Delete This Chapter, Steve Case

Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value.
— Arthur Miller, playwright and essayist (17 Oct 1915-2005)

Steve Case has proven me correct again: the tech community shouldn’t write about government until they actually understand it.

You remember Steve Case, right? He was the guy we used to get mad at when AOL would change their Terms of Service to prevent cussing or stating it would own everything you posted (or something) back when dial-up internet and charge-by-the-hour internet service was the norm. In the new book he’s writing, he claims this is part of the “First Wave” of the internet (“the foundation for people to connect”). Or maybe he’s talking about late-20th century technological innovations. Hard to tell.

He posted a chapter on Medium, asking for edits. I can’t believe I read the whole thing. But I didn’t leave any comments. I figured I’d save them for here (plus, I was reading on my phone). My one edit is: Delete the chapter.

Since he’s not going to, let’s continue.

I would argue the “First Wave” was back in the ’80s when the only person I knew who had online access was my uncle (and, apparently, Misty, though I didn’t know her then). The “Second Wave,” according to Case, is search engines and social media (“search and social capabilities”).  Now, we’re entering into the “Third Wave,” which is where tech and government begin to interact (finally). (Note that he uses private corporations to describe the first and second waves.)

I want to start by pointing out the Case is really late getting to the game on this one. People have written about the intersection of technology, design and government, and I’ve responded to such pieces, for a years. In fact, back in 2014, Dominic Campbell, who does have some experience in government, wrote:

A purposeful design-led approach is fundamental to re-thinking the role of government in the 21st Century, creating the conditions for innovation and change in a world of embedded power structures, vested interests and powerful organisational immune systems programmed to snuff out any threats to the status quo.

. . .

We must bring together the politics of change management, the thoughtful human centricity of design and the power of tech to hardwire change and scale impact.

And I responded to it at the time.

The idea that technology can solve all our problems is a blinkered worldview techno-libertarians completely buy into. Not that Case is self-aware enough to know that such a worldview and its assumptions about government are, well, false[1].

Let’s look at some of what he has to say. He begins by positing some “Third Wave” of the internet that will bring together the tech community and government. Believing such will happen is rather deterministic in and of itself. What he’s really saying is that if the U.S. state, local and national governments don’t roll over for the tech community, the country will be “disrupted” by other countries. As an example, he uses the movement of manufacturing overseas:

This may sound overblown. But it wouldn’t be the first time other countries challenged American dominance. There have been numerous occasions in our history when a great industry, born in the United States, ended up relocated elsewhere. In 2015, none of the top five automakers were American companies, and not a single American company manufactured television screens in the United States. These are industries that were born in America. We have a way, it seems, of ceding opportunities rather than seizing them. If the same holds true during the Third Wave, the most significant economic transformation of the next two decades could be the great achievement of others.

He does know, of course, that such manufacturing moved not because of the U.S. government but because corporate owners decided it would be more profitable for themselves to build cars and TVs in countries cheap labor and lower human rights standards (see: Apple and Foxconn), right?

Indeed, “ceding opportunities rather than seizing them” in the manufacturing field is little different from Case’s argument that Americans should be happy to have uber-ized gigs[2] while tech companies bring Indians over on H1B visas, which allow them to be paid less than an American worker doing the same job, to work in our “knowledge” fields[3]. There are many unemployed engineers, developers and others who are American citizens yet, contra Case, find themselves driving for Uber and Lyft right now because the wealthy tech owners want cheap over American-skilled[4]. Manufacturers beat Case to the punch in taking advantage of the, in Case’s words, “global talent market.”

But they’re still doing a good job. As John Miano, an attorney, former computer programmer and co-author of a book about the H-1B visa, testified before Congress:

“In 1998, Congress made it explicitly legal to replace Americans with H-1B workers,” he said. Then, “in 2004, Congress changed the H-1B prevailing wage system to allow employers to pay these workers extremely low wages. Normally, the prevailing wage is the median wage, the 50th percentile,” but for the H-1B program, “the normal prevailing wage is the 17th percentile.” In normal-wage areas, this creates a wage differential with domestic workers of about $20,000 per worker, and in high-wage areas like Silicon Valley, it creates a differential of about $40,000, with “predictable result[s],” he said.

