Obama and 529 plans

I had set President Obama’s State of the Union proposal on 529 plans to one side to read and think about later, but now I see that he’s already killed it.

Soon I’ll write a proper review of Kleinbard’s We Are Better Than This, which goes into this sort of thing in great detail, but: the opposition to Obama’s plan seems like a great example of tax illiteracy. Maybe it’s also a problem of impolitic presentation on the president’s part; I’m not sure. But there are a few things that absolutely need to be pointed out:

  1. Any kind of benefit that comes to you in the form of a tax deduction helps the wealthy more than it helps the poor. If you spend $18,000 a year on mortgage interest, and your top marginal tax rate is 28%, then you get to spend $5,040 less on your taxes every year than you would in the absence of the mortgage-interest deduction. Whereas if you make a bit less money and are in the 25% bracket, you get to save $4500 on your taxes. The wealthier person saved $500 more than the poorer person for the same mortgage.

    The same is true of the health-insurance deduction: if you get insurance through your employer, you don’t pay taxes on that benefit, even though it’s basically a form of cash; and wealthier people get the same insurance more cheaply than poorer folks. This even holds within the same company: even if the CEO and you use the same health-insurance plan, he’s getting it more cheaply than you are, thanks to the tax law. (Kleinbard himself went through this example a year and change ago.)

    (Worth pointing out: just as the deductibility of health-insurance benefits encourages us to spend more on health care than we otherwise would, so the mortgage-interest deduction encourages us to buy larger houses than we otherwise would.)

  2. Many of the benefits that come to us through tax deductions encourage people to save, and those people often turn out to not need the encouragement. 401(k)s are a great example here. I, personally, save the legal maximum in my 401(k), but I would be saving that money some other way if the 401(k) weren’t pre-tax. So I’m getting a tax benefit, and for what? To encourage me to do something that I’d do anyway. The government shouldn’t be in the business of giving people money for no benefit.

  3. When we encourage behavior through tax deductions, we can pretend they’re not actual expenses. Here’s how to help middle- and low-income kids afford college: pay for them to go to college. Or better yet, run public universities and community colleges directly. But if we did this, there would be a cost on the books, and our elected representatives (and many Americans, I suppose) hate to spend money on things. So instead we give people tax deductions, which suffer from all the problems I’ve mentioned above; then we can pretend that these aren’t real expenses.

    This spending is called, instead, a “tax expenditure”, and we’ve only been tracking it since 1967. Better yet, I discovered from Dr. Kleinbard that we undercount tax expenditures: we count the lost income tax, but we don’t count the lost Social Security tax. So when people talk about how “Social Security is going broke,” a large part of the blame can be laid at the feet of our health-insurance and mortgage-interest deductions. If I understand the accounting properly, the health-insurance deduction costs about $100 billion in Social Security taxes annually. Think about how much more easily we could shore up the Social Security Trust Fund if we put that back on the books.

    I can hear one objection already: “That’s the taxpayer’s money. Don’t pretend that the government ‘deserves’ that money.” That’s a fair objection, but my point is not that one side or another deserves the money. My point is that if we’re going to spend money, we should be honest about what we’re spending. Instead we’re patently dishonest: because we’ve developed a public allergy to spending money on things, we hide our spending in the form of tax deductions. Somehow a dollar of foregone tax revenue doesn’t count the same as a dollar of direct spending. So we opt for subterfuge. (I got a review copy years ago of The Submerged State, but never got around to reading it. My understanding is that it makes this point more broadly.)

My point, and I think President Obama’s, is that if we have to spend money, we should spend it honestly, should spend it wisely, and should spend it progressively. If the goal is to encourage middle-income families to send their kids to college, and if we feel we must make this happen through the tax code, then give people a tax credit that doesn’t increase with income. Better yet, spend the money directly rather than hiding it in a tax expenditure. And don’t give people a tax-advantaged way to save when those people would already be saving money even without the tax break.

This is all common sense, yet I’m coming to the sad conclusion that we as a country like to be lied to. Not only that, but tax policy is boring. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky: “You may not be interested in tax policy, but tax policy is interested in you.” I hope there comes a point when we grow up and pay attention to how our nation is being mismanaged.

Recent books as of 2015-01-25

  • Janet Malcolm, In The Freud Archives

    One fellow, Kurt Eissler, is the éminence grise who presides over the Freud Archives — a repository of Sigmund Freud’s papers. Another fellow, Jeffrey Masson, befriends Eissler and, using apparently enormous reserves of personal charm, wheedles his way into the good graces of Eissler and of Freud’s daughter Anna.

    Now, apparently Freud’s understanding of psychological illness reached a crucial turning point when he rejected the so-called “seduction theory.” (I don’t know much Freudian vocabulary; if I did, maybe I’d be using “neurosis” and so forth here. As it is, I worry that I’d misuse a very precise term.) The seduction theory, according to Masson and Malcolm, is sort of a materialist theory according to which psychological illness arises from repressed childhood sexual abuse. (“Seduction” must have meant something different back in the day, because my goodness does that word seem ill-matched to the phenomenon it’s meant to describe here.)

    According to orthodox Freudians, Freud’s rejection of the seduction theory was the crucial turning point at which he invented psychoanalysis. Rather than study the direct effects of childhood sexual abuse, orthodox Freudians turned to studying psychological illness as a manifestation of fantasy. That is, Freudians stopped being quite so concerned with what actually happened to their patients, and started being much more concerned with how people’s minds manipulate the actual facts of the world.

