Altruism- San Fransisco Style

Should fulfilling social goals tend more toward the push system or the pull system? Half a century ago less advantaged people were often ashamed of their poverty and were reluctant to ask for help. In a small town community, there was a shuffling of donations so that they would appear discretely at the home of those in need. This momentum of first demonstrating a need and then delivering some supplies to the designated beneficiary was done on the pull system.

Complete definition[edit]

There are several definitions on the distinction between push and pull strategies. Liberopoulos (2013)[5] identifies three such definitions:

1. A pull system initiates production as a reaction to present demand, while a push system initiates production in anticipation of future demand.

2. In a pull system, production is triggered by actual demands for finished products, while in a push system, production is initiated independently of demands.

3. A pull system is one that explicitly limits the amount of WIP that can be in the system, while a push system has no explicit limit on the amount of WIP that can be in the system

Wiki

In today’s world, it is common to hear those who work with the poor deny the necessity for those who come to a food shelf, say, to demonstrate a need. It is thought to be disrespectful. The intermediary agencies, whether the county, the food shelf, or the Department of Ed (school lunch) are responsible for determining demand. This is a bureaucratic push system.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The pull system is more efficient, but some families may refuse to come forward and others feel shame. The push system is bound to attract theft. If a push system becomes elaborate over a long periode of time, then it may become its own little economy (we could call it a platter).

Nellie Bowles has an article in the Atlantic, How San Fransisco Became a Failed City, which illustrates such an economy in her hometown of San Fransisco.

On a cold, sunny day not too long ago, I went to see the city’s new Tenderloin Center for drug addicts on Market Street. It’s downtown, an open-air chain-link enclosure in what used to be a public plaza. On the sidewalks all around it, people are lying on the ground, twitching. There’s a free mobile shower, laundry, and bathroom station emblazoned with the words dignity on wheels. A young man is lying next to it, stoned, his shirt riding up, his face puffy and sunburned. Inside the enclosure, services are doled out: food, medical care, clean syringes, referrals for housing. It’s basically a safe space to shoot up. 

Not only are material services provided in abundance to any addict who shows up in this iconic American city- but advice is also spun out free of charge.

She recognized him (a homeless man) as someone who regularly slept outside in the neighborhood, and called 911. Paramedics and police arrived and began treating him, but members of a homeless advocacy group noticed and intervened. They told the man that he didn’t have to get into the ambulance, that he had the right to refuse treatment. So that’s what he did. The paramedics left; the activists left. The man sat on the sidewalk alone, still bleeding. A few months later, he died about a block away.

A whole bouquet of social service agencies has sprung into action. In some sort of warp incentive system, the services attract addicts, which in turn attract services.

Here is a list of some of the organizations that work with the city to fight overdoses and to generally make life more pleasant for the people on the street: Street Crisis Response Team,  EMS-6, Street Overdose Response Team, San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team, Street Medicine and Shelter Health, DPH Mobile Crisis Team, Street Wellness Response Team, and Compassionate Alternative Response Team. The city also funds thousands of shelter beds and many walk-in clinics.

In the 90s there were stories of social workers in Chicago giving the needy bus tickets to Minneapolis as they knew there were services available upon arrival. If there is migration of those in need to an area simply due to the known availability of welfare, then the push is pushing too hard.

Lack of logic- rent control edition

This thread is from a month ago or so, but the data is still valid. There has been a precipitous drop in new construction permits in St. Paul since last fall’s election put rent control in place.

This thoughtful article on rents in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area confirms that rents have only been easing up until 2020. The author believes rents have been on the decline since then.

The actual advertised median rents for one- and two-bedroom apartments are lower — in actual dollars — in 2022 than they were in late 2018. Three-bedroom rents went up 2 percent over the four years, while inflation went up 11 percent over the same time. These shifts started more than a year before the pandemic. “Post” pandemic increases look big due to the atypical and extremely low rents during summer 2020. But trends show that Minneapolis rents have simply returned to pre-pandemic levels. 

This data is in high contrast to the inflammatory, high-rent-evil-landlord hype that was circulating prior to the elections. And despite this lengthy and analytical exposition of a responsive system, there is a parroting of the party line:

We also need more tenant protections, like just-cause eviction and rent stabilization. We need to ensure that every person has the income to afford a home whether from increased wages, making housing subsidy an entitlement or social housing. Minneapolis minimum wage hasn’t yet reached $15 per hour, and $15 is a long way from the NLIHC-calculated $17.27 housing wage needed to afford just a studio apartment in the Twin Cities.

Unfortunately, there is an audience for such questionable logic.

Activism in lieu of Church

A few weeks ago, John McWhorter appeared on a talk hosted by St. Olaf’s Institute for Freedom and Community. It was entitled Antiracism as a Religion. He’s not the only public intellectual drawing lines between the needs of the woke and the services of religious communities. But he did write a book about it, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.

Edmund Santurri, the moderator, a philosophy professor at the college on the hill, seemed genuinely offended that McWhorter aligned a practice imbued with a holy sacrament with secular activism. And I see his point. Although the faith aspect of religious identity is only a portion of a relationship to a church. Many people attend worship in congregations where they do not agree with the entire catechism. The church going families I know participate in the church for the wide breath of community interactions both between congregants and with the greater public.

In a recent Bloomberg column, Tyler Cowen theorizes that this natural desire to be part of shared interests is what drives many tech workers to the Woke.

Wokeism does. In fact, this semi-religious function of woke ideology may help explain what many people perceive as the preachy or religious undertones to woke discourse.

You might wonder why this shared culture is left-wing rather than right-wing. Well, given educational polarization in the U.S., and that major tech companies are usually located in blue states, it is much easier for a left-leaning common culture to evolve. But the need for common cultural norms reinforces and strengthens what may have initially been a mildly left-leaning set of impulses.

Developing such a common culture is especially important in tech companies, which rely heavily on cooperation. The profitability of a major tech company typically is based not on ownership of unique physical assets, but on the ability of its workers to turn ideas into products. So internal culture will have to be fairly strong — and may tend to strengthen forces that intensify modest ideological proclivities into more extreme belief systems…

Marginal Revolution

All of this goes to support the theory behind this site. In the same way there is a human tendency for greed, there is also a tendency for compassion.

When people are isolated in their daily lives from those who could benefit from their good works– such as in the scenario of a company full of affluent highly educated workers– they are left with services that have no destination. It is plausible to say there can even develop a sense of unease about how much has come their way when well aware of the plight of many others. When denied that weekly outlet of giving that a church could provide, the wealthy workers may seize up with guilt.

And of course, it is all good and well that people should get involved with many of the non-religious associational affiliations like professional associations and company sponsored non-profits. It is recommended! Unfortunately, these can seem mundane. So when activists come along with promises of REAL CHANGE at revolutionary tempos, it’s all very appealing.

How many triggers are in this post?

It won’t take much googling to find out about the recent dust-up around Ilhan Omar’s illusion of quasi-universal American racism against Muslims. Instead of being distracted by the inflammatory nature of the post and reposting by a competitor for her seat for office, think about the mechanism she is using and how, in the past, it worked to her advantage.

First, you’ll need to know a little background information about the place where she grew up. As MPR reports, “Minnesota is home to the nation’s largest Somali population, numbering 74,000 with 46,000, or about 62 percent, estimated to be born outside the country.” But it wasn’t always that way. Omar arrived with her family in the mid-’90s. By 1999 only 3% of the state’s population was of African American heritage and 8% of minority background. In the latest census, over 20 percent of Minnesotans are considered non-white.

The average Minneapolitan is politically blue- but many people have supported immigrants from the start. Church groups sponsored and supported families coming from Asia as well as Africa. But an increase in such a great number is bound to upset some taken-for-granted norms and expectations. The remedy for this is to advocate tolerance for that which you do not know. But how can you know what you do not know?

This is where the trick comes in. If you don’t know how people on an airplane will react to Muslims praying in an airplane, then you can be led to believe the worst in people by the expert local politician. Furthermore, a Minnesotan with little exposure to being abroad may feel obliged to go along with the outrage and turn on themselves (mysteriously the same people who nurtured the immigration process to start). This I’m-going-to-tell-you-how-horrible-you-are strategy has worked in a naive crowd who could in fact find a few horrible people to point to.

Things have changed. People are remembering that there are a lot of good people out there- in fact, most people are kind and decent. Ilhan seems to have lost her touch with reading the room. It will no longer be enough to be the beautiful rebel, sword in hand a la Jean d’Arc, on a quest against any evil human monster she chooses to pursue.

The money doesn’t make it to its destination

I doubt it is a surprise to anyone that Black Lives Matters cannot account for $60 million of the $90 million they received in donations following the death of George Floyd. A recent purchase of a 6500 square foot mansion with pool, studio and many other flashy features drew attention to the organization’s finances.

The report has further fueled questions about BLM’s finances barely a year after it released the first look into its finances. The foundation said it collected over $90 million in 2020 alone and committed $21.7 million in funding to various BLM chapters and grassroots organizations. With its operating budget set at $8.4 million, more than $60 million was unaccounted for.

Black Lives Matter purchases $6 million property with donation money

The group didn’t always attract large sums of money. It started as a hashtag #Blacklivesmatters in 2013. The call to arms took hold and grew into the rally call for protests following detrimental treatment of black Americans by the police and justice system. For many years the work involved organizing protests following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner.

