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Every day at my job I helped people just barely survive (metafilter.com)
928 points by blatherard on Feb 18, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 315 comments

Can I add to this one little point, which is a counterintuitive thing you can do to help your local library:

Use your local library.

During the year we started Matasano our Chicago team spent about 40%-50% of our time working from the Oak Park Public Library, sometimes in meeting rooms we booked, more often at study desks. It was great. The Internet access wasn't amazing but it was totally functional and we could VPN out through it. The desks and working space were if anything better than what we have now (and we really like our office).

There were times I worried that we were being a burden, but the impression I get is that it's the opposite. What's deadly for a local library is for nobody from the community to be using it, for it to have no stakeholders from the tax base of the community. The library staff was always welcoming to us.

Your hip coffee shop on the other hand hates you with a passion it normally reserves for Scott Stapp solo albums. At the coffee shop, you take up space in a business that's driven by turnover. Someone's going to chime in here with a story about a coffee shop that truly loves the startups that park themselves at their tables and order 3 count them 3 cups of coffee in a day, but I've talked to hipster coffee shop people oh-yes-I-have and at least some of you who truly believe you're doing your coffee shop a favor are being tolerated gracefully, not welcomed, like you would be at your local library.

Libraries have an obvious role to grow into as IT hubs for their communities, now that so much of their knowledge-disseminating role has been subsumed by IT. But another related less obvious role is as a hub for local entrepreneurship; thing thing "hackerspaces" are supposed to do, but are (for so many companies) suboptimal at.

I leans heavily toward the libertarian side, but I think libraries are one of the most important social services provided by local governments. Unlike other programs, absolutely everyone can get some direct benefit from the library - no matter what age or income level.

Libraries, in my opinion, are a model of what social services should look like: universally beneficial, only practical at the community level, little chance of moral hazard or conflict of interest by any party involved (don't return a book, you lose check out privileges - the only one hurt is the perp).

Next time you think of buying a book, seriously check out your local library system.

One example of how unliberal our society has become today I think is "imagine libraries being invented today: media industry would scream piracy"! Those libraries that today experiment with e-books pay ridiculous prices per loan to do so. It's yet another angle where I think it's evident that the copyright lobby is losing perspective and society has lost the compromise struck once over copyright.

> media industry would scream piracy

That's actually a pretty great insight. If you think of the library as a potential piracy haven, you might even consider going as far as calling them a storefront of The Pirate Bay if libraries were invented today.

What are the economics of Overdrive or the other e-book lending systems? From what I saw in googling, it's something like $10-100k/yr to be a member institution (depending on size), plus access fees of a few thousand per month, plus per-item acquisition costs (much less than physical media; maybe $1.00 for a book?).

That's expensive only because no one actually uses the online lending service, since rich/tech people value convenience, and the people for whom a $9.99 ebook is a big enough expense to warrant the inferior search, wait, etc. are probably not technology early adopters (or can't afford a $79 Kindle).

It might make sense in a school library environment, though. Or, with sufficient assistance in setting it up, audiobooks for the reading-impaired (a helpful librarian, or an audio-only UI to search/download books).

I'd like to believe that but the tone I got from the story is that we shouldn't be using our local libraries.

I'd hate the thought that I have checked out a book I could otherwise afford to buy and deprived the use to someone that could not. Or that I am using a computer to read Hackernews that an ex-convict needs to use to apply for a government program to keep his grandson alive.

Using the library deprives a slice of the pie to the very people that need it more than you. If you use the library and you can afford the alternative, then you are just as bad as the people that want to close it.

This simply isn't true. The library keeps stats on how many books are being loaned out, and when they drop, they lose an argument for funding the service. Meanwhile, the people who genuinely need the library don't need it to take books out; lending out books is a service that disproportionately helps people with the leisure time to develop a taste for reading books for pleasure.

As the son of a librarian, I can confirm this is true.

One library within my father's system cut all books below a certain circulation.

They did not bother checking whether the books could be considered "important" by some other metric. So much scientific and classical work was gotten rid of.

As the son of another librarian I can also confirm this is true, and point out that just today I overheard a children's librarian lamenting that her library just discarded all their Lloyd Alexander. "They just didn't circulate," she said with evident sorrow.

So don't just use the library, use the specific bits of it that you want to keep. You are doing nobody any favors by letting it sit idle.

... you're agreeing with me, right?

Oops, yes. I must learn to use pronouns more precisely...

Agreed. I recently went to the Boston Public Library to get a specific book that was supposed to be on the shelf. I couldn't find it so a librarian put in a request to have it found and held for me. She noticed that it had been checked out 6 times in the last year, which she said was a lot, and therefore if it couldn't be found they'd make sure to order another copy. (It was http://beinggeek.com/, and it eventually turned up.)

Theres a second effect, too. When someone who has any resource in the world available to them goes to use the library, you can be damn sure they'll have standards. If libraries are only for those without other options, those who have seen what can be will not be there to demand improvement.

I recently went to the Boston Public Library to get a specific book that was supposed to be on the shelf. I couldn't find it so a librarian put in a request to have it found and held for me. She noticed that it had been checked out 6 times in the last year, which she said was a lot, and therefore if it couldn't be found they'd make sure to order another copy. (It was http://beinggeek.com/, and it eventually turned up.)

It's a sad commentary to think that the best way to improve the system is to pretend to use its services.

Yeah, it's hard to attack libraries. They're one of the best examples of a truly equitable program I can think of. I'd much rather cut even university funding: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3608264

> I think libraries are one of the most important social services provided by local governments

How about other needs governments sometimes provide to the less fortunate, such as food, shelter, medical care, and universal education?

The problem I have with government provided food, shelter, and to a large extent medical care is that they are charities, only benefit a small subset of the population, while encouraging self destructive behavior in some cases (they are easy systems to exploit and are regularly exploited). This makes them expensive and inequitable. I have no problem with charity and there is a ligitimate place for it within a community, but I disagree that governments are effecient at running them.

Public education is also important, but I would hardly say its a model social program. Everyone benefits from an educated population, again, in an optimal case, there is little conflict of interest, and in general, it elevates the lives of those using the service. At the same time, it's something that could be done privately in the home or without any government intervention - and for most of history it was. It's also a bloated beauracratic mess, a representation of just how inefficient government programs can be. There are fantastic people in the trenches in schools being led by goons and politicians with little interest or knowledge about what is good for developing kids.

If one tallied up all the money spent on improving the lives of the poor in the last 50 years, I expect people would be shocked at how little improvement has actually resulted.

Unfortunately, much of this spending fails to encourage behaviors that actually move people out of poverty. If you are receiving assistance, any money you earn above a certain amount threatens your assistance. So you hide it or stay below the arbitrary limit. This is not the way to encourage honesty or industry.

How long were things done that way, despite the facts? Decades. And that's the problem with government administering charity. It doesn't look at the results and adjust its approach until outcomes improve. Its driven by political considerations. And when it does measure reality, it measures those things that make it look successful.

And why should it look honestly at outcomes? Government doesn't have to convince you to support a program. Unlike private charity, it can make you fund it. You probably don't even realize what you're funding.

> encouraging self destructive behavior

While that is likely true, in other segments of the population, such as vulnerable children, providing food, shelter and health care encourages "not dying".

> Next time you think of buying a book, seriously check out your local library system.

I agree, but there are something like 250,000[1] books published each year.

At just $5[2] per book that's $1,250,000 just to buy each year's worth of books, never mind the staff to do the buying and unpacking and cataloguing and stocking and lending etc etc.

[1] (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per...) (but go careful because who knows where the wikipedia numbers come from)

[2] A ridiculously low figure. Here's some UK data; not sure where it comes from. (http://www.holtjackson.co.uk/cgi-perl/web_avg_book_price.pl)

Isn't that what inter-library loan is for?

i'd rather not pay for other people's benefits unless the benefit returns to me with reasonable probability and period of time. on one hand i'd like to see libraries turn profit (like 'lite' version of video rental model) or at least be self sufficient. on the other hand i want to enjoy reasonably educated population with easy access to methods for self improvement and economic mobility (both up and down) and a 'safety net' in case of uninsured unforeseen events. there's a balance between socialism and pure libertarian model but its so local and complicated and constantly evolving that i just resign myself toward the purest liberty and self responsibility and say fuck the libraries.

When I was <18, most of the books I read were from libraries. My parents aren't poor, by any measure, but they don't believe in paying for a lump of dead tree you only read once. Books can inspire. They help you improve your literacy.

Local libraries are pretty cheap. Programs to give books to poor children may not be as cost effective. Giving computers to poor children may simply result in them being sold, either by the kids or their parents.

Commercial libraries (proprietary libraries) have existed. They typically catered to the kind of people who paid a lot for membership - upper middle class professionals. If we relied on commercial public libraries today, they would be stacked with O'Reilly's books, Tolkien, popular economics, management books, and the like.

I wouldn't mind having a paid membership in a library that carries O'Reilly's books and like. I would also probably try to convince my company to have one (and that would mean much bigger budget there). Most of such books are needed only for a relatively short periods of time and then sit there gathering dust for years. The library would be ideal for such things. I don't say this would necessarily work, there are many problems with this idea that would need to be resolved, but on the face of it I don't see why it couldn't work.

Private libraries exist today. The Mechanics' Institute is an example. My impression is they have a diverse collection, though I don't know for sure. http://www.milibrary.org/

> i'd rather not pay for other people's benefits unless the benefit returns to me with reasonable probability and period of time

Then pay for the warm, fuzzy feeling you'll get for doing something that benefits others.

yes. i think the warm fuzzy feeling is how the body internally represents the vague and unspecific expectation of 'social' reward from doing something that benefits others

the sense of something being a 'good deed' comes from expecting harmony and general social cooperation (reciprocity) and since the cause effect is so disconnected and complex - it's too difficult to grasp with reason (for some people) and just has to be felt in this way. (?)

also the neurological 'mirroring' and empathy

.. anyways. people who want and use the library should pay for it. people who don't should not pay. isn't this fair?

>.. anyways. people who want and use the library should pay for it. people who don't should not pay. isn't this fair?

People who want and use the roads should pay for them. People who don't shouldn't be allowed to drive or walk anywhere. Isn't that fair?

People who want and use the police department should pay for it. People who don't should have no protection. Isn't that fair?

People who want and use the fire department should pay for it. People who don't should have to stand by and watch their house burn to the ground. Isn't that fair?

neighbourhood watch and locally funded andor volunteer police, vigilanteesm & personal responsibility

fire insurance includes fire department service. you can go cheap and risk burning down but it's more likely that decent friendly neighbours will gladly cover yours if you can't. or you can move to more affordable housing within your means

health insurance with discounts for taking care of yourself

competition between doctors and between pharmaceuticals driving innovation, skills and real results forward while driving prices down.

would you rather get chemo for pennies while someone else can get immortality for millions or would you rather pay millions for chemo equally with everyone else

private or shared roads according to free will and common mutual interest

i don't want just anyone to come in to my house as they please. or my driveway, or if my driveway is very long = my road

i'm responsible for my property amd my own actions. i don't want to tell you what to do and i don't want your money. we can agree to exchange things for mutual benefit and i will do everything i can to keep to agreed terms - staking my word and reputation

there is nothing wrong with public libraries or charity regardless if selfish or for common good as long as it's funded with free will instead of threat of tax prison

crappy mismanaged unused library should go broke while the good library can pay for itself with fees and donations

just like your startup

>fire insurance includes fire department service. you can go cheap and risk burning down

One of the reasons for a nationalised fire service was because Insurance-company funded firemen had a tendency to be arsonists.

i'm puzzled and somewhat amused with the downvotes because i'm aiming for maximum honesty and truth. the market organises to elevate the best and raise standards for all others - it's like a force of nature, whereas government seems to systematically mismanage libraries into mediocre grey soulless underused smelly wastelands.

Here's essentially the thought process behind the downvotes:

You: "the market organises to elevate the best and raise standards for all others"

Everybody else: "And I'm the Queen of England."

"The market" is not some intelligent, charitable entity. It's an abstraction employed to talk about how participating entities allocate their resources. It categorically does not help everyone. In fact, in many cases it can hurt everyone (the most famous example is the tragedy of the commons, but that's hardly the only way markets can go bad). Read the OP: What is the market going to do for that guy with no money?

From your comments so far, it seems like you believe he should just curl up and die in the cold. And most people don't believe that's a good answer at all.

Further, people don't curl up and die, they tend to do what it takes to survive.

Which our op, with his subscription to police protection, believes he will be protected from.

Course he has to assume that he and the others like him have paid sufficiently to keep his mercenaries/rent-a-cops armed and motivated enough to protect them.

Ah, the old "criminals will rob you if you don't consent to have the government take your money to hand out to them" argument. Often peddled by those who also believe criminals are not responsible for their actions, they're just oppressed/had a bad childhood/whatever.

I'm fine with universal (modulo pacifists and those not capable of handling a gun) individual gun ownership. Combined with anything resembling rule of law, in that case armed robbery quickly drops off the list of "what it takes to survive", because it no longer results in long survival. The criminals will always be outnumbered.

But let's get back to the real topic. Fact is, I like libraries. I think they're very positive for everyone in many ways, in particular for being an intellectually-oriented gathering place.


New to these particular arguments, so your first sentence was perspective adding. Should have realized though that the strong libertarian bent to HN would make a lot of arguments old.

That said: In my defence, I'm neither for nor against the topic, and wasn't making the arguments you suggested I was. I was alluding to large groups of criminals overwhelming or out-gunning paid protection at some point of the scale.

As you said, lets get back to the real topic - libraries are great. Although it did seem like computer education and literacy was one of the major draws - perhaps people here could help by helping an NGO which provided volunteers to help people fill forms up or give them computer education?

Your outline of the thought process behind Mikey7 downvotes is a lucid, intelligent argument with his belief about "the market." And you're saying this is the reason you vote to have him silenced?

I kind of think maybe a better reason might be because a commenter engages in trolling or some other behavior that's out of bounds, which might very well be the case here with Mikey7. But I appreciate having this thought process behind downvotes as they are actually used ("I disagree with what you say ... Downvote for you!") so clearly stated.

If you think "You are making wild and horrible claims without any substantiating evidence" is the same thing as "I disagree with you," I don't know what to say but that you're wrong. My objection is that he appears to be mindlessly spouting dogma, and a dangerous one at that. If he made a cogent argument that disagreed with my beliefs, that would be one thing, but his comments are the libertarian equivalent of "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve."

Firstly, the downvotes are a recent manifestation of creeping groupthink. They're disheartening, but they're actually a good example in this particular instance as an illustration that people as a whole, even in places where you'd expect them to be, aren't so smart. It's much easier to have a gut reaction to a position and grunt a downvote out than actually engage in reasoned discussion and THINK about it.

Even speaking as an agorist, your faith in the market is a little extreme. It certainly has some useful and beneficial efficiencies to be sure, but believing that it will simply elevate the best and create a rising tide that will raise all standards is a little naive I think with regards to what we see in the world where markets reign.

Assuming humans are perfectly rational agents with equal information it works, but that's not how humans really are. Humans are dumb, panicky, emotional animals, and the difference between the most incompetent of them and say cows are not as wide as our politically correct institutions would like to force us to believe.

You would do well, even in an ancap society, to voluntarily donate to charities that pursued socially beneficial objectives so that you reaped the benefits of their actions. This is pretty much the ancap response to tragedy of the commons. Vaccination and libraries are not a bad example of where this makes sense imho. There's nothing strictly contrary to ancap doctrine to point out that choosing not to clean your proverbial home will result in you living in a mess, so you might want to do that occasionally.

