Social networks are supposed to sell themselves. Apparently not.
When web publications have more pages than advertisers, they often run "house ads"--ads for the publication itself. It's an increasing problem for the industry, because offering a digital page is cheap. This is one of the reasons that web advertising has so far utterly failed to make up for the print ad revenue that publications have lost as traffic has moved online.
This morning, I saw something a little bit surprising on James Lilek's site: a house ad for . . . Google.
I've never seen a Google house ad before. And I had not, prior to this, been googling for information about Google+, or otherwise intimating to the search cookies that I wanted to be fed this sort of ad. Which suggests one of two things: either Google is so disappointed in the performance of Google+ that it's willing to forgo ad revenue in order to try to goose a failing brand, or Google is no longer getting enough ad buys to fill its ever-growing inventory. Either one is pretty interesting.
The new health care law requires Congress to buy insurance through the exchanges. That may be a problem.
Bit of a stir this morning, as Politico reports that Congress is considering exempting its staff from an Obamacare provision which will require all congressmen and staffers to get their health insurance through the exchanges. Apparently, it's not clear that the government is authorized to actually pay for this insurance, meaning that the folks on Capitol Hill might have to buy insurance out of their own pocket. (The ruling from the Office of Personnel Management, which governs this sort of question, is still pending.)
As you can imagine, Congress and their staffers are not happy about the prospect of paying for their own health insurance. So Politico reports that they're discussing maybe getting together and offering themselves a little relief from the law. Apparently, it's a lot easier to get Congress to talk about exempting themselves from Obamacare than it is to get them to talk about exempting the millions of other Americans who will be affected.
Ezra Klein argues that no, they're not talking about exempting themselves from Obamacare, just this specific provision, which Klein calls "a drafting error". In response to which, I'd offer two observations:
First, this is, in fact, about exempting themselves from Obamacare. This is a provision of Obamacare. It is in the bill. You may think that it shouldn't be in the bill, or that it shouldn't be in the bill in the way that it's written. But--assuming that these discussions are actually happening--Congress is considering exempting itself from the one provision of the bill that actually directly affects Congress. As far as they're concerned, this is exempting themselves from Obamacare; the rest of the bill affects Hill staffers only indirectly.
People who are saying this is no big deal aren’t thinking things through.
This will be your second post today on the problem of collecting sales taxes on Internet transactions, because after I wrote the first post, it became clear to me that most people who are writing about it do not understand why this is onerous for small business. I mean, sure, hey, there's all these different rates, but that's what software is for!
It's pretty obvious that most of the people writing about the sales tax have never run a small business. They are thinking about the transaction from the point of view of the consumer, where you punch in what you want to buy, and the software painlessly calculates the percentage for you. Few of the commentators I've read have asked themselves what happens to the money after the software has collected the money. Do the sales tax fairies simply whisk it off to the nice folks at the state tax department?
Sadly, no. Rather, as an SBA guidebook for small businesses points out, you have to file a tax return with each and every locality for which you have collected tax. The bill streamlines this a bit, but you've still got to keep 50 states’ worth of records and file 40-odd states worth of returns.
Generally, states require businesses to pay the sales taxes they collect quarterly or monthly. You’ll have to use a special tax return for sales taxes, and report all sales, taxable sales, exempt sales and amount of tax due. Not paying on time can result in penalties. As always, check with your state or local government about the process in your location.
Generous unemployment benefits. Excessive taxes and regulation. Are we voters to blame for the current job market?
On Monday, I wrote about long-term unemployment, and why it's a large enough problem that the federal government should be trying to do something about it. I got pushback along two lines:
1. Extended unemployment benefits probably caused the unemployment, by giving people an incentive to stay home instead of finding a job.
2. Regulations and taxes are making it too hard to hire people.
I am sympathetic to the basics of each argument. Regulations and taxes do make it hard to grow a business and create new jobs, a point I made in my last post. And extended unemployment benefits do give people an incentive to stay home instead of finding a job. Indeed, I know people who have done just that. One of them wrote a novel that sold for a bunch of money and earned back all the benefits they'd collected, and then some. The rest of them basically sat around and did nothing until their benefits ran out, and then found another job.
It’s too burdensome on businesses we want to expand.
For years, states have been trying to collect sales taxes from Internet retailers, particularly Amazon. They’ve been stymied by a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, Quill v. North Dakota, which held that under current law, companies could not be forced to collect sales tax unless they had a physical nexus in the state: a warehouse, a production facility, or a sales representative.
Teri Antognazzi, a safety administrator, oversees book stockings in the Amazon warehouse in Fernley, Nevada, in 2004. (Candice Towell/AP)
(Fun fact: the defendant in Quill v. North Dakota was ... Heidi Heitkamp, then a state official, now the woman that Maureen Dowd thinks should have voted for tougher gun control because, er, she’s a mother.)
