Thursday, July 23, 2009

Using taxes to earn respect

Taxation is the single most tangible aspect of government in most of our lives. Is it any wonder we've got a love-hate relationship with our nation--loving the theory while hating the implementation? It seems insane to me because it appears so needless and harms us so much. We have the know how to reverse that merely by tweaking the geometry of our economy. Today we tax productivity the most, and consumption the least, but why? Because by doing so we are throwing away the most powerful tool we have for evolving a more robust society. And by so recklessly and unfairly levying taxes we are needlessly alienating our own citizens and hindering the growth of our own economy and prosperity.

Taxes are disincentives. They can't help but be discouraging. Given this single fact doesn't it suggest we should tax those things with large positive externalities (like productivity) less at the expense of taxing those things that have large negative externalities (like crime) more? The very success of our society completely depends on our governments ability to define and maintain a suitable marketplace, or foundation, for us to develop commerce. This is an essential part of any serious attempt to do that. I want our leadership to connect the process of paying taxes to a new mechanism designed to protect our privacy and create a new income stream for us. Because it is necessary and because it is fair.

Taxing crime and our underground economy are easy things to accomplish in our modern world. Most of us both receive and spend most of the money we ever control electronically. The system we use today gives the banks and merchants a great deal of information about us that they can and do use to look for ways to motivate us to spend more, at best. The steps our government has taken to protect us from this exploitation are so pathetically inept they do little but add insult to injury.

Defending our privacy and property

But suppose our government allowed us to keep that information to ourselves. Suppose an agency of the government effectively stood between you and every entity you do business with. The seller gets no information from you other than what they actually need (usually just the fact that you paid,) and a code that identifies the transaction for all time. You get all of the information in a form that is completely accurate and verifiably unalterable after the fact. Rather than become a source of income for merchants, that information, or parts of it, can be sold by you in an open market of entities doing market research currently with information they purchase from merchants and banks, or by your doctor to get a sense of your lifestyle, recent travels, or other relevant data. And you also get a credit rating that is calculated by the government to open standards that academia can continuously critique and refine.

Why should our government do this? Because only it can. Because only it is in a position to craft legislation that defines such an organization in a way that convinces us it can't be abused, even by our own government. Only it can declare such a payment scheme as legal tender. And only it has the responsibility to protect our property as citizens in the first place. It currently fails badly at this, if not in a technical sense, at least in spirit. We constantly fall prey to the present accumulation of information about us by private enterprises with nothing but lip service paid to redress it. Creating an artifact to represent us in commerce is a simple, cheap, and very robust way to fix that problem immediately. It does more as well, from protecting us from pricing errors and shoddy merchants, to giving us a lot of insight on whether warranty coverage is worth buying, for example.

Constructive taxation

It's one of the reasons I think taxing the black market is such a good idea, because to do it requires that a number of other protections, like the above, be engineered into the economy all of which promise to leave us with significantly less overhead by adding a lot of negative and positive feedback in logical ways. By taking this approach to taxation we can vastly simplify the overhead necessary to pay for things (for both seller and buyer) while ensuring better information is collected and that no party (buyer, seller, or government) can be as easily defrauded or exploited.

I've mentioned several things in this blog that have this property, like our medical records, that are handled somewhat recklessly today for mostly historical reasons. This is a mechanism similar to the universal health care transactor I proposed to protect and maintain the privacy and integrity of our medical records and reduce the overhead of providing medical care. Throwing in our consumption data benefits everyone significantly. It gives medical researchers more information to look for correlations between lifestyle and health. It makes the information we have to sell more valuable to scientists, market researchers, and most of all us.

You might wonder why I'm so anxious to associate taxation with protecting your privacy. It's because I believe it's the right place to begin reforming the very soul of taxation--how we experience it. I want it to become something we take great pride in and feel wonderful about paying. I think the government should be giving us awards each time we achieve a new milestone in overall taxes paid. Starting with something as simple as a t-shirt proclaiming that a grateful nation thanks you for your first $10,000 contribution, to an annual parade for whomever manages to pay the most taxes concluding with an honorary dinner at The White House. I think there should be an academic industry that studies nothing but the externalities created by the way our taxes are apportioned and how perfectly they are collected, and a department of government independent of all the others for adjusting the tax code to match spending. It is an inherent conflict of interest to allow the people deciding what and how to spend to also decide where to get the funds. That seems unwise because it can only pollute the perspective they need to objectively decide what and how to spend. Only an independent and transparent agency is fit to determine how to most fairly levy the tax burden. It's an ongoing academic issue that can only be refined via careful study.

A bill for services

The deep fix for taxation is to transform it from a vague cloud that funds government into a bundle of connections that link benefits with the party enjoying them in ways we can explore and verify. This gives us so much more than the mere ability to feel better about paying them--it helps us make lifestyle choices and craft enterprises that are more inherently synergistic. It creates a whole new way to address issues like health care, social security, and welfare. It also forces government to come clean about how it uses it's non-tax revenue (which is probably a lot more than you might expect, easily more than $500/person/year today.)

The synergies go on. When all of these things are combined new opportunities are created. For example, with this approach the income from things like leasing the nations airwaves would ultimately become a credit in our tax accounts. For a minor it can do nothing but accumulate while compounding interest. This is an asset the state could use to fund incarceration of that individual should it become necessary, or to recover damages. Or it could fund a zero interest loan for education or to buy a home. It's a better way to incentivize good behavior from citizens; a carrot instead of a stick. It if was never allowed to go higher than what it would cost to purchase an insurance policy that covered your potential future liability to society, then it would become a source of income fastest to those of us who didn't get into trouble. And protect society from the cost of dealing with those that do.

Engendering love with respect

When it is possible to see exactly how our taxes are apportioned, managed, and spent--in great detail--we will be a position to feel better about paying them. When we can see that the apportionment has been carefully crafted to be as fair as we're capable of achieving then I believe people will honestly feel good about paying them. And when we experience taxation via a mechanism that is creating an income stream for us and protecting our privacy, then I think we'll actually look forward to it as a sort of score--or measure of our value to those who don't know us.

