A hundred or so questions to think about asking at an academic job interview

The following two lists of questions were accumulated over the course of about 16 academic job interviews I had, as a candidate, across 36 years [1], with some additional input from probably a couple hundred interviews I’ve participated in on the recruiting side. I’ve shared these with an assortment of folks over the years, and as we are hitting the onset of the job interview season in academic political science, figured I might as well post them:

Questions relevant to interviewing for a senior position (5 pages):
Senior.Job.interview.questions (pdf)
Senior.Job.interview.questions (odt)

Questions relevant to interviewing for an administrative position (11 pages):
Administrative.job.interview.questions (pdf)
Administrative.job.interview.questions (odt)

An assortment of caveats:

1. First and foremost, do not take these too literally: I’ve only actually asked a small fraction of these, and some of them could make a search committee or individual interviewer uncomfortable. [2] They are probably best thought of as questions you wish you could get the answers to. If you are aware of them, you can find answers to a remarkable number just by listening, without explicitly asking. Life is also like that.

2. These are not really relevant to an entry-level interview, that is, one where you are not currently holding a job (or a job you want to stay in): the dynamics in those situations are quite different and as importantly, you need two or three years to begin to get a sense of how departments and universities work from the perspective of a faculty member rather than a graduate student.

3. As will presumably be obvious, these are all directed at jobs that have a significant research component.

4. The administrative questions would also be useful if you are externally reviewing a department or institute. Those exercises are time consuming but can be quite interesting, particularly when the fourth or fifth person says “No one else is going to tell you this but…”—or even better “We aren’t supposed to tell you this but…”—and reveals the dirty little secret that accounts for some heretofore puzzling but blindingly evident dysfunction.

5. Not getting answers to a question, of course, says a lot: at one point I was interviewing to head a research institute and no one on the search committee had the slightest idea of the percentage of indirect costs that were returned to the institute, which was [of course] supposed to be self-supporting. I found that stunning. That said, that same committee correctly concluded I was not the right person for the position and offered it to someone far better suited, so one can conclude that despite this oversight they did their job.

6. My favorite questions are those involving coffee and cookie arrangements—which in fact I’ve never actually had the nerve to ask—but in watching the ebb and flow of departmental cultures over the years and across institutions, this is remarkably revealing. The best departmental coffee situation I encountered was where an enterprising faculty member persuaded a wealthy alum to fund coffee from a professional service that was used by the best restaurants in town.[3] The worst was a situation where relations between the faculty and staff were so toxic that separate apartheid-like facilities were maintained, apparently to avoid the possibility of class-based cross-contamination, and the office manager apparently spent much of her time trying to keep staff from quitting.[4]

Again, you need to get some experience to evaluate these: every collective coffee system since the proverbial Arab herder first noticed goats were very frisky after eating those little red berries has had free riders, but just who are the free riders and does the system still function? When I was greeted by the staff one morning with “Hey, Phil, look in the kitchen: someone besides you actually brought in donuts!” I knew the department was in trouble.

7. Oh, and yes, the staff notice these things. The staff (and graduate students) also notice how you treat them during an interview, and that information can become relevant. But you knew that, right?

And those donuts?: a few bucks spent on a dozen donuts once a week is a remarkably small investment for improving your work environment.

Footnotes

1. About half resulted in offers, on two I unilaterally withdrew having concluded the position was incoherently defined, and the remainder went to someone else: I’m guessing those figures are fairly typical once you get past entry-level interviews and have an established reputation so people have a fair good idea what to expect before deciding to interview you. So why didn’t I get 100% offers?: always remember that you might be a perfectly good person for the job, but someone else is even better. It’s really hard to get this across in the U.S. but truly, not everything is under your control.

2. But could also impress a search committee: search committees vary wildly, even within a department.

3. PRIO‘s airport-business-lounge-grade coffee/espresso maker in the lobby (particularly when it was working) and “cake parties” at the slightest excuse are a close second.

4. I had a curious dynamic with the staff at that institution: I tended to arrive about 8 when the staff had to be at their desks—or, more typically, were standing in the hall exchanging gossip—and at that point everyone was very friendly and I was effectively an honorary staff member, as were a couple other early-arriving faculty. But after about 9, the barriers went up and we were treated like faculty.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Mouse Goes Into Business [1]

For starters, let me apologize to the various followers of this blog for the absence of posts over the past six months but, well, we’ve been more than a little busy, between the development of a new event coder embedded in a real-time event generation system, and the vicissitudes of packing, buying, packing, selling, packing, packing, moving, unpacking and unpacking which are involved in transplanting our family unit 300 miles to the south. Oh, and a trip to South Africa. The anticipated “Feral + 7 [months]” entry became “Feral + 8″ and then eventually “Feral + 7 + 7″ and even that didn’t get written [yet]…

So let’s just do a reset here and try writing something.

As I had intended to write in Feral + 7, one of the major adventures of the past year has been getting outside the boundaries of a large, vaguely paternalistic institution and making my way in the world of independent business.  This has, for the most part, had many more pleasant surprises than unpleasant [2]—and I certainly would not want the unpleasant parts to deter Boomers from leaving their sinecures and experiencing such independence before they expire at their corporate desks—but at the same time has been a bit of an eye-opener.

I’ve got an essay about two-thirds written [3] titled “Big is Bad” that will discuss the numerous ways why I believe that in the current technological environment, well, big is bad and there are vast efficiencies to be gained to reorienting the economy around much smaller units of production. Sort of a 21st-century version of Jeffersonian [4] democracy. But, alas, that is most decidedly not the world we are in at the moment, which is still coasting on the 19th and 20th century waves of centralization and for those in power, whether in government or the corporate sector, this is a really nice thing. The motto of the United States should not be “In God We Trust”—as obviously we don’t—but rather “One person’s bottleneck is another person’s job,” along with Adam Smith’s cogent observation that

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty or justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary. [Wealth of Nations, Book 1, chapter 10]

So, this being a blog, let me tell you about a recent day, which was spent almost entirely dealing with paperwork for moving my teeny tiny little company, Parus Analytics LLC, from Pennsylvania to Virginia. On the positive side, this process will take me probably two days in total, this with the help of Web-based company which assists with these things, but otherwise without an attorney, and compared to say Nigeria or Tajikistan, this is not a particularly onerous burden. The bureaucrats one encounters are rarely venal: the elected officials are venal—in fact that is virtually a prerequisite for being governor of Illinois—but bureaucrats rarely, and when they are, it tends to be rather petty. Furthermore, I’ve neither paid any bribes nor expect to, I’ve not had to wait in any offices, the required fees are modest, and no one is going to throw me into jail because they wish to acquire the company.

 

Schrodt.businesslicensecertificate

 

 

 

 

whitespaceFace it, in parts of the world, these levels of efficiency would be the stuff of dreams. And with the level of literacy and understanding of governmental institutions that comes from having a Ph.D. in political science I understand pretty well what is going on and unlike large swaths of the politically-active public do not view these things as a personal afront: Far from it, what worries me is just how typical this is, for everyone. It isn’t so much that this is difficult, but rather than it is unbelievably aggravating.

This is actually the second time I’ve gone through this process, having established an earlier LLC in Pennsylvania. That was relatively harmless, until it came time to pay some very modest corporate tax [5] where Pennsylvania thoughtfully provides a single form that is used by everything from a one-person software shop to “AmerisourceBergen” [6] and is, for the most part, about twenty detailed pages of loopholes. This particular form must be particularly notorious, as I couldn’t even find an accountant willing to file it for a small business. So I filled it out myself, in crayon, and probably invested about $1000 in time to determine that I owed something like $300. A theme to which we will return below.

Incorporating in Pennsylvania is a gift that keeps giving, as I spent part of a day with the paperwork dissolving the LLC. It seems one can’t simply transfer an LLC between Pennsylvania and Virginia, probably an effect of some lingering resentment over that unpleasantness in 1861-1865, or as likely the Anglicans never could wrap their colonial brains around that Quaker stuff. So the Pennsylvania LLC is being dissolved, requiring paperwork that I have been assured from several sources can take as long as a year to get completely processed.[7] For a one person company.

Then on to Step Two: For many reasons I am no longer in Pennsylvania[8] but now in Virginia, rated by Forbes magazine as having the best business climate  in the entire country. So things are going to be better here, right?