    There seem to be good arguments for both perspectives. On the one hand, as Masson puts it, it matters a great deal that your patient lived through Auschwitz; we need to engage with the actual world as the patient experienced it. On the other hand, there are a lot of layers between the facts of the world and how they manifest as psychological disorder. Perhaps, for instance, there are certain patients who emerge from physical abuse stronger and tougher; in these cases, abuse alone isn’t enough to uniquely determine the patient’s mental state.

    Masson comes to the conclusion that the seduction theory was right all along, which instantly makes him an apostate among Freudians.

    All of that would be fine, and would make In The Freud Archives a nice little essay about a particular dispute in the history of psychoanalysis. Instead, Malcolm spends most of her time on the psychoanalytic infighting around Eissler, Masson, and a cast of others who spend their days poring over the letters that Freud and his friends wrote to one another. It reminds me of nothing so much as the line famously ascribed to Kissinger (though I think it predates him): that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Who, honestly, really cares whether Masson’s particular brand of psychoanalysis is in keeping with what the master himself desired? Has psychoanalysis descended to a brand of fundamentalism where only the purest adherence to officially sanctioned dogma is allowed?

    So Malcolm’s book is a short biography of some cranks. I wonder whether she herself perceives it that way. Maybe it’s all a very tongue-in-cheek joke. Certainly possible.

    Her book does make me want to go read more about Freud, but not this sort of scholarly squabbling.

  • Thomas H. O’Connor, Building A New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950-1970

    To my mind there are two unavoidable questions that anyone has to ask if he’s familiar with the Boston of today, and if he’s read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker (as I assume Thomas O’Connor has):

    1. How did Boston arrive at the place it’s in now, where sizable chunks of the city (West End, Government Center, Mass. Pike) have been bulldozed and replaced with soulless concrete, and where even larger chunks would be destroyed if the Big Dig hadn’t put them underground?

    2. Following Caro, you can only understand power if you understand how it’s exercised against the powerless. So how did all the bulldozing affect those with no power to resist?

    O’Connor’s book has “politics” in the subtitle, but it’s politics-as-a-game rather than politics-as-lived-by-the-little-people. It’s largely a love poem sung to Boston’s mayors John Hynes, John Collins, and Kevin White. O’Connor nods in the direction of those who lost their homes when the West End was plowed under, but he mostly seems satisfied with it, because he believes that Boston from before the destruction was so much worse.

    I can’t weigh in on how pre-destruction Boston looked. According to O’Connor it was a used-up backwater that was literally rotting into the sea. The redevelopment of the 1950s brought actual tall buildings — most notably the Prudential Center — to a city that had basically none. It drew business back into the city.

    Even taking O’Connor at his word, there’s fundamentally a counterfactual in here: was destroying Boston the only way to save it? Did any cities manage to pull themselves out of the postwar decay without “urban renewal”?

    Apart from all the urban-renewal destruction I had already been aware of — West End, Scollay Square, the highway that cut the North End off from the rest of the city — O’Connor’s book informs me of loads more. Among the saddest is the New York Streets neighborhood in the South End. It was called New York Streets because its streets were named after towns in upstate New York: Troy, Rochester, Genesee, Oswego, Oneida, Seneca. The city destroyed it; it was replaced with soulless factories, including the Boston Herald’s. The Herald left recently, to be replaced with a new high-end development and a Whole Foods. It abuts the highway, which cuts the South End off from South Boston; walking from any of the South End’s attractions to the Broadway T stop, for instance, requires that you pass under an Interstate highway.

    During the first few years of my time in Boston, walking from the Haymarket T station to the North End involved a similar walk under Interstate 93. The Big Dig put I-93 underground, replaced it with a park, and reconnected the North End with the rest of Boston for the first time since the Hynes administration. Much modern development in Boston seems designed to redress the wrongs that the city perpetrated against itself under the mayors whom O’Connor venerates.

    “America’s Walking City” did a fabulous job in the Fifties and Sixties destroying its beautiful walks. To O’Connor, many of those who opposed this destruction were old Protestant sticks-in-the-mud, quite happy for Boston to remain small and old and familiar and very dead. From a vantage point fifty years on, the opponents of development seem to have a point.

  • Ronald C. White, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural

    It’s hard to imagine that a single speech by Abraham Lincoln — a speech of barely 700 words — could be expanded into a 256-page book. But in fact this book feels no longer than it needs to be; the speech is exceptional, and is one of the finest pieces of rhetoric I’ve ever read. White’s book elaborates on the slow evolution of Lincoln’s thought, which led him to this unspeakably jaw-dropping line:

    [I]f God wills that it [the Civil War] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    I imagine a man on his knees before his God every night, trying to understand how to end the anguish of the war that was tearing the country apart. Eventually he came to the realization that this war might well be the penance that our country paid for its original sin.

    As a work of rhetoric, as well — a piece of argument assembled carefully for its intended audience — the Second Inaugural is a masterpiece; White walks us, line by line, through its every carefully chosen syllable (“and the war came”).

    I think every American needs to know that speech, and the history that surrounds it. I could make a good case that everyone ought to read White’s wonderful book.

Mint.com and home-buying

Do any of my belovèd readers a) use Mint.com and b) own a home? I’m in the process of buying a home, so now there are these enormous checks flying around that I think Mint will just have no idea how to handle. The purchase-and-sale check was just cashed, for instance; if Mint treats this like an ordinary expense, then my net worth just dropped by tens of thousands of dollars. But in fact my net worth is the same as it ever was; I’ve just transferred that money from one pocket (checking account) into another pocket (equity).

If I’m correctly reading the official Mint answer on how to handle downpayments, the suggestion is just to ignore them. By ignoring them, the funds don’t disappear from (in this case) my checking account, so it’s like my net worth didn’t change at all. But this is obviously not right. The correct thing to do is to treat this as a subtraction from the checking account and an addition to the equity account. No disappearing transactions, no change in net worth.

If Mint suggests hiding downpayments, then it’s going to get even harder with mortgage payments. Let’s say I write a $2,000 mortgage check every month. In the beginning, maybe $500 of that will be equity and $1500 will be interest. So the mortgage check would be correctly treated as a $500 transfer from checking to equity, and a $1500 expense. Seems to me that my net worth would shrink by $1500 after every such check. But if Mint doesn’t have the capacity to treat a downpayment as a transfer to equity, then I suspect it also won’t know what to do with the equity piece of the mortgage payment.

My mortgage lender isn’t one of Mint’s partner financial institutions, and I can’t figure out how to properly register my mortgage. I can add a generic ‘loan’, but … man, is that feature undercooked. It asks me how large the loan is. I enter the amount. Then … that’s it. It doesn’t ask me for the interest rate. If it asked the interest rate, then it could compute the change in principal every month; the change in principal on a mortgage is the amount that goes to equity. But it doesn’t ask me that. So the ‘loan’ feature is, oddly, not suitable for use with mortgages.

There’s a way to add real estate, but a couple things seem wrong with that feature. First, it seems largely focused on tracking changing property values as a way to monitor the ups and downs of my net worth. And, second, it doesn’t seem to create an account of the sort that you can transfer value (e.g., a downpayment) into.

If my mortgage company were one of Mint’s recognized lenders, then I assume it would have smart backend logic to realize that when $2,000 disappears from checking and appears in the mortgage account, a fraction of that (depending upon where we are in the amortization schedule) should count as reducing my net worth, and the remainder should just be a transfer into equity.

Without the integration between Mint and my lender, I can see why it would be hard to add mortgage transactions. If I have a credit card in Mint, for instance, and I make a credit-card payment, then I assume Mint sees that $1,000 disappears from this account and appears in an account whose name looks like ‘AmEx’. But what if I have a payment to an unrecognized lender? I could put it in the ‘mortgage’ category, but Mint doesn’t know whether this is the mortgage on my first or (at this point fictional) second home. So then it can’t know the interest rate on that payment, can’t know the principal, etc.

So without integration between my lender and Mint, am I SOL? Any amount of Googling does not turn up a satisfactory solution to this.

Note to Boston: our population still has a ways to go

Graph of Boston's historical population, and its population's rank among US cities, over time. Population peaked in 1950, and the rank has been ever-increasing: we were the second- or third-largest city in 1800, and now we're the 20th-largest or so. (Source: raw data, gathered from the Census Bureau)

In fairness: if you look at the population of Metropolitan Statistical Areas, the Boston metro area is 10th rather than in the 20s. The metro area stretches west to Worcester, north to southern New Hampshire, and south to Rhode Island, last I checked.

Boston should be proud that it’s growing at a healthy clip (healthier than the Commonwealth’s growth rate as a whole). Personally, I’ll be a lot happier when the suburbs shrink and the city grows.

A note to my fellow yuppies about the Ink Block Whole Foods

I went to the new Whole Foods at the Ink Block development (so-named because it sits where the Boston Herald used to publish) in the South End yesterday. I want to clarify that when the press release says it offers “a large beer, wine and spirits selection”, they are not at all kidding about the “spirits” piece. I was not expecting that. I expected that they’d have only wine, but no: they have enough bottles to stock a full home bar with top-shelf liquor. In particular, they have a lot of local stuff, including from Bully Boy and Berkshire Mountain Distillers. I checked one of their prices against what I’d get at my favorite local liquor store, and it was identical. Not sure if that’s true in general, but it’s a hopeful sign.

Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of Privatization and the Danger to America’s Public Schools

Boring cover: just the text, sometimes white-on-red/orange, sometimes the reverse colors.

I realize that I never wrote a review of Diane Ravitch’s excellent Reign of Error, which I finished last April. Herewith, just a few notes. It’s an important book, it deserves to be widely read, and I should contribute what I can to its momentum.

  1. The ‘public’ in ‘public school’ is not for nothing. Public schools are to be democratically controlled. A privatized school, without democratic accountability, is not a public school, no matter whether it’s labeled that way.
  2. Privatizing public schools invites the sort of corruption you’d expect when management is removed from public view.
  3. Privatized schools will do what private businesses do, namely maximize profits. There are only a couple ways to raise profits: cut costs, or raise revenues. Very often privatized public schools take the first approach. One obvious way to cut the costs of public schools is to keep out the harder-to-educate students — the students with learning disabilities, the students from broken homes, the students with developmental problems. Private schools often succeed by catering to the easiest students, leaving public schools with the problem students. This, of course, only accelerates the flow out of public schools. [1]
  4. I don’t think Ravitch explicitly says this, but the realization of item 3. — it’s clear to anyone who thinks about how privatization would work — then invites public regulation. You might decree, for instance, that attendance at any of the privatized public schools should be open to everyone regardless of talent and so forth. When there’s money on the line, though, you can foresee the next step in the dance: the privatizers will cut costs in the places where they’re not regulated. Maybe, for instance (Ravitch gives lots of examples here) they’ll expel students who are “misbehaving.” And maybe some of those students really are misbehaving. But maybe a lot of them are just the less-easily-educated students who are costing the corporation too much.