If the social product is to reset conduct toward a minority group in and around criminal activity, BLM is the marketing arm of the industry.

In 2020 social media drew world-wide attention when a teenage girl filmed the death of a black man while a police officer held a knee to his neck. The dramatic unfurling of anger, protests, outside influence, sabotage, precinct burning, national guard intervention were all branded by the Black Lives Matter hashtag. When people (consumers) wanted to respond to unfair treatment to fellow human being, as the natural human response leads them to do, they sent their resources to BLM. But this is the same as sending money to the advertisers who create TV ads (sorry I’m old!) instead of paying the company in question directly and receiving a good in return.

BLM is an activist organization, a group that wants to shed light on an issue. The $90 million went to the advertisers not to actors within the system which needs correcting. And since they are not in a position to really change anything within the police/justice schematic, the money is too easily grifted.

Old Fashioned Theft vs Social

Most people have a pretty good grasp on theft. An object belongs to one person and someone else takes it. There’s an ownership issue and a transference of the item or cash to another without knowledge or permission. For instance, a few weeks ago the news carried a story of an employee at Yale stealing electronic equipment. She ordered equipment over and above what was needed, sold the surplus, and pocketed upwards of $40Million. That’s a lot of cash.

One can only assume that she was able to get away with the scam for that long because she was in a position of trust. The status of employees was beyond reproach and hence normal protocols of employees taking at minimum a week’s vacation were waved away. This last part is social theft. It’s distinct from material theft.

Let’s take another example. Bernie Madoff plead guilty in 2009 to running the largest Ponzi scheme in the world and was sentenced to 150 years in prison. Taking people’s money and not giving it back to them is old-fashioned theft. The social component of Madoff’s scheme was to rely on his community ties to feed his graft. Wikipedia calls it affinity fraud.

Madoff targeted wealthy American Jewish communities, using his in-group status to obtain investments from Jewish individuals and institutions. Affected Jewish charitable organizations considered victims of this affinity fraud include Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, the Elie Wiesel Foundation and Steven Spielberg‘s Wunderkinder Foundation. Jewish federations and hospitals lost millions of dollars, forcing some organizations to close. The Lappin Foundation, for instance, was forced to close temporarily because it had invested its funds with Madoff.[109]

When an actor internalizes a benefit received by being a member of a public group and then steals, the deceit is double.

Diversity Education

As for many professions, Minnesota Realtors are required to complete fifteen hours of continuing education per annum to maintain their license. This coursework may cover a variety of issues, and some of it can be unexpectedly helpful. The required modules are often redundant or heavy on regulatory dates and descriptors. This year it revolves around discriminatory covenants written on deeds from the 1920s-to 1940s. These are reprehensible in their blatant racism toward non-Caucasians.

I think revisiting this history is important. We should be reminded that nice people, perhaps even relatives of local realtors, don’t always do nice things. That said, I think it is important to tell the story accurately. A portion, perhaps 20-25% of the lots, had exclusionary covenants. The portion of non-white residents in Minnesota at that time was less than 1% of the population.

I guess what I’m trying to point out is that just because a portion of a population can be criticized for what always should have been unlawful behavior, doesn’t mean that everyone behaved poorly. You don’t need an entire population to be in your home court to lead a happy and productive life. And to set that expectation will only lead to disappointment.

Maybe life hasn’t been that bad- Minnesota Housing Stats Edition

We’ve heard a lot about housing lately, in the press and from public policy types, but I’ve never thought the issue to be as dire as it is being portrayed. As a baseline, I thought it would be helpful to know just how many housing units are available for occupancy. The US census gives us this information.

Form the US Census Bureau

I was surprised to see how stable the state’s profile has been over the last decade. In percentage terms, there has been little movement between the categories. We are well above the national average on the owner-occupied unit at just under 72%.

The population count for the state was just reported at 5.7 million. With an average household size of 2.6, the state needs 5.7 divided by 2.6, or 2.19 million homes. These can be townhomes or single-family, rentals, or mobile homes. Fortunately, the census shows that the state has 2.458 million units or 268,000 more units than reported by the US census workers.

There are all sorts of reason why units maybe empty. There will always be vacancies caused by folks in transit between residents. Some of the properties are second homes. But even with a vacancy rate of 10%, that still leaves 22,000 properties up for grabs.

I only point this out to suggest that there is a bit of slack in the system. How to get these units in use and available will only alleviate some of the pressures on housing demand.

I think the numbers above also allude to this sector being pretty stable over the last decade. Stories of fractures and implosions may have been overblown.

A real estate agent’s agency

In Minnesota real estate agents are required to give clients an Agency Disclosure at first substantive contact. The commerce department’s concern is that salespeople, being all friendly and personable, hide who they are really working for in the transaction. A buyer’s rep sitting in a Parade of Home’s model, for instance, is working for the builder. Their agency is to secure the best price and terms for the contractor. A buyer who walks through the door may think they are working for them.

It is important for consumers to know the structure of representation. But not only in a real estate transaction. People hide their representation all the time. Take the on-going Minneapolis teachers’ strike. The message pouring out through social media is that ‘it is for the kids.’ (Thirty thousand in total who have not been in school since last week.) Yet the head of the teacher’s union reveals her true agency is to fight the patriarchy and capitalism.

Her intentions are misrepresented. In fact, one relative calculus might show that her actions are at the expense of the kids.

She is not the only organizer whose primary sphere of action is at odds with the cause they claim to represent. John Steinbeck’s novel In Dubious Battle depicts the organizers of a strike for farm laborers as separate, even outsiders, those they claim to represent. The (communist) party members’ objective, or their agency, isn’t to the workers but to the destruction of the power players, the Fruit Growers Association.

It might seem like a fine distinction, but through their actions one can see that it is not. The organizers in Steinbeck’s novel have no compassion for laborer who get hurt, or whether, in the end, they will be better off. The leader of the strike does not care that the school children, many of whom were already behind in their learning, are once again out of school. Their only objective is to unseat the power structure.

Perhaps the commerce department should oblige these organizers to pass out agency disclosures. Because the cost of their action is costly to our communities.

The social side of price

I think it would be hard at this moment to refute the notion that there is a social side to price. The ongoing conflict in eastern Europe provides ongoing evidence for the incorporation of both pecuniary and communal aspects of trade in a free market economy. It is clear that a barrel of oil at x price is not simply a barrel of oil at x price.

As countries who support a liberal world order scramble to reorient their trading partners for their energy needs, Americans in particular will see themselves underwriting this institution at the gas pump. The price paid for Russian oil was too low as no thought was given to the risk of dealing with people who blow up children’s hospitals. No accounting set aside a reserve.

This isn’t the first revelation of this kind in the last few years. Covid made clear the added expense of relying on overseas markets for things like protective wear and pharmaceuticals. The cost of a drug is cheap until your foreign supplier cuts you off. Then, as the commercial goes, it’s priceless. I think it’s plain to see there is some other equilibrium. And this includes a social cost component of price.

Just to further dig into the structure of my theory, let’s get back to oil and how there came to be a dependence on an unsavory trading partner. Although the US is capable of being energy self-sufficient, there are pressures for climate activists to halt pipelines and oil drilling operations. What’s wrong with that is they are advocating to solve a public problem in the wrong public. Climate change effects the globe and the public is the human race. Hence the economic implications are also global.

To isolate one country and feel good about cutting off their production while still consuming the good, just sourcing it from another country is, an aberration of a solution. And as most people who follow these things can point out, to force an inappropriate solution, simply means you pay elsewhere.

Tragically, this exchange is paying for the tanks and the bombs and the shells which are falling in Ukraine. Let’s become better accountants.

Did COVID kill the identity play?

For quite a few years now the vertically integrated messaging apparatus has cut off their political opponents by selecting an identity group to support (whether requested or not) and cancelling those who objected to their activism. The feminist claimed they spoke for all women and those who didn’t support their agenda were against female aspirations. End of story.

Some good things came of this. A few workplace creeps were set ablaze by societal spotlights and had to scuttle away like coach roaches looking for the shadows. But recently it’s been clear that the ploy is mainly used to acquire power and not solve for a balance of resources amongst causes in a fair society. Those who have learned to turn the levers of control enjoy it so much they’ve forgotten the end game.

But how is it that a few can engage an army of not particularly political types to align with the interest du jour? Enter the woke. If you want to maintain your membership in the fashionably intellectual (dare I say elite?), then your conversation, your nodding and humming all must follow the woke agenda. Any lack of compassion for the latest identity group, any attempt to point out degrees or harm or beneficence, any suggestion that the support of one group would imply a detraction from another, ejects you from the cozy cocktail party with a scarlet letter and a do-not-invite notation in a communal address book.

I’m hopeful COVID has changed all this. The latest banter on a Facebook group conversation certainly suggests as much. A school district had just announced that children would no longer be required to wear masks at school. Inevitably there is the lazy parent who posts something about poor communication from the school board– which warrants a response in all caps: IF YOU TOOK THE TIME TO READ THEIR COMMUNICATION YOU WOULD GET IT. Then the activist pipes up. She can’t possibly imagine how people expect her child with health issues to attend a school lacking the necessary protection.

