Tag Archives: current-events

How to Follow the News: 10 Rules of Thumb

After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another.  However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy.   The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth.  The rise of the internet has not made it any easier.  In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral.  So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.

  1. There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.

In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit.  Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides.   Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants:  a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom.  Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view.   Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments.  Here is another.

2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.

Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides.   Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales.  In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst  One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event.   One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture.  Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.

3. People and systems are distinct things.

Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it.  Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing.  People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.

4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.

Beware of the ad hominem argument.  An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action.  A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.

5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.

It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy.   The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire.   For example,  some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible.  Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”.   Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause.   Have anger, and have empathy.

6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happensPhilosoraptor when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome  the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference.  Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.

7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.

Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information.  Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.

8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions.  Beware of manipulation.

The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke.   Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.

9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources.  Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.

Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting.  They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.

10. Beware of appeals to authority.

Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie.   People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education.   Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable.  However, they are also not infallible.

 

The Psychology of Wealth and the Social Contract

Credit: Flickr User Philip Taylor
Credit: Flickr User Philip Taylor

Social science is telling us that morality and generosity decline among the most well-off.   Ever since I heard about this study at UC Berkeley I’ve been curious to imagine how these findings might apply to political systems.  It seems that material wealth, or even the feeling of wealth, has a greater impact on one’s attitudes towards others than previously believed; possibly even a greater impact than previous political ideology, upbringing, or education!   Studies have shown for some time already that generosity is more marked among those who have fewer resources compared to those with more, but now it seems we’re starting to get results that reveal even more about the nature of these differences.  There are intriguing hints at the sources of these really surprising findings.

Nick Powdthavee, an author of a study of the effect of lottery winnings, found that greater wins tend to make people more right-wing and inegalitarian.  He declared:

“We are not sure exactly what goes on inside people’s brains but it seems that having money causes people to favour conservative right-wing ideas. Humans are creatures of flexible ethics.”

Also in this study, the authors speculate about the effect on democracy, arguing that self-interest trumps morality in decision making.

This last point is where I depart a bit in interpreting the meaning of these studies.  Moving to the right may mean supporting an effort to protect one’s own ‘hoard’, but it is only ‘self-interested’ on an individual level, not necessarily on a social level.  Democracy is to some degree about keeping these tendencies in check and allowing a public good to emerge from the apparent conflict of interest created between the rich and the poor.   The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so (due to their wealth, apparently).   As the wealthy opt out of the social contract that makes things better for everyone, they undermine themselves by eroding the means by which the social fabric is maintained.

 The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so…

I assume, of course, that the wealthy are still in some way part of that social fabric.  Wealth seems to offer a way out of social obligations and norms [for example, by letting people think they can drive faster with a more expensive car, even if they end up paying a ticket].   But why do people choose to opt out, even if it becomes more expensive, and actually less rational, for them to do so? Why send your kids to private school, pay your taxes to another country, or get your healthcare from a boutique provider, when comparable services can be obtained much more cheaply by paying your fair share to the common pool?  It’s not exactly self-interested in the rational, economic sense, to do this.

I’m wondering if the answer has to do with the psychological need to control the environment, something that money provides unequivocally in a capitalist society.  What one loses in material cost [private school is more expensive than public, paying a ticket is more expensive than driving according to the rules, for example] is made up for in control over the process. If it is about control rather than about wealth, it has implications not only for what the rich do individually, but how they act toward the political system as a group.  For if the tendency to protect one’s own extends to the effort to control the society as a whole, it means the wealthy will make social laws and rules for everyone else that reflect their particular interests.

Fostering empathy in the minds of the wealthy may not be the way to go, as this article in the Atlantic suggests.  A considerable amount of energy is spent in encouraging charity among the wealthy, which has had little impact on the mindset.  Indeed, what is interesting is that most Americans have experienced poverty in their lives, if only temporarily, at one time or another.  This means a significant number of wealthy individuals, and yes, even members of Congress or Parliament, have also experienced poverty.  If the above studies are correct, it seems unlikely that this experience can trump the psychological effects of wealth, and the tendency to be less egalitarian or generous, that goes with wealth. It doesn’t seem likely that human nature will change.

