It was and still is quite common to see non-whites depicted as dumb, evil, lazy, poor, cannibalistic, uncivilized and un-Christian savages with stuff sticking through their noses. Or as odd-looking servants, comical figures, dimwitted people scared of ghosts (and turning white out of fear). As overly joyous fools or overly sexual deviants, bare breasted, heavily hung or with fat buttocks. Such representations serve to signal, confirm and spread the conviction that blacks are inferior. This conviction in turn justifies all sorts of discrimination.
Very common is the caricature of funny looking big-lipped black folk:
The big lip stereotype is of course closely connected to the monkey stereotype:
And a monkey isn’t really that much different from a savage:
And just to show you that we’re not talking about ancient history:
The savage nature of blacks wasn’t believed to be limited to their jungle life and cannibalism. Often they were also depicted as being fond of bestiality:
It’s not just male blacks who are deemed to be sexually deviant. There’s also the stereotype of the oversexualized black female. Typical is the so-called Jezebel stereotype. The Jezebel, named after the Bible figure, is a loose woman who wants sex all of the time. Of course, the usual racist stereotypes are also included: big lips, funny hair…:
Apart from the Jezebel stereotype, there’s also the Sapphire and the Mammy stereotype, both quite common. A Sapphire is an overbearing woman who, often holding her hands on her hips and talking all the time, bullies her man:
The Mammy figure (also called the “Aunt Jemima stereotype”) is a domestic servant, good-natured, overweight, loud and a good cook, invariably wearing a headscarf:
Male blacks as well were often depicted as servants:
And then there’s the strange watermelon stereotype. The origin of the link between blacks and watermelons is unclear. Maybe it has something to do with slaves stealing food from the field:
Whatever the origin, the stereotype does serve to make them look stupid and childlike. And, of course, there’s the black athlete, again highly animalized:
- ‘Training away stereotypes’: People trained to think in opposition to stereotypes are more receptive to advertising starring minority actors (sciencedaily.com)
- Modern Minstrelsy: Exploring Racist Stereotypes in Literature and Life (learning.blogs.nytimes.com)
(On this 9th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, here is a repost of a mock OpEd I wrote some years ago. It’s mocking only in its form, not in its intentions. I guess one day it will become prophetic, I’ll just have to repost it often enough. Warning: none of the opinions expressed here should be mistaken for my own).
“The date is October the 1st, 2011, exactly 20 days after the worst terrorist attack in US history, an attack in which Muslim extremists used nuclear bombs to inflict heavy damage on 3 American cities, embarrassing the security forces who were on high alert on the 10th anniversary of 9-11.
Today, the whole world was listening to President Obama’s first policy speech after the events. The most shocking announcement was undoubtedly the decision to no longer deploy US troops abroad. The President defended this “Coming Home” decision by the failure of 10 years of military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, the Middle East, Nigeria and Indonesia to bring about more security for the American people. Evidence has shown that US involvement abroad, even peaceful and objectively beneficial involvement, rather than promoting US security, actually fosters hate, resentment and fanaticism. The objects of American involvement, even if this involvement means billions of dollars of aid, seem to think that it is fundamentally a ploy to “imperialize” them, a crusade to take away their identity, religion and wealth. Independence, national pride and Allah is what counts for them.
It has also become clear that the US was wrong to think in terms of “frontlines” in its war with Muslim terrorists. The strategy to try to attack the enemy in their homelands, the “first frontline”, rather than wait till they get on American soil, has proven to be ineffective militarily, and possibly even counter-effective psychologically: it has provided fuel for anti-crusader and anti-colonialist rhetoric, convincing ever more young Muslim martyrs and extremist Muslim regimes of the anti-Muslim and hence satanic nature of the Christian unbelievers.
Unlike an enemy army in a classical 20th century war, this enemy cannot be defeated by an overpowering military attack. The strongest military in the world cannot defeat a relatively small group of undoubting and unthinking amateurs ready to die with a makeshift bomb in their hands. With every amateur it kills it only produces more evidence of the presence of Satan on holy soil. Hence, the more it tries to root out the enemy, the more enemies it creates. The President therefore, wisely in our view, decided to shift focus from the attack to the defensive. Bringing our boys back home to defend the American border, effectively turning the army into a super coastguard and border patrol, should not be viewed as giving in to the enemy, a retreat or a Last Stand. That would only be a return to an inadequate and outdated military logic, useless given the kind of enemy we are dealing with.
