Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, MAAD City

I was hesitant to listen to Kendrick Lamar's major label debut. The expectations were too high (the next Tupac!), the remnant of the man who was once Dr. Dre was too prominently involved (Beetz...), and even Section.80, which has some truly great songs, also has its share of pretentious duds, I trait I feared major label money might only exacerbate.

Yet, I did download it Monday morning (legally), and... it has taken me about 6 listens to figure out what is going on. Which is a lot.

 From the best I can tell, this is a concept album displaying song-story vignettes of a 17 year old or so Kendrick Lamar growing up in Compton, with the main story played out in skits, songs, and skits-within-songs. Frequently, Lamar adopts a novelty voice to inhabit other characters (or even his own conscious).

A commercial play, this is most definitely not. In fact, I would venture to say that the dominant tone of the album is despair. Compton emerges as a hellhole of needless violence, and wasted lives. Indeed, Lamar seems hell-bent on removing any lingering romanticization of Compton's gang-war mystique from the public conscious, especially in the rap industry.

As an artistic statement, more than anything I am struck by what a unified statement this album is. Lamar seems to have one message to communicate and works together many songs, skits, and mini-songs within songs to accomplish his goal, completely ignoring the modern state of single-driven music commerce.

Time will tell if this album's reputation lasts, but I am enjoying it hugely. Moreover, I think it is immediately noteworthy that I was completely shocked by the scope of Lamar's ambition with this album -- even beyond the consistency of his adroit rapping throughout, his artistic consistency of message is strange to hear in 2012. It is disarming to realize the only way to way to really listen to the proper-album tracks is from the first second on, without skipping a track. The bonus tracks are clearly distinct and are lighter fare.

 To be honest, I didn't ever except to see a unified rap album statement of this kind again in the vein of Ready to Die or Only Built for Cuban Linx... again, not that this album is of that caliber, but it definitely sounds like a coherent whole much like those albums do, rather than a collection of singles patched together (usually with a dose of filler to round out the playlist) as has come to define the rap ablum.  I mean we hear things like Lupe Fiasco's The Cool will be a concept album, but of course it arrives and it isn't at all... After years of this, you become jaundiced.

Well, I am not jaundiced anymore.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Thursday, October 11, 2012

VP Debate Moderator: Iran is the biggest danger to America

Some would differ. See Pakistan.

More broadly, I am not sure if I am missing something, but one hand, Romney-Ryan seem to be criticizing Obama-Biden for not foreseeing the dangers that manifested in the Libya debacle and also for not arming the Syrian rebels quickly enough.

Perhaps this warning of a neo-neocon revival and the confusion that entails is not off target.

Not that Biden is offering much more. I believe he just blamed the Great Recession on public sector debt build-up. By that logic, the Obama administration would be an epic fiscal failure.

As I write this, our helpful moderator just states "Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt." Ryan agrees -- "These are indisputable facts."

Dr. Lydgate would beg to differ, as perhaps Alan Greenspan, a man one would hope with some insight on the matter, would as well. See: print more money.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Traversing the BosWash Megaopolis

I've now lived for at least a time at three of the main points of concentration of the BosWash megapolis, so coined by a 60's social scientist of urban studies of some sort: Boston, Greater NYC (i.e. NJ) and now the Washington area.

Taking a bus or train between any of the cities, it is somewhat strange how urbanization never seems to end, at least between NYC and DC. Depending on your route, the trip from NYC to Boston can get somewhat rural in Southern Mass, Rhode Island, or Western CT. However, If you follow the golden coast in CT, beware of hours stuck in traffic undercutting the quasi-rural feeling of the Connecticut coast.

Going South from NYC on Amtrack, you essentially pass simultaneously from Greater NYC to Greater Philly, which quickly succumbs to Wilmington/Baltimore, and ultimately D.C. before the true American South begins.

Contrast this to the experience of leaving Indianapolis, IN which is surrounding by endless cornfields and tiny towns for hours in every direction, as you make the three hour trip to Chicago.