Credit: Flickr User Brent Granby
Credit: Flickr User Brent Granby

Bridging the psychology of the individual with the need for a public good means bolstering institutions that supercede and limit the tendencies of the wealthy to opt out and to control the process. Unfortunately, many democratic institutions have been put in place to do exactly the opposite: to control and limit the worst excesses of the general public [see the Canadian Senate].

Public education, public health care, parental leave, elder care, social services, and even sewers and parks have often been thought of as contingent on ‘affordability’ (Yes I’m looking at you, BC Liberals!)  In fact, by highlighting the idea of the public good, these institutions remind us of the vulnerability of the social contract to the psychology of wealth. Now that we know more about the effects of wealth on our thinking  (and by that I mean everybody’s thinking) social planners should be better equipped to make the case for the defence of that social contract.  That defence should strongly state the need for everyone, but especially the wealthy, to be included in the social project from which we all benefit.

The True Meaning of Differentiated Citizenship

090913_0254_TheTrueMean1.pngSometimes the language that we use as political scientists is regrettable in its implications. For example, the definition of ‘differentiated citizenship’ according to a leading introductory text to Canadian politics reads as follows: “The granting of special group-based legal or constitutional rights to national minorities and ethnic groups” (Mintz, Tossutti and Dunn 89). While accurate, the use of the term ‘special’ has many unintended implications. Who is ‘special’ and who is entitled to ‘different’ treatment by government?
For one thing, to say that a group or individual receives ‘special’ treatment is to imply that every other group is not special. Or, to put it another way, it is to imply that a group is singled out from the otherwise equal treatment that they might be entitled to receive by virtue of being equal members of the community. It assumes that the community at large includes other groups which may be equally entitled to special treatment were it not for the unique qualities which set the ‘special’ group apart. Equality before the law is both an operational concept and an aspirational standard.Using the term ‘special’ to describe a group singled out for differentiated treatment suggests that everyone else is already treated equally under the law, that equal legal treatment is in fact a reality, and not also an aspiration yet to be achieved. Under the assumption of equality, special treatment is, by definition, discriminatory. Discriminatory treatment technically only means the same as ‘special’ treatment, except for the fact that it implies a harmful result for the group being singled out. When the result of special treatment is discrimination, it is rightfully condemned. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity, for example, is condemned in a democracy not primarily because it constitutes special or differential treatment, but rather because of the negative effects of the judgments that tend to be made, most often based on involuntary or ascribed characteristics. The response to ‘special treatment’ is to question the basis for unequal treatment rather than to condemn all forms of harmful discrimination. Why the knee-jerk reaction to ‘special treatment’? After all, governments identify groups for a variety of special programs and services all the time. Groups are defined by age, income levels, geography, occupation, health status, and marital status. Many of these categories are based on involuntary characteristics, or at least, characteristics that are extremely difficult to change. Northerners or people who live in rural areas are entitled to unique job training or assistance for moving expenses. Fishers in the Maritimes are treated distinctly from other occupations with respect to qualification for EI benefits, young people are targeted for special job training and employment programs, and government services like healthcare are often offered in languages other than the two official languages.
090913_0254_TheTrueMean2.jpgIn truth, as discussed in the last two blog posts, equal treatment is as elusive as the abstraction of ‘equality’ itself. One is tempted sometimes to ‘test’ equality by imagining a ‘reverse onus’. In other words, we might try to test the extent of equality by asking ourselves how a given situation might be if the positions were reversed. If a black woman and a white woman are ranked equally on a college entrance application, then ‘all else being equal’, the chances of success should be equally distributed (50/50). If this is indeed true, then the white woman and black woman are being equally treated. In reality, we can more effectively test the presumption of equality by looking at outcomes. If an equal chance of success really does exist, then the number of black successful women should be roughly proportional to the number of black women in the population as a whole, and the same with the number of white women. Success is clearly not distributed proportionally among these racial groups. Because the outcomes do not support the idea that such equal treatment exists, it is unfair to apply the ‘reverse racism’ test. Treatment that might be appropriate for one group would not be appropriate for the privileged group. The two situations are not comparable. Discrimination can still be shown to exist, as the story of Yolanda Spivey reveals. Spivey, a black woman, reportedly modified her online job profile to appear ‘white’, changing her name and racial identification, but keeping all of her other information the same, including qualifications,

experience, and work history. She received many more employment enquiries as a white woman than as a black woman. The experiences of black and white people are not comparable, and so these groups should not be considered as if they were treated equally. Of course, more study and data is needed to determine the extent, nature, and form of discrimination in society. Nevertheless, differential treatment, and even differentiated citizenship, is justifiable in order to move toward equality of opportunity for all. Until equality can be demonstrated in outcomes, it should be seen as an aspirational goal, and not assumed to be already in place.

