Yale University’s Hélène Landemore: “From crowdsourcing the hunt to crowdsourcing the law?”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines crowdsourcing as the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.

Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University

Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University

In this blog post, Hélène Landemore, Assistant Professor of Political science at Yale University, discusses crowdsourcing, its political advantage, and government involvement: 

Crowdsourcing has become a popular tool to engage people in processes ranging from urban planning to solving complex scientific problems. Yet it had never been used before for a high-profile police operation like the one involved in the Boston bombings. The success of this first attempt begs the question: Couldn’t crowdsourcing techniques be for other governmental tasks? In an age where technologies allow for quick, almost costless multiple-way exchanges between the public and the government, it seems like a waste of opportunity not to tap further the now famed “wisdom of crowds.”

In the case of the manhunt, consider some striking aspects. It was the pictures, videos, and reports shared by the crowd that initially helped the FBI piece together who the bombers were. Then, after the FBI decided to go public with the pictures of the suspects, it was in part the information flowing from the crowd that helped quickly confirm the identity of the Tsarnaev brothers. Meanwhile social media kept the public apprised of the police progress and recommendations while gathering, processing, and circulating the information percolating up from the ground. Ultimately, it was a tip emanating from the crowd, in that case a Watertown resident who happened to own the boat on which the second suspect sought refuge, that brought the hunt to a speedy end.

There is no question that the police did an amazing investigative job of their own going over the mass of information, making difficult decisions at every step, and taking all the physical risks and responsibilities. But it is also apparent that one of their cleverest decisions was to involve the crowd from the beginning, a crowd that deserves some credit in the result. Without the crowd, the criminals might not have been identified as quickly, which could have resulted in their escape and more casualties, or perhaps in the second suspect being discovered dead rather than alive.

Crowdsourcing means less secrecy and more transparency. The FBI’s decision to go that route was a trade-off between the risk of letting the suspects know that they had been identified (thus giving them a chance to change their appearance or go underground immediately) and the cost of not capitalizing on the useful information lying somewhere within the crowd. Crowdsourcing also involves the risks of false rumors and informational cascades. Websites like Reddit, 4Chan, Twitter and others have been rightly blamed for rushing to conclusions and spreading false and damaging information about innocent individuals. 

Let’s not forget, however, that more traditional police operations are not foolproof either. Further, while the crowd can err, as can smaller groups of experts, it is also able to self-correct in ways that experts typically cannot or do not. Within a few hours after the mistake was revealed, the websites that had spread false information apologized and deleted the relevant links. There is definitely a learning curve to using these new technologies safely, but so far the evidence is that the crowd is up to the challenge. Most importantly, there are advantages to involving the crowd, in terms of diversity of perspectives as well as information-processing power, which, in this day and age, simply shift the balance against expertise and secrecy. 

In any case, my suggestion here is not that crowdsourcing should be used in every police operation. It is simply that when it comes to government as usual, where the stakes are generally lower than in a life-and-death scenario like the one Bostonians just went through, there should be more opportunities for regular people who happen to have the motivation, information, and smarts to participate and help along. 

The Obama administration has recently launched a promising Open Government initiative. Yet not much has been done, so far, to harness the power of crowds at the federal or state level. Cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and many others have been more ambitious in that respect, embracing not just Open Data and Participatory Budgeting but also experimenting with various crowdsourcing techniques. Other countries are also ahead of the curve, as evidenced in Iceland’s recent attempt at crowdsourcing, partly at least, the writing of a new constitution, or Finland’s ongoing experiment in crowdsourcing a contentious legislative process on off-road traffic (full disclaimer: I’m involved in this project). Couldn’t we imagine doing something similar on, say, Wall Street regulations or gun laws in this country? 

One of the many lessons of the Boston bombings, one that shouldn’t go to waste, is that there are many people out there both eager and uniquely able to help leaders, representatives, and the experts they rely on. Better still, they’re willing to do it all for free. If the crowd can help catch terrorists, why couldn’t they help fix the economy, education, healthcare, or the environment? The political problems we face are daunting and complex and we need all the brainpower we can get. I say, let the crowd in.


Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many by Hélène LandemoreIndividual decision making can often be wrong due to misinformation, impulses, or biases. Collective decision making, on the other hand, can be surprisingly accurate. In Democratic Reason, Hélène Landemore demonstrates that the very factors behind the superiority of collective decision making add up to a strong case for democracy. She shows that the processes and procedures of democratic decision making form a cognitive system that ensures that decisions taken by the many are more likely to be right than decisions taken by the few. Democracy as a form of government is therefore valuable not only because it is legitimate and just, but also because it is smart.

