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The Man Who Freed Me From Cant

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I always find it hard to list the books that have influenced me the most. Memory is tricky, and a work can assert its influences over my thinking long after I’ve forgotten its particular details, or even its title. Moreover, people who set as their job the task of judging what others do, and why, are not always reliable when turning the lens upon themselves. And then there’s the fact that any list of books that I feel made me, as both a writer and a human, changes with the day and feeling. Still, on that changing list there are a few mainstays.

Take Tony Judt’s Postwar. I first encountered Tony in a swirl of legend and myth, an intellectual hero who, in the dark post-9/11 years, inveighed against the Israeli occupation and filleted the “useful idiots” who sanctified the War on Terror. Having, at that time, read very little of Tony, I was left with the impression of an intellectual monk who eschewed the dictates of party or crowd. I’ve always been skeptical of writers who are spoken of in this way, intellectuals praised for violating the dictums of both “the left and the right” as though the best answer somehow lay unerringly in between. Maybe that’s why I didn’t read a book by Tony until after he’d died. It was my mistake. It was my loss.

[Read: The struggles of Tony Judt]

Postwar—Tony’s much-lauded synthesis of European history after World War II—felt like a natural starting place. I had taken the idea of race in American life as my field of study. That road necessarily led to Europe, where the idea of race was invented. But as much as the contents of Postwar ultimately influenced me, it was Tony’s style that left a mark. I was then a writer in my mid-30s, experiencing a period of novel stability and unlikely prominence. I found the former a better fit than the latter. I began to take note of the unique pressures that the world puts on “prominent” Black writers—specifically the demand that one write in a way that necessarily and explicitly provides “hope.” In its benevolent manifestation, the request originated in the very real inspiration that people took from the Black struggle in America. Less honorably, the demand for “hope” was little more than a demand to bleach the past. Benevolent or not, it somehow felt wrong to write with the intent of authoring a morality play in which the forces of good necessarily triumph. I didn’t quite know why I felt that way. I didn’t really know why quotes about the “arc of the universe” and the sense that good and right ultimately prevail repulsed me so. For me, the answers were in the pages of Postwar.

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt
This piece is adapted from Ill Fares the Land.

I had never read so merciless a book. Tony had no use for pieties—no tolerance for invocations of a “Good War” or the “Greatest Generation.” Power reigns in Postwar, often in brutal ways. Tony writes of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust returning to Poland only to be asked, “Why have you come back?” He introduced me to intellectuals, such as François Furet, forced to reckon not just with Stalin’s crimes but with a discrediting of a “Grand Narrative” of history itself. “All the lives lost, and resources wasted in transforming societies under state direction,” Tony writes of this reckoning, were “just what their critics had always said they were: loss, waste, failure and crime.” Early in Postwar, Tony quotes the observations of a journalist covering the ethnic cleansings that characterized postwar Europe. The journalist self-satisfyingly claims that history will “exact a terrible retribution.” But, Tony tells us, history “exacted no such retribution.” No righteous, God-ordained price was to be paid for this crime against humanity. The arc of history did not magically bend. It was bent, even broken, by those with power.

I can’t tell you how liberating I found all of this. By the time I’d encountered Tony, I was already fairly convinced that there was darkness in this world, and that darkness often triumphed. Now I was freed to say so. It is perhaps odd to find intellectual liberation in such grim work. All I can say is that the work was never so much grim to me as it was illuminating. It answered the gnawing question of why evil was so resilient, and why it was so difficult to bring forth a more egalitarian world. Postwar might have been grim, but it did not despair. It was a ruthless accounting of the depths to which men might sink, and thus a necessary precondition of a vision of the future that did not depend on slogans and fairy tales—that is to say, a true and durable hope.

In some ways his book Ill Fares the Land is an addendum—a remarkable effort at sketching out what such durable hope might look like. Published originally in 2010, at the height of the Obama presidency—five days before the Affordable Care Act passed—Ill Fares the Land takes as its subject the rise of social democracy in the mid-20th century, its subsequent fall toward the century’s end, and the potential path back. The social democrat, in Judt’s eyes, holds a classical liberal’s belief in “a commitment to cultural and religious tolerance” but adds to that a faith “in the possibility and virtue of collective action for a collective good.” In that vision, the state is the central vehicle, and much of Ill Fares the Land is a recounting of attacks on the state by conservatives and the halting, feckless defense of the state by liberals who’ve joined their one-time foes in their aversion to “big government” and deep faith in the wisdom of the market. The result of such rhetoric and the policy that has followed it—privatization and the shredding of the welfare state—has been “an eviscerated society,” writes Judt, one where the “thick mesh of social interactions and public goods has been reduced to a minimum, with nothing except authority and obedience binding the citizen to the state.”

