Getting better at life under late-stage capitalism

I have always been an optimizer. I spend way, way too much time, energy, and attention optimizing things. Which is, you know, fine, even though my net benefit is small or zero, largely because I don’t focus my optimization efforts in places where I get the biggest payoff. (I’d say that I don’t optimize my optimization efforts, but I don’t want to tempt my brain into trying to do that. It would not end well.)

One place where my optimization efforts did end well has been in optimizing things for life under late-stage capitalism.

I was helped by a couple of lucky coincidences and a bit of lucky timing.

Purely because I enjoyed doing software, I became a software engineer at the dawn of the personal computer era, which gave me a chance to earn a good salary straight out of college, a salary that grew faster than my expenses for most of the next 25 years.

Whether because of my upbringing or my genes (my grandfather was a banker), I liked thinking about and playing with money, which meant that I was doing my best to save and invest during a period when ordinary people could easily earn outsized investment returns.

It worked out very well for me. I’m as well positioned as anyone who isn’t in the 1% to do okay in late-stage capitalism. (Frankly, better positioned than a lot of the 1%, who find it easy to imagine that they deserve the lifestyles of the 0.1%, and if they live like they imagine they should will quickly ruin their lives.)

This whole post was prompted by a great article that looks mainly at the efforts women make to optimize themselves under the overlapping constraints of health, fitness, appearance, and financial success in the modern economy. Highly recommended—insightful and daunting, but also funny:

It’s very easy, under conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organizing your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible…. But today, in an economy defined by precarity, more of what was merely stupid and adaptive has turned stupid and compulsory.

Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman by Jia Tolentino

One focus of that article is on “fitness.” I put fitness in quotes because of the way, especially for women, so much of fitness is actually about appearance. Perhaps because I’m not a woman—also perhaps because I’m already married, and because I’m older—my own perspective on fitness has gotten very literal: I want my body to be fit for purpose—fit for a set of purposes which I have chosen. I want to be able to do certain things because I have found the capability to be useful. (I also want to be able to do certain things that I can’t do, because I imagine that the capability would be useful, and much of the exercise I do now is intended to achieve those capabilities.)

In a sense, optimizing for fitness is really neither here nor there as far as optimizing for late-stage capitalism, which is mostly about money. And yet, really it is. My fitness suffered during the period I was working a regular job. Getting fit and staying fit takes time. To a modest extent, you can substitute money for time—you can pay up for the fancy gym where the equipment you want to use is more available, or take a job that doesn’t pay as much but allows you to squeeze in a midday run. But now we’re right where we started: optimizing for life in late-stage capitalism.

I should say that I’m delighted with how well my life has turned out. If I’d had any idea how little I could spend and still have everything I really want, or how early I’d have saved up enough money to support that modest lifestyle, perhaps I could have avoided a lot of anxiety and unhappiness along the way. But who among us has such luck? And more to the point, maybe some of that anxiety and unhappiness were crucial to my making the choices I did that got me to where I am.

I worry just a bit about my irresistible impulse to optimize, but like everything else about me, it got me to where I am. And, as I say, I’m delighted to be here.

Pocket watch phone

To be completely honest I mainly want this because without it the watch pocket in 5-pocket jeans is worthless. But it also occurs to me it might be appropriate as an alternative to a burner phone.

I don’t have the device fully characterized yet, and in fact there are multiple versions that might be differently useful in different circumstances, but here’s a sketch of what I’m thinking about.

First of all, the device has to fit comfortably in the watch pocket of a pair of 5-pocket jeans. That’s its whole raison d’être.

Almost certainly it needs to have:

  • Camera
  • GPS
  • Good-but-small screen
  • Bluetooth
  • WiFi

This is enough to enable all sorts of use cases: Geo-tagged images, navigation, listening to podcasts, tracking workouts, etc.

If I could get just that—and if it were reasonably cheap, and designed with good security—I’d buy one in a heartbeat, simply to have a workout tracking device that fit in the media pocket of my workout shorts. (My phones get bigger faster than I need to buy new running shorts.)

At this point, we need to make a big binary decision: Does the device have a phone?

Without a phone, it’s just a teeny-tiny tablet. As I say, I’d buy one, but without a phone it’s pretty limited—no connectivity unless you’re on somebody’s WiFi.

