Words Have Meanings

As a follow-up to my post with Suggestions for Trump Supporters [1] I notice that many people seem to have private definitions of words that they like to use.

There are some situations where the use of a word is contentious and different groups of people have different meanings. One example that is known to most people involved with computers is “hacker”. That means “criminal” according to mainstream media and often “someone who experiments with computers” to those of us who like experimenting with computers. There is ongoing discussion about whether we should try and reclaim the word for it’s original use or whether we should just accept that’s a lost cause. But generally based on context it’s clear which meaning is intended. There is also some overlap between the definitions, some people who like to experiment with computers conduct experiments with computers they aren’t permitted to use. Some people who are career computer criminals started out experimenting with computers for fun.

But some times words are misused in ways that fail to convey any useful ideas and just obscure the real issues. One example is the people who claim to be left-wing Libertarians. Murray Rothbard (AKA “Mr Libertarian”) boasted about “stealing” the word Libertarian from the left [2]. Murray won that battle, they should get over it and move on. When anyone talks about “Libertarianism” nowadays they are talking about the extreme right. Claiming to be a left-wing Libertarian doesn’t add any value to any discussion apart from demonstrating the fact that the person who makes such a claim is one who gives hipsters a bad name. The first time penny-farthings were fashionable the word “libertarian” was associated with left-wing politics. Trying to have a sensible discussion about politics while using a word in the opposite way to almost everyone else is about as productive as trying to actually travel somewhere by penny-farthing.

Another example is the word “communist” which according to many Americans seems to mean “any person or country I don’t like”. It’s often invoked as a magical incantation that’s supposed to automatically win an argument. One recent example I saw was someone claiming that “Russia has always been communist” and rejecting any evidence to the contrary. If someone was to say “Russia has always been a shit country” then there’s plenty of evidence to support that claim (Tsarist, communist, and fascist Russia have all been shit in various ways). But no definition of “communism” seems to have any correlation with modern Russia. I never discovered what that person meant by claiming that Russia is communist, they refused to make any comment about Russian politics and just kept repeating that it’s communist. If they said “Russia has always been shit” then it would be a clear statement, people can agree or disagree with that but everyone knows what is meant.

The standard response to pointing out that someone is using a definition of a word that is either significantly different to most of the world (or simply inexplicable) is to say “that’s just semantics”. If someone’s “contribution” to a political discussion is restricted to criticising people who confuse “their” and “there” then it might be reasonable to say “that’s just semantics”. But pointing out that someone’s writing has no meaning because they choose not to use words in the way others will understand them is not just semantics. When someone claims that Russia is communist and Americans should reject the Republican party because of their Russian connection it’s not even wrong. The same applies when someone claims that Nazis are “leftist”.

Generally the aim of a political debate is to convince people that your cause is better than other causes. To achieve that aim you have to state your cause in language that can be understood by everyone in the discussion. Would the person who called Russia “communist” be more or less happy if Russia had common ownership of the means of production and an absence of social classes? I guess I’ll never know, and that’s their failure at debating politics.

Suggestions for Trump Supporters

I’ve had some discussions with Trump supporters recently. Here are some suggestions for anyone who wants to have an actual debate about political issues. Note that this may seem harsh to Trump supporters. But it seems harsh to me when Trump supporters use a social event to try and push their beliefs without knowing any of the things I list in this post. If you are a Trump supporter who doesn’t do these things then please try to educate your fellow travellers, they are more likely to listen to you than to me.

Facts

For a discussion to be useful there has to be a basis in facts. When one party rejects facts there isn’t much point. Anyone who only takes their news from an ideological echo chamber is going to end up rejecting facts. The best thing to do is use fact checking sites of which Snopes [1] is the best known. If you are involved in political discussions you should regularly correct people who agree with you when you see them sharing news that is false or even merely unsupported by facts. If you aren’t correcting mistaken people on your own side then you do your own cause a disservice by allowing your people to discredit their own arguments. If you aren’t regularly seeking verification of news you read then you are going to be misled. I correct people on my side regularly, at least once a week. How often do you correct your side?

The next thing is that some background knowledge of politics is necessary. Politics is not something that you can just discover by yourself from first principles. If you aren’t aware of things like Dog Whistle Politics [2] then you aren’t prepared to have a political debate. Note that I’m not suggesting that you should just learn about Dog Whistle Politics and think you are ready to have a debate, it’s one of many things that you need to know.

Dog whistle politics is nothing new or hidden, if you don’t know about such basics you can’t really participate in a discussion of politics. If you don’t know such basics and think you can discuss politics then you are demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger effect [3].

The Southern Strategy [4] is well known by everyone who knows anything about US politics. You can think it’s a good thing if you wish and you can debate the extent to which it still operates, but you can’t deny it happened. If you are unaware of such things then you can’t debate US politics.

