Tag Archives: politics

How the decentralization of technology work against a “surveillance state dystopia”

The coming of a sureveillance state dystopia has been predicted for some time. Ramez Naam writes a guest post at Charles Stross’ blog, and claims that the decentralization of technology has been responsible for the postponement. E.g., getting away with photoshopping images is a lot harder today than in Stalin’s time.

Naam spells out three technological trends that will help the little man even further: 1. Cheap cameras for self-protection. “[Camera] technology, when expensive benefits the big players. The technology getting cheaper becomes distributed, benefiting the citizenry.” “2. Crypto and Anonymity Blunt Surveillance Tools.” If someone is not looking for you in particular, anonomity tools are quite effective. 3. Information is becoming easier to spread. Naam ends by emphasizing that these trends will be no panacea, we will still need the law and proper oversight.

Review: The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg

Attending a seminar about turnout of young voters in Norway at the Institute for Social Research, I am reminded of Sasha Issenberg’s excellent book The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns from last year. Here is a mini-review:

Great story of the work of political campaigns and political participation generally. Someone interested in applying the methods in another context, such as another country, must keep in mind how much they rely on the public voting files that give information of whether someone voted. Without these, the micro-targeting made possible by matching the voter records with consumer databases and census information would not be feasible, and it would make experimentation much more difficult. Recommended, but there is one thing that bothers me: The actual politics is often lost sight of. It would be great if these advances also could contribute to improving policy.

Below is a really long summary:

Introduction
-renewed interest in small improvements after narrow Bush election, etc.
-”crucial divide” … between “new empiricists and the old guard”
-Political consultant Mark Grebner contacted Gerber and Green. Sent people copy of their and their neighbour’s (public) voting histories before election, and said they would inform also about whether voted after election. Increased turnout by 20 %. Problem: Looked dirty/like blackmail. Solution through testing and trial and error: Use a more gentle tone. Also have it look more like information than advertising.
-The problematic story of data in Al Franken’s 2008 Minnesota Senate race. Because of a close initial margin (favoring Republican Coleman), a mandatory recount had to take place. Importantly, there were many votes that were wrongly rejected the first time. These, absentee (challenged), votes were now to be included, and Franken’s team identified those who were most likely to favor him, like those “challenged for change-of-address discrepancies (p 10),” got more of those opened, and carried the race. I do not understand why they did not draw a random sample of those challenged.
-Ch 1. How the field of political science failed to take the road of randomized field experiments.
-beginning of 20th century, political science emerged, and as direct primaries and elections became more common, a study began also of the voters, not only of institutions and parties, as previously. A key man was Gosnell, who in the 1920’s in Chicago experimented with different types of reminders to voters of a coming election. “Gosnell’s conclusions were obvious – mobilization efforts can have the biggest impact in places where little else is pushing voters to the polls – but no one had ever before quantified them (p. 26).” But although his method received a positive reception, the field of randomized field experiments did not take off. Instead the field of polling was developed to great sophistication, with especially the data gathered in what later became “American National Election Studies”.
-Ch 2. Increased focus on who to target – in particular getting out one’s own voters and convincing undecided. Vince Barabba merged socioeconomic information from the 1960 Census with political information to identify precincts where there might be swing voters. Sending letters to potential donors. Malchow arranged a large poll with few questions for Wyden’s campaign to get more disaggregated data. Argued for including controls groups, but met resistance, because the campaigns wanted everyone to be included. One of his workers, Anil Mammen: ““Convincing people to ignore people they would otherwise mail or contact people they would otherwise ignore is a major hurdle. You’re making an argument that’s counterintuitive and your evidence is something they haven’t seen before.”(p. 67)”
-Ch 3. Experiments of Green and Gerber. Shallow critique of rational choice models. Brief history of field experiments. From medicine. Tests of social programs under Lyndon B. Johnson, most famously the effect of a negative income tax: Randomization of bonus payments to low-income groups to look at labor supply effects-found … But not in elections and voting, a field GG went on and made their own. In the 1998 (uncompetitive) New Haven election, they randomized postcards, scripted calls and door knocks to 30 000 New Haven voters, each form of contact additionally containing different appeals. After the election they checked the public(?) individual voter histories and found that the scripted calls had no effect, postcards had almost none, whereas the individual visits had a huge impact, increasing average turnout by 8.7 %. A clear theoretical contribution was hard to formulate, but the practical implications for campaigners were clear.
-Ch 4. The Democrats developed field operations well in the 80’s and 90’s. Paul Tully lead the work in gathering data relevant for turnout, including precinct data from the Census. Taken up by the Republicans in the 00’s.
-Ch 5. The rise of polling, and then of large corporate databases. The Republican Gage in 2001 bought a large file with data on consumers, polled 5 000 of these with about 20 questions on political issues, then looked for connections between the personal and political variables and used what he found to microtarget messages. Developed further for Bush’s 2004 campaign, often targeted the voter with a message about the only issue that the voter agreed with the Republican party with. Also approached scientifically how to elicit anger with questions on that issue. Is is not really clear how the matching between the registries occurred? By name?
-Ch 6. How the geeks took over from the gurus. After 2000, some Democrats realized they were lagging behind. In the 2004 elections, a sample of 20 000 people formed a basis for experimentation with messages when combined with repeated polling and regular mailings. Showed whether people looked at the messages, what worked, and what worked with whom. Credit scores as a model. Emergence of the Analyst Group.
-Ch 7. The power of the social element and psychology. Todd Rogers drawing on Cialdini’s research, like “what he described as injunctive norms (“ you should not litter”) were far less effective at changing behavior than descriptive norms (“ few people litter”) (p. 186),” and towels in hotel rooms. Wanted to test this in the Democratic presidential campaign (for Wesley Clark), but it was decided that the candidate could not afford to leave out a control group of untreated. Later he got the chance in the gubernatorial elections in 2005, and learned that, contrary to the gurus’ opinion, warning about low turnout not effective, whereas emphasizing that others vote is. Grebner collaborated with Gerber and Green to send letters with information of subjects’ vote histories, cloaked in various terms, all of which created effects of 30+%.
-Ch 8. Republican consultant Dave Carney tinkers in various ways. One ex is different anti-Clinton mails, which was effective but not widely implemented in the 2006 presidential election because of fears of a clashback. Teamed up with Perry. Implemented win bonuses for those working for them. Later initiated a collaboration with G&G and two other academics, Daron Shaw and James Gimpel for the 2006 Texas gubernatorial race. They tested: TV ads at different amounts after matching similar media markets-found that had immediate effect that decayed; candidate visits-TV coverage had effect, personal visits had lasting effects. Conclude that tv advertising not very effective, contrary to conventional wisdom, as seen in the money allocated to it.
-Ch 9. The increasing sophistication of microtargeting. Young consultant Dan Wagner hired by Obama 2008 campaign. Database with more or less every American voter. Ken Strasma had been an early proponent of extrapolating political information about known populations to those with otherwise similar characteristics. Special challenges related to the caucuses. Matching people using several hundred consumer variables. Sophistication of Obamas’s primary campaign. Gathering of more and more data, implementation of competition between phone vendors and checking whether they did their job. People less honest when answering a volunteer than a paid call. Tracking of opinion shifts identifying “shifters” giving a more nuanced view of the undecided.
-Ch 10. Sophistication of Obama presidential campaign. Importance of good data from the field. Creation of canvassability, callability and answerability scores to help with this. Randomization of web page features and money requests- “A/B tests”. Demonstration of superiority of online ads and street teams over television for reaching young voters. Ability of the question ““Do you think your neighbors would be willing to vote for an African-American for president? (p. 296)” to pick out those for race was important.
-Epilogue. The social element of voting. Rogers’ experiment with mailing vote histories to people inspiring a follow-up by Malchow: First a phone call asking whether intended to vote, then those that said yes received a letter and then a robocall close to the election reminding them of the pledge – very effective, created new votes at 18 dollars each. Costas Panagopoulos’ experiments: Mailing people message that would publicize those who voted vs those who did not – the latter more effective; thanking those who voted in a previous election had effect; “honor roll” of people never having missed an election or thank you note – both effective. Gerber, intrigued by finding that many believed that the vote was not necessarily secret, found that mail with explanation of how it was kept secret increased turnout dramatically for registered voters that had not voted before. Malchow experimenting on ways to register new voters.

