Archive for the 'Economics' Category

Optimal Information Disclosure Levels: Data.gov and "Taleb's Criticism"

I was listening to the audio recording of last Friday’s “Scientific Data for Evidence Based Policy and Decision Making” symposium at the National Academies, and was struck by the earnest effort on the part of members of the Whitehouse to release governmental data to the public. Beth Noveck, Obama’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, frames the effort with a slogan, “Transparency, Participation, and Collaboration.” A plan is being developed by the Whitehouse in collaboration with the OMB to implement these three principles via a “massive release of data in open, downloadable, accessible for machine readable formats, across all agencies, not only in the Whitehouse,” says Beth. “At the heart of this commitment to transparency is a commitment to open data and open information..”

Vivek Kundra, Chief Information Officer in the Whitehouse’s Open Government Initiative, was even more explicit – saying that “the dream here is that you have a grad student, sifting through these datasets at 3 in the morning, who finds, at the intersection of multiple datasets, insight that we may not have seen, or developed a solution that we may not have thought of.”

This is an extraordinary vision. This discussion comes hot on the heels of a debate in Congress regarding the level of information they are willing to release to the public in advance of voting on a bill. Last Wednesday CBS reports, with regard to the health care bill, that “[t]he Senate Finance Committee considered for two hours today a Republican amendment — which was ultimately rejected — that would have required the “legislative” language of the committee’s final bill, along with a cost estimate for the bill, to be posted online for 72 hours before the committee voted on it. Instead, the committee passed a similar amendment, offered by Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.), to put online the “conceptual” or “plain” language of the bill, along with the cost estimate.” What is remarkable is the sense this gives that somehow the public won’t understand the raw text of the bill (I noticed no compromise position offered that would make both versions available, which seems an obvious solution).

The Whitehouse’s efforts have the potential to test this hypothesis: if given more information will people pull things out of context and promulgate misinformation? The Whitehouse is betting that they won’t, and Kundra does state the Whitehouse is accompanying dataset release with efforts to provide contextual meta-data for each dataset while safeguarding national security and individual privacy rights.

This sense of limits in openness isn’t unique to governmental issues and in my research on data and code sharing among scientists I’ve termed the concern “Taleb’s crticism.” In a 2008 essay on The Edge website, Taleb worries about the dangers that can result from people using statistical methodology without having a clear understanding of the techniques. An example of concern about Taleb’s Criticism appeared on UCSF’s EVA website, a repository of programs for automatic protein structure prediction. The UCSF researchers won’t release their code publicly because, as stated on their website, “We are seriously concerned about the ‘negative’ aspect of the freedom of the Web being that any newcomer can spend a day and hack out a program that predicts 3D structure, put it on the web, and it will be used.” Like the congressmen seemed to fear, for these folks openness is scary because people may misuse the information.

It could be argued, and for scientific research should be argued, that an open dialog of an idea’s merits is preferable to no dialog at all, and misinformation can be countered and exposed. Justice Brandeis famously elucidated this point in Whitney v. California (1927), writing that “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Data.gov is an experiment in context and may bolster trust in the public release of complex information. Speaking of the Data.gov project, Noveck explained that “the notion of making complex information more accessible to people and to make greater sense of that complex information was really at the heart.” This is a very bold move and it will be fascinating to see the outcome.

Crossposted on Yale Law School’s Information Society Project blog.

What's New at Science Foo Camp 2009

SciFoo is a wonderful annual gathering of thinkers about science. It’s an unconference and people who choose to speak do so. Here’s my reaction to a couple of these talks.

In Pete Worden’s discussion of modeling future climate change, I wondered about the reliability of simulation results. Worden conceded that there are several models doing the same predictions he showed, and they can give wildly opposing results. We need to develop the machinery to quantify error in simulation models just as we routinely do for conventional statistical modeling: simulation is often the only empirical tool we have for guiding policy responses to some of our most pressing issues.

But the newest I saw was Bob Metcalfe’s call for us to imagine what to do with the coming overabundance of energy. Metcalfe likened solving energy scarcity to the early days of Internet development: because of the generative design of Internet technology, we now have things that were unimagined in the early discussions, such as YouTube and online video. According to Metcalfe, we need to envision our future as including a “squanderable abundance” of energy, and use Internet lessons such as standardization and distribution of power sources to get there, rather than building for energy conservation.

Cross posted on The Edge.

Bill Gates to Development Researchers: Create and Share Statistics

I was recently in Doha, Qatar, presenting my research on global communication technology use and democratic tendency at ICTD09. I spoke right before the keynote, Bill Gates, whose main point was that when you engage in a goal-oriented activity, such as development, progress can only be made when you measure the impact of your efforts.

