Rules and Standards need Umpires

Houston   Sometimes we find surprising light in dark corners.  At least, that’s how I felt reading a kind of weird conversation between two, seemingly random, people as an op-ed in the New York Times.  It turned out this was a kind of bizarre experiment of sorts from one of their opinion writers, Charlie Warzel, and a member of their editorial board, Sarah Jeong.  Ostensibly, the piece was about the fact that YouTube, in announcing that they were bouncing various videos off of their wildly popular site, owned by Google, was spectacularly unqualified to act as both judge and jury on such matters.

Who could argue?  The interesting part was a remarkably clear explication by Jeong of what she called a classic lesson from law school about the difficulty in determining rules versus standards.  She embarked on this riff noting that the YouTube problem with consistency and response about its new policies was the fact that they were obviously written by lawyers.  Here’s her explication:

Most laws are a mix of rules and standards. Rules are rigid, and the most rigid are referred to as “bright line” rules because they’re so straightforward to interpret: If you steal a loaf of bread, your hand gets chopped off. A standard is more flexible. There are multistep tests and the weighing of various factors. First Amendment law, for instance, has a lot of standards in it. The problem with the bright-line rules is that they often lead to injustice because they’re not flexible enough. On the face of it, it seems like standards should be better, right? But standards are harder to enforce, so you’re more likely to get delays in the courts and inconsistency in decisions. So, the vaguer and more flexible a law is, the more it takes into account the totality of the circumstances, the more it’s actually likely to lead to injustice. Additionally, standards become harder to predict, so there’s a social uncertainty about what’s acceptable and what’s not. There’s a reason the most-watched Supreme Court cases involve standards.

This explanation of “legal theory,” as she called it, was interesting because we had been to a baseball game the Houston Astros, the closest Major League team we could see as our “home” team, and the Baltimore Orioles.  There’s hardly a better example of a rules-and-laws bound environment than baseball.  It works though because it is not only transparent, which something like YouTube is not, because everyone can see the play, but it also has a way to handle the fact that like social media, everyone has an opinion.  What makes it work is not simply the fact that players and coaches participating in the game have been schooled on the rules forever, but the fact that there are umpires.  Like them or not, they are the unquestioned guardians of the sport, and they make immediate decisions, and there is no question that their decisions will prevail, even if questioned later.

There is almost universal agreement that something like YouTube has to be regulated, but sport officiating might be a model worth examining in light of all of this.  There would need to be referees or umpires whose decisions were respected and followed, even if there a review or appeal process.  They would have to be independent and the “rules,” would have to be transparent and well-known to all participants.  The op-ed folks worry about YouTube being  compromised by its “influencers,” but they are still lesser stars in the firmament than sports figures making gazillions, who may get a break from time to time, but no, despite their whining like James Harden and Chris Paul, in a recent series, they still know they have to follow the rules and live by them, if they are going to play ball.

Think about it.  The models available from the sports world might work a lot better than the mess we live with that comes from law schools.

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Where Will People Fit in a Google Designed City?

Sidewalk Labs

Toronto   In Toronto, the Prime Minister, Ontario and Toronto officials, and of course representatives from Alphabet, the parent company of Google, all were back slapping and hand clapping each other about Google’s subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, winning bid to develop an 800-acre tract of land along the waterfront as a rare opportunity to put their ideas in place in building the so-called “city of the future.” How exciting, but is this really good news? Will this really even fit their old standard of accountability, “don’t be evil?”

Not surprisingly, most of their winning proposal was based on deep-pockets and high-tech visionary speak. As described by New York Times’ columnist, Emily Badger,

The Sidewalk Labs proposal in the competitive bid for the project floated all kinds of technological dreams: a thermal energy grid that would be carbon neutral, sensors that separate waste from recycling, modular buildings that convert from retail to housing, monitors that track noise and pollution, self-driving transit shuttles, shared-ride taxibots, adaptive traffic lights, delivery robots, heated bike paths and sidewalks that melt snow on their own.

To some people all of that sounds interesting and bells-and-whistles innovative, but I have to wonder where people are in this plan, and that’s a little scary.

They claim they are going to make 20% of the housing units in the development affordable, but when they spoke of affordability, they did not talk about income or the percentage of rent paid to family income, but instead, typical of technologists, claimed that they had some tricks up their sleeves to make the construction cheaper. Wow! Do they have a lot of learn about what constitutes affordable housing in a city of tenants, like Toronto, and a city undergoing huge gentrification pressure and escalating rent-to-income levels in neighborhood after neighborhood.

An old 2006 Statistics Canada study found that 40% of Canadians pay more than 30% for rent. Polls in recent years indicate that Canadians “spend 43 per cent of each dollar of household income on housing-related costs, which include mortgage and rent, as well as paying for utilities.” Globally, that’s the 3rd highest percentage in the world, and in Toronto it’s even worse than the average. There’s a waiting list of over 180,000 for social housing. There are 94,000 in social housing, and another 70,000 roughly in housing subsidized to the 30% standard on rent-to-income. A 2015 study by TD Economics found that clearly half of Toronto’s population is paying an average 50% of their income to landlords and that it is creating a “class divide” in the city, undermining Canada’s reputation for a commitment to equality.

Furthermore, what are the definitions of “affordable housing” going to be for this high-tech urban experimental lab? If it were to be defined based on 20% of the housing being a percentage of market-rate rent, then London has already proven that that formula is gentrification and push-out on steroids. Unless the percentage of affordable units is pushed up and affordability is based on income, this won’t be the city-of-the-future, but more of the same with a higher electric bill to run all of their gadgets and geehaws.

Sidewalk Labs claims it is going to do a lot of consultation. We’ve heard that before, but if it is real at all, they need to have a better answer than we can find in their proposal for how real people can fit into their tech dreams.

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