Tuesday, July 12, 2016

No Free Lunches - or Child Care

Paid family leave - it’s all the rage! Getting to spend sixteen weeks with that newborn child and still collect a paycheck sounds like a great idea to most people, but it’s another example of economic illiteracy.

The Washington Post describes the DC Council’s efforts to put together such a mandated benefit to city workers, financed by a tax on businesses. The Post being the Post, it adds some editorializing-through-quotation by citing Labor Secretary Perez as saying the DC effort is “an end on a Republican-controlled Congress that has refused to take up the president’s call” for a national family leave law. The least they could have done was interview an economist to explain why this is silly. As this blog is just that - the least I can do - I’ll bridge the gap.

Claiming that the tax to finance family leave is imposed on “businesses” doesn’t mean that the incidence of the tax really falls on businesses. It’s like the Social Security tax of13%, half of which is nominally paid by the employee and half of which is nominally paid by the employer. But employers understand that hiring someone at a wage of, say, $100,000 a year means a cost of $106,500 to the employer, ignoring other employee benefits and hiring costs. If $100,000 is the prevailing wage for the job, then the Social Security tax means paying the employee $93,500 (and change) and paying the government the remaining $6,500. Ultimately, workers bear the entire incidence of the Social Security tax. Similarly, a corporate income tax is paid by the corporation, but the incidence of the tax falls primarily on shareholders.

Consequently, let’s dispense with the fiction that the DC government can tax businesses to pay for this benefit. (The article says “an extra 1%,” without explaining what it’s 1% of, and then acknowledges that no one has any idea whether the tax revenue raised would cover the costs of the benefit.) Sixteen weeks is a long time. For our hypothetical $100,000/year worker, that’s roughly $31,000 of wages. I don’t know how often one would get to use this benefit, so let’s say it’s a one-time deal. If the leave is self-financing, the cost to the worker is the full $31,000, spread over a career. You’re not getting a freebie, you’re paying for it.
Would you rather have $31,000 or a benefit worth $31,000? I know I’d rather have the cash. I can take 16 weeks of unpaid leave and be just as well off, I can take eight weeks of unpaid leave and be $15,500 in cash ahead, or I can take no unpaid leave and pocket the $31,000 - all my choice. Deduct the money from my paycheck, and the only way I get any benefit is by taking the leave.

So employees are better off with the cash - how about employers? Under the forced family leave policy, some employees will take the leave even when they’re prefer to continue to work. Without this policy, employers will be better off by having fewer disruptions to the work force. The cost to employers is the same one way or the other, whether employees are paid in cash or leave, but employers should at least weakly prefer no forced leave policy. (Employers who feel differently - for example, if an employer thinks it attracts a more loyal work force by offering paid leave - are always free to do so. The fact that the DC government, not to mention Secretary Perez, wants to force firms to have these policies means that most firms believe they’re better off by paying the cash instead.)

In summary, it’s another feel-good government policy that doesn’t actually benefit the people it is supposed to benefit - yet voters are duped into supporting it. As for me, show me the money!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Civic Duties

My number came up for jury duty a month or so ago and I ended up having to report in on Monday. The system is usually not too crazy: get a number, check the web site the night before, and see whether your number is above or below the cutoff. Mine was 468, so I figured I had a great shot at avoiding the whole thing for another year or more. Nope: they called up to number 623. (As some of the people called asked for deferments, it wasn’t really 623 jurors, but still, a big number.)

I reported in on time, went through the metal detector - twice, because no one bothered to say that the cafeteria was outside the security perimeter - and sat. And sat, and sat. In fact, the entire day they called only three groups to form juries, getting through roughly numbers 1 through 295.

Here’s the thing: every time I’m called, I get the lecture about how important this is to the process, yada yada yada. And, to be fair, Montgomery County has made the room as comfortable as a waiting room can be - true, that’s a low bar, but it’s still something. But calling huge numbers of people to sit and wait clearly means that process is done for someone else’s convenience, not mine.