Gates paints a positive picture, measured by deaths before age 5. In the 1880′s he says about 30% of children died before their 5th birthday in most countries, and this gradually moved to 20 million in 1960 and then 10 million in 2006. Gates postulates this is due to rising income levels (40% of decrease), and medical innovation such as vaccines (60% of decrease).

This is an example of Gates’ mantra: you can only improve what you can measure. For example, an outbreak of measles tells you your vaccine system isn’t functioning. In his example about childhood deaths, he says we are getting somewhere here because we are measuring the value for money spent on the problem.

Gates thinks the wealthy in the world need to be exposed to these problems ideally through intermingling, or since that is unlikely to happen, through statistics and data visualization. Collect data, then communicate it. In short, Gates advocates creating statistics through measuring development efforts, and changing the world by exposing people to these data.

Stuart Shieber and the Future of Open Access Publishing

Back in February Harvard adopted a mandate requiring its faculty member to make their research papers available within a year of publication. Stuart Shieber is a computer science professor at Harvard and responsible for proposing the policy. He has since been named director of Harvard’s new Office for Scholarly Comminication.

On November 12 Shieber gave a talk entitled “The Future of Open Access — and How to Stop It” to give an update on where things stand after the adoption of the open access mandate. Open access isn’t just something that makes sense from an ethical standpoint, as Shieber points out that (for-profit) journal subscription costs have risen out of proportion with inflation costs and out of proportion with the costs of nonprofit journals. He notes that the cost per published page in a commercial journal is six times that of the nonprofits. With the current library budget cuts, open access — meaning both access to articles directly on the web and shifting subscriptions away from for-profit journals — is something that appears financially unavoidable.

Here’s the business model for an Open Access (OA) journal: authors pay a fee upfront in order for their paper to be published. Then the issue of the journal appears on the web (possibly also in print) without an access fee. Conversely, traditional for-profit publishing doesn’t charge the author to publish, but keeps the journal closed and charges subscription fees for access.

Shieber recaps Harvard’s policy:

1. The faculty member grants permission to the University to make the article available through an OA repository.

2. There is a waiver for articles: a faculty member can opt out of the OA mandate at his or her sole discretion. For example, if you have a prior agreement with a publisher you can abide by it.

3. The author themselves deposits the article in the repository.

Shieber notes that the policy is also because it allows Harvard to make a collective statement of principle, systematically provide metadata about articles, it clarifies the rights accruing to the article, it allows the university to facilitate the article deposit process, it allows the university to negotiate collectively, and having the mandate be opt out rather than opt in might increase rights retention at the author level.

So the concern Shieber set up in his talk is whether standards for research quality and peer review will be weakened. Here’s how the dystopian argument runs:

1. all universities enact OA policies
2. all articles become OA
3. libraries cancel subscriptions
4. prices go up on remaining journals
5. these remaining journals can’t recoup their costs
6. publishers can’t adapt their business model
7. so the journals and the logistics of peer review they provide, disappear

Shieber counters this argument: 1 through 5 are good because journals will start to feel some competitive pressure. What would be bad is if publishers cannot change their way of doing business. Shieber thinks that even if this is so it will have the effect of pushing us towards OA journals, which provide the same services, including peer review, as the traditional commercial journals.

But does the process of getting there cause a race to the bottom? The argument goes like this: since OA journals are paid by the number of articles published they will just publish everything, thereby destroying standards. Shieber argues this won’t happen because there is price discrimination among journals – authors will pay more to publish in the more prestigious journals. For example, PLOS costs about $3k, Biomed Central about $1000, and Scientific Publishers International is $96 for an article. Shieber also makes an argument that Harvard should have a fund to support faculty who wish to publish in an OA journal and have no other way to pay the fee.

This seems to imply that researchers with sufficient grant funding or falling under his proposed Harvard publication fee subsidy, would then be immune to the fee pressure and simply submit to the most prestigious journal and work their way down the chain until their paper is accepted. This also means that editors/reviewers decide what constitutes the best scientific articles by determining acceptance.

But is democratic representation in science a goal of OA? Missing from Shieber’s described market for scientific publications is any kind of feedback from the readers. The content of these journals, and the determination of prestige, is defined solely by the editors and reviewers. Maybe this is a good thing. But maybe there’s an opportunity to open this by allowing readers a voice in the market. This could done through ads or a very tiny fee on articles – both would give OA publishers an incentive to respond to the preferences of the readers. Perhaps OA journals should be commercial in the sense of profit-maximizing: they might have a reason to listen to readers and might be more effective at maximizing their prestige level.

This vision of OA publishing still effectively excludes researchers who are unable to secure grants or are not affiliated with a university that offers a publication subsidy. The dream behind OA publishing is that everyone can read the articles, but to fully engage in the intellectual debate quality research must still find its way into print, and at the appropriate level of prestige, regardless of the affiliation of the researcher. This is the other side of OA that is very important for researchers from the developing world or thinkers whose research is not mainstream (see, for example, Garrett Lisi a high impact researcher who is unaffiliated with an institution).

