On suboptimal optimization.

On suboptimal optimization.

I’ve been helping a friend learn the math behind optimization so that she can pass a graduation-requirement course in linear algebra. 

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool.  Biochemists love it – progression toward an energy minimum directs protein folding, among other physical phenomena.  Economists love it – whenever you’re trying to make money, you’re solving for a constrained maximum.  Philosophers love it – how can we provide the most happiness for a population?  Computer scientists love it – self-taught translation algorithms use this same methodology (I still believe that you could mostly replace Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations with this New York Times Magazine article on machine learning and a primer on principal component analysis).

But, even though optimization problems are useful, the math behind them can be tricky.  I’m skeptical that this mathematical technique is essential for everyone who wants a B.A. to grasp – my friend, for example, is a wonderful preschool teacher who hopes to finally finish a degree in child psychology.  She would have graduated two years ago except that she’s failed this math class three times.

I could understand if the university wanted her to take statistics, as that would help her understand psychology research papers … and the science underlying contemporary political debates … and value-added models for education … and more.  A basic understanding of statistics might make people better citizens.

Whereas … linear algebra?  This is a beautiful but counterintuitive field of mathematics.  If you’re interested in certain subjects – if you want to become a physicist, for example – you really should learn this math.  A deep understanding of linear algebra can enliven your study of quantum mechanics.

The summary of quantum mechanics: animation by Templaton.

Then again, Werner Heisenberg, who was a brilliant physicist, had a limited grasp on linear algebra.  He made huge contributions to our understanding of quantum mechanics, but his lack of mathematical expertise occasionally held him back.  He never quite understood the implications of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and he failed to provide Adolph Hitler with an atomic bomb.

In retrospect, maybe it’s good that Heisenberg didn’t know more linear algebra.

While I doubt that Heisenberg would have made a great preschool teacher, I don’t think that deficits in linear algebra were deterring him from that profession.  After each evening that I spend working with my friend, I do feel that she understands matrices a little better … but her ability to nurture children isn’t improving.

And yet.  Somebody in an office decided that all university students here need to pass this class.  I don’t think this rule optimizes the educational outcomes for their students, but perhaps they are maximizing something else, like the registration fees that can be extracted.

Optimization is a wonderful mathematical tool, but it’s easy to misuse.  Numbers will always do what they’re supposed to, but each such problem begins with a choice.  What exactly do you hope to optimize?

Choose the wrong thing and you’ll make the world worse.

#

Figure 1 from Eykholt et al., 2018.

Most automobile companies are researching self-driving cars.  They’re the way of the future!  In a previous essay, I included links to studies showing that unremarkable-looking graffiti could confound self-driving cars … but the issue I want to discuss today is both more mundane and more perfidious.

After all, using graffiti to make a self-driving car interpret a stop sign as “Speed Limit 45” is a design flaw.  A car that accelerates instead of braking in that situation is not operating as intended.

But passenger-less self-driving cars that roam the city all day, intentionally creating as many traffic jams as possible?  That’s a feature.  That’s what self-driving cars are designed to do.

A machine designed to create traffic jams?

Despite my wariness about automation and algorithms run amok, I hadn’t considered this problem until I read Adam Millard-Ball’s recent research paper, “The Autonomous Vehicle Parking Problem.” Millard-Ball begins with a simple assumption: what if a self-driving car is designed to maximize utility for its owner?

This assumption seems reasonable.  After all, the AI piloting a self-driving car must include an explicit response to the trolley problem.  Should the car intentionally crash and kill its passenger in order to save the lives of a group of pedestrians?  This ethical quandary is notoriously tricky to answer … but a computer scientist designing a self-driving car will probably answer, “no.” 

Otherwise, the manufacturers won’t sell cars.  Would you ride in a vehicle that was programmed to sacrifice you?

Luckily, the AI will not have to make that sort of life and death decision often.  But here’s a question that will arise daily: if you commute in a self-driving car, what should the car do while you’re working?

If the car was designed to maximize public utility, perhaps it would spend those hours serving as a low-cost taxi.  If demand for transportation happened to be lower than the quantity of available, unoccupied self-driving cars, it might use its elaborate array of sensors to squeeze into as small a space as possible inside a parking garage.