    This is a dance we’ve seen before with private health insurance. Since there’s money on the line, insurers have every incentive to only insure healthy people, and find a way to get the sick people out. And since we have public systems (Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, the VA) that are required to take all eligible patients, there’s an obvious risk that the public system will come to absorb only the hardest cases.

    It’s entirely obvious that the solution in both cases is just for the government to run both systems — health insurance and schools — directly, rather than contracting it out and then imposing a set of regulations that grows ever more labyrinthine as the arms race between regulator and regulated advances. Obviously the government’s running any service introduces its own problems. So then there’s the empirical question whether the government runs these services better or worse than private industry does. In the context of health insurance, the answer is “Medicare”: when regulations allow it to work, it works more efficiently than private insurance.

    In the context of privatized public schools, Ravitch presents a lot of evidence that, when public schools are allowed to compete on a level playing field with private schools, they do just as well as the private schools. This is not the least bit surprising. Private schools tend to draw wealthy parents, so the inputs are typically better-performing students; it’s then no surprise that the outputs are also better-performing. The question is how well private schools do compared to public schools, given identical inputs. In cities like Boston, that comparison isn’t allowed to happen, because of segregation. But were it allowed to happen, there’s every reason to believe that public schools would perform just as well as private ones. (Books in my queue on this topic: How Not to be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent and The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.)

    (By the way: perhaps the conservatives in the room will latch onto the fact that regulators don’t allow Medicare to work properly as evidence that we should take this out of the hands of government, which is so often captured by private interests. The logic, then, is “private interests capture regulators, so the solution is to hand the problem over to private interests.” Right, then.)

  5. Among the reasons that private-school advocates advance for why private schools should be expected to outperform public ones is that private schools are free from the sort of onerous regulations that bind public schools — particularly contracts with teachers’ unions. Ravitch gives a lot of evidence that this is just elaborate window dressing over the decades-long movement to weaken labor unions, rather than any particular concern with the nimbleness of private education.

  6. Ravitch writes somewhere (on the web) that we don’t have a schools problem in this country; we have a poverty problem. I can’t find the piece right now (Googling for [ravitch poverty problem] returns plenty of interesting pieces, just not the one I was thinking of), but her claim is that middle-class American students in “poorly performing” schools do just as well as middle-class students in any other nation.

  7. Confusing our poverty problem with a schools problem has led the Gates Foundations of the world to advocate privatization as the balm that cures all ills. This may be what they earnestly believe, but it also plays into the ideology and self-interest of the American business community.

Reign of Error is a really excellent work. It deserves to be read and widely discussed.

[1] – Here’s where it’s important to cite Albert Hirschman’s legendary Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The ability to take your kids out of the public school and send them to a private school (“exit”) amplifies the decline in “voice”; that is, the parents who are most involved in the public school, and care the most about the kids’ education, would be among the first to take their kids to a better school when the public school decays. When the most interested parents leave, the school that remains is even more impoverished and is quicker to decay, thereby hastening faster exit.

Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy

Boring cover: Yellow inner rectangle on brown outer rectangle, with the book's title and author written on the yellow rectangle

Oh, such a clever book. Such a clever, clever book. It’s what would happen if The Complete Upmanship were written by a Ph.D. sociologist. It is hilarious in a very dry, British way literally right up to the final footnote on the final page.

The Rise of the Meritocracy is written from a future-retrospective perspective after Britain has turned fully meritocratic. Now everyone’s place in society is based purely on their merit, not on any other irrelevant details of their personality. To get there, we first had to neuter the power of entrenched wealth; this was achieved through punitive (100%?) estate taxation. Of course this led the wealthy to give their money away while still alive, so more taxation had to be added there.

Then we had to eliminate preference on the basis of seniority. At first this would seem to be anti-meritocratic, but the idea is that, if we want to measure merit, we should measure merit directly rather than measure seniority as its proxy. Hence workers were rigorously tested throughout their lives; whenever they deserved to rise through the ranks, they did so, perhaps leapfrogging those senior to them in the process.

There’s an assumption lurking under all of this, which Young makes explicit only toward the end: economic output is considered the overriding goal of the society. That’s why it makes sense (this comes early on) to get rid of general schools that keep the talented and the less-talented together, and to instead separate out the wheat from the chaff; to do otherwise would be to harm the nation’s overall productivity. In the interests of productivity, then, the bright students must be pulled away from the dull students as early as possible. Hence, essentially, eugenics develop, to identify the talented as soon as possible; again, to do otherwise would be to waste those talents during their formative years. Naturally, of course, any meritocratic system of testing would ensure that if your talents only mature later in life, you should be just as able as the early bloomers to advance to the talented track.

One predictable outcome of all of this is that the children of the talented are overwhelmingly — not 100%, but overwhelmingly — talented. We thus seem to have reinvented the hereditary aristocracy, only this time under the ostensibly benign guidance of talent rather than nobility. By the time Young tells his fictional future story, the population has largely grown to internalize the wisdom of the existing social order, just as (Young says somewhere) those born during the era of the hereditary nobility never questioned the wisdom of granting power in proportion to landownership. Of course, there are those among the lowest classes who scream from the fringes, but they’re disorganized. And since, by this point, all the most talented people have been siphoned off into a meritocratic upper class, the lower classes are represented by only the least talented. So the system is nicely self-reinforcing.

Tremendous, disturbingly hilarious read. Highly recommended.

