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The Science of Interstellar – Kip Thorne


The Science of Interstellar
Kip Thorne

Genre: Physics

Price: $2.99

Publish Date: November 7, 2014

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Seller: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

A journey through the otherworldly science behind Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated film, Interstellar, from executive producer and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Interstellar, from acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, takes us on a fantastic voyage far beyond our solar system. Yet in The Science of Interstellar, Kip Thorne, the physicist who assisted Nolan on the scientific aspects of Interstellar, shows us that the movie’s jaw-dropping events and stunning, never-before-attempted visuals are grounded in real science. Thorne shares his experiences working as the science adviser on the film and then moves on to the science itself. In chapters on wormholes, black holes, interstellar travel, and much more, Thorne’s scientific insights—many of them triggered during the actual scripting and shooting of Interstellar—describe the physical laws that govern our universe and the truly astounding phenomena that those laws make possible. Interstellar and all related characters and elements are trademarks of and © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (s14).

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The Science of Interstellar – Kip Thorne

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These Professors Make More Than a Thousand Bucks an Hour Peddling Mega-Mergers

Mother Jones

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This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

If the government ends up approving the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger, credit won’t necessarily belong to the executives, bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists pushing for the deal. More likely, it will be due to the professors.

A serial acquirer, AT&T must persuade the government to allow every major deal. Again and again, the company has relied on economists from America’s top universities to make its case before the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission. Moonlighting for a consulting firm named Compass Lexecon, they represented AT&T when it bought Centennial, DirecTV, and Leap Wireless; and when it tried unsuccessfully to absorb T-Mobile. And now AT&T and Time Warner have hired three top Compass Lexecon economists to counter criticism that the giant deal would harm consumers and concentrate too much media power in one company.

Today, “in front of the government, in many cases the most important advocate is the economist and lawyers come second,” said James Denvir, an antitrust lawyer at Boies, Schiller.

Economists who specialize in antitrust—affiliated with Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, the University of California, Berkeley, and other prestigious universities—reshaped their field through scholarly work showing that mergers create efficiencies of scale that benefit consumers. But they reap their most lucrative paydays by lending their academic authority to mergers their corporate clients propose. Corporate lawyers hire them from Compass Lexecon and half a dozen other firms to sway the government by documenting that a merger won’t be “anti-competitive”: in other words, that it won’t raise retail prices, stifle innovation, or restrict product offerings. Their optimistic forecasts, though, often turn out to be wrong, and the mergers they champion may be hurting the economy.

Some of the professors earn more than top partners at major law firms. Dennis Carlton, a self-effacing economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and one of Compass Lexecon’s experts on the AT&T-Time Warner merger, charges at least $1,350 an hour. In his career, he has made about $100 million, including equity stakes and non-compete payments, ProPublica estimates. Carlton has written reports or testified in favor of dozens of mergers, including those between AT&T-SBC Communications and Comcast-Time Warner, and three airline deals: United-Continental, Southwest-Airtran, and American-US Airways.

American industry is more highly concentrated than at any time since the gilded age. Need a pharmacy? Americans have two main choices. A plane ticket? Four major airlines. They have four choices to buy cell phone service. Soon one company will sell more than a quarter of the quaffs of beer around the world.

Mergers peaked last year at $2 trillion in the US The top 50 companies in a majority of American industries gained share between 1997 and 2012, and “competition may be decreasing in many economic sectors,” President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers warned in April.

While the impact of this wave of mergers is much debated, prominent economists such as Lawrence Summers and Joseph Stiglitz suggest that it is one important reason why, even as corporate profits hit records, economic growth is slow, wages are stagnant, business formation is halting, and productivity is lagging. “Only the monopoly-power story can convincingly account” for high business profits and low corporate investment, Summers wrote earlier this year.

In addition, politicians such as US Senator Elizabeth Warren have criticized big mergers for giving a handful of companies too much clout. President-elect Trump said in October that his administration would not approve the AT&T-Time Warner merger “because it’s too much concentration of power in the hands of too few.”

During the campaign, Trump didn’t signal what his broader approach to mergers would be. But the early signs are that his administration will weaken antitrust enforcement and strengthen the hand of economists. He selected Joshua Wright, an economist and professor at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia Law School, to lead his transition on antitrust matters. Wright, himself a former consultant for Boston-based Charles River Associates, regularly celebrates mergers in speeches and articles and has supported increasing the influence of economists in assessing monopoly power. “Mergers between competitors do not often lead to market power but do often generate significant benefits for consumers,” he wrote in The New York Times this week.

A late Obama administration push to scrutinize major deals notwithstanding, the government over the past several decades has pulled back on merger enforcement. In part, this shift reflects the influence of Carlton and other economists. Today, lawyers still write the briefs, make the arguments and conduct the trials, but the core arguments are over economists’ models of what will happen if the merger goes ahead.

These complex mathematical formulations carry weight with the government because they purport to be objective. But a ProPublica examination of several marquee deals found that economists sometimes salt away inconvenient data in footnotes and suppress negative findings, stretching the standards of intellectual honesty to promote their clients’ interests.

Earlier this year, a top Justice Department official criticized Compass Lexecon for using “junk science.” ProPublica sent a detailed series of questions to Compass Lexecon for this story. The firm declined to comment on the record.

