Don’t call them techies.

I was a little surprised to hear Geoff Nunberg on Fresh Air deliver a bit of a rant against the “techies” that have been the subject of the recent “tech class war” in the Bay Area. I would be taken aback by anybody professing on national radio their biased assumptions and prejudices about broad groups of people based solely on the industry in which they work. It is even more unexpected coming from Nunberg, since he teaches lots of budding tech workers at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. I imagine his students might be interested to know that their professor thinks they’re “oblivious” and arrogant.

I think it’s strange how so many people are perfectly happy to assume that all – or most – people who work at a tech company for a living are entitled prats, disconnected from their communities and possessing no social consciousness. (And how interesting that these characterizations are never made about workers of private-busing non-tech companies in the area, like Williams-Sonoma or Kaiser.)

The thing is, normally, you’d assume that these negative assumptions are just made by people who don’t really know any tech workers. But Professor Nunberg does know these people — and he thinks they’re arrogant jerks.

Yet one has to wonder if Nunberg’s analysis and judgments in this area can be relied upon. For example: in one sentence, Nunberg describes Silicon Valley’s hermetic subculture” of nerdy “seclusion,” but in the next, he contrasts this with — surprise! — the fact that many tech workers prefer to live in San Francisco! What could cause these tasteless dorks to insist on moving to our socially conscious, hipster capital? Could it be that they’re actually not the arrogant jerks in search of seclusion that you thought they were? Surely not! It must be their libertarian impulses, urging them to come to the big city and personally evict some teachers and artists.

Nunberg’s description of the buses themselves are also telling:

A “luxury” bus surrounded and blocked by protesters.

People call them all Google buses, because they’re hard to tell apart — oversized Wi-Fi-equipped luxury coaches, usually gleaming white, which scoop up their passengers at transit stops like something out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You couldn’t invent a more compelling visual symbol for the privileged and disconnected lives that the tech workers seem to live, cosseted behind smoke-tinted windows.

(Emphasis added.) If the professor is so insulated that he a.) is this impressed by this bus and b.) can’t imagine a better visual symbol for the argument he’s trying to make — well, Occam’s razor again dictates that the simplest conclusion applies: he hasn’t got a very good argument. And maybe he needs to read some history or even, a news site.

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The problems of libertarian futurism.

The November 28 issue of the New Yorker had a great George Packer piece on the PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel: “Peter Thiel’s Rise to Wealth and Libertarian Futurism” (subscription required). I had previously known of Thiel primarily as the guy who was offering money to college-aged kids to not go to college – his Thiel Fellowship offers $100,000 to young folks (under 20) for a two-year period, during which time the Fellows “focus on their work, their research, and their self-education.”

In the article, Thiel does not come across as rabidly anti-education as his public image suggests. To me, Thiel and his friends as depicted in Packer’s article do not seem to have a very coherent or persuasive case against higher education as an institution – there are vague intimations that universities make you conformist, but I find that pretty unpersuasive (and why stop at universities? Why not high school, middle school, elementary school, or kindergarten?) At a dinner party described in the article, one of Thiel’s friends says he was failed by an English teacher who said he couldn’t write – but this sounds like the problem of one bad apple in the education system, a flaw that the business world certainly isn’t immune to. (Interestingly, another anti-education friend at this dinner party is AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky, author of an elaborate Harry Potter fanfic called “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.”)

The Thiel Fellowship website reflects a more nuanced view, to a certain extent: the site’s page on “the education bubble” focuses on the unethical burdening of young people with untenable student loan debt. I think that’s a very legitimate public policy concern, but of course, it does not follow that everyone should skip college and launch high-tech startups.

In general, this is the story of each libertarian position taken by Thiel, and the problem with libertarianism in general: you start with a extreme position of “free choice,” but are forced to walk it back with caveats and conditions once you learn more about the complexities of the problem. Packer’s article illustrates this a few times, once concerning one of my favorite hobby-horses – the myth of political correctness run rampant on college campuses. In 1995, Thiel, who is gay, co-authored The Diversity Myth, which in part discussed the case of a Stanford law student named Keith Rabois who shouted “Faggot! Faggot! Hope you die of AIDS!” outside an instructor’s on-campus residence – a provocation which earned Rabois’ ejection from Stanford. According to Packer, Thiel (along with his co-author David Sacks) characterized the Rabois case in The Diversity Myth as one “of individual courage in the face of a witch hunt,” and which challenged “fundamental taboos.” Now, apparently, Thiel regrets writing about the incident, telling Packer:

All of the identity-related things are in my mind much more nuanced. I think there is a gay experience, I think there is a black experience, I think there is a woman’s experience that is meaningfully different.

