On Prisons for Profit

| categories: politics, economics | View Comments

I've said to friends that the problem people have with capitalism is that it gives people what they want, and most people don't like knowing what that is.

It's a facetious jab at the people moaning about "alienation" (whatever the hell they mean by that) that completely ignores a lot of real problems, but it does get at the one most important property of markets: everyone gets what they pay for.

The application of this to privatization seems to continually elude the state. It should be simple: "when privatizing, make sure the provider makes money when, only when, and exactly when, your ultimate goals are met." Like most simple-but-effective rules, there's a lot of emergent complexity to the execution, and unsurprisingly, our leadership rarely gets it right.

So it is with private prisons, which the ACLU says produce poor conditions and are more expensive and which Facebook says conspire with the government to drive up incarceration rates (I can find nothing reputable on either side of that issue, though there's quite a few paid search results to the contrary on Google).

From what I can gather government went for the obvious "tenancy" pricing model: they pay $X per inmate per time. That's a fine way to get a place to imprison all these people you're imprisoning, but not so fine a way to ensure that the social goals prison ostensibly exists for are accomplished.

I'm in to goofy thought experiments on this blog, let's try a complete justice system reform with a private penal system at the center. I'm going to put emphasis on the "experiment" here, we'll make this as weird as possible:

  • No sentence lengths. You get out of the penal system when you're reformed. You'll see in a moment why we don't need them.
  • Private penal companies are not paid to keep you. They keep you at their own expense, then discharge you. They are not obligated to remove any of your freedom, but are liable for any further social damage you cause during your sentence.
  • Upon discharge, the company is paid a sum for reforming you.
  • If you commit a crime again, the penal company is fined an amount greater than they were paid and a different penal company is put in charge of your next sentence.

Not perfect, but let's look at the perks:

  • Penal companies are paid strictly for turning prisoners into reformed productive citizens. They don't get paid unless prisoners get out and stay out.
  • There's limitless creativity allowed for fixing social ills. If the right thing to do with criminals is to get them in a vocational program and get them jobs, that's what penal companies will do. If we don't need prisons we don't have any.
  • Sentence length adjusts to appropriate dimensions. Pressure on the penal companies is for smaller sentences.
  • Completely dispenses with foolish activities like retribution.


  • It's not impossible to imagine a scenario where just sitting on a prisoner forever is the least expensive strategy. A clerical error preventing release might also be harder to redress legally.
  • A multiple repeat offender, if one still exists in this system (and at scale, there's always one) could eventually exhaust the list of penal providers.
  • More expensive to punish "difficult case" prisoners.
  • Retribution is politically popular.

There's some extreme ideas here, but the thought of something this different should at least get a few out of the "privatization is always bad" rut. The effectiveness of privatization is a function of how well you structure the incentives, not of some innate property of privatization itself.

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It's Time to End the War On Stupid People

| categories: politics, tech | View Comments

I never knew Sarah Sharp personally, but I was aware of her.

On one hand, it's hard to say how; I've never had particular interest in the USB stack, or much at all outside of the core kernel, and even there I've never managed to actually contribute beyond a couple of cosmetic patches.

On the other hand, it's little mystery at all: Sarah was the first female kernel contributor I'd ever heard of, and the only one I can readily name now. It's an uncomfortable answer, because when someone breaks into a space that doesn't often include their gender or background, we feel we avoid culpability by being nonchalant. No exclusion here, nosiree. Didn't even notice you were a woman. It's comforting and dishonest; when someone breaks a boundary of cultural exclusion, regardless of how your reaction may later be judged, the fact is you notice.

Although apparently nobody noticed when Sarah quietly disappeared over the past year, finally coming out to cite now-familiar complaints about the toxic and hostile atmosphere on LKML and in the kernel community in general.

In an ignorant youth that I'd rather was further away than it is, I remember liking the atmosphere on LKML. Mentioning being in the kernel community seemed to have the same effect on the right kind of crowd as saying you were from Brooklyn did in the early 90s. The threads of LKML were mean streets that would chew you up and spit you out if you weren't tough enough to handle it. But I was, of course. I was tough, you betcha, and only real tough guys have what it takes to stand up for code the way it should be written.

