Sunday, April 17, 2016

Tax Weekend Special

Sports:  Back in  the Swing
There's a brief period in February, after the Stupid Bowl, when the NBA takes its mostly unwatchable All-Star break, and there is next to nothing going on in sport.  I suppose there is hockey, as it takes its even-more-ridiculous break a little earlier, though, as with pro football, I have a very low level of interest in the regular season.  College basketball is in the middle of its conference season, but, as we have learned, the conference play means little in a real sense, diminished by the season-ending conference tournaments which determine the automatic tourney berths (with the single exception now of the Ivy League).

That period is, happily, now in the rear-view mirror.  The NCAA men's basketball tournament was one of the best in recent years for your generic viewer (i.e., not tied to a specific team).  It was open--as shown by the wild first- and second-rounds, full of upsets--but also narrowed down to something like normalcy, with the most reliable teams surviving to the end.  I didn't make a pick for the champion, but I did name the four most consistent teams, and three of them made it to the Final Four (the fourth, Kansas, was beaten in the regional final by one of the other three, the eventual champion, Villanova).  The one exception, which made the final rounds more fun, was Syracuse, a team which barely made the tourney field, and a #10 seed in its region.  I have mixed feelings about the Orangemen, who are serial rule violators, who deserted the Big East Conference for what appeared to be the greener pastures of the ACC, but who play a consistently strong, streetwise brand of the game, drawing many of the best prospects New York produces.  Their dreams ended at the hands of another ACC rule-violator, North Carolina.  Then there was the championship game, with its thrilling finish--again, one of the best ever.

The NBA playoffs have now begun.  The first round matches usually go fairly quickly, with a couple of  exceptions.  The ones this time appear to be the middle-seed matchups of Hawks-Celtics and TrailBlazers-Clippers, but also #2 Eastern seed Raptors vs. Pacers.  The Pacers pulled off the road win in Game 1, and it did not appear an upset, either.    LeBron and the Cavaliers should cruise to the Eastern Conference championship with little difficulty, but the Western Conference will be well-contested:  the defending champion, all-time regular season record-breaking Warriors are favorites, but they will meet a tough opponent in the conference finals.  Everyone would like to see the showdown against the Spurs--the matchup denied last year when the Clippers beat the Spurs in the conference semifinals.  With the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge and the continued development of Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are even more talented than in recent years, and could provide a worthy challenge to Golden State, but we can expect San Antonio to have its hands full in the semifinals against the highly-motivated Oklahoma City Thunder, as the league's top 1-2 punch (even better than LeBron and Someone, or Stephen Curry and Someone) of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant has what appears to be one final chance to fulfill their joint destiny there.

Lastly, on this topic, spring has sprung, and with it, the start of baseball's regular season.  The American League has greater parity, but the National League has several excellent teams, ones that might even be viewed as better than the AL's best.  I'm thinking of Pittsburgh, St. Louis, the New York Mets, the Washington Nationals and above all, the Chicago Cubs, broadly anointed as the best team in the majors this year.  I am going to root for the Cubs for my father's sake this year:  he has just reached his 90th birthday, has been a Cubs fan all his life, and deserves to see a world championship for his team.  Of course, the playoffs are a bit of a crap shoot, but I'm hoping for a little magic comes to Wrigley this year.+

Celebration of the Lizard
A relatively slack period of four weeks in the Presidential primary season, with only one significant contest, comes to an end Tuesday. The winner of New York's primary in each party should be a foregone conclusion, though Bernie Sanders does seem to be closing the gap there, as he has done in the past--probably in part the result of superior field organization.  In the Republican primary, the only question is whether Donald Trump will exceed 50% of the vote--a level he has not yet reached, and one that would allow him to get nearly all the state's delegates.

The one major primary in recent weeks was in Wisconsin, in which Bernie pulled off yet another victory,  with a healthy margin over 12%, but one that barely put a dent in Hillary Clinton's delegate lead.  The next few primaries are likely to be less favorable, and should erase any doubt, even among Sanders' most avid supporters, of the ultimate outcome.  But Bernie will fight on, no doubt--I hope he has been planning the mode and style of his ultimate concession such that it will do justice to the fine campaign he has conducted.

