory with Saints - Fra BartolomeoLast year on this day, I think I was a little harsh to Fra Bartolomeo who was born on this day in 1472. While I did say that “he is insanely great,” I also said that I wasn’t much of a fan. Even then, though, I admitted that the problem wasn’t with him. It was the times. It was the early days of perspective painting and religious painting especially had lost a lot of its pizzazz. But the truth is that Bartolomeo did amazing work within the constraints of the time. And really: I like him more than Leonardo da Vinci.

Two things really stand out in his work. The first is his absolutely impeccable design. That is something that is sorely missing in other painters of the period. You can see it in Madonna in Glory with Saints above. But it is found throughout his work. In fact, I haven’t seen a single painting of his that wasn’t exquisitely composed. And here is another excellent example, Scene with Christ in the Temple:

Scene with Christ in the Temple - Fra Bartolomeo

What else is clear in this painting is the second thing that I love about his work: the use of light. Here is another example, St Mark Evangelist:

Happy birthday Fra Bartolomeo!

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Moral Cowardice in Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good LuckLast night, I watched Good Night, and Good Luck for the first time since it came out. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did the first time. The screenplay is thin. There are lots of musical interludes and similar tricks to fill out the film to its short (for a drama) hour and a half running time. What’s more, the two main characters — Edward R Murrow and Fred Friendly — are the least interested in the whole film. I especially would have liked to know more about Don Hollenbeck, the liberal newscaster who is viciously attacked as being a communist sympathizer.

But the film wants to be more about the battle between Murrow and Joseph McCarthy. And that’s great! There’s a lot of wonderful material. Of course, there is a bit of a problem. Murrow is not as big a hero as the movie makes out. These concentrated attacks were in 1954 — well on the road to McCarthy’s downfall. Even McCarthy taking over the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was on his way down. Still, in the television industry, not known for its guts, Murrow’s work was laudable. But the film isn’t much interested in the politics.

What particularly bothered me was how the film danced around the central issues. This was not just a matter of simplifying the concepts for the screen. The film wants to tell a very simple story: McCarthy was a bad guy because he was going after innocent people. But that’s not the issue at all. McCarthy was bad because he stood against everything this country supposedly holds dear. In the name of stopping the country from becoming the freedom-destroying Soviet Union, he tried to turn us into the freedom-destroying United States.

The freedom to say what the powerful like is no freedom at all. That’s why I’m always so amazed at supposed truth tellers in politics. We have Alan Simpson who tells us the “truth” that we must cut Social Security. We have Obama who tells us the “truth” that black parents must provide better nutrition to their kids. We have Rick Santelli who tells us the “truth” that underwater homeowners are losers who we shouldn’t support. So these “truth tellers” are attacking low income senior citizens, poor African Americans, and poorer homeowners. These are all “truths” that the power elite want to hear. There are no mainstream figures who tell uncomfortable truths to the powerful.

The film highlights McCarthy’s attacks on Annie Lee Moss. But it is implied that Moss was not a communist. Well, the truth is that she almost certainly had been to communist party meetings in the 1930s. By Joe McCarthy’s way of thinking, that made her a communist—and one who shouldn’t be allowed to have a job, I guess. But the issue should be whether she was a traitor: was she working to overthrow the government by violence? No she was not. In fact, in 1954, she wasn’t even anything like a communist. But there should be no punishment for having heterodox beliefs. If Moss then or ever wanted to turn the United States into a communist utopia via voting consistent with the Constitution, we had no right to complain.

At the same time, today we have people very much following in McCarthy’s footsteps. Interestingly, watching the actual video used reminded me very much of watching Darrell Issa who now heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But apart from that, we have conservatives all over the nation who say quite explicitly that they are prepared to “take my country back” by violence. These people are very much a concern—or they would be if they were more than just talkers. Yet because they claim to love America—just as McCarthy did—they are somehow beyond reproach. I will only note that Lenin and Stalin doubtless said that everything they did was for mother Russia.

