Category Archives: politics

A tale of two steel towns


Steelworks in Gary, Indiana, USA


Steelworks in Wollongong, Australia

I was born in Gary, Indiana, the city hosting the biggest steel manufacturer in the US. Now I live in Wollongong, the home of Australia’s largest steelworks. So I’ve moved from one steel town to another. There are several similarities between these two cities, and some striking differences.

Aerial view of Gary, with Lake Michigan in the distance

Gary is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, a huge inland lake, while Wollongong is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean.


Wollongong is sandwiched between the ocean and the escarpment, seen in the distance

In the mid 1900s, they each had about the same population, 200,000. The steelworks attracted large numbers of immigrant workers, mainly from Europe. At their peak, each of these two steelworks employed more than 20,000 workers but, following downsizing in the 1980s and technological advances, this number in each city is now less than 5000. Gary is not far from Chicago, one of the largest cities in the US, and Wollongong is not far from Sydney, Australia’s largest city. On the down side, both Gary and Wollongong have suffered from political corruption, and each city has significant areas of social disadvantage.

So much for similarities. The differences are striking and revealing. I’ll first tell about Gary and then Wollongong.

Gary

I lived in Gary only for my first year of life and have no memories of the city, so I’ve relied on treatments by others, including the books Big Steel by Edward Greer and Lost Gary Indiana by Jerry Davich. My mother, who worked in the Gary steel mill during World War II, has told me various stories.

         Gary was created as a steel town in 1906, and was for years a shining example of enlightened civic enterprise. This was reflected in the architecture, with impressive buildings, including schools, churches, railway station, apartment blocks and theatres. However, this illustrious beginning eventually came to dust.


City Methodist Church, Gary, about 1955

            Many blacks came to Gary for jobs in the steelworks. However, they faced serious discrimination, and most were restricted to living in less affluent parts of town. The racial polarisation was highlighted when a young black candidate, Richard Hatcher, ran for mayor in the 1967. The opposition of the white-dominated political establishment was extreme. Hatcher sought nomination by the Democratic Party, which controlled Gary’s politics: whoever was the Democrat’s candidate was assured of winning the general election.

The Democrat party machine used every possible means to oppose Hatcher. I can’t resist quoting a few details about this extraordinary campaign.

“Attempts by Hatcher’s white supporters to distribute their campaign literature in white neighborhoods were met by so many individual acts of violence that it was necessary to suspend the effort. It even became necessary to provide armed guards to protect the homes of his most publicly prominent white supporters.” (Big Steel, p. 43)

After Hatcher won the nomination, the Democrat party machine then refused to support him at the election, instead openly supporting the Republican candidate and using various methods of voter fraud. Hatcher was a threat to the machine’s control.

“Moreover, the machine was able to see to it – and did – that on election day numerous voting machines in the black precincts were ‘out of order.’ Hatcher’s organization prepared for this eventuality by hiring on its own over a dozen voting machine mechanics from nearby Chicago to be on hand on election day to fix broken machines. … And Gary police officers, who stood in front of polling booths in black neighborhoods to prevent their opening, were driven away by armed gangsters from outside the city hired by unknown persons prepared for this machine tactic.” (p. 49)

Despite the resistance, Hatcher won the election and became the first black mayor in a major US city.


Richard Hatcher

            Racial tensions in Gary helped trigger “white flight”: white residents moved out of the city limits to independent towns that are part of greater Gary. The city of Gary lost a lot of its tax base. There was not enough money to maintain major facilities, and declining population meant less income and patronage. One by one, major buildings were abandoned, some of them razed and others left derelict, because there was not enough money to demolish them.


City Methodist Church, now derelict

            As the city amenities disappeared, Gary became victim to ever more crime, causing further decline. Businesses closed and visitors stayed away. In all the United States, Gary was matched only by Detroit as an example of urban decay.


Union railway station, Gary, once impressive, now abandoned


Abandoned row of Edison-concept homes, Gary

Wollongong

Wollongong started off as a small town on the east coast of Australia, south of Sydney. It has an excellent deep-water harbour at Port Kembla, chosen as the site of what became Australia’s largest steelworks. The city of Wollongong gradually grew, but with relatively little industrial diversification. Healthcare and education are now the largest employers. Being close to Sydney, there are ever more Wollongong residents who commute to work in Sydney.

Wollongong has had its share of social dysfunction and political corruption. Despite rising affluence, there are serious problems due to unemployment, poverty, crime, drug use and gambling. The local government was the scene of a major corruption scandal, publicised in 2008 in hearings by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (my analysis). One former lord mayor, after he died, was exposed in the media as having run a paedophile ring. Another stepped down from office after declaring bankruptcy, thereby avoiding paying millions of dollars in a court action. I have heard stories of bribes offered to allocate preferences in local elections. However, this pales into insignificance compared to the history of political corruption in Gary.


Frank Arkell, long-serving lord mayor of Wollongong, later murdered

            Many people say Wollongong is like an overgrown country town. It has few distinctive buildings. The most prominent is the Nan Tien Buddhist temple that opened in 1995.


Nan Tien Temple, Wollongong

            Despite its shortcomings, Wollongong seems a model of harmony, honesty and civic pride compared to Gary. In Wollongong, there are numerous nationalities but in comparison relatively little discrimination. The most serious racism, as in Australia more generally, is directed against Aborigines. Aside from this, Australia’s version of multiculturalism seems relatively successful.

Although Wollongong has never had many impressive buildings like Gary, it has not suffered anything like Gary’s urban decay. To the contrary: downtown Wollongong is gradually adding a few sites of note, and customers continue to patronise local businesses.


The Council Building, one of Wollongong’s few civic buildings of any size or notability

Explaining the differences

Of the two steel towns, why has Wollongong managed to survive so much better than Gary? This is a big question and I will not try to provide a comprehensive answer but instead just point to a few relevant factors.


Wollongong railway station: modest but still functioning

In Gary, urban decay was triggered by “white flight” so that now 90% of the city’s population is African American. In Australia, there is no equivalent to the US history of slavery and subsequent institutionalised racial discrimination.

Another factor is the way local government is organised. In the US, many cities are surrounded by independent towns, each with its own government and police force, and sometimes its own schools, libraries and other services. Right next to Gary are quite a few such independent towns. Their existence means that residents of the legal entity called Gary can leave and live in a nearby town, such as Merrillville.

The information about Gary says the population peaked at 180,000 and has since declined to 80,000. So I thought this meant Gary and Wollongong had had roughly the same population. But then I looked up the population of the Gary metropolitan area. It is over 700,000. Metropolitan Gary is over twice as populous as Wollongong.


Aerial view of Gary, showing the numerous neighbouring independent towns

            In Australia, city names and populations refer to the metropolitan area, not a specific administrative entity. Administrative arrangements make something like white flight less plausible in Australia. In Wollongong, and indeed in the entire state of New South Wales, there is a single government school system and a single police force. It’s possible to move to a more affluent part of Wollongong, but this has a limited effect on tax revenues.

The implication is that US urban decay, and the phenomenon of ghettoes, is facilitated by the administrative arrangements that allow formation of separate towns with their own income and local schools.

Trade unions may be another factor. Wollongong has long had a strong progressive labour movement. One of the pioneering initiatives of Australian trade unions was “green bans.” These involve unions refusing to undertake work that would be environmentally or culturally damaging. The decision by workers to undertake a ban requires being approached by a community group.

The South Coast Labour Council, representing unions in the region, has occasionally put bans on development projects that would damage buildings considered to have heritage value. Although successes have been limited, the readiness of community and labour activists to protest may have helped prevent a more rampant destruction of Wollongong heritage in the name of development. Labour militancy may also have played a role in maintaining living standards for workers.


Wollongong coal miners on picket line, 2015

This comparison of Gary and Wollongong is at most suggestive. Not all US industrial towns have gone downhill. Comparisons of other US and Australian towns might give a different picture. Even so, there is potentially much to learn from making comparisons, and towns in other countries might be brought into the mix. If it turns out that administrative arrangements greatly affect  the way regions evolve, this might give impetus to reform that actually makes a difference.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Sharon Callaghan,  Xiaoping Gao and Yasmin Rittau for valuable comments.

Boldly promoting alternatives

There’s a need for utopian visions presented as practical possibilities. Rutger Bregman shows how.

Free money for the poor

What should be done about homelessness? One idea is to give money to homeless people, no strings attached. What do you expect they will do with it? Use it for drugs or gambling? A common assumption is that homeless people have character defects and cannot be trusted.

The experiment has been done, in Britain, and homeless people turned out to be far more responsible than anticipated. Most of them used their gift carefully. Months later, the majority had found accommodation and otherwise improved their circumstances.

Actually, there have been quite a few experiences and studies of giving money to the poor and disadvantaged. Not only does the money help them, it actually saves money for the government. Costs of welfare, policing and courts go down. It seems like a win-win solution: help the disadvantaged and save money by doing it.