Together with measures to prevent homegrown terrorism – which, fortunately, has been a limited phenomenon until now – a relentless border control should indeed be able to offer protection. The borders must, of course, include the entrances of airplanes and ships heading for the US. In order to be independent from foreign security services, the President has asked for legislation allowing only US aircraft and ship to enter the US. If economically necessary, the US will acquire a larger fleet. Anyway, unnecessary travel to the US will be discouraged.
The economic drawbacks of rigorous border controls will be countered by technological innovations funded by army budgets which become available when budgets for overseas operations start to diminish. The President also asked the citizens to prepare for the possibility of a certain number of years of economic depression. Energy supplies may also suffer as a consequence of the US drawback. Traditional allies will be disappointed by their abandonment. The loss of US military assistance will even endanger the existence of some regimes. Those which are also oil suppliers will resent the US and will disrupt the supply. The President is conscious of the economic impact this will have but asks the scientific community to tackle the problem of oil dependence. Existing alternatives, including nuclear energy, will be developed. Repatriated nuclear warheads, if not necessary for domestic security, will be recycled in the energy industry.
Some allies which are important for the US domestically, such as Israel, will not be abandoned without continued support. Military equipment not necessary for border control and security on US soil, will be handed over to them after they loose the protective umbrella of a US presence in their region. Financial assistance will continue to be possible.
Because US troops will no longer be stationed abroad, US expats can become easy targets for terrorists. The President therefore advises them to make plans to return home as soon as possible. The government will establish funds to incite people to come home and to compensate for damages they will incur. US multinationals will be legally forced to employ local people only for their foreign affiliates. The US government will immediately cease to employ its citizens in development projects in Africa and elsewhere. To alleviate the economic shock this will produce in developing countries, the US will double its funds for development aid for a period of 5 years. These funds, however, will be spend entirely by third parties. No US agencies will be active abroad. The US will also withdraw from NATO, the UN, and all other international institutions.
May God be with us, since it’s excessively clear that nobody else will.”
Push polls are used in election campaigns, not to gather information about public opinion, but to modify public opinion in favor of a certain candidate, or – more commonly – against a certain candidate. They are called “push” polls because they intend to “push” the people polled towards a certain point of view.
Push polls are not cases of “lying with statistics” as we usually understand them in this blog series, but it’s appropriate to talk about them since they are very similar to a “lying technique” that we discussed many times, namely leading questions (see here for example). The difference here is that leading questions aren’t used to manipulate poll results, but to manipulate people.
The push poll isn’t really a poll at all, since the purpose isn’t information gathering. Which is why many people don’t like the term and label it oxymoronic. A better term indeed would be advocacy telephone campaigns. A push poll is more like a gossip campaign, a propaganda effort or telemarketing. They’re very similar to political attack ads, in the sense that they intend to smear candidates, often with little basis in facts. Compared to political ads, push polls have the “advantage” that they don’t seem to emanate from the campaign offices of one of the candidates. (Push polls are typically conducted by bogus polling agencies). Hence it’s more difficult for the recipients of the push poll to classify the “information” contained in the push poll as political propaganda. He or she is therefore more likely to believe the information. Which is of course the reason push polls are used. Also, the fact that they are presented as “polls” rather than campaign messages, makes it more likely that people listen, and as they listen more, they internalize the messages better than in the case of outright campaigning (which they often dismiss as propaganda).
Push polls usually, but not necessarily, contain lies or false rumors. They may also be limited to misleading or leading questions. For example, a push poll may ask people: “Do you think that the widespread and persistent rumors about Obama’s Muslim faith, based on his own statements, connections and acquaintances, are true?”. Some push polls may even contain some true but unpleasant facts about a candidate, and then hammer on these facts in order to change the opinions of the people being “polled”.
One infamous example of a push poll was the poll used by Bush against McCain in the Republican primaries of 2000 (insinuating that McCain had an illegitimate black child), or the poll used by McCain (fast learner!) against Obama in 2008 (alleging that Obama had ties with the PLO).