Good Night, and Good Luck glosses over all of these issues. And as a result, it turns McCarthy into an easy target—a buffoon more than a real threat. And it takes away much of the triumph of Murrow and Friendly. If a film wants to be political, it should simmer in it. This film tips a toe into the political water and removes it. Then it tips a toe into the personality water and removes it. And this repeats over and over again. If it had committed to either direction, it might have been a great film. As it is, it’s good enough but only barely worth the time.

Christie’s Government Abuse Continues

Chris ChristieFrancis Wilkinson gives a great rundown, Christie’s Bridge Report Is an Embarrassment. The report is even more sordid than the actions imply. It focuses on an alleged affair that Bridget Kelly had with Chris Christie’s campaign manager Bill Stepien. Apparently, they broke up and Kelly went on tilt, closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge for reasons that the report does not explain. Why exactly David Wildstein would go along with this is unclear. But then the whole report seems to be unclear.

The strategy of the investigation seems to have been to simply take Chris Christie’s word for everything. Wilkinson says the best line in the report is, “Governor Christie’s account of these events rings true.” And that does seem to be how the writers of the report see their job: to push the governor’s narrative. Check out this passage which is pure Christie apologetics:

Wildstein even suggested he mentioned the traffic issue in Fort Lee to the Governor at a public event during the lane realignment—a reference that the Governor does not recall and, even if actually made, would not have registered with the Governor in any event because he knew nothing about this decision in advance and would not have considered another traffic issue at one of the bridges or tunnels to be memorable.

In other words: (1) Wildstein never told that to the governor; and (2) even if he did Christie couldn’t have known what it was all about. But the report doesn’t just exonerate the governor. It also exonerates those around him that have not already been caught:

Our investigation also found that Bill Stepien (then the Governor’s campaign manager) and Bill Baroni (then the Deputy Executive Director of the Port Authority) knew of this idea in advance, but we found no evidence that they knew of the ulterior motive here, besides the claimed purpose of conducting a traffic study.

That’s the report in a nutshell. It can be simply summed up: everything we already know is the whole truth; there is nothing more to it. They found no evidence that would implicate Stepien and Baroni. But then, they found no evidence about anything other than the fact that Kelly and Stepien had had an affair. Really the report is little more than a hit job on Bridget Kelly.

What’s terrible is that this is not a report paid for by Chris Christie to help him in his defense. This is a report paid for the taxpayers of New Jersey. Its intent is clearly not to shed light on the bridge scandal. It is simply to give Christie cover. It is to provide a plausible narrative for him going forward. But that’s Christie, ain’t it? That’s long been the hit on him: he abuses the office for his own personal gain. That’s what the bridge scandal is about. That’s what the “Stronger Than the Storm” ad was about. And that’s the case here where Christie uses the people’s money to further his presidential aspirations.

And it may all be for naught—too little, too soon. The New York Times just reported that, Port Authority Chairman Resigns, Christie Announces. That’s David Samson, Christie’s chief ally, and the guy Christie has repeatedly claimed was absolutely positively not involved in the scandal. I do hope Christie goes down in a big way, just like Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

The Black Cultural Dysfunction Myth

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait is back, Barack Obama vs the Culture of Poverty. It is the fourth article in the debate that he is having with Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I discussed last weekend, White Power and Black Oppression. It discusses the reasons that blacks are doing relatively poorly in our economy. Chait claims that it the history of oppression causing cultural dysfunction in the black community. Coates argues that we shouldn’t be discussing culture and that the issue is nothing but the abuse of white power. Coates is getting the better of the argument.

In Chait’s most recent article, he cedes a lot of ground without admitting it. As usual when one is trying to lose an argument gracefully, he’s splitting hairs. And that’s fine. The truth is that his position is really not that far from Coates’. But he keeps coming back to this idea that Obama ought to be a cheerleader for “Team Negro.” He writes, “I believe Obama can speak to the African-American community as an African-American without any wider cultural damage…” I have a real problem with this.

