Category Archives: politics

Wollongong: horror behind the scenes

Some of Wollongong’s most prominent figures were involved in sexually abusing boys. Residents might never have known about it except for media stories.


A scenic view of Wollongong

I’ve lived in Wollongong since 1986, yet there are lots of things I don’t know about the city. Some of the things I do know about, or think I know, are mainly due to news reports. One of them is paedophilia in high places.

News reports in the 1990s revealed that a previous mayor — the elected head of the local government — had run a paedophile ring, and another previous mayor was a suspected paedophile. These revelations were so striking that I saved some of the newspaper reports about them. Recently I read them again. They paint a grim picture, and provide a lesson in how a city’s public face can conceal horrible activities.

Here I summarise some of the media revelations, focusing on three individuals: Tony Bevan, Michael Evans and Frank Arkell. Links are given to articles published at the time, which give more details.

Bevan

On 9 March 1995, the front page of the Illawarra Mercury — Wollongong’s only daily newspaper — had a huge headline: “Former mayor ran child sex ring.”


Tony Bevan

Tony Bevan had been mayor and a pillar of the community. He died in 1991, leaving behind numerous tape recordings he had made of conversations with politicians, businessmen and other paedophiles. These tapes were obtained by the Mercury. The newspaper published transcripts of some of the recordings. The story summed up the findings in this way

Bevan ran a paedophile “school” where Illawarra and Sydney boys were seduced and manipulated. They were then used to sexually service Bevan and his friends.

Bevan and his paedophile associates in Sydney controlled a youth refuge where boys were kept before being sent to work as prostitutes in Kings Cross [a Sydney red-light district].

Bevan was involved in bringing young Filipino boys to Australia to work as prostitutes.

Bevan pimped for influential Illawarra, Australian and foreign paedophiles — offering boys who provided sexual favours.

An international paedophile network exists that allows those “in the club” to access boys worldwide.

The Bevan Tapes also identify 15 Australian paedophiles associated with Bevan as well as a number of corrupt officials in the Philippines.

Evans

On 22 July 1995, the Sydney Morning Herald — the most prestigious daily newspaper in Sydney — ran a story titled “Brotherly love.” It told about the Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order, which runs schools throughout Australia. In particular, the story told about some members of the Christian Brothers who had been accused of paedophilia. The lead character in the story was Michael Evans, who in 1982 became head of Edmund Rice College, a Catholic boys high school in Wollongong.

During his years in Wollongong, Evans became its most prominent Catholic figure. Then in 1993, a story in the Illawarra Mercury about an alleged indecent assault ended his career ambitions. Evans left town. In 1994, he was served with an arrest warrant over an indecent assault on a teenage student. The next day he committed suicide.

From 1995 to 1997, there was a royal commission into the New South Wales Police Service, often called the Wood royal commission. It was not one of those inquiries that quietly reinforces the status quo. Unusually, it was a crusading commission, using its extraordinary powers to shine a spotlight on police corruption. The public hearings received saturation news coverage.

Among other things, the commission looked into policing and paedophilia. As reported in a front-page story in the Illawarra Mercury on 17 April 1996, a priest testifying at the commission criticised Wollongong’s Catholic Bishop William Murray and a high-ranking police officer for not acting against Evans. It was reported that even before being appointed head of Edmund Rice College, allegations of sexual abuse had been made against Evans. The church hierarchy did not act on them. The police had also been notified, but Sergeant David Ainsworth decided not to take action.


Michael Evans

Media coverage stimulated the police to reopen the case. A 20 April 1996 story in the Sydney Morning Herald summed up what happened after allegations about Evans were made to the bishop.

… Brother Evans’s career, far from being stymied, flourished in the years that followed. He had a popular Sunday night radio program …, wrote a column for the Illawarra Mercury, opened the youth refuge Eddy’s Place in 1988 and basked in the image of a man dedicated to caring for Wollongong’s youth.

The Illawarra Mercury played a major role in exposing prominent figures who were paedophiles. The editor-in-chief at the time, Peter Cullen, took the lead in both exposing and condemning sexual abuse in the church. A Wollongong priest, Father Peter Comensoli, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for sexually molesting teenage boys. In a column castigating the church for leaving open the possibility of Comensoli returning to the priesthood, Cullen concluded by writing

To this day, none of Comensoli’s victims, their parents or family have received any communication from the Catholic Church expressing sorrow or regret at what happened.

Not a line, not a phone call. They are still waiting.


Peter Cullen in front of Mercury headlines

Another Mercury story reported on testimony before the royal commission by Bev Lawson, chief superintendent, who commented critically about Wollongong police not following up in their investigation of child sexual abuse allegations. Sergeant David Ainsworth had left messages with the bishop asking for an interview. The bishop didn’t respond, and Ainsworth decided not to pursue the matter.

It seems that, in Wollongong, leading figures in the Catholic Church and in the police were reluctant to investigate allegations of sexual abuse. The media, and media coverage of royal commission hearings, were what pushed matters along.