Case gives as an example the growth of the financial technology (fintech) market in London. He blames it on the U.S. government. He does know that London is the world financial center, though, doesn’t he? It only makes sense startups focused on fintech would locate in the capital of capital (that is, financial services).

When it comes to taxes, Case repeats the familiar neoliberal trickle-down policies. Cut taxes on the rich so they’ll create startups and, thus, jobs (that I assume will end up staffed by low-paid temporary workers from India). Our current economic situation proves his proposal completely false. Indeed, what if we provided a universal basic income to all Americans? That would allow many of those currently unemployed to create their own businesses. Or we could make healthcare universal, so potential entrepreneurs can leave their jobs and start a business while remaining covered should they have to go to the hospital. These initiatives, however, would not give clear direct subsidies to the tech community, though, so they aren’t mentioned.

But while he wants us to cut taxes, he also wants the U.S. government to increase spending on research and development (R&D). He admits that the government (which, remember, isn’t innovative) has created many world-changing “products.” He also admits that the government usually hands over those research findings to private companies, which then make massive profits off selling products to taxpayers. So, he wants the government to increase its subsidies to businesses (or, more specifically, startups).

Why can’t companies invest in their own R&D? Given Case’s belief in startups’ and technology’s ability to disrupt and improve government, why should the young, speedy, flexible upstarts rely on taxpayer funds to build their companies?

Despite his and other techno-libertarians’ perspective of government as merely a lumbering beast that only slowly reacts to innovations in the market, in reality, local governments have responded quite quickly to the emergence of Uber and Airbnb within their city limits. Were Airbnb and Uber actually interested in taking part in the policymaking process, things would move even faster. Instead, such corporations would rather file suit, stonewall and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) shaming local government officials and breaking the law. Clearly, the issue here isn’t with government – it’s with self-righteous business owners who believe they’re above the law.

In other areas of his chapter, Case fails to note – or likely doesn’t know about – important government initiatives like the United States Digital Service and 18F. They are tasked not only with improving government’s use of technology but also improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the hiring, contracting, planning and other processes. Moreover, they are meant to have the authority to make rapid and creative changes to what, admittedly, can be stagnant and slow-moving government agencies. The USDS is currently located within the Executive Office of the President – giving its head great access to the president.[5]

He warns that countries, including Nigeria, are catching up with us. Really, Steve? Really? Nigeria?

Finally, Case has a fundamental misunderstanding of what government is and does. It isn’t there to just promote business interests (believe it or not). It’s there to protect citizens – be that from foreign adversaries or uncaring and unscrupulous corporate executives. While it hasn’t been doing a good job of it lately, the government is ultimately there for the people (in fact, it is the people), and its organization is meant to reflect its citizens’ generally agreed-upon values and norms. If government moves slowly, it’s because ensuring such protections and equity takes time and negotiation. There are more nuances to policy than Case and company seem to know about, which is a good reason to delete this chapter of his book. Startup founders don’t worry about the larger implications and spillover effects of their creations, and they have no time for nuance and negotiation. Money must be made now – damn the polity.

Again, that isn’t how government works, nor do its citizens want it to operate in such a way.

I will give Steve Case one thing, though: He sold AOL to a slow-moving conglomerate; he definitely knows about change.

[1] Or maybe he does and he’s just being disingenuous. Maybe he’s making these recommendations because he will profit from them.

[2] You know, ‘cause they’re so flexible. Pay your rent? Unlikely. But they’re flexible!

[3] This is a case where immigration limits are important and should be made even more strict.

[4] The argument that we don’t have enough STEM graduates has been proven false. It’s a cover for “we want cheap labor” but we don’t want to move overseas.