I don’t have a great solution for the problem. I know that the system relies on a whole bunch of people - judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, the perps (er, defendants), jurors, clerks, and so on - and that no one wants the whole shebang to come to a halt because they’re short a few potential jurors. It’s also the case that cases often settle at the last minute, so the court has to prepare for those trials even though they know from experience that some sizable fraction won’t need juries. But damn it’s irritating to sit around all day. Maybe they could give us pagers, like the ones some restaurants use to let you know when your table is ready. At least I could have been outside on a nice day, or hanging out in the Rockville library, or drinking decent coffee nearby.

On the bright side, not having been on an actual jury, I can go back to work tomorrow and catch up on the crap that I let slide today. No rest for the wicked...

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Privacy, Productivity, and the Open Workplace

Ana from the Well-Appointed Desk blog had a recent piece motivated by an article on Facebook’s new work space in Menlo Park, California. Ana and I were both horrified by this picture:
Facebook office wp
(Image from The Independent)
As Ana said,
I find the interior space of the new Facebook office neither aesthetically appealing nor engaging for working or collaborating. It just looks cluttered, messy and noisy. The fact that no one is given any storage space nor are they encouraged to have personal items on their desk seem to only make it more disheartening and cluttered. The overly high, unfinished ceilings with cables descending down are even worse!
More to the point,
...I don’t believe that this much openness is genuinely conducive to non-distracted working and thinking. I believe it leads people to seek out other places to work, or they choose to come into work either early or stay late in an attempt to avoid distrations. I think the myth of multi-tacking needs to stop. It makes people sloppy and tired. We can multi-task for a little while but, in the end, I don’t think its effective, efficient or healthy. I don’t think we, as idea workers, can come up with our best ideas when we are constantly distracted by co-workers, bleeps, or other disturbances. Yes, its nice to have a way to bounce ideas off other people, but we need to find a better way to do it other than forcing people to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with headphones on while they madly type into their laptops and mobile devices. That’s not really collaborating, is it?
I’ve read elsewhere that there’s a generation gap in how employees perceive open workspaces. Older employees are horrified, while younger ones enjoy the camaraderie. Perhaps so. I’ve always found working in a noisy environment to be difficult, and listening to music through headphones doesn’t really help the problem. I’ve been very lucky at my organization: some years prior to my arrival, younger employees shared offices, and today younger employees are again sharing offices. When I started, we had enough space that the professional staff all had individual offices - mine was an interior private office, on a corner, with hand-me-down furniture that consisted of the leftovers after the more senior staff had picked through everything they wanted, but the key word in that was “private.” I’m now in a much nicer office, albeit next to a conference room, and the difference in my ability to concentrate between when the conference room is and is not occupied is profound. Still, I can’t complain: it’s a private office. I can stare at the screen when writing is not coming easily. I can pace around the office. I can stretch, or stare out the window, or yawn, with no sense of embarrassment. When I need to talk to someone, I can walk to another office, use the phone, or make arrangements for a meeting room. I’ve never found that collaboration is difficult. Indeed, after a few hours of solitude, it’s nice to occasionally talk to another human.

We’re supposed to believe that the open space is fine because the CEO uses it as well - the original article notes that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg just have desks in the open space. But a guy like Zuckerberg likely isn’t around much - he travels to visit parts of his empire, and I’m willing to be that, when it comes to booking the meeting rooms, all employees are equal, but Sheryl Sandberg is more equal than others.

Of course, whether this system works or not depends on a whole range of factors, from the type of employees to the nature of the work. And no doubt it’s a lot cheaper than having private offices. But, like Ana, I hope this fad fades away sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Disaffected

It was a scenario too bizarre for the Onion: Donald Trump as the Republican nominee for President. Hard to imagine, and yet at this point it seems inevitable. Many Republicans are gnashing their teeth, rending garments, and going through the five stages of grief, while Democrats are chortling with glee, anticipating an historic blowout come November. Whether or not the last part comes to pass, it’s worthwhile to consider how we came to this point.