What Kind of (In)Equality Do We Want?

Photo Credit: Jessica Tam Flickr

When analyzing any phenomena, it helps to have a good idea what we want to achieve. In political science as in life, equality has great significance. Analysts tend to think quite differently from the general public, however, about what constitutes equality and how we should use the term. Let’s consider a thought experiment to sort out the difference between ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of condition’.

If we imagine that equality of opportunity and equality of condition are kinds of ideal types at opposite poles, with a spectrum of variations in between, then the picture might look something like this: under ‘equality of condition’ everyone would experience the same life outcomes: equal incomes, equal standards of living, and equal levels of education, health care, and work. How would things differ? Likely inequality would creep in through limited means: for example, some may work longer hours, have more or less education, spend more or less time skiing, etc.

What is wrong with this picture? The most common criticisms of this ‘absolute equality’ are:

It reduces the incentive to succeed, and 2. It distorts the value of things, leading to scarcities and gluts in supply.

Society involves differential treatment.

But these are practical criticisms, not questions of justice.   Would absolute equality actually be ‘just’?  Assuming for the moment that such a system could be workable (and I’m not saying it is) then an argument could be made that it actually creates injustice by failing to differentiate among people with ascribed or inherent differences who deserve differential outcomes.  Those who work harder or are more creative or who are disabled or ill should be treated differently.  Some may deserve preferential access to resources either as a result of their extra effort, their accomplishment or contributions, or by virtue of need.  Tellingly, the right more often argues for differential outcomes based on effort and accomplishment, while ‘need’ tends to take second place. It is sometimes said that such a system would be communistic.  However, under Marx’s vision of communism, the ideal form of equality actually allowed for differential rewards focusing on need rather than accomplishment or contribution. Contrary to popular belief, Marx did not advocate absolute equality of condition. Indeed, nobody has, in all seriousness, ever really proposed that large-scale industrial societies impose absolute equality of condition.  This is because serious thinkers would quickly realize that equality of condition, even in its ideal form, would inevitably raise both practical and fairness questions since there would still need to be some argument for different treatment of some people.  Nobody is average.

Now, what about equality of opportunity? That sounds like something we can all get behind: everybody can try or fail equally well, and those with the greatest accomplishments and talents will rise to the top. This is kind of what Paul Summerville argues when he says:

Equality of opportunity is a virtue when it is twinned with unequal outcomes. It is meaningless without it. What is the point of equality opportunity if success is discouraged by custom, law, or taxation?

But, to respond to this, how can we be sure that everyone actually has an equal opportunity to try, and to win? Inequality all by itself is not evidence of equality of opportunity. What if the winners try to ‘kick the ladder out’ from behind them, blocking the upward advance of others? What if they use their newfound positions to favour their heirs and families and friends rather than allow their loved ones to fail? Perhaps when we see that some are able to climb up to the top from the very bottom of the social ladder without artificial assistance from the state, then we can say that equality of opportunity exists. But how many of these examples are sufficient to prove it? One? One in ten? One in a thousand? The fact is there is no natural or inevitable level of inequality that can tell us when everyone truly has an equal chance. We can point to clues: perhaps when the top 1% is as diverse and representative of the entire society, or when every member of the top group can claim to have climbed out of the gutter, but that seems as unlikely as the ideally equal society discussed above. The question of fairness rises again: even in a society in which opportunities are purely equally distributed, there will be unfairness due to the same factors mentioned above: What about those disadvantaged by illness or age or poor upbringing? What about highly talented or accomplished individuals who don’t manage to make it through no fault of their own? why value some talents more than others?

Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?
Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?

