Monday, April 24, 2017

13 Reasons Why, a review through the lens of skills, not judgment

I've been watching 13 Reasons Why on Netflix for the past few weeks and just finished last night. No, I'm not a teenager brimming with angst, but I know what that was like for me. I just kept seeing that series on my home page on Netflix and, while still waiting for Sense8 and House of Cards, I thought I'd give it a try.

As I write this, Don Henley's song "The Heart of the Matter", is playing through my mind. It is a song about forgiveness, and forgiveness to me is the complete surrender of hate and rage for understanding. But as I will show you below, you cannot have understanding without collaboration. And with collaboration comes skill, the kind of skill teens and young adults need to avoid getting to the point where they even begin to contemplate suicide.

I want to use this space here to also say kudos to everyone who made 13 Reasons Why happen. Some of the scenes were quite intimate in nature and required a tremendous amount of trust in each other to perform. This is an exceptional series and worth the time to watch, particularly for anyone with kids entering or already in adolescence. It is a parable of modern times to show us just what kids are facing now with social media, smart phones and school.

I can relate to the characters in 13 Reasons Why because there was a time in my life as a young man, when I wanted to to take my own life. I had a good friend back then who shot that idea down in the most spectacular way, to paraphrase:

"Suicide? That's a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Besides, suicide is the most selfish thing anyone can do. It's a slap in the face to everyone you leave behind."

So from that point on, I decided to live for as long as I possibly can, just to see what happens next. Now I can look back on that time in my life and know that I felt that way because I lacked the skills to cope with life better than I did. Since then, I found resources that taught me the skills I needed to adapt, to change my mind. Everything I have done from that point forward was to see what would happen next.

I watched 13 Reasons Why as an exploration of human behavior. Yes, it is a drama, and yes, there is plenty of drama in the series. For Nic Sheff, one of the writers on the series, it is an exploration into teen life, as he wrote in his editorial article at Vanity Fair:
As soon as I read the pilot for 13 Reasons Why, I immediately knew it was a project I wanted to be involved in. I was struck by how relevant and even necessary a show like this was: offering hope to young people, letting them know that they are not alone—that somebody out there gets them. In 13 Reasons Why, the story of a high-school girl who takes her own life, I saw the opportunity to explore issues of cyberbullying, sexual assault, depression, and what it means to live in a country where women are devalued to the extent that a man who brags about sexually assaulting them can still be elected president. And, beyond all that, I recognized the potential for the show to bravely and unflinchingly explore the realities of suicide for teens and young adults—a topic I felt very strongly about.
Throughout each episode, I watched every human interaction, without judgement. Whenever there was a "f*ck you!" moment, I asked myself if there was an opportunity to teach, an opportunity for collaboration lost. I remembered what I learned from reading books like "The Explosive Child", "Raising Human Beings" and numerous other books over the last 25 years. I watched with interest and noted how quick people were to punish another. "Ew! You remind me of my own shame! Here, let me punish you!" That pretty much sums up every conflict in 13 Reasons Why. Can you hear John Bradshaw calling?

That shame comes from somewhere. With few exceptions, shame is transferred, even inherited, from parent to child. If parents witness their child doing something that reminds them of their own shame, even unconscious shame, then punishment will come, unless the parents are aware of their own shame.

While it is easy to disregard the adults in 13 Reasons Why as they're not central to the plot, I noticed who even showed the slightest interest in collaborating with adults. What I saw was that in homes with abuse, there was little interest or awareness of collaboration as an option to solve problems. Where there was hope and understanding, even reaching out on the part of the parents, there was more of a willingness to talk, to collaborate. This is not a hard and fast rule, this is a tendency of the characters in the series that mirrors life. The adults modeled the skill of collaboration or embraced conflict when they lacked the skill of collaboration.

Hannah Baker is the protagonist in 13 Reasons Why, and like so many other teens and young adults who take their own lives, she died because she lacked the skills to collaborate with others to solve her problems. She tried many times to get help through collaboration, but with a few exceptions, she was surrounded by others who lacked the skills to collaborate. Most of the characters are ready to shoot first and ask questions later, an attribute that is reflected in our country at a personal and national level. Just ask the citizens of any country we're at "war" with now.

13 Reasons Why has generated a resounding response. As the What's On Netflix website observes:
Released in 2007, 13RW is a young adult novel written by Jay Asher. Picked up by Netflix and produced by Selena Gomez, it quickly gained traction become one of Netflix’s most popular series. According to Fizziology, more people tweeted about “13 Reasons Why” during its first week of streaming that any other Netflix show-3,585,110 tweets in total. That’s three times as many mentions as the second most-tweeted show and more than 20 times the tweets of popular shows “Orange is the New Black” and “Master of None.” That’s big.
That kind of response indicates that millions of people identify with the characters in the story. They identify with being abused, being shut out, being withdrawn, being cast off. Without collaboration, its every man for himself, everyone is a free agent in a bag of skin. 13 Reasons Why is not quite Lord of the Flies, but both are cultural examples of how important it is for the older generation to collaborate with the younger generation. If you punish people because they "didn't get it", they won't.