[5] I have to wonder if its appropriations will be renewed if a conservative politician takes office.

A Letter to Paul Krugman

Dear Dr. Krugman,

For many years now I have been reading your op-eds in the New York Times. In my mind you are one Nobel Prize economist who speaks the truth to the weaknesses and strengths of past and present economic theory. With all due respect though; let me suggest that the time has come for you and the many economists in your field to step out of your shoes and take a long hard look at a fatal flaw in the economic theory that the world has accepted for so long as having intrinsic value.

You and your colleagues need to begin an articulation within your profession of new economic theory that will meet the pressing planetary challenges confronting our species. I do not see this happening.

The architecture that grew out of the industrial revolution, on which capital markets today justify their operation, now finds its “raison d’etre” shaking under its own weight. The cold hard fact is that this architecture has not only seen its day; it is like an insidious disease working against human survival.

All around us there are indications of the failure of past economic theory; from the recent debacle on Wall Street to unemployment on Main Street, from the toxic tar sands in Canada to the overfishing of tuna in the oceans, from the increasing CO2 in the biosphere to the acidification of the oceans. And this failure extends well beyond these few observations. Planet Earth is telling us something. It is pointing to its rejection of our open and free capital market economic system.

The key fault is the unfettered operation of our capital markets. These markets have grown to a size where they are energizing ecologically and socially destructive forces of a magnitude that has never before been seen in the history of the planet. Resource allocation is being misguided and misappropriated on a massive scale. Irreparable planetary damage is being done. Fingers can be pointed in many directions for this such as human greed, political dysfunction, just plain stupidity; however, the rules under which capital markets have been operating since they took form from the beginning of the industrial revolution onward must take primary blame.

Your profession has come forward with no new ideas to stem the tide. You and those like you need to be thinking and writing and speaking about new economic theory. It is not happening. Physical scientists throughout the world have been describing the ecological problems with great clarity; it is time for economists to offer economic solutions. So far, there is only silence.

Boiled down into a few words; our resource exploitive capital market system needs to be transformed into a constrained yet incentive directed market system emphasizing the equitable and humanistic provision of both the material and psychological needs of all humanity. The long lasting functionality of all the earth’s resources to meet these needs must take on the highest priority. Every element of today’s energy intensive market driven consumerism must be made to meet this planetary survival/functionality test.

How can we mechanistically achieve this? Negative external costs and positive incentives must be built into every investment decision. And these costs and incentives must be applied to every human economic activity from the mine to the chemistry lab to the assembly line to the opera house to the athletic field to the hospital. Economic outcomes with negative social and/or ecological value must be recognized. Negative externalities need to be measured and priced in up front so as to discourage, temper, or at the extreme eliminate investment.

Every investment decision must be internally priced to reflect its socially constructive or destructive outcome. Croplands, grasslands, forests, fisheries, inorganic resources; all of the earth’s natural resources, must be internally priced so as to prevent their exploitation and damage to the planet.

In our present world, none this is happening on a broad enough scale to make a difference. We see punitive cigarette and liquor taxes and some others like them, but across the board, any form of built-in “negative external” cost reflecting ecological considerations is almost nil. Disincentives/Incentives in vital areas like energy are being very poorly handled. The most simple questions such as; is this or that delivering real worth to society and to the health of the planet are avoided. As I am certain you are aware; some progress is being made in northern Europe, but I am sure you will agree with me that on a world scale that is insignificant.

Humanity is crying out for an entirely new form of economic/monetary theory. Social/political theory must necessarily be a part. A response is coming from some enlightened intellectuals in the world community; however, there is at present no universal consensus, nor are there long term solutions at hand. Our species remains in gridlock. Your economics profession remains notably silent, content on using its advanced theories of algorithms for trading purposes, but not for the above.

