Category Archives: social dynamics

Happiness and buying a house in Sydney

The price of housing in Sydney is sky-high. If you’re in the market, it’s worth seeing what happiness research has to say.


Derelict two-bedroom terrace house in inner Sydney valued at more than $1 million

In 2015, the median price of a house in Sydney surged to over a million dollars. That’s about $750,000 in US dollars or 630,000 euros.

For decades, Sydney house prices have been increasing way beyond inflation. The ratio of median prices to median income is one of the highest in the world, and many young people despair of ever owning a house. Some people in occupations like teaching and nursing can only afford houses far from the city centre, often requiring long commutes.

Diagnoses of the problem abound. Commonly cited are government restrictions on land use, the absence of a capital gains tax and the policy of negative gearing that rewards investors who rent out their properties at a loss while anticipating large capital gains.

The problem is replicated in other major urban areas in Australia, where housing prices and rents have grown enormously. The exorbitant cost is largely due to the inflated price of land.

A happiness perspective

It’s useful to step back a bit and ask, why do people want to buy a house or a unit? When they own one already, why do they want a larger one? Why do they value ocean views? A key factor is the search for happiness. This means there is much to be learned from happiness research.

People know when they are happy or sad, but research shows that most people are not good judges of what makes them happy. Most people think that more money will make them happier, so they go in search of better-paying jobs. They think possessions will make them happier, so they obtain a huge mortgage to buy the biggest house possible, and buy new cars, fancy clothes, the latest iPhone and all sorts of appliances.

If you’re poor or destitute, having more money will definitely improve your wellbeing. But for those with a modest income or above, pursuing more money is not a particularly good way to improve happiness.

The reason for this is a process called adaptation. When you get used to something, it loses its appeal. Adaptation applies most of all to the environment around us. Having a large house initially is appealing but after a while it loses its novelty and just becomes the way things are, and you’re not much happier than if you lived in a small house. Similarly, a great view is appealing, but only when you pay attention to it. When it becomes routine, it no longer gives a happiness boost.


Renovated four-bedroom house in outer Sydney sold for $1.7 million in 2015

There’s a saying, “Don’t buy groceries on an empty stomach” because you’re likely to end of buying much more than you need. The same applies to housing. The biggest and most prestigious options are attractive but may not give lasting satisfaction.

For promoting happiness, other options are more reliable. Among the things that research shows reliably improve happiness are fostering relationships, engaging in physical activity, helping others, expressing gratitude, practising mindfulness and avoiding social comparison. These are worth considering in relation to housing issues.

(For accessible treatments of happiness research, see for example Sonja Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness and The Myths of Happiness; Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness; Paul Dolan, Happiness by Design; Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier. For popular critiques of the research, see Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-sided; Ruth Whippman, America the Anxious.)

Relationships and housing

For most people, personal relationships with family, friends, co-workers and others are the most important factor in happiness. So when choosing where to live, it’s worth asking, “How will this affect my relationships with the people I care about the most?”

Sarah is considering whether to take an exciting new job. It will require a longer commute and longer hours, but it pays more. Should she take it? If she has a close circle of friends and the new job will leave less time to be with them, this may reduce her happiness. If she’s taking the job so she can afford a bigger house, the same applies.

Positive relationships with neighbours can contribute to happiness. Most buyers carefully inspect the house but do not exercise the same diligence in finding out about the neighbours.

The design of space can make a big difference to the way people interact. In some buildings, there are natural gathering places. In an office building this might be around a photocopier, where people bump into each other and have a chat. Likewise, the design of a house can make a big difference to personal interactions. Occupants might congregate in the lounge room or kitchen or — especially with a proliferation of screens — stick to themselves in their own rooms. A house design desirably allows privacy while providing ample opportunities for interpersonal contact.

Surveys show that commuting is one of the least pleasurable activities in people’s lives, especially when travel times are extended. Driving through heavy traffic is more stressful than walking through leafy laneways. So in choosing a house, an important factor should be the implications for travel to work, to shops, to friends and family. If there’s a convenient cycle network, this makes commuting a form of exercise, with the associated benefits of physical activity.

There’s one other factor worth taking into account: social comparison. People compare what they have with what others have, and usually feel better if they have more. This is the driving force behind conspicuous consumption, which means showing off through your fashionable clothes, new car and big house, and generally “keeping up with the Joneses”. Ideally, it’s better to avoid social comparison and focus on the positives in your own life. But if comparisons really bother you, consider living in a less expensive area so you’re not comparing your circumstances to those who seem better off.

In summary, people tend to focus on aspects of housing — the size and cost — that are less important to their happiness than being close to friends and family, enabling exercise and minimising social comparisons.

Happiness-driven policy

Housing policy in Sydney seems primarily driven by money and status. The policies on capital gains and negative gearing serve those who are most well off at the expense of others. Developers seek to maximise their profits, so new housing caters more for the rich than the poor.

Another way to approach policy is for governments to seek to maximise people’s happiness. Danny Dorling has done this in his book A Better Politics: How Governments Can Make Us Happier, available free as a pdf. Dorling focuses on Britain but most of his suggestions apply to Australia.

Dorling reports on his research about the major events in people’s lives that have the greatest effect on their happiness, either positive or negative. The biggest negative is the break-up of a significant relationship, including through death. The biggest positive is formation of a significant relationship.

If loss of relationships is the biggest negative then, Dorling argues, policy should be designed to support relationships. This has several implications for housing. One is that people should have secure housing, so they have the opportunity to build and maintain relationships. Being evicted from one’s abode is a big negative. So is being homeless. Governments should ensure that there is ample low-cost housing, and ensure that residence is secure, so that everyone can be confident of having a place to live and therefore can build relationships.

After starting a new relationship and getting a new job, the third most significant single event associated with higher than usual happiness in any given year is securing a permanent home.” (p. 53)

Dorling has written extensively on economic inequality, and this is a prominent theme in A Better Politics. There is actually enough housing for everyone, but it is unequally distributed: wealthy people have two or more homes but live in only one at a time, so there is a lot of unoccupied housing. Dorling favours progressive taxation plus a tax on wealth, and introduction of a basic income.


Danny Dorling

Dorling points to other countries in Europe where governments collect more taxes and provide more collective welfare. Britain lags behind on many criteria, including equality.

“We cannot be happy if we do not feel safe and secure in our homes. The government has a responsibility towards the quality and quantity of housing available and it must introduce the security and quality in socially and privately rented housing that we [British people] currently lack compared with nearby countries.” (p. 57)

Using happiness as a criterion for policy is well and good, but this is far off the agenda in most parts of the world. Governments still aim to increase economic growth, which in practice primarily benefits the wealthy. Mass media, advertising and governments perpetuate the belief that more money is the most important way to make people happier. Meanwhile, the implications of happiness research are neglected so far as policy is concerned. Instead, seeking happiness is seen as something for each individual to pursue on their own, within the social system as it exists.

Action

If housing is something you really care about, there is another option: become a campaigner for affordable housing. Research shows that when you help other people, it makes you happier. This is why some lawyers are willing to take a huge salary cut in order to practise public interest law: the satisfaction of serving those who need help the most outweighs the financial benefits of working for a big corporation. Similarly, jobs such as teaching and nursing provide satisfactions that can compensate for low wages and stressful working conditions.

Even better, join an action group pushing for homes for poor people. You will be helping others and gain the benefits of working with others on a common cause. Activism can be its own reward.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Pearls before swine, by Stephan Pastis, 6 May 2018

The perils of measurement

Measuring performance sounds like a good idea, but it has downsides.