When we hate, we surrender the need to understand. When we punish, we foreclose the need to understand. When we hate, we practice it as a skill, just as we do when we punish. Every minute we spend working on, planning on, or executing punishment is a minute we could have spent understanding another human being. While mired in resentment, we are not reaching out to collaborate with another human being. In resentment, we are drinking poison in isolation while waiting for the other person to die. The skills of human survival are taught, polished and honed in collaboration, not isolation.

As anyone familiar with biology knows, as we adapt to one environment we surrender the ability to thrive in another environment. Just as we cannot defend against all attacks, we cannot thrive in all environments. What makes humans different from all the other animals is our ability to adapt our environment to suit us. I'm not saying that natural selection will reward our ability to adapt our environment to suit us, as climate change is about to show us how much that ability costs, but it is a skill and it takes time to learn and master. Humans are one of the most adaptable species on the planet, but that ability to adapt is limited to skills we confer upon our progeny.

13 Reasons Why is a great illustration as to why I treat everything and everyone with tenderness and care. I do this not because that's how the world is, I do it because that's how I want the world to be.

Everyone I know in my life gets the same treatment. I keep my side of the street as clean as I can. I don't fire back, for they might be giants. I tread lightly wherever I walk and talk. I close doors gently, I don't raise my voice except for imminent danger, I don't break things in anger. I let the feeling pass before I act. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The universe is a reflection of everything that I am thinking and feeling right now. I get to choose what I think and feel because every day is Groundhog Day.

I have two darling little daughters and I was thinking of them when I watched 13 Reasons Why. My kids are young now - a preschooler and a toddler, and someday they will be teenagers. I know that I'm already obsolete, but my job as a parent is to provide 24/7 tech support for life. I do so, willingly, without judgement or reproach of anyone. I'm not a perfect parent, so I allow my kids to teach me something new every day.

My definition of love is to allow another person to grow to the greatest extent possible, while doing no harm. In my actions, I strive to provide a constant reminder to my wife and kids, that "my door" is always open and that they can talk to me about anything at all, at anytime. That is what Hannah Baker needed from the beginning, an open door.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

On blocking, muting and posting

Just the other day, I had an interaction with someone in the Fox News Politics community on Google+ that I would like to share with you. I can't remember the subject of the post, but I remember how the comments went. One person criticized another for poor spelling and grammar, even when the first suffered the same malady. So I pointed out that the first person had made grammar and spelling errors, too. He said that I had made an error by putting a comma before the word "too". So I replied with a link to the Chicago Manual of Style with a link to the precise page on the use of a comma followed by "too".

I came back to the post after receiving notification of a new comment only to find that I was blocked from reading or posting comments. I had an exchange with someone who moderated comments on the post and he blocked me. I don't usually get blocked, but I was struck by why I got blocked. I don't use profanity online as a rule and I really did use neutral language to keep it sane. I like to use neutral language to stick to the facts. I was blocked because I presented facts to show that I was right.

Some of you might be wondering what I'm doing there on Fox News Politics. I'm there for exploration. I'm there to check my assumptions. I'm there because I can preach to the choir anytime. I have posted a few of my blog articles there to see what kind of response I get. I can tell you that it's mostly positive, but it's interesting.

What I see exhibited in that community is the impulse to punish more than rational debate, and that impulse is not exclusive to conservatives, but it's blatantly obvious there. It's almost as if to say, if you don't understand, you should be punished. I've seen numerous interactions where one person is wrong and the other is right, and everyone piles on the person believed to be wrong. The one with the wrong opinion, the wrong facts, whatever. The problem is this: punishment doesn't teach any skills.

I was blocked as punishment, not as a lesson in civil discourse. Did that teach me a new skill? Perhaps. But for the person who blocked me, he lost the opportunity to persuade me that his position was sound, even just. He also lost the ability to see all of my inputs on that post.

Years ago, I saw this great Sherlock Holmes play featuring Frank Langella cast as the great detective himself. I recall this interaction between Holmes and Dr. Watson, where Holmes calmly stated, "There is no such thing as a trivial question." That is a sign of true curiosity, the sense that all information is good information, that we can learn from it. I read posts I disagree with because I know that there is something I can learn from it, even if I disagree with it. This is the point of departure in civil discourse. I come to the debate with my mind open.

As a general rule, I don't block people, even when I disagree with them. I will block on evidence of harassment, sure. But civilized debate? Censuring my opponent closes the debate. Then it's not really a debate, is it? The entire point of civil discourse is so that all opinions are heard, even if the facts prove them to be wrong. I'm not afraid to be wrong, that's why I write this blog. I've been wrong before and have admitted being wrong openly and freely on this blog.

