Away

I’m visiting family, and I’ve neglected to prepare a post for today. I am part way through A Taste of Gold and Iron, by Alexandra Rowland, and I’ll probably post about that soon. It’s fun. Court intrigue, gay romance, fun.

I hope that you’re doing well and staying safe and warm. Happy holidays.

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Externalities, Perverse Incentives, For-Profit Prisons

I realize, on reflection, that this feels a little John Oliver-y.

It’s something I’ve thought about for a long while. It’s also related to a creative project I’m working on with a friend. Maybe I’ll have more on that here later.

For now, let’s start very zoomed out. Let’s cover some basic questions and concepts before we dive deeper.

Why have a market? What does market competition create that wouldn’t exist if the state provided the service / produced the good instead, without market competition?

Markets—in their idealized and only sometimes achieved form—maximize the efficient production of value within the constraints imposed on them. They reward those companies able to do more, and especially those which do more while spending less. In an ideal market, a company succeeds—winning customers (and thus market-share and greater income) from other companies—by making a better product or service, or offering comparable quality more efficiently than their competitors. Thus, ultimately, success is about maximizing income and minimizing cost.

But companies are only incentivized to minimize the costs they can’t ignore.

This means that, barring external enforcement, no competitor in a market is likely to minimize any cost that can be dismissed as an “externality,” an ignorable cost. For example, prior to the existence of government regulation of pollution, that pollution was an externality (and some pollution still is). So long as there weren’t costs associated with producing toxic ash and soot, few companies bothered to minimize their production of those things.

Those pollutants harmed people working at those companies. They harmed people living nearby, and even people far away. They have poisoned water supplies, killed wildlife, increased the prevalence of disease in humans (and likely caused human deaths). But so long as companies bore no associated costs for these outcomes, they were externalities. Those associated costs didn’t directly harm a company’s profit margin.

This is a pattern. Read about the Tragedy of the Commons, if you want to know more about similar dynamics.

Sometimes those externalities are a direct result of something which produces value for the company. The Cosmos episode “The Clean Room” discusses that to some extent, covering the topic through the history of leaded gasoline.

But sometimes those externalities actually produce additional value for the company, down the line. When this is the case, the company—possibly every company in a given market—is incentivized to create a cost that others must bear because this cost will eventually result in additional value for the company. If this abstraction isn’t clear enough yet, let’s talk about for-profit prisons.

For-profit prisons are paid to house inmates. Generally, they’re paid by the government.

The arguments in favor of for-profit prisons largely revolve around the idea that a for-profit institution will compete in a market, and thereby be incentivized to perform a service more efficiently—i.e. at lower cost to the government & taxpayer—than a non-profit or state-run institution will. For-profit prisons, after all, are strongly incentivized to cut costs wherever and however they can. The benefit of this cost-cutting, the reasoning goes, will be passed on to the taxpayer. Taxpayers will thus pay less for the incarceration of convicts than they would otherwise.

There is a related argument made in favor of for-profit prisons combining this idea of free market efficiency with two other ideas. First, (because of the aforementioned efficiencies, as well as for other reasons) that the free market should provide all goods and services, and second that the government should not compete with companies in the free market. That argument is more ideologically based. It also requires significantly more discussion of how one defines the term “free market.” Thus I’m not going to focus on it at the moment. Right now, I’m just going to talk about incentives and externalities.

For-profit prisons, then, would focus entirely on the service they provide: incarceration. The lives of their inmates after those inmates leave prison would be externalities.

Setting aside those externalities for the moment…

For-profit prisons, like other companies, are incentivized to find additional sources of income available to their business. With prisons, that income could come from the labor of their prisoners, or from charging prisoners for services and goods (phone calls, stationery and writing supplies, stamps, better food, etc.). It could also come from increasing the number of inmates they house. And if they wanted a more reliable level of income (as most companies do), they would be incentivized to ensure that there’s a steady supply of new inmates.

But how could that be done?

