Well-regulated militia

Recent events remind me to post my proposed solution to America’s gun problem.

The second amendment looks pretty clear to me; well-regulated militias are allowed to own weapons. Coming fresh out of an armed uprising of citizens, it seems reasonable to me that the founding fathers would want to allow citizens to stay armed, both as a matter of national defense and as a check on tyrrany.

So, fine. We hew to the wording of the constitution. All guns must be kept at gun clubs unless you’re a member of a militia. Any group of 25 citizens can form a militia. The militia is collectively responsible for the armed actions of its members, and any weapons purchased through the militia. Financially, certainly, so the militia must insure or self-insure against accidents, crimes, and acts of mass slaughter. And probably legally, so that militia leaders can face criminal negligence if their weapons aren’t well-regulated. What “well-regulated” legally means seems like something we can leave up to the states.

I think organizations like the NRA could live with this. Indeed, the NRA state or local chapters could organize militias. Most gun owners are very responsible with their weapons, so I expect NRA members would come up with a good set of checks to ensure that member weapons are indeed well regulated. And if the NRA chapters are self-insuring against gun misuse, they’d have a strong financial incentive to get things right.

I also think all gun and ammo purchases should be published in real time, at least attributed to militias, and possibly to the individual. That would make it easier for citizens to self-regulate. If you saw that a co-worker or a neighbor who was under a lot of stress just bought a bunch of automatic weapons, you might say something. As might his militia members, especially if their militia will share the trouble for things done with militia weapons.

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What’s wrong with Wall Street

Well, there are a lot of things wrong with Wall Street. But if you’ll play a game with me, I’ll show you one of them.

Imagine if you took all the change out of your change jar and flipped each coin once. Ones that came up heads you kept, calling them special and brilliant. Once that came up tails, you fired as incompetent.

For all the remaining coins, flip them once again. For heads, tell them they are going places and could have a future with your firm. Tails, dump ’em.

Now keep playing this game. Round after round. Keep the “winners”, fire the “losers”, while investing emotionally in the results. Even knowing it’s BS, you will catch yourself feeling things. Pennies? You knew they couldn’t cut it. Not like quarters. Fuckin’ pennies. Except that wheat penny: he’s ok.

Occasionally, start a new cohort of change. Keep it separate, so you can track it. Tell the new guys how they should really look up to the big winners in the old cohort. How they can learn a lot from them. How that one quarter has the magic touch: 12 heads in a row. They should study him, learn how he does it.

Now do this with people. Make it complicated enough that the can pretend it’s not obviously bullshit. Give every “winner” a big bonus, and reward them again when they argue for a bigger one. And ask yourself: What kind of monsters have you bred?

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News obesity

In an interesting article about how misinformed voters are, Johnathan Stray writes:

Maybe publishing the truth was never enough. Maybe journalism never actually “informed the public,” but merely created conditions where the curious could get themselves informed by diligently reading the news.

It occurs to me that one way to think about this is in terms of another contemporary problem: obesity.

Our doughy bellies

People have a lot of explanations as to why people are getting fatter, but in my view it’s a confluence of events:

  • Our lives have become easier, which requires less food,
  • Much of today’s food is produced by very large companies, giving them access to
    • technological improvements in distribution,
    • economies of scale for heavily homogenized food,
    • the resources to engineer ads, packaging, and the food itself for maximum consumer appeal,
  • Better transport and distribution means increased competition, creating a strong incentive to make whatever sells the best, and
  • Once scarce, food has recently become abundant.

That may or may not be the root of it, but those are all certainly factors. It’s unsurprising that people consume more of something when you make it cheaper, more appealing, and easier to get.

That last point, though that abundance is relatively recent, is I think key. Overabundance without counterbalance leads to overconsumption. For example, alcohol consumption has been falling for years because we’ve had a lot of practice as a society in learning to deal with an abundance of alcohol.  Legally and socially, we mostly recognize its dangers and restrict its use. But the temperance movement is 150 years older than the slow food movement. We’re still struggling to learn how to deal with a near-infinite supply of cheap calories.

Our doughy brains

But what does that have to do with news? Well, even more recently, we’ve shifted from scarcity to abundance. Any intellectual above a certain age well remembers the famine we endured before the Internet. Information was rare, hard to come by, and expensive. The local paper may not have been much good, but we read it whether or not we liked it. As a kid I’d read the ingredients list on cereal boxes because, well, what else was there to read?

Now that’s laughable. Today we can read pretty much anything we want, anywhere we want. 20 years ago, we might have thought everybody would be going for The Good Stuff. Reading commentaries on Shakespeare, or watching lectures from top professors. But with history’s greatest works just a Google search away, we mainly read TMZ and the Drudge Report. Or coverage of basically the same material, dressed up or warmed over, on an array of sites.

I think the reasons for this are similar to the reasons for the obesity epidemic. Large companies, forced to compete in a larger market, produce the informational equivalent of Big Macs, Frappucinos, and Doritos. And, used to consuming anything we can get our hands on, we say, “Yes, please!” and scarf it all down. We don’t know how to do otherwise.