I don't even mute posts much. I just leave the group or stop following that person if I find their posts obviously offensive. But even that is rare. I'm here for the discussion, not the victory.

A society cannot function if the dominant faction is allowed to censure everyone else. The entire point of the First Amendment is to allow people to express themselves with words, with videos, whatever. The men who framed the Constitution understood that allowing freedom of expression provided pressure relief for people passionate about their views. Let them speak, let them write, let them say what they need to say. The audience can evaluate the content against the facts they know and determine if they agree or disagree.

The Framers did not imagine the internet, but I believe that the First Amendment is just as relevant now as it was then. And now we can fact check against what we read. We can find common ground, corroborating facts, from diametrically opposed sources. I know because I've done it to research my articles. I have found agreement on a fact in economics between a liberal and conservative source. To me, one of the best ways to check facts is to find two opposed sources discussing the same event or topic and see what lines up. You'd be surprised at what you find.

Readers familiar with my work will know that I'm a liberal. I used to be libertarian, even a Republican. But I see now that we're going to have to work together if we, as a species are going to survive. Note that I'm not a Democrat. I'm just an independent liberal with a point of view.

I don't block because I know what it is like to be silenced. I don't mute for the same reason. I may change sources of information or just add new sources. Online interactions change day by day, and they are often fleeting. There is so much more to life than this screen. Life is too short to be at war with people online that I don't even really know. Sure, there may be some kinship with a few people I have interacted with online, but I really don't know them. Or for that matter, any adversary online and I have no real adversaries.

I don't think of social media in terms of good and bad people. I either agree or disagree. If I disagree with a comment on one of my posts, I let it stand, but I reply if I believe I can show an honest disagreement based on the facts. I will often provide a link to supporting evidence to buttress my argument. And most of the time, it's not for me or even my opponent in the debate, it's for the peanut gallery, the other people who are watching. I don't expect to change any minds here. Not even my own. But I allow for it to happen.

So much of what we do is a matter of faith. I distinguish faith from belief for the simple reason that belief holds something to be true, no matter the evidence. Faith is a reservation of judgment, waiting to see what will happen next. It is not, as some may say, the same thing as belief. I just have faith in human beings. I do what I do to see what will happen next, not to make some thing happen. I let the ball roll to see where it goes, not to make it go where I want it to go.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Corruption is a trade of dignity for money - all for lack of interpersonal skills

In the time that I have spent listening to and reading the writing of gun rights activists, I have learned one clear and overarching message: guns don't kill people, people kill people, and I agree with them. Guns may provide a ready release for the temptation of one person to kill another, but left alone, a gun does nothing. It still takes a person to load it, point it and shoot it. 

So, not too long ago - mere days in social media time, someone suggested that money corrupts people. On this point again, I happen to disagree. Money itself does not corrupt people. If you believe that, then you believe that guns kill people, too. In the same way that people choose to use a gun to kill another person, people choose to allow themselves to become corrupt as a result of money, often because they believe they have no better choice. So, why do people allow themselves to be corrupted for money?

Notice the language above. I replaced "by money" with "for money". People allow themselves to be corrupted in exchange for something else. In the process of corruption of character, there is a give and take, an exchange of dignity for power. Just ask Golem. "Wraiths! Wraiths on wings! They are calling for it. They are calling for the precious."

It has been said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. I believe that all corruption stems from child abuse and/or the imposition of adult will in the form of punishment and reward. In fact, I believe that every crime is a result of and can be traced back to child abuse and the punishment and reward regime that is so popular in America for behavior modification. Child abuse and punishment and reward operate on the same assumption: that kids lack the motivation to do better. Apply more force, more coercion, more threats and the behavior should improve, but it never really does.

To save a few keystrokes and perhaps my sanity, I'm going to lump child abuse and punishment and reward into the term "abuse". The reason punishment and reward is included in abuse for the purposes of this article is that punishments and rewards do not teach skills. I know this from personal experience because I've just never seen it work not with me.

Here is my personal experience. I was grounded for an entire summer by my dad over my falling grades in junior high school math, but he was far too busy to actually teach me how to develop the discipline of doing the homework. He just expected me to feel pain from the punishment of isolation and to comply to escape the pain. He never offered any help, assistance or his know-how, and God knows how good he is at math.

I wanted to do better, I really did. But I didn't have the skills to comply with his demands. I could do the math. That wasn't the problem. I just didn't have the discipline to do the homework and had no model or mentor to work with. The only thing left for me to do was resist, so I did. So much so that things didn't improve until he came to my room one night, a little inebriated and crying over this conflict and he surrendered. This is how awful he felt about it, and I could see it. After that I just resolved to do my homework so that I wouldn't break him.