I believe a government that defines itself as being of the people, by the people, and for the people would realize that making all taxes voluntary is a relatively easy way to ensure that happens. And such a government would look for a way to make paying most taxes collectively voluntary simply because it realized that any government that isn't loved enough by its own citizens to compel them to pay for it really shouldn't last. This is a step towards unwinding the very need for as much government as we have now because it embeds some of the function of government into the process of just doing business.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cornering rascals

I wish President Obama would realize that he needs to look for better ways to motivate congress. He needs to make it easier for us to directly pressure our legislature. Take health care for example. Congress's vested interest is to structure all legislation to best suit the industries that most support them. These are the ones that generate the most profits and will always be things like financial services, or insurance, and never things like health care.

To overcome this tendency Obama must find a very straightforward way to measure their performance. In the case of health care reform this seems easy. Ask the GAO for a pie chart that shows all of the things health care dollars are spent on; from doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators, to marketers, insurance brokers, financial analysts, lawyers, and lobbyists. Color every slice with either blue or red depending on whether it represents an activity that actually delivers health care. Put in on a prominent web site with the simple promise to veto any legislation that does not leave us with a significantly smaller red area--at least 25% smaller.

Directly below it there should be two pie charts, one for each party, that represent how the allocation would change under the solutions they're each proposing (according to the GAO.) That would leave them with few options but to look for ways to outdo each other cutting the fat out of health care infrastructure or risk being replaced by people from the other team in the upcoming election. He should make it easy for us to email our representatives to let them know we're watching them via the web page and do indeed intend to replace them if they lose the contest.

And he should advertise the site relentlessly begging us to let them know that this new mechanism is going to be steadily refined and gradually evolve into something that enables citizens to more objectively measure the performance of their elected representatives and find out what they are presently working on. He should challenge congress to do the same thing to him as well; find ways to objectively record the alternatives he faced for each choice made.

Finally, don't clutter any site with a lot of distractions, like ads, pleas for campaign contributions, links to irrelevant affiliates or party propaganda, etc. Keep it simple, bipartisan, and deeply focused on the specific major issues presently before congress. If you give the American people a tight enough set of reins, I'm almost certain we could get some useful work out of those unbroken beasts on the hill.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Let's call it The Civilitary

Every year there are natural disasters and accidents all over our world that do more damage to lives and property than any other kind of external threat. Yet we spend a tiny fraction of what we spend on the military to mitigate that far greater exposure. And many of those lives are lost simply because we cannot respond massively enough, quickly enough, or lack the logistics, technology, or equipment necessary to prevent it.

At the same time we have a world of nations growing ever more intwined and interdependent economically after having emerged from a long competitive adolescence of imperialism, nationalism, and xenophobia. They seem today more like a group of young adults impatient to thrive. There is a lot of rivalry, past grudges, and ideological bickering still going on, but its as if they've realized the only lasting way to settle their differences is to prepare to make some compromises and work them out. Fighting terrorism is police work; it should never be perceived as war because that legitimizes it as a tactic when it is nothing but a heinous crime. (If you hadn't noticed, the bushwhack blowback boondoggle backfired. Badly.)

We are presently looking for clever ways to collectively rid ourselves of the most aggressive and indiscriminate weapons because they honestly have no real utility for any nation anymore. (It may only be because killing enemies indiscriminately loses some appeal when they become customers, but lets count our lucky stars no matter what the reason!)

The first generation of kids to have grown up with the internet are starting to emerge into to a world with far less respect for the ideological baggage of their cultures. They see a world filled with avenues for creativity, enterprise, and discovery rather than sufficient reasons for conflict or hatred.

And we have a military-industrial complex that represents an enormously valuable intellectual property--a highly organized, coordinated, and deeply empowered team that could build a lot more than weapons. They could apply that expertise to engineering ways to save lives just as easily as take them. Well, okay, so maybe it's not just as easy. They'll still rise to the challenge and we'll have a more valuable MIC after they've mastered engineering things like levees that can be setup in minutes, spill containment and recovery systems, emergency structure reinforcement, massive rescue/evacuation and temporary housing deployment, mine collapse recovery equipment, etc. Whatever they can imagine that would be useful to save lives or property.

We should be looking for ways to create more meaningful connections between the people of all these nations and I started this blog by noting one of them: the need for an independent international organization to hold all free elections. (I think we need it here in America just as much as Iran apparently does--I'm not convinced our elections are completely kosher.) And if we're going to build an organization that we trust enough to conduct our elections, doesn't it make sense to add emergency response and recovery as well?

The world as a whole can afford a far better response capability than any single nation. There is no easier time to overcome one's prejudices than during an emergency when something clicks and people instantly morph into something more like ants--willing to give their all to work together with someone they despised just a moment earlier. It's an amazing thing, an emergency. Because a bond formed that way doesn't break very easily. The respect earned in those moments seems to permanently undermine the ability to restore any prior alienation.

There has never been a time better suited to form an organization like the civilitary I'm trying to describe here. A sort of mirror image of the military. Instead of a bunch of competing enterprises looking for the best ways to defeat each other, they are one cooperating team of people independent of all nations and looking to protect mankind as a whole. I imagine it would be more rigorous, lower paying, and even riskier than a military career. Because we won't need a lot to attract people. A civilitary would most likely become the most sought after employment there is because of the enormous honor that serving in and later being a veteran of it would convey. If there is honor in being willing to die to defend your nation by preparing and standing ready to fight its human enemies, there must be more in taking the same steps to defend all nations and people against the many natural enemies our world periodically manufactures. I'm betting that engineering better ways to save lives is just a lot more fun than looking for more efficient ways to destroy them.

I see it as an enterprise designed to train and deploy some fraction of the world's young adults for two to six years after high school, keeping the best of them for permanent roles. For them it's an unbelievable chance to travel around the world, get to know many cultures from the perspective of an ambassador of aid, form lasting ties with other young people from all over the world, and learn skills that will remain useful all their lives. For the rest of us it's a better solution to a threat we all face every day. We benefit the most by having a lot more response for the same or lower cost. We benefit from the cross pollination of perspectives, ideas, and cultures that the returning veterans will bring back with them. There will be more marriages between peoples from different nations, and a steadily growing awareness of the entire community of mankind by all nations. It would be a large step towards engineering a new world order that finds cooperation enormously easier than conflict.

