Friday, November 4, 2016

Voting is totally in your economic self interest

The first time I heard the argument against voting based on economic self interest was from a friend in 2004.  He was a newly-enfranchised young fellow who gave it to me straight: "my vote matters so little that it's not worth my time to bother casting it."  Flustered, I sputtered some typical fluff about Civic Duty and What If Everyone Did That and But So and So's Policies are Really Problematic; none of which had much effect.  Later I convinced myself that I was obviously correct because of (mumble), where (mumble) was an delicious blend of political enthusiasm and motivated thinking seasoned with a baseline distrust for simple economic arguments.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago.  In a post by incomprehensibly prolific blogger Scott Alexander, among many, many other musings he followed the great rationalist tradition and actually bothered to do the math, as follows:

If the Presidency is worth about $300 billion (in terms of influencing money toward worthwhile projects) and the average American has a 1 in 60 million chance to decide the election, then your average American's vote is worth $5000.  That bears repeating:  choosing not to vote in this election is the same as saying you don't care how five grand is spent in your country.  For over half of Americans who earn less than $60k a year, this calculation makes voting the most economically advantageous thing they do for an entire month.*  The only reason this isn't obvious is that multiplying big numbers in your head is hard.

Of course, you could still argue that you don't want to vote because neither of the candidates deserves this money; but one of them is going to get it anyway, so if you have any preference at all between the things they're likely to do in office, your vote seriously counts.

I guess that's the main point - if you value five thousand dollars, then your vote is totally worth your time.  So please make a plan to vote on Nov 8th and invest $5000 in the future.

But in fact, I think your vote is even more valuable than this rather simplistic argument suggests.  So let's math it up.  I've come up with a model that I think more rigorously captures both the details of our electoral system (e.g. the electoral college), and includes a better interpretation of what you might mean by "the value" of a vote.  Note that I don't know that much about federal budgeting and expenditures, so I'll take the $300 billion dollar numerator at face value.  (If you have a better idea for how much the presidency is actually worth, that should just scale the final answers up or down.)  Instead I'll focus on the denominator: how the value of the presidency is divided among ballots.

The 1 in 60 million chance of deciding the election came from an analysis of the 2008 election by Gelman, Silver and Edlin, and is calculated as the chance that
  • your vote is the deciding vote in the state, and
  • your state is the deciding vote in the Electoral College.
The actual probabilities range from about 1 in 10 million (New Mexico) to less than 1 in 10 billion (Oklahoma).  While this is a rigorous approach, I don't think it vibes with the idea of vote value per se, since the argument hinges on uncertainty.  In their approach, a vote is only valuable if it is the deciding vote, and then it carries the entire value of the presidency; that value is then spread around by the uncertainty of the outcome.  However this seems kind of like a lottery to me - where anyone or no one can win, and after the lottery all the non-winning tickets are worthless.  If we had perfect information about the electorate - if we knew exactly who was going to vote and for whom, or if we just wait until we get the results - the value of every vote goes to zero in all but one out of 10 million cases.  As such, the real value of all votes cast in 2008 would be zero in this model, since we didn't get "lucky" enough to have a one-vote election.

So how should we value votes?  As Nate Silver is fond of saying, elections are won on the margins - the votes that win the election are the ones that you get over and above your opponents.  But votes are essentially indistinguishable.  No matter what order you count them in, you should get the same result - you can't single out Bob Anderson of Plainville, PA's ballot as the one that put you over the top.  So the value of all votes in a state should be the same, but that value should be set by how close the election is.  This leads us to our model:

Here, the value of the presidency is divided among the winning electoral college votes.  The value in each state is then divided up among the winning vote margin.  By adding up the value of the marginal votes in each state as a fraction of its share of marginal votes in the electoral college, you get the value of the presidency.  (This captures the naive idea that if one vote breaks a tie in one state, which breaks a tie in the electoral college, that vote is worth the entire presidency.)

