Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Spheres of Justice #14

This is my final post on Spheres of Justice.

I saw the book and decided to give it a try. Well before reading it I had the idea that morality is a contextual matter. I even wrote a journal article, Egoism and Others (link to abstract), to that effect. This came from considering the differences between being in a public place among strangers, with family or other kin, in the workplace, action on behalf of somebody else, or working for the government. I continued reading the book because of its unique perspective on justice and morality that differed from mine. We are social creatures, but the social contexts vary. Walzer calls them “spheres.” I believe “domains” is a better term, but that is not material. He also invokes the concept of membership in social groups as material, something that I had not considered.

Advocates of individualism, e.g. Ayn Rand, tend to take a simpler perspective -- the individual versus society or its government. Social relations aren’t segmented into different spheres or contexts.

Of course, I didn’t agree with everything Walzer says, but the book was quite often thought-provoking. That is the main reason I continued reading the book until the end.


Sunday, July 28, 2019

Mathematician solves computer science conjecture in two pages

Link to article.

A nearly 30-year-old conjecture about the structure of the fundamental building blocks of computer circuits -- Boolean logic -- has been solved. Mathematician Hao Huang found a solution using the abstract mathematical tools matrix, eigenvalues and submatrix. 

Friday, July 26, 2019

Spheres of Justice #13

Chapter 13, the final one, is titled Tyrannies and Just Societies.

Men and women claim justice, and resist tyranny, by insisting on the meaning of social good among themselves. Justice is rooted in their distinct understanding of places, honors, jobs, things of all sorts, that constitute a shared way of life. To override that understanding is to act unjustly.

No account of buying and selling, no description of free exchange, can possibly settle the question of justice in a capitalist system. What is decided to be just requires knowing a great deal about other distributive processes and about their relative autonomy from or integration into the market. The dominance of capital outside the market makes capitalism unjust.

Tyrants are endlessly busy. There is so much to do if they are to make their power dominant everywhere, in the bureaucracy and the courts, in the markets and factories, in parties and unions, in schools and churches, among friends and lovers, kinfolk and fellow citizens.

Complex equality is the opposite of totalitarianism: maximum differentiation as against maximum coordination.

Contemporary forms of egalitarianism have their origin in the struggle against capitalism and the particular tyranny of money. State officials will be tyrants, we are told, whenever their power is not balanced by money. Capitalists will be tyrants whenever wealth is not balanced by a strong government. Still, the tyranny of money is less frightening than the tyranny with origins on the other side of the money/politics divide.


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Spheres of Justice #12

Chapter 12 is about political power. One of the things that men and women pursue is state power. It is also the means by which all different pursuits, including state power itself, are regulated. Hence the simultaneous requirement that state power be sustained and inhibited – mobilized, divided, checked and balanced. Political power can protect its constituents, but it may also tyrannize them.

Politicians act on our behalf and arguably with our consent. But in most places and times, political rulers function as agents of husbands and fathers, aristocratic families, degree holders, capitalists, or the wealthy. The agents may be tyrants.

Walzer lists several ways that political power may be blocked.
- Sovereignty does not extend to enslavement.
- State officials may not control marriages or interfere in personal and familial relations, including raising children.
- State officials cannot violate shared understanding of guilt and innocence, corrupt the system of criminal justice, use political repression to punish, or employ cruel and unusual punishment.
- State officials cannot sell political power or auction of decisions.
- All subjects/citizens are equal before the law.
- Private property is safe against arbitrary taxation and confiscation.
- State officials cannot control religious practices.
- State officials may legislate a curriculum, but not interfere in actual teaching.
- State officials must guarantee free speech, free press, free assembly.

Power is not a private matter. It has be exercised to be enjoyed, and when exercised, the rest are directed, policed, manipulated, helped, and hurt. Who should hold it? Two possible answers are (1) those who best know how to use it, and (2) those who most immediately experience its effects.

Public offices, paid for from public funds, provide public services. Hence, relocating an office is an exercise of political power over the taxpayers. A private firm is different. Its relations with its customers are more like brief encounters. Requiring a private firm’s relocating be made a public matter would impinge upon the sphere of money and commodities with its attendant freedoms. Marx’s idea that ownership of the means of production should be a public and political matter would also impinge upon the sphere of money and commodities with its attendant freedoms.

