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Ricky Gervais Is Absolutely Right About Hollywood's Woman Problem

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 1:35 PM PDT

In an interview with Radio Times, English actor and comedian Ricky Gervais expressed his frustration with how women are portrayed on TV and in Hollywood movies, especially comedies. (The 52-year-old co-creator of the UK's The Office was promoting his show Derek, which returns for a second season in April. He said his show will soon feature some "real, good, modern girl power.")

"I love writing interesting female characters because usually they're props, particularly in comedy," Gervais said. "Even in Hollywood, they're usually air heads or if they're ambitious they're straight away cold and need to be taught a lesson. They need to show that getting a man is more important than getting a career. Or they're just props for men to do funny things...People think that men rule the world but they don't, really. That was never my experience growing up and certainly not at Broad Hill [nursing home]. Men, when they're together, revert to the playground."

(Gervais is correct; Hollywood absolutely does have a womanand girl—problem.)

For this, Indiewire declared him the "Hollywood Feminist of the Day," which fits nicely with some of Gervais' other comments:

Gervais has also spoken about atheism, war, racism, rape jokes, obesity, Nelson Mandela, Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, and animal rights, typically in very funny ways.

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When Housing Prices Become Fish Stories, the Economy Suffers

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 1:30 PM PDT

Over at Wonkblog, Christopher Ingraham points us to new research from Ireland suggesting that an awful lot of people don't know how much they paid for their houses. I've adapted the main chart from the study on the right. As you can see, most people who get this wrong underestimate how much they paid—sometimes by gigantic amounts. Very few people overestimate how much they paid, and virtually no one overestimates by more than a quarter or so.

What accounts for this? As it happens, the authors are mostly concerned with how this poor recall affects estimates of the wealth effect—which I admit I didn't really understand.1 Because of this focus, they don't spend a lot of time speculating on the underlying causes. But they do mention that the older the loan, the less accurate people are; that younger people remember better than older people; and that errors are smaller among the well-educated.

But none of this explains why the bad recall is overwhelmingly on the low side. So here's my guess: people lie. Or, more charitably, they're in denial. They don't want to admit to themselves or their friends how much they lost during the housing crash. Or, when prices are rising, they like to brag about how much they've made. Everyone else claims to have made a killing, so they slice a little bit off their buying price to make it seem like they made a killing too. No one wants to be a sucker, after all. Do this enough times, and eventually you come to believe it yourself.2

1The authors say that "An increasing number of micro based estimates of the housing wealth effect use the recall house price as an indicator of housing wealth." So if recall prices are systematically lower than the actual prices paid, this would lead to estimates of the wealth effect that are too low.

That's fine, and it's a reasonable topic for a research paper. It's important to know just how the wealth effect works. But why would anyone use the recall price for this in the first place? Shouldn't wealth effect estimates be based on how much people think their houses are worth right now? Or on how much equity people think they have, which would actually be higher if they underestimate the original price of their house? I'm a little stumped by this.

2Here's another guess: people tend to remember loan amounts more than the actual price of the house. If they put 10 percent down on a $300,000 house, the amount of the loan is $270,000, and that's what they remember. I'm not sure I buy this, but it's a possibility.

Donald Rumsfeld: Up Close and Creepy

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 12:49 PM PDT

Not too long into Errol Morris' new documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, the viewer learns almost all he or she needs to know about the former defense secretary who helped President George W. Bush lead the nation into war in Iraq. After a short recap of the initial US military action in Afghanistan following the horrific September 11 attacks, Morris notes that a "confusion" set in, with many Americans believing Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, was involved in 9/11. Morris puts this to Rumsfeld during the Q&A that makes up the spine of the film. Rumsfeld, in his familiar know-it-all way, dismisses the premise: "I don't think the American people were confused about that." Morris, who is not on screen, counters by citing a 2003 poll showing that 69 percent of Americans said it was "likely" that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the assault. Rumsfeld responds, "I don't remember anyone in the Bush administration saying anything like that, nor do I recall anyone believing that."