Lastly, it generates a deep and meaningful hope across mankind just by proposing it. And at a time when such a jolt would do a lot all by itself to stimulate the world's gloomy economies and spark a more intense flame to illuminate other opportunities to engineer peace. It would be many months before talks could even begin to flesh out the form and legal status of such an organization. And many years before all the treaties and physical infrastructure necessary to deploy it could be ready. But from day one the economic impact would kick in, from simply uplifting the spirits of everyone on earth, to mobilizing the entire world's current rescue and recovery infrastructure into studying how to make such a transition. And periodic stories of the progress would renew that optimism throughout its development.

The crisis in Iran proved something fundamental has already changed about our world--those lines you see on the map are beginning to fade. The vast bulk of humanity is growing weary of all the many ways our ancestors found to artificially divide us. They can see we're all the same. We all just want the opportunity to live in peace and pursue our dreams. Let's seize the genuine reasons we have to work together by more aggressively developing them.

My mother's main meme

Everything brings about its own opposite
That single idea pretty much sums up my mother's entire philosophy. I was about six or seven when I first heard it, and had no idea what the hell it could mean. But there was definitely something very special about that particular bit of knowledge and somehow that was communicated to me by the way she said it. I can't remember how I knew it was enormously real and significant to her, like a treasure. I just did.

Her home always has fresh flowers.
Sixteen pink roses on the end of a single stem all in bloom simultaneously.

I remember how much it bothered me though. How can you get anywhere if everything you head towards leaves you somewhere you didn't want to go? It seemed so unfair and irrational for the world to be this way. How could my mother drop a bomb like this so casually? I'm sure I didn't know about the word cryptic at that age, but I can still remember the resentment created by feeling short changed by all of her explanations. I could tell this bothered her more than me too. Sometimes I think my mother's greatest burden is that she knows so much more than she knows how to say.

She said it so often too, offered usually as an answer to some question I'd asked that most parents answered with god only knows. I did like her answer better than what essentially means don't bother asking because no one will ever know. And my interpretation of what it meant gradually took shape--it was a template that I could use to explain many things; like a NAND gate for the phenomenological.

I noticed the process at work almost everywhere I looked for it. From our perspective, we own our stuff and totally control it. But from our stuff's perspective, it owns us in more or less the same way. We'll do what we must to clean, maintain, house, protect, and utilize our stuff all on its terms. Likewise, and far more sobering to contemplate, with what we think we know. It seems to own us far more than we own it--it shapes the way we see things, what we'll choose to do, what will be interesting to us, all sorts of things. We are, in a very real way, the unwitting robots of whatever knowledge has taken up residence in our brains.

It is probably going to take many months or years of blogging to fully reveal the enormous impact those six words had on my life. That poem on the right was written in my late teens. But I didn't even see the connection when I wrote it. The meme had already buried itself so deeply in my consciousness that I didn't even notice the way it was organizing all the knowledge in my head. Or how it had drifted to accommodate everything I had learned. Today it's more like a loose sort of faith that most things really are deeply entangled with their opposites, and that looking for those relationships is usually a fruitful approach for understanding something well enough to model in your minds' eye. It is the most useful heuristic I know.

But there was something even more wonderful and beautiful hidden unstated in that screwball meme and reflected in everything my mother did. Its the premise that explanations for everything exist and merely need to be discovered or deduced. And that they are fully understandable and very worthy of trying to understand. It more or less forces you to be as objectively observant as you can be. It's a lot easier to have the courage to keep looking for something very hard to find if you're absolutely certain it must be there. Just ask the folks at CERN.

I started this essay hoping to explain how to leverage the utility of a mechanism that taxes the underground economy into a gentle selective pressure that leaves everyone more predisposed to find an attractive productive niche for themselves in society, but ended up only explaining how my mom's main meme made me. (They're probably opposites somehow!)

I guess I must think you're entitled to know a lot more about me if I'm expecting you to take such unusual suggestions seriously. Her name is Elliette by the way. Most people know of her from the dresses she designed and manufactured for many years mostly under the Miss Elliette label. A Google search produced 3,640 references. If you ever need either a tomato, or a picture of a tomato, she's the lady to ask.

After writing this, I asked her for some photos to put in it, and she balked out of modesty. Then, she sent me the photos above, pointing out how rare it is to have a single stem with sixteen roses all blooming simultaneously. Most of our ensuing conversation was about the flowers and tomatoes, and whether I could use the photo from the cover of her autobiography. I thought it better suited to a wikipedia entry about her company, which I plan to do when I get the facts and photos rounded up. Then yesterday someone else wrote about my mother in their blog. So I thought I should post this one now, rather than wait for a more typical photo of her since he's posted one.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Who we should tax first

Whomever said macroscopic things can't be entangled hasn't looked at our tax code. It is so ludicrously complex that it actually achieved independent conscious self awareness some years ago and the best we can do now is actually just fight with it. It wins every time too.

Yet despite all that, and the best intentions of our wisest leadership under advisement from our finest minds over a period of many decades and we haven't even begun to tax that which is arguably the most important thing to tax. (I want to say you're kidding me but I'm the one writing this.) I want to scream it in their ears: THE BLACK MARKET. Tax that for a change.

The Economist calculates that the world underground economy is worth $9 trillion, which is about 20% of the total. In 2000, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) estimated roughly one per dozen Americans earned a substantial part of their income underground. And that means we're each taxed about 9% more than we would be if those deadbeats just paid up.

Well, I'd like to find a way to make crime pay. At least its taxes. And I think tax avoiders should be taxed at an even higher rate than voluntary taxpayers (seeing as they're criminals and we should probably try to discourage them.) Now you might think that if we do find a clever way to tax them they'll just start using a different currency or some commodity or other means of exchanging value to avoid the tax, after all, they're criminals. But that has fairly high costs and additional risks. As long as our constructive tax is somewhat less than that, they'll accept it as the cost of doing business and we'll have created an environment less favorable to underground economic activity without needing anything fancier than a little economic geometry.

We have the technology and infrastructure already to support what is effectively an unreported income tax. Your assets are linked to your identity where the IRS maintains on oversimplified bank account for you. When you report enough income to leave you with three dollars, after the government takes their cut, it adds one dollar to your tax account. That account is used solely to pay the new unreported income tax which is a 33% tax on purchases. This all happens automatically for credit or debit card users. But even if you forget your wallet, and have to pay cash, the receipt would enable you to recover that money at a web site, even if you had to earn more income legitimately first before you could do so.