The electorate is so varied that it’s difficult to make useful generalizations, but it seems clear that a large body of voters feel that they’re being shut out of the prosperity that others have achieved and that politicians don’t seem to care. These are the Disaffected, voters who see a filtered version of what goes on in Washington and feel left out. Their preferred solutions may vary: some may want greater spending on the poor, or a higher minimum wage, or taxpayer-funded health care and college education; others see jobs taken by illegal immigrants and want better border control, or fewer job-killing regulations (for example, on coal), or just to be left alone and not taxed at every turn. Maybe they don’t spend a great deal of time thinking through the issues, but they don’t see Washington working for them. To quote Network, they’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, nor contained to Republican voters. In 2008, when Hillary Clinton expected to cruise to the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama was the outsider candidate – yes, sure, a U.S. Senator for a couple of years, in Chicago politics before that, but here was a guy who had almost nothing of substance to say, and in 2008 this was an advantage. His campaign was about “hope and change,” and the Disaffected convinced themselves that, whatever the problem, Obama was the answer. This election cycle, the continued strength of Bernie Sanders reflects the unhappiness Democratic voters have with Mrs. Clinton. Ethical problems and legal problems aside, Mrs. Clinton acts like a career politician, going through the motions on the campaign trail, making one uninspired stump speech after another, as if she can’t wait to get the process over with and get on with the business of doing things her way, away from the unwashed masses. Sanders sounds inspired, and offers up a steady stream of promises: free college! Free health care! Anything you want, all free! He’s pretty vague on how he plans to pay for all this, other than some references to “corporations” and “the rich” who aren’t paying their fair share. Never mind that the numbers don’t add up. What’s important to the Disaffected is that he represents hope ‘n’ change, 2016-style, and never mind that he’s spent almost his entire career in politics, mostly in Washington.