Really? Rumsfeld is not acknowledging a known known. Within hours of the Al Qaeda attack, according to now-public memos, Rumsfeld was asking if Saddam Hussein could be hit in response, and for weeks afterward, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, repeatedly said during administration meetings that the Iraqi leader might have been behind the 9/11 plot. As Michael Isikoff and I noted in Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, Wolfowitz sent memos to Rumsfeld asserting that Saddam may have played a critical role.

Morris doesn't cover any of this, but he exposes Rumsfeld in a different and effective way—with Rumsfeld's own words. Immediately after Rumsfeld tells Morris he has no clue how any American got the impression Saddam was tied to 9/11, Morris inserts video from a Rumsfeld press conference at the Pentagon in early February 2003. Saddam had recently declared that he possessed no weapons of mass destruction and had no relationship with Al Qaeda. A reporter asks Rumsfeld to respond. "Abraham Lincoln was short," Rumsfeld says curtly—and no more. The reporter, not satisfied with this all-too-cute answer, presses Rumsfeld for more, and the secretary obliges: "How does one respond to that? It's a continuous pattern. It's the local liar…He almost never, rarely tells the truth."

With this response, Rumsfeld was certainly bolstering the notion that Saddam was part of the 9/11 scheme. Yet now he plays dumb. And, thus, nothing else he says in the documentary can be taken at face value. This is a fellow who either is not as smart as he thinks or not perceptive enough to handle the hard truths.

Of course, after the invasion of Iraq—which Rumsfeld had sold on false pretenses—it was clear that Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush-Cheney crew had failed to prepare adequately for the occupation, in what was one of the dumbest moves in US military history. In this film, Rumsfeld hardly comes to terms with all that. (Ditto the 100,000-plus civilian Iraqi deaths caused by the war—though he does choke up while talking about one American soldier wounded in Iraq who pulled through.) That's no surprise. Neither is Rumsfeld's cocky attitude—which was often on full display during his matinee press conferences at the Pentagon. Yet throughout the engaging film, Rumsfeld, as he did during his decades in government, hides behind a creepy sort of profundity. At one point, Morris cites Rumsfeld's belief in the notion that "if you wish for peace, prepare for war" and notes that "you can use that to justify anything." Rumsfeld responds by citing one of his "Rumsfeld rules": "All generalizations are false—including this one." He then offers a thin smile, chuckles, and adds, "There it is."

Yes, the zen of Donald Rumsfeld, which is merely camouflage for stupid mistakes that caused mayhem and death. That much is certainly known.

How Big Is the National Debt?

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 11:22 AM PDT

As a public service, I would like to present this FAQ from the Treasury Department explaining the national debt. Here it is, complete and unedited:

What is the National Debt?

The term national debt refers to direct liabilities of the United States Government. There are several different concepts of debt that are at various times used to refer to the national debt:

  • Public debt is defined as public debt securities issued by the U.S. Treasury. U. S. Treasury securities primarily consist of marketable Treasury securities (i.e., bills, notes and bonds), savings bonds and special securities issued to state and local governments. A portion is debt held by the public and a portion is debt held by government accounts.
  • Debt held by the public excludes the portion of the debt that is held by government accounts.
  • Gross federal debt is made up of public debt securities and a small amount of securities issued by government agencies.

Debt held by the public is the most meaningful of these concepts and measures the cumulative amount outstanding that the government has borrowed to finance deficits.

As of yesterday, total public debt amounted to $17.555 trillion. Debt held by the public amounted to $12.579 trillion. The term "national debt" can refer to either one. Just make sure it's clear which one you're talking about.