But what if the car is designed to benefit its owner?

Perhaps the owner would still want for the car to work as a taxi, just as an extra source of income.  But some people – especially the people wealthy enough to afford to purchase the first wave of self-driving cars – don’t like the idea of strangers mucking around in their vehicles.  Some self-driving cars would spend those hours unoccupied.

But they won’t park.  In most cities, parking costs between $2 and $10 per hour, depending on whether it’s street or garage parking, whether you purchase a long-term contract, etc. 

The cost to just keep driving is generally going to be lower than $2 per hour.  Worse, this cost is a function of the car’s speed.  If the car is idling at a dead stop, it will use approximately 0.1 gallon per hour, costing 25 cents per hour at today’s prices.  If the car is traveling at 30 mph without breaks, it will use approximately 1 gallon per hour, costing $2.50 per hour.

To save money, the car wants to stay on the road … but it wants for traffic to be as close to a standstill as possible.

Luckily for the car, this is an easy optimization problem.  It can consult its onboard GPS to find nearby areas where traffic is slow, then drive over there.  As more and more self-driving cars converge on the same jammed streets, they’ll slow traffic more and more, allowing them to consume the workday with as little motion as possible.

Photo by walidhassanein on Flickr.

Pity the person sitting behind the wheel of an occupied car on those streets.  All the self-driving cars will be having a great time stuck in that traffic jam: we’re saving money!, they get to think.  Meanwhile the human is stuck swearing at empty shells, cursing a bevy of computer programmers who made their choices months or years ago.

And all those idling engines exhale carbon dioxide.  But it doesn’t cost money to pollute, because one political party’s worth of politicians willfully ignore the fact that capitalism, by philosophical design, requires we set prices for scarce resources … like clean air, or habitable planets.

On alternate truths.

On alternate truths.

Sometimes the alternatives are jarring – you look and count a certain number, another person proffers a radically different amount.

Surely one of you is mistaken.

In the United States, there’s a rift between those who overestimate certain values (size of inauguration crowds, number of crimes committed by immigrants, votes cast by non-citizens, rates of economic growth) and their fellows.

Henri_Tajfel.jpgIn the 1960s and 70s, psychologist Henri Tajfel designed experiments because he was curious: how is genocide possible?  What could sap people’s empathy so severely that they’d murder their thinking, perceiving, communicating neighbors?

Tajfel began with a seemingly irrelevant classification.  In the outside world, people have different concentrations of epidermal melanin, they worship different deities, they ascribe to different political philosophies.  But rather than investigate the gulf separating U.S. Democrats from Republicans, Tajfel recruited a homogeneous set of teenage schoolboys to participate in an experiment.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 2.38.26 PMOne by one, the kids were shown a bunch of dots on a screen and asked to guess how many dots were there.  Entirely at random, the kids were told they’d consistently overestimated or underestimated the number of dots.  The numbers each kid guessed were not used for this classification.

Then the kids participated in a pretty standard psychology experiment – they had various amounts of money to split between other study subjects.  In each case, the kids were told that one of the recipients would be a fellow over-estimator (not themselves, though), and the other recipient would be an under-estimator.

An intuitive sense of “us vs. them” would pit study subjects against the researchers – kids should assign payoffs to siphon as much money as possible away from the university.  When every option has an equivalent total payoff, you might expect a fair distribution between the two recipients.  After all, the categorization was totally random, and the kids never had a chance to meet the other people in either their own or the other group.

Instead, over-estimators favored other over-estimators, even at the cost of lowering the total payout that the kids would receive from the researchers.  Oops.

We should expect our current over-estimators to favor each other irrationally, too.  These groups aren’t even randomly assigned.  And many of the alternate truths must seem reasonable.  Who among us doesn’t buy in to the occasional fiction?

For instance, there’s the idea of “free market capitalism.”  This is fictitious.  In the absence of a governing body that threatens violence against those who flaunt the rules, there can’t be a market.

