The Polar Vortex

TFW you’re trying to talk to your political polar opposite and just feel like you’re hopelessly spinning…

I often find myself in a situation where useful dialog with a hardcore conservative isn’t really possible because we don’t share enough reality. I doubt we disagree substantively on what we want for the country. We likely disagree on what policies will get us there, but that could be a useful discussion topic. However, and most importantly, we disagree on what’s actually happening and/or has happened. That’s problematic. Without a shared reality, conversation just becomes noise. They think I live in fake news land, and I think they live in a conservative bubble.

Still, I think there’s progress to be made if we can stop seeing each other in extremes. The vast majority of the left does not want a Socialist country any more than the vast majority of the right wants a Fascist one. As an example, it’s wrong to conflate someone’s desire to socialize medical insurance with a desire to turn us into Venezuela. This country has lots of socialized sectors already (schools, roads, military, pensions, etc.) and largely we’re all fine with that because it’s been that way for a very long time. There are good reasons for and against adding medical insurance to that list, but it’s wrong to think that socializing medical insurance is suddenly a gateway to full-on Socialism for all industries. Virtually no one wants that. The key is to stop seeing each other’s policies as nefarious apocalyptic goals, but as different means to the same goals.

This is complicated by the reality that there do exist politicians and interest groups pushing policies with nefarious goals, but selling them as supporting voters’ goals. It’s in everyone’s interest to expose these disingenuous Trojan policies. But again, doing so is predicated on a shared reality—on agreeing about what has happened—on what is happening. As long as reality remains a construct of the side with the best marketing, it’s hard to see how we get there.

“America cannot be intimidated” – Bullshit

On 9/11, we all take a moment to remember the tragedy of that day so many years ago, and the sacrifice of the victims, first responders, soldiers, and others who were lost as a result. It is a time for solemn reflection, but also maybe a time for a reality check.

America fancies itself the Chuck Norris of nations. Our cultural identity is tightly wrapped in our being mighty, righteous, and unshakable. But if we’re truly honest with ourselves, if we dig under that facade of bravado, we see that we are scared as hell… and 9/11 made that possible.

Fear has always been a tool for control. It’s baked into the human condition. But 9/11 was a gateway that turned fear into a political industry. The fear that 9/11 was only the beginning was used to conflate a fear of Al-Qaeda into a fear of Muslims and the Middle East, which sold the war on Iraq. That same fear was exploited to strip away many of our rights to privacy and personal freedom. That worked so well, it spawned an entire media empire dedicated to making us afraid.

Today we are still afraid of Islamic terrorism, but we’re also afraid of North Korea, socialism, gun laws, climate scientists, taxes, immigrants, PoC, the LBGT, drugs, China, non-Christians, gluten, and even our own government. America cannot be intimidated? Bullshit. America has institutionalized intimidation.

The objective of terrorism is to instill fear. Fear is debilitating. People make poor choices when they are afraid. The 9/11 terrorists made us momentarily afraid. But opportunistic Americans have turned that into a state of perpetual fear. The terrorists have succeeded beyond bin Laden’s wildest dreams, but only because of what we’ve done to ourselves. The terrorists lit a fire, but we fed it and fanned it.

If you want to truly honor the legacy of 9/11, conquer your fear. If you want to make America great again, conquer your fear. Fear is the mind killer.

Minimum Wage, Maher, and Math

CORRECTION: The original article contained an assumption of 25m people currently at minimum wage. That number is incorrect in that it actually represents the number of workers below $11.50/hr that would be impacted by a new $10.10 minimum wage. This did, in fact make the math wrong. The article below has been changed to include more accurate numbers.

Maher-MinWageThe ongoing political battle over minimum wage too often seems to lose site of the larger goal each side is trying to achieve. And further, I’m increasingly understanding that the stated goals are not too far apart. This leads me to believe that someone has an actual goal different from their professed goal, or that my math is just way the hell off.

As Bill Maher alludes to in the depicted quote, the right is frequently on record as having a desire to reduce or eliminate safety net programs. This is also a goal of the left. The difference being that the right seems to want to eliminate the net on the premise the need will then go away, whereas the left wants to eliminate the need for the net so it can die of natural causes.

Let me start by asserting something I hope everyone can agree on. As a society, we will not simply remove the safety net and let any significant portion of the population wallow in abject poverty. While some may see this as an obvious humanitarian position, even the most pure-blood capitalist has to recognize that, historically, having a large, persistent, impoverished, and increasingly desperate economic underclass never ends very well for those who control the wealth and resources. To that end, there is an inherent balance between the government subsidizing low-skill workers through safety net programs and having private industry pay full freight for the labor they are using. Someone is going to pay for these folks.

