Saturday, July 4, 2020

Death by Smugness

Just Getting Started

The numbers are going up. To round numbers it's now about 2.5 million cases and 125,000 deaths. So about 5%.

So one in twenty of us who get it are scheduled to die until we have an effective vaccine or a cure. Meanwhile our job isn't just to avoid spreading something, but to avoid spreading something we cannot see and don't know is there.

By nature, we prefer to react to visible threats. As a species we invented science as a kind of superpower to help us with invisible threats, to let us see ahead to coming things that might matter but are beyond our senses. But as individual members of our species, we struggle with accepting the things science tells us.

2.5 million infected. It sounds like a lot. But given how easily transmitted this virus is, and given the sense of extreme urgency to “return to normal” we see played out on the news every day. It could soon enough be 250 million infected and 12 million dead. So with 5% of 2.5 million dying, we may just be getting started.

Invisibility Plays Tricks on Us

The difficulty of fighting something invisible is that you don't know if you are fighting it. You might be. You must convince yourself to behave as if every encounter mattered. Just in case.

And yet the paradox is that you become adept at thinking, "I am good at this. I am daily fighting this thing, and winning. I am an expert." It's a natural feeling. But deadly wrong.

The truth is that every experience might matter. Things we do or things we have previously done might have saved our lives. But then again, maybe not. With an invisible threat, we have no proof that anything we have done is working. The virus might simply not have reached us yet. It might be we haven't yet faced it.

It's tedious to keep taking precautions. But, unlike us, the virus is not bored with how things are going. It's patiently looking for a way in. We mustn't give it that opening.

The Avoidable Danger

Yes, some people are being stupid, and that will cost. Maybe they will get sick or die. Maybe nothing will happen directly to them but they will pass things on to others. There is probably nothing we can do to keep people who are bent on doing stupid things from actually doing them. It's not a perfect world.

But some of us are trying to do the right thing, and even we can get tricked because invisibility is hard to reason about. That is the danger I see. That is the avoidable danger. We have to make sure we're thinking right.

We've been doing this awhile now, and our urge is to declare ourselves experts. We think we've seen it. We think we're good at it. We think we can streamline it. A few people go back to work, and no one has died, so we figure we're doing it right and maybe a few more can come back. That's faulty reasoning.

We can take a test, but as soon we're out of the room where we took it, we're contacting things again. We do not go through the day with an aura of testedness protecting us. We can contract the virus on the doorknob as we leave the testing room.

The one thing we know, as there are more cases, is that there will be more chances to find out that what we are doing is insufficient. But we do not know if we are being daily stressed and our defenses are good, or if we're just lucky our neighbors have been careful, and so the virus hasn't reached us at all.

A Deadly, Paradoxical Conclusion

With more and more virus out there, we're tempted to conclude we are surviving more and more onslaught. But we cannot know. For now there is only one thing to do: Be relentlessly safe.

No, let me put that in even stronger terms. Be more safe. Don't think yourself practiced. Think of yourself as still new, still learning, still all too able to make mistakes if you fail to pay attention. Rather than try to streamline what you're doing, find ways to bolster your protections, because what you're doing so far may not be enough as numbers rise and the invisible enemy is ever more likely to be really making contact.

Some of the risk can't be avoided. The existence of people too lazy or indifferent to care may be an inevitability. But getting too smug about that can kill us, too. We need to all stay humble in the face of this, so we don't fail to address the issues that are within our control simply for not having taken the time to look for them.


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Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Two Economies

[1920 photo by Lewis Hine titled Power house mechanic working on steam pump.]

Some are in a rush to
 “reopen the economy.”

The economy.
As if there were only one.

But there are two economies:

  • the Essential Economy, and
  • the Luxury Economy.

Yes, the Luxury Economy is paused.
And yes, it is losing money.

But the Essential Economy is still operating.

And what a lucky, lovely, life-sustaining thing that is.