Here's a graph showing the value of votes in the 2012 presidential election (voting data source) using this model:

2012 Vote value calculation

Because we have focused the value on decisive votes, you can see that the value per vote is way higher than in the previous naive estimates: your vote is now worth between 10,000 and 1 million dollars!  Also, the swing states pop right out.  Florida leads the pack with a whopping $930k per vote, followed by (in order) NC, OH, NH, NV, VA, AK, CO, IA and PA.  (I was kind of surprised Arkansas is on that list, but the margin there was only 42,000 votes.)  On the other side, the safest states are Nebraska, DC, Utah, MA, MD, NY, MA, OK, and CA; but even there, the minimum vote value is over $20,000.

One unfortunate thing about this model is that there's a lot of wasted value: the sum value of all votes cast in this model is way, way, way higher than the actual value of the presidency.  In fact, for 2012 it is precisely 10 quadrillion dollars.  For scale, that's 100x the GDP of the world.   Now that's not monetary exchange value in any sense - it's not like you could collect all those excess votes and buy yourself a solar system.  I think it just underscores the inherent inefficiency of a winner-take-all system for actually achieving the real distribution of values in the country.

We don't have the hard numbers for the current presidential election, but based on the best information available about the most likely vote margin in each state and the most likely electoral college margin (collected 11/4/16 just prior to posting this), we can predict your vote's value:

2016 Vote Value estimate

Note that I had to add another factor of 20 to the y-axis in order to capture New Hampshire ($2.0 million/vote), Florida ($7.8 million/vote) and North Carolina ($11.4 million/vote).  This still isn't enough to capture Nevada, where polling is within a hair of 50:50 and where this model currently estimates that each vote is worth $50 million at the least.  Given the closeness of the race, even the least valuable vote (MD) clocks in at just under $100,000.

Suffice it to say, in this election your vote is extremely valuable, just based on how close the race appears to be.  Given the consequences of that vote for our country and the world, this year probably represents the most important your vote will ever be.  I sincerely ask that you make a plan and vote, wherever you live!  I promise it will be worth your time.

* Scott proceeded to discount his calculation based on how likely you think it is that your candidate actually will do a better job than the other guy.  This matters for the self-interest argument, insofar as it's not in your interest to buy yourself a punch in the face, whether you expect it or not.  This would have a strong impact, as would taking into account unknowable outcomes (e.g. "What would have happened after 9-11 if Gore were president?"); however I think these get further from the intuitive idea of vote value, e.g. how important is my vote in implementing a trillion dollars worth of policy? 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

If Congress talked about other things the way they talk about guns

Seat belts:   "Cars don't kill people, drivers kill people.  Legislating seat belts violates Americans' fundamental right of self-determination, and it doesn't address road rage, which is what's really causing car crashes."

Anthrax research:   "I don't want the government poking its noses in Americans' private lives.  What if there's an Iraq veteran who is trying to develop his dream of being a biomedical researcher?  It would be wrong for us to interfere by requiring him to go through onerous regulations and restrictions to get the materials he needs."

Obesity:   "If Big Gulps are outlawed, then only outlaws will have Big Gulps."

Drugs:   "It's a tragedy that these students were selling drugs to each other, but if every teacher in that school was carrying weed, that would solve the problem."

Food:   "It's intolerable to think we should regulate food safety.  If there's a natural disaster in this country and shipping is overwhelmed and there's chemicals in the air and the government breaks down, then people are going to need to take food supply into their own hands and we shouldn't interfere with that."

The Third Amendment:   "It's clear from the punctuation that the government should not be able to house soldiers anywhere."

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Two Truths and a Lie

Yesterday, I attended a 'new hire' activity commemorating my continuation as a post-doc at MIT, where I was subjected to the conniving of an over-zealous HR employee.  In the interest of building community between a group of people who would probably never see each other again, this resourceful individual broke out the age-old ice-breaker game:  two truths and a lie.

If you're unfamiliar with the premise, it goes something like this.  Each person makes three statements, two of which are true and the third of which is not.  The other ice-breakees try to guess which is the false statement, and everyone learns something about one another.  Often the lesson is simply "this person has no patience for ice-breaker games."  Fortunately, for me "boredom" and "games" are like oil and water:  games nourish me, and boredom makes me slippery.

