Social media censorship: Further reflections on suppressed coronavirus disinformation

On Wednesday August 5th, Donald Trump posted a snippet of a Fox and Friends segment to his social media accounts. Discussing the important matter of school reopenings, the president said the following:

Schools should be reopened. When you look at children, children are almost—and I would almost say definitely, but almost immune from this disease…they’ve got stronger—it’s hard to believe depending how you feel about it—much stronger immune systems than we do somehow for this and they…don’t have a problem…and I’ve seen some doctors say that they’re totally immune.

Trump goes on to cite as evidence the fact that only one person under 18 died from the virus in the state of New Jersey, which he (no less than his viewers) should know falsifies any claim of total immunity. Charitably, he likely means that children are shielded from the worst effects of the virus. Evidence: Just weeks ago, Trump made more reasonable claims that (1) children face less risk from the virus (they recover quicker) than adults and (2) that they may transmit it less readily than adults. As in the case of transmission to and from animals, the evidence concerning children’s role in transmitting the virus is still coming in. Whereas about a week ago, experts were optimistic about children’s role in transmission (believing on the basis of limited evidence that it might be lower), a recent German study has raised doubts (though has yet to pass through peer review). But regarding this risk, Trump admitted that further research was necessary and that his administration was taking this factor seriously.

Speculation about what he really means aside, the false and misleading nature of the letter of his claim (that children are immune) led Facebook and Twitter to remove the video for violating their policies around misinformation and covid-19. Were they right to do so?

In my previous post, I indicated that there was good reason to worry that this was actually the best way of promoting what might be dangerous content. Once again, I awoke to numerous headlines which repeated Trump’s claim. Thanks to the Streisand effect, people will see this claim, that children are ‘almost immune’ to coronavirus, repeated over and over again; thanks to the illusory truth effect, people may be more susceptible to believing it, even if they know it’s false.

Here, I want to emphasize a different strategic aspect of all of this. Suppose that Trump knows that the more strident claims are strictly false and that they will cause controversy. (If you watch the video closely, he indicates that he knows as much when he hedges: “I hate to use the word totally because the news will say, ‘oh, he made the word totally and he shouldn’t have used that word”.)  Might censoring it frustrate the aims of the censoring parties and ultimately serve Trump’s interests?

Perhaps. It is unprecedented for social media platforms to remove the president’s speech. Their policy, to date, has (reasonably in my view) been that, though what the president says might be false, misleading, or harmful, the people have a right to know that he’s said it (even if they should also be informed that it is misleading). But such platforms have been facing increased pressure by representatives of more traditional media, by politicians, by advertisers, and by some users to exercise a heavier hand in this regard, and to stop exempting Trump’s speech from their community standards. Trump, already so annoyed by the ways in which social media platforms have handled his content as to issue an executive order barring them from engaging in censorship, presumably knows this. The more he can get social media companies to censor him, the more he may be able to convince his base that these platforms are untrustworthy.

Supposing that it is true that a majority of users of social media platforms (including 38% of democrats) already believe that social media platforms are biased against conservatives, censoring the president’s speech in this manner might further negatively impact the reputations of these platforms (reputations which have already taken a large hit in the past year). Not only can this sort of censorship further increase polarization by leading conservatives to disengage (costing the platforms active users, and, ultimately, advertisement revenue), it may also cause people more generally to doubt social media platforms’ disclaimers about the dangerous or misleading content they choose to leave up, reducing their credibility and leaving vulnerable persons more susceptible to misinformation (though see Goldman’s Knowledge in a Social World, ch. 7). In the particular case at hand, these effects may be amplified because the censored party here is the president and it is reasonable to believe that voters have a legitimate interest in knowing what their leaders are saying, true or false, good or evil (though some evidence suggests that, with respect to offensive content in particular, many think this kind of censorship, even of the U.S. president, is desirable).

One thing that these considerations put into sharp relief is that despite the bare facts that social media companies have a right to censor and legitimate interests in censoring, there is no guarantee that they will censor well, even relative to their own goals (somewhat narrowly construed). If they are sufficiently bad at choosing which content to censor to advance their ends (was this really the most dangerous segment we’ve heard?), this establishes a weak presumption against their censorship—not as a matter of law or even of ethics, but a matter of organizational rationality.

Still, the claim that children are basically immune from coronavirus is false and may mislead parents into taking risks with their children that they ought not to take. While I think Trump did not mean exactly what he said (and that most people can understand this), surely an interest in protecting children favors censoring the content, outweighing this presumption.

Yet, whether this consideration is decisive in favor of censorship does not simply depend upon the magnitude of the risks unreflective uptake of the content poses (which might be slight). It also depends crucially upon censorship’s being sufficiently effective in stopping parents from taking such risks as to outweigh people’s legitimate interest in hearing what our elected officials say about important topics and the costs to credibility that platforms might incur as a result. Here, it is important that the censorship will not achieve this much unless enough people who would have otherwise seen and taken Trump’s words at face value are now shielded from their harmful effects. My other worries about the unintended consequences of censorship aside, I wonder how many now find themselves in such a position.

