Reducing poverty

I’m big on reducing poverty, both locally and globally. (I do worry that more rich people will use more resources, suggesting that reducing poverty isn’t an unalloyed good thing. On yet another hand, only rich people can afford things like sequestering carbon or preserving habitat. It’s complicated.)

Since I’m interested in reducing poverty, I was interested in Lant Pritchett’s recent talk Everything you think you know about poverty is wrong.

Pritchett and I see pretty much eye-to-eye on how to have a rich country, I think.

These well-off countries have a productive economy, a government that is responsive to the citizens, a capable bureaucracy, and the rule of law.

This has interesting implications for global development, because these are all things where it’s very difficult to improve someone else’s situation. If a country has government by-and-for the elites, or a corrupt bureaucracy, it’s going to be poor—and there’s very little outsiders can do to help. One of Pritchett’s points is that things that seem like they might help, such as improving education, seem to do more harm than good—perhaps because well-educated corrupt bureaucrats are worse than ignorant ones.

His solution is for rich countries to create or expand guest worker programs, which I think is a poor idea.

It’s not that I don’t think it would work. A poor worker who came to a rich country and worked a couple of years could both support relatives back in the poor country and save up enough money to return home and start a business. That would relieve poverty both immediately and going forward. It would also produce another person with first-hand experience of the advantages of a less-corrupt society (as opposed to merely seeing the advantages of getting in on the corruption).

The main reason I think it’s a poor idea is that enforcing a guest worker program eventually requires a police state. Somebody has to check all workers—it’s the only way to identify those who aren’t legally entitled to work. Somebody has to make sure those whose permission to work has expired get fired. Those whose permission to live here has expired, but who don’t go home, become an underclass with all the usual problems of an underclass—crime, violence, oppression, disease. I’ve written about this before (see Missing the point on immigration).

There is also the issue of how guest workers affect salaries, wages, and working conditions of citizen workers (short version: I think it makes them worse).

The ideal solution, of course, would be for every country to be rich enough and free enough that people from all over the world would want to move there. But that just brings us back to where we started.

Interviewed on Navigating Your Money

Mike Tierney of the Navigating Your Money podcast interviewed me last week and has already put the show up. Listen to me natter on about frugal living here:

Episode #19: Live Like You Have More, On Less

I haven’t actually listened to it. I find the idea of doing so fills me with dread. (I’ve heard other people say similar things, but am a little surprised to find myself so strongly affected.)

Wise Bread’s Will Chen has assured me that I sound reasonably articulate:

I especially like the part where you explained that a budget is not a limit but rather a tool for showing you what you CAN have. The part about sharing tools is also a really awesome part. You did great, but the host is also really good. He clearly has read through your material and gets your philosophy.

So there you have it. If you’re interested in what I’ve been saying, but you want to hear it in my voice rather than reading it on the screen, here’s your chance.

Dancing on the edge of the fiscal cliff

The tea-party right was willing to risk the hard stop in spending that would have resulted from running up against the debt limit—a game of chicken that neither the Democrats nor the sane fraction of the Republicans could take the risk of losing.

The fiscal cliff looks a little similar, but it’s much less dangerous. It’s a game that lends itself to playing through to the end, because the risk of losing isn’t nearly so bad.

Suppose we did go over the fiscal cliff. What would happen?

First, tax rates would go up for everybody. That’s bad, but it’s not terrible. Actually, taxes at those rates would produce revenue roughly equal to the amount of government people seem to want.

Second, spending would be cut, with the cuts falling on almost everything except Social Security. A lot of good stuff would be cut, but that might not be such a stiff price to pay, considering that a lot of the things that ought to be cut (such as defense spending far beyond our needs) would otherwise be very hard to cut.

The result would be a rough year or two, hard on everybody from working-class folks to defense contractors, but all those problems would be fixable. In fact, Congress would love to fix those problems! Congress could cut taxes! (Just not as much as Bush did.) Congress could boost spending! (Just not to current levels.) Really, there’s nothing congressmen like better than cutting taxes and spending money on stuff.

The other details are similar. The AMT would strike middle-class folks hard, but that could be fixed, too. In fact, having to fix it would be an opportunity to improve it—turn it back into what it was supposed to be, a minimum tax rate that applies to everyone, no matter how many tax shelters they have or how many special preferences they qualify for. The end of the “doc fix” would hurt health care providers, but that could be pretty easily fixed too. (We’ll no doubt have to make a lot of small changes to healthcare stuff, once health care reform goes into effect and we run into the inevitable glitches.)