It is this “eviscerated society” and its attendant values of profit and efficiency that have given us an era of shameful inequality wherein a “democratic” country like the United States can have roughly the same index of inequality as authoritarian China. Tony notes that in 2005, about a fifth of America’s national income went to 1 percent of its population. It is a tragic testament to Judt’s book that by 2016, that 1 percent controlled a quarter of all income, and two-fifths of all wealth. And while the “eviscerated society” has allowed for massive wealth distortion, it has also seen the degradation of public goods and services under the logic of efficiency. “Thus, a private company that offers an express bus service for those who can afford it and avoids remote villages where it would be boarded only by the occasional pensioner will make more money for its owner,” writes Judt. “In this sense it is efficient. But someone—the state or the local municipality—must still provide the unprofitable, ‘inefficient’ local service to those pensioners.”

[Read: The myth of Western civilization]

Tony wrote those words 10 years ago. It is a compliment to him, but not to the countries he assessed, that they are now more appropriate, not less. Never has the “eviscerated society” been more in evidence than it is today. America is one of the richest countries in the world. And yet, when faced with the threat of COVID-19, it mounted one of the weakest defenses in the world. It would be a mistake to simply see this as the result of Donald Trump’s election. The story of how America became the epicenter of a pandemic may center on Trump, but it began years ago, when one party took as its mission to destroy government and the other decided to grant legitimacy to that effort. Every Democratic politician who sought to shore up their power by echoing conservative denunciations of “big government” reinforced the sense that the key to a prosperous America was to tear down and privatize as much of the state as possible. This was an essential step. For Trump to spurn oversight, fire watchdogs, raise a Cabinet of personal toadies, and generally treat the office he held with disregard, there had to first be a belief that the nonviolent parts of the state were unworthy of defense. So they were not defended. Even now, with 750,000 Americans dead, defenses of the profit motive and assertions that public-health efforts must not interfere with the economy are constant. Efficiency rules.

For all my admiration for Tony, I can’t say that if he were here, he and I would fall on the same side of every question. In addition to the rise in the cant of efficiency, profits, and the market, Tony saw the plague of identity leading us to this moment. “The politics of the ’60s thus devolved into an aggregation of individual claims upon society and the state. ‘Identity’ began to colonize public discourse: private identity, sexual identity, cultural identity,” Tony writes. “The Vietnam protests and the race riots of the ’60s … were divorced from any sense of collective purpose, being rather understood as extensions of individual self-expression and anger.”

It’s a curious thing to claim that a movement aimed at ending the Vietnam War lacked “a sense of collective purpose.” And while the Long Hot Summers were certainly expressions of anger, the ghetto, too, is a collective. But the real flaw here is starting the story too soon. The survivors of Jim Crow would be quite shocked to learn that identity began to infiltrate “public discourse” in the ’60s. Indeed, they’d be shocked by the notion that such a “public” discourse ever existed in the first place. We need not even note that the very New Deal programs that Tony holds up were made possible by the racist authoritarianism of the American South. Or that white politicians did all they could to exclude Black people from ostensibly “public” programs. Right now we are in the midst of an effort by agencies of the state to banish Black writers and scholars from the public square. And that effort did not begin with Black Twitter and campus lefties, but with congressional gag rules, the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, and the banishing of Ida B. Wells.

It would be comforting to chalk this oversight up to Tony being European and thus not understanding the crucial role of white supremacy in American history. In fact, Tony, with his disregard for romanticism and homily, should have been uniquely positioned to see through the nostalgia of a color-blind public. My sense is that such an awareness would have enriched much of Tony’s work. If there is a major weakness that runs through Ill Fares the Land and Postwar, it is the scant attention Tony paid to the role colonialism played in Europe’s prosperity and thus the welfare state that was subsequently erected. I can only wonder how much more insightful Tony’s condemnation of the Iraq War would have been, had he thought more about Europe’s own colonial wars.

