Decarceration: COVID-19 is Opportunity Knocking

On March 23, 14 US Senators from both major political parties asked US Attorney General William Barr and Michael Carvajal, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to “transfer non-violent offenders who are at high risk for suffering complications from COVID-19 to home confinement.”

It’s a smart idea, and one local jails and state prisons around the country are already implementing. But it raises an important question and also points to an important opportunity.

The question: If the prisoners in question pose no threat of violence, why were they sent to jail or prison in the first place?

The opportunity: The COVID-19 outbreak should mark the beginning of mass decarceration, not just a temporary exception to a dumb and damaging practice.

More than 2.3 million Americans live in cages.

The vast majority of them are not murderers, rapists, armed robbers, or kidnappers.

In fact, many of them didn’t victimize anyone at all — they didn’t pick your pocket or steal your car, they just got caught disobeying this or that arbitrary government edict (for example, laws against using or selling marijuana).

But instead of letting them pay their own rent, buy their own food, and provide for their own medical insurance — not to mention earning money to pay restitution to their victims if they have any — American politicians extort nearly $200 billion a year from American taxpayers to confine them in institutions that provide those already criminally inclined with higher educations in their chosen fields while simultaneously promoting the spread of every malady imaginable from anti-social behavior to substance abuse to, yes, infectious disease.

That was crazy before the pandemic. It’s crazier now, as even the most dim-witted among us (our politicians) are beginning to understand. And it would be bat-feces insane to go right back to it once the COVID-19 panic ends.

We already have at our disposal, and are already using, the  technology and manpower we need to do away with incarceration for all but the most violent and dangerous criminals: The electronic tracking devices already used to enforce “house arrest” and “work release” convicts, and correctional institution staff who can be transitioned into jobs as tracking monitors and/or probation and parole officers.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. We’ve had the way for ages. COVID-19 has at least temporarily created the will. Let’s hold on to the lesson permanently instead of falling back into error  when this present crisis ends.

Open This Content

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.

Open This Content

Privacy Is Trust, Trust Is Freedom

Remember Google Glasses? Turns out they are still a thing.

Granted, they’re for manufacturing and specialty industrial purposes now. Google discovered that people weren’t quite ready for glasses that recorded everything.

I was talking with someone today about how useful it might be to have Google Glass in construction/maintenance/contracting work. He was remarking how it would be cool to be able to see what employees were doing.

I get it. There’s a strong incentive to minimize employee waste – because many employees really do waste time. And I have no doubt that some companies will try to implement greater levels of employee surveillance as technology increases.

But here’s the thing: only responsible people can create massive value for a business in the long term. Only people who are free will choose to be responsible. And only people who are trusted believe that they are free.

People who are watched – and know it? They’ll feel so much unease about avoiding the perception of unproductiveness that they’ll worry their way into it. Surveillance of any kind is an enemy to long-term productivity – at least of the kind worth keeping. Even a high-knowledge job with exorbitant pay would feel like slavery (and produce about the same poor results) if it was surveilled.

Privacy gives even employees some small piece of space or time to call their own. And ownership will be the better model, even if it isn’t perfect. Turn the cameras off.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

Open This Content

Elon Musk Wants Talent, Not Diplomas

Elon Musk says skills matter more than diplomas. The founder and CEO of corporate innovation giants Tesla and SpaceX tweeted on February 2 that he is hiring for his artificial intelligence group at Tesla and wants to recruit the most talented people he can find. Talent, to Musk, means “deep understanding” of artificial intelligence and the ability to >pass a “hardcore coding test,” but it doesn’t necessarily include degrees and diplomas.

“A PhD is definitely not required,” Musk wrote. “I don’t care if you even graduated high school.”

Musk went on to say on Sunday that “educational background is irrelevant”:

Musk Didn’t Like School

It’s not surprising that Musk would emphasize ability and knowledge over institutional credentials. Other Silicon Valley technology companies, like Google and Apple, no longer require employees to have a college degree. But Musk also had a personal dissatisfaction with his schooling, saying in a 2015 interview: “I hated going to school when I was a kid. It was torture.”

A billionaire inventor, Musk decided to build a better educational program for his own children and opened his experimental school, Ad Astra, on SpaceX’s Los Angeles campus. He was dissatisfied with the elite private schools they were attending and thought education, even at purportedly “good” schools, could be much improved.

In an interview about Ad Astra, Musk said: “The regular schools weren’t doing the things that I thought should be done. So I thought, well, let’s see what we can do.”

Ad Astra, which means “to the stars,” offers a hands-on, passion-driven learning environment that defies the coercion inherent in most conventional schooling, public or private. It has no grade levels, an emergent, technology-focused curriculum, and no mandatory classes. As Fortune reports, “There are no grades given to students at the school and if the children don’t like a particular class they’re taking, they can simply opt out.”

Schooling as Signaling

Despite a culture and economy now focused around technology and innovation, most conventional schooling is widely incapable of helping young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to do essential 21st-century work. Stuck in a 19th-century curriculum and instruction model, today’s schools are anything but modern.

The trouble is that schooling is more about signaling than learning, so the catalysts to change its basic structure and approach are lacking. It might not matter in the real world that you mastered middle school French, but moving successfully along the schooling conveyor belt offers a signal to potential employers. Economist Bryan Caplan writes about this signaling effect in his book The Case Against Education. He also explains how the quest for more signals, regardless of how hollow they may be, is leading to “credential inflation,” or the pursuit of more diplomas for occupations that really don’t require them.