Sponsored Content Really Not a Big Deal, Folks

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 10:35 AM PDT

Earlier today Josh Marshall announced that TPM had launched a new section called "IdeaLab: Impact," sponsored by PhRMA, the famously ubiquitous pharmaceutical industry lobby. Henry Farrell was distinctly unimpressed by the news:

In that spirit, I’d like to introduce a very cool new non-sponsored section myself, “Bullshit Lab: Impact,” focused on the very cool ways in which PhRMA lobbying is affecting real human lives and impacting people and communities living on the margins of global wealth and on the margins of the technological transformations. Except losing the “impacting,” since it isn’t a verb ever seen outside corporate press releases. How, for example, is PhRMA lobbying advancing the ball on shoving insanely demanding requirements into international trade agreements? What are the impactful ways in which PhRMA is impacting high drug prices? What are the cutting edge techniques in which PhRMA is pushing back on patent reform for AIDS drugs in South Africa....Feel free to treat this post’s comments sections as an opportunity to provide further examples, and unleash the real world impacts of innovative lobbying innovations!!

Sponsored content is all the rage these days, so this was probably inevitable. In fact, I was just reading about it the other day on my Dell Venue 11 tablet. I had just gotten back from Target, which was having a sale on DiGiorno frozen pizzas, and hopped onto Internet Explorer while I waited for the pizza to heat up in my Breville toaster oven. I wanted to read about NYT Now, a "compelling new iPhone® app with quick summaries and updates of top stories from our editors" that the Times announced a couple of weeks ago at South By Southwest Interactive. I found a few blurbs via Google News, but I still want to know more. It sounds exciting! I wonder if I'll be able to read it on the HTC One Android phone I'm planning to buy from T-Mobile?

Anyway, like I said, the whole sponsored content thing is probably inevitable, but I doubt it has much actual effect on what journalists choose to write about. Nothing to get worked up about, Henry.

Christie Lawyers Engage in Special Pleading For Their Client

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 9:40 AM PDT

A couple of months ago, Chris Christie hired a legal firm to investigate whether Chris Christie knew about the September 9-12 lane closures on the George Washington Bridge. So they went off and investigated. Among other things, they investigated the charge from David Wildstein that he had mentioned the lane closures to Christie during a September 11 memorial ceremony. Check out the way Christie's legal firm dealt with this:

There is, however, no evidence we have seen that the Governor and Wildstein actually had any substantive discussion of the Fort Lee lane realignment at that public event.

To begin with, it seems incredible that, in a public setting leading up to a 9/11 Memorial event, surrounded by other government officials and scores of constituents seeking photographs and handshakes, anything substantive or inculpatory would have been discussed.

Moreover, the context of Wildstein’s counsel’s claim that “evidence exists” of the Governor’s alleged knowledge of the lane realignment is critically important....Wildstein’s counsel’s letter was a not-too-subtle attempt to press the Port Authority into granting Wildstein indemnification while, at the same time, to induce federal authorities to grant Wildstein immunity in exchange for Wildstein’s information here.

....In any event, even if credited, any passing reference by Wildstein—made in a social, public setting at the time of a public 9/11 Memorial event—to a traffic issue in Fort Lee would not have been meaningful or memorable to the Governor. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely such a brief mention, even if made by Wildstein to the Governor, would have registered with the Governor at all. Only a more substantive conversation about the ulterior motive behind the Port Authority’s traffic study would have registered, and in that public setting, any claim that such a conversation occurred would lack credibility. In any event, the Governor recalls no such exchange.

Tell me: does this sound like a dispassionate review of the evidence? Or does it sound like the closing arguments to a jury on behalf of a client accused of corruption?

I have no real opinion about whether Christie knew about the lane closures. My guess is that he didn't, though that's mainly because I credit him with not being a complete moron. At this point, my guess remains that Christie set up a nakedly political operation in his office; made it clear what he expected of them; and then let them freewheel without much supervision. The result was a bunch of eager beavers who eventually decided they were invulnerable and started doing really stupid things.

