Sunday, February 27, 2011

Not So Fast, John Holbo!

I wanted to respond to some of the (alleged) contradictions which John Holbo identifies in his post on unions and "fair play". First off is this nugget:

Athletes are ruining sports! (So be it!) If that is an ethically acceptable outcome, then so is the following: Capitalism is ruining society! (So be it.) Wall Street is hurting the economy more than it is helping. (So be it!) I doubt very much that Joyner would be willing to accept that capitalism is ethically obligatory even if it ruins society, by Joyner’s lights, and by those of the vast majority of members of the society in question (let’s say). But if he does not credit the absolute right of capitalists to ruin society, by the aggregate exercise of their individual economic rights, why should he think athletes have an absolute right to ruin sports?

Er... well... no. Athletes, being individual actors, are capable of directly ruining a sport, though whether they are, in fact, doing so is a matter of interpretation. "Capitalism" and "Wall Street", on the other hand, are abstract concepts embodied in the actions of millions of people; it's nonsensical to assert that either of them are "ruining society". What you can meaningfully say, though this is again open to interpretation, is that the aggregate actions of millions of people living under a capitalist regime (or some select thousands working in finance) are ruining society. However, you must also demonstrate that the ruination result directly form the collective exercise of economic rights and not, as frequently seems to be the case, because of fraud/graft/cronyism/etc. The intuition that "So be it!" is an inappropriate or absurd response fails because its difficult to imagine what such a situation would actually entail.

Holbo also argues that libertarians, if they support certain positions vis-a-vis the management of corporate organization, they must necessarily take those same positions with respect to society at large:

The problem is that the likes of McArdle cannot make arguments of this form without undermining her own libertarian-conservative philosophy. Specifically, she hereby undermines her capacity to object, in principle, to competing positions that she wants to object to, in principle. She is basically making what we might call a ‘basic structure’ argument about organizations. That’s a Rawlsian term, and that’s the trouble. If it is permissible to manage a company with an eye to the patterns of distribution and activity that comprise its corporate structure – broadly speaking – why isn’t it permissible to do so with regard to society, politics, so forth? If management can look at the assembly-line and say, ‘too many humans, not enough robots’, why shouldn’t political management (pointy-headed technocrats, maybe; but, ultimately, voters) look at society and say: ‘too many millionaires, not enough members of the middle-class’? If you think the latter judgment should be blocked, in principle, by a philosophy of freedom that does not permit aiming at ‘patterned distributions’ (Nozickian term), how can you countenance a philosophy of management that can aim at efficient management – i.e. strategic disruption of the basic structure, for the sake of better basic structure – since that may, after all, come at the cost of individual rights. If workers can be fired and replaced by robots, for the sake of the good of the basic social structure (of the business), why can’t millionaires be replaced by members of the middle class (themselves, just with less money), for the sake of the good of the basic structure (of the society)? What is, in principle, wrong with the latter sort of move, if the former is not merely permissible but possibly obligatory?

McArdle might be making a "basic structure" argument, but one which is specific to the management of corporate entities (be they public or private). A manager in a private corporation in chartered (in theory at least) to run the corporation for the benefit of its owners. We can quibble about what, exactly, this entails, but I would argue that running things efficiently/correctly (i.e. making pie the right way) falls within the scope of eir duties. This argument can be extended, I think, to public corporations (and corporation-like bodies) without doing it too much violence; managers in such entities have reasonably well-defined goals which they are supposed to accomplish and should attempt to reach these goals in an efficient manager subject to the constraints of the entity's charter.

It does not follow from there, however, that if you support such activities at the level of individual corporations/firms you must necessarily support those same activities at a macro scale. The questions I would raise when confronted with such a suggestion are as follows:

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • By what means are you seeking to accomplish it?
  • Who would carry out these activities?
  • Are such activities part of that entity's charter?

To Holbo's conundrum regarding corporate management vs. public management I would answer as follows: "Establishing the appropriate person/robot ratio is a task which proceeds naturally from the managers' charter to run the company for the benefit (interpreted here as 'maximization of ROI') of the owners. However, there appears to be no one who has, as part of their remit, the task of establishing and maintaining a middle-class/millionaire ratio". This is, of course, where libertarians typically diverge from progressives when it comes to social policy: progressives think that government has (or should have) the power to make such determinations, libertarians do not.