Sometimes anarchists argue that you could have community members enforce cultural norms – but that is a government (albeit a more capricious one, since the “cultural norms” might not be written down and shared policing introduces a wide range of interpretations).  Sometimes libertarians argue that a government should only enforce property rights, but they purposefully misunderstand what property rights consist of.

garden-gardening-growth-2259If you paint a picture, then I spray it with a hose, you won’t have a picture anymore.  If you have a farm, then I buy the adjacent property and start dumping salt on my land, you won’t have a farm anymore.  I don’t have the physically take things out of your hands to eliminate their value.

If you own a house, then I buy the adjacent property and build a concentrated animal feeding operation, the value of your house will plummet.  You won’t have fresh air to breathe.

Or maybe I want to pump fracking chemicals into your aquifer.  You turn on your tap and poison spills out.

We have rules for which of these actions are acceptable and which are not.  The justifications are capricious and arbitrary – honestly, they have to be.  The world is complex, and there’s no pithy summary that solves all our quandaries.  Right to swing my arm, your nose, pffft, nonsense.  Why’d you put your nose there, anyway?

And our government enforces those rules.  The market is not free.  Corporations that denounce government intervention (e.g. dairy-industry-opposing tariffs, carbon tax, etc.) seek government interventions (now the dairy industry hopes that producers of soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc., will be forced to rename their products).

But this probably doesn’t feel like hypocrisy.  We humans are good at believing in alternate truths.

On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

On Tao Lin’s ‘Trip,’ targeted advertising, and finding scraps of life in books.

Featured image: artwork by Tao Lin on Flickr.

trip

I recently borrowed my local library’s copy of Tao Lin’s Trip.  I read ten pages before a business card fell out.  I didn’t find the other until about a hundred pages later.  The cards were really crammed in there – I often read at nap- and bedtime, lying on my back, with little feet kicking my books, belly, neck, etc.  I’m surprised the second card wasn’t ejected earlier.

In Trip, Lin writes about drugs and some of the people who frequently ingest them.  For instance, Lin spent several months reading the oeuvre of Terrance McKenna, a passionate advocate for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (which I support) who argued that his chemical-induced visions (language elves, fractal time) represent tangible features of our universe (which I think is asinine).  At other times, McKenna self-described as a “psychonaut,” which I think is a better term – compounds that perturb the workings of a mind do reveal truths about that mind.

That’s the essence of the scientific method, after all.  First, formulate a predictive model about how something works.  Then, perturb your system.  If your prediction holds up, try to think of a different test you could make to try to prove yourself wrong.  If your prediction is off, try to think of a new model.  Repeat ad infinitum (physicus usque ad mortem).

In an undergrad-designed psychology experiment, the perturbation might be to compel a study subject to think about death by mixing a lot of photographs of car wrecks into a slide show.  Does a person exposed to these images seem more inclined to spend time with close family members (based on the results of a 30-question survey) than equivalent study subjects who were instead shown photographs of puppies?

Maybe you’d learn something from that.  But, honestly, 0.5 mgs per kg of psilocybin is a more powerful perturbation.

(A man who has been attending my poetry class for the past few months also self-describes as a Buddhist psychonaut – his favorite psychedelic is LSD, but he also struggles with a nagging impulse to shoot heroin.  He’s a vegetarian and has been writing poetry for twenty years, ever since his first friend died of overdose.  The only way for him to avoid prison time is to enroll at a court-mandated Christian-faith-based rehabilitation clinic where everyone works daily at the Perdue Meats slaughterhouse.  He’s just waiting on a bed before they ship him out there.  Personally, I think that having a recovering addict decapitate hundreds of turkeys daily would be an unhealthy perturbation of the mind.)

As Lin researched pharmacology, he realized that he’d made the same error in thinking about his body that our society has made in thinking about our environment, especially the oceans.  He’d assumed that his body was so large, and each drug molecule so small, that he’d be relatively unchanged as the pills he swallowed were metabolized away.  But he was wrong.  He’d turned his own body into a degraded environment that felt terrible to live inside.

He realized that corporations shouldn’t have free license to destroy the world that we all share.  And he realized that he needed to practice better stewardship of his body, his own personal environs.  He changed his diet and his lifestyle and no longer felt like garbage all the time.

good dayLin also provides some useful information about this country’s War on Drugs.  If someone was looking for an accessible way to learn more about this, I can see myself recommending either Trip (for the dudes in jail) or Ayelet Waldman’s A Really Good Day (for the harried parents working alongside me in the YMCA snack room).

