Why management consultants have jobs: Publishing edition

“Management consulting” seems to be a puzzle: firms spend huge amounts of money, sometimes hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, to get reports and opinions generated most often by recent college grads with no domain knowledge, let alone expertise. Why? Here’s one theory, which holds that “most intellectuals underestimate just how dysfunctional most firms are. Firms often have big obvious misallocations of resources, where lots of folks in the firm know about the problems and workable solutions” and “The CEO often understands what needs to be done, but does not have the resources to fight this blocking coalition. But if a prestigious outside consulting firm weighs in, that can turn the status tide.”

I’m thinking about management consulting because, for a project, I spent some time gathering data from book publishers about bulk book sales. No publishers appear to have information about bulk sale rates on their websites. I attempted to call Oxford University Press on January 11 and emailed them the same day with a bulk sales inquiry; I never found the right person to talk to on the phone and got a short email back today, January 26, containing 25 words and the bulk sales information that ought to be on their website—or at least emailed promptly.

If big publishers hired management consultants, one obvious thing a management consultant could say is: “Put the bulk order discount rates on the website. Also, reply to queries within 24 hours, not two weeks.” One publisher sent a four-page PDF form, full of sensitive information, that the publisher wants emailed back in order to place a bulk order (email is not an encrypted medium and that is a good way to lose sensitive information).

Publisher discovery itself is a challenge. A given book has the name of an imprint on it, and listed on Amazon, but the “imprint” often doesn’t correspond to the actual publisher I need to get ahold of. Some imprints have websites that don’t really exist any more (how am I supposed to know in advance that Bantam Spectra books is part of the Penguin-Randomhouse conglomerate? Seriously, type “Bantam Spectra books” into a search engine and see what you find: then repeat this for a bunch of other books, and make sure you keep them straight). I’m not sure what publishers’s websites are optimized for, or who they’re optimized for—bookstores, maybe—but they don’t seem optimized for readers or for buyers who aren’t already initiated into the secrets of the system.

In grad school, I gave a former student a ride to California and talked to him about how little management consulting made sense to me: why would a firm hire 22-year olds, or even 25-year olds, at hundreds of dollars an hour, to opine on the firm’s business? It doesn’t seem to make sense. Now I wonder if that was bad advice: here’s one reason why the smartest college grads might avoid typical corporations in favor of management consulting or startups.

Publishing might also be unusual in that it faces fewer competitive pressures, or different competitive pressures, than other industries; publishing is still a glamor industry that succeeds by getting liberal arts grads from wealthy families to put in a bunch of time at low wages, so maybe publishers don’t care. But come on, two weeks to get a quote? If Seliger + Associates ran that way, we’d not have a business. Alternately, maybe bulk sales to random outsiders aren’t important to publishers, and I’m such a small part of their business that they can’t bother. As long as Amazon and bookstores are happy, nothing else matters. Still, it might be worth a/b testing what putting true rates directly on the site reveals. Maybe there’s a universe of potential buyers who are dissuaded by poor website design. Overall, I’d take the two-week mark to respond to a pricing query as a sign that other parts of the business must be equally poorly managed.

Links: Some books, some culture, some incentives

* Book review of Louie Simmons’ Iron Samurai. Not at all like most of the books discussed around here.

* “David Fincher’s Impossible Eye,” on obsession and excellence.

* It would be useful for liberal states to showcase excellence, in order for national liberals to follow their example. Instead, attempts to move towards single-payer basically failed in Massachusetts and Vermont; those attempts have proven far too expensive in California; more people are leaving California and New York than moving to them, due to self-inflicted high housing costs; and obscene infrastructure costs prevent the development or expansion of real transit systems. Where are the local examples?

* Jimmy Wales on Systems and Incentives, a conversation with Tyler.

* Hilariously imperious essay on Agatha Christie.

* Are Americans reluctant to express themselves honestly? What is social media callout culture doing to the discourse?

* The return of Slate Star Codex, with some unflattering and possibly true things about the New York Times along the way.

* “Slouching Toward Post-Journalism: The New York Times and other elite media outlets have openly embraced advocacy over reporting.” By Martin Gurri.

