Thursday, December 23, 2010

Net Neutrality

@jasoninthehouse (Jason Chaffetz, R-UT3) has finally blocked me. Enjoy your impermeable echo chamber, sir.

Chaffetz doesn't understand the Internet. But because he's a knee-jerk conservative, he knows exactly how to regulate it: not at all.

jasoninthehouse (Jason Chaffetz): Classic government trying to regulate Internet. NO to 'net neutrality'. The internet works...'fixing' something that isn't broken.

In other words, given the choice of putting a corporation between citizens and the communication they want to access, and putting the government between corporations and the pile of protection money they'll earn from their privileged position, Chaffetz sided with the corporations.

The thing is, the Internet doesn't work. So far, the U.S. has adopted a "business-friendly" low-regulation approach, as opposed to the market-unfriendly, "Internet as a public utility" approach of other industrialized nations. According to Chaffetz' free-marketeering*, our foresight should give us the best Internet on the planet. Not one on par with Estonia's. We pay more money for less speed than just about anyone in the industrialized world.

Quick note for anyone new to Net Neutrality: It's the idea that Internet providers shouldn't be able to create toll lanes for the Internet or prioritize the traffic of some services over others. For example, Microsoft shouldn't be able to sign a deal with Comcast to make their search page load faster than Google, nor should they be allowed to throttle traffic from Hulu in order to make it a worse customer experience and drive people to their own video on demand services.

Or, to be more apocalyptic: here's the worst case scenario if we don't have Net Neutrality.

Or, to put it in terms that even Jason Chaffetz can understand: Imagine if George Soros bought out Comcast, and issued a directive to block customer access to a boatload of right wing sites like Heritage, Cato, FoxNews, RedState, WND, etc., while providing a fast lane straight to Rachael Maddow and Keith Olbermann. Nothing so dramatic has happened in the real world, but there have been plenty of cases of Internet carriers blocking access to information they didn't like, including pro-union sites and information critical of their business practices. Also, at the moment, Comcast is trying to extract money out of Netflix by threatening to charge them punitive

I'm not surprised that yet another Republican has sided with the right of corporations to make fistfuls of cash, and against an open and democratic society. But I'm disappointed.

* Which is similar to mouseketeering in both enthusiasm and lack of substance.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Is Obama or Palin more authoritarian? Facebook has the answer.

Both released their obligatory "Hanukkah is awesome" greeting to Facebook this morning (Obama, Palin). The comment sections beneath the two highlights one very important difference between them.

In real life, both politicians have an active, engaged, inflamed group of citizens who hate everything about them. But if Facebook were your guide, you would think that Sarah Palin had an approval rating hovering near 100%. The only hint of an opposition comes from the fact that any time a negative comment gets through, five or six of her devoted followers post a quick STFU HATER before it gets taken down.

I know from firsthand experience that posting any hint of disagreement to Palin's notes on Facebook lead to immediate banning. I was polite, respectful, and cited my sources. Didn't matter. I only got two posts off before being banned. I still get to be counted among her "fans" and can still access to her deep thoughts on economic and foreign policy, but I must suffer them in silence.

Obama has to be censoring the most inflammatory commentors. But you can still see lots of comments that question his patriotism, criticize him for specific acts, and generally remind us that there are people out there who really, really hate him.

Being the President, it's hard to imagine that Obama just doesn't have the staff to police his Facebook activities effectively. The continued existence of the negative comments must stem from an outlook that values freedom of expression and the views of political opponents far more than Palin does.

One more data point in support of my belief that Obama wants to be President of the Whole United States, while Palin is running for President of "Real" (read: Rural) America.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I read it on WikiLeaks

This is just collection of summaries of the WikiLeaks cables I've randomly stumbled into.  For a full explanation of what "WikiLeaks cables" are, go here:

2008/09/08ANKARA1643 : A Turkish trade minister meets with London investors, tells them to ditch their stock in a Turkish media company that has been criticizing elected officials.  Minister claims that the company will be gone soon.  Too soon to tell, but smells like insider trading.

2008/10/08STATE116392 : Condie's "What we'd like to know about Palestine" Christmas list.  Includes requests for Internet handles, credit card numbers, and frequent flyer account numbers for prominent and influential Palestinians.  Also looking for military readiness, opinions on the peace process, etc.  If you have any such information, please forward it to

2009/11/09MANAMA642 : This is just silly.  Bahrain lobbies Gen. Petraeus to encourage Americans to participate in the Bahrain air show.  A more relevant tidbit: Bahrain's King Hasam supports stopping Iran's nuclear program "by any means necessary."

2009/03/09TELAVIV654 : Qatar, UAE concerned about Iran, pushing for progress on Israel-Palestine peace process.  Point out that it would make things easier on Israel diplomatically.

1972/02/72TEHRAN1164  : This tastes a bit stale.  The Shah of Iran would like a squadron of F4-E's ASAP.  I guess this one got lost in a filing cabinet somewhere. :)


No worries. It was okay to be racist back in 1979, right? I wonder what they would have to say about the "psychological limitations" of the Americans who (a few short years earlier) thought they had a right to decide who ran their country.

Five down, over 200 to go, and that's just the first batch. There will be a quarter million documents in this puppy when all is said and done. Most of the documents are fairly uninteresting, and it's going to take a lot of eyeballs to find the most relevant stuff. Go to, and hope they can build some better tools for interacting with the data.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Will Sarah Palin be the next chair of the Federal Reserve?

The best part of this whole financial meltdown has to be watching Sarah Palin try to pretend that she has valuable insights on monetary policy.  It's kind of cute, really, like watching a four year old sitting in front of a chess board, moving the pieces around at random.

Not that I'm a grandmaster, by any means.  I know just enough to recognize when someone is playing well and when someone is bouncing the knight all over the board and making whinnying noises.  Krugman is putting grandmaster level stuff on his blog.  Palin doesn't know how the pieces move.

Palin fears runaway inflation -- in fact claims it's already occurring -- even though the last two years have had such tame inflation that we didn't need to increase Social Security payments to keep pace.  Which, if you've been watching FOX News' ongoing quest to terrify the elderly, is All Obama's Fault. 

When the non-inflation was pointed out to her, she lashed out at the messengers, because someone at their very own newspaper -- don't you guys read your own newspaper? -- ran a story explaining that food prices were, well, very low but starting to creep up again.  1.4% inflation is ridiculously low by historical standards, and by any objective measure, Palin was just plain wrong.

In a second Facebook broadside, she blames our slow economy entirely on burdensome government regulation, high taxes, and businesses living in fear of Obama's next major initiative.

Which is pure idiocy.  If it were Obamaphobia keeping businesses from expanding and hiring, their terror would have been assuage the moment CNN declared that the Republicans had retaken the House.  Obama won't be passing any major government-expanding initiatives or oppressive, burdensome government regulations anytime soon, so by Palin-logic (as opposed to the real sort) those mountains of cash that corporations are sitting on should be on their way.

Maybe she should start listening to the actual economists, who are pointing out the blindingly obvious: companies aren't hiring because they don't see much demand for their products.

Taxes are already absurdly low.  They're low as a percentage of GDP, when compared to the rest of the industrialized world.  They're low by historical standards; we've paid much more in the past.  We paid much more during the Clinton years, which were years of spectacular growth for people of all incomes.  Bush cut taxes, and gave us a decade of anemic growth, the largesse of which went almost entirely to the wealthiest 5%.  Oh, and need I mention that all that anemic growth was followed by the collapse of the whole economy?

Lastly, it shouldn't even have to be argued that more "burdensome government regulation" would have prevented much of the recent economic collapse.  The fact that supposedly serious people can claim otherwise is a testament to the power of the right-wing noise machine.

Palin is a card-carrying member of that noise machine.  Gears in that machine don't get held accountable for anything.  Their proposals don't have to make sense, so long as the person doing the proposing sounds confident.  That's why Palin can talk about how we need to be serious about paying off our national debt in one paragraph, and then demand huge tax cuts for the wealthy in the next.  Actual economists know that tax cuts have never come close to "paying for themselves," and that in a situation like ours where there are mountains of cash lying idle, adding more to the pile is an ineffective way to stimulate the economy.*

Her last mistake is to imply that inflation is bad for most Americans.  Actually, moderate inflation is good for just about anyone who has a mortgage.  Their debts become worth less as the years go by.  If you owe as much on your house as you have set aside in your 401K, inflation is robbing Peter, paying Paul, and then telling Paul to write Peter a check.  As Paul Krugman pointed out (for which the Nobel-prizewinning economist received a tongue lashing from our girl Sarah) inflation did a lot to make our post-WWII debt more manageable.

Who does inflation hurt the most?  People who have grotesque sums of cash lying around.  Which I believe is why, even though the economy would be generally better off if the Fed targeted lower unemployment and higher inflation, they continue to choke off inflation.  The Fed is run by rich people and people who hang out with rich people.  The only thing that makes QE2 palatable to them is the fact that the new money will go straight to banks.  If the plan were to print new money and sending it to people who would actually spend it (you and me and people poorer than you and me), they'd be screaming bloody murder.

The point is, Sarah Palin really sucks at this, and I pity the people who mistake her semi-coherent, ghostwritten Facebook posts for genuine economic thought.

* That actually *is* a problem with QE.  But it's just about the only weapon the Fed has left.  Normally it would be lowering interest rates to juice the economy, but they can't lower it below zero, because it rips a hole in the fabric of spacetime.  We don't want that.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Barack Obama, Small Spender

Repost of something I put on Morgan Philpot's site, replying to this story:

There is a lot of myth to the "big spending Obama/big spending Democrats" meme. 
TARP was a holdover from the Bush era, and the funds we loaned out are thankfully mostly being paid back with interest.  Admittedly, it had more support from congressional Democrats than congressional Republicans.

The stimulus bill mostly went to 1) tax cuts designed to garner Republican support (which never came), and 2) shoring up state and local government budgets, so that they wouldn't have to lay off teachers, policemen, firefighters, etc., which would have caused unemployment to skyrocket and worsened the recession.  Only a small fraction was left over for infrastructure investments.  Read Paul Krugman's column, "Hey, Small Spender" for details.

Health Care Reform is a big-ticket item, but as the expensive parts don't kick in until 2014, it has absolutely nothing to do with the current deficit levels.  Also, HCR generates a lot of direct and indirect savings that will offset the costs of the program.  It will reduce Medicare costs, promote efficiency by getting medical records online, and give insurance companies less incentive to develop giant bureaucracies designed to stand between you and your doctor.  According to the CBO estimate (which Republicans consider the gold standard when the numbers work out in their favor) Health Care Reform will knock $130B off the deficit over the next decade, and $1.2T off it in the subsequent decade.

The biggest area of government spending growth hasn't been in new programs, but in expansions of the existing programs that are helping people through these rough economic times:  unemployment insurance, food stamps, Medicaid, etc.  These programs are designed to help people who are in trouble, so it's no surprise that they would go up when more people needed them.  Again, reference Krugman; see his blog from Oct. 16.

On a related note, why is Philpot criticizing Matheson for raising the ceiling on the national debt?  The national debt is a long-term problem that requires a long-term solution.  "Solving" it by just letting it hit the ceiling is like solving the problem of "my car is going the wrong direction" by slamming it into a brick wall.  Consider what would happen to the economy if the government hit a financial crisis where it had to suddenly cut millions of workers from its payroll.  [It would also require a sudden, dramatic scaling back of vital government services that people actually want, like food, water, and occupational safety, education, scientific research, oversight of industry, etc. -B]

I was a soldier training at Fort Sam Houston, TX in 1995, when Newt Gingritch and Co. shut down the government in order to try and get Clinton to agree to spending cuts in Medicare.  One day I woke up, took my weekly stroll out to the base library, and found the doors locked.  At that point, I was a hard-core Rush Limbaugh fan.  But Newt had taken away my books.  The books I was using to make myself a smarter, better-informed citizen and soldier.  I would gladly have agreed to a massive tax increase to get my books back.  :)

That anecdote represents one of the least-consequential aspects of a government shutdown, the sort of shutdown that candidate Philpot is demanding when he criticizes Matheson for raising the ceiling on the debt.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

LDS Apostle Boyd K. Packer battles the pink menace

I try to stay away from "Mormon stuff" these days.  But sometimes the temptation is just too much. Sometimes I hear that siren song, that sexy, gravelly voice beckoning from over that distant pulpit, saying things that are so hurtful, so distant from human decency, that unnatural desires swell within me, and I have to... blog the living daylights out of some old geezer.

In about a half hour, there is a protest near Temple Square in reaction to some things Boyd Packer said during General Conference last week.   A bunch of my friends are attending, and I'm with them in spirit if not in person.  I think that a protest is just what this situation calls for.  Why?  Because when tens of millions of people all over the world -- including by my estimation about 5600* gay LDS teens -- look to you for spiritual and moral guidance, you sort of have a responsibility to not damage them.

When you elevate a few abstract principles, such as "God will not tempt you more than you can bear," or "the Church does not change its moral positions" above the experiences of those who struggle valiantly to be true to themselves and also to the Church, you cause them agony.  Because you have never had to try and deny some fundamental part of yourself to be a part of your faith, you assume that it must be easy.  The lack of empathy and imagination, coming from someone I myself once revered as a spiritual leader, is saddening (if not surprising).

There is hope on the horizon.  Young Latter-day Saints views on homosexuality are, if not exactly progressive, then at least nuanced.  I know a handful who are even accepting of the idea of gay marriage.  They see that those who want to commit their lives to each other should be allowed to do so, and that laws that separate people from those they care about most are inhumane.

So my message to the young LDS people, gay or straight, who listened to Packer's speech and found themselves concerned is this:  Despite Packer's claims, the Mormon Church changes.  Not quickly, not painlessly, not without struggle and courage.  But one day the leaders wake up and find the ground beneath their feet has moved.  They find that their membership expects that blacks will be granted the priesthood soon, that women no longer expect to submit to their husbands or sacrifice their careers for their children, that the survivalist mentality they brought across the plains has been replaced by more cosmopolitan aspirations, and that most of their members were actually relieved to set aside the practice of polygamy.

The Church has long been the master of changing its mind and then pretending that the new way is the way it was always intended to be.  Just ask any bishop being confronted with an angrily highlighted copy of the Journal of Discourses: sometimes, even across the pulpit, LDS leaders speak their own opinions, not those of God.

I believe -- no, I am convinced -- that what he said last week has nothing of the inspiration of God, and everything of the cranky griping of an old man who doesn't understand the world anymore, and therefore thinks it's all going to hell.  I'm also willing to bet that, before I see my 70th birthday, the Mormons will be sealing men to other men and women to other women "for time and all eternity," and the words of President Packer will be viewed as an odd relic of an earlier, more barbaric time in Church history.

Full transcript (stolen from here):

We raise an alarm and warn members of the Church to wake up and understand what’s going on. Parents be alert, ever watchful, that this wickedness might threaten your family circle. We teach a standard of moral conduct that will protect us from Satan’s many substitutes and counterfeits for marriage. We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the Gospel must be wrong. In the Book of Mormon we learn that “wickedness never was happiness.” Some suppose that they were “pre-set” and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and the unnatural. Not so. Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, He is our Father.

Paul promised, “God will not suffer you to be tempted above what ye are able, but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” You can if you will, break the habits and conquer the addiction and come away from that which is not worthy of any member of the church. As Alma cautioned, we must “watch and pray continually.” Isaiah warned, “Wo unto them that call evil good and good evil, that put darkness for light and light for darkness, that put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

Years ago, I visited a school in Albuquerque. The teacher told me about a youngster who brought a kitten to class. As you can imagine, that disrupted everything. She had him hold up the kitten in front of the children. It went well until one of the children asked, “Is it a boy kitty or a girl kitty?” Not wanting to get into that lesson, the teacher said, “It doesn’t matter, it’s just a kitty.” But they persisted. Finally one boy raised his hand and said, “I know how you can tell.” Resigned to face it, the teacher said, “How can you tell?” And the student answered, “You can vote on it.”

You may laugh at the story. But, if we’re not alert, there are those today who not only tolerate but advocate voting to change lives that would legalize immorality. As if a vote would somehow alter the designs of God’s laws of nature. A law against nature would be impossible to enforce. For instance, what good would the law against – a vote against – the law of gravity do?

There are both moral and physical laws irrevocably decreed in Heaven before the foundation of the world that cannot be changed. History demonstrates over and over again that moral standards cannot be changed by battle and cannot be changed by ballot. To legalize that which is basically wrong or evil will not prevent the pain and penalties that will follow as surely as night follows day.

Regardless of the opposition, we are determined to stay on course. We will hold to the principles and laws and ordinances of the Gospel. If they are misunderstood, either innocently or willfully, so be it. We cannot change, we will not change the moral standards. We quickly lose our way when we disobey the laws of God.

* Oh, fine. 14,000,000 Mormons, 20% activity rate, 10% of which are teens, and (lowballing it) 5% of those are gay, and 40% of those were watching Conference. The math is very rough.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Reaganomics punches me in the face

So I got beat up by a biker gang last night. Granted, the "beat up" was limited to two punches to the face, and the "biker gang" was really just two guys on motorcycles. Hell, one of them was just standing there ready to back his friend up. But I'm tired, my jaw hurts, and I feel I'm entitled to a bit of artistic license here.

The facts were these: I was on my bike, when two guys came the opposite direction, zipping down the Jordan River Parkway on motorcycles (illegal) with their headlights off (illegal and stupid). I yelled at them. They turned around and came back after me. One rolled up next to me as I pedaled. A conversation ensued, the most eloquent snippets being, "What the hell are you doing?" and "You don't know me!" The conversation concluded with him sideswiping my bike, me grabbing onto him, and both of us tumbling to the ground.

I got up, ready for a fight. He punched me in the face, and I no longer wanted to fight. He punched me again, and I no longer wanted to stand up. He asked me if I wanted any more. I did not. Satisfied that his point had been made, he and his friend took off, leaving me to limp home.

Like I said, my jaw still hurts, and my lower teeth feel a bit wrong. But my pride is more wounded than anything. I've always wondered how I'd do in a fight. This may be the Universe trying to tell me to embrace pacifism.

I joke now. I've got the safety of distance, and the big picture realization that I was facing a couple of kids trying to blow off steam, not hardened, merciless slayers of men. But I remember the thought that went through my head right after the second punch landed. "So, this is how I die. God, I'm an idiot." That was some scary, scary stuff, and while I'm still a bit angry, I'm grateful as hell to them for not taking it further than they did.

They say a conservative is just a liberal who got mugged. I'll admit that, comparatively puny as this experience was, I can feel the urge to rescind my trust in the general goodwill of humankind. Part of me wants to embrace the idea that there are people like me and there are people who are not like me, and that the proper role of society is to protect the former from the latter. But I'm not giving up on society. I'm not even giving up on the guy who attacked me. He's right: I don't know him.

Why do I blame Reaganomics? If you remember my post on The Spirit Level, societies with greater income inequality have higher murder rates. That correlation is clear and powerful. Less extreme forms of violence are more difficult to compare, simply because there is more variation in reporting and measurement. But I strongly suspect that if those things could be properly controlled, a correlation would pop out there as well.

So, Reaganomics basically says that people are on their own. Government won't protect them from the hard times, or help you when you're down. It won't tell your employer that they have to pay you more.

If you're rich, though, Reaganomics will do whatever it can to help you. It will keep taxes low and regulations light. You owe nothing to society beyond that which you freely choose to give back.

Reaganomics isn't heartless. It's distrustful of government, and it believes that huge income gaps are both a natural result of a free market and an incentive for hard work and innovation. It's also deaf to pleas of class envy, because hey, it's only your own sorry ass keeping you from achieving whatever level of success you covet. Right?

But the downsides of this plan are enormous. People struggle more. They fear losing what they've won. People feel alienated, hopeless, dissatisfied, and angry. The marks of societal rank become more apparent, and worse they begin serving as a mark of personal worth. The social cohesion that allows members of society to accept and trust one another begins to fray.

The Spirit Level mentioned a plausible mechanism, a sort of evolutionary context that links violence and alienation. When a person -- especially a young male -- is on the outskirts of society, with little hope of getting back in, reckless behavior can create reproductive opportunities that quiet resignation never would.

It rings true. If you have a lot to lose, you don't go picking fights with anyone who cusses you out. In fact, you don't go speeding down a pedestrian/bike path in the dead of night.

Shame and humiliation are powerful social emotions. The Reagonomics people make a huge mistake by pretending that their economic shaming plan can drive only one response: a redoubling of the person's efforts in pursuit of legal, socially responsible economic increase.

I honestly believe that, if America's wealth distribution were as narrow as, say, Finland's, my jaw would feel just fine right now thankyouverymuch. So, soak the rich, raise the minimum wage, and smile at a stranger.

P.S.: Happy Read a Qu'ran Day.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Rough thoughts on unemployment and socialism

[Modified from something I tried to post on 538, but there were technical difficulties.]

The belief that new jobs will always replace old jobs is misguided in many ways.

First, unemployment is much higher than the official figures let on, and the true surplus of non-working, potentially productive people has been rising for decades. People spend more of their lives in college. People spend more of their lives in retirement. We have more people on government disability, more people in prison, more part time workers, and more people leaving the job market entirely.

Those jobs that disappeared didn't all come back.

Second, when you automate all the manual labor jobs out of existence, and replace them with more mentally taxing work, there are going to be millions of people who were perfectly capable of holding the old jobs, who can no longer provide the engines of capitalism with any service it's willing to pay for.

What is the free market answer to their plight?

1) They should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Start your own business! Be dynamic and innovative! Reach for your dreams! Or failing that...

2) Die. Survival of the fittest, you know.

If you don't have a better answer than that, then you cede that capitalism + technological progress can bring great misery and suffering to those made obsolete by technology.

We've reached a point in our technological climb that is somewhat analogous to the situation we have with oil reserves. New reserves of jobs are being found, but the old jobs are being depleted at a much faster rate.

Take the precarious position of my bro. His job at the postal service is to sit in front of a computer all day, looking at pictures of individual pieces of mail, and routing them appropriately. There are thousands of people similarly employed at routing stations across the country.

Or, at least, there were. As the Post Office's handwriting recognition software has improve, the volume of mail that needs manual routing has fallen dramatically, and center after routing center has been closed, their employees released into the wild to make their ways as best they can. Now only two or three centers are left.

Nor is it just repetitive tasks that are being obsoleted. Software development and deployment has gotten easier in a variety of ways, driving down the costs of bringing new ideas to market. A web app that might have taken a team of a hundred people a year to deploy back in 2000 could be done by a team of three people in a couple of months today. Even Facebook (a site with hundreds of millions of active users) only employs about 800 people.*

I'm not sure where the next big "growth industries" are, the ones that are going to absorb all the medical transcriptionists, all the long haul truckers, all the taxi drivers, all the delivery people, all the tech support and customer service representatives, all the janitors, all the airline reservation people, who are going to be made obsolete over the next few decades.

I see the march of technological progress as a good thing. Nobody is asking that we halt the march of technology to save jobs. But unless we find some way to "spread the wealth," to ensure that everyone can have some claim on the products of a highly automated economy, then we really will hit the crisis point that Marx predicted.

A compromise between socialism and capitalism could be forged in several ways. Guaranteed income floor, make-work jobs, wage subsidies, etc. Right wingers will fight all these measures, right up until the moment that their own jobs go on the chopping block. Then they'll see the benefits of "institutionalized theft."

* It would be 400, but they have trouble keeping their employees from goofing off on Facebook.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Would the Founding Fathers join the Tea Party?

Alexander Hamilton: "An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty."

Sounds applicable to our times.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Tim Pawlenty vs. The Bong Monster

Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota and rumored 2012 hopeful, has finally convinced me that it is always, always, always a bad idea to vote for Republicans. Because it turns out that even the ones who can give the appearance of being reasonable, thinking people will quickly disappoint and then horrify you.

So I'm watching his interview on The Daily Show, and John Stewart (for no reason that I was aware of) starts making bong water jokes. I wasn't aware of the backstory on this. But it turns out that, in Minnesota they classify bong water as a controlled substance, so that law enforcement can vastly inflate the charges that they bring against citizens.

In other words, Governor Tim "Common Sense" Pawlenty thinks that a law written to apply to a guy trundling around two pounds of marijuana -- no, officer, that's not my colon -- should equally apply to a guy with one ounce of marijuana and thirty-one ounces that he would have poured down the sink if he ever got around to cleaning out his apartment.

In his "defense", Pawlenty said that the law usually didn't get enforced that way. Instead, law enforcement only uses the law when they need to put someone behind bars. Which should make you feel warm and fuzzy all over if you believe that cops are always fair-minded, objective, uncorruptable, and in possession of certain knowledge of who belongs in jail and who should go free.

For those of us with a firmer grasp on reality, the thought is chilling. In the interview, the governor expressly endorsed a law enforcement practice whereby the police, unable to marshal evidence for the crimes they believe a suspect is in jail for, can levy huge penalties against the suspect for a minor offense, and thereby get the "justice" they feel the suspect deserves.

This would almost be funny, if the practice didn't mean ordinary citizens are rotting in jail on the basis of laws that were meant to deal with large-scale distributors. Pawlenty himself apparently thinks it's a riot. The letter he sent back to the legislature along with his veto was nothing but a one-paragraph setup for a bong water pun.

Friday, May 28, 2010

DIYU v. the skepticism of the commons

My Salon post about the DIYU book got noticed, the author sent me a copy, I reviewed it, and lately I've following the progress of the book through blogville in a not at all creepy or stalkerish way.

In this post, Rortybomb (aka. Mike Konczal) seems to be arguing that "free" educational resources aren't free enough. Until they're rammed down the throat of every man, woman, and child, they will serve only to exacerbate the power inequalities between people.

Okay, that's a grossly distorted characterization of his argument. Read the whole thing. But I think he overstates his case, and offers little in the way of solutions.

Two obvious points come to mind. First, open source textbooks aren't genomic data. They're written in one or more human readable languages, with pictures and whatnot. They're much easier to digest than ATGCCAGTCTCAGATTACATCGATCAAGAABAGTCCC.* Second, even if a piece of data is useful only to a handful of genetics PhDs, that's a far broader access than if it were only useful to the subset of PhDs who happen to work for a specific biotech company.

Which leads to broader point 2b: the only thing that happens when you open source something (like a textbook, or a video lecture) is that certain restrictions that would allow for monopolizing/rent-seeking/whatever-the-cool-kids-in-econ-call-it behavior. Open sourcing isn't magic pixie dust that will usher in the hippie singularity, but I'm not understanding how opening education resources can do anything to make learning less democratic. Really, it's like objecting to a public library in a town where not everyone can read.

I believe the conclusion Rortybomb is drawing from that is that some structure will still be needed to guide the students through the material, to make it accessible. That's true, but it seems like a trivial point. Do people really think that in a DIYU model, five year olds would be handed an iPhone loaded with a hodgepodge of textbooks, reference material, and video, and told to come back when they're ready to enter the job market? Judging by some of the arguments, it seems that way.

The takeaway line seems to confirm this:

Will a self-directed educational goal primarily benefit those with stable homes and the time and capital to cultivate this? Is "DIY U" accessible according to need? This is the framework I think of as I read and explore this work.
So, even under the worst-case scenario, we end up with an education that is nearly as stratified and inaccessible as the one we have today?

I often cite the statistic that, in America, the least academically successful quarter of the children from the wealthiest quarter of families are slightly more likely to graduate from college than the most academically talented quarter of the children from the poorest quarter of families. We also live in the country with the greatest disparity between the performances of the financially best and worst-off students.

The college education we offer now is too expensive, too inflexible, and doesn't fail gracefully when confronted with students whose lives are full of the disruptions and distractions caused by poverty. Some DIY U critics write as though they skipped over the entire Part I of the book -- the part that explains how the system got so screwed up in the first place -- then apply absurd standards of perfection to proposed open education systems.

How will the poor access DIY U? How do they access education now?

Where will the money come from to create all these free textbooks and course materials? Maybe from the tiny sliver of the billions of dollars that students are now paying for overpriced textbooks. It doesn't all have to go back into beer money.

But what will they read them on? Probably an iPad-like device that now costs about as much as a semester worth of books, and will be radically cheaper and more useful in five years.

How will teachers get paid at DIY U? They'll be paid for services rendered, I suppose. Relieved of much of the burden of delivering prepared lectures, creating course materials, and administering tests to assess student progress, they'll have more time to do the sort of one-on-one coaching on areas where the students need the most help. There will always be structures designed to connect those who want to teach with those who want to learn. An educated citizenry is a clear public good, and much of today's education spending is wasted. If this radical transformation requires a bit of government spending or some money from students to get the incentives right, I think it will happen.

I do worry that the open education movement might inadvertently reduce the size of what you might call "the academic class." But given that the demand for education currently outstrips the supply, I'm betting that there will be jobs aplenty for the foreseeable future.

* I'm pretty sure that string is in my genetic makeup somewhere, and that it will kill me before I turn fifty. The 'B' has me especially worried.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

During World War I and World War II, Great Britain was threatened with extinction. Enemies hounded its shores, its people lived in a state of material deprivation, and the nation mourned daily the loss of friends and family who died on the front lines.

Under such conditions, what would you imagine happened to the health and life expectancy of the non-combat population?

A) Health and life expectancy worsened.

B) Health and life expectancy improved.

Obviously, we would expect the answer to be A, but since that would be unsurprising and uninteresting, the answer is of course B. According to the excellent new book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger*, the British society of that era had several characteristics that led to greater health and longer lives (with lower crime rates, too):

  • Full employment.
  • An erosion of class distinctions and class consciousness.
  • Greater social cohesion.
  • Narrowed income inequality, caused by a fall in middle class wages and a rise in working class wages.

Some of you, having read this far, may be asking themselves, "Are the authors saying that we should have more wars?" or "Are the authors advocating Communism?"

Yes. Yes they are. That is exactly what the authors are saying. Now please go away. The grownups are trying to have a chat.

In The Spirit Level, the authors collect evidence that countries with narrower income inequality show remarkably good results in a number of social metrics:

  • Longer life expectancy
  • Better health at all ages
  • Reduced infant mortality
  • Higher educational achievement
  • Lower homicide rates
  • Lower rates of petty crime
  • Lower teen pregnancy rates
  • Lower incarceration rates
  • Higher rates of social mobility
  • Lower rates of illegal drug use
  • Lower rates of homelessness

A few caveats and details: The authors are making comparisons only between relatively wealthy, industrialized societies. Think U.S. vs. U.K. or Norway or Japan, not U.S. vs. Cuba** or Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. Among the poorest countries, the best predictor of how well a country is doing is (unsurprisingly) median income. Among the wealthy countries studied, median income predicts almost nothing.

The authors also present their evidence in such a way that it becomes immune to the standard right-wing counterattacks that afflict most comparisons between countries. Usually, if you say something like, "The United States has the same infant mortality rate as Cuba," you could expect a cleaver critic to try to undermine the comparison by citing some difference in how the data is collected and reported, while a slow critic would just say, "But we don't want to be Cuba."

But the authors rarely compare two countries. Instead, what they do -- repeatedly, and to great effect -- is plot the countries on a chart with two axes, with the y-axis showing some rate of some metric of social well-being (obesity, drug use, life expectancy, etc.) and the x-axis showing that country's level of income inequality***, then show the trendline that best fits the data (if such a trend is statistically significant).

So if you don't like the way Italy collects its teen pregnancy stats, or think France's life expectancy is some artifact of their diet, throw both points out. The trendline remains.

They also make all the same comparisons between the fifty states of the U.S., and invariably find the same correlations between income inequality and societal outcomes. "Icelanders just eat more fish" does nothing to explain why Texas has a longer life expectancy than Kentucky, but a shorter life expectancy than Utah.(*4)

That's the beauty of statistical analysis: when you have twenty or fifty points all helping to paint the same picture, the individual quirks of given states and population tend to get averaged out.

A challenge to right-wing orthodoxy

The results really are counterintuitive, and I think they represent a serious challenge to the whole right-wing, laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog orthodoxy. Here is just one example:

Imagine two relatively wealthy, industrialized societies. In society A, the price for not getting a good education is a life of poverty and shame. In society B, there is little market incentive not to squander your education, because the government provides generous welfare and unemployment benefits.

In Society A, the wealthiest people (those in the top 20%) make about ten times as much as the poorest people (those in the bottom 20%) do, so the rewards for being ambitious and doing well in school are huge. In Society B, the same comparison shows the wealthiest members of society only make about four times what the poorest do, so there is markedly less financial incentive to do well in school.

In Society A, polls of high school students show that almost all of them want to attend college. In Society B, a large fraction of the students say that they'd be happy with trade school. Thus, you would expect students in Society A to be more motivated to excel in their college preparatory work.

No surprise, Society A is the U.S., Society B is Finland, and despite what a social darwinist right winger would say are strong disincentives against performing well in school -- no chance at great wealth if you succeed, no risk of poverty if you fail -- Finnish kids outperform American kids by a wide margin. An interesting feature of this gap is that it is narrower when comparing the children of our wealthiest to the children of their wealthiest, and widens steadily as we go down the socioeconomic ladders.

It's almost as though giving kids security about their future and their place in society leads to a more conducive learning environment. But no, that's crazy.

One other example: while highly-paid sports teams win more games than low-paid sports teams, those teams with big gaps between their best-paid and worst-paid players tend to win fewer games than would be predicted by aggregate salary.


I hope you're convinced now that these correlations exist. But if they're so compelling, what causes them? I accept the explanations provided by the authors, which can be boiled down to this: we are status-obsessed monkey people who get stressed and freak out when we don't feel accepted within the social order.

This makes all kinds of evolutionary sense. In the world that molded our monkey brains, there was no more important resource -- or more pressing danger -- than the monkeys around you. If you were an accepted part of the tribe, you could expect a share of their food, protection from outside threats, and opportunities to procreate. If you were not a part of the tribe, you might be beaten, driven away from sources of food and water, or killed outright. The ability to read the social landscape, to know who was allied with who, who might be expected to return altruistic gestures, and how to keep yourself in the good graces of the tribe, were critical skills, and those who excelled at them got vast evolutionary rewards.

It's no wonder that so much of our conversation revolves around who likes who, who is fighting with who, who just broke up and why, ad nauseam. It's also no wonder that politicians spend their careers promising to do things that will increase your opportunity to improve your social status (jobs programs, homebuyer incentives, assistance with student loans, etc.) or promising to protect us from those who would reduce our social status (welfare recipients, illegal immigrants, big business) or demonizing those who seem to give their base inadequate respect (East-coast liberal elites, academics, fundamentalists of all stripes).

Studies in animals show that moving an ape from a population where he is the alpha male to a population where he is the... omega male? What do they call the animal at the bottom of the totem pole? Anyhow, moving to the other population will dramatically raise his cortisol levels, meaning that he is under stress, which has strong life-shortening, mood-altering consequences.

All this indicates that humans don't generally do well at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy.

So now what?

In light of this, what sort of policies should we be pursuing? Here are a few suggestions.

Treat conspicuous consumption as pollution. Like pollution, ostentatious displays of wealth have negative effects on those downstream.

Treat marketing as pollution. The most effective advertisements are often the ones that target your sense of social status. Your teeth are unacceptably yellowed. Your flabbiness tells others that you are lazy, and causes them to find you unattractive. What does your car say about you? A certification in the hot new field of penitentiary services is a ticket to a better life. You need makeup. Now you need better makeup. Your hair color doesn't "pop". Your acne repulses even your best friends. Your Mac tells people that you are a creative person who recognizes quality craftsmanship(*5).

There is something immoral about attacking peoples' insecurities in order to make a buck. But in the United States it is not only perfectly legal, it's tax deductible. Advertising -- even excessive, Nike-scale advertising -- is treated as a business expense. We're effectively paying Pepsi thirty cents for every dollar they spend blighting the landscape with billboards. Advertising works by trying to make people unhappy enough about themselves to buy a product, and the negative influence of advertising needs to be confronted.

We need more equal outcomes, not just more equal opportunity. The more unequal a society is, the harder a sell this one becomes. If you're already extremely conscious of social status, you're already primed to fear that such measures may reduce your ability to improve or maintain your own status. The Right will take advantage of that.

But facts are stubborn things. It's easy to speak glowingly about living in a meritocratic, equal-opportunity, colorblind society where hard work is rewarded with great wealth. It's much harder to do so while simultaneously explaining why generational wealth and poverty persist in such a paradise of opportunity, or why the United States ranks lower in many measures of social mobility than the supposedly crippled economies of Europe.

It's easy and cheap to shame the poor into believing they are wholly responsible for their lot in life. But those who want to do so are trying to lower the bar by which we judge policy; rather than demanding that policies demonstrate good outcomes based on hard numbers, they want us to be satisfied with a notion of equality that can be endlessly redefined to suit their agenda.

Attack inequality directly with greater educational funding for the poor, higher minimum wages, more generous unemployment benefits, universal health care, high taxes on excessive concentrations of private wealth, caps on CEO pay, and other measures. Replace the income and social security taxes of most Americans with a carbon tax (while expanding the EITC to fight the somewhat regressive nature of a carbon tax). Research ways to make education more affordable, effective, and accessible.

If the authors are correct, doing this will not only reduce poverty, but slim our waistlines, increase our life expectancy, reduce crime rates, and cause a whole host of other social goods.

Will it work? I think it's worth a try.

* The subtitle of the UK version was, "Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better."

** Though Cuba does have some notable features which are discussed in the book. For example, it manages to have a life expectancy on par with the United States despite living in what we would consider extreme poverty. Also, it has the highest U.N. Human Development Index rating of any country which has what the World Wildlife Fund calls "a sustainable ecological footprint."

*** I believe they use the Gini coefficient, but they claim that the specific measurement used doesn't make any difference to their findings.

**** Note that we're discussing statistically significant trends in noisy data, not perfectly linear correlations where a certain amount of increase in inequality always results in a proportional increase or decrease in obesity or life expectancy. For example, New York ranks #1 in income inequality, and it's not even a close contest. Yet it has nearly the same life expectancy of Utah (the second most equal state), and a way higher life expectancy than Arkansas.

While the authors never explicitly mention it, my impression of the many, many charts is that classic "blue states" (states with strong commitment to social welfare, that traditionally vote Democratic, like California, New York, Massachusetts, and Hawaii) tend to overperform the trendline. That is to say, they seem to do better than you would expect just by looking at inequality in isolation. Southern red states seem to underperform, though Utah seems to overperform somewhat.

I'll hazard a guess about Utah: it's the Church. We have to get our sense of social unity and equality from somewhere, and for a big chunk of the Utah population, membership in the Church provides that. I saw it as a member; no matter who you were, what you did for a living, or what marks of social status you had or lacked, as long as you were an active member you had a clear path to social acceptability.

***** Written on a Mac.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Repost: I guess the future of a Master of the Universe

Specifically, the future of this guy. The missive is truly vile, and whether it was written by an actual trader or someone trying to embarrass traders, I think it comes close to the way a lot of Wall Streeters actually think of themselves. So I think he gets off easy in my version of events.


Nor do I expect "Wall Street" to maintain his vaunted work ethic when he's earning $10-$50/hr for his efforts, and not $200-$500.

Here's how I think it might play out.

He loses his job. The collapse of Wall Street makes it impossible to find another trading position. He never set much money away because, hey, there was more where that came from, right? His girlfriend dumps him when she realizes that, without his money, he's just a kinda short, pudgy guy with a hairline that's already starting to recede.

Broken and humiliated, he moves back to his home town. He even has to live with his parents for three months while he job hunts. Finally, he manages to find a teaching position.

He soon realizes that his herculean efforts won't be rewarded with sportscars, coke-fueled orgies, or the bragging rights that come from being among the best-compensated workers in America. He figures out that he's not God's gift to the teaching profession, that try as he might he can't actually teach kids better than the middle-aged woman one classroom over. He notices that wiping the noses of third graders doesn't give him the same surge of adrenaline that he once got placing million dollar bets with other peoples' money. It dawns on him that he can't teach the kids twice as much by pounding a Red Bull and talking twice as fast. In fact, he doesn't even like his new job; most days, he'd be happy to quit, and would happily take a pay cut to be back at Goldman Sachs.

He starts thinking about how it's time to start writing that novel or taking a vacation to Europe. He notices that he has time to date. He takes up that sketching hobby that he dropped after high school, and realizes that hey, he's still got it.

He meets a girl. She's unambitious and her specialty is French literature, not corporate mergers. She's nothing like his last girlfriend, which he finds oddly refreshing. One thing leads to another. Finally, despite her misgivings, she moves in with him, and her little dog too. He thought he'd hate the dog, but soon finds out that he enjoys long walks and that "I want to be you" look that the dog gives him from time to time, the same look the waiters at those high class restaurants used to give him.

The girl drags him off to Burning Man. Amid the dust and the fire, he breaks down. The life he has been missing all these years is gone, and the new life he's stumbled into is more beautiful and more perfect than his old, unworthy ambitions deserved. He says to hell with it: he likes who he is now, and doesn't care what his old self or his old trading buddies would think.

He asks his girlfriend to marry him.

She says yes.

He's no longer a Master of the Universe. He's barely master of an unruly mob of third graders. But he's no longer consumed by the arrogance or the ambition that once caused him to write that embarrassing e-mail, so he no longer needs to be a Master. He just needs to be.

Wall Street has a uniquely unhealthy culture where money matters more than people and you're only as good as your next trade. I suspect that most of the Wall Streeters are ruthless bastards because on Wall Street, being a ruthless bastard is a mark of honor. They see themselves as the real driving force behind America's prosperity because, hey, most everyone does; everyone wants to feel like their work is important, and Wall Street Traders are no exception. They see the poor as either parasites or rubes because it's hard to sleep at night if you believe deep down that you're bilking unwary grandmothers of their pensions.

Besides, Atlas Shrugged is probably the only fiction the author has read since he got his job, and that only because everyone around him was telling him how awesome it was.

The point is, we're naturally egotistical, rationalizing creatures, and never more so than when that ego is being fueled by million dollar bonuses. It's easy to see how someone under the influence could look at their paychecks and see evidence of their innate moral worth, rather than the good fortune of having one particularly well-remunerated skillset.

Mister "We Are Wall Street," if you ever read this, I don't judge you harshly. That rant was ugly and out-of-touch, but I've written quite a few of those myself, and I know how much fun they are. Your belief that the people below depend upon your largesse, or that we should tremble to compete with you in the job market, says more about you -- or at least the culture of Wall Street -- than it does about the real world. When you decide that you can't handle another year of eighty hour work weeks, and want to try your hand at a simpler life, we welcome you to join us.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Can tweets be copyrighted?

To bring you up to speed: Guy writes numerous particles of funny (funnyons). Other guy yoinks funnyons from a bunch of people, sticks them in a shoddy book. First guy gets indignant.

I'm probably making the mistake by weighing in on this, so let me preface this by pointing out that I'm not saying that anything posted to Twitter is trivial, or that information wants to be free. Nor am I saying that the book publisher behaved appropriately.

I'm not sure whether to agree with Merlin Mann's indignation at not having his permission asked. But I'm certain that he's wrong on a couple of points of copyright law. Example:

Everybody’s stuff—even the so-called “nothings”—are still THEIR stuff. And, any decision about how that stuff gets used—especially commercially—is solely THEIR decision. That’s not negotiable. And, I’m pointing enthusiastically at several hundred years’ worth of post-Magna Carta law on this matter to back me up here.
This is simply wrong, both from a factual and a moral standpoint. First, take the music business. A radio station doesn't have to ask permission to play a track from a CD. Any regime that requires such permission gives too much power to the copyright holder. Instead, the radio station pays licensing fees, fees which are set by statute, not by negotiation with the copyright holder.

There is no system of licensing fees for tweets, but I think the analogy holds: a system that allows for people to make a nugget of thought available to the public, while allowing that person complete control of how that nugget gets used afterward, is not going to be successful or fair to all parties.

[Another responder asked whether Bartlett's Quotations would be practical under such a system. He has a good point.]

Mann also draws analogies between tweettheft and actual theft, with all the troubles attending to such a comparison.

...imagine a “charity” based on pick-pocketing, or a fast-food chain that incorporates around the model of reselling all the hamburgers and corn on the cob they can manage to steal from your backyard grill.
The fact that the victim of the tweettheft still has full use of the pilfered tweets doesn't automatically excuse the thievery, but it does strain the credibility of the analogies. All it does is promote lazy thinking about copyright law and the nature of creative works.

I think that, in order for Twitter to provide the greatest possible value as a service, we cannot think of it as a stream of billions of tiny, individually copyrighted and licensable chunks of creative work. The nature of the service (API-accessible, third-party friendly, publicly visible, RSS-ified to within an inch of its life) is such that treating it so is impractical and constraining.

Twitter also has a culture that matches the ideological stance of the code. Retweeting, republishing, and favoriting are all encouraged. Things said on Twitter are usually treated as public utterances. If you direct a tweet @cnn, there is a small chance that it will get on CNN (clearly a money-making outlet). Maybe the producers ask permission to 'retweet' on national television, but I doubt it. Moreover, I doubt they'd refer to Twitter at all if they had to, though would that really be a bad thing?

The analogy isn't great, since most people who type @cnn are actually hoping to get their thoughts on TV. But the broader point is that, if someone likes a gem they saw on Twitter, and wants to repost it elsewhere -- even in a form where it will make that person money -- there should be a limit to how much effort the person should have to invest in using it. Mann's proscription: "asking permission, negotiating a license, and paying a mutually agreeable fee to the creator," seems excessive to me.

Things get especially dicey when we start asking what constitutes "making money." I think that because in this instance the infraction is in dead-tree format and available for $5.95, it adds a measure of false clarity to what should be a murky question.

What if the 'republishing' is on my website, drawing content from one of Twitter's canonical RSS feeds? Does it make a difference if I'm using my own favorites list or freeloading off of someone else's? Does it matter if I'm monetizing my website directly? Using the site to enhance my professional reputation or to publicize works of mine that are available for pay?

The worst part is, except possibly for getting ad revenue, you can do it all without leaving the confines of itself. If you consider your Twitter feed a part of your online presence, something that makes you money and increases your reputation, then aren't your retweets a form of content theft? Interesting retweets are a big part of the value of @timoreilly's feed, and a big incentive for me to follow him.

I'm not sure I see a bright line between selling a tweet directly, republishing a tweet on an ad-heavy blog, and using it to enhance an online presence from which you derive book sales, contract work, or other monetary gain. Someone might have to explain to me where it lies.

So if the rule for Twitter was, "do as you like, so long as you attribute the source," I think that would be perfectly equitable, and easy to comply with. A rule against commercial use, on the other hand, will lead either to a minefield strewn with limb-severing munitions of arbitrary, or a near total shutdown of the culture that makes Twitter so much fun.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Repost: On the future of education

I'm looking forward to reading DIY U by Anya Kamanetz (the author who brought us Generation Debt), after reading her interview in Salon. The letters section was at times insightful, often rancorous, and sometimes displayed the worst fruits of our current education system. I tried to step in. I figure there are some half-baked ideas in here that might be useful with a bit more time in the oven, so I'm republishing it here.

The broad themes of the letters so far

Techno-utopianism: iTunes U is gonna be great! All Web 3.0, social networked and Twitterfied, with courses straight off YouTube and papers submitted to

Class warfare: Online classes are just going to be one more way for the elites to screw the working class, the way prestigious universities are now.

My job has value dammit! Mostly from cranky academic types who seem to think very poorly of the students they teach.

Kids these days: with their cell phones and their whining and their stupid, piggish faces.

Adults these days: with their lazy teaching and arbitrary grading and ridiculous salaries for telling me stuff that I could just google if I was actually interested.

Techno-dystopianism: Online classes suck. They started sucking in 1998 and will keep right on sucking until the heat death of the universe, and by the way The University of Phoenix is a perfect vacuum of suck.

It sounds like we have all the stakeholders in the room, but we're just talking past each other. I'm going to try to pull an Obama and solve the problem by throwing money at it^W^W^W^W^W^W^W^W set up a common framework for the problem.

Threatened academic types: Your work does have value. But the system you work within is crippled by high costs that make your work inaccessible to many Americans, and -- given the amount of debt racked up in obtaining an education -- downright dangerous to some. We need to find ways to make your knowledge more available and allow your teaching skills to reach more people. I think technology is going to be a big part of the solution.

I doubt that anything can replace the student/teacher interaction, but technology could be used to free up your time, so you can spend it guiding specific students with specific problems.

Until the technology matures, do your students a favor and start looking for free/open source textbooks that are relevant to your classwork. You could save your students a bundle.

Online coursework haters: The online experience is only going to become more and more effective at delivering education. Those who mock the quality of online education today are repeating the mistakes of those who mocked the online shopping experience twelve years ago. Both groups look at the deficiencies of the current experience, and project them into the distant future.

Students: If you expect education to be effortless and entertaining, you're going to be disappointed. The process of rewiring your brain to take advantage of the collective wisdom of ten thousand years of human culture and civilization is an agonizing process. Nor can you expect your degree to magically grant you an exciting, fulfilling job. Life is hard, maybe harder than it ought to be, and moving classes online isn't going to change that.

I believe that 90% of the secret to happiness is learning to manage your own expectations. The other 10% is Super Monkey Ball.

Student haters: Look, we as a society have overpromised and underdelivered the future to the next generation. Grade school teachers have long motivated kids by pretending they were teaching to a room full of future presidents and astronauts. Our consumption-soaked culture has promised everyone a big house, an SUV, and if I'm parsing the subtext of commercials correctly, sex with Beyonce.

That overpromising is especially cruel to people who have drawn the short stick in the great circular firing squad of life. But it keeps people hungry, dissatisfied, and willing to work, and therefore serves our corporate masters well. Okay, starting to ramble back there. The point is, we need to build an education system that can deliver on those promises, and $8500 a semester will not do.

Yes, students need to curb their expectations and be willing to put in hard work. But as educators, you are responsible for ensuring that the education system rewards their best efforts, guides them toward the values and habits that will serve them in their later life, and doesn't cripple them with debt straight out of the gate. Right now, the education system doesn't do any of those things particularly well, and as the people who make education what it is, you need to do some self-reflection.

Class warfarers: I think the diploma-based reputation system of the past will soon be at an end. It was the best we could do with the 18th-century technology at hand. But as The Sacrosanct Sheepskin is replaced with a more nuanced, competency-based reputation system, the value of "prestige" is going to tumble. Who cares about the quality of the instruction a student received, if objective benchmarks show that he can't do what he was taught?

Note: This isn't the first time I've whinged on Salon about education.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"The line of grace now has to be horizontal"

Before Glenn Beck singlehandedly poured gasoline on his career and set it on fire, Van Jones was Obama's Green Jobs Czar.* Now, after being drummed out of the executive branch for the sin of, well, having a past wherein he said and did things, he's moved on. But he gave a very interesting interview to Grist. A couple of paragraphs really jumped out at me:

It used to be, as you went through these stages in your life, you could go to the next town and start over. The only person you were accountable to besides yourself was, if you were a person of faith, God. The line of grace was vertical, between you and your creator. Now, in this age of YouTube and Google, all of us are leaving digital bread crumbs behind of the person we used to be. Anything you do or say, some silly thing you did at a college party if somebody had a cell-phone camera, can be seen by everybody, forever. You can know more than you ever wanted to know about pretty much anybody.

It requires more wisdom of society. The line of grace now has to be horizontal. We have to learn how to forgive each other and extend a certain amount of empathy as we all grow up in front of each other. At some point, there'll be enough people who have had these "gotcha" experiences, and we'll hit a tipping point. We'll have a different level of tolerance. But it's too early. We're still too new to this, we don't have the language, customs, and rituals to be able to handle all this stupid stuff we can learn about each other.

I'm not hopeful about the prospects of developing the language and rituals. When everything you do is etched into ones and zeros, your whole past becomes, well, present. If anyone holds a grudge against another person, they can find plenty of fuel around to feed their discontent. If someone wants to tarnish a reputation, Google will lead them right to whatever they need.

If we cannot forget, are we even capable of forgiving? Maybe forgetting is a critical part of the forgiveness process.

Tired. Need to think on this. Byes.

* Technically a made-up title bestowed on him by the media.

A few health care talking points

Reposted from a Yahoo News comment, in reply to the following:
ATTENTION: Attention, all you progressive, liberal, democrat, "pretend-no-one-has-to-pay-for-anythings!!! Attention all you "the-government-will-make-my-life-better-for-me-so-I-don't-have-to-actually-be-responsible" democrat sheep!!! Try this exercise, PLEASE: STEP 1. Go back to the very beginning of these comments and read each comment and look at the votes on the postings. STEP 2. Do some SIMPLE math (you should not need your congressman to do simple math for you, right?) STEP 3. Realize that THESE very votes here--that are KILLING Obama and progressive comments--are a fore-taste of the votes you will be seeing in the next two election cycles!! RESULT: Bye-bye Democrats!!! Bye Bye One-term President!! READ the numbers and weep--you got SOCIALISM and HEALTH CARE for those who do not work and do not pay into the "system' BUT--and it is a BIG BUT: the government running it will RUIN it very quickly for the POOR and ILLEGALS TOO, AND, best of all, there is no recovery now for GUARANTEEING the dems LOSSES by this vote and government take-over.... Read the votes and WEEP!!!

Here's what I wrote back:
A few points, in no particular order:

* Yahoo is no substitute for a properly sampled, well framed survey of public opinion.

* If any party "pretends no one has to pay for anything", it is the party that A) went to war (twice) without raising the taxes needed to pay for it (twice!), B) passed two mammoth tax cuts without making the spending cuts to match it, and C) passed the highly popular prescription drug benefit without passing any unpopular tax increases to pay for it. A,B,and C were all Republican initiatives.

* Illegal aliens do not qualify for insurance subsidies under Obama's plan.

* In prior years, before Obama stole the idea, the right wing was happy with the idea of having an individual mandate to purchase health insurance. Mitt Romney was a fan (and signed an individual mandate into law as governor of Massachusetts. The American Enterprise Institute (also no haven of socialism) also supported the idea.

* Polls have shown that the better people understand the health care plan, the more likely they are to like it. They have also shown that Massachusetts' Obamacare/Romneycare plan is far more popular now than when it was being passed into law.

* Honestly, the differences between Obama's plan and Romney's plan are small. In other words, only a few years ago, it was considered centrist enough that a Republican governor could put his signature to it. Now, a very similar plan is socialist?

* Prior to the passage of the main bill, most polls showed the country split on health care reform, with about a quarter of the people who opposed it being disappointed that it wasn't more "socialist" (e.g., no public option or single payer). Polling also showed that a great many of the individual elements of the plan had 80% or 90% support. So you insult my intelligence when you pretend that the will of the American people has been thwarted.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The R word

Reposted from a Boing Boing comment

The math and the history makes exact figures difficult, but the idea behind reparations is simple: Because of preferential treatment in the past, one group of people has a position of advantage over another today. Therefore, simply ending the practices that led to the advantage isn't enough.

In pre-Civil War American South, blacks were forced to spend their lives building up the wealth of others, rather than wealth for themselves. After the Civil War, well, same thing.

When the federal government gave away the bulk of the Midwest to homesteaders (and think of the amount of wealth that represents), almost no blacks benefited.

Then, when the government gave millions of WWII vets a free education through the GI Bill, black veterans had a difficult time taking advantage of the gift. The military had been desegregated, but the colleges had not.

So even if we could call ourselves a post-racial society today (we can't), some people would be entering the era of equality as unequals. Poverty is very easy to pass onto one's children, easier than wealth in some ways.

Honestly, I don't believe that formal reparations are the answer. But I think that we as a nation make only token efforts to help poor Americans prosper, or to try to include them in society. If that ever changes, I think the calls for reparations would disappear.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Are Health Savings Accounts the answer?

Indiana governor Mitch Daniels brags in the Wall Street Journal about his state's health savings account program. I'm basically undecided on the issue, but given that there were almost zero criticisms of HSAs in the comments, I just had to be the voice of discontent.

My comment:

It seems to me that health savings accounts are just another way for healthier, wealthier, younger people to partly remove themselves from insurance pools, raising premiums for those who remain. Also, I'm completely unconvinced by Daniels' claim that HSA participants aren't generating their savings in part by going without important medical care.

For those of you claiming that Obama is only skeptical of HSAs because "he loves statism," please read a bit of how HSA opponents actually think. Also, congressional testimony of another skeptic.

Numerous studies indicate that, while consumers who bear a greater proportion of their medical costs use less health services, they are almost as likely to pass on medically necessary procedures as they are on wasteful ones. I'm sure a doctor or nurse would make an outstandingly savvy consumer of health services. The rest of us, not so much.

I do have to congratulate WSJ for having an unusually high-quality comments section. Yes, it's 95% free-marketeers, but they're articulate, and seem to be managing their ODS pretty well.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


"The money powers prey upon the nation in times of peace, and conspire against it in times of adversity. It is more despotic than monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, more selfish than bureaucracy. I see in the near future a crisis that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned. An era of corruption will follow, and the money power will endeavor to prolong it's reign by preying upon the prejudices of the people until the wealth is aggregated into a few hands and the Repubic is destroyed."

- Abraham Lincoln Some guy impersonating Abraham Lincoln

From this we learn 1) that Lincoln was a broody guy, 2) that Republican party today doesn't resemble the Party of Lincoln in the least, and 3) that ours is an endless struggle.

Update: Never mind. The quote is a fraud. I mean, it's a danged good quote, but there is no evidence that it has anything to do with Lincoln.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Notes to Sarah Palin's ghost writer

I wrote a couple of posts replying to Sarah Palin's new Facebook note,
More of the Same, Only More Expensive:

In ten years, "Allowing people to buy insurance across state lines" will effectively mean, "Everybody buys insurance from South Dakota, because they have the weakest regulations on health insurers. It's exactly what happened to the credit card industry, so anyone who thinks this "free market solution" will do anything but make our health care system worse is simply not paying attention.


You link to a poll showing the current Democratic proposals to be unpopular. But you miss three crucial facts:

1) Many individual elements of the health care bill (employer mandates, ban on pre-existing conditions, the insurance exchange) poll *extremely* well. The public option also polls very well.

2) Polling has also shown that, if you give people straightforward, unbiased information (read: NOT Democratic talking points, just a non-partisan description of what the bill does) then the poll numbers improve dramatically.

3) Much of the opposition to the current bill comes *from the left.* Like me, they want to kick insurers to the curb by either giving America a strong public option or (even better) moving to a pure single-payer system.

Update: Apparently, this is the sort of hate speech that gets you a comment ban from Sarah Palin's people. My comments seem to have been deleted, and I'm no longer able to add comments.

Oh well, more time to practice my dolphin calls.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A short thingy on the merits of cap and trade (repost)

Catnlion said:
Climate change, don't you like how they don't call it global warming anymore, people want to use this to put in Cap and Trade, aka Cap and Tax. On the face C&T makes no sense. The point is to lower CO2. So what are we going to do, say you have to quit producing CO2, unless you pay us? Since taxes are a business expense that are passed along to the final customer the polluter is just going to pay the tax, pass the cost along, and keep putting out CO2. How does this cut the amount of CO2?


You seem to be missing some essential features of cap and trade, so I'll try to explain it as well as I can. To illustrate, we'll go with a simplified form of cap and trade. The United States emits a total of 5.7 gigatons of emissions annually. To begin reducing emissions, say we implement a cap at 5.5 gigatons. Then, the government sells 5.5 billion permits, each one granting the holder the right to emit a ton of CO2. If a coal plant can't buy a permit, then it can't emit any CO2.

