Acid Tracks.

May 30, 2023

VCR+ was a great hack.VCR+ was a great hack.

May 19, 2023

Box with Holes

first published June 9, 2014.

This is my concept for a house called the Box with Holes.

Imagine a house. It would be a concrete cuboid with no support walls. It would have various door-shaped holes in it at various points at ground level. You could use those holes to install door or window modules. So you could have a normal window if the bottom of the unit you install into the standard hole is solid. Or you could have a french window. It is key that all the holes in the box be uniform.

Here is a quick floor plan:

|      |
|      | 
|      |

Side view with example holes:

|   _      _   | 
|  [ ]    [ ]  |
|  [ ]    [ ]  |

There would be some system of movable walls but these would not be structural.

The house would have no plumbing, heating, electricity, or communication wires installed as part of the design. Rather, these would run through ducts attached to the walls and ceiling that can be changed out/upgraded, or rearranged over time. The walls must all be solid, and the movable walls will have to make allowances for shifting ductwork.

If there are multiple floors or a basement access to them would be through a standard hole in the floor (which, when not in use, would be plugged with a standard hole plug module). You could attach a spiral staircase or descending ladder to allow access (or, outdoors, a tenement-style staircase for access to upper floors).

Utility access to the house would also be through a standard hole. Items like a central air conditioner or water heater could be located in a cabinet outside the box, or in the basement, with access between the basement and the other floors through pipes in ducts that go through standard holes.

May 19, 2023

Yip, Yap,
Arf, Woof
Bow Wow Wow
Wish that dogs
Just said Me-ow.
What a racket
All night long
Wish they’d stop
Their barking song.
Yip, Yap,
Arf, Woof
Bow Wow Wow
Wish that dogs
Just said Meow.”

— Peppy Puppy Songs. If you know, you know.

May 19, 2023

blog post about social security.

(blog post from 2018 that annoyed some people. links are broken but who cares.)

I think it is unfortunate that so many people view Social Security retirement benefits as a savings” program rather than a welfare program, largely because it allows them to psychologically differentiate between the good” government checks they do (or will) receive and the bad, nasty welfare checks that moochers get. So I would rather that people thought of Social Security as welfare” not to stigmatize it but rather to de-stigmatize other government programs. And it’s not like I’m the first person to make this observation.

Many of the reactions to this involve weird insults that assume I am making the common right-wing move that welfare = bad, therefore Social Security = bad, and honestly I can see the confusion there. Maybe the cause of rehabilitating the word welfare” in the American mind is hopeless and I should pick a different word. See the final paragraph.

As to substantive disagreements, the two that I have seen (online and in person) are 1) No, it really is a savings program, and 2) No, it’s actually a form of insurance. I don’t think these are merely definitional quibbles, either, since I think there are actual factors that meaningfully distinguish savings and insurance from Social Security.

not savings

To respond to the it’s really savings” argument, it’s usually enough to point out that current retirees are paid by current workers, that Social Security checks started being cut right after the program was passed and before anything could have been saved” individually or socially, and that the program is (mildly) progressive–that is, the lowest quintile of earners are typically paid more in benefits than they paid in taxes, and the highest quintile of earners pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. This is handy estimate of taxed paid vs. benefits received for different a demographics and age cohorts.

That said, it is only mildly progressive:

Results show that the Social Security program is modestly progressive on a lifetime basis, about halfway between a pure DC program and a program paying a flat-dollar benefit.

If I were designing a program it would be much more redistributive! And considered alone, payroll taxes are somewhat regressive, since they’re capped, and the amount that a retiree is paid does, in part, reflect past earnings (and thus taxes paid). Also, for the most part you have to have paid payroll taxes to get Social Security later–with some major exceptions, as it is also possible to receive retirement benefits without having worked at all. While it is not perfect considerations of social equity are built into the program that are not typically associated with savings” programs.