It’s nice to see an example of an ideological libertarian observing and learning something about the reality of the world we inhabit. However, it’s less inspiring to see Thiel shy away from issues, like energy policy or climate change, with live political implications – it seems like he just thinks political problems are too hard. To say, as he does, that “it would be good if we had a less political world,” is like saying “it would be good if we had a less money-driven world” – it’s an impossible utopia. But the failure to recognize that we live in an observably more money-driven world than a politics-driven world shows a shocking disconnect from reality which is, in my view, the fundamental problem of libertarianism.

I can agree with Thiel on futurism, or technological optimism, anyway. Packer notes the Founders Fund manifesto, “What Happened to the Future?” the tagline of which seems to be: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Even through (or maybe even because of) the dot-com boom(s), society’s technological imagination has been meager, seeming to top out at micro-blogging and FarmVille. (Although I’d quibble with the line, “Instead of Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise, we got the Priceline Negotiator and a cheap flight to Cabo,” since we are clearly seeing the beginnings of a robust market in TNG-era flat screen tablets.) Thiel is adept with his science fiction commentaries:

The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

(Is that a real story? Or shall I write it?) Note also, of course, that in the Star Trek universe, the Federation has progressed past currency, making “entrepreneurship” obsolete.


Founding Fathers on film.

On his blog, Hendrik Hertzberg seconds the sensible call for a Alexander Hamilton biopic. I am likewise pretty amazed that this has never been done, as Hamilton is clearly a fascinating and dramatic character. Relatedly, I am a bit surprised at how many times J. Edgar Hoover has been portrayed in the cinema. (In his New Yorker review, David Denby notes that in addition to Leonardo DiCaprio, “Broderick Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, and Bob Hoskins have played Hoover.”) He’s undisputedly an interesting character — it’s just that he’s such a relatively recent historical figure. You’d think we’d have long since exhausted the cinematic potential of the Founding Fathers’ stories, but Hollywood just doesn’t seem interested.

Although it’s not a film, HBO’s 2008 John Adams miniseries deserves a mention in this discussion. I missed it when it first came out because I’m not an HBO subscriber, but I recently watched it on DVD. I found it to be pretty poorly dramatized, but it did a decent job of narrating the politics of the revolution and the founding. By the end – or the middle, really – of the miniseries, I was pretty sick and tired of John Adams, and would have gladly welcomed a spinoff on Hamilton (or Jefferson!). I’d also be really interested to watch a movie about John Madison, who sounds like a delightful crank.

Anyways, the other reason for making this blog post was to share with the Internet this fabulous screencap I took while I was watching John Adams. In light of current events, it seems appropriate to put this out there. I think the supercommittee should have a giant still of this projected over them, so that they may better imagine how they’re making John Adams roll in his grave, or at least make this tragic face (in reaction to hearing Hamilton’s pitch to create a national debt):

I saved this image months ago, thinking that eventually I would come up with some brilliant image macro for it, but alas, image macros are not really my medium. I did make it a little more Internet-appropriate though:


Election time in Emeryville.

As you may know, Jon and I moved to Emeryville a couple months ago, after our four-year exile on the East Coast. Emeryville is a tiny city sort of between Berkeley and Oakland, just across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco – just 1.25 square miles, with a population of about 10,000, so the local politics are really local. This year, out of five seats on the City Council, there are three on the City Council up for grabs and five candidates vying for them. So last night, in an effort to get to know the issues and the candidates, Jon and I walked down to City Hall to see the City Council candidates forum hosted by the League of Women Voters Berkeley Albany Emeryville.