This accusation of putting a child at any risk would have been woke enough to silence any crowd- pre COVID that is. Twenty-four months of isolation and alternative schooling methods has generated a list of other grievances which come along with mask wearing. The settling of resources can no longer be pulled to the most aggrieved. People are evaluating trade-offs on albeit serious issues of health and education.

People are thinking for themselves again. A potential health concern is no longer the trump card it once was. There is a spectrum of tradeoffs concerning health. Let’s hope that reality makes its way into our regulatory bureaucracies.

The Greeks had a way with words

from The Oedipus Rex of Sophocles, Scene 1

TEIRESIAS:

You are the madman. There is no one here

Who will not curse you soon, as you curse me.

OEDIPUS:

You child of total night! I would not touch you,

Neither would any man who sees the sun.

TEIRESIAS:

True: it is not from you my fate will come.

That lies within Apollo’s competence,

As it is his concern.

OEDIPUS:

Tell me, who made

These fine discoveries? Kreon? or someone else?

TEIRESIAS:

Kreon is no threat. You weave your own doom.

OEDIPUS:

Wealth, power, craft of statesmanship!

Kingly position, everywhere admired!

What savage envy is stored up against these,

If Kreon, whom I trusted, Kreon my friend,

For this great office which the city once

Put in my hands unsought-if for this power

Kreon desires in secret to destroy me!

He has bought this decrepit fortune-teller, this

Collector of dirty pennies, this prophet fraud

Why, he is no more clairvoyant than I am!


And a bit further on the blind guy goes on.


TEIRESIAS:

You are a king. But where argument’s concerned

I am your man, as much a king as you.

I am not your servant, but Apollo’s.

I have no need of Kreon’s name.

Listen to me. You mock my blindness, do you?

But I say that you, with both your eyes, are blind:

You can not see the wretchedness of your life,

Nor in whose house you live, no, nor with whom.

Who are your father and mother? Can you tell me?

You do not even know the blind wrongs

That you have done them, on earth and in the world

below.

But the double lash of your parents’ curse will whip you

Out of this land some day, with only night

Upon your precious eyes.

Your cries then-where will they not be heard?

What fastness of Kithairon will not echo them?

And that bridal-descant of yours-you’ll know it then,

The song they sang when you came here to Thebes

And found your misguided berthing.

All this, and more, that you can not guess at now,

Will bring you to yourself among your children.

Be angry, then. Curse Kreon. Curse my words.

I tell you, no man that walks upon the earth

Shall be rooted out more horribly than you.

Tipping at Windmills

I have to say I’ve never read Don Quixote but the drawing of a slender man holding a spear, sitting astride a horse, with a windmill on the horizon quickly comes to mind. A one-line plot synopsis goes something like this: “Don Quixote is a middle-aged gentleman from the region of La Mancha in central Spain. Obsessed with the chivalrous ideals touted in books he has read, he decides to take up his lance and sword to defend the helpless and destroy the wicked.”

As the self-appointed knight goes looking for a fight he runs into all sorts of ruffians and ne’er-do-wells. He brings trouble upon himself and accomplishes little on behalf of the needy. So- here’s the question. Do high morals come first and then the search for those in need? Or is it best if those in need show themselves, so that their situations can be rectified? Perhaps Cervantes was trying to tip his hand indicating cards in favor of the later not the former.

Indeed, there is a story breaking in the Twin Cities right now that indicates if supply of funds is made available with lofty intentions, the criminals show up for the taking. And take they do. The Sahan Journal reports:

Between 2018 and 2021, Feeding Our Future accessed $244 million of federal child nutrition money. The FBI alleges that little of this money actually went to feed children. In a series of search warrants, the agency lists tens of millions of dollars allegedly redirected toward personal spending, including luxury cars, expensive property, and high-end travel. 

Part of the quarter of a billion dollars went to fourteen properties including $2.8M for a Minneapolis mansion, $500K for a fourplex, $500K for an apartment in Nairobi, $2.5M for a commercial space on Lake St, $1.1M for two lake lots in Prior Lake, $575K for a home in Savage, $14K on lawn care, $87K on vehicles, $49K to travel agencies and the list goes on….

And what was it the non-profit professed to be doing in order to access those federal dollars? They claimed to feed 60,000 children in November of 2021 out of a small one-story building. Did the logistics of how all those children were descending on that location not occur to those in charge of dispersing funds?

It was just back in 2015 that a similar con was discovered involving fictitious daycare provision in the same community. The restitution at that time was reported at $4.6M but there were allegations that $100M had been funneled out of the country. Yet instead of calling out criminality, this is how the politician representing that the district responded.

State Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, said she’s troubled by the reports of childcare fraud, but notes that the fraud investigations wouldn’t be possible without communication between DHS and the Somali community.

“Vilifying an entire community — as stories like this often do — does not serve justice or get results. Collaboration does,” said Omar in a statement responding to the Fox 9 story.

It seems to me that when administrators go looking for a cause they create a market which someone steps in and fills with a demand. Want a woke endeavor but can’t find one? – We can fix that! And sure enough. That kind of cash flow will find a pocket to line. I hope they realize Don Quixote was a bit mad.

Investigative reporter starts at NYT and gets 4.2K suggestions for stories

Let’s speculate on reasons for the lack of trust brewing in the non-profit sector at the moment.

Cash- A notable seismic shift in philanthropy since the onslaught of apps and everything social is the ability to tap anyone’s good will. Set up a GoFundMe and boom- thousands of dollars appear. Lots of money on the move with little firsthand knowledge of how those dollars are being distributed is bound to give fodder to conspiracy theorists.

Case in point- GoFundMe recently refunded almost 10million to donors supporting the trucker rally in Canada after eligibility of purpose is scrutinized. Which leads to the next trust buster. The short synopsis which accompanies the funding request often lack a complete flushing out of context (which I hear is in scarce supply these days). The public gets caught up in the cause of the moment and then has donator remorse when they realize that perhaps they didn’t quite understand organization’s mission.

But to be fair, the replies to David Fahrenthold’s tweets range from medical fraud to mega churches, from patriotic themes like Wounded Warriors to AARP of all things. The gist seems to be that the feedback loops on the not-for-profit are waving in the wind like those crazy inflatable advertising men.

The paradox of the outsider

Say you lived in a small rural community. Maybe there is one main grocery store in town and three churches of various denominations. All grades k-12 are taught in one building, with the younger ages on one side of the building complex. The senior high kids get the classrooms closest to the gym and the middle schoolers fill the classrooms sandwiched in between. Busses bring in kids from rural route addresses.

Now imagine one family is experiencing financial difficulties and the couple is separating. The land they farm came down through her family, so she is staying on the site to try to make a go of it. Eighteen months in, the past due notices are piling up and she comes to terms with the reality of having to sell. Normally this productive land is swept up by competing farmers wanting to increase their holdings. The nearby owners are usually particularly interested as the expense to move large farm equipment like combines is expensive. But the sale stalls- why?

In a small, isolated community there are only so many social activities, through church or the school sports or maybe a community center. When you run into someone at the high school basketball game or service on Sunday you don’t want to read across your neighbor’s face that they think you took advantage of their misfortune. When the idea is to get out and enjoy a round a golf or relax over a beer at the VFW, you don’t want to run into the lady who may feel like you stole her inheritance.

The paradox is that community is meant to be there for each other when times are bad. But in this case the aversion of being accused of profiteering is damaging to those who need help the most. And this is how an outsider can step in, easily appraise a favorable situation and finalize the purchase. The cost of social stigma is not felt by the outsider.

This a corruption of some kind. The community breaks its own rules and allows a profit to leave the group for another. A sense of loss remains. People turn on the outsider. They are the profiteer! They are not to be trusted.

Wright county Iowa

Why yea to the infrastructure bill and nay to build back better

A couple weeks have gone by since the trillion dollar infrastructure bill was signed by President Biden. The bipartisan consensus for the deal appears to have been truly representative of public opinion as there has been little bickering or negative chatter since the announcement. However, politicians are balking at the Build Back Better plan.

I think the difference between the two forms of public investment is at the crux of why one is a yes and the other a no. The first package supports just about every form of durable infrastructure in the US today: roads, bridges, rail, airports, public transit, water, broadband. It is basically bonus bucks for all the things we have approved and used for decades. All notably in need of refurbishing. The dollars will leave the public sphere, and pay private contractors to pave the roads, install broadband, and beef up the power grid.

The second bill is not about durables. The second proposal is centered around the work that is done to provide public services such as child care, understanding and reducing environmental damage, health and wellness objectives, and the work to supervise who’s paying how much for what. The problem with agreeing to pay for such things is that we have little or no tracking which lends an understanding the return on the requested inputs. Call the American public a good consumer for wishing to be clear on their purchase before laying their cash out on the table.

The other haziness which obscures the ability to picture the second bill’s outcomes is the crude lumping of groups of people together by income. How children are raised in their younger years is accomplished through many different family arrangements and objectives- despite income. I think the fear is that throwing money around without discerning the work in play will at minimum be wasteful. And often when the dynamics of work is not understood, bad actors show up to ride the seams and take advantage of the ignorance.

The work to stay healthy and use health care dollars wisely, or to minimize pollution, or the work necessary to keep businesses on the up and up with tax payments, all of this type of work occurs in systems. There are groups with goals; there are incentives; and there is a dynamics to it. And to propose launching a whole bunch of cash at systems without understanding them makes for uncertain consumers.