Ta-Nehisi CoatesLet’s go back to Obama’s infamous “Popeyes Chicken” speech. During the 2008 campaign, Obama was speaking to a mostly black audience in Texas. He used the opportunity to chastise the audience about their child rearing. In particular, he said that they shouldn’t feed their kids junk food. “You can’t do that,” Obama said. “Children have to have proper nutrition. That affects also how they study, how they learn in school.” But here’s the thing: the audience cheered. I think that indicates that the African Americans in that audience did not raise their children on Popeyes Chicken. Racism works on the oppressed as much as it works on the oppressor. They were all imagining a stereotype that, like most stereotypes, had only the thinnest relationship to reality.

When Obama gave that speech, he was feeding the bigots. He wasn’t helping the black community. He was harming it by reinforcing negative stereotypes. When I lived in Richmond, there was a Popeyes right on the edge of town. And it was not terribly busy. I assume that’s because, just like for nice middle class whites, getting fast food is a treat—something that is done now and then. Now that I live in a nice white suburb, I can tell you: there are way more fast food joints than there were in Richmond.

There are cultural problems in the black community. There are cultural problems in the white community. But somehow, we only ever think that cultural problems are what hold back the black community. This is especially ironic since black communities don’t have 200+ years of accumulated capital. We have a screwed up political environment where Republicans are allowed to be racist just as long as they don’t use the n-word. But Democrats are forced to show that they aren’t beholden to the black community by lecturing it on good nutrition. That skewed framing is symbolic of what is holding back the black community.

Artist and Rat Budd Schulberg

Budd SchulbergI just watched Good Night, and Good Luck, and I’ll probably write about it later. But it is especially appropriate because that movie is about the Joseph McCarthy communist witch hunts. They shine such a light on who we are both as a society and as a individuals. And one of the people who got that light shined on him was Budd Schulberg who was born on this day in 1914. He was one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history. But when he was ratted out to the House Un-American Activities Committee, he dutifully came before the committee and sang like a bird. (Note: the HUAC was not McCarthy’s, but it is a major player in the witch hunts.)

One thing that is most sad about the artists who got caught up in all of that is that their interest in equality and nondiscrimination and justice is generally what got them in trouble. So even the “rats” were generally good people with the right instincts. And that was definitely true of Schulberg. His novels What Makes Sammy Run? and The Harder They Fall are filled with humanism. And his screenplays On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd both probe the way that powerful people control the common man. So I think they more than make up for his performance on the HUAC. After all, the problem is us, not him.

Happy birthday Budd Schulberg!

Paul Ryan More Racist Than Ever

Paul Ryan - Eddie MunsterTwo weeks ago, I wrote about Paul Ryan’s Racist Dog Whistle. This was about his contention that poverty was the result of lazy inner city men. Despite much contention to the contrary, it was pure racist dog whistle politics. Since then, Paul Ryan has gone around trying to prove that he isn’t racist. And it was in the service of that goal that he ended up on Bill O’Reilly’s The Factor Tuesday night.

The appearance was mostly notable because Bill O’Reilly used the opportunity to get his racist hate on. But Joan Walsh noticed some really interesting things in her article, Paul Ryan’s Endless “I Am Not a racist” Tour. Ryan used fellow Representative Barbara Lee from nearby Oakland to claim he wasn’t a racist. “She knows me well,” he said. “And she knows that I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” You know the drill. It’s the modern version of, “Some of my best friends are black!” The nice black lady says he ain’t racist so he ain’t.