My second assertion is that there is no ideological reason to keep the minimum wage at the current $7.25 rate. If you accept minimum wage as adding value to the economy and to society, then it should represent a living wage that would allow a worker to live without government supplements. If you fall on the side of free market capitalism, then there should be no minimum wage and the market should set the rate at whatever it will bear.

Third, let’s assume that the current minimum wage, in addition to current safety net supplements, are minimal but sufficient compensation for low-skill workers. Finally, let’s assume the CBO report (PDF) on the impact of raising the minimum wage to $10.10 is a reasonable predictor of the outcome.

Given these constraints, the cases to consider are an increased minimum wage at which workers’ dependence on the safety net would be lessened or eliminated, verses a natural wage floor that if lower than the current minimum wage would require an increase in safety net benefits just to keep workers even with where they are today.

Now for the math: the CBO says there are 17m low wage workers (currently making below $10.10/hr), and as a result of raising the minimum to $10.10/hr, 500k (3%) would lose their jobs and the remainder would get a raise. As seen in the worksheet below, assuming the lost jobs are all at the current minimum wage end, the newly unemployed represent a $7.25b loss of wages.

In the other case, I think we can agree that given the current unemployment rate for low-skill workers that there is an excess of supply. This means the $7.25 minimum wage is holding the wage floor artificially high. Market forces should seek a lower wage, and I think we can say with confidence that absent a minimum wage law, the wages of the majority of low-skill workers would fall.  For the model below, I somewhat generously assumed that 20% of workers currently at the minimum wage would retain that wage because their value to their employers warranted it. I also assumed that the actual wage for the remaining 80% would fall by only $0.30/hr, which is almost certainly a low number. Still, the resultant wage losses for the group amount to $7.92b.

In addition, the CBO estimates that 8m workers who are currently above the $10.10/hr rate would see a net positive gain from the ripple effect of a higher minimum wage. While not stated, presumably this group would be negatively effected by the ripple of the wage floor falling. (None of the 8m were included in this corrected analysis.)


In either case, we’ve assumed the government is on the hook to provide some form of substitute compensation to make up the loss for the effected workers. Clearly, it’s cheaper for the government to wholly pay for the unemployed 3% than to offset the loss of the 97%.

Further, the minimum wage increase should lessen the dependence on the safety net for the workers who get raises. Assuming workers only reduce their dependence by $600/yr, the result is a $7.92b savings that more than offsets the payments to the 3%. Given that Food Stamp benefits alone are about $1600/yr/person and EITC ranges from $500 to over $6k, recovering $600/employee seems pretty conservative. This is backed up by the CBO report that concludes for the raised minimum wage case that the impact on the federal budget would be a wash.

There is no obvious offsetting revenue stream for letting the market set the wage floor unless we assume a rise in corporate profits and increased revenue from corporate taxes. If this new tax revenue offsets the incremental safety net cost, then why not have the companies pay the money directly to their workers through wages rather than paying it in taxes and having the government redistribute it to those same workers?

All bleeding heart issues aside, I can’t see how raising the minimum wage is not a net economic benefit to society as a whole. Certainly it’s not a disaster as federal minimum wages have been around since 1938—a period during which the USA rose to be the preeminent economic power in the world. This does not prove causation, but does prove that prosperity is very possible with a minimum wage in place.

Further, economically speaking, having the government set a minimum wage is not different than a union or other collective bargaining organization setting a wage-price above what the natural unregulated non-unionized worker price would be.

It seems that advocating for the alternative to a living minimum wage necessarily admits some hidden ideological agenda. Perhaps the motivation is really to benefit individual companies rather than society. Perhaps the assumption that we wouldn’t financially marginalize chunks of our population is not valid. But it’s unclear how it can be rationalized to be about macroeconomic benefit to the country. Or maybe my math really (still?) is whacked. I’m happy to have the error in my ways pointed out, because I’m clearly missing something here.

GOP senators to feds: Leave the Internet alone

12217_large_neutral-bits.pngIt’s this sort of thing that really pisses me off. The intention is exactly right. The Internet should be free of interference. It should continue to be accessible by anyone, empower content and service creators, and foster innovation. Yet excluding all government regulation of the Internet is exactly contrary to achieving that goal.

In fairness, the issue of Net Neutrality is a bit complicated.  Most people don’t know how the Internet works. And this leaves open the opportunity to exploit that lack of understanding through politi-speak gems like this

“There are exceptions of course, but far too often, when you hear someone say, ‘We need regulations to protect the Internet,’ what they’re actually saying is they don’t really trust the entrepreneurs and Internet technologists to create the economic growth and to increase public welfare.”

