Friday, September 12, 2014

Infrastructure Megaprojects: Mosquito Eradication


Mosquito-borne diseases kill a million people every year. Admittedly, most of those aren't in the United States, which is what this post series is focused on, but some are. And even ignoring the disease aspect, the buggers are just hugely irritating.

We have a safe and simple way to wipe out the entire species. No chemicals, no engineered diseases, no possibility of spreading mutations into the gene pool. And mosquitoes have few known environmental niches.

I suggest the United States implement sterile insect technique in a significant but controlled area, and look very closely for environmental damage. If the species actually does turn out to be necessary, they can be (shudder) reintroduced. (Or preferably, some substitute species found.) And if there are no problems, we've just made the world a slightly better place.

There are two benefits. One, our own comfort and safety. And two, to demonstrate the ecological effects if such a policy is implemented worldwide.

Oh, and three: screw mosquitoes.

Now if we could just get rid of the bagworms...

Friday, September 5, 2014

Infrastructure Megaprojects: Jobs

Over the last fifteen years the American middle class has been gutted. Unemployment, while dropping slowly, is still high. Underemployment is worse; maybe more people have full-time jobs, but at reduced wages. This is the fundamental economic problem we face. It directly affects the lives of millions of Americans, and is the cause of much of our budget deficit. (Government tax receipts dropped like a stone when all those people lost their jobs, not to mention all the welfare they suddenly needed.)

I think the government could do more to help people find work. We've talked about building huge things, like power grids and aqueducts, which provide direct employment. But what about helping people find existing jobs? Or incentivizing the creation of better ones?

As an added bonus for the deficit hawks out there, or perhaps those who think government should be run like a business, consider this: if the government spends $1k helping me get a better job, how long before the government gets that $1k back in the taxes I pay and the welfare I no longer need? From a strictly financial perspective, spending money helping people get jobs is one of the best investments our government can make.

So suppose you're looking for a job, and can't find one. What can stop you?

Information 
You can't get a job you don't know exists. The government could create a central jobs bank, a single location where employers across the country could post job openings. And when I say employers across the country, I mean all of them. Pay employers to post job openings, and you'll have a database of every job everywhere quite rapidly. Figure there are ten million job openings in the country at any time. At $100 per opening posted, that's $1b. Chump change on the scale of the projects we're talking about.

Naturally, no matter what system you set up, someone will try to game it. We'd need to pay employers, not just for submitting an opening, but only if the job is filled by someone, and you can confirm who that someone is. That should take care of most cases of fraud. You'd also need to put limits on how often you could hire for the same position, or the same person, and promotions from within couldn't count. There will still be flaws, but for the most part it's workable. You don't shut down a functional project because of 1% waste.

The other downside is that this could completely destroy every other online jobs site. Who could survive against a negative-profit competitor? But consider, the government has a terrible track record lately with building complex websites. So perhaps a better idea is to contract the service out to existing job sites. Have a central database, but give easy hooks for Monster and Dice and whoever else to mine the data and list the results. Leverage the market, instead of trying to replace it.

Education
So now we have a giant list of every job in the country. For many, that means you can now be absolutely certain that you'll never make more than you're making now unless you retrain. So we link the jobs listings with data on training programs; each listing says "here are the qualifications, and here's how you get the qualifications if you don't have them." Link directly to a list of relevant educational programs, and all available financial assistance for each. As a bonus, this gives the government more data to target educational assistance.

Experience
Now you've found a job, and you have the paper qualifications. But you can't get any of them; they all say 3-5 years experience required! (Particularly funny when they want ten years experience programming in a language that hasn't existed that long...) How do you get experience when all the job openings require you to have experience? Chicken, egg.

Decades ago, companies had apprenticeship programs. They would actively train replacements for older employees, taking someone with no experience and turning them into whatever they needed. These programs are mostly gone. Companies don't plan decades in advance now; they're focused entirely on maximizing immediate profit. This is leading many industries into a disaster: as older employees retire, there's literally nobody with their skillset to replace them!

The government could incentivize apprenticeship programs. For a rough estimate, say the program is two years long, and that the government paid the entire compensation of the apprentice. For $10b, we could easily fund a hundred thousand apprenticeships, and probably more. We end up with a more skilled, more employable workforce, and those more skilled employees will almost certainly pay for themselves: the more money they make, the more taxes the government receives. Again, if you're the sort to say that government should be run like a business, I'd call that a good investment.