Holbo, wise man that he is, anticipates this objection:

ou could say the workers can be fired because they don’t ultimately own the business. The owners do. The stockholders. But this is not very helpful, for purposes of arguing against ‘social management’, with an eye for basic structure in politics. Because, after all, society is either not owned by anyone, in which case the argument is a dud, or it is owned by everyone, in which case it backfires. The voters are the ultimate stockholders, or no one is. So, to repeat: if it would be ok for stockholders in a company to vote to fire some humans and replace them with robots, it ought to be ok for stockholders in a company that happens to be a society to vote to fire some millionaires and replace them with members of the middle-class, if that would help get the society back on track of realizing its normative goals of being a good society.

He's right in asserting that voters are analogous to stockholders. But, like stockholders, they rule not by fiat but rather have a set of rules by which they have collectively bound themselves. For example, voters may grant the Federal Government whatever power they desire, but it may be necessary to amend the Constitution to do so. So yes, society could fire the millionaires provided that they follow the proper procedure; libertarians simply disagree with progressives over what those procedures may be.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Flight of the Wisconsin/Indiana Variety

I'm generally neutral on the protests et. al. that are going down in Wisconsin right now; I don't feel that I know enough about what's going on to have an informed opinion. But fleeing the statehouse to prevent quorum (which seems to have happened in Indiana as well) strikes me as bad sportsmanship on the part of the Democrats. How is this any different than the various and sundry stalling tactics (threatened filibusters, anonymous holds, etc.) that Republicans have been using to block the Democratic majority in the Senate? If anything this is worse, because lack of a quorum prevents any business from getting done, yes?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Where have the good slackers gone?

There's an appallingly bad article in yesterday's WSJ bemoaning the fact that all twenty-something men are perpetual post-adolescents. Somehow they've managed the interesting phenomenon of delayed marriage, already thoroughly discussed in books like Red Families/Blue Families, and spin it into yet another piece asking (literally) "Where have the good men gone?".

Really, the entire article is one long exercise in begging the question. It claims that men ("guys"... blech) are delaying adulthood, but then narrowly defines adulthood as follows:

  • High-school diploma
  • Financially independent
  • Wife
  • Kids

Given that the cohort the article describes typically has college degrees and well-paying jobs it really starts to sound like a well-meaning aunt asking "When are you going to settle down and find yourself a nice girl?".

Hello, missing the point much? You shouldn't be complaining about delayed adulthood, you should be asking why we consider having a wife and kids to be a definitive marker thereof. Even the complaints about pot-smoking, Playstation-playing ne'er-do-wells ring hollow given the accompanying article profiling 20-something start-up founders. Which, strangely enough, is titled "Two Cheers for the Maligned Slacker Dude", leading me to conclude that "slacker" no longer means "someone bereft of ambition" but now means whatever the NYT wants it to mean. Which, in this case, seems to be "unattached hipster entrepreneur".

Monday, February 07, 2011

Women and Wikipedia

I've some thoughts on the ongoing discussion of the underrepresentation of women in Wikipedia's contributor community. Doing a depth-first traversal let's start with Justin Cassell, who suggests that Wikipedia's vigorous culture of debate is partly responsible for the relative paucity of female contributors:

However, it is still the case in American society that debate, contention, and vigorous defense of one’s position is often still seen as a male stance, and women’s use of these speech styles can call forth negative evaluations. Women may be negatively judged for speaking their mind in clear ways and defending their position. A woman who wishes to collaboratively construct knowledge and share it with others might not choose to do so as part of a forum where engaging in debate and deleting others’ words is key.

Cassell's fundamental argument, that debate is a "masculine" trait, seems unarguable. But if that is indeed the underlying reason there are few female contributors it makes the topic as a whole somewhat less interesting; the gender imbalance at Wikipedia ceases to be a Wikipedia-specific phenomenon (and thus worthy of a "Room For Debate" forum) and becomes instead a symptom of more general social conditions. However, I'm not entirely convinced by Cassell's argument since Wikipedia users need not reveal their sex/gender1. Women who wish to speak their mind may decline to provide this information (or pretend to be men), thus avoiding censure. What would be really useful is a breakdown by gender of the "reasons for not contributing" table on p. 10 of the summary of the inciting survey, since that would speak directly to the reasons that women aren't contributing to Wikipedia.

Jumping up one level, Ta-Nehisi Coates responds to Cassell as follows:

It seems to me that is not just a Wikipedia problem, but a societal problem likely extending out from families and schools. Defending your words strikes me as a really good thing. Dissuading women from doing that strikes me as just the opposite.