Bill O'ReillyBut as Walsh points out, after using Barbara Lee for political cover, he stood by while Bill O’Reilly savaged her, calling her a “race hustler.” Conservatives like Paul Ryan are in a tough place. They know that it is no longer okay to be explicitly racist. But their ideological appeal still depends upon racism. I don’t know where Walsh stands on the issue, but to me it is very simple: Paul Ryan is a racist. People seem to miss the fact that outward signs of racism change over time. Just because Ryan isn’t a fire breathing bigot who uses the n-word doesn’t mean that he isn’t racist. As I wrote when I first covered the issue:

He seems like an Ayn Rand true believer. Yet he doesn’t make the Ayn Rand argument: selfishness is good and all that crap. Instead, he makes the argument that is coded to sound okay to moderates but which simultaneously pushes all those tribal and racist buttons. So I don’t think he necessarily holds the “screw the poor” opinions because of any personal racial animus. But he sure is willing to knowingly use coded racist rhetoric to reach his preferred Ayn Rand dystopian future. And that is racist.

This all comes from to Lee Atwater’s infamous “nigger, nigger, nigger” quote. It doesn’t really matter what’s going on inside Paul Ryan’s pea brain. He can be nice to every black man he meets on the street. The fact is that the policies he pushes harm the poor and enrich the wealthy. And given that our society is already racist and so blacks are more likely to be poor, his policies primarily hurt them. Or as Lee Atwater would put it, all the policies Paul Ryan is “talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is: blacks get hurt worse than whites.”

It doesn’t really matter how he got to those policies. And notice: you could have said the same thing about poll taxes. You could have said the same thing about “literacy” tests. The people who push them always claim that they aren’t about race. But when we look back on them we see that of course they were about race. And that will be true in 40 years when people look back on Paul Ryan’s “culture of dependency” argument.

Corporate Bureaucracy

Corporate BureaucracyThe standard conservative line is that governments are bureaucratic and unresponsive while privately held companies are innovative and responsive. There was never any theory to explain why that would be. And in my experience, it isn’t true. It’s just a tired talking point of right wingers who hate the government.

I grew up in small businesses. My parents pretty much never had regular jobs. And it is a freewheeling lifestyle. And a stressful one. So I have a certain fondness for people who choose that path in life. They are often quite innovative in their ways. As a result, I was really interested to read Martin Longman a couple of weeks ago, Franchisees Should Unionize to Raise Wages. It tells the story of the “typical franchisor/franchisee relationship.” And it ain’t pretty.

People who own a McDonald’s franchise, for example, have very little control over costs. They can’t find a cheaper supplier of English muffins, for example. They are required by law (Court ruling!) to buy them from McDonald’s. What’s more, they have almost no control on what they charge for food. So if employees got a raise, the money would come only out of their profits. They are forbidden to “innovate.”

What really stands out to me in this story is just how bureaucratic the franchise corporations are. The reason is that according to conservatives, there are two worlds: the world of the bureaucratic government and the world of the innovative private sector. But the truth is far more murky. The government is very often incredibly innovative. It still boggles my mind how much the DMV has changed from the early 1970s to today. But for conservatives, it is always the early 1970s. You would think they’d never had to register a new car.

On the flip side of things is that the corporate world is filled with bureaucracy. We have the example of the franchises above. But my personal favorite example is my interaction with the phone company. At the end of the calls, the tech people are forced to recite the tired, “We’re glad you have chosen AT&T…” Regardless of how personable or rude the agent was, they always turn into a corporate automaton at the end of the call. That’s corporate think for you.

Now I know that there are reasons for all this. In the McDonald’s case, the company wants customers to have the same experience at a restaurant in San Francisco as they do in Lovett. And AT&T is trying to push an image of themselves in their support calls. In both cases, it’s about branding. But it’s a rigid form of branding. Certainly third party vendors could provide exactly the right kind of muffins for the franchisees. Support personnel could push the company line in a way that was specific to them rather than reading a prepared statement.

Institutions of all kinds have to balance the power of individual initiative with the desire to provide a unified customer experience. There is nothing that stops the government from doing this well. And there is nothing that dictates the private companies will do it well. Actual experience shows this. But conservatives continue to push this tired line that the private sector is always innovating. If there’s one thing the last four decades have shown, it is that as companies get bigger and customers have fewer choices, they become far more bureaucratic and less accountable than government agencies.

