The foundational economics problem

(Personal, Politics)

2011-11-10 14:21
Comment [4]

We like to make fun of the music industry for being wedded to a fundamentally broken business model, based on a flawed assumption. But you know what? Our entire modern economy is predicated on a single, key, assumption, which is also false:

A willing, healthy, adult worker can earn a living.

That is to say that a healthy adult who is willing to work can do work which is worth more than the costs of that worker’s survival, and probably enough more to cover the cost of supporting a family in whole or in part.

Two things have gone wrong. The first is that costs are up. Way up. This isn’t all about greed; it’s also about the fact that, in the 1940s, not a lot of doctors proposed the use of MRI scans. Which is to say, we have more treatments available. We have lots of new stuff; we have the Internet, we have laptops, and so on. And to a significant degree, our culture assumes that you necessarily have access to phone and email.

The second is that automation and technology have dramatically reduced the value of many kinds of work. A lot of work used to be done by throwing lots of guys at it; now we tend to use a few guys with machines. The guys who don’t know how to use the machines can’t compete. Even when it is still cost-effective to hire people, there’s a lot of work which is not worth enough to justify paying someone as much as it costs to keep a family fed and clothed. We could demand that wages increase, but mostly that would just mean that those jobs would evaporate, because they were no longer worth paying someone to do.

There’s lots of things we can do. We can mess with minimum wages, we can encourage both parents to work… but fundamentally, all of these are delaying actions. We are reaching a point where the number of people who are simply not able to do anything for which it is worth paying them enough to feed them is too large to ignore.

The obvious solution is not to worry about it — the productivity available to the people who [b]can[/b] do stuff is high enough that we have plenty of spare productivity. The thing is, though, we’ve never really solved the question of how you get people to work if they don’t have to. We don’t have meaningful tools for distinguishing between “unable” and “unwilling”. Most of our attempts end up producing systems which someone who could work but doesn’t want to can finesse, while people who are genuinely incapable of working are completely stymied.

I am pretty sure that “eh, let them starve, they’re no good to us” is probably also an unacceptable solution.

I don’t have a solution, really. I just think it’s important to understand that the problem here is that we have a flawed assumption. We really have reached a point where it is quite possible for a basically sane and healthy adult to lack the capacity to earn a living, certainly in the short term, and possibly in the long term.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [4]

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Shoplifting 2.0

(Personal)

2011-11-08 18:21
Comment

It has come to my attention that, from time to time, it is important to reevaluate traditional business models and see how they can be improved with our modern and more advanced understanding of economics. With that in mind, I call your attention to a new business model I have developed, an extraordinarily effective means of removing items from retail establishments. It turns everything you thought you knew about shoplifting upside-down, and as such, I think it clearly worthy of the name “Shoplifting 2.0”.

Shoplifting is one of the best-known business models, but the fact is, it is a shambles. Shoplifters are frequently unsuccessful, and face significant social penalties. This, dear reader, is because they have not taken the time to think through their goals, and ensure that their actions are fully aligned with these goals.

The essential core of successful shoplifting is to exit a retail establishment with an item without being chased or arrested. Traditional shoplifting places the shoplifter in a role directly opposed to that of the retail establishment’s workers, leading to a situation where both parties cannot simultaneously succeed at their goals. Such “win-lose” conflicts inevitably lead to struggles and stress.

This is, in fact, the key place where old-style shoplifting has fallen down. Shoplifters not infrequently find themselves arrested, facing possible penalties including jail time, or at the very least a period of time spent in the back of a police car. This, it turns out, is horrendously inefficient. See, shoplifting’s core business model arose before opportunity costs were fully comprehended; the naive old-style shoplifter does not recognize the very real opportunity cost of time spent arrested or jailed.

With this, we are ready for the key insight of Shoplifting 2.0, which is that you can eliminate that risk by paying for things before taking them away. This shocking idea turns everything we have taken for granted about shoplifting upside-down, but if you think it through, you will see quickly that this allows us to replace a “win-lose” situation with a “win-win” situation, in which retail clerks may not only allow a shoplifter to remove items from the premises, but assist. But, with the removal of the opportunity cost of time spent arrested or jailed, we find that we are nonetheless paying less overall for items than an old-style shoplifter.

Problem solved!

Peter Seebach

Comment

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Naproxen sodium is apparently friendship

(Personal)

2011-11-04 11:34
Comment

… and friendship, as we know, is magic.

This is my explanation for the fact that, today, my right shoulder doesn’t hurt at all that I can detect. I have my full range of motion. I can pick up 12-packs of pop with my arm at full extension without so much as a twinge.

Wow. That was a pretty big change. I think the decision to leave the arm in a sling and not push it, and the decision to sleep with magical anti-inflammatories in my system, paid off.

Peter Seebach

Comment

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I learned a new phrase today.

(Personal)

2011-11-02 17:50
Comment [1]

Rotator cuff.

Also, I barely slept, and now my arm is in a sling, which helps some.

Peter Seebach

Comment [1]

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Goblins ate us.

(Personal, Autism)

2011-10-31 21:39
Comment

So, I’m autistic. My spouse is autistic. Our housemate is autistic. And this means that sometimes, all three of us are socialed out and cannot handle social interactions. Least of all social interactions with strangers, which are not on a clearly defined schedule.

Problem: Today was a very exciting day with lots of mandatory socials and phone calls. And also. There were kids, who wanted candy.

Solution: A bowl of candy on the steps, containing a sign: “Goblins ate us. They left candy. Take one.”

There was still candy after an hour or two, eventually it ran out.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

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Priorities and importance

(Personal, Spam)

2011-10-31 12:30
Comment

Places say “your privacy is important to us, please allow ten business days for your opt-out request to be processed.” Lies.

