Why doesn’t Blue Cross fly me to Nebraska?

This paragraph in a Vox post about Vermont’s single-payer plan pokes at a question I’ve had for a long time:

American doctors spend lots of money dealing with insurers because there are thousands of them, each negotiating their own rate with every hospital and doctor. An appendectomy, for example, can cost anywhere from $1,529 to $186,955, depending on how good of a deal an insurer can get from a hospital.

My mental model of this part of health care is that there are four players: the patient, the insurer, the employer, and the provider. The insurer negotiates a price with the provider for a given procedure. The employer picks an insurer, based on price and various other things. (I’m ignoring the VA Medical System, which is like the UK’s National Health System; I’m ignoring Medicare, which is like Canadian single-payer; I’m ignoring the individual market; etc.) I … well, I just work where I work, and in practice I’m not going to pick my employer based on how cheap a deal they get on appendectomies.

Now then. Who has the incentive to keep things cheap? Well, I do, I guess, inasmuch as I have some “skin in the game”, which is why the terrible state of the art in health insurance is that I pay more and more and have a very large deductible. (Hey, at least I won’t go bankrupt! I mean that half-seriously.) My employer does, to some extent. For one thing, they pay the majority of my health-insurance premium; they’d like to pay less of that. For another, every dollar they pay toward health insurance is a dollar they can’t pay toward salaries, and every dollar they take away from salaries decreases their odds of getting good candidates.

Where the rubber really hits the road on prices is the insurer. The less the insurer can pay for appendectomies, the more profit they make. To the extent that the insurer can just pass costs along to the patient, the insurer doesn’t really care what it’s paying for appendectomies. The more urgent the care, the more the insurer can pass it along to the customer, maybe. (I’ll gladly bankrupt myself to pay for an emergency appendectomy.)

Let’s assume that the insurer can’t just pass costs directly along to the patient. And let’s assume that neither the insurer nor the provider has unlimited bargaining power: the insurer can’t pay $0.01 for an appendectomy, and the provider can’t charge $1 million for it.

If the insurer negotiates a rate of $100,000 with one provider for a given procedure, and negotiates a rate of $1500 with another … why not pay me to fly to the cheap hospital? Suppose it’s in North Dakota while I’m in Boston. Why not pay for the plane ticket, pay for the airfare, and — hell — compensate my employer for the value they lost while I was gone. If I estimated that all of that together, plus the cost of the procedure at the cheap hospital, would cost the insurer $10,000, I think I’d be radically overestimating it. But that’s $90,000 less than they were going to have to pay. So: good for them!

Maybe emergency procedures are a bad example: if you need them now, you need them now. Even there, though, I wonder whether it would be medically justified to stick me in a chartered flight to North Dakota. Maybe there’d be a whole fleet of medical airplanes run by the insurance companies. Just spitballing here!

Two other notes:

  1. All of the above, I think, shows that “consumer-directed health care” is nonsense. The insurer is still going to be the locus of the cost savings, under any system (and whether that insurer is the U.S. government or a private company). There’s just no reason to expect that the consumer can do anything here. Maybe consumer-directed health care means that I’ll go to my podiatrist a little less often. If I need that appendectomy, though, I need that appendectomy.

  2. Somehow that Vox piece goes through 3,000-plus words, by my count, without once explaining what has to be the most interesting question about single payer in Vermont: how did they bring the insurers and the hospitals on board? How did they get around the hospitals? There are vague nods in the direction of Vermont being liberal, and the movement being grassroots. And they mention that the hospitals aren’t happy with this. (Really?) But how did they neuter the hospitals here? How did they neuter the private insurers? Or did they? I’m worried that skipping this part of the story is an occupational hazard at Vox. They’re trying very hard to explain “just the facts”, and there are only so many words they can pack in. If we get to the level of What Is The World Wide Web? it’s going to take us a while to get up to “how did Vermont and Canada claim victory over the pre-existing health-industry power structure?” I’ll wait patiently, but that kind of depth seems a ways off.

Buying a home in Boston, redux

For whatever reason, I’ve been obsessed for a long while with buying a home around here. Interest rates are crazy low, and the housing market is insane, and it seems like every other conversation I have around here now is on that subject.