The OA publishing model Shieber describes is a clear step forward from the current model where journals are only accessible by affiliates of universities who have paid the subscription fees. It might be worth continuing to move toward an OA system where, not only can anyone access publications, but any quality research is capable of being published, regardless of the author’s affiliation and wealth. To get around the financial constraints one approach might be to allow journals to fund themselves through ads, or provide subsidies to certain researchers. This also opens up the idea of who decides what is quality research.

Sunstein speaks on extremism

Cass Sunstein, Professor at Harvard Law School, is speaking today on Extremism: Politics and Law. Related to this topic, he is the author of Nudge, Republic.com 2.0, and Infotopia. He discussed Republic 2.0 with Henry Farrell on this bloggingheads.tv diavlog, which touches on the theme of extremism in discourse and the web’s role is facilitating polarization of political views (notably, Farrell gives a good counterfactual to Sunstein’s claims, and Sunstein ends up agreeing with him).

Sunstein is in the midst of writing a new book on extremism and this talk is a teaser. He gives us a quote from Churchill: “Fanatics are people who can’t change their minds and will not change the subject.” Political scientist Hardin says he agrees with the first clause epistemologically but the second clause is wrong because they *cannot* change the subject. Sunstein says extremism in multiple domains (The Whitehouse, company boards, unions) results from group polarization.

He thinks the concept of group polization should replace the notion of group think in all fields. Group Polarization involves both information exchange and reputation. His thesis is that like-minded people talking with other like-minded people tend to move to more extreme positions upon disucssion – partly because of the new information and partly because of the pressure from peer viewpoints.

His empirical work on this began with his Colorado study. He and his coauthors recorded the private views on 3 issues (climate change, same sex marriage and race conscious affirmative action) for citizens in Boulder and for citizens in Colorado Springs. Boulder is liberal so they screened people to ensure liberalness: if they liked Cheney they were excused from the test. They asked the same Cheney question in Colorado Springs and if they didn’t like him they were excused. Then he interviewed them to determine their private view after deliberation, and well as having come to a group consensus.
Continue reading ‘Sunstein speaks on extremism’

Benkler: We are collaborators, not knaves

Yochai Benkler gave a talk today in reception of his appointment as the Jack N. and Lillian R. Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. Jack Berkman (now deceased) is the father of Myles Berkman, whose family endowed both the Berkman Center (where I am a fellow) and Benkler’s professorial chair.

His talk was titled “After Selfishness: Wikipedia 1, Hobbes 0 at Half Time” and he sets out to show that there is a sea change happening in the study of organizational systems that far better reflects how we actually interact, organize, and operate. He explains that the collaborative movements we generally characterize as belonging to the new internet age (free and open source software, wikipedia) are really just the instantiation of a wider and pervasive, in fact completely natural and longstanding, phenomena in human life.

This is due to how we can organize capital in the information and networked society: We own the core physical means of production as well as knowledge, insight, and creativity. Now we’re seeing longstanding society practices, such as non-hierarchical norm generation and collaboration more from the periphery of society to the center of our productive enterprises. Benkler’s key point in this talk is that this shift is not limited to Internet-based environments, but part of a broader change happening across society.

So how to we get people to produce good stuff? money? prizes? competition? Benkler notes the example of YouTube.com – contributors are not paid yet the community thrives. Benkler hypothesizes that the key is that people feel secure in their involvement with the community: not paying but creating a context where people feel secure in their collaboration in a system. Another example is Kaltura.com: Benkler attributes their success to ways they have found to assure contributors that when you produce you will be able to control what you produce. Cash doesn’t change hands. The challenge is to learn about human collaboration in general from these web-based examples. In Benkler’s words “replacing Leviathan with a collaborative system.”

Examples outside the web-based world include GM’s experience with it’s Fremont plant. This plant was among the worst performance in the company. GM shut it down for two years and brought it back 85% staffed by the previous workforce, the same union, but reorganized collaboratively to align incentives. This means there are no longer process engineers on the shop floor and direct control over experimentation and flow at the team level is gone. The plant did so well it forced the big three to copy although they did so in less purely collaborative ways, such as retaining competitive bidding. Benkler’s point is that there is a need for long term relationships based on trust. An emphasis on norms and trust, along with greater teamwork and autonomy for workers implies a more complex system with less perfect control than Hobbes’ Leviathan vision. The world changes too quickly for the old encumbered hierarchical model of economic production.