Landemore considers how the argument plays out with respect to two main mechanisms of democratic politics: inclusive deliberation and majority rule. In deliberative settings, the truth-tracking properties of deliberation are enhanced more by inclusiveness than by individual competence. Landemore explores this idea in the contexts of representative democracy and the selection of representatives. She also discusses several models for the “wisdom of crowds” channeled by majority rule, examining the trade-offs between inclusiveness and individual competence in voting. When inclusive deliberation and majority rule are combined, they beat less inclusive methods, in which one person or a small group decide. Democratic Reason thus establishes the superiority of democracy as a way of making decisions for the common good.

Can whistleblowing ever be justified? — Edward Snowden exposes NSA’s confidential surveillance program and is said to be hiding in Hong Kong

The National Security Agency (NSA)National Security Agency (NSA) has a secret program that allows the commission to gain access to user information stored by big-name internet organizations. Some of the most recognizable companies include Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Skype.

29-year-old Edward Snowden, a mid-level IT worker contracted by the NSA, leaked top-secret NSA documentation about PRISM. PRISM tracks user information such as photos, content of e-mails, live chat, videos, and login alerts. Snowden is said to be hiding out in Hong Kong. All companies involved have allegedly denied allowing NSA to gain direct access to their databases. It is currently up for debate as to whether or not Snowden is a hero to the public or someone that acted recklessly, endangering the safety of all Americans.

PRISM is reported to have been authorized and enforced in 2007. President George Bush passed PRISM along with other changes to the US surveillance rules. President Barack Obama renewed the edict last year.

KQED Forum: Edward Snowden

The Guardian via Getty Images — Edward Snowden speaks during an interview in Hong Kong.

KQED Forum with Michael Krasny is a live call-in program that presents wide-ranging discussions of local, state, national and international issues, as well as in-depth interviews. On Tuesday, June 11, Krasny posted a session that includes political science expert and author of Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, Rahul Sagar. Sagar is an Assistant Professor at Princeton University within the Department of Politics. Sagar has taken a firm stance that Snowden was “misguided” and his choice to leak information was ill-considered. He feels that Snowden has acted inappropriately by taking the law into his own hands. By exposing this information, Sagar believes Snowden acted wrongfully from a legal standpoint and should have pursued a safer avenue if he wanted his discovery to be revealed.

To hear more about PRISM and Sagar’s viewpoint on whistleblowing, listen to Krasny’s segment on the NSA leak:

View this recording on the KQED Forum webpage: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201306110900

Secrets and Leaks:
The Dilemma of State Secrecy

Rahul Sagar

Rahul Sagar -- Princeton U: Assistant Professor, Department of PoliticsRahul Sagar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. His primary research interests are the field of political theory and include topics in ancient and modern political theory including executive power, moderation, tyranny, and political realism.

Sagar’s first book, Secrets and Leaks: The Dilemma of State Secrecy, is set to be released in October 2013. Sagar examines the complex relationships among executive power, national security, and secrecy. State secrecy is vital for national security, but it can also be used to conceal wrongdoing. How then can we ensure that this power is used responsibly? Typically, the onus is put on lawmakers and judges, who are expected to oversee the executive. Yet because these actors lack access to the relevant information and the ability to determine the harm likely to be caused by its disclosure, they often defer to the executive’s claims about the need for secrecy. As a result, potential abuses are more often exposed by unauthorized disclosures published in the press.

But should such disclosures, which violate the law, be condoned? Drawing on several cases, Rahul Sagar argues that though whistle-blowing can be morally justified, the fear of retaliation usually prompts officials to act anonymously–that is, to “leak” information. As a result, it becomes difficult for the public to discern when an unauthorized disclosure is intended to further partisan interests. Because such disclosures are the only credible means of checking the executive, Sagar writes, they must be tolerated. However, the public should treat such disclosures skeptically and subject irresponsible journalism to concerted criticism.

HP & PUP: Slytherin’s PUP Reading List

This week we have a couple of PUP books for any prospective Hogwarts student seeking placement in the Slytherin house. These students certainly get a bad rap for being evil with alum like Draco Malfoy and Lord Voldemort- oops, I said his name! However, I think the more redeeming quality of these students is that they are fierce in their quest for power. What would a Slytherin read?

1. How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders ed. Philip Freeman- Cicero’s ancient advice could help them climb to the top.

Marcus Cicero, Rome’s greatest statesman and orator, was elected to the Roman Republic’s highest office at a time when his beloved country was threatened by power-hungry politicians, dire economic troubles, foreign turmoil, and political parties that refused to work together. Sound familiar? Cicero’s letters, speeches, and other writings are filled with timeless wisdom and practical insight about how to solve these and other problems of leadership and politics. How to Run a Country collects the best of these writings to provide an entertaining, common sense guide for modern leaders and citizens. This brief book, a sequel to How to Win an Election, gathers Cicero’s most perceptive thoughts on topics such as leadership, corruption, the balance of power, taxes, war, immigration, and the importance of compromise. These writings have influenced great leaders–including America’s Founding Fathers–for two thousand years, and they are just as instructive today as when they were first written.

