From Ain't It Cool News via Towleroad come the first reviews of Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen's bigger, badder and oh-so-much-gayer followup to Borat. We've covered Bruno's shenanigans as he terrorized Kansas and punked a former Mossad agent, but apparently those are only the tamest of the antics on display. The movie doesn't come out until July 10 (with the first "official" sneak peak taking place at the upcoming SXSW), but a couple lucky ducks got into early test screenings and sent their thoughts to Ain't It Cool. I hope they're legit, as both reviews were filled with gushing, hyperbolic praise: the first called the film "everything I was hoping for—shocking, jaw-dropping and TOTALLY FUCKING HILARIOUS," while the second managed to quantify Bruno as "10 times sharper, wittier and altogether ballsier" than Borat. Not bad. Apparently the plot revolves around the Austrian fashion reporter character we know and love trying to "make it big":

Some joyous news for web surfers today:

The Online Publishers Assn. on Tuesday released several new in-your-face advertising formats designed to be both more obtrusive and interactive.

Twenty-seven top Internet publishers — including the New York Times, CNN, CBS Interactive, ESPN and the Wall Street Journal — say they'll try the supersize ads in an attempt to get the attention of Web surfers who have learned to ignore banners.

....The three new types of ads are the "fixed panel," which looks like part of the page but scrolls up and down as a user does; the "XXL box," in which users can turn pages within the ad; and the "pushdown," which opens to display a larger ad.

In its press release, the OPA optimistically suggests that these stupendous new ads will "help stimulate a renaissance of creative advertising on the Internet."  Maybe so, but I suspect a renaissance of people throwing things at their computer screens is more likely.

But hell, I guess I can't blame them.  I mean, I work for a magazine that relies on web ads for part of its revenue, but I don't care.  I still do everything in my power to block the ads I can and ignore the ones I can't.  I used to unblock ads at, just so I'd know what was going on on my own site, but when our ad server started delivering GE ads that played a soundtrack every time they loaded, I couldn't take it anymore and finally blocked even that.

So I'm part of the problem.  But here's the real question this provokes: does general purpose advertising even work?  It's pretty clear that targeted ads do well: Google ads that are keyed to search queries, for example, or ads in specialty magazines with an audience that's genuinely eager to see what likeminded merchants have to offer.  But how about non-targeted stuff?

In the web world, we have strong evidence that it works poorly: the clickthrough rate on web banner ads is famously anemic.  So what makes us think that nontargeted TV or newspaper ads work?  There are ways to measure this stuff — the old reader response cards in magazines, post-purchase product surveys ("Where did you hear about Cranberry Pepsi Lite?"), and so forth — but they don't work all that well.  For the most part, marketeers do their best to target and then just pray that the rest of their advertising budget is doing some good too.

But in the web we finally have a medium where we can actually quantify the impact of nontargeted ads, and it turns out to be pretty low.  Everyone takes this to be a sign that the web is unusually hostile territory for general purpose advertising, but what if that's the wrong lesson?  Maybe the web is actually typical, and these ads don't really work very well anywhere else either.  Maybe.

Walking to Wednesday's (mostly uneventful) White House press briefing, I spotted Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood heading from the East Wing toward the Old Executive Office Building. He was by himself. I asked if he had a moment to talk, and he graciously said yes.

I started with substance: light rail. There's money in the stimulus bill for light rail projects, and Prsident Barack Obama has referred to this when pitching the stimulus package. But the White House has not placed much emphasis on this initiative. In general, Obama has (so far) not fully designed or promoted his economic recovery initiative as a bold move to revitalize (and even re-imagine) America's infrastructure. So I asked LaHood how his department would be spending the light-rail money in the stimulus legislation: would it disseminate it widely or use it to move ahead with a few high-profile projects that could draw plenty of public attention? "We will spread it around," he said, noting the stimulus contains about $1 billion for light rail. His department, he said, has a list of about a dozen projects that it will soon send to the White House. Presumably, the White House will weigh in on which project gets what money.

"There's always a fixation on building roads at the Transportation Department," I said, asking "Does the current crisis give you a chance to change that somewhat?"

"Now is the time to change direction," said LaHood, who was a Republican member of the House of Representatives before joining Obama's Cabinet. But, then, he didn't say how fast or--more important--how much.

Next, I turned to politics. "Are you disappointed by your fellow Republicans on the Hill who have been trying to block the president's programs?" He paused for a moment. It looked as if he would say something. He opened his mouth. Then he shut it. A look of reconsideration crossed his face. "I shouldn't comment," he said. "I'm part of the Obama team now. I'm out of the political game."

"But aren't you just a little bit disappointed?" I asked, as coaxingly as possible. "Just a little?" Another pause. "I shouldn't say," he replied. He said goodbye and walked off. And I thought: should I have asked him about Rush Limbaugh?

According to Gallup, Congress's approval rating went up 12 points last month and another 8 points this month.  At this rate, they might even hit 50% sometime this spring!  Apparently the American public likes the idea of better healthcare for kids, fighting discrimination against women, and stimulus spending to slow the course of the financial meltdown.

