Sunday, July 23, 2017

What next for the Left?

Here we are America. Politics is looking as grim as one could imagine with Trump. The little good news is that Trump's despotic tendencies have been hindered by his incompetence. Regardless, the corruption, disregard of facts, and disdain for the rule of law is taking its toll.

Have I become numb to it? Perhaps. Still furious, but now simply have lower expectations for America. In the face of thousands of warnings, of blatant law breaking and possible treason, the Republican Party marches on, uncaring. Lauren Duca summed it up well, "There are no alarms left to sound." Who cares about political norms if taxes can be lowered at the cost of services for the poor. Since I've been old enough to care about politics I have thought the Republican party to be morally rotten, but they are continuing to sink to new depths.

Frightfully, this is what a significant portion of America wants. I have read report after report after report from people talking to Trump voters. I spent a good share of last year reading books attempting to explain what is in the mind of that side of the political spectrum. Most of them leave me wanting to scream. Impolitic as it was to say, Hillary was right when she said that a good share of Trump voters are deplorable. Too many are either fools, idiots, or bigots. An unfortunate number seem immune to feedback, cocooned in their bubble of Fox News propaganda.

Unfortunately, the right has been winning for the last forty years. From the late 70's and onward, the Democrats have moved toward the right while the Republicans have gone off the deep end, and the Republicans have kept winning. We have a political system that either by constitutional design, or by voter suppression and gerrymandering, has given the right an out-sized share of power. Trump lost the popular vote by millions. Yet here we are, with the Republicans having the most power at the state and national level than they have had since the 1920's. To recover is going to be an uphill climb.

Whether you call it neoliberalism, or give it some other label, economic policy has followed suit, and the results have not been pretty. America has seen wages for the middle class stand stagnant for forty years. We now have the greatest inequality and least economic mobility in living memory. Cultural politics has gone better in some regards, but still civil-liberties have eroded and a racist criminal justice system has caused prison populations to increase by nearly a factor of five since 1980. Our political system has institutionalized corruption and extreme partisanship that has brought responsiveness to a standstill. Worldwide, this has gone hand-in-hand with unchecked environmental destruction and population growth.

If we want to save the Republic, much less the damn world, the Left needs to be doing many things differently.

We face a situation where many on the right goals that are incompatible with the left. On the topics where there is agreement, there is still the problem that we have become partisan and tribal to the point that we no longer communicate. 

Regarding the concerns of the right, I see an odd mix. They are people on the other side, and there are many reasonable complaints. There are the concerns of middle class decline, the impoverishment of small towns, and to this I want to shout that the left has been trying to help fix this problem only to be spat upon for their efforts. Then there are values voters who are angrily fighting against abortion and for more Christianity in government, or against immigration and for white supremacy. For that, not much in the way of room for compromise. Some can be debated, but much of that viewpoint will have to be torn out root and branch from the American psyche if we are to live in a decent world.

Why have we become so separated? There is political clustering as documented well in The Big Sort. The Democrats have become the urban party, the Republicans the rural party, and our constitution values rural voters more than it does urban ones. With the increasing lack of interactions between the two sides, it is easier to demonize and fear the other.

Reaching out to the middle is not exactly easy. The Democrats have been compromising for decades and it never bought more than a temporary reprieve. Due to the lack of trust and communication, it is difficult to get the right to accept basic facts, much less have a policy debate.

What next for the left then? How do we win this fight?

It has been heartening to see the protests, the court cases, the swings in special elections, and the increased number of Democrats preparing to run for office, but being anti-Trump is not sufficient. I would have danced if Hillary had been elected and saved us from Trump, but she was hardly inspiring. Even Bernie had far too many weaknesses. That might just be the nature of political compromise, but we need a movement.

In response to all the liberal hand-wringing, the anguish trying to understand the other side, Tucker FitzGerald had an excellent post.
The progressive liberal agenda isn’t about being nice. It’s about confronting evil, violence, trauma, and death. It’s about acknowledging the ways systemic power, systemic oppression, systemic evil, work in our world around us. I’m not fighting for diversity. I’m not fighting for tolerance. I’m fighting to overturn horrific systems of dehumanizing oppression.
The conservative mindset strikes me as hideously immoral and unclean. Denial of truth and evidence. Denial of inequality, racism, and sexism. Destroying our future through the denial of environmental degradation.

Admittedly, I am staunch partisan with rigorous beliefs, but if one wants a successful movement, a moral foundation is necessary. Last year I read Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, which I highly recommend, in which he explains his moral foundations theory. In the book, Haidt looks at the partisan divide in America through social psychology, and has the conclusion that the right often wins because it appeals to a broader spectrum of moral beliefs. While the left concerns itself with care, fairness, and liberty; the right, in addition to using those foundations, also appeals to authority, loyalty, and sanctity. Whether or not these psychological traits are as fundamental as Haidt thinks, there is certainly room for the left to appeal to the authority of experts, loyalty to the common man, or the sanctity of knowledge and the environment.

