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LET'S MEET IN THE MIDDLE

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Over nearly 20 years (!!!) I feel like the point that has come up the most here, were I to go back and tally everything up, is that compromises are often really bad. We are conditioned to believe compromise is good. Whether we are talking explicitly about politics or about life in general, compromises usually result in both parties being unhappy and neither set of goals being achieved. You get the worst of both worlds more often than you get the best.

It is taken as given by the wise people of politics that the correct solution to a problem lies between what the opposing parties want. I used a textbook that tactfully referred to this as a setup for "mixed policy outcomes," meaning we spend a great deal of money but don't actually solve the problem. We do a little bit, which is enough to cost a lot but not enough to accomplish the goal. Some problems are binary. Some questions have yes or no answers with no nuance or third way.

We are seeing the real limitations of our bias toward "meeting in the middle" to solve problems right now. Last evening I listened to the North Carolina governor – a Democrat in a state that isn't exactly super liberal, and thus a guy always trying to find solutions that please everyone – explain what K-12 school reopening will look like in the fall. It doesn't make a lot of sense. Something about Plan B but also keeping Plan C on the table. Reopening but like, keeping all these protections in place so that opening won't spread the virus.

This, of course, is the Magic Bullet everyone is looking for right now. The two opposing viewpoints are 1) shut everything down until the virus is under control, and 2) the virus is no big deal, keep everything open and go about life as pre-COVID normal. And everybody is looking for some point in between those two, and I just don't think it exists. We can't be "sort of open, but in a way that will be safe like if everything was closed." Making that work would require assumptions about human behavior that simply do not hold, or a level of enforcement that is probably neither possible nor desirable.

This is a collective action problem, and "most people" wearing masks and being smart is not enough. It doesn't work unless everybody does it. And none of this compromise stuff is going to work either. If things are open as "normal" the number of cases will continue to rise; there is political pressure as well as economic incentives to re-open, but that doesn't mean bars and universities can come up with some half-assed "plan" and that resolves things. Either Congress will get its head out of its ass, send every single person $5000 and offer payroll support to employers, and shut everything down for 60 days, or we will continue to do this kind of "we're open but stand six feet apart" routine all but indefinitely. Because it absolutely will not stop what is happening now.

I'm probably prone to overestimating the number of issues that are black-and-white, zero or one. But I have confidence that this is one of them. Either things are shut down and people are staying home, or everything might as well be open. A half-measure isn't going to resolve this.

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jepler
20 days ago
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"It is taken as given by the wise people of politics that the correct solution to a problem lies between what the opposing parties want. I used a textbook that tactfully referred to this as a setup for "mixed policy outcomes," meaning we spend a great deal of money but don't actually solve the problem. We do a little bit, which is enough to cost a lot but not enough to accomplish the goal. Some problems are binary. Some questions have yes or no answers with no nuance or third way."
Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
graydon
14 days ago
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sarcozona
20 days ago
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Down with 'frontline services'

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The sentiment: the NHS should prioritize spending on frontline services sounds innocuous, but it's a big factor in all the harm done to the NHS since Blair became PM in the late 90s. Prioritizing frontline services means underfunding, outsourcing, selling assets and quasi-privatization. People opposed to these outcomes often claim, we should prioritize frontline services, as if that were the opposite, but it's not. It's at best a euphemism for destroying publicly funded healthcare, when it isn't an active deception.

Better minds than mine have clearly outlined why we probably shouldn't be using war metaphors for healthcare in the first place. But even in a literal war, if you prioritize the frontline at the expense of logistics, training, intelligence etc you lose the war.