Why do we study?

Now that the world is obsessing about the PISA scores of 2012 is a good time to think a little of the trade-offs involved. South Korea is one of the best performers in international student achievement tests, such as PISA. However it is also “the world’s top producer of unhappy schoolchildren” (h/t MR). Lant Pritchett made a related comment in his Econtalk interview:

I think the parents in Bedford got out of their school system exactly what they wanted out of it. And they wanted football teams. And my wife teachers choir, and they wanted choir. And they wanted the school to put on a musical; and they wanted the school to provide their children with a range of athletic and artistic experiences. And engagement in a variety of other activities; and that’s what the school system delivered. Because it was quite carefully and closely controlled, both formally and informally by the parents. And that produces kind of not world-beating math scores. I don’t think that’s what the parents of Bedford thought was the totality of their educational system. So, I’m a very big fan of the local control by parents of educational systems. And if that doesn’t produce scores of 600, I am actually pretty happy with that. Because I’ve seen what it takes in Korea to produce scores of 600, and no American parent is willing to put their kid through that. Nor should they be, in my opinion.

To put in something more classic as well, here is US president John Adams:

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

(Letter to Abigail Adams, 1780)

Breakfast with Bill Gates

Do not be late. Bill Gates to the right.

Do not be late. Bill Gates to the right.

Breakfast meeting on Commercial Investments as a tool for Development,” organized by the think-tank Civita. 

Bill Gates, in Norway to try to secure continued funding for his foundation’s aid programs, started out by giving kudos to Norway’s wealth management strategy and aid generosity. He argued that it would be feasible for Norway to invest a small part of the oil money with a “dual goal” objective – investing in countries that are short on capital, and where the investments could both provide a financial return and help financing needed basic infrastructure (electricity, roads, agriculture). He ducked a couple of hard issues. On a question from Paul-Christian Rieber on how to deal with oppressive regimes, he said that it was up to the national governments themselves to set their own rules and that he believed in engaging with most countries. I wished he had been more specific about how to engage. On a question from journalist Maria Berg Reinertsen on challenges related to taxation, Gates only said that planning was fair. A more helpful response was given by State Secretary Jon Gunnar Pedersen, who pointed out that tax issues had to be dealt with at an international government level. Pedersen cut a good figure, and also noted that the pension fund already do have investments in the areas that Gates were talking about, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, and that we have Norfund, a government fund whose aim is specifically to invest for development.

While this meeting was about investments, Gates’ next meeting of the day was with the new Prime Minister. Probably hoping that her people would note, he was crystal clear that aid was much more important. 

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.

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.