One way to distinguish legitimate polls from push polls is the sample size. The former are usually content with relatively small sample sizes (but not too small), whereas the latter typically want to “reach” as many people as possible. Push polls won’t include demographic questions about the people being polled (gender, age, etc.) since there is no intention to aggregate results, let alone aggregate by type of respondent. Another way to identify push polls is the selection of the target population: normal polls try to reach a random subset of the population; push polls are often targeted at certain types of voters, namely those likely to be swayed by negative campaigning about a certain candidate. Push polls also tend to be quite short compared to regular polls, since the purpose is to reach a maximum number of people.
(source, cartoon by Eric Allie)
In a previous post in this series, I already mentioned the temptation to see things in data that just aren’t there, or to make data say things they don’t really say. I focused on the correlation-causation problem, a typical case of “jumping to conclusions”.
Elsewhere I gave the following example: there are data doing the rounds claiming that Republicans follow political news more closely than Democrats, which has some people saying that Republicans are more knowledgable and make better political choices. However, people don’t read more news because they are Republicans, but because they are relatively wealthy and older, and when they are they also tend to be more of the Republican type. So if you see data showing a correlation between political conservatism and attention to the news, don’t jump to conclusions and say that conservatives are inherently more attentive to the news, let alone that they make better political choices. A young and relatively poor conservative probably pays less attention than a wealthy and older liberal. Attention isn’t a function of political orientation. It has other causes.
However, as is evident from the cartoon above, data don’t have to be of the correlation type for people to see things in them that aren’t there. People have indeed interpreted popular rejection of healthcare reform or of the Obama administration in general as an expression of underlying racism, as if there can’t be any other reasons for rejection.*
Polling on the health-care bill is … complicated. Voters don’t know much about the plan. Most disapprove of it, but many disapprove because they want to see it go further. (source)
So there’s a “double jump” to conclusions in the cartoon:
- First, jumping from disapproval of healthcare reform to anti-Obama racism (blaming the former on the latter when this isn’t shown by the data), which is ridiculed, rightly to the extent that it is something real.
- Second, jumping from disapproval ratings on “something” to disapproval ratings on “healthcare reform”. The data only show that people disapprove of “something”: people may disapprove of only a part of healthcare reform, or may disapprove of the fact that it doesn’t go far enough rather than disapprove of reform as such; or they may disapprove of something that is not really proposed and hence misunderstand the whole thing and base their disapproval on lack of knowledge. Needless to say, this second jump in the cartoon is quite unconscious and probably not on purpose.
All this jumping is quite understandable. We always have to interpret data, and we can easily lose our way in the process. It’s also tempting to “find” explanations for data that fit with our pre-established opinions and biases.
* Personally, I’m in favor of reform.
This is a headline on the Huffington Post today. The commentator says
By a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court on Thursday rolled back restrictions on corporate spending on federal campaigns. The decision could unleash a torrent of corporate-funded attack ads in upcoming elections.
“Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy — it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people — political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority.
“With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics,” said President Obama in a statement. “It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans…”
The court found that the Federal Elections Commission overstepped its constitutional authority when it barred a conservative group called Citizens United from running ads for a movie attacking Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election season. Corporations and labor unions are now free to advertise — and tell people to vote for individual candidates – as they please. Before today, corporations have been required to funnel money through Political Action Committees, with limits on what could be spent.
Donations of money directly to candidates are still limited. This seems a good time to link back to an older post, called “Are Restrictions on the Financing of Political Campaigns a Violation of Freedom of Speech?“, written at the time when the Supreme Court first took up the case. In that post, I argued that free speech is obviously very important and no democracy can function without it - and there’s no reason to deny corporations, trade unions etc. this right - but equal influence is just as important. Democracy can’t afford to drown out voices, and some regulation of campaign spending is therefore necessary. Democracy is a human right just like free speech, and different human rights sometimes need to be balanced against each other. Please read the whole post if you’re interested in this topic.
Female animalization is the depiction of women as animals, or as hybrid human-animals. It’s in fact a subgenre of female objectification, which is itself a subgenre of dehumanization (see also here). Depicting a woman as an animal means taking away her human characteristics and can lead to gender discrimination. It’s easier to deny the rights of an animal than the rights of an individual human being.
And of course there’s this infamous example of Michelle Obama’s face turned into a monkey face:
Some time ago, this image was the first to appear when people googled for images of Michelle Obama. Because of this Google issued this statement:
Sometimes Google search results from the Internet can include disturbing content, even from innocuous queries. We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google.
Search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet. A site’s ranking in Google’s search results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to a given query.
The beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results. Individual citizens and public interest groups do periodically urge us to remove particular links or otherwise adjust search results. Although Google reserves the right to address such requests individually, Google views the integrity of our search results as an extremely important priority. Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results simply because its content is unpopular or because we receive complaints concerning it. We will, however, remove pages from our results if we believe the page (or its site) violates our Webmaster Guidelines, if we believe we are required to do so by law, or at the request of the webmaster who is responsible for the page.
We apologize if you’ve had an upsetting experience using Google. We hope you understand our position regarding offensive results.
The Google Team
At this point, I should probably mention that men as well can be animalized, and have been to great political effect throughout history. Here’s one example:
More examples featuring hated outgroups here.
More on advertising.
What a delightful way to expose the lack of seriousness with which world leaders address human rights in China. Other cartoons about human rights and China:
- About China’s support for rogue states
- About China’s role in Africa
- About China and Tibet; see also here and here
Should a joke about killing the president be protected by the right to free speech and the First Amendment? Or a poll on Facebook asking if Obama should be assassinated? Or a rap song about “killing a cop”? Or do such things cross a line beyond which the government can intervene, can limit the freedom of speech of those involved, and can punish them for having committed a crime? I would say: it depends.
In US jurisdiction, the Brandenburg v. Ohio case stipulates that abstract advocacy of violence is protected speech under the First Amendment. However, it is equally acceptable, also according to Brandenburg v. Ohio, that speech which incites imminent, illegal conduct – including violence – may itself be made illegal:
The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.
So, advocacy of violence can only be prohibited when there is clear incitement of an imminent violent act, as well as the likelihood that this incitement produces or helps to produce such an act.
In the specific case of death threats, the Supreme Court case is Watts v. United States (1969). There it says that only true threats aren’t constitutionally protected; mere hyperbole, humor or offensive methods of stating political opposition are protected. What is a “true threat? According to Virginia v. Black (2003),
a statement can’t be a punishable threat unless it’s made “with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” Thus, following Black, a statement is a punishable threat only if a reasonable listener would understand it as a threat of attack and the speaker intended that the listener get that impression. (source)
Personally, I wouldn’t place too much weight on the second clause in that last sentence (after the “and”). I think it’s sufficient that the listener gets the impression of a threat and that the threat produces reasonable fear, even when the person stating the threat didn’t really mean it and was just joking (hence no real “intent”). So a joke about a bomb while on an airplane shouldn’t be protected, while a joke on the radio about killing the president should be protected, because the president or anyone else would probably not take it very seriously. The context of the threat is important. Even when there is clear intent and therefore not just a joke, but no likelihood of the threat being carried out, I would also propose to protect freedom of expression. The main focus is on the reaction of the reasonable recipient and the risk to which he or she is exposed (this focus contains a subjective and a factual element: perception/reaction and factual risk).
There seems to be no end to the number of battles in our war against the abuse of statistics. Take a look at this graph:
A poll of presidential approval ratings is a public opinion poll, so one expects to see the diverse opinions of the entire public represented in the results. That’s not the case here. As you can see, the numbers for the red and green lines don’t add up to 100%. Only the extreme opinions – strong approval and disapproval – are shown. Now, strictly speaking, there’s nothing to object: all necessary information is given, there’s no undue manipulation of the scales etc.
However, there’s approximately a third of public opinion that’s not included in this graph. At a minimum, this should have been made clear. I admit that my first, quick impression of this graph was that I was looking at a graph that shows the entirety of public opinion. Only after a few seconds of looking more closely did I realize that the graph doesn’t in fact offer a measurement of public opinion, but only of the opinion of the most outspoken parts of the public. Why not include a third and fourth line for “moderately (dis)approve”? Or, even better, include the moderates in the totals and just give the number for approval and disapproval, combining strong and moderate? What’s the added value of only showing the extremes? Or is this part of the current media culture?
I understand that it’s useful to know the strength of the groups who strongly approve and disapprove, but this is misleading. The graph as it is now clearly hints at a strong swing towards disapproval of Obama, but including the moderates could change that impression, and could, theoretically, show an increase in overall approval (moderate and strong). The difference between strong approval and strong disapproval is smaller than the total share of the moderates who are left out; if all or most of those moderates moderately approve (unlikely but possible), then the total approval ratings would be higher than the total disapproval ratings.
