2021 in Context

06 February 2021

Background

Each year I make a plan. This year is off to a challenging, unstable start. Here are themes I see in society; each relates to the other in complex ways. I’ll mostly be talking about the United States, because it’s what I know best.

Let’s start with what Americans always do: money.

Oligarchy

The 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 50%, 165 million people.

That’s an oligarchy, a state where power rests with a small number of people. Economists have only recently been taking this seriously.

The richest 0.1% are not upstanding citizens. The opposite is true, and their power enables them to evade accountability. So much for ’..and justice for all’.

Centralization and Monopolies

Society is becoming more competitive. Many industries are becoming monopolies or monopsonies, “winner take most”.

Lately, we’ve been talking about the immense power of tech companies and their lack of oversight. Another topic is the deadly impact of consolidated pharmaceutical companies. Oh, and larger companies are more likely to engage in fraud.

Incentives

“It is difficult to get a person to understand something, when their salary depends on them not understanding it.” - Upton Sinclair

Incentives drive behavior. People are predictable when I think about their incentives. Morals don’t do that much. We are all skillful at rationalizing our behavior. No one sees themselves the villain, no matter what they do.

Systemic incentives matter. For example, CEOs have incentives to improve stock prices, and to ignore corruption or poor working conditions. They will let workers starve.

College students know a degree is more important to a middle-class lifestyle than knowledge. Cheating is becoming more widespread.

Insurance companies seek profit, and profit more if they pay fewer claims. They create barriers for the insured to get health care, car maintenance, home repairs. It’s telling that the “The percentage of insurance premiums we pay to peoples’ claims” is called the loss ratio.

Campaign money is critical to staying in power, so politicians reward donors.

Late-Stage Capitalism and Inequality

Modern capitalism and politics: “Might makes right. Deny it”.

For 99.999% of us, this is bad. Higher minimum wages lead to lower suicide rates. Giving people money is better for mental health than therapy. Poverty hurts. Giving the homeless shelter is cheaper and better than dealing with the consequences of rough sleeping.

Inequality leads to more crime and low trust. There’s little reason to believe in fairness or justice when you’re living its absence. Social class shapes your behavior and worldview. Mistrust has a high price.

Heck, the secure, working-class lifestyle from “The Simpsons” is a fantasy now.

“If you’re poor, your life matters less”, maybe not at all, and your plight will be hidden.

Competence Inequality

We are able to do amazing things, but not the basics. I call it “competence inequality”. A focused, small group of people can make staggering breakthroughs.

But widespread, basic competence? Delays, mismanagement, chaos.

(In)competent Government

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

“Government IT project fails, is over budget, and poorly designed”. This is so common a headline I don’t notice anymore. We need digital public infrastructure more than ever. And I don’t mean no-bid contracts to companies to build broken websites like VAMS for vaccines. The US federal government is more corrupt than it was in 2015.

Neoliberalism and “public-private partnerships” are code for “worse outcomes that cost more”.

The US would have far fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths if it built good systems. Effective technologists can build systems for contact tracing, unemployment benefits, and vaccine distribution. Other countries have done just that.

If anyone remembers the Affordable Care Act rollout, this isn’t surprising. Government systems keep doing the same thing. They don’t change with the times.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Spin

“Might makes right. Deny it”.

Every large company/organization I’ve encountered obsesses over appearances, “Optics”. The facts are often inconvenient, embarrassing, or lead liability. Companies put out carefully worded statements to mollify their critics, and to make you think they care. Anything to avoid saying the quiet part out loud.

It’s stylized nonsense. The average person reads these and knows something is hidden, but not what.

Spin is about lying and deception, but somehow we all pretend it isn’t.

Let’s look at an example: the Boeing 737 Max. The root cause of the crash was the push for short-term profit. That pressure led to questionable design decisions, ethical failures, faulty software development, and compromised FAA regulators.

Since the two crashes, Boeing has a credibility problem. After the crashes and grounding, Boeing was still pushing to weaken safety testing, fire inspectors, minimize fixes, and outsource training pilots.

The public doesn’t believe what Boeing says about safety, because they’ve said it before.

Boeing can do one thing to convince people the 737 MAX is safe to fly. Promise that all of Boeing leadership will fly only on the 737 MAX for a year. All corporate executives at Boeing, and all managers at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

I doubt it will happen. “We bet your life” is the company line when oligarchy meets rentier capitalism…

Rentier Economics, a.k.a. ‘Crapification’

“Improvement Means Deterioration” - Hutber’s Law

“Rent-seeking behavior”: seeking to monopolize access to any kind of property, to extract profits without contributing to society.

“Crapification”: when everything becomes flawed, impermanent, and brittle.

I see this in 3 ways:

  1. Making the same thing more expensive
  2. Reducing costs/quality but not price
  3. Pushing renting over buying.

Movie tickets, health care, cars, college degrees, financial fees have become more expensive. Oh, and the big one, housing.