Organized by topic and featuring lively new translations, the book also includes an introduction, headnotes, a glossary, suggestions for further reading, and an appendix containing the original Latin texts. The result is an enlightening introduction to some of the most enduring political wisdom of all time.

2. Human Capitalism: How Economic Growth Has Made Us Smarter–and More Unequal by Brink Lindsey- Lindsey explains the growing class divide and how the rich get richer and the poor are trapped in a life of poorness… though the more evil Slytherins may want to keep it this way.

What explains the growing class divide between the well educated and everybody else? Noted author Brink Lindsey, a senior scholar at the Kauffman Foundation, argues that it’s because economic expansion is creating an increasingly complex world in which only a minority with the right knowledge and skills–the right “human capital”–reap the majority of the economic rewards. The complexity of today’s economy is not only making these lucky elites richer–it is also making them smarter. As the economy makes ever-greater demands on their minds, the successful are making ever-greater investments in education and other ways of increasing their human capital, expanding their cognitive skills and leading them to still higher levels of success. But unfortunately, even as the rich are securely riding this virtuous cycle, the poor are trapped in a vicious one, as a lack of human capital leads to family breakdown, unemployment, dysfunction, and further erosion of knowledge and skills. In this brief, clear, and forthright eBook original, Lindsey shows how economic growth is creating unprecedented levels of human capital–and suggests how the huge benefits of this development can be spread beyond those who are already enjoying its rewards.

3. Niccolò Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography by Corrado Vivanti, Trans. by Simon MacMichael- This is the biography of the man behind The Prince which was about how a prince’s aims such as glory and survival can justify the immoral means to get those ends. (Okay, so maybe I think Slytherins are a bit corrupt…)

This is a colorful, comprehensive, and authoritative introduction to the life and work of the author of The Prince–Florentine statesman, writer, and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). Corrado Vivanti, who was one of the world’s leading Machiavelli scholars, provides an unparalleled intellectual biography that demonstrates the close connections between Machiavelli’s thought and his changing fortunes during the tumultuous Florentine republic and his subsequent exile. Vivanti’s concise account covers not only Machiavelli’s most famous works–The Prince, The Discourses, The Florentine Histories, and The Art of War–but also his letters, poetry, and comic dramas. While setting Machiavelli’s life against a dramatic backdrop of war, crisis, and diplomatic intrigue, the book also paints a vivid human portrait of the man.

Vivanti’s narrative breaks Machiavelli’s life into three parts: his career in a variety of government and diplomatic posts in the Florentine republic between 1494 and 1512, when the Medici returned from exile, seized power, and removed Machiavelli from office; the pivotal first part of his subsequent exile, when he formulated his most influential ideas and wrote The Prince; and the final decade of his life, when, having returned to Florence, he wrote The Art of War, The Florentine Histories, the satirical play The Mandrake, and other works. Along the way, the biography presents unmatched accounts of many intensely debated topics, including the precise nature of Machiavelli’s cultural and intellectual background, his republicanism, his political and personal relationship to the Medici, and his ideas about religion.

Keep coming back to get your reading list for your Hogwarts house!

Corey Brettschneider on The Glenn Show, Public Ethics Radio, and more

Political and constitutional theorist Corey Brettschneider has been busy doing a number of interviews to promote his book, When the State Speaks, What Should it Say: How Democracies Can Protect Expression and Promote Equality. His book looks at the quandary often faced by democracies when they are forced to choose between protecting the right of its citizens to engage in hate-related speech, or violating freedom of expression. Brettschneider argues that the state should protect the right to express discriminatory beliefs, but that it should actively engage in democratic persuasion, publicly criticizing or giving reasons to reject such hate-based views. Check out his first interview on Bloggingheads about his book, and his second, a discussion of race and public / private distinction. Corey  also appeared on Public Ethics Radio  (sponsored by Carnegie Endowment) with Christian Barry  to discuss his book, and took part in a New Books in Philosophy interview with Robert Talisse.

For a detailed look at When the State Speaks, What Should it Say, check out the online symposium on Publicreason.net, an ongoing chapter-by-chapter discussion of his book, with contributions by an array of prominent scholars.

 

 

 

Airport Paranoia and the De-humanizing Agendum it Stems From

A great number of things have changed in American airlines since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Newer, “safer” procedures have been introduced, and seemingly outdated processes have been cast aside. What’s questionable, however, is if these new procedures really hold much of a benefit or any advantage at all. With the creation of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act on November 19, 2001, airlines no longer contracted with private companies for airport screening. The federal government has taken over airline precautions in the form of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The TSA has implemented a number of policies to make the airports and airlines safer places to go. A more watchful eye now oversees our airline’s customers.