I can’t make decisions on complicated open-ended topics like this unless I can pin down some of the parameters. So here’s what I think I can safely say:

  • I don’t want to lower what I contribute toward retirement. Right now I contribute the legal maximum toward my 401(k). (The house shouldn’t crowd out other financially important decisions. I think people tend to think about the house in isolation.)
  • I figure that after all is said and done, I can afford to spend 30% of my net income (net of 401(k) contributions, taxes, health and dental insurance, etc.) on housing. 30% works out to about $1600 per month, in regular months (months when I don’t get paid a bonus, etc.). That would have to cover the mortgage, any repairs (whose expected cost I could only guess at), property taxes, etc. (I’m lucky not to have any other debts, having paid off my college loan 18 months ago.)
  • With reasonable guesses for property taxes and so forth, and with a pretty low-interest mortgage, $1600/month will get you an approximately $373,000 house.
  • If you ask Zillow or whomever, it turns out that $373,000 will buy you a few hundred square feet in Cambridge. Not a lot of space. Prices in Cambridge average $512 per square foot, last I checked; at that price, a 1000-square-foot condo would cost me about $2200 out of pocket every month. (Alternatively, I could put down a quarter of a million dollars as a downpayment toward a 1000-square-foot condo, but I don’t have that much cash on hand.)
  • A multi-family home changes things a bit. If you aim to spend $1600 a month, if you buy a triple decker, and if you rent out two of the units, you can buy an approximately $1 million home. Of course this assumes that you put down $200,000 for the downpayment. I don’t have that kind of money sitting around just yet. Give it a year and a half, and maybe I will. It’s also not clear that there are any triple-deckers available around here for that little money.
  • If I ask the New York Times and probably lots of other calculators, and I tell them what I’d expect to pay for rent, and I plug in $373,000, and I don’t assume any appreciation in the value of my home (which seems like the safest approach, even though values are going up rapidly [1]), then it turns out that owning is only better than renting after six years. I can’t be certain that I’ll be living here in six years. Though if I bought a home here and left after a few years, I could hand it over to a property-management company to take care of for me while I’m gone. (At the moment it does seem like Boston would be the right place for me and my family long-term.)

That’s what I’ve got at the moment, when I try to consider buying a home rationally rather than for the emotional reasons that get pounded into every American’s head. How about you? Do you have any other fixed points of analysis?

[1] – Would home appreciation even help me? Suppose the value of my home rises at some stratospheric rate every year — like 10%. I sell it in 5 years for 61% more than I bought it for. But now I need to live somewhere else. Assuming there’s nothing idiosyncratic about the place I’ve just sold, the new property I would buy would likely also have risen in value by 61%. So I wouldn’t profit off the appreciation.

Seems like some of the only ways to profit off of a rise in home prices are to

  1. move to somewhere where prices haven’t risen as much (e.g., the suburbs);
  2. borrow money on the increased value of your home and invest it;
  3. rent instead of buy; or
  4. buy a smaller (hence cheaper) place than the place I’m selling.

If I sold a home in Cambridge, I would likely want to buy a new home in Cambridge, so 1) is out. 2) entails some obvious risks, but is probably the smartest of the 4. And if the market is sane, then the prices to rent and to buy should be approximately equal, which knocks out 3). Finally, 4) makes sense if you’re buying the new property during your retirement years, after your kids have moved out, but the standard arc of a middle-class American life would suggest that your new home would likely be larger than the one you’re selling.

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

A painting of a woman that's covered over with white paper. Periodically there are holes cut out of the paper. The holes are larger at the top of the paper than at the bottom. The holes are in fact in the shape of the moon. At the top of the paper is a full moon; as we move down the page, the moon looks more and more like a crescent. At the top of the page we can see most of her fact. By the bottom of the page we can see very little. I hardly want to tell you anything about this book. Mostly I just want to tell you to go read it right away. Eleanor Catton, who has won a Booker Prize for The Luminaries at 28 years old and has thereby left half the world with their jaws agape, has pulled off a magic trick with this book.