[Read: ‘In a starving, bleeding, captive land’]

Judt was not wholly unaware of the ways in which prejudice and bias have hampered the erection of a truly comprehensive public sphere. “The kind of society where trust is widespread is like to be fairly compact and quite homogenous,” he tells us, referencing the Nordic states, and a few pages later he notes that “the Dutch and the English don’t much care to share their welfare states with their former colonial subjects from Indonesia, Surinam, Pakistan or Uganda; meanwhile Danes, like Austrians, resent ‘paying’ for the Muslim refugees who have flocked to their country.” But these observations are not made in the context of a history; nor does Tony push past the question of resentment to that of the plunder of “the darker nations of the world” (to borrow Du Bois’s phrase.) The fact is that within the best of the Black freedom struggle, the call has always been concerned with both equal rights and a better world. Black Lives Matter, for instance, isn’t a call for special rights, but a reminder that a racist public is no public at all.

It would be a mistake to ignore this missing element in Tony’s work. But it would also be a mistake to disqualify the whole of it on such basis. No one writer can be totally comprehensive. An intellectual lineage, at its best, means that the progeny pick up, and attempt to improve upon, the work of their ancestors. I count Tony as one of mine. He freed me from cant and sloganeering and reinforced the idea, budding in me, that the writer is not a clergyman.

This piece is adapted from Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt, with a new preface by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

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Photos of the Week – November 19, 2021

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I have a favorite vantage point at The Niobrara Valley Preserve. From the side of particular hill, I can get a great view of an ‘S’ curve of the Niobrara River to the east. Over the last decade or so, I’ve taken quite a few photos from (roughly) that same spot. Each was taken at a different time of day and/or under very different lighting conditions. I love how different each image looks – it’s a real testament to the importance of light to photography.

Nikon 28-300mm lens @100mm. ISO 250, f/11, 1/4 sec.

Nikon 28-300mm lens @122mm. ISO 400, f/9, 1/50 sec.
Nikon 105mm lens. ISO 250, f/6.3, 1/30 sec.
Nikon 28-300mm lens @135mm. ISO 320, f/13, 1/50 sec.
Nikon 18-300mm lens @100mm. ISO 250, f/11, 1/10 sec.
Nikon 105mm lens. ISO 250, f/11, 1/250 sec.

When people see a photo they really like, they often remark, “wow, that photographer must have a really good camera!” It’s interesting that the same doesn’t happen with painting or drawing. I’ve never heard someone say, “wow that painter must have a really great brush!”

The quality of camera matters much less than the ability to recognize light and capture it with whatever camera is at hand. There’s a certain skill involved in manipulating the controls of a camera to get the desired results, but the quality and attractiveness of an image starts and ends with light.

It also helps to find a favorite vantage point and the time to return to it over and over…

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Boulder, CO
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What Medicine’s Own COVID Long-Haulers Have Faced

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Before she caught COVID-19 at a wedding in March 2020, the physician associate spent her days diagnosing and treating people; after she was infected, she turned to her own colleagues for that same care. “At first,” she told me, “I felt a kinship with them.” But when her tests started coming back negative, her doctors began telling her that her symptoms—daily migraines, unrelenting vertigo, tinnitus, severe crashes after mild activity—were just in her head. (I agreed not to name her so that she could speak openly about people she still works with.)

When she went to the emergency room because half her body had gone numb, the ER doctor offered to book her an appointment with a counselor. Another doctor told her to try removing her IUD, because, she remembers him saying, “hormones do funny things to women.” When she asked her neurologist for more tests, he said that her medical background had already earned her “more testing than I was entitled to,” she told me. Being part of the medical community made her no different from any other patient with long COVID, her eventual diagnosis. Despite being a physician, she couldn’t convince her own physicians—people who knew her and worked with her—that something was seriously wrong.

I’ve interviewed more than a dozen similar people—health professionals from the United States and the United Kingdom who have long COVID. Most told me that they were shocked at how quickly they had been dismissed by their peers. When Karen Scott, a Black ob-gyn of 19 years, went to the emergency room with chest pain and a heart rate of 140, her physicians checked whether she was pregnant and tested her for drugs; one asked her if her symptoms were in her head while drawing circles at his temple with an index finger. “When I said I was a physician, they said, ‘Where?’” Scott said. “Their response was She must be lying.” Even if she had been believed, it might not have mattered. “The moment I became sick, I was just a patient in a bed, no longer credible in the eyes of most physicians,” Alexis Misko, an occupational therapist, told me. She and others hadn’t expected special treatment, but “health-care professionals are so used to being believed,” Daria Oller, a physiotherapist, told me, that they also hadn’t expected their sickness to so completely shroud their expertise.

