Archives For politics

sad calvin

Being an older millennial is both a blessing and a curse. On the positive side, you’re still young enough to see the logic in some of the changes in education and workplaces that send hordes of baby boomers complaining about lazy, entitled young people who do nothing these days, all too often from their work cubicles, on social platforms said lazy do-nothings built into billion plus dollar empires. On the negative side, you get to hear all the grumbling and flack directed at you as well even though you’re now a colleague on the same level rather than an office temp. It’s as if just mentioning that media buzzword sends countless people close to 40 and older into a rant the sole purpose of which is to tell you how much life sucks, how work is supposed to be awful, how you must work day and night for a reward that might never come, and damn it, will you get some polo shirts and khakis instead of coming into the office in jeans? This is a business, not a hippie commune where you can wear comfortable clothes and be treated like a person! Why in the old days you came to work in a suit, had a two martini lunch, and slept in your office to ever get ahead in life and make something of yourself, you lazy, good for nothing little twerp…

And so it goes, we’re told. It’s called work because it’s supposed to be grinding, tedious, and all together terrible. You put in your eight hours, or however long the boss needs you, then you go home to your family where you can wear what you want, say what you want, and enjoy being at a place other than work. You’ll rise up slowly over the years, pay your dues, get noticed by your strict, no-nonsense, but secretly warm and kind boss who watches your every move and slowly mentors you to take over when he retires. And on the day of his retirement party, he delivers a long, heartfelt speech about how far you’ve come, and how he truly considers you the absolute best replacement for him, and how one day you’ll go far. Then he’ll invite you back to his house so you can have an adventurous night with his ex-supermodel trophy wife because hey, you’ve earned it champ. If we’re going to indulge in retelling nostalgic corporate fairy tales, we may as well spice it up, right? Yes, to those whose work is non-stop thanks to ubiquitous smartphones, and who must compete with either overseas versions of us or robots for every job, and whose bosses see us as nothing but an expense as our tenures grow, all this old timey advice is pretty much just tone deaf fairy tales that completely ignore the real world for a cozy fantasy.

Like with many nostalgic themes in America today, all too many people view work with a set of rose colored glasses, and pretend that not only does the magical workplace I satirized actually exist today, but that it also ever existed at all and they worked there. But you and I both know it really isn’t true. How? Because when I was a little kid, I watched you come home, drop all your bags, slump into a chair, and bitterly complain about how you got passed over for that big new promotion in favor of some brown noser, or the boss’ spoiled kids, how your benefits became a lot more expensive while giving you way less, how you’ve always dreamed of doing something, anything else with your life but that, telling me to go to college so I can grow up and like what I’ll end up doing for a living. What, did you really think that we weren’t watching and listening when we were little and that your grousing, depression, divorces, and eruptions of hatred for toiling at some cubicle farm where you’re just a cog in a large, faceless machine with little reward wasn’t going to make any impression on us as we were growing up? And now, we’re lazy, entitled, and rotten little bastards because we’re following your directive to find something that makes us feel at least somewhat alive in between sleep and home, and actually say that’s what we want?

Kids don’t grow up in a vacuum. We didn’t get the idea that we were supposed to do something meaningful with our lives out of thin air. It was taught to us from the day we could understand a simple sentence from your mouth. We’ve seen firsthand what an awful work life does to family, home, and health, so telling us to accept it as a fact of life and succumb to the misery is really a self-righteous way to tell us to give up and take life’s beatings. Kind of like you did. Except in an environment where not only are you treated as an overpriced non-person, you don’t even get a good, old fashioned load of bullshit from corporate assuring you that’s not the case anymore. It boggles the mind that so many people look at a commitment to an employer, with whom they’re going to spend more time than with their family in many cases, build a relationship with it much like a marriage, and after a while decide that it’s totally fine to have an abusive spouse that just uses you to get what it wants, and that’s how life just is. Almost three fourths of the workforce is basically suffering from an economic equivalent of a battered spouse syndrome, and that hurts both employers and employees. But too many employers simply don’t care and won’t fix it.

