Monday, November 24, 2014

Should we leave our future to the machines?

It would be easy, but far too simplistic, to write off Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, as mere cheerleaders for our new digital masters.

Though there is plenty of cheerleading, this is nonetheless a fascinating, very clear exposition of where our technologies are taking human societies (climate collapse always excepted; these authors make no mention of that dire probability). They contend that we are in the midst of an historical "inflection point." For most of our existence, the conditions of human life did not change much: we struggled along to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves in relatively small societies. In the last 200 years, the steam engine -- a marker for the increase in mechanical power that we call the industrial revolution -- led to a take off in human well-being, population numbers, wealth, and a better life for far more us us (especially if you don't factor in mass extinctions and pollution of the planet). Today the digital revolution -- the exponential, embedded expansion of machine power and capacity -- is driving us to a new plane of existence.

These authors survey some of what is possible: driverless cars, effective translation and writing as good as humans produce, 3-D printing. The goodies are wonderful. We want them!

And then they take up what they call "the spread" -- the fact that innovations with the power and capacity they describe will lead to societies in which a few people (I'd call them the one percent and their sycophants but they don't) have wonderful lives and most of a growing human population is superfluous. And they make recommendations: suddenly we're back in the drab land of imaginable (almost) public policy: universal pre-K and a negative income tax.

I find it impossible to believe that their remedies are nearly up to the tasks assigned to them. Maybe our digital masters can figure out to do with superfluous humans? Somehow that prospect doesn't look good.

This is a worthwhile book, for what it describes of where we are going. Making the digitized society livable for most is another matter; that isn't going to come from the business schools these authors derive from.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

An Obamacare rant: fix your own damn market!

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad we have Obamacare. A lot of people, millions of us, have some kind of health insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Nobody has proved that people are any healthier because of this, but the best study shows that the newly insured are more likely to get medical care when they are sick and far less likely to be bankrupted by a sudden illness. That's all to the good.

But that does not mean that by succumbing to the political and economic pressures to preserve our cruel and wasteful private market health system, Obamacare isn't a jerry-built Rube Goldberg edifice. Margot Sanger-Katz explains that the Department of Health and Human Services is proposing a regulation to "encourage" people who buy coverage through the insurance exchanges to go through the laborious process of re-evaluating which plan will be cheapest and will give them the medical access they want every year.

Now cheap is good. But changing insurance companies can often mean changing doctors, hospitals, relationships, maybe medications -- why would we want people to have to go through all that every year?

The proposal highlights a key feature of the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces, which has both benefits and drawbacks. It relies on competition between private health plans to keep prices low. That means that shoppers in many markets can find good deals, but only if they’re willing to stomach the disruption of switching insurance every year.

That is, unless individual citizens are willing to unsettle their medical arrangements annually, there will be less competition between insurers. If people are loath to change insurers, they'll settle in with one that more or less suits them and only change if they have to.

Because Obamacare seeks to use competition between insurers to keep prices down while upholding basic quality, without churn in the market the exchanges will become uncompetitive. If people find a plan that works for them and just stick with it, there goes competition between insurers. So to keep this private marketplace working, users have to be pushed to jump between insurers. The job of keeping the insurance market healthy is to be pushed off onto individuals, many of whom are poor or sick.

Sick people are not consumers making choices like which new electronic widget to buy. When serious illness hits, our lives are at stake. As was the case before Obamacare, what chance we have of receiving good care should not be determined by how good we are at jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Health care really is a human right; preserving the health of a dysfunctional profit-seeking market is just the detritus of an anti-human social system.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Uber and its discontents

All spotted within one city block on lower Potrero Hill:

Lots of signage.

Friday, November 21, 2014

This is a bet on the economy ..

Let me jump into the risky and foolish prediction business. I read a lot of commentary on the President's order to give a substantial number (4 million? -- we won't really know for awhile) of our undocumented population a deferred deportation status. Watching the capricious and cruel workings of immigration law in our neighborhood, I could only cheer and wish for more, the more that Congress could give but Republicans won't.

There's lots of wailing and fury in response from some people. There will be more of this. Maybe Republicans will shut down the government over giving work permits to parents of citizens? Seems crazy, but we could go there.

But whether this action seems more than a blip in our memory of this period will depend on something that neither President Obama nor the Republicans seem to have (or want?) much of a grip on. If the weak economic growth currently underway leads to growing perceptions of prosperity for a majority of us, this immigration initiative will be forgotten. If, as has been the case for more than a decade, the promised economic improvement never comes, maybe Obama will go down in history as an aspiring tyrant, oblivious to the constraints of law.