The forum certainly raised a lot of issues for us to Google. I haven’t had time to research all of them yet, but some of the issues that intrigued me include the proposed Emeryville Center for Community Life and its financing, the ballot measure (Measure F) to recall the City Attorney, and the city’s Redevelopment Agency. There are two other ballot measures this year that I did not hear the candidates substantively debate: Measure C, raising the business tax rate, and Measure D, raising the business tax cap (that’s right – there’s a cap.)

If you want to find out more about the candidates and their stances – or about local elections in other jurisdictions – the League of Women Voters’ SmartVoter.org website is a good resource. The Secret News, a blog covering Emeryville politics, also has a very informative post on the candidates.

While I found the forum to be very interesting, and the candidates to be generally competent-seeming and articulate, I have to wonder how well they represent their constituency. For example, although non-Hispanic whites make up only 40 percent of the city’s population, all of the candidates – as well as the two City Council members not up for election this year – appear to be non-Hispanic whites. (According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Asian-Americans are the largest minority, at 27.5 percent, and African-Americans are 17.5 percent. Asian-owned firms also account for 13.9 percent of firms in the city.)

More importantly, there was a lot of griping about how Emeryville needed to better serve and attract families with children – for example, through more family-friendly housing. One of the candidates – I forget which – stated, as if it were completely uncontroversial, that residents with children simply made the community stronger. Michael Webber (who sort of does and sort of doesn’t know how to use Tumblr) propounded this view the most vehemently: he derisively referred to “yuppies,” “commuters,” and “loft-dwellers” as if they (let’s be honest, we) are nothing but parasites on the city.

Webber instantly lost my vote when he started complaining about my demographic, but let’s take the long view for a minute: why should any candidate for (or member of) City Council want to alienate the childless, yuppie, commuting, loft-dwellers [CYCL]? We are your constituency. I get the sense that there is a disproportionate amount of us! Why don’t you try to engage us? Neither Jon nor I asked any questions at the forum, but when we were talking about it afterward, Jon told me the question he was thinking of asking, and I think it’s a good one: Why should I (a CYCL) buy a house in Emeryville?

As renters contributing to this scourge of one-bedroom housing stock, I know our politicians don’t prioritize us because we don’t pay the property taxes that fund our city. But we do pay taxes indirectly through our rent, we live here, and, unlike our absentee landlords, we can vote. Moreover, many of us are likely to be considering buying a home in the future. If our politicians do nothing to serve us, what makes them think we’re going to want to invest in this city?

For some CYCLs, a deciding factor about buying a house in Emeryville would be schools: you might be childless now, but if you’re thinking of having children in the future, the city’s school system would certainly be something to take into consideration, and thus, it makes sense for the city’s politicians to focus on school-related issues.

But what if you decide not to have children? What then does Emeryville have to offer its residents (who are not burdening the city with extra demand for services)? The services and amenities are not fantastic: we currently don’t have a library – I think that’s supposed to be part of the new community center – so I have to ride my bike up to the Golden Gate branch of the Oakland Public Library. We have a decent outdoor pool which I am an enthusiastic user of, although the locker room is tiny and it closes in the winter. There’s not a lot in the way of cafes, restaurants, bars, art galleries, or parks.

Jac Asher was the only candidate who even began to address these types of concerns, by way of talking about strengthening public transit in Emeryville, possibly by linking the free Emery-Go-Round service with the West Oakland BART. That would be great! It seems that Ruth Atkin has been on the Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and I think Emeryville has some great bike lanes and bike boulevards which a lot of people use. I’d like for 40th Street or some other route to the MacArthur BART be more bike-friendly. (Webber, apparently, thought the bike lane shouldn’t cross San Pablo because he didn’t see bikes on this stretch of road? That is obviously because it’s kind of a harrowing experience to ride there, what with the lack of bike lanes and all!) I’d also like a bigger, year-round farmers market, or at least more CSAs serving our community. And a dog park! Tons of us CYCLs have dogs – and nothing builds and strengthens communities like people walking their dogs – but we don’t have anywhere to take them for off-leash exercise and socialization.

I’ll stop ranting now. I just get exercised, you know, after having seen what local democracy looks like.


The unpredictability of firm size and political clout: a case study in snakes.

The other day, Matt Yglesias disputed the idea that large corporations have too much political power, arguing instead about the disproportionate political clout of sectors made up of small firms which are geographically dispersed, like agriculture. Because of the over-representation of rural America in the Senate, that means rural priorities – like developing the ag industry – get special political attention.

In response, Mother Jones food and ag writer Tom Philpott pointed out that agriculture’s political over-representation is chiefly due to the American Farm Bureau, an agricultural trade group deeply connected with big agribusiness (think ADM, Cargill, ConAgra, and DuPont), and not so much with actual small firms (the family farms that the Farm Bureau purports to represent):

The Farm Bureau claims its 6.2 million “member families” make it the nation’s “largest and most influential general farm organization,” but there’s a math problem here: America has just 2 million farms, and 960,000 people who claim farming as their main occupation. “The vast majority of its members,” notes FWW, “are neither farmers nor necessarily advocates of the political platform that the Farm Bureau endorses on their behalf.” Instead, they’re just random insurance customers.

I don’t know if Philpott’s contention – based on a 2010 Food & Water Watch report – is an accurate characterization, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were – which would make it less surprising that politicians awarded such outsized influence to the interests of a powerful and monied national (or transnational) lobby, which may not be aligned with those of the legislators’ constituents. Of course, it’s also possible that legislators simply aren’t aware of how their constituents’ opinions might diverge from the interests of the large corporate lobbies.

In any case, this debate reminded me of the whole kerfuffle with regulating snakes, which I meant to blog about last month. When I was in law school, I interned for Senator Ben Cardin, working on matters related to the Subcommittee on Water and Wildlife. One of the bills that I helped prepare a hearing for was Senator Bill Nelson’s proposal to add the Burmese python, among other invasive snake species, to the list of species protected by the Lacey Act, thereby prohibiting their importation and interstate trafficking.

Not only is it absurd for the Republicans to mischaracterize the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed “injurious” finding as setting off a job-killing “regulatory tsunami,” it’s especially galling considering that Nelson’s bill would essentially have legislated that finding (and you’d think it ought to be uncontroversial even among today’s right-wing zealots that it is the role of Congress to skip the bureaucrats and legislate). Back when Nelson’s bill was percolating around the 111th Congress, I didn’t understand why it wasn’t a given that it would pass – I mean, how much influence could the exotic pet and reptile enthusiast lobby have? In what Congressional district(s) are snake-lovers clamoring for greater liberty in Burmese python trading? How big is the snakes-as-pets industry and how many people do they employ? (And how many people could instead be employed as customs inspectors and Lacey Act enforcement, with co-benefits for local ecosystems?)

The trouble is, as I found after a little recreational and fruitless research, this information is not readily available (because in whose interest is it to make that information available?) and so our hapless Congresscritters were not enabled to make the rational decision about adding the Burmese python to the Lacey Act. (On the other hand, the proposed rule notes [at 75 Fed. Reg. 11817] that local, state and federal entities along with universities have spent almost $3 million on studying and eradicating large constrictor snakes in Florida alone.) This information problem might be the root cause for the disproportionate influence of the fragmented and geographically disparate small firms who traffic in an uncharismatic and literally baby-killing invasive species.


Bachmann is wrong about earthquakes.

Fact-checking Republican presidential candidates is like shooting fish in a barrel, but quibbling is what the Internet is for. The other day, Rep. Michele Bachmann joked that the recent East Coast earthquake and Hurricane Irene were manifestations of God trying to get some kind of deficit-reducing message across to Washington politicians. Considering that Irene has freshly left 30 people dead and over a million people without power, and caused untold amounts of property damage, this was probably a pretty ill-advised, or at least somewhat insensitive, joke to make. (On the other hand, Bachmann’s constituency is probably firmly in the Midwest, so who gives an eff about the troubles of the East Coast?) Anyways, as The Caucus reports, Bachmann almost immediately went into damage control mode after the words came out of her mouth, saying that her remarks were not meant to be taken seriously.

What I have to quibble with is the following:

What I was saying in a humorous vein is there are things happening that politicians need to pay attention to. It isn’t every day we have an earthquake in the United States.

