Protesters, MLK, and Partisan Urges

Young protesters urgently need to go watch “Selma” and in general pause and think, “what would MLK do?” The Selma marchers gracefully expressed their humanity and decency with their faces visible, and created a clear contrast from the opposition’s hate and savagery. The scene and imagery created were more powerful than any weapon, and turned 800 marchers into 25,000 at the end. It was masterful leadership.

Protesters should quickly expel destructive/violent individuals and the idea of using masks or carrying weapons. Masking invites deindividuation and ugly mob behavior. Pulling down a statue by force may get some “attaboys” from their team, but expresses to others that their organization doesn’t respect the law, can’t be trusted to obey it, and doesn’t deserve its protection. All of this turns people away from a cause—even when it’s undisputably just—and creates virulent propaganda to be used against the cause.

Protesters very wrongly assume that the public is willing to forgive bad means to meet just ends, and 2017 America’s hyper-partisanship makes it extremely difficult to build wide coalitions—even against no-brainer causes like white supremacists are bad. It’s a sad state, but many conservatives’ stomachs churn at the idea of working with liberals. That blame is squarely on social media propagandists and on the GOP leadership—for supporting such rhetoric from their media cheerleaders, and while it’s wrong it cannot be ignored. Today, organizations can only build strong coalitions by carefully suppressing partisan urges, and there’s nothing wrong with doing so. It would be a tragedy if charities and organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous reduced their abilities to help by gaining political associations.

About those “partisan urges”. They feel good to indulge! Almost nothing feels better than really giving it to the other team, and Trump more than any politician employs this almost as a guiding principle, but it leads to some awful places. The PR folks working for white supremacists will no doubt point out their opponent’s faults, and note there were good people walking beside them at an event they lawfully planned with permits and everything. When cornered, President Trump said all of those on their behalf, to get in some what-about-ist jabs at liberals. When someone with a few beers in them does this at a BBQ it’s unseemly. For a sitting President of a country with our history, it was, as some conservatives rightly call it, “a moral disgrace.”

Questions about the President’s own feelings about race and past denouncements of racists don’t really matter when he gives hate groups fresh talking points. As of Sunday they can say “if you march beside us, Trump will take political risks to point out your goodness” and “his Monday denunciation of us was a hostage tape.” While I don’t think he’s racist, his statements will lead some to pause on that, and I can’t blame them.

Trump could absolutely have expressed almost all of what he did in a graceful way that did not go neutral on Nazis vs. People Against Nazis. Preparing your words isn’t just dumb politician stuff; it gives you time to sharpen your ideas and avoid stepping on them (“…on many sides”). He has to control his fiery hatred of liberals. First, because he’s leading a nation with a ton of them and it’s the right thing to do. Secondly, he needs them in Congress to really solve problems like healthcare. But lastly, because hatred is blinding, and at a moment the country was looking to him for guidance, it led him to treat the liberals’ enemies as his allies.

Monuments to a Government’s Failure

The Civil War is a strange case where the oppressors and terrorists, upon losing, were basically let alone to continue countless awful misdeeds, and the biggest slave owners retained all the power of government. The “freedom” blacks gained was purely notional until many decades later.

Imagine an alternate history where, instead, former slaves had been given real, meaningful citizenship: The right to vote unobstructed, to hold office, to receive the full protection of the law, and the opportunity to really be known and understood by the white population as fellow Americans. In this more just outcome, do we really think the citizens of the South, almost half black, would’ve chosen to publicly celebrate—with monuments and names of counties, towns, and streets—the cause to continue enslaving their children and neighbors?

We can’t know the answer, but I think it’s “absolutely not.”

These monuments exist because of the dismal failure of the government to protect its citizens from abuse; by fellow citizens, police, the courts, and the law.

If a community or its elected representatives desire it, they should come down in an orderly fashion, with the goal of preserving them. Communities deserve the freedom to decide what they will celebrate for the next few centuries.

The Civil War is better documented than it’s ever been, and if American schools and parents fail to teach history, a statue isn’t going to do it. What we’ve definitely failed to teach are the stories of the generations of Americans that lived under terror and de facto slavery after the war’s end, and through Jim Crow.

The Google Memo

I had a great conversation with Kathleen about the “Google memo”. We talked about her experiences and the greater context of several previous generations of women from the trailblazers to those who later entered workplaces in mass to find they were boy’s clubs.

