Saturday, November 20, 2010

Consent of the Governed

First, a Facebook Friend posted this link:
12 Facts That Will Blow Your Mind – Federal Employees And Members Of Congress Are Getting Rich While Those Of Us Who Pay Their Salaries Suffer

So I had a few responses. Here they are, as commented on the thread:
#1: What's the source of her money? Just her salary as a Congresscritter?
#2: The Federal Government employs doctors, dual-PhDs, and people at CEO-level responsibility for government agencies. $150k a year is *low* for those types of jobs.... Do we want all the inmates in our Federal prisons to be seen by doctors who can't get a "real" job? Is that in the interest of public safety?
#3: ...which is why we need campaign reform. You can't become a member of Congress without your own war chest.
#4: there were 4,434,431 US government employees (including uniformed military personnel) as of 2009 ( So that's an average of $100,000 in *total compensation*... which includes things like military pensions, health benefits, etc. The typical ratio for benefits to compensation in the non-profit sector is 25%; it's probably higher for government jobs, as our military members and many civil servants have excellent benefits (like fully-paid health care or actual pensions rather than just 401ks). So then we're talking about more like an average salary of $75,000... including 1.3 million active-duty military members, thousands of doctors, etc.
#5: ...because we want the "average American" crafting legislation and advising on foreign policy? the average American can't find Germany on a map. Let's instead talk about how many people are making *far* below "average".
#6: The right of labor to organize is protected by law, for good reason. Wal-Mart employees aren't. Who do we want in charge of spending our tax dollars?
#7: Again, we need campaign reform. These people were rich long before they became electeds.
#8: We're complaining because people got raises? How many people were making $140k in 2005? $140k in 2005 is $156k now, just due to inflation.
#9: Don't know much about this issue. How much insider trading do members of Congress do? Which members of Congress have had legislation put before them that would make it illegal and refused to vote for it? What about the current legislation in the works... does it address the issue?
#10: And what's the difference in responsibility? You can slip the matre'd a ten-spot and get a table faster... do we want that at the IRS? The airport? Our prisons?
#11: I'll agree that benefits in the private sector suck.
#12: I want to invest in what they did. How much of that was real estate, btw? And how much did they lose in the crash?

This is an incredibly biased, misleading, and destructive way of looking at isolated pieces of information context-free to try to just get people against government. Get the *whole* story; don't let the pundits make your opinions for you.
The OP then asked an insightful and useful question for such a dialogue, which was (paraphrased; I haven't solicited permission to quote anyone) "What does government mean to you?"

So, here it is... again, as posted:
Government is a social contract among the governed. In a hypothetical state of nature without government, there is only natural and acquired power. Natural power is attributes like strength, beauty, and intelligence, which can be used to ...acquire power. Acquired power consists of things like resources, loyalty, or fame.

In the state of nature, those with less natural and/or acquired power (usually highly correlated) are consistently at a disadvantage to those with more. As social creatures, we depend on each other for not just the "extras," but bare survival... people cannot be healthy and whole in isolation. But in the state of nature, there is little one can do to prevent antisocial behavior on the part of someone more powerful. An individual lacks second-strike capacity: if I kill you for your food, you are now dead and can't take action against me.

So we form alliances. Ten people with less power can create a social contract, and best one person who is more powerful than each of them individually. Eventually, even the powerful realize they are better off by engaging in and complying with the social contract.

Modern government has come a long way in developing methods of negotiating and re-negotiating that contract, but in the end, it's still the same thing. Government is made up of people. We agree. We don't all, individually, agree with everything "government" does, but we all agree to be bound by the decisions of government, because we are better off than if we "go it alone." As social creatures, we are infinitely healthier and better-off in alliance than isolated.

When "government" is misbehaving, it's our job, as those who imbue government with its power, to find out why and fix it. To me, an awful lot of the issues we face today can be addressed by reforming campaign finance, so that people, rather than money, elect our government. I also think we need to get back to truth-telling; we seem to have no power to stop those with the acquired power of fame from just flat-out lying to influence people's opinions on the job of government. This causes them to vote, again and again, against the interests of themselves and most people, to the advantage of a few.