And those business cards?  They made convenient bookmarks.  Verdant green, the front advertised a local hydroponics supply store, the back listed the store manager’s name and telephone number.

This seemed like a great advertising strategy.  Much more precise (and less evil) than Facebook’s targeted ads.

I won’t be buying any hydroponics supplies, but I’ll probably put those business cards back before I return the book.

Most of what I’ve found in books has been less directly relevant to the subject matter.  I felt dismayed to find a business card for a local artist / writer / model / actor – the front showed her in pinup-style undergarments with the cord for a video game controller entwining one stockinged leg – inside a library copy of Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller.

When I flipped through one of Deepak Chopra’s new-age self-help books (that I pulled off the secondhand inventory shelf at Pages to Prisoners to mail to someone who’d requested stuff about UFOs, Wicca, and conspiracies), I found a Valentine’s Day note (written by a small child in crayon) and a polaroid of a tired-looking bare-breasted woman staring  at the camera from atop a camper’s bed.  MWPP totally would’ve gotten dinged if I’d mailed the book with that picture still inside.

And I’ve written previously about the time I found an acceptance letter from Best of Photojournalism inside a previous year’s edition of the book as I selected books to mail to a prisoner interested in photography.

P8011600.JPG

But I didn’t mention that I visited the university library to find the accepted photograph (of a stretch of highway closed for the emergency landing of a small plane in distress) …

P8011599.JPG

… or that I then put together a package of books to send to that photographer, because it turned out that he was also in prison after murdering his son-in-law.

The impression I got from news reports was that this man had a daughter whom he’d raised alone.  When his daughter was 13 years old, she fell in love with an abusive, oft-unemployed 19-year-old.  She soon became pregnant.  As it happens, this boyfriend took too many drugs.  I’ve met many men in jail who are totally charming while sober but (“allegedly!”) wail on women when they’re not.  Some are quite frequently not sober.

During this man’s trial, several witnesses testified to the violent physical abuse his daughter was subject to.  His daughter’s boyfriend “would grab ____, jerk her by the face, force her to go places, cuss her out if she didn’t do the right thing … “

Not that this is a reason to shoot somebody.

Still, I wondered how a book from the man’s personal library had wound up in the inventory of the Pages to Prisoners bookstore.  The murder occurred in August of 2012.  Mid-autumn, 2015, his book was on our shelves.

I like to imagine that his daughter made the donation.  That perhaps, by then, she’d forgiven her father.  That she’d realized how miserable U.S. incarceration can be and wanted to do a little something to make it better.

I certainly hope that his book helped people at the prison where I sent it.

 

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

On automation, William Gaddis, and addiction.

I’ve never bought meth or heroin, but apparently it’s easier now than ever.  Prices dropped over the last decade, drugs became easier to find, and more people, from broader swaths of society, began using.  Or so I’ve been told by several long-term users.

This is capitalism working the way it’s supposed to.  People want something, others make money by providing it.

And the reason why demand for drugs has increased over the past decade can also be attributed to capitalism working the way it’s supposed to.  It takes a combination of capital (stuff) and labor (people) to provide any service, but the ratio of these isn’t fixed.  If you want to sell cans of soda, you could hire a human to stand behind a counter and hand sodas to customers, or you could install a vending machine.

Vending_machines_at_hospitalThe vending machine requires labor, too.  Somebody has to fill it when it’s empty.  Someone has to fix it when it breaks.  But the total time that humans spend working per soda is lower.  In theory, the humans working with the vending machine are paid higher wages.  After all, it’s more difficult to repair a machine than to hand somebody a soda.

As our world’s stuff became more productive, fewer people were needed.  Among ancient hunter gatherers, the effort of one person was needed to feed one person.  Everyone had to find food.  Among early farmers, the effort of one person could feed barely more than one person.  To attain a life of leisure, a ruler would have to tax many, many peasants.

By the twentieth century, the effort of one person could feed four.  Now, the effort of one person can feed well over a hundred.

With tractors, reapers, refrigerators, etc., one human can accomplish more.  Which is good – it can provide a higher standard of living for all.  But it also means that not everyone’s effort is needed.