How much time do we have to come up with a revised capital market system? Some highly accredited scientists say our present trajectory will present very serious planetary problems within the next fifty years and they even point to the end of our species.

Will our great and great-great grandchildren find themselves at the bottom of Dante’s inferno with no escape? There is this possibility. The time has come for humanity to recognize that unless it can change the way it prices what it desires to consume, the biblical prophecy of the end of times may very well prove to be self-fulfilling.

Respectfully yours,

David Anderson

I think that above is a great summation of the reason(s) we need economists to, well, come back (for the first time?) to reality to help us formulate a response to the neoliberal policies that are destroying our world — both environmentally and socially. When profit — the continuing enhancement and consolidation of wealth and power among a very few — is the goal, everything else is grist for the mill. That includes our planet, and, thus, ultimately, our existence.

One of the solutions David offers is strict taxation and regulation of harmful business practices while incentivizing those that produce positive results through positive means (for the means are the ends, as people must to perform and receive both, in social policy). His position is, as I read it, essentially, that we need to increase and improve government oversight of business. Getting the charlatans out of the halls of government, and replacing them with those with both hearts and minds (rather than merely pseudo-scientific inclinations/aspirations) would be a great start.

I’ve started to think that if you have a really hard time understanding an economic proposal, suggestion or analysis, it’s probably the economics that are wrong. On the other hand, myths like Adam Smith and the invisible hand are also quite easy to understand (and be led astray by). I suppose the solution is to assume the economics are wrong until you understand them and have better proof (whatever that may be — clear causal relation between policy and outcome?). [This paragraph is really just me going stream-of-consciousness there for a minute.]

My thanks to David for allowing me to republish his letter.

If you think he (or I) sounds alarmist, it’s because this is an issue — a way of life — that should alarm you.

Go Away, Economists; Take Your Nobel With You

The latest ersatz Nobel prize went to a couple of guys who theorize a lot about contracts. This is the kind of work that now dominates much of economics. Tinkering with mathematics, incentives, and other aspects of minutiae whilst steadfastly turning away from the rapidly approaching storms that threaten the lives of real people outside the tenured redoubts professors hide within.
— Peter Radford, “The Market and Nobels.” Real-World Economics Review Blog, 12 OCT 2016.

I don’t know how many times I’ve written here that economists shouldn’t be listened to and certainly shouldn’t be trusted. Their “forecasts” and “predictions” and even after-the-fact “explanations” are — far more often than not — complete bullshit.

I once said this on Facebook and someone got angry because they have a friend who’s an economist. He commented and said something about having done it for twenty years or some such . . . blah, blah, blah. Just because you do something for twenty years doesn’t make it legitimate.

When I checked out his blog, I noticed that he pointedly doesn’t write about economics. He’s written about education, however.[1] That’s also a rather political subject, as are the others he discusses. Once again, ideology triumphs.

What I’d planned to write about yesterday (but didn’t) is the economic sciences Nobel awarded earlier in the week. It’s important to know this isn’t a real Nobel. Nor is economics a science.

As Avner Offer and Gabriel Soderberg write in their new book, The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy and the Market Turn:

The Nobel prize came out of a longstanding social conflict. On one side, central banks and the better-off striving to keep property intact and prices stable; on the other, everyone else’s quest for economic security. The Swedish social democratic government clipped the wings of the central bank – Sveriges Riksbank – in pursuit of more housing and jobs. In compensation, the government allowed the central bank to keep some funds, which the bank used in 1968 to endow the Nobel prize in economics as a vanity project to mark its tercentenary.

In The Guardian:

Would it not be extremely useful to take economics down one peg by overhauling the prize to include all social sciences? The Nobel prize for economics is not even a “real” Nobel prize anyway, having only been set up by the Swedish central bank in 1969. In recent years, it may have been awarded to more non-conventional practitioners such as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. However, Kahneman was still rewarded for his contribution to the science of economics, still putting that field centre stage.