Arkell

Frank Arkell was mayor of Wollongong from 1974 to 1991. He was widely known for his promotion of “Wonderful Wollongong,” taking every opportunity to advocate for the city, which went through difficult times economically, especially in the early 1980s.

After losing office in 1991, things went downhill for Arkell. In 1994, he was accused in state parliament of sex offences. During the police royal commission, he was called to give evidence but pleaded illness. The commission, with other matters at hand, decided not to pursue him further. But subsequently police mounted a case against him.

Then on 28 June 1998 there was a spectacular headline in the Sun-Herald, a major Sydney Sunday newspaper: “Child sex MP slain.” Arkell had been murdered in his home, beaten to death. His Rotary badge was stuck in an eye and tiepins were stuck in his cheeks.


Frank Arkell

Arkell’s murder opened the floodgates for reporting and commentary. Arkell was dead and couldn’t sue for defamation, so gloves were off. The lllawarra Mercury ran eight pages of special coverage, with the main story by editor-in-chief Peter Cullen. Cullen wrote:

Some of our community leaders are saying Arkell put Wollongong on the map.

I agree. He did. But for all the wrong reasons — for his double life, the sinister side which resulted in his being charged with sex offences against teenage boys, now grown men with their lives torn apart.

Arkell’s life is over. For some of his victims, their lives finished years ago.

Arkell was relentless in blaming The Mercury for his fall from grace. At every opportunity he condemned the newspaper, pleaded with people not to buy it, and said he would not stop until we answered for our sins.

He had sued for defamation.

We were not fazed by that and intended to defend our wicket with every resource at our disposal.

However, let’s get a few facts straight. It was the Wood Royal Commission and its investigators who caused most of Arkell’s heartache.

They produced three alleged victims, all strangers to The Mercury. They went before the commission under code names and made damning allegations against Arkell.

Yet, when Arkell had the chance to enter the witness box and refute the allegations, he ducked it.

Instead, he produced a statement and his solicitors presented a sick certificate to the commission as a reason why Arkell could not attend.

The following day The Mercury interviewed Arkell, and he told us he felt fine.

In other stories after Arkell’s murder, the question was raised whether the media, once the restraint of being sued for defamation was removed, had been too harsh on Arkell. Another story asked why people in Wollongong did not seem appalled at Arkell’s murder.

In August, a lengthy story, “City of secrets,” appeared in the Good Weekend, the magazine of the weekend edition of the Sydney Morning Herald. The author, Richard Guilliatt, linked Wollongong’s working-class masculinity and Catholic morality with the seamy activities that had been revealed by the royal commission.

It now transpires that Wollongong was run for 20 years by two mayors who preyed sexually on their teenage constituents, and that a raft of well-to-do figures — the headmaster of the local Catholic boys’ college, a local councillor with five children, a rotund industrialist who drove around town in a Rolls-Royce, a Catholic priest, a local restaurant manager, a shark-patrol pilot — molested dozens of boys for years with apparent impunity.

Guilliatt pointed out that homophobia was very strong in Wollongong, especially compared to Sydney. Bevan and Arkell would never have been elected had they been openly gay. In 1984, Arkell actually voted against legalising homosexuality. Ironically, said Guilliatt, Arkell would have had a stronger defence against the allegations against him if he had acknowledged being gay: he could have said he was mistaken about the boys’ ages.

Guilliatt questioned some of the allegations about Arkell, who might have been found not guilty in court. The “vigilante” who murdered him pre-empted the verdict.

I have no way of judging the allegations myself, though one of my colleagues told me that one night he witnessed Arkell leaving the Council building at midnight, with a young boy on each hand.


The Council building in Wollongong

Lessons

One lesson from these stories is that public figures may not be what they seem. Even in private they can lead double lives. According to news reports, some of Bevan’s friends had no idea anything untoward was happening, and a longtime friend of Arkell’s thought he was heterosexual.

One reason Bevan, Evans and Arkell were able to maintain their public façades for so long was that the church hierarchy and the police did little to act on complaints about abuses. For those who had been abused, or who knew them and heard their stories, it seemed no one in authority was willing to act.

The role of the media was crucial. To my knowledge, no academics have investigated the Wollongong story. For a blow-by-blow account of the murder of Arkell, and two related murders, see John Suter Linton, Bound by Blood: The True Story Behind the Wollongong Murders (Allen & Unwin, 2004).


In 2012, former Edmund Rice College Brother John Vincent was sentenced to at least six years in prison for sexual offences in the 1980s.

Apparently, in the media the allegations were known for a long time, but nothing could be reported because of the risk of being sued for defamation. The result is a tainted legacy: after Bevan, Evans and Arkell died, their reputations were trashed. Some might say deservedly so, but they were no longer around to contest claims made about them.

In Wollongong, media revelations occurred because the editor-in-chief of the Illawarra Mercury, Peter Cullen, personally campaigned against paedophilia. In the Sydney media, those opposed to homophobia were caught in a bind. Paedophilia in high places was a big story, but it could harm the struggle for gay rights.