Nate Silver’s Bizarre NYT Parody

Nate SilverNate Silver wrote a bizarre article at FiveThirtyEight last night, For Columnist, a Change of Tone. It is a parody of an article in The New York Times and it attacks Paul Krugman, implying that Krugman has been attacking the new website because it left The Times. Since it is done as satire, it is hard to know what to make of it.

As you probably know, Silver became something of a media star when he predicted the last few elections quite accurately. And liberals especially liked him in 2012 because his model told liberals what they wanted to hear: Obama was winning the election. At no time during the general election did his model have Romney even close to Obama. That included the period after Obama’s less than impressive first debate. Silver was the main counterweight to all the pundits who talked about ridiculous notions of “political momentum” and the distribution of yard signs.

Paul KrugmanIf we take Silver’s article as fundamentally serious, it shows that Silver really doesn’t understand the nature of the many complaints about his new venture. All it shows is that there is a correlation: since leaving The New York Times, Krugman has been critical of Silver. But that’s not the only thing that happened when Silver left. He also greatly expanded his work and has put out articles about global warming and economics. These are fields that are distinctly different from poll aggregation. So the correlation could just as reasonably cause one to conclude, “Krugman doesn’t like Silver since he branched out into fields he clearly knows nothing about.” Or there could be other reasons. The “leaving The Times” narrative seems highly unlikely.

But is Silver serious? He ended his article with a paragraph that I might have used to lampoon him:

While it can be easy to extrapolate a spurious trend from a limited number of data points, the differences are highly statistically significant. At his current pace, Mr. Krugman will write 425 more blog posts about FiveThirtyEight between now and the 2016 presidential election.

I get the impression that Silver isn’t really sure what he wants to say. On the one hand, he seems to be bothered by all the attacks on his new site. On the other, he seems wryly aware that his statistical work has been thin.

The best take on the article is that Silver is saying that everyone is jumping on the site based upon little data. But the article makes it appear that Krugman was right in his initial assessment of FiveThirtyEight, “What would be really bad is if this turns into a Freakonomics-type exercise, all contrarianism without any appreciation for the importance of actual expertise.” I’m afraid so.

The biggest problem, is not the current criticism of Nate Silver. It is rather how much praise was heaped upon him before. I really liked his work during the 2012 election. But he was not the only one doing that kind of work and not even the best. To his credit, Silver always said that there was nothing special about what he was doing. And as is now becoming clear, there is nothing very deep about Silver’s thinking. For that reason, it is probably best that he stick to sports and other kind of “horse racing” analysis.

Grading Myself Against Jakob Nielsen’s Design Mistakes

Jakob NielsenJakob Nielsen is one of the great heroes of the internet. He’s a web usability expert. I have learned a great deal from him over the years. It probably helps that his base attitude is the same as mine: people come to your website for a reason; don’t waste their time. And the biggest aspect of this is the way in which people create frills on websites that don’t help. The oldest example of this is blinking text. The first time you see it, it’s interesting. But it never is again. One of my most hated website decorations are drop down menus. They always distract, rarely work well, and often confuse users.

Earlier today, I was looking at Nielsen’s article, Weblog Usability: The Top Ten Design Mistakes. So I thought that I would run through the list and see how I’m doing. Now, it is no surprise that I’m doing okay. I have a general outlook that is very similar to Nielsen’s. But more important, today wasn’t the first time I’ve seen the article. Although, in my defense, I was doing about as well when I first did.

1. No Author Biographies

This is one of my great complaints about blogs. This includes blogs of friends and colleagues of mine. A lot of people really want to remain anonymous. And I agree that arguments should stand on their own. But none of this means that there shouldn’t be an author biography. But even people who aren’t anonymous still provide nothing. I take this as contempt for the reader. As for me, I think my author page could be a whole lot better. But it is better than it used to be.

