Archive for the ‘current events’ Category
The NYT reported on Sunday about horrid conditions among the 6,000 construction workers, mostly migrants, responsible for building a new campus at NYU Abu Dhabi. According to the Times,
Virtually every one said he had to pay recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages to get his job and had never been reimbursed. N.Y.U.’s list of labor values said that contractors are supposed to pay back all such fees. Most of the men described having to work 11 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, just to earn close to what they had originally been promised, despite a provision in the labor statement that overtime should be voluntary.
The men said they were not allowed to hold onto their passports, in spite of promises to the contrary. And the experiences of the BK Gulf strikers, a half dozen of whom were reached by The Times in their home countries, stand in contrast to the standard that all workers should have the right to redress labor disputes without “harassment, intimidation, or retaliation.”
Some men lived in squalor, 15 men to a room. The university said there should be no more than four.
“Not happy,” Munawar, a painter from Bangladesh who only gave one name declared, speaking in limited English. Back home, he said, they have lives, families. “Come here,” he concluded, “not happy.”
News about harsh labor conditions in the UAE is nothing new. But news that NYU is supporting it raises a whole new set of questions.
It looks like international branch campuses are here to stay. Major American and European universities realize that they have become not just educational institutions but “global brands.” NYU has perhaps gone farthest on this front, calling itself the “Global Network University,” but there are now more than 200 such campuses, with the center of gravity shifting from the Middle East to Asia.
These campuses raise a number of issues — about academic freedom, educational quality, and simple economic payoff. But what, outside of pulling a William F. Buckley and standing athwart history, yelling Stop, should those of us who care about universities do, when news like this comes along?
Certainly we should be holding NYU’s feet to the fire on this and other issues. The administration has apologized for the “troubling and unacceptable” abuses, but its plan “to try to correct, to the extent still possible, any lapses in compliance” sounds…well, less than compelling.
But it is hard to find points of leverage when the incentives for universities to look the other way — not just on this but on a whole host of issues — are so great. My thought at the moment: challenging universities’ tax-exempt status or access to federal aid are the ways to really get their attention.
One of the interesting features of post-WW2 international politics are tribunals that punish those who conduct genocides. The New Yorker has an interview with Thierry Cruvellier, who has a new book on his work documenting tribunals. For me, the most interesting part was the politics and incentives of these tribunals. On why genocides foreign sponsors escape:
Then, of course, there’s a more embarrassing reason these courts don’t go after foreign responsibility: judges and prosecutors don’t want to get into trouble with permanent members of the U.N. Security Council or Secretariat, which pays most of their salaries. It’s an obvious weakness of these tribunals, but perhaps it’s just not their function. Their credibility problem may lie much more in the poor quality of the investigations, and in the fact that only the weak are prosecuted.
The most shocking part of the interview was when they pointed out some thing I had never though of, but is obvious – the massive tendency to focus on right wing or authoritarian regimes and the near silence on left wing regimes (e.g, Maoism, the Soviets, etc):
You make the key point that the Duch trial was the first international tribunal case to address the crimes of Communism. The Rwanda and Yugoslavia courts, like the prosecutions at Nuremberg and Tokyo, dealt with crimes of ultra-nationalist regimes, which you identify as ideologies of the right. Only the Cambodia tribunal has addressed the crimes of the left, and you say that made human-rights lawyers notably uneasy. You say they had great difficulty addressing the connection between Communist ideology and systematic mass murder. You say that much of the tribunal crowd preferred to imagine the Khmer Rouge as noble until it went awry and became vile—and that some were outright fellow-travellers. For instance, the woman hired by the U.N. to handle Khmer Rouge victims at the Duch trial was an unrepentant Maoist. Why was that? And how did this sympathy for the left affect the general atmosphere of the trial?
There is a historical lineage between the far left and the human-rights movement. In the nineteen-sixties, after Stalin’s terror was widely acknowledged; in the seventies, after Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation of the Gulag; and then, finally, in the eighties, after the horrors of Pol Pot were fully revealed, many Western intellectuals moved from the discredited and disgraced Marxism-Leninism to the ideals of universal human rights. As opposed to the boredom of prosaic reforms, advocating for human rights is, in its own way, another grandiose and poetic enterprise where we, as a people, fight against exploiters. As the French philosopher Raymond Aron astutely noted, human rights, as a political philosophy, is based on a notion of purity. It’s not about taking responsibility for a decision “in unpredicted circumstances, based on incomplete knowledge”—that’s politics, said Aron. Instead, human rights function as a refuge for utopia.