Well, yes and no. On the positive side, Virginia definitely has its governmental web act together, and one can generally find forms, and find these coherently explained, with a minimum of effort. The forms are simpler than those in Pennsylvania—in some cases, like the $10 form required to reserve a business name, very appropriately simple—and the agencies respond quickly. So far so good.

But even at the level of Virginia, things seem way more complicated than they need to be. As I’m planning to stay here a while, I decided to get all of the permits—I may well have been flying a bit under the radar in State College—and this ends up involving about twenty-five pages of forms, albeit mostly just repeatedly filling in the same information and checking a few things off on pages which remain mostly blank. But again, for a single-person business: I can only imagine what happens once one gets employees rather than relying on robots.

Where things get really worrisome, however, is—recall that nice man Mr. Smith, back in 1776?—when things seem needlessly and deliberately complex. Well, needlessly except for the beneficiaries. Virginia—Forbes #1-for-business-Virginia—has fully 21 separate special taxes depending on business category, including such gems as a litter tax and—let’s party like its 1762!—special taxes on eggs, sheep, peanuts and cotton! Getting myself legal in Charlottesville (CVille) involved still more forms and relatively modest assessments, as well as one trip to the city hall to get a city document which apparently the people at the city hall can’t locate on their own unless I’m physically present. Granted, we are dealing with the People’s Republic of Charlottesville [9], which is one of the reasons I moved here, but it is unnerving to find that CVille differentiates between almost  150 distinct professions  and locally taxes these at varying rates. “Business-friendly” Virginia licenses are almost as expansive, and include such vital categories as “ginseng dealer” and no fewer that nine distinct licenses from the Virginia Professional Boxing, Wrestling, and Martial Arts Advisory Board! Click the links: I’m not making this stuff up! I couldn’t make it up! WTF???

WTF indeed: the issue here is that, as on many points, Adam Smith was right, and Acemoglu and Robinson, and Mancur Olson are even more right, and The Economist has been on a jag on this issue for several months now: bureaucracies like to accumulate power, people established in businesses like to raise the cost of entry, and neither of these are going to grind to a standstill—far from it—because certain political movements have successfully paralyzed the government. No, grease the appropriate palms, and the “business-friendly” Virginia license raj will apparently happily raise barriers to entry for pretty much anything. Including ginseng dealers.

At this point, the more politically conservative among you are saying “Yes, yes! Not only can a  conservative be created when a liberal is mugged, but when a liberal tries to start a small business!” So if you are the sort who lives in the political-entertainment reality distortion bubble [see below], just stop reading right here, eh? While you are still mellow with the flow of endorphins and cognitive dissonance is at a low level.  STOP READING RIGHT NOW!—you’ll be happier, I’ll be happier, you’ll live longer, there will be greater peace and serenity for all sentient beings.

Oh, wait, quite a few of my readers are in the United States, where people in the most privileged and materially secure conditions in human history go to massive efforts to scare the hell out of themselves on an almost minute by minute basis, even though almost every single one will eventually die peacefully in a bed paid for by Medicare. Or Obamacare. Okay, so keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

So…yeah, this system gets pretty sucky—though again remember it could be a whole lot suckier, and I’ve lived in places where it is a whole lot suckier [10]—so what to do? Is not the answer totally obvious: don a three-corner hat [11], carry a sidearm into Starbucks [12], attribute global warming to a vast conspiracy among scientists [13] in collusion, presumably, with Alpine glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets, and incessantly blame everything—yea, all that has ever gone wrong in the whole of human history, including the Black Death, in fact particularly the Black Death—on Barack Obama and/or Hillary Clinton?

Well, no.

Why then does Virginia maintain a 21st century business friendly web site but largely as a patina atop an 18th century tax structure with special sheep taxes and a licensing system worthy of the anti-competitive process of the guilds of a medieval European market town? This is not, for the most part, much of a mystery and is due, I would suggest, largely to the convergence of four—alas, not seven—contemporary forces:

  • The thoroughly well understood process of regulatory capture, which provides both barriers to entry and plenty of government jobs.
  • The economic elites, left and right, are in fact ecstatic with the almost effortless wealth-concentrating status quo of the past two or three decades.
  • This is almost certainly enhanced by the rise of the political-entertainment complex which diverts attention from these issues to, for example, immigration and death panels;
  • Which has in turn led to the demise of any power in the center-right that could represent anti-regulatory and “anti-big” interests: the far right merely eliminates the possibility of change, leaving the 20th-century status quo in place.

Let’s take these points one by one

Regulatory capture

Adam Smith again:

Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favor of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favor of the masters. [Wealth of Nations, Book 1, chapter 10]

The fallacy—but, like drum circles, it is not a coincidence—of simply paralyzing the discretionary functions of the government—legislative paralysis, those beloved shutdowns,  and, more generally, the naive hope in “starve the beast”—in fact simply empowers the out-dated structures that remain, specifically the bureaucracy and the rule-setting lobbyists. Or, in the strange case of the United States over the past three decades, “starve the beast” has left the tax burden constant, and merely out-sourced government functions to a series of poorly supervised contractors, profit and not-for-profit, who are less accountable, probably less efficient, and far more likely to be lobbying in their own interests than the functionaries they replaced. Not quite the worst possible combination, but you can see it from there. All of this regulatory capture is political science 101, not rocket science.

A large tree which shades out all growth of new vegetation can nonetheless provide a thriving environment for symbionts, and these massive bureaucratic structures interlink. Think “elite universities“: the massive edu-entertainment complex that the political-entertainment structure alleges is a threat to traditional values is, for the most part, an ultra-conservative infrastructure in support of the status quo—in particular class distinctions. And water parks.[14]

And it is regulations, not taxes, which hold people back (or at least make their lives difficult) when they leave the confines of a large organization. Taxes at a reasonable level—and the US is pretty much typical for industrialized democracies in terms of aggregate levels, though not the complexity of the system which I will not call “Byzantine” because the Byzantine system actually worked for a thousand years—are, for someone like me, much less of an impediment to getting things done than regulations, particularly convoluted regulations that are specifically designed to make sure that someone else (like me) is paying the taxes, and not whoever got those regulations in place. Or better yet, doesn’t get into business in the first place, as that could be competition, and additional competition is not a good thing.

But of course the folks who can afford to buy members (or branches) of Congress don’t worry particularly much about regulations—they hire lawyers to deal with the regulations that exist, and lobbyists to create ever more detailed new regulations for their benefit. They instead worry about the marginal tax rates that might inhibit their ability to pay for their third yacht, fourth vacation home, and alimony and child-support from their first five marriages. Not the world of the small business.

Traditional temples throughout East Asia are guarded by statues of fierce threatening demons. In rural areas they are dressed as soldiers. In urban areas they are dressed as bureaucrats.

For the elites, the status quo is incredibly cool

Specifically a status quo where the elites have not only succeeded in a concentration of wealth that looks not like the Gilded Age, but the Roman Empire [15] but in addition has been configured so that all increases in wealth now go, with little apparent effort, to that same class. To listen to this described in apocalyptic terms as some inextricable slide into a socialist hell should elicit, to put in mildly, a bit of skepticism. [16]

Mind you, it is easy to exaggerate the impact of intentional political agendas in this change, given that similar patterns of wealth concentration are occurring in political systems as diverse as the United States, the European Union, Russia and China. Various actions of the US economic elite to undermine Jeffersonian democracy—tax cuts on the wealthy, effective abolition of estate states, socialization of financial risk with privatized financial benefits, and institutionalization of electoral corruption—are probably at least as much effect rather than cause: the general trend would probably occur in any case due to changes in the global economic system. The democratic car was headed over a cliff anyway, but, as typical of the US national character, there was an additional Thelma and Louise reaction: hit the gas!

But if you like the status quo, be sure not to show it [17] As Peter Theil’s  Zero to One [18] cogently points out, most successful businesses claim to be their opposite: If your business model rests on stunning violations of individual privacy beyond the wildest dreams of a totalitarian state, start with the credo “Don’t be evil.” If your business model rests on controlling the distribution of literature beyond the wildest dreams of a totalitarian state, assert that you are doing this for the benefit of authors. If your business is a monopoly, extol the virtues of competition. If you are barely squeaking by selling some undifferentiated commodity, claim that your product is unique. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

So if you are sitting pretty at the top of the hill [19], fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high, and of course someone else is catching the fish and picking the cotton for your benefit and yours alone, complain that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and everybody, all at once now: “When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!”