On the Republican side, voters had all sorts of candidates from which to choose, most if not all of whom could lay claim to being outsiders in one form or another. Two Senators (Rubio, Cruz) who were relative newcomers to Washington and, particularly with respect to Cruz, doing business differently than usual. A former Representative, now governor (Kasich), and four governors who had no ties with Washington (Perry, Walker, Jindal, Christie). A businesswoman (Fiorina) and a surgeon (Carson). Voters weren’t starved for anti-establishment choices, and they chose… Donald Trump. No one is voting for him because he’s conservative, and he feels free to state a position one day and contradict himself the next, so no one is voting for him on how intensely he holds his views. As far as I can tell, his positive attributes in the minds of voters are:
  • Opposition to illegal immigration. Forget the goofy “make Mexico pay for the wall” thing, and, as in everything else, he has walked back his statement that he plans to deport millions of illegal immigrants already in the country. This is the issue that got him on the Presidential radar, and the one that no other candidate, with the exception of a halfhearted Cruz, was willing to address. People who don’t have to deal with the consequences of illegal immigration can afford to be hostile toward border security, but those who have to deal with increased crime, reduced jobs for unskilled labor, and a feeling of cultural appropriation (say, why are all these signs in Spanish, anyway?) seem to think this is a serious problem. And many legal immigrants apparently are cool to the idea that other people didn’t have to go through the time or expense to do things the legal way. As Democrat Mickey Kauss often notes, it’s weird how so much ink can be spilled on how Trump got to where he is and yet not discuss his signature issue.
  • Protectionism. As in every other policy proposal, he’s maddeningly vague, but part of the populist appeal (see: Sanders, Bernie) is to focus on the down side of international trade, the part where U.S. workers lose their jobs because foreigners make stuff more cheaply. Trade often, though not always, makes both sides better off in the aggregate, but it’s hard for the losers to swallow the idea that the winners are better off by more than the losers are worse off. If you’re out of work, complaining about NAFTA or Chinese-made electronics doesn’t seem unreasonable.
  • Belittling the opposition. Frankly, I find the name-calling (“Lyin’ Ted,” et al.) to be juvenile and beneath a serious politician, but what do I know? I’m a genteel sort of person who is not comfortable with people sharing personal information talking on a cell phone in public spaces. I suspect that many people see the name-calling as an example of how Trump tells it like it is. He’s willing to insult the appearance of an opponent (Fiorina), carp about a TV talking head (Megyn Kelly), belittle a war hero (John McCain). I’d prefer politics not stoop to that level – or continue to stoop to that level – but apparently millions of others find it refreshing.
  • An empty vessel. Like the 2008 Obama, the 2016 Trump can be anything his supporters want him to be. He says a lot of things, but, as noted above, he often is for an issue and then against an issue – something for everyone! The anti-Trump crowd claims he’d govern as a liberal. Maybe that’s right, but how could anyone know? The Disaffected see a candidate who is not part of the Washington establishment, has enough money not to need the establishment, and is willing to antagonize the establishment. To a voter who is pissed off at the way things have been going, that sounds pretty appealing.
  • Making America great again. Consistent with the previous point, Trump’s slogan is both appealing, especially to people who have been left out of the good times in recent decades, and completely meaningless. (Who doesn’t want to make America great? How exactly does one go about this task?) But he presents a positive view of the country: he’s a proud American, he sees promise in other people, he sees opportunities just waiting to be realized. He doesn’t apologize for America’s past, or bow to foreign leaders. He sees a sunnier tomorrow, even if the path to get there is fogged in. In contrast, his Republican primary opponents droned on about tax reform, the debt, opposition to ObamaCare – all fine topics, worthy of discussion and debate, but hardly the stuff to inspire the Disaffected.
Maybe all of this is nonsense. I work in Washington – heck, step out of my building and one can see the Capitol – so I’m clearly part of the establishment. But the career politicians are just whistling past the graveyard if they ignore the Disaffected (just ask former Majority Whip Eric Cantor). Left-wing celebrities, TV pundits, and middle-of-the-road Republicans all lament Trump and engage in the childish name-calling that Trump himself enjoys – yes, he’s orange, I get it, okay? – and refuse to try to understand what created the phenomenon in the first place.  This reaction isn’t confined to the U.S., mind you: the problems of mass immigration in Europe have led to the rise of various nationalist groups, and the mainstream political parties and the intelligentsia castigate supporters of these parties as xenophobic or racist, without trying to understand the problems that nationalist voters face.

In my view, it’s a big mistake to ignore the concerns of a big chunk of the electorate.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Blooming Tree

My house came with exactly one tree, a cherry tree of one sort or another. The tree has done well, which leads to an annual problem: the cherries ripen and fall off the tree, onto the driveway and any cars parked there, onto the sidewalk, onto the roof,… it’s a mess that requires daily attention for several months. Every year I threaten to have the tree taken down.

Given the hassles that the tree provides, I figure I should appreciate its virtues as well. One of those is: the tree looks darn good in the spring, when it blossoms.

2016 03 24 Cherry tree in bloom

2016 03 24 Cherry tree blossoms

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Drink Old Enough to Drink

Apropos of nothing, my 50th birthday present several months back was a lovely bottle of Glenfiddich 21-year-old whisky, complete with a presentation box:

Glenfiddich 21 box

The whisky has substantially more oak flavor than the standard 12-year-old version - not unexpectedly, given the age - and, moderating the effect of the oak, a sweeter taste, from its stay in rum casks.

Glenfiddich 21 bottle

It’s a beverage that comes out only on special occasions. Of course, sometimes a hard week is itself a special occasion.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

My Ode to OMAS

I saw the unhappy news that one of my favorite pen companies, OMAS, was shutting down.

OMAS Pens  1 of 5

L-R: OMAS 360 ballpoint in red, 360 fountain pen in green, Arte Italiana Milord pencil and fountain pen in black, Arte Italiana Paragon fountain pen and ballpoint in black, Milord rollerball in black, Emotica fountain pen in red.

