The Sigma Tax

Pronounced income disparity is the root of many of our country’s problems. Economists have been talking about it for years, and last week President Obama made an attempt to bring the issue front-and-center in a speech at Knox College.

Another thing that economists have long said is, “When you tax something, you get less of it.” So here’s an idea: let’s tax income disparity!

How would this work? Easy. For companies of a given size, we decide what the ideal distribution is of wages and other compensation. We might decide, for instance, that the 90th percentile should be earning no more than 50x what the 10th percentile earns. Whatever numbers we choose, the result is a curve; presumably a less-pronounced one than this:

Once we decide on the shape of our curve, companies are free to obey it or not, distributing their compensation however they see fit. But if their curves deviate too far from the ideal, they pay a proportional income-disparity tax. Maybe they can even be eligible for an income-disparity credit if the curves deviate in the other direction.

Properly tuned, and phased in slowly, this “Sigma Tax” (for the Greek letter that designates standard deviation in statistics) should result in gentle but inexorable pressure that reduces the wage gap, improving things for the bottom 99% without breaking the 1%, while paring some of their shameful excess.

Predicting the present

One day long ago, when the IBM PC was still new, my friend Mike asked me to imagine my ideal computer. I described something very like the IBM PC, but with more memory and a bigger hard drive — 50 megabytes, say, instead of 10 or 20. I couldn’t imagine any use for much more than that. (Today of course you can’t even buy a thumb drive that tiny.) I grudgingly allowed that a bitmap display might be more useful than the 80-column-by-24-line character terminal that PC’s had, but that was all I would consider adopting from the then-brand-new Apple Macintosh, which I dismissed as a silly toy unworthy of Real Programmers.

“Why?” I asked Mike. “What’s your ideal computer?”

Mike described something no bigger than an 8.5×11 sheet of paper and no more than an inch or so thick, whose entire surface was a full-color display. It could be carried in the hand or slipped into a backpack. “What about the CPU, where would that go?” I asked. I wasn’t getting it. Mike patiently explained that the whole system — CPU, RAM, video driver, power supply — was inside that little slab. I scoffed. Cramming everything into such a small space was obviously impossible, and no battery that could fit in such a thing would ever have enough power to spin a floppy disk drive for long. “Anyway, even if you could build it,” I told him, “it wouldn’t be as convenient as you’d like. You’d have to carry around a keyboard too and plug it in every time you wanted to use it.” No you wouldn’t, said Mike. The display could be touch-sensitive. The keyboard could be rendered on the screen as needed and input accepted that way.

This was 1984. What Mike described was pure science fiction. (In 1987 that became literally true, when the touch-controlled “padd” became a staple prop on Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Yet here I am, the proud new owner of a Nexus 7, the latest in high-powered touch-sensitive computing slabs that put even Mike’s audacious vision to shame.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had a failure of technological vision, nor was it the last.

Several years earlier, before even the IBM PC, I was spending a lot of afterschool hours at my friend Chuck’s house, and a lot of those hours on his dad’s home computer, one of the only ones then available: the beloved but now mostly forgotten Sol-20. (The TRS-80 and the Apple ][ were brand new and just about to steal the thunder from hobbyist models like the Sol-20.) It had a small black-and-white monitor that could display letters, numbers, typographical marks, and a few other special characters at a single intensity (i.e., it really was “black and white,” not greyscale). It looked like this:

The display was so adequate for my meager computing needs there in the late 1970’s that when the computer magazines I read started advertising things like Radio Shack’s new Color Computer (that’s what it was called — the “Color Computer”), I dismissed them as children’s toys.

Once, Chuck and I entertained the idea of making a little science fiction movie. A scene in Chuck’s script had a person’s face appearing on a computer monitor and speaking to the user. It was his plan to film this scene using his father’s computer. I said, “How are we going to make a face appear on a computer monitor?” I had only ever seen letters and numbers blockily rendered on it. Chuck pointed out that the monitor was really just a small TV. “Oh yeah,” I said, feeling stupid. It ought to be able to display anything a TV could. Of course we’d have to hook it up to a different source; obviously no computer could handle rendering full-motion video. Yet here I am, a software engineer at YouTube.

There’s more. In the mid 80’s, my sometime boss Gerald Zanetti, the commercial food photographer and computing technophile, once described his vision for composing and editing photographs on a high-resolution computer display. If a photograph included a bowl of fruit, he explained, he wanted to be able to adjust the position of an orange separately from the grapes and the bananas surrounding it. I said that such technology was far in the future. I’d seen graphics-editing programs by then, but they treated the image as a grid of undifferentiated pixels. Separating out a foreground piece of fruit from other items in the background simply was not feasible. Yet just a couple of years later Photoshop exactly realized Zanetti’s vision.

In the mid 90’s, when the web was new, my friend and mentor Nathaniel founded a new company, First Virtual, to handle credit card payments for Internet commerce. At the time there was no Internet commerce. Nathaniel and company invented some very clever mechanisms for keeping sensitive credit-card information entirely off the Internet while still enabling online payments. But I felt their system was too complicated to explain and to use, that people would prefer the familiarity and convenience of credit cards (turns out I was right about that), and that since no one would (or should!) ever trust the Internet with their credit card information, Internet commerce could never amount to much. Yet here I am, receiving a new shipment of something or other from Amazon.com every week or two.

Oh well. At least I’m in good company. I’m sensible enough finally to have learned that however gifted I may be as a technologist, I’m no visionary. Now when someone describes some fantastical new leap they imagine, I shut up and listen.

If you’re bullish and you know it

The economy has been so bad for so long that public confidence in a recovery is low — half of what it was in (the economically unremarkable benchmark year) 1985. Without confidence in the economy, households have pared expenditures to the essentials, companies are delaying hiring and putting off investment in new lines of business, and banks are doing the bank equivalent of hiding their money under the mattress — all of which makes the economy bad, which produces low confidence, which makes the economy bad, etc., etc.

It’s one of the trickiest chicken-and-egg problems in the world. A good economy relies on confidence, and confidence relies on a good economy. In a very real way, confidence is the economy. How can we get back to a good economy if doing so requires confidence that the bad economy is preventing us from having?

You may not be surprised to hear that I have a modest suggestion: lie. I wrote once before that pretend confidence can lead to real confidence, and I don’t see why this situation is any different.

Starting immediately, work some offhand comments into your everyday conversation, to the effect that the economy is finally picking up steam. Mention, for instance, that you noticed a couple of long-empty office buildings have been leased, or that some unemployed Facebook friends finally found jobs just recently, or that you read somewhere that now’s the time to get that fancy new TV because sales are finally ramping up again and those big manufacturer discounts will be coming to an end. It won’t take much, because people are starving for good economic news and will devour morsels like these. And don’t worry that they’re not true. If enough of us start implementing this idea, pretty soon they will be.

Update, 8 October 2010: A week after I posted this, Planet Money ran a story about four economists who saved Brazil by — wait for it — getting everyone to lie.

SIEVE

In a recent e-mail exchange with my friend Kurt, we were discussing the problem of orbital space junk and the difficulty of cleaning it up. It’s a subject we’ve batted around on and off for many years, wondering about a workable and economical solution but never managing to find one. It’s been in the news more lately, as the crisis has grown more acute and inventors have trotted out different proposals, each more outlandish than the last.

In the middle of this exchange, after years of coming up with nothing, I suddenly invented my own solution, an idea I now offer publicly as the second in my occasional save-the-world series. It’s called SIEVE: Scanning, Illuminating, Even Vaporizing Engines.

It involves deploying into low earth orbit thousands of semi-autonomous robots. Each SIEVE unit is small and light and costs no more than a few hundred dollars of off-the-shelf components. Specifically, these components:

  • A solar panel for power;
  • Gyros for orientation;
  • A radio for coordination with other SIEVE units;
  • A camera;
  • A simple computer;
  • A Mylar mirror; and
  • A small rocket engine.

Each unit, when in sunlight, is in one of three modes: Scanning, Illuminating, and Vaporizing.

In Illuminating mode, the unit orients itself so that the mirror reflects sunlight through a given volume of space.

In Scanning mode, the unit trains its camera on a region of space that other nearby units are Illuminating and searches for debris.