Another point regarding the failings of the left that struck a cord with me, by way of David Graeber in The Utopia of Rules:
We no longer like to think about bureaucracy, yet it informs every aspect of our existence. It's as if, as a planetary civilization, we have decided to clap our hands over our ears and hum start humming whenever the topic comes up. Insofar as we are even willing to discuss it, it's still in the terms popular in the sixties and early seventies. The social movements of the sixties were, on the whole, left-wing in inspiration, but they were also rebellions against bureaucracy, or, to put it more accurately, rebellions against the bureaucratic mindset, against the soul-destroying conformity of the postwar welfare states. In the face of the gray functionaries of both state-capitalist and state-socialist regimes, sixties rebels stood for individual expression and spontaneous conviviality, and against ("rules and regulations, who needs them?") every form of social control.
With the collapse of the old welfare states, all this has come to seem decidedly quaint. As the language of antibureaucratic individualism has been adopted, with increasing ferocity, by the Right, which insists on "market solutions" to every social problem, the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state: it has acquiesced with--often even spearheaded--attempts to make government efforts more "efficient" through the partial privatization of services and the incorporation of ever-more "market principles," "market incentives," and market-based "accountability processes" into the structure of the bureaucracy itself. 
The result is a political catastrophe. There's really no other way to put it. What is presented as the "moderate" Left solution to any social problems--and radical left solutions are, almost everywhere now, ruled out tout court--has invariably come to be some nightmare fusion of the worst elements of bureaucracy and the worst elements of capitalism. It is a testimony to the genuine lingering power of leftist ideals that anyone would even consider voting for a party that promoted this sort of thing--because surely, if they do, it's not because they actually think these are good policies, but because these are the only policies anyone who identifies themselves as left-of-center is allowed to set forth.
Is there any wonder, then, that every time there is a social crisis, it is the Right, rather than the Left, which becomes the venue for the expression of popular anger?
The Right, at least, has a critique of bureaucracy. It's not a very good one. But at least it exists. The Left has none. As a result, when those who identify with the Left do have anything negative to say about bureaucracy, they are usually forced to adopt a watered-down version of the right-wing critique.
Unfortunately, Graeber does not exactly provide a clear plan for where to take that idea. Yes, we want less bureaucracy, whether or not that bureaucracy is run by the government or by corporations. The right has attacked the government, blaming it exclusively for the bureaucracy forced upon us, but this has simply allowed our freedom to be diminished under corporate bureaucracy and economic insecurity.

I would love to see the welfare state simplified by replacing the multitude of means tested programs with a basic income. Or the ending of the war on drugs and an emptying of prisons. Or a single payer healthcare system so that healthcare is guaranteed and people do not have to worry about the bureaucracy of private health insurance companies.

Some plans to decrease economic inequality and insecurity proceed by placing more power in the hands of the government, and that must be treated cautiously. As much as I hate the right for taking the position that all regulations and taxes are bad, the left is too often not willing to fight against taxes or regulations that end up harming the poor. At the local level here in San Francisco, it is easy to see so called progressive fighting for housing policies that evidence shows are harmful to the poor, harmful to immigrants, and primarily serve to benefit wealthy homeowners. Hell, if the conflict between the DSA and  YIMBY advocates can be resolved, I will throw my hat in with whatever group results from that.

The left needs a more coherent plan. Yes, we want less poverty and inequality. Yes, the world is complicated and regulation often has unintended consequences. Great. We have generalizations and hand waviness that has lead the Democratic party to an uninspiring muddle. While for me, non throwing more than twenty million people off of their health insurance is a perfectly good reason to vote for the Democrats, the electoral track record of the last few years shows something far more is needed.

The right-wing economic policy that has been pushed through over the last 40 years was built up for decades before it became politically viable. The Mont Pelerin Society started laying the foundation of neoliberalism in 1947, and it took until the stagflation of the 1970's before it leapt onto the national stage and then became the default under Reagan.

The left is still thrashing about for such a plan. There has been some movement with Piketty and talk of universal basic income, but it is still incredibly formative. The left needs that new model twenty years ago. When the financial crises and the Great Recession hit in 2007 and 2008, there was no change in direction. There will be more crises in the next few decades, and some will be worse than 07-08. Either another financial collapse, or economic dislocation brought about by advances in AI, or rising sea levels and climate change causing refugees and starvation.

It is easy to state ambitious goals. The elimination of poverty, the elimination of institutional racism, a Gini index below 30, a reduction in atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm, tuition-free public universities, housing for all, and a transparent and non-corrupt government. To be able to make such a platform that is not dismissed by the majority of the electorate as unrealistic or unacheivable, there needs to be plan. To then make it a movement, there needs to be a story for people to believe in.

Monday, January 2, 2017

What happens next?

