Thursday, February 23, 2012

Role of Government

The New York Times article "Middle Class Criticizes Aid Even as It Gets More" is fascinating.  (Here is the abbreviated Columbus Dispatch version). Contrary to theories that voters in democracies will always want more and more benefits from government, it shows data that in the past 30 years, those who are most against government spending are voters from states that benefit the most from state largesse.
Support for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut government spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependence, the greater the support for Republican candidates.
Conversely, states that pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits tend to support Democratic candidates. And Lacy found that the pattern could not be explained by demographics or social issues.
It suggests that there are values and worldviews involved, leading voters to vote against their economic interests.  It seems that resentment of others' economic improvement, and frustration at the (lower) middle-class' stagnation, leads many to blame the government.

This is very interesting because from an Asian perspective, it is hard to understand where the Tea Party and others in the US get their animus against the government.  Especially in China, but even in supposedly laissez-faire Hong Kong, most people look to the state to solve many problems.  Of course people also worry about government corruption, and official collusion with business, but the idea that people can solve their own problems is not held up as an ideal like it is in the US.  The question of the role of the state in promoting economic growth is one of the big questions of the past century, and continues to be so.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Innumeracy

The inability of the press to report poll and survey results is astonishing. The most recent glaring example comes from the BBC.  In an online article on interracial marriage,  the second paragraph reads:
The study, done by Pew Research Center also shows increasing public acceptance of intermarriage, with 43% saying it as been a societal change for the better.
I actually found this rather alarming, in that it suggests 57% of Americans either thought it was a change for the worse or were not sure.  But as I suspected, it is the lack of understanding of statistics (or at least poor writing) that led to this unfortunate sentence.  The beauty of the web is that I can go to the original, and find out what they actually said:
More than four-in-ten Americans (43%) say that more people of different races marrying each other has been a change for the better in our society, while 11% say it has been a change for the worse and 44% say it has made no difference.
In fact, the "made no difference" is probably the "correct" non-racial answer; "for the better" is a racial PC answer. The original report also goes on to indicate that this is part of a major change in attitudes over the past 25 years:
Also, nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) say it “would be fine” with them if a member of their own family were to marry someone outside their own racial or ethnic group. In 1986, the public was divided about this. Nearly three-in-ten Americans (28%) said people of different races marrying each other was not acceptable for anyone, and an additional 37% said this may be acceptable for others, but not for themselves. Only one-third of the public (33%) viewed intermarriage as acceptable for everyone.
 This is also reported in the BBC report, but the contrast is not made as clearly. This is not entirely the BBC's fault, because the questions were apparently not the same in the two surveys.

The Pew report itself is worth reading; among the interesting discoveries (quoting the executive summary):
Gender patterns in intermarriage vary widely. About 24% of all black male newlyweds in 2010 married outside their race, compared with just 9% of black female newlyweds. Among Asians, the gender pattern runs the other way. About 36% of Asian female newlyweds married outside their race in 2010, compared with just 17% of Asian male newlyweds. Intermarriage rates among white and Hispanic newlyweds do not vary by gender.
About one-in-five (22%) of all newlyweds in Western states married someone of a different race or ethnicity between 2008 and 2010, compared with 14% in the South, 13% in the Northeast and 11% in the Midwest.
More than one-third of Americans (35%) say that a member of their immediate family or a close relative is currently married to someone of a different race.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Strategic Secrets

I have been developing the concept of "strategic secrets" to describe secrets that are kept from superiors or outsiders, but that are well known and public within a specific group. My defining example is when someone quits a job: it is common for colleagues to know why he/she quit, but for their boss to be clueless. Many in business dismiss "exit interviews" as worthless. Departing staff typically say they are leaving to pursue new opportunities, or to spend more time with their family.  Strategic secrets are secrets only in the sense that none of those in the know have any interest in revealing the truth; they do not think of what they know as a secret.  An employee who is leaving will not think it worthwhile to say to the HR office, in the exit interview, that they can't stand working for their boss, or that the hours are too long. After all, they may need a recommendation from that former boss, so want to leave on good terms.  They are not going to jeopardize their relationships with former superiors for the sake of a company they are leaving. But their colleagues usually know "the truth."

A good example of a recent strategic secret is the departure of Stephen Emerson as president of Haverford College.  He resigned suddenly in July 2011, only four years into a five year first term, and when it was announced, the chair of the "board of managers" refused interviews, but just stuck to a written statement (a clear sign that there was something to hide).  Emerson himself is quoted as saying, "I felt my students could use more of my time and I missed not being able to give it to them."  He was on sabbatical for the 2011-12 academic year, and now comes the announcement that he is off to Columbia to head their cancer research center. That means he did not spend any more time with Haverford students (except, perhaps, in the lab).  Neither Emerson himself, nor the Haverford board, have any advantage in revealing the real reasons for his sudden departure; apparently both decided it would make them look bad. If, for example, he was not very successful in bringing in donations, that reflects badly not only on Emerson himself but also on the board that chose him and monitored him (and that is also involved in fundraising).  If there was a difference of opinion on the strategies for upcoming fundraising, or over whether to continue with a high proportion of tenured professors, neither side benefits from this dispute getting into the public domain.  By keeping quiet, Emerson has gotten a (good) new job, and the board has gotten rid of him, both as president and as a professor.  Keeping quiet served all concerned.