So you can choose to view millennials’ complaints of being made to do useless busy work, or a proposal to allow jeans and comfortable shoes in the office as spoiled brats being bratty. That’s your choice. Or you could choose to consider why you’re demanding a four year degree for an educated and fairly expensive human being to make copies, fetch coffee, and do something by hand for weeks on end instead of writing a program that could do it in minutes. Dismissing very vocal and recurrent complaints is a comfortable spot to occupy. You don’t have to reevaluate a method you’ve always followed critically, or make any changes. You can be lazy and leave that cube farm plagued with resource misallocation and workers who’ve long forgotten how to feign actually caring about what they do as it is, telling yourself and others that it’s a fantasy right out of an episode of Mad Men with mentorships (which have long been phased out), opportunities for all (which have all been outsourced or automated), and an almost fatherly concern by those in charge for the comfort of their employees (which was deemed to expensive) and not a slow, steady descent into irrelevance. Fixing real problems is much more expensive, and so we’re all simply told that the bugs are not bugs at all but actually features, and great ones at that…

blackboard

When you hear the word tenure, you’re more than likely imagining the countless groans from a certain subset of pundits who think that’s it’s a magical ticket for an academic to do nothing and keep his or her job no matter what. Of course the reality is not quite as dire. Tenure has never, ever been a guaranteed job for life with no requirements. In fact, tenure is a reward for a really productive academic bringing in millions in grants and paying his or her salary, as well as for a whole lot of lab equipment and graduate students. You have to be really good at both research and raising money to even have a shot at it, and once you’re tenured, you could still be fired for doing bad science, or any other offense pretty much any of us would consider to be reasonable grounds for termination. Really, the only two things tenure would grant you is a reprieve from a committee laying you off for being only really good, not exceptionally amazing, and the right not to be fired on the spot, but after a hearing to decide if any of your offenses were actually worthy of termination and you’re not a target of retaliation, political malfeasance, or discrimination.

Sadly, for the politicians who made up their mind that tenure is just a way for scientists to bilk a few million tax payers in their states while they do nothing useful, and abuse the law to make it illegal to fire them for this egregious abuse of public funds, there’s plenty of popular support to simply do away with it. In Wisconsin, Governor Walker did just that by giving public colleges the power to fire any academic for any reason they could portray as remotely plausible. Instead of any guaranteed due process, a political appointee could simply decide that the research being done by the scientist “needs redirection or modification,” or that it’s not in the budget and that’s that. Obviously, academics are upset and one public college had to spend $9 million to keep at least some of the researchers it had so it could hold on to $18 million in grant money. But what happens if the scientists UW-Madison kept still feel threatened that if Walker or an appointee of his really doesn’t like what their experiments uncovered, or get upset that a paper challenges a partisan orthodoxy to which they’re particularly attached and suddenly, the program is just way too expensive and needs “realignment,” meaning that the academic is no longer needed?

Sure, there are definitely professors who abuse their tenure and use their perch to indulge in a variety of unsavory conspiracy theories, but changing or even removing tenure to punish them simply isn’t worth it because it creates a precedent in which important but unpopular speech all too easily gets silenced. Researchers and academics need to be intellectually independent, not beholden to their colleges and the political beliefs of the people who run it, fearing retaliation in response to unflattering scientific findings. If an owner of a sugar company can dismantle a lab where scientists were testing how excess sugar consumption can cause diabetes, that’s both a huge blow for science and public policy. Conversely, should UC-Berkeley dismiss the notorious AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg, it would lose his promising work on cancer genetics. And when the University of Colorado finally decided to get rid of the human Gowdin that is Ward Churchill, his incendiary essays weren’t the reason, it was his plagiarism and academic fraud that got him fired. If anything, his dismissal proves that the system works and that tenured academics aren’t immune from investigation and punishment if their science is even somewhat suspect.

I agree that we need be firing subpar scientists, frauds, and do-nothings, but we already do that when they’re tenured. To force good scientists to depend on the will of politicians and the mood of special interests which thrive in partisan echo chambers under the excuse of punishing those supposedly invincible bad apples would turn the scientific process into a groupthink exercise. If you can be fired simply for not parroting a party line or offending a powerful donor, why risk the trouble? This is how think tanks do their “research,” not universities, and if we want to fulfill the crude stereotype of colleges being propaganda mills, there’s no better way to do that than to do away with tenure. But then again, I really don’t think that those pushing for tenure’s repeal have much interest in independent scientists challenging long accepted dogmas or diving into a really controversial topic. They like their science pliant and rigged to produce data they agree with so their worldview never has to change. And they’re doing the equivalent of telling scientists that’s they’ve got awfully nice tenure and such well funded and ran labs, asking whether it would it be a real shame if something happened to all that should their next study be… disagreeable.