* “Facebook Disabled My Account After I Criticized Them.” Get a blog. Get on the open web. No one does, though, and what should we infer from that?

* The Devilish Life and Art of Lucian Freud, in Full Detail, an admirable review that’s neither overly skeptical nor fawning.

* “The People the Suburbs Were Built for Are Gone:” on efforts to build places that are good for humans to live.

* “Is This Law Professor Really a Homicidal Threat? The punitive overreactions of university administrators grow ever more demented.”

* “In China’s New Age Communes, Burned-Out Millennials Go Back to Nature.” Probably not a good sign for Chinese society, as the same tendencies are probably not good signs for American societies.

* Why iPhone is today’s Kodak Brownie Camera. A networked Brownie.

* “As birth rates fall, animals prowl in our abandoned ‘ghost villages.’” Urbanization is environmentalism; San Francisco is full of faux environmentalist, who prevent the building of urban housing and thus force people to the periphery of the city, or to the hot Sunbelt cities. In other words, consider the third link in this list, too, because these links are linked.

Links: To house or not to house, Dostoevsky in Love, everything is not broken, and more!

* Should I buy a house? Maybe not: most people don’t consider that the alternative to a housing unit is investing in the stock market, which may produce superior returns—and has, over the last century. Almost no one thinks on the margin.

* “Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi review – unpredictable, dangerous and thrilling: His marriages were disastrous but his words were so rousing they made strangers embrace … a superb study of the Russian novelist.” Pre-ordered.

* “Atomic Heat in Small Packages Gives Big Industry a Climate Option.” On fission small modular reactors (SMRs).

* Stop reading books like a critic. I’m not sure most people do, but I agree, in part, though I find reading like a critic pleasurable.

* Companies working on direct air capture (DAC) of CO2. The article’s framing is poor—what’s the alternative to working on this problem? The status quo?—but the basic idea is good, and progress is good. You, reader, can also sign up for a Climeworks CO2 removal subscription. Relatedly, humans aren’t going to restrict temperature rise to 1.5 celsius, so now what? The article attempts to answer the “now what?” question, and carbon capture and storage are a big part of “now what.”

* “A Cupertino elementary school forces third-graders to deconstruct their racial identities, then rank themselves according to their ‘power and privilege.'” One hopes this is an isolated example; there are around 3.5 million teachers in the U.S., so on any given day something outrageous is probably happening somewhere, and that given thing shouldn’t be given too much prominence. So is this a trend, or a one-off?

* Ross Douthat on “The Case for One More Child: Why Large Families Will Save Humanity.” Maybe.

* “Was novel born [in,] and died with[,] the bourgeois society?” Plausible, but also ignores the desire for storytelling in other formats: radio, then film, then TV, and now on the smartphone.

* Beating up baby boomers, which is mostly fine with me.

* Everything is Broken, a journalistic screed—journalism has seen something like half of its jobs and revenue disappear over twenty years, which may contribute to the tone of a lot of journalism. Some of the essay advances the myth of the golden age (when was it, exactly?). It also doesn’t mention housing or zoning policies, or the growth of the medical insurance industry (which destroyed price signals). Lots of blame for Silicon Valley, but not nearly enough for housing restrictions. Blaming Silicon Valley is easy, but there’s very little looking in the mirror. The author and her husband are journalists; if most people demanded rigorously reported and important stories, they’d be produced. But most don’t. There are dubious causal claims, like, “Most consumers don’t know that by using internet-based (or -generated) platforms—by buying from Amazon, by staying in an Airbnb, by ordering on Grubhub, by friending people on Facebook—that they are subscribing to a life of flatness, one that can lead directly into certain politics.” Ordering from Grubhub doesn’t causally create “flatness,” whatever that means, and “flatness” doesn’t causally lead “into certain politics.” Not everything is political; sometimes you just want some pad thai.