The intent isn't to punish, merely to impose a fairly high tax on the underground economy which should lead to a lot less of it, and we won't have to be doubly injured by it, since it's at least paying something significant.

Tourists, and anyone else not subject to US tax code would actually benefit as well because a more formal mechanism would be created to recover all their sales taxes as well as the new unreported income tax from their purchases. For those here illegally however life gets a whole lot more expensive.

Now why is our government even thinking about taxing its honest citizens more when it hasn't even begun to tax the dishonest ones? Is this really such a radical idea? Stuff like this makes me wonder if I really might be just plain crazy because it all seems to doable, reasonable, and wholly constructive to me. What stops stuff like this from happening?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

25 Miles off the Coast of Indifference

If you haven't noticed already, I'm somewhat prone to spontaneous outbreaks of thoughtful musings about our nation, culture, and species. On one such occasion quite some time ago I must have emailed our state Senator, Barbara Boxer, because I received a letter from her office last Friday, July 10th informing me that a representative from her office would be in Avalon and available for me to see between 11:00 and 12:30 today (Wednesday, July 15th.)

I couldn't even remember what I'd complained about before, and don't even know if I have any basis for considering myself a part of the community just because I live in it. I don't get a paycheck from any employer here, nor own any part of any enterprise here, nor does any member of my family. I do own the home I'm living in. And am building another I hope to live in some day. (I was creamed by the collapse more than most so that's become a real challenge.) I have helped, or tried to, a few members of the community here with advice and loans and consider myself friends with many people here.

Plus Avalon is an unusual place. Many of the locals have been here for literally generations. (You'd think they were shooting for speciation.) One company, The Santa Catalina Island Company, dominates the community of Avalon because it owns most of the useful property in it (as well as every bit of the island that is not part of the Conservancy.) Most of the residents seem to have a love-hate relationship with SCICO (pronounced the island company.) I think the love part comes from the fact that this would just be a rock without the Wrigley family wealth to keep it operating with losses year after year and it really is a beautiful place to wake up every day. I think the hate part comes from the fact that the Wrigley family wealth doesn't leak out a bit faster.

It is therefore with some trepidation that I share the following letter I plan to give the representative from Senator Boxer's office later today because I don't really have standing to raise these issues. But I know people that do, and feel that someone should speak out about these issues because they really do affect us all. Even people who've never heard of Avalon or Santa Catalina Island.


I come before you today as a citizen of a community in economic crisis. Over the five years that I've lived here I've come to see why. Avalon suffers from a lack of the very lifeblood of capitalism--the opportunity to generate the goodwill value that is the hallmark of every successful enterprise.

I believe this often unnoticed aspect of our capitalistic system is what makes a community special to the people who own and work in these enterprises. Without that chance, people living here really don't have the control over their destiny necessary to plan and invest in their community wholeheartedly. Instead of being owners of their community, they are forced to be more adversarial; doing their best to get what they can each month because next month may never come. (When a large fraction of your population has an exit strategy it is a sign that your community may have a systemic problem. Or an active volcano.)

I am not trying to imply anything about the Santa Catalina Island Company (SCICO) except that by owning most of the commercial property it is difficult for them to avoid creating this situation. I know there are businesses here that are difficult or impossible to sell simply because they have no lease. I know the terms vary, and there are some leases, but it is usually just an initial lease for enough time to recoup construction costs. Most of the longstanding business seem to be month to month.

A consequence is that most of the employees work for a company they aren't quite as free to openly criticize as our national ideals suggest they should be. And a great many others work for companies that depend on friendly relations with SCICO in lieu of a lease. None of them are here with me today, but I know of some that wish they could be. It simply isn't worth risking their business, or jobs, or working environment to complain about because they don't see a remedy.

I want to make it clear that I've never even heard a rumor that SCICO abuses or does anything that might be considered exploitive of their enormous political and economic power here. I do not see them as villains in anything but the unavoidable consequences of their heritage and size. Avalon is like a lifeboat designed for 24 people. You could accommodate one or more people that weighed two to four times average by leaving some of the seats empty and balancing the load. But one person that weighs 10 to 20 times average renders the entire lifeboat unusable by everyone else regardless of how accommodating that huge person is struggling to be.

A few years ago the Justice Department attempted to get Vons to sell the smaller of their two locations here because it determined they were exploiting the community. Vons has that monopoly still because no one could compete without having the other location and necessary other infrastructure it takes to operate both. I remember this well because I was part of a group bidding for the site to open a competing market. SCICO wasn't interested in selling the land, just a 6 year lease that would have made it difficult just to recoup the cost of redeveloping the site from a run down annex type location to a full market. The only reason we were even considering it was because we felt connected enough in the community to make up for the inherent disadvantages of competing with such a large and well established market.

I believe the Justice Department missed the forest for the tree. The only reason Vons has no competition is because only SCICO owns enough commercial property to host a market large enough to compete with Vons and they aren't presently looking to fill any of that property with a market. If the commercial property was more widely owned then the use it was put to would better serve the community rather than the very gradually evolving agenda of SCICO.

I don't particularly like the remedies that government has for situations like this. But I believe the damage is real and quite serious. It undermines the will of the citizens of Avalon to develop a plan for their collective future. It limits the opportunities Avalon offers for entrepreneurs to create new businesses and develop a more diverse economy here. It makes our town less attractive to the most empowered and capable of people because there are such limited opportunities to deploy their talents. As they leave, our schools lose the parents with the most resources and time to participate in the educational process. Our children lose the role models most likely to inspire them to appreciate the utility of knowledge, attitude, and determination.

There is no good reason for this to be the case. The inherent potential of Avalon to become a profitable place to live and work, and an extremely attractive community to raise a family is enormous. We are so close to so many people who would appreciate a simpler lifestyle, not even needing a car, a healthier environment, and vastly more time to spend doing wholesome things together with their families. The internet has created many opportunities to earn a good living working from home. Many of those individuals would choose to live here if we hadn't passed that critical threshold where the infrastructure becomes a deciding factor. The school simply has too few children of upper and middle class families for most parents in that category to feel comfortable. I know of two cases specifically where it was exactly this issue that prevented one family from moving here and was a big factor in motivating another to leave.