The social contract is breaking down. We don't fix that by breaking it further, but by remembering that these people only have the power to damage us because WE GAVE IT TO THEM. We can choose to give that power elsehow, too
...Never mind that "elsehow" doesn't appear to be in my browser's spelling dictionary. I like it.

For anyone who wants to know more about the social contract and the state of nature, start with Hobbes's Leviathan. Rousseau also did a lot on this. I had to read this stuff for some Sociology class, you should too. ;-)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I made this.

I remember looking down at my approximately seven month old baby almost six years ago now, and realizing with a shock that nearly every molecule in his body came from mine.

WOW. Powerful thought, huh? At that point, he was still making "food face" every time we tried to give him something solid, so he was still pretty much exclusively nursing, as he had been since birth (aside from the 20 ccs of infant formula the pediatrician at the hospital pushed on us because we didn't know what a wet disposable looked like :-/). So not only had the original 8 pounds 6 ounces of him come directly out of my body, the raw material he'd turned into the next 15 pounds had, too. (Yes, my 7-month-old was about 24 pounds. That's not a math error.)

So I'm reading The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely, who is a behavioral economist at Duke University, and there's a chapter on the meaning of labor. Turns out, when we make things ourselves, we value them more. He calls it The Ikea Effect, and says, " increase your feelings of pride and ownership in your daily life, you should take a larger part in creating more of the things you use in your daily life."

This triggered my memory of that moment, when I realized this whole entire person on my lap was something I made (with some design assistance from my husband). How does that change how I value my child(ren)? Or, to put it a devastating way... how does the near-universal adoption of formula feeding for part or all of infancy compromise a mother's natural, normal pride in and value of her child?

A couple of pages later, he goes on at more length about how this phenomenon enters our everyday lives:
Similarly, we think we will not enjoy assembling furniture, so we buy the ready-made version. We want to enjoy movies in surround sound, but we imagine the stress involved in trying to connect a four-speaker stereo system to a television, so we hire someone else to do it for us. We like sitting in a garden but don't want to get sweaty and dirty digging up a garden space or mowing the lawn, so we pay a gardener to cut the grass and plant some flowers. We want to enjoy a nice meal, but shopping and cooking are too much trouble, so we eat out or just pop something in the microwave.

Sadly, in surrendering our effort in these activities... we may actually give up a lot of deep enjoyment because, in fact, it's often effort that ultimately creates long-term satisfaction.
Another WOW. This touches on so many things. People ask me "what do you EAT?" when they hear what I don't: gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, nightshades (not to mention artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives). What I eat is mostly what I make myself. Yes, doughnut day at work drives me crazy sometimes, and there are days where my brain throws its own little fit at the idea of having to jump straight into dinner prep as soon as I get home (once I've gotten snacks for the kids, nursed the baby, and started the older one on his homework). Every so often, I think, "I wish I could just call Crispy Crust and be done with it."

And then I'm glad I can't. Because if I could, I would... and I wouldn't feel good about it. I'd feel like a cop-out, a lazy bum, someone who isn't doing the right thing. Our modern world tempts us constantly to cut corners and compromise, and in the process cheats us out of so much satisfaction. While our Big List of food allergies makes things tricky, it also forces me to make, invent, and create.

And therefore, to enjoy.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

We interrupt this important message with mindless drivel.

I haven't finished the Prop 13 post yet. I've realized it needs more work; the basic idea is there, but there's math and stuff. Usually it's fun, but right now* I'm not in the mood.

But I want to write. So here's a little exercise in semi-automatic writing**... we'll see where it goes.

I'm optimistic about the incoming Congress. I have this hope, that doesn't seem entirely unrealistic to me, that one or both of the following things will happen:

1. The frosh Congresscritters, suddenly having this as their real *job* with staffers who, some of them, may actually have some experience and background in running a Congressional district, might learn a thing or two about how things work. Like waiting periods for health care, and why we thought it'd be a good idea to abolish them. Or why it's cheaper to provide a social safety net than to just let people languish on the street. Or any number of things.