Except it’s worse here, in that the industries of information have been more quickly and deeply transformed than those of food. Craigslist, Ebay, blogs, and Groupon are kicking the hell out of the newspaper industry, and well before that cable TV upset the delicate balance that allowed for useful TV news. You still have to get in your car to get your fries and shake, but Comcast will happily install the informational equivalent of an eternal beer tap in your living room for just a few bucks a day. A few bucks more now gets you a wireless one in your pocket.

As the flood of empty calories gives us an obese nation, the flood of empty news makes flabby our body politic.

The solution?

I wish I knew.

In the short term, frankly, I think we’re fucked. Basic habits are incredibly difficult to shift; moderation of drinking and smoking took generations of effort. With news, about the best we can hope for is that most of the existing media conglomerates will collapse, as I think the Innovator’s Dilemma will prevent them from doing anything novel enough that it could serve as the future. That will take a while, as they’re still vigorously racing for the bottom.

But barring a civilizational collapse, which I am not ruling out, I think we’ll solve this problem. If only out of sheer necessity, an informed public being the cornerstone of democracy.

The place I’d start looking is among young people who are trying to deal with something local and democratically run. Young, because they’ll have grown up with informational abundance. And local, because the feedback loops are shorter, making it easier to see that they’re misinformed.

Alas, I’d probably look in the up-and-coming third world, perhaps Brazil or India. The US may be too stable, and too comfortable for its citizens, for any significant change to start here. America’s media may be to the first half of this century what its car makers were to the last half of the last one.

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On why I hate babies

Actually, I like babies a lot. I also like moms, and babies and moms breastfeeding. For the record, I’m also in favor of kittens and puppies and rainbows. But since I’ve been asked twice if I hate babies, I thought I’d clarify.

It started out when a friend posted to Twitter a link to a petition titled “Really, IRS?” which says:

Acne cream is more important to our health than breastfeeding. Excuse me?  According to a recent article in the New York Times, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has determined that breastfeeding “does not have enough health benefits to qualify as a form of medical care.”  Therefore, women cannot count expenses for breastfeeding supplies in their tax-sheltered healthcare spending accounts.  Acne cream and denture adhesives, however, do qualify for tax breaks.

Apparently, the IRS has decided it knows more about medicine than the experts at the Department of Health & Human Services and World Health Organization who are actively promoting breastfeeding because of its significant health benefits for mothers and children.

Sign our petition reminding the IRS to leave medicine to the experts!

I foolishly questioned that on Twitter, asking whether everything with health benefits was health care. Several people replied with vigor, and since Twitter turns all serious discussions into slogan shouting matches, I tried to let it go. But since it keeps coming up in real life, I thought I’d put my position on the record.

As I said, I’m in favor of breast feeding, and agree it has important health benefits. But if you go read the original New York Times article, it becomes clear the IRS isn’t denying that. What they’re saying is that unless you have a doctor’s note saying it’s medically necessary, you can’t get the tax deduction for medical care.

That could seem unreasonable. Why is the IRS making medical decisions? Isn’t this the same sort of thing as government death panels, but run by the most heartless and hated of our bureaucracies, and target on innocent babies and their loving moms? How dare they!

That’s not what they’re up to, though. Through Congress, we’ve given them a hard job. People are supposed to pay taxes on all their income, but we make a few exceptions and ask the IRS to police those. One of those is a per-child subsidy to parents, which makes sense; people having kids is good for society, so we help them out. Another is for medical care. Which again makes sense: it seems churlish to tax people for being sick.

But there’s a problem there. There are a lot of things that people do that we don’t, as a society, want to subsidize, even if they have health benefits. Some are things that everybody has to do, like eating and exercising and brushing one’s teeth. Many more are things that for some people might be medically necessary, but for others are nice-to-haves or luxuries.

If you’re recovering from a car wreck, for example, you might really need massages as part of your physical therapy. For me, though, massages might have some health benefits, but they certainly aren’t necessary. Just because a clinic has a hot tub doesn’t mean that we should tax people more to subsidize anybody who wants one at home.

So how do we tell the difference? Well, we asked the IRS to decide for us. They could come up with a lot of very complicated rules and then audit people frequently to see if they’re behaving. But they did something easier, and more clever. Since we already have a system of experts on medicine complete with a professional body who polices them, they use that. If a doctor says something is medically necessary, the IRS takes their word for it. If not, taxpayers don’t help pay for it.

Does this leave some necessary medical expenses uncovered? Sure. Do some people use compliant doctors to sneak in stuff that shouldn’t be subsidized? Undoubtedly. But any system we pick has problems. This seems like a pretty good balance to me, and much simpler than the alternatives.

