Monthly Archives: September 2013

Voluntary registration, compulsory voting

During the dictatorship in Chile, the authorities sought to discourage political participation and implemented voluntary and cumbersome voter registration procedures. Together with compulsory voting rules already in place, this created the unique combination of voluntary registration and compulsory voting.

I learned this from a newly published paper (gated) by my friend Paulo Cox and his coauthor Alejandro Corvalan. If one guessed, e.g. on the basis of rational voter theory, that this rule would cause registration and turnout to plummet, one would be right. There is more to the story in Chile, though, as voters registered en masse to vote Pinochet out of power in 1988. After that, however, the prediction has it right, with the result of a gap in turnout of around 60% (ca 90-30) between older and younger voters in the 2009 election.

Corvalan and Cox’ main concern is the representativeness of the electorate, and they show that income is highly correlated with registering and voting among the young (when controlling for education, etc). As the young become old, this “class bias” might come to hold for all voters.

Open government data for learning

How to encourage release of data?

“Open data” and “open government” have become buzzwords in recent years, but are often conflated. Mark Headd at the Civic Innovations blog refers to the “Open Data vs. Open Government” debate, which he considers an issue of data for transparency vs for “operational” needs. He emphasizes the need to keep in mind that the original objective of the open data movement was transparency, and warns about getting lost in bus schedules, etc.

As an example of data for transparency he gives the City of Philadelphia’s release of complaints against Philadelphia police officers. Most probably agree that police complaints are not a good thing and might provide clues into bad behavior. However even in this case one should be careful about stressing the transparency/accountability angle, since this easily creates the conception that the goal is to find wrongdoers, whereas what should be the goal is to learn. If there are systematic factors affecting complaints, it would be valuable to learn about them. And even in the absence of these, a complaint does not imply a presumption of guilt, that is for other investigations to determine.

If someone fears being subjected to unfair criticism, that is a legitimate motive for non-cooperation.

Two collections of interesting urban government datasets can be found here.

Monthly book roundup – August

Books finished in August:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse. Demands a review of its own. Recommended. 

It’s Game Time Somewhere; How One Year, 100 Events, and 50 Different Sports Changed My Life, by Tim Forbes. It’s Game Time Somewhere is the story of how a sports junkie got his dream of working in sports fulfilled, lost interest in sports, then found it again. Tim Forbes gives up his well-paying consultant job to get a foot into working in golf, then rises through the ranks there to become an ad-man and event manager. Along the way, however, he loses his passion for sports, and sets out to rekindle it through watching 100 events of 50 different sports. Things do not go as planned, unfortunately, as there is always something missing. He rants about ill-behaved superstars and an obsession with advertisement. In the end he realizes that what brings the good experiences is being part of a community is important, but what proves to be most powerful is participating oneself. To facilitate participation in any way becomes his advice to arrangers of sports events.

If this book had been 1/3 as long and with 85% fewer jokes, it would have been an interesting and fresh look on something that means a lot to a lot of people. As it is, it becomes tedious and only occasionally entertaining.

Republic of Outsiders: The Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels by Alissa Quart. Innovations often come from outsiders. But often outsiders also come up with gibberish, and though Quart mentions that tension explicitly, she did not elighten me about it. To be fair, I do not think she promises to.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid. The opportunities, challenges and choices involved in being an entrepreneur in the third world, half-parodically clothed as a self help book. We meet a You that is guided through how to succeed moneywise, which also carries with it successes and failures of other kinds. Recommended.

Why I Am a Buddhist: No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey by Stephen T. Asma. Ok.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre. Although usually not a fan of spy novels, I must confess I thoroughly enjoyed this classic.

The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle. Nice little book with tips from Coyle’s experience and research. Seems very good to look at before trying to teach kids, but also in general. Most of the tips are in my librarything review.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. Interesting chapter on the economics myth of ancient truck and barter, but the book jumped around too much and was too long for me to be able to keep the thread, I put it down halfway. Excellent reviews by Henry and others at the Crooked Timber seminar on the book.

