Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Economic Statistics for 9 Apr 15

Chain stores are reporting generally good sales for March today, as an early Easter pulled sales from April.

Wholesale inventories rose 0.3% in February, while a -0.2% drop in sales left the stock-to-sales ratio at a boated 1.29.

Initial weekly jobless claims rose 14,000 to 281,000. The 4-week average fell 3,000 to 282,250. Continuing claims fell 23,000 to 2.304 million.

The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index rose 1.7 points to 47.9 in the latest week.

The Fed’s balance sheet rose $1.6 billion last week, with total assets of $4.483 trillion. Reserve bank credit rose $0.7 billion.

The Fed reports that M2 money supply rose by $10.5 billion in the latest week.


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Narrative Journalism, ideology and serving the “greater good”

I don’t know about you but I’ve been fascinated by the UVA/Rolling Stone “rape” debacle.  And while it is clear that Rolling Stone, in general, and the author of the RS article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely specifically, broke every journalistic rule out there, there’s a deeper story here (I’ll get to RS and Erdely later).

It’s about why the story even had a chance of being published.  It’s about the combination of “narrative journalism” and an ideological agenda.  It was about one supporting the other without any real evidence that what had been claimed (a gang rape by fraternity members) was true or had even happened.

The story was out there before Erdely had ever inquired about it.  And you have to understand that that story had largely been accepted as “the truth” by people who wanted to believe it to be so.  These weren’t just students and a couple of teachers, by the way.  These were very well connected people who knew exactly where to go to push their agenda.  Here’s that backstory:

As the Rolling Stone article fell apart, Catherine Lhamon’s involvement has gone virtually unmentioned. But a deeper look reveals her ties to Emily Renda, a University of Virginia employee and activist who put Erdely in touch with Jackie, the student whose claim that she was brutally gang-raped by seven members of a fraternity on Sept. 28, 2012, served as the linchpin for the 9,000-word Rolling Stone article.

President Obama nominated Lhamon to become the Education Department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in July 2013. The Senate approved her unanimously the following month.

She has served as the Education Department’s designee to the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault which Obama created on Jan. 22, 2014. Renda served on the same task force.

Besides that link, both spoke at a February 2014 University of Virginia event entitled “Sexual Misconduct Among College Students.”

Lhamon has been invited to the White House nearly 60 times, according to visitor’s logs. Renda has been invited six times. Both were invited to the same White House meeting on three occasions. One, held on Feb. 21, 2014, was conducted by Lynn Rosenthal, then the White House Advisor on Violence Against Women. Twenty-one people, mostly activists, were invited to that meeting. Lhamon and Renda were invited to two other larger gatherings — one on April 29 and the other on Sept. 19.

It is unclear if both attended the three meetings. Renda did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Renda and Lhamon also testified at a June 26, 2014, Senate hearing on campus sexual assault. It was at that hearing that Renda cited Jackie’s story that she was brutally gang-raped by five fraternity members — a statement that was inconsistent with Jackie’s claim to Erdely that she was raped by seven men. According to the Columbia report, Renda first told Erdely about Jackie’s allegation on July 8, nearly two weeks after her Senate testimony.

During her testimony, Lhamon claimed that “The best available research suggests that 20% of college women, and roughly 6% of college men, are victims of attempted or completed sexual assault.” That “one-in-five” claim about the prevalence of sexual assault on campus has been heavily disputed.

So when Erdely showed up wanting to do the rape story, she had Renda to encourage her to do this one, because both had the same agenda:

The reporter used Jackie’s story about a gang-rape to introduce readers to what she asserted was a systemic failure on the part of universities, police, and society to prevent and investigate sexual assault.

Rape culture.  Rape crisis.  How else does one advance such a story except finding the perfect “rape” to feature all of those things?  Bingo.  The prefect story. And who was more than willing to offer it?  Renda.

Now some may ask, “why do you contend that advancing such a narrative was Erdely’s motive?”  For one thing, she’d done it before on another “rape” story – this one in the military (another institution that is “misogynist”).  And it followed a very similar pattern.  The case involved a female Navy Petty Officer who claimed to have been sexually assaulted.  Leon Wolf, doing some great research, finds that Erdley did for that case exactly what she did for the UVA case – and so did the Rolling Stone editors:

The point of this story is this: the evidence is clear all over the face of this story that Erdely – as enabled by her editors at Rolling Stone – has a serial habit of reporting rapes without conducting any more fact checking than she did of the UVA story. It is facially obvious that she did not talk to the accused rapist because there wasn’t one. There is no evidence that she talked with anyone who was present at any of the bars where Ms. Blumer drank on the night before her DUI to attempt to verify even her story about meeting the three guys. And, again: the sources who spoke to RedState were clear that Ms. Erdely made no effort to contact any member of the Naval command who was involved with the investigation to get their side of the story with respect to what manner of investigation was conducted into Ms. Blumer’s allegations or what that investigation revealed.