2. No Author Photo

I don’t think this is as important, but I certainly like it. What’s more, when I’ve written about someone, I like to have a photo of them that I can use in my article. But it is really as simple as what Nielsen says, “It offers a more personable impression of the author.” I also think it helps in gaining regular readers. It personalizes the readers experience.

3. Nondescript Posting Titles

This is one where I really fall down. But I’m trying to do a better job. The truth is that I prefer direct headlines. I hate the trend toward two and three sentence headlines. On this site, I try to make the headline fit on a single line on the page. That’s about 35 characters. As I look at the last ten articles I posted, the two best headlines did take up two lines, even though not by much. They are: “Why Conservatives Ignore Global Warming” and “Why You Can’t Argue With Christian Apologists.” (Nielsen also notes that one should not put headlines IN ALL CAPS. Yes! It is harder to read. It reduces reading speed. It is ugly.)

There is another issue that Nielsen doesn’t mention. Google puts a lot of emphasis on titles in its rankings. I see this all the time. So I really will continue to improve this. I think I’m a lot better than I have been.

4. Links Don’t Say Where They Go

I’m not entirely clear on this one because I think that Nielsen is kind of vague on the point. But he’s very clear on what he doesn’t like. And it is something I see all the time. Here’s an example from him, “There’s more here and here.” I personally hate that because it doesn’t make sense. The least a writer could do is, “There’s more at this link.” But even that’s terrible. When I link, I try to include the article title as I did at the start of this post. But sometimes, you don’t want to slow the pace down in that way.

5. Classic Hits are Buried

Nielsen believes that blogs should highlight their most popular articles. I’ve got a greatest hits page, but it is perpetually out of date. It’s hard to keep up to date because the site continues to grow in readership. But every once in a while, I do a bunch of work on it. It’s about time.

6. The Calendar is the Only Navigation

This is a big problem with blogs. The diary nature of them is really not very good after you get a few articles written. Frankly Curious is currently headed toward 4,000 articles—a milestone we will hit in a couple of months. And we will likely hit 5,000 by the end of the year. I’ve done a lot to improve this aspect of the site. Instead of using the standard blog categories, I created my own PHP code to provide my own category pages. They provide titles and then the first few sentences of the article. You can check them out on the right. The same code is used in the site maps. In addition to this, the site now has two search features. There is the base one written in the blog. This one works great for single words, but it is useless for anything more. So there is also a Google search. Still searching kind of sucks in the world of blogs.

7. Irregular Publishing Frequency

There is no doubt that this used to be a problem around here. It isn’t anymore. In fact, the site is shockingly consistent. I try to do five articles per day. But when I’m doing a lot of technical work (which I have been the past couple of weeks), it tends to go down. I still usually get four articles up and never less than two. This is a point I stress to people starting blogs. It doesn’t matter if you only write one article a week. But write one article a week. In addition to everything else, it keeps you thinking about your blog. Krugman is good about this: even when he’s out of town, he posts little apologies and warnings. People like that.

8. Mixing Topics

Okay. I do this. It is the nature of the blog. The idea is to be mixed. And if anything, the blog doesn’t represent enough of my interests. But this is one of the reasons I’ve worked so hard to get the categories working. Even if I were focused, I’m not sure what I would focus on. I’m not a specialist.

9. Forgetting That You Write for Your Future Boss

I do forget about my future boss because I know that I will never have a boss again. People are willing to contract with me, but they aren’t willing to hire me. But my partner Will did point out that he avoided showing clients (many of whom are religious people and even churches) my site because of the coarse language. As a result, I’ve pretty much stopped using it. I find I can get the same kind of stuff across without those words. Of course, my writing on “spiritualism” would probably offend those people for different reasons.

10. Having a Domain Name Owned by a Weblog Service

I still find it amazing that some very big blogs are hosted on BlogSpot. They always seem like relics from the past. But to each his own.

Well, that’s it. I think I would have to give myself a B+. But then, I’ve always been a pretty easy grader. I intend to continue to work to improve the user experience. But most of my time goes to creating content. I still think that is the most important thing.