This amazing concentration of humanity and economic activity has its pluses and minuses, I suppose. While NYC proper seems to have solved its crime problem, surrounding communities in NJ such as Newark and East Orange have not been so lucky. Passing through North Philly, Baltimore, or even areas of D.C., one can encounter much of the same uran blight found in Detroit or St. Louis, sometimes on an even more massive if less acute scale.

This contrasts with pockets of absurd wealth throughout the region, frequently not too far from impoverished areas. While the level of wealth is perhaps matched by certain areas of California and Chicago, I do not think it is on the same scale. Witness NYC's insane trillion plus estimated GDP to support the conceited New Yorker's insistence that Manhattan is indeed "the greatest city in the world."

As winter approaches, however, doubt begins to grow in my mind. Why should we suffer this yearly pain -- not to mention, ridiculous cost-of-living -- when another megapolis with mild weather year round exists across the country exists just a short plane ride away?

As for the great ignored interior, they are perhaps having the last laugh as our inflated housing values refuse to budge despite the great correction seen across much of the country. Mit Ach and Krach...

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Final Debate Thoughts

I watched the debate alone in an internet vacum, live-blogging some reactions. Though I had severe problems with both candidates' deficit hysteria, I felt Romney was worse in this regard with the absurd China comment. Overall, I thought Obama was more measured and reasonable while Romney's proposals lack seriousness i.e. you cannot seriously plan to lower taxes, create jobs and lower the deficit. Also, he set the stage for health insurance to be a major problem in American life, and then advocated repealing Obamacare without detailing any real alternative (when most states refuse to do anything and are strapped financially, state-based solutions are not a serious proposal).

I go on Facebook afterwards and it appears Obama and the host are being held in contempt -- in Lehrer's case, for reasons I do not comprehend as I felt he did a find job, and was right to let the candidates continue their discussions rather than rush them through another category they had already covered extensively.

 A sample anti-Obama comment: "Early on Pres Obama was sharp and concise, then he got a bit too wonky and too much in the weeds."

I suppose that was why I preferred his approach.

Live-blogging the debate continuing

A few notes:

 - Romney's criticism of Dodd-Frank is, in his words, more nuanced than just repeal the more stringent regulations. He criticizes supporting too-big-to-fail banks through Dodd-Frank. I will look into this more. The phrase "capital requirements" are briefly mentioned than dropped.

- Romney's healthcare discussion ignores the problem of mass, poor, and young uninsured Americans. This is an economic drag on their consumption, in addition to an overall problem.

- Romney and Obama both, paradoxically, praise Massachusett's health plan. This plan has succeeded in raising in the insurance rate (making it worth it in my opinion) and its medical inflation rate has recently slowed even more rapidly than the national rate, likely due income declines. However, they are suffering from a doctor shortage I believe, expected given the dramatic increase in insurance beneficiaries, a national harbinger neither candidate mentions.

- Obama is clearly influenced by the "30% solution" school of thought in health policy (perhaps from David Cutler, an advisor on his campaign): that is, 30% of health care spending is wasted, and we can eliminate it without affecting quality. This result comes from the Dartmouth Atlas studies on regional Medicare variation, and is endorsed at Harvard, Health Affairs, the IOM etc. Some critics, notably Robert Cooper, consider this result fraudulent. This is very interesting, mostly one-sided debate. From what I can gather, Dartmouth Atlas finds that certain regions, mostly in the South, spend far more in Medicare dollars per patient than other regions (typically Northern suburban regions) even when you control for the different risk pools each region faces. Cooper et. al., and his few if any backers, say this is merely a result of comparing low-minority, high-income Medicare spending regions with high-minority, high-risk regions which necessarily have higher spending. Dartmouth says that they control for differential risks in their statistical analysis and that Cooper is ignorant of statistics. I suppose it boils down to whether you believe multiple regression analysis can adequately control for social stratification across the country, by including variables like income in the regression. Cooper points out some strange results from Darmouth such as Mississippi having the highest spending despite its general deficit of medical specialists. Another question about the 30% hypothesis is that it is based on Medicare claims rather than overall expenditure -- possibly not a descriptive sample. Although it did not receive much mention in the debate from Romney or even explicit mention from Obama, the veracity of this 30% hypothesis is crucial. It underlies much of current health policy thought, and is the ideological foundation of the weaker, spending-control aspects of Obamacare. It has led Baicker and Chandra to publish a paper with the famous statement that "regions with higher healthcare spending have lower healthcare quality" to which Cooper has responded, in contrast,  "more is more" in health spending, not less. We will see how it plays out. As a note, Cooper has a track record of success in the field of social prognostication: he predicted the coming physician shortage about a decade ago, recognized only recently by higher authorities.