The Civil rights act of 1964 [5] is one of the most historic pieces of legislation ever passed in the US. If you don’t know about it then you just don’t know much about US politics. You may think that it is a bad thing, but you can’t deny that it happened, or that it happened because of the Democratic party. This was the time in US politics when the Republicans became the party of the South and the Democrats became the centrist (possibly left) party that they are today. It is ridiculous to claim that Republicans are against racism because Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. Ridiculous claims might work in an ideological echo chamber but they won’t convince anyone else.

Words Have Meanings

To communicate we need to have similar ideas of what words mean. If you use words in vastly different ways to other people then you can’t communicate with them. Some people in the extreme right claim that because the Nazi party in Germany was the
“Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei” (“NSDAP”) which translates to English as “National Socialist German Workers Party” that means that they were “socialists”. Then they claim that “socialists” are “leftist” so therefore people on the left are Nazis. That claim requires using words like “left” and “socialism” in vastly different ways to most people.

Snopes has a great article about this issue [6], I recommend that everyone read it, even those who already know that Nazis weren’t (and aren’t) on the left side of politics.

The Wikipedia page of the Unite the Right rally [7] (referenced in the Snopes article) has a photo of people carrying Nazi flags and Confederate flags. Those people are definitely convinced that Nazis were not left wing! They are also definitely convinced that people on the right side of politics (which in the US means the Republican party) support the Confederacy and oppose equal rights for Afro-American people. If you want to argue that the Republican party is the one opposed to racism then you need to come up with an explanation for how so many people who declare themselves on the right of politics got it wrong.

Here’s a local US news article about the neo-Nazi who had “commie killer” written on his helmet while beating a black man almost to death [8]. Another data point showing that Nazis don’t like people on the left.

In other news East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) was not a
democracy. North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is not a democracy either. The use of “socialism” by the original Nazis shouldn’t be taken any more seriously than the recent claims by the governments of East Germany and North Korea.

Left vs right is a poor summary of political positions, the Political Compass [9] is better. While Hitler and Stalin have different positions on economics I think that citizens of those countries didn’t have very different experiences, one extremely authoritarian government is much like another. I recommend that you do the quiz on the Political Compass site and see if the people it places in similar graph positions to you are ones who you admire.

Sources of Information

If you are only using news sources that only have material you agree with then you are in an ideological echo chamber. When I recommend that someone look for other news sources what I don’t expect in response is an email analysing a single article as justification for rejecting that entire news site. I recommend sites like the New York Times as having good articles, but they don’t only have articles I agree with and they sometimes publish things I think are silly.

A news source that makes ridiculous claims such as that Nazis are “leftist” is ridiculous and should be disregarded. A news source that merely has some articles you disagree with might be worth using.

Also if you want to convince people outside your group of anything related to politics then it’s worth reading sites that might convince them. I often read The National Review [10], not because I agree with their articles (that is a rare occurrence) but because they write for rational conservatives and I hope that some of the extreme right wing people will find their ideas appealing and come back to a place where we can have useful discussions.

When evaluating news articles and news sources one thing to consider is Occam’s Razor [11]. If an article has a complex and implausible theory when a simpler theory can explain it then you should be sceptical of that article. There are conspiracies but they aren’t as common as some people believe and they are generally of limited complexity due to the difficulty people have in keeping secrets. An example of this is some of the various conspiracy theories about storage of politicians’ email. The simplest explanation (for politicians of all parties) is that they tell someone like me to “just make the email work” and if their IT staff doesn’t push back and refuse to do it without all issues being considered then it’s the IT staff at fault. Stupidity explains many things better than conspiracies. Regardless of the party affiliation, any time a politician is accused of poor computer security I’ll ask whether someone like me did their job properly.

Covering for Nazis

Decent people have to oppose Nazis. The Nazi belief system is based on the mass murder of people based on race and the murder of people who disagree with them. In Germany in the 1930s there were some people who could claim not to know about the bad things that Nazis were doing and they could claim to only support Nazis for other reasons. Neo-Nazis are not about creating car companies like VolksWagen all they are about is hatred. The crimes of the original Nazis are well known and well documented, it’s not plausible that anyone could be unaware of them.

Mitch McConnell has clearly stated “There are no good neo-Nazis” [12] in clear opposition to Trump. While I disagree with Mitch on many issues, this is one thing we can agree on. This is what decent people do, they work together with people they usually disagree with to oppose evil. Anyone who will support Nazis out of tribal loyalty has demonstrated the type of person they are.

Here is an article about the alt-right meeting to celebrate Trump’s victory where Richard Spencer said “hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory” while many audience members give the Nazi salute [13]. You can skip to 42 seconds in if you just want to see that part. Trump supporters try to claim it’s the “Roman salute”, but that’s not plausible given that there’s no evidence of Romans using such a salute and it was first popularised in Fascist Italy [14]. The Wikipedia page for the Nazi Salute [15] notes that saying “hail Hitler” or “hail victory” was standard practice while giving the salute. I think that it’s ridiculous to claim that a group of people offering the Hitler salute while someone says “hail Trump” and “hail victory” are anything but Nazis. I also think it’s ridiculous to claim to not know of any correlation between the alt-right and Nazis and then immediately know about the “Roman Salute” defence.