poor homeless forgotten

Ontario, Canada is going to try something new to help people get their lives back on track and become ground zero for a pilot program for a universal basic income. Though the province has not released any details, and the whole thing may still get scrapped, it shows that there’s some flirting with the concept from governments eager for a new way to tackle poverty. Essentially, a universal basic income is exactly what it sounds like. Everyone gets a certain sum of cash on a household basis simply for existing to address some basic needs. Anything above that is your choice and whatever other income you earn will be added to your UBI stipend, however you’re getting that money. Think of it as an efficient way to make sure your citizens don’t simply starve to death or are left homeless and destitute, or see crime as their only option for survival. But it’s not exactly a perfect system and considering the pretext for its advocacy in Europe, and now in the United States and Canada, it does seem to carry a certain sense of desperation, a positive spin on the admission that the officials implementing this ran out of ideas for job growth.

Now, I can just hear conservative pundits having conniptions on the subject. Money for nothing from the government? How would anyone be motivated to work, to study, or do something that isn’t watching TV and playing video games if all their basic needs are already met? And while it may be easy to dismiss these concerns by saying that no one should have to be forced to get a good education and a job at the gunpoint of starvation, it’s also impossible to deny that there’s going to be a group of people who use it as an excuse to do nothing whatsoever with their lives because they no longer have to in order to survive. On the other hand, considering that you will always have those only interested in putting in the absolute minimum effort required, going out of one’s way to base policies affecting everyone on the most efficient way to punish them is not just myopic, but harms those who genuinely need a hand up. There are numerous surveys and accounts which show that people who desperately want to escape poverty but can’t, are simply not planning for the future because they feel like they don’t have one, and every inconvenience can quickly turn into a budget-crippling disaster. UBI may be their ticket to the middle class.

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is easier when you can afford them in the first place, and knowing that you will have some money for the basics and to cover emergencies will allow the beneficiaries in poverty to start saving, get a financial plan together, and have confidence that they’re not one bad day away from becoming homeless. When they can see a future, they can follow a plan to make it into something better. The way many nations provide assistance yanks the necessary safety nets the minute those receiving it start climbing out of poverty, rather than provide incentives to keep going and a safety net to prevent them from falling back in, giving no flexibility to decide how the assistance money is spent, even if the recipients can prove that the current package isn’t going to help them get ahead. Just giving them cash will allow them to do what they need to and allocate a token sum meant for food to fix a car so they can get to work, or get a laptop so they can attend online job training classes to earn more money. But again, it does seem like using it to combat slow job growth and stagnant wages is a treating a symptom rather than curing the disease, and while it will help the poor, the question is how much.

Sadly, outsourcing and automation have made a lot of people basically obsolete, and instead of helping them adapt to the new way of things, we’ve made learning the new skills they’ll need to compete prohibitively expensive. Now, instead of addressing what really seems to a problem in how we educate our workforce and how we plan for the future, UBI advocates are saying that a stipend should help because let’s face it, when half the world may be struggling to find a job by the year 2035, we might as well give in and accept that keeping people off the streets and from starvation is a necessary budgetary evil. But if we use UBI as a crutch, wouldn’t we then give a handy excuse to colleges who refuse to implement apprenticeship programs or participate in a job training program for snobbish, self-centered reasons, and companies who refuse to drop a four year degree as a requirement for even getting an interview despite not needing those who work for them to hold this degree 74% of the time? Go ahead, take whatever classes you want and pile on those student loans. It’s fine if we don’t train the next generation and outsource the jobs for which we don’t want to pay higher wages. It’s no biggie. They’ll just get a UBI check. To enable the acceptance of the status quo like that may end up doing a great deal of harm.

global warming sea rise

In his ongoing fight against the cognitive dissonance of working to downsize the very entity that pays his salary and NOAA’s research on global warming, Rep. Lamar Smith wants government scientists to turn over more and more papers that will supposedly prove that they’re faking their research for political gain, refusing to accept even the remote possibility that maybe there is at least a sliver of a fragment of a chance that they’re being completely honest and accurate. But this is what happens when a politician has every incentive to cry conspiracy and refuse to give experts the benefit of the doubt. Still, the first rule of a good public fishing expedition is to have at least a modicum of plausible deniability when called out on it and rather than back off even a little bit, in an effort to keep appeasing his most zealous anti-science constituents, Smith filed a list of keywords he wants NOAA to use when searching for documents he wants to see as part of his “investigation” which blatantly show him digging really hard for out of context “proof” of a conspiracy theory repeated almost daily in the echo cambers of conservative radio shows.

