Mad, Beautiful Ideas

Twenty years ago today, terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda hijacked four commercial jetliners in US airspace, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, and one into the Pentagon. You know this, though. For over the last week, people have been talking about it a lot.

In my Senior year of High School, I had a teacher tell our class about his experience sitting in class in that same building back in 1963 and having the Principal come over the PA at the school to inform everyone about Kennedy's assassination in Dallas. He said that he had always remembered that day, that moment. That it was burned into his memory, even 38 years later. At the time, I never expected to have such an experience.

Months later, I did.

I remember that morning like no other morning in my life. I was in College in Bozeman, MT. I had an 8am class, and it was one of the rare times I was up early enough for breakfast. I remember walking toward the dining hall on the cool September morning, and saying hello to another resident of my building making his way back. "Someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center," he said. I remember screwing up my face, snorting a bit, finding that possibility incomprehensible.

Sure enough all the TVs in the dining hall were tuned to CNN, and on the screen was the Twin Towers, both with smoke pouring from their center, and it was clear from the news coverage that no one knew what was going on. So I sat, watching a building I'd literally stood upon two months earlier burn, and confused went to class, where we only talked about the news. By the time we were done, the university had canceled all classes for the next few days.

The rest of the next few days isn't so clear. For hours no one knew anything, but the news was absolutely glued to what little we could know. As an 18-year old male who had recently had to send in my Selective Service card, the question and prospect of the Draft was absolutely in the back of mine, and many of my friend's minds.

We had been attacked. We didn't know yet by whom. We didn't know what might be coming next. The possibility of war loomed, people were scared, and our government clearly didn't have any answers.

What I never expected was that almost everything about our national response would prove to be a clear indication that al Qaeda had struck a perfect blow against our National Identity and way of life. They won. And two decades on, they still have.

We expanded our domestic surveillance state with the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and passage of the USA PATRIOT Act. We chose to engage in a costly and ultimately futile war in Afghanistan and another in Iraq, both of which collapsed those nations into a state even less stable than they had been in 2001. We continue to subject ourselves to unnecessary and intrusive security theater from an organization that has stopped precisely zero terrorists or hijackings since it's inception. We sell our police military hardware that they use to subjugate their local populations.

Don't get me wrong, the forces that were active in the US that have led us to the deep dysfunction we are operating in today have been active for more than the twenty years since 9/11. But those attacks accelerated all of the most dangerous trends in our national zeitgeist, and at the time, to so many of us, it seemed reasonable. We'd been attacked. We were scared. We didn't know what else to do.

I have to believe that we can change things. That the world can be made better than we've made it the last two decades. That we can rise above our fear, and undo all of the damage we've inflicted to ourselves, giving al Qaeda far more than they could ever have hoped for. I have to believe that, because the challenges that were laid out in front of us back on September 11, 2001 have only become more dire and more difficult, and our actions have only created new problems.

I have to believe it can be better, but I can not deny the magnitude of the challenge ahead.

As a person who has recently begun the process of moving to New Hampshire, I was incredibly excited to see that the House has recently had introduced a bill to allow for the hobby distillation of liquor, a hobby that I have recently become very interested in taking on. Hobby Brewing and Winemaking have been legal in New Hampshire for years (1998 for Beer, 2013 for Wine). There is no time like now to restore to New Hampshire residents a right that has been enjoyed by Americans for the first century and a half of our history, and also stand to reap the economic benefits of the Hobbyist to Professional pipeline.

For instance, in 1998, New Hampshire had 8 Active licensees for Beverage Manufacturing from the Liquor Commission according to the State License Verification search. By 2021, that number is 55. While not all of those are local hobbyists who chose to go pro, the path from Hobbyist to Craft Brewer is well documented in the beer world. Some Craft Distillers are being open about their illicit hobbyist pasts. It stands to reason that at least some of the 17 Licensed Distillers active today in New Hampshire also learned their craft as hobbyists in technical violation of State law. Isn't it better for New Hampshire to provide potential entrepreneurs to freedom to learn a craft that may lead to a new business, more employment, and increased tax revenue for the state?

Distillation is also a distinctly American Craft. George Washington was known to have been operating a Distillery producing nearly 11,000 gallons of Whiskey in 1799. Buffalo Trace's current Distillery has been in continuous operation in Kentucky for over two centuries. The Backwoods Moonshiners made notorious during Prohibition were people simply continuing the traditions of their communities since Distillation was introduced to this Continent by the settlers, caught by the winds of social change that did not last, but who's impacts have continued to criminalize activities that Americans had engaged in for hundreds of years.