At the extreme, not anyone’s effort is needed.

1024px-Sophia_(robot)_2There’s no type of human work that a robot with sufficiently advanced AI couldn’t do.  Our brains and bodies are the product of haphazard evolution.  We could design something better, like a humanoid creature whose eyes registered more the electromagnetic spectrum and had no blind spots (due to an octopus-like optic nerve).

If one person patented all the necessary technologies to build an army of robots that could feed the world, then we’d have a future where the effort of one could feed many billions.  Robots can write newspaper articles, they can do legal work, they’ll be able to perform surgery and medical diagnosis.  Theoretically, they could design robots.

Among those billions of unnecessary humans, many would likely develop addictions to stupefying drugs.  It’s easier lapse into despair when you’re idle or feel no a sense of purpose.

glasshouseIn Glass House, Brian Alexander writes about a Midwestern town that fell into ruin.  It was once a relatively prosperous place; cheap energy led to a major glass company that provided many jobs.  But then came “a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ “  Wall street executives purchased the glass company and ran it into the ground to boost short-term gains, which let them re-sell the leached husk at a profit.

Instead of working at the glass company, many young people moved away.  Those who stayed often slid into drug use.

In Alexander’s words:

Even Judge David Trimmer, an adherent of a strict interpretation of the personal-responsibility gospel, had to acknowledge that having no job, or a lousy job, was not going to give a thirty-five-year-old man much purpose in life.  So many times, people wandered through his courtroom like nomads.  “I always tell them, ‘You’re like a leaf blowing from a tree.  Which direction do you go?  It depends on where the wind is going.’  That’s how most of them live their lives.  I ask them, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’  And they say, ‘I don’t know.’  ‘You don’t even love yourself, do you?’  ‘No.’ “

Trimmer and the doctor still believed in a world with an intact social contract.  But the social contract was shattered long ago.  They wanted Lancaster to uphold its end of a bargain that had been made obsolete by over three decades of greed.

Monomoy Capital Partners, Carl Icahn, Cerberus Capital Management, Newell, Wexford, Barington, Clinton [all Wall Street corporations that bought Lancaster’s glass company, sold off equipment or delayed repairs to funnel money toward management salaries, then passed it along to the next set of speculative owners] – none of them bore any personal responsibility. 

A & M and $1,200-per-hour lawyers didn’t bear any personal responsibility.  They didn’t get a lecture or a jail sentence: They got rich.  The politicians – from both parties – who enabled their behavior and that of the payday- and car-title-loan vultures, and the voters of Lancaster who refused to invest in the future of their town as previous generations had done (even as they cheered Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, who took $6.1 million per year in public money), didn’t bear any personal responsibility.

With the fracturing of the social contract, trust and social cohesion fractured, too.  Even Brad Hutchinson, a man who had millions of reasons to believe in The System [he grew up poor, started a business, became rich], had no faith in politicians or big business. 

I think that most politicians, if not all politicians, are crooked as they day is long,” Hutchinson said.  “They don’t have on their minds what’s best for the people.”  Business leaders had no ethics, either.  “There’s disconnect everywhere.  On every level of society.  Everybody’s out for number one.  Take care of yourself.  Zero respect for anybody else.”

So it wasn’t just the poor or the working class who felt disaffected, and it wasn’t just about money or income inequality.  The whole culture had changed.

America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.

Instead of treating people as stakeholders – employees and neighbors worthy of moral concern – the distant owners considered them to be simply sources of revenue.  Many once-successful businesses were restructured this way.  Soon, schools will be too.  In “The Michigan Experiment,” Mark Binelli writes that:

In theory, at least, public-school districts have superintendents tasked with evaluating teachers and facilities.  Carver [a charter school in Highland Park, a sovereign municipality in the center of Detroit], on the other hand, is accountable to more ambiguous entities – like, for example, Oak Ridge Financial, the Minnesota-based financial-services firm that sent a team of former educators to visit the school.  They had come not in service of the children but on behalf of shareholders expecting a thorough vetting of a long-term investment.

carver.JPG

This is all legal, of course.  This is capitalism working as intended.  Those who have wealth, no matter what historical violence might have produced it, have power of those without.