This is one of the arguments presented by Rutger Bregman in his fascinating and inspirational book Utopia for Realists. Bregman is an articulate advocate for a universal basic income: money paid to every member of society unconditionally. The benefits are manifold: savings for the government, reduced crime, improved civic participation, and more effort devoted to things people care about.

Seldom have I encountered the case for radical alternatives presented so cogently. I’ve read lots of books about social analysis, social change and visions for the future. Utopia for Realists is one of the most stimulating I’ve read for a long time. It summarises relevant research and observations in a clear and engaging fashion, presents arguments in a succinct fashion, and is written with an engaging turn of phrase. For the latter we can also thank Elizabeth Manton, who translated the book from the Dutch.

Work

Bregman delves into the history of work. In the 1930s, some leading economists predicted that within decades the work week would be greatly reduced, perhaps to only 15 hours. Economic productivity is great enough to provide for everyone and more. However, this is not the way things turned out. Instead of having ever more leisure, many workers are just as harried as ever while toiling at jobs they find unsatisfying.

Many jobs today, including many of the most high-paid ones, are unnecessary for human wellbeing. Examples include advertising, financial trading and manufacturing copycat pharmaceuticals. A cable was laid across the US so that financial information could be sent a few milliseconds faster, enabling the owners to skim extra money off the markets. Cost: $250 million. Examples of this sort of waste could be multiplied.

A fundamental problem is the way that goods and services are distributed. The usual mechanism is jobs: having a job entitles a worker to wages that can be used to buy goods and services. But this mechanism is increasingly dysfunctional when the economic system is capable of producing enough for everyone. Instead, Bregman argues, it would be better to provide a universal basic income, cut working hours, get rid of pointless and harmful work, and enable people to do things that are worthwhile.

A universal basic income would not be welfare in the usual sense. Today, in most countries, there are large bureaucracies providing all sorts of rules and barriers that frustrate and humiliate many of those seeking unemployment and other benefits. A universal basic income would be an entitlement. Bregman’s book, published in Dutch in 2014, has contributed to a vigorous discussion about this option.

As well as covering current arguments and research, Bregman looks at the history of the basic income option. It nearly became policy in the US in the early 1970s, under President Richard Nixon, until some evidence was brought to Nixon’s attention. Bregman analyses the evidence used to scuttle the plan, showing how it misrepresented events that occurred over a century earlier. This is just one example of how the past has been interpreted to support current policies.

“The welfare state, which should foster people’s sense of security and pride, has degenerated into a system of suspicion and shame. It is a grotesque pact between right and left. ‘The political right is afraid people will stop working,’ laments Professor [Evelyn] Forget in Canada, ‘and the left doesn’t trust them to make their own choices’. A basic income system would be a better compromise. In terms of redistribution, it would meet the left’s demands for fairness; where the regime of interference and humiliation is concerned, it would give the right a more limited government than ever.” (p. 45)

Poverty

Bregman’s concerns extend well beyond Europe, and include poverty worldwide. He gives figures showing that world poverty levels are declining, but notes that there is still a long way to go. What about foreign aid? It’s a drop in the bucket, and not necessarily effective. There are studies showing that giving poor people money is more effective than supporting development projects. There is now a booming business in doing comparative studies of foreign aid interventions, seeing whether they are more or less effective than doing nothing. Giving textbooks to a remote school may do nothing for children’s education, but health interventions, such as deworming, can lead to children obtaining several more years of schooling.

However, even the most effective of these interventions is nothing compared to the most powerful way to address world poverty: open borders. Allowing unrestricted immigration worldwide is utopian indeed. Bregman quotes figures showing that this would dramatically improve economic welfare, far exceeding any foreign-aid approach.

Open borders is so far off the political spectrum as to be dismissed outright. Yet there is a fundamental contradiction in the agenda of economic globalisation: borders are open for flows of goods, services and money, but only slightly ajar for movement of labour.

Bregman addresses all the standard fears and reservations. For example, open borders would not hurt incomes in affluent societies. He notes that when movement between Mexico and the US was easy, 85% of Mexican immigrants to the US eventually returned to Mexico. In recent decades, with the tightening of the border, only 10% return. This is just one of many counter-intuitive findings on this issue.

Bregman is realistic enough to say that open borders will not happen overnight, nor should it. His argument is that this utopian option should be put on the political agenda for discussion. Even a slight increase in immigration levels would have large economic benefits.

How to bring it about

Bregman is a fan of the power of ideas. He uses the example of neoliberalism to show what can happen. After World War II, ideological adherents of markets were a small group, out of favour, but they took their ideas forward and within a matter of decades they became dominant. Bregman believes a similar process could occur with ideas like a universal basic income and open borders.

I agree that ideas are important, especially when they can be woven into a persuasive narrative. Ideas about equality and participation have been vital in overcoming discrimination and domination. Nevertheless, ideas are not enough: they need to be linked to social movements, and creating or fostering a social movement is not easy, especially when opponents are powerful.

My reservations about the power of ideas stem in part from my own experience in promoting a utopian alternative. Social defence is nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an alternative to military defence. It sounds implausible but actually there are many suggestive precedents. In the 1980s, there were activist groups  in several countries promoting social defence, including in the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Italy and Australia. However, after the end of the cold war and the collapse of the massive movement against nuclear weapons, social defence faded from consideration. Yet military systems are alive and well and causing just as many problems as ever, and an alternative is needed.

Social defence is a threat not just to military systems but to governments and to corporate capitalism. When ordinary citizens have the skills and training to resist aggression, they can use those skills and training to oppose oppressive bosses in the workplace and repressive government policies.

The same sorts of considerations apply to the utopian possibilities presented by Bregman, namely a universal basic income, a 15-hour week and open borders. They are rational and feasible. They would save money and improve economic productivity. But they are threatening to the current system, in which inequality not only privileges the wealthy and powerful but provides scapegoats for those lower in the hierarchy. This is similar to the way patriarchy operates: the collective domination of men over women facilitates the domination of a few men over the rest.


Rutger Bregman

Although utopian ideas are not enough on their own, they are incredibly important, and Bregman provides a fresh and inspiring example of how to make utopias seem realistic. His book is the best possible advertisement for practical utopian thinking and campaigning. With its clear, no-nonsense arguments, engaging presentation and array of evidence, it is a model for anyone wanting to contribute ideas for a achieving a better world.

“The richer we as a society become, the less effectively the labor market will be at distributing prosperity. If we want to hold onto the blessings of technology, ultimately there’s only one choice left, and that’s redistribution. Massive redistribution. Redistribution of money (basic income), of time (a shorter working week), of taxation (on capital instead of labor), and, of course, of robots.” (p. 199)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Questioning a Trump-making system

The election of Donald Trump has triggered a huge level of opposition. But should the focus be on Trump or the system that enabled him to become president?

            In the US, there is a continual preoccupation with the presidency. News media regularly report on the president’s statements and activities and on speculation about the next election. When people oppose the president’s actions, they usually think of who else might be president. Trump’s election has accentuated angst over who holds the office.

What is remarkable is that there is so little consideration of alternatives to electing a president, an official national leader. Why should one person be granted so much power, indeed the most power of anyone in the world? The usual answer is that this is democracy. But it is a very limited, indeed distorted, conception of democracy.

            Winston Churchill famously referred to the view that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. The quote doesn’t specify the other forms of government, which might be taken to be fascism, state socialism and other dictatorial systems. Churchill didn’t mention participatory alternatives in which there would be no single individual with extraordinary powers.

            In many domains, there are tremendous efforts to innovate. Think of communications technology, in which radio, television, computers and smartphones have transformed the way people interact. Think of transportation, with trains, bicycles, cars, and aeroplanes. Think also of social relationships, with campaigns to overthrow slavery, provide safe working conditions and promote equality for women.

Why not consider innovation in political systems? There is a strange sort of complacency about politics. Like Churchill, most people assume that representative government is the best possible system. This is analogous to not bothering to look at alternatives to radio or to sexual discrimination.

Random selection

The word “democracy” means rule by the people, but it has been hijacked and applied to systems that are actually rule by elected officials. The pioneering democracy, ancient Athens, offers a different picture. There were meetings of the assembly, in which all citizens could participate. More importantly, for practical purposes the most significant mechanism for choosing public officials was random selection, using a device called the kleroterion.


kleroterion

            David van Reybrouck in his book Against Elections describes the role of random selection in politics beginning in ancient Greece and continuing in Italy and other parts of Europe. He notes that for centuries, selecting public officials randomly was considered democratic, whereas using elections was the aristocratic approach. Then, as pressures for popular participation increased, elections were rebadged as democracy, thus constraining the more authentic approach.