The Americans used to have a salute that was essentially the same as the Nazi Salute, the Bellamy Salute was officially replaced by the hand over heart salute in 1942 [16]. They don’t want anything close to a Nazi salute, and no-one did until very recently when neo-Nazis stopped wearing Klan outfits in the US.

Every time someone makes claims about a supposed “Roman salute” explanation for Richard Spencer’s fans I wonder if they are a closet Nazi.

Anti-Semitism

One final note, I don’t debate people who are open about neo-Nazi beliefs. When someone starts talking about a “Jewish Conspiracy” or use other Nazi phrases then the conversation is over. Nazis should be shunned. One recent conversation with a Trump supported ended quickly after he started talking about a “Jewish conspiracy”. He tried to get me back into the debate by claiming “there are non-Jews in the conspiracy too” but I was already done with him.

Decent Trump Supporters

If you want me to believe that you are one of the decent Trump supporters a good way to start is to disclaim the horrible ideas that other Trump supporters endorse. If you can say “I believe that black people and Jews are my equal and I will not stand next to or be friends with anyone who carries a Nazi flag” then we can have a friendly discussion about politics. I’m happy to declare “I have never supported a Bolshevik revolution or the USSR and will never support such things” if there is any confusion about my ideas in that regard. While I don’t think any reasonable person would think that I supported the USSR I’m happy to make my position clear.

I’ve had people refuse to disclaim racism when asked. If you can’t clearly say that you consider people of other races to be your equal then everyone will think that you are racist.

Coalitions

In Australia we are about to have a federal election, so we inevitably have a lot of stupid commentary and propaganda about politics.

One thing that always annoys me is the claim that we shouldn’t have small parties. We have two large parties, Liberal (right-wing, somewhat between the Democrats and Republicans in the US) and Labor which is somewhat similar to Democrats in the US. In the US the first past the post voting system means that votes for smaller parties usually don’t affect the outcome. In Australia we have Instant Runoff Voting (sometimes known as “The Australian Ballot”) which has the side effect of encouraging votes for small parties.

The Liberal party almost never wins enough seats to make government on it’s own, it forms a coalition with the National party. Election campaigns are often based on the term “The Coalition” being used to describe a Liberal-National coalition and the expected result if “The Coalition” wins the election is that the leader of the Liberal party will be Prime Minister and the leader of the National party will be the Deputy Prime Minister. Liberal party representatives and supporters often try to convince people that they shouldn’t vote for small parties and that small parties are somehow “undemocratic”, seemingly unaware of the irony of advocating for “The Coalition” but opposing the idea of a coalition.

If the Liberal and Labor parties wanted to form a coalition they could do so in any election where no party has a clear majority, and do it without even needing the National party. Some people claim that it’s best to have the major parties take turns in having full control of the government without having to make a deal with smaller parties and independent candidates but that’s obviously a bogus claim. The reason we have Labor allying with the Greens and independents is that the Liberal party opposes them at every turn and the Liberal party has a lot of unpalatable policies that make alliances difficult.

One thing that would be a good development in Australian politics is to have the National party actually represent rural voters rather than big corporations. Liberal policies on mining are always opposed to the best interests of farmers and the Liberal policies on trade aren’t much better. If “The Coalition” wins the election then the National party could insist on a better deal for farmers in exchange for their continued support of Liberal policies.

If Labor wins more seats than “The Coalition” but not enough to win government directly then a National-Labor coalition is something that could work. I think that the traditional interest of Labor in representing workers and the National party in representing farmers have significant overlap. The people who whinge about a possible Green-Labor alliance should explain why they aren’t advocating a National-Labor alliance. I think that the Labor party would rather make a deal with the National party, it’s just a question of whether the National party is going to do what it takes to help farmers. They could make the position of Deputy Prime Minister part of the deal so the leader of the National party won’t miss out.

Men Commenting on Women’s Issues

A lecture at LCA 2011 which included some inappropriate slides was followed by long discussions on mailing lists. In February 2011 I wrote a blog post debunking some of the bogus arguments in two lists [1]. One of the noteworthy incidents in the mailing list discussion concerned Ted Ts’o (an influential member of the Linux community) debating the definition of rape. My main point on that issue in Feb 2011 was that it’s insensitive to needlessly debate the statistics.

Recently Valerie Aurora wrote about another aspect of this on The Ada Initiative blog [2] and on her personal blog. Some of her significant points are that conference harassment doesn’t end when the conference ends (it can continue on mailing lists etc), that good people shouldn’t do nothing when bad things happen, and that free speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences or the freedom to use private resources (such as conference mailing lists) without restriction.

Craig Sanders wrote a very misguided post about the Ted Ts’o situation [3]. One of the many things wrong with his post is his statement “I’m particularly disgusted by the men who intervene way too early – without an explicit invitation or request for help or a clear need such as an immediate threat of violence – in womens’ issues“.

