Don’t Netflix Your Way Through Crises

One thing I find especially bothersome about the response to the COVID-2019 pandemic is the common meme telling average people to “just stay home and watch Netflix.”

What does it say about us that this is a common idea of how to respond to a major crisis? The Netflix prescription is a passive, helpless, hopeless way to experience a trying time which may last for months. It’s a meaning-starved narcotic for people who have the time and luxury to watch it. And it’s not much of a palliative for people who are losing their jobs or friends and loved ones.

Sure – let’s watch some movies if that’s a normal part of life for us. But there are about a thousand better things we can be doing.

We can be supporting our friends and families. We can be catching up with old friends online and in video calls, delivering groceries for at-risk folks, and sharing important public health advisories with our neighbors.

We can be developing ourselves and improving our own lives. We can be learning new skills and languages, reading useful books, exercising outside (away from people), painting, teaching, or selling.

We can be preparing for the shockwaves and the aftermath of this crisis. We can be planting gardens and raising chickens and buying investments and fixing things around the house and stocking up and learning first aid.

We can be supporting the response to the pandemic. We can be donating, raising funds for personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, or contributing time to online crowdsourced projects to make masks and other gear.

And we can do all of these things – as we would with Netflix – from home. There aren’t enough good shows on any streaming platforms to make this time worthwhile only for consumption. Find something useful and meaningful now: you won’t regret it.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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OFCCP vs. Oracle

Three days before Barack Obama left office, his Department of Labor served a complaint against Oracle America, Inc., alleging gross systemic discrimination in both its hiring practices and its pay practices.

Specifically, it claims that Oracle discriminates against non-Asians in hiring for sixty-nine job titles, and discriminates against women, Asians, and African-Americans in pay for eighty job titles.

DID ORACLE DISCRIMINATE?

Is it strange that Oracle allegedly discriminates both in favor of and against Asians?

The OFCCP (the Office of Federal Contractor Compliance Programs) is the program at the center of this complaint; it is involved because Oracle is a government contractor. The only points supporting OFCCP’s claim are statistical analyses.

The complaint mentions exactly zero employee complaints, and it doesn’t even try to say that there is evidence that Oracle intended to discriminate.

It is difficult to determine and compare the myriad factors involved in assigning appropriate compensation, and the statistical analyses OFCCP conducted likely fall short. Economically speaking, any mutually agreeable level of compensation is appropriate, and in a free market, compensation will tend to be equitable.

SHOULD THE OFCCP HAVE THIS POWER?

However, when Oracle filed a countersuit on November 27, 2019, (yes, the case is still going on), its press release discussed none of those points. Instead, it focused on the unconstitutionality of the Department of Labor acting as “investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury, and appellate court.”

Of course, such arrangements are not limited to the Department of Labor; they have become unfortunately common throughout the Federal bureaucracies. This is despite the blatant violation of the Constitutional separation of powers, arguably the most basic fact of American civics. For most of us, as soon as we started learning about the US Government, we learned about the separation of powers, and how the Founding Fathers designed the system with the famous checks and balances that prevent tyranny.

How well has that tyranny prevention worked out so far?

Oracle argues that the situation is not only unconstitutional but also statutorily illegal. It remains to be seen how the suit and countersuit will turn out; typically, it takes extremely deep pockets to win such a fight against the feds. Oracle may yet come out on top, but so far, it appears that the checks and balances have failed to protect Oracle — a company that provides over 100,000 jobs and many billions of dollars of services to the economy each year.

COULD THE FREE MARKET HANDLE THIS?

The OFCCP has not made a compelling case for the existence of systemic discrimination within Oracle; its claims are prima facie incongruous and based exclusively on ambiguous data. Indeed, it appears that it has inserted itself into a situation in which no one has complained, no one has objected, no one has said that their compensation was not appropriate for their labor or that they objectively should have been hired when they were not.

But, what if there really were discrimination?

And, is there a better way to handle it than the intra-DoL system, or even the Constitutional system?

My interest is in how this situation would play out in a free market. Let’s consider it.