For most of the use cases I have in mind, this would work great. I could connect my headset & heart-rate monitor, kick off a podcast, start up my work-out tracking app, and go for a run. Along the way I could pause to take photos to document my workout. And the end I could share photos and workout details to social media. (Everybody I know cares deeply about my workouts.)

Some very minor software tweaks would let you use it your pocket watch phone as if you were connected. For example, you could still write texts and social media posts, they’d just be queued up until you went on WiFi someplace at which point they’d all be delivered.

The biggest issue with a pocket-watch non-phone phone would be the inability to make emergency calls. Less of a big deal but important to a lot of people is just generally being connected—making and taking calls, sending and receiving texts, keeping up on and posting to social media, etc.

The downside of adding a phone is that it loses the potential to be a purely off-the-grid device.

It might be possible to compromise: You could have a phone that’s turned off (with a burner SIM). Then you’re covered: In case of an emergency turn the phone on.

Proper burner phone security would require that you dispose of the phone as well as the SIM once you’ve powered it up. That need could probably be avoided if the phone generated a new IMEI on each power-up the way some devices are now generating new MAC addresses on power-up for the same reason. (There might be other numbers that would need to be regenerated. There’d also probably be other software changes necessary, such as obfuscating the list of installed apps, to keep the phones from being self-fingerprinting in all sorts of ways.)

If you can make the phone cheap enough, which having a very small screen would help a lot with, maybe none of that matters. Buy the phones in three-packs for a few dollars, and then give them to homeless shelters as soon as you’re done with one.

Reply to: The processed food tribe

Cathy Reisenwitz is trying to reconcile her belief in the benefits of free enterprise with her growing realization that many industrial-produced edible substances are not healthy food. See: The processed food tribe.

Personally, I do not find those ideas at odds: Corporations operating in a free market will make maximizing their profits their only goal.

Producing food that’s cheap to make and tastes great is the obvious way to maximize profits. Negative health effects that don’t show up for years (and don’t kill the customer for decades) are entirely consistent with the profit-maximizing goal of a corporation.

The health of their customers will only be prioritized to the extent that poisoning their customers isn’t profitable. (Sometimes not even then: See the multiple scandals related to Chinese companies adulterating milk and baby formula with melamine.)

A free society would make a priority of allowing each individual to choose what to eat based on their own values. One would assume that being as healthy as possible would be a priority for most individuals, but there are many stumbling blocks. (One of the biggest is that getting accurate information is hard in a world where corporations fund studies designed to produce and publish inaccurate results about the harms of eating too much sugar. Another is that food scientifically designed to be hyper-palatable is in fact so tasty as to be hard to resist, especially for children—and the tastes one forms in childhood influence one’s tastes as an adult.)

Free markets are the best mechanism we’ve found for optimal allocation of resources. But the market only allocates resources to achieve one set of goals (maximum profits) and ignores other goals. Maximum public health is one of the goals that a free market does not concern itself with.

As to the topic of the term “processed” food, I have found it useful to include a category of “minimally processed” food when thinking about what’s likely to be healthy.

Playing at being off the grid

I’ve read several novels lately with characters engaging in the sort of OPSEC that you need to do nowadays if you’re undertaking activities the federal government would consider nefarious—beginning with not carrying your smartphone around everywhere you go.

Of course you wouldn’t want to leave your phone behind only when you were doing something nefarious. To do that would be like announcing “Nefarious activity beginning now!” Instead, you need to start playing at going off the grid now for no particular reason, so that when you go off the grid for reals it won’t be so obvious what’s going on.

The necessary OPSEC is hard to get right. One of the novels I mentioned, (The God’s Eye View by Barry Eisler) has as a significant plot element how easy it is to screw up. In the novel a character’s actions are discovered due to her turning on her burner phone at a point close in time and place to where she turned off her regular phone.

As a slightly more sophisticated example, the NSA is known to have a system for “fingerprinting” burner phones, which works by spotting when one cluster of related burner phones all go dark at the same time, and then a similar-sized cluster, with a similar pattern of connectedness, starts up right after.

Just spending some time out and about without a cell phone is probably a good start. Establish a pattern of turning your phone off (or leaving it at home) for a couple of hours every day. It might make sense to establish a regular pattern of doing so, but one can easily go awry trying to set up false patterns. Perhaps it would make more sense to have no particular pattern of when the phone might be on or off.

Purely whimsically, I’m inclined to do this.