In a world where lobbying exists, for-profit prisons are strongly incentivized to pressure lawmakers on multiple fronts. They profit when lawmakers expand the powers of the police and those police secure more convictions. They profit when more behavior is criminalized. They profit when prison sentences are longer. They profit when more people in the criminal-justice system are more likely to be housed in prison. 

In short, for-profit prisons benefit when the criminal-justice system treats people harshly.

Let’s bring those externalities, the lives of ex-convicts after leaving prison, back into focus.

For-profit prisons have no incentive to reduce recidivism. They have every reason to want inmates to be returned to prison after they finish their sentence.

When an inmate leaves prison at the end of their sentence, the for-profit prison stops being paid by the government for housing them. The for-profit prison cannot earn money from the ex-convict’s labor, and cannot charge the ex-convict for goods and services. An inmate who leaves the system is lost income. If that inmate eventually returns to prison, that’s more income.

So an inmate’s life-after-prison might not actually be an externality. It might be a resource. Recidivism is good for for-profit prisons. Rehabilitation is bad.

I’ll spell it out. If a for-profit prison did a good job of helping inmates avoid future problems, helped them to find steady jobs and stable housing and healthy social connections, helped them to avoid being charged for another crime after they leave prison—in short, helped convicts rejoin society at large—that would hurt the for-profit prison’s bottom line. In fact, the harder it is for ex-inmates to readjust to society outside of prison—the harder it is for them to avoid being sent back to prison—the better it is for for-profit prisons.

For for-profit prisons, people who are re-incarcerated create additional profit. They’re repeat customers. At best, with these incentives, an intelligently run for-profit prison would be entirely neutral about whether their current inmates successfully reenter society after leaving. Anything less than the most ethical for-profit prison might be reluctant to help ex-convicts rejoin society.

I don’t know about you, but those incentives seem pretty perverse to me. 

People in prison are at the mercy of the prison. For-profit prisons may not be omniscient or omnipotent, but they have incredible influence over the lives of their prisoners. And as things stand they have very little reason to make those prisoners’ lives better, or to help those prisoners succeed after they leave.

With the current system, there is every reason for a for-profit prison to house prisoners as efficiently as possible, sell their labor, and charge them for basic goods and services. There is every reason for that same company to create environments that harm convicts’ ability to remain connected with the outside world, or to improve their chances of leading successful lives and remaining unincarcerated after leaving prison. There is every reason for those companies to lobby in favor of making life after prison as difficult as possible—because anyone who is re-incarcerated is just more income.

This means that the government is paying money to companies that benefit from having more people behind bars, and benefit from having those people re-incarcerated after they eventually leave. We’re achieving efficient imprisonment at the cost of incentivizing the incarceration of more people. It’s bad.

See, markets don’t automatically produce the best possible outcome. They encourage companies to efficiently deliver a product within the constraints of the system. They encourage companies to expand their market… and in this case, that means increasing the number of people in prison.

I’ve had to trim back a number of side arguments. I’m not responding to all the possible disagreements I can see with what I’ve written here. Not yet. But fundamentally, I think we have too readily asked “how can we do this through the market?” and failed to ask “should we do this through the market in the first place?”

I can imagine some theoretical way to structure a for-profit prison industry that isn’t incentivized to trap people in a cycle of incarceration, but improving outcomes here would be a whole lot easier if we took the profit-motive out of the equation instead.

Anyway.

You have, to some extent, comics to blame for this brain worm. Maybe I’ll have more on that front for you later.

Back to LARP writing

I’m writing LARP material again!

It’s been a while. I’ve sat on an idea of mine for a little over a year, and I’m finally having the excited conversations with other LARP friends that keep pushing me to develop it. It’s a good feeling.

I’ve also been writing material for a different LARP that my friends are running. This means taking limited information about national histories, and group goals, and maybe a sentence or two about group flavor, and turning that into 400-500 words of group background with coherent flavor. It’s a rewarding exercise, something I haven’t done recently but have plenty of experience with. Plus, it’s wonderful being able to just produce creative work and share it with people immediately.

