Archive for October, 2010

h1

Rephrasing my critique of Sen

October 27, 2010

My previous post was a bit stream-of-consciousness, and I think I have a more comprehensible version somewhere in my brain. In a nutshell: I think Sen is too individual-oriented. His theory has no room for the fact that individual freedoms do not exist in a vacuum: they often conflict with each other. Given the nature of resource and power inequality in our world, if we were to try to magically give everyone freedom of self-determination, those with more resources and power would quickly infringe of the freedoms of those with less.

Or, to borrow an idea from a classmate, Sen seems to view freedom as a sort of public good, non-rivalrous and non-excludable. But any structural or power analysis would lead to the conclusion that freedom acts more like a private good: consumption of the good does reduce its availability for others. To believe otherwise would indicate either an extraordinarily optimistic view of human nature or a complete blindness to systems and structures.

Why does this matter in practice? Because changing what we measure from income to freedoms (or, to put it into indicator-ese, from GDP to HDI [for example]) isn’t enough. It’s a step in the right direction. But the world of development indicators and development practice needs an additional level of analysis, one that considers unequal power relationships and offers methods for mitigating or minimizing them.

Flying Whale

h1

A Step-by-Step of Hayes’ letter

October 22, 2010

Flying Whale has asked me to explain my take on Hayes’ letter in a bit more depth–both what makes it great and what keeps it from being even better.  So here goes:

On the good side:

The unqualified apology in the first sentence.  She doesn’t apologize if the cartoon offended anyone, she apologizes for publishing it.  Period.  And then at the end, she writes:

We erred and we’re sorry – not because of your response, but because we were wrong and would’ve been wrong even if nobody had said so.

She rehashes what the cartoon depicted without spin and writes that the problematic interpretation of the comic is an “easy” one, about as far away from accusing those who complained of “reading too much into things” as you can get.

She doesn’t offer those defending the comic a blank check of gratitude.  Rather, she challenges them to learn from this experience alongside the paper they were defending, writing:

And to those defending us: While we appreciate some of your arguments on our behalf, ladies and gentlemen, suggesting that someone was “asking for” rape is misguided and precisely the problem here.

And, best of all, this segment:

Women are so often told vicious little cautionary tales: “Don’t go walking alone in the dark, or you’ll get raped.” “Don’t wear short skirts, or you’ll get raped.” “Don’t get drunk, or you’ll get raped.” None of the women I know were raped because of something they did or didn’t do; they were raped because someone they trusted betrayed that trust.  Now, I’m angry with myself because [it’s] as if I’ve betrayed them and every other survivor of sexual assault.

First, an Amen to calling out those “vicious cautionary tales.”  But beyond that, the act of rape isn’t what creates a culture of rape.  It’s all the other seemingly less extreme things that–to use Bruininks’ words–condone or encourage sexual violence.  Here, Hayes’ makes that rhetorical connection, using the exact same vocabulary to describe men who rape and her actions in publishing the comic.  Rhetorically, she acknowledges that they’re connected to one another.

So let me emphasize one more time how great I thought the letter was.  But since you asked, there are a few things I didn’t like quite so much.

Hayes’ writes:

I am particularly angry with myself …While I’ve never been raped or sexually assaulted, one of my close friends was raped about two years ago.

The implication here is that she should have seen why the comic was problem because her good friend was raped.  There are a lot of reasons why that comic should never have been published.  Whether or not the editor personally knew someone who had been raped is not one of them.

In continuing to talk about her friend’s experience:

She never ended up reporting the incident to the police. I will never be persuaded that not reporting it wasn’t a mistake.

Hayes knows the details  the situation and I don’t.  But I don’t think its helpful to imply that a survivor should always go to the police.  There are lots of really really good reasons not to that don’t have anything to do with being in denial about whether or not you were raped.

And saving the worst for last, Hayes writes:

I’ve always been fortunate in that my male friends, coworkers and acquaintances are and have always been decent people. None of them would consider forcing themselves on another person.

I doubt that’s true.  Statistically, it’s unlikely.  And besides, it’s foolish to think that Hayes would even know whether a friend or coworker–never mind acquaintance–had ever perpetrated a sexual assault.  But more importantly, she’s saying that sexual assault doesn’t happen in her community.  But we know sexual assault happens in every community.  To say it doesn’t is to commit the same act of denial she accused her friend of in the paragraphs prior.

So.  That was a quick and incomplete run through, but I hope it makes my thinking a little more transparent.  Additions or challenges welcome.

Jonas

h1

Taking a moment to celebrate progress II

October 22, 2010

It’s hard to celebrate progress in the struggle against the rape culture of college campuses when a fraternity at Yale takes their pledges past women’s dorms shouting “no means yes, yes means anal” and university newspapers obliviously (?!) bring rape into their sex position of the week, but I think this apology is a really, really good one.

Maybe I’m naive, but I think real learning happened here.  Overdue learning, but learning nonetheless.

Read the whole apology.  Again, like Bruininks’ letter, it isn’t perfect.  But we’d all do well to bring that much humility and learning to every apology we make.

Jonas

h1

Taking a moment to celebrate progress

October 22, 2010

This is a heavy post to jump back in with.

The opening of the semester at the University of Minnesota saw three sexual assaults at fraternity houses in the first three weeks of school.  The letter that President Bruininks wrote was, honestly, better than I would have expected.  Excerpt below:

The recent allegations of sexual assault in the University community underscore both the awful impact of these actions on the victims and the responsibility we share for ensuring the safety of all our students, faculty, staff, and visitors. As president, I am deeply concerned and saddened by these reports, and my heart goes out to all who have experienced the physical and emotional impact of such violence. The University of Minnesota does not tolerate violence of any type anywhere on its campuses, and we will continue to take swift and decisive action, not only to investigate all such allegations, but also to provide support services to all those affected by sexual violence and make clear to everyone that sexual violence in any context is unacceptable.

We should acknowledge the existence of this problem in our culture—but we should also acknowledge the programs already in place to address it. The University’s Aurora Center provides support services and sexual and relationship violence education and prevention programs to all members of the University community. The Star Tribune recently highlighted the admirable efforts of a student group called Men Against Gender Violence, which seeks to communicate that most men do not participate in sexual violence, to confront those who do, and to address the behaviors that may passively condone or encourage sexual violence.

I want to personally thank all survivors of sexual violence who have exhibited incredible courage and reported their assaults.

Honestly, the letter surprised me.  I’ve come to expect a certain script from these kinds of letters–which often obligatorily acknowledge isolated incidents of sexual assault, but refuse to acknowledge the larger trend they are part of.

But to Bruininks’ credit, he didn’t.  He acknowledged how hard it is for women to report assaults.  He didn’t ask the university community to withhold judgment until law enforcement had time to investigate.  He didn’t implicitly blame the survivors who came forward by suggesting that women should use caution when drinking at parties (which several of the media stories did).  And he highlighted a student group whose founding is based on the fact that sexual violence is primarily perpetrated by men.

That’s four points in my book.

It’s not a perfect letter.  He acknowledged that sexual assault is a “problem in our culture,” but certainly didn’t dwell there long.  And he didn’t name that all three assaults were reported to have happened at fraternity houses.

But part of stubborn hopefulness is naming progress when we see it.

Jonas

h1

What’s missing from Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach

October 19, 2010

I first read Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom in undergrad 8 years ago or so. I thought it was brilliant, and I was never presented with any coherent critiques of Sen’s “capabilities approach”: that we should be looking at various kinds of freedom (not just political freedom and civil rights, but also freedom to make an adequate living, freedom to avoid premature death, etc), not just economic measures, as indicators for development. On its own, Development as Freedom is a cogent and well-argued plea for a more inclusive approach to development.

Rereading parts of it now, I can see what the critiques are (and a quick Google search of the literature largely confirmed my suspicions). I still think that Sen’s sophisticated reframing of the means and ends of development to focus on a vast array of human freedoms is incredibly useful. In his book, Sen doesn’t really provide any framework for action, but I do think that his redefinition what it is we should be measuring is a significant step forward. The capabilities approach seems much more holistic and humane than any traditional approach based solely on economic indicators.

That said, the step Sen doesn’t take is as important as the one he does. Sen offers no critique of the systems that have resulted in the unfreedoms he makes such a passionate case for fixing. In emphasizing individual agency and capabilities as the necessary unit of change, he seems to leave out any analysis of the structures that have caused underdevelopment and unfreedom. How are we to give people the freedoms they deserve without looking first at the systems, structures and institutions that perpetuate their unfreedom?

This is not to minimize the magnitude of Sen’s contribution to development thought – but I do think that it is necessary to expand the capabilities approach such that it does not merely look at agency in a vacuum, but also addresses larger macro-level concerns.

h1

Steelworkers FTW WTF

October 14, 2010

I was in the middle of a busy period of life when a month ago, the Steelworkers submitted a 5,800-page petition urging the Obama administration to file a WTO case again Chinese subsidies for green technologies. I just found out about it today. I got really pissed off.

The way USW is going about this is completely backwards. They’re accusing China of engaging in “illegal practices that stimulate and protect its domestic producers of green technology, ranging from wind and solar energy products to advanced batteries and energy-efficient vehicles.” This is a double whammy. Not only does it reinforce the frame that domestic industrial policy is bad and legitimizes the use of the WTO to attack such policy (and why the hell would USW want to advance that frame?!), it also is a slap in the face for climate activists who would probably like nothing more than to see China, the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter, invest in developing cleaner technologies.

To add insult to injury, this is all also completely hypocritical, since USW, as a founding member of the Blue-Green Alliance, would love to see massive U.S. investment in the domestic green economy. It’s a classic case of kicking away the ladder: denying developing countries the policy tools we want to be able to use ourselves.

What’s interesting is the Blue-Green Alliance statement on the USW petition. It’s decidedly lukewarm and avoids condemning China as an enemy engaging in “unfair practices.” I wonder what the politics behind the scenes here must have been like. In any case, I suspect this is a more useful position for progressives to adopt:

Today’s Section 301 petition filed by the United Steelworkers underscores the importance that the United States act quickly to take advantage of the job-creating opportunities of the clean energy economy. Every day America delays action is another day that China capitalizes on jobs created in the production of clean energy technologies that could and should be developed, manufactured, and installed in the United States.

This looks pretty different from USW’s condemnation of China using legitimate policy tools to promote their industries. There’s still the requisite vaguely nativist language, but instead of blaming China for doing what we should be doing, it puts the onus on U.S. policymakers to create our own industrial policy for the green economy – WTO legality be damned. This is a useful frame that USW has undermined: instead of thinking about what is and isn’t legal under the messed up WTO rules, we should be thinking about what policy goals we want to work towards, and if the WTO rules need to be changed to allow them, we should campaign for WTO reform.

(As an aside, interestingly, this week the Brookings/AEI green economy proposal came out, and even if it’s not something progressives can get behind, as Dani Rodrik pointed out, if this isn’t an industrial policy proposal, nothing is. And this coming from AEI!)

USW’s is exactly the kind of stance organized labor needs to not be taking in a modern world characterized by increasing interconnectedness and potentially imminent environmental catastrophe. We need a less provincial labor movement and more of a global working class consciousness in order to get anything done. Somewhere, Frances Fox Piven is saying, “I told you so.”

h1

Addendum from Daryll Ray

October 13, 2010

A couple years ago I saw a panel on which Daryll Ray, one of the co-authors of the report I cited in my last post, elaborated on his thoughts on ag subsidies. These are among the most interesting points in my notes, and in Econ 101 lingo to boot:

We have been subsidizing agriculture since the very beginning, as a society. We’ve always had specific agriculture programs – land distribution, land grant universities, extension services, all designed for agriculture to shift the supply curve to the right. Generally we shift it faster than the demand curve, and prices go down. In other industries, consumers buy more or producers produce less and prices go back up. In agriculture it doesn’t work that way. Consumers buy the same, prices stay low, producers produce more (farmers don’t produce enough to have an influence on the market; the only thing they can do is produce more), and prices get lower. We “fix” by direct payment to producers. This is not a real adjustment.

He concluded: “It is unrealistic to assume that just because we don’t like the program we have right now, that we don’t need a program. We need a program that keeps prices more consistent and at higher levels… if we don’t do that, it’s naive to think our farmers will reduce production and prices will rise globally. It doesn’t work that way.”