mojo-photo-itunesscreen.jpgIn a quietly revolutionary move, the world's biggest online music retailer announced today that they've managed to please just about everybody except those of us wanting a little footsie-rub. For music fans, iTunes will soon drop copy protection on every single track they have for sale; for the suits, iTunes has finally given in to a longtime record label demand for variable pricing. You give a little, you get a little. Actually, I suppose I shouldn't call this "revolutionary" since Amazon.com's ugly-but-functional mp3 store has been doing the same thing for about 16 months now (and don't forget about the dance-music-centric Beatport, who will even sell you a big ole wave file if you want). But Apple is undeniably the biggie, and their abandonment of D.R.M. ("digital rights management") software means you'll be able to happily do whatever you please with your purchased songs, the same way you can with your… er… not-so-purchased ones. The pricing system will be three-tiered: music you don't really want for 69 cents, music you kind of want for 99 cents, and brand new tunes you just gotta have will cost $1.29. See how that works?

According to the New York Times, everybody's happy:

Music industry watchers widely applauded the move and said it could help digital music sales, which have shown signs of slowing just five years after Apple introduced iTunes. In particular, lower prices for some songs could spur consumers "to buy deeper into the catalog, and expand their relationship with digital music," said Russ Crupnick, an analyst with the NPD Group. … Industry pundits have long pointed to D.R.M. as one culprit for the music companies' woes, saying it alienated some customers while doing little to slow piracy on file-sharing networks.

So, how's it work?

Better on the Small Screen?

BETTER ON THE SMALL SCREEN?....Last month, after emailing to taunt me about getting schooled by Ta-Nehisi Coates for my primitive esthetic sensibilities, Scott Eric Kaufman regaled me with some weird theory he had about why The Dark Knight is actually better on a TV set than on the big screen. Over the weekend he explained this theory on his blog:

Watching the film on a small screen — one on which a bug of a Batman glides between five-inch tall skyscrapers while Heath Ledger's Joker licks human-sized lips and establishes human-sized eye-contact — it's impossible to deny that this supposedly epic performance is better suited to the televisual medium.

"Impossible to deny" is a mighty strong claim, but I just rented Dark Knight on my way back from the market and plan to put this theory to the test sometime soon. Anybody else have an opinion on this vital question?

And Then What?

AND THEN WHAT?....Marc Lynch went to a lecture this morning given by Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor:

It was a profoundly dismaying experience. Because if Ambassador Meridor is taken at his word, then Israel has no strategy in Gaza.

Asked three times by audience members, Meridor simply could not offer any plausible explanation as to how its military campaign in Gaza would achieve its stated goals....As to a political strategy tied to the military campaign, nothing. No guidance as to whether Israel would re-occupy Gaza, or on what terms it would accept a cease-fire. No thoughts as to whether the campaign would cause Hamas to fall from power or help the Palestinian Authority regain political power.

....In short, Meridor quite literally offered no strategy beyond hitting Gaza hard and hoping for the best. "In terms of creating damage we are certainly on the right path," noted the Ambassador. Few would disagree with that assessment, at least. But some might hope that the bloody, battered path might actually be leading somewhere.

To be honest, this seems to be true of most wars these days: hit 'em hard and hope that something shakes loose. But while that may have been a plausible strategy in colonial wars a hundred years ago, it doesn't seem to work so well anymore. I doubt very much that it's going to work for Israel this time around either.

Media Destruction Watch

MEDIA DESTRUCTION WATCH....Felix Salmon reports that the latest auction of defaulted Tribune Company bonds produced dismal results:

Much more startling is the price on the senior secured loans: just 23.75 cents on the dollar. I checked in with Nishul Saperia at Markit, and he said that it was the lowest recovery rate he'd ever seen for a secured loan....

I should imagine that today's news has been greeted with a shudder at the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, and other Tribune properties: clearly no one on Wall Street thinks they're worth much even without the huge pile of debt that Sam Zell loaded onto their fragile shoulders. Is David Geffen still interested in buying an uneconomic trophy property? He could turn out to be many employees' final hope.

I wonder how much longer I'll be getting a newspaper delivered to my driveway each morning?

Public Service Announcement

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT....Apparently "PEBO" is the latest shorthand for "President-Elect Barack Obama." Just thought you'd like to know.

You Are the Best Readers Ever

onion_opinion479.article.jpgA couple of weeks ago we posted about the tough financial times we've encountered as a result of some funders pulling back on previously made commitments (plus of course the general economic meltdown). We asked you to help fill the hole they left--and because you are awesome, you did. We're going into the new year leaner, meaner, but close enough to our fighting weight to take on whatever stories our crack investigative reporters encounter. (Job One: Keep tabs on the new administration, not to mention that line of bailout applicants stretching around the block.) We'll spend your money carefully and we hope you like (and are outraged by) the results.

While we're on house news, next week (we think) we're launching our brand new website—same content, but much better presented and with a spiffy new commenting system that builds on what we've learned from you over the years. Thanks again for being part of the MoJo community. And P.S. The subscriptions department kind of told us not to mention this, but we're going to anyway: There's a super secret special offer going on now whereby you get a MoJo subscription for a year PLUS a pound of Peace Coffee for $10. That's less than a pound of Starbucks! And then you can be just like this guy.