But those are just guesses. My real interest in this passage is the tone of voice. And that tone is plain: these guys are going out of their way to spin the evidence to exonerate Christie. I suspect the entire report should be read with that in mind.

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Was Crimea Mainly a Diversion From Putin's Burgeoning Olympic Scandal?

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 8:29 AM PDT

Kimberly Marten suggests that the main reason for Vladimir Putin's invasion of Crimea was entirely domestic. He needed something to divert public attention from a huge unfolding scandal:

Putin’s scandal was the corruption surrounding the Sochi Olympics. As we all know by now, the construction costs associated with Sochi facilities and infrastructure exceeded $50 billion.

....Putin has stayed in power for so long because he has been able to control the snake-pit of competing informal political networks that surround the halls of power in Russia....Members of that network told some Americans privately in 2013 that they believed some kind of reckoning over corruption in Sochi would happen this spring, perhaps when it became clear that tens of billions of dollars in state loans could not be repaid....The public might never have known or understood what was happening, but Putin would have lost face where it matters most—inside Kremlin walls, where he is supposed to be the great informal network balancer. Putin’s Crimean adventure neatly shifted the conversation to other topics, and no one is likely to bring it up again anytime soon.

....Diversion could not have been Putin’s only motive. There are certainly deep nationalist, historical, and triumphalist reasons for Putin’s actions, as Joshua Tucker wrote about here in The Monkey Cage last week. But it is striking how little Putin gained in Crimea. The region was subsidized by the rest of Ukraine, and he will now have to fund those subsidies out of the Russian state budget. Russian generators are now keeping the Crimean capital of Simferopol lit, as Ukraine turns off the electricity flowing in from the mainland. Crimea does have a crucial Russian naval base, but Putin already controlled that base without needing to occupy Crimea, because of a treaty that lasted through 2042.

The only thing that surprises me about this is that it's presented as a novel thesis. I thought this was widely taken for granted. Obviously there were international triggers for Putin's actions—the EU association agreement, the downfall of Yanukovich, the expansion of NATO, etc.—but it's still striking that Putin was willing to give up so much on the international stage for something that, as Marten says, gets him almost nothing in return. By nearly any measure, Crimea simply isn't much of a plum. If this was his idea of reasserting the Russian empire, Putin has a mighty cramped view of empire.

But it was massively popular domestically. Whatever else you can say about it, it's certainly gotten the Russian public firmly on Putin's side for the time being. I don't know if anyone can say for sure that this was his primary motive—frankly, I'm not sure Putin himself even knows what his primary motive was—but it seems almost certain that it was a significant one. After all, Putin would hardly be the first world leader to shore up his public standing with a lovely little war abroad.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 27, 2014

Thu Mar. 27, 2014 7:01 AM PDT

Spc. George Morales-Lebreault, a competitor in the 302nd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade's best warrior competition tosses a dummy grenade during an obsticle course March 23, 2014 at Fort Devens, Mass. Eleven soldiers competed for the title of "best warrior" in the 302nd MEB. The top non-commissioned officer and junior enlisted soldier advanced to the next tier of the competition at the 412th Theater Engineer Command. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy Koster)

"Noah" Film Inspires Flood of Religious Freak-Outs

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 3:01 AM PDT

The new Darren Aronofsky movie Noah is pissing off quite a lot of people. The outrage over the film—which retells that famous biblical tale of Noah, his ark, and God's wrathful flood—is international and diverse in its stupidity. And it goes without saying that the majority of the people saying mean things about the film haven't yet seen it (Noah hits theaters on Friday, and stars Russell Crowe and Emma Watson). "It's always kind of silly that somebody puts their voice and opinion to something when they haven't seen it, based on an assumption," Crowe said in an interview with Access Hollywood. (Crowe has been trying to get Pope Francis to endorse Noah. That won't be happening.)