Basically, anything mentioning President Obama, the talks in Paris, ocean buoys, or the UN are to be turned over for quote-mining to create the next e-mail scandal because to Smith’s rabidly denialist supporters, the previous one was a smoking gun ignored by the media when in reality, the press obsessed over them for months and barely covered the hearings in which the e-mails were showed to be nothing more than cherry-picking for incriminating quotes. If anyone wanted to give Smith the benefit of the doubt, his latest demands are proof that he is only interested in partisan spectacle and conspiracy-mongering. Just like rabid creationists who cling to the same old, long debunked canards, global warming denialists will continue to regurgitate the same old cherry-picked charts, cite the same non-scandals of their own invention, and pretend that they haven’t been shown wrong by everyone and their grandma twice already. To them the issue of global warming is not a scientific one, it’s a sinister plot by the New World Order to strip them of their freedoms and property by the sinister global elite. Politicians like Smith are either cynically exploiting these hysterical fears, or falling for them. And I’m really not sure which is worse…

abandoned tree house

Few things appear to be as terrifying for the American political establishment as Donald Trump doing everything we’re told a politician should not do if he wants to win an election, yet rising to become the unstoppable front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination. Heading into Super Tuesday, he boasts commanding leads, and should he clean up the way polls predict he will, it will be mathematically implausible for his competition to catch up. So, despite often vastly over-inflating his wealth, four bankruptcies, vague stances that change with the weather, and a style of the debate that’s less debating and more spoiled rich kid in high school in a shouting match, this New York tabloid punchline convinced millions of Americans that he’s their hope in an ever-changing world that seems to need them, and care about them, less and less. To the media at large, they seem utterly baffling and grossly irrational, but their despair and possibly newfound appreciation for authoritarianism actually makes sense in their own context.

It’s true that our world is changing. We’re becoming more and more urbanized, small towns in many countries are being left to slowly decay, and what jobs can’t be cheaply outsourced, but won’t require specialized creative skills, are being automated so quickly that almost half of the world is facing unemployment in the next few decades if nothing changes soon. Long gone are the days when you can just get your high school diploma or GED, then go straight to work in a factory for the next 30 years, or sit a cubicle for a similar stretch of time, going to college while your company paid your tuition in exchange for more guaranteed years of your employment to get a return on its investment, while making enough to raise a family and afford for a spouse to stay at home. Most of the factories have been closed for many years and college costs soared by 200% as prices for everything are 55% higher over the last 30 years, while wages over the same time period have remained stagnant when adjusted for inflation. Now you must pay for a $30,000 degree, move to the city, and try to compete for jobs companies who’ll now expect you to be a perfect fit the second you walk in can’t wait to automate or outsource. Fun times.

Oh, and I should also mention that the expensive sheet of paper you will have to acquire to get this lovely experience firsthand is going to be worthless some 73% of the time. Yes, that’s what the typical person has to do today to make ends meet; to start with tens of thousands of dollars in non-dischargeable debt looming over his or her head, and jobs in which her or she is viewed as a disposable, temporary expense, a necessary evil really. And that brings us back to Trump and his most ardent supporters who see the results of this mess and need someone to blame, ideally someone with a foreign accent, or a darker skin color, or young and a little too vocal for their taste, which is exactly what they get from him. We’ve shown them that the system doesn’t care about them in day to day life and reduced them to really, nothing more than numbers in a spreadsheet rather than real people with real problems. Now they get to assign blame and rage against the electoral machine. They’ve been ignored and left behind. Well no more! Hear them roar as those empty government suits fall before their unstoppable, self-appointed avatar who seems to share in their formerly impotent, simmering fury at their nation being neglected.