For example, the 2004 exit poll put George W. Bush’s strong approval at 33%, to strong disapproval of 34%. But his overall approval was 53% to disapproval at 46%, and he was re-elected 51%-48%. (source)
But maybe the point of this graph is precisely the creation of the impression that Obama is going down the drain. If that’s the case, then this is an example of statistical fraud. There’s no way to know this, however. One thing I know is that all this will strengthen the persistent criticism that Rasmussen, the author of the graph, has a republican bias.
I said before that strictly speaking, there’s nothing wrong with this graph, apart from the fact that it could have mentioned more explicitly that a large chunk of public opinion is left out. However, if we look at this graph against the background of contemporary politics, it becomes more problematic. Politics today is often a shouting match between extreme positions. Such a spectacle is, after all, more entertaining than intelligent discussions that look for a common ground and a real possibility of persuasion of the other side. Hence, cable TV and the internet promote this kind of “gladiator politics“. Graphs such as this one only drive people further down the cul-de-sac of us-against-them politics. I don’t believe democracy was intended to end up there.
A reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog makes the connection between the rhetoric of the tea-party protests and of the segregationists some 50 years ago.
Both movements systematically use(d) the labels “antichrist” and “communist/socialist” to describe their opponents (respectively the civil rights movement and its contemporary product, Obama). So perhaps we’re not talking about two different movements after all, in which case Jimmy Carter would be right in his assessment of the tea-party protests. I personally think it’s a mix of different motivations, and for some of today’s protesters race probably plays a role.
There’s another strange continuity between the old and the new pictures: in the old picture, race mixing is called “the march of the antichrist”; in the new picture, Obama – a product of race mixing – is called the antichrist. Seems like they’re saying: “I told you so”.
After a first attempt, I kinda got the taste for this. So here are a few more “improved” signs:
(source of the original)
I can understand that for some people the right to life is negated by abortion. And if you really believe that Obama is a Soviet-style “socialist”, then it’s clear he’s the negation of liberty. But welfare the opposite of the pursuit of happiness? Sorry, me no understand. How can the absence of welfare possible contribute to the pursuit of happiness? Is hunger, poverty, lack of healthcare and education part of the pursuit of happiness? And is the effort to do something about these problems the end of happiness?
Here’s another one:
(source of the original)
Some confusion about the meaning of “spreading” here, it seems. And, to be fair to the teabaggers, this next remix (hopefully) shows the conceit inherent in all political protesting, not just the tea-party type:
(source of the original which included the comment: “You have worked hard for you money. Why does the government think they have the right to take your money and bail out failed businesses, mortgages and more???”)
The refuge of the politically desperate: compare your opponent to Hitler/fascists/nazis, even if the only thing they have in common is an irrelevant detail. This is usually called, in dog Latin, a reductio ad Hitlerum or reductio ad Nazium, and I’ve been accused of it myself.
I wonder what the political right in the U.S. will do when their name calling starts to wear thin. After all, you can’t go any further than Hitler and antichrist. And calling someone the antichrist for years on end without the heavens falling down, will make even the most gullible think twice.
PS: for someone with more talent for Photoshop than I, there’s a whole market for remixing tea-party signs. If you want to start a blog and don’t know what about, you’ll have material for months.
The data on U.S. defense spending (“defense” being of course a euphemism) are here. (I hope the connection to the issue of human rights is obvious and doesn’t need spelling out). The amounts involved are incredible, and yet you can still find national security hawks who believe that it isn’t enough, or who advocate that cutting some of this spending would be extremely dangerous. The Heritage Foundation, for example, has an article out lambasting the Obama administration for some supposed spending cuts. They have this graph for instance:
Now, this graph should be used in every textbook on statistics as a classic example of misinformation and manipulation of data. As Benjamin H. Friedman points out:
It’s true that defense spending will probably decline as a percentage of GDP, assuming the economy recovers. But that’s because GDP grows. Ours [GDP] is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950.
The correct way to measure growth or decline in defense spending is to look at the amounts spent on defense in real, inflation adjusted terms. See the solid line in this graph:
And then it’s clear that the U.S. spends more now than at the height of the Cold War. Friedman again:
By saying that defense spending needs to grow with GDP to be “level”, you are arguing for an annual increase in defense spending without saying so directly. That’s the point, of course. (source)
Defense hawks want military spending to rise together with GDP growth, whatever the international situation, whatever the threats.