It is not enough to point out that simply because states provably fail, markets are perfectly efficient.

> Firstly, the downvotes are a recent manifestation of creeping groupthink.

Political discussion has, for a long time, been discouraged on HN. Down-voting is one way to encourage people to stop.

This whole discussion is political. Downvoting mickey7's comments for that is extremely hypocritical, unless you downvote all comments and flag the submission.

That really is not true. I appreciated the post because it gave me a perspective on what life is like for people who aren't like me; it has nothing to do with politics unless you want to start arguing about politics.

I said the discussion, not the post (which in any case did have a political perspective on its second half). mickey7 was replying to jonhohle's post, who was already stating his opinion on politics.

Maybe some points of view are seen as trolling and not as genuine discourse?

That seems a very uncharitable position to me. I strongly disagree with her/him, but unless you consider any opinion that strongly deviates from the median to be trolling, I don't see why would it be.

I think it's more that his arguments didn't seem to have considered the situation he was addressing at all. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, but he provided no evidence or reasoning at all. His comments were not particularly more substantial than "I like pizza," though their implications were a lot more harmful. I understand that you don't like to see unpopular opinions downvoted, but at the same time, vapid comments should not be protected just because they express an unpopular opinion.

It's not just this instance, I've noticed in an increasingly broad variety of topics that when something goes against the accepted groupthink it is prone to silent downvoting. Even in the absence of ad homs, whining in general, etc.

Also you'd be pretty hard pressed to say that this question isn't expressly relevant to the original article being discussed, and isn't overtly political in the sense that noone is agitating for votes or any such thing.

I was muzzled for arguing that Craigslist middlemen are bad. Then again I did say some things so out-of-bounds they should not be heard:

"Do buyers and sellers go to this man the way people go to real estate agents for their services? What would Craigslist buyers and sellers think of what he does if they knew about it? Respectfully, I think they would strongly prefer he weren't interfering." http://news.ycombinator.org/item?id=3515735

... and:

"I doubt very much that sellers would appreciate this liquidity 'service' if it were spelled out for them. They would feel cheated, as would the buyers." http://news.ycombinator.org/item?id=3515689

Pretty outrageous, in retrospect.

That's exactly what I'm talking about, and the main comment I made that was at +4 when I went to bed last night is now at just +1 so I take it as fairly obvious that this people trying to muzzle well presented / supported positions that they happen to disagree with is really going on. http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3596880 also was in a tug of war between 0 and +5 for a few days but has settled now on +4.

Two in just the past hour with a quick look at recent comments + one 40 days ago where I noticed it first started happening;




This doesn't deserve downvotes. Mickey7 has described (albeit without capital letters) a common viewpoint, one that deserves to be considered when discussing this issue.

The upvote/downvote system is not intended to be a popularity contest, it's intended to indicate whether the post contributes to the conversation. Even if you find Mickey7's viewpoint abhorrent, you ought to be giving him a +1 to recognize that it's a relevant perspective -- even if that's just so that you can reply and show why this perspective is flawed.

I'd upvote this many times, if I could. I got in the habit of doing several hours of work a week at the library while my kids were doing various activities, and I loved it. At first, I did have that "gee, am I just taking space" moment, but just as Thomas points out, this is actually what libraries are for--they provide knowledge services (that is, books and internet access) for free.

I'd also recommend that if you do use your local library, support it, too. I don't necessarily mean monetarily (which we do, via, uh, late fees), but if someone in power is considering cutting funding, tell them they really shouldn't do that.

Totally forgot about kids! We took our kids to the library all the time when we were working out of it. Now we have nice offices downtown and our kids get to the library... never. Yet another benefit of working from the local library at least some of the time.

Growning up I watched as the little libraries around town closed down and the main branch expended. We only went to the main branch when we could get a ride. Recently I read about the ratio of library patrons was proportional to the ability to walk to the library. It would be interesting to know if consolidating libraries was a bigger movement than the towns I happened to live in, but a big change that occurred in the 90's across the country or something.

I would LOVE to work out of my local library, unfortunately, here in Austin libraries have the policy that meeting rooms etc. are only for non-profit groups that are open to the public. No private meetings, no "open to the public meetings" that are run by for-profit companies. I suppose your garage startup could probably _get away with_ meeting there, but it's a big no-no.

The private meeting rooms were nice, but most of the time we just worked from the study desks. Even when we had the private rooms, there was always a feeling of time pressure in them. You might need private space a lot less than you think you do.

Yea, the private rooms at my local library are made almost obsolete by the open study tables and desks there. For one, you don't have to worry about the constant time restrictions, and the extra ventilation doesn't hurt either.

When I was in high school we made much use of library meeting rooms. Do they turn away student groups?

Profits -> Taxes -> Funding. Don't bite the hand that feeds!

I did give this a try a while back, as an alternative to local coffee shops. Baristas seem friendly most of the time. I try to buy something every hour or two that I'm there, and respectfully leave after a while if the place is full.

Quite honestly, I didn't enjoy spending time at my local library. The atmosphere was depressing. The people running the place seemed unfriendly. They were used to dealing with people coming in and trying to hide in the bathroom during closing in order to stay the night, and things like that.

There was no good place nearby to get food or drinks. Internet access was slower, more inconvenient and more restrictive than most coffee shops. There didn't seem to be a community of people hanging out working on or talking about interesting things.

If libraries created an inviting place to hang out, I would gladly give them another try. I'm more than willing to buy food and drinks at a markup if they're offered. I consider that a good trade: I get sustenance to keep me concentrating for extended periods of time, and they get some compensation for use of the space and resources.

A friend of Mine just graduated with a Degree in Literature and we talk about the futures of libraries all the time. We often ask what would happen if libraries opened up a small coffee shop/stand inside of them? With enough "marketing" would people go to libraries instead?

What you do is co-opt a coffee stand to open shop right outside your front door, or in a secluded corner. That way people can get food and stay longer, but the library doesn't just turn into a coffee shop with a few books.

I've seen a few libraries with the just-outside-the-door model, and a Borders with a small Peet's upstairs. Both were well-executed.

The Cameron Village library (Raleigh, NC) has a coffee shop. The best info I could find is from their Facebook page [1]:

> Has it been a while since you been to a library? Cameron Village Regional Library is the only library in Wake County that offers coffee bar service to its patrons! Come visit your public library and browse the stacks with a beverage in hand. Or just come and meet up with a friend and catch up before heading over to the shops and events at Cameron Village.

[1] http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cameron-Coffee-at-Cameron-Vill...

Wow, that used to be my library in high school. Spent many afternoons there.

If they'd served coffee back then I might have spent less of that time sleeping.

I've never understood why coffee is considered such a draw-card. The local church embroidery group offers free coffee but i'm still not a regular attendee.

Give me a library that has beer on tap any day.

It's mostly just to stay on par with bookshops, which allow you to come in and read for free, and typically have coffee shops in a part of them.

I've seen quite a few that execute the coffee shop idea nicely!

The main branch of the Ottawa Public Library has a nice little coffee/food shop in the middle of its main floor.

I've also visited two public libraries in smaller cities north of Toronto recently, and they also have similar shops. I think it is a great idea, as I will sometimes go to the library to work for the day and don't even have to leave the building for lunch.

Of the 4 library systems I am most familiar with around here:

* One in a city of 36K people doesn't have refreshments, but is located on a street with lots of restaurants and at least 3 coffee shops within a block or 2.

* One in a city of ~56K people has a coffee kiosk under a canopy/tent alongside the library (this is Southern California, weather's not too big an issue).

* The central library in a city of ~140K has a coffee shop in a sheltered part of a patio/courtyard. I don't think the branch libraries have coffee.

* Los Angeles Central library has 2 restaurants inside the main library building (Panda Express, and a sandwich counter), and a pricier white-tablecloth restaurant in the garden in front of the building. I don't know about the branch libraries.

(edited for formatting)

The Oak Park library had a coffee shop on the first floor (they didn't run it). Many libraries will allow you to bring coffee in.

Indianapolis Central Library is a beautiful facility (it better be, for what we spent on it) with dozens of computers throughout and a coffee bar on the first floor. There's usually a line for both. It's great. It's a setup that works there. My local branch, on the other hand, has a strict no food and drink policy. That's too bad, but you don't need marketing if you have computers. People need internet access and they will max out their library computer hours regardless.

To sliverstorm's point, the Philly-style pretzel shop across the street from my branch does a nice business with kids after school (and me any time of the week), and I long for a nice coffee shop in the adjacent vacant space.

In DC we're currently trying to convince the library system to open up their meeting spaces for entrepreneurship / tech meetups. If it works, hopefully it could be replicated to other cities and be a positive part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Below is a talk about transforming part of the MLK library, DC's central library, into a meetup space, FWIW. http://www.robertvesco.com/2012/02/entrepreneurship-public-p...

I've never heard of anyone starting a company from a library. Was that something that was commonly done in the 90s (I'm assuming the Chicago office is that old)?

If you were starting again in 2012, would you pick a library over a hackerspace or a shared office type deal for any reason other than cost?

We started in 2005.

Yes. Circulation and computer usage stats keep the branches open and drive staffing budgets (along with political skill of management, of course). Staff may be overworked and grumpy, but they do derive immense satisfaction and their livelihood from helping patrons find what they need and seeing them come through the doors for any reason other than to complain. When my wife worked at a busy little branch in Oakland, all of these things were frequent topics of dinner conversation.

I'm not sure if this counts in the same way, but I'm a huge user of inter-library loan; large city systems HAVE the obscure computing and other books I want to read, but there's no way each little branch can.

During the year we started Matasano our Chicago team spent about 40%-50% of our time working from the Oak Park Public Library,

That's fascinating.

What are some other unconventional ways to find space to hack on projects?

TL;DR - Just because you don't use the library doesn't mean no one needs them anymore. Not everyone's Real Life Issues are amenable to a self-service web portal, and that's not just because no one has built the right widgets yet.

> it will be a slow death by a thousand cuts

It will be a slow descent into budget fugue, followed by an extremely quick death when we pass an inflection point in "the number of people who remember getting awesome value out of their local/municipal library system."

I bet when a lot of people here first started hearing about library closures in their old neighborhood, or wherever they're living now, their initial reaction was one of total shock followed by "well I guess I can see how that could happen."

When people hear about library closures now, they could be skipping the shock entirely, passing smoothly through "aw that's too bad", and fading into "well there's Google."

> [the library] need[s] to become the center of civic engagement

We need a center of civic engagement with both equality and equity of access. Libraries are a decent foundation on which to build such a thing, but there's at least one common feature of libraries that makes them awful for this: people are supposed to be quiet in the library.

There should be almost nothing quiet about civic engagement, finding a job, learning new skills, research, etc. Less giant rooms with rows of people not saying anything; more smaller sound-proofed rooms with whiteboards and projectors. Like a giant executive briefing center, only with fewer executives and more regular folks with something to ask/teach each other.

Santa Monica (near where I live) recently re-opened its public library. A lot of shelf space was sacrificed for meeting rooms. They're basically white board equipped conference rooms with tables and chairs. You walk through there, and see all sorts of groups of people meeting in those rooms, talking animatedly. It's kind of fun to imagine what they're meeting about, I've seen evidence of startups, community groups, etc. based on what's on the board. The rooms are pretty sound-proofed, so you don't hear them as you're perusing the books. There's also quiet study rooms where you can do your business if you want to be absolutely quiet. A lot of space was devoted to a cafe area, which is nice for doing coffee-shop-style laptop work (except they won't kick you out).

Santa Monica is the position of being an economically well-off city (and thus able to afford such a lavish library) with a significant homeless/poor population, which is very well represented in the library. For areas in the midst of complete economic blight, I doubt there's as many niceties opening up--which is sad.

As is the point of the article, in the midst of all this Information Age online-this and online-that, there's a sad lack of civic-mindedness. How does the community as a whole uplift the people within it who are not doing as well? I doubt most of the higher-end property-tax payers in Santa Monica actually go to the library--and it is clearly servicing the people paying the least (or nothing) for it. Sadly, most of the rhetoric I see on the public policy level is, "I was in line at Albertson's and saw someone buying a steak with their food stamps!!! And a bottle of wine! How dare they? You should only be able to buy lima beans and tepid water with food stamps."

That is a good idea, though I favor chalk boards. But it would be great. In order to bring it about a lot of difficult management problems would have to be solved. For instance, people are going to be turning tricks in all those separated rooms pretty quickly.

Technical response: soundproof != optically opaque

Cynical political response: "turning tricks" == good first approximation of dealing with a modern government

Entrepreneurial response: "turning tricks" + video cameras + fast uplink == revenue model

My old university library had private rooms that you could use to get away from the crowds. They were sound proofed, but had a giant glass wall that faced towards the rest of the people. You couldn't turn tricks there unless every onlooker was in approval.

It's horrifying that we need a TL;DR for a modest chunk of text - a mere comment.

If our attention spans are that fried, are we any better off than the hypothetical guy trying to fill out a government form?

It's a bit like taking someone's synopsis for what the Bible is about. You can't. You have to read it, experience it and parse it yourself or you can't really know.

Myself, I'm not going to pablum-feed you guys a over-simplified short form version of what I think I just read. Read it for yourself.

No wonder libraries are endangered.

The fact that one person wrote a TL;DR is not an indication that we need one. And besides, usually a TL;DR of someone else's post is an opinionated summary, not a simply condensation of facts.

People write TLDRs for their comments whenever they feel they expended more words on the topic than they feel were necessary, it doesn't imply an expectation that no one else would read it.

When I write a fervent wall of text I think is worthy of reading in full, I don't put on a TLDR, I just pity the fool who doesn't take the time to partake of dense knowledge.

So, TLDR, it is the author feeling the content is lacking in a dense section of text more than the reader having a limited attention span that leads to TLDR's. I think.

"TLDR, it is the author feeling the content is lacking in a dense section of text more than the reader having a limited attention span that leads to TLDR's."

There is no evidence that "feralchimp" (who wrote the TLDR here on Hacker News) is the same as "codacorolla" (who wrote the original comment on Metafilter).

I just meant in the general case about TLDR's, not just in one particular instance. Existentialism happpened.

TL;DR we all have short attention spans now, libraries are in trouble.

I'll reconsider the TL;DR when academic papers reconsider the Abstract.

OP's statement is a strong argument against libraries.

We're spending good money on buildings full of books that inadvertently provide some really important social services. If you've got a bucket catching drips from your leaky roof, you need roof repairs, not a better bucket.

Here in England, we have an organisation that does exactly what the OP is espousing - guiding people who don't know where to turn for help. It's called the Citizens Advice Bureau, it has been in existence since 1939 and it now has 20,000 volunteers working out of 3200 locations. The CAB provides impartial and confidential advice and assistance on just about any issue someone might bring through the doors. Crucially, the CAB is an independent charity, so is trusted by marginalised people in a way that no government agency could be.

I'd like to say that I'm surprised there's no equivalent in the US, but sadly I'm not. I just don't think there are enough Americans prepared to give up big blocks of their time to help people who we'd all cross the street to avoid. I don't think any society that still uses the word "ghetto" in the present tense is capable of building such an organisation.

I understand that there are agencies sporadically providing similar services, but that lack of consistency is half the problem - if your brand isn't ubiquitous, you're failing your most needy clients. Now please, go out and prove me wrong. Build an absolutely kick-ass advice agency and rub my limey face in it. There are few things that would please me more.