In the end, though Trump is wrong that children are immune to covid-19, he might well be right that the evidence favors reopening schools. Given plausible hypotheses about the importance of early education in socializing children, for adding meaning and purpose to their lives, for helping parents get back to work, for taking children out of deprived and abusive environments, and for ensuring that vulnerable children are not left behind, reasons to favor reopening hang heavy in the balance. These reasons must be weighed carefully against risks to children and to teachers and family members from reopening, risks that Trump himself has previously acknowledged. If the United States chooses to reopen its schools, it will not be alone. Sweden never closed them, and a number of other countries (many of them apparently faring better in the fight against coronavirus) have similar plans.  All other matters aside, it would be unfortunate if discussion of these serious issues were to take a back seat to the political theater of a battle between Silicon Valley executives and the commander in chief. Sadly, all parties involved are acting in ways that may predictably realize this unfortunate outcome.

Social Media Censorship: Four Lessons from the Recent Suppression of Covid-19 ‘Disinformation’

On July 27th 2020, a group of physicians calling themselves “Frontline Doctors” posted a video to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The video displays licensed medical doctors in front of a supreme court building (1) advocating the reopening of schools, (2) suggesting that there are public health costs of lockdowns (e.g., excess suicides, cases of depression, domestic violence, and substance abuse) and (3) extolling the virtues of zinc and hydroxychloroquine (a drug whose robust supply is essential for managing lupus and other ailments) in treating and preventing COVID-19 infections. By the morning of July 28th, the video had roughly 14 million views and had been removed from every mainstream platform that had initially hosted it for violating their coronavirus misinformation policies. On the same morning, I became curious and watched the video elsewhere. It was not hard to find.

Lesson one: Despite claims that private social media companies regularly violate persons’ free speech rights, actions by private companies to censor content are much less worrying than similar actions by state agents. This is partially because it’s relatively easy to access content that private parties take down. Less so when the state does it.

On July 29th, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt ran a “morning briefing” indicating that the video had been removed for suggesting that hydroxychloroquine was an effective cure and that masks were unnecessary. The remark on masks was a mere snippet of the much broader message. “You don’t need a mask,” Stella Immanuel said, “there’s a cure.”  She herself admits to wearing a surgical mask, so presumably she does not mean that there is no reason to wear a mask in the absence of the drug’s widespread deployment. Other doctors who spoke at the event clearly advocate social distancing and mask-wearing practices.

But leaving this claim aside, there is at least some truth in the main of what these doctors were saying. The segment lasted over 45 minutes, only a small portion of which contained anything about masks and only some of which concerned hydroxychloroquine . Many of the group’s claims about the safety of reopening schools and the hidden public health costs of lockdowns are largely uncontroversial. Others, e.g., that Sweden’s response represents an alternative approach to locking down are likewise true, even if the results of Sweden’s alternative approach have been mixed. Labeling the entire segment false or misleading thus does disservice to what’s true in it.

Lesson two: John Stuart Mill was right that censored content that is false often contains important half-truths and that this matters when considering whether to suppress it.

In the same piece, Leonhardt claimed that confusion induced by social media platforms’ failure to aggressively censor content is among the most noteworthy causes of the United States’ comparatively bad coronavirus outcomes. (Leonhardt also cited Sinclair’s media network, which broadcasts content downplaying the risks of the virus.) Let’s leave aside the fact that the causal explanation of the U.S.’s performance relative to its peers is a matter of some complexity and focus instead on something striking about the causal claim he in fact makes: that social media companies’ lack of censorship deserves a large portion of the blame for these outcomes.

But notice that reporters like Leonhardt at mainstream media outlets have likely done more than any social media platform to spread this particular video’s message. Had the message merely remained on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook (as so much content does) I would not have watched it. The same is surely true for countless others. But because the video’s content, which might have otherwise maintained a kind of cult viewership, was covered by all of the major news outlets, lots of people sought it out. This is the Streisand Effect in action: very often, attempts to suppress information lead to its viral spread. This matters because there are in effect two possibilities: either the ineptly suppressed content is dangerous or it isn’t. If it is genuinely dangerous, then Leonhardt (and others like him) have acted irresponsibly by their own lights by drawing much more attention to it. If the content of the video is not genuinely dangerous, on the other hand, then the main justification for removing the content in the first place is implausible.

Now, you might say the way that mainstream outlets spread the speech was not dangerous insofar as it was framed explicitly as containing disinformation. The problem is twofold. First,  the current media climate is so polarized right now that even once reputable outlets like the New York Times are deemed untrustworthy by a significant subset of the population. (Some go so far as to claim that these outlets are anti-reliable.) When such outlets declare something to be disinformation, then, there is real reason to worry that people skeptical of the outlet will be more favorably disposed to the bad speech than they’d otherwise have been. Second, some research has uncovered an Illusory Truth Effect, according to which people are more likely to believe things that they hear constantly repeated, even if listeners know the repeated claim is false.

Lesson Three: If there’s dangerous content out there, it’s often better to ignore it than draw increased attention to it. Paradoxically, censoring content is among the best ways of promoting it. Given the newsworthiness of social media censorship, were these companies to do what Leonhardt wants them to do and censor content more often, the effect might well be that the allegedly dangerous content reaches a wider audience than it otherwise would.