Again, the argument to treat some people differently in order for equality of opportunity to be realized is present. But, the same question arises: what should be the basis for differential treatment? Here, the differences between the two poles start to disappear: the essential argument is not about equality at all, but about the basis and rationale for differences. Both sides work toward an ideal world that is impractical and unfair, yet both sides argue for ‘differential’ treatment on the basis of different individual characteristics. The right argues that differential treatment should be based on talents or contributions, while the left focuses on compensating for special needs and other (class) disadvantages.

The world we actually live in is of course far more complicated. Equality before the law, which is the dominant discourse of equality in Canada and other Western liberal democracies, is actually a fall-back position avoiding both of the options described above. It doesn’t guarantee equality of opportunity and it doesn’t mitigate inequalities of condition. At most, it provides a measure of our progress toward some compromise on fairness and practicality. It’s not irrelevant, far from it! The legal guarantees of the Voting Rights Act or protections for gay marriage or for equality between religious beliefs do matter, but not for the reasons we think. They matter less because they create equal opportunities, and more because they clarify the legitimate grounds for treating people differently. The fact that people are all, in some way, treated differently by society still needs to be acknowledged by all participants in the equality debate.

The next two blog posts will address the sources of present-day inequality in globalization, and the basis for differential treatment and its centrality to equality.

Can currency wars lead to real wars?

Are we in a potential inflationary moment?

Imagine the following:  China secretly buys up gold futures in the hopes of stockpiling a war fund to fight inflation caused by US ‘quantitative easing’.  If the US goes too far in trying to fund its stimulus by debasing the dollar, China triggers a crisis by buying up gold.  The ultimate statement of lack of confidence in the US dollar (which is the key currency for all international trade and capital reserves) leads to a catastrophic run on the dollar and a collapse of globalization as each country tries to ‘beggar’ its neighbour with cascading tit for tat devaluations.  In his book Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis, Jim Rickards presents several scenarios by which the world could come to the brink of collapse as a result of governments’ efforts to manipulate their currencies, thereby stimulating their economies at the expense of their trading partners.  Indeed, it is not hard to imagine how the monetary underpinnings of globalization could easily come crashing down given the wobbliness of the top currency, the high level of US debt, and the lackluster response of the US consumer, traditionally the world’s growth engine, in recovering from the 2007 recession.  Indeed, one could argue that even a much less complicated scenario might lead to crisis:  what if China simply decided to use it’s so-called ‘nuclear option’ and stop buying US treasuries, triggering a cascading dive of confidence in the world’s reserve currency?  What if politics really did take over economics?

The alarmism over a coming hyperinflationary crisis appears to be growing, and it’s not without some foundation.  Fiscal stimulus appears to have met its match in the global system of monetary exchange, where politics and economics do not just interact, but essentially meld.  However, at least some of the alarmism should be taken with a grain of salt.  The calls for curbing the US fiscal deficit (quite apart from the debt) are at least in part motivated by an ideological discomfort with government’s influence on the market as well as a moral panic over Americans’ dependency and perceived complacency.  This view tends to see the world as a dangerous, zero-sum place where countries await any and every opportunity to force an advantage over their competitors.  However, economic competition is not exactly the same as political rivalry, and should not be equated.  While it is not impossible for countries to mutually try to obliterate each other (see the Great Depression) it is not likely given the availability of much more palatable options.

Economic and political 'wars' should not be equated
Economic and political ‘wars’ should not be equated

It is important to remember that unlike real wars, currency wars that result in hyperinflation are not really deliberate—they result from governments’ fumbling and lack of effort to cooperate or lead rather than from single-minded plans to dominate the world.   They are tragedies (or tragicomedies) rather than evils.  They are not so much caused by politics as by a lack of politics.  Because of the uncertain results of currency manipulation, it is a very blunt and unpredictable instrument of policy indeed.   As with nuclear deterrence, mutual deterrence is more likely than not to push countries to cooperate and to head off crises before they get out of hand.  Indeed, this is exactly what has been happening for the last (almost) 42 years.   The players may change, but the game will remain: keep the poker face on and ensure the world continues to have a world reserve currency with some usefulness to everybody.   The alternative is just too awful to contemplate.