Now if I can only find someone "in the know" to find out what really happened!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Democracy and the Press

Many people in democratic countries have this quaint notion in the back of our mind of how democracy works. Politicians give speeches and the press reports on them, and the voters decide whose policies they support and elect the best politician for the job.  How naive that view seems today.  The flow of money in US politics is not new, but the amounts today are staggering.  An article in New York Magazine by Joe Hagan (who was interviewed on Fresh Air on 31 Jan.) describes the effects of Super-Pacs and other "independent" money on the current presidential campaigns, and it is disturbing. Most interesting are how this fits with the decline in journalism: as new media decline, the few remaining journalists have no time for investigation and come to rely more and more on "information" from campaign operatives, who of course have their own agendas.

An Obama ally working for a super-PAC told me that NBC News’s Chuck Todd “doesn’t necessarily have time to sit there and Lexis-Nexis Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital personnel records. In some ways, reporters become traffic cops for information.”
“Research from campaigns has essentially replaced investigative reporting,” says Devorah Adler, a former research director for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “The free press is where people are going to get their information from, so that becomes your missile-delivery system.”
As we learn more and more how to influence (deceive? manipulate?) the public, the idea that democracy is based on the selection of an informed public becomes ever more tenuous.  The article does have some interesting observations on the limits of sleaze, noting that Bush senior had to be careful in running against Clinton in 1992 because his Willie Horton ad that helped him get elected in 1988 (against Dukakis) had become notorious for its half-truths, leaving Bush unable to run strong, negative ads against Clinton.  But the overall lesson of the article is how important negative advertizing is going to be in the coming election.

It makes me think of some Chinese I meet who are not convinced that "Western democracy" (as they call it) is really all it's cracked up to be.  They say their way of selecting leaders is more reliable, and delivers better, more talented leaders.  Problem is, of course, that they've only had one peaceful transfer of power so far, that from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao.  This year, we're to have the second. It is not clear if this is really an institutionalized mechanism for choosing leaders. But how can we disagree with the woman how asked re Sarah Palin, "How is it possible that the US would nominate a woman like that to be Vice-President?!" And the role of money now seems to fit the old Marxist saw that it is all about money, and that the rich control everything. The "Citizens United" decision is increasingly looking like not just a bad legal decision, but like a decision that will seriously undermine the legitimacy of politics, politicians, and even the government in the US.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Living in Mainland China

A debate has been swirling in cyberspace about the relative benefits of moving to China to seek work. It prominently includes a NY Times Op-Ed piece by Jonathan Levine who is teaching at Tsing Hua University in Beijing, who raves about the benefits he's gained since moving there a year ago.  On the other side is a website called dontmovetochina.com that argues that despite the exceptional cases of success, most people in Beijing are spinning their wheels.  The author argues correctly that there are many more Chinese with better cultural knowledge and equivalent skills willing to do the job at a lower wage, which is largely true (there is more commentary here). But he also argues that part of the reason China is not a good destination for foreigners is that China is not used to immigrants and is not open to immigrants.  Well, what nation is, really, all that open to immigrants? If an immigrant to the US does not speak English, and speak it very well, can they really "succeed"?  I think he underestimates the ease of success for foreigners in the US.  Americans who speak with an accent, and who don't know sports, also have trouble "integrating" into American culture and making friends.  (My Taiwanese friends who went to the US all commented on this--and how insincere Americans were for saying "Let's have lunch!" and never following up.)  Cross-cultural communication is complicated.

The author also speaks of the cost of replicating a "Western lifestyle."  Maybe it is because I'm an anthropologist, but why would one want to replicate a Western lifestyle in Beijing?  Some of the items he  mentions (e.g. elbow-shaped smell traps in sewage pipes) are pretty useful, but others (e.g. ovens) are nice, but not essential. It is also true that it will be hard to make local friends in a cosmopolitan city like Beijing. Anthropologists have an easier time making local friends when they are in small towns or even villages, where they are novelties. Even then it is not easy, and people in modern times are busy and have other concerns, but a foreigner in a village is novel enough that she/he is sure to find people who want to be their friend. If you are trying to learn the language and culture, that is the place to go.

One question not addressed by the articles is how well do these foreigners really learn Chinese.  It is not that Chinese is inherently difficult, but that it is so different from English (or other European languages) that one cannot really "pick it up" but needs to study it.  Many foreigners who hope to learn Chinese go to China and make a living by teaching English, and then have no time remaining to learn Chinese. They also spend their free time in clubs and bars--not where you'll meet many locals.  I have interviewed a number of foreigners as candidates for our graduate program and I'm often surprised at how poor their Chinese is after even three years in China. If you can't speak fluently, it is of course going to be hard to make Chinese friends. I find his whining about the difficulty of meeting locals less than convincing, but I have not had his experiences. In my own cases, I've been lucky to have introductions, and my wife's work contacts, to add to my network when we lived in Taiwan.