What my father (bless his heart), and most American parents don't know is that punishment reinforces behavior just as much as rewards do, but neither will teach a skill required to achieve the compliance objectives they set for their kids. More than 30 years of empirical evidence bear this out and has been made easy for laymen to read in books like "The Explosive Child" and "Raising Human Beings", by Dr. Ross W. Green, PhD. Both books provide excellent guidance in how to distinguish punishment and reward from teaching skills.

Abuse does not teach a survival skill. When kids are being abused, they are not learning skills that they can use to improve their life or even save it. Every minute spent at the hands of an abuser is a minute that could have been spent teaching the skills kids will need later on in life to function as an adult. When presented with abuse, kids respond instinctively, with biological programming for survival. You know, like fight or flight. When kids (and adults) descend into instinct, they are not thinking about their responses, so they just act on thousands or millions of years of adaptation built into their genes. Instincts are not about skills, they are built in responses to the environment.

What kinds of skills are we talking about, then? Problem solving skills. How to get your needs met. How to get along with others. How to pay the bills. How to say, "please". How to say, "sorry". How to find your talents and use them to the best of your ability. My job as a parent is not to inflict pain on my kids. They do that to themselves without my help just figuring out how the world works. My job is to help them discover who they are and avoid hurting themselves or others.

Every kid faces problems they need help solving - we often call them "growing pains". When kids encounter a problem they cannot solve, especially under duress inflicted by parents, they exhibit challenging behavior. Most parents will respond to such behavior by imposing their will upon the kid rather than work with the kid to solve the problem. That's because most parents make the assumption that challenging behavior on the part of kids is a sign of kids being "willful", as if skill had nothing to do with it. Often, this leads to abuse in the form of physical punishment or coercion. When children are abused, they experience developmental delays that prevent them from resolving the problems they face as kids and have a strong tendency to go through the same problems as adults. When children are abused, they are not taught the skills they need to solve those problems. For more information on this concept in generous detail, check out www.livesinthebalance.org, an organization dedicated to helping kids and parents founded by Dr. Greene.

People become corrupt for money when they believe their needs will not be met any other way. Corruption can also be seen as acting out the fate of their childhood, often imposing the fate of one's childhood upon others. Corruption is challenging behavior by adults, learned as kids.

How else do we explain why a Wall Street hedge fund manager engages in insider trading when he's already worth more than $100 million? I'm not even talking about a billionaire here, just a petty millionaire with enough money that he needn't work for the rest of his life.

That hedge fund manager already knows how to grow money. Without even skirting the law, our humble hedge fund manager could park that money in a Vanguard 500 mutual fund with consistent historical appreciation of about 5% per year. In such a fund, $100 million would yield $5 million a year, and 20% of that would be taxed if taken as income. Heck, a reasonable person would be fine on a million a year and let the rest appreciate.

That means, once a year, our hapless hedge fund manager could sell $1 million worth of his stakes in the mutual fund and live off that for a year. For the rest of us, that is easily more than 20 years of income. Lop 20% off for taxes and that's still a tidy sum to live on for a year. So, if you should happen to win the lottery, you know one place to put your money instead of blowing it all on a lost weekend.

Yet, the news pages of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and of course, numerous websites who track this sort of thing go on and on about how some high society individual was caught trying to get still more without playing by the rules. Insider trading, pump and dump, kickbacks, pay for play and the list goes on. Who do these people think they are? Why turn to corruption when they could just kick back and watch their money grow?

With wealth often comes impunity. There's that word again. For a completely scathing review of how some wealthy people allow themselves to be corrupted for money and power, check out this article by Chris Hedges. It's well worth the time to read it for it shows, by a man who has been a personal witness as an innocent bystander and a journalist, just how far down people can go with power and money. But at the end of all that, we must remember that these are only symptoms. Money is not the cause. Left sitting in a pile, money does nothing. Only people can give it power.

With impunity comes a lack of empathy, for if you believe that money separates your fate from others, you have no skin in the game. For some infected with impunity, it seems like they can change the people in their lives like a bad or worn out part. Middle aged men with money think they can exchange their wife for a better one, younger, prettier, more willing. Frontman for Oingo Boingo Danny Elfman nails this kind of behavior perfectly in his song, Ain't This The Life (video). But money is no substitute for interpersonal skills. The same relationship problems recur until the skills to resolve them are learned. No amount of money can cure this. Interpersonal skills must be taught, not bought.