A few of the health-care workers I talked with had more positive experiences, but for telling reasons. Amali Lokugamage, an ob-gyn, had obvious, audible symptoms—hoarseness and slurred speech—so “people believed me,” she said. By contrast, invisible, subjective symptoms such as pain and fatigue (which she also had) are often overlooked. Annette Gillaspie, a nurse, told her doctor first about her cough and fast heart rate, and only later, when they had built some trust, shared the other 90 percent of her symptoms. “There was definitely some strategy that went into it,” she told me.

For other medically trained long-haulers, the skepticism of their peers—even now, despite wider acknowledgment of long COVID—has “been absolutely shattering,” says Clare Rayner, an occupational physician who is part of a Facebook group of about 1,400 British long-haulers who work in health care. “That people in their own profession would treat them like this has led to a massive breakdown in trust.” Having dedicated their working lives to medicine, they’ve had to face down the ways its power can be wielded, and grapple with the gaps in their own training. “I used to see medicine as innovative and cutting-edge, but now it seems like it has barely scratched the surface,” Misko told me. “My view of medicine has been completely shattered. And I will never be able to unsee it.”

Medical professionals have a habit of treating themselves. Daria Oller, the physiotherapist, was following her training when, after she got sick with COVID, she pushed herself to exercise. “That’s what we tell people: ‘You have to move; it’s so important to move,’” she told me. “But I kept getting worse, and I wouldn’t acknowledge how poorly I was responding.” She’d go for a run, only to find that her symptoms—chest pain, short-term-memory loss, crushing fatigue—would get worse afterward. At one point, she fell asleep on her floor and couldn’t get back up.

At first, Oller didn’t know what to make of her symptoms. Neither did Darren Brown, also a physiotherapist, who tried to exercise his way out of long COVID, until a gentle bike ride left him bedbound for weeks. He and others told me that nothing in their training had prepared them for the total absence of energy they experienced. Fatigue feels flippant, while exhaustion seems euphemistic. “It felt like someone had pulled the plug on me so hard that there was no capacity to think,” Brown said. “Moving in bed was exhausting. All I was doing was surviving.”

But these problems are familiar to people who have myalgic encephalomyelitis, the debilitating condition that’s also called chronic fatigue syndrome. Physiotherapists with ME/CFS reached out to Oller and Brown and told them that their symptom had a name: post-exertional malaise. It’s the hallmark of ME/CFS and, as that community learned the hard way, if you have it, exercise can make symptoms significantly worse.  

Brown has spent years teaching people with HIV or cancer about pacing themselves, mostly by divvying up energetic tasks throughout the day. But the pacing he needed for his post-exertional malaise “was totally different,” he told me. It meant carefully understanding how little energy he had at any time, and trying to avoid exceeding that limit. Brown, Oller, and other physiotherapists with long COVID co-founded a group called Long Covid Physio to discuss what they’ve had to relearn, and they’re frustrated that others in medicine are still telling them, people whose careers were built around activity as a medical intervention, that long-haulers should just exercise. Ironically, Brown told me, doctors are loath to prescribe exercise for the HIV and cancer patients he regularly treats, when clear evidence shows that it’s safe and effective, but will readily jump on exercise as a treatment for long COVID, when evidence of potential harm exists. “It’s infuriating,” he told me. “There’s no clinical reasoning here.”

Neither Brown nor Oller knew about post-exertional malaise or ME/CFS before they got long COVID. Oller added that she initially thought little must have been written about it, “but no, there’s a whole body of literature that had been ignored,” she said. And if she hadn’t known about that, “what else was I wrong about?”

Long COVID has forced many of the health-care workers I interviewed to confront their own past. They worried about whether they, too, dismissed patients in need. “There’s been a lot of Did I do this?” Clare Rayner told me, referring to the discussion in her Facebook group. “And many have said, I did. They’re really ashamed about it.” Amy Small, a general practitioner based in Lothian, Scotland, admitted to me that she used to think ME/CFS symptoms could be addressed through “the right therapy.” But when Small got long COVID herself, some light work left her bed bound for 10 days; sometimes, she could barely raise a glass to her mouth. “It was a whole level of bodily dysfunction that I didn’t know could happen until I experienced it myself,” she said, and it helped her “understand what so many of my patients had experienced for years.”

ME/CFS and other chronic illnesses that are similar to long COVID disproportionately affect women, and the long-standing stereotype that women are prone to “hysteria” means that it’s still “common to write us off as crazy, anxious, or stressed,” Oller said. This creates a cycle of marginalization. Because these conditions are dismissed, they’re often omitted from medical education, so health-care workers don’t recognize patients who have them, which fuels further dismissal. “No one’s ever heard of POTS at med school,” Small told me. (POTS, or postural tachycardia syndrome, is a disorder of the autonomic nervous system that is common in long-haulers.) It doesn’t help that medicine has become incredibly specialized: Its practitioners might have mastered a single organ system, but are ill-equipped to deal with a syndrome that afflicts the entire body.

