Thursday, October 20, 2016

Donald Trump Is Not A Joke

I've been having as much fun as anyone making up Trump jokes. But after what he said in the third debate with Hillary Clinton, he's a menace we have to take more seriously. He's confirmed on national TV that he's willing to subvert the Republic to improve the ratings on the reality show his life has become. When he says he will not concede victory to Clinton because she has "rigged" the election, he's inviting his more deplorable followers to try to rig it the other way.

Let me talk about his accusations, which apparently mainly revolve around her private e-mail server. The Justice Department, while it found her behavior infuriating, did not find it criminal, and most neutral observers with knowledge of Justice's working agree. Trump believes the result was wired when Hillary's husband met with the Attorney General for 30 minutes on her airplane when they happened to be in the same city for half a day. He, and Loretta Lynch, should have had a better sense of the "optics" of such a meeting, but they deny any wrongdoing, and no one has accused them of anything concrete, like transferring some cash from the Clinton Foundation to her private bank account. (I assume someone has actually looked into the matter, probably not Trump himself, who prefers to rely on imaginary investigators, whose results he can't believe, but which would astound you.)

Even if Hillary Clinton were guilty of setting up an e-mail server she shouldn't have set up, it's odd that no one can point to anything damaging that's occurred as a result. Odd as it may seem, none of the leaks about her e-mail have resulted from intrusions into that private server. They're from people she corresponded with, or from files released by the State Department. Does this mean her IT people are better than other people's? That she's just been lucky? Or that the Russians are saving their most explosive revelations for the last week of the campaign? I favor explanation number two (luck), although her IT people must be pretty good to delete 13,000 personal e-messages without leaving a copy on a server somewhere.

But I digress. The point is, Trump's claim that Clinton "should have been disqualified from running" is preposterous. He must know it's preposterous, or perhaps he doesn't care whether the accusation is true or not. As with all his previous accusations and claims, his test is not Is it true?, but Will it improve my ratings? It was infuriating, but somewhat amusing, to see how people were willing to fulfill their side of the bargain and give him the attention he wants more and more of. The infuriating part is how news organizations have sought him out so they can bask in his reflected glory. If they ignore him, they fear they might become irrelevant. So they expand their coverage of him, and shrink their coverage of reality. At times it has seemed as if Trump's opponent doesn't exist. Unless you live in a swing state, and can expect a visit from Clinton and her surrogates, and lots of pro-Clinton TV adds, you have to turn to page 6 for coverage of anything about the election besides Trump's latest outrageous statements. "Clinton Gives Speech About National Security" is not news; news is "Trump Claims Clinton Started `Birther' Rumor" (which he eventually laid to rest — a claim that now seems only quaintly extravagant).

If all Trump wanted to do was bluster about her e-mail server and the rumors swirling around it, that's his prerogative. But when he says he might refuse to abide by the results of the election, that is shocking. Ladies and gentlemen, Al Gore abided by the results of the 2000 election, including the straw poll on the Supreme Court, which he lost, 5 to 4. He said, if memory serves, "I disagree [with the Supreme Court's decision to stop the Florida recount], but I accept it." It was a gracious and gentlemanly thing to do, and I've always admired it. He had no choice but to accept the result of the election, and he could have stopped short of saying he accepted it, without there being any consequences. But he understood that it was important to the Republic to have a process that, even with a few flaws, produces a definite result that all the participants would accept.

Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Nixon abided by the results of the 1960 election, even though voting irregularities in Chicago made the difference in who won Illinois. If Nixon had won Illinois, he would have won in the Electoral College. He had, so I've heard, good reason to believe that the Daley machine in Chicago had waited until it knew how many votes Kennedy needed to carry Illinois, and it gave him that many votes. But Nixon, rather than putting his victory above the interests of the public in finding out the results without delay, conceded the election to Kennedy within a few hours after the polls closed.Gore comparison

The only people in US history who seriously refused to abide by the results of an election were the rabid pro-slavery citizens of most southern states,Troublemakers who refused to abide by the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. They contrived to get several states to try to secede from the Union, a crime that was reversed only at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

It was a southerner, William Faulkner, who said, "The past is never dead; it is not even past," and he knew what he was talking about. There are plenty of people in the South, but not just in the South, who will read Trump's defiant refusals to say he will abide by the election as a call to push back against those who have rigged it. Some of them have enough control of ballot boxes to stuff them; others will exert pressure by rounding up all the former Klan members they know, and going down to take names of African-Americans casting their votes.