“Ah yes, so you want change? Don’t we all? Well, this is a democracy, it is not? [chuckles]. Assert yourself! Form a drum circle! Carry a gun into Starbucks! That will give the change we want! [maniacal laughter echoes across the yacht harbor, followed by a quieter "Pop another bottle of champagne, Manuel, good lad..."]

Which happens to be precisely what we observe in…

The political-entertainment complex

Let’s start by noting this phenomenon of the past two or three decades is mostly the consequence of a very savvy business insight, not—necessarily—a deliberate right-wing conspiracy. The genius of Roger Ailes was the realization that the Boomer generation, raised on sleep-overs where they watched endless repetitions of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Bride of Frankenstein on Sammy Terry’s Nightmare Theater on Channel 4 would be inexorably drawn, like moths to a flame, to endless repetitions of such contemporary classics as Barack: Kenya-born Moslem socialist and Hillary: Butcher of Benghazi [20]. That audience could then be sold for vast amounts to advertisers eager to separate these viewers from their retirement savings through dubious  schemes involving precious metals stored…well, trust us.

While primarily a business proposition, the consequence of this has been that a not insubstantial proportion of the population lives in a fantastic and frightening multiverse that includes the disastrous 2009-2010 Weimar-like hyperinflation which destroyed the value of the US dollar, death panels, and the desperate battles to prevent the imposition of sharia law in small rural communities with Moslem populations numbering in the single digits, often zero.

[The left is not wholly immune to the problem of the fantasy multiverse, of course: in 2004 the Democratic Party managed to nominate the only person of national repute, perhaps excluding Charles Manson, who could not defeat George Bush. But it's the difference between quaffing an occasional beer on the weekends and starting each day with a pint of whiskey before breakfast.]

Or is it merely business? Is the fundamental driver now the Zaphod Beeblebrox Principle: “The President of the Universe holds no real power. His sole purpose is to take attention away from where the power truly exists…” [21] But in either case, living in a media-induced bubble with your amygdala firing off like a powder magazine hit by a forest fire does not necessary lead to effective participation in a deliberative democratic processes, even those where you might have some effect, which has in turn has led to…

The demise of the center-right

While the left has taken a few electoral hits during the Obama era, it remains generally intact and in power in large swathes of the population, if not territory, and with both its coalition and ideology intact.[22] Not so the center-right: The conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower, Nancy Kassenbaum [23], Robert Dole, and yes, I’d never thought I’d say this but no less than Richard Nixon would be a really attractive alternative at this point. This once-strong segment of the political spectrum has not only been completely devastated but, in the absence of open primaries, has essentially no route by which to recover.[24] There is little room for individuals who think that the U.S. government is thoroughly screwed up, but don’t see the solution in ever-declining marginal tax rates and quixotic culture wars.

This is not necessarily to say I would necessarily self-identify with such a party, though when the Kansas centrist Republicans were an option, I was pretty much splitting my ticket[25]. Rather I’m saying that I would rather—particularly now feral—live in a polity where the center-right had significant political power, and it no longer does.[26]

Instead we seem to be now is that much of the population is simply insulated from interactions with the government and deals instead with interacting with large bureaucratic structures. A tiny number of people are in control of those structures and they, in turn, exercise substantial control over the legislative and regulatory process to insure that things stay that way. Then everyone extols the virtues of the start-up, the entrepreneur, the self-employed but, in point of fact, that is the last thing the folks in control want to encourage—it’s called “competition”—and its also something most of the popular only sees in a highly fanciful version, in movies.

So the state with the #1 business climate still licenses ginseng dealers, mixed-martial arts fighters, and has special taxes on sheep and eggs.

At least that is how it looks to the mouse. I will return to both the organizational and political aspects of this at a later date. I hope.

Back to earning a living.

Footnotes

1. Actually, the mouse far too occasionally writes a blog. The business is the responsibility of a small black-and-white bird known for its ability to forage in difficult environments.

2. The primary unpleasant one has been learning the difficulties of getting paid by corporations with such inscrutable sidelines such as running Connecticut power plants and generating half-billion-dollar quarterly losses: the phrase “45 days net” is more accurately, “45 days net? Ha!—in your dreams, sucka!”

3. Which means, of course, it is actually already 50% over-written.

4. Home town boy made good, if a bit of a hypocrite on the issue of race relations. Still, anathema to the Texas Board of Education so he can’t be all bad. Jefferson, of course, was dealing with a government unimaginably weak by today’s standards, and in the period 1782 to 1789, arguably pretty close to what we’d call a failed state.

5. As a single member LLC, most of my profits are just passed through to be taxed as personal income. But you knew that.

6. Which according to this map is the largest company in Pennsylvania, and I have never, ever heard of them. Though apparently they deal drugs. Like most states, when all parts of Pennsylvania’s economy are considered, several other large drug-dealing enterprises would probably also be in competition for the spot as largest enterprise, but only this one, which happens to deal in legal drugs, made it.

7. No, this is not one of my snarky exaggerations: it apparently takes that long.

8. First and foremost: Hey, Pennsylvania, it is really possible not only to sell wine in grocery stores but to allow people to purchase and consume both wine and beer at public events, and this does not turn the community into an unceasing hellish bacchanalia. In fact such policies appear to be associated with noticeably less of a seemingly permanent hellish bacchanalia that characterized at least one place in Pennsylvania I was rather familiar with. To the contrary, the socially constrained public consumption of wine and beer makes life considerably more pleasant.

Yet the highlight of my experience with the local authorities in State College was that anonymous roving bureaucrat who, three years running, left me warning notes—two pages of a three-part carbonless form—that grass was sneaking through the vinca and ivy I was getting established as groundcover on a slope. Ah yes, here we have a town with a nationally-publicized public intoxication issue and a district attorney who mysteriously vanished after investigating the affairs of a certain college athletic program, and resources are allocated to monitoring the landscaping skills of a homeowner on a obscure side street. “When groundcover is criminalized, only criminals will grow groundcover.” In the end, the groundcover won, as properly-tended groundcover invariably does after a few years, and the grass was no more; that petty taxpayer-funded martinet, however, doubtlessly still stalks the neighborhood every spring.

9. After closing on our house, as we walked onto the thriving pedestrian mall having set up our utilities at the City Hall, and getting instructions for the single-stream recycling collection, my wife remarked “Where are we, Norway?” Though the office of the closing company was located next to a double-wide displaying a very large Confederate battle flag.

10. In the Middle East, and even Thatcher’s Britain. Not Norway.

As I may or may not have mentioned in the past, we lived for half a year under the iron yoke of Nordic socialism and experienced such indignities as enrolling in the national health care system, which required a phone call lasting perhaps two minutes. In English. To say nothing of the raucous daycare facilities every two blocks in our residential neighborhood. Getting to the equivalent of the “green card” which allowed us to sign up for health care: okay, substantially more of a challenge. Getting a seat at a cafe on a sunny day: you’re joking, right? And not because Norway has a socialist-induced shortage of cafes.

And Oslo, famously, does not have single-stream recycling. Note also the wretched, North-Korean like conditions evident in the video: Nordic socialism truly looks like that.

11. When the secret histories of the post-2010 period are finally revealed, we will surely discover that the Koch brothers paid people to set up drum circles and thus destroy the various “Occupy” movements. But we will also discover that the Gates and Soros foundations secretly paid for the distribution of tri-corner hats and Gadsden flags.

12. Curiously, I look long and hard to find “rude” and “threatening” among the civic virtues extolled in classical conservative literature, but they seem to have become the norm for what passes for conservatism in the U.S. in the past couple of decades. A topic I will be exploring in greater depth at a later date.

13. As someone who has known a lot of scientists, I can assure you that most can’t organize a coherent departmental potluck, much less a global conspiracy.

14. Obviously for the most part I both support this critique that higher education has thoroughly lost its way, and voted with my feet in that regard. But this might not be universally true—this list  (and this) suggests that the elite technical universities are at the very least non-randomly selecting, and I suspect they are providing some value added as well.

That said, in the rather unlikely event Parus Analytics ever hires, the first question in our interview protocol will be “Explain why you left your degree program.”

15. Seriously. On one of my many drives to and from Washington, I was listening to Garrett Fagan’s History of Ancient Rome where he did some detailed calculations to get a pretty good comparison between the vast wealth of a 3rd century Roman Senator with that of a common free laborer in Rome. Then shortly thereafter I tuned into an NPR story comparing the 21st century wealth of a successful hedge fund manager to that of a schoolteacher: the ratios are almost identical.

16. Starting with the observation that it is rather difficult for a country to slide into socialism when it’s been there for a good eighty years.

