anotherpanacea

Cure-alls and Remedies

I have some questions about violence

Posted on December 22nd, 2013

11736It looks like I’ll be co-teaching a course on violence with Daniel Levine in the spring, and I have some questions:

  1. Is it just me, or do philosophers rarely talk about violence? We talk a lot about killing, and war, and punishment, and even torture. We talk about peace and non-violence. But “violence” doesn’t come up often, and when it does it’s often (as in the Frankfurt School) mythologized or dealt with through a kind of negative theology. Am I right about that?
  2. Clearly there are some related concepts, like cruelty, domination, coercion, etc. But what do they tell us about violence? Is violence the worst thing that humans can do? Compare violence to cruelty, domination, destruction, and harm; are these the components of violence, or its frequent companions?
  3. Where does sexual violence fit? Is it an intensification, a different kind, or a mixture of violence and other things like domination and cruelty?
  4. More basically: is violence a natural kind? Is there a specific phenomenality attached to it, i.e. is there something all instances of violence are “like”? Or is it a family resemblance term? (Or is it worse than a family resemblance term, we don’t even know what it means in all the contexts where we’re using it?)
  5. Who is more violent: a sniper or boxer?
  6. Who is more violent: a drone operator or a torturer?
  7. Which is more violent: a bomb or a prison cell extraction?
  8. Is an explosion always violent? Are fireworks “controlled violence” or are firebombs “violent and destructive fireworks”?
  9. Why do we continue to speak as if peace is passive and violence active, even after generations of non-violent activists have shown us how active peace can be? What’s the bias, there?
  10. Can words and arguments be violent, or is it just that some words are backed by institutions of violence? Like, can philosophy be violent, or does it only get a little violence rubbed off on it when it’s justifying war or torture or the actual embodied violence of the state? Put another way, is an argument or aa discourse violent only insofar as it is an implicit but authentic *threat* of physical violence?
  11. Contrariwise: can violence be expressive?
  12. War is way more violent than most people  even give it credit for being, I think. There is a lot of peripheral violence, destroyed communities, and lost capacities, even in “just” wars. So is interstate and civil war more violent than totalitarianism? Is “legitimate” state violence better or worse than “illegitimate” non-state violence? Are they equal, i.e. violence is violence is violence?

A Tuesday morning twelve years ago…

Posted on September 11th, 2013

I generally hate the hyper-patriotic memorialization of this day, as I’d prefer to forget. But today saw many on social media sharing their stories, so I thought I’d share mine, too.

I was in the subway, headed to work at the Civilian Complaint Review Board a couple blocks south of the towers, in the financial district. The train stopped, as it often did for track work or obstructions. But it stayed in the same place. We didn’t get out for what seemed like forever: the car filled with smoke and dust as (I now know) the towers collapsed. We were finally released onto the subway tracks, and guided back to a platform. When I emerged, I headed to work (closed, obviously) and then walked towards the collapsed towers until I couldn’t breath, not really comprehending what had happened. I needed to get to Harlem, but the way north was blocked. The sky was black, and everything was covered in ashes, including me.

by Flickr user hankplank

by Flickr user hankplank

The streets were full of expensive women’s shoes, discarded as they ran. I took brief refuge in an office building, borrowed a phone, and called my partner. Then, I joined the other survivors trudging home: the subways were working, slowly, above Union Square, so I stopped at the Target there, drank some water and got on a train. I arrived home sometime in the late afternoon, and then I slept.

I don’t remember much over the next few weeks: our building was inside the “crime scene” so we couldn’t go back to work for a while. I think I played video games for days at a time, and I know I took the GREs, fearing that the city would have to lay me off. (There was a bomb threat in the middle, so we filed out to the street, then returned to finish when the building was cleared. I’ve always wondered if someone used the bomb threat to get the answers or switch test-takers.)

The truth is that I was pretty lucky: our train wasn’t right under the towers when they collapsed, so we were just inconvenienced (and scared.) One guy from my office died: Hernando Salas. I try to think about him, today, and also to take Judith Butler’s advice not to obsess on narratives that start Tuesday morning, but instead to think about the stories that go back decades that led us all there.

Varieties of Inequality

Posted on February 25th, 2013

I can think of at least six kinds of inequality:

Clothes are seen hanging outside a bus which has been converted into a dwelling for Lu Changshan and his wife near newly-constructed residential buildings in Hefei, Anhui province in China on November 12, 2012 (Jianan Lu/Courtesy Reuters).

Hefei, Anhui province in China  (Photo by Jianan Lu.)

  1. Inequality of income: different people receive different wages, either for different jobs or for the same job, as profits from capital investments, or as government subsidies, transfer payments, or private charity.
  2. Inequality of consumption: different people consume different products (i.e. the generic widget) in differing amounts and of varying quality. Some people have cell phones, computers, and tablet computers; some have just a cell phone; some people own no electronics. Some people have two homes, some are homeless, etc.
  3. Inequality of liberty: some people are subjected to more threats and interference than others. Some people can break the law, for instance by using illegal drugs, without consequence, while others are imprisoned and subjected to the whims and demands of institutional forces and individuals with strength or authority.
  4. Inequality of security: some people live more precarious lives than others. Some people are systematically subject to more frequent risks of loss, or have less assistance or fewer resources to fall back on should things go badly.
  5. Inequality of status: some people get more respect than others. Some people are treated with disdain and denied the prerequisites of basic human dignity. Some people are ignored and invisible, while others get more attention than they want from paparazzi and news media.
  6. Inequality of capabilities: some people have more beings and doings than others. Rather than more widgets and gadgets, some people have better access to the things that make a life go well: work, play, love, health, safety, an opportunity to be heard and make a difference, etc.

Now, potentially all of these inequalities might be troublesome, but when I think about political economy, I tend to think that inequalities grow in importance (and injustice) as they move away from nominal measures like “income” and towards real measures like liberty, security, status, and ultimately capabilities. Of course, the varieties of inequality are interrelated, but not always in a clear way. For instance, some people have high incomes but low security, like military contractors, some fishermen, and oil rig roughnecks who can all make six figure salaries by taking on inordinate risk of death or crippling injury. A wealthy person suffering from crippling depression might be consumption-rich but capability-poor. And we’ve probably all met or worked with angry low-level bureaucrats whose low status is combined with high liberty and security, which allows them to act capriciously and lazily without consequences.

In the famous aphorism of the “rising tide which lifts all boats,” John F. Kennedy suggested that it was possible that as the US progresses, the rich, middle-class, and poor states might all be better off in absolute terms even if they maintained their respective places. Subsequent use of the aphorism has generally added “even if they do not improve equally.” In the “rising tide” case championed by Kennedy, “relative” inequality would increase as the gap between rich and poor increased, while “absolute” inequality (i.e. poverty) decreased, as the poor became wealthier. But this suggests a seventh kind of inequality:

7. Inequality of growth: when a company or a country grows, some people get a larger share of the growth than others, either as a share of income, consumption, status, liberty, capabilities, or security.

Americans currently confront a situation domestically where the rich have made disproportionate gains in income and consumption compared to other classes, while the very poor experience severe losses in every category due to absurdly high rates of incarceration, lost life expectancy, increaased labor contingency, loss of meaningful participation in the political process, and many other factors. Yet while this inequality grows domestically, other inequalities are shrinking: Africa is growing again, and the the number of children who die each day from easily-treated poverty-related diseases has shrunk to half what it was a decade earlier. Some of the same factors that increased relative domestic inequality have reduced absolute global poverty. So this suggests that there are (at least) three different ways to measure inequality:

  1. The scope of the inequality: there is a difference between local inequalities and global inequalities, and on some measures and inequalities (for instance, status) the local matters more than the global, while sometimes it’s the domination or colonization of one place or group  by another that creates the problematic element in inequality.
  2. Inequality over time: for most of the world, each generation has been able to boast improved lives over the generation before. But there are times and places when this is not the case, and it may well not be the case in the future.
  3. Relative Inequality v. Absolute Poverty: Another important issue is that inequalities can be measured in relative or absolute terms: the “relative” measure is based on the difference between the most-advantaged and least-advantaged, or in some metrics between the extremes and the median. The “absolute” measure focuses on the actual levels of income, consumption, security, liberty, etc. which can rise independently or orthogonally to the difference between the best and worst.

In the literature, the last kind of inequality is often just referred to as “relative v. absolute inequality” but what really ought to concern us is when folks at the bottom face profound and multiple disadvantages. So when I think in terms of absolutes, here, I think we generally share the Rawlsian maximin intuition that we should confront and work to raise whatever the lowest-level of experience is, the floor or “bottom” that has become known as the situation of the “least-advantaged group.”

Civil-rights-leaders-want-Obama-to-talk-more-about-racial-inequalityAs for temporal and spatial inequalities, these are difficult issues indeed. Certainly there are Chinese cities where the environmental degradation is so bad that previous eras of lower consumption were actually better off; much the same may be true of European and American cities during our industrial growth spurts. We can think of the the inequality of growth as a problem that is primarily measured in terms of differences over time, but we also have to confront the profound differences between the growth levels in the US, Europe, and Japan, and the growth levels in Africa, South America, and Asia. There is growing confidence that these differences must be laid at the feet of poor institutional designs (hampered by colonial meddling) and cannot simply be explained by some form of exploitative expropriation of the developing world by the developed world.

There are broad measurement and aggregation problems with the more important kinds of inequality: it’s much harder to figure out how capabilities increase and decrease over time and populations than it is to measure income and consumption, even though measuring those is a very hard problem all on its own. Still, some theme have emerged. While there are some theorists who would not be ready to agree to the hierarchy of inequalities I’ve listed above, many justifications for libertarianism and classical liberalism rest on the assumption that the policies they advocate are best-able to achieve the maximization of the most important capabilities, securities, and liberties that I mention. After the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, there may well be disagreements about measurements and priorities, but there really are fewer folks who doggedly hold to the view that consumption alone is the key to the good life and ought to be maximized. Strangely, even as more people pay lip service to pluralism, there is more and more agreement on matters of fundamental metaethical goals. I take that to be a good sign.

But various versions of the problem of inequality that circulate strike me as potentially mistaken. For instance, it’s true that, in terms of wealth and income, the very rich lost more in absolute terms than the very poor: individual investors lost billions of dollars. But they did not lose a corresponding amount of consumption, security, status, or capability. Those losses play an important role in suggesting that the very rich were as surprised as the middle-class and poor by the structural problems in the shadow banking system and mortgage-market, however: after all, you expect a fraud or a crook to have enriched himself, not immiserated himself. On the other hand, differential inequalities of growth and security suggest that a very rich investor might be willing to make a bet that will double or halve her income even if it will do the same thing the very poor for simply because of the way one calculates gains and losses when you are very rich. (This goes back to Charles Karelis’s work on the differential rationality of wealth and poverty.)

Giving Well: Oxfam versus BRAC

Posted on January 13th, 2013

"A Hindu Woman Giving Alms," by Raja Ravi Varma

“A Hindu Woman Giving Alms,” by Raja Ravi Varma

Daniel Levine has an interesting discussion of giving and giving well up today on whyiamwrongabouteverything:

When I got a “real” job at USIP, back in 2007, I resolved that I was going to donate 10 percent of the portion of my take-home pay that I kept for personal use (as opposed to what I contribute to the joint account I share with my wife). This is less than the Giving What We Can pledge, but more than the The Life You Can Save pledge, so I figure it’s at least a good start. (My wife and I also give 5% of the after-tax income we contribute to our joint account).

Some may think it impolite, but I actually really appreciate that Daniel laid out his giving budget. 5% of joint household funds and 10% of personal funds dominates my giving budget quite a bit: last year we gave about 3% of our total pre-tax income to Oxfam (which is similarly ignored by GiveWell) so his commitments and reasons are particularly impressive. My family will likely scale back this year to make room in the budget for my wife’s unpaid maternity leave, but now social competition will give us an incentive to increase it!

He also highlights his preferred charity, the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Commission. Despite the name, BRAC actually works in eleven different countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Because they are primarily funded by micro-finance, they are able to fund 80% of their own charity work. Donors pay for the rest. Yet the charity rating service GiveWell refuses to rate it. Before I met Daniel, I’d never heard of BRAC, and since then I’ve been trying to do my homework. Two potential objections have emerged:

  • Microfinance often involves usurious interest rates. Should we worry that this charity is largely funded by some of the people who most need charity? Hugh Sinclair reports that BRAC charges women in South Sudan 88% interest! If this isn’t as much of a problem as it seems, then why shouldn’t we see the self-funding model as sufficient, and direct our donations to organizations that cannot self-fund?
  • Is there any reason beyond symbolism to prefer a South-South charity to a North-South charity? And is the symbolism worth potential inefficiencies or less-than-optimal life-saving?

All of my objections boil down to a simple concern: is BRAC better than Oxfam? Perhaps Wrongzo’s nom de plume is a misnomer or humblebrag, but perhaps he and I have a disagreement, after all.

Academics like to distinguish between two questions: whether we can know the right answer, and whether there can *be* a right answer. William Easterly rejected this kind of mythology of metrics when he told Peter Singer that “it is not at all clear that you (or anyone else) knows exactly what to do to save the lives of poor children or how to get them out of extreme poverty.”Perhaps Easterly is right to answer the first question with skepticism, but I believe we can answer the second question affirmatively: there is a “best” use for my money, some single expenditure that reduces suffering the most, even if we do not know what it is. People who criticize measurement efforts effectively admit that there’s such a thing as a right answer to the question of how to give, because they believe that Peter Singer and the metricians have the wrong answer!

If there’s a right answer, why not take a shot at figuring it out? So: is Wyclef Jean’s charity effective? A little research suggests not. The key here is that there may be many good answers, but there are certainly some bad answers, too. For instance: donating money to a church or to a museum doesn’t save lives, so those are demonstrably inferior kinds of charity. Even worse, sometimes our helpful efforts are actually harmful, as when we learned that some arsenic mitigation efforts may actually increase infant mortality! Whether microfinance at 88% interest is good or bad for a community is a matter that can be evaluated independently. And what’s more, it may be helpful even though it seems, to me, to be exploitative!

Yet it’s also possible that this is such a really hard problem that we’re better off with no information rather than some information. In donating to large charities with expansive internal research arms, we are essentially using part of our dollar to buy evidence about where the rest of the dollar should go. This seems wasteful! At some point, you reach diminishing returns in terms of the evidence-costs versus the marginal utility gains. Perhaps there really is no reason to believe that Oxfam’s or GiveWell’s internal metrics will help me direct my money better than traveling to a poor country and handing out twenty dollar bills! You may think I’m joking, yet I’ve actually seen this proposed by the economist Tyler Cowen. Perhaps we should skip airfare [overhead!] and simply mail the money to a random person!

That’s one reason I prefer larger institutional charities as informal indexers, in the portfolio sense: administrative/information costs are higher, but smaller as a percentage of total expenditures, while new money is always redirected to the best-informed current needs. Today’s best charities may not be tomorrow’s best charities. We know that, for instance, only about 50% of the population needs to be mosquito-netted to get almost all of the health effects. So at that point, it’s time to redirect the resources to a new cause, from malaria to diarrhea, say, or else new dollars could have no utility at all.

If we’re constantly analyzing the productivity of a charity, like GiveWell and Oxfam do, we’re likely to catch it. But if we’re sitting back and receiving the reassuring development letters from the charities’ staff, we’re likely to irrationally remain committed to the “less-than-best charity” for long after our donations have stopped having the optimal utility. That’s something Oxfam can do but VillageReach can’t. From the research I’ve done, I can’t tell whether BRAC is doing so or not; this was GiveWell’s problem in 2009 when they last evaluated BRAC.

You may well wonder: why even argue about charity? Shouldn’t we just give quietly and privately?

The various academics associated with Giving What We Can are engaging in a conscious effort to change the norms and standards of charitable giving. It’s true that donors mostly give for reasons of self-satisfaction, which is why consequentialists of various stripes are engaged in a quiet effort to change the conditions under which donors can successfully congratulate themselves. By working on the codes of honor and merit, they hope to have an outsized impact on the behavior of major givers and institutions. Academics recognize that we’re not rich and powerful, but we like to think that words and arguments can sometimes give us a bit of a multiplier effect.

To some extent, they’ve already succeeded, such that you see major criticisms of goals within global health and humanitarian aid communities for ineffective models, like the work of William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo, and David Rieff. More recently, some in the aid community have questioned the cost-benefit efficacy of the Gates Foundations’ attempts to eradicate polio.

But this requires a pretty strict consequentialism (though not utilitarianism) to which many retail donors object. Beyond the overall skepticism about knowledge and metrics, there’s an underlying fear that consequentialism levels the playing field between giving and consuming, and that this will become far too demanding for the average donor. Once you get started down this path, giving well goes from an analytic tool to a duty. It starts to sound overly demanding, and maybe even a bit melodramatic, like we’re all in the same position as Oskar Schindler:

This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!

In the film, you’re supposed to think he’s being too hard on himself. But isn’t he right? Ten people died so some rich industrialist could drive around in luxury. How many died so that I could sit up late typing this post on my computer? How can that possibly be just?

It’s a common intuition: whenever we see a rich person spending lavishly on a boat or a sports car, don’t we sort of feel that they’re wasting their money, that there are folks in need who could use it better? Am I really a philistine for not appreciating the craftsmanship in a Porsche or the softness of 600-count Egyptian cotton? I like lots of luxury items, too: I’m not an ascetic. Right now, I’m lusting after the new suit, an expensive rowing machine, and lots of electronics that are totally unnecessary. I may even buy some of that stuff. But I think we should admit that it’s not particularly praiseworthy to spend my money on luxury goods while there are children dying from diarrhea and women living with obstetric fistulas. We could treat an obstetric fistula for $450 dollars. That’s less than an iPad! It seems like an easy choice, yet I’ve already spent more time dithering on the minute differences between BRAC and Oxfam than I do wondering whether to spend the next $450 I make on consumption or charity.

Why Daniel Levine is Wrong About Everything

Posted on January 6th, 2013

war is overWell, he’s not. But that’s the title of his new blog. (Apparently he is challenging me for the title of “Most Contrite Fallibilist.” He’s even taken the nom de plume of “Wrongzo.” Bastard.)

For his first substantive post, “What should we mock about when we mock about guns?” he parodies my attempts to articulate a boring solution to the gun debates. He, rightly, turns the attention away from guns and towards inequality and precarity. Here’s the money quote:

“So, guns, whatever. Take away the fear and hatred that drives the hierarchical-individualist worldview (and its purity norms, on which a future discussion) and probably we have guns that police occasionally use against sociopaths and hunters use to get game meat, and boltcutters I only use on my back gate. The fight is with hierarchy, not guns.”

I can’t help but agree. (The wrongest thing about that blog is its title.) Some things that Wrongzo suggests but doesn’t say:

1. Wrongzo believes that value assessments and risk profiles are malleable. So, if we win the right political battles or transform our economy in appropriate ways, we might someday render individualists or hierarchists extinct. Even though I’ve spent a long time trying to work out and defend this thesis, I don’t know that I’m convinced it’s true. What if we’re just built differently, if not in the genetic and cogntive pluralism way, then in a way that leads to diverse cognitive styles being cultivated within any community? (For instance, a functioning community is always going to have some contrarians.)

But my suspicions and hopes here largely reflect a prejudice in favor of pluralism. As I say in my second post, “it’s important to acknowledge that they do see some facts more clearly we do.” And it’s true that the individualist notices different elements of the problem than the solidaridist: that’s why Radley Balko is such a boon to American political punditry. I’ve not yet figured out what hierarchists are good for, but I do worry that hierarchy and tradition are intrinsic to any account of solidarity, but we only notice the hierarchical and irrationally traditional elements when we see them in others with whom we disagree. But that’s what I do: worry.

2. Wrongzo believes that outsider derision can change things, citing Appiah. I was highly critical of this element of Appiah’s thought when I reviewed his book:

Here, then, is the problem that Appiah’s project must suppress in order to succeed: honor codes work best when they are unacknowledged, and they are best changed when they are not the object of direct study or overt deliberate manipulation by outsiders. Moral revolutions that are predicated on honor code changes are most likely to succeed when the transition does not appear to be the work of self-conscious elites, even if it probably is. This would probably help explain some other details suppressed in Appiah’s account, like why debates about slavery and racism did not end with the Atlantic slave trade or the American Civil War.

Again, I want to be wrong, but ultimately, you can only maintain the claim that “we mock because we love” so long as a reasonable person would see “hick-shaming” as a loving remonstration and not othering. Our chosen subalterns are the urban poor; conservatives pretend to represent the rural and suburban poor. Given the discourses and practices of coastal elites, I don’t see much evidence that hick-shaming will do anything other than tweak the subalterns of our competitor elites. In contrast, the evidence suggests that what Braman and Kahan call “identity vouching” is better able to get things done. That’s why “only Nixon can go to China” and why President Obama receives harsher criticism from African-Americans like Cornel West than he does from white progressives. What we need to engineer is a collaboration with gun owners.

There’s another serious core to the argument: what do we give up when we take up the cultural cognition attempt to negotiate a détente between gun owners and gun haters? I want to say more about this is a future post more critical of the “cultural cognition” perspective, but for now, go read Levine’s blog!

Update: Wrongzo responds:

But when we laugh with someone, we importantly laugh at our shared frailty and vulnerability and failure. We are saying that we are unwilling to give a charade of honor and weight to the human stupidity they have shown, but that ultimately that stupidity connects us, rather than dividing us.

…I am laughing because I ultimately want social reconciliation, for all the romance of class war. The hierarchs are hurting. So, for all the mean-ness of the last post, ultimately, laughter is the proposed weapon because it holds the hope of everyone saying, “wow, that was a fucked way of setting things up, let us do something different now.

Amen.