I’ve stopped doing that here, for a number of reasons, and I regret that sometimes. Maybe I’ll change that again in the future.

As for the fun LARP ideas I’ve been having, they’re tied to a combination of old story ideas I’ve mused over for about five years and a set of scene ideas that have inspired me in the past two years at Wayfinder. The basic concept: PC groups of treasure hunters and historians return to the ancient places of their ancestors in the Shunned Lands to recover lost relics, and in the process discover both why their old stories refer to a prior golden age and why that golden age ended in catastrophe. The rest of the game is all about facing the consequences of releasing the disastrous remnants of that ancient history.

My excited conversations have mostly been about puzzling through how to produce specific scenes, and what we’d need to make them work. It feels really good, engaging with my WFE friends like this outside of the camp season. That collaborative problem solving and supportive creativity is something I always miss during the rest of the year, when I spend most of my time staring at words and trying to cudgel them into some more effective shape.

Perhaps I’ll be able to work more of that into my other writing routines, and carry that excitement forward.

News, LARP writing, Pomodoro

One of my writing group friends suggested I try writing in 30 minute sprints, with a little (also pre-measured) time off between sprints for breaks, other work, other projects. It’s a minimally different variation on the Pomodoro technique. I’m surprised I hadn’t learned this work method before.

I was hesitant to take their suggestion. I usually struggle to fall into the zone that I find so helpful for writing. Writing without being in the zone feels like pulling teeth, getting into the zone takes a while, and… round and round the problem goes. But I’ve been pretty desperate to get more writing done, so I tried it.

It’s fucking phenomenal. I don’t know why it’s working for me right now. And I’m not going to look a gift writing-hack in the mouth.

The other important piece of implementing this for myself has been stricter limits on what I can and can’t do before I start writing in the morning. Listening to music is good, physical movement is good, but reading anything is dangerous, and watching a video is right out (doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s news, documentary, someone’s Let’s Play, or what). I could probably find something that would be okay for me to watch (maybe a sped up painting process for a fantasy landscape), but that would require me to navigate past lots of other enticing videos which would drag my eyes in.

Safer not to risk it. More productive not to risk it.

This is a little awkward, since it means I can’t safely read news before writing. Not even the tech news I use to doublecheck my various sci-fi projects. I also have to avoid responding to any notifications on my phone, which pile up quickly. In fact, this makes it difficult to use my phone at all, even though it’s currently my alarm clock, morning music source, and timer for this approach.

But the upside to this improved morning mental hygiene is that when I set that 30 minute timer I make significantly more progress.

A little context.

I used to regularly produce 2k words a day, mostly without a struggle. Being in that rhythm felt a lot like any other fitness regimen: it hurt to get up to speed, and every so often one of those days would be a total drag. But when I was regularly writing 2k a day, it felt… familiar. Not necessarily comfortable, but certainly not onerous. And at the end of producing that 2k, I felt good. Energized.

Writing with this timer system, with better morning mental hygiene, feels like that. I’m reaching rates close to my 2k a day. It feels great. And when the timer goes off, I can do something else that’s been weighing on my mind before I go back to writing… because I’m free of the need to be writing. I’m not constantly should-ing myself, scolding myself for insufficient focus or insufficient productivity.

I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve found so far. This external practice frees up my internal judgements. When the timer is on I know it’s time to go. When the timer is off I know it’s okay that I’m not going. That state of being okay with not writing is incredible for my state of mind.

I’ve felt able to let go and make more new stuff that isn’t connected to anything else (yet). That isn’t helpful to my pre-existing projects, but it feels good, like I’m clearing out old pipes that had rusted nearly shut with arterial blockage. Setting aside time like this lets me turn off the voice that’s constantly worrying about what I should be doing right now, what I should be doing next, and just make stuff.