It's not hard to see the appeal, for a certain sort of ego, but there's something deeper. "Nerd" communities gravitate toward this form again and again. Other open source forums, video game communities, 4chan, the marks are similar no matter how distant the topics get. And why? What is it about geeky types that produces this sort of structure?

What is the war on stupid people?

Being cursed with doting parents, I got called a "genius" from a very young age, well on in to my adult years. I had my share of unusual feats, and I liked computers which were proper "genius" things to like, and at some point I took an IQ test and a very impressive number was produced. "Genius" it was then.

Of course, the older I get, the less I'm convinced there really is any such thing. Getting anything meaningful out of as gloriously defective a thing as a human brain, no matter what condition it may be in, is a skill and an art, not a product of ordainment into a pantheon of great thinkers. So I stopped thinking of myself as a genius.

But before I did, I remember thinking everyone else was stupid.

Perhaps it's too much praise, or some failure to notice the dissonance in thinking you're better than everyone else and then also expecting them all to keep up, but I'm hardly the only sufferer of the condition. To a certain sort of mind, stupidity is the chief moral and cultural demon in the modern world. When you have the answer to everything, it suddenly becomes clear that the only thing between the world and paradise is all of those people who just won't fucking listen no matter how many times I explain the most obvious thing God damn them!

It is human nature to define our enemies, and soon the abstract and ill-defined idea of "stupid" begins to take on concrete and fantastically fictional features. It becomes intentional; every futile political debate, every badly indented piece of forgotten code, every near-mishap on the freeway, all engineered by some malevolent demographic of those who wish to fuck everything up for everyone.

And so protectorates are established. Bastions to hold back the encroaching stupid masses. The mean streets of LKML, where yes you will be lambasted and degraded and torn apart daily, but you're ok with it because you're tough. You're a real tough guy who can take this sort of thing because you're not one of them. It is all necessary to protect you from them. And if you can't, well maybe you're one of them after all and you should leave, traitor.

As the airport screenings protect you from Muslims and the mass incarcerations protect you from drugs, so this sort of personal violation protects you from idiocy.

I'm prone to hyperbole, on this blog especially, but I have also witnessed a contributor in #fedora openly proclaim that someone seeking help in the channel was being deliberately incompetent for the purpose of causing him frustration. On multiple separate occasions. If one ever wanted to destroy the field of economics entirely, one need only come up with a single example of a person dedicating time and effort to such a perfectly and absolutely unproductive task. What can we call the belief that such people exist and are out to get you other than psychotic paranoia?

And so, I ask, what is it to be stupid, really? Are some slower to process information or discover novel solutions to problems? Certainly, and some run less quickly than others. If we leave behind our childish desperation to invert the high school hierarchy, I can scarcely find much reason to value one much over the other. A person who is "stupid" in this way does me no harm whatsoever. Is irrationality and succumbing to bias a better definition? Doubtful. These are real and dangerous problems, but irrationality is not so intrinsic as we claim of "stupidity." Rationality is a procedure, the "skill and art" I mentioned earlier. It can and has been described as a step-by-step process, and it requires only minimal mental power to execute. What it requires a great deal more of is self-discipline. I hardly think the behaviors we describe here demonstrate much of that.

So let's bring an end to it. Call of the war on stupid people. Respect others as a matter of policy. I promise you the kernel will be fine. All of us will be. Most of us better.

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Why I'm a Capitalist (and What Does That Mean)?

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RE: Post interval: It has been eight months and I feel shame.

Awhile back I was contemplating giving a presentation to a local group of progressive types about capitalism, since they seemed to be making a lot of offhanded complaints about it which nobody seemed to feel required substantiation. As I sat down to start compiling my thoughts, an interesting problem presented itself: did I know what capitalism was?

Certainly the way my prospective audience had used the term indicated that they didn't seem to think it meant what I thought it meant, but language is descriptive, and if I was going to tell them their definition was wrong I'd better have some substantial proof that the "right" definition was going to result in more effective communication. I was, after all, considered a socialist by most of the Republicans in my acquaintance (by virtue of not completely and exactly agreeing with every single word Nozick ever said), so maybe I would find I agreed with them if only I understood what they meant.