We already had decades of the golden age of “free debate” workplaces where the topic was often whether women–or minorities–were “cut out for this line of work.” See the first few Mad Men eps, or ask a woman who went to work before the mid 80s. The fully “free debate” workplaces were found wanting and we rightly took some topics off the table. Absolutely some censorship in workplaces is critical! Over the years I’ve heard plenty “ideas” at work that created hostile environments, or would have in a more diverse group. It’s a shame the memo writer didn’t run this by a few women, ideally coworkers, before dumping to Google’s whole workforce. It may have sharpened his arguments and led him to a better approach to reaching his goals.

Naturally our culture around work formed under the assumption of women at home rearing children. Over decades millions of decisions were made without the idea of working women and raising families with both parents working. This isn’t a value judgment, but it means that firms who value diversity still have really big levers they can pull that make the consideration of miniscule biological differences just not that important. Firms will of course forever have to balance their diversity desires with the law’s prohibition of discrimination; the memo’s author basically accused Google of discrimination against men, and that’s for the courts to figure out.

I’ll give him this, he’s right that political viewpoint diversity is probably very lacking at Google, as it is nearly everywhere in America due to our acidic hyper-partisanship and geographical self-sorting. He referenced the Heterodox Academy and I’m a fan. In general diversity is so hard because humans don’t want to have uncomfortable conversations or get pushback on their ideas, even if weeds out the weak ideas and yields better solutions.

To some extent each firm has to consider whether actively fighting against a nationwide polarization trend is worth the hassle, but the more politically homogenous businesses will probably be the first to majorly mess up in public and “out” themselves as saying nasty things about half their customers.

Revisiting the outcomes of the 21th century Chinese import boom

The conventional wisdom among economists is that the post-2000 Chinese import boom—which we know rapidly devastated the American manufacturing base—was overall good for the U.S.; that (as I argue) artificial barriers to trade generally make both parties poorer, and over the long run trade ends up lifting all boats. While I think it will always be true that trade barriers increase the price of products, a lot of the other assumptions may not be true.

If it’s good to reduce trade barriers with a country, is it wise to do it overnight? We now realize that a small policy shift in 2000 boosted the confidence of companies to move manufacturing jobs to China and of the Chinese government to invest in infrastructure to meet that demand. Many American towns were built slowly on the backbone of manufacturing and rapid closing have made economic recovery in those areas almost unimaginable. The advice to “move to where the jobs are” is almost always given by people employed, who can afford moving costs, and who don’t have local family members to support.

Can Americans get by without manufacturing jobs? Economists generally say this will free up workers to do more high-level jobs, but we’ve clearly failed at efforts to raise the education level and prospects of the bottom third of wage earners. It’s looking like the people who left monotonous, but stable, decent-paying factory jobs of yesteryear do not end up in better service industry jobs. Instead, those jobs were replaced by 1) part-time jobs of lower wages and constantly-shifting scheduling—hurting workers’ abilities to form and maintain families, and 2) destructive periods of unemployment.

Aren’t the “losers” of trade liberalization a small number of factory workers? Putting a few thousand people out of work impacts their families and all the businesses they and their families frequent, and it also destroys a large social network that was probably valuable to families.

Is the under- and unemployment of a large population of Americans worth cheaper products? It seems to me that Americans would’ve been just fine had the prices of products stayed at the level they were in the late 90s or lowered more slowly. At a certain level of wealth, more products and bigger homes don’t increase real prosperity, and particularly if those come with the awareness of increased suffering of your fellow citizens.

Wasn’t this worth lifting the Chinese out of poverty? The rise of China’s middle class is certainly a win for billions of people, but rapid export to the U.S. did not do that. China left poverty not because the West invaded it with factories, but because its leaders embraced capitalism and it had a ton of untapped potential. Had the U.S. not outsourced so rapidly, China still certainly would have industrialized, and maybe without such problems of pollution and inequality.

The timing of rapid globalization also sadly coincided with the big-boxification of retail. By the 90s, Wal-Mart was such a retail behemoth that it could dictate the prices of goods it was willing to pay suppliers and essentially make or break a supplier. Under this this intense pressure, suppliers had little choice than to sacrifice American factory jobs; Wal-Mart built their company on “Made in the U.S.A.” yet knowingly forced suppliers to outsource American jobs to save pennies per product. Consumers of course had no idea that trade-off was being made. There’s still not a satisfying answer to the question of is a community better off as a whole with one Wal-Mart than dozens of smaller retailers, but I’d wager that the transition and its speed—the closing of a large number of competing stores along with U.S. factories—was not good for communities.

