The Shifting Role of States

As the citizens of nations across every global region are slowly noticing, we too have entered an era of seismic changes in global power structures. In the past there had been the shrinkage of colonial empires, the building and rebuilding of infant nations and eventually, the worldwide strife between two massive hegemonic powers. When one of those powers, the Soviet Union, crumbled, it led Francis Fukuyama to claim famously—or infamously—in The End of History that the rest of history would simply be a process of democratizing the rest of the world. In the same essay, he dismissed the gravity of religions fundamentalism in a few sentences, yet this was not his most glaring oversight. In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that history will be shaped increasingly by organizations amassing power and acting independently of national governments, and these non-state actors do not always behave harmoniously.

Today, transnational organizations—corporations, nonprofits, hacktivist groups, special interests, ethnic-nationalist movements and religious organizations— have unprecedented power in shaping history. Today, ExxonMobil has an annual revenue larger that the GDP of the majority of countries in the world.

In Haiti, the Irish-owned, Jamaica-based telecom company Digicel unilaterally built over 50 schools, in addition to enabling reconstruction programs in way unparalleled by any organization (including the Haitian government) by getting Haitians to use digital funds through mobile banking rather than through banks. Still, the decentralization of power in changing the material world has not always been positive; in multiple regions of the world, banks and news websites have been brought down by groups acting independently of national governments, bringing the day to day life to a grinding halt in some cases.

With so much power transferring to non-state actors, the ability to cause wide-scale damage and the ability to build infrastructure and capacity will no longer be held primarily by governments. It is increasingly unlikely that New Deal style government programs will be the main shaping forces in the world. Due to decreasing costs in technology and the widening frontier of cyberspace, it is also increasingly likely that anonymous, hard-to-find, or false-flag attackers will ignite or exacerbate tensions between states, as exemplified by the recent events in North-East Asia (also here and here). In this new reality which offers us new, unbounded potential to grow and which simultaneously threatens us with unforeseen and unpredictable dangers, old power structures must acknowledge the changes around them and adapt.

In time, governments of sovereign nations must account for the reality that every type of power is becoming increasingly decentralized, and they must consciously direct their energies toward tempering and regulating the changes brought about by smaller organizations rather than trying to implement changes directly. In a world such as this, the governments of sovereign nations, whether they realize it or not, are being forced to rethink their roles or risk becoming irrelevant.

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Power and Perception

I’ve been neglecting this blog for quite a while now but I miss thinking analytically and putting it online. So I’m going to upload articles once a week at least; I have two in the back-log. It’s going to take me a few weeks to get back into writing well– by my own standards– but that’s fine with me.

This is an adapted short piece I wrote for one of the classes I’m taking on Coursera titled A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior taught by Duke Professor Dan Ariely.

In the field of International Development, countless programs and projects have failed because they were either improperly conceived or because they were inadequately implemented. The body of literature on this subject is immense (e.g. William Easterly’s books), although most failures have been explained in terms of cultural insensitivity, lack of funding, program-design faults, or indifference toward small populations with little political clout. There is still one overarching reason—one which often goes unnoticed— which also causes these same types of failure. This reason is that those who design projects— individuals in positions of power— are disposed toward thinking abstractly and less likely to think concretely. Thus, the discrepancy between abstractly-conceived policies and the concrete reality on the ground can result in a project failure that is improperly explained by other factors.

A specific example of this relates to poor police performance and corruption in India. In an effort to reform a police force that was generally ineffective, had a bad relationship with the public, and often corrupt, a series of reforms were implemented since 1977. While some of these reform efforts had some success, many of them were short-lived.

More recently, a team of researchers from the J-PAL lab at MIT found that police forces in the Indian state of Rajasthan regularly failed to register cases brought to their attention. The reason: performance was evaluated based on the number of unsolved cases they had—with fewer cases, fewer cases would be unsolved and their performance would appear better. Conceived abstractly the top, the method of determining success by considering a ratio of unsolved cases to solved cases may seem reasonable, but from the police on the ground, the solution was obvious: don’t register cases that are difficult to solve. This disconnect was not unique to registering cases; according to the researchers:

“while the senior police leadership consistently supported the reforms and gave orders for their implementation, police station staff gradually ceased to carry out the program elements, perhaps even going so far as to falsify the community observer records”

