To Fix College Admissions

I’m already sick of reading about the fraud-in-admissions scandal, but figure that solutions are useful. There are a few things to note about colleges.

Foremost, it’s ridiculous that something as basic as education gets turned into a brand and prestige commodity. It’s basically a celebration of ignorance to prefer someone who learned the same material at a pricey school over someone who learned it elsewhere. If the educational standards at Megabucks U are really that superior, they should be adopted by other institutions. If not, we should stop pretending that the Latin motto matters.

Second, qualifications only matter to a point. If you have two otherwise-identical students and you’re down to weighing the choice of their musical instrument (“E plays harmonica, but e plays the mandolin. Which of those is more of the Megabucks sound?”), fuck off. And the broader situation holds, as well. Qualifications should be about whether someone has the educational background necessary to succeed, and not about chest medals.

With those two things in mind, the way that college admissions (and other things like hiring choices) ought to work is simple:

  1. Select out the qualified candidates.
  2. Randomize that list.

Simple. Unbiased. No-nonsense.

That includes legacy, wing-donors, whatever. It includes minority-preference, scholarship, whatever. Pick them at random. Unless you have very small class sizes or very bad luck, you’ll get a diverse selection that includes the offspring of megadonors as well as underprivileged applicants.


One of the big problems for Megabucks U is that the big donors actually reduce school competition and the spread of education. Rather than franchising or otherwise spreading curricula to others, in hopes of raising more money for the institution, Megabucks will spend more effort protecting its stupid name-brand. The same problem exists in politics, where overreliance on megadonors limits the political oxygen available for a party or a politician to make reasonable choices.

If a Republican megadonor doesn’t like the idea of wind power because e thinks it will mess up eir hairdo, suddenly the Republicans have to oppose wind power, even if their constituents favor it. That sucks. It’s anti-democratic. It can go screw.

How to Medicare for All

The question of whether Medicare for All is the best way forward is being lost in the non-conversation about healthcare. The conservative viewpoint isn’t to do a fair evaluation of alternatives, but to deny problems exist, and so proposals like Medicare for All are attacked relentlessly as impossibilities while any sort of balanced approach is neglected. Sad.

But let’s say you want to Medicare for All, anyway. You have several different transitional problems to deal with.

Transitioning Jobs

Jobs are one of the problems. Lots of people working in for-profit roles in healthcare administration. They do things like formulate the most lucrative way to bill (basically reverse-accountants) insurers and the government. But they also do other things like process claims. Some of those jobs will vanish, while others will be reallocated through a government contracting system.

How many vanish depends on the flavor of the new system. If it keeps fee-for-service, it will be more expensive and retain more jobs. If it moves to billing by condition (instead of separate billing events for a cast, x-ray, etc., you bill for a “broken arm” treatment) or patient, that’s fewer jobs, but lower cost.

So you have a policy tradeoff of choosing cheap and dealing with more job loss and more retraining, or you choose more expensive and deal with higher taxes. Some of the expenses will be paid for by expanding other parts of the medical sphere to provide coverage to unserved and underserved communities and individuals. There will also be some increase in productivity as societal health improves and therefore workers are more productive (they are also more productive when they don’t have to expend a lot of time and effort understanding and navigating a mess of an insurance system). But it’s still a transitional choice to be made.

Transitioning Off Employer-Provided Insurance

This is a big one. The best way to handle it is to set aside a basic Medicare for All structure that will partially replace the employer’s insurance at the next renewal date. The employer can continue to provide a lower-cost supplement on top of that for some period of time (say a decade), which will allow the winding-down of both the firm’s employee-insurance responsibility and the private insurer’s market.

Think of it like any other natural transition. You have a car and drive everywhere. Then alternatives come up and you use them part of the time, where they make the most sense. As those alternatives improve in coverage and cost, you use your car less until you abandon it on the side of the freeway. . . .

The beauty of such a plan is that it lets insurers keep their most profitable business alive (bells and whistles) while they give up the most expensive part (core insurance, including catastrophic stuff). As long as such a plan’s guns are stuck to, it lets them wind down responsibly and with as little pain as possible.

Also, the fact that different employers will have different renewal periods means that the business should wind down in a fairly steady manner.

Age-Based Transitioning

There’s long been talk of expanding Medicare down to younger groups. Pre-retirees, usually. That can still be done in the transition, and it again should benefit private insurers during their twilight years, as older workers are more prone to health events.

The Tax-and-Cost Problem

How do you pay for it? Is there a pot of gold we can get and it’ll solve everything and we’ll eat our free lunch?

No. Good, old-fashioned taxes. Something like the existing work-credit system where you pay in will be part of it. General income taxes another part. A third part might be a periodic discounted credit-purchasing period. This would be equivalent of a sale. Everyone loves a sale, but the government never puts things on sale. If you let people buy up extra Medicare credits from time to time, they’ll help to top-off the trust fund. There are other things of this nature the government could do that make a lot of sense.


Point is, there are a lot of opportunities to do smart transitioning. It’s not that hard to see the path forward on something like Medicare for All. I’m not convinced it’s the only way forward, but I am convinced it is a way forward, and absent alternatives, none of which the Republicans have shown any desire to entertain anyway, we might as well take it.

On Obsessive Recommendations

One of the challenges facing video platforms today is how to recommend content to users. As mentioned previously, my household recently switched to streaming in lieu of cable TV. On one of the services I watched a film in Spanish and the next time they were recommending me a bunch of Spanish-language films.

There have been a bunch of problems from YouTube creating rabbit holes of content where the recommendation engine over-recommends specific content.

Consider for a moment what it would be like to be transplanted to a world where everybody is obsessed with powdered wigs. You would constantly be hearing about wig powder, wigs, methods for upkeep. . . It’s tiresome just thinking about it. But instead we live in a world where only the wigfolk are obsessed with wigs. And they are obsessed. They go on video sites and watch nothing but wig videos all the time. The recommendation systems learn they want wigs, wigs, wigs. And the wig-lovers community is big enough that when someone new comes along who loves wigs, the system quickly recommends them a bunch of wig videos and they watch them all.

So your friend is reading about ancient times and happens to have a question about wigs. They go on the video site and find a video that answers the question. But now the friend is getting tons of video recommendations about wigs! Oh no!

Oh, yes. If we train the computers to be obsessed with obsession, they will try to find our obsessions. They will bombard us with every topic someone obsessed over and see if they can obsess us.

One wonders whether David Foster Wallace was right about Infinite Jest, but it will one day be an errant piece of video content that happens to find the nexus of everyone’s obsessions and the video recommendation systems will recommend it over and over so that it’s the only thing anyone can watch. But that’s not the point.

The point is that recommending content is fine, but it should not be obsessive. There has to be a better way.


The other side of the coin is when the obsession is what the user wants. If you have an account dedicated to video game news, you want it to be obsessed with that topic. You don’t want to see anything else when you use that account. That may be where some of the errant training arose in some of the recommendation systems.

The logical tweak to the recommendation systems would be to try to detect the type of account. Assume it’s a non-obsessive account, and only once the user has done enough to signal otherwise should the system switch over to obsessive mode. One would guess this would fix things for a lot of recommendation systems.

To go back to my Spanish film example, it’s likely that people who watch a single Spanish language film will want to watch a bunch of them. But maybe not, if they’re like me and only have a functional grasp on the language. So the second fix would be to bucket recommendations. Have a new grouping that says, “Spanish-language Films” and then let the user make the choice. After they show the preference for that bucket, the system can assume it was correct.