Things are shabbier, and producers have been impoverished: clothes, food, basic services, pension funds, basic health care.

Music, movies, books, tractors, thermostats, features in cars are harder to own. Subscriptions and licenses are everywhere. You don’t own something you can’t change, repair, or resell.

“Anytime someone puts a lock on something you own, against your wishes, and doesn’t give you the key, they’re not doing it for your benefit” - Doctorow’s Law

The rise of financial over industrial capitalism leads to…

Surveillance vs. Privacy

We live in an age of expanding surveillance and vanishing privacy. Surveillance is so pervasive that undercover agents can’t hide. Recent events reinforce trends to increase surveillance. The remaining restrictions aren’t restrictions. Companies & agencies can buy location and license-plate tracking data.

Social media incentives encourage collection of horrifying amounts of personal information.

There’s no way to keep your information completely private, but there are ways to minimize your exposure. You can do gain a lot of privacy for less than $5/month, but you need to be technically savvy.

Division for Profit

Social media is ‘personalized’ - we each see something different. The problem is society needs common ground/facts to exist, not echo chambers. Institutions aren’t trusted.

The best way to keep people hooked: feed them extreme, polarizing information. Algorithms that reward polarization are sowing division for profit. Social media companies are conflicted. They peddle lip service about removing/hiding toxic groups while funneling users to new ones. Madness ensues: ads for military gear showing up alongside groups organizing Capitol riots, thus rewarding extremist views. Social media companies have carefully minimized their role in the January 6 riots. The role of venture capital pushing a “engagement at any cost” model is even less well known.

Historically, this doesn’t end well. President Biden bringing everyone together? I wish him luck, but I’m not holding my breath.

The incentives of social media companies are ‘more attention = more money’. This leads to algorithms that prioritize attention (‘engagement’) above all else. This became so troubling that investors got scared, and that led to quick change.

I went looking for systemic causes of polarization and found one: winner-take-all voting. “A simple-majority single-ballot system favors the two-party system” - Duverger’s Law. Do you want more complex thought, less polarization, and more discussion? You need proportional representation.

The Paradox of Tolerance

“If a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant”

Functional society needs the ‘paradox of tolerance’. It’s an old idea:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” - Abraham Lincoln’s 1st Inaugural Address.

And yet, now people in powerful positions advocate for political violence, deceit, and broken elections. Other powerful people pretend to ignore them.

“All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good people do nothing.” - Edmund Burke

Power, Money, Greed

People want power for many reasons: security, safety, or because their parents didn’t love them.

In the US, this often shows up as greed, a lust for money. The traits you need to become rich are psychopathic. This isn’t surprising: “I’ll fire people to bump up stock prices” and “I care about others” are contradictory.

Stability and Belonging

Society exists so people can survive in large groups. Humans have needs. Beyond physical needs, we crave safety, security, and to belong.

Our social orientation around individualism doesn’t help.

We are in an epidemic of loneliness and instability. A huge number of people face a future with little chance of love, stability, or a sense of purpose. It’s creating another epidemic, despair. Given the history of drug use and addiction, that’s the root cause of the opioid crisis.

Loneliness is extremism fuel, and so this is a systemic problem.

These trends lead to division, manifesting as racism and sexism.

Look of horror

Racism

I live in the United States, a country whose original sins are colonialism, racism, and slavery.

They are still here. There was an attempted coup on January 6th, driven by white supremacy. It got as far as it did for many reasons.

Police react more to left-wing protests than right-wing ones, often with violent tactics. The leadership of the Capitol Police failed days before January 6th, putting line officers in an untenable position. The plans for the January 6th insurrection were public months in the making, as white supremacists find each other online. It’s not a normal protest movement, and it’s not going away.

Racism is more powerful than money. There are huge structural barriers, some going back to Reconstruction.

How do we as a society end racism & white supremacy without making things worse, causing a backlash, encouraging extremists to organize, polarize society further, or give domestic surveillance the same legal carte blance we did for foreign surveillance after 9/11?

Sexism

“The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism” - Lewis’s Law.

Women earn 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. The gap is larger for women of color (as low as 54 cents). It’s global.

The pandemic and sexism are leading to shocking numbers of women dropping out of the labor force. Domestic violence is on the rise, often a precursor to wide-scale violence.

This, at a time when women’s influence is growing.

Just when you thought you’ve had enough good news, there’s a pandemic going on…

Pandemic

Given the state of the United States before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, what’s happened since January 2020 was predictable.

Given the precarious nature of most people’s finances, of course there is spread. There isn’t enough government/business support for people to stay home when they’re sick, or taking care of sick loved ones.