Benkler thinks this leads us to study social dynamics, an open field without many answers yet. He also relates this work to evolutionary biology: from group selection theory of the 50′s to the individualistic conception in Dawkins’ theory of the selfish gene in the 70′s, and now to multi-level selection and cooperation as a distinct driving force in evolution as opposed to the other way around. This opens a vein of research in empirical deviations from selfishness, as a pillar of homo economicus, just as Kahneman and Tversky challenged the twin pillar of rationality.

Benkler’s vision is to move away from the simple rigid hierarchical models toward ones that are richer and more complex and can capture more of our actual behavior, while still being tractable enough to produce predictions and a larger understanding of our world.

Book Review: The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond

I can’t believe I haven’t read this book until now since it intersects two areas of deep interest to me: technology (specifically programming) and freedom. Essentially the book celebrates liberty as a natural mode for creativity and productivity, with open source software as an example. Raymond has two further findings: that openness doesn’t necessarily imply a loss of property rights, and selfish motives are pervasive (and not evil).

When does open source work? And how about computational science?

Raymond’s biggest contribution is that he gives a wonderful analysis of the conditions that contribute to the success of the open approach, quoting from page 146 of the revised edition:

1. Reliability/stability/scalability are critical.
2. Correctness of design and implementation cannot readily be verified by means other than independent peer review.
3. The software is critical to the user’s control of his/her business.
4. The software establishes or enables a common computing and communication infrastructure.
5. Key methods (or functional equivalents of them) are part of common engineering knowledge.

I’m struck by how computational research seems to fit. Adapting Raymond’s list in this light:

1. Reproducibility of research is critical.
2. Correctness of methodology and results cannot readily be verified by means other than independent peer review.
3. The research is critical to academic careers.
4. Computational research may lead to common platforms since by its nature code is created, but this is not necessarily the case.
5. Key methods, such as the scientific method, are common research knowledge.

1, 2, and 3 seem fairly straightforward and a great fit for computational science. Computational research doesn’t tend to establish a common computing and communication infrastructure, although it can, for example David Donoho’s WaveLab or my colloborative work with him and others SparseLab. We were aiming not only to create a platform and vehicle for reproducible research but also to create software tools and common examples for researchers in the field. But at the moment this approach isn’t typical. In point 5, I think what Raymond means is that there is a common culture of how to solve a problem. I think computational scientists have this through their agreement on the scientific method for inquiry. Methodology in the computational sciences is undergoing rapid transformations – it is a very young field (for example, see my paper).

I think open source and computational research differ in their conception of openness. Implicitly I’ve been assuming opening to other computational researchers. But I can imagine a world that’s closer to the open source mechanism where people can participate based on their skill and interest alone, rather than school or group affiliation or similar types of insider knowledge. Fully open peer review and reproducible research would make these last criteria less important and go a long way to accruing the benefits that open source has seen.

Raymond notes that music and books are not like software in that they don’t need to be debugged and maintained. I think computational scientific research can bridge this in a way those areas don’t – the search for scientific understand requires cooperation and continual effort that builds on the work that has come before. Plus, there is something objective we’re trying to describe when we do computational research, so we have a common goal.

Property Rights – essential to a productive open system

The other theme that runs through the book is Raymond’s observation that openness doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of property rights, in fact they may be essential. He goes to great lengths to detail the community mores that enforce typical property right manifestations: attribution for work, relative valuation of different types of work, and boundary establishment for responsibility within projects for example. He draws a clever parallel between physical property rights as embodied in English common law (encoded in the American legal system) and the similarly self-evolved property rights of the open source world. John Locke codified the Anglo-American common law methods of acquiring ownership of land (page 76):

1. homesteading: mixing one’s labor with the unowned land and defending one’s title.
2. transfer of title.
3. adverse possession: owned land can be homesteaded and property rights acquired if the original owner does not defend his claim to the land.

A version of this operates in the hacker community with regard to open source projects. By contributing to an open source project you mix your labor in Lockean fashion and gain part of the project’s reputation return. The parallel between the real and virtual worlds is interesting – and the fact that physical property rights appear to be generalizable and important for conflict avoidance in open source systems. Raymond also notes that these property rights customs are strictly enforced in the open source world through moral suasion and the threat of ostracization.

The Role of Selfishness in Open Cultures

Raymond uses the open source world as an example of the pervasiveness of selfish motives in human behavior, stating that as a culture we tend to have a blind spot to how altruism is in fact “a form of ego satisfaction for the altruist.” (p53) This is an important point in this debate because the idea of open source can be conflated with a diminution of property rights and a move toward a less capitalist system, ie. people behaving altruistically to each other rather than according to market strictures. Raymond eviscerates this notion by noting that altruism isn’t selfless and even the open source world benefits by linking the selfishness of hackers and their need for self-actualization to difficult ends that can only be achieved through sustained cooperation. Appeals to reputation and ego boosting seem to do the trick in this sphere and Raymond attributes Linux’s success in part to Linus Torvalds’ genius in creating an efficient market in ego boosting – turned of course to the end of OS development.