An in depth study of our economy would reveal many of these externalities and explain why Avalon falls so far short of its potential to enjoy a vibrant growing prosperity. Being so isolated we are well suited to be carefully studied and could become a useful laboratory for exploring alternative strategies for everything from primary education to best incentivizing greener lifestyles and preventative medicine.

I believe our state and nation is facing many challenges but they all boil down to a single fundamental reality: our greatness as a society flows from our ability to harvest more of the competitive productive spirit of our humanity than other nations can from their humanity. We know that arming our children with the best education we can, the freedom to follow their passions, and the opportunity to keep their wealth is all it takes to end up with highly motivated and empowered citizens doing wonderful things for each other. Avalon is a place where all parts of that process can be carefully studied and where ways to improve, better incentivize, or even more wisely use taxes and subsidies can be explored and measured. I believe a very small project for California or America would yield enormous benefits for all of humanity by revealing more cost effective ways to better empower people to breath life into their dreams. I think it would help us develop better ways to measure both the positive and negative externalities of all enterprises and thereby reveal more elegant strategies to encourage the positives and avoid the negatives in communities all across our nation.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Our biggest mistake

Whenever I try to reason out why something that seems crazy to me is as it is, I always end up concluding that something very fundamental about my perspective is different. Thus the challenge I face in trying to explain a suggestion is actually to coax the reader to share that perspective, if only for a moment.

An example of this is noticing that any genuine health care industry's most fundamental goal would be to put itself out of business--render the administration of health care honestly obsolete. Even if that end is never reached, it suggests that the best measure of a health care industry is how few people need any health care. To me, that suggests I should compare it to the way we deal with fire. (I posted a reform strategy earlier.)

The only real difference between the two industries is that you are unlikely to ever have a health condition that seriously threatens your entire community. Whereas the opposite is true for fires. You're very unlikely to have one that does not threaten everyone else as well. Too bad for all of us I suppose because if we viewed health care as we do fire, we'd have no doubt discovered enormous numbers of preventative measures we could deploy to mitigate the need for emergency response.

Because of the difference we can easily see why we have basically a socialistic approach to fire (where the state pays for fighting them and forces compliance in safety measures from us.) Private companies compete to sell us compliance, insure any loses, but also have a conflict of interest in that an opportunity is created for them to lobby government to adopt standards that may be more about generating business for them than making our lives safer from fire.

Because of the similarities, we already incorporate part of health care, emergency response, into fire departments. The logistics involved in having more than one coordinated entity to cover an area make response any other way simply impractical. A fringe benefit is that you can get a pretty accurate idea of what it costs to provide that part of health care per person per year. There are about 201,200 paramedics earning a median wage of $28,400 to cover roughly 300 million Americans. It comes to $19 each, but just pays the salaries. So the per person per year cost of the 911 based emergency health care response is about fifty bucks.

How is this paid for now? Haphazardly probably best describes it. And very unfairly considering that everyone in a community enjoys exactly the same coverage whether they pay anything for it or not. Its just another tiny cut in the flesh of our credibility as a society, no big deal on its own. But these cuts are everywhere, and they're remarkably easy to fix, completely needless artifacts of a legacy predating computers that should now yield to a better mechanism that leaves us more connected to reality.

We can fix only what we can see is broken. By burying the costs of things in layers or mixing them together we undermine our own ability to address them. We disconnect our ability to see our own role in creating them. We make it harder to discover relationships between things. A better idea of the true cost of health care would leave us more motivated and better able to discover and evaluate preventative measures.

But worst of all we undermine our own ability to have respect for our society! We have allowed the infrastructure of our lives to become opaque and arcane and no longer respect or even trust it. This seems to do everything from allowing people to rationalize criminal behavior to avoid paying all their taxes. It's just incredibly dumb to accept this situation for lack of fixing such amazing simple problems--like letting people actually see an itemized bill for the things our society does for us we might not even notice.

If our government honestly wanted to become better at governing us well, wouldn't their highest priority be to ensure the electorate had enough education, knowledge, and information to choose the best representation and most competent peers and successors? To me that means giving us a map of our economy, looking for ways to educate us on the reasons things cost what they do, on how our choices affect those costs, and what opportunities there are to avoid them. We need the information necessary to better connect the choices we make to the actual price we, as individuals, pay for them. Not doing that is our biggest mistake because it costs us the very selective pressure that would enable us to make the sort of choices that leave us most empowered, free, and striving towards the goals that enchant rather than simply sustain us.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What makes a pack leader?

Mutually assured destruction is back in the news. I don't know if that's the best way to insure we aren't attacked with WMDs (ensuring the rest of the world knows that we could retaliate.) Mainly because I think the most likely attack is from people so hopelessly delusional they'd actually welcome the retaliation believing it to be a prophesy.

And I do see what I think is a much better way to protect our nation from WMDs of all kinds. It's basically the opposite strategy--get so close to your enemies that they can't use WMDs without unacceptable collateral damage. And, as a nation, we are more uniquely suited to accomplish this than any other. By a long ways. I see this strategy as a way to leverage an enormous yet under-appreciated asset into a fuel that rockets us upwards in the hearts of all humanity.

We have tens of thousands to millions of people who've recently immigrated from almost every other nation and that have ties to extended families and still speak the language. Suppose we decided to expand the foreign embassies in America into sovereign foreign cities. I realize that it is a radical idea. But why is it unreasonable?

We are uniquely situated right now--with the collapse of the housing market and millions of empty bank owned homes rotting away to create such places cheaply. If, for example, we took a few square miles of Stockton, California (where the housing market is abysmal) and handed it over to a european nation inviting them to build a showcase city that will be their sovereign land for at least a century or two what effect would it have on us?

All I can see are enormously positive consequences. From an immediate reversal on the direction of property values in Stockton, to a whole new economic sector for the US economy. I can't see any friendly foreign nations turning down the opportunity to expand their markets here more effectively, or promote tourism to their nation by showcasing the best of their culture here. The really wise ones will insist on a trade--that we do the same thing there. But most nations are far more xenophobic than we are, and their people will be a much harder sell than ours.

If America was peppered with foreign cities how much better would our industries become at designing and marketing products and services with worldwide appeal? How much wiser and more worldly will Americans themselves become with so much more potential exposure to foreign peoples, cultures, and products? What happens to the job market for Americans when employers from all over the world can hire them without them having to leave America? What happens to the theory that we're an imperialist nation when we voluntarily do exactly the opposite--giving our land to some other nation with an invitation to become a neighbor?