You are flat-out wrong about Americans and their willingness to give up their time for charitable causes [1].

Interestingly I am also British and my impression from American friends and acquaintances was generally the opposite to yours: many of them had volunteered in the past or were involved with volunteering, which is something I came across less frequently in the UK (I emigrated 4 years ago so this may have changed, I suppose). This impression is borne out by the report above.

While the social issues faced in every country differ greatly for any number of reasons governed by history, demographics, etc. etc., there are enough similarities between the two countries as to make you sound very insensitive to the issues faced by many inhabitants of the UK.

To use one small example, the Gini co-efficient measure of income inequality (after taxes) for the UK is closer to that of the US than it is for almost every other European country [2]. I don't think anybody would dispute that there are a lot of poor and disadvantaged people in the UK.

The main difference between the two countries has less to do with the willingness of citizens to donate time or money to charitable causes than it does to do with the "social safety net", provided by the government. That's a whole different subject though.

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/sep/08/charitab... [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equ...

Both figures are disingenuous. American charitability has to be seen through the prism of religiosity. An exceptionally high proportion of American donation and volunteering is done through church groups and the vast majority of that activity should not reasonably be considered 'giving'. A church-sanctioned rock band will be included in the statistics as an enormous number of volunteer hours. A church organisation is a tax-deductible charity, regardless of whether it achieves any charitable aims.

Britain's Gini coefficient is substantially distorted because of London. The Gini coefficient is a pure measure of income inequality, so is massively influenced by the presence of people with exceptionally high incomes. It tells you almost nothing about the gap between the middle class and the working class in a developed country. When your country includes a megalopolis that's the world's most popular playground for billionaires and tax haven for multinationals, that distorts the figures somewhat. Factor out a couple of London boroughs and our Gini index changes dramatically. Likewise, France's Gini index would plummet if they had a territorial claim to Monaco.

Having in lived in both countries, and being originally from neither, I can tell you that's not true. I obviously don't know what percentage of the population would be willing to volunteer their time, but I don't think the English are any more altruistic than Americans are.

Your mistake is you think a library is for providing books. In fact libraries stand for free public _information_. The distinction is critical and vastly important.

This is a very well written story that takes what I already kinda of assumed to be true and made it feel very real. It's quite sad, really.

I don't want to trivialize the plight of the poor, but I'm also concerned with the impact on the world's intellectuals. A somewhat relevant rant follows....

We were down in the bay area meeting investors a few weeks ago, and I took some time to walk around Standford's campus. It's beautiful. It feels somewhat quiet and lonely, but that's simply because it is huge. However, I walked through a few random buildings and delighted in seeing people studying and working. While still quiet, there was an energy to the place. This was a place that brilliant people made magic happen.

It strikes me as odd that so much work these days is done out of coffee shops. I mean, I do it too, but it's really kind of weird. You walk in, all these people have headphones on, are sipping on a latte, and totally ignoring the outside world. People are crammed in like sardines and working like mad men, but it simply doesn't feel like magic is happening.

Neil Degrasse Tyson talks about how NASA is necessary to create the sense of wonder and enchantment to raise a new generation of scientists. He says the NASA budget is simply a great investment. He's right.

I feel the same way about public spaces.

I'd really like to see more energized, magical, beautiful public spaces. I'm not a Stanford student, so I couldn't use their wifi. I had to walk down to University Ave and work out of Paris Baguette. There's just not as much wonder and excitement when you're surrounded by pastries.

Really agree with this point. I've worked out of coffee shops for a long time (many of them Starbucks, which has an even worse chance of some sort of co-working energy) and definitely feel like they are very polarizing (either really good and productive or bad and distracting.) I find a similar effect when working near a university in Chicago. There's undeniably a connected, more euphoric feeling to being surrounded by others who are being productive.

I think this lends itself particularly well to the success in co-working spaces. As more and more people seek to become entrepreneurs, seems co-working spaces provide a perfect in between (as well as much less risk) from working in your home/coffeeshops to signing a lease. WeWork in NYC as well as the handful of others in SF are great solutions to this, providing freelancers and small teams the ability to work amongst others and share that connectedness you talked about while at Stanford. Hopefully Chicago will get some more co-working options as well.

Interesting question is how can a coffeeshop embrace this mentality. In the city, people certainly use Starbucks as an office-like environment. While the mix of people is usually pretty good, seems that it's very isolated, with little to no interaction. I wonder if there's a better way to mix the coffeeshop and co-working biz model, perhaps sort of like how I/O ventures does it with Summit.

Interestingly the original coffee houses of London where used in somewhat simler ways, as places that merchants would meet and conduct buisness (not exclusively of course).

Where I live most coffee shops have tables outside (is there a name in English for that space?), so you can work while you watch street vendors, people walking around and grandparents with children, not to mention the sun, trees, etc. It doesn't have a work environment, but it's very reinvigorating to stop for five minutes and appreciate the surroundings.

>is there a name in English for that space?

you could call it a patio, but that implies a bit more formality than there is at a lot of coffee shops. "tables outside" is probably pretty good.

"Patio" is the English word for those spaces, generally.

Depending on your English dialect it might be a terrace, pavement, patio or even verandah seating.

A thousand times this. I find the ultra-libertarian stance that our community sometimes takes to be counter to what web applications have been about. Are we empowering people or aren't we?

Libraries are hugely important knowledge transfer hubs (and, as the MeFi commenter rightly says, community centers). Furthermore, selfishly, for us as builders, they're the only place a lot of people will ever come into contact with the stuff we make. They can't be allowed to die.

The entire California library system was given $12m in state funds in 2008. It's now down to zero. How can we, as a community, help?

It's funny how you can look at one mostly-benign comment that just happens to bring up politics (and mostly as a tangent to the point it wants to make) and see how it drives the whole thread off the rails. Just eyeball the torrent of BS political posturing this set off. I'm not blaming the author or anything; it just seems like a miniaturized version of a problem that hurts the whole site.

s/whole site/whole world/

For whatever reason, all politics is now identity politics. Less important than the effectiveness of a policy is whether that policy is threatening to the ideology that accompanies a person's group identity.

It makes me wish we didn't have names for these things for people to rally around. If you replace "I'm a libertarian" with "I'm skeptical of government solutions without sufficient supporting evidence" notice how the lack of abstraction makes it impossible to avoid focusing on the issue at hand.

I have learned to try not to let my politics get too much in the way of what I talk about here, enough so that I am routinely criticized for being a libertarian (heh) or even sometimes a security-state conservative.

I'll every once in awhile throw a jab towards "libnerdtariasm", because while I do try to keep politics out of things as much as possible, I am still easily baited by nerd tropes.

Yeah, this is what happened here. It's an issue that makes me angry and I said something I shouldn't have. Do I get an "I derailed a thread on Hacker News" t-shirt? Definitely something I'll try not to do again.

"It makes me wish we didn't have names for these things for people to rally around. If you replace "I'm a libertarian" with "I'm skeptical of government solutions without sufficient supporting evidence" notice how the lack of abstraction makes it impossible to avoid focusing on the issue at hand."

This is a good point. I'll keep it in mind for the future. On less civil sites, it also at least makes someone work to invoke a string of identity-politics nonsense like "LOL LIBERTARIAN MOAR LIKE STRAIGHT RICH WHITE MAN AMIRITE?"

The libertarian stance is not "there should be no libraries" but more like "if there is a genuine need for libraries, and value in having them (quite plausible), then Government funding is not the best approach to creating them or running them efficiently".

Just because something is good doesn't mean the tax payers should pay for it. There are other options.

If they are a great idea, why not persuade people to voluntarily pay for them?

Or if they are providing value, why don't they make money? Perhaps they could provide some services for free and charge for others. Or profitably provide some services very cheaply.

Actually, the libertarian stance is closer to "I have an inherent human right not to pay taxes that outweighs the public good of having things like libraries." There's some handwaving about voluntary charity, but if voluntary charity worked, no one would have invented public services to begin with, and the typical libertarian doesn't really care anyway.

I was trying to present the good side of libertarianism.

The argument you present for libertarians is bad and borderline shameful (and, I think, not representative of the majority of libertarians. but certainly something some of them would say). But there much better arguments with similar conclusions.

The main reason it's an awful position, in my view, is that it's premised on conflicts of interest and compromise -- some things outweigh others, and there are losers which must lose while having legitimate points. It views life as a mixed bag, with inevitable suffering and sacrifice and loss.

This is not the position of, for example, Ayn Rand who argued in Virtue of Selfishness chapter 4 for a very different worldview in which there are no conflicts of interest among rational men.

Your claim that if voluntary charity worked, no one would have invented public services in the first place is incorrect. If voluntary charity didn't work in the context in which Government was first invented, that absolutely doesn't imply that a more sophisticated version of voluntary charity could not work today in a rather different world.

This is exactly the position of Ayn Rand, especially the part about not really caring if poor people get to have things like libraries or housing or food. To Ayn Rand, a "rational" homeless person would rather stave to death on the streets than accept the first crumb of unearned bread or a single night's sleep under an unearned roof. The only reason there's no conflict for Rand is because Rand doesn't recognize a legitimate interest in public goods, but only private goods gained through mutually beneficial transactions. To Rand, there's no rational interest in having a public library, so there is no rational conflict between the wealthy taxpayer and the impoverished library patron. Randroidism is one of the most brutal and shameful forms of libertarianism.

Rand doesn't recognize a legitimate interest in public goods,...

This is simply false. In Atlas Shrugged, she explicitly acknowledges that providing public goods is a legitimate function of government, and taxation is legitimate insofar as at it used to pay for public goods. If I remember correctly (it's been a long time), it was Hank Reardon who states this point.

I believe a (fair) judge was also allowed into Galt's Gulch, though I might be misremembering this point. As I said, it's been a long time since I read the book.

I think this is actually one of the contradictions in Rand, and I'm not the first person to think so: http://www.isil.org/ayn-rand/childs-open-letter.html

You are right about that. It was Judge Narragansett.

On the plus side, I don't think there are many hardline Randians. In technology, I would guess that libertarianism boils down to some mixture of: 1) being really annoyed about civil-liberties, EFF-type issues; 2) being moderately annoyed about regulations seen as unnecessary; and 3) being mildly-to-moderately annoyed about taxes.

Varies by person, but I think if you took a vote even restricted to people in Silicon Valley who actively called themselves "libertarian-leaning", over whether libraries should get some funding, the answer would probably still be "yes". Not too many people are actively against libraries; I think they get cut more because, unfortunately, their constituency isn't as powerful as other things that might be cut instead.

We're an odd bunch, and there are certainly plenty of technical folks who are logical-minded enough to get themselves into some hardline position or another, but hardline Randians are probably a minority of any group you could think of, except for the group of hardline Randians of course.

You're wrong and should stop hating people you're ignorant of.

I'll give brief examples in hopes you, recognizing you really were wrong about some basic facts, will either learn about the subject or stop making nasty, ignorant accusations in the future.

Ayn Rand did not have a policy of "never accept handouts", said so, and, for example, signed up for medicaid.

Ayn Rand's argument I cited does not consist of denying there are public goods. Whatever her position on public goods, if you read the chapter, public goods are simply not what she talks about, and your comments do not address the argument she did make.

Ayn Rand rejected and harshly criticized libertarianism. Calling her a libertarian is ignorant.

I was a fanatical Randroid myself in my younger years, and while she may not have gone as far as "never accept handouts", she did go as far as "never expect handouts", and in Rand's system there is explicitly no right or expectation to anything unearned.

Rand's opposition to "libertarians" was purely a personal dislike of the people in Rand's time who called themselves libertarians. Most sensible definitions of the word "libertarian", ranging anywhere from "an advocate for limited government" to "an advocate of the non-aggression principle" easily entail Rand's philosophy.

Finally, while I think Ayn Rand was irrational or just plain wrong in many aspects of her philosophy and in her personal and political dealings, and while I think her philosophy has frankly horrific consequences, I don't hate the woman. I actually have a degree of fondness for her, and her role in my intellectual development.

I'm in the same boat. I used to think that Rand had legitimate points and that hey, a society like that could work.

Of course, I was fifteen at the time. Finding the intellectual discipline necessary to realize that Rand's philosophy was predicated on nonsense and that I had been wrong was important to my intellectual development.

I was a "communist" when I was 15. Visiting the Soviet Union taught me just how wrong I was.

I'm gently worried that young people aren't allowed to make similar mistakes - reading the wrong websites or sending the wrong tweets can be really harmful to some people's lives.

I am a fanatical libertarian and Rand is not a major figure in most modern circles.

Austrian writers are the go to role models for most libertarians, Hayek, Mises, my favorite is Rothbard.

Are you aware the Rothbard thinks of children as property, and is anti-semitic, among other disgusting positions?

And that Hayek sympathizes, morally, with socialism?

Mises is wonderful but these other people you list with him are really quite different than him.


"The parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die."

See http://mises.org/rothbard/ethics/fourteen.asp

Yeah, pretty disgusting.

I think what Rothbard and Rand both illustrate is the flaw of letting logical consistency override every other consideration, including basic human decency and moral intuition, when developing one's moral sense.

Do you think you have the right to something that someone else has to work to produce? That's what Rand was against. You don't have a right to use force to cause someone else to work for your benefit.

There is a pretty clear logical flaw here. Nothing is produced in a vacuum. Your ability to create, to generate wealth, is heavily reliant on the infrastructure and services provided by your society (electricity, defense, roads, education, etc).

In other words, if Bill Gates had been born in Somalia, chances are he wouldn't be nearly as successful.

Taxation is how you repay your debt to the society that enabled your success.

Actually, Rand's view was that government wouldn't provide electricity, roads and education. These goods and services would be private and paid for by the people who wanted to use them.

Defense was a different matter, in that in her view, that was one of the legitimate functions of government -- protecting the individual rights of the citizens.

Rand acknowledged that every generation stands on the shoulders of the productive people who came before them.

Yes, if Bill Gates was born in Somalia he probably wouldn't have followed the path he did. If Somalia was a nation where individual rights were respected, as Rand advocated, everyone in Somalia would be much better off.

I don't think it's best to frame the question in terms of rights. If you're asking whether it's morally justified to tax millionaires in order to feed and house the homeless, my answer is yes.

> if voluntary charity worked, no one would have invented public services to begin with

Not to judge this particular use of tax money but of course they would -- it's in the direct interest of the reigning bureaucracy, or any bureaucracy, to expand its scope whether it's necessary or beneficial to the society. It's the same with departments fighting over budget and new hirees.

So, your argument is that the Romans built roads not because they were useful to society and under-provided by private enterprise but because the road-building bureaucracy was expanding its power.

Do tell us more.

My argument is that the fact that any particular stretch of road was built doesn't prove its usefulness or superiority over alternative means of transportation. Though considering much more limited resources and greater personal interest of people in office (and options to enrich themselves), I would guess that Roman bureaucracy couldn't be as wasteful as current first world governments.

Your snide tone is neither necessary nor justified.

I'm sure the Roman empire had its share of expanding bureaucracy--after all the eastern chunk of the empire which later broke off did coin the term "byzantine"--but your point is valid.

That might explain the growth of an existing bureaucracy, but not the creation of a new one. There's no existing bureaucracy that expanded its way into social welfare or public libraries, those were created democratically when people voted for candidates who promised to create those services.

Voluntary charity was the origins of public services. The nineteenth century was very libertarian by modern standards, but there were a wave of charitable moves, everything from libraries (Carnegie), homes for the poor (Peabody, many more, even charitable housing investment companies), drinking water, universities and education. This was in a time when stopping children working was seen as intervention in the free market.