There is something else that can happen with people and money: they may begin to think they're better than everyone else just because they have money. A few years ago, I happened upon this article in Slate, "Social Darwinism Isn’t Dead: Rich people think they really are different from you and me", by Matthew Hutson. In it, Hutson describes an interesting concept, "social class essentialism", is a sort of belief system that says, "I'm rich because I deserve it, because I'm better than you". Yet, few people of wealth would want to believe that luck or circumstance would have anything to do with their position. It's all hard work, right? From the article:
In several experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Michael Kraus of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and Dacher Keltner of the University of California at Berkeley explored what they call social class essentialism. Essentialism is the belief that surface differences between two groups of people or things can be explained by differences in fundamental identities. One sees categories as natural, discrete, and stable. Dogs have a certain dogness to them and cats a certain catness. 
... 
Kraus and Keltner looked deeper into the connection between social class and social class essentialism by testing participants’ belief in a just world, asking them to evaluate such statements as “I feel that people get what they are entitled to have.” The psychologist Melvin Lerner developed just world theory in the 1960s, arguing that we’re motivated to believe that the world is a fair place. The alternative—a universe where bad things happen to good people—is too upsetting. So we engage defense mechanisms such as blaming the victim—“She shouldn’t have dressed that way”—or trusting that positive and negative events will be balanced out by karma, a form of magical thinking.
That "deserving" belief strikes me as one of a culture steeped in reward and punishment. "I do good and I'm rewarded, I do bad and I'm punished." Skill has nothing to do with it. There is a limit to how much good skill can do for you, and that limit is set by circumstances beyond your control. When wealthy people engaged in criminal acts such as collusion or extortion, they are realizing the limits of their abilities just as much as a poor man attempting to rob a liquor store. Both acts have the same source, a sense of entitlement or need, and a lack of skills to fulfill that need, maybe even a lack of awareness or an inability to articulate what that need really is.

Regardless of social class, when people are frustrated in their ability to meet their needs, they exhibit challenging behavior. This challenging behavior is familiar to us on the local news as murder, rape, robbery, and assault. It is less familiar to us from higher classes of crimes including collusion, extortion, bribery, and racketeering. I guess they weren't kidding when they said that "shame is the rocket fuel for success." Watch any CSI show and you'll see fictional dramas of the same thing. Watch any daytime soap opera and yes, it's the same thing.

To sum it up very simply, challenging behavior on the part of adults is when people use force to get their needs met instead of applying skills to do the same thing. This what I mean when I say that people allow themselves to be corrupted for money. Corrupt people go for the use of force against others instead of learning and applying the skills needed to get their needs met. They might not even know what need they are trying to meet when they apply force against another.

This is not to say that all or even any wealthy people are bad people. There are no bad people. There is no evil. Evil is a religious concept, a supernatural explanation for challenging behavior in kids and adults. The most logical explanation for corruption is not the money, it's the lack of skills. It would follow then, if people can't be corrupted by money, money won't make them happy either. To put it another way, if people must allow themselves to be corrupted for money, they must also allow themselves to be happy with money, and that requires skill.

When I look at the news of the corruption in the halls of power like Wall Street and Washington, DC, I do not see adults. I see children in adult bodies who lack the skills to identify and articulate their needs, and to get those needs met. If they're lucky, they say "What the hell happened?" and change course.

For the kids who are growing up now, we can change our perspective. We can stop worrying about their motivation to do better and start teaching them the skills they need to make the world a better place. Happiness is a skill that we must teach to change the world.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Land is the subtext in the fight over American internet access

I just finished reading a fascinating article on the Evonomics.com website, a website dedicated to rethinking economics. Economist Josh Ryan-Collins' article, "How Land Disappeared from Economic Theory" uncovers a giant hole in economics. Collins shows how economic theory taught in classrooms for decades has been shaped to teach us to ignore land values in economic planning and public policy. What Collins shows us is that it is nearly impossible to have a coherent discussion of economic policy without talking about land ownership and rents:
"But there has always been a third ‘factor’: Land. Neglected, obfuscated but never quite completely forgotten, the story of Land’s marginalization from mainstream economic theory is little known. But it has important implications. Putting it back in to economics, we argue in a new book, ‘Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing’, could help us better understand many of today’s most pressing social and economic problems, including excessive property prices, rising wealth inequality and stagnant productivity. Land was initially a key part of classical economic theory, so why did it get pushed aside?"
Collins goes on to show in his article (a long but very worthy read), how the wealthy interests who own most of the land influenced how economics is taught to take land out of the equations, why would wealthy interests seek to do that? People who have used their wealth to amass ownership of land, may well want to keep the greatest of all monopolies hidden from Economics 101. For who would want to admit that their share of all wealth is mostly unearned due to the happy circumstance of mere land ownership? From the article, but not necessarily in original sequence from article:
“In such a case …[land rent]… it would be no violation of the principles on which private property is grounded, if the state should appropriate this increase of wealth, or part of it, as it arises. This would not properly be taking anything from anybody; it would merely be applying an accession of wealth, created by circumstances, to the benefit of society, instead of allowing it to become an unearned appendage to the riches of a particular class.” 
... 
The reasons for this may well be political. Mason Gaffney, an American land economist and scholar of Henry George, has argued that Bates Clark and his followers received substantial financial support from corporate and landed interests who were determined to prevent George’s theories gaining credibility out of concerns that their wealth would be wittled away via a land tax. In contrast, theories of land rent and taxation never found an academic home. In addition, George, primarily a campaigner and journalist, never managed to forge an allegiance with American socialists who were more focused on taxing the profits of the captains of industry and the financial sector. (emphasis mine)
If most economic theories have buried land values as a factor in how an economy works, that would explain this meme:


Credit for meme: By Stephen Ewen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27391254

Take a close look at that image. The top 10% own more than half of the land value in the country. The top 40 percent own almost all of it. The bottom 60% own a tiny fraction of the United States. And then there is that little red dot, owned by 40% of the American people.

Now follow the dots. Very wealthy interests comprising of a small minority of the population, intent on preserving their wealth for generations to come, use their influence to change how economics is taught. By exerting their influence on how economics is taught, they influence economists who graduate American colleges teaching the wealthy man's version of economics, the one that hides the value of land from the rest of us. Those same economists, particularly if they follow the party line, become sources of information for people who write public policy regarding economics and journalists who write about economics. The people who write the laws regarding economic policy turn to experts who were trained to ignore land ownership as a matter of economics. All this effort is just so that the biggest land owners can avoid paying some taxes on the rents they receive from the land they own.

The tax on the land (we call them real estate taxes) is to put the wealth generated by the land back into the economy as government spending for all to enjoy. That is the tax that the wealthy land owners wish to avoid. Such patriotism.

Now some of you may have read my earlier works on this blog and may well be aware that I'm a big fan of community broadband. I live in an area where there is only one wired internet access provider. That's what FCC Chairman Ajit Pai calls "competition". Ars Technica reports that, "Ajit Pai says broadband market too competitive for strict privacy rules". I guess that's what we can expect from a captured regulator.

I have long wondered why there is so much resistance from the top of the economy for making broadband markets work. I get it that we have telecom monopolies like Comcast, Time-Warner, ATT, Verizon and Centurylink all working through a local franchise agreement with the cities and states they operate in. Those franchise agreements allow a defacto monopoly to take shape. That defacto monopoly receives enormous protection from state and federal governments that few are willing to acknowledge. There must be a reason why the biggest telecoms get so much protection. Do they really lack the skills to compete against municipal governments in the market for internet access?

I believe that I understand now why the fight is so difficult. It is not just the incumbent providers protecting their cash cows. It is the land owners protecting their monopolies (from the same Evonomics article):
Ricardo and Smith were mainly writing about an agrarian economy. But the law of rent applies equally in developed urban areas as the famous Land Value Tax campaigner Henry George argued in his best-selling text ‘Progress and Poverty’. Once all the un-owned land is occupied, economic rent then becomes determined by locational value. Thus the rise of communications technology and globalisation has not meant ‘the end of distance’ as some predicted. Instead, it has driven the economic pre-eminence of a few cities that are best connected to the global economy and offer the best amenities for the knowledge workers and entrepreneurs of the digital economy. The scarcity of these locations has fed a long boom in the value of land in those cities. (emphasis mine)
The fight over internet access is a fight to protect land values in large cities, to protect the land monopolies held by the wealthy elite. If internet access were made easy, cheap, fast and ubiquitous, anyone with good clerical or technical skills could live and work anywhere. For the wealthy landed class, it isn't enough to discourage and restrain social and economic mobility. Geographic mobility must be restrained as well.

Since at least 2001, there has been a very intense fight in the statehouses across the country over internet access. The major ISPs are just proxies in this fight, but effective proxies they are. One of the first community broadband networks is UTOPIA, built right here in Utah, formally known as the Utah Open Infrastructure Agency. When incumbent ISPs received word of UTOPIA around the year 2000, they worked with The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to draft model legislation to kill off UTOPIA or at least seriously hobble it. Since then, ALEC has participated in a largely successful effort to restrain or eliminate municipal efforts to build public internet access networks in more than 20 states (Utah was the first state to pass that model legislation) across the country.

The primary argument used against municipal broadband systems is that municipal governments should not be taking the risk of building internet access infrastructure, a function best left to private enterprise and savvy investors who really know what they are doing. At least, that's the narrative most of the public is fed. But a funny thing happened in Utah. A natural experiment occurred where the municipal network of Spanish Fork was spared the most onerous requirement of that model ALEC legislation: that the network must rely upon a third party to sell access. While the city of Spanish Fork could sell directly to customers, UTOPIA was required to rely upon third party sellers.