I doubt they can really influence the results. I'm sure the police have thought this through and are ready to go down to polling places to provide security for voters and stop intimidation efforts. Well, I have confidence in the police in big cities; in smaller towns the police are probably still somewhat sympathetic with the "stormtrumpers" trying to intimidate African-Americans. Most Americans now live in cities, so these intimidation efforts, while scary, will yield only marginal results. Still, for even one African-American to be scared away from voting is a bitter turn of events. We're supposed to have left racism behind, say the very people willing to demonstrate how alive and well it is.

Many people say they're voting for Trump because it's the only way to get the elite to notice their distress. They're like "Brexit" voters in England, willing to damage the country to break the complacent illusion of the elite that the country's working just fine. I understand that. The question is just how much damage they're willing for the country to sustain. I hope they decide that destroying confidence in elections is beyond that limit.


Note Gore comparison
So why didn't Gore concede Florida to Bush and not demand a recount? Actually, if memory serves, the election was so close that Florida law required a recount, or perhaps the election board called it. The Republicans understood that Bush, who was ahead by a handful of votes in the initial count, must, for psychological impact, never come out behind as the recount proceeded. They rushed to Florida their finest legal team and a several Republican Congressional staff members posing as concerned citizens. These citizens watched the recounters in a totally nonpartisan and unintimidating way. The Democrats did not respond in kind. Their legal team was not in the same league as the Republicans'. They seemed to trust the the wheels of justice to reach a just result. Perhaps a just result was reached. In any case, Gore accepted it with minimal dissent. [Back]

Note Troublemakers
We can thank Lyndon Johnson for shifting these troublemakers from the Democratic Party to the Republican, although a whole generation of liberal Democrats were supporting him in important ways. It is ironic that Lincoln's Republican Party is now keeping the Lost Cause, Confederate flags and all, on life support; while the task of fighting racism has fallen to the Democrats. [Back]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


