Man Without Qualities

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Culture Clash

From the New York Observor:
“Our focus groups show that men, straight men, are now totally fascinated by grooming and skin-care unguents,” said the good-looking, young Mr. Foxman, adding: “Even more than electronics.”

Has anyone given any serious thought as to who, exactly, is supposed to pull one out of a waterlogged, feces-drenched, stink hole of a city in the aftermath of a Category 5 hurricane if all the straight men become totally fascinated by grooming and skin-care unguents?

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Friday, September 16, 2005

Public Editor Comes After Herr Doktorprofessor And Gail Collins: Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels

New York Times "public editor" Barney Calame absolutely blasts Paul Krugman and Times opinion page editor Gail Collins:
Columnist Correction Policy Isn't Being Applied to Krugman

An Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times who makes an error "is expected to promptly correct it in the column." That's the established policy of Gail Collins, editor of the editorial page. Her written policy encourages "a uniform approach, with the correction made at the bottom of the piece."

Two weeks have passed since my previous post spelled out the errors made by columnist Paul Krugman in writing about news media recounts of the 2000 Florida vote for president. Mr. Krugman still hasn't been required to comply with the policy by publishing a formal correction. Ms. Collins hasn't offered any explanation.

As a result, readers of who simply search for "Krugman" won't find any indication that there are uncorrected errors in the columns the query turns up. Nor will those who access Mr. Krugman's columns in an electronic database such as Nexis or Factiva. Corrections would have been appended in all those places if Mr. Krugman had complied with Ms. Collins' policy and corrected the errors in his column in the print version of The Times. (Essentially, to become part of the official archive of The Times, material has to have been published in the print paper.)

All Mr. Krugman has offered so far is a faux correction. Each Op-Ed columnist has a page in that includes his or her past columns and biographical information. Mr. Krugman has been allowed to post a note on his page that acknowledges his initial error, but doesn't explain that his initial correction of that error was also wrong. Since it hasn't been officially published, that posting doesn't cause the correction to be appended to any of the relevant columns.

If the problem is that Mr. Krugman doesn't want to give up precious space in his column for a correction, there are alternatives. Perhaps some space could be found elsewhere on the Op-Ed page so that readersÂ?especially those using electronic versions of his pieces -- could get the accurate information they deserve.

A bottom-line question: Does a corrections policy not enforced damage The Times's credibility more than having no policy at all?
Mr. Calame's revelations and evident exasperation raise some other bottom-line questions:

Is the Times (with the presumed acquiescence of its Chairman) publishing a violent disagreement over a willful and error-haunted Times columnist between two of its most important editors without a willingness, or even a plan, to have one or more of the three people involved leave the paper?

Can the Times public editor challenge the credibility of the Times on its own pages, and assert that the paper's corrections policy is being outright flaunted, without major repercussions?

Given the violent and intemperate reaction of Herr Doktorprofessor to criticisms leveled at him by the Times' prior public editor, how likely is it that this situation is not going to become rapidly and highly inflamed - with Herr Doktorprofessor resorting to his customary paranoid rants, superheated accusations and apocalyptic doomsaying?

Does any sensible person expect that the Times reporters and columnists other than Herr Doktorprofessor - and Times competitors - will sit still while all this goes on?

Don Luskin has been tracking these developments on his blog and on National Review Online. Looks like there will be lots more for him to report in the near future. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night at the New York Times. In fact, lots of them!