Aronofsky has dubbed his $160 million epic the "least biblical biblical film ever made." (Word on the street is that it promotes some pretty "aggressive environmentalism.") Here are some lowlights in the ongoing permutations of Noah hate:

1. Noah is actually banned in some countries because it depicts Noah. Censorship bodies in United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Indonesia have banned national releases of the film. This prerelease backlash stems primarily from a conservative Islamic prohibition on representing holy figures in art and entertainment. (Al-Azhar, a top Sunni Muslim institute in Egypt, also objected to the film and released a statement declaring that it would hurt the feelings of believers.) Also, there's a sense among certain government officials that Aronofsky's film doesn't play it straight: "There are scenes that contradict Islam and the Bible, so we decided not to show it," Juma al-Leem, director of media content at UAE's National Media Center, said.

"If there is a fear that the film will cause unrest and protest from some groups then the government should create a situation conducive to people growing up instead of always limiting them to a narrow-minded condition," Joko Anwar, an award-winning Indonesian filmmaker, told the Jakarta Globe.

Noah
Paramount

How Do San Franciscans Really Feel About Google Buses?

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 3:00 AM PDT
A tech shuttle protest in San Francisco, December 9, 2013.

Earlier this month, the Bay Area Council, a coalition of Bay Area businesses, commissioned EMC Research to ask 500 likely voters in San Francisco how they felt about the much discussed commuter shuttles that take people from The City, Oakland, and Berkeley to tech-company campuses in Silicon Valley. The EMC researchers wrote in the ensuing report (PDF), released this week, "Despite what it might look like from recent media coverage, a majority of voters have a positive opinion of the shuttle buses and support allowing buses to use MUNI stops." (MUNI is San Francisco's municipal transportation agency.)

The survey found an awful lot of shuttle riders to poll.

But I'm not so sure that rosy conclusion is warranted. For starters, Bauer's Intelligent Transportation, which contracts with several tech companies to provide bus service, is a member of the Bay Area Council. So are Google, Facebook, and Apple. There's also the fact that the survey found an awful lot of shuttle riders to poll. Six percent of respondents said that they rode one of the shuttle buses. Now, estimates of shuttle bus ridership vary wildly, but San Francisco's total population is only about 836,000—six percent of which is about 50,000. A spokeswoman from the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency recently told me that an estimated 4,125 San Franciscans ride the tech buses. That's closer to 0.5 percent of city residents. The San Francisco Examiner points out that the survey excluded Spanish speakers.

And then there's the delicate phrasing of the survey questions. Last week, Pacific Standard had a great little post explaining why surveys are not always accurate measures of public opinion. The post looks at a recent survey conducted about the movie Noah. The group Faith Driven Consumer asked respondents: "As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie—designed to appeal to you—which replaces the Bible's core message with one created by Hollywood?" Unsurprisingly, 98 percent said they were not satisfied. Variety reported the survey's findings in a story titled "Faith-Driven Consumers Dissatisfied With Noah, Hollywood Religious Pics."

I thought of the Noah survey as I read the the tech-shuttle survey's script. Here are two examples of the questions, plus the percentage of respondents who strongly agreed with the given statements.

Please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statements:

Image courtesy of Bay Area Council

Now, thinking specifically about employee shuttle buses in San Francisco, please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with each of the following statements:

To be fair, the survey did include a few questions that allowed respondents to express negative opinions about the buses. But those questions tended to include loaded language. For example:

Now, thinking specifically about shuttle buses in San Francisco, please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statements:

I'm guessing that if the word "causing" had been replaced with "contributing to," more people would have agreed with the statement. Same if the word "ruining" had been replaced with "changing."

Rufus Jeffris, the vice president for communications and major events at the Bay Area Council, wrote to me in an email that the Council stands by the survey. "The poll was intended to provide some broader context and perspective on some of the wrenching and painful issues we're dealing with," he wrote. "We feel strongly that scapegoating a single type of worker and single industry is not productive and does not move us forward to solutions."