How to make moral judgments about others when their will isn’t entirely free — October 7, 2017

How to make moral judgments about others when their will isn’t entirely free

In college, I dated a woman who was, it turned out, quite seriously mentally ill. She had Borderline Personality Disorder, which led to her engaging in reckless sex, spending, etc. She cheated on me. It was awful.

How much does the mental illness — the fact that there’s a label attached to her collection of behaviors — excuse those behaviors? Actually, let’s ignore the actual diagnosis and the actual label. Let’s just take it as given that the underlying understanding of her mind is correct: that it is harder for her to avoid certain risky behaviors than it is for the rest of us. Let’s suppose that she could, if she tried very hard, avoid those risky behaviors, but that it takes a lot more work for her than it does for others. How justified are we in thinking ill of her? How much does the illness excuse?

Or take another, quite different situation which I think shares a lot of similarities with the above. Lots of people live in car-dependent places. Consequently, their daily lives involve their inflicting more damage on the environment than do those who live in denser, more-walkable areas. On the one hand, we may want to pass moral judgment on them: their actions are harmful to all of us, and to our children. On the other, what leads many people to live in car-dependent areas are structural problems, namely that mass transit in this country is poor and that housing in dense, walkable areas is expensive. People could, perhaps, choose to live where their environmental damage is lower, but that choice comes with a cost. In some places (I’m thinking of San Francisco here), the choice is too costly to be reasonable for many people. So they buy a car, live out where the land is cheaper (and where their children can play in the backyard, etc.), and harm the environment more than they would in the city.

The similarity between these two situations is that the more-virtuous choice is costly. In some cases it may be prohibitively costly. The mentally ill person may be aware of the damage he or she is inflicting on others, but the biochemical hurdle may be too high to get over. The person living in the suburbs may be able to move closer to the city, but only by swallowing a majority of her income in rent. Yes, in both cases they’re making a “choice”, but it’s a choice in which their hands are largely forced.

Past some extreme, I think many of us intuitively forgive people who misbehave, when their misbehavior seems to come from forces beyond their control. When we hear that a drug dealer chose that path because his community offered no legitimate paths to earn a decent income, we’re willing to forgive — even though he could, with effort, probably have found a legitimate path out. At some point we acknowledge that the effort exceeds what can reasonably be expected of a human being.

At the same time, our hands are always, to some degree or another, forced. I’m born into my circumstances and you’re born into yours. I’m born with my biochemistry and you’re born with yours. Not all behavior is forgivable. Biochemistry doesn’t excuse everything.

Is there just a threshold above which we implicitly forgive people their trespasses? Certain innate limitations — your society denying you a decent legitimate wage; a mental illness for which you’re heavily medicated; a built environment that makes walkable living unattainable for all but the wealthiest — may forgive a lot of behavior that we’d otherwise frown on.

Another way to look at it is that human behavior isn’t one-dimensional: the choice isn’t between living in the suburbs and living in the city; you can choose to live in the suburbs so long as city life is unattainable, and also fight like hell through your city and state governments to ensure that city life becomes affordable to those of lesser means.

I have no particular conclusion here. It occurs to me that actual moral philosophers, who actually know what they’re talking about, have probably written on this topic in an interesting way. I’d love some pointers.

What we talk about when we talk about schools — October 6, 2017

What we talk about when we talk about schools

Everyone in the United States, I think, takes it for granted that certain towns have better schools than others. Nearly everyone would acknowledge that the better schools come with the wealthier towns. If you’re wealthy enough, you move out to the suburbs, or you send your kids to private schools. And practically everyone knows that the price of admission to the wealthy towns is that you own an expensive home: wealthy suburbs aren’t generally filled with tiny condos.

I’d like to contrast this near-universal understanding with the quite remarkable silence around it in American politics. And I’m not making a substantive point, but rather a point about our rhetoric. I was reminded of this when I was thinking about the parts of Hillary Clinton’s book that were boilerplate political material. Boilerplate is, practically by definition, not substantively interesting, but it’s rhetorically interesting to note what’s allowed to be boilerplate in this country and what’s not.

So Hillary is allowed to say that she’s, essentially, a Methodist girl whose parents taught her the value of hard work. If you riff on this for 200 pages, you get half of her book. American rhetoric is filled with this sort of thing. We love Stand and Deliver-type stories, where the underdog works real hard and eventually comes out on top.