Health-care workers were also overburdened well before the pandemic. “People with chronic disease need time to really open up and explain their symptoms,” Small told me, and health-care workers might be able to offer them only a few minutes of attention. “Because we work in a stressed system, we don’t have the time or mental space for those diagnoses that don’t have easy answers,” Linn Järte, an anesthetist with long COVID, told me. At worst, the pressure of medicine can sap the clinical curiosity that ought to drive health-care workers to investigate a set of unusual symptoms. Without the time to solve a puzzle, you can quickly lose the inclination to try.

Those puzzles are also extremely challenging. Small remembered talking with patients who had ME and “seeing this multitude of issues that I couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of,” she told me. Her frustration, she imagined, must have come across to the patient. Admitting to a patient that you don’t have the answer is hard. Admitting it to yourself might be even harder, especially since medical training teaches practitioners to project confidence, even when in doubt. “It’s easier to say This is in your head than to say I don’t have the expertise to figure this out,” the physician associate told me. “Before COVID, I never once said to a patient, ‘There’s something going on in your body, but I don’t know what it is.’ It’s what I was trained to do, and I feel terrible about it.”

Over the course of the pandemic, waves of frustrated, traumatized, and exhausted health-care workers have quit their jobs. Several long-haulers did so because of the way they were treated. Karen Scott, the ob-gyn, left medicine in April even though she is now well enough to do some work. “Ethically, I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. Alexis Misko told me that returning to the profession would feel “traitorous,” and besides, she cannot. She hasn’t been able to leave her house since December 2020. Other long-haulers have lost their jobs, their homes, or even their lives.

Those who recovered sufficiently to return to work are getting used to wearing two often-conflicting mantles: patient and physician. “We’re go-getters who made it to this point in our careers by getting through things at all costs,” Hodon Mohamed, an ob-gyn, told me. Even if health-care workers wanted to rest, medical shifts are not conducive to stopping and pacing. Annette Gillaspie, the nurse, still struggles with about 30 symptoms that make bedside nursing impossible; she’s back at work, but in a more administrative role. And the physician associate is still working with some of the same colleagues who belittled her symptoms. “There are people whom I don’t refer patients to anymore,” she told me. “I have a cordial relationship with them, but I won’t ever view them the same.”

As the pandemic progressed, health-care workers have felt more and more exhausted and demoralized. They’ve been overwhelmed by work, disaffected with their institutions, and frustrated with patients. These conditions are likely to exacerbate the dismissal that long-haulers have faced. And many health-care workers remain ignorant of long COVID. Meg Hamilton, a long-hauler, a nurse, and (full disclosure) my sister-in-law, told me that most of her co-workers still haven’t heard of the condition. Recently, a colleague told her that a patient who was likely a long-hauler couldn’t possibly have COVID, because the disease’s symptoms don’t last past a month. As a recent nursing graduate, Hamilton doesn’t always have the seniority to fight such misconceptions, and more and more she lacks the energy to. “Sometimes I won’t even tell people that I had long COVID, because I don’t want to have to explain,” she told me.

Others feel more optimistic, having seen how long COVID has transformed their own practice. Once, they might have rolled their eyes at patients who researched their own condition; now they understand that desperation leads to motivation, and that patients with chronic illnesses can know more than they do. Once, they might have minimized or glossed over unusual symptoms; now they ask more questions and have become more comfortable admitting uncertainty. When Small recently saw a patient who likely has ME/CFS, she spent more than half an hour with him instead of the usual 10 minutes, and scheduled follow-up appointments. “I never would have done that before,” she told me. “I would have just been afraid of the whole thing and found it overwhelming.” She and others have also been educating their colleagues about long COVID, ME/CFS, POTS, and related illnesses, and some of those colleagues have changed their practice as a result.

“I think those who are transformed by having the illness will be different people—more reflective, more empathetic, and more understanding,” Amali Lokugamage, the ob-gyn, told me. For that reason, “long COVID will cause a revolution in medical education,” she said. But that future relies on enough medically trained long-haulers being able to work again. It depends on the health-care system’s ability to accommodate and retain them. Most of all, it hinges on other health-care professionals’ willingness to listen to their long-hauler peers, and respect the expertise that being both physician and patient brings.

