Mark Rank, professor of social welfare at Washington University, has an excellent piece in The New York Times on income inequality and mobility that further supports the video above:
But is it the case that the top 1 percent of the income distribution are the same people year in and year out? Or, for that matter, what about the top 5, 10 and 20 percent? To what extent do everyday Americans experience these levels of affluence, at least some of the time? …It turns out that 12 percent of the population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution.
This demonstrates that
most American households go through a wide range of economic experiences, both positive and negative…Ultimately, this information casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income…Rather than talking about the 1 percent and the 99 percent as if they were forever fixed, it would make much more sense to talk about the fact that Americans are likely to be exposed to both prosperity and poverty during their lives, and to shape our policies accordingly. As such, we have much more in common with one another than we dare to realize.
This is a very, very long article about deafness, but it’s a very interesting one for people who are not familiar at all with deaf culture. I’m hardly an expert myself, but I took 2 years of ASL in high school, and part of our coursework was learning about deaf culture. What we learned surprised me. The two things that stick out the most are first, the fact that so much deaf humor is based on making fun of hearing people (like you and me). We’re the butt of most of the jokes, and we’re usually depicted as stupid and greedy. Given that I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as deaf culture before taking the class, I can see where that resentment and disdain comes from.
The second is that the deaf community do not see the inability to hear as a defect. It’s the ticket to entry into their unique culture. For this reason, there are many who view attempts to cure deafness as literally attempts to exterminate their culture and community. Specifically: cochlear implants. These are little electronic devices that bypass the tiny hairs in our ears that help us hear (which are missing, for people that can benefit from CIs) and instead translate vibration directly to electrical signals to your nerves. It’s hearing, sort of. The quality is substantially lower than what people with full hearing can experience, although it is enough to understand speech and advancements are starting to make even listening to music possible.
There are two major problems, however. The first is that children can be diagnosed and given a CI at a very young age, and that once they learn to speak and hear with their CIs, the chance of them ever learning to sign or joining the deaf community are minimal. The second is that many deaf children are born to hearing parents who, overwhelmingly, opt for CIs. As a result, as some in the deaf community see it, they are essentially being robbed of new entrants to the deaf community by a hearing population that doesn’t even really know that they exist.
It’s not hard to imagine a future where virtually all forms of deafness can be cured. Would that be akin to the complete extinction of an entire culture? These are some of the questions raised by this article, which I definitely recommend.
And, the next time someone shares one of those touching YouTube videos of a baby or grown person hearing a loved one’s voice for the first time, just think that the very video that brings tears of joy to a hearing person can bring sadness and loss to a deaf person.
I’ve noticed a couple of really interesting articles going around about how, in order to create Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto may have actually created something much more important than even the biggest fans of Bitcoin realize. As Business Insider reports:
By many accounts, Satoshi came up with a real-world solution to a longstanding computer science paradox known as the double-spend problem, or the Byzantine General’s problem (the professor who named it explains why he did so here). The challenge is how to send and receive money online without the need for a trusted third party, such as PayPal, ensuring that the same digital credit standing in for the amount being exchanged isn’t being spent twice…Satoshi does not appear to have been looking to solve this problem when he created Bitcoin. But his design for the blockchain, which he spelled out in his 2008 Bitcoin spec paper (PDF), has profound implications.
Look out for that word “blockchain.” You might start hearing it a lot. The concept of the blockchain is, in a way, nothing less than a solution to the problem of distributed trust. It’s not a perfect solution. If you read the paper, you’ll see that being able to trust a transaction in Bitcoin depends on the honest nodes in the network having more combined CPU power than any collection of attacking nodes, and even when the majority of the network nodes are honest you don’t get guaranteed validity. You get pobabilistic validity. In other words: there’s a chance that someone could try to spend their Bitcoins twice (think of someone dropping a coin into a vending machine and then yanking it back out again to reuse), but it’s a very small chance. That’s a mature approach to security. In the real world you can’t really prevent attacks. You can just make them too expensive to be worth the effort.
Well, what if instead of using the blockchain to verify transactions, you use it to verify files? Turns out somebody has already done that:
Perhaps the most straightforward example of a post-Bitcoin service using Satoshi’s blockchain is Proof of Existence. Created by Manuel Araoz, a 25-year-old developer in Argentina, the site allows you to upload a file to certify that you had custody of it at a given time. Neither its contents nor your own personal information are ever revealed — rather, all the data in the document gets digested into an encrypted number. Proof of Existence is built on top of the Bitcoin blockchain (there’s a 0.005 BTC fee), so the thousands of computers on that network have now collectively verified your file.