This is explained succinctly by a child in William Gaddis’s novel J R:

I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there’s always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway!”

220px-JRnovel.JPGFor many years, Gaddis pondered the ways that automation was destroying our world.  In J R (which is written in a style similar to the recent film Birdman, the focus moving fluidly from character to character without breaks), a middle schooler becomes a Wall Street tycoon.  Because the limited moral compass of a middle schooler is a virtue in this world, he’s wildly successful, with his misspelling of the name Alaska (“Alsaka project”) discussed in full seriousness by adults.

Meanwhile, a failed writer obsesses over player pianos.  This narrative is continued in Agape Agape, with a terminal cancer patient rooting through his notes on player pianos, certain that these pianos explain the devastation of the world.

You can play better by roll than many who play by hand.”

220px-AgapeAgape.jpgThe characters in J R and Agape Agape think it’s clear that someone playing by roll isn’t playing the piano.  And yet, ironically, the player piano shows a way for increasing automation to not destroy the world.

A good robot works efficiently.  But a player piano is intentionally inefficient.  Even though it could produce music on its own, it requires someone to sit in front of it and work the foot pumps.  The design creates a need for human labor.

There’s still room for pessimism here – Gaddis is right to feel aggrieved that the player piano devalues skilled human labor – but a world with someone working the foot pumps seems less bad than one where idle people watch the skies for Jeff Bezos’s delivery drones.

By now, a lot of work can be done cheaply by machines.  But if we want to keep our world livable, it’s worth paying more for things made by human hands.

On Finn Murphy’s “The Long Haul” and our dying towns

On Finn Murphy’s “The Long Haul” and our dying towns

In Jason Shiga’s Empire State, the protagonist decides he will “see America” by traveling from Oakland, CA to New York City on a bus.  Everyone derides the plan as foolish – he’ll see only the great big slab of I-80 and some gas stations – but, because he’d kept his plan secret to surprise a friend, nobody warns him until it’s too late.

Professional movers, however, take occasional breaks from the highway to navigate their trucks down treacherous suburban streets.  It’s those excursions into the world where people actually live that lets movers understand America.  Crisp descriptions of those excursions make Finn Murphy’s The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road a charming read.

Murphy’s experience criss-crossing the United States has also give him a sharp perspective on our economy.  His political analysis is both more accurate and more concise than what’s been written by most academic researchers:

9780393608717_p0_v2_s192x300.jpgThe next day I picked up I-94 west and stopped for the night in Ann Arbor.  In college towns – like Chapel Hill, Boulder, Iowa City, Missoula, Austin, Madison, and Oxford, Mississippi, to name a few – all of a sudden, instead of unemployment, meth labs, and poverty, there are real jobs. As far as I can figure, the only places left in America that can boast of vibrant downtowns are college towns and high-end tourist towns.  In the rest of the country the downtowns were hollowed out when nobody was looking.  You might think it’s only your town that’s been ruined by sprawl, but it’s happened everywhere.  You’ve got the new CVS, the Walmart, the Home Depot on the fringes, while the old downtown is either empty or the buildings have a Goodwill store, an immigration law office, and an “antiques” store, meaning junk.  The chains on the outskirts provide the nine-dollar-an-hour jobs and wire the day’s receipts to Bentonville or New York every night.

I hate it personally, but we deserved what we got.  We wanted the eight-dollar sneakers and the forty-five-cent tube socks.  We didn’t consider that maybe it’d be a better bargain to pay twenty dollars for sneakers and buy them from the neighbor who owns the shoe store downtown and stocks sneakers made in Maine.

It’s too late now.  The game’s been won by companies who don’t give two shits about community character or decent jobs.  Congratufuckinglations, America!  We did the deal.  Now we’ve got an unlimited supply of cheap commodities and unhealthy food and crumbling downtowns, no sense of place, and a permanent underclass.

If a tourist poster of America were made with some verisimilitude, it would show a Subway franchise inside a convenience-store gas station with an underpaid immigrant mopping the floor and a street person at the traffic light holding a cardboard sign that reads ANYTHING HELPS.

#

Most of The Long Haul is more chipper than the passage I’ve excerpted above – Murphy discusses how he chose his career, the basic principles of long-haul driving and packing other people’s belongings, the zen of hard manual labor, and what it meant to finally let go of his own anger and enjoy his time on this planet.  Both K and I loved the book.