As Matthew Yglesias points out:
Since economic growth causes real wages to rise over time, there is some reason for thinking that a military sized appropriately to the strategic environment would need real increases in spending to maintain its level of capabilities. But one way or another, the crucial issue is that the appropriate level of defense spending is determined by the nature of the strategic environment, not by the pace of economic growth. The US economy grew rapidly during the 1990s but the level of military threats facing the country didn’t—thus, a decline in defense expenditures relative to GDP was appropriate.
One interesting trope both in the substance and rhetoric of this argument from Heritage is the idea that 9/11 ought to have touched off a large and sustained increase in defense spending. On the merits, this is a little hard to figure out. It’s difficult to make the case that the 9/11 plot succeeded because the gap in financial expenditures between the U.S. government and Osama bin Laden was not big enough. Would an extra aircraft carrier have helped? A more advanced fighter plane? A larger Marine Corps? Additional nuclear weapons? One of the most realistic ways an organization like al-Qaeda can damage the United States is to provoke us into wasting resources on a far larger scale than they could ever destroy. The mentality Heritage is expressing here is right in line with that path.
I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. At some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature. Barack Obama (source)
Indeed, the views seem to be irreconcilable. But, on closer inspection, they’re rather less than one would assume. Take the pro-choice side: few people really believe that women should have a right to choose in all circumstances. Same for the pro-life side: only a few nutters believe that every fetus has a right to life. Most pro-lifers are ready to permit abortion under some circumstances. And most pro-choicers agree that a woman’s right to self-determination doesn’t go as far as allowing all abortions under all circumstances.
So neither side believes in an absolute right. Hence, as Ronald Dworkin observed, the argument on abortion isn’t between two completely different and incompatible world views. It’s merely a disagreement on matters of scale and extent. Both parties value the interests of both the fetus and the mother. They just balance these interests differently.
If we tone down the rhetoric of soundbites and slogans, we would see that pro-choicers aren’t anti-life, and pro-lifers aren’t anti-woman, and we would be able to discuss how to appropriately balance the interests involved. Rather than demonizing the other side and blocking all serious discussion, we would perhaps be able to have them agree to a balancing of interests that is closer to ours. Personally, I believe that there are too many abortions, and that the interests of the fetus (Dworkin wouldn’t agree that a fetus has interests, by the way) aren’t given enough weight in many cases.
I think that’s what Obama means by his “common ground” approach to the issue. Let’s hope that all parties are able to see that such a common ground is indeed possible, or that at least the two grounds can be moved closer to each other. I’m skeptical, however, especially regarding the pro-lifers: it’s hard to give up the view that abortion is a discussion between people who are either for life or against it. And such a view, by definition, doesn’t allow a middle ground. They would do good to admit that they aren’t so absolutely pro-life, and that the others aren’t so absolutely anti.
It think it’s fair to say that both the libertarian and egalitarian conceptions of freedom are wrong. Libertarians traditionally adopt a negative kind of freedom. More precisely, they believe that individuals should be free from interference, especially interference by the government, and with their property. They don’t accept that it makes sense to view freedom more positively as the possession of resources and capabilities that are necessary to make a really free choice between alternatives and opportunities. The freedom of those without certain resources and capabilities (such as education, health and a basic income) is futile because they can’t exercise their freedom, not because they are actively interfered with but because they can’t choose between opportunities.
Such a positive freedom is preferred by egalitarians (also called social-democrats, progressives, or even liberals). These, however, often make the mistake of denying the importance of negative freedom. In their effort to equalize freedom they often show disdain for non-interference and property rights (which are important).
There is a relatively easy way to bring these two points of view a bit closer together. The main worry of libertarians is that egalitarians will use the power of the state to redistribute property. (Remember the uproar over the claim by Obama that he wants to “spread the wealth around“). As I stated here, there are good reasons to encourage voluntary redistribution by citizens, without enforcement by the state (enforcement should only be necessary when citizens fail to engage in charity). If the resources and capabilities necessary for an equal positive freedom are redistributed voluntarily by citizens, then there is no interference and negative freedom and property rights are safeguarded.
“Need” now means wanting someone else’s money. “Greed” means wanting to keep your own. “Compassion” is when a politician arranges the transfer. Joseph Sobran
That would be what we call “redistribution” or, in the words of Obama, ”spreading the wealth around“. Regular readers know that I’m a proponent of social justice, but I also believe that this is a priori a citizen responsibility. The state should intervene and forcefully redistribute only when citizens fail to act responsibly towards their fellow-citizens. Charity is proof that people don’t always need to be forced by the government to help the needy, who, by the way, don’t want other people’s money, just a decent life.