Lessig stars at the Stanford FCC hearing

After Comcast admitted to stuffing seats at the FCC hearing at Harvard Law School February 24th, the FCC decided another hearing was necessary. They chose to hold it at Stanford April 17 and I’m watching the FCC’s videocast of the event, which is oddly appropriate, since the focus of the hearing is video on the internet.

After an introduction by Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer, FCC Chairman Martin explained that every ISP, excepting Lariat Networks from Lariat, Wyoming, was invited and declined to attend this hearing: Comcast, Verizon, Time/Warner, and AT&T. Comcast has stated it is working with an industry consortium on a Consumer Bill of Rights. The hearing begins with each of the FCC commissioners making a statement, then proceeds through panels and then opens to questions.

Commissioner Copps states that a free internet is a requirement for the type of growth, a fact we’ve seen from Silicon Valley. If network operators consolidate their control, which is more likely with fewer network operators, they’ll prevent inventors from bringing their innovations to consumers and make investing more risky. So Copps wants to eliminate and punish discrimination.

Indicating how huge this issue has become, Commissioner Adelstein states that 45k dockets were filed with the FCC for this hearing, and the vast majority of them came from public citizens. He warns that the recent consolidation across internet providers from the backbone to the largest service providers will lead to more FCC regulation. He advocates greater competition in the broadband market place since 90% is dominated by cable and telephone companies. This gives the companies who control the “last mile” (the distance from the backbone to the consumer’s computer) the ability to discriminate over packets that reach end users. He’s concerned about allegations like Verizon’s refusal to send pro-life text messages and AT&T’s censoring of Pearl Jam online. He would like a 5th principle on the FCC policy statement to address this as well as enforcement and compliance. Broadband providers should declare in clear plain English what their policies are.

Commissioner Tate applauds the industry-wide effort to create a bill of rights for P2P users and ISPs. She has a strong preference for industry based collaborative solutions over direct regulation.

Commissioner McDowell wants to ensure that the FCC takes the anticompetitive allegations, such as the text messaging one, seriously. Comcast is alleged to have manipulated packet allocation of video – video is something Comcast provides and runs the pipes for other competitor, so Comcast appears to discriminate against
bit torrent for anticompetitive reasons not just for traffic management. McDowell, like Commissioner Tate, would like to see the industry develop is own solutions to these problems such as what might come from the industry consortium Comcast is involved in and says “engineers should solve engineering problems not politicians.”

Chairman Martin states the four principles the FCC adopted in August 2005 in their internet policy statement (“Powell’s Four Freedoms”).

1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

Larry Lessig, Professor at Stanford Law School, is the first speaker on the first panel.

Lessig reminds us that companies are out to make profit and we shouldn’t trust them with public policy. The architecture of the internet has given us openness, transparency, and freedom and in a market with few firms, they can manipulate this architecture to weaken competition. It is important to note that the original openness of the internet has given us an enormous amount of economic growth – he likens the process to the electricity grid: it is transparent and open and anyone can do anything on it, as long as you know the protocols. It doesn’t ask if the TV you plug in is Panasonic or Sony and doesn’t allocate electricity based on that info. He advocates that for us to depart from this model requires a very strong demonstration that the proposed change will advance economic growth and that competition will continue.

We can’t just wait and see, says Lessig – witness the text messaging and bit torrent problems we have already. He reiterates the argument that venture capitalists needs stability about the vision of the future in order to invest. Thus the FCC needs to make a clear policy statement that net neutrality is a core principle of the internet infrastructure. In fact, Lessig says, the failure of the FCC to create
a clear policy about this is the reason for the hearing today. So the FCC needs to regulate things it understands, but is that sufficient to assure that what happens at the network level doesn’t destroy neutrality? Lessig gives two examples of such regulation, calling them “Powell’s Four Freedoms Plus.”

Plus 1) The zero price regulation: this is built into Representative Markey’s proposed bill: if data are prioritized, all data of that type must be prioritized without a surcharge. Lessig is against this: this blocks productive discrimination and so stops spread of broadband and thus growth. For example, iFilm wants fast pipes and he doesn’t care for email so these services can be differently prioritized, but iFilm’s competitors should find themselves subject to different discrimination practices by the provider.

Plus 2) Zero discrimination surcharge rules. Discrimination surcharge occurs if you have a provider that says Google pays x but iFilm pays 2x. Lessig explains this is a problem because it creates an incentive for a destructive business model such that the provider can inflate the premium price by maintaining scarcity in ordinary network provisions. This rule does allow for nondiscriminatory tiered pricing: ie. a surcharge for video but everyone pays the same price for that video privilege. Lessig’s advice is that the FCC should start here with a target of getting to broadband as a commodity like wheat – where there the market is characterized by fundamental competition in the provision of the commodity which drives the price down.