Presidential candidates are supposed to talk about individuals, not about systems. And they’re supposed to talk optimistically. This is why Hillary is allowed to talk about this person or that person whom she met on the campaign trail, but not about the forces at work underneath that everyone knows: she’s allowed to say that she met (making up a thing here) a proud young black woman born into poverty in Harlem who pulled herself up by her bootstraps and is now about to graduate from Georgetown Law, but is not allowed to talk about the children of upper-middle-class parents who managed to get out of Harlem, move to the suburbs, and have a much easier path into Georgetown.

Part of this is, of course, that the country has a deep commitment to local schooling. I saw this when I was growing up in Vermont: the court recognized that wealthier towns had better schools, acknowledged that this was inequitable, and ordered the legislature to do something about it. The result was Act 60, which angered people all over the state: growing up in my wealthy town, I heard it said that we were being penalized for “being willing to spend more on our students” than poorer towns. Willingness to spend is one way to put it; ability to spend would be another.

Point being that there’s a fairly deep consensus in this country that towns should be allowed to control their own schooling, without interference from any higher levels of government. If a presidential candidate advocated that the Department of Education should work to ensure that schools in rural Mississippi are as good as those in suburban New York City, he or she would be quickly laughed out of the race.

In a lot of ways Americans are committed to condemning children based on the sins of their parents. If you can’t afford to buy a home in an expensive suburb, too bad for your kids; they’ll have to make do with the crappy local school whose ceilings are caving in.

The rhetoric may share a lot of background with Americans’ baffling support for repealing the estate tax. Years ago I read a book — probably Unequal Democracy — which noted the consistent, long-running support in the American electorate for getting rid of the estate tax, even though the vast, vast majority of Americans will never be subject to it. This is connected to American optimism: I may not be wealthy enough to be hit by the estate tax now, but one day I will be. Likewise: it sucks that I have to send my kid to the crappy neighborhood public school, but one of these days I’ll be wealthy enough to afford to live in the suburbs or send my kid to private school. In the meantime, let’s not do anything to weaken the link between wealthy towns and good schools.

Another piece of the rhetoric around schooling might have to do with teacher’s unions. Candidates are allowed to attack bad teachers as the center of the problem, because attacking the school-financing system, or attacking children, are off-limits. If you’re a liberal presidential candidate, and you attack the teachers and attack their unions, then maybe you peel off a few conservatives who praise you for your “tough” stand.

None of this engages substantively with any of these points; that’s deliberate. Smarter people than me have made the substantive argument elsewhere. See Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, about the widespread drive to privatize schools; Gerald Grant’s Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, whose central idea is, in short, “It’s the segregation, stupid”; and then-Professor Elizabeth Warren’s The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke, which advocates for sundering the link between “where the good schools are” and “where wealthy people live”. (I wonder if now-Senator Warren still supports that.) For a take on the morality of sending your kids to private schools even while you know that it would be collectively better for us to all send our kids to public schools, try How Not to be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened — October 5, 2017

Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened

Just the author's name and the title, basicallyI’ll keep this one relatively brief. I’ll avoid a lot of what you could get by listening to any number of great interviews with Clinton (e.g., Ezra Klein‘s, Longform‘s, or the New Yorker Radio Hour‘s).

Basically I divide the book into two types: there’s the rigorous analytical piece — on why exactly she lost the election, or on how misogyny and sexism work — and then there’s the homespun piece. The homespun piece is what you expect from most political memoirs: my mommy always taught me this, my Methodist faith taught me that, etc. I didn’t get terribly much out of the homespun piece … until I thought about it a bit more. Clearly there is something strong within Secretary Clinton that has kept her in the public eye for 20+ years despite being demonized by the Right at every turn. Is it so far-fetched to believe that, when things get bad — and they’ve been really, really bad for her quite often for decades — she falls back on a deep reserve of fundamental values? I’ve not been tested a millionth as much as Clinton has; I imagine that if I had been so tested, I would spend at least some of my time trying to understand how I’d pulled through. A lot of the answers I would come to would probably sound too clean-cut, but that’s because life is much messier lived forward and much clearer understood backward.

As for the other half of the book — the analytical piece — it alone justifies the price of admission. In 20 years, when we want to understand the madness of the 2016 election and the madness of the Trump presidency, the final 1/3 or so of What Happened will be a vital primary source.

Then there are the “please imagine” bits, like this:

I’ve written about this before but it’s worth saying again: one of the reasons he lost the Governor’s race in 1980 was because I still went by my maiden name. Let that sink in for a moment and please imagine how it felt.

