Equal Pay Won’t Help GDP

I stumbled across an In These Times article by Amy Domini and Sofia Faruqi called “5 Ways To Reduce Inequality By Holding Corporations Responsible.” It’s pretty much the usual progressive game plan, but one particular sentence in the last proposal caught my eye (emphasis mine):

5. Help women to prosper: Women are twice as likely as men to work for minimum wage. The gender pay gap in the retail sector alone costs women $40 billion annually in lost wages. This wasn’t so bad in 1960 when only 11 percent of American households had a female head, but it’s dire today when women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of homes. Plus, it’s bad for the economy. Equal pay would raise American GDP by 2.9 percent, or $448 billion.

The numbers in that last sentence are stunning, but I couldn’t see how equal pay legislation could increase GDP.

Tracing the link in the original article leads to last year’s U.S. Senate Budget committee testimony by Heather Boushey, Executive Director and Chief Economist for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. She in turn cites a 2014 briefing paper titled “How Equal Pay for Working Women would Reduce Poverty and Grow the American Economy” by Heidi Hartmann, Jeffrey Hayes, and Jennifer Clark of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Here’s what that paper has to say in the summary of its findings. Notice the very careful phrasing (emphasis mine):

The U.S. economy would have produced additional income of $447.6 billion if women received equal pay; this represents 2.9 percent of 2012 gross domestic product (GDP).

The paper gets to those numbers by using data from the 2010-2012 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement to estimate the pay difference between men and women, controlled for age, education, annual hours of work, metropolitan residence, and region of the country. The authors then use those figures to project how much more money women would have made if they had been paid the same as men.

The authors calculated that women earned an average of $36,129 a year, and that their pay was 85% as much as men for the same work. So if women earned as much as men, they would be earning $42,380 per year. That’s an increase of $6,251 a year for all 71.6 million working women. Multiply it out, and you get $447.6 billion, which is 2.9% of GDP. (I get a slightly different figure when I do the math, but it’s close enough.)

Income and production are two sides of the same process: We earn our income by selling our production of goods and services, and we spend that income buying and consuming the same goods and services. So if our collective income increases, production must also have increased. Consequently, if women earn more money, and they do not do so at the expense of anyone else, then the additional income would have to increase gross domestic product.

(There are actually many variations on income and production figures, depending on which components and flows are included in the calculations, and care has to be taken to add and subtract the right components when transforming numbers between two national accounts. In the U.S. we calculate GDP from both production data and from income data. In theory, this is an accounting identity, but there are always data discrepancies that keep income and production figures from matching exactly.)

The point of the careful phrasing in the summary is that $447.6 billion is the estimated amount that GDP would have been higher if women had somehow earned at the same rate as men, all other things being equal. How exactly that could happen is carefully left unsaid. In particular, the study does not say that equal pay legislation would increase GDP by that amount.

If we just passed a law that forced employers to pay women 17% more for their work, that would increase women’s paychecks, which would increase the national income accounts…but not really.

For an economic story to make sense, it has to make sense when applied to the real economy of goods and services. So even though U.S. GDP is expressed in dollars, what really matters is the total amount of goods and services that are produced. So in order for GDP to increase by $447.6 billion, it’s not enough for paychecks to increase by $447.6 billion. Our economy must actually produce $447.6 billion worth of additional goods and services.

But by definition, the equal pay legislation is simply giving women more money for the work they are already doing, which means that the increase in paychecks is not accompanied by an increase in the production of real goods and services. We’d be paying more money for the exact same stuff.

When you pay more for the same thing, we call it inflation. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis calculates both nominal GDP, which is inflated, and real GDP, measured in constant dollars adjusted for inflation. The increase in women’s nominal earnings would show up as inflation of nominal GDP, while real GDP would be unchanged.

Since we’re not raising men’s incomes, the inflation would actually eat away at their real earning power. So the benefits to women would come at the expense of men. Women would be getting a larger share of the pie, but the pie would still be the same size. The deadweight $447.6 billion gain to GDP that Domini and Faruqi envision from the simplistic IWPR calculation is a fantasy.

It Helps To Have an Argument

Somebody named Joe left a comment explaining that he didn’t like my post about New York rent control. I was going to reply in the comments, but my response got long enough that I decided to make it a post. Normally, I do that when a commenter brings up interesting points, but in this case I wanted to point out some particularly annoying argument tactics.

It’s sad that, as soon as the second paragraph, the writer here demonstrates the ignorance of rent regulation laws in New York City that advocates indicated exists on the panel. It’s almost as if advocates said, “beware if you write about rent regulation in NYC – because you probably do not understand it” and then the author proceeded to prove them right. Once you address this fundamental error in paragraph 2 I will read the rest of the article: “And apparently sets increases to the same amount for everyone, as if there was no variation in the housing market from one neighborhood to the next.”

I will not help you out by explaining how this is almost, but not quite completely, wrong. Please contact people at whatever organization offering expertise in this area and they will explain it to you. Until you do, writing about rent regulation in NYC should be in your “Let me wait and find out first” file (lol) and when this is corrected, I, for one, will be happy to read the rest of the article.

First of all, I don’t particularly care if Joe reads the rest of my post. (Or this one.) But he shouldn’t criticize it as broadly as he does later if he hasn’t actually read it. It’s like a reviewer who says he walked out of a movie and then complains about the ending.

Second, telling me I’m wrong and then not explaining why is a weak attempt to hide the lack of an argument. This isn’t Twitter, where space is limited. Joe could easily have written a brief argument or provided a few links.

Third, when you write “I will not help you out by explaining,” you’re not fooling anyone. We’ve all seen that trick before:

“Lots of zoologists will tell you that unicorns are real!”

“Like who?”

“You can find them if you know where to look.”

“Do you have any names? Or maybe a link?”

“I’m not going to do your work for you.”

Joe’s trying to spin his response as if he’s refusing to help a lazy writer like me find something obvious, in the hope that no one will notice that he hasn’t provided support for his argument.

Fourth, my main source for the assertion that rent control “…apparently sets increases to the same amount for everyone, as if there was no variation in the housing market from one neighborhood to the next” is Fraade’s own article, which describes a single 1% rate increase cap for all rent stabilized housing in the entire city of New York.

Fifth, a plain reading of the explanatory statement for most recent Apartment Order from the New York City Rent Guidelines lists a single rate for the entire city, as does the Apartment Order itself.

Sixth, I realize that there are differences between apartments based on the regulations they fall under, the year they were built, their individual rental history, and any improvements to the building or the individual units. But the 1% city-wide rent stabilization cap nevertheless implicitly assumes a certain unnatural sameness, regardless of changes in market value. I have yet to find anything that contradicts this.

Please don’t take that the wrong way – I’m not being arrogant about knowledge here; just insisting that you start off with an understanding of the rent regulation laws in NYC rather than letting your ideology guide you in discussing it. Look closely at the facts first (and get them right), do some research on the matter (your own research if you really want to impress your readers) and then construct an argument that gives us something to think about that is not talking points regurgitated from economics 101.

Suggesting I do research seems like a reasonable demand, but it’s actually another trick argument. It works like this:

“There are trolls living under our bridges!”

“I’ve never seen any.”

“Ah, then you must not be looking hard enough.”

If I say that I looked into it and can’t find anything wrong with what I said, he can respond that I’m just bad at research. Which is a lot easier than showing me his research that explains my error. I mean, it’s amusing that Joe’s advice on what I can do to impress my readers is to do research and construct an argument, since he does none of that in his comment.

(Seriously, the point about uniform rent increases is not actually a major part of the point I was making, but if anyone out there can show me where I got it wrong, I’d appreciate the correction.)

Further, Joe’s assertion that I shouldn’t let my ideology guide my discussion is just nuts. That’s what ideology is for. I swear, some people use “ideology” as a way to make having principles sound dirty. Joe doesn’t have to agree with my ideas, and Lord knows he’s welcome to dispute them, but to say I shouldn’t be bringing my ideas into an argument is just silly.

Joe tries the same trick again when he refers to my argument as “talking points.” Saying that you’ve heard my argument from someone else is not the same as proving me wrong. I have to admit though, while I’ve seen political pundits attacking each other for spouting Republican or Democratic talking points, I’ve never before seen someone refer to economics as talking points.

I guess maybe Joe’s tired of hearing opponents of rent control explain over and over that the problems of price controls are “basic Economics 101.” But that doesn’t change the fact that the problems of price control are basic Economics 101. Literally. As in, the effects of price caps on supply is covered in Chapter 6 of one of the most popular introductory economics textbooks. (If you don’t want to buy a whole textbook, this is quick summary of the effects of price controls, and this summary even uses New York rent control as an example.)

Economists disagree over a lot of things, but the awfulness of rent control is not one of them. Only 2% of the members of the IGM Experts Panel agreed with the statement that “Local ordinances that limit rent increases for some rental housing units, such as in New York and San Francisco, have had a positive impact over the past three decades on the amount and quality of broadly affordable rental housing in cities that have used them.”

I mean, for God’s sake, economists as far apart as Paul Krugman and Thomas Sowell are both against rent control. Do you realize how crazy that is? The reason you keep hearing economics “talking points” about rent control is because the idea that rent controls reduce the quality and quantity of housing is arguably the most agreed-upon proposition in economics.

Clap If You Believe In Rent Control

While idling my brain on Twitter, I stumbled across Jordan Fraade promoting his Baffler article about how New York needs rent control. It’s a little like discovering a grown-up who believes in fairies.

For something that so deeply affects the workings of the city’s housing market, rent regulation in New York is widely misunderstood. At a recent event put on by the Pratt Institute and the NYC Planners Network, a group of progressive city-planning professionals, housing advocates on the panel spent as much time explaining how rent regulation works as they did explaining why we should keep it.

The only sensible response to rent control is to get rid of it. All of the discussion should be about how to phase out rent control in a way that doesn’t produce painful market shocks that devastate poor tenants.

Rent stabilization is less stringent; it covers multi-unit dwellings built between 1947 and 1974, and yearly rent increases are set by the Rent Guidelines Board (currently 1 percent, the lowest in fifty years).

A board that oversees pricing. And apparently sets increases to the same amount for everyone, as if there was no variation in the housing market from one neighborhood to the next. This is how the Soviets managed their economy, and look where it got them.