After an exhaustive investigation that spanned a year and a half (which Erdely and Rolling Stone ignored and/or did no research into whatsoever), no one was able to produce any evidence that a sexual assault had occurred, physical or otherwise. The alleged victim herself had no recollection of it happening, did not report it to the police who arrested her, and had a ready motive for latching on to the narrative, which is that it would have stopped or possibly prevented punishment at the hands of her military superiors and possibly prevented her from permanently losing the top secret clearance necessary to keep her job.

Sound familiar?

This was an important story for the “rape culture” agenda.  It was to be the cherry on the top of the narrative that says, “college men are misogynists and serial abusers who need to be punished for their actions”.   That’s why the fictitious “20%” number was invented.  That’s why the DoE’s civil rights division is involved.  As noted, this story shows the connection all the way to the top and the narrative that was being pushed.  Erdley and Rolling Stone were heaven sent to these people and they used her just as she used them.  The result was shoddy journalism of the worst stripe that apparently is standard operating procedure for Rolling Stone (I have another example of precisely the same problem with another author that I highlighted February of 2011.)

Of course, as we’ve seen, the narrative, as presented by Erdley, failed spectacularly.  It not only couldn’t withstand even the slightest scrutiny, it had holes in it wide enough to drive a tank through.  Yet, that was precisely the narrative that had survived up until that time.  Why hadn’t the school investigated it more thoroughly before accepting the story?

Well, here’s why:

In December, as Erdely’s article began to collapse, Julia Horowitz, a student journalist at UVA, tried to explain why the campus newspaper had been caught flat-footed by the falsity of Jackie’s tale. She conceded that “factual inconsistencies” and “discrepancies” might exist in Erdely’s tale, but, she cautioned, “To let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake.” Horowitz, exponent of this horrifying view of journalism, went on to become editor-in-chief of UVA’s student newspaper. Much of the media has been quick to pillory Rolling Stone, but Horowitz’s fear of allowing facts to overwhelm the narrative would be at home in vast swaths of our media — and government and higher education, too.

Facts shouldn’t define the narrative – got that? Now you understand why an administration, a magazine reporter and editors and a student “journalist” would let a tale like the UVA rape story exist and flourish – it fit the narrative like a glove if you didn’t look to closely.  And no one did – including Rolling Stone.

As to the reputations ruined and lives tarnished by all of this?  Well, that’s just collateral damage in a world where the narrative is much more important that the individual.  It serves the “greater good”, you see.

~McQ

 

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Economic Statistics for 8 Apr 15

The MBA reports that mortgage applications rose o.4% last week. Purchases rose 7.0%, but re-fis fell -3.0%.

The minutes of the Fed’s last FOMC meeting shows some concern about when–and how–to raise rates and unwind Quantitative Easing. The minutes show that making monetary policy changes very gradually is going to be the policy. Policy changes may begin as early as the summer, though this, of course, will be data-driven.


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Economic Statistics for 7 Apr 15

The Labor Department JOLTS report shows 5.133 million job openings on the last business day of February, versus 4.965 million in January.

Consumer credit rose a $15.5 billion in February, mainly on autos and government acquisition of student loans. Revolving credit fell $-3.7 billion, which seems to be bad news for consumer spending, especially as revolving credit has fallen in four of the last five months.

Redbook reports that last week’s retail sales rose to 3.4% on a year-ago basis, from the previous week’s 3.0%.

Gallup’s U.S. Economic Confidence Index fell -3 points to -2 in March.


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A Coupl’a Things

So, a few things have caught my attention over the last couple of days. None of them are related. They’re all just sort or random things I noticed in passing.

In response to the SJW freak-out over the owner of Memories Pizza in Indiana, Dana Loesch started a GoFundMe for the pizza shop that got over $800,000 in pledges. This made one SJW named John Furr unhappy.

Tweet

So, Mr. Furr tweeted how upset he was that GoFundMe allowed this project to be accepted and completed. He’s so upset that, even though he’s used the site for his prog-lefty fundraising, he’s going to boycott them from now on. Sure, he found the site useful to dredge up what money he could from his SJW sympathizers, but now that someone with an opposing political view has used the site, it’s become too corrupted to have anything to do with.