The success of this meant that the state got involved, as the benefits were so large and clear, and more was clearly needed.

Police, Emergency and Fire departments are all "good" and "provide value" however they are not profitable. Nor do people run out to voluntarily pay for them. And there are a few cases where counties/municipalities created subscription like fees for these to the effect of somebody losing a house to a fire while the fire fighters stood to watch.

This is the core of the problem with "no taxes" - principally it's good on paper. In reality it's more complicated than that.

Early fire departments were run by insurance companies to fight fires on their customers' properties. Those who couldn't afford insurance would be left to burn.


Ancient Rome had a fire brigade, run by Marcus Licinius Crassus, who you might remember as the villain from the 1960s Spartacus film. He and his crew would arrive at the scene of a fire to save your home from going up in flames...if you sold it to him.


I didn't know about this and it's quite interesting. But I wonder why it no longer exists this way? Is there a reason why a "for-profit" discontinued a service like this?

EDIT: Seems I found a clue ....

"In 1862 insurance companies told the government that they were unwilling to be responsible for London’s fire protection as the cost of compensation was becoming too high. The government decided that the Metropolitan Board of Works would take control."

It's also worth remembering that fires spread. If the house two doors down is on fire you better hope they and the house next door have insurance (and remembered to pay the bill this month).

You hit the nail on the head which naive interpretations of libertarian isolationism often miss -- unchecked problems spread viz fire, pollution, garbage, disease outbreaks, crime and poverty.

As one's liver combats the effects of pollution in your bloodstream by filtering it, so, as a society, we have developed certain organs to combat the degrading effects of similar sorts of problems.

People aren't asked to voluntarily pay for the police force, however people in the middle class and above do pay for security services which approximates a part of what the police do.

People also pay for detective services when the police fail, are unwilling, or are not tasked to inquire into a particular crime. Also people pay investigative services for breech of contract civil offenses that the police generally do not aid with.

People additionally form themselves into neighborhood watches, and voluntarily take up the general duty of a beat cop.

All these services that people are providing for themselves with their own sweat, money, and private organization are good wholesome things. Should they also become the sole providence of the government as well to perform in a beaurocratic and mayhaps inefficient manner?

Answer yea or nay, but think about it.... that's the crux of libertarian thought: thinking about everything in that manner and not just taking for granted that if something has been a government service for generations, then it should continue to be one in the future.

The crux of libertarian thought is that public services like the police can be entirely replaced by voluntary organizations--that the neighborhood watch or private detectives should assume the powers of, say, arresting people and putting them in jail.

Yes, the logical conclusion of libertarian thought is anarchy (in the sense of no government at all, not communism or syndicalism). Some people might think that is a horrible state of affairs. But, no taxes, right? And without pesky immigration and border control, you can just move if you don't like the way the people's justice system is treating you.

The neighborhood watch can already commit citizens arrests in certain circumstances.

Private detectives provide investigative materials that are used in civil courts.

It's already happened.


Now libertarian thoguht doesn't say just because you can replace something by a voluntary institution then you should.

However, you should think about the scenario.

The alternative, more mainstream viewpoint, is that the government should provide for certain goods because it is assumed that the private sector won't or shouldn't do it. There's no reasoning behind it, its just taken as a given.

Libertarians are generally the ones making assumptions--that the private sector will provide health care to everyone without government regulation, that the private sector will provide housing, food, and other necessities to the poor and elderly without government assistance, that the private sector will refrain from pumping poisonous substances into the air and water without government regulation, and so forth. There's insufficient empirical evidence that any of this would happen, but it means less taxes and less government so it must be good.

There's a darker strain of libertarians who genuinely don't care whether the congenitally frail receive health care or whether the poor can afford food and shelter, because there's no human right to food and shelter, but there is a human right not to pay taxes. Even most libertarians shy away from this by asserting that somehow private charity will take care of it all, but the empirical evidence is insufficient.

“A healthy, 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides: You know what? I'm not going to spend 200 or 300 dollars a month for health insurance, because I'm healthy; I don't need it,” Blitzer said. “But you know, something terrible happens; all of a sudden, he needs it. Who's going to pay for it, if he goes into a coma, for example? Who pays for that?

“What he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul said. ”My advice to him would have a major medical policy, but not before —"

“But he doesn't have that,” Blitzer said. “He doesn't have it and he's — and he needs — he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays?”

“That's what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.,” Paul said, repeating the standard libertarian view as some in the audience cheered.

“But congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die,” Blitzer asked.

“Yeah,” came the shout from the audience. That affirmative was repeated at least three times.

  -- LA Times article "Support at GOP debate for letting the uninsured die" [1]
[1] http://articles.latimes.com/2011/sep/13/news/la-pn-ron-paul-...

You're probably referring to the case of a city fire department that offers service to its (tax-paying) residents, but charges an annual fee for residents outside the city limits. When one of those houses in unincorporated land is on fire but hasn't paid their fee, then - once they have ensured no lives are at risk - they choose to let it burn.


> ust because something is good doesn't mean the tax payers should pay for it. There are other options.

if you remove 'good' with 'useful', and it seems to me that this is exactly what tax payers should pay for. There are tons of useless shit tax money is used for, libraries is not one of them.

You seem to have no idea what the libertarian position is. So I'll try to help:

Just because something is super good and super useful -- and uncontroversially worthwhile -- like groceries, cars, delivery of packages, the production of beds, health care, retirement savings, and so on ... absolutely does not imply that the Government should be paying for it with tax money.

Libertarians believe that Government is kind of like a really big bureaucratic company, except even less efficient and poorly managed in most respects, and instead of pitching investors (say) it sometimes just takes their money against their will. If something is important and we want it run well and efficiently, all the more reason to keep Government away from it.

The reason to involve Government in something is when Government's unique talents and position are helpful. Most good things can be provided without Government and therefore should be provided without Government.

Government has a more legitimate role to play when we need:

1) massive scale. our Government is big which is, in a few cases, an advantage

2) when we're dealing with law (courts) or force (police, military, CIA) because it's very tricky to let non-Government people do a lot in these areas

Government is also useful for things which have massive positive externalities. Education is the paradigmatic example.

Libraries are also an example of a good where maintaining the "option to buy" is potentially more important than any service you consume. In other words, having a big pile of books in a building, available for close to no cost, enables us all to act more freely -- knowing we can get more information when we need it.

What "massive positive externalities" are created by a library?

The sole benefit you describe, namely the ability to borrow books, is a private benefit. I borrow a book, read it and enjoy it. What benefit does this create for anyone besides me?

Since I am the sole beneficiary, the library can charge me for it, and prevent me from consuming it if I don't pay. Why should you be forced to pay for me to receive these benefits? Should you also be forced to pay for my netflix subscription?

Having an educated populace is essential to a democratic society. It's the same reason we have public education and also why the freedom of the press is enshrined in our constitution.

I benefit from library's near me that I have never been to. They among other things reduce crime in my area which then reduces the need for shops in my area to protect themselves at night, which allows for both lower prices and longer hours. Could other things provide the same benefit, of course video games also reduce crime.

But, the choice is not to eliminate these library's and watching identical private ones pop up, it's between having them and not, and by having them I benefit more than it costs me for them to be there.

First, where I live (India), libraries are provided by the private sector. So clearly market forces can provided libraries.

Second, how much crime is prevented by libraries? Is this the cheapest way to prevent crime? Or would it be cheaper to devote the money to a few more beat cops?

The US library system far supposes India's. There would a few library's near me without public funds. But, most of them would shut down so an equivalent private option does not actually exist.

Is it the cheapest way to prevent crime? Is a leading question. Where I live we spend a lot of money on a wide range of things from beat cops to parks and street lights that prevent crime. And library's provide many other services than just crime prevention.

A more realistic question might be; Assume 10% of their useful function to me was crime prevention would reallocating 10% of their funding to something else above and beyond what we already spend on it prevent more crime? And the answer to that question is no.

PS: In theory we might be able to say use subliminal messages to prevent crime more cheaply. But, of the options that are actually being considered Library's are surprisingly cost effective.

No, the issue isn't their useful function, the issue is their public benefit.

The cost/benefit to evaluate public subsidies is (public benefits) / (public costs). If 90% of the benefits of a library are gained by the users, then it's highly likely that this will be negative.

In such cases, a mixed model is best - i.e., if 10% of the benefits are public, 90% private, then a 10% subsidy for libraries might be justified.

But, Public Benefit always = Sum of all Private Benefits. You may be thinking direct benefit vs external benefit, but as everyone utility functions are separate their share of the public benefit is different. I specifically mentioned my personal cost (as a share of the public cost) and my personal (indirect) benefit to help clarify the issue, but I think you missed that point.

Cost and benefit are also independent. It possible for a Polio vaccine to provide 100,000 times the public benefit relative to it's cost (eliminating a disease for all time can easily be worth vaccinating people on the other side of the planet). Research can also easily have that magnitude benefit ratio's.

And (public benefits) / (public costs) is only negative if public benefits or public costs are negative you might be thinking Benefits - Costs but that does not really fit the rest of your equations either. Anyway, the idea that public subsidy's should not exceed the ratio of (individual benefit) / (public benefit) sounds good until the public benefit exceeds the cost at which point there is little for an individual to pay the costs.

PS: There is a reason people get PHD's in economics it's a lot more complex than you might think. Just consider adding different levels of diminishing returns to all of those cost benefit equations and your still barely scratching the surface.

> I borrow a book, read it and enjoy it. What benefit does this create for anyone besides me?

That actually made me feel sorry for you.

Are you really this much of an island, or do you just enjoy trolling? Is there no possible benefit for me that you might have learned something, or that perhaps you might now be able to tell me something I didn't know before? Is there no benefit to me that perhaps because someone in a library showed you how to apply for your housing benefit online you didn't feel the need to break into my car?

And yes, much crime like theft can be related to drugs. But a significant proportion can also be tied back to poverty.

You're like a parody of all that's bad about the libertarian ethos. Or whatever you think you are.

Is there no possible benefit for me that you might have learned something, or that perhaps you might now be able to tell me something I didn't know before?

You are moving the goalposts. I asserted there is no "massive positive externality", not that there is no possible external externality.

I do concede that maybe people who spend time in the library are more interesting conversationalists. I just don't consider this benefit to be "massive". Do you?

There's no "massive positive externality" to humanity. If you are to take your position to its logical conclusion, all human life should be exterminated.

I don't think I've seen anyone argue for a truly nihilist position as earnestly as you have here.

You stated that "The sole benefit you describe, namely the ability to borrow books, is a private benefit. I borrow a book, read it and enjoy it. What benefit does this create for anyone besides me?"

Do we have different definitions of "sole" and "private" - those words feel fairly absolute to me.

Sure it may not be a massive positive and direct benefit to you, but I find it hard to understand how you think there's no possible benefit at all. Do you feel the same way about teaching people to read, write and count?

You are correct, I should have been more careful with my language. Mea culpa.

Or be prepared to concede with slightly more grace when your argument gets destroyed.

For things that are super good, super useful but not profitable nor predisposition for voluntary support how does a community get those things? Especially those within the community whom might not afford otherwise? And especially when the lack for them causes cascading affect to the whole of the community?

Seems to me an outbreak of disease by the poor surely effects the whole and that we all would do well to pay a "tax" to prevent that?

If you're arguing my list of Government specialties was incomplete, I agree, and contagious disease control is a great example.

3) for things that provide value but don't (necessarily) make money. And no, persuading people to voluntarily pay for these is not generally sustainable.

I knowingly, intentionally disagree with the public good argument. See:


The dam building example illustrates exactly why the public good argument makes sense. Let's say a town of 100 farmers need a dam built and there is a net benefit even if only 50 contribute to building the dam. Now there is a huge incentive for the farmers to play chicken with each other to see who will pay up first. The "free riders" that don't pay for the dam will have extra money to buy more land or other resources to take better advantage of the new dam's benefits.

In this case it is fair for the town government to pay for the dam with taxes. Given the net benefits of the dam it is even plausible that the increased property values and job revenues near the dam would increase the tax base.

People are not "rational economic actors" and do not make all their life choices by "incentives" of this type.

Most people will care a lot more about, for example, how they are perceived in the community. So simply making the payers list public would, in some cases, prevent people from playing chicken.

Many other solutions are possible, depending on context and culture. It's the job of the businessman to use creativity to find a solution, a way to persuade people to voluntarily participate in his project.

What's wrong with Government action?

Two main things:

1) some people will be taxed to pay for the dam who were not playing chicken but genuinely would rather have kept their money and not had the dam than have paid for it. Why? Because their kid urgently needs new shoes or expensive, urgent cancer treatments. Or their roof leaks, or many other reasons. Just because the damn project is profitable for them doesn't mean they don't have more urgent uses of capital at the moment.

2) some proposed projects should not be done. Why? Well maybe people are mistaken about it being a net win. Maybe it has hidden costs which I noticed but other people didn't notice. And I try to tell them but they don't understand my point.

The solution to the "same projects are mistakes" issue is voluntary participation so people use their judgment and win or lose based on their own choices.

Taxing everyone means the dissenters pay for it, and lose out if it fails, even though their judgment was correct.

The Government has no special skill at knowing which dams should be built now, which later (because some other use of capital is more urgent), and which never. Nor at knowing which look highly profitable now but will be rendered obsolete by new technology next year.

Interesting points, although I respectfully disagree.

It's pretty silly to talk about economics if you don't believe in rational economic actors. A public list is a nice theory, but then you would still have people trying to get on the list for the minimum amount possible and hoping that others would donate more to be higher on the list of donors. And what happens when you have 60 local farmers and 40 corporation farms. Most corporations would be pretty hard to shame into paying if they could somehow get others to pay.

Point #2 goes both ways. If the project becomes a net benefit then the dissenters get the benefit and win even though their judgement was incorrect.

Point #1 also goes both ways and points towards the need for public goods. In reality the sick farmer will benefit the most from public services such as dams and health care being shared by all of society. By sharing the cost of the dam and healthcare across all of the farmers they can help prevent one of them going bankrupt due to a bad case of cancer.

It's true that the government isn't better than everyone else at knowing which dams should built, but that doesn't mean that society can't figure out that some projects are best funded by the entire society.

Anyway - interesting perspective on your part. I wish more people could talk about the pros and cons without getting downvoted for disagreeing with the majority.

> Point #2 goes both ways. If the project becomes a net benefit then the dissenters get the benefit and win even though their judgement was incorrect.

Lots of people dissented from the iPhone. Now they benefit. Their benefitting doesn't hurt Apple or prevent Apple from having funded the project themselves and from making plenty of profit. Apple got what they paid for and then some. Other people come out ahead too but that isn't Apple's loss. I don't think some people getting unearned benefit is something to worry about as long as the primary actors are able to make their profit.

The same point could be made more broadly about computers as a whole. Funded by a minority initially, now hugely benefitting many people who didn't take any of the initial risk.

I think there is an asymmetry. I'm far more concerned about people being forced to pay for failed projects or projects requiring capital they more urgently need elsewhere -- being actively, involuntarily hurt -- than I am worried about people gaining broad benefits from projects that benefit the primary actors and risk takers plenty (I actually regard this free stuff to lots of people, which is the result of many projects, as a positive, happy thing, not a negative.)

If you'd like to discuss further, with interesting people and no downvotes, you could come to:


The same point could be made more broadly about computers as a whole. Funded by a minority initially, now hugely benefitting many people who didn't take any of the initial risk.