In the NHS, 'prioritizing frontline services' started out with not bothering to maintain the fabric of the buildings. Making sure the buildings can be maintained a comfortable temperature and are weatherproof and not full of hazardous, outdated electricals and are easy to clean and hard to burn down isn't directly curing patients with life-threatening acute illnesses, so obviously those sorts of things should be low priority. Hey, we could even make a quick buck by selling some of the publicly owned land and buildings to developers, or using them as collateral in PFI loans. Then we would have more money for frontline services, and if the population grows and ages and healthcare needs expand over the coming decade but hospitals no longer have physical space to expand, well, that's someone else's problem. Prioritizing frontline services meant setting targets for waiting times. Not waiting more than 4 hours in A&E, definitely a high priority, definitely the most frontline of frontline services, this is people with every minute counts emergencies who are highly likely to die if they have to wait. But suddenly there's a whole layer of hospital bureaucracy tied up with measuring A&E waiting times, otherwise competent healthcare workers getting disciplined for not constantly improving the four hour waiting time target, funding just evaporating on improving headline numbers at any cost. Resources are being taken from other parts of the hospital to increase the proportion of patients seen within four hours of arriving at A&E. Worse, when the clock ticks over to 4 hours one minute, the patient might as well wait forever, because treating them won't help the target. And once this system has been embedded for a few years, you end up with far more referrals to A&E because anything that doesn't fall under the magic four-hour target, anything that isn't a frontline service, is so slow that A&E is the only way to get timely treatment at all. And then it becomes impossible to maintain the waiting time target. Prioritizing frontline services meant outsourcing the cleaning to the lowest bidder. There's a pretty good correlation between rates of outsourced cleaning and rates of hospital acquired infections. Not to mention that the cleaners, who aren't directly employed by the hospital, often have terrible labour conditions, poor pay, poor incentives and training to actually keep the hospital clean enough for the frontline services to happen in a safe environment.Prioritizing frontline services means completely separating hospital care from 'social care'. Providing support for frail and convalescent and disabled people to live as independently as possible for as long as possible, now that's in a completely separate budget. And it's a budget that can be cut almost endlessly, because social care isn't a frontline service. Not only does this cause untold suffering outside the hospital, but it leads to degradation of frontline services. People can't be safely discharged from hospital because there is nobody to provide the basic care they need to go home, so their needs have to be met by highly paid, overqualified medical professionals. They become 'bed blockers', hospitals are over-full because the only way to keep people safe is to define them as part of frontline services and frontline services only happen in hospitals. Mental health is also not a frontline service unless people are actively suicidal right now. So there is no support for anyone not in crisis. Prioritizing frontline services means mental healthcare is pretty much in the same low priority bucket as social care. The number of life-threatening crises rises because waiting lists to get the kind of help many people need to avoid reaching the point of completely being unable to cope are infinitely long. All this was already a problem under the previous government. Once the Tories take over, they start prioritizing frontline services by: removing the previous NHS Direct helpline staffed by people with medical training, and replacing it with NHS 111 which is basically just a call-centre where people read from a script. NHS 111 is completely terrible at keeping people out of hospital who don't need to be there, because an automatic script can't tell the difference between a pulled chest muscle and a heart attack, both tick the 'chest pain' box. And there are lots of far worse examples.Defunding public health, sexual health, any kind of prevention. Those are not 'frontline services'. Of course, the net result is less resources compared to the level of need for frontline services, as more people will have health emergencies if there's no prevention. Removing any sort of supportive facilities for medical staff, since those are not frontline services. No mess room, no break room, no dedicated staff toilets even. Healthcare professionals can get their food in the public cafe or from vending machines. They can't get any support from their colleagues because they have to take their breaks in public areas where talking about work would breach confidentiality. They might have to walk miles across the hospital to reach these public facilities, which are themselves further downgraded since a hospital cafeteria isn't a frontline service, and eventually there's a Costa and a Burger King and that's about it. Shift patterns stop taking breaks into account, because taking a break isn't providing a frontline service, or at best they assume that one can get food, drink and rest in 20 minutes because in the old system you had a breakroom available near every ward.And maybe it's ok for these doctors providing frontline services to be tired and stressed and hungry and bursting for the loo. But patient food is also not a frontline service. The budget allocated to food gets less and less, to the point where even with advantages of scale it's impossible to make meals anyone would want to eat. There's certainly no slack for anyone with any kind of dietary needs, because who'd have thought that patients undergoing hospital treatment might have medical conditions which mean they can't eat certain foods? The time allocated to serving meals is cut to almost nothing because food isn't a frontline service, so anyone who needs any kind of extra help with eating, or even just eats a bit more slowly than the fastest possible, pretty much doesn't eat. People recover slower, or even don't recover at all, or get sicker, if they can't get adequate nutrition in hospital. "Minor" operations are also pitted against frontline services. Conditions that cause pain and misery, like varicose veins, carpal tunnel syndrome, cataracts can be pushed off onto private providers, because they're not frontline services, they're not life-threatening. In theory the NHS isn't allowed to have a blanket ban on commissioning a particular treatment; in practice they're basically not. Trans healthcare, fertility treatment, I'm sure lots of you can name plenty of examples, have infinite waiting lists or cost money.The way things really got worse in the last 10 years was because of the Tory war on "paperwork", again seen as opposed to frontline services. You can't run a large complex institution without admin (and that goes for lefties who hate bureaucracy too, looking at you Graeber). They dropped waiting time targets because they saw the proliferation of paperwork and managerialism resulting from focusing too much on particular numbers. But without someone keeping track you can't even tell whether people are being treated in a timely fashion for emergency conditions, let alone improve your speed at responding to emergencies.