In his blog entry entitled "Who Killed Prolog?", Maarten van Emden suggests that the Japanese Fifth Generation project killed Prolog by overhyping it. I agree that it did Prolog no huge favors by overhyping; as someone who has benefited from overhyping of AI, and usualy paid a price later, I wish people who get hysterical about AI would just get over their Frankenstein fantasies.
However, I think Prolog also has internal problems that have stymied its development. I base this on my recent experience teaching a course on computational linguistics. The textbook is Blackburn and Bos's book Representation and Inference in Natural Language, which uses Prolog throughout. I've had a blast doing some Prolog hacking, but I've also been sharply reminded about the language's limitations:
  1. Every Prolog program is basically organized as a global nondeterministic loop. When control gets to the end without a failure, the resulting variable bindings hold the answer. This behavior makes sense for some problems, but not all. Even when it does make sense, technically, the way success and failure propagate out of one piece of a system and into another is often counterintuitive. For example, I wrote an NLP parser that was returning the same parse multiple times, often exponentially many times. The problem turned out to be that the morphology module was succeeding exponentially many times. A better programmer would have seen trouble coming, or would have been a more thorough tester than I. But really, why should multiple success in the humble morphology module be allowed to propagate to the syntax module in the first place?
    What one wants to be able to do is put some braces around a piece of search code and declare what sorts of success and failure signals it makes sense for one box to send to another. If failure in the syntax box might be due to a bad morphological analysis, one should say so; otherwise, a failure in syntax will not result in trying to find another morphological analysis at all.insulation
  2. The Prolog search engine is underneath the hood, inaccessible to the application programmer. Adding enhanced facilities such as tabling and constraint logic programming makes the search engine more complex, requiring hints and nudges to work properly, but it is still somewhere offstage. What language is the engine written in? Is it as high-level as Prolog? If so, why can't it be made visible to the Programmer, in a notation integrated with the notation of the overall program? (Perhaps a language like Oz makes this possible.) Yes, I know that in Prolog it is easy to write your own "meta-interpreter," and vary it to your heart's content, but then you are writing your own language — on top of the built-in engine. Somehow there should be a place to stand outside of all the search processes, a place from which the search can be managed.
    Recent Prologs have exception-handling mechanisms, but they are independent of the failure-handing mechanisms. Perhaps the two could be unified. Imagine a language where one way exceptions can propagate is chronologically. The possible places an exception might land could be partly declared in advance, partly settled at run-time.scheme
  3. Prolog code, especially for manipulating recursive data, has a functional feel. A Haskell programmer will feel right at home, merely needing to add an argument or two to turn functions defined by pattrn matching into relations; and to adjust to the switch from booleans to success/failure. But this happy story takes an abrupt turn for the worse when it is necessary to use side effects and suddenly we are "asserting" data into a global "database." Although the DB raises issues of namespace control (suppose two modules written by different people use the same dynamic predicates), a far uglier issue is the poor level of integration of the assert/retract system with the search engine. There is no way to specify that the lifetime of a DB is specific to a module. It is entirely the programmer's responsibility to use low-level primitives to ensure that just the right assertions are retracted at the just the right time so that failure out of a program and success back into it will work properly.
  4. Prolog is completely untyped. Although untyped ("dynamic") languages are enjoying a vogue right now among young programmers (who love Ruby and (shudder) Python), I think this just shows how poorly educated most programmers are. I am very fond of Common Lisp, but I find it hard to use without my macros for civilizing CL's clumsy type-declaration notations. Restructuring Prolog to fix the other problems in this list would benefit a lot from having types to serve as support beams. For instance, exception-propagation control requires knowing the types of exceptions.
    There are a couple of possible comebacks here: (a) Prolog terms are typed, one might argue, typed by their "functors" (their predicates and/or functions). Yes, this might be adequate for data structures that consist entirely of a globally knowable list of slot fillers, but not for a large data structures with hidden or computed parts. (b) There are OO extensions to Prolog, such as F-logic and LogTalk. Perhaps this is where Prolog is going in the future. I don't know how the OO features sit with the basic Prolog worldview. Plus, objects by themselves do not give you types.
Even if Prolog and Lisp are essentially dead, living on as embers of formerly roaring fires, there are some consolations. These languages contributed many features to languages with warmer metabolisms, such as garbage collection, functional programming, and pattern matching. (Although many programmers don't know this history.amnesia) Perhaps we should think of these old, beautiful languages as the classical music of the programming world. The community of listeners is small, but their being outnumbered by pop fans doesn't mean pop is superior to serious music; quite the opposite: only the person with wisdom and insight can appreciate the intricate complexities of classical music, Lisp, and Prolog.


Note insulation
Of course, I am not advocating being able to insulate programmers from the consequences of buggy code; the problem in the morphology analyzer needs to be caught before it leads to an exponential search for one correct answer. But sometimes the failure propagating back into a module will cause an expensive, futile (but correct) search in that module ultimately leading to its correctly signaling failure; one should be able to skip that on the grounds that even success there wouldn't help the failing module. [Back]
Note scheme
I'm sure this could be done in Scheme, using call-with-current-continuation. This is a consequence of a folk theorem that anything can be done with call/cc. [Back]
Note amnesia
Recently trained programmers seem to think the world consist of the systems they were trained on. If they were taught Ruby, they defend it to the death against critics, because it seems natural to them. (I can't claim to be an exception, having been trained on Lisp as an undergraduate.) So, in the 1980s, everyone was a C programmer, and garbage collection was attacked as being for people too stupid to know when to free a malloc'ed block of storage. Now everyone takes garbage collection for granted, simply because Java, Python, and Ruby have it, although no one knows why. It drives me crazy that from generation to generation programmers hate Lisp syntax, just because a+b isn't the way you add two numbers. They don't always know how many of the forebears have shared their disdain; the other day someone criticized Lisp's "novel and unintuitive" syntax on some message board. "Unintuitive," okay, but "novel"? One of these days Clojure or something of that sort will become a big success story, and all of a sudden Lisp's syntax will be defended as the only one possible. [Back]

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Bye-bye Romney

Whew! The ongoing catastrophe of Republican rule has been staved off for another four more years.

And perhaps even the super-deluded on the far right will decide that:
  • You can't suppress the vote enough to keep middled-aged white men running things.
  • You can't buy an election, even with hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • Or have your corporate personalities buy it.
  • Denying that climate change or government shutdown are bad things does not make them any less disastrous.
Or perhaps they will decide that craziness got them the House of Representatives in 2010, and they just weren't crazy enough this time around.

One thing's for sure: We're going to be seeing a lot more of Paul Ryan.  He's not the brainiac he thinks he is, but he's got more staying power than Sarah Palin.  Perhaps 2016 will be Paul vs. Hillary?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A Modest Proposal for Ohio State University

Ohio's flagship university, Ohio State, now receives 7 percent of its budget from the state, down from … 25 percent in 1990. … [Governor] Kasich questions why all state universities need to offer every major, like journalism or engineering, instead of parceling those programs among the schools. … "It's duplication of resources. … [S]weeping change … is needed across academia." — New York Times, May 13
Since the state of Ohio is so obviously out of touch with the importance of education in the lives of its young people, and since it's spending almost nothing (4 percent of the state budget, according to the same Times article) on higher education, I believe everyone in Ohio will be made happier if the state and Ohio State come to a parting of the ways.
In other words, I propose that Ohio State take itself private. The state will get back 4 percent of its budget and State will get back self-respect and control of its own destiny. It might not even have to tighten its belt by 7 percent (a sum that the legislature is no doubt already pining to slash anyway); alumni, cheered by the prospect of a reinvigorated, private Ohio State, will probably contribute all they can to help fill the gap.
Of course, the new Ohio State will have to pay for the real estate that it occupies and that is no doubt owned by the state. But they can raise the down payment by spinning off the football team, the famed Buckeyes, who will be much happier finally admitting that they are a minor-league farm team for the National Football League. (Or perhpas they can become the football equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters.) I don't know what fraction of the 7-percent subsidy from the state supports the football team, but it's a fraction the new Ohio State won't have to worry about.
Not that sports have no place on a college campus. Perish the thought. Just as it's important for future engineers to be exposed to journalism and even comparative literature, it's important for all those eggheads to be exposed to, even required to participate in, the beauty and joy of physical activity. Imagine an Ohio State where one expects to see football players in real classes making real grades, and where any student who played football in high school can dream of making the varsity team.
Ohio State's bold move could start a trend. The fifty states that compose this brave land of ours can finally admit that their job is not to enrich the lives of their citizens, but to provide vocational training for those whose lives have settled into a steady groove that they can quietly stay in as they serve out their drab, one-dimensional lives. The high schools can sort people into bins labeled "journalist" or "engineer," and they can be efficiently slotted into the Ohio State Vocational School for Engineering, or the the Ohio State Journalism School; except that one lifetime may be a bit too long a time horizon for that last one.
The Times article mentions that the prison budget in Ohio is twice the size of the budget for higher education. I'm sure inefficient duplication would be reduced if the education system were simply merged into the prison system; in Governor Kasich's eyes, the two bear remarkable similarities.
Meanwhile, the universities, freed from the states that no longer appreciate what they are for, will find they are much happier raising money from alumni and charitable foundations than from those beady-eyed state legislators.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Advice to Someone Going In For Some Physical Rehab

I've just spent some time in Gaylord Specialty Healthcare, a physical-rehabphysical center in Wallingford, Connecticut. (A world-class facility that I would recommend to anyone.) Here are some things I wish someone had told me before I went in:

  • Be in good physical shape. You may think, "I'm just a 90-pound weakling. I only want to be the same 90-pound weakling when I'm done." Okay, but when you start rehab you will be a 45-pound weakling, and getting back to 90 is going to be tedious at best. If you get stronger, you may have the luxury of starting at roughly the level you want to finish at.
  • Get medical problems attended to. Been in denial about that mysterious pain in the ankle or left arm that comes and goes; the one that's been coming a bit more than going lately? When you start rehab, that pain is going to seem like agony that won't quit. They're going to ask you, "What is it? What needs to be done about it?"; and you're going to feel like an idiot.
  • Is there some physical task that's been getting difficult over the years? Figure out how you're going to cope with the fact that it's going to be impossible for at least a few weeks.

    For me, it was cutting my toenails. For various reasons it's been hard to get my foot into position, and hard to do the manipulation required, especially with my left hand. That task is going to be impossible when you start rehab, and guess what? No one can cut your toenails around here but the podiatrist, so you have to make an appointment. That doesn't mean your wife or brother can't cut your toenails. Or maybe you can live with uncut toenails for six weeks or twelve months or whatever it's going to take. (You probably can't.)

  • If there's some piece of equipment you've kind of wished you had for some physical task, get it. For example, do your bifocals ever make it awkward to read a computer screen, because one of the lenses is right for things much further away than a computer screen and the other is right for things much closer? In "real life" you've always just pushed your laptop a little this way or a little that way. In rehab, it's going to be impossible to read your laptop screen. Maybe you can live with that for a while.

    If you find some good toenail clippers, let me know where you got them; I'm still looking.

  • Make sure your spouse or someone else close to you knows where everything is in your house that you may need. You've always known how to find the switch that resets the furnace in your house. Now suppose the heat fails in the dead of winter with your spouse and child at home. Can they find that switch?

    This is especially true for financially relevant information, including account numbers for bank accounts, credit cards, and monthly bills. If you're the one that handles this stuff in your household, how much of it can you neglect for a month or two or twelve? You probably can neglect balancing the check account indefinitely (as apparently many people do), but paying the average bill cannot be put off more than a month or two without incurring various charges and disconnections; but you know all that. Make sure someone you trust knows the account numbers, online passwords, etc.

    If you're short on such people (as, tragically, many of us will be if we live long enough), consider getting in touch with some local religious organization that is in harmony with your background. If you've been a Buddhist for many years, but your main connection with your spiritual guide in Nepal is via regular Skype calls, consider getting in touch with that Orthodox Jewish temple near you that reminds you of the community you grew up in. A group of people committed to keeping a religious community going are probably less likely to collude to rip you off than any one person you don't know that well. (And maybe that eligible-bachelor rabbi could get interested in that unmarried granddaughter of yours.)

And finally: Anyone here for more than a day will swear religiously to exercise daily, keep their weight under control, fasten their seat belt, stop smoking, and get substance abuse under control. Some people are here because they were stricken by mysterious diseases, but many were stricken by diseases due to smoking, obesity, and other avoidable conditions. It's easy to say, Oh, I don't mind trading a few years at the end of my life for the pleasure I'm getting now; but be aware that those years at the end of your life are going to involve a lot of rehab.


Note physical
As opposed to substance-abuse rehab, as in "Robert Downey, Jr. has spent a lot of time in rehab, but seems to be past that." [Back]

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Property-Revaluation Flap — 2012 Edition

Lately there has been much emotion exerted over the issue of the property revaluation that occurred last year. People whose property increased in value since 2006 are holding meetings with the mayor, demanding that their taxes not go up. My purpose here is to explain why all this agitation is basically wasted.

I live in a neighborhood called East Rock. The name was coined by the local real-estate tsarina, who thought that the previous name for the neighborhood, "Goatville," might, if advertised, decrease property values all by itself. (Maybe we should try that!) There really is an East Rock overlooking the 'hood, a big chunk of basalt that has eroded slower than the rocks that used to encrust it. There's a pleasant park surrounding our little mountain, and also bearing its name. There is also a West Rock, with a similar origin. New Haven is squeezed between the two, which may seem improbable given how isolated they are, but the city's street network is defined by the bottlenecks created by the Rocks and the Long Island Sound.

East Rock — the neighborhood — is a pleasant place to live, with many shops and restaurants within easy walking distance. It's not the richest neighborhood in town, but most of the town is poorer.

Like many cities, New Haven collects taxes from its citizens based on the dollar value of the property they own. "Property" means houses and cars. To estimate the value of the cars, they look the values up in the same books car dealers use. To estimate the value of the houses, they send people around every five years to look at each house and estimate its market value.

The last 3 revaluations were done in 2001, 2006, and 2011. We all know what happened to real estate prices in the last ten years. Sure enough, the assessed values went way up in 2006, and then went down in 2011. Right? Not quite. Whenever property values shoot up, people get worried their taxes are going to go way up. The City agrees to do a "phase-in," where the house assessments rise gradually from their previous value to the new values. How gradually? Just fast enough so that, about the time the next evaluation is done, they will have reached their new value. This is to give people time to prepare … — Really? Prepare by putting their house on the market? Or what?

Never mind; that's not the main thing I want to make fun of. This year things are complicated by the fact that because everyone knew property values had tanked in 2009, the City agreed to freeze the ongoing phase-in from 2001 values to 2006 values. So the assessed values were stuck somewhere in 2003 when the 2011 evalution occurred. Nonetheless, property values in most of the city had gone down; most people's houses have an assessed value less than that somewhat arbitrary partially-phased-in value from the past. There are, of course, exceptions, neighborhoods where the average house value is higher now than it was in (hypothetical) 2003. One of them is East Rock. This has everyone in East Rock terrified that their tax bills are going to shoot up this year.

Confused yet? Well, don't bother to review the story so far too carefully, because

None of the stuff above has much impact on whether taxes go up.

To explain, let me simplify by portraying a simpler city than New Haven, so simple that it has just two houses. I'll call it Twoville. One house is owned by Mr. A, the other by Ms. B. Let's also assume that Twoville's entire budget is a mere $1000 per year. If the two houses have the same assessed value, then A will pay $500 in taxes and B will pay $500. For concreteness, let's assume both houses are initially assessed at $400,000.

Now suppose there's a revaluation, and because of a real-estate bubble (these have been known to happen), both A and B see their assessed house values go up by 50%, to $600,000. Oh my! Does this mean that Twoville gets a windfall 50% increase in revenue at the expense of the taxpayers? No. The town still spends $1000/year, and collects the same amount in taxes. The "mil rate," i.e., the tax expressed as a fraction of the property value, goes down by exactly the amount required to keep the revenue the same. To collect $1000 when the houses were worth $300,000 each, the rate had to be 0.00166. After they double, it must go down to 0.000083. (The decimal point is usually put somewhere else, for reasons I never quite get.) Contrariwise, if there is a real-estate crash and both Mr. A's and Ms. B's houses decline in value, the mil rate goes up. Unless the citizens can figure out how to impose massive cuts on the city budget, the taxes just gotta be collected.

Now suppose that A's house is on one side of town, B's on the other. (Twoville has a low population density.) The town bordering Twoville on A's side of town decides to put a toxic waste dump right across the street from A. His property value plummets. On B's side, the neighboring town tears down a blockful of abandoned factories and puts in a beautiful park. Her property value zooms up.

Now for the scenario we care about: In the latest revaluation, B's house appreciates in value by 40%, and A's declines in value by 30%, so that A's house is worth $420,000 and B's is worth $840,000. In other words, A's house is now worth half as much as B's (ratio: 0.7 compared to 1.4). If everything else stays the same, B will pay twice as much in taxes as A, meaning that she pays $667 and A pays $333 (rounding a bit). (We don't have to know how much their houses are actually assessed at to figure this out; all you need to know is the ratio of house values. But it helps to see concrete house prices.) Now B is politically savvy; she organizes her friends (or perhaps her many tenants) to lobby the Twoville city government to do something about her plight. A is oblivious or doesn't know how to work the levers of politics; he sits on his hands. The mayor agrees to help B by phasing in any assessment increases over 5 years. However, anyone who gets a decrease gets it immediately.

What a great compromise! It's good for A and B, right? Well, a moment's reflection will convince you that that just can't be correct. Assuming the city budget remains at $1000 next year, not everybody's taxes can go down! We have a zero-sum game here.

B's house is now assessed at a value 1.08 times last year's value instead of 1.4, because 0.08 is 20% of the distance between 1 and 1.4. A's is still assessed at 0.7 of what it was. The ratio between 1.08 and 0.7 is 1.54. (If you want real prices, it's the ratio between $648,000 and $420,000.) So we need to find two numbers in the ratio of 1.54 to 1.0 that add up to $1000. The answer is $606 and $394 (rounding a bit). Next year the ratio will be 1.16 to 0.7 (= 1.66), and so forth, until after five years the ratio gets to the ratio of actual assessed values, 2 to 1.Ratios

Is that fair? Well, it certainly may seem fair to Ms. B! Instead of her taxes going up 33%, they go up 21%. But Mr. A's taxes, instead of falling by 34%, fall by only 21%. (Over the next few years, of course, as they "prepare" for the changes, perhaps by investing in shares of a fracking company, the taxes glide to the 2-to-1 ratio.)

The case is often made by people in East Rock that, just because someone's house goes up X% in value, that doesn't mean they've actually gotten X% wealthier, or that their ability to pay has gone up that amount, or at all. True enough. But it applies just as much to people whose houses have gone down in assessed value, maybe more so. Suppose Mr. A's mortgage is large enough that the decline in his property values due to the toxic waste dump puts him "underwater"; he owes more than the house is worth. (Turns out he's not the original owner; that would be Mr. A'. This Mr. A borrowed $500,000 to buy the house from A' for $600,000; big mistake.) A is essentially bankrupt, and could do nothing to fight the bank if they decided to foreclose. He could really use a 33% decrease in taxes, which he will now have to wait years for in order to help out his friend Ms. B.

In fact, the whole idea of measuring wealth by house prices is obsolete, for two reasons:

  1. Until the late twentieth century, the only wealth that a person couldn't hide was their house. But nowadays the state government knows about every bank account you have. The banks have to transmit this information to the federal and state governments in connection with income taxes. The state could perfectly well share it with the towns. Twoville could take into account all of the assets of Mr. A and Ms. B.All
  2. Why in the world should taxes be based on wealth anyway? The original rationale was that, in many jurisdictions, you had to own property in order to vote. The idea was that the government was to be run by people with a stake in the community, people with a proven track record of wisdom and maturity. These were the people who owned property. They were wise enough to keep, manage, and grow their wealth, and they had a lot to lose if the community went downhill. In return for the privilege of running the town, they paid for the town's upkeep. It was sort of like condo fees.

    Hey, this system makes a lot of sense! Unfortunately, it hasn't been the way things actually work for a hundred years. The tide of history has been running strongly toward letting everybody over the age of 18 vote, except maybe convicted felons. And everybody pays the fees, in the form of sales and income taxes. Only the town budgets are funded in this weird anachronistic way.

The whole brouhaha over property-value assessments seems so misguided that a cynic might propose that it's meant as a distraction from the real isssue, which is keeping Twoville's budget at $1000. Note that an increase in one's assessed value can't by itself raise your taxes. But if Twoville decides to hire more police, that will raise taxes. Unless the citizens decide that the pension system obtained by the city workers' unions is just too expensive in these tough times, and they cut back on it to pay for the extra cops.