It’s always hard to raise taxes and cut spending, so it’s hard to do what needs to be done. But that’s why the fiscal cliff is so perfect. Once we go over the edge, we won’t need to raise taxes and cut spending—we’ll need to cut taxes and raise spending, and that’s dead easy.

Dive over the fiscal cliff, then fix things. It’s not perfect, but it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as what we’ve got now.

Success at the Bike Project!

Jackie and I made good use of the Bike Project last week.

I’m not quite sure how to describe the Bike Project. Let’s try this: It’s a group of people and a collection of tools, using space in the Independent Media Center, serving as a resource for people who want to repair their bikes, or learn how to repair bikes.

We needed to make use of it because I broke Jackie’s front shifter last week, during a test ride after cleaning her chain.

With help from the folks at the Bike Project, we found a similar shifter in a bin of scavenged parts, ran a new cable through it, and swapped that out for the broken shifter and cable on Jackie’s bike. We paid $6 for the parts.

Among the things that I learned:

  1. The front shifter is not supposed to come apart. (Jackie’s had, and I’d assumed it was supposed to—that you were supposed to open it up to thread the cable through. That turns out not to be the case—once it’s opened up, it’s probably done for.)
  2. Getting the cable tension right is pretty easy, at least if your derailleur has previously been adjusted correctly. (All we did was pull the cable snug, cut it off, and crimp on a cable-end, at which point it pretty much just worked. I may have given the barrel adjuster a turn.)
  3. Grip shifters are mostly crappy plastic items that can be expected to fail if you actually use them.

Overall, it was a great experience. The place was full of people fixing their bikes, and there was a lot of positive energy in the shop.

They have a Build-a-Bike program, where you pick out a scavenged frame and then build it out with scavenged components (buying new components where desired). It was a key idea behind the project when it was being founded, and I’m sure you can still do it if you want to, but they also have a bunch of rebuilt bikes available for purchase, and I’ve heard that they tend to guide people interested in Build-a-Bike to those.

There were some downsides. In particular, one of the big advantages is supposed to be that they have stands to use while working on your bike, but the stands were 100% occupied for the whole 90 minutes we were there. Still, we’ll certainly join the Bike Project next time we need to get some work done on our bikes. It was a lot cheaper than going to a bike shop, and despite taking that 90 minutes, it was still a lot quicker than making an appointment at a bike shop to get the work done in a week or two.

I’ll be interviewed on Rudy Maxa’s World tomorrow

I’m going to be interviewed on Rudy Maxa’s World (America’s #1 Travel Radio Show) tomorrow (Saturday, May 19th). I’ll be on at 11:43 Eastern time for five minutes.

If you want to hear me talk, you can:

They want me to talk about my Why I Hate Points Wise Bread post.

I’ve been interviewed before, but usually either by a reporter who’s gathering info for a story, or else by email where I can compose my replies. This’ll be my first live interview.

Accurate but useless

Some years back, I read a financial newsletter article that offered a technique for predicting inflation rates six months in advance. It had charts that compared its predictions to actual results, that showed that it was pretty accurate. Not perfect, but more than close enough to be useful for short-term planning.

Then I read the details. Their “technique” was this:

  1. Take the actual inflation for the previous six months.
  2. Double it.

As I say, their technique was pretty accurate. Partially it was accurate because the economy rarely turns on a dime—recent trends tend to continue. But it was more accurate than that, because half the months they were “predicting” had already happened! Even if the next six months were rather different from the previous six months, that would only produce so much change in the full year results.

I think that was the point when I decided to let my subscription to that newsletter expire.

SLF Older Writers Grant

My first impulse, when I see something like the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writers Grant, is to share it with everybody. Then I immediately have a counter impulse: I should keep it to myself! Why go out of my way to encourage competition? And then I have a counter-counter impulse: I’d rather be a member of a supportive community of writers.

At that point, I usually go ahead and share the opportunity with everyone that I think might be interested, with any slight feeling of foolishness balanced by a slight feeling of virtuousness.

In this case, I got over my selfish impulse extra quickly, because I don’t know that many speculative fiction writers over 50 anyway.

