To Argue for a Wall

The president and the Republicans in the Senate have not made the argument for the wall. It’s a curiosity that they would bother to keep the government shut down without doing so.

I oppose the wall. I think it’s a stupid idea. Fencing in strategic locations along the border already exists. If there we need more limited fencing, that’s something that can be done. Indiscriminate fencing, whether concrete, steel, or pyrite, is pointless.

But if you want to argue for it anyway, there’s a basic formula for the argument that hasn’t been aired. Probably because the numbers (see e.g., Brookings: Vanda Felbab-Brown: August 2017: “The Wall: The real costs of a barrier between the United States and Mexico” and CATO: Alex Nowrasteh: 24 April 2017: “The Border Wall Cannot Pay for Itself”) don’t work, but possibly because the administration doesn’t care to make any reasoned argument (about anything, really).

  1. You start with the cost of the wall.
  2. Next, you add up the savings the wall will provide.
  3. You point at the two numbers, and say that the first is smaller.

In other words, you show that it is cost effective.

Again, I’m not going to get into the numbers too much here, but in a more detailed form:

The Cost of the Wall

Materials costs, including concrete, steel, paving materials assuming there’s a road to be added for patrol and maintenance. There will also be land preparation requirements, including fill and excavation.

Then labor costs, including upkeep. The cost of buying the land, including legal fees. There will be the cost to border communities that may see their property values diminished (Trump made a big deal out of wind turbines being put up near one of his golf courses in Scotland for just this reason) and other economic disruptions.

There are other cultural factors, but there’s also the environmental costs (which the administration doesn’t care about anyway).

The $5.6 billion is an appropriation figure, not the true cost of a wall. That number hasn’t been reported, partially because it’s impossible to know exactly. But looking back on other large-scale constructions, building a wall would likely cost more than even the sticker price, due to delays, budget overruns, etc.

The sticker price by DHS from February 2017 was $21.6 billion, which attempts to account for legal costs, but there is no definitive plan at for the wall, so estimating the cost is all the harder. Indeed, as recently as this week, Trump himself claims it will be steel instead of concrete.

How can anybody have a serious discussion about a wall that’s still just a campaign slogan and not even a serious plan?

The Savings of the Wall

Assuming you do have an idea of the various costs to various interests, now you need to know how much you will save.

First, what could you save? The annual budget of CBP and ICE? $17 billion and $9 billion, which includes some activities that would still be necessary. You also have to balance that savings with maintenance and (and!) with increased enforcement in places or ways that people would begin to enter where they might previously have used the unwalled border.

There is at least some loss of tax revenue and economic growth that would have been accrued by the labors of crossers. So cut the savings there, too (it’s widely believed that the economic benefits from undocumented work exceeds its costs, but falls short of the benefits of making such labor official, documented, and lawful).

The administration doesn’t care about reasoned arguments. It’s a shame, and good leadership is always a matter of taking the facts and finding the best way forward. Trump, his administration, and the congressional Republicans don’t bother with any of that. Some wonkish sites like Brookings and CATO did back in early 2017, but we’re having a shutdown in 2019 because the president has tied himself to the mainmast of a ship called The Wall. Mitch McConnell is now lashing himself to it, too.

But none of them, apparently, care that it’s a foolish idea.

Streaming, Game Instrumentation, and Better Experiences

Happy New Year!

I’ve been watching a bit of video game streaming of late, and one thing that’s struck me is that most games aren’t instrumented to accommodate stream integration. I couldn’t find much information on the subject, so I thought I’d scratch out a few thoughts.

Streamers may want to track in-game deaths. That should be trivial with an API (and it may already be possible with game mods). Games should absolutely provide some kind of event stream that can easily be integrated into streamers’ on-screen displays. There are a wide variety of possibilities this opens up, including better multi-stream races (where the programmatic reporting of milestones can be plotted on a simple race chart) to better and automated tagging of stream clips (e.g., automatically linking to significant in-game events).

The Steam platform has added some game-tracking for their social component, so that you can see what your friends are playing with a little more detail, but that’s only a baby step. Valve’s own games also feature statistics, and with the advent of GDPR customers can see more of that data than ever, but there’s a lack of tools to connect that sort of data into something that would improve game streaming.

What else? How about viewer experience? The visual environment of the player can and should diverge from the viewer in some ways (with the viewer still having the choice to watch the game footage or the enhanced version). For example, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has a spectator mode that shows all players, shows grenade ballistic arcs, etc.

At some point, it may even go the other direction, with viewers being able to influence the experience of the streamer by causing enemies to spawn or such. Watching a charity stream earlier in the year, they played some Jackbox Party Pack 5 which lets viewers interact through a website/per-game password combination (rather than directly from the stream chat) in order to avoid the streamers seeing the viewers’ answers. There are also a few games like “Marbles on Stream”, which let viewers “play” by assigning their name to marbles in a physics simulation/marble racing game and see whose marble wins.

The interaction model may have to change a little, such as having streamer-blind chats for the purpose of letting viewers have more control without “stream sniping” (when someone can gain advantage by watching a stream or chat).

Some work on stream-and-chat interactions have already been done with the famous Twitch Plays Pokemon and the like. This seems like very fertile soil, and it seems reasonable to expect that game makers will start to implement things to let it develop and mature.

