(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘equity

“Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you. (Or what you wish the past had done for you.)”*…

A love letter to infrastructure…

The Nobel Prize–winning developmental economist Amartya Sen describes income and wealth as desirable “because, typically, they are admirable general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value. The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do—the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve.” This is also a fairly good description of infrastructural systems: they’re a general-purpose means of freeing up time, energy, and attention. On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these systems are built into the walls, which became abundantly clear during the coronavirus pandemic. Stable housing and a salary that covered my utility bills meant that, with the exception of food and taking out the trash, all of my basic needs were met without my ever even having to go outside. It’s worth noting that this is an important reason why guaranteed housing for everyone is important—not just because of privacy, security, and a legible address, but also because our homes are nodes on these infrastructural networks. They are our locus of access to clean water and sewage, electricity, and telecommunications.

But the real difference between money and infrastructural systems as general-purpose providers of freedom is that money is individual and our infrastructural systems are, by their nature, collective. If municipal water systems mean that we are enduringly connected to each other through the landscape where our bodies are, our other systems ratchet this up by orders of magnitude. Behind the wheel of a car, we are a cyborg: our human body controls a powered exoskeleton that lets us move further and faster than we ever could without it. But this freedom depends on roads and supply chains for fuels, to say nothing of traffic laws and safety regulations. In researcher Paul Graham Raven’s memorable formulation, infrastructural systems make us all into collective cyborgs. Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household. But I’m only the slenderest tranche of these collective systems, constituting the whole with all the other members of our federated infrastructural cyborg bodies.

The philosopher John Rawls once offered up a thought experiment, building on the classic question: How best should society be ordered? His key addition was the concept of a “veil of ignorance”: not just that you would live in the society you designed, but that you wouldn’t know ahead of time what role you would have within it. So, while you might want to live in a world where you are an absolute ruler whose every whim is fulfilled by fawning minions, the veil of ignorance means that there is no guarantee you wouldn’t be one of the minions—in fact, given the numerical odds, it’s a lot more likely. Positing a veil of ignorance is a powerful tool to consider more equitable societies.

Seen from this perspective, shared infrastructural systems provide for the basic needs of—and therefore grant agency to—members of a community in a way that would satisfy Rawls. Universal provision of water, sewage, electricity, access to transportation networks that allow for personal mobility, and broadband internet access creates a society where everyone—rich or poor, regardless of what you look like or believe—has access to at least a baseline level of agency and opportunity.

But here’s the kicker: it’s not a thought experiment. We’ve all passed through Rawls’s veil of ignorance. None of us chooses the circumstances of our birth. This is immediate and inarguable if you’re the child of immigrants. If one of the most salient facts of my life is that I was born in Canada, it’s also obvious that I had nothing to do with it. But it’s equally true for the American who proudly traces their family back to ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, or the English family whose landholdings are listed in the Domesday Book. Had I been born in India, my infrastructural birthright would have been far less robust as an underpinning for the life of agency and opportunity that I am fortunate to live, which stems in large part from the sheer blind luck (from my perspective) of being born in Canada.

Our infrastructural systems are the technological basis of the modern world, the basis for a level of global wealth and personal agency that would have been unthinkable only a few centuries ago. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to live as part of a collective cyborg have gained our personal agency at an enormous moral cost. And now anthropogenic climate change is teaching us that there are no others, no elsewhere.

For millennia, these systems have been built out assuming a steady, predictable landscape, allowing us to design long-lived networks where century-old aqueducts underlay new college campuses. But this predictability is becoming a thing of the past. More heat in the atmosphere means warmer weather and shifting climates, with attendant droughts, wildfires, and more frequent and severe hurricanes. But it also increases uncertainty: as the effects of greenhouse gases compound, we may reach tipping points, trigger positive feedback loops, and face other unprecedented changes to climates. Engineers can’t design systems to withstand hundred-year storms when the last century provides little guide to the weather of the next. No matter where in the world you reside, this is the future we will all have to live in. The only question that remains is what kind of world we want to build there.

