All posts by Sheila

Labels

A few days ago, Peggy left a profound comment about the cause of America’s currently unproductive public discourse. She wrote “The problem is actually in the labelling. Take the Democratic legislative priorities in Congress. If you just poll on the issues, urban and rural both approve of the voting rights bill, the infrastructure bill, and even the immigration (almost) reform bill. Only when you add the label Dem or GOP do they disagree.”

Let me share a recent illustration.

This week, our family is at the beach in South Carolina. We drive from Indianapolis (a long haul!!) and come in through Georgetown, SC. We typically stop on Front Street at Georgetown for lunch, and because we were meeting a cousin and we were a bit early, I shopped a bit. In one shop, I asked the owner what had happened to a similar store that was no longer there. She explained how the pandemic had hurt local retailing (which was already suffering), and we commiserated over the reluctance of people to be vaccinated.

Then she said something to the effect that “at least we aren’t Cuba–I hope Americans aren’t dumb enough to become socialists.” It was abundantly clear that she would not have been able to define “socialism” if her life had depended upon it.

And that’s our problem–right AND left. We throw labels around–often as epithets–because that relieves us of the need to actually know what we’re talking about. It explains the often-noted conundrum Peggy referenced between public opinion on particular issues and the same public’s rejection of those advocating for those issues: large majorities of Americans support Medicare, for example, but oppose “socialized” medicine.

As I have repeatedly noted, all functioning societies have mixed economies in which they “socialize” certain services and leave others to the private sector. We socialize–that is, communally provide–things like police and fire protection, public education (currently under attack), infrastructure (currently crumbling) and municipal services like garbage collection. We do so because we’ve concluded that the service is important and communal delivery is more cost-effective. National health care wouldn’t turn us into Cuba (nor, unfortunately, Denmark.)

Similarly, if you deconstruct the online diatribes I encounter against “Capitalism,” they mostly fail to distinguish between market economies and the corrupted corporatism that dominates in America these days.

As I have argued previously, labeling is not analysis. Worse, it gets in the way of thoughtful or productive discussion. The media’s default description of pretty much all public policies is “Left” or “Right.” That’s easy–and almost always misleading. In an era of tribalism and partisanship, the mere labeling of a proposal as either right or left eclipses any effort to ask the pertinent questions: does this make sense? Does this solve a real problem? Can we enforce it? Instead, the argument gets reduced to: “Who wins? Is this something those people support? If so, I don’t.”

With respect to those hysterical GOP accusations that Democrats are all “socialists,” I still quote a 2019 Paul Krugman column addressing the misuse of economic terminology:

The Democratic Party has clearly moved left in recent years, but none of the presidential candidates are anything close to being actual socialists — no, not even Bernie Sanders, whose embrace of the label is really more about branding (“I’m anti-establishment!”) than substance.

Nobody in these debates wants government ownership of the means of production, which is what socialism used to mean. Most of the candidates are, instead, what Europeans would call “social democrats”: advocates of a private-sector-driven economy, but with a stronger social safety net, enhanced bargaining power for workers and tighter regulation of corporate malfeasance. They want America to be more like Denmark, not more like Venezuela.

The foundational policy questions are: what is government for? What sorts of things do rational people believe government must–or should–do, and what sorts of things should a free country leave to the private sector? What sorts of rules should government establish to ensure that private economic activity is conducted fairly, and what sorts of regulatory activity is over-reaching? 

Labels are the refuge of the intellectually lazy. Evidently, a lot of Americans fall into that category.

Correlation Isn’t Causation–But It’s Suggestive

Well, well. Speaking of “emerging data,” as I frequently do, there’s some pretty fascinating information coming out about corporate boards and diversity.

I get a daily business/markets newsletter from Axios .A recent one compared the earnings of companies with different board compositions–the percentages of non-whites and women, and the largest age ranges of those sitting on the governing boards of those companies. (Click through to see a nifty little chart.) And while the report was careful to point out that the results showed correlation, not causation, those results were certainly intriguing.

By the numbers: As a cohort, the companies with more women on their boards saw the smallest year-over-year drop in revenue growth in 2020.

And a group of companies with board members whose ages spanned over 30 years saw an improvement in revenue growth compared to the prior year. The rest saw growth slow.

The businesses with at least 30% of seats filled by non-white executives saw a bigger jump in revenue growth. However, those that had between 20% and 30% non-white board executives fared worse than those with fewer non-white members.

BoardReady cautions that this data might be skewed because so few companies have enough non-white executives on their boards to meet that threshold.

 BoardReady used revenue as a yardstick — rather than profits or other markers— in order to avoid distortions of the data due to various adjustments companies made during the pandemic.

So far, efforts by legislators and regulators to encourage more diverse representation on corporate boards have had a relatively limited impact, although the numbers are inching up. (According to the report, women made up 28% of all S&P 500 corporate board members last year, up from 16% in 2010.)

A 2019 Webforum article written by one corporate executive makes the business case for increased inclusion and a broad definition of diversity:

We live in a complex, interconnected world where diversity, shaped by globalization and technological advance, forms the fabric of modern society. Notwithstanding this interconnectedness, there is also growing polarization – both in the physical and digital worlds – fuelled by identity politics and the resurgence of nationalist ideals.

Not surprisingly, our workplaces tend to mirror the sociocultural dynamics at play in our lives outside work. Having built and scaled a multinational enterprise over nearly two decades, I’ve learned that diversity in the workplace is an asset for both businesses and their employees, in its capacity to foster innovation, creativity and empathy in ways that homogeneous environments seldom do. Yet it takes careful nurturing and conscious orchestration to unleash the true potential of this invaluable asset.

In this era of globalization, diversity in the business environment is about more than gender, race and ethnicity. It now includes employees with diverse religious and political beliefs, education, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, cultures and even disabilities. Companies are discovering that, by supporting and promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace, they are gaining benefits that go beyond the optics.

The author argues that bringing together people of different ethnicities and different life experiences is a key driver of innovation, and he cites the increasingly varied foods we eat every day, the most  successful musical genres (jazz, rock’n’roll, hip-hop) and other innovative aspects of contemporary life as “products of cultural amalgamation.”

Of course–as data I’ve reported upon previously amply confirms–that’s the problem. Resistance to inclusion (not just in boardrooms but in venues of all kinds) is best understood as a visceral and very negative reaction to “cultural amalgamation.”

In fact, cultural amalgamation and the frantic resistance to it are at the root of most of the fault-lines that run through our politics, retard the diversification of boardrooms, and create and fuel social discord. Proponents of capitalism and market economies give lip service to their fidelity to the bottom line, but thus far most companies have turned out to be part of–or at least in thrall to– the cultural resistance.

Time will tell whether performance reports like these move the needle, and whether “It’s the economy, stupid” should really be “It’s the culture, stupid.”

 

Read This Book

Last week, I finished reading Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge. I highly recommend it.

The book is an extraordinarily readable primer on epistemology –how we humans know what we know, and a defense of the proposition that knowledge is a product of collective and institutional effort–what we might call the scientific method writ large. (As Rauch points out, knowledge is “a conversation, not a destination,” and falsification is an essential element in the development of knowledge.)

He begins with the thesis that the open society is defined by three social systems: economic, political, and epistemic, and that each of those systems handles social decision-making about resources, power, and truth. The book goes on to compare and contrast those social systems, and to connect today’s challenges to the long history of philosophical and scientific inquiries about the nature of reality, the differences between faith and fact, and the social and governmental importance of occupying the same “reality-based” community.

The book is also a stirring defense of free speech against assaults from both the  right (censorship) and the left (cancel culture).

Rauch warns that the real danger in a culture where lying is ubiquitous isn’t simply misdirection; it is the undermining of our ability to distinguish between fact and falsehood. As others have noted, the methodology of censorship has changed; today, rather than efforts to simply suppress uncongenial ideas (virtually impossible in our digital age), the tactic is to “flood the information zone with shit”–to confuse, undermine and paralyze rather than brainwash.

In the digital age, Rauch shares a concern that regular readers of this blog will recognize as  a preoccupation of mine–a concern that  the marketplace of ideas is in danger of being supplanted by a marketplace of realities.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the book is Rauch’s detailed explanation of why facts are–and must be– a social product.

Whether and where and how much of the time we think well thus depends not just on how biased we may be as individuals or even how we behave in unstructured groups; it also depends, crucially, on the design of the social environment in which we find ourselves. To phrase the point more bluntly: It’s the institutions, stupid.

As he says, our task is to create a” social environment which increases rightness and reduces wrongness.” Unlike our governmental constitution, the constitution of knowledge is unwritten, but no less important–it is a “social operating system” that aims to elicit co-operation and resolve differences on the “basis of rules rather than personal authority or tribal affiliation or brute force.” And he reminds us that information technology is very different from knowledge technology.

Information can be simply emitted, but knowledge, the product of a rich social interaction, must be achieved.

Rauch also reminds readers that all knowledge is necessarily provisional–that as we learn more, we revisit and refine what we “know” in light of new information and new knowledge, and that this inevitable impermanence can be very threatening to individuals who need bright lines and eternal truths.

Rauch concludes the discussion with advice on how the reality-based community can respond to and marginalize the trolls and virtue signalers and others who are using our new tools of communication to pollute the national discourse.

Speaking of that national discourse, I thought it was interesting to look at the ideological diversity of those who provided the inevitable jacket “blurbs” praising the book, because they represent a variety of (reality-based)political and social perspectives. Their range testifies to the objectivity of the content.

Bottom line, this is a truly important book, providing an essential overview of how humans know, how the “Constitution of Knowledge” overcomes individual errors and biases, allowing the collective “us” to distinguish between fact and fiction, and why that process is so essential to social construction and stability.

The foregoing description does a real disservice to the scope and richness of this book. You need to read it.

 

Abandoning Equivalence

A few days ago, over at Talking Points Memo Josh Marshall shared an important observation.  He was reporting on yet another asinine demand by yet another asinine Republican operative–in this case, the Chairman of the Republican party of Virginia, who wanted the University of Virginia to open an investigation into Professor Larry Sabato. Sabato is a noted and widely cited political observer; however, according to the Chairman of the “anti-cancel” party, Sabato’s “bitter partisanship.” violated  UVA’s ethical code and justified “cancelling” him. (Of course, he didn’t put it quite that way…)

The University responded, according to Marshall, “by telling the Virginia GOP, in so many words, to STFU.”

Another day, another example of hypocrisy and stupidity. It wouldn’t be worth a post, except for Marshall’s further insightful observation, which I am taking the liberty of quoting at some length.

Years ago – and in some case until quite recently – there was a group of commentators who the prestige news shows relied on for non-partisan, “both sides” commentary on the politics of the day. Two of the most visible – especially on shows like The NewsHour were Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann, two think tank political scientists from AEI and Brookings respectively. Another was presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Another was Larry Sabato. Ornstein and Mann tended to focus on the function of Congress; Beschloss, the presidency; Sabato, federal elections. But they each covered the full terrain of contemporary politics. If you go back through 20-plus years of my writing the Editors’ Blog you’ll probably find some criticism of each of them, almost certainly precisely because of this studious effort to see the country’s two political parties in equal terms and treat them as such, even as the evidence for that perspective steadily dwindled….

In the spring of 2012 Mann and Ornstein published an OpEd in The Washington Post: “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem“. The title speaks for itself but if you wanted more you could read the book that it was adapted from It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. Ornstein’s twitter feed is now so blistering in its criticism of contemporary conservatism and the GOP that it makes me blush. Beschloss now has a priceless Twitter feed made up largely of historical artifacts, photos, commemorations almost all of which function as subtweets of Trump, Trumpism or some related manifestation of the contemporary GOP.

Sabato was in many ways the final holdout. In an interview with The Richmond Times-Dispatch for an article about the state GOP investigation demand, Sabato chalked the shift up to Trump and the January 6th insurrection. “People had better pay attention because if they don’t, it’s going to happen again.”

These political pundits originally earned reputations as fair-minded, non-partisan political scientists translating research data for the edification of the public. Their whole “schtick” was even-handedness; they were political Joe Fridays confining themselves to “just the facts, ma’am.” They had–and still have– significant professional incentives to be “both-siders” to the greatest extent consistent with scholarly integrity.

So what has changed?

I suggest that what’s changed is political reality. We are at a point in America’s political life when people who actually know what they are talking about can no longer treat today’s GOP as a normal political party. Norman Ornstein was a Republican and to the best of my knowledge, he is still working for a conservative think-tank. Michael Beschloss always struck me as a bit right of center, although careful to maintain objectivity. Ditto Sabato, who never came across as anything but a studied fence-straddler. (Granted, these were my impressions, and may well have differed from the reactions of others.)

There comes a time when knowledgable people who were trained to be dispassionate (and incentivized to bend over backwards to be “balanced”) can no longer ignore the evidence.

We’re at that point.

 

 

Law And Order

According to Fox News and other Republican sources, America is experiencing a crime wave. Actually, we aren’t. What we are experiencing is a rise in homicides–almost entirely as a result of gun violence.

As a recent Guardian article explained: homicides were up across the US in 2020 and appeared to be primarily driven by rising gun violence. Other crimes, however, fell.

A preliminary government estimate shows a 25% single-year increase in killings in 2020. In some larger cities, the number of homicides has remained higher than usual through the early months of 2021.

While official national crime data will not be released for months, some trends are clear. The 2020 homicide increase happened across cities and towns of all sizes, from those with fewer than 10,000 residents to those with more than a million, according to preliminary FBI data.

The rise in homicides likely translated into an additional 4,000 to 5,000 people killed across the country compared with the year before, according to early estimates.

The increase in murder comes as robberies declined more than 10%, and rapes declined 14%. Overall, violent crime increased 3%. The obvious question is: why? Why is murder up while overall crime is down? And how worried should we be?

Some context is helpful: even with the rising homicide rates, Americans are safer than we have been historically.

And yet, even after an estimated 25% single-year increase in homicides, Americans overall are much less likely to be killed today than they were in the 1990s, and the homicide rate across big cities is still close to half what it was a quarter century ago.

New York City saw more than 2,200 killings in a single year in 1990, compared with 468 last year, according to city data. In the bigger picture, that’s a nearly 80% decrease.

Los Angeles saw more than 1,000 homicides a year in the early 1990s, compared with fewer than 350 last year.

Furthermore, the article quotes one scholar of crime for the observation that the increases in homicide are taking place in neighborhoods where homicides have traditionally been concentrated. The incidence is not spreading out.

The pandemic has clearly contributed.

There is some evidence that national factors, including the many stresses and disruptions of the pandemic, may have played a role in the 2020 homicide increase. The uptick was “widespread,” Rosenfeld said. In an analysis of big city crime trends for the nonprofit Council on Criminal Justice, “We found very few cities that did not experience pretty significant rises in homicide during 2020,” he said.

Whatever researchers ultimately determine, it is impossible to ignore the effect of America’s gun culture and the sheer number of weapons owned by our citizens.

A preprint study from researchers at the University of California, Davis, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, suggested that a spike in gun purchases during the early months of the pandemic was associated with a nearly 8% increase in gun violence from March through May, or 776 additional fatal and nonfatal shooting injuries nationwide. The researchers found that states that had lower levels of violent crime pre-Covid saw a stronger connection between additional gun purchases and more gun violence.

There has been a predictable effort to attribute the rise in homicides to criticisms of police, or to unrest blamed on Black Lives Matter, but the data simply doesn’t support those accusations.

Some police officials and their allies have asserted that last summer’s big, volatile protests against police violence diverted police resources and attention away from their normal patrols, and have suggested that demoralized, angry police officers might be less proactive or effective in dealing with violent crime.

But Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who writes extensively about homicide trends, examined 60 cities and found no correlation between the number of Black Lives Matter protests, and the size of a city’s homicide increase.

Rosenfeld cautioned that any policing-focused explanation for the homicide increase needed to explain why the change would have only affected serious and deadly violence.

“Most crime is down, including most felony, serious crime,” he said. “If the de-policing argument is correct, why did it only affect an uptick in violence and not other street crime?”

At this point, the stresses of the pandemic, especially on low-income neighborhoods, appear to be a significant cause of hostility and despair and “acting out.” But the easy availability of guns clearly was–and continues to be–an enormous factor.

I’ll believe Americans seriously want to reduce violence and homicides when we get serious about gun control. But I’m not holding my breath…