So back to breast pumps. Are they medically necessary for some people? Yes. And with a doctor’s note, you’re covered. Are they medically necessary for everybody? Definitely not. Some use them for convenience. My brother and sister-and-law, for example, got one so she could go back to work sooner. Medically necessary? No. A good idea for them? Absolutely. One we should support by raising taxes and increasing the complexity of our tax system with a special loophole? I say no.

Instead, I think we should just expand the child tax credit and let parents decide for themselves how to spend that money. If they think a breast pump is the best way to do that, great. If they think something else is more important, they should be able to do that instead, without having to get the IRS’s particular blessing. Not every good idea needs to be written into the tax code.

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In case I never land

As I begin my holiday travels, I wanted to put something on the record. If terrorists blow up my plane, that’s fine.

Well, fine is the wrong word. What I really mean is that nobody should use my death as justification for more security theater, more bullshit, or less liberty.

Life is risk. People who want complete safety should stay at home under their blankets. They won’t find it there either; death comes for us all sooner or later. But there at least they won’t bother the rest of us with their eternal fear.

Since 9/11, though, our new national sport has been a competition to see who can generate the most fear. Personal fear. Primal fear. Not fear of anything important, really. Nobody’s afraid of losing our moral compass, or our national character, or our love of liberty. Nobody’s afraid of a life poorly lived.

So my message is simply this: fuck it. I am going to die. We all are. The proximate reason terrorists are trying to blow up our planes is that it will scare us. We could try to fight that by spending billions (and our civil liberties) pursuing a mirage of perfect safety. Or we could accept that sometimes shit is going to happen and get on with living our lives. Good lives. Happy lives. Productive lives. That’s my choice.

By definition, the terrorists only win if they make us afraid. So as I see it, Fox News is on the side of the terrorists. (You too, CNN, at least these days.) So is every politician who isn’t calling for calm resolve. As is every so-called analyst who uses hindsight to sound smart by pretending the disaster du jour could have hypothetically been prevented. You’re all setting an impossible standard that the TSA will try to meet by increasing the appearance of security. For my sake–for America’s sake–knock it off. Tell everybody to keep calm and carry on. Put things in perspective. Keep things in perspective.

If I die doing something I love, or going to see people I love, I don’t want you to focus on the dying. That is inevitable. Focus on the love. Because that isn’t inevitable. And that is what really matters. Focus on the love.

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Ignorance of natural law is no excuse

It’s a commonplace: ignorance of the law is no excuse. The reason isn’t that everyone pretty much knows all the laws already. They don’t. Instead, it’s twofold:

  • It would reward people willing to lie about what the they knew, and
  • It would encourage people to remain ignorant of the law.

Interestingly, Wikipedia tells us that this legal principle goes back to the Greeks and Romans, who had a third reason: the law was merely a reflection of what was right and wrong, the true law. Ergo, one had a duty to know it. That seems a little strong in this postmodern age. But it gets close to something that’s a pernicious problem in modern American culture.

Ignorance is bliss

If you look at the recent financial meltdown, which has caused untold misery to a mind-boggling number of people, a lot of the key players claimed ignorance. Not of the law, but of consequences. One would certainly hope they were ignorant, because the alternative is that they were amoral monsters. But that’s not entirely believable. Surely, many of the participants were ignorant, at least to the extent that they didn’t understand the full consequences of their actions.

Some of them, however, must have figured it out. As Michael Lewis documents in his excellent book The Big Short, a number of people external to the sausage-making put the pieces together; it’s implausible that some inside didn’t. More broadly, many must have noticed local wrongness, even if they didn’t think through the global implications. And if many knew, many more must have suspected something, but ignored it. It’s a continuum of cluelessness.

Ignorance is strength

The problem is that although we’ve rigged it so that there is no incentive to remain ignorant of law, there is still a strong incentive to remain ignorant of the consequences of your actions. When the CEOs of financial companies say, “Hey, we didn’t realize we were doing things that almost destroyed the world economy,” we say, “Oh, well then. Fair enough. Keep your $100m bonuses.”

This is a problem that information technology can make incalculably worse. Telecommunications made it possible for us to be physically distant from the consequences of our actions. Software, acting as an informational filter, can make it easy to be more deeply unaware. The vast flood of appealing content available to us through TV and the web can drown out subtle thoughts. Combine this with our natural tendency to avoid thinking about unpleasant things, and to avoid being the bearer of bad news, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Ignorance is forbidden

I think the only solution is the one we took long ago for the law: ignorance might be an explanation, but it can never be an excuse.

That’s already true in in some areas. If you fail to properly maintain your car and an accident results, we see you as culpable, not blameless. One cannot say, “Brakes: I didn’t realize they mattered.” Even if you didn’t, it doesn’t absolve you of responsibility. This should be equally true of a CEO.

Executives have no problem claiming the credit for and much of the profit of the work their employees undertake. The must take an equal share of the blame when things go wrong. Power and responsibility, both legal and moral, must be closely linked. This should at least be enforced by custom, through both civil and business culture. But could it perhaps be made a legal requirement as well?

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