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Louisiana Democratic Party: Swept Away (By an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August) II

A prior post noted that the former residents of New Orleans now evacuated, many to Houston, are probably essential for Louisiana Democrats to remain in office - regardless of whether they are able to convince Louisiana or the nation as the whole that the federal administration was lax in its storm response. I suggested in that post that the prospect of losing their political base might be one explanation of the remarkably emotional state of some senior Democrats in Louisiana, including the state's Democratic Senator. It doesn't look like Louisiana Democrats will be calming down any time soon if this Washington Post report holds up:
Fewer than half of all New Orleans evacuees living in emergency shelters here said they will move back home, while two-thirds of those who want to relocate planned to settle permanently in the Houston area, according to a survey by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. .... According to the poll, most of those who did not plan to go back to New Orleans are already living in their new hometown. Fully two in three of the 44 percent who will not return said they plan to permanently relocate in the Houston area, the city that now is home to about 125,000 New Orleans evacuees. A total of 680 randomly selected evacuees living temporarily in the Astrodome, Reliant Center and George R. Brown Convention Center, as well as five Red Cross shelters in the Houston area, were interviewed Sept. 10 to 12 for this Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey. More than 8,000 evacuees were living in these facilities and awaiting transfer to other housing when the interviewing was conducted. More than nine in 10 of these evacuees said they were residents of New Orleans, while the remainder said they were from the surrounding area or elsewhere in Louisiana.
There are interesting California precedents for what seems to be happening in Louisiana. In OpinionJournal's Political Diary John Fund noted that "A full seven months after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the city cast only slightly more than half as many votes for president as it had four years earlier." Mr. Fund does not say if that voting difference changed any elections. Don Luskin cogently analyses the San Francisco precedent.

There is a more recent Southern California precedent that had clear election consequences. Before the 1994 Southern California earthquake, the City of Santa Monica maintained a strict set of rent control laws - far stricter than those of neighboring Los Angeles. As happens in many cities maintaining strict rent control schemes, one consequence of Santa Monica rent controls was a clear reluctance of that city's landlords to invest in their properties. The effects of that unwillingness could be observed visually simply by walking through some neighborhoods that spanned the Los Angeles/Santa Monica boundary: crummy on the Santa Monica side, not so bad on the Los Angeles side.

One aspect of the situation could not be observed so easily: earthquake retrofitting. Landlords in Santa Monica were, compared to those in Los Angeles, reluctant to invest in their properties to make them more resistant to earthquakes. Santa Monica did not sufficiently permit landlords to effectively "pass along" earthquake retrofitting costs to renters. But, probably more importantly, many Santa Monica landlords didn't want to preserve their structures. Landlords reasoned that given the Santa Monica laws, total destruction of one's apartment house in an earthquake was not necessarily a bad thing.

Such landlords were more correct than they understood. The 1994 earthquake destroyed much of Santa Monica, although without loss of life. In a city of about 85,000 total population, 100 buildings were condemned outright, including 3,100 apartment units, while far more suffered repairable damage. Rent controlled apartment houses were particularly badly hit. The effect of the rent control scheme was obvious and widely reported. In areas experiencing similar force and shock from the quake and having similar geological characteristics, apartment houses in Los Angeles in general fared far better than structures of similar age and style in Santa Monica. The difference was mostly to be found in the fact that Los Angeles landlords had upgraded their structures far more extensively and thoroughly than their Santa Monica counterparts - mostly as a result of differences in the rent control laws between the two cities.

As may now be happening in New Orleans, the former occupants of those destroyed Santa Monica apartments had to leave the city. Residents of rent controlled apartments were, in turn, the main backers of rent control and far-left Santa Monica elected officials generally. It took a few days before those officials realized that their core constituency would not be voting in the next municipal election, and that Santa Monica elected officials would probably soon be experiencing a big turnover. As an article appearing in Reason shortly after the earthquake described the situation at the time:
"The rent-controllers usually win elections by 3,000 to 4,000 votes," says [Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles's spokesman Charles] Isham, "so they're really in trouble." Isham figures that 500 to 1,000 apartments will go unrepaired, a loss that significantly eats into rent-control advocates' slim margin of victory. Rich Seeley, a columnist for The Outlook, a Santa Monica newspaper, predicts the reverberations will continue at least through next fall's elections. In a February 1 column, he writes, "How eager will landlords be to help [Santa Monicans for Renters Rights] insure that tenants get to stay in the city?...How far can SMRR go to make nice with landlords before it starts alienating renters?"
There were some interesting desperate attempts by elected officials to preserve their positions. Pressure was placed by some of them on department of building and safety officers to allow people to return to unsafe apartments, a development that became quite a local scandal. In the end, however, a substantial fraction of the strongest supporters of rent control and the far-left left Santa Monica. The make-up of the Santa Monica city council and other elected bodies did change substantially in the next election, becoming more conservative. But even after the electoral changeover, the city council was and is still very liberal and Democratic compared to the country as a whole - as is Santa Monica itself. But compared to their predecessors, Santa Monica's post-earthquake elected officials are more reasonable, somewhat less intense and not as focused on rent control and far-left political grandstanding. For example, Santa Monica passed a law in 2003 restricting the distribution of food to homeless people in the city - an action which would not have have been taken by any pre-earthquake city council.