It’s really hard for me to describe it as anything other than a magic trick. While reading it, I for some reason couldn’t help but contrast it with the magic involved in some amazing piece of machinery. I don’t really understand what’s happening in my iPhone, yet somehow that’s expected: it presents as a single smooth piece of glass, with all the magic carefully hidden away. The Luminaries, like all novels, shows you all its workings. Yet Catton’s novel feels more magical than any machine.

Catton plays with time, periodically jumping back years and months to explain how we got here. She plays with storytelling: characters tell stories that involve other characters, and the other characters inside the stories tell stories of their own. She plays with narration: our narrator is possibly omniscient, and it’s really hard to tell which era he or she is in: the narrator could exist in the 19th century like the rest of the novel, or could be telling us the whole story from a century on. For that matter, the narrator might be an incorporeal essence rather than a human.

Yet the most magical part of all is that, with all these magic tricks going on, Catton is a careful enough storyteller that she never leaves us behind. She knows that all the nested storytelling and playing with time could leave us confused, and paranoid that we’re missing something. So she’s careful to bring us along slowly: when she returns us to a character who exists at the intersection of three or four different stories, the story carefully reminds us of that character’s significance. And it’s not clunky at all: Catton has the characters dance with each other in such a way that they’re naturally going to explain to each other what’s going on. Catton’s handling of this complexity says both that she is a master of the story she’s telling, and completely understands the ear of the person she’s telling it to. This sort of deftness would be astonishing from writers of any age; from a 28-year-old, it’s practically a miracle.

You might be wondering what this book is about. I almost don’t want to tell you. How about if I just tell you about the first chapter. One of our fellows arrives in a New Zealand gold-rush town in the middle of the night, having just taken a journey by boat that unnerved him to his core. When he shows up at the inn where he’s to stay, he sits down before a fireplace in a comfortable leather chair, hoping to decompress and cast off the cares that followed him in from the sea. A talkative fellow starts chatting him up, and soon enough he realizes that all the other gentlemen in the room are listening very carefully while trying hard to seem nonchalant. All the others, in fact, seem to be occupying very prescribed spots in the room. Why are they listening? Why do they care?

The conversation between our voyager and his new intimates continues, until eventually someone says something that makes everyone else’s spines tingle. Suddenly the twelve men in the room, and the newcomer, realize that they are tied together by the ship voyage that our visitor has just taken. The rest of the room lights up. Suddenly all those who had been sitting quietly are very interested indeed in what this new fellow has to say.

Much of the book proceeds similarly. Characters end up in the same room as other characters, and start chatting amiably about the odd gossip that would consume any newcomer in a gold-rush town: everyone is out to make a fortune, and the world has been creates anew. Everyone is fresh off the boat from Scotland or England; even the prostitutes have just arrived. Yet somehow by the end of every conversation, something even more mysterious and unnerving has been revealed.

A long sequence of these dialogues could make you feel like you’re reading Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicles — an amazing read but a terrible tease. I always envision Murakami writing Wind-Up Bird during a weeks-long cocaine binge, at the end of which he checked himself into Betty Ford and wrapped up the book as quickly as he could. Alternatively, I envision him carrying on the world’s most thrilling juggling show, throwing chainsaws and jaguars and smaller versions of Haruki Murakami himself into the air, spinning them dazzlingly, and then — just when you think he can’t continue with this magical show any longer — deciding he’s bored and ending the whole show in an instant, the whole structure falling to the ground with a splat.

I was somewhat worried throughout The Luminaries that we’d have another Wind-Up Bird on our hands. I was only somewhat afraid, though: even from the beginning, it’s clear that Catton is completely in control of her narration, of her dialogue, and of the novel’s full architecture. Indeed, I would be astonished if she didn’t have the whole story literally mapped out on her wall, like James Joyce plotting out his characters’ motions around Dublin with the aid of a stopwatch.

It’s a masterpiece. I get chills of joy when I imagine what art this brilliant author will give to the world over her long career.

Merging and de-duping contacts under iOS and OS X

I guess I’m some sort of completist when it comes to having accurate contact information for my friends. OS X has made it really worth your while to keep that information up to date, for a few reasons.

