December 26, 2007

‘Tis the Season for Post-Christmas Bias at the New York Times

Does the New York Times let bias creep into its post-Christmas reports on the shopping season just completed?

Smart-aleck answer: Is Maureen Dowd obsessed with Dick Cheney? (His name appears in 295 of her columns, all but four appearing during the last 7-plus years. That would be almost 40 Cheney inclusions per year, probably close to half the number of columns she has written during that time.)

After reviewing 17 years of those reports, the answer is a definitive “Yes.”

For each year from 1991 through 2007, I went back to the Times’s first or near-first post-Christmas report on the shopping season. I expected to find blue sky and sunshine during the Clinton years, and gloom as far as the eye can see during Bush 41 and Bush 43. While it wasn’t quite that bad, the bias is there, and it’s more obvious in recent years.

Here’s a quick summary of what I found:

  • In most years prior to 1998 for which comparisons were possible, the Old Grey Lady’s take on the shopping season matched or was worse that reality, with one exception — its take on the 1992 season after Bill Clinton defeated Bush 41 was “Great,” with lots of favorable quotes thrown in, while the reality was “Very Good.”
  • But for the five seasons after that, starting in 1998-2002, the paper’s assessment matched reality. In 1998, the Times writer even cited Bill Clinton’s impeachment and bombing in Iraq as factors that shoppers ignored.
  • In each of the past five Christmas shopping seasons, the Times’s assessment of the results has been worse than reality. The reality v. Times disconnect was especially glaring in 2004 – 2006. Those years, in reality were Good to Very Good, but the Times saw each result as Fair, with side helpings of snideness courtesy ofreporter Michael Barbaro in 2005 and 2006.
  • Especially noteworthy is the comparison between 1998 (a 5.8% sales increase, evaluated as Very Good by the Times) and both 2004 and 2005 (increases of 6.0% and 6.3%, respectively, both evaluated as Fair).

Below, I have shown the following for each year:

  • The Times headline.
  • The actual retail sales increase for the Christmas shopping season, as reported by the National Retail Federation (NRF). Note that the related Times reports often use different results, such as incomplete data from either Visa USA or MasterCard International, instead of the more comprehensive NRF. Most of the results are from this NRF graph (click on “Historical Holiday Sales” at this link for the PDF file):

ChristmasSalesIncreases1995to2007NRF

  • A descriptive early sentence from the report.
  • An evaluation of the real result and the Times’s assessment of the result.

 

(Click “More” if you are on the home page to see the detail.)

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Cordray Scores in One Venue, and Commits a Personal Foul in Another

Filed under: Taxes & Government — Tom @ 8:46 am

Ohio Treasurer Richard Cordray scores (second item at link):

Ohio is owed more than $470,000 on its state bank accounts due to fee errors and earnings credits never applied, a review by the state treasurer found.

Ohio Treasurer Richard Cordray released the findings last week, after a review of bank contracts the state had in place in 2006 and the accompanying records. The analysis followed the discovery in March of similar accounting errors in the state’s main bank account.

The amounts expected to be credited to the state include: $173,587 from Fifth Third Bank; $125,599.07 from National City; $104,893.19 from JPMorgan Chase; $54,928.53 from Huntington Bank; $10,733.42 from KeyBank; $452.86 from PNC; and $11.20 from Charter One.

The variances were found in banking records going back to 2004.

Assuming that Cordray is correct, has given the banks time to respond, and that the banks agree (that is not at all clear from the article), this is a good thing. Again if my assumptions are correct, and given the time frames involved, what Cordray has found reflects poorly on the management of predecessors Jennette Bradley and Joe Deters (sorry guys, you don’t get passes around here just because you have an “R” by your name).

I would think that businesses and other entities with significant amounts of money on deposit or in sweep accounts with the first five banks mentioned ought to be combing their records for possible similar errors.

**********************

But Cordray has also committed a personal foul.

Before this year, Ohio drivers made checks for Drivers License renewal fees and other Bureau of Motor Vehicle (BMV) services to the specific location’s manager (the locations have typically been managed by private parties until recently, and I believe they still are).

Sometime during 2007, that changed. Now all checks at all locations have to be made out to “Ohio Treasurer, Richard Cordray.”

No doubt it’s a shrewd political move, as every driver in the state, most of whom are of course potential voters, will be exposed to Cordray’s name at least annually, giving him priceless name recognition for the next election. But it appears to have no other legitimate purpose.

