Bankruptcy article published in a book

Late last summer, I got email from the publisher Gale. They wanted to license my Wise Bread article Bankruptcy is a Good Thing to use in their book Bankruptcy (Introducing Issues With Opposing Viewpoints).

They have a whole series of “introducing issues with opposing viewpoints” books, each of which contains a variety of articles and essays on some topic. I gather that the idea is to help teach students the skill of reading a number of articles, any one of which may be unbalanced or narrowly focused, and then synthesizing an understanding of the topic. It’s a useful skill, and one that’s hard to teach with a textbook, since textbooks generally try to present a comprehensive and balanced viewpoint.

I executed the license agreement back in August. The book came out in April, and the check (payment on publication, of course) arrived today!

It would probably be worth my time to market reprint rights more aggressively, but I enjoy writing more than I enjoy marketing. So, it’s especially nice when the chance to earn a license fee falls into my lap like this.

Because of the nature of (and price of) the book, I didn’t try to negotiate a contributor’s copy. If you happen upon a copy, I’d be pleased to hear a little about it.

Missing the point on immigration

I live in a nicely cosmopolitan little apartment complex. It’s one of the cheaper places to live in town, so we get a nice mix: single people, young couples, seniors, working-class folks, grad students. Those last two categories in particular add a good bit of racial diversity—African Americans, South Asians, East Asians. It makes for a nice place to live.

Because I like living in places like this, I find myself conflicted on the topic of  immigration.

The largest motivation for opposing immigration (setting aside the wrong-headed opposition that springs from racism) is economic—but most of the people trying to make the economic argument get it wrong. Or maybe they just state it poorly.

Population density

The most important reason that the United States is an attractive place to live is the low population density. This was true from the beginning of European settlement. There was enough land that anyone could be a landowner. The low population meant fewer workers, which kept wages high and working conditions good. Natural resources were abundant, meaning everyone could have and use more timber, more water, more grain, and (especially over the past couple of generations) more coal, oil, and natural gas.

There is high population density in cities, and that’s the best way to arrange things: If most people live in an urban environment, it preserves the maximum amount of land for crops, timber, pasture, natural areas, and so on. Sprawling the people out in subdivisions and exurbs wastes a lot of land. But however you arrange the living and working spaces: the more people you have, the smaller the average person’s share is going to be.

Economists dismiss this argument, on the grounds that people are productive: Each new person produces more than enough to be self-supporting, so each new person can potentially raise everyone’s standard of living. That’s not wrong exactly, but it’s largely a self-serving argument. The monied interests benefit from an influx of new workers, because a larger labor force holds down wages. At the same time, the monied interests don’t suffer as their pro-rata share of nature’s bounty declines, because they don’t settle for a pro-rata share; they buy as much as they want, leaving that much less for the rest of us.

Many people understand this at some level, but view it in pieces rather than as a whole. If they’re workers, they object to other workers willing to work for lower pay. If they’re business owners, they claim that there are “certain jobs” that Americans just won’t do. (A falsehood: it would be easy to find Americans to do any job, if it were a full-time salaried position with health insurance, a pension, and education benefits—just like every job I ever had as an adult.) Others point to the increased demand on social structures when “different” people arrive—people with bigger families (more children to be educated) or people who speak a different language (public safety information needs to be translated). At this level, the pro-business argument is correct: immigrants are productive and the taxes they pay easily cover the costs of the services that they use. But they still increase the population density—and that means dividing all the resources of the country among more people.

It’s an economic issue, a quality-of-life issue, and particularly an environmental issue: there are many things that are only environmentally harmful if the demand for inputs exceed the local environment’s capability to provide them, or if the outputs produced exceed the local environment’s capability to handle them.

So: I’m not against immigration; I’m against population growth. In the context of a stable population, I’d like as much immigration as possible, because I enjoy a cosmopolitan community.

Where the anti-immigrant argument turns really wrong, is when it comes to strategies and tactics of handling a population that includes some immigrants.

Police state

If you’re going to allow people to visit, whether for tourism, cultural exchange, as guest workers, or whatever, some number of those people are going to stay here. They’ll stay for all kinds of reasons—for economic opportunity, for freedom, because they fall in love with someone who lives here, or just because they like the place they’re visiting.

If the number who stay are the number you want to stay, then everything’s fine. But if it’s more than you want, there’s no way to reduce the excess without turning the country into a police state.

I don’t want to live in a police state. I don’t want police to ask me for my papers. It’s annoying. It’s un-American. It’s unconstitutional. (Well, it’s constitutional for the police to ask, but it’s unconstitutional for them to do anything if I don’t present my papers. Note that the Supreme Court seems inclined to disagree with me on this point.)