Libertarian selectivenes again. Government grants have always had a large part to play in computer development, but aside from that, what's really benefitting people is the internet, which was most definitely a government project, 'funded by all US taxpayers' rather than 'funded by a minority'.

> It's pretty silly to talk about economics if you don't believe in rational economic actors.

With respect: when you find rational economic actors in notable quantities, please do let the rest of us know. (My skepticism of the questionable assertions of libertarians is largely based on the conspicuous absence of such actors.)

Basing policies on the assumption that nobody will exploit obvious inefficiencies since people aren't entirely rational is the economic equivalent of using "drowssap" as your password.

Don't worry: even with rational actors as an assumption fundamentalist libertarianism still has plenty of holes.

Surely as argued above, contagious disease prevention would qualify as a public good — it is certainly something that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. Why do you agree with government provision in this case but not in the case of, say, free education for all?

That article doesn't seem to give much sway to the issue of transaction costs in letting people organise to provide a public good, which is really central to the issue..

> That article doesn't seem to give much sway to the issue of transaction costs in letting people organise to provide a public good, which is really central to the issue..

There are transaction costs for Government action too. In general they are higher. Government has no special ability to keep transaction costs low.

> Surely as argued above, contagious disease prevention would qualify as a public good

It has excludable ("public") and non-excludable aspects like all goods. It's certainly possible, in theory, to make a profit off it. But today no such thing is organized, meanwhile the Government does have it under control, and the total cost isn't very high relative to the country's wealth. So there's much, much higher priorities to privatize like the postal system or social security.

I think reform needs to go one step at a time. Do I predict that contagious disease control will and should one day be done differently? Yes I guess so, though the far future is quite hazy. Let's not worry too much about that because by the time we get closer to doing something it will be a lot clearer what works or not.

But when you bring up something like education, where we already have many private educational institutions, and public schools are widely regarded as largely failing, no I don't think the Government is good at this and no I don't want to spend billions in taxes on throwing money at stuff with institutional problems other than underfunding (e.g. teacher's unions and the wrong epistemology).

A good transitional proposal is vouchers. In this way the Government can subsidize poor people or any other favored group while not actually running any schools. So if what you want is access to education, paid for by the Government, you can still have that without Government actually running schools. I think that'd be a good step forward.

Transitions are important because if you cut off aid to some group overnight then they are going to get fucked in the meantime before alternatives are created. And transitions are also important in that alternatives are not created before some sort of transitional steps are implemented to allow alternatives a purpose and ability to be useful.

It's important to keep in mind that economists consider things cetibus paribus - that is, as they are at the time, in isolation and in the real world. Whilst I have no particular problem with market based solutions (e.g. publicly funded vouchers should be provided for schools rather than public funding per se) I'm interested in seeing some kind of current, market based solution to issue of contagious disease prevention (how do we make everyone who benefits from protection against contagious diseases pay the value of their protection, for instance) and education (how do we make everyone who benefits from an educated populace pay a fair price towards the education of the next generation) --- when I do, perhaps the libertarian approach will persuade me more. Keep in mind that approaches which require future technological advances or infringement of civil liberties aren't allowed.

> There are transaction costs for Government action too. In general they are higher. Government has no special ability to keep transaction costs low.

Of course they do --- it's called fiat. When a variety of beneficial options exist but a lack of cooperation prevents an overall resolution, the government has the power to step in and dictate what should be done. If you don't like it, other options are still available --- there are other countries to migrate to.

Fiat isn't saving on transaction costs. It's basically just failure to do due diligence (enough to persuade people to participate voluntarily) and therefore acceptance of high risk.

I don't consider proposing emigration as a reasonable response to proposed reforms of our country.

I have no particular ideas about changes for dealing with contagious diseases. It's low priority and I haven't thought about it. If you'd like several examples (but not that one), I suggest the book The Machinery of Freedom, now free: http://daviddfriedman.com/The_Machinery_of_Freedom_.pdf

> how do we make everyone who benefits from an educated populace pay a fair price towards the education of the next generation

I don't understand the necessity of making everyone who benefits pay. The real problems, as I see them, are getting stuff to happen and be paid for in such a way that everyone directly involved mutually benefits. If someone else benefits to, that isn't hurting anyone and is not a problem.

What actual problem do you want to solve? Having schools and having them paid for? I don't see that as terribly hard. We already have schools, public and private, people already pay for them (both types), it works. I don't see any fundamental difficulty in getting the Government out of the education equation unless your goal is redistribution of wealth (for educational purposes) to poor people or other groups, and you want to redistribute more than voluntary charity will do (in other words: you want to redistribute wealth from people who think it's best used on X, for purpose Y, against their best judgment).

If you want to do that redistribution you need Government because it has the special power of using force against innocent people who disagree with you. But vouchers are still adequate.

Running then with the library example, who then would be inclined to fund and run libraries in local communities across the nation (where companies may not be heavily invested or even able to afford such efforts)? In the libertarian stance, what would the alternative here be?

Don't get me wrong - I generally find the libertarian mindset quite agreeable but there are certain examples where I'm unable to reach the conclusions truer libertarians do, and this would be one of them.

Without wanting to get into a political debate (although I'm happy to do that off-site), I see this as baseline infrastructure: part of the solid platform underlying a healthy economy. I do see it as government's job to provide that.

If you want to discuss offsite, please join us at:


"if there is a genuine need for ____, and value in having them (quite plausible), then Government funding is not the best approach to creating them or running them efficiently".

The problem with that argument is there is Nothing that get's past it.

People talk about creating wealth like it exists in a vacuum but without the knowledge and resources that comes from living in society You can't create such things. Bill gates would have been completely incapable of creating 99.99999% of his wealth if he had been born a mere 10,000 years ago. That's not to suggest society should the vast majority of your output but giving up 1/3 of your income to keep things running smoothly is in no way unfair. If you really think you would be better off fending for your self without tools or knowledge then feel free to get a lobotomy and move to an island somewhere otherwise you do owe society a great deal.

The "get rid of society" mentality of some libertarians/anarchists is one of the reasons I do not call myself a libertarian.

However it's no reason to reject all libertarian or classical liberal type ideas. Just because society brings value, and Steve Jobs made his fortune in context, does not mean taxes should pay for all sorts of stuff or that it's necessary to either give up a third of my income or find for myself without tools or knowledge. That's a false dichotomy. It'd be possible to have a functional society, with knowledge and tools and so on, with a lot less being provided by taxes and more being provided by non-Government entities.

Yea, I don't mean to suggest that's the only choice, just that there is valid justification for society taxing someones output.

In general terms government consists of 3 choices. What do we prohibit(1), promote(2), and how much do we forfeit(3). The libertarian view is to focus on minimize 1 and 2 with the assumption that it minimizes 3. But, as soon as you pick a sacred cow like defense and say this is governments job there is no clear limits, should we build 10,000 nukes? how about 100,000?

In my view if you instead pick how many resources government has to work with and focus on maximizing benefit you naturally start to balance collage scholarships and attack subs. You also tend to avoid budget deficits because if you assume you only have a given budget to work with you don't do the I need do do all these things and taxes must be below _ so I guess we need to barrow a little bit more. Basically, stepping from what can the government do, to how well can the government afford to do X,Y and Z. Which fit's with the reality of diminishing returns while your 10th nuke is worth more than an extra math scholarship your 100,010th is not. As well as differing option on just how important various things are.

PS: As to why 1/3, well at best I might get to keep 50% more money, but government is going to take something so it's just a classic compromise. Also, while it's probably not the top of the laughter curve it's closer to the top than 20% so lowering it is not going to provide more income for the government.

They provide the most service to those unable to afford help. Also, they mostly provide the intangible service of raising peoples' education. That's why they don't make money. People only go to college because they think they're screwed if they don't, but almost nothing else education related has that amount of leverage in the peoples' decision-making.

Fundamentally they don't make money because they don't charge, and also don't sit around trying to think of ways to make money (while still remaining true to their core values and purpose). I don't think we should assume it's an insoluble problem. Once one has an audience and does something useful, monetizing can often be tricky, but is often possible.

Just as one example, what if libraries had some ads somewhere? Then they could be provided for free to poor people but also gain some revenue. (And you offer premium membership with no adds for a yearly fee.)

If that would work (I don't know), then the question would become: should we charge people taxes so that poor people don't have to deal with ads at libraries? And I think the answer to that would be "no" -- if you want to help poor people see fewer ads you could pay money for that yourself without the tax system (e.g. the libraries could directly accept money and the more they get paid the fewer ads they show according to a formula).

> Just as one example, what if libraries had some ads somewhere? Then they could be provided for free to poor people but also gain some revenue.

Perhaps when people borrow a book they are only given the first four chapters; they have to promote the library to get access to the next three chapters; and they have to pay to get access to the last four chapters?

I doubt freemium models will translate well to libraries.

Doubt all you want, but we shouldn't give up and declare it impossible without actually trying.

> Or if they are providing value, why don't they make money?

This question is nonsensical in the context of economic theory.

> If they are a great idea, why not persuade people to voluntarily pay for them?

Because, in this specific case, the people who most need libraries can often barely afford to pay for food and shelter.

Libraries are such an obvious public good that I will never understand why they're not treated (both in the US and in the UK, and perhaps in other countries), as a basic and absolute necessity.

[edited to add not which I left out in my rush to get my point across]

I meant persuade people with money to pay for them.

You value them. Why don't you pay something voluntarily? And a thousand other yous? Why doesn't Bill Gates throw some money at it if it's a super efficient use of resources?

He will, and many other non-poor people will, if they are persuaded it's a better use of their resources than Greenpeace, Oxfam, malaria medicine for Africa, clean water for Africa, and so on.

If such people can't be persuaded of this -- that it's an efficient use of resources -- then that's no time to send the tax man to take their money for this purpose and divert it away from the purposes they judge to be more important.

Is it really so hard for you to imagine prisoners dilemmas and tragedies of the commons?

I'm willing to pay $1 for a public good if everyone else pays $1. But it is utterly irrational for me to pay voluntarily for this public good, for at least two reasons: 1) since most people won't be paying for it, if I want it I'll have to pay much more, and 2) whether or not it exists is entirely independent of my actions anyway, so why pay a thing?

In order for fundamentalist libertarianism to work it will need to come up with a solution to the free-rider problem. Got one?

> In order for fundamentalist libertarianism to work it will need to come up with a solution to the free-rider problem. Got one?

Yes: http://fallibleideas.com/public-goods

Any evidence that this solves it?

It's a philosophical argument, not an evidence-based argument. Do you have a criticism of it other than that you are an empiricist who dislikes philosophy? Do you have a rival idea which isn't refuted?

Philosophers use evidence all the time in support of their arguments, especially when they are making empirical claims (as you are: you are claiming that the costs of government outweigh the benefits when it comes to the provision of public goods). If you choose to not use evidence, then it is important to be far more careful and charitable than you have been. E.g., in your "simple argument" you only consider examples at the extreme (million -x benefit or 1% ROI). These are straw men -- you don't in fact deal with any kind of realistic example.

For your reasoning to have been good and fair, you would have had to consider the scenario that puts your position in the worst possible light and then show that it still holds. Imagine a dam that costs $100 but provides $10,000 of benefit to 20 users. Imagine, further, that all 20 users are competing with each other for status and customers, they are all roughly equally wealthy, and that paying for the dam will be a significant expense for most of them. Even though the dam could be built by any five of the users, any user who doesn't pay will gain a comparative advantage over the others. The libertarian might propose that they collectively participate in a contract. But why should anyone agree to participate in this contract, if they know that the dam will be built irrespective of their participation, and if they will get an advantage over others by not participating? No doubt the hold-outs will claim that they can't afford to pay for it, or that they don't want it -- but this is just a negotiating strategy.

Sure, setting up a government to deal with the provision of a single collective good is extremely inefficient. The issue is that there are many thousands of such public goods (and services). The empirical argument, here, is that on balance the inefficiency is worth it.

It does not appear, from your essay, that you have carefully and sympathetically examined the relevant counter-positions. If you haven't already looked at it carefully, I would recommend http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-rider/

It is interesting that free market fundamentalists seem to have trouble deciding whether their argument is an empirical or a philosophical/moral/ideological one. They will claim that libertarianism is the answer because government-based collective action is always less efficient (an empirical claim). When evidence is provided that this need not always be true, they switch to an argument of "freedom" and natural rights. When this argument is shown wanting, they then revert to their efficiency-related arguments. This flip-flop frequently works to fool many, it seems.

> Philosophers use evidence all the time in support of their arguments, especially when they are making empirical claims (as you are: you are claiming that the costs of government outweigh the benefits when it comes to the provision of public goods).

That's a moral not empirical claim. You can't measure what is morally better than what.

Also that isn't my claim: I said nothing about what outweighs what, and I object to such arguments.

You complain that I don't give a sympathetic reading to free rider problems -- without details, presumably simply because you disagree with me -- but then what do you do? You characterize my views grossly inaccurately by throwing in a bunch of your own assumptions.

HN has terrible UI for finding new replies to comments like this, where they are nested under other comments I wrote, so I don't intend to check again. If you want to have a serious discussion and perhaps learn something, reply at: http://groups.google.com/group/rational-politics-list?hl=en

By this argument, it sounds as though you are saying that the rich are inherently better at allocating resources for the public good than anyone else.

This is an appeal to wealth fallacy.

It's quite possible that the wealthy might have interests that diverge significantly from the common good and the overall wealth of society.

Jared Diamond's 'collapse' makes a strong case for this having occurred numerous times in history.

One of the (many) flaws with libertarian dogma is the assumption that a person can be intelligently informed about every aspect that might affect them, from social effects of libraries to air quality to choosing services right down to who picks up the garbage. Building regulations? Who needs those, right? Let's just replace it by doing 'buyer beware' and making every purchaser of a property have to do an in-depth research of everything, down to what kind of metal the pipes were made out of.

Volunteer charity also only works for <i>visible</i> problems. There's no need for it to go away, but to suggest it could replace (and improve on!) governmental social services is just silly. Everyone gave money to Katrina funds... when it happened. What percentage of the original donators were still donating 6 months later? 12 months? 24 months? Same question for Haiti. Private charity is good for the initial burst for visible causes, but it sucks for ongoing support on the grand scale.

Historically that was how most of the libraries around where I live (London) were created, funded by Carnegie and Passmore Edwards and others.

Libraries are good for the majority of people who can't afford them.

People who have the money to support them, don't need them.

By the time there are enough sufferers, and discontented others who create an externality where libraries are useful, the solution for those who can afford it is personal protection.

So as a result, libraries wont get funded.

If they can't afford to pay for them, they should provide more value to society and not, egoistically, expect to extract more than they put in.

Libraries are a private good, not a public good. Since so many people seem to be getting confused on this point, I'll just post these articles:



The fact that their customers are broke (but not so broke they can't afford cable TV) doesn't change this.

Do you have any information about the cable TV subscription rates of the poor, or are you just trotting out bullshit theories of poverty as lack of impulse control and proper priority setting that were already dusty when Reagan took office?

edit: That is definitely information. Appreciate the references (that were given as a reply to the other comment.) Will look at them later to see if they answer the question that came to mind as I was reading your numbers; what's the churn? How many people were in that 14% during any particular period?

For example, if I did a survey during a famine to find out how many people had a meal that day, and found out 2/3s had, it would be incorrect to say that only 1/3 of people had been effected.

