Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

common grounds politics

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In political life, we tend to see a few strategies. First, we see partisanship, which is simply a word for “I do what my team does and fight my team’s enemies.” That sets up life a zero-sum status contest. Second, we see ideological politics. People argue for politics from an abstract argument about what is demanded by their belief system. It also leads to a sort of zero sum politics as well. Any deviation from your belief is a decrease in the value in the policy. Also, ideological politics is tough unless you happen to have an already popular ideology. Ideologies entail lots of consequences that other people might not buy. Third, there is incrementalism, which is to find small, moderate policy improvements that are hard to dispute. Success is likely, but you can easily miss the big issues.

There is a fourth approach to politics that people don’t seem to take often: “common grounds politics.” Here’s how it works – survey the range of ethical systems that you are likely to encounter, such as liberalism, socialism, etc. Then focus on important issues that are fairly straightforward consequences of many, or even all, of these theories. In other words, common grounds politics is when you focus on important issues that are logically consistent with the stated ethical systems of most people you will encounter.

Let me give you an example of a policy that is common grounds and one policy that is not common grounds. I think that open borders is common grounds. It is an obvious application of egalitarian theory because we allow poor people to decrease inequality by getting jobs in industrialized nations. It should also be intuitively appealing to libertarians who favor free markets.  It is not hard to come up with arguments from conservative, socialist, and utilitarian perspectives. Also, you will notice that arguments against migration tend to invoke violations of most political belief systems. For example, should an egalitarian treat people differently just because they happen to be born in a different nation? Should a “social values” conservative support policies that make it hard for families to stay together? It’s not hard to see that open borders is a good candidate for common grounds politics.

In contrast, school privatization is not a common grounds issue. The reason, I think, is fairly obvious. The policy violates the principles of many ethical systems. For example, liberals are comfortable using the tool of taxation to redistribute resources in society and school spending is one way that is done. Conservatives are happy to use schools to promote religious values. You can come up with a utilitarian argument for why public schooling has positive benefits. I am not making a point about the validity of school privatization as a policy. I am only noting that you would need to do a lot of ethical argument in order to make most people buy into that policy.

I claim no originality for common grounds politics. In fact, this argument is a modification of Huemer’s meta-ethical position in The Problem of Authority. Huemer argued for radical libertarian politics from common grounds. He is trying to appeal a number of standard philosophical positions (e.g., Rawlsianism, Kantians, etc) to make a strong policy argument that is counter-intuitive to most people. I take a different approach. Start with people’s “folk morals” and then see what policies are consistent with that. There is no attempt to smuggle in an entirely new ethical system. Instead, look for that rare policy that is both important and obviously consistent with most people’s basic intuitions.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 14, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, philosophy

open borders day is today!


March 16 is Open Borders Day, the day where we draw attention to the right to peacefully move across national borders. The Open Borders position is that borders are unethical and have harsh consequences. March 16 was chosen because the Open Borders web site opened for business on that day two years ago. If you are interested in Open Borders Day, you might want to participate  in the following way:

  1. Tweet about Open Borders. #OpenBordersDay is our hashtag.
  2. Write a blog post.
  3. Use the image above as your banner image on Facebook.

If you participate in some other way, please email me and I’ll link to it.

I’ll wrap up this post by talking a little bit about why Open Borders is such an important issue. First, it is massive. We could easily and quickly lift millions of people out of poverty with the simple policy of not stopping people from migrating. Second, this is a policy that is consistent with most political beliefs. Hate inequality? Open the borders. Hate racism? Open the borders. Want to help abused women? Open the borders. Like free labor markets? Open the borders. Want to encourage families to stay together? Open the borders. Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians should all stand united for freedom of movement. Open borders!

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Written by fabiorojas

March 16, 2014 at 12:01 am

helping the victims of hurricane haiyan

The devastation is massive in the Philippines. What organizations need is money, so aid workers can be paid and supplies moved to the disaster area. Buzzfeed has a list of reputable organizations that are collecting funds. Thanks.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 12, 2013 at 4:42 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

IRB blues: s. venkatesh v. new york sex workers

A group of sex workers in New York city has openly criticized Sudhir Venkatesh’ recent ethnography of New York sex workers. There are many criticisms, one stands out for me. An article from the Museum of Sex blog relates how SWOP-NYC and SWANK, two sex worker groups thought that Venkatesh’ work increased the risk to prostitutes by reporting that clients could opt out of condoms for a 25% surcharge:

His conclusions, for example about large numbers sex workers advertising on Facebook, were easily shown by other researchers and commentators to be incorrect. Other conclusions such as the fiction that “there’s usually a 25% surcharge” to have sex without a condom not only bore no relationship to reality but also endangered sex workers and public health programs working with them.

 We were so concerned by what we uncovered that in October 2011we wrote a letter to the Columbia IRB to the Columbia University Institutional Review Board (IRB) and to the Sociology Department asking for some clarity about Sudhir Venkatesh’s research. Specifically, we asked for the research project titles, dates of research, and IRB approval numbers for each of the years he claimed to have conducted research while at Columbia University. We also wished to make Columbia University’s IRB and the Sociology Department aware of that the research appeared to create additional harms and risks for sex workers in the New York area. Our action is an example of the degree to which communities of sex workers have organized and the degree to which we will question research that we find harmful. We are no longer a “gift that keeps on giving” for Venkatesh, we are a community that speaks for itself.

For me, the IRB issue sticks out for legalistic reason. How exactly does a third party appeal to an IRB board? It’s obvious if the aggrieved person is a research subject. But what about third parties? Let’s say that SWOP & SWANK are correct that this book/article increases risk, what responsibility (if any) does an IRB board have?

The issue is unclear because IRB’s themselves are muddled institutions. They don’t operate through statute or contract. It’s an ad hoc administrative unit set up by universities to make sure research complies with federal guidelines. At most, they can inTterfere in research if you cross them. But they aren’t penal institutions – there’s no IRB police.  There’s no “human subjects 9-11.” Even though I am sympathetic to the claim that ethnographic publications may endanger at risk groups, it is unclear to me how third parties may leverage genuine concern into an actionable complaint.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 11, 2013 at 2:24 am

obama: the deportation president

The Right will remember Obama as a Godless Muslim Socialist.* The Left will remember him as He Who Brought Us Healthcare. Overseas, he may come to be known as the Great Snoop, or perhaps, Death from Above. But there are many in this country who will remember Obama as El Deportador.

According to sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza, Obama has headed one of the most intense waves of deportation in the history of the United States and the onus heavily falls on non-whites. Golash-Boza describes this in a recent Houston Chronicle op-ed (ungated version here):

The deportation of legal permanent residents has hit black immigrants particularly hard. Using data from the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Census Bureau, I calculated that one of every 12 Jamaican and Dominican male legal permanent residents has been deported since 1996.

The United States currently detains upwards of 30,000 immigrants per day, much as it imprisoned more than 120,000 people of Japanese origin during World War II without trials or other court processes. The Department of Homeland Security has broad discretion to arrest and detain any person they suspect does not have the legal right to be in the United States. People held under such detention do not have the same rights and safeguards as criminal suspects. They do not have the right to a speedy hearing before a judge nor do they have the right to appointed counsel.


in 2012, more than 400,000 people were deported. Nearly 100,000 of them were parents of U.S. citizens. Tens of thousands of these children will grow up in the United States knowing that the U.S. government has taken away their right to grow up with one or both of their parents.

Numerous commentators note that Obama’s administration has deported more people in five years than where deported in all eight years of Bush II and more than all previous administrations going back to 1892 (!!) :

According to current figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement — the federal agency responsible for deportations — Obama has removed 1.4 million people during his 42 months in office so far. Technically, that’s fewer than under George W. Bush, whose cumulative total was 2 million. But Bush’s number covers eight full years, which doesn’t allow an apples-to-apples comparison.

If you instead compare the two presidents’ monthly averages, it works out to 32,886 for Obama and 20,964 for Bush, putting Obama clearly in the lead. Bill Clinton is far behind with 869,676 total and 9,059 per month. All previous occupants of the White House going back to 1892 fell well short of the level of the three most recent presidents.


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* Yes, I know. The right isn’t known for its logical consistency.

Written by fabiorojas

October 29, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

my encounter with white nationalists

When you advocate Open Borders, you quickly run into a lot of opposition. Much of it is made in good faith. People do sincerely believe that society is a zero sum game. Let more people in, and someone has to suffer. I think view is in error, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly pernicious, and one can have a logical discussion about it.

However, there’s one type of immigration restrictionist that does not argue in good faith – the white nationalist. I encountered them when I set up the Open Borders contest website. People quickly signed up for the website and started posting racially charged images and comments. The tenor of discussion quickly went down hill – fake accounts and hysterical comment threads.

My interaction with these folks reminds me of a key argument in modern race and ethnicity scholarship. For many people, citizenship isn’t a legal category. It’s a social and racial category. “Real” Americans are white, for the most part. Non-whites, by definition, aren’t real citizens and don’t deserve the right to be part of the American community.

The blow up on the Open Borders logo contest site illustrates this well. A lot of restrictionists started posting images of white people killing themselves. Another popular image showed non-whites “invading” America; migration is “surrender.” The message is clear: racial mixing, via unrestricted migration, leads to racial death.

The deeper lesson for Open Borders advocates is that migration taps into both genuine policy issues and emotionally charged racial attitudes. On policy, I feel confident. Migration will not bankrupt us, or lead us into chaos. On emotions, open borders activists should try to bring racial attitudes out in the open so people can see that some opposition to migration is often rooted in less than honorable motives.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 18, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

open borders logo contest finalists

The Open Borders website is hosting a logo contest. Here’s the link to the finalists. Take a look and tell us what you think. The prize, $200, goes to the person whose logo embodies the right of free movement. We favor entries that can easily reproduced on signs, posters, websites, and other materials.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 16, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

three cheers for PLOS ONE!

Disclaimer: I’ve been a long time advocate for journals like PLoS One and I have an article that’s working its way through that journal, which I will shamelessly self-promote at a later time.

Last week, John Bohannon announced a hoax. He intentionally wrote an obviously flawed article on cancer research and submitted it to a bunch of open access journals. About two thirds of the journals accepted the paper. I’m glad these folks exposed such chicanery. Once you’ve been in academia for a few years, you quickly learn that there’s a lot of publishers who have no scruples. The sting even caught journals managed by “legitimate” vendors such as Elsevier.  Bring the sunlight.

Interestingly, one of the journals that did not fall for the hoax was the much maligned PLOS ONE (e.g., Andrew Gelman recently called it a “crap journal“).  From Bohannon’s article:

The rejections tell a story of their own. Some open-access journals that have been criticized for poor quality control provided the most rigorous peer review of all. For example, the flagship journal of the Public Library of Science, PLOS ONE, was the only journal that called attention to the paper’s potential ethical problems, such as its lack of documentation about the treatment of animals used to generate cells for the experiment. The journal meticulously checked with the fictional authors that this and other prerequisites of a proper scientific study were met before sending it out for review. PLOS ONE rejected the paper 2 weeks later on the basis of its scientific quality.

Good for them. This  speaks well of the PLOS ONE model. Normally, journals employ two criteria – technical competence (“is this study correctly carried out?”) and impact (“how important do we think this study is?”). PLoS sticks with the first criteria while rejecting the second. It’s an experiment that asks: “What happens when a journal publishes technically correct articles, but lets the scientific community – not the editors – decide what is important?”

Now we have part of the answer. A forum that drops editorial taste can still retain scientific integrity. By meticulously sticking to scientific procedure, bad science is likely to be weeded. And you’d be surprised how much gets weeded. Even though PLOS ONE is not competitive in any normal sense of the word, it still rejects over 30% of all submissions. In other words, almost one in three articles does not meet even the most basic standards of scientific competence.

Well managed open access journals like PLOS ONE will never replace traditional journals because we really do want juries to pick out winners. But having a platform where scientists can “let the people decide” is a good thing.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 8, 2013 at 12:01 am

what douthat gets right and wrong about conservative politics

In a recent essay in the NY Times, Ross Douthat explains the motivations behind conservative politics. This clip nicely summarizes the issue:

… For the American mainstream — moderate and apolitical as well as liberal — the Reagan era really was a kind of conservative answer to the New Deal era: A period when the right’s ideas were ascendant, its constituencies empowered, its favored policies pursued. But to many on the right, for the reasons the Frum of “Dead Right” suggested, it was something much more limited and fragmented and incomplete: A period when their side held power, yes, but one in which the framework and assumptions of politics remained essentially left-of-center, because the administrative state was curbed but barely rolled back, and the institutions and programs of New Deal and Great Society liberalism endured more or less intact.

I think that’s a good summary … for one small part of the conservative movement. And it is true. There is definitely an anti-statist element of the modern conservative coalition. There are people who genuinely think that more services should be shifted to the private sector and that the size of the tax obligation and the federal government should be shrunk.

However, the committed anti-statist part of the conservative coalition is only a small part of the story. When we take a broad look at policy, we see that conservatives routinely support all kinds of government services. For example, calls for shrinking government almost always exclude the military. Then, if we look at Medicare we find that conservative voters do not favor privatization. In other areas, conservatives have no problem expanding the size of government – building walls on the Mexican border, jailing millions of African American for drug possession, or creating more and more regulation of reproductive medical procedures such as abortion, stem cell research, and birth control. All of these require massive intrusions on the safety and privacy of millions of people who are doing no wrong to others.

So what’s the real story? I think it’s fairly simple. Committed anti-statists are the “beard” for other factions that really don’t care about the size of government. A theory of personal liberty is important and draws attention from what might be the ulterior goal. And these other factions have all kinds of goals. National security conservatives love war because it shows that they’re tough. Social conservatives simply want to roll back, or circumvent, the progress made by women, minorities, LBGT people, immigrants, and other groups that were openly repressed and discriminated against in previous eras. And there’s what I call the business conservative, who just wants tax breaks and could care less about anti-gay crusades, but has to tolerate the social conservatives in order to get these perks.

Whenever I hear a conservative claim they are for liberty or limited government, I’m always a little skeptical. The arguments for liberty, tolerance, and protection from government harassment apply to themselves, and others like them, but are rarely applied with the same vigor to people or social practices they find distasteful. The bottom line is that I’m willing to engage with writers like Ross Douthat, but not until they tell their fellow travelers that gays and Mexicans are really nothing to worry about.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 4, 2013 at 12:01 am

ethics of the syrian war

When I think about war, I start with the following truism: “War” is another name for the mass murder of other human beings, many of whom are innocent of wrong doing. Therefore, we should only conduct war if there is an overwhelming need to do so.

As you might guess, I am extremely skeptical of war in general. I argue that we should only kill large numbers of people if:

  • Our nation is directly threatened with violence.
  • There is a clear and plausible reason to believe that killing many people will make the situation better and it is the only option.
  • There is a clear and plausible reason to believe that we aren’t making things worse.

With respect to Syria, there is no direct threat to the United States. On the second and third count, it is not clear to me how war will fix things. It is easy to believe that the US armed forces could disable the Syrian military, but does that mean that Syria will be a safe from tyranny? Unclear. Does that mean that peace loving democrats will come to power? Unclear. Could there be a situation where we make bad people even more powerful? Like we did in Afghanistan (the first time), or in Afghanistan (the second time)? Or in the many other nations we’ve intervened in like Haiti or Lebanon, where bad people later came to power? Unclear. Does that mean that there won’t be a subsequent government that would threaten our allies? Unclear.

In other words, civilized people have long recognized that the Syrian state is repressive and evil. And their recent behavior supports this view. But that’s way different than saying that intervention will very likely lead to a better situation, or that the benefit we create will outweigh the violent death of innocent bystanders. Syria is burning, but there is no  magic solution, especially the one dropped from a high altitude aircraft.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 5, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

some open borders entries

Over the Open Borders Logo Contest, on Facebook, we have some nice entries. A few samples:


Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

August 31, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

a new funding model – what the asa can do

The shoe has dropped for the political scientists. The NSF has suspended funding, probably out fear of Congress.

My take away? Don’t be so dependent on one customer. Sociology doesn’t get that much from NSF anyway, but we should think about alternate sources.

Here’s a simple idea. Why not take all that sweet ASR subscription money and funnel it into an ASA controlled foundation that supports sociological research? That way, we have independence.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 9, 2013 at 12:04 am

open borders logo contest

The Open Borders movement seeks a symbol that embodies the spirit of free migration. To achieve that goal, we are sponsoring a logo contest. The winner of this contest will get $200 and their design will become the official logo of the Open Borders web site.

  • The goal: Create a simple logo, like the peace sign, that represents free migration.
  • How to enter: Go to the Open Borders Logo Contest Facebook page and post your image. Join the group and send me  a message so I can add you. Then, you can post.
  • The criteria for selection: We seek something that is simple and powerful. Think of an image that a person with little artistic skill could paint on a sign or banner.
  • Who will choose the winner: The Open Borders website editors and the contest sponsors (Bryan Caplan and myself).
  • The winner will be announced on October 1, 2013 or later.

All contestants will retain the rights to their design. The winner will allow the Open Borders  website to use the image indefinitely in exchange for the prize money. The winner will allow others to use the image as long as they do so in a non-profit manner.  In other words, the winner is free to use the image for their own benefit, but they’ll allow it to be used for Open Borders signs, banners, websites, and the like at no cost.

UPDATE: Although this is not a precondition of participation, it is recommended that you consider releasing your image under one of the Creative Commons licenses. Creative Commons licenses are often used for publishing artwork and images over the web in a manner that facilitates reuse while preserving selected rights of the author.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 6, 2013 at 12:36 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

garry davis – open borders hero

I didn’t know anything about Garry Davis until I read his obituary in the LA Times. Early in his life he renounced his US passport and tried to travel the world. He also helped people who were without passports and was an advocate of free travel and migration.

Why? His experience in world war two made him realize the absurdity of nationalism:

However, he lost interest in show business when his older brother Bud was killed in action on a U.S. destroyer off Italy during World War II.

“I prayed for a chance to exact revenge,” he recalled in his 1961 autobiography, “My Country is the World: The Adventures of a World Citizen.”

But after a stint as an Army aviator, he came to regret the bombing runs he made over Germany.

“Ever since my first mission over Brandenburg, I had felt pangs of conscience,” he wrote. “How many men, women and children had I murdered?”

The question so tormented him that he showed up at the American Embassy in Paris on May 25, 1948, to give up his U.S. citizenship and establish himself as a citizen of the world.

One of  his last acts was trying to get Edward Snowden a “citizen of the world” passport. I doubt it would have helped Snowden, but these documents apparently have helped many people move freely and escape oppression.

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Written by fabiorojas

August 2, 2013 at 3:33 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

open borders – a simplified argument

Here’s how I would present the basic arguments for open borders:

  1. Closed borders are immoral: Imagine if I stood in front of the local Olive Garden and built an electric fence because I didn’t want some people to get jobs washing dishes there. Sounds crazy, right? It’s equally crazy to ask the government to do the same with a fence at the Mexican border.
  2. Immigration may be a problem in theory, but not in practice: Theoretically, I can present all kinds problems. Maybe people won’t assimilate. Maybe they’ll bankrupt the state with demands for welfare. Maybe they’ll drive down wages and we’ll all starve. Most academic research shows that in practice, these concerns are way, way out of proportion. In economics, for example, most studies find that immigration doesn’t destroy the economy. Some studies find no effect on wages (here for a recent representative example). The most pessimistic study finds small short term negative effects (e.g., see here for a discussion).
  3. Immigration is the policy implied by most political ideologies: For example, liberals are worried about inequality. Immigration is one of the few policies that immediately decreases inequality by letting extremely poor people move to a place with better jobs. Conservatives extol the virtues of hard work and self-sufficiency. Immigration is the way that people find better jobs and become self-sufficient. Why should we prevent people from supporting their families by finding better jobs?

Open borders are ethical and practical.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 18, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

the united states of east germany


When we think about repressive states like East Germany, we often think about its explicit ideology, Marxist-Leninism. We think about the rejection of the market economy and private property. However, we often overlook its implicit theory. The theory embodied by East Germany was that socialists states are in perpetual war with its capitalist and fascist rivals. This view, that society is always at war, justified a surveillance state. The East Germans created a massive system of spying on its citizens, resulting in an infamous collection of files that recorded the lives of millions of people. All done in the name of public safety.

The East German state was rightly viewed as a massive violation of human dignity. Having one’s daily life subject to the whims of a secret police erodes our privacy. We simply don’t believe that people should be followed, recorded, or investigated unless there is at least a plausible reason to believe that someone is an immediate threat.

The recent revelations, that the NSA not only collects “metadata,” but it routinely records the phone calls of possibly up to one million people  shows that we’ve moved away from the ideal that we should be free of investigation under ordinary circumstances. It’s a clear rejection of the idea that the people shall be “secure” in their “persons, houses, papers, and effects” from unreasonable search.  The massive collection of data from private entities with whom we expect privacy, like a bank or phone company, a gross rejection of crucial legal protections. There isn’t any difference between the Federal government automatically recording all your phone calls and email and the secret police agent following you around Berlin. They both know what you’re doing.

This is all made possible by the fear of terrorism and the belief that warrantless wire tapping is the only thing that’s preventing another 9/11. This story is not much different than what the Stasi told itself as it built up its surveillance state. Let’s hope that Americans show as much spirit in the defense of their privacy as they do in the defense of their guns.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 17, 2013 at 12:13 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

the digital rights amendment

The defenders of the NSA’s mass surveillance raise a point worth discussing – much of what is being done is legal. They point out that the NSA programs were authorized by Congress, reviewed by Courts, and run by the executive. They also read the Fourth amendment in a very narrow way. Personally, when I read that the people will be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” I’m pretty sure that means electronic communication. It would be bizarre if this right only applied to technologies present in 1789. “Papers and effects” seems to imply a lot of stuff, but the Courts and the executive seem to disagree.

This suggests to me that may we need to make mass surveillance explicitly illegal. How? The Digital Rights Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their transactions made through electronic media and other forms of communication,  and in the data generated by such transactions, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. The people will retain the right to review such warrants and challenge them in the courts.

In other words, you need a warrant to collect our data or even our “metadata.” And we get to see the warrant and we can take you to court. If you think I’m a criminal, you’ll have to explain it in court.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 11, 2013 at 12:45 am

kieran on slate today

Kieran has a satirical piece on Slate today: Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere. Check it out.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 10, 2013 at 8:44 pm

did the internet just kill the constitution?

Last week, it was revealed that the NSA collects important data about all Verizon phone calls and has access to the servers of most major Internet firms like Facebook and Google. Of course, this sort of behavior is exactly what civil rights activists had warned about for years.

But there is a deeper lesson – the Internet has made it remarkably easy for the Federal government to collect enormous amounts of information on many aspects of our lives. If the reports are to be believed, the Prism program, which allows the Feds to search Internet firms, costs only $20 million. I can’t imagine the downloading of Verizon data can’t be that much more expensive. When communication was mainly done through voice and paper, this simply was not possible at the same scale.

So it has come to this. The Internet gives us cheap and easy communication, but it also makes a low cost copy of everything that third parties can hold onto, whether we like it or not. It is clear that the Courts, Congress, and the President aren’t in a rush to make sure that searches are done for probable cause. As I type this, President Obama asserts that it’s ok because they can’t hear your calls, but they just know who you are calling all the time. It’s not clear to me that there is anything that will reverse the erosion of privacy in the Internet age.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 10, 2013 at 12:44 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, technology

russian crack down on social science research

Our friend Jenn Lena draws my attention to a serious issue in Russia – the state is attacking the Levada Center, an independent organization of social scientists who conduct polls. I quote from Jenn’s post:

The Center has been (with other non-profit organizations) asked by its government to identify itself as a “foreign agent” because it receives money from outside Russia and engages in political activity. As this NY Times article on the crack-down on Levada makes clear, approximately 3% of the Center’s funding comes from abroad, namely, grants from MacArthur, Ford, and the Open Society Institute. The Center provides us with the only social scientific polling data on Russians I’m aware of that isn’t generated by the state. The Center’s origins actually lie in conflict with the state over political attitudes:

The center’s founder, Yuri Levada, incurred Mr. Putin’s wrath a decade ago by publishing polls that showed waning approval of the United Russia party and the Chechen wars. When Kremlin officials tried to assert control over his organization by appointing a new board of directors in 2003, Mr. Levada resigned and formed a private company, the Levada Center. His employees followed him.

Consequently, the Levada Center staff went about their business, sorting out what Russians really think about their country.

In other words, independent scholarship is being attacked. Here is a petition, asking state officials to relent.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 30, 2013 at 5:21 pm

how feminists killed feminism

A friend recently linked to an article in the Daily Mail by Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker. Rebecca Walker describes her contentious relationship with her mother. A lot of it is simply competitiveness, a mother who must out do the daughter. It is also easy for successful people to ignore their family, but Rebacca places a lot of the blame on feminist ideology. For example:

According to the strident feminist ideology of the Seventies, women were sisters first, and my mother chose to see me as a sister rather than a daughter. From the age of 13, I spent days at a time alone while my mother retreated to her writing studio  -  some 100 miles away. I was left with money to buy my own meals and lived on a diet of fast food.


Then I meet women in their 40s who are devastated because they spent two decades working on a PhD or becoming a partner in a law firm, and they missed out on having a family. Thanks to the feminist movement, they discounted their biological clocks. They’ve missed the opportunity and they’re bereft.

Feminism has betrayed an entire generation of women into childlessness. It is devastating.

This article reminds me of a question that a number of sociologists have considered: Why is feminism being rejected as a political identity? After reading Walker’s essay, I now better appreciate the contours of feminist thought. First,there is the stuff that Walker doesn’t talk about. A lot of feminism and women’s right’s theory addresses the issue of status and equality. On this side of things, feminists clearly won. Women have the right to vote, they occupy positions of leadership, and they have access to nearly all professions. An important legacy of feminism, but not mentioned.

Walker’s essay instead focuses on another feature of feminist theory: the attack on traditionally feminine traits, motherhood, and domesticity. I am not referring to the argument that women should have the option to work outside the home. Rather, there is a stronger argument saying that motherhood and domesticity is inherently bad. Rebecca Walker’s essay is an insightful illustration of this. Rather than admitting that her daughter is simply different and that she enjoys family life, Alice Walker views domestic life, including her own and her daughter’s, as a betrayal of women’s rights.

Once you disentangle these two sides of feminism, things are a little less puzzling. After winning the battle on rights and equality, people quickly took these things for granted. They forgot who fought for things like the right to go to attend the same colleges as men, or easy access to birth control. Instead, the average person probably focuses on the more sensational features of feminist thought such as the view that motherhood is slavery.

I’ll end on a scholarly  and tactical note about social movements. The trajectory of post-70s feminism is interesting because it shows how a successful group can lose influence by shifting focus from demands that have wide appeal to demands that have little appeal. The lesson is that if you win battle, it is often smarter to retrench than to overextend.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 24, 2013 at 12:04 am

how to live a happy life

For seventy five years, Harvard University has conducted a longitudinal study of 269 men who graduated in 1938. It’s an attempt to learn, in detail, about the factors that might contribute to a good life. Business Insider has a nice summary of a new book, Triumphs of Experience, that presents the results of the study. A few take home points:

  • Alcoholism is a disorder of great destructive power.” Alcoholism was the main cause of divorce between the Grant Study men and their wives; it was strongly correlated with neurosis and depression (which tended to follow alcohol abuse, rather than precede it); and—together with associated cigarette smoking—it was the single greatest contributor to their early morbidity and death.
  • Above a certain level, intelligence doesn’t matter. I assume that it doesn’t matter for the types of life course outcomes social scientists measure (employment, health, happiness, marriage).
  • Relationships matter, a lot: “Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned an average of $87,000 more a year than men whose mothers were uncaring.” and “Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—but not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work.”
  • Dad matters as well: “warm childhood relations with fathers correlated with lower rates of adult anxiety, greater enjoyment of vacations, and increased “life satisfaction” at age 75—whereas the warmth of childhood relationships with mothers had no significant bearing on life satisfaction at 75.”

The formula for a good life: no alcohol or smoking; be nice too people, especially your kids; and you’re probably good enough to get what you want out of life.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 20, 2013 at 12:01 am

y’know, i’m kind of proud of science right now, even social science

In age of climate denialism and other chicanery, it’s easy to be a science pessimist. But when I stand back, I become a little more confident about things. Science, as an institution, has not buckled under pressure. For example, I think about vaccine skeptics. Truly bad science that has lead to some deaths. However, science did not abandon vaccines and instead went in search of confirmatory evidence and found nil. This was before the retraction of the infamous article in Lancet.

People may sneer at the social sciences, but they hold up as well. Recently, a well known study in economics was found to be in error. People may laugh because it was an Excel error, but there’s a deeper point. There was data, it could be obtained, and it could be replicated. Fixing errors and looking for mistakes is the hallmark of science. In sociology, we often shy away from the mantle of science, but our recent treatment of the Regnerus paper makes me proud. My fellow sociologists obtained the data, analyzed it, and showed that the new data support the long standing finding of no differences between same sex and different sex parents in terms of childhood outcomes.

If you watch the news, the Coburns of the world claim the attention. But when you think about it, the science haters are really standing in the shadow of a much larger enterprise.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 3, 2013 at 12:13 am

can you be deported while you are asleep?

Apparently, yes. An article in Talking Points memo reports on a rare, but disturbing, aspect of our immigration laws. Hospitals may pay for undocumented immigrants to be moved to medical facilities in their original nation. They occasionally do this when people start in the emergency room, they stabilize, and then insurance does not pay for long term care:

Hundreds of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have taken similar journeys through a little-known removal system run not by the federal government trying to enforce laws but by hospitals seeking to curb high costs. A recent report compiled by immigrant advocacy groups made a rare attempt to determine how many people are sent home, concluding that at least 600 immigrants were removed over a five-year period, though there were likely many more.

To be sure, very uncommon, but it starkly points to a disturbing issue. Current law allows the state and other entities, hospitals in this case, to grossly violate one’s individual freedom if the aren’t a documented migrant. There’s a healthy debate to be had over the degree to which hospitals should provide care for the uninsured, but that doesn’t imply that somebody can be be shipped to another country because they are a non-citizen and it saves the hospital some money.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 25, 2013 at 12:01 am

regnerus, bellesiles, and duesberg

Three scientific controversies worth comparing:

  1. Mark Regnerus publishes a study in Social Science Research claiming that having gay parents is correlated with worse outcomes for children. This is an example of a conservative attacking a belief held by liberals. The subsequent controversy focuses on the actual findings of his survey and the extremely expedited review process.
  2. Michael Bellesiles published Arming America, a book claiming that colonial Americans owned very few guns. This is a liberal attack on a conservative belief.  The subsequent controversy revealed that Bellesiles had almost certainly made up a lot of data, which lead to his dismissal from his university position.
  3. Peter Duesberg is a microbiologist who does not believe that the AIDS is caused by the HIV virus. He believes it is caused by other factors. This, as far as I can tell, not political on his part. He fervently believes in a different hypothesis. There was a controversy which resulted in Duesberg being ostracized by other microbiologists but otherwise retaining is position at UC Berkeley. Duesberg has not changed his opinion, but most other researchers are convinced he is wrong.

Commentary: In academia, you will get attacked if you puncture a widely held belief, regardless of the politics. Somebody will want the credit of taking you down – and that’s not always a bad thing. However, what happens during the controversy is complex. The Regnerus controversy shows that you can survive charges of favoritism and charges of really, really stretching what the data says. The Duesberg controversy shows that you can survive being wrong.* The Bellesiles incident shows that you can’t survive fraud.

A deeper issue is that Regnerus and Duesberg survived because of tenure. They are able to continue teaching and working despite their hugely unpopular opinions because of privilege we give to our senior faculty. However, tenure will only help you though if you play by academic rules. While we may disagree with what these scholars say, I’d chalk up these three example of tenure living up to its promise.

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* There’s a subtle issue with Duesberg. You may not survive if you are associated with a controversial figure. For example, the editor of Medical Hypotheses quit his job after publishing an opinion piece by Duesberg.

Written by fabiorojas

April 5, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, sociology

mr. zappa goes to congress

Written by fabiorojas

March 2, 2013 at 12:01 am

measuring the post-racist society: the eclipse of racist words

Slurs_af_am_latino As_am_slur_clean

The original post-racist society discussion, Eric Grollman responds,Tressie McMillan responds, my response to Eric, McMillan part deux, Eric responds again

A few weeks ago, I argued that the era of overt racism is over. One commenter felt that I needed to operationalize the idea. There is no simple way to measure such a complex idea, but we can offer measurements of very specific processes. For example, I could hypothesize that it is no longer to legitimate to use in public words that have a clearly derogatory meaning, such as n—— or sp–.*

We can test that idea with word frequency data. Google has scanned over 4 million books from 1500 to the present and you can search that database. Above, I plotted the appearance of n—– and sp—, two words which are unambiguously slurs for two large American ethnic groups. I did not plot slurs like “bean,” which are homophones for other neutral non-racial words. Then, I plotted the appearance of the more neutral or positive words for those groups. The first graph shows the relative frequencies for African American and Latino slurs vs. other ethnic terms. Since the frequency for Asian American slurs and other words is much lower, they get a separate graph. Thus, we can now test hypotheses about printed text  in the post-racial society:

  1. The elimination thesis: Slurs drop drastically in use.
  2. The eclipse thesis: Non-slur words now overwhelm racist slurs, but racist slurs remain.
  3. Co-evolution: The frequency of neutral and slur words move together. People talk about group X and the haters just use the slur.
  4. Escalation: Slurs are increasing.

This rough data indicates that #2 is correct. The dominant racial terms are neutral or positive. Most slurs that I looked up seem to maintain some base level of usage, even in the post-civil rights era. The slur use level is non-zero, but it is small in comparison to other words so it looks as if it is zero. Some slure use may be derogatory, while some of it may be artistic or “reclaiming the term.” I can’t prove it, but I think Quentin Tarantino accounts for for 50% or more of post-civil rights use of the n-word.

Bottom line: Society has changed and we can measure the change. This doesn’t mean that racial status is no longer important, but it does mean that one very important aspect of pre-Civil Rights racist culture has receded in relative importance. Some people just love racial slurs, but that its likely not the modal way of talking about people. Is that progress? I think so.

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* Geez, Fabio, must you censor? Well, it isn’t censoring if it’s voluntary. I just don’t want this blog to be picked up for slurs. Even my book on 1970s Black Power, when people used the n-word a bit, only uses it once, in a footnote when referring to the title of H. Rap Brown’s first book.

Written by fabiorojas

February 21, 2013 at 12:01 am

philosophers don’t get orgtheory

West 86th has an article by Ben Kafka on the subject of bureaucracy. Kafka’s main point is that philosophers, and political philosophers especially, have consistently misunderstood administration. In the 19th century, there was this belief that if we could just use science, we could administer ourselves to peace and stability. In the 20th century, philosophers, especially those with a left bent, felt that the problem of administration had been solved. It was so easy, anyone could do it. The intuition isn’t crazy. Kafka’s points out that these statements came on the heels of the French Revolution and its aftermath. People simply wanted rational rules that could easily be applied.

So how would a modern orgtheorist respond to the utopian philosophers? I think we’d say that administration is hard (and often brutal in the case of socialist nations) for the following reasons:

  • Limited knowledge – aggregation of knowledge is hard, though bureaucracy makes it a little easier
  • Self interest – Since administration is set up to deal with massive resources that owners can’t directly supervise, you get principal-agent problems
  • Mission creep – a consequence of the principle-agent problem. Since it’s hard to monitor bureaucrats, it’s hard to keep a lid on them.
  • Asymmetry – bureaucracies often have the upper hand over individuals because they don’t rely on a single person E.g., if this lawyer can’t fight anymore, a new one will be hired. In contrast, an individual can easily be outlasted in a conflict.
  • Myth and ceremony – Rather than solve problems, states and organizations may expand bureaucracies to show they’re dealing with the problem

Thus, administration is a tool with limits and it comes with its own problems.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 1, 2012 at 12:01 am

of liberals, libertatarians, and bleeding hearts

Philosopher Matt Zwolinski has been pushing the idea of “bleeding heart libertarians,” which he means, I think, a merging of the libertarian advocacy of markets and the liberal concern with social justice. Not surprisingly, there’s been push back from various quarters. One criticism is that that the whole idea is nonsensical. I’m not sure if I buy the bleeding heart libertarian idea,  but here’s how, as a softie and bleeding heart, I’d try to merge the two ideas.

Josh Brennan, a fellow bleeding heart libertarian, offers a definition of social justice that focuses on helping the poor and the vulnerable (e.g., markets are just only if they help low income people). Such definitions leave a bleeding heart like me cold because they don’t capture an important dimension of bleeding heart-ism, the fact that societies have groups that have been screwed over and that we have some duty to help history’s losers or at least not make their live worse. I’d start my discussion of social justice by making the following statements, which underwrite the bleeding heart view, and then think about whether other ideas are compatible:

  1. Complex societies have status groups, they are stratified. These status groups aren’t  always based on merit, but based on custom and tradition. In many cases, they are based on violence and warfare.
  2. These status differences matter a lot. Material and symbolic goods are often handed out based on these group memberships. Group membership entails deference and privilege.
  3. The benefits and disadvantages of status group membership are enforced in multiple ways. It can be legal, social, or even tacit.

If you start with these statements, you can have productive discussion about how social justice fits in various political philosophies. Conservatives often celebrate #1, defend #2 and deny #3. That is, the conservative response to status group inequality is often to accept it and say it is natural, defend the rewards bases on status, and refuse to change law or custom in ways that would challenge the dominant. In contrast, liberals reject #1, challenge #2, and attack #3. The combined liberal response to status-based inequality might be termed “social justice.” What liberals mean is that the institutions that support sorting people into groups based on ascribed status are illegitimate. The just thing is for some person or some organization (e.g., the state) to eliminate, or ameliorate, these types of status groups and their privileges.

Once you lay it out, one can see how libertarians don’t quite fit in either box, which is why Zwolinski and his fellow travelers are angling for a libertarian/liberal meeting point. As hard core individualists, libertarians are pretty comfortable with rejecting #1. They don’t believe that the state should make distinctions among people based on social class, race, gender, tribe, religion, caste, or what have you. So they do share something very important with liberals. The extreme skepticism of existing group structures creates a real rift, in theory at least, with conservatives, who have usually been on the side of defending law and customs that benefit the dominant status group.

The libertarian divergence with liberals comes with #2 and #3.  A lot of libertarians, for example, believe status groups are manifestations of underlying differences in skill and ability. Racial differences in, say, educational attainment really do reflect underlying talent and work patterns. Libertarians also have a tough time believing that status groups are unfair unless they are created by the state. Finally, libertarians have a really hard time believing that people can benefit from their group status in the absence of legal sanctions. The concept of white privilege, for example, is one that they strongly resist.

Still, there is some room for Zwolinski’s bleeding heart libertarianism, but it’s not something that is highly compatible with liberal political theory. The key issue is that the libertarian skepticism toward claims of status group inequality does not necessarily follow from individualist theory. In other words, a belief in individual rights does not preclude someone from believing that males or whites benefit from their status, even in the absence of legalized segregation. It’s plausible to say that you believe in individual rights and market institutions and admit they are imperfect and that some people are disadvantaged because they belong to a group that has successfully created some rules or customs that benefit them.

This version of libertarianism, which is rare since I can’t think of any figure who articulates it except Zwolinski and Brennan,  is somewhat close in spirit to what liberals believe with regard to social justice.  Both parties agree on the problem. The issue that really splits the bleeding heart libertarian and the standard issue liberal is the solution. Liberals have a lot of confidence that democratic states have the potential to address status group inequality. Libertarians, not surprisingly, have the opposite view. They tend to see the state as a blunt instrument at best, or exacerbating the problem at worst. And of course, natural rights libertarians view just about all state action as suspect because it is based on the monopoly of force.

Even here, though, the liberal and bleeding heart libertarian could find points of agreement and cooperation. They agree that group based discrimination, status privilege, and oppression are real and bad. They disagree on the state as a solution. That doesn’t mean that liberals and libertarians can’t fight status inequality in other ways. There’s a side to modern liberalism that believes in the grassroots and local action. For example, there are lots of non-profits that work to help poor people and minorities get housing. No reason a libertarian couldn’t volunteer to help out. Similarly, a lot of liberals believe that immigration law is harsh and creates a status divide between citizens and non-citizens. There are lots of voluntary organizations that help immigrants and they are a context where liberals and bleeding heart libertarians could agree.

Social justice, as it is often understood, is hard to square with libertarian theory and culture. Zwolinski’s views will find a limited audience. But that doesn’t mean the bleeding heart libertarian is out of luck. There’s a lot of ways libertarians can pursue social justice can be pursued if they took the time to hang with the local immigrant rights groups or housing non-profit.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 1, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

organizations and care

Thomas B. Lawrence and Sally Maitlis have a forthcoming article in AMR on the topic of how care and ethics can be cultivated in organizations. The abstract from AMR”s “in-press” web site:

The feminist notion of an ethic of care emerged in the 1980s as a powerful alternative to justice as a central orienting value for the development of moral theory, but has been largely overlooked in the literature on care in organizations. We explore how an ethic of care could be enacted in organizations, arguing that it would involve narrative practices embedded in enduring relationships, such as work teams. We articulate three domains of discursive practice – how members construct their experiences, how they construct their struggles, and how they construct future-oriented stories – and from them identify three specific caring narrative practices – constructing histories of sparkling moments, contextualizing struggles, and constructing polyphonic future-oriented stories. We argue that, together, these practices foster an ontology of possibility, a belief system that emphasizes the socially constructed nature of both past and present, and thus facilitates action and an appreciation of its limits. We conclude by considering the organizational conditions under which an ethic of care is more likely to flourish and the impacts of an ontology of possibility on the resilience of organizational teams who adopt it.


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Written by fabiorojas

April 12, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

was the financial crisis caused by corporate psychopaths?

Was the financial crisis caused by corporate psychopaths? Clive Boddy, writing in the Journal of Business Ethics, seems to think so.

These corporate collapses have gathered pace in recent years, especially in the western world, and have culminated in the Global Financial Crisis that we are now in. In watching these events unfold it often appears that the senior directors involved walk away with a clean conscience and huge amounts of money. Further, they seem to be unaffected by the corporate collapses they have created. They present themselves as glibly unbothered by the chaos around them, unconcerned about those who have lost their jobs, savings, and investments, and as lacking any regrets about what they have done. They cheerfully lie about their involvement in events are very persuasive in blaming others for what has happened and have no doubts about their own continued worth and value. They are happy to walk away from the economic disaster that they have managed to bring about, with huge payoffs and with new roles advising governments how to prevent such economic disasters.

Many of these people display several of the characteristics of psychopaths and some of them are undoubtedly true psychopaths. Psychopaths are the 1% of people who have no conscience or empathy and who do not care for anyone other than themselves. Some psychopaths are violent and end up in jail, others forge careers in corporations. The latter group who forge successful corporate careers is called Corporate  Psychopaths.

I have a complaint to make to the editors of the Journal of Business Ethics. Why is the term “Corporate Psychopaths” capitalized every time it appears in the paper? As if that’s not enough, why do we need the to capitalize “Global Financial Crisis” every time it appears in the paper? This combination leads to unattractive sentences like this:

The knowledge that Corporate Psychopaths are to be found at the top of organisations and seem to favour working with other people’s money in large financial organisations has in turn, led to the development of the Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis. The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis is that Corporate Psychopaths, rising to key senior positions within modern financial corporations…..

Why not just capitalize and put in bold every letter and add blinking animation for emphasis?

Written by brayden king

February 24, 2012 at 4:44 pm

conference for orgtheory in developing regions

Writing from the home office in Switzerland, Tim draws my attention to a conference for management PhD scholars interested in development. From the call for papers for the UNDP Development Academy:

The oikos UNDP Young Scholars Development Academy 2012 provides PhD students and young scholars working on poverty, sustainable development, and the informal economy from an Organisation and Management Theory perspective a platform to present and discuss their on-going research projects with fellow students and senior faculty.

Research on inclusive business models, market development and sustainability between the informal and formal economy is a promising and challenging field for young researchers and PhD students. It calls for a multitude of methods, combination of disciplines in strategy, organisation studies, sociology, anthropology and economics, and new research designs, e.g. market ethnography in organisation studies.

Great opportunity for orgtheory PhD students and tenure track/post docs. Check it out.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 8, 2012 at 12:15 am

why blacks spend more time in jail

If you look at the range of penalties, most of the black-white gaps in criminal sentences disappear when you include initial charges. Source: Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Charging and Its Sentencing Consequences by Rehavi and Starr.

It’s long been known by researchers that American blacks are more likely to spend time in jail than whites and they serve longer prison sentences. However, it’s not known exactly why that is. Do blacks commit more serious crimes? Are courts handing out tougher sentences to black defendants? Are different laws applied to them? Since a lot of evidence in this areas focuses on the terminal stages of prosecution (e.g., pleas bargaining), it’s hard to to tell.

A new paper by Marit Rehavi (UBC econ) and Sonja Starr (Michigan Law) uses some excellent new data on Federal sentencing behavior to come up with a striking and simple answer. Blacks receive longer sentences because prosecutors are more likely to charge them with crimes that require minimum sentences. From the paper:

This study provides robust evidence that black arrestees in the federal system—particularly black men—experience moderately but significantly worse case outcomes than do white defendants arrested for the same crimes and with the same criminal history.  Most of that disparity appears to be introduced at the initial charging stage, which has previously been overlooked by the literature on racial disparity in criminal justice.  Other factors equal, we estimate conservatively[1] that, compared to white men, black men face charges that are on average about seven to ten percent more severe on various severity scales, and are more than twice as likely to face charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences.  These disparities persist after charge bargaining and, ultimately, are a major contributor to the large black-white disparities in prison sentence length.   Indeed, sentence disparities (at the mean and at almost all deciles in the sentence-length distribution) can be almost completely explained by three factors: the original arrest offense, the defendant’s criminal history, and the prosecutor’s initial choice of charges.

In other words, in the modern system, prosecutors often have the option of charging you  with crimes that require that you serve some minimal amount of time. Blacks are more likely to be charged with violations carrying minimal sentences and this accounts for most of the black-white gap in sentencing. According to some estimates, like Table 1 (p. 22), the odds double that a prosecutor will charge a black male with a minimum sentence offense. Depending on who you measure it, this results in a punishment that’s about 7-10% more severe.

The strength of the paper is that the authors have access to Federal data bases that provide data from arrest to conviction. That way, the authors can account for issues like prior criminal record and the severity of the offense, as recorded by law enforcement at the time of the arrest. There are some limits to the analysis. Certain types of crimes are excluded because relevant data doesn’t exist. For example, one important class of crimes, drug offenses, are excluded because amount of drugs is not reported in the data base. Regardless, it’s a massive data set that covers an important portion of the legal system. Bottom line: no matter how you look at it, prosecutors are being more harsh on black defendants.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 24, 2012 at 12:01 am

wikipedia blackout and SOPA

Despite its many problems, I use wikipedia, a lot.  Too much.  Sure enough, just now I tried to dig something up – and got the wikipedia blackout page.  Given the blackout-  where will we quickly read up on SOPA (or whatever else)?

The SOPA thing is a complicated matter – a fascinating tension between protecting intellectual property and free speech.  At the extreme – should online sites like Pirate Bay (free movies, music and books) be allowed to operate freely?  Few people say “yes” to that one (including Jimmy Wales), so the questions emerge in the gray areas. But SOPA itself is a mess, no question.

Written by teppo

January 18, 2012 at 5:55 am

should social scientists stop reading the news?

A long time ago, in graduate school, my television was stolen and it changed my life. I now had lots of free time. I never understood on a gut level what I was missing until my tv was gone. There was a whole world beyond my living room low rent studio apartment. Jacob Levy once told me during a party, “Fabio, if you don’t watch tv, you had better be very well read.” Indeed, fair ranger, I am now quite well read.

I learned a second lesson. Most television is garbage. Once you unplug and then start watching later, you are immediately confronted with this truth. Ever since childhood, I was accustomed to watching whatever came on. Sure, I had preferences. Some shows are better than others, but I was letting someone throw rubbish at my face every night for hours at a time. For free!

Later, I realized that the issue wasn’t drama or comedy. Ultimately, there’s no harm in having an abnormally thorough knowledge of the Jeffersons and its catchy theme song. There real issue is television news.  As a social scientist in training, I began to believe that I am seeking the truth about social life. It’s my calling. It is what I have decided to dedicate my life to at  the expense of more remunerative careers. Therefore, it is unethical for me to consume or support cultural products that are misleading depictions on the social world.

You don’t need to be a die hard Chomskian who believes that the media is a mere tool of corporate and state interests, although that does happen to fair degree. Rather, you need to compare social science 101 to what happens on the news.

Example 1: Local television news is driven by “if it bleeds, it leads.” That gives the impression that crime is ubiquitous. Instead, much evidence shows a long term decrease in criminal violence in Western society. Steven Pinker’s recent book on violence merely documents what historical criminologists have known for a while.

Example 2: Election coverage is highly misleading. Journalists (and many historians) will regale you with stories about how this debate or that scandal totally changed the election. A common finding among political scientists is that speeches, scandals, media buys, and other electioneering events don’t affect a lot of elections. National elections are driven by the economy and war casualties. Smaller elections are run on somewhat different principles, but on the average, not affected by daily electioneering. Brendan Nyhan uses his twitter feed to point readers to political science research that corrects the non-stop misleading coverage of elections.

Example 3: Let’s stick one of my research areas – higher education. Every year, we get horror stories about how it is impossible it is to get into college. This is a false. Most institutions of higher education have an acceptance rate of over 50%. This finding goes back decades (e.g., economists William Manski and David Wise covered this in their great1982 book “College Choice in America”). There’s only about 50-100 schools (out of thousands) that might be considered competitive. These schools are the ones you expect – Ivy League, flagships, the service academies, about 20-30 of the liberal arts schools, plus a few others (e.g., Duke or Stanford). Basically, unless you want to go to a really elite school, just about any high school graduate in America can find a legitimate college that will accept them.

The news is rife with stories that are at best misleading and at worst factually incorrect. I can’t blame the journalists because sensationalism and short deadlines drive their salaries. I can’t blame viewers because most aren’t trained in research and it isn’t their job to care. However, social scientists should know better. If it is your job to search for truth, then turn off the tv during the news hour.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 16, 2012 at 12:16 am

Posted in academia, ethics, fabio


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