I believe that as a general rule when any group of people are involved in causing a problem they should be involved in fixing it. So when we have problems that are broadly based around men treating women badly the prime responsibility should be upon men to fix them. It seems very clear that no matter what scope is chosen for fixing the problems (whether it be lobbying for new legislation, sociological research, blogging, or directly discussing issues with people to change their attitudes) women are doing considerably more than half the work. I believe that this is an indication that overall men are failing.

Asking for Help

I don’t believe that members of minority groups should have to ask for help. Asking isn’t easy, having someone spontaneously offer help because it’s the right thing to do can be a lot easier to accept psychologically than having to beg for help. There is a book named “Women Don’t Ask” which has a page on the geek feminism Wiki [4]. I think the fact that so many women relate to a book named “Women Don’t Ask” is an indication that we shouldn’t expect women to ask directly, particularly in times of stress. The Wiki page notes a criticism of the book that some specific requests are framed as “complaining”, so I think we should consider a “complaint” from a woman as a direct request to do something.

The geek feminism blog has an article titled “How To Exclude Women Without Really Trying” which covers many aspects of one incident [5]. Near the end of the article is a direct call for men to be involved in dealing with such problems. The geek feminism Wiki has a page on “Allies” which includes “Even a blog post helps” [6]. It seems clear from public web sites run by women that women really want men to be involved.

Finally when I get blog comments and private email from women who thank me for my posts I take it as an implied request to do more of the same.

One thing that we really don’t want is to have men wait and do nothing until there is an immediate threat of violence. There are two massive problems with that plan, one is that being saved from a violent situation isn’t a fun experience, the other is that an immediate threat of violence is most likely to happen when there is no-one around to intervene.

Men Don’t Listen to Women

Rebecca Solnit wrote an article about being ignored by men titled “Men Explain Things to Me” [7]. When discussing women’s issues the term “Mansplaining” is often used for that sort of thing, the geek feminism Wiki has some background [8]. It seems obvious that the men who have the greatest need to be taught some things related to women’s issues are the ones who are least likely to listen to women. This implies that other men have to teach them.

Craig says that women need “space to discover and practice their own strength and their own voices“. I think that the best way to achieve that goal is to listen when women speak. Of course that doesn’t preclude speaking as well, just listen first, listen carefully, and listen more than you speak.

Craig claims that when men like me and Matthew Garrett comment on such issues we are making “women’s spaces more comfortable, more palatable, for men“. From all the discussion on this it seems quite obvious that what would make things more comfortable for men would be for the issue to never be discussed at all. It seems to me that two of the ways of making such discussions uncomfortable for most men are to discuss sexual assault and to discuss what should be done when you have a friend who treats women in a way that you don’t like. Matthew has covered both of those so it seems that he’s doing a good job of making men uncomfortable – I think that this is a good thing, a discussion that is “comfortable and palatable” for the people in power is not going to be any good for the people who aren’t in power.

The Voting Aspect

It seems to me that when certain issues are discussed we have a social process that is some form of vote. If one person complains then they are portrayed as crazy. When other people agree with the complaint then their comments are marginalised to try and preserve the narrative of one crazy person. It seems that in the case of the discussion about Rape Apology and LCA2011 most men who comment regard it as one person (either Valeria Aurora or Matthew Garrett) causing a dispute. There is even some commentary which references my blog post about Rape Apology [9] but somehow manages to ignore me when it comes to counting more than one person agreeing with Valerie. For reference David Zanetti was the first person to use the term “apologist for rapists” in connection with the LCA 2011 discussion [10]. So we have a count of at least three men already.

These same patterns always happen so making a comment in support makes a difference. It doesn’t have to be insightful, long, or well written, merely “I agree” and a link to a web page will help. Note that a blog post is much better than a comment in this regard, comments are much like conversation while a blog post is a stronger commitment to a position.

I don’t believe that the majority is necessarily correct. But an opinion which is supported by too small a minority isn’t going to be considered much by most people.

The Cost of Commenting

The Internet is a hostile environment, when you comment on a contentious issue there will be people who demonstrate their disagreement in uncivilised and even criminal ways. S. E. Smith wrote an informative post for Tiger Beatdown about the terrorism that feminist bloggers face [11]. I believe that men face fewer threats than women when they write about such things and the threats are less credible. I don’t believe that any of the men who have threatened me have the ability to carry out their threats but I expect that many women who receive such threats will consider them to be credible.

The difference in the frequency and nature of the terrorism (and there is no other word for what S. E. Smith describes) experienced by men and women gives a vastly different cost to commenting. So when men fail to address issues related to the behavior of other men that isn’t helping women in any way. It’s imposing a significant cost on women for covering issues which could be addressed by men for minimal cost.

It’s interesting to note that there are men who consider themselves to be brave because they write things which will cause women to criticise them or even accuse them of misogyny. I think that the women who write about such issues even though they will receive threats of significant violence are the brave ones.

Not Being Patronising

Craig raises the issue of not being patronising, which is of course very important. I think that the first thing to do to avoid being perceived as patronising in a blog post is to cite adequate references. I’ve spent a lot of time reading what women have written about such issues and cited the articles that seem most useful in describing the issues. I’m sure that some women will disagree with my choice of references and some will disagree with some of my conclusions, but I think that most women will appreciate that I read what women write (it seems that most men don’t).

