Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under Amen, Sister

From the Washington Post’s Ellen McCarthy, a slice of life piece on one librarian’s life under a growing cloud of student debt. Just your typical story about a young parent with a home and a car and a job and the crushing psychological weight of knowing you’ll make loan payments until you die:

Three years ago, when she finished her master’s degree, Sarah’s student loans totaled $60,000. She has paid steadily ever since and now owes $69,000 — more than twice the annual income she earns working as a children’s librarian.

“I keep paying,” the 31-year-old says. “But it’s like pouring into a bucket with no bottom.” […]

The glimmer of hope Sarah clings to is her enrollment in a public service student loan forgiveness program that would clear her remaining debt if she puts in seven more years of work with the government and continues to make payments on time. But she’s heard horror stories of borrowers being disqualified from the program — which is available to people who work for the government or certain nonprofits after they have paid their loans on time for 10 years — because of a paperwork error. And she’s terrified the program will be quietly eliminated. (President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal did suggest cutting it for new borrowers but would still forgive debts of people currently enrolled.)

​Same, Sarah. Same.

Published on under I, Robot on the other line

Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s latest in the Washington Post is on How robo-call moguls outwitted the government and completely wrecked the Do Not Call list. The title is actually a bit misleading, because there’s not so much outwitting the government as flouting the law and hoping the government doesn’t have enough resources to enforce the law. It’s been a good bet so far:

Since the robo-call ban went into effect in 2009, the FTC has brought just 33 cases against robo-callers. In those cases, defendants have been ordered to pay nearly $300 million in relief to victims, and nearly $30 million in civil penalties to the government. But even then, the FTC can’t force perpetrators to pay the fine if they argue they’re broke. Which robo-callers often seem to be. So the FTC has only collected on a fraction of those sums: $18 million in relief and less than $1 million in penalties.

Shell companies have insulated these folks from nearly 94% of the fines and damages they owe for breaking the law. Imagine if bank robbers could skirt the law like that.

In van Zuylen-Wood’s retelling, the government draws the ire of the public for failing to stop robo-calling spam.

At the root of this public relations problem is a likely misapprehension about how the Do Not Call Registry works. When you add your number to the list, nothing actually happens. No legal muscle or technological wizardry suddenly prevents a solicitor from calling you. All the list does is provide you with vague recourse in the event you are called, by allowing you to complain that someone has called you. So, you can report the violation by calling a toll-free number or filling out a form on the Do Not Call website. Then, if the number you were called from shows up in enough complaints, the FTC will leap into action and prosecute the offending dialer.

Except, it almost certainly won’t. In the age of live telemarketing, the mere threat of prosecution or penalty was enough to deter companies with shareholders and reputations to protect. In the robo-calling epoch, dialers couldn’t care less. One, nobody knows who they are or where they’re calling from, because they all spoof their numbers. Two, more of them are doing it every year, since it’s cheap and easy to blast out automated calls from anywhere in the world. All this makes it nearly impossible to identify robo-callers, let alone penalize them. At a hearing on robo-calls in October, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was getting so many of them, she’d disconnected her home phone. “The list,” she said, “doesn’t work.”

​The article also covers a series of variously effective technological band-aids for the underlying problem. Spoilers: none of them work, and we have to rely on the phone companies to fundamentally change how telephony works. Don’t hold your breath, only your calls.

Published on under More Like Crisis On Infinite Loans, Eh?

Paul Campos at Lawyers, Gun & Money suns up a series of recent developments in the law school crisis and the reform movement addressing it. He starts with the news that Valparaiso University Law School is shutting down:

What happened to the institution itself is pretty clear: when law school applications started collapsing a few years ago, Valparaiso radically slashed its entrance requirements in order to maintain class size. Between 2010 and 2013, the median LSAT score went from 150 to 143. ETA: That’s going from the 44th to the 20th percentile on the test, and more concretely, from a level that correlates with a fairly modest risk of failing the bar to one that correlates with a massive risk of doing so, if the student hasn’t failed out of law school first.

To [dean Andrea] Lyon’s and the central administration’s credit, they did raise admission standards at least back toward the general direction of where they were before the admissions crisis, but this led predictably to a cratering of the school’s class size. The first year class went from 211 in 2011 to 103 last year, and then fell to just 28 students this fall.

Valparaiso joins Whittier, Charlotte, Indiana Tech, and Hamline on the list of ABA approved law schools that have given up the ghost in the past two years.

Campos provides more context about the Crisis On Infinite Law Schools in his piece, but that last bit up there really gobsmacked me. Twenty eight students! I do wonder how many of those folks withdraw before graduating with six figures of debt. After all, that’s a big investment to make for a degree other (read: hiring) lawyers are going to turn up their noses at. That’s a situation which won’t get much better when the school formally ceases to exist, too.

And look, I say this as someone who borrowed six figures to get a J.D. from a bottom 100 law school to try to make something of his life. I’m tremendously lucky (read: privileged) to have carved out a niche doing something I love somewhere I believe in, but these twenty-eight kids are in for a rough ride.

Which brings me to Jia Tolentino’s newest article in the New Yorker, titled Where Millennials Come From. I know, we’ve all read more than our share of thinkpiece-meditations on millennials, but Tolentino’s is one of the best I’ve read on the subject. During a summation of two ontological alternatives to millennials’ philosophies, she lands on this:

The type of millennial that much of the media flocks to—white, rich, thoughtlessly entitled—is largely unrepresentative of what is, in fact, a diverse and often downwardly mobile group. (Millennials are the first generation to have just a fifty-fifty chance of being financially better off than their parents.) Many millennials grew up poor, went to crummy schools, and have been shuttled toward for-profit colleges and minimum-wage jobs, if not the prison system. (For-profit colleges, which disproportionately serve low-income students, account for roughly a tenth of undergraduates, and more than a third of student-loan defaults.) Average student debt has doubled just within this generation, surging from around eighteen thousand dollars at graduation for the class of 2003 to thirty-seven thousand for the class of 2016. (Under the tax plan recently passed by House Republicans, the situation worsens for student borrowers and their families: that bill eliminates the deduction on student-loan interest and voids the income-tax exemption for tuition benefits.)

A young college graduate, having faithfully followed the American path of hard work and achievement, might now find herself in a position akin to a homeowner with negative equity: in possession of an asset that is worth much less than what she owes. In these conditions, the concept of self-interest starts to splinter. For young people, I suspect, the idea of specialness looks like a reward but mostly functions as punishment, bestowing on us the idea that there is no good way of existing other than constantly generating returns.

If you’ve read a thousand of these millennial things before, read this last one and keep it in the back of your mind as my generation enters public office. I’ll leave you with Tolentino’s kicker, but you should get the whole story.

It seems more likely that a young person who opened “The Communist Manifesto” tomorrow would underline the part about personal worth being reduced to exchange value and go off to join the Democratic Socialists of America, which has grown fivefold in the last year. One of its members, a Marine Corps veteran named Lee Carter, was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in November. He was born in 1987. “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” the critic and theorist Fredric Jameson wrote, fourteen years ago. These days, the kids find it easy enough to imagine both.

Published on under War on all the other illusions too

The Guardian just published an excerpt of Extracted from World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech by Franklin Foer titled Facebook’s war on free will. This bit, about the ubiquity of algorithms and the harms which this necessarily implies, really resonated with me:

Still, even as an algorithm mindlessly implements its procedures – and even as it learns to see new patterns in the data – it reflects the minds of its creators, the motives of its trainers. Amazon and Netflix use algorithms to make recommendations about books and films. (One-third of purchases on Amazon come from these recommendations.) These algorithms seek to understand our tastes, and the tastes of like-minded consumers of culture.

Yet the algorithms make fundamentally different recommendations. Amazon steers you to the sorts of books that you’ve seen before. Netflix directs users to the unfamiliar. There’s a business reason for this difference. Blockbuster movies cost Netflix more to stream. Greater profit arrives when you decide to watch more obscure fare. Computer scientists have an aphorism that describes how algorithms relentlessly hunt for patterns: they talk about torturing the data until it confesses. Yet this metaphor contains unexamined implications. Data, like victims of torture, tells its interrogator what it wants to hear.

These algorithms aren’t fundamental laws of nature, like the rate at which stars exhaust their fuel, or the time it’ll take the Moon to fall out of the sky and rejoin the Earth. People build these algorithms with a purpose, and it’s good to be mindful of that.

Tangentially, here’s an absolutely wonderfully researched bit of debunking by Maciej Cegłowski. He writes about a series of news article that went viral recently, the premise of which is roughly ‘so many people are buying bomb-making components on Amazon, the Amazon algorithm now recommends users purchase bomb-making materials in conjunction with one another.’

In a word, no:

When I contacted the author of one of these pieces to express my concerns, they explained that the piece had been written on short deadline that morning, and they were already working on an unrelated article. The author cited coverage in other mainstream outlets (including the New York Times) as justification for republishing and not correcting the assertions made in the original Channel 4 report.

The real story in this mess is not the threat that algorithms pose to Amazon shoppers, but the threat that algorithms pose to journalism. By forcing reporters to optimize every story for clicks, not giving them time to check or contextualize their reporting, and requiring them to race to publish follow-on articles on every topic, the clickbait economics of online media encourage carelessness and drama. This is particularly true for technical topics outside the reporter’s area of expertise.

And reporters have no choice but to chase clicks. Because Google and Facebook have a duopoly on online advertising, the only measure of success in publishing is whether a story goes viral on social media. Authors are evaluated by how individual stories perform online, and face constant pressure to make them more arresting. Highly technical pieces are farmed out to junior freelancers working under strict time limits. Corrections, if they happen at all, are inserted quietly through ‘ninja edits’ after the fact.

Got that? Facebook is an attempt to undermine your Free Will as a Service, Facebook also undermines journalism as a service, and here’s one for the road: Facebook appears to have accidentally undermined American democracy as a service.

On the one hand, I will not shed a tear for Facebook when some upstart service takes its place. On the other, it’s hard to imagine Facebook’s replacement will be any more benign.

Published on under Nietzsche and Nazis

The New Yorker’s Daniel Penny recently reviewed Mark Bray’s Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook. If you’re like me, and you’ve only heard bits here and there about Antifa, this is a great primer on the international history and philosophy of these violent protestors.

I found this bit most interesting:

[Antifa] believe that Fascists forfeit their rights to speak and assemble when they deny those same rights to others through violence and intimidation. For instance, last week, the North Dakota newspaper The Forum published a letter from Pearce Tefft in which he recalled a chilling exchange about free speech with his son, Peter, shortly before Peter headed to the rally in Charlottesville. “The thing about us fascists is, it’s not that we don’t believe in freedom of speech,” the younger Tefft reportedly said to his father. “You can say whatever you want. We’ll just throw you in an oven.”

For Bray and his subjects, the horror of this history and the threat of its return demands that citizens, in the absence of state suppression of Fascism, take action themselves. Bray notes that state-based protections failed in Italy and Germany, where Fascists were able to take over governments through legal rather than revolutionary means—much as the alt-right frames its activities as a defense of free speech, Fascists were able to spread their ideology under the aegis of liberal tolerance. Antifa does not abide by John Milton’s dictum that, “in a free and open encounter,” truthful ideas will prevail. “After Auschwitz and Treblinka,” Bray writes, “anti-fascists committed themselves to fighting to the death the ability of organized Nazis to say anything.”

​On the one hand, that’s not a bad point. As Bray says, fascism came to power in Germany via the ballot, not the bayonet. I began reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reichin December, and while I’m only up to about 1938 (nobody tell me how it ends!), in 1923 Hitler led a coup to overthrow the democratic government and install his Alt Reich. The coup failed, and Hitler was imprisoned for high treason. After being released from prison in 1924, Hitler was briefly banned from politics; by 1933, the coalition government appointed Hitler as Chancellor.

If you’re a democracy, why should you passively allow anti-democratic groups to use your institutions and mechanisms to end you?

On the other hand, if you’re a democracy, the alternative to the previous paragraph is to prop up democracy by undermining the values of your democracy. Banning some speech in defense of a government that will defend free speech seems hypocritical at best and self-defeating at worst. If you profess to be committed to the rule of law, you probably ought to follow the law. And look, assault is assault no matter how many Pepe the Frog signs the other guy has. Punching a Nazi is best left to Captain America in the movies.

Here’s software engineer Yonatan Zunger on being intolerant of intolerance:

Tolerance is not a moral absolute; it is a peace treaty. Tolerance is a social norm because it allows different people to live side-by-side without being at each other’s throats. It means that we accept that people may be different from us, in their customs, in their behavior, in their dress, in their sex lives, and that if this doesn’t directly affect our lives, it is none of our business. But the model of a peace treaty differs from the model of a moral precept in one simple way: the protection of a peace treaty only extends to those willing to abide by its terms. It is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.

Zunger wrote this essay on January 2, 2017. While the bulk of his essay deals with intolerance of other religions, there’s a reason this essay went viral after Charlottesville:

The antisocial member of the group, who harms other people in the group on a regular basis, need not be accepted; the purpose of your group’s acceptance is to let people feel that they have a home, and someone who actively tries to thwart this is incompatible with the broader purpose of that acceptance. Prejudice against Nazis is not the same as prejudice against Blacks, because one is based on people’s stated opposition to their neighbors’ lives and safety, the other on a characteristic that has nothing to do with whether they’ll live in peace with you or not.

I’m still not convinced the best way to combat fascists is to literally combat them, but after reading both of these, I think I understand the philosophy of Antifa a little better.

Published on under No, Money Down!

Here’s something new I learned about Uber: they have a self-induced subprime auto loan crisis. Via WolfStreet:

Two years ago when these folks launched the subprime auto leasing program to put their badly paid drivers into new vehicles they couldn’t otherwise afford, they apparently didn’t do the math.

This type of lease was offered to drivers with subprime credit ratings or no credit ratings who barely earned enough money to get by and make the payments, if they stuck around long enough. It allowed drivers to drive new cars. When it didn’t work out for them, they could return the cars after 30 days with two weeks’ notice. The only penalty for the early return is that Uber keeps the $250 deposit. And these leases came with “unlimited miles.”

No one in the car business would ever conceive of such a thing.

​Well, sure. Those old world, analog-only auto leases were rotting from the inside out. The auto loan industry was easily disrupted because the incumbent lenders insisted on making “good deals” in which they “didn’t lose thousands of dollars.”

But this is where Uber steps in to show everyone how it’s really done.

[Uber] had been estimating modest losses of around $500 per auto on average, these people said. But managers recently informed Uber executives that the losses were actually about $9,000 per car — about half the sticker price of a typical leased vehicle.

The losses are so steep because the leases have no mileage caps, and drivers are putting absurd miles on the cars. This craters the resale value of each car, of which Uber apparently has about 40,000.

Well, okay. But the real value here is putting drivers in the seats of cars, so you can expect the $360 million in losses is really more of a loss leader for getting new drivers on the road, right?

Despite the crazy terms, these leases aren’t cheap for drivers. Uber figured they’d drive a lot, and they’d have to pay more than they would have for a standard lease. Via The Wall Street Journal: “A 2014 Toyota Corolla was recently being offered for a term of 130 weeks at $122 a week, totaling roughly $500 a month, according to marketing materials distributed by Uber.”

By contrast, leases for Corollas are advertised all over the internet for as low as $159 a month, for 24 months and 24,000 miles. But read the small print, including the $1,499 down at inception and other upfront charges. And subprime buyers might not qualify.

Long story short: these are some bad, bad loans.

It’s so weird that companies like this can spend billions of dollars of other peoples’ money to disrupt industries by undercutting the incumbents who actually try to make money. Presumably, investors realize the prices for all these disruptive services will go up. But won’t that mean the disruptor becomes the disrupted (because profit margins are a vestigial novelty left over from the 19th century, natch)?