It reminds me of the old joke about a blind food test that got mixed up with a blind toothpaste test, and. . . you guessed it: four out of five dentists recommend Spot’s Dog Food (also, dogs hate toothpaste). Or, to put it the other way, if you put dog food up against bacon and steak, you’ll find out what dogs really want to eat. If the recommendation system only offers the user one type of content, there’s no guarantee that the recommendation system is worth a damn. It’s only when the user can choose the obsession over the myriad alternatives that you know (which, of course, is why faux capitalists always want to limit the competition—if your choice is dog food or more dog food, you’ll choose dog food).

The 2020 Election, First Thoughts

Anybody knows we need a better choice in 2020, and not some billionaire who thinks he alone can fix it. The question is how to get there.

What I’ll be looking for is two-fold:

  1. Serious policy—Do they have proposals for the major challenges we face? Healthcare? Climate change? Poverty? Infrastructure?
  2. Seriousness about policy—Do they have alternatives? How will they get the legislators on board?

Horse racing is not something worth visiting. If any candidate waves their hands at a serious problem, they aren’t a serious candidate. If any candidate can’t talk about the heavy lifting, or says our challenges are insurmountable or would require something scary like socialism, and so we can’t fix the thing, they aren’t serious candidates.

Medicare for All is still just one way to achieve universal, affordable healthcare. But the achievement is necessary for our society. If it takes socialism, in that small part, just as defense does, then we’ll do more socialism. If you don’t like it, propose something better or lobby for an opt-out for yourself on grounds that you’re a billionaire who is afraid of people having access to healthcare.

We’re past the point of no-return, we have to do the things our society needs to thrive in the coming centuries. Those who want to pretend it’s 1952 can find the nearest time machine and run against Eisenhower and Stevenson.

In 2020, and beyond, we can remain flexible about how things work, but not in the need for them to work. Any serious candidate knows that, welcomes tough compromise that will result in putting the choices we face in starker terms, that will propel better future compromises. Government is expensive, but the costs are minimal compared to what our world would be without government. Those who want that world can also find a time machine and go for it.

And remember, the president only signs the bills into law and appoints the people that implement them. It all still has to go through a fairly conservative legislature. Medicare for All will be a heavy lift, but having leadership willing to step up to that stone and to try to pull the stone from it is something better than one who will say, “If it’s broken, why fix it?”

How High Should Taxes Be?

70% on the ten-million-and-first dollar? A wealth tax? How high should we tax the wealthy?

First, why do we tax at all? The theory of taxation is that, contrary to those who call it theft, taxation is payment of debt. By virtue of the services rendered, the tax is how the services are paid for. Larger earners, conducting more commercial activity, using more of the legal system, shipping inspection, and so forth, are to pay a higher percentage due to their higher rewards and higher use.

Economists get into the effects of tax more than the reasons for it, or the fairness of it. Things like the Laffer Curve are drawn up, to theorize that taxation matters a lot and that government revenue can be equal at very different places along the curve, while private spending and overall economy can be very different. Politically-embedded economists thus focus on an apolitical, theoretical system to make a political argument.

But the woman waiting for a bus to take her to her minimum-wage job isn’t rewarded by such abstractions. She knows that the nominal rate and the effective rate are about the same for her, while they are a Grand Canyon apart for those who can afford a team of accountants. She knows that she could pay 100% of her whole life’s wages and never pay as much as some of the wealthiest should in a single year.

None of which answers the question of how high taxes should be. The ultimate answer to that query is that nobody knows, and unfortunately, we’re not planning to find out. The answer to how high taxes should be is that we should adjust them continuously, and find out based on the experimentation. That we have the knowledge and ability to do so, we lack only the political will.

For example, we could start with the current tax rates, and make half-point adjustments to all brackets, or add new brackets and adjust those too. As long as the timing is regular and the adjustments are gradual, we can account for a lot of the noise. As long as we are willing to tweak the rates based on current conditions, lowering taxes in recessionary times, raising them in times of health, the slow and methodical march of the tax rates could yield us with something better than arguing will.

The interest rate already works this way. Is it not time for the tax rate to join it?