For one thing, there’s no obligation for a citizen to even have papers. Almost everyone does, because a drivers license counts and it’s so handy to be able to drive, but it’s not required. It’d be pretty tough to get along without a social security number, but you can have a number without having an identity document. (Early social security cards—I still have mine—had no security features at all: just a name and number printed on card stock.)

Since the mid-1980s, employers have been insisting on seeing identity documents, because otherwise they can face penalties if they hire illegal immigrants—an early example of exactly what I’m unhappy about.

Even if you have papers, even if you keep them sufficiently in order that you can present them to an employer when you start a new job or a bank when you want to open a new account, there’s still no obligation to keep them on hand to show to the police.

Still, objecting to being asked to show papers is really just a personal quirk. The real harm comes from having people here who can’t safely use ordinary public institutions. Communities where people are afraid of being arrested or deported are inevitably bad communities.

  • Crimes will go unreported, which will result in more crime—and more violence, as people who lack access to the courts have to resort to self-help to settle their disputes.
  • Sick people won’t seek medical care, producing pockets of disease.
  • Pernicious institutions like check-cashing stores and pay-day lenders thrive where people can’t open bank accounts.

I don’t want to live in a town where there are people who don’t feel safe talking to the police when they get robbed or the department of labor when they get cheated by an employer or the bureau of weights and measures when they get cheated by a merchant. I don’t want to live in a town where lots of drivers don’t have insurance because they don’t have a license because they don’t have the right kind of visa. I don’t want to live in a town where some people have to work for cash because there’s no legal way for them to pay taxes.

As I say, I’m of two minds. I want to keep the low population density we enjoy in the US—it’s a key factor in our high standard of living. At the same time, I enjoy living in a diverse community. But it’s impossible to have it both ways: If you allow foreigners into the country, some of them will stay, and any effort to remove them produces problems that are much worse than the small hit that any one immigrant produces to our standard of living. And yet, in the aggregate, the hit on our standard of living is significant.

In the end I come down squarely against measures like the recently passed law in Arizona—it will do a lot more harm than good. I’m generally in favor of efforts to control the border, to make it tougher for people to sneak into the country, but that’s no panacea—not unless you use control of the border to hold the number of temporary visitors below the number of permanent residents that you’d be willing to accept. I’m not sure there is a solution, except for the rest of the world to become as nice a place to live as the US, and thereby produce a balance between immigration and emigration.

Esperanto Group Picnic

With the end of the semester arriving, about half of the Esperanto group will be heading home for the summer. Before everybody hit the road, we had a little celebratory picnic.

Photographic evidence:

Dum la grupa pikniko

I’m the guy on the edge looking like an aging hippy hanging out with a bunch of college kids.

It looks like enough of us will be in town over the summer to make it worth having meetings. If you’re interested in Esperanto and live in or near Champaign-Urbana, join us!

Moss



Moss, originally uploaded by bradipo.

Jackie and I visited the Fiber Event in Greencastle Indiana yesterday, after which we went to Shades State Park and spent the rest of the day hiking.

The spring wildflowers were just about at their peak. We saw spring beauties, trillium, dutchman’s breeches, violets, bluebells, mayapples, and others that I didn’t recognize.

Even the moss was trying to get in on the act.

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Moss by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Daniel Akst on thrift, sexiness, and Jack Benny

In his article Saving Yourself [Note: article is now behind a paywall] Daniel Akst buries at the end a particularly good statement of the central point I try to make in my personal finance writing:

Thrift is thus a way to redeem yourself not just from the unsexy bondage of indebtedness but also from subjugation to people and efforts that are meaningless to you, or worse. Debt means staying in a pointless job, failing to support needy people or worthwhile causes, accepting the strings that come with dependence, and gritting your teeth when your boss asks you to do something unethical instead of saying “drop dead”. Ultimately, thrift delivers not just freedom but salvation—which makes it a bargain even Jack Benny could love.

To get there, though, he takes you on a wonderful journey through the American history of thrift, from Jack Benny to the Puritans and back again, with a couple of side trips to Sexyland.

Kind mentions from Lifehacker and Planet Green!

My Wise Bread post Buy Your Groceries European-Style picked up mentions at both the Discovery Channel’s Planet Green and Lifehacker.

Jason Fitzpatrick had kind words for my post in his piece Shop European-Style for Fresher, Cheaper Food.

Lloyd Alter was especially generous, saying (in a green-living piece subtitled “I thought I was a lonely failure as a frugalista, but I am not“):

I thought we were pretty much along among the frugal living types to do this. However, one of my favourite writers on frugal living, Philip Brewer at Wisebread, agrees…

Thanks guys!

The Google-free option

Zen Habits has a fresh post up on becoming Google-free. It’s a pretty good look at the key resources that Google provides—Gmail, Google Docs, Google Reader, Google Calendar, Picasa, etc.—and for each one provides Leo’s choice for a replacement, along with mentioning a few other alternatives.

