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Human methane release and the accompanying sonic vibrations normally invoke embarassment, joviality and good-natured finger-pointing. However, every culture also has certain places or circumstances where cutting the cheese violates strict social norms. In Finland, that place would be the sauna when others are present.

The equivalent behavior in the print media world would be discussing publicly the mechanisms and conditions under which a publisher grants discounts to buyers of ad space.

The GOP attack on MoveOn.org’s ad knocking four-star Army General David Petraeus inadvertantly (at least at first) wanders into what is normally a safe space in publishing. After all, there is no problem, First Amendment or otherwise, with asking whether the ad constitutes a malicious attack that defames a public figure. What is inappropriate is that the KooKoo People have made MoveOn.org’s receipt of a discount for placing the ad an issue. If we start public attacks on sacred business secrets we could we see a deconstructionist fad that exposes the core trade practices of everybody from tax lawyers to defense contractors.

 Every magazine and newspaper, including the NY Times, publishes a rate card. These are the magazine’s official retail rates for space (and they are rarely cheap).  A 15% part of that rate is typically shared with larger ad agencies, who may in turn keep that part of the ad buy or refund a part of the provision to the customer if there is an agreement. Customers that pay the full retail price typically get treated very well and usually are automatically given other perks. Otherwise, the rate card simply sets the ground rules in the battle to buy and sell media space. Smaller buyers often turn to media buyers who consolidate large blocks of advertising to get a special rate. The big buyer may get, say, a 50% discount, then turn around and share 20% with their clients. That is exercise of the same volume buying power Wal-Mart uses on its suppliers. There is also opportunistic buying. Here, and for some reason this business is often conducted by under-30 females, the seller and buyer first nonverbally communicate by providing evidence of ownership or control of certain commodity and production capital fetishes, then the buyer conditions the offer with a question like “Can I get that for less?” Then the horse-trade is on to see who blinks first on ad placement and price on campaigns that may span TV, radio and print in multiple markets. Finally, there are companies that are so big they have an in-house ad department that negotiates ads directly with each magazine. As they are the lifeblood of the publisher, they will simply hammer on price and placement until they get what they want. My sense is that MoveOn.org has become a large enough media buyer to be able to negotiate an ad buy with the NY Times without outside help.

Despite the fantasy that NY Times advertising sales department is in cahoots with MoveOn.org to get Petraeus, the reality is that the content of the ad likely never entered into the negotiation. Unfortunately, the NY Times editorial staff cannot really respond honestly to the sheer silliness of the attack as it they’d have to reveal how the sausage is made. Instead, NY Times editor Clark Hoyt gives the rather feeble response that:

The Times bends over backward to accommodate advocacy ads, including ads from groups with which the newspaper disagrees editorially. 

 The editorial department probably never even knew the ad had been bought until they saw the printed paper. However, the NY Times detractors surely sensed they’d hit a sore point when they mentioned ad rates, demonstrating in the process they have no idea how media works. Everybody is now going to expect a “discount” when they buy as space from the NY Times, which will hurt ad agencies, advertisers and readers alike.  The publisher, unfortunately, will just have to bear this sauna fart.

Update: The House today also took time to condemn the ad. Interestingly, John Armor, a conservative lawyer, argues the ad discount constituted a “gift” to MoveOn, which must have made publishers everywhere wince yet again. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence that the paper had a political motive in granting a discount for the ad. The claim is simply another iteration of the conservative sentiment that the paper has a liberal bias. Indeed, the discount was based on a condition that MoveOn to accept that the ad would run on the nearest day to their desired run-day when space came available. Now MoveOn has belatedly paid the full price for the ad — a real gift to the NY Times as it dispells the notion that a discount should be expected for any political ad.

Yet now we have an large majorities in Congress supporting a false linkage; here that political content motivated a discount. Heaven forbid that Congress put their weight behind other false linkages.