Our shared infrastructural systems are the most profound and effective means that we’ve created to both relieve the day-to-day burdens of meeting our bodies’ needs and to allow us to go beyond their physiological limits. To face anthropogenic climate change is to become a civilization that can respond to this shifting, unpredictable new world while maintaining these systems: if you benefit from them today, then any future in which they are compromised is recognizably a dystopia. But that “dystopia” is where most of the world already lives. To face anthropogenic climate change ethically is to do so in a way that minimizes human suffering.

Mitigation—limiting the amount of warming, primarily through decarbonizing our energy sources—is one element of this transition. But the true promise of renewable energy is not that it doesn’t contribute to climate change. It’s that renewable energy is ubiquitous and abundant—if every human used energy at the same rate as North Americans, it would still only be a tiny percentage of the solar energy that reaches the Earth. Transforming our energy systems, and the infrastructural systems that they power, so that they become sustainable and resilient might be the most powerful lever that we have to not just survive this transition but to create a world where everyone can thrive. And given the planetwide interconnectedness of infrastructural systems, except in the shortest of short terms, they will be maintained equitably or not at all.

Ursula Franklin wrote, “Central to any new technology is the concept of justice.” We can commit to developing the technologies and building out new infrastructural systems that are flexible and sustainable, but we have the same urgency and unparalleled opportunity to transform our ultrastructure, the social systems that surround and shape them. Every human being has a body with similar needs, embedded in the material world at a specific place in the landscape. This requires a different relationship with each other, one in which we acknowledge and act on how we are connected to each other through our bodies in the landscapes where we find ourselves. We need to have a conception of infrastructural citizenship that includes a responsibility to look after each other, in perpetuity. And with that, we can begin to transform our technological systems into systems of compassion, care, and resource-sharing at all scales, from the individual level, through the level of cities and nations, all the way up to the global.

Our social relationships with each other—our culture, our learning, our art, our shared jokes and shared sorrow, raising our children, attending to our elderly, and together dreaming of our future—these are the essence of what it means to be human. We thrive as individuals and communities by caring for others, and being taken care of in turn. Collective infrastructural systems that are resilient, sustainable, and globally equitable provide the means for us to care for each other at scale. They are a commitment to our shared humanity.

Bodies, agency, and infrastructure: “Care At Scale,” from Debbie Chachra (@debcha), via the indispensable Exponential View (@ExponentialView). Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “Infrastructure is much more important than architecture“; and resonantly, “Kim Stanley Robinson: a climate plan for a world in flames.”

* Danny Hillis’ “Golden Rule of Time,” as quoted by Stewart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline

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As we build foundations, we might recall that it was on this date in 1904 that the first balloon used for meteorologic research in the U.S. was released near St. Louis, Missouri. The balloon carried instruments that measured barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, that returned to Earth when the balloon burst.

The first weather balloon was launched in France in 1892. Prior to using balloons, the U.S. used kites tethered by piano wire– the downsides being the limited distance kites could ascend (less than 2 miles), the inability to use them if the wind was too light or too strong, and potential for the kites to break away.

Since this first launch, millions of weather balloons have been launched by the National Weather Service and its predecessor organizations.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 15, 2021 at 1:00 am

“The combination of economic inequality and economic segregation is deadly”*…

When we think of a social safety net, we tend to think about things like health care and environmental protection, social security, child care; lately here’s been lots of talk of Universal Basic Income. All of them are surely part of an answer. But if we want a social infrastructure that not only protects against personal and family challenges, but also creates personal and family opportunities, we need to look further– we need to look to something we might call Universal Basic Assets. The always-illuminating Rana Foroohar explains…

If American states are, as former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once put it, the “laboratories of democracy,” then it’s worth watching closely what’s happening in California right now.

The threat of rising taxes and a “soak the rich” political atmosphere has led some wealthy Golden State residents, including a number of technology entrepreneurs, to leave for cheaper pastures such as Austin or Miami. This has, in turn, prompted worries of a larger migration that would have an impact not only on the state’s tax base, but on the growth and innovation that have made California the world’s fifth-largest economy.