What was interesting to observe at the Khmer Rouge tribunal was that former Western Maoists or fellow-travellers were not transformed, when they became disillusioned with Communism, into skeptical minds. They now presented themselves as human-rights defenders. The appeal of “pure” ideologies seemed irresistible to them. Revolutionaries get indignant about police abuse or ruthless capitalism, and then forgive, in the name of the revolution, every injustice they had otherwise denounced. Interestingly, the moral indignation of human-rights activists can suddenly be silenced when institutions that they helped create and that were supposed to exemplify their ideals—such as international war-crimes tribunals—start violating the very principles they have claimed to stand for. They say that criticism would serve the “enemies” of justice. They begin to accept that the end justifies the means. Double standards widely apply. The drive that often made them efficient when they worked in a hostile environment now, when they are empowered, transforms into an intransigence that can make them very insensitive to realities that don’t fit their ideological paradigm. International tribunals can be a harsh reminder that injustice and unfairness are not incompatible with humanist intentions.
At the Cambodia tribunal, a surprising number of Westerners who did not come from the far left also showed a level of sympathy for the “good intentions” of the Communist project. As a result, the trial was never going to be a trial of Communism as a political philosophy. Instead, it was all about Pol Potism, circumscribed and vilified as a despicable betrayal of a genuine revolutionary ideal. Such leniency would not be seen at trials against ideologies of the right.
There is much more. Highly recommended.
Gary Becker passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Becker was among the most influential economists in sociology. He was one of the first economists to use economic theories to explain social phenomena, leading the way for contemporary scholars like Steven Levitt. Interestingly, I think Becker was less influential in organizational theory, despite doing important work on human capital. Over on the evil twin blog, Peter Klein pays a nice tribute to Becker, mentioning his relationship to organizational economics.
Sociologist are fond of citing Becker for saying that he thought about transferring to sociology in grad school but that he found the subject “too difficult.” One thing that made Becker stand out from sociologists was that could simplify very complex problems/social phenomena – like discrimination – using a equilibrium model. This is not the sort of thing sociologists would do, and I suspect that most sociologists found the language he used to describe preference maximization offensive, but in a world of formal modeling and rational choice theory, Becker’s perspective was elegant. He helped create a tenuous bridge, along with Jim Coleman, between mathematical sociology and economics.
Reading his Nobel speech this afternoon, I was struck by this insight about the impossibility of Utopian dreams. Becker reminds us just how precious and valuable our time is, especially in a society where so many of our other wants and needs are satisfied.
Different constraints are decisive for different situations, but the most fundamental constraint is limited time. Economic and medical progress have greatly increased length of life, but not the physical flow of time itself, which always restricts everyone to twenty-four hours per day. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not. Thus, wants remain unsatisfied in rich countries as well as in poor ones. For while the growing abundance of goods may reduce the value of additional goods, time becomes more valuable as goods become more abundant. Utility maximization is of no relevance in a Utopia where everyone’s needs are fully satisfied, but the constant flow of time makes such a Utopia impossible.
If you were to summarize the Republican party’s collective memory about its leadership, it would go something like this:
- This dude named Lincoln totally ruled and crushed his enemies, but his one flaw was that he trampled state’s rights.
- [empty space]
- [empty space]
- [empty space]
- Jesus Christ, Reagan was awesome. Especially that part where exhumed Lenin’s body and spiked it atop the Brandenburg Gate.
- [empty space]
- [empty space]
- Mitt Romney
the guy we just nominated and who is the least insanerocks!
This is in contrast with the Democratic collective memory. You can’t expect people to remember every leader from 200 years and they’ll get some stuff wrong, but they actually remember the big ones. Jackson. Wilson. FDR. Kennedy. Even Carter and Clinton get the love. This isn’t to say that Democrats always get history right, but, at the very least, they seem to have a normal, flattering understanding of their history.
A few factors are at work in explaining the GOP’s collective amnesia. First, they’ve elected some real clunkers. Nixon, for example. Bush II will go down as a clunker and is already banned from polite conversation in the GOP. Second, there have been some insanely boring dudes in the GOP, like Calvin Coolidge.
But there’s a deeper reason, one that explains a lot of the memory loss. The GOP of 2014 is a radically different beast than the party of Lincoln. The original GOP was wealthy Northern interests + freedmen and their descendants. Thus, what used to be cool is no longer cool. For example, the presidential Republicans of the 1920s were relatively pro-Black. Not pro-integration in the modern sense, but they did believe that Blacks should have access to Federal jobs, education, and other resources. Also, the GOP wasn’t populist in the Palin/Cruz sense. You had some effective but insanely boring people like Dwight Eisenhower, who was popular at the time but now forgotten among the masses.