A free market, with total freedom of association, would probably have no claims of hiring discrimination, because no one would be compelled to hire or retain anyone against their will. Of course, a reputation for discrimination could easily lead to a loss of revenue, as a consumer base that opposes discrimination would likely choose to take their business elsewhere.

Furthermore, formal anti-discrimination regulations could be voluntary. Associations or organizations could prescribe standards for avoiding discrimination, as well as regular audits to ensure compliance, and consumers could choose to patronize only those companies that subscribe to sufficiently stringent standards and pass the audits.

HOW WOULD THE FREE MARKET HANDLE THIS?

What would happen with a discrimination claim in a free market?

Let’s say that Oracle is certified as discrimination-free by the standard-bearer anti-discrimination association. In this scenario, a prospective employee believes that Oracle has discriminated against him in the hiring process, or a current employee believes (despite mutual agreement) that Oracle has discriminated against him in his compensation.

He could discuss it directly with the appropriate people in Oracle, or he could take it to the anti-discrimination association that certifies Oracle as discrimination-free.

If his claim has merit, the association would need to ensure that Oracle settles the claim swiftly and fairly, or have its discrimination-free certification revoked. To do otherwise would risk the association’s reputation and tarnish the value of their certifications.

IS THERE ANOTHER WAY TO LOOK AT THE SITUATION?

Of course, this is just one way it could play out. The best part about the free market — wait, is there a single best part? —  is that one person can’t conceive of all the remarkable ways that collaboration and competition can make the world a better place.

On the other hand, you may have noticed some similarities between how a discrimination claim would work in a free market, and how it works with a state-run system. Part of that is because the free market is impossible to get away from completely, and part of it is because my imagination is likely affected by the status quo. The main benefits of the free market vis-a-vis the state-run system are the lack of coercion (in both funding and association) and the opportunities for innovation.

CONCLUSION

In summary, it appears that the Constitutional system isn’t working (since we have unconstitutional bureaucratic judicial pipelines all over the place), and those pipelines don’t work too well either (since they use sketchy math to find problems where no one involved sees a problem). So, do you think a free market system would work better? How do you think it would function? How would you design it?

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Here Are 6 Ideas For Parents While Schools Are Closed

As schools shut down indefinitely across the country due to coronavirus concerns, many parents are wondering how to get through the coming weeks at home with their children. This is new territory for all of us, especially as “social distancing” becomes the new normal and virtual working and learning spaces replace the real thing.

As a homeschooling mother of four, and author of Unschooled, I realize that this time at home can feel overwhelming and is far from a typical homeschooling experience. There are some steps parents can take to make this time at home with their children more tolerable and rewarding for everyone.

1. Avoid replicating school at home.

While many schools and districts are sending home packets of curriculum materials or shifting to virtual classrooms and assignments, parents should try to avoid the tendency to re-create school at home.

It’s understandable that parents may worry about keeping their children on track academically, but they are likely to find that their children are able to complete their course work in much less time than in a typical school day, and will learn a great deal from the other experiences and insights that will surely emerge during this challenging time.

If parents can take the pressure off themselves to be the teacher and curriculum enforcer over the next weeks, they may be pleasantly surprised to discover just how much their children learn. One thing that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to reveal is that it is possible, and sometimes preferable, to learn without school.

2. Prioritize play and unstructured time.

We all know that play is vital for children’s healthy development and it may be particularly important as we confront this pandemic. My 6-year-old son was playing recently with the figurines from the board game Risk when I overheard him say to them: “I can’t shake your hand. You might have the coronavirus.”

Our children are listening to all that is going on and processing it through play. Prioritizing ample play and unstructured time is one important way we as parents can help our children to cope. For young children, this means creating space for free play without feeling the need to direct or organize their play activities. This could take some adjusting, as kids learn how to overcome their boredom and rekindle their imagination.

For older children accustomed to mostly adult-led activities and supervised extracurriculars, allowing them abundant, unstructured time over the next several weeks could awaken new interests and goals.

3. Use online learning resources.

We are lucky to live at a time of hyper-connectivity and vast digital resources at our fingertips. Technology enables us to work and learn in ways unimaginable only a couple of decades ago.