How well are you doing your job? And who would like to know? It makes sense to measure outputs, and it makes sense to provide rewards according to these outputs. Actually, though, rewarding people for measured outputs can be harmful.

One problem is that people may try to perform well according to the things that happen to be measured. When police are judged by the number of arrests they make, they may pick easy targets and ignore the harder and bigger cases. They might even give false figures.

During the Vietnam war, US commanders reported body counts. These were grossly inflated, and counted civilian deaths as deaths of enemy soldiers. The result was that Washington decision-makers thought the war was going much better than it was. In command economies, like the former Soviet Union, unrealistic targets were given to enterprises with the result that production figures were falsified, corners were cut and unnecessary output produced. The targets were supposed to lead to increased production but instead became ends in themselves.

            In the academic world, the measuring process changes what people do. Enrolment targets can lead to dubious recruitment practices. Rewarding scholars by the numbers of their publications can lead to a reduction in quality and to exploitation of research students. Ranking universities in part by the number of citations to publications by their researchers has led to recruitment of staff simply for their citation counts. (Marc Edwards and Siddhartha Roy have written a superb critique of perverse incentives for academic research.)

In these examples, measurement leads to changes in behaviour by those being measured. The problem occurs when these changes are undesirable. Sometimes the problems are anticipated and sometimes not.

Another disadvantage of measuring performance is that it can undermine intrinsic motivation. In some occupations, for example health and education, many workers are driven by their commitment to helping others. External inducements, such as salary and promotions, are secondary. External inducements can actually reduce intrinsic motivations.

When metrics rule

These issues are comprehensively covered in a new book, The Tyranny of Metrics, by Jerry Z. Muller. “Metrics” here refers to measurements. Muller is not opposed to metrics. He repeatedly observes that many metrics are valuable, helping to identify areas for improvement and identify good practice. But in too many cases, measurements cause problems.

            One area for measuring performance is surgery. The success rates of different surgeons can be collected and, in what is called transparency, published. There are some initial benefits: surgeons with very poor outcomes may decide to withdraw from particular operations or from surgery altogether. But if used for ongoing scrutiny, measuring outcomes can lead to surgeons avoiding complex or difficult cases. After all, tackling the most challenging surgeries is likely to lead to a lower success rate.

If a hospital is judged by the percentage of patients who are able to leave intensive care within a specified number of days, there will be pressure to move some patients out too soon.

The problem is basically that the thing measured becomes a goal in itself. This is aggravated when rewards are attached. When real estate agents are paid according to sales, it can lead to shady practices of giving loans to individuals with no assets or income. This was part of what led to the global financial crisis.

Muller says there are three key components of “metric fixation”: (1) a belief that numbers can replace judgement; (2) a belief that making metrics public ensures accountability; (3) a belief that giving rewards for measured performance is the best way to motivate workers. To these I would add a belief that there are no good alternatives for improving performance.

There is yet another problem with measuring performance. Only some things are easily or accurately measured, and other things are intangible or obscure. In a workplace, outputs that can be measured include sales, share prices, new clients and so forth. Often given short shrift are collegial support, mentoring and morale boosting, which are important but not easily quantified. The result can be that self-interested narcissists get ahead at the expense of those who are generous and supportive.

            Muller describes eleven predictable though unintended negative consequences of metrics: goal displacement, short-termism, costs in employee time, declining value of continuing use, proliferation of rules to address faults of metrics, rewarding of luck, discouraging risk-taking, discouraging innovation, discouraging cooperation, degrading of work and eroding productivity. With such a list of negatives, no wonder Muller tries to give credit to metrics when he can. Even so, he actually may be overlooking some of their shortcomings. In the case of police, Muller says that systems to identify areas where crime is more likely to occur are useful for making decisions about deploying police. However, Cathy O’Neil in her book Weapons of Math Destruction argues that identification of at-risk areas may actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy and contribute to racially biased arrest patterns even when individual officers are unbiased.

Muller gives examples of the problems of metrics in quite a few areas: universities, schools, police, military, business, hospitals. His chapters on each of these areas are valuable. But even more valuable is the way his analysis encourages readers to start thinking more critically about metrics.


Jerry Z Muller

Other examples

When activists organise a rally, its success is commonly measured by the number of people who attend. Sometimes estimates differ considerably, for example with organisers saying 100,000 people showed up whereas police say 20,000. Discrepant estimates testify to the importance put on the metric of crowd size. What both sides miss are the less observable factors, such as the extent to which participants are energised by the experience and the number who decide to become more deeply involved. Hahrie Han in her book How Organizations Develop Activists distinguishes between mobilising and organising. Mobilising aims to get people who are already sympathetic to take action. Organising aims to develop the motivations and skills of individuals, a transformative process. Counting numbers at rallies is a reasonable way to judge the success of some sorts of mobilising but can be misleading in relation to organising.

            I’ve written before about citizen advocacy, in which paid coordinators seek to identify people with intellectual disabilities who have unmet needs and then, for each such protégé recruited, find a member of the community who will be the protégé’s advocate, without any compensation, often on a long-term basis. In Australia, various forms of disability advocacy have been funded by the government. Citizen advocacy was discriminated against by use of a misleading metric. The efforts of paid advocates were measured by the number of separate advocacy actions. However, the efforts of citizen advocacy programmes were measured by the number of new protégé-advocate relationships created. Not only was the support for existing relationships overlooked, but so were the actions of the citizen advocates. The metric made citizen advocacy seem like a boutique (that is, expensive) form of advocacy when actually it is often more cost-effective. (Some funders have become better informed about citizen advocacy.)

One of the challenges in questioning metrics is that understanding their shortcomings requires deep knowledge of what is involved, and this can take time and effort to acquire. It’s so much easier to look at a number of publications or arrests or successful surgeries than to probe into goals and methods of achieving them.

Some metrics continue to be used because they serve the interests of powerful groups. A good example is GDP, gross domestic product, a standard measure of economic activity. Having a big GDP is widely seen as a good thing, and a high per capita GDP is often used as a surrogate for quality of life. The shortcomings of GDP have been analysed for decades. Expenditure on traffic accidents, prisons, planned obsolescence, me-too drugs and oil spills contributes to an increased GDP though these are negatives rather than positives. Producing a $20,000 dress counts as much as 1000 pairs of inexpensive shoes. Various alternatives to GDP have been proposed, such as the human development index. Nevertheless, GDP continues to be used while alternatives are given little attention. This is convenient for governments that tout their economic performance while allowing inequality to increase.

What to do?

If you are unaware of the problems with a particular metric, you can hardly be blamed for relying on it. Let’s assume, though, that you have become aware of the metric’s shortcoming. For example, you are a police officer aware that total arrest numbers are not a good way to measure effectiveness or a surgeon aware that the survival rate from an operation is not an ideal way to measure your skill. What should you do?

The cynical response is to aim to achieve well according to the metric even though you realise this may harm actual outcomes for your occupation. This is most easily rationalised by trying to forget about the shortcomings of the metric, denigrating those who question the metric, and pointing to arguments in support of the metric. Basically, you conform to the misleading metric’s imperatives and convince yourself, and maybe try to convince others, that this is the only or best way to proceed.

In contrast, a high-minded response is to ignore the misleading metric and do your job according to what you believe is in the best interests of citizens, patients, your colleagues and other stakeholders. A police officer thus might sacrifice good arrest figures by focusing on more important outcomes. The trouble with this response is that you might miss out on opportunities or even derail your career. Meanwhile, your cynical co-workers get ahead and make decisions that continue the misguided practices.

Another response is to gripe in private about the bad metrics. This sounds pointless but actually can be useful in finding out who else is dissatisfied and potentially building a constituency for change. However, griping can also be an unproductive release of emotion that allows problems to fester.