I guess what I’m trying to say is… I’m really appreciating this. I don’t know to what degree this is better brain weather, or better mental hygiene, or a useful way to guide my brain in the right direction. I don’t especially care. I’ll probably try tweaking the lengths of work sprints and breaks, but I’m definitely keeping this.

It’s even helped me feel so much less stuck that I’ve felt free to help friends with material for their LARP. I’m putting together group backgrounds based on a few objectives and a thin thread of preexisting setting, and its rewarding to quickly share those with an appreciative audience. Helps to remind me that I’m competent at this, pulling voice and larger worlds together from a few scraps.

Contracts, Art, and making World Seeds

My World Seed creation process has slowed down. The hard part isn’t the words, though.

The hard part is finding artists. Locations keep coming to me, but without art I’m reluctant to publish the Seeds. I know I have good written content, but the art really helps. It convinces me that I’m offering something more than my own words (the value of which I’m far too ready to dismiss).

Sorry, I was wrong about the hard part. The hard part is having a contract I’m willing to use with artists. I’m sure I can find artists via several different channels, if I reached out through those. I have a short list of places to put calls for art, after all. But I don’t want to reach out without a written contract.

I might be letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Unfortunately, from the horror stories I’ve heard I’m also confident that having a bad contract can and will come back to bite me.

My first two World Seeds have art made by people with whom I have some kind of personal relationship; either I know the artist myself, or they’re within my immediate circle. There’s some basis for mutual trust. There’s some history of collaboration with myself or with someone else I know.

Without that, I don’t want to move forward on a wing and a prayer. Is that a mistake? Maybe. It certainly feels like one. It feels like I’m sitting on my hands and doing nothing, even though I keep adding to my collection of location descriptions to use in the future. I’ve posted forty nine of those so far to Patreon, and have thirty one more finished first drafts waiting in the wings (eighty in total). I average a little over a new one every week, more or less.

I have a few leads on contracts and contract advice, and expect to receive those reference materials in the near future… but there isn’t a clear timeline for that beyond “soon.”

Maybe, then, the right choice is to put together art-free versions and sell them for less. At least if I do that I’ll be moving finished products out the door, things that will require a minimum of additional work to fill with art once I have a contract ready. Doing that would allow me to publish an art-free Seed within a couple weeks, and another one within a couple months.

That isn’t what I’d dreamed of for this project—I’d thought about selling art-free Seeds while first developing this project, but incorporating visual art was always the goal. Sadly, that’s not where I am right now. If I want to make visible progress, it’s time to change course and ship something while I wait for the contracts and visual art to catch up.

Expect to see those art-free versions come out soon. In the meantime, if you want to see the currently available World Seeds, check out my stuff on DriveThruRPG.com.

Hiatus! More words for you in two weeks

I’m with family right now, and (Lord willing and the ‘rona don’t rise) will be working at camp next week. If all goes as planned, I’ll be back the week after with more thoughts and stories. That’ll be the 18th.

All health.

Removing old stories, discovering old habits

I have finally taken down an old post, a story that I am now submitting elsewhere in a far more polished and developed fashion. What I originally posted here as rough draft flash fiction under 2k words is now a story over 5k words long that has been through multiple rounds of edits and rewrites.

I’m not sure to what degree my old stories here are impossible to sell elsewhere. It probably varies by how strictly other publishers interpret the “first publishing rights” required of nearly all publications. But perhaps via extensive additions and rewrites, and pulling the original rough draft down, I can make some of my flash fic more salable.

This process is a bit dispiriting, in some ways. I found posting flash fic here quite satisfying, and I wrote a lot of it. The whole experience gave me good practice sharing things with the rest of the world (a frightening prospect, usually), and the structure and rhythm of it meant that I managed pretty regular output. Knowing that some people would enjoy seeing the story, even when it was only a few folks, was a nice incentive.

My hope is that I can instead (finally) reach the same feeling of regularity in submitting finished stories to paying outlets. But I’ve been hoping that for years, and it’s been quite difficult for me to achieve. My perfectionism doesn’t help, nor does the frequent rejection, nor does the difficulty of sharing the piece with excited friends beyond whoever helps me with critique and revisions. At least when I post on the blog I can send people an simple link.

