All Posts in the ‘Society’ Category


January 23rd, 2015 | By ken in Society | 2 Comments »

Recovering Our Capacity to Think

Faced with yet another massacre of innocents, we all too readily think of it as “senseless” or “insane.” If the acts are horrifying we sometimes think of them as “evil;” if just random they seem crazy. But those responses ignore that in every case they were motivated and planned by people who usually believed in what they were doing.

The Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs recently reminded us that “in most cases, terrorism is not rooted in insanity.” Shocked, caught off guard, we may not grasp the logic of it, but we automatically put it beyond our capacity to understand, if we label it as “crazy” – and “evil” takes us no further to understanding why.

Dr. Sachs reminds us: “it is more often an act of war, albeit war by the weak rather than by organized states and their armies.”

“Islamist terrorism is a reflection, indeed an extension, of today’s wars in the Middle East. And with the meddling of outside powers, those wars are becoming a single regional war – one that is continually morphing, expanding, and becoming increasingly violent.”

Looked at that way, terrorism is a random or loosely coordinated series of retaliations against an overwhelming and relentless campaign by the west to assert its interests. Millions of Muslim lives have been lost, human rights have been trampled, communities and families decimated, and this not to mention the cost to us.

To say this is not to take sides, nor is it to accept or forgive. Even seeing terrorists acts as “evil” does not absolve us of the need to grasp their motivation and meaning. It is simply to try to look at reality. Without blaming our selves for past aggressions or old mistakes, Sachs concludes: “Ending the terror of radical Islam will require ending the West’s wars for control in the Middle East.”

However justified our actions in the past may have been by our need to protect our interests, the good news he sees is that they are now changing.

The Age of Oil is gradually coming to an end. “We should make that end come faster: climate safety will require that we leave most fossil-fuel resources in the ground. Nor do the other ancient motives for Western interference apply any longer. The UK no longer needs to protect its trade routes to colonial India, and the US no longer needs a ring of military bases to contain the Soviet Union.”

To be sure, we have investments to protect. But if we think of it that way, we might be open to more rational cost/benefit calculations, and new policies that steer clear of attempts to control the middle-east.

There are other meanings to terrorist acts, and Sach’s ideas may be far from the last word on the subject. But it fair to say that one of the worst casualties of terrorism is our capacity to think clearly. When we are terrified, we tend to panic, and when we panic we just want to get out of the way of danger — or strike back. That’s usually the full extent of the mental activity that goes into our actions.

We need to do better than that.

Everything is PR

January 12th, 2015 | By ken in Society | 1 Comment »

The Weaponization of Information

We have gotten used to authoritarian regimes imposing “reality” on their subjects. George Orwell satirized this in his novel, 1984, labeling the techniques employed by the “thought police” as “newspeak” and “double think.” But what’s happening now in Russian politics is a step beyond that.

Vladislav Surkov is the author of “the new Russian system,” as recounted recently in The Atlantic, based on such postmodern ideas as “the breakdown of grand narratives, the impossibility of truth, how everything is only ‘simulacrum’ and ‘simulacra’.” Put somewhat more vulgarly: “Everything is PR.”

So he creates political parties, orchestrates demonstrations and book burnings, meets regularly with the heads of television channels to plan the news, decide who should be promoted or banned, crafting the language to be used. Certain key words are endlessly repeated to characterize the Putin regime: “stability,” “effective managers.”
He and his cohorts see themselves as “political technologists,” old fashioned viziers and Rasputins crossed with modern advertising consultants.

Such sophistication is “both cynical and enlightened,” advanced because it is based on the understanding that reality is ultimately unknowable. At the same time it is designed to confuse and mystify. As Orwell would have appreciated, it allows Surkov’s boss, Putin, to play his enemies against each other as he advances his agenda of totalitarian control.

The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing the opposition, “it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.

Commenting on this same phenomenon, Politico noted that for these technicians, Putin is “nothing more than a set of colored pixels on a screen, morphing as rapidly as a performance artist among his roles of soldier, lover, bare-chested hunter, business man, spy, tsar, superman. ‘The news is the incense by which we bless Putin’s actions, make him the president,’ [his] TV producers and spin-doctors liked to say.”

