Sunday, August 02, 2009

Nobel Freakonomics, Part III: Playing the Race Card—Must We?

“used to love your blog.”

So begins—uncapitalized “used to” and all—a comment submitted to NotMakingThisUp, which we chose not to publish until now.

Long time readers of NMTU know that our primary criteria for not publishing comments to the virtual pages of this blog is whether they have been written with a serious intent in mind, politely and with reasonably good grammar—in which case they are published regardless of even if they happen not to agree with us.

If, instead, they have been written in the popular, sloppy style of debate which we label “Yahoo Message Board-style,” that seems to permeate the largely anonymous online world, they are withheld from our readers, even if they happen to agree with us.

What exactly is “Yahoo Message Board-style” language, you ask?

Well, lazily inconsistent punctuation, for one thing. Profanity, for another—and here we include loose, imprecise, and mildly profane words such as “crap,” which for some reason seems to be the noun most favored by message board aficionados attempting to express their disagreement with a statement.

Now, some commentators here at NMTU have, in the past, bridled at such purported “censorship.”

But this isn’t the public square: this is a virtual column intended to raise interesting, odd, and sometimes very serious topics.

If you want to respond, fine: do so in a reasonable manner. But if you want to yell and scream, you’re not going to do it here. Bad language drowns out reasonable dialogue.

Has anybody ever seen a Yahoo message board with reasonable dialogue?

Which brings us back to the comment quoted above—and why we’re going to highlight it here.

The comment, by an author who preferred to remain anonymous—for reasons that will soon be clear—was written in response to “Nobel Freakonomics, Part II: A Tale of Two Terminals.”

That piece looked at two airline terminals a few hundred yards apart at New York City’s JFK airport, and pondered why each terminal had such remarkably different parking facilities—one extremely well managed, the other extremely poorly managed—even though both are operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

We proposed that the contrast between the two terminals provides a case study for the downside of government operations of anything—witness the recent arrests of seemingly half the mayors in New Jersey on corruption charges—and a cautionary lesson against the current headlong rush towards a government-operated healthcare system.

Both Parts 1 and 2 of “Nobel Freakonomics” received fairly heated responses, both for and against our view.
But by far the most heated response was the anonymous comment we’re now going to look at.

We withheld publishing the comment until now, feeling that because of its Yahoo Message Board-style language, not to mention a whopper of a puerile, bullying question directed at the editor of these pages, it deserved to be shared with commentary, as a terrific example of how not to discuss something as sober as healthcare.

Let’s break it down sentence-by-sentence, bad grammar and all:

used to love your blog. Great insights into the economy.

These first two sentences are an artifice if ever we saw one. Readers of NotMakingThisUp know that we rarely provide “insights into the economy.” That would be about as exciting as blogging about subway train schedules.

Had he actually read NMTU for the last couple of years, “Anonymous” would know that what we tend to do is poke fun at short-sighted and self-impressed members of what we refer to as Wall Street’s Finest; at short-sighted and self-impressed CEOs and other Captains of American Industry; and at short-sighted, self-impressed money managers, among others.

Oh, and once a year we delve at length into what’s new at Berkshire Hathaway.

We also write about anything else that strikes our fancy, from good new music—the Arctic Monkeys being our Official House Band, and soon returning to the Paradise in Boston—to bad new car dealers.

Rarely do we provide “insights into the economy.”

But our anonymous commentator does not know this. Since we happened to write about Paul Krugman, he presumes that we’re all about “insights into the economy,” and thus tips his hand as a first-time reader.

Then, after setting up his complaint by pretending to be a disappointed fan, our anonymous commentator moves on, unfortunately mining the same Yahoo Message Board-vein he entered into with those first two sentences:

The crap you have been posting lately makes me wonder what happened?

There’s that word, “crap”: the single laziest word in the English language, meaning nothing and everything at the same time.

This is indeed Yahoo Message Board material.

The next sentence, however, takes the material into a deeper, darker vein, via a non-sequitur as inane as it is out-of-place:

Upset that a black guy is president? Get over it.