Writing in The Atlantic, Caplan says:

From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

More Signal Options Beyond Schooling

Fortunately, there are now many other ways beyond conventional schooling to gain skills and knowledge and signal your value to potential employers like Musk. More than 400 “coding bootcamps” are reported to exist around the world, helping people to master in-demand programming and software development skills. The online coding school, Lambda School, which has raised nearly $50 million in venture capital funding since its launch in 2017, has a fascinating business model focused on income share agreements. It is free to attend Lambda, but the company takes a percentage of its graduates’ earnings once they land a high-tech job. If the student doesn’t land a job, she doesn’t pay. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is estimated that Lambda is receiving over 1,000 applications a week from interested students. Other alternatives to college are sprouting, and apprenticeship programs like Praxis continue to be sought-after.

Entrepreneurs like Musk recognize what it takes to succeed in the innovation era, and it has little to do with conventional schooling. Discovering passions, pursuing personal goals, and developing essential skills to build on those passions and achieve those goals has never been easier than it is today with abundant resources and tools literally at our fingertips.

Musk and Tesla may be known for their visionary work in creating autonomous vehicles, but it’s autonomous humans with the agency, creativity, and opportunity to achieve their full potential that are the real breakthroughs.

Open This Content

Real Democracy Requires a Separation of Money and State

As we enter a new year, the running battle between the world’s governments and the world-changing technology known as “cryptocurrency” continues. As 2019 drew to an end, Swiss president Ueli Maurer asserted that Facebook’s digital currency (not a real cryptocurrency), Libra, has failed “because central banks will not accept the basket of currencies underpinning it.”

Politicians want to regulate — or, if possible, kill — cryptocurrency.

Large firms like Facebook want to capture cryptocurrency’s potential without rocking those governments’ boats.

Cryptocurrency advocates want democracy. Yes, democracy.

Of all the important words in the English language, “democracy” (from the Greek demokratia, “rule by the people”) may be the most fuzzily defined. Some people define it in terms of raw majoritarianism, others as one of various forms of representative government.

I define “democracy” in words used by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. “Democracy,” to my mind, is government that enjoys the “consent of the governed.”

Not just the consent of 50% plus one of the governed, and certainly not just the consent of a few big players who can afford lobbyists and bribes to get their way, but the consent of ALL the governed.

One major hinge on which the door of democracy as I define it swings is control of money — who may create it, how it may be used, and what portion of it must be handed over to government for “public” uses those paying the bills may or may not approve of.

Involuntary taxation is the opposite of the consent of the governed. It’s the opposite of democracy. We can have financial regulators and central banks, or we can have democracy. We can’t have both.

Cryptocurrency threatens the reign of government over money. It bodes a future in which, as an old antiwar slogan puts it, the Air Force will have to hold a bake sale if it wants to buy a new bomber.

That’s the future I want. It’s also the future that politicians, regulators and central bankers fear.

They don’t want to have to ASK you to fund their schemes.  They’re not interested in requesting your consent. They prefer to simply demand your compliance.

The ability to anonymously handle our finances without reporting them to government or involuntarily giving it a cut is a revolutionary development. And it’s here, now. More and more of us are using cryptocurrency, and the politicians are panicking.

While cryptocurrency won’t entirely kill involuntary taxation — land can’t be easily hidden, so we can expect property taxes to persist — it will make the global economy harder for governments to manipulate and milk.

The inevitable future of cryptocurrency, absent a new Dark Age in which we all go back to plowing with mules and reading rotting old books by candlelight, is a future without income and sales taxes (to name two of the biggest and most pernicious).

The ruling class will do everything it can to prevent the coming separation of money and state.

They’ll fail. And democracy will flourish. See you at the bake sale.

Open This Content

Meet Virgil Griffith: America’s Newest Political Prisoner

On November 29, FBI agents arrested hacker and cryptocurrency developer Virgil Griffith. His alleged crime: Talking.

Yes, really.

The FBI alleges that Griffith “participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money.”

Griffith, a US citizen who lives in Singapore, gave a talk at conference on blockchain technology in April. Because that conference took place in North Korea, the US government deems him guilty of violating US sanctions on Kim Jong-un’s regime.

But last time I checked, the First Amendment protected Virgil Griffith’s right to speak, without exceptions regarding where or to whom.

And last time I checked,  the US Department of Justice’s jurisdiction didn’t encompass Singapore (where Griffith lives), China (which Griffith traveled through), or North Korea (where Griffith spoke). The charges against him include traveling, while outside US jurisdiction, to places the US government doesn’t like.

In what universe is it the US government’s business where an individual travels to or what that individual says while he’s there, inside or outside the US itself? Certainly not any kind of universe in which America remains a free society.

What kind of state arrests people for going where they please and saying what they choose without that state’s permission? A police state.

Griffith’s arrest is wholly illegal under the US Constitution and wholly unacceptable to anyone who holds freedom as a cardinal value.

Virgil Griffith is just the latest political prisoner of the US government to come to public notice.

The US government imprisoned US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, journalist Barrett Brown, and others for telling us the truth about that government’s conduct, and would love to do the same to Julian Assange,  Edward Snowden, and others for the same reason.

The US government imprisoned Ross Ulbricht for running a web site on which people bought and sold things that government didn’t want them to buy and sell.

The US government has held, and continues to hold, too many political prisoners to name in a single column.

The US government increasingly attempts to dictate where all of us may go, and what we may say while there, on pain of arrest and imprisonment.

That’s not right. That’s not freedom. That’s not America.

Virgil Griffith and the others I mention aren’t the criminals — their persecutors are. At some point, we must bring them to justice if human freedom is to survive. Until then, resist much, obey little.

Open This Content