In rent stabilized apartments, tenants have the right to renew their leases, and have more leeway than market-rate tenants when pursuing legal remedies against their landlords if they are being mistreated. (Rent-stabilized tenants have historically and frequently been targets of landlord harassment.)

The linked story is about a building owner with a criminal history who is harassing tenants by degrading the quality of the building. This is to be expected under rent control.

Property owners want to earn a profit. That’s why they buy apartment buildings. When owners can’t increase their gross income by improving the building and raising the rent, their only choice is to cut costs by skimping on building maintenance and operation. They fire the doorman, let the carpets wear thin, and give tenants buckets to collect water when the roof leaks. They switch to lower wattage lights in all the public areas. They shut down the elevator, close the laundry room, and stop replacing busted security cameras. They let repairs go as long as possible, and they use substandard materials and unlicensed contractors. If anyone complains or makes trouble, they get harassed into leaving.

That’s a shitty way to run a building, and decent landlords will try not to run that kind of building. Of course, the easiest way to avoid being a shitty landlord is to not be a landlord at all. Thus rent control discourages good people from owning rental properties, pretty much guaranteeing that landlords are disproportionately likely to be shitty.

According to the panelists, renewing both these regulations is their first priority, simply because they affect so many people—2.5 million New Yorkers, living in about 45 percent of the city’s apartments.

This is why we can’t solve the rent control problem the easy way — by letting it expire. Disrupting the housing of 2.5 million people all at once would create havoc, with some tenants of formerly rent-controlled apartments being forced to seek housing in lower-cost neighborhoods, bidding up the rental prices there. Eventually some tenants will pay more, some tenants will leave, some landlords will lower their rents, and some developers will build new housing until the turmoil settles. But a good plan for getting rid of rent control would get the city to that same endpoint without all the disruption and pain in the middle.

And despite a media tendency to hold up middle-class Manhattanites as the face of rent control, rent-regulated tenants are disproportionately low-income people in low-income neighborhoods. This fact led Delsenia Glover of the Alliance for Tenant Power to make perhaps the most dramatic prediction of the night: if rent regulation is not renewed, low- and moderate-income people will be forced out of New York within a decade.

Either that or New York would have to come up with realistic housing policies. Which is what they do in the vast majority of the U.S. that doesn’t have rent control and yet still have low and middle-income residents living in apartments they can afford. It’s not like free-market housing is a wacky libertarian idea that’s never been tried.

The main problem with rent control in New York is that the system is administered in the clumsiest way possible.

No. The main problem with rent control in New York is the rent control.

Even worse, according to Harvey Epstein of the Urban Justice Center, 250,000 units have been removed from the rolls of rent-stabilized apartments over the years. This happens in a variety of ways, most notably through “vacancy decontrol,” which infamously allows landlords to make an apartment market-rate once the rent reaches $2,500 per month and the tenants move out (Mayor de Blasio has come out in favor of repealing this rule). No matter how it’s done, though, once an apartment becomes market-rate, it stays that way for good.

If you’ve been following along, New York rent control means that if you own apartments that rent for less than $2500 a month, your rent increase last year was capped at 1 percent. That’s less than the inflation rate of 1.6 percent, so your real income actually went down. On the other hand, if you own apartments that rent for more than $2500 a month, you can raise the rent as much as the market will bear.

That leads me to a question: All other things being equal, if you were investing in New York real estate, would you rather invest in units that rent for less than $2500 or more than $2500?

And then I have a followup question: Can you think of any reason why New York might be experiencing a shortage of affordable rental units?

Which leads us to…

The roots of 421a are in the distressed New York of the 1970s, when city leaders feared developers would never again build new housing. In some neighborhoods, 421a comes with no strings attached—if you build, you get a tax break. In other areas, developers can only take the tax break if they include 20 percent affordable housing in a project.

Either way, the result has been a bonanza for builders, allowing luxury towers like One57 to be built mostly tax-free. Williams estimated that the city loses $1.1 billion per year to 421a, and has only gained a measly 12,000 units in exchange. Most housing advocates in the city want the program to be significantly scaled back or scrapped altogether.

Having made the construction of affordable housing unprofitable because of rent control, the city then sets up a program to give away taxpayer money to developers. Through the miracle of regulatory capture, however, many of those developers aren’t actually using the money on projects that advance the affordable housing goals of the program. The programs do manage to further tie up the city’s housing stock in regulatory knots.

Which leads to…

Noting that 90 percent of all tenants in housing court appear pro se, Epstein said that New York’s current system for resolving housing disputes is “complaint-driven,” explaining that “we’ve set up a structure that prevents people from preserving affordable housing because no one’s looking over the landlord’s shoulder, and they know it.”

In a functioning free market, the people “looking over the landlord’s shoulder” are the tenants. If they don’t like the way their landlord is treating them, they can move out. If the vacated unit rents for a $1000-a-month, and it takes the landlord a month to get somebody in it, that’s equivalent to fining the landlord $1000 for mistreating the tenant. Landlords will work hard to avoid that, if not because they’re nice people, then because they like their money.

That incentive system breaks down under rent control. The threat to move out and stop paying rent is less effective when the rent is low because the landlord has less to lose. And if the tenant has locked in a good rate, the threat to leave isn’t very credible since it would mean moving someplace with higher rent. Actually, since decades of low rental rates have discouraged investment in rental properties, where would the tenant go? Tenants are stuck and the landlords know it, so they don’t have to try very hard to hang onto good tenants.

Without the discipline of the market, tenants’ rights advocates are stuck proposing layer after layer of regulations and procedures, each one trying to offset the perverse incentives of what came before.

There has been plenty of advocacy around the rights of rent-regulated tenants—like this spring’s battle to renew state rent laws, and last year’s unsuccessful fight to get a rent freeze. But there’s been little visible work done on behalf of tenants who are still a majority of the city’s renters: those who don’t live in rent-stabilized or public housing. I asked Williams after the panel what market-rate tenants might be able to expect after this spring’s battles, and she was blunt: “They’re screwed.”

I’d like to hear more of an explanation of why Williams thinks that. According to Landlord.com only four states have rent control — California, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York — along with the District of Columbia. The rest of us live without rent control, and we’re not exactly living in a hellscape. In fact, Googling around for the “Top 10 priciest U.S. cities to rent an apartment,” seven of them — San Diego, Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York City, San Francisco — have some kind of rent control.

That doesn’t mean that rent control causes higher rents — the causality could go the other way, with high rents making it politically likely that a city will adopt rent control — but it does cast doubt on the long-term effectiveness of rent control.

Furthermore, some basic economics tells us that artificially capping the price of a good is likely to create a shortage. We had a spectacular example of this during the 1973 oil crisis, when the government respond to shocks in the oil market with price controls. As with New York real estate investors who stopped building rental units, oil companies stopped importing as much oil, and gas stations started running out of gas at the pumps. Even with alternate-day rationing, there were long lines for the gas stations, and fights would break out between people waiting in line. The trucking industry was especially hard hit by the high prices and shortages, and tensions rose to the point that there were shootings and bombings.

In the housing production chain, renting an apartment to a tenant is only the last step, and trying to force prices lower there is only going to work if the production process itself can actually be modified to operate less expensively. If New York isn’t producing enough affordable housing, they place to fix it is further back in the process. You have to figure out what barriers are keeping the market from producing the low-cost housing that is so clearly in demand.

We do this all the time with other products. Just in my lifetime we’ve figured out how to make lots of things less expensive — food, clothing, appliances, mobile phones, televisions. The most extreme example I can think of is computers. When the Cray 2 supercomputer was released in 1985 it cost $40 million in today’s dollars. Equivalent computing power costs maybe $800 today (and it’s more reliable and fits in your briefcase). But we didn’t hammer down the cost of computers by having an Alliance For Computer Users that pressured the Computer Pricing Guidelines Board into lowering the caps on computer prices.

And that won’t work for housing either.

A Few Words About the Memories Pizza Story

A few days ago, when I first decided to try to write something about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, I looked for a quote I could start with, and I found one about a small family-owned pizza joint called Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana, where the owners were saying they won’t cater any gay weddings:

“If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no,” Crystal O’Connor tells WBND-TV, adding, “We are a Christian establishment.”

Family members say they agree with Gov. Mike Pence that the bill does not encourage discrimination against gays and lesbians.

“We’re not discriminating against anyone, that’s just our belief and anyone has the right to believe in anything,” O’Connor told WBND.

Well, actually, refusing to cater their wedding pretty much is discrimination and…oh, never mind.

I got distracted before I could write any more, and meanwhile the outrage machine got rolling and soon everybody was talking about that little pizza joint. And eventually Memories Pizza closed because they were getting threats. Because there are assholes on all sides of this issue.

So now I find myself feeling uncomfortably sympathetic toward the Memories Pizza folks and the way they’ve been dragged through the media. Jack Marshall had this to say:

Announcing that the law would allow them to refuse to cater a gay wedding, they injected their biases into a debate they were neither legally, ethically, morally or intellectually equipped to participate in.

That’s not quite right. These folks didn’t go looking to make a statement to the world. They’re the local pizza joint in a small town surrounded by farmland and some damned TV reporter went into their place looking for a quote that she could turn into a story. And they were unfortunately nice enough to give her one. And all hell broke loose. By the time the story got to Huffington Post, it had turned into, “Indiana’s Memories Pizza Reportedly Becomes First Business To Reject Catering Gay Weddings.”

Because a digital media empire going after a small family-owned restaurant is really speaking truth to power.

I used to cover community police meetings for a little while as a volunteer reporter, and I remember that after one of them I got to chatting with one of the cops and he started grumbling about some commanders and the way they promoted their friends over more qualified candidates. Since I had already identified myself as a reporter, and we hadn’t gone off the record, there was nothing to stop me from turning this into a story:

CHICAGO — 16th District Police Commander Bob Jones on numerous occasions promoted friends over other more qualified candidates, according to Patrol Officer John Smith…

I didn’t write that story, because (1) it’s not fair to treat people who aren’t used to dealing with the media as if they were the White House Press Secretary, and (2) there really isn’t a lot of news value in reporting that some police officers don’t like their commanders’ decisions. “Man Strongly Disagrees With How His Boss Runs Things” sounds like an Onion headline.