Rather than just griping, it is possible to promote alternative metrics, assuming they are available. Just using them in conversation can help raise awareness. If friends talk about growth in the economy, you can comment about a worsening in the Gini coefficient (a measure of economic inequality). This can help start conversations and get others thinking about and discussing alternatives.

            If you are enterprising, you can study more about metrics and their shortcomings. Muller’s book is a useful tool. Then you are in a position to make more informed comments or even to publicise concerns and propose alternatives.

Even more time-consuming is development of alternative ways of promoting good practice, which might not involve metrics at all. This is not a task for everyone, but it’s important that some people put energy into it.

It’s worth thinking about different options because no one can do everything. Metrics are all around us, some good, some bad and some pointless. There’s no universal solution to the problems but it’s valuable to be aware of the problems and take action when possible.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Building activism

You’re active in an organisation and you’d like to help it become more effective. How do you proceed? You can work harder yourself. You can try to recruit others to support the cause. You can set up a website, run an advertisement, or invite some friends to a meeting. What’s the most effective thing to do?

This question is relevant to a wide range of organisations, including sporting clubs, corporations, government departments, environmental groups, churches and political parties. Despite the importance of the question, surprisingly most organisation members simply rely on what they’ve always done.

For insight, it’s worth learning from the 2014 book How Organizations Develop Activists by Hahrie Han. To try to assess what methods worked better, Han looked at the different chapters of two US national organisations that she calls People for the Environment and the National Association of Doctors. Some chapters were more effective than others. Han interviewed members and observed strategies, and came up with a framework.

Three approaches

Some chapters relied on lone wolves. A lone wolf in this context is someone who takes action on their own. These individuals became committed to the cause, studied the issues, became very knowledgeable and wrote submissions and personally lobbied politicians. The lone wolf approach is usually not very effective because very few individuals maintain a commitment on their own and because collective action is vital for some purposes.


Lone wolf at work

            Other chapters relied on a second approach that Han calls mobilising. Core members would decide on actions, such as a meeting, petition drive or rally, and try to recruit people to join the action, for example by sending emails or ringing. Sometimes a mobilising strategy can bring huge numbers onto the street, especially when there is an event triggering outrage. This happened just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when campaigners were amazed by huge turnouts at rallies. But other times there is little response to the messages calling for action.

Han calls mobilising a “transactional” exchange between the organisation and the activist. The organisation seeks to make action as easy as possible so that, for the activist, the benefits of acting outweigh the costs.


Mass mobilisation: London, 15 February 2003

            Yet other chapters relied on a third approach that Han calls organising. Experienced members, in their role as organisers, try to identify members or supporters who might take a leadership role, and spend time helping them to develop their skills and motivation. In this model, organisers identify and train others to become autonomous leaders.

Han calls organising “transformational” because it aims to change individuals, developing their understanding, perspectives and emotional investments. Through this process, activists become more knowledgeable and involved, and start thinking strategically of how the organisation can achieve its goals.

Han says the most effective chapters use a combination of mobilising and organising. They use mobilising, for example getting people to public events, to achieve the goals of the organisation, and to identify potential leaders. Then organising methods are used to develop possible leaders, who go on to train others, building the capacity to mobilise many more people.

Although mobilising and organising are used in the most effective chapters, organising is the most easily neglected. In the heat of a campaign, core members may focus on getting out the numbers rather than the slower, long-term effort in helping others develop skills and motivations. Organising requires much hard work.


For decades, the Highlander Center in Tennessee has been training organisers

            Another factor is that media technologies now make mobilising easier than before. With databases giving the demographics of community members, it is straightforward to tap into pre-existing commitments. One consequence is that organising is sidelined.

Han’s analysis of civic organisations deals with US environmental and medical campaigning groups, and is oriented to influencing politicians. Whether her observations apply more widely is uncertain. Even with this caveat, I think Han’s conceptual division of organisational development into lone wolf, mobilising and organising approaches is immensely valuable. It provides an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of a range of organisations well outside the domain studied by Han.

“Distinct philosophies about transactional mobilizing and transformational organizing underlie these choices about how to engage with volunteers. In transactional mobilizing, the chapters were most focused on minimizing costs to maximize the numbers of people involved. In transformational organizing, the chapters were focused on creating experiences for volunteers that would begin to transform their affects and orientations towards activism. Thus, they were more likely to create work that brought people into contact with each other, and support that work through extensive coaching.” (p. 122)


Hahrie Han

Trade unions

Large unions have paid staff, and often the paid officials take on the bulk of union work, from holding meetings with employers to deciding on industrial action. There may not be much sustained effort to select workers who can become effective labour activists, thinking strategically, acting autonomously and in turn recruiting others to become activists. Why not? One reason is that unions have a natural constituency, the workers, with common interests, so it’s far easier to call on workers to take action than to develop more organisers.

Recently, I attended a campaign forum held by the local branch of my union, the National Tertiary Education Union. The presidents of branches at two other Australian universities — Damien Cahill at Sydney University and Vince Caughley at the University of Technology Sydney — told about their unions’ efforts to protect and improve staff conditions. They told about how union membership had declined in the aftermath of enterprise bargaining. Many university employees don’t see the point of being union members because they receive all the benefits of union efforts without having to pay union dues.


Vince and Damien at the University of Wollongong

Damien and Vince told about the importance of face-to-face meetings with individuals, of encouraging members to help in small ways (like putting up a notice about a meeting) and of identifying potential leaders. What they described fits perfectly in the organising mode. Because unions have a natural constituency for mobilising, organising is all the more important.

Other examples

In Australia, political parties are poor at organising. Party memberships have been shrinking for decades, and ever more activity is driven by political staffers. One factor is compulsory voting. There is no need to “get out the vote,” and therefore less incentive to employ either mobilising or organising strategies.

Universities, for the most part, do not do much organising. Most of the effort at marketing is done by paid staff. There are quite a few people willing to be volunteers, especially alumni and retired staff, but at most universities it is not a priority to identify and develop volunteers who will become ambassadors for the university. As a result, most of the efforts are by lone wolves, individuals who take the initiative themselves.

Learning via organising

Consider education and the challenge of helping people learn. Imagine there is an independent campaign group that tries to promote learning. This is not a lobbying group, seeking more government or private funding, but a group that directly engages with eager learners. How can such a group become more effective?

Following Han’s insights, the most promising model is a combination of mobilising and organising. But are there any such groups? In Australia, they exist only on the margins. One place is refugee support groups. In Wollongong there is a group called SCARF (Strategic Community Assistance to Refugee Families). Among its activities is a tutoring programme for refugee children. SCARF can extend this programme through recruiting more tutors and by more systematic mentoring of tutors so they can become leaders to recruit and train others.

Another place for direct learning is the home. Many parents take it upon themselves to assist their children’s learning. Home schoolers take a much heavier responsibility. Campaigners for home schooling can use the mobilising and organising methods described by Han.


home schooling

            However, there seems to be no wide-scale campaign in Australia to foster learning. The best examples of such campaigns have been in countries with low literacy, where efforts by social movements link learning with understanding of oppression and resistance. Paulo Freire’s efforts are most well known.

Some Western social movements see learning as part of their brief. They can form reading groups, study circles and other processes to build understanding. But such efforts are often seen as low priority because it’s easier to draw on people who have developed their skills through formal education. Movements are thus likely to neglect organising for learning.

Citizen advocacy as organising

In the disability sector in Australia, there is an important role for advocacy, in which an individual supports a person with a disability, helping them to meet their needs. An advocate is different from a service provider, who directly helps by providing food, transport, housing and other essentials. An advocate, in contrast, essentially speaks on behalf of the person with a disability to make sure the service system operates properly on their behalf.

