pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
There are a lot of policy proposals, mostly but not exclusively progression, that I find troubling. I agree that the thing they are aimed at is negative, and that if their policy works as proposed it will weaken the effect, but I don't trust it. I either end up criticizing the proposals on libertarian grounds or just expressing a vague sense of unease, neither of which has the slightest effect on proponents.

Affirmative action used to fall into this category, but I now have some more articulate objections. Affirmative action is premised on the idea that the solution to black poverty is for white people to give them things. Not that the jobs are charity, but they're still given at the whim of white people, and ensure that the most rewards go to minorities who are best at assimilating into white middle class protestant culture. I would much rather have funded black entrepreneurs so they could be successful on their own terms. Or maybe just extended the protection of law so that white people didn't burn down their businesses *quite* so often. Or not used eminent domain to tear down black businesses to build housing projects, nominally aimed at helping the poor, and structured bidding so only white firms had a chance.*

Now I can move "fighting inequality" out of the inarticulate-unease/libertarian-sputtering category and into the real reasons category, thanks to Ezra Klein. He suggests that while inequality is bad, unemployment is worse, and we change priorities accordingly. I agree, but that's not impressive because I don't think inequality is bad. I also think most government efforts to increase employment are counterproductive and harmful. But Klein brings up the excellent point that there's at least one thing the government does that actively raises unemployment, and all they would have to do to lower unemployment is stop doing it.

They're not doing it for no reason, of course. They do it in the name of fighting inflation, which is generally considered to be good. But why? And have we ever measured how good low inflation is, relative to the costs of high unemployment? Unemployment makes people really fucking miserable. Moreover, inflation hurts net savers (i.e. wealthy people) and helps net debtors (i.e. poor people). And the closer we run to full employment, the less employers can get away with the soul crushing shit they pull on McJob holders (i.e. poor people). So prioritizing low inflation over high employment benefits the rich at the expense of the poor in every possible way.**

My conspiracy theory? The proposed solution to inequality is usually taxes. Taxes will always be worst for the people with the least flexibility. Flexibility increases with wealth. So in general, taxes will be worse for the rich than the truly wealthy. But there is no dodging inflation. That will hit the wealthy and there is very little they can do about it.***

Inflation also incentives people to invest in high-risk/high-reward ventures (which have a higher likelihood of creating jobs, although also a higher risk of royally fucking up the economy. Tto be fair, that risk will hit the rich harder than the wealthy) as opposed to letting it sit in bonds. It fights entrenched wealth by reducing the value of it, without the nasty side effects of an estate tax. It pushes everyone to keep creating rather than rest on accumulated wealth.

Let me note that as a net saver, I'm advocating against my own interests here. But however bad inflation may be, I think the moral thing right now is to tolerate a bit more of it in exchange for higher employment.



*Source: The Pruit-Igoe Complex

**Note: I'm assuming the alternative to low inflation is higher but *steady* inflation. Hyperinflation and unexpected spikes are still really bad for the economy as a whole.

***I'm not an accountant, I think that overseas investing might be an option, and that would have consequences for the US.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
[reminder: I've been against Obamacare since it was proposed]

I always knew Obama's promise that no one who liked their health insurance would have to change it, that everyone could keep their doctor, was bullshit. It would have been bullshit even if the law didn't expressly forbid some existing forms of insurance, because even if everything was technically legal, Obamacare changed the incentives and people respond to incentives. I knew that what he meant was "we're not instituting the NHS, your choice of doctor will still be between you and your insurance company." Nothing in the law *demanded* providers shrink their networks, but it would be criminally negligent if no one crafting the bill thought of that as a possible thing insurers would do when faced with a demand to provide more care for less money. So yes, Obama either lied or is so profoundly stupid it's amazing we're not giving farm subsidies to water crops with Gatorade.

That said, I think the insistence that Obamacare be a Pareto improvement over the status quo led to a lot of the worst parts of the bill. They reinforced the link between employment and insurance. Let me repeat that: THEY REINFORCED THE LINK BETWEEN INSURANCE AND EMPLOYMENT.



I have just about the shiniest, most employer provided insurance you could have. And I use it. I would definitely suffer financially if the link between employment and insurance was weakened. And I still think it's a travesty they didn't. I can't even use words to describe this, just more My Little Pony gifs



If they had been willing to let some people suffer temporarily, they could have ended up with a much better bill. One that, say, taxed insurance as regular income and thus removed the incentive to pay people in the form of health care, which they then overconsume. Or at least didn't reinforce the link between insurance and employment.

Speaking of employment and insurance and taxes, let's talk about the Cadillac Tax. Rather than, say, tax the cost of the insurance as income, thus weakening the link between employment and insurance, they have this weird excise tax that is higher than the top marginal rate for income tax (although to be fair, not quite the top marginal income tax rate + payroll tax), based on some weird moralism that person A having really amazing insurance is prima facia hurting person B. I had naively assumed that a plan was considered Cadillac because it had a low deductible or co-pay. This turns out to be wrong. It is considered a Cadillac plan if it costs more than a certain amount. Since premiums vary based on demographics, health status, and risk factors like smoking, this is essentially a tax on being high-risk.

Or at least, it should be. Another problem with Obamacare is that it limits the spread between what young people and old people pay, to a ratio far lower than the expected cost for each group. And it bans considering health status entirely. The explicit goal is to have the young and healthy subsidize the old and sick. Government action making one class of people give money to help another is called a tax, except it's going through a private company and is obfuscated by semi-enforcable demands to purchase a product. I hate taxes as much as the next puppy-kicking neocon, but given that we're going to pay them, I would at least like to pay them to the government. Involving a theoretically unlimited number of private companies to collect the tax and distribute the benefits is a gross violation of every reasonable set of principles I can think of.

It's like someone looked around the country and realized that we pay farmersing conglomerates a lot of money to not grow crops, and the return we do get is less and less like real food every year, and trying to fix it by giving the farming conglomerates more money and forcing everyone to pay a portion of their income to their choice of McDonalds, Wendys, or Burger King. And then claiming all the problems are solved because Consumer Choice.

pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Another metaprinciple is "equality." What do you do if you have an opportunity to advance one of your principles, but only for some people? For example, the GI Bill that sent WW2 veterans to college. I haven't thoroughly researched it, but my gut feeling is that was a pretty good idea: it rewarded people for risking themselves in the one war no one has moral qualms about, it was short term economically beneficial by mitigating a post-war recession caused by a sudden glut of labor during a simultaneous demand drop, it was long term economically beneficial by raising the education level of the country at a time when we had a shortage of educated workers.

The G.I. Bill as written was race neutral, but it was implemented by people, and people implemented it in a racist way. Black soldiers were guided/nudged/pushed disproportionately into trade schools, sent to worse trade schools for worse trades than their white equivalents, and disproportionately denied aid entirely. Even if aid distribution had been truly proportionate, you had to be admitted to a school in order to attend, and universities admissions were still quite racist. There are some very good HBCUs, but not enough to absorb so many new students.

So the bill will disproportionately help poor white people over black people. It may well widen the wealth gap as measured in dollars. But the poorer you are, the more utility you get out of each dollar, and poor black people have fewer alternatives than poor white people. Trade school isn't Harvard, but it might still be better than nothing. Tressie Cottom says functionally the same thing about grad school. It might have a terrible average payoff and have an even worse payoff for black students, but it still might be the best option for some black people, at a higher rate than it is the best option for white people.

[Please also read this account of a VA bureaucrat trying to talk a black veteran out of attending a 4 year school he was already admitted to. The counselor couldn't legally say no, but he did everything he could to deny the man his rights. Now read Tressie Cottom's post on how dressing "up" enabled her mother to convince government workers to give her benefits she was entitled to but otherwise would have been denied. ]

So if you're president in 1944, what is the moral thing to do? Is helping some worse than helping none? What about minimum wage laws that exclude primarily-black occupations? Great Depression public works programs that will only hire white workers? A universal health care program that leaves care of the absolute poorest to the states, and states with high numbers of poor POCs are refusing to participate?

[Full disclosure: I opposed the Affordable Care Act act at the time for many reasons, but I have to admit I was against universal health care. Now I see a place for it, but maintain my belief that the ACA was one of the absolute worst implementations that could possibly exist.]
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
There's a category of things I call metaprinciples. It includes things like states rights and libertarianism. There is never a situation involving just these principles, you can only apply them to other principles. For example, in deciding whether to support a federal law on credit card disclosures, you must both decide how you feel about the actual disclosure, how you feel about it being mandated at all, and how you feel about the federal government being the one doing the mandating.

When you have a metaprinciple and a controversial issue, you have two options:

  1. Only invoke the metaprinciple when it gets the answer your primary principle suggests, e.g. "I'm for states rights when they're passing abortion restrictions, but not when the state is allowing Terry Schiavo to be taken off life support." Opponents will accuse you of hypocrisy and the population at large will dismiss the metaprinciple as political noise.
  2. Invoke the metaprinciple even when you find the particular application bad or even abhorrent, e.g. "I want women to receive equal pay for equal work, but don't want a law mandating such". Opponents will accuse you of holding the opposite view on the primary principle (in this case, "you must want not care if women are underpaid" or even "you must think women deserve less").


Of course, that's only for important and controversial issues. If you ever bring up a metaprinciple in regards to a non-controversy, you will be called pedantic and annoying. See this Colber Report clip:

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive



Summary: a woman attempts to poison someone and is convicted under a federal chemical weapons treaty statute. She challenges on 10th amendment grounds and it reaches the Supreme Court (Bond v. United States). Colbert's response "I've always said poisoning was a state's rights issue." Because if you challenge the methods you must oppose the outcome.

I believe that your commitment to metaprinciples is measured by how much violate of your primary principles it will make you tolerate. In what meaningful sense can you be said to value something unless it changes your actions or beliefs? This makes it frustrating for me when proponents of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 accuse opponents of hating women, with no further evidence. It erases the possibility of someone genuinely wanting fair pay and genuinely wanting something else even more.*

Of course, many people are committing choice #1 from above and using a metaprinciple to justify something they wanted to do anyway. You can prove this by looking up their record and finding situations they advocated the opposite, but it's time consuming and much less satisfying.

The other reason metaprinciples are meta is they are often shorthand for primary principles that look unrelated to the question at hand. For example, I think discrimination based on race is morally wrong. But I think private individuals (and thus the companies they own) have an absolute right to choose who they hire and fire, that anti-discrimination laws violate that by making them prove their decisions were just. I worry that this power could be used to for evil, like deny unemployment to anti-government activists, or even allow individual employees to punish their personal enemies.

Of course, the Civil Rights Act and Ledbetter decision suppose the government *does* have that right, they're just arguing over how long it has to enforce it.**

If I say this, and my opponents understand it, we can argue about the second order effects of the laws and come to conclusions about the relative costs and benefits. We might disagree, and I might maintain that the law of unintended consequences means we are likely to underestimate costs, but at least it could be an honest debate.

*In the particular case of the fair pay portion of the Civil Rights Act, that could either be "the federal government has no standing to intervene in private contracts" or the more practical "It is impossible for a jury to evaluate the merits of a wage decision made 50 years ago and I do not believe the documentation costs and uncertainty this law would impose on corporations, some of which will come in the form of reduced risk taking, justifies the benefits for women. I'm worried it may even come back to bite women, Americans with Disabilities Act-style" or even "I want the statute of limitations to extend from last the last paycheck and believe it would be constitutional, but also believe the text of this specific law mandates first paycheck and believe observing the text of laws is important. I support passing the Ledbetter act to change this."


**Although enforcement, and paying for it, falls to the individual. This is one reason I hate these laws: invoking them requires a certain about of social and economic capital, and the more of these people have the less they need the protection. You're imposing a burden on companies to protect themselves from law suits (expensive even if they never lose. Expensive even if a suit is never brought) to give people above a certain critical threshold a tool to get richer, while leaving the truly poor (in money or knowledge or connections) out in the cold. That there are charities that occasionally enable people below the threshold to use the law is great, but insufficient.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
The Hardcore History podcast is another one of those things that makes me mad at my childhood history classes. It is full of context and explanations of why people did things/were driven to do things, not just what they did. With the caveat that I don't know enough history to spot subtle lies, the episodes seem rich and insightful. And the author is just so happy and excited to be talking to me. It's like a really interesting friend wanting to share a really interesting book she just read: you might not have been interested in the topic before, but you are now.

The episode I am listening to now* is most proximately about US-Cuba relations circa the 1890s and the Spanish American war, but in order to talk about that properly has to talk about American identity politics and how they were affected by the closing of the frontier, the state of journalism**, naval warfare, the views of the time on war in general, impact of the business community on foreign policy, the Cuban revolution and Spain's response, some of the factors that drove Spain's response... And I'm only 1/3 of the way through. This is not a short podcast.

Here is what strikes me: as the podcast describes it, President McKinley was being driven by two things: fear that Spain (then a fairly weak power) would transfer Cuba (whose location gave it incredible strategic value in war against the United States) to a power that was an actual threat against us (England and Germany being the biggest concerns), and an abhorrence of war after seeing the devastation of the Civil War first hand. Neither of these are bad motives: the abhorrence of war is obviously more universally moral, but I don't think it's ridiculous for the president of a country to worry about expansionist countries with strong militaries gaining an easy foothold near his country. Earlier in the podcast he talks about the US business/economic interests in Cuba, but does not mention them influencing McKinley directly on this issue (although gold-standard wise he was closely allied with the business community, and business interests were influencing the news coverage that influenced popular opinion).

McKinley desperately did not want to have to choose between going to war or letting
a strong power establish a base in Cuba. So he oriented all his actions around preventing it from coming to that. Most obviously by suggesting a limited independence for Cuba, which he hoped would get the rebels to lay down arms while not leaving Cuba free to ally with other powers, but there was also a general policy of "let's wait and see if this solves itself." The problem is that in the meantime, the Spanish were herding Cuban farmers into camps and leaving them to starve or die of yellow fever (the Reconcentrado policy). To be fair, the rebels had extracted resources at the point of a gun from farmers as well, but nothing on that scale. McKinley's wait-and-see policy left these people to wither and die.

As I see it, the problem was that McKinley applied his moral values to one hypothetical choice, saw it would be a difficult one, and directed his efforts to steering conditions away from ever having to make that choice without applying his values to the choices he made as part of that effort. His abhorrence of war was ultimately born of an abhorrence of suffering, something Spain was causing just fine within McKinley's wait-and-see policy. I think this kind of cognitive dissonance causes a lot of the worst decisions in human history: a decent person, seeing that two of their values may soon come into conflict, compromises those same values in order to avoid that choice. And it's not something you can solve by telling people to buck up and be more moral, because that only makes the aversion stronger.



* Fine, the only episode I've listened to.

** Apparently there is always a new mass media driving people to demand intervention in events they previously would have ignored
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
A while ago I read Farewell To Alms, whose basic thesis was that Europe industrialized before Asia because Europe had worse hygiene. More specifically, Europe had both a higher birth rate and a higher death rate (in part because their atrocious sanitary conditions encouraged disease), and that led to more selection pressure, making Europeans smarter and more industrious than Asians. At the time I thought the book had some serious holes but also some interesting ideas. After reading more history, I increasingly want to withdrawal what praise I gave it. If disease led to economic prosperity, Africa would look like Dubai.

Learning history in school, I vaguely knew that at one point China had been pretty advanced, but then regressed somehow. And it's true, they did suppress a few technologies, like gun powder. But China was the world's superpower for much longer than I appreciated- probably right up until the industrial revolution. Europe went off to other lands in search of precious medals because China would give them spices for them*. And a lot of the civilizations they conquered were pretty advanced themselves, but were crippled by European diseases (so I guess the poor hygiene thing did work out for them after all).

The industrial revolution happened in England because coal was cheap and labor was expensive (why the difference in the cost of labor? I don't know, but I'll bet it's interesting). But more generally: the rules of the game had changed, and the winners under the old rules are never the winners under the new rules. It's true of people, it's true of companies, and it's true of countries. That is because a lot of what looks like genius is actually happening to have your gifts be the right thing for the moment, and happening to bet on the right horse **. Not that success is randomly attaching itself regardless of your skills, but that different skills have radically different values in different contexts. Big tech companies are obsessed with acting like start ups because start ups have the most growth, but that's because we're only looking at the successful ones. Thinking you can predict the next big thing is like thinking you can predict lottery numbers by studying the characteristics of the winners.

America was the winner under the last system. It was never going to be the winner under the next system. I don't know if the system has changed yet, but it seems highly plausible. So many of America's advantages are due to inertia, or network effects, or the tallest pygmy effect, rather than things we do right now. If we lose those, they are not coming back, even if we fix everything.

Breaching the debt ceiling may very well be the thing that catalyzes that loss. And then things will get much, much tougher for us. I'm consoling myself with the idea that this was going to happen eventually, and postponing the inevitable will only make it worse. The best case scenario is we pull at IBM/England, and that involves a much more intimate relationship with reality than the country has had recently.

*source: Debt: the first 5000 years.

**Queen of Versailles is a documentary about a family that made billions of dollars on time share properties, who are spending a small portion of the proceeds on the biggest/most expensive house ever. The business was built on the worst of the pre-crisis banking practices, and is decimated when the banks curtailed that. There were good businesses that went under because the credit markets froze or demand temporarily dropped, but this is not one of those: this corporation's very existence depended on toxic banking. The money dries up, and you watch them make stupider and stupider choices- to keep going with the $100 million house, to refuse to downsize or sell the business. I couldn't get over how someone smart enough to make that much could money be that dumb. The answer is probably that he would have had the same money making model whenever he went into business, and it just happened to be the right model for the moment.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
I have finally found a convincing counterargument to my belief that cash aid is better than in-kind and restricted aid (e.g. public housing and housing vouchers). My belief was based on the following:

  1. Data showing that cash transfers are better at lifting people out of poverty than specific aid.
  2. Intuition that people are generally better at knowing what they need than the government
  3. Intuition that if they don't, they need to learn, and this is how to do it.
  4. A willingness to let mentally competent adults starve for their own bad decisions.
  5. Belief that the government claiming to best know how people should spend their money was inherently paternalistic and poisonous to a healthy citizenry even when it's government provided money.


My goal in anti-poverty intervention is not to eliminate poverty or suffering, but to make sure that an individual's suffering is mostly a result of their own, recent choices, and not bad luck, environmental factors outside their control, other humans, or shitty choices they made when they were 15. Or even mildly poor choices they made a month ago, depending on the cost to do so.

Here are two things I have thought of recently. One, decision fatigue is a thing. There is space to recognize and accommodate that without creating a cycle of dependency. Of course, our current programs often manage to be condescending and induce decision fatigue, so this is no defense of them, but the theory is there.

The second specifically applies to housing, and other consumables requiring extended contracts. Low, and especially high variance, income can easily lead to a poor credit rating. Poor credit makes housing harder to find, lower quality, and more expensive- and justifiably so, since tenants with low credit ratings are more likely to miss payments. You can compensate with a higher deposit, but that doesn't help the poor. A dedicated housing allowance that is paid to the landlord in a timely manner (which the current housing voucher system demonstrably does not do) credibly commits you to paying for housing. That insulates people not only from their own past poor decisions, but from the decisions of other poor people who have created the statistical association between poverty and irregular payment. Stable housing is almost fundamental in establishing a stable life and pulling out of poverty.

I am more and more seeing poverty not as a problem of too-low income, but of unpredictable income. And some sort of minimum income guarantee makes a really credible solution.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
The Lottery (available on Netflix Streaming) is a documentary on Harlem Success Academy, a chain of charter schools in NYC. To state my biases up front: I think charter schools and vouchers are good things. Not because private companies are intrinsically better than the government, but because they are given more opportunities to fail. Failing teachers can be fired, instead of just traded to other schools. Failing principles can be replaced. Failing schools are themselves shut down, at a frequency and speed unheard of for public schools. I believe that over time this will up the quality of charter schools relative to traditional public schools, even if quality for individual schoolsqw is a random walk.

In the specific case of Harlem Success Academy, they seem to be doing good work, in that their students can read and count and students who applied but lost the lottery by and large can't. This is amazing and good for children and I am so glad that HSA exists and is able to rescue some of the children from the wasteland that is poverty stricken public schools.

And yet, when Harlem Success Academy says their goal is for every one of their students to attend college, I cringed. I have spent weeks thinking about this and I think I'm starting to understand why.

First, it's a low bar. There are some shitty schools that will accept absolutely anyone but do nothing for their students, and it's a disservice to children to pretend that these are worth aspiring to.

But assume they restrict themselves to a certain quality bar of college. It's still outsourcing evaluation, and it's evaluating for very specific things. Some of those things are literacy and numeracy, which I'm prepared to acknowledge as blanket good things. But it's also heavily weighted to those who can sit down and shut up. To quote Alex Tabarov: " A big part of the problem is that the United States has paved a single road to knowledge, the road through the classroom. "Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years," we tell the students, "and all will be well." " We tell children it's college or nothing, and those that don't thrive on the college track are left to rot.

On thing Off the Books made abundantly clear is that people in urban ghettos are incredibly creative and entrepreneurial. They're unable to harness that into fully supporting themselves in the manner to which they wish to become accustomed for a variety of reasons, some of which are fixable. What if we taught kids how to scale their hair braiding or unlicensed cab companies into full businesses? * What if we gave them apprenticeships in plumbing and electrical work and the know-how to turn that into a business?

I'm not saying these kids categorically don't deserve to go to college or aren't good enough for it. I'm saying that some of them would be better served by a different goal, just like a lot of white upper class kids. I also see this push for college as symptomatic of a devaluing of critical thinking skills on at least two different levels. And that makes me sad.

Contrast with this TED talk:


In it, Freeman Hrabowski, present of University of Maryland Baltimore County, talks about how he and UMBC worked to decrease the dropout rate of black students in STEM majors, and then applied these same ideas to help other students in other fields. This is a very different problem than working with desperately poor 5 year olds, so I'm not going to pretend you could just plop Hrabowski in and fix everything I dislike about Harlem Success Academy. And he is measuring a lot of his success in # of MD-PHDs produced. And he says a lot of the same things as HSA about working to remove obstacles for students. But he emphasizes how his students succeed on their own terms. He's helping them keep their dreams, not telling them their dreams are shameful and they should adopt these better ones.


*For that matter, what if we fixed tax and licensing laws so this was possible without hiring lawyers? Not the school's issue, but a thing I think would do a lot of good.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Commitment to free speech is measured by tolerance for speech you don't like. Otherwise, you're making a merits based argument. That is why I respect reddit's reluctance to shut down even really vile subreddits, like /r/jailbait (sexual photos of 16 and 17 year olds, culled from the girls' own social media pages) and /r/creepshots (surreptitiously taken photo of adult women in taken in public, including but not limited to upskirts). I don't like these forums existing, but as long a the law protects them, it will protect unpopular things I care about too.

Violentacrez, the founder of /r/jailbait and rescuer of /r/creepshot was recently* outed. And if those were his only crimes, that would make me really uncomfortable, because there are legitimate uses for anonymity, not everyone agrees that they are legitimate, and I want the cultural norm to support anonymity as part of supporting free speech.* But violentacrez did not limit himself to providing immoral jerkoff material: he founded a number of subreddits, including /r/chokeabitch, /r/rapebait, and /r/niggerjailbait, explicitly for the purpose of pissing people off.

This strikes me as different, and not worthy of protection. Deliberately pissing people off is a violation of a social contact. One with fewer consequences than upskirts, but specifically targeted at the same norms that support anonymity. Deliberately pissing people off is the opposite of supporting free exchange of ideas. Moreover, it punctures the argument that you need to protect this ugly speech in order to protect good speech. He can't argue "this doesn't affect anyone else" because that's the goal, and he can't argue "I'm advocating for political change that I would face persecution for" (which, yes, would protect speech by NAMBLA, although of course not actions). He just wants to piss people off.

So that's one violation of the social contract. But there's something more than that. I've played D&D games where the GM would let players decide whether or not their character was killable- some people got attached and found death disruptive, others enjoyed the risk. The one time we had PVP, it was between a killable and unkillable player, and the unkillable player temporarily flipped her kill switch because otherwise it was just unfair. This guy is trying to hurt people without taking damage in return. If he cared about the topic you could "win" by arguing with facts. If he wanted to do his thing without interference he would not deliberately attract attention. But there is no inalienable right sniping.

*relative to when I wrote this, which was months ago.

*For example, gay, kinky, or poly people may wish to be able to look for partners, or advocate for their right to do the same, without their families or jobs finding out. I think this is a legitimate use of anonymity even though it could be trivialized "just sex".
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
My municipality has public (government funded) assistance programs to help people make the balloon payment required to rent an apartment (security deposit/first + last month's rent, etc). As assistance programs go, I'm pretty okay with this one: it's a one time investment that helps people get into long term better, more stable, cheaper living arrangements. It increases mobility and threat of exist from bad situations. I like all those things.

But why is it necessary? At least part of the reason is the insane tenants' rights laws. If it takes three months from missed payment to eviction, landlords will demand three months rent up front. A friend of my is being evicted because he missed a payment. The landlord isn't out any money yet because my friend paid last month's rent when he moved in, but he doesn't want to risk a repeat next month. If they could evict on two day's notice, the economically optimal thing would be to take a more wait and see attitude.

Except those rules didn't come about for no reason. I couldn't move on two days notice, and allowing my landlord to force me to do so would give him an extraordinary amount of power. It becomes trivial to extort people, and it's most effective against the most vulnerable, which is the opposite of how I like my extortion to go.

Full disclosure: I already dislike laws that give tenants substantial lead time before eviction, because 1. they're unfair and 2. they push us towards more professional landlords and fewer individuals renting out spaces, and thus hurt both small time capitalists and renters, to the benefit of large capitalists.

This is a thing I've been thinking about a lot since I read Debt. It makes the point that medieval European peasants tended to be heavily involved on both sides of the free market. A household was extended credit by the miller, but they were themselves extending credit to the cobbler. It kept the system from spiralling into wage slavery* or debt peonage, while still giving useful signals about what things were and weren't wanted. It bears a striking resemblance to the ghetto economics described by Sudhir Venkatesh in Off the Books. I'm hoping that things like lyft and airbnb will move more of us back to that, but as they grow they're running into tax and regulatory obstacles.

And we have those regulations on hotels, and taxis, and restaurants for reasons too. Food poisoning, bed bugs, and kidnappings are real things that I think the government should work against. Regulatory capture makes it worse, but that's a distraction from the fact that every safety regulation disproportionately discourages new and small entrepreneurs.

Third, initially unrelated thing: I've been thinking a lot about parenting lately, and how we tend to emphasize protecting children from dangerous things, or teaching them to protect themselves. Avoiding dangerous situations costs them a lot, both in good things they miss out on, and bad things they would have learned from. If I have kids**, I want to emphasize resilience and recovery from trauma, not avoidance out of fear.

This is relevant because the government's current tact is a lot more like wrapping your kid in bubble wrap, and a lot less like teaching them to stand up and brush themselves off. Speculatively, what if we lessened food safety restrictions but provided free treatment for food poisoning? What if anyone could run a cab but everyone had a panic button that could summon the police immediately? I already think the government should spend infinite money in the War on Bed Bugs because fuck bed bugs it's a public safety issue. New reputation mechanisms are arising that could substitute for the closeness of a medieval village.

Once again I have no closing paragraph, just a bunch of thoughts.


*A phrase I still find ludicrous and diminishing to the horror of genuine slavery, but am now beginning to see what it's getting at.

**A thing I have been feeling more positive about since the hypochlorhydria was treated.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
I'm currently neglecting normal savings in favor of squeezing the last penny into my 401k. I can do this because I can be really sure I will not need that money until I am 65. I have a large cushion, and if anything truly catastrophic happened, my parents would help. I assure you I am extremely motivated not to let this happen, but I can't escape the fact that in case of expensive cancer, I can break that glass. I have friends who make more money than me who cannot do this. They need a larger cushion because not only can their parents not rescue them, they might have to rescue their parents. Or siblings. Or in laws. And come 65 (under current tax codes), even if my friends never actually gave money to their parents and I never actually accepted any from mine, I will have more money than them, because I had the flexibility to put more in my retirement account. And these are people high paying, highly secure jobs.

This strikes me as a flaw in programs like 401ks and Flexible Spending Accounts: they're more useful the more flexible your money, and flexibility is directly tied to wealth. Not even income, but wealth.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I think the commenters at boing boing are accusing wal-mart of free riding, by paying a wage that qualifies its employees for aid. That just seems sort of weird to me. It's predicated on the employees' health being a public good, a thought I find profoundly disturbing. In fact, it creates that same sort of unease when I heard people describing individuals' health as a public good to justify government funded medicine. It's just too close to owing other people your health.

It's also a little frustrating when people justify high taxes on the rich by saying it will be invested in public goods like health care, and then object when the rich actually receive some benefit from it. That just seems unfair to me.

And if you want to argue that Wal-Mart is able to offer lower wages because of that aid... yeah, that's plausible. Libertarians and conservatives have been shouting about that for years, only we/they were using it as an argument against the aid. Don't call me mean for pointing out the rain and then get mad when you get wet.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I am about a third of the way through Empire of the Summer Moon (hat tip: squid314), which is a history/sociology/anthropology of the Comanche Indians, from the time of Spanish contact through around 1900. It is very interesting in ways I so far don't have much to add to, but it does highlight just what is wrong with how American schools teach history.

Like everyone else, I learned history as one thing happening after another. You might have sort sort of causal chain (the classic example being Archduke Ferdinand's assassination leading to WW1), but there's no attempt to understand the system. This tendency to teach isolated facts is why I get actively angry in museums: I feel like I've been handed six pieces out of a 1000 piece puzzle and been told to place them correctly. Even if those are the most interesting pieces, six of them won't show me the larger picture, and with so few pieces "placed correctly" isn't even a meaningful concept. Empire is, more like getting a bunch of pieces from a subset of the puzzle: I may not have the whole thing, but I can at least see how this part works.

Which is useful for all kinds of reasons, some of which are that patterns repeat throughout history but you need to study them in depth at least once in order to recognize them again (ask me about my elves v. orcs theory of the transition from hunter/gatherering to agriculture). The way we teach history is pathologically incapable of providing this. For example, my education was good enough to mention economic uncertainty as a reason for 1930s Germany to turn on the Jews. What I didn't learn until I was 26, and only then because a Jewish friend told me, was that right up until that point Jews were extremely well integrated into German society. Some were more integrated than others and of course there were isolated problems, but their overall position was strikingly similar to, just to pick an example, Jews in America in 2010. Which has some pretty fucking important implications for how Jews, and other currently-embraced minority groups, view and interpret the current situation, and what constitutes an isolated incident versus a portent of terrible things to come.

It's not like history is unique in this. Science education seems to focus way more on teaching specific facts than an understanding of science, much less the scientific method. But we have *got* to do better on this.

Because Empire is focused on the Comanche side of things, it leaves open the question of why European settlers were so willing to move into what was essentially Reaver territory. Which is totally fine: no single book can do all things, especially not at the level of detail I want. And I knew enough history to have some guesses ("too many people in Europe"). But it is interesting that when I discussed this with a friend who knew a lot about European history, he was able to paint a picture of exactly why things were so bad, focusing mainly on the 30 years war. Which I immediately compared to Warhammer 40k ("..the grim nightmare of the far future, where there is only war"), a game I have never even played. And you'll notice my reference point for the raping and torturing done by the Comanches was from a short lived science fiction television show*. And my reaction to reading Nothing to Envy (about North Korea) was "that's post-apocalyptic dystopia bad." Speculative fiction has taught me more patterns than all of my history and humanities education combined. Which I guess is better than not getting those patterns anywhere, but I this is maybe exactly what social studies should have been covering?


*To be fair, the Reavers were almost certainly inspired by the Comanche, at least indirectly
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I'm a huge library user. If you wish to verify this fact, I'm on goodreads under the same username I am here. Otherwise, take my word for it that I probably start two or three books a week (although I don't finish all of them), and being able to do that for free is enormously beneficial to me.

My current locale doesn't do this, but my hometown and college town both charged you for holds and interlibrary transfers. I disliked this, but my dislike came from a general enjoyment of not paying for things. Books are expensive, getting them for free freed up money for hookers and blow, but I couldn't really argue that the county *owed* me free books, or even that my reading Dragon Riders of Pern was a public good.

I did of course realize that these fees, while nominal to me, were genuine obstacles to others. What didn't occur to me until a friend pointed it out is that when you introducing something that was a rounding error to the middle class but significant impediment to the poor, you shift usage of the library towards the middle class and away from the poor (defined in this context as "people for whom 25 cents is a significant impediment to reading, excluding people like my dad who could totally afford it but are extremely cheap"). Which is really the opposite of what you (should) want.

In my ideal, libraries are for the people who genuinely can't afford the books, but with some happy spillover benefit to the middle class in general and me in particular. Helping the poor is the justification for the capital costs, although once those are paid we can look at benefits and revenue from others to justify increasing spending on the margin. Arranging incentives such that the libraries are only used by people who have money means we are essentially subsidizing the middle class, which is all the worse for the fact that some of the money is coming from the poor who are now locked out. Taking money from the poor to subsidize the middle class is not okay.

Luckily my current city doesn't charge for holds or transfers, so I don't have to get super outraged over it. I donate enough money to (I think) cover the marginal cost of my usage, although definitely not the capital costs.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Just watched Orgasm, Inc, a documentary on the creation of the diagnosis Female Sexual Dysfunction and the search for treatment (verdict: decent, but not spectacular). My short thoughts:

  • If 80-something percent of people who can have the diagnosis do have the diagnosis at some point in their lives, it is probably worth reevaluating the concept of what merits the dysfunction label.
  • There was a woman who had new wires put into her spine in order to correct the deficiency of being unable to orgasm from penetration. Goddamnit doctors, you should not be so bad at this.


My longer thought involves the (long term) use of testosterone to treat FSD. Testosterone is a critical chemical in many biological pathways. Using it to treat one very localized problem seems like using a sledgehammer on a fly. On the other hand, testosterone seems like an excellent treatment for low testosterone levels, for which low libido is definitely a symptom. Because of the way medical patents work, there's no financial incentive for a drug company to investigate what a normal testosterone range is, and what symptoms indicate a person would benefit from more testosterone even if their numbers look normal. This seems like an excellent thing for the government to invest in.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
One of the accusations frequently lobbied against organizations like the Pink Ribbon Foundation is that their corporate ties lead them to focus on cure over prevention- in the worst case, partnering with companies and even specific products that contain carcinogens. I kind of feel the same way about government and public health. I've talked before about how ridiculous it is to cover organ transplants for 80 year olds but not dental care for children, but I think it goes even deeper than that. The US government not only allows but subsidizes meat raised on a diet of grain and antibiotics, to the detriment of our health.

I don't think medical companies (or farmers) are evil for wanting to make money. It's what they do, and a lot of good comes out of it. And I don't think people who fight for cures for the specific disease they have, as opposed to general prevention, are evil either. It's human nature to overweight things that affect you.* But left unchecked, these things lead to a highly reactionary approach. Preventing the tragedy of the commons is an excellent use of governmental authority and I'd like to see us get good at that before we start trying to do stuff like decide exactly how much tamoxifen we're willing to buy for an individual 75 year old.

You know, I started this trying to explain that I wanted something else in place of what we're doing, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that this misallocation of energy really is what keeps me from getting behind Obamacare in particular and socialized medicine in general. It's like putting a crown on a tooth needs a root canal: technically some helpful in the short term, but it will need to be torn out before you can fix the real problem. I need to devote more thought to this, but it's entirely possible that if we mastered the fundamentals of not poisoning ourselves, I would not only be okay with socialized medicine, but championing it.

*See: me and dental care.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
My dental surgery was originally scheduled 5 weeks in advance. The pain got worse, they gave me antibiotics. The pain still got worse. It felt like biting tinfoil, which meant whatever it was was interacting directly with the nerve. This would make me nervous if I didn't already have a broken oral nerve. The periodontist agreed to work outside her usual hours to fit me in in a week (three weeks earlier than scheduled). The pain did get better, but it came in waves and I decided I didn't want to reschedule again, so I didn't tell them. The surgery was today.

In many ways, it was the best possible outcome. 30 seconds after cutting (just long enough to clear out the pus), she found aberrations big enough to cause the problem, but no bigger. There was a sliver of broken tooth, presumably left over from my wisdom teeth removal (which was over four years ago), and a lesion that is assumed to be a bacterial cyst unless the biopsy says otherwise.* The lesion was within a few millimeters of the nerve, but not touching it. This is good, because if it was on the nerve my choices would have been nerve damage or never clear the infection.

I don't have good data on this and the doctor was patently uninterested in playing what-if with me, but it certainly seems plausible that the three weeks between the new date and the old would have been enough to grow the cyst all the way to the nerve. I already have nerve damage on one side and it's awful, I don't know what I'd do about both. it's entirely possible the reason this got so bad was that I'm so good at not hearing pain from my mouth that I didn't notice it. I know I didn't report it to the dentist at first because I was too fucking stressed out to deal with it, I just wanted to do the right thing and get my teeth cleaned and I'd deal with the chronic stuff later. If I hadn't gone in for the intensive cleanings, who knows when this would have been caught? So there's two paths that lead to nerve damage.

I think this got treated faster in America than it would have in any other country. As I understand it (and good data is woefully hard to find), countries with national health care operate on a pretty strict queue system, and doctors have no incentive to work extra hours. I assume you can jump the queue if you can prove you have a more serious problem, but because the cyst was soft tissue it didn't show up on an x-ray; the only metric we had was my pain. While my periodontist believed me enough to reschedule the surgery, it was clear that seeing the size of the cyst** caused her to retroactively give my complaints a lot more credence. A queue that can be jumped by claiming more pain won't do it's job, so in an NHS world I probably would have been stuck with my original number, which undoubtedly would have been longer than the 8 weeks between my dentist popping the first (smaller, exterior) cyst and now. Socialized medicine could easily have caused me permanent nerve damage.***

On the other hand, I only got seen and operated on that quickly because I have money. Lots of money. Enough money to see my dentist 16 times a year, to take the first available periodontist appointment without worrying about paying for it, to take the first available surgery slot without worrying about paying for it. More subtly, having and growing up with money makes it easier to have the entitled attitude that led me to tell the periodontist this couldn't wait. When I told (not asked) my boss I needed to move the surgery earlier, but this was better timing for the company anyway, he said "well, it really doesn't matter how the timing affects us, if you need it now you need it now." This exactly the sort of care you can make yourself believe doesn't need to be treated right away, giving the infection time to spread. People die of this.

I prefer a market-based health care system not because our system is working particularly well, but because I believe it has to capability to improve in a way the NHS does not. This ability to change comes at a terrible price, and no matter how much money I donate to dental charities, I'm not the one paying it.



*Me: so is there anything the biopsy could reveal I should be worried about?
doctor: no.
Me: Then why are we doing it?
Doctor: something something best practice

I assume that there is a small but present chance this is something awful, like cancer, and she doesn't want to have to talk to me about it until we have actual data. Which I'm sympathetic to, but I'm also pissed that I was being asked to decide whether this was worth my money and the cost of a false positive while I was under a quarter milligram of a benzoate, massive amounts of whatever local anesthetic they gave me (which does make me feel mentally weird), and the stress of surgery. This was a predictable outcome of the procedure and they should have asked me ahead of time.

**Biggest she'd ever removed. She had to leave behind a plug so the gum tissue wouldn't collapse in on itself, any bigger and it would have required a graft.

***Possible relevant and even more frightening: antibiotics would not have fixed this. My cyst was that huge despite me finishing a course of amoxicillan a week prior.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Headline: Merck halts shipments of key cancer drug to Greece

Me: You mean Greece is no longer buying the drug because it can't afford it?

Source article: " German pharmaceuticals firm Merck KGaA is no longer delivering cancer drug Erbitux to Greek hospitals, a spokesman said on Saturday, the latest sign of how an economic and budget crisis is hurting frontline public services."

Me: ... so is Greece in debt to Merck KGaA and they're refusing to ship more until the account is settled? Are they willing to sell for cash but not credit? Is that a change? Has Greece declared it won't pay more than $x and Merck judged that to be insufficient? If they'll ship to pharmacies but not hospitals, what's the difference between them? Is there a supply shortage? If no, what are they doing with the excess pills and/or capacity?

So clearly, my first reaction is to assume that Merck KGaA, and drug companies in general, do things for reasons. And to implicitly assign blame for the people who will die for lack of the drug to the Greek government, not the corporation who manufacturers it. This is not the universal reaction. The nicest suggestion in the BoingBoing comments was patent infringement. The worst was throat slitting for the board of directors.

We don't have the drug without the research to produce it. Merck did the research (or bought whoever did). Merck did the research in anticipation of profits. We could temporarily boost everyone's utility by selling all drugs at cost, but as the system stands now, there would be no new drugs, because there would be no incentive to make them. This system has flaws, and those flaws kill people, and there are quite possibly better systems out there. But until we actually have such a system in place, dismantling the current one will cause more death than leaving it alone.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I really, really want to play Anno 2070. It's a combination city builder/real time strategy set in Waterworld, and I love all of those things. The reviews are terrific. Unfortunately, it ships with horrible DRM. Not that they advertise that on the box, but it's published by Ubisoft, which is one of the worst publishers for restrictive, dangerous DRM, which I know because I spend about as much time studying the business of video games as I do actually playing them. But, there is hope! An earlier game in the series, Anno 1404/Dawn of Discovery, got even better reviews, and is old enough that it Ubisoft could have taken the malware out of it. 30 minutes of investigation later, I still can't tell if that's true.

It is almost certainly true that the physical disks now ship without DRM, but the physical disks only go up to Windows Vista, and I use 7. Amazon offers the game for download, but it is impossible to determine what DRM it has. Based on the comments, it definitely ships with a less restrictive form than it used to, but there is maybe still some? And it might still create vulnerabilities in my computer? I have no idea. I go to Ubisoft's website to investigate, where I find that Anno 1404 is too old for them to list it in their catalogue, but they do have a Deep Ocean expansion pack for Anno 2070. I'm a sucker for anything set in the deep ocean (fuck you, I loved Deep Blue Sea), so this just made me angrier.

So half an hour later I still don't know if I can safely install a game. I only got that far because I was waiting for my code to compile and I think this is kind of fun. If I had to do this for every game I bought, I'd buy substantially fewer games, which I assume game developers and publishers are against. You might expect me to make an anti-DRM argument from this, but everyone has already heard that. What I want to talk about is what this says about government intervention.

I was discussing libertarianism with a friend recently, and said that whatever the current ideal level of regulation (either through mandatory labeling, or outright banning or mandating certain things) was, the derivative was negative, because the internet made it easier to get the relevant information. She countered with "decision fatigue", and I had to concede the point. Not just because of the risk people will make the wrong decision while tired, but because of the heuristics they'll use instead. Faced with that many decisions, people will default to white lists (which is in fact what I do with Ubi games- I'll only buy them when they're on GOG.com, which is always and forever DRM free). Any new product/company/idea now has to prove that it's worth the investigation costs, which reduces innovation and privileges big companies over smaller ones. I like innovation and most of my policy positions depend on low-friction markets, so this is pretty bad for me. And there you have the libertarian argument for things like food safety regulations and building codes: the trust gained from them is a public good whose worth outweighs the cost.

Now, I think our current set of regulations has gone past the point where they are helpful. Keeping rat shit out of my food is great, I will determine if my beef stew is beefy enough, thank you. And this leaves me with concerns about regulatory agencies, such as "what happens when they solve the rat shit problem? Will they congratulate themselves and sign up for job training services, or will they start making up rules about insufficiently beefy beef stew? And despite being the motivating example, I don't think Congress understands video games enough to usefully regulate them. But clearly regulation has its uses.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I found a very good book on stretching. I started using it on Sunday- and really, "using" is an exaggeration, I've only done a handful of the stretches two or three reps per day, and read the introductory chapter where he explains some of his philosophy and how he discovered it- and by today I was noticeably more relaxed. At least, I think that's what this is. I don't know if I've ever had a muscle be relaxed without the aid of exhaustion, alcohol, or endorphins. I will be talking more about this book, but I'd like to maybe finish it and apply in consistently first, so it will wait. Today's news is that I started taking magnesium again. I've used magnesium before and it helped my flexibility and flexibility-related health problems tremendously. I've been meaning to start taking it again for weeks or possibly even months. I have some sitting on my desk at work. And yet, I never got around to taking it until the problem was already being solved.

There's a well known study in which a group of pink collar workers were given identical information about the health benefits of exercise. The treatment was then given additional information about how and why their jobs (hotel cleaners) counted as exercise. Both groups were tracked on various health and weight related measurements at the start of the study and again 30 days later. Despite neither group receiving any differences in intervention, nor reporting any changes in routine, the treatment group was noticeably improved. Not hugely, and any one number could be dismissed as statistically but not medically significant, except there was no statistically significant change in the control group, and every single measurement improved in the treatment group. Weight, BF%, waist to hip ratio, systolic and dystolic blood pressure. I think using weight to track health is iffy, which is why it's good that the most significant improvements were in systolic blood pressure. A 10 point drop over 30 days is not trivial.

The authors call this the placebo effect. This bugs me because it implies telling the maids they were exercising was a lie, when it was in fact true, and truer than the traditional definition exercise, which is formed around people who have money and sit all day. On the other hand, it's perfectly in line with my definition of the placebo effect, which is basically "human brains are powerful and respond to expectations in ways we don't fully understand". This study was only a month long. It would be very interesting to know if the effects were cumulative over time; even if peace of mind is only good for one 10 point drop in BP, that may allow you to exercise a little bit more, which will build muscle that protects your joints, which lets you work a few more years in less pain...

If it's true that emphasizing the good that people are already doing leads to measurably better indicators, what does shaming them do? It's entirely possible that the ,anti-fat PSAs are ineffective not just because shame never motivates anyone for more than 10 minutes, but because they induce stress that hurts people's health. They may, literally, be killing people. Children. If the fact that these were giving ammo to the already well stocked childhood emotional torture brigade was not enough, the evidence indicates that these campaigns are failing at the only thing they're supposed to achieve. And they're doing it with government money. This has to stop.

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