Thus, following a great deal of pencil scratching and many wrong turns, I give you my final answer to the game Two Truths and a Lie:

  • This is one of the two true statements.
  • This is not the false statement.
  • Both of the preceding statements are not true.
So, which of the statements is the lie?  Think about it - write your answer down! - and then skip below the fold to check and see if you are right.

* *
* * *
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* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
* * * * * * * *
* * * * *
* * *
* * 

Did you say #2?  You're right!  

Did you say #1?  Guess what?  You're right too!

If you said #3, and you checked the result and showed it worked out - I've got good news for you: your answer is correct as well.

The amazing thing about these three statements is that as long as you know the rules of the game (one is a lie and the other two truths) then any one of the statements can be false, as long as the other two are true.  Another way of saying this is that if we represent the truth values of the three statements as (A, B, C) using 1 for "true" and 0 for "false," then any of the following three configurations is a valid solution:

(1,  1,  0)
(1,  0,  1)
(0,  1,  1)

This is a truly egalitarian solution to the Two Truths and a Lie game: anyone who proposes a valid guess wins!  I wholeheartedly recommend it to you should you ever find yourself in a similar situation.  


Of course, you may be asked to state two truths and a lie about yourself, in which case you're on your own.  A piece of advice:  don't lie about how well-traveled you are.  This is a very popular lie.  A better winning tactic is to tell the truth about how well traveled you are, in a somewhat unspecific way (I've been to six continents).  For your lie, a few good ideas are to use something very specific and boring but false (my favorite color is cerulean) or something 'too weird and specific to be false' that is false (I recently purchased a used 2011 Kawasaki Concours 14.)  (A good, quick source for the latter is stealing stories from your friends.)  Most people will assume that you wouldn't bother putting in enough mental work to construct an elaborate but non-fantastical lie.  And you probably won't, since it's just an HR exercise.  But make the most of it!  Boredom is a waste of your time - combat it with a daily dose of creativity and surrealism.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Why cell phones absolutely, positively do not cause brain cancer

Apparently San Francisco has just revoked an ordinance that would require cell-phone retailers to warn their customers about the 'potentially dangerous radiation levels' coming from their favorite portable gizmos.  Last I'd heard about this subject, scientific consensus - well, to be honest, scientific evidence whatsoever - about a link between brain cancer and cell phone use was distinctly lacking.  But as we've seen with GMOs, climate change, evolution, corn-based ethanol, the Copernican solar system, and pretty much any other subject where science and politics collide, that doesn't stop people from claiming that things they want to believe are solid, experimentally-established fact.  Of course, nature itself isn't particularly swayed by these arguments, but nature doesn't have much to do with the operations of human society.

One of those operations, protecting our citizens from public health hazards, is I imagine something we can mostly get behind.  To do this job well, our regulators (e.g. the FDA) need to have the best available understanding of what is actually damaging to people's health (e.g. well-funded scientific studies).  Unfortunately, ideas that get repeated a lot start to sound true; plus, the first duty of an elected official is to her constituents, and if a loud subset of those constituents are deathly afraid of, say, windmills, the regulator might start to take that concern seriously, too.  Good science is pricey and time-consuming: whereas good politics is fast and cheap.  You can see the problem.*

But back to cell phones.  This one caught my attention in particular because it involves the "R" word.  There's a lot of woo about radiation, because of the very scary nature of the very real radiation disasters of the last hundred years or so.  But there's a serious popular classification problem here, because the term 'radiation' covers a huge range of phenomena**:

  • gamma rays (like gamma ray bursts, the most energetic events in the universe!)
  • x-rays (like dentists)
  • UV (like sunburns)
  • visible light (like bulbs)
  • infrared (like Predator)
  • microwaves (like ovens)
  • radio (like music)
plus sunlight, starlight, wifi, and cellphone radiation.  Some of these things, like gammas, x-rays, high-energy particles, and to some extent UV, are dangerous and can cause cancer if you're exposed to too much of them.  Others, like visible light and radio, aren't particularly dangerous at low intensities, and have proven really useful for activities like seeing.  

The reason some kinds of radiation are dangerous is pretty interesting, actually.  Everything in the list is the same kind of particle, a photon; they are differentiated just by how energetic the photons are.***  Physicists use a unit for energy called electron-Volts (eV)**** that's about the right size for individual particles.  For instance, at room temperature, your average particle has about 1/40th of an eV of thermal energy.  Another one: molecular bonds, such as the ones that connect the atoms in your DNA, take around 10 eV to split.  That's important because cancer happens when something damages your DNA and it doesn't heal correctly.  Let's look at the list again, this time with photon energy ranges included:
  • gamma rays:  > 200,000 eV
  • x-rays:         200 to 200,000 eV
  • UV:             3.2 to 200 eV
  • visible light:   1.8 to 3.2 eV
  • infrared:       0.001 to 1.7 eV
  • microwaves: 0.000001 eV to 0.001 eV
  • radio:        < 0.000001 eV
You can imagine each photon as a little packages of energy, flying around looking for something to give it's juice to.  For UV and up, each photon has enough kick to do some real damage: kick the electrons right out of some molecules and break up their structure.  Whereas for visible light and down, the photons just don't have enough oomph to shove an electron out of its molecule.  

So are cellphones dangerous?  Different frequencies have been licensed for cell-phone use over their brief history, but 4G seems to use the highest frequencies, up to about 2700 MHz.  You can play along at home if you like: just open up a new tab and google "Planck's constant * 2700 MHz in eV", to find out that each photon from your high-end cell-phone packs a measley 0.000011 eV, putting them at the low-end of the microwave range with about 10^5 less than ionization energies.

Since ionization is an all-or-nothing event*****, that means there is no way, no how that the radiation from your cell phone could damage your DNA and cause cancer like harder radiation can.  Interestingly, it turns out that microwave ovens use a similar frequency for cooking your food.  Of course, the absolute antenna power output of a cellphone is something like 1/200th of what a typical microwave oven produces; and the blood vessel system is designed to redistribute heat throughout the body efficiently; but there could potentially be some unexpected effects due to localized head heating.  This sort of effect merits further study, and seems to be studied extensively, so far with no real demonstration of ill effects as far as I can tell.

But from a basic physics standpoint, a cellphone source for brain cancer seems outside the realm of possibility by many orders of magnitude.  

* And you can see its solution: well-funded public science research.

** I left one out for clarity's sake: particles from nuclear decay (like alphas, electrons, neutrons; sorry, no simile here).  These aren't photons, but they are called radiation because all these things were discovered at the same time.  Plus, they 'radiate' from their source like spokes from a wheel, so the word fits.

*** Because of wave-particle duality, the energy of the photon is directly proportional to the radiation's frequency:  E = hv, where v is 'nu', the frequency in Hz, and h is Planck's constant: 4.14 x 10^-15 eV/Hz. If you prefer wavelength, E = hc/λ, where c is the speed of light: 3x10^8 m/s, and λ is in meters.

**** Actually the amount of energy an electron gets when you put it through an electric potential gap of 1 volt!  For once a unit is named conveniently.

***** An electron doesn't 'build up' energy by absorbing lots of photons over a long period of time: it exchanges energy in discrete packets, or 'quanta', called photons.  That's the basic idea of quantum mechanics, and it's the idea that Einstein actually got his Nobel Prize for.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Prometheus and the Vile Offspring

Last night I overrode my inherited inhibitions against going to see "Prometheus," Ridley Scott's revisitation to the "Alien" universe some thirty-three years (and six movies by six or seven directors) after its creation.  And I am very glad I did, for while the film has its problems (a few problems, not the overwhelming lot I was instructed to expect) the stunning cinematography of the film was itself worth the price of admission; and the themes raised are just as complex and compelling (if, oddly, less horrific in their execution) than the original "Alien".  

Right off the bat "Prometheus" dives into the implications of empathy on our possibility of survival in a mysterious and dangerous universe.  As in 1979's "Alien," Scott plays with the potential for deep horror in the figure of the ungrateful or 'vile' offspring.  Using the imagery from deep-set human rites and relationships, he reconstrues offspring in the harshest darwinian light to raise the terrible question: does what we think makes us special and good, our capacity for empathy, actually make us weak?

Just an aside, I'll try to cluster spoilers as footnotes and mark them with an &.  If you intend to see the movie soon, do avoid them.  That being said: onwards!

The film opens with a sequence of grand vistas over a fertile but unpopulated planet.  The score and images generate a feeling of expectation and discovery, rather than foreboding: an unexpected tone, after the sinister portrayal of the movie's trailer.  Even as the film descends from this expectation into the murky unfolding of the plot, this tone of the glory of exploration continues to recur throughout - even to the very end, which surprised me.  (I wonder if some of the poor reactions from the fan community stemmed from broken tonal expectations: they may have expected it to be more classically a horror flick.)  Into this landscape, a lone, robed humanoid is shown to sacrifice himself.(&1)  We are meant to infer that his rite seeds the waters of this planet for life, and that our ancestors rose directly because of it.

Here already is hidden the terrible theme of life in the Alien universe: the new is born out of the sacrifice of the old, and the vile offspring supercedes and destroys its progenitors.  When we later see the sanctuary of these "Engineers," its contents(&2) and its sacred imagery(&3) underscore that for them, the struggle for survival is the primary sacrament and its outcomes good, whether parent or offspring wins.  As Charlize Theron's character states later in the film: "A king has his reign and then he dies: it's inevitable."  The Engineers have accepted this as the moral truth of the universe - their messiah figure is thus not that which saves, it is that which destroys and replaces them.

This inverted philosophy, wherein the child consumes the parent, is utterly abhorrent to our sense of humanity, and therein lies the source of horror for the tale.  The human crew (especially the faithful heroine Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) who 'chooses to believe' that the Engineers created us and are inviting us to meet them) came in search of answers about our larger purpose in the universe from those that might be able to supply it, our cosmological parents.  And yet as the Prometheus' crew explore this sepulchre it becomes clear that while it is somehow related to us, its principles are utterly alien.  Any opening of the self to beauty or the other in this strange world is an invitation for infestation and death(&4).

At the same time, it is clear that the Engineers themselves are dedicated to this worldview, and while they fought for their own survival, it seems to be without terror as we know it.  The Engineer species(&6) seem to have accepted that, should they fail, they deserved to fail; their battles to survive are as devoid of higher emotions as a lion tearing down a gazelle(&7).  We, who grow up with loving parents and supportive social networks, believe that love and empathy are valuable in their own right, and that our relationships help us to grow as individuals.

The centerpiece scene of the movie digs into this conflict and rides it for all its worth in its horrendous implications for the mother/child relationship.  This scene pits Elizabeth's maternal and survival instincts against each other, and the result is by far the most intense sequence in the film.  Though the personal conflict that informs these events was introduced late and clumsily, the sheer level of tension and terror that it evokes leads me to forgive its lack of a better setup.

By the end, I am rather impressed by this character.  From her beginnings she is rather naive and breakable for an Alien movie heroine; but she rises to the high survivalist bar set by Sigourney Weaver's Ripley(&8), and in some ways above it.  What sets her apart, and I think what places its lingering mark on the tone of this movie, is her continued desire to meet the engineers face-to-face and receive an account from them for their actions.  Even after all this the hope burns on in some of the crew that any living Engineers will welcome their return as prodigal children, and will depose gifts of knowledge and everlasting life(&9).  Of course, this belief is a terrible error - for to Engineers the children are a threat to destroy (if weak) or be destroyed by (if strong).  In the face of the results from their final gambit, the Elizabeth's dedication to uncovering the truth requires a level of faith that may border on sainthood.  Any more rational actor would high-tail it back to the safety of Earth(&10); I cannot imagine Ripley, after her experiences, consciously choosing to go back just to understand them.

Oddly, although the visual cues underscore the connection between this film and the others of the Alien franchise, I feel it is thematically rather similar to another beautiful, somewhat flawed science fiction film: Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain."  This muted tale, told simultaneously in an uncertain present, a poetic future and a storybook past, explores the grief of loss in the face of the fight for survival, the denial of death and, ultimately, its acceptance as a necessary seed for new life.  Where "Prometheus" underscores the terror of abandonment in an amoral universe, "The Fountain" seeks to show that the cycle of life and death is indeed good and the proper order of the universe(&11), and finds a redemptive ending.  The latter movie rejects the idea, however, that love and growth may be meaningless if ending in death, that survival is the only good.  This is, I imagine, a somewhat easier story to sell in a world without chest-bursters.

There are a couple of choices that prevent the movie from reaching its full potential.  For one, the crew is too large - you shouldn't get to the final  action and wonder who that one guy is.  The production team probably felt they needed more people to kill off, but if you don't care about them then it's just pointless action, not horror.  For another, much of the character development felt rather clumsy; and mostly came too late, feeling shoehorned in just before it became relevant.  Again, that undermines our caring for these people and what they're going through.  But on the whole, these are minor quibbles about a successful film - and, I'll put a plug in here, a stunning use of 3D, which unfurls and gives substance to the intricate world of the ship and the claustrophobic alien ruins.

So if you have the stomach for a bit of body horror, I strongly recommend both Alien and Prometheus - and for different reasons.  Alien, because it's a tight, gut-clenching journey of terror, that pays off in spades; Prometheus, because it's a gorgeous and thought-provoking assay into a possible moral universe; oh, and The Fountain, because it's lovely and terribly sad, yet cathartic.

oh, caveat emptor: Prometheus is silly, at times.  There's a pretty collection of plot-points that just don't pass physics muster - blatant disregard for conservation of mass, travelling 50x faster than light speed - and smart characters occasionally act weirdly stupid.  But who knows - if I was beseiged on an alien planet, maybe I would forget about angular momentum too!

By the way, I stole the phrase 'vile offspring' from a comparable treatment in Charles Stross' brilliant and exuberant chronicle of our future singularity, "Accelerando."  In his treatment, we old-style meatspace humans are simply to limited to keep up with our increasingly rapid artificially intelligent offspring, who... well I don't want to ruin that for you!  It's a great book, zany, thoughtful, and hilarious.  Give it a read!

Spoilery Footnotes!
&1 In this parody of the rite of holy communion, he drinks the black chrism which destroys him down to the molecular level.  Thus his 'body and blood' feed the world and give rise to life - but at the dreadful cost of himself, and without a merciful god of empathy that will raise him from the dead after three days.

&2 The 'vases' filled with the black oil that creates new life, by devouring and repurposing the living material of its host.  As mentioned before, this provides a twisted take on the wine of holy communion (in which we physically partake in our messiah; rather than it physically partaking of us) and the baptismal waters (in which the baptised are reborn; in this case, quite literally).

&3 The Xenomorph (or 'Alien') is depicted in cruciform at the green alter behind the giant head.  This iconic figure holds a position of adulation, a messaianic role for the Engineers - for it is revealed at the end of the movie that this form emerges from the Engineers themselves when they are implanted from the xenomorph species.  The Alien is a perverted Christ, that saves by destruction, god from man, replacing the Engineers with a more perfect being: itself.

&4 The biologist, fascinated with a newly-discovered life-form, approaches and reaches out to touch a pale serpenty thing out of an admiration for its uniqueness and beauty - despite its downright creepy viper/penis/toothy vagina vibe (well done, design team!)  For his troubles, this gets him horrifically killed, his body implanted, and his parter melted, infected and... turned into a zombie caveman, maybe?  That bit was unclear.

&6 Though outwardly and genetically a match for humanity, the Engineers' philosophies are foreign enough to all human cultures to qualify them as a different species.

&7 The death of the last surviving Engineer at the hands-- er, tentacles-- of the squid-baby shows this: we see tension and possibly anger on his face as he struggles against his noodly demise, but I did not recognize fear.  Somehow once the heroine's out of the way, the terror of that scene vanished as well, and the rest was just a law of nature unfurling: the strong survive.

&8 Cutting out the alien squid-baby growing inside your own womb - the last terrible gift of your dead infected husband and research partner, with whom you never could conceive a true offspring - is a terrifying physical and psychological prospect, even with the aid of state-of-the-art surgical tools.

&9 The ancient Weyland's hope for continued personal life oddly mirrors the Engineer culture's own worship of survival.  He will not accept death, it seems, until it comes at the hands of a fitting adversary.  His expectation that the Engineers would wish to save him, however, contrasts rather ironically with his own disfavor for his own biological daughter, and favor of his (soulless) android son, who places curiocity above the life of his fellow crew.  Weyland's conflicting beliefs kill him just as surely as the blow from his presumptive 'heavenly' Father.

&10 as David suggests to her.  I think it's no accident that he winds up decapitated, just like the ancient Engineer, whose head is carried back to the ship and so uncannily recalls the giant sculpture that is the movie's icon.  Both the Engineers and David are rational, if brutal, actors, vying for ascendancy; they lack the emotional connections (the 'heart,' right Planeteers?) that make us human.  Quite the opposite of losing their heads, they 'lose their bodies' and David reveals his utterly cognitive nature.  This also contributes to the hopeful tone of the end of the film, as only the last complete human is physically capable of controlling her own destiny.  Wow, I got kind of Comp Lit there.

&11 The black oil of the Promethean rite is in function quite similar to the white sap of the Fountain's Tree of Life: both consume the celebrant and create new life from his body, though in one case predatorial and in the other, botanical.  The choice of palate betrays how in one case this is played for terror - and in the other, as a noble self-sacrifice.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The income inequality story, followup

I received some angry feedback from a reader, who took great issue with this line in my last post:
One of the amazing things about all this is, that almost everybody is pretty much equal.  Look at how flat the line is up to about 95% (~ $200,000): for the vast majority of people, your neighbors, friends, family and community is making pretty much the same amount of money that you are. 
This, the reader said, was patently untrue and made me sound like some out-of-touch egghead.  Because for almost everybody, that line doesn't look flat at all, and $200,000 is an incredibly unattainable sum.

In my last post, I was focusing on the relationship between the super-rich and the rest of us.  And when you compare the super-rich and the rest of us, the first thing to catch the eye is that they are making exponentially more money than everyone else.  That was my point last time.

Now lets look at another graph of the same data:

This is the same graph as last time, just zoomed in on a more reasonable range (income = $0 to $200,000).  This lets you see more readily what percentile you are, if you are the vast majority of people.  And when you plot the numbers this way, my previous statement about equality rings fairly hollow.  

The trap I fell into was simple: when you are considering big numbers, it is easy to lose track of little numbers. As a scientist, I tend to care most about big effects, and so what caught my eye was the insanely rapid increase in order of magnitude of income in the top 10%.  But when you're having trouble making ends meet, an extra $1000 can mean a LOT.

What I began to do at the end of my last post (and what is more ethically informative) was to compare the actual income of people to the income they need to live a healthy life with the possibility of improvement.  How many times the living wage do people make?  Well, that varies from place to place; but I can select a few representative ones*.  Take a look:

I'm plotting the income curve from above, but divided by the living wage in a variety of places (see the legend for details).  This is much more informative ethically speaking.  Dollars mean different things in different places; the living wage is supposed to tell you just how valuable your income is.

The story this graph tells us is that between 20 and 30 percent of Americans earn less than a living wage.  That should mean that roughly 20-30% of Americans are struggling to make ends meet, cutting corners on food, housing, education and healthcare, and getting stuck in cycles of predatory debt.  Moreover, the graph reveals that income inequality is definitely alive in the bottom 90%, even if it's totally blown out of proportion in the top 10%.

It also tells us that eliminating poverty is a problem we can solve.  Look at how much money is in the system, compared to the living wage!  Speaking simplistically, to eliminate poverty all we have to do is fill in that hole on the left of the graph.  Obviously how to do that is a detailed policy and economics question - but the capability to do it is not what is holding us back.

Thanks for reminding me not to get hung up on the little picture (the top 1%), when it's the big picture that matters.

*Living wage numbers taken, once again, from at the Pennsylvania State University.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The income inequality story

Numbers are fascinating and tantalizing things.  They're kind of like the words of power in some functional magic system* - with the exception that their powers are purely descriptive**, and not constructive.***

My goal is to have a footnote for every sentence in this post.****

Anyway, numbers:  they're liberating, in a sense, and can give a little guidance amidst confusion and doubt.  They can be used to figure out a story about the complex world we're living in, and there's nothing people need so much as a story about their life.