Alice has an intellectual disability. Abandoned by her family, she lives in a group home where she has been subject to abuse by other residents. She has no friends. Jo, an advocate for Alice, puts pressure on the managers of the group home to place her in a safer residence. Jo introduces Alice to a few others who might become friends, uses contacts to get her a job, and helps her develop living skills.

In practice, family members, especially parents, most commonly act as advocates. But in some cases the family is unwilling or unable to help and the service system is overloaded or dysfunctional, so some other form of advocacy is valuable.

Jo could be a paid advocate, who acts on behalf of several people with disabilities. Another possibility is that Jo is a citizen advocate, taking action on behalf of Alice out of a personal commitment.

Citizen advocacy programmes were set up to promote this form of advocacy. Typically they have a few staff paid by government or private donations. The staff search the local community for people with disabilities who have significant unmet needs, like Alice, called protégés, then seek to recruit someone like Jo who will be an advocate, often on an ongoing basis. The staff then support the advocate by providing advice, training and encouragement.


A citizen advocate and protégé: Michelle and Winnie, Citizen Advocacy Perth West, http://www.capw.org.au/stories/michelle-winnie/

            Citizen advocacy in essence operates using an organising model, with a highly specific focus. The paid staff do not do advocacy themselves but devote most of their efforts to finding protégés and a suitable advocate for each protégé, and then supporting the advocates. However, citizen advocacy has only a limited capacity for expansion because it does not recruit or train new coordinators, namely people who could become match-makers themselves, though without pay. As well, mobilising methods could be valuable to expand citizen advocacy.

In contrast, paid advocacy is more analogous to the lone wolf model of activism. Individual advocates may be very good at their jobs, but cannot expand their efforts more broadly because the methods of mobilising and organising are not used.

A previous post: “The rise and decline of Illawarra Citizen Advocacy“. My account here refers to the time before the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Professionalisation

The methods of the lone wolf, mobilising and organising seem to apply most obviously to campaigning, which is Han’s focus. But what about actually doing jobs? Han studied a doctors’ advocacy organisation. But is there any organisation that tries to build a community capacity for health care? In China under Mao, “barefoot doctors,” who learned basic skills but were not professionally trained, served the rural poor. However, where the medical profession is well established, there is little or no fostering of the capacity of people outside the formal structures to contribute. About the most that anyone does is take a first-aid course, or perhaps volunteer at a hospice.


barefoot doctoring in rural China

            By excluding non-trained individuals, occupations maintain a monopoly over service, preventing competition and maintaining salaries and conditions for those accepted into the occupation. This applies in professionalised domains such as medicine, dentistry, law and engineering. The same phenomenon applies to most large employers. A company, to get a job done, hires workers and spends little effort at developing the skills of non-workers to do the same job. To do so would be heresy: it would be seen as undermining the work of those paid to do it. Within government departments, the same applies. There is little effort at recruiting unpaid helpers and developing their skills. That would be a threat to the paid workers and seen as exploitation of the unpaid helpers, even if they were keen to contribute.

Things would be different if everyone was guaranteed a decent annual income, as proposed by advocates of the UBI, universal basic income. If paid work were a voluntary extra, then mobilising and organising would become more important to encourage people to make contributions to worthwhile causes.

Han points out that in practice few organisations rely entirely on one approach. The lone wolf, mobilising and organising approaches are “ideal types” that are helpful for better understanding what happens in actual organisations. One of Han’s most important messages is that organising is often neglected. One reason for this is that so many social institutions are set up to protect those with skills and to marginalise outsiders. Thus, it is bound to be an uphill battle to expand the role of organising. And to do this, the most obvious method is — organising!

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Damien Cahill, Sharon Callaghan, Julie Dunn and Jan Kent for valuable feedback.

Comment from Sharon Callaghan

I liked the pointers to longer-term solutions on building activism. Workers in disability services in Australia who are active in their union came together and said they wanted access to quality training and recognition of the skills they bring to their work. The Australian Services Union, as the union for these workers, commissioned a report. Workers in disability are now seeking “A Portable Training Entitlement Scheme for the Disability Support Services Sector“, to give the title of the report authored by Drs Rose Ryan and Jim Stanford. This campaign, if successful, will address other gaps in this sector. Quality training and supervision, whistleblower protections and strong workplace safety mechanisms are important to workers who often have extraordinary responsibilities caring for vulnerable service users. Organising and supporting workers to speak out and demand their entitlements has long lasting flow on benefits for the service and sector.

I was interested in the idea of organising both inside and outside formal structures and accept some forms of professionalisation are not open to those seen as “non expert.” Personal activism with the freedom to speak out may still be limited when lacking the resources, skill development and support that formal groups can provide. Somehow finding ways to allow the authentic voice of the activist come through with assistance of the formal structure of their union, university or community group, may be a good way to go.

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

Leadership and its discontents

There’s plenty of advice available about how to be a great leader. Be wary.

In most large bookshops, there are many shelves in the sections on business. Nearly all the books are oriented to managers, with an occasional one addressed to workers.

Many of these books are about “leadership.” In principle, anyone can be a leader, offering vision, guidance and mentoring for others in a team, the others being “followers.” In practice, most of the writings about leadership are aimed at managers, those who have formal power within hierarchical organisations, and who might also be called bosses. “Leader” sounds more high-minded than “boss.”

            Recently, I came across Jeffrey Pfeffer’s 2015 book Leadership BS. The title alone indicates that this is not another treatment designed to inspire managers. The book is about US corporations, but many of Pfeffer’s observations apply more widely.

            For years, Pfeffer has been observing the leadership industry, which is most active among US corporations. There is a thriving business in providing advice and inspiration to managers. All very well, except that Pfeffer gives plenty of evidence and examples showing that the performance of US business leaders hasn’t improved. Workers are dissatisfied and companies aren’t doing well. The quality of leadership seems unaffected by the efforts of the leadership advice industry.

The explanation, Pfeffer argues, is that the advice is wrong. The consultants commonly recommend that leaders be modest, authentic, truth-telling, trustworthy and put their workers first. Pfeffer says these are nice aspirations and gives examples of successful leaders who display these traits. But he also says these sorts of leaders are exceedingly rare and gives numerous examples and arguments why these traits are not the route to great leadership.

            According to Pfeffer, modesty can be attractive in a leader, but few modest individuals ever rise to senior management. To get ahead, touting one’s talents and achievements is a more reliable route, and exaggerating helps too. Narcissists thrive in hierarchical systems.

It is not always clear what being “authentic” means in practice. If it means displaying outwardly what one feels internally, it is risky. If a CEO is feeling deflated and pessimistic, it is unlikely to be helpful to the workforce to display these emotions. Instead, a great leader will show just the emotions needed to help followers do their best.

Pfeffer’s chapter on truth-telling presents the case for lying and deception. These are common in everyday life. Telling the truth can be disastrous for a leader. Everything Pfeffer says about lying and truth-telling accords with what I have read and written about the prevalence and usefulness of deception, in arenas ranging from politics to activism.

Should leaders be trustworthy? Pfeffer says not necessarily. There are numerous examples of when betraying trust is the way good leaders actually proceed. Why do leaders get away with this? The answer is that there are few penalties for betraying trust. Because others need leaders for their own purposes, they commonly continue to deal with them even after brutal betrayals of themselves or others.


When those at the top look down, they see only shit.
When those at the bottom look up, they see only arseholes.

            Leaders commonly look out for themselves at the expense of their followers, as illustrated by the CEOs receiving massive salaries and bonuses while their companies go downhill. As Pfeffer puts it, leaders “eat first.”