Despite everything “being broken,” we’ve seen the fastest vaccination project, ever, succeed in a quarter of the time of the next-fastest example. That alone is a sign of resilience, isn’t it, despite the political process preventing new housing and transit construction? “CorNeat Vision’s First Patient Regains Sight Following Artificial Cornea Implantation at Rabin Medical Center, Ending a Decade of Blindness.” Is everything broken? Maybe national politics, journalism as a profession, and fair housing markets are broken—but some things aren’t.

It could have been (much) worse

It could have been (much) worse: in 2016, I did something I’d not done prior, and hope not to need to do in the future: I put up a naked political endorsement: “Vote for Clinton or Johnson for president,” and, while that obviously didn’t work, shortly after the 2016 election I wrote “Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse,” which says: “In a best-case Trump scenario, he bumbles around for four years doing not much except embarrassing himself and the country, but few substantive political changes actually occur; in the worst-case Trump scenario, however, Trump starts or provokes a nuclear war.” While I had the specific disease vector wrong, this basic worry proved correct: “We haven’t even discussed the possibility of a flu pandemic or some other kind of pandemic. The Ebola crisis was much closer to a worldwide catastrophe than is commonly assumed now. At the start of a flu pandemic the United States may have to lead world in a decisive, intelligent way that seems unlikely to happen under Trump.”

To understate things, we didn’t lead the world, let alone do so in a decisive, intelligent way. We bungled, except for the scientific and technical establishment, and parts of the healthcare establishment. Still, from 2016 – 2020, we had three years that mostly consisted of bumbling and theater, then a fourth year of pandemic, along with attacks on the foundations of democracy. But Trump left office today; a president who has basic respect for democracy is in office; and the pandemic, while horrible, is nowhere near as bad as it could have been. In the first SARS-CoV viral outbreak in 2003, “about 9% of patients with confirmed SARS-CoV-1 infection died.” In the 2012 Middle East respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak, the fatality rate of those infected appears to have been 34 – 37%. To my knowledge, no law of nature prevents a coronavirus from having a 40% or higher fatality rate, along with much higher transmissibility than SARS-CoV-2: the fatality rate of around 1% (assuming developed-world hospital care) is a matter of what appears to be luck. The virus’s transmission is also blocked, relatively easily, via the use of simple face masks: another lucky break. SARS-CoV-2 is highly transmissible, but it’s nothing like measles. Besides coronaviruses, the threat of a flu pandemic remains—although we may be better prepared for a future flu pandemic because of work on mRNA vaccines.

In many ways, the United States hasn’t made important progress in the last four years, but the worst-case scenarios haven’t come to pass either. Nuclear war didn’t happen. Democracy still stands, and works. The big question is whether Trump is an aberration we’ll look back on and go, “What a strange time in history,” with explainers on the unique confluence of factors that led to a con man achieving the presidency—or whether he’s the start of the trend. If you think the “explainer,” path is impossible, try learning about the start of World War I; while there have been many stupid wars throughout history, World War I might be the stupidest, and the least comprehensible to a contemporary audience.

I’ve sought to make The Story’s Story minimally political (a surfeit of political material is available online, most of it about reifying identity and little of it about learning or growing), but extraordinary threats to the basis of democracy itself deserve unusual responses. I hope for much more boring politics that lend themselves to being (mostly) ignored. There is too much written about politics and too little written about art, ecstasy, beauty, and ideas.

Links: Where fantasy ends, public domain day, bicycle booming, and more!

* The Roleplaying Coup, on the way online life endorses and encourages the construction of fantasy worlds.

* “Party Like It’s 1925 On Public Domain Day (Gatsby And Dalloway Are In).” Copyright should really be limited to 50-year terms. Still, it’s nice to know that schools will collectively save millions of dollars a year buying The Great Gatsby.

* What happened in the insurrectionist riot.

* “The great bicycle boom of 2020.” The bikes are there; now the city infrastructure is needed.

* “The Undoing of China’s Economic Miracle:” maybe. How much does the prioritization of politics over competition matter?

* Time for consequences, for Trump—and his enablers. Better late than never, I guess, if there are real consequences. In 2016 I wrote “Vote for Clinton or Johnson for president” based on the many obvious reasons—and based on the history of the 1920s and -30s. Many of us who know something about that era have probably asked ourselves, “What would we have done, if we’d been alive then?” We don’t have a perfect answer and can’t, but the last four years have provided a partial answer. Did you enable? Were you silent? Did you resist, such as you can?