Or this:

We’ve certainly had dark days in our marriage. You know all about them—and please consider for a moment what it would be like for the whole world to know about the worst moments in your relationship.

I did, repeatedly, stop and imagine the constant attack she’s been under for 20 years, and it was horrifying.

Without her going into very much detail about them at all, there are what appear to be changes of heart on policy since the election:

Targeted programs may be more efficient and progressive, and that’s why during the primaries I criticized Bernie’s “free college for all” plan as providing wasteful taxpayer-funded giveaways to rich kids. But it’s precisely because they don’t benefit everyone that targeted programs are so easily stigmatized and demagogued.

That sounds to me exactly right: push for universal programs. I would go further: push for universal programs that are free at point of service, funded by steeply progressive taxes.

Other parts, again echoing what you’d expect from a political memoir, are not believable — like this:

More than anyone else, it was Chelsea who helped me to see that my stance on same-sex marriage was incompatible with my values and the work I had done in the Senate and at the State Department to protect the rights of LGBT people. She impressed upon me that I had to endorse marriage equality if I was truly committed to equal human dignity, and as soon as I left the State Department, I did.

I have a very hard time believing that Clinton had some realization about the incompatibility of two of her principles, which led her — through the pure light of Reason alone, guided by her daughter’s steady hand — to support gay marriage. My cynical mind says that the story is simpler: for a time, the American public wasn’t behind gay marriage, and then it very quickly came to support it. I likewise don’t believe that Obama’s views “evolved”.

What’s strange about her treatment of this issue is that it’s not that hard to frame the cynical reasoning as correct. I can certainly believe that, had Clinton supported gay marriage, she would’ve lost some elections, or would’ve lost some votes in the Senate. You judge politicians, I should hope, by the overall direction of their policy accomplishments; to the extent that gay marriage held other issues back, there’s a fine argument for opposing gay marriage. I find it a little odd that she doesn’t address this policy thought process much at all in her book. Instead it’s what we heard during the campaign: I’ve fought for decades on this and that and the other thing — it’s a steady forward march, driven ever onward by my bedrock principles. Unless I skimmed too quickly, I didn’t catch any instances when Clinton was forced to compromise her bedrock principles in the service of a greater good.

That aside, What Happened is a very, very good book, worth reading if only for the pieces about misogyny and electoral nuts and bolts. It’ll make you sad all over again, and remind you — as though you needed reminding — of the crisis we’re still in.

Cooking tools I couldn’t do without — September 24, 2017

Cooking tools I couldn’t do without

Not only does Steve Read, Steve also Cooks. I get great joy out of these things:

  1. Chef’s knife from Global. The only knives you need are a chef’s knife, a serrated knife (for tomatoes and such), and a paring knife. Don’t bother with knife sets; they are stupid, and mostly low quality. Get a chef’s knife, sharpen it regularly, and rejoice. (If you’re in Boston, get Patti to sharpen your knives when she’s in your neighborhood.)

  2. Boos block. It’s like a cutting board, but larger (quite heavy) and much better. I lovingly maintain this one using “mystery oil”, and make sure to dry it off after using it, ever since I destroyed the first one I owned. The trouble was that it sat next to the sink, and would stew in sink water for hours and days after cooking. Eventually it became so warped that it would wobble on the countertop. So now, after I’m done with this Boos block, I stand it on its edge and wipe down the counter around it. And whenever the board looks like it’s a little dried out, I slather it in oil. It’s stayed in great shape for a year and a half, and I anticipate many more years of use.

  3. Bench scraper. You might not think you would need a specialized device to scrape things off countertops (and off Boos blocks), but it turns out you do. This one is particularly lovely, and maybe too expensive to buy sight unseen (I believe we got it as a wedding gift), but this one is also great, and costs $7.08.

  4. Apron. I didn’t know much of a difference an apron makes (over constantly getting all your clothes dirty, and/or wetting your hands every few minutes). Turns out: quite the difference!

  5. Any pans from All-Clad. I first encountered these ten-odd years ago, when I was living with roommates in a house on U Street in Washington, D.C. One of my roommates (Ed) owned the house, and didn’t enjoy cooking very much, so I had the kitchen basically to myself. The story went that the house had been owned by an airline pilot or some such, who had bought it to live in with the love of his life. They both enjoyed cooking, so the kitchen was especially lovely: beautiful restaurant-grade six-burner stove, and all the All-Clad cookware a man could hope for. But the dream died quickly: the owner’s partner cheated on him; by the time Ed came to look at the house the owner wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible and forget that the whole thing had ever happened. The owner sold it to Ed without an inspection, just to speed the process along. Which all sucks, but … All-Clad cookware!