Beyond that, this disconnect between the abstract ideas of the powerful and the concrete details managed by those on the ground is not even unique to the field of International Development—for example, the US military is very aware that policies conceived by those at the top may be impossible or impractical when implemented, and they adjust accordingly. In fact, this disconnect is simply part of the way people think. In a way similar to how special cues can affect perception, studies have found that holding a position of power causes a person to think more abstractly and less concretely. In the studies, individuals in positions of power think more abstractly about both visual and verbal stimuli, and while this is often helpful, on certain tasks it can cause lower performance. In the real world, this means that the disconnect between high-power individuals and low-power individuals can lead to ineffective policies and systematic failures. In the case of the Rajasthan police force reformation efforts, this meant that policy changes conceived by individuals in high-power positions did not necessarily translate into real results at the bottom.

Since the worldviews of participants temporarily shifted to become more abstract or more concrete depending of if they were primed with high or low power, a similar process can work with the police force in Rajasthan and in other hierarchical structures. High-ranking individuals should seek to spend time on the ground— dealing with the concrete implementation issues of their decisions— whenever they are able, for they would certainly get a better grip on problems and feasibility issues that they could not see from their position of power.  Doing so would also allow them to shift their perspective as a result of the way perception is affected by spatial cues and would also get to perceive their efforts in a different light. The act of spending time lower on the ladder and closer to the ground could potentially save vast amounts of time and money by simply shifting a powerful individual’s perspective, something which those in positions of high power would surely be interested in.

Social Class: It’ll Kill You… Or Just Make You Short

It is often forgotten that the famous science-fiction writer H.G. Wells was an outspoken socialist in his day. Wells’ 1895 novella The Time Machine told the story of a man who invented a machine that allowed him to glimpse into the distant future— one in which the working classes and the bourgeoisie have evolved, divergently, into two separate species. One species lives above-ground and, having evolved from the “leisured class”, have grown childlike and carefree. The other, being continuously subjected to harsh working-class conditions, have become vicious and animal-like.

In reading The Time Machine, it becomes apparent that it was written as a social commentary rather than as a speculation about what the distant future may actually look like.

In fact the novella was something of a poetic exaggeration on an astute observation made by the prominent socialist and co-founder of Marxism, Friedrich Engels, a half century before.

Engels observed that individuals of lower income and lower class become physically different from those who are better-off. He pointed out that the class of an individual was apparent in that person’s height— shorter individuals were smaller because of malnourishment and health issues. Engels attributed this to the destitute material conditions of the working class. In The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844, he described the feebleness of working-class children:

“The children usually do not get enough to eat… [their] dwellings are bad and filthy, often so much so that they give rise to disease; and in spite of the not materially unhealthy work, the children are puny, weak, and, in many cases, severely crippled.”

As a result of poor living conditions and poverty, the mental faculties of lower classes were also compromised, Engels observed.

But it goes further— social class affects life expectancy too. An opinion piece published by the Brookings Institution mentioned a study which found, “white men and women who lack high school diplomas have seen a noticeable drop in life expectancy over the past three decades.” It also noted Continue reading

Is the Public Inherently Unscientific?

The public’s perception of health-related issues is all kinds of wrong.

There is a sizable list of the mental biases that shape our thinking each and every day, many of which have been studied extensively. These biases make people far less clear-thinkers than the rational actors that classical economists often like to believe we are.

The Availability Bias

Not all of these biases affect people equally. Certain biases are far more endemic among the public. One in particular kept revealing itself in almost all my observations of people: the Availability Heuristic. It is described on Wikipedia as:

“a mental shortcut that uses the ease with which examples come to mind to make judgments about the probability of events. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that, ‘if you can think of it, it must be important’.

Further down on that page, it is explained how worldviews can be warped by the media because of this mental shortcut:

“Media coverage can help fuel a person’s example bias with widespread and extensive coverage of unusual events, such as homicide or airline accidents, and less coverage of more routine, less sensational events, such as common diseases or car accidents. For example, when asked to rate the probability of a variety of causes of death, people tend to rate “newsworthy” events as more likely because they can more readily recall an example from memory.”

So to begin, I am simply explaining that coverage of an issue can make people think that that this issue is very important. Proximity (in both time and space—did it happen recently or is it very visible?) can also make people think that because an issue is so available, it is very important.

On that note, it should be remembered that media coverage of issues is far from perfect. Sensational stories that are guaranteed to receive high ratings are more likely published and talked about.