The Memories Pizza story wasn’t quite that unfair — the owners pretty clearly knew they were being interviewed — but remember that this story wasn’t about anything that had actually happened to anyone. Reporter Alyssa Marino’s story was originally headlined, “RFRA: First Michiana business to publicly deny same-sex service,” which is misleading because no one at Memories Pizza had actually refused a request to cater a gay wedding. No gay couple had ever asked.

The headline has since been changed to the slightly better, “RFRA: Michiana business wouldn’t cater a gay wedding,” but that doesn’t save it from the basic problem that is apparent from a more honest headline such as “Owner of Small Town Pizza Joint Says He Would Refuse To Cater Gay Weddings If Anyone Ever Asked Him To.” It just isn’t much of a story. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Gay marriage is still not acceptable to a lot of people. Heck, there must be thousands of small business owners in Indiana alone who oppose same-sex marriage. That doesn’t make it right, but there’s no reason to pick on these particular small business owners. This kind of journalism is one step more sophisticated than flying a news team down to Texas to do man-on-the-street interviews in the hope that someone with an amusing accent will say something bigoted on camera.

Windypundit Technical Review

In an earlier post, I wrote,

The whole point of a blog like this is to share everything on the site with literally anyone who wants to see it. In fact, I’ve gone through rather a lot of trouble to make sure that happens.

That got me thinking about all the bits of technology that it takes to put a blog like this on the web. I decided to make a list, and it turns out there are a lot of pieces. To start with, there’s the main WordPress installation:

  • WordPress — the blogging engine that powers it all.

The look and feel comes from the WordPress theme I use, which is made up of about four big pieces:

I’ve customized Skeleton to produce the theme I use for Windypundit. I use the SCSS preprocessor to do some of the math to make the look and feel more tunable.

Naturally, Windypundit uses a number of WordPress plugins:

  • Cookies for Comments — A simple anti-spam plugin that rejects some less intelligent spambots.
  • Google XML Sitemaps — Adds a sitemap for Google.
  • Growmap Anti Spambot Plugin — Another simple anti-spam plugin. This generates the “Confirm you are NOT a spammer” checkbox.
  • NextGEN — An image gallery management tool. I don’t use all the gallery features.
  • Search Regex — A potentially dangerous tool that allows me to search-and-replace regular expressions across all blog posts.
  • W3 Total Cache — Caching software, so pages can be served quickly without as many hits to the database.
  • WordPress HTTPS — Improves HTTPS support.
  • WordPress SEO — Makes pages a little more search-engine friendly. I only use a fraction of the features.
  • wp-jquery-lightbox — Displays photos bigger when you click on them. I use this instead of NextGEN’s viewer.
  • WP Widget Cache — Caches the widgets on pages so they can be served without re-querying the database.

I also wrote two small custom plugins:

  • Custom Dynamic Photo Resizer — A WordPress shortcode to generate resized photos for blog posts. If I want to change the size of all the photos in my layout, I just change the resizer implementation and all the images will be generated and served at the new size.
  • Custom Shortcodes — A variety of custom WordPress shortcodes to replace features I had in custom tags on Movable Type. Hardly ever used anymore.

I also make use of a bunch of web-based services which are integrated via WordPress plugins:

All advertising content on the site comes from

Windypundit is hosted on a smallish Virtual Private Server from the folks at A Small Orange. I use a VPS instead of shared hosting because I host a number of other websites and because I wanted to learn about running a website on a VPS.

The server is running a standard LAMP stack:

  • Linux — The operating system. It’s the CentOS distro.
  • Apache — The web server.
  • MySQL — The relational database that holds the WordPress content.
  • PHP — The scripting language that ties it all together. WordPress is written in PHP, along with all of its plugins.

A few other bits run on the server as well:

  • nginx — Running as a reverse proxy for improved caching.
  • cPanel/WHM — The web-based hosting management software.

As I said, it’s actually a virtual server, meaning that A Small Orange has carved out a couple of processor cores and some memory from a larger server. There’s also a SAN array for disk storage. All hosted sites are backed up nightly to Amazon S3 and then rolled over to Glacier.

The servers and disk arrays are located in (I think) TierPoint’s a 68,000 square foot data center in Dallas, Texas. The data center is SSAE 16 SOC 1 certified, with fully redundant HVAC and fully 2N redundant power, with six backup diesel generators fed from a 50,000 gallon fuel reserve. The facility is multi-homed and carrier neutral with connections to Level3, Abovenet, TimeWarner, Suddenlink, Cogent, Global Crossing, and IP Transit. I’m sure there are Fortune 500 companies hosted in the same data center.

Only the main HTML page of Windypundit comes from that server. All of the embedded static components — images, style sheets, Javascript — are served from cached copies in 31 data centers all over the world in the Cloudflare content distribution network so that pages load more quickly.

This is, beyond a doubt, an insane amount of technology for a humble little blog full of libertarian ranting and occasional cat pictures.

The thing is, none of this is particularly special. All of you who have WordPress blogs are using mostly the same technology. You might not have Cloudflare or some of the other layers of caching, and you’re using a different theme and a different selection of plugins, but the rest is basically the same. You might not be as interested in the technology as I am, but we’re all using WordPress, we’re all running on some variation of the LAMP stack, and we’re all hosted out of a ridiculously over-spec’d data center.

Denying Scarcity Is Not an Option

This post turns out to be one of my longer ones. The tl;dr is that (1) a good policy is one that makes lives better, (2) the best policy is the one that makes lives better the most, (3) even the best policy can’t give people everything they want, and (4) it’s unrealistic to deny point 3.

Greg Laden has a post criticizing Bjorn Lomborg’s position on the effects of sea level rise on Bangladesh. Lomborg is arguing that Bangladesh could adapt to changes in sea level with a system of protective dikes, similar to the Netherlands. Laden and commenters on his blog respond that sea protection in Bangladesh would be much more difficult because it’s low and flat, there’s much more water, a much larger area, and many times the population.

As I understand it, a certain amount of sea level rise is inevitable at this point. Historic evidence indicates that the equilibrium sea level for current CO2 levels is higher than the sea is now, which means it’s going to rise. Apparently, a good guess is that we’ll get three to six feet by the end of the century. According to Laden, that will inundate about 10,000 square miles of Bangladesh.

To prevent further losses from sea level rise in Bangladesh (and elsewhere) we can try to bring the Earth’s atmospheric CO2 under control. The obvious way to do that is to cut down on industrial CO2 emissions by switching our civilization to a clean energy source — something other than fossil fuels.

If I understand correctly from the Bjorn Lomborg interview, Bangladesh is planning to build clean energy generation plants, possibly with funding from the developed world. Lomborg is arguing that there are better ways to spend the money:

Focusing on global warming instead of focusing on getting nutrition to small kids is quite frankly I think almost immoral to small kids whom you could help so easily and cheaply. So my point here is again, yes there is a problem, yes we should tackle it smartly, but the way to typically do it, we end up spending lots of money badly, we end up polarising everyone and we forget about a lot of other things that could do much much good to these kids and pretty much everyone else.

Essentially, Lomborg is making the common argument that countries should prioritize their expenditures to maximize the welfare of their population. He’s also making the more controversial argument that the extra cost of switching to green energy is not welfare-maximizing for Bangladesh at this time. That is, they’d be better off focusing their efforts on something else.

Laden disputes this, arguing that Bangladesh is so helpless against a rising sea that even a small rise is a disaster. Laden also makes an argument about the historic sensitivity of sea level to CO2 levels. If we keep adding CO2 to the atmosphere, temperatures will keep rising, ice will keep melting, and the sea will keep rising. It will happen slowly over many years, but the longer we delay the transition away from fossil fuels, the worse the end state will be.

(From what I’ve read, even if we freeze CO2 at the current level, the sea level will continue to rise for centuries until it reached equilibrium at about 25 feet higher than it is today. And if we don’t stop dumping CO2 into the atmosphere, the planet will warm up enough to melt all the glaciers over the next thousand years or so, raising sea level by about 200 feet. It’s not Waterworld, but it’s enough to drown all the coastal cities. And it won’t be our only problem.)

Lomborg and Laden both seem to agree on the broad scope of global warming, but they differ on strategies for Bangladesh (and the world) over the near term. Lomborg says that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not currently as important as other more urgent problems such as hunger, but Laden says the eventual cost of continued greenhouse gas emissions is so high that any delay has a huge cost.

I haven’t been following the climate change science very much, but the issues under dispute between Laden and Lomborg are fascinating and important. Unfortunately, Greg Laden ruined it by going a step too far:

In his interview, as well as in a brief Twitter exchange we had, Lomborg made another error, one we often seen made by lesser informed people engaged in the climate or energy conversations. Lomborg seems to think that there is a fixed amount and class of resources and that one problem must be addressed at a time. But that is not how it works.

Actually, that kinda is how it works. The problem isn’t that we have a fixed amount of resources. The problem is scarcity. Whatever amount of resources we have, it’s not enough: We can’t fulfill our limitless desires. We have to make choices. This is not a particularly controversial idea.

First, there are resources primarily available for one thing such as public health, while other resources may be more generally applied. Also, we can in fact address more than one problem at once.

It’s not literally one problem at a time, but there are always tradeoffs, and we make those tradeoffs at the margins. Whatever we’re spending our money on, there comes a time when we have to decide whether it’s time to do something else. That’s what Lomborg is talking about.

Imagine that you are lost in the desert. It’s been days, you’re all out of supplies, you’re thirsty, hungry, hot, and tired. Finally, you stumble on a well-supplied camp full of people. You quickly agree to do some work around the camp in exchange for which, at the end of every hour of work, they agree to let you have one of:

  • A glass of water.
  • A bowl of food.
  • A nap in the shade.

At the end of the first hour, recognizing that dehydration is the greatest danger to your health, you choose a glass of water. At the end of the second hour you’re still thirsty, so you have more water. By the end of the third hour, you’re no longer thirsty, but you want to make sure the thirst does not return, so you have one more glass of water.

After the fourth hour you figure you can do without water for a little while, so you have some food. The fifth hour is also food, and then because you’re kind of full but it’s been a while since you had a drink, you have water for the sixth hour. That gives the food time to go down, so you have another bite of food after the seventh hour. By the end of the eighth hour, you’re well fed and no longer thirsty, but you’re exhausted, so you decide to take a nap.

This is a very simple example of efficient decision making under scarcity — stripped of the complications of savings, investments, imports, exports, and innovation. Under this model, there are two rules to making good decisions: (1) Use your resources to solve the most important problem first, and (2) when you’ve made enough headway on the most serious problem that it stops being the most serious problem, switch your efforts to solving the new most important problem.