Here is a post giving some more detail on the role of citizens and the government with regard to poverty reduction.
Partisan differences in macroeconomic priorities and performance have clearly had a very significant impact on the economic fortunes of American families over the past half century. Larry Bartels
In this post, I described the rise in income inequality in the U.S. during the past decades. Using Census Bureau data covering the period from 1948 to 2005, Larry Bartels’ book, Unequal Democracy, suggests that there is a much more egalitarian pattern of income growth under Democratic presidents than under Republican ones. So with Obama taking office, there is a possibility that the rise in income inequality will stop or even be reversed. At least his promised tax policies will, if implemented, be more egalitarian than McCain’s would have been (see here). Those who wonder why income inequality is a human rights issue can have a look here.
(As Mark Thoma points out here, this is more true for the first half of the period than for the second half).
In most democracy, voting is a right and not a legal duty. Hence, political participation is less than 100%, sometimes a lot less. Some people vote, and vote only in some elections. The number of people who vote is called voter turnout. Voter turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast a ballot in an election. In U.S. Presidential elections, for example, turnout is usually between 50 and 60%, with slightly more in the 2008 election which saw many first-time African-American voters vote for Obama.
More statistics on voter turnout throughout the world can be found here.
However, even if voting is not a legal duty in most democracies, it is generally considered to be a moral duty and a civic responsibility. A high voter turnout is generally considered desirable for many different reasons, and most democracies spend a lot of energy on “get the vote out” efforts. One reason for these efforts is the fact that low turnouts lead to unequal representation among various parts of the population. Policies will reflect this and will be to the benefit of those who vote. This can result in discrimination.
High turnout is generally seen as evidence of the legitimacy of the system and low turnout as a symptom of disenchantment, indifference and ultimately of the demise of the system. Of course, a single vote doesn’t make a lot of difference – except in very close races – and hence it’s normal that people feel indifferent. An individual, when faced with a monolithic monster of a state, threatening and distant at the same time, feels insignificant, like a grain of sand on the beach. Powerlessness becomes a fact of life and people retreat from democratic politics. A single voice is not noticed in the noise of millions and is reduced to insignificance. The state does not react to individual claims as quickly as it is supposed to, if it reacts at all. The bottom line is that individuals or small groups cannot hurt the state. Their votes are less than pinpricks. The only elements in society able to influence the centralized state are large, national and centralized pressure groups or political parties that are just as distant from the citizens as the state and equally insensitive to individuals’ claims.
But there is a solution. Federalism and decentralization encourage participation and counteract alienation and a feeling of distance between the citizens and the state. See here.
Apathy and indifference are also the consequence of the impossibility in many democracies to vote for issues. When people are allowed to take decisions on issues, they will be more eager to debate the issues and to inform themselves on the pros and cons of possible solutions. Relying exclusively on representation creates apathy because people can only vote on persons. Take a look here for the reasons why representation creates indifference.
Other ways to promote civic responsibility are better education, a well functioning civil society in which free associations can mobilize citizens, modern information technologies such as the Internet etc. More on the need for equal participation here.
Greg Mankiw has a different take on the problem of voter turnout:
Voting is a civic responsibility, they tell us, because democracy works best when everyone participates. … But relying on your fellow citizens to make the right choice … can be perfectly rational. If you really don’t know enough to cast an intelligent vote, you should be eager to let your more informed neighbors make the decision.
Eligible voters who are less informed about the candidates than their fellow citizens choose to stay at home, knowing the outcome will be more reliable without their participation. By not voting, they are doing themselves and everyone else a favor. If the ill-informed were all induced to vote, they would merely add random noise to the outcome.
What’s the evidence that this theory is right, that nonvoters are less informed than voters? Studies of voter turnout have found that education is the single best predictor of who votes: The highly educated turn out more often than less educated. A classic argument for why democracies need widespread public education is that education makes people better voters.
Granted. But rather than encouraging the less educated to stay home, as Mankiw seems to do, we should perhaps try to give them a better education.
As in every presidential election in the U.S., there’s controversy over campaign financing. Some say that Obama’s lead in the polls, and his likely election victory, result from his superior spending rather than the intrinsic attractiveness of his policies or character.