Every nation claims to want world peace. But if they really meant it, why don't they take the sort of steps that would force it? This is such a step. It makes disagreement between nations with foreign cities much more difficult. Fighting just isn't as much of an option any longer. Other mechanisms, like the courts, legislature, and vote will emerge to take its place.

I want America to shine so brightly in the hearts of other peoples that they simply cannot miss the deep beauty of our approach to government. That our nation is all about not imposing a religion, perspective, or even much of a nationality on people, but rather doing everything we can to leave ourselves free to live as we wish. Americans are so free they sometimes join the enemy in conflicts. It's not hard for them to do. I hope it stays that way too--the freedom to express our hatred for our own government is the most important one we have.

Think of it as the opposite of the Bush Doctrine. A way to get closer to other nations to undermine any future potential for conflict. (I'd often get ideas by working out the opposite of what I'd see Bush do. But I actually got this one watching the Berlin Wall come down and realizing that the same effect might be used to undermine dysfunctional governments in other nations with the expats we already have here--like Iran.)

I can think of no better way to ensure America has a leading role in the league of nations for the foreseeable future, secure a larger set of opportunities for our people, or better prepare ourselves to achieve the highest standard of living in an ever more competitive world. Let us once again breech the barriers of tradition to brave a promising new frontier. It's our heritage to do so.

Monday, July 6, 2009

'Technically just' is an oxymoron

What's the difference between a fine and a fee? If the answer is that the former is intended to punish, and the latter is just a price, then how could any fine punish people equally? We aren't equally wealthy, so the punishment from a given fine will be unreasonably small for an exceptionally wealthy person, and unreasonably large for an exceptionally poor one. This is a glaring injustice that undermines our respect for law itself.

You might counter this argument with the reasoning that perhaps the fine is simply to redress the damage done to the community by the infraction and thus does equate to a fixed cost which becomes the fine. There might be some cases where this is true, but it would have to be the exception because, for example, most of the infractions I can think of are crimes that don't so much harm the community, as they do particular people in it. Like parking in a handicapped spot, or fire zone. It also makes one wonder why we'd call that an infraction instead of just a service provided for a fee. If there is no punishment then why call it a crime?

And you might feel that all of this is much ado about nothing. You might be right. I disagree and see it more as the death of a thousand tiny cuts. No single defect in our laws undermines our respect, but collectively they seem to be doing just that. From a five year old essay by an intellectual property attorney on the public's ambivalent attitude towards IP to a recent essay from an ex deputy attorney general on the dysfunctional perspective of legal advisors at the highest levels of leadership the message is the same; I'd call it jurisprudential liquefaction. It really is akin to the evaporation of the very soul of our nation--what made America most endearing to a fairness hungry world.

Law works only because we respect it. The kind of respect we have for what we consider sacred--not just essential, but irresistibly attractive, awe inspiring, and deeply cherished. The machinery we can build to enforce law will never amount to more than a selective pressure to evolve better criminals. That's just a consequence of the geometry of our reality. Nature will engineer something to fill every niche. (To really be rid of something you have to destroy the environment that it is suited to fill.)

We must love our law for what it genuinely is--the embodiment of justice, the fastener necessary to build enterprise, and the test to which we subject all policy. It must strive above all else to be fair in the sincerest sense we are capable of imagining and measuring. Law, and every shred of the infrastructure involved in enforcing it, must earn that admiration by being honestly worthy of it.

And that's why I started with something so seemingly trivial--because what makes it seem so trivial is only our attitude towards the injustice. Our laws are the true religion of our nation and it really is our faith in them that bring us the gifts of freedom and prosperity. It's too easy to lose respect and too hard to earn it to be so reckless with something so precious.

Especially when it is so easily fixed. There are other nations that deploy more equitable mechanisms to levy fines (for example Finland's day fines scale by income.) There are policies we could adopt that would require us to craft laws with more care, reengineer any that are not or can not be reasonably well enforced, and even ways to force a rethink in strategy periodically by requiring laws on vice, for example, to have expiration dates. It took a private attorney to force the justice department to use the new technologies of DNA testing to check prior convictions for serious crimes and that resulted in the release of many people that had been wrongly convicted an spent many years in prison, some even scheduled to be executed. This should be deeply embarrassing to our nation and infuriating to citizens. Can't the folks who work at the justice department read the name on the building? What do they reckon it means? Just ice?

Perhaps we should start with a better map of our laws that depicts everything we know and can measure about them; the socioeconomic background and reasoning behind them, the measured impact after enactment, the ongoing costs/benefits of enforcement, the case histories of their application, and our discussions about them. A resource that would help us all better see and understand the role law plays in our lives, how it is created and maintained, and why it so deserves our gratitude and respect. It's a lot easier to respect something when you can actually see and touch the sense of it.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

My America, the body of an enchanting meme

I've always thought a lot about truth, justice, and the American way. But not because I'm a fan of superman. Because I'm a human being and can't help but find those things sacred. Even a crook has a code of honor. That emotional reward is most likely why we have minds designed to cooperate, master a language, and outwit the various things in our world. Discovering truth feels so good because it leaves us better at working out the consequences of some hypothetical we're contemplating. Our sense of justice is no different, complicated by the fact that fairness isn't as easy to test as truth. And I love the American way most of all. I didn't know why as clearly for much of my life, but I do now. It's because for me, America stood for nothing so much as a deliberate effort to make those metaphysical ideas more robust and tangible than even we are. America was the flesh and bones of justice itself.

America to me seemed more like a process than a place--we were a nation of immigrants from all over the world. It was the very formula for fairness; the honest desire to create the most liberating and genuine parity of opportunity that the best and brightest of us could engineer. It seemed so incredibly ingenious, like life itself--create an environment suitable for useful things to grow and thrive and they will. We call those things enterprises. They combine land, labor, and capital to create profit using a recipe called a business model that is really just the DNA of the enterprise. Those recipes that generated the most profit per unit of input were the basis for the next enterprises that emerged. How could a system like this possibly fail?