    We have this sauté pan, or something close to it. I think it may be among the more entry-level All-Clad pans; I think there aren’t as many layers to the metal as in the higher-end All-Clad stuff. One of these days, when I have a ton of money, I’m going to invest in all the high-end stuff, and then just spend my days cooking.

    Basically what makes All-Clad great is the evenness of the heat: neither the pan nor the food ever has burned patches. I think that comes from the complicated combination of metals inside, but I’m not sure. All I know is that cooking with All-Clad made me feel like a culinary genius. And the sauté pan we have is the nicest stove-top piece we own.

  6. Cast iron. We have a Dutch oven and a 12-inch skillet. They’re heavy, and require a bit more care than other cookware (never use soap on them, and always dry them quickly), but they repay the effort: the heat is perfectly even, and these pans will last forever. I fully anticipate that I’ll be passing them on to my grandchildren, who will wonder why the hell they’d use musty old cast iron rather than brainwave cookery.

Health-insurance deductibles and the average American’s assets — July 20, 2017

Health-insurance deductibles and the average American’s assets

Here‘s a little thing about health-insurance deductibles:

In short, the BCRA makes changes to regulations that will cause annual deductibles for individual market health plans to skyrocket — to $13,000. But other regulations set the legal limit on annual out-of-pocket spending to $10,900. This means the BCRA’s health plans could actually violate the law.

If you want to get a sense of how large a $13,000 deductible is, consider this, from the Federal Reserve:

respondents are asked how they would pay for a hypothetical emergency expense that would cost $400. Just over half (54 percent) report that they could fairly easily handle such an expense, paying for it entirely using cash, money currently in their checking/savings account, or on a credit card that they would pay in full at their next statement (collectively referred to here as “cash or its functional equivalent”). The remaining 46 percent indicate that such an expense would be more challenging to handle and that they either could not pay the expense or would borrow or sell something to do so.
among respondents who would not pay the expense in-full using cash or its functional equivalent, 38 percent would use a credit card that they pay off over time and 31 percent simply could not cover the expense.

So around 1 in 7 Americans couldn’t pay a $400 expense in any way.

(There’s a BankRate survey that seems to ask a similar question, but I couldn’t identify the exact question. The Fed’s question is precisely laid out. And of course it’s a more trustworthy source.)

When people talk about how insurance ought to be only for catastrophic expenses, I hope they realize what ‘catastrophe’ entails for a lot of Americans.

A couple conservative pieces on health insurance — July 8, 2017

A couple conservative pieces on health insurance

One from Philip Klein. And another from Peter Suderman.

Both pieces openly acknowledge what the liberal side has been saying for a long time — that Obamacare is a three-legged stool, and that you can’t keep the pre-existing-condition regulations (“guaranteed issue”) without keeping the rest. Klein and Suderman then, fascinatingly, land on conclusions exactly opposite to the ones that liberals would land on. Both Klein and Suderman would do away with guaranteed issue, community rating, and all the rest. They would then replace Obamacare with catastrophic insurance, health savings accounts, high-risk pools, and so forth. Fundamentally, they don’t view health care as a human right, and they don’t believe that government has any business getting involved in the insurance market. If you start from those premises, you’ll likely end up where they do.

You get this sort of clarity from op-ed writers, but not from elected officials. I would posit that that’s because the moral basis of Obamacare is in line with most Americans’ values: most Americans would, I think, agree that you shouldn’t be denied care just because you had a pre-existing condition. (A close friend’s son had open-heart surgery very early in life — I want to say before he turned 2 years old. Do we want him to be uninsurable for the rest of his days?) Having granted this premise, elected officials can either give Americans something in line with their moral values — that is, Obamacare or stronger — or can do what writers at Reason would find congenial, tear off the Band-Aid, and give them health care that’s stingy and (by most Americans’ lights) immoral. It’s no wonder that conservative politicians hesitate to take the orthodox-economist position; or, having taken it, refuse to admit that that’s the position they’ve taken. The BCRA can only pass most Americans’ moral muster under cover of darkness.