Think of how frequently the Nobel prize for literature elevates little-known writers or poets to the global stage, or how the peace prize stirs up a vital global conversation: Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel introduced Arab literature to a mass audience, while last year’s prize for Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai put the right of all children to an education on the agenda. Nobel prizes in economics, meanwhile, go to “contributions to methods of analysing economic time series with time-varying volatility” (2003) or the “analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity” (2008).

But the writer goes on:

A Nobel prize in economics implies that the human world operates much like the physical world: that it can be described and understood in neutral terms, and that it lends itself to modelling, like chemical reactions or the movement of the stars. It creates the impression that economists are not in the business of constructing inherently imperfect theories, but of discovering timeless truths.

To illustrate just how dangerous that kind of belief can be, one only need to consider the fate of Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund set up by, among others, the economists Myron Scholes and Robert Merton in 1994. With their work on derivatives, Scholes and Merton seemed to have hit on a formula that yielded a safe but lucrative trading strategy. In 1997 they were awarded the Nobel prize. A year later, Long-Term Capital Management lost $4.6bn (£3bn)in less than four months; a bailout was required to avert the threat to the global financial system. Markets, it seemed, didn’t always behave like scientific models.

Criticism of the Nobel — and, more important, economics as a profession — continues. You can likely see the dissatisfaction with the status quo among some economists roiling beneath the surface of the economics field just by what’s written been about the Nobel. There’s plenty more criticism of economists and the field of study (work?) out there. I’m not alone.

[1] I should note that college professors who write about Pre-K-12 education often place themselves in dangerous rhetorical waters because they assume teaching is teaching (or some similar concept). They think, “Well, I could do that. It’s simple. Just . . .” But applying tertiary education methods to elementary and secondary education settings haven’t exactly worked. Also highly dissimilar: the teaching experiences at various levels. College students may be assholes but they rarely shit their pants.

How to Lose $3.2 Million with $100k (Right?)

 

Now, I’m a naïve at this whole economics, finance, debt, etc. thing. I’m still learning. But let’s see if I have this right.

Imagine this:

You deposit $100,000 in your bank account. Bankers take your $100,000, bet it in the stock market, invest it in U.S. Treasury bonds (which are considered one of the safest investments), offer it as a loan with interest to someone or company or – believe it or not – keep the money on-hand as operating or liquid capital.

They do far more than that with our money, obviously.

All of us have a general understanding of the above as being how the banking system (usually) works – though we know it doesn’t work like that exactly or completely. That’s about as close as most of us come before dismissing it. To continue to pursue an understanding of the financial system would require research or fishing one’s memory for that long ago economics class.

And, ultimately, we know they do far stranger things with our money than we can imagine, much less understand.

Let’s get back to your $100,000, though.

What if the bankers took it and, instead of doing any of the above, took out loans against it? That is, they take out bigger loans using your $100,000 as collateral (and, if you will, proof of income).

But let’s say the bankers decide to be conservative and only take out $105,000 per loan against your $100,000. They use that to invest elsewhere. Makes sense, right?

What if they then took out 32 loans of $105,000 using your $100,000 as collateral for each? If that’s how it works, it sounds illogical doesn’t it? But it’s no different than the way people with good credit ratings get piled under debt. Bankers just get it at a lower rate of interest from one another.

That would make the share based on your deposit $3.2 million.

What if I told you that’s exactly what they did? It is.

The portion based on thin air (or, at most, the expectation of future income) would be much less, of course, but that’s not our concern here.

When you look for a cause of the Recession, remember that the banking professionals supposedly “safeguarding” your money used it instead to take on massive debt to then bet that money in an investment of some sort.

Of course, the financiers could have invested in far safer securities that still would have brought a return – that’s without mentioning the significant amount they make from fees, penalties, interest on loans and more.

Those exclusively and almost exclusively driven to make money and gain the power that comes with it (vice versa tends to work, too, though they are often one and the same) will always care less about your financial security – or their obligations to you – than satisfying their own greed, avarice and sadism.