While we shudder in terror and disgust at the notion of President Trump, voted into power after violating every rule of social decorum we thought were expected of those who are supposed to lead us, what we should be worried about is that there will be more Trumps, and that they’ll get even worse if we don’t fix our education system and provide incentives for sizeable businesses to once again invest in those who labor for them. Yes, mocking Trump’s supporters is easy and pointing out The Donald’s shortfalls is like shooting fish in a barrel with tactical nukes. It’s giving those who aren’t aghast at his antics and disgusted at what’s tricking down to us after 30 years of supply-side economics, hope that things could be better that’s hard. But if we really are that shocked that a narcissistic reality star who fancies himself the world’s finest businessman and engages in antics even a rich frat bro villain in a college movie would find in poor taste when all the spotlights are on him, has a shot at being president, that’s what we need to do. We have to pop the college bubble, create apprenticeships, abolish asinine test-driven education standards created by grossly ignorant politicians, and create every possible incentive for companies not to treat their workers as disposable. We failed to plan for the future. That’s how we got here.

jail cell

Pretty much every documentary about jails and prisons proclaims that three out of four inmates you’ll see released on your screen will be incarcerated again within five years, often citing many possible reasons as to why. Criminal records keep them from finding legitimate work, lack of an effective rehabilitation program didn’t help their drug habits, their mental illnesses weren’t really addressed and are dooming them to vagrancy and crime, overzealous policing and sentencing that takes a disproportional toll on the poor and minorities, and so on. All of these may be good reasons why so many people studied by the Bureau of Justice Statistics end up in jail and each should be talked about and addressed to drive down recidivism. But the public at large and the politicians they elect have taken this information to mean that our justice system is not only very badly broken, but has become little more than a rotating door for 75% of American criminals, so all sorts of reforms must be promptly instituted to end the constant cycle of incarceration.

Right now, as Congress is trying to figure out how to fix today’s overburdened justice system to make sentencing guidelines saner, and keep people who don’t need to be imprisoned for minor crimes out of jail and into rehabilitation and parole programs, knowing who is in jail, why, and if they’re likely to find themselves back there, is crucial for effective, smart changes. And against this backdrop comes a study showing that the public and the government misunderstood what the data collected by the BJS actually measures and what it means for us. The BJS just wanted to know what happens to prisoners year over year. As they do that, the statistical picture skews very heavily to frequent offenders because they’re the most likely people to be caught in those samples. The analogy the study’s lead author, public policy analyst William Rhodes, likened the difference in his methodology and that of the BJS to trying to build the demographics of who is visiting shopping malls over a week rather than over a year. The longer the period studied, the more accurate gauge you have over long term trends, and the more likely you are to catalog all those people who analysis over much shorter windows of time will more than likely miss.

Looking at records spanning 15 years across the country, indexed by prisoners’ ID numbers, it became very clear that 68% of people who serve a prison sentence do not re-offend, and of all those who do, only one third will re-offend more than once. So the chronically incarcerated who become the focus of BJS reports because they keep on getting caught in the sample again and again, actually represent a little more than a tenth of all prisoners. This means that far from the revolving doors for cons which do nothing to help curb crime, American prisons are actually an effective deterrent from further offenses. That said, the fact that 32% of people who did serve a sentence are ending up back behind bars is a problem which points to the need to address the aforementioned challenges of leaving jail with few resources to get one’s life back on track. For Rhodes, this is a clear indicator that there needs to be an investment in rehabilitating those with the highest risk for return, and considering that instead of having to focus on every prisoner we actually need to work with as little as a quarter of them, that investment is manageable.

This is why statistical literacy is so important. If we didn’t assess whether the methods we have been using accurately reflect long term trends, we’d end up having to take a wrecking ball to all the jails and prisons to truly fix things. Considering how much was spent on building them, it’s a politically and economically painful proposal no one would want to back. No one willing to fix the entirety of a broken system over decades means that much needed reforms would’ve died very slow and painful deaths while more and more prisons were being built on the incorrect notion of having to keep people sentenced for longer and longer stretches of time so they don’t re-offend as the BJS predicts most of them will. Now, we can take this policy advice to focus on reforming the chronic, most dangerous offenders to keep as many of them out of jail for good as possible and rehabilitating minor ones who are only being sent to jail now because the judges and most of the public are convinced that they’ll keep going right back to crime unless they’re jailed.

head in sand

Here’s an extremely uncomfortable truth no one currently running for office in the U.S., or even remotely considering doing so ever wants to publicly admit. There are a lot of voters who really, really don’t like experts, scientists, or anyone well educated in anything other than medicine. In their eyes, any sign of intellectualism is not something to cheer or aspire to, to them it’s nothing more than pretension from someone they’re convinced thinks he or she is better than them and feels entitled to tell them what to do. At the same time, they’re extremely paranoid that they will have something valuable or important taken away from them to be given to all the undeserving moochers on lower socioeconomic rungs than they are, convinced that the American poor have already been living it up with free spending money, free food, and free world-class medical care for decades. So when a politician decides to cozy up to this constituency, his best bet is to start witch hunts against their most nightmarish moochers: government-funded scientists.