There are, of course, common arguments against legalizing this hobby.

There remains the fact that hobby distillation remains illegal Federally. However, efforts have been starting since 2015 to legalize this at the federal level, which has had strong bipartisan support, and that support is likely to continue to grow. Plus, the growing legalization of Cannabis driven by the States nationwide has not only shown that the States can lead on these issues, and the House is currently considering de-scheduling Cannabis federally.

Many will point to risks and dangers of the hobby, such as the risk of fire from alcohol fumes or the risk of permanent physical damage from the methanol produced. I do not seek to minimize the existence of these risks, but they are easily mitigated, and if clubs and hobbyists can freely share their information without fear of reprisals from the State, than it becomes far more likely that people looking to start the hobby will be taught what they need to know to avoid these risks. We already allow so many hobbies to exist that carry significant risks. A woodworking lathe operating normally is far more dangerous than a properly functioning still, yet no reasonable person would suggest that woodworking hobbyists should be legally prevented from pursuing their hobby.

Finally, some will suggest that home distillation could undermine the growing Craft Distillation industry in New Hampshire. While I have already spoken to the Hobbyist to Professional pipeline previously, and also how New Hampshire has seen significant growth in Breweries in the decades since legalizing Home Brewing, there are other figures that are worth considering to this point.

New Zealand is one of the only Western nations that has legalized Home Distillation on a broad scale. As a result, it's cultural similarity to the US makes it a reasonable comparison for considering how this may impact the growth of the Liquor industry in the US. Per numbers from the World Health Organization's data book on Annual Revenues from Alcohol Excise Tax for both the US and New Zealand, and cross referencing it with the Population Numbers from the WHO from those same years, we can see the following data:

New Zealand United States
Year Excise Tax (Total) Population Tax per Capita Excise Tax (Total) Population Tax per Capita
1994 $378.3M 3,623,279 $125.29 $7,000M 259,523,192 $26.97
2011 $553.6M 4,418,678 $104.41 $9,200M 311,584,047 $29.53

So in the time since New Zealand legalized home distillation, it's seen it's tax revenues per resident increase by nearly 20%, while the US has only seen about a ~10% increase. Hobbyists love whatever it is they are crafting. In the Craft Beer space we've seen that Hobbyists tend to buy more, and more expensive, Beers, as they explore the hobby. It stands to reason that we would see the same pattern with Home Distillers. Just as with Home Brewing, it stands to reason that Home Distillation is not something that people will engage in expecting it to save money, but because they want to explore the world of liquor.

I sincerely hope that New Hampshire will choose to lead the United States on this issue, and that my legislators will co-sponsor this bill and bring a hobby already enjoyed by a great many Americans out of the dark.

I profited on the Coronavirus Pandemic today.

That wasn't my intent at the outset, but it was what happened as I decided to sell a low-cap stock I picked up months ago that was surging on the back of the COVID-19 Pandemic. I strongly suspect the stock still had plenty of room to keep growing, and certainly when I bought in, I intended to hold the stock for the long term. However, the more I learned about the fundamentals of the company in question, the less good I felt about owning even a relatively small stake in their success.

The company in question? Waitr Holdings.

They are a local restaurant food deliver service, in the same space as UberEats or DoorDash. The seem to differ primarily through a focus on smaller markets than either of their over-capitalized competitors, and I decided to invest early this year as a customer of the company who felt, from what I'd seen, that they were partnering with local restaurants in many markets around the country, and I'd been using the service rarely, but consistently for several years. I felt that their low stock price was more a signal of a bad investor pumping and dumping them into the IPO, and as a publicly traded company they were being held to different standards than their tightly-held competitors.

That was all true, but as I started learning more about the fundamentals of Waitr's relationship with the restaurants, I found myself not wanting to be a shareholder. I'm not even sure I'll continue to be a customer.

Ranjan Roy recently published a post about DoorDash, and how they were bringing delivery to a pizzaria that had never contracted with DoorDash, and in doing, were causing customers to be upset due to poor service, that this restaurant wasn't even offering. He goes on to discuss the incredible quantity of money that DoorDash loses every quarter, as they scramble to reach scale.