17: Which is far simpler now than in the Gilded Age, as a leased jet will whisk you far from the eyes prying eyes of the 99%.

18. A good, and quick, read: I don’t agree with all of it but the dude, ahem, is not stupid…

19: Though as I explained in the previous post, I was immensely pleased to see that because he now runs a small business, even Ben Bernacke can’t get a mortgage.

20. Continuing a string of successes that included Bill: Philandering Failure that attracted large audiences despite the hostile environment of peace, prosperity and budget-surpluses. Experimenting with different genres, notably the long-running George: Sage, Saint or Savior? didn’t go as well.

21. The political-entertainment complex also brings to mind another aspect of Zaphod Beeblebrox:

One of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn’t be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn’t understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid.
[Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 12]

22. Due to 18th century electoral laws, 21st century vote suppression operations, and certainly a less-than-ideal performance by Obama, this coherence will not necessarily translate into decisive electoral victories in 2014—in fact polling numbers at this moment are rather grim for the Democrats—but I still contend that in general the outlook based on long-term fundamentals is promising: I will elaborate on this in more detail in a later entry.

23. A senior colleague when I first arrived at the University of Kansas referred to her as “That Landon girl.”

24. Kansas, remarkably, is at this moment providing a model for push-back of the center-right, though it remains to be seen whether this will succeed. Still, Kansas survived—barely—the Wizard of Oz [the movie], efforts by the Board of Education to make the state as unattractive as possible to technology workers, and may survive even the rather Wizard-like Sam Brownback, so say nothing of the aging Scarecow, Pat Roberts.

25. Though I’m also the guy who voted twice for John Hagelin rather than casting a ballot for Bill Clinton.

26. The libertarian option, whether Randian, Paulian, or—we couldn’t make this up, eh?—Rand Paulian, is not the answer because it rests on a naive faith in human perfectability, with only institutions keeping us away from that. That folks, is Rousseau, not Burke, and it is not conservative. That Rousseau approach didn’t work out too well, eh? I will pursue this in more detail in a later posting.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

Mr. Bernanke’s mortgage

[This started as a footnote to a long-overdue blog posting which updates my situation. As sometimes happens with [my] footnotes, it got rather out of control [1], but as too often doesn’t happen with [my] blog entries, it actually got finished. So this is the appetizer; main course to follow fairly soon.]

By far the most sobering, “Did I really know what I was doing?” episode in my generally very positive first year of being feral was discovering that despite perfectly good credit, extensive retirement assets which I can now liquidate without penalty, a decades-long and uninterrupted record of home ownership, an ample documentable income stream  and the intention of putting down a large down-payment, as a new small business owner, I was totally ineligible for a mortgage. Anywhere. One of a number of points where one realizes that while the U.S. establishment talks a pro-small-business line, in reality they really don’t like small business at all, and they really want you to be under the control of some large organization Just Like Them. Nothing new here: medieval Europe worked pretty much the same way, and “Communist” China still does.

Thus I was immensely pleased to see that because he also now runs a small business, even the former chair of the Federal Reserve Board, Ben Bernanke, can’t get a mortgage.

So allow me a somewhat extended digression on this topic—you’re reading this blog at work, right?

There was a government project I consulted on which held large periodic meetings attended by people from other agencies, and I noticed one person in particular who, year after year after year, sat there without ever asking or being asked a question, in what appeared to be a state of utter oblivion. At first I was [mildly] upset, thinking “Why, oh why, are we paying this person??” until it occurred to me that the reality could be far more interesting.

This individual’s behavior, I came to realize, was completely consistent with the following scenario: The individual had once been a meditation master in some exotic order of warrior monks. Their monastery had been betrayed by a highly skilled but impatient protégé of the reigning abbot, and in one horrific night was destroyed by a rival order. This individual, through a spine-tingling series of heroic acts which may well have violated the laws of physics, at least as the uninitiated think we understand them, escaped and finally, Yoda-like, found refuge as a GS-12 in an obscure Federal agency. What I viewed as obliviousness was in reality the outward manifestation of a deep meditative state—the seventh or eighth jnana, or perhaps beyond. And one day, at just the right time and place, the surviving monks will receive The Call…

Hey, fits the existing evidence and is more interesting.

So what does this have to do with banks. Notice that the only things banks do nowadays is build more and more and more bricks-and-mortar branches. This in the internet age. They certainly don’t lend money, not to me, not to Ben Bernanke. They just build branches, and staff them with pleasant folks who spend day after day waiting for the dozen or so people to walk through the doors, though in Albemarle County [2], two-thirds of those are asking for directions to the downtown pedestrian mall or Monticello.

But that is only what you think you are seeing. In point of fact, each one of those apparently useless bank branch buildings is a node of a vast network of advanced laser battle stations that have been constructed in anticipation of an attack by a hostile alien civilization—Independence Day and the Transformers series are actually training films—and when that day comes, the people in those “bank branches” will rush into the “vault”—those are actually blast doors, and in the meantime those rooms are just used to store coffee for the nearby Starbucks, certainly not money for loans—notice there is always a nearby Starbucks—and change into  brightly colored form-fitting Spandex uniforms—the commanders get to wear capes—and wage an apocalyptic battle for the salvation of the planet. Barack and Hillary have this all under control.

Nah…the truth is much simpler. What we are witnessing is a systemic pouty fit over the fact that the banks are no longer able to routinely commit multiple acts of machine-assisted fraud, violate legal norms dating back to the time of the Magna Carta, destroy the lives, hopes and dreams of millions of people, then stick the taxpayers with the bill when the house of cards implodes, and do this with complete impunity. Impunity is not enough: they want to be able to do it all again. Until that point: we’ll take your money and invest in our own bricks-and-mortar, and there is nothing, nothing you miserable peons can do about it. So there!

Ben Bernanke can’t get a mortgage? Hell, Elizabeth Warren probably can’t even get a pre-paid debit card!

And the mouse? Happy ending actually: I was able to borrow directly (not with a bank) against some of those retirement assets, and we found a [smaller] house for less than we’d been ready to pay, sold our existing house without a realtor—our attorney charged $125, not 6%—and we now have a house, and no mortgage. I’m guessing Mr. Bernanke will do okay as well.

But multiply those experiences by hundreds of thousands and one can easily see how this five-plus year “bank strike” is slowing the economic recovery.

As for the meditating warrior monk at those meetings: I’m sticking with that story.

Footnotes

1. So as a footnote, this has no footnotes. Except this one. And the next one

2. Charlottesville, Virginia: we moved.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

The legal status of event data

So, for once, only a minimal level of snark. We’re still in the process of recovering from the recent series of unfortunate events in the world of event data but, indeed, we appear to be recovering and there will be some interesting announcements forthcoming,[1] probably around the beginning of March, and certainly before ISA, as otherwise I could only attend in disguise. One of the many rabbit holes I’ve been traveling through has involved a fair amount of research on the legal issues surrounding the creation and dissemination of event data, and while this is still fresh in my mind, figured I might as well share this.

Let us start with the obligatory caveat that I AM NOT A LAWYER. I repeat:

I AM NOT A LAWYER!

So this is not legal advice, not should be construed as such, and if you wind up doing 20 years to life of hard labor in solitary in Leavenworth for coding the 2006 military coup in Fiji using Agence France Press [2], that is not my responsibility. But from the perspective of an academic researcher reviewing the available material, I find that rather unlikely.

[But for those of you who are lawyers, and even more so, those of you who are teaching courses on intellectual property, this would make a pretty good little project, right? Or maybe it has already been done: I would be delighted to publicize any such efforts. Similarly, if those who are lawyers see error/omissions in what I'm saying here, I will be happy to post additions/corrections, or simply approve your comments on the blog.]

Here’s where I think we stand on this issue.