Some young people may be learning virtually through their school, completing coursework and tests online. But there are other great online resources that can expand a child’s learning and open pathways to new information and knowledge. Khan Academy and TedEd, for instance, offer free YouTube videos in a multitude of content areas. EdX and Coursera offer free university-level classes from leading institutions.

Libraries and museums often have high-quality and free online tools, including the Boston Public Library’s online resources and the Boston Children’s Museum’s 100 Ways to Play list and BCM Home Edition. Many more museums and organizations are also starting to offer free programming during the pandemic, including the Metropolitan Opera that is streaming its performances for free this week.

4. Encourage virtual playdates.

With social isolation upon us, virtual play dates will become the new norm, at least for a while. Fortunately, your kids can connect with their friends over Google Hangouts, create stories and scripts together over Google Docs, play Minecraft multiplayer online while watching or listening to each other over FaceTime or play the Prodigy Math game in a multiplayer gaming world.

It’s not as ideal as being together in the same spot, but these virtual friend meetups can make the separation more fun and bearable.

5. Embrace family time.

This is a once in a lifetime moment to gather together as a family and connect in deeper, more authentic ways. Reading books, listening to music, enjoying unhurried meals, playing board games and card games, and going for walks outside can all be ways to enjoy quality time together. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to draw or to speak another language or to knit.

This can be an opportunity to explore these interests as an adult, and perhaps prompting your children to explore their distinct interests as well.

6. Make room for reflection.

We know that this difficult period will not last forever and our lives will return to normal, but taking time to reflect on this historic occurrence can be helpful to endure the experience now and to remember it in the future.

This is just as true for ourselves as parents as it is for our children. Encourage your kids to keep a daily journal, draw or take pictures, and collect or print news clips to record this profound event. Then, they can show their grandchildren what it was like to live through the great pandemic of 2020.

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Villages to Cities to Villages?

Humans used to mostly live in villages. Clusters of families where the adults did work and the kids roamed and observed and played and learned work by being around it.

With specialization, mass scale production, and technological advances the arrangement changed. People lived in neighborhoods or cities that were often much larger, adults commuted to cities during the day vastly larger still, and kids were shipped off to huge age-segregated clusters, before smaller immediate families came back together for dinner in the evening.

The benefits of technological progress are astounding and I wouldn’t trade them. The benefits greatly outweighed the costs, which is why just about everyone who had the chance chose it. But shifting living arrangements were (often) one item on the cost side of the ledger. It was sometimes necessary, not necessarily optimal.

With increasing automation, software, robotics, and information access, the equation is changing again. Humans don’t need to cluster together en masse for economic production. That means one of the costs we had to pay to get the benefits of economic progress has been removed. Now there is choice. You can do the commute to cities and office buildings while kids commute to age segregated schools thing if you want. But you don’t have to.

This is a pretty new choice. And so far, only a handful of early adopters see an seize it. People can now live where they want with who they want with kids and adults alike doing their work and play near the home. Most people still do not realize this is an option. They are wedded to the status quo by inertia, not necessity.

Recent voluntary and forced quarantines are waking some people up to this possibility. More people than realized can work from anywhere. People also realize how they might want to change their living arrangements if they were to continue this more flexible, work and learn from home arrangement. For example, you might want to choose your neighbors more deliberately if you’re spending more time in a village-like setting. If you and your kids social life and work life and learning will be more local, spontaneous, and collaborative, you might change the kind of natural environment you’re in. Climate, house type, access to outdoors, etc.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slow steady uptick in deliberate village-like communities. Clusters of families with some shared interest, ideology, religion, or profession who have adults who can work from anywhere on flexible hours and kids roaming around learning through mixed-age play and imitation.

It’s possible the reason few people do this now is that few prefer it. It’s also possible the reason few do it now is because they’ve been conditioned for several generations into the assumption that it’s not on the table. More short-term experiments in this type of arrangement could inspire more to do it.