This article was the thing that pushed me over the edge. I knew Waitr was losing money, though I had believed they had a way to profitability. I also firmly believe that Waitr has not, and under current leadership, will not, engage in the kind of "trial run" shenanigans that DoorDash was engaged in, but the reminder of how fundamental the problems in this space were was enough to spur me to action.

However, I'd already decided to sell, even before the article, because it was becoming increasingly clear that Waitr's path to profitability was not built on partnership with the Restaurants they work with, but rather via a parasitic relationship that, long term, was only going to harm the restaurants.

In January, Waitr issued their second round of fee increases on restaurants within 6 months. Barely enough time for owners to adjust to the previous terms.

What were these new terms? 30% of the gross of every transaction run through the restaurant. Plus $0.30 + 3.01% of each transaction in credit card handling fees. They've gotten a lot of flak over the credit card handling, but those rates are similar (though slightly higher) than what Square, a company that specializes in payments, takes for e-commerce, though it is probably quite a bit higher than what most restaurants pay for their own in-store fees. Credit Card processing on the Internet is riskier (more fraud), so the processors charge more.

But that 30%? That's a truly bad number. If that's the number Waitr needs for profitability, they don't deserve to exist. The average Restaurant in the US only has a profit margin of 3-5%. Most retail operations sit closer to 12-15% on average. Almost every restaurant is basically constantly on the edge. And that's with us subsidizing their employees wages.

I suspect there are people out there trying to build Food Delivery businesses built on flat fees, which would be more fair to Restaurants. However, with Restaurants frequently raising their in-app prices in an effort to break even, and consumers increasingly catching on to this practice, I no longer think that the industry has legs at all. Not to mention that without dedicated delivery infrastructure, most restaurants just aren't set up to deliver on quality the food they ultimately deliver.

It also ruins the dining experience of many restaurants. These restaurants often have to set aside parts of their dining areas for delivery drivers to loiter while they wait for food to be packaged. This costs them tables in those spaces, but the loitering drivers also tie up waitstaff or the host station, making the dining in experience less valuable and desirable.

If you care about restaurants, order from them directly. These delivery services aren't getting these restaurants more exposure. They're leeching off the restaurant's already thin margins, and this will only end with fewer restaurants.

There has been a lot of buzz about the idea of Tuition-Free Public Universities this year, as this idea has worked it's way into what is almost certainly going to be the DNC platform for the election in 2020. I get that. While I have been fortunate enough to have had a job good enough to pay off all of my own, but also my wife's student loans by my early 30s, a lot of people are drowning in debt, and either un- or under-employed.

I am incredibly glad that this discussion appears to be focused on Public Universities, as that at least suggests that if this comes to pass, it won't just be a way to enrich low-performing private colleges (or Real Estate funds masquerading as colleges), at the expense of students.

I think that approaching the problem of rising costs of a university education by moving Tuition onto the tax payer is premature, because we have problems in our Education system nationally that such a program is likely to make much worse, and in so doing, make many of our biggest national challenges, even harder.

To begin, I'd like to take a look at one of the nations with free college that people often point to as an example in these discussions: Germany. The German model does work reasonably well in Germany, that is true, though there have been concerns that the system is unsustainable for years. In fact, several German states attempted to institute nominal tuition fees in the early oughts, though they had to roll that back due to massive push-back. Which is simply to say that Germany's system has some scaling issues that they haven't worked out yet, and we need to be aware of that.

While Germany is a much smaller nation than ours, we have a higher GDP per Capita, which does mean that, assuming we can build a taxation structure that stops 500 people from 'earning' $1,200,000,000,000 in a single year we could theoretically make such a thing feasible.

So why do I oppose this? I believe that any system of free tuition will make income inequality, particularly as it applies to students of color, worse. If we don't address the inherent inequities in our primary and secondary schooling systems, we stand to do more harm than good.

Our Public Schools are principally funded by property taxes. Black Neighborhoods tend to have lower property values, even after you control for basically everything (home's are comparable, neighborhoods have same amenities, crime rates, etc). On average nationally, this amounts to around $48,000 less in value per home. Because generally speaking, White People don't want to live in "Black" neighborhoods. Even relatively affluent, middle class black neighborhoods.