Again, if you think Cassell's thesis is correct then characterizing this as a "Wikipedia problem" misses the point. As Mr. Coates seems to recognize, Wikipedia is effectively inheriting this problem from the greater social context in which it is embedded. It follows from there that, providing Cassell is correct, the best way to resolve the issue is to fix society as a whole; focusing on Wikipedia is putting the cart before the horse. Also, I find it hard to swallow Mr. Coates' idea that trolling is a contributing factor:

That said, I'm not convinced that there's nothing that can be done. For whatever reason, I think Internet sites that allow trolling and aimless idiocy to run roughshod have a disproportionate effect on women. (Terri Oda hints at exactly that here.) I don't know if that's because trolls and idiots are more likely to say something sexist or what. But I don't think the problem is aggressive argumentation, so much as its weak people saying these behind a cloak of anonymity which they'd never say publicly.

In World of Warcraft, I almost never talk in the public channels as they seem to be a haven for racists. When Matt was here, and before I was actually blogging, I was often tempted to comment. But it seemed that whenever a social science post came through, no matter how well written, in comments, it eventually came down to black people having smaller brains. Or some such. Enforcing strong standards in comments is a kind of general value that, I think, has specific impact on women and others.

Mr. Coates, I do not think that word means what you think it means. The discussion on Wikipedia's talk pages are about as far from what you find in the public WoW channels as you can get. I mean, really... take a look at the talk page for "Feminism"; the participants may disagree, but they're engaging in long-form discussion while avoiding ad homonym attacks. That looks like neither "trolling" nor "aimless idiocy" to me; if anything Wikipedia's talk pages are frequently accused of being overly bureaucratic.

Which brings me, finally, to Amanda's response to Ta-Nehisi:

And that’s exactly it; even the idea of going on to Wikipedia and trying to edit stuff and getting into fights with dudes makes me too weary to even think about it. I spend enough of my life dealing with pompous men who didn’t get the memo that their penises don’t automatically make them smarter or more mature than any random woman. I don’t even have to go onto Wikipedia to tell you that it’s probably like that, on steroids, since, as Justine Cassell notes, on Wikipedia you can actually delete people’s actual words.

Yea verily... who wants to spend their time with that? Note, however, that Amanda doesn't cite anything like "fear of censure" or a desire to avoid vigorous debate, which blows a big whole in Cassell's argument. Rather, she just doesn't want deal with the bullshit of having her edits constantly reverted because it takes all the fun out of contributing. I'd argue that what she (and other women) are experiencing is not an expression of misogyny per se2, but rather is a function of the entrenched user base defending their position against new users. New and occasional contributors of all stripes frequently have their edits reverted3:

Though the English Wikipedia reached three million articles in August 2009, the growth of the edition, in terms of the numbers of articles and of contributors, appeared to have flattened off around early 2007.[36] In 2006, about 1,800 articles were added daily to the encyclopedia; by 2010 that average was roughly 1,000.[37] A team at the Palo Alto Research Center speculated that this is due to the increasing exclusiveness of the project.[38] New or occasional editors have significantly higher rates of their edits reverted (removed) than an elite group of regular editors, colloquially known as the "cabal." This could make it more difficult for the project to recruit and retain new contributors, over the long term resulting in stagnation in article creation.

Given all of the above my overall take is Cassell's explanation is simplistic at best and flat-out wrong at worse; there's no direct evidence that women are being scared off by the need to express their opinion. Nor is there much evidence in support of the proposition, advanced by Ta-Nehisi and Amanda, that trolling is keeping women away, since the Wikipedia talk pages are, if anything, civil to the point of ossification. If any single cause is predominant its likely to be something along the lines of what Amanda expressed, namely frustration over bureaucratic edit wars. And that, in turn, is less about misogyny and more about insiders manning the ramparts against newcomers. Which is an important result because Wikipedia process is only Wikipedia's problem; its independent of the greater social context and, as such, is amenable to remediation by Wikipedia itself.

1 Actually, users needn't register at all, which complicates the exercise of gathering user demographic information. The survey overview doesn't provide information on the actual survey methodology, so there's no basis by which to gauge whether the survey accurately captures the demographics of the community. Given the difficulty of reliably identifying contributors I'd take the "15%" with a grain of salt.
2 Though if y'all have evidence to the contrary please feel free to share.
3 This assertion is empirically testable; we can simply ask whether the reversion rate for "new and occasional editors" is correlated with the editor's gender.

Thank You, Superbowl Halftime Show...

For reminding me that there was once a time when the Black Eyed Peas didn't suck.
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