None of this is to deny that some of what these doctors said sounds crazy. (Though, notably, for some of them, their professional views on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine are among their most innocuous.) Still, it’s important not to pretend that the coronavirus treatment science is settled—there is still much that we don’t know, and the mainstream medical researchers at least deem the hypothesis that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment worthy of study in high profile scientific outlets. Until these questions are settled, it’s important for professionals, even fringe professionals, to make their arguments without being dismissed out of hand and derided. Importantly, the arguments regarding hydroxychloroquine offered by the so-called “Frontline Doctors” are largely anecdotal, rely on small sample sizes (n=350), and are afflicted with other problems evident to anyone remotely well-versed in critical thinking. Were these arguments to become widely accepted, it would be important to recognize their flaws and to draw public attention to them. But to think that the conclusions of such arguments are beyond the pale—especially in the context of the broader pandemic, during which those insisting on proper data collection techniques have been derided for not acting quickly enough—is, frankly, not credible. Thus even if these arguments should be discredited and derided, it’s important to take care not to similarly deride and discredit those who argue for similar conclusions from more solid grounds.

Lesson four: If you must draw attention to a bad argument that someone makes on some important issue, focus on the argument’s substance, rather than discrediting what speakers say by taking small claims they make out of context. Doing so is a small first step toward establishing credibility with those who disagree with you. Again, there is no first amendment issue here, but even the most fastidious protection of our rights to speak against government interference is insufficient for ensuring a healthy atmosphere for discourse.

Post-Modernism and Economics

I’m neither an epistemologist nor an economist; I offer this nonetheless.

  1. Post-modernism is, at root, a rejection of the view that knowledge has foundations.  This does not entail that there is no knowledge or no objective truth.  Nonetheless,
  2. Some post-modernists seem to mistakenly believe there is no objective truth.
  3. Economics, as the study of exchange, accepts—indeed, relies upon the assumption—that people have subjective preferences.  This does not entail that all preferences are equally good or that there is no such thing as “objectively better.”  Nonetheless,
  4. Some economists seem to mistakenly believe there is no objective value.

I’ve long wondered whether those in 4 making the same sort of mistake as those in 2.

Note that for those in 2, there is no objective truth to discover, so nothing other than the (somehow always subjective or inter-subjective) project of learning why people believe what they do and how this affects them. This is, to be sure, an interesting and valuable project, but not one that can be objectively defended if it’s own reasoning is right.

Similarly, for those in 4, there can be no objective defense of their project–whatever value it has is subjective.

Better views of both post-modernism and economics are, obviously, available. Lack of foundations can leave us finding objectivity in coherence, pragmatics, or reliable truth-finding methods (or even correspondence). Reliance on the subjectivity of preferences for one purpose is consistent with objectivity (of the goodness,* for example) of the same preferences for other purposes—and with objective value elsewhere. Indeed, I think the group noted in 2 only includes some (the worst) post-modernists and I think the group noted in 4 only includes a few (and not the best) economists. I worry, on the other hand, that students in many college departments (not, usually Philosophy Departments) do fall into 2 and many economics students fall into 4. We should seek to prevent both.


*People can subjectively value, or not, items without objective value and people can fail to subjectively value items with objective value.

Reflecting on The Box

I just finished Marc Levinson’s book The Box (CE*), which traces the introduction and development of the shipping container and its impact on global trade. You might think from that description that it was quite a dull read, but actually it was fascinating. (Steve Davies has a very useful 3-minute overview here. Check it out, I’ll wait.) The story includes an interesting take on the nature of innovation – while Malcom McLean is clearly an important innovator whose role cannot be discounted, lots of other people and events are indispensable parts of the story, which, as Hayek would be happy to remind us, is vastly complex and is the result of more inputs that one might guess. Levinson notes that single-actor “a-ha!” stories stir the imagination, but tend to obscure the actual process by which change occurs. Individual insight and entrepreneurship are real, of course, but if we want to fully understand innovation, we need to know about the other inputs as well.

Levinson’s story is a great illustration of unpredictability and the difficulties in planning. The book shows how both governments and private actors made some bad mistakes along the way, and the way things are in 2021 were largely unforeseen in 1956. Not only would the people in 1956 not have been able to predict the way the shipping business would evolve, they also couldn’t have predicted the way those changes would impact manufacturing, global supply chains, urban planning, the economic impact on then-undeveloped countries.
Another thing I found useful in this book is that it’s a great illustration of the tensions between classical liberal proponents of free markets, and actual business leaders. Levinson’s story is rife with lobbying, subsidies, and regulation. The regulatory activity is an important part of the story; sometimes helping move progress along, often hampering progress or promoting malinvestment. In some cases the regulatory structure reveals the political influence of industry leaders, other times that of unions. Indeed, labor unions come off as not particularly more noble than the captains of industry, as we see them press for rules that allow for make-work and featherbedding, and to shield themselves from the disruption innovation frequently entails. But the business leaders are, in a different way, seeking protection from competition and subsidies for their experiments – the exact opposite of “laissez-faire.”

Levinson tells the story in a fair-minded way – he’s sympathetic to the dock workers who stand to lose jobs, even as he describes rules and practices that are plainly self-serving and can’t withstand rational scrutiny. Meanwhile, he’s very up-front about the way the business leaders transparently seek favorable regulatory systems, as if skillful lobbying is as much a part of business as entrepreneurship and competition. It’s a prime example of “Horwitz’s First Law of Political Economy”: no one hates capitalism more than capitalists. More precisely, in this case, they simply take it as a given that there is a regulatory apparatus, and therefore do see “competing” via lobbying for a favorable place in the regulatory regime like competing in the market. And when Levinson shows us the point of view of the legislators who are on the other end of the lobbying efforts, it’s sometimes almost comedic, as they have to juggle “protecting” the interests of shipping companies, railroads, trucking companies, manufacturers, longshoremen’s unions, the Teamsters, stevedores’ unions, and so on – all of whose interests are often at odds with each other, and with that of the general public.