Apparently, it’s not enough for GoFundMe to be neutral in this political issue, and go about their business of allowing anyone to needs funding within their TOS to obtain it. Neutrality, is, in his view, just as evil as opposition in his quest for transcendental justice, I guess.

Think about what that implies. Either you give full-blown support to the appropriate Lefty causes or you’re simply an enemy. That’s the totalitarian face of the progressive Left. They aren’t interested in “tolerance”. They require approval. If you don’t want to weigh in and stand on the sidelines…well, that’s not good enough. You’re either all-in or you’re a class traitor. So, don’t kid yourself that they won’t come for you if they obtain the power to do so. You won’t get to be left alone.

These SJWs are totalitarians who demand a rigid conformity, and demonize anyone who won’t mouth the appropriate political line.

The Left could not be more effective at fomenting civil war in this country if they were trying to do so.

Bill O’Reilly’s book, Killing Jesus, has been made into a movie, and they showed it on FOXNews over the Easter weekend. It was weird.

In the movie, Jesus kind of announces himself to the world by having Peter haul in a butt-load of fish in a single cast. Nobody had seen anything like it. Anyway, the Sanhedrin convinces Pilate to crucify Jesus, and he’s put in the tomb, with the High Priest asking for Roman soldiers to guard the tomb to ensure the disciples don’t steal the body and claim he came back from the dead.

A couple of days later, some folks go to the tomb, where the stone has been rolled away, and the corpse is gone, with an empty shroud just laying there. The very next scene, Peter is back in Galilee, fishing, and looking all sad and puppy-like. Then, a whole bunch of fish swim into his net. He hauls in his record catch, and yells over to one of the other disciples, “He has returned!” Except that he, you know, hadn’t. So, basically, the whole Resurrection deal was just…disappeared from the movie.

Now, look, the Resurrection is kind of a Big Deal in Christianity. One might almost say that Christianity without the Resurrection is pointless. I mean, if you’re gonna do a Jesus movie, and play it on Easter Frickin’ Sunday, you might think that some mention would be made of the couple of hundred people or so whom the Bible asserts actually saw and spoke with Jesus for about a month after the crucifixion, or watched him fly up into heaven. But, you’d be wrong. The body just disappeared—with hints that the disciples took it—and the whole resurrection deal was symbolic thing, rather than Resurrected Jesus walking up to people and saying, “Yeah, It’s me. No really, poke my spear-holes of you don’t believe me!”

I found it odd that this Killing Jesus deal was hyped as some sort of authoritative look at Jesus life, and they just elided the whole Resurrection thing away. On Easter Sunday.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia made a strange statement. They are suspending their report on state-level leading and coincident indicators. Why?

The recent benchmark data revisions from the Bureau of Labor Statistics produced greater changes to the Philadelphia Fed’s estimating methodology than are typical. While estimates for most states do appear to be reasonable, those for some states are not.

In other words, the BLS has “adjusted” the data so badly that they don’t make any sense, and the Fed can’t use them to produce the state leading and coincident indicators index. They are, in short, worthless. The BLS, of course, says they give us the real scoop, without any of that nasty political data massaging.

Apparently, the Philly Fed disagrees.

Sally Kohn is an NYU law school graduate. But, I’m going to assume it was the NYU School of Legal Things and Stuff for Kids That Don’t Think Too Good, because today she wrote this:

You could also argue that the government is forcing you to drive below the speed limit or wear a seatbelt in your car. But it’s not. There isn’t a police officer holding a gun to your head literally forcing you to buckle up. In fact, you are 100 percent free to speed and not wear your seatbelt—and simply deal with the consequences if you’re pulled over. Is the threat of the fine for breaking the law amount to “forcing” you to follow the law? No.

This definition of “force” contravenes literally everything we know about how law—and language—works. The whole point of having laws is to engage you with whatever force is necessary to stop you from, or punishing you for, disobeying them. You can’t even spell “law enforcement” without “force”.

So, the key takeaway: Progressives aren’t just raging totalitarians…they are dumber than wet stumps.


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Economic Statistics for 6 Apr 15

The composite index from the ISM non-manufacturing survey for March fell -0.4 points to 56.5.

The Markit PMI services index rose 2.1 point to 59.2 in March.

Gallup’s self-reported Consumer Spending measure shows Americans’ spending averaged $86 In March, versus $82 in February.

The Federal Reserve’s Labor Market Conditions Index fell sharply from a revised 2.0 in February to -0.3 in March.


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Heads they win, tales we lose

A link at Insty pointed me to an excellent panel discussion on the illegality of Hillary Clinton’s email shenanigans.