The results are plainly obvious in this article, "How Lobbyists in Utah Put Taxpayer Dollars at Risk to Protect Cable Monopolies", by Chris Mitchell, director of Community Networks, at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. UTOPIA is buried in debt because they could not sell service directly to residents in their service area. The Spanish Fork municipal network was allowed to sell directly to residents, paid off its debts early, used their profits to add capacity, increase speeds and improve service. I know, it sounds absurd, but there are ISPs that actually do that, but they're not private ISPs. More than 450 cities around the country have created public networks to get around private ISPs who will not build at all, or refuse to increase capacity and speed for the cities they serve. I guess the risk that opponents of community broadband refuse to talk about is the risk of legislative opposition to the public option for internet access.

Close observers of the struggle for internet access may also be familiar with the fight in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the Electric Power Board provides a gigabit connection for $70 a month, mopping the floor with their competition. The Electric Power Board is a public utility that set up fiber connections to every home for meter readings and discovered that they could also provide internet access. When incumbent service providers discovered what the EPB was doing, it was too late to stop them. So incumbents moved to restrict the EPB from providing such offensive service outside of their original service area. Neighboring communities stuck with inferior service from Comcast and ATT clamored for service from EPB and took their fight to the FCC.

You might also recall how the FCC ruled that the EPB could provide service to their neighbors in adjacent areas, but the state of Tennessee sued for injunctive relief and won on behalf of the incumbent service providers to set aside the FCC ruling permitting EPB to service their neighbors. To put it differently, the fight over geographic mobility is so serious that wealthy interests are willing to do whatever it takes to maintain their monopolies, first by wire and then by land.

It's a subtle fight and it is rarely mentioned in the news if at all, and you'll never see mainstream media framing the story this way. Mainstream media teaches us that when property values go up we all prosper, what they don't tell us is just how much of a drain on the economy rent seeking is. The biggest land owners want steady and stable renters, not people who think they can move to a small town, buy a house and still make a living because they can do their work online or run an online business. The last thing they need is policy makers figuring out how to properly tax and regulate the absentee land owners, the land owners who rent their land rather than occupy it.

This silent struggle over land is only silent to the extent that the press is willing to discuss it. Some of you still read newspapers. I used to do that, too. But since then, I've learned that when I put a quarter into a newspaper vending machine, I didn't pay for the contents of the paper, the advertisers did. The content we call news, is called the "newshole" by the newspaper editors for a reason. The advertisers pay for influence on what's fit to print and what is not. Those advertisers are paying for a narrative that is flattering to their enterprise, which on the surface is anything but extracting rents. Advertisers in mainstream media are paying for a narrative that would have us all believe that rent seeking passes for capitalism. And so far, it seems to be working.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Family planning, employment and SCOTUS nominee Neil Gorsuch

There is an interesting debate afoot about Trump's nominee to the empty seat on the US Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch. It started with this article, a story about a letter from a female law student, Jennifer Sisk, to the chair of the committee holding the nomination hearings. In her letter, Sisk expressed her concerns about professor Gorsuch's suggestion in a class she attended, that employers should ask women about their family plans at the job interview. Here is the summary:
Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch reportedly told law students that employers should ask women seeking employment about their plans for having children, and also implied that women manipulate companies in order to extract maternity benefits.
What makes that article a bit of a controversy is that at the the head of the article, above a photo of Trump and Gorsuch, there is a link to another article embedded in the text, "reportedly said". Gorsuch supporters I debated on Google+ pointed out that Gorsuch "reportedly said" that employers should ask women about their plans to have children to protect their businesses. That article is on the NPR website and documents some of the contention of the events leading up to the controversy. There are apparently different accounts of what actually happened.

11 former female clerks who used to work for Gorsuch also sent a letter in support of Gorsuch. I guess they're hoping they can work for Gorsuch again, but this time, at the US Supreme Court. What I find notable is the following passage briefly describing an NPR interview with Jennifer Sisk:
Law professors often ask provocative questions in the course of teaching. When asked if that's what Gorsuch may have been doing, Sisk told NPR: "It wasn't what he was doing. This was second-to-last class, hadn't been the style he had been using to sort of raise issues all class, or all semester."
She added, "He kept bringing it back to that this was women taking advantage of their companies, that this was a woman's issue, a woman's problem with having children and disadvantaging their companies by doing that."
So the incident was important enough for 12 women to write about to the chair of the committee holding a confirmation hearing and the issue was important enough for Gorsuch to reinforce a policy bias in at least one class. At the very least, he's setting an expectation that women will be asked about their family plans by employers so that employers can protect themselves. Protect themselves from what? More customers?

The issue was important enough for the committee to ask questions concerning the incident described in Jennifer Sisk's letter. You can find video of the exchange between Senator Dick Durbin and Neil Gorsuch here. If you watch the video, you find Gorsuch citing a standard texbook he uses for class and asks the same question of his class every year. This was not a one-time event, and that fact alone would contradict those who say it never happened.