They also do an annual travel grant, so that’s a reason to click on over, even if you’re under 50.

The politics of providing services

In many places with repressive governments, nascent political parties (unable to achieve political power via the ballot box, because elections are rigged or the group is banned from participating) provide public services as an organizing tactic. They provide food for children, health care, mediation services, neighborhood watch, financial aid to victims of government actions, and so on.

This tactic has proven to be effective, so I’ve always been a little surprised that we don’t see more of it in the US. So, I was interested to see a post about the Black Panther’s free breakfast program, and the FBI’s concerns about it.

Upon reflection, I figure that the main reason we see little of this in the US is that in the US we really do have public services. There are government programs to feed hungry children, provide medical care to the sick and injured, police the streets, adjudicate conflicts, and so on. They’re flawed and limited, but they do exist. They’re good enough, that it would take a lot of money to compete—and if you have that much money, there are better ways to seek power, especially since our political system is reasonably open.

But this is becoming less true. With constant pressure on public services, holes are opening up that can be—and are being—filled by private organizations. So far, those organizations are mostly charitable non-profits, but there’s no reason that a political party couldn’t join in.

I think we’ll see it pretty soon, especially at the local level. People who have felt disenfranchised will be very willing to support political parties that directly provide what the government won’t and ask nothing in return except that you consider voting for their candidates.

Bought new boots

I don’t hate shopping. I sometimes say I do, but it’s an inaccurate shorthand. What I hate are a cluster of things inextricably intertwined with shopping. I hate driving from store to store. I hate the mall. I hate agonizing about the tradeoffs between choice A and choice B, especially under time pressure, and especially under conditions of imperfect information.

I’m a lot happier buying stuff on-line. But not boots. I never buy shoes or boots without trying them on.

I also dislike spending money, especially spending largish sums of money, such as the $168 (including tax) that I just spent for a pair of boots.

I think I like the boots. I wanted a pair of waterproof, lightly insulated, hiking boots. This pair is all those things, plus they fit well and feel good on my feet. I’d had in my mind that I’d get GoreTex waterproofing and that the degree of insulation I wanted would probably be 200 gm Thinsulate, and I didn’t end up getting either of those. These are just “waterproof,” which probably means that the leather was treated with some sort of sealant—probably adequate for my purposes. And they’re insulated with 200 gm Primaloft, which is also probably at least as good as Thinsulate.

I decided that I needed these boots, because last year I found myself staying indoors too much during the winter, because I didn’t have adequate footwear for cold and wet. (We get a lot of cold and wet in Central Illinois—slush, snow, rain changing to snow, melting snow, cold rain falling on snow or ice, freezing rain, freezing mist. If you can think of weather that’s cold and wet, we have it here.)

With the right boots, I’m hoping I’ll be able to get myself out to walk, even in inclement conditions. Plus, there’s the slight extra boost that comes from the novelty factor of new boots.

And, with that in mind, I’m heading out now to walk a mile or two, to start breaking them in.

An interesting variation on the patronage model

Ever since copying and storing bits became virtually free, there’s been a lot discussion about various ways “content creators” (writers, artists, musicians, etc.) might earn a living: per-copy sales, advertising, patronage, etc.

Felix Salmon’s recent piece on How the New Yorker monetizes old content is an interesting contribution to the discussion.

Apparently, the New Yorker is producing ebooks, drawing from their vast library of articles by great writers. The ebooks are paid for by a corporate sponsor, and then made available free to electronic subscribers and cheap to non-subscribers.

Now, on the one hand, having content paid for by selling advertising to sponsors is one of the standard models. But this is a little different. The things are cheap to produce (no printing costs) and cheap to market (free to subscribers, making them more willing to pay for their subscription). The New Yorker only needs to find one corporate sponsor—presumably a small task, compared to the regular job of their sales department.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the model spread into speculative fiction. I can definitely see sf&f magazines finding sponsors willing to cover most of the cost of editing and the acquisition of reprint rights (all pretty cheap). Making the anthology ebooks free to the subscribers of their electronic editions would make the subscriptions more valuable, and making them available cheap for non-subscribers would be great advertising for both the magazine and the sponsor.

I’m always glad to see any new source of money for writers, and any new channel for getting old stories in front of new readers.