There are other ideas too, and they could be really, really important. For example, what about replacing ICANN (the organization that oversees web addresses on the Internet) with a blockchain? You know all those fights about whether the US should maintain control of the Internet or hand it over to the UN? They could potentially (potentially) be sidestepped.
You see, it’s not that hard to imagine other blockchain-based systems which aren’t currencies and don’t attract as many “colorful personalities.” Suppose you replaced the Internet’s centralized Domain Name System with a blockchain for Internet names (like Namecoin) such that every DNS request included some proof-of-work effort. Or you used any blockchain (including Bitcoin’s) as a notary service. Or you built a new blockchain for crowdfunding. Or you replaced a centralized system which absolutely does need to be scrapped — that horrific barrel of worms known as TLS/SSL Certificate Authorities — with a blockchain-based solution powered at the browser level.
Or you built a new distributed email service, with a blockchain for email addresses, and every time you checked your email you contributed to the network. Or a new distributed social network, with a blockchain verifying identities, powered by code that ran every time its users launched its app or visited its web page.
For me, this is a really big “ah ha” moment. It’s always been a bit confusing that a serious guy like Andreessen Horowitz would put his capital into what was, until now, basically understood to be more of a goldrush / speculative gamble than a new technology. Well, it turns out that he’s been talking about this for months already. Horowitz gets it, and now I get why a serious guy like Horowitz is so vested in Bitcoin. It’s not about Bitcoin. It’s about the blockchain. It’s about a distributed trust system.
This is a big deal. If you’re interest is as piqued as mine was, here are a couple more articles for you to check out.
“Cryptocurrencies will create a fifth protocol layer powering the next generation of the Internet,” says Naval Ravikant. “Our 2014 fund will be built during the blockchain cycle,” concurs Fred Wilson. And Andreessen Horowitz have very visiblydoubled down on Bitcoin.
The bitcoin platform (or blockchain) allows for the deployment of decentralized applications that combine the benefits of cloud computing — in terms of ubiquity and elasticity — with the benefits of P2P technologies in terms of privacy and anonymity.
This is an older Wall Street Journal article (from October 2010), but it’s one of those great articles that is at once intrinsically interesting and also really offers a glimpse into how us anti-social free-marketeers see the world: Why Some Islanders Build Better Crab Traps. The research is pretty simple: scientists found a way to quantify the complexity of crab traps made by various Pacific tribes, and then they compared complexity of traps to population size.
What they found was that the bigger the population, the more varied and more complex the tool kit was. Hawaii, with 275,000 people at the time of Western contact, had seven times the number and twice the complexity of fishing tools as tiny Malekula, with 1,100 people.
But it’s not just the size of the population on the island group that matters, but the size of the population it was in contact with. Some small populations with lots of long-distance trading contacts had disproportionately sophisticated tool kits, whereas some large but isolated populations had simple tool kits. The well-connected Micronesian island group of Yap had 43 tools, with a mean of five techno-units per tool, while the remote Santa Cruz group in the Solomon Islands, despite having almost as large a population, had just 24 tools and four techno-units.
This is what makes markets great: it’s a way of pulling together more people to cooperate, exchange information, and have a better life for everyone. Markets are, by their nature, impersonal but by that token so are penicillin and electricity. What matters in all three cases is the good they do for all of us.
Couple of minor corollaries: every now and then I’ll hear a serious academic talk about how things aren’t really better in the modern world. Like Jared Diamond who, apparently in all seriousness, decried agriculture as The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. These people are idiots. I suppose if an academic sang the praises of subsistence living and then actually left the modern world to adopt that lifestyle I might take them seriously. Or at least think that they weren’t a raving hypocrite. Until such time: the fact that rich and famous academics aren’t willing to trade medicine, literacy, and travel for the pleasures of 20-hour work week with the Hadza nomads in Tanznia suggests that they are either trolling or insane when they write such articles.
Which might sound like some kind of cultural smugness (aren’t we so much better than “primitive” tribes) if it weren’t for the second corollary:
Archeologists suggest that the ephemeral appearances of fancy tool kits in parts of southern Africa as far back as 80,000 years ago does not indicate sudden outbreaks of intelligence, forethought, language, imagination or anything else within the skull, but simply has a demographic cause: more people, more skills.