The role of net neutrality in FCC regulation. Lessig thinks net neutrality should be a very central principle, but a heavy weight and not an absolute bar. This means that countervailing notions that don’t compromise the incentive to produce open networks are ok.

When asked a question about how the commission should respond to claims that customers get less broadband then they pay for, Lessig says “the most outrageous thing about this story is you can’t get the facts straight.” He says if there were penalties for a company that misrepresents what’s going on during an investigation there would be more clarity right now.

Lessig explains that even if there were sufficient competition this is not enough to ensure net neutrality. He cites Barbara van Schewick, who is an assistant professor at Stanford Law School, co-director (with Lessig) of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and an upcoming panelist.

von Schewick claims that markets won’t solve the problem of content discrimination on the internet. Consumers need to have in depth and standardized disclosure, and even this is not enough because there are market failures. Providers have the incentive to block applications that use lots of bandwidth and don’t translate into higher profits. This harms application innovation, aside from discouraging investment since the blocking behavior is unpredictable. Network providers need to manage networks in a nondiscriminatory way.

Robb Topolski, a panelist and Software Quality Engineer, says tests he has done show that Comcast was blocking packets at 1:45am rather than at times of congestion like they claim. Topolski also notes that, there is a general complaint form provided by the FCC but no one knows about it. He also notes that routers manage network traffic on their own – it may not be optimal but it would be better than waiting on the provider industry to self-regulate. Interestingly, consumers seem to be testing networks themselves and tools are even appearing to monitor
cellphone use by consumer (see Skydeck.com, the company started by panelist Jason Devitt).

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Amartya Sen at the Aurora Forum at Stanford University: Global Solidarity, Human Rights, and the End of Poverty

This is a one day conference to commemorate Martin Luther King’s “The Other America” in his 1967 speech at Stanford, and heed that speech’s call to create a more just world.

Mark Gonnerman, director of the Aurora Forum introduces the event by noting that economic justice is the main theme of King’s legacy. He references King’s 1948 paper where he lays out his mission as a minister, in which his goal is to deal with unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity. He doesn’t mention civil rights. So the effect of Rosa Parks was to turn him in a difference direction from his original mission, to which he returned, which is the gulf between rich and poor. Gonnerman reminds us of the interdependence of global trade and how, even before we leave the house for work, we have used products from all parts of the globe, rich and poor. He quotes King that the agony of the poor enriches the rest.

Thomas Nazario, founding director of The Forgotten International, outlines the face of poverty. He lists the 5 problems in the UN Millennium Report as the charge for the coming generation:

1. global warming
2. world health, including basic health and pandemic avoidance
3. war and nuclear proliferation
4. protection of human rights
5. world poverty

He describes world poverty in two ways: the first is by focusing on the gap between rich and poor. He says there are about 1000 billionaires and claims their money could provide services to half the people on Earth. The second way is to focus on the suffering associated with poverty. Nazario shows us some compelling images of poverty and busts some myths: children do go through garbage and fight rats and other vermin (usually dying before age 5); impoverished people tend to live around rivers since the riverbank is common land since it floods regularly; images of Ethiopia in the 1980′s war, conflict and famine (he notes that when there is extreme poverty, there is extreme fragility of life – any perturbation in the environment will cause death). He says 6 million children die before the age of 5 of hunger and lack of medical care. He also busts the myth that most of the poverty in the world is in Africa – it is in Asia, especially in India. There are 39 million street children in the world, often living in sewers. Of course, poverty is a cause of illiteracy not only because of the cost of education but because the impoverished children usually work to survive.

Amartya Sen is Lamont Professor and Professor of Economics and HIstory, Harvard University. He is a 1998 nobel prize winner in economics and I wrote a book review here of his book _Development as Freedom_. His talk has two components: he speaks first about global poverty and next about human rights. He begins by noting that hope for humanity, as Martin Luther King emphasized, is essential for these topics. Sen hopes the easily preventable deaths of millions of children is not an inescapable human condition and the fatalism about this in the developed world recedes. He also takes on the anti-globalization viewpoint by noting that globalization can be seen as a great contributor to world wealth. He insists globalization is a key component to reform, as there is an enormous positive impact to bringing people together, but the sharing of the spoils needs to be more equitable. Sen advocates a better understanding of economics to help us reform world development institutions, but with a caveat: “a market is as good as the company it keeps.” By this he means that circumstances such as the current conditions governing the distribution of resources or the ability of people to enter market transactions for example, depend on things such as the availability of healthcare and the existence of patents and contract laws conducive to trade.