The race card!

After assuming someone he disagrees with is as obsessed with race as he, “Anonymous” moves to what would seem to be the germ of an actual argument:

As for today’s rant. So you think the government is qualified to run a trillion dollar military. But when they get involved trying to get the richest country in the world into the top 50 of overall healthcare – that’s not something they are qualified for?

Unfortunately, this is founded on another mistaken belief along the lines that this blog is concerned with providing insights into the economy: that we are an ideological bastion for the Military-Industrial Complex.

Having never commented on the U.S. military in a single one of 625 virtual columns published over the last four years, we hardly know where to begin, except to point out that by using the term “rant,” a label connoting irrational blather, and misidentifying NMTU as the aforementioned ideological bastion, “Anonymous” seems eager to rise above the lazy Yahoo Message Board riff-raff and qualify as a charter member of the Mary Matalin/James Carville-school of reactionary smack-down.

Seen from that angle, the concluding sentence is exactly what you’d expect it to be:

Sad to see another good blog gone.

Of course, since our anonymous commentator appears never to have read NMTU prior to discovering “Nobel Freakonomics” through some Google Alerts email, this last line is quite amusing.

The Race Card, on the other hand, was not.

So if, by pretending to be a disappointed fan, our would-be Matalin/Carville was hoping to stop further writing in these virtual pages on Paul Krugman, healthcare reform, Terminal 4 at JFK, Warren Buffett or even the Arctic Monkeys, he will be sorely disappointed.

And if he wants to comment in the future, he can leave out the Yahoo Message Board stuff, and play the Race Card somewhere else.

Jeff Matthews
I Am Not Making This Up

© 2009 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

The content contained in this blog represents only the opinions of Mr. Matthews.
Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice, and should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever. Also, this blog is not a solicitation of business by Mr. Matthews: all inquiries will be ignored. The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.


invstmnt said...


May I suggest that you spell the word "grammar" correctly if you are going to be English-elitist regarding posts to your blog?

Dan said...

There appears to be people out there who believe they can use the 'race card' to trump serious discussion about issues. The intentions is to shut down discussion rather than trying to rationally defend or explain positions.

cheyfaith said...

Hello Jeff,

Have a little more respect for C.R.A.P. It is responsible for an ocean of distraction online, and it keeps people from engaging in productive dialogue. Threads of meaningful conversation are cut short by convenient and meaningless Catch words, Reactionary rants, Anonymity, and Puerile behavior. That's what C.R.A.P. really stands for.

Chuck said...

Greatness. I always enjoy NMTU regardless of the content. I just wanted to make sure you know there are plenty of loyal readers out there who aren't going to bail at the first blog post that we may not agree with.

Thank you.

Dirk said...

Hey Jeff

Thanks for posting my comment after all. I was disappointed when it didn't show up with the original post - but then I figured "it's your blog, your rules".

I appreciate your criticism of the language and style, yet as a tool to ridicule a comment it seems kind of flat. I for one think that it often makes sense to write rather "short hand" when commenting - after all, the point is not to create another lengthy article (that's your role) but to "comment" on what was written.

I'll try to do better in the future (but apologies, English is my third language, so there may be grammatical errors here that I'm not aware of).

As for the use of the word 'crap' - I think I'll stand by that. I find that a lot of what you've written lately has not lived up to your observations in the past. I really liked your posts about the housing bubble. About talking to small business owners to get a better idea of the economic situation out there.

The latter type of posts made me characterize your blog to be about "insights into the economy". Funny that you think that's not what you are writing about...

The rest of my comment? Yeah, that was dumb. And unnecessary. I have no indication whatsoever regarding your thoughts on race. Come to think of, outside of your name (which may or may not be your actual name) I have no indication of your race; big mistake on my part. My apologies.

Finally, the part about the military. I think you are taking this too literally. This is my (shorthand, I guess) version of challenging all the conservatives who want to get the government out of running 'xyz'; they tend to be perfectly fine with the government running the military which is a much bigger (and more dangerous) role...

