Archive for January, 2011

Yesterday heralded President Obama’s third State of the Union address and the umpteenth pub trivia night at McCue’s. When I realized I could only do one or t’other, it was with ephemeral sadness that I chose the latter form of mental stimulation over the former. In the event my half-strong team did not place, but I did beat my teammate in a best of seven billiards match, so not all was lost.

But tonight, almost exactly twenty-four hours later after the original broadcast, I am watching the White House’s own ‘enhanced’ version of the SOTU, which I shall embed below.

Now I click play, and…

(0:10) Already I am annoyed by the info pane because it crops the live feed–how am I to be immersed in this experience without cinematic widescreen?

(2:30) Ah, now info pane is telling me SOTU facts. Calvin Coolidge first one to deliver on radio, Harry Truman first on television. JFK first on lots of painkillers.

(4:30) Obama reaches the podium and shakes the hand of new Speaker of the House John Böhner. Don’t know the German derivation of the name, but bohner means floor polisher and may hold the secret to John’s silky bronze complexion.

(5:30) “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much,” says Obama with piercing sincerity and enthusiasm.

(6:15) The 112th Congress not only has no problem applauding itself, but also stands while doing so.

(8:25) That we believe the dreams of our children should be fulfilled sets us apart as a nation.

(10:20) “Poised” “party” “progress” “politics.” I wish info pane informed us that President Obama is currently using a rhetorical technique known as alliteration.

(10: 25) Instead I get a graph of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

(11:27) The child is super stoked about the payroll tax cut.

(12: 00) The recession has a back, and that back has been broken.

(14:30) Obama: Hey other world economies! You may bully us, but at the end of the day we’re still bigger than you!

(16:00) The key to “winning the future” is to “out-innovate” “out-educate” and “out-build” the rest of the planet. First thing we’re gonna build? This t-shirt.

(16:10) As everyone applauds Obama’s bold three-pronged plan for world domination, info pane displays a picture of him at Google a growing small business a General Motors factory.

(18:20) As Obama talks of Sputnik, info pane displays a corresponding 1957 headline. Somewhere out there, a West Wing intern is beaming at the fruit of his NYT historical archive web search.

(21:30) It turns out subsidizing energy production wasn’t so wise before, but let’s not have that stop us from giving it another go, eh?

(24:00) I’m more nerd than jock, but winning the science fair is not as impressive as winning the Super Bowl no matter what my president says.

(26:00) Apparently there are rival gangs in Denver…? No help from info pane.

(26:40) My half-Korean girlfriend is about to start a two-year stint as a pre-k teacher, so all of you can now join me in referring to her as a “nation-builder.”

Nation Builder

(26:45) And trust me, Mr. President, she’s gonna out nation build them all.

(36:15) Broaden the base and lower the rate for more efficient taxation. Innovative policy proposals straight from Econ 302.

(37:15) Remember, the key to prosperity is exports, because the money you earn from selling stuff allows you to buy more stuff you can sell, earning you more money to buy more stuff to sell.

(37:45) Obama has ordered a review of “government regahlayshuns”. Heh.

(39:45) Helping out small business bookkeepers gets an standing ovation. More frequent Quickbooks updates forthwith!

(40:00) Enthusiastic applause for belt-tightening quickly dies when Congress realizes Obama is serious.

(43:00) It appears the generals were not informed of the tens of billion of cuts to which the Secretary of Defense agreed.

(43:30) Obama flubs an already lame analogy about an airplane without an engine, and the chamber patronizes with polite laughter.

(49:00) “Veterans can now download their electronic medical records with the click of the mouse and the help of an exasperated grandchild.”

(53:00) How refreshing finally to get to a discussion of foreign policy and how al Qeada and their affiliates continue to plan ways to kill us.

(58:30) We stand for the democratic aspirations of the people of Tatooine, er, Tunisia. Tunisia’s the real place, right?

(1:02:30) Obama spouts off a ‘USA #1’ line but misses the perfect opportunity thereafter to strap on an electric guitar and thrash out a face melting riff while bald eagles swoop down from the rafters with red white and blue ticker tape streaming from their talons. Next time.

(1:07:00) Took over an hour, but we finally get to the point: “The state of our union is strong.” Phew.


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This past week’s This American Life podcast is called “The Invention of Money,” tackling what host Ira Glass calls the “stoner-ish question” of what money is.



In the prologue, the discussion revolves around the confusion a reporter feels when during the peak of the financial crisis in 2008 he heard news reports of billions and trillions of dollars disappearing from the stock market. How could money just disappear, he wonders; where did it all go? His answer, which he receives from some businesswoman aunt, is that the money never existed because money is “fiction.” Cue soundtrack from The Social Network.

The podcast proceeds from this conclusion, and while the episode is entertaining the content fell short for me as a result. The main mistake is to think of money in terms of a) only coins and bills, and b) only as a medium of exchange. The reason billions of dollars can disappear from the stock market is not because the physical currency was “fictional” but because money in this case is serving as a measurement of value (the economics term is the not-so-descriptive unit of account). And value, like beauty, is measured subjectively. If I intended to buy 5 pounds of potatoes but only went home with 3 pounds because the grocer’s scale was off, it’s fair to say 2 pounds of my potatoes have become fiction. If I go home with £5 of potatoes today and discover that I can only sell them for £3 tomorrow, however,  the two pound difference is reality.

In Act One, the fiction line is cast to Brazil, where its currency switch in 1994 to the real is framed as grand scheme that successfully duped the people into thinking the new money had value. This misses the real magic, which is something more akin to the food fight scene in Hook:

The real had value not because folks believed in a lie, but because they trusted the government and each other that the new currency could be used to exchange for things they wanted. When the people acted as though the bills and coins were money, they became so; the real became real.

Act Two, which is my favorite segment of the bunch (and not just because of the title), does a good job of explaining the Federal Reserve vis-à-vis the financial crisis. I especially liked how they avoided the typical journalist mistake by explaining that the Fed works with the money supply, and not interest rates directly. My quibble here is that they give listeners the impression that only a central bank can create money,  when in fact any bank in the world that loans out some of its deposits (i.e. fractional reserve banking) is doing the same thing, just on a smaller scale.

For the non-pedantic non-economists among you who nonetheless find interest in the inscrutable nature of money, do give it a listen. You may also enjoy revisiting this short but content-packed interview with Niall Ferguson on the Colbert Report from a couple of years ago.

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