As a result of this, even when you compare relatively poor neighborhoods, which have frequently self-selected for race (or been helped along by red-lining), poor white schools have, on average, $1,500 more per student than poor black schools. For non-poor (but still segregated due to neighborhood dynamics) schools, that figure nears $2,000 per student. More funding translates to better resources, smaller class sizes; all things that lead to better educational outcomes.

Failure to address this basic inequity means that Black students remain at a disadvantage when entering Universities because their primary and secondary education likely wasn't as good. Pair this with the likely outcome that already over stressed public universities will need to raise their admissions standards.

There are a lot of factors that play into the rise of tuition costs. Certainly, ready availability of loans is part of it. One piece that I don't think gets enough attention is the increase in student populations, which all require extra resources above what state funding levels (which have been steadily decreasing) provide. In the 1970s, only about 47% of the population went to college. Today, that number is well over 80%. This is also down from a peak of over 90% in 2011.

Since the 1970s, the US Population has also increased by ~100 Million people, putting the number of people who's attended tertiary education from ~94 Million, to 240 Million. According to Washington State University's Institutional Research figures, even as overall student participation rates have been dropping nationwide, WSU has seen a roughly 15% increase in it's enrollment numbers, while tuition rates have dropped about 8% for in-state students, and risen 2% for out-of-state students (I also have no idea how primarily state-funded schools are intended to navigate this free-tuition mandate with regard to in-state versus out-of-state students, but I don't think anyone else does either). It's also worth noting that, on a longer time scale, WSU's population since 2001 (when I entered college), has increased 37%, while it's in-state tuition rates have increased by ~270%.

Free tuition, by removing a primary as a means to control the cost of growth, will likely lead to higher enrollment standards, which will only serve to increase the gap that poor people already struggle to overcome, but which impacts people of color in the US even more than it does Whites. Until we are more equitable in our primary and secondary education, our tertiary education systems will only serve to widen an already too wide gap. The tools we use to gauge students are already demonstrated to be gameable and disadvantageous to poor or non-white students; this will only get worse as minimum entry standards rise.

A university education is too expensive. This is unquestionable. This comes from many factors, from increased demand due to larger student populations (and the idea that without a college degree, you can't succeed that is pushed hard on high school students), to inefficiencies in administration, to reduction in state-level support in many places. Efforts to increase student access to a college education has instead largely increased the debt load for students who aren't seeing the increased opportunity that was implied when they were encouraged to take on that debt. More open access to loans has contributed to higher costs, though I do tend to think that results more of a factor of increased utilization than institutional greed, outside of the for-profit colleges.

Returning for a moment to Germany, it's worth noting that many students in that country choose (or are pushed toward) secondary schools when they enter the fifth grade that indicate whether or not they are expected to be on path toward university. While German students have, since the 1970s, been migrating from the more general Hauptschulen to the more advanced Realschulen, over half of the students in Germany tended to attend the Hauptschulen for a minimal general education, with barely over 10% of students in the university-bound Gymnasien by 2000. In the decades since, the university population has continued to grow, but it still looks likely that the percentage of German students that end up in Universities is less than 20% of the population. Compare this to the roughly 70% of American High School graduates who were enrolled in college in 2018.

I can't speak to the quality of German Hauptschulen or Realschulen compared to US High Schools. However, the idea that American's would accept that we were going to offer free tuition to all, but were going to cap enrollments to 20% of the High School Graduate population instead of the 70% we have today, is laughable. And it runs counter to what many people would expect, though it's the reality of the system people most frequently point to when discussing this issue.

Prioritizing education is critical to the future of our nation. However we have to shore up the base of our system. Make it more evenly distributed. Ensure that the opportunities we provide are more based on merit and ability than the confounding factors of the circumstances of birth and generational wealth. We can't solve our education problems from the top down, we need to start from the bottom up to ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities, to control for race and other factors, we stand to more deeply entrench our problems.

I want to call out a great thread from Michael Harriot about America's history of White Supremacy that is absolutely worth a read. While I'd been skeptical of free tuition for many of the reasons I'd written in this post prior to Michael's thread, he called out several resources, particular about the racial gap in American schools that I believe improved my arguments, and captured that those funding differences are more stark than I'd thought.

I was reminded recently of the controversy with Vampire: The Masquerade's fifth edition released last year, between the early drafts referencing Neo-Nazis when discussing Clan Brujah, or even bigger, the use of the Gay Purges in Chechnya as a plot point for Camarilla activity in the country.