Now Congress is riding to the rescue, with a bill that will force Internet companies to collect sales tax on their transactions. My colleague Dan Gross is enthusiastically in favor. I’m ... less so.
Cypriot bank accounts are frozen. Can the markets unfreeze them?
Is your cash stuck in a Cypriot bank? Someone might be willing to take it off your hands.
Distressed-debt investors and brokers are circling Cyprus, the Mediterranean island that last month plunged its two main banks into an emergency restructuring and blocked thousands of depositors from touching all their money.
The idea: investors buy frozen bank deposits, at a discount. Depositors who need access to their money get a payoff immediately, instead of waiting months or years for the bank restructuring to be completed. Investors get a shot at a big payoff down the line.
The West Wing is not real, and other political insights.
Last week I wrote that many political commentators seem to have internalized the movie version of negotation as an actual model of how the world works, rather than a dramatic convenience. That is, they think that the way you get what you want is to make an extreme demand so that you can be "bargained down" to what you actually want. In real life, this tactic frequently misfires--not least because if it worked, your counterparty would start making equally outrageous demands, and you'd be right back where you started. Nonetheless, it's an extremely common delusion among activists, and arguably, the president himself fell prey to it during the gun control debate.
This weekend, Maureen Dowd proved that the armchair activists are not the only ones who have begun confusing entertaining fictions with real life.
The White House had a defeatist mantra: This is tough. We need to do it. But we’re probably going to lose.
When you go into a fight saying you’re probably going to lose, you’re probably going to lose.
Even easy forecasts occasionally go astray
DC is having a special election for City Council today, which has once again aggravated the long-running wounds of DC racial politics. I was reading the stories about the candidates, clicking from link to link, when suddenly I stopped at this arresting graphic:
Why is this so interesting? Because as DC residents know, that graphic was way off. Census data indicate that DC lost its black majority sometime in 2011, not 2014. If current trends continue, the city will become majority white sometime in the next decade.
Whatever happened to second chances?
A young kid getting his first try as a TV anchor opened up his very first broadcast by whispering "fucking shit" into a live mic. Presumably, he didn't know he was live. But the television station, KFYR in North Dakota, has fired him anyway.
For shame, KFYR. Yes, obviously he got nervous and made a mistake. And I know that he thereby exposed children to profanity which they otherwise would have had to wait until recess to hear.
But there's no evidence that this was deliberate. Whatever happened to the groveling apology and the second chance . . . the kind of forgiving spirit that made America great? Many of the people in North Dakota are there because some ancestors screwed up not once, but multiple times, flubbing life so bad back East (or in Europe) that they had to get in a covered wagon and head out to somewhere where they could start over.
And I say that in admiration. They were the people who had the caliber not to take failure lying down: to pick up and try again. And they were aided by a society that helped them do just that, offering them land and the opportunity to bring something out of the earth. North Dakotans are the descendants of the ones who took that chance and made it work. Why are they now denying that same second chance to a kid who made one bad mistake?
It's the most important issue facing America today. What can we do?
Paul Krugman takes to the New York Times op-ed page today to discuss America's greatest crisis: the long-term unemployed. It's a topic that yours truly has been banging on about for quite a while. But it's gotten a bit of new urgency from the paper that Paul Krugman cites in his column.
But first, a little background. Basically, the normal relationship between unemployment and job vacancies seems to have broken down for the long-term unemployed. As hiring has ticked up, the short-term unemployed are doing fine, but the long-term unemployed are not re-entering the labor force at the rates that we'd like to see. They are suffering from what economists call "unemployment scarring": their time out of work has made them less employable.
You know why unemployment is under 8% today? Because a whole bunch of people have just given up and dropped out of the labor force. They've decided that it's no use looking because no one will hire them.
But is this because employers are discriminating, or because they're somehow different from those who have only been out of work a short time? Economist Rand Gayad decided to do a test. He sent out 4800 fictitious resumes, which differed by length of unemployment, experience, and number of times they'd switched jobs. What he found was that the long-term unemployed were less likely to get called for an interview than people with less experience, but a shorter duration of unemployment.
How much did we lose when we shut the city down?
How much did it cost to shut Boston down? People have been throwing around some large numbers, arrived at by multiplying the number of people who stayed home by their wage, or some variant on this method.
But of course, this isn't right. Most of the stuff that wasn't done on Friday will instead be done on Monday, or sometime in the next week. The salaried employees who stay home will work harder than usual. The hourly workers will, in many cases, pick up extra shifts.