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Paul Krugman, COVID-19, and Broken Windows

The jury is still out on which of two things — COVID-19 or the panic over COVID-19 — will cost more lives and do more damage to the global economy. My money’s still on the latter. In the meantime, I’ve developed a surefire, Groundhog Day type test for whether the emergency is over:

Watch for Nobel laureate economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to start trying to convince us it was, all in all, actually a GOOD thing.

Krugman on 9/11: “[T]he direct economic impact of the attacks will probably not be that bad. And there will, potentially, be two favorable effects.”

Krugman on Fukushima: “[T]he nuclear catastrophe could end up being expansionary, if not for Japan then at least for the world as a whole.”

Krugman would even have us believe that Pearl Harbor ended the Great Depression (which actually ended more than half a decade later). “If we suddenly had a threat of war and a military build up,” he once asserted on ABC News’s Roundtable,  “you’d be amazed how fast the economy would recover.”

Krugman is the 21st century’s foremost evangelist of the Broken Window Fallacy.

In Frederic Bastiat’s “parable of the broken window,” a shopkeeper’s son carelessly breaks a window pane.

A witty onlooker — Paul Krugman’s ideological ancestor — considers this a good thing because it creates business for the glazier who replaces broken windows.

As Bastiat points out, though, while the cost of replacing the  pane is seen, other things aren’t:  That was money the shopkeeper could have spent on a new pair of shoes, or on a book he wanted to read.

Instead of buying something that improves his life, the shopkeeper has to spend that money just getting back to his previous condition.

To cover costs like replacing the window, he probably raises prices, meaning his customers have to spend more on his products, leaving them less to spend on other things they might like.

Even the glazier’s customers get screwed. Broken windows increase demand, which means higher prices. The man building a new house has to pay more, and wait longer, for new windows.

The matter is a loss, not a gain, for everyone except the glazier.

Can we expect to see some long-term beneficial consequences from COVID-19 and its associated hysteria? Yes.

Two likely outcomes are large, permanent increases in “telecommuting” (working from home instead of traveling to an office) and “distance learning” (taking classes from home instead of traveling to a university campus).

Those two trends were already noticeable, but fear of contagion is boosting them tremendously. When the fear subsides, the benefits will be remembered. Not as many people will be returning to offices and campuses as left them. That means lighter traffic, lower energy consumption, and more spare time for many workers and students.

Those are good things, but we could have had them any time we wanted them, with or without COVID-19 and the associated mass hysteria. Contra Krugman, any “bright side” to catastrophe costs more than it’s worth.

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The Leiter-Caplan Socialism Debate

Last night, I debated the University of Chicago’s Brian Leiter on “Capitalism, Social Democracy, and Socialism” at the University of Wisconsin. Leiter wrote the precise resolution:

“Social democracy is preferable to market capitalism, but ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”

Here’s my opening statement; I’ve debated Elizabeth Bruenig and John Marsh this general topic before.


All First World countries are already social democracies.  Their governments continue to allow markets to provide most goods and services, but they heavily regulate these markets, heavily subsidize favored sectors like education and health, and heavily redistribute income.  The U.S. is moderately less social democratic than France or Sweden, but the idea that we have “market capitalism” while they have “social democracy” is hyperbole.  If you favor social democracy, you should be happy because your side won long ago: free-market rhetoric notwithstanding, the U.S. has Social Security, Medicare, Medicare, and public education, and strict regulation of labor markets, construction, and other major industry.  My view, however, is that social democracy is a awful mistake.  Despite its bad press, market capitalism would be much better than what we have now.

Advocates of social democracy typically claim credit for three major improvements over market capitalism.  First, they’ve used redistribution to greatly reduce poverty.  Second, they’ve used regulation to make markets work better.  Third, they’ve used government funding to provide wonderful services that markets neglect.  I say they’ve greatly overstated their success on all three counts – while conveniently neglecting heavy collateral damage.

Let’s start with redistribution.  The rhetoric of redistribution revolves around “helping the poor.”  When you look at redistribution in the real world, however, this is grossly misleading.  The U.S. government spends far more on the elderly – most of whom aren’t poor – than it spends on actual poverty programs.  Programs like Social Security and Medicare are popular because they “help everyone.”  But “helping everyone” is extremely wasteful because most of the people government helps would have been quite able to take care of themselves.  Instead, we absurdly tax everyone to help everyone.

