Thursday, February 28, 2013

And I Say This As a Southerner...

I'm not sure if Chief Justice John Roberts was merely trying to get the Solicitor General to say something impolitic, or if he is really that oblivious to real-world circumstances, but this is not a debatable proposition:
“Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?” Roberts asked.
There is real public opinion data on this topic. Whether you look at immigration, positive vs negative views of African-Americans, actual incidents of discrimination--Southernors has substantially more retrograde views on race than residents of the Northeast, West, or Midwest. This is not to say racism is confined to the South, just that it's more prevalent there. You could argue that picking on the South is counterproductive at this point, and that instead the Federal Government should adopt a more carrots/fewer sticks approach to dealing with racial discrimination and its unfortunate legacy. But I don't see how anyone living in the Reality-based community can arrive at any other conclusion when it comes to the public's views on race.

I wouldn't even be surprised if Roberts encountered Southerners who did not exhibit much racial animosity when he was a federal judge or corporate lawyer. But of course these are quite obviously exceptions and not the rule.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Internet Fast: Week 2

We're actually halfway through Week Three, but I thought I'd tell the world how things feel so far.

  • I barely miss Twitter at all. I'm seriously tempted to keep Twitter in write-only mode (i.e. only use it to post links to blog posts) once Easter arrives.
  • I miss the "tier II and lower" blogs less and less, except for Brad DeLong and to a lesser extent Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
  • I'm having a harder and harder time staying off the forums I use, especially those where I know other posters in person.
  • Read books has become a more fulfilling form of bus entertainment than quick hits like blog posts, forums, or Twitter. I'm not sure that this feeling is permanent, or if it's merely because book-reading is novel (rimshot) to me right now.
  • Tablets turn out to be a useful device more than a time-wasting gadget. You can certainly use a tablet to waste time, but it's fairly easy to restrict your usage of it to situations where you have a specific task you're working on, like cooking dinner or taking notes.
  • The smartphone, on the other hand, is way less useful if you're anywhere that you can sit down. About the only "real" use I get out of it is navigation and grocery lists. The rest is just filling idle time in a place where I can't settle down with the table.
  • As I mentioned before, less Internet time-wasting has led to more TV-watching. But after watching a truly awful back-to-back of Bones and Castle, which are usually good clean fun but have produced some real stinker episodes in their later years, we're thinking about cutting back. I suppose a different alternative would be to find better TV than Bones and Castle.
Previously: Week 1, The Great Internet Fast of 2013

Yahoo! and Working From Home

I suppose at this point I should say something about the extremely widely-read news that Yahoo! will continue to allow employees to occasionally show up late or stay early in order to attend to home life, while putting an end to regular, ongoing work-from-home arrangements.

Let me first say that an awful lot of the coverage seems to phrased as "Marissa Mayer bans working from home", not "Yahoo! CEO bans working from home", and I have to wonder if this would happen if the CEO were a man. The framing seems to imply that a female CEO should be more sensitive to work/family balance issues, but anyone who is working from home with children in the house either has a full-time nanny, a stay-at-home spouse who's minding the kids, or simply isn't productive.

As to the merits of the idea, there are basically two reasons why you might not want employees to work from home regularly. One is that WFH arrangements make meeting scheduling into an even more giant pain in the ass than it already is. Given that tech companies may have employees who get to work at various times between 8am and 1pm, there are really only a handful of hours each day where meetings can be reliably scheduled. If you a team has one person who stays home on Tuesdays and another who stays home on Thursdays, you've got something like 9 hours out of a 45 hour work week where you can reliably get everyone together. You can argue whether making it hard to schedule meetings is a feature or a bug, but if you accept that it's a bug, then there are only two options: ban WFH, or set core hours & days (i.e. "everyone has to be in the office from 10am-4pm MWF, or similar").

The other is that the company's employees may be genuinely less productive when working from home. Protestations from folks like Farhad Manjoo and David Watkins aside, this is a situation where a large company like Yahoo! could easily gather the relevant data. Just track the rate of emails sent and source code commits on days spent WFH and compare that to the employees' productivity on those days versus a day in the office. Now, it's possible that Yahoo! doesn't have this data and this is all a backhanded way of laying people off, but several sources have leaked that the company does have an unusually high rate of working from home and that the WFHers seem to be less productive.

Last but not least, Mayer is a former executive at Google, a company that famously doesn't track sick time. If you get pneumonia or break your back or whatever, you stay home until you're better (I can't figure out if this time is paid or unpaid). Google also has similarly loose policies around working from home or from other offices, letting people take quasi-vacations by visiting their locations London, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, etc. If a new CEO coming from that environment thinks people aren't getting enough done while working from home, then things are probably really bad.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Getting it Backwards

This is a perfectly reasonable transit payment instrument.
Transit systems shouldn't use NFC. Forget whether or not it's a problem that the subway now has your bank card. Even if everyone had a bank card, which they don't, NFC just isn't fast enough. The London Underground considered using NFC but gave up on the idea, because processing an NFC payment takes too long to get people through the turnstiles fast enough. Japan is a cash-based society, but NFC would likewise be too slow for use on JR's intra-city lines or the various Tokyo subways. Just let people keep using their Metrocards and set up auto refill.

