Posts tagged ‘advertising’

Windows as a Stand-Alone Server

I have written before about how much trouble I had using windows as an unattended server for an application -- in this case for the XBMC video system on my TV's around the house.  No matter what I did, how many tweaks I made, how many websites I checked for advice, within a day or two some application or popup would take control of the screen and send my unattended application to the background.  This would not be such much of a problem if it was just me using it, but with a non-tech-savvy family members trying to interact with the device with a TV remote, it was unacceptable.  Eventually I switched to the Linux version of XBMC in a distribution call Openelec and I have had zero problems since.

I was reminded of all this at the San Diego airport.  They have these big beautiful screens with flight and weather and travel information.  But apparently they have problems making the windows popups go away as well (that's some sort of HP registration message in the window):

click to enlarge

 

The most amazing example I have ever seen was on a giant, giant advertising screen on the front of a casino in Las Vegas, which had a huge windows popup covering whatever ads were supposed to be served up.  I wish I had my camera but I was out jogging at the time.

Update:  A reader sent me this, via gizmodo, from Cowboys stadium

click to enlarge

After Criticizing Capitalism For Using Advertising to Trick Consumers into Bad Deals, Progressives Try to Use the Same Tactic for Obamacare

From our favorite politically-blinkered economist who used to be smart:

Chait stresses the youth aspect:

Fortunately for Obama, this field of battle favors his side. To pass the law, he needed to win over skeptical senators. To defend it in court, he needed conservative jurists. But identifying and persuading young people is a battle Obama does not expect to lose to Republicans, and in place of the federal outreach funds, the administration is deploying a campaignlike array of weapons: microtargeting, including door-to-door outreach, and all forms of media. (A few weeks ago, Katy Perry tweeted out a link informing her 42 million followers that health care was available beginning October 1.)

Yep, when it comes to reaching hipsters, or young people in general — I know, Katy Perry — Dems have big advantages; all that coastal cultural elite hatred suddenly turns into a big disadvantage for the right.

A couple of thoughts:

  • Katy Perry is part of the cultural elite?  We have sure dumbed down that concept.
  • As to Ms. Perry, whose music is actually a guilty pleasure of mine, health care has been available to your twitter followers all their lives, not just beginning October 1.  A better way to put this is that, as of October 1 you will be forced to buy some amount of health care whether you want it or not.  
  • The whole campaign aimed at young people is simply obscene.  I understand that folks like Ms. Perry honestly believe that young people are getting a better deal, and that she is doing them a service.  Fine, millionaires can be low information voters too.  But people in the Administration have a much more cynical purpose, which explains the magnitude of the campaign described by Chait:  For Obamacare to work and not be a fiscal disaster, it depends on young people overpaying for health insurance.  The Administration knows that young people are overpaying -- the whole system depends on it -- and yet they are telling them it is in their interest to sign up.   A private company that did this would be in jail.
  • I think this whole campaign is going to fail due to a basic fallacy of Progressive thinking.  Progressives are convinced that consumers are helpless dupes of advertising.  They in fact criticized health care advertising expenses in the private world for years for this reason, making this whole campaign incredibly ironic.  Obama and company are convinced that with enough advertising, average consumers will buy anything, even if it is a bad deal, because they are convinced that this is how consumer capitalism works (it got him elected, didn't it?)  I think they are going to be disappointed.

Government "Investment" Of the Day

Over the course of Lance Armstrong's career, the US Postal Service paid him over $40 million in sponsorship money (at least according to the radio report I heard this morning).

I don't necessarily begrudge advertising -- the USPS was nominally acting as a business enterprise, and businesses advertise to promote their services.

But I do find this expenditure odd in the extreme for a couple of reasons.

  • First, sponsorship money of this sort generally can only build name recognition.  Paying to name a ballpark "Chase Field" builds name recognition for Chase, but by necessity does not communicate anything else about its services or value proposition.  The same is true for putting one's name on Lance Armstrong's jersey.  Does the US Post Officer really need name recognition?  Are there people wandering around unaware of the US mail?  I could understand advertising such as "this is why our express mail is better than Fedex" or "you should send a real paper thank you note and not just an email to really thank someone."  But name recognition for the USPS?  "Oh, so that is what that funny box in front of my house is...."
  • Second, to the extent one did indeed feel the need to build name recognition, why in the hell would one do it in a sport primarily competed and followed in Europe?  This seems an odd strategy for a service that is essentially limited by statute to US operations.

The only thing I can guess is that someone in the USPS decided, "Hey, everyone hates us.  Let's sponsor someone (preferably in a tangential sport that we could actually afford) who is beloved so some of those positive feelings might transfer to us."   That worked out well, huh?

