Wednesday, September 12, 2007

While Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu was arrested last week, blogger Philip “Flip” Pidot was searching for data and crunching numbers to document that the political contributions made by Hsu’s network totaled nearly $1.6 million, substantially more than news organizations previously reported.

Posted at his “Suitably Flip” site (, Mr. Pidot’s blogging reflects the 31-year-old’s various interests in economics, technology and politics. A financial analyst with a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Virginia, Mr. Pidot was a Republican candidate for the New York state Senate last year, winning 21 percent of the vote in a race against an incumbent Democrat in a liberal district on Manhattan’s East Side.

The following questions are excerpts of a recent e-mail interview with Mr. Pidot:

Question: How does a University of Virginia MBA end up blogging about politics?

Answer: If Thomas Jefferson were with us today, I think we’d certainly find him doing some political blogging on the side (think of the time savings if King George was able to read the Declaration in a feed reader).

Before business school, I worked as a corporate fraud investigator. I think part of the appeal of blogging is the opportunity to indulge that sleuthing urge. My primary interests being finance and politics (and the intersection of the two), that’s generally what I’m blogging about.

Q: Does blogging help pay your bills? Or is it just a hobby for you?

A: I think I generated about 80 cents when I briefly experimented with Google AdSense a couple of years ago, but since I never received it, I think technically I get to maintain my amateur status.

Q: You did database research, spreadsheets and charts on the Norman Hsu fundraising scandal. Are those kinds of business-school skills helpful in blogging?

A: I think research skills in general are valuable blogging assets, which is probably why we see a lot of lawyers and professors (and law professors) among the most influential bloggers. Being comfortable seeking out, harvesting, analyzing and commenting on data (and doing it fast) is an advantage, and business school is definitely a good training ground for that, but probably no more so than law school, journalism school, etc.

Q: There’s been a lot of discussion about why the liberal blogosphere is bigger than the conservative side. If graduate-school skills are so valuable in blogging, do you think the left’s online advantage is partly a reflection of the overall liberal dominance of academia?

A: Possibly, though I think there are larger factors affecting the evolution of the political Web. The blogosphere (and the Internet generally), as a free market for ideas, will tend to favor dissenters, since — by definition — they’re the ones less well represented by an establishment, whether that establishment is the government or the media. Fueling the growth of the lefty blogosphere is the left’s unifying, pathological hatred of our president and everything he does. Fueling the growth on the right is a frustration with the time-honored liberal bias in the traditional media.

Lefty blogging also tends to be more concentrated among a few extremely influential sites, while the conversation on the right tends be more distributed. A couple of years ago, I ran a Herfindahl Index for two blog-hemispheres and came up with a value of 0.31 for the left and 0.15 for the right. The index is typically used to measure an industry’s market share concentration, but I think it’s equally instructive here. Because influence is more concentrated among fewer voices on the left, the messaging is more focused and consistent. But I’d argue that that’s at best a temporary advantage. Like any market, a free market for ideas functions best with vigorous competition among a large number of participants.

Q: If you had to bet $100 on the outcome, who do you think will be the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees in 2008? And, if you had another $100 on the line, who would win that matchup?

A: Mitt Romney over Hillary Clinton.

Q: Besides The Washington Times, what kind of sites do you go to regularly? And do you use RSS feeds?

A: I subscribe to about 50 feeds, which is just about all I can keep up with. For my money, the finest blog out there is [Michelle] Malkin’s (and I might’ve even said that if my blog weren’t an affiliate). But I read pretty much all the major political blogs on both the left and right. Plus a handful of econ, finance and tech blogs.

Q: You actually went to the New York address listed on Norman Hsu’s [Federal Election Commission] forms. Did you see anything?

A: The building publishes its floor plans on its Web site, so I was able to determine which corner was Hsu’s place ahead of time. Looking up at the third-floor apartment from street level, all I could really tell was that Hsu’s blinds were all shut, and it seemed to be dark inside. I rang the buzzer for his unit a couple of times, but either no one was home or they weren’t receiving callers. I went inside to talk to the doorman, who was very pleasant until he learned who I was looking for. Then he kicked me out.

Q: The big mystery with Hsu seems to be: Where did all that money come from? Got any ideas? Did he have some legitimate business income source that everybody’s overlooking?

A: That’s the $1.6 million question. For a man who was apparently broke 15 years ago, he sure has done well for himself since. Several businesses are listed on the campaign finance disclosures as Hsu’s employer — Next Components, Because Men’s Clothing, Cool Planets, Norman Hsu himself. … But attempts to locate the businesses or find anyone in the industry who can recall doing business with them have failed. Their records with the State Department either can’t be found or are out of date. Their only observable activity seems to be employing some of the other names in Hsu’s shady network of fundraising sources.

So how Hsu built up enough wealth to be able to float — then forfeit — $2 million in bail money is still anyone’s guess. The most ominous possibility is that Hsu himself is a front for some overseas party, attempting to influence the American policy. But to my knowledge, there’s no evidence of that. For all we know, Norman Hsu is simply a convicted con man and serial fugitive whose huge political contributions could be financed through good old-fashioned swindling.

With Hsu back in custody, we may finally begin to get some answers

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