2017 is here and the unpleasant political realities continue to sink in. Rearguard actions with the Louisiana Senate race, state recounts, and hope of an electoral college swing have all met their expected outcomes. Trump will be the 45th president of the United States, and Republicans will have the House, the Senate 52-48, and the majority of state legislatures and governors.

Congrats, America. We got the corrupt, lying, narcissist for president, and and have cemented control of the Republican Party.

Certainly the Democrats need to do better in the next elections. I would imagine a combination of better economic policy for those on the bottom two-thirds of the wealth spectrum, and somehow breaking through to change or appeal to the conservative white rural culture. Cannot say I have anything close to an easy answer for that given the gulf in media, social contact, and cultural assumptions. There is the possibility that economic mismanagement from the Republicans will do the immediate work for us, though that only bought the Democrats 2008 and had some effect on 2006. Sure came back to bite us in the ass in 2010 and a better plan is needed.

So, yes. What to expect in the next few years while the left attempts to rebuild its electoral strategy?

It's going to be hell.

Given Trump's lack of policy details and his erratic personality, it is difficult to predict what kind of hell, but with the Republican Congress and the advisers Trump is promoting, we can get some general outlines. Those outlines would be increased inequality, barriers to trade, more damage to the environment, increased militarization, and increased risk of war. All while stumbling towards fascism.

For overall government plans with taxes and expenditures, I expect the Tea Party/Norquist dreams to be put into force. Paul Ryan's plans may mostly go through, cutting taxes for the wealthy and reducing government finances. I expect to see the shredding the Affordable Care Act and Medicare. Permanent removal of the ACA may be out of reach, but vastly weakened, with millions losing health insurance. Social Security spending my slashed. I certainly expect to see financial regulation reduced. Dodd-Frank did not go far enough, but what little it did will be pared back.

Perhaps the one area that might see increased government expenditure, outside the military and police, will be the infrastructure improvement that the Republicans blocked throughout Obama's administration. Yay hypocrisy! While I do support a significant boost in infrastructure spending in this country, Trump's plan looks extremely unpleasant by funding the infrastructure through tax credits for toll roads and bridges.

Trade is a big unknown. Trump makes a lot of noise about protecting American workers from unfair trade deals, and wants to boost tariffs. Trade restrictions may benefit some parts of the economy, but at the cost of inflation. If a full scale trade war breaks out, well, that alone could blow up the world economy.

With the tax reduction and potentially increased infrastructure spending, we will potentially see some boost in growth and inflation. We'll also see a significant boost in government debt that the Republicans fought so hard against when it was Obama in charge. Who knows where things will go with trade, but the uncertainty will be unstabilizing. Paring back financial regulations will also leave us much more open to bubbles. America has been in one of the longest periods of economic expansion in history. It has been slow and unequal, but it is going to end at some point. I would take good odds that it'll happen in the next four years. Question is how bad it will be.

Outside of economics and healthcare policy, there's the horror show facing civil liberties, the environment, birth control and abortion. Education and science research will be cut.

Then the big one for a lot of Trump's base, immigration. He's made enough noise about this that I am more certain of action on this than on most of his other half-baked policy proposals. Given that the number of illegal immigrants in the US has been declining since 2009, and Obama has already deported more people than any other president, we're already in that direction, but the degree sounds frightening. If Trump does manage to deport, say 3 million people in the next year or two I can only imagine the results. Hell for the immigrants themselves of course, and the second order effects will be unpleasant. America is already at its lowest population growth in 80 years, and if we expel that many immigrants, I wonder if we could tip towards negative.

Ah, and I almost forgot, foreign policy. Another frightening unknown. Given the hawks it looks like Trump is appointing, I wouldn't be surprised if we end up in a new shooting war with Iran. Or if we trade the Ukraine to Russia in exchange for ownership of Venezuela. Or how dangerous things will get with China. Who knows? I'm speculating. Unfortunately Trump is erratic, inexperienced, and what will happen is a damn mystery that could easily leave a lot of people dead.

Outside of politics, economic and technological trends are going to continue to not be kind to the rural areas that voted for Trump. Manufacturing automation will continue. Online delivery services will continue to rip out local retail. Soon as we cross the Rubicon of automated trucks and delivery drones, that's another few million jobs gone, though that may take another ten years. All the voters in coal country that enthusiastically supported Trump are still going to see demand for coal fall as natural gas remains cheap and solar prices thankfully continues to fall. Unfortunately, the Republicans won't provide support for those left behind. Resentment will build.

A big question I have is whether there will be any increase in communication between the left and right in this country, or if the opposing sides will keep living in their own bubbles, hating the other. Unsure how to get around that problem. Possibly work by tech and media companies to force people out of their filter bubbles. Possibly a significant push in cities for more housing construction in order to lower the cost of living and allow more to move to urban areas.