Can I take that one back, too, and instead make a more balanced argument like "I can see what happens when private business run healthcare - the current healthcare system is the most expensive in the world and doesn't serve a majority of the population; I am certain that a government run system would have its flaws - but I hope it would be less selfish and negligent of a large part of the population than the current one. I simply believe that healthcare is a basic right and should not be left to the whims of selfish corporations."

(and corporations have to be selfish - that's their job, right?)

Anyway, thanks for posting this and giving me an opportunity to explain what I was trying to express in a calmer and more appropriate way.

PS: I've been reading your blog for about three years - I'm pretty sure I started with "When bad things happen to bad companies". And as you can tell - you are still in my RSS feed...

I added a name / URL this time (but you should be able to match this comment to the previous one through the IP address it's coming from)

Anonymous said...

Hi -

Love NMTU, Arctic Monkeys and rational discourse. It seems to me that there will be more "race card" playing from those who cannot refute logical arguments against the government interventions.

As for the military-industrial complex - well, a national military is much more palatable to me than the mercenaries (e.g., "contractors") that became prominent over the last decade...

geerussell said...

I've been reading your blog for a couple years now and would just like to chime in on the other side of the fence from the yahoos. Your writing is entertaining, thought-provoking and always worth a trip to this little corner of the internet--whether the day's particular point is one I agree with or not.

Keep up the good work.

Jeff Matthews said...

Dirk--whose previously "anonymous" comment triggered "Playing the Race Card-Must We?"--gets an invitation to our house for a beer.

He's a stand-up guy in a sit-down world.


cheyfaith said...


I applaud your follow-up response; it was a pleasure (and refreshing) to read your thoughtful reply. I hope you keep reading posts and writing comments - you've got me thinking about your point of view now.

Dirk said...

Jeff -

beer at your house? I'd love to! Right now that seems to be the accepted way to deal with misunderstandings :-)

Of course the physical distance (no idea where you are located... I'm in Oregon) might make the actual implementation hard; but I'll gladly accept a virtual beer as well.



Jeff Matthews said...

Dang, that's a few thousand miles from our Rose Garden... But if you're ever in the New York area, let me know ahead of time and we'll get it ready.

I'm assuming that, being from Oregon, you're a microbrewery guy--but that might be labeling you unfairly!


Stevin Hoover said...

Dear Jeff:
With all due respect, I think you go a bit overboard on slamming the commentator. I would much rather you stay focused on substantive issues related to Berkshire and Mr. Buffett. I have not reviewed every single one of your prior blog entries. However, a cursory glance over your past year of entries tells me you are a Warren sycophant, like so many others, including me before the Gen Re trial and criminal convictions. Somebody, somewhere, in some forum, must take Warren to task for not standing up for Elizabeth Monrad and Ron Ferguson, the former CFO and CEO, respectively, of Gen Re. Both Monrad and Ferguson are completely and utterly innocent of criminal conduct and criminal intent. Yet Ms. Monrad received an 18-month prison sentence, which she is appealing, and Mr. Ferguson received a two-year prison sentence, which he is appealing. The trial could have and should have been nipped in the bud by Mr. Buffett. All he would have had to do was make one little public grunt about the transaction that ruined Monrad's and Ferguson's lives, and he would have helped, not just these defendants, but the very credibility of our justice system. Instead, the Gen Re trial, which should have been the AIG trial, became a horror story of prosecutorial misconduct of the most despicable order. Yet no such grunt was forthcoming. Instead, he unceremoniously dumped Ferguson from the Berkshire board, then dumped him as a consultant to Gen Re, and then served up Joe Brandon's head to appease the SEC. He co-opted the SEC and the U.S. Attorneys trying this case. He never volunteered to testify at trial, never got subpoenaed, and never made a single comment about the transaction -- despite his involvement in the transaction. Had he stepped forward and just told the truth, had he defended his managers the way he pretends to defend his managers, or had he even let Joe Brandon, successor CEO to Gen Re after Mr. Ferguson left, speak out in some capacity other than as an unindicted co-conspirator at trial, he would have probably gotten the case thrown out, which it should have been. Instead, because of his silence and his wealth, Monrad and Ferguson are now convicted felons fighting for their lives. It simply should not be, and Mr. Buffett and Berkshire's lawyers at MTO should have come to the defense of Ms. Monrad and Mr. Ferguson. The day you have the courage to confront Warren himself on this blog, and the day you open THAT subject up to meaningful and informed debate as to why Mr. Buffett remained silent, is the day that you and this blog will have some credibility. Until then, you will remain, in my humble opinion, nothing but a shill for an immensely wealthy man who did not speak out when he should have. I am giving you my name and realize that doing so may lead you to the conclusion that I have a biased view against our criminal justice system because of what happened to me. But I separate out what happened to me from what happened to these particular two Gen Re defendents. I did something wrong, admitted it, and paid the price. Monrad and Ferguson did NOTHING wrong, yet they are paying the same price I paid. What is that price? Total loss of reputation and the prospect of living out the rest of their days in disgrace and anonymity until death. They do not deserve that. Mr. Buffett could have and should have come to their defense. Thank you for having the courage to post this comment. Believe me, it takes courage to confront someone as wealthy and as powerful as Mr. Buffett, because he could pulverize me in an instant. But I say "let the truth be know, though the heavens may fall." Only when you have had your own life ruined by a criminal conviction can you understand how important it is that our system not ruin innocent lives. I welcome any and all comments, including those critical of me and what I did. I welcome any comments or dialogue that might shed further light on this important ethical lapse in the form of silence or inaction on Mr. Buffett's part.