David van Reybrouck

            Critics of democracy in ancient Athens point to groups excluded from participation: women, slaves and aliens. True enough. But similarly, early voting systems excluded women, slaves and men without property. The point is that a system can evolve. However, nearly all the effort to innovate has been within one model, elections. Innovation in the use of random selection has been rare — at least until recent years.

There is one venue where randomly selected decision-makers have maintained a role: court juries. However, judges and governments have constrained the roles of juries and limited the expansion of jury-style decision-making.

In the past few decades, there has been an upsurge in experiments with policy juries: groups of people, randomly chosen to address a policy issue, who listen to evidence on all sides of the issue and then seek to reach an agreed recommendation. Studies show that policy juries, also called citizens’ juries, usually lead to sensible recommendations. Members take the process extremely seriously and most find it engrossing and empowering. The experience with policy juries shows they are a reliable means of harnessing people’s concerns for the collective good.

            Expansion of the role of policy juries is one possible alternative to representative government. Yet governments, the ones now holding all the power to make policy, are usually resistant to introducing, or even testing, this alternative. And policy juries are only one example. There are other participatory options, such as workers’ control and Gandhian-style village democracy, that could be tested.

Learning from mistakes

Testing and learning from experience are the keys to improvement. Scientific research is one of the most dynamic systems in the world today. It relies on experiments and open publication of results, allowing scrutiny and testing of claims. This is a competitive system in which ideas are championed but all can be challenged. Although there are many shortcomings in this system, for example the influence of vested interests on research priorities, the system of scientific investigation is a model for dynamic improvement.

Testing and learning from experience are also central to the production of consumer goods. Again, there are many shortcomings in the system, for example the manipulation of needs through advertising, but competition has enabled dynamism. There are also dynamic non-capitalist production systems, for example the system for production of free software and the free encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Like science and consumer goods, they build on testing and learning from experience.

In contrast, political systems usually run as monopolies. Electing leaders is a great improvement on dictatorship, but it can hardly be claimed to be the best possible system when there is no testing of alternatives. It would be straightforward to set up a variety of political-system alternatives in local communities, letting them run long enough to see how they operate, and to study them to learn their strengths and weaknesses. This would be expensive, at least in the short term, but not compared to the potential benefits.

            So why aren’t political alternatives being tested? The obvious answer is that current power-holders don’t want things to change. They want to keep their power. Examining alternatives is a threat.

The lesson from the study of systems capable of dynamic improvement is that testing of alternatives and learning from both success and failure are crucial. Complaining about current politicians and their political decisions will remain important, but also needed is more effort to explore and test alternatives.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Mathematical models: the toxic variety

Job applications, credit ratings and the likelihood of being arrested can be affected by mathematical models. Some of the models have damaging effects.

usnews-best-colleges

In 1983, U.S. News & World Report – then a weekly newsmagazine in competition with Time and Newsweek – published a ranking of US universities. For U.S. News, this was a way to increase sales. Its ranking system initially relied on opinions of university presidents, but later diversified by using a variety of criteria. As years passed, the U.S. News ranking became more influential, stimulating university administrators to seek to improve rankings by hiring academics, raising money, building facilities and, in some cases, trying to game the system.

One of the criteria used in the U.S. News ranking system was undergraduate admission acceptance rates. A low acceptance rate was assumed to mean the university was more exclusive: a higher percentage of applicants to Harvard are rejected than at Idaho State.

US high school students planning further study are commonly advised to apply to at least three prospective colleges. Consider the hypothetical case of Sarah, an excellent student. She applies to Stanford, a top-flight university where she would have to be lucky to get in, to Michigan State, a very good university where she expects to be admitted, and to Countryside Tech, which offers a good education despite its ease of admission.

Sarah missed out at Stanford, as expected, and unfortunately was also rejected at Michigan State. So she anticipated going to Countryside Tech, but was devastated to be rejected there too. What happened?

The president of Countryside Tech was determined to raise his institution’s ranking. One part of this effort was a devious admissions policy. Sarah’s application looked really strong, so admissions officers assumed she would end up going somewhere else. So they rejected her in order to improve Tech’s admissions percentage, making Tech seem more exclusive. Sarah was an unfortunate casualty of a competition between universities based on the formula used by U.S. News. 

ranking-dataset-share

            In Australia, the U.S. News rankings are little known, but other systems, ranking universities across the globe, are influential. In order to boost their rankings, some universities hire academic stars whose publications receive numerous citations. A higher ranking leads to positive publicity that attracts more students, bringing in more income. Many students mistakenly believe a higher ranking university will provide a better education, not realising that the academic stars hired to increase scholarly productivity are not necessarily good teachers. Indeed, many of them do no teaching at all. Putting a priority on hiring them means superb teachers are passed over and money is removed from teaching budgets.

WMDs

The story of U.S. News university rankings comes from an important new book by Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction. O’Neil started off as a pure mathematician teaching in a US university, then decided to enter the private sector where she could do something more practical as a “data scientist.” Working for a hedge fund and then some start-ups, she soon discovered that the practical uses of data analysis and mathematical models were damaging to many ordinary people, especially those who are disadvantaged. She wrote Weapons of Math Destruction to expose the misuses of mathematical modelling in a range of sectors, including education, personal finance, policing, health and voting.

A model is just a representation of a bigger reality, and a mathematical model is one that uses numbers and equations to represent relationships. For example, a map is a representation of a territory, and usually there’s nothing wrong with a map unless it’s inaccurate or gives a misleading impression.

mathematical-modelling-calibration-of-dip-stick-4-638

            The models that O’Neil is concerned about deal with people and affect their lives, often in damaging ways. The model used by U.S. News, because it was taken so seriously by so many people, has distorted decisions by university administrators and harmed some students.

“Our own values and desires influence our choices, from the data we choose to collect to the questions we ask. Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.” (p. 21)

Another example is a model used to allocate police to different parts of a city. By collecting data about past crimes and other factors supposedly correlated with crime, the model identifies areas deemed to be at risk and therefore appropriate for more intensive policing.

predpol

This sounds plausible in the abstract, but in practice in the US the result is racially discriminatory even if the police are themselves unprejudiced. Historically, there have been more crimes in disadvantaged areas heavily populated by racial minorities. Putting more police in those areas means even more transgressions are discovered – everything from possession of illegal drugs to malfunctioning cars – and this leads to more arrests of people in these areas, perpetuating their disadvantage. Meanwhile, crimes that are not geographically located are ignored, including financial crimes of the rich and powerful.

intelligence-led-policing

Not every mathematical model is harmful. O’Neil says there are three characteristics of weapons of math destruction or WMDs: opacity, damage and scale. Opacity refers to how transparent the model is. If you can see how the model operates – its inputs, its algorithms, its outputs – then it can be subject to inspection and corrected if necessary. O’Neil cites models used by professional baseball clubs to recruit players and make tactical choices during games. These models are based on publicly available data: they are transparent.

In contrast, models used in many parts of the US to judge the performance of school teachers are opaque: the data on which they are based (student test scores) are not public, the algorithm is secret, and decisions made on the basis of the models (including dismissing teachers who are allegedly poor performers) are not used to improve the model.

The second feature of WMDs is damage. Baseball models are used to improve a team’s performance, so there’s little damage. Teacher performance models harm the careers and motivation of excellent teachers.

The third feature is scale. A model used in a household to decide on when to spend money can, at the worst, hurt the members of the household. If scaled up to the whole economy, it could have drastic effects.

cathy-oneil-342-500px
Cathy O’Neil

O’Neil’s book is engaging. She describes her own trajectory from pure mathematician to disillusioned data scientist, and then has chapters on several types of WMDs, in education, advertising, criminal justice, employment, workplaces, credit ratings, insurance and voting. Without a single formula, she tells about WMDs and their consequences.

The problems are likely to become worse, because data companies are collecting ever more information about individuals, everything from purchasing habits to opinions expressed on social media. Models are used because they seem to be efficient. Rather than reading 200 job applications, it is more efficient to use a computer program to read them and eliminate all but 50, which can then be read by humans. Rather than examining lots of data about a university, it is more efficient to look at its ranking. Rather than getting to know every applicant for a loan, it is more efficient to use an algorithm to assess each applicant’s credit-worthiness. But efficiency can come at a cost, including discrimination and misplaced priorities.

My experience

Earlier in my career, I did lots of mathematical modelling. My PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Sydney was about a numerical method for solving the diffusion equation, applied to the movement of nitrogen oxides introduced into the stratosphere. I also wrote computer programmes for ozone photochemistry in the stratosphere, among related topics. My initial PhD supervisor, Bob May, was at the time entering the field of mathematical ecology, and I helped with some of his calculations. Bob made me co-author of a paper on a model showing the effect of interactions between voters.