Parts of the orthodox-economist position are in line with wonky liberalism. Suderman, for instance, writes that the tax deduction for employer-sponsored health insurance “is the original sin of the United States health care system,” and is “[w]orth more than $250 billion annually.” Many liberals would love to get rid of it; I certainly would. There’s a liberal case against it: it’s regressive, and it makes a dollar of health insurance worth more than a dollar of salary, with the predictable effect that employers pay less in salary and more in health insurance. (I’ll look around for research on how much of Americans’ well-documented wage stagnation can be explained by this tax preference.)

The much-maligned “Cadillac tax” in Obamacare sought to do away with this regressive tax expenditure, albeit stealthily. High-value employer-based health-insurance plans would be taxed, and the definition of “high value” would not be adjusted for inflation. So over time, more and more health plans would be subject to the tax. The dream was that high-value health plans would slowly fade away and salaries would rise; we’d take away with one hand (the Cadillac tax) what we gave with another (the tax deduction).

I have no problem granting that this is ugly: to correct one tax sin, we create another. It’s the embodiment of a libertarian parody of how government works. While granting this, I’m sympathetic: politics is the art of the possible. My liberal dream also collides with the art of the possible: I’d prefer something akin to the Canadian system or expanding Medicare to everyone, or expanding the VA hospital system to everyone, but those are also not yet possible. We take what we can get for now.

In any case, it doesn’t matter: the Cadillac tax was unpopular with everyone, including labor unions. Orthodox economics runs up against the art of the possible.

I’m happier with a discussion centered around the Philip Kleins and Peter Sudermans of the world than I am with one centered around Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell; at least the former are more honest about what they want. Though this, from Suderman, is misleading:

Medicare, meanwhile, offers a huge system of federal benefits to older Americans that typically run far beyond what most have paid in. Its introduction was associated with explosive growth in hospital-costs inflation during the 1970s.

That was absolutely true about Medicare … in the 70s. It’s not true anymore. The keyword you want to Google for here is the “prospective payments system”. See this review from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for instance. Suderman has better arguments than this; I wonder why he chose to use a poor argument there.

Obamacare featured lots of experiments to control costs, including the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which Sarah Palin famously derided as “death panels”. It’s somewhat isolated from the political process, presumably because politicians realize that doing what’s right will often be at odds with what voters want.

I don’t believe, though, that any number of experiments in cost control will sway those of a libertarian cast of mind, because I believe we’re fundamentally having a debate over values rather than one over implementation details. I’m happy that those values — the desire for universal coverage against the belief that health care should be treated like any other market good — are out in the open. Let’s argue it on those moral grounds.

Health-care-debate frustration of the day, Philip Klein-of-the-Washington Examiner edition — July 7, 2017

Health-care-debate frustration of the day, Philip Klein-of-the-Washington Examiner edition

And now, this podcast, namely The Gist with Mike Pesca. Three things Klein says frustrate me:

  1. Shelley Moore Capito was pro-Obamacare repeal when Obama was president and her opposition was all talk. Now that she’s got some power over the BCRA, she’s chafing at the reductions in Medicaid. Pesca raises the obvious point that Capito doesn’t want the residents of West Virginia to suffer, which is what you’d expect from their senator. Klein responds that maybe the citizens of West Virginia should pay higher taxes, then.

    I didn’t think this needed to be said, but that’s not how the United States works. Wealthy people subsidize poor people. Wealthy states subsidize poor states. Senators represent individual states, with actions that sometimes affect other states. The way deals work is that my state gets a little something, your state gets a little something, we each pay for the other, and that’s how we govern. Oppose that way of doing things if you like, but we’re a unified nation of 50 states. The Civil War resolved that question. I’m surprised to see Klein reaching for such a juvenile model of how our government works.

    You can also feel free to call her a hypocrite if you like. Me, I’m well and truly exhausted of the hypocrisy label being bandied about. Don’t get me wrong: when Republican politicians thunder on about homosexuality and the decline of the traditional family, then turn out to be philanderers or closeted, I smirk as much as the next smug liberal. But the real problem isn’t hypocrisy. The real problems are that these politicians are wrong in their evaluation of the country’s moral decline (I for one think that starting a war for no good reason in Iraq is a far graver sin than is falling in love with someone of your own gender), and are pushing policies that condemn a subset of their fellow-citizens to second-class status. Let’s stop talking about hypocrisy, and instead talk about whether the politicians are right or wrong.