Interestingly, despite all the intervention by regulators and lobbyists from both labor and business, the innovation happens, the industry evolves, and millions of people experience an increased standard of living as global poverty declines massively. So is “capitalism” the story of businesses and unions “competing” via lobbyists for special legal protections? Or is “capitalism” the word for exchanges and competition that happen without government intervention? Obviously the word gets used to mean both, although that’s oxymoronic (which is a good reason to avoid the word – a topic for another day’s blogpost). But the story of the shipping container shows that despite, if not because of, political pull and self-dealing, dynamic innovations have the power to help millions of people lead better lives, often in ways no one could have predicted.

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The Quadruple Threat to America Today

America faces a quadruple threat. The four threats are related in various ways, too often mutually supporting. I am not including COVID-19, though it could easily be considered a 5th threat. My reasons for doing this are: (1) it’s a threat everywhere, in no way distinctive of American life; indeed, it would be best considered a global natural disaster; (2) it is related to the threats I do discuss; indeed, like all natural disasters, it’s impact is determined by our responses—and the other threats make bad responses more likely. I offer these for consideration as I think they must all be addressed if liberalism is to survive.

The first threat is straightforward. We might call it xenophobia or extreme in-group bias. It manifests in multiple ways, especially racism, sexism, anti-immigrant biases, and anti-semitism. This may seem to be largely confined to those on the so-called “right,” but it applies to many on the left as well. On the left, one need only think of Bernie Sanders’ anti-immigrant views or Joe Biden’s recent pro-American economic policy; on the right one need only think of talk of the “Wuhan flu” or “China flu” instead of “COVID-19”—both play on the insider/outsider distinction to blame someone else for our problems (or at least prevent outsiders from becoming insiders). Maliciously shifting the blame provides cover for those who seek to refuse to take action to limit the harm. Taking responsibility (not necessarily blame) means working to fix the problem. Many of our governments—and many individuals—refuse to do so. This, of course, is at least part of why the number of COVID cases and deaths in the US is on the rise. Like all natural disasters, how we react to it determines the overall impact it has. Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement is currently the most straightforward evidence of in-group bias, in the form of racism, as protestors correctly point out how institutional racism, especially (but not only) by way of police actions, are extremely unjust and, indeed, a matter of life and death for many. This seems to be a concern primarily of “the left,” but with leading support from libertarians (defying the standard left/right dichotomy). For those interested in that, see Radley Balko’s and Chris Coyne and Abigail Hall’s books (CE*).

The second threat is the economy, as we fail to institute a reasonable response to the COVID-19 pandemic and as we face the repercussions of widespread use of collateralized loan obligations (see this Barron’s piece and this piece in The Atlantic), much as the 2008 recession was at least partly caused by widespread use of collateralized debt obligations. Regarding the latter, it is unfortunate in the extreme that the federal government failed to learn any lessons from the collapse of the housing market bubble or its past support for big banking and the latter’s issuing of bad debt (itself encouraged as the big banks correctly realized that even if the debts really went south, they would be bailed out by taxpayers—because in the US the one thing we like to socialize is big business’s losses). Unfortunately, we may see the same thing repeat. Indeed, it may be worse since there is more invested in CLOs than there was in CDOs and the CLOs largely include commercial debt—and the pandemic is hard on many commercial enterprises. Regarding the government response to the pandemic, we can only note what has been often noted—widespread, enforced, and complete shut-downs of multiple markets may or may not help reduce spread of the disease, but would only do so at the obvious cost of making it more difficult—and more expensive—for people to get necessities. While middle and upper class professionals are often able to work from home with no or little loss in pay, many—especially those in the restaurant and entertainment businesses—cannot. At the end of the day, shutting everything down to save lives is foolhardy as it will cost lives. If markets are all closed, we won’t have food and other necessities. Those who live paycheck to paycheck (and many more) won’t be able to pay rent, etc.

The third threat is authoritarianism, partially with a populist demagogue. We now have a president who is likely more of a demagogue than any president since Andrew Jackson. Of course, he was enabled by changes to the office and the workings of the federal government over the last several decades. The expansion of presidential powers under the past several presidents—Republican and Democrat alike—enabled what we have now. The populism is perhaps as dangerous as anything else—promising voters bread and circuses is always worrisome. Those voters are often not well informed about how government works or about science. Now, of course, we see both the populism and the authoritarianism emerging from the debased Republican Party. The populism is clear in the MAGA crowd’s following their leader in insisting on not wearing masks. The authoritarianism is perhaps worse, as witnessed in federal law enforcement agencies frightening behavior in Portland—with the threat that such behavior will go national. The use of ICE and The Border Patrol Tactical Unit deep within the US Border started months ago (see this in the NYTimes) but seems to be picking up steam—ostensibly because the federal government is so worried about graffiti on federal buildings that they are unwilling to leave such crimes to local authorities. (See Jake’s great piece, which also indicates why this is also about populism.) In reality, of course, this may be merely a piece of political theater, aimed at distracting voters and rallying the president’s base. As already indicated, though, this is not an issue for the current Republican party alone. Presidents Clinton and Obama also expanded their powers while in office. And even now, we see scary authoritarianism from the left, when local authorities claim to have knowledge about what is necessary to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and claim that such knowledge justifies them forcing people to live under house arrest (see this piece about a couple in Kentucky) for refusing to sign a paper saying they would not self-quarantine (whether or not they would self-quarantine). Neither left nor right is blameless and neither seems to recognize that their actions are as scary (at least to their opponents) as those of the other side are (at least to them). Those on “the right” seem to think the Feds behavior in Portland is worthwhile because local authorities aren’t stopping looters. They seem to forget the value of federalism and the freedom of individuals that helps ensure (though they remember it clearly when it serves their interests). Those on “the left” seem to think the Kentucky authorities are doing the work needed given public health concerns. They seem to work with a reified sense of “the public” and forget the freedom of individuals that threatens (though they remember it clearly enough when it serves their interests).