During this time, I started a critical analysis of models for calculating the effect of nitrogen oxides, from either supersonic transport aircraft or nuclear explosions, on stratospheric ozone, looking in particular at the models used by the authors of two key scientific papers. This study led eventually to my first book, The Bias of Science, in which I documented various assumptions and techniques used by the authors of these two papers, and more generally in scientific research.

While doing my PhD, some other students and I studied the mathematical theory of games – used for studies in economics, international relations and other topics – and ran an informal course on the topic. This enabled me to later write a paper about the social assumptions underpinning game theory.

In the following decade, as an applied mathematician at the Australian National University, I worked on models in astrophysics and for incorporating wind power in electricity grids. Meanwhile, I read about biases in models used in energy policy.

I had an idea. Why not write a book or manual about mathematical modelling, showing in detail how assumptions influenced everything from choices of research topics to results? My plan was to include a range of case studies. To show how assumptions affected results, I could program some of the models and then modify parameters and algorithms, showing how results could be influenced by the way the model was constructed and used.

However, other projects took priority, and all I could accomplish was writing a single article, without any detailed examples. For years I regretted not having written a full critique of mathematical modelling. After obtaining a job in social science at the University of Wollongong, I soon discontinued my programming work and before long was too out of touch to undertake the critique I had in mind.

I still think such a critique would be worthwhile, but it would have quite a limited audience. Few readers want to delve into the technical details of a mathematical model on a topic they know little about. If I were starting today, it would be more illuminating to develop several interactive models, with the user being able to alter parameters and algorithms and see outcomes. What I had in mind, decades ago, would have been static and less effective.

What Cathy O’Neil has done in Weapons of Math Destruction is far more useful. Rather than provide mathematical details, she writes for a general audience by focusing on the uses of models. Rather than looking at models that are the subject of technical disputes in scientific fields, she examines models affecting people in their daily lives.

Weapons of Math Destruction is itself an exemplar – a model of the sort to be emulated – of engaged critique. It shows the importance of people with specialist skills and insider knowledge sharing their insights with wider audiences. Her story is vitally important, and so is her example in showing how to tell it.

“That’s a problem, because scientists need this error feedback – in this case the presence of false negatives – to delve into forensic analysis and figure out what went wrong, what was misread, what data was ignored. It’s how systems learn and get smarter. Yet as we’ve seen, loads of WMDs, from recidivism models to teacher scores, blithely generate their own reality. Managers assume that the scores are true enough to be useful, and the algorithm makes tough decisions easy. They can fire employees and cut costs and blame their decisions on an objective number, whether it’s accurate or not.” (p. 133)

weapons-math-destruction

Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy (London: Allen Lane, 2016)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Assassination, Inc.

predator-firing-missile4

The US government uses drones to murder its opponents. Drones are an ideal tool to minimise public outrage from military operations.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, there is an ever-present danger of death from missiles in the sky. US military drones fly high over these countries, controlled from bunkers thousands of kilometres away. Some drones are for surveillance; some are for killing.

A new book, The Assassination Complex, documents the US drone warfare programme. A great deal of information about this programme became available via a major leak, and this has been supplemented by comments from former employees. Much of the information was published by The Intercept, an online magazine set up in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about US government surveillance. For those who like hard copy, The Assassination Complex provides a convenient package of material. The authors include Jeremy Scahill, author of books about the shady side of US military operations, Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who initially reported on Snowden’s material, and several staff members for The Intercept.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAJeremy Scahill

The drone warfare programme operates like this. Data is collected about possible targets: men considered dangerous enemies. Some information is gathered on the ground, but most is from electronic surveillance, for example metadata about phone calls. When a key figure is identified, drones track them continuously, often via sim cards in mobile phones. Authorisation for attack is obtained through a chain of command in the US, after which the CIA or military has 60 days to act. When a suitable occasion presents itself, attack drones launch missiles against the target.

Regular drone killings began after 9/11 under the presidency of George W. Bush and then greatly expanded under the Obama administration. Thousands of people have been killed by strikes.

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Double standards

From the point of view of those behind the programme, it is an effective way of eliminating terrorists with minimal risk to US personnel. Proponents believe the drone attacks are surgical, namely highly selective, with only enemies killed. The authorisation protocol, combined with US laws, provides justification for the programme.

Critics offer a completely different picture. According to information in The Assassination Complex, the strikes are not nearly as surgical as claimed: as well as the target, many others are killed: non-combatants including women and children. Furthermore, potential targets are becoming sophisticated in evading attacks, especially in Yemen and Somalia. Knowing that their sim cards are used to track them, groups can mix up the cards. Someone may be killed, but not necessarily the primary target.

The drone strikes do not provide targets with an opportunity to defend themselves in court. Killing is carried out on the basis of suspicion. No charges are laid, no trial is held and no judge or jury is allowed to see the evidence against those killed.

Finally, when strikes kill non-combatants, as so often occurs, this alienates the population, generating greater opposition. Drone killings radicalise a fraction of the population; rather than repressing the insurgency, they add fuel to resistance. In this way, drone killings perpetuate the very thing they are supposed to stop. They are part of a cycle of mutual provocation that fosters perpetual war.

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Imagine that a small group in one of the target countries, let’s say Pakistan, manages to obtain its own fleet of drones, or perhaps commandeers US drones through a sophisticated hacking operation. The group designates portions of US territory as a warzone and commences a surveillance and attack operation targeting leading US politicians and military figures, especially those who run the US drone programme. The operation is successful: strikes kill several US leaders, with some collateral damage (family members). Imagine the outrage in the US. “Murderous thugs! This is an outrage. This means war. We must strike back. They cannot be allowed to get away with this.”

Yet this scenario is an exact parallel of the US drone programme, except with the perpetrators and targets reversed. This example shows the incredible arrogance underlying the US programme, an assumption that “we” are righteous and can take action to kill “them” who are a dangerous threat (as judged by “us”). A reversal of “we” and “them” is unthinkable. Because it is unthinkable, the implicit double standard is invisible to US perpetrators.

Outrage management

Think of an injustice in which the perpetrator is more powerful than the target, for example torture, massacre of peaceful protesters, or genocide. Such injustices have the potential to generate outrage among those who witness or learn about it. Therefore, perpetrators regularly use five sorts of techniques to reduce public outrage: cover-up of the action, devaluation of the target, reinterpretation of the events (by lying, minimising consequences, blaming others or reframing), official channels that give an appearance of justice, and intimidation of people involved. Each of these techniques is readily apparent in the US drone programme.

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Cover-up is a key feature of drone killings. The programme operates largely in secret, and little would be known about it except for leaks and exposes such as The Assassination Complex. Of course survivors of strikes know about them, as do family members, but the US population is left in the dark. Video footage of strikes is kept secret, as indeed are the names of most of the victims. The US government does everything possible to keep the programme secret. Indeed, the choice to use drones for military purposes may reflect the relative ease by which the human costs are hidden.

Devaluation is a powerful technique for reducing outrage: when victims are lower in status, there is less concern about what is done to them. The targets of drone strikes are labelled terrorists and portrayed as serious threats.

Reinterpretation means explaining what happens in a way that reduces outrage. It can involve several methods, including lying, minimising consequences, blaming others, and reframing. According to White House guidelines released in 2003, drone strikes are only undertaken when there is “near certainty” that the target is present and “near certainty” that no one else, namely non-combatants, will be injured or killed. However, the part about non-combatants is not applied in practice: strikes are regularly carried out without satisfying this criterion, which means the guidelines are a public lie.

The harmful consequences of drone strikes are routinely minimised. Anyone killed in addition to the target is labelled an “enemy killed in action.” This includes women and children. In this way civilian injuries and deaths are reframed, namely looked at from a different perspective. Another aspect of reframing is the designation of target areas as “warzones.” However, setting aside that the US Congress never declared war, this is a unilaterally declared war, with the so-called warzones being designated by the US government.

Official channels include courts, expert committees, grievance committees and any other agency or process that ostensibly provides fairness and justice. The problem is that when powerful groups like the government commit crimes, official channels may give only an illusion of justice. In the case of the US drone programme, the closest thing to an official channel is the policy guidelines released in 2003, already mentioned. These give the illusion of justice – only terrorists are supposed to be targeted – when in practice many civilians are killed.

Intimidation is the use of threats, reprisals and attacks to deter people from expressing outrage. Drone strikes themselves are a potent tool of intimidation. Indeed, they are a form of terrorism, terrorism by the US government. As well, whistleblowers and journalists are subject to intimidation. Those working in the US national security system who speak out about abuses are potentially subject to dismissal and prosecution, and some go to prison.

Resistance

Although the drone programme is in many ways an ideal way to run a killing operation while minimizing the possibility of domestic protest, nevertheless there has been opposition. Each of the five techniques for reducing outrage can be countered.