In fact, I’m going to have to: Next month I’m on jury duty for a week and cell phones aren’t allowed in the courthouse. I’m sure most people leave their phones in the car, so they can return to them over their lunch break, or at least get back to it as soon as they’re released at the end of the day. But the courthouse is in downtown Urbana, a place that’s easy to get to by bus, so I’m disinclined to drive there. But without a car in which to leave my phone, I’ll probably have to leave it at home.

That might mean 8 hours or more being out and about without my phone, which seems like a great opportunity to establish a pattern of my phone being left home while I do something else—serve on jury duty next month, but who knows what the month after? Nothing nefarious, of course. I’d never do anything nefarious.

Even places where cell service is spotty, such as this spot on the trail in Kennekuk Cove County Park, having a smartphone is completely normalized for me. I expect to be able to just take a picture like this. (And the idea that I might instead bring a camera almost doesn’t fit in my brain any more.)

As an aside: I wrote a couple of articles about going off the grid back when I was writing for Wise Bread. One was a book review of a rather interesting book titled Off the Grid. The other was an article about the trade-offs in choosing to live “off the grid” in the broader sense—not just off the surveillance grid, or even the power, gas and water grids, but more broadly the globalized economy, industrial agriculture, consumerism, etc. I can’t remember what I called the post, but Wise Bread published it as Going Off the Grid Is a Lot Harder Than You Think.

What good is a militia anyway?

The reason that a well-regulated militia appealed to the founding fathers was that they hoped it would eliminate the need for a standing army.

If you had the whole body of young adult men armed and trained, it was hoped you could raise an army very quickly in case of need. If that were true, Congress could insist that the standing army be run down to just a cadre of specialists and officers. Then, in the event that you needed an army—because you were invaded, or needed to invade someone else—you could mobilize (i.e. draft) the militia to fill the ranks with soldiers.

The founders knew perfectly well that a government with a standing army could not be resisted by the people, even if the people were armed. A standing army was always going to be more disciplined, more highly trained, and better equipped than a militia could possibly be.

So, the purpose of the militia was to eliminate the need for a standing army. If you could make a militia work that way—quickly go from a bare cadre to a fully mobilized army simply by calling up the militia—then you’d be in a position where Congress could insist that the the army in fact be a bare cadre, meaning that neither presidents nor generals could use the army until Congress actually raised one.

It’s an appealing idea, particularly to someone like me who is very doubtful about trusting presidents or generals. Sadly, the evidence is pretty good that it doesn’t work.

This was clear even before the sorts of modern, high-tech weapons and other equipment that take extensive training to learn how to use, and then nearly constant on-going training to preserve the capability.  It took five years to go from a 16,000-man army to a 1,000,000-man army during the civil war. The ramp up for WW I was quicker but also smaller—manpower grew by 16 times in two years rather than 62 times in five years, but that was from a much larger base—basically, a smallish standing army, not merely a cadre waiting to be filled out.

The experience of the U.S., at least as far back as the civil war, is that fielding an army by mobilizing a militia simply can’t happen fast enough to respond to an enemy with a standing army. (The experiences of Switzerland mobilizing to resist a possible Nazi invasion and Finland mobilizing against the Soviet Union at around the same time are interesting, but do not I think make the contrary case.)

Given all that, I’d have to say that a militia is pretty much obsolete, and has been for a couple of centuries at least.

Voting is a constitutional right

The right to vote is a constitutional right. It should not be abridged. In this way it is like all constitutional rights.

There is one important difference between the right to vote and most other constitutional rights. Most constitutional rights apply to “the people,” while the right to vote is a right of citizens. Because of that difference, it makes sense to verify that people registering to vote are citizens. But waiting until someone is at the poll and then demanding that they prove they’re a citizen is backwards.

It is, to use another constitutional right as an example, backwards exactly the same way it would be backwards to take your property for public use, and then make you run all over town for documentation to prove that you own it before you can get it back. Instead, we have a property registry to keep track of who has ownership rights, and then a process called eminent domain whereby the government has the opportunity to present to a court evidence that there is a public need for your property according to well-established rules, and to establish fair compensation. You have the opportunity to dispute that evidence, and to argue for a different interpretation of the rules or for higher compensation.