Ordinary people—those who work in fields to plant or harvest crops, who drive trucks, who stock shelves or operate cash registers in grocery stores, who keep our lights on, who patrol our streets, who fight fires, who drive ambulances, who operate food kitchens, who are doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics and nursing homes—ordinary people are, each and every one, nothing short of heroes.

Heroism pervades the essential economy, where amazing souls risk and regularly lose their lives just to keep our essential services working.

We haven’t closed that economy.
So there is no need to speak of reopening it.

Of course, there are people suffering in the Luxury Economy. A great many. Not everyone who works for the luxury economy lives in luxury, so please don’t misunderstand.

But if the Essential Economy creates enough food, housing, health care, etc. to sustain us, then the rest of it is just a dance we do because we are not making our nation more fed, more housed, etc.

If we’re not part of the Essential Economy, we’re the entertainment, amusing them and perhaps ourselves, while we wait for a handout. They’re creating all of the essential value. At best, we’re left to creating “optional additional value,” but by definition nothing we can’t do without, or we’d still be doing it.

So we’re operating at a surplus, not a deficit, and the reason we know that is that the essentials are being met even without our whole population working. We’re just bad at dividing up our collective surplus.

The things society needs to do it is still doing, to the extent we ever were. We’ve always been far from perfect at that, but that’s topic for another day. Right now my point is that the Essential Economy isn’t shut down, only the Luxury Economy is.

And so, you see, to speak of “need” to reopen “The” Economy is a slap in the face to the contributions and, frankly, to the sacrifices made by these heroes.

Let’s be blunt: The whining is about when we luxuriate anew, when profit-taking can resume, when we can start polluting again, when businesses can get back to exploiting within impunity.

These things we so urgently need to get back to are not needs. These are just things that some among us are used to doing because money makes them feel important.

But these activities are not what is important—if they are even good for us at all.

We in the Luxury Economy are likewise not what is important.

We matter as individuals. I don’t meant to suggest we’re expendable. But what qualifies as hardship and what is mere inconvenience is something we owe scrutiny. There are some in the Luxury Economy sitting comfortably on accumulated wealth as others are panicked, barely getting by, worried about keeping a roof over their head or where their next meal will come from. But that isn’t a collective wealth problem, that’s a problem with how we distribute surplus.

Also, many of the people sustaining themselves on amassed wealth think of themselves as virtuous, that they did the right things, that they are deserving of their comfort now. But we see now more clearly that if they earned all that wealth in the Luxury Economy, they’ve provided none of the value that is now sustaining them. They’re just lucky they are now sustained. They are asking for handouts right now, just like the rest of us. They differ only in being more smug, in their sense of entitlement to those handouts they need as much as anyone.

We often run on autopilot, indulging the presumption that things are as they are for good reason. But based on an unscientific survey of my friends, most of whom are on the prowl for yet another Netflix series to binge, my guess is that we have time on our hands, time that could be spent contemplating whether we should ge back to familiar routines or get busy finding new ones.

And so, just to sum up…

The fact that many of us have jobs that do not contribute to essentials is proof of our collective wealth. When we need food we go to work—but not to make food, because there is enough, even if badly distributed and poorly shared. No, when we need food, we go to work just to make money, a dance we do to feel worthy of surplus food and essentials made by a few.

We who do not create the true value, the essentials that are largely and miraculously and heroically still available even now should be thankful supply lines are moving and should be asking how we can help that, how we can assure they are properly paid for arduous, dangerous, and relentless work, how we can make sure their families are taken care of while they do this, and how we can make sure their health care is assured, not whining about when we can resume pointlessness again.


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If you haven’t read my essay Corny Economics, you might want to head there next. This post was intended as a sequel, but I tried to write this on the assumption that you might read them in either order. Otherwise, I might have here used the parlance of Corny Economics, replacing “Essential Economy” with “Corn Economy” and “Luxury Economy” with “Harmonica Economy”.

The 1920 photo by Lewis Hine titled Power house mechanic working on steam pump was obtained from Wikimedia, which identifies it as being in the public domain.