Even some academic specialists worry that the research companies buy is slanted. “This is not the scientific method,” said Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton economist known for analyzing the effects of mergers. Referring to one Compass study of an appliance industry deal, he said, “The answer is known in advance, either because you created what the client wanted or the client selected you as the most favorable from whatever group was considered.”

In contrast to their scholarship, the economists’ paid work for corporations rests almost entirely out of the public eye. Even other academics cannot see what they produce on behalf of clients. Their algorithms are shared only with government economists, many of whom have backgrounds in academia and private consulting, and hope to return there. At least seven professors on Compass’s payroll, including Carlton, have served as the top antitrust economist at the Department of Justice. Charles River Associates boasts at least three.

“There are few government functions outside the CIA that are so secretive as the merger review process,” said Seth Bloom, the former general counsel of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee.

One evening in 1977, University of Chicago law professor Richard Posner hosted a colleague from the economics department and a young law student named Andrew Rosenfield at his apartment in Hyde Park. The leading scholar of the “Law and Economics” movement, Posner wanted to apply rigorous math and economics concepts to the real world. “Why not see if there are some consulting opportunities?” he mused. The three of them agreed to form a firm, throwing in $700 for a third each. They called it “Lexecon,” combining the Latin for law with “econ.”

The trio then shopped their services to a dozen law firms, which all turned them down. “If you had to value the firm at the end of the tour, you’d have to say it was zero,” said Rosenfield.

They went back to their academic work. Not too long after, AT&T called Posner to ask if he could consult on its antitrust defense. The government was trying to break up Ma Bell. Posner agreed. So began a long and mutually beneficial relationship between AT&T and Lexecon.

Soon after its founding, Lexecon hired one of Chicago’s most promising young economists: Dennis Carlton. He had grown up in Brighton, Mass., earning degrees from a trifecta of elite local institutions: Boston Latin High School, Harvard, and MIT, where he would later endow a chair. He played basketball in his spare time. “Backaches have temporarily sidelined me from embarking on my second career as a basketball player in the NBA,” he joked in a 40th reunion report to his Harvard classmates in 2012. (After a short interview with ProPublica, Carlton subsequently declined comment, citing client confidentiality.)

Ronald Reagan appointed Posner to the federal bench in 1981. Posner left Lexecon. “Andy and I were young,” Carlton said. “Gee, we wondered: Is the firm going to survive? Not only did it survive, but it did very well.”

Lexecon capitalized on the Eighties merger explosion. M&A was rising to cultural prominence as the domain of swashbucklers. Corporate raiders enlisted renegade lawyers and brash investment bankers to take on stalwart names of American industry.

Behind the scenes, the less-flamboyant economists gained influence. From the time antitrust laws began to be passed, in the late 19th century, until the 1970s, courts and the government had presumed a merger was bad for customers if it resulted in high concentration, measured at thresholds much lower than the market shares for the dominant companies in many sectors today.

Led by University of Chicago theorists, a new group of scholars argued that this approach was overly simplistic. Even if a company dominated its industry, it might lower prices or create offsetting efficiencies, allowing customers more choice or higher quality products. In 1982, William Baxter, Reagan’s first head of the Justice Department antitrust division, codified the requirement that the government use economic models and principles to forecast the effect of mergers.

Lexecon seized the opportunity. “We were not just going to talk about economic theory but show with data that what we were saying could be justified,” Carlton said. By the late 1980s, the top four Lexecon officers were each making $1.5 million a year, according to a Wall Street Journal article.

Any merger over a certain dollar size—currently, $78 million—requires government approval. The government passes most mergers without question. On rare occasions, it requests more data from the merging parties. Then the companies often hire consulting firms to produce economic analyses supporting the deal. (Sometimes the government hires its own outside academic.) Even less frequently, the government concludes it can’t approve the merger as proposed. In such cases, the government typically settles with the two companies, requiring some concession, such as sale of a division or product line. Just a handful of times a year, the government will sue to block a merger. Recently, the Obama administration has filed several major suits to block mergers, as companies in already concentrated industries propose bigger and bigger deals. According to a tally from the law firm Dechert, the government challenged a record seven mergers last year out of a total of 10,250.

Recent research supports the classic view that large mergers, by reducing competition, hurt consumers. The 2008 merger between Miller and Coors spurred “an abrupt increase” in beer prices, an academic analysis found this year. In the most comprehensive review of the academic literature, Northeastern economist John Kwoka studied the effects of thousands of mergers. Prices on average increased by more than 4 percent. Prices rose on more than 60 percent of the products and those increases averaged almost 9 percent. “Enforcers clear too many harmful mergers,” American University’s Jonathan Baker, a Compass economist who has consulted for both corporations and the government, wrote in 2015.

Once a merger is approved, nobody studies whether the consultants’ predictions were on the mark. The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission do not make available the reports that justify mergers, and those documents cannot be obtained through public records requests. Sometimes the companies file the expert reports with the courts, but judges usually agree to companies’ requests to seal the documents. After a merger is cleared, the government no longer has access to the companies’ proprietary data on their pricing.