The goal is to always apply the next batch of resources where they will do the most good. In the terminology of economics, the goal is to always apply your resources in a way that maximizes their marginal utility.

I asked Professor Michael Mann, climate scientist, what he thought about Lomborg’s interview, and he told me, “Bjorn Lomborg is a master of the false choice, often claiming that dealing with climate change will somehow detract from our ability to deal with other societal problems. In reality, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can and must work on solving numerous societal problems. […]”

Sure, we want to work on solving numerous social problems, but we don’t have the resources to solve all social problems instantly. Given our limitations, we need to decide how hard to work on each problem. Often some problems will dominate, and others will have to be postponed, and it’s not inconceivable that climate change is one of the problems that can be postponed.

(Mann does go on to actually address Lomborg’s argument when he says, “[…] In reality, climate change exacerbates most of those problems. It is a threat multiplier. Lomborg conveniently ignores that!” That addresses the tradeoffs rather than pretending they don’t exist.)

Perhaps this seems a bit crazy to you. After all, in the real world governments work on multiple problems all the time. And even as individuals, all of us have more than one goal in life. How does this decision-making model apply to any of that?

On an individual level, even when we appear to be multitasking, it’s usually just one thing at a time. As I sit here typing this, I’m wrapping up dinner at Chipotle’s, and I’m thinking of refilling my Diet Coke, and I’ll go to the bathroom soon, and my wife and I have been discussing our plans for the rest of the evening. Eventually my thirst or my bladder will get the best of me, and my wife might interrupt me, and eventually we’ll leave to do something else. But for the moment, I’m just typing.

In a larger sense, when we see people working on multiple problems at the same time, there’s usually one of three things going on.

The best case is that we’re actually seeing the crossover between problems. Several problems are at the same level of urgency, so we’re essentially (at least in theory) switching back and forth between them.

In the desert camp, on an hour-by-hour basis, we started with the most important problem, thirst, and only after beating that back a bit did we start working on hunger. And not until both of those were abated did we move on to addressing the problem of needing sleep. On the other hand, if we look at the day as a whole, we worked on several serious problems at the same time.

This kind of rapid switching between problems is actually pretty common because of an interesting consequence of how the rules play out over time: If we keep grinding away on whatever problem sticks out the most, eventually all our problems will be ground down to about the same level of urgency. We still keep balancing between them, but no problem really seems more urgent than any other.

In the real world, this decision-making process is obscured. For one thing, we can anticipate how our problems will respond to future expenditures of resources, which allows us to anticipate our needs and stockpile resources. So instead of living hand-to-mouth and switching off constantly between problems, we work at jobs to earn money, and we plan our budget so we can fill our refrigerator with food and drink, and pay our monthly rent.

Furthermore, when we’re talking about an entire society it’s far more efficient to split the work between us. The underlying back-and-forth movement happens at the level of individual workers changing jobs or working on different projects, and specialization allows individuals to stay productive at tasks.

The underlying marginal decision-making nevertheless becomes visible again whenever our resources change enough to cause us to rethink our priorities. If our boss gives us a 10% raise, we have to decide whether to buy a new refrigerator, a new washing machine, or new tires for the car. On the other hand, if our boss cuts our work hours by 10%, we have to look at our budget and give up the least important thing we’re spending money on — buy canned vegetables instead of fresh, wear our clothes longer before replacing them, or move to an apartment with lower rent.

On the national scale, an unexpected war or a natural disaster can consume resources intended for other purposes and force a society to make tough decisions about how to allocate resources. Prosperity gives us easier decisions, but we still have to make decisions.

The worst case for doing many things at once is that we are confused about how the world works, or aren’t pursuing the goals we think we are. For example, someone trying to pay down loads of credit card debt may feel better when they see declining balances on all their credit cards. But it would be more efficient to send all available money to the card with the highest interest rate and make only minimum payments on the others.

When you see someone paying off more cards than they should, you might conclude that they’re confused about how credit cards work. But there’s another possibility. It could be that rather than trying to improve their personal finances, their true goal is to improve how they feel about their personal finances, and seeing all the balances go down makes them feel better.

The flip side of paying off the credit cards is making donations to more than one charity. If you’re truly trying to be as altruistic as possible with your money, your most efficient course of action is to pick the one charity that will do the most good and give them all the money you can. Why waste your money on second- and third-best charities when you know it would do the most good at the best charity? Giving to multiple charities is therefore a sign that you’re doing it for some other reason than pure altruism — perhaps because it makes you feel better, or because you’re using the donations to make a statement about what’s important.

It looks like the Bangladesh economy is growing about 6% per year, and now they’re trying to decide whether to use the additional resources to contribute more to the fight against climate change, or whether they should apply it all to fighting problems like childhood malnutrition. It might seem like a good idea to split it — 3% to fight hunger, 3% to fight climate change, say — but that’s only true if both problems just happen to be at a point where they benefit equally from the additional funding. Otherwise, it would be better to use all additional resources on whichever problem would benefit from them the most.

When entire societies split their efforts across multiple problems, it’s probably not because it’s most efficient or because people are confused. The middle ground between equilibrium and confusion is politics.

If one group wants to fight climate change and another wants to fight childhood malnutrition, the political process may resolve the conflict by doing a little of each. That doesn’t mean it’s the right solution — each faction would no doubt prefer that more attention be given to its own agenda — but it is the solution that is possible.

Perhaps this is what Laden and Mann have in mind. It’s not that they believe it’s a good idea to pursue both goals — or that the resources to do so will somehow magically appear — but that they are willing to split resources across both goals in order to make sure that green energy gets at least some of the resources. Could be, but it’s not quite what they’re saying.

Laden seems to have no trouble understanding scarcity when it suits his argument. For example, here he is explaining why the engineers who protect the Netherlands from the sea may not be able to help in Bangladesh:

In case it is not obvious, let me note that as sea level rise threatens Bangladesh, it also threatens The Netherlands, which might keep the Dutch rather busy in their own homelands.

And then why Bangladesh might have problems protecting themselves from the sea like the Dutch did:

During much of this time, The Netherlands was a major player in the European economic theater, acting as a center during the development of the world economic and colonial systems of the 17th and 18th centuries. To suggest that somehow Bangladesh can do what the Dutch did while the entire world is also busy adapting to sea level rise is absurd.

When it’s Bangladeshis choosing between feeding children and developing green energy, Laden thinks they could address more than one problem at once, but when it’s Dutch engineers choosing between building dikes in Bangladesh or maintaining their own, he understands that there are limitations. When it’s world-wide competition for sea protection, he understands that all the problems cannot be tackled at the same time.

The question we’re really trying to answer is, if Bangladesh is contemplating spending, say, $5 billion on green energy, is that the best way to use a $5 billion to improve the welfare of the Bangladeshi people?

There is a sense in which switching to green energy should almost never be a priority. Bangladesh has only about 2.5% of the world’s population, which means that in the long run (assuming all countries eventually reach the same levels of industry) they will only ever control about 2.5% of the Earth’s energy production.

If everyone else switches to green energy, and Bangladesh continues to burn fossil fuels for another century, it won’t make much difference in the long run for the planet. On the other hand, if Bangladesh switches to green energy, and no one else does, all the glaciers will melt, and Bangladesh’s green energy still won’t make a damned bit of difference. The benefits of green energy are spread out all over the world, and Bangladesh is only about 1/40th of the world.

The upshot is that Bangladesh’s decisions about green energy won’t have much effect on the welfare of Bangladeshis, and what payoff there is will be delayed for decades. On the other hand, using the money to feed children produces an immediate benefit, and all the benefits stay in Bangladesh. Unless spending $5 billion dollars on green energy pays off as well as spending $200 billion on food, Bangladesh would be better off doing something other than investing in green energy.

The problem with that argument is that it applies to every other country as well. The benefits of green energy (in terms of climate change) go to the world , but the costs are borne by whoever builds the green energy systems. So until green energy becomes cheaper than fossil fuels, there will always be pressure to do something else with the money. All of which goes a long way toward explaining why we’re in this predicament in the first place.

The only way we’ll avoid a more serious global warming disaster is by looking beyond our personal, local, and even national concerns and coming together for the good of all humanity.

That doesn’t really sound like us, does it?


Ever since Edward Snowden told us all about the NSA’s rampant spying on Americans, I’ve been meaning to convert Windypundit to an encrypted site, and I think I finally did it. If all is working, you should be seeing “https:” in front of “windypundit.com” up there in the address bar.

(You might not see the little lock symbol, however, depending on your browser. That’s because the images in my Amazon ads widget are being served unencrypted by Amazon. In theory, those images could be intercepted and altered in transit, so your browser is letting you know that you’re looking at mixed content, some of which is not strictly secure. Apparently Amazon ads are infamous for ruining secure pages this way.)

It’s not that I need the security. The whole point of a blog like this is to share everything on the site with literally anyone who wants to see it. In fact, I’ve gone through rather a lot of trouble to make sure that happens. Ask the server for a page, and ye shall receive it.

My reason for adding encryption is really just to make a small contribution toward gumming up the workings of the surveillance state. This page traveled to your browser as one more secure data stream on the net — random bits for all practical purposes, except to you and me. There’s nothing worth spying on here, but only you and I can be sure of that. It’s one more thing that intelligence and law enforcement agencies can’t read, one more thing to waste their time, one more thing to discourage them from trying.

Encryption disguises the internet’s valuable data in the hiss of (pseudo-) random noise. Spying on the internet takes work, and that work pays off because the data is there to find. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can make it harder for them to spy on us, and that will make it less worthwhile for them to try.

Be the noise.

Ten Years of Fuckery

Someone named Payson just left a comment on a very old blog post. It starts this way:

Hello, happy 2015.

I have never heard of this website but out of rage I googled “sprint is a fucking piece of shit” and this came up. I don’t blog and I rarely leave comments on anything. However, that being said, Sprint has managed to fuel a fire deep within me that has caused this post…

Heh. I love that.

It’s been ten years since I ran into some difficulties trying to change my cellular phone plan with Sprint. In a fit of frustration, I lashed out the only way I could, by using this newfangled blog thing I was experimenting with to create what is arguably one of my most successful posts ever. It is lovingly titled “Fucking Sprint!!!

