Explaining Southern California's economy

Silicon Valley philanthropy: Give it away while you're young

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Manish Swarup/AP

A street child looks out from his classroom during studies conducted by the Salaam Baalak Trust at the New Delhi railway station in September 2004. Salaam Baalak Trust is an Indian charity for homeless children.

Silicon Valley naturally believes that it can change the world. This is at times a pathetic delusion, but also equally a chance for tech startup country to show off what it's got. Consider the case of Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, wife of Mark Andreesen, who co-founded Netscape and is now a venture capitalist. This is from the New York Times Bits blog:

Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen is on a mission.

[She] thinks tech titans should be more philanthropic. And she is encouraging the youngest billionaires to give away their money now, not wait until after they retire or die.

But her mission extends beyond the tech world. She wants to expand the definition of the philanthropist, to include people who give time or expertise, not just money. She also argues that philanthropy should be more professional, by borrowing strategies like research and evaluation from Silicon Valley’s for-profit businesses. These strategies include using technology to make things more efficient, inventing new ways to do business and financing nimble upstarts.


DeBord Report Awards: Top three business books of 2011

It's time for my first annual DeBord Report Awards for business books. The winners for 2011 are:

"Models. Behaving. Badly: Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disaster, on Wall Street and in Life" by Emanuel Derman

I wrote a Rather Short Review of this book, by a former Goldman Sachs "quant," earlier this year. Here's what I had to say:

"It's an incredibly erudite and humane book. Maybe not the most informative, blow-by-blow account of how Wall Street nearly ruined the world. But an impressive effort in soul-searching combined with real thinking. Derman is what I now think of as an "old-school human": widely versed in the various troves of human expression and inquiry, from philosophy to literature to science, and not afraid to show us what he's got." 

Since then, I haven't been able to get the book out of my head. It isn't just one of the best business books I've read in a long while — it's one of the best self-help books! By which I mean it's a business book that I can imagine reading and re-reading many times.

"Lost Decades: The Making of America's Debt Crisis and the Long Recovery" by Menzie D. Chinn and Jeffry A. Frieden

Emanuel Derman may not have produced the most informative blow-by-blow of the financial crisis, but Chinn and Frieden certainly have. Highly readable but not at all a pop history of the Wall Street meltdown, "Lost Decades" explains in alarmingly clear language what went wrong, why, and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.

"Pricing the Future: Finance, Physics, and the 300-year Journey to the Black-Scholes Equation" by George G. Szpiro

The best book I've ever read about options pricing, which is the unified field theory of finance. The Black-Scholes equation solved a problem that everyone thought was fundamentally unsolvable. The story of how the equation came about is lively intellectual history, involving centuries of slow and steady lock-picking until the code was finally cracked. In a sense, Szpiro's storytelling is a kind of narrative Black-Scholes equation: it makes something very hard both easy to follow and exciting if not downright fun to read about.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.


Christopher Hitchens leaves us in a world without Christopher Hitchens

LA Times Festival of Books

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

There were two thrunderclaps in my corner of the world yesterday. The first was from a surprise storm that hit Pasadena in the afternoon. It shook our KPCC broadcast center. It might have been a sign of something, as later that night, my Twitter feed lit up with the terrible news, not unexpected but gut-punching nonetheless: Christopher Hitchens had lost his battle with esophegeal cancer, at 62.

Hitchens would be appalled by my lede, the suggestion that the thunder meant that a higher power who makes himself known through weather was somehow expressing — What? Rage? Triumph? Agony? that a worthy foe was shedding this mortal coil. Hitchens had spent his dying days arguing with all comers that his thesis from his bestselling book "God Is Not Great" was going to go with him, unaltered, to his grave.


The Trouble with Triblets: Why Tribune's proprietary tablet is a bad idea

I don't know how I missed this, but I did. One of the things I learned after Russ Stanton stepped down as editor of the Los Angeles Times is that the paper's parent company, Tribune Co., is developing its own tablet — not a new and special app for the tablet market, but an actual proprietary tablet — and, from what I gather, it intends to give it away to subscribers. Presumably, the glorious Tribune content on this tablet won't be paywalled, although to Web users the paper will. Who knows, there may even be be content that's exclusive to the tablet.

The Tribune tablet — the Triblet? — is not a good business idea. It's worse than New Coke. Worse that Qwikster. Worse the the DeLorean. Worse than the Edsel. I'd have to stretch to find a more foolhardy concept, far back beyond the meager parameters of my own lifetime. Napoleon's invasion of Russia leaps to mind...


The tax cut even Republicans can hate

Reid And Senate Democrats Speak On Payroll Tax Plan

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 07: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (C) holds a news conference about extending the payroll tax cut with Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) (L) and U.S. Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) at the U.S. Capitol December 7, 2011 in Washington, DC. Reid promised that the tax cut, which is set to expire at the end of the year, will be extended even if he has to keep the Senate in session through the holidays. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The debate in Congress over the payroll tax-cut extension, which is going down the same route as...pretty much every other debate in Congress this session, has created a sort of political Bizarro World. The proposed legislation wouldn't just extend the payroll tax cut, it would also tackle other funding issues. But the payroll tax-cut is where the action is.

The concern, among a strange axis of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, is that extending the tax cut will threaten Social Security. Benefits outpaced revenues in 2010. But as this chart from the New York Times shows, that's not unprecedented — Social Security payments ran above revenues in the 1970s and '80s. 

However, since the late 1980s, Social Security has been running a surplus, with the extra money invested in interest-earning Treasury bonds. That funds now stands at $2.6 trillion. The cost of the payroll tax cut? $105 billion.