What gets in the way of living up to our principles? In a word, I think it's design. We aren't sufficiently wary of our own designs. Good design just doesn't come from a conscious deliberate attempt to build something, but from creating the environment where what you want can evolve and will be best suited, and then waiting for it to show up. If you take the former approach, you're constantly trying to shore up a poor design. But with the latter, you're constantly getting closer to an environment that permits nothing else. It's a fundamental shift in perspective that sees human force as the most expensive and therefore worst solution to any problem and gravity as the cheapest and best. Don't look for a law to prohibit what you should be trying to use geometry to leave impossible or never worthwhile. Does it strike anyone else as curious that punishment is such an obvious solution to humans while utterly absent anywhere else in nature?

Laws, and the infrastructure needed to enforce, adjudicated, and punish the condemned is often more expensive than the actual damage done by the injustice all that infrastructure is intended to dissuade. In my reality, that's a red flag that something more fundamental might be broken. Like our perspective on what crime really is. And that's what I needed all this context to get to and what I'll write about next because one the greatest problems I see facing our world is that when law was spun off from religion, the geometry of those memes didn't allow sacred respect to go with it. For law is little without the respect that makes obeying it pleasurable. And threats are the very poorest way to motivate behavior working only when the consequences are perfectly predictable and utterly unavoidable. When it's less than that we call it a challenge. And that's one of the main things that makes us so remarkable to begin with--the love of challenge.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Reinventing the political campaign

The total amount spent by political lobbyists per capita last year in the USA was about eleven dollars. So how come special interests have so much more influence with leadership than the people they're supposed to serve anyways? Should we spend twelve dollars to bribe them back? For just two dollars per month we could utterly overwhelm the private interests if it weren't for just one thing; We couldn't agree on what to tell them to do. We need a community mind and that begins with a community brain.

A neural network for a city

Suppose a small community was looking for ways to invigorate their economy and create a greater sense of their shared purpose among residents. (Shouldn't this go without saying?) But instead of relying on themselves, they decide to look for a way to get the community itself to self-organize around the powers and functions of their city government--to reinvent their electorate. Their goal is to create a parallel virtual city council that they can use as a resource in making the decisions that face them. Their idea is that by having a vote from the community, and discussions about each issue, their eventual decisions can only be better informed, while also leaving each voter with more context to evaluate their performance and grateful to be a part of the process.

Connecting the senses and muscles

Using free tools and web resources they put all of the non-confidential information they can about their city into a site available to all members of the community. They establish a small fund, say $5/resident, to encourage the development of software that presents the data in ways the users find useful (which developers split according to how much their software gets used.) The data is stuff like the budget, infrastructure maps, codes and ordinances, maintenance schedules, issues to be addressed by the council and the reports or other information related to those issues. Everything the city isn't obligated to keep confidential and that would be useful to voters playing the role of council members.

Processing the sensory input

To encourage participation by people in the community they organize the site to provide two different roles for users. They can be either virtual council members, or city evangelists. The latter is for those folks who believe they have a vision for their community and should probably be running things already. Their job is is evangelize the issues presently facing the community, help users explore the available data, learn more abut the community, and explain their own positions and policy goals. They are people hoping to one day serve on the city council (if they aren't doing so already) and see this as an opportunity to campaign for that position by explaining how they would approach present day issues.

(It's campaigning via a demonstration. The site creates only a few slots for each public office and city evangelists must win their slot by bidding for it with real money in a Dutch auction. Instead of spending what they would to campaign in traditional ways, they buy a slot on the site for a lot less and get a chance to better prove their competency and much more exposure. Besides, that money goes into a pool that becomes the political capital spent by the voters and can be earned back.)

Everyone else joins for free and becomes a virtual council member earning a monthly virtual income of political capital. They can spend it on the site to support or oppose the issues they care about. The city evangelists earn a share of what is spent in accordance with whatever position they've been advocating on each issue. In other words they earn political capital by convincing the virtual council members to spend it the way they recommend, which they then spend to advocate their position on upcoming issues (which is then redistributed as share income to the virtual council next month.) This structure is intended to gradually concentrate political capital into the hands of those city evangelists who best represent the wishes of the community.

Enabling the phenomenon of emergence

I've left out the details and some important points about the site to focus on the strategy and goals. The hope is to do the minimum sufficient to get it started, and then let the community itself take over the evolution of the specific mechanisms that emerge to best harvest their political will and insight. My belief is that we might stumble onto an infrastructure that does a far better job deploying our collective resources simply because our behavior, wants, and expectations have changed to suit the realities of what we learn by virtue of participating and being so much more aware of present conditions and what can be done theoretically.

I'm hoping it results in a rudimentary community mind. In a genuine sense. No one of us will feel any differently but something will be very different. Our city should function in a way that exhibits an ever growing self awareness and intelligence that emerges from no one of us so much as it does from the political technology we've created to empower and guide us wisely.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Where fools rush in

To be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer you must be accredited. We have an infrastructure to ensure each person entitled to practice a profession with potentially significant consequence to their clients or the public has been trained and become demonstrably competent to do the work they've chosen.

But for the very most important jobs of all--the ones with the greatest consequences for the largest number of people--we have no such requirement. We don't even require any competence from the people who decide who should fill those jobs either, or even take note of the reasoning behind their choice. And we don't have any kind of apprenticeship or training program for those elected. They simply go from being ordinary people to extraordinarily powerful people in the blink of an oath. If you didn't know the reasons for this, wouldn't you consider it strangely reckless, at the very least? Why is it so much harder to be entrusted with a planeload of people than an entire nation full?

I don't think it matters why this is the case. What matters is that it is hard to believe anyone considers the system we have to be better than simply randomly selecting all political candidates from a list of landowners. At least they would be politically debt free. I also don't believe that even if we had a convincingly better mechanism for filing those jobs, that it would be possible to adopt if it required anything other than very minor changes to our current government. People are too frightened of any change to something they understand very poorly.

So changing who is eligible for office is too hard, as is changing who is eligible to vote for them. But we can do something to enforce a training period ourselves using the web and nothing more than a bit of clever software and the motivation to use it.