The “drop caps” effect I used is a modified version of the helpful advice from Chris Coyier’s article Drop Caps at css-tricks.com, which I found in a Google search. He suggests it’ll work across multiple browsers, and it looked to me like it should. I used it in a span tag, since my use was a one-off and I didn’t want to fuss with style sheets. And I liked the color enough that it influenced some of the other design, and that in turn led me to the idea of working the entire piece in vary sizes and colors, so I evolved the article from there. I had been looking for a visual way to make some of the points clearer and this was one of several things that catalyzed the final result.

I find I often write text to fit visually, I don’t just mark things up after-the-fact. I change the lengths of sentences so that in plausible line-breaking on various browser settings, I expect it to look good. In cases where I am looking for a particular break, I experiment with reshaping windows and watch for widowing and often just replace spaces with non-breaking spaces ( ) so that if a line break occurs, it has substance and semantic units fall, perhaps more raggedly, in meaningful units.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Humanity's Superpower

[Image of simplified scheme of Millikan's experiment.]

Science is a superpower.

Science is an ability to see things our eyes do not yet show us, things that if we wait to see them, we'll find it's too late to react to.

Science is a superpower.

Science lets us see long distances. It lets us see inside things. It lets us see, prepare for, and avoid coming disasters. It gives us an edge in the quest for survival.

Science is a superpower.

Science is why we can predict hurricanes and not just be surprised and blown to bits by them in the moment they happen.

Science is why were able to land humans on the moon and return them safely to Earth on the first try. We had seen past our optimism to the many ways we could fail, and planned to avoid them.

Science is the superpower that told us decades ago that the climate would be changing, that we needed to prepare. It lets us see that the polar bear plight isn't just sad for a bunch of majestic but distant animals, but a way to metaphorically visualize a world made unlivable by changing climate if we continue to ignore that amazing power, learning the lesson too late.

Science is the superpower that allowed Li Wenliang to see and understand the threat of Covide-19 long before the virus had spread.

Science is a superpower.

Science is a superpower that stands as a rock against rationalization and politics, that acts as a beacon to guide us through swirling fogs of wishful thinking and denialism.

Science helps us to recognize and manage a great many dangers without resorting to stupid human tricks. It gives us the tools to bust myths safely.

Science is a superpower.

Without Science, our first encounter with a dangerous force is likely to be our last. Science offers super-vision, the ability to see beyond what is merely available to our eyes. But only if we opt to use that power.

If we super-stupidly elect to close our eyes to Science, rendering ourselves super-blind, we're just asking to find ourselves super-dead.


Author's Notes:

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The public domain image used here was obtained from Wikimedia and was donated to them by Wikimedia user Mpfiz, whose contribution is gratefully acknowledged.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Healing the Democratic Party

To heal the Democratic party, Biden must admit that if he prevails, it has come at cost of obliterating the hope many of us had for absolutely essential policies he has now dissed as extreme. He should assign people to study what got lost and to school him enough to appreciate 21st century needs.

Move left, not right, in other words. That's where the healing lies.

Otherwise, if elected without such expressed admissions, his desire to have been right will lead him to overly trust the positions he previously articulated as compass north. Cognitive dissonance will cause him to actively fight moving in the direction we must go for society to survive.

He needs to admit he doesn't have broad mandate behind his platform, he just has a scared populace who'll vote for the best ham sandwich running against Trump. We didn't suddenly see his light. We just seem to get no other choice.

To lead us, he must become us, not ask we become him.

Meanwhile, Climate respects only physics, not political compromise.

Meanwhile, too many will still endure the deadly gamble that is for-profit health insurance.

Meanwhile, students drown in the quicksand of student loans, and we are all poorer, but the banks.


Author's Notes:

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This post began as a couple of tweet threads you can find here and here.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Our Primary National Values

Biden and Sanders have been debating matters like Social Security. Can we afford it? Biden acts indignant that Bernie would suggest he's a threat to Social Security, yet Biden's record is plain, as well-summarized by Ryan Grim at The Intercept in this tweet:

The Truthiness About Biden

Nor does Biden explain how and why his opinion has changed. In a worrisome pattern he seems to share with Trump, he simply denies he ever had an opinion that is clearly documented.