The Crony Christmas Tree

One item that was part of the (thankfully) deceased farm bill that got little attention was a levy on live Christmas trees.

Apparently, live Christmas tree producers are upset at competition from artificial trees.  And there is nothing to which Congress is more sympathetic than using government coercion to help industry incumbents fight off new competition.

Readers may or may not know that the government often steps into certain agricultural commodities and, at the behest of the largest producers, creates mandatory advertising regimes.  In these regimes, a tax is levied on everyone's product and the money is used to fund advertising campaigns (e.g like the ones for milk and beef).

The most recent farm bill was to create a similar regime for live Christmas trees, requiring all tree producers to pay the per-tree tax whether they wanted or needed the advertising campaign or not.  So, for now, we have escaped holiday government-funded ads like "Pining for Christmas" and "Live Trees:  They are What's Fir Christmas."

The egg industry was silent on whether they would consider a similar step to battle plastic Easter eggs.

How Much Is Sucking Up To The Government Worth in the Corporate State

One potential gauge can be seen in, of all places, advertising during the Masters golf championship.

I am not a huge golf fan, but enjoy watching the Masters and the British Open (if you have never been in Britain during the Open, it is a fun experience -- people are in bars at 9AM watching).  The Masters is unique among sporting events in that it eschews getting the maximum advertising check, and instead only accepts a tasteful 2-3 corporate sponsors, who run just a few minutes of advertising an hour.  This year the sponsors were AT&T, IBM, and ExxonMobil.

AT&T and IBM had generally non-specific ads that played up their companies' innovativeness, telling well-heeled golf viewers that they would be a good business partner on technology issues.  Exxon did something very different.  They ran ads over and over about how much they cared about education, and in particular in support of common core curriculum.

In our modern mixed economy, the worst thing you can have as a corporation is a bad image.  It means that politicians will look to score points for the next election by gutting you like a fish.  ExxonMobil is the perennial leader on this dimension, though Walmart occasionally grabs the number one spot.  So one purpose of the ads is clearly to improve its image and make people like it.  It is telling that ExxonMobil does not bother to do so in its core business.  There is a great story to be told about how much technology and capital must be invested over long time horizons to get gasoline as cheap as three or four dollars to the pump, but ExxonMobil has obviously given up on this message.  Instead, it works to be liked on a subject, education, largely tangential to its core business.

But its strategy at the Masters seemed to go further.  By actively shilling for the common core curriculum, an Obama-favored initiative to further Federalize k-12 education, they are essentially sucking up to this administration.

I and most of my family worked for Exxon.  I only worked a few years at Exxon (in beautiful Baytown, Texas) but members of my family worked for Exxon their entire lives, and I have known and still know a number of Exxon execs.  And I can say with good confidence that few if any of them really believe that shifting control of education from local agencies close to parents to Washington is really going to help education very much.

So, if you watched yesterday, you saw a multi-million dollar suck-up. And the pathetic thing is that it was probably a useless exercise. The bullied often try to end bullying by sucking up to the bully -- it seldom works.

Old Dog, New Tricks -- I Learn To Syndicate on Twitter

The other day I noted the impending death of Google Reader.   Having started to survey the alternatives, I feel much better about the transition.  But I did not fail to note a different implication -- that RSS has never really caught on as a syndication vehicle -- twitter and Facebook and I suppose Google circles are more popular.

Well, I am happy to to adopt technology where it makes sense.  I loath Facebook as a personal tool (seriously, is there a worse laid out web page on the planet?) but my customers love it so we have adopted it enthusiastically as a business tool, using Facebook pages to create a dialog with our customers.  Here is a good example of a great business Facebook page - people are doing our advertising for us.

In the same vein, I likely will never really be able to use Twitter like other pundits do, to fire off witty, biting remarks in 140 characters.  I have trouble keeping post titles under 140 characters.  But I am happy to use it as a syndication tool.

So, starting now (actually starting with the previous post), Coyote Blog posts will be tweeted out at twitter.com/coyoteblog and linked at facebook.com/coyoteblog.  If that is your preferred way of discovering web content over RSS or just surfing the site itself, go for it.  I am still working on Google, but that will come soon.  By the way, for other bloggers interested, I am using the free version of Netscripts: Social Networks Auto Poster plugin.

PS-  I am sure my friend Tom, who is driven to distraction by my typos and grammatical errors, would observe at this point that at least in 140 characters there is less room for me to make mistakes.

Modern Piracy

Modern pirates do not need a ship or swords or cannon, they only need lobbyists.  Ever wonder how Captain Morgan rum pays for all that expensive TV advertising?  They don't -- you do!   At President Obama's insistence, their subsidies (along with many others) were extended in the recent "fairness" tax bill.