Exposure of the programme is the counter to cover-up, and is crucial. This has been achieved through the combined efforts of insiders who speak out or leak information, investigative journalists who collect and analyse features of the programme, and editors who publish exposes. The Assassination Complex is a significant outcome of these efforts.

the-assassination-complex

Validation of targets is the counter to devaluation. Validation can occur by showing that many targets are innocent victims and by giving them names, faces and life histories. When targets are seen as real people rather than nameless “terrorists,” assassination seems less justified. The following quote illustrates devaluation and lying by the US government, and validation of the target by providing his name and some personal details.

The third – and most controversial – killing of a U.S. citizen was that of Awlaki’s son, sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki. He was killed two weeks after his father, while having dinner with his cousin and some friends. Immediately after the strike anonymous U.S. officials asserted that the younger Awlaki was connected to al Qaeda and was in fact twenty-one. After the family produced his birth certificate, the United States changed its position, with an anonymous official calling the killing of the teenager an “outrageous mistake.” (p. 47)

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Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

Interpretation of the events as an injustice is the counter to the reinterpretation. Lies and minimising of consequences can be challenged with facts; reframing can be challenged by the frame of injustice. The labels “assassination,” “murder” and “killing” starkly articulate the realities of drone warfare.

Mobilisation of support is the counter to official channels. So far, there has been relatively little popular protest in the US against drone killings. Protest is the most potent challenge to the drone programme.

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Finally, resistance is the counter to intimidation. Everyone involved in producing the Assassination Complex and related outputs has to stand up to the possibility of coming under surveillance, being put on watchlists and jeopardising their jobs.

On an optimistic note, the escalation of drone warfare by the US government might be considered a sign that it is more difficult today to muster support for open warfare, hence the need for killing to be covert. The drone programme has an added bonus for the military-security establishment: fostering the very problem it is supposed to solve, namely radicalisation of populations (though of course this is not how establishment figures think about the programme). How to undermine the drone programme and foster alternatives such as nonviolent action remains a major challenge.

Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, The Assassination Complex: Inside the US Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Programme (London: Serpent’s Tale, 2016)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

If not elections, what else?

“Our democracy is being wrecked by being limited to elections, even though elections weren’t invented as a democratic instrument.” — David Van Reybrouck

In Europe, voters are discontented. Some are deserting their party loyalties, erratically. Some are attracted to populists railing against the system but without an alternative to it. Unstable governments are becoming more common, and in Belgium the country went for over a year without a government. Then there are non-voters, those who have opted out of the electoral circus.

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“Anyone who puts together low voter turnout, high voter turnover, declining party membership, governmental impotence, political paralysis, electoral fear of failure, lack of recruitment, compulsive self-promotion, chronic electoral fever, exhausting media stress, distrust, indifference and other persistent paroxysms see the outlines of a syndrome emerging. Democratic Fatigue Syndrome is a disorder that has not yet been fully described but from which countless Western societies are nonetheless unmistakably suffering.” (p. 16)

This is the diagnosis of David Van Reybrouck in his book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, just published in English. The title of the book is challenging: isn’t democracy all about having elections? What about all those people in countries without elections, or with massive voter fraud, agitating against dictatorial governments and demanding fair elections?

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David Van Reybrouck

Sortition versus elections

Van Reybrouck, to present another view, goes back into the history of democracy, which etymologically means rule by the people, the demos. In ancient Athens, the members of most of the important decision-making bodies, such as the Council of 500, the People’s Court and the magistracies, were chosen randomly, a system called the lot or sortition.

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The kleroterion, used in ancient Athens for randomly selecting public officials

Athenian citizens comprised only perhaps one-sixth of the adult population, the others being women, slaves and foreigners. Although it was a flawed form of democracy, it was an extraordinary innovation for its time, a dramatic departure from arbitrary rule.

Sortition is Van Reybrouck’s special interest. He traces its use from ancient Greece through the Middle Ages in Europe. In Florence, Venice and other cities in several parts of Europe, sortition was used in combination with elections in intricate ways to choose leaders. However, only aristocrats were involved, with no popular participation.

Through the 1700s, popular participation in decision-making was only an idea, not a practical reality. People were ruled by hereditary aristocracies. Then came the American and French revolutions, resisting and overthrowing monarchies. What system of decision-making should they use?

According to Van Reybrouck, there were two options on the table, elections and sortition. The general view by key writers at the time was that elections were an aristocratic mechanism and sortition a democratic one. As we know, the revolutionaries adopted elections. According to their writings, they opposed democracy, being afraid of the lower classes having power. So they wrote constitutions that ensured continuing power for elites through elections, with only a limited number of landowners entitled to vote.

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In the following decades, the franchise gradually expanded but the system worked largely the same way, ensuring that people were not directly involved in governance, having only the occasional and limited role of helping to choose their rulers. Along the way, the previous idea that elections were an aristocratic mechanism was reversed to the current belief that elections are democracy. This idea became so dominant that elections were written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Representative government is now called “democracy,” so other possibilities for citizen participation have to make do with adjectival forms such as “participatory democracy” or “direct democracy” or “deliberative democracy.”

“Electoral fundamentalists, we have for decades clung to the ballot box as if it were the Holy Grail of democracy, only to discover that we have been clinging not to a Holy Grail but to a poisoned chalice that was deliberately set up as an anti-democratic instrument.” (pp. 92-93)

The jury system

The best analogy to sortition is the jury system used in courts. Twelve or so citizens are selected at random to serve for a limited period, hearing from lawyers and witnesses and then reaching a verdict. Although jurors are far less experienced than judges, the jury system has several advantages. First, the jurors, because they are chosen by lot, are more representative of the citizenry in terms of age, occupation, education, gender and ethnicity. Second, the jurors have no stake in the outcome: because their time as jurors is limited, and they have no reputation to defend, they are less subject to influence or self-interest. Third, the jurors are able to deliberate, namely to discuss evidence and views with each other, each bringing to the discussion their own backgrounds and understanding. Fourth, serving on a jury provides a powerful education in citizen participation. Fifth, the jury system gives greater credibility to decisions: jury members are peers of the accused, not overseers.

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Scene from 12 Angry Men, a classic film about a jury

Sortition involves random selection of citizens to serve limited terms in decision-making roles. The terms in office are limited because being chosen by lot provides no mandate. Those chosen are demographically representative of the community, and this representativeness can be enhanced by stratified sampling: for example, if women and men each constitute half the population, then half of the citizen jurors can be chosen from women and half from men, thus overcoming biases due to some of those selected declining or being unable to serve. Decision-makers serving for short periods are less susceptible to bribery and other influences from vested interests; furthermore, vested interests cannot groom individuals for office because there is no way to increase the odds of being selected.

Since the 1970s, there have been experiments with sortition, most commonly in what are called policy juries or citizens juries. Twelve to 25 or more citizens are chosen randomly from a specified population and brought together for several days to make a decision about a policy issue involving, for example, energy, genetic engineering or education. Neutral facilitators provide the jurors with written materials and arrange for experts, representing different positions, to give presentations and answer questions. The facilitators encourage a balanced and respectful discussion. The jury members then explore common ground and develop a set of mutually agreed recommendations, always allowing for a minority report. The experience from hundreds of such juries is that so-called ordinary citizens take the responsibility given to them very seriously, come up with sensible recommendations, and find the experience illuminating and empowering.

Van Reybrouck gives most attention to large-scale experiments: the Canadian and Dutch governments commissioned citizens panels to offer recommendations for electoral reform. Although none of their recommendations were implemented (being rejected by referendum or government decision), the experiments show the potential of sortition as an antidote for voter dissatisfaction and disengagement.

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Van Reybrouck thinks the best hope for reform is to replace one of the two parliamentary houses – the house of representatives or the senate – with a chamber of randomly selected citizens. He provides tables showing the various options proposed by writers and political theorists, with special attention to a complex yet flexible model involving six different bodies, some randomly selected and some elected, each providing checks to the power of the others.

Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections is one of a growing number of treatments of sortition. It is undoubtedly one of the most engaging. Van Reybrouck musters facts and figures and historical examples in a style that makes for compelling reading. There are plenty of references; Van Reybrouck has an impressive grasp of the topic. In the English translation (Bodley Head edition), the physical book is attractive in layout, slim and elegant. It deserves to be widely read.

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Sortition from the bottom up

In plumping for a randomly selected parliamentary chamber, Van Reybrouck endorses reform, but a particularly difficult type of reform, because it needs to be instituted from the top. Yet the obstacles to this sort of reform are enormous. In Against Elections, Van Reybrouck notes the hostility of both politicians and the mass media to the idea of sortition.

An alternative road to sortition is to begin at smaller scales, in organisations and local communities. Rather than choose citizens to make decisions for a country with a population of millions, random selection could be used for groups of hundreds to tens of thousands, much closer to the original Athenian model. The newDemocracy Foundation in Australia follows this sort of road.