It is an exceptionally fraught situation. While nobody these days has much sympathy for wealthy individuals or companies (witness the recent justified fury about the ProPublica leaks showing how little tax the wealthiest Americans pay), or really believes in trickle-down economics, the threat of tax and regulatory arbitrage by other states is real.

The good news is that California is applying some typically creative thinking to the problem. What if there was another way to harness company and citizen wealth for the benefit of all?  

One such idea gaining popularity is what has been called “pre-distribution.” Unlike traditional methods of redistribution, in which the state taxes existing wealth and then uses it to bolster various projects and constituents, pre-distribution is all about harnessing capital the same way investors do, and then using the proceeds of the capital growth (which as we know far outpaces income growth) to fund the public sector…

It could help better align public and private incentives and rewards. The massive wealth accrued by leading companies is in part down to the strength of the public commons — good schools, decent infrastructure, basic research, and so on. As economists like Mariana Mazzucato frequently note, why should taxpayers pick up the bill for, say, laying high speed fibre without getting any of the commercial upside?

California Senate majority leader Robert Hertzberg, a Democrat… along with some very rich Californians like former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and Snap founder Evan Spiegel, have proposed… something called “universal basic capital”. The idea is that seed contributions of equity from companies or philanthropists could be invested into a fund that would then be used by individual Californians for things like retirement security, healthcare and so on…

If pre-distribution works in the laboratory of California, I expect it will be adopted in some way at the federal level. The Obama administration actually tried to implement its own version of the CalSavers programme for the country as a whole, called myRA, but it failed in part because the funds were invested only in super safe low yielding Treasury bills at a time when the market as a whole was rising far faster. Even at this politically polarised moment, it’s an idea whose time may have come. Pre-distribution is supported by such unlikely bedfellows as hedge funder Ray Dalio and leftwing economist Joseph Stiglitz. Perhaps that’s because while it doesn’t fundamentally alter the market system, it does broaden share ownership: a mix of capitalism and socialism that is right for our time…

Capital for the people — an idea whose time has come“: @RanaForoohar explains how California’s nascent experiments in Universal Basic Assets could be a model for the nation.

In thinking about national possibilities, your correspondent’s favorite rationale/approach is Cornell economic historian Louis Hyman‘s formulation (toward the end of) this post.

* “The combination of economic inequality and economic segregation is deadly. It reinforces the advantages of those at the top while exacerbating and perpetuating the disadvantages of those at the bottom. Taken together, they shape not just inequality of economic resources, but also a more permanent and dysfunctional inequality of opportunity.” – Richard Florida

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As we share and share alike, we might send grateful birthday greetings to the Electronic Frontier Foundation; it was founded by John GilmoreJohn Perry Barlow, and Mitch Kapor on this date in 1990. Over the last 30 years, EFF has become the leading nonprofit defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation.

Happy Birthday– and many more!

“Justice is not the work of the law: on the contrary, the law is only the declaration and application of what is just in all circumstances where men have relations with one another”*…

This essay proposes a new model of personal and public wealth-building that can address the current crisis of inequality in the United States. We place contemporary American wealth inequality into its historical context by tracing how federal government policies have worked to support personal and public wealth building across three periods: the First Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century, the Second Industrial Revolution of the early 20th century, and the Information and Communication Technology revolution of the late-20th century. We then suggest a series of potential governmental policies that can help to ensure a more equitable wealth distribution in the future. Our proposed “mutualist” model of political economy would allow for the large-scale diffusion of productivity gains that may follow the installation of deployment of the next wave of general-purpose technologies. This new social contract will move beyond the welfare state’s focus on insurance toward a more radical notion of shared ownership of returns on capital via universal individual capital endowments and new public investment channels that control shares in firms and intellectual property…

Addressing inequality in the U.S.: “The Mutualist Economy: A New Deal for Ownership“– Nils Gilman (@nils_gilman) and Yakov Feygin (@BuddyYakov) offer a powerfully-provocative proposal.