Net Neutrality regulations don’t stifle entrepreneurs and technologists. Rather, they keep the network available for them. Net Neutrality reigns in big ISPs from exploiting their effective monopolies for increased profit and offering preferential treatment for other large companies who can afford to pay to play. It protects the consumer and the entrepreneur from big business.

In a very real way, keeping the government from regulating the Internet is simply paving the way for a few large private business to regulate it. There’s no way that ends well for small businesses and consumers.

All regulations are restricting someone else’s freedom. That doesn’t make them all bad. Net Neutrality regulations are all about preserving the freedom of the Internet. If you would rather trust AT&T, Time Warner, Verizon, and Comcast to keep your network a free and open egalitarian network… you’re more than a little naive.

SOPA on a Rope

SOPA-on-a-ropeThe current bill in Congress known as SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) or as it’s known in the Senate, PROTECT IP (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property) is just beginning to get coverage in the non-technical press.  In draft, this was called the E-PARASITE Act (Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation Act). Seriously, who names these things?

From the names, it all sounds like goodness right? Theft, exploitation, piracy, who wants that?  If only it were that simple.

The intent of the bill is to crack down on illegal online file sharing.  There’s ample room for debate about how damaging online piracy truly is, and whether or not it makes business sense for content providers to aggressively attack their customers, but that’s a topic for another day.  Even if we accept that online piracy threatens to destroy the music and movie industry (just like VHS tapes and writable CDs did), the proposed bill is absolutely not the way to go about preventing it.

There are lots of articles out there on why this is so.  You can read the bill yourself, or read others’ analyses here, here, or here.  However, let me try and boil down the basics for you.

The Great Firewall of the USA: Enforcement of SOPA will require the creation of a Internet filters by all domestic ISPs to control what sites you are allowed to visit. This may be well intentioned censorship, but it’s still censorship, and it puts the mechanisms in place for less benign intentions. Do we really want to head down that slippery slope?

Online Security: Let’s face it, once the firewall goes up, many of us will find ways around it. This will involve a combination of foreign or rogue DNS servers, proxies, or VPN services. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to believe that once you start getting your Internet delivered through black market servers that your online security will be at greater risk.

No More Safe Harbors:  The current law allows web site owners some protection under the “safe harbor” clause.  That means that if you were to post a comment on this article containing some illegal content, the owner of the content could demand I take it down, and I would be obliged to do so. But if the owner wanted to sue for damages, he couldn’t sue me as the website owner.  Rather, he’d have to come after you as the one who posted it.  Under SOPA, that protection is gone.  If you upload a funny Big Bang Theory clip to Facebook, CBS can sue Mark Zuckerberg for damages. SOPA will undoubtedly result in far fewer sites taking on the risk of letting you post things on them. The web will become a lot less participatory.

Loss of Due Process:  This is perhaps the most egregious implication. Under SOPA, website owners are guilty until proven innocent.  Based only on an accusation of having illegal content on your site, anyone can demand that the ISPs block access to your site, and may further demand that all banks stop doing business with you.  Sure, you can appeal to the court, but that could take months or years to settle. In the meantime, you’re out of business.

As the major backer of SOPA, the entertainment industry is making lots of assurances that the provisions of SOPA would never be used for anything but the most noble of causes.  They are full of it.  These same people have already collaborated with the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to stretch the In Rem Forfeiture clause (allowing for the immediate seizure of property used in the commission of a crime) to include domain name seizures of websites with no warning or due process.  They are wielding this with a broad brush and have repeatedly seized domains eventually found legal by the courts, but by then put out of business.  Oops.

This whole SOPA mess has also created some strange bedfellows.  The tech community and most high tech companies have come out against it.  Along side them are Michele Bachmann and her Tea Party Coalition.  Ironically, the Tea Party and the Techies were on staunchly opposite sides of the Net Neutrality debate, so this is a somewhat uneasy alliance.

On the other side we find the Hollywood studios, music companies, and the organizations like RIAA and the MPAA that lobby for them.  We also find VP Joe Biden and several key Democratic legislators who have historically been supportive of anything Hollywood wants.  To her credit, Hillary Clinton has expressed some concerns about SOPA, and Obama claims to be on the fence.

To that end, Obama is currently taking input on the issue.  If you want to oppose the bill, go to the White House website and sign the online petition.  As of this writing, we are still a few thousand signatures short of the “pay attention to me” threshold.  Yes, you have to create a White House account to sign the thing, but it only takes a minute.

On the other hand, if you think SOPA sounds like a great idea and want to know how to support it, please write a long letter and mail it to your local animal shelter. They are always looking for material to line the bird cages with.