Sen distinguishes short run and long run policies. In the long run the goal is to keep unemployment low in all countries (so for example he advocated government help in training and job location for Americans whose jobs have become obsolete due to technological progress). In the short run it is essential to have an adequate system of social safety nets that provide a minimum income, healthcare, and children’s schooling (which has long run effects of people’s adaptability in the workforce). Sen eschews economic stagnation and the rejection of economic reform.

Sen is very concerned that the fruits of globalization are not being justly shared and, even though globalization does bring economic benefit for all, he sees this inequality as the root of poverty. He also warns people not to rely on “the market outcome” as a way of washing your hands of the problem since the outcome of the market relies on a number of factors, such as resource ownership patterns, various rules of operation (like antitrust and patent laws), that will give different prices and different income equality.

Sen, consistent with his hopeful theme, notes important things subject to reform and change:

1. an adequately strong global effort to combat lack of education and healthcare
2. improving existing patent laws and reduction of arms supply

For the first point, there is a need for further worldwide cooperation to combat illiteracy and provide other social services. Sen suggests immediate remedies such as halting the repression of exports from poor countries, and other longer term remedies like reconsidering the 1940′s legacy of global institutions such as the UN, and reforming patent systems that prevent getting drugs to poor countries. After all, understanding and modifying incentive structures is “what economics is supposed to be about.” Continuing the second point, Sen believes the globalized trade in arms causes regional tension and global tension from the trade. This isn’t a problem confined to poor countries, on the contrary, the G8 consistently sell more than 80% of arms exports (with about 2/3rd of American arms exports going to developing countries). The Security Council of the G8 were also responsible for more than 80% of the global arms trade (witness this issue has never been discussed in the Security Council). There is a cascade effect here – warlords can rely on American or Russian support for their subversion of economic order and peace (Sen mentions Mobutu as a case in point and the example of Somalia I have blogged about is another one with the American support for Ethiopia). To change this we need to reform the role of ethics, which Sen generalizes into a discussion of human rights.

The contraposition of opulence and agony makes us question the ethicality of the status quo, and regardless it is hard to change since with the status quo the power goes with the wealth. Jeremy Bentham in 1792 called natural rights “nonsense on stilts” and Sen notes this line of dismissal is still alive today when people question how a right can exist in the absence of legislation. Bentham says a right requires the existence of punitive treatment for those who abrogate them. Sen says the correct way of thinking about this is utility based ethics, not examining the foundational grounds. For him, this means an ethics that makes room for the significance of human rights and human freedom.

If human rights are a legitimate idea, how is it useful for poverty eradication? Moral rights are often the basis of legislation, such as the inalienable rights basis of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (its 60th anniversary is in 2008) inspired many countries to bring about this legislative change. Quoting Herbert Hart, Sen notes that the concept of a right belongs to morality and is concerned when one person’s action is limited by another – this is what can appropriately be made “the subject of coercive human rules.” So using this Sen provides a motivation for legislation. Sen also points out a motivation for the ethics of human rights through monitoring the behavior of the powerful and governments, like Human Rights Watch, Médecins Sans Frontières, Amnesty International, and many others do.

Sen relates King and Gandhi in their call for peaceful protest, and thus enacting social reform that way. Sen believes religion plays a large part in social reform (Sen is an atheist but King invoked God frequently), but he says the argument does not rest on the religious components. Following King, Sen discusses the story of Jesus and the Good Samaritan and boils it down to the question of how a neighbor is defined. In the story Jesus argues with a lawyer’s limited conception of duty to one’s neighbor using strictly secular reasoning. Jesus tells the lawyer a story of a wounded man in need who was helped eventually by the Good Samaritan: Jesus asks the lawyer, when this is over and the wounded man reflects on it, who was the wounded man’s neighbor? The lawyer answers that the man who helped him is the neighbor, which is Jesus’s point. Using this understanding of the story Sen concludes the motivation to treat others as equals is not what matters – what matters is that in the process a new neighborhood has been created. Sen says this is a common understanding of justice and pervasive since we are linked to each other in myriad (growing) ways. “The boundaries of justice grow ever larger in proportion to the largeness of men’s views.” Shared problems can unit rather than divide.

Sen concludes that no theory of human rights can ignore a broad understanding of human presence and nearness. We are connected through work, trade, science, literature, sympathy, and commitment. This is an inescapably central engagement in the theory of justice. Poverty is a global challenge and there are few non neighbors left in the world today.

To whom to these human rights apply? Obviously everyone. Quoting Martin Luther King’s speech from the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, Sen decries “the fierce urgency of now” to “make good on the promises of democracy” and to make “justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Book Review: "Development as Freedom" by Amartya Sen

What is a developed country? According to Sen, development should be measured by how much freedom a country has since without freedom people cannot make the choices that allow them to help themselves and others. He defines freedom as an interdependent bundle of:

1) political freedom and civil rights,
2) economic freedom including opportunities to get credit,
3) social opportunities: arrangements for health care, education, and other social services,
4) transparency guarantees, by which Sen means interactions with others, including the government, are characterized by a mutual understanding of what is offered and what to expect,
5) protective security, in which Sen includes unemployment benefits, famine and emergency relief, and general safety nets.

