Vague Apprehensions

18 Jul

“There is a possibility of a terrorist attack.” Or, “There is a heightened possibility of a terrorist attack.”

These statements are often interpreted as, “There is a high (or very high) probability of a terrorist attack.” These are not sensible interpretations. Of course, news media do plenty to encourage such interpretations. Footage of prior attacks, police sirens, SWAT teams, helicopters, all encourage the sense of dread, which likely encourages such interpretations. On the flip side, few news reports spend any length of time on elucidating the probability of winning the ‘Megamillion Jackpot.’

Like the news media, in everyday life, people also tend to speak in terms of possibilities than probabilities. And often enough possibilities are used to denote high probabilities. And often enough incorrectly so. Sometimes because individuals are mistakenly convinced that probabilities are actually higher (most people often do not remember numbers, replacing them with impressionistic accounts consistent with imagery or their own biases) and sometimes because people are interested in heightening the drama.

Speaking in terms of possibilities also allows one the advantage of never being technically wrong, while all the time encouraging incorrect interpretations. It allows people to casually exaggerate the threat of crime, or indeed any threat they feel like exaggerating. And it allows people to underestimate the frequency of things they would rather deny: for instance, dangers of driving faster than the speed limit, or when drunk, or both. The same benefits are afforded to strategic elite actors. It allows policymakers to sound logically coherent without being so. And to sell less rational courses of action.

By possibility, we mean that something that has a chance of occurring. It doesn’t give us information as to how probable the scenario is. A little information or thinking on probabilities that can go a long way. So aim for precision. Vagueness can be a cover for insidious reasoning (including your own). Avoidable vagueness ought to be avoided.

How Are Academic Disciplines Divided?

18 Jul

The social sciences are split into disciplines like Psychology, Political Science, Sociology, Anthropology, Economics, etc. There is a certain anarchy to the way they are split. For example, while Psychology is devoted to understanding how the individual mind works, and sociology to the study of groups, Political science is devoted merely to an aspect of groups—group decision making.

One of the primary reasons the social sciences are divided so is because of the history of how social sciences developed. As major figures postulated important variables that constrain the social world, fields took shape around them. The other pertinent variables that explain some of the new disciplines in social sciences are changes in technology, and more broadly changing social problems. For example, the discipline of Communication took shape around the time mass media became popular.

The way the social sciences are currently divided has left them with a host of inefficiencies which leave them largely inefficacious in a variety of scenarios where they can offer substantive help. Firstly, The containerized way of understanding the social world provide inadequate ways of understanding complex social systems that are imposed upon by a variety of variables that range from the individual to the institutional. And secondly, the largely discipline-specific theoretical motivations lead academic to concoct elaborate theories that often misstate their applicability in complex ecosystems. We all know how economics never met common sense till of recently. It isn’t that disciplines haven’t tried to bridge the inter-disciplinary divide, they certainly have by creating sub-disciplines ranging from social-psychology (in psychology) to political psychology (in Political Science), and in fact that is exactly where some of the most exciting research is taking place right now, the problem is that we have been slow to question the larger restructuring of the social sciences. The question then arises as to what should we put at the center of our focus of our disciplines? The answer is by no means clear to me though I think it would be useful to develop competencies around primary organizing social structures/institutions.

Role of Social Science

Let me assume away the fact that most social science knowledge will end up in the society either through Capitalism or selective uptake by policymakers. Next, we need to evaluate how social science can meaningfully contribute to society. One intuitive way would be to create social engineering departments that are focused on specific social problems. The advice is by no means radical— certainly Education as a discipline has been around for some time, and relatively recently departments (or schools) devoted to Public Health, Environmental Policy have opened up across college campuses. Secondly, social science should create social engineering departments that help offer solutions for real-life problems, much the same way engineering departments affiliated with natural sciences do and try experimenting with how for example different institutional structures would affect decision making. Lastly, social scientists have a lot more to offer to third world countries which have yet to be overrun by brute Capitalism. What social science departments need to do is lead more data collection efforts in third world countries and offer solutions.

The Problem in Immigration Reform?

9 Jul

The following article has been written by Chaste, an astute commentator who has written for Spincycle before.

Note: The author has used the phrase, “illegal workers” only when the illegality is specifically implicated. Elsewhere, he has used the phrase “foreign workers.”

Discussions about immigration reform have acquired a feverish intensity. Not only is there a pervasive sense of the intractability of the problem, there are wildly differing accounts of the nature and extent of the problem. These are tell-tale signs that the problem is probably overstated, and that there is a simple and straightforward solution — that the problem lies in the public’s attitude to foreign workers and immigration (read race-class nexus in substantial part). Here below, I will try to show that this conjecture is largely true.

Reliable data about the effect of illegal workers on the economy is hard to come by, in part because of basic disagreements about which factors to measure. Therefore, I will rely on analytical reasoning. On its face, the contention that immigrants who come to America in search of work are a burden on the economy seems absurd. The economy supports most native workers through their parasitic (from the economic point of view) phases of childhood and early youth. Americans for instance, consume close to $100,000 in school funding alone by the end of their high school. It is inconceivable that the average foreign worker could consume public services on a scale even remotely close to that. The economy gets a free lunch from foreign workers because it gets the benefit of their productive years without ever supporting them in their parasitic/dependent phase. This is a minor variation on what we know as the “brain drain.” That it goes largely unacknowledged points out the close ties between class and worth in this society.