The expert reports “are not public so only the government can check,” said Ashenfelter, the Princeton economist who has consulted for both government and private industry. “And the government no longer has the data so they can’t check.” How accurate are the experts? “The answer is no one knows and no one wants to find out.”

Compass Lexecon itself is the product of serial M&A. A Michael Milken-backed company bought Lexecon for $60 million in 1999. Then it sold Lexecon to FTI Consulting, an umbrella group of professional consulting service firms, in 2003 for $130 million. In the deal, Carlton received $15 million through 2008 in non-compete payments, according to a Chicago Crain’s Business story. He also has held an equity stake in the firm. In 2006, FTI bought Competition Policy Associates, another consulting firm that had also built itself through combination, merging it with Lexecon to form Compass Lexecon. FTI Consulting had $1.8 billion in revenue in 2015, of which $447 million came from economic consulting. The economic consulting division has 600 “revenue-producing” professionals who bill at an average hourly rate of $512 an hour, the highest of all the company’s segments. Charles River Associates brought in about $300 million in revenue last year, led by antitrust consulting.

So few top consulting firms and leading experts dominate the sector today that economists wonder mordantly whether excess concentration plagues their own industry. In 2013, the government granted a waiver to Joshua Wright, the law professor and economist who was a consultant for Charles River. The waiver permitted him to serve as an FTC commissioner and review deals his former consulting firm advised on, as long as he didn’t deliberate on matters that he had directly worked on. Otherwise, the commission’s business might have ground to a halt because Charles River was involved in a third of all merger cases that came before the agency. Wright declined to comment.

Jonathan Orszag, senior managing director of Compass Lexecon, came up with a solution to allow Compass experts to work on more mergers. He is a well-known figure in Washington circles, and the brother of Peter Orszag, the vice chairman of investment bank Lazard and former high level Obama administration official. Jonathan’s social media teems with his globetrotting adventures. Brides magazine featured his destination wedding in the Bahamas. In August 2015, he celebrated on Twitter that he had played on all of the top 100 golf courses in the world. Although he does not have a Ph.D. in economics, he serves as an expert himself and is respected particularly for his expertise on global deals. He declined to comment on the record to ProPublica.

At Orszag’s urging, the firm relaxed its conflict of interest rules, according to multiple people who have worked with or for Compass. Now, Compass Lexecon experts can, and do, advise both sides in disputes. (Under Compass policy, the parties need to consent to such arrangements.) Separate teams of staffers, who cannot communicate with the opposing side, run the cases. The arrangements require on occasion that experts with adjacent offices must stop talking to each other during cases.

Compass economists can reach very different answers to the same question, depending on who is paying them. In 2012, the federal government and a group of states sued Apple for conspiring with several major publishers to fix prices on e-books.

The states hired American University’s Jonathan Baker, the Compass economist, as one of its experts. Baker’s report concluded that e-book prices cost 19 percent more than they should, as a result of the price-fixing. Another government expert arrived at the same 19 percent estimate, and calculated that consumers had been overcharged by $300 million.

Apple later hired Orszag, also of Compass, to do the same calculation. Orszag first came to the conclusion that the effect on prices was lower than the government side’s estimate, around 15 percent. Then he argued there were offsetting benefits to consumers that knocked the number all the way down to 1.9 percent, or just $28 million.

“The actual harms suffered by consumers … are modest,” Orszag concluded.

A federal judge slapped Orszag down for that work. Denise Cote, of the Southern District of New York, threw out part of Orszag’s report in the Apple case. The judge assailed Orszag’s study as “unmoored” from facts and “unsupported by any rigorous analysis,” criticizing a calculation of his as “jerry-rigged.”

Lawyers for the states found out Orszag was working for Apple only when he filed his expert report in the case. The news shocked them, two of the lawyers said, because they felt Orszag had been privy to their legal strategy. Orszag had personally negotiated and signed the contract when the states retained Compass and Baker to do the expert work attacking Apple, now Orszag’s client. The contract prohibited Compass from working on both sides of the case without permission, which had not been obtained.

The states, which had paid Compass and Baker $1.2 million for their work, later sued Compass for breach of contract. They found out that two of its staffers, an administrative assistant and an entry level researcher, had worked for both of the opposing economists. In a deposition, Orszag defended his firm, saying that he believed the Compass contract with the state governments “had been suspended” when he signed on to work for Apple.

Compass settled with the states, paying back some of the money. A person familiar with Compass’ position says that its conflict-of-interest rules didn’t apply to the low-level employees who helped both economists.

The premier economists in the field move back and forth from consulting firms to the top positions at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. In 2006, Carlton joined the Bush Department of Justice for a 17-month stint as the highest-ranking department economist, before returning to the firm.

Carlton and the other luminaries in the field keep busy. From 2010 to 2014, Carlton consulted on 35 cases, according to his declaration in one case. That total includes his help for companies not only in front of the government but also in private litigation. Mostly he works on the defense side, fending off accusations of price-fixing or anti-competitive behavior. His clients have included Verizon, Honeywell, Fresh Del Monte, and Philip Morris. Because top experts get bonuses based on what the firm generates in billings, their annual incomes can run up to $10 million in a very good year.