In Vaporizing mode, numerous units all aim their mirrors to shine sunlight on a piece of debris, one previously identified by Scanning and Illuminating units and whose orbital trajectory has been plotted. Focusing enough sunlight on the debris for a long enough time should heat it to the point of vaporizing. If the debris can be fully vaporized, great; it should be harmless in that form. If it can’t, it might still expel enough vapor to slow its orbit (a la the laser broom idea) to the point where it falls back into the atmosphere.

The rocket engine is only needed twice: once to insert the unit into a distinct orbit when initially deployed, and once to deorbit the unit at the end of its service life.

Care will have to be taken that the SIEVE robots do not themselves become hazards to space navigation. And that they don’t go into Michael Crichton mode, become sentient, and decide the Earth is a gigantic ball of debris.

If you can’t beat ’em, beat ’em by joining ’em

What can we do when the President is bought and paid for, opposing the public interest at almost every turn? Demand investigations. But what if our Justice Department is bought and paid for too? Demand Congressional action. But what if Congress is bought and paid for? Why, vote them out of office. But if the voting-machine industry is bought and paid for, and local election officials are bought and paid for, then what? Agitate for a popular uprising. But what if the mass media is bought and paid for in order to pacify the electorate and to reinforce the status quo? Turn to more democratic means of getting the word out. But what if the “more democratic means” is under the control of the (bought-and-paid-for) corporate establishment?

At this point it looks like there’s only one choice: get money out of politics somehow or other. Meaningful campaign finance reform and other similar measures have the virtue that they address the very root of the problem, and the drawback that they will never, ever happen. (In part because of entrenched interests, but also in part for the legitimate reason that campaign spending has been equated with free speech, which must not be curtailed, especially in a political campaign.) Not to mention that any mere legislation, depending as it does on enforcement and judicial interpretation, is weak medicine in the current environment.

So are we screwed? Are we doomed to suffer the worst that tyranny and endemic corruption can ultimately produce?

I thought so, until I thought of two movies (because that’s how I think, in movies): The Untouchables and Schindler’s List.

You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!

Why are we (the good guys) denying ourselves the use of the most powerful weapon in the other side’s arsenal? I’m talking about bribery. To borrow a page from the NRA (“Guns don’t kill people…”), bribery itself is not the problem; the problem is what people are being bribed to do. There aren’t thousands of evil people in the Establishment. There are just a few; the rest are all whores. The thing is, when only evil people employ whores, the whores only do evil. But the nice thing about whores is that they’ll do whatever you ask as long as the money’s green.

Oskar Schindler understood this. He became one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century by using bribery for good for a change. At the cost of his personal fortune, he bought, via bribery, the lives of hundreds of Jews who were otherwise doomed. To him, it was nobler to befriend and enrich Hitler’s murderous sociopaths and actually accomplish something, dammit than it would have been to disdain those methods and let the “Schindler Jews” perish in the name of not lowering himself to the Nazis’ level.

That was just one man’s wealth. Imagine how much good we can bribe Establishment whores into doing if we pooled our resources! We could bribe Brian Williams into reporting the real news. We could bribe Nancy Pelosi into putting impeachment back “on the table.” We could bribe any number of high-ranking officials to ease their troubled conscience and spill everything they know about Bush administration misdeeds. (As if there were any shortage of evidence.) I thought of this, rushed to the nearest domain registrar and discovered that bribe4good.com was available, and started thinking about how to design a website where citizens could contribute money and dicuss how best to use it to fight bribes with bribes.

Of course, even though there is presently a raging epidemic of illicit bribery, and even though law enforcement agencies routinely look the other way, you better believe that if the good guys started using bribery, the law would crack down faster than you can say, “I’m shocked, shocked!” And forget about keeping secret a slush fund that consists of contributions from millions of individuals (hey, why not dream big), all of them with a say in how the bribes are to be allocated.

But perhaps a modified version of this idea could still work. Instead of setting up a slush fund and proactively bribing those in a position to fix our country, set it up as a reward fund instead, meting it out to those who contribute to achieving specific goals. “Presidential signing statements declared unconstitutional” — $100,000. “War crimes trials for torturers” — $250,000. “Expose attempted bribes between corporate officers and government officials” — twice the amount of the bribe.

I call it Healthy Lucre and have an embryonic demonstration website up and running. Watch this space for further developments.

I’ll be concept, you be execution

I need someone to do the guerilla-art installation project that I dreamed up a few years ago:

All around the country, put up speed-limit signs that look just like the real ones but give speeds in crazy units. For example, 55 miles per hour is:

  • 7.3 furlongs per minute
  • 13.4 fathoms per second
  • 0.2 light-seconds per lunar month
  • 478 stadia per hour
  • 9.2×1041 planck lengths per week
  • 29,740 kilometers per fortnight

Are you in?

Save the world with Admiral Bob

Recently I read a NewScientist article about changes in rainfall patterns due to global warming, and it predicted the usual depressing outcomes in the medium to long term: famine, disease, war, immense human suffering.

Then three thoughts occurred to me: 1) a very large amount of the world’s freshwater is lost in the form of rain that falls at sea; 2) meanwhile, enormous petroleum supertankers ply those very same seas; 3) in some places, people pay more per liter for bottled water than they do for gasoline.

These thoughts were synthesized into a pretty freakin’ awesome idea: deploy a fleet of supertankers harvesting rainwater. They would use weather radar to hunt the heaviest precipitation (and the stormiest seas, like as not — only the hardiest sailors need apply). Any rain falling on their decks could be funneled straight into the holding tanks. I’m not sure how you’d keep seawater out of the tanks, as waves would frequently break over the deck of the ship in stormy seas, but that seems like a surmountable engineering detail.

Does it make economic sense to harvest rainwater this way? Let’s start by assuming it’s economical to transport petroleum by supertanker. (A safe assumption.) The retail price of a gallon of gasoline here in Northern California is presently right around three dollars. I don’t know how much crude oil goes into a gallon of gasoline, but for our very rough calculations it’s simplest and safe to say a gallon of gasoline equals a gallon of crude.

That three dollars per gallon we pay at the pump has to cover a lot of oil-industry expenses that a freshwater industry would not have: refineries, research, exploration, and drilling, not to mention giant slush funds for dealing with corrupt foreign regimes. And oil-industry tankers must be double-hulled to protect against spills. Freshwater tankers can be single-hulled.

On the other hand, whereas the oil industry can use their supertankers simply to transport millions of barrels of oil from one place directly to another, a freshwater fleet would have to roam at sea for a while until it contained enough water to make a delivery. This is an operational expense the oil industry does not have. How long must a freshwater supertanker follow rainstorms around until it is full? According to Wikipedia, a supertanker named the TI Asia has a depth (height) of 112 feet. Let’s guess that the tanks it contains are 60 feet high. For simplicity, let’s further assume these tanks have a uniform width — they don’t taper at the bottom or anything like that. This means that the ship must collect 60 feet of rain to fill its tanks — possibly less if a catch area much wider than the tanks themselves can be funneled into them. How long would it take to collect that much rain, if you’re always steering into the heaviest rainfall? Let’s guess that a good freshwater supertanker captain can expect an average of four inches of rain per day. That’s six months at sea to fill the freshwater tanks.

How much does it cost to have a supertanker crisscrossing the bounding main for six months? I have no idea, but let’s keep guessing and say that that cost roughly offsets the petroleum-industry-only costs I listed above (drilling, bribes, etc). This means that the fleet could deliver freshwater for about three dollars per gallon, which is about 79 cents per liter, which is very reasonable compared to the prices paid per liter of bottled water in many places threatened by future global-warming droughts.

The TI Asia can carry half a billion gallons of oil. If a comparable freshwater supertanker can carry an equal volume of water (which is not certain, since water is heavier than oil), then it can deliver a year’s worth of drinking water for a million people. Half a billion gallons is also equal to 1,534 acre-feet, enough water to irrigate 736 acres of crops for a year, but that sounds much less impressive, and at a cost of almost a million dollars per acre-foot, it’s nowhere near competitive.

Would I like to be the admiral of a fleet of freshwater supertankers saving the world? Hell yeah. For many weeks after this idea came to me, I kept it to myself. But then I looked at my pile of ideas-to-implement-someday, and the large subset of those that are in the category no-idea-how-to-get-started (which includes this one), and decided the world needs this idea more than I do. So, one of you reading this: get started. Just do me a favor and christen the first ship the gee bobg.