Your mattress truly does care more.

That’s the way I understand it anyway.

 

Brief Thoughts on A Brief History of Neoliberalism

I’d been thinking about neoliberalism recently in relation to our foreign policy dealings with countries that resist taking the poison bullied onto them. What happens when we confront a state resisting the neoliberal transformation? I thought of Iran, and its leaders stated belief in an Islamic economy; one not set according to Western rules.

And our foreign policy toward them? Not kind.

That’s as far as my thinking on the subject had gone (and has gone) when Dr. Catherine Rainwater, one of my former professors at St. Ed’s, mentioned neoliberalism brief historyDavid Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, which I’d downloaded onto my Kindle and started a few times a couple of months ago, on Facebook. It isn’t a new book. I started it again and tore through it last week.

It’s not necessarily the shortest of brief histories but it is a nonetheless quick primer that will serve as a great introduction to neoliberal theory and practice. I can’t emphasize how important it is that you understand that word and what it means – neoliberalism is the basic prison in which we live (and in which some, a very few, thrive).

Not to be hyperbolic, but neoliberalism is the reason we live our lives the way we do.

It’s the reason you can work more than forty hours a week, make seventy thousand dollars a year and still not be able to afford your rent or mortgage; your student loan debt; your employer- or market- or exchange-provided health insurance premiums and, thus, your health care; your car payment and insurance premium (also, the need or desire for a car); your child care; college savings – and that’s not even getting to retirement savings.

Neoliberalism is not a party to vote against. It is the fundamental ideology of our time – defining how we live our lives and what we believe is possible. Our conceptions of freedom and democracy and justice and the weight we give to each. To the vast majority of us, it is standard operating procedure.

Most insidiously, it is our belief that there is no alternative. That the system we operate under – with its attendant capitalism, republicanism, corruption, inequality, injustice, competition in all areas of life and et cetera – has never been, is not now and never will be different. Moreover, it can’t be different.

Donald Trump is as much a threat to as he is an embodiment of neoliberalism. I could quite extensively quote from A Brief History . . . for a clear-eyed and prescient description of the cultural, political and economic – not to mention demographic – actors and forces that embrace, empower and, more critically, allow and create leaders like Donald Trump to rise.

Some of those who are, to my mind, the worst of politicians. It is unconscionable that reasonable conservative individuals would continue to support Donald Trump no matter how illogical. But it isn’t illogical if you believe it to be politically advantageous to continue supporting him is.

Closing borders, starting wars, disrupting free trade and other Trump proposals are not neoliberal – they are the neoconservative (authoritarian) veneer atop neoliberalism; for the wealthy and powerful will still benefit.

I always find it unfortunate when authors of books like the above begin to comment on the politics of their age (in this case, 2007). So often does it become outdated and uninterested but it also negates, in some minds, the main argument. Worse, the statements are often a little preposterous, especially when viewed in hindsight.

Harvey does fall victim to this a bit toward the end, but it does not change his overall argument or its force at all. His brief discussion of post-Katrina New Orléans is accurate (see: The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans). Only now are teachers beginning to unionize again and schools returning to public control.

Like I said, it’s very important you understand neoliberalism.

If you can’t read, get someone to read A Brief History of Neoliberalism to you. I will give you a digital copy.

 

[Most of the above is stuff I scribbled in my notebook Saturday morning. It likely wanders and fails to make sense or seem to have a point. That’s fine.]

Misty on Design, The French Revolution and Tangents

Misty comes home Thursday, that making her gone almost three weeks. It sounds like she’s had a wonderful time visiting her parents – one of the best (ever?). I’m happy for her. She needed this. It will be nice to have her home again. After her shock at seeing how little housework I’ve done, that is. There’s still time for me to clean! My intentions are good (usually)!