First, if you have a friend with an oddly spelled name, and you don’t have that person’s name in your contacts, then OS X will flag the spelling of your friend’s name with the dreaded red wavy underline; it flags no spelling problems if you have them in your contacts.

Second, if you keep all the various ways of addressing a given person under the same contact, OS X lets you search for that person using every available identifier. For instance, I have a colleague whose real name is ‘Junrui’, but whose nickname is ‘Hench’; if I’m diligent about including the ‘nickname’ field and the real first name in his contact entry, then I can search Mail.app (inter alia, presumably) using either the nickname or the first name. The same goes for an old friend, for whom I have eleven email addresses and two family names, one hyphenated. If I don’t keep these contacts merged, then I need to remember whether the email message I’m searching for came from him when he was just “John Smith” or had become “John Smith-Jones” (note: not his actual name). With merged contacts, you can just search for ‘Smith’ and be done with it.

Third, the Calendar app can display a feed of contacts’ birthdays, which you can selectively choose to display or hide. I like that much better than having to keep a separate annually recurring calendar entry for every one of my friends. Instead I just stick their birthdays (and anniversaries) in the appropriate contact entries, which is where they belong.

Social networks make things a little more complicated. iOS lets you pull in contacts from your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. To some extent this is all to the good: now your contact entries will have your friends’ Facebook profile pages, their Twitter handles, and so forth. But now you also have multiple contacts for each person: one contact for John Smith via LinkedIn, one for John Smith via Facebook, and so forth. Annoying.

Enter iOS and Mac contact merging. This is useful, but frustrating. You can merge contacts on OS X, and merge them on iOS, but I have thus far not been able to make them sync as smoothly as one would like. Syncing between iOS and OS X is otherwise quite smooth, using iCloud: you change a field in the contact on your Mac, and by the time you come to your iPhone, the contact is updated there. Great! Except that merging contacts under OS X doesn’t seem to merge the corresponding contacts on iOS.

So then, if you’re as (apparently) anal about this as I am, you go over to your iPhone and merge there, too. (You do this by editing one of the contact entries you want to merge, going to the bottom of the entry, selecting ‘Link Contacts’, and then selecting — one by one — all the other contacts to merge.) This is twice the effort, because anal.

Now you have your contacts merged on both devices. New problem: how does the Apple universe de-duplicate entries? Suppose you list your home address on Facebook as “Cambridge, MA 02139″, whereas you list it on LinkedIn as “Cambridge, MA 02139-3986″; how do you de-dup that? At least two plausible alternatives come to mind: either include both addresses in the merged contact, or merge them into a single address with more information in it — in this case, a single address with the ZIP+4. iOS seems to go for the first option: include multiple nearly identical addresses. Which is a little annoying because, if you’re OCD about this sort of thing (as I apparently am), you are then very tempted to then go through and de-dup everything properly.

I don’t fully understand the internal logic of merged iOS contacts. I think they’re designed with the assumption that you can un-merge them later; depending upon how they implemented that, it may mean that you can’t delete a superfluous address entry: you may un-link the cards later, and will at that point need to recover the original address. So it’s possible that when you delete a duplicate field in a merged contact entry, iOS keeps the deleted field around, hidden, and available for un-hiding if you decide to un-link. It’s confusing to me.

While writing all of this up, I discovered some oddities about the merging/syncing logic:

  • OS X has a “maiden name” field in contact entries. That’s handy: again, I may want to search for “Jane Smith” before she became “Jane Jones”. It doesn’t seem like maiden names propagate to iOS contacts.
  • Duplicate home addresses seem to show up in iOS but not under OS X.
  • If I mark Jane Jones’s maiden name as Jane Smith under OS X, I would expect that I could search Mail.app for Jane Smith, and get all of Jane Jones’s emails in the same result set. It seems to not be so. I was really excited that OS X had seemingly mastered the notion of “identity”, whereby Jane Smith and Jane Jones are really different labels for the same identity. I think maybe OS X has a different notion of identity than I do, though I could probably defend their notion of identity if I were called upon to do so. Maybe, for instance, it’s sensible to treat Smith and Jones as different identities, because maybe sometimes you want to search for things from a particular period in Smith/Jones’s life; in that sort of case, you’d want to make a distinction between Smith and Jones. That said, see the next bullet.
  • If I type “Smith” into Mail.app’s Spotlight search field, it doesn’t return me any results from the contact whose maiden name is listed as Smith. That seems odd, and cuts against the interpretation of OS X identity that I posited in the previous bullet: it can’t be that OS X is trying to keep your options open by giving Smith one identity and Jones another. Smith’s identity seems to have disappeared altogether.
  • Actually, now that I focus on it more, I notice that OS X doesn’t unify identities at all in the way that I’d hoped. Again supposing I have several email addresses for Smith/Jones, one of which is jane@smith.com and the other of which is jane@jones.com, I would expect to be able to search Mail.app for “emails from Jane Jones” or “emails from Jane Smith” and return email messages from any of them. It seems to not be so.

Some friends and I experienced no end of trouble, along similar lines, when we tried to carry on a long-running group chat via iMessage. For reasons that still make no sense to me, a sequence like the following would happen often, whenever there were more than two people on the thread:

  1. Person A would start chatting with people B and C on message thread 1.
  2. Person B would reply to A and C.
  3. Person B’s reply would show up on A and C’s devices on message thread 2. (I say “devices” rather than “iPhones” because at least two of us were trying to conduct this conversation from both an iPhone and a Mac. I don’t remember whether that fact caused any of the particular problems that we ran into. At this point, even the memory of our difficulties is frustrating enough that I don’t want to revisit it.)

They wouldn’t be threaded together. This is incredibly annoying. It seems like ultimately this is related to Apple’s confused notion of “identity”. Again, it seems to me that your device ought to treat anything that comes from me — from any of my email addresses, phone numbers, Twitter handles, etc. — as an emission from “Steve Laniel”, the metaphysical entity. The fact that one of the senders happens to be steve@stevereads.com, while another happens to be steve@laniels.org, should be immaterial. I think this distinction confused iMessage, even though I think all of us were diligent about telling iMessage that any of our phone numbers, email addresses, etc., should all be valid senders for iMessage purposes.

Again, there may well be good design reasons not to unify people into “identities” of this sort. Perhaps there are certain cases where it makes sense to unify, and others where it makes sense to separate. I would just like to see Apple defend its separate/unified identity design decision. But Apple doesn’t, generally speaking, explain its design decisions to anyone, so I’m not holding my breath. All I know is that the results are often confusing, as it stands.

I’m tempted to say here that Apple is very good when they control the entire experience, start to finish: if the universe of your usage lies within Apple products, then they’ve got the user experience handled. As soon as you need to incorporate the outside world in some way, though — by syncing across devices using Google’s sync services; by using multiple email addresses from non-iCloud providers; by loading iCal calendar feeds from other providers; by pulling in contact information from LinkedIn or Facebook — the experience gets much more muddled, and I don’t know that Apple does terribly well. They’re getting better over time, and I have hope that they’ll eventually get it working well enough that a lot of the muddle I described above will go away. They need to, because over time our mobile devices and computers are incorporating more and more sources of information in more and more complicated ways. Apple has historically done very well at forming a coherent whole from its own universe of products; I now really hope it’ll form a coherent whole from people’s online identities.

Really useful link on how much parents are expected to pay for their kids’ college

This probably won’t be relevant by the time I need to think about saving for my as-yet-notional children’s college education, but it’s still super-useful: the New York Times‘s Economix blog runs down the numbers.

Basically the big questions I had going into the article were:

  1. Why bother saving at all, if every dollar saved is one more dollar that you need to contribute to your kids’ college educations? (Short answer: one dollar saved implies less than one dollar of contribution.)
  2. Are any savings vehicles beyond the reach of the financial-aid authorities? (Short answer: yes, 401(k)s and home equity don’t factor into the calculation. This suggests a new term: “college-aid shelter”. It’s analogous to a tax shelter.)

So consider this a link for future reference.

Changing my mind about BitCoins

This Freakonomics episode changed my mind. And that’s not something I say often about Freakonomics.