And you know they can afford cable tv how, exactly?

There are apparently 1.5 million homeless children in the US. Are they watching cable tv?

But it's ok - you can link to the correct definition of public vs private good.

I'm actually disgusted by your attitude.

And you know they can afford cable tv how, exactly?

Because the US government did a survey measured this. I link to the raw data in a separate post on this thread, currently downmodded for reasons unknown.


I think it's pretty obvious why you're being down-modded. It's what happens when you set up your own strawman and then demolish it.

First, let it be said that reading through your comments in this thread has driven me to drinking. I'm heading out to the local watering hole, but, before I do, I want to make a couple of points.

First, a library is most assuredly a public good in that it provides services that it can only provide which are not directed at profit-making. It serves many civic purposes and provides many services to the community. This is empirically true. It can be observed. Go to a public library in a city center and you will observe these functions being carried out to the great good of the patrons and the community at large. Your links to Wikipedia notwithstanding, you've made no real argument that libraries do not provide the public goods of communal learning, discourse, shared meeting spaces, free internet access (in intervals). I'm sure you'll go read your Wikipedia definition and come back to split hairs, but it really comes down to the notion of shared services and their potential for enriching the lives of the people in a given community. You've exhibited a great disdain for such here. It's distasteful, but I'm accustomed to it here on the internet, where every engineer who read a Rand novel got the idea that he was John Galt. So it goes.

Second, you've brought in this cable TV nonsense, as if it reveals that the poor are in fact not poor at all because they've found a way to scrape together enough money to enjoy just one small pleasure. Would you like to commission a study on how many poor children eat one or more pieces of candy during a given month? Would that vindicate your view that nobody is poor and that nobody benefits from shared services and that people with less money and opportunity than you are all lazy idiots looking for a way to mooch off of your bootstrapped successes? I think not. I think you'd still be dissatisfied after having ripped off the mask of those greedy little children in the bad neighborhoods, pretending to be poor while eating a piece of candy now and then. For shame! It's almost as bad as having a Playstation! You went looking for these data points as if they prove something. You went looking for data with a clear agenda. You didn't point out how few of these households have usable kitchen appliances or access to healthy, affordable foods. You didn't check out their schools. No, you went looking for evidence that nobody's really poor. I wish you were right.

Third, instead of picking on public libraries, let's talk about the NSF grant that you say is funding your own lifestyle on your homepage at NYU. Is that a public good? I'm paying for scientific research. You're sucking just as hard on the government teat as anybody. Shouldn't you explain to us why it's worth it when our libraries aren't? The truth is, I'm a big believer in funding scientific research and public libraries. You seem to want it both ways here, though. You want to bash libraries as useless and go on and on with these badly built, parsing arguments. Why don't you feel the same way about NSF grants? Are those a public good? I'd say by your criteria, they are not, since a grant for you means no grant for somebody else. I suspect that your logic only really applies to those less motivated, less gifted souls who haunt the dim and sad hallways of our dying public libraries. Is that it?

Fourth, your attitudes here, I'm sure, seem logical to you and your friends on the internet who love John Galt as much as you do. But these economic and social issues are about outcomes in systems which are (effectively) infinitely complex. And they carry moral weight. Your approach to these questions, in their selfishness and proud disregard for your fellow man and neighbor, is, as Gore Vidal described Ayn Rand's philosophy, "almost perfect in its immorality." An easier way of saying that is that you just sound like a dick. Sure, you're pompous and kind of a smartass, but that's most of us here in computerland. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about how painfully careless you are with the hopes, the well-being, or simply the lives of others. You reduce our collective existence to atomic miseries, as if you've escaped most of them by your own virtue rather than through a series of accidents. You place blame where it isn't due and heap glory where it doesn't belong.

You can call it libertarianism. I just call it being an asshole.

See you at the library (not now - I'm headed to the bar).

...public goods of communal learning, discourse, shared meeting spaces, free internet access...

Just because you stick the word "public good" and "free" in front of something you want other people to pay for doesn't make those services non-rivalrous and non-excludible.

As for NSF grants (note: webpage is way outdated, haven't been at NYU for years), the theory behind their public benefit is that published scientific research helps everyone - you are free to build a medical or other device based on the basic research I published.

I'm not going to defend this empirically since I'm unconvinced it's true. The large chunks of grants pilfered by universities, the paywalled publications, and the patented inventions exploited by universities seriously undermine the public benefits.

As for your ad-hominem attacks, I'll ignore those. I recommend reading this, since you seem new here: http://ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

I'm an ultra-libertarian because I'm fairly certain that giving more revenue to the CA general fund will result in more money given to pensions of 55-year old state employee retirees, and not useful public services like libraries. The large bureaucracies in this country (CA, NY, and national governments) are incredibly dysfunctional and captured by special interest.

You know where all the public money has gone for libraries? War.

The cost of medical benefits for all the soldiers who are mamed but now can survive for 50 years is staggering and will choke our culture to death. All those weapons, fuel, R&D, "homeland security theater", etc. all part of the massive war machine.

But war will always be funded because it's the ultimate high of money and power, to be able to send people to kill and be killed, heck it gives the politicians special "war powers", why would they not want it?

Doesn't matter if it's the left or right in charge, they do love their war and will never, ever stop.

You know where all the public money has gone for libraries? War.

I'm glad someone pointed this out, because I came here to do this. But that money has actually gone two places: war and welfare transfer payments, as Alex Tabarrok describes in Launching the Innovation Renaissance, where he says that "the big four of defense, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security eat up $2.2 trillion, or nearly two-thirds of the U.S. federal budget."

We—collectively, as a society—have elected to spend steadily more money on war and transfer payments. A lot of library funding comes from the local and state level, but local taxing abilities are partially contingent on how much the federal government is taking, and what the federal government is spending that money on.

War costs are hidden and spread throughout the system. It's far more than the official numbers.

All those injured vets get tons of welfare, well before their elderly years instead of how the system was designed for as a safetynet.

You cannot eliminate the safetynet for poor and elderly - well you could, but whomever does it would be a heartless bastard and march our nation right into hell itself as crime becomes exponential.

You can however eliminate war and the TSA and all these billions of dollars we are wasting to spy on every American.

We don't need an educated populace; we just need soldiers.

How many people become soldiers because they are patriots who want to give their lives for their country, and how many become soldiers because the alternative is poverty?

I am earnestly surprised by the collective HN reaction to this story. While at first glance it may seem as though there are commenters on very opposite ends of the geopolitical spectrum, they all have one thing in common. The distinct belief that this is someone else's fault other than their own.

No matter your stance on public vs private services, what good does it do to argue on the internet about how other people are running things. What happened to the government formed of the people and by the people, and the intrinsic responsibility in these types of matters that we all should bear? When will we all grow tired of commenting from the sidelines and begin to get in the game?

This group as a whole consists of some very smart, creative people, with a heavy lean towards entrepreneurialism. I would be willing to bet that if we all put our heads together we could come up with a solution that would not only put these libraries back in the black, but could generate extra revenue for our companies as well.

To kick things off I will throw out the first idea. Obviously, companies producing web applications have a vested interest in the universal access of technology. What if we could fund some of these training classes by offering these public libraries referral programs that would allow them to profit from teaching customers how to use our applications and services? Citizens learn new technology critical to their well being, we receive new signups for our services, libraries make a cut. Obviously this is very general and ripe with logistical complexities. It is meant to spark the minds of people much smarter than I am.

Not to sound too ridiculous here, but I for one still believe that we can fix this country if we ditch the someone else's problem attitude and start focusing on solutions.

Thank you for this comment. This is one of the best posts that I have read on HN (the original one) and I think it behoves everyone on the better off side of the digital divide to consider how this gap can be closed. I sincerely hope that the compassion in this world has not be drowned out by the noise of 'entrepreneurism' Looking at the great entreprenuers of the 19th century, nearly all were characterised by following a vision and giving back to the community.

Drawing a parallel to the Canadian healthcare system:

I haven't been sick in 12 years. Yet, every year, I pay taxes to keep the public healthcare system running. Even though it's not something I use, undoubtedly, there are people who need it, and wouldn't be able to pay for it if it wasn't public.

About a month ago, I exhibited the symptoms of some kind of ventricular tachycardia (heart arrhythmia). As advised by a friend in medicine (in a different city), I tried to get myself booked for an ECG, to see what exactly was wrong. Without getting into the details, let's just say that even to this day, I haven't been able to get one.

I can definitely see why people don't want to pay, not just for services that they'll never use, but for services they'll probably be unable to use, even if they ever need to.

You're not unable to use the system, you're just not able to use the system frivolously.

Procedures like ECGs arent performed at patient request, they're performed by specialists when a qualified physician determines a need for one and refers you to a specialist.

You can't get yourself an ECG not because they're unavailable, but simply because "Joe Random from city X says you need one" caries as much weight with Heart Specialists as "my cousin Bob says you should give me a new laptop" does with warrantee repairmen.

That's actually not true at all. They'll rush ECG procedures if you're currently exhibiting symptoms at that moment. Yes, if I were rushed to the hospital, I could probably get one. Somethings tells me that by then, it's probably too late.

What nonsense. I'm Canadian, I had symptoms of an arrythmia, went to a GP to describe what was happening, and I had an ECG done and bloodwork drawn at a nearby lab less than an hour later. This was all while I was not exhibiting symptoms.

Like msbarnett says, you can't just roll into a clinic and say "I don't feel well and I'm scared and my cousin who's totally a doctor thinks this is what I should do! Also an MRI please!" Go see a doctor, and let them decide what diagnostic tests are appropriate, and you'll get them done.

As a Canadian in the U.S., believe me when I say that in America you would be paying more to get even less.

The amount of inefficiency, conflicts of interest, hypocrisy, bureaucracy, and redundancy in the U.S. system beggars belief.

Can you pay and get one? How much would that cost?

Even though I consider myself basically libertarian I'm often annoyed by the programs that seem to be first in line for budget cuts - libraries, parks, school music programs, and other basic things that don't actually cost very much.

This is by design, not by necessity - cuts to programs that people enjoy or support are more like to encourage voters to accept bond measures, tax increases, etc in order to avoid those cuts.

California spent $10 BILLION on prisons in 2011-2012. The country spent over $80B fighting drugs.

Funding libraries is a rounding error compared to the actual activities voters choose to allow their governments to engage in. If you want well funded libraries - stop voting for politicians whose only solutions involve more jails, more arrests, more wars, and more handouts.

Maybe I'm just not in a skeptical mood today, but the anecdote in that story points out something that I tend to take for granted. I'm probably not alone, especially here on HN.

That is, the fact that some people just really don't understand the most basic concepts of using a computer. And it's not their fault.

Your breath seizes in your chest, and you realize you have no idea what to do. You have the form that they gave you at the social services office, which has an address, which you sort of know what that does, but you can't quite remember – 17 minutes, by the way. You try typing X City Social Services in a box at the top, a page comes back and says “address not found” with a list of things below it. You're panicking...

I'm all for increasing the use of technology in order to make things work more smoothly and efficiently, but this story points out just how left-behind this can leave some people.

I guess the answer is better education, and not just in schools. I guess I can be glad that there are a lot of people working in that space. Even then, before anyone can use Khan Academy or enroll in online classes, they need to have a better idea of "what a [web] address does", and sometimes even whether to "do a left or right click".

I've been surprised by the lack of technical ability in my college classes, especially from students that are my age or younger. This semester, a student told me she couldn't find a program to write a short assignment. I sent her a link to OpenOffice and was baffled by how excited she was about it. She informed me that she was writing papers nonstop, just because she was happy to finally have a tool that let her do it. And this wasn't a dumb person either. Last week she was half a point away from a perfect score on an exam that would have ruined my semester back when I was in college.

Sidebar: Memorization is one, highly over valued, facet of intelligence. I've know several of the 'smartest' kids in my classes to be actually very slow, very un perceptive, very 'dumb' by all standards. Nonetheless they got high honors and accolades because they possessed a remarkable ability to memorize and put in crazy hours. Some of these people put int 20+ hours in to get an A in a lab when I would put in 2-3 hours tops and get an AB.

My point is would you want to work with someone who when faced with the issue of having to write a paper doesn't have the spike of genius to search for "word processor" in google?

They got a better grade in the end, didn't they? I would rather work with someone who can deliver, genius or not.

A better grade is more important than delivering in a reasonable time? I think you might have missed my point, you can get A an but the point of the education is not to get an A, its to learn the material.

If they can learn the material, get a very reasonable grade, an AB and spend far far less time I want to work with that person. This person is more likely to be a hacker because they see that there is such a thing as diminishing returns with grades.

> A better grade is more important than delivering in a reasonable time?

Consider a business tender. The brief is to get the best result by a specific day. Multiple contractors have the same time to complete the brief. Those who can provide the best result on the final day will win the contract.

Using your memory is a great hacking tool, probably the best there is. Those students used any tool available to get the job done. That's the true hacker spirit.

if you've ever done phone tech support, you know how inept the average person is when it comes to using a computer. directions like "go to google" or "open up the internet and go to www.some-website.com" might as well be a foreign language.

in my experience, i'd estimate that a solid 25% of the population has no idea how to navigate to an arbitrary website. 'the internet' for them consists of the shortcut icons that dell placed on the desktop when they sold the computer, search results, and links that get emailed to them.

I wonder if big, successful tech companies should be dipping into their pockets to fund internet training- not as charity, but as an investment. eBay, Facebook, Netflix and Google, for instance. Between those four, there must easily be an annual $100 in revenue from having an extra US person online.

So for them to invest $15 each in free classes for someone seems like a no-brainer. Plus it buys good PR and goodwill. Plus it's almost certainly tax deductible.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_action_problem . This is what governments are for.

It is what governments are for, but given the current spectacular failures of government, quasi-monopolistic corporations that can afford it might as well take on some of their functions.

There's a tradition of plutocrats contributing in this way [1], and like the commenter said, it actually would help Google's business.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnegie_library

Plutocrats love building libraries because they get to put their name up top. But the cost of building a library is peanuts compared to the cost of running them properly. (Or should be).

I just want to mention as an extention to this thought bubble, a better phrasing would be "this is what small, local, regionally influenced and funded governments are for".

If boroughs and counties had more relevance in society they could easily do things like this if they feel it would be beneficial (IE, they are a rural community with little techie knowledge, so offer training and info sessions to the populace at the local library!)

Yes. And as a corollary, taxes.

Just because government can or does provide a service does not mean you cant as well.

Absolutely. But the idea of a collective action problem is that sometimes it isn’t in anyone’s interests to provide the service by themselves.

This can interact badly with some of the (contingent) ways we’ve come to practice capitalism.

Ideally, a government can act as an internalizing force that allows economic actors to step out of local maxima – bad Nash equilibriums where everyone knows how to fix problems but gets punished by the market/shareholders for taking initiative to fix them.

It doesn’t have to be a government that solves a CAP – it can be an industry standards body, for example – but when they deal with things like individuals and libraries, we tend to call them governments.

True and governments have the unique position to have a longer view that would ideally introduce a whole new range of potential outcomes that might not be rational at shorter timescales.

One problem we face now is that the time scale of government is being shortened to that of the corporation. Government shouldn't think quarterly or annually but in terms of decades and generations.

I think the Facebook profit per user (from the IPO prospectus) is only ~1$ and it seems likely that the potential users generated using your suggestion will be below average in terms of revenue generation.