The NY Times obviously would have refused the ad if they thought it defamatory and opened them to republisher liability. But we all know nobody will ever file a libel suit against MoveOn for the ad because it is not defamatory. And we also know Congress will never spend a second condemning the much harsher critique of General Petraeus by his boss, US Central Command head Admiral Bill Fallon

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George Orwell’s advice that writers “kill their darlings” to keep their writing fresh and honest applies doubly to advertising copywriters. This week, the US Senate, which will do just about anything to avoid dealing with serious matters at hand, like say, education, healthcare, or, I dunno, that Iraq thingy, was given nearly an entire day of free-for-all fun with MoveOn.org’s ad in the New York Times “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?, which in the end resulted in a non-binding resolution, introduced by class clown John Cornyn, condemning the ad. Good job, guys. Still, the real bad guy here was the copywriter. In his brief for the ad, he was undoubtedly told to keep hitting the “betrayal of trust” meme. Not surprisingly, two or three neuron bursts later, the headline had written itself. Brilliant! At that point, experience should have told the copywriter it was time to push “delete” and kill that darling. It wasn’t even a cheap pun; that would have simply read “General Betray-Us?” Instead, it was a labored pun.

No mo’ Shillin’ fo’ da Koalishun of da Willin’

Like Gen. William C. Westmoreland , who debased himself to prop up Nixon’s policy 40 years earlier, Petraeus is smart military confused as to where his loyalties belong. He understands he’s being sacrificed on the pyre of political expediency by his masters. Perhaps that is why he was honest enough to admit his masters expect to continue the occupation for at least another decade. (Although, I kid you not, there is a strand of conspiracy talk at the moment that Petraeus is being groomed for a 2012 White House run and this has his handlers are royally pissed he’s catching image flack so early on in the product roll-out. There is also the challenge to political copywriters of finding something that rhymes with “ass-kissing chickenshit”).

A Permanent State of War? Now there’s a headline that resurrects the ghost of Trotsky’s permanent revolution.

Besides, the headline could have been treated differently, say, in the form of a question to the General. If we need to spin the win, is it worth it? Or, what is it that 71% of Americans is not getting about this war?  

Or simply use an Army recruiting slogan. “It’s Army Strong, not Army Wrong.”  or “Army Strong … but not for long. Gen. Petraeus please don’t break our Army.”

Or some Dylan, “Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
On the other hand, Americans love the infantile. Perhaps the next MoveOn.org ad will read: “Hey Cornyn, bite me!”

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Did you know that one out of 35 people in the world is an immigrant, according to a 2004 United Nations study? In numbers, that translates to 175 million people (2.9% of the world’s population) versus 75 million (2.5%) in 1960.

In the United States, the number of immigrants total over 34 million, accounting for 12.4% of the population. The biggest national group are Hispanics at 17 million. In some states like California, the foreign population accounts for 27.2%.

Using simple math, it’s clear that the Hispanics are one of the most disfranchised national group in the U.S. The fact that Spanish hasn’t become an official language in states like California shows the minuscule rights Hispanics have.

If a country like the U.S. accepts and depends on immigrants for its economic growth and well-being, its legislation should reflect respect for those cultures and national groups that work in the country. Good examples for the US to follow are countries where more than one language is officially spoken. Some of these are Switzerland (French, Italian, German, Rumantsch), Canada (English and French) and Finland (Finnish and Swedish).

It’s incredible that as we’ve become more interdependent through globalization and can communicate with ease through the Internet, our perceptions of other cultures continue to be in the Pre-Cambrian Era. Even legislation reflects this antiquated stance. The difficulty of immigration reform in the US is a sad example of how some interest groups want the status quo to continue.

There are a myriad of reasons why immigrants continue to be disfranchised. But as long as we continue to teach our children at school that our country, our language and our culture is the best, we’ll never build a world that respects in earnest people from other countries and nationalities.

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Perhaps the most remarkable candidness in the US Senate’s all-night Iraq Debate came from Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, who examined the idea that has long burned in the hearts of those who engineered the Iraq occupation — the privatization of 70% of Iraq’s oil resources. The crafters of this plan have spent over a decade coming up with reasons to justify this, even though oil production in most countries is done under the auspices of the state or quasi-statal entities. If Americans are really concerned about ending civil strife in Iraq and giving all its citizens a stake in the success of that country, perhaps it is time to abandon pressuring for a Hydrocarbon Law and the application of production-sharing agreements, or PSAs, and try a different approach. (BTW, if you are convinced PSAs are the way to go, it might be worthwhile to review the recent Russian experience of British Petroleum.)