Respect for Local Decisions

By defining the level of development by how much the country has, Sen largely sidesteps a value judgment of what it means specifically to be a developed country – this isn’t the usual laundry list of Western institutions. It’s a bold statement – he gives the example of a hypothetical community deciding whether to disband their current traditions and increase lifespans. Sen states he would leave it up to the community and if they decide on shorter lifespans, in the full-freedom environment he imagines, this is perfectly consistent with the action of a fully developed country (although Sen doesn’t think anyone should have to chose between life and death – this is the reason for freedom 3). This also is an example of the inherent interrelatedness of Sen’s five freedoms – the community requires political freedom to discuss the issues, come to a conclusion and have it seen as legitimate, with social opportunities and education for people to engage in such a discussion.

Crucial Interrelatedness of the Freedoms

Sen is quite adamant that these five freedoms be implemented together and he makes an explicit case against the “Lee Thesis” – that economic growth must be secured in a developing country before other rights (such as political and civil rights) are granted. This is an important question among developing countries who see Singapore’s success as the model to follow. Sen notes that it is an unsettled empirical question whether or not authoritarian regimes produce greater economic growth, but he argues two points: that people’s welfare can be addressed best through a more democratic system (for which he sees education, health, security as requisite) since people are able to bring their needs to the fore; and that democratic accountability provides incentives for leaders to deal with issues of broad impact such as famines or natural catastrophes. His main example of the second point is that there has never been a famine under a democratic regime – it is not clear to me that this isn’t due to reasons other than the incentives of elected leaders (such as greater economic liberty), but whether or not there is a correlation is something the data can tell. Sen notes that democracies provide protective security and transparency (freedoms four and five) and this is a mechanism through which to avert things like the Asian currency crisis of 1997. Democratic governments also have issues with transparency but this seems to me an example of how democracy avoids really bad decisions even though it might not make the optimal choices. Danny Hillis explained why this is the case in his article How Democracy Works.

Choosing not to Choose (Revisited)

Sen reasons that since no tradition of suppressing individual communication exists, this freedom as not open to removal via community consensus. Sen also seems to assume that people won’t vote away their right to vote. He doesn’t deal with this possibility explicitly but this is what Lee Kuan Yew was afraid of – communists gaining power and being able to implement an authoritarian communist regime. Sen’s book was written in 1999 and doesn’t mention Islam or development in the Middle Eastern context, so he never grapples with the issues like the rise of Shari’a Law in developing countries such as Somalia. I blogged about the paradox of voting out democracy in Choosing not to Choose in the context of the proposed repeal of the ban on headscarves in Turkish universities and the removal of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia in 2006. I suspect Sen’s prescription in Turkey would be to let the local government decide on the legality of headscarves in universities (thus the ban would be repealed), and implement all five forms of freedom in Somalia and thus explicitly reject an authority like the UIC.

The Internet

Sen doesn’t mention the internet but what is fascinating is that communication technologies are accelerating the adoption of at least some of Sen’s 5 freedoms, particularly where the internet is creating a new mechanism for free speech and political liberty that is nontrivial for governments to control. The internet seems poised to grant such rights directly, and can indirectly bring improvements to positive rights such as education and transparency (see for example MAPLight.org and The Transparent Federal Budget Project). Effective mechanisms for voices to be heard and issues to be raised are implicit in Sen’s analysis.

What Exactly is Sen Suggesting We Measure?

Sen subjects his proposed path to development, immediately maximizing the amount of freedoms 1 through 5, to some empirical scrutiny throughout the text but he doesn’t touch on how exactly to measure how far freedom has progressed. He suggests longevity, health care, education are important factors and I assume he would include freedom of speech, openness of the media, security, and government corruption metrics but these are notoriously hard to define and measure (and measuring longevity actually runs counter to Sen’s example of the hypothetical community above… but Sen strongly rejects the argument that local culture can permit abridgment of any of his 5 freedoms, particularly the notion that some cultures are simply suited to authoritarian rule). The World Bank compiles a statistical measurement of the rule of law, corruption, freedom of speech and others, that gets close to some of the components in Sen’s definition of freedom. This also opens the question of what is appropriate to measure when defining freedom. And whether it is possible to have meaningful metrics for concepts like the rule of law or democracy.

Sen eschews two common ways of thinking about development: 1) that aid goes to passive recipients and 2) that increasing wealth is the primary means by which development occurs. His motivation seems to come from a deep respect for subjective valuation: the individual’s autonomy and responsibility in decision making.

Crossposted on I&D Blog