Other popular arguments such as the burden on public schools also strain credulity. It is unclear that a child who may be here through no choice of its own should be lumped together in the same categories as illegal immigrant workers. In any case, since most of these children will grow up to be Americans, the rational approach to measuring their impact on the economy is within the trajectory of their own lives. Some even lament the supposedly downward pressure on wages. Yet wage levels are not determined merely by the market internals of demand and supply. External checks in forms like foreign competition are significant. The assessments of regulatory agencies like the Federal Reserve regarding the optimal wage pressures in a labor market are particularly important.

The proposed solutions are equally mired in unreal contentions and assumptions. Despite the clamor for walls and tighter border security, there is no evidence that migration patterns are responsive to anything other than economic opportunities for foreign workers. Programs that allow employers to check the immigration status of their employees voluntarily have produced no results. Massive state action in the form of imprisonment against employers, or deportation/imprisonment against foreigners who have been in this country for many years, is probably too controversial to be viable.

For the record, I will quickly lay out the simplest solution, one that is obvious to anyone who has given the issue any serious thought. The solution makes the following basic assumptions:

  • The government has an interest in having a stable and competitive labor market. It has the right to use immigration as a tool to address market distortions caused by structural problems (health and legal sectors are dramatically over-compensated relative to other sectors), or by cultural stigma (specific types of casual labor do not attract American workers at a pay rate appropriate to the relative lack of required skills). The government can achieve this with minor modifications to the concept of “prevailing wage rate.” The government currently uses the “prevailing wage rate” to protect American skilled workers from wage cuts due to immigration.
  • To the extent that American workers may be disadvantaged by immigration, this is largely a function of the disparity in rights between citizens and foreign workers. The obvious solution would involve not depriving foreign workers of rights, but rather drowning them in rights. It is important here to distinguish between rights and entitlements: rights simply give privileges within a transaction such as employment without any guarantees that the transaction (employment) will actually happen whereas an entitlement guarantees that the transaction will happen. Currently, the government protects victims of sexual trafficking, and it can similarly protect foreign workers when employers violate their rights (henceforth “violating employers”). Indeed the government should allow the foreign workers to recover substantial financial damages from violating employers.
  • The government should use market incentives rather than administrative regulation because it will enable more effective implementation. As mentioned above imposing greater burdens on illegal workers is unhelpful because it is their very lack of rights that makes them attractive employees. Besides, with no rights, even deportation has failed as a deterrent. Imprisonment for violating employers will likely be politically controversial. Very stiff fines against violating employers will target a group, which is particularly sensitive to such incentives, and will have an increased chance of political viability.
  • The government should avoid controversy and increase efficiency by delegating implementation to private enterprise. American lawyers have proved themselves gods of the enterprise by defying even the most basic laws of economics like the price supply curve: even as the country is drowning in lawyers, they continue to rake in enormous incomes. The government should allow private civil actions in court in which lawyers for successful foreign workers can recover lawyer’s fees from violating employers and get a percentage of the recovered damages.

The broad outline of a solution is clear. The government should determine the minimum wage rate for different professions based on the needs of the economy. Thus, the minimum wage rate can be lower than the prevailing wage rate in over-compensated professions so that those sectors do not become a drag on the economy. Conversely, the minimum wage rate can be higher than the prevailing wage rate for lower skill jobs because the low prevailing wages are often possible only because of indirect government subsidies in the form of social services. The foreign workers should have the right and incentive to sue violating employers. If successful, the foreign workers should get a permanent right to stay, should get their lawyer’s fees paid by their violating employer, and be able to recover substantial damages from violating employers (between $50,000 and $100,000). The prospect of 40% of $50,000 – $100,000 in addition to lawyer fees will motivate lawyers to pursue violating employers aggressively. Once these measures ensure enforcement, the government can throw open employment opportunities to foreigners, and increase labor supply in over-compensated and culturally stigmatized sectors. The minimum wage rate and the threat of legal action will make employers wary of hiring foreign workers in other sectors except in special circumstances.

This simple solution is obvious to anyone who has given the matter serious thought, or to anyone who has a passing familiarity with the legal sector. Yet mainstream media never mentions it. The public eschews practical solutions in favor of posturing in part because as discussed above the alleged problems likely do not exist. The idea that foreign workers should have the rights to sue American employers is anathema to American conservatives. They are unlikely to accept the idea to resolve fictitious problems. Liberals do not see immigration as much of a problem and are content with the status quo. Americans would dearly love to have the jobs themselves, and have the work done by foreigners, all without the inconvenience of having the foreigners in their midst. Failing this, they have settled for the perks of cheap labor, the comforting disparity in the rights enjoyed by themselves and the largely non-white foreign workers, and the self-indulgence of a self-righteous hysteria centered on law and legitimacy.