In fact, it pretty much is every day that we have an earthquake in the United States. According to the USGS, well over 2,000 earthquakes occur in the United States annually. In 2010, the USGS located 8,493 earthquakes – that’s an average of 23 earthquakes per day. At any given time, the real-time map of earthquakes in the United States will show a couple dozen earthquakes that have happened in the past day:

Granted, most of these earthquakes are minor, if not imperceptible. But I think Bachmann’s mistake is still significant in that it demonstrates her careless disregard for the facts/telling the truth. Of course, it’s not really a surprise that Bachmann would have this attitude, considering she’s a champion of the anti-science party.


Bringing home the debt ceiling fight.

In the midst of the debt crisis in Washington, D.C., Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building that is on a strip of motels and pawnshops in Tampa, Florida. He had been laid off by a packaging plant during the financial crisis of 2008, had run through his unemployment benefits, and had then taken a part-time job stocking shelves at Target in the middle of the night, for $8.50 an hour. His daughter had developed bone cancer, and he was desperate to make money, but his hours soon dwindled to four or five a week. In April, Hartzell was terminated. His last biweekly paycheck was for a hundred and forty dollars, after taxes. “It’s kind of like I’ve fallen into that non-climbable-out-of rut,” he said. “If you can’t climb out, why not move?”

On the afternoon of July 1st, Hartzell was loading the family’s possessions into the rental truck—and brushing off the roaches that had infested the apartment, so that the bugs wouldn’t make the move, too—when a letter arrived from the State of Florida. Four days earlier, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican backed by the Tea Party, had signed a law making it harder for Floridians to collect jobless benefits, and the letter informed Hartzell that he was ineligible for new benefits after losing his job at Target. “I guess it’s just all water under the bridge at this point anyway, being that we’re going to stake a new claim,” Hartzell told his fifteen-year-old son. “Right, Brent?” Then the Hartzells drove ten hours north, to rural Georgia, where no job or house awaited them—only an old friend Hartzell had reconnected with on Facebook, and the hope of a fresh start.

On the day the family moved, there were officially 14.1 million unemployed Americans, or 9.2 per cent of the workforce. Hartzell himself probably isn’t counted in these statistics. In recent years, he has fallen into the more nebulous categories of the part-time employed, the long-term unemployed, and the “marginally attached”—the no-longer-looking unemployed. Economists report that the broader, and more accurate, unemployment rate is 16.2 per cent. Three years after the economic meltdown, nearly one in six Americans are out of work.

…Obama, securely in character, called on all sides to rise above petty politics, acknowledged the practical realities of divided government, and proposed a grand compromise that would lower the deficit by four trillion dollars. …Among other drastic cuts to domestic spending, the President proposes a ten-year, hundred-billion-dollar reduction in federal contributions to Medicaid, a program that helped provide new sets of teeth for Danny Hartzell and his wife just before their move.

…Some Republicans have also proposed that any deal require Obama to repeal the country’s new health-care law, which, had it been in place last year, would have provided the Hartzells with medical insurance, instead of forcing them to rely on charity hospitals for their daughter’s cancer treatment. Representative Paul Ryan’s ten-year budget plan, which remains his party’s blueprint for the future, would impose a fifty-per-cent cut on programs like food stamps and Supplemental Security Income, which, as long as Danny Hartzell remains jobless, represent the Hartzells’ only income. By the last day of June, the Hartzells had twenty-nine dollars to their name. The Republicans in Congress won’t be satisfied until the family is out on the street.

In his Talk of the Town piece from last week’s New Yorker, George Packer tells the story of Danny Hartzell and his family, and in so doing, connects the politics of the debt ceiling debate with the economic reality that Americans experience.

I’ve read a lot of complaints on the Internet about how political journalism is over-obsessed with the procedural dramas in Washington, and should instead focus on explaining policy and the substance of political conflicts. I think this is one of those rare, good examples of the latter. Packer does a great job of illustrating the consequences of the current debate, and at a personal scale that is far easier to comprehend than the billion- and trillion-dollar cuts over ten years that are reportedly being debated.

In the particular case of the debt ceiling debate, it’s rare that I come across any mention of what the huge cuts in spending would mean for the many programs and services providing actual benefits on which Americans rely. In part, of course, that’s because the actual negotiations haven’t reached that level of specificity. But I think it’s important and useful to give some perspective, especially since most Americans are probably fortunate enough as to have never looked at a Congressional budget in their lives.