From the monthly archives:

February 2024

Images are Biased

by Kevin Munger on February 29, 2024

My blogging is about two things: (1) the radical changes wrought by modern communication technology; and (2) the inability of the epistemic technologies of the written word to understand point (1).

I find this dialectical tension to be generative, but I can see how readers looking for answers might find it unsatisfying.

recent paper in Naturetitled “Online images amplify gender bias,” makes the point in a more familiar format. Consider the first full clause of the first sentence of the abstract:

“Each year, people spend less time reading and more time viewing images”

BOOM. Footnoted: “Time spent reading. American Academy of the Arts and Sciences (2019).”

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Dr. Pangloss’s Panopticon

by Henry Farrell on February 27, 2024

So Noah Smith has a quite negative review of Acemoglu and Johnson’s recent book, Power and Progress, a book that I myself liked very much. Before letting rip, Noah says nice things about Acemoglu and Johnson, and I’ll do the same here for him. There are a lot of people on the left who detest Noah, but I know him to be a genuinely decent person. What he says of Acemoglu and Johnson is what I’ll say about him – his heart is in the right place. Sometimes … he does not go out of his way to make himself lovable to lefties, but as someone who has been known to get involved in stupid and tendentious spats on the Internet myself, I’m in no position to heave rocks at glasshouses. What I do think (and I’ve said more or less this to him in person – my views won’t come as news) is that Noah represents a style of economics that has an overly Panglossian view of power, economics and progress. [click to continue…]

My latest in Inside Story, reposted from Substack

Managers need to recognise that the best way to dissipate authority is to fail in its exercise

Authority is powerful yet intangible. The capacity to give an order and expect it to be obeyed may rest ultimately on a threat to sanction those who disobey but it can rarely survive large-scale disobedience.

The modern era has seen many kinds of traditional authority come under challenge, but until now the “right of managers to manage” has remained largely immune. If anything, the managers’ power has increased as the countervailing power of unions has declined. But the rise of working from home and, more recently, Labor’s right to disconnect legislation pose unprecedented threats to the power of managers over information workers — those employees formerly known as “office workers.”

To see how this might play out, it’s worth considering the decline of another once-powerful authority, the Catholic Church.

In the early 1960s, following the development of reliable oral contraception, the leaders of the church had to decide whether to accept the Pill as a permissible way for married couples to plan their families. Pope John XXIII established a pontifical commission on birth control to reconsider Catholic doctrine on this topic.

It was a crucial decision precisely because marriage and sex were the most important areas in which the authority of the Church remained supreme and precise rules could be laid down — and generally enforced — among the faithful.

Most people, after all, have no trouble observing the commandments against theft and murder. Other sins like anger, pride and sloth are very much in the eye of the beholder. But the rules regulating who can marry whom and what kind of sexual behaviour is permissible are precise and demanding, to the point that the term “morals” is commonly taken to imply sexual morals. The official celibacy of priests, who thereby showed even more restraint than was demanded of ordinary Catholics, added to the mystique of clerical power.

By the time the commission reported in 1966 John XXIII had been replaced by Pope Paul VI. The commission concluded that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that Catholic couples should be allowed to decide for themselves about the methods they employed. But five of the commission’s sixty-nine members took the opposite view in a minority report.

In the encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI made his fateful rejection of all forms of artificial contraception. As an attempt to exercise and shore up authority it failed completely. The realities of raising large families and dealing with unplanned pregnancies were far removed from the experience of priests and theologians. And the church’s evident demographic motive (the desire for big Catholic families to fill the pews) further undermined the legitimacy of the prohibition.

Previously loyal Catholics ignored Pope Paul’s ruling, in many cases marking their first step away from the Church. Doctrines restricting marriage between Catholics and non-Catholics, including the requirement that children be raised as Catholics, also became little more than formalities commanding at most notional obedience.

The breakdown of clerical authority set the scene for the exposure of clerical child abuse from the 1990s on. Although accusations of this kind had been around for many years, the authority of the church had ensured that critics were silenced or disbelieved.

It is hard to know for sure what would have happened if Pope Paul had chosen differently. The membership and social standing of Protestant denominations, nearly all which accepted contraception, have also declined, though not as much as a Catholic Church that pinned its authority on personal morality. Humanae Vitae’s attempt to exercise papal authority succeeded only in exposing its illusory nature.

In the struggle over working from home and the “freedom to disconnect” we’re seeing something similar happen to the authority of managers.

Following the arrival of Covid-19 in early 2020, working from home went from being a rare indulgence to a general necessity, at least for those whose work could be done with a telephone and a computer. Hardly any time was available for preparation: in mid March, Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese were still planning to attend football matches; a week later, Australia was in lockdown.

Offices and schools closed. Workers had to convert their kitchen tables or (if they were lucky) spare bedrooms into workstations using whatever equipment they had available. And, to make things even tougher, parents had to take responsibility for the remote education of their children.

Despite the already extensive evidence of the benefits of remote work, many managers expected chaos and a massive reduction in productivity. But information-based work of all kinds carried on without any obvious interruption. Insurance policies were renewed, bills were issued and paid, newspapers and magazines continued to be published. Meetings, that scourge of modern working life, continued to take place, though now over Zoom.

Once the lockdown phase of the pandemic was over, workers were in no hurry to return to the office. The benefits of shorter commuting times and the flexibility to handle family responsibilities were obvious, while adverse impacts on productivity, if any, were hard to discern.

Sceptics argued that working from home, though fine for current employees, would pose major difficulties for the “onboarding” of new staff. Four years into the new era, though, around half of all workers are in jobs they started after the pandemic began. Far from lamenting the lack of office camaraderie and mentorship, these new hires are among the most resistant to the removal of a working condition they have taken for granted since the start.

Nevertheless, chief executives have issued an almost daily drumbeat of demands for a return to five-day office attendance and threatened dire consequences for those who don’t comply. Although these threats sometimes appear to have an effect, workers generally stop complying. As long as they are still doing their jobs, their immediate managers have little incentive to discipline them, especially as the most capable workers are often the most resistant to close supervision. Three days of office attendance a week has become the new normal for large parts of the workforce, and attempts to change this reality are proving largely fruitless.

The upshot is that attendance rates have barely changed after more than two years of back-to-the-office announcements. The Kastle Systems Back to Work Barometer, a weekly measure of US office attendance as a percentage of February 2020 levels, largely kept within the narrow range of 46 to 50 per cent over the course of 2023.

This fact is finally sinking in. Sandwiched between two pieces about back-to-the-office pushes by diehard employers, the Australian Financial Review recently ran up the white flag with a piece headlined “Return to Office Stalls as Companies Give Up on Five Days a Week.”

This trend, significant in itself, also marks a change in power relations between managers and workers. Behind all the talk about “water cooler conversations” and “synergies,” the real reason for demanding the physical presence of workers is that it makes it easier for managers to exercise authority. The failure of “back to the office” prefigures a major realignment of power relationships at work.

Conversely, the success of working from home in the face of dire predictions undermines one of the key foundations of the “right to manage,” namely the assumption that managers have a better understanding of the organisations they head than do the people who work in them. Despite a vast literature on leadership, the capacity of managers to lead their workers in their preferred direction has proved very limited.

The other side of the remote work debate is the right to disconnect. The same managers who insisted that workers should be physically present at the office in standard working hours (and sometimes longer) also came to expect responses to phone calls and emails at any time of the day or night. The supposed need for an urgent response typically reflected sloppiness on the part of managers incapable of organising their own work schedules to take account of the need for work–life balance.

Once again, managers have attempted to draw a line in the sand. Opposition leader Peter Dutton has backed them, promising to repeal the right to disconnect if the Coalition wins the next election. It’s a striking illustration of the importance of power to the managerial class that Dutton has chosen to fight on this issue while capitulating to the government’s broken promise on the Stage 3 tax cuts, which would have delivered big financial benefits to his strongest supporters.

Can this trend be reversed? The not-so-secret hope is that high unemployment will turn the tables. As Tim Gurner (of “avocado toast” fame) put it, “We need pain in the economy… and employees need to reminded of who is boss.” US tech firms have put that view to the test with large-scale sackings, many focused on remote workers. But the other side of remote work is mobility. Many of those fired in the recent tech layoffs have found new jobs, often also remote.

In the absence of a really deep recession, firms that demand and enforce full-time attendance will find themselves with a limited pool of disgruntled workers dominated by those with limited outside options.

Popular stories — from King Canute’s attempt to turn back the tide (apparently to make fools of obsequious courtiers who suggested he could do it) to Hans Christian Anderson’s naked emperor — have made the point that the best way to dissipate authority is to fail in its exercise. Pope Paul ignored that lesson and the Catholic Church paid the price. Now, it seems, managers are doing the same. •Back to the office: a solution in search of a problem

Sunday photoblogging: magpies

by Chris Bertram on February 25, 2024


Platforms, Polarization and Democracy

by Henry Farrell on February 21, 2024

So Cosma Shalizi and I have an article (messy pre-print) coming out Real Soon in Communications of the ACM on democracy, polarization and social media. And Nate Matias, who I’m friends with, has forceful objections. I’ve promised him a response – which is below – but am doing it as a blogpost, since I think that the disagreement could be turned into something more broadly useful.