Social Science in a Guest Appearance in the Play, Capitalism

2 Jul

Social scientists are technology’s historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and scientists—measuring the social impact of technology. It is important to note that all this activity is forever doomed to survive in the echo chambers of the forgotten consciousness of society and consigned to only enter in casual desultory (or heated but always ineffectual) discussions. Social scientists also produce knowledge that is directly useful to Capitalism and there, of course, it plays a more important role.

Society is led by the 800-pound gorilla of Capitalism and the ‘logic’ of the market, which is quite separate from the ‘logic’ of social good, determines what is sold, how it is sold, and when. Social scientists merely study effects of new technologies as they are unleashed on the world. Universities open up new schools, departments, disciplines, and certainly new topics within disciplines as technology and reality march on. Take for example the following – two decades after television became a common amongst US households, David Phillips found evidence for ‘Werther effect’ like phenomena that linked suicides in real life to television suicides, and later still Robert Putnam linked heightened social alienation to television, and now there is a slew of literature detailing negative impact of violence on television. Of course, nobody ever thought that they might want to research the impact of something before it is released.

Social scientists are consigned to doing research that will only rarely wend its way to policymaking. And of course they will never get a chance to determine the course of technological growth, or other policies for those are tethered to Capitalism.

So what is the role of social science or for that matter science aside from helping create wealth, and helping society in a small number of cases where money making and social good coincide? There is really none in a world where increasingly the word regulation is seen as a plague.

Perhaps we can write our own epitaph – we wagged our fingers and tongues, and scribbled furiously, as the chasm between the economic engine and the social good widened and Capitalism swallowed us whole. We also made some money doing that.

Opining About the Perils of Opinions: The Opinion Poll Model of Policy Making

29 Jun

Public opinion is central to the democratic political process and it has never been more important that today, when opinion poll numbers are constantly cited in the media to buffet policy choices. It behooves us hence to foremost understand opinions and the process of opinion change, and then to think critically about whether the causal mechanism driving ‘opinion change’ are commensurate with the expressed ideals of ‘democracy’.

What is the value of an ill-considered opinion from a person with limited knowledge of the facts? Close to none, one would expect. But apparently, it is worth much more in a policy debate on the Hill if sound bytes by politicians quoting poll numbers to buffet the validity of their issue positions are anything to go by.

Courtesy significant advances in sampling methodology, communication technology, and computational technology, one can now conduct a nationwide Opinion Poll cheaply (relatively) and quickly. Every major media company, from New York Times to Fox News, now publishes stories about the ‘findings’ from the polls with unerring frequency and drops these numbers casually on near about every policy issue, let alone questions like, ‘What should Paris Hilton eat for breakfast?’

Given the important role that media has in ‘framing’ the issue (Iyengar), and the fecundity of the polls, news media now often cites figures from opinion polls as part of a story on an issue and asks politicians to defend their policy choices (in six seconds or less) given the poll numbers. Correspondingly politicians increasingly cite poll numbers on issues as corroboratory evidence for or against a policy direction.

Where do opinions come from?

In a culture that values ‘individual expression’ above everything else, it isn’t surprising that people offer opinions on issues they know little to nothing about an issue. Funnily, and as has been extensively documented in Political Science literature, people not only offer opinions about what they know nothing about, they also offer opinions about non-existent (phantom) issues. (Lippman, 1993 and others) Krosnick et al. have posited a more benevolent interpretation of ‘phantom opinions’ arguing that these opinions originate from ‘violation of communication norms’. Even if Krosnick is right, there is wide agreement within the field that the general public which makes it to the voting booth and gleefully casts its vote (a behavior strongly based on overall opinion) is deeply ignorant about most issues.

Leaving aside ‘phantom opinions’, let us try to understand where opinions come from. “Every opinion is a marriage of information and values-information to generate a mental picture of what is at stake and values to make a judgment about it” (Zaller, 1991). It is important to notice how Zaller uses the term ‘information’ which he describes later in the paper as whatever political information a person consumes via media or other ways. By limiting himself to political information, Zaller mistakenly assumes that political opinion making sits in an isolated bunker – only affected by relevant political information – in people’s minds. Neuman in his book, ‘Common Knowledge’ has persuasively argued to the contrary. Leaving Neuman’s objections aside, it is easy to surmise that information has generally little to do with facts of the case. Secondly, we have yet to tackle how much of the opinion is driven by ‘values’ and how much of it is driven by ‘information’ but it seems intuitive that the mix would vary depending on a variety of factors ranging from the issue at hand (opinion on a value issue like abortion would inarguably have higher percentage of ‘value’ as compared to one on economic policy), need for cognition (people with higher need for cognition would use more ‘information’), cognitive ability, amount of information, etc.