Santa Monica did not repeal its rent control laws. But some things had changed profoundly. In 1995 the Democrat-dominated California Legislature imposed vacancy decontrol statewide (taking effect in 1999). Santa Monica's elected officials did not protest that legislative action much, and certainly did not resort to the kind of intense opposition that their predecessors would have mounted. Vacancy decontrol allows landlords to raise rents when a tenant moves out. The California law not only allows landlords to raise rents for vacant apartments, but also bans controls on new dwellings and permanently exempts single-family homes and condominium from controls once tenants move out. The effect of the state legislation in Santa Monica has been profound - with 40% of rent controlled units reported affected almost immediately.

More recently, the elected Santa Monica Rent Control Board has become somewhat more "pro-landlord." For example, the Rent Control Board has passed a regulation allowing landlords to increase a tenant's rent if the apartment is not the tenant's primary residence - a regulation that has been challenged in litigation in which the rent control cutback has so far been upheld. The erosion of the left in Santa Monica begun by the 1994 earthquake population shifts, and erosion of support for rent control, may have acquired a self-sustaining momentum.

Don't be surprised if the political - and, ultimately, long term economic - effects of Hurricane Katrina on Louisiana are more profound than those of the 1994 earthquake on Santa Monica.

UPDATE: Holman Jenkins writes in Political Diary, in part:

[President Bush] spoke last night of tax breaks and business subsidies, reflecting a GOP attachment to "enterprise zones," which too often seem like one mistake trying to fix another, namely the policies that contributed to inner-city rot in the first place. Democrats will quibble with the rhetoric but they'll generally applaud this "placed-based" approach to relief, especially in Louisiana, where local partycrats are keen to rebuild an inner-city demographic that kept them in power. "Innovative and bold," gushed Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat, after the president's speech.

Such place-based aid, however, would be better restricted just to rebuilding the public assets that were destroyed. New Orleans and the rest of the gulf coast already have plenty of economic attractions -- oil, shipping, tourism, recreation -- to attract business, without distorting incentives and handouts. Worse, these elements bespeak an urge to use aid as a lever to make scattered residents return.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

And The Number One Cancer Myth Is .... III

Prior posts (here and here) have noted a paper appearing in the medical journal Cancer that Reuters summarized this way:
When US adults were polled about certain erroneous cancer 'myths', the most widely believed misconception was that surgical removal of a cancer can cause it to spread throughout the body. .... The new findings, which appear in the medical journal Cancer, come from a telephone survey of 957 randomly selected adults who reported never having been diagnosed with cancer. Forty-one percent of subjects believed that surgery could, in fact, spread a malignancy to other regions of the body, lead author Dr. Ted Gansler, from the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, and colleagues note.
As my prior posts note, people sharing this "most widely believed misconception" seem to include some of the most acute researchers in cancer treatment, including Judah Folkman. The "misconception" itself seems to be nothing other than the widely respected theory of "surgery-induced angiogenesis."