There was also another factor, highlighted in Gulliatt’s story about Arkell. He had done more than anyone else to promote Wollongong, especially when its fortunes were at an ebb. To raise allegations about his personal life could also harm Wollongong’s reputation, in a process of guilt by association. Some people may have preferred that the paedophilia story be quietly forgotten.

If you know about criminal or unethical action by people in high places, what should you do? This is especially difficult if your own status has been tarnished. It is seldom easy to admit being duped or abused. Many of those victimised by paedophiles felt ashamed, and their lives had gone downhill. Who will believe you? Who should you trust to take action?

In the Wollongong paedophilia chronicles, the answer was not the police and not the church hierarchy. The most effective avenue for redress was the media, even though the resulting publicity did not offer the protections of a court trial. But surely trial by media was preferable to the vigilante justice that claimed Arkell’s life.

Postscript

Things may be better in Wollongong. There haven’t been as many stories about high-level paedophiles. Edmund Rice College is under new leadership. Homophobia is less vicious. Perhaps Arkell’s sales pitch of “wonderful Wollongong” is more credible these days. But who knows for sure?

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Sources (in chronological order)

Brett Martin, “Former mayor ran child sex ring,” Illawarra Mercury, 9 March 1995, pp. 1, 6–8.

Richard Guilliatt, “Brotherly love,” Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 1995, Spectrum pp. 1A, 4A.

Paul McInerney, “Priest damns bishop, senior police officer,Illawarra Mercury, 17 April 1996, pp. 1–2.

Richard Guilliatt, “Sins of the Brothers,” Sydney Morning Herald, 20 April 1996, p. 25.

Peter Cullen, “Catholic Church should defrock this molester,” Illawarra Mercury, 20 April 1996, p. 7.

Paul McInerney, “How the police blew it,” Illawarra Mercury, 23 April 1996, pp. 1, 4–5.

Liz Hannan and Anna Patty, “Child sex MP slain,” Sun-Herald, 28 June 1998, pp. 1, 6–7.

Peter Cullen, “Vigilante on the loose,Illawarra Mercury, 29 June 1998, pp. 1–8.

Kate McClymont, “The demise of a double life,” Sydney Morning Herald, 29 June 1998, p. 15.

Pilita Clark, “The media and the murder,” Sydney Morning Herald, 4 July 1998, p. 33.

Stefanie Balogh, “Killer wins kudos in a city as hard as steel,” The Weekend Australian, 4–5 July 1998, p. 12.

Richard Guilliatt, “City of secrets,” Sydney Morning Herald, 22 August 1998, Good Weekend  pp. 22–28.

(Some of the these citations include related stories by other authors.)

Some informative more recent treatments

Peter Newell, “Long struggle to expose evil abuse of children in the Illawarra,” Illawarra Mercury, 17 November 2012.

Angela Thompson, “Edmund Rice College was ‘a dumping ground’ for child sex predators: Stephen Jones MP,Illawarra Mercury, 16 June 2016.

Nick McLaren, “Frank Arkell: how a vicious murder unmasked a city’s darkest secrets,” ABC Illawarra News, 26 June 2018.

 

Truth versus bullshit

Who is responsible for fake news? And what can be done about it?

• Trump offering free one-way tickets to Africa & Mexico for those who wanna leave America.
• Police find 19 white female bodies in freezers with “Black Lives Matter” carved into skin.
• Donald Trump protester speaks out: “I was paid $3,500 to protest Trump’s rally”.

During the 2016 US election campaign, teenagers in the town of Veles in Macedonia found a way to make some money by posting material on big social media sites. Facebook gets its income from advertisements, and gives tiny payments to suppliers of content. The teenagers could make money if their material attracted lots of readers, so they made up outrageous stories that they thought would find an audience.

Some fake stories, from the teenagers or others, do find an audience, like the ones listed above about Trump and Black Lives Matter, which were among the top 15 fake news stories in 2016.

Veles, Macedonia

Some made-up stories seem so plausible that readers share them with their friends. As the shares and retweets multiply, a story begins trending. It might even be reported in the mainstream media.

So who is responsible? The Macedonian teenagers, for sure. But they wouldn’t bother except for the economic model provided by social media. The advertisers on social media usually don’t care; they benefit when a story generates lots of clicks. The mass media are hurting financially and so do much less fact-checking, so bogus stories sometimes are run. Then there are the readers – that’s us – who think a story is worth sharing and don’t take the trouble to check whether it’s genuine.

Post-truth

James Ball is an experienced journalist who cares about the news and is alarmed by its corruption. In his book Post-Truth he tells about the problem, those implicated in it, and what can be done about it.

The problem is far deeper than the spread of made-up stories. News can be distorted, one-sided and in other ways misleading. The label “fake news,” when used to refer to manufactured fantasies, is inadequate to capture the full extent of the problem.