The fourth threat is related to my last post. Its a dangerous lack of commitment to there being anything that is objectively true and to seeking such. Its not just our president that seems to lack any commitment to truth. Our culture is riddled with people who claim their beliefs form “their truth” which may be different from “your truth” or “my truth” but that must be treated as if of equal value. Never mind that there really are experts out there in all sorts of areas. Some believe their views of morality are as valuable as those of academics who spend their lives working out intricate details of moral theories and defending those theories against all manner of objection—though they themselves never subject their own views to criticism. (Why should they, when their view is “true to them,” whatever that means?) No wonder people now consider their views about disease transmission (and curing) as valuable as the CDC’s or Dr. Fauci’s. Or who consider their view of other countries as valuable as people who have actually travelled to or lived in those countries. Or who think their views of politics and economics as valuable as academic political scientists and economists who have been studying these things for decades? Admittedly, insisting that there is objective truth might sometimes sound dogmatic to those who feel insulted when faced with any intellectual opposition—as if insisting that a proposition is true entails rejecting any objection or evidence to the contrary, which it decidedly does not. Giving any belief its due can be considerably difficult. As Schumpter said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” We must remain open to the possibility that we are mistaken even when we are convinced we are not—that is what genuine commitment to truth and truth seeking entails.

I’ll end by making some of the connections between the threats explicit: 

-Its easier to favor economic policies that favor the rich (2) when one thinks everyone else is “other” (1). Its easier to favor authoritarian actions (3) when one believes they are only used against people vary unlike oneself (1). Its easier to deny there is any objective truth (4) when one is constantly told those unlike oneself have different values and beliefs (1)

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one mistakenly (4) think they threaten one’s own livelihood and that of those one cares about (2). It is likely easier to endorse authoritarian policies (3) if one thinks they are necessary to maintain economic stability or growth (2). (Less related to this discussion: it is apparently easier to deny there is any form of objectivity (4) if one believes that the only think that matters is subjective preferences (2).)

-Its easier to distrust or hate others (1) or to favor an economic policy (2) when blinded by an authoritarian repeatedly making false statements about them and grandstanding (3 & 4). Its easier, in general, to doubt there is any objectivity (4) when both that same authoritarian (3) and many others—including, if we are honest, many leftist college professors—encourage those doubts.

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one refuses to learn about them (4). Its easier to favor an economic policy (2) when one refuses to consider objections to it (4). Its easier to favor forcing people to live as one thinks they should (3) without doing the hard work of listening to them (4).

I hope its clear we need a response to these threats. Liberalism—and the great American experiment—depend on it.

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Undemocratic Policing in Portland

Federal law enforcement officers in various agencies in the Department of Homeland Security have been deployed to police protestors in Portland, OR. This development in the protests against police, and the police responses to them, highlight two different kinds of problems: those that come from the decentralization of local agencies and those that come from the centralization of federal agencies.

The federal officers, dressed in camouflage, have been detaining people in unmarked minivans. At least some of them are not wearing badges that identity their agency. The badges other officers are wearing are small and difficult to read, especially when a group of officers grab you and toss you into a van before speeding off. Federal agents are also using chemical irritants to disperse protests. In at least one incident, they attacked two people who appear to be medics providing care to someone laying on a sidewalk. It is hard to discern any legitimate police goal that was achieved from shoving them to the ground and threatening to strike them with batons. In another particularly awful incident, a protestor is shot in the face with an “impact” or “non-lethal” munition. In yet another, federal police repeatedly strike a protestor, who seemingly posing no threat, with a baton and then spray teargas into his face.

When asked what justifies the use of federal forces in Portland, the DHS has pointed to destruction of federal property. The list includes a broken window and many instances of graffiti, which is of course a far cry from their claim that the city has been “under siege for 47 straight days by a violent mob.” Acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli complains that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is “holding back” local law enforcement by not letting them “certain nonlethal tactics.” Meanwhile, the Portland police commissioner has said the federal officers should go home and that their presence is escalating the situation.

This is an unusual situation. Federal force is typically used to respond to protests only when local officials request it. The governor has called this political theatre. It looks worse than that to me. It looks more like the Trump administration probably violating the law to punish political enemies and to rile up his base. The administration has threatened to use similar tactics in other cities. And of course, since they are cities, they are Trump’s political enemies.

The situation demonstrates the importance of clearly marked law enforcement officers. One of the problems with “secret police” is the lack of accountability. If they violate your rights, who would you object to? Another is that it undermines one of the major justifications of a public police force, which is that a publicly accountable police force is supposed to give you reasons to comply and let the courts adjudicate the issue. But if you’re not sure who is tossing you into the back of a minivan, it is far from clear that you have a reason to comply. It is a different manifestation of the problem we see with no-knock SWAT raids in which people, fearing that their home is being invaded by criminals, use defensive force against unidentified officers. But this is probably not the main problem, which would remain even if the federal agents were more clearly identified.

The main problem is that the federal agents have little in the way of democratic authorization or other justification for their uses of force. The tactics to disperse protestors are clearly excessive. Further, the Trump administration is overriding the authority of local officials and police. The authority to deploy federal law enforcement to Portland apparently comes from regulations allowing CBP officers to operate with fewer constitutional restrictions in the “border zone” that extends 100 miles from the border. Though even that is unclear; the Trump administration has not explained the legal basis for these deployments. Like the Portland police commissioner, state and local officials have also requested that the DHS withdraw their officers.

A common complaint in criminal justice reforms circles is that the extreme decentralization of policing makes reform nearly impossible. With 18,000 police agencies, most reform efforts will need to occur independently all over the country. Another problem is that when officers are fired from one department, they often can find work at another nearby department. These are real problems, and they have contributed to the protests federal officers have been deployed to police.

But they are probably less significant than if the president was the head of a national police force in the way that the president is the head of the military. The Trump administration makes that clear. It’s true that local departments already have a less than stellar track record when it comes to policing protests. But police chiefs and commissioners don’t usually appear to be motivated to punish political opponents, in part because they’re not directly elected. And if they do punish political opponents, at least the voters in Portland or Chicago don’t have to worry about suburbanites who aren’t on the receiving end of the bad policing voting for a presidential candidate who promises to use the police to violate their civil liberties.

Another related problem is one of selection effects. People have long worried that eliminating residency requirements in local police departments will result in communities being policed by outsiders who lack local knowledge or sympathy with residents. When the agency doing the law enforcement is widely loathed, and staffed by people across the nation who simply accept that they are widely loathed, we can expect even less local knowledge and sympathy with residents. Using federal agents for local policing causes some of the same problems that having the military engage in domestic policing does.

These two problems undermine the democratic authorization of centralized police forces. Of course, there are few proponents of a national police force. If this is right, though, it informs normative questions about consolidating police forces. Elinor Ostrom researched this question and found that people are more satisfied with more local police power. Using federal police to respond to protests is probably illegitimate because it gives non-locals too much say over local issues. Similarly, a police agency that has a jurisdiction much larger than a city is likely to suffer the same problem. People who live in the city and are likely to be heavily policed, for example, probably have very different views about what good policing looks like than those who live in the suburbs and enter the city just to work.

Theorizing about justice in real political systems is a game of picking our problems. Decentralization surely leads to problems of its own, ones that have partially caused recent protests. But they also look less serious than ones we could expect if the Trump administration had more control over local policing.

When Equalizers Are Thought To Be Biased

Writing in the New York Times this past Thursday, Anthony Tomassini called for ending blind auditions for orchestras, because the orchestras are not coming out diverse enough. What strikes me as odd about this is that the whole reason for blind auditions is to encourage diversity, by eliminating unconscious bias. The argument would go something like this: the orchestra is all white men, it’s highly unlikely that no women or POC are talented enough to play enough in the orchestra, therefore it’s probable that there’s bias in the selection process, but if we hold blind auditions, no one will know the gender or ethnicity of the candidate. And sure enough, while women made up around 6% of orchestras in 1970, today “women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic.” However, black and Latino artists hover around 2%. So Tomassini suggests that we now end blind auditions in order to purposely increase POC representation in orchestras. The article considers, but is dismissive of, the idea that the best way to get more POC orchestra members is to address bias issues in school music programs, so that more POC are going to the blind auditions. Tomassini rejects this on the grounds that at the top levels, everyone is pretty much as good as everyone else, so we might as well prioritize other values such as representation.

While I suspect it’s false that there is “remarkably little difference between players at the top tier,” my point today is not to argue against Tomassini’s conclusion. I don’t have particularly strong views on how orchestras should be constructed. Rather, what motivated me was that I was reading this story on the same day that my news feed brought me yet another article arguing that the SAT is “mired in racism and classism.” In both instances, we have something that was designed to eliminate bias being castigated for being biased. In the old days, admission to elite universities was largely a matter of connections – if you were white and wealthy and attended good prep schools, you could go to an elite university. If you were female, or Jewish, or low-SES, or non-white, or a recent immigrant, it didn’t matter much if you were very smart and industrious. The “old boy” network would have still excluded you. Standardized testing was meant to undermine that bias by providing objective evidence that a woman, or a Jew, or a recent immigrant from Italy, or an African-American, could be just as smart, just as capable of dealing with college, as the WASP boys were. And sure enough, the elite institutions diversified broadly. But. It’s generally well-accepted that you can get better SAT scores if you have lots of prep coaching, which the wealthier can procure much more easily, so despite the success of standardized testing in increasing diversity, concerns remain about bias.

Now I do have slightly stronger opinions about education policy than I do about orchestra membership, and I am not convinced that the SAT is as horrible as Teen Vogue makes it out to be. But even if it is, it’s far from obvious what the solution should be. If we eliminate standardized testing, college admissions would be based on something else. High school grades? Given the great disparity in schools, this would make the problem much worse, not better. The rich kids from elite prep schools, or even just well-funded suburban public schools, will have at least as much of an edge in terms of showing good grades as they do in test coaching. What about appealing to other things, like who is on the crew team? It’s obvious that that sort of metric would be biased as well. What about the personal essay? That’s even more susceptible to coaching and prep advantages than testing. To take a page from Tomassini, we might say “well, there’s remarkably little difference between students at the top tier,” so we can select for as much diversity as we like – except in this case we don’t yet know which students are in the top tier.

