Category Archives: Media

Obama’s Idealists

American Power in Theory and Practice
By Peter Beinart – In different ways, each book traces a narrative arc that begins with a vow, made in young adulthood, to use the United States’ might for good and ends with a sober realization about how hard fulfilling that vow actually is. For Rice, the arc begins with her failure, as a young NSC aide, to rouse the Clinton administration to halt the 1994 Rwandan genocide, after which she pledged “to go down fighting, if ever I saw another instance where I believed U.S. military intervention could . . . make a critical difference in saving large numbers of human lives.” For Power, it starts during her time as a war correspondent in Bosnia, where the besieged residents of Sarajevo asked her to “tell Clinton” about the horrors she had seen. For Rhodes, it begins with 9/11 and the Iraq war, which left him yearning to harness the idealism he felt the Bush administration had squandered.

In each book, three moments during the Obama administration play outsize roles in chastening this youthful idealism: the decision to bomb Libya in 2011, the decision not to bomb Syria in 2013, and the 2016 election.

The problem isn’t that Rice, Power, and Rhodes shade the truth to make themselves look good. To the contrary, all three are, at various points, admirably frank about their mistakes. The problem is that by refusing to reveal what happened behind closed doors, they fail to help readers understand what lessons to draw from the Libya debacle. Is the lesson that presidents who lack the stomach for nation building shouldn’t topple regimes? Is it that the United States needs greater diplomatic capacity? Is it that brutal dictatorships are better than failed states? By not explaining Libya’s lessons, liberal internationalists like Rice, Power, and Rhodes make it easier for nativist bigots like Trump to proffer a lesson of their own: that Washington should care less about people overseas, especially if they are not Christian or white.

In each, the saga of disillusionment reaches its nadir in 2016, with Russia’s electoral interference and Trump’s election. After witnessing the limits of the United States’ ability to defend democracy and human rights abroad, Rice, Power, and Rhodes realize to their horror the limits of its ability to defend those principles at home. When Obama asks Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, to issue a joint statement condemning Russian interference in the election, McConnell refuses, a move that Rhodes calls “staggeringly partisan and unpatriotic.”

Although none of the authors puts it this way, it’s possible to read their books not only as tales of tempered idealism but also as chronicles of America’s declining exceptionalism. In retrospect, the belief in democracy promotion and humanitarian intervention that Rice, Power, and Rhodes embraced early in their careers rested on a faith that democracy was stable at home. With that faith now eroded—and the United States battling its own rising tribalism, authoritarianism, and brutality—it is hard to imagine a book like Power’sA Problem From Hell,” a critique of the country’s repeated failure to stop genocide, becoming the sensation it did in 2002.

As Americans have grown more preoccupied with, and more pessimistic about, their own country’s moral condition, they have turned inward. As a young woman, Power helped expose concentration camps in Bosnia. Today’s young activists are exposing them in Texas. As of September, foreign policy has barely figured in the Democratic presidential debates. more>

Updates from Chicago Booth

Whistle-blowers act out of a sense of morality
By Alice G. Walton – Say you witness a coworker subtly misleading a client, or rounding off sales numbers in her favor. Do you report it, or not?

Chicago Booth postdoctoral scholar James A. Dungan, Boston College’s Liane Young, and Northwestern’s Adam Waytz looked at what goes into the calculation people make when considering whether to report bad behavior. Moral concerns figure highly, they find, above employees’ feelings about their employers, fear of reprisal, and satisfaction with the recognition and rewards they receive at their job.

To understand the factors that predict the likelihood of whistle-blowing, the researchers analyzed data from more than 42,000 participants in the ongoing Merit Principles Survey, which has polled US government employees since 1979, and which covers whistle-blowing. Respondents answer questions about their past experiences with unethical behavior, the approaches they’d take in dealing with future unethical behavior, and their personal characteristics, including their concern for others and their feelings about their organizations.

Concern for others was the strongest predictor of whistle-blowing, the researchers find. This was true both of people who had already blown the whistle on bad behavior and of people who expected they might in the future.

Loyalty to an immediate community—or ingroup, in psychological terms—was also linked to whistle-blowing, but in an inverse way. “The greater people’s concern for loyalty, the less likely they were to blow the whistle,” write the researchers.

Organizational factors—such as people’s perceptions about their employer, their concern for their job, and their level of motivation or engagement—were largely unconnected to whether people spoke up. more>

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Yes, contemporary capitalism can be compatible with liberal democracy

By William A. Galston – Ever since Aristotle examined the relationship between class structure and regimes of government, political scientists have understood that a strong middle class is the foundation of stable constitutional governance. The reason is straightforward: in societies divided into the rich few and the many poor, class warfare is inevitable.

The rich will use the state to defend what they have; the poor, to gain a bigger share. Sometimes this will be through majoritarian democracy, but is often led by a strongman claiming to act in the people’s name.

By contrast to either of these ambitions, the middle class tends more to prize the rule of law and to seek incremental rather than radical change.

Through much of human history, class structure was a product of chance and force, not policy. Because economic growth as we know it today existed neither in theory nor reality, economies were understood as zero-sum games. Political communities gained through plunder and conquest (or imperial tribute); economic classes gained through redistribution.

It is only during the past three centuries that long-term, secular economic growth, from which in principle all can gain, was conceptualized and realized as part of humankind’s lived experience.

There was nothing natural or automatic about this process. The vibrant markets on which growth depends are systems of rules backed by public power as well as social norms. Wise policies are needed to ensure that the fruits of growth are widely shared. When these conditions are satisfied, market economies tend to generate not only broad improvements in living standards but also growing middle classes that the poor can hope to enter.

Market-driven economic growth tends therefore to support constitutional governance in its modern form, combining elements of majoritarian democracy with protected individual rights and liberties. more>

What’s Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax worth?

By Isabel V. Sawhill and Christopher Pulliam – On both sides of the Atlantic, economic inequality has rocketed up the political agenda and inspired a new wave of populism. Wealth inequality is high and rising in the UK and staggeringly so in the US. The top 1% of American households now have more wealth than the bottom 90%. In the UK, the top 10% holds over half the wealth. The richest 400 individuals in the US average a net worth of $7.2 billion.

How did we get to this point? As Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital, famously argued, a capitalist economy left to its own devices will tend to produce not just inequality but ever-rising inequality of wealth – and the income derived from wealth. The main reason is because the returns earned on assets such as stocks and bonds normally exceed the growth of wages.

Imagine an economy with one capitalist and one wage earner. If the annual rate of return to financial assets is, say, 3%, but wages are only growing by 2%, more and more income ends up in the hands of the capitalist. Wealth then begets more wealth as the capitalist, not needing to spend all of his added income, adds to his existing wealth and reaps ever-growing income from that wealth. Unless a war or other shock destroys his wealth (think depression or the devastation in Europe after the Second World War), or government decides to tax it away, we end up with the rise in wealth inequality that we are now seeing in many rich countries – the US in particular.

There is something deeply disturbing about Piketty’s work. If one takes his thesis seriously, it means that the inequality of wealth and its corollary, income inequality, along with their continued growth, is the new normal. They are baked into a capitalist economy.

Of course, some financial capital gets invested in productive assets that help the economy grow. But productive investment and growth have slowed in recent decades, making it hard to argue that the rise in wealth at the top has benefited everyone. In the meantime, the accumulation of wealth in high-income households is one reason that income inequality is rising so sharply at the very top. While the richest 20% of US households, which benefit from a lot of human capital but not a lot of wealth, saw their market incomes rise by 96% between 1979 and 2016, the top 1% – which receives far more of their income from wealth – saw their incomes rise by a staggering 219%.

In short, growing wealth inequality spawns growing income inequality, so if we care about the latter, we cannot focus only on redistributing income. We need to tackle the accumulation of wealth as well.

What to do? Senator Elizabeth Warren, a serious contender for the US presidency, has proposed a wealth tax. more>

Hello From the Year 2050. We Avoided the Worst of Climate Change — But Everything Is Different

By Bill McKibben – Let’s imagine for a moment that we’ve reached the middle of the century. It’s 2050, and we have a moment to reflect—the climate fight remains the consuming battle of our age, but its most intense phase may be in our rearview mirror. And so we can look back to see how we might have managed to dramatically change our society and economy. We had no other choice.

There was a point after 2020 when we began to collectively realize a few basic things.

One, we weren’t getting out of this unscathed. Climate change, even in its early stages, had begun to hurt: watching a California city literally called Paradise turn into hell inside of two hours made it clear that all Americans were at risk. When you breathe wildfire smoke half the summer in your Silicon Valley fortress, or struggle to find insurance for your Florida beach house, doubt creeps in even for those who imagined they were immune.

Two, there were actually some solutions. By 2020, renewable energy was the cheapest way to generate electricity around the planet—in fact, the cheapest way there ever had been. The engineers had done their job, taking sun and wind from quirky backyard DIY projects to cutting-edge technology. Batteries had plummeted down the same cost curve as renewable energy, so the fact that the sun went down at night no longer mattered quite so much—you could store its rays to use later.

And the third realization? People began to understand that the biggest reason we weren’t making full, fast use of these new technologies was the political power of the fossil-fuel industry. Investigative journalists had exposed its three-decade campaign of denial and disinformation, and attorneys general and plaintiffs’ lawyers were beginning to pick them apart. And just in time. more>

‘American Factory’: It’s Not the Culture, It’s the Current

By Sunny Wang – Telling the story of a factory in Dayton, Ohio, that a Chinese manufacturer has invested in, the documentary “American Factory” has been gaining tons of attention in China. It’s currently #3 on the trending chart of documentaries on Tencent Video — a Chinese video streaming website with over 900 million monthly active users — as the only foreign documentary in top 10 of the chart.

The film offers clear views from both the Chinese and the Americans in the story, bringing out the unsettling conflict to the viewers – it’s not just about the differences between two cultures; it’s more about the conflict that comes with primitive accumulation of capital, the one that comes along with the changes taking place in the manufacturing industry.

I think this is a great metaphor describing how the Chinese workers are positioning themselves. The society is always moving forward; anyone standing still — not improving or educating themselves, or working extra hard constantly — can easily be left behind. Our current situation is even crueler than before, because we’re in the age of A.I. and automation, which would only accelerate the changes, or the “current” in this metaphor. The Chinese factory workers found their place in this “current” by being cost-efficient laborers in the manufacturing process — they chose to work harder to ensure high efficiency. But the conflict sets in on the other side of the ocean where automation outperforms labor at a lower cost.

As seen in the film, the working environment was dangerous, pay was low, and working shifts were long at FGA, yet the workers in the Dayton plant chose to stay and complain instead of leaving for better jobs that are safe, easy, and with better pay. Could it be because they didn’t have a choice? more>

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Violence, fabricated news, and responsible media

By Egemen Bağış – In history no medium of any kind has evolved as the way media has. From radio broadcasting to large box-sets, to today’s social media networks and online viewing capabilities.

In 1946, Darryl F. Zanuck, a powerful Hollywood producer at 20th Century Fox, said that television wouldn’t last because “people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” Today we can only smile with amazement at the sheer inaccuracy of this prediction.

Another prediction by British journalist, publisher, and politician C.P. Scott was slightly truer when he proclaimed, “Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it.” While it is not true that no good comes of media, it wouldn’t be a far-fetched call to assert that modern day mass media exposes society to violence, degradation, and vulgarity.

The effect of media is profound and far-reaching. It influences our values, our daily routines and even our thinking with our deep-seeded ideologies and beliefs. Also today media is much more accessible. Media is in our homes and our mobile phones.

It is through TV and internet that our communities are introduced with extreme visions of violence. Social media brings forth a steady stream of live atrocities at the touch of a finger. Video games teach our young how to handle weapons they would otherwise never even heard of. We must, therefore, take extra precautions to ensure that our families and communities do not get contaminated from this toxic fallout. more>

The Dictators’ Last Stand

differencebetween.netWhy the New Autocrats Are Weaker Than They Look
By Yascha Mounk – It has been a good decade for dictatorship. The global influence of the world’s most powerful authoritarian countries, China and Russia, has grown rapidly.

For the first time since the late nineteenth century, the cumulative GDP of autocracies now equals or exceeds that of Western liberal democracies. Even ideologically, autocrats appear to be on the offensive: at the G-20 summit in June, for instance, President Vladimir Putin dropped his normal pretense that Russia is living up to liberal democratic standards, declaring instead that “modern liberalism” has become “obsolete.”

Conversely, it has been a terrible decade for democracy. According to Freedom House, the world is now in the 13th consecutive year of a global democratic recession. Democracies have collapsed or eroded in every region, from Burundi to Hungary, Thailand to Venezuela. Most troubling of all, democratic institutions have proved to be surprisingly brittle in countries where they once seemed stable and secure.

In 2014, I suggested in these pages that a rising tide of populist parties and candidates could inflict serious damage on democratic institutions. At the time, my argument was widely contested. The scholarly consensus held that demagogues would never win power in the long-established democracies of North America and western Europe. And even if they did, they would be constrained by those countries’ strong institutions and vibrant civil societies.

Today, that old consensus is dead. The ascent of Donald Trump in the United States, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil has demonstrated that populists can indeed win power in some of the most affluent and long-established democracies in the world. And the rapid erosion of democracy in countries such as Hungary and Venezuela has shown that populists really can turn their countries into competitive authoritarian regimes or outright dictatorships. The controversial argument I made five years ago has become the conventional wisdom.

But this new consensus is now in danger of hardening into an equally misguided orthodoxy. Whereas scholars used to hope that it was only a matter of time until some of the world’s most powerful autocracies would be forced to democratize, they now concede too readily that these regimes have permanently solved the challenge of sustaining their legitimacy.

The new orthodoxy is especially misleading about the long-term future of governments that promise to return power to the people but instead erode democratic institutions. These populist dictatorships, in countries such as Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, share two important features: first, their rulers came to power by winning free and fair elections with an anti-elitist and anti-pluralist message. Second, these leaders subsequently used those victories to concentrate power in their own hands by weakening the independence of key institutions, such as the judiciary; curtailing the ability of opposition parties to organize; or undermining critical media outlets.

It is too early to conclude that the populist dictatorships that have arisen in many parts of the world in recent years will be able to sustain themselves in power forever. In the end, those who are subject to these oppressive regimes will likely grow determined to win back their freedom. more>

Let us now stop praising famous men (and women)

By David V Johnson – We live in an age of excessive praise for the wealthy and powerful. The upper echelons of society bathe in a sea of honors, awards and celebrity. We see it in the glossy magazines and at the so-called ideas festivals, where billionaires are fawned over for their bons mots. We applaud philanthropists for their largesse, even if their charity will do little ultimate good for society, and even if their conduct in acquiring their fortune was reprehensible. We commend them for dabbling in politics or pushing school reform, before we see any results, and even if we have reason to doubt the good that they will do.

To criticize our praise for the wealthy and powerful as excessive inevitably raises the question of meritocracy. To what extent do we live in a meritocracy, and is that a good or a bad thing? Meritocracy is a form of social organization that is founded on praise and blame. People signal who deserves power and status by praising them for their character, their talent, their productivity and their actions, and who merits demotion in status and power by blaming them for their vices, their ineptitude and their failings.

Insofar as people’s assessments of praise and blame are accurate, they will promote those deemed better up in the hierarchy of power and status, and demote those deemed worse down. Better people will do better things with their superior power and status. When the system works, we have an aristocracy – rule by the finest people. Or so thinkers from Aristotle onward have thought.

This system doesn’t work and can’t work on its own terms. Assessments of praise and blame tend to reflect existing hierarchies of power and status, thereby reifying them. This is because praise and blame have as much to do with the person judging as the person being judged. If everyone in a meritocracy wants to get ahead, assessments of praise and blame will be influenced by whatever helps people to get ahead – namely heaping praise on the powerful and respected, and castigating those without power and status. more>

This Is Your Brain on Nationalism

The Biology of Us and Them
By Robert Sapolsky – To understand the dynamics of human group identity, including the resurgence of nationalism—that potentially most destructive form of in-group bias—requires grasping the biological and cognitive underpinnings that shape them.

Such an analysis offers little grounds for optimism.

Our brains distinguish between in-group members and outsiders in a fraction of a second, and they encourage us to be kind to the former but hostile to the latter. These biases are automatic and unconscious and emerge at astonishingly young ages. They are, of course, arbitrary and often fluid.

Today’s “them” can become tomorrow’s “us.” But this is only poor consolation. Humans can rein in their instincts and build societies that divert group competition to arenas less destructive than warfare, yet the psychological bases for tribalism persist, even when people understand that their loyalty to their nation, skin color, god, or sports team is as random as the toss of a coin.

At the level of the human mind, little prevents new teammates from once again becoming tomorrow’s enemies.

The human mind’s propensity for us-versus-them thinking runs deep. Numerous careful studies have shown that the brain makes such distinctions automatically and with mind-boggling speed. Stick a volunteer in a brain scanner and quickly flash pictures of faces. Among typical white subjects in the scanner, the sight of a black man’s face activates the amygdala, a brain region central to emotions of fear and aggression, in under one-tenth of a second.

In most cases, the prefrontal cortex, a region crucial for impulse control and emotional regulation, springs into action a second or two later and silences the amygdala: “Don’t think that way, that’s not who I am.” Still, the initial reaction is usually one of fear, even among those who know better.

For all this pessimism, there is a crucial difference between humans and those warring chimps. The human tendency toward in-group bias runs deep, but it is relatively value-neutral. Although human biology makes the rapid, implicit formation of us-them dichotomies virtually inevitable, who counts as an outsider is not fixed. In fact, it can change in an instant. more>