Today a Wall Street Journal report describes a new paper appearing in the International Journal of Surgery that documents a study supporting what the authors of the Cancer article described as the most widely believed misconception. The new article itself is written in technical language and is somewhat difficult for a layman to read (although hardly opaque). The Wall Street Journal article summarizes the original article this way:
Doctors have long noted that the rate of recurrence for women with breast cancer is highest during the first two years after surgery to remove the tumor. Now a group of researchers say they have found a reason why: the surgery itself.

In a paper published today by the quarterly International Journal of Surgery on its Web site, the researchers argue that taking out the tumor triggers the release of certain substances in the body, perhaps as part of the wound-healing process or in response to the absence of the tumor. They believe that these substances, in turn, enable cancer cells that had been lying dormant in other parts of the body to undergo angiogenesis -- the process by which the body forms new blood vessels -- which also feeds the tumors' growth. ... The researchers' findings are based on their study of a database of 1,173 breast-cancer patients treated in Italy. They ... offer the theory of "surgery-induced angiogenesis" as the best explanation for a statistical cluster of recurrences in the group.... There is support for this idea in animal and human studies that link surgery to remove tumors, including lung and colon cancer, with cancer recurrence. ... The paper's authors don't advocate that women with breast cancer forgo surgery.
How is it that a paper appearing in the respected journal Cancer could lable the theory of "surgery-induced angiogenesis" a "myth?" And not just any old "myth," but "the most widely believed misconception" in this area of medicine.

Strange it all was. Passing strange.

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Monday, September 12, 2005

Big Loser In New Orleans: Closer To Mr. Big?

Insurance claims from hurricane Katrina may top $60 billion. Those claims, of course, are generally passed on to reinsurance companies, of which the insured party (consumer) has no knowledge or contact. But it is the reinsurance companies who bear the ultimate loss.

Who are the big reinsurance losers from Hurricane Katrina? The American media have been curiously uninformative. Perhaps they don't know. There are some reports, such as this note that Standard & Poor's is putting some insurers on its watch list. But, more interestingly, the British newspaper, the Guardian, has this to report:
Insurance companies with the highest exposure are thought to be Munich Re, Swiss Re, AIG and Berkshire Hathaway, run by legendary US investor Warren Buffett.
There is reason to expect that exposure at General Re from Katrina may be big. In 2004 third quarter Berkshire-Hathaway results included after-tax losses of about $816 million from the much less destructive Florida hurricanes that year. But to my knowledge, Berkshire-Hathaway has not yet made any announcements regarding its Katrina exposure.

Berkshire-Hathaway's big reinsurance subsidiary, General Re, is already being investigated over its role in helping insurer American International Group Inc. (AIG) misstate results, a probe that has just resulted in General Re's chief executive, Joseph Brandon, receiving a formal notice that he could face civil charges. In its quarterly report filed Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Berkshire-Hathaway reported the authorities were looking into the accounting by some of its insurance subsidiaries for finite reinsurance and questioning whether General Re or its subsidiaries "conspired with others" (Berkshire?) to misstate financial statements. And it is worth asking the basic question: Why would Berkshire-Hathaway, eager to aid another public company to misstate its earnings, be presumed to be averse to misstating its own earnings?

Warren Buffett's annual letters to Berkshire-Hathaway's shareholders have for years asserted or implied that Mr. Buffett was intimately involved in the operations of General Re. The web of possible malfeasance and acceptance of possibly imprudent insurance risks at the company now seems to be expanding. How long can it be until Mr. Buffett is personally drawn into the morass? Will the perfect storm of continuing deepening regulatory crisis at Berkshire-Hathaway, big Katrina-driven losses at General RE, and a possibly huge hit in the forex markets, change investors' perceptions of the Sage of Omaha? All of which leads into the fact that despite all of Mr. Buffett's high-profile and hypocritical posturings on "good corporate governance," Berkshire-Hathaway has no successor scheme worthy of the name to replace Mr. Buffett should he leave the company for one reason or another.

Berkshire-Hathaway's stock trades at a premium of about 22 times expected 2005 earnings, which is about twice the price-earnings multiple its insurance peers command. Some analysts are convinced that that premium is not warranted. In other words, those analysts think Berkshire-Hathaway should lose at least 50% of its value.