Whereas feudal property was founded and sustained on armed force, capitalist property rests upon activities that are intrinsically non-coercive and non-political.

Walzer includes a section about the Pullman Company, which made train-cars, and the “company-town” of Pullman, Illinois. The chapter’s final section is about democracy. It describes the Athenian Lottery and addresses political parties and primaries.


Monday, July 22, 2019

Spheres of Justice #11

I am skipping Chapter 10 about divine grace. Chapter 11 is about recognition. As preface, humans want recognition from other humans in one form or another, be it for their character, achievements, respect of their rights, rank, and so forth. Walzer explores this in several ways, beginning with the feudal era.

“In a hierarchical society like that of feudal Europe, a title is a name of a rank attached to the name of a person. To call a person by his title is to place him in a social order and, depending on the place, to honor or dishonor him. Titles commonly proliferate in the upper ranks where they mark off fine distinctions and suggest the intensity and importance of the struggle for recognition. The lower ranks are more grossly titled, and the lowest men and women have no titles at all but are called by their first names or some disparaging name” (249).

If we know everyone’s title, then we know the social order; we know to whom we must defer and who must defer to us; we are prepared for all encounters. This sort of knowledge is easy to obtain and widely diffused.

Higher ranking people can behave badly, and when they do, their social inferiors are likely to notice and comment on it among themselves. The comments may be more public, but short of rebellion or revolution, they have little choice but to yield to the honor, respect, or deference that come with higher rank.

Thomas Hobbes took disputes of aristocrats, particularly the duel, as one of the archetypal forms of the war of all against all. Such battles are fought only among equals. When the lower ranks challenge the higher, it’s rebellion or revolution instead. Democratic revolutions represent an attack on the whole system of prevailing social judgments. If the struggle is broadened, the social good at issue is more diverse – honor, respect, esteem, praise, prestige, status, dignity, etc.

Recognition must be won, sometimes from people reluctant to give it. It can be fleeting, such as of celebrities by the mass media. Not all agree. Some may regard a public recognition as undeserved, a matter of luck or the result of being in the class of people most valued for the time and place. Often the flow of recognition or honor is shaped by the dominance of other goods such as wealth, power, or education. Regardless, a simple equality is unobtainable; it would leave all without recognition of being persons regarded for their individual characteristics.

Punishment is the most important example of dishonor. It may take the form of ostracism. Prolonged unemployment and poverty are a kind of economic exile.

Democratic citizenship is a status disconnected from every kind of hierarchy. Being a citizen is a simple form of public recognition.

Self-esteem depends in part on comparisons with others.


Thursday, July 18, 2019

AOC strikes out

I disagree with the author's view of AOC and believe that David Marcus, Facebook's cryptocurrency boss, did not handle the exchange very well.

"Ocasio-Cortez made the point that the assets backing the Libra currency that set its value would be determined by corporations, most of which are profit-driven."

The paragraph prior to that shows AOC's error. "Libra will be backed by real financial assets, specifically a "basket" of existing currencies — such as the US dollar, the euro, and government securities — that will serve as the digital currency's 'reserve'." Strike one.

Since when are profit-driven corporations the only thing that determine the value of the US dollar, the euro, and government securities? What about the Federal Reserve, investors, non-profits, and anybody who receives and spends money? Strike two.

AOC asks twice, "Do you believe currency is a public good?" AOC merely assumes currency is a public good and the article paraphrases her saying so -- "a nation's currency is something that functions as a "public good" in the purview of a government, not for-profit corporations."

To the contrary. Currency or money is not a "public good" as explained hereWikipedia gives several examples of public goods, and money is not one of them. A typical economics textbook definition says a public good is something one person's consumption of it does not reduce that available to another person, such as radio waves and air. Money doesn't qualify. AOC majored in economics. She should know that. Strike three.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

ProPublica Targets TurboTax Again #3

Oh my. It’s more deceptive reporting from ProPublica, along with 100% blame for Intuit (maker of TurboTax) and 0% blame for the tax filer.