Speaking of Misty, she’s been writing some great stuff ranging from design to linguistics on her new blog, which seems to be quickly achieving some popularity. I always told her she should write. About anything, but, especially, about design. She’s an expert in the field of user experience (UX) design. She was an interaction designer (IXD) before there was such a thing. She’s been highly influential in the design of highly influential (in attracting customers to buy) well-designed products. She has numerous patents, for Mataman’s sake! Continue reading

Moving in with Your Parents

I first wrote about the issues I found with ridesharing apps (Uber, Lyft, SideCar, et al.) a few years ago. I haven’t addressed them much recently, but I don’t think I need to – cities and states and even nations are finally standing up to them, and, hopefully, overcoming core concerns in a way that satisfies the public’s (read: users’ and customers’) safety and experience.

Since that time, I’ve been studying debt (I have so much of it), capital flow, money and other financial and economic matters.

I know, boring, right?

This is why it interests me:

Students are graduating with an average $30,000 in education debt. (I still owe at least that much.) Credit card companies love recruiting on and around college campuses – so throw in a little credit card debt for new graduates, too.

A new graduate hits the market and BAM! he or she is knocked down by the poor economy (improving, but, if so, slowly), dearth of full-time positions and growth of freelance roles in their place), exorbitant student loan payments, high rents (if one plans to live in a city in which one can find a job) and so many other obstacles to even begin pursuing happiness, or, ultimately, liberty.

What does that give us? A whole bunch of people who, without support systems of family and the minimal social services offered by the government would be homeless. At best, one or two crises away from swirling in that direction.

What happens when people can’t support themselves or are making those rent-or-medication? decisions each month while spending the rest of their time looking for work? They fall back on the support systems above mentioned. I can think of very few, if any, other support services that offer direct help to such individuals (not including payday loan outlets).

I only want to talk about one of those support systems here, though:

Family.

One of the first – and sometimes only – places many Baby Boomers’ children turn to in financial crises is – that’s right – their parents. Socially, that seems far better than relying on taxpayer-funded services and support. So what’s the problem?

The majority of Baby Boomers aren’t walking around with a high net worth. They’re often already over-leveraged, and become even moreso when the kid(s) move home and their debts payments are added to their parents. This makes the huge assumption that one’s parents love their kids enough to try to save them from financial ruin. How many of those parents are also already on the hook for those cosigned student loans, as well?

Nor are Boomers, as they move toward retirement, well known for having bulked up their retirement accounts to support themselves in their non-working years. (The three legs of “social security” – pensions, savings and retirement accounts, and the government’s Social Security benefits – have been reduced to a precarious one and a half, at best.) Add Boomers’ returned child’s debt payments and other expenses to already overextended household finances only further destroys any retirement nest egg. That’s only exacerbated by the effects it will have today.

We already see many people in bankruptcy (legally recognized or not). I fear we will only see more.

I worry that entire families – multiple generations of families – could be driven to financial ruin. That would spell the end of upwards mobility for many millions. Socially, it could result in a tear in the traditional family from the overwhelming responsibilities and failures. Alternatively, it could cause a retrenchment – where families once again consolidate into multi-generational households. This could happen as a defensive measure. Everyone must pitch in to satisfy the debts of all.

I don’t think our current economic situation can persist much longer. The inequality – so detailed in its description of a general phenomenon – is so easy to see in the massive difference in suffering experienced by those children, new graduates and families without members of the upper classes and ready access to liquid capital and those who are, well, better off. (Let’s be honest: There is no such thing as a “middle class,” and “working class” is an even less helpful descriptor.)

Something has to change. I don’t know what. Or how. But it must. I’ve called for a Jubilee – but it would need to be well-regulated and independently controlled. Student loan debt should, naturally, be forgiven. Other excessive debts should be easier to negotiate. Companies and nations can significantly reduce and restructure their debts. Why can’t we?