 Current estimates of Iraq’s oil reserves are all over the map, ranging from 112Gbbl to 400Gbbl on the high end. Nevertheless, the big oil companies seem comfortable with figures north of 300 billion barrels. At an oil price of $50 a barrel that’s a treasure of $15 trillion. $30 trillion at $100 a barrel, or roughly a cool $1 million for every Iraqi citizen. Given the value of the assets at stake, it is also clear why Mr. Bush and co-president Cheney scarcely bat an eye at the mention that official Pentagon spending on the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan now exceed $12 billion a month. That’s chump change.

While the conditions in Iraq are quite different than in Norway, there is obviously an alternative path for Iraq that so far has not received much public discussion, i.e. creation of a national stabilization fund to invest and protect national oil revenues managed with sufficiently little corruption so that covenants with Iraq’s future generations are kept. The added benefit is that, like in Norway, the money can be directed toward diversification of the economy and job creation.

The Senate’s Great Iraq Debate was a flop, but Cantwell may have inadvertantly started a discussion that will help both the people of Iraq and the US in the long term.

Update: C-Span  has the clip up now.

Later update: Suddenly it’s become okay to use the O-word right on the senate floor. Larry Craig did it, too.

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Michael Moore’s Sicko is rolling out in US theaters to generally positive reviews. The premise is simple: for any industrialized country, universal health care should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, certain institutions of the US medical-industrial complex (e.g. insurers) and many voters do not accept this notion. For video on a piece by CNN’s resident neurosurgeon/reporter Sanjay Gupta that really got to Moore, see this and this.

What I would like to see is a comparison between the Finnish system and the US system. Having been in both, it’s clear to me that the Finnish system wins hands down in terms of life-cycle costs and quality. On the other hand, the variability of quality of US health care can be good for the lucky and the rich — it focuses resources very well. For example, when former Disney CEO Michael Eisner started to have a heart attack, he drove his car to Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles, because he knew that was where the good care was. Such thinking would be odd in the Finnish context. Also, the Finnish system keeps slogging toward a diagnosis until it gets it right (or at least in the ballpark), while doctors in the US may be brilliant diagnosticians or lose interest and never figure out the problem. Second opinion is a big deal. It’s an interesting trade-off the Americans have made: sacrificing reliability and consistency for spectacular successes and a system that badly serves two-thirds of the population.

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Joe Wilson (on George Bush’s quid pro quo commuting of Scooter Libby’s 30-month sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice):

 

This stinks to high heaven.

 

So here’s the song by Loudon Wainwright III:

 You’ve got to love the crossed-arm body language of the German crowd. BTW: The translation for the Finnish word for skunk (haijunäättä) is something like smelly raccoon. The comment about politicians is prescient.

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Today saw the death of “comprehensive” immigration legislation on the US Senate floor. The proclaimed victors like Jim DeMint  should stop crowing about victory — lobbyists for service sector businesses like hotels and fast food, as well as labor-intense agriculture and construction were the winners. And the crafters of the bill need to recall the basic law of art direction — less is more — and apply that philosophy next time.

Americans are suprisingly unlikely to own a passport — until recently less than 10% of the general population held valid passports. This situation is now changing as passports are finally being required for cross-border travel to neighboring countries and the state department has introduced improvements in security features. The state department’s service fee for processing a passport application (e.g. checking birth records) and production of the physical document is roughly $100. In other words, assuming a population of 300 million, for $30 billion, every US citizen could be put through the passport process and issued a high-tech passport. Obviously, with 6% of the adult population in prison, on parole, or having outstanding warrants, as well as problems such as deadbeats who fail to pay child support and tax-evaders, there is probably a need to consider multiple flavors of passports. But the physical challenge of issuing hard-to-counterfeit passports to all is not insurmountable.