Real Reason for US Recession Uncovered

According to the RIAA prosecutors owned by the RIAA, it is all Kim Dotcom's fault:

Meanwhile, Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom is free on bail, living in his rented home near Auckland and awaiting extradition proceedings to begin in August. Dotcom along with Finn Batato, Julius Bencko, Sven Echternach, Mathias Ortmann, Andrus Nomm and Bram Van Der Kolk are charged with criminal copyright infringement and money laundering.

The men -- along with two companies -- are accused of collecting advertising and subscription fees from users for faster download speeds of material stored on Megaupload. Prosecutors allege the website and its operators collected US$175 million in criminal proceeds, costing copyright holders more than $500 billion in damages to copyright holders.

$500 billion is about 3.5% of US GDP.

Corporate State and the Olympics

Wow.

The most carefully policed Brand Exclusion Zone will be around the Olympic Park, and extend up to 1km beyond its perimeter, for up to 35 days. Within this area, officially called anAdvertising and Street Trade Restrictions venue restriction zone, no advertising for brands designated as competing with those of the official Olympic sponsors will be allowed. (Originally, as detailed here, only official sponsors were allowed to advertise, but leftover sites are now available). This will be supported by preventing spectators from wearing clothing prominently displaying competing brands, or from entering the exclusion zone with unofficial snack and beverage choices. Within the Zone, the world's biggest McDonald's will be the only branded food outlet, and Visa will be the only payment card accepted.

This brand apartheid is designed to prevent "ambush marketing", the gaining exposure of an brand through unofficial means. One of the best known examples of this was in the World Cup in 2010, where a bevy of 36 Dutch beauties in orange dresses provided by Bavaria beer gained considerable media attention, to the chagrin of the official World Cup beer, Budweiser. At London 2012, branding 'police' will be on hand to ensure that nothing like this happens, with potential criminal prosecutions against those responsible. Organising committee LOCOG will also take steps to ensure that no unofficial business tries to associate itself with the Olympics by using phrases like 'London 2012', even on such innocuous things such as a cafe menu offering an 'Olympic breakfast'....And it's not just London. All the venues for the 2012 Olympics will be on brand lockdown. In Coventry, even the roadsigns will be changed so that there is no reference to the Ricoh Arena, which is hosting matches in the football tournament. Even logos on hand dryers in the toilets are being covered up. The Sports Direct Arena in Newcastle will have to revert back to St. James Park for the duration of the Olympics.

 

Update on the EPA's Electric Vehicle Mileage Fraud

I have written several articles (here and here) outlining why the EPA's method of giving electric cars an equivalent or eMPG is outright fraudulent.  I calculated for the average driver, for example, that the Nissan Leaf's 99 eMPG was actually closer to 36.  Why?  Well, in the EPA's methodology, the science-based Obama administration pretends the 2nd law of thermodynamics does not exist.  Specifically, they assume perfect conversion of the chemical potential energy in fossil fuels to electricity.  They also assume zero transmission losses.  To rework the calculation, I actually used a Clinton-era Department of Energy methodology called well to wheels.

So here is something I thought I would never write:  It turns out the Union of Concerned Scientists agrees with me.  Apparently they have used a similar methodology to rework electric vehicle MPGs based on the fuel mix of the power in different cities, rather than an average national fuel mix as I did it.  I am not sure how they did the analysis - did they use average fuel mix or the marginal fuel, and if the marginal fuel did they assume the marginal fuel at night or during the day?   For example, certain California cities look good with solar use but that does not do anything for typical night time car charging.

Anyway, the problem is hard and I could quibble with how they did it.  But the results are telling - everywhere they looked, even in the hydro-powered Pacific Northwest, the eMPG they got was lower than that of the EPA's.  And in many cases much lower.

If corporations were using the EPA's eMPG methodology, they would be busted by the FTC for false advertising.  It's time to fix this calculation so Fisker Karma drivers can't continue to fool themselves into thinking they are doing something positive for the environment.

Blaming the Phone Book

Local Conservative Greg Patterson blames the death of several sex workers in Detroit on the Backpage, because the killer may have targeted them based on their ads in that periodical.

The killers are the ones who should be held responsible, but what about parties whose negligent actions facilitate the killing?  How about the example of a school with poor lighting, or the business with lots of bushes in which bad guys can hide?  There are plenty of cases that show the property owner would be liable for the intentional torts of others.

So New Times knows that Adult ads are used by bad guys...even to the point of murder.  Craigslist stopped accepting these ads after a similar incident and New Times picked up the business...at a considrable profit.  So can they be held accountable for the deaths in Detroit?  I would argue that they can be.  What about future deaths?  What happens if New Times continues to accept adult advertising and someone else gets killed?  Actionable?  I would say yes.