There is another sense in which Van Reybrouck looks only to reform: he assumes the continuing existence of the state apparatus: all those government departments and parliamentary staffers who, arguably, make most of the real decisions. As he notes, elected politicians can’t actually learn all that much about all of the hundreds of topics on which they are asked to vote, so they rely on party positions or assistants.

yes-minister

Returning to court juries and citizens jury experiments, one key feature is that citizens are asked to address only a single issue: a single court case or a particular policy issue. There is an opportunity for learning quite a lot about specifics, of hearing from a range of experts and for engaging in lengthy deliberations. This would be hard to achieve in a large legislative chamber dealing with dozens of different policy issues.

In 1985, philosopher John Burnheim in his book Is Democracy Possible? proposed an alternative to representative government that he called demarchy. It relies on randomly selected groups of decision-makers – namely, sortition – with one additional and crucial feature. Each group addresses only a single function in a local community, for example education, land use or transport. Burnheim calls them functional groups.

Burnheim modelled his concept of demarchy on ancient Greek democracies, not even being aware that when he wrote, pioneering work using policy juries was underway in Germany and the US. Demarchy can be considered the natural extension of policy juries.

Random selection is definitely an idea on the rise, in a variety of contexts, for example admission to university. Yet most of this is happening under the radar, from a very low base. Politicians, as might be expected, are resistant to random selection, even those politicians such as The Greens that officially support participatory democracy. So there is a very long way to go before sortition starts being treated as a serious alternative, as a way of invigorating systems of rule. Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections is a valuable contribution to the journey.

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Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Lyn Carson for valuable comments on a draft.

Was 9/11 really so special?

For many people, the attacks launched on 11 September 2001 were transformative, seen as an exceptional event in historical terms. Certainly they were seared on people’s consciousness through saturation media coverage and used as the rationale for invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this Friday, Oct. 16, 2015 photo, the charred remains of the Doctors Without Borders hospital is seen after being hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Christopher Stokes, general director of Doctors Without Borders, which is also known by its French abbreviation MSF, whose hospital in northern Afghanistan was destroyed in a U.S. airstrike, says the “extensive, quite precise destruction” of the bombing raid casts doubt on American military assertions that it was a mistake. (Najim Rahim via AP)Afghan hospital after US airstrike

But is it possible that 9/11 was not all that special, but actually reflected a long-running pattern? Mark Cronlund Anderson answers “yes” in his new book Holy War: Cowboys, Indians, and 9/11s. Anderson is an historian and he sees 9/11 as just one more example of a pattern in US history of self-righteous imperial aggression.

To make his argument, he draws on a number of historical events. One of them is the Mexican war of 1846–1848, in which the US military defeated Mexico and confiscated half of its territory. At the time, the US had a reputation, especially among its own population, as being anti-imperialistic. It had fought a war of independence against Great Britain, after all. But how could this image be squared with a land-grab against a weaker, disorganised neighbouring government?

Anderson explains the ideology of US aggression using several factors. A key factor was the belief in what was later called “manifest destiny,” namely that the US had a God-given expectation to fill the continent. James Polk, elected president in 1844, had run on a platform of expansionism, and he delivered.

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            Another factor was racism. The Mexicans were seen as inferior, as “greasers” or “half-breeds.”

Prior to the Mexican war, there were prominent voices in US politics and the media condemning imperial adventures. Another source of resistance stemmed from the likelihood that Texas, then independent, would become a slave state, unsettling the balance between free and slave states.

To launch the war, what was needed was a pretext, and there was one at hand. Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande. It didn’t seem to matter that the US and Mexican governments had earlier agreed the border was the Nueces River. US leaders declared that the Mexican action was aggression and launched a war that won a huge swathe of North American territory.

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U
S troops during the Mexican war

            The Mexican war was a fairly short episode compared to a slow-burning war that lasted for centuries: the war waged by white settlers in North America on the indigenous inhabitants. Today in the US they are referred to as Native Americans, but Anderson calls them Indians, as they were referred to in the US until a few decades ago.

As is well known to scholars of colonialism, white settlement was a disaster for indigenous people, causing disease, dispossession and cultural devastation. Anderson’s interest is in the symbolic dimensions of the war against the Indians, and for this he looks at General George Custer. For Custer and many others, the Indians were savages to be subordinated and exterminated. When Custer and his troops were wiped out in 1876, this was another trigger event for US imperialists: the Indians were to be conquered. It didn’t matter, apparently, that Custer was a ruthless killer, including of women and children.

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George Armstrong Custer

            Anderson analyses several further imperialistic episodes in US history: interventions in the Mexican revolution (1916), Nicaragua (both the 1920s and 1980s) and Vietnam. Always there were pretexts for attack: the US government saw itself as the victim and hence fully justified in its aggression. The 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident, in which North Vietnamese PT boats supposedly fired on US vessels in international waters – though this probably never happened – was the pretext for a Congressional resolution allowing massive expansion of US military involvement in the Vietnam war (called in Vietnam the American war).

Anderson, in seeking to understand the mindset of US imperialism – an imperialism that cannot name itself – probes historical episodes less through recounting events and more through expressions of ideas through media and popular culture. Newspaper stories at the time of the Mexican war and the Mexican revolution provide ample evidence of racism and belief in manifest destiny. For the Vietnam war, Anderson examines the Rambo films for the same themes.

Anderson seems to find the evidence he exhumes at times excruciating in its self-righteousness. US imperialists have believed that God is on their side, that their enemies are lesser humans and that the United States is a special nation bringing enlightenment to the world. Anderson summarises his argument:

First, there exists the never-ending pattern of war since 1776, suggesting a deep psychological need to fight. Second, the patterning — portraying battles as defensive maneuvers against the savage Other, as noted — repeats itself without reference to temporal concerns, and the gambit is always some variety of how the savage Other attacked without provocation. Myth is eternal: it seduces and elides linear time. One result is that the Alamo or Pearl Harbor or 9/11 maintains cultural currency and emotional resonance, just so long as we choose to remember. Third, I have borrowed and applied two ideas from psychohistory: nation-states have explicable psychological makeups, and trauma demands repetition. We tend to know this anecdotally, that abused children are more likely to abuse others. Or that a nation born in violence becomes imprinted with a need to relive the trauma, which, for America, has been life-affirming. (pp. 202-3)

Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson

Other commonalities

Anderson sees 9/11 as being in a long tradition of episodes in US history in which the characteristic features of US imperialistic psychology are manifest. Taking a cue from Anderson, it is worth thinking of other ways in which 9/11 is not as special as it is often seen.

In the context of terrorism, 9/11 was dramatic but hardly unusual. Since the 1980s, thousands of people have been killed every year in non-state terrorist attacks. What is special about 9/11 is how much attention it garnered. Deaths of civilians in terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka or Nigeria gain little attention by comparison. Similarly, most of the world’s deadliest wars since 1990 have received little Western media attention.

9/11 is typical in that nearly all attention is focused on attacks by non-government groups. A different brand of terrorism is called state terrorism. This is when governments use their militaries to assault populations. The US-government-led invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 killed far more civilians than 9/11 but are not usually called terrorism, though the terror for those targeted is just as great. State terrorism is usually invisible so far as the media and home population are concerned. Anderson does not refer to the scholarship on state terrorism, but his analysis is quite relevant.

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Augusto Sandino:
seen as a dangerous threat to the US occupation of Nicaragua

            9/11 illustrates how valuable it is for aggressors to see themselves as victims. After 9/11, there was a massive expansion in the military-security complex in the US and elsewhere. During the cold war, the Soviet Union was the enemy and the justification for militarisation. After the cold war, the peace dividend — the anticipated winding back of military establishments — did not occur. Leaders of the military-industrial complex searched for a pretext to justify their existence, and anti-terrorism has served this function well, although non-state terrorism is not a serious threat to states and in human lives is far less devastating than nuclear war.

Anderson’s book Holy War is a valuable reminder of the commonalities in history and the importance of belief systems. Rather than reacting to the latest events in lock-step with the agenda of governments, it is worthwhile stepping back and seeing continuities, and noticing how often the same patterns keep recurring.

Holy Wars

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Are you lucky?

Luck plays a greater role in success than usually recognised.

 luck-skill

I’ve been lucky in my life. I was lucky to be born in an affluent society of loving and supportive parents. They were well off yet thrifty, and encouraged me in valuable habits. They started me on the clarinet, drove me to weekly private lessons and pushed me to practise daily for several years until I learned to love playing and was self-motivated. They encouraged me in reading and learning, but did not push me to get good grades in school.

I was even lucky when I was called up for military service and decided to leave the US for Australia. It was disruptive at the time, but caused me to rethink my views and led me to a lifetime of activism and research.

draft lottery

In my career I was lucky in getting some jobs and not getting others. Just after finishing my PhD, I applied for a lectureship at a new university and just missed out on what I thought would be an exciting opportunity. Decades later, I happened to talk to the physicist who got the job. He told me, “Brian, you’re so lucky you didn’t end up here!”