Jeff Matthews said...

Stevin Hoover writes a meaningful comment. It deserves to be read.

We pass no judgment on his judgment of the AIG matter, but note here that what he has written has been speculated about by many individuals we have encountered in the course of our book tour.

Stevin is, however, clearly mistaken on one matter: there is no "shilling" for Warren Buffett here, as suggested by his "cursory glance" at these posts.

With all due respect, I suggest Stevin read "Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett's Omaha," which is the first and only Buffett book to raise substantive issues about Berkshire Hathaway--the cons as well as the pros--and then reconsider his "sycophant" label.

Barring that, he might review our "Top Ten Questions We'd Like to Hear Buffett Asked" at the Berkshire annual meeting: Question #10 related directly to AIG.

As for Stevin's self-admitted transgressions, well, readers can Google the specifics as well as we can. They have no bearing, in our view, on what he has written--and has written under his own name.

Whether he is right or wrong about Buffett's actions in the AIG case, we thank him for speaking his peace respectfully and in his own voice--yet another stand-up act in a sit-down world.


Stevin Hoover said...


A laudatory response, and I apologize for the "shill" remark. You've heard the expression in investing, "buy in haste; repent at leisure." The same holds true in writing: "write in haste; repent at leisure." I wish I could take back the shill remark. After seeing amazon's "look inside this book" feature of your good book, and after reading more of your blog entries, I see that you are indeed anything but a shill for WEB. I have ordered several copies of the book.

More generally, thank you for maintaining what appears to be true independence from WEB sycophancy. Thanks also for your nuanced reply and gentlemanly diplomacy toward my comment, especially the importance of separating my own fall from grace from that of Monrad and Ferguson. Respectfully, Stevin Hoover

Anonymous said...

Hate to say it...I agree with Dirk. The newer material doesn't live up to the older stuff.

I started reading you back when the Overstock situation first unfolded. Saw the CNBC circus and said to myself, "This Jeff Matthews guy is pretty sharp and funny."

I never minded the material that seemed like it was more of a "whatever else catches our fancy." For instance bird watching, polar bears, and the Arctic Monkeys. I actually bought their album on your suggestion (and the Post review). They were good, I don't agree that they are the new Beatles however. Good, original, not great though.

I'm not trying to be critical. I just liked the style and material up until the first Berkshire meeting. After that things slowly declined a little. I started reading less and less, although I still pop in to check once a month or so to see if anything new lives up to the 'old' JMISNMTU. And it does on more than a few occasions.