Wisconsin provided Ted Cruz with his greatest moment--much more significant than the win in his home state of Texas on Super Tuesday--the only state he won--which provided some initial legitimacy in those days when the candidates were falling fast.  Cruz overcame his reptilian, off-putting visage and patterns of human interaction, the Trump endorsement of the state's governor, and achieved a significant win in a populous, open primary.   His exultation and his victory speech sounded tones familiar from other nights:  I check all the boxes on the conservative agenda, I am not Donald Trump, you conservatives can somehow stomach me.

The next couple of weeks will be much less friendly for the TrusTed one:  his comment about "New York values" will set the stage for a third-place finish in the Empire State, and the five primaries in other mid-Atlantic primaries the following week will be little better.  Cruz has no chance at a first-ballot victory at the convention, though he may still have a chance as the leading Not-Trump candidate if the leader can be stopped, the key being a successful last-ditch stand by him and by Kasich in California on the last night of primaries, June 7.   My bet on is for Trump to have in the range of 1150-1199 of the 1237 delegates pledged as the party goes to convention, which will put him close enough to win the nomination if he can make a few of the deals for which he claims such expertise.

As for my opinion of  Cruz, I will cite the impenetrable words of King Crimson (1969) as my advice to his supporters:
Wake your reasons' hollow vote
Wear your blizzard season's coat
Burn a bridge and burn a boat
Stake the lizard by the throat.
In other, more comprehensible words:  your cause is doomed to fail, get ready to dump your saurian candidate, bolt the party and its nominee, and sail off into the sunset on your lonely misanthropic adventure.

Senate Race Outlook
I think it is timely for me to give a brief update on the critical battle for control of the US Senate.  The Democrats need to net a four-seat gain (if the Democrats win the Presidency) to regain control of the upper house, and they have a rich variety of state targets with which to do that.  The do-nothing charge against the Republican-controlled Senate is reinforced by their refusal to consider President Obama's Supreme Court nominee; while party diehards may endorse the hardball constitutional stance, Independents will not.

Wisconsin, with Russ Feingold, and Illinois, with Tammy Duckworth, are the two best chances; the incumbent Republicans are inept (Ron Johnson) and ill-fitted (Mark Kirk), respectively.   Those are both in the range of 80% chances for picking up seats.  Ohio and New Hampshire are slightly better than 50-50, with strong challenger candidates and likely favorable headwinds from the states' Presidential contests (assuming nothing disastrous happens to Hillary).  Arizona and Missouri are tougher challenges, but the Democrats have good candidates and the polls suggest the Republican incumbents (McCain and Blount) may be vulnerable.

There are two states in which we may presume the Democratic challengers will have a good chance, even though their nominees are not yet decided.  Florida looks like at least a 50-50 shot for the Democrats to gain the seat Marco Rubio is giving up; the Republicans have a crowded field in the August primary but none of the candidates look very strong, while the Democratic nominee will be one of two Representatives: either a moderate establishment candidate, Patrick Murphy, or an extremely non-establishment one, the humorous, irascible, possibly indictable Alan Grayson.  Grayson's emails are the best that I receive, but I am not convinced he would be the best shot to win the seat, which is an imperative--and he has a legal problem with his handling of an offshore hedge fund that he runs, a surprising and disappointing handicap.   The other is Pennsylvania, which like Wisconsin, has a highly conservative Senator whose best hope is to run away from his policy positions in the general election. The Democratic nominee will be decided in the state's primary April 26:  there is a very interesting three-way race between the candidate hand-picked by the party establishment, Kathie McGinty, a radical and interesting Sandersesque candidate, mayor Ron Fetterman of the town of Braddock, and the loner, former Navy Admiral, former Representative, and 2010 losing nominee Joe Sestak.    Sestak is leading narrowly, probably reflecting higher name recognition.