It's also worth noting that although most of the increase is due to Democrats being happier with Congress than in the past (no surprise), approval among independents has doubled.  Republicans are still unhappy, of course, but no more so than in the past.  Apparently all that talk radio bloviating about incipient socialism hasn't had much effect even on conservatives.

Stem Cell Polling

Ramesh Ponnuru complains about yesterday's Rasmussen poll on stem cells:

The other day I commented on the poor quality of polling on stem-cell research. I'm afraid that the Rasmussen poll, cited in today's web briefing, is no exception. Here's the question they use: "President Obama has decided to lift the ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Do you agree or disagree with President Obama’s decision?"

Rasmussen also reports that 40 percent of those surveyed say they have followed the debate "very closely." No estimate is given for the percentage of those respondents who are lying.

I wonder what the problem with the question is supposed to be?  In the past, conservatives have complained when pundits and pollsters talked about "stem cells" rather than "embryonic stem cells," but the Rasmussen question is clear on that point.  Is the problem that "lift the ban" isn't specific enough, since the Bush ban wasn't absolute?  Beats me.  The Rasmussen question is very, very simple and neutral and avoids all the issues in Ponnuru's previous post on the subject, so I'm not sure what the problem is.

But there always seems to be something.  Conservatives seem to be endlessly convinced that the American public would be opposed to embryonic stem cell research if only it was made graphically clear to them that this means embryos are destroyed in the process.  But there's just not much evidence of that.  Most of us know that embryos get destroyed, and most of us don't think that's a big problem.

On the other hand, I sympathize with his closing paragraph.  40% is actually not too unreasonable a figure, but it's remarkable the number of polls that ask very recondite questions and get something like a 90% response rate.  "Do you think American banks are undercapitalized and should be nationalized" will get, say, 50% in favor and 40% opposed, despite the fact that it's a dead certainty that 80% of Americans have no idea what "undercapitalized" means and only a vague notion of what nationalization is.  But the results are taken seriously anyway.

We've all got our issues about which we're just plain unreasonable. One of mine is the right wing's vilification of "big government." You might as well try to engage me in a forum on whether the Earth is flat; I will simply get up and walk away from such a pointless conversation. Nothing will convince me that America, or any country, is a group of hearty frontiersmen with no one to blame but themselves if they don't build their own roads, provide their own medical care...oh wait. We're supposed to trust capitalism to do that which we individually can't and religion to take care of the losers. My bad.

As I listen to the latest pathetic jeremiads against the boogeyman of 'socialism,' my eyes just roll and roll. I simply do not trust people who believe we need as little government as possible. Who believe we need just a coupla folks to hand over public resources to corporations gratis, with no pesky bureaucrats whining about not being able to breathe. Who believe that capitalism is always and everywhere rational, so why would corporations contaminate the very resources it needs to exist? And that therefore, there is no global warming. Puh-leeze.

We certainly need better government (a former president comes to mind), but I'm not sure we need less of it. We need government if only to protect us from capitalism; if anyone still believes the profit motive has its limits, I'd like to know what color the sky is in your world. Here's me being unreasonable again: People who want only fifty cents worth of government are people who just don't want to pay taxes. Which makes me sneer because without all this government—roads, cops, telecommunications systems, public schools—we'd all only be able to make fifty cents. Duh. I pay about half my income in taxes (and I don't make even half as much as you think I do). I don't like it, but I'm a patriot, which means thinking now and then about what's best for all of us, not just me. I don't like my money going to people like KBR and Halliburton and AIG; their allegiance is to money and other rich people, and that kind of government we don't need.

Bill Maher summed it up on HuffPo:

"The first responders who put out your fires, that's your government. The ranger who shoos pedophiles out of the park restroom...Recent years have made me much more wary of government...stepping aside and letting unregulated private enterprise run things it is plainly too greedy to trust with."

Take a page from Bill and say it out loud: I'm for big government and I'm proud! Why he lowered himself to 'debate' this ur-knuckle dragger, I don't know, but still...the video of it made me want to stand up and cheer.

Next time you hear someone complaining about how the rich shoulder a massive tax burden, point them to the first graph at this FiveThirtyEight post. The top marginal tax rate in this country is at one of the lowest points in the past 100 years.

Political Interference

The New York Times reports that banks are getting tired of Uncle Sam constantly looking over their shoulders:

Financial institutions that are getting government bailout funds have been told to put off evictions and modify mortgages for distressed homeowners. They must let shareholders vote on executive pay packages. They must slash dividends, cancel employee training and morale-building exercises, and withdraw job offers to foreign citizens....The conditions are necessary to prevent Wall Street executives from paying lavish bonuses and buying corporate jets, some experts say, but others say the conditions go beyond protecting taxpayers and border on social engineering.

Some bankers say the conditions have become so onerous that they want to return the bailout money. The list includes small banks like the TCF Financial Corporation of Wayzata, Minn., and Iberia Bank of Lafayette, La., as well as giants like Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo.