  2. Klein returns to the old canard about how government involvement in health care leads to rationing. He neglects to mention that it’s already rationed; it’s just rationed by income. “If there’s only a finite amount of care to go around, the wealthy should get it rather than the poor” is a coherent worldview, which I think the bulk of Americans would reject as morally abhorrent (because it is). I would like Klein to come out and say that this is his principle. Everything else that he says hints that he doesn’t believe health care is a human right, and that he does believe it should be rationed by income. I’d like to see him be explicit about this principle.

  3. Klein also mentions that he’d like a world where consumers shop for the best options. Everyone knows why this doesn’t work, so again I didn’t think it was necessary to go over it. First, someone like me — who visits the doctor a few times a year for routine checkups — is not responsible for the bulk of medical expenses. People in the final year of life, people with multiple chronic ailments, people whose illnesses require expensive treatments, etc. are responsible for the bulk of medical expenses. Klein is implicitly asking cancer patients to shop around for the cheapest chemotherapy. Which is absurd for reasons that I really do not intend to go into.

    Second, shouldn’t insurance companies already have an incentive to negotiate for the best prices? Why don’t they? Why would consumers — who certainly have less leverage than insurers — be expected to do a better job at negotiating or shopping around than the insurers do? And here’s a completely non-rhetorical question to which I don’t have an answer: I’ve wondered for a while why insurers don’t already tell their patients, “We’ll pay for your chemotherapy, but it’s half the price if you travel across the state to a cheaper hospital. We’ll even pay to drive you there and back, and for the hotel when you get there. Even after paying for all that travel, it’s still cheaper for us.”

    Third, I return always — practically every day — to Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness for a Hundred Years. Who actually wants to spend his time on hold with insurance companies, trying to cajole them into paying for a coronary bypass? This is not the world I want to live in, and I doubt it’s the world you want to live in either. I have a hard time imagining that Philip Klein wants to live in that world, but maybe he expects that in Marketopia, concierge services will appear whose job it is to sit between you and the insurance company, negotiating on your behalf? Is adding another layer of rentiers really the dream end-state for conservatives? I honestly wonder what the goal here is.

Ezra Klein’s latest interview with Avik Roy is maddening — July 6, 2017

Ezra Klein’s latest interview with Avik Roy is maddening

The tl;dl to this episode is that Avik Roy believes some future hypothetical Republican health-insurance bill will be a significant improvement over the existing health-insurance market. It happens that the actually existing Better Care Reconciliation Act is not that bill, which Roy seems to have no problem conceding. It’s not clear at all from the interview which problems Roy actually thinks the BCRA solves, yet this is the bill about which Roy tweeted

There’s some hypothetical Republican Congress, says Roy, which will care about providing universal coverage for the poor, but it’s not this Republican Congress; there’s some hypothetical humanitarian Republican health-care bill which could hypothetically arise out of the ashes of the BCRA, but the BCRA is not that bill. Roy says we’re supposed to be happy with the BCRA because it’s the result of a debate between the hardcore “throw the poor out in the street” wing of the Republican Party and the “let’s give the poor some health insurance that they can’t afford” wing of the Republican Party. It’s a compromise, and at least they managed to get legislation out the door. The Democratic Party wants, as a core tenet of its platform, to provide health-insurance coverage to everyone, so the result of a Democratic compromise is something that’s at least ideologically coherent: we knew we couldn’t get single payer, and even the public option was too liberal for the likes of Joe Lieberman. It’s not at all clear what the result of this notional Republican compromise is supposed to accomplish.

I believe Roy is a person of conscience, and I take him at his word that he wants good coverage for everyone. Central to his belief system, though, seems to be a cramped view of government that is likely to make it work more poorly and get less public support. Health insurance, he says, is meant to prevent bankruptcy. If you believe that, you’re going to downplay the humdrum day-to-day use of health insurance — e.g., going in for a checkup, or getting a routine dental cleaning; those aren’t the sort of things that threaten people with medical bankruptcy. You’re also going to land, as Roy does, on a spare view of the government’s role in health insurance. The government, he says, should be subsidizing the poor more and the wealthy less. I agree with this, which is why I think it’d just be simpler to provide a service, pay for it with taxes, and make those taxes steeply progressive. Roy takes it in a different direction: if I understand him, he would have the government provide stingy care for catastrophic illnesses only, and only to the poor.

