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Read six books to understand the coming financial crisis

The world is in trouble.

My generation can’t afford to do things like buy homes and start families. In the United States, birth rates have declined steadily since the last financial crisis.

.

And we’re not out of the woods yet. As births hit a thirty year low, economists wonder if this signals yet another recession. As would-be parents lose confidence in their ability to generate the income necessary sustain a family, they logically cut back on their conception plans.

Meanwhile, even without an explicit crisis, we’re living in difficult times. The share of national income going to working- and middle-class Americans continues to drop. Adjusting for inflation, workers are making less on average than they did in 1988. Meanwhile, profits soar:

Why is this happening? Why is the economy leaving so many people behind? How can we have so much profit, but so little going to everyday people?

The answers are complex. Finance is a system that’s almost as complicated as modeling global weather patterns. The shape of today’s world is dictated by the goals of financiers, political elites, and ultra-rich business leaders. Their incentives are shaped by complex financial instruments, tax codes, and most of all, a deep and gnawing fear—central to the lives of every human—that no amount of money will ever be enough.

Understanding our place in this system is the only chance we have of healing its sicknesses. But how can we make sense of something with such global complexity?

We need to learn how the economy actually works. Unfortunately, our economics classes didn’t offer us nearly enough tools for this job.

Here are some books that can help.

Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century

Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century
This widely acclaimed book, first published in 1974, was a classic from its first day in print. Written in a direct…amzn.to

Have you ever felt that something is wrong about work? Ever get to Sunday evening with a feeling of dread, knowing your week is about to start and you’re not in control of your everyday life? Even with jobs we like, with coworkers we love, work can feel so disempowering and frustrating.

Why?

In Labor and Monopoly Capital, Harry Braverman tries to explain:

The reduction of the worker to the level of an instrument in the production process is by no means exclusively associated with machinery. We must also note the attempt, either in the absence of machinery or in conjunction with individually operated machines, to treat the workers themselves as machines.

It’s profitable to codify the process of creation as a series of repeatable, scalable, discrete steps. Production is an enormous mechanism, of which workers are individual parts. The more fungible the workers, the more control and flexibility the business has over the production process.

Being a cog in the machine doesn’t always feel great. Why do people continue doing it?

First, workers are separated from the means with which production is carried on, and can gain access to them only by selling their labor power to others.

[…]

The worker enters into the employment agreement because social conditions leave him or her no other way to gain a livelihood.

Labor and Monopoly Capital is, in other words, an introduction to class relations, who has power in the workplace, and what goals shape the structure and management of our jobs.

Class awakening

There’s a reason I put this book first. The powerful fiction of the American dream discourages us from fully considering class. The deal for Americans is that, with hard work, we should be able to determine our own class. Wherever we are today, we can be somewhere better tomorrow.

Unfortunately, there’s less and less of this that’s true. Class mobility has sharply decreased over the last generation. Class mobility further constricts according to race.

Meanwhile, class—the economic resources we have, the opportunities open to us, and the goals we pursue based on these assets—is essential to understanding why the world works as it does. To ignore it, or to pretend it’s irrelevant, is to blind ourselves to reality.

Debt: The First 5000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Debt: The First 5, 000 Years [David Graeber] on Amazon.com. amzn.to

Debt shapes the world we live in perhaps more than any other social construct. Debt determines our individual opportunities. Debt creates reins for foreigners to set the paths and policies of entire nations, without ever loading a single gun. It was debt that created the tangle of financial instruments that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber explores its past and present.

I could have begun by explaining how these loans had originally been taken out by unelected dictators who placed most of it directly in their Swiss bank accounts, and ask her to contemplate the justice of insisting that the lenders be repaid, not by the dictator, or even by his cronies, but by literally taking food from the mouths of hungry children. Or to think about how many of these poor countries had actually already paid back what they’d borrowed three or four times now, but that through the miracle of compound interest, it still hadn’t made a significant dent in the principal.

Graeber’s perspective is as much critic as anthropologist, and he works to explain the history of debt better than what we were given in school:

In fact, our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems.

Economics: The User’s Guide & 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

Both of these are by economist Ha-Joon Chang. They provide a strong foundation for understanding economics, by explaining how broad concepts fit together, and demystifying common issues in current events. I enjoy Chang’s style: it’s approachable and compelling, while deeply respectful of the reader’s time and intelligence.