How fear ties knots of inaction

On the one hand people worry that improving disadvantage neighborhoods will cause the evils of gentrification:

Now planners are trying to figure out how best to weave through north Minneapolis on the way to the northwest suburbs. But many people along the route fear real estate speculation and increased investment will render their neighborhoods less affordable. Hennepin County hired the University of Minnesota to study potential gentrification impacts and recommend anti-displacement strategies along the route—a first in Minnesota transit history.

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On the other hand there’s dismay that property values do not increase in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Here’s a headline and intro paragraph to an article in todays New York Times:

How the Real Estate Boom Left Black Neighborhoods Behind

While homeownership has been an engine of prosperity for white Americans, home values in places like Orange Mound in southeast Memphis have languished. What would it take to catch up?

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the same forces against gentrification were perpetuating poverty in neighborhoods they thought they were protecting?

Dark Forces

Dictionary.com is my go to for spelling and definitions. I get their word of the day in my email box and amuse myself (as time permits) taking their quizzes. Today they had a click bait section on the different names for Satan.

Perhaps the most well-known name for the Devil is Satan. This name appears repeatedly in the Bible, such as in Luke 22:3 when the Devil is blamed for Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus Christ: Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. 

The name Satan is recorded in English before the year 900. The English word comes through the Greek Satán from the Hebrew word śātān meaning “adversary.” Whatever name he goes by, the Devil is said to be the adversary of God: the Devil is out to destroy God’s work or to tempt humanity into turning away from God toward evil.

Many of the references come from the Christian tradition, but fear not. A similar nefarious force appears across cultures.

Of course, the Devil appears in Muslim scripture as well. Ash-Shaytān comes from the Arabic al-Shaytān and is etymologically connected to the English Satan. The “ash” or “al” indicates that one is talking about the Devil (with a capital D) as opposed to a devil or demon.

The name Ash-Shaytān has several different variants in Arabic, including ShaytanShaitan, and Sheitan.

https://www.dictionary.com/e/s/devil-names/#1

I bring this up only because when people write about failed institutions the fall guy or gal is always a leader of some sort. The blame is laid at the feet of some the top banker, bureaucrat, general or prominent figure. I can’t really see how institutions fail due to one individual, powerful or not. The implementation of services and work following the guidance of norms rests with all the hundreds of individuals who partake in the activity.

Institutions can fail because humans are subject to weaknesses. Whether it is a Jinn sitting on a shoulder, or a dark force rustling through the trees, the inclination for each and every person to be tempted into a corruption large or small is real. Do you know of a teacher who has marked down a grade because they found the student arrogant? Or a banker who omitted to waive some promotional fees because the customer had been a you-know-what?

These are small corruptions. But they are real. The great recession of 2008 was a pyramid of small to progressively large corruption at every level of the mortgage industry; from the loan processors all the way up to packaging of the investment portfolios. Sure everyone wants to go after the high buck Wall Street guys, but $40/yr title closers were prosecuted for fraud as well.

Maybe due to my Christian background it is easy for me to accept that temptations are present and real. That human weakness is part of the deal. But it seems like the way the story is often told is that the average person is neutral to good, and only those with a lot to gain or loose can be tempted. It is erroneous in the the same way that the gift of charity is only considered a plus on the spread sheet of social accounting.

Whatever framework is used for the mechanics of institutional production, it must allow for negative numbers. For as dictionary.com reminds us today, there are evil forces everpresent amongst us.

Skin in the game: Librarian Edition

Downtown Minneapolis branch of the Hennepin County Library system

Here’s a story about skin in the game.

I was a little irritated with the library folks during the whole Covid thing. I felt the restrictions on library access carried on well past the point of other ‘returning to normal’ trends. The buildings were completely closed to traffic for over a year and when they did reopen, patrons were allowed 15 minutes to retrieve their materials and leave. Finally, in recent months the branches have been open (with masks) for people to linger.

I had swung into a branch with tall airy ceilings and well spaced furniture to review a book that had popped into one of the blogs I follow. Skimming a book can give me a pretty good indication of whether I’ll want to devote time for the full read. In this case, I simply wanted to re-shelve it but given the sensitivity to the virus, I walked it back to the entrance area and book return.

I approached the lady peeking out from behind a large pump bottle of sanitizer gel (if I never smell sanitizer again it will be too soon), rubber gloved hands folded over each other just below her sky blue mask, with seemingly nothing to do. She pointed over to the book return conveyor belt. But next time, she said, I should go ahead and shelf the book myself. The protections, it seems were just for her. Protecting the next patron from virus germs I could have left on the book, did not rise to her concern. Gels, masks, gloves were for some show, but not the one that protects the public.

In order to reveal how people really feel on an issue, calculate what they will give up, if anything, to achieve their ideal.

Being puffed up with knowledge goes way back

Taken from the Confessions of Saint Augustine:

But having then read those books of the Platonists, and thence been taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by those things which are made; and though cast back, I perceived what that was which through the darkness of my mind I was hindered from contemplating, being assured “That Thou wert, and wert infinite, and yet not diffused in space, finite or infinite; and that Thou truly art Who art the same ever, in no part nor motion varying; and that all other things are from Thee, on this most sure ground alone, that they are.” Of these things I was assured, yet too unsure to enjoy Thee. I prated as one well skilled; but had I not sought Thy way in Christ our Saviour, I had proved to be, not skilled, but killed. For now I had begun to wish to seem wise, being filled with mine own punishment, yet I did not mourn, but rather scorn, puffed up with knowledge. For where was that charity building upon the foundation of humility, which is Christ Jesus? or when should these books teach me it? Upon these, I believe, Thou therefore willedst that I should fall, before I studied Thy Scriptures, that it might be imprinted on my memory how I was affected by them; and that afterwards when my spirits were tamed through Thy books, and my wounds touched by Thy healing fingers, I might discern and distinguish between presumption and confession; between those who saw whither they were to go, yet saw not the way, and the way that leadeth not to behold only but to dwell in the beatific country. For had I first been formed in Thy Holy Scriptures, and hadst Thou in the familiar use of them grown sweet unto me, and had I then fallen upon those other volumes, they might perhaps have withdrawn me from the solid ground of piety, or, had I continued in that healthful frame which I had thence imbibed, I might have thought that it might have been obtained by the study of those books alone.

Miscarriage of History

A friend and I met for dinner recently. As we sat on the outdoor patio with a woven fence providing a nice block from the concrete urban surroundings, we caught up on family and old acquaintances. Once those topics had run their course, the conversation turned to current events in the city. It’s hard for even the ardent supporters of liberal progressivism not to observe the denouement of crime around them. As cycles go, the recent swing has whipped the curve right off the edges of the paper.

“Jxx’s mom once told me that the best of intentions in excess, often mutate into the worst of outcomes.” She said, a forkful of Tuna Poke Bowl suspended midway between her plate and mouth.

Not just intentions, I thought later as our dinner conversation replayed, but those rallied by excessive analysis of history, and primed like a bonfire on the Fourth of July with the venom of anger unaddressed. No wonder Lake Street had been set ablaze.

History is a recall of the past, as a reminder of both the good, the bad, the productive, the detrimental, and how all of it came to be. History is to learn from, to recognize and to account for. To use the cognitive qualities of our brains, (those useful tissues which separate us from other mammals) to grow into something more than we were before.

I question who it helps to replay the worst of things again and again. Gnashing through history seems counter productive, erodes confidence amongst those who need their confidence rebuilt. Taking a group’s worst of times and displaying it on a jumbotron for all to relive, is, maybe even hurtful. And the motivation for those who rally such action may be spurred on by some inner and other anger.

Anger can turn a story into a saga. It may soothe one but create a burden on another, one of a younger generation, one in the audience. History isn’t meant to assuage miscellaneous anger, sending out sideway messages. History isn’t meant to be a tool to those who only wish to transfer their personal suffering onto a greater audience for their own peace.

Defund the Police- Update

There’s been a volleyball match all week in the courts to determine the destiny of a ballot question for Minneapolis voters. The issue at hand is the reporting structure of the Minneapolis Police Department, requiring its lead officer to be accountable to the mayor as well as the city council people. Presently the chief of police reports only to the mayor.

On Monday, Jamie Anderson, a Hennepin County Judge struck down the question for the second time in seven days. “The court finds that the current ballot language is vague, ambiguous and incapable of implementation, and is insufficient to identify the amendment clearly.” I think she even implied that it was deliberately misleading, but the quote eludes me now.

In the summer of 2020, eight of the thirteen city council people of Minneapolis stood on stage in a public park and made a pledge to Defund the Police. It turns out the pledge was the easy part. Little progress has been made in the crafting and architecture of a program that would replace traditional policing with something better.

Meanwhile crime has escalated citywide. Violent crimes are up about 20 percent. The police force is down twenty percent.

Two of the council members from this heady period are not seeking reelection, including the City Council President, Lisa Bender, citing family reasons. Still- an organization called Yes 4 Minneapolis plunders forward with a political answer to the city woes when a utilitarian one proves elusive.

One benefit of the bruhaha is that it has shown a spot light on the cleverly worded proposal meant to sound reasonable and caring. It has also risen to a loud enough public status that the Governor, and several state Senators have felt the need to weigh in against the city charter change.

Just a few hours ago, at the end of the work day, the Supreme Court of MN overturned the lower court ruling and granted the ballot question’s legitimacy. Just in time for early voting which starts tomorrow.