But I wanted to share the passage above.  I’ve written previously about common misconceptions regarding “free-market capitalism” – a quick summary being that although the phrase “free-market capitalism” is used so commonly that most people sense intuitively what it means, it doesn’t actually mean anything.  To have a market, it cannot be free.  (This idea is explained succinctly in the beginning of Robert Reich’s Saving Capitalism – you can read an excerpt in the essay linked above.)

As a handful of business owners and CEO destroy the social fabric of the United States, they depend upon government intervention to help them do it.  They need the government to enforce payment on certain types of contracts, but not others.  They need the government to prevent certain actions that lower others’ property values – I’ll be punished if I set fire to your building – but not others – I won’t be punished if I dump so much poison that your neighboring property becomes un-usable.

Our country’s particular set of rules & regulations have allowed a small number of people to accomplish what used to be the work of many.  Instead of a factory with 100 human workers, a foreman oversees 10 robots.  The foreman gets paid more than the prior workers, but most of their salary now goes to the factory owner.  And those 100 people who would have worked in the factory are mired in despair.  Some get service jobs.  Others take drugs.  We get the “unemployment, meth labs, and poverty” that Murphy described.

And even the relative prosperity of the main street in college towns is fragile.  In Bloomington we have several blocks with bookstores, comic shops, restaurants, bars, a public library, banks, clothing boutiques and smokeshops and the like.  But in the past few weeks, an escalating conflict between the police and people without houses has kept shoppers away from the downtown.

Herald Times front page
A recent front page from the local newspaper.

Indiana is in many ways a heartless state, so our little town is one of the few places where people in need can receive services.  Bloomington always has more poverty than you might expect for a city of just 100,000.  Of late, Bloomington is also a destination city for drug use: between the heroin cut with fentanyl and the wide variety of supposed THC analogs sold as “spice,” the ambulances have been responding to upwards of ten overdoses per day.

In jail the other day, T. told me,

“It’s getting to the point where heroin and meth are easier to find than pot.  When I got out of prison, I was three years clean, and I thought I was gonna make it … but I was walking by the Taco Bell and somebody handed me a rig, all loaded up and ready to go.”

G. said,

“It’s really hard to avoid it now.  It’s spread to places you really wouldn’t expect.  Like I remember ten years ago, the whole middle class crowd was doing the usual, some pot, some psychedelics, you know.  But now people from those circles, they’re shooting meth, they’re using H.”

T. said,

“You talk to somebody, they’re like, yeah, I got it all, what you need, what you need.  But you ask for pot, they’re like, naw, I don’t know where to get that.”

J. said,

“Okay, okay, these overdoses, you know?  Trust me, I’m a real spice-head, I smoke a lot of that shit, and these overdoses, they’re all just people, they don’t know how to handle it.  You can’t just jump in, you know, and smoke like I smoke.”

I asked him, “If pot were legal, would you smoke it.”

“Hell yeah I’d smoke pot.”

“No no, sorry, I mean, if pot were legal, would you smoke spice?”

The guys all laughed.  “Nobody would touch that shit.”

And yet.  In our town, now, people with all their belongings line main street.  The hospital spends some thirty thousand dollars a day sending the ambulance there for overdoses.  The cops hold their roll call several times a day in the public park where unhoused people used to sleep.  Occasionally a dozen or so people will be hauled into jail: they lose all their possessions.

And people who had been spending money at the little shops feel afraid to go downtown.  The places are all losing money … and when the money goes, compassion starts fading too.

It doesn’t take much for even a college town to become the post-apocalyptic husk that Murphy has seen spread all over our country.  Which is sad, especially since it wouldn’t take that much to help people – our most dire need is a guaranteed basic income, probably coupled to a public works program.  Instead we’ve settled for rampant inequality.  But harms that start elsewhere won’t stay elsewhere.

*******

post-script: in the time between when this essay was written & when it was posted, the crowds of unhoused people have disappeared from Bloomington’s main street.  And, two blocks away, the 280-bed county jail has had over 320 people locked inside for weeks.  Somehow, this doesn’t seem like a long-term solution.