Most people’s lives are affected by chance events in many ways, large and small. Yet seldom is this factored into thinking about success and failure because, in meritocratic societies, the assumption is that success is due to talent and hard work and therefore justified.

These thoughts are stimulated by a new book by Robert H. Frank, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy. Frank is a prominent economist who has studied the implications of psychology for economics. His earlier books, such as Luxury Fever and The Winner-Take-All Society, are readable and insightful analyses of economic inefficiency caused by wasteful competition.

Success and Luck is part analysis and part personal testament. Frank describes playing tennis and experiencing an episode of sudden cardiac death, which has a 2% survival rate. Frank fully recovered, very much against the odds, because an ambulance happened to be nearby. That he was alive to write his latest book might be said to be a miracle, except that for a mathematically minded economist it was like winning a lottery in survival.

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Robert H Frank

The role of luck in success

Many successful people would rather not acknowledge the role of luck in what they have achieved in life. If what they have and do is due to their talent, drive and hard work, they can feel assured they deserve everything they have. If chance events were important, then perhaps other people, just as talented and hard working but less fortunate, deserve as much.

In academia, luck is involved in obtaining research grants. Much depends on the choice of assessors and on the individuals sitting on granting boards. When success rates are low, there are many good applications near the cut-off: those above the cut-off receive grants and those below do not.

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            However, as a recipient of a major grant, it is natural to feel the grant is deserved – after all, a lot of work went into the application as well as into all the prior research – and to discount the role of luck. Losers might complain but winners are more likely to feel their award was justified. A grant success then leads to more opportunities to do research, and grants are treated by granting bodies as evidence of high performance, so a single award can lead to a cascade of further grants and research outcomes. Just a tiny bit of luck can make the difference between a stellar research trajectory and a solid but much lower profile career, or even a failure to make the grade as an academic. I’ve known quite a few brilliant scholars who, due to hostile supervisors, biased appointment committees or unsympathetic editors, never had a break and languished their entire careers without even obtaining a permanent position.

Winner-take-all

Frank’s previous studies of winner-take-all markets are relevant here. In the men’s 100-meter final in the 2016 Olympics, the difference between the first and the fourth-place finishers was  0.12 seconds, yet the rewards for the gold medallist, in terms of recognition and endorsements, are far greater than for finishers without medals. You could be fourth best in the world yet receive only a small fraction of the rewards for the first place finisher. Furthermore, you might have had a slower-than-usual start, and the gold-medallist a faster-than-usual start, that made all the difference. That is the potential role of luck.

Olympics 100m final 2016

            It used to be that most competitions for career success were localised. If you’re the best lawyer in town, you’ll get many more of the most lucrative cases. However, cheaper travel and communication mean you may now lose out to even better lawyers across the country. The market has expanded: you’re competing against a bigger field, and even a slight advantage can make a huge difference in outcomes.

Let’s say you’re a specialist in corporate mergers. A company worth billions of dollars wants to have the very best lawyers. Because of the huge sums at stake, even a slight advantage is worth paying for. So the salaries of the very best corporate-merger lawyers shoot through the roof.

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            This winner-take-all process, resulting from the breakdown of previous market barriers, is a prime driver of economic inequality. Frank has written previously of how this happens, and has recommended ways to counter it. In Success and Luck, he draws on this research to make the point that the larger the number of competitors, the more likely it is that luck will play a significant role in determining the winners.

To be clear: every one of the winners in these markets is talented and hard-working. The point is that others are just as talented and hard-working and only lose out due to bad luck. Frank provides tables showing that if outcomes are determined mainly by talent and hard work, with luck contributing only 2%, then when there are many competitors it becomes almost certain that the winner is very lucky and that there are others who are more talented and hard working but less lucky.

Motivation and luck

Frank points out that there can be advantages in discounting the role of luck: it can cause you to try harder. If you believe outcomes are due to hard work, you might be more willing to keep putting in the effort. On the other hand, if hard work isn’t enough and good luck is needed too, is it really worthwhile working quite as hard?

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            A more important point made by Frank is that if the role of luck is recognised, it becomes more difficult to justify huge differentials in outcomes. If becoming a CEO is partly due to luck – in having the right parents, upbringing, education and opportunities – then why should a CEO have a salary dozens or hundreds of times greater than workers? Some rank-and-file workers, with the same opportunities, might have had what it takes to become a CEO.

Frank thinks that greater awareness of the role of luck may have a beneficial effect in moderating inequality. But there’s a problem. Winners benefit from the belief that their success is due to being superior and so will use their power and influence to help maintain this belief. I would like to believe in Frank’s view but I will wait to hear any leaders give a proper recognition of the role of luck and then try to justify huge levels of inequality.

Frank writes mainly of the US, where economic inequality is extreme, social mobility is limited and yet the belief that commitment and hard work can triumph over adversity remains almost sacred. In many other countries, for example in Western Europe, more generous welfare systems might be seen as recognition that those who are less well off deserve support.

It seems to me there is something different or deeper in the way US policies for disadvantaged people are so much harsher than in most other rich countries, something beyond a lack of recognition of the role of luck. Consider for example someone born with a serious intellectual disability. No one could imagine that such a person’s failure to advance in the meritocracy is anything other than bad luck. So how can a successful entrepreneur justify receiving more than the person with a disability? How does a belief in meritocracy address the issue of people with profound disabilities? This should be the source of cognitive dissonance, so the issue is hardly ever addressed.

meme-male-white-privilege

            Furthermore, anyone could, on any day, become seriously brain-damaged through an accident or stroke, largely as a matter of bad luck. This should be the basis for compassion and support for others, because it could just as easily be yourself.

Frank is tackling the issue of luck at the other end of the spectrum of capabilities, among those who are high achieving. But given that the impact of genetic luck is not seen as an issue for those with serious disabilities, Frank’s hope for change might seem forlorn. However, he found that after conversations about the role of luck, both liberals and conservatives could change their minds. Would they have changed their minds just as readily by raising the issue of serious disabilities?

The progressive consumption tax

In Success and Luck, Frank makes the case for a progressive consumption tax, an alternative to the usual income, goods and other taxes. He and others have been advocating this tax for years. Frank argues that it can painlessly provide the government with revenue to restore US infrastructure and enable people to have the resources to pursue their dreams.

Without going into the details of the tax, suffice to say that its apparent magic is based on addressing status races. As Frank explains, if every rich person has a car, house and wedding worth half as much, they will be just as happy because, in comparison to others, they are just as far ahead. Furthermore, for those who are well off, research shows that extra possessions give little or no extra happiness.

12_porsche911turbo2016

            Frank repeatedly uses a revealing example. Which would you rather have: a $150,000 Porsche 911 Turbo and well maintained roads to drive it on, or a $333,000 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta to be driven on roads with potholes? The point is that when public expenditure – on roads, education, health and much else – declines, private wealth cannot compensate.

Ferrari-F12-Berlinettapotholes

            Frank’s arguments are very good. The question is whether good arguments are enough to bring about a policy change, no matter how rational and socially beneficial for everyone. Frank says that public opinion can shift rapidly, as it has for example on same-sex marriage. As much as I would like to see a policy change that reverses the trend towards greater economic inequality, it seems to me that good ideas need to be taken up by social movements. At the moment the movements for equality need all the help they can get. So if you’ve had a fair bit of success in your life and are willing to accept that you had lucky breaks along the way, then perhaps one way of saying thanks is to join campaigns for greater equality.

A more radical position is the socialist principle of “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” Given that research on altruism shows that helping others can bring great personal satisfaction, often far more than personal achievement, it is possible to develop a rational argument for applying this principle. Wouldn’t the world be different if rational argument – and compassion – were the primary factors in decision-making?

Success-and-luck

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

The well-dressed anarchist

How does an anarchist dress? One image is the hippy, with long hair, sandals and sloppy, colourful, unkempt clothes. Another image is the punk, with nose rings and pink hair. Yet another image is the subversive, wearing all black.

And what is this mythical anarchist doing? A common idea is shouting and making threatening gestures, perhaps throwing bricks or maybe even a bomb.

Portrait of a young attractive business woman.An anarchist?

Is it possible for an anarchist to be well dressed in a conventional sense? Imagine an anarchist wearing a fashionable dress, or suit and tie, in smart casual clothes with a stylish haircut, almost indistinguishable from an advertisement for trendy garments.

Could an anarchist talk politely, be friendly and always avoid the slightest hint of violence? If so, how can anyone tell whether a person walking down the street is an anarchist? Maybe anarchists are in disguise, looking just like other people!