In other words: I have no basis whatsoever for feeling that I am in any way personally superior to a human who lived 80,000 years go or to someone from a less-technologically sophisticated civilization today. People are just people. The difference isn’t who we are, it’s where we live. The convenience of modern society doesn’t reflect any superior intellectual or moral sophistication on our part, but is just a natural result of having so many people all contribute to a shared social project.
The proper attitude is not arrogance for what we have, but rather humility for what we’ve been given.
This Wall Street Journal article didn’t ring any bells with me at first because it started with the description of Facebook as an envy-generator. I don’t really get that. I’ve read about the research that shows the more you use Facebook the worse you feel, but it just doesn’t really match my experience. I suppose FB could make me sad in a subtle way that I wouldn’t notice, but I think I would notice if my friends FB statuses were making me feel envious of their awesome lives. And… I just don’t feel that. Not ever, really.
So… I didn’t get it. But then this:
Psychologists and other experts aren’t immune to these feelings either. “There’s a man in my field who has made a big name for himself by so brilliantly promoting his work,” says executive coach Marcia Reynolds. “Whenever I hear his name, I feel something in the pit of my stomach.” But instead of dismissing her envy, she reflects on it and asks herself, “What’s holding me back? Can’t I play at his level too?”
Now that resonated. The paragraph thunked home like an arrow hitting the bulls-eye, and I vibrated to the core reading it, and especially the question at the end: “Can’t I play at his level too?”
For me, my nemesis/role-model (although he has no idea I exist) is John Scalzi. I vividly remember not only reading his excellent novel Old Man’s War, but also the sense of overt jealousy at the blurb on the cover that compared him to Heinlein (Heinlein!), and even more so at the discovery that he ran one of the most-viewed blogs on the entire web, and had been running it since the 1990s (before the word “blog” was a word). In fact, the very launch of this blog back in 2012 was heavily influenced by the years I spent reading John Scalzi, following his blog, following his Twitter, and thinking about what he did that could work for me and what he did that couldn’t.
It might seem a bit weird to focus just one guy that much, but John isn’t the only one. Every time I read a sci-fi book I’m thinking, “What works here?” and “What doesn’t?” And the more I like what I read, the more I try to learn from it. The difference with John Scalzi is just that he was the first author who burst onto the scene while I was watching, as it were. I read Old Man’s War, which was his first novel, within a year of it coming out. So I’ve been able to follow his career from first novel to his winning of the Hugo for Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas last year. The other folks I’ve been envious of include Jim Butcher and Larry Correia: two other relatively young writers who write books I like and whose careers I have been studying and following as they unfurl before me.
So yeah… now that I think about it, I do get this notion of envy. I think the researchers are right:
“Those painful pangs of envy are there for an evolutionary reason,” says Texas Christian University researcher Sarah E. Hill, “alerting us that someone has something of importance to us.”
It’s not malicious at all, for me. These guys are my heroes (even if I disagree strongly with some of their political views). And it’s not competitive either. I don’t want to defeat anyone. I want them to keep writing, and write more books and better books. I’m a fan! And it’s not just imitation either, but I’m acutely aware that I’ve got to do my own thing. But, when I think about it, there really isn’t a better word for how I feel than “benign envy.”
I wrote a post about the Brendan Eich situation and was going to post it this morning but a recent controversy has prompted me to address something else first.
Last week the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was (allegedly) recorded making racist comments to his girlfriend, telling her he prefers she not associate herself or the team with black people in public. The recording, made by his girlfriend (who, by the way, is apparently black and latina), was released to the public (likely by her) and has set off a storm of criticism and outrage. The Clippers team itself engaged in a protest by hiding the Clippers logo on their warmup jerseys and then dumping them midcourt (see photo) before their first round playoff game on Sunday.
This is not the first time Donald Sterling has been known to utter an unpopular sentiment. In the past he has allegedly made comments far worse than what he was caught saying to his girlfriend, comments which I will not duplicate here. Simply put, he’s not a very nice person, and not many in the Clippers organization have nice things to say about him. Now, however, his behavior may cost him his team. The NBA is under pressure to force Sterling to sell the Clippers as his very presence will now surely drive advertisers away and will fuel the refusal of popular figures in and out of the league to support the team. Already current and former players have publicly voiced their displeasure with Sterling. This isn’t something that will just go away.
