Decking the secular halls

The Thinker by Rodin

So an atheist, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist (me), his un-churched sister, her sarcastic college age son and the cynical brother who says he only worships Baal get together for dinner. The occasion: Christmas, of course.

That’s right, our Christmas tree is festooned with lights and bulbs. An angel adorns its top proclaiming the good news of Jesus’s birth. Our halls (such as they are) are decked out. There are cookie tins stuffed with ginger snaps and butter cookies.  Charlotte Church’s coloratura voice is coming out of speakers singing, of course, Christmas carols. Our porch and garage door are lined with blue lights that I put up weeks ago to celebrate the Christmas season. We have all the signs of Christmas except for the Christ part. We’re having ourselves a fully secular Christmas.

If you had to pick a Christian among us, I would come the closest. The roots of Unitarian Universalism are in Christianity. There are in fact many practicing Christian UUs, although I can’t find them in my “church” which seems to be at least half atheists. Still, UUs generally admire Jesus, such as he is imperfectly revealed to us in the gospels. I don’t think he was divine, as is true of most of us UUs. Also I don’t put much faith in prayer or miracles, but I do think Jesus probably existed and obviously inspired enough people so that his ideas carried forward after his death in a viral manner. There is no historical record of his existence outside of the Gospels, but that’s good enough for me; it passes my Occam’s Razor test.

Of course there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th anyhow, but it is convenient to the winter solstice, which was likely why it is celebrated on this date. There used to be a lot of heathens around and if you are going to convert them you have to work with their natural worship dates.  So most likely we are celebrating the birth of a man who might well be fictional, that most rational people cannot consider divine, whose birthday we don’t know and whose legend is known only because oral tradition was eventually written down and then rewritten, often with errors and omissions, over the centuries. Along the way we picked up saints, including a Greek bishop called St. Nicholas, and morphed this single aesthete into an obese citizen of the North Pole who dwelled in his own small kingdom full of elves and flying reindeer, and that fly despite the absence of wings. St. Nick magically supplies toys just one night a year to all the good Christian children in the world and keeps up an impressive schedule making appearances at local shopping malls. As adults we of course laugh at this childish nonsense, even while seventy three percent of us Americans also profess to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Myth has morphed into rarely challenged creed. A compelling new book suggests Judaism was simply made up by a bunch of elders in an attempt to unite the Judeans and the Galileans so they could fight common encroachers. If correct there was likely no Abraham, no Moses, no enslavement of the Jews in Egypt (for which there is no independent record), no burning bush, and no forty years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai which, lacking an oasis, would probably kill a large group of Jews dead within a few weeks anyhow.

And yet still we celebrate Christmas, and this includes the hopelessly secular among us like most of my family who, sadly, were raised as devout Catholics. My adult daughter, a professed atheist and now back in her bedroom after graduation, is fully into the Christmas season. She was pushing us early to put up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree. She was ready to deck our halls and could be heard singing Christmas carols in her bedroom. She was aghast that I forgot to buy some kielbasa for Christmas breakfast, a tradition that dates back to my deceased mother and which we carry on, if I don’t forget about it, on Christmas mornings. So it was off to the Food Lion before they closed Christmas Eve for some of the sacred sausage, served with scrambled eggs somewhat hurriedly before unwrapping presents under our Christmas tree.

No White Christmas this year, which is actually par for the course here in Northern Virginia. You can expect one every fifteen years or so. However, it was cold enough to qualify for Christmas, with temperatures that never made it officially above freezing despite clear skies. Walking this afternoon for exercise and bundled in my warmest parka, I felt gratitude, not just for Jesus but also for warm houses. Living outside in this weather like our distant ancestors did must have sucked. The only people these days who have an inkling of what it is like are our homeless, the exact sort of people Jesus would have cared the most about. As we raise our eggnog and sing our carols, we try not to think about them. Let them sleep in the woods in a tent and get dinner out of a dumpster. Sadly, some of our leaders clearly want to increase their ranks, and in the recently passed budget agreement succeeded by reducing food stamp allowances and heating assistance and ending long-term unemployment benefits. This is based on the curious and erroneous belief that this will make them get off their duffs and earn a living, but really was done because they are sadists absent compassion for anyone not like them. For many of these poor, 2014 will be bleaker than 2013.

For those of us lucky enough to have some wealth and privilege, we can wrap ourselves up inside our houses, sing carols in front of a hearth (probably with a gas log), tell and retell dated family stories, eat too much food and mostly forget about Jesus. If he were alive he’d probably be suggesting that we bring some food and eggnog outside to our neighbors in the woods, or maybe invite them inside our house for some home cooking, a shower, use of our washing machines and a night in a clean bed. Most of us are not that brave, convinced that the homeless are mentally ill, thus likely to strangle us in our sleep. We like the idea of being kind to those less fortunate to us more than the soiling our hands through the actual doing of deeds. Some of us will work in a soup kitchen for a day or two. Some may even give out blankets to prevent hypothermia for the homeless. To the extent that I put my values into action this year, it was to talk for five minutes with the guy from Goodwill who empties my trash in the office on Christmas Eve, learn about his son and daughter and wish him a happy holiday. I also bought $75 in gift cards for a local 16-year-old teenage girl through the Secret Santa program at our church. I also give money to charities, but this is an implicit admission that I want others to do the work that I can’t seem to do personally. I too am hypocritical, although perhaps less than most.

Yet still we huddle around our tree on Christmas Eve, unwrap our presents on Christmas Day and listen to holiday tunes on the player, many of which proclaim a savior was born today. Looking at our actions toward each other, there’s not much evidence that Jesus succeeded. And while none of us believe in Jesus’s divinity, we do sort of wish, like Santa Claus, that he actually did all those wonderful things. We just haven’t drunk enough spiked eggnog to short-circuit the logical parts of our brains.

If we could actually minister like Jesus, well then perhaps Christmas would be worthy of our celebration.

Bitcoin is libertarian bit nonsense

The Thinker by Rodin

Are you intrigued by Bitcoin? It’s a digital currency much in the news these days. It even got a hearing on Capitol Hill last month. Surprisingly the foundation overseeing Bitcoin came out relatively unscathed. Some places are accepting Bitcoins as payment for actual goods and services. They do so on the assumption the currency has value. Like any other currency it has value because some people assert it has value.

Which raises the question, what is its value? There are clearly things you can do with Bitcoin that are convenient. It’s a sort of digital cash for our electronic age. Only it’s not really cash. Real cash doesn’t leave fingerprints. You make a Bitcoin transaction and the transaction is recorded in the coin itself.

If there is value in Bitcoin, maybe it is from the faith we place in its math. There is not much we trust anymore, but you can still trust math, and Bitcoin depends on math, not to mention encryption algorithms, to assert its value. The number of Bitcoins has a finite limit because of the power of math and algorithms. Each attempt to mint a new Bitcoin requires lots of computers to spend lots of time and use lots of energy. For all its electronic novelty, it’s hardly an environmentally friendly currency. In fact, it’s bad for the environment.

You can’t say that about gold. Granted, the process of getting gold out of the ground is often bad for the environment, but once you have it, there it is, probably to sit in highly protected bank vaults and never to be actually moved or for that matter seen. A Bitcoin is entirely virtual but it depends on lots of computer hardware to mint and to assert its value. You won’t be creating one of these with a pad of paper and a slide rule. In fact, a Bitcoin is entirely dependent on computers and high speed networks. No wonder then that it was abruptly devalued last week when China blocked Bitcoin transactions. Keep it from being used in the world’s most populous country and it has lot less utility. Of course, it’s useless to anyone without a computer or some sort of digital device, not to mention some network so you can trade the currency. So it’s not even universal. You can’t say that about the U.S. dollar.

The larger question is whether a currency built on nothing but math really can have value. It does have value at the moment, as I can actually trade Bitcoins for U.S. dollars, which in my country is what everyone accepts as currency. In the long run though I think Bitcoins are going to be worthless. I don’t plan to own any of them and maybe I can make a case why you shouldn’t either.

First, there is whether counterfeit Bitcoins can be created. New ones can be minted if you have the computer horsepower and these are “legal”, but if they can be created for virtually no computer time then they would be counterfeit. Call me suspicious but I bet either the NSA has already figured out a way to hack it or will soon. In short, to trust a Bitcoin you must buy into its assumption that it can’t be hacked. Since the dawn of the computer age, hackers have demonstrated their ability to hack anything. They love the challenge. It’s reasonable to believe that Bitcoin is going to be hacked one of these days.

Second, there’s the question of what its value represents. I’ve discussed the value of money before. My conclusion is that money essentially represents faith that the country coining the currency will remain solvent and viable. I based this conclusion on the observation that currency value falls whenever these assumptions are shaken. Having a currency based on the gold standard doesn’t seem to make any difference, as the United States has been off the gold standard since the 1970s. Printing new currency doesn’t seem to be that big a deal either, providing the new currency is used to acquire assets of value. This is what the Federal Reserve has been doing since the Great Recession: creating money (none of it actually printed, apparently) and using it to buy long term securities like mortgage-backed securities. Curiously, just printing money is not inflationary when it is used to buy tangible goods. This is providing that the institution printing the money is trusted, and the Federal Reserve is trusted. In any event, investors can value or devalue a currency based on examining its monetary system and the country’s economy. With Bitcoins, you can’t do this. It is backed by no country, which is its appeal to its adherents.

What is Bitcoin really about then? It’s about a political idea; more specifically it’s about libertarianism. It’s trying to be a means by which libertarianism becomes institutionalized. If you are not familiar with libertarianism, it’s all about freedom, buyer beware and minimal (and ideally no) government. Libertarians (at least the committed ones) are vesting their wealth in Bitcoins because it’s how they show loyalty to the cause. They want money to be frictionless and outside governmental control. Arguably, Bitcoin does a good job with this, providing buyers and sellers will accept it as having value.

But libertarianism is an idea, not a thing. Libertarianism is really more of a verb than a noun. A currency though has to be based on something real. The U.S. dollar is essentially backed up by the collective wealth of all of us who possess dollars, or assets valued in dollars, or really any property within the United States. It’s based on something tangible. You buy a house in dollars instead of Bitcoins because everyone in the transaction has faith that those dollars mean something. This is because everyone else is trading in dollars too to buy real goods and services. If the U.S. dollar gets too low, there are things we can do about it. We can petition Congress or the White House to take action. There is no one to go to to complain about the sinking value of your Bitcoins. Assuming the currency cannot be counterfeited, its only value is its finiteness, enforced by math and increasingly expensive computational processes to make new coins. That’s it. As those libertarians say, caveat emptor (buyer beware). Bitcoin buyers, caveat emptor!

This tells me something important: Bitcoin is a bogus currency, at least in the long term. Yes, you can buy stuff with it now, but only from a very limited number of sellers: those who have faith in the idea of a libertarian currency. It’s obvious to me that libertarianism is just not doable as a sustainable way of governing. I have no faith it in whatsoever because its philosophical underpinnings do not actually work in the real world.

I would like to see it in Glenn Beck’s libertarian community, however, if it ever gets built. One thing is for sure, no one is going to build it for Bitcoins. They are going to demand U.S. dollars.

The power and profitability of treating workers with dignity

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s taken a few years but striking fast food and Walmart workers are slowly getting some national attention. This Black Friday there was a continuation of strikes and protests that happened on Black Friday 2012, only bigger, with at least 111 protestors arrested around Walmart stores nationwide. Organizers at Our Walmart, a group organizing Walmart workers (I have given to their strike fund) claim 1500 actions at Walmarts nationwide, up from 400 last year.

One-day strikes at fast food restaurants, which used to be rare, are now becoming routine as well. Just the other day a strike was held by workers at a McDonalds inside the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, D.C. The workers there are making the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. You would think that since these are federal facilities, contracts with fast food vendors would require contractors to pay their employees a living wage. But you would be wrong.

Even Walmart would agree that the facts prove their minimum wage jobs do not pay a living wage. Studies of various states routinely show Walmart employees as the largest group of recipients of food stamps in the state. Unsurprisingly, McDonalds is usually number two. On their employee web sites, both Walmart and McDonalds suggest their employees utilize public subsidies to increase their standard of living, a standard of living they refuse to provide.

This week in Washington D.C. the first two Walmarts opened in the city. There was much rejoicing, but not because their employees were going to be paid a living wage. Walmarts in the city mean that the city’s voluminous poor no longer need to take long and expensive subway and bus trips to the suburbs to get those Walmart low prices. It’s increasingly obvious though why their prices are so low. It’s because Walmart doesn’t see a point in paying a living wage when the government will keep their employees from starving for free. Food stamps will help provide basic nutrition for their employees, and Medicaid will provide health insurance of a sort thanks to the Affordable Care Act. In fact, don’t expect Walmart and McDonald’s lobbying firms to be pressing the government to get rid of food stamps and Medicaid. Their business model and profit forecasts depend on them.

What’s particularly infuriating though is that both of these employers could easily pay their employees a living wage and still make stockholders happy. They just choose not to do so. Various studies have looked at the cost of these benefits versus their profits, and it is easily affordable. They just see no point in doing this because federal subsidies effectively take taxpayer’s money and give it to their shareholders instead. And this is because we have no law that says employers must pay a living wage.

Critics of those proposing a national $15 an hour minimum wage simply say this means that employers will cut jobs. After all, they can hire two people at $7.25 an hour for one person at $15 an hour. The problem with this logic is that you cannot actually survive on $7.25 an hour without public subsidies and likely a second or third job as well. Naturally, this doesn’t bother these employers. They are in business to make money, not to be sensitive to their employees’ feelings and wallets.

If all public subsidies were removed tomorrow and the minimum wage was not raised, these employees would be showing up at work hungry (as many already do, particularly toward the end of the month) or, more likely, would have no fixed address because they could not afford rent. Their unwashed condition would probably not allow them to be employable at all. Which goes to prove that a minimum wage is not a living wage. Instead, it is a recipe for continued poverty.

There are reasons that even a Republican should embrace for paying a living wage. For those who think the government should do less, making employers pay a living wage means that federal and state governments don’t have to provide food and social services to these low wage earners. It reduces the costs and scope of the federal government.

It also ends indirect corporate subsidies. It allows companies to prove that they really are more efficient than other companies by removing the incentive toward employee inefficiency that comes with government subsidies. Think about McDonalds today and compare it to McDonalds thirty or forty years ago, if you are old enough to remember back that far. I am old enough and I can tell you for a fact very little has changed other than the menu has gotten unhealthier and the cash registers are now electronic. For forty years McDonalds has not really rethought how its restaurants could deliver better food, do so more efficiently and — here’s a crazy idea — with some actual employee engagement.

Yet Costco has found a business model that more than pays their employees a living wage, and still allows them to thrive as a business and be a leader of low prices. What incentive does Sam’s Club (a subsidiary of Walmart) have to prove their mettle when Costco can do what it refuses to do and Walmart’s profits can be boosted by government subsidies to its employees?

Perhaps most importantly, any employer worth his salt has learned long ago that employees will be more productive if you make it worth their while. They must have missed those videos by sociologist Morris Massey, such as this clip you can see on YouTube. If you want to get the best from your employees, listen to what they have to say.

It’s not that Walmart and McDonalds employees are unproductive. They are like a hamster on its wheel. They always work at top speed because they are always being monitored. They are also being told exactly how to do their job with no ability to be innovative. So mostly, they burn out or turn dull and unremittingly sullen. You can’t keep this up forever at $7.25 an hour so you will tend to quit. Even if the next job only pays $7.25 an hour, you quit on the hope that maybe you won’t have to run so quickly on the wheel with the next employer.

These “associates” have no particular loyalty because they are not given any incentive to be loyal. Give them incentives, in the form of higher pay, more interesting and challenging work, and by incorporating their ideas into the business, and you might earn some loyalty and by extension more profit. More importantly, you unleash the power of their imaginations. They’re not stupid and have plenty of great ideas on how to do things better, just no incentive to divulge them. Leveraging their ideas is a great business model. With Costco’s living wage they became keys to Costco’s success, and the key reason Walmart’s revenue stream is suffering.

The slaves on southern plantations gave all they could as well, and generally resented it. At some point they either rebelled or simply gave up. A death by beating is at least an end to suffering.

Walmart, McDonalds and most of these retailers and fast food outlets simply suffer from a poverty of imagination. The way to a sustainable business model and a happy workforce is to stop treating their “associates” like cogs in the great wheel of business. Instead, treat them as people with actual needs, like the need to have a roof over their heads and food to eat.

As a matter of public policy, there should be a national minimum wage guaranteed to be a living wage and it should be indexed automatically for inflation. It should probably vary geographically depending on the local cost of living. For those employers too unenlightened to understand that real profit comes from harnessing the minds and creativity of their employees, it at least sets a bar of decency. Any businessman worth his salt will be anxious to pay their employees more for the privilege of leveraging their thoughts and creativity to make their business thrive long into the future.

Gun control is inevitable

The Thinker by Rodin

Americans are obsessed with guns, but appearances can be deceiving. Certainly there is a very vocal crowd of gun rights people in this country, so vocal in fact that it seems to be more important than any other issue. Many of these gun rights advocates horde guns and ammunition for the apocalypse, or at least the breakdown of civil society. They are ready to help insurrection at that amorphous time when they decide our government has gotten too uppity.

Polls show Americans pretty much split on whether guns should be controlled. A recent Pew poll put the numbers at 50% for gun control, 48% against. This should actually be encouraging to gun rights advocates, since it shows an uptick. In their polling since 1993, no more than 49% of Americans were against gun control. In short, over twenty years there never has been a majority of Americans, at least according to Pew that has supported gun rights. Back in 2000, Pew found 67%, two in three Americans, supported gun control.

Clearly there is a lot of variability in gun control support but also clearly over twenty years there has never been a majority supporting gun rights. It’s unlikely the dynamic will change and if it does it is likely to change marginally. The trends suggest that gun control may be inevitable. Why do I say this? Because America continues to urbanize and in urban areas gun control is a winner.

In 2010 according to the Census Bureau (via Wikipedia), 80.7% of Americans lived in urban areas. This is up almost two percent from 2000, and up ten percent over fifty years. In fact, America officially became an urban nation when the 1920 census was tallied. This trend has continued inexorably since our founding. The reasons for urbanization should be obvious: life offers more possibilities in urban areas. It’s likely that we would be more urbanized than we are today, had not the trend been held in some check by suburbanization. It was due in part to industries concentrated in our cities and their pollution, which made living in the city hazardous to health. Industry is now much cleaner, and so are our cities. They are attracting many people, including those who used to live in suburbs.

In urban areas, 58% of those polled were for gun control. If we assume that more people will continue move to urban areas than elsewhere, a good assumption since it’s been true since our country was founded then we’ll likely see a clear and sustaining majority for gun control in the future.

Then there are the age statistics. The trend has been that younger people are markedly more likely to support gun control than older people. Strangely, right now that trend is reversed. Right now those aged 18-29 are still for gun control, but just narrowly, 50% to 49%. Curiously at the moment support is highest for gun control among those 65+ and is at 54%. The general pattern though suggests that trends will continue although as young adults move into middle age they may be more receptive to gun rights.

Part of the appeal of guns is growing up with guns. If you went deer hunting with dad or grew up with a gun closet in the basement you will tend to think that gun possession is normal. And yet having a gun in the household is hardly the norm. The New York Times reported earlier this year that a 2012 government survey showed that guns were in 34% of households, versus 50% in the 1970s. There is probably a correlation between this and our increasing urbanization, up 8% since 1970. The number of households having a gun will continue to decline in the years ahead as well.

In rural areas a gun may have some practical use. It can provide food, at least during hunting season. A gun may make sense as a form of personal protection when any police are likely to be half an hour or more away. In urban settings you obviously don’t need a gun for hunting, unless you plan to drive quite a distance on weekends. If you live in a high crime neighborhood you may want one for personal safety. But if you call 911, you probably won’t have to wait half an hour for police to show up. Most of the people now moving into urban areas are upwardly mobile, younger and reasonably well moneyed. Most likely they are living in gentrified neighborhoods that used to be crime-ridden eyesores. They bring with them a culture where gun possession is frowned upon. I witnessed this transformation recently in Washington D.C. Last Wednesday I attended an event near U and 14th Streets N.W., the heart of race riots back in 1968, now nicely gentrified and upscale. Women walked around the streets at night without seemingly a care, and there was not a bum in sight. The neighborhoods were well lit and felt safe. The most aggravating aspect of this neighborhood was finding a parking spot.

These demographics and values trends are going to make gun control more okay. Certainly there will be pushback from the gun rights lobby and the Second Amendment is not easily repealed. It probably won’t be repealed outright but I do expect that gun control laws will come back in favor in these communities and those values will generally extend outward. The need for a gun will continue to diminish, and incidents like rampage mass shootings will eventually become too great to tolerate and force political change. People with guns will increasingly be seen as odd and out of the mainstream.

I probably won’t live to see the Second Amendment repealed but I do expect in about fifty years it will be repealed. It may also be changed to allow local and state governments to regulate who can possess guns, and sold as an issue of states’ rights.

 

Spock in charge

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed in the last five years, we seem to have a Vulcan in the Oval Office. Spock is in charge.

Obama as Mr. Spock
Obama as Mr. Spock

Oh, I know what some of you are thinking: we have an atheist/Muslim, Kenyan-born unnatural American in the White House instead. All that stuff about Barack Obama being born in Hawaii is faked, and even if it isn’t, Hawaii was barely a state in 1961, so he’s still not a naturally born American, and thus is not qualified to be president! The good news is that if Obama really is Mr. Spock, well, then we do have an imposter for a president, since anyone with knowledge of Star Trek canon knows that Spock is a Vulcan from the planet Vulcan.

Not so fast! There is the minor matter of Spock’s mother Amanda, who happened to be human, which means Spock is a product of a mixed-species marriage. Curiously, Obama is a product of a mixed-race marriage. It’s unclear from Star Trek canon whether Spock’s mother Amanda was born in the United States, and it’s also very unclear whether in the 23rd century world of Star Trek there is a United States. It sort of sounded like in Gene Roddenberry’s imagination we had evolved past nation-states. However, Spock’s mother Amanda was white and spoke English with a flawless American accent. If she had a son on Vulcan and was a member of a 23rd century United States, why, Spock would be no less eligible for the presidency than Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is for being born in Calgary, Canada to American parents. Hmm.

So I am going with this assumption, because President Obama is so much in mind and temperament like a Vulcan in general, but Spock in particular, that I figure Spock is real. He figured out a way to transport himself back to our time, got a little plastic surgery on his ears and otherwise inserted himself seamlessly into our national consciousness around 2004 when Obama made that famous speech at the Democratic National Convention. I mean, Obama is a dead ringer for Spock anyhow: tall, thin, highly logical and low key. I don’t know where the Barack Obama before that speech is, but I figure he is deep in a holding cell somewhere out of the way, probably in Guantanamo. Maybe he will be released after Spock finishes his term in 2017.

Some rabid Christians believe in the antichrist, and many suggest that Obama is the antichrist. If the opposite of religious is secular, then Obama seems to qualify. It is true that he belonged to a predominantly black church in Chicago, but since assuming the presidency he and church have been strangers at best. He had not joined any of the local churches. His attendance is sporadic at best. Vulcans don’t need no stinkin’ churches. They are entirely logical and that certainly describes our president.

Obama, more than any president I can recall, is a relentlessly pragmatic politician, which means that he is driven by logic, not emotion, just like a Vulcan. It is borne out in so many ways, but most importantly to Americans perhaps in Obamacare. It was an imperfect law at best but the main thing was that it could get through Congress, although it just barely made it out of Congress. When it arrived it quickly showed imperfections. However, its imperfections were not as important as the fact that Obama and Democrats in Congress had at least moved this political football down the field, an accomplishment that eluded many past presidents and congresses. Obamacare was certainly not the best health care legislation, but it was doable. It was the logical choice as opposed to doing what so many others had done: nothing.

I find Obama/Spock’s pragmatism welcome. I see it not just in the Affordable Care Act, but in lots of other actions Obama/Spock has taken. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were good examples. Mr. Spock would look at these wars and say, “There is no way to win these wars. We need to get out quietly, set up some fig leaf governments that suggest that we care about the inevitable mess we’ll leave behind, but basically just go. We can’t afford them anymore.” And so we did. For the most part, even the Republicans who started these wars aren’t complaining. They have moved on to other issues that excite their base, like cutting spending in general.

The Hindus recognize the god Shiva, whose job is basically to destroy things. This is because life is about change. If it didn’t change, it wouldn’t be life. Curiously, Republicans who claim to not want things to change seem to be channeling Shiva, eager to destroy pretty much all the social legislation of the 20th century. Obama/Spock seems to be trying to cope with change, to build on what has worked in the past to make for a better tomorrow, making him in some ways conservative. The Affordable Care Act demonstrates this principle at work: build a health care system on top of our existing private health insurance market to minimize the shock of change. It’s highly logical in the context of where we are today, which is why Obama/Spock supported it.

Obama himself has repeatedly spoken about his intent on playing a “long game”. He tries to ignore the ups and downs of the moment and keep his eye on the far end of the field where the goal line is. Whatever it takes to move that ball down the field is fine with him. As quarterback though Obama prefers to rush instead of pass. He may start out with a pass, as he did with the Affordable Care Act, but once it proved politically impossible to get a single payer system through Congress he found it less risky to rush instead. He got his first down, which was the Affordable Care Act. Some other quarterback will get to the goal line: a single payer system. Obamacare makes this conversation possible in the future. Without it, it could not happen at all.

Obama is obviously not a perfect president, so the Spock analogy is imperfect as well. But I find his relentless pragmatism quite refreshing. At times it gets him in trouble, such as in national security matters with electronic eavesdropping and the use of drones to kill terrorists. Spock though would fearlessly make these choices. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one,” he has said in various TV shows and movies. Disconnects like these can happen when you elect left-brain presidents. What is logical is not always what makes the most political sense, and it can come back and bite you from time to time. Overall though, I prefer a left-brain president to a right-brain one.

We face terrible problems from overpopulation to climate change. No Messiah is going to come down from the skies to solve these for us. We made this mess, and only we can clean it up. We need clear thinkers and people of practical action to pull it off, if we can pull it off at all. The odds are very long.

So I for one am glad that Spock is in charge.

How healthcare.gov failed: the technical aspects

The Thinker by Rodin

(Also read parts 1, 2 and 3.)

A lot of how healthcare.gov works is opaque. This makes it hard to say authoritatively where all the problems lie and even harder to say how they can be solved. Clearly my knowledge is imperfect and thus my critiques are not perfect either. I am left to critique what the press has reported and what has come out in public statements and hearings. I can make reasonable inferences but my judgment will be somewhat off the mark because of the project’s opacity.

It didn’t have to be this way. The site was constructed with the typical approach used in Washington, which is to contract out the mess to a bunch of highly paid beltway bandit firms. Give them lots of money and hope with their impressive credentials that something will emerge that is usable. It was done this way because that’s how it’s always done. Although lots of major software projects follow an open source approach, this thinking hasn’t permeated the government yet, at least not much of it. Open source projects mean the software (code) is available to anyone to read, critique and suggest improvements. It’s posted on the web. It can be downloaded, compiled and installed if someone has the right tools and equipment.

It’s not a given that open sourcing this project was the right way to go. Open source projects work best for projects that are generic and used broadly. For every successful open source project like the Apache Web Server there are many more abandoned open source projects that are proposed but attract little attention. Sites like sourceforge.net are full of these.

In the case of healthcare.gov, an open source approach likely would have worked, and resulted in a system that would have cost magnitudes less and would have been much more usable. It would still have needed an architectural committee and some governance structure and programmers as well, principally to write a first draft of the code. Given its visibility and importance to the nation it would have naturally attracted many of our most talented programmers and software engineers, almost all of who would have donated their time. Contractors would have still been needed, but many of them would have been engaged in selecting and integrating suggested code changes submitted by the public.

If this model had been used, there probably would have been a code repository on github.com. Programmers would have submitted changes through its version control system. In general, the open source model works because the more eyes that can critique and suggest changes to code, the better the end result is likely to be. It would have given a sense of national ownership to the project. Programmers like to brag about their genius, and some of our best and brightest doubtless would have tooted their own horns at their contributions to the healthcare.gov code.

It has been suggested that it is not too late to open source the project. I signed a petition on whitehouse.gov asking the president to do just this. Unfortunately, the petition process takes time. Assuming it gets enough signers to get a response from the White House, it is likely to be moot by the time it is actively taken up.

I would have like to have seen the system’s architecture put out for public comment as well. As I noted in my last post, the architecture is the scaffolding on which the drywall (code) is hung. It too was largely opaque. We were asked to trust that overpaid beltway bandits had chosen the right solutions. It is possible that had these documents been posted early in the process then professionals like me would have added public comments, and maybe a better architecture would have resulted. It was constructed instead inside the comfort of a black box known as a contract.

After its deployment, we can look at what was rolled out and critique it. What programmers can critique is principally its user interface because we can inspect it in detail. The user interface is important, but its mistakes are also relatively easy to fix and have been fixed to some extent. For example, the user interface now allows you to browse insurance plans without first establishing an account. This is one of these mistakes that are obvious to most people. You don’t need to create an account on amazon.com to shop for a book. This was a poorly informed political decision instead. Ideally someone with user interface credentials would have pushed back on this decision.

What we saw with the system’s rollout was a nice looking screen that was full of many things that had to be fetched through separate calls back to the web server. For example, every image on a screen has to be fetched as a separate request. Each Javascript library and cascading style sheet (CSS) file also has to be fetched separately. In general, all of these have to complete before the page can be usable. So to speed up the page load time the idea is to minimize how many fetches are needed, and to fetch only what is needed and nothing else. Each image does not have to be fetched separately. Rather a composite image can be sent as one file and through the magic of CSS each image can be a snippet of a larger image and yet appear as a separate image. Javascript libraries can be collapsed into one file, and compressed using a process called minifying.

When the rollout first happened there was a lot of uproarious laughter from programmers because of all the obvious mistakes. For example, images can be sent with information that tells the browser “you can keep this in your local storage instead of fetching it every time the user reloads the page”. If you don’t expect the contents of a file to change, don’t keep sending it over and over again! There are all sorts of ways to speed up the presentation of a web page. Google has figured out some tricks, for example, and has even published a PageSpeed module for the Apache web server. Considering these pages will be seen by tens or hundreds of millions of Americans, you would expect a contractor would have thought through these things, but they either didn’t or didn’t have the time to complete them. (These techniques are not difficult, so that should not be an excuse.) It suggests that at least for the user interface portion of the project, a bunch of junior programmers were used. Tsk tsk.

Until the code for healthcare.gov is published, it’s really hard to assess the technical mistakes of the project, but clearly there were many. What professionals like myself can see though is pretty alarming, which may explain why the code has not been released. It probably will in time as all government software is in theory in the public domain. Most likely when all the sloppy code behind the system is revealed at last, programmers will be amazed that the system worked at all. So consider this post preliminary. Many of healthcare.gov’s dirty secrets are still to be revealed.

How healthcare.gov failed: the architectural aspects

The Thinker by Rodin

(Read parts 12 and 4.)

If you were building a house that you didn’t quite know how it would turn out when you started, one strategy would be to build a house made of Lego. Okay, not literally as it would not be very livable. But you might borrow the idea of Lego. Each Lego part is interchangeable with each other. You press pieces into the shape you want. If you find out half way through the project that it’s not quite what you want, you might break off some of the Lego and restart that part, while keeping the part that you liked.

The architects of healthcare.gov had some of this in their architecture: a “data hub” that would be a big and common message broker. You need something like this because to qualify someone for health insurance you have to verify a lot of facts against various external data sources. A common messaging system makes a lot of sense, but it apparently wasn’t built quite right. For one thing, it did not scale very well under peak demand. A messaging system is only as fast as its slowest component. If the pipe is not big enough you install a bigger pipe. Even the biggest pipe won’t be of much use if the response time to an external data source is slow. This is made worse because generally an engineer cannot control aspects of external systems. For example, the system probably needs to check a person’s adjusted gross income from their last tax return to determine their subsidy. However, the IRS system may only support ten queries per second. Throw a thousand queries per second at it and the IRS computer is going to say “too busy!” if it says anything at all and the transaction will fail. From the error messages seen on healthcare.gov, a lot of stuff like this was going on.

There are solutions to problems like these and they lay in fixing the system’s architecture. The general solution is to replicate the data from these external sources inside the system where you can control them, and query replicas instead of querying the external sources directly. For each data source, you can also architect it so that new instances of it can be spawned on increased demand. Of course, this implies that you can acquire the information from the source. Since most of these are federal sources, it was possible, providing the Federal Chief Technology Officer used his leverage. Most likely, currency of these data is not a critical concern. Every new tax filing that came into the IRS would not have to be instantly replicated into a cloned instance. Updating the source once a day was probably plenty, and updating it once a month likely would have sufficed as well.

The network itself was almost certainly a private and encrypted network given that privacy data traverses it. A good network engineer will plan for traffic ten to a hundred times as large as the maximum anticipated in the requirements, and make sure that redundant circuits with failover detection and automatic switchover are engineered in too. In general, it’s good to keep this kind of architecture as simple as possible, but bells and whistles certainly were possible: for example, using message queues to transfer the data and strict routing rules to handle priority traffic.

When requirements arrive late, this can introduce big problems for software engineers. Based on what you do know though, it is possible to run simulations of system behavior early in the life cycle of the project. You can create a pretend data source for IRS data that, for example, always returns an “OK” while you test basic functionality of the system. I have no idea if something like this was done early on, but I doubt it. It should have been if it wasn’t. Once the interaction between these pretend external data sources was simulated, complexity could be added to the information returned by each source, perhaps error messages or messages like “No such tax record exists for this person” to see how the system itself would behave, with attention to the user experience through the web interface as well. The handshake with these external data sources has to be carefully defined. Using a common protocol is a smart way to go for this kind of messaging. Some sort of message broker on an application server probably has the business logic to order the sequence of calls. This too had to be made scalable so that multiple instances could be spawned based on demand.

This stuff is admittedly pretty hard to engineer, and is not the sort of systems engineering that is done every day, and probably not by a vendor like CGI Federal. But the firms and the talent are out there to do these things and would have been done with the proper kind of system engineer in charge. This kind of architecture also allows for business rule changes to be centralized, allowing for the introduction of different data sources late in the life cycle. Properly architected, this is one way to handle changing requirements, providing a business-rules server using business rules software is used.

None of this is likely to be obvious to a largely non-technical federal staff groomed for management and not systems engineering. So a technology advisory board filled with people who understand these advanced topics certainly was needed from project inception. Any project of sufficient size, scope, cost or of high political significance needs a body with teeth like this.

Today at a Congressional hearing officials at CGI Federal unsurprisingly declared that they were not at fault: their subsystems all met the specifications. It’s unclear if these subsystems were also engineered to be scalable on demand as well. The crux of the architectural problem though was clearly in message communications between these system components, as that is where it seems to break down.

A lesson to learn from this debacle is that as much effort needs to go into engineering a flexible system as goes into the engineering of each component. Testing the system early under simulated conditions, then as it matures under more complex conditions and higher loads would have detected these problems earlier. Presumably there would then have been time to address them before the system went live because it would have been a visible problem. System architecture and system testing is thus vital for complex message based systems like healthcare.gov, and a top notch system engineering plan needed to be have been at its centerpiece, particularly since the work was split up between multiple vendors with each responsible for their subsystem.

Technical mistakes will be discussed in the last post on this topic.

How healthcare.gov failed: the programmatic aspects

The Thinker by Rodin

(Also read parts 1, 3 and 4.)

I am getting some feedback: healthcare.gov isn’t really a failure. People are using the website to get health insurance, albeit not without considerable hassle at times. I’ll grant you that. I’ll also grant you that this was a heck of a technical challenge, the sort I would have gladly taken a pass on, even for ten times my salary. It’s a failure in that it failed to measure up to its expectations. President Obama said there would be “glitches”, but these were far more than glitches. If this were a class project, a very generous professor might give it a D. I’d give it a D-, and that’s only then after a few beers. Since I don’t drink to imbibe, I give it an F.

In the last post, I looked at the political mistakes that were made. Today I’ll look at the programmatic mistakes. I’m talking about how in general the program was managed.

Some of it is probably not the fault of the program or project manager. This is because they were following the law, or at least regulation. And to follow the law you have to follow the FAR, i.e. the Federal Acquisition Regulation. It’s the rules for buying stuff in the federal government, including contracted services. Violating the FAR can put you in prison, which is why any project of more than tiny size has a contracting officer assigned to it. In general, the government wants to get good value when it makes a purchase. Value usually but does not always translate into lowest price. With some exceptions, the government considers having contractors construct a national portal for acquiring health care to be the same as building a bridge. Put out the requirements for an open bid and select the cheapest source. Do this and taxpayers will rejoice.

This contract had a lot of uncertainty, which meant it had red flags. The uncertainty was manifested in many areas, but certainly demonstrated in requirements that were not locked down until this year. I’d not want to waste my time coding something that I might have to recode because the requirements changed. This uncertainty was reflected in how the contract was bid. It’s hard to bid it as a fixed price contract when you don’t know exactly what you are building. If you were building a house where every day the owner was directing changes to the design you wouldn’t expect builders to do it using a fixed price contract. Same thing here. It appears the contract was largely solicited as “time and materials”. This accounts in part for total costs, which at the moment are approaching half a billion dollars. This kind of work tends to be expensive by its nature. CGI Federal probably had the lowest cost per hour, which let it win the bid.

There is some flexibility in choosing a contractor based on their experience constructing things a lot like what you want built. CGI Federal is a big, honking contractor that gets a lot of its business in government contracts. Like most of these firms, it has had its share of failures.  A system of the size of healthcare.gov is a special animal. I am not sure that any of the typical prime contractors in the government software space were qualified to build something like this, at least not if you wanted it done right.

There is some flexibility allowed in the statement of work (SOW), generally put together by the program manager with help from a lot of others. I don’t know precisely what rules applied to the contracting process here, but it is likely, probably by expending a lot of political capital, to create SOW that would have properly framed the contracting process so something actually usable could be constructed. A proper SOW should have included criteria for the contractor like:

  • Demonstrated experience successfully creating and managing very large, multi-vendor software projects on time that meet requirements that change late in the system life cycle
  • Demonstrated ability to construct interactive web-based software systems capable of scaling seamlessly on demand and interacting quickly with disparate data sources supplied by third parties

The right SOW would have excluded a lot of vendors, including probably CGI Federal but very possibly some of the big players in this game like Unisys, IBM and Northrop Grumman. Yes, many of these vendors have built pretty big systems, but they often come with records that are spotted at best, but whose mistakes are often overlooked. Until recently I used a Northrop Grumman system govtrip.com for my federal travel. They did build it, but not successfully. For more than a year the system was painfully slow and the user interface truly sucked.

Successfully building a system of this type, which was highly usable upon initial deployment, should qualify that contractor to bid on this work. Offhand I don’t know who would qualify. I do know whom I would have wanted to do the work: Amazon.com. They know how to create large interactive and usable websites that scale on demand. Granted even Amazon Web Services is not perfect, with occasional outages of its cloud network, but we’re talking a hassle factor of maybe .1% compared to what users have experienced with healthcare.gov. They used to do this for other retailers but may have gotten out of that business. I would have appealed to their patriotic senses, if they had any, to get them to bid on this work. In any event, even if they had bid they did not get the contract. So there was a serious problem either with the SOW or the “one size fits all” federal contracting regulations the doubtlessly very serious contracting officer for this project followed.

The size of this project though really made building it in-house not an option. So a board consisting of the best in-house web talent and program management talent in the government should have overseen it. Others have noted that the team that constructed President Obama’s websites, used to win two elections, would have been great in this role. In any event, the project needed this kind of panel from the moment the statement of work (SOW) was put together through the life of the project, and that includes post deployment.

Probably what they would have told those in charge was things they did not want to hear, but should have heard. The project should be delivered incrementally, not all at once. It should not be deadline driven. Given the constantly changing requirements, risk management strategies should have been utilized throughout. When I talk about architectural and technical mistakes in future posts, I’ll get into some of these.

In short, this project was a very different animal: highly visible, highly risky, with requirements hard to lock down and with technical assumptions (like most states would build their own exchanges) far off the mark. You cannot build a system like this successfully and meet every rule in the FAR. It needed waivers from senior leaders in the administration to do it in a way that would actually work in the 21st century, rather than to follow contracting procedure modeled on the spendthrift acquisition of commodities like toilet paper. An exception might even have been needed to have been written into the ACA bill that became law.

Next: architectural mistakes.

How healthcare.gov failed: the political aspects

The Thinker by Rodin

(Also read parts 23 and 4.)

You know a federal IT manager has a problem when the President of the United States is dissing the very web site he was paid to manage. That’s what President Obama was doing today with the healthcare.gov site, the rollout of which was botched by any standard. Also botched was the obscene amount of money paid for the site, obscene even if it had worked. The Canadian contractor CGI Federal got the award, initially $93.7M, but with extra work is now at more than $292M. This is a crazy amount of money to pay for an interactive site and may be the most expensive site of its kind ever purchased with tax dollars.

I wrote a week or so back about my initial critique of the website. It is easy to criticize in hindsight. I can’t claim to know all of the site’s requirements. From news reports it is not too hard to infer a lot of them. There were a number of external data sources such as at the IRS and Social Security Administration that had to be queried to do things like figure out your eligibility for a subsidy, if any. There were many business rules that had to be followed. There were tight security rules to follow because Privacy Act data had to be stored. And there were accessibility rules required of any federal or federally funded website, to ensure access to the visually impaired. All this plus the site had to scale to meet demand.

As a certified software engineer (MS Software Systems Engineering, 1999, George Mason University) and federal employee with more than twenty-five years experience designing, maintaining and managing systems and websites, I can speak with some authority, in part because I have made many of the mistakes I will allude to, just not so spectacularly. I learned from my mistakes. There are many dimensions to engineering a site like this: political, programmatic, architectural and technical. I plan to take each of these in turn in various posts.

Today: the political dimension.

All work for the government is inherently political. This is true even in a science organization where I work. You can’t avoid it because politics are built into the rules and regulations you must follow, such as the Privacy Act and accessibility requirements (Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, to be specific). Projects of a certain size, like healthcare.gov, fall into the bucket of a program. A program is basically one or more projects that are interrelated which, because of their overall size, need to be packaged, managed and sold politically and which typically continue indefinitely. Managing a program requires a fistful of certifications. Having the certifications though is not enough. The effective program manager has to really understand all the power players at work and market to them. It’s probably the toughest job out there, particularly for very large scale or high visibility programs. I am sure the program manager for this project tried his or her best, but they got the wrong person. Someone with a lot of experience, a proven ability to manage a program this large successfully, and with the right political skills was needed.

The right program manager would have spoken truth to power, tactfully of course. There were red flags all over this project. Few things are more controversial than health care. He or she probably reported directly to HHS Secretary Kathy Sibelius. To start he or she should have mentioned the triple constraint. It affects all projects and it is basically this:  a project is naturally bounded by cost, schedule and scope. What this means in practice is that if the project was deadline driven, then scope would have to be reduced. This means not all the features of the website could be delivered by October 1, 2013. If the minimal scope was too big, it may have been technically impossible to deliver by the deadline. The typical political response is to throw money at the problem, which is probably why CGI Federal has billed more than $200M dollars so far. Unfortunately, at some point throwing more money at a project is counterproductive. It actually makes the project worse. This means there is an upper limit to what money can buy you as far as features for a given deadline. Someone was probably being dishonest to power by not laying these facts on the table because it was politically incorrect to do so. It was either that or someone in power refused to listen. If that was what happened then Secretary Sibelius should resign. If it was the program manager, he/she should resign.

The White House has some blame here too. This is the Obama Administration’s signature initiative. The Chief Technology Officer for the government should have been all over this project. He should have found the best talent inside and outside the government and brought these resources to bear for HHS, which doesn’t often handle projects like this. Instead, it was developed largely hands off. The CTO should have warned the White House of the high probability of failure, and recommended early on ways to preclude its possibility. Either he did not do this or his warning fell on deaf ears. The Federal CTO wields enormous political capital. It’s hard to imagine that if he squawked that the White House Chief of Staff would ignore him.

In any event, those in the chain of command must have largely acted in CEO mode. “Tut, tut, don’t bother me with details. No excuses, just get it done,” was probably their mentality. Given the prominence of this initiative, everyone from the president on down should have been engaged. They were not.

So a good part of the failure of healthcare.gov is simply an absence of the right kind of leadership. This was a problem that required getting out of the ivory tower and getting your hands dirty. Shame on all who acted in this way.

I don’t operate at the program level but I know enough about it to know I don’t want to. I don’t have the requisite people skills. But if I did I would have not taken responsibility for this work without written and personal assurances from these stakeholders that they would provide the resources to let the project succeed. I’d also want assurances that they would empower me and support me to the maximum extent possible to make it succeed.

Next: the programmatic missteps.

The interview

The Thinker by Rodin

This blog is principally a written work, but today you can hear my voice if you want. Simply click on the audio player and listen to the MP3 recording. The interview is 24:09 and is 34.8MB in size. (Download)

I was interviewed by NetRoots Radio as a voice in the federal shutdown. The interview was with “Fripp”, a co-host of the Netroots Radio Tuesday show “Kicking Ass”. The interview is not actually part of the show, but is available as a podcast. I simply give my two cents about what it is like to be furloughed and offered a few political opinions. If you read this blog regularly, you won’t learn much new except you get to hear what I sound like.

“Fripp” is actually a man named Tom who is my age and living near Portland, Oregon. Tom and I have been friends since 4th grade so he is unquestionably my oldest friend, thus I was a natural person for him to interview. The interview was done via Skype on Monday afternoon. The natural pauses in sentences have been removed by software. I don’t normally speak so succinctly.

You can learn more about Tom here.