Like other top consultants, Carlton devotes hundreds of words in his expert reports to describing his academic credentials, scholarly publications, and journal affiliations. Corporate clients value him not just for his prestige and point of view but for his skill as a witness. Unlike some of his colleagues, he is never bombastic or arrogant. With small eyes, puffy cheeks crowding his soft, wide nose, and hair that sweeps above his brow, Carlton looks as intimidating as a high school guidance counselor. But his calm, unassuming demeanor, even under intense cross-examination, makes him the perfect champion for his corporate clients.

“If you needed one guy for one deal and price didn’t matter, I’d take Dennis,” said a partner at one top New York corporate law firm. “He is the best.”

Carlton also knows just how far he can go. When he speaks, he proceeds deliberately, in a nasal accent, displaying a wariness that comes from decades of being questioned in court. Economists often argue that a merger will produce efficiencies, allowing companies to make more widgets for less money, an overall boon for society. But for an efficiency to count as an argument in a merger’s favor, it must be a result of the merger itself. Carlton sometimes says the cost-savings are “merger related,” according to a former Justice Department economist. “He is very careful about language. He won’t say ‘merger specific.'”

An off-the-cuff comment at a recent conclave illustrated Carlton’s prominence in the hidden world of antitrust proceedings. One evening in April, lawyers, government officials, and economists gathered in Washington for the spring meeting of the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Section. Held at the JW Marriott on Pennsylvania Avenue, the gathering is the prime marketing event of the year for the economic consulting industry.

After a mind-numbing day of panels on issues like “Clarifying Liability in Hub-and-Spoke Conspiracies,” the consultancies hosted competing cocktail receptions. The Charles River Associates event featured a generous spread of Peking Duck. Berkeley Research Group hired a live jazz band. Justice Department staffers sipped drinks with once-and-future colleagues now at white-shoe law firms, and Ivy League economists.

Earlier in the day, during a discussion of new theories about the damage caused by concentration in the airline industry and the overall economy, antitrust attorney John Harkrider shrugged at his fellow panelists. “I’m sure if you paid Dennis Carlton a million bucks, he’d blow up all these things,” he remarked.

Carlton’s rosy forecasts about the impact of proposed mergers haven’t always proven accurate. In the summer of 2005, Whirlpool, the appliance giant, decided to take over Maytag, a storied name that had gradually faded. The combination would leave three companies—the other two being GE and Electrolux—in control of more than 85 percent of the market for clothes washers and dryers. They would have 88 percent of the dishwasher market and 86 percent for refrigerators. In addition to the namesake brands, the newly enlarged Whirlpool would own Amana, KitchenAid and Jenn-Air, and manufacture many Kenmore appliances. The companies hired top law firms to persuade the Bush administration Justice Department to allow the deal. And the firms brought in Carlton.

Despite the combined entity’s powerful position, Carlton argued in his report that it still faced a threat from foreign competition. The possibility that a big box retailer might switch to LG or Samsung would prevent the newly combined company from raising prices, he asserted.

The companies did not persuade Justice Department officials, who proposed blocking the merger. An outside economic expert of their own, University of California at Berkeley’s Carl Shapiro, backed the staff’s analysis. The Bush appointee who headed the antitrust division, Assistant Attorney General Tom Barnett, resisted the staff’s conclusions. Right after Shapiro provided his analysis, Barnett wrote to the companies’ law firms, outlining the arguments that Shapiro and the staff made against the merger. Barnett, who declined comment, provided a roadmap to how to respond to the government’s claims, a person familiar with the letter said.

After months of deliberation, in March 2006, Barnett overruled the staff recommendation, allowing the merger to go through with no conditions. Shapiro and American University’s Baker later called it a “highly visible instance of under enforcement.”

Carlton’s predictions did not pan out. Whirlpool raised prices. Five years after the deal, Princeton’s Ashenfelter and an economist with the Federal Trade Commission found that, contrary to the Compass Lexecon pre-merger forecasts, the takeover resulted in “large price increases for clothes dryers” and price increases for dishwashers. In addition, the companies reduced their offerings, giving consumers fewer choices. By 2012, LG and Samsung had grabbed some market share mostly from second-tier players. Whirlpool and Maytag’s combined shares dropped just over two percentage points in washers and dryers, according to Traqline. But the competition had not brought down prices. Antitrust experts say that a scenario in which companies raise prices despite losing market share to competitors can be evidence that a merger hurt consumers.

The Whirlpool-Maytag merger was revisited in 2014 when GE tried to sell its appliance division to Electrolux, a Swedish manufacturer. Electrolux hired Jonathan Orszag. In December 2015, government officials questioned Orszag’s expert report on the possible effects of the GE-Electrolux merger. Contradicting Ashenfelter, Orszag had submitted a study asserting that the Whirlpool-Maytag merger had not raised prices, conclusions he based mainly on the washer and dryer market.

Justice Department staff economists studied backup material to his analysis and they found something troubling. Buried there was an acknowledgment that the Whirlpool-Maytag merger had resulted in price increases in cooking appliances, the very sector of the market that government officials worried might be affected by the GE-Electrolux combination. The Justice Department filed suit to stop the deal and GE pulled out during the trial.

