Dear U.S. news media — February 16, 2017

Dear U.S. news media

You’re clearly doing your job. This is awesome. Keep it up. We’re in the middle of a war between an authoritarian and the truth. You seem to be benefiting from two facts:

  1. The ruling party, in both the legislative and executive branches, has no interest in controlling its leader.
  2. There are still men and women of conscience within the civil service.

A lot of us had lost hope. This is helping us regain it. Let us know how we can help. I’m doing my part by subscribing to the New York Times, the Washington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, Pro Publica, and any other real news sources I can get my hands on.

A lot of us were scared that our institutions of civil society were too threadbare to stand up to a wannabe authoritarian. This is giving us hope. I’m still scared, but I’m more hopeful now than I was a few days ago.

Matt Taibbi on Trump — February 26, 2016
John Oliver on the Canadian election — October 20, 2015
A few thoughts on ad blockers — September 19, 2015

A few thoughts on ad blockers

Marco Arment, of Instapaper and Tumblr and coffee-geekery (his app company is called Full City) and much general lovableness fame, introduced a web-tracker-blocking app for iOS 9 the other day. It was called Peace. A day later he wrote a blog post agonizing over some of the trackers he was blocking. Today he straight-up removed the app from the store.

I can’t speak to his motivations, but it seems like he’s agonizing over the decision to treat all web trackers as identical and block all of them. I surmise that he got some push-back from various content networks that believe they’re the good guys. And I don’t doubt that not all trackers are created equal. But this withdrawal says something a lot more worrying to me: that people are having a hard time choosing the end-user over the advertiser.

I’ve never understood the ad-supported web. I don’t understand how anyone makes any money off of web ads, when virtually no one I know clicks on ads. Yet I’m told that one of the first things they teach you, upon your being hired at Google, is that you are not the user: there are lots of people who just spend all day clicking on ads. Somehow an entire economy is based on this.

Fundamentally that economy is for the advertisers; it’s not for you and me. As the aphorism goes, “If you get something for free, you are not the customer; you’re the product.” All those ads being served up to you are you being sold to someone else. And of course no one wants to see ads on their screens; this is obvious. Ads are a thing that we’re told we need to suffer through in order to enjoy the free web. (If I never click on an ad, am I stealing? What if I click on an ad but never buy the advertised product?)

No wonder, then, that people install ad blockers and tracking-blockers like Peace. Yet Marco seems to worry that he’s taking money out of the hands of innocents. I don’t see the moral concern here: he has a choice between doing the end-users’ bidding and doing the advertisers’ bidding. I thought he knew that he was choosing to do the end-users’ bidding.

What worries me more is that there will always be a temptation to take money with both hands. Search Google News for an article titled “Google, Microsoft and Amazon pay to get around ad blocking tool”, or check out my cached copy. Sure, you can earn money from users paying you, but you can earn even more money if you have the users pay you and you take some money from the advertisers. Sort of like the New York Times: I happily pay them $15 a month, almost as a charitable contribution, because I view them as a social good, yet they still serve me ads. I want the Times‘s loyalty to be entirely directed at me, just as I want Marco and the AdBlock people to be indivisibly on my side. Is that too much to ask?

Depending upon how you look at it, it’s either fortunate or disheartening that we have, broadly, two wildly opposed business models: the Apple model, which is “pay us money and we’ll make something you love”; and the Google model, which is, “pay us nothing and we’ll give you a beautiful product while spamming you and making our money from garbage peddlers.” (Merlin Mann put it better in less than 140 characters.) I understand how the Google model spreads to pay for the web, of course: a new startup wants to build its user base quickly, so it offers its product for free. Ideally, to my mind, a company that has established itself and gained that user base would then stop the ads and ask its users to pay. It hasn’t happened yet, and it may never happen, and I can see why it wouldn’t happen, but still: a man can dream.

(How much would you be willing to pay for the full suite of Google services? How much is it worth to you, every month, to get Google Search, Google Maps, Gmail, and Google Docs? That’s never a choice you’ll ever have to make, of course: if Google ever put its search engine behind a paywall, you’d make do and switch to Bing; you’d use the inferior-but-I’m-told-improving Apple Maps; you’d use Yahoo Mail, which I guess is a thing that still exists; you’d use whatever the Microsoft cloud office suite is called. But if I measured the actual value that instant search, instant travel-planning, high-quality email, and cloud documents add to my life, it couldn’t possibly be less than $200 a month.)

Sites are now blocking you from using them until you disable your content blockers. I noticed this the other day when I tried to watch the first episode of the new Stephen Colbert late show; I had to disable either AdBlock Plus or Ghostery for that specific site to make it work. This is all turning very silly.