In the words of Russian media analyst Vassily Gatov: “If the 20th century was defined by the battle for freedom of information and against censorship, the 21st century will be defined by malevolent actors, states or corporations, abusing the right to freedom of information for quite other ends.”

The previous regime went to “great lengths to make their forgeries look convincing.” But “now the Kremlin doesn’t seem to care if it is caught: The aim is to confuse rather than convince, to trash the information space so the audience gives up looking for any truth amid the chaos.”

That means if a new George Orwell were to come along to skewer this latest attack on our capacity to think, we might not notice.


January 5th, 2015 | By ken in Society | No Comments »

What Are Our Scores?

It’s no surprise that retailers are searching to find potential customers all the time, enticing the profitable ones, avoiding the deadbeats. But most of us are unaware of how relentlessly and extensively we are being watched and evaluated as consumers – and how dangerous our ignorance of that practice can be.

Over 400 companies are in the business of compiling consumer data, scoring us, ranking us, and arranging us in list. And we usually never know.

For example, we have “e-scores,” ranking our value as internet customers, and “churn scores” that predict loyalty to our phone carriers or cable companies? There are job security scores that evaluate our risk of unemployment, affecting our ability to pay back loans. There are even charitable donor scores that foundations use to assess the likelihood of our giving large gifts.

The World Privacy Forum recently published a report, “The Scoring of America,” alerting us to the widespread practice and it dangers: “Consumer scores with secret factors, secret sources, and secret algorithms can be obnoxious, unaccountable, untrustworthy, and unauditable.” More: “Secret scores can be wrong, but no one may be able to find out that they are wrong or what the truth is,” adding that they “can hide discrimination, unfairness, and bias.”

According to the report, such scores are largely “unregulated either by the Fair Credit Reporting Act or the Equal Credit Opportunity Act,” arousing “issues of secrecy, fairness of underlying factors, use of consumer information such as race and ethnicity in predictive scores, accuracy, and the uptake in both use and ubiquity of these scores.”

Unnerving as this can be, the major problem is their secrecy. There is no way for the average consumer to find out their e-scores or their frailty scores or any of the ways they are being judged. That means, of course, no way to correct mistakes or protest unfair or biased judgments.

Not until 2000 did the ubiquity of credit scores become widely known, though banks and credit agencies were using them to evaluate us for years, approving and denying applications for credit for what often seemed – and sometimes was — arbitrary reasons. The revelation of those credit scores – along with stories of frequent abuses — eventually led to government regulation, and that now means greater reliability as well as transparency.

Frank Pasquale, whose book The Black Box Society is being published by Harvard, notes how lists are being compiled as well as scores: “lists of victims of sexual assault, and lists of people with sexually transmitted diseases. Lists of people who have Alzheimer’s, dementia and AIDS. Lists of the impotent and the depressed. There are lists of ‘impulse buyers.’ Lists of suckers. . . And lists of those deemed commercially undesirable because they live in or near trailer parks or nursing homes. Not to mention lists of people who have been accused of wrongdoing, even if they were not charged or convicted.” Just a few dollars a name, but there is no way to assess their accuracy or even to find out what lists you may be on.

We may not know our scores or exactly what lists we are on, but I think we all sense that it is not just the NSA that knows all about us. Our email accounts are regularly hacked, credit cards stolen, passwords copied.

There is no privacy and no more secrets.

False Positives

December 26th, 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments »

Mysteries of Employment

We tend to assume the opposite of a negative is a positive. The opposite of unemployment, for example, is employment. The rates of unemployment and employment should mirror each other, one goes down when the other goes up. But it turns out the relationship between the two is more peculiar than that.

According to a reporter for The New York Times who looked into the problem of unemployment for young men: “The basic facts are on display in the official government reports on the labor market. More [unemployed] young men are describing themselves as students; more older men are describing themselves as disabled or retired.” They slip away into other categories and disappear.

“The big surprise, however, was hearing so many men say they were out of work, in part, because there were jobs they would not take.” According to Lawrence F. Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard, “They are unhappy to be out of work and eager to find new jobs. They are struggling both with the loss of income and a loss of dignity. Their mental and physical health is suffering. Yet 44 percent of men in the survey said there were jobs in their area they could get but were not willing to take.”