This reminder was in the form of the recent reading I've been doing of Over The Edge, a role-playing game set in an alternate history where magic, psychic powers, and other weird phenomena exist, but aren't widely known. Like Vampire, the history of this world is long and that requires the reframing of certain events in ways that are likely to offend some. For Over The Edge, this passage stood out to me immediately:

In the meantime, the Pharaohs had arranged the discovery and colonization of the New World, seeing to it that religious misfits, debtors, and desperate adventurers came to populate the northern continent. The Pharaohs arranged the slaughter of the natives so as to have a land without history where they would have maximum power to experiment. (The scheme to mix New and Old World cultures in South America failed miserably.) &mdash Over The Edge (2nd Edition), Johnathan Tweet, 1997

I haven't fully read the 2019 Third Edition of Over the Edge, but a quick skim does suggest that the above hasn't really been retconned, but definitely doesn't get the attention it got in the Second Edition.

Now, OTE Second Edition was released in 1997, and the atrocities that it reframes were mostly centuries old (though obviously there are far more recent issues with the treatment on indigenous peoples in the Americas deep into the 20th Century with lesser evils continuing to this day), so perhaps this never generated so much attention because of where we were culturally, or due to the distance from the events being portrayed.

However, there are other historical events from Vampire that are widely reframed. The Spanish Inquisition is framed as a mass revolt of Humanity, using the power of the Church, against Vampires. All the various parts of the World of Darkness were part of World War II, though the text is quick to point out that those events were initiated from purely human causes, thus demonstrating some degree of sensitivity to too aggressively re-purposing historical atrocities within the context of the story.

Finally, I am reminded of the NBC TV Show Grimm, which revealed in the very first Season that Hitler himself was Wesen (a type of human with a animalistic nature that most humans are unable to perceive).

Screengrabs from NBC's Grimm of Nazi Leader Adolf Hitler in Human and
                 monstrous Wesen forms.

By Season 5, Grimm goes so far as to literally describe Hitler as trying to create a world ruled by Wesen, something which paints a weird view of the world, particularly given it's also dabbling in a shadow government of "Royal Families" which regularly works in both the Human and Wesen world.

Grimm's decision here is particularly interesting, because the writers, both by not having a lot of time (due to TV narrative constraints), but also potentially due to not really wanting to, end up leaving large enough questions about the implications of some of these decisions. Why did Wesen Hitler target Jews? Who knows, it's never discussed. Trying to justify it would absolutely be risky. Not mentioning it at all, doesn't feel like a better answer.

These issues aren't unique to the stories set in our own world with a few things changed. All fiction, in order to be accessible to the reader and to have a sense of familiarity, needs to borrow from our shared culture, causing all fiction to be viewable through a historic lens.

Which is important. Fiction allows us to investigate the past, to develop empathy by examining other people's experiences and emotions through their stories. Role-playing takes that a step further by encouraging us to embody these characters, and games like Vampire or Monsterhearts, which force us as players to deal with the tension between monstrosity and humanity...can lead for some deeply compelling stories.

I suspect the fallout that the Vampire developers received came from a few sources. First, the atrocities published in the book were (and I think still are) ongoing. Second, Vampire has long drawn a larger proportion of Queer players than much of the hobby (particularly when considering how the hobby was when Vampire first published in 1991). These two factors likely simply led this to feel like a more direct attack on that community from a product well loved by much of the community. The fact that the story element seemed to suggest that Humans weren't behind this very real atrocity, particularly when the authors have emphatically insisted certain other atrocities weren't perpetrated primarily by the monstrous forces of the World of Darkness.

I understand White Wolf's decision to remove the references in the Camarilla book to the Chechen Anti-Gay Purges. It was the correct decision. Certainly in light of the backlash, but also because the inclusion of the detail was a mistake. Not only because it is so fresh, but because it did push an evil humanity was committing against itself onto the monsters of that world. Vampire may be a game about Monsters, but it's mostly a game about Humans struggling with the monster inside them. While for the Vampires that monster may be very real, some people's monsters are more figurative, and games like Vampire need to be careful to not imply that all human evil is derived from a supernatural source.

And I think, when it comes to alternate histories, that's the key thing. To never forget the awful things people do to each other, or excuse them away by implying that the people who do these things are something other than human.

They may be flawed. They may lack empathy. They may do monstrous things, but they are, at the end of the day, still Human.