Thursday, October 22, 2009

A-swarm with commentaries (blogs vs. the printed word)

Lovely article in the New Yorker by Jane Kramer about Montaigne's essays (maybe I'll finally get around to reading them myself one of these days). Of particular relevance to current debates about the future of pre-internet media is the following quotation from Montaigne: "All is a-swarm with commentaries: of authors there is a dearth." This is as good a commentary on the blogosphere as any that are being written today, more than four centuries later. Montaigne: better than Nostradamus! :-)

Much has been written recently about the threat posed to the traditional (print) media by blogs. Michael Massing has a good article in the New York Review of Books. It's not optimistic about the prospect for traditional quality newspapers such as the New York Times: some serious changes are likely. But Massing has more confidence in the survival of investigative journalism than do many other observers. Another intriguing and relatively optimistic analysis is offered by Steven Johnson here.

I hope the optimists are right, and I find Johnson's arguments convincing on the whole. However, neither Massing nor Johnson quite grapples with one of the most problematic issues: how does one distinguish reporting from echoing? Or, more problematically: how will the average consumer know where to look for the former, and how to distinguish it from the latter?

I am less worried about the actual disappearance of sources of quality information than about their drowning in a sea of misinformation. It is my impression, though I hope I'm wrong, that the factual quality of contemporary debate has been deteriorating. It is easier to be confident of a falsehood if one sees it repeated many times, and the web contains almost any falsehood many times over. As Mao already suggested: "A lie, repeated a hundred times, becomes the truth".

A few weeks ago Doonesbury had a funny (scary?) cartoon related to this concern (hope this link still works) discussing American gullibility. In the cartoon, a researcher on conspiracy theories identifies "reasonists" as a tiny group of people, not very influential, who believe in an evidence-based world.

What's in a name?

Minor preface to my next post about the future of printed media: UGA's student newspaper, the Red and Black, does not give one high hopes for the newspaper industry. The frequency with which spelling errors and grammatical mistakes appear in its pages is roughly equal to what one might expect from a hastily written blog entry. Apparently they do not believe in copy-editing.

As the latest case in point, today's front page feature story is about senior tennis player Christian Vitulli. Yet the headline in the printed version of the paper refers to him as Vatulli. Although this has been corrected in the online version, the article itself manages to refer to him as both Vitulli and Vutilli, an error still present in the online version as well. That's three different spellings for the last name of the subject of the feature story of the day, in an article no more than a few hundred words long.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Did Europe made Africans genocidal?

The Darfur conflict has now been around long enough for a second wave of books on the subject to begin appearing with — one hopes — more nuanced, theoretically informed analysis than earlier books, which were largely descriptive. Most prominent in this second wave, so far, has been Mahmood Mamdani's Saviors and Survivors, published earlier this year, and reviewed quite positively in the New York Times back in March.

Unfortunately, Mamdani's book is longer on ideologically motivated claims than it is on analysis. The NYT review already hinted at this weakness, noting that "Mamdani’s constant refrain is that the virtuous indignation he thinks he detects in those who shout loudest about Darfur is no substitute for greater understanding" [emphasis mine].

An excellent — and scathing — review of Mamdani's book by Richard Just which appeared in The New Republic in September makes clear that Mamdani's own virtuous indignation is no less ill-informed than that of the humanitarian actors he attacks. An earlier review by Nicholas Kristof, in the New York Review of Books, was similarly critical. Both reviews are well worth reading.

One important weakness of the book which emerges only partially from either of these reviews concerns Mamdani's argument that genocide would not have happened but for racial policies implemented by the colonial rulers: Britain, in the case of Sudan; Belgium, in the case of Rwanda. Mamdani reiterates this point in his response to Kristof's review (a response which nitpicks, but does almost nothing to rebut the overall content of Kristof's critique).