This humanitarian rhetoric rings even more hollow when you examine the most important forms of government regulation.  Domestically, nothing does more harm than our draconian regulation of the construction industry.  This regulation, primarily state and local, makes it very hard to build new housing, especially in high-wage places like New York City and the Bay Area.  It’s hard to build tall buildings.  It’s hard to build multi-family housing.  You have to waste a lot of valuable land; builders put houses on an acre of land because zoning laws force them to do so.  The connection between this regulation and exorbitant housing prices is almost undeniable.  In lightly-regulated areas of the country like Texas, business supplies ample cheap housing.  Anytime someone tells you regulation makes markets work better, just look at San Francisco’s housing market for a reality check.  And this hardly one tiny failure of regulation; housing absorbs about 40% of the average Americans’ budget.

Immigration regulation is an even more egregious failure.  The single best way for people around the world to escape poverty is to move to high-productivity countries like the U.S. and get a job.  This benefits not only immigrants, but us, because we’re their customers; the more they sell us, the better-off we are.  A hundred years ago, immigration to the U.S. was almost unregulated, giving people all over the world a viable way to work their way out of poverty.  Now, in contrast, immigration is very tightly regulated – especially for those most in need.  Economists’ estimates of the global harm of these regulations sum to tens of trillions of dollars a year, because each immigrant worker vastly enriches the world, and hundreds of millions of workers wish to come.  Again, this is the opposite of one tiny failure of regulation.

Finally, what about education, health care, and other sectors that government subsidizes?  I say these policies are crowd-pleasing but terribly wasteful.  Yes, more educated workers make more money, but the main reason is not that you’re learning useful skills.  Most of what you study in school is irrelevant in the real world.  Degrees mostly pay by convincing employers that you’re smarter, harder-working, and more conformist than the competition.  That’s why there’s been severe credential inflation since World War II: the more degrees workers have, the more degrees you need to convince employers not to throw your application in the trash.  Pouring money on education is an exercise in futility.

The same goes for health care.  Almost every researcher who measures the effect of health care on health agrees that this effect is much smaller than the public imagines.  Diet, exercise, substance abuse, and other lifestyle choices are much more important for health than access to medicine.  But these facts notwithstanding, the government lavishes funding on health care that barely improves our health.  If this seems implausible, just compare American life expectancy to Mexico’s.  Medicare plus Medicaid cost well over a trillion dollars a year, let we only live a year-and-a-half longer.

A reasonable social democrat could object: Fine, actual social democracies cause great harm and waste insane amounts of money.  But we can imagine a social democracy that limits itself to helping hungry kids and refugees, fighting infectious disease, and other well-targeted programs for the betterment of humanity.  Frankly, abolishing everything except these few programs sounds really close to market capitalism to me… and it also sounds like wishful thinking.  In the real world, governments with lots of power and a vague mandate to “help people” reliably do great harm.  This is true in the U.S., and it’s true in Sweden.  Yes, the Swedes strangle their housing industry too.

Given all this, I predictably deny that “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”  Full-blown socialist systems make social democracy look great by comparison.  Indeed, once you draw the distinction between social democracy and socialism, it’s very hard to find to find any socialist regime that isn’t a tragic, despotic disaster.  If Sweden is the jewel of social democracy, what’s the jewel of socialism?  Cuba?  Nor is there any sign that socialism somehow becomes “more necessary” as countries progress.  The main reason governments have gotten bigger over the last thirty years is just the aging of the population.

Finally, let me underscore what I’m not saying.  I’m not saying that life in the U.S. or Sweden is terrible.  In fact, human beings in both countries enjoy close to the highest quality of life than human beings have ever achieved.  My claim, rather, is that even the most successful countries in history could do far better.  I know that social democratic policies are emotionally appealing.  That’s why they’ve won.  Yet objectively speaking, market capitalism should have won because market capitalism offers much better results.

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