Implications

The implication for ordinary workers, Pfeffer says, is not to put yourself at risk by trusting or believing leaders. Don’t expect leaders to tell the truth, be authentic or look out for you.

“The bottom line: If you have a beneficent environment and a leader who actually cares about you, enjoy and treasure the moment, but don’t expect it to be replicated elsewhere or to even persist indefinitely where you are. The world is often not a just or fair place, our hopes and desires notwithstanding. Get over it. Take care of yourself and watch out for your interests. If others do as well, all the better. To the extent you develop self-reliance and cease relying on leadership myths and stories, you will be much better off, and substantially less likely to confront disappointment and the career consequences that devolve from relying on the unreliable.” (pp. 191-192)

What are the implications for leaders? Pfeffer mainly gives a negative view: don’t be taken in by the preaching of leadership consultants and gurus. Instead, seek to understand the way organisations actually operate, without the blinders of unrealistic just-so stories. There is not likely to be any advice that is universally applicable. What to do depends on the circumstances, and knowing what attributes to display given the organisational culture. Keeping in touch with front-line workers is important.

Although lying is sometimes advisable for the greater good, one of the realities of companies is that top managers look after themselves at the expense of subordinates and the company itself. Pfeffer doesn’t recommend that CEOs pay themselves millions while sending their company broke, even though this frequently happens. He would prefer managers to do the right thing, but without succumbing to the blandishments of leadership consultants.


Jeffrey Pfeffer

            This sounds quite depressing, but some context is important. Pfeffer writes about US companies, most of which are toxic workplaces, but the situation can be different elsewhere. The US has the highest level of individualism of any country. In more collectivist societies, there can be a greater level of community and workplace solidarity. The US is the most economically unequal post-industrial society. Economic inequality can be both a cause and consequence of exploitative behaviours in workplaces.

Alternatives

In some sectors, such as teaching, engineering and healthcare, bureaucratic hierarchy is moderated by the system of professions, with training and standards that promote a different mode of interaction. (However, many of these sectors are increasingly bureaucratised.) A strong trade union, responsive to the rank and file, can be a counter to exploitative managers. A policy of having leaders serve short terms and then return to their previous positions can limit the corruptions of power.

            Then there are alternatives to bureaucracy. One workplace model is the cooperative, in which there are no bosses. Decisions can be made by consensus, a informally or using a formal process. In social movements, many groups aspire to operate in a non-hierarchical fashion, devoting effort to fostering supportive group processes.

Another option is to select decision-makers randomly. This approach has been widely trialled for policy matters; it can also be used within workplaces. Yet another economic model is commons-based peer production, exemplified by the creation of free software and Wikipedia. Bureaucracy is not the only way to organise work.

Anyone with experience in egalitarian groups knows there can be all sorts of challenges and problems. Working in such groups is more likely to be satisfying but, because expectations are higher, failures can be more damaging. In some future society in which non-hierarchical systems have become commonplace or even dominant, no doubt it will be necessary for some critic to write Egalitarian BS.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Sharon Callaghan, Lyn Carson, Anneleis Humphries and Jolin Tian for valuable comments on drafts.

PS There is a promising beginning to studies of egalitarian BS. A classic analysis is What a Way to Run a Railroad.

 Appendix: why I’m interested in books on organisational dynamics

When I mentioned to a new colleague that I was reading Leadership BS, he asked why I was interested in such a topic. Good question. My interest goes back many years. In the 1980s, I wrote a book titled Uprooting War in which I analysed several “roots of war”. One of them I identified as bureaucracy, referring to an organisational form based on hierarchy and the division of labour, in which workers are interchangeable cogs. Bureaucracy is the dominant mode of organising work in government bodies, large corporations, militaries and in some churches, trade unions and other organisations.

            Also in Uprooting War, I presented several alternatives to the war system. One of them is “self-management”, in which people collectively organise their work and lives without bosses. In the workplace, this alternative is called workers’ self-management or workers’ control. Self-management is not just hypothetical. There are many self-managing enterprises. As well, there are historical episodes of society-wide self-organisation, most famously the Spanish anarchists in the 1930s.

To understand the nature of bureaucracy and its antithesis self-management, I read many articles and books. In Friends of the Earth Canberra, we did a project on bureaucracy, interviewing members of the Department of National Development and Energy. Later, in Schweik Action Wollongong, a group of us carried out a project on Challenging Bureaucratic Elites, linking ideas about nonviolent action to struggles within bureaucracies. As well, I became involved in campaigns against workplace sexual harassment, and then in advising whistleblowers, who are often targets of workplace bullying.

To address these issues, it’s useful to better understand how organisations operate. Hence, when I visit a large bookshop, I check out the business section, even though there is usually little available from the worker’s point of view and even less about self-management.

Vaccination in perspective

To understand debates over vaccination, it’s valuable to look at the history and politics of vaccine development and policy-making.

Australian government health departments and leaders of the medical profession are united in supporting the standard programme of childhood vaccines. Vaccination rates in Australia are high and stable. However, a small number of citizen vaccination sceptics continue to raise concerns.

In the 1990s, Meryl Dorey set up what became the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), around the same time as vaccine-critical groups were formed in several other countries. Then, in 2009, some citizen vaccination proponents set up Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN), dedicated to discrediting, silencing and destroying the AVN. There has been a ferocious struggle between SAVN and the AVN. SAVN’s campaign was instrumental in politicians bringing in measures to pressure parents to have their children vaccinated, even though some pro-vaccination researchers opposed the measures.

            SAVN is strident in its advocacy, with the mantra “Vaccination saves lives.” AVN members, and quite a few others, remain sceptical. They continue to question the effectiveness of vaccination, raise the alarm about adverse reactions, and suggest vaccination may be implicated in diseases such as autism.

Both sides adopt the mantle of science, claiming the evidence supports their viewpoints. SAVN denigrates vaccine sceptics as deluded or ignorant. Some vaccine critics say proponents are in the thrall of the pharmaceutical companies.

In this highly polarised debate, there is little room for anyone to take an intermediate position, for example saying that many vaccines are worthwhile but others are unnecessary. However, this might well be the view of some parents, though they are given little support to express their views. Any reluctance about vaccination can lead to the stigma of being called an “anti-vaxxer.”

Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial

Stuart Blume is emeritus professor of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He has a lifetime of experience researching the politics of science and technology, and two decades ago began studying the vaccination issue. His approach can be called social history: a study of history taking into account social and political dynamics. Blume brings to the issue the perspectives of science and technology studies, seeing science and technology as subject to social processes.

            Blume decided to write a book summarising insights from his research. The result is Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial, recently published. I wrote one of the endorsements on the book jacket.

There is much here to ponder. The book does not mesh neatly with either the pro or anti positions in the usual public debate.

Blume tells two sorts of stories, one about vaccines and one about vaccination policy, and neither is a just-so story. Many traditional histories present science as a continual upward trajectory of discoveries and the overcoming of misguided beliefs. Blume, though, follows the path of historians of science who report on uncertainties, mistakes and unproductive paths. The implication is that present knowledge may be just as precarious, in its own way, as past knowledge.

Knowledge about vaccines and the immune system developed gradually, and for many decades there was no assumption that vaccination would prove to be a major route to public health. Smallpox was the initial target for vaccination, but there were many other killer diseases, such as diphtheria and tuberculosis, and other ways to address them besides vaccination. Today, with the focus on vaccination, it is sometimes forgotten that infectious disease can also be addressed through quarantine, sanitation, improved diet and general increases in the standard of living.

