Incompetence is not an excuse

I’ve been reading Bob Woodward’s new book Fear, and it got me thinking about competence, and culpability. The book gives us a glimpse into a White House that’s not running with any sort of grand strategy, but is a viper’s nest of incompetence and backstabbing, with various people and factions with agendas working to get Trump’s ear. All of this is being done without any modicum of competence, or grand strategy, and Trump comes across not as a leader, but someone who is easily manipulated. I suspect that this lack of competence will be used as an excuse. The excuses will become that there can’t be collusion if you’re too dumb to know you’re being manipulated. This will be accepted by some, but incompetence is not an excuse.

When you’re driving a car, you accept certain responsibilities that you have to take for the privilege of driving a car on roads with other people. If I end up driving 55 miles per hour in a residential area with a 35 mile per hour speed limit, my ignorance of that speed limit will not prevent me from getting a ticket. Most reasonable people will conclude that as the driver of the car it’s my responsibility to understand the laws that apply to me, and that not being aware of the speed limit isn’t an excuse to break the law.

If you are the CEO of a public company, and your policies cause the company to take actions that are illegal, you are responsible. Your ignorance of the laws you violated is not an excuse for the behavior there either. As the CEO of a public company, you are aware that you have certain responsibilities and legal restrictions that may not apply to other people. Since you have accepted the position, it is your responsibility to understand what legal liabilities you might have, and to behave in a legal manner. If you tell your employees that “You don’t want to know and don’t care how the objectives are achieved”, and reward behavior that could be illegal (like the Enron corporation), then you are liable for those actions.

If you are a mafia boss, and you’re caught on tape saying “Make sure Jimmy disappears”, you will still be prosecuted for murder if Jimmy is found to be murdered. You don’t get to escape culpability because you plead ignorance of Jimmy’s fate, or how Jimmy’s fate came about.

If someone becomes President, there isn’t some sort of outside force that made this happen without any action on your part. You campaigned and lobbied for the position, and in doing so, declared that you think you would be competent in the job. There are lots of laws, responsibilities, and restrictions that lie with the President that don’t apply to normal people. It is President’s job to understand those rules and regulations, at least broadly, and to make sure to hire a competent staff to help you navigate those rules and regulations. If you fail to hire the staff, or ignore them, then your ignorance of those rules and responsibilities is not excuse for violating them. It is your responsibility to obey those rules and regulations, and to not be cavalier about the obligations you have to your country.

All of the above being said, it seems to me that a great part of the arguments from the right, excusing the behavior of President Trump, is framed around the argument that he’s too naive to be responsible. Even the question of collusion is framed around this argument in a way. Whether making a statement on Twitter encouraging the Russians to release information on your opponent and then having that information get released is collusion is irrelevant. If you encourage behavior in your supporters and your staff that is illegal, if you make statements encouraging things that you wish would happen, knowing full well that there’s a reasonable likelihood that your encouragement will make those things happen, makes you culpable. Nonetheless, mark my words, that as information comes out around the illegal behavior of the people around President Trump, his defenders will nonetheless make statements saying that Trump himself didn’t do X, Y, or Z, and so its not him. As a society we don’t accept that excuse in traffic laws, its not something we even debate. I don’t think its worth debating around the actions of the President of the United States either.

On luck

I’m a programmer, and I think I’ve worked hard to get to where I am today. I think that my decisions have played a large role in the outcomes of things that have happened in my life. I have spent a lot of time on learning to do what I do, and in improving my ability in doing it. You could say, in some ways, I’m a study in self-determination.

I’m also hugely empathetic towards the struggles of others and the difficulties people face in their lives. I think a large part of what happens to you throughout your life is independent of your own actions, and that we’re all products of our environment. I’m a proponent of strong social safety nets, and of low-cost health care, and high inheritance taxes. I try very hard to forgive the mistakes people have made in their lives, and not to make pariahs out them. I’m against strict criminal sentencing laws, and generally think the US is far too punitive in how it punishes people. I believe that humans are constrained by environmental factors outside of their control, and that those things have a much larger effect on everyone’s outcomes than they’d like to believe.

This two things might seem incongruous to some. How can I be someone who’s worked so hard for my achievements, yet say that I think we’re all largely shaped by factors outside of our control? Do I not feel that I’ve earned what I’ve achieved?

Your ability to take the risk in starting a business, or to even have the luxury of time enough to think of a business idea, is predicated on you having a certain amount of economic security. I feel like I have lots of things to do, and I never have time to do things like even write this blog. I can’t imagine how little time I would have if I had to work more than job, or got paid minimum wage, and had to worry about where my next paycheck or meal was going to come from.

I’ve worked hard to learn to program computers, to read all the books I’ve read, and generally to become the person I am today. I also know what played an even larger role in my ability to program is pure luck. I was blessed with a family that was middle-class enough that we had computers when I was young, and I was lucky in having been born right at the time computers were invented. If I had been born 100 years earlier, all of the skills I have, and all my tendencies towards intellectual capabilities, may have been far less useful. I also had no choice in being born a male, or in being white, or in being born in a first world country. I could go on, there’s an infinite list of things completely outside of my control that played just as large a part in defining me today.  I’m certainly not minimizing the hard work I put in to achieve these things, but I also recognize that the hard work was far from enough to make it happen on its own. I have no confidence in the belief that I could have been born in any time, as any race, as any particular gender, and with parents of any particular economic status, and have had things turn out as well as they did.

How can I can be a supporter of things that seem, on a personal level, to be against my own interests? Why do I support higher taxes, strong social safety nets, free education, and affirmative action, as just a few examples? I support those things because I try to remind myself, on a regular basis, how different my life could have been with just a few small tweaks, with the roll of the die turning out slightly different. I try, in the same way that some religious people try to remember to thank God for what they’ve been given, to remember all the things that I have been given. I hope that you, if you’re reading this, spend a few minutes thinking about all of the things that are out of your control, that you were lucky to receive, and that made you who you are.

Misc. links 9/9/2018

I read, a lot, and I often read interesting things that I tend to bookmark for various reasons. I want to get back to it, write an article about it, etc. Given the vast amount of information I read, my ability to find things interesting and worthy of comment vastly outweighs my ability to do anything with the information. Partly, to give myself a better place to organize the information, and partly out of the hope that someone else finds it interesting or comment-worthy, I’m going to start regularly posting a list of links I found interesting.

Interesting questions to ask companies/employees you are interviewing with:

The Holloway guide to equity compensation:

Compilation of 100+ 3D graphics academic papers:

Why investing in poor neighborhoods is a better deal than investing in rich neighborhoods:

Renewing America’s economic promise through older industrial cities:

How to make your own sourdough bread:



My Name is the GOP, and… I’m a Trumpaholic

Backlash from the Anonymous NYT Op-Ed

An article came out from an insider of the Trump administration, and it was posted in the NY times anonymously. There’s a bunch of a legitimate hand-wringing and concern about an anonymous op-ed discussing the administration, and I think it’s correct to worry about whether it’s just sour grapes, or whether there is legitimate value in publishing an anonymous opened from a supposed insider.

Trump supporters of course responded to this headline like this (this is an actual quote, from a friend’s Facebook feed):

“… think the article was manufactured by our friends at the New York Times. It is so convenient that it was published anonymously by someone ‘known’ to the NYT staff, but who still works inside the White House. Notice, also, how the writer refers to the Republican Party as ‘his’ (i.e., Trump’s) party, rather than ‘our’ party. So is this anonymous author a Democrat or something other than a Republican? And he or she still works in the White House?”

People like to think it’s something insidious, that some how Trump isn’t the problem. But could it be exactly as stated? Given the evidence of his behavior, I’m going to argue that this is not a big democratic conspiracy to make the Republicans look bad. No my friends, I hate to be the one to tell you, but Trump is indeed a Twitter happy moron. His best qualities combine the steely focus of a gnat, with the temperament of an inept asshole that’s in way over his head. What you hear about the Woodward book isn’t bullshit. It’s an administration off the rails.

The media may be left-wing. I don’t doubt that, but think about Occam’s Razor. Why would they lie about it? Do you think that anyone in DC would have to look for longer than five minutes to find someone from the Trump administration to talk shit? Thanks to Omarosa, we’ve already heard a small fraction of the disorganization that exists within the administration. Even with her gone, it’s still full of leaks and back stabbing. It has been from the start. Why make up a story when there are so many sources at your feet?

The whole premise doesn’t make any sense.

If you truly believe that the Trump administration is a well-oiled machine, and ALL of the media is lying to make this incredibly efficient and trustworthy administration look bad, then that’s your problem. I know we all like conspiracy theories, and distrust the media, but come on. The whole premise is ridiculous on its face.

The real danger I see is that we have a large portion of the populace that has a world view that bears little to no resemblance to reality, and it’s pretty scary. Now, the way I see the world, is not that everyone else is 100% objective, of course not, none of us are.  We all have biases built in to the way we see the world, and as new events, people, and experiences enter our lives, we incorporate those things into a new map of how we see the world. We use these maps to make sense of what we experience, and to help predict what the future will bring us. Let’s go with a more concrete, real-life example consuming the news now. The changes being inflicted in society as new tech becomes mainstream like Facebook and Twitter. Executives from these companies have been repeatedly called to testify to the government on how they handle these sorts of issues.

People who are experienced in technical matters have a very different view of technology, and a different understanding of how people interact and experience the technology they create. That view doesn’t match how people actually experience and interact with the technology, and that creates many of the problems you see with social media. Facebook, Twitter and company are minimizing the effect of the technology on the behavior of the people to fit their world view, which is that there is some sort of meritocratic, technically clean implementation, where algorithms rule the world and no one is filtered  unnecessarily. It’s a bit utopian, but other than Jack Dorsey (who finally banned Alex Jones, now that’s he’s met Alex Jones and ilk, which makes the willful ignorance part of it totally clear), they all realize they’ve caused problems, and are now trying to reconcile their world view with the real world.

These are all issues that the various groups are starting to recognize and are attempting to change course and reconcile with their own world view. That involves changing your perspective, moving towards the viewpoint of the other party, and creating a new world view that encompasses the experiences of both parties. It’s a system that recognizes (far too slowly, but recognizes nonetheless) that the experiences of others are valid, and real, and that maybe you have bias, too. There may be things you don’t see, and you have to make the difficult decision to do some inward reflection and change your worldview. In the end, hopefully, you move towards a better place.

Fox News, Trump, and the right wing don’t operate by the same set of rules, despite claiming to, and they do it in way that is disingenuous, and they know it.  On the surface, you can say, “Oh, they have a world view that the liberals don’t see, and therefore it’s the liberals who have overlooked the right-wing, etc.”. Maybe. The honest position however, is you have to open to trying to figure out a world view that encompasses both your view, and those of whom you disagree.

The starting premise of any successful negotiation can’t be that the other side is fundamentally wrong, and you’re 100% correct. That is not a negotiation, it clearly won’t result in any sort of agreement or progress. That has to be the basic premise of all discussions, debates, and disagreements, or there can be no progress.  This isn’t always true, and people lie on different ends of the spectrum, sure, but that’s the common understanding that is shared between all groups who are open to change. That means men, the left, mathematicians, programmers, economists, etc. Basically every realm in every world in every interest but one. The right-wing establishment.

The right-wing is making a fundamentally different argument.  Instead of trying to paint a world where the interests of all groups are taken into consideration, and that it’s possible that their world views may differ from theirs, they start with the premise that the their own view is 100% the correct one. Instead of listening to the words, views, and paying attention to the actions of others as potential competing interests, they see their own view as 100% factual and is obvious to all, and then back into a view to explain the behaviors and claims of everyone else given that view.  Everyone must see that Trump is a god and can do no wrong, and any counter example is a malicious attempt by the other side to lie about Trump, to further their own evil interests. It assumes that the left-wing media also knows Trump is infallible, he can’t possibly actually be incompetent, they just don’t like him, so the media is lying to make him look bad. This results in increasingly paranoid and conspiratorial explanations about what the other side is doing and believes. There’s a massive left-wing media conspiracy to paint Trump in a bad light, yet at the same time, is completely incapable of getting a politician elected. It makes no sense.

Now, I’m sure you can sit there and cherry pick some shit that happened in past administrations where the left did the same thing. Everyone does it, but the scale is very different. Let’s take the failure of the ACA sign up process during the Obama years as an example. The right said, “Look, Obamacare is failing! You can’t even sign up, and these are supposed to be the tech guys, and they can’t even make the sign up process work. It’s a failure”. And the left said, “No, it’s a technical glitch, and everything will be fine”. What they did not say is, “It’s not failing during the sign up process for any reason other than right-wing people are intentionally crashing it”.  Instead, they said, “The sign up failed, we’re extending the sign in period, we’re working to fix it, and it won’t happen again”.  Of course this was also followed up with a defensive, “Just because the sign-in thing doesn’t work doesn’t say anything about ACA more broadly”.  It’s being defensive, and doesn’t help your cause.  In the end, the sign-up shit got fixed, people got healthcare, the implementers got pie on their face, and everyone moved on.

When Trump fails, it’s the left-wing’s fault. It’s evil left-wingers working at the evil left-wing media.  They double down on their worldview that the world is out to get them. Not because their ideas are failing and they backed an idiot, but because it’s a vast conspiracy.

I don’t know how to change that world view. It’s like an alcoholic who insists he doesn’t have a problem. His drinking isn’t the problem, everyone else should just mind their own business! He’s just trying to relax and let off some steam, but everyone else keeps picking fights with him, and he was just defending himself.  Then he goes home and his wife gets angry, “What a bitch”, and after his hard day, he just can’t control himself, she deserved to be punched.

Because I have no hope of fixing the alcoholic, I did exactly what any battered wife should do. I got the fuck out.

Observations leaving the US for Germany – Socialized health care

This is part 4 of multi part series, and I’m talking about my experiences with the health care system in this post. Here are the links to all the entries:

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 2: The food

Part 3: The quiet

Well, it’s official, I have left the US for Berlin, Germany. This is part four of a series of observations I’m making comparing my life in the US to the one here. This post is being written a few weeks after having moved, and I’ve now moved into my own apartment rather crashing with family. One of the things that is required to stay here is health insurance, and so I had to sign up for German health insurance. I’ve written about the US health insurance system before, and those articles were based on my experiences with it in the US. The German health insurance system is, to some degree, what the ACA was ostensibly aiming to be, with the addition of a public option. I think it serves as a good model for what is possible, and how it works.

First, let’s do a quick summary of the health care I was able to get in the US. In the US, for both my wife and I, we were paying roughly $900 a month total for the both of us. Many years ago, I was in a particularly bad car wreck, and had some extensive injuries. There weren’t any long-lasting effects, I haven’t had any issues since then other than some nasty scars, but my injuries were extensive enough that most of my body was a pre-existing condition. I’m caucasian, my wife is asian, and other than that, we are in good health. We see a doctor, other than for the usual checkups, less than once a year.  Nonetheless, pre-ACA, I was essentially non insurable without a group policy. Being an independent contractor, with my own corporation, this wasn’t generally a problem, but is just about what it cost to cover myself and my wife pre-ACA. After the ACA, my insurance costs rose by about $50 a month, but I no longer had to have a group policy, so it was much easier to deal with, and I became insurable, but I could see how there would be a bunch of people in similar circumstances to mine, without the resources or resourcefulness to get it done, and were for all intents and purposes uninsurable without getting it through work. Picking an insurance plan, both before and after the ACA, was always a joy. I’d spend hours trying to figure out the various caveats, deductibles, networks, and what is covered between various plans, and then hope I made the right choice when I had to use the insurance.

My deductibles ranged between $4000-$8000 per individual, depending on the year and what coverage is available. Many things aren’t covered, or are poorly covered. If I tried to make an appointment with my primary care doctor, I generally couldn’t get an appointment in under a month. If I had anything more urgent, I’d have to go to the urgent care or emergency room, even for things that weren’t quite an emergency. For example, I was sick and feverish for over a week. I had no need to go to the emergency room, but it was clear that I needed to be put on anti-biotics, but the appointment I tried to schedule was 3 weeks out, so urgent care it was. It generally felt incredibly wasteful, but at least the rise of urgent cares meant no more emergency rooms, which was what I would have had to do in the 1990s or 2000s.