Obviously, everyone's first reaction is here is to break out their tiny violins so we can all play sad songs for the nation's bankers.  Songs like this: If you don't want taxpayer oversight, then don't take taxpayer money after you've run your bank into the ground.  Until then, suck it up.

That's pretty much my second reaction too.  Still, there's a germ of an issue here.  One of the arguments against bank nationalization is that unlike Sweden, where those nice sensible Scandinavians were willing to let their technocrats run things after their housing bust, Americans have no such discipline.  Nationalize a big American bank and Congress will promptly use it as a piggy bank for every half-baked scheme their staffs can cook up.  I mean, it's not as if Congress was exactly a positive influence on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, was it?

Which suggests these complaints deserve a hearing.  Some things just make sense: if you're accepting bailout money because your capital has become dangerously low, then it's hardly unreasonable to demand that you stop depleting capital even more by continuing to pay out full dividends.  That's directly related to the problem at hand and it's a reasonable regulatory response to a serious problem.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, you get populist grandstanding like the recent fuss over Northern Trust hosting a bunch of client parties at a golf tournament they were sponsoring in Los Angeles.  Aside from the fact that money for the events all came out of the bank's marketing budget — which no one in their right mind thinks should be shut down during a recession — they almost certainly would have wasted more money by calling off their parties than by holding them.  Those kinds of things are scheduled far in advance, and the contracts they signed probably didn't allow them to recover more than a pittance if they cancelled at the last minute.  So if they had cancelled, they would have ended up paying out 90% of their budget and getting nothing for it, instead of paying out 100% and getting something in return.

Now, you can argue that they should have cancelled anyway purely for the PR value.  And maybe so.  And it's obviously a judgment call about what kinds of rules should apply to bailed out banks that ought to be conserving cash.  Still, those of us who tentatively favor nationalization should also favor a process that keeps Congress at arm's length.  The whole point of nationalization is to restore both solvency and confidence, and let's face it: sober management isn't really Congress's stock in trade.  I'm not quite sure where the balance lies, but it's worth an open discussion.

President Obama has taken a lot of heat for having an understaffed Treasury Department, so earlier this week he named three new assistant secretaries. I have a web article up on one of the three, Alan Krueger, who will be the assistant secretary for economic policy. Krueger has never worked for a bank, doesn't have any connection to TARP or its later iterations, and has never pushed finance sector deregulation. Oh, and he shifted the conventional thinking on the minimum wage dramatically leftward in the 90s. From my article:

"To my mind, he would be one of the best people we could hope to get in this position," says Dean Baker, head of the left-leaning Center for Economic Policy Research. Adds CEPR's chief economist, John Schmitt: "He has done a lot of research that progressives would be very happy about. He is certainly one of the absolute top labor economists in the country." One-time Clinton economic aide and Berkeley economist Brad DeLong calls Krueger a "good choice."

Krueger is best known for his work on the minimum wage. In 1997, he co-wrote a book with economist David Card called Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage. They argued that the moderate increases in the minimum wage typically seen in the US don't raise unemployment numbers—a thesis that went against much of the conventional wisdom at the time—and that such pay boosts have a substantial impact on the take-home pay of low-wage workers. The book, says progressive economist James K. Galbraith, established the minimum wage's value "very firmly and to the horror of the mainstream." At first, Krueger's ideas on the minimum wage were highly controversial. "He took a lot of heat for that, and stood up," says Schmitt. Krueger's extensive background on issues related to job creation and wage distribution, Schmitt adds, will serve him well as the Obama team attempts to implement the stimulus bill, which aims to create over 3 million new jobs.

In a statement today, Obama acknowledges that the budget just passed by Congress is loaded with earmarks -- the Administration has argued that O's campaign promises about earmarks don't apply to it because it was written before he took office -- and introduces new ways to reform them. Anything he suggests will have to be approved by earmark-hungry Congress, so don't hold your breath. But here are the President's ideas. The boldest and most promising one is to make earmarks subject to competitive bidding, which, because it strikes at the very heart of the idea of the earmark, will probably be the first to get rejected by Congress.

...earmarks must have a legitimate and worthy public purpose.  Earmarks that members do seek must be aired on those members’ websites in advance, so the public and the press can examine them and judge their merit for themselves.  And each earmark must be open to scrutiny at public hearings, where members will have to justify their expense to the taxpayer.

Next, any earmark for a for-profit private company should be subject to the same competitive bidding requirements as other federal contracts. The awarding of earmarks to private companies is the single most corrupting element of this practice, as witnessed by some of the indictments and convictions we have seen. Private companies differ from the public entities that Americans rely on every day – schools, police stations, fire departments – and if they are seeking taxpayer dollars, then they should be evaluated with a higher level of scrutiny.

Obama added: "if my administration evaluates an earmark and determines that it has no legitimate public purpose, we will seek to eliminate it, and we will work with Congress to do so." We'll see. Congress doesn't share Obama's zeal for reform, a fact we see time and again. So consider me pessimistic, but willing to be proven wrong.