Vaccination campaigns are not always the best strategy to improve health. Blume highlights a problem with the polio eradication campaign. In a number of poor countries, resources for public health interventions were siphoned off to support polio eradication, which meant that impoverished people, needing basic medicines, were instead offered polio vaccinations, something less important for their own health.

A related tension permeated vaccination development beginning in the 1980s, when commercial considerations became paramount. Effort was put into developing vaccines for problems in affluent countries, where money could be made, while major illnesses in impoverished populations were left unaddressed.


Stuart Blume

            Blume notes that vaccination is often treated in isolation, as a special method of promoting public health, and not compared with other methods. To counter this tendency, he presents vaccination as a technology, in the broad sense of a set of techniques and artefacts, that can be compared to other public health technologies such as sanitation. He sees vaccination as a socio-technical issue, as having both scientific and policy dimensions, and as shaped by social, economic and political influences in both these dimensions.

Blume addresses vaccines separately, rather than as a group. As a result, he does not make a universal judgement about vaccination, as a good or bad thing. In these ways, Blume offers a different perspective than the one taken by most of the campaigners for or against vaccination.

One of the peculiarities of the vaccination debate is that nearly all the disagreement is about whether vaccination is beneficial or harmful, for example whether it has led to declines in infectious disease or whether there are significant numbers of adverse effects. Seldom are comparisons made with other ways of improving health, in particular children’s health, for example addressing poverty. Blume notes some of the disagreements about early vaccines.

As many infectious-disease killers were brought under control in western countries, while others such as HIV were proving too difficult, vaccine developers turned to other diseases, seeing opportunities for profits. Blume writes that the rise of neoliberalism led to significant shifts in the rationale for new vaccines. Whereas previously companies and scientists had freely shared information and vaccines in a common commitment to public health, from the 1980s onwards the pharmaceutical industry became more dominant and less public spirited.

Government health departments in different countries responded to industry pressure in different ways. It became more common to use cost-benefit analysis, especially given that many new vaccines were highly expensive. Health departments sometimes approved new vaccines without as much evidence as they might have required earlier.

            Cost-benefit analysis is not a good way to promote vaccines to the public. In several cases, notably measles and mumps, companies adopted a “rebranding” strategy to convince parents that diseases they had known as a routine and unthreatening part of childhood were actually killers to be feared and thus protected against using vaccines.

Blume believes that vaccines have saved millions of lives. Yet he is also sceptical of many of the latest vaccines, developed not as part of a public health agenda but by pharmaceutical companies whose primary aim is profit. Furthermore, there are dozens of new vaccines under development, many of them targeted at non-infectious diseases such as breast cancer.

Vaccination seems to have become a single-method solution for health problems, overshadowing primary health care that addresses the conditions that cause disease in the first place. Think how much easier it is to sell a vaccine than to address poverty and inequality, or illnesses due to industrial chemicals.

Vaccine hesitancy

For many readers, the most interesting part of Blume’s book will be the final chapter in which he addresses current anxieties about vaccination, especially in the west. He dismisses the idea, common among vaccination promoters, that the source of the anxieties is vaccine-critical groups such as the AVN. Sociologically, this explains neither the existence of the groups nor their alleged influence. It is like saying the reason people are concerned about economic inequality is because of protesters.

Blume cites research into the attitudes of parents that suggests something deeper is at play. Rather than dividing people into vaccine-acceptors and vaccine-refusers, Blume addresses a widespread vaccine hesitancy that affects many parents, especially well-educated ones, even when they adopt all the standard vaccinations.

Rather than vaccine-critical groups being the cause of vaccine hesitancy, it is better to understand them as a result of changed perceptions. Blume says vaccination has, for many people, become symbolic of a more general unease and sceptical attitude about the role of pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession. He notes that the usual survey research carried out by vaccination proponents can pick up demographic variations in parental concerns but does not get to their source.

It is perhaps relevant that citizens have no say in the development of vaccination recommendations, and even politicians are usually left out of the picture, as decisions are made by international organisations subject to corporate lobbying. This does not mesh well with people’s increasing knowledge about health matters. The experts might be right but nonetheless be distrusted.

Immunization: How Vaccines Became Controversial provides great insight precisely because it eschews the easy generalisations made by vaccination partisans. Vaccine development was not a straightforward linear process, and vaccination policy has been subject to a variety of influences. Vaccination is usefully seen as a technology, as just one of several approaches to promoting health, and thus judged in a wider context than a narrow calculation of benefits and risks. The contemporary vaccination debate is not just a matter of pro and anti, but should be seen in the wider context of attitudes towards social institutions and citizen participation in decision-making.

Blume does not offer easy answers, but more usefully points to the complexities and contradictions in the history and social dynamics of vaccination. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to get beyond the usual partisan positions in the vaccination debate.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Your attention, please!

Recent history can be told as the story of a struggle for people’s attention. Propagandists and advertisers play leading roles.

Attention can be focused or fickle. You can be reading a blog (what else?) but perhaps you are thinking of something else or tempted to click on another story. This much is obvious. It is the way most people live their lives: their attention shifts from one thing to another, sometime lingering and focused, sometimes distracted.

It’s possible to say that life, at a psychological or perception level, is what we pay attention to. Most people would like to make their attention choices themselves, but many groups would like to influence these choices.

It may sound strange to write history in terms of attention, but this is just what Tim Wu has done in his stimulating book The Attention Merchants. Histories are usually written in terms of empires and wars, or perhaps the dynamics of class struggle, or in terms of oppression and democratisation, or the rise of agriculture and industry, or any of a number of frameworks that look at social processes. Each approach provides its own insights but also its own limitations. Wu offers a different approach, and it is illuminating.

            In essence, during the past two centuries there has been an evolving struggle to capture people’s attention via various forms of media and content, with governments and advertisers the key drivers and various forms of media their tools. Luckily, it’s possible for people, the targets of attention management, to resist.

It’s hard to imagine life before media. Try to think of a life without screens, even without any printed material. This would be a life of interacting with other people face-to-face, or engaging in hunting or farming or rituals. This is still the way of life for some people today, but in industrialised parts of the world it is rare. Instead, most people spend hours each day with one or more forms of media, most commonly involving a screen of some size.

Enter mass media

The earliest important mass medium was print. Wu recounts the experiences of US entrepreneur Benjamin Day who in 1833 pioneered a formula for increasing sales of newspapers: report on scandalous or amazing events, titillating the audience, sell at a low price, and make money by selling advertisements. It was an early indication of the commercial advantage of aiming low.

Skip forward to World War I. In Britain, government planners sought to increase recruitment into the army and came up with an effective method: saturate all media with patriotic messages. This meant billboards, leaflets, newspapers and magazines. It was hard to escape the messages, and recruitment soared. This was the first major use of mass propaganda and it was an outstanding success.

            Fifteen years later, the Nazis came to power in Germany and copied the British and US war propaganda techniques. By this time more technologies were available, notably radio. Hitler perfected the technique of mass rallies to muster patriotic fervour. However, rallies involved only a small fraction of the population. To take the message to others in the country, radio was the preferred medium; the Nazis controlled the broadcasts.

Saturation propaganda requires a near-monopoly over communication. It is easiest to implement when governments control media. Traditional government propaganda efforts remain important today, especially in countries with repressive governments like China, Iran and Russia.

Most of Wu’s story about attention merchants, though, is about efforts to capture attention for commercial purposes. He recounts the early days of television in the US when the small black-and-white screen was a novelty — and incredibly influential. Some early programmes were high-brow, but broadcasters soon learned that audiences could be drawn more effectively to entertainment such as the show “I love Lucy.” During the 1950s, significant proportions of the US population were watching the very same shows at the same time. It was truly a mass audience. It thus had elements of propaganda, except that the audiences were sold to advertisers.