So, then, what’s the deal with Reagan? I think Reagan combines two traits: some genuine policy triumphs (e.g., nuclear disarmament) and he was willing to be populist. He also benefited from a historical accident. He happened to be president during the end of communism, an event he shaped but certainly didn’t cause. Thus, in the GOP’s collective memory, he comes off as a successful warrior and a populist.
I am an extremely strong believer in vaccinations. Vaccinations are low cost, low risk interventions that save millions of lives. After sanitation, you can’t find a procedure that is so effective and so important to our collective and individual well being. Still, there is a growing anti-vaccination movement, which is discussed in a recent Slate article about whether pediatricians should treat unvaccinated kids.
My answer: Sure, but pediatricians should parents of un-vaccinated kids the same way that professionals treat other “difficult” clients – a surcharge for being a difficult and increasing costs. In other words, by exposing other children in the clinic and at school to disease, you are increasing the costs of healthcare. Thus, the parent should bear the cost of healthcare. If each life of a child who dies from preventable infection is worth, say, a few million dollars, then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to charge a parent a few thousand extra dollars.
Bottom line: People are entitled to their own erroneous beliefs, but when it causes real harm to others, they should bear the cost. To do otherwise is folly.
Joeff Davis, Malachi Ritscher, Iraq War Protest, Chicago, 2003. Included in the project Malachi Ritscher by Public Collectors. Image taken from the Whitney 2014 Biennial Website.
Last week, while I was visiting CUNY, I made some time to get down to the Whitney Museum to see the Biennial. This year was notable because the show was split three ways. Each curator got her own floor and each took a wildly different approach. The fourth floor was given to Michelle Grabner, a professor and artist. That was probably the most jammed part of the show with art on the walls, floors, and ceiling. It was also the most educational. Basically, Grabner found artists who explored all kinds of materials. For example, Sheila Hicks, one of my favorite fabric artists made this huge rope column. There were also some interesting gems, like a few shiny abstract canvasses mottled with salt by Carissa Rodriguez. Each work was an education in what you could do with particular materials. The floors by Stuart Comer and Anthony Elms were about youth and what one might call “intellectual concerns:” ethnography, politics, etc. For example, there was some strong work dealing with gay subculture, such as Tony Green’s work, Paul P. ‘s watercolors and Elijah Burgher’s pencil drawings.
The critics constantly complained about the whole show. I think it is better to admit that art has massively expanded and that there are multiple centers of gravity. Overall, you’ll be overwhelmed, or bored by the spectacle. But if you slow down, you’ll find that there is a lot to be enjoyed depending on what you want from art.
For me, there was one very moving part of the show, an exhibit by the group Public Collectors dedicated to Malachi Ritscher. He was a Chicago resident who was an avid free jazz fan and antiwar activist. He was notable for two things. First, he created an extensive library of recordings from the Chicago creative music scene. Second, he killed himself in 2006. To protest the Iraq War, he lit himself on fire on the Kennedy Expressway. He recorded that as well.
Malachi’s life and my own crossed many times. I am also a free jazz fanatic and sat next to him many times. I would go to the shows that he recorded. I actually recognized some of the shows whose recordings are in the exhibit. I am pretty sure that I am at least in one them and I am certainly an audience member in many other recordings that are part of Malachi’s library. He documented me. A brooding graduate student, I never introduced myself. But still, he was part of my world.
Later, I would dedicate part of my academic career to recording the antiwar movement. I spent quite a bit of time going to major cities, like Chicago, and conducting surveys and long form interviews with activists. Malachi is probably recorded in my materials. Maybe he filled out a survey. Maybe he was interviewed by me or my research partner. Or, more likely, he is part of an audience that I documented with a photo or audio recording.
The Ritscher exhibit deeply moved me. Malachi and I cared about the same things. Malachi and I passed by each other many, many times over a nine year period. Our lives have been stamped by the city of Chicago and its culture. We were even employed by the same organization – the University of Chicago.
But our stories diverge. He chose a path that I find hard to understand. Faced with the brutality of war, he did something brutal to himself. I have not walked in his shoes, so I won’t pass judgment. All I’ll say is that I remain viscerally shocked by his death. I mourn the loss of him and his knowledge. I responded to the war in a different way. I became the documentarian, the recorder of events.
Ending this post is hard because there simply is no end. I just don’t know what to think of Malachi’s musical contribution, or his suicide, or the crossing of our paths. Perhaps all I can now is dig out my copy of Emancipation Proclamation, which of course, was recorded by Malachi Ritscher.