Long gone are the days when passengers could enter the cockpit at free will. Flight decks now include bulletproof doors made with heavy duty materials, such as ballistic aluminum armor unified with composite armor laminates to prevent unauthorized access by terrorists or anyone wishing to do harm. While procedures like these seem to bear little negative repercussions in regard to travel safety, there are certainly some security actions on the social side of the spectrum that could be categorized as socially questionable.  Tallying off the list of possible missteps in airline security policy prompts many experts in sociology, law, and philosophy to dissect the newer airline security model. Perhaps there should be some consideration given to the fact that certain regulations have “pushed the envelope” a little too far.

Take for example the case of Nick George, as reported by PBS NewsHour. George was passing through security in a Philadelphia airport on his way back to college in California. While going through the security checkpoint, George had been carrying some 200 flashcards written in Arabic. Around ten of the flashcards had ‘alarming’ vocabulary written on them, such as “bomb” or “terrorist.”

George was using these flash cards for his Arabic language course and had merely been trying to study more about the Arabic media. George’s offered explanation did not prevent him from being meticulously questioned by the FBI and TSA for hours on end. The vocabulary words were not in fact used for sadistic doctrine, as the airport security officials’ actions might have suggested. This raises the question as to whether or not George’s First and Fourth amendment rights were violated. A suit had been filed on behalf of The American Civil Liberties Union and has since been dropped by the federal defendants and is now “proceeding to discovery,” which means further investigation is underway.

So, are basic human rights being violated by some of the more radical regulations instituted by today’s airlines? Harvey Molotch, author of Against Security believes there is a case to be made. Molotch addresses some of the most controversial policies that have sparked heated debates across human rights and political forums across the nation. When it comes to de-humanizing individuals, Molotch believes the movement to ban public restrooms is at the paramount of humiliation and degradation aimed toward the human species. To deprive people of such a basic human function is frightening to anyone who values their freedoms and constitutional rights.

Read more about airport security and what we can do to make travel in our country safer without sacrificing our dignities and the right to live life peacefully:


bookjacket


Against Security:
How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger
Harvey Molotch

PUP author E.J. Dionne Jr. is mentioned as a noteworthy intellectual of liberal Catholicism in a New York Times op-ed

In last weekend’s NY Times, Molly Worthen laments the caricatured, politically right-wing version of Catholicism portrayed in the U.S. Presidential campaign, and argues for increased attention to an all-too-often ignored and ill-understood social justice orientation of liberal Catholicism. The tradition of liberal Catholicism, which is incompatible with the Ayn Randian visions of Vice-Presidential candidate Paul Ryan, remains alive and well, and is discussed and defended with eloquence in a recent Princeton University Press book by EJ Dionne Jr. policy making:

If the Democratic Party is not listening to liberal Catholics, it is partly because they are not in a position to speak very loudly. They are dodging the sights of a Roman hierarchy more preoccupied with smoking out left-leaning nuns than nurturing critical thinking.

“Is liberal Catholicism dead?” Time wondered a few years back. The answer is no: in some regards, liberal Catholic intellectuals are flourishing. They are writing and teaching, running social justice initiatives at the church’s great universities, ensconced in professorships around the Ivy League. Yet a cozy academic subculture can be as isolating as it is empowering.

The handful of nationally known Catholic political thinkers who might be called progressive, or at least compassionate and cosmopolitan — like the journalist-scholars Garry Wills and E. J. Dionne Jr., blogmeister Andrew Sullivan, or the feminist nun and blogger Sister Joan Chittister — are far outnumbered by the ranks of prominent Catholic conservatives in the trenches of activism and policy making.

Read more over at the NY Times op-ed pages.

bookjacket

Souled Out:
Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right
E. J. Dionne Jr.

 

 

Jason Brennan on Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan‘s recent book The Ethics of Voting challenges the common assumption that everyone who can vote, should vote, arguing instead that uninformed voters are to blame for everything from bad laws, to wars and disastrous economic policies. In an ongoing series of popular posts for Election 101, (check here, and here, and here), Brennan takes the view that it’s no wonder things are in the state they’re in when the average voter heads to the polls armed with more personal biases than real information, and no ability to tell the difference. With so much at stake, why aren’t we all a bit smarter when it comes to politics? Are we indulging our irrational beliefs at the risk of our own futures? Where does the turf war end and real assessment begin, and why is it so hard for any of us to actually get to that point? Read his new post here:


Why We’re Dumb at Politics

Jason Brennan

 

Smart Doesn’t Pay

            You cross the street only when you think it’s clear. If you’re wrong, you die. So, you have every incentive to form beliefs about whether the street is clear in a rational way.

Now suppose you are about to vote. What happens if you make a mistake? Alas—not much.
Suppose Obama credibly promises me $10 million from the treasury if he is re-elected. If so, then from a selfish standpoint, having Obama win is worth $10 million more to me than having Romney win. However, that doesn’t yet show it’s worth my time to vote for Obama. My vote is just one of many. I have a better chance of winning Powerball than changing the outcome of the election.