I read an article over the weekend written in response to this controversy that criticizes those who came to Brendan Eich’s defense when he was basically forced to resign as CEO from Mozilla when his support of Prop 8 several years ago was made public. The article states that anyone defending Eich’s support of Prop 8 but unwilling to defend Sterling’s racism is a hypocrite.
I take exception to this for a couple reasons:
Brendan Eich did not oppose gay people for being gay. He opposed the action of their getting married. This is very different than Sterling, who appears to simply not like black people in general. Conflating the two is misleading and dishonest. There is a difference between someone’s behavior and who they are. There is no evidence that Brendan Eich dislikes gay people. It is unfortunately a common refrain from gay marriage activists that anyone opposed to gay marriage, gay sex or anything else labeled “homosexual” behavior must also necessarily hate gay people as well, which is obviously ridiculous.
Many of those who came to Eich’s defense did not defend or justify his support of Prop 8. They simply defended his right to support Prop 8 so and urged those in disagreement not to harass, threaten or professionally destroy him for it. Surely Donald Sterling is allowed to have his private feelings about black people, even if most people find those feelings abhorrent? Should someone who does not want to associate with people of a particular race in public be barred from owning a business in which the majority of the workforce is made up of that race? Or, in this day and age, are we justified in telling people “you can’t think a certain way and still work here”? Does punishing people for expressing unpopular sentiments solve anything or does it simply sweep the issue under the rug? Certainly Sterling’s ouster will not change his opinion of black people. Is that good enough? He can think whatever he wants as long as we don’t have to know about it and as long as he’s not in charge? Something about that just doesn’t feel right to me.
If I worked for someone who I knew disliked people of my race, I would feel very uncomfortable working for him. At the same time, demanding he resign and shuffling him off for someone else to deal with feels wrong. I want to believe people can change. Ostracizing and punishing them for their personal feelings will only entrench their negative perceptions. Doesn’t it seem like the better approach to show them love and kindness despite their hurtful words? There is a time for protest, for boycott, but we must also recognize that we live in a time of equality and progress and if we want continue along that path the goal should be to uplift those caught behind, not push them further away.
I will have more to say about this within the next few days.
I have a new post up at Times And Seasons this morning, continuing the series of posts that has, intentionally or not, sort of become my Internet testimony. Not sure that’s how it comes across to others, but it’s pretty much how I see it. The post also features a quote from my favorite Dresden Files book. Some might take a quote from popular urban fantasy to be an indication that I’m not taking my subject matter seriously. They would actually be underestimating how seriously I take my urban fantasy. I say this partly in jest, partly because of how much I genuinely love the Dresden Files, and partly because I just really like the idea of finding serious lessons about serious topics in unexpected, mundane places.
My own writing practices are the direct opposite of that followed by…prolific and renowned writers. I write only when I have something to say. The big disadvantage of this is that it can mean a lot of down time. There are manuscripts of mine that sat around gathering dust for years without a word being added to them. – Thomas Sowell
So begins my latest post at The Slow Hunch. What I failed to consider for years about the quote above is that Sowell was talking about books, not blog posts. I was too worried about coming up with a grand, unifying theory of everything for every single post at The Slow Hunch, which is probably why I’ve failed to write much over there the past few years (only a couple posts per month). Plus, blogging at Worlds Without End and Difficult Run made original posts more challenging. So, I’ve decided to try a slightly different direction: I will continue to link to non-SH posts I author (e.g. WWE, longer essays here at DR). However, I plan for most of my SH posts to relate to the theme of “worship through corporeality,” specifically the marriage of business and theology. I hope to write more frequently on this subject, from brief comments to longer essays. I will continue to link to them from DR. Hopefully, it turns into something worthwhile.
The Spring issue of the online journal SquareTwo was published today featuring an article by Nathaniel and me titled “‘No Poor Among Them’: Global Poverty, Free Markets, and the ‘Fourfold Mission’.” In it we argue that global markets can help fulfill the LDS Church’s latest addition to its “threefold mission” (making it “fourfold”): “to care for the poor and needy.” We analyze the impact of economic freedom on global (extreme) poverty and inequality, concluding that both are reduced when free markets are embraced.
For those unfamiliar with SquareTwo, it “is a forum for those building upon “square one,” the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints…With the Restored Gospel as a foundation, how would one articulate thought on the pressing issues of the world, the nation, the community, the family, and the individual? …The purpose of SquareTwo is to develop the finest online journal of LDS thought concerning the important issues of the world today, whether those be international issues, domestic issues, ethical issues, technological issues, etc.”