In ProPublica’s narrative Kristan Obeng gets and deserves no blame, despite the following:
1. she waited until the last minute to file
2. she ignored or didn’t understand the caveats for using the Free Edition
3. if she had heeded the caveats, she would not even tried using the Free Edition
4. she plowed ahead anyway, only to find a roadblock
5. rather than seek out other alternatives that would have let her file for free – Free File Alliance, VITA, AARP Tax Aide, the IRS’s Free Fillable Forms, do a paper Form 1040 – she took the easy road of following Intuit’s prompt, which is not a command, to use a pay version of TurboTax.

Substitute “ProPublica writers” for “she” in #2 - #4 and #2 - #4 describe perfectly what the ProPublica writers have done with every example in their articles in order to try to vilify Intuit. And again, their narrative omits mentioning any of the alternatives in #5. And, of course, the IRS gets no blame for eliminating Form 1040A and Form 1040EZ starting with the 2018 tax year.

Edit: I put the above as a comment on ProPublica (linked above).

Previous posts about ProPublica and TurboTax:
ProPublica Targets Free File Tax Preparers
ProPublica Targets TurboTax

Monday, July 15, 2019

Spheres of Justice #10

Chapter 9 is about kinship and love.

Important distributions are made within the family or an alliance of famlies. Dowries, gifts, inheritances, alimony and mutual aid are all subject to conventional rules that reflect deep, but not permanent, understanding. They vary from place to place and historically. Such rules do not encompass the social world, but mark off the first set of boundaries within it.

The family is a sphere of special relationships. Within the family, there is considerable altruism and considerable inequality. The most radical egalitarian proposal is the abolition of the family, such as children being considered communal. Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto that communism will bring about the abolition of the bourgeois family. In contrast, trade unionists and other reformers wanted to “save” existing families, at least those of the working class.

The distributive principle of romantic love is free choice. Of course, that’s not the only distributive principle for marriage. After all, there are arranged marriages. Walzer calls parents tyrants if they try to use their economic or political power to thwart the desires of their children. It is sometimes called “emotional tyranny.”

If children are free to love and marry as they please, there must be a social space for their choices. The specific spaces vary from place to place and have historically. In today’s Western world, the “date” is the most common form of courtship. If the case of a promenade, it is a sort of “market.”

Walzer further addresses the place or role of woman and nepotism.


Friday, July 12, 2019

Trump’s Health Insurance Changes #2

What does Speaker Nancy Pelosi think about the proposal?

She hates it.

Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote in a press release that President Trump was trying to “dismantle American’s health care” by bolstering HRAs. She claimed that allowing workers to shop for their own insurance will result in more people receiving “junk” coverage.

“And since Day One, the Trump Administration has worked relentlessly to push families into disastrous junk plans, increase their health care costs and gut their health care protections,” Pelosi wrote.

My comments

1. Does Pelosi really believe most people are stupid and gullible enough that they will buy disastrous “junk” coverage?
2. Health insurance policies sold in the USA are regulated by state insurance departments. Before a policy is legally sold in any state, the policy provisions must pass the scrutiny of the state insurance department. Said department has a host of requirements including (a) ones that policy provisions must pass, many about what benefits the policy must cover and (b) about claims practices.

So despite #2, does Pelosi still believe that disastrous "junk” coverage is typical and most people are stupid and gullible enough that they will find it and buy it? I'd like to see her attend a meeting of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and tell all the regulators there that most of what they approve is disastrous "junk."

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Trump’s Health Insurance Changes

Last month the Trump administration promulgated some new rules that take effect 1 January 2020 and further allow employers, especially small businesses, to make tax-advantaged employer-paid health insurance available to their employees. With his usual fondness for hyperbole, President Trump lauded it as “a monumental victory for small businesses” (link). I won’t argue with that. However, I would not call it a “monumental victory for health insurance more broadly.” In my opinion it is a small step in the right direction. The devil is in the details.

First, some explanation of terms should help.

HRA – Health Reimbursement Account – HRAs have existed for years, but a minority of people know what they are. They have mainly existed for retirees and public sector employees. The new rules will make them available for more people who work in the private sector without employer-paid insurance. Of course, a high percentage of them work in small businesses. The new rules will  allow money in them to also be used to pay for health insurance premiums.

HSA – Health Savings Account – HSAs have existed for years. They allow employers and employees to contribute money to an account that can be used to pay medical expenses – such as doctor and hospital bills – but not health insurance premiums. External to the HSA the employee must buy (pay premiums for) individual or family coverage catastrophic (high deductible) health insurance. Such premiums are not tax-deductible.