So I contacted my economist friend and asked, and... he had no idea.

I'd noticed at the time that the more economics-minded folks in my life seemed not to use the word much, and the answer I got back was basically "something Marx was obsessed about." Vague as that was, it did match what my progressive friends were saying. I could drop the subject there, but I felt like I hadn't yet engaged with the ideas I was in conflict with, so I kept going.

I decided I would define the idea myself, and go from there. Surely I'd always meant something in particular by it. The best I could do was explain myself and hope to find common ground.

So, in short:

Capitalism is the use of markets as the primary method of resource
allocation within a society.

It is important, here, to realize that capitalism, to me, means nothing more than this. Nobody need work jobs or engage in any particular form of "consumerism" (whatever that means). All we need here are property rights that protect (to a large degree, not absolutely) sovreignty over ones posessions, and the largely unrestricted right to transfer those posessions. As long as we have that, and the majority of goods worth acquiring are posessions of one entity or another, capitalism is in effect.

This should pretty much clear up my also identifying as a socialist earlier; while many damn or praise the various "socialist" countries in Europe, I would wager that by this definition there isn't a single advanced nation on earth that isn't, pound for pound, more capitalist than not. The United States spends about 19% of its GDP on social spending, with some, but not all of the "socialist" western states reaching up in to the 30s.1 Keep in mind that as GDP per capita rises, it is in theory possible to provide the same level of social benefits while spending less as a percentage of GDP providing them. I've made the bolder conjecture that the US could guarantee a high standard of living for all if it were willing to replace most or all of its social infrastructure with a guaranteed basic income at the same cost, but I'm not prepared to substantiate that now.

Capitalism is, so far as we've seen, the best mechanism on earth for making an economy create wealth. It has no particular provisions for fairness, but that's a moot point. The old conservative proverb about "unequally shared wealth" versus "equally shared misery" holds up surprisingly well under economic scrutiny. Oddly, only the most extremist socialist thinkers I talk to seem to grasp this perfectly; I take a lot of issue with the anarcho-communists who want to see the entire world return to subsistance farming on small plots of land, but at least when they say they want to destroy capitalism, they understand the result.

But, from the other side, capitalism is also more resilient than the right gives it credit for. There's a paranoia among conservatives that that not-so-utopia of quiet subsistence farming will suddenly spring in to existence if one more dollar is spent on social programs. Granted I'd like us to get much, much more value out of the money we are spending, but the reality is it's a sliding scale. At 100% taxation we get our hippie farming not-really-paradise, and at 0% we get massive wealth and fatal poverty. All points in between are available to us. And, yes, the ideal point is probably pretty far to the right of the curve, assuming you can decide what constitutes a center.

And so, I'm a capitalist. One who supports modest wealth redistribution carried out by means of direct payment systems which can be implemented by a small, weak government. Not so scary, huh?

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Feminism and letting go of language

| categories: politics, feminism | View Comments

The internet wants to ban feminism.

Understandably, this has made a lot of people very, very angry. I'm sure 4chan is pleased. I am ultimately confused.

I've been frustrated for awhile with progressivism's awkward relationship with language, and ill-defined championing of some strange form of linguistic prescriptivism. The whole progressive movement seems caught up in the idea that words have meaning. Words don't have meaning, meanings have words, and feminism has other words.

Say "feminism" out loud for a moment. Pay attention to what you are doing; the inward curl of the lower lip for the opening fricative, the clenching of the pallate for the long "E", the gentle rushing of air over the "s."

Which of these things you just did with your mouth is necessary to improve the stature of women in western society?

I'm being dramatic about it, but it's hobbling the movement. How many well-meaning articles do we read that tell their audience "feminism doesn't mean what you think it means?" How much affect do you think these articles have? Your opponents aren't going to let go of their definition of the word any more than you are, and by trying, you've acknowledge a central fallacy in the way the debate is carrying on: you and they do not agree on what feminism means. There's no common language, ergo there is no discussion. You've never actually talked to the people that disagree with you.