Ball provides an informative and often eye-opening tour of the issues, giving numerous examples to illustrate his analysis and recommendations. Ball’s preferred term is “bullshit.” This refers to claims that are neither right nor wrong but rather indifferent to the truth. When bullshit fills the air, audiences may despair of figuring out what’s really going on and start distrusting every source of news, including the more established ones. The subtitle of Post-Truth is How Bullshit Conquered the World.

Ball starts with the seemingly obligatory stories of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, canvassing the use of bullshit in these campaigns. He then examines six groups involved in spreading bullshit. Politicians are important players, many of whom want to manipulate audiences and use public relations, spin and other techniques. Then there are “old media” – newspapers, television, radio – that play a big role in propagating dubious stories. As the old media are squeezed financially, they have less capacity to check sources and are more likely to run fake stories.

Ball continues through new media, fake media (such as created by the Macedonian teenagers) and social media. Each of these helps spread bullshit. As in the case of old media, economic imperatives are involved. Online, at least where advertising reigns supreme, getting clicks is currency, so it becomes attractive to run or allow stories with little checking.

The final of the six chapters on who is spreading bullshit is titled “… and you.” Audiences contribute to the problem. Ball cites the experience of a news operation created to provide quality news, with a more positive slant. It drew on research showing that people wanted more of this sort of news. The news operation soon folded. What people say they want (high quality news) is not necessarily what they actually end up buying or reading.

Is this what audiences really want to read?

Audiences are attracted by scandals, gore, celebrity gossip and stories that reinforce their pre-existing views. The various forms of media, to survive financially, pander to these audience preferences. In this sort of environment, Ball says, bullshit thrives. Audiences are thus part of the problem.

A study of Twitter found that half the people who retweet a news story never bother even to read it. The implication is that people are reacting so quickly that they are driven by emotion rather than careful reflection. This is fertile ground for bullshit. It’s only possible to dream up some claim that appeals to readers’ gut reactions, namely something they’d like to believe is true, and then it starts spreading wildly with little or no scrutiny.

What to do

After explaining the problem, telling who is spreading bullshit and why, Ball turns to solutions. One of them is fact-checking. Some large media organisations, such as the New York Times, employ fact-checkers, and there are now a number of independent bodies undertaking this role.

Fact-checking is valuable, but Ball says it’s not a full solution. One shortcoming is that fake news runs far ahead of fact-checkers. Most news consumers read the politician’s lie or the fake story and never get around to seeing what fact-checkers say about it.

There’s also a deeper matter: manufactured news items are only part of the problem. The majority of suspect claims are some combination of right and wrong. They may be biased, selective or misleading, and not easily amenable to fact-checking.

What else? Ball provides advice for politicians, media and news consumers. For example, one piece of advice for politicians is not to explain why the opponent’s claim is wrong, because this just highlights the claim. Explaining why alarms about terrorism are misleading only makes terrorism more salient. It’s better to reframe the issue, namely to provide a different narrative.

One of Ball’s recommendations for media is to be careful about headlines, making sure they capture the key ideas in stories. Because many readers share stories based solely on headlines, some traditional headline-writing techniques need to be rethought.

Finally, Ball has recommendations for readers and voters. One of them is to put effort into thinking about stories and not just reacting to them emotionally. Another is to question the narratives that you believe as much or more as the ones you don’t believe. He also suggests learning basic statistics so you can assess claims made in the media.

James Ball

Collective action

All of Ball’s suggestions are worthwhile. If taken up, they would do a lot to change the media environment. But what would encourage people to follow his suggestions? Ball’s own analysis of the problem shows that politicians and the media are captives of large-scale processes, especially economic imperatives and audience emotional responses.

For decades, scholars and critics have been examining media cultures, especially the news, showing all sorts of systemic problems. Journalists and editors treat events as newsworthy when they conform to what are called “news values.” For example, prominent people involved in conflicts are more newsworthy than ordinary people behaving amicably. Hence, Trump’s campaign for a wall receives saturation coverage while amicable relations between people living near the border between Mexico and the US seldom warrant front-page media stories.

Ball doesn’t address the systemic biases in mass media coverage that pre-dated the rise in what he calls bullshit. His analysis is illuminating but needs to be supplemented.

The rise in use of the term “post-truth”

Is there any hope? A few readers of Post-Truth will take up Ball’s suggestions, but for major change, collective action is necessary. The lesson from history is that social movements are needed to bring about change from below. An individual can seek to reduce personal greenhouse gas emissions, but to tackle global warming, mass action is needed.

What sort of collective action can make a difference regarding the news? There are signs in what is already happening in circles where accurate information is vital.  

When filter bubbles are needed

The mass media have a strong preference for reporting events involving violence: “if it bleeds, it leads.” This is frustrating for proponents of nonviolent action, especially when there is little media coverage of a large peaceful protest or the reports are about a minor scuffle rather than the issues at stake.