In a speech in June, outgoing deputy attorney general David Gelfand warned about gamesmanship by economic consultants. While much economic work is good, “we do see junk science from time to time,” he said. As an example, Gelfand pointed to the GE-Electrolux case, though he did not name the company or Orszag. He said the inconvenient data “should have been disclosed and presented with candor” in the expert report supporting the merger.

Orszag did allude in a footnote to the other data, and provided backup materials that disclosed the higher prices in cooking appliances. He contended in his testimony that these price increases were due not to the merger itself but to other factors such as rising costs of raw materials. He said that Ashenfelter’s conclusions were wrong because, unlike Orszag, the Princeton economist did not have access to Whirlpool’s costs for making appliances.

Ashenfelter stands by his study. “My concern with Orszag’s deposition as evidence is that all this is done behind a curtain of secrecy. None of us know just what he did, how the cost data were constructed,” he wrote in an email to ProPublica. “Orszag’s results would only have been presented if they favored his client. Our paper had no clients and we would have been happy to find no price effect.”

In a bright conference room at Fordham Law School on a warm day this past September, an economist realized she had made a mistake in a deposition.

A WilmerHale partner seized on the error. A group of people, seated at blond wood tables in sleek, ergonomic black chairs, took notes as light streamed into the room, reflecting off the columns of Lincoln Center across the street. The economist, Michelle Burtis of Charles River Associates, turned to the audience and, letting out a laugh, broke character.

“And at this point, I would definitely start obfuscating,” she said, smiling.

Burtis was presenting a mock deposition to train lawyers and economists on the pivotal role economists can play in antitrust matters. Charles River and another consulting firm, Cornerstone Research, sponsored the conference.

Burtis, who has short, chin-length brown hair, oversized glasses, a friendly demeanor, and a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas at Austin, continued to guide the attendees toward “what is helpful in a situation like this,” where the economists had erred but still needed to push the client’s line. “You’re never going to get me to admit this is a mistake,” she explained.

The government’s reliance on economic models rests on the notion that they’re more scientific than human judgment. Yet merger economics has little objectivity. Like many areas of social science, it is dependent on assumptions, some explicit and some unseen and unexamined. That leaves room for economists to follow their preconceptions, and their wallets.

Economists have an “incentive to get a reputation as someone who will make a certain type of argument. People will hire you because they know what testimony you will give,” said Robert Porter, an economist from Northwestern who has never testified on behalf of a corporation in an antitrust matter.

In a 2007 interview, Carlton maintained an expert witness shouldn’t be biased. “It is the job of the economic consultant to reach an expert opinion in light of all the evidence, both the good and bad. I think it destroys an expert’s credibility to present only the supportive evidence,” he said.

Economists who do a lot of consulting on antitrust cases say it is not in their long-term interest to shill for a corporate client. Carlton says consulting is tougher than writing for peer-reviewed journals. For scholarship, “it’s not required for the editor to re-run your numbers. In litigation, the expert on the other side has reviewed to make sure I haven’t made errors. The scrutiny is good and leads to a higher quality of report,” he told Global Competition Review, an antitrust trade publication in 2014.

While the data is hidden from outsiders, what matters to Carlton is that there are no secrets between the companies and the government. “When economists are speaking to each other, it’s transparent. They are discussing the economics. The data is turned over to the other side. It’s your model vs. theirs,” Carlton told ProPublica.

Several former employees of consulting firms describe their jobs differently. They say they understood that clients wanted them to reach favorable conclusions. The job was “to go through analyses of market data and try to suggest that this merger doesn’t raise antitrust concerns,” said David Foster, who left Compass Lexecon in 2014, after working as a young analyst there for a year and a half.

The companies and lawyers that rely on economists as witnesses aren’t looking for neutrality. At the Fordham conference, a panel moderator asked Katrina Robson, a lawyer at O’Melveny & Myers, what she sought in an expert. “To be able to be an advocate without seeming to be an advocate,” she replied.

Companies and their lawyers shop around for amenable economists, looking for the reports that provide the answers they are looking for. Karen Kazmerzak, a partner at Sidley Austin, told attendees that she likes to hire two economists if the client can afford it. “It often comes out that one economist is not prepared to deliver the conclusions you need them to deliver,” she said. In those cases, the law firm can fire one economist and go forward with the other, more malleable consultant.

When an expert concludes that a merger won’t pass muster with the government, the corporate client typically either backs out of the proposed deal, figures out concessions to offer the government, finds a more supportive economist at the same consulting firm, or switches firms. Sometimes, according to a prominent antitrust lawyer, unwelcome predictions are locked in a drawer, protected by attorney-client privilege, never to be seen by the government or the public.

On occasion, Carlton has told companies that their deals are unlikely to be approved. He’s walked away from at least one merger: H&R Block’s 2011 takeover of TaxAct, a software firm. The government challenged it, and Carlton pulled out a few months before the trial. The companies hired a new expert from a competing firm, who defended the merger in court. The Justice Department used Carlton’s departure to cast doubt on the credibility of the new consultant and won the case.

In 2011, when AT&T sought to take over the cell phone company T-Mobile, the government balked. T-Mobile, a smaller and scrappier rival, often tried out new and innovative offerings to keep cell service costs low. Carlton represented AT&T. Based on data the company provided, he predicted that the cost of cell phone service would explode if AT&T couldn’t take over T-Mobile and use its network to meet rising demand. Without the acquisition, Carlton and his Compass colleagues concluded, AT&T would be forced to charge higher prices.