Record-keeping is 'just paperwork'. A computer can do it. But then, giving staff access to up-to-date computers and user-friendly software isn't a frontline service, so they have to make do with antiquated Win95 machines and terrible databases. Healthcare professionals have to keep their own records on these terrible systems because there's no money to pay for 'admin'. Very little institutional knowledge of computer security - several large hospitals in England were offline for about three days a few years back because of some crappy ransomware which thankfully turned out to be able to be bypassed in a few hours by an amateur. But hey, security isn't frontline services. Likewise, people with real expertise in storing patient data securely and confidentially aren't paid enough to work in the NHS, because making sure medical information doesn't get into the wrong hands isn't a frontline service.

Almost anyone who's interacted with the NHS in the past few years has noticed that there's a huge hole in coordinative communication. You can't get an appointment, or your appointment gets rescheduled 6 times, or you get the letter informing you of a cancellation the day after you've already attended fruitlessly. Referrals get lost, or get sent to the wrong department. You have to personally chase up your own test results. All of these things, although they are mostly carried out by 'administrators' and are not frontline services, are causing real, measurable patient harm.

And of course, if you have no 'paperwork' you have no real governance. No oversight to stop the NHS being sold piecemeal, nobody who has enough information and influence to step in and prevent wholesale transfer of huge amounts of patient data to profit-making tech companies like Google. Having some slack in the system to cope with increased demand isn't a frontline service, and it requires serious resource going into admin and management and measurement and coordination. That's why we've had a winter crisis every year for the past decade - having spare beds, additional staff etc available during summer is taking resource available from frontline services, so it isn't allowed. Having a stockpile of equipment not currently used on a just-in-time basis is inefficient, it takes up storage space and cashflow that could be used for frontline services. Pandemic preparedness was completely removed a couple of years ago because, guess what, planning for a once-a-century event isn't a frontline service. This was partly sparked by a dispute on Twitter about parking charges, which have been contentious forever. I generally think that it's vital for society to move away from massive subsidies on driving and storing fossil-fuel driven private cars. But travel to hospital (for staff or patients) isn't the place to start. There should be 24-hour affordable safe convenient public transport to hospitals, but right now there isn't, and if you make nurses pay for their own parking you're essentially transferring the cost of running the service onto individuals. And the reason parking charges ever happened was because the NHS owning their own land was seen as not a frontline service, so all the land surrounding hospitals is rented or mortgaged and the money has to be clawed back by outsourcing carparking to largely predatory businesses.