Taking a look backwards, Theodore Nelsons "Computer Lib: You can and must understand computers NOW!" takes on a whole new meaning 38 years later. (And is sadly out of print.) The hacker culture that contrasted itself against the IBM priesthood has itself become a priesthood.

We've given a significant portion of the world personal computers. And told almost nobody how to use them.

If someone thinks libraries are antiquated and are no longer useful then they are just plain ignorant. They really have no idea.

I'm home and I'm using online resources from my library at this very moment. I use online library resources about 20-30 hours per week.

I regularly send off emails and notes of appreciation for their services they offer. I've also established a relationship with IT in several libraries as a go to person when they need an external check on a service that I regularly use (EZProxy issues usually). Why do I do that? It's actually completely selfish of me. I want them to know that the esoteric and underused databases that they are subscribing to are in fact being used and offering aid diagnosing helps uptime. I was actually told that they were going to unsubscribe to my favourite portion of a database because they didn't think anyone was using it!

I made a random comment to a librarian about a year ago. She started showing me their subscription databases and in 10 minutes I was hooked.

Librarians are so god damn helpful.

One of the saddest parts of filling in these government forms online is that some of them time out after 15 or 20 minutes.

I helped someone fill out few of these once because they were having trouble. Even when I had all the information in front of me and the person next to me to organize the information it still timed out. I managed to do one of them on the third try.

There is no way that someone with limited computer experience could fill out a lot of these online forms. Phoning gets you nowhere, and visiting the office for help is a waste of a day.

If only government entities could spend some time into making these online forms and applications usable. Fortunately libraries still exist but I fear for how much longer.

I was subjected to that last weekend, filling out FASFA forms. It would throw up an "I'm timing out" box every ten minutes, and if you didn't click in the next five, it was gone.

It took me 32 working hours to pull together the records to satisfy that form, of which 16 hours were "PTO" from my day job. Mostly because it was effectively necessary to get our 2011 joint tax return done, and my spouse has an (excruciatingly) small business. Once the taxes were done, I used a kitchen timer to make sure I clicked on that "I'm timing out" box which was hidden in another window while I was getting transaction reports.

Someone on NPR had the gall to claim the form would take at most a half hour. The only way I can see that working is if you had no complications in your life (investments, medical expenses, one employer).

If you want a community learning center with computers then why are you asking for a library?


Words matter. People skim, people read headlines. If I read "libraries are in trouble" or "more support for libraries" needed I think "no, anyone with a free smart phone can access the entire internet". They can get a netbook for under $300 or probably a used one for under $50.

Yea, I read the entire post and I understand the guy is poor. I'm just saying that the word "library" is negatively framing the issue.

If we need places for disadvantaged people to be able to use computers and the internet for free and get instruction great! I'm all for that. But that's not a "library"

Yeah, "economic integration centers" or something might help frame their utilitarian value. People who can't integrate with the system end up integrating with the criminal world, so it's worth the social investment to provide computer access, etc.

One town in the UK rebranded their Libraries to "Idea Stores" http://www.ideastore.co.uk/

That's a great name for it "economic integration center". There's probably a business idea in there as well. Kind of a franchised system, where a company create a saas app and you local socialpreneurs who stand/park near offices with laptops help people. You often see this in third world countires near government offices such as passport offices who help people for a small fee. The socialpreneurs could probably even be crowdfunded on kickstarter/indiegogo.

Even using the shallow definition for Public Libraries > a place in which literary, musical, artistic, or reference materials (as books, manuscripts, recordings, or films) are kept for use but not for sale

That is the exactly what large parts of the Internet is. That they are physically books, cd's, dvds' is absolutely immaterial.

I love libraries as much as the next guy. I would love to study at them. But as a student I dont want to study at a place that closes at 5pm on a Saturday. I usually dont want to start studying till 4pm. Compared to my local Starbucks that closes at 11pm.

We have a new library in my city that is beautiful and a massive 77,000 square feet on 4 floors. http://www.flickr.com/photos/petenator/6866904623/

I love studying at my school campus. Its open 24 hours and relatively quite. If libraries could stay open longer I would frequent them a lot more.

Excelllent view from the inside. The problem the article highlights is filling out gov't forms that have moved to the web; these are often just PDF scans.

These gov't forms are often ripe for improvement via improved UX with step-by-step inputs, contextual help, and multi-language capabilities.

"These gov't forms are often ripe for improvement via improved UX with step-by-step inputs, contextual help, and multi-language capabilities."

Sure, and this would undoubtedly relieve a lot of pain points. But the authors intent here goes deeper than just interface. A significant, very non-trivial portion of the population is being left behind by digitalization. These people have no recourse if certain government institutions only handle online forms. Imagine for a second that you have no web experience whatsoever, and you are greeted by the firefox startup screen.

A hard thing to do I know, but as it stands if this is your position it's hard to get out of. Where do you even start? Who can you ask for help in an increasingly competitive solipsistic environment? (Solipsistic, according to my spell check, is not a word, but it's meaning should be obvious to those familiar with solipsism.)

It's hard to imagine the peasants plight when your sitting in the Vatican.

EDIT: Going further, even the people that you wouldn't expect, generation Z, don't really understand computers either. And I'm not sure if they really want to. I mean, sure they can use facebook, but if they ever have "a cool idea" good luck to them figuring out how to express it in digital media. I wonder how many brilliant web startups, game changers, and generally disruptive ideas are trapped in the heads of people who will never get an opportunity to try them out.

Yeah, but explaining why "But computers are a luxury, we shouldn't subsidize those lazy (epithet) people, they should get a job" is a problem, is an interesting exercise. For some reason, people refuse to accept that if you want someone to get a job, but deny them the means to do so, you are being hypocritical and exposing severe cognitive dissonance (seriously more than once I've had someone straight faced tell me "if they want to be able to get computer to apply for jobs, they should get a job"). Yet a large portion of the people don't seem to be able to follow simple causality chains unfortunately. It is both infuriating and saddening.

If you are 53 you have had plenty of time over the last ten years to learn to use computers.

As for what I would do if I was operating firefox for the first time? Try. Or ask somebody next to me (or one of those standing in line).

While I like to think that if you asked for help you would get it, how do you normally respond when people ask you to help them with computer tasks? Now I don't know about you, but my first instinct is to flee. Helping people with computers, a lot of the time, is annoying.

This is compounded by the condescending attitude that most computer users have towards "non-computer" people. If you ask someone to help you with filling out forms, or logging into facebook, or whatever it is you want to do, your probably going to be met with an attitude analogous to "You silly idiot...". I'm not trying to take the moral high ground here, chances are I've acted on this attitude just as many times (On average for years of life.) as you may have, probably more.

It's a very damaging meme. And very hard to eradicate.

EDIT: This was originally appended to my post above. But I eventually decided that was basically just a way of replying that bloated the discussion.

"I need to fill out this form. If you help me you can use the computer sooner". Said to the person behind you.

I'm not going to try and rationalize away good answers. Of all the things you could say to someone, I'd say this has the highest chance of success. And if I was behind you, I'd totally go for that.

Part of the problem of what I said above was focusing too much on the totally-green scenario. I think we take a lot of our computer-know-how for granted. As it stands, were still in the age where I tell people over webchat I'm into "hacking" and they leave because they're genuinely afraid that I'll break into their computer. Regardless of how much you and I both know that it's a lot more complicated than that, and probably not going to happen even if someone "has your IP". (Which has become something of a meme among generation Z for "That thing everyone knows you need to break into computers, but not really sure why.") This is ignoring even the definition of hacker, which I would prefer we get past abject ignorance like this before we put hobbyist hackers into the public mind.

I mean, it's not like it takes more than five minutes to explain:

"The web is made of a bunch of computers sending text streams to each other. The program that interprets these streams is called a server. If a server isn't written correctly it can be exploited to do things the owner didn't intend, and be used to break into the host computer. For the most part nobody is going to get into your computer manually unless theres a server they can exploit. Default windows installations have not had servers installed since XP. Your web browser interprets a different set of text streams that can be exploited as well, you should be more worried about this than you should be of human attackers."

But somehow, it's not happening. Instead an embarrassingly high portion of the population believes that David Lightman type figures run around terrorizing the Internet with magical-but-undefined and fuzzy powers that let them break into anything they have a network connection to.

EDIT: The above explanation is obviously a bit more simple than whats really going on, but is really all most people need to know. Though I wish they knew more, that might just be a pipe dream.

The general public is not going to know what a "text stream" is, what a "host" computer is, or what you mean by getting into a computer "manually". And I'd be willing to bet that "interprets" in this context is also going to be difficult. Explaining these things to people who don't care about computers isn't as easy as you make out.

I know that.

In fact, I expect that the first four minutes would be spent defining most of the words in that paragraph.

And thats assuming you have someone who "clicks" on it the first time around. If they don't, it's going to take a while. Part of the problem is that as you put it, most people don't care. And it's just too costly (in all senses of the word) to really educate people about "computer stuff". This is why we've been advocating user education for years and it hasn't worked.

So we say that we can't teach users not to shoot themselves in the foot. Cool. What are our other options? We can try to make it impossible for users to shoot themselves in the foot. But what we've found is that users ignore warnings. If you make the security restrictions too strict, users can't figure out how to evade them and deem the machine broken. If you make them too easy to circumvent, users go ahead and shoot themselves anyway. If you use a trusted computing architecture, user freedom is lost in such a way that it'd be better for people to be shooting themselves.

If you can't stop people from losing a limb, and you can't tell them how not to do so, what is the world to do?

EDIT: The only thing I can think of is to make computer education cheaper. And I don't mean in the monetary sense, I mean the mental sense. We need to find some way to get more people to care about computers, or make the concepts easier to teach, or make the materials easier to access, or make humans smarter, or something.

This is a problem I spend mental computer time on daily trying to solve. No answers present themselves. I would actually love for someone to show me the silver bullet, or even a box of lead ones. (LINK: http://bhorowitz.com/2011/10/26/lead-bullets/)

EDIT_2: And just for clarification, I'm focusing on all aspects of computing here, not just security or usability or what have you.

In my experience, practically anything to do with a government and technology is certain to be a terrible mess. Forms are just the tip of the iceberg; take a look at any interface created to "replace" a paper form. I haven't seen one that looked or functioned like it had been updated in a decade.

> take a look at any interface created to "replace" a paper form. I haven't seen one that looked or functioned like it had been updated in a decade.

The best example I can think of is tax software, and that's hardly changed in a decade. Sadly, most "replace a paper form" interfaces fall short even of that.

If there's demand, there will emerge scriveners of the new era, helping computer illiterate people.

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scrivener :

Scriveners remain a common sight in countries where literacy rates remain low; they read letters for illiterate customers, as well as write letters or fill out forms for a fee. Many now use portable typewriters to prepare letters for their clients.

The situation in Detroit is dire with the most frequently used libraries being closed. There's strong community support to keep the libraries open but the city is broke.


The Detroit library houses the second greatest collection in the world of baseball memorabilia which was given to them by the late Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell. Access is limited, items are being stolen and the collection isn't being well preserved. This collection could be a tourist attraction as a separate museum that would be self sustaining but the city lacks the seed capital to build it.


I know it's popular in the tech world to say that libraries will disappear with the digitization of books. But what you don't understand is that libraries are the heart and soul of the communities that they serve and no software program can replace the function they serve.

> There's strong community support to keep the libraries open but the city is broke.

Not quite. The city is spending its money on other things.

I'll bet that Detroit is cutting library spending while continuing to spend money on things that are less important than libraries.

> Look to Britain.

What happened to UK libraries?

The poster says

> Today, California cuts the funding for interlibrary loan (oh, sorry young, rural, LGBTQ youth who was hoping to get an anonymous loan of a book that might tell you that your life isn't a freakish abomination as so many of your class-mates insist, here, try this copy of The Sweet Valley Twins from 1989 instead). Tomorrow we have to charge for meeting rooms and our fines have been increased by 150%. The day after that we're a contracted out to a company that puts advertising in your books, has low, low rates on Red Box(C) rentals, and who's under absolutely no compulsion to protect your checkout history from police searches (also, you now get advertising in your email based on that history as a Value Added Service!)

Are there libraries in UK with advertisements in books and low rate rentals in place of free lending?

I remember there were talks in UK about putting advertisements in the official gazette but I hope they didn't really did it.

(Don't take this as crass as it sounds, it's more like an exercise to get back to the theme of the site.)

How would you make a startup business out of this situation?

Either in support of public libraries, or in the vacuum left by their decline.

It's a compelling story, BUT, are libraries really the best way to solve this social problem? Most tax payers don't realize just how expensive their library system is. In my county, we spend $90 million per year for our libraries - about 0.5% of property taxes. As a home owner, neary 15% of the cost of your home, is being funneled to the library system.

I am very in favor of community public investment, but I am skeptical that our libraries are an efficient allocation of the very large claim they already have on our public taxes.

Note in this story how the grandfather was so poorly served by the system. It's not designed to serve those who need the system most. In the end he only gets reluctant help from someone overqualified (overpaid) to give him the kind of assistance he needs.

Unlike other suggestions in this thread, I do not agree that the answer is to prop up the failing library system by pretending to use its services to make their numbers look better. We should be demanding that our libraries evolve to remove wasteful and expensive services (that many of its users can already afford to pay for directly), and focus on the needs of those who cannot pay.

Our average library staff salary and benefits cost $25/hr - couldn't we double the assistance to the underprivileged by paying trained "Web Assistants" $10/hr to help them instead?

In my county, we spend $90 million per year for our libraries - about 0.5% of property taxes. As a home owner, neary 15% of the cost of your home, is being funneled to the library system.

Huh? I'm not understanding your math here at all...

I was doing a back of the envelope NPV calculation - 30 years of 0.5% payments -> 15%. Depending in the discount rate, it's less than that; which is why I said "nearly".

Wow, you've taken 2 numbers that don't have anything in common except the word year and managed to produce an irrelevant value.

Using your calculation 40 years * 30% FICA means I'm paying 1200% income tax.

Fox News would be proud.

This is a reply to several comments, but is important enough that I wanted it at the top level.

Andrew Carnegie founded MUCH more than the Carnegie Library. In fact, a mind boggling number of public libraries in the States alone, and more worldwide, not to mention trade schools, medical research institutions, etc.

Not only did he give the money to fund the library, but he only did so in cases where the town was ready to take on the burden of supporting it.

He was a man with an ego, but his generosity in this regard goes beyond ego. He was a man of virtue, who genuinely sought to see his fortune go back into society to make it a greater place. The amount of good he did boggles my mind and humbles me.

The abundance of public libraries in this country are not a result of liberalism in government. They are a result of liberalism in men's souls. So stop bitching about what other people are doing with their wealth, earned or unearned. That does not make you a better person.

In my opinion, the rich are not necessarily wrong to be abandoning the U.S. middle classes. I would not be surprised if that wealth is not sitting in Scrooge McDuck's money vaults, but is instead being funneled into the third world now, raising up people with a true appreciation for the sacredness of life and wealth, with more perspective and less entitlement.

Anyway, it doesn't matter. No, government has never been the solution. It has at best been a custodian, as it is with the public library system in the states. But every book in there, every microchip, and most of the buildings and maintenance are made of the lifeblood of hard working people who dedicated their life to creating more than they consumed.

The concept of life getting harder for many people as computers take over is troublesome. I mean, we know to expect and accept some amount of frustration in return for efficiency and cost saving in general and computerizing anything in particular, e.g. downtime; more passwords to remember; UI, server, and workflow glitches; "Why can't this stupid thing just figure out what I mean?!" Ever try [[http://pic.bighugh.com/17.png][printing a label from usps.com]]?