When government officials looked closely at Carlton’s model, they realized that it was implying that prices would rise so high without the merger, the cell phone market would shrink by 90% within a few years. Justice Department officials viewed this as wildly implausible. “We find that the applicants’ economic model is deficient,” the government wrote of the work by Carlton and other Compass Lexecon consultants. Soon after the companies announced their deal, the Department of Justice sued to block the transaction and after several months of wrangling, the companies dropped the transaction in late 2011.

Even though AT&T was not able to complete its takeover, cell phone usage in the US has not collapsed by 90%.

Shortly after AT&T withdrew its offer for T-Mobile, the top economist at the Justice Department, Fiona Scott Morton, held a dinner at the Caucus Room, a Washington eatery, for several economists who worked on the deal. The restaurant provided an intimate and comfortable setting for a post-mortem. “Everyone is friends,” recalls one attendee. “It was fun.”

They debated who had the better case. Carlton conceded that AT&T and T-Mobile would have found it hard to win at trial, according to an attendee. But he wished it had gone to court. He was eager to try out a new and provocative argument for mergers: That even though prices would have risen for customers, the companies would have achieved large cost savings. The gain for AT&T shareholders, he contended, would have justified the merger, even if cell phone customers lost out.

Carlton’s expert report predicted that T-Mobile was doomed to failure without the merger. “Our review indicates that T-Mobile USA’s competitive significance is likely to decline in the absence of the proposed transaction,” he and two other Compass Lexecon economists wrote.

Five years later, T-Mobile’s stock price and market share are up and its colorful CEO, John Legere, has been credited by the business press for “singlehandedly dragging the industry into a new era” with innovations such as abolishing cellular contracts. In 2014, Bill Baer, then the head of the antitrust division at the Justice Department, claimed victory: “T-Mobile went back to competing to win your business,” he said in a speech. “And T-Mobile’s competitors were compelled to respond.”

Today, AT&T’s much grander takeover of Time Warner will be an early test case for president-elect Trump, who feuded during the campaign with CNN, a Time Warner property. It will also be a boon for Compass and the small army of academic economists mobilizing for the multi-front battle waged by the government, competitors and the merging companies.

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These Professors Make More Than a Thousand Bucks an Hour Peddling Mega-Mergers

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Lethal Injection Is a Terrible Way To Kill People

Mother Jones

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“Tonight, Clayton Lockett was tortured to death.”—Madeline Cohen, assistant federal public defender.

Last night, Oklahoma became the latest state to botch an execution while using a new lethal injection protocol. Five minutes after injecting convicted murderer Lockett with 100 milligrams of the sedative midazolam, executioners administered two other drugs designed to paralyze him and then stop his heart. But instead of dying, Lockett started writhing and kicking and lifting his head and shoulders up off the gurney. The execution was eventually halted, but Lockett died a while later from a heart attack. State officials said that the cause of the problems was a “blown” vein line that prevented the drugs from entering the bloodstream.

Thanks to the disastrous course of events, Governor Mary Fallin (R), who recently promised to defy the state’s highest court and execute Lockett despite a legal stay in the case, postponed the killing of Charles Warner, who was slated to be executed last night after Lockett. Lockett and Warner had prompted a state constitutional crisis when they filed suit over the state’s secrecy statute that had denied them complete information about the source and purity of the new drugs they would be executed with.

A lower state court had found the statute unconstitutional, and after a convoluted back and forth between the higher courts, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a stay of the executions so the issues could be fully litigated. But Fallin threatened to execute the men anyway and accused the court of overstepping its authority; meanwhile, the state legislature began impeachment proceedings against the justices. A few days later, the court caved and allowed the executions to move forward, resulting in what witnesses called the “torture” and death of Clayton Lockett.

Experts had been watching the proceedings closely because Oklahoma planned to use a combination of drugs that has only been used once before in an execution, in Florida this year. In 2011, international pharmaceutical companies either stopped making or refused to sell prisons the drugs that had long been used in lethal injections, creating a shortage in death-penalty states. These states have sought a variety of dubious ways to address the shortage, including illegally importing the old drugs or trying out new but slower-acting drugs, as they did on Lockett.

When it was first used in Florida, midzolam—one of the new drugs used on Lockett—was given at a dose five times higher than what Oklahoma said it would use. As it turned out, though, the bungled execution may have had little to do with the drug protocol and a lot to do with a pretty common problem in lethal injection. According to Austin Sarat, an Amherst college professor and author of the timely new book, Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty, lethal injection is more prone to these sorts of debacles than any other form of execution used in the US since the late 19th century. His data show as many as 7 percent of lethal injection executions go awry, and often for the same reasons why Lockett suffered so much: The veins of death row inmates can’t handle the needles.

Many death row inmates were once IV drug users, and by the time they reach the death chamber, their veins are a mess. Others are obese from years of confinement, which also makes their veins hard to find. Compounding that problem is the fact that the people inserting the needles usually aren’t medical professionals. They’re prison guards (in Oklahoma they’re paid $300 for the job), and they’re usually in a big hurry to get it done quickly—an factor that doesn’t mesh well with the slower-acting drugs states are now resorting to.