If it takes you longer to process an opt-out request than it takes you to process a credit card charge, privacy is not important to you.

In order to process a credit card charge, you have to manage transactions between at least two, probably three to five, large international companies each governed by multiple sets of regulations, none of which own each other or can control each other’s infrastructure, and you have to do it with 99.999% reliability or better in less than twenty seconds. This, of course, is done so consistently and reliably that we take it for granted. It is done because it is actually important to companies.

Processing an opt-out request is, absolutely, for sure, easier than this. If it takes more than twenty seconds, it is because it is not actually important.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

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Why permission matters.

(Personal, Spam)

2011-10-26 18:21
Comment

A guy I know recently started getting daily emails from eHarmony, a dating site.

In their defense, yes, they are quite correct as to the facts of the matter. He’s recently single, but had been in a relationship, showing that he has an interest in romance at least in general, and he’s not got anyone right now. And better still, they can be confident that he’s not getting back together with her.

Or, as he put it: “They couldn’t even wait for my wife to be dead for two weeks.”

Classy. While this may be an extreme case, it highlights quite clearly the distinction between “we know this person is at least conceptually likely to be in the market for a product like ours” and “we should start emailing this person a lot.”

Peter Seebach

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Comment

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Why are poor people so generous?

(Personal)

2011-10-19 12:56
Comment [1]

My mom once told me something I found fascinating, and at the time inexplicable. When she was a graduate student, she and her friends were, of course, poor. (Graduate students are.) They occasionally went out for dinner, and at the end of the meal, people would toss money in and there would end up being enough to pay for the meal and leave a respectable tip.

If you watch a bunch of executives doing a meal, though, they are… not like that. They fret over whether to leave 5% or 10% tip. They argue over whose drink was $4.95 and whose was $5.95. They worry endlessly that they might pay a penny more than their fair share.

This is not a trait limited to, say, money. It happens with emotional strength, with sanity, with anything that you could have a lot of or only a little of. One of my friends is living on the brink right now. We aren’t sure whether she’s becoming homeless today or tomorrow, among other things. But she is always there for her friends. And come to think of it, that’s true of a lot of the people I know who are barely hanging on themselves; they’re always ready to give what little they have to help other people that they think might need it more.

I can sort of understand this; it’s a survival trait if everyone is like that when everyone is poor. And I can sort of understand that people who have just made it to the lower edge of consistently having enough are afraid of giving more than they can afford.

What I don’t get is the people who are really rich, and who are still unlikely to give. I was talking to a friend of mine whose annual income is in the high four-figure range, and mentioned some crackpot scheme I had that I would totally pursue if I had $10M or so to blow on it, but then, I don’t actually know anyone with that kind of money. She commented that she knows someone with that kind of money.

This is incomprehensible to me.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have enough money that you could spend $10 million on a project and not be destitute. And now imagine that you have a friend who only has a place to live if she can find someone who’s willing to give her a really good deal on a room that’s near the public transit lines and a really cheep grocery store, and even then she has to plan ahead for a week or two if she wants to order pizza.

What’s wrong with this picture? I can’t imagine this state of affairs existing for any length of time. For crying out loud, if you have $10M lying around, and a friend who is in real danger of starving, wouldn’t it seem like maybe there would be something you could do about it?

I know I’m not in the best position to talk, given how many computers I own, but I at least help people out some.

Peter Seebach

Comment [1]

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Man, that was fun.

(Personal)

2011-10-16 23:14
Comment

/played
You’ve played 1 Days, 1 Hours, 22 Minutes, 32 Seconds

I was added to the “Extra Life Defiant” (as opposed to Guardian, the other faction) guild in probably the first 20 minutes or so I was in the game. Wandered off a couple of times to cook, but for any extended absence, I logged out, so I’m pretty sure I cleared 24 hours.

We’ll see. Overall stats from Extra Life:

  • Total donations: In excess of $1.1 million. Their counter display broke.
  • “Trion Worlds” team (mostly other RIFT players): 700 people, exact number changed a bit through the event
  • Donations for “Trion Worlds” team: About $34k last I checked.
  • According to Trion, they had over 2,000 players active in the event, so a lot of them weren’t on the “Trion Worlds” team, but were doing the event anyway.

I didn’t make my donations goal, but then, I didn’t start until way too late, and a lot of my friends are broke enough that “give $25 to these total strangers” is a legitimately hard pitch.

Had a lot of fun, stabbed a lot of monsters in the face, raised money for charity. A good weekend over all.

Peter Seebach

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Learning from other peoples' experiences

(Personal)

2011-10-14 15:19
Comment

One of the great abilities humans have is to learn from other peoples’ mistakes and experiences. A friend of mine was raised with a pretty strong sense that you should always do this rather than making your own mistakes. I have always had a prejudice towards this, but I have noticed that in fact I benefit a lot from learning from my own mistakes.

I have finally understood this. See. First, there’s just effectiveness-of-learning. You tend to learn more completely and more effectively from your own experiments. But that’s not where the big magic comes in.

Sooner or later, you will have to learn from your own mistakes, because you will need to learn a thing that is not teachable.

When this happens, it will be very useful to you if you are experienced at learning from your own mistakes and experiences. And the really neat thing is, the best way to get good at it is to do it on things where you can check your work — that is to say, things where it would be practical to learn from other people, too.

So it’s not a bad idea, necessarily. It’s sometimes, in fact, a necessary part of the process of developing the skill of developing skills.

So if you’ve been making mistakes that other people had already made? Don’t feel bad. You were probably right.

Peter Seebach

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