The story of early television illustrates one of Wu’s key themes: a new medium can capture attention, but then competition begins a process of lowering costs and degrading the product.

One of the costs of producing television programmes is paying the actors. Is there a way to produce shows with the “talent” appearing voluntarily or at low cost? The answer is yes: so-called reality TV, which could draw in audiences. The stations could sell the audiences to advertisers while reducing their overheads.

To capture attention, media proprietors discovered, it is effective to lure people with stories of scandal and gore. This was true of the earliest newssheets and remains true in the age of social media. Rather than appeal to the rational mind and a concern for knowledge and enlightenment, media producers have found it more effective to appeal to the intuitive mind with what is now called “click-bait”: online stories seemingly so intriguing that it is hard to avoid clicking on them. Many of these stories are false or misleading and most are trivial, for example dealing with the peccadilloes of minor celebrities.

The same processes of degradation and cost-reduction have been played out with each new generation of media technology, including print, film, radio, television, desktop computers, and smartphones. Along the way, Wu describes how various other developments, for example video games and Google, fit into the picture.

Media enter private life

As new media technologies emerged, they made an amazing assault on traditional barriers between public and private. In the years before radio, people believed home life was inviolate. There might be posters in public places, but it was unthinkable for advertising to enter the home. Along came radio, initially in a public interest form. But then commercial stations figured out how to entice audiences while including ads as part of broadcasts.

Media infiltration into people’s personal lives has largely been voluntary: for most individuals, the immediate benefits seem to outweigh the costs. So today many people carry their smartphones everywhere, even into bed, allowing click-bait into nearly every personal situation. Smartphones are the fourth screen in the evolution of media entrants into people’s lives, following the big screen (film), the little screen (TV) and the desktop computer screen. Each screen initially had amazing success in capturing attention with high-quality fare, then entered a decline: a degradation of quality and an increase in commercial exploitation.

Wu’s story would be unrelentingly negative except that audiences usually rebel, eventually. An overload of advertising and trivial content triggers a cultural shift towards consumer choice in a different direction. The latest iteration of this rebellion is the massive uptake of ad blockers on smartphones and the popularity of Netflix, with many viewers bingeing on episodes or even entire series.

Tim Wu

Learning about struggles over attention

The Attention Merchants is engaging to read. Wu tells about successive developments through the lives and strategies of key players in each era, making the book an enjoyable way to learn about media. It might be said that the book serves as an antidote to the media degradation described in it.

Much of the story centres on the US, especially in the previous century. Wu does not recount the history of media in diverse countries or under different political systems (aside from Nazi Germany). Compared to most other countries, the US is very high in individualism and commercialism. So whether a similar narrative involving the struggle for attention, with advertising playing a key role, applies elsewhere remains to be determined.

That Wu’s analysis is US-centric need not detract from its potential value. Decades ago, I taught a course titled “Information and communication theories” and introduced students to a series of theories, for example signal transmission theory and semiotics. Today, if I were teaching the same course, I would add attention theory to the syllabus and add extracts from The Attention Merchants to the reading list. My guess is that Wu’s approach to understanding media dynamics via a struggle over attention would speak to students’ experience far more meaningfully than most other theories.

Later, Wendy Varney and I wrote a book, Nonviolence Speaks: Communicating Against Repression. In one chapter, we canvassed a variety of communication theories for their potential relevance to nonviolent struggles: transmission theory, media effects theory, semiotics, medium theory, political economy and organisational theory. Attention theory, Wu style, definitely needs to be added to this list. Nonviolent activists live in a world saturated with media in different forms, and to get their message out and to build support for campaigns, they must deal with communication systems and attention merchants with other agendas. This is an issue for another time.

Wu’s story to me highlights a great imbalance in efforts to attract attention. Media companies and advertisers have enormous financial and political resources. They hire the best and brightest of skilled workers, many of whom devote their creativity and energy to trying to entice people’s attention, often in ways difficult to resist. In the face of this attention-harvesting juggernaut, opposing forces are unorganised. For example, school teachers aim to encourage learning but have to compete with attention-grabbers that are highly sophisticated. Meanwhile, commercialism is increasingly entering classrooms. When teachers use digital devices in the classroom for educational purposes, almost inevitably they open another portal to advertising and attention capture. Where are the educational planning research centres with researchers developing strategies that will appeal to young people and build habits of attention control to counter the merchants?

            No doubt it would be possible to identify quite a range of initiatives that provide alternatives to the efforts of attention merchants, for example movements against public advertising, designers of ad blockers, promoters of mindfulness and a host of others. These efforts are worthy but for the most part are a limited challenge to the likes of video games, Facebook, Google and other corporate behemoths that push advertising out along with their services. There is much to be done to regain personal and collective control of attention.

“The attending public were first captured reading daily newspapers, then listening to evening broadcasts, before they were entranced into sitting glued to the television at key intervals, and finally, over the 1990s, into surrendering some more of their waking time, opening their eyes and minds to computers – the third screen – in dens and offices around the world. … By 2015, the fourth screen would be in the hands of virtually everyone, seizing nearly three of the average American’s waking hours. And so it would become the undisputed new frontier of attention harvesting in the twenty-first century, the attention merchants’ manifest destiny. From now on, whither thou goest, your smartphone goes, too, and of course the ads.” (pp. 309-310)

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.

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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. 

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            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.

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            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.

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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

Learning from failure

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Imagine you are a teacher and you decide to try an innovative teaching technique. However, it goes horribly wrong. The technique didn’t work the way you expected, and furthermore numerous students make complaints to your supervisor. Luckily, your supervisor is sympathetic to your efforts and your job is secure.

What do you do next?

  1. Avoid innovative techniques: they’re too risky.
  2. Keep innovating, but be much more careful.
  3. Tell a few close colleagues so they can learn from your experience.
  4. Write an article for other teachers telling what went wrong, so they can learn from your experience.
  5. Invite some independent investigators to analyse what went wrong and to write a report for others to learn from.

The scenario of innovative teaching gone wrong has happened to me several times in my decades of teaching undergraduates. Each time, through no particular fault of my own, what I attempted ended up disastrously. It even happened one time when I designed a course that worked brilliantly one year but failed miserably the next.

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So what did I do? Mainly options 2 and 3: I kept innovating, more carefully, and told a few colleagues. I never imagined writing about these teaching disasters, even using a pseudonym, much less inviting others to investigate and publish a report. It would be humiliating, might invite additional unwanted scrutiny, and might even make innovation more difficult in the future.

Aviation: a learning culture

These thoughts came to mind as a result of reading Matthew Syed’s new book Black Box Thinking. The title refers to the flight recorders in commercial aircraft, called black boxes, that record data about the flight, including conversations among the pilots. When there is a crash or a near miss, these boxes are vital for learning from the failure. Rather than automatically blaming the pilots, an independent team of experts investigates accidents and incidents and publishes its findings so the whole industry can learn from what happened.

blackbox

Some of the greatest improvements in aircraft safety have resulted from studies of disasters. The improvement might be redesigning instruments so confusion is less likely or changing protocols for interactions between pilots. One important lesson from disasters is that the flight engineer and co-pilot need to be more assertive to prevent the pilot from losing perspective during tense situations. The investigations using black-box information occasionally end up blaming pilots, for example when they are drunk, but usually the cause of errors is not solely individual failure, but a combination of human, procedural and technical factors.