Event data are a codified collection of facts, and in the 1991 decision Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “that information alone without a minimum of original creativity cannot be protected by copyright.” [3] Evidence that event data are a codification of facts rather than dependent on the expression of those facts is provided by at least the following

  •  The original expressive content cannot be recovered from the event data coding: in fact per linguistic theory, there are an infinite number of sentences that could map to a given event code.[4]
  • The de-duplication algorithms we use—the ubiquitous “One-A-Day” filters based on source-target-event tuples—are completely indifferent to the expressive content;
  • The fact that de-duplication is required on many of our events indicates that these are reporting factual information in the natural world, not some original creative effort (to the contrary, we do everything we can to eliminate fictional references).In fact, while it would be inconvenient, I have little doubt that a perfectly good event data set could be assembled solely from events that are multiply-sourced, and that might in fact be a less noisy set than the ones we currently work with. [5]
  • While we do not code direct quotations out of scientific concerns, that further reduces the originality of the material involved in the coding;
  • The mere collection of material—which in any case we are aggregating from a variety of sources—is insufficient to support a claim of copyright, per the 1996 decision in Publications International, Ltd. v. Meredith Corporation

The noun phrases which are provided for actors which are not in dictionaries (or rather will be in PETRARCH, our new Python-based event coder) are for the most part simply factual; in the rare cases where they have expressive content, for example a particularly flowery description of some hero or villain—which are generally not found in expository reports anyway—these are a very tiny proportion of the text and probably qualify as “fair use” under at least the research component of that doctrine.

And indeed, the second big protection is “fair use,” though this varies with who is generating the data and why. It would probably be strongest when used in research and instructional uses in a state-run educational institution (which are, in fact, the circumstances of a large number of event data collection efforts) and weakest in a commercial, for-profit enterprise that has no pretension of research (which was the situation in Feist: the defendant simply produced phone books).

Based on the 1994 Texaco decision, the mere fact that an enterprise engaged in research is for-profit does not, by itself, mean that this is not “research” under “fair use.” Texaco did, however, place an emphasis on whether the action deprives a copyright holder of revenue, and in my reading of subsequent cases, this has become an important factor. Keep in mind, the actions in Texaco—the large-scale copying of materials—go far beyond anything involved in event data production, but the issue of commercial competition could, conceivably, be relevant at some point, for example were one of the major news services to start providing their own event data.[6]

Source texts

Here the situation seems completely unambiguous: don’t share source texts unless you have a clear license or other intellectual property right to do so (which, for example, ICEWS has within the US government, a major advantage of ICEWS for those users). This has implications for replicability, and lots of people get unhappy when you say you can’t share the source texts, but this is about as close to a black line as we’ve got, and I’ve got a long mini-sermon on this that I inflict whenever I’m lecturing on event data. I repeat: do not share copyrighted source texts.

Bummer. And I’ve long wondered why the news services—whose interest, one would think, would be in making historical text series more widely available so that more people would subscribe to their current news services—did not make available some sequences at a reasonable cost: the marginal costs for doing this would be very low as they already have the data.

Well, it turns out they have: the Linguistics Data Consortium has produced the GigaWord corpus which contains all of the major international news sources for roughly 2000-2010, and this can be licensed for research purposes at very reasonable rates (and is free if your institution is already a member of the Consortium). Potentially a game-changer, and more on this at a later date.

URLs are not subject to copyright—they are information rather than expressions of creative content—so there is no problem with the events reported in a data set containing URLs.

Ontologies (WEIS, CAMEO, IDEA, etc)

The copyright status of an ontology or coding framework is a complete morass, though the CAMEO ontology has an open source license, and to the best of my knowledge VRA has not made copyright claims to IDEA. Were such claims made—and we have absolutely no intentions of doing so with CAMEO—they would be difficult to support given that both systems are based on earlier work: CAMEO was based predominantly on WEIS; IDEA deliberately on a series of ontologies, including WEIS, COPDAB, World Handbook, and CAMEO. These coding systems were widely available and uncontested in the academic world, and, as they were created before the days of intellectual property trolls, did not originally have explicit licenses. [7]

All of this is to say that while it is conceivable that an ontology could be copyrighted, it is not obvious, but more importantly, it is irrelevant so long as you are content with CAMEO and open-sourced extensions of CAMEO. And probably the same for IDEA, though I can’t speak for them.

Patents

While past is not necessarily precedence, the event data field has thus far been almost completely immune from patent claims, egregious or otherwise. The core concepts have been around since the 1960s, virtually all of the core work has been publicly funded (mostly by DARPA and NSF), and the automated coding technology has been around, without challenge, since the early 1990s and open source since the 2000s. Most of the ancillary software used in current systems is also open source. The intellectual property departments of both the University of Kansas and Penn State examined the KEDS and TABARI/CAMEO systems at various times and decided not to pursue patent claims despite the option to assert such rights under the Bayh-Dole Act.

The amount of prior art accumulated in the half-century or so of open work in this field is huge, and in our experience, people just getting into the field with what they believe to be brilliant new ideas are almost invariably merely pursuing plausible and obvious approaches that were either proven to be dead-ends decades earlier, or are standard procedures: a month of coding can save an hour in the library. Granted, the U.S. patent process is monumentally screwed up at the moment and would probably seriously consider a patent on entertaining kittens using a ball of yarn, and seemingly anything could happen, but it seems highly unlikely that claims against the core concepts and technologies would survive even a cursory examination of prior art.

In the absence of patent reform, of course, trolls will wantonly pillage and plunder, as that is the nature of North American trolls [8] and there is no guarantee this will not happen in this field. But in terms of the core concepts and technologies, that’s all they are—trolls with no defensible claims—and we can only hope trolls will focus on more important issues, like the multi-billion-dollar life-altering issue of whether it is permissible to use rounded-corners on a smart phone interface. Undoubtedly precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind with the phrase “the advancement of useful knowledge and discoveries.”

That whirring sound you hear northeast of Charlottesville is James Madison spinning in his grave. I digress…

A Few Additional Thoughts

1. The norm that facts derived from copyrighted material do not inherit that copyright is actually implicit in all secondary data sets used in the study of political conflict. Were this not the case, not only would event data be affected, but so would every other data set assembled by reading copyrighted material—COW, MID, Polity, ACLED, everything. We’ve simply assumed all along that this is okay. As it happens, it is.

2. A curious side-effect, as it were, of this appears that the intellectual property rights to data derived from a set of texts that were obtained illegally—let us say WikiLeaks—would not be affected by the origin. While there was a great deal of strum und drang from various U.S. government sources on the initial release of WikiLeaks [9], this seems to have subsided. Possibly on this issue, possibly on that fact that there wasn’t much in the WikiLeaks that hadn’t long been suspected: I believe it was Michael Gerson who observed that the big surprise of WikiLeaks was that there were no big surprises. [10]

This does not, of course, suggest that data coded from questionable sources are without issues, in particular if one of the questions is the identity of the source texts being coded. But that is an issue of scientific integrity, not intellectual property.

3. If your web crawlers are well-behaved and don’t go places they aren’t supposed to go, you are far less likely to end up in any trouble. Duh… The courts have definitely been more sympathetic with plaintiffs who had internal sites essentially hacked than with those where the information is readily available. This, by the way, is why you aren’t going to be seeing a lot of Agence France Press material in near-real-time event data sets: it is the only one of the four major international sources (Reuters, BBC, Xinhua and AFP) that does not makes its reports easily available (e.g. through RSS feeds).

4. There are still more legal issues than one would like [11] that are in flux, with potentially critical court cases still pending, contradictory rulings at lower levels, and warnings about subjective judgements. Furthermore, the event data community are very, very small fish in this pond: the critical open issues involve the web-based data collection practices of billion-dollar enterprises such as Kayak and other price comparison sites, and this is where the “facts” emphasized in Feist and the “commercial interests” emphasized in Texaco are coming head-to-head. There are definitely some unresolved issues here, though unless these rulings wildly change the status quo—or if event data analysis becomes a wildly successful commercial venture [12]—they probably will not affect event data collection.

That said, as in outsider to the legal world, it is interesting to see the courts gradually coming to consensus positions on these issues which are reasonably coherent: they aren’t there yet but they definitely no longer put up with some of the more outrageous claims that were circulating in the early days of the Web. Patent reform is at least on the agenda now—including no less than Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address—though when and if “the best Congress money can buy” will do anything about it remains to be seen: they sure don’t seem in much of a hurry. But things are getting clearer.

Once again, I AM NOT A LAWYER, and I would be delighted to share further insights on these matters from those who are.

Footnotes

1. And I haven’t forgotten “Feral + 7″, though at the rate things are going, it will be “Feral + 8.”

2. I said “minimal” snark, not “zero”

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feist_v._Rural

4. Okay, realistically, it is not “infinite”—and in any case, it’s only countably infinite even in theory—but it is really large. That’s the big problem in automated coding: if there were only a small number of ways to describe a category such as  “threat of military intervention”, or any other code, we’d have really small dictionaries and really accurate data coding. There isn’t, and we don’t.