Sanjay Gupta: Don't Laugh, It's a Good Pick!

gupta.jpg The CNN personality is Obama's pick for Surgeon General. I like it.

If you believe, as I do, that the Surgeon General's top job in the Obama Administration will be convincing Americans that the obesity epidemic is a real crisis, Sanjay Gupta is your man. I know, it's easy to lump him in with Dr. Phil and all those other lightweight TV "doctors." But the man has tackled obesity before, is a university professor, advised Hillary Clinton on health policy when she was First Lady, and most importantly, has the pitchman skills to get Americans moving. You could even argue that having TV talent is the top requirement for the Surgeon General at this time. And dare I say it, you would be correct.

New Congress Begins With Progress on Earmarks

Now we're talking:

The chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees on Tuesday jointly vowed to slice the level of earmarks while providing unprecedented disclosure of Member requests.
House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said that starting with the fiscal 2010 appropriations bills, when Members make their earmark requests, they will be required to post the requests on their Web sites explaining the purpose of the earmark and why it is a valuable use of taxpayer funds....

Gaza War Bush's Parting Gift to Middle East

gazabombs.jpg

At one point or another, most American presidents concern themselves with bringing peace to the Middle East. Ultimately, all other foreign policy achievements pale in comparison. It's the brass ring of presidential greatness, the elusive key to ensuring kind treatment in the eyes of history. Such thinking must become particularly acute as presidents reach the twilight of their terms and begin in earnest the inevitable consideration of how they will be remembered. Bill Clinton made a last-ditch effort late in his second term to become the great peacemaker. He failed, as had all others before him. But at least he tried. For his part, our current outgoing commander in chief, just weeks away from relinquishing his office, has steadfastly refused to get involved even as Gaza disintegrates into violence.

Not that this should come as a surprise. Bush's lack of engagement this late in the game, says the National Security Network, is nothing if not consistent with the rest of his term. As the group describes in press release issued today:

[Bush's] episodic involvement has been muddled and without coherent vision: supporting Palestinian elections in 2006, despite the very clear possibility that Hamas would win, then refusing to honor the results; asserting that the 'road to Jerusalem ran through Baghdad;' belatedly engaging through the Annapolis peace conference, which has proved to be too little too late. Experts and regional actors with differing views on the road ahead share the belief that the US absence from the scene is counterproductive and harmful to the interests of all concerned. The outbreak of war in Gaza confirms that after eight years in office the Bush administration will leave behind a region that is further from achieving a lasting peace than when it came to office.

Money For Main Street

MONEY FOR MAIN STREET....Currently, businesses that lose money are allowed to use those losses to offset profits from the past two years. The result in some cases is a refund against past taxes. Part of Barack Obama's stimulus bill is a plan to increase this period to five years, which apparently would provide businesses with about $25 billion in additional tax refunds this year. Matt Yglesias isn't impressed:

As stimulus, this doesn't work. Businesses spend money based on calculations of the likely returns on spending. Insofar as it's profitable to expand operations, businesses will spend money on expanding operations. Insofar as it's not profitable to expand, businesses won't expand. Transferring lump sums of money to existing firms doesn't alter the profit-loss calculus. A firm with no expansion opportunities it sees as profitable will just pocket the lump sum and consider itself fortunate. And a firm with expansion opportunities it sees as profitable will only be very marginally impacted by an infusion of cash.

I'd be curious to hear from other folks on this. Technically, this sounds right, but I think the reality might be a little different. Lots of things in the business world are sticky, and jobs are one of them. Corporations generally don't like to lay off employees, partly for business reasons (they don't want to lose good workers that they might not be able to rehire later), partly for ordinary human reasons (most bosses really don't enjoy laying people off), and partly just because of inertia. So it's possible that a tax refund that eased the P&L a bit might prompt them to keep on more workers than pure hard-hearted economic calculations might dictate. It would probably be a fairly small effect at the margins, but it might still be noticeable. Especially if the rest of the stimulus package gives business owners hope that the downturn might be short-lived.

Besides, all this does is change the tax timing anyway. Corporations that booked big losses in 2008 will be able to carry them forward against future profits regardless, which will decrease their taxes in the future. But maybe we're better off letting them get their refunds now, rather than two years from now when the economy has picked up again?

Alternatively, this is just another big corporate giveaway. Any nice liberal economists care to weigh in on this?

UPDATE: Via Jon Cohn, Dean Baker shreds the tax write-off proposal:

The break that allows businesses to write-off losses against taxes paid 4-5 years ago (as opposed to 2 years in current law) is simply a give-away to the financial industry and homebuilders. These are likely to be the only businesses that will have losses so large that they can't fully deduct them from earnings over the last two years.

This tax cut has nothing to do with stimulus. It is difficult to imagine that this sort of tax break would even be considered if it were not for the political power of the financial industry.

More from Jon about the stimulus package here.