And for the ten years, angry Sprint customers like Payson have been venting their rage in the comments.

Given the relative insignificance of this blog, it’s kind of shocking how well that post does in search results. As I write this, Googling for “Fucking Sprint” will return it as the 3rd link. I’m a little disappointed that it’s fallen all the way down to #12 in a search for “Fuck Sprint,” but I’m happy to see that when I search for “Sprint fuckers” it comes up #1. (On Bing it comes up as #1, #1, and #2, respectively…not that anyone cares.)

Ten years ago, “social media” marketing wasn’t really a thing. But I’m sure that by now Sprint has some marketing people whose job it is to monitor their web reputation. Given the out-of-proportion prominence of that post, I figure someone at Sprint (Hi!) is probably aware that I’m pissed off.

I guess that will have to do.

Some Speculation About the Google Truth Machine

Google recently announced they are researching the use of estimations of trustworthiness of websites to help prioritize results returned from search requests. This excites people who hope that pseudoscience and crazy conspiracy theories will get less attention, but it upsets people who are worried that the results will be biased:

“I worry about this issue greatly,” said Anthony Watts, founder of climate denying website “Watts Up With That,” in an interview with FoxNews.com. “My site gets a significant portion of its daily traffic from Google… It is a very slippery and dangerous slope because there’s no arguing with a machine.”

That’s from a Salon article by Joanna Rothkopf, who seems to think that keeping people away form Watt’s site is a great idea:

[…] some anti-science advocates are upset about the potential development, likely because their websites will become buried under content that is, well, true.

That not really fair. Most of the people who are concerned about Google’s research aren’t afraid they will lose out to the truth. They think they have the truth, and what worries them is that they will lose out to ignorance, confusion, and bias. Or they worry that the system is rigged to allow their ideological opponents to keep lying:

But others who follow media bias note that even the media watchdogs – let alone the sites used by the Google researchers like Wikipedia – are often biased.

“They’re very good at debunking myths if they upset liberals, but if it’s a liberal or left-wing falsehood, the fact-checkers don’t seem as excited about debunking it,” Rich Noyes, research director at the Media Research Center, told FoxNews.com.

I think this concern originates from a misunderstanding of what Knowledge Vault really is and how it works.

“Google should be commended for taking on the great task of fighting against propaganda and misinformation,” Nomiki Konst, executive director of The Accountability Project, told FoxNews.com.

“Hopefully Google will work closely with the FCC and journalism watchdogs in setting up standards to validate what is factual and who represents themselves as journalists,” Konst said.

Actually, Google will do nothing of the sort, because Konst’s statement is based on imagined capabilities that Knowledge Vault just doesn’t have. This is what you get when you interview people about something that they haven’t had time to learn about.

Meanwhile, Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms is also concerned about where this could lead:

Can you see Google reducing the rank of websites that are consistently deceitful and misleading, like those claiming the women make only 77% as much as men because of gender bias, or that one in four women who go to college are raped, or that Mike Brown had his hands up […]?  I can’t.

I think probably not, but because of technical limitations, not ideological bias.

Will websites that assert religious beliefs be judged “untrue”? How about sites that assert that Islam is a violent and revolutionary religion? Determining which sites get the most traffic and links can be determined objectively; deciding what is true and factual requires complex and debatable distinctions between opinion and fact, metaphor, hyperbole, ideology, skepticism, and deceit […]. Will just facts be at issue, or deceitful arguments made specifically to make readers believe what isn’t true?

From a quick glance at the research papers, I’m pretty sure Google’s Knowledge Vault doesn’t come anywhere close to being able to untangle problems like those.

One of the things people are sometimes surprised to learn about search engines like Google is that they have very little understanding of what the text on a page actually means. (I’m talking here about mainstream public search engines, not highly experimental research projects, which may do slightly better.) At their most basic, search engines are all about recognizing words.

Search engines break down documents — web pages — into compact statistical descriptions of the words they contain. Mathematically, these descriptions define a vector space, and each document’s location in that space depends on which words it contains, how unusual the words are (“the” is pretty much ignored, “coprolalia” gets lots of attention), how many times the words appear in the document, where they appear in the document, how large the document is, and so on. As a result of the way these document vectors are constructed, the distance between two documents in vector space is inversely proportional to their similarity. Documents in the same region of the document space probably have similar topics.

When a user types a query into a search engine, it is essentially treated as a very short document, its vector is constructed, and the search engine finds its location in the document space. All the nearby documents are then returned as the result of the search, with the nearest documents at the top of the list.

Well, more or less. I’m giving an oversimplified description of how search engines match documents. There are actually a lot of refinements to the search process. For example, before document vectors are constructed, all the words have to be stemmed, meaning that related words like “walk”, “walks”, “walked”, and “walking” are all mapped into “walk” so that a search for “walk” is able to locate a document that only ever uses “walking.” The engine might also have a dictionary of synonyms, so a search for “teacher” will also find documents the only use “educator”, “professor”, or “schoolmarm”.

In addition, once documents are matched to the query, there’s more to prioritizing the results than just the distance metric in document space. For example, the document space is not uniform, and some types of documents will tend to group together because they are about the same thing. E.g. news articles about the upcoming Avengers movie will tend to all use the same groups of unusual words and phrases — “avengers”, “tony stark”, “hulk”, “thor”, “hawkeye”, “nick fury”, “ultron”. When searching for documents near a query vector, a search engine might identify nearby clusters of documents and give a boost to the rank of representative documents from the cluster, on the theory that documents about popular subjects are more likely to be relevant.

Another priority adjustment is the one that made Google famous: Page Rank. The folks who created Google realized that the World Wide Web offered them more information about a document collection than just the content. It offered links. This was important because links were created by humans, and the human ability to read and understand documents is the gold standard. So if a large number of humans thought a document on the web was important enough to link to, Google gave it a more prominent position in the search results. This was a revolution in web search engines, and it made Google the preferred starting point on the web. (And launched the search engine optimization industry.)

Google watchers are also pretty sure that Google makes a other adjustments to results. It seems to prioritize sites that have been around a while, presumably on the assumption that brand-new sites are suspect. On the other hand, Google seems to love new content on established sites, probably for its novelty and for signs that the site is being maintained and kept up-to-date. Google also penalizes sites that break its rules, such as by selling links, and they seem to have ways of spotting link farms of websites created solely for the purpose of jacking up Page Rank.

This latest idea, rating pages according to an estimate of trustworthiness, is just another attempt to refine the search results. It works by attempting a more sophisticated understanding of the content of web pages than just recognizing words. Knowledge Vault uses modern natural language processing algorithms to extract some small amount of meaning from the text in the form of relations, which are three-part tuples consisting of subject, the name of a property of that subject, and an object. For example:

<Illinois,subdivision of,United States>


<Barack Obama,Senator of,Illinois>

<Barack Obama,birthplace,Honolulu>

(I don’t think Google’s Knowledge Vault is available online, but if you want to get an idea of how well relation extraction works on real document, you can try out a demo of the AlchemyLanguage relation extraction API, which is part of IBM’s Watson project. Just copy and paste a block of text or feed it the URL of a web page and you can explore what it figures out. I find that the Entities, Concepts, and Relations tabs are pretty interesting. It’s nowhere near human quality, but it’s better than I would have thought.)

Once the Knowledge Vault has a collection of these relations, it needs a way to figure out which ones are true. A simple way to do that is to start with collections of relations from a trustworthy source. Google starts with a collection of curated databases which are believed to be fairly reliable, such as Freebase and the various Wikimedia projects.

(To get an idea what kind of data is stored in these knowledge collections, check out the entry for former President Bill Clinton at the open source Freebase and Wikidata databases and at the commercial WolframAlpha database.)

Google can then compare relations extracted from web pages against relations in the trusted databases, and do some analysis to estimate the trustworthiness of the web pages: Pages which get a lot of known facts wrong would be given a low trustworthiness score, and they could be pushed down in the search results, relative to more trustworthy pages.

A lot of the relations extracted from web pages will be new relations which are neither proved nor disproved by the trusted data. However, if the KnowledgeVault keeps finding the same new relations present on pages it has ranked as trustworthy based on the relations it does know about, then it can start to rank those new relations as true as well. Then it can begin to use them in the trustworthiness evaluation process for other new pages. Basically, trustworthy pages can be used to identify true facts, and true facts can be used to identify trustworthy pages, and this can be repeated over and over to expand the fact repository while keeping it anchored to a few million trusted facts drawn from curated databases.

The result will be clusters in the document space of known trustworthy pages. When Google’s search engine maps a query into that space, rather than taking the strictly nearest documents, it can reach out into one of the trustworthy clusters in search of a better result.

Now we can begin to consider some of the concerns raised above. As you can see from the simplicity of the relations and the ranking system, Google is not going to make “complex and debatable distinctions between opinion and fact, metaphor, hyperbole, ideology, skepticism, and deceit.” Nor will they “work closely with the FCC and journalism watchdogs” to set all this up. The process (assuming Google decides to use it) is far too simple and mechanistic for any of that.

Let me give you an example of how it might work. Lately my Twitter timeline has been filled with inane arguments about whether President Obama loves America. If these were web pages, how would Google decide whether to boost the “Obama hates America” pages or the “Obama loves America” pages?

Well, if your web page says, “Obama was born in Honolulu and he loves America,” and my webpage says “Obama was born in Kenya and he hates America,” Google would see two relations from each of us about the entity Obama, one about his birthplace, and one about his feelings toward America. Since Obama’s birthplace is in the baseline database, Google would recognize that your website has one true fact about Obama and mine has one false fact about Obama, which would make Google trust your page more than mine. That trust would also carry over into the other relation on your page, and Google would ever so slightly begin to believe that that Obama loves America.

(Actually, the Knowledge Vault algorithm has to find multiple verifiable facts on a page or website before it will render a judgement on its trustworthiness, but I’m simplifying.)

If hundreds or thousands of websites weighed in on this debate, and if the pages asserting that Obama loves America had significantly more true facts and fewer false ones than the pages that assert that Obama hates America, the Knowledge Vault would eventually start to think of <Obama,loves,America> as a true fact and <Obama,hates,America> as a false one. Soon any page from which <Obama,loves America> can be extracted would be ranked higher than an otherwise equal page from which <Obama,hates,America> can be extracted.