In 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Chang explains the cult of shareholder value, tying its impact back to real events:

Shareholders may be the owners of corporations but, as the most mobile of the ‘stakeholders’, they often care the least about the long-term future of the company

[…]

William Lazonick, the American business economist, estimates that, had GM not spent the $20.4 billion that it did in share buybacks between 1986 and 2002 and put it in the bank (with a 2.5 per cent after-tax annual return), it would have had no problem finding the $35 billion that it needed to stave off bankruptcy in 2009.

Chang is also a critic of the thinking that suggests the “the market” is some natural space, where interference from government regulators does damage to its workings. From Economics: The User’s Guide:

Once you know that lots of things that cannot be bought and sold today — human beings (slaves), child labour, government offices — used to be perfectly marketable, you will stop thinking that the boundary of the ‘free market’ is drawn by some timeless law of science and begin to see that it can be redrawn.

Chang is a believer in capitalism, yet a sharp critic of its irresponsible stewards. In his recap of capitalist industry, he gives appropriate attention to the costs borne by colonized peoples:

There is a long-running debate on whether capitalism could have developed without the colonial resources of the sixteenth–eighteenth centuries — precious metal to be used as money, extra food sources such as potato and sugar and industrial inputs such as cotton.While there is no question that the colonizers greatly benefited from those resources, those countries would probably have developed capitalism even without them. There is no question, however, that colonialism devastated colonized societies.

Principles

Principles: Life and Work
1 New York Times Bestseller “Significant…The book is both instructive and surprisingly moving.” -The New York Times…amzn.to

Principles is a victory lap by hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio. I find a lot to be frustrated by in his analysis of wealth inequality, but I still recommend the book because it reveals much about how the arcane workings of high finance translate to real-world impact.

…in economic terms a chicken can be seen as a simple machine consisting of a chick plus its feed. The most volatile cost that the chicken producer needed to worry about was feed prices. I showed Lane how to use a mix of corn and soymeal futures to lock in costs so they could quote a fixed price to McDonald’s. Having greatly reduced its price risk, McDonald’s introduced the McNugget in 1983. I felt great about helping make that happen.

It’s weird to feel pride about creating an unhealthy fast food staple, but I can’t help but find the process fascinating. Dalio’s tale is one of systems thinking and automated analysis as a path to wealth.

Principles also shows how wealth creates opportunities to protect yourself from economic downturn, in ways that aren’t available or practical to the working and middle classes:

Making a handful of good uncorrelated bets that are balanced and leveraged well is the surest way of having a lot of upside without being exposed to unacceptable downside.

When your resources are limited, so are the bets you’re able to place.

Postcapitalism

https://amzn.to/2x3SMBx

Postcapitalism has an ambitious goal: to describe what comes after capitalism, and to provide an alternative to the looming, ongoing boom and bust crises created by the financial system.

Most compelling about this work is that, while it places its conclusions in rigorous historical and academic context, it has some new conclusions.

While the critics of capitalism have, for a century, clung to the fantasy of its eventual demise, it continues to define our economic reality. Why? Journalist Paul Mason insists it’s because capitalism is an emergent system that adapts to preserve itself:

Kondratieff gave us a way of understanding mutations within capitalism. Left-wing economics had been looking for a process that led only to breakdown. Kondratieff showed how the threat of breakdown usually leads to adaptation and survival.

Intriguingly, it is Mason’s view that information technology is fundamentally incompatible with our existing market premises:

…information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies on a scale not seen in the past 200 years — yet these cannot last.

Tip of the iceberg

Of course, economics is a tradition that spans thousands of years. Six books can’t be more than the barest starting point. Still, if you’re anything like me, your economics education in school did little to prepare you for the complex, messy, unequal world we inhabit today. Hopefully these books give you a starting toolset for making sense of the world as it is, and for imagining a more just and equitable world that could be.

Categories
Projects

Saving a Non-Profit Six Figures a Year Using Squarespace, Airtable and Glitch.com

I swallowed hard.

I was staring at a four-gigabyte website dump. There was no documentation. There was no version control. Just thousands of PHP files across dozens of directories, plus a sprawling MySQL database.

What had I gotten myself into?

The files I was looking at comprised the website for EveryoneOn, a non-profit that connects low-income families with affordable internet access. We’d been working together for a few years, since ConnectHome in the Obama era when they approached me looking for leads on new web technology providers. Their existing contract web developer cost as much as an entire senior salary, and they wanted more affordable options.

I offered them a sweetheart deal with one goal: get them to a point of self-sufficiency. There are perverse incentives for a contract IT provider — it makes sense to increase complexity, making the client more dependent, ensuring future billings. I wanted to break that cycle.

But as I looked at the innards of their site, I wondered if I was in over my head.

Technical complexity

There was a reason EveryoneOn was paying thousands of dollars each month just to keep their website online.

This thing was complicated. Multiple IT providers were involved in its maintenance over the years. A monolithic database drove everything from WordPress content to site analytics to the API that let users search for affordable internet offers.

This wasn’t my first LAMP server, but getting everything up and working took a couple of weeks of troubleshooting. With no documentation, it was a matter of trial and error to figure out how to configure Apache and MySQL to work with the years of PHP layered all over the place.

This complexity had everyday costs for EveryoneOn’s staff, too. Many changes to the site and its content had to happen through their contractor. This made the process slow and limited the control they had over their web presence.

It took some work, but once the replacement server was in good shape, we switched the domain over. My next tasks: putting out the occasional fire and coming up with a better, simpler, cheaper technology strategy.

Other people’s servers

A tangle of interdependent services hosted on a single server meant a big component of EveryoneOn’s IT costs was having someone on-call to fix things when they broke. But if we could use technology hosted and maintained by third parties, we could offload that burden to them.

I argued that the more custom code EveryoneOn was responsible for, the more expensive their technology had to be. Yet, the tasks EveryoneOn needed their technology to accomplish were common:

  • Content management system for a website
  • Analytics and statistics about web usage and offer adoption
  • Structured data about internet offers

Having bespoke versions of all of these didn’t provide a lot of value, relative to the steep costs they imposed.

But if we could use off-the-shelf tools, it would be someone else’s job to keep them online, updated and secure. Instead of spending thousands of dollars a month, the organization’s fixed technology costs could be a few hundred dollars per year.

Best of all, because these products were built to sell to thousands or millions of users, they would be more accessible and intuitive than what we started with.

Here’s how we replaced a tangled soup of PHP and MySQL data with accessible, cost-effective third-party services:

Squarespace

Cost: $218/year

The heavily customized WordPress installation gave way to Squarespace. With 24/7 customer support and so many e-commerce customers using it every day, we knew we could rely on it to stay up and running. More than that, Squarespace has an easy-to-use editing interface for both text and page layout. Now, EveryoneOn could directly edit their website design whenever they wanted.

The other part about Squarespace I liked was its design constraints. A global styles palette keeps everyone’s pages consistent. Multiple people can build pages for the same site and the typography and colors will be the same across all of them. Any changes to those styles automatically propagate later on.

For an organization without an in-house graphic designer, these details mattered a lot. Leaving them with a website that steadily drifted away from professionalism and polish in its design would endanger their credibility and their mission. No amount of automation will protect you from an ugly site, but guardrails baked into the product can go a long way.

Google Analytics

Cost: Free

Meanwhile, a large subset of the custom analytics dashboard could be handled by Google Analytics. The basics of Google Analytics are pretty set-and-forget: make sure a script is included in your page header template. In Squarespace, you just paste your site ID into a settings field.

But Google Analytics can do more than passively track pageviews. You can also track events important to your users’ journey through a site by writing some custom JavaScript code. Alongside custom event tracking, it’s possible to attach additional “dimensions” of data unique to your web app. Between this and Google’s point-and-click custom report builder, you can assemble detailed reporting unique to your business needs. From there, Google does the heavy lifting of slicing a growing data set across whatever time periods and dimensions you’d like.

Airtable

Price: $12 per user per month (non-profit pricing)

Even with Google Analytics handling much of the site behavior stats, we still needed a database.

But more than that, we needed a tool that made data accessible. MySQL is arcane technology. Even its popular GUI, PHPMyAdmin, isn’t especially user-friendly. If you’re not a software developer, and if no one has bothered to write some code exposing the database content you want, the data may as well not exist.

Airtable changes the game considerably. It has all of the user-friendliness of spreadsheets, with all the technical benefits of a database. It’s easy for anyone to read, filter or edit Airtable content — even niceties like copy and paste work great.

Yet, as a database, fields are formatted, structured and validated. You can create relationships between records in different tables. Because of this, Airtable is even better than spreadsheets for easily setting up fields that lookup data automatically.

It’s by far one of my favorite pieces of modern software.

In Airtable, we had a tool that could store relationships between zip codes and relevant internet connectivity offers. It could store data about partner organizations, and display it on the website when relevant. It could even store real-time events also being sent to Google Analytics, letting EveryoneOn audit the data at the foundation of their reporting.

Because Airtable has an API.

Glitch

Price: Free

That brings me to Glitch. If you’d told me six months ago I was using Glitch for website infrastructure, I wouldn’t have believed you.

But while we had plenty of great new tools maintained by someone else, there was one snag: a small percentage of EveryoneOn’s web technology would still need custom, server-side code. Not thousands of files’-worth anymore, thankfully.

Still, the process that matched user zip codes to the internet offers available to them, then displayed the offers on a web page, was unique, and Squarespace offers no facility for server-side code. I fretted over this for a few months. My initial plan was a $5/month DigitalOcean instance to host the custom code.

This wasn’t ideal. The barrier to understanding how to administer something like that can be significant. The more complex their custom technology was, the more challenging and expensive it would be for EveryoneOn to make changes to it in the future. For so much of the website, I’d managed to find hosted tools that were accessible to many technology skill levels. I hated the thought of an inscrutable, hard-to-reach black box sneaking into the process after all.

Around this time, Glitch came out of beta. Having a look at its limitations, I realized it could more than handle EveryoneOn’s traffic needs. Glitch provides on-demand node.js sandboxes where you can write any server-side code you want. Even better, there’s built-in, automatic version control.

While I was a novice with node, it didn’t take long to build a replacement implementation of EveryoneOn’s offer API using Airtable as the storage mechanism. From there I built a few more Airtable wrappers for other data the organization needed to display on its website.

I was especially tickled when it came time to migrate their offer search widgets. These were PHP-based micro-pages that allowed third parties to embed EveryoneOn’s search into their own site. Using Express and the EJS templating package, it was quick work to build an emulator that served widgets at the appropriate .php URLs. So the implementation changed completely, from PHP to JavaScript, but the change was transparent to end users. No one had to make any updates to their pages.

What I found in Glitch was the perfect toolbox for adding custom functionality to a website. It’s easy to get started — you just click a button to create a new project. You don’t need to understand ssh or SFTP to make changes later on. You don’t need any special software. If you have a web browser, you can edit the code.

Which means that anyone who knows or can learn JavaScript can expand or enhance these services later on. With automatic version control, the sharp edges are dulled. If they break it, they can roll back to a known-working state no problem. Because of Glitch’s per-project sandbox model, each service is isolated. Breaking one doesn’t harm any others.

My one gripe with Glitch: I’d feel so much better if I could give them some money to ensure their long-term success. Cash for custom domain names, cash for higher service limits — hell, even a tip jar.

Still, Glitch allows you to easily export a project to GitHub. Worst case scenario, someone can dump out these projects and run them on a node server.

Long term effects

These services aren’t a 100% replacement of the beast we started with, but we were able to handle the vast majority of the old tasks using tools that are much easier to understand, and orders of magnitude cheaper. Annual fixed costs are down from six figures to under $1,000. While some custom code remains, it’s only around a dozen files, it’s well-documented, fully version-controlled, and editing is easy. A digital binder of documentation, hosted as a Google Sites wiki, provides an overview of all services, with explicit guidance on how to make changes. Best of all, there’s nothing for a future contractor to hold hostage. EveryoneOn directly controls every account that drives their web presence.

The project dramatically reduced the scope of custom code to maintain, while also bringing the number of servers to administer down to zero.

I don’t want this to be seen as a post bashing WordPress, or LAMP generally. Sometimes that’s the perfect combination of tools for a job.

But while running your own server was once the only way to solve these sorts of problems, we now have more options available. It’s exciting to see how a handful of hosted services can be composed to create a dynamic site that reports ample business intelligence, while still being user-friendly and cost-effective for a non-profit. Instead of needing an experienced system admin, now EveryoneOn can advance their web needs with student interns or volunteers — anyone willing to learn basic JavaScript.

While saving EveryoneOn some cash from their operating budget is a great start, they still need help getting more than 60 million people connected to high-speed internet at home. Kick them a few bucks to support their mission closing the digital divide.

Categories
Explainer

Inclusion is a captain’s job

How do you explain inclusion?

I was having dinner with a colleague who challenged me to frame this both succinctly and accessibly. This sprawled into a lengthy tangent on how your identity can completely change how you’re able to talk about inclusion. If only there was a way to establish common ground.

It reminded me: I had discovered a Rosetta Stone. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

This is adapted from a talk I gave at the 2016 Code2040 summit, first workshopped with the kind support of BrooklynJS.


We are on a strange and difficulty journey, we who build the internet. We explore a frontier of reach and impact unprecedented in human history.

It seems we can automate anything, as self-driving cars prowl our streets and unmanned drones harass the developing world. The power of automation and global communication is rife with surprises and unintended consequences. As the results of these advances impact the entire planet, it is just and appropriate to have broad representation among those building the future.

To do that, you need diversity. The only way to maintain a diverse culture is to build an inclusive workplace. Luckily, there’s a training series available on Netflix, right now.

Why Star Trek?

While it’s a fictional organization, Starfleet models some of the most profound inclusion challenges you can imagine. The United Federation of Planets is an interstellar government spread across 150 different civilizations.

Starfleet’s mission profile is diverse. It’s more than a spacefaring military—its work is scientific, diplomatic and exploratory.

With 150 different member worlds, countless more aliens besides, and a vast set of problems to solve, inclusion practice is non-negotiable. They either get it right or fail in their missions.

Let’s check out some examples.

Datalore (TNG S1E13)

Inclusion is not about being perfect, telepathic or omniscient.

Sometimes, inclusion is about accountability and communication.

In this scene, the crew of the Enterprise has just discovered that their android officer, Commander Data, has a brother. Data and Captain Picard are talking about what this discovery means.

Data is pretty marginalized at work. Not only is he the only android on his ship, he’s the only android in Starfleet. Until meeting his brother, Data was the only android of his type in the universe. So this is a sensitive, important moment for him.

All the reasons that marginalize Data also leave Picard unprepared for certain parts of this conversation. The captain is using the wrong pronouns and Data calls him on it. In an abundance of empathy, Picard immediately sees his misstep and apologizes. No defensiveness — in fact, Picard’s body language signals that he yields to Data’s point even before he speaks.

Part of why this works is trust. Not everyone is going to feel confident calling their leaders on a misstep around their identity. Leaders have to create an environment where their crewmates can speak up when this happens. If they don’t, it’s hard to correct things like this, and inclusion only gets harder from there.

Ensign Ro (TNG S5E3)

Other times, inclusion is about recognizing when the current policies aren’t enough to honor someone’s sense of identity.

Let’s meet Ensign Ro Laren.

Ro is a Bajoran. Her people have been colonized by brutal, murderous conquerers for the last hundred years. She’s not easy to get along with, but she has good reasons for the chip on her shoulder.

So, Riker doesn’t like her earring. But that earring is a source of pride in her culture, and a symbol of her faith. It represents part of who she is. You can see how unhappy she is about this.

Later, after Ro finishes her mission, she wants off the ship. Hell, she’s ready to leave Starfleet. But Picard sees her value and tries to persuade her to join his crew.

Picard tries to understand Ro’s motivations — and he makes it clear that, even though she’s different, even though she’s difficult, he believes in her and wants to help her grow.

The captain recognizes that Ro is going out on a limb for him. If letting the earring slide is what’s necessary for her to feel proud and included on his ship, he’s happy to accommodate. The uniform rules are not more important than her workplace dignity.

The Sons of Mogh (DS9 S4E15)

Sometimes, inclusion is messy. Sometimes, you’re going to run aground of problems you never expected.

In this scene, Worf has tried and failed to kill his brother. While you or I might find that repugnant, his brother asked to be killed, to be spared a life of dishonor. In their culture, this is permitted.

All right. So Captain Sisko’s pissed.

He asks for an explanation. He gets one.

He’s not that impressed with what he’s hearing. But what happens by the end? Worf keeps his job, he’s not charged with anything. Sisko is able to be angry and set boundaries. But he still considers cultural context in responding to the situation, rather than blindly following a standard response.

Eye of the Needle (VOY S1E7)

Inclusion is also full of blindspots. There may be things that marginalize your crew that you don’t immediately realize.

Addressing those blindspots requires trust, especially since those marginalized may not feel comfortable speaking up themselves. Sometimes it falls to their crewmates, who may feel more secure discussing these problems with leadership. If leaders don’t have a strong, trusting relationship with enough of their crew, they won’t hear about problems, and they will snowball.

So Captain Janeway’s skeptical. But she listens. By the end, she’s clearly startled that she couldn’t recognize this problem herself. Kes, meanwhile, holds a firm line. To her, their artificially intelligent doctor, again, the only one of his kind on the ship, is a real person. Kes is not okay with any behavior that makes the Doctor feel like an outsider.

She persuades Janeway to investigate and make changes.

The tip of the iceberg

The Star Trek canon is about diversity, from the beginning. Finding ways to include people is a basic part of any captain’s job. There are hours and hours of this stuff buried and waiting for you on Netflix.

I love Star Trek as resource for finding models for these tough conversations. I hope you’ll find it useful through this lens as well.


Learn more:

Star Trek’s Uhura Reflects On MLK Encounter
Nichelle Nichols caused a sensation in the 1960s for her role as Lieutenant Uhura in the classic television series,…www.npr.org


This was lots of fun to do. Thanks Code2040!