People are fairly rational about checking for street traffic—and they’re not perfect about that—because irrationality is punished. They are irrational about politics because rationality does not pay and irrationality goes unpunished.           

When you go to a new restaurant, you probably spend some time looking over the menu. Maybe you ask the waiter which dishes are best. Maybe you deliberate about pasta or pizza. You put in the effort because you get what you choose.

Imagine a restaurant with a hundred million customers. Each customer places an order. However, customers don’t automatically get the meal they order. Instead, everyone gets the same meal—the most popular item on the menu. In this restaurant, if you order pizza, this has almost no chance of helping you get pizza. You are more likely to win Powerball than to place a tie-breaking order for pizza. In a restaurant like that, you might not even bother to look at the menu. You might not even bother place an order. Putting in effort to make a good choice seems pointless.

Now you know why so many citizens are ignorant and irrational about politics. Regardless of whether we care about others or just ourselves, most of us don’t invest in political knowledge because political knowledge doesn’t pay. We are ignorant because we lack the incentive to be well-informed. We are irrational because we lack the incentive to correct our biases.

Dumb Pays

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, ”Reasoning was not designed to pursue truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” Robert Wright concurs that the human brain evolved to be “a machine for winning arguments,” that is, for seeking victory, not truth.

Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs a person finds pleasing. According to the theory of motivated reasoning, we have preferences over beliefs. We enjoy some beliefs. We tend to believe what we prefer to be true. Motivated reasoning occurs when the brain tries to arrive at beliefs that maximize good feelings and minimize bad feelings. Our beliefs are determined by emotions, not evidence. For example, I might prefer to think I am smart, I might prefer to think Democrats are good and Republicans are selfish, or I might prefer to think God created the earth 6,000 years ago.

Psychologist Drew Westen performed a famous experiment in which he scanned committed Democrats’ and Republicans’ brains as they engaged in motivated reasoning. One scary finding: As the partisans denied and evaded evidence right in front of their faces, pleasure centers in their brains lit up. Our brains reward us for intellectual vice.

In politics, dumb is fun. It’s fun to think my coalition is made up of all the good guys. It’s fun to feel superior to the other side—to imagine they are all ignorant and corrupt. It’s fun to allow our political beliefs to form an essential part of our identities. It’s fun to treat the Democrat-Republican rivalry like the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry.

We can afford to indulge pleasurable but grossly irrational political beliefs. And, so, most of us do.

The News Once Again Indicates I Was Right All Along

When we first begin thinking about politics, we don’t start as agnostics. That is, we don’t start with the attitude, “Oh, I don’t know anything, so I will withhold judgment until I first study a whole bunch.”

Few of us form our original political beliefs after first weighing the evidence. Instead, when we first start thinking about politics, we come to the table with groundless political beliefs. We begin with bents to believe some things and disbelieve others. For no good reason, each of us starts off left or right, libertarian or authoritarian, market-friendly or anti-market, and so on.

Our political beliefs are at least moderately hereditable. You genes dispose us to vote one way rather than another. Early childhood experiences also push you one way rather than another. By sheer accident, you might come to associate the Democrats with compassion or the Republicans with responsibility. For you, for the rest of your life, the word “Democrat” will automatically conjure up positive emotions. For the rest of your life, you’ll have a bent—based on no evidence at all—to vote one way rather than another.

When people first start thinking about politics, they come to the table with (often strongly held) pre-existing beliefs. That’s already a worry. Yet if we were really good at assessing evidence and changing our beliefs in light of evidence, then our non-rational bents would not be so bad. Sure, we’d start with groundless, baseless beliefs, but we’d end up with well-grounded beliefs. Young people would start as hacks, but end up as sages.

Alas, we are bad at assessing evidence. Most of us stay hacks.

In politics—but not only in politics—we exhibit strong confirmation bias. This means we tend to pay strong attention to and accept evidence in favor of beliefs we already hold, and tend to ignore, reject, or be bored by evidence against beliefs we hold. We tend to be impressed by evidence that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We tend to ignore or be suspicious of evidence that this confirms our pre-existing beliefs. We are bored by evidence that tends to confirm views we reject. We cannot even be bothered to evaluate it. We give every benefit of the doubt to arguments and to people who support our views. We are quick to dismiss arguments and people who reject our views.

Confirmation bias means we don’t act like good scientists when thinking about politics. Instead, it means we act like highly corrupt scientists. We don’t care about the truth. We care about defending our turf.

Confirmation bias explains how we consume news. Thanks to the Internet, information is cheaper and easier to get than ever before. Why isn’t everyone much better informed and much less biased, then? Here’s the problem: People seek out news sources that identify and promote their own points of view. Libertarians read libertarian blogs. Left-liberals read left-liberal newspapers, such as the New York Times. Republicans flock to Fox News. People who consume news want to be informed—they want to be informed that they were right all along.