* “How American Individualism Fuels Family Estrangement.” Not sure the purported cause is correct.

* “The military has a hate group problem. But it doesn’t know how bad it’s gotten: The rise of extremism in the ranks is seen as a ‘crisis issue’ but the military’s efforts to weed out radicals are ‘haphazard’ at best.” Uh-oh.

* “The paradox of information abundance:” some are better informed than ever, while others consume junk, in the same way that great nutrition is easier than ever, but so is terrible nutrition.

* “Why aren’t we wearing better masks?” A vital question. Real n95s and kn95s are available here, but how is an average person supposed to know that? The site looks little different than many knockoff sites.

* “‘Our souls are dead’: how I survived a Chinese ‘re-education’ camp for Uighurs: After 10 years living in France, I returned to China to sign some papers and I was locked up. For the next two years, I was systematically dehumanised, humiliated and brainwashed.” It is still notable to me that this topic isn’t a primary focus on social media.

* Moderna co-founder and board chairman on the permission to leap, among many other topics of great interest. The first link in this batch concerns fantasy; the last, reality.

Santa Monica requiem: Reflections as 2020 drifted into 2021

My father, Isaac, wrote this.

I stayed at the new the Proper Hotel in Downtown Santa Monica (“SaMo” to the locals) at 7th Street and Wilshire Boulevard over New Years: any hotel during COVID-19 is surreal; this was the first time I’d returned to SaMo since decamping from LA for Scottsdale in June. It was also the first time I experienced with profound sadness what has become of SaMo after ten months of rolling COVID-19 lockdowns, the permanent scars left by the protests/riots in late May, the omnipresent shadow of homeless everywhere, and, perhaps most striking, the air of apprehension obvious among the few non-homeless on the streets. Call this post a requiem for a lost SaMo that may never really come back.

I first saw SaMo as an 18-year University of Minnesota sophomore in December 1969, when visiting my brother Jerry, who lived there. He picked me up at LAX in his British Racing Green MGB, and I felt like I was, somehow, home; SaMo immediately struck me as the California Dreaming myth I developed from watching movies and TV shows, and listening to the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and the “Laurel Canyon sound” on transistor and AM car radios as a teen in the Great Frozen North.

SaMo had a beautiful beach and beautiful people in the sunshine, with the charming pier, pastel houses and low-rise apartment buildings threaded by the boulevards of small shops with the names I knew from sitcoms, movies, and Raymond Chandler novels. Chandler fictionalized SaMo as “Bay City” in his novels and as soon as I saw the pier, I recognized it as the Lido Pier from The Big Sleep. “Bay City” can still found as part of business names, including Bay Cities Italian Deli; the Deli was looted during the riots, and, while it’s open again, the joy of waiting for your Godmother sandwich with dozens of others in front of the enticing deli case and scouting for obscure Italian jams is gone. Grabbing a to-go sandwich is a soulless experience and obviates the point of neighborhood institutions.

I lived in SaMo twice: first for two years at 23rd and Wilshire in a townhouse I owned with by brother in the early 80s and again for about three years, starting in 2013, in an apartment downtown at 7th and Broadway. When Jake a little boy, I knew the the SaMo City Manager, who recruited me to apply to be the Assistant Manager, but I came in second, as the City Council wanted to hire a woman. If I’d gotten that job, Jake might have grown up in SaMo and I would’ve been responsible for the redevelopment of the pier, the 3rd Street Promenade, and the mid-rise housing developments that transformed the formerly sleepy Downtown in the 90s.