If anything, we should be going in the other direction. Do what Japan did, and turn transit cards into a de facto bank card for unbanked individuals. Let people use them to pay at convenience stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, and so on.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Internet Fast: Week 1

I'm four days into my forty days of reduced internet consumption, and since I'm sure Donkeylicious readers are dying to know how this has been going, I thought I'd put out a brief status report.
  • The bus ride to and from work is now really, really, boring. This makes me think that transit advocates should thank Steve Jobs on a daily basis. I think next week I will add "email" to the list of approved smartphone activities, but also start bringing a dead tree book with me on the bus.
  • The increase in idle moments at home is being consumed by a combination of more household maintenance (that's a fancy way of saying "chores & errands"), cooking slightly more elaborate dinners, and snuggling.
  • There's also been an increase in the consumption of mediocre TV & movies through Netflix. Sometimes this results in good clean fun, like Cutthroat Island. But sometimes it's just having something on the TV to have something on the TV. Reducing Netflix consumption to only items received by mail might make this challenge more interesting.
  • I also feel that I've been a little more productive at work, though it's hard to disentangle the observance of Lent from other organizational changes that have given me a little bit more to do on a day-to-day basis.
  • I don't feel like I miss Twitter that much. I think my twitter feed is about 10% "links to stories I might have otherwise missed" and 90% "snark from people whose writings I already read". Upon reflection, the latter is just an outlet and doesn't actually add much to my life.
  • I definitely miss the blogs that didn't "make the cut". Things like Lawyers, Guns, & Money, Same Facts, 11D, etc., are largely duplicative of other news sources, but each one produces enough distinct content that I do feel like I'm missing out. And the personae attached to those blogs have a lot of appeal to me.
  • I miss some, but not all, of the forums that I read and/or post to. Mostly it's the ones where I have some personal connection to other forum members.

National Review Blogger Suggests Ending Women's Right To Vote

I don't usually cover Republicans saying crazy things here, because I don't feel like I have a whole lot to say in response that someone else isn't already saying. But this is sort of a special case: Michael Walsh of the National Review has suggested repealing the 19th amendment. Yes, the one that gave women the right to vote. There's no indication that anything satirical is going on here -- he says that repeal of amendments 16-19 is "something I’ve been advocating for years now." As far as I can tell, there's no pushback from anybody on the National Review group blog.

Update: Amanda is good on how Walsh is trying to communicate.

Mainstreaming Marijuana

Tim Sprinkle of Yahoo Finance has an article about a marijuana industry investment fund in Colorado. The content of the article is interesting in various respects, but what I like is just the fact that this sort of thing is being discussed on mainstream financial news sites, and not in a jokey way.

My impression is that opposition to marijuana legalization in Congress is broad but shallow. If it's clear that elite opinion has moved in such a way that supporting legalization is considered a respectable opinion, people will be happy enough to change their views. (There's also a drug law enforcement bureaucracy that really has deep opposition to legalizing marijuana, but my conjecture is about elected officials.) Discussion of marijuana investment opportunities is the sort of thing that promotes the respectability of supporting legalization.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Who Cares What They're Wearing?

I want to take the point Amanda Marcotte makes in this excellent Slate piece, and generalize. 

She's discussing a middle-school teacher expressing concern about how girls shouldn't just see themselves as sex objects for men. The teacher then does a bunch of sexual policing on how short the girls' skirts are. This, as Amanda explains, is no good. Determining your worth by how good a sex object you are for men is no good, and determining your worth by how good you are at advertising that you're not a sex object for men is similarly no good. 

What determines a woman's value? Well, the same thing that determines a human being's worth in general. Are you kind? Do you try to develop useful skills and work hard so that you can help others? Do you avoid telling lies, stealing things, and generally causing trouble for everyone? These are the sorts of things that make someone a good person. They're compatible with being chaste and wearing dresses that cover everything up, and they're also compatible with fucking a new guy every week or day and wearing the naughtiest clothes that don't get you thrown out of school or work. 

If you're looking for the educational environment that expresses the right attitudes towards women's clothing and attitudes towards sex, it's a very diverse one where nobody cares about that stuff. In my class at NUS, I don't care whether you're a heavily covered-up Muslim or a foreign exchange student whose dress expresses your delight at being on a warm tropical island. And I don't care whether you're a virgin or if you've had sex with a hundred people. Anyone who has done the reading, has thoughtful things to say about it, and helps our discussions move forward is welcome in my class. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: President Obama with children at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., on Thursday".

Today's kitsch cover is Astrazz, performing Eminem's "Lose Yourself".

Thursday, February 14, 2013

"Possible Girls" In The Washington Post!

Thanks to Harvard philosophy major and excellent policy journalist Dylan Matthews, who provides a wonderful explanation of my paper at Ezra Klein's blog. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Remember That You Are Dust, And To Dust You Shall Return

The Lenten season is about to be upon us, as is exhibited by the hundreds of thousands of folks getting in New Orleans (query our resident utilitarian-hedonist on the value of NOLA's Mardis Gras celebration?). Once again, I find myself thinking that the thing to give up over the next forty days and forty nights is the Internet.

