Putting the ‘political’ back in political economy

I stumbled across an article in the New York Times a few days ago by Tyler Cowen of George Mason University and a regular contributor to the blog Marginal Revolution. Entitled “Income Inequality Is Not Rising Globally. It’s Falling.”, it takes a crack at attempting to indicate that while country-level income inequality is increasing the overall effects of globalization are leading to less aggregate income inequality globally, and that this is a good thing. I always enjoy reading Cowen’s stuff even when I don’t agree with him, and in this case I have a few contentions as a political scientist about his argument.

These contentions developed after seeing a comment from a friend on Facebook about the article. He noted that the key problem isn’t income inequality, but wealth inequality. The way that income and growth are structured in the modern world, if you start from a position of higher wealth and asset ownership, the more you benefit from the structure of the global economy. If you rely on a bi-weekly paycheck though you face nothing but downward pressure on your economic position, unless you work in the information, research, governance, or financial sectors (which happen to all play key roles in globalization). Cowen though says that while this country-level trend is unfortunate, we shouldn’t miss the point that globally income inequality has dropped. This is where I have my biggest contentions with the argument, since economics is about politics, and like Tip O’Neill said all politics is local.

To make his argument Cowen has to invert the relationship between people, politics and economic systems. In effect, he argues that we should be happy that while at the local (or national) level the economy might be a mess, it’s important that at a global system level income inequality is decreasing. For this to hold up, we have to assume that systems, in this case the global economic system, are what people are responsive to, things that people can’t or shouldn’t be motivated to change. While Cowen is more humane than many of his libertarian counterparts, believing that safety nets should still exist for the workers who lose in national wealth inequality, he still makes what I think is a problematically common mistake in economics. Implicit to Cowen’s argument is that economic systems exist in parallel or outside the impact of politics. Instead of discussing the tangible problem of increasing wealth and income inequality at the national level as something that can be changed through policy and intervention, he finds an abstract way to claim the system is working. This is a huge problem from a public policy perspective.

At a fundamental level Cowen’s argument subverts the notion of representative democracy. The models of economy have become the ends in themselves, things that politicians and policy makers have applied normative value to, and thus try to shape laws and policy for. This is where the democracy problem comes in. In the United States, we ostensibly elect officials to create policies that support the public interest. When those representatives make economic policy that is based on a set of models that actually lead to massive inequality and economic hardship, they are no longer representing their constituents and instead are representing the abstract notion of market economics. If my congressional representative’s response to a total failure of the economy in my district is to say “there may be no jobs and wages might be way too low, but at least on a global scale income equality is down” then they are not representing the needs of their constituents.

This is the inherent problem with Cowen’s argument, and it has knock on effects since policy makers listen to him and other’s from his school of thought. Essentially he is arguing that a system that has failed at the level where it matters (the citizen level) due to particular aspects of the socio-political nature of finance-driven markets shouldn’t be changed at the local level because it seems, depending on how you cook define the numbers, to be working at an abstract global level. It dehumanizes economics, which is an inherently very human enterprise. In case we forget our history, such things as the Reign of Terror, Communist revolutions, and Jesus’s life and teachings were in response to fundamentally broken and/or exploitive economic systems. If tally the score in those three cases, it would be: System Maintenance 0 : 3 Revolutionary Uprising (and Violence).

Politicians and public intellectuals who focus on abstract and contorted ways to justify the maintenance of an economic system that tangibly fails the public would do well to heed the lessons of history. Abstract arguments about the way the global system is working won’t mean much when the pitchforks come out at the local level.

Quick thoughts from the #Tech4PP Twitter chat

I followed (and even participated!) in NDI’s Twitter chat today on using technology to increase political party and electoral participation. If you’re interested you can find the thread by searching the hashtag ‘#Tech4PP’. There were a lot of good examples of tech being used to increase participation, make processes more transparent, and boost inclusion in the political process. Below are a few quick thoughts that supersede the character limit:

1) I thought it was interesting that the chat tended to center around software and hardware, of which there were many interesting examples, but I tended to see less about the human or legal components of the process. I think it’s going to get really interesting to do experimental and empirical research on changes in political participation as social media and mobile based tools become increasingly available. ProTip for my academic friends who study political participation: look at this thread since it has a ton of examples you’d be interested in.