The methods of nonviolent action include strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, occupations and rallies. Research shows that nonviolent campaigns are more effective in overthrowing repressive regimes than armed struggle. Nonviolent action is the preferred approach of most social movements, including the labour, feminist, environmental and peace movements. Yet despite its effectiveness and widespread use, nonviolent action is marginalised in mass and social media coverage.

Mass prayer: not newsworthy

There’s an obvious reason for this. Nonviolent activists have no wealthy and powerful backers. In contrast, hundreds of billions of dollars annually are spent on militaries, with the full backing of governments and associated corporations. It is not surprising that media coverage follows power and money. Furthermore, the news values used by journalists to judge newsworthiness lead to a neglect of nonviolent alternatives.

In this context, nonviolent campaigns need to create their own news ecosystem, circulating information through sympathetic newsletters and websites. Getting rid of fake news and bullshit is fine for the dominant military approach but would do little to make audiences more aware of nonviolent options.

Voting is governments’ preferred method of citizen involvement in politics. Besides voting, there are numerous methods that enable citizens to participate in the decisions affecting their lives, such as initiatives and referendums. A method I find appealing is citizens juries, in which randomly selected citizens hear evidence and arguments about a contentious community issue, deliberate about it and make a recommendation.

Citizens panel, Riga

However, alternatives to representative government have hardly any profile in the media. There is massive coverage of politicians, including their campaigning, policies, foibles and infighting, but almost none about participatory alternatives to the system in which elections and politicians are dominant. This means that campaigners for such alternatives need dedicated sources of information to find out about research and action, and to maintain their commitment.

Many social movements that are today considered progressive have struggled in the face of hostile media environments. Ball’s concerns about the rise of bullshit and the problems in gaining access to information are warranted. But for those seeking to challenge perspectives based on massive money, power and ideology, it has never been easy.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Trusting people and machines

Trust is fundamental to human activities. How is it changing?

Would you trust Sophia, a robot that is a citizen of Saudi Arabia?

On a day-to-day basis, people put a lot of trust in others. As I walk down a suburban street, I trust that a driver will follow the curve of the road rather than drive straight into me. The driver trusts the engineers who designed the car that it will not explode, at least not on purpose. Buying an aspirin is premised on trusting the chemists and manufacturers that produced the drug.

            When trust is betrayed, it is a major issue. When, last year in Australia, a few needles were discovered in strawberries and other fruit, it was national news. People normally assume that fruit purchased from a shop has not been tampered with.

            Paedophilia in the churches was covered up for decades. When it was finally exposed, it destroyed a lot of trust in church leadership and the church as an institution.

            Scientific knowledge is based on observation, experiment and theorising, but also relies heavily on trust between scientists, who need to rely on each other to report their findings truthfully. This helps explain the enormous condemnation of scientific fraud, when scientists manipulate or fake their results.

            In certain areas, public trust has plummeted in recent decades: trust in public institutions including government, corporations and the mass media. Opinion polls show large declines. In Australia, trust in financial institutions had been dropping due to scandals, and that was before the royal commission revealed widespread corruption. When people can’t trust their financial advisers, what should they do?

Public trust in Greek institutions has plummeted.

            In order to ensure fairness and good practice, governments set up watchdog bodies such as ombudsmen, environmental protection authorities, anti-corruption commissions and auditor-generals. One of the casualties of the banking royal commission has been the credibility of financial watchdogs such as the Australian Securities & Investment Commission (ASIC). Rather than sniffing out bad practice, they were complacent. Whistleblowers reported problems, but ASIC ignored them. The message is that members of the public cannot rely on watchdog bodies to do their job.

Who can you trust?

Rachel Botsman has written an insightful and engaging book titled Who Can You Trust? She argues that in human history there have been three types of trust.

            First was local trust, based on personal experience in small communities. If someone you know helps, or fails to help, in an hour of need, you can anticipate the same thing in the future. Local trust is still relevant today, in families and friendships. People learn who and when to trust through direct experience.

            Next came institutional trust, in churches, militaries, governments, and professions such as medicine and engineering. People trusted those with greater authority to do the right thing. In the 1950s, high percentages of people in countries such as the US said they had a great deal of trust in their political leaders. However, institutional trust has taken a battering in recent decades.

“So why is trust in so many elite institutions collapsing at the same time? There are three key, somewhat overlapping, reasons: inequality of accountability (certain people are being punished for wrongdoing while others get a leave pass); twilight of elites and authority (the digital age is flattening hierarchies and eroding faith in experts and the rich and powerful); and segregated echo chambers (living in our cultural ghettoes and being deaf to other voices).” (p. 42)

            Botsman writes about the rise of a third type of trust: distributed trust. People trust in systems that involve collective inputs, often anonymous.

Distributed trust

Suppose you want to see a recently released film. If you rely on local trust, you ask your friends what they thought of it. If you rely on institutional trust, you see what the producers say about their own film: read the advertisements. Or you can rely on distributed trust. For example, you can look up the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and see what different film critics have said about the film, see what audience members have said about the film and see the average rating audiences have given the film.