So here's a numerical question: what's going on with the Occupy movement?  When they claim "We are the 99%", what do they mean?  Well, they mean this:

(from, data from  Here we show total cash income in 2010 of all taxpayers in the United States, versus 'percentile' i.e. the percent of people compared to whom you make more money.  So reading this graph, if I make $25,000 a year, I'd be in about the 30th percentile - I'd make more money than 30% of people in the US.  (it's kind of hard to see on the graph, so I downloaded the data.)

Are you, then, in the oft-mentioned 99%?  From this data, the 99% are everyone who makes less than $515,000 a year.  So now you know.

This graph only goes up to the 99.9 percentile.  I read somewhere that the congressional budget office has not released data on the top 0.01% or the top 0.001% since 2005, and you can read what you like into that fact. But roughly speaking, the top 1% of earners make a comparable amount of money to the bottom 99%.

One of the amazing things about all this is, that almost everybody is pretty much equal.  Look at how flat the line is up to about 95% (~ $200,000): for the vast majority of people, your neighbors, friends, family and community is making pretty much the same amount of money that you are.  EXCEPT FOR the super rich!  Their colleagues are making stupendously more or less than them.  This kind of makes sense, since the most financially competitive people are probably also those who rise to the top.  It also probably provokes them to greater competition, as they see bigger swings of perceived prosperity than the rest of us.

Now we know all that, we need to ask: is income inequality a moral problem?  Not in and of itself.  If everyone in the society were taken care of, or able to take care of themselves, if there were a serious shared commitment to working for the good of all our citizens, than there would be no moral dilemma and perhaps the financial gaming of the wealthiest few shouldn't be a concern.

But there's another number that changes the story.  The living wage - an income necessary to pay for housing, food, and other necessities - is greater than the income of a large part of the population.  For Cambridge, MA, living wage for a family of 4 is ~ $66,000, and for a single adult living wage is ~$25,000.  That's (respectively) 45th percentile and 30th percentile nationally.*****  And that's the moral problem.

For the poor end of the spectrum, for whom service jobs are increasingly unsustainable, and for the lower middle class which is losing factory jobs overseas and increasingly to robots, these numbers reveal a rich environment for the growth of discontent.  For the richest of the rich, who subscribe to the Gospel of Pure Capitalism and make the claim that regulation will only ever harm them and (through them) the country,... well I imagine that they don't think too much about it.

I don't know about you, but having pieced together this story, I feel the need to compare it to another narrative, which has such sway over our national consciousness: the American Dream.  The idea that with effort anyone can improve their situation and pass on a better, healthier life with greater potential to their children is a stark contrast to the reality of life for so many millions in our country.  Our society is neglecting them, and leaving them behind, apparently for the sake of protecting the wealthy few.

As a country, is this who we want to be?

Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part. 
     - from Leonard Cohen, "A Villanelle for Our Time," 2004

*Beware links to there be time-wasting dragons here
**Actually, there's an ongoing and unresolved philosophy of science debate regarding why math has been so effective at describing the workings of the universe.  We have observed reality ('the universe') and we have conceptual structures that seem to have predictive power about the universe ('physics', or 'applied mathematics').  We also have something else: the observer ('conscious beings' or 'minds') that construct and note this relationship.  But what is the relationship between these three?  Does math somehow literally form the underpinnings of reality, i.e. the laws of physics are actual laws written on a metaphysical stone tablet?  Is describability an artifact of human intelligence only?  Can we apply the anthropic principle, and say that the universe MUST be intelligible for intelligent life to arise within it?  I need to figure out what the name for this question is - and when I do, I'll write more about it!  In the meantime, I strongly recommend this article from the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton: On Math, Matter and Mind.
***I have a neat idea for a functional magic system kicking around the back of my head based on this question.  It's an incredibly arcane and unwieldy type of magic where you have to self-consistently rewrite the local laws of physics to get what you want done.  Lots of unintended consequences.
****JK! no srsly LOL.
*****You can calculate the living wage in your area here: