September 2008

John McCain

I’m beginning to worry that the McCain camp might be spinning their own candidate. A certain amount of bravado is to be expected from campaign aides, but now that credit crisis has hit full on, they’ve entered a level of fantasy that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before in a Presidential campaign. Could it be that they’re partly doing it to buck up the candidate — to make him think that he really is the man of the hour?

I’m not sure how else to explain the alternate-universe quality of reports like this one:

The senator’s top aides said planning for the announcement began late Tuesday night, as McCain began to receive word that Bush’s rescue plan was faltering in Congress, and as Democrats began to demand leadership from McCain.

“We got a good sense last night, even more so this morning,” one top aide said. “Got in a position where Democrats were warily circling McCain — not going to commit to a deal unless McCain does. It was just a time for leadership. So he just stepped up.”

Hello? Is this a credit crisis or a cowboy movie? “…warily circling McCain”? Please. The man is known for his lack of expertise on economic matters; he’s even admitted it himself. This is just group hallucination, and any reporter who pressed them on what exactly they meant would frankly be doing them a favor — sure, it hurts to be brought back to Earth, but it’ll only hurt more the longer the fall.

Not only is Obama going to win this, he has to win this. We can’t afford a President who is both math-averse and delusional. Again.

Bernanke and Paulson

My friend Biella made a really good point about the financial crisis and the government bailouts this week:

Consider the position of politicians and free-market theorists who decry government regulation of financial markets. Compare that with our situation today: effectively, we now have government nationalization of much of the financial services industry. As Biella observed, the strongest possible form of regulation is to simply own the regulated entity, or to lend it money under terms so strict that they are the equivalent of owning it.

We have regulation either way; the only question is whether we admit it. If our policy is to bail out anything that’s “too big to fail”, then the form of our regulation is after the fact and improvisatory; that is, our policy is to regulate, but only on an emergency basis. We could choose a different policy: to regulate before the fact and on a non-emergency basis.

What we cannot choose, however, is not to regulate. That is clearly impossible.

David Brooks wrote an Op-Ed column (“The Post-Lehman World”) in the New York Times today, in which he argues, half-persuasively, that current calls for greater regulation in the future are unrealistic and possibly the result of the same herd mentality that got us here in the first place. He makes a number of good points, but I think he missed some as well. I wrote a letter to the editor in response; probably they get a ton of those and the chances of its being published are very low. For what it’s worth, here it is:

To the Editor,

David Brooks' "The Post-Lehman World" (Op-Ed, September 19th) is
excellent, but he overlooks a subtle point when he writes: "As McArdle
notes, cracking down on subprime loans just when they were getting
frothy would have meant issuing an edict that effectively said: `Don't
lend money to poor people.'  Good luck with that."

This is a misunderstanding of what was happening.  Poor people do not
benefit by being made loans they cannot repay.  And, ordinarily,
lenders do not benefit by making loans they cannot collect.  However,
a lender who makes many such loans and then sells them off, packaged
as something less risky than they actually are, does benefit -- and it
is precisely this deceptive practice that cried out for regulation.

It was easy to detect; we cannot plead ignorance.  When large numbers
of unqualified borrowers are being given inappropriate loans, it's not
hard to figure out that it's happening.  Everyone who worked in the
mortgage industry knew -- even if those on the bottom rung were not
aware that the ultimate driving force was the desire to sell
mislabeled debt packages.

Regulating that mislabeling would have left everyone better off: poor
people, lenders, and now all U.S. taxpayers.  Despite Brooks'
pessimism, stopping the cycle would have been politically possible, by
an administration that cared to stop it and knew how to explain to the
public that overly-easy credit helps no one.  Certainly, much of the
public understands it now.

-Karl Fogel

Jessica Ferris

I just got this email from my friend Jessica Ferris, and was so delighted that I wanted to share it with everyone:

It’s September 19!

I’ll be 31, which for some reason seems a whole lot more significant than 30. Like, I’m not just in my thirties as a little novelty, I’m actually keeping going straight through.

I won’t be having a birthday party this year — I prefer to keep things quiet for a whole bunch of reasons.

But I’m using my Birthday Girl Immunity to do something that a few of you, my friends, might find to be of questionable taste.

Here’s what it is:

If I’m someone whose birthday party you’d like to attend (assuming I were in your town), you could take those couple hours you’d spend at my birthday party, and go spend them phone-banking for the Obama campaign.

Or maybe you could take the five dollars you’d spend on chips and dip to bring to my hypothetical potluck celebration, and give it to the Obama campaign.

Or if you’re someone who might just click on my e-vite and maaaaybe consider coming to my party, that is, if there were nothing better to do that day, you could just click here and maaaaybe consider supporting the Obama campaign, that is, if you find there’s no one better running for president.

Because honestly, the biggest thing I want for my birthday is to live in a country which isn’t run by McCain/Palin.

The Birthday Girl

I’m going to give Jessica what she asked for on her birthday. I hope you will too.

We’re looking for a web designer and a systems/db person available soon, for paid work on a project that would last through Election Day. (If it goes well, the project might continue after Nov. 4th, but think of election day as the deadline.)

It hasn’t been green-lighted yet; it partly depends on how quickly we can find people.

Brief summary: it’s about helping college students vote. They often don’t because they can’t figure out where they’re supposed to vote, what the residency requirements are, etc. But it turns out most of them can vote, if they just get the right information. The idea is to have a crowd-sourced, curated site that gathers this information and makes it easy both for students to vote and to pass on information about how to vote to other students they know. Good user interface and comprehensibility will be key.

The funders are aware they had this idea somewhat late in the game, but they’re interested in trying to make it happen if we can put together a good team quickly. This is a non-partisan get-out-the-vote effort; the funding is not coming from any of the campaigns.

By the way, we are aware of,, and the local information at We’ll use those and similar resources, and try not to duplicate efforts. Please let us know if you’re aware of others.

If interested, please send name, résumé, and rates to me at Just quote your normal corporate rates; we’ll figure out later if we need to ask for non-profit discounts.


-Karl Fogel

How hard would it be to make a distorted map of the United States in which all the state borders are shown, but with the states shrunk or expanded to have areas proportional to their populations? In other words, like this map from map

…but with each state re-sized to visually represent its electoral college weight.

Naturally, this would distort the shape of the U.S. as a whole, at least if one wanted to keep borders touching as they do now. But could it be done? And done so that the country is still basically recognizeable?

Getting the areas right could be tricky, since these aren’t rectangles… One would have to be careful to avoid the sorts of accidental data distortion sins Edward Tufte warns of, and which, in a sense, undistorted electoral maps like the one above are inherently guilty of. On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be precise, just close enough for government work (as the saying goes). Any tool that turns the black lines into grabbable, moveable boundaries, and counts the pixels inside to approximate the area of each state, would be fine. Of course, as you’re moving one state’s boundary, that of its neighboring state is changing too, so the interactions get complicated, hmm.

I have no idea if such tools exist anyway, though. Dear lazyweb…