And with all those issues, there’s also the simple fact that I can’t submit (or can’t bring myself to submit) the same one-and-a-half-drafts quality work to publishers that I would regularly post here. Even if I could bring myself to do that, I suspect it would scupper my chances of being published. This means that—where I had previously beaten out my perfectionism by allowing myself to be wrong on the internet—I now *do* turn more of my critical focus on my work before sharing it with the rest of the world. That critical focus is a huge stumbling block when it comes to producing anything.

In some ways, I taught myself to produce work consistently by convincing myself that the final quality of the piece didn’t actually matter. Ceasing to post rough passes of material here makes that belief feel more and more like the lie that it is. The final quality does matter, when I change the context in which it’s being submitted. All of that means I have to relearn how to make myself produce regularly. Funny, I hadn’t recognized the extent to which that’s true until now.

Narrative Responsibility

This could be a very long post. Instead it’s a short rant, because I’m short on time and haven’t given enough space to myself to write this one in detail. But if you’re going to write stories for other people you are responsible for shaping their worlds. I wish people paid more attention to that, and thought more deeply about the implications of their actions.

This is less vital when you’re writing fiction, and when you’re explicit about how what you write should be considered as opinion or not-fact. Your responsibility is not obviated by those things, you’re still accountable for what you make and how it shapes our world, but it’s not as critical. When you report on facts, however, you’re literally shaping how others understand the world.

Yeah, I’m talking about news media.

If you balance side-vs-side when one side is pro-authoritarianism and the other is not, that is an excellent way to shift norms towards authoritarianism. That’s on you. You did that. You could have instead reported on how that side is embracing authoritarianism and a cult of personality, but you didn’t. False equivalency is easy and comfortable and it soothes marketing groups’ fears of losing consumer demographics. And it makes money.

If you insist on every battle in a war being the deciding moment of that war, instead of looking at the larger strategic picture, you risk telling people that the war is lost (or won) when it is instead simply continuing. War may be exciting at times, but mostly it’s cruel, and grueling, and boring. It’s not about flashy weapons or single individuals. It’s about logistics, and money, and numbers.

It’s about systemic and structural advantages and shifts. Both war and politics. And reporting, for that matter. And while those things may be boring, and may not have the It-factor that gets people excited and pulls in views, it is wildly irresponsible to pretend that you can replace that analysis with snazzy and dramatic narratives about the next silver bullet or a final throw of the dice.

I don’t have an easy solution to this. I’m simply frustrated that so many people, and especially media outlets, willfully ignore these truths.

Whimsy’s Throne is live on DriveThruRPG!

You can find the first two World Seeds here. If you read and enjoy these World Seeds, please leave a positive review. That would mean a lot to me.

My goal, as I said a little while back, is to continue producing these Seeds for the foreseeable future. If you’d like to see the process in action, learn about how I’ve repeatedly edited out half—or even two-thirds—of the words in a piece, or see the art as it moves from concept to completion, you can do that at Whimsy’s Throne.

There’s still more to do, of course. I want to find another artist to work with next—if you make art, and would be willing to make something like what you can see in those Seeds for $400, let me know. I also want to have more legible covers for the DriveThruRPG store, which will require some tinkering.

And I’m trying to figure out where in the World Seeds (and how) to add a reference to Ginny Di’s video about advice she struggled with as a novice GM. I want these World Seeds to be as accessible as possible, to engage people in as many ways as possible (hence having both art and words). And while I can’t address the audio-preferred crowd very well in my pdfs, I can share videos that fill that gap. And I think her video has a usefully different approach to a lot of the advice my World Seeds give or imply.