Normative Questions

Since the publication of American Voter (Cambell et al.), and Converse’s later explications (1964, 1970), which described the average American voter as apathetic, and largely ignorant about major issues, political theorists have grappled with the threat that an uninformed voter poses to the claims of normative superiority of democracy. If democracy was to be claimed as a ‘normatively superior system’ in itself, without resorting to claims about its superiority as an instrumental good that provided ‘better governance’, it was important for the political theorists to argue that voters voted their interests – a claim which was no longer possible in lieu of evidence that pointed to widespread ignorance. The more severe threat that the theorists are rightly concerned about, is whether the democratic system can continue to deliver its benefits if the voters ceased to vote ‘their interests’ given a lot of benefits in the system are predicated on that assumption. While the conjecture is open to empirical analysis, we can theoretically analyze the value of an ‘opinion’ in an ideal democratic model.

The value of an expressed opinion in a democracy is directly proportional to its ability to tap into a voter’s ‘real interests’, best understood as ‘interests’, as understood by the voter, under ‘full knowledge.’

Ideal Opinions, Opinion Aggregation

Value of opinion cannot be pried apart from the system in which it is used. The composition of ‘ideal opinion’ would vary according to the system. Since we are talking about a democracy, let’s analyze its composition here.

The value of an opinion in a discussion is if it reveals a hitherto unknown piece of information. In a poll where you are asked to furnish your ‘considered preferences’ that benefit is lost to some degree. One can argue that there is indeed some knowledge hidden in the choice but since a poll weighs considered choices equally with ill-considered ones, and because we don’t know what led to the final choice, it is impossible to argue whether democratic majorities do bring forth collective knowledge. The only condition in which the scenario would hold is when a majority of the voters vote for the ‘right’ preference.

Let us now assume ‘full-information’ and the only variable as ‘value system’. If there is a ‘common’ universally accepted value system, then there is little value in soliciting opinions from everybody. It is when you start thinking about ‘averaging’ across value systems, a tenuous concept at best, that you need to think about soliciting opinions from others. Polling populace on a fixed choice of politicians is an impoverished way to go about tapping into ‘people’s will’.

Perhaps the way to tackle the problem is by actually breaking this down into a two-step problem – information maximization and ‘averaging’ over values. I believe we have the scientific community to address the former, but I do not have the answer to the latter but perhaps informed deliberation – which involves ‘public exchange of reasons’ – about consequences would be one way to approximate that.

Arguing Ethically

11 Jun

Everyday conversation is generally a site for exchanging social pleasantries, exchanging trivia and anecdotes or ‘shooting the breeze’, and reaffirming identities, among other things. Occasionally these everyday conversations take the shape of amorphous dilettante arguments about politics and culture, and even more rarely they turn into serious arguments. But the habits of casual argumentation and unfamiliarity with formal argument theory doom most of these ‘serious’ arguments. So rather than proceeding teleologically towards a better understanding of a topic through measured refutation and agreement, the arguments either become pitched ego fights or exercises in using logical fallacies or non-existent evidence adeptly to ‘win’ the argument or some combination thereof.

“Unethical” (explained later) argumentation can leave people flustered as they realize – much too late – that the other party has changed the entire argument or distracted them with some contestable irrelevant data, or through an outright fabrication.

I use the word ‘unethical’ in reference to argumentation in the paragraph above and it is incumbent upon me to explain what I mean by that. An argument is generally understood as “discourse intended to persuade” and the idea is to stipulate ethics of persuasion. In other words, stipulating that one follow the rules of inference, logic, corroboration, and procedure ‘ethically’. Broadly construed ‘ethics’ in an argument can be seen to convey a person’s conviction in coming up with a better understanding of the issue at hand, and general introspection to all facets of argumentation. Of course ‘ethics’ alone won’t help construct a ‘better’ argument for there are objective criteria for what constitutes a better argument.

I here briefly go over some key tenets, as I see them, of conducting an ‘ethical’ argument.

Issue, Topic, Question

Most ‘arguments’ in everyday life start with an anecdote or an example and not as formally constructed questions. The conversation then slowly slides into an ‘argument’ as somebody identifies the anecdote as a hypothesis and engages with it.
It is important to be alert to this juncture and to take time at this point to think through the ‘hypothesis’, and where possible turn into a broader question devoted to understanding the ‘topic’ underlying the hypothesis. More importantly, it is necessary to pin down the question or hypothesis with more precision. Additionally, one should think through the breadth of the question and see to what degree is the question tractable.

During the course of the conversation, one can renegotiate the wording of the question as more information comes along the way and conversants develop their understanding of the topic or as interests shift.

The pattern of argumentation will differ depending on the topic and question at hand. If one is to say argue about a causal claim then one must iterate through possible causes and see which ones apply to what degree and why. On the other hand, if one wants to understand the historical context around say origins of democracy, the task then becomes listing possible historical aspects including socio-economic and elite key actors.

Hypothesis and Data

One can use deductive or empirical reasoning (or both) to support one’s claims. Both obviously lend themselves to different types of problems. For making empirical arguments, one needs to rely on data and there it becomes necessary to think through how applicable the data is, how generalizable the instance is if you use an instance to say corroborate a claim, and any major data or instances that exist that will rebut the hypothesis or sometimes provide insight into contextual variables. Aside from applicability, there is also the issue of how probable each of the datum is and how large the effect sizes are. Of course, part of argumentation also involves judging other people’s data. You can judge data using the criteria I describe above.