I have major concerns when we think about government like this. Universal programs get universal buy-in: if your wealthy grandfather gets Medicare, he’s going to fight like hell to keep it — even if, by Roy’s lights, he’s too wealthy to need it. In the world Roy envisions, only the poor, who don’t donate to political campaigns and often can’t afford to take time off from work to vote, have an incentive to fight for (Roy’s version of) Medicaid.

The government Roy envisions provides systematically poor service. It’s not just in health insurance; you see Roy-style government also in, say, mass transit. Hence the excellent Matt Yglesias Twitter thread ending here:

Here in the U.S. our mass transit is dirty, overcrowded, and unreliable, at least in part because of an Avik Roy-style ideology that thinks the government should be providing a “safety net”: if every other means of getting to work fails for you, at least you’ve got this one crappy option; if you’re poor, at least you won’t end up too far in debt trying to pay for your health care. So people come to think of government as the provider of crappy services. So they bail on those services and use the expensive private options. So the services become crappier and the cycle continues.

And in many cases what Roy envisions is just too complicated. Roy and Klein go back and forth about premiums, deductibles, cost-sharing, etc., as though we didn’t already have a government which is extremely good at collecting taxes. The Laniel Plan for government is: provide people an excellent service (subways, health care via the VA, health insurance via Medicare), then tax them for it, and make the tax code steeply progressive. (Roy and I would agree that removing the tax deduction for employer-sponsored health care is vital here. Doing so would be both good for the overall health system and very progressive.) No deductibles. No copays.

Scale out just the tiniest bit. The goal should be that the insurance you get via the government — whether it’s Medicare or Medicaid or the VA or the ACA exchanges — is as good as the best employer-provided health insurance. Why are we always settling for a “safety net”? We’re a wealthy country. We can afford to provide stellar coverage to everyone. Not only can we afford to provide excellent services; our habit of not providing them has led us to the state we’re in, where government services are near-universally perceived as … well, as the government cheese of whatever service they’re supposed to provide. We’re in a self-fulfilling vicious cycle now, where government services are perceived as poor, which makes cutting their funding politically easier, which leads to poor government services. I’d like to see us reverse that into a virtuous cycle.

It seems clear that Roy would disagree with all of this, and that Democrats would agree with most of it. To the extent that our laws look muddled — as, arguably, Obamacare did — it’s because we know that the thing we actually want (single-payer, basically) is not feasible, so we unfortunately compromise into something muddled. Whereas it’s not clear what Roy wants; and to the extent that it is clear what he wants, what he wants is something that would make the government work even less well. What’s truly terrifying is that Roy is the moderate in his party.

I wish Boston were better with sidewalk repairs — July 1, 2017

I wish Boston were better with sidewalk repairs

The city has at least two varieties of poor sidewalk repair.

In the first variety, we start with something relatively nice, like this:

(dog not always included) Over time, it gets beaten up, like this:

Often this doesn’t get repaired with bricks; instead it gets repaired with asphalt, like this:

That’s a decent repair job, but bricks are nicer.

When the job is more slapdash, you get this:

What seems to have happened there is somewhat different than the above bricks-to-asphalt scenarios. In this last one (taken at MIT), I think people tended to cut across that corner as they walked, so someone decided to just replace the grass (which I assume had been matted down and muddied) with asphalt. But they half-assed the job.

A similar work of halfassery took place, it seems, many years ago outside of Back Bay station, at the intersection of Columbus Ave. and Clarendon St.:

Someone clearly told them that they needed to put in something like a curb cut. I imagine this either satisfies the letter of the regulation (maybe the Americans with Disabilities Act?), or that no one’s bothered to call them on it yet. It’s ugly, in any case.

The second major variety of sidewalk problem is just that the sidewalk remains unrepaired for years. See, for instance, the sidewalk out in front of Back Bay station:

I don’t know how a sidewalk this prominent — Back Bay gets 18000 orange-line riders per day — remains in a state of disrepair like this for this long. I opened a BOS:311 request about this a while ago, and the best guess at the moment is that the sidewalk falls into some procedural gap: it’s either considered a bridge over the Mass. Pike, hence under the supervision of the highway part of MassDOT; or it’s supervised by the MBTA. A similar question of responsibility may explain this hacked-together patch job on the sidewalk where Massachusetts Avenue crosses over Commonwealth Avenue.

I’ll be curious who ends up claiming responsibility for the Back Bay sidewalk. The repair may have to wait for the Back Bay redevelopment project, which would be kind of silly.