After Florida finally retired “Old Sparky,” its electric chair that had a tendency to light people on fire while killing them, it turned to lethal injection in 2000. In 2006, the state botched the execution of Angel Diaz, who took 34 minutes—three times longer than the previous two executions—to die. While on the gurney, he writhed, winced, and shuddered, and witnesses reported that he seemed to be in a great deal of pain. When a heart monitor showed he wasn’t dying fast enough, he was given a second dose of one of the drugs. But as it turned out, the needle had gone through the vein and poked out the other side, delivering the drugs into soft tissue rather than the blood stream, a process that’s known to cause an extremely slow and painful death. Then-Governor Jeb Bush put a halt to executions in the state for a while afterwards as a result.

In 2009, Ohio attempted to execute Romell Broom but struggled for more than two hours to find a suitable vein in which to administer the injection. He even attempted to help his executioners find an insertion spot. As the poking and prodding went on, Broom was visibly in pain. “At one point, he covered his face with both hands and appeared to be sobbing, his stomach heaving,” the Columbus Dispatch reported. After two hours, the execution was halted so medical experts could figure out a better way to kill him. So far they haven’t, and he remains on death row.

These sorts of incidents are one reason that defense attorneys have been arguing in court that for all its clinical veneer, lethal injection still constitutes unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. Oklahoma just gave them some more ammunition for that fight, even without giving up the details of the drugs it used.

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Lethal Injection Is a Terrible Way To Kill People

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Review: “Transcendence” (2014)

Mother Jones


Released by: Warner Brothers Pictures

Starring: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall

Directed by: Wally Pfister

Screenplay by: Jack Paglen

Release Date: April 18, 2014

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 119 minutes

Review: Wow awful.

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Review: “Transcendence” (2014)

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Quick Reads: "The Humor Code" by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

Mother Jones

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The Humor Code

By Peter McGraw and Joel Warner


Searching for the essence of humor is a delicate business: Dig too deep, and you kill the joke. Fortunately, Peter McGraw, an irrepressible psychology prof, and Joel Warner, his straight-man scribe, deliver entertaining answers to nagging questions like: Do unhappy people make better comedians? Are some things too horrible to laugh at? And how do you win The New Yorker cartoon contest? Despite getting heckled by colleagues in the surprisingly serious field of humor studies and bombing as a stand-up comic, McGraw lays out a convincing theory about how humor works and why it’s an essential survival mechanism.

This review originally appeared in our March/April 2014 issue of Mother Jones.

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Quick Reads: "The Humor Code" by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

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It’s Time to End the Cable Sports Tax

Mother Jones

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With spring training in the air here in Los Angeles, the saga of Dodger baseball is entering the ninth inning. Until last year, Dodger games were split between a broadcast channel and a basic cable sports channel. Total cost for the rights was about $50 million. Then Time-Warner signed a deal to run a 24/7 Dodger channel and paid a whopping $210 million for the 2014 rights. They have to make back that money, of course, and their plan for doing it is twofold: (a) charge a lot for the channel, and (b) insist that cable and satellite companies put it in their basic subscriber packages, where everyone has to pay for it:

Many distributors are upset about being pressured to carry a new sports network in a region that already has several similar channels, including not only Prime Ticket but also Fox Sports West, Pac-12 Los Angeles and Time Warner Cable’s SportsNet and Deportes.

“It is really hard to understand why everyone needs their own channel when they didn’t need one before,” said Andy Albert, senior vice president of content acquisition for Cox Communications.

“Time Warner Cable has unilaterally decided to pay an unprecedented high price and now wants all of their own customers as well as those of their competitors, none of which who had any say in the matter, to pick up that tab,” said Dan York, DirecTV’s chief content officer….”Given the high price that Time Warner Cable is seeking, it would be reasonable to ask that only those families who truly want to pay for the Dodgers actually pay for it,” said DirecTV’s York, whose company has 1.2 million subscribers in the region.

SportsNet LA’s response: A la carte is “not really on the table,” Rone said.

Of course it’s not. If it were a la carte, Time-Warner wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance of earning back its $210 million. But I say: tough luck. It’s time to put a stop to this madness. The Dodgers (and the Lakers, who signed a similar deal) seem to think that every cable household in the LA basin should pay a head tax of $60 per year to support them. Why? Beats me. Because it’s sports. No other private enterprise is able to demand an explicit tribute like this from every consumer in a region, whether or not they happen to buy their products. For most companies, the best they can do is finagle a few tax breaks here and there—which, of course, sports teams do too.

This is basically a tax on everyone with a TV. There’s no excuse for it, and our local tea partiers should all be up in arms about it. Here’s hoping that Cox and DirecTV and all the other cable companies hold out and force the Dodgers and Time-Warner to cry uncle. Someone needs to set an example.