(One could take another line of attack: Extending credit to someone means you trust them enough to pay you back, given all the information you have about them. The creditor makes that assumption. In fact, it makes the assumption it will earn back the money loaned and a nice chunk of extra money in interest fees. Now, if that person turns out to be a scofflaw – or, maybe, just maybe, a working, struggling single mother in a dilapidated neighborhood in Baltimore or a white boy in Texas who couldn’t find a decent-paying full-time gig for a number of years – who can’t or won’t pay his or her debt, you’ve lost your bet. Sorry. That’s how it goes. But we can’t look at it that way because it turns into a judicial matter. The creditor (the one with the money to lend) controls.)

I have a hard time seeing the current inhuman, socially damaging neoliberal economic policies functioning adequately for anyone much longer. I only hope others are beginning to seriously take note and question our current state of affairs, and that it might lead to action and reform. Much like concerns about ridesharing apps became a shared (worldwide) community issue that has led to fixes and discussions of the larger context in which those companies operate (worker rights, pay, safety, etc.).

But this is more important than Uber will ever be. If there’s no one to pay for a ride because they’ve all been eaten by their creditors, the company won’t long exist.

MR.S. in Economics

“These same decades (the last five) also witnessed an upsurge in the number of students majoring in economics, which is now the most popular concentration at two-thirds of the 40 top-ranked universities and liberal arts colleges.”

—George Scialabba, “Class and the Classroom: How Elite Universities Are Hurting America,” Foreign Affairs, Mar.–Apr. 2015.

This proves that economics is, clearly, the psychology for 21st century college students. That is, the default for those who don’t know what to study; almost as valuable as that venerable MR.S. degree.

And people wonder why I don’t believe in economists.

(Robot) Technology and Policy

We’re used to hearing about bioethics panels and other organizations looking at the implications of robots, artificial intelligence, cloning and other areas of technological advancement. These are obviously areas with which humans must be concerned as we move forward. But, as I’ve argued here for a while now, I think it’s important that we not save that reflection only for The Big Things — the ones that nearly make us look like gods — and apply it to new technologies that come into our lives everyday.

Lacking much of that (though it definitely exists, and I spend much of my time teasing out those pieces among all the tech/design/culture writing in print and on the Web), I did find a good report, How Humans Respond to Robots: Building Public Policy Through Good Design out today by Heather Knight from the Brookings Institution, looking at the policy implications of robotics. It’s a good read. I just want to pull out a couple of quotes that I think reinforce what I’m trying to do by writing about technological solutionism and keeping our skepticism frosty. I’m no Luddite (said every tech critic ever), I just want us to think and consider our technology before we make it a part of ourselves, our daily lives and our ecosystems. Continue reading

Like Hannibal Lecter, Economists Eat Brains

Shitloads of Money by Liz Phair on Grooveshark
I stopped by the Leander Public Library after dropping Misty off at work this morning. I actually went inside, got a library card (you only need photo ID now! not photo ID and mail), browsed, looked up some books and ended up checking out three.

I’ve had a library card for every city I’ve ever lived in — unless it was a base library card instead of the local town’s. Air Force bases tend to have really good libraries.

It was disappointing at how small this new, white stone building was. There are actually two wings, but one is dedicated to conference rooms, according to the librarian with whom I spoke. The kids’ area was huge. It could have passed for a daycare, without the unattended kids running everywhere (only a couple). The Austin Public Library often seemed to be a daytime homeless shelter. That wouldn’t fly long in Leander.

With most of my books in storage, and my new medications waking me up as early as 3:30 in the morning now, I’ve been desiring a non-e-book to satisfy my brain tickling. (Seriously, it sort of feels that way — as if my brain were tingling with desire to start reading or writing and a then a wash of pleasure — tickling — comes over it during the act.) I’d read all the printed literature (newspapers, books, magazines, journals, etc.) in the house. I needed something I could run my finger down the margin, follow the words with my finger, generally ensure I mess up all the doors in the house. I just love the feeling of books. And the smell. Misty makes fun of me for smelling books. I make fun of her for not. Continue reading

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