Taking all this into account Social Security does not look very much like a savings plan, but like a welfare program that was designed to be only a little bit redistributive, and to have broad popular support. The fact that you are in a sense owed” social security payments in the same sense that your bank owes you your savings does not make it into savings either. My assets may be someone else’s liabilities but this does not mean that if the government declares that I am owed something that I have thereby saved anything.

There are some other arguments that Social Security is a form of savings. One is that any government plan that most pay into, and most collect from, is a form of savings,” regardless of the disconnect between the payments and benefits. (Maybe add on to this the bookkeeping maneuver of the Social Security Trust Fund, whereby the government is required to pay back money it borrowed from itself.) The problem with this argument is that it proves too much: Is any government program that I pay taxes for, and hope to benefit from, really a form of savings? Is any inter-generational social program really a form a savings? Would it still be plausible to claim that Social Security was a form of savings if it was funded via normal income taxes and if equal benefits were paid to all the elderly regardless of their previous work history? In this latter case, if not, I wonder where the line is that transforms a program from being a straight-up government transfer program to an esoteric form of savings.

In short I think to meaningfully be a savings program Social Security would have to work more or less like many people think it does–that is, that you pay into an account with your name on it, that you then draw out from (with interest). And when it runs out, it runs out. That would be a suck-ass program but it would be savings program for sure.

The fallback position here is, I suppose, to say that it’s a social savings program, not an individual one. But at this point this just sounds like another word for either insurance, or welfare.

not insurance

A number of economists who realize that Social Security can’t be accurately described as savings” instead maintain that it is a form of insurance.

To be fair it’s also right there in the name.

This is an interesting way of looking at things but in the end I think it is wrong. You insure against risk, spreading it around a population. If you’re lucky, you pay more in premiums than you get in benefits because needing insurance benefits is usually associated with something bad happening.

But getting old is not a risk,” it’s inevitable, unless of course you die first. It’s something to plan for, not something to insure against. If you do not receive retirement payments, again it is likely because you have died. Not great.

(It is true that many important insurance programs need nearly everyone to pay in, and shouldn’t allow people to opt out of paying premiums, because that defeats the whole point. But then this is also true of taxes that fund welfare programs.)

Mark Thoma writes that Social Security is mainly a means of insuring against economic risk. It is fundamentally an insurance program, not a saving program, and as such it is not mainly welfare.’”

This sounds like an excellent idea for a social program but it doesn’t describe Social Security as it exists, which pays benefits regardless of need. It’s like a fire insurance program that pays you whether or not your house burns down. (He does try to address this argument, making correct observations about political realities and buy-in, but it is those very realities that transform the program into what it is, mildly redistributive welfare, and what make it no longer insurance.”). This of course points to a major rhetorical danger of the insurance” framing, which is that it immediately suggests means-testing as a common sense cost-saving measure. Compared to that, savings” is probably a better framing!

Elsewhere he writes,

When I think of welfare, I think of pure money transfers from one group to another without any economic basis for the transfer. In such cases, one person’s gain arises from another’s loss.”


There is an important distinction between needing insurance ex-ante and needing it ex-post. Insurance does redistribute income ex-post, but that doesn’t imply that it was a bad deal ex-ante (i.e., when people start their work lives).

Thus, by this definition, farm subsidies are welfare. Steel tariffs are welfare. R&D tax credits are probably even welfare, and so is AFDC. All of these are pure ex-post redistributions. That is fundamentally different from the purchase of insurance.

But AFDC (TANF, really) could also be seen as a form of economic risk insurance. In fact it likely has more of a claim to being insurance” than Social Security, since it is more about actual risk (losing one’s job and savings) than about a near certainty (growing old). Similarly farm subsidies could be described as a form of insurance” designed to stabilize domestic food supplies, etc.

welfare is the catch-all

To me this leaves welfare as being the accurate word to describe what happens when the government taxes B to pay A. I don’t think the fact that the government also promises that later it will tax C to pay B changes very much, as typically governments at least promise to provide some sort of benefit to taxpayers in terms of lighthouses, libraries, and riot police.

I don’t think it works to say that it’s only welfare” if the payment is based on need, as that deprives us of terms such as corporate welfare,” but if that’s the working definition then sure, Social Security is not welfare (in addition to not being savings or insurance). Entitlements” has been spoiled so maybe we can go with benefits.”

May 19, 2023

natural persons

(another old post that is somehow in dialogue with other of my random old posts)

The traditional approach to free speech gave less protection to commercial speech” and to speech by corporations. (Or at least, legislatures typically assumed that this was the doctrine, even if it was never formally articulated by the Supreme Court.) That went away in the 1970s. (Virginia Board of Pharmacy, First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti).

Citizens United was less a legal innovation, than the logical conclusion of those cases, and Buckley v. Valeo’s holding that campaign contributions were protected under the First Amendment. Yes it was possible for Citizens United to come out the other way but the framework itself was already tilted against campaign finance laws.

I believe that the path the Supreme Court set us on in the 1970s was mistaken. That said I believe it is possible to course correct, not necessarily by bringing back or strengthening the commercial speech doctrine (though I’m open to that!) but by establishing that contrary to Bellotti, in general only natural persons have First Amendment rights. I think that Rehnquist’s solo dissent in that case is mostly correct, and the White-authored dissent raises excellent points as well.

This does not mean that no organizations can have First Amendment protection, just that if organizations have rights they need to be traced to individuals (see Rehnquist dissent footnote 5), or must be press” organizations which the Constitution does directly protect (see Rehnquist dissent paragraph 1, discussing Grosjean). There are alternate routes to this result as well.

Here is a brief sketch of how this could work.

Individuals have free speech rights.

Organizations that are structured such that they represent the views of their members, have rights that are derivative of underlying individual rights.

Option 1: Press organizations also have direct First Amendment rights under the press” provision. And this should apply to many online platforms as well. Figuring out which organizations have such protections and which do not is up to the development of caselaw.

Option 2: Press organizations and other corporations that are chartered to engage in speech have First Amendment rights just as individuals do. (This may be what Rehnquist believed.) The potential issue with this is that it is not clear that the state should be able to grant or withdraw First Amendment rights by granting or withholding corporate charters—under this theory presumably the state would have to lose discretion over granting speech-related corporate charters. Similar to Option 1 the purpose a company is chartered for could be what gives it press rights.

Press protections also apply to individual rights to engage in press activities including their right to access and use communications tools.

Private companies in general should have free speech rights only to the extent they are exercising the rights of their owners derivatively. They usually aren’t. In general, the speech of corporations is too disconnected from the speech of any actual individuals; for example because fiduciary rules require that corporate speech advances the financial interest of the corporation, not the expressive interests of a majority of owners. (The managers of a company are of course always free to spend their own money to push whatever agenda they like.) And it is difficult to see why one person owning more shares would be relevant here–in general, sure they get more votes when it comes to normal corporate affairs, but this shouldn’t give them a greater degree of First Amendment standing. So, at most, a private company has First Amendment rights that derive from its owners only to the extent that its speech is in the control of a majority of its owners on a one-owner-one-vote basis. This is clearly going to be a difficult standard to meet in practice, except for some kinds of closely-held corporations, partnerships and so on. The effect of this is that the speech of corporations can be reasonably regulated by the government.

It should be noted that one of the arguments advanced in Bellotti and rejected by the majority was that restrictions on corporate political speech in general protected the financial interests of minority shareholders who might disagree with the majority on some issue, framing the expenditure of corporate funds on such communication to be a form of waste. I’m not sure the argument presented this way actually works, since corporate law would already provide a remedy for wasteful expenditures of any kind, and I think the proper frame should not rest on the number of shares owned (which is traditionally what being a minority shareholder rests on). Maybe shareholders are not the right stakeholders at all, or maybe employees should be included with them. Just putting this out there.

May 19, 2023