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It’s Time to End the Cable Sports Tax

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Comcast-Time Warner Merger Really Has Nothing to do With You and Me

Mother Jones

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Via Matt Yglesias, I see that Matthew Klein has finally written a short post that explains what’s really behind the Comcast-Time Warner merger:

To understand what the deal is really about, remember that pay-TV distributors are at the mercy of the networks that sell programming. According to Bloomberg Industries analyst Paul Sweeney, about half your cable bill goes to companies such as Viacom Inc. and Walt Disney Co. The networks consistently raise prices about 10 percent a year on average, irrespective of the state of the economy. By contrast, the typical cable bill only goes up by about 5 percent a year. Cable companies have eaten the difference by lowering their margins and cutting costs elsewhere, but there are limits to both processes.

This margin squeeze is why Time Warner Inc. spun off its cable business, why Comcast acquired NBC Universal, and why Internet-based subscription services offered by Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. have invested in original programming as a defense against the rising cost of licensing content. It also explains why Time Warner Cable had to cave to demands for higher fees from CBS Corp. a few months ago. Merging the two biggest cable operators might give them more bargaining power with the networks, especially if it encourages DIRECTV and Dish Network Corp. to consolidate the satellite business.

In the same way that the health care business can largely be understood as a competition between suppliers (hospitals, pharma, etc.) and consumers (insurance companies), the video entertainment business should largely be understood as a competition between content producers (Disney, Viacom, etc.) and content distributors (Comcast, Verizon, etc.). Ideally, you want competition everywhere. That is, you want enough producers that they compete with each other; enough distributors that they compete with each other; and enough balance between the two that neither producers nor distributors have the whip hand against the other.

So the question we should be asking about the Comcast-Time Warner merger is simple: Do content distributors need more clout? Klein suggests they do: they’re at the mercy of rapacious networks who keep raising carriage fees and they don’t have the market power to fight back. The merger will help that.

That may be, but I’d like to hear more about this. Networks and cable companies fight constantly, as you know if you’ve ever seen dueling ads about why your favorite shows will soon be off the air in your area. The networks run ads telling people that if they don’t want to miss the next episode of CSI, they better call their cable company and tell them to knock off the gamesmanship. The cable companies run ads insisting that the network is jacking up rates unconscionably and everyone should besiege them with demands that they be more reasonable. Usually this continues until about one minute before the current contract runs out, at which point both sides make a deal. Occasionally it goes longer, and certain shows really are blacked out for a while.

If you’ve ever had trouble figuring out which side is really at fault in one of these battles of the titans, well, that’s the problem. Two mega-corporations are duking it out, and the rest of us are just caught in the middle. From a consumer point of view, part of the problem is that we’ve all been trained to hate the cable companies who send us outrageous bills every month and love the content producers who make all the shows we love. But don’t fall for that: it’s just an artifact of which business happens to be customer facing. The truth is that both sides are big, soulless corporations who have no claim on your emotions. That said, I’d normally take Klein’s side of this except for one thing: would a bigger Comcast really have more negotiating clout than they do now? I guess that’s possible, but they have a helluva lot of clout already. No network can afford to be shut out of Comcast’s market for long. So it’s not clear to me that a bigger Comcast would really do much for the rest of us.

In any case, that’s how to think of this stuff. Practically every big battle you see in the media arena is, one way or another, a battle between gigantic producers on the one hand and gigantic distributors on the other. That’s what net neutrality is all about. That’s what copyright battles are all about. That’s what broadband fights are all about. And that’s what this merger is all about. We are all just pawns watching the fireworks.

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Comcast-Time Warner Merger Really Has Nothing to do With You and Me

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A Glitter-Covered Banner Got These Protesters Arrested for Staging a Bioterror Hoax

Mother Jones

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It’s not uncommon for environmental protesters to face arrest, but here’s an apparent first: On Friday, Oklahoma City police charged a pair of environmental activists with staging a “terrorism hoax” after they unfurled a pair of banners covered in glitter—a substance local cops considered evidence of a faux biochemical assault.

Stefan Warner and Moriah Stephenson, members of the environmental group Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, were part of a group of about a dozen activists demonstrating at Devon Tower, the headquarters of fossil fuel giant Devon Energy. They activists were protesting the company’s use of fracking, its role in mining of Canada’s tar sands, and its ties to TransCanada, the energy company planning to construct the Keystone XL pipeline. As other activists blocked the building’s revolving door, Warner and Stephenson hung two banners—one a cranberry-colored sheet emblazoned with The Hunger Games “mockingjay” symbol and the words “The odds are never in our favor” in gold letters—from the second floor of the Devon Tower’s atrium.

Police who responded to the scene arrested Warner and Stephenson along with two other protesters. But while their fellow activists were arrested for trespassing, Warner and Stephenson were hit with additional charges of staging a fake bioterrorism attack. It’s an unusually harsh charge to levy against nuisance protestors. In Oklahoma, a conviction for a “terrorist hoax” carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

Oklahoma City police spokesman Captain Dexter Nelson tells Mother Jones that Devon Tower security officers worried that the “unknown substance” falling from the two banners might be toxic because of “the covert way the protesters presented themselves…A lot were dressed as somewhat transient-looking individuals. Some were wearing all black,” he says. “Inside the banners was a lot of black powder substance, later determined to be glitter.” In their report, Nelson says, police who responded to the scene described it as a “biochemical assault.” “Even the FBI responded,” he adds. A spokesman for Devon Energy declined to comment.

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A Glitter-Covered Banner Got These Protesters Arrested for Staging a Bioterror Hoax

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