In his tenure as the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, a haven for a disturbing number of peddlers of anti-scientific twaddle, congressman Lamar Smith decided to do exactly that with his open-ended fishing expeditions into every possible aspect of scientists’ research in his quest to find some grand conspiracies to publicly squash for his science-averse, paranoid base’s delight. In his investigation of climate scientists working for NOAA, he specified absolutely no instances of misconduct he thinks occurred, only asked for ever more raw data to be provided to him, even though the data and the methods used to analyze it have been on the web for years, provided by NOAA to anyone even slightly curious. But data is not what Smith is really after, because he has no interest in the actual science. He and his donors are upset that updated data for atmospheric warming gathered from additional sources after years of looking over more and more observation stations eliminated the “pause” to which denialists cling. Since the only possibility in their minds is that the data is faked, they want evidence of fakery.

Really there’s no other way to put it. Smith wants to have private communications between the scientists funded by NOAA to create another Climategate, which denialists are still convinced is an actual scandal despite the scientists being cleared of any wrongdoing, and if he doesn’t find something badly worded when taken out of context, or something politically incorrect, he will be taking something he doesn’t understand — which is likely most of the things being discussed by climatologists — and is being paid by oil and gas lobbies to continue not understanding, way out of context and manufacture a scandal out of that. When the chairman of the science committee which decides on funding for countless basic research projects his nation needs to maintain the top spot for scientific innovation in the world thinks his job is to harass scientists he doesn’t like because his donors’ business may be adversely impacted by their findings, until some pretense to interrogate them comes up, no matter how flimsy, we have a very serious problem. While all abuses of power are bad, abuses by partisan dullards have a certain awfulness about them, as they ridicule when they seem to utterly lack the capacity to understand in the first place

voodoo doll

In another edition of people-can-be-awful news following last week’s post about why it’s indeed best not to feed trolls, it’s time to talk about online harassment and what to do about it. It seems that some 72 social activist groups are asking the Department of Education to police what they see as harassing and hate speech on a geo-fenced messaging app, arguing that because said geo-fence includes college campuses, it’s the colleges’ job to deal with it. Well, I suppose that it must be the start of windmill tilting season somewhere and now a government agency will have to do something to appease activists with good intentions in whose minds computers are magic that with the right lines of code can make racists, sexists, and stalkers go away. Except when all of them simply reappear on another social media platform and keep being terrible people since the only thing censoring them changes is the venue on which they’ll spew their hatred or harass their victims. Of course this is to be expected because the internet is built to work like that.

Now look, I completely understand how unpleasant it is to have terrible things said about you or done to you on the web and how it affects you in real life. As a techie who lives on the web, I’ve had these sorts of things happen to me firsthand. However, the same part of me that knows full well that the internet is in fact serious business, contrary to the old joke, also understands that a genuine attempt to police it is doomed to failure. Since the communication protocols used by all software using the internet are built to be extremely dynamic and robust, there’s always a way to circumvent censorship, confuse tracking, and defeat blacklists. This is what happens when a group of scientists build a network to share classified information. Like it or not, as long as there is electricity and an internet connection, people will get online, and some of these people will be terrible. For all the great things the internet brought us, it also gave us a really good look at how many people are mediocre and hateful, in stark contrast to most techo-utopian dreams.

So keeping in mind that some denizens of the web will always be awful human beings who give exactly zero shits about anyone else or what effect their invective has on others, and that there will never be a social media platform free of them no matter how hard we try, what should their targets do about it? Well, certainly not ask a government agency to step in. With social media’s reach and influence as powerful as it is today, and the fact that it’s free to use, we’ve gotten lost in dreamy manifestos of access to Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and yes, the dreaded Yik Yak, being fundamental human rights to speak truth to power and find a supporting community. But allowing free and unlimited use of social media is not some sort of internet mandate. It’s ran by private companies, many of them not very profitable, hoping to create an ecosystem in which a few ads or add-on services will make them some money by being middlemen in your everyday interactions with your meatspace and internet friends. If we stop using these services when the users with which we’re dealing through them are being horrible us, we do real damage.

