On wealth inequality and social exclusion

Social science has produced a metric called “relative poverty”, and another, related to this, called “wealth inequality”. The notion that this is a bad thing has turned into a sort of political “Amen”, and has been recently used to belittle the regional economic miracles that are both Singapore, and Israel. Both are often referred to as wealthy… yet unequally so. Reporters at the CBC and NPR tend to lower their voices while mentioning it; undoubtedly a sign of their seriousness and education.

Perhaps it’s time for a refresher on how crazy wealthy we’ve gotten.

Some years ago Russ Roberts over at Cafe Hayek produced this 1975 Sears catalogue, with prices adjusted for average non-managerial labor hours required for their purchase. The comparison with today is staggering — do scan it prior to reading the remainder of this post.

Briefly, we are massively better off now than we were even 30 years ago. So many things have enriched us, including the ability to communicate from our beds with complete strangers. Those who are labelled as “relatively poor” by that ridiculous metric are, despite protestations to the contrary, participating much more in both society, and that of the world at large, than those who are “more equal” in poorer places.

And yet, even this is a shallow interpretation of wealth.

I don’t measure my participation among others within my geographic region by how much nominal income I declare on my tax return. To me, there is nothing more petty than using that as a measure of anything useful as regards my well-being. I am wealthy because I have friends and family. I am wealthy because I am surrounded by abundant food, even in winter. For fractions of an hour of the time of even the most unproductive around me, we can purchase a vast quantity of great food and products that increase our life’s enjoyment to such a degree that I can scarcely remember what life was like for me prior to the abundance of these conveniences.

And still, I know there are others in my country who are very wealthy. Quite a few who are much more wealthy than I can hope to become. Some of them have arrived at this wealth by theft, some by graft, but others, like those who entertain millions, perform vital services, and invent and produce the amazing things that make my life fun, have done so through enriching my existence. I thank them, even though I don’t know them — yet I don’t need to, because I’ve already paid them a pittance compared to what they’ve provided me in return.

All I know intimately are those several dozen people with whom I have social interactions; concerning myself with the relative monetary status of successful strangers seems both silly, and fruitless — even if they are quite numerous on my side of a political boundary. Better to think about ways to enrich the lives of strangers and perhaps I can achieve that which, at present, seems to be so monumentally important to so many people. I won’t care either way about what relative status I’ve attained, but I will care about what I’ve been able to create along the way.

And in case you’re wondering why I start this post off with the Sears catalog — you really should go through the whole thing, it’s quite eye opening — it’s because the insane drop in the time needed to attain many enjoyments has made things only previously permitted to the most affluent, eminently attainable for even the most “relatively poor”. The rich man does not care that lightbulbs cost a pittance; he could always hire a dozen candle snuffers. The rich man doesn’t care that we can gets TVs for less than a day’s worth of work; he could always attend the theatre, or buy a box at a sports venue. Yet, we, in our “relative poverty” can now enjoy, with a little effort, a family barbecue on a grill a 1970s rich man could only have dreamed of; while listening to a music collection he couldn’t have fathomed, and eating food he had to fly across the globe to purchase.

Relatively poor indeed.

Boudreaux nails it

Don Boudreaux over at Cafe Hayek arrives at the problem with concerns about income inequality:

If a millionaire embarks upon a life of successful house burglarizing, the problem with this activity isn’t that it further increases income inequality; the problem is that the activity itself is immoral and destructive

And so it is with any activity that acts to either increase or decrease inequality; which makes the effect completely irrelevant in a discussion about morality.

Write semi-manual code

Everyone who owns an DSLR camera is highly appreciative of both its automatic and manual modes. Automatic mode – the green rounded rectangle that lets us point and click – is great for most of the shots we take. However, sometimes the lighting is odd, the subject is strangely positioned, or we just need to compose the shot in such a way that the automated sensors can’t quite adjust either exposure or focus to produce the right shot. This flexibility to use automation 90% of the time, and permit manual operation for the remainder, is what makes DSLR cameras absolutely required for any serious photographer.

This paradigm has an often overlooked analog in software automation:

It’s pretty common for people to want to automate computing tasks. Automation can significantly reduce labor costs or allow people to be more efficiently allocated. We all hate doing mundane things, and the more we can eliminate them, the more satisfaction we can derive from our work.

Programmers, especially, are afflicted with the desire to automate everything, and we tend to overplay the benefits, and severely underplay the costs.

Though repetitive tasks abound, there are always those pesky exceptions that get in the way of a clean replacement process. These exceptions could be caused by user error, and mitigated with validation, but some of the time they are caused by unexpected, yet perfectly valid, inputs.

Developers often work in isolation to implement theoretical processes, and when it comes time to deploy them, exceptions become painfully obvious and render the code either partially or completely unusable without serious re-design. This is particularly true in healthcare, since exceptions are exactly those things that are most interesting and usually require immediate attention.

The solution is for developers to avoid trying to make point and click software. Whatever tasks you’re trying to automate, you can be absolutely certain that every single step will require a manual override at least some of the time. Unless you want to be doing this repeatedly while stressed out clients wait on the phone, then put in some buttons, fields and forms that permit every step to be performed by hand.

Make DSLR software, and avoid the lure of point and click.

How many wind turbines is that?

Someone did it an fairly good back-of-napkin estimate of the infeasibility of fast charging of electric vehicles.

I can’t charge a car next to my house, I have street parking, and the idea of having to schedule a charge as though it were a haircut rules EVs out for me entirely.

But the most important part of the post, however, is the mere mention of the energy density of gasoline, compared to which chemical electricity storage is humongous step back. Electrical engines are most certainly capable of outputting a much larger wattage than gasoline, which makes them really fun. But the barrier to wide adoption is the decrease in convenience — EVs will not become a utilitarian alternative anytime soon; Unless, of course , policy finds a way to increase the cost of gasoline ten-fold or more. I guess we can’t fully discount this.

A poignant comparison is in the wattage required to deliver the charge equivalent of a tank of gas — there are approximately 3x 85kWh charges in each gallon of gas, and the wattage required to charge a mere 200 of those in a few minutes is on the order of that consumed by all of silicon valley. Electrical motors are more efficient, but gasoline is still a truly amazing source and store of energy.