Group health insurance pertains mainly to coverage provided by larger employers. The employer pays for coverage for its employees, and often dependents. Typically, employers pay most of the cost – 80% is common – and it isn’t taxable income to the employee. The employees pay the other 20% or so, which reduces their take-home pay, and they do not get a tax deduction. Employers usually pay a lower share of the cost of coverage for dependents.

The Kaiser Foundation estimates that about 156 million people in the USA have employer-paid health insurance. That number includes spouses and children, so the number of employees so covered is somewhat less. Media coverage of ‘Medicare for All’ says that around 180 million people have private insurance, but that includes supplemental policies owned by people enrolled in Medicare and people in Medicare Advantage plans. The Trump administration changes are expected to result in, at best, about 11 million more people having employer-paid insurance. Obviously 11 million is a pretty small increase percentage-wise, less than 10%.

The new rules specify two kinds of HRAs:
1. Individual Coverage HRA, which cannot be offered to employees who are eligible for group health plan coverage.
2. Excepted Benefit HRA, which can be offered only to employees who are also eligible for an employer sponsored group health plan (link).

Not permitting employees who are eligible for group health insurance to have an Individual Coverage HRA is a “devil in the details.” First, it restricts their freedom of choice. Second, it blocks a huge number of people from switching from group insurance to individual insurance (without changing employers). Consequently, it prevents radically enlarging the individual insurance risk pool, which is what is needed to put downward pressure on premiums in the individual health insurance marketplace for people under age 65.

The other demerit of the new rules in my opinion is that the employer outlay for health insurance remains non-taxed compensation. Like I wrote here, Employer-paid Health Insurance, and here, Trump's "Across State Lines" Baloney, a radical move is needed to make the medical insurance market for individuals under age 65 as vibrant and competitive as the medical insurance market already is for individuals over age 65.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

MLB 2019 Home Run Derby

Last night's MLB Home Run Derby held in Cleveland was spectacular, maybe the best ever. In the first round 20-year old Vladimir Guerrero Jr. broke the record for one round with 29 homers. In the second round Guerrero Jr. broke the record again. Joc Pederson tied him. Guerrero and Pederson then did three tiebreaker rounds before Guerrero Jr. finally won 40-39. In the final round Guerrero faced Pete Alonso. Alonso won 23-22. Both are rookies.  The results and each player's regular season home run and their years in the league follow. Oddly, the 2nd place finisher had way more home runs for the night than the first place finisher -- 91-57. Alonso's prize, $1 million, was more than than his regular season salary of $555,000. 

First round
Joc Pederson (21 homers) def. Alex Bregman (16)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (29) def. Matt Chapman (13)
Ronald Acuna Jr. (25)  def. Josh Bell (18)
Pete Alonso (14) def. Carlos Santana (13)

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (40) def. Joc Pederson (39) on three tiebreakers
Pete Alonso (20) def. Ronald Acuna Jr. (19)

Pete Alonso (23) def. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (22)

2019 Regular Season
Joc Pederson (20) 6th yr
Alex Bregman (23) 4th yr
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (8) rookie
Matt Chapman (21)  4th yr
Ronald Acuna Jr. (21) 2nd yr
Josh Bell (27) 4th yr
Pete Alonso (30)  rookie
Carlos Santana (19) 10th yr

Neither the AL home-run leader, Mike Trout, nor NL home run leader, Christian Yelich, was in the Derby. Yelich opted out due to recovering from an injury. Mike Trout has always opted out. Anyway, if only the top 4 home-run leaders in each league were always selected and Trout opted in, he would compete nearly every year. It's pretty clear that whoever selects the participants likes to choose young, rising stars.

I am puzzled why Guerrero Jr. was even picked. He had the least number of home runs -- only 8 -- in the regular season of the eight players who participated. Second least is 19. He did not make the All-Star game roster, and he was 6th in voting for AL 3rd baseman! Was it because his father was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2018? Why, for example, wasn't Gleyber Torres, a 2nd year player with 19 home runs picked? Guerrero Jr. performed spectacularly, but I for one would not have predicted that when selections were made.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Spheres of Justice #9

Chapter 8 is about education.

Every human society educates its children, its new and future members. Education expresses our deep wishes to continue and improve human life. The purpose of education per Aristotle is to reproduce in each generation the type of character that will sustain the constitution [me: configuration and characteristics]. The members of society are likely to disagree about what the constitution is, what it is becoming, and what it should be. If schools served to reproduce society exactly as it is, then a more just distribution of education wouldn’t make sense.

Schools, teachers, and ideas provide a context for critical understanding of living in a society. Schools fulfill an intermediate space between family and society.

We can think of educational equality as a form of welfare provision, where all children, conceived as future citizens, have the same need to know, and where the ideal of membership is best served if they are all taught the same things. Simple equality is connected to need; all future citizens need an education. Schooling provides the common currency of political and social life, of equal citizenship. Simple equality is entirely inappropriate as soon as the core has been grasped, the common end achieved. After that, education must be shaped to the interests and capacities of the individual students. Specialized or professional education is necessarily a monopoly of the talented, or at least the capable. This is a legitimate monopoly.

He describes George Orwell’s experience as a negative example of education. He was educated in a prep school, expected to later attend an elite university, where higher ranking civil servants and professionals were educated. In effect it was to a large extent a commercial enterprise. The owners of the Crossgates school Orwell attended admitted a few non-paying or reduced tuition students to bolster Crossgates’ academic prestige. Orwell was one. He was invited into a system in which the highest qualifications were hereditary. Wealthy parents were, in effect buying advantages for their children, who were taught to claim the privileges as a matter of right. Orwell described it as a perfect illustration of the tyranny of wealth over class and learning.

Schools can never be entirely free, but there should be constraints in other distributive spheres, for example, on what money can buy and the extent and importance of office. (Ref: #7)

I will skip the details, but Walzer in Chapter 8 comments on segregation and integration, private schools, educational vouchers, neighborhood schools, and talent tracks. All support his idea of complex justice. There are principles of justice, both practical and ideal, that are unique to this part of life in a society.


Friday, July 5, 2019

Spheres of Justice #8

Chapter 6 is about hard work. By this he means work that people don’t look for and wouldn’t choose to do if there were better alternatives. It is a “negative good” and usually carries with it poverty, insecurity, ill health, danger, or dishonor. Yet it is socially necessary work; it needs to be done, and somebody must do it. Soldiering, at least sometimes, is a special kind of hard work. It may be dangerous, with rank-and-file soldiers often recruited from the lower class, outcasts, foreigners. Mining is usually dangerous. Hard work is often done by slaves, resident aliens, and "guest workers."

Rousseau thought hard work such as soldiering, cutting sugar cane, or picking lettuce should be shared by many, tying it to being a citizen or member of a self-governing community. But he was vague about how wide the sharing and the range of work. Road building was a good example for Rousseau and his era. It was degrading work usually imposed on the poorest and politically weakest people. Men of noble birth and the bourgeoisie were exempt.

Dirty work is another variety of hard work, such as done by the untouchables in India. Walzer says it is not an appropriate goal for social policy that all dirty work that needs to be done should be shared by all. That would require an extraordinary degree of state control and interfere radically with other kinds of work. He has argued for a partial and symbolic sharing, the purpose being to break the link between dirty work and respect.

Walzer gives lengthy descriptions about Israeli kibbutzes and San Francisco Scavengers, a worker-owned cooperative that collects the garbage.

Chapter 7 is about leisure. Leisure is a good thing for part of one’s time and the freedom to have some – in the form of vacation, holidays, days for religion, and after-work hours -- is a central issue of distributive justice. Too much leisure for some, such as the idleness of those privileged with wealth and power in past centuries is a form of tyranny. I don’t know why Walzer didn’t also mention royal families, such as in Saudi Arabia, or theocracies, that exist even currently. Another topic related to leisure that he barely mentions is retirement. He gives more extended discussions of vacations and the Sabbath and their similarities and differences.


Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Two Mark Twain short stories

The following are two of my favorite short stories written by Mark Twain. Very funny.

How I Edited an Agricultural Paper   The story starts on page 5.

Sold to Satan   Audacious and shows Mr. Twain's fondness for science and industry. Scroll down. The text could use some editing. It appears in book form in The Complete Essays of Mark Twain edited by Charles Neider. The cover and first few pages are here. The whole book is accessible by registering for a free account.