This is exactly the sort of spurious liability logic Conservatives tend to mock, except of course when it involves a target it does not like.  In this case free market Conservatives really hate Backpage for accepting freely placed ads for free exchange involving consensual sex.  I responded in the comments:

Why do you cast so far afield for an analogy in your third to last paragraph [the one above about schools with poor lighting]? Why not take a directly parallel example - what if some killer were stalking Starbucks barristas whose work places he identified through ads in the Republic or via Google Maps? Would you really run around in circles blaming Google? This is like saying that a serial killer is facilitated by the phone companies because they publish the phone book the killer used.

We are talking about ads placed via free exchange for consensual sex. Yes, in our bizarre society, Conservatives who nominally support all other types of free exchange have had this one sort banned. But it is ironically the very fact that this sort of consensual commerce is illegal that makes this work so dangerous. Escorts/hookers are vulnerable to abuse, crime, fraud etc. precisely because they have less ability to access the legal system for redress.

If you want to discuss who facilitated the death of these women, let's talk about those who drove their profession underground.

Assemble Freely, and Lose All Your Rights

My new column is up at Forbes, and discusses the proposal by a number of Congressmen for a Constitutional Amendment to strip corporations of speech and other rights.  The post is hard to excerpt but here is just a bit:

This is why this proposed Amendment is so absurd.  In effect, it would mean that we all enjoy the full range of Constitutional rights, except when we agree to assemble and cooperate -- then we lose them all.   If I as an individual bake bread in my kitchen for resale, I could still petition the state to modify regulations relevant to my activity.  If I then join together with my neighbor in a cooperative venture to bake and resell bread, does it really make sense that I would then lose my right to petition the government?

Worse, the proposed Amendment does not limit its scope to just the First Amendment.  It means that individuals, when on corporate property, might have no protection from unreasonable searches and seizures;  corporations would have no guarantee of due process or of a jury trial in civil suits;  corporate assets would no longer be protected from eminent domain seizure without compensation.  Under this provision, the Federal government could seize Apple Computer if it so desired (or even quarter troops in the Apple offices!).  This all sounds like a stalking horse for Socialism, which might seem overwrought until one realizes that Bernie Sanders is the sponsor of a similar proposal in the Senate....

Of all the possible approaches to reducing the ability of private citizens to manipulate government policy to their personal benefit, this is in fact likely the worst.  As mentioned above, there are many different avenues to exercising influence and power, of which election spending and advertising is just one.  But election spending is the most transparent of all of these approaches.  This proposed amendment would in effect substitute highly visible advertising and electioneering with backroom deals and political patronage that is far more hidden from the public eye.  A cynical person might argue that this is exactly the goal.

Hair of the Dog

This is pretty incredible.  It's like the last two years didn't even happen.

A national consumer coalition plans to file a series of landmark federal fair housing complaints beginning Dec. 6, challenging a widespread practice by banks and mortgage lenders: requiring borrowers who apply for FHA loans to have FICO credit scores well above the 580 minimum set by the FHA for qualified applicants with 3.5 percent down payments....

Because FHA insures lenders against losses from serious delinquency or foreclosure, there is "no legitimate business justification" for rejecting applicants solely on the basis of FICO scores that are acceptable to FHA, the complaints contend.

Subprime mortgage customers are generally defined as those under a credit score of 620.  I am surprised that anyone in this environment is offering 3.5% down to any buyer  (though here is the government actually advertising the fact).  But giving 3.5% down to subprime borrowers?

Even with the FHA guarantee, banks have learned that the cost of default for them is not zero.  Only someone who has been in a cave for two years could somehow ascribe this action to discrimination rather than an obvious reaction to the ongoing mortgage crisis.  The government is still out acting irresponsibly, and when private institutions (who actually have to live with the cost of their decisions) try to behave like adults, they get hauled into court.

By the way, this sure does seem to bolster the argument that community banking standards and the pressure from the government and community groups to drop lending standards played a large role in the housing crisis.  If we are seeing this kind of pressure even after the housing disaster, what kind of pressure was at work, say, in 2005?

Via Mark Calabria, who has more

Update: Flashback

"In 1995, HUD announced a National Homeownership Strategy built upon the liberalization of underwriting standards nationally. It entered into a partnership with most of the private mortgage industry, announcing that "Lending institutions, secondary market investors, mortgage insurers, and other members of the partnership [including Countrywide] should work collaboratively to reduce homebuyer downpayment requirements."

The upshot? In 1990, one in 200 home purchase loans (all government insured) had a down payment of less than or equal to 3%. By 2006 an estimated 30% of all home buyers put no money down.