In consideration of this nomination, it's worth noting also that Gorsuch has been characterized as another "Scalia", according to Wikipedia:
At the time of the nomination, Gorsuch was described as solidly conservative, but likely to be confirmed without much difficulty. Richard Primus of Politico described Gorsuch as "Scalia 2.0" due to ideological similarities, and a report prepared by Lee Epstein, Andrew Martin, and Kevin Quinn predicted that Gorsuch would be a "reliable conservative" similar to Scalia. (footnotes removed)
Justice Antonin Scalia was nominated by President Reagan and sat on the bench as a Supreme Court Justice for nearly 30 years, actively promoting a conservative agenda. That conservative agenda has helped to stagnate wages for 30 years and effectively disconnect wages from productivity for both CEOs and workers (guess who saw the upside). That conservative agenda has helped to keep women at a disadvantage in the workplace. That conservative agenda helped to foment huge transfers of wealth through through huge bubbles, like the housing bubble of 2007 and the stock bubble of 2001. That same agenda has relentlessly sought cuts in social safety net programs. That same agenda continues to prevent Americans from making paid parental leave a matter of national public policy.

Once again, we see public policy heading in the opposite direction of American polling. A poll conducted by the Deseret News during the election last year showed strong support of social safety net programs and parental leave as a matter of law. That poll also shows that Americans are acutely aware that family leave, whether to care for a newborn or an elderly parent, scores zero in national public policy, and that we are an exception to all other industrialized countries. According to Pew Research, 41 other countries provide paid parental leave as a matter of law.

The lack of paid parental leave as a matter of law is merely a continuation of a well documented attack on job security that has been ongoing since at least the Reagan Administration. Even former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan could see and made it clear to Congress way back in 1997, that job insecurity cannot be a permanent tool to increase productivity while at the same time, subduing wage growth:
If heightened job insecurity is the most significant explanation of the break with the past in recent years, then it is important to recognize that, as I indicated in last February's Humphrey-Hawkins testimony, suppressed wage cost growth as a consequence of job insecurity can be carried only so far. At some point, the tradeoff of subdued wage growth for job security has to come to an end. In other words, the relatively modest wage gains we have experienced are a temporary rather than a lasting phenomenon because there is a limit to the value of additional job security people are willing to acquire in exchange for lesser increases in living standards. Even if real wages were to remain permanently on a lower upward track than otherwise as a result of the greater sense of insecurity, the rate of change of wages would revert at some point to a normal relationship with inflation. The unknown is when this transition period will end. (emphasis mine)
Has anyone noticed that the transition period referred to by Mr. Greenspan never happened? Employers continue to expect the current wage trend to be the new normal and yet still see productivity gains as before. Economist Dean Baker has provided ample documentation to support his contention that compared to the 1950s, 60s and 70s, productivity has been relatively flat. While relieving us of the scary robots story that mainstream media has been harping on, he points out the fact that despite advances in automation in the last decade or two, productivity growth still remains flat:
Job displacement means productivity growth. If the piece is correct then we are about to see a massive upsurge in productivity growth. The recent pace has been just 1.0 percent annually. The authors presumably envision productivity growth rising to something like the 3.0 percent annual rate we had in the long Golden Age from 1947 to 1973, a period of low unemployment and rapidly rising real wages.
And that was just two days ago in response to a NY Times article suggesting that we'll see big growth in the economy with Trump at the helm. So since at least 1997, key policy decision makers were aware of a trend that workers have endured continuing assaults on their job security. Jennifer Sisk's letter exposes a continuation of the assault on job security and the employment bias against female workers. Her letter exposes a bias on the part of Judge Gorsuch against female workers and for big business. That bias continues today, productivity growth be damned.

If Neil Gorsuch is concerned that women might manipulate a company to get paid leave for maternity he needs only to look at the public policy actions he has supported as a member of the judiciary and an ideal replacement for Antonin Scalia as noted by Justin Haskins at The Hill:
It’s true Gorsuch is unquestionably a devoted constitutional textualist and originalist in the mold of Scalia. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), one of the most conservative politicians in Washington, D.C., called the pick “an absolute home run” in an interview with CNN. Erick Erickson, a longtime outspoken conservative and critic of Trump, wrote in an article posted on his political commentary site, The Resurgent, “Judge Gorsuch is the one nominee who matches Antonin Scalia’s intellectual pedigree and will unite all the factions within the Republican Party. … It is rock solid.”
Given the character of Gorsuch, if nominated, I think we can expect a continuation of his disingenuous sympathy for women like Sandra Day O'Connor who had to work as secretary due to this subtle form of discrimination against women. Despite his expressions of sympathy, as a Supreme Court justice Gorsuch will continue making contributions to worker insecurity to discourage women from "manipulating businesses for paid parental leave".

I think Gorsuch acts in this way not as a matter of conscious personal preference, but in support of public policy for the conservative agenda he represents. A sort of cognitive dissonance that a man like him is privileged enough to enjoy.