I wanted to explain my motivation for making this suggestion first, to avoid a lengthy introduction when I go into the details in the next post. I'll simply tell you now that it involves making something we don't typically notice much a whole lot more tangible--our political capital. It is something we've had since our nation was born but don't think much about until we're angry about how some politician has decided to spend it. I'd like to see us harness some of its energy for ourselves on the way there.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Our real Independence Day

The odd thing about my last few posts is that I'm not terribly interested in health care--it became important only because its sucking up so much of our GDP that it has become a drain on what I care most passionately about-- ensuring our nation offers the greatest depth, breadth, and parity of opportunity of any--by as large a margin as possible. This is, in my opinion, the most important issue simply because no matter how efficient we get, everything still costs money. And it's that unmatchable opportunity that draws the best, brightest, and most driven to build their enterprises here, and make the ones we have better.

Today is actually our 233rd anniversary, not the fourth. That's just the day we celebrate it. I remember when America was a very deeply loved nation. When I felt incredibly lucky to have been born an American. Other nations seemed like propeller planes while America was a jetliner. I remember thinking, or being taught/indoctrinated to find the reason for this in our constitution and form of government. The sociopolitical landscape that our nation established was just a lot easier to build robust enterprises on.

At least in theory. In practice it looked more like an old boy network. Perhaps in a room with bigger windows. I've always tried to put my finger on why our government is so gimcracky. I think the weak link is actually us. The founding fathers created some great roles. But they did a piss poor job of working out how to fill them in my opinion.

The basic idea is good--let the people decide. But it seems to go straight downhill from there in practice. With so many issues to understand to even comprehend the proposed alternative strategies to our problems we're left with little but the gut feeling we get watching the people we elect to guide us act out roles. Amidst a din of spin from pundits.

Of all the things I can think of that would enable our nation, and ourselves, to once again leap frog the rest of the world in the race to create the most personally liberating and empowering society it is a minor change in the way we vote that seems to offer the most bang for the buck. I'll try to explain one way I think we might vet leadership far more effectively tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Putting some soul into health care

My previous three posts have all been about health care. I'ld like to briefly summarize them here and then finish. In the first one I define a governmental agency, like the National Institute of Health, that would act as a transactor for every payment that can be considered a health care expense or a purchase of health care insurance and why I think it is such a wise approach to health care reform. In the second one I outline how that change would affect the basic components of our present health care system and better motivate them to focus on on their specific role, and not just any old way they might increase profits. (And assumed that the present practice of allowing employers to pay the health care expenses of their employees with pre-tax dollars was on its way out.)

In the third one, the previous post, I brought your attention to a particular node or place in cyberspace that would hold all of your medical information and suggested it should exist inside the transactor's databases because that is the most private information about us and that should be very important to our government to protect. The goal is to create an environment where that node actually becomes a personal life advocate for us. A sort of virtual personal assistant that remembers everything about us, has a nearly perfect knowledge of our health history, diet, habits, and myriads of other information that it can use to detect the sorts of things that correlate with opportunities for preventative medicine and make us aware of those choices.

Building a soul for ourselves in cyberspace

Health isn't just being physically fit. It's being educated enough to at least make informed health choices. It's having the infrastructure a person needs to function. Those things are just forms of preventative medicine. The real medicine we'd need by neglecting them is more expensive than the non-medical preventative medicine we need to treat them. If citizens are so important to their governments, how is it no government has even thought to create a computer program that looks for the people it can easily find, would benefit from help, and that it can easily afford to help? That's what this is. Nothing more than a task running on some server in cyberspace with no more to do than be there for you. It's job is to keep you as happy and healthy as you, and it, can figure out how to do.

Think of it as a crude attempt to create a soul for humanity designed to help us be us. We create this computer program that knows a lot about everyone, and uses that information to help us make wiser decisions. If, for example, your behavior changed in some way that correlated well with people who later had a medical problem, this little advocate will make you aware of it. Have a pain you don't understand? It might save you a visit to the doctor or direct the ambulance to where you're lying. If you wanted to change something about yourself, it could be of help since it could look for what worked for others like you that wanted the same thing and got there. If you wanted to learn something, same deal. It will be capable of whatever we are clever enough to teach it. As computers grow in power and software in sophistication I wouldn't be surprised if it renders the field of psychology utterly obsolete in just a few years by doing a much better job of helping us see ourselves clearly and make the changes we want.

The idea is to create a focal point, like the iPhone did, where everyone is invited to deploy their solution to help us be better people (or get more out of the device). Does this imply that I consider people devices? Yes, I suppose it does. Why is that a problem? Doesn't an actor want to get the most out of their instrument? I'm not suggesting we look for ways for others to get more out of you. Just how we can enable you to get the most out of you. No one is going to use an iPhone application that they find annoying. It's the same thing here. If the sort of software that emerges from a system like this was a nuisance, who would use it? Okay, I suppose masochists would love it. But they can almost certainly find devices already that are better suited to amuse them.

Creating the incentive to empower us

Like the iPhone, I'm advocating a standardized forum where anyone can deploy software they believe would be useful helping people become better. We will be the ones to decide how we interact with the data made available this way, and the developers of the software we choose to use will be paid a tiny amount per user by the transactor. The first applications will most likely be electronic patient advocates that help people avoid treatment mistakes (like taking a drug while you are using a different drug that is incompatible,) follow progress, and be sources of information, encouragement, and a connection to supporters. But I would expect lots of stuff to emerge, from software that helps kids do well in school or learn an instrument, to ones that teach adults how to eat more wisely or cope with tragedy.

I see these things as going a long way to lowering the level of overall uncertainty and stress in our lives. I think collectively they'd lead to substantially lower health care costs and healthier longer lives for most people. I also think they would push many other boundaries that limit the opportunities that appear to us and thereby increase the growth rate of our economy.

But most importantly, I see this as a solution we can adopt very quickly and without undue immediate impact (other than starting to phase out employer paid health care.) We can even delay the flow of insurance premiums through the provider to give that industry time to come up with standardized contracts, computer procedures and the other infrastructure needed for a smooth transition. The providers should be routed that way as quickly as possible because there is simply no reason not to. The limiting factor there is to standardize the format of medical information and design and deploy equipment well suited for error-proof collection and delivery of it. All of that should happen regardless of what we do because we need that information for so many things--from better evaluating the efficacy of treatments to the competency of practitioners.

I should also note that I've pretty much avoided any discussion of funding mainly because this suggestion is actually independent of how health care costs are ultimately reckoned with. This is just about how we might get the most out of whatever we do decide to spend.