            If you take into account audience ratings from IMDb, you are trusting in two things. First, you’re assuming that audience members have given honest ratings, and that the film’s promoters aren’t gaming the system. Second, you’re assuming that IMDb’s method of collecting and reporting ratings is honest. After all, IMDb might be getting payoffs from movie producers to alter audience ratings.

            Botsman says distributed trust seems to be reliant on technology but, ultimately, human judgement may be required. Of course, people design systems, so it’s necessary to trust the designers. However, after a while, when systems seem to be working, people forget about the designers and trust the technology.

            One of Botsman’s examples is the self-driving car. Developers have put a lot of effort into figuring out what will make passenger/drivers feel safe in such cars. This sounds challenging. It turns out that the main problem is not building trust, because after being in a self-driving car it seems quite safe. The problem is that drivers become too trusting. Botsman thinks her young children will never learn to drive because self-driving cars will become so common.

            Botsman has a fascinating chapters on the darknet, a part of the Internet frequented by buyers and sellers of illegal goods, among other nefarious activities. Suppose you want to buy some illegal drugs. You scroll through the various sellers and select your choice. How can you be sure you’ll receive the drugs you ordered (rather than adulterated goods) or that the seller won’t just run off with your money and not deliver the drugs? Botsman describes the trust-building mechanisms on the darknet. They include a rating service, rather like Amazon’s, and an escrow process: your payment is held by a third party until you’re satisfied with the goods. These darknet trust-enablers aren’t perfect, but they compare favourably with regular services. It turns out that trust is vital even when illegal goods are being bought and sold, and that reliable systems for building and maintaining trust are possible.

            In Sydney, a high-rise apartment building called the Opal Tower had to be evacuated after cracks were found in the construction. Experts debated when it was safe for residents to return to their units. Some commentators blamed the government’s system for checking compliance to building codes. Could trust in builders be improved by learning from the systems used on the darknet?

Blockchain

Botsman’s special interest is in the blockchain. You might have heard about the electronic currency called bitcoin. Used for purchases online, it can provide anonymity, yet embedded in the code is a complete record of every transaction. Furthermore, this record can be made public and inspected by anyone. It’s as if a bank published online every transaction, with amounts and dates, but without identifying who made them.

            Botsman says bitcoin is a sideshow. The real innovation is the blockchain, the record-keeping code that enables reliable transactions without a middleman, such as a bank, taking a cut. It sounds remarkable, but blockchain-based operations have pitfalls. Botsman describes some disasters. When a new currency system was set up, someone found a glitch in the code and drained $60 million from the currency fund, one third of the total. The programmers and founders of the system were called in to intervene, which they did, preventing the extraction of currency.

            Blockchain seems not quite ready to provide a totally reliable trust system, one not reliant on human intervention. But lots of people are working to achieve this goal, as Botsman revealingly describes.

Trust and political systems

For me, the value of Who Can You Trust? is in highlighting the role of trust in contemporary life, especially as trust in institutions declines drastically. It made me think in a different direction: political alternatives.

Rachel Botsman

            The political philosophy of anarchism is based on the idea of self-management: people collectively make the crucial decisions affecting their lives without systems of hierarchy, namely without governments, corporations or other systems of domination. The usual idea is that there are assemblies, for example of workers who decide how to organise their work and what to produce. Assemblies elect delegates for coordination by higher-level groups.

            This model of self-management relies on two types of trust. The assemblies have to be small enough for dialogue in a meeting and thus rely on local trust. The delegate structure parallels distributed trust, as long as the delegates remain bound by their assemblies and acquire no independent power

            Another model is demarchy, which also dispenses with governments and corporations. In a local community, decision-making is carried out by citizens panels, with maybe 12 to 24 members each, whose members are selected randomly from volunteers. There could be panels for transport, manufacturing, art, education and a host of other topics. In essence, all the issues addressed by governments today are divided according to topic and allocated to randomly selected groups of citizens.

            Because they are randomly selected, panel members have no mandate, so their terms are limited. For coordination, experienced panel members would be elected or randomly chosen for higher-level panels.

            Demarchy relies on local trust, especially on the panels, and on distributed trust, namely trust in the system itself. This distributed trust is similar to the trust we have today in the jury system for criminal justice, in which randomly selected citizens deliberate together and make judgements. People trust a randomly selected person, who has no personal stake in the outcome, more than they are likely to trust a lawyer or a politician.

            Botsman’s analysis of trust and technology raises a fascinating option: what would it mean to combine distributed trust based on technology with the local/distributed trust in political systems like anarchism and demarchy?

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Is US politics a lost cause?

Many people despaired at the election of Donald Trump. But would things have been all that different if Hillary Clinton had become president?


Hillary Clinton and Warren Buffett

Anyone who follows politics in Western countries knows that the US is different from other liberal democracies. It is commonly noted that the US is the only country where there has been no major socialist or communist party. Its politics is skewed to the right.

This wouldn’t make all that much difference if the US were a small country like Estonia or Ireland. After all, every country has its own political peculiarities. But the US is a looming presence on the world stage, with nearly half of all military expenditures, military bases in dozens of countries, a disproportionate influence on world economic arrangements (usually to serve US-based massive corporations), and more generally a society that is dysfunctional in many ways. Among the world’s affluent societies, the US has the highest imprisonment rate, an extraordinary murder rate, the highest infant mortality rate, the lowest life expectancy despite the world’s highest per capita medical expenditure, and a shockingly high level of economic inequality.

            Although such statistics would cause leaders in other countries to be ashamed, US politicians and many citizens continually proclaim that the US is a shining beacon to the rest of the world. But that is another story.

US politics are so skewed to the right that the policies of conservative parties in many other countries would be seen as extreme left in the US and called socialist, used as a term of abuse and dismissal.

Since the 1980s, with the rise of neoliberalism in much of the world, many governments have adopted policies that benefit large corporations, disadvantage workers and hurt people in need. This process has been just as savage in the US, but starting from a worse position.

Decades ago, I read a book titled The Best Congress Money Can Buy. The author, Philip Stern, documented the way the US Congress is driven by campaign contributions. It’s possible to predict the votes of most members of Congress: the more money received from a group with a vested interest, the more likely the Congressperson’s vote will serve that interest.

My colleague Sharon Beder has written extensively on what she calls “business-managed democracy,” which basically means the manipulation and control of the system of representative government to serve the interests of big business.

Within the US, the Republican and Democratic parties are often seen as embodying right-wing and left-wing politics. However, the Democrats are left-wing only by contrast. Transposed to countries such as Australia, they would be on the far right.

Listen, liberal

In case you had any illusions about the Democrats, you should read Thomas Frank’s highly engaging and hard-hitting new book Listen, liberal, or, what ever happened to the party of the people?

The subtitle refers to “the party of the people”. That has been the self-image of the Democrats since the 1930s, during the great depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” introduced welfare measures and when trade unions were recognised. The federal government came to play a much larger role in managing the economy. Since then, the Democrats have had the reputation of being pro-labour.


Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, 1935

            Frank says all that has changed. He argues that since the 1990s, including with the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats have forgotten the working class and tried to distance themselves from the New Deal.

Frank’s diagnosis is harsh. He analyses all the major initiatives under the Clinton and Obama administrations, finding that poor people have been sacrificed. One example is the “welfare reform” bill passed under Clinton’s administration that removed benefits from struggling families, plunging them into abject poverty. Another is the crime bill that vastly expanded the prison population, with penalties that unfairly targeted African Americans.

If you read only the speeches by Clinton, Obama and other Democrat luminaries, you would not have an inkling of the problem, because rhetorically they continue to express concern about the struggles of “ordinary Americans”. What Frank has done is expose the policy reality behind the public rhetoric.

The new orientation of the Democrats

The Democrats have a new idol: the professional class and “innovation”. Frank reviews writings on what various writers have called the “new class” or the “professional-managerial class”. The traditional working class is in decline and a new group is in the ascendant, composed of lawyers, scientists, engineers, financial managers and a host of others with specialist training who reap rewards from the use of their intellects.

In the Democrats, the rise of this group is most clearly manifested in the appointments in the Clinton and Obama administrations. A large number of those chosen had degrees from Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale, in many cases advanced degrees. Not only are degrees from elite institutions prized: there is a great emphasis on these individuals being smart. Intelligence is the new currency for advancement.

Frank diagnoses the Democrats’ orientation as a commitment to meritocracy, which refers to a system in which those who have the most merit receive the greatest rewards. Attending Harvard is assumed to establish a person as worthy. In this way of seeing the world, being rich is the just outcome of a system that rewards performance. Inequality is the inevitable result of an unequal distribution of merit.

            Frank gives an extended treatment of Hillary Clinton’s politics. (He wrote the book before she lost the 2016 election.) She had many fine words about empowerment of women. How was this to be done? Basically, they just needed to be treated according to their merits. This is the usual prescription of liberal feminism, with the main concern being about well-off women held back from obtaining the very highest positions. As Frank notes, this offers little for the large numbers of women in the worst jobs, or without jobs, for whom equal opportunity is a pious phrase given structural conditions that keep them in their place.

Another feature of the Democrats’ political orientation is an adoration of innovation. Frank describes Boston’s Route 128 area of high-technology start-ups and universities, a haven of support for the Democrats and a model for what Democrat leaders see as the future for the country. Yet just fifty miles away, in the decaying rust-belt small town of Fall River, the desperate workers and townspeople are forgotten. These are the losers in the great transition to an innovation-driven future, and they are forgotten by the Democrats.

            Frank tells of Hillary Clinton’s hope for women worldwide. It is that they become entrepreneurs, running their own innovative businesses, following the footsteps of the multibillion-dollar tech companies. Micro-lending is touted as the salvation for Third World people in poverty, especially women, but, as Frank bitterly notes, it entwines them in the market and often makes them worse off than before.

So why do Democrats turn their back on the traditional working class? One answer is that they have a new source of support: high-tech business, providing ample donations to the Democrats. But campaign contributions are not the only factor, according to Frank. As noted, high-tech companies are exemplars of the success of the smartest people who went to the best universities, and they represent the triumph of innovation, seen as an unalloyed good. Meanwhile, the Democrats took for granted the support of working people. Where could they turn? (The answer: Trump.)

But could it have been any different? Perhaps the Democrats in power are so constrained by various powerful constituencies that doing something different is almost impossible. Frank has no time for this face-saving explanation. He points to the early days of Obama’s presidency. The economy was in peril due to the greed and shady operations of the bankers. This was a golden opportunity to shake up the system, and there were cries from across the country for the bankers to pay the penalty for their corrupt behaviour. So what did Obama do? He bailed out the banks with government money, leaving ordinary workers to pay for the damage. No bankers went to prison or were even charged. Instead, they got to keep their bonuses. Obama served the rich at the expense of the poor.

What next?

Listen, Liberal is an eloquent, impassioned complaint about the failure of the Democratic Party to address the plight of working class people in the US. But what are the implications? Frank hopes to raise awareness about what is happening, and does not propose solutions. In a long afterword written in 2017, after Trump’s election victory, he explains why Trump was so successful: he spoke to the people’s concerns about jobs and income. Frank has no illusions about Trump, anticipating that he will serve only the rich and betray the interests of his supporters. What Frank sees in Trump is the outcome of a two-party system that has offered no alternative to corporate globalisation and every-increasing economic inequality.

In US politics, the focus on the presidency is excessive. It’s as if everyone is looking for salvation from a supreme leader. This is misguided, but it is difficult to turn away from the spectacle. However, vast numbers of citizens have given up on electoral politics, at least if voter turnout is any indication.

What Frank does not describe are the many signs of hope. In my visits to the US, I have always been impressed by the high level of local activism on all sorts of issues. US activists are just as committed, insightful and resourceful as those in many other countries. The difference is that they have little visibility in the mainstream media and little effect on the positions of the major political parties. In Australia, reading the mainstream media, few would realise that after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, in parts of the US there were protests against the war for weeks, months and even years afterwards.

Frank doesn’t address this sort of grassroots activism, perhaps because it so often bypasses the political parties. Frank does not even mention the Occupy movement that originated in the US, spread worldwide and put economic inequality on the political agenda. The Occupy movement steadfastly refused to make formal demands of the political system, instead seeking to exemplify a participatory alternative to representative government.

In the US, there are numerous economists questioning the neoliberal model. There are proponents and promoters of local currencies, an alternative to the usual centralised money system. There are climate change and other environmental activists building local energy systems. There are numerous initiatives based around cooperative work, of which Wikipedia and free software are the most well known. There are campaigners for alternative forms of governance.

Frank is rightly depressed by the capitulation of the Democrats, as well as the Republicans, to big business. But instead of yearning for the Democrats to return to the New Deal of the 1930s, perhaps it is time to question the value of party politics altogether.


Thomas Frank

“It is time to face the obvious: that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure for both the nation and for their own partisan health. ‘Failure’ is admittedly a harsh word, but what else are we to call it when the left party in a system chooses to confront an epic economic breakdown by talking hopefully about entrepreneurship and innovation? When the party of professionals repeatedly falls for bad, self-serving ideas like bank deregulation, the ‘creative class,’ and empowerment through bank loans? When the party of the common man basically allows aristocracy to return?” (pp. 255-256)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

A tale of two steel towns


Steelworks in Gary, Indiana, USA


Steelworks in Wollongong, Australia

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

Aerial view of Gary, with Lake Michigan in the distance

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


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

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

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

Gary

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

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


City Methodist Church, Gary, about 1955

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

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

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

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

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

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


Richard Hatcher

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


City Methodist Church, now derelict

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


Union railway station, Gary, once impressive, now abandoned


Abandoned row of Edison-concept homes, Gary

Wollongong

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

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


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

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


Nan Tien Temple, Wollongong

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

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


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

Explaining the differences

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


Wollongong railway station: modest but still functioning

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

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

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


Aerial view of Gary, showing the numerous neighbouring independent towns

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

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

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

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


Wollongong coal miners on picket line, 2015

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

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

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

Boldly promoting alternatives

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

Free money for the poor

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

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

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

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

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

Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty

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

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

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

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

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

How to bring it about

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

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

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

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

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


Rutger Bregman

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

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

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Questioning a Trump-making system

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random selection

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


kleroterion

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


David van Reybrouck

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

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

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

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

Learning from mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Mathematical models: the toxic variety

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

usnews-best-colleges

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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)

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

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Assassination, Inc.

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

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

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

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAJeremy Scahill

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

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

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Double standards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outrage management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resistance

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

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

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

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

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Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

If not elections, what else?

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

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

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

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

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David Van Reybrouck

Sortition versus elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The jury system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sortition from the bottom up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Lyn Carson for valuable comments on a draft.