Well, that might happen in Twoville. But don't count on it happening in New Haven. The unions got all their candidates elected to the Board of Alderman last year. If you hear those new alderman wringing their hands about the plight of East Rock, perhaps it's because they figure that by solving this nonproblem at the expense of the people in poor neighborhoods, who aren't paying attention anyway, they can get the people of East Rock in such a grateful state of mind that we will agree to increasing the city budget just a tiny bit. After all, we can afford it; we got our phase-in, and time to "prepare" for higher property taxes.


Note Ratios
When thinking about phase-ins, it matters exactly what the property values are, not just their ratio. In an extreme case, suppose we reach a ratio of 2:1 between B's and A's property value by having A's house decline by 50% while B's changes in value not one bit! A phase-in will not help B at all. B would be reduced to lobbying to delay A's decline. In fact, B's assessment could fall and she could still reach that 2-to-1 ratio. Suppose A's house declines by 60% (to 0.4 of its former value) while B's declines by 20% (to 0.8 of its former value). The ratio of 0.8 to 0.4 is 2. A phase-in would hurt B, but of course under the compromise decreases take effect immediately. [Back]

Note All
In the real world, including New Haven, the people whose property values have gone down are disproportionately black, of course, and those whose values have gone up are disproportionately white. Nationally, according to this article in the current New Republic, the median wealth of white families is 18 times the median wealth of black families, the highest ratio since the Pew Research Center started keeping track thirty years ago. In 1995 the ratio was 7 to 1. (The actual median wealth numbers are $92,000 for white families and $4,900 for black families.) [Back]

Monday, December 19, 2011

Creative Deconstruction

Creative Deconstruction

The article about Steve Jobs by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (November 14, 2011) portrays him as a "tweaker," someone who perfects other people's inventions by making a series of small (and fanatically perfectionist) improvements in them. Gladwell argues that tweakers have historically been as important as visionary inventors. Without debating that point, pro or con, I'd like to call attention to an analogy that struck me when I was reading Gladwell's story about how Jobs perfected the commercials for the iPad. He wound up screaming, in his usual charming way, that he hated what he had seen so far, the screams being directed at the guy who was generating ideas about, and prototypes of, iPad commercials, James Vincent. Vincent finally shouted, "You've got to tell me what you want," and Jobs shouted back, "You've got to show me some stuff, and I'll know it when I see it." (Quotes on p.~34 of Gladwell's article; he got them from Walter Isaacson's recent, timely biography.)

What I was struck by is how closely this fits the "standard model" of how creativity works --- or doesn't quite fit. According to the standard model, attested to by introspection from geniuses of various sorts who have wondered where their great ideas came from, creativity requires a random generator of ideas, and a filter that "knows a good idea when it sees it." With all due respect to these geniuses, all smarter than me, what has always seemed ridiculous is the idea that their brains contain the equivalent of monkeys and typewriters generating essentially random stuff. If James Vincent were just a random idea generator, Jobs would have gotten nowhere. The fact is, few people in the world could have replaced him, and not just because few good ad-copy producers could tolerate a Steve Jobs as well as he apparently did. Similarly, it may seem to Henri Poincaré that the ideas he had to shoot down before coming across a genius-level insight were just stupid, but I and many other people would be thrilled to have an idea as good as the ones he rejected. So the standard model is really a homuncular theory, in the sense that it posits a little guy inside every genius who is almost a genius, who collaborates with his or her "conscious self" as Vincent did with Jobs. As such, it strikes me as worthless.

On the other hand, it suggests that many tweakers are really goaders and recognizers, who drive really smart people to produce ideas that the tweakers can put forward as their own (often, as in Jobs's case, with inadequate credit to the goadee). A homuncular theory of tweaking is not question-begging, because there are a lot of people like Mr. Vincent who can play the role of homunculus just fine, although we are as mystified as ever about what their fine minds actually do.