It seems to me that a significant part of feminism is about women not having men tell them what to do. So when men offer advice on how to go about feminist advocacy it’s likely to be taken badly. It’s not just that women don’t want advice from men, but that advice from men is usually wrong. There are patterns in communication which mean that the effective strategies for women communicating with men are different from the effective strategies for men communicating with men (see my previous section on men not listening to women). Also there’s a common trend of men offering simplistic advice on how to solve problems, one thing to keep in mind is that any problem which affects many people and is easy to solve has probably been solved a long time ago.

Often when social issues are discussed there is some background in the life experience of the people involved. For example Rookie Mag has an article about the street harassment women face which includes many disturbing anecdotes (some of which concern primary school students) [12]. Obviously anyone who has lived through that sort of thing (which means most women) will instinctively understand some issues related to threatening sexual behavior that I can’t easily understand even when I spend some time considering the matter. So there will be things which don’t immediately appear to be serious problems to me but which are interpreted very differently by women. The non-patronising approach to such things is to accept the concerns women express as legitimate, to try to understand them, and not to argue about it. For example the issue that Valerie recently raised wasn’t something that seemed significant when I first read the email in question, but I carefully considered it when I saw her posts explaining the issue and what she wrote makes sense to me.

I don’t think it’s possible for a man to make a useful comment on any issue related to the treatment of women without consulting multiple women first. I suggest a pre-requisite for any man who wants to write any sort of long article about the treatment of women is to have conversations with multiple women who have relevant knowledge. I’ve had some long discussions with more than a few women who are involved with the FOSS community. This has given me a reasonable understanding of some of the issues (I won’t claim to be any sort of expert). I think that if you just go and imagine things about a group of people who have a significantly different life-experience then you will be wrong in many ways and often offensively wrong. Just reading isn’t enough, you need to have conversations with multiple people so that they can point out the things you don’t understand.

This isn’t any sort of comprehensive list of ways to avoid being patronising, but it’s a few things which seem like common mistakes.

Anne Onne wrote a detailed post advising men who want to comment on feminist blogs etc [13], most of it applies to any situation where men comment on women’s issues.

Taxing Inferior Products

I recently had a medical appointment cancelled due to a “computer crash”. Apparently the reception computer crashed and lost all bookings for a day and they just made new bookings for whoever called – and anyone who had a previous booking just missed out. I’ll probably never know whether they really had a computer problem or just used computer problems as an excuse when they made a mistake. But even if it wasn’t a real computer problem the fact that computers are so unreliable overall that “computer crash” is an acceptable excuse indicates a problem with the industry.

The problem of unreliable computers is a cost to everyone, it’s effectively a tax on all business and social interactions that involve computers. While I spent the extra money on a server with ECC RAM for my home file storage I have no control over the computers purchased by all the companies I deal with – which are mostly the cheapest available computers. I also have no option to buy a laptop with ECC RAM because companies like Lenovo have decided not to manufacture them.

It seems to me that the easiest way of increasing overall reliability of computers would be to use ECC RAM everywhere. In the early 90’s all IBM compatible PCs had parity RAM, that meant that for each byte there was one extra bit which would report 100% of single-bit errors and 50% of errors that involved random memory corruption. Then manufacturers decided to save a tiny amount of money on memory by using 8/9 the number of chips for desktop/laptop systems and probably make more money on selling servers with ECC RAM. If the government was to impose a 20% tax on computers that lack ECC RAM then manufacturers would immediately start using it everywhere and the end result would be no price increase overall as it’s cheaper to design desktop systems and servers with the same motherboards – apparently some desktop systems have motherboard support for ECC RAM but don’t ship with suitable RAM or advertise the support for such RAM.

This principle applies to many other products too. One obvious example is cars, a car manufacturer can sell cheap cars with few safety features and then when occupants of those cars and other road users are injured the government ends up paying for medical expenses and disability pensions. If there was a tax for every car that has a poor crash test rating and a tax for every car company that performs badly in real world use then it would give car companies some incentive to manufacture safer vehicles.

Now there are situations where design considerations preclude such features. For example implementing ECC RAM in mobile phones might involve technical difficulties (particularly for 32bit phones) and making some trucks and farm equipment safer might be difficult. But when a company produces multiple similar products that differ significantly in quality such as PCs with and without ECC RAM or cars with and without air-bags there would be no difficulty in making them all of them higher quality.

I don’t think that we will have a government that implements such ideas any time soon, it seems that our government is more interested in giving money to corporations than taxing them. But one thing that could be done is to adopt a policy of only giving money to companies if they produce high quality products. If a car company is to be given hundreds of millions of dollars for not closing a factory then that factory should produce cars with all possible safety features. If a computer company is going to be given significant tax breaks for doing R&D then they should be developing products that won’t crash.

Mobile Phones and Cognitive Costs

I previously wrote about the case for a Basic Income in Australia [1]. Since then I read an interesting article by Rutger Bregman in the Dutch site The Correspondent discussing the benefit that such Basic Income schemes have given in various places [2], he makes a great case for giving a Basic Income to poor people. However I believe that it should be provided to everyone. I believe that government payments shouldn’t be “means tested” because the proportion of the population who earn more than the cutoff is usually very small (IE it doesn’t save much money), because the money will be recovered from wealthy people in tax, and because the bureaucracy involved in determining who is eligible involves spending tax money to pay bureaucrats and costing everyone time in dealing with the process.

The concept of an Attention Economy has been getting some interest recently. But discussions of it seem to be mostly concerned with the needs of fairly wealthy people, how to advertise to them, how to filter out unwanted ads for them, etc. But the costs in attention can be even worse for people on low incomes or social security because they have many attention costs that could be solved by money. Many common essential purchases (EG soap, basic foods, and purely functional clothes) can become difficult decisions if saving a few dollars is important. The amount of thought involved in buying such items can result in someone who’s not well off having little energy to concentrate on other things. I think that to have an effective social security system we need to consider how much cognitive effort is being required of people who are receiving benefits.

Last month I wrote yet another review of mobile phone plans in Australia [3]. Every time I do this it takes a significant amount of time because the Telcos devise overly complex plans to make it difficult to compare their offerings. It seems that they aim to make their offerings somewhat competitive if you can interpret them but confusing enough to allow many (most?) of their customers to pay needlessly high bills. I could just pick a random telco and pay whatever it takes, spending an extra $10 or $20 per month isn’t such a big deal for me. Even though I advise a number of my relatives on the cheapest phone plan it’s probably only barely saving enough money to be worth the effort, a major motivation for me is being stubborn and not wanting telcos to rip people off.

The Importance of Mobile Phones

A mobile phone seems to be essential for most people. Mobile phones are used for making medical appointments and for applying for work, so in almost every case some of the financial assistance paid to a job seeker or person on a disability pension will go towards mobile phone costs. The aims of the social security benefits seem to clearly involve a phone service. Given that most people who receive social security payments spend some of that money on mobile phone bills the government has a direct financial interest in not having such money wasted on needlessly expensive phone plans. As we also don’t want to have people on social security spending time and attention trying to find the best phone plan it makes sense to have the government help manage this process.

Good communications is regarded as essential to education and economic development. A huge amount of taxpayer money was spent on the NBN (and then wasted by Tony Abbott when he cancelled the original plans) for these benefits.

Good phone access is also an issue of personal safety. While it is possible to call emergency services from a mobile phone that doesn’t have a valid SIM there are probably few people who keep a spare phone charged for that purpose. Also there are a variety of issues that can impact life or health which can best be resolved by calling friends or relatives.

Free Phones

I think that the best solution to these problems is for the government to directly pay mobile phone bills. If we are going to have a Basic Income then the government should make the base payment for mobile phone calls for every resident, if not then the government should make the base payment for everyone who receives any form of social security payment. Obviously the amount of data that could be transferred over a 3G network is greatly in excess of the amount that any plans allow and offering true “unlimited” calling leads to people using mobile phones as baby-monitors, so some limits are necessary. But the government could cheaply pay for a phone plan that exceeds the requirements of most people and then allow anyone who wants more data or calls to pay extra.

Which Plan?

The cheapest all-inclusive mobile phone plan in recent times was Kogan who charged $299 per annum for 6G of data per month and “unlimited” calls. The cheapest current offer for “unlimited” calls seems to be Lebara’s $30 per month offer which includes 2G of data.

My observation is that people who use 3G Internet just for phone use (as opposed to tethering a laptop or providing home Internet), who use a home Wifi network for installing Android programs and don’t play Ingress tend to use a lot less than 1G of data per month. I would use between 400M and 700M per month if I wasn’t playing Ingress and didn’t use my phone as a Wifi access point.

In terms of call volume, 600 minutes a month should be enough to cover the basic needs of most people judging by the number of plans on offer with limits smaller than that.

As a current Lebara offer is $30 per month for “unlimited” calls and 2G of data (and there are similar offers from other telcos), it should be possible for a telco to offer 600 minutes of calls and 1G of data for less than $15 per month. When the government is paying (no bad debts) and many of the users will use much less than the quota such a plan should be profitable at $10 per month or less.

Implementation

The way to implement this would be to start with a tender that has a hard requirement for the minimum amount of service provided. This would include the number of minutes per month for calls, the number of SMS sent, and the amount of data transfer. To avoid excessive billing (a standard telco scam) there should be a requirement that fees for extra use not exceed some small multiple of the base rate, for example if the government was paying $10 for 600 minutes of calls and 1G of data the excess usage charges could be capped at 3 cents per meg and 5 cents per minute (3* the base rate) which would be profitable for the telco but not a scam.

If the telcos act in a market driven competitive manner they will compete to provide the most attractive offerings for $10 per month.

If the build cost of the NBN had been invested at government bond rates (for any of the rates used for current bonds) then it would pay for the mobile phone bills for every resident forever, so the cost of providing phones for everyone is in the range of government telecommunications programs. If people who are working were to pay an extra $10 in tax and people who are on social security had their benefits reduced by $10 then that would be a great deal if it saved them the $20 or more that most people spend on a basic phone plan.

Government Phone Delays

A friend who’s a single mother pays for an “unlimited” mobile phone plan because calls to the social security office are usually kept on hold for more than an hour. It’s likely that she could save money over the course of a year by paying for a cheaper plan and just dealing with the occasional big bill, but she needs to budget carefully and feels that she can’t take that risk. It seems stupid that government phone delays (partly caused by cutting funds for staff) cause increased expenses for people who are receiving social security payments. If the government implemented a smart queuing system that allowed them to call people back instead of making them wait on hold then it would save money overall.

So there are obviously other ways that the government can save money on phone calls and time for everyone.

Political Advocacy in Clubs

One topic that often gets discussed when it’s near election time is whether clubs and societies should be “political”. Some organisations are limited in what they can do, for example in some jurisdictions religious organisations can theoretically lose their tax exempt status if they advocate for one party. In practice any organisation that has a wide membership will have a variety of political views represented so a policy of directly supporting one candidate or party is likely to lose some members.

A common practice among some clubs is to send questionnaires to parties before elections. This might cause a policy change in the parties that do whatever it takes to get votes (as opposed to the parties who devise policy based on principle). But it also provides members a list of how the parties compare on the basis of the criteria that matter to the club.

I think that organisations such as Linux Australia [1] and the Linux Users of Victoria [2] should send such questionnaires and publish an analysis of the results. I previously suggested a few questions that could be asked [3], the last one received some negative comments for being too tabloid but the others got some agreement. But obviously there would need to be some discussion about which questions are in scope and how they should be asked. Such a discussion would take a while and would need to be started well before an election was called, I think if we start now we should be able to get it done before the next federal election is called.

There is one Australian political party that has a consistent record of having IT policies that are in line with the general aims of Linux Australia and which also has policies that meet the social standards that are generally agreed by most of the membership (EG opposing discrimination). But I know that there are some members of the Linux community who advocate various forms of discrimination and would vote accordingly so advocating for that party would get some negative reactions. But if someone wants to vote for a party that advocates discrimination against minority groups I don’t think that there’s any harm in providing information to allow them to vote for a pro-discrimination party that has a reasonable IT policy. In any case it doesn’t seem likely that we can get most of the membership of an organisation like Linux Australia to agree on what parties are unacceptable, so sending a questionnaire to all parties avoids that debate.

I would like to see this sort of thing done by LUGs for all state and territory elections. I will be involved in the process with LUV for the Victorian elections, but I have to just hope that my blog posts inspire people in other states and territories – if anyone has already started on this then please let me know. I will also be involved with getting this done for the federal elections with Linux Australia, hopefully this post will help get people interested in that.

A Basic Income for Australia

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the concept of a Basic Income (Wikipedia), largely due to the efforts to change the Swiss constitution to provide a Basic Income [1]. The concept of a Basic Income is that residents get a fixed payment without having to be sick, disabled, looking for work, or eligible for other forms of social security.

A Basic Income wouldn’t replace all other forms of social security, one of the most obvious examples is that sick people will often need money for medical care in additional to living expenses. Also I believe that it shouldn’t be means tested in any way. I think that one of the problems with current payment schemes is that there are complex eligibility criteria which require effort for the applicant and for government agencies to prevent accidental or fraudulent over-payment. The tax rates could be raised slightly to make it revenue neutral.

Newstart

In Australia the main form of social security for unemployed people at the moment is called “Newstart” [2]. Currently Newstart payments range from a maximum of $501 per fortnight for a single person ($13,026 per annum), to a maximum of $699.90 per fortnight for someone who is a carer.

The Newstart payments start to decrease if the recipient earns more than $62 per fortnight. The minimum wage in Australia is $16.37 per hour for permanent work or $20.30 for casual work [3]. So if someone works for more than 3 hours at a casual rate (and I can’t imagine 4 hours a fortnight being anything other than casual) then their Newstart payments will decrease. The payment decreases are fairly significant, for every dollar that is earned about 50 cents will be deducted from the payments. That’s a great incentive to either avoid opportunities to do part-time work or to do cash-only work that’s outside the tax system.

The most obvious way of implementing a Basic Income would be to replace Newstart. Then anyone who is in that situation would be free to just not get a job – which would be OK IMHO as people who don’t want to work probably wouldn’t do a good job if the government forced them to get a job. People who are unemployed who want to work could work as much as they want and scale up according to what their employer asks and how much money they need.

Currently the full-time minimum wage is $622.20 per week (I’m not sure exactly how they get that from $16.37). That’s almost 2.5* the Newstart allowance for a single person (but less than twice the Newstart allowance for a carer). While Newstart (and the other forms of social security) don’t provide a great income, it seems that the difference between Newstart and the minimum wage isn’t that great – particularly when you consider that working involves some expenses for travel etc. There doesn’t seem to be a great financial incentive for someone to leave Newstart and get a minimum wage job.