Stephen Colbert called this “truthiness”—an assertion of “facts” that come not from books or the head, but from the gut.

“Alternative facts,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, calls such affronts to reality.

Biden would have us see Bernie's views as extreme, radical, dangerous to consider. He offers himself as the safe choice. The message from the centrists is that Bernie's notions will bankrupt us. The truth is, many of us are going bankrupt just fine on our own. We need the government to pull the reins on corporate greed, but Biden can't even admit this is where the problem lies.

It's clear that the recent tax cuts for billionaires are part of an organized “starve the beast” strategy by the GOP. Such a strategy works in two steps: first take all the money out of the system into rich people's pockets, then declare that the government is short of money and that social programs must be cut. They've done step one. Now we're back in the same situation as happened the last time Biden championed cuts.

Has something changed? Because it looks to me like Biden has positioned himself as the realist, the compromiser, the one willing to pull a Susan Collins, hemming and hawing for the cameras so it looks like an oh-so-difficult choice, but ultimately “surprising” us by deciding that we need to be fiscally responsible and endure our middle-class medicine rather than ask too much of billionaires.

Because that's the picture he seems to be painting when he accuses Bernie, directly or through his advocates, of being too extreme, too radical, too untrustworthy, too … socialist.

Biden wants us to trust him, but trust him how? Why? The only one he seems to point fingers at is Bernie. And why? Because Bernie is willing to point fingers at who he thinks is the actual source of the problem.

Bernie is willing to say what is obviously true, that we don't need billionaires.

Assigning Value

Biden wants Bernie to be seen as obviously extreme. But is he?

We just had a candidate in the race that had half a billion dollars of literal pocket change. He will probably be as rich or richer at the end of the year as he was at the beginning of the race.

Moreover, Elizabeth Warren in a few simple sentences so destroyed this man's character that all that wealth could not overcome it, ending his run—clear proof that wealth does not measure virtue. Even given the strong tendency people seem to have to follow successful others, which is what seems to have gotten Trump elected, there are limits. As Sarah Kendzior so aptly says:

“When wealth is passed off as merit, bad luck is seen as bad character. This is how ideologues justify punishing the sick and the poor. But poverty is neither a crime nor a character flaw. Stigmatise those who let people die, not those who struggle to live.”

   —Sarah Kendzior, in a 2013 essay Poverty is not a character flaw

All to say I don't think there is clearer proof that somewhere in our nation there is enough wealth to enable people to age with dignity: enabling them to be useful advisors and contributors to our society for more years, unlocking a lot of wealth and happiness. They can advise friends, family, and the community in personal and business matters. They can take care of grandkids. They can just not be a burden to younger people who are struggling themselves and might have to take time off for work.

Or we can say that it's more important, as a nation, to have a few Michael Bloombergs. My saying “a few” isn't casual. We cannot all be Michael Bloombergs. Of necessity, mega-wealth accumulates only in the hands of a few. The math only works that way. We're all taught we might one day be rich without bounds, but we should be taught that at some point increased wealth comes at the expense of others, and generally in a way that is disproportionate with actual value contributed to society. Whatever Bloomberg's positive contribution, he has not contributed that much more than other people.

Even if you think all his actions good, and that's up for debate, a lot of those actions are things any person with that money would have done, and are rightly attributed to the money, not the people. And many have done great goods for no reward. So while money is a crude metric of some amount of good people have done, we need to learn that it is not a precise measure and that we are not valueless nor these people with tons of money gods.

And that is what's being debated. Not just "social security" as words, but the values behind it. Our country generates wealth. We have allowed that wealth to flow to a few people, disproportionately. Our government is not a business. It is a group of our us that get together charged with administering a fair set of rules that allow everyone to succeed. The set of rules we have are out of balance, like a clothes dryer with the balance off. The term "wealth redistribution" is tossed around as if it's a bad thing, but it's like with the dryer, it will eventually stop if something is not done to get things back into harmony.