Anarchism as a political philosophy has been seriously misunderstood for most of its existence. In the media, “anarchy” is treated as a synonym for “chaos.” The word is used to suggest that order has broken down, and people are doing all sorts of things — violence and mayhem, perhaps — that are normally forbidden. This meaning leads to images of anarchists being strange and threatening in appearance and behaviour.

bombthrowinganarchists_5208
Anarchists?

But what is anarchism really? Just looking at dictionary definitions gives a different picture. For example, the online Oxford Dictionary gives this definition: “belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion.”

Among anarchist groups, especially those familiar with anarchist writings and theory, anarchism has several dimensions. One is opposition to all forms of rule or domination. Anarchists historically have opposed the state, namely systems of government with rulers at the top, whether popularly elected or dictators. Anarchists are opposed to government as a system. But they oppose more than just government; they reject other forms of domination, including capitalism, state socialism, patriarchy, organised religion, bureaucracy, heterosexism and human chauvinism (domination of nature and non-human animals).

If this is what anarchists are against, what are they for? The short answer is “self-management,” which means people organising their own lives through cooperative processes. Self-management occurs when members of a string quartet decide for themselves what music to play. It occurs when students help decide what and how they will learn. It occurs when workers collectively make decisions about what to produce and how to do the job. Self-management can also be called participatory democracy, a type of democracy not requiring elections of officials, but instead using methods involving everyone’s participation to reach agreements.

LON08 - 19990618 - LONDON, ENGLAND; UNITED KINGDOM : A rioter shows hist fist in the City of London after a march to "reclaim the streets" turned violent, Friday 18 June 1999. The protest, which was called to mark the opening of the G8 sumit in Cologne, turned violent having seen a carnival-like morning with protesters involved in running street battles with riot police. AFP PHOTO EPA PHOTO AFP/SINEAD LYNCH
An anarchist?

So, anarchists are against domination and instead want people to cooperate to make decisions about social arrangements. This sort of participatory decision-making is found within many families, groups of friends, some clubs and some workplaces. But it is not common within governments, large corporations or militaries.

Anarchism or anarchy, as properly understood, is not chaos at all. It is not the absence of order, but rather is a different sort of order. Rather than a social order involving hierarchy and authority, it is a social order involving respect, cooperation, and struggle over priorities that tries to avoid creating new forms of domination.

The popular image of anarchism is thus almost the opposite of what it should be. It is easy to see the source of the image. Anarchists are opposed to domination, which means they are a threat to powerful groups. Government leaders do not like anarchism, because it means the loss of their power and status. For them, anarchism is a threat to order, namely the traditional order of hierarchy and authority. It is a short step from thinking that anarchism threatens the system of government to thinking that it causes chaos — because, for those who think government is order, any different sort of order is almost impossible to imagine.

business-managers-in-a-meeting
Anarchists?

Corporate leaders also do not like anarchism. If workers can run workplaces themselves, in a cooperative fashion, then owners and managers are not needed. This is the reason why, when workers try to take control, they are so fiercely opposed by owners and their government allies. For capitalists, workers’ self-management feels like chaos, because the familiar order of managerial control is lost. A different type of order, organised by workers, is almost impossible to imagine.

Many socialists and Marxists do not like anarchism. In socialism, the government has more power. It is said to be exercised in the name of the workers and the people, but it is still government, and government leaders often have great privilege and power. For many socialists and Marxists, anarchism seems like chaos, because their idea of social organisation is undermined. A different sort of order, without parties and party leaders, is almost impossible to imagine.

Anarchism has been caught in a pincer movement, attacked by the traditional authorities in the state and corporations and attacked by socialists. Karl Marx was just as opposed to anarchists as were factory owners. So perhaps it is not surprising that anarchists have been so misrepresented.

Anarchists do not seek to take power and to impose their own views on others — that would be a perversion of the idea of self-management. This has meant that anarchists have never had the resources or desire to mount propaganda on their behalf, and therefore have been at the mercy of misleading descriptions from corporate and government leaders, whether neoliberal or socialist, and mass media serving government and corporate agendas.

The result is that anarchism is more misunderstood than just about any other major political philosophy or body of theory. The basic ideas of socialism, atheism, racial equality and feminism are widely understood, even if in a distorted sense. For example, many people do not like feminism, for example, and may misunderstand it, but they generally know it has something to do with women’s equality. Feminists have been more effective in spreading their ideas than anarchists — or perhaps anti-feminists have been less successful than anti-anarchists.

Alan_Moore
An anarchist?

So to return to the vision of a well-dressed anarchist: there is nothing inherent in anarchist theory to say that an anarchist has to dress a particular way. Some do decide to dress alternatively, as hippies, punks or members of the black bloc. But others may use other dress codes, including conventional ones.

Some types of clothes involve exploitation or other undesirable consequences. Perhaps shoes are produced in sweatshops. Leather products may involve harm to animals. Maybe clothes manufacture causes environmental damage. Very expensive clothing might involve diverting resources away from human needs into fashion houses and advertising. Choosing clothing does have political implications. A sensitive dresser pays attention not only to personal appearance but to human and environmental impacts.

Still, it is possible to dress in an attractive fashion without spending huge amounts of money. Attention to colour and style can compensate for high prices. Second-hand clothes sometimes look as good as those for sale in regular shops.

The issue of clothes is not really all that important, but it points to a deeper question concerning anarchism: can a person be an anarchist and work or live in a hierarchical institution, for example in a corporation or government? Somehow it is assumed that being against domination means being outside the systems of domination — so an anarchist has to be out in the streets, not in the boardroom.

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An anarchist?

But this isn’t the way other liberation theories are treated. Feminists can join male-dominated workplaces. Some try to rise in governments and corporations. Marxists get jobs in factories or join social democratic political parties. They try to take their views into the system and to bring about change. There is no requirement that someone who wants the world to be better has to avoid interacting or participating in systems that need to be changed or abolished.

It is good that some people try to live a pure and principled life, but others make compromises in order to help create their ideal. That means that you might find an anarchist — or a person with anarchist sentiments, though unfamiliar with anarchist theory — just about anywhere. Maybe in an army or a small business or a government bureaucracy.

Can an anarchist be well behaved? A common image of anarchists is of throwing bricks through shop windows and forcibly clashing with police, like some members of the black bloc at alter-globalisation demonstrations. The stereotype of the violent anarchist has some historical basis: some anarchists supported assassination of rulers, and in the 1930s anarchists fought for the revolution in Spain against fascists.

But there has always been another side to anarchism, a side based on refusal to use violence. It includes resistance to conscription. It also includes commitment to nonviolent methods of struggle, using strikes, boycotts, rallies, sit-ins and a host of other methods that do not involve physical violence against opponents. Gandhi, the pioneer leader of nonviolent struggle, can be considered an anarchist: he opposed all forms of domination and advocated a type of village democracy that fits the model of self-management.

family
Anarchists?

A classic anarchist principle is that the means should embody the ends or, in other words, the methods used should be compatible with the goal sought. Anarchists reject the Marxist-Leninist approach of destroying the capitalist state and creating a socialist state as a step on the road to a truly communist society (without a state), because the means, a socialist state, is not compatible with the goal of a society in which the state has withered away. Likewise, if the goal is a society without organised violence, then the most suitable means will not involve violence.

The stereotype of the anarchist as violent is hard to break. When there is a vigil, strike, boycott or occupation, not many viewers think, “Ah, a nonviolent protest — anarchists must be involved.” Not only is it possible to be an anarchist and reject violence, but many anarchists fit this picture.

What about an anarchist working in an organisation, maybe in an office? A common image might be of a person shouting at a meeting and rudely challenging the boss. This stereotype reflects an assumption that opposing domination means breaking the rules — in this case, the rules of polite behaviour. But it is quite possible to be a well-behaved anarchist.

What does an anarchist do inside an organisation? Promote self-management, of course! This can be in small ways, hardly noticed, such as helping less confident workers to assert themselves, resisting managerial impositions, advocating greater participation in decision-making and supporting organisational responsibility to the wider community. Lots of workers do these sorts of things, helping to make organisations more socially responsible and more tolerable to work in. Few of these workers would think of themselves as anarchists, but some of their commitments and efforts are compatible with anarchist principles.

smiling people
Anarchists?

So it is possible for anarchists to be well-dressed, well behaved and committed to nonviolence. In fact, there are quite possibly more anarchists like this than the number who fit the dishevelled, shouting, brick-throwing stereotype. Perhaps the respectable anarchists are just as effective too, or more so, by achieving change without drawing much attention to themselves. Maybe some of them are modest too.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Further reading

London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, In and Against the State (London: Pluto, 1980).

Pierre Guillet de Monthoux, Action and Existence: Anarchism for Business Administration (Chichester: Wiley, 1983).

Geoffrey Ostergaard and Melville Currell, The Gentle Anarchists: A Study of the Leaders of the Sarvodaya Movement for Non-Violent Revolution in India (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

Acknowledgement Jørgen Johansen provided valuable comments on a draft.