One may run into problems of insufficient data or unreliable data and there you can choose to continue the conversation at a later stage after getting the data or pursue the argument by making conditional arguments. For example, if X were true, then the following event is likely to occur.

The caveat that accompanies all empirical reasoning is that it is easy to think that you know more than you do, especially about topics that seem familiar but go largely un-inspected. Systematic analysis of an issue will often uncover troubling gaps in one’s own knowledge and one must allay the instinct to fabricate and instead be conscientious in acknowledge the gaps.

Psychology of argumentation

The most pernicious and bankrupt argumentation occurs when the ego gets involved. To avoid it, focus your critiques on the data or argument and offer them in a manner that is broad-minded and acknowledges opposing contribution. The unsaid point here is that your commitment should be towards reaching a better understanding of the issue at hand rather than ‘winning’ or whatever that means.

An important part of conducting an ethical argument is to acknowledge gracefully where you are wrong. This habit goes a long way in ameliorating any tensions that may emerge during the course of argumentation.

Another thing to keep in mind is that almost always people don’t start from polar opposites of an argument (that I believe is a function of conversational norm and selection bias as in whom you choose to ‘argue’ with), though there might be sub-arguments where they may have opposing stances. Hence there would be a large number of cases where both arguments can survive.

Avoid Common Logical Fallacies

Straw Man – “A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “set up a straw man” or “set up a straw-man argument” is to create a position that is easy to refute, then attribute that position to the opponent.” (Wikipedia)

You can find other common logical fallacies at the bottom of Wikipedia’s page.

‘Wax’ing poetic

23 May

“India has a growing middle class estimated at 300 million people.” Emily Wax

300 million is an astounding figure and just a shade below the US population. If indeed India has a “growing” middle class that is 300 million strong, then the US and the rest of the world better take notice. There is just a small problem – the figure is almost entirely meaningless.

The middle class is a phenomenally slippery concept. The term was initially used to refer to the urban bourgeoisie. In its modern avatar, it was meant to refer to people who could afford certain amenities. As amenities have become the norm in the West, calls have been made to redefine the term again. The term itself though has a lot of emotional cache and almost 90% of the people in the US, according to a survey in 1992, thought themselves as middle class. Statistically, we can define “middle class” as the class of income earners that is within one Standard Deviation of the mean. But for a country like India where the mean wage is less than $2/day, the statistical definition as above would be thoroughly bankrupt.

Main Course: Pass me the knife, please

Let’s briefly analyze Wax’s claim about the numbers in Indian middle class. According to World Bank, India’s GDP was $796 billion in 2006. Assuming that all economic activity was produced by the 300 million (about 1/4th of the real population) and the gains spread equally among them, Gross Income Per Person would be $796,000/300 = $2600/year or $7/day. All hail this “middle class”.

It is fashionable to use terms like “middle class” and then attach numbers like 300 million but both the term and the number are grossly inaccurate.

Newspaper Gestalt

Over years, stories on the economic miracle in China and India have become de rigeur in newspapers. The stories are uniformly bankrupt for they fail to get even the basic figures right and put things in proper perspective.

A new foreign correspondent to India, like Wax, is expected to file in his/her share of these formulaic stories along with the expected special report on the heartrending poverty in rural China and India.

There is little hope that we will ever have better coverage or even that different topics will be covered, except the occasional Shilpa Shetty-Gere kiss induced frenzy, given that most foreign press reporters go to other countries with doltish prior hypotheses, look for confirmation, confirm them, and sigh with relief and move on to their next story. The whole problem is exacerbated by the fact that the tour of duties for journalists have shrunk.

Why Not to Think Like a Lawyer

30 Jan

The following article is by Chaste. The article was written as a response to the following two reviews in the New York Review of Books:

I respond to two articles by Ronald Dworkin to illustrate the pitfalls of using lawyerly thinking in our role as citizens. Lawyerly thinking focuses on the controversy as presented, it relies on opinion rather than facts, and it misunderstands the nature of contemporary government and market actions. NYRB published the first a year ago at the time of the Danish cartoons controversy (March); in September, it published a second, which discussed the issue of same-sex marriages among others.

Why not to think like a lawyer

As we remember the Danish cartoons controversy that erupted a year ago, and as the issue of same-sex marriages takes its course, I offer this reflection on the way we often approach marginalization of minorities by markets and by governments. I will frame my reflection as a response to two of Professor Ronald Dworkin’s pieces published in the New York Review of Books. In his March article on the Danish cartoons, he approved the discretion of Anglo-American media, defended the European press’ right to ridicule, and urged an acceptance of the right to ridicule even when constrained by holocaust related exceptions. In the second article published in September, he argues in favor of the legalizing of gay marriages on dignitary and cultural grounds. He declares that these grounds make the issue different from say religious prayer, and make civil unions an inadequate alternative.