"The financial crisis was triggered by a reckless departure from tried and true, common-sense loan underwriting practices," Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, noted this June. One needs to look no further than HUD's affordable housing policies for the source of this "reckless departure." If the mortgage finance industry hadn't been forced to abandon traditional underwriting standards on behalf of an affordable housing policy, the mortgage meltdown and taxpayer bailouts would not have occurred."

The Problem With Google

Google grew up providing a number of free services (email, search, etc.)  Given that they were free, it was not unreasonable to avoid providing any live customer support via email or phone.  Users weren't paying anything, so if they had a problem they could try to solve it on the boards.  In fact, I have criticized whiners on boards for their absurd expectations of customer support for a free product.

Today, Google now offers a number of paid services (e.g. Adwords search advertising) but it still brings its old customer service mentality to these free services.  I pay thousands of dollars a year in advertising to Google, and many others pay much more than this.   Unfortunately, there is absolutely no option for support from a real person on my advertising account.  Sure, there is a section marked "contact us" on their web sit, but all that is is a fairly lame troubleshooting script that does not lead to any sort of contact form or phone number. Just try searching "how do I contact google adwords" to see all the frustration.

I know many companies that are able to provide live support for a $12 purchase, much less a $1200 purchase.  Even Intuit Quickbooks, which pretty much defines the low end of customer service in my little world, is easier to reach than Google.

In the past, I have recommended Google Adwords because it gets results.  While that is still true, I have to withdraw my recommendation.  Right now, my account is effectively closed -- though not, as you might expect, in a fit of pique from 5 hours of trying to get an answer to a simple account question.  It's closed because something broke, and I cannot get it fixed.  The only workaround on the boards for this problem is to close my account (and lose all the records of past search terms used, campaign success details., etc) and open a new account.  Roughly the equivalent of tearing your house down to fix a bad electrical outlet.  No way.  I was looking for a way to economize and Google has apparently just volunteered themselves as my target.  Thousands of dollars of revenue tossed because they wanted to save five bucks of labor.

The Seen and Unseen

I am thinking about renaming the Chevy Volt the Chevy Bastiat.  Because the entire vehicle concept is based on the hope that people will ignore the unseen.  Specifically, those pushing the vehicle are hoping that buyers will just assume the electricity for the vehicle is free (after all it is not separately metered) and that the CO2 footprint is zero (despite the fact that in states like Michigan, an electric car is essentially powered by coal combustion.  From autobloggreen

We often, though sometimes incorrectly, assume that it's cheaper to operate an electric vehicle than a comparable gasoline auto. Hey, who hasn't? While this assumption generally holds true, electrical rates vary widely across the nation and can throw off the numbers. In some instances, like when Inside Line's engineering editor, Jason Kavanagh, drove the Chevrolet Volt out in sunny California, one discovers that operating a vehicle powered by electricity can indeed cost more than running it with the liquid fuel that pours from a pump.

Earlier, I took down the absurd initial advertising that the Volt got 230 MPG.

Ex Post Facto Law

Ex Post Facto law, meaning law retroactively criminalizing past practices, is explicitly banned in the Constitution.  But big government folks have found a way around this prohibition through the massive government regulatory bureaucracies that have been created over the last half-century.

Here is a great example.  In short, an online site accepted advertising from a company that the FTC later went after for deceptive advertising.  Note, the online site was not involved, they just ran the add, just as your web site may be running ads or Google adwords right now.  The FTC actually settled the case with the company accused of wrongdoing for $0.  So obviously, they were not that worked up about the ad.  But in order to establish a new legal principal that sites that run advertising can be liable for the entire liability for a deceptive ad, they went after the web site for $6 million!

Forget for a moment what bad policy this is -- can you imagine being fully liable for any fraud involved with any company that runs an add on your site?   But beyond that, the basic approach -- of legislating from the administrative branch, abuse of power to cow small companies and individuals through threat of bankrupting legal costs, and ex post facto rule-making -- is just staggeringly scary.

This is why I cringe every single day whenever the phone rings in my small business.

My suspicions were confirmed when I looked up the law the FTC said I had violated, a law that was vague and didn't seem to have much to do with what the FTC was accusing me of. And it certainly did not say that the FTC was entitled to the amount of money it wanted. My lawyers explained that the amount the FTC was suing for was based not on laws that Congress had passed but seemed to be based on what judges had awarded in previous cases over the years.