Jason Brennan is assistant professor of ethics at Georgetown University. He is the coauthor of A Brief History of Liberty.

David Runciman on Crisis Elections

Political theorist at Cambridge and British journalist David Runciman has offered us some of the most thought-provoking takes on the problems that plague modern politics. Author of The Politics of Good Intentions as well as Political Hypocrisy, his  forthcoming book, The Confidence Trap, a history of democracy and crisis, is due out in Fall of next year. Here he discusses the idea of crisis elections: Certainly we faced one in 1932, 1980, and 2008, but are we facing one now? Peggy Noonan thinks so. What has been the historical impact on elected governments during times of crisis, and what makes election 2012 different?  Read Runciman’s post here:

 


Crisis Elections

David Runciman

 

Major economic crises make it very difficult for elected governments to hold on to office.  During the first four years of the Great Depression, every democracy around the world, from Australia to Austria, from Brazil to Bulgaria, changed government at least once.  Many of them gave up on democracy altogether and reverted to some form of military rule.  It was a sobering fact, much noted at the time, that when the world’s states gathered in London in June 1933 for the World Economic Conference, only two countries were still being run by the same people who had been in charge when Wall Street crashed in October 1929.  They were Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia (and Stalin didn’t even bother to send a delegation to London).  It added to the impression that crises suit dictatorships, not democracies.

The global economic crisis of the mid-1970s also proved a very tough time for democratic leaders.  They found themselves being forced from office just about everywhere, either though defeat at the ballot box or driven out by scandals.  Almost the only one to hold on was Indira Gandhi in India, and she only managed it by using emergency powers to suspend Indian democracy altogether in 1975.  When she relented twenty-one months later and finally allowed elections, the voters kicked her out too.

This crisis has been different.  Plenty of elected leaders who were in charge when Lehman’s went under nearly four years ago are still there now.  Manmohan Singh in India, Angela Merkel in Germany, Stephen Harper in Canada and Recep Erdogan in Turkey have all been in office for well over the duration.  This reflects the widely varying impact of the crisis on different parts of the democratic world.  These four countries have all had relatively benign crises and their economies have proved fairly robust.  The same is true of Australia, which has changed leader from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard, but only because of an internal party coup; the same party is still in power.  In fact, of the members of the G20, ten have had the same government since 2008, and only two of these are straightforwardly undemocratic (China and Saudi Arabia).

The result is that no clear pattern for democracy has emerged in this crisis.  In some places, including Southern Europe, democracy has looked very fragile and in Italy and Greece there have been temporary suspensions; elsewhere, democracy has looked strong.  The patterns of earlier crises were much clearer.  The Great Depression was very bad for democracy and nearly destroyed it.  The 1970s, in retrospect, were good for democracy.  Countries that were able to change governments found an outlet for popular discontent.  Authoritarian regimes that lacked a comparable outlet either fell apart (as in Greece and Portugal) or were forced to suppress the symptoms of the crisis (as in Eastern Europe) with disastrous long-term consequences.  The democratic tendency to switch horses in tough times was a weakness in the 1930s.  During the 1970s it was a strength.

The lack of a clear pattern this time round makes it hard to know where to place the US election of 2012.  Is it even a ‘crisis’ election?  The election of 2008, which took place two months after the Lehman’s debacle, definitively was.  That was what helped Obama win.  He inherited the crisis.  In four years he has neither fixed it nor has he allowed it to spin out of control.  He has surfed along with it.  He doesn’t ‘own’ it, for better or for worse.  That means there is still scope for competing narratives to take hold before November.  Is it time for a change or time to stay the course?  Either line might stick, depending on how well the candidates can deliver it.

But there is also still scope for the crisis to take another turn.  This crisis differs from previous ones in being more inconclusive.  It simply drags on, unresolved, unfathomable, and littered with false dawns.  Though Europe has stabilized for now, it is not hard to imagine another lurch later this year, triggered by a Greek default or a political meltdown in Italy or a bank run in Spain, which takes the crisis to another level, and sweeps away another raft of elected governments, including in Germany and perhaps further afield.

Will the next wave hit before November?  Who knows, but at the moment it seems unlikely.  Obama has always struck me as a lucky politician.  In crisis politics, as in comedy, the key to success is timing.

 

David Runciman teaches political theory at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of Trinity Hall. He is the author of The Politics of Good Intentions and Political Hypocrisy, and writes regularly about politics for the London Review of Books.

 

 

ELECTION TUESDAY

FACT: “A feature of the ‘great compromise’ between the North and the slave-holding South was the provision for electing two senators from each state. That arrangement has given those chosen to represent small, sparsely populated states—then Rhode Island and Delaware, now Vermont and Wyoming—equal power with the most populous. In 1790 Virginia had ten times the population of Rhode Island; California now has more than seventy times the population
of Wyoming.”