Eliminating paper forms sure seems like a slam dunk, though, doesn't it? Overall it is... for those of us with computers in every room and in our pockets. Indeed, what/who will fill the gap those in the shoes of the OP's example when library hours are reduced again and again and eventually the branches close and they are suddenly without internet access?

Anyone watch the recent Bret Victor talk and looking for something to fight by inventing?

If you're the author, thank you for helping these people. I hope your work gives you great pride.

I'm not, but I sent the author of the comment (codacorolla on Metafilter) a message through that site to take a look over here, and also mentioned that there were some appreciations.

I apologize ahead of time if I'm going to sound leftist, but the powers that be don't really need a well educated lower class that is able to think for itself and easily get access to quality information. It goes against the interests of the status quo.

However, if there's a lot of money for everybody to be made, then it will create some incentives to give these people just enough instruction that they can perform online purchases. The problem is that the lower 20-40% of the US population are in so much financial distress that purchasing apps for an iPad or a kindle book is not even remotely within their realm of possibilities. For them, there's Walmart.

Let me try to shed light on the other side of the argument. Based on the author's experience, it looks like what is really necessary for this day and age is a public browsing center with enough resources to teach computer "illiterates" [for a lack of a better word] how to find what they want in the digital world. NOT a library per se...now you might ask what the difference is : having a public library implies money has to spent on buying and managing books- which can be prohibitively expensive.

I like the idea of these aspects of the library being somewhat replaced by the coworking space.

Where I work out of we have a lot of space for random drop ins, currently these people though are mostly highly technical. Government could provide funding for a place like this to hire someone to assist people getting started with technology.

While most of us working there are busy, we can usually take a small amount of time out of our day to meet someone new and give them a hand.

The only thing I can think of for libraries to do, is to morph into some kind of generic public meeting place.

Maybe something like a coffee shop/coworking space/social club hybrid.

This is a good case for providing state-funded public computer centers, but not such a good case for continuing to fund large collections of books.

I'm going to reject one of the premises of the article, namely the premise that he is helping people who are "barely surviving".

Let's consider people who are receiving cash or non-cash benefits, as the article described. Among these people, 67% have cable or satellite TV. 38% have a playstation. 47% own a computer. 23% have a big screen TV. Only 14% of people receiving government benefits lacked all of these luxuries. [1]

It's only in a nation as wealthy as the US that we could describe such a group of people as "barely surviving".

[1] Data from this csv file: http://explore.data.gov/Energy-and-Utilities/Residential-Ene...

Code definitions taken from here: http://www.eia.gov/emeu/recs/recspubuse05/pubuse05.html

It's my new favorite data set.

[edit: wow, do some data analysis on raw govt data, provide facts, and get downmodded about 3 seconds after posting. Did I accidentally post on reddit?]

I'm struggling to understand what conclusions you can draw from that. For one thing, what of that 14%? Do those people not exist? Are they not statistically significant for you to care about them? For another, are the 47% who own a computer somehow automatically well off?

Do you understand the economic situation a family can be in? They own a computer whose net worth is about $50. At some point they bought a television. Cable--100$ a month for the fancy kind. The worth of all these things put together is far below the monthly cost of their housing, which they struggle to pay each month. They could sell or stop paying for all of those above "assets" and be in danger of not being able to afford housing and food.

There are places where housing is cheaper. Those places are inevitably situated the furthest distance from locations of economic opportunity. So car and gas and commute, the monthly costs of which dwarf the assets you mentioned.

And let's get back to your claimed 14% who have none of these things. Imagine that--I go to the local thrift store and there's old PCs there that are almost given away (I've donated plenty throughout my years as a contractor--they're barely worth the poundage cost). In American culture, not being connected to pop culture is anathema. Just as cell phone usage has exploded in the poorest countries, in America the first thing parents will provide for their children is television.

It is clear your definition of "barely surviving" is different from the author's (and mine). There's always people chiming in on discussions like this with the "starving children in Africa" argument. E.g. we shouldn't feel sorry for the people mentioned in the article because if you lift their shirt you won't see their ribcage standing out (you'll probably see a bunch of fat from their subsistence on cheap processed food). Are we really a society where that is the measure of how well we take care of our citizens? To me not feeding people is barbaric. Not providing health care to everyone is just short of barbaric. Not carving out societal resources (like public libraries) for shared use, targeted at people who slip through the cracks, is terrible.

Enjoy your data set.

But the poor might, gasp, enjoy their $100 a month cable. The horror, poor people enjoying something in their otherwise deprived and miserable life.

So, there is a need for external assistance.

The 14% you describe are bottom 14% of the bottom 10-20% - i.e., the bottom 2-3% of the nation. They can be dealt with by a small, targeted program.

The rest can turn off cable and go pay for a computer at kinkos once in a while. Last time I was in NYC, it was about $0.10/minute, so if the "struggling" man skipped one or two big macs he could afford to pay for internet service (and he'd be slightly closer to a healthy bodyweight).

There are places where housing is cheaper. Those places are inevitably situated the furthest distance from locations of economic opportunity.

You seem to be holding the mistaken belief that the poor work for a living. Please educate yourself. http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswp2009.pdf

Last time I was in NYC, it was about $0.10/minute

And as we know, everyone lives in NYC, and nobody lives in places where there aren't any Kinko's and where the closest computer place is 50 miles from their home.

Oh, and certainly everyone has to buy their own PC, it's not like there are dozens of charities and individuals donating them to poor people.

And now sarcasm free, you can get a desktop on Craigslist for $50 and a Playstation for $30. That tells you absolutely nothing about whether a family is poor or not. Most electronics are simply too cheap compared to the unavoidable recurring bills.

Cable TV is a different thing, though. I have no idea what the plans around there are like.

See, here you go again. You use vague statistics to make absolute statements that are starkly contradicted by the statistics you started with. I just read the pdf you sent. As expected, it doesn't support your absolute conclusion (that the poor don't work).

In my own social circle, I know the following:

1. Poor people who work for a living. 2. Poor people who can't work because they have a felony record. 3. Poor people who can't work because of health reasons. 4. Poor people who don't work because they're lazy.

I also know:

1. Rich people who work for a living. 2. Rich people whose family members don't work because they're "lazy".

You see, there's all sorts of people. Let's take the "worst" examples--the people who both poor and out of work. Personally I think even "lazy" people deserve to receive the basic care of civilized society. Why? Because "lazy" is often code for referring to people with mental deficiencies, emotional problems, histories of severe abuse, and other issues that lead to severe depression and failure to thrive.

A lot of modern American polical rhetoric centers around an idea that might be called the "virtuous poor". Which is that poor people only deserve to be helped if they are virtuous--good, salt-of-the-earth people who are struggling constantly to survive--who are savvily trimming coupons and saving every cent so they can better themselves and their children. On the other side are the non-virtuous poor. The people who spend their government check on alcohol, crack cocaine, or satellite TV.

In America, we obsess over separating the virtuous from non-virtuous poor, ignoring the self-sustaining and cyclic nature of poverty. The clear correlations between poverty and behavior problems, learning problems, health problems, etc. In our self righteous drive to only help those who help themselves, we often ignore the clear consequences.

For every self-satisfied working upper-middle class person I know, I also know someone who has similar intelligence, similar drive (or lack thereof), but wasn't lucky enough to be ushered into college by their well-to-do parents--who wasn't lucky enough to be offered this and that entry-level position by their well-to-do connections. And yes, such a person doesn't become the virtuous poor we all like to help, such a person becomes the dirty, yucky poor that we want to forget about--the poor people who aren't constantly fighting to better themselves.

You can throw out statistics--all of your statistics will show a predominance of this and a dearth of that, and in the end, your rounding errors will still cover millions of people. And your response to the plight of those millions of people is that we can help them with "a small, targeted program." If only we'd thought of that sooner--here we were trying big, untargeted programs, when all we needed to do is shrink and target them.

As expected, it doesn't support your absolute conclusion (that the poor don't work).

You clearly didn't read even the first paragraph, which shows that just under 80% of the poor don't work (by choice). You can even read further and discover that a big chunk of the working 20% work only part time (also by choice).

In America, we obsess over separating the virtuous from non-virtuous poor...

No, we don't. We throw money and services wantonly at anyone who wants them.

If we really wanted to target the virtuous poor, we'd cut all welfare programs and replace them with a guaranteed low paying job. It's perfectly targeted, since by showing and working a poor person proves their virtue.

If you want to argue that we should give money to people who refuse to work so they can buy alcohol, crack cocaine and satellite TV, be my guest. I just refuse to describe such people as "struggling" or "barely surviving".

You clearly didn't read even the first paragraph, which shows that just under 80% of the poor don't work (by choice).

Wow, talk about spin-doctoring. That 80% figure is people outside the labour pool, including children (specifically stated in the first paragraph), sick, and elderly people.

Um, this doesn't change the picture significantly. You can compare poor people to the nation as a whole, or you can compare poor adults to adults as a whole.


The net result either way is that the poor choose not to work at a disproportionate rate.

There's a few issues here

- firstly, you've said nothing so far about comparing poor people to anyone, you've just said "80%" flat out, no comparison to anyone wealthier

- the "80%" does change, because the numbers you drew that from - 10 million of 40 million - is 10 million labour force out of 40 million individuals. Anyone in that 43 million that is not of working age or ability decreases your magic percentage. You are trying to paint your 80% as "percentage of people who could work, but don't" whereas it's actually "percentage of poor people in the labour force, including children and the infirm"

- the overall labour force for the US is 65% of the total population. Using this number against the 40 million for those in poverty would suggest ~26 million potential labour force instead. Throw in children, mentally ill, and similarly overrepresented demographics and that number reduces again.

- your linked comment mentions this interesting metric "FTLFPR", used to vilify the poor... which when googled shows only a handful of results which are a combination of typos, random character pages, and your comment. Even chasing your linked comment to a quoted paper about participation a few comment up doesn't exhibit that acronym.

- Even assuming that your acronym is a real measure, it's hardly suprising that people who can't get enough work are poor. Those people who are classed as unemployed are going to be dragging that acronym down signficantly - and almost one in ten of the labour force is unemployed in the US.

- You make the gross mistake of assuming motive. Since the GFC hit, the US unemployment rate doubled from 4.5% to 9%. By your reckoning this means that one in twenty workers in the past few years has decided to just refuse work so they can "buy alcohol, crack cocaine and satellite TV"


When it comes down to it, yes, there are some people who game the system. So what - that happens at all levels (try getting tax loopholes fixed...). The real problem is that you are painting the poor as little short of demonic layabouts, which is a grossly exaggerated misrepresentation.

6 months ago, I wandered through the Mekong delta, in swampland where half the houses were palm shacks. Standing swamp water all around, no running water (clean or otherwise), shoddy power cables... and yet I still saw the occasional home with a big-screen TV. Sure, older models, CRTs for the most part, but people don't seem too keen on comparing what kind of TVs are around. So some of these incredibly poor swamp-dwellers have TVs, in an area where there are frequently no lights once the sun goes down. We should probably allude that they're wealthy as well, based on that single commodity good.

Another thing your 'shame the poor' position doesn't allow is for people to receive hand-me-downs, or merely to have previously been in better conditions when they could afford luxuries and now have no cashflow or liquid assets. Hell, I've given away about four old laptops (two I inherited free) and have made and given several free-of-charge desktops, two with monitors included.

This is where social conservatism and libertarianism gets you coming and going - "Look - voluntary charity covers the cracks"... then they turn around and admonish the poor for daring to have such items - "You have a 'computer', therefore you're not struggling"

You know, the poor in the US don't lack clean water, cooking gas, electricity, etc. Their houses are often climate controlled, and they usually have cars to travel with. Malaria is also a minor issue, as are most infectious diseases. From what I've seen (and statistics seem to bear this out), the "poor" in the US lack virtually no essential goods and services and they have many luxuries.

If you disagree, please tell me which essential goods and services you feel the US "poor" lack.

Note that I live in India right now, so I'm likely to laugh at you if you start mentioning consumer goods that even the upper middle class over here don't have.

First you make the argument about luxuries, so I counter about luxuries. Then you decide to make it about basic services. Nice moving of the goalposts there.

If you disagree, please tell me which essential goods and services you feel the US "poor" lack.


I'm sorry, my mistake. I should have explicitly specified they have luxuries in addition to all the basic necessities.

Free healthcare and dentistry

Totally agree. The poor are lazy entitled pricks. Lucky duckies, as the WSJ aptly coined a couple years back. How dare they get some form of entertainment?

If they really need to find some way to amuse themselves besides staring at the wall all day, they can walk their fat asses two blocks down the street to borrow a book and improve themselves at this place called the...

Oh, right.

So, there's a significant (14% - 1 in 7 of your dataset) percentage of people without cable tv, playstation, big screen tv. Do they get the help?

It would be great if the government's budget included a computer and basic internet access in its assistance programs. I can't imagine this would be too expensive. Also people would benefit from the increasingly free education provided by Stanford, Udacity, etc.

How do government services in the US get away with this? Walmart has computers for people to apply for jobs with sitting in their stores, why can't the government do the same. A kiosk is expensive sure, but can't be impossible...

A public library as a nice place to get a meeting space, ie for a startup, is a great thing. This post highlights to me the need to expand/improve libraries as both physical and digital resources

Libraries are one thing I miss a lot in India since returning from US. Public library system is virtually non-existent here. It is sad to see it getting destroyed where it existed.

I hope that the author can take their thoughts to a wider audience than a comment on metafilter. This is a moving and thoughtful article that really needs to be published...

The story at the beginning was so depressing. It makes me really want to call my library on Monday and see if I can teach a computer class.

I wonder how long the libraries of America could operate on the money we spent for one week of the Iraq war.

first world poor are not an interesting class of people. There are bigger fish to fry.

I skimmed the article and got to the first comment complaining that Larry Ellison spends millions on the America's Cup and he doesn't give a crap ...

Basically, the problem is that for years CA, and America in general, spent money that it didn't have and now it's going to get painful.

There's no point in whining and complaining. Americans are doing it to themselves. Sit down and decide what we can afford to pay for and quit kicking the can down the road.

>Basically, the problem is that for years CA, and America in general, spent money that it didn't have and now it's going to get painful.

I think it's more that we spend money on the wrong things and that taxes aren't structured to reflect the reality that wealth is concentrating into fewer hands.

I think you read the wrong thing. This post is about the metafilter comment that is a story about a poor person using a library.

I thought it was about how people need libraries and the funds are being cut.

It's about a lot of things at once. But libraries are the frame for the rest of the piece.

As far as I can tell topics covered are:

0) The digital divide.

1) Cutting of Public benefits

2) Cutting of library funds specifically

3) How libraries help gap the digital divide but even with funding are just helping people tread water.

4) That the will, money, and effort to change this situation might not be there.

Like a said, we've spent more than we have for a little too long. Now this type of story doesn't really belong on HN. It's the type where you get downvoted for not having the liberal opinion. Bad news, it's going to get worse. Debt is at 100% of GDP.


"This is, in part, because outside of the ALA (which is a great organization, a great lobbying body, but perhaps not quite strong enough nor well funded enough) there is no large, overarching public library thing. There isn't a central office that can dictate policy, allocate funds, and launch a massive PR campaign. At different levels, yes, there are state and county and non-profit organizations, but the existential crises that libraries now face is massive, universal, and needs coordinated effort. "

Hmm, maybe a library czar in Washington?

Although something separate from party politics might be better...

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