The Situationist

Archive for the ‘Public Policy’ Category

The Century of Dipositionism – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 18, 2010

From BBC Website :

Adam Curtis’ acclaimed series examines the rise of the all-consuming self against the backdrop of the Freud dynasty.

* * *

To many in both politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society in Britain and the United States. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?

* * *

The Freud dynasty is at the heart of this compelling social history. Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis; Edward Bernays, who invented public relations; Anna Freud, Sigmund’s devoted daughter; and present-day PR guru and Sigmund’s great grandson, Matthew Freud.

* * *

Sigmund Freud’s work into the bubbling and murky world of the subconscious changed the world. By introducing a technique to probe the unconscious mind, Freud provided useful tools for understanding the secret desires of the masses. Unwittingly, his work served as the precursor to a world full of political spin doctors, marketing moguls, and society’s belief that the pursuit of satisfaction and happiness is man’s ultimate goal.

* * *

The videos from Episode Two, “The Engineering of Consent,” are below. Here is the BBC‘s overview:

The programme explores how those in power in post-war America used Freud’s ideas about the unconscious mind to try and control the masses.

* * *

Politicians and planners came to believe Freud’s underlying premise – that deep within all human beings were dangerous and irrational desires and fears. They were convinced that it was the unleashing of these instincts that had led to the barbarism of Nazi Germany. To stop it ever happening again they set out to find ways to control this hidden enemy within the human mind.

* * *

Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, and his nephew, Edward Bernays, provided the centrepiece philosophy. The US government, big business, and the CIA used their ideas to develop techniques to manage and control the minds of the American people. But this was not a cynical exercise in manipulation. Those in power believed that the only way to make democracy work and create a stable society was to repress the savage barbarism that lurked just under the surface of normal American life.

* * *

It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today’s world.

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

Part I of this series is here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” “Deep Capture – Part IX,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” “Industry-Funded Research,” “Captured Science.”


Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Ideology, Public Policy, Public Relations, Video | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Scientific Consensus

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 15, 2010

Situationist Contributor Dan Kahan, Hank Jenkins-Smith, and Donald Braman, have just posted another fascinating paper, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

Why do members of the public disagree – sharply and persistently – about facts on which expert scientists largely agree? We designed a study to test a distinctive explanation: the cultural cognition of scientific consensus. The “cultural cognition of risk” refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values. The study presents both correlational and experimental evidence confirming that cultural cognition shapes individuals’ beliefs about the existence of scientific consensus, and the process by which they form such beliefs, relating to climate change, the disposal of nuclear wastes, and the effect of permitting concealed possession of handguns. The implications of this dynamic for science communication and public policy-making are discussed.

* * *

You can download the paper for free here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Broader Situation: A Case Study of Cop Car Cameras,” Whose Eyes are You Going to Believe?,” Dan Kahan on the Situation of Risk Perceptions,” Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk,” To still more  Situationist posts discussing cultural cognition, click here.

Posted in Abstracts, Cultural Cognition, Education, Ideology, Legal Theory, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Century of Dipositionism – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 13, 2010

From Wikipedia:

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, changed the perception of the human mind and its workings. His influence on the twentieth century is generally considered profound. The series describes the ways public relations and politicians have utilized Freud’s theories during the last 100 years for the “engineering of consent.”

* * *

Freud himself and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations, are discussed. Freud’s daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer of child psychology, is mentioned in the second part, as is one of the main opponents of Freud’s theories, Wilhelm Reich, in the third part.

* * *

Along these general themes, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of modern consumerism, representative democracy and its implications. It also questions the modern way we see ourselves, the attitude to fashion and superficiality.

* * *

The business and, increasingly, