The Distributist’s Guide to Community Service

With the holiday volunteering season well underway, several friends have forwarded me an opinion/comedy clip, from the increasingly popular youtube series: Adam Ruins Everything. The video explains the problem of organizing the typical “canned” food drive. It’s short and certainly worth a view.

There is a lot to say about this. First it’s important to point out that the video does make a lot of valid points.  It is categorically better to give money to food banks rather than cans and there is a problem with people donating unusable goods, spoiled and non-nutritious food to aid organizations.  Also, as a frequent volunteer, I can attest to the fact that people oftentimes underestimate the labor needed to transport and sort donations as well as the sheer volume of food that a bank discards due to spoilage.

But good grief, this video is insufferably smug. I mean, take a look at the still frame that closes out Adam’s argument:


Does this look like two people exploring a better way to serve their community? Of course not. This is a picture of two people who are trying to upstage each other on the scale of social-justice piety. Adam just won and Emily is chewing on the cold gristle of being wrong, a bitter pill indeed.

But this snarky attitude is hardly unique to this video. Increasingly, in the post-John-Stewart era of social commentary, conversations concerning justice are brought forward by people who seem more invested in the rightness of their argument than in encouraging concern for their cause.

But why does a conversation about charity have to be like this? Isn’t everyone trying to help? It’s puzzling, and indeed the problem itself might indicate something deeper about how society conceptualizes virtue and service.

Our modern era is in a transitional period between two overarching ethical systems. On the one hand modern society embraces a broad utilitarianism that reduces good to the delivery of the maximum resources to the maximum number of people. On the other hand, we have a fleeting  commitment to Christian virtue ethics which emphasizes sacrifice and commitment above purely strategic benefits to the individual or society. Although, much of modern culture emphasizes the cohesion between these two belief systems there remains an un-resolvable conflict between the perspectives.

Certainly, it’s not hard to see why the utilitarian perspective is dominant in the modern world. Utilitarianism is comfortable, easy to visualize, and safe. It reduces a complicated questions about obligation to simpler questions about management and strategy. Utilitarianism can easily be integrated into any large corporate or government structure. It fits on a balance sheet and is easy to conceptualize in an economy mostly run from excel sheets.


John Stuart Mill, circa 1870

But at a basic level, I think people still yearn for the older notion of virtue.  We all feel that service to the community is good in a way that transcends its basic economic benefit. We admire people who dedicate  their lives to the poor even if those same individuals might have generated more utility by getting a job at Goldman-Sachs and cutting a million dollar check to charity at the end of a lucrative career. Virtue is not a question of economic effectiveness, rather it is rooted in a central obligation to a cause greater than oneself. But classical virtue is not a concept that can be easily translated into the utilitarian language of John Stuart Mill. Strictly speaking there is no room for concepts like altruism and nobility in a system designed to describe the provision of benefits.

Given this absence, there is a temptation to recast virtue into a new utilitarian framework. Instead of a virtue defined by service and sacrifice, perhaps actions might be deemed virtuous in so far as they result in quantifiable progress towards solving society’s problems. This is how most modern progressives think of virtue and it certainly sounds logical enough. After all, this is an objective measure of the good we are doing for others, so what could possibly go wrong?

Well everything in fact. Not only is the utilitarian concept of virtue deeply at odds with human psychology, from a practical point of view the perspective is a sure fire recipe for despair and exhaustion when it comes to charitable endeavors.

Sure, we volunteered at a food bank this week, but the same people will come in the next week looking no better, so what good has been accomplished? Sure, we donated 200 dollars to poverty relief this month, but is the problem any closer to getting solved? Our own contribution is in the rounding error of the Gates Foundation’s yearly dispensation, so will our own effort even be noticed?

At a time when our perspective on world problems is so acute and our ability to contribute so limited, a virtue derived from the utility is extremely difficult to appreciate.

However, just as the utilitarian perspective diminishes the perceived value of service and charity, it amplifies the perceived significance of activism.  Since noticeable results develop from large macro-cosmic changes, identifying as an “activist” emphasizes the role an individual plays in globally addressing the problem, an outcome with easy to visualize utility. The impact of raising awareness seems large because it emphasizes the completed goal rather than the work done to get there, by contrast personal service and charity are by their very nature local actions. Therefore, an enormous amount of perceived virtue can be gained simply by being right about an important humanitarian issue.


Perception of virtue in a utilitarian system

Of course this is all perception. It’s not clear that a part-time activist has more impact than a regular volunteer. But the attraction of being the person who “sets everyone straight” on the issue rather than the person who does the material labor is obvious. Not only is writing e-mails and tweets easier than waking up early and going to a homeless shelter, being a “Hunger Activist” sounds so much cooler than being a “Regular Food Bank Volunteer”. Therefore we will always have more people demanding “an end to homelessness” than show up on a cold Sunday morning to sort donations.

I think this goes to the heart of the endemic smugness in Adam’s video. It may even be at the heart of the unending pretentiousness regarding organic food, carbon-emissions and other pieties discussed endlessly in progressive media. The person who informs other people about the “right” way to do things is virtuous because he is fighting for the ultimate solution and is therefore better than the people working on the problem in the “wrong” way. When you’re on the right side of history, you really don’t need to bother getting your hands dirty over the details.

Now all of this is not to say that we shouldn’t point out new and better ways to serve our community. Insight and activism are valuable. But dare I say that the lack of a robust service ethic might be hurting our motivation to get out and actually help society? We need to join a community before we begin to steer it, and the most important step towards forming an effective solution is caring enough to show up and work on the problem in the first place.

As statistics can attest, volunteering is down. This is a real problem for contemporary society. Even from a utilitarian point of view, a strong community is necessary to develop citizens willing to pay forward service, charity, and activism. Therefore the old-fashioned focus on dedication and service may ultimately be more effective at generating utility, albeit indirectly.

Perhaps we can take a different perspective to service going forward. Why not focus on participating in at least one local volunteer organization to the extent that one recognizes the names and faces of the people who work there. Be a person who can understand, from experience, the specific problems and challenges of a local organization. This starts with participation in service groups even if we are aware that they have flaws. This is the first step to building the kind of community that will make exponentially more progress towards solving problems. In the meantime let’s get to work. Even if there are problems the participation itself make a difference.


Community means involvement

Does your community meal program not serve fresh organic food? Don’t worry about it. Concerned that the people who visit the foodbank are using it for non-essential supplemental income? That’s not your immediate concern. Are you thinking that you might be better off donating the money rather than judging a high school science fair? Trust me, you probably won’t.

Just show up and volunteer. You are helping more than you might think.


Mining Healthcare Data : A Modern Rumpelstilskin Story

Via Megan McArdle: the New York times and the Washington Post are reporting on recent problems stemming from the Obama Administration’s Healthcare-data project. Apparently data analysts studying health impacts of new programs are not controlling their experimental samples. Whereas ideally the government’s analysis would be the basis for crafting intelligent policy, the New York Time’s description calls into question the robustness of the research being conducted.healthData

“The studies that are regarded as the most reliable randomly assign people or institutions to participate in a program or to go on as usual, and then compare outcomes for the two groups to see if the intervention had an effect.

Instead, the Innovation Center has so far mostly undertaken demonstration projects; about 40 of them are now underway. Those projects test an idea, like a new payment system that might encourage better medical care — with all of a study’s participants, and then rely on mathematical modeling to judge the results.”

The superficial approach described above is odd because it seemingly flies in the face of conventional approaches statistical modeling. For those not familiar, establishing a randomized control is essential to getting results that don’t just confirm the hypothesis is being tested. You can see this problem in the infamous Israeli Air Force Study(a really informative overview of this concept can be found on YouTube), and it’s been a long standing statistical understanding that, when possible, randomized control samples are always preferable.

So why do government analysts feel so confident that they can dispense with what has, until recently, been an essential feature in any statistical experiment? Well because they’ve got great data-mining technology!  Here, the word “mathematical modeling” does a lot of work in obscuring the real methods that the government is using. Mathematical modeling can really mean anything, and ironically the NYT’s link on this description is broken.

Megan McArdle, has a good take on the possible sources of the mistake: sloppy thinking on the part of federal bureaucrats. Says McArdle:

Gold’s article implies that the administration is looking at gross savings — which is to say, it’s just reporting the amount of money saved by the accountable-care organizations that ended up on the positive side of the ledger, even though this is less than half the total. Statisticians have a term for this: the Texas sharpshooter fallacy…..

Perhaps, I may be even more cynical than McArdle, but my take is somewhat different.rumpel

Given that the administration has been unable to produce evidence of healthcare savings from increased coverage, it is fair to say that the president is feeling pressure to come up with some statistical result that will make costs appear more reasonable  (at least ahead of the next CBO estimate). Moreover, without speculating too much as to the overall structure of bureaucratic management, I don’t think it is unlikely that individual analysts are also feeling the pressure to deliver “good” results, especially with all of these cool new “big data” tools so prominently featured in the news.

The result is predictable: a sort of magical thinking arises where data-mining and complex models become panacea for turning poorly conducted statistical tests into predictive models showing large savings from new “innovative” approaches to delivering healthcare. Of course the results are all confirmation bias, but who’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth? Certainly not an administration desperate for good news on the healthcare front.

Now admittedly, I have no inside information, but if this kind of sloppy analysis is indeed going on then it is certainly a cause for concern. The one-sided use of over-optimistic healthcare predictions could lead the CBO to perennial underestimate the cost of supporting programs like Medicare in their current state. This in turn could ultimately doom these program’s long-term solvency (not to mention the long term solvency of the country) since politicians are all too willing to forgo necessary reform in the light of CBO reports that tell them healthcare costs will come down on their own accord.

But ultimately this problem is not political. It stems from a cultural approach to data analysis that is far too prevalent in industry and in government. I like to think of it as a modern day Rupelstilskin story. What do we have? Reams of uncontrolled data. What Do We Want? Optimistic predictive results. With this point of view, it’s tempting to simply lock analysts in a room and ask them to build mathematical models until they finally manage to spin the straw data into golden predictive models like the miller’s daughter from the aforementioned fairy tale.

But just as in the fairytale, when we force someone to spin straw into gold, it shouldn’t be surprising when magical methods play a large role in their process. Moreover, in the case of the government’s own analysis the Rupelstilskin metaphor can be taken yet further. For in trusting their magic numbers, our current leaders may have put the next generation on the line for the results.

Open-Source Software as a Distributist Community

black and white tux

Tux the symbol of Linux

On a 1GB thumb-drive hanging from a chord around my hat rack lies the remnants of an obsession that thoroughly occupied my mind in the years between 2001 and 2004: the cult of open-source software. Though I left the world of Linux almost a decade ago and hardly looked back since, the recent indignities and intrusions orchestrated by private companies trusted with personal data has me looking back towards the idealistic world of Linus Torvalds and Richard Stallman with all the nostalgia of a Charles Foster Kane looking into his shattered snow globe.

For those not familiar. free and open-source software (of which GNU, Linux, and BSD fall under) is a category of computer applications whose distribution and release are completely open to the public without charge or legal requirements. For a moment in the late 90s and early 2000s the world of open-source software (under the banner of Linux) exploded and seemed on the verge of pushing back against the uniformity of Microsoft and other corporate software giants. At this time, enthusiasts (especially those found in my computer-science oriented clique) looked at the open-source world not only as an alternative to Microsoft, but as an idealistic crusade against the constrained nature of closed-source programming. According to the open-source movement,  software development should be returned to the people, users should be the ultimate owners of their devices and software, and anyone should be able to take existing code and modify it for their own ends.

Despite the open-source movement’s more lefty overtone, even my, uber-libertarian adolescent self was drawn to the idealist nature of the movement due the romantic notion that one could, and should, own one’s own software. At this point, the internet was still young, and large software companies were just starting to realize the utility of covertly inserting themselves in between the user and the machines used to connect people with the outside world. To me this seemed like the ultimate violation of the producer/customer relationship. I had paid for my computer ( and even the operating system), so why was Microsoft constantly telling me what I could and couldn’t do with it. It was just like G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that the most fundamental property right is that of a workman to own his own tools. In those days, I believed that I was a craftsman and I didn’t want Microsoft telling how I could hold my hammer.


Crusaders for an open-source community

I think it was this emotion (more than the commonly repeated anti-corporatism) that gave the open-source movement its appeal. By being a user of Linux, one was accepting a dual role, first as a community member and then later as a craftsman or protector. In fact, my experience with the open-source world was very much like the semi-feudal communities described by Chesterton and Belloc. The open-source community had its knights who helped neophytes navigate the task of installing and maintaining software, its craftsmen who forged new open source projects, and its priests who advocated for continued use of open-source software and legally challenged abusive IP laws. The community even had an explicit moral code. Creators were expected to leave their work open (even if they were earning profits from the initial sale of the software) so that future generations could use their ideas to enhance the open source community generally. Conversely users were expected to employ the open source alternative when one existed. At the core of this moral community, just as in Distributism, there was a concept of property. People owned their software, and therefore owned the means by which they expressed themselves digitally. Their role and obligations in the open-source community stemmed from this central premise.

I suppose I don’t need to elaborate on why open-source software was ultimately unsuccessful at taking the computer world by storm. In a word, corporate software was able to fix its problems faster than open-source software was able to address its own. In the early 2000s  Microsoft was largely able to fix its stability issues and cutback on the intrusiveness of it’s software interface (goodbye Clippy). Moreover, new and fast moving innovations in hardware became the order of the day; while the same time, large software suites became essential to functioning in most academic or corporate environments. This spelled doom for the expansion of the open-source community that could never properly address compatibility issues with corporate hardware and software that refused to acknowledge its existence.

I remember finally making the decision to leave the open-source community for Windows after the 30th time I was unable to share my open-source office documents with collaborators who were using the much more popular Microsoft Office suite. The idealism and moral community of the open-source world just wasn’t worth the additional hours spent trying to figure out how to cope with either the Linux/Windows  compatibility issues or the absence of the more popular pieces of modern software. The point of a computer is to save time, at the end of the day, if software is costing you time, it’s really hard to justify its continued use. So, after almost 4 years of trying to incorporate Linux into my life, i de-installed the software, saved the remaining distribution image to an unused thumb drive, and never looked back.

Still, I am not sure that I didn’t sacrifice my ideals for convenience. I continue to believe very firmly that people have the right to own their own software tools and personal data; and (as should be all too obvious from recent events) the continued use of closed software seriously calls digital privacy and person data-ownership into question.  By abandoning open-source software, have I fundamentally conceded that the ideals of data-ownership aren’t worth the loss of convenience? My conundrum was expressed perfectly in an xkcd comic published several years back:

True words.

If people can’t make minor sacrifices of convenience for their ideals, then they really have no right to complain when those ideals are lost to the world. But before we let the open-source purists have their well-earned trip to “I-told-you-so” land, I think a few caveats need to be mentioned.

Fundamentally, I don’t think the open-source community was ever honest about their products. The open-source leaders constantly claimed their software was more convenient and more powerful than the corporate alternatives and suggested that the only reason people continued to use Apple and Microsoft was path-dependence. All of these claims were (and still are) manifestly false to anyone who has ever used both Linux and Windows. Open source applications are much slower, plagued by old bugs rarely seen in their corporate counterparts, and are at least three years behind mainstream software in terms of their user interface. That’s not to say that there are not also open source innovations, but the claim of superiority on the part of the open-source world is laughable

To be honest, the open source community should have admitted their deficiencies and re-emphasized the moral and community case for their product. The desire to assert privacy and ownership over digital data was, in my opinion, the only reason why anyone ever wanted to use open source software in the first place. Emphasizing this reason over others would have allowed the community to come clean about the sacrifices users would need to make in order to use their product.

So, would this have worked? Perhaps, Perhaps not. In order to ask for sacrifices, a community must have a moral claim people consider paramount, or otherwise, be so tightly-knit as to motivate a sacrifice even when a moral-imperative is not clear. I don’t think modern people consider data-ownership to be a paramount value, and I know  the open-source community isn’t tightly-knit enough to lead the public to a new moral truth. People may be willing to arbitrarily fast or forego certain foods because their fellow religious congregants believe God commands it. But asking people to use slow and unsharable software so that developers on the other side of the country feel free from Microsoft? That’s a stretch.


Discipline of conviction

I have often imagined that the true destiny of open-source software is to become essential to an existing moral community much the same way literacy became essential to Medieval monastic communities when society writ-large saw the value of preserving books as not worth the cost. People may not be willing to forego the easy options when they are alone; but when everyone in a church, synagogue, rotary club, or private school begins using open-source software not only does the cost-of-entry go down, the moral benefit of proclaiming yourself in favor of the principle becomes realizable.

Still, this suggestion is a shot in the dark. As much as I like to imagine monks in a scriptorium typing out lines of Linux Kernel or Orthodox Jews being required to use only GNU products, I am not expecting older and more established moral and cultural communities to make open-data a core concept in their ministry anytime soon. So until then, I suppose I’ll be listening to the open-source purists play the saddest open-source song on the world’s tiniest open-source violin. Who knows, perhaps they might find it in their hearts to let an apostate play a lick or two.