2. Because the Tea Party is somewhat outside the scope of the mainstream Republican party, some of the veteran Republicans may find it makes sense for them to break ranks and side with the Democrats on any number of things. Which is a nice way of saying that they'll be afraid of looking like idiots by association.

Sure, it may just be a ridiculous deadlock. I can hope, at the very least, the the Democrats will have learned by now that "bipartisan cooperation" takes two to tango, and the conservatives didn't come to the dance. Then, at least, they can be doing things, passing things through the Senate, the tsk-tsking when the House turns them down over and over. If only they'd done that the first two years, we might not be in this position.

But overall, I have severe politics fatigue. I try to care. Really I do. But it's so disgusting what some of these people want to do to us, to me. Hell yes I take it personally. Knowing that my family would be in deep doo-doo with health care if my husband lost his job? That's personal. Knowing that there are homeless people picking through my trash cans because we can't seem to find it in our hearts to provide decent social services? That's personal. Knowing that my son's elementary school is about to lose their librarian and their plant manager, and while the school is raising huge noise of protest, nothing is going to change because there's no money because me and my neighbors all have nicely insulated property tax rates? That's VERY personal.

And sometimes I make the mistake of reading the comments on articles on the Los Angeles Times website. Wow that hurts. I'm surrounded by hateful, hurtful people who vote. How do I meet that without wanting to crawl into a hole?

But on the upside... it could be worse! That's the ticket. I should just go back to that optimism thing I was enjoying earlier.

* i.e., the last three weeks.
** Automatic writing is an exercise my mom used to have her English classes do. You set a timer for five minutes, and you don't stop writing the whole time. Even if you're not actually creating prose, you just keep the words flowing. You don't correct, you don't even really think... you just put words to paper. It's different on a computer, and I'm far too compulsive for not correcting things... hence, semi-automatic. But now it sounds like a weapon. "Words are better weapons... words are the way to break through without blood." Peter Dee, "...And Stuff."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Prop 13: California's Mother-in-law

July 4th, 1979, I learned that Proposition 13 was evil. From our balcony in Echo Park, we had always watched the various municipal fireworks displays put on by Parks and Recreation and other public entities. It was a heck of a show; we would get our own "safe & sane" sparklers and snakes, and maybe even a fountain, but the real show was after the lights went down, on the public dime.

But that year was different. I was very eager for the shows to start, but my parents cautioned me to temper my five-year-old enthusiasm, because "Since Proposition 13," there would not be nearly as many shows.

They were right. We saw a few poofs of color, dimmed by smog, from the Coliseum and a couple other large venues... but very little else. I shook my head around and pretended that the afterimages of the city lights were fireworks. I also plotted the demise of "Proposition 13."

Nowadays, things have changed. The smog is barely a fraction of what it was, thanks to smog checks, CAFE standards, and a dramatic reduction in industrial activity. And the fireworks are better than ever, thanks to the Internet and a still-porous southern border. With the money saved on property taxes, thousands of Angelenos are able to buy professional-quality fireworks to set off from their backyards. Meanwhile, we spend far more on Independence Day overtime for cops and firefighters than we used to before Prop 13, and we have less money to do it with.

But the truth is, Proposition 13 solved a real and pressing problem. The real estate market is quite a bit more volatile than other markets; before Prop 13, your assessed value could go up tens of thousands of dollars in a single year, raising your tax bill by several hundred dollars. Let's remember, it was 1978, and hundreds of dollars was worth more than three times as much. The fact is, in just a couple of years, a neighborhood becoming suddenly fashionable could push a family out of a home they'd owned for 10 years, just because they could no longer afford the tax bill. Looking at it with today's prices, I sold a house in Echo Park in 2001 for $238k. That same house, at the market peak in 2006 or so, would have sold for probably $650k. Without Prop 13, the property taxes would have gone up by $12,000 in five years. That's unsustainable for most households, and prevents strong communities from persisting.

But it went too far... way, WAY too far. Here's a chart to help explain:
Citation: me. I did this for my term paper in Urban Planning 253 ("Sprawl"). That's why it only goes to 2000; I did this in 2005, and that was the latest data I could get. Someday, I'll update it.

It still illustrates the issue. The line shows the real value (inflation-adjusted value) of property assessments by year of tenure as a percentage of inflation-adjusted purchase value. Basically, every year, inflation pushes prices higher and the value of the dollar lower (those are really equivalent statements), which means that even if your neighborhood is static, your house will be worth a greater number of dollars. However, the limitation that Prop 13 put on how fast your assessed value (the value used to calculate your taxes) could rise meant that assessed value couldn't keep up with real dollar value... in other words, when adjusted for inflation, your assessed value got lower every year. Based on inflation rates (which were very high in the late 1970s - early 1980s, but were very low by the end of the 1990s), the assessed value of a house bought in 1978 would be just barely over half as much as the number you would get if you put the original purchase price into an inflation calculator. This isn't looking at market value in any way... just the extent to which inflation outpaced the maximum 2% increase instituted by Prop 13.

The color coding has to do with what proportion of the housing stock, as of the 2000 census, had been purchased in that year (or before, in the case of 1978). As you can see, a quarter of houses fell into the bottom category, with assessments that were 60% or less of what the owner originally paid for the house. (The selected break points between tenure categories were selected based on large changes in inflation rates, if I recall correctly.)

So here's the problem in a nutshell: Prop 13 totally destroyed our ability to maintain infrastructure, sponsor first-class education, or even give people fireworks displays so they wouldn't have to make their own. But at the same time, it did create one important positive change: it let families plan their expenses when they bought a house, and know that, barring catastrophe, they should be able to continue to live there. Just as many people find their mother-in-law reorganizes the cabinets all wrong, teaches their children things they don't want them to learn, and makes them feel ungraceful or unbeautiful or otherwise unworthy... but she did create someone worth loving and marrying, which balances for a lot of ills.

I hate Prop 13, but we can't throw the baby out with the bathwater. It needs to be fixed, not abolished. But this post is too long already, so you'll just have to wait with bated breath to find out my glorious plan for doing so. (Then I have to somehow get Jerry Brown and the entire California Legislature to read my blog.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Not MY fantasy

Like approximately 11,999,999 other people on this planet, I play World of Warcraft. At least, I have before, and almost certainly will again, though my account is currently inactive. I've never been a hardcore player... the game wasn't released until after my first child was born, so I've never spent 13 hours straight raiding like I did in my EverQuest days. But I have a max level main and a level 70 alt, plus a couple other fairly high-level characters. I mostly play with my husband, though that's more a matter of convenience than anything else; when a child may have an emergency at any moment, it's good to have someone around to auto-follow.

So we decided to go to Blizzcon this year. Friends were going, and it seemed like a good idea. It may even have been one, but that's not what I'm writing about here. Those who know of Blizzcon, have been before, or follow it at all, may have heard this year's wasn't as good as prior years. I have no idea; this was my first one. I privately refer to it as Glitzcon. It was very shiny, but not particularly useful. I may get sucked into Diablo III. But I digress.

During the WoW open Q&A, a female human asked something very much like: "I really love that the game contains all these strong female characters, and I'm glad that you've included women who are clearly leaders. I was just wondering, is it possible that in Cataclysm [the upcoming expansion], there may be some that don't look like they just stepped out of a Victoria's Secret catalog?"

First crowd reaction: cheers. Those voices were female. Secondary reaction: boos. Much louder, as those were the male voices... which made up roughly 75% of the audience. One guy nearby shouted, "Hey, it's FANTASY!"

Which is the justification: don't take it hard, honey, because this is fantasy. And it is. And frankly, I'm not so bothered by the laws-of-physics-defying bustiers and long belts in place of skirts.

What bothers me is that the guys are all fully dressed.

And this is about something bigger than a game, or even a genre of games. Feminism has long placed undue emphasis on the way women are perceived, represented, and portrayed. But the problem isn't how women are dressed or scripted... it is the difference between how women and men are displayed.