The large Paragon fountain pen is a little too big to hold comfortably for long periods and the section leaks for no apparent reason, but the nib is the most amazing I’ve ever owned.

OMAS Pens  4 of 5

The smaller Milord fountain pen has a semi-flexible fine nib and is another one of my best writers.

OMAS Pens  3 of 5

The 360 series has the distinctive triangular shape (that, alas, doesn’t come through well on the pictures) but is nonetheless comfortable to write with. The ballpoints, both the 360 and Paragon models, use Parker refills, so I can write with the wonderful gel refills.

OMAS Pens  5 of 5

I always loved the looks of the Emotica pen better than its writing capability, and the cap doesn’t post well. Still, it’s a fun pen to use on occasion. The clip flips out and separates into two pieces that can form a pen stand when the pen is not in use. Also, one can play with the clip during dull meetings, which is always a plus.

OMAS Pens  2 of 5

But, alas, the company wasn’t making money and, according to the post I linked to above, its Chinese overlords (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy still owns 10% of the firm, but clearly doesn’t control it) decided to throw in the towel. Very sad.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

We're (almost) all libertarians now

Okay, a little wishful thinking on the title. But I can’t help but think that most conservatives can’t see the (privacy) forest for the (terrorist) trees.

Politics surely makes for some strange bedfellows, and some of the strangest mingling of limbs has come about in the wake of the FBI’s demand that Apple create a method to unlock the iPhone one of the San Bernardino terrorists used. Apple is thus far resisting the demand (and a magistrate’s order), citing concerns about data privacy and deterring hackers, while politicians as disparate as Senators Tom Coburn and Diane Feinstein support the FBI’s demand as a necessary tool to combat terrorism. And I hope Sen. Feinstein doesn’t notice that conservative gadfly Ann Coulter agrees with her – or, worse, agrees with Donald Trump. Who could possibly be against terrorism?

Well, a lot of people see things Tim Cook’s way, including the Macalope and the Macalope’s colleague, Rich Mogull; tech writers, such as John Gruber; 1Password developer Agile Bits; and some guy named Edward Snowden.

In this case, it seems pretty clear that the owner of the phone was a terrorist who committed an awful crime on U.S. soil. So sure, in a vacuum, I’m all for finding out what’s on that phone. On the other hand, no case exists in a vacuum. If the FBI thinks you said something unkind toward President Trump, should they be able to force Apple to unlock your phone? Worse, though, is that a back door into the phone, once in the wild, will not be limited to law enforcement. I might be willing to live in a world where anyone with a badge has access to the contents of my phone, but do I need to live in a world where any hacker can do the same? No, thanks.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Agency in Fiction

I listen to several Doctor Who podcasts, including Verity! and Lazy Doctor Who. In recent episodes of both podcasts, I heard discussion of how different female characters lacked “agency” and that this created anger among, inter alia, female fans of the feminist persuasion. Female characters who lack “agency” are evidence of bad male writers, or something like that. Let me present their case and my rebuttal.

Example one was from Verity!, on the topic of Donna Noble’s departure from the TARDIS in “Journey’s End.” In brief, Donna gets zapped with Time Lord knowledge, which allows her to help defeat the Daleks, but her mind can’t cope. To save her life, the Doctor wipes from her mind all knowledge of the Doctor or her time with him. Apparently this is a Bad Thing because the Doctor takes choice away from Donna, denying her “agency.” The Verity! ladies contrast the Doctor’s treatment of Donna with his treatment of Clara in “Hell Bent."

Example two was from Lazy Doctor Who, in a discussion of Susan’s departure from the TARDIS in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth.” (Yes, fine, these are spoilers, but come on, the first example is from 2008 and the second is from 1964. Live with it.) Susan falls in love with a human, David Campbell, and is torn between staying on Earth with him and continuing to travel with the Doctor. Knowing that she would never leave the TARDIS and the Doctor despite the desire of her heart to stay with David, the Doctor locks her out of the TARDIS and dematerializes, making the decision for her. Bad Doctor.
One writer describes agency as
Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.
At the two points in the stories described above, Donna and Susan both lack agency. Is that a bad thing from either the point of view of the story or on the part of the author? In the example of Donna, it’s hard to see how the Doctor’s actions were in any way unjustified. His friend was in trouble, and his choices were (a) let her die or (b) save her by wiping certain memories. Suppose he had given her the opportunity to choose. If she said, “No, let me die, I’d rather die now with the memories of our travels together intact than live without them,” would he have agreed? Really? How about someone who sees a friend about to jump off a ledge to her death? Would that be a good time to inquire how sincere was her desire to commit suicide, or would a responsible friend take the opportunity to save a life? In short, denying a fellow character agency may well be the best course of action.

In the example of Susan, one could certainly argue that the Doctor was being unfair/irresponsible/just plain not nice in taking the decision out of her hands. On the other hand, he seemed to be acting out of a sincere and selfless desire to ensure that she got what she wanted, rather than staying with him out of a sense of duty. I’d argue that the character was right to deny her agency.

More to the point, however, in both cases the authors of those episodes made a reasonable artistic choice. Not everyone has agency in all circumstances. Prisoners in jail cells, victims of crimes, passengers on doomed airliners - all have limited or no ability to "make decisions and affect” outcomes at those moments. Perhaps a prisoner has agency to the extent of making an escape attempt, fighting with a fellow prisoner or a guard, or even choosing to serve his time with a minimum of fuss. Similarly, a crime victim can, after the fact, call the police, ignore the whole thing, or turn into a Death Wish-style vigilante, but at the moment of the crime she is more reactive than active. When an author creates characters and places those characters into a situation - the plot - those characters often choose actions that propel the plot. At other times, however, one or more characters may find themselves passive players in the unfolding drama. To suggest that it’s somehow sexist to have this happen to female characters is absurd.

I’ve spent over 700 words venting on a subject that deserves far fewer words, but the mere word “agency” in this context, on these podcasts, hits me like nails on a chalkboard. Life provides many opportunities to be offended. Feminists, such as those on Verity! and Lazy Doctor Who,* might pick their targets with a little more care.

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* In fairness, I might not have two independent observations, as Erika Ensign participates in both podcasts. Discussion in one podcast might spill over into thoughts on another.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Digital and Analog

It’s possible I have a commitment problem. Not the usual kind, involving another person, but one much more serious: I can’t commit to either a digital or an analog organizational system.
Earlier this evening, Kirasha tweeted a picture of her new planner, prompting me to reply, "Don’t get me started. I think I’ve finally kicked my planner addiction.” That, of course, is a lie. No one ever really kicks that addiction; one merely keeps it under control. Mostly.

I’ve always had an unhealthy collection of notebooks, both spiral bound and three ring. At one point I invested in a Filofax, which still seems like a great idea - except the paper is terrible. I finally realized I didn’t want to tote the thing with me all the time, which led me to a Palm Pilot. The Pilot begat a Palm III, which begat a Palm V, which begat a Compaq handheld, which… well, you get the idea. This culminated in my current iPhone 6S with Day One (for journaling) and OmniFocus (for my task lists).

But I couldn’t stay faithful to my digital system(s). For one thing, I have far too many fountain pens to keep them un-inked forever. For another, it’s just not satisfying to poke at a phone to do anything more than dash off a quick note. So it was back to Rhodia pads an the wonderful Rhodia bound notebooks, with the occasional dalliance with other systems and brands. I’m now halfway through a Piccadilly bound notebook, which is good in many respects but whose paper will let wet ink lay on the page seemingly forever. As a left-hander, this results in page after page of ugly smears.

Notebook
Piccadilly notebook. Note "Independent State of Caledon" mouse pad.

Nonetheless, I seem to be fated to keep alternating between the two formats.