The argument itself is hardly controversial, and it is not unreasonable for Mamdani to call attention to often-overlooked historical roots of present-day problems. What is problematic is the implicit hint that the slaughter in Darfur is somehow Britain's fault (and the genocide in Rwanda Belgium's fault). This fatally confuses necessary and sufficient conditions. Genocide (or mass slaughter) is always a policy choice.

The fact that it is a policy choice that would not have been on the radar screen of the Sudanese government but for colonial legacies left by the British does not make it any less of a reprehensible choice, or the result less of a crime against humanity. To argue otherwise — to claim that somehow the Sudanese government is not to blame for its policies — is a worse example of neocolonial attitude than anything Mamdani can indict the Save Darfur movement for. It suggests that Africans (the Sudanese in this case) have no independent agency: they cannot come up with policies on their own, but instead simply continue to reproduce the policy ideas left to them by the British decades ago.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Looting and distributive justice

Interesting op-ed article in the New York Times earlier this week: "To Catch a Looter". Roger Atwood points out that it is easier (and cheaper) than one might think to prevent the looting and illegal export of historical treasures. Successfully keeping such treasures in their original location makes possible archeological tourism, which can greatly benefit the development and living standard of local populations.

One could argue, therefore, that the prevention of looting qualifies as a policy that can be supported on grounds of international distributive justice, not just out of an interest in art history and archeology. Local authorities might play up this added moral justification as a way to increase their ability to attract external funding for the protection of their own heritage.

(Public) education and inequality

Two separate New York Times columnists have raised the connection between education and inequality in recent days. Ross Douthat's main point was that Democrats would be unable to stem a tide of rising inequality, and that although this is not their fault, it will nevertheless undermine the credibility of liberalism because liberals have argued the conservatives were to blame for the rising inequality.

This is a sloppy (or perhaps simply disingenuous) argument, for Douthat makes four separate unwarranted assumptions in reaching his desired conclusion. After all:
1. If conservative policies contribute to rising inequality, it does not logically follow that a change in government will end this effect: policies, once implemented, can continue to have an impact for a long time.
2. If the Democratic Party-led government puts into effect policies to counteract these existing policies, it does not logically follow that inequality must stop rising: many other factors influence inequality.
3. There is a big difference between some people arguing that conservative policies contribute to rising inequality and concluding that the entire Democratic Party does so.
4. It is even less valid to make the same kind of jump to implicate all of "contemporary liberalism".

Douthat's second main message is that political realities prevent the Democrats from adopting some key inequality-reducing policies. In support of this point, Douthat makes a number of simplistic claims about inequality that are worth rebutting (or rather, confronting with the evidence):

1. "Federal income tax is already quite progressive" (hence making it more so will matter little).
In fact, according to the OECD, the U.S. ranked just 21st among OECD countries in terms of top marginal income tax rate. Its ranking differs on other measures, but none that I am aware of justify the conclusion that U.S. federal income tax is "quite progressive".

2. "Inequality is driven in part by low-skilled immigration"
True, but the available evidence suggests that "immigration accounts for a small share (5%) of the increase in U.S. wage inequality between 1980 and 2000."

3. "Immigrants... are taking longer to achieve upward mobility than earlier generations did."
Partially true, but driven primarily by high rates of high school dropout, as Douthat's own source indicates. This means it is a problem more of education than of immigration per se (as that source also notes). Which brings us to:

4. "Inequality is perpetuated by our failing education system — and especially by the bloated cartel responsible for educating the nation’s poorest children"
The second part of this claim is pointlessly tendentious. Obviously there is no single cartel responsible for educating the nation's poorest children. It is true that several different (but not all!) teachers' unions have made educational reforms needlessly difficult. But it does not follow that they are primarily responsible for perpetuating inequality.

Numerous other factors contribute far more to problems with the public school system: de facto segregation, funding, etc. (See, for example, some of Jonathan Kozol's excellent reporting; also in book form.) In other words, Douthat is taking the same kind of cheap shot at teachers' unions as he does at low-skilled immigration: yes, these are contributing factors, but they are far from decisive.