And unfortunately, selective reporting does not just occur in the news. It also happens before information even gets to the news in the first place, when scientific journals decide whether or not to publish research. If the research is surprising or has a big name behind it, it’s more likely to become well-known— regardless of it’s true. So that makes me ask, “Is the public inherently unscientific?”

That Enraging Stanford “Study” on Organic Foods

Stanford recently published a study on the comparative health benefits of organic foods. When this “study” swept the media, it did so with such force that it was hopeless to try to avoid it, if you didn’t live under a rock. It was on NPR, in my local newspaper, and I couldn’t stop hearing it mentioned on TV, all in the same day. And that was before going online to read the news. If you google ‘organic not healthier Stanford’ you get over 2.5million hits.

It was also a meta-study (a study which studies the findings of other studies—which is why I call it a “study”) with no new data and one giant, gaping flaw in its analysis. Continue reading

Walt Whitman, the Hope Deficit, and the Rebel Voice

America

by Walt Whitman
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

The forgotten, yet living American Spirit

Frederick Jackson Turner wrote the frontier thesis or the turner thesis. Natural American Spirits are cigarettes that hipsters like. Walt Whitman wrote leaves of grass, song of myself, america, pioneers, o pioneers! and volunteered as a medical nurse during the civil war. Partisanship, mainstream media, independent media and history are great. Grant was drunk for most of the war. Hemingway and the American spirit.

What is the American Spirit? It is a spirit that the poet Walt Whitman vitalized with his timeless, powerful words. But what is it? It’s hopefully more than a cigarette brand. I’d say that the American Spirit is a spirit of optimism, discovery, and the belief that our society thrives because of the pioneering, toiling works of each and every the individual that makes it up.

I’d say this because this spirit was well-analyzed in Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis of 1893 in which Turner explained that Americans— while encountering the frontier as they expanded westward— forged and crystallized their national identity(the text of his thesis available here).  The American identity became one of resilience, because the frontier was hostile; it became one of courage, because the frontier was vast; and it became one of autonomy, because the frontier was ungoverned and sparsely-populated.

And of course it became an eclectic spirit, constantly being influenced by waves and waves of immigration throughout its history. From this eclecticism, a unified spirit managed to emerge, and that is what was known as the American Spirit.

But today, the American Spirit is something we don’t hear about. Our nation appears to have lost every vestige of any widely-accepted, unified ideal.

Partisanship and group membership now dictate the spirit of each individual and this—taken to an extreme— has made us weak. The immigrant spirit is against the non-immigrant spirit; the Christian is against the non-Christian; those in business are against those concerned about the environment. And above all, there is the Democrat spirit pitted against the Republican spirit; one is supposedly based on fairness and equality while the other is supposedly based on rewarding hard work and personal effort.

It is apparent that these social and political ideals continue to divide us and continue to fail us because of the very divisions that they foment for the sake of their own survival.

It is also apparent that in the political sphere, fairness is not necessarily a substitute for reaping the rewards of hard work (both can exist at the same time) but our two major parties will do just about anything to prevent us—the American people and the only political body with real authority— from realizing that.

The reason for this is that we, the people, have not realized the immense power we hold. The people have not realized that the success of their nation is still in our hands and it is still very much our responsibility. There is still much hope, and while we will not hear about it if we only listen to the extremely powerful mainstream media who would probably prefer if we did not move to correct inequality issues but rather, remained terrified and glued to our media habits.

The Hope Deficit

The hope deficit and human interest stories. Negative and cynical mainstream media about occupy wall street. Media conglomerates and pussy riot. Maria Alyokhina is in pussy riot and putin sucks and is opressive. Increasing income inequality since reagan. Pussy riot and Maria Alyokhina free pussy riot.

There is a severe hope deficit in the media today. We hear about seemingly insurmountable national problems and cataclysmic global problems. To appease us, we are only given information about small victories, personal victories— like the little human interest stories at the end of a broadcast about student-geniuses or others like that.

While on a larger scale, there is little or no support for ongoing efforts focused on social change. The largest American media outlets in this country are still negative or cynical about large-scale, highly-symbolic efforts like Occupy Wall Street and speak about it in the past-tense, as if it is finished and can now be forgotten.