Being Episcopalian rather than Catholic, I'm not that into observing Lent, so no sudden vegetarianism or anything rash. Also, between Neil traveling and  Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm's in March, I'm not sure it's practical for me to give up everything. Instead, this is what I'll be shooting for.

  • No use of the tablet, and the smartphone becomes something to make phone calls with but nothing else.
  • No social media of any form, at all.
  • No personal email at work.
  • No idle web browsing at all.
  • Skip everything in my Google Reader except Wonkblog, TPM, Atrios, Moneybox, and Engadget (which I sort of need to follow for work purposes). I'll miss an interesting story here or there that I could blog about, but the world won't come to an end.
Having done this before, I expect the resulting lifestyle changes to be mostly positive. Blogging will continue at its current modest pace.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Dick Morris Is Gone From Fox

Dick Morris' contract isn't getting renewed by Fox News.

My guess always was that Fox put him on TV because his past work for the Clinton Administration gave a bit of bipartisan cover for the outrageous things he would say against Democrats. But I have to imagine that the total ridiculousness of his 2012 election predictions undermined any respectability he had. He was the worst of the 25 pundits I rated on VoteSeeing with his prediction of Romney winning by a triple-digit electoral vote margin, and that list includes some total disasters at the end.

So, yeah, I'm claiming my little share of the credit. 

More Reasons to Abolish The Air Force

Apparently they don't have anything to do other than watch Goldeneye over and over again and say to themselves, "we want to do that, for real!"

If we ever see a plan to turn Crater Lake into a secret satellite, it's time to just kill the entire department.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Immigrants Can Solve America's Demographic Problems

Amanda Marcotte criticizes Jonathan Last's WSJ article about declining fertility rates from a feminist perspective. I'm happy to join in from, among other things, a child-of-immigrants perspective. Here's what Last is worried about:
Low-fertility societies don't innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don't invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don't have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.
Most of these things aren't even problems. If your society slows down its innovating and investing for the future because everybody is old and they don't have a future to worry about, what's the matter? They're all doing what's good for them, and they'll ride off happily into the sunset together. You end up with a less prosperous country after they're gone, but there's fewer mouths to feed, so on average everybody turns out fine. 

And why does anyone really care about projecting power? If you work constructively to build a peaceful, rule-governed international framework, nations spend their money on fun consumption goods and useful investment goods instead of guns and bombs that have no constructive use. For all the problems with the Eurozone, Europe has solved that problem, and their reward is that they can take care of the poor and sick rather than spending money on paying young men to do things with guns that don't actually increase anyone's standard of living. Also they aren't engaging in trench warfare and firebombing each other's civilian populations. It's a good deal. 

The one thing that is a genuine problem is the bit about sustaining social security programs. It's trouble if you don't have enough capable young people to create the resources that your old people need. And for us, it's a problem with a trivially easy solution. Young people all over the world want to work in our land of opportunity, and we can pick and choose the smartest and most capable, adding to our stock of young workers without having to spend much money raising or educating them. Having some other country raise a smart girl who comes over here at age 22 to work in our economy is a ridiculously good deal for us. Instead of having to change diapers and spend enormous sums on education, we get our Athena sprung right from the head of Zeus. 

Last mentions immigration, and he has many bad reasons for thinking it can't solve our problems. First, he says that while we can get some immigrants now, this source of people is "unlikely to last" as global fertility rates decline. I think we can count on it lasting as long as we need. Even if Mexican fertility goes down, the expanding population of India will provide us plenty of smart young people. (The picture is me with my cousins Priyanka, Bikramjit, and Somnath, back on the village in West Bengal.) And when Indian fertility slides downward, some currently impoverished countries, maybe in Africa, will have achieved the stage of development where India is now. And when African fertility levels off and the global birthrate is in decline, it'll be the year 2100 and our factories will be cranking out robots who will happily do everything for us.

Nobody should be bugging women about how they aren't birthing enough babies. We can import top-quality people from Asia at far lower cost than we can produce them here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Health Insurance is Expensive, but Obamacare Premiums Will be Manageable

The IRS  is already the administrator of the second-largest anti-poverty program in America. It's about to become the second-largest health regulatory agency in the Federal Government, since they'll be in charge of lots of rules governing who does and doesn't count as a "full time employee" for insurance mandate purposes, computing insurance subsidies for middle class households, monitoring employer-sponsored insurance plans, and so forth. As they ramp up for 2014, they've started issuing hypotheticals estimating the price family insurance plans. One of these hypotheticals assumes that a family of four will end up spending $20,000 on their insurance policy. This is far more than most households can expect to spend. In reality, a family that sized earning less than 400% of the Federal Poverty Line, or $92,200 in 2012, will pay somewhere between $100 and $750 per month for health insurance. That's a big bite -- equal to a car or student loan payment in many cases -- but it's something that households can probably manage.

Once again, I've reproduced the incredibly helpful table from the Vermont Health Care Reform Agency of Administration. The UC Berkeley Labor Center also has an Affordable Care Act calculator that might be useful.