Given the political power of the affluent, an effective way to reduce COVID-19 spread isn’t talked about: eviction and utility shut-off bans:

Study finds that uniform moratoria on evictions and utility shutoffs through November of last year could have saved 164,000 lives lost to COVID-19. “If real, that would make reducing housing precarity easily the best public health measure we’ve got.”

Given that ‘reopening’ decisions were done for political reasons (open bars, restaurants) rather than public safety (open parks, outdoor schooling), ‘reopening’ is inevitably followed by a spike in cases. States don’t follow the best available science. They’re losing their top health officials.

Given the incentives to polarize anything for profit, basic measures like mask-wearing have become politicized. Other policies (hand washing, social distancing) don’t have that divide. Effective policies like ventilation aren’t even talked about.

Given the disinformation and uneven competence of large institutions, we don’t have widespread access to better masks.

Given the every-country-for-itself approach to pandemic policies, vaccines are wrapped up in nationalism, even when it’s counterproductive for everyone.

Given the immense uncertainty and fear about the pandemic and its impact, many of us are doomscrolling. It is healthier to get outside.

Elephant in room

Finally, we get to the elephant in the room: climate change.

Climate Change vs. Economics

Human-caused climate change destabilizes everything. You read about this in economic terms, because the established order revolves around money. For example, consumerism, a manufactured trend, is unsustainable.

Even ‘responsible’ companies like Apple have incentives countering sustainability. Easy-to-repair devices are more sustainable, but less profitable. Movements like the Right to Repair are good for your wallet and climate change.

Current climate changes matches the worst-case scenarios. We could see the change and collapse of entire nations and populations. The problem is larger than money.

A lot of the US may be uninhabitable by 2050, to say nothing of the rest of the world. Heat waves, wildfire, water shortages, sea-level rise, famine…it’s getting worse. Climate-change induced migration may destabilize entire regions; it’s happened before.

Our infrastructure isn’t ready. though bright spots exist.

I learned to “expect the worst and hope for the best”. We are doing the opposite as a civilization.

TL; DR

Here are truisms I live by:

  • A system is what it does - Systems are structures that endure. I don’t care what a system says it stands for; I care about what it actually does. Side effects are effects.
  • Actions matter. Words don’t - The more power a person or organization has, the more its communication will be utter crap. Actions matter, not words.
  • Human nature is inescapable - People want stability, and to belong. If they don’t get/have that, they cope by seeking power.
  • Incentives drive behavior
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2020 in Review

02 January 2021

2020, the Plague Year, is over.

But I live in the United States, so 2020 was

Despite that, I learned valuable things. Here’s the top 10.

1. We Grow When We’re Vulnerable

“Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all” – Helen Keller

Early this year, I spent a month in Brazil, playing music during Carnaval. It was one of the great adventures of my life.

I spoke little Portuguese, attended music classes I wasn’t ready for, and experienced a new culture. I came back with an important lesson: we grow when we’re vulnerable.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

2. Adapt and Overcome

“The only constant is change” - Heraclitus.

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic forced dramatic change. I have worked from home since March. I go to indoor public spaces only for groceries or take out. Travel, dinner parties, and musical performances are a distant memory.

Compared to others, I have it easy. All I did was:

  • Figure out how to permanently work from home.
  • Help my samba group practice outside, socially distant, in small groups.
  • Devise safe ways to stay in touch with friends and family.
  • Find ways to support my community.

I used a great tool: experiments!

At the start of every month, I created experiments. At month’s end, I evaluated whether the results were desirable. 50-60% of my experiments didn’t work. I failed fast. Failures are temporary, success enduring.

Some examples:

  • “Did 15 minutes’ daily exercise help with strength training? Was that mentally easier to do than 30 minutes, 3 times a week?”
  • “I delayed breakfast until 11am each day. What was the effect on my morning? Was it easier to eat fewer calories that day?”
  • “If I change reminders for X from weekly to biweekly, are they still effective? Is the difference worth the time saved?”
  • “What’s my ideal pomodoro time? 60 minutes? 90?”

Imagination is a superpower: the ability to guess what may happen without doing it. It’s easy, fast, and often accurate.

Hindsight is a superpower: the ability to look back at events, learning why something happened.

Imagination, experiments, and hindsight are how I adapt. I had the luxury of time to do so.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

3. Habits, Habits, Habits

Willpower is a finite resource, so habits are how we do almost everything. We all can develop habits: low-effort ways of getting things done.

To develop a habit, I made daily tasks. I was often pitting one desire against another: “I’m feeling hungry and lazy, so I’m going to go home and eat my curry, rather than get takeout”.

4. F.I.R.E., Cooking, and Health are the Same Thing

I have been doing health experiments since 2018. This was after years of eating a typical American diet and having an office job.

I found a simple path to health: make curry and eat it.

I find healthy recipes, cook, and optimize my grocery costs. I make all my meals for a week in a few hours by batch cooking. Luckily my childhood comfort food is healthy.