In the past couple of months I have had a couple of people say that Difficult Run is a conservative blog. It’s a statement that bugs me, because it presumes (1) that the editors of DR agree on everything (we do not) and (2) that DR is one of those blogs where the viewpoint comes first and the facts come second. So I’ve wanted to write about it, but I didn’t really know how to address the topic. But then I posted this somewhat glowing piece about Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital, and it gave me the perfect opportunity to address this issue.
Here’s the thing: liberals love Piketty and they loveCapital. The article I based my own piece from was in The New Republic. Slate is crowing that “The French economist gives the American left a sturdy framework for its economic ideas.” The HuffPo seems breathless in their announcement that Thomas Piketty Is No. 1 On Amazon Right Now. Not that I needed these cues to understand that the book I was praising and publicizing is decidedly left-of-center. It presumes that income inequality is a self-evident problem, forecasts a dire future, and (best of all) proposes more taxes, new taxes, higher taxes, and even international taxes. None of this escaped my mind as I wrote my own excited post about it.
But I posted it anyway, despite the fact that the book gives substantial weight to liberal concerns and policies, for the simple reason that I was impressed by the argument. I was impressed on an economic / technical level. The theory is elegant in its simplicity and rigorous in its research. I’m sure it will be criticized by economists who are much smarter than me, and maybe in the coming weeks or months or years I will see that I was a fool for getting excited so quickly. That could happen. But the reality is that it looks legit to me (and I do have some small expertise in this field) and that if it were a conservative-friendly book, I’d definitely be posting about it. I’m not going to treat the book differently because it’s politics are uncomfortable to be.
I consider myself a conservative in the general sense of the word. Your mileage may vary, but on a wide range of issues I’m right-of-center. But I aspire to be an intelligent and honest human being first, and a conservative only so long as that is dictated by my efforts at the first two. I preach about confirmation bias and irrationality as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean that I give up. I still want to be rational when it comes to important issues like economic policy. I want to be the kind of person who will change his mind when new evidence emerges. I want to have the integrity it takes to give opposing viewpoints fair treatment, honest consideration, and–where applicable–praise.
In short: I want to be the kind of conservative who is willing and able to engage with liberals in good faith on matters of substance and who would change his politics in an instant rather than compromise on following the truth as best as I understand it. It’s not easy and I don’t always succeed. I take flack from liberals who find me insufficiently kind from time to time , and I know that I make some staunch conservatives uneasy when I go yammering off in liberalese about privilege and structural inequality (which I believe are valid concerns). Believe me, I know that I could get a lot more Internet traffic and adulation if I spent more time beating the conservative drum, but I’m just not comfortable with that.
So that’s me, but what about Difficult Run? That’s just a little bit more tricky. I’m not looking for partisans or ideological allies when I look for DR editors. I’m looking for folks who (in addition to writing well) share my values and bring diversity. Not everyone who shares my values shares my politics, but it is easier to find people who share values and politics than to find folks who share values but not politics. So, being perfectly candid, I expect that DR will always reflect to some degree my own politics because I pick the editors here. Therefore, DR will always be coming from a generally conservative place, or at least as long as I myself continue to come from a conservative place. But at the same time, I sincerely want to be a site where liberals, conservatives, and who-knows-what-else all feel that their views are treated with respect and fairness. I want commenters who push back, raise new ideas, and take the conversation in new directions. But not just commenters, I want diversity in the editors as well. We have or have had among our editors radical feminists, socialists, social liberals, etc. Shared commitment to honest inquiry comes first, but diversity is something I actively want to find.
Let me just finish this long, but honest answer, with two more observations.
First: I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m already working on a piece about white male privilege. It ends up in a conservative place, roughly speaking, but it gets there by way of taking seriously the concerns of liberals. So no one is happy. That’s how I roll.
Second: We don’t just write about politics! My favorite piece to write, recently, was the one about constructed realities and Game of Thrones. OK, one Facebook commenter called it “The best take on not watching naughty things that I have ever read,” so I guess it’s kind of conservative in a social way, but it just wasn’t really about politics at all. And I loved that. I’m also working on a piece right now about the politicization of science fiction and why I hate it. I talk about politics as much as I do not because I care about politics (I don’t) but because I care about people and values that (tragically) are intertwined with politics.