Moreover, in our case, the FTC was now trying to go beyond what previous judges had awarded. What lay behind their actions seemed to be this: they were trying out a new legal theory. They wanted to establish a new principle "“ that a person who was in any way connected to the advertising at issue, no matter how trivial their involvement, was liable for the entire amount of all purchases of the product by consumers. I felt as if I had been struck by lightning. I was the sacrificial lamb. I had the rotten luck to be chosen, of all people, to be the test of their novel legal theory. [...]

I'm all for getting tough on deceptive advertising, including Internet fraudsters. But what seems terribly wrong is the FTC playing Goliath where they just outspend everyone they go after, regardless of whether there was any wrongdoing. Unfortunately, that appears to be the direction in which they're going. David Vladeck, the new head of the Bureau of Consumer Protection (the person I met with), advocates pursuing test cases "even if the legal theory has not been accepted by the court prior to that time." (see http://www.abanet.org/antitrust/at-source/10/04/Apr10-VladeckIntrvw4-14f.pdf) In other words, you may be violating a law that doesn't exist yet. That is downright scary. The only thing the FTC is going to "prove" by "winning" these cases is that they can establish their new principles by bankrupting anybody but the very wealthiest Americans "“ the only people who could afford to take them on.

You Can Bet on 36 Red, But Not Amazon.com Angel Shares

I thought this was an interesting irony of our growing corporate state:

In my post "Attention Gov't: This Is How Businesses Are Created" I brought up the point that government regulations keep the average American from investing in ground floor business opportunities with rules specifying how much money someone must have before they can invest in start-ups (unless the start-up is being done by a friend or family member).  Government regulations also prevent start-ups from advertising their investment opportunity.  If you need ground-floor investment (as opposed to loans) to bring your business to the proverbial next level, there is a wall of regulation that keeps you from asking for it from the general public and specifies what "sophisticated investors" (the already rich) you can approach and how.

Those rules are there to protect us middle class rubes from being taken in by crafty and ill-intentioned businessmen.

I contrasted this protection the government so thoughtfully provides us"“keeping us from making possible bad investments"“with it's promotion of lotteries and acceptance of casino gambling.

Now these people who will not allow an entrepreneur to advertise or promote his start-up in order to get voluntary investment money from people willing to take a risk on the business idea or invention are looking at legalization of online gambling in the USA.

Awful DISCLOSE Act Passes House

No time today to comment, so I will direct you over to John Stossel who has more on this really awful piece of legislation.

Update: More in the Washington Examiner.  And here is a rare bit of honesty, where a Democratic Congressman admits the law is about keeping Republicans from being elected.  Team Coke wants to keep Team Pepsi from advertising.

Speech and Spending

I had a dinner conversation last night with my Massachusetts mother-in-law.  She is pretty interesting to talk to because she is a pretty good bellwether for Democratic talking points on most issues.  She was opposed to the recent Supreme Court speech decision removing limits on third party advertising near an election  (I think she misunderstood the scope of that decision but that is not surprising given the shoddy reporting on it, up to and including Obama getting it wrong in his State of the Union).   She advocated strict campaign spending restrictions (both in terms of amount of money and length of the campaign season) combined with term limits.

We could have gone a lot of places with the discussion, but we ended up (before we terminated the conversation in the name of civility) discussing whether restrictions on money were equivalent to restrictions on speech.  She of course said they were not, and said under strict monetary controls I still had freedom of speech - weren't we still talking in the car?

It is hard to reach common ground when one person is arguing from a strict rights-based point of view while the other is arguing from a utilitarian point-of-view.   Essentially she knows in her heart that she is restricting speech, but wishes to do so to reach a better outcome.  I made a couple of utilitarian arguments, including:

  • I pointed out that when the stakes of government are so high, money and influence never goes away.  Just as in any economy, when you ban money, a barter economy arises.  So if we ban large campaign spending, then the quid pro quo becomes grass roots efforts and voter mobilization.  Groups like the UAW become more powerful (we are seeing that already).  They are trading their member's votes for influence.  Connected companies like GE are doing the same thing, trading their support for legislation that is generally hostile to commerce for specific clauses in said legislation that exempts GE and/or makes the laws even more punishing on their competition.  The problem with all this activity is it is hard to see and totally unaccountable -- at least with advertisements we see people out in the open with their agendas.
  • I observed that it was smart to add term limits to her plan, as otherwise her recommendations would be the great incumbent protection act.  But by limiting money, immediate advantage is given to people who already have name recognition and celebrity.  Think we have too many actors and athletes running for office?   Well be prepared for a flood with stricter campaign finance restrictions

However, I tend to shy away form utilitarian arguments.  The best arguments I have against the notion that money can be restricted without restricting speech are:

  • Her comment that I still had freedom of speech (ie I am talking freely in the car) with strict campaign cash restrictions ignores the actual wording of the First Amendment, which reads "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech."  Her test, which is "Am I still able to speak in some forum even if I can't in others" is not a valid test for conformance to the First Amendment.  Otherwise, speech could be restricted at will as long as there was some narrow safe harbor where one could express his opinion.    The better test is whether the proposed law, ie a restriction on how much and when a person can spend money advertising his or her opinions, abridges or reduces freedom of speech.  And I think it is hard to deny that everyone has less freedom, in the form of fewer options and reduced scope, after such legislation.
  • One interesting test is to broaden the question -- Does restricting spending on something (in this case speech) constitute a restriction on one's underlying right to the activity (e.g. speaking freely).  I was tempted to ask her (she is a strong and vocal abortion rights supporter) whether she would therefore consider the right to abortion to be untouched by Congress if a law were passed to limit each person's spending on abortion to $5 a year.   Abortion would still be entirely legal  -- all government would be doing is putting on some spending restrictions.   Obviously one's scope and options to get an abortion would be limited -- only those who happened to have a doctor in the family could perhaps get an abortion -- just as under her speech plan only those who had a large newspaper in the family could speak fully and freely before an election.

A Few More Thoughts on Citizen's United

A friend of mine from Princeton days writes:

... and you seem in favor of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs the FEC, I was wondering how you feel about being a customer or supplier or competitor of large businesses who can spend far more than your business to influence the rules of the game.

From what I read, I am sure you have a compelling answer, but I would be scared to death. (Maybe that's why I work for a large corporation [Target] instead of attempting to run my own business.)

I thought this was a pretty good question, and I answered:

  1. I try hard not to make utilitarian arguments to Constitutional and rights issues.  As an example, I am sure we might have less crime if the police were empowered to incarcerate anyone they wanted without trial, but we don't do it that way.
  2. I worry most about corporate lobbying (e.g. by Immelt at GE) and this is unaffected by this ruling - it was legal before and after.   This decision allows corporate advertising, which is public and visible, which I can at least see and react to, as opposed to back room deal making.
  3. Libertarians certainly worry about your question, and why many of us fear that what we are creating in this country is a European-style corporate state, rather than socialism.  To a libertarian, the answer is not less speech, but less government power to pick winners and losers in commerce.

Really, Really, Really Bad Idea

Just what we need, the government choosing winners and losers in media like they do earmark recipients.  Since government ownership of GM was politicized in Congress before the ink on the court agreements was dry, I wonder how fast Congress will find a way to use a government media bailout to punish the critical and reward sycophants.

A top Democratic lawmaker predicted on Wednesday that the government will be involved in shaping the future for struggling U.S. media organizations.House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, saying quality journalism was essential to U.S. democracy, said eventually government would have to help resolve the problems caused by a failing business model.

Waxman, other U.S. lawmakers and regulators are looking into various options to help a newspaper industry hurt by the shift in advertising revenues to online platforms.

Waxman continues:

"Eventually government is going to have to be responsible to help and resolve these issues,"

Why?  You mean like when the US government stepped up in the 19th century to bail out pamphleteers and failing broadsheet publishers when the market moved to new media?  Or when it moved to bail out network television under assault from new cable channels?  Remember that?  Neither do I.

Next steps:

At the Federal Communications Commission, officials are embarking on a quadrennial review of the state of U.S. media. The study, which is mandated by Congress, seeks to determine whether current rules should be changed to allow for a more vibrant media industry serving a diverse audience.

We have that.  Its called the Internet.  It emerged entirely free of government action (save some funding of some original infrastructure).  Go away.

Great Suggestion

Brad Warbiany has a great suggestion in response to new FTC rules requiring that

Under the revised Guides, advertisements that feature a consumer and convey his or her experience with a product or service as typical when that is not the case will be required to clearly disclose the results that consumers can generally expect. In contrast to the 1980 version of the Guides "“ which allowed advertisers to describe unusual results in a testimonial as long as they included a disclaimer such as "results not typical" "“ the revised Guides no longer contain this safe harbor.

Brad has suggested this disclosure is in order:

Barack Obama, Sept 12, 2008
And I can make a firm pledge: under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 will see their taxes increase* "“ not your income taxes, not your payroll taxes, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes.

* Results not typical. Families making less than $250,000 can expect to see rises in cigarette taxes, increased energy costs through cap and trade and/or gasoline taxes, soda taxes, and mandates to buy costly insurance plans they can't afford. They can expect to pay all the taxes levied on "corporations", as well as the cost of new regulations, who will pass those on in the cost of goods. Families can expect taxation through the form of inflation, eating away at the buying power of their paychecks. Firm pledges have not taken Viagra and should not be expected to last more than 4 hours.