But wait a minute, isn’t not using the social media platform on which you’ve been hit with waves and waves of hate speech, harassment, and libel, just letting the trolls win? In a way, maybe. At the same time though, their victory will leave them simply talking to other trolls with whom pretty much no one wants to deal, including the company that runs the platform. If Yik Yak develops a reputation as the social app where you go to get abused, who will want to use it? And if no one wants to use it, what reason is there for the company to waste millions giving racist, misogynist, and bigoted trolls their own little social network? Consider the case of Chatroulette. Started with the intent of giving random internet users a face with a screen name and connecting them with people they’d never otherwise meet, the sheer amount of male nudity almost destroyed it. Way too many users had negative experiences and never logged on again, associating it with crude, gratuitous nudity, so much so that it’s still shorthand for being surprised by an unwelcome erect penis on cam. Even after installing filters and controls banning tens of thousands of users every day, it’s still not the site it used to be, or that its creator actually envisioned it becoming.

With that in mind, why try to compel politicians and bureaucrats to unmask and prosecute users for saying offensive things on the web, many of which will no doubt be found to be protected by their freedom of speech rights? That’s right, remember that free speech doesn’t mean freedom to say things you personally approve of, or find tolerable. Considering that hate speech is legal, having slurs or rumors about you in your feed is very unlikely to be a criminal offense. You can be far more effective by doing nothing and letting the trolls fester, their favorite social platform to abuse others become their own personal hell where other trolls, out of targets, turn on them to get their kicks. Sure, many trolls just do it for the lulz with few hard feelings towards you. Until it’s them being doxxed, or flooded with unwanted pizzas, or swatted, or seeing their nudes on a site for other trolls’ ridicule. No matter how hard you try, they won’t be any less awful to you, so let them be awful to each other until they kill the community that allows them to flourish and the company that created and maintained it, and allow their innate awfulness be their undoing.

worried monopoly man

Being rich, especially when you’re a member of the much talked about 1%, has its problems to work though and they’re completely legitimate, according to therapists for the wealthy who took to the pages of The Guardian to explain that for one percenters, coming out as rich is a lot like coming out of the closet for gay people. No, that’s really what they really said, no paraphrasing or embellishing for comic effect on my part here. As it so turns out, today’s wealthy suffer from an interesting new strain of what some call affluenza. With rising income inequality being by far the number one concern of many economists, they’re feeling guilty about their wealth and find themselves both isolated from people who won’t dismiss their problems as non-existent simply because they’re flush with cash, and unjustly vilified by the media and political activists for their financial success and good luck rather than celebrated as before. In short, as we are instructed by the immortal words of the late Notorious B.I.G., mo’ money, mo’ problems indeed.

Some of the wealthy are even starting to lash out, demanding what they feel is the proper level of respect from the White House, and fuming about not being given the proper recognition as a vitally important job creating class by the general public, even after they’ve damaged the global economy and had to rely on cheap loans to survive. One venture capitalist even compared the plight of being rich in America today to that of Jews in Nazi Germany. For the nearly all of us, it sounds like temper tantrums of entitled, spoiled children. We have bills to pay and ends to meet every month, they always have money in the bank and paid for their mansions in cash. What in the name of Cthulhu’s sweaty jock strap do these fat cats want from us? To fawn over them or praise them for having money? To nod sagely as they worry whether their beach house would be too ostentatious for the visiting plebes? Why couldn’t they just look at their account total and be happy with what they have? If they feel so bad about being wealthy, why not just donate the sum they deem excessive to pay away their guilt? Where do they get the gall to complain?

It seems that after three decades of being publicly praised as a mighty creator class by supply-side economics proponents, the wealthy have forgotten that American’s relationship with them hasn’t always been so rosy. While since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution stories about how hard work can turn one into a tycoon have been immensely popular, the actual tycoons weren’t, thanks to their mistreatment of workers and blatant bribery of elected officials. They responded with the same red-bating they do today, declaring that only communists could protest inequality and if their workers didn’t like how they were being treated, they are free to go work elsewhere, and if they can’t find a job, well they can start their own businesses, as if that’s a panacea. The simple fact of the matter is that the wealthy don’t have the same interests that those not as well off as them do, and they have the resources to divert the attention of those who govern us from making things better for everyone to making things better just for them. They’ve left us so very far behind that we simply can’t catch up, and the result feels like a professional hockey team is on the ice with high school athletes and is running up the score for its own amusement.