Since I know how corrupting the ad-supported business model is, I try my damnedest to pay for things that are important to me. John Oliver’s show is worth at least $15 a month to me, so I happily pay for HBO Now. I pay for the New York Times, and I’d gladly pay for the Boston Globe if the site didn’t do everything in its power to prevent me from giving them money. I listen to a ton of podcasts, and my life would be appreciably worse without This American Life or Radiolab, so I donate $20 a month to the former and $15 a month to WNYC. It’s possible I’m overpaying. But it’s also likely that a lot of people don’t/can’t pay for these things, so I like to think that I’m paying for a few people who can’t afford it.

I wish there weren’t this natural tension between what readers want and how writers make money; I wish that charging people money for consuming goods and services weren’t considered a bold business idea. But for now there is such a tension, and people largely don’t pay. I’m going to continue using ad-blocking software, and I’m going to hope that more software developers realize where their allegiances should lie.

The latest This American Life is bananas — May 14, 2014

The latest This American Life is bananas

See here.

I’d like to call out a couple things:

1. What the guy says about the plane arriving to rescue them: “In my head … you wanna start singing the national anthem … corniness aside, this is *awesome*: we live in a country that can do *this*.” I couldn’t help it: I was patriotically moved. Looking at it in a more wonky way, you can think of a society as an insurance policy; the Coast Guard here is insurance against getting hurt at sea. (Lane Kenworthy goes into this in [book: Social Democratic America].) I like to think of my society insuring me in all kinds of ways. And I love living in a country that can do that.
2. The entire Alan Simpson thing. I won’t spoil it by explaining any of what goes on. You can listen to Act 2 if you’d like. It’s just bananas.

Matt Taibbi coming to Boston? Yes, please. — April 11, 2014
The McDonald’s coffee case — December 8, 2013

The McDonald’s coffee case

The [newspaper: New York Times] returns to the famous McDonald’s coffee case, and explains why it’s been massively misunderstood. The trouble is that, as a self-contained argument, I don’t find this [newspaper: Times] redux all that convincing, either. Let me put a few words of preface here:

1. As a general matter, I will almost always defer to juries. I will *certainly* defer to them when it’s a choice between deferring to them and deferring to the public rumor mill. Whom do you trust more: a group of people who have sat before the evidence for seven days, then spent four hours arguing over the verdict, or people like you or me who only know what we read in the papers?

So it says a lot to me that the McDonald’s jury ruled unanimously in Ms. Liebeck’s favor. On that basis alone, I would defer to them and question my own ability to infer that this was “a runaway jury” or what have you.
2. This case seems to have turned into a shibboleth for liberals, just as much as for conservatives. If you suggest that *as an argument*, you’re not convinced that McDonald’s did anything wrong, you are immediately put in the bucket with *those* people — the people who believe that corporations are people, say. The same thing has happened with abortion: claim for a moment that you have any ethical troubles with it, but that *even still* it must remain legal, and you’re immediately in a bucket with the bad guys over there who probably want women to go back to coat-hanger abortions in back alleys. It happens all over the place in American culture. I don’t know if that’s at all new, but in any case: we’re dichotomized even when there is obvious territory for agreement.

Let me be clear, then, about my ideological priors. When it comes to a choice between a corporation and an individual, I err on the side of the individual — just as, when it comes to a fight between labor and management, I err on the side of labor.

My claim here is simply that, *on the basis of that video*, viewed on its own as an argument, I am not convinced that Ms. Liebeck deserved a large monetary reward. Maybe the way to approach this is to abstract away from the issue of McDonald’s; that company’s presence in the argument is going to pull in all kinds of other heated beliefs. So suppose you come over to my house and I make you a cup of coffee. [1] I heat up the water in my Cuisinart kettle. Here’s what the kettle’s temperature-control panel says:

160-degree water for 'delicate' beverages, 175 for green tea, 185 for white, 190 for oolong, 200 for French press, 'boil' for black tea.

I make all my coffee these days in a French press, so I follow Cuisinart’s instructions –helpfully laid out on the button — and use 200-degree Fahrenheit water. Or maybe I follow George Orwell’s advice — consistent with the black-tea button on the Cuisinart kettle — and I ensure that “The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours”. So the first thing to note, in contrast to the video: it’s not at all clear that very hot water — indeed, water even hotter than what McDonald’s used — is uncommon. [2]

So suppose I make you a cup of coffee using very hot water, you accidentally spill it in your lap, you get third-degree burns, you go to the hospital, they charge you $10,000, you’re there for a week, and I offer you an insultingly low amount of money to cover your costs. Am I now liable for your injuries?