Reading Obama:
Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition

by James T. Kloppenberg
With a new preface by the author

Derided by the Right as dangerous and by the Left as spineless, Barack Obama puzzles observers. In Reading Obama, James T. Kloppenberg reveals the sources of Obama’s ideas and explains why his principled aversion to absolutes does not fit contemporary partisan categories. Obama’s commitments to deliberation and experimentation derive from sustained engagement with American democratic thought. In a new preface, Kloppenberg explains why Obama has stuck with his commitment to compromise in the first three years of his presidency, despite the criticism it has provoked.

Reading Obama traces the origins of his ideas and establishes him as the most penetrating political thinker elected to the presidency in the past century. Kloppenberg demonstrates the influences that have shaped Obama’s distinctive worldview, including Nietzsche and Niebuhr, Ellison and Rawls, and recent theorists engaged in debates about feminism, critical race theory, and cultural norms. Examining Obama’s views on the Constitution, slavery and the Civil War, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, Kloppenberg shows Obama’s sophisticated understanding of American history. Obama’s interest in compromise, reasoned public debate, and the patient nurturing of civility is a sign of strength, not weakness, Kloppenberg argues. He locates its roots in Madison, Lincoln, and especially in the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, which nourished generations of American progressives, black and white, female and male, through much of the twentieth century, albeit with mixed results.

Reading Obama reveals the sources of Obama’s commitment to democratic deliberation: the books he has read, the visionaries who have inspired him, the social movements and personal struggles that have shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg shows that Obama’s positions on social justice, religion, race, family, and America’s role in the world do not stem from a desire to please everyone but from deeply rooted—although currently unfashionable—convictions about how a democracy must deal with difference and conflict.

“James Kloppenberg, one of America’s foremost intellectual historians, persuasively argues that [there is] a broader shift in American philosophy away from appeal to general principles, valid at all times and in all places, toward a reliance on local, historically particular values and ideals. Kloppenberg’s own endeavor, in surveying the work in political and legal theory that seems to have shaped President Obama’s thinking, is to argue for the coherence, the Americanness, and the plausibility of Obama’s approach to politics and to the Constitution.”—Kwame Anthony Appiah, New York Review of Books

We invite you to read the Introduction here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/i9277.pdf

Be sure to check in every Tuesday for a new tidbit from our great selection of politically-minded books.

New 2012 Political Science & Law Catalog and #APSA2012 Announcement

We invite you to check out new and forthcoming books in our 2012 political science & law catalog at:
http://press.princeton.edu/catalogs/polisci12.pdf

We are sorry to say we will not see you at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting in New Orleans. Due to Hurricane/Storm Isaac we decided to play it safe and not attend. Is everyone going to Vegas now? Yes, we’re following the #APSA2012 tweets.

Even though you won’t find our booth at APSA, you can still order PUP books using the conference discount. Because we could not make it to the meeting, we are offering 30% off when you order at press.princeton.edu. Please enter code P05129 in the Catalog Code box when you check out. Your discount will be applied when the order is processed. This special offer expires October 31, 2012. You can also order by phone at 1-800-777-4726, just make sure to mention the special offer code P05129.

You can start browsing the catalog, or start browsing these great new and forthcoming titles below (just to name a few):

The Unheavenly Chorus:
Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy

Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba & Henry E. Brady
Read chapter one online.

The Spirit of Compromise:
Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It

Amy Gutmann & Dennis Thompson
Read the introduction online.

How to Win an Election:
An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians

Quintus Tullius Cicero
Translated and with an introduction by Philip Freeman
Read the introduction online.

Creating a New Racial Order:
How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake Race in America

Jennifer L. Hochschild, Vesla M. Weaver & Traci R. Burch
Read the introduction online.

Solomon’s Knot:
How Law Can End the Poverty of Nations

Robert D. Cooter & Hans-Bernd Schäfer
Read chapter one online.

And of special interest – two chapters available for free download:
The Gamble
by John Sides & Lynn Vavreck

The Hand You’re Dealt and Random, or Romney?

We hope everyone stays safe. We’ll see you next year at APSA!

To learn more about new political science and law books, you can sign up for our new book e-mail announcements at:
http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/

Will the bad voters please step forward? More from Jason Brennan

Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting created quite a stir here yesterday with his post on why most people shouldn’t vote, so I asked him to sound off on some of the comments he received, including the question of how to identify what some called the all-too-subjective “bad voter”. The burning question seems to be, how do you know if you’re a bad voter? Well, as Jason argues, you probably are. But read on for some interesting findings from political psychology that explain his views, as well as some practical advice on improving cognitive biases and becoming a good voter.