Sigh. See what happens in 2017. In America, I expect hell for the poor and minorities, possible boon for the wealthy. Increased risk of another economic meltdown. Increased global instability. Brace yourselves.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Followup

A few hours after my last post, sitting in the backseat of a car as we cross the interstate highway system, and I realize my attempted explanation of the election was only partial. A framing of how things went pear shaped, as opposed to a direct answer.

Why the hell did rural America and a balance of the suburbs settle on a millionaire (potentially billionaire, who knows?) real estate mogul from New York?

Was it just the tribal politics of being Republican? The few keywords of "abortion is bad!", "foreigners and immigrants are stealing our jobs!", and that's all it fucking took? Would Cruz or Kasich have done essentially the same in place of Trump? Would Bernie or Cory Booker or O'Malley or Elizabeth Warren have lost by the same margin as Hillary?

What could Hillary have done differently that would have won it for her?

Yes, blind tribalism is incredibly significant, and it does look to be increasing, but, presidential elections still go back and forth. What does it take to shift the few undecided voters, to increase the turnout in a few states?

Maybe a new politician who's not part of "the establishment" would have done better than Hillary. On the other hand Obama still has very high approval ratings.

Maybe it is simply better addressing the concerns of rural voters, and Bernie would have won enough of them over and provided the turnout needed.

I'm not sure. It does not appear to be policy, and I do not know what it takes to tip the balance of the cultural divide, much less break through it.

What just happened?

The Democrats just had a gut wrenching electoral defeat that will take America years to recover from, but why? What the hell just happened? Who are these shameful fools that voted for this vile conman? I have been trying to get inside the minds of Trump voters for months, and now, horrendous as the results were, at least we have some data.

There have, of course, been many think pieces investigating the loss, and explanations seem to settle on a couple of main themes. There is the idea that Hillary lost the white working class. There is the counter proposal that it had little to do with class, but instead whites rejecting Clinton out of a conservative, racist, misogynist backlash12. I lean towards saying it more accurate cultural divide is more rural vs urban than it is conservative vs liberal, but are the two becoming the same? Other ascribe the difference to less talked about markers such as education. Or is it simply that Hillary was an unlikeable establishment candidate, hamstrung by her own mistakes and decades of Republican attacks.

Looking at the exit polls (New York Times, CNN, Washington Post) a few things come out. Aside from how Hillary won more votes than any presidential contestant in history other than Obama. Yet she still lost Florida and North Carolina, in addition to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, not to mention Ohio and Iowa. Turnout was down, by CNN's estimate a lower proportion of the population voted than in any election in the last twenty years.

Compared to 2012, the gender gap increased slightly with five percent more men voting more for Trump than men for Romney, and more one percent women for Hillary than women for Obama.

The education gap increased significantly. Those with college or postgraduate degrees voted Democratic by eight more points than in last presidential election. The education divide is especially significant when combined with race. Whites with college degrees shifted ten points to Democrats, and whites without degrees shifted 14 points to Republicans.

People earning under $50,000 a year, though they did vote primarily for Hillary, voted more Republican than in 2012. Those earning between $50,000 and $200,000 voted for Trump by a very small margin, but voted more Democratic than in 2012.

The overall contours of the racial divide appear similar to 2012, with whites voting primarily Republican, and non-whites voting Democratic, though all racial groups voted slightly more Republican.

The above give some credence to the theory that it was the lack of support amongst the white working class that cost Hillary the election, but I find it hard to say that it was the primary reason. It does depend on your definition of working class, some would say that working class is mostly in the income range of $50,000 to $80,000. Either way, Those earning under $50k still voted primarily for Hillary, if by a lower proportion than previously. Those earning between $50k and $100k voted more Democratic than in 2012, but still voted for Trump 50% to 46%.

If Hillary had had the same support among the income under $50k demographic as Obama did, she may have won the necessary states. However, you could also say that about the votes she won from blacks and Latinos. Both could simply fit under the explanation of a lack of Democratic voter enthusiasm.

I find less evidence that it was a white revolt. White voters apparently only voted one percent more for Trump than they did for Romney. There was significantly more racist rhetoric used on the campaign trail, but I would hazard that more revealed existing cultural divides then brought about new ones.

In the end, I find the rural/urban divide to be the most powerful summary explanation.

As in recent elections, rural voters went Republican, urban voters went Democratic, and suburban voters were fairly close. The NYT exit polls I linked to irritatingly lack the arrows indicating transitions from 2012, but they cover the topic here. The divide is significant and continuing to grow. Due in large part to this, the number of people living in landslide counties that voted for one party over the other now stands at 60%.

There are of course many causes for the election outcome. Economics, and the declining standard of living in the middle and lower classes is a significant factor. The Democrats should have done a better job of addressing this, but I do not view it as the fundamental divide, though it likely contributed to enthusiasm. The Democrats push far harder for the poor and working classes than the Republicans do, and it has largely been the Republicans in Congress preventing Obama from taking further action on this the last few years. There is definitely cultural and racial resentment, that is partly attributable to economics with people wishing for jobs, but I believe far more of the cause goes to the rural vs urban divide, and the cultural splitting of America.