None of this touches the standard variety of, say, buckling brick sidewalks. A walk down most side streets in the South End involves going up and down little hills when you thought you were going to be walking along a straight street. I don’t know how older people, or people with disabilities, manage to live there. Perhaps they don’t?

As someone who walks everywhere, I take all of this personally. As someone who has mobility-impaired family, I’m particularly sensitive to how difficult walking is on even unbroken sidewalks. As someone who loves Boston, I want to see the city put forward a better face, rather than seeming, sometimes, a little provincial and broken-down.

I’ve often heard that much of this comes from Boston’s severe winters. To my ear that’s never been a convincing argument; in fact, what it says to me is that we should have had 387 years to figure out how to do winters right. I’m open to being convinced that America’s Walking City can’t

  1. figure out where to put all its snow
  2. keep beautiful brick sidewalks
  3. make those beautiful brick sidewalks level and walkable

but I contend that we have the technology and the manpower to achieve these things, and that we have a city beautiful enough to deserve it. While we’re at it, we have the resources for some single-payer show shoveling. In fact, I suspect that single-payer shoveling would be cheaper than asking everyone to shovel his or her own sidewalk.

Large problems like mass transit, education, and housing costs can often seem unsolvable. So I thought I’d focus on very specific, very comprehensible, presumably very solvable things: specific patches of sidewalk that can be made more walkable. I was warned years ago that what I think is just one specific half-assed sidewalk repair is in fact a thin veneer over a systemic problem. Maybe so. I’d like to find that it’s a solvable systemic problem.

Studying math on my own: tips? — June 30, 2017

Studying math on my own: tips?

I have a basically limitless pile of papers to read, a large fraction of which (I’ve not counted) contain a heavy math element. To take one example basically at random: Stein’s paper on “The Inadmissibility Of The Usual Estimator For The Mean Of A Multivariate Normal Distribution”. I don’t really get that paper. In particular, I don’t have the intuition about the topic that I do about, say, Unix or even economics: I can’t come to the topic and consume the whole thing in big chunks, which I can understand as a unit; instead I’m groveling through it line by line, and maybe understanding one tree at a time while the forest remains unassaulted. My reading of mathematics is a lot like my reading of French, while my reading of other topics is fluid like my reading of English.

Backing up from academic papers: it’s been a long-term goal of mine to learn measure theory, which underlies probability theory. I have ever so many books that cover aspects of measure theory: this one, and also this one, not to mention this one, and of course we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention this one. They’re all good, but I find them all hard. To pick another random mathematics book off the shelf: Körner’s book on Fourier analysis is fantastic at the high level at which I’ve been able to understand it, but digging into the details has always felt to me like an impossible slog.

Is the answer no more complicated than

  1. go to a library with just those books (no phone, no laptop), a pad of paper, and a pen
  2. bang your head against the problem sets for hours and hours
  3. GOTO 1

? It’s always felt to me like, no matter how much I bang my head against them, I’m going to be unable to prove theorems. I wonder if that’s true, or if that’s just the wrong side of my brain talking. I wonder if it’s the side of my brain that Ira Glass mentioned when we saw him in Boston a while back; a canonical form of the quote seems to be the one here:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

An unspoken part of this is that not everyone is able to do creative work at a high level. (And mathematics is certainly included within “creative work”). Something similar would have to be said about, say, basketball: I watched a lot of the Bulls during the Michael Jordan era, and I knew from quite early on that my playing basketball at that level was just not an option. Or maybe it was — maybe I just needed to put in the hours, hire the coaches, etc. But it would always be harder for me to reach that level than it would be for Jordan. If I put in 9 billion hours of work, maybe I could get where he got with the mythical 10,000 hours. Probably not, though. There I stood on this side of the chasm, and there he stood on the other, and nothing I did was going to get me to his side.

Obviously I’m closer to being a professional mathematician than I am to being a professional basketball player. I feel like I’ve got more inherent writing talent than I do inherent mathematical talent. This isn’t to say that I’m John McPhee, but writing comes to me more fluidly than mathematics does.

Anyway, so yeah: do I just go to the library with some books and let the rest happen naturally? An obvious alternative is to pay someone to sit by my side while I read books and do problem sets; here in Boston, anyway, we call this “college”. So do I go to this mythical “college” to learn some more math? Or do I adopt some good self-study methods and do it on my own? Or is there some better way to learn math on one’s own?