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All I can think, reading this and thinking about the experiences of a lot of friends and relatives, is: There are reasons so many people fundamentally distrust the medical system.
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I feel attacked and seen.
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Health Insurance & Retirement Plans For Open Source Maintainers

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This is huge.

The Open Collective Foundation has just announced: "OCF now offers employment options to initiative workers—with health insurance!" As that page says: "Initiatives fiscally hosted by OCF can have employees, with access to benefits like health insurance. Costs related to employment are paid from the initiative's budget, with OCF as the employer." (Employees must be based in the US.) And through the OCF's benefits provider, employees can also opt into 401(k) retirement savings plans.

This is such a huge step forward for open source sustainability, in particular for projects with key contributors in the United States. Let's talk about why!


  1. Open source and fiscal hosts
  2. The United States, employment, retirement, and health care
  3. What you can now do via OpenCollective
  4. What this unlocks

Open source and fiscal hosts

A "fiscal host" is a nonprofit organization that helps out charitable endeavors by giving them certain kinds of legal and financial infrastructure and services. Here's why they exist:

If you start a mutual aid food pantry in your neighborhood, or a meditation meetup that turns into a real community, or an open source software project, eventually you'll likely need to find ways to take in and spend money without having everything go through one person's personal bank account/PayPal/Venmo. And sometimes you need a trademark to protect people against imitators, or you'd like for the domain name and the fridges and the storage unit to actually be held by the group and not just the founder.

In the United States, this means creating or getting help from a "legal entity" -- a corporation or some other organization that is registered with the government. And if you want to ask for donations or apply for grant funding, people often expect or require that your organization is a registered charity, often referred to as a "501(c)3", which means that donors can deduct their donations from the yearly taxes they pay.

It is hard and annoying to set up a 501(c)3 organization! You probably need to pay a lawyer and accountant to do bits of startup paperwork, appoint a board of trustees and have regular meetings, and so on. Sometimes this burden is way more than volunteers want to take on -- and if you mess up the recordkeeping and fall behind in tax filings, it's a real headache to catch up.

So some nonprofit organizations offer "fiscal host" (also known as "fiscal sponsor") services. Just like it's a big pain to set up your own datacenter and so a lot of people instead rent server time from Amazon Web Services or Heroku, a lot of small projects get a membership with a fiscal host to get access to legal and financial infrastructure. In this analogy it's like getting a dorm room instead of building a stately manor. The fiscal host covers its own costs by taking a percentage of donations given to member projects.

In the arts, a popular fiscal host is Fractured Atlas. In open source software, you'll see NumFOCUS, Software Freedom Conservancy, and others.

Open Collective is particularly interesting here because its fiscal host service is fairly turnkey -- the application process is pretty streamlined -- and because a fiscal host within it, Open Source Collective, serves as fiscal host to nearly three thousand open source software projects. I would be surprised if there's another fiscal host out there that supports more.

The United States, employment, retirement, and health care

Your open source software project, once you're set up as a member project at a fiscal host, can now receive and spend funds. Great! So you can register domains, buy AWS credits and laptops and plane tickets, pay contractors...

Right, yes, you can compensate people for their labor, but in the US, the way you compensate them gets complicated. Because it's fairly easy to hire someone as a contractor ("freelancer"), but hard to hire them as an employee. And to talk about the difference I need to talk about how weird the United States is. In short: being hired as a "full-time" employee (usually at least 30 hours of work per week) usually gets a knowledge worker (such as a programmer) a lot of concrete benefits that would be unavailable, inconvenient, or more expensive if they were hired as a contractor, in particular concerning health care and saving for retirement. If you've been in the US workforce for several years you can probably skip this.

The United States, compared to approximately all other countries that have its level of wealth and infrastructure and so on, is completely strange and deficient in how we deal with healthcare and retirement-type care for senior citizens. A lot of this stuff is tied to employment here.

First: retirement. (I'll cover it first because healthcare will take longer.) How are people in the US supposed to support themselves after they stop working? Through a patchwork combination of stuff.