Ratings and additional books are in the library.

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse

(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse.

Kill Anything That Moves is based on previously unused archival material and interviews, and tells the tale of American systematic disregard for Vietnamese lives and the atrocities that were committed during the Vietnam war.

In some of the first pages, Turse recounts the well known story of the My Lai massacre from 1964, in which American soldiers murdered around 400 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, both men, women-many of whom were raped, children and infants. Only one soldier, Second Lieutenant William Calley, was convicted, and he ended up servicing only a few years under house arrest. Contrary to what is oftentimes thought today, however, the My Lai massacre was the rule of American warfare in Vietnam, and not an abhorrent exception. The rest of the book reads a descent into more and more indiscriminate violence and successively increasing depravity. Although the book at times becomes a catalogue of violence and horror, we are never brought out of context.

Turse traces the various factors that contributed this culture. He starts with boot camp, which consciously dehumanized the soldiers and taught that obedience was paramount. Illegal orders were common, and soldiers, who did not have extensive training in the legality of war, often had to be uncertain about how to respond. Often those who gave the orders did not themselves know what was legal and not.

“Body count”- enemies killed, is term that runs through the book. The ubiquitous focus on body counts seems to have been partly an effect of the system’s priorities, but became also a driver itself, since both honor and more tangible rewards were distributed on the basis of that measure. This lead to a practice in which any killed civilian (or even water buffalo) was labelled as Viet Cong, and also incentivized the killing of those civilians. A part of this was Pentagon pursuit of the “crossover point”, at which enemies were killed faster than they were replaced. The “mere gook rule” said killings of Vietnamese were nothing to worry about.

“Free fire zones,” special areas of dubious legality in which everyone could be killed, were instituted.

A number of actions by the US army served only to alienate the Vietnamese population: people were driven away from their homes, villages, hamlets and crops were burnt, animals were killed, people were shot at, collective punishment enforced, corpses were mutilated. Sometimes the population starved and raided the garbage of the soldiers for food. Some soldiers started making adornment of their victims, e.g. ears on cords.

In the chapter on torture, the practices initially described bears a sinister resemblance to the revelations of the maltreatment of prisoners that occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in the early 2000’s: Electricity to body parts, water torture, beatings, humiliations. The torture was not restricted to these practices, though, Turse goes on to list among other things, hanging people upside down, inserting needles under fingernails, ripping out nails, shackling people tightly in tiny “tiger cells”, severe beatings, and free reign being given to Vietnamese interrogators, and claims that all this was widespread. Even applied to the enemy, these practices are controversial, to say the least. In a context were those in the field had huge discretion, soldiers often did not know who were the enemy and were constantly in danger, and proper trials were not held, a large number of innocents had to be harmed.

A chilling question is whether also the graver torture that is documented for the Vietnam war have occurred in recent wars, in particular in Afghanistan and Iraq. Given the similarity of at least some of the practices, there is perhaps no good reason not to suspect that there may be more.

Turse allocates much time to “Speedy Express,” an operation that took place in a few months from December 1968 to May 1969. This operation condoned massive deadly force on a previously unseen scale, with possibly thousands of civilians killed.

A bipartisan delegation visited, two members saw some mistreatment, etc. and reported on it, but were suppressed in the final report. Whistle blowers were not listened to.

In general resistance to the war not in the news to begin with. A little more after a while, much with My Lai, then more. Veterans started to come forward and make the atrocities known. These were often harassed. Daniel Ellsberg leaked “the pentagon papers,” partly about American disregard for Vietnam lives, etc. Pentagon fought against publication. Conference in Oslo just a week after publication of the pentagon papers, about warfare in Indo-China. Damning statement from commission.

Turse does not offer any quick fixes for current or future war-makers to avoid the atrocities of Vietnam, he seems content to document how bad the war really was. It is a worthwhile endeavor.