In isolation, would I rather spend money on a ventilator or a carpark? Of course I'll pick a ventilator. But that's not actually the calculation that's happening. Calling an ongoing programme of cuts and privatization 'prioritizing frontline services' is a lie exactly designed to divert people, including passioniate believers in government funded public services, to looking at the wrong tradeoffs. The system is a system, there's no 'frontline versus back office'.

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graydon
20 days ago
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liv | Down with 'frontline services'
sarcozona
20 days ago
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whimslcott: whimslcott: whimslcott: next time someone talks about welfare fraud, remember that if...

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whimslcott:

whimslcott:

whimslcott:

next time someone talks about welfare fraud, remember that if you’re homeless you’re not supposed to have food stamps and if you lose your home and don’t report it to DSHS so they can take away your food stamps that’s welfare fraud

when i was on ABD (aged, blind, and disabled benefits – the only cash aid available to disabled people while we’re applying for SSI, a monthly $197) literally all money you get can be deducted from these benefits. this means that if someone sees you digging through the trash for food and gives you $20 the government will only pay you $177 that month. if you don’t report that $20 it’s welfare fraud

astute readers might realise that there’s no way anyone in the country can be expected to live off of $197 a month, and that that would have to be supplemented by another source of income. and if that money is going to disappear as soon as that other source of income hits $197, it might as well not exist. you’re right!

when i was on ABD i had a patreon running that brought in a steady $13 a month. the person in charge of my case rounded up the amount of money i was getting to $15. i was penalised by $15 for making $13.

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graydon
29 days ago
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sarcozona
31 days ago
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Metaphors in man pages

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This morning I was watching a great talk by Maggie Appleton about metaphors. In the talk, she explains the difference between a “figurative metaphor” and a “cognitive metaphor”, and references this super interesting book called Metaphors We Live By which I immediately got and started reading.

Here’s an example from “Metaphors We Live By” of a bunch of metaphors we use for ideas:

  • ideas as food: “raw facts”, “half-baked ideas”, “swallow that claim”, “spoon-feed our students”, “meaty part of the paper”, “that idea has been fermenting for years”
  • ideas as people: “the theory of relativity gave birth to an enormous number of ideas”, “whose brainchild was that”, “those ideas died off in the middle ages”, “cognitive psychology is in its infancy
  • ideas as products: “we’ve generated a lot of ideas this week”, “it needs to be refined”, “his intellectual productivity has decreased in recent years”
  • ideas as commodities: “he won’t buy that”, “that’s a worthless idea”, “she has valuable ideas”
  • ideas as resources: “he ran out of ideas”, “let’s pool our ideas”, “that idea will go a long way
  • ideas as cutting instruments: “that’s an incisive idea”, “that cuts right to the heart of the matter”, “he’s sharp
  • ideas as fashions: “that idea went out of style years ago”, “marxism is fashionable in western europe”, “berkeley is a center of avant-garde thought”, “semiotics has become quite chic

There’s a long list of more English metaphors here, including many metaphors from the book.

I was surprised that there were so many different metaphors for ideas, and that we’re using metaphors like this all the time in normal language.

let’s look for metaphors in man pages!

Okay, let’s get to the point of this blog post, which is just a small fun exploration – there aren’t going to be any Deep Programming Insights here.

I went through some of the examples of metaphors in Metaphors To Live By and grepped all the man pages on my computer for them.

processes as people

This is one of the richer categories – a lot of different man pages seem to agree that processes are people, or at least alive in some way.

  • Hangup detected on controlling terminal or death of controlling process (man 7 signal)
  • can access the local agent through the forwarded connection (man ssh_config)
  • If the exit of the process causes a process group to become orphaned (man exit)
  • If a parent process terminates, then its “zombie” children (if any) (man wait)
  • … send SIGHUP to the parent process of the client (man tmux)
  • Otherwise, it “runs” to catch up or waits (man mplayer)
  • However, Git does not (and it should not) change tags behind users back (man git-tag)
  • will listen forever for a connection (man nc_openbsd)
  • this monitor scales badly with the number of files being observed (man fswatch)
  • If you try to use the birth time of a reference file (man file)
  • a program died due to a fatal signal (man xargs)
  • protocol version in the TLS handshake (man curl)
  • it will look for a debug object at… (man valgrind)

data as food

  • “Apparently some digital cameras get indigestion if you feed them a CF card) (man mkfs)
  • “Send packets using raw ethernet frames or IP packets” (man nmap)
  • “the above example can be thought of as a maximizing repeat that must swallow everything it can” (man pcrepattern)
  • “This will allow you to feed newline-delimited name=value pairs to the script on’ (man CGI)

data as objects

  • Kill the tmux server and clients and destroy all sessions (tmux)
  • Each command will produce one block of output on standard output. (man tmux)
  • “HTTPS guarantees that the password will not travel in the clear” (man Net::SSLeay)
  • “way to pack more than one certificate into an ASN.1 structure” (man gpgsm)

processes as machines/objects

  • “This is fragile, subject to change, and thus should not be relied upon” (man ps)
  • “This is useful if you have to use broken DNS” (man aria2c)
  • “This provides good safety measures, but breaks down when” (man git-apply)
  • “debugfs is a debugging tool. It has rough edges!” (man debugfs)

containers

There are LOTS of containers: directories, files, strings, caches, queues, buffers, etc.

  • can exploit that to get out of the chroot directory (man chroot)
  • “The file containing the RFC 4648 Section 5 base64url encoded 128-bit secret key”
  • “Keys must start with a lowercase character and contain only hyphens”
  • “just specify an empty string” (man valgrind)
  • “the cache is full and a new page that isn’t cached becomes visible” (man zathurarc)
  • “Number of table overflows(man lnstat)
  • “likely overflow the buffer” (man g++)

resources

There are also lots of kinds of resources: bandwidth, TCP sockets, session IDs, stack space, memory, disk space.

  • This is not recommended and wastes bitrate (man bitrate)
  • corruption or lost data if the system crashes (man btree)
  • you don’t want Wget to consume the entire available bandwidth (man wget)
  • Larger values will be slower and cause x264 to consume more memory (man mplayer)
  • the resulting file can consume some disk space (man socat)
  • attempting to reuse SSL session-ID (man curl)
  • This option controls stack space reuse (man gcc)
  • Keep the TCP socket open between queries and reuse it rather than creating a new TCP socket (man dig)
  • the maximum value will easily eat up three extra gigabytes or so of memory (man valgrind)

orientation (up, down, above, below)

  • Send the escape character to the frontend (man qemu-system)
  • Note that TLS 1.3 is only supported by a subset of TLS backends (man curl)
  • This option may be useful if you are behind a router (man mplayer)
  • When a file that exists on the lower layer is renamed (man rename)
  • Several of the socket options should be handled at lower levels (man getsockopt)
  • while still performing such higher level functionality (man nmap)
  • This is the same string passed back to the front end (man sudo_plugin)
  • On Linux, futimens is a library function implemented on top of the utimensat system call (man futimens)

buildings

Limits as rooms/buildings (which have floors, and ceilings, which you hit) are kind of fun:

  • the kernel places a floor of 32 pages on this size limit (man execve)
  • This specifies a ceiling to which the process’s nice value can be raised (man getrlimit)
  • If this limit is hit the search is aborted (man gcc)
  • these libraries are used as the foundation for many of the libraries (man Glib)

money / wealth

  • This is a very expensive operation for large projects, so use it with caution (man git-log)
  • Note that since this operation is very I/O expensive (man git-filter-branch)
  • provides a rich interface for scripts to print disk layouts (man fdisk)
  • The number of times the softirq handler function terminated per second because its budget was consumed (man sar.sysstat)
  • the extra cost depends a lot on the application at hand (man valgrind)

more miscellaneous metaphors

here are some more I found that didn’t fit into any of those categories yet.

  • when a thread is created under glibc, just one big lock is used for all thread setup (man valgrind)
  • will likely drop the connection (man x11vnc)
  • on all paths from the load to the function entry (man gcc)
  • it is a very good idea to wipe filesystem signatures, data, etc. before (man cryptsetup)
  • they will be embedded into the document
  • the client should automatically follow referrals returned
  • even if there exist mappings that cover the whole address space requested (man mremap)
  • when a network interface disappears (man systemd-resolve)

we’re all using metaphors all the time

I found a lot more metaphors than I expected, and most of them are just part of how I’d normally talk about a program. Interesting!

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graydon
84 days ago
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Covid lockdown opening up world for people with disabilities | Society | The Guardian

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While the coronavirus pandemic has led to unprecedented restrictions for billions of people, for many with disabilities, the lockdown has paradoxically opened up the world. via Pocket
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sarcozona
69 days ago
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Yep. My life is way better, even though I can’t get my normal treatments and am in a lot more pain.
graydon
84 days ago
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For a lot of activities, mandatory physical proximity (and commuting) has always been exclusionary bullshit, the simplest and bluntest form of ableism (and conveniently also usually classism, racism, sexism -- all sorts of forms of marginalization carry or are carried-by time/space/energy constraints)
acdha
82 days ago
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Washington, DC
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Posts in Three Lines, Coronavirus Edition

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I haven’t been able to write as much about the current situation as I would like to.

Personally, I am doing fine. My wife and I are lucky to have some of the most secure jobs in the country – we are both public university professors — and we’re all healthy and as comfortable as can be expected under the circumstances, and we have access to outdoor space. But we also have two children who are now home all day, both of them young enough to need more or less constant attention. And I’m teaching three classes this semester, and the transition to teaching online, which I’ve never before done, has been challenging. And of course there is work already in the pipeline that has to be completed, like my project with Andrew Bossie on the economic mobilization of World War as a model for today. (The first part is here and the second should be out soon.)

I don’t mean to complain. Again, my personal situation under the lockdown is fine. But I do feel bad about not being more present in the important moment for economic debate since 2008-2009, if not longer.  There’s an endless number of urgent, challenging, and profound economic questions to be wrestled with. I’m a bit jealous of people like my associates Nathan Tankus and Jacob Robbins, who are in a position to give the economic situation the attention it deserves and putting out a steady stream of excellent posts on their respective blogs.

And to be fair, it’s not just a matter of time. Like, I suppose, most people, I don’t feel any confidence about how this situation will develop, or what the right framework is to think about it through. I feel I’ve spent many years developing a set of economic ideas and arguemnts with, and within, certain positions, that may not be relevant here. I find it hard to gather enough thoughts together to be worth writing down.

If I did feel able to blog regularly about the economics of the coronavirus, here are some of the posts I might write. I don’t claim these are the most important topics, just ones that I would like to blog about. 

Taking the money view. Our economy consists of a network of money payments and commitments, many of them corresponding to some concrete activity. What’s unique about this crisis is that the initial interruption is to the concrete activities rather than the money payments. This complicates the policy response: It’s not enough to inject more spending in the economy somewhere, on the assumption that it will diffuse through the normal circuits of income and expenditure, we have to think about maintaining the payments, and social relations, associated with various specific activities while the activities themselves can’t take place. 

Paging Henry George. While much of the concrete activity we think of as “consumption” is on hold, much of consumption spending is various forms of social overhead that has to happen regardless; housing is far the most important category here, with a large fraction of mortgage and especially rent payments already not being made. We urgently need to replace these payments with public money, or else suspend (not just defer) them in a controlled way; the flipside of this is that here as elsewhere, where private payments are replaced with public ones, there’s an opportunity to transform the social relations structured by those payments. In this case, that could mean not just replacing rent payments  but buying out properties, so as to replace private ownership of rental housing with public or resident ownership.  