I can see a good argument that abstracting away from McDonald’s actually loses a valuable piece of information here. If *I* pay a lot of money to make you whole, the court will not have made life better for a large number of people; it will have made life better only for the small number of people for whom I make coffee. Whereas if McDonald’s lowers the temperature of its coffee, the evidence laid out in the video says that that would save hundreds of people pain and suffering.

So instead, perhaps you should be suing Cuisinart: if they lower their recommended water temperature for coffee and tea, perhaps thousands of people will be made better off. Do you think that Cuisinart deserves to be sued here? Do I deserve to be sued?

Or maybe the callousness of my response is more the issue than the coffee as such. Had I offered you the full $10,000 to pay off your medical bill, along with money to compensate you for the time you spent away from work and so forth, maybe that would have solved it. Is it mostly the callousness of the response that inspired such a large award from the McDonald’s jury?

On a society-wide level, I wonder if this would be handled better or worse by insurers. McDonald’s would carry liability insurance, and everyone would carry health insurance. If people spilled coffee on themselves and incurred medical expenses, the health insurer would try to make itself whole for the hundreds of burn cases it had paid for; to do so, it might raise premiums on everyone, or it might choose to sue McDonald’s liability insurer. I’m really not sure whether this would be better or worse: would the health insurer not do enough to inflict punitive damages, or damages for pain and suffering, on McDonald’s? Or would the damages it chose to pursue be in some sense optimal?

Gentle reader: am I missing any obvious parts of this case? Am I giving short shrift to any important parts of the argument from the video? If I am, I’d love to hear it.

__P.S.__: I recall reading somewhere that Milton Friedman believed tort law, and tort lawyers, were the saviors of capitalism. As a general rule, my sense is that libertarians and anarcho-capitalists are fans of the common law over statutory law, because the former is much “closer to the action” than the latter. And in particular, an idealized anarcho-capitalist — one who isn’t just working for the czar — is going to allow the distributed intelligence of the market economy work its magic: if we’re going to neuter the regulators, we’re going to empower the juries. So it makes a lot of sense to me that a self-consistent libertarian will fight for an unlimited right to sue companies when they do something that harms the public. That is, sure, we’ll eliminate the FDA, but people will then be able to sue food companies whenever they put dangerous chemicals in their products.

I think this suffers from some realism issues, however. First, “weaken the regulators and strengthen the juries” might be sensible as a matter of theory, but it’s hard to envision that the society in which regulation is gutted is the same society in which juries are empowered. I’m curious if those two conditions have ever existed alongside one another. Second, this is of course an iterated game. First I sue you for putting chemicals in your food; next, you fight like hell to hide the ingredients in your food so that no one can know that they should sue you. And by stipulation, there’s no regulation left to step in here, so you’re not required to put ingredients on your packages, and I can’t sue you when you fail to advertise the presence of horse meat; what’s my cause of action?

So as a matter of practical living within an actual society, it’s hard to picture this libertarian paradise existing. Nonetheless: can anyone point me to a place where Friedman argues this? … Ah: here (via Krugman, via Marginal Revolution).

> ROBINSON So your view is abolish the FDA..
>
> FRIEDMAN Absolutely [ROBINSON And what comes up in its place?] what comes up? It’s in the self-interest of pharmaceutical companies not to have these bad things. Do you think the manufacturer of Thalidomide made a profit out of Thalidomide or lost? [ROBINSON I see, ok.] And you have to have..people should be responsible for harm that they do. It should’ve been possible…[ROBINSON So tort law takes care of a lot of this.] Absolutely, absolutely..

I would like to see Friedman expand more on the lawsuit side of this. I understand as a matter of theory that he’s arguing “self-interest guarantees that the right outcome will obtain.” But one needs to unpack that. “Self-interest” could mean many things. In an iterated game, perhaps you’ll produce clean food because you want me to come back tomorrow. And “self-interest encourages you to do x” means specifically that more good than harm will come from your doing x. But that’s an empirical claim, and it depends upon the structure of tort law. The fundamental theorems of welfare economics only hold if all externalities are internalized — that is, if I pay the full costs of everything bad I do, and obtain all the benefits of everything good I do. Ensuring that all externalities are internalized requires an awful lot of institutions. We can’t just tap-dance over this problem; exactly how externalities will be internalized is essential to justifying the libertarian state.

[1] – It will likely be made, these days, with Equal Exchange Mind, Body and Soul beans. I actually get it by subscription, in the mail, every month from Amazon. That’s pretty convenient, you guys.

[2] – I’m leaving out a bit of technical detail here. After you pour water on the leaves or grounds, you usually leave them to steep for a few minutes. So even if the water was boiling at the moment of contact with the leaves, it wouldn’t be when steeping was done. I don’t know whether that means, in particular, that the water is in the safe zone by the time the coffee’s done steeping. That may be relevant here.