There may very well be cash-flow savings that offset the conversion costs (hundreds of new desk signs, other physical items, and paperwork) of going to a common payee. But many of these costs will have to be incurred again, once the next treasurer takes office four or eight years from now, thanks only to the presence of Cordray’s name.

If Cordray had just wanted a common statewide payee for Ohio BMV transactions, he could have told drivers to make checks payable to “Ohio Treasurer of State,” as has been the case on Ohio income and other tax forms for decades, and there would be no additional costs when he is succeeded.

If Richard Cordray inserts his name onto the 2007 IT-1040 form, I’m calling a flagrant foul — and I don’t care what other state treasurers do.

Couldn’t Help But Notice (122607)

Chicken-Egg Effect? Although she had no really firm numbers at the time, the Associated Press’s Anne D’Innocenzio, in a report that was posted at the Cincinnati Enquirer early Wednesday, appeared to be acknowledging that the Christmas shopping season may have gone reasonably well because of last-minute shopping (bolds are mine):

While consumers jammed stores at the start of the season in search of discounts and hot items such as Nintendo Co.’s Wii game console, a challenging economy prompted them to hold out until the end for bigger discounts.

An extra full weekend before Christmas also caused shoppers to procrastinate. In fact, Christmas Eve was expected to be a bigger shopping day than in past years because many employers gave workers the day off, with the holiday falling on a Tuesday.

….. The spree defied fears that a deepening housing slump, escalating credit crisis and higher gas and food prices would turn shoppers into Grinches – even in the end. Meanwhile, with the season plagued by Chinese-made toy recalls that began in the summer, there were concerns that shoppers would boycott those products. That didn’t happen either.

Still, financial concerns clearly affected how consumers behaved throughout the season, forcing more to trade down to discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., according to Fred Crawford, managing director at restructuring firm AlixPartners. That trend hurt midprice apparel department stores such as Cincinnati-based Macy’s Inc. and J.C. Penney Co., which have been aggressive with discounts and other come-ons. Ultra luxury stores are expected to fare well, Crawford said.

Toy sales are expected, at best, to match business from a year ago.

The Chicken-Egg Effect is that Old Media gloom and doom, noted in the three bolded items, may have prompted shoppers to trade down to the discounters, who themselves may have rolled back prices more than they needed to because they believed the hype about how the “challenging” economy would hurt shopping. The last few paras of this report by Ms. D’Innocenzio a couple of days earlier (“For many shoppers, it paid to wait given the plentiful offerings and good deals”) support that belief.

There is more than a little irony in the fact that Old Media despises the discounters and their supposedly horrid business practices, but may have helped those same discounters’ Christmas-season bottom lines with their downbeat reporting on the economy.

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Ohio Governor Ted Strickland recently ordered that a couple of recently-removed Nativity scenes in state parks be put back.

Good show, to a point. But I don’t know why “ordained Methodist minister” Strickland had to contort himself as he did to justify the decision:

The governor views Christmas nativity displays as akin to Christmas trees on a village green, or statues of Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, his spokesman has said.

So, according to Strickland, a depiction of a scene of the birth of Christ is “akin” to (second meaning: “has the same properties” as) a bunch of trees, a mythical snowman, or a mythical reindeer.

And he’s getting PR points for this?

Next year the real test may come, because these folks, including Tammy Miller, who is mentioned in the excerpted article and is treasurer for the linked “Winter Solstice” event (also described here), appear to be serious about imposing their will. I don’t see how Strickland’s line of argument will keep a “Happy Humanist Snowman” from getting equal time or space with a Nativity scene if the issue gets to a court hearing.

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The New York Times reports (registration probably required) that the major Democratic presidential candidates are discovering financial controls:

….. the Democratic presidential hopefuls are seeking to impose more controls on the consultants. In doing so, they are moving more into line with their Republican counterparts, who by and large have kept tighter rein on how they handle their media teams, which shape the candidates’ messages, produce their television ads and buy the air time.

The three leading Democrats — Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards — are all clamping down. They are following what has become an almost standard practice among Republican presidential nominees by paying their media advisers flat fees, or placing a cap on their payments, rather than making payments based on a percentage of the amount they pay television stations to broadcast their commercials.

Geez — these people are just now learning that cost-plus contracts encourage consultants to inflate the “cost” so that the “plus” (i.e., their profit) is bigger. And now they want to be in charge of the multitrillion-dollar operation known as the federal government?