We, of course, can’t say for certain what would’ve happened had trade with China not progressed or had it progressed more slowly. It’s also not clear we can “turn back the clock,” but when we negotiate trade deals we should definitely think more of the millions who may be displaced, maybe permanently, and of the bigger effect that can have on America as a whole. Economists were massively naive to think this would all wash out, but then economists weren’t driving this; U.S. big box shareholders decided this was necessary.

Why wouldn’t a Basic Income be consumed by inflation?

Interest in the Basic Income is definitely picking up. This recent piece from Andrew Flowers, like most, doesn’t at all mention the possibility that the BI amount could be somewhat or completely eaten away via increased prices.

The BI will give rent collectors—landlords, near-monopolies like AT&T/Comcast, state/local governments, on and on—large incentives to increase rents, prices, and fees. Of course it will have some level of inflation.

If the inflation effect turns out to be large, BI would be a waste of time and scary to roll back, but there’s also a danger it could be regressively redistributive. I think it’s likely Congress would pass the BI only if it also reduced more direct help to the poor. If Congress took away that help, inflation—if occurred—would effectively force the poor to turn over what’s left to the rent collectors higher up the wealth distribution.

BI is still an interesting thought experiment to me, and it’s cool that studies are underway, but those studies need to be large and long enough to detect for inflationary effects, and articles discussing BI should mention that risk.

There are plenty more feasible ways to help the poor: increase wage subsidies like the EITC, target wage subsidies toward those having particular trouble finding work, or even some WPA jobs.

Obligatory 2015 Marijuana update

The minimal evidence we have of marijuana usage harms keeps withering away under more careful study, but the very real harms of police enforcement go on. I’ve really stopped paying attention to this stuff because it never ends; one month of stories look like any other. I just pop in once in awhile to see the latest abuses. Yep, young women cavity searched on the side of the roadkids shot; tons of no-knock drug raids putting everyone in unnecessary danger

America’s criminal justice system is so brutal and resistant to reform that the only way to reduce harm is to lessen people’s contact with it: move regulation strategies away from criminal law. Thankfully, state referendums to get cops out of the pot business are all over and even nation candidates are being forced to take the issue seriously.

To think how much harm could’ve been avoided if the country hadn’t wrapped up marijuana with the war on crack in the 80s. Hard drugs truly were devastating some communities then and now, but the “smell of marijuana” gave the police practically unlimited power and financial resources to forcibly invade and ruin the lives of people, particularly in neighborhoods unlikely to afford decent lawyers. Very few upper class families receive the Cheye Calvo experience, but lots of the little people still do.

Freedom by vote

I’m already seeing folks in my Twitter feed assuring themselves that Ireland’s recent marriage equality referendum could never be repealed. The danger of freedom-by-majority is that public opinion is fickle, and a shift in voter turnout can have a huge effect. No doubt large numbers of Californians against Prop 8 assured themselves that it could never pass and didn’t come out to vote.

So, for Irish freedom-lovers, pat yourselves on the back, but consider the repeal efforts a serious threat.

Update: In this case it’s unlikely the demographical and cultural shift to acceptance will swing back, and it looks like this could not be repealed by simple vote. In fact, putting it to a popular vote might’ve been a wise move even if it would’ve been non-binding; it got people talking and gave the public an anonymous way to voice their support.

Sometimes liberty is finite and must be redistributed

The Civil Rights Act was a triumph of people willing to recognize that, to increase the liberty of black Americans, you had to reduce the freedom of whites to practice discrimination. By 1964, the 1st Amendment’s principles of freedom of association and federalism (emphasis mine):

… had been used as weapons against black Americans, and esoteric concerns seem less important than being unable to eat or get a hotel you’re willing and able to pay for as you drive across your own country. This sort of adherence to principle at the expense of the tangible freedom of millions of African Americans sent a clear message of whose liberty received priority.

Of course the unwillingness of motels and restaurants to serve blacks was just the tip of the iceberg.

Obamacare is also redistributing liberty. Millions of Americans once shut out of the health insurance market (who could otherwise pay) are now able to gain coverage, which is a huge deal. Of course, there was no way to do that other than to force insurers to accept them, which requires the other two legs of the stool.