Does that seem crazy to you? That Google would find a page more trustworthy because of what is pretty clearly an opinion? I think it actually makes some sense when you remember three important things. First, Google’s trust adjustments are a statistical inference from data: For whatever unknown and unknowable reason, web pages expressing that opinion have had more checkable facts correct than web pages expressing the opposite opinion, so it seems reasonable to assume that the uncheckable facts are also more likely to be correct.

So for many of the statements of fact that Jack asks about, “…women make only 77% as much as men because of gender bias…one in four women who go to college are raped…Mike Brown had his hands up…Islam is a violent and revolutionary religion” the answer appears to be that Google will tend to judge these statements as true if and only if Knowledge Vault tends to find them on pages that have other true statements. Honest pages are trusted to contain honest information.

The second thing to keep in mind is that Knowledge Vault’s fact database would be only one of several factors that determine a page’s search engine result placement. Google is secretive about its algorithms, but the search engine certainly looks at similarity scoring from the document vector space and Google Page Rank. Google watchers also believe that Google scores pages for load speed, technical correctness, layout clarity, security, and an especially secret method for detecting black hat search engine optimization tricks. If Google does add Knowledge Vault trustworthiness scores to the mix, it will likely only adjust the results computed by other methods.

The third and final thing to remember is that Google’s search engine has one overriding goal: To return results relevant to the user. By definition, true relevance can only be evaluated by humans, so before Google rolls out a search algorithm that uses Knowledge Vault, they will first make it available to their search quality raters — a rotating pool of several thousand part-time workers all over the world — who will compare its results side-by-side to the results produced by the current algorithm.

If it does a better job and returns results they consider relevant, Google will next feed results from the new algorithm to a small percentage of live search users and analyze how they click on links. If the change appears to have a positive effect, an engineering team will make the final decision on whether to roll out the new algorithm with its new trustworthiness metric.

Knowledge Vault doesn’t have to be right all of the time or even most of the time. It only has to be right enough to improve search performance. Knowledge Vault doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to make Google search better.

Finally, Jack Marshall asks this question about Knowledge Vault:

We just were informed that “cholesterol is not as bad for you as we once thought,” after years of being told that consuming eggs, milk and steak would kill as for sure. There were nutritional and economic consequences of that “fact.” Would Google’s new search methods have buried the assertions of contrarian scientists, who were claiming this years ago, as liars?

I dunno. Maybe. Remember that Knowledge Vault assumes that truths imply trustworthiness and trustworthiness implies truths. If the websites expressing the contrarian opinion on cholesterol appeared trustworthy in all other ways, if they contained statements just as likely to be rated truthful as statements on websites that demonized cholesterol, then Google would probably give them equal weight.

The Knowledge Vault trustworthiness estimation algorithm is partially circular and self-referential — trustworthy web sites contain true facts, and true facts are those contained on trustworthy websites — so it would likely have a tendency to reinforce orthodoxy. (The Page Rank and clustering algorithms have similar tendencies for similar reasons.) It would be nice to have information retrieval technology that didn’t have these limitations…but then again, it would also be nice to have human beings that didn’t have these limitations.

After all, the cholesterol contrarians Jack’s talking about weren’t marginalized by a search engine, they were marginalized by the consensus of doctors and dieticians and nutritionists, perhaps for reasons that seemed good at the time. It’s not realistic to expect Google’s search engine to pore through the mass of scientific publications and pick out truths that have gone unrecognized by almost the entirety of the scientific community. Artificial intelligence that powerful is still in the realm of science fiction.

Besides, if you want to find out about the cholesterol controversy, you only have to Google “cholesterol controversy.”

The Future of Net Neutrality?

So, I hear the FCC is going to give us net neutrality:

For the stuff that matters to us most, as an online community: the order bans paid prioritization, throttling and blocking. That means that outright blocking of content, slowing of transmissions, and the creation of so-called “fast lanes” available on a pay-to-play basis are banned. Daily Kos will be delivered across the networks as easily as the New York Times’ website or Fox News’s or RedState (it still exists! Who knew?) and you and we won’t have to pay more to have it delivered to your screen.

Of course, net neutrality does nothing about what I see as the biggest problem with internet service, which is the lack of competition between local providers. In my area, unless you’re willing to put up with slow speeds, there’s only one provider. That kind of monopoly power is never good for customers. But net neutrality isn’t going to fix that.

Nevertheless, although I’m not convinced net neutrality is necessary — it’s not as if there’s a history of abuse without it — I don’t think net neutrality is a bad thing by itself.

I am, however, a little concerned about what else the FCC is going to do. Before the FCC could enact net neutrality, they first had to reclassify the internet as a Title II telecommunications service, which gives the FCC a lot more power over it than they had before. They can use that power to enact net neutrality (unless they lose in court again), but they can also use that power in other ways.

Here’s what the FCC says about that:

This includes no unbundling of last-mile facilities, no tariffing, no rate regulation, and no cost accounting rules, which results in a carefully tailored application of only those Title II provisions found to directly further the public interest in an open Internet and more, better, and open broadband. Nor will our actions result in the imposition of any new federal taxes or fees; the ability of states to impose fees on broadband is already limited by the congressional Internet tax moratorium. This is Title II tailored for the 21st century.

To which the folks at Daily Kos respond:

No tariffs. No taxes. No rate regulation—the FCC is not setting prices for internet service. Nothing that will cost ISPs more to provide the service they keep promising their users. All of those things telecoms have been screaming about are not happening.

To which I respond: Yet.

Because we’ve seen regulatory agencies get out of control before. And I have a few predictions.

Pretty much all of those things the FCC says it isn’t going to do are things it is in fact authorized to do under the Telecommunications Act. Unless this power grab is overthrown by Congress or the courts, the FCC can do any of those things whenever it wants. Or whenever the next President wants them to.

As is usually the case, they’ll probably try to hide it behind good intentions. So they won’t just impose a tax on internet service. Nobody wants that. Instead, they’ll offer a program of some kind — low-cost internet service for the urban poor and underserved rural areas, programs for the schools, something that sounds nice — all of which will happen to be financed by a small tax on the internet.

Then there’s the question of whether the FCC will try to regulate internet content. Right now, nobody’s seriously talking about that, and the internet is pretty much wide open to almost anything. But how long will that last with the FCC in charge? Remember, this is the organization that fought with CBS over Janet Jackson’s right nipple for eight fucking years.

What do you think will happen the next time there’s a moral panic over something on the web? What are the chances that some politician will see a chance to attract attention to himself by “making the internet safe for children”?

I think there are a few issues that are ripe for exploitation by some tinpot FCC commissioner:

  • Content from terrorist organizations, for some surprisingly expansive definitions of “terrorist” and “organization.” Also maybe “content” and “from.”
  • Human trafficking. By which I mean escort websites and forums.
  • Revenge porn. This is a hot topic, and what aspiring politician wouldn’t want to be seen fighting something like that?
  • Online gambling.

I wouldn’t be surprised if rather than going after infringing websites directly, they instead just strongly encouraged internet service providers to block content that they know, or should have known, was in one of the disallowed categories. This makes the ISPs do all the work and makes it harder to get a First Amendment claim going.

And then there’s always the problem of regulatory capture. The FCC’s posture right now is one of fighting to keep internet providers in line, but it’s only a matter of time until they start protecting providers from competition. They won’t call it that, of course. They’ll probably call it “protecting consumers.” They’ll impose lots of regulatory requirements, all justified in the name of consumers, and all harder on new providers than on the established giants that have Compliance departments filled with former FCC staff.

I wouldn’t be surprised if “equal opportunity” makes an appearance as well. Some new player will figure out a neat trick to provide better or cheaper service, and naturally they’ll want to pick off customers in the more lucrative markets, but the FCC will accuse them of discriminating against poor minorities and insist they serve a much larger area, which will make their business plans unworkable. The poor minorities still won’t get the new service, but neither will anyone else.

If history continues to repeat itself, eventually the FCC will directly manage the market. Before any internet service provider (new or old) can add capacity in a market, it will first have to prove to the FCC that there is a “unmet need.” Existing providers will be allowed to contest this need — they may even have seats on the committee making the decision — thus ensuring that no actual competition ever takes place. Nobody will admit that’s what they’re doing, of course. They’ll probably call it “preventing wasteful duplication” or “stabilizing the market,” or if things have gone particularly badly, “restoring public confidence in internet providers.”

So those are my predictions. Unless this gets stopped pretty soon by the courts or Congress, I expect taxes within eight years (sooner if President Elizabeth Warren gets her way), content regulation within ten years (sooner if President Jeb Bush puts Rick Santorum on the FCC commission), and regulatory capture within…well, I expect regulatory capture to start almost immediately, but it could take a few decades to drive the industry into the ground.

Who Should Control Women’s Sexual Desire?

Sprout Pharmaceutical is again asking for FDA approval for flibanserin, a pill that they say will help women experiencing low levels of sexual desire. In a New York Times op-ed, sex educator Emily Nagoski is skeptical:

But the biggest problem with the drug — and with the F.D.A.’s consideration of it — is that its backers are attempting to treat something that isn’t a disease.

No, no, no. This is an argument I really want to die. I don’t mean to pick on Ms. Nagoski, but there’s no need to get hung up on whether something is a disease when investigating drugs that change it. That’s an approach that will lead to pain, heartache, and possibly jail time.

Here’s the issue that has her concerned:

Flibanserin purportedly treats a condition called hypoactive sexual desire disorder in women. But H.S.D.D. was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013, and replaced with a new diagnosis called female sexual interest/arousal disorder, or F.S.I.A.D.

Why the change? Researchers have begun to understand that sexual response is not the linear mechanism they once thought it was. The previous model, originating in the late ’70s, described a lack of “sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity.” It placed sexual desire first, as if it were a hunger, motivating an individual to pursue satisfaction. Desire was conceptualized as emerging more or less “spontaneously.” And some people do feel they experience desire that way. Desire first, then arousal.

But it turns out many people (perhaps especially women) often experience desire as responsive, emerging in response to, rather than in anticipation of, erotic stimulation. Arousal first, then desire.

Both desire styles are normal and healthy. Neither is associated with pain or any disorder of arousal or orgasm.

To my inexpert ear this seems like a plausible bit of psychology, and since Emily Nagoski is a credentialed expert on human sexuality, I’m sure she knows a lot more about female sexuality than I do. [Insert self-deprecating joke about not understanding women here.] And what she’s talking about should probably be a very important consideration for any woman thinking about taking a pill like this.