They join a growing chorus. See also, e.g., Louis Hyman (toward the end of this essay) and Lynn Forester de Rothschild (in this interview).

[Image above: source]

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, describing an ideal state

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As we rethink what isn’t working, we might send gilded birthday greetings to Johns Hopkins; he was born on this date in 1795. A businessman who is largely remembered as a philanthropist, he operated wholesale and retail businesses in the Baltimore area; he built his fortune by judiciously investing his proceeds in myriad other ventures, most notably, the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad. In 1996, Johns Hopkins ranked 69th in “The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates – A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present

His bequests founded a number institutions bearing his name, the best-known of which are, of course, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University.

Although Hopkins is widely-noted as an abolitionist, recent research indicates that Johns Hopkins was a slave owner for at least part of his life.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 19, 2021 at 1:01 am

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”*…

In a stark sign of the economic inequality that has marked the pandemic recession and recovery, Americans as a whole are now earning the same amount in wages and salaries that they did before the virus struck — even with nearly 9 million fewer people working. 

The turnaround in total wages underscores how disproportionately America’s job losses have afflicted workers in lower-income occupations rather than in higher-paying industries, where employees have actually gained jobs as well as income since early last year.

In February 2020, Americans earned $9.66 trillion in wages and salaries, at a seasonally adjusted annual rate, according to the Commerce Department data. By April, after the virus had flattened the U.S. economy, that figure had shrunk by 10%. It then gradually recovered before reaching $9.67 trillion in December, the latest period for which data is available. 

Those dollar figures include only wages and salaries that people earned from jobs. They don’t include money that tens of millions of Americans have received from unemployment benefits or the Social Security and other aid that goes to many other households. The figures also don’t include investment income… 

The figures document that the vanished earnings from 8.9 million Americans who have lost jobs to the pandemic remain less than the combined salaries of new hires and the pay raises that the 150 million Americans who have kept their jobs have received.

The job cuts resulting from the pandemic recession have fallen heavily on lower-income workers across the service sector— from restaurants and hotels to retail stores and entertainment venues. By contrast, tens of millions of higher-income Americans, especially those able to work from home, have managed to keep or acquire jobs and continue to receive pay increases.

“We’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Richard Deitz, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, referring to the concentration of job losses. “It’s a totally different kind of downturn than we’ve experienced in modern times.”

The figures also underscore the unusually accelerated nature of this recession. As a whole, both the job losses that struck early last spring and the initial rebound in hiring that followed have happened much faster than they did in previous recessions and recoveries. After the Great Recession, for example, it took nearly 2 1/2 years for wages and salaries to regain their pre-recession levels…

One reason why the job losses have had relatively little impact on the nation’s total pay is that so many of the affected employees worked part time. The average work week in the industry that includes hotels, restaurants and bars is just below 26 hours. That’s the shortest such figure among 13 major industries tracked by the government. The next shortest is retail, at about 31 hours. The average for all industries is nearly 35 hours. 

The recovery in wages and salaries helps explain why some states haven’t suffered as sharp a drop in tax revenue as many had feared. That is especially true for states that rely on progressive taxes that fall more heavily on the rich. California, for example, said last month that it has a $15 billion budget surplus. Yet many cities are still struggling, and local transit agencies, such as New York City’s subway, have been hammered by the pandemic.

The wage and salary data also helps explain the steady gains in the stock market, which have been led by high-tech companies whose products are being heavily purchased and used by higher-income Americans, such as Apple iPads, Peloton bikes, or Amazon’s online shopping.

This week, the New York Fed released research that underscored how focused the job losses have been. For people making less than $30,000 a year, employment has fallen 14% as of December. For those earning more than $85,000, it has actually risen slightly. For those in-between, employment has fallen 4%… 

Some companies have cut wages in this recession, but on the whole the many millions of Americans fortunate enough to keep their jobs have generally received pay raises at largely pre-recession rates. Some of those income gains likely reflect cost-of-living raises; the Commerce Department’s wage and salary data isn’t adjusted for inflation…

Truman Bewley, a retired Yale University economist who wrote a book about the concept of sticky wages, said that most companies have a key core of workers they rely on through hard times and are reluctant to cut pay for them. 