But there is mounting evidence that the situation at Berkshire-Hathaway may be much worse than that.

UPDATE: White Mountains Insurance Group Ltd., a Bermuda-based property and casualty insurer backed by Warren Buffett, has announced that its Katrina losses may be as much as $300 million ($200 million after tax). White Mountains (once named "Fireman's Fund Corp." - but no longer owns Fireman's Fund Insurance Company) is not owned by Berkshire-Hathaway. It is a public company with common shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the Bermuda Stock Exchange with market capitalization at December 31, 2004 approximately $7 billion. White Mountains joined with Berkshire-Hathaway to purchase Safeco's life insurance operations notwithstanding the fact that General Re is considered to be one of White Mountains' main competitors. General Re-New England Asset Management, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of General Re, owns 16% of the outstanding shares of "main competitor" White Mountains.
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Louisiana Democratic Party: Swept Away (By an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August)

Why is Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu so mad that she's threatened to "punch" the president (a possible federal crime)? Why is Democratic National Committee head Howard Dean screaming "racism" in a crowed emergency zone? And why is Louisiana Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco so emotionally upset that she refused to sign over Louisiana National Guard control to the federal government and her office refused to return calls from the White House, resulting in her not knowing that Bush was coming to her home town for a second visit until told by reporters? Yes, yes, there's lots of finger pointing going on and lots of agendas in play. But doesn't it all seem a bit, well, unusually emotional on the Democratic side in Louisiana these days - even for a big emergency? Why is that?

Well, this Financial Times article may help explain the fury:

As the flood waters gradually recede in New Orleans, local Democrats are starting to worry that the storm may have washed away their strongest political base in the state. .... The key to the Democrats' strong position in the state has been the black community of New Orleans. If many choose not to return, local Democrats fear, their natural majority in state politics could be swept away. ...

Jim Nickel, the former chairman of the Democrat party in the state, said that the shift of population out of New Orleans could be a problem for the party if many African Americans settle elsewhere. "It would not take a large shift of population out of New Orleans to tilt the political balance in favour of the Republican party ... New Orleans has been a veritable ATM of votes for the Democrat party". ....

Many poorer blacks were living in state-subsidised housing that may not be rebuilt for several years, explains Jim Brown, a former Democrat state senator and secretary of state for Louisiana. "By then they will most likely have got settled elsewhere," he says. "Unless they have strong family ties, there may not be much incentive to come back. Working as a taxi driver or a hotel cleaner in Detroit is much the same as doing the same job in New Orleans.".....

The state is divided into three broad electoral areas. The white Baptists in the north have tended to be solidly Republican, while the Cajun Catholics in the south-western Arcadia area have traditionally been more open to voting for the Democrats. The black vote in New Orleans has helped the Democrats carry the state.....

But the margin of [Democratic] victory has been diminishing. In 2003 Governor Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat who is up for re-election in 2007, won by 52 per cent - a majority of about 50,000 votes compared with 48 per cent for Bobby Jindal, the Republican candidate. The state also has its first Republican US senator since the 1870s in David Vitter..... "This certainly increases the chance that Louisiana could soon have another Republican governor," says Mr Brown, the former Democrat senator.
Sad, that. Big hurricane comes to town and washes away one's ATM of votes. All the Democrats lose their jobs even if the federal government gets most of the blame for problems in the relief effort. What Louisiana voter gets back to town and when in the hands of the Republican administration. Makes sense that all those Democrats are upset. Really upset.

Even Hillary Clinton should be upset - Bill carried Louisiana both times.

UPDATE: One wonders what the reactions of Louisiana Democrats and Senator Clinton were to Bill Clinton's Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's suggesting in the New York Times that New Orleans be rebuilt only as an island surrounded by miles of open water. That is, miles of open water covering miles of formerly dry land once inhabited by hundreds of thousands of Democrats.

That's quite a vision you've got there, Mr. Babbitt!

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