Getting treated generally consisted of waiting for several hours, being seen by an RN, getting bandaged or my vitals taken, 5 minutes answering questions, maybe a prescription, paying a $50-$100 deductible on-site, and then waiting several weeks for the bills to arrive. I’d generally receive a single bill from the insurer, with a bunch of things on it, and a stamp saying “Do not Pay, this is not a bill”. Then I’d get a bill from the facility itself, a second bill from the doctor, and if I got an x-ray, then a 3rd and 4th bill for the radiology department and a separate one for the radiologist. The sums in these bills inevitably didn’t line up with what the insurer said, what I thought I would pay with my deductible, and often got sent multiple times, with different amounts each time. If the bill went up, I would be able to call whatever billing department was shown on the letter, spend an hour on hold, argue with them for a bit, and then have to pay only the lower amount of several received bills. When I had the car accident I spoke about earlier, my bill came out to around $250k. The insurance company refused to pay, I hired a lawyer, spoke to him once or twice, and then everything got paid (including the lawyer).

So far, here’s been my experience with the German system. I logged onto a website called Check24, which is a private company and helps you manage the health care offerings. They don’t charge you, the end consumer, but they get their money from either the health care providers or the government. I don’t know, and honestly, don’t really care, since I don’t have to pay. They also speak English, which helps, despite the fact that I speak German. I don’t read legalese and medical terms in German well, so trying to decipher it was difficult. Anyhow, I signed up for Check24, and they said they would handle everything between myself and the insurance companies on my behalf, and they spoke to me in English. They said I could choose between a public plan or a private one, and all the private plans were required to cover everything the public plan would cover, but the coverage for families works a bit different, and they can offer more than the public plan. Every resident is required to have insurance, it is mandatory, and instead of fining you, things like residency applications require the proof of insurance. If you want to live 100% off the grid, I suppose you can do so, but for all practical purposes, its mandatory and everyone will do it, since avoiding it is prohibitively difficult.

The public plan cost a percentage of your income, half of which is generally paid by your employer, and half by the person. It costs about 15% of your gross annual income, with half being paid by the employer, and caps out at €59400 annual income. That means that the highest you’ll ever pay is roughly €750 a month. The public plan covers your entire household, so any significant other, kids, etc. Emergency care and medically necessary care is free, and preventative care is generally not.  You can visit any public hospital, but not private ones, with this insurance.  You are not covered if you to a private doctor. If you are not self-employed or you make less than the annual cap, then you purchasing the public insurance is mandatory, however, you can purchase a supplemental insurance that provides you additional coverage with private doctors and facilities.

If you are self-employed, make more than the annual cap, or are purchasing a supplemental insurance, you can get private coverage. I myself opted for private coverage. The private coverage is per individual and not per household like the public plan. For individuals with disposable income, or smaller households, this means that the private insurance is often a better deal than the public insurance. For just my wife and I, private insurance costs just about what the public insurance costs, which is roughly equivalent to what I paid on the US. So far, at first glance, everything seems to more or less match what we get in the US, but here’s where the resemblance ends.

In getting the private coverage, the first step was choosing a plan. I had several offers, and here’s what my German private insurance covers. It covers everything that is an emergency or medically necessary. I can see whatever doctor I want, and they’ll pay for it, if its an emergency. If I want to see a specialist, I first have to get a general care physician to recommend it, otherwise only 80% is covered. I don’t have a primary care physician the way I do in the US, I can see *any* general physician first, and as long as I’m referred, specialists are 100% covered. My deductible is €500 a year, total. I will never pay more than that. If I travel, I’m covered, unless I play to be outside Germany for longer than 30 days, in which case I have to pay a supplemental travel insurance cost. I get vision care, dental care, and regular health care. If I’m hospitalized, I get a per-diem. If I have to stay in a hospital, for any length of time, I’m guaranteed a 1 patient private room. Preventative care is mostly covered (I think roughly 80%, up to the deductible, otherwise I’m covered).

To get the health care, I had to get an exam from a general care physician.  I went onto Google Maps, found a general care physician who was nearby who’s office was open. I walked there, and told the nice lady at the front desk that I needed to get a physical for my insurance. She asked if I had an appointment, and I said no, so she said I might have to wait a while, and to take a seat. After an agonizing wait of… 20 minutes, the doctor was ready to see myself and my wife. He took our heart rate, our blood pressure, etc., listened to our lungs, and then asked us a series of questions about any conditions we have (about 20 or so). When he listened to my lungs, he saw my scars from the car accident, and asked me about them. I explained the accident, he asked if I had any issues since, and then explained that the insurance company would probably have some more questions for us. He signed the form, stamped it, and we paid €50 for the both of us. That was it.

A couple days later, as the doctor had warned us, the insurance company stated that they needed a supplemental examination because of my scar. They sent a form, I walked back over the doctor, explained what happened, and they told me to take a seat. I waited about 10 minutes, and the same doctor called me in. He asked me if I had any blood in my urine or stool, I said no, he stamped the form, and I was on my way. I didn’t pay anything the second time. I sent the form in, and I got an email saying I was insured. That was it.

Since then, I haven’t had to use the doctor for anything yet, but I’ve spoken to several Germans about their experiences using the system. One person I spoke to talked about a business trip to Florida, where he got very sick. He ended up going to the emergency room in the US, waited for several hours, and then they saw him. They took his pulse, heart rate, etc., told him he was just sick, gave him a Tylenol and some anti-biotics. He received a bill directly from the US hospital for $4500 (which is low for an emergency room visit), and he gave it to his insurance company in Germany, and they paid it. Some time after, he got knee surgery here in Germany. He got the surgery, and didn’t pay anything out of pocket, but by mistake, the bill got sent to him instead of the insurance company. The insurance company paid around $2000 for his knee surgery here in Germany. The stories I’ve heard from others are similar. It sucks if you’re in the public health care system, as you have to go relatively noisy hospitals that have lots of people, but they take good care of you, and you don’t have to pay anything. If you have the money, you can upgrade to private doctors, still get the public coverage, and just have a better experience.

As for the mandatory things, with the government telling me what I have to do? Yes, I have to go buy the insurance here, and they’re pretty strict about it. Everyone has to do it, and you can whine and complain all you want, and you don’t have a choice. On the upside, health care is something you largely don’t have to think or worry about, and it will bankrupt you. If you need to see a doctor, you just go see one, and that’s it. You show your information, and you walk out. You don’t pay anything, you don’t really worry about. I haven’t had to see a specialist, but my impression from the doctor so far is that if I did need to see a specialist, as long as you have a credible story, you’ll more or less get a referral within a couple hours from walking into any general care physician. I’ve spent less time and money here, so far, researching plans, getting insurance, paying for it, getting a physical, and getting signed up for both my wife and I than I did even trying to figure out the coverage on my US plan. The total time spent on it so far, around 8 hours, including waiting to be seen the doctor’s office.  If my coverage in the US was only twice as difficult as the German system, it would still be an unrealistic dream.

So when people on the news and in the media talk about the horrors of the European socialist system, they don’t know what they’re talking about. For every cherry picked horror story of someone here not getting covered, I can find 100 examples in the US of even worse. The exceptions here are the norm in the US. Health care in the US was something that consumed hours, days, and weeks, plus many thousands of dollars for coverage that I dreaded using. Actual having health issues would cost thousands more. It consumed the voting public and the media, and was a huge issue with seemingly enormous consequences, and it felt monumental every time I had to make a decision. It’s gone from that, to something with about the weight of trying to choose a phone provider. If I make the worst decision possible, it nonetheless won’t have a huge impact on my life. I can spend a few hours on it to try and optimize my decision for the best outcome, and other than that, I honestly don’t have to think about it anymore. From my first visit to the doctor, within minutes, I trusted the system enough to realize that if I had any sort of emergency, I wouldn’t have to think about it much, and it would be taken care of. Sure, there’s probably some thing that I could get in the US if I pushed hard enough that won’t be covered here, and I could find aggravating. But I don’t care, because that seems like a small price to pay for the peace of mind in knowing that, for most of my day to day health care needs, and any dire emergency, it’s just not something I need to think or worry about anymore.

That’s the health care system that I would hope that the US, supposedly the most capable, strongest, and richest nation in the world be able to build, but is a far cry from it actually got. I still hope that there’s a way that the US can still build that system, but not until it realizes what is possible and what the reality is actually like.