In your next journey through World of Warcraft or a similar game, look around you. See how many glistening biceps and totally cut pecs you see on display. Count the briefs, loincloths, and cut-offs sported by unrealistically beautiful manly men. Inventory the six packs, the open vests, the torn shirts.

You'll only need one hand, I bet.

And why is it like that? Well, here's a guess: it may have something to do with the demographics of the folks making the game. Of the five lead artists, designers, coders, etc. on stage, five were men. And they know what men want: to know that their sexuality is unquestioned. They do NOT want to be confronted with sexy male figures when they're trying to relax! That's gay, or something.

So why is it expected that women should be comfortable with the same thing? Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. (Which apparently means that if we kill you, pluck you, chop off your head and feet, and cook you, no one cares whether you're male or female, just how you taste with gravy.)

Last I heard, nearly half of WoW players are female. As half of people are female, this suggests there may be some untapped market out there. It may be time for the designers to break themselves out of the tautology of [most players are male] ∴ [all eye candy is female] ∴ [most players are male].

And while we're at it, maybe the guys who like to suggest that women are being overly sensitive when they point out these disparities can take a good, hard look at a Google Image Search of construction worker shirtless and see just how comfortable they would be with the shoe on the other foot. I think we've been awfully patient. (Update: or just take a gander at the artwork here.)

/em hopes the Blizzard team doesn't decide to initiate equity with the Goblin race.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The World is Small, and Strangely Shaped

It's not so much that it's a small world, but that it seems to fold in on itself in some places.

Today in my facebook feed, an acquaintance posted that she had lost a dear friend. Once, we moved in much the same circles, but these days we only have a few friends in common, so I didn't think much on it.

Farther down the feed, someone with whom I share much the same relationship posted something similar. I assumed it was likely the same person, and probably no one I knew... except...

With a creeping sense of dread, I flipped over to IM, and sighed with relief to see a particular friend online... a friend who was a onetime boyfriend of the first mourning acquaintance, and is now the roommate of the second. I told him how very glad I was to know that it wasn't HIM who died.

As I related this story to my husband, as a postscript I said "Yeah, some guy who goes by Burning Dan."

"OMG, They KNOW him?" He exclaimed. Apparently, his death was big news in the entertainment world... his brother played a major supporting role in a little art film called Inception.

And now, I'm sorry my friends are mourning, but I can't help being glad that I didn't really know the guy. I may have met him at a party sometime in the last decade or so, but I don't remember. So then I'm also sad that I can't be part of the collective memory of his life... but then again, he seems to have that covered. Everyone seems to have known him BUT me.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

If people treated grocery stores like government

“Greetings, ma’am, what seems to be the problem?”

“This grocery bill. Just LOOK at the total! That’s MUCH too high!”

“I’m sorry, was there an error with the register? What is the total supposed to be?”

“Well, it ought to be a LOT lower than that. I can’t afford to spend that much!”

“Okay, let’s get this taken care of… what do the prices add up to?”

“What? I don’t know. That’s YOUR job! I don’t have time to look at the individual items and total them up!”

“Okay…” [spends a moment with a pocket calculator] “The total seems to be correct, ma’am. Did we charge you for an item you didn’t select, perhaps?”

“I NEED all the items I bought! But they shouldn’t cost this much. Why does it cost so d*** much?!”

“Well, first – ”

“I mean, look at this: ‘Canteloupe, 2.1 lbs. @ $1.99/lb., $4.18!’ That’s highway robbery! I could grow 20 canteloupes in my backyard for that price!”

“Well, of course you could, ma’am. But there’s a lot of other costs that come into that price.”

“What kind of cr*p are you charging me for on top of my melon? All I asked for was a cantaloupe!”

“Right, but we also have to take into account the cost of picking it, packing it, transporting it to the market, the employees who work here, their benefits—”

“Did I SAY I wanted to give the employees benefits? No, I don’t think I DID. You’ll be taking THAT off the price now, won’t you?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t. Our company offers benefits to the employees as a matter of policy and is contractually obligated to continue.”

“Well, I don’t see why that’s MY problem. Why should I pay for it? I didn’t sign that contract!”