What I read over winter vacation (and a few days afterward)

My partner and I are lucky enough to be able to go away on vacation every year around Christmas, and to spend a week doing almost literally nothing other than reading books on the beach. It’s heavenly. Here are some quick synopses of what I read on the beach, and a few that I’ve read since she and I got back.

  • Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

    Capitalism ultimately murders the culture that sustains it, says Daniel Bell. We start with Protestant capitalism, or so he and Weber say; bourgeois capitalists set aside money to build their businesses, trading off some pleasure today for a brighter tomorrow. Over time the connection between Protestantism and capitalism has been sundered, so now capitalist society is based on mere acquisitiveness. And the libertarian ethos has changed us from a society of the “we” (our church, our society) to a culture of the “I”. Capitalism begets libertarian individualism, which begets destruction of community, which begets the end of the sociological support that makes capitalism even possible.

    This I get, and it makes sense to me. A significant chunk of his book, though, is given over to the decay in avant-garde art, because Bell seems to equate “culture” with artistic innovation. The avant-garde, he says, must always (just look at its very name) set itself against the society that it lives in. But the bourgeois-capitalist society of the “I” rejects all limits on what man can do. The avant-garde wants to say to society, “Here is a limit you have placed on me, and here I am rejecting it!” To which society now says, “You have no limits; go do whatever you want.” How can avant-garde artists even exist in this limitless environment?

    Which … fine. But I don’t see how it relates to the cultural underpinnings of capitalism. Maybe it does, but Bell seems to just take it as given that the avant-garde is important to the society in which it exists. Is it so? Is avant-garde art really a social support? Bell follows three broad pillars beneath a society: the economic, the political, and the cultural, and he just seems to take it as given that “culture” is synonymous with “high art”. I don’t see why.

    Much of the book is tiresome, in the way that reading a lot of authors who believe they’ve found the one true key to unlock all of human knowledge is tiresome. And when he gets around to treating the problem of race relations in the U.S., it gets farcically bad. On page 198 he finds it paradoxical, for instance, that black people (“The blacks,” if you’re Daniel Bell) insist on being treated as a group (here he means things like affirmative action, as I recall), rather than as individuals … and seems to be completely unaware that they were enslaved as a group. These ungrateful blacks, demanding that after 500 years of being enslaved purely because of the color of their skin, they be treated differently than whites. How dare they!

    Daniel Bell may have met the new definition of “douchebag”.

  • John Duffy, The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health

    This book is utterly fascinating. I’ve known in a general way for a while that nearly all the strides in health that the U.S. has made in the last 150 years have come from public health: vaccination, trash disposal, sewers, clean water for U.S. cities, and on and on. I’d not known a lot of the details, which Duffy runs through masterfully. He’s clearly so excited about the great works that public health has done for Americans that he’s nearly out of breath trying to convey them all. I contend that it’s impossible to finish this book without wanting to use public health to fix all of America’s current ills.

    It turns out that that’s a bit of a problem for the discipline: once the problem of contagious disease as the prime killer had been eradicated, it was less than clear to the public-health community what the discipline actually did. What isn’t public health, really? Gun control is a public-health measure. Inasmuch as a better-educated populace is a healthier populace, public schools are a public-health measure. Meanwhile, medicine — working with patients one-on-one, rather than helping a whole population at once — had stolen public health’s fire. We’re now inclined to view fixing health as a problem of doctors, hospitals, and big machines, rather than as a problem of, say, making cities more walkable.

    I can’t even really define for you where the boundary between public health and medicine is. Is vaccination a medical advancement, or a public-health advancement? How about publishing guidelines on babies’ vaccination schedules? Or how about the fascinating bit in Duffy, where he describes giving newborns eye drops to prevent blindness resulting from their parents’ gonorrhea? Perhaps it’s public health if it’s done on a broad scale? Whatever the taxonomy, the results have been remarkable.

    Did you know that pasteurizing milk went a long way toward ending the scourge of tuberculosis? I did not.

    Then there’s the philosophical thread underlying much of the history of American public health. It was believed, for a long while, that a certain amount of TB and a certain amount of yellow fever were just naturally going to appear in populations. Hence some people were just unavoidably going to die. I would love to trace what’s viewed as “natural” across many different human endeavors. We clearly no longer believe that death in infancy is natural, and in general I don’t think we believe it any more in areas that have been medicalized; we believe that everyone is entitled to — and should be able to attain — a healthy life of at least 80 years, let’s say. But I think we’re still implicitly committed to a belief that certain people are just “naturally” going to be poor. What if we got rid of that? Not only got rid of it, but what if we moved to a point where “some Americans are just going to be poor” sounded as ridiculous to modern ears as “some people are going to die of TB”?

  • Peter Pesic, Abel’s Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability

    Remember the quadratic equation you learned in middle or high school? Given the “general quadratic” ax2 + bx + c = 0, there’s a formula called the Quadratic Formula (in Mrs. Rainey’s eighth-grade class, we sang it) which tells you exactly what values of x will make that true. Turns out there are two such values, not necessarily distinct. The highest power in the equation is 2, and the number of solutions (“roots”) is 2. That’s not an accident: Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the few greatest mathematicians who’s ever lived, was the first to prove that a polynomial whose highest power is n has n roots.

    There’s a formula, like the quadratic, that gives the exact answers when n = 3; it’s much longer than the quadratic formula, but you can write it down. The formula is simple, in that it contains only addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, exponentiation, and roots (e.g., square roots). There’s a much longer formula when n = 4.

    Which raises a natural question: if every polynomial of degree n has n roots, and if we can get explicit formulas for n less than 5, then can we get a formula for n = 5 and higher?