I would suggest that as being the right model for voting rights as well: We should have a voter registry to keep track of who has the right to vote, and then a court process whereby the government has the opportunity to prove that someone on that list does not have the right to vote according to well-established rules (not a citizen, not over 18, not residing in the precinct, dead). You should have the right to appear at the hearing and dispute both the evidence and the interpretation of the rules.

Nobody should ever be struck off the voter rolls without such a hearing—to my mind it would be just as unconstitutional as taking your property without a hearing.

If that is the standard—as it should be—then there is no need to present an identity document at the polling place. All you need to do is prove that you are the person who registered, which is easily done by comparing your signature when you request a ballot to your signature when you registered to vote.

In any case: The right to vote is a fundamental right of the citizen. Denying it without due process is wrong, and there should be substantial sanctions on anyone who does so (or attempts to do so).

Progressive policies with conservative rhetoric?

I wonder whether it would be possible to advance a progressive policy agenda that was cloaked in conservative rhetoric.

For example, it is currently legal for police to use unlimited force to produce compliance with their orders, even illegal orders. Essentially, you are forced to stop going about your business, comply with whatever the police tell you to do, allow them to search you and whatever you’re carrying, tolerate an indefinite delay, even let them take you to the police station if they chose, all without offering any sort of resistance.

Any questioning of their actions or inquiry into its lawful basis can be interpreted as “resistance,” and any degree of resistance, no matter how minimal, is considered legal justification for the police to beat you up, taser you, pepper-spray you, or even shoot and kill you—and they will suffer no consequence beyond (perhaps) a brief period of paid leave.

People of color have borne the brunt of these sorts of police actions for a long time. With the advent of ubiquitous cameras we have now seen many people of color murdered while offering up either no resistance at all, or such minimal resistance that it should shock the conscience to see lethal force used. We have also seen many white people granted great deference by police under circumstances where a black person would have been killed.

This is the circumstance that led to the “black lives matter” slogan.

Many people—especially, I suspect, many Trump voters—object to this slogan, preferring to suggest that “all lives matter.”

Many liberals and leftists look to a willingness to say “black lives matter” as a marker that you’re on the right side of this issue.

My question is, could a political candidate who was on the right side of this issue (and many other issues, such as using the threat of jail to balance town budgets on the backs of indigent people) couch his objections in terms that would not offend Trump voters, while still pushing for good policies? And would such a politician be able to get support from both sides of the political divide?

For example, I’d like to see a policy that said that resistance to an unlawful order from a police officer was legal and that any force used by the officer to produce compliance was an illegal assault—the officer should be prosecuted. I’d like to see a policy that any monies extracted from an indigent person under threat of jail be considered the proceeds of an illegal extortion scheme—everyone involved in the extortion should be prosecuted, the money returned, and the original fine forgiven.

If a politician were to propose such ideas, but describe them with terms like “all lives matter,” or “protecting liberty and private property rights,” could such a politician draw support from both sides?

I’m doubtful. But I’d like to see it.

Rodney Davis questionnaire response

Congressman Rodney Davis has a questionnaire asking for constituent input on questions of the day.

I filled it out some weeks ago (in mid-December) and found some of the questions to be . . . . Well, here. This is what I sent to his office after I posted my questionnaire response:

Several of the questions on your recent survey were hard to answer, because an accurate answer might be taken as supporting a position that is the opposite from what I intend. These two in particular:

“Do you believe we need to shore up Medicare so it’s available to future generations?”

Of course I support preserving Medicare. However, I would  oppose any changes in the basic design of how Medicare makes healthcare available to seniors. In particular, I would strongly oppose turning it into some kind of voucher program.

My understanding is that, together with the cost savings provided by Obamacare, Medicare is very close to being fully funded. It seems quite possible that no changes are needed going forward. Depending on the details of health care costs and payrolls in the future, it may be that some additional funding will be required, but that is the question for the future.

“Do you believe Congress must provide proper oversight of the VA to ensure our veterans are receiving the care they deserve?”

Again, providing oversight is exactly what Congress should do. However, I would oppose giving the VA additional mandates—either in terms of the care they are to provide, or in terms of the reporting they are required to provide—unless those mandates are fully funded.

I have no sense that the VA is doing anything other than providing the best care they can with the resources provided. Congress’s deeper obligation, beyond oversight, is to provide the resources necessary to care for our veterans.

I expect to go on pestering Congressman Rodney Davis on a near-monthly basis for the next two years.