On wasted ingenuity.

On wasted ingenuity.

You should read Demetrius Cunningham’s essay about learning to play the piano in prison.  He describes taping together flaps of cardboard trash and training his fingers by pressing the places where a piano’s keys would be.  It’s a beautiful piece of writing.

cunningham.JPG

And it hurts to consider what Cunningham might accomplish if he had access to more resources.

He’s not alone in striving to apply his intellect within a situation where most of his effort is – from the perspective of our modern world – simply wasted.  It’s incredible that he devised a system for learning to play piano with only cardboard at his disposal.  But we live in a world with such cheap plastics and electronics that perfectly functional keyboards can be purchased for three dollars or less at most pawn shops and thrift stores.

But Cunningham, in prison, is not allowed a three-dollar children’s toy.  He studies with cardboard.

Which is not to say that our world should be without punishment.  Those who murder need time away from society.  People should be kept safe from harm.  But I find it inconceivable that the best way to help someone who has murdered become a kinder, gentler, wiser human would be to lock him inside a world of violence, mistrust, and cement.

K’s mother, too, was murdered recently.  In her case, the man who murdered her had previously been held in New York prisons for some nine years on nonviolent drug charges.  The time he served in prison surely affected him.  Based on what little I know about life inside, that time probably affected him adversely.

So I’d argue that the state of New York’s efforts at “correction” contributed to K’s mother’s murder.  Would that man have killed her had we not shunted him into prison for nine years?  And, what of the childhood that led to his drug convictions in the first place?  Did we devote the resources necessary to ensure that he felt safe and loved as a child?  Did he have the opportunity to build a life around respected, well-compensated work?

Did Cunningham?

In my poetry classes, only one participant (that I know of) has served time for murder – in his case, 20 years thus far of a 50-year sentence.  He is an excellent writer, and very well-read, but, until our class, every time he wrote a poem or story he would crumple the pages and throw them away.

Why keep them?  The world had made very clear that no one cared what he might have to say.

Inventions are made over and over again inside: using only those spare materials allotted inside prison, how might men mimic some of the conveniences of the modern world?  In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, a clear-eyed description of the 1971 Attica prison riot and its aftermath, she describes the jury-rigged water heaters many inmates built for their cells.

Or there’s her passage on the amenities:

bloodinthewaterThe men needed money at Attica because the state offered them only a few items gratis.  These included a thin gray coat, two gray work shirts, three pairs of gray pants, one pair of shoes, three pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, and one comb.  Then, every month, prisoners would receive one bar of soap and one roll of toilet paper, which meant that men were forced to limit themselves “to one sheet per day.”  The state’s food budget allotment was also meager.  At a mere 63 cents per prisoner per day, it was insufficient to meet the minimum dietary standards as determined by federal guidelines.  The reality was that many men at Attica went to bed hungry.  For this reason jobs in the kitchen or the mess hall, while more arduous than others given their seven-day-a-week schedule, were some of the most coveted.  At least on those jobs a man could eat leftovers.

To get anything beyond the supplies given them – warmer clothes, more food, toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, razors, and extra toilet paper – prisoners needed money.  Being able to buy deodorant was no luxury since these men were allowed only one shower a week and were given only two quarts of water a day.  With this water prisoners were expected to wash their socks and underwear, shave, brush their teeth, and clean the cell to a correction officer’s exacting standards.

Prisoners had to be clever to endure such conditions.  Likewise, it takes more cleverness to survive childhood poverty than is needed for a privileged middle class existence of soccer leagues at birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese and A’s stamped on the state achievement tests.

But our world doesn’t celebrate the former type of cleverness.  We prize instead earned wealth and good grades.  And yet, think: what if all that ingenuity weren’t wasted?  What if more of our nation’s childhood survivalists and prisonyard Edisons had been given a fair opportunity?

I love capitalism and the chance for people to profit from their discoveries.  But capitalism crumbles without opportunity.  Especially now, with automation at the forefront of technology, a system rewarding past capital ownership will waste more and more human ingenuity.  The class of those born into opportunity will keep shrinking.

Of course, those privileged few – armed with their intentional misunderstandings of economics and technology – will argue otherwise.  That’s how we got here in the first place.