    The remarkable answer is no, and it took until Niels Henrik Abel in the 19th century to prove this conclusively. You can find a formula for the roots of the “general quintic” that uses much more complicated mathematical functions than addition, subtraction, and so forth, but absolutely no formula based on elementary mathematical operations will suffice.

    Pesic’s book walks me right up to the edge of understanding why this would be, but doesn’t get me over the line. He walks quite coherently through several hundred years of history of assaults on this problem, with attempted methods and incorrect proofs; but when it comes to actually explaining Abel’s successful method, he loses me. He explains the outline of what we would now call the algebraic proof; it has something to do with the subgroups of a certain mathematical group, but I don’t understand why that subgroup matters.

    At the general level of method, I get why Pesic thinks algebra is so cool. The point of mathematical abstraction is to clear away the parts of a problem that are inessential to its solution, to see only the parts that make the problem tick; abstraction isn’t for its own sweet sake, but is rather a simplification method that should make the assault on problems easier. The concept of “number”, for instance, is probably the mathematical abstraction we’re most fluent with; if someone asks you how many oranges there are in total between two separate piles of oranges, the fact of their orangeness isn’t relevant, so it may as well be set aside, leaving only the abstract problem of the addition of two numbers. This process of abstracting to simplify a problem is so natural to us in the context of numbers that we may not always be aware of what we’re doing.

    Apparently Pesic wants to show us that the group-theoretic abstractions underlying Abel’s proof are of this same form: that with inessential distinctions swept away, the boundaries of the underlying problem become clear. I get the general approach here, but I don’t get the particular attack on the particular problem. Perhaps this lack of understanding is the reader’s fault, or perhaps it’s the author’s.

  • Donald M.G. Sutherland, France, 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution

    Apparently there’s a long-raging debate in the study of the French Revolution over how much support the Revolution had from the common people. Was the Revolution really a revolution of the bourgeois? Or did it have popular support?

    If I’m reading Sutherland right — in fact, if my sense of the French Revolution in general is right — the Revolution was just far too anarchic to answer this question in general. The Revolution starts out with few specific goals, it seems: the peasants are rioting over high bread prices, a poor crop, and the centuries-long corruption of their government (see “tax farming”). Eventually the revolution eats its own, with the necks of Danton and Robespierre — among the intellectual fathers of the Revolution — under the guillotine.

    The Revolution is almost unfathomably anarchic to me. All the existing order was turned upside-down. Fairly early in the Revolution, the revolutionaries sold off lands owned by the Catholic Church, then issued a currency (the ill-fated assignats) deriving its value from this land. I’m trying to imagine a similar upending of American life, and it’s hard for me to come up with anything comparable.

    In parts of France, the anti-church revolution didn’t play so well; this is how we end up with the chouans in western France — a spontaneous counterrevolutionary uprising by those who didn’t necessarily miss royalty (though there was some of that), but who thought that the Revolution had destroyed important pats of their spiritual ways of life.

    I honestly can’t keep track of all the moves and the countermoves in the Revolution when covered as carefully as Sutherland does. This isn’t a knock on him at all; I think his whole point is that if you’re going to answer a big question about the people’s support for the Revolution, you need to answer it département by département. Even just trying to fathom a man like Napoléon would take volumes, and he’s only a small fraction of Sutherland’s book. Sutherland is admirably comprehensive and patient.

  • Lorrie Moore, Birds of America: Stories

    A lot of rather short stories (I didn’t count, but I’d wager that they average 15 pages) of rather sad people trying to navigate romantic relationships and adulthood. The characters themselves, and the book, have a grim, absurdist humor to them.

    One story in the book will be particularly useful to you if you find yourself unable to name or sing a single song, if your girlfriend breaks up with you as a result, if you get fired from your job, and if you then go on a spree of house robberies where you tie up the occupants, put a gun to their heads, and ask them to sing a song — any song — for you.

    Another will prove useful if you accidentally kill a friend’s baby, then spend the next seven months holed up in an attic.

  • William Poundstone, Prisoner’s Dilemma

    Such a fascinating, disturbing book. It’s primarily concerned with the use of game theory during the nuclear arms race. I think the first part that really blew my mind was the observation that Bertrand Russell, of all people, once advocated pre-emptive nuclear war on the Soviet Union. I had always thought that pre-emptive war was the domain of lunatics like Curtis LeMay. Russell was far from a lunatic; it was only a matter of time, he said, before the Soviets got the Bomb, at which point nuclear war between the two great powers would become inevitable. Better to destroy the enemy now, before they managed to reach parity. And once you’ve decided that you’re going to pre-emptively destroy them, why wait? To quote John von Neumann (of whom more in a moment), “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?”

    Whereupon Poundstone investigates the question of whether the U.S. had enough nukes on hand, during its period of unrivaled superiority, to destroy the USSR. Seems like not: for the first few years after Hiroshima, it only had a few bombs on hand; soon after that, Russia got the bomb, and the rest was history. And of course this gives an answer to von Neumann’s question: the reason not to bomb them now is that you only have a few bombs. Russia is a very large country. Sure, you could destroy Moscow and maybe Saint Petersburg, but you’d leave much of the country standing and ready to fight back. As I recall, the Russians relocated most of their heavy industry to the east during the Nazi invasion.