People Who Want Social Security

Some people think it’s great to get government payments while others find it embarrassing to need such payments and won’t necessarily apply if they are eligible. I think that the current system of forcing people to apply for social security is a way of discouraging people who find themselves unexpectedly in a difficult situation but doesn’t discourage people who are happy not to work. This seems to effectively reduce the incidence of payments to the people who most tax-payers would regard as the most worthy recipients.

Economics

Charles Stross wrote about some ideas related to this [4]. He suggests that as the workforce participation has been steadily reducing due to technology we should move to a social model that isn’t based around working to live but working to buy luxuries that aren’t covered by the Basic Income.

One of the many economic changes related to a Basic Income is that the minimum wage could be smaller than it might otherwise be. For example if the minimum wage was decreased by the same amount that the Basic Income provided then the minimum income would remain the same while employers would pay less, this would affect the viability of certain types of contract work web sites if they were subject to minimum wage laws (currently they just ignore the minimum wage laws by paying based on job completion instead of hours worked). I don’t think that the minimum wage should decrease that much though, currently employers are able to run viable businesses with the minimum wage laws and I don’t think that a Basic Income should be used as a way of helping corporations avoid paying their employees.

If we had a Basic Income then there’s many ways that it could be used to stabilise the economy. If people could pay their rent even if they lost their job then a down-turn in one area of the economy wouldn’t immediately affect other areas. Also if rent payments were deducted automatically from an account used to receive the Basic Income then landlords would be more likely to rent to poor people as they could be guaranteed to receive rent payments (it would be easy to have a contractual agreement for rent to take priority and have bank computers enforce that).

The Implementation Problem

I don’t think that my idea would have any significant negative effects. It wouldn’t decrease government revenues if tax was adjusted accordingly. It wouldn’t make people stop working as people who don’t want to work already avoid it. It would help people who are out of work to get work by reducing the barriers to entry in terms of paperwork and of unreasonable cuts to Newstart making it bad value to take part time work.

I think that the big problem with implementing it is people who want to prevent poor people from having opportunities. They want to reduce social security and minimum wages even though such changes will in the long run only give less tax revenue and greater expense in law enforcement. It seems rather ironic that such hostility often comes from people at the low end of the middle class whos jobs are most likely to be at risk from new technology.

As on-going technological development reduces the number of workers that are required to keep things running we need to have some form of payment to the people who aren’t doing enough work to survive. A decent Basic Income is a much better option than giving Newstart payments and forcing a significant portion of the population into a degrading search for jobs that don’t exist. As that’s the inevitable future I think we should make political changes to deal with it sooner rather than later. However a Basic Income might be implemented now it’s surely going to be a lot better than what might happen if we wait until the majority of the population are unemployed before doing something about it.

Failures of Intelligence Agencies

There’s been an ongoing news issue related to the NSA that I’m not going to directly comment on, Charles Stross has one of the more interesting comments about it [1]. One of his major points is that any success at government secrecy relies on the type of work environment that existed 40+ years ago. Corporatism has killed government secrecy – now it’s a matter of time before corporate whistle-blowers start seriously leaking documents.

One article that Charles links to is an interesting and insightful blog post Adam Curtis wrote for the BBC about the many failures of MI5 [2]. I think that everyone is aware of their biggest failures but from Adam’s article it seems that they have only failed and never succeeded in anything. I wonder whether ASIO is any better, it’s probably not (the Wikipedia page notes the involvement of MI5 in creating ASIO). It seems that the best way of achieving the goals of ASIO and MI5 would be to disband those organisations and assign regular police to do such work, after all it’s been proven that British police are better at catching spies than MI5.

The 2013 Federal Election

picture of rubbish left after the federal election

Seven hours ago I was handing out how to vote cards for the Greens at the 2013 Australian Federal election. I was hoping that either we would have a Labor/Greens coalition or an outright majority for Labor. Unfortunately we got a Liberal majority in the lower house and it looks like some extreme right wing groups may get into the senate (replacements for “Family First” – the anti-Gay party).

For some reason the polling station where I was working only had volunteers from the three major parties (Greens, Labor, and Liberal) while other polling stations in the same electorate had volunteers from smaller parties such as the Sex Party and the Socialist Alliance.

The volunteers from the Liberal party ate McDonalds outside the polling station and afterwards McDonalds rubbish was left on the ground, the above picture isn’t particularly clear because I took it after 6PM when the polls closed. The Liberals didn’t care enough to put their rubbish in a bin, it’s an externality for them, if they get enough seats in the senate they will surely take the same approach to governing Australia. The Labor people didn’t take the effort to clean up the Liberal mess even though it wasn’t particularly difficult to do so, I think that’s the type of attitude that led to this election defeat. In the case of the McDonalds rubbish in question I put it in the bin so that when the primary school kids return on Monday their school won’t be too messy after the election. But in the case of the mess that is being made in Australian politics it will take many more Greens votes to allow us to clean it up.