False Class Consciousness among NPR Listeners?

Today’s installment of NPR’s “Double Take Cartoons” is supposed to be, as the feature indicates, “two opposing political cartoons on today’s news.” It may be argued that the cartoons feed different narratives, but it’s at least clear that they’re just two cartoons bashing the rich.

Funny, both because NPR is subsidized by the feds and because the median NPR listener’s household income is 73% higher that of the average American household.


Do NPR listeners have false class consciousness?

H/T: Walter Olson & The Future of Capitalism.

NPR: Most of Us Are Below Average

So says NPR News, anyway. Leave aside how this confuses the notion of central tendency. And yes, please do read the article for a more detailed treatment of this pattern of thinking. Here’s the graf that got me:

More than 80 percent of all Emmy nominated entertainers, for example, fell below the mean in terms of the number of nominations they received. A small but sizable minority, meanwhile, enjoyed outsize success and accounted for a disproportionately large number of Emmy nominations.

Now, consider that one group is completely left out of this sample: people who will never be nominated for Emmys. Now who’s the superstar? Pretty much anyone ever nominated for an Emmy. (h/t ACE)

Update: Drew Eginton (via Facebook) makes an interesting addition:

I thought it was a very odd set of conclusions, as though the authors don’t understand that the correlation of ability and output are not linear. I think that’s all they’re saying: that someone who’s ability ranking is 90% higher than the mean is not 1.9x more productive, but rather 100x more productive, than the mean. Which is a commonplace insight.

And so when we watch a Bryce Harper, we realize that he is not sorta better than 10,000 other 19 year-old professional ballplayers (measured along some simple curve) he is logarithmically better. Which is very different than saying he doesn’t occupy a predictable place on a bell curve of ability. It’s just that that curve is so convex, and nearly vertical, by the time we move from the 99.9th percentile to 99.9999th percentile.

Most great organizations explicitly search for the 100x’rs, and cut them loose to perform; most bureaucracies solve for 1.2x’rs. (“… all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are … above average.”)

Goodbye, ear X-tacy

When I moved to Louisville from Murray, Kentucky in 1995, ear X-tacy was the place where you went to get your music. Period. With thousands of square feet situated in just the right spot on Bardstown Road, it served as a magnet for music evangelists, eager newbies and local bands vying for attention and a small share of Louisvillians’ music budgets. I’m almost ashamed to admit how much of my current musical tastes I first discovered in that store. Their trademark bumper stickers found their way onto instrument cases and served as a clear declaration that you liked music and you were from Louisville.

Like so many iconic record stores, ear X-tacy recently closed its doors. As part of a series entitled “Hard Times: A Journey Across America,” NPR reporter Debbie Elliott talks with ear X-tacy owner John Timmons. They tell the same story: It was the economy! Unfortunately, while the recession has taken its toll, the tale of the beleaguered local record store as told by NPR gets it just about completely wrong.

I have a less controversial claim: It was the creative destruction! Compact disc sales have bottomed out in the last decade, replaced largely with digital sales at places like iTunes. The only real bright spot of the physical product called music is the long play record, but LPs represent only a tiny fraction of music sales today. The consumer has spoken. Audiophiles are reverting to (or sticking with) LPs. Everyone else has gone digital. NPR’s story makes only passing reference to competitive pressure from digital sales.

I’m sad to see ear X-tacy go, but I have a wider variety of music available in seconds than ear X-tacy could provide with vastly more floor space and another million dollars in inventory. I doubt many of ear X-tacy’s departed customers would switch back to the slow, labor-intensive mid-1990s model of music distribution. There’s ample evidence that they’re plenty pleased with their choice.

Timmons rightly identifies strongly with the store he built that delivered so much value to customers like me. He should be proud. But blaming the economy for an obvious, decade-long trend is a bit like the local ice delivery man faulting the economy when his customers merely switched to Frigidaires.

Just Heard on NPR …

Teasing an upcoming story …

“Is the Internet harming the economy?”

I think that’s how it was phrased, anyway.

Imagine a tool that makes you better at hundreds of tasks right now and many tasks you cannot yet imagine. Without it, the following tasks would be more costly: banking services, research, keeping in touch with friends and family, finding a job, professional development, writing, art, music, shopping, consuming news, doing business locally and doing business around the world.

Now imagine someone told you the tool, which dramatically lowers the cost of doing everyday tasks for everyone, is harming the economy because it eliminates jobs. What on earth could be their solution to correct the apparent problem? Would you even want to contemplate it? And aren’t there other innovations that have the same kind of impact on some kinds of employment? Refrigerators, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, preservatives, plastics and cellphones come to mind.

Update: My eye rolling was not rewarded with a somber discussion of how the Internet breaks down society. The “expert” featured on the program said that the Internet is a net plus. Thank heaven! What a great use of airtime!

Bad Headline Rewritten

NPR’s web headline on a story this morning:

Shortfall Threatens Illinois Pension System

I would have put it differently:

Pension Shortfall Threatens Illinois Taxpayers

Here’s a nugget from the story that gives lie to NPR’s headline:

Illinois’ constitution protects pension benefits already guaranteed to state retirees and workers, so nothing already promised can be taken away. And many of the retired teachers, clerks, and others who live on a state pension now dismiss the notion that their pension benefits are overly generous.

In other words, individual pensioners have little to worry about. I’m not sure how it is in Illinois, but in Kentucky, workers have overly generous pensions. Here’s how it works for Kentucky. Other states vary this approach:

Multiply: (the average of your highest three earning years) * (a benefit factor of around 2.50%) * (years in the system).

Consider a state worker who never changed jobs in government, worked 27 years and whose “high three” average was $50,000. After working 27 years, he can retire with full benefits at any time without regard to age. In this case, he’ll qualify for more than two-thirds of his working salary for the rest of his life, excluding cost-of-living adjustments and, or course, the fact that many of these workers enter other pension-qualifying jobs and begin accruing a second pension while collecting their first pension.

Many of these generous promises come in the form of an “inviolable contract” that prevents any reduction in benefits to workers already enrolled in the pension system. Every new worker enrolled in the system is guaranteed the retirement benefit at the time of his employment. The benefits cannot be reduced under virtually circumstance.

This is a problem that vexes so many states, but the political calculus seems pretty intractable. The crisis isn’t here yet for most states, so states aren’t treating it like a crisis.