“This is just staggering in the brazenness of evasion of the legal duty by everybody at the State Department, and especially the secretary,” [diGenova] said. “It is simply staggering; it’s unbelievable.”

No, it’s not unbelievable. Many of us have followed politics since the media shamelessly chose to take sides with Bill Clinton during his scandals. We know the dynamic:

  • A scandal or obvious lie comes out: Bill Clinton’s perjury, Hillary’s Whitewater papers disappearance, Juanita Broderick’s rape accusations, Vince Foster’s suicide, Obama’s terrorist mentor, Fast and Furious gun-running, Harry Reid’s amazingly profitable “investments”, the IRS targets Tea Party groups, Benghazi, “if you like your doctor, you can keep him”, etc. ad nauseum.
  • If the media can get away with it, they completely ignore the story.
    If not, they do cursory, biased, and distorted reporting on it, minimizing and excusing the perp(s).
  • If someone (e.g. Sharyl Adkisson at CBS or Lisa Myers at NBC) steps outside the bubble and actually finds something to report on, her superiors in the media spike the story, and ruin the reporter’s career if they can.
  • After a few days or weeks, any attempt to raise the scandal is declared old news.
  • During a Democratic administration, any illegality is studiously ignored. A faux investigation at DoJ drags out things for a few months, and then ponderously declares that there’s nothing further to investigate and no charges of consequence are ever filed. In egregious cases, someone might lose a job, but not their pension, and certainly not their liberty.
  • Any attempt by a later Republican politician to re-open the investigation and really try to get to the bottom of it is declared by Democrats and the media to be “off limits”, “vindictive”, “mean spirited”, “a partisan witchhunt”, and other semantically meaningless but highly negative descriptions.
  • The Republican politician is then punished by the media through a series of unflattering and often downright distorted feature and opinion pieces. This attempt to marginalize that politician forever often works, at least to the extent of shutting them up and cowing them for their rest of their term.

The choices for those wanting to punish illegal and intolerable behavior such as Hillary’s email project come down to:

1. Make some noise but don’t really do anything (heads, they win)

2. Once they have the power, push for legal punishment, be pilloried in the media for it, and probably never get enough allies to do anything because no one else wants to be pilloried (tales, you lose)

The Democrats have learned this lesson well. They can treat the media the way a perverted stepfather abuses his stepdaughter, and the media will never offer more than token protest. The media is determined to further their own leftist vision of justice and right, and that means backing the Democrats no matter how illegal or disgusting their behavior might be.

Hillary implemented her email plans knowing that she would almost certainly never pay a price for it. She knew the press and the rest of the Democrats had her back.

Our political system has devolved to the point that major players on the left know they can break the law in any number of ways, smear opponents, cover up past misdeeds, and lie outright as needed in every news conference. They can indeed “brazenly flout” laws and ethics. I don’t know what you call this system, but it’s certainly not the one they described to me in 8th grade civics class.

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Newspaper print circulation is down about half in last ten years

I did a couple of posts back in 2012 and 2013 about newspaper print circulation at major newspapers, compared to 2004. Seeing last year’s circulation figures made me curious about how things stand at the ten year mark. Here are the results:

 

Newspaper 2004 2012 2014 +/- %, 10 years +/- %, 2 years
USA Today 2192098 1627526 1156871 -47.23% -28.92%
WSJ 2101017 1499204 1256292 -40.21% -16.20%
NYT 1119027 717513 680905 -39.15% -5.10%
LA Times 983727 489792 405213 -58.81% -17.27%
Wash Post 760034 434693 399757 -47.40% -8.04%
NY Daily News 712671 389270 313178 -56.06% -19.55%
NY Post 642844 344755 261312 -59.35% -24.20%
Chicago Tribune 603315 388848 324620 -46.19% -16.52%
Denver Post 340169 236223 188630 -44.55% -20.15%
Newsday 553117 278369 247703 -55.22% -11.02%
Houston Chronicle 549300 234483 225032 -59.03% -4.03%
Dallas Morning News 528379 345342 172690 -67.32% -49.99%
SF Chronicle 499008 229176 145520 -70.84% -36.50%
Arizona Republic 466926 274783 244726 -47.59% -10.94%
Boston Globe 446241 180919 159458 -64.27% -11.86%
Tampa Bay Times 348502 299393 217597 -37.56% -27.32%

As I explained in the previous posts, I focus on print circulation because, for major newspapers, that’s where most of the money comes from. Newspapers do get money from the web, of course. However, most of them have minimal web-only subscription revenue, and their advertising dollars on the web are only about 15% of their print advertising revenues and growing slowly according to Pew Research. That same report shows that overall advertising revenue (including online advertising) is down just a bit over 50% for the 2004-2013 period.