The legal function of passports has traditionally been restricted to use by the federal government in authorizing cross-border travel of citizens. However, there are other functions that passports readily perform. Globally, high-security passports (e.g. using polycarbonates and incorporating holographic features) are far less likely to be counterfeit, which means they provide much better ID security that current state driver’s licenses and US social security cards. (A friend of mine who does Chapt. 7 bankruptcies had one guy come in an offer him five SSNs when he asked “What’s your social security number?” I can’t even figure out how that scheme might work.)

For those of us that have lived the life of stranger in a strange land, the passport has always been the key document. With my passport and various visas I was able to travel about in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe back in the old days unimpeded (I even hitchhiked). During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I had the privilege of experiencing the iron hand of Eila Käänö, a high-level bureaucrat in the Interior Ministry who oversaw Finland’s foreigner population. (Finland’s opening up to the world in the last three decades is a truly remarkable testament that societies can put aside provincialism and embrace fairly sophisticated international outlooks.)

At the bottom of the Finnish system were (and still are) the very simple administrative devices of the work and residence permits. If a foreigner behaved and contributed to Finnish society, that person was gradually granted longer work and residence permits, kept on learning Finnish and Swedish, began to get taxed on the same basis as the locals, and after a year was brought into the national health care system and ultimately even allowed to vote in local elections. Also, the state retained the right to deny a work permit to people in fields where Finns faced high employment. Most Americans living in Finland today hold university degrees and I have little doubt that foreigners who have chosen to reside in Finland permanently represent a net gain to the society overall. But there is also a further fact that should not be overlooked — almost every Finn currently holds a valid passport, Schengen or no Schengen.

From this perspective, the US does not really have an immigration problem, at least not in the Lou Dobbs sense. Rather, the federal government — for whatever reason — has been administratively negligent. I went through the embarassingly complicated greencarding process with my wife. Because we had done everything in Finland at the US embassy, our paperwork was apparently impeccable. When we came from Samoa to LAX and she went to hand over the paperwork, including a giant lung x-ray, the official cleared her in about 7 minutes, shook her hand, and commented that he’d almost never encountered such a well prepared immigrant. Of course, we’d spent about three months and $3,000 to get to that point. Finland, in contrast, has nothing like the greencard. The closest thing is probably the permanent resident stamp in the passport, but even that has to be renewed each time you get a new passport. And no matter how long you are in the system, you get thrown out if you move abroad. A greencarder has to visit the US every 12 months if they have again moved away from the US.

Thus, by requiring passports for all, citizen and non-citizen alike, a lot of problems can be disposed of rather quickly. When a citizen presents a valid US passport, it can be assumed that the federal government stands behind the document. This cannot be said of a driver’s license, birth certificate or SS card. When a non-citizen presents a passport, it will contain a valid residence permit and work permit with dates that are unambiguous to employers, and it will provide leverage for the employee to make sure that the employer pays the employee’s social contributions and conforms to the law. And it will reduce the gray economy that has been so well served by the Senate’s latest failure.

Regarding Mexico, there needs to be a fundamental acknowledgement, long ago noted by Paul and Anne Ehrlich in the unfortunately titled The Population Explosion that immigration pressures from Mexico need to be damped not mainly because of the shoddy treatment immigrants recieve, but the simple fact that “the world cannot afford any more Americans.” It’s a wierd book, often hodge-podge, but occasionally brilliant. The best idea is the I = PAT equation. Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. Lou Dobbs, who is after all a trained economist, would do well to incorporate it into his discussion. Mexico has made progress in lowering its population rate, a fact that is seldom mentioned. Mexico’s rising affluence, however, must be accompanied by energy efficient, environmentally friendly technology. Otherwise, there will be a real mess. Also overlooked is the fact that the US is the third most populous country on Earth, after China and India. Make of that what you will.

Pretty good for a couple that spent all their summers in Telluride.

US immigration issues can and should be handled administratively. Illegal immigrants are rarely involved in crimes of moral turpitude, but rather statute violations that have no intent requirement. An administrative approach also makes it possible to apportion costs between the immigrant, employer and government. Under the current regime, immigrants and employers avoid costs, and the government only spends what it can. An administrative approach would also avoid the need to build big fences. Simple, probably not as cheap as Congress would like (but then this is the same Congress that is now spending $11 billion a month on activities in Iraq and Afghanistan), and effective.  

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