If one adds up all these and factors in the correlation coming from a likely substantial Democratic victory in the Presidential campaign, it seems quite possible that the Democrats could pick up 5-6 seats from all the above opportunities, but there is one potential glitch:  the seat in Nevada which Minority Leader Harry Reid is giving up.   Democrats there have rallied around former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, while Representative Joe Heck seems the most likely candidate for the Republicans. This is a 50-50 race which will be very high-profile, and its outcome could decide control of the Senate.  Cortez Masto might be the best single Senate candidate to support at this point. I am staying neutral in the PA and FL ones, and also in Maryland, probably a safe seat for Democrats to hold, but with a nomination battle which will be resolved April 26 as well.

Brief Obits
  • (April 12) Gianroberto Casaleggio, 61, Italian entrepreneur, co-founder of Five Star Movement.  This is a major loss for the independent, anti-Establishment political movement in Italy.  Casaleggio was the strategist for Cinque Stelle from the beginning, with former comedian Beppe Grillo the (loud) mouthpiece.  The Movement was suffering in recent months, possibly in part because of Casaleggio's prolonged illness, but came within an eyelash of becoming the largest party in the country in the two previous legislative elections, when the economy was in the dumps and leadership was lacking.  Now, their time may have passed, with the anti-immigrant Lega Nord (Northern League) emerging as the loudest voice of populist outrage against responsible government.   
  • (April 2) Gato Barbieri, 83, Argentine jazz saxophonist, pneumonia.  Barbieri was one of the best protagonists of the international jazz-fusion movement of
      the 1980's.  He wailed. 
  • Andrew Grove, 79, Hungarian-born American electronic executive, CEO and chairman of Intel Corporation, Parkinson's disease.  Grove was one of the most successful US job creators of the past quarter century; Intel was a consistent leader in the development of ever-improving semiconductor chips, the key component in the digital revolution, and Grove's company chose to keep its factories in the US.  Famous for the quote, "only the paranoid survive", his influence on the corporate culture of the '90's and '00's can hardly be overstated. 

Like the weather:  everyone complains about it, nobody can do anything about it.   I will only say that, partly due to the overseas assignment I had in 2015, mine are obscenely complicated. 
 Fortunately, my employer is paying for someone competent to prepare them, and that I won't be penalized for filing late. 

+ For the record, my picks: 

AL West--Houston, Texas, Seattle, Oakland,  LAA, 
AL Central - Cleveland, Minnesota, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit
AL East - Toronto, Boston, NYY, Baltimore, Tampa Bay
Wild Cards - Boston, Texas 

NL West - Arizona, LA, SF, SD, Colorado
NL Central - Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati
NL East - NY Mets, Washington, Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta
Wild Cards - Washington, Pittsburgh. 

The leagues learn the trick to keeping St. Louis, Kansas City, San Francisco from wreaking their postseason magic:  keep them out entirely!

World Series:  Astros defeat Mets.  A variation on the  classic 1986 NL championship series (venue and outcome, but with similar extra-inning heroics)


Chin Shih Tang said...

The news from the New York primary was fairly tame (except for the disenfranchised voters), but had a raging time, on the market based on the question, "Will the margin in the Democratic primary be over 15%?" As the votes came in from outside NYC, the margin gradually narrowed, then went back and forth around the 15% mark, until Nassau finally came in (something like 61-39) and made the market turn to Yes. I participated at a low level as it moved, defending my initial No position. I lost on that one but won on the night (the gain on "Will Kasich finish 2nd in NY" helped).

Unfortunately, Intel (post Andy Grove) announced this week that it will have massive layoffs. Albuquerque is bracing for the news that its fabrication plant may be closed, or substantially cut back. Intel is the largest private employer in the state.

Chin Shih Tang said...

With regard to the Senate races, there are some others that I could have mentioned: Colorado, where the incumbent Democrat (Bennett) will be challenged, but I think he will survive without too much trouble; and other Republican seats (NC--Burr; AZ--McCain; IA--Grassley) that will be competitive, but will be hard to capture--unless things get much worse for the Republicans.

The key to future success will be for the Democrats to have a margin of a couple seats, at least, as the odds will turn against the Democrats in 2018