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Death, Lonely Death

by Doug Muir on February 19, 2024

Billions of miles away at the edge of the Solar System, Voyager 1 has gone mad and has begun to die.

Let’s start with the “billions of miles”. Voyager 1 was launched in early September 1977. Jimmy Carter was a hopeful new President. Yugoslavia and the USSR were going concerns, as were American Motors, Pan Am, F.W. Woolworth, Fotomat booths, Borders bookshops, and Pier 1. Americans were watching Happy Days, M*A*S*H and Charlie’s Angels on television; their British cousins were watching George and Mildred, The Goodies, and Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. If you turned on the radio, “Hotel California” by The Eagles was alternating with “Dancing Queen” by Abba (and, if we want to be completely honest, “Car Wash” by Rose Royce). Most cars still ran on leaded gasoline, most phones were still rotary dial, and the Internet was a wonky idea that was still a few weeks from a working prototype.

_The Thorn Birds_ was on top of everyone’s bestseller list. The first Apple II home computer had just gone on sale. The Sex Pistols were in the studio wrapping up _Never Mind The Bollocks_; they would tour on it for just three months and then break up, and within another year Sid Vicious would be dead of a heroin overdose. Barack Obama was a high school junior living with his grandparents in Honolulu, Hawaii: his grades were okay, but he spent most of his time hanging with his pot-smoking friends in the “Choom Gang”.  Boris Johnson was tucked away at the elite Ashdown House boarding school while his parents marriage was slowly collapsing: although he was only thirteen, he had already adopted his signature hair style.  Elvis had just died on the toilet a few weeks ago.  It was the summer of Star Wars.

And Voyager 1 was blasting off for a tour of the Solar System.

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The Crack-Up of the Michigan GOP

by Liz Anderson on February 19, 2024

Some of you may have heard that the Michigan GOP is in the midst of a power struggle between Kristina Karamo, who won the party chair election in Feb. 2023, and former U.S. Representative Pete Hoekstra, who got the RNC to install him in her place her a year later after he won a contested vote.  Karamo, following Trump’s principle that Republican candidates are entitled to deny the legitimacy of any election in which they are not declared the winner, has refused to concede.  She has declared that she will hold a rival GOP caucus-style convention to Hoekstra’s official one, to select fake delegates to attend the national presidential nominating convention.  (This is on top of the delegates that will be elected in Michigan’s presidential primary on Feb. 27.)  The party has discovered that it cannot sow anti-establishment chaos to defeat its external enemies without bringing that chaos home.

There is no question that the delegates selected in Karamo’s convention will be support Trump just as much as the ones selected in Hoekstra’s.  So what is the point of this conflict?

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Sunday photoblogging: long-tailed tits

by Chris Bertram on February 18, 2024

The weather hasn’t been great, but the other day the sun came out for a bit so I could get the long lens out. These characters came out to feed. Long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus):

Long-tailed tit

Nobody likes the present situation very much

by Kevin Munger on February 16, 2024

There is a great gap between the overthrow of authority and the creation of a substitute. That gap is called liberalism: a period of drift and doubt. We are in it today.

I think that the pace of technological change is intolerable, that it denies humans the dignity of continuity, states the competence to govern, and social scientists a society about which to accumulate knowledge.

But we’ve had technological change before! some object. And things turned out fine!

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A little bit of good news from Australia

by John Q on February 15, 2024

Over the last few years, the Australian and UK Labor/Labour[1] parties, have followed strikingly parallel paths.

  • A better-than expected result with a relatively progressive platform (Oz 2016, UK 2017)
  • A demoralizing defeat in 2019, followed by the election of a new more conservative leader (Albanese, Starmer)

  • Wholesale abandonment of the program

  • Failure of the rightwing government to handle Covid and other problmes

Because we have elections every three years, Australia is now ahead of the UK and we now have a Labor government led by Anthony Albanese. In its election campaign and its first eighteen months in office, Labor ran on a platform of implementing rightwing policies with better processes and minor tweaks to the most repressive aspects. This is, AFAICT, what can be expected from Starmer in the UK.

But over the last month or so, we’ve had a series of significant policy wins, which may set the stage for more.
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Moving to Rwanda

by Doug Muir on February 14, 2024

So when I joined the team last month, I mentioned that I work in development. That means I move around to different countries, to work on various projects. And in two weeks, I will be moving to Rwanda, in Central Africa.

A couple of notes on this, for those who find such things interesting.