Until the late 80s, like much of LA, SaMo was still relatively affordable—at least for the parts of the city south of Wilshire Boulevard and west of Lincoln Boulevard. Since then, and particularly with the rise of “Silicon Beach” a decade ago, SaMo has become unaffordable, expect for the few living in a subsidized or rent controlled apartment or the upper middle class and the one percenters. Like San Francisco, Manhattan, and Seattle, there is essentially no middle class left in SaMo. The population was 83,249 in 1960 and just 90,401 six decades later in 2020—essentially no growth, despite a near-doubling of the United States. When you choke off the supply of housing in an otherwise desirable area, you’re also committing to high prices. San Francisco reportedly now has more pet dogs than children, and that’s likely the case in SaMo. The median household income is $96,570 in 2020, which is high compared to the US, but not remotely high enough to afford the average sale price of a house—$1.27M—or even the average monthly rent of $3,851.

I drove around downtown before going to the Proper. Boarded-up windows and vacant store fronts are common; in the Before Times, vacant store fronts in SaMo were rare. Downtown SaMo has always been one of LA’s few true walkable districts, but, while there were a fair number of cars on the streets, in the middle of a beautiful sunny Thursday New Years Eve day afternoon, there were almost no pedestrians, and the 3rd Street Promenade was ghostly. A friend of mine had already told me that the Bloomingdales Department Store, which anchored the Santa Monica Place Mall at the southern end of the Promenade, had closed permanently. The homeless, however, were out in force.

Since the late ’70s, the city has more or less embraced, or one might say encouraged, homelessness. But, and this is a big but, the SaMo homeless generally hung out in parks and a few well-known areas, and they weren’t aggressive. When I lived downtown in the mid-2010s, I felt perfectly safe walking, even at night.

When I parked, I talked over the walking issue with the young valet, and he said about walking around, “No way brotha, I know the bad homeless dudes around here but you don’t.” He also told me to stay away from Reed Park, just across Wilshire from the hotel. Since I had my 95-pound Golden Retriever with me, who needed a walk, I figured it would be okay to walk to the park—but it was filled with homeless and tents. The city has created a nice-looking tot lot and children’s play area behind high fences in the park, but there wasn’t a kid or mom in sight. I walked around one side of the park and retreated to hotel, which is essentially a fortress.

New Year’s Day morning, I went to Sidecar Donuts, where three or four moms in Lululemon leggings and guys in skinny jeans were in line, but there was a palpable nervous feeling: everyone there seemed to want to get our donuts and get back into cars or, in my case, the Proper. No small talk and zero sense of community. With the ongoing COVID recession and general malaise hanging over SaMo, I don’t think Sidecar and similar places will survive long.

Decades ago, SaMo was one of the first cities to adopt the strategy of “Community Policing,” which involves foot and bike patrols and assigning the same cops to the beat so that the community comes to know them and they know the community. When I last lived in SaMo, I regularly encountered smiling cops on foot or bikes. During the two days I spent there, I didn’t see a single foot or velo cop. Community policing was developed to replace the former “Fort Apache” style of policing, in which the cops stay in their station and cars.

A place’s vibe is delicate and hard to describe, yet pervasive when you’re there. SaMo’s vibe has changed radically in the last year, in a way that’s hard to appreciate without being there.

I’ve worked the last 45 years in and around urban issues, first for cities in economic development and then for the past 27 years writing grant proposals. The SaMo of my memory, or maybe my dreams, no longer exists. Maybe it will again in a year or two.

Links: Many deep dives

* Dan Wang’s 2020 letter, which is mostly but not exclusively about his life in and observations about China. He writes, “This year made me believe that China is the country with the most can-do spirit in the world. Every segment of society mobilized to contain the pandemic. One manufacturer expressed astonishment to me at how slowly western counterparts moved. US companies had to ask whether making masks aligned with the company’s core competence.” See also “On cultures that build;” for some reason, American culture has de-emphasized building and making things, to our collective detriment. We have lots of veto players and too few doers.

* “How Biden Can Rebuild a Divided and Distrustful Nation: Americans Must Get to Know One Another Again.” From it: “The United States’ two political parties are sorting into distinctive groups based on who they are rather than on their policy preferences” and “Because partisan sorting is no longer primarily about one’s policy views but instead about one’s deepest values or identity, the ‘other party’ is no longer just the opposition but the enemy; and politics is no longer about finding compromises that can address common problems but about winning a war for one’s own side.” It may turn out that having religion be about one’s deepest values or identity, or family, is a much better belief system than having politics in their place. It is strange, though, to see one party attack the fundamentals of democracy itself, since democracy is supposed to be the foundation of American politics.