 

How Do I Know if I’m a Bad Voter

Jason Brennan

 

In The Ethics of Voting, I argue that most people have a moral duty to abstain from voting. See my previous posts, “Bad Government is Our Fault” and “Most People Shouldn’t Vote” for part of my explanation why. (Note that in “Bad Government is Our Fault”, I explain why I focus on bad voting even though bad voting is not the only thing that causes bad government.)

Here’s a problem: the people I describe as bad voters are unlikely recognize that they are bad voters.

To confirm this in at least one instance, as an unscientific experiment, I discussed my thesis with a person whom I believe exemplifies bad voting.  He agreed that other people should not vote.

More scientifically, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have shown that incompetent people systematically overestimate their own knowledge, competence, and mental acuity, while they systematically underestimate others’ competence. The less incompetent people know, the less they know it. In contrast, more competent people tend to be more modest about their abilities. They know much, but they also know how much they don’t know. They overestimate how much others know. (This is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)

In chapter seven and in the afterword of The Ethics of Voting, I give an overview of some findings from political psychology, as well as other studies in voter rationality and knowledge. The upshot of those findings is, in my opinion, that any random person should assume she is politically incompetent until she has good reason to think otherwise. The issue is not “How do I know I’m a bad voter?”—you probably are.*

Instead, the issue is “How could I possibly become a good voter?” In the afterword to the paperback edition, I give some practical advice about becoming a good voter. Becoming a good voter takes significant knowledge of the social sciences and of some current events, but that’s not the first step. Getting information is not only useless, but downright harmful, unless you have disciplined your mind to process information in a dispassionate, scientific, unbiased way. So, in the afterword, I outline some of the main cognitive biases we suffer from, and describe practical steps one can take to overcome those biases.

Now, I freely admit that most bad voters do not recognize they are bad voters. If so, one might object, how can they have a duty not to vote? They do not know they are bad voters, so how can they have a duty to abstain?

I don’t find this objection persuasive. Here’s an analogy. Suppose Bob beats his children for any minor infractions. He refuses to educate them, holding that education corrupts the soul. He verbally abuses them because he thinks this builds character. Bob does all of this because he thinks it’s best for his children, even though it’s clearly not. Now, suppose Bob isn’t crazy. Rather, he’s just in the grip of some false, bad beliefs about child rearing. In this case, most of us would hold Bob responsible for his actions. Sure, he thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he should know better. He’s a bad parent and should act better.

I have often compared bad voters to drunk drivers—they are like people steering the state while intoxicated. Suppose I am driving drunk and a child is crossing at a crosswalk.  Because I am so drunk, I am unable to see the child, and so I am unable to recognize that I have a duty to stop.  Still, even though I don’t know that the child is there, I have a duty to stop. Though I am unable to know I have a duty to stop, I am not relieved of that duty, because I had a responsibility to make sure I only drove the car while competent to do so. Similar remarks apply to voters. Many of them are too biased and irrational to make wise choices. But it’s their fault that they’re like that in the first place. So, they aren’t excused when the vote badly.

*However, people reading the Princeton University Press blog are much more likely to be good voters than randomly selected US citizens. I’m not saying that to suck up to readers, but because it’s true. The demographic factors that positively correlate with reading this post are also positively correlated with being a good voter, as I define the term.

ELECTION TUESDAY

FACT: “In his farewell address of 1797, George Washington warned against the dangerous ‘spirit of Party,’ which he said ‘serves always to distract the Public Councils and enfeeble the Public Administration. It ignites the Community with ill founded Jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot & insurrection.’ Yet in opposing the formation of political parties, Washington was voicing a vain hope. During Washington’s first term as president, his treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, had already formed the Federalist Party and his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, had founded the opposition Democratic-Republic Party.”

The Concise Princeton Encyclopedia of American
Political History

Edited by Michael Kazin
Rebecca Edwards & Adam Rothman, associate editors

With 150 accessible articles written by more than 130 leading experts, this essential reference provides authoritative introductions to some of the most important and talked-about topics in American history and politics, from the founding to today. Abridged from the acclaimed Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, this is the only single-volume encyclopedia that provides comprehensive coverage of both the traditional topics of U.S. political history and the broader forces that shape American politics–including economics, religion, social movements, race, class, and gender. Fully indexed and cross-referenced, each entry provides crucial context, expert analysis, informed perspectives, and suggestions for further reading.

Contributors include Dean Baker, Lewis Gould, Alex Keyssar, James Kloppenberg, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Lisa McGirr, Jack Rakove, Nick Salvatore, Stephen Skowronek, Jeremi Suri, Julian Zelizer, and many more.

Entries cover:

—Key political periods, from the founding to today

—Political institutions, major parties, and founding documents

—The broader forces that shape U.S. politics, from economics, religion, and social movements to race, class, and gender

—Ideas, philosophies, and movements

—The political history and influence of geographic regions

We invite you to read the Preface here: http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/p9518.pdf

Be sure to check in every Tuesday for a new tidbit from our great selection of politically-minded books.