On the one hand, this is just the sort of thing I’m a bit too prone to worry about. For me, security, privacy, and reliability are right up there with functionality. On the other hand, it had scarcely crossed my mind that I’m so reliant on Google that becoming Google-free was an important issue. So, seeing Leo’s article prompted me to give it some thought.

To me, the more fundamental issue is choosing to keep your data on your own hardware or to keep it in the cloud.

It used to be that the cloud was a loser on all four issues (security, privacy, reliability, functionality). In just the past few years, the cloud has made great strides in the latter two. I haven’t seen a careful analysis, but my sense now is that the cloud is about as reliable as your own hardware, albeit with different failure modes (less chance of a bad disk drive losing a bunch of data, more chance of the provider deprecating the tool or simply going bust). Functionality is a different kind of question—all you care about is whether the tool provides the functionality you need—but my sense again is that tools like Google Docs do fine at providing the most important functionality.

On issues of security and privacy, though, it seems to me that the cloud can never win. Well, maybe in one narrow sense: Servers in the cloud can be professionally managed with security in mind, so there’s a better chance that security patches will be applied promptly and less chance that they’ll be configured in an insecure way out of carelessness or ignorance. Except for that, though, all the cloud can offer is an unenforceable promise of security and privacy—and it rarely offers even that.

Because of that, I’ve always ended up choosing to keep mission-critical work on my own hardware. I use various cloud services, but they’re all in some way either publishing or else secondary.

Where what I’m doing is publishing (such as this blog, my account on Flickrmy account on Twitter, and so on), the privacy issues are moot—I’m explicitly making the stuff public. I still care about security, but my security interests are closely aligned with the provider’s security interests, so I feel reasonably comfortable relying on the provider to get security right.

All my uses of cloud-provided tools are non-critical. I have a Gmail account, but it’s a backup account for use when my main email account is unavailable for some reason. I have a Google Docs account, but I only use it occasionally to view a Word document or make a graph with the spreadsheet facility. I don’t use Google Calendar (I use iCal). The one Google tool that I’d really miss if it disappeared is Google Reader which I use every day, but even losing that wouldn’t be a catastrophe. I could go back to reading blogs on the websites themselves (!) until I picked out a new RSS feed reader. My latest backup of my subscriptions was really old (I just now grabbed a current one), but I’d be able to recreate the important ones easily enough.

The upshot is that going Google-free seems to be a non-issue to me. I could do it in five minutes and scarcely feel the loss. I’m glad to have been prompted to think about it, though.

First run of the season

Milky Slough, originally uploaded by bradipo.

I went out for my first run of the season today. I ran about 1.5 miles in 20:36. That’s not very far and it’s pretty slow, but it’s still a good sign, because I could run for over 20 minutes. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to, because I’d been pretty sedentary this winter. It speaks well of Taiji as exercise, because it’s been about the only exercise I’ve gotten. I know from experience that once I can run for 20 minutes, it’s pretty easy to build up some endurance, so I’m starting from a good point this year.

I did my usual short run around Kaufman Lake, and noticed this scary looking white stuff flowing down Copper Slough. (Maybe it was just some sort of white scum floating on top of the water. I couldn’t tell.) It was weird enough that I felt compelled to walk back and get a picture, although the picture I managed to get fails to capture the terrible wrongness of the fluid flowing in that ditch.

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Milky Slough by Philip Brewer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Heinlein’s Rule Two: Finish What You Start?

I’ve never had a problem with Henlein’s rule one for writers (you must write). I enjoy the writing. I enjoy other stuff too, and want to be sure to get in my reading and exercise and Esperanto and playing of StarCraft, but of all the stages in writing a story, the step I most enjoy is putting the words down. So, I do write, and with enthusiasm.

On the topic of rule two, however, I go back and forth.

I certainly see that you can’t make a career (or even a sale) out of unfinished stories. But I’ve gradually come to see that many of my unfinished stories aren’t really stories at all—they’re just a cool character or a cool situation or a cool idea.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to “finish” these non-stories. Years of experience shows that I can fool myself for a long time that these particular cool characters, situations, and ideas add up to a story. But the result is days or weeks spent generating prose that never adds up to a story.

I think a much better version of rule two for me is “Finish the stories you start, but ruthless abandon any project as soon as you realize it isn’t a story.”

I could finish two or three stories in the time it takes me to “finish” a non-story.

Mentioned by Doctor Oz

Two of my Wise Bread posts, The Ethics of Hoarding and Healthy, Frugal Eating, got very kind mentions in the Doctor Oz blog:

Wow. Just a stellar post… Philip Brewer strikes again with a straightforward, no-bull piece on why we gotta suck it up and stop eating expensive crap. Stern, but informative!

I find it surprisingly difficult to extract quotes like that—it seems too much like bragging. I guess that’s why it’s useful to have a publicist.