As a partisan leftist/liberal Democrat living in San Francisco, Trump voters seem culturally alien and terrifying. I say this despite having some long ago friends from high school from back home and possibly even some relatives who voted for Trump. These days, my social circle has essentially nil Republican voters. Across this cultural divide the two sides rarely talks to each other, they view different media, and believe their own facts. It looks like the best explanation for this is the actual physical divide between urban and rural citizens. The cultural divide is increasingly a result of the different sides living in different neighborhoods, in different counties.

A book I enjoyed tremendously a few years ago, The Big Sort, still holds a lot explanatory power today. The author Bill Bishop has some good thoughts on how the trends he noted in 2004 have continued in 2016. I highly recommend it to anyone with a concern for the US. It provides a wealth of data about how communities have become more politically and culturally homogenous over the last forty years as we sort ourselves out, and the effects thereof on political extremism.

I fear for what happens next. The entire world may be drifting right. America is becoming more divided, culturally and economically, and Trump and the Republican Party seem hell bent on increasing the divide.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

You bastards make me sick

Quite literally it seems. Between meeting with hundreds of strangers through get out the vote operations, and then the stress of having failed and seeing the American government ceded to conmen and bigots, I have spent the last few days in bed with a fever. Welcome to Trump's America, all. It will be a long road.

Fortunately, the fever broke this morning. Would that I felt any better about the future than I did Tuesday night.

I have said many times since I became old enough to care about politics that I do not understand the American voter. Believe me, I have tried. Maybe I do understand America, and have just been in denial about how alien and terrifying so many of its people are.

For those of you who wanted an anti-establishment man in the White House, you might get a taste of what you wished for. It's true, Trump has never served a day in public office, so a big "hooray!" for that. You also got a corrupt billionaire who's filling his transition team with corporate lobbyists. It might not be politics as usual, but it sure looks like a dark and twisted reflection.

For those of you who wanted more concern for the working class and those harmed by trade agreements, you're damn fools. Hillary wasn't Bernie, but look at what you got instead. We'll see where inequality and poverty rates go in an America where Paul Ryan has free reign to write the tax code, and where Trump is starting trade wars in a re-enactment of Smoot-Hawley.

For those of you who wanted to throw off the yoke of moderate respect for women, people of color, LGBTQs, and non-Christians; who wanted a return to the glorious straight white Christian America of fantasy past; I say fuck off and die.

I'm tired, angry, disgusted, and afraid of what the future will look like.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Searching for empathy

I do miss Hunter S. Thompson. Of all the elections I have been around for, this one seems by far the best fit for the description 'fear and loathing'. Though I have a fairly liberal social circle, I do have friends and relatives who are Republicans, and I have argued politics with them over the years. I am a partisan liberal Democrat, but I have at least been able to understand some of their opposing arguments. But Trump, damn. Trump is a different beast.

I have a visceral revulsion to Trump, and what he represents for our government, for our culture. The strongman, willful ignorance, and hatred of the other makes my skin crawl. The man appears to me as a literal monster. The worst parts of Nixon, Mussolini, and the dreck of Fox News rolled into one.

Yet, on the right, there are similar feelings for Hillary, and I have a hard time having empathy for this position. I have certainly tried. All the books and articles about the diverging cultures in America, the diverging economies, and it still gives me no intuitive understanding. I find it hard to empathize with the pro-Trump articles I read as anything other than frothing right-wing hatred and conspiracy theories that are suggestive of needing to be checked into a mental institution. In my social circles I do not have one associate openly advocating for Trump.

But the polls! Depending on your sources, the polls have been frightfully even at times. I have been a tremendous fan of FiveThirtyEight the last eight years, and only a few weeks ago it was painting a picture of close to even odds. Fortunately, the polls have swung back to Hillary, but it is still 90 some days to go. I honestly have a hard time grasping why Clinton is not, at minimum, up twelve points in the polls against Trump. Even the current odds, which are tremendously better than two weeks ago, are about the same as the odds of surviving a round of Russian roulette.

How would I explain what I have learned in trying to understand the millions of people that would vote for Trump? There is a tremendous amount of anger in America, from people across the spectrum. But why is Trump the result of this?

There is the economic side. Many people are left behind by the economy, with increasing wage inequality and the decline of middle class careers, especially for those with less of an education. I certainly agree that our economic system is more divided than ever, but, damn, why would you turn to the Republican party for salvation? Fair, if you can discern a pattern out of the incoherence spouting from Trump's mouth, he may be pushing the Republican party to the left economically. He is arguing for revising trade agreements, protecting social security, and increasing infrastructure spending. Still, that argument seems tenuous. First, it's hard to trust the Republican Party wanting to do anything for the poor or disadvantaged. Second, it's hard to trust Trump to do anything in particular.