It's still about the economy, stupid!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Equality then and now

Our Declaration by Danielle Allen, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, has been sitting next to my computer for a month, reminding me to write about it. Something held me back. What?

I reveled in this book -- I highly recommend it -- yet I'm conflicted because it did not quite succeed at convincing me that the Declaration of Independence should be read as a ringing endorsement of human equality. (I have linked to the document's text because, as Allen points out, most of us have never read the entirety of this short document; we invoke it, but our education seldom includes reading it.)

Allen acquired her understanding of the Declaration through teaching and discussing it with University of Chicago students and adult, working, night students. Their discussions formed her vision of what this founding document might mean to us today.

By and large all we were doing was reading texts closely, and discussing them. ...

As I worked my way through the text with those students, I realized for the first time in my own life that the Declaration makes a coherent philosophical argument. In particular, it makes an argument about political equality. ... What exactly is political equality? The purpose of democracy is to empower individual citizens and give them sufficient control over their lives to protect themselves from domination. In their ideal form, democracies empower each and all such that none can dominate any of the others, nor anyone group, another group of citizens.

Political equality is not, however, merely freedom from domination. The best way to avoid being dominated is to help build the world which one lives -- to help, like an architect, determine its pattern and structure. The point of political equality is not merely to secure spaces free from domination but also to engage all members of a community equally in the work of creating and constantly re-creating that community. Political equality is equal political empowerment.

Ideally, if political equality exists, citizens become co-creators of their shared world. Freedom from domination and the opportunity for co-creation maximize the space available for individual and collective flourishing. ...

As a mixed-race woman, Allen is perfectly well aware that the Declaration's authors -- John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, the other propertied gentlemen of the Continental Congress -- could not envision freedom or equality that included her. Yet she is certain that their creation -- their collective "democratic writing" -- nonetheless speaks philosophical truths that go beyond their particular circumstances and very much to include all of us.

I just can't follow Allen to this conclusion. By instinct and by education, I think like an historian, determined to understand as much as possible the context that shaped a document from the past in its particular time. The past was then; this is now. My thought emerges from now and it is through the vantage point of now that I see the past. Knowing this, I deeply distrust my own instinct to assimilate the actions and thinking of people in the past into my contemporary reality.

Allen is a philosopher; she looks for the principles that undergird the temporal particularity of the Declaration.

Although the study of history is riveting and awakens us to contingency, this book treads lightly on the historical side of the tale of the Declaration. While history can serve to help us understand many things much better it can also function as a barrier to entry. This book is intentionally philosophical; it focuses almost exclusively on the logical argument of the Declaration and the conceptual terrain of its metaphors.

And so, for her, the Declaration becomes a grand testimony to equality.

The Declaration of Independence makes a coherent philosophical argument from start to finish. it is this: equality has precedence over freedom; only on the basis of equality can freedom be securely achieved.

I want to believe her, but I can't locate this insight in the Declaration. I can agree with the conclusion here, but I have to get there through the struggles of my own time, not through this more than 200 year old document. Fortunately, no time lacks struggles toward justice for all, if we dare to see them.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Not something I'm happy about ...

We're getting a present from Jerry Brown.

The number of signatures required to put an initiative on the California state ballot looks to drop by hundreds of thousands in 2016. That's because the state constitution calls for valid signatures amounting to 8 percent of the gubernatorial ballots cast in the previous election to put on a constitutional amendment and 5 percent for a mere statute.

John Myers of KQED points out that, with Jerry's waltz over a hapless challenger in 2014, participation in the race was way down. it is likely that it will become possible to qualify a ballot measure with a mere 325,000 signatures as opposed to slightly over 500,000 in the last cycle.


This is about money. Ballot petitions are gathered by companies that specialize in hiring canvassers for the job of collecting the signatures. When time is short or the measure hard to sell, the companies pay the workers up to $2 a name or more. Run of the mill propositions pay less. People are employed ... niche enterprises make a profit ... and voters get a long ballot. As a rough rule of thumb, the previous threshold for qualifying a measure meant that it took at least $1 million to qualify a statute and much more to qualify a constitutional amendment.

It is likely to be more attractive to both billionaires with an axe to grind and to grassroots groups with an idea to go to the ballot, as it just got cheaper. Our ballots will be longer and likely more off-putting than ever.

But hey -- how about an initiative to make Election Day a state holiday, perhaps coupled with same day registration and incentives to vote? Now that would be a useful contribution to popular democracy.