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File under “Things That Will Be Totally Forgotten in November” — A Toledo Blade editorial blasts Hillary, and notes one item I missed when it originally happened (bold is mine; link added by me):

….. the advantage Senator Clinton once enjoyed over Senator Obama among African-Americans has disappeared. He’s even cut into her support from women.

The Clinton campaign has reacted to this change in fortune by going into what can only be described as panic mode. Using political surrogates, campaign apparatchiks, and an increasingly indignant former president, the senator’s nomination drive has engaged in a level of innuendo remarkable in its sleaziness.

….. former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, who told a predominantly black audience that Bill Clinton was “blacker” than Senator Obama and that he undoubtedly had “had” more black women.

Has any presidential campaign ever been more stuck in the fourth grade than this one?

“Somehow,” the Blade forgot to insert the word “Democratic” between “any” and “presidential” in their question.

Watch the video of Young at the Think on these Things link in awe, as CNN reporter Carol Costello and “Situation Room” host Wolf Blitzer actually try to make excuses for and minimize the significance of Young’s comments, especially relating to the now-known, Hillary-led “defense committee” (Young’s term) in 1991-1992, whose mission was (Young’s words) to “neutralize all the women he had ever been involved with.”

That the Blitzer and Costello unintentional comedy act actually mentions Young’s “it was said in jest” excuse without breaking out in hysterical laughter shows how far they will go to avoid calling out any Democrat for outrageous utterances.

Chances the Blade will remember any of this come endorsement time in November if Mrs. Clinton is the Democratic nominee: Slim and none, and Slim just left town.

Positivity: Washington’s Gift

Filed under: Positivity,Taxes & Government,US & Allied Military — Tom @ 5:58 am

The Wall Street Journal chose to put Thomas Fleming’s commentary behind its subscription wall on Monday.

Given the importance of the history conveyed and its lessons, I am choosing to post the entire item for fair use and discussion purposes. If anyone has a problem with that, e-mail me.

December 24, 2007; Page A11

Washington’s Gift

There is a Christmas story at the birth of this country that very few Americans know. It involves a single act by George Washington — his refusal to take absolute power — that affirms our own deepest beliefs about self-government, and still has profound meaning in today’s world. To appreciate its significance, however, we must revisit a dark period at the end of America’s eight-year struggle for independence.

The story begins with Gen. Washington’s arrival in Annapolis, Md., on Dec. 19, 1783. The country was finally at peace — just a few weeks earlier the last British army on American soil had sailed out of New York harbor. But the previous eight months had been a time of terrible turmoil and anguish for Gen. Washington, outwardly always so composed. His army had been discharged and sent home, unpaid, by a bankrupt Congress — without a victory parade or even a statement of thanks for their years of sacrifices and sufferings.

Instead, not a few congressmen and their allies in the press had waged a vitriolic smear campaign against the soldiers — especially the officers, because they supposedly demanded too much money for back pay and pensions. Washington had done his utmost to persuade Congress to pay them, yet failed, in this failure losing the admiration of many of the younger officers. Some sneeringly called him “The Great Illustrissimo” — a mocking reference to his world-wide fame. When he said farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York early in December, he had wept at the sight of anger and resentment on many faces.

Congressman Alexander Hamilton, once Washington’s most gifted aide, had told him in a morose letter that there was a “principle of hostility to an army” loose in the country and too many congressmen shared it. Bitterly, Hamilton added that he had “an indifferent opinion of the honesty” of the United States of America.

Soon Hamilton was spreading an even lower opinion of Congress. Its members had fled Philadelphia when a few hundred unpaid soldiers in the city’s garrison surrounded the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), demanding back pay. Congressman Hamilton called the affair “weak and disgusting to the last degree” and soon resigned his seat.

The rest of the country agreed. There were hoots of derision and contempt for Congress in newspapers from Boston to Savannah. The politicians took refuge in the village of Princeton, N.J., where they rejected Washington’s advice to fund a small postwar regular army, then wandered to Annapolis.

In Amsterdam, where brokers were trying to sell shares in an American loan negotiated by John Adams, sales plummeted. Even America’s best friend in Europe, the Marquis de Lafayette, wondered aloud if the United States was about to collapse. A deeply discouraged Washington admitted he saw “one head turning into thirteen.”

Was there anyone who could rescue the situation? Many people thought only George Washington could work this miracle.
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