  • You can save and invest "normally" in bank accounts, real estate,* securities, and so on.
  • Some people get pensions (the employer keeps paying them after they retire) but far less than half the workforce can count on this, for various reasons.
  • Since 1935, we've had the Social Security program. Starting in one's 60s, almost every US worker is eligible for Social Security payments, and you get more if you earned more during your working lifetime. Some people can also get Supplemental Security Income. Many politicians scare voters by saying that Social Security is in crisis and that you will not be able to depend on it actually paying you any money by the time you retire.
  • Since the 1980s, under Internal Revenue Code Section 401(k), there's a special kind of account called a "401(k)" where a person can make contributions to be saved/invested towards retirement. An employer can sweeten the deal by "matching" your contributions up to some amount, such as $5,000 per year. A 401(k) must be employer-sponsored -- that is, you can't do it just by yourself -- and you usually only get access to 401(k) benefits if you are a full-time employee. But there are alternatives called Individual Retirement Accounts which a person can create independently. It's a bit complicated but, when changing jobs, one can often "roll over" a 401(k) from one employer to another so that you have one big growing account rather than a bunch of little ones. The money in a 401(k) or IRA account gets invested in a securities portfolio; the accountholder gets to make some choices about what to invest in. You and your employer contribute the money "pre-tax" (it's deducted from your taxable income, so you pay lower income taxes) and you can't withdraw money, till you retire, without paying tax on that withdrawal -- but there's often a one-time tax exemption where you can take money out to use when buying a home.

That last item, sponsorship for 401(k)-type account and possibly some employer matching for contributions, is basically what a knowledge worker in the US now expects as a part of an employment benefit package. (And I don't love it! I don't love being handed a bunch of poker chips and directed to the casino that is Wall Street and told: go invest your retirement savings! You're in charge!** But that's the current state of play.) If no organization is your employer, then you have to do a bunch of workarounds to get a similar means of saving for retirement, and you miss out on the possibility of employer-matched contributions.

And then there's healthcare. How are US residents supposed to pay for doctor visits, medicines, and so on?

This gets super complicated as you can tell by just skimming the table of contents for the English Wikipedia entry on "Health insurance in the United States". But to painfully summarize: instead of paying out-of-pocket for medical stuff, most people have a health insurance policy, and their health insurer decrees what is approved and what's not, what bills the individual has to pay, etc. And insurance companies negotiate down the rates for what they pay for stuff, compared to the "standard"/"out of pocket" rate, so uninsured people -- generally least able to afford healthcare! -- actually get the highest bills! The main ways people get health insurance in the US:

It's way too complicated! Even people eligible for government-subsidized insurance often don't know how to get it! "More Than 6 in 10 of the Remaining 27.4 Million Uninsured People in the U.S. are Eligible for Subsidized ACA Marketplace Coverage, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program"! Costs have gone way up because for-profit insurers came into the industry and started raising premiums! We spend way more per person on health care than in other comparable countries and the quality and speed of care we get is less! And even insured people end up with huge medical bills -- medical bills are the number one cause of people in the US going bankrupt, which means selling or liquidating all your assets to pay your creditors!

And I haven't even gotten into the huge pain of choosing or changing health insurers and policies! Any given doctor, hospital, procedure, or medication may be covered by some health insurance policies but not others, and it can be tedious or even impossible to find out ahead of time whether a particular insurer will cover something! If you switch insurers, you'll sometimes have to find a new general practitioner or specialist! If your GP or a specialist stops taking your insurance then you have to scramble to find a new one! (Yes, this includes mental health practitioners!) This is particularly awful in rural areas with few doctors, or places where the only health facility around is affiliated with a religion that prohibits care that you need!

There's nearly a century of politics I haven't gotten into here -- the main thing to understand is that middle-class people in the United States are, reasonably, pretty scared of being really poor during our final years, or of being ill and really poor due to huge medical bills (which is way more likely if you don't have health insurance). And the main way we protect ourselves against those outcomes is by getting employed someplace that will give us employer-sponsored health insurance coverage and a 401(k) account.

If you make your wages as a contractor instead of as an employee, then it's harder and more tedious and more error-prone and more expensive to arrange for health insurance coverage and retirement savings. And you're less protected against changes in health insurance costs and thus against the headache of switching insurers. This basically is also true if you run a tiny business and are self-employed. And the precarity is particularly scary if you're disabled, or if your spouse or child has expensive health needs.

And so: if an organization wants to hire someone, to compensate them for labor, some people will only do it as an employee, not as a contractor.

But it's tedious and expensive to get set up to employ someone and give them those benefits, and to fund and administer those benefits on an ongoing basis! In contrast, there's very little paperwork needed to pay someone as a contractor. And that brings us back to open source projects....