Live Blogging the Debate: How do you do cut marginal tax raes without raising the deficit?

President Obama asks.

Romney, accusing Obama of chicanery, responds "I won't implement any tax break that adds to the deficit" because he will close deductibles and loopholes to make up the revenue.* Obama parries with "math, common sense, and history" saying you cannot cut taxes, increase spending and not add to the deficit (in a word, yes).

Dr. Lydgate would like to ask, why won't we just 1. cut taxes 2. add spending 3. and, you know, add to the deficit but he doesn't exactly have a seat at the table.


*Romney's tax plan, in which he lowers taxes, and raises taxes, for a net wash, is an application of the bizarre conception common among economists that people will work more if they earn a slightly higher percent of earnings regardless of their overall wealth level (I think). This, of course, completely ignores the aggregate demand gap that at is the heart of our economic malaise that very much will be negatively impacted by closing loopholes.


**A few minutes later, Romney goes on a strange speech against deficit spending in which he insists it is a moral issue, invokes the burden on our children (no mention of grand-children yet) and proposes a "Is this worth borrowing from China to pay for?" criteria for every federal government program, including PBS, something that has no basis in reality, but never mind that. Obama, of course, responds with his plan to cut spending and raise taxes to close the deficit.

 Will the entire night pass without anyone asking if cutting the deficit is an unquestionable necessity?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Don't look to Romney to Criticize Obama for Pro-Wall St. Politics

This is a very good column in Reuters looking at new book exposing Obama's TARP politices implemented by Geither. Unfortunately, little to no attention is being paid by the media to this story. Oncemore, Romeny, unsurprising for a PE alumni, is in favor of repealing Dodd-Frank rather than any meaning regulations. 

The author concludes with a discussion of BoA's Ken Lewis misleading share-holders on Merrill Lynch's value, and how the government is forcing the company to pay share-holders with its own assets: quite strange. 

Even more strange is the likelihood -- discussed at length in some accounts of that insane time -- that the government in fact forced Lewis to go through with BoA shotgun-wedding after he tried to back out upon realizing the true extent of Merrill's peril. If that was the case, the government is forcing BoA to pay its own assets out to shareholders for actions that it they originally inappropriately forced.  Everything comes full circle, I suppose.  

Sources of Demand Leakage: Student Loan Debt

Why do we have persistently elevated unemployment? I would say it is due to debt overhang mostly, over structural issues or Casey Mulligan's all too serious assertion in The Redistribution Recession that government handouts are to blame. Student loan-debt is just one facet of this, but an increasingly important one.

This Pragmatic Capitalism post demonstrates that the gap between tuition costs for college and disposable income is higher and growing.

What are the macro-economic implication of this rising student loan debt? On the margin, it seems that people in early adulthood are being forced to reduce or forego consumption to handle monthly payments in the hundreds of dollars. Consider the following:

"Those without a monthly student loan payment bought new and used vehicles at about the same frequency. But the likelihood of buying a new vehicle, rather than a used vehicle, was influenced by student loan payments. Fifty-two percent of those in the Wisconsin survey who had never had a student loan were likely to buy a new vehicle, rather than a used vehicle, compared with 32.8% who were paying a student loan."
(see here)
These couple hundreds of dollars a month for young people starting families -- on a case by case basis insignificant, but taken as a whole, a huge total -- likely dramatically reduces their marginal disposable income. 

Consequently, they not only reduce consumption but also save more of their remaining income able: both problems. The first hurts present demand, obviously, while the second is also a problem, as young peoples' inability to accumulate savings will lesson the market for future investments such as homes, as few will have the requistie down payments. 

Boomer generations blase about our student-loan debt problem may be more interested if they know that it will impact the ability of younger families to buy their current homes at acceptable prices when they decide to retire in the not too distant future.