However, just because something is normal or natural doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change it. About 20 years ago, there was a major controversy over the safety of silicone breast implants, and the FDA was stepping in to regulate them. Virginia Postrel of Reason magazine wrote an editorial about that which has stuck with me over the years, and which seems relevant here:

Something different is going on with breast implants: They are frivolous, and they are biological. They are overt attempts to overthrow nature, to use the mind to reshape the body, to alter genetic destiny without giving a good reason. They are not “vital needs,” like fibers, key boards, or electricity.


Traditional medicine and its regulatory progeny disapprove of risks, except to restore what’s “normal.” When cosmetic surgeons tried to define flat-chestedness as a disease–the better to cram breast augmentation into the healer paradigm–they looked like manipulative fools. Their article became a smoking gun to feminists who saw implants as a patriarchal plot. But the very attempt shows what’s “wrong” with implants in the eyes of the law: They’re designed not to fix a disease but to improve what’s normal. Repair is OK; improvement isn’t.

This bias against changing things that are normal is complicated by the fact that we have a history of deciding or discovering that things previously considered normal are in fact subject to medical intervention. Humans have presumably had allergies forever, but we only really began to recognize them as such about 100 years ago, and we now have a lot of different treatments. It’s natural for our eyes to lose their ability to focus clearly as we get older, but nobody suggests that people getting Lasik eye surgery would be better off accepting their “different way of seeing.” We used to think that even severe dementia was just a normal part of getting old, until we identified Alzheimer’s disease. Now instead of just accepting the decline in mental function, we’re working on treatments.

Or what could be more normal than childbirth? And yet we spend millions of dollars on contraceptives to prevent it. Except for women experiencing the perfectly common problem of infertility — they spend millions of dollars on drugs, treatment, and IVF to get pregnant. We’ve also found ways to reduce the natural pain of childbirth. All of these improvements on nature were highly controversial when they were first introduced. But we got used to them.

Nagoski is concerned that women will feel pressure to take a pill they don’t need:

But I can’t count the number of women I’ve talked with who assume that because their desire is responsive, rather than spontaneous, they have “low desire”; that their ability to enjoy sex with their partner is meaningless if they don’t also feel a persistent urge for it; in short, that they are broken, because their desire isn’t what it’s “supposed” to be. What these women need is not medical treatment, but a thoughtful exploration of what creates desire between them and their partners.

There’s certainly a history of women being pressured into dubious ways to “improve” themselves, from high-heeled shoes to corsets to cosmetic surgery and unnecessary hysterectomies, so any women considering any kind of medical intervention should do her research. And I can understand the the need for the thoughtful exploration she describes (there’s more detail in her article and on her blog), but she goes too far when she argues against any medical treatment.

The efficacy of flibanserin is in question, and it may have some troublesome side effects, so I could understand why she’d recommend against that drug in particular, but Nagoski objects to the idea of using medicine to change how sexual desire works. This comes way too close to some of the “purity” arguments that have been used against psychoactive medications over the years.

Depression is another one of those treatable conditions that used to be considered normal. When depressed people weren’t being asked “Why can’t you just cheer up?” they were being told to live with it and things will get better. They were told that plenty of depressed people manage to live successful lives, and that they should learn to accept themselves as they are. Just keep soldiering on. Suck it up. None of this was really very helpful. In all fairness though, there weren’t any better alternatives.

That changed with the invention of antidepressants, especially with the modern drugs that affect neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. (Flibanserin acts on those neurotransmitters as well.) They’re not always effective, and they can have side effects, but when they work, they can greatly improve the lives of people suffering from depression.

And yet people taking antidepressants are still told by well-meaning friends and family (or even strangers) that they should try to fight depression in other ways — eat better, exercise more, meditate, find a hobby, get out and meet people, try to look on the bright side — rather than “depending on a drug to make you happy.” This often comes with a sizable dose of smugness: “Look at me, I’m happy, and I don’t take drugs.”

There’s also been a general backlash against the market success of antidepressants, with a lot of whining about the number of people on Prozac, the “over-medication” of American society, and the way big pharma is pushing their drugs on us by getting everything classified as a disease. I’m sure there’s been some of that, especially with captive populations like school children, where I’ve heard accusations that ADHD is over-diagnosed. On the other hand, if your child gets the drugs and the quality of his life improves, how much does it matter if he really had ADHD or was just fidgety?

Some of the reaction against pharmaceutical solutions seems to have its origin in the same anti-drug prejudice that fuels the War on Drugs — the attitude that using drugs for anything other than treating a disease is evil. This is why someone with a diagnosis of ADHD or narcolepsy can get Adderall from Walgreens, but college students trying to study harder have to order it from sketchy online pharmacies in Hong Kong. And when factory workers on long shifts use methamphetamine (essentially the same drug) we call them meth addicts and put them in jail.

Apparently we still haven’t learned our lesson about what happens when we pathologize normal sexual functioning.

In one extreme example, medical professionals once took seriously the idea that homosexuality was a disease in need of a cure.

[…] Now, of course, only a fringe minority of the medical community would suggest that sexual orientation is anything other than a normal aspect of human sexuality.

Let me respond by describing another human sexual aspect that is currently treated as a disorder: Gender dysphoria. Some men aren’t happy being men. They’d rather be women. We could tell them that being born a man is their fate and they better straighten up and act normal. Or we could tell them that lots of people have gender identity problems and learn to live with it. We could even tell them to settle for wearing wigs and makeup and women’s clothes.

But as it turns out, we have at least a partial “cure” for being male. We have hormones to change their fat distribution and enlarge their breasts. We have lasers and electrolysis to remove unwanted hair, and we have dermabrasion to smooth their skin. We have surgical procedures to reduce their adam’s apple, change their voice, enlarge their breasts, and change the shape of their face, hips, buttocks, and genitals. Half the people in the world are male, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But some of them don’t like it, and within the technological limits of our civilization, we offer them the ability to change.

This analogy between desire style and sexual orientation is imperfect: There is no reason to suspect that responsive or spontaneous desire is innate. In fact all desire is somewhat responsive, even when it feels spontaneous. But Dr. Heath and Sprout are both part of the long history of trying to call “diseased” what is simply different.

And Emily Nagoski is in danger of making herself part of the long history of telling people they should learn to live with things they don’t like.

When a woman experiencing responsive desire comes to understand how to make the most of her desire, she opens up the opportunity for greater satisfaction. Outdated science isn’t going to improve our sex lives. But embracing our differences — working with our sexuality, rather than against it — will.

I suspect that this is good advice. But there’s a difference between advice and policy. The FDA isn’t about giving advice, it’s about controlling what medications are available. There’s a difference between giving women the information they need to make an intelligent choice and giving the FDA the power to take that choice away.

Let me quote Virginia Postrel again:

The debate over breast implants is only incidentally about the venality of lawyers or the benefits of a C cup. It is about who we are and who we may become. It is about the future of what it means to be human.

The debates about flibanserin, like the debate about breast implants, is about whether or not women get to have control over what they want to be.

(Hat tip: Maggie McNeill.)

Random Thoughts About Hillary Clinton’s Email

Hillary Clinton is taking some heat for using her own private email account for her State Department email. I haven’t been following the story very closely, but I have a few random thoughts:

  • I keep hearing that she turned over 55,000 pages of email. Pages? Who measures email in pages? People who use email either talk about the number of messages, or they talk about how many gigabytes it takes to store the messages. Nobody who actually uses email worries about the page count when it’s all printed out. Please don’t tell me she turned over actual printed pages…or a PDF.
  • What about legal hold? If somebody sued the State Department or Hillary Clinton personally, could the server administrators lock down the messages so no one deleted them in case they needed to be produced in discovery? Would they have been produced in discovery? How about a Freedom of Information Act request? A Congressional inquiry? In cooperation with the State Department’s Inspector General?
  • It’s entirely possible that Hillary’s private email server is every bit as secure as the State Department’s server. Remember that we’re talking about ordinary email — the kind that Hillary and the department’s staff could access from Blackberries, smartphones, or laptops. There’s a limit to how secure that kind of service can be, and it’s not hard to find the technical talent to set it up and run it right. The Clintons easily have the resources for this.
  • The State Department’s important secret messages aren’t sent over the ordinary office email system. Secure traffic goes over some kind of secure network like SIPRnet or JWICS. And yet Chelsea Manning compromised both of those networks and leaked hundreds of thousands of messages to wikileaks. So I’m guessing the State Department’s non-secure email meets a very low security standard. It’s been hacked before. It’s possible Hillary’s private server was better secured.
  • It’s also entirely possible that Hillary’s private email server has crap security. Maybe the Clintons got friends and political allies to setup the email system. (“They designed that cool campaign website, so they must know a lot about computers!”) In that case, 12-year-old script kiddies in Singapore could have been reading her email for years. The State Department’s email security may not be very good, but at least they probably have an IT auditing process.
  • Since her email address appears in every email message she sends or receives, the identity of the server would not have been a secret. (Naming it ClintonEmail.com doesn’t help.) It would have been a target for hackers and intelligence agencies.
  • Hillary says there were no security breaches. What she really means is that there were no security breaches discovered.
  • Hillary’s explanation that she did it for convenience is plausible. I’m not sure, but it’s possible that the limited mobile email clients at the time could not connect to more than one email service, so using a single service for work and home email would be more convenient than carrying two devices.
  • This sort of thing would be outrageous if done in a private corporation. Can you imagine trying to explain to a judge or a regulatory agency why all mail to and from the CEO uses a private server? Can you imagine trying to convince a judge or a regulatory agency that it was not done to keep some evidence hidden?
  • Did no one tell her this was a bad idea?
  • It’s not going to affect Hillary Clinton’s chances in the 2016 Presidential election. If you’re not mad at her for everything else she’s already done, then it’s unlikely that this will be the tipping point for you to turn against her. And if you already hate her, this just confirms everything you believe. Nobody will change their mind.


The Crime You Dare Not Stop

I’ve always thought that “possession” was an odd type of crime. Legal possession is such a passive concept. It doesn’t seem right to even call it a behavior. I’m pretty sure you can be guilty of possessing contraband even when you are literally asleep in bed. That just doesn’t sound harmful enough to justify punishment.

