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We must design our lives…

September 16, 2011

From Jane Mansbridge in 1996

We need worry far less about the compromises we make between the good and the best or between the bad-but-livable and the better, when those compromises are, roughly speaking, utility-driven—when we are only giving up one good to get another.  But when we compromise with justice, we must design our lives and our institutions so that the justice that is compromised remains nagging, in the margin somewhere, in a bracket that does not go away, to pique our souls and goad us into future action.

 

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Inappropriate application

July 3, 2011

I just want to flag this as one of the clearest examples I know of a public policy being used for something completely different than what it was intended for.

I don’t have a lot to say beyond “this is a really terrible way to approach the problem of women using drugs during pregnancy,” so I’ll keep it short: most states have, in recent years, passed fetal homicide laws.  They were intended to be applied to third party attacks–most often by abusive male partners.  Instead, several states are using them to press criminal charges against women who use drugs during their pregnancy and miscarry.

Read it here.

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Stable Integration: how our assumptions shape reality

May 26, 2011

I just finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s incredible book about the Great Migration.  It deserves its own post (or three), but I’ll highlight one overlap here.  (Also, please don’t go back through the archives to see how long it has taken me to finish it.  And if you do, you should blame my semester and not the book).

In tracing the journey of one of her three main characters, Wilkerson writes about white flight from neighborhoods in the cities of the North.  She writes that while the arrival of black families was associated with decreases in housing prices, the decline worked almost exclusively through a mechanism of fear.  A whisper of black integration put neighborhoods into “real estate purgatory” that set off a downward cycle of anticipation in which no one would buy, rent prices fell in an attempt to attract poorer whites, homeowners sold for less than their home was worth to avoid getting “stuck,” and those who remained had no incentive to invest in or improve their properties.

Thus many white neighborhoods began declining before colored residents even arrived.  There emerged a perfect storm of nervous owners, falling prices, vacancies unfillable with white tenants or buyers, and a market of colored buyers who may not have been able to afford the neighborhood at first but now could with prices within their reach.  The arrival of colored home buyers was often the final verdict on a neighborhood’s falling property value rather than the cause of it” (376-7).

I recently read an article by Philip Nyden, Michael Maly, and John Lukehart from 1997 asking whether or not stable racially integrated neighborhoods exist in the United States.  In short, they do, and the article is worth reading if you have access to it.  But what really struck me was the slightly-updated-but-still-the-same-as-the-1950’s summary of the ways in which our assumptions shape reality:

…the persistent…misconception [is] that economically, racially, and ethnically mixed neighborhoods are inherently unstable and not viable.  For middle-income white homeowners and renters, racial or economic diversity is interpreted as a signal of neighborhood decline and imminent declines in housing values.  For lower-income groups, such diversity often flags the possibility of gentrification, increasing housing costs, and the concomitant displacement of low-income renters.

In both cases, those expectations shape what happens next.  On one hand, expecting decline, those who can get out.  On the other, expecting gentrification, potential buyers looking to make an investment start considering a neighborhood they wouldn’t have before—their very consideration inching prices up.

For me, there’s no doubt that personal prejudice still plays a significant role in perpetuating housing segregation.  But if we could get the market hysteria out of the equation, it’d certainly help.

Jonas

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Also from Crossen

May 26, 2011

Well, really Benjamin Barber via Crossen.

Contrast these two questions:

1. Do you want a drug rehabilitation center in your neighborhood?

2. Do you think that the community needs drug rehabilitation centers, and if so, would you accept one in your neighborhood if you were persuaded that the policy process by which the locations were chosen was participatory and fair?

Pollsters assume that people can only answer questions of private preference.  If people are constantly asked to evaluate public polices in terms of their prejudices, they unlearn the art of civic judgment.

I don’t really blame polls for the questionable quality of our collective civic judgment, but I do find it persuasive that our questions are probably incorrectly oriented, that we would be better of if we’d explicitly require people to separate out what they believe to be best for society from what they believe to be best for themselves.

Jonas

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The real “other side”

May 26, 2011

Every now and then, there are rumblings about passing a law that would prohibit unions from using member dues to make political contributions without the written permission of the member.  For those of us who’ve been exposed to the portrayal of unions as corrupt special interests (think The Wire, Season Three), this makes some sense.  I admit to thinking that I could see where the impulse for such legislation might come from when I first heard of it.  For me, the two sides were: constrain political contributions or don’t.

Flying Whale, not surprisingly, was able to put it in context much more quickly, responding, “Are we going to require shareholders to sign something before corporations can make political contributions too?”  For Flying Whale, the two sides were: constrain both opposing powers or neither.

Initially, I was confined to a narrower scope, that of limiting union corruption, when imagining the other side of the argument.  Flying Whale was working from a broader and, I think, more robust understanding–that the other side was really about keeping opposing powers balanced.

The conversation reminded me that I really do think it’s a skill to be able to see the real “other side,” not the one embedded in the frame someone else is using.

Cynthia Crossen’s book, Tainted Truth, of which I’ve admittedly only read a few chapters, really made this point for me.  In her discussion of polling, she explores how poll results are affected by question wording.  Old news, right?  But I was surprised by how difficult it was for me to spot the less egregious slants.  For example, in Chapter Five, Crossen explores the public opinion polling that surrounded the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal/accusation.  Regarding a question from a New York Times/CBS News poll:

“Some people say Anita Hill’s charges should not be taken seriously because she did not make them years ago at the time she said the incidents happened.” (So far, so good.  That, indeed, was a popular argument against Anita Hill’s case.) The question continues: “Other people say the charges should be taken seriously even though they were made for the first time just recently.”  This second sentence is supposed to be the other side of the coin–the reason Anita Hill should be taken seriously.  Instead, it simply restates the negative point–she took a long time to complain.  But what would the results have been if the second part of the question had read, “Other people say the charges should be taken seriously because women sometimes have reasons to delay reporting such behavior?”

Once Crossen points it out, it’s so clear.  But just the “Some people say…other people say” structure had me fooled into taking it as an even-handed question.

Knowing that you’re susceptible to being duped certainly helps, but I’m finding this to be a slow skill to acquire.

Jonas

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Three worth seeing

May 26, 2011

Inside Job

Persepolis

Night Catches Us

Jonas

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Black comedy with Alan Greenspan

March 31, 2011

A couple days ago, Financial Times gave some column-inches to Alan Greenspan to bash the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill. Not, of course, for being insufficient in its strictures (see Matt Taibbi for that), but rather for being too heavy-handed and market-distorting. The money statement, and the one that has elicited unending amounts of scorn and hilarious snark, is this:

Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global “invisible hand” has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

To which Dean Baker says,

Just in case you have forgotten, we have 25 million people who are unemployed, under-employed or have given up looking for work altogether because Alan Greenspan did not understand financial markets and the economy. Perhaps the FT will have a column offering advice on disaster management from Michael Brown.

Crooked Timber dedicates a whole post, plus a gazillion comments, to mocking the “with notable exceptions” thing. I haven’t read them all because the sheer number of them is overwhelming, but there’s some pretty funny stuff in there. “With notably rare exceptions, Germany remained largely at peace with its neighbors during the 20th century.”

It’s also interesting to note that the vast majority of commenters on the original FT piece are largely derisive of Greenspan, and of FT for giving him undeserved airtime.

Finally and more substantively, the thrust of Greenspan’s argument appears to be that the financial sector is just too complicated to be regulated. This is, needless to say, a troubling line of argument, but not one that’s entirely uncommon. In fact, World Bank President Bob Zoellick essentially made a similar argument when he gave a talk here last year, saying that he had the World Bank put pressure on the Basel III financial regulatory talks so that the resulting regulations would not be an “overreaction” that resulted in unintended consequences. About Dodd-Frank, Greenspan says:

The financial system on which Dodd-Frank is being imposed is far more complex than the lawmakers, and even most regulators, apparently contemplate. We will almost certainly end up with a number of regulatory inconsistencies whose consequences cannot be readily anticipated.

I understand the idea of unintended consequences as an argument against sweeping reforms, but when the system to be reformed is so thoroughly broken, one would think that something more than cautious baby steps is called for.

Flying Whale