It’s not advice that veteran storytellers are likely to need, but these World Seeds are supposed to be accessible to storytellers of all skill levels (ideally without feeling pedantic and overbearing). And while you could (and likely would) reach her conclusion by reading lots of material from The Alexandrian (like this, or this), I think she does a good job of saying it fairly concisely… and in a way that some GMs might understand more readily. I don’t know whether I want to expand World Seeds into a broader “RPG education” tool, or whether I want to do that in some other format, but I keep finding tidbits to add because I want these World Seeds to be a complete package for people at any level of comfort and confidence with storytelling.

Next week I might miss a post, as I’ll be traveling. I’ll be back before too long though. You should see me here again the week after.

‘Yes’ means nothing if you can’t say ‘No’

I’m fortunate. I’m lucky in the extreme, in many ways. One of those ways is the fact that I exist at all. My existence in the first place was improbable—my conception was a wildly unlikely event. And, given everything else going on at the time, there was no guarantee my mother would want to give birth to me. Yet my mom has told me many times that she feels blessed to have had me. I feel blessed in turn.

“Ah ha, Henry must be anti-abortion!” You say.

No, the opposite.

I was born because my mom wanted to keep me. I was born in a world where she had a choice, unconstrained by legality or safety, about whether or not I would be born. I was raised by a mother who was able to look at her life, at her family, and say “yes, I want to bring another child to this, and I am ready to love and provide for that child.”

I am lucky, I am blessed, because my mother was able to make that choice. In many ways, my life feels more meaningful because my mother had other options and chose me. I was never unwanted. I wasn’t a burden. I was chosen.

I want others to be chosen too.

But being chosen requires that it be a choice. That choice matters. Preserving the ability to choose matters. ‘Yes’ is an empty word when you can’t say ‘no.’

Taking away someone’s ability to say ‘no’ doesn’t mean they’ll say ‘yes.’ It means you don’t care what they think or feel. You might as well just tape their mouth shut.

And it’s dishonest to look at this issue on its own. Abortion access may be legislated separately, but the arguments about abortion and restricting access to it are deeply entwined with other political messages. They coexist with other narratives, and other goals.

The political party that would restrict abortion access also votes to cut funding for public health care. In Mississippi, anti-abortion legislation is passed even while support for future parents is not. And politicians arguing against abortions often also vote against funding programs that support poorer people, or expanding that support to prevent poverty in the first place.

Here in America, many of these arguments come back around to personal responsibility. Individuals are to blame, by the logic of personal responsibility, for all of their success or failure. And many anti-abortion politicians support measures that push this narrative. They sell the idea that they’re empowering the individual to plot their own course or stand up for themself.

Unless you’re pregnant.*

Raising a child in our society is extremely expensive. Giving birth is more dangerous here than in many other countries, on top of being pricey. Quality medical care is not reliably available to everyone, and where it is available it’s still costly.

Choosing not to raise a child under those circumstances is a responsible decision. Choosing to raise only the number of children you can afford to raise is a responsible decision. Choosing not to take the medical risk of bearing a child is a responsible decision.

I am lucky because my mother knew that she could provide for me. She knew that having me wouldn’t be the straw that broke the family’s back. She could make the choice to have me without being irresponsible.

But politicians who love personal responsibility would prevent people from making responsible choices. Because if someone is pregnant, then these politicians know best. They know the government should strip away that vaunted individual choice, they know the government should disempower pregnant people in their own personal lives.

I firmly believe that people should be allowed to not get abortions if they don’t want them, or if they feel abortions are morally unacceptable. They can choose to never have an abortion. They can make many personal choices, for themselves, as they see fit.

But they can’t make those same personal choices for others. They must not gnaw away at other people’s access to health care. It’s unacceptable to force anyone but yourself to carry a fetus to term.

There’s far more to say here: about political narratives, religion, extremism, and broken systems… but I’ll leave it at this for now.

Being chosen was a blessing. Let other people choose for themselves.

*In fact, this message of “empowering individuals” comes with far more caveats. It’s not just about being pregnant: when you look at larger patterns it also often matters whether you’re white, rich, male, straight, etc.