I am disturbed by several aspects of Dworkin’s reasoning, which I will characterize as ‘lawyerly’:

  • Dworkin, as in his Danish cartoons piece, is more interested in addressing the problem as offered to him than in framing the problem adequately. This is analogous to the role of an adjudicator who tries to settle only the controversy presented before him. Yet the needs of a fuller understanding and of justice often demand the examination of additional parties and issues.
  • Dworkin at times relies more on opinion than on fact. This tends to produce principled rather than well-informed pragmatic choices. Judges and by corollary, lawyers rely on legal principle and opinion. Even common law judges seldom see themselves as making laws to address the facts. Yet making pragmatic choices informed by facts is precisely the function of citizens. Unfortunately, most of Dworkin’s stands are principled rather than pragmatic; even his pragmatic stand on religion in the pledge of allegiances couched as an exception to principled choices. Principled stands are particularly unfortunate in humanitarian matters: given the scale of injustice in the world and our tacit acceptance of those injustices, principled choices are likely to project hypocrisy rather than conviction.
  • Dworkin’s solutions are sometimes mal-formed because of an unfortunate understanding of markets and of the government as expressions of common intent. With notable exceptions like antitrust, markets appear before the legal system largely as a series of contracts between consenting parties for securing mutual advantages. The government, on the other hand, appears as an instrument of the majority that is capable of imposing constraints on any and all. Such a view prompts a heightened legal scrutiny of government regulations relative to market practices. Yet the consequences of market constraints are no less serious from the market unavailability of abortion facilities to the effects of inane media on the information level of Americans. Therefore, we need to focus on the nature and effect of the constraints themselves, and not overemphasize their source.

Danish Cartoons of the Prophet

Dworkin’s piece on the Danish cartoons shows up the pitfalls of such ‘lawyerly’ thinking. I will begin by laying out the main free speech issues in the order of their priority to the Danish press and government:

  • Holocaust sensitivities: Jyllands-Posten’s cultural editor who commissioned the prophet cartoons was sent on immediate indefinite leave after saying that he might, after review, print Iranian cartoons of the Holocaust. The editor-in-chief said that the paper would in no circumstances publish the holocaust cartoons, and the cultural editor recanted with “I am 100% with the newspaper’s line.”
  • Christian / market sensitivities: The editor of the Sunday edition of Jyllands-Posten turned down cartoons about Jesus’ resurrection, saying that readers would not enjoy the drawings because they would “provoke an outcry.”
  • Danish dairy exports: Within five days of the dramatically successful boycott of Danish dairy exports, Jyllands-Posten apologized. The apology preceded most of the violent protests and was not a response to them.
  • Freedom of expression: Speech affecting the three preceding drew from Jyllands-Posten, suppression and retaliation, suppression, and an apology respectively. Speech affecting the last proved to be no such encumbrance.
  • Muslim sensitivities: Jyllands-Posten made no apology for 3-4 months after Danish Muslims and Muslim nations protested the publication.

Dworkin allows the parties before him to frame the issue rather than framing it himself. The consequence is that he focuses primarily on Muslim sensitivities as a threat to free speech even though it was the only one of the four to be no encumbrance. As for the three that did trump freedom of speech, Dworkin mentions only the one specifically raised by one of the parties, namely, holocaust related sensitivities. This inattention to facts leads Dworkin to the misleading framing of the problem and to the inappropriate principled solution mentioned above.

A fuller attention to facts reveals the problem to be not whether there should be a right to ridicule; rather it is the extent to which large commercial entities can ridicule marginalized groups to seek commercial gain. Recall that Jyllands-Posten was the largest selling Danish newspaper at the time, and had experienced sharper circulation drops in recent years than its competitors. This is not speech that can claim freedom from regulation that it may speak truth to power; such speech is itself an exercise of power. For the minority that constitutes an insignificant market segment, it does not help to know that it is the market and not the government, which has generated the demeaning images swirling around them. There is no good reason why the law should not limit such an exercise of power, much as it limits the actions of other players like the government or of large commercial players in other markets. Such limits on speech would naturally be narrow, and limited to large commercial players. The size requirement will ensure that expression which is not a major exercise of power would stay regulated; the commercial purpose requirement will ensure that such expression is not effectively suppressed by limiting it to minor fringe players. It will safeguard against the abuse of free speech as a commodity to generate profit: a commodity that can evade the usual social cost-benefit analysis based regulations. Dworkin’s tired adherence to a principled position on free speech mixed with calls to marginalized groups to endure unequal legal limits on free speech is as inadequate a solution as his articulation of the problem is misleading. Indeed the only context for which Dworkin’s analysis is appropriate is that of the publication of the cartoons in Muslim countries, a context that he fails to mention.

Same Sex Marriages

Dworkin’s reasoning about same-sex marriages in “Three Questions for America” is similarly unfortunate. After a brilliant discussion of the teaching of evolution controversy, he argues on dignitary grounds for a principled position in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples, and for an understanding (not a justification) of the exception of including religion in the pledge of allegiance on materiality grounds.