Update: From Ann Althouse, couldn't have said it better myself:

The most absurd part of it is the way the FTC is trying to make it okay by assuring us that they will be selective in deciding which writers on the internet to pursue. That is, they've deliberately made a grotesquely overbroad rule, enough to sweep so many of us into technical violations, but we're supposed to feel soothed by the knowledge that government agents will decide who among us gets fined. No, no, no. Overbreath itself is a problem. And so is selective enforcement.

Three Quarters of A Million Americans Arrested For Marijuana Possession in 2008

In the US last year, 754,224 people were arrested for possession (not dealing or production) of marijuana.  By the logic of US drug laws, all of these folks are better off with an arrest record and possible incarceration that they are from the nominal negative effects of smoking marijuana (FBI report here, via Radley Balko).  These numbers are just insane.  And while the report only gives race numbers for total drug arrests rather than for just marijuana offenses, a hugely disproportionate number are black (over 1/3 of arrests).

And speaking of equal protection, the arrest numbers for gambling are eye-opening (table 43).  75% of all people arrested for gambling last year in the US were black, including 90% of the arrests of those under 18 for this offense.  It seems it is A-OK for whites to play poker at home for money (I'm guilty) or to bet in Super Bowl pools (guilty again) or to clad themselves in polyester and head to the casino boat, but blacks who choose to compete with the state gambling/lottery monopoly will get arrested.  As an aside, I have always laughed at the government piously suing tobacco companies for targeting minorities with their advertising and then using the same techniques themselves to target minorities for their lottery sales.

Regulation as Incumbent Protection

This is a great example of a point I often make about regulation aiding incumbents and large companies against smaller companies and upstarts.  From the DC Examiner, via Radley Balko

Philip Morris, openly and without qualification, backs Kennedy's and Waxman's bills to heighten regulation of tobacco.

Philip Morris stands to benefit from this regulation in many ways. First, all regulation adds to overhead, and thus falls more heavily on smaller firms. Second, restrictions on advertising help Philip Morris' Marlboro, a brand everyone already knows, by keeping lesser-known brands in the shadows. (Existing restrictions on advertising have already helped Philip Morris in this regard, with an added benefit spelled out in Altria's annual report: "Marketing and selling expenses were lower, reflecting regulatory restrictions on advertising and promotion activities. "¦ ")

Finally, if the bill passes and the FDA gets added control over the industry, Philip Morris, more than any of its competitors, will have access to those bureaucrats and agency heads making the decisions. For all these reasons, RJ Reynolds and other tobacco companies oppose the bills Kennedy and Waxman are pushing.

Regulation is About Protecting Incumbents

Darin Morely sent me this.  Woe be it to the upstart competitor with a new business model who challenges an incumbent with political connections.  This goes double when the incumbent is the government itself:

One of the great things about the web, obviously, is that it allows for much more efficient communication that opens up new and useful offerings. For example: the web offers the ability to find other people traveling to the same general place you're heading and to set up a convenient carpool. It's good for the environment. It's good for traffic. It just makes a lot of sense. Unless, of course, you're a bus company and you're so afraid that people will use such a system rather than paying to take the bus. That's what happened up in Ontario, as earlier this year we wrote about a bus company that was trying to shut down PickupPal, an online carpooling service, or being an unregulated transportation company. TechCrunch points us to the news that the Ontario transportation board has sided with the bus company and fined PickupPal. It's also established a bunch of draconian rules that any user in Ontario must follow if it uses the service -- including no crossing of municipal boundaries -- meaning the service is only good within any particular city's limits.

All of us in the states need to be prepared for more of this corporate economy thing in the US.  I saw last night on Sunday Night Football that NBC is really going hard on some green initiative, including having a green peacock.  GE (parent company of NBC) is a smart company and sees the writing on the wall.  It understands the new administration and Congress seem hell-bent on moving us to a more European model.  In that model, there are 10-20 corporations per country that insinuate themselves into government and get the opportunity to help run the country to their own benefit.  GE wants to be one of these chosen few.  The push is going on not just at NBC, but in light bulbs (betting on Congressional action to provide regulatory support for a new type of bulb they have invented) and in power systems (who are making large bets on wind that will not pay off without a government subsidy program).

In the near term, GE may need a bailout in its financial arm.  GE must have seen that GM made a huge public push for its Chevy Volt over the last 6 months, spending hundreds of million in advertising on a car that does not exist yet. Why would a company near bankrupcy do this?  We now know the advertising was aimed at Congress and the Administration, not consumers, trying to burnish their green image to give Democrats enough political cover to vote for the bailout their UAW supporters so desperately need  (any chapter 11 would likely result in enormous restructurings of union contracts).