Competition
American companies often complain that they can't find skilled workers in the United States, and push for H-1B visas. We need to import workers, they say, to fill this skills gap. But there is no skills gap! There are plenty of American workers able to do the jobs in question. The inability to hire a $25/hr worker at $10/hr is not a skills gap. I'm all for immigration, but we don't need to be purposefully importing low-cost workers to compete with Americans for jobs.

Also, failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part. If these companies hadn't dismantled their apprenticeship programs, they'd be in a better position. I'm not inclined to screw American worker to make up for a corporate lack of foresight.

Location
Okay, say you've found a job you're qualified for, but it's too far away. You need to move, but you need a moving truck, and gas, and a place to live, and a deposit, at a minimum, not to mention lost wages in between jobs. You may also need temporary housing while you look for a permanent place. Moving's expensive, especially over a long distance. For people barely making ends meet, it may just not be an option.

Let's take the naive approach first and throw money at the problem, just to get a sense of the scale of things. Assume we have a million people moving across the country every year for work. If you just handed each one $5000 in moving assistance, that's $5b a year. Easily affordable, especially when you consider that putting someone to work in a better job gets the government tax income it didn't have before. That $5000 should come back easily within two years in most cases.

One specific expense the government could subsidize is real-estate agents. Many people moving a long distance for work wouldn't spend the extra money for a professional to help them find a place to live. But that kind of local professional is exactly what you need in that situation: you need someone who knows the local market and can find you what you're looking for quickly and efficiently.

Transportation
You've found a job, you're qualified for it, and it's in your city. But you can't afford a car, and you can't afford to move close enough to the job for walking or biking to be viable. What do you do?

Obviously, someone's going to have to drive you. If there are bus routes or trains already, great! But if you live or work outside a high-density area, that's not going to help you. You're going to need something more point-to-point. The government paying to facilitate that transportation could make all the difference between employment and unemployment.

Assume a 20-mile commute, which is pretty common these days. We could pay for a taxi, but that could cost $450/wk. We could rent a car for under $200/wk, plus $35 in gas, which sounds better. Assuming the standard 56 cents per mile, we're not going to do any better than $115/wk for a single-passenger vehicle; if that vehicle comes with a driver, they'll probably make enough per week for their time that we're back up to rental car levels. For single-passenger, a rental car may be the best we can reasonably do. So that comes to over $10k/year, which most people aren't going to pay in taxes with a better job. If you're getting someone off other forms of welfare, though, it may pay for itself.

Now, if neither home nor work is completely isolated from other travelers, we can reduce cost further with multiple passengers. So we're back to what I've proposed before: incentiveized carpooling. Pay people to carpool, set up a system to make it easy (or leverage an existing system like Uber or Lyft with modifications for multiple riders). The cost of helping this one carless person get to work could easily be cut in half, or better. Plus there will be fewer cars on the road, which is good for everyone.

Unpredictability
So you've found a job, you can get there, but they keep changing your hours. You work two hours this week, fourteen next week, you have no regular schedule, and you'd better be available 24-7 in case they call you in. And if you show up for a scheduled shift, you might be sent straight home. Don't like it? Too bad, you're replaceable.

This is what's wrong with a completely unregulated labor market: there are vastly more suppliers (workers) than there are consumers (employers). Without regulation, market forces dictate exactly what we see: wages go to nothing, and quality of life for the workers drops to nothing. Remember, the market is a tool for telling us what will happen. Like all science, it says nothing about what should happen, any more than observing nature tells us we should be eaten by predators because we can't fight back.

This means some form of government regulations are the only solution; by nature, market forces don't result in the outcomes we as a society prefer. We want people to have decent lives, and to be able to make a living working. So we're working counter to market forces, and that's okay, so long as we do it well.

If you're scheduled to work a shift 48 hours before shift start, you should be paid for that shift, even if the manager screwed up and scheduled too many people. If you're on-call, you should be paid like you're on-call. If you have a work schedule that works for you, you should be able to keep that schedule without arbitrary changes. In other words, you should be able to have a job.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Infrastructure Megaprojects: Education

Once everyone in the country has broadband access, education is utterly revolutionized. It's just a question of structure at that point.

One common complaint about society compares teachers to football players. "What's wrong with our society," they ask, "when someone playing a game gets paid a thousand times more than a teacher?" I'll tell you what's wrong with society: teaching is inefficient. It's not about cultural priorities, it's about scale. One football player can entertain a million people at a time. One teacher can only teach maybe thirty. In fact, per audience member contact hour, a teacher (teaching 25 students seven hours a day, 180 days a year) makes 500 times what a football player (playing maybe 22 three-hour games a year) does! If you want teachers to be paid better, if you want education to improve, we need to model professional sports: find the absolute best teachers out there, and give them a way to teach millions at the same time. Education as we know it will change forever.

We're almost there. If you haven't looked at Khan Academy, I suggest you do so. It's become one of the top e-learning platforms out there, with thousands of simple videos explaining almost any subject you can name. The math section has just been expanded further to be fully interactive. There are several other similar sites. MIT has opened access to almost all it's classes!

As impressive as all these initiatives are, one thing stands out to me about them all: they are all unfinished. We stand at the terminator. We've all seen children operating tablets as soon as they have the motor skills. When those children get to school as school is today, they will be bored out of their minds! If information is presented well, most children can absorb it at an unbelievable rate. That's the revolution we're looking at.

Here's what the government can do to help the process. Some of it is large infusions of cash, some is fixing the existing brokenness of the educational system, and some is just getting out of the way.

Hold competitions for the best online teaching programs.
Define standards, then offer prizes to the best ones in each subject. And I mean serious prizes, in the millions or tens of millions of dollars. Make the contest run over a few years, with a randomly selected group of students assigned to each program. Test each group regularly on the selected subject, in a thorough and rigorous manner. Give intermediate prizes each year or semester to the programs that show good progress. Ultimately, this project could cost the government well under a billion dollars, and jumpstart the new wave of education by a decade! But that's only useful if schools can handle the advanced students, which leads us to...

Make the school curriculum more adaptable.
If a student comes into first grade already competent in some of the requisite skills, advance that student to a class where they might actually learn. Schedule each student individually in each subject, at their appropriate skill level. Forget no child left behind. Better no child held down. Every child should be pushed to the limit of their skills, without regard to age. I was, and it shaped my entire life in very positive ways. If a student can finish school at sixteen, let them! Declare them a provisional adult, with additional privileges like voting. (The Constitution says that all citizens eighteen or older can vote. It doesn't say those younger can't.)

Don't ever compromise advancement standards.
No more of this "oh, you showed up, have a gold star" or "you turned in an assignment, have a 50". I'm all for giving multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery, but you can not compromise standards. If a student doesn't understand the material, they do not advance. Period. Anything else turns your educational system into a babysitting system, which is where we are now.

Make the in-building education focus more on things that can't be learned online.
Critical thinking, clear communication, discussion, respect, personal interaction, field trips! Despite how we do things now, an education is not about learning facts, it's about learning new ways to think! Facts can be learned anywhere. Students should be exposed to multiple instructors, constantly, preferably with utterly different viewpoints about subjects. It's all too easy to turn your brain off when you're never presented with contradictory information. Clear communication in text should also be emphasized. Far too often I've seen college students write like seventh graders talk. This will take the longest time; it will take over a generation for there to be enough teachers trained this way.

Make students feel safe.
All too often, crimes like assault and theft are committed in schools without anything done about it. Constantly bullied students are ignored, then punished when they fight back. Students need a system of justice that can be trusted, no different than adults do. There should be no problem with having students two or three years apart in the same classes if their skill level allows it. Right now if we tried that it would be a disaster, because disrespectful and threatening behavior to other students is ignored. That has to change.

This requires some viable ability to punish students, possibly outside school hours, and possibly even without parental cooperation. But it also requires a system to ensure that students aren't punished unjustly, because that happens regularly too. In short, we need a court system for very young children. Yes, that's ridiculous. But what else makes sense?

Make school optionally year-round.
Many poorer families rely on school to double as child care. School being offered (if not required) year-round would help the students advance faster, and would help the parents work more, save money, and improve the child's quality of life. The only downside is that we have to pay more teachers, but spending huge amounts of money to accomplish good things is what these posts are all about!

Make students work.
Students should be expected to participate in low-level "internships" later in school. A few hours a week, for limited pay, the students learn how to work. Ideally, this would evolve into full-on vocational training, integrated with local community colleges and technical schools.

Don't forget adult education for everyday life.
Education isn't just what you learn in school. There are all sorts of things that could be taught through interactive online materials that would be useful for adults. Good nutrition, for example. Many people subsist on junk food because they honestly don't know they could be healthier and saving money!

And how about language? There are huge numbers of immigrants and refugees in the United States, particularly in Tennessee and nearby states, that don't speak English. That language barrier makes it very difficult for those islanded cultures to assimilate into our larger community. No good comes of that. With the kind of online program we were talking about above, we could make it tremendously easier for those adults to learn English.

The census bureau found that about 4.2 million people speak English "not at all", and 9.3 million speak English "not well". For a rough cost estimate, let's just assume we're buying all those people Rosetta Stone at the list price. That comes to about $5 billion. Now, consider how much the US spends on translators in a year for all those people. I found one number (not sourced) indicating it's about $375 million a year federally, and I'd bet states and cities spend much more. And how about the indirect costs of poor communication? For $5 billion, I'd say this is a bargain.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Infrastructure Megaprojects: Communication

Think about what your life would be like without a phone, without television, without internet access, without books, without music. Really sit and consider that for a minute. I'm betting that if you're reading this, you can't even imagine what you'd do with most of your time. Now imagine your life to date without those things.

Will anyone dispute that information is a necessity in this world?

The US information infrastructure is pathetic compared to most of the developed world. But it's fixable! Estimates have Google Fiber costing about $1,500/home to install. Figure 100 million homes in the US, and to wire the country with high-speed fiber would cost something like $150 billion. Even if it's double that, it's trivial on the scale of projects we're talking about. And following the Google Fiber model, it should be possible to supply most households with free high-speed internet access, only charging for higher bandwidth connections.

But it shouldn't stop there. Wired communication is only part of our information consumption. Right now there are a large number of incompatible cellular networks in the country. How much could we save by standardizing those networks on a single interoperable technology? Think about that. With appropriate leasing agreements in place, you could use anyone's tower, and just let the providers haggle over who pays whom on the back end. And once there's a single universal standard, expanding coverage and service becomes much easier and more efficient.

How much would it cost to pay everyone to switch their towers over to a shared technology? Figure there are 200,000 towers in the US, and we want to change out 90% of them to match the rest. At $150,000 per tower, the entire network would cost $30 billion to build from scratch. Assuming the electronics involved are only a tenth the cost of the tower, we're talking about three billion dollars. Chump change. Once a standard was in place, the government would probably spend more than that building additional towers just to improve coverage.

Unfortunately, we're now beyond my technical knowledge. Are there actual technical advantages to Verizon's approach over, say, Sprint's? Is one objectively better? Is there some technical reason what I've proposed is unworkable? I can't say. But anyone who's ever considered switching cell providers knows what I mean when I say that anything to reduce vender lock-in is a good thing.

Oh, and while we're at it, let's get rid of bundling the cost of a phone into my monthly bill. If it's a $600 phone, don't tell me it's a $200 phone with an early termination penalty if I leave before 2029. Just tell me it's a $600 phone. Finance it, pay cash, whatever, but vender lock-in needs to die.

No, that's not a megaproject. But let's do it anyway.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Why the votes for Charlie Brown must have been random

I wrote previously, suggesting that Charlie Brown won his primary due to people who voted for the first name on the ballot. Another writer responded in the Tennessean, suggesting that he instead won due to informed voters. I would like to explain how I concluded this was unlikely.

94,000 people voted for Brown. If 94,000 informed voters chose him, there have to be a number of similarly informed people who either didn't vote, or voted for someone else. We can reasonably say that at least 200,000 people have to have been informed about Brown's positions before the election.

So how did these people get that information? Remember, I'm not the only one wondering who this man is; he's a cypher to the newspapers too! He has no internet presence, nor any other mass media campaign. Perhaps he mailed fliers? But if he had a massive snail-mail campaign that reached a couple hundred thousand voters, he'd need to spend at least $20k. His campaign reports having no money at all.

Perhaps Brown has a couple dozen volunteers going door to door twelve hours a day for six months. But other than that, I'm just not seeing a way that most votes for Brown could possibly be informed votes. Perhaps someone who knew Brown's positions before the election, and chose to vote for him based on them, can write and tell us how? And also why out of his 94,000 informed supporters, only a hundred have joined his facebook group?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Infrastructure Megaprojects: Arable Land

So now we have energy and fresh water. The next obvious human need is food. Food production comes down to three things: water, land, and fertilizer. We have a solution to get arbitrary amounts of fresh water, and we can develop fertilizer from the leftover potassium from the desalination plants. That leaves land.

Large sections of the United States are desert, and much of the rest is trending that way. Deserts may not all be dead and barren, but they're not particularly useful by human standards. The growth of deserts is a huge problem.

So let's fix them. It's possible to reverse desertification by planting trees. It's counter-intuitive, but think about it this way: plants don't just absorb water, they also release it through their leaves. That means that whatever rain that's fallen, the trees hold it temporarily, then release it back to the environment to rain out again. That means that whatever rain falls in the area stays in the area longer, cycling through the local ecosystem, rather than just evaporating and leaving.