I will assume civil unions with full rights as the pragmatic alternative to same-sex marriages. They are politically viable in several states, yet proponents of same-sex marriages like Dworkin dismiss them as inadequate. The assumption also clarifies that Dworkin and other advocates of same-sex marriages object to the law’s embodiment of a cultural detriment even when there is no corresponding legal detriment. This is both startling and impractical. It is startling because the law is not the best arena for renegotiating cultural detriment or privilege. It is impractical because cultural inequities are generally too embedded even in law for such an effort to be little more than picking favorites. Consider the example of July 4th. Americans undertake legally favored celebrations for an event that was to perpetuate slavery for 30 years after the mother country abolished it. Blacks can justly view such legally favored celebrations as a cultural detriment, but there are few moves afoot to replace July 4th with the day that civil rights became effective.

Dworkin’s habits of view regarding the government and the market prevent him from realizing that in the absence of legal detriment, the different unions on offer resemble cultural products on a market, and hence are more akin to a market rather than government constraints. His refusal to view a fuller picture makes him appear oblivious to the fact that his principled position constitutes picking favorites. Indeed civil unions may become a new and more inclusive cultural product: one without the historical advantages/baggage of marriage, but /one capable of adequately competing with it in due course.

Any regulation for mitigating the market constraints imposed by a cultural product should follow the usual social cost-benefit analysis. Unlike the inclusion of religion in the pledge, which mandates expression that may be antithetical to a group’s beliefs, marriage laws only deny a cultural product to particular groups. Whereas an unregulated media may inflict countless fresh detriments on insignificant market segments (minorities), marriage laws only preserve an existing cultural detriment. Therefore, it is not clear to me that same-sex marriages have a compelling case in the current divided and polarized environment.

Dworkin may argue with some justification that principled positions can be useful in the pedagogical framework that his piece invokes. It is not clear to me that an American high school environment and the stage of maturation it represents is the best arena for forming self-defining opinions. Further, it is likely to exacerbate the American habit of forming opinions without much regard to evidence. When based on evidence of the effect of government recognition of same-sex relationships on religious beliefs and practices and on lifestyle choices, there may be some merit to such an experiment since high school is the last structured educational environment for many. Yet neither of Dworkin’s suggested readings, for all their eloquence and careful thinking, contain any evidence that addresses the real or imagined fears of same-sex marriage opponents.

Movie Review: Independent Intervention

21 Nov

General Tommy Franks described the media as the “fourth front” in his (Iraq) war plan, according to Danny Schechter, an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker.
What he meant by that was that winning the “media war” is an important part of winning the war in Iraq. Three years down the line with the US stuck in an ever-worsening situation, we all know what happens when governments win the media war and succumb to their hubris.

Independent Intervention, a documentary by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, is superficially an exploration of how the Iraq war was fought on the “fourth front” in US media. On a deeper level, it is a well crafted expose’ of the effects of media conglomeration on the style, topicality, and quality of news.

Schei begins her documentary with a series of heartrending images from Iraq, images that were never shown on mainstream American media. This initial sequence provides the preface to her documentary- the Iraq war shown on the television screens of Americans was a very different from the one being fought in Iraq. Schei, stuck by the jingoistic, bleached (of the horrors of war), video game like coverage of Iraq war in US mainstream media, explores the reasons behind how and why mainstream American media became a willing partner in government’s propaganda machine helping it wage the war for the hearts and minds of American public. Using footage from the war and interviews with people luminaries like Dr. Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and others, Schei persuasively argues that a majority of what went wrong during media’s coverage of Iraq war can be traced to corporate media ownership.

The documentary does a stupendous job in tracing media’s coverage of Iraq war starting with the pre-war buildup by effectively using some well known statistics, for example about how during the two week period around which Colin Powell gave his speech at UN and during a time when more than half of the people opposed war, and– out of the 393 people who were interviewed on the four major nightly network newscasts – NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS only a meager 3% held antiwar views while a stunning 71% were pro war.

Independent Intervention is simply scintillating when it weaves snippets from local morning news shows to convey a point. It is jarring to see archival news footage of anti-war protests highlighting mundane inconveniences caused by protestors – “simply creating chaos during rush hour” or “protestors shut down the financial district in San Francisco” and sneeringly ignore to give time to explaining why protestors were against the war.

Independent Intervention explores how the merger of showbiz and “news biz” has had a damning impact on the way news is covered. In their effort to attract consumers, news shows have ramped up their production values to match those in entertainment. The ever-shrinking sound bite has limited what can be conveyed intelligibly to the audience and hence all that is complicated is left at the curb. So while reporting on the Iraq war, the ethnic complexities are left out.

Schei though is never is able to purposefully include some information in the documentary. For example, we are informed that five corporations – Vivendi, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, Viacom -own eighty percent of media but yet are left in the dark about how and why it affects media coverage in the way it does. Perhaps the critique is implicit but it is limited to corporate control (economics fudging the news) and not to effects of agglomeration.

Media is an important institution for democracy – a tool through which we understand the world and the world understands us (Goodman). We need to keep the media free and independent for we need good unbiased and uncensored information for a functioning democracy. And lastly and perhaps most importantly, media should never be confused as a tool of war.