Past economics, what of it is culture? There are many who do not like how our culture is changing, or feel imposed upon by the coastal urban centers. There are simply those who are partisan Republicans the same way I am a partisan Democrat. And then a lot, if not all, of Trump's support is racist, nationalist, misogynistic, culturally-conservative bastards who hate the other. That might explain things, but it doesn't give me much in the the way of empathy. I am for a political force that helps everyone, but that is a movement that deserves to be stamped out of existence.

So what positive could I say about Trump if I squint hard enough? He is anti-establishment, and a change from politics as normal. Not being beholden to the Republican establishment, he may shift policies in a new direction. He does pay attention to those left behind by the unexciting recovery from the Great Recession. And...

That's about it.

Let's hope we we survive through November.

Monday, June 6, 2016

June 7th Election in California

Voting tomorrow in California. I am less settled than I would like to be on a few points, namely the Hillary vs Bernie portion of the voting tomorrow.

It is, for the most part, a moot point, as Hillary has an essentially insurmountable lead in both the pledged and superdelegates. After the votes this weekend in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and the latest shuffling of superdelegates, the A.P. just called the race for her a few hours ago. Bernie is, of course, soldiering on and vowing to fight on to a contested convention, though I imagine Obama, Warren, and a throng of others will be endorsing Hillary tomorrow. Still, a win in California may prolong things.

Why my conflict with this? Why not say of course to the adamant fighting on for principle till the last vote is counted?

It is possible that I've become more supportive of Hillary, despite the private email server mess, and the unchanging aspects of her overly hawkish foreign policy, and unfortunately close relationship with the financial industry. She is after all, by most counts outside of the 2016 primary, quite to the progressive side of the Democrats, is extremely experienced, and an excellent politician.

It is certainly in large part because of fear of the festering boil that is Donald Trump, and a desire for the Democrats to focus on tearing him out root and branch.

Lastly, yes, some of it has been disappointment with Bernie. That is where my conflict is. I admire Bernie, I trust his personal ethics and commitment, and his desire for large scale revolutionary change. On the other hand, his policy plans, and the numbers behind them, seem near as wistfully inaccurate as the ones coming out from the Republicans. And at this stage of the game, he, and the followers he inspires, seem to be on the verge of tipping over from resolute defiance to self-destructive delusion. The Facebook friends of mine that swear they'll vote for Jill Stein if Bernie doesn't win the nomination make me want to scream. Doesn't anyone remember 2000? Christ, yes, I know we have a political system with a first-past-the-post system that forces us into a two-party system, and that that is hideously offensive to many of our beliefs, but we're not going to change that in the next six months. You want viable third party candidates, we'll need to rewrite the constitution. Believe me, I'd love to. I want a greater degree of proportional representation or instant-runoff voting, or at least abandoning the Electoral College. But right now, we have to keep Trump out. The odds on Trump winning are likelier than they should be. Would that more of our electorate were sane and educated and tolerant. I remember W far too well and that disaster of a human is head and shoulders above Trump.

So, there I am on the Democratic primary. I would still prefer Bernie to be president over Hillary, and so will most likely still vote for him, but I cannot say I will do so with as great an enthusiasm as I had hoped for.

In local news, I am likely to support the endorsements of the SF YIMBY slate and SPUR. As another personal conflict, that puts me to the moderate side of the local housing debate, as apparently resisting new housing is what makes you a 'progressive' in local SF politics.

Sigh. This may be the getting older I feared.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

I Am Not An Economist - Basic Income

Despite not being an economist, I am someone who cares about politics and reads far too much news from sources such as Bloomberg, Fortune, WSJ, The Economist, etc. Thus, I have opinions about economic policy. For this week's thinking to myself, I wanted to go over an econ policy idea that has been making itself increasingly loudly heard through some corners of the net. See YCombinator, Reddit with  r/BasicIncome, Vox's parade of articles on the subject, etc.

For those of you who don't read over my shoulder everything I skim on the internet, what exactly is a basic income? Wikipedia has the intro on basic income covered, but as I have seen it presented, the idea is to give every citizen, or every citizen at age of majority, a direct income. Simply a check every month or similar, with no means testing, generally so as to replace all, or most other, social programs such as social security, food stamps, welfare, etc. The amount of money that would be paid out in such a system is up for debate, with some arguing that it should be enough to survive on, and others wanting just a baseline level of aid. The minimal level of aid could be along the lines of what is already done with the Alaska Permanent Fund, or Norway's similar distribution of oil revenue through the Government Pension Fund of Norway.

Firstly, what is the reason one would want to do this? Looking at the collection of American law and regulation designed to provide aid and a reliable source of income, I see a complicated mess. As a software developer, it is the sort of situation that makes me dream of throwing it out and rewriting it from scratch, in as simplistic and direct a way as possible. Giving the same amount of money to everyone, through one singular program, with no means testing, is pretty much that ideal. Presuming it works, and is affordable, of course.

So, what might the benefits be? Beyond the simplifying of bureaucracy, there are, theoretically, a number. The system, being so simple, would be harder to corrupt. Furthermore, it removes a good share of the perverse incentives seen with many welfare systems. If you only get aid when you are below the poverty line, getting an income that would boost you above the poverty line is, if not a negative, is less of a positive than it would otherwise be.

The overall goal, of providing aid, and putting a floor on poverty is, in my mind, necessary. We've got a vast proportion of our population that's in poverty or unfortunately close to poverty. Wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated. There's a lot of risk in the future that jobs will be wiped out faster than people can train for new ones. Giving every citizen an equal amount of money will help equalize things and prevent abject poverty and social stratification.

There is the question of what to set the level of payments at. If set too low, you are providing less aid than with current systems, and some people are losing out. If set too high, you create a system that we cannot afford, and discourages people from wanting to work at all. Much as I would like to hope otherwise, I think we're at least a few years away from the futuristic utopia where robots do most of the work and we can all get by on five weeks of work a year. Maybe not too far, but not something we can just start tomorrow.

So, what could this basic income level be set at? Of all the papers about it I've seen on the net, I've seen very few with direct numbers.

As a first thought experiment, what would happen with a revenue neutral basic income? Do not change current tax rates, or total social program spending. Simply get rid of social security, food stamps, minimum wage, welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, etc, and just give every citizen a check each month. What happens then?

For the roughest of back of the napkin calculations, bear in mind I'm not an economist, it looks like we spend ~2.25-2.5 trillion per year on the programs I mentioned. And there are ~320 million Americans, ~240 million of them over the age of 18. So, if we gave each of them an even distribution of that money, that would be approximately, $10,00 a year for citizen over the age of 18. That actually lines up fairly well with what New Zealand, Finland, Canada, and the Netherlands are experimenting with,

Not enough to get by on, certainly, which mostly avoids the problem of discouraging people from working, but how would the end result work, and who suffers? If you're giving this money out to all citizens instead of some subset of citizens, there are going to be people getting less money. Looking into that, I realized that I had no idea what the max social security distribution is in the US. Apparently it's about $2,639, for people who have contributed the maximum taxable earnings for 35 working years. For maximum benefits through welfare, SNAP, Medicaid, etc, I have even less of an idea, but after a brief internet search looks like for some people is greater than one thousand a month.

Distributing all this money perfectly evenly, instead of targeting it, would thus, of course, create a number of winners and losers. Despite the efficiency gains of such a program, a number of people currently hurting the most, would have aid reduced.

Furthermore, what are the efficiency gains? There are all the potential benefits of removing perverse incentives, but measuring that is mostly up to ambiguous econ theory to debate, Then, how many fewer people would it take to administer such a program? As not-an-economist, and spending a few seconds looking on the web, I see the US currently employs 62,000 people in the Social Security Administration, and after that, sifting through docs from OPM gets complicated. I imagine a good number of jobs would no longer be needed, but hardly enough to have a sizable impact on the amount of payout such a system would be able to give.

What if you wanted to increase the amount of basic income, in order to compensate for those losing out due to decreased payments? As a basic income is being given to all people, tax burdens on people not currently receiving aid, but who would under a basic income system, could be increased without changing their effective income levels, but then it all becomes a question of tax policy.

I love the aesthetics of such a basic income plan, its ideals, and basic argument, but still need more details to have any idea how it would actually work. Glad they are experimenting with it in other parts of the world, and look forward to seeing what happens.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Investing in Cybernetics

By investing in cybernetics, I mean more the purchasing of medical devices to plug into your body, less so the buying stock in companies that make cybernetic components. Though I may want to do that.

This week, after taking care of a work project that had consumed a good share of my free time the last month or two, I finally got around to a number of the items on my to-do list that I'd been ignoring. One of which was plugging in my new Dexcom G5 continuous glucose monitor. Now I have not one, but two Bluetooth enabled devices that plug in underneath my skin. Woo! It's the 21st Century alright. Not long until my eyes glow and I can punch through walls, right?

I've been a type 1 diabetic for a little more than 24 years now. This is cause for a moderate amount of watching my diet, frequently testing my blood sugar via finger pricks, and adjusting insulin dosages five to ten times a day. For the most part it's an inconvenience, admittedly with a constant dread that my long term health will suffer. Frequently though the blood sugars do something unexpected, either spiking high and leaving me feeling like shit for hours, or crashing low and leaving me with less than full mental faculties, sweating profusely and stubbornly refusing aid while my friends have to consider wrestling me to the ground to stuff food into my mouth. Occasionally with the screaming seizures or sprinting off into the woods. Ah, memories!

Thank you all, family, friends, and loved ones who have dealt with me in those situations.