That same set of media companies constantly reminds that the people are not only powerless and incapable of organizing, but also hopeless and victimized. This leaves many feeling as if they do not have any say in the path of their nation the path is determined by factors outside their control and by individuals more privileged and powerful. It is an attitude of stagnation and indifference that has been created either by chance or on purpose. That’s the hope deficit.

Maria Alyokhina, a member of Pussy Riot (the Russian activist group/ punk band) beautifully articulated the nature of this attitude during Pussy Riot’s “trial”. Continue reading

It’s the Symbols, Stupid!

Of  all the countries that have been experiencing protests against Innocence of Muslims, the ones where these protests have been the most intense are the ones that experienced the most tumultuous uprisings during the Arab Spring (this link is awesome and interactive, by the way). This is not a coincidence.

With the Arab Spring, these populations realized the power that they held when it came to shaping their world.  They saw that wide-scale protests and civil action could actually bring about the beginnings of changes that they wanted to see. And, because this mechanism of social action was in place after the Arab Spring the stage was set for the immense uproar over something as seemingly-trivial as a laughably pathetic, bigoted film trailer.

But what we are seeing now in response to Innocence of Muslims is not a trivial occurrence at all— it is a symptomatic upheaval; a releasing of the pressure that has been building up between opposing ideals and the symbols that represent them. Continue reading

What the War on Terror should learn from the Fight against AIDS

In the early 2000s, a debate was raging about how to combat HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. The question was not asked in absolutes, but it was over whether either treatment or prevention should take up the majority of international donor money in combating the issue. Treatment consisted of offering subsidized antiretroviral drugs to those who had already had HIV, while prevention— as one would expect— entailed educating and promoting practices that prevented future cases.

The Debate

There were strong arguments made on both sides. On one side was a group of Harvard academics— including the well-known development economist Jeffrey Sachs, who was at Harvard at that time— who argued that Sub-Saharan nations needed to have their antiretroviral drugs purchased for them, so that they could address prevention after assisting those who were already ailing.

On the other side of the debate was Bill Gates and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation who argued that a larger part of the aid money must go toward prevention, since it was underfunded at that time. The rationale was that prevention early-on would reduce treatment costs of the future and make it more feasible.

How this played out

What ended up happening was that the money was primarily channeled into treatment. The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was created by the Bush Administration and only 20% of its funds was spent on prevention. Additionally, a trademark moralistic condition was added in: one-third of prevention money had to be directed to abstinence-only education, even though it had been shown to increase risky sexual behavior.

Only after some time was the preventative aspect of the fight was amped up. Without proper prevention, new HIV cases would potentially increase exponentially over time; the more that prevention was neglected, the more expensive and difficult the future problem of treatment became.  In 2008, under the Obama Administration, funding toward preventative measures was increased to 50% of the PEPFAR budget and the abstinence-only condition was removed. The shift toward prevention had also been gradually made by African nations themselves.

But prevention still needs to be extended. According to a recent report by the Gates Foundation, “New HIV infections have fallen by more than 20 percent in the past decade, but each year the newly infected outnumber those who gain access to treatment by two to one.”

That last fact alone has interesting implications because it signifies that both treatment and prevention need to work together— and in the proper proportions—if the problem is not to get out of hand.

The Take-Away

The War on Terror can gain some much-needed insight from the treatment vs. prevention debate. The basic idea of the War on Terror is to prevent attacks by dismantling groups on a macroscopic (organizational) level.

But when looked at on a microscopic (individual) level, it is actually an act of treatment: killing individual insurgent leaders so the effort cannot be organized. On this microscopic level, prevention is quite difficult when it comes to materials. Money, resources, and weapons are difficult to monitor and control these days, especially because relatively cheap commercial technologies can be made into destructive or disruptive weapons.

When considering ideals, however, prevention can be a useful tool. This form of prevention has not been addressed properly, despite the fact that winning the “battle of ideas” was acknowledged as a long-term goal in Bush’s 2006 National Strategy of Combating Terrorism. Instead, the complete opposite of prevention is happening: the terror problem is being perpetuated by the very efforts that seek to prevent it.

What do I mean? Well, Continue reading

The Distinct Taste of Information

EINSTEIN-2005

Imagine that you have just overheard a senior researcher at a prominent think tank in Washington asking his coworkers whether they’ve read the latest vampire erotica.