Social security is fair and humane, but it is also an assertion that in our quest to incentivize things as a rush for money, we have limits on how much one person may take from another. There is incentive enough in seeking millions, even many millions. There is little one can do with billions but buy governments or otherwise subvert the democratic will of the public.

That's what we're debating. Tax the rich to bring things back into harmony, or yield public control of resources on a bogus theory that over time we've realized we the public are nothing and only Bloomberg and his ilk have any entitlement to wealth for their amazing contributions.

Push is coming to shove. Billionaires are an active threat to the middle class. The GOP is actively teeing up exactly that conflict, daring Democrats to take that on. Bernie is up to it. That Biden paints Bernie as extreme suggests he's not.

Biden just isn't up to challenging billionaires' entitlement to the disproportionate wealth they have amassed. But without doing so, we'll run short of funds. At that point, we should fully well expect him to make the same choices he denies having made in the past.

So you perhaps understand why I've said I do not celebrate this “anyone but Trump” thing as a victory. I wanted Warren, but at this point, go Bernie!


Author's Notes:

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The essay which became this post started as a post by me earlier today at reddit.

I also very much recommend Sarah Kendzior's book The View from Flyover Country.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Congressional Pardons

Perhaps Congress should allocate itself the power to both grant pardons and/or to review&veto Presidential pardons.

[Picture of scales]

I see it as a misdesign that the President has an exclusive, unchecked power to pardon, and without a corresponding power held by the people. In a Democracy, an unstated meta-rule is that a consensus of the people through its representatives in Congress, its consensus body, should always dominate decisions by the Executive.

The Executive is just one person, and subject to whim. As I see it, we grant them power not because we think it safer to put all that power in one place, but because we fear Congress might not achieve consensus fast enough or at all in some cases, and we might find ourselves crippled and unable to react fast enough for everything that comes up in the world. However, in any matter of disagreement between Congress and the Executive, if Congress does muster consensus, it seems to me that's generally preferable as a statement of what We The People should want.

A “review and veto” power would be useful as a check just in case there was ever a lawless President promising collaborating criminals a Get Out of Jail Free card. Whether or not one agrees that Congress should always win every contest of wills with the President, it's clear that the unchecked power to pardon fellow criminals must be reconsidered in at least some way.

As for issuing pardons directly, I'd not expect Congress to issue a lot of them itself because each would require a lot of politicians to agree about a single individual, and usually it would not seem worth the risk. But in the case of malicious prosecution by the DOJ, consensus of We The People should ‘trump’ executive power.

It might also have occasional value in other situations. For example, if Congress decides that marijuana possession, use, or even sale should not be criminalized after all, perhaps regretting that it ever was, then along with a change in the law, it could order blanket pardons of those convicted under prior law, rather than waiting for the Executive or the courts to sort that out, and assuring a more uniform application of new social understanding.


Author's Notes:

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The essay which became this post started as a tweet thread by me earlier today.

Our much-touted checks and balances have proven slow and ineffective at fending off attacks on the Constitution and our system of Democracy. We need to find ways to strengthen the power of the people against tyranny. That begins with discussions like these.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Process Due

Seth Abramson wrote in a tweet, “Our descendants won't distinguish between pro- and anti-Trump, they'll just say, ‘What were those idiots thinking?’ “

Folks outside the US no doubt ask it now.

It's a fair question, but maybe the wrong one.

Constitutional government needs clear process as safeguard against idiocy. We just can't rely on intelligence to be there, nor idiocy not to be, in every moment of every day. That's too much to ask.

I don't mean to let us off the hook. We must introspect on how we got here. To assure intelligence is reliably present and available, it must be encoded in our processes, not left as an exercise to the individuals trying to interpret those processes.

Size is Relative

Toward that end, we too seldom question the oft-repeated myth that “minimum government is best government,” fed us by those who want government kept malleable.

Too big government isn't good.
But too small isn't either.