Try it my way: next time someone says "feminists are just hairy ugly women who want to castrate all men and take their jobs," just say "fine, we can go with that. Also, I'm not a feminist by that definition. Also, I contend that no feminists exist by that definition. Now that your bogeyman has vanished, can we talk about woman's ownership of her own body?"

You have nothing to lose by the banning of the word feminism. Does saying "I support equal rights for women" really make you sound any better? Moreover, doesn't making your opponents say "I don't support equal rights for women" rather than "I don't support feminism" expose them all the more quickly?

I'm indifferent on the word feminism. I am a feminist when and only when my audience understands the word "feminism" the same way I do. I'd much rather agree to use the same terms whatever those terms are, and move on to more substantial discussion.

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Wherein The Internet Once Again Fails its Economics Course

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This shit needs to stop. For my health if no other reason. Learning about economics has thus far served me about like learning about kerning. My education is merely serving to render me acutely sensitive to a new and shockingly pervasive kind of ignorance.

It's somewhat my fault this time, since nothing but morbid curiosity could keep you going past the first few sentences. "What is the difference between selling and sharing?" the article offers up. I think it's playing devil's advocate or something, but the stage has been set: we're debating a pile of crunchy-granola distinctions between some nebulously-distinct forms of exchange.

Let's take it bit by bit:

For the past few years, the “sharing economy” has characterized itself
as a revolution.

Yes it has, and, to get right to what's being begged: no, it isn't. Social media has increased information exchange. More information means better-informed purchases, which reduces arbitrage, and faster, finer resource allocation, which may increase arbitrage if someone is in the right place to add a bit of friction.

But we're being set up for the big reveal, so try to act surprised.

While other cities fight back, California has attempted to codify new
“sharing” business models with new regulations. While San Francisco has
recently cracked down on some particularly high-volume Airbnb
renter-hosts, Chiu and other “sharing” advocates are trying to pass
legislation to make the practice legal.

So the entrenched business models have been less-than-successful in regulatory capture? Am I supposed to be upset? Still waiting for that big reveal...

Across the U.S., high costs of living are driving more of the employed
toward “side hustles,” i.e. unprotected freelance work, the kind
fostered by the sharing economy. Where workers don’t have the start-up
investments necessary to participate — the cars, homes, kitchens to
rent — then they can just rent those too.

So in a tough U.S economy, a system has arisen where people strapped for cash can find more work than they otherwise would, and have access to housing, vehicles, et cetera?

Still looking for a punch line...

But sharing businesses aren’t just creating new income streams from
nothing. In “disrupting” even troubled markets — the taxi industry has
had this coming for a long time — the glory of the peer economy comes
at the expense of other workers’ livelihoods.

Oh the humanity! New business models compete with old business models! And it's all because those mean venture capitalists are giving them money. Of course the west coast startup scene devours far more companies than survive, but we can't possibly take that as a sign that this change of guard represents a meaningful improvement in the market.

And besides, these new workers are unprotected! Clearly we can't let a new business model disrupt our sacred right to buy and sell labor under contracts structured exactly the way our fathers' and mothers' were. A cab company can change its business model, but that we the labor provider should also be required to update our business model? Scandalous! Surely the purpose of a market is to ensure the livelihood of its sellers, not to efficiently reallocate the resource exchanged upon it. The market is a tool to ensure social welfare, and if it isn't, I don't like it and it should go away!

But our society is not returning to a past utopia of collective social
confidence and equality because this utopia never existed. The sharing
economy doesn’t build trust — it trades on cultural homogeneity and
established social networks both online and in real life. Where it
builds new connections, it often replicates old patterns of privileged
access for some, and denial for others.

It's as if the author has never heard the words "efficient exchange." What do the poor have to gain by us preventing them from engaging in these new economic opportunities? You want the poor fed, and someone has offered them a means to get fed. Lives are getting better. Where's your complaint?

Interestingly we've made them rentiers over their few blessings; their income is now arbitrage based just like the very rich. I'd not be surprised if there was an equalizing effect to that, though I'm out of my depth now.

The best performers in Airbnb are white women, and the worst performers
are black men.

Awesome. Let's let corporations vote for us too! Then there will be no racism in the economy or the government!

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