    This kind of casually formal thinking-about-blowing-them-up seems like it was de rigueur during the Cold War. You can see how it would follow with half the precision of a logical proof, once you’d decided that your goal was to optimize the outcome of a nuclear attack. You can also see — this is the other half — how it’s completely insane. But in some sense it’s only collectively insane. If you don’t know what the other guy is thinking, but you suspect that he’s thinking just like you, and furthermore if there’s no way for you and the other guy to bind one another to do right, then you’re stuck making decisions that are correct from your perspective but very wrong from a global perspective. This is the crux of the prisoner’s dilemma in the title of Poundstone’s book: yes, it’s insane, but it’s the least-insane possible outcome. Suppose you decide to be the good guy and promise to destroy all your nukes. There’s no way for the other guy to know that you’re actually going to do this. If you actually do destroy your nukes, then the best outcome for the other guy is to secretly ramp up his production; that way he’s got the leg up, and can perhaps achieve global nuclear hegemony. Whereas if you don’t destroy your nukes, then it would be an act of suicide for the other guy to destroy his. So in either case, it makes sense for the other guy to manufacture more nukes. And since the U.S. and the USSR are both running through the same calculus, we can expect they’ll both end up at the same conclusion: manufacture more nukes. Now both sides are armed to the hilt, which is not an outcome that either side wanted. But it’s the best they could do, under the circumstances.

    Poundstone’s book is a good survey of game theory as it was used during the Cold War — indeed, used and invented by one of the most brilliant figures of the Cold War, namely John von Neumann. von Neumann was one of the few greatest mathematicians of the last hundred years, who made significant contributions to pure mathematics and quantum mechanics, while inventing the theoretical underpinnings of the computer I’m typing this on, helping to build one of the earliest physical computers and, oh yes, co-inventing game theory. Rather more of the book that I might like is devoted to a study of von Neumann the person, which isn’t really relevant to the rest of the book. Those biographical aspects might be intended to overcome the image of von Neumann-as-inspiration-for-the-character-of-Dr.-Strangelove. (Me, I always thought Strangelove was based on Edward Teller. He was probably an amalgam of many such men. For all I know, now, he could have been inspired by Bertrand Russell.)

    As it should, Poundstone’s book later on gets us to how we might escape the prisoner’s dilemma. On this topic you should read Robert Axelrod’s great, hugely influential Evolution of Cooperation. The basic gist is that a lot changes if you and I play repeated games against one another, rather than a single shot. If you refuse to be a scoundrel in your dealings with me — if you don’t “defect,” in the terminology of the formal game — then a good strategy is for me to not defect against you, either; but if you do defect, I should retaliate. This strategy of being nice until the other guy isn’t, then punishing, then quickly forgiving — is called “tit for tat”, and it’s gotten a huge amount of attention. Some of my favorite economists have turned it into a fundamental principle in the ethical organization of humanity.

    Axelrod shows that the outcome of the repeated prisoner’s dilemma depends upon what he poetically calls the “shadow of the future”: if you know that the game is going to go on for a long time, you’ll behave much differently than if you know it’ll end today. If you know that this is your last game, then you needn’t worry about retaliation if you’re a scoundrel. So according to the utility-maximization theory, you’ll be a scoundrel during the last round. And both sides know that you’ll be a scoundrel. So the other guy expects you to be a scoundrel in the last round, and you expect him to do the same. And if you’re going to be a scoundrel in the last round no matter what, then there’s no value in the other guy’s being nice during the last-but-one round: he’s not going to get any points later on for being nice. So he’s a scoundrel in the last-but-one round. And you know that he’s going to be a scoundrel in the last-but-one round …

    You see where this is going. If there’s a known endpoint, backward induction makes the whole repeated game fall apart right away. Whereas if you don’t know when the game will end, you’ll continue to be a good guy rather than a scoundrel.

    I always want to face off this attitude against the ethical teaching that you should do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you. Those following the golden rule might be suckers, as far as game theory is concerned. Because of the dark times we live in, we’re supposed to have to justify the golden rule to the economists or to naïve Darwinian theory. “How could the golden rule possibly survive in a world of scoundrels?” This is where evolutionary game theory (see Maynard Smith’s wonderful Evolution and the Theory of Games) would come in. You’d want to show that the golden rule is an “evolutionarily stable strategy”: that a population of humans following the golden rule could not be defeated by a population of invaders who refuse to follow it. I could come up with a model whereby this is true; I could also come up with one where it isn’t.

    I’d prefer to avoid the whole discussion altogether, or sigh at the society which thinks that discussion is even necessary. I’d prefer to live in a society where adherence to the golden rule is so unquestioned that even raising these evolutionary objections is considered disgraceful. You treat your neighbors well because that’s the right thing to do; end of story.

    Barring that, the formal theory may be useful: perhaps the golden rule is more likely to take root in a community where people are forced to repeatedly interact with one another. This turns the golden rule into an outcome of cold-blooded calculation rather than a deeply felt ethical principle. And it also raises a very difficult question: in an urban, capitalist world of bloodless, anonymous transactions, the parties to which are often thousands of miles apart, should we expect that the whole world will soon enough turn into scoundrels? Finding a theory that salvages the golden rule in the industrial era would seem incredibly urgent.

  • Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

    This is a lovely, sad commentary on end-of-life care, by a surgeon who has seen the end of many lives. He charts the evolution of death from something that happened in your house, with your family (with whom you lived), to something that happened in a hospital, to something that happened in grim, industrial nursing homes, to something that may now be happening in warmer environments like assisted-living facilities.

    There are two connected kinds of trouble here. First, it seems that there comes a point in every person’s life when he or she needs medical help beyond the level that an assisted-living facility can provide. You want to live independently as long as you possibly can, but there comes a point when you just can’t anymore. And second, once you’ve reached that point, you return to the industrialized medical system, where doctors view it as their solemn duty to do everything they can to keep you alive.