I ignore the web “circulation” numbers touted by newspapers, because they’re meaningless without a complete explanation of how they were measured. Unique visitors for the year? Well, people have multiple computers, and they clear their browser cache sometimes. Even when an explanation is given, those numbers can be gamed in various ways. The money is what counts, and newspapers have struggled to increase the amount of money they get from web publication over the last six or eight years. There’s no indication they’ll solve that problem.

Doing a bit of math on the above numbers, the drop in the aggregate circulation of these newspapers combined from 2004 to 2014 is just over 50%. Aggregate drop from 2012 to 2014 is about 20%.

Many dissipative phenomena in the real world have an approximate exponential decay shape to the graph. That is, the newspapers might lose, say, 10% of their readers each year, but that 10% is a lower number each year, so the decrease flattens out in actual counted numbers. That’s my best guess for the near term future of circulation for major newspapers.

However, dropping revenue also affects quality. This hit my hometown newspaper, the Tennessean, at least ten years ago. You could see it exposed unambiguously in grammatical and printing errors. I also think the quality of the articles dropped to the point that I wasn’t willing to invest time in reading them, but that’s a more subjective judgment. Except for local events such a major water outage last year, I don’t pay any attention to the Tennessean.

When that happens, the days of a newspaper are numbered. They enter a vicious cycle in which more people drop them because of their marginal or poor quality, and that erodes revenues further, which erodes quality further, and so on.

There’s no obvious way to reverse any of that, no matter how innovative they get on the web. Advertising revenue for want ads isn’t coming back; Craigslist and its smaller relatives have captured it and I see no way for newspapers to get it back. Not even middle aged people get newspapers for movie ads anymore because they can find anything they want to know on their phones immediately. Retail advertising continues to suffer as retail closures start to impact suburbia, and dead malls continue to pile up.

So, with that dead horse beaten to a pulp, what are the likely effects outside the newsrooms? 

Right now, the New York Times and the Washington Post continue to have an outsize influence on political thinking. I don’t think either one is going to vanish any time soon. The left will no doubt find the Times so indispensible that it will find the money somewhere to keep the lefty editorial outrage and the slanted reporting pouring out of Times Square and setting the agenda for TV news reporting. The Post, under Bezos, seems to be becoming marginally more balanced, which is a good thing.

The Wall Street Journal maintains a decent hold on center-right readers, though it’s a lot more center than right these days. As the only major newspaper I read with any frequency (couple of times a month) I see the quality dropping. But for now it seems financially stable.

Almost all the others, though, are in trouble. I have to wonder if the recent successes of the GOP at the state and local levels have not been facilitated to some extent by the lack of effective opposition from the typically-liberal local newspapers. The fewer people who read them, the less able they are to torpedo Republicans and shield Democrats.

Naturally, you don’t see a lot of reporting on all this in the media. They don’t have much interest in exposing their own weakness. The reporting they do typically touts “total circulation”, which means they get to include their gamed web numbers. USA Today also started an insert program with a lot of local newspapers, so they like to pretend that this is equivalent to regular circulation. It’s rare for any of them to make their print declines front and center.

The main lesson here is that limited government types can afford to stand up to these biased media types more each year. I think that’s more true at the local level right now, but I also think there are a lot of people out there hungry to see the left-liberal twits of the major national newspapers put in their place as well.

*** Update 5 April 2015 ***

It occurs to me that, if the decay in readership of major newspapers is really a bit similar to exponential decay processes such as radioactive decay, then ten years would be the half life of newspaper readership. We might then use that half-life as a rough-and-ready estimator for future declines. It would suggest that by 2024, the newspapers will have lost around 50% of the remaining readers, and be at 25% of their 2004 readership.

Naturally, there are too many real-world factors to put much confidence in such an estimate, mainly because of the “death spiral” end game for such businesses. But it’s still an interesting first cut way to think about it, and it might help us detect the death spiral start point.

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Economic Statistics for 3 Mar 15

The only statistical release on the Calendar today is the Employment Situation, which, for March, was pretty bad. Only 126,000 net new jobs were created, while the departure of 96,000 people from the labor force helped keep the unemployment rate unchanged at 5.5%. The labor force participation rate fell a tick to 62.7%, the lowest since February, 1978. Average hourly earnings rose 0.3%, but the average work week fell by -0.1 hours to 34.5 hours. Net new jobs in January and February were revised down a net 69,000. Market expectations for March were for a 247,000 increase in net new jobs. Despite recent claims of a strengthening labor market, there’s little evidence of it in today’s report.


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