What both of these stories have in common is a tension between conceptions of equality. If selection for elite institutions is based on racial/gender/SES discrimination, that’s inegalitarian. But if mechanisms for routing around bias fail to eliminate all bias, or introduce new bias, what to do? Does meritocratic egalitarianism help, or hinder, diversity along racial/gender/SES lines? I am not sure there are easy answers here. One piece of right-wing snark I saw online said of the orchestra issue “this is the civil war between white women and blacks.” The implication there seems to be that gains for women come at the expense of gains for African-Americans and vice-versa. It’s a zero-sum game in the sense that there are only so many slots in a particular orchestra (or an incoming freshman class), but how those slots are filled is a values question. What is the main desideratum? Excellence? Representation? Preservation of status quo? Inclusion? Exclusion? Not all these are mutually incompatible: When baseball was segregated, you couldn’t really claim that excellence was the main value, because the great talent of Negro League players was excluded. Promoting a value of inclusiveness aided the promotion of a value of excellence. (So too with Ivy League schools ending their prohibition of females, Jews, blacks, etc.) But different institutions might seek different values. In professional sports, you don’t have to be a native of (say) Pittsburgh to play for the Pittsburgh teams. But in international amateur competitions, the team from Finland is made up of Finns. There’s no metaphysical necessity behind one institution having one rule and the other having the other. That’s just the way those institutions developed. But clearly there’s a difference between (a) the Finnish team says “sorry, no Danes allowed” and (b) the Finnish team says “sorry, no Jews allowed, even Finnish Jews.” So some forms of discrimination are more legit than others. But that doesn’t tell us whether to abolish testing for college admissions, or blind auditions. Those institutions need to clarify – both to themselves and to their public – what their chief values are. We won’t solve the problem by just assuming that all institutions have, or even should have, the same values and purposes.



About Dialogue

Many people believe civil discourse has deteriorated. I think civil discourse has deteriorated. In this post, I want to make a different point: that what we see today is not merely a deterioration of civil discourse, but a greater and more general loss of genuine dialogue.

Dialogue involves two or more parties.  In genuine dialogue, one party speaks and the other responds, in seriatum.  The second responds to the first and the first responds to the second, etc.  In each of these moves, when one responds to the other, they do not merely make statements—they make statements that directly respond to the last statementThis means, at a minimum, that each successive statement takes into account what was previously said and in some way builds upon it.  The “building” may be a moving of the discussion forward wherein new information is created or shared, or it may be an interrogation of earlier statements that is plausibly expected to lead to clarity such that further building is possible.  

Excluded in genuine dialogue is lying, making statements unrelated to previous contributions to the discussion, mere repetitions of previous contributions (unless used as part of an interrogation meant to allow further building), and tangential statements meant to change the topic.  (Changing the topic is permissible, but doing so means ending one conversation and starting another.)

My contention is simply that these moves that are excluded by genuine dialogue are an extensive part of contemporary conversation.  Putting the point differently, much of contemporary discussion is twaddle rather than genuine dialogue. (This is not an original point; it’s been made many times before throughout history; my favorite statement  about it is by Kierkegaard, in his The Present Age (CE*).)  If this is right, it’s hardly surprising that we have a paucity of civil discourse.  How can we expect civil discourse when people have lost the ability to engage in any real discourse?  When what passes for discourse is “you speak then I speak,” disliking what the faux interlocutor says will not result in honest interrogation or understanding, but hatred.

If you think I am being facetious, consider:

-Walking across a college campus, you might hear someone say “Was your summer fantastic?” Forget the response, what kind of question is this?  What if the person being asked merely had an OK summer?  

-You might here someone say “Its going to rain tomorrow because I looked at the forecast.”  Well…. no.

-Someone might ask a guest if they’d like a drink and receive this reply: “I’m going out to dinner after this.”  This likely should be prefaced with a “No,” but who can be sure?

None of that even touches the fact that some seem to have absolutely no commitment to telling the truth, the results of which is that genuine dialogue can’t progress.  We could, of course, simply look at the White House for examples, but more generally I admit to being flummoxed when faced when someone lies straight to my face—when I realize this is happening, I give up on genuine dialogue with that person.

If contemporary discussion is itself not genuine dialogue, it cannot be civil discourse.  If we care about civil discourse, then, we should work to encourage more genuine dialogue.  That is, we need to encourage people to listen to one another and actually respond rather than merely speak.  (This, by the way, is one reason many of us love university life: at a university, we frequently say “what do you mean by that?,” “can you explain?,” and even “how is that relevant to our discussion?”  We seek and promote genuine discussion all the time.)

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Investigating Mr. Newton’s Residency Status is Immoral

SCOTUS recently sided with POTUS about the rights of certain immigrants who face deportation. The basic point by the court was that “neither the right of habeas corpus nor the right to due process of law requires a hearing before a judge for those turned down in their initial asylum screenings.” (See this NPR story.) I won’t comment here about the legal reasoning; this is a comment about the morality of deportations—or really, the morality of the initial acts that lead to deportations, especially those by I.C.E.