The first piece above also confronts libertarians for not seeing the world as it is, by embracing a view that racism has abated to the point where it doesn’t affect the daily lives of black Americans. Unfortunately this view is in no way limited to libertarians and couldn’t be more wrong. When people think that government interference in markets or taxation are the major things that blacks have to fear, they’re going to propose policies that are hopelessly out of touch with the real world.

Related: Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about the damage done by housing discrimination:

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

…If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.

On Michael Brown and Darren Wilson

Dumping my thoughts here.

Brown and his family and community obviously got a rotten deal here. It seems very unlikely that Wilson’s behavior was completely appropriate; that Brown would simply attack him for no reason a few days away from starting school. I could imagine a scenario in which Brown was rushing Wilson as a form of self protection. That Wilson did not use a taser or some other method of de-escalation was also a very unfortunate error that he should pay for.

Cameras need to be rolling. Any officer with lethal weapons should be wearing one, and it should auto-activate whenever the officer touches a weapon or moves quickly; better to accidentally capture unneeded footage. Funding is going to be a problem here because—it’s my impression that—high crime areas also tend to be underfunded. We should fix that.

Wilson, and probably any officer left in such a situation (having killed an unarmed citizen with no immediate video evidence) should be arrested to show seriousness in delivering justice. Police unions will obviously fight such a policy, but hopefully this will show how failing to do so can make an officer’s life much worse and reduce the credibility of the entire profession. Wilson will be known by many as a murderer of an unarmed teen regardless of what really happened, and that’s not how justice should work.

When he goes to trial it’s hard to imagine anyone being happy with the outcome. Brown was big, tall and could clearly intimidate, and the type of individuals who make it into juries I suspect will very much believe a uniformed officer. A video of Wilson pacing after the shooting won’t prove wrongdoing. Brown’s family would be wise to bring a civil suit against the PD and I’m sure they will. Lots of Ferguson’s citizens and press agencies should sue them. Payoffs change behavior.

The St. Louis Police have, through their incompetence at crowd-handling and arresting of press members, done the country a great service in raising public awareness of the problem of police militarization. Hopefully this will change policies that currently help local police dress like soldiers and bring warfare tactics to U.S. streets.

It’s sad that people will use a peaceful protest as an excuse to loot local businesses and attack officers. Protesters that deny this stuff is happening lose credibility.

I’m conflicted about the wisdom of protesting in the middle of the night. On one hand this will give cover to miscreants and increase the danger to everyone. On the other hand this undoubtedly is helping keep Ferguson and the issues its facing in the public eye. It’s hard to change policies via polite daytime picketing.

Change happens when journalists are chased, shot in the back with rubber bullets, and arrested.

San Francisco, do you want to be Manhattan?

Another day, another article on S.F.’s crazy real estate market. Except it’s perfectly rational behavior: The secret is out that S.F. is an awesome place to live with plenty of very high-paying jobs, but also land is scarce and there are lots of development restrictions.

If no policies change, prices—both housing and general commodities—will continue to go up until S.F. is basically another Manhattan; if you want to live there you either must be in the upper class or able to live in a shoebox. The good news is that California is wonderful and people can live happily outside S.F. The city would just need to beef up its transportation infrastructure for an enormous commuting class, and the Bay Area will suffer the environmental implications of that.

If, however, you think there’s value in having residents from a wider range of incomes, you have to be willing to build a ton of new, and very dense, housing, including bulldozing some old areas—not every inch of the city can be treated as a historic artifact. Unfortunately plenty of lefties think that anything that’s good for rich developers must be bad for everyone else, and it just ain’t so. I highly recommend reading Matt Yglesias’s bite-sized ebook The Rent Is Too Damn High, which makes very convincing arguments that loosening development restrictions is a great idea for everyone. Lots of people want to live in S.F., and we should let them. Density is great for the economy and for decreasing the environmental impact of cars and commutes.

Renters are already living very densely packed in “single family” homes, so it’s pretty clear there would be plenty of demand for new apartments in a variety of sizes. The natural opposition to this is going to be existing owners that benefit from rising prices, but certainly a motivated majority (renters) could successfully push for expanded development. But until they realize it’s in their interest, they’ll keep complaining about a variety of things that don’t matter while being slowly forced out of the city.

Gainesville has been increasing the density of housing around the university and it seems to be pretty great to me. Until a few years ago it seemed inevitable that there would be ever increasing sprawl and student traffic, but now a lot more students can live in walking distance.