What you can now do via OpenCollective

Thus: In the United States, the need for reliable health care and health insurance causes a tremendous number of open source contributors to have to take full-time jobs with employers. Sometimes these employers hired them to work on their open source projects, but more often, they're working either 0% or a very small percent of the time on open source, and they're working most of the time on proprietary software. So they squeeze in open source maintenance work during vacations, nights, and weekends.

A big focus in open source sustainability right now is finding ways to pay the maintainers. Instead of maintainers scrambling for nights-and-weekends spare time to maintain software, we should get them wages that would enable them to spend their core labor hours on open source maintenance. And though some companies and academic institutions are interested in employing particular maintainers full-time, it's probably more resilient if projects can take in relatively smaller donation streams from many sources, and combine them to hire maintainers.

But all the fiscal hosts and similar services I'm aware of that serve open source projects -- until now -- only let you pay contractors, not employees. They did not, until now, help member projects get employee-level benefits for individual laborers.

Until now.

Now, an open source project fiscally hosted by OpenCollective "can have employees, with access to benefits like health insurance. Costs related to employment are paid from the initiative's budget, with OCF as the employer." Employees must be based in the US. They're using Justworks, a company that helps small businesses provide employment benefits. In particular: 401(k) retirement plans and health insurance coverage.

So your open source project can gather donations via the OpenCollective platform, then use them to hire a US-based employee -- who reports to the project as a whole, not just one company, yet gets the benefits and at least some of the stability of a traditional employee.

Open source maintainers in the US now have substantially greater freedom to leave their jobs, go independent, and still protect their health and their future.

What this unlocks

Look at what's already happening with people who don't have to worry as much about health insurance. Check out Freexian, which is an effort where Debian developers club together and get sponsorship money, so they can each spend a certain number of hours each month consulting on really important parts of Debian software and infrastructure. A lot of those people who can take advantage of that are in Europe, or are in other places where health care isn't in question. So they can choose contracting work (or switch back and forth between full time employment and consulting, or combine flexible contracting with a stable part-time job) a lot more easily.

So now this possibility opens up more to US-based open source maintainers. We can better crowdfund and recruit US-based programmers and other workers to work on under-produced under-supported infrastructure, like Debian, or autoconf, or various glue libraries.

All the stuff we've been trying to do with grants, Tidelift, GitHub Sponsors, and similar initiatives: they're more likely to succeed, because more people -- both existing maintainers and apprentices willing to learn -- will be available to hire. If you run a program like Django Fellows, where you pay contractors to support the project through community management and code review, you can now expand your candidate pool and recruit US workers who want to work as employees.

And! we can better crowdfund and support innovative research, possibly in directions that big companies don't love. Indeed, we can better invest in FLOSS software that has no commercial competitor, or whose commercial competitors are much worse, because for-profit companies would be far warier of liability or other legal issues surrounding the project, such as youtube-dl.

More generally: any given open source software project that has a substantial user base now has a better chance at being able to hire one of its US contributors to provide ongoing maintenance and support. And so more projects will be able to sustain themselves with user support, instead of burning out unpaid volunteers and stagnating to a crawl and then a halt.

Some of this I'm basically copying and pasting from the "what if we had universal healthcare" section of my talk "What Would Open Source Look Like If It Were Healthy?" Because this is, potentially, a huge step for the health of open source.

I do consulting to help open source software projects get unstuck. Sometimes I advise them on which fiscal host or funding platform might suit their needs. The advice to get set up on OpenCollective has just gotten more attractive, and I hope other startups and nonprofits in the space pay attention. Adding this benefit to more fiscal hosting or funding services would be a tangible and significant way to improve open source contributors' freedom.

* There are a bunch of strange financial and tax advantages to buying a home, so one way people save for retirement is by buying a home, so they'll own it free and clear after retiring and won't need to pay housing expenses. When we say "buy" we usually mean "pay an initial payment called a 'down payment' to the seller, take out a loan called a 'mortgage,' move into the home, and gradually pay off the mortgage over 30 years." Yes, 30 specifically. Employers who want their benefits packages to help with this aspect of retirement planning might offer -- as Electronic Frontier Foundation does -- interest-free second mortgage loans for up to a portion or percentage of a home's price.

** Daniel Davies talks about pension "reform" in case you want some more thoughts.

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1 day ago
This is a good thing.
Ojai, CA, US
1 day ago
Boulder, CO
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Halt

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By the end, the machines decide to destroy themselves.

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3 days ago
There may come a year (or decade) in which the sort of 3D printer I can afford to own is more interesting/useful than it is purely infuriating, but for the moment they just seem like the most printery kind of printer. Which is to say: Terrible.
Boulder, CO
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