Slightly Less F*cked

I had held this issue until after the November election, since there wasn’t much hope to get through the noise before the election.

posted to Twitter:

There are two choices on the ballot. If one of them wins, we will be collectively f*cked. What remains of democracy will be in tatters, along with all of the other problems society has. If the other wins, we will be slightly less f*cked. It’s highly unlikely they will solve most of the problems we have, but we will be slightly less bad off, democracy will get at least one more election cycle to restore itself, a semblance of an attempt to solve social and environmental problems will be made. It’s unlikely they will succeed, but they will at least defer the point of failure, slowing the rate of decline. Vote for slightly less f*cked.

Assuming Biden won, my general view is that the US, democracy, and the world are slightly less screwed than before the election, but there remain a huge set of long-term hurdles in front of us, none of which have been solved, all of which are solvable, all which on my happier days I hope we can solve, and most of which I expect won’t be solved, hence my general pessimism. 

We are taught that story-telling requires a triangle of victimvillain, and hero surrounding the problem. The technical problems are all laid out below. The meta-problem is that the victims, villains, and heroes are often an overlapping set of people. All of us in transport understand this as a social dilemma, when individual incentives don’t align with society’s. We see this with congestion, the marginal cost of delay a traveler imposes on others exceeds the cost of delay the traveler herself experiences.

In no particular order, and certainly not a complete list: 

  • Electoral reform is a particularly American problem, due to its historically early and constitution that is too difficult to amend. Some combination of compact districts (no gerrymandering), each district getting electoral votes (as per Maine and Nebraska), and ranked choice voting would be a huge, and easily implemented first step solution not requiring an Amendment (the states would need to consent, but federal $ are usually good for that). But there is far more to do to get this right. (Victim=democracy, representativeness; Villain=constitution, politicians through the ages who never fixed this, US Senate, residents of low population states) 
  • To this we can add:
    • judicial reform, 
    • voting reform, 
    • restoring voting rights for those returning to society, and numerous other related reforms. Somehow these things are not a problem in Australia, where everyone can (and indeed must) vote, there aren’t unnecessary lines, voter suppression isn’t a thing, prisoners are not prohibited from voting, they are required to vote, votes are counted quickly, you can vote for whomever you want without wasting your vote because of ranked choice voting, and people accept the outcome of the election, even if they are disappointed, because the process was perceived fair. The PM will not have a majority of votes nationally, because that’s not how it’s decided, he is elected by the majority party or coalition in Parliament and will only have won his/her own seat. The winning party may not have a majority of votes nationally either, it’s ranked choice voting, but they have won some number (usually a plurality) of seats, and can form a coalition. The system isn’t perfect, it still has a monarch – the Queen of Australia is on the money – it doesn’t really get the idea of consultation is to actually consider public input before making decisions not merely collect it and tick a box, it’s been described as electing a dictatorship that must go back to the people every 3 years for re-election, and has few checks on its power in the interim but for that election.
  • Civil rights and policing may be improving, but as we become more aware of the issue due to ubiquitous cameras it seems to be getting worse. But whether it is improving or not, the state of policing is bad, and the police violence in the US exceeds other countries. (Victim=those oppressed by police and in fear of police, Villain=police) None of this every was acceptable.
  • Gun violence in the US is almost completely solvable in a technical sense, examples of countries with much better records include Australia and New Zealand, but is not solved. (Victim=those killed, Villain=people with guns shooting people)
  • The virus, for which eventually we will get ‘herd immunity’ because everyone who has survived has had it, or an efficacious vaccine eventually arrives. In the mean time this of course has resulted in lockdowns, devastated industries including tourism, aviation, public transport, retail, restaurants, and entertainment. (Victim=everyone, Villain=virus)
  • The financial system, which has a of course huge amounts of inefficiency, fueled by debt, leading to bubbles in asset prices and stocks (the 5-year change in the S&P 500 is 64%, even considering the virus, does that sound like a reasonable increase in the expectations of future profits? … sure if interest rates go to zero, than NPV goes to infinity, but that doesn’t seem likely to me given all the other dynamics … at some point people lose confidence in the ability of governments to repay their ever-rising debts), as well as huge amounts of inequity, growing steadily worse over time. The Rise of Carry is an excellent if difficult book explaining some of the bubble dynamics. I have become something of a perma-bear, but that’s because I am highly suspicious of the Adderall-fueled frat boys running up the prices of stocks, not because I doubt capitalism and markets can do great things if properly regulated. (Victim= investors, people who participate in the economy; Villain=algorithms, people who write algorithms, Adderall, traders)
  • Pollution/decarbonisation, America’s response to COVID-19 portends poorly for any hope of an impactful ‘behavioural fix‘ for climate change. It’s ‘tech fix‘ or nothing. Behaviour and investment (in things like vehicle electrification and adoption of renewable power and phase out of fossil fuels) can of course be incentivised with prices, but while this has been known to be the correct policy for decades, it has hardly been implemented. Hopefully the prices of solar, wind, and batteries keep falling, so change will happen despite political recalcitrance. But there is no guarantee this tech fix is fast enough or complete enough to meaningfully minimise the continually increasing negative outcomes of climate change. At which point removing carbon from the atmosphere seems an increasingly likely solution (which would have been unnecessary had the carbon not been put there in the first place.) We still have problems with deforestation and loss of biodiversity that are also critical, getting back to the problem that no one owns the environment or is economically motivated to protect it. (Victim=environment, people who breathe, people who live near the ocean; Villain=polluters, people who use non-renewable electricity and fossil fuels)
  • Traffic safety, the US is killing pedestrians at an increasing rate (as described by Angie Schmitt), for reasons that are well known, and solvable (since many countries are improving on this metric) but for which society is unwilling to do anything. (Victim=people hit by cars, their family, friends, medical system; Villain=people who drive, people who make cars, people who make roads).
  • Congestion, which isn’t really as much of a problem these days, but we still refuse to solve it and insist on building 20th century infrastructure in response. (Victim=people who travel, people who subsidise roads; Villain=people who drive)
  • Critical Thinking Skills. Have we added lead back into the air? I ask this because people sure seem to be getting stupider and more vulnerable to conspiracy theories than before. Science, is a largely self-correcting system, but its influence on important issues has become needless politicised, especially, but not only, in the US (see: vaccines, pollution). Now this isn’t worse than some points in the past, Galileo had some issues I hear, but surely now that we live in the future, we should be more accepting of the scientific consensus. We have failed to educate non-scientists and non-engineers (both those with and without university educations) enough about how to think clearly, so all we get is muddle and conspiracy.
  • Government transparency. Compared to the US, this is particularly an Australian, and perhaps New South Wales, problem, but documents that should be public (e.g. business cases for massive public infrastructure projects) are held as “cabinet-in-confidence” for ages. Other data, like travel surveys, are not even made available to researchers under confidentiality agreements. What is being covered up? Surely not the thing I am requesting, but they can’t hold only the thing being covered up “in confidence”, otherwise we could figure out what it is. (Victim=citizens, good government; Villain=politicians and government staff)
  • Crony capitalism … as described in The Game of Mates by Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters … is a pervasive problem in government, along with the revolving door guaranteeing that politicians who do favours are rewarded in the “after life”. (Victim=taxpayers; Villain=politicians and crony capitalists)