Monday, August 19, 2013

The Newsroom: Counterpoints and Retrospective (8/18/13)

This is The Newsroom I remember from season 1. Time goes by. Events are covered. Some briefly, some in depth, and some in covert manner. Characters progress in their development, and the show moves into the final stretch. We just passed the 2/3 mark of the season. That being said, let's get down to tonight's episode.

1. Atropine

They finally addressed how the extracted targets were able to survive the Sarin attack. But color me skeptical. Death from Sarin happens through asphyxiation, which can happen in just minutes. If they already had custody of the extraction targets, this would be more plausible. But at the same time, we're giving the Pakistanis too much credit.

In Iraq, the area where US troops saw the most combat, the vast majority of fighters in Iraq were poorly trained to an exceptional degree. They would describe the panicky soldiers' immediate unloading of their weapon (most often the 30 round magazine of a fully automatic AK47) upon any provocation in any direction as the "Iraqi death blossom".

I imagine the average Pakistani fighter is just as poorly trained. Any symmetrical combat with two elite MARSOC units would be a grossly unfair fight. Combine that with the fact that the 2 UH-60s could provide a decent amount of non-chemical anti-personnel fire support and the fact that you could have Reaper (a maximum armament of 14 Hellfire missiles) and Predator drones loiter over the area, the case for chemical weapons is just too weak to make.

At the same time, I'm glad they covered their bases. Most of the characters seemed skeptical and it's been revealed that the segment producer, Jerry Dantana, had an axe to grind against the Administration and that affected his judgment and his ethics. So all in all, I guess the story itself can pass the threshold for plausibility.

2. Fallout

They also touched on the potential fallout that this kind of news could create. I imagine it's quite difficult to wrestle with the implications that breaking news could have, especially when it comes to extremely politically sensitive topics.

I'm not in a position where I can make a material impact on such matters. But my own view (from the peanut gallery) is that you shouldn't worry about it. The news itself doesn't matter. It's the environment in which the news is broken that is the real problem. Many failed states in the Arab world love to redirect domestic anger to an external target. Given the fact that the US is the biggest player on the world stage, it's only natural that any negative story that can be attributed to us would be incendiary to the point of riots and terrorist attacks to certain peoples.

When Abu Ghraib (Don's reference to 2005) broke and the Arab world rioted, I was surprised at the reaction. Although the extracurricular activities of the night shift prison guards (I stole that from Niall Ferguson, I think) were disgraceful and highly unprofessional, the prisoners weren't actually hurt. Degraded, sure. But it isn't riot worthy.

If it wasn't Abu Ghraib, it would have been something else. The environment is caustic and every now and then, the Arab street has to riot over something. The what isn't really the issue. When you have a bunch of disenfranchised, poor people in one place, you're bound to have a highly combustible situation. Any provocation would have set it off. And the response is always going to be ridiculously disproportionate. The Dutch Mohammed cartoon set off the same kind of furor. And Rushdie's The Satanic Verses kicked off another similar reaction and that was before 9/11 and the War on Terror.

It's not the story. It's the environment.

3. Don't just do something! Sit there!

McAvoy criticizes Congress for not passing enough laws. But how many laws does this country need? The United States Code spans 51 Titles, over 200,000 pages long. The Federal Register contains half again that amount. This is the primary reason why the executive branch has so much power, because the amount of laws already on the books is enough to cover just about anything.

Federal departments and agencies have so much discretionary power and prosecutorial heft that they can cow just about single organization into compliance by the mere threat of a civil suit. The non-political parts of the Federal government, which is the part of the Federal government that actually regulates the affairs of the country, is largely self running.

That is the primary reason why hard-charging idealists quickly become jaded when they finally achieve elected office. Because there is a gargantuan amount of inertia and even the most hardline and fanatical of lawmakers and Presidents will run up against the wall of a huge bureaucracy that is entirely unaccustomed to rapid and fundamental change.

Even with everything that's happened in the past 5 years, this is still one hell of a country to live in. And the laws and regulations that govern the country are more or less the same laws and regulations that governed the country 20 years ago. Sometimes those laws need to be updated, but Congress should not be held to some arbitrary metric of number of laws passed.