H/t Daily Kos Elections.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Defending homes

A determined group from northern California took to the sidewalks of Market St. in San Francisco today to demand that the U.S. Army Engineers honor their obligations to the Pomo tribe and rein in Caltrans. See previous post.

Singing raises spirits.

Priscilla Hunter from the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians spoke with the media.

A few demonstrators blocked doors.

Taking a stand can be a tiring business.
Around a corner, a few blocks away, another protest was going on.

The outcry from the dispossessed was not really that different.

For these tenants as much as the Pomos, the legal system seems rigged against them.

Bulldozing Native history

Another day, another demonstration in San Francisco to deter official malfeasance. After watching Caltrans bungle construction of the new "signature" Bay Bridge for 25 years, it is not hard to believe that they've bungled again and run afoul of their own rules for protection of historic Native sites while constructing a highway bypass near Willits in Northern California. Pomo Indians are coming to town to protest.

This ABC news report is remarkably clear on what is taking place.
Local tribes say seven Indian villages once dotted the Little Lake Valley all over the area being torn up by construction along the six mile freeway route. Then in the mid-1800's European settlers changed everything. Hunter says, "They brought the army in and took our land and killed our people."

The native people who survived were forced out, but the ground around Willits is full of things they left behind -- 5,000 years of history protected by federal law. Now Indian artifacts are turning up all over the construction site and on Caltrans property that's being dug up to comply with environmental requirements.

... The local tribes say Caltrans is playing catch up with sacred history because the staff did not do an adequate job finding or protecting Native American sites before construction started last year. Fitzgerral said Caltrans "hired all these experts and they failed."
If they can build a bridge whose fundamental construction flaws are still coming to light now that it is open, it is no great surprise that they don't follow the rules about preservation of tribal history.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Torture travel interrupted by popular eruption

Erudite partner was supposed to fly to Mexico this week to talk about torture with philosophy and education students at the UNAM -- the National Autonomous University in Mexico City. She's not going; her hosts are teachers of education students and, like much of the country, they'll be on strike the day she was to give her talk. The short video from AlJazeera+ narrated by our friend Francesca Fiorentini gives a sense of how high inflamed feelings are running in Mexico and around the world. As well they should.

But Rebecca Gordon is still actively spreading the word about torture here at home. Tonight, Monday November 17 at 7 pm, she is talking at Folio Books on 24th Street in Noe Valley.

On December 10 (that's a Wednesday) she's participating in a national webinar along with Professor Juan Mendez, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, sponsored by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to mark Human Rights Day. Registration required.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Morning glory in the MIssion

Sunrise over the BART plaza at 24th Street this morning. Too busy to write today. Back tomorrow.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reflections on law and U.S. history

It turns out Louisiana -- and thus New Orleans -- really is different. During the bookapalooza, Rebecca spoke at the law school at Loyola. Our hosts gave us a strange little gift -- it looks almost like a children's book -- from the Louisiana Bar Foundation.

So I actually read it. Apparently the civil law in the Bayou State is

almost as different from the rest of American law as the metric system is from the English system of measurement.

Because of its French history, the state has inherited a Civil Code that expressed the drive of the French bourgeoisie to upend and replace all vestiges of feudal and religious ordinances that encumbered private property. That's one way of describing what the French Revolution of 1789 was all about. By the time an embattled France sold off Louisiana to President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, a civil code expressing the bourgeoisie's optimistic rationalism had become the region's law. Proponents of this sort of Code, called "civilians" in this little book, look to statutes to deduce and order how citizens (male property owners, really) ought to organize their affairs. The rest of U.S. law which derives from the English common law tradition, building a frame for legal behavior inductively out of accumulated generations of particular instances or "cases."

The civilians' debate with common lawyers about the best way to make law reflects their antithetical assumptions about the power of generalized rules over men's lives. These assumptions, in turn, are linked to the civilian's preference for deduction and the common lawyer's attachment to induction as ways of reasoning about legal issues. The civilian, unless he assumed that the code stated generally valid standards, could not deduce a result by manipulating its provisions. By contrast, a common lawyer would not bother with close analysis of individual precedents if he thought their meaning could be captured for all time in a terse code provision. The differing assumptions about the power of inductive and deductive reasoning are linked to contrasting assumptions about the unfolding of history. As we have noted already, a civilian must believe that history is orderly enough to permit terse generalization. A common lawyer is much less confident than his civilian counterpart about the predictability of history.

Most of us are so steeped in a world shaped by the common law's assumptions that utilitarianism and pragmatism come naturally. Might this be a different country if the ideological assumptions of the Code Civil -- the belief that legislators can prescribe a right society -- had shaped our laws?
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