Cover-up cultures: medicine and criminal justice

Syed contrasts this learning culture in aviation with a culture of cover-up in medicine. There is a high rate of failure in hospitals, and indeed medical error is responsible for a huge number of injuries and deaths. But, as the saying goes, surgeons bury their mistakes. Errors are seldom treated as opportunities for learning. In a blame culture, everyone seeks to protect their jobs and reputations, so the same sorts of errors recur.

Syed tells about some hospitals in which efforts are made to change the culture so that errors are routinely reported, without blame attached. This can quickly lead to fixing sources of error, for example by differently labelling drugs or by using checklists. In these hospitals, reported error rates greatly increase because cover-up is reduced, while actual harm due to errors drops dramatically: fewer patients are harmed. Furthermore, costs due to patient legal actions also drop, saving money.

medical-error

So why don’t more hospitals follow the same path? And why don’t more occupations follow the example of aviation? Syed addresses several factors: cultures of blame, excess power at the top of organisations, and belief systems resistant to testing.

In the criminal justice system, one of the most egregious errors is convicting an innocent person of a crime. Police and prosecutors sometimes decide that a particular suspect is the guilty party and ignore evidence to the contrary, or don’t bother to find any additional evidence. Miscarriages of justice are all too common, yet police, prosecutors and judges are reluctant to admit it.

In some cases, after a person has been convicted and spent years in jail, DNA evidence emerges showing the person’s innocence. Yet in quite a few cases, the police involved in the original investigation refuse to change their minds, going through incredible intellectual contortions to explain how the person they charged could actually be guilty. Syed comments, “DNA evidence is indeed strong, but not as strong as the desire to protect one’s self-esteem.” (p. 89)

Black boxes

When I heard about Black Box Thinking, I decided to buy it because I had read Matthew Syed’s previous book Bounce, about which I wrote a comment. Syed was the British table tennis champion for many years and became a media commentator. Bounce is a popularisation of work on expert performance, and is highly engaging. In Black Box Thinking, Syed has tackled a related and broader subject: how to achieve high performance in collective endeavours.

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Matthew Syed

The title had me confused at first, because in other disciplines a black box refers to a system whose internal mechanisms are hidden: only inputs and outputs can be observed. In contrast, flight recorders in aircraft, which actually are coloured orange, not black, are sources of information.

Syed’s book might have been titled “Learning from failure,” because this is the theme throughout his book. He presents stories from medicine, aviation, business, criminal justice, sport and social policy, all to make the point that failures should be treated as opportunities for learning rather than assigning blame. Individuals can heed Syed’s important message, but bringing about change in systems is another matter.

Another theme in the book is the importance of seeking marginal gains, namely small improvements. Syed tells about Formula One racing in which tiny changes here and there led to superior performance. Another example is when the company Unilever was manufacturing soap powder – laundry detergent – and wanted to make the powder come out of the nozzle more consistently.

first-nozzle
Unilever’s initial nozzle

Unilever hired a group of mathematicians, experts in fluid dynamics and high pressure systems, to come up with an answer, but they failed. Unilever then hired a group of biologists – yes, biologists – who used a process modelled on evolution. They tried a variety of designs and determined which one worked best. Then they took the best performing design and tested slight modifications of it. Applying this iterative process repeatedly led to a design that worked well but never could have been imagined in advance.

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Unilever’s final nozzle, after 45 trial-and-error iterations

Learning from mistakes in science

Syed presents science as a model for learning from error, seeing the experimental method as a great advance over adherence to dogma. Science certainly has led to revolutionary changes to human understanding and, in tandem with technology, to dramatic improvements in human welfare, as well as to unprecedented threats to human life (nuclear weapons and climate change). However, Syed notes that science students mainly study the latest ideas, with little or no time examining “failed” theories such as aether or astrology: “By looking only at the theories that have survived, we don’t notice the failures that made them possible.” (p. 52).

Even so, overall Syed’s view of science is an idealistic image of how research is supposed to work by continually trying to falsify hypotheses. Historian-of-science Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that most research is problem-solving within a framework of unquestioned assumptions called a paradigm. Rather than trying to falsify fundamental assumptions, scientists treat them as dogma. Sociologist Robert Merton proposed that science is governed by a set of norms, one of which is “organised scepticism.” However, the relevance of these norms has been challenged. Ian Mitroff, based on his studies, proposed that science is equally well described by a corresponding set of counter-norms, one of which is “organised dogmatism.”

bauer-dogmatism

Although science is incredibly dynamic due to theoretical innovation and experimental testing, it is also resistant to change in some ways, and can be shaped by various interests, including corporate funding, government imperatives and the self-interest of elite scientists.

Therefore, while there is much to learn from the power of the scientific method, there is also quite a bit that scientists can learn from aviation and other fields that learn systematically from error. It would be possible to examine occasions when scientists were resistant to new ideas that were later accepted as correct, for example continental drift, mad cow disease or the cause of ulcers, and spell out the lessons for researchers. But it is hard to find any analyses of these apparent collective failures that are well known to scientists. Similarly, there are many cases in which dissident scientists have had great difficulty in challenging views backed by commercial interests, for example the scandals involving the pharmaceutical drugs thalidomide and Vioxx. There is much to learn from these failures, but again the lessons, whatever they may be, have not led to any systematic changes in the way science is carried out. If anything, the subordination of science to powerful groups with vested interests is increasing, so there is little incentive to institutionalise learning from disasters.

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Failure: still a dirty word

Although Syed is enthusiastic about the prospects of learning from failure, he is very aware of the obstacles. Although he lauds aviation for its safety culture, in one chapter he describes how the drive to attribute blame took over and a conscientious pilot was pilloried. Blaming seems to be the default mode in most walks of life. In politics, assigning blame has become an art form: opposition politicians and vulnerable groups are regularly blamed for society’s problems, and it is a brave politician indeed who would own up to mistakes as a tool for collective learning. In fact, political dynamics seem to operate with a different form of learning, namely on how to be ever more effective in blaming others for problems.

blaming

I regularly hear from whistleblowers in all sorts of occupations: teachers, police, public servants, corporate employees and others. In nearly every case, there is something going wrong in a workplace, a failure if you want to call it that, and hence a potential opportunity to learn. However, organisational learning seems to be the least likely thing going on. Instead, many whistleblowers are subject to reprisals, sending a message to their co-workers that speaking out about problems is career suicide. Opportunities for learning are regularly squandered. Of course, I’m seeing a one-sided perspective: in workplaces where failure does not automatically lead to blame or cover-up, there is little need for whistleblowing. When those who speak out about problems are encouraged or even rewarded, no one is likely to contact me for advice. Even so, it would seem that such workplaces are the exception rather than the rule.

The more controversial the issue, the more difficult it can be to escape blaming as a mode of operation. On issues such as abortion, climate change, fluoridation and vaccination, partisans on either side of the debate are reluctant to admit any weakness in their views because opponents will seize on it as an avenue for attack. Each side becomes defensive, never admitting error while continually seeking to expose the other side’s shortcomings, including pathologies in reasoning and links to groups with vested interests. These sorts of confrontations seem designed to prevent learning from failure. Therefore it is predictable that such debates will continue largely unchanged.

Although the obstacles to learning from failures might seem insurmountable, there is hope. Black Box Thinking is a powerful antidote to complacency, showing what is possible and identifying the key obstacles to change. The book deserves to be read and its lessons taken to heart. A few courageous readers may decide to take a risk and attempt to resist the stampede to blame and instead foster a learning culture.

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“The basic proposition of this book is that we have an allergic attitude to failure. We try to avoid it, cover it up and airbrush it from our lives. We have looked at cognitive dissonance, the careful use of euphemisms, anything to divorce us from the pain we feel when we are confronted with the realisation that we have underperformed.” (p. 196)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au