“No, of course not. And you’re free to shop elsewhere.”

“Oh, so that’s your answer, just go somewhere else! Well, I’ll tell you something, missy… I’ve been shopping here my whole life! My parents shopped here! My grandparents shopped here when it was a general store! So don’t you be telling me to just ‘shop somewhere else’ if I don’t like it! What, you probably just moved into this neighborhood to take advantage of our nice schools and pretty trees. You don’t know what this store means to me! Why, our family is so dedicated to this store, we bought stock in the company!”

“You… own stock in this store?”

“YES! So I guess that means I’m in charge, and you’ll be taking those “benefits” off my receipt now!”

“Well, as I said, I can’t do that. But YOU can vote in the next stockholder’s meeting, and might be able to change things, if enough of the other stockholders agree with you.”

“I vote in every stockholder’s meeting, but it never changes things! My uncle says ‘vote for this, it’s best for profits’ and then the value doesn’t go up. It’s ridiculous!”

“Well, you could look into the issues yourself and make your own decision…”

“I have a life of my own, you know. I don’t have time to be micromanaging everything for you.”

“So, ma’am, what would you like me to do today?”

“Give me everything I want. But make it cost less. And make it better, too. But don’t ask me to help.”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

What I wish everyone knew about economics

  • Economics is the science of decision-making. It has nothing to do with money, except incidentally as a proxy measure for decision-making behavior.
  • Human beings do not make decisions on a rational basis in MANY situations. We are very heavily influenced by things we are totally unconscious of.

  • Adam Smith postulated that a free market could be the most efficient allocator of limited resources if it had three things: Perfect Information, Perfect Competition, and Perfect Mobility. Perfect Information means that all producers and consumers know everything about all the products. Perfect Competition means that no ONE producer has the power to influence prices market-wide. Perfect Mobility means that all consumers can choose among all producers in a particular market.

    We have NONE of these things. HOWEVER... pretty much any government regulation of markets is in the interest of moving us *closer* to these things. Ingredients lists on food? Perfect Information. Anti-trust laws? Perfect Competition. No sales tax on out-of-state sales? Perfect Mobility (in that, when the law was created, it was prohibitive to interstate transactions to require the correct allocation of sales taxes between the buyer's and seller's state, and requiring sales taxes would have basically shut down interstate retail transactions).

  • There are market failures. These are circumstances where the market cannot efficiently allocate a resource. Health care is one; as the price someone is willing to pay for a procedure or medicine that may save their life is effectively unlimited, we cannot rely on demand to have a regulating effect on prices. As emergency medical situations require the fastest action possible, people cannot shop around to the ER that best meets their needs. These are failures of Perfect Competition and Perfect Mobility that simply can't be resolved by any amount of regulation; they're embedded in the product and demand itself.

Is this something?

People say I should have a blog. Maybe they're right. I could try it, see if it fits.

Thing is, I've never been interested in making a blog, because I've never much been interested in reading blogs. Occasionally, very occasionally, a friend will post somewhere that I actually do read "Hey, I've updated my blog with a post about ___________," and it will sound interesting, and I will read it. A subset of those times, I even comment on it. But this is deviation, not routine. (And yes, those few of my friends whose blogs I have read and commented on multiple times... it's totally appropriate to feel like you've won the lottery. Except this lottery consists of words, most of them hypersyllabic, and is of no cash value in any state except Denial.)

But I do spend an awful lot of time spewing words onto screen and disk, and sometimes I look at them and think, "Hey, that sounds good" (/tiphat to Tim Quirk and the rest of Too Much Joy). So this can be a place I can put them all together, to reuse as they come up.

Topic? There is no topic. Or rather, there will be several. I will probably yammer about transportation, food allergies, parenting, social justice, homelessness in Los Angeles, grammar flubs, suicidal bicyclists, and penguins. Among other things. Tagging is my friend.

I do hope this introduction serves to manage your expectations into a nice comfy chair, so that I won't let you down too much when I skip from topic to topic like a toddler taking inventory of the toy room.