My thinking here was not spurred by the SCOTUS decision but by a line in The Man Who Fell to Earth (CE*) by Walter Tevis. For those who have neither read the book nor seen the movie (CE*), this is a story about a extraterrestrial alien who came to earth and did a fantastic amount of good for humankind—just as immigration is generally good for all humankind. (See this Economist Article, this Michael Clemens JEP article, and Bryan Caplan’s book (CE*).) The good he did was in the service of working toward helping those from his own planet, but was done peacefully—again, the norm for immigrants, who typically work for their own good or that of family in their home country, but do so peacefully. Upon his arrest, the alien—Mr. Newton—asks about the constitutional right to legal counsel. The response is startling: “you don’t have any constitutional rights. As I said we believe you are not an American citizen.” Constitutional rights only apply to citizens, we are told. Indeed, Tevis suggests, constitutional rights only apply to those whose citizenship isn’t doubted by any government officials. If a government official believes you are not a citizen, you have no constitutional rights.

I find this appalling on its own because I value morality for its own sake and only value a constitution—any constitution—if it is in accord with morality. I’d like to think all classical liberals would agree. Unfortunately, I know people with whom I am otherwise in large agreement, who do not agree. I know otherwise solid libertarians who disagree. (That shocked me when I first realized it.) Nonetheless, human persons all have value. They ought all be treated with equal respect. If a constitution suggests it’s ok to treat human persons disrespectfully, it is wrong.

My primary assertion here is simply that it is disrespectful to stop someone to accuse them of committing a crime, or even to question them about a crime, without very good reason. The question, then, is when do we have such reason? I think there are at least two requirements: First, it must be a serious crime, by which I mean someone must have been seriously harmed or be credibly threatened with serious harm. Second, the evidence must itself be both credible and persuasive to the average rational person. Absent either of these conditions being satisfied, no government official should interfere with any individual. (I mean for this to be a beefed up form of probable cause requirement.)

Turning back to deportation actions, consider that every U.S. citizen has rights and is presumed “innocent until proven guilty.” I would think that this entails that we assume those around us are innocent of the crime of entering the country illegally—or, at least assumed innocent absent the satisfaction of the two conditions indicated in the previous paragraph. But note being a resident in the US illegally will never satisfy the first of those conditions—coming into the country illegally does not on its own credibly threaten or cause any individual serious harm. (See Van der Vossen and Brennan book (CE*) and Lomasky and Teson book (CE*).) Hence, we (and the government) should assume those around us are citizens unless proven not to be. (If we do not, we assume some of our neighbors are guilty of a minor, i.e., non-serious, crime—but, again, we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty and, more to my point, it would be a failure of respect to hassle someone about possibly having committed such a minor crime.) So we should assume that all present in the country are citizens. If we assume that, though, we don’t investigate their citizenship—we assume they are citizens. Mr. Newton shouldn’t have been investigated. He should have been thanked for all that he gave everyone else in the country. So too, we should not have I.C.E. investigate or seek out non-citizens. They should be assumed to be citizens and, indeed, thanked for what they provide the rest of us. Hence, we should not be looking to find anyone here illegally and so should not consider departing anyone.

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Allegory for last week

I’m thinking of writing an essay on themes of moral equality and its consequences for political theory. I’m going to argue that people are morally justified in resisting, by armed force if necessary, when agents of an oppressive, colonialist power routinely violate their rights, acting like a thuggish, occupying army rather than, as their propagandists claim, dedicated protectors of public safety. Part of the basis for this will be the idea that it’s conceptually mistaken to think that there are different classes of person, some of whom are morally better, or more capable of self-control, than others. On that (wrong) view, one would be able to justify all sorts of oppression and rights violations, but on the view I’m going to defend, all persons have equal moral worth, so there’s no good justification for, say, beating peaceful protesters, or arresting them on trumped-up charges and punishing them in kangaroo courts that are rigged to keep them down. I’ll use the fundamental moral equality premise to argue that people’s basic rights are conceptually prior to state power, and that therefore the latter is hard to justify – at a bare minimum its authority would require consent, consent that is conditional on that authority not overstepping its bounds and becoming oppressive. When power is abused, consent is withdrawn, and the power then lacks legitimacy and hence can be resisted. I would think this essay will be welcome in the current climate of protests against police brutality and mass incarceration and policies that treat whole segments of the population as second-class citizens.

I’d be mistaken, of course. In most online discussions of that essay this past week, I saw people getting it wrong in two distinct ways. One set was people who thought it sounded pretty cool, but somehow thought that it meant that the people protesting rights violations were the bad guys and that the brutal repression was justified, and that it’s fine to treat whole segments of the population as if their rights didn’t matter. Some of them actually said that whatever the agents of state power say is ipso facto right. These people say they like the essay, but have managed to miss its point entirely.

The other set was people who agreed with me that it’s bad to systematically violate rights, yet for some reason hated the essay. When I tried to ask them why they hated it, some of them accused me of endorsing the rights violations. That’s self-evidently stupid, of course, since the essay is about why those rights violations are bad. Other people said they hated the essay because not everyone takes it seriously enough. That struck me as an odd reason to dislike an essay. If it makes a sound argument that you agree with, you should like it, even if other people have ignored it. Some people said they didn’t like the essay because some other document, written by someone else, has a lot of flaws. When I said that I agree that that other document has serious problems, and indeed that its problems were largely rooted in insufficient attention to my essay, they simply reiterated in “this-one-goes-to-eleven” fashion that the other thing is flawed.

Anyway, I’m not actually not going to write this essay, first of all because people just insist on missing its point, or on getting mad at me about something other than what’s in the essay, and second of all, because it would be plagiarism, in case this allegory wasn’t obvious enough.