5. This, of course, runs against the “needle in a haystack” theory of event data analysis—if we had only had more localized data, we could have predicted that the self-immolation of an obscure fruit vendor in a marginal town in Tunisia would trigger the Arab Spring. But there are plenty of reasons to think this is an illusion arising from hindsight bias, and in fact big changes come from big indicators, properly analyzed. Not everyone agrees.

6. But why would they: the derived data cannot be copyrighted, so there is little incentive to do so. Such data could still be licensed in a fashion that it could not be provided to the public, and some of this is available, though not, to my knowledge, at any significant scale: We hear far more frequently complaints that such data is not available even though people want it.

7.  CAMEO does: originally GPL and now switching to the MIT License. We are doing the same with all of our coding dictionaries.

8. Contemporary Nordic trolls, in contrast, appeared to have mellowed. The real trolls, not the ones wearing expensive suits.

9. Though these threats seemed remarkably selective: at the same time I was hearing from some individuals that they were all but threatened with an indefinite sojourn in Guantanamo if they even thought about using the WikiLeaks data, I was seeing extended analyses of it other places. Particularly certain elite universities. Some animals are more equal than others. Or maybe some institutions have better lawyers than others.

10. The same cannot be said for the next big set of leaks, from Edward Snowden.

11. Unless one is an intellectual property lawyer, or troll, in which case this is called “job security.”

12. Hey, a guy can dream… But seriously, there is a great deal of commercial potential here, but it is going to have to look like political polling looks like now (not like it looked in the days of Literary Digest): multiple sources, some public, some private, supported by a community of professional analysts with a sophisticated scientific understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the approach, as well as with sufficient open-access data to provide a reference point for determining when something doesn’t look right. Flim-flam artists with one-size-fits-all proprietary black-boxes have no place in this model, but plenty of other approaches—academic, NGO, government and commercial—will.

Posted in Methodology | 6 Comments

When the ISA outlaws blogs, only outlaws will blog

Which, in fact, sounds kind of attractive. But that’s not the real point of this essay. What the ISA is doing is stupid, and ISA is not supposed to be stupid.

Stupid is the APSA, charging extortionate dues in order to headquarter itself in some of the most expensive real estate on the planet [1] and then when the U.S. Congress temporarily defunds the NSF political science program saying “Hey, not our problem!” Stupid is the MPSA, heavily fining people who refuse to stay in their fleabag conference hotel in the middle of an urban redevelopment area.

But ISA isn’t supposed to be stupid, and all of a sudden it is. Just how stupid?…

First, let’s look at how this is being interpreted.

Guys down at the gym tell me these blog things are totally out of control. Can’t figure it out myself—I mean, how much can you say in just 120 characters?—but you know kids these days: no attention span, spent their whole lives multitasking and playing video games. This Facebook thing seems weird too—that’s the program that allows you to make video phone calls, right?

Not saying that is what you are saying, just that’s what people think you are saying.

Second, this is a slippery slope. Let’s take a look at some of other regulations that are in the works after this one passes:

  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall publish nothing questioning the wisdom of John Mearsheimer.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall publish no op-eds or letters-to-the-editor in any venue dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Not pro/anti-Israeli, not pro/anti-Palestinian, no lists of historically implausible Christian/Jewish/Moslem/ pagan holy sites, not even restaurant reviews: anything you say about any of this will intensely offend someone somewhere. Really.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall not use smart phones to text snarky comments during six hour ISA Governing Council meetings.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall not post to Facebook nor “tweet” the fact that they are knocking back shots of Jägermeister following six hour ISA Governing Council meetings.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall not post to Instagram, Shutterfly or Pinterest pictures of their editorial board members following a period of knocking back shots of Jägermeister following six hour ISA Governing Council meetings.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall not associate six hour ISA Governing Council meetings with YouTube clips of council meetings in Star Wars, The Hunger Games or any past or future movies involving either Thomas Cromwell or Lucius Malfoy.
  • Editors of ISA-sponsored journals shall not post to Political Science Job Rumors, particularly in such manner that allows them to be readily identified [2].

Finally, this is yet another case of Boomer over-reach that is attempting to install a highly centralized corporate command-and-control model on what historically has been the decentralized and individualistic university model. Universities developed as loosely structured, self-regulated associations of scholars, not bloated administrative behemoths of archdeans, deans, associate deans, assistant deans, deanlets and deanlings—and/or rent-seeking bureaucracies—with the agility of a tortoise trying to cross an eight-lane highway. And this at the time the innovative sectors of the economy are flattening their structures! So what have we got left?: fabulously expensive vo-tech certification with no demonstrable value added; six-year bacchanalia with attendant suicides, alcohol poisoning,  fatal falls from high structures, and sexual assault; and venues for professional sports franchises exploiting an expendable class of gladiator-slaves [3]. Universities developed an efficient 21st century structure in the 12th century, and now they are blowing it. Bummer.

Look, folks, I’m a little sensitive on this issue of gag orders at the moment having experienced major collateral damage over a series of gag orders over which I have no control—along with one serious lapse of judgment on my part [4]—and I’m really anxious that this not become a trend. I’d like to think that this will be quickly resolved in the next week with a joint declaration by the editors of every ISA-sponsored journal that if this passes, they will collectively resign and turn over management of their journals to some open-access scammer in Mumbai.

A guy can dream, right?

Addendum 16 Feb 2014

So now we’ve got the attention of no less than a  Sunday New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof.  Next thing Kristof is going to be touring some internet-connected camp for Syrian refugees  and note that while the people are living under plastic tarps on 1700 calories per day, at least they have the freedom to blog, which cannot be said for the editors of ISA-sponsored journals.

Yes, this was a really stupid idea. And one more reason it is stupid: the standard right-wing characterization of academia is that it is a big brain-washing conspiracy to suppress the truth. Yes, we know, this is crazy: most academics can’t even agree on the qualifying exam reading lists, much less coordinate a globe-spanning conspiracy to suppress the truth about climate change, evolution, gravity, and the like, but that is what a lot of people believe. And something like this just feeds right into those theories. Thanks!

I mean, what is ISA trying to do, advance the political career of Senator Jeff Flake, the designated point-of-the-spear on political science defunding now that Tom Coburn is retiring? Let’s see, Flake is from Arizona and ISA is headquartered in…hmmm…Arizona. Coincidence?!?…I think not! The Knights Templar are also involved in this somewhere, I’m sure.]

Footnotes

1. Outside of Oslo.

2. “Georgine”

3. But to the football team at my former employer Northwestern University: you go guys! But have you thought about maybe the Teamsters?—they can be famously persuasive, and many people relish the thought of non-lethal encounters between NCAA officials and Port-a-Potties.

4. See the addendum here for pretty much all I can say at the moment.

Posted in Higher Education | Leave a comment

Seven plus Seven Bits of Unsolicited Observations for the Young Invincibles on the Subject of Health Insurance

We are about halfway through the enrollment period for insurance under the Affordable Care Act [1] and as a slightly belated Yule gift, this Boomer [2] will provide some observations relevant to all you “young invincibles” contemplating whether you should sign on.

Yeah, right.

Exactly want you want, eh?  Right up there with those Christmas/holiday/Yule gifts that included a fruitcake with a “sell-by” date older than that sofa you scavenged from a curbside [3], bottles of alcoholic beverages you could never imagine consuming, and articles of clothing you could only imagine wearing to a Halloween party, but probably not even that. Yeah, Boomers.

So, like, hey, it’s just my experience, okay? Whatever.

Background: Personal

As it happens, I’ve had a fair amount of experience with the U.S. medical system. And as I’m going to be making some arguably less than sympathetic observations, let us be clear that these views are not those of some grieving widower flailing away at outrageous fortune. My late wife—let us call her “Misty”, as that was her name—received excellent care, and while she died at the relatively young age of 50, she resisted cancer for almost eleven years, living to somewhere in the 95th to 98th percentile for someone with her configuration of the disease—the numbers get rather vague that far out on the tails of the distribution. I cannot recall a single time when the insurance plan of the University of Kansas did not cover needed procedures, albeit sometimes following a bit of persuasion, and if you find yourself with cancer [4], I can heartily recommend the services provided at the University of Kansas Cancer Center. The system, while highly inefficient, pretty much works, or at least it did for us. [5] 

But we had insurance.