And consider what happens if the police bust you for possession of marijuana: The police will confiscate your stash. At that point they are the ones who are in possession of marijuana, aren’t they? Why is it that it was illegal when you did it, but it’s legal when they do it?

Because the law says so, I guess, but why? Cops can’t legally break into someone’s house and steal their jewelry or force women into having sex with them, so why is possession different? What’s the principle here? Clearly, since cops are allowed to do it, possession of marijuana doesn’t actually cause whatever social harm the law is seeking to prevent. So why is possession still illegal?

I think the answer has to be that possession is a proxy for the behavior that causes actual harm. In the case of marijuana, that would be the harm caused by smoking marijuana. (As a libertarian, I don’t see any net social harm from smoking marijuana, but let’s ignore that for the sake of argument.)

The problem — for the drug warriors, anyway — is that it’s hard to catch people smoking marijuana because it only takes a few minutes and they can do it in hiding. So the legislatures have moved backwards on the causal chain to criminalize a precursor act that is easier to detect: People generally possess marijuana for a lot longer than they smoke it, and they often do so in relatively public places where police can observe them, question them, and search them. Thus criminalizing the possession of marijuana serves as an imperfect way to attack the problem of smoking marijuana, at the cost of criminalizing behavior that is not really harmful.

This explains why it’s not a crime for cops to possess marijuana after a bust: They aren’t going to smoke it later.

Other crimes of possession can also be justified by their relation to harmful acts: We criminalize felons possessing guns because we don’t want them murdering people, we criminalize young people possessing cans of spray paint because we don’t want them vandalizing buildings with graffiti, and we criminalize possessing open containers of booze in cars because we don’t want drivers to drink.

The exact conditions under which it’s okay to punish people for harmless behavior in the name of stopping a related harmful act is a moral and ethical question worthy of exploration, but for now I’d like to look at a more practical problem. Because the behavior that is illegal is distinct from the behavior that is harmful, scenarios can arise where the law doesn’t really make sense.

For example, it’s illegal to possess child pornography. Clearly, mere possession is harmless, as proven by the fact that police and prosecutors can possess child pornography in the process of sending people to jail for it. Possession of child porn is nevertheless illegal because we don’t want people to look at it.

Houston criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett gives an example of how this can lead to a bizarre dilemma:

Suppose that a client comes to you with a problem: he has a computer hard drive full of child pornography, and he wants to know what to do with it. What do you tell him?

It’s illegal for him to continue possessing the images. So you can’t advise him to do nothing (and keep breaking the law).

The smart thing for him to do would be to destroy the hard drive (if I could, I would recommend swisscheesing it with a drill press).

But tampering with evidence is illegal under both Texas and federal law.

This is not just a hypothetical situation. At least one lawyer has been prosecuted for destroying child pornography on a client’s computer.

Lawyers wouldn’t be facing this kind of conundrum if it weren’t for the crime/harm separation that is inherent in possession laws. If possession of child pornography wasn’t a crime, then deleting it from the hard drive wouldn’t be destruction of evidence of a crime. It would arguably even be crime prevention, since deleting it prevents people from looking at it, just as flushing marijuana down the toilet prevents people from smoking it.

(I’ve never heard of someone being charged with destroying evidence of pot possession by smoking it, but people do get charged with tampering with evidence for eating drugs when the cops pull them over.)

On the other hand if the crime and harm of possessing child pornography were linked, if mere possession somehow did cause actual harm, then deleting the pornography from the drive would be stopping a crime in progress. The lawyer would be a crime fighter.

If you have trouble thinking about possession being harmful in that way, try imagining it this way: The lawyer visits the client’s house, but instead of learning that the client has child pornography, he discovers that the client has an actual child, locked in a cage in the basement. Alarmed, the lawyer frees the child, who immediately runs off. The child is confused, however, and is never able to identify his captor or the location he was held. By releasing the child, the lawyer has in a sense obstructed the ability of the police to charge his client for kidnapping, yet no sane person would argue that he shouldn’t have done it.

I’m not going so far as to say that possession should never be a crime, but the fact that possession crimes don’t work that way is a sign that possession is a strange kind of crime, one where stopping the crime is also a crime. I’m not sure how to fix this, but I’m pretty sure it’s broken.

Racism Detected In Ferguson

New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo says that the Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri police has found extensive racial problems:

Police officers in Ferguson, Mo., have routinely violated the constitutional rights of the city’s black residents, the Justice Department has concluded in a scathing report that accuses the officers of using excessive force and making unjustified traffic stops for years.

The Justice Department […] says the discrimination was fueled in part by racial stereotypes held by city officials. Investigators say the officials made racist jokes about blacks on their city email accounts.

This is the official answer to the question of why the protestors in Ferguson were so quick to assume that Darren Wilson was a racist murderer. The department’s racial problems would have been obvious to black people in Ferguson. They would have seen it in the way they were treated, the things that were said at the side of the road when the police stopped them, the way cops treated black people on the street. It would have been a regular topic of discussion in the black community.

So when the story of the Mike Brown shooting broke in Ferguson, this is how it looked: A member of a police department with a history of racism, equipped with a sidearm, possibly body armor, and several non-lethal weapons, confronts an unarmed and comparatively vulnerable black man on the street, and despite having a car which can be used for either cover or escape, he gets out and chases the black man down the street and shoots him multiple times, killing him. You can’t blame anybody for at least suspecting that this was a racially motivated killing.

As it happens, after a thorough investigation, which probably wouldn’t have happened without the protests, it turns out there’s some convincing evidence that Mike Brown attacked Officer Wilson. It appears to have been a reasonably justifiable shooting. But in the early days it only made sense to assume the worst — that the shooting was part of the long racist pattern of policing in Ferguson.

The Tyranny of the Well-Meaning

Jack Marshall has proclaimed yesterday “Remember What Drugs Cost Society Day” in honor of actor and comedian John Belushi, who died of a drug overdose in 1982. It’s worthwhile to remember the dead, and it’s important not to forget that recreational drug use can lead to tragedies. Had Jack left it at that, I wouldn’t have any objection, but Jack can’t leave it at that.

The District of Columbia is poised to completely legalize pot, which will be the most ringing of government endorsements of societally destructive personal conduct, in a malfunctioning culture that should not be placed at further risk.

I find it amazing that Jack thinks that by making something no longer a crime, the government is giving it a ringing endorsement, as if there is no middle ground for conduct that is undesirable but nevertheless tolerated in a free society. One of the most vivid descriptions of the banal evil of totalitarianism is that “everything that is not forbidden is compulsory.” Endorsement is not truly compulsion, but in conflating legalization with endorsement, Jack is nevertheless seeing the world in an oddly totalitarian frame.

One of the errors in Jack’s reasoning is to think that the path from ethics to policy is as simple as “behavior X is bad, therefore we should make behavior X a crime,” without giving due consideration to the costs of doing so. Those costs can be especially high when it’s not just behavior X that is criminalized, but a superset of behavior X and a bunch of other behaviors Y and Z that are thought to be somehow related to behavior X.

John Belushi died of an overdose of heroin and cocaine, but the anti-drug laws don’t just prohibit giving someone an overdose of those drugs. They make it a crime even to use these drugs even in safe quantities. In fact, the mere sale and possession of these drugs is prohibited. And Jack is arguing that Belushi’s heroin and cocaine use is somehow relevant to marijuana law, even though marijuana is a completely different kind of drug. We’ve even gone so far as to criminalize certain cash transactions because they might be used to hide money that might have come from selling illegal drugs. And we allow police to violently invade people’s homes when they are suspected of possessing both drugs and toilets down which to flush those drugs. The people on this page are dead because we’ve followed a policy of outlawing drugs without considering all the consequences.

It also makes me furious that a talent like [John Belushi] gave himself so little time to entertain us, because he killed himself with an insatiable appetite for illegal drugs.

While it’s tragic that John Belushi died, it seems odd to lament the loss of being entertained by him in a post advocating continued drug criminalization. John Belushi wouldn’t have had much time to entertain us if he’d been in prison on drug charges. And let’s be honest, most of the rest of the writers and cast of Saturday Night Live would have been right there with him in the cell block. I’m guessing getting raped in the showers would have killed their sense of humor.

(Yes, if drug cops had thrown John Belushi in prison, he might have lived. But John Belushi is an exception. Most drug users don’t die from it. Most don’t become addicted. How many of them are you willing to imprison against their will to stop a guy like John Belushi from killing himself? I’d have trouble justifying any answer other than zero.)

Jack seems to argue that Belushi owed us some sort of duty of entertainment, and that to ensure that people like him continue to entertain us, we need to be able to lock them in a cage for using drugs. This is kind of a creepy claim on some other person. I’d be willing to dismiss it as just my imagination, except that he also takes a similarly paternal interest in black people:

This overwhelmingly black, poor, educationally-challenged and struggling population needs competent, trustworthy leadership and an injection of values. It is a community, after all, that idolized the late Marion Barry, a mayor who smoked crack on the job, and never apologized for it. It’s not surprising that the adults in the District would tell the young African-Americans that it’s cool to spend their your money to get stupid, to avoid clear thought rather than practice it.

Whereas Jack would rather put the District of Columbia’s young African-Americans in prison, because there’s no way that a five-year stretch in a cage will teach them bad values, impair the quality of their education, or break up families, right?

This isn’t just paternalism, this is the perpetual false argument that we need to punish people “for their own good,” that we ought to punish people for doing things we consider unwise, that some people just can’t handle freedom. It’s no wonder that Jack has trouble understanding why some black people see similarities between the modern incarceration state and slavery. Southern slave owners would have said that Africans are too simple and child-like, that they needed the slave owners to take care of them and see to it that they were good Christians. Drug warriors say that we have to imprison black people so they won’t do drugs. Every oppressive system has an excuse for why some people have to suffer.

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good
of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live
under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.
The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may
at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good
will torment us without end for they do so with the approval
of their own conscience.”

— C. S. Lewis, “God in the Dock” (1948)

For the record, I think C.S. Lewis is wrong about the robber barons. They’re worse, because they don’t have consciences to trouble them, and cannot be encouraged by reason to change their minds, because that would be to oppose their own interests.

But that doesn’t let the moral busybodies off the hook, because it turns out you don’t have to hate people to cause them a lot of harm. The well-meaning can do quite a lot of damage with the best of intentions.