4. A Nobel Prize in Economics

That isn't a qualification for being a Fed Governor. And it shouldn't be treated as such. The awarding of Nobel Prizes for economics, literature, and peace have always been highly political and largely symbolic. President Obama won it shortly after his inauguration and the Nobel committee didn't even try to pretend that he did something.

Frankly, I don't trust the professoriate. Somebody who lives their entire professional lives in a completely sanitary and artificial environment doesn't deserve much respect when it comes to decisions that actually affect people outside the world of academia. There's a reason why Class A and B directors of the New York Fed are comprised solely of high finance CEOs rather than professors of finance.

On the flip side, I don't think a Fed Governor's job is that hard. Obviously it's much more important when you're on the FOMC, but frankly it's just an important position. The decision making process is arduous and is comprised of an incredible amount of hand wringing, but the decision itself is relatively straightforward. What should the target rate be? Should we expand the money supply? And by how much? Those are the 3 questions that the Fed has to answer with every FOMC meeting. You could probably take a poll of the S&P 500's CEOs and come to a similar conclusion.

5. Ron Paul 2012, WOOHOO!!!

One of my roommates back in college was a Ron Paul supporter. The guy was certifiably nuts. He wanted a return to the gold standard. Didn't trust paper currency at all. And stored his wealth primarily in silver, guns, and ammo. He talked about forming a militia and predicted the demise of the US government within a generation.

And yet, he was an excellent student and had a degree in hand as a software developer before he graduated in the spring of 2009, the absolute trough of the recession. Despite all his crazy beliefs, he still turned out to be part of the upper end of the socioeconomic ladder. This is the thing that I think drives liberals crazy. A lot of people who support the kooky candidates are relatively well educated and financially well off. But in Sorkin's world, politics is the only thing that counts, so they discredit these kinds of people based on their fringe political ideologies, as if they are the only people who have fringe beliefs.

The Paul supporters are a bit of an odd lot, but it's nothing too weird. And many of them lead high functioning lives, just like the rest of us.

6. Mitt Romney's character assassination 

They had to use a former Romney spokesperson to make the case but I feel like the case should have been made by McAvoy, who isn't really interested in making Romney look good. Odd considering that they're both old school Republicans. But anyway.

Mitt Romney's character assassination by the media was shameful. And it was so obvious. He is many things. And he sure is a caricature of a WASPish mainline, old money Republican politician despite the fact that he's Mormon and relatively new money, given the fact that he made his fortune (instead of inheriting it) in the go-go 80s during the Reagan Administration.

The media played up the stiff, corporate shill caricature as much as they could because they rightly feared that he was the most electable Republican in the field. The one thing that I felt was fair coverage was that disastrous 47% video. I remember when then-candidate Obama had a similarly leaked video about white people clinging to guns and religion, and although what he said was rote liberal's liberal orthodoxy, he couched it in terms that made it slightly more palatable going down.

Romney made no such effort, and the media wasn't in the tank for him as they were with Obama, so he took the full brunt of the unforced error. And he paid a big price for it, although I don't think that decisively tipped it for Obama. In the modern era, it is exceptionally difficult to unseat the incumbent President and you need a lot of lucky breaks to happen one after the other in order to make it happen.

I'm pretty angry about Romney's media treatment because I genuinely liked the guy. And I'm not really predisposed to liking him. But learning more about him I saw a person who was disciplined, hard working, honorable, deeply religious (in a good, caring, and helpful way) and who lived a model life. And he was successful at everything he did. Management consulting to finance CEO to public organization administrator (SLC Olympics) to governor, he was simply good at everything and just a good guy. He just struck me as more like the politician who got involved because it was the right thing to do rather than the career politician who has an unquenchable thirst for self aggrandizement. I really liked Mitt Romney.

And he would have been very good for my portfolio. Although Bernanke's extremely aggressive monetary policy has been the biggest contributor to keeping my stocks in the black.

7. The dent

Did anybody else notice that there was a dent in McAvoy's second refrigerator in his luxury Manhattan condo? That distracted me in that scene. Pretty weird, huh? That we expect pristine sets on TV?

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