Happy 2018’s Nearly Done For

There’s a lot of bad stuff going on with the government I could write about now. Nope. There’s a little good, too. Shoutout to passing an anti-lynching law at least a century late. Shoutout to federal sentencing reform.

But I’ve been messing about with Blender. I made a picture. It’s a an ugly Christmas sweater, sans sweater, I s’pose, but hey, at least it’s got some color to it.

There are many things wrong with this image (see if you can spot them all), but at least I learned a little.

See all you oddballs in the next odd year*!

* Assuming I can resist writing a post next week.

Image text reads: Happy Holidays, Feliz Navidad, Merry Christmas.
Jolly tidings and such.

Replace Bad Leaders

There’s an argument that, though Mr. Trump broke the law, he should not be indicted because it would be burdensome on the execution of our laws. And that same argument seems to be making the rounds against impeachment. The argument is that if he merely conspired to cover up personal scandals using illegal means during the campaign, that isn’t bad enough for the House to bring charges and have a trial in the Senate.

But my personal view of the presidency is incompatible with that outlook. There’s an old joke by Jerry Seinfeld (as I recall) about why all the men at a wedding dress the same—that if the groom doesn’t show up, they can just take a step over and continue on. Presidents are replaceable. Though the position does hold a large stock of power, and it has become more powerful over the decades (largely as Congress has avoided hard decisions, preferring to see the nation damaged over risking their seats), it’s supposed to be one of management, not of personality.

In a management role, the goal is to help remove obstacles to the smooth functioning of the organization. Some cities have elected to hire rather than elect a manager in order to see the smooth execution of local laws. CEOs famously get paid megabucks, apparently on the assumption they will smooth the operations of their companies, leading to better revenue.

No company should abide a CEO that lied on eir resume to get the job. The uncertainty to investors, the bad signals it sends to the organization, the company would have to see itself cleansed of the bad blood. And that’s what we’re talking about with corrupt executives in government. They should be tried in order to maintain our government’s integrity. Not lightly, not without due process and thorough investigation, but the public and voters, especially the ones who voted for the accused, deserve it.

The Clinton impeachment trial was warranted by the facts. His removal, according to that Senate, was not. As the charges and investigations into Trump continue, it seems it will be right at some point to ratify articles of impeachment against him and let the Senate hear the case. But we should not fear replacing our president. We do it every four years. We should take pride in the smooth transition of power, in the replaceability of our leaders. We have no kings because we know too well that man is fallible. If one turns sour, we should replace em.

Because They Can

There’s an old joke:

Q: Why do dogs lick their own genitals?
A: Because they can.

The modern Republicans function on the same principle. It sees no cost to hypocrisy, it says that it can do whatever it wants, and if you try to stop it, there’s always a 2nd Amendment Solution threat to toss around like a grenade with the pin removed.

Under Barack Obama, the deficit was a major threat to our future. It was stealing bread from future generations to prop up silly programs (like roads and bridges!) today. And then, the clock struck midnight, Trump entered, and lo! cutting taxes to create a massive deficit is what all the cool kids do.

What would happen if they defied illogic and stood up to dumbassery?

  1. They would be primaried, losing 30-60% of the challenges
  2. The alt-right boneheads that replaced them would also lose 30-60% of their races

So, the GOP would be in a temporary setback, until the voters realized that getting creamed in the legislative races doesn’t do them any good and would inevitably moderate.

What does happen, instead?

  1. They adopt alt-right dumbassery
  2. They remain viable enough to slip farther into the pit of doom they will soon call home (and if we’re not careful, we all will as well)

Even now, before the Democrats take the gavel in the House, parts of the news media are back to treating Trump as a normal president. They think, wrongly, that being bested at the polls might make him face the music. There are takes along these lines:

  • Dems should prioritize legislation over investigation
  • Trump seeks to cut deals with the Democrats

To the first, it’s a false dichotomy. There will be investigations. There will be legislation. Those are both jobs of the Congress when it’s operating properly. Moreover, they go hand-in-hand. You have to investigate in order to legislate properly.

As to making deals, that’s part of the job, too. Not just with the president, but with other legislators, with the minority. There are a thousand deals done in Washington per day (including Xmas!), but almost no good (and only a little evil) comes of most of them.

Why does the news media fall back to the same worn narratives at each stage of the disaster of Trump? Because that’s their reflex, their muscle memory. They are working off a parametric equation that says something like:

  Republican president
+ Republican Senate
+ Democratic House
  Democratic cooperation

It’s the same reflex that was at work when they did a wholly-inadequate job questioning the intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq war. It’s the same reflex that couldn’t properly deal with Trump in 2015-6. This is an industry that had tape ready to roll as soon as President George Bush’s death was announced. It’s not the investigative journalists that are the failure in media, it’s the rank-and-file paper-pushers that are merely providing a nice Muzak-esque environment for advertisers.

Which is the same God damned thing that the rank-and-file Republicans (and plenty of Democrats, to be sure) are doing for all sorts of dubious organizations and industries.

There’s a reason that the odds of Paul Ryan coming out in favor of doing something about climate change jump from 0% to at least 50% as soon as he is out of office. It’s the same one, over again. He can’t say that in the House, he has to wait until he’s a civilian. It takes time to sober up from the years-long binge on campaign adrenaline. The scent of lobbyist cologne and perfume does wash off, but it lingers awhile.