I think actually what it did is lower my expectations. BitCoin, or something like it, seems like it’ll live on — or at least should live on — because it removes the credit-card intermediaries. The show brings up a really good example: immigrant communities who send remittances back to their families every month are often paying extortionate fees to do so, and they’re the last people who can afford such fees. Removing the intermediaries, so that I can send you money without any transaction overhead, is a good thing. And the euthanasia of the rentier is something strongly to be desired.

Note what this isn’t saying — note what isn’t relevant here. BitCoins as a currency are not the important thing, necessarily. You can divorce BitCoins from the libertarian fever dreams of a Federal Reserve-free world.

You can also abstract away from BitCoin itself. Whether BitCoin survives is irrelevant; what you should want is for decentralized transaction-processing services to persist.

Go listen to the podcast. It’s a good one.

Looking forward to the uselessness of the 2016 election

Some facts about the 2016 election:

  • Probably most everyone you know has already figured out which party he or she will vote for.
  • The actual person with the “(D)” or the “(R)” after his or her name doesn’t much matter. What matters is the party. Your candidate, when he or she is in office, will have to do what his or her party wants. Moreover, your candidate will probably want to do what his or her party wants, and it’s good that this is the case: if you vote for a Democrat, you know generally that this person will be in favor of expanding the welfare state — or will at least support welfare-state expansion more than will the candidate with the “(R)” after his or her name. The Republican candidate will praise the virtues of small businessmen, will demand that Obamacare be overturned, and will promise to cut your taxes.
  • If you live in California or Massachusetts and you vote for a Republican, or if you live in Texas or Mississippi and you vote for a Democrat, your vote doesn’t matter. You may as well not vote in the general election. Your vote in the primary, though, does matter.
  • The press coverage will be filled every day with lots of irrelevant personal details. If you thought the coverage of the Malaysian Airlines flight was absurd, you get to look forward to two years of nonsense, starting in earnest once the midterm elections are over in November. The twenty-four-hour news cycle isn’t going to fill itself.
  • If the economy is doing well in the year before the election, you should expect that the Democrats will do well; if it’s not, you should expect Republicans to do well. This isn’t deterministic, of course, but it’s a strong relationship.
  • Whatever party you’re part of will be right and good and logical and rational; whatever the party on the other side is will be wrong and evil and illogical and irrational. I say this for all values of “you” including “me”. I wish this weren’t so, but it is.
  • Your party might well put forward a candidate who excites you into believing that This Time Is Different — that you’ll get the liberal or conservative stalwart you’ve always wanted, that the welfare state will expand to protect everyone or will be gutted and freedom returned to the people. In reality the government you’ll get is the government you had. There are many veto points in American government. And as our society gains institutions like a system of political parties or a military-industrial complex or a private health-insurance industry, those institutions make it harder and harder to change anything fundamentally (go read Skowronek on this point).

Consider all of these just rules of thumb, not truths handed down on tablets. But I think they’re all safe bets. I’m particularly sad about the tribalist aspects: despite my best efforts, we’ll probably end up thinking that the guy who disagrees with us about the Affordable Care Act is not only a bad candidate whom we can’t support, but is in fact the Antichrist, whose one and only hope in life is to take women into back alleys and perform coathanger abortions on them. Because that’s what They all want, right? To take away women’s hard-won freedoms. That is, when They’re not also trying to return black people to the back of the bus and keep poor people down.

Maybe few of us think this explicitly (though I’ve met a fair number of my fellow liberals who do); most of us do implicitly. How many of us believed that a Romney administration would be not only a bad one, but would in fact be a nightmare from which the country would never wake? If we didn’t explicitly believe this, then why did the election seem so fraught?

So maybe that’s another bullet point to add to my 2016 predictions:

  • This election will be Very Important Indeed; maybe The Most Important Ever. This election will be a watershed: on the one side, a bright future for America; on the other, bleakness and a return to the dark ages.