2) I saw a theme in the chat that asked about how we transition from digital outreach to human participation. I thought the framing was interesting since it set up technology as the causal mechanism of participation. I’m not sure I buy that directionality in a generalizable way; perhaps there are examples of this, but on average across cases I’d be inclined to think that the technology/participation relationship hinges more on the intervening variable of pre-existing political interest and knowledge of the issues within the community. I see a use for regression analysis here.

3) I threw a comment into the mix about the need to understand the regulatory and legal environment in a country where any kind of digital political participation software is being used. I’ll admit I’m surprised I didn’t see more on this topic, since it’s a pretty fraught space. Some of the more interesting questions around data ownership, regulatory effects on access to technology, and the cost of broadband could play a significant role in the overall impact of technology on political participation.

These are just a few questions that came to mind as I followed the thread – it was a good one, and I think there are some really good examples of tech for political participation that can be pulled out of it by researchers who are interested in learning more about the space.

When Radio Goes Bad: RF communications and the increased violence in South Sudan

I was reading an update about the increasing ethnic violence in South Sudan forwarded to me by a colleague, and noted the fact that radio is being used to organize and encourage violence in South Sudan. For those who have studied or read about the genocide in Rwanda, radio was one of the key mediums employed by Hutu extremists for encouraging and organizing violence. I think there are significant socio-political differences between the increasing violence in South Sudan and the genocide in Rwanda, so I just want to focus on the challenges related to preventing the radio-driven organization of violence, since radio broadcasts encouraging targeted violence against civilians were heard during the recent massacre in Bentiu, South Sudan.

We have to start with the laws, regulations and norms of radio broadcasting and spectrum management. Broadcast spectrum has traditionally been treated as a public good, managed by governments. Indeed if we look at the language from the preamble from the recent revisions of the International Telecommunications Union’s 2012 Radio Regulations, it’s pretty state-centric. This gives broadcast spectrum a certain level of sovereignty, and traditionally there is a respect for that sovereignty – generally, jamming another country’s broadcast frequencies is frowned upon, even though there’s a long history of doing so for the purposes of tactical advantage during wartime or in pursuit of psychological operations during the Cold War. Basically, radio jamming historically isn’t something that friendly or neutral countries (openly…) do to each other.

This is important, because along with apparently being expensive and inconvenient, the U.S Department of Defense used the spectrum sovereignty argument to avoid jamming hate-radio broadcasts during the Rwandan genocide. Would jamming hate radio have prevented the escalation and organization of violence? Unfortunately it’s rhetorical question since the U.S. never tried, but I’d be inclined to say that it wouldn’t have helped the organizers of the Rwandan genocide. In fairness, much of the organization on the ground was developed over extended periods of indoctrination and training of youth militias, so blocking radio wouldn’t have stopped pre-determined operations that didn’t rely on it. If anything it likely would have had the effect of a panopticon, forcing the organizers to realize there was a much bigger player involved that had the military capacity to selectively jam national communication infrastructure. At the very least this would have caused break downs in vertical communication, possibly giving some nominal advantage to the peacekeeping mission.

So how does this help us frame the disturbing news that radio is being used in South Sudan to encourage or organize violence? Unfortunately it’s unlikely we’re going to see large scale radio jamming operations; the governments with the ability to do that still have ongoing diplomatic missions in South Sudan, and using their military assets to jam transmission frequencies would probably be interpreted as a violation of sovereign control of spectrum, as well as a likely violation of South Sudanese airspace. There could be a role for SMS text and multimedia messaging to provide early warning, but the problem is that even if peacekeepers get the text messages, it’s questionable whether they’d be able to protect at risk populations.

Unfortunately once violence hits a certain scale local violence prevention efforts, ICT supported or not, won’t be enough to stop it. Crowdsourcing and ICTs merely become tools that aid in accounting for the violence unless the international community is willing to provide a peacekeeping mission that is manned and equipped to realistically protect the population.

NATO, the U.S. and Ukraine: A political economy of bad options?

Since I’m not an expert on Ukraine, the greater region it’s situated in, or much of the history, I’ve primarily observed and absorbed the various op-eds, arguments and blog posts I’ve seen from others. I don’t really have much to add about Ukraine or the politics of the region itself, but I have found the debate about what the best options are for the U.S. and NATO to be interesting. It seems that we’re encountering the limits of security-centric foreign policy, and profit-at-all-costs national economic outlook. Russia isn’t playing a complex game, the problem is that NATO and the U.S. don’t have the right tools to counter Russia’s fairly straight forward behavior.

As part of foreign policy, security is important, but it has limits. In the U.S. we have big military, big intelligence community, and relatively small everything else. Our military is powerful, but that’s only useful if we’re willing to use it; Russia knows we’re unlikely to put troops on the ground in Ukraine, so they can be pretty provocative along the Ukrainian border and with their special forces. We have big intelligence, but so what? We’re not going to put boots on the ground, and we’re not winning the diplomatic game…so what’s our massive intelligence apparatus gaining us? We’re not going to invade, and our token support to Kiev in terms of materiel, Geneva agreements and IMF packages doesn’t help much when the U.S. and NATO have no real leverage to change Russia’s behavior.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the U.S. has let it’s diplomatic capacity and creativity wane quite a bit the last 20 years. I wouldn’t say that U.S. diplomats are less talented, but I do think we have a pair of political economic problems that keep them from being able to be creative and offensive. We just unpacked one in the last paragraph; foreign policy is increasingly viewed as a security problem, so funding goes to security apparatus over diplomatic capacity. This has a knock on effect of causing anything not directly security related to effectively not be part of foreign policy. In principle energy policy, monetary and banking policy, and trade would be part of a strong foreign policy; in practice, they aren’t really. I’d argue that this is a unfortunate outcome of a national economic zeitgeist that favors short term profit and privatization above all else.

Let’s look at energy. To keep it simple, Russia provides a lot of gas to Europe; if NATO gets too aggressive, Russia will turn off the gas. Russia has the leverage because the U.S. and NATO don’t really have any viable energy alternatives. The diplomats don’t have much to work with because, particularly in the U.S, natural gas and petroleum interests work hard to prevent the expansion of renewable energy sources, and the export of gas and oil, with the help of compliant policy makers. This makes sense for those industries since they want to protect their market caps and profit margins. The problem is that this takes energy policy out of a NATO diplomat’s toolkit. Thus we end up with limited capacity to quickly scale a market for alternative energy, which could replace as least some of the need for Russia’s gas while also driving the price down (gas supplies don’t decrease but demand does). There’s potentially serious leverage for the U.S. and NATO here, but we can’t take advantage of it.

I’ve simplified these issues quite a bit to make my point, but perhaps some simplification is in order. Russia doesn’t need to play a complex game in Ukraine because they have a solution that the U.S. and NATO can’t effectively respond to. Perhaps the West’s real problem is continuing to make increasingly complex arguments to justify our drift toward a one dimensional foreign policy, when what we need to do is make fundamental changes to how we think about the role of domestic investment, research and development, not exclusively as profit-making pursuits, but also as keys to our ability to project power in an increasingly multi-polar world.

 

The Prevention Problem: Thinking about Rwanda 20 years later

Of my areas of interest, the two that stand out are violence prevention and technology. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, and I’ve been keeping track of the media coverage which has included the usual themes of never again, and a call to seek the tools and capacity to prevent such events in the future. To really make this happen though there needs to be a differentiation between patterns of smaller atrocities and genocide. This presents a challenge for localizing peacebuilding, especially for those of us who work in the technology space.

First, we have to differentiate atrocities from genocides. There are books upon books worth of arguments about semantics (which are important from a legal standpoint!), but I want to generally focus on differences in scale and intent. A militant group might commit a one-time atrocity to make a political statement, a riot could lead to a military crackdown that spins out of control, one ethnic group might target another over land rights, etc. These can be atrocities, especially if there’s a pattern of events. Genocide, what happened in Rwanda 20 years ago, is different in scale and intent. The scope of violence is an entire identity group, and the intent is the elimination of that group. Unlike an atrocity, this requires state-grade organization and capacity. Indeed, these are rather blunt definitions that ignore a lot of semantic detail, but bear with me.

If our goal is the prevention of atrocities and genocide, and our preferred method is to empower local communities with the tools and skills to prevent violence before it starts, then scale and intention matter. If we take the example of election violence in Kenya in 2007/8, there were many atrocities committed, but the intent wasn’t overtly genocidal. Since that election there have been efforts made to reinforce peace keeping (not ‘peacekeeping’) capacity at the local level through training programs and innovative approaches to information sharing using mobile phones and social media. In this scenario the communities that would be affected by discrete events of violence could prevent the spark at the local level. Compare this to Rwanda in 1994, where the Hutu-led government provided the weapons and logistics to the militias that did the killing, and the aim was the elimination of the Tutsi ethnic group. There had been atrocities at the local level leading up to the genocide (particularly in the north where the Tutsi RPF militia was fighting Rwandan government forces), but when the genocide started in earnest the violence was top-down and totalizing. Local-level violence prevention and peacebuilding methods weren’t going to stop that level of organized killing.

So where does this leave us now? If the goal is violence prevention, then we have to recognize where the local strategies work, and be willing to push for international intervention when necessary. Start by asking,”is the violence extrinsically motivated, and localized?” Are people fighting over a tangible thing (e.g. land, access to water, representation in government)? If so, there are going to be opportunities for local-level peacebuilding and violence prevention. Public information and discourse will play a major role in this kind of peacebuilding, and communication technology can have a significant positive multiplier effect. Is the violence extrinsic and national, for example election violence? This is where intervention from the international community probably needs to happen, but there’s also a large place for localized peacebuilding too. For example, peacekeepers might come to enforce stability but local level peacebuilding needs to happen if the gains from a ceasefire are going to hold up in communities. Communication technology can play a role in linking communities to each other, as well as providing a conduit for sharing needs and information with the national government and international intervenors.

What about intrinsically motivated national level violence? This where local solutions start to lose impact, especially when we’re talking about the violence being carried out by the state against a minority. At this point, it’s unlikely communication technologies are going to be much use; either they’ll amplify negative messages in an already politically volatile space, or they won’t matter as violence becomes ubiquitous. Large, international intervention becomes necessary at this point to force the sides apart and impose stability while a peace process is undertaken.

Localized peacebuilding and technology are at their most effective before large scale violence starts. Communication technology in particular can play a powerful role in connecting communities, and breaking down narratives that can reinforce the kinds of intrinsic, dehumanizing narratives of violence that open the door to genocide. When we think about ‘preventing genocide’ we actually need to be thinking about how we prevent or intervene in the small atrocities which build up to a Genocidal event, because once that event has started it’s too late.

Learnings from ISA

Another March, another ISA conference. 2014 has been good, especially since the networking and socializing was matched by excellent feedback on what I presented. The highlights:

What I thought was a failed experiment in getting Twitter to love me actually teased out some interesting methodological challenges that other panelists on the Crowdsourcing Violence panel faced. Basically, the problem is how to encourage participation in the crowd when there isn’t an emergency. Whether it was crowdsourcing using Twitter or crowdseeding using trusted reporters, we all faced a challenge in getting participants to respond. This makes crowdsourcing and crowdseeding difficult to use as research methods. It’ll be interesting seeing how we all approach this challenge in our different papers and projects, to see if there are ways that incentives or networks can be tapped to get more consistent participation.

My paper on using crowdsourcing to support peacekeeping operations also got some good feedback. The paper was my attempt to think about technology in the context of peacekeeping operations, as opposed to peacekeeping being responsive to the technology available (e.g. how do we avoid deploying a technology solution seeking a problem). I’m going to take this in an institutional analysis direction, and focus on interviews with peacekeeping staff and experts since there is a paucity of documentation on the few crowdsourcing and crowdseeding projects that have been undertaken by missions.

This was an overall excellent week, with solid panels, fascinating topics and good conversation. If you have thoughts or feedback on my papers, feel free to share in the comments section, or shoot me an email!

Kristof, Columbia, and the ‘Public Intellectual-Professor’: Part 2

Earlier this week I wrote the first half of this pair of posts, focusing on the problems in Nicholas Kristof’s piece on why professors should be more engaged in the public debate. I came down pretty hard on it, not because I disagree with the general sentiment (my doctoral research and interests are very policy relevant and I make an effort to be in the policy space as much as the academic), but because his logic was surprisingly faulty and he didn’t seem to have any understanding of the institutional culture and expectations of academia. In effect, he missed an opportunity to discuss the actual problems facing the academy, and how these prevent professors from being more publicly engaged.

Fortunately, Michelle Goldberg wrote an excellent rejoinder about the plight of two highly respected public intellectual-professors being let go after long careers with Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health for failing to raise 80% of their salaries in external grants. While Kristof went off on confused, ill-informed tangents about what makes an academic or academic field relevant in to the public space, Goldberg focused on what Kristof should have been writing about: the corporatization of universities, where pulling in external funding is the difference between having a job and not. Doing ground-breaking research counts for nothing it seems, unless you hit the your fundraising target. I’ll take this a step further; the problem facing universities and researchers isn’t just the outcome of bad business planning at the university level. It’s the politicization of research, and by extension validity and truth.

To start: I don’t have a problem with the idea of encouraging professors in research-oriented fields to seek external funding. Part of my dissertation studies were funded by money my dissertation supervisor pulled in; he was able to hire me as a research assistant when the department didn’t have funds immediately available to give me a stipend. At a much larger scale pulling in something like a National Science Foundation (or National Institutes of Health) grant can give a department the latitude to fund students (saving money in the core budget), hire post-docs, pay visiting scholars, and generally increase the capacity to do research. This can be a useful model for certain projects, especially in the natural sciences where the costs of equipment and logistics can run into the millions of dollars. But there’s a danger to universities placing a demand that professors raise significant portions of their salaries through external grants, while not maintaining core budgets to keep them on during lean times.

One is the business model. The Mailman School, like many large research schools, relies heavily on government research grants. These days its not good to be relying on federal research grants, especially if you’re in the social and behavioral sciences. If an academic institution decided to hitch its financial wagon to the soft money strategy of external funding, then politics in Washington is currently delivering a harsh lesson in how the political economy of ridiculous budget battles affects university staffing. But this isn’t merely a technical budgeting and forecasting issue; budgets and Federal spending don’t live in an otological bubble, disconnected from politics and popular sentiment. This is where Kristof fell off the wagon and Goldberg hit the nail on the head. To quote:

“Kristof is right that universities have become inhospitable places for public intellectuals, but he misses the ultimate cause. The real problem isn’t culture. It’s money.”

Basically it was the only thing Kristof was right about, which is why it’s unfortunate that he only dedicated one short paragraph at the beginning of his article to it. But it’s not just money, it’s the interplay between Congressional politics and how we proxy the public interest with Federal (and State) budgets. Congress is the policy representation of our societal id, and as Kristof notes there’s a strong current of anti-intellectualism in that id these days. This is where the political economy of how we define validity, truth and public good comes in, and why we’re in such a pickle even though at times we’ve been leaders in natural and social science research.

Let’s start with the obvious; a Senator or House member doesn’t get elected by telling their rabidly anti-intellectual constituents that they’re wrong or ignorant. They also don’t get elected by telling their corporate funders that truly empirical research based on first principles has indicated that their business model or industry is god-awful for the public good. In combination, this is a solid reason for a member of Congress to be unsupportive of Federally funded research, since most of it points out uncomfortable truths about our economic system, global warming, poverty, infrastructure, system of government, etc. But let’s assume that a member of congress really wanted to understand what was going on in all that natural and social science research. How many are trained to properly evaluate science (social and natural) research?

Thanks to Business Week, we can find out. In the House, we have 1 microbiologist, 2 engineers, and 1 physicist, out of 433. In the Senate, there’s 1 engineer, out of 100. That’s a grand total of 5 out of 533 members of the Legislative branch. It’s important that we know this, since Senator Tom Coburn passed a bill that effectively gives Congress the ability to pick and choose with research gets funded through the National Science Foundation. Essentially, Coburn politicized the process of scientific and empirical inquiry. Don’t like research about homeless people because it shows that your anti-poverty policy prescriptions are fanciful lies? You can cut funding for it. Running for office and your petroleum industry donors find climate research distasteful? No problem, you can eliminate that in that NSF funding stream. We have allowed politicians, only 1% of whom might be even remotely qualified to understand science research, to be the ones who decide what is worthy of scientific inquiry even if they have no idea what a P-value or co-linearity is.

This is what was so infuriating about Kristof’s article; while peddling insulting caricatures of zany academics and their ethereal models and theories, it failed to address the real problems facing academia and universities. Goldberg hit on the problem of funding and what it means for the vibrancy of a research community, but the problem goes farther than that. As a nation we’ve allowed ourselves to be duped into believing that we can be world leaders in research, commerce, and foreign policy among other things, while simultaneously dismantling and defunding the institutions that for the last 70 years have been key to our success.

Fundamentally this isn’t a problem of university funding structures or academics doing their jobs, those are just symptoms. At it’s core, this is a problem of an American society that has given into cynicism and handed the reigns to politicians who prey on fear and ignorance. The only way to beat this slump is to regain our national spirit of inquiry, adventure, and critical thinking, the exact things made us leaders in research and discovery for much of the last 70 years.

Kristof, Columbia, and the ‘Public Intellectual-Professor': Part 1

This will be a two-parter since there’s a lot in it. It’s been interesting reading the initial article about why professors need to be involved in public debate from Nicholas Kristof and seeing the rejoinders, particularly Michelle Goldbergs’ article about Columbia University’s decision to let two of their best professors of public health go. I’m a doctoral candidate whose research agenda is a hybrid between political science and public policy, and I haven’t decided yet on whether I want to go into academia or public policy, so I’ve found this debate interesting. Starting with Kristof, who I usually enjoy reading, I agreed with his sentiment at a meta level, but found the article generally ill-informed and at times oddly contradictory. Continue reading

New post on the TechChange blog!

I just had a new post go up on the TechChange blog – I haven’t written for them in a while, so it feels good to be writing for them again!

Here’s a brief intro, and you can read the rest here:

“In recent years, mobile phones have drawn tremendous interest from the conflict management community. Given the successful, high profile uses of mobile phone-based violence prevention in Kenya in voting during 2010 and 2013, what can the global peacebuilding community learn from Kenya’s application of mobile technology to promote peace in other conflict areas around the world? What are the social and political factors that explain why mobile phones can have a positive effect on conflict prevention efforts in general?…”

Nancy Ngo, one of the TechChange staff members helped get it written, so a big thanks to her for getting it up!

Samoa Post: End of semester observations

So I’ve been in Samoa for a semester now, working with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and getting things in order to do dissertation fieldwork. I’ll probably post again before the end of the year, but here are a few key themes that have emerged in conversation as I’ve developed relationships with my counterparts.

Continue reading