Also, I have been adopting FIRE practices. I want to retire before ageism kicks me out of the tech industry. I’m not alone; many others are saving more during the lockdowns.

Eating intensely flavored, mostly vegetarian food is healthy, affordable, and delicious.

5. Relationships, Relationships, Relationships

I have maintained my sanity during the COVID-19 pandemic for one reason: I have amazing people in my life.

I am lucky to have a strong, loving partner, and several close friends. At the start of the lockdown there were several weeks of transition. I spent time maintaining those relationships, despite seeing people outside/remotely. Awkwardness ensued. Awkwardness is fleeting. One tip: say the quiet part out loud. Tell people you care for them.

After it was clear that being outside is safer than inside, I spent lots of time outside. A walk in the park was my de-facto way to see friends. My samba group started meeting in small groups, outside, staying 6 feet apart, with everyone wearing masks.

Moving, sunlight, and playing with dirt are great ways to reduce depression and anxiety.

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” - Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development

6. Optimizing for Productivity is Powerful. And a Trap

I’ve written about getting things done: taming email, using to-do tasks, using a personal knowledgebase.

This year, I relied on those methods. The result? I was able to do a lot on a good week. More often, though, I was able to do what I needed while adjusting to the unexpected.

This had a cost. I spent my waking hours checking items off a to-do list. It’s not a great way to live.

I learned a powerful lesson: There is never enough time. When everything is important, nothing is.

7. Fog

Humans are social. We’ve evolved to survive in groups. Covid-19 took that fundamentally healthy need and made it dangerous. Absolutes don’t help. Very few of us can hermitize for months.

Tragically, there is a fog of missing and incorrect information. There is no central, extensive, accepted source of information about harm reduction approaches. This is a preventable tragedy.

Here are some questions I’ve had to guess the answer to:

  • If I take my grandmother to a doctor appointment, is it safe enough if I wear a KN95 mask? Should she wear one? Should I wipe down her seat with Lysol? Should I keep the car windows down the whole time?
  • How risky is it to get take-out? What if there’s a line in the restaurant? How does this compare to drive through?
  • If I stay at an Airbnb for a few days, how long should I leave the windows open to air it out? What are the riskiest spots to wipe down?
  • Is it safer to get bulk groceries every other week, or a quicker/smaller amount of groceries every week?
  • If I’m hiking and someone passes by without a mask, should I hold my breath? If so, for how long? A few seconds? 10?
  • What’s the level of risk for meeting a few people outdoors, 6 feet distant, wearing masks, for a couple of hours? Is there any way to make it safer? Meet somewhere windy?
  • If I want to see the dentist for a non-emergency procedure, what safety precautions should I ask about? Ventilation? Air purifiers? Open windows? Everyone wearing a surgical mask? Sick leave?
  • If my niece’s school reopens, what should she do? What are good messages to tell an 8-year-old? Which steps should I emphasize most?

Everyone has had to make their own safety calculations (or not). We had different information sources. Many of us are making the best choices we can, which can be uninformed mistakes.

8. Appearance Over Reality

Individuals, organizations, and institutions value appearances over reality.

hypocrisy: a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not : behavior that contradicts what one claims to believe or feel

My society is losing integrity. It is as if we have become averse to uncomfortable truths. Is some bit of health advice, economic news, or message uncomfortable? Ignore it.

Do you want to do something unethical, malicious, or greedy? Spin it, change the rules, or hide the evidence.

Societies, states, and groups need integrity to survive. There are now pervasive, perverse social incentives to being dishonest. This is dangerous.

I rarely hear about the social contract, “treat others as you wish to be treated”, “collective sacrifice for the common good”

People argue about wearing masks, when doing so can stop suffering and death. It’s only a piece of cloth!

9. Privilege

I’m a privileged minority that can work remotely from home.

I did not earn that safety. I’m lucky that I can do so, in a country riven by inequality. No one in my immediate family must be at a high-risk job to make ends meet. My immediate family and close friends are all alive. I am grateful for the latter, every day.

It is impossible for most people to keep themselves and their loved ones safe during this pandemic.

I hear politicians speak, and it is obvious they don’t know about going hungry, scrambling to make rent, or working two jobs while parenting. They say they represent the people, and yet by their own (in)actions let people suffer and die. I hear corporate executives whine about needing bailouts after buying back stocks. They lay off workers and give themselves bonuses.

10. Help Others

COVID-19 has caused unimaginable suffering: hunger, homelessness, lingering illness, death, illiteracy, loneliness. I’ve read thousands of articles and anecdotes; the horror is impossible to grasp.

Doomscrolling isn’t helpful. Instead, I implore you to help others. It is the right thing to do, hastens the end of this calamity, and is good for your mental health. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of the lucky ones.

Be safe, Be healthy, and take care of each other.

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