* “America Can’t Even Produce the Things It Invented: The United States can bring manufacturing back — which will bring back good jobs and protect national interests.”

* “Worse Than Treason: No amount of rationalizing can change the fact that the majority of the Republican Party is advocating for the overthrow of an American election.” Anyone remember a few years ago when the Republican Party thought democracy so important that it was worth invading another country for? No?

* The factories in the Xinjiang camps: China’s slave labor force?

* “Experts on how to fight America’s disinformation crisis.” I’m not convinced this can be “fixed” per se, because most people are not interested in epistemology, and (relatively) free speech and zero-cost distribution means that people can develop fantasy worlds easily. When a small percentage of the population does this, it doesn’t matter much, but we’re trying to figure out what happens when a much larger percentage of the population does this.

* “Charter schools deliver extraordinary results, but their political support among Democrats has collapsed.” I notice this: “They instill schoolwide cultures of respect for learning and orderly environments, so that one or two disruptive students can’t bring classes to a standstill,” which is something many of my friends who are teachers talk about: one student can often veto 30 other students’s experiences. This also tells us something important about the gap between rhetoric and reality regarding race: “Polls show that the backlash against charters has been mainly confined to white liberals, while Black and Latino Democrats — whose children are disproportionately enrolled in those schools — remain supportive.”

As with the links above (and posted over the last several years) regarding our inability to build, I suspect we’re suffering from “good enough” syndrome in schools. “Good enough” and “I’ve got mine” breeds complacency, which manifests itself in a variety of ways. Will we find that complacency breaks down eventually? Or that it is already breaking down now?

* “WhatsApp gives users an ultimatum: Share data with Facebook or stop using the app.” Time to switch to Signal?

* “Making policy for a low-trust world” is a boring title for an essay that ties lots of policy, social, and other ideas together; it’s hard to pick one as being most important, but the example of the extremely slow coronavirus vaccine rollout is useful. We should prioritize doing things fast, and we don’t, and that has many negative consequences.

* “CO2 already emitted will warm Earth beyond climate targets, study finds: ‘Committed warming’ is 2.3 C, higher than previous estimates; but it can be delayed.” Time for that Climeworks subscription.

Links The evils of the non-compete clause, how COVID-19 spread, the nature of the future, and more!

* Texas needs to ban non-competes: one of these little, seemingly inconsequential things that may have big impacts over time.

* “Pandemic Leads Dozens of Universities to Pause Ph.D. Admissions: More than 140 humanities and social sciences programs at top schools have suspended admitting students for fall 2021.” Good.

* The NYT on novelist Walter Tevis.

* “25 Days That Changed the World: How Covid-19 Slipped China’s Grasp,” an important and well-reported article.

* “John Collison: ‘It is entirely plausible that you could set up Stripe in Dublin now:’ Stripe co-founder on how his billion-dollar company continues to evolve.”

* “An Economist’s Guide to Potty Training,” which is more entertaining than it sounds, and fundamentally about incentives. Incentives matter and they’re hard.

* Curious and sometimes offensive interview with Anna Khachiyan, of the Red Scare podcast.

* How Perfectionism Has Made the Pandemic Worse.

* “The End of the World as We Know It?,” due to population decline? Bryan Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids is one take.

* The disruption of Intel, and many other points about the history and state of computing.

* “My two weeks with John le Carré: What I learned about writing, fame and grace when I showed him around Miami in 1991.” Extremely charming but also deep.

* “Peer-reviewed papers are getting increasingly boring:” see: “We need to challenge the conventional peer-reviewed research paper, by which I refer to a publication was reviewed by 2 to 5 peers before getting published. . . . Research used to be more more like ‘blogging’. You would write up your ideas and share them. People could read them and criticize them.” There are too many veto players, and an excess of veto players tends to ossify a field and create excessively tedious papers and books. Here is one simple, partial solution to some of these problems.

%d bloggers like this: