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: (Default)
Warning: possible overgeneralization from my own experiences.

Background: from ages 12-21, I wanted to be a scientist. I left because it turns out science is a spectacularly crappy career, but I still feel some kinship with it.

Opening anecdote: One day in my sociobiology class, our lecturer described a particular experiment demonstrating that people are more friendly towards those who share their name, more so with last than with first, more so still if it's a rare name. The experiment was elegant, required a minimum of effort, and got the undergraduate experimenter published in Nature. For those who don't follow these things: that's roughly equivalent to throwing the winning pitch at the World Series at 17. My friend and I turned to each other and, in unison, mouthed the words "that bitch."

My point is, scientists are competitive. They care about truth and knowledge and expanding human horizons... but they also care that they're the one to do it. It's almost tautological, because while I'm sure there are many excellent scientists who don't care that much, they tend to get scooped. What's worse, there tends to be a particular moment for a particular discovery, and while 99.99999% of human beings are still incapable of finding it, there are still three or four other people with the knowledge, inclination, and equipment, and if any one of them beats you, you might as well be one of the 99.99999%. That was some of the lesson of Quicksilver*: you have all these brilliant minds coming at once and then they waste their time competing with each other and hiding results so the others can't steal them.

This feels like a pretty lonely limb, but I think that's why scientists are so quick to beat down Henrietta Lacks (the woman whose cancer cells went on to be the first and most productive line of cultured human cells). These men* gave their entire lives to something that has minimal financial reward (relative to what else someone with that level of intelligence could do) and is really only prestigious within a small subculture. They did it because they wanted to discover things, wanted to contribute, and wanted the respect of that subculture. They did at the expense of years and years of their lives. Then this woman comes along and contributes about as much to medical science as a nobel prize winner, and she didn't have to sacrifice a damn thing.***

I think researchers try to anonymize and deemphasize the source of their data- the human beings- because they don't want to share the credit. Human instinct is to give the biggest rewards to the person who made the most sacrifice, and giving part of their body feels like a bigger contribution than collating some data, even if the scientist provided the spark of insight and any old human could have donated blood. Knowing this, the scientists dehumanize the donors in an attempt to bring prestige/credit/ownership to themselves.

I'm basing this in part on my own feelings. While listening to the book there's a thread in me saying "why are we paying attention to her? She didn't do anything, she didn't choose anything, she was just in the right place at the right time to have something happen to her?" She has an interesting story, and it's pretty illustrative of a lot of things that were wrong with America at the time and are not as fixed as we like to think, but why is her story more interesting than any of the thousands of other poor black women who went to that same medical clinic? Why should she get remembered and they don't?

And the answer is... because. Because even without bringing metaphysics into it, it is good to cultivate an attitude of respect for people who contribute to things. It's good for the soul to know the web of connections you're living in, and bad to disregard people who made substantive contributions to it. Overruling that voice saying "but she contributed the actual living cells" comes at a real psychic cost.

Okay, that got dramatically less articulate at the end but I've still got a good 2/3 of the book left so maybe I'll figure out some more later.


*This is one reason I don't manage to keep my reading on theme. It's more fun coming up with connections between whichever books arrive at the library together

**The women scientists are likely to be even less happy with her, since they faced many more obstacles than the men.

***I mean, she did die at 30. But it wasn't intentional so it doesn't count.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I'm reading a book, Kidding Ourselves, about creating more equal marriages. The author, Rhona Mahony makes the point that marriages will not be equal until extra-martial options are equal- if divorce leaves women desolate and men well off, women will put more energy into the marriage. One of the things she suggests to produce this is ensuring that women receive child support regardless of when their husbands pay it.* Essentially, she'd have the men pay their child support to the government, and the government pay the child support to their children's mothers regardless of whether the man actually paid.

This idea has a lot of innate appeal. There's a lot of ways to stall on paying child support without going to great effort and without getting in trouble. Men can use this to bargain their ex-wives into accepting lesser child support payments because they need the money now**. And that's before you get into men who are willing to move out of state or work off the books. There's also the fact that instability is more expensive than stability, and the time value of money, that means even if the men eventually do pay, it's worth less when it's delivered late and sporadically. A guaranteed mechanism would prevent this.

But I'm not convinced a government bureaucracy is the solution to anything being too slow and erratic. Could private insurance do the same thing? Assume several companies offer child support insurance: they pay the mother the court mandated $N, and the husband has to pay $N + the insurance premium. I would allow negotiation such that the man could offer the woman more child support in exchange for going without insurance- but since people tend to marry (and sleep with) people their own level of maturity, the men most likely to skip out on child support are most likely to have bred with women inclined to forgo insurance. Do we allow them to change courses mid-stream? That's hardly insurance.

There's also the issue of choosing insurance companies- the payer will want the cheapest one, the recipient will want the one that's easiest to work with. And given how some divorces go, some recipients will choose the most expensive one just to spite their ex. We could make the insurance payments the responsibility of the recipient, with a possible increase in child support to pay for it, but since rates will presumably be higher for payers who are more likely to be delinquent, that will still punish the recipient for the payers irresponsibility.

But I really can't see making insurance, or government mediation, mandatory. The government is slow and disorganized. Had my parents divorced, I know my dad would have been more timely and reliable than any government or private company, because he loves me and my brother and wants us to be taken care of. He's not the only one.

I can't see a lot of bad coming from making these options available. It's possible that the existence of insurance would make people more callous towards recipients who don't get their support, but it's also possible this will free up law enforcement to go after dead beats more vigorously, or even that insurance companies will invest in increasing the enforcement rate.

*I assume she'd be fine with the reverse as well. For ease of discussion I'm going to use men as the example child support payers and women as receivers, because that's 99% of what happens, but everything I say would apply in reverse, or to homosexual couples.

**Newt Gingrich did this to one of his ex-wives, to the point that her church held a fund raising drive to keep her and their children from starving. I'm pretty sure this is not the ex-wife he served with divorce papers the day after her cancer surgery, but I could be wrong.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
So you're allowed to steal bread to feed your starving children. And you're probably even allowed to steal bread to feed yourself. But rarely are "steal bread" and "children starve" your only options. For example, I think we can all agree that if the choices are "steal bread", "children starve" and "spend eight hours in a cubicle for a reasonable wage while your children are well cared for", you're morally obligated to pick door number three. The same would not be be true of "steal bread", "children starve", and "cut off foot in exchange for one loaf of bread". But there's a whole range of intermediate options that aren't so clear cut. What if the only day care available is neglectful? Abusive? What if you need to work 16 hour days to buy everything you need- can you stop after 10 and steal the rest? What if you need 23 hours? What if there's only a 1% chance you'll lose your foot in the work? 10%? Are you obligated to prostitute yourself? If there are two breads of equal nutritional value and your kids prefer the more expensive one, are you allowed to steal that, or must you go for the cheapest possible bread?* Take out a loan? How high must the interest rate be before you're allowed to steal? And that's before we include uncertainty in the model.

Obviously there's a really easy analogy to welfare here, but that's not actually the motivating example. I can't share it for several reasons, but I like to solve the general form of equations anyway. So this is an open call for suggested rules (or rules you think definitely don't apply), and why you think they're good (or bad) rules. Please include as much explanation of your thought process as possible.


To start us off, here are my ideas: you're not obligated to give up capital to get consumable goods (so no cutting off your foot)**, you are obligated to take any choice that's better than the best option of the person you're stealing from, and you are obligated to keep damage to a minimum- so you can steal bread, but you can't break a window to do it unless your kids are actually-that-second-starving, because that's a huge amount of destruction for a small benefit. They're not perfect rules- all jobs have some risk (albeit sometimes really 1st world risks), we as a society have decided to compensate for riskier jobs with more money, and that's not going away. Enough people work as coal miners that I'm prepared to say it's an option you must choose before stealing, but I don't feel good about it. I also have some problems with the way the second rule will tend to punish the better off bakers, which could be damaging in the aggregate, and I consider it necessary rather than sufficient- even if all bakers are fantastically wealthy, if you have the option of a decent job, you're not allowed to steal.

*Technically, bread is nutritionally void and you should really steal an apple, but I went with the classic phrasing.

**I went back and forth on "stealing bread" versus "stealing medicine" as an example. It makes a difference, because bread is a consumable and medicine, arguably, is building capital, which means that forcing someone to cut off a finger to buy medicine is more okay than forcing them to cut off a finger to buy bread, although not necessarily okay enough. There is an additional complicating issue in that bread is sold on a pretty narrow profit margin, while most of the cost of expensive drugs is the intellectual property***, and thus the actual cost inflicted on the drug company is pretty minimal, compared to the benefit you receive.

***Don't have space to get into here, but long story short: I'm fine with drugs having a limited run of being very expensive, in order to incentivize the creation of new drugs.

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May 2014

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