About four or five years ago, after one such attack, I made my first such investment in cybernetics, moving away from the traditional usage of syringes for insulin injections. I got a Medtronic insulin pump, and Enlite continuous glucose monitor. The insulin pump was a wonderful success, and dramatically improved my blood sugar control. The pump has the benefit of having a varying basal rate, that continuously drips a background level of insulin into me, that can be easily calibrated. It talks wirelessly with my blood testing kit, and calculates, based on the time of day and how much I tell it I eat, in order to give me a more proper amount of insulin.  Further, it remembers how much insulin has been injected into me. I had been doing this all in my head between the age of seven and twenty six, but the machine is a bit less prone to forget or overlook those important details.

Medtronic's Enlite CGM sensor system unfortunately left something to be desired. This was four years ago, and I'm sure Medtronic's tech has improved a good bit in the meantime, but the sensor then was so poor that I stopped using it after a few months.

For those of you not the most familiar with diabetes, a continuous glucose monitor is a system designed to, well, continuously monitor your blood glucose level. The ones on the market, both then, and now, do so with subcutaneous sensor that you implant in yourself for some number of days, and has a wireless/Bluetooth communication system, to beep out your blood sugar every minute or five.

As I was saying, the previous one I had left many things to be desired. Only lasted three days, had to be attached to the body with tape, easily fell off, and was inaccurate to the point of not being worth the trouble. I tossed it.

Over the years, the technology seems to have improved. Fellow diabetics recommended the newer Dexcom brand systems to me, and I finally took them up on their suggestion. The differences, though minor when describing them, add up to something that is exponentially better. The Dexcom G5 attaches without requiring additional tape wrapped over the top, and is a good share smaller and more comfortable. Most importantly, it has proved far more accurate, and to have less of a lag.

I have yet to see this Dexcom G5 be off by more than twenty percentage points or so, its alert system is timely, and in the week I've had it has kept my blood sugar in a much tighter range than I would normally be under. Don't think I've had a blood sugar above 190, and haven't had anything low without being awake and able to respond to it quickly.

The also checking while asleep is a significant benefit, one that of course existed in the previous CGM system I had, but with the added benefit of greater accuracy, and not waking me up without cause.

Managing blood sugars is a lot of dealing with lag. Insulin gets injected into your subcutaneous fat, and even with the quicker acting insulins, Humalog for me, it only starts to really have an effect half an hour after injection, peak effect perhaps hour and a half later, continuing effect out three or four hours. Eating food also has a similar lag time for raising your blood sugars. Non-diabetic bodies are a lot better with dealing with this, because pancreases are plugged in more directly to the arteries and veins, and can sense and respond to blood sugars much more quickly. Us diabetics though, with our putting insulin into subcutaneous fat, and with the continuous glucose monitors sensing the blood sugars in that tissue, we are on a delay.

Hence, once of the the great benefits of a continuous glucose monitor that happens to be accurate is that it can give you not just your close to current blood sugar, but the rate and direction of change. The derivative of your blood sugar, to think about high school calculus. Us diabetics are going to have the lag time in adjusting to our blood sugars, but being able to see the direction of change gives the ability to predict where it'll be in the next hour and to get ahead of it.

My other compliments to Dexcom are the very excellent UI, ease of viewing the data, and general ease of use.

Of course it's not perfect yet. Won't be perfect until we finally get around to curing diabetes, which has been promised to me as "five years away" since I was diagnosed in 1992. For more direct criticisms, I am irritated that there is software to access the data from the sensor for iOS devices but not Android. As an Android dev who often sees Android apps not started until a year or two after the iOS versions, I understand, but damn. Related, it's made by a different company than Medtronic, so it doesn't talk directly to my insulin pump, and I'm manually feeding data between the two. Sure be nice to have an open API for the two to plug into. Bloody corporate competition, and/or overzealous FDA regulation. Additionally, it's another thing sticking out of my skin, and I certainly can't do jujitsu with it. Then again, have to peel of the insulin pump insertion sight anyways to be able to do that, but now with two such peripherals stuck into my body, makes that sport less than practical. Some day, they'll either cure it, or it'll be subdermal. Then I'll get the Deus Ex future I've been hoping for since 2000.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter All

Been a busy week for me. The next Android launch that I've been building for work over the last three months is slightly behind schedule, but is close to release. It will be the largest single Android release we've done since I started at PlanGrid. That's been burning me out the last month, but am nearly there, and shall celebrate upon its completion.

Had a relaxing early escape from work this weekend, as I went down to Arizona for the wedding of two close friends from college days. Congrats to Anneli and Erich! Was a wonderful wedding, and great to see all the friends collected in one place. As another plus, got to meet all of my girlfriend's family, as they happen to live in Phoenix. Learned how to make some wonderful Puerto Rican food for Easter.

Outside of the work and social gatherings, haven't had too much time to think of things to write. Politics and the economy are trundling along. World news is about what it has been, perhaps with an unfortunate uptick in terrorist attacks the last few days. Sigh. Beyond that, perhaps I can write about the latest books I've been reading. You should all read The Expanse series, by the way.

For now though, sleep. To write later. Be well, all.