I have lately tended toward the belief that government must grow in proportion to propensity for abuse, not even just in reaction to abuse, but even proactively, anticipating the likely and covering reasonably anticipated cases that follow from trends.

Libertarians grump whenever government grows, but public response needs to be “If you exploited the common good less, we wouldn't have to complicate this so.”

The asymmetry is that we're stuck in an arms race where conservatives want to escalate their hold over society, and they use Jedi mind tricks to make progressives feel bad about responding.

If they want government to stay small, they should “play nice.”

Our Constitution needs repair, more process & process detail, if we're not to leave procedural action to the chance of idiocy or partisanship.

We need such additional detail to assure a nervous public in times of stress that processes being applied were not developed in the moment to serve Machiavellian ends, but are our normal way of attending to all problems, no matter who creates them and no matter who administers them.

Who Could Have Known?

“What were we thinking?” you ask, you who look on from afar, from across the ocean or from the far future.

Well, “what are you thinking?” Your are us on other days. Don't assume your greater intelligence will carry the day. Ask instead, “does process protect me?” Because unless your answer is a very certain yes, you should be as panicked as we are now, and you should be readying for your time to face this same event.

We look back at you and feebly shrug, “Who could have known?” It's a lame excuse, but somewhat true. This problem is new to us. Some saw it in advance, but many didn't. And so, collectively, because we act as a collective entity, we did not see this. And now, mired in it, we lack clear and strong process to get us quickly or reliably out.

But for you looking on, you all see it. Do not make the error of thinking this a uniquely US problem, of thinking yourselves immune. Don't expect “Who could have known?” to defend your honor when your time comes. Act now to buttress your respective constitutions for what's surely to come for you as well.

Trump-wannabes the world over are taking notes.

The Death of Shame

What gives Trump his power isn't just utter GOP corruption and Dem lack of spine.

It's that there are "norms of behavior" we have asked but not required by codifying them in Constitution or law.

We must fix that. The Constitution needs to grow.

The question isn't whether additional rules are needed, only whether we'll have the spine to insist on such necessary change, lest we endure a recurrence for having failed to.

We've relied on social mechanisms like decorum and shame in lieu of rules. But Trump is shameless. His political power comes of seeing decorum isn't a compulsion for him to conform. He sees an ignorable nicety, and his goal is never to be nice. He sees nicety as weakness.

If we get out of this, still an open question, we must add more rules.

Conservatives will cry "bloat". But too bad. Blame yourselves, GOP. You've earned every bit of clarifying legal text that comes in response.

Some Examples

We need process that does not reduce us to arguing whether major felonies are reason for impeachment. We might not enumerate a full list of reasons to impeach, but we should enumerate some, just so we don't waste months debating at least those.

The Constitution intends discretion about allowing more than just felonies, but that discretion should extend in the other direction, allowing discretion about ignoring felonies. It should say flat out that if there are felonies afoot, or there is even just strong reason to suspect it, impeachment must begin. It should say that if impeachment succeeds in the House, the Senate must engage it in the Senate under rules that are fair to both parties to offer substantive discussion without it being procedurally buried.

Even the question of burden of proof needs to be better spelled out. If a President is seen to act in a way that is adverse to US interests, but we can't prove intent, that might be sufficient to avoid a criminal conviction, but do we want such a person in office? We have to either have the clear right to try a sitting President or an easy path to removing the President so they can stand trial. We should not be forced to endure a criminal President simply for lack of some technical detail. Presidency isn't a right, it is a privilege and a responsibility.

Benefit of any doubt in the reliability and good will of our President needs to be given to We The People, not a dubious President.

Going Forward

I speak as if we might get out of this. That's overly optimistic. We won't.

Maybe—hopefully—Trump will be impeached. But even so, he's shown where Democracy is weak, opening a Pandora's box unlikely to be closed.

Such attacks will recur, and not just in the US. We won't get out of that. We can only prepare. Please let's do that.


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This article began as a tweet thread of my own in response to Abramson's tweet quoted above. I've done some editing, rearranging, and expanding here.