Overall, Independent Intervention can be seen as part of the genre of documentaries inspired by Michael Moore – a genre of unabashedly political documentaries with an agenda, but its wider message – that of the need for independent media – would be of interest to both liberals and conservatives.

The DVD of the film is available at

What is so Foreign About Foreign Aid?

18 Nov

A khaki-clad Western aid worker is helping unload a truck in a sun-baked dusty barren place surrounded by black (sometimes brown) faces. It could be a scene from any of the countless news clips from the equally countless number of crises that continue to rain down upon obscure parts of the world. The clips are ubiquitous and yet hardly anybody notices the egregious role of the Western aid worker, who ostensibly has flown around from whichever place s/he calls home at a pretty penny to do the readily outsourced job of (un)loading supplies from the truck.

Planners versus “the Searchers”
William Easterly, NYU economics professor and a former research economist at the World Bank, in his book “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, argues that the aid efforts led by the West have failed primarily because their utopian aid plans are based on the assumption that they know what is best for everyone. He argues that the West needs to get away from the model of “Planners”, imposing top-down solutions, and rather adopt the “Searchers” model, that tries to adapt innovations that come from native cultures. That may well be. But it is not clear if that is the primary sin.

Home Aid
Easterly misses the fact that many Western aid programs typically mandate that the recipient country buy provisions (defense armaments to cans of food) from the donor nation. Many times in fact aid is provided in form of products made by donor nation industries. So you can have “2.4 million Kellogg’s pop-tarts” being airdropped in Afghanistan (see Wikipedia which cites the book from which the figure is drawn), while much cheaper staples like rice and lentil are largely ignored.

This better explains why “the West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get 12 cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $4 bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $3 to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths” (White Man’s Burden).

Careerism and Bureaucratization
The rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the NGO industry are partly responsible for the failure of development assistance to the third world, according to Dr. Thomas Dichter, an anthropologist at The University of Chicago and author of “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed.”

Increased bureaucratization has led to a demand for “trained professionals” (air quotes because it isn’t clear what the training is in) to fill the ranks. Paying heed to the rising demand, “entire college programs have sprung up, such as Wayne State University’s Nonprofit Sector Studies Program (NPSS). The NPSS mission states, “The nation’s fastest-growing sector needs administrators, policymakers, program managers, and advocates who will guide them into the future” writes Michael Donnely for Peace Corps Online. One may expect that the rising compensation packages at non-profit organizations would attract better talent, instead, it has largely meant that the organizations are paying more for the same work or/and are led by ever more ambitious dimwits who want to push for ever larger projects at the expense of some little ones that do work.

The NGO-Ivy league Nexus
In the past two decades, an internship at an NGO has become a right of passage for countless Ivy League undergraduates, primarily in social sciences and humanities, interested in pursuing further graduate school education. Experience with a foreign NGO has become the best way for the ambitious ivy educated brats to pad up resumes and impress law and medical school admissions committees of their sociotropic ideals. There is little that these self-absorbed individuals bring to third world countries in terms of talent or ability to help but every year thousands of such students are farmed out to NGOs across the world and there they leech money and time from NGOs to get training to hang their mosquito nets and make their calls to mom and dad and make safari trips and learn the language.

NGO workers — Why do they get paid more?
“Government employees have complained their co-workers employed by some non-governmental organizations are getting high salaries that cause a socio-economic imbalance in the society. The high-paid workers of NGOs have clouded the status and standard of life of the low-paid government employees. Prestigious social status and high income of the NGOs workers have created envies in the poverty-stricken government employees.” South Asian Media Net “Venting her spleen, Torpikai, a government employee, told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday despite 18 years experience she was paid 2,000 afghanis (40$) but her younger and inexperienced neighbor with same qualification was getting double than her salary.” And wages are only part of the issue, real bills pour in from conferences at five-star hotels, and extravagant perks enjoyed by foreign aid employees like the use of SUVs, PDAs, and stays in five-star hotels. The sad fact is that majority of the aid money is actually funneled back to pay for the perks and salary of the Western aid workers.

Lack of accountability
The logic that underpins all NGO wastefulness is lack of accountability, both in tallying funds and actual accomplishments. Washington Post a couple of years reported that employees in non-profits often times take loans from the NGO funds at no or ridiculously low-interest rates. Other ethical violations are also rampant within NGOs. For example, Oxfam, an NGO and a 25% stakeholder of Cafedirect, campaigned vigorously against CafeDirect’s competitors, accusing them of exploiting coffee growers by paying them a small fraction of their earnings.

Food for Thought
Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article that passingly compares aid strategies between the West and China.

“The industrial nations conducted a sort of moral crusade, with advocacy organizations exposing Africa’s dreadful sores and crying shame on the leaders of wealthy nations and those leaders then heroically pledging, at the G8 meeting in July, to raise their development assistance by billions and to open their markets to Africa. Once everyone had gone home, the aid increase turned out to be largely ephemeral and trade reform merely wishful. China, by contrast, offers a pragmatic relationship between equals: the “strategic partnership” promised in China’s African policy is premised on “mutual benefit, reciprocity, and common prosperity.” And the benefits are very tangible.”