Intuitively, one senses that exaggerated campaign spending must distort the proper democratic process. Voters have to make a choice between candidates, but this choice is no longer based on rational, fair and equal examination of competing ideas. The candidate with the biggest budget receives more airtime and more exposure than the other and is therefore better known to the public. In addition, he or she can use this airtime to misrepresent the other candidate’s positions. So it seems that elections can be “bought”, by candidates or, more worryingly, by the funders behind the candidates. Given the steep increases in campaign spending over the last decades, this risk may have become a fact of political life.
However, it is difficult to prove such intuitive statements because we can’t redo an election and see what the results are without funding or with equal funding. However, Steve Levitt has made an attempt to do just this. He analyzed legislative races in which two opponents ran against each other more than once. By measuring such election races, Levitt was able to isolate the impact of money. It turns out that the amount of money spent by the candidates hardly matters at all. The impact of campaign spending is very small (albeit positive).
Levitt argues in favor of spending caps because fundraising is a waste of time given the small effect of money; time which could be spent on more useful political and legislative activities.
Levitt also argues against public funding but doesn’t seem to take into account the possible perversions caused by private funding (e.g. the candidate having to do something in return for funding).
More on the effects of money on democratic politics: there’s a post here on the pros and cons of public versus private funding for political parties. And there’s a post here on the way in which democracy can degenerate into a vote-buying system in which politicians “pay” for their votes by giving voters tax cuts, subsidies, benefits etc.
PS: this is part of the series called “human rights cartoons” because democratic government is a human right.
Income inequality within a country is usually measured using the so-called Gini-index (see also here). When we look at the Gini indices for the U.S. at various times, we see an increase in inequality (a higher value means more inequality):
- 1967: 39.7 (first year reported)
- 1968: 38.6 (lowest index reported)
- 1970: 39.4
- 1980: 40.3
- 1990: 42.8
- 2000: 46.2
- 2005: 46.9
- 2006: 47.0 (highest index reported)
- 2007: 46.3
These data show an increasing gap between rich and poor over the period between 1970 and 2000 (no significant evolution since 2000). As a result, inequality in the U.S. is now higher than in other developed countries:
Before the 1960s, the U.S. became progressively more egalitarian. From the 1970s onward, average income continued to increase, but mainly thanks to large increases in the top incomes, which caused a change in the trend and an increase in inequality.
This trend of rising inequality since the 1970s in the U.S. and some other advanced industrial societies (especially the U.K.) goes against traditional wisdom.
Simon Kuznets argued that levels of economic inequality are in large part the result of stages of development. Kuznets saw a curve-like relationship between level of income and inequality, now known as Kuznets curve. According to Kuznets, countries with low levels of development have relatively equal distributions of wealth. As a country develops, it acquires more capital, which leads to the owners of this capital having more wealth and income and introducing inequality. Eventually, through various possible redistribution mechanisms such as social welfare programs, more developed countries move back to lower levels of inequality. Kuznets demonstrated this relationship using cross-sectional data. However, more recent testing of this theory with superior panel data has shown it to be very weak. (source)
The trend of rising inequality has been called “The Great U-Turn“, a phrase coined by Harrison and Bluestone. When we focus on the U.S., we can identify the following causes of this u-turn:
- Globalization and trade liberalization depressing the wages of the less skilled or threatening their jobs.
- Rising number of single parent families.
- Influx of women and immigrants in the low-end job-market has also depressed wages.
- Lower taxes for high incomes by the Reagan administration.
- The weakness of the labor movement in the U.S.
- A relatively large wage premium for a college education in the U.S.
- The work ethic in the U.S. typically favors large rewards for success.
- Increasing reliance on technology causing increased demand (and higher returns) for education and cognitive skills.
What can be done about it?
- Offer better education.
- Renewed public support for the right of unorganized workers to be represented by unions.
- Strengthen the social safety net, including universal coverage for health care.
- Vote for Obama. A study by the independent Tax Policy Centre found that the tax policies proposed McCain would widen the gap in after-tax income of rich and poor even more, and that the policies proposed by Obama would reverse the trend:
More on income inequality.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage and an insult in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the nomination of an African-American to be the presidential nominee of his party. Whatever the outcome in November, Senator Obama has achieved a great thing — for himself and for his country — and I thank him for it. John McCain praises Obama before the NAACP