Nicholas Kristof
focuses more specifically, and also more thoughtfully, on teachers' unions. Among others, he refers to an excellent, but also very discouraging, recent New Yorker article on the difficulty of firing incompetent teachers in New York City. This article makes clear that the teachers' union is not doing itself any favors; indeed, their behavior explains why people like Douthat often jump to unfair conclusions regarding the union's share of the blame for poorly performing schools.

Much recent research has shown that the quality of teachers is more important than class size, spending per student, or other factors. It thus follows that resistance by the unions to the firing of incompetent teachers makes matters worse. But it does not logically follow that if only the unions would get out of the way things would magically get better, without having to do anything else. Blaming the unions is an easy way to avoid having to face more difficult problems.

How, after all, does one attract good teachers? Offer them good salaries, reasonable-size classes, functioning equipment, a good support staff, a school building in good repair, etc. All of that, of course, requires money. Research shows clearly that funding alone is not enough: there has to be more of an emphasis on teacher quality. On the other hand, it is ludicrous to pretend that there is some vast army of very good teachers who are just chomping at the bit to build a career in overcrowded, underfunded, run-down public schools, for a low salary, and who are being prevented from doing so only by recalcitrant unions.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Healthcare and distributive justice

It's been a while since I updated this blog, but it's about time I get it going again. So, as a first comment, something about an issue that is crucial to much of the current healthcare debate, but is unfortunately rarely made explicit.

About a month ago, the College Republicans at UGA invited two doctors to speak on healthcare. These physicians claimed to offer "an evidence-based approach" to opposing health care reform. Most of this evidence is recapitulated on their blog (whose sub-title suggests that they do not know the difference between "ills" and "ails": not a good sign!).

Their argument against reform appears to be that 1) any statistics which indicate the U.S. healthcare system performs poorly are wrong, while statistics that indicate it performs well are correct; 2) access to healthcare is not a problem (there is always the ER), and 3) the Massachusetts healthcare reform has worked very poorly, so U.S.-wide reform will fail. Although they claim to base their arguments on evidence, their reading of this evidence is highly selective and obviously geared to support their predetermined conclusion.

More disturbing is their take-away message, as reported in UGA's student newspaper, the Red & Black: they consider it "common sense" that "If we are going to bring 47 million people into the system without increasing the number of doctors out there" this will "give you less access".

And there's the rub: Theirs is an argument of "haves" versus "have-nots". At its heart, this is not an argument about efficiency or cost, nor even about access. Of course, one can debate whether or not healthcare reform might bring new doctors into the system (though they do not address this question), whether physicians are the limiting factor in access to healthcare (also not addressed), and whether "less access" implies worse care (also not addressed).

But abstracting away from those questions, these two doctors apparently consider it "common sense" that those who benefit from the current system (doctors and well-insured patients alike), a system which is heavily subsidized by the government (about half of all healthcare spending in the U.S. is public spending), ought to oppose extending similar government-subsidized benefits to those who are currently excluded. This is a question of distributive justice.

It is about the justice of maintaining an institutional structure which excludes certain people from receiving benefits (subsidized by the government) in a way that is manifestly inequitable (see Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times last week; more systematic detail is in this academic study); an exclusion that, among others, results in an estimated 45,000 unnecessary deaths per year.

Even if it were true that the "you" the doctors addressed in their talk can expect to encounter "less access" under a reformed healthcare system, which is highly debatable, is it too much to hope that many of them would be willing to offer up a little access in exchange for saving the lives of up to 45,000 fellow-citizens per year?

P.S. Interestingly, the Red & Black recently reported that quite a few UGA undergraduates are without health insurance. Of course, it is possible that those without health insurance are less likely to attend an event organized by the College Republicans, and thus were not part of the "you" the doctors were addressing.