I don’t entirely mean to make light of it. Elections matter. The re-election of Barack Obama in 2012 meant that the Affordable Care Act came into being; had Romney been elected, there’s a chance that it would have been overturned. If nothing else, President Romney would likely have done all he could to slow its implementation. Speaking only for myself, the Affordable Care Act alone justified re-electing President Obama. And inasmuch as I could only trust a Democrat to implement the ACA, I would have voted for anyone with a “(D)” after his name. And inasmuch as I live in Massachusetts, it doesn’t matter whom I voted for in the general. And to the extent that economic fundamentals determine who wins, my vote matters even less. Elections matter, but it’s good to have some perspective on where your vote fits in the grand scheme of things.

I’m just not at all looking forward to the entirely predictable course of the next 2.5 years. The last time around, I swore that I wouldn’t read the news in the year leading up to the election. Maybe I’ll be able to keep to that promise this time, and double down on reading books about things that matter.

Oh, whom am I kidding? I’ll do the same stupid things this time around that I always do.

Gerald Grant, Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh

Title in black text, subtitle in red text. A sliced apple at the bottom of the page, with green slices and red slices interspersed.

Why are urban school systems so bad? It’s the segregation, stupid. Wealthy white people left the city, or put their kids in private schools, leaving only poor black children in inner-city schools. Merge city and suburban school districts like Raleigh did, says Gerald Grant, and — after a lot of hard work — you’ll see a million flowers bloom. Education for the wealthier, whiter kids will not get worse, while education for the poorer kids will get better. More specifically, the poor kids will learn the middle-class habits of the wealthier kids around them — habits that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home; they’ll learn the bourgeois virtues; they’ll learn the “soft skills” whose importance James Heckman has so prominently endorsed. Meanwhile the white schools will gain from diversity — from having multiple diverse points of view when making any decision.

Grant heartbreakingly contrasts Raleigh’s experience with that of the town where Grant has worked for decades, namely Syracuse. A combination of factors led Syracuse to be almost perfectly segregated, with predictably disastrous consequences. By no means was this segregation accidental, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect people’s individual, uncoordinated, uncoerced choices: 20th-century redlining discouraged banks from funding black homeownership; probably well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous policies from the War On Poverty confined black people to large urban high-rises, rather than spreading them out throughout white neighborhoods. Segregation stopped being officially supported in the 1960s, but it has continued in official and devastating ways up to the present day.

Here Grant asks a very important question: does it matter, as far as enforcing the laws goes, whether segregation was the intent or whether it was just the result? The answer seems pretty clear to me: even if the laws weren’t explicitly intended to segregate, they need to be overturned if segregation was the more or less predictable outcome. The present alignment of the Supreme Court means that we’re not likely to see laws overturned when they de facto segregate their communities. And the country moving en masse to a Raleigh-style union of urban and suburban school districts, while a noble goal that we should aim toward strategically, is probably some ways off. So Grant proposes some pragmatic, achievable, short-term fixes, among them something very much like Boston’s METCO: a purely voluntary program to bus kids from poor urban schools to wealthy suburban schools. [1] I can’t think of any sensible argument against Grant’s position, particularly when it’s purely voluntary.

This dovetails with some of now-senator Elizabeth Warren’s ideas in her 2003 book The Two-Income Trap. One of the most fundamental forces driving middle-class life to be so unaffordable for so many Americans, says Warren, is that the good schools and the expensive places to live are synonymous: you can only send your kids to a good public school in a town if you live in that town. The inevitable outcome, in places like the Brookline suburb of Boston, is that housing prices are through the roof, and middle-income people are forced to live where the schools aren’t as good. Let’s sunder the link between good schools and good places to live, says Warren; people who live in Roxbury should be able to send their kids to school in Brookline or Weston. (Apologies for the local dialect in this paragraph. I imagine that Warren, who lives a short walk from me in Cambridge, had much the same example in her mind as she wrote her book.) A good life for your kids won’t only be available to the wealthiest parents. I wonder whether Warren would stand by these ideas now that she’s Senator Warren.

Slavery and Jim Crow are baked as deeply into American society as they could be; they infect politics, culture, and economics. Blacks didn’t have the effective right to vote until a century after Emancipation; we shouldn’t expect that America’s original sin has magically stopped corrupting us after two centuries of official and semi-official racism. Moreover, we shouldn’t treat ending Jim Crow as something that will help only black people; white people also benefit from frequent contact with those who are different from them. No one wants to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do; the challenge is just to open up the same opportunities to rich as to poor, and to black as to white. Gerald Grant reminds us equal opportunity can and should start with the schools.

[1] – Apparently there’s a book on this topic called The Other Boston Busing Story which immediately goes to the top of the list. You should also read about the main Boston busing story — the one that people think of when they think “Boston busing”. You should, in particular, read J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground, which remains one of the few books that I believe every American ought to read. Other books in that category include The Making of the Atomic Bomb (among the few best works of nonfiction I’ve ever read, and without doubt the best work of science writing), and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

If you remember nothing else from Becky Pettit’s Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration And the Myth of Black Progress, remember this

Silhouettes and shadows of an array of people

You should remember that most U.S. economic statistics are based on people living in a household, and that more and more people are not attached to households because they’re imprisoned. As a result, statistics which purport to show a decrease in the income gap between black people and white people are usually far too optimistic. If we add prisoners back to the data, we add a group of people who are largely poor, largely high-school dropouts, and largely black. Prisons have become a black hole into which we toss our problems. Even that wouldn’t be so terrible, if the imprisoned population hadn’t nearly quadrupled between 1980 and 2012. The magnitude of the mismeasurement therefore grows over time. Our social problems therefore remain beyond the reach of official statistics. Official statistics are, over time, increasingly mismeasuring the lives of marginalized populations and overstating the gains that we’ve made as a society over the last half-century. If the statistics were more accurate, and were more careful about including the imprisoned population, we would have to face up to our failure as a society.

These statistical problems span many different areas, which Pettit quickly touches on. Rates of poor people’s diseases such as tuberculosis are far higher among prisoners, for instance. Among the most striking observations is on the voting rate, which again is often measured relative to households, or measured by surveying those within households (ignoring prisoners altogether). Black voters were supposed to have come out in shocking numbers for President Obama in 2008. That’s probably still true, but consider how much the number changes when you consider that such a large fraction of black people (particularly black youth) is imprisoned.

Pettit’s main value in this book, I believe, is that she inserts a wedge into all your subsequent reading: you’ll now notice when statistics read that they apply to the “civilian non-institutionalized population”. Or when you read about progress in some field, maybe you’ll take a few more seconds to consider whether the numbers on which this claim is based are faulty, and whether those numbers exclude our more marginalized populations.

I can’t say that the book as a whole is worth reading. For 90% of readers, it should have been condensed to a series of blog posts or a Kindle Single. The charts and graphs are interesting, and Pettit’s data analysis is invaluable: she does the hard work of re-analyzing all measures of social progress by reincorporating prison data with household-based American Community Survey data. The legwork Pettit performs, that is, is immensely useful. And the collection of citations to others in the field is useful if you find yourself wanting to re-run her analyses. But most readers will just want to see the results, and will flip quickly past the standard academic “I will now argue; [argument]; I have just argued” structure.

This reminds me, I’m sad to say, that most books are not actually all that good as books; the blog era is teaching us this. You don’t need to read most books. Of the books that you do read, you can skim most. Novelists are better than nonfiction authors at preparing sumptuous feasts which require you to savor each word (I’m not skimming Tolstoy). I’m looking through the list of books I’ve read from 2001 or so until now, and I’m finding few nonfiction works that really need to be consumed in their entirety. Some nonfiction authors are very good indeed at putting together a full work that spins out the consequences of a few principles, requiring you to consume the whole thing to see the vast expanse of the plan; Daniel Dennett is one such author. Dennett is also rare in being an exceptional writer (or at least a writer with a good editor); you really don’t want to skip any of his words. Same with Judge Richard Posner. It’s the rare nonfiction author who covers a vast scope, whose writing is free of slack and therefore forbids skimming, and who is a master stylist. To pick a few authors out of the air: Richard Posner, Daniel Dennett, Joan Didion, and fit the bill. Maybe Krugman on a good day. Oh, and I’ve heard that the new Thomas Piketty joint is epic, which is what you’d expect if you know anything about Piketty and Saez.

So don’t worry if you feel like you ought to like nonfiction more than you do. Most of it isn’t very good.