Now, the public doesn’t think that all rich people are evil. It’s true that we’re biologically wired to reject extreme inequality and unfairness, but we also understand that no matter what we do, a certain class striation will always exist and that’s actually a good thing. We want people to make something of themselves, to aspire to greatness and financial security. And we also take why a certain someone is wealthy into account, which is why a seasoned expert surgeon taking home some $500,000 a year, or an engineer who designed and built something groundbreaking and popular are praised as deserving of every penny, while some hedge fund manager who cashed in after the economy took a nosedive is painted as a vulture fattened on human misery. Almost every time income inequality is debated, it’s through a prism of the haves vs. the have-nots and filled with cries about class warfare, but that’s the wrong way to approach the problem because there are two debates to be had. The first is what society finds worthy of huge rewards and why these people are being rewarded. The other is whether there’s truly equality of opportunity that the current have-nots can seize to become wealthy, or at least firmly financially secure.

Right now the situation seems to contentious because the answers to both concerns seem very unsettling. Those with the most cash are hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, and scions of wealthy families. Almost a quarter of the Forbes 500 basically got on that list simply by being born to the right family, and nearly half got a big chunk, or all of their startup capital from family members. Only a third are really, unarguably self-made and that number has been decreasing over the last decade. There our judgment of who deserves this wealth also plays a role, since a number of people on that list are engineers and inventors who got a serious leg up from family, but they’re often skipped over when debating inequality. Likewise, with the skyrocketing cost of college alongside employer demands for long stretches of unnecessary, overpriced education that doesn’t actually get them what they want anyway, and stagnant wages, makes it seem like instead of climbing corporate ladders on our way to financial stability, we’re locked in a race to the bottom, offering ourselves at a hefty discount not to just get knocked off those ladders.

That said, should we actually make colleges optional for the 73% of jobs that don’t actually use the degrees those who hold them receive, promote and boost vocational schools to handle the job training employers want as a perfectly viable career path, encourage community college to public state university routes for those still undecided about their careers, and generally put the workforce more in tune with the workplace, we can help people feel like they have a better path to financial security. Meanwhile, if we regulate Wall Street’s fiscal snake oil into nonexistence to limit the terrifying financial shenanigans of venture capitalists and hedge fund managers, on top of adopting a policy of refusing any bailouts should they fail, and sticking to it, we can stem one of the top sources of malicious, toxic income inequality today. And for the wealthy who still feel the pangs of their affluenza badly enough to need treatment, their therapists should tell them to either contribute to charity if they’re so guilty about their wealth, start a company to do the sorts of incredible projects we’d all support, like Tesla or SpaceX, or just deal with the fact that when they whine about having too much money, the rest of us just aren’t going to react well to it.

[ illustration by Bill Mayer ]

microtree in glass

How about we run through a few basic statistics about our effects on the world around us? Over the last hundred years or so, we paved nearly 11.2 million miles of roads, built 845,000 dams to divert over a third of all rivers on the planet, consumed over a billion gallons of water, generated and then used 142,000 Terrawatt hours of electricity, and belched 33 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The only things that impact Earth more than human industrialization are supervolcanic eruptions and massive asteroid impacts, which is why environmentalists have been thinking about a bold plan to somehow mark half the planet as conservation areas. While you might think that there’s no place where humans can’t thrive, the fact of the matter is that an amazingly large percentage of Earth isn’t extremely welcoming to humans or practical to settle in the long run. We are still tropical creatures who like mild, warm climates and want access to the world’s oceans, which is why 44% of us live in coastal areas rather than deserts and tundras. As well adapted to this planet as we are, we’re really not as spread out as we often think we are.

Even more interestingly, we’re converging more and more into megacities like Shanghai, Tokyo, Mumbai, New York, and Los Angeles. More than half the global population now calls cities home and the trend is very likely to continue in a post-industrial economy where efficiency is king, and geographic hubs for many professions are still very important. What’s more is that the new trend towards automated vertical farming, which reduces costs, water use, and eliminates the need for pesticides, would also free up millions and millions of acres of land currently used for growing all of our crops. Sure, not all farming can be done indoors and livestock raised for consumption will either still need to be raised the old-fashioned way, or we’d need to create synthetic meat that’s palatable to most people. We may never live in cities contained within skyscrapers for maximum efficiency, but there are a lot of demographic projections saying that 80% of us will be living way closer together on average than we do today, in massive, sprawling cities, and we’re making the necessary preparations already. So while at first glance, it may seem odd to abandon half of all land to become a nature preserve, maybe, just maybe, it will be possible in some 35 years…