The Times’s reporter quoted Philippe Bourgois, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania: “When the legal, entry-level economy isn’t providing a wage that allows someone a convincing and realistic option to become an adult — to go out and get married and form a household — it demoralizes them and shunts them into illegal economies . . . . It’s not a choice that has made them happy.”

“The long-run effects of this are very high,” said Professor Katz. “We could be losing the next generation of kids.”

It is no surprise that life without work is not easy. “In follow-up interviews,” according to The Times’ reporter, “about two dozen men described days spent mostly at home, chewing through dwindling resources, relying on friends, strangers and the federal government. The poll found that 30 percent had used food stamps, while 33 percent said they had taken food from a nonprofit or religious group.”

The point we have more difficulty computing is that sometimes employment can feel worse. Some jobs are available, but there are painful emotional dilemmas associated with taking them.

One dilemma, pointed out by the anthropologist, is that lower income means they cannot fulfill their obligations to support their families in those jobs. Related to that is the loss of status, the injury to pride and self-esteem associated with jobs for which they are overqualified. But even worse can be the loss of identity. One electrician commented that “Somebody asks you ‘What do you do?’ and I would say, ‘I’m an electrician.’ But now I say nothing. I’m not an electrician anymore.”

The bigger picture is that “Working, in America, is in decline.” The Times noted: “The share of prime-age men — those 25 to 54 years old — who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s.”

But the individual stories of humiliation, demoralization and disappointment are heart-breaking – and that may be one reason why the news is cast into the shade. We would rather not know.

Yet More Corruption in Banks

December 15th, 2014 | By ken in Society | No Comments »

The Broken Firewall

Several years ago, in my therapy, practice I saw a financial analyst with a major bank who agonized about the appearance of wrong-doing should he talk to a salesman about a pending stock offering. The problem was, some of the people in sales had information that could be useful to him.

But the rule was strict. There was a firewall between analysis and sales — for good reason. The part of the bank that sold financial products to its customers had a duty to be rigorous and fair to them about the value of those products, while the part of the bank that generated new offerings was committed to promoting the companies they underwrote. If the bank did not keep those two parts separate, there would be an unmistakable conflict of interest, and my analyst would run the risk of being called to task by the compliance department.

Turns out that he worried in vain. As Gretchen Morgenson pointed out in The New York Times yesterday in reporting on a fine levied on 10 firms for violations of this very principle.

“The rules are not a great mystery here,” Brad Bennett, chief of enforcement at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, said in an interview last week. “You cannot use the analyst to solicit investment banking business.” The reason for that is the same as it always was, notes Morgeson, adding that this “takes us back to the financial scandal of the early 2000s involving corrupt Wall Street research.
Remember that mess? Firms whose analysts were supposed to be impartial instead used their bullish stock recommendations to attract investment-banking business. The losers in the situation were investors who didn’t know that the analysts were biased and who heeded their calls to buy the shares.”

In the new case, according to Morgenson, analysts went all out to assist their banks to get the deal, one offering in an email to “crawl on broken glass” naked to get the deal. “Right now, my whole life is about posturing for the Toys R Us IPO,” he wrote in a subsequent message according to The Times.

Since crawling on broken glass is not illegal, this probably reflected the analyst’s youthful enthusiasm and desperation. More importantly, the client who put pressure on the banks making the public offering was hardly free of blame. According to The Times, “It required any firm wishing to underwrite its initial public offering to submit an investment banking pitch and company valuation that included deep involvement and support from the firm’s retailing analyst. The retailer went so far as to tell Merrill Lynch that its analyst’s view could influence what underwriting role it might receive in the deal.”

One of the company’s officials said, “Such pitches were intended to protect [the client], “from being ‘burned’ by an analyst’s decision to adopt a negative view” of the retailer after winning the investment banking business. But that’s just the point. To be true to his clients, the analyst has to be free to arrive at a “negative view.”

I’m not a lawyer, so I am not sure what rules or regulations the client’s action violated – whether they were co-conspirators or accessories – but it is hard to imagine that they were guiltless.

The stench is the sign of a corrupt system, and picking off individuals to prosecute will hardly fix that.