    But mere living isn’t the point of life. We want to live a life under our own control, doing what’s important to us: spending time with our families, engaging in meaningful work, traveling, or whatever. Gawande wants doctors to spend more time understanding what patients want, then helping them pursue that rather than pursue the mere accumulation of miserable years. It’s a sad, thoughtful, important book.

John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems

The only mildly interesting thing about this cover is that it turns the ampersand between 'public' and 'its' into a music staff, which then flows left to right across the page, underlining 'The public' and 'its problems'.

John Dewey says that the term ‘public’ isn’t vacuous: if I buy a used car from you, that’s a transaction between two private actors that doesn’t radiate (arguably) beyond the two of us. What counts as ‘public’ are exactly those transactions whose effects spill beyond those involved in them. The state is called into being to regulate actions which are public in this sense. This defines government not by its origins or its particular means of accomplishing what it accomplishes, but rather by a set of effects that it wants to regulate. This is Dewey’s philosophy throughout The Public and Its Problems: look always at effects as a way of clarifying things. (Does this make him a pragmatist? A consequentialist? Anyway, consistent with what Dewey himself might say, the label doesn’t matter so long as we all know what we’re talking about in any specific case.)

But then it gets confusing, first because, obviously, you can make the case that most any transaction has consequences that spill beyond the immediate actors. (Let’s do like the economists do and call these ‘externalities.’ There are both negative and positive externalities, depending upon whether we like the consequences.) I buy a pack of cigarettes from the corner store, then go and smoke one of them on the street corner; should the cashier at the bodega be required to pay for his role in my covering passersby with secondhand smoke?

The second reason why this definition of ‘public’ gets confusing is specific to Dewey’s book. When my dentist puts surgical implements in my mouth, that’s purely private; but society has an interest, Dewey says, in regulating dental licensure generally. So far as I can tell, he doesn’t really pursue this distinction between the act and the general environment in which the act takes place, but it seems rather important. It’s also interesting that he doesn’t pursue the direction that some libertarian economists would take, namely that (in the age of Yelp especially, let’s say) the fear of a bad reputation is a sufficient replacement for licensure. But in any case: if one private transaction isn’t public, then what makes many such transactions, considered in the aggregate, public? You and I can both think of obvious explanations here, so there’s no real need to pursue them. And perhaps it’s for the best: maybe Dewey didn’t exist in a time of fatuous libertarians, so he didn’t feel obliged to justify himself to them. It was a better time for everyone.

We live, and Dewey lived, in an era when industrialization had upended much of what we thought about the public and about community. The doctrine of individualism, which did much to break the bonds of society, was born at the same time as steam-power, and in Dewey’s telling this is not coincidental: inventors had unlocked great potential in man through the use of labor-saving machinery, yet mercantilism and royalty conspired to prevent its full use. Individualism was meant to break free from this, and save man from stifling collectives. But ironically, says Dewey, the doctrine arose just as man’s individual identity was being submerged within giant institutions run by industrialists. Individualism, in this telling, is the thin transition layer between eras of repression.

After industrialization, people moved off to live in cities, thereby destroying the close personal connections that they might have had with their neighbors. In that earlier era we might have had a ‘community'; now we don’t. The small-scale community has been replaced with a large-scale mob. A large number of people, each watching the same television program, does not a community make. People like Walter Lippmann would then say, well, to hell with the community; you can’t organize a functioning government out of an ignorant mass. Lippmann would say, let’s have rule by the technocratic élite. Dewey pushes in the opposite direction: reconstruct community out of that mob. And the way to do that, in the modern era, is by means of the same mass communication that so lamely connects us.

The community of physical scientists, which has flourished during the era of industrialization, is one model for the great community that Dewey envisions. He says that we’ve mastered the physical sciences but done little with the human sciences, and that mastering the human sciences is a necessary step on the road to building the great community. I hear in here an optimistic story of how, say, business cycles can be controlled. I can’t draw you a complete picture of how we got from there to here, but I would hazard a guess that economists as a group are less optimistic than Dewey was, nearly a century ago, about the prospects of economic control.

When it really mattered — during the first and second world wars — we certainly did manage to control the economy plenty well. That’s a story about which I’ve read little. I know its broad outlines, and some of its details; in Bowling Alone, I think it was, the author notes that eighty percent of American males were involved in the war effort during World War II. It might even be more specific or greater than that: it might be 80% of all Americans (including, say, women working in explosives factories at home), or it might be that 80% of all males served in uniform. But in any case, a significant fraction of Americans’ labor was redirected into total war. This must have meant that a significant fraction of labor which had been involved in producing food for domestic consumption was now solely producing it for soldiers on the front lines. Likewise at every scale of economic production, from shoes up to civilian aircraft. Since the economy had now converted most of its slack resources (human and otherwise) into military production, there was a great risk of inflation. The government responded to this by limiting wages, imposing rationing, etc. So when we need to harness collective energies, we can. The rest of the time, we choose not to. (This would be of a piece with Piketty‘s depressing observation that inequality has only really decreased when war has taken the asset-owning class’s assets and blown them up. It’s also of a piece with all of Bowling Alone.)

The challenge, then, is to construct a community without the impetus of war. When people feel peace within their communities and their society, they will feel peace in their own minds. The life of an individual human is inseparable from the life of his or her community; sickness in the one will lead to sickness in the other. I take from Dewey a very optimistic view of how to return peace to humans, and to human civilization.