Within this system, individual actors can continue doing exactly what they've been doing, so long as they buy a permit from somebody, either the government or some private entity that has already purchased one.

But because there are only a limited number of permits, somebody has to reduce their emissions and sell their permits to those who wish to continue emitting. To reiterate: you have to have a permit to emit a ton of CO2, and not enough permits are available to emit as much as we did the prior year.

The companies which choose to sell permits are the ones who can most cost-effectively reduce their emissions, while those which choose to buy the permits are the ones which would find it very expensive to reduce their emissions.

Cap and trade makes great sense, because it doesn't matter at all which molecule of carbon was emitted where or to what end. All that matters is the aggregate amount. If we have to choose between two plans for stopping a gigaton of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, one which costs a trillion dollars, and one which costs six billion dollars, all else being equal we should go with the latter. Cap and trade sets a goal, and lets the market figure out the most cost-effective approaches to meeting the target.

Now, the cap and trade bill before the Senate is more complex, because it also includes unrelated research funding, but more because it has to deal with real-world issues like verifying emission levels and all the other things needed to keep people from gaming the system. But the overall effect is the same: give the market the ability to internalize the costs of greenhouse emissions.

[Originally from the comments section of David Brin's blog at Salon]

Part 3: Drowning the Government in the Bathtub

The last few days -- because I'm bored -- I've been going over UT-3's (a.k.a. Jason "Hundreds of Billions for Defense, But Not One Penny for Pensioners" Chaffetz) "Contract for the American Dream.

Part 1: Pointed out that, back when the "American Dream" of shared economic prosperity was strongest, the government played a strong role in America.

Part 2: Took issue with both the sincerity of the "debt crisis"-mongers and the slash-and-burn approach they want to take to solving it.

Part 3 (current): Continuing onward, starting with the section entitled "Limited Government":

Further, it is not the government that will create jobs, wealth, or propel the United States of America to reach its fullest potential. It is the American people who will drive America forward.

I don't know which irks me more, the profound disrespect shown to the many positive roles government plays in our civic life, the implication that government employees are separate and distinct from "the American people", or the Trebuchet MS font-face it's written in. I mean, why not just mark it up in Comic Sans and be done with it?

Individuals should have the freedom to succeed or fail in this country. It is not the government's role to stand in the way of either outcome or to choose winners and losers.

Had he written that "corporations should have the freedom to succeed or fail," I might be inclined to agree. But that's not what he writes. He's saying government shouldn't help individuals who find themselves on the losing end of life. To describe government as "standing in the way" of a losing outcome is to imply that the outcome is earned, and that there is something morally suspect about preventing the suffering that accompanies losing. He's preaching Social Darwinism, the message that perpetrates so much of the misery and suffering that happens around our country: there is no such thing as systemic injustice, the world is fair, and anyone who is having a rough time of things has -- one way or another -- brought the misery upon him or herself.

Fortunately, not all Americans are as indifferent to suffering as Rep. Chaffetz. We decided, as a nation, to tackle the enormous problem of elderly poverty, by starting a program called Social Security to deliver the same. It has some kinks to work out, and yes, it's expensive. But you can't expect to lift millions of elderly Americans out of poverty on the cheap. The same goes for Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, welfare payments, and a whole host of other problems. As a tax-paying citizen, I'm glad that these programs are there to help people who need it. I want them to be run as efficiently as possible, and I'm eager to see any clever proposals for making them better.

The Contract says that it is in our nature as Americans not to sit around and wait for government to solve our problems. There is some truth to that. But neither is it in our nature to turn a blind eye to the needy and the suffering. I don't believe these two instincts need to be at war, but clearly Mr. Chaffetz wants us all to think that they are.

Jason, if you believe that Americans are a hard-working, ingenious people, ready to tackle challenges, then you should have faith that they can apply that problem-solving ingenuity in the realm of improving government. Instead, you propose that we throw in the towel; declare defeat, pare the entire thing down to the bone, sell big chunks of it off to private enterprises that literally cannot represent the best interests of the American people, and hope that somehow, somewhere, prosperity emerges.

More specifics!

  • Repeal TARP and commit to no more "stimulus" bills that are merely a ruse to grow government.

TARP was mismanaged from the get-go, like pretty much everything else Bush did. Obama at least came in and made it more transparent and increased oversight. Now the money is mostly being repaid, Obama is proposing a tax on the biggest banks to make sure we get the rest of it, and the Democrats are hard at work trying to craft regulations to make sure the financial industry can't wreck the country quite so badly next time. Not surprisingly, Republicans are stonewalling the effort, because despite Alan Greenspan's mea culpa, they can't imagine that the free market was capable of footbulleting itself the way it did.

In the mind of the free marketeers, the economic collapse was caused by the Feds forcing banks to give homes to black people. Or something.

The stimulus was separate legislation, though Republicans benefit greatly from public confusion between the stimulus bill (ARRA) and the bank bailout (TARP). My main complaint about the bill was that it was too small, and focused too heavily on tax cuts.

Now that we're through the worst of it, and we're pretty sure the economy is no longer going to tip over if someone exhales, the Republicans can yammer about how the money spent fixing Bush's mess was ill-spent. I'm glad things are going well enough that they have that luxury.

Meanwhile, they're in lockstep opposition to a jobs bill to help put Americans back to work. It was your own fault for losing your jobs, stupid unemployed people.

  • Appoint a bi-partisan "Sunset Commission" to identify at least 100 federal departments or programs recommended for elimination by December 31, 2011.
I'm all in favor of getting rid of programs that are ineffective or harmful. But when you throw out an arbitrary number to be decommissioned by an arbitrary date, you're just grandstanding.

My alternative would be, every three years each program and each department would create a report that basically justified their existence, and outlined any roadblocks they faced in fulfilling their purpose. The reports wouldn't give us all the answers, but it would give everyone in the federal government a chance to hash out which expenditures were important and why.
  • Reduce the corporate income tax to a flat 10%. This will eliminate the wide array of corporate loopholes, incentivize business in the U.S.A., and simplify the tax code.
Fewer taxes for megacorps, less spending on the education, health, and welfare of Americans. I'm starting to sense a theme. At least

  • Reject the "Cap & Trade" scheme and repeal all EPA funding related to carbon policy.

If you read this blog -- and I know both of you do -- then you know that this proposal should generate three or four blog posts in its own right. I'll just start it off by asking, does Mr. Chaffetz propose this because he doesn't believe CO2 emissions are a problem, or because he believes that free markets have the problem well in hand?

I'm guessing the former. Global warming is a textbook case of a serious problem that cannot be addressed by purely free market mechanisms. No wonder the drown government in a bathtub crowd has to keep telling itself that it's a giant hoax; if it's real, it's like the whole planet is telling them that their ideology is crap.

  • Sell back to private ownership the three million acres of federal land identified under the Clinton Administration as having no federal purpose.

I'd need more detail on this one. Just for reference, three million acres is about four times the size of Rhode Island. I would be surprised if Chaffetz were interested in getting maximum value from the sale, even though it would go a long way in getting us out of this manufactured "debt crisis."

I know that I've come across as a staunch defender of all things governmenty these last few posts. I'm really not. I was all over government's case back when Bush was in office, pointing out the litany of bad things government causes. I'm a huge fan of Glenn Greenwald, who is no friend to the Washington establishment.

I'd like to put my government boosterism into context. I think of government and the corporate world as two separate spheres of power with competing goals. Government at its best can act as a check on corporate power and temper capitalism with the bit of humanity it needs to avoid a violent revolution of the proletariat. But in order to do so, it has to be allied with the interests of the people, not the corporations, and it has to have the size and scope to make an actual difference. You lose the first principle, you get fascism. You lose the second, you get Somalia.

I'm on the pro-government bandwagon right now, because the current flare-up of anti-government rhetoric is so blindly, willfully stupid. Just one example: the health care bill represents a grand compromise, bringing insurance to millions of Americans while intruding minimally into our unique employer-based system, and putting us on equal footing with every other industrialized nation (who somehow manage to provide universal coverage at relatively low cost). But if you listened to the tea partiers, they sound like Obama called for the immediate government takeover of the health care industry, then started rounding people up and forcing them through medical school at gunpoint.

Government needs serious reform, but the Tea Party -- and the politicians who court them -- are indiscriminate in their outrage. In their narrow, unthinking view, all government programs are useless (except defense, which we should continue to fund at rates comparable to the spending of the whole rest of the world), all recipients of government aid are unworthy, and all the government ever does is keep free enterprise from solving our problems. That breeds cynicism of the worst sort, which discourages bright and talented people from joining public service, which eventually gives us the crappy, ineffectual government Republicans -- and their corporate masters -- want us to have.