There are about a quarter million square miles of desert in the continental US, and about as much semi-arid land. Figure fifty trees per acre, and that's sixteen billion trees. Sixteen billion trees to increase our useful arable land area by 20% sounds like a pretty good deal!

If you think that number sounds totally unreasonable, think again. During the great depression we planted three billion trees. More recently, seven billion trees have been planted in less than a decade. Moreover, this requires almost totally unskilled labor, so it's a great jobs project.

Of course, once the forests are established, we wouldn't just leave them untouched. Forests are great, and they have all sorts of positive effects on air quality, improving the health of those nearby. But forests aren't the only end goal. Over time we'd need to make some reclaimed areas into farms, taking advantage of the rebuilt soil. But we'd do that in a planned and controlled fashion. We need to make sure that we don't reclaim the deserts, only to recreate them later.

Monday, August 11, 2014

What does "close the border" actually mean?

I had this conversation on the Tennessean comments page, wherein Larry Tanner was saying we should "close the border". I asked for clarification, tried to provide some of my own, and everything got honest in a surprising direction. It was refreshing, when most people just spit out talking points and call each other names.

The original topic was Obama's requested appropriations to execute the law relating to the present refugee crisis. Keep in mind, I am not with the below advocating any course of action, nor am I condoning any of Larry's positions. I am simply saying we all need to be clear about what we're suggesting should be done.

Larry: I wouldn't be against this if a portion, probably a large portion, was used to close the border to illegal immigration. Without the border being closed, this would only be a Band-Aid requiring more billions to care for the next wave of "children" which are sure to come.
Stephen: Define what the border being "closed" would look like. I mean, it's not like these children are crossing undetected or unimpeded. They cross the border and turn themselves in. What do you want, a giant two-thousand mile impenetrable wall?

Larry: Impede them. I know the feds won't do this but the Texans can and are doing this as we type. The gist of the letter was money. Take care of the ones that are here until we can send them back and stop completely any more from getting their grubby little toes in the Rio Grande.

Stephen: How?

Larry: Threaten the Mexicans with sanctions or tell them to stem the tide or we'll come to the south side of the border and do it for them. Might take out a few drug cartels while we're at it. You're the engineer, how would you do it? Excuse the question, I already know your answer.

Stephen: I'm not necessarily disagreeing with that solution. But I do think it's important to say that's what we're talking about, because I don't think many people have thought about it in those terms. We are talking here about invading and occupying a part of Mexico. That's not a trivial thing.

Invading Mexico has consequences. We need UN approval, or we risk a huge amount of goodwill from the international community. And we actually need that goodwill, believe it or not. We burned a huge amount invading Iraq illegally, and I don't think we could get away with that again.

Now, that said, Mexico is in large part a failed state, and I think we need new international legal structures for handling failed states. If we're threatened from Mexican territory, and the Mexican state can't control their territory well enough to eliminate that threat, we should have some legal means of recourse. I wrote about that here.

In a lot of ways, what we're contemplating is worse than the Iraq invasion, because there is no end game! It's not like we'll eventually leave. We're basically permanently annexing a piece of Mexico to create this hypothetical border zone. In so doing, American soldiers WILL die, and the financial costs will be enormous. The political will may simply not be here internally to sustain an occupation.

Now, compare the cost of your proposed invasion and occupation of part of Mexico to the cost of the uncontrolled border. Which costs more? I really don't know, but I'm betting it's not as easy a decision as it looked before we started talking about it in these terms.

Larry: Nothing is easy these days. I read your link and a lot of thought was put into it and I agree with you on a lot of things. I think you put more importance in the UN than most. Too much in fact. It isn't the organization it once was. If we don't address the southern border and secure it we may very well find ourselves in a position the Israelis are in today with Hamas.

Stephen: The UN as an organization isn't so bad, as long as you don't expect it to be more than it is. If the world is going to get together and say "this kind of thing is not okay", the UN is the place those kinds of statements happen. It has no actual power, nor was it ever intended to. So if we were going to occupy part of Mexico, for any reason, the UN would be where the world discussion about whether that was okay or not would take place.

What I'm really interested in is that we don't act unilaterally on something like this, which violates agreements we've made to not do that. We don't need to look like the bad guy any more than absolutely necessary, because that hurts us in the long run. And we need to make sure we don't set precedent that can be used against us. The UN is the forum for that kind of thing.