Background: Institutional

Let’s speculate here on just how badly we could design a health care delivery system. Maybe, in fact, that’s what they mean by “Obamacare”: Obama, sitting down in his secret Bunker of Evil [6] plotting with Hillary Clinton, representatives of the Trilateral Commission, and the Knights Templar to devise a hideous design to foist on the unsuspecting American public. At the core, arrange things so that if you don’t have health insurance, you pay anything from twice to twenty times what someone with health insurance pays, and if you can’t pay—and with outrageously high fees, you won’t be able to—thuggish collection agencies will hound you into bankruptcy. The economy will be burdened with costs twice those of other industrialized democracies, with outcomes at best comparable, and probably far worse,  and with avoidable errors causing deaths equivalent to a 9/11 attack every three to six weeks, year in, year out. Now that would indeed be an impeachable offense!

Oh, wait, that’s the existing system, pre-Obama. Oops.

So while there is a ludicrously modest IRS “penalty” for not signing up for an ACA-approved insurance plan, that’s not the real threat. The real threat is ending up in the existing system without insurance. When you’ve looked at as many hospital bills as I have, you quickly notice the dramatic difference between what is billed to uninsured individuals—an amount that the hospitals simply make up—and the “negotiated rate” that your insurance company will pay, which probably something closer to a true cost. Without the big, bad insurance company to protect you, you are hopelessly screwed. That’s not a threat; that’s a promise.

Seven observations on the existing system

1. Been there, done that

Let’s start with the fact that the ACA is not yet another Boomer conspiracy to make your lives miserable under the “Do as I say, not as I do/did” principle. Yes, there are plenty of those, but this is not one of them. Most people are covered under large, more or less compulsory group health programs (I was for my entire life life until about six months ago [19]) and in all of those, the young and relatively healthy subsidize the old and ill. That’s how insurance works. But you knew that, and are merely attempting to game the system.[8] Which is also okay except that downsides are considerably higher than you probably think. To the extent that you are thinking.

2. It could happen to you. Really

The likelihood that a medical situation could arise that would destroy you financially or kill you is higher than you think. I can make this statement confidently because we have a huge body of evidence indicating that people are really bad at estimating these sorts of probabilities: see the usual “forecasters quartet” here, here, here and here. The odds of this happening to you are substantially lower than the odds of it happening to me, of course, but massively higher than the various apocalyptic scenarios of the goldbugs, survivalists, and end-of-time fundamentalists [9] that occupy so much popular attention.

3. Absolutely no way in hell you can pay for it

Though “living hell” is precisely where you will be at this point. The rate at which medical expenses accumulate is astonishing and absolutely swamps any other imaginable contingency short of crashing your car through a Tiffany display of Fabergé eggs. [10] Just browse the web and get the horror stories: They are absolutely everywhere, and are anything but exaggerated: again, I’ve looked at hundreds of medical bills. Anything that is at all complicated and—usually without any knowledge or control of the total until the bills come at the end of treatment—you are on the hook for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

4. So you will be ruined financially

An accident, an infection, or a tumor and suddenly you are $200,000 in debt?: say good-bye to any hopes of the normal financial accomplishments of early adulthood: a decent car, a house, matching furniture, beginning to save for retirement and your children’s education. You will probably end up in bankruptcy—contrary to popular perceptions, medical bills, not reckless spending binges, are the primary reasons for bankruptcy, a situation unheard of outside the U.S.—and will eventually get back on track, though probably a good ten years behind your peers.

Though even in bankruptcy, you will still have to re-pay those student loans. [11]

5. Or end up as a ward of the state

Which is what happens if things go badly. The Economist noted in a recent article on helmet laws:

[Survivors of motorcycle accidents] typically run up $1.3m in direct medical costs. Fewer than a third work again. A study of helmet-shunning bikers admitted to one large hospital, cited by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), found that taxpayers paid for 63% of their care.

Yeah, that’s a real statement of libertarian independence and autonomy, yesiree bob! Given the prevailing U.S. penchant for aiming budget cuts at the disenfranchised and vulnerable—that will be you—the care for the 66% who never work again, I suspect, will not be of the quality that would have been provided had you been insured. You may remain in this state for quite a long time…

6. Unless you die prematurely

Which can happen easily enough. At one point well before she died—maybe eighteen months or so—Misty acquired a potentially lethal infection, a rather common “side-effect” of chemotherapy, which could only be treated with a very expensive intravenous antibiotic. [12] It may have been vancomycin, which is notoriously expensive ($500 a dose is not uncommon, and a week or so of treatment is required), though I’m not sure about this, but I distinctly remember that the difference between the non-insured and insurance price was a factor of twenty. The treatment worked, and she lived another year or so. In the absence of that treatment, she almost certainly would have died from the infection, and I very much doubt that any law required her to receive it.

In point of fact, physician-assisted suicide is already available not just in Oregon, but in all fifty states and the District of Columbia: you simply need to acquire a life-threatening condition and walk into a hospital without insurance.

7. Miserably.

One of my first insights that the U.S. system was less than humane came very early, when I saw the cost of Misty’s anti-nausea medicine as she was undergoing chemotherapy. These drugs are very effective with most people [13] and have dramatically changed the experience but at the time—the drug was still under patent protection; thankfully there are now inexpensive generic versions—they cost $75 per pill. “So here’s the deal: you pay me $75 a dose, or your loved one goes through hell. What will it be, eh?” The people who came up with that pricing scheme  presumably will end up sharing space in the afterlife with the folks peddling bogus open access journals.

Near the end, when Misty was dealing with massive bone metastases—these are notoriously painful—I ran into our [independent] pharmacist in a shopping center parking lot. He said that he’d just been on the phone with the narcotics control people in Topeka, and explained the situation, and Misty was cleared for whatever drugs she needed to control the pain (and that was a lot of narcotics). I’d like to think that anyone would get this sort of service, but I sort of doubt that you’d get this at an over-subscribed charity clinic. [14]

The Upshot

I’m not suggesting this system resulted from an active conspiracy. [7] Rather it evolved haphazardly through some combination of legalized (and otherwise) corruption, self-interest and neglect, though surely people in the health care industry are constantly pinching themselves and saying “Wow, we take money from widows and orphans and let people die solely for profit, and year after year they let us get away with this??” Again, the threat to your physical and financial well-being is not some little $100 penalty: the threat is the status quo. But if you’ve got insurance, the system can in fact work pretty well in terms of outcome, if not efficiency.

Where We Are Right Now?

The roll-out of Healthcare.gov was, unquestionably, an avoidable disaster and all the more so given that the extremely high proportion of  failures in government computer efforts is well known in the information technology community. In his professional life, Obama surrounds himself with a tech-saavy crowd, though one should note that government procurement regulations aside (and they are impossible to set aside), he was in a no-win situation here: consider these headlines from an alternative universe: [15]

Obama Computer Cronies get Billions in Sweetheart Deals to Develop Web Site

and

Obamacare web site called “over-engineered”  following trouble-free roll out; Millions spent on unnecessary “stress testing” 

Still, the fact that Obama ignored these danger signs and assumed that everything was buzzing along just fine is inexcusable. But the past is not necessarily prologue:

Seven reasons the ACA is [eventually] going to work

1. You can incrementally fix a system like this: in fact that is pretty much the only way any complex organization ever does things. It’s not like a rocket launch or a D-Day invasion: it doesn’t have to work the first time.[20]

2. It is a plan developed by conservatives—the American Enterprise Institute with the original state-level implementation done by Republican Mitt Romney—but is being implemented by liberals. And this is typically how things related to social planning manage to get done in the US. Think the Clinton-era welfare reform. [16]

3. The insurance companies really want to see this thing work: it is a massive gift to them. They have a lot of money, and my sense is that they are waiting for the system to get just a little more settled before unleashing an onslaught of advertising. [17]

4. The infrastructure is in place: the existing system is fabulously inefficient, but fundamentally works provided a reasonable amount of money is available. It’s not like this is being implemented in Mali or Haiti.

5. This is an absolutely routine function in industrialized democracies: the US is the outlier in not having it. Furthermore the US government is already running several systems at varying levels of effectiveness: Medicare, the Veterans Administration system, various Department of Defense systems, Medicaid. While you would never know this from watching the right-wing bloviators, it is really hard to argue that conservative “US exceptionalism” fundamentally involves running probably the least efficient health care system in the industrialized world, or that this provides some sort of global comparative advantage. [18]

6. The existing system for allocating care sucks, and it isn’t entirely clear that even the employees of insurance companies (or the financial triage people in for-profit hospitals) enjoy deciding who will live and who will die in order to keep their hedge-fund investors happy.

