27 October 2013

Betrayed by the Calendar

<SARCASM> OMG more woman drivers! Can't be any worse than the overwhelmingly male taxi drivers in Rome or Tokyo... or Chicago or New York City... </SARCASM>

  • One of the great myths of art and culture — one vehemently, if not explicitly, denied by Article I, Section 8, clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution — is that artists, writers, etc. need exposure. In the docubio film Dreams With Sharp Teeth, Harlan Ellison expresses his disdain for getting paid in exposure and not cold, hard cash (or, at least, an ACH transfer) for his work as and supporting the work of other artists, writers, actors, et alia. Yes, "exposure" can have some value... as part of a business plan to leverage other opportunities, or as part of an artistic plan to gain specific experiences that might otherwise be unavailable. It cannot, however, be the only, or even dominant, means of "compensating" artists and writers; that's the fallacy of the "long tail," which presumes that those who make a reasonable living in the long tail are still in the long tail at the time they begin doing so. Even cursory familiarity with the calculus and stochastic theory behind bounded unbalanced frequency distributions demonstrates otherwise... but if there's one thing that the denizens of tech-utopian journalism and activism share, it's an aversion to actually examining any of their assumptions that involve math.

    Expose Yourself to ArtAnd thus we turn to The New York Times, which on occasion still notices reality and/or provides a platform (for which it gets paid in advertising revenues, if nothing else) for others who do so. Today's edition (despite yesterday's date stamped on it online) showcases a more-than-worthwhile essay by Tim Kreider decrying "free" as the default compensation to a writer on the 'net. Mr Kreider is, perhaps, far too nice to She Who Shall Not Be Named (that empire-builder who runs a purportedly left/liberal 'net "news portal" that doesn't pay most of its contributors). In fact, I'd argue that he's far too nice in general. The problem arises from the transactional and translational costs of funneling the "benefit" received by uncounted/uncountable audience members back to the individual writers; it's the same problem that arises in funneling money from museum/gallery attendees back to the respective artists, and radio/'net-based music experiences back to the musicians (and even more so to the songwriters/composers). Leaving aside the difficulty of putting a value on an individual exposure to art, the definitely nonzero transaction/translation costs — costs well known to the audience, if seldom explicitly and almost never understood — act as a huge barrier to actually compensating the creators of stuff we enjoy. That bestseller gave less than one sixth of its cover price to the author; the rate is even lower for recorded music, for television and film, and for writing in periodicals. Ad-supported? Good luck coming up with any kind of accounting for that!

    And, nonetheless, there are constant requests for free content paid in exposure. I've done a few such gigs myself... but always as part of a plan. It's not cost-effective (or fun) to do some of the specific analysis of publishing contracts that I've advocated for in presentations; indeed, having to deal with certain claim-gatekeepers that never should have been allowed into the contract in the first place has often made it impossible for me to charge anything, because I can't help the author when (for example) the out-of-print clause allows the publisher essentially sole discretion over whether a book remains in print because the clause was written in the 1970s, but imposed on a 2004 contract because neither the author nor the agent was sophisticated enough to see the relationship between "in stock" and "print on demand," let alone "electronic edition." My plan has been to try to educate authors and agents to get past this problem by not agreeing to 1970s-fashioned clauses; the specific solution I've proposed is a minimum royalty credited to the author (not some level of gross "sales", let alone "availability") as the measure of whether a work is "in print." And the reason for this is simple: This lets me, and my clients, get to the fun — and potentially paying — stuff.

    Stop blaming the artists for the inefficiencies caused by transaction costs and losses in translation. Better yet, stop exploiting them on that basis. Starving artists don't create art; they push up daisies. More to the point:


  • Which leads to corresponding problems with the unsatisfactory computerized roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. The second (fake) paragraph of the story reveals about 80% or so of the cause of the problems (emphasis added):

    But a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services refused to break out how many of these applicants came through the 14 state-run insurance marketplaces, which are functioning, versus the beleaguered healthcare.gov website operated by the federal government on behalf of 36 states. The application process determines if a user is eligible for a federal subsidy or for the state-federal Medicaid program.

    Keep in mind that the legislative impetus behind the preserve-private-insurance-instead-of-go-to-single-payer Affordable Care Act was to let the states administer their own programs... and most states have refused to do so. Thirty-six states have not set up their own insurance exchanges, a step that everything in the legislation from its timelines to accountability to cost-equalization measures envisioned as critical. Thus, the federal site must actually do the work for thirty-six different combinations of state eligibility rules, local poverty levels, and so on instead of merely being a portal that asks "What state will you be living in on January 1, 2014?" and sending you to the relevant state site (with all of its interfaces to state agencies, locality-sensitive language assistance, and so on).

    In the sense of "better a quarter of a loaf than mere crumbs" — especially in my own unenlightened self-interest, as "preexisting conditions" made it impossible to get or afford insurance in the pre-ACA non-marketplace — I supported the Affordable Care Act as an incremental step. It is not, however, a liberal program, as it reifies a system that trades the 2-3% in administrative costs of Medicare for the 20% or so in profits-plus-administrative-costs of the private "health insurance" system. Let's leave aside for the moment that "health insurance" is not actually "insurance" as that term is defined in any but the most radical (and self-serving) systems of economics — it is, instead, a deferred-compensation partial risk-sharing system, especially when combined with copays and patient shares and the like. The key problem with the Affordable Care Act is that it is a camel: A horse designed by a committee. The parts of the Affordable Care Act that are causing problems now are precisely those that were required due to partisan- and financial-interest political realities entirely distinct from the policy, efficiency, justice, or any other goals of a "system" that is supposed to rely on the marketplace. Well, congratulations, market-is-everything mavens: The changes in cost to individual participants are an unregulated, definitely-not-free market in action! And so are the administrative problems that are accompanying everything else.

  • Last for today, but far from least, Bruce Schneier offers provocative thoughts on feodality and internet governance that also shed light on the Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, and "leaks" yet to come. The problem is, ultimately, inconsistent timeframes. Each of the following is true; each of them is incompatible with the others.

    • Under a feudal (or other heridity- or office-for-life-based) system, the timeframe for major changes in ultimately responsible actors was not subject to either pure passage of time or popular whim. That's not to say that losers of subtle internecine battles were never removed from power — it is to say that such removals were the result of specific acts and campaigns, not of default conditions.
    • Intelligence and diplomatic activities have long lead times, particularly compared to the electoral calendar. With extraordinarily rare exceptions, effective intelligence (not to mention counterintelligence) and diplomacy depends upon the credibility of individual actors established over time — upon reputation, upon reliability, upon who their friends (and enemies) appear to be.
    • The effectiveness of an embassy is seldom dependent upon its politically appointed ambassador, but instead is dependent upon the lower-level "professional" managers. The same is true of intelligence operations... although it's often much more difficult to tell who is actually a "manager" in intelligence systems and activities. Indeed, the same can be said for militaries.
    • It is not in the best interests of elected officials (or those appointed to "serve-at-the-pleasure" posts by those elected officials) to admit to any of the above. They therefore ignore them... if they are even aware of them in the first place, because the skill of "getting elected" is different from the skill of "effective governance" (Exhibit A: Jimmy Carter; Exhibit B: Ronald Reagan; and we continue to pay for that twelve-year period of executive incompetence, neglect, and malfeasance).
    • It takes longer to reestablish credibility after errors seen as arising from irrelevancies by those outsiders to the system who are judging credibility than it does to build credibility afresh in a new context.

    Is it any wonder that the "professionals" in intelligence and diplomacy (and, for that matter, the military) are so incapable of accepting that one of the prices that we pay for representative democracy is that their (unelected) jobs are harder, more subject to disruption, and discontinuous? I'll pay that price. One of the theoretical advantages of tyranny/despotism is that changes in policy are based upon discrete events that an astute professional (and practically nobody else) can see coming and allow for. Of course, that means that one ends up in — at best — Daleyite Chicago, Pendergast Kansas City, Thatcherite England, or some other in-practice feodality. And thus the problems outlined by Mr Schneier in describing something that changes even faster than elections.