And there’s another reason, Bewley said, why many companies cut jobs instead of pay. While researching his book, he said a factory manager told him why his company did so: “It gets the misery out the door.”  

More at: “Sign of inequality: US salaries recover even as jobs haven’t.”

See also “More Than 33 Million Americans Have Filed for Unemployment During Coronavirus Pandemic.” source of the image above.

And to compare the U.S. to other countries, try this nifty interactive visualization.

* Plutarch

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As we examine equity, we might send foundational birthday greetings to Pierre le Pesant, sieur de Boisguilbert; he was born on this date in 1646. A French lawmaker and a Jansenist, he is best remembered as one of the inventors of the notion of an economic market– he championed free trade in opposition to Colbert‘s mercantilist views (which generated government revenues through duties and tariffs).

But he is also noteworthy as the champion of a single tax on each citizen (in lieu of all tariffs, customs, and other trade-related fees) that in some ways presaged Henry George‘s proposals.

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“The details are not the details. They make the design.”*…

It’s 2020 and our systems are failing us. We are increasingly reliant on technology that automates bias. We are celebrating “essential workers” while they are underpaid and their work is precarious. We are protesting in the streets because of policing systems that put black and brown people at risk every day. We use apps for travel, shopping, and transportation that productize exploitative labor practices. The list goes on and on.

How did we get here? These systems didn’t just emerge of their own accord. They were crafted by people who made hundreds of decisions, big and small, that led to the outcomes we see now. In other words, these systems and all of their component parts were designed. And for the most part, they were designed with processes intended to create positive user experiences. So what went wrong? Might the way we approach design be contributing to the problems we now experience?

It’s unlikely that the techniques that got us into this situation will be the ones to get us out of it. In this essay, we’re going to take a deeper look at dominant design practices — specifically user-centered design — to identify where our frameworks might be failing us and how we can expand our design practices to close those gaps.

Any framework is a lens through which you see things. A lens allows you to see some things quite well, but almost always at the expense of obscuring others. Prior to the development of user-centered design, technological experiences were primarily designed through the lens of business needs. The needs of the user were only considered insofar as they furthered or hindered those goals, but it was the bottom line that was firmly the focal point of that approach.

User-centered design (UCD) was developed in reaction to those blind spots. It advocated for a design practice that instead focused on the person using the technology, and was intended to create experiences based on an understanding of their needs and goals. As designers, we’ve spent much of the last 25 years convincing our peers of the virtues of putting user needs at the center of our design process.

This practice has produced some amazing products, services and technical innovations. And for designers who entered the industry in the past decade or so, UCD has become a default mindset and approach. By empathizing with users and designing with their needs and wants in-mind, we have strived to create products that are more helpful, more intuitive, and less stressful. Certainly many of the digital tools & platforms we use today would not have been possible without the contributions of designers and the user-centered approach.

However, like any lens, UCD also has its own blind spots, and those have played a role in leading us to our current state…

As the world grows increasingly complex, the limitations of user-centered design are becoming painfully obvious. Alexis Lloyd (@alexislloyd) on what’s gone wrong and how we can fix it: “Camera Obscura: Beyond the lens of user-centered design.

[Via Patrick Tanguay‘s ever-illuminating Sentiers]

For an amusingly– and amazingly– apposite example of inclusively-empathetic design, see “‘If the aliens lay eggs, how does that affect architecture?’: sci-fi writers on how they build their worlds.”

* Charles Eames

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As we ideate inclusively, we might recall that on this date in 1993 (following President George H.W. Bush’s executive order in 1992) Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially proclaimed a holiday the first time in all 50 states. Bush’s order was not fully implemented until 2000, when Utah, the last state fully to recognize the holiday, formally observed it. (Utah had previously celebrated the holiday at the same time but under the name Human Rights Day.)

220px-Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 18, 2021 at 1:01 am

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