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The Implosion of the Retirement Contract

by Eric Schliesser on February 13, 2024

One structural source of weakness in contemporary liberal democracy is that it does not seem to be able to solve some important, even bread and butter, policy challenges.  That it does not do so with the threat that global warning involves is, while highly regrettable, no mystery. It’s very difficult for democracies to take non-existing voters’ needs seriously, especially when there are powerful lobbies who have an interest they don’t. But other sources of democratic disenchantment are more puzzling.

I have in mind, especially, the accessibility of housing in popular, urban environments relative to income of younger workers, especially. I call this the “accessibility problem.” People find themselves living with their parents or with many roommates for financial reasons long after they had expected to do so. This is true in most OECD countries (see here).+

For a long time I used to think this was caused primarily by a toxic combination of rent-control, restrictive zoning laws (and building codes), mortgage deductions, and easy money by central banks (which lead to asset price inflation): all of which reduce supply and increase price of housing as population grows. Perhaps, as our very own John Quiggin suggests, lack of investment in social housing, too. Undoubtedly all of these play a contributory role. But even in places where these causes are absent or less present the accessibility problem is a hot political issue.

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If you’ve studied game theory, you’ve probably come across the mixed-motive coordination game, a simple one-shot game in which two representative actors have to figure out how to coordinate so as to find a mutually beneficial equilibrium – but have different interests over which equilibrium they choose. And if you studied it a couple of decades ago, you very likely have heard it referred to as “the battle of the sexes,” a term that has fallen out of common usage, for obvious reasons. But when I read Tyler Cowen’s short piece on the actual historical struggle between women and men for recognition, I was immediately was reminded of Jack Knight’s argument, based on mixed-motive coordination games, for why power is more important to the emergence of social rules than most economists think. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: let sleeping dogs lie

by Chris Bertram on February 11, 2024

Let sleeping dogs lie

What’s wrong with free public college?

by Harry on February 5, 2024

My paper with Kailey Mullane on what’s wrong with free public college has been published in Educational Theory, open access so anybody who wants to can read it. Obsessive readers of CT (are there any?) will know that I’ve had a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the issue for quite a while, and the arguments we’ve had here helped me and Kailey refine our views and develop the paper. What we did in the end was look at and analyze a hybrid of the Warren and Sanders proposals from the 2020 primary, evaluating it against two relatively simple normative criteria – equity (which we explain) and whether it would raise the average level of educational outcomes across the population. (Later in the paper we consider other values that might also be relevant).

Free public college might sound great if you ignore the cost and compare it with what we have now. But given the way public higher education is actually funded currently, and given the persistent patterns of enrollment (and even on very optimistic assumptions about how those patterns would change if public college were free), for various structural reasons almost none of the new spending would be on students from the bottom 50% of the income distribution and most of it on students in the top 25% of the income distribution. Some people (here) have defended this by saying that under these plans the funds would all come from taxes on the super rich. Even if you believe that, mightn’t there better feasible alternative ways of spending those funds in education? We compare the proposal with i) spending those funds in k-12 (which, unlike higher education, is a universal program) and ii) spending the funds on expanding the Pell Grant program (a very popular and successful program for supporting lower income students). Either of those will be much more equitable (in any reasonable sense) ways of spending the money, and will probably (there’s a caveat to this that you can see in the paper) in raising the average level of educational outcomes.

I can’t speak for Kailey, but I was (naively) a bit shocked when reading the Warren and Sanders proposals how thin and lacking in detail they were, and how clear it was that they had not consulted anyone who knew anything about higher education funding as it currently works. For example, they seem not to understand within each state public colleges and universities are unequally funded, with much more government funding per student going to institutions attended by more affluent students, and much less to those attended by less affluent students; they also seemed not to understand that low income students usually pay very low rates of tuition at the institutions they attend: for those students the financial barrier to college is not, usually, tuition, but living expenses, which eliminating tuition does nothing about at all. Sanders’s requirement that states participating in the free public college not spend any more money on administrators, if it is serious as opposed to crowd-pleasing, reveals that he doesn’t know what administrators do (or what “administrators” means). As things stand the US government (all sources) spend about 30-40% more per student/year in higher education than in k-12, and both candidates (considering their overall education policy offer) were proposing to increase that differential considerably. When I pointed this out to my dad, who was a veteran observer of ill-considered political decisions, he said “That’s not really what they care about. It’s just that nobody in their campaigns has bothered to do the calculation that you have done”.

Because discussions here at CT have had such an influence on my own thinking, I thought some of you might be interested in reading the whole thing so here’s the paper. Please share it with your friends, and feel free to comment!