7. The very fact that the existing system is hugely inefficient means that there is massive available slack: finding ways to improve is shooting fish in a barrel. It will be roughly as messy, and the barrel won’t look too good at the end either, but the issue most certainly not one of total resources, and the status quo certainly doesn’t pass any sort of utilitarian or Pareto optimality test.

This last point suggests that there will be substantial dislocations in the future—”one person’s bottleneck is another person’s job”—and the clear target of this, the lavishly compensated denizens of the rent-seeking “fee-for-service” model, already are said to spend half a billion per year on legalized bribery lobbying (and presumably many times that on advertising and public relations, all contributing to driving up the costs of the existing system), and they aren’t going to go quietly. But if the experience of Medicare is any indication, there will be as many winners as losers.

The past is past, and the future is, in all likelihood, one where the ACA will stagger, in a series of two steps forward, one back, into something reasonably effective.  Within ten years—quite possibly a lot sooner—it will be thoroughly entrenched and functioning with a level of service probably mid-range in the OECD, though—due to entrenched interests—probably still 50% more expensive. And in the dim light, after a few drinks, people will scare themselves with stories of the horrible days when the onset of a disease meant immediately having ones insurance dropped, followed by financial ruin, and people whose children acquired cancer were reduced to putting out jars at Quik-Trips to collect quarters.

Footnotes

[1] This is the new set of medical insurance regulations and opportunities that polls show people to be at least mildly interested in, particularly the new requirement that insurance companies cannot deny policies based on prior medical conditions. It is not to be confused with “Obamacare”: no one wants anything to do with Obamacare.

[2] Actually, according to this quiz, I’m a “mid-Boomer”: indeed, to me Elvis Presley was a bloated drug addict, not an edgy taboo-defying sex symbol. We also don’t use the word “edgy.”

[3] Though the sofa would be more palatable.

[4]  Meanwhile remember Molly Ivin’s comment about cancer: “First they poison you, then they cut you, then they burn you, then you die. And it does not build character.”

[5] “Us”?: your partner gets cancer, it’s a collective endeavor—ask anyone who has been through the process. That does not include Newt Gingrich.

[6] So called: Obama prefers to call it القبو الشر. Fox is planning a documentary on this in the near future, and Bill O’Reilly is writing a book on it. The bunker was originally installed by Dick Cheney, of course: he told Bush it was a wine cellar. Cheney and Obama actually get along great: the antagonism is just an act. Templars do that sort of thing.

[7] And who were the great rivals of the Templars? The Hospitallers! Coincidence?… that’s just what they want you to think.

[8] Though if that is an option, by all means stay on your parent['s][s'] insurance until you are 26. And why is 26 a magic number for insurance companies? As in you can’t rent a car until you are 25? Maybe this has something to do with the fact your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning, isn’t fully connected until your mid-20s? Not stupid, insurance companies.

[9] Some advice from a good authority on that score: Acts 1:6-7.  That still won’t help with the various Mayan apocalypses.  Or Ragnarok.

[10] And Tiffany carries insurance: we are stipulating that you don’t.

[11] Boomers are guilty for ruining that one for you.

[12] What, you don’t have an antibiotic-resistant infection? Well, no problem, our hospital will be happy to provide you with one. And by the way, ever since we discovered that antibiotics can be used to fatten farm animals, we’ve done our best to use them indiscriminately and thus facilitate the evolution of antibiotic resistance: certainly inexpensive Chicken McNuggets are a vastly greater social good than relief from a life threatening infection.

[13] Though for others, marijuana, which is a heck of a lot less expensive, is just as effective. Misty generally responded well to the anti-nausea medications, though at one point she was having some problems and, quite unsolicited, a campus mail envelope appeared at my office with a Zip-Loc bag containing a green resinous substance. Kansans are like that.

[14] Nor, I suspect, from an employee of Walmart or CVS bound by a thick book of corporate regulations.

[15] Though while we’re in the alternative universe, here are a couple more

Trustee in coma; houses and cars vandalized following student riot in Paterno neighborhood
[Security experts question decision to fire Paterno in person]

and

NCAA gives unprecedented seven-year “death penalty” to Penn State football program
[Cites university dismissal of findings from investigation by former FBI director]

[16] Conversely, it is a testimony to Federalism how thoroughly the ACA can be stopped at the state level. Now, why anyone would want to move a business to such a state is beyond me.

[17] Whereas the anti-Obamacare advertising to date has demonstrated once again that when 80-something gadzillionaires get going on the topic of sex, the results are more than a little creepy.

[18] Keep in mind that the concept of a national system of social security was pioneered by Otto von Bismarck—not exactly a paragon of fuzzy-headed liberalism—and the European systems have been championed by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel.

[19] I have private coverage now—do you think I’m insane??—at roughly the same cost.

[20] Yes, Normandy worked, particularly if you landed somewhere other than Omaha Beach and didn’t worry about the original time-tables. Norway, Anzio, Arnhem: not so good.

Posted in Ramblings | 3 Comments

The War on Yule

As we mark the solstice, and the beginning of return of the sun to the north, I wish to reflect briefly on how thoroughly we seem to have lost touch with the origins of this holiday.

Yes, the outward signs surround us: the evergreen wreaths on doors, the houses and streets festooned with lights against the darkness of December, the ubiquitous gaily-decorated trees—aluminum, plastic, occasionally real, all invoking the world-encompassing Yggdrasil—and festive gathering of friends and family [1] before the blazing Yule fire [2] to feast and drink mulled wine. Even that ever-present “Santa”: obviously an odd synthesis from many cultures, but coming out of the northern skies in a sled pulled by reindeer and accompanied by elves. The signs of Yule are everywhere.

But this has become shallow amid the crass materialism, the anodyne references to “the holiday season” and the confusion of social obligations. Where has our appreciation of the true Yule gone?: the blessings of the wisdom of Odin, the protection given us by Thor, the abundance bestowed by Freya? Recognition that with the passing of another year, the guardians of Asgard have again held off the Frost Giants [7], Ragnarok is again deferred, and in a few months the light and warmth of summer will return?

Oh, and I suppose a bit of interference from somewhat confused references [3] to events in the Middle East whose commemoration the Romans shifted to the wrong season.[4]  Though that doesn’t get much attention either these days.

Let’s keep the Yule in the Yuletide.

And rather than buying another piece of useless plastic crap at Wal-Mart, donate to the charity of your choice.

Seasons greetings, you’all.

Footnotes

0. Sorry about the absence of entries of late: spending most of my free time writing code. Yes, I do still write code, not just screeds against Penn State. But I’ve got a number of items in the pipeline, starting with “Feral + 6″ on my first six months as an independent contractor. Unless I procrastinate and make it “Feral + 7″ which, now that I think of it, is tempting.

But continuing the “Seven Series,” expect to see in the near future:

  • Seven Bits of Unsolicited Healthcare Advice for the Young Invincibles
  • Seven Reasons Big is Bad [5]
  • Seven Questions for Post-Tea-Party Conservatives [6]

Stay tuned.

1. “Ben! Jonas! Put down those broadswords!” Sez Uncle Andy.

2. Or gas/video equivalent

3. Which is it, people: Egypt (Matt 2:13-16) or Nazareth (Luke 2:39)? Or maybe, just maybe, parts of the text are metaphorical, not literal?

4. For if the shepherds were indeed abiding their flocks by night in the vicinity of pre-“Separation Barrier” Beit Sahour, it was probably lambing season, and that’s in the spring, not the winter. Whatever.

5. Okay, Penn State puts in a couple appearances here, starting with their incoherent $800,000 post-Paterno re-branding effort.

6. As I know at least some of you are following this blog.

7. Though with Typhoon Haiyan following last year’s Hurricane Sandy, this supposedly imaginary climate change thing seems to be getting a little out of hand, and perhaps we should ask that a few of these Frost Giants being given a longer leash?

Update 6 Jan 2014: Whoa, dude: be careful what you wish for! If Nordic paganism had a Pat Robertson—whoa, dude, be careful what you wish for!—he’d be on TV saying the “polar vortex” is Asgard’s revenge and berating the US for paying insufficient attention to witchcraft.

And for the two or three people reading this blog who haven’t already concluded that Donald Trump and his ilk are functionally brain dead, perhaps from spending way too much time at the high-roller open bars in Atlantic City, these sorts of extreme weather events are very much in line with what the climate change simulations have been predicting since the beginning.

Posted in Ramblings | 3 Comments