Crying “fire, fire” in Noah’s flood. Despite the uniqueness of the current crisis, I still think one important dimension is a shortfall of demand. While many businesses have been directly shut down by coronavirus restrictions, it’s clear that many others are limited by a lack of customers – airlines traffic are down by 95% not because airlines can’t find people to staff the planes, but because no one is buying tickets. (The planes that do fly are empty, not full.) As incomes continue to fall from unemployment — and only a fraction are replaced by UI and other forms of public assistance — the demand shortfall is only going to get deeper, so I’m a bit puzzled when people like Dean Baker say that the problem  in the coming year might be too much spending rather than too little.

The skeleton of the state. One reason I’m confident that the economy is going to need more demand, is that recessions always involve a downward spiral between income and expenditure; once economic units have run through their reserves of liquidity, and/or start changing their beliefs about future income, the fall in spending will continue under its own power, regardless of what started it. One important area where this process is already underway is state and local governments; thanks to a combination of institutional constraints political culture, spending here is even more closely linked to current income than it is for households and businesses. In the last recession state and local spending continued to fall for a full five years after the official recovery.

Credit contraction? Adam Tooze, in the LRB, describes the economic crisis as “a shockwave of credit contraction,” which sounds to me like an uncritical updating of the 2008-2009 script for 2020. Is there any evidence that limits on borrowing are currently playing an independent role in reducing activity, or are likely to in the future? The problem seems obviously to be a collapse in current income, not a sudden unwillingness of banks to lend. 

Send in the Fed. Even if a credit contraction is not a factor in the crisis, it doesn’t follow that efforts to boost the supply the of credit are irrelevant. Easing credit conditions can help offset declining demand from other sources — that’s monetary policy 101, and especially true in the current crisis, where so many incomes need to be temporarily replaced. It’s very important, for example, that the Fed support borrowing by state and local governments, partly because they may be finding it harder to borrow, but mainly because they should be borrowing much more.

Pay as you go vs prefunding. As everyone knows, state and local governments face many constraints on their ability to borrow, which the Fed can relieve only some of. But another important margin for state and local government is on the asset side; it’s not widely recognized, but in the US, subnational governments are substantial net creditors, which in principle allows them to fund current spending by reducing net asset acquisition. One important way that they can do this is by suspending pension fund contributions — this may sound crazy, but what’s really crazy is that they prefund pension expenditure in the first place.

Can we blame the shareholders? A number of us have observed over the past decade have observed that the marginal use of both corporate profits and borrowing now is payouts to shareholders; this, along with the activities of private equity, have left a number of corporations with high debt and weak balance sheets even after years of high profits. There’s an argument that this has left them more vulnerable to the crisis than they needed to be. I’m not entirely convinced on this, especially given that the relevant counterfactual seems to be higher real investment and/or higher wages rather than simply accumulating liquid assets, but it’s a question very much worth exploring.

Seasonal disorder. One technical but, I think, important point about all kinds of economic data right now is that we should not be using seasonally adjusted numbers. Seasonal adjustment for unemployment claims, and for many other economic variables, is based on the percentage change from the previous month, which  produces totally spurious results in the face of the kinds of moves we are seeing. For example, new unemployment claims rose by 3 percent, from 6 million to 6.2 million, from the week ending April 7 to the week ending April 14; but since claims normally increase by 7 percent between the first and second week of April, this was misleadingly reported as a decrease of 4 percent. 

The opportunity to be lazy. This fascinating review of a book on the plague in 17th century Florence quotes a wealthy Florentine who opposed the city’s policy of delivering food to those under quarantine, because it “would give [the poor] the opportunity to be lazy and lose the desire to work, having for forty days been provided abundantly for all their needs”. It’s striking how widespread similar worries are today among our own elite. It seems like one of the deepest lessons of the crisis is that a system organized around the threat of withholding people’s subsistence will deeply resist measures to guarantee it, even when particular circumstances make that necessary for the survival of the system itself. 

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graydon
98 days ago
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"one of the deepest lessons of the crisis is that a system organized around the threat of withholding people’s subsistence will deeply resist measures to guarantee it, even when particular circumstances make that necessary for the survival of the system itself"
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