Or maybe you have overheard an employee in a fast-food restaurant saying to her fellow workers, “It may be quite enjoyable to all parties involved if we would come back to my place for ane a discussion about Pierre Bourdieu’s lectures and some aged whiskey that I’ve been saving for the proper occasion.”

These bits of conversation may sound like ridiculous non-sequiturs to you, and rightfully so. They would sound that way because every group of people in our society has a specific set of norms when it comes to taste preferences: in food and drink, information consumption, ‘proper’ language usage, dress, activities, and every other aspect of their lives. And we  have an astute sense for all of it.

I’ll be focusing on information consumption, since that’s what I’m all about.

Taste Preferences and Norms

Groups of people are not the same as social classes— groups are more specific than that. In each class there are thousands of groups, and many groups transgress class boundaries. For example, middle-class churchgoers in the Northeast are a specific group, distinct from middle-class churchgoers in the South or long-term unemployed churchgoers in the Northeast. As expected, each of these groups would have some variation in all their behaviors and what may be normal or admirable in one setting may cause people to throw you punches or strange looks in other settings. So far, this is something that most of us just know, but it gets interesting to delve into it.

It’s undeniably true that there is way too much information available than a person can take in, which makes it impossible for everyone to keep in touch with everything. It’s also pretty obvious— though often unnoticed— that the electronic devices that groups use to get their information and entertainment are more or less identical when it comes to what kind of information they can access. Having an iPad or a Droid in no way signifies what kind of group you belong to. Nope, instead, the difference is behavioral: the kind of information that you choose to access signifies what group you belong to.

General Categories of Information

I came up with 5 encompassing categories that encompass the various kinds of information we use:

1. Interpersonal and community information (basically, finding out about your friends and family)

2. Consumption and convenience information (shopping online, product information, maps and locations, finding goods and services)

3. Specialized information that directly relates to your field of work/study

4. Information that loses value over time (breaking news, pop-culture, entertainment—including sports, books, movies, and events)

5. Information that gains value over time (general knowledge, theoretical and concrete knowledge outside your field, ongoing issues) Continue reading

A Dangerous Precedent

English: SCRAB II target drone ready to launch...

The United States faces a profoundly vital, yet contested security situation in the world today. One prominent view— as exemplified by this Zenko and Cohen article— grossly underplays the increasing potential for conflict and the dangers of weapons proliferation across the world. Another prominent view on the opposite side of the debate is one of hysteria: many believe that there are inevitable attacks around every corner. More specifically, proponents of this viewpoint believe that nations such as Iran would certainly attack the US or Israel if they acquire nuclear arms, so a preemptive attack on Iran is the only reasonable choice. These views pale embarrassingly in front of a more sophisticated standpoint, one which comes from a preeminent authority on global and domestic security: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey. Dempsey describes the security situation of today as a security paradox, which he described in a speech to Harvard’s Kennedy School:

“I believe I’m chairman at a time that seems less dangerous but it’s actually more dangerous. That’s the essence of what I describe as a security paradox. Although geopolitical trends are ushering in greater levels of peace and stability worldwide, destructive technologies are available to a wider and more disparate pool of adversaries. Highly accurate ballistic missiles are prevalent in every theater. Bombs made out of fertilizer can defeat and destroy our toughest mine-resistant vehicles. A cyberattack could stop this society in its tracks. And these are real threats that we face today.

What truly concerns me as chairman is that these lethal and destructive technologies are proliferating in two directions. They’re proliferating horizontally across advanced militaries in the world, and they’re proliferating vertically, down to nonstate actors, especially insurgents, terrorist groups and even transnational organized crime. As a result, more people have the ability to harm us or deny us the ability to act than at any point in my life. And that’s the security paradox.”

You can read the rest of the speech here if you’re interested or watch it below. Dempsey is a very engaging speaker who makes it known that he received a degree in English Literature:

Dempsey continues to expound that in the future, the scope and scale of the US military must be tailored to fit the demands of evolving security situations, and it must be done on a leaner budget. He ends his address to the class by leaving the door open for future innovations and hopes for prudent leadership in this area of society, stating, “In the end, all of the strategy and supporting hardware in the world, though, doesn’t amount to anything if it doesn’t have high-quality leaders to lead it.”

As a result of this security paradox, the US military has been transforming the way it conducts military operations abroad. With shrinking budgets and war fatigue affecting most of the public, the Pentagon has become fascinated with a new war tool: the unmanned aerial vehicle. Continue reading