Of course, not all the activity will be restored. Many events like banquets and charity balls that were cancelled will not be rescheduled, because planning those sorts of events takes months. Ancillary vendors from caterers to dry cleaners have lost revenue that will not be made up. Tourists who couldn't go out will go home with their money unspent. Restaurants and airlines permanently lost the opportunity to sell a spot in those seats. So there has been some real loss of "truck barter and exchange" that is simply lost, not delayed.
But those losses are likely to have been small relative to Boston's overall economy. The real loss was the fear, and the lost enjoyment. That is, people who would rather have spent their Friday day at the office and their evening socializing with friends had instead to spend it cowering in their homes--and some people very close to the action had to leave their homes and go somewhere else. But the economic impact of this is hard to calculate. Not least because some people might have been happier having an unexpected day off and making up the work later.
Amateurs went hunting for the Boston bombers, and ended up hurting innocent people.
Crowdsourcing triumphalists are feeling pretty glum today. Reddit's attempt at sleuthing seems to have fallen very, very flat. Actually, that's too weak; they ended up quasi-harassing innocent people by broadcasting their pictures on the web.
There's been some justifiable worry about web vigilanteism. But I want to push back just a leetle bit. Let's not forget law-and-order disasters like Richard Jewell and Steven Hatfill, whose lives were ruined by overzealous government investigators. The problem is not with inviduals taking on government responsibility. The real problem is when anyone--civilian or law enforcement--jumps the gun with insufficient information.
Common, cheap, and deadly, ammonium nitrate is a necessary evil
As of this afternoon, the confirmed death toll in the West Texas fertilizer plant explosion is 12. 60 people are still missing, and while some of them will undoubtedly turn out to simply have been out of touch with friends or relatives, I think we have to assume that a lot of those people are dead.
This isn't the first time that a fertilizer plant has exploded.
Sgt. William Patrick Swanton, a Waco police spokesman who is helping out the city's smaller neighbor, said Thursday there was no indication the blast was anything other than an industrial accident. The Texas Department of Public Safety said it could take as many as six months to determine the cause of the fire.
The worst ever industrial accident in the U.S. was also caused by an explosion of ammonium nitrate, as was possibly the case here, and also took place in Texas. In that blast, in 1947, some 581 people died aboard a ship docked near Texas City.
Overreaction? Or a life-saver?
Shutting down a whole city to search for one man arguably sends the message that the terrorists have won: they have succeeded in closing a major metropolis. I don't know how much this will cost in lost productivity, but millions and millions would be a conservative guess.
On the other hand, it also sends another message: if you set off bombs in a public space, we will shut down the city and hunt you like vermin until we find you.
I doubt it's necessary to shut the city down in order to catch Tsarnaev. Unless he's got a plastic surgeon stashed in his back pocket, the next time he goes out in public, someone will recognize him, and he'll be caught.
On the other hand, the brothers seem to have had a lot of explosives with them. How many more people are we willing to see blown up in order to keep normal life flowing in the city? The incentives for the police and the government are pretty clear, and I'm not willing to second-guess them. Boston lost one Friday. But no one else lost their lives.
Two Chechnyan brothers have been fingered in the attack. One is dead, one still at large. Why did they do this terrible thing?
America has been attacked by a terrorist who seems to be named after Tamerlane. That's not a sentence I expected to be typing on any Friday morning, ever.
By now, you probably know the news; if not, you should read our story on it. The Boston bombers have now been identified as two brothers, 19 and 26, asylum-seekers from Chechnya who have been in the United States for at least a decade. It's not clear what motivated them, though the older brother, Tamerlan, seems to have had some sort of affinity for Al Qaeda. We don't know whether they're part of a network, or freelancers. We don't know why they did it. We do know that last night they got into a lengthy police chase during which they apparently hurled explosives at the cops. Tamerlan was shot during the chase and later died. The younger brother, Dzhokar, is still at large. Boston is effectively shut down--no trains, no busses, no schools--while police hunt for him.
Should we call them terrorists? There's as yet no public evidence that they're affiliated with a formal organization. But bombing the Boston Marathon seems like as good a definition of terrorism as any. So they're terrorists of some sort.
The worst possibility is that they are affiliated with Al Qaeda or some other terrorist network. Of course, that doesn't really alter the havoc they've wrought. But it means that Al Qaeda has decided to focus on soft targets that are hard to defend, rather than airplanes, symbolic buildings, or military targets. That would be very, very bad news.
For such a diverse city, the L.A. City Council is a depressing bastion of likeminded men.
Did Obama lock down the independent vote with his move to reform immigration law? Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky and David Frum debate the liberal and conservative perspective on the latest immigration reform.