Food Deserts are apparently a mirage

Someday I’ll have an academic explain how a study can be written and published when right in its text it admits that the concept in question fails to be validated. In the case of (US) food deserts:

Perhaps because of the wide variety of measures used and places examined,
study results have not reached a consensus on the characteristics of areas
that lack access to healthy food. Studies have produced conflicting results as
to the correlation among race, income, and access to healthy and affordable
food. Many researchers have concluded that neighborhoods consisting
primarily of minorities—in particular, African Americans—with low
incomes have fewer supermarkets than wealthier, predominantly White
neighborhoods (Berg and Murdoch, 2008; Powell et al., 2006; Block et al.,
2008; Larson et al., 2009). Others, however, have found either no correlation,
or that minority and low-income neighborhoods have a greater number of
grocery stores and are closer to these stores than wealthier areas (Alwitt
and Donley, 1997; Moore and Diez Roux, 2006; Opfer, 2010; and Sharkey
and Horel, 2008). These mixed results may not be surprising because these
studies are of localized areas. However, results from the two national-level
studies are also inconclusive. Powell et al. (2006) found that ZIP Codes with
more minorities and lower income populations had fewer chain supermarkets
but more nonchain supermarkets. USDA (2009) found that, on average,
low-income and minority populations were closer to supermarkets than
higher income individuals and non-Hispanic Whites.

Characteristics and Influential
Factors of Food Deserts,
by Paula Dutko
Michele Ver Ploeg
Tracey Farrigan

I don’t get it.

Are there truly so few good ideas that we have to pursue those which have no backing? Are we such a wealthy country that we can afford to throw money at inconclusive results?

Or do we want so badly to offer an answer, that a corruption is better than nothing at all?

Cherishing free speech

As a young adult I couldn’t figure out why my other liberal arts college friends rejected Wal-Mart for the more upscale Target for their basic shopping needs. Prices were better at the first (at least back then) and after living abroad where open air markets and shops with expired grocery items were common, lights, electricity and working refrigeration seemed luxury enough.

I was standing in line for the cash register one evening, after a long day at work, when it became clear. A few customers back in line, a mom taunted her toddler’s bad behavior with something intended to be discipline. Predictably, a wail spewed forth from the chunky cherub who was probably as tired as the rest of us. (It isn’t necessarily the big red carts which roll noiselessly over polished floors that make the bullseye more pleasant.)

Or, most of us have been at a social gathering where a couple simply can not contain the anguish currently residing between them. One throws an upper cut in the form of a small quip. The other gives an eye roll or swallows a guffaw. Their negative energy swills around the party on commentary and off the cuff remarks.

When I was at college we never framed each other up by political orientation. Well– almost never. There were a few jokes at the expense of the president of the Young Republicans (very ardent!). And the sandal wearing, longhaired hippy whose clothes billowed out marijuana odors might have been the butt of a joke or two. But nothing remotely similar to the angst experience on campus prior to Covid.

A mom is free to reprimand her child in public, but I’m not sure it is as productive as waiting until they get back to a quiet one-on-one setting. A couple is free to duke it out at a social gathering, but will find themselves alone with their problems once at home. Students can sign petitions, and march and jeer at the opposing parties. And here, I am sure they are ruining part of the experience that is called college.

All the hoopla around advocating for one’s political opinions has not proven to be all that productive either. If the taking of a knee, the shouting through a bull horn, the waiving of a flag is not advancing the cause, then it’s only being profitable to the petitioner. It’s really a privatization of a public concern.

Freedom of speech is precious and should be cherished. An audience can be receptive to the grifters who use it provocatively, or we can gently suggest a more appropriate place for personal conversations.

Mirror, mirror

You know how you feel the same as you did when you were twenty years younger, or thirty-five years younger? The thoughts you carry are often the same, or slightly developed. So this leads us to think our physical appearance, or age, may just as well be the same too. The shock only sets in when, for example, a newscaster on the nightly news looks to be about twelve. That’ll make you straighten up.

This isn’t the only thing in life we fool ourselves about. For some inexplicable reason we all are blinded to many of our own flaws. For that matter we don’t always see our strengths very well either. As good as the mind can be at analysis and observation of others, being frank with ourselves is out of reach.

This can be a problem. Perhaps we don’t realize our potential. Perhaps we pursue the wrong things. Perhaps we get ourselves into trouble by telling ourselves we’re really not doing the things we are in fact doing.

It should be as easy as looking into a mirror. And in a way it can be. Most of you have probably noticed how we carry similar traits as our families. I didn’t grow up in close proximity to my cousins, but when we get together our phrasing can sing out the same tone and emphasis. In addition to physical traits, families carry interactive traits. And in observing these we can fit ourselves into the potential of similar activities. We can learn from it.

So when you see your families tomorrow for your Fourth of July celebration, appreciate that they are all reflecting little mirrors back at you. Take it in. Make the information useful. And thank them for this subtle unobtrusive feedback.

The Wire– a review

If you prefer drama to comedy I can recommend the HBO series The Wire. The first of five seasons came out in 2002 when the TV in our house was featuring Barney and Dora the Explorer. A crime drama portraying the grisly conflict between law enforcement and the (mostly drug) criminals wasn’t in the cards.

The story lines hold their own with intrigue and surprise, along with character development. Every season probes a new scheme, a new crew of gangsters, while bringing along the established cast and story threads from past seasons. From Wikipedia:

Set and produced in Baltimore, MarylandThe Wire introduces a different institution of the city and its relationship to law enforcement in each season, while retaining characters and advancing storylines from previous seasons. The five subjects are, in chronological order: the illegal drug trade, the seaport system, the city government and bureaucracy, education and schools, and the print news medium. Simon chose to set the show in Baltimore because of his familiarity with the city.[4]

What holds up so well is the consistency of the norms, whether they are those which the criminals obey or the ones the mainstream players abide. Each side has heroes and crooks, has chivalry and villainy. Each side has bad luck and good fortune. Each side has weakness and substance abuse. A few try to pass from one side to the next.

The Wire is lauded for its literary themes, its uncommonly accurate exploration of society and politics, and its realistic portrayal of urban life. Although during its original run, the series received only average ratings and never won any major television awards, it is now widely regarded as one of the greatest television shows of all time.

The Wire – Wikipedia

You will also realize how far technology has come in the last twenty years. The primary tool used to capture the drug dealers is “by getting up on their phone,” or getting court authority to tap phones. When the first season opens these are pay phones on the corners of the gritty streets of Baltimore.

As long as you can tolerate a little violence, it’s well worth a watch.

When the mission has exhausted its purpose

PETA finds offense in the naming of Ham Lake, a sleepy small town about a half hour north of the Twin Cities. It’s the type of town that when you call city hall with a question you actually get through to the person you need to talk to and he or she is more than willing to spend some time answering your inquire and filling in any background as needed. There is a minimum lot size of an acre which preserves the rural feel of a settlement on the outskirts of a major metro.

And who are these fine folks roofed in the hamlet of Ham Lake offending ? — Pigs, apparently.

“Pigs are smart, sensitive, wonderful individuals, so if we have a heart, we’ll leave their legs alone and choose yams over hams,” says PETA President Ingrid Newkirk. “PETA envisions a new ‘Yam Lake’ that promotes kindness and healthy eating.”

https://www.peta.org/media/news-releases/peta-yams-it-up-with-name-change-proposal-for-ham-lake/

There’s a lot going on in the world right now for attention to be devoted to a swine’s feelings, detectable or not. If an animal advocacy group can come up with nothing better than recommending name changes to small towns in Minnesota, perhaps they have out lived their cause.

In a family group, the demands of a sick child, or a temporary bout of unemployment, may have the group suspending other activities so as to devote all resources to the emergency at hand. The natural mechanism is to continuously reassess resource allocation as the need for advocacy subsides. Thus ensuring a mission expires once past its usefulness.

In large organizations such as PETA, which has 6.5 million members and supporters worldwide, the reassessing goes to the wayside. The mission perseveres. Ham Lake must see the err of its way and morph into Yam Lake. It’s for the pigs!

Nesting, Public Goods and Price signals

Public goods often exist in a nested structure. The household, the neighborhood, the ward, the city, the state. The classroom, the elementary school, the district, the states’ Department of Education. At what point is it clear that a rung on the ladder needs help in its delivery of the good?

Earlier in the month it was reported that a charter school, Cedar Riverside Community School, would be closing. It serves a neighborhood of high rise subsidized housing nestled between downtown and the University of Minnesota. Lauded as culturally sensitive in its delivery of education to a mostly Somali immigrant community, it has been plagued with threats of closure due to poor performance for more than a decade.

There are many good intentions, hopes and aspirations at the ground level for these types of grass roots public goods to be successful. But when are the price signals strong enough to cause the rung up the ladder to engage, and supplement the production of the good. When is the loss great enough to tip the efforts away from the local level and demand services from a superior level?

With the bright flood lights of the world stage focused on our metro and its racial disparities, it’s hard not to imagine that the closure comes in the wake of last year’s events. It seems pretty costly and inefficient to wait for a crisis to fess up to the fact that these kids were not being served by their neighborhood school.

Maybe the better question is what are the powers in play which dampen or misalign the the signals of lost public good delivery? What stops the natural interactions of feedback and improvement that occur through the system elsewhere?

I can only speculate from afar, but it seems to boil down to two components: structure of (for pay) jobs and positions of power. An enterprise, whether a company or a school is composed of an interlocking group of paid employees. These are entities composed of W2 workers whose livelihoods depend on keeping the boat afloat. A company will sink if it fails to attracts consumers. As long as a school has a pool of students within its attendance boundaries, it will receive funding.

In a typical neighborhood, people with school age children will leave the neighborhood if they feel the schools are inadequate, while others would-be-buyers into the neighborhood will look to settle elsewhere. The dynamics is a little different in a neighborhood like Cedar Riverside as many of the residents are tied to their housing through subsidies. The lack of mobility creates a type of monopoly on the residents both for their support of the school as well as the political structure.

The end result is that the price signals–the signs that the pupils are failing to receive the public services which inevitably are an expense to them and their communities later in life–are muted. They are not able to exit. Their presence in the group is taken for granted by those in paying jobs and those with political power.

Platters

A few days ago I wrote an interpretation of a notion using an analogy to juggling plates. On the cover of Raghuran Rajan’s book, The Third Pillar, a disc is supported by three pillars. Think of these platters as holding political/economic ecosystems. The people on the plates are there voluntarily. But the more layers of plates, the easier it is to jump between them. If there is one plate up in the clouds and a bunch of plates jiggling away down by the parkay flooring, then people can only jump sideways, not upward.

On the cover of Raghuran Rajan’s book, The Third Pillar, a disc is supported by three pillars. Think of these platters as holding a political/economic ecosystem. The people on the plates are there voluntarily. But the more layers of plates, the easier it is to jump between them.

With this structure in mind, it is easier to see how societal systems require competent political figures at all levels, in turn providing greater freedom of movement between the platters. (And if you should imply from this mental drawing that those closer to the ground are somehow simpletons, you are not in my portrait, yet. Many people choose a simple rural life, for instance, regardless of their intellectual makeup)

There is, however, a natural nesting of authority, as all the plates are spinning in the same environment. So when decisions are made of an overarching nature, they come from the upper platters. A neighborhood does fine sorting out it’s dog park and garbage collection, but needs a city to set up sewers and water service. Then the county takes over with the county roads and the state with the freeways. What if there were no levels of government between caring for your own driveway and the interstate?

Here’s an example given by Raghuram Rajan in The Third Pillar.

Therefore, for example, they want him to procure a birth certificate for their child, who was delivered in their shack in a village far away from any medical clinic. The birth certificate is essential for the child to be admitted to the free government school, and no government officer will provide it with out suitable gratification, because he has no official document to rely on. The poor do not have the money to bribe so they plead for a call from the MP’s office, which will set the wheels of bureaucracy rolling. Once the child is in the local school, the child becomes the MP’s responsibility. When she gradu ates from high school, the MP has to find a college that will admit the student if her grades are modest, and when she gets a degree, he has to persuade some government office to give her a respectable secure job. And when she gets married, he will be invited to the wedding and be expected to give a suit able gift.

In a society where the typical government civil servant is neither civil nor a servant to the poor, the MP is the intermediary who will help the poor navigate the treacherous world. While the poor do not have the money to “purchase” public services that are their right, they have a vote that the politician wants. The politician does what he can to make life a little more tolerable for his poor constituents-a land right enforced here, subsidized medical services honored there. For this, he gets the gratitude of his voters, and more important, their vote. Tied to their MP via patronage, they do not really care about how the MP will vote on the bigger issues of the day, whether he supports tax-evading liquor barons, illegal miners, or industrial polluters, so long as these do not intrude directly in their already-hard lives.

The missing plates between the poor in this story and the MP causes a couple of errors in the system. Those who should be receiving support through a combination of reciprocal work and engagement have nothing to offer the person in authority but an unconditional vote. The vote contains no value in evaluating the higher level issues which do not effect their lives.

If the vote was going to an intermediary plate authority, one who could actually trade in meaningful services for the poor, social exchanges would be tested and evaluated and remediated through the system. A successful local politician, say at the city council level could become a candidate for state or county level responsibility. The omission of mid-tier ecosystems eliminates that possibility, allowing for private actors to step in and capture the needs at those levels, in fraudulent manners.

Suess Addendum

Whether intended or not, whether considered or not, the copyrights holders of Suess’ life work have realized a windfall. We can’t look into the hearts of men to know if they strategized for the money. Since Ted Geisel had no children of his own, we do know that these people are not his blood relatives.

I don’t think they expected the cash. They probably were horrified by the thought that they could be earning money off of anything of a systemic nature, and more than likely move in circles who feel the same way. Removing the books was a public service, a response, a tangible action.

Buyers thought otherwise. Some might say the buyers who pushed up the prices are part of ‘the problem.’ But I think most realize this is a group of people who feel this judgement-from-on-high of a beloved author is a miscarriage of cultural perspicacity. It follows a long list of similar actions that have yet to prove useful in tempering or solving this High-Stakes-Social-Issue (HSSI).

The fact remains that by withdrawing the product from the market, demand rose, and a pot of gold was found at the end of the rainbow. Indeed– signaling occurred. A signal to others who understand the social component of price and will now look for other opportunities to leverage and create their own pot of gold. It’s happened before. People were steered, profits were realized. Others found their nest egg fleeced.

I Care a Lot – Movie Review

My husband and I finally stumbled onto a movie last night that didn’t have me flicking the exit button after fifteen minutes. Netflix’s I Care a Lot twisted and turned enough to hold our attention.

It’s a battle between a nouveau riche con-woman and an established class con-man. But the story is kept au current by setting it in the middle of the how-to-care-for-aging-boomers dilemma. The portrayal of a nursing home as a lockdown facility is terrifyingly real, especially in times of covid when there has been strict control over who enters and exits through the magnetically locking entrance doors.

The protagonist is a bad ass feminist. She’s driven to out smart and out bully anyone in her path to success. She’s out to demonstrate how the work which usually falls to the domestic in a household, can instead be externalized into a lucrative business. Get the right doctor to assess memory loss and the right judge to legitimise her stewardship, and poof! She builds a portfolio of guardianships. Bend the rules a bit more, and it’s a cash cow bonanza.

The plot riffs off the ever too real issues simmering through many families. As mom and dad age, when do they become too forgetful (because being a little forgetful reaches well down into middle age)? Who gets to decide when an adult, a person of authority for decades, must forego their independence and turn everyday decisions over to another. An error of commission causes unhappy holiday gatherings. An error of omission invites scammers of all sorts to prey on the elderly.

Folks with false intentions

Ezra Klein: San Francisco is about 48 percent white, but that falls to 15 percent for children enrolled in its public schools. For all the city’s vaunted progressivism, it has some of the highest private school enrollment numbers in the country — and many of those private schools have remained open. It looks, finally, like a deal with the teachers’ union is near that could bring kids back to the classroom, contingent on coronavirus cases continuing to fall citywide, but much damage has been done. 

Eighty percent of my motivation to write commentary was due to folks like the ones described above. There was one in particular, who loved to call everyone a racist. But where did he send his kids to school?

So I guess I’m indebted to them.

Can we see some numbers, please?

Say an individual, Bob, is concerned about a public good, like the environment. He decides to make a new year’s resolution to do something about it. Over a two to three year period, he activates others in his industry to legislate a testing requirement that costs the consumers, say, $200 on average per transaction. Note that this organizing and petitioning and writing communications and attending meetings was all done outside of the pay-check sphere of life.

One of the objectors to the added commission-for-the-public-good points out that, other than providing information, the testing will not give rise to any tangible reductions in green house emissions. Bob and his cohorts respond that doing something is better than doing nothing. Is he right?

Now let’s say that instead of doing the testing one could give the $200 to the client to not use their personal vehicle for a month, or to not take an airplane trip. In both scenarios there would be a measurable and immediate impact on green house emissions. Given these choices, it’s fair to say that there are other ways to spend $200 which would result in a greater impact on the goal to reduce global warming.

Numbers must be run so the public has a means of comparison. While everyone is working on (lobbying for, debating in favor of) one idea, other more valuable ideas are neglected, omitted from the realm of public consideration. Even though no one received payment for their time, the capacity of a community to engage and respond was tapped. So despite Bob’s sincere interest in climate change, doing nothing is, in fact, better than advocating for an unsubstantiated claim.

Now let’s say Bob was particularly talented at organizing and galvanizing folks around a cause. And due to this success he continued to seek approval and status through this type of work. The impetus for action transforms to status seeking, increasing Bob’s private persona, versus the stated tangible impact to any group concern. Now, in an error of commission, a form of corruption, starts to germinate.

The answer is not to stop the Bobs of the world. Hardly. The intent of this blog is to encourage the meaningful enumeration of choices; to clarify the resources used as inputs and record the increases in public capacity and capital; the intent is to provide the information necessary to steer Bob’s ambitions to the most productive choices.

Systemic

The word systemic keeps getting worked into the conversation these days. Like when kale was in fashion. Some healthy new food that all of a sudden is made part of every dish but you’re not really sure what you think about it. Systemic–it’s put out there in a more or less free standing sort of way without any follow-up examples or stories to prop-up exactly what the speaker means by it. What we are dished up is a description of a (negative) social outcome, one that occurred due to systemic issues.

Dictionary.com offers this: [səˈstemik] ADJECTIVE. 1. relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part. It seems we need to understand more about systems. A system is not the sum of its parts. Here is what Lebanese born author Nassim Taleb offers from his book Skin in the Game:

The main idea behind complex systems is that the ensemble behaves in way not predicted by the components. The interactions matter more than the nature of the units. Studying individual ants will never (one can safely say never for most such situations), never give us an idea on how the ant colony operates. For that, one needs to understand an ant colony as an ant colony, no less, no more, not a collection of ants. This is called an “emergent” property of the whole, by which parts and whole differ because what matters is the interactions between such parts.

from Skin in the Game

So this Thing, that is socially detrimental, happens across a system. But what exactly? What happens that lies beyond the responsibility of one individual, and that echoes within a larger group of activity, that culminates into whatever it is being voiced as systemic? The gist is the Thing is a series of inter-related activities erupting into the highly objectional scenario at hand.

But why settle for gists and innuendo? Why not name this Thing? Why not fully flush out what it is that stair steps its way through households and into communities, through vendors and corporations, through bureaucracies and governments?

Take the Enron Corporation story for example.

At the end of 2001, it was revealed that Enron’s reported financial condition was sustained by an institutionalized, systemic and creatively planned accounting fraud, known since as the Enron scandal. Enron has since become a well-known example of willful corporate fraud and corruption. The scandal also brought into question the accounting practices and activities of many corporations in the United States and was a factor in the enactment of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002. The scandal also affected the greater business world by causing the dissolution of the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, which had been Enron’s main auditor for years.[2]

There’s that word systemic again. At this (formally) worldwide energy company, accountants at all levels could have called out questionable practices but did not. Through failure to act the organization was complicit at all levels of covering up fraudulent accounting practices.

A contrarian might say, is that really fair? The employee’s contract is to fulfill their job description for a bi-weekly check. Today, in the bright of day, the deceit is clear. But in the rush of the workday was it muddled? When did the private contract between employer and employee take on a public obligation? If an employee calls out their supervisor, the writing is on the wall and the pink slip is in their in-box.

The systemic promoters are talking about failure within an entire organization. They’re saying that a weighting of choices throughout an energy company, or a government agency, or a group of neighbors, have social implications. That the cascading of choices of each ant in the system can allow for a horrific result. That each actor has a varying degree of control, of an ability to say no, of the choice to turn on the group and change its course.

So let’s name that little portion of something that could be done to stop a social ill, let’s call it work. The employee enters into a private contract for employment but carries a public obligation to disrupt actions which are contrary to established social compacts. The portion of obligation is tied to the level of ability to have an impact (you can’t really do much as a first year junior accountant). This is also work–it is work in the pubic sphere.

These systemic issues not only occur within private work life, but also the time we devote to our families and communities. When insufficient attention is paid to the elderly, we hear of abuses in nursing homes. When insufficient resources are paid to depression, there are suicides. These too are due to a piece-by-piece failure within the entirety to respond. These too are systemic.

The Thing is work, or housework if you prefer. Not the type of inflammatory action that the cancel culture takes to achieve their thoughts on their social need du jour. The work of stopping over and taking your depression prone niece out for a daily bout of fresh air; the work of maintaining the ballfields for the little leaguers; the work of staying late one day to scrutinize the accounting that seemed awry but you had to really take a few minutes to double check for inconsistencies. It’s the small bits of work by hundreds (of millions) of employees and community members to maintain a certain standard of established norms.

It’s fine to start the conversation with, “All these xyz bad things happened and it’s Systemic!” But we can’t exactly tackle the correcting measures without understanding where and how in the system work can be done to achieve a better future.

The Judge vs. Embrace

Alex Tabarrok recognized the passing of WV Judge Richard Neely on his blog site today. He credits the judge’s candor with getting his first paper published in 2003 in a good journal. His paper, written with Eric Helland, argued:

We argue that partisan elected judges have an incentive to redistribute wealth from out‐of‐state defendants (nonvoters) to in‐state plaintiffs (voters). We first test the hypothesis by using cross‐state data. We find a significant partisan effect after controlling for differences in injuries, state incomes, poverty levels, selection effects, and other factors. One difference that appears difficult to control for is that each state has its own tort law. In cases involving citizens of different states, federal judges decide disputes by using state law. Using these diversity‐of‐citizenship cases, we conclude that differences in awards are caused by differences in electoral systems, not by differences in state law.

But it is the judge’s very own words that confirm his economic motivation in his rulings.

As long as I am allowed to redistribute wealth from out-of-state companies to injured in-state plaintiffs, I shall continue to do so. Not only is my sleep enhanced when I give someone’s else money away, but so is my job security, because the in-state plaintiffs, their families, and their friends will reelect me. (Neely 1988, p. 4).

So what does this have to do with a post I recently wrote about Embrace, a women’s shelter in Wisconsin? The shelter’s director set up a GoFundMe page after she alienated local police by prominently advertising BLM signs around the facility. The goal was to replace $25K in funding that was pulled by the county. As of this morning the kitty is over $100K with a stated goal of $112K. I’m not sure how she picked that number, if there has been some sort of marketing strategy, to keep ratcheting up the goal as long as donors respond.

What I want people to see is the structure of the groups and the motivations for the economic activity between them. (It’s all about the group) In both cases there is a greater federal group. In both cases there is a smaller group; for judge Neely it was comprised of the citizens of WV, for the shelter it is the community which is within their service area. Both the judge and the director are extracting money from the larger group. One is unabashedly leveraging the law for the benefit of his constituents.

I question whether the other is providing full disclosure about the economic transaction that is still underway. Is there an assumption on the part of the greater public that their dollars are supporting an organization which serves a public effected by the concerns of BLM (whereas only a fifteenth of one percent of the population in this county is African American)? Or does the greater group understand they are funding a director who simply shares a similar ideology but has no power to actively contribute to the welfare of BLM?

In order to detect deceit or inefficiencies one must delineate the groups. One must also acknowledge the public nature of the motivations which drives the activity within the group–that anyone within the group receives access to the benefit. The judge, for example, rules in this way for all his constituents who found themselves in a similar conflict. That the services of the shelter are open to anyone within its service area.

Neither the judge nor the director evaluate whether the taking of resources from the greater group harm or diminishes services in some way to other members of the greater group. Their pursuit for funds is fulfilled under the nature of a private transaction, no different than how a corporation pursues funds for their services. This mode of competitive behavior happened recently when states bid against each other for PPE’s in the early days of the covid-19 crisis. Although they work as agents for a public, their obligation for such is only to the inner group.

Judge Neely was one of those confident individuals who scoffed at the traditional method of holding group norms behind a cloak of anonymity. For this we can be thankful, as his words confirm this social economic group structure and the motivation that drives its behavior.

The work of it

The question of the day is what is the nature of work. Not work for which you receive a salary, but the work necessary for public production. Bill Green, professor of history at Augsburg College ponders this question in an interview with Cathy Wurzer of MPR. Here, the topic at hand is the toppling of a statue of Christopher Columbus. But it is his inquiry into determining whether such activity counts as work or whether there is some other commitment which is required to, in this case, neutralize the negative historical impact on minorities, which is interesting.

Without a definition, the wild west of interpretation has been unleashed. The loudest claimants promote their version: You must march on Washington! You must forego your police force! You must forego your career (as in the case of senator Al Franken). But did any of these three events materially contribute to the advancement of a single minority or woman? Or could we equate them more readily to exposing, hence a marketing of sorts, of the issues.

Why even does it matter whether we give work some shape, outline its boundaries? Let’s take the Women’s march on Washington in early 2017. It is reported that 470,000 people showed up in our nation’s capital. Many more across all the states. But we can assume that say 400,000 in Washington traveled to get there. So let’s say the whole weekend took 48 hours of their lives. Now say the median hourly wage in the US is $18.5/hour. So for two days of work these folks contributed the equivalent of $296 x 400,000=$118.4million. Use your own numbers, but it is a lot of cash.

The women marching in the photos don’t look destitute or oppressed. They are not themselves in need. They are there on behalf of others. And I believe their intentions were sincere. They undoubtedly felt this was work towards their cause. It just seems like they could have better used the $118.4 million to secure housing for a single mom and her elementary school child, for instance. Or part of that $118.4M could have guaranteed vocational training and mentorship for girls coming out of a foster home setting. There are so many gaps in the chain of needs.

It reminds me of the foreign aid packages from years gone by. They were intended to feed the poor, but the poor rarely saw a trace of it. The work done in a public sphere requires the parties to touch, to interact, to engage in a transaction of a public nature. All this cancelling and marching and firing is just drumming up a bunch of grandstanding.

Follow the money

For those who follow the blog you know that I’ve been harping on the distinction between public and private, club and common goods, here, here and here. In my view goods are not sorted in this manner. A hammer is a hammer. If it is used to fix my deck it is in service to me privately, if it is used build a Habitat for Humanity house it is providing a public service to house the unsheltered.

The reason it is necessary to resort this understanding is because it is how we can see corruption. Corruption is not just up to politicians. A system can be corrupt and individuals, small groups and so on. When a set of rules are put into play, but then through cloaking and shading people (or groups of people) pursue other objectives, there is corruption.

Take the case of Embrace, a domestic violence shelter, that’s been in the news. The local police in Barron’s County Wisconsin objected to the posting of BLM posters around their building. And felt this posting calling out police violence, discredited their service. As a result public funding for the shelter was revoked. Here are the Huffington Post, Wisconsin Public Radio and the Washington Post articles.

Embrace states their core mission

To end violence, inspire hope and provide unwavering support to all people affected by domestic and sexual violence by engaging our community in safety, equality and partnership.

Now remember domestic violence persists when the normal social catches fail. When there are no close family members to pull their daughter, son or elderly parent out of an abusive situation. When there are no neighbors who notice excessive bruising and quietly offer the victim a way out. Domestic violence requires a formal force intervention because no other means of social exchange has worked or been available. And from what I understand, these types of calls are frequent and precarious for the police.

Given the necessity of the police to intervene in order to get the abused to their doorstep, you would think the shelter would consider this public agency as a core part of their workplan. As to why the shelter declined to remove their signs, Katie Bement the shelter’s executive director told the Huff Post:

“We were approaching it from an accessibility standpoint,” she told HuffPost over Zoom on Thursday. “We needed to show that we’re safe for those communities of color.”

Yet Barron county’s black population is .14% (a fifteenth of 1 percent) of all residents. I’m not sure how many of those 62 people would be drive by the shelter first before making a call for help or finding them on-line. I don’t have the statistics from police response rates or the shelter’s service records, but I suspect the demographics of those receiving aid lines up with the 97%.

As much as the shelter would like to merge the work they do in Barron County with the objectives of BLM the demographics seems to deny them this reality. The group they provide services to are overwhelmingly, if not completely unaffected by the concerns of BLM. In fact the two missions are at odds with one another as the later has diminished the abilities of police to provide security nationwide. Which is undoubtedly why the county pulled funding.

Now back to corruption.

Within a day of the Huffington post article being run, a GoFundMe page was set up for the shelter. Before dinnertime they had surpassed their $25K goal. As of this morning (screen shot included) the page is reporting a kitty of over $69K. Would the shelter have been able to raise this funding without the BLM story behind it? By accepting these donations has the shelter’s mission changed?

If you publish one set of objectives yet acquire funding for another, it seems that you are at odds with your group. It’s not that groups can’t change their rules or objectives, its just that you have to be clear about them so people know what they how their resources are being invested.

How are things going in Minneapolis?

Personal safety is a deal breaker for most residents. If they do not feel safe in their own home do to gun violence, car jackings and even break-ins, they will move.

It’s all in the comments. Here are just a few from this post.

The Ratcheting up of Regulation

The enforcement of norms is an everyday event. Whether through disapproving looks across a bin of oranges at the grocery store in response to a parent’s disciplining techniques, or the scoff of disbelief at your friend’s new beau’s use of culturally insensitive language, or showing up to work with a card and flowers for a co-worker who recently lost a spouse. The behavior of shaping, criticizing or supporting of each other is judged and metered out with eye movements, gestures, and offers to help.

Once an infraction is deemed serious, it is made a law- you shall be prosecuted if you leave your toddler in a hot car while you shop. There is a lot of ground covered, a lot of degrees of severity and risk in parental actions, between scolding a toddler over a pyramid of piled up produce and locking someone up for child endangerment. But everyone can agree that we are all better off by formally acknowledging a certain threshold of acceptable behavior and enforcing persecution against those who cross over.

We are all better off knowing we can drink tap water from the faucet and that our houses won’t crumble overhead, and we can feed our kids hotdogs from the concessions stands at the Little League games. Accepting these standards and counting on a system, comprised of a series of reportings and enforcements, will maintain the freedom to move in and between communities safely. This is a social advantage we often take for granted.

It can also be shown that at some point there are diminishing return to regulations as their burdens cause detriments that are costly. Most of these arguments set up a discord revolving around health and safety (often tied in with the environment) versus the ability to supply families with income from a job. But this source of monetary capital also affects a person’s ability to lead a healthy safe life. You end up with this big teeter-totter where on one side all the variables set to maximize production of industry are weighted, and on the other, all the variables set to maximize social concerns piled up. What we want to find is at what point where the board finds balance.

Since this topic will be the question of this century, let’s start with a wide angle view in considering the use of regulation to keep the teeter-totter level.

Regulations for commercial enterprises seem to ratchet-up more freely than to release and reevaluate. There are many indications that the systems in place which regulate commerce, (often bureaucracies like Departments of Commerce and Federal Administrations, but cities as well) are not getting the feedback necessary to properly account for all the downsides to their actions. Things at the city and county level work fairly well. Yet, I propose that in the case of big business the intended beneficiaries of the regulation are removed from the system. They do not receive an accurate evaluation of the issues nor a proper accounting. And except to become activists at times of tragedy, they fail to regularly communicate with the regulating agencies.

For purposes of contrast, first consider water quality which is administered at the city level. Complaints about the water filter up through the city council and can be voiced at open city council meetings. Elected officials respond to constituents, especially those who show up. Even city staff feel the pressure when the seats are all taken in the normally hushed city council chambers. Other than the very notable example of Flint MI (and undoubtedly a few under-reported incidents) potable water is successfully provided to 331 million people in the US.

Take hot dogs at a concession stand. The county public health people have the power to decide the cleanliness of the two-windowed, wood clad concession stand with its pretzel warmer and popcorn popper and slushy machine. It is in their power to have it to meet the same standards as a science lab, of they so choose. But the regulator, who is more than likely a part of the community, knows that if the rules checklist becomes too long, making the workload too great for the already tapped, completely volunteer workforce to handle, it will shut down. No concessions, no extra money. No extra money, no new uniforms or dugouts, or pitcher mounds. Do ballfield concession stands or Rotary pancake breakfasts really need to be run at restaurant level standards of cleanliness to keep people safe? Or is there some other level that is ‘good enough’ that won’t squelch to whole endeavor?

Regulation of businesses, however, are missing the community tie-in. Commercial enterprises are regulated by bureaucracies, where people develop careers and other monetary incentives to successfully develop and implement regulations. It’s their job. The purpose of the position is to protect the consumer, where more protection always seems better.

This system removes the citizens that show up at the council meeting both in favor and against city action from the system. The bureaucrats judge and evaluate. They search for evidence to justify their position, not from the public, but from other detached experts. The consumer who can best express the complete picture of tradeoffs for their particular lot in life, has no routine forum. The next closest party to the transaction is the business person who hears and tries to comply with the requests of the consumers. Yet he/she is considered tainted by a money motive, and hence regarded with suspicion or often disregarded.

With the absence of a consumer evaluator, there is no system wide continual assessment of the costs and benefits of the regulation. There is no dynamic information being provided to determine when the regulation has gone too far and is causing too great of a burden.

So what to do? One solution is to consider how people live, by considering their revealed preferences. Testing, if you will, where the new standards are in relation to what the population expresses as their acceptable risk level. For instance, say you have a city that imposes a rental property review based on a scoring system comprised of a four page list of items. Missing smoke detector 5 points, missing receptacle plate 2 points, no furnace tune-up in the last year 5 point, ripped window screen 1 point, etc.. When the property scores 20 or more the renters must vacate the property as it is deemed inhabitual.

Now let’s say the assessment is used on the other 23 homes on the block. If 75 percent of them failed then it seems that the review checklist is too stringent. The regulator are basically saying to its own constituents that their standard of house maintenance are inadequate and they must move. (How do you think that would go over?)

Think of how this came about. The property regulators were trying to do right by the tenants, trying to get rid of the slumlords. They developed a tool that would allow them to put a handful of bad actors out of business. They get little community objection. Even very acceptable landlords are going to stay quiet when heavy handed regulation is in the mix as they are fearful of retaliation. But by setting a standard well above the average accepted living conditions, the regulators have raised the cost of providing housing. Since cost is reflected in rents, this causes undo pressure on affordable rentals.

Indexing off a general-population-standard may not be the end-all-be-all, but it would provide a starting point for the group. If analysis showed reasons for regulators to require more out of a subgroup (rental property), than at least this could be publicly discussed and agreed upon. But forcing the landlords to provide housing units at a higher standard than the average, and hence places undue costs on the provision of housing, avoids a proper accounting. This leads to endless circular discussions about the lack of affordable housing and whose to blame and whose to pay.

Furthermore when regulations don’t match the populations expectations, people resort to go-arounds until the formal rules are disregarded entirely. The highway speed limit debate that started in the early seventies left the public conversation once States set their driving limit to how fast motorists tended drive.

As a part of the system, development, implementation and enforcement of regulations need to be influenced by all actors. When a bureaucracy takes on an agency of their own, which allows them a power position which in effect rebuffs feedback from the general population. Using an indexing method for the group would at least reveal an average standard. It would provide an initial means of analysis. Ideally, even in situations of complex issues there could be a greater transparency with all the costs at hand. And in this way the average citizen could participate in a continual feedback loop while they assess their costs. Without this participation we are simply creating a power void ready to be filled by bureaucratic czars.

We’ve lost track of regulation by allowing it to jump out of the mechanics of the entire system. Lack of transparency and convoluted agency keep any meaningful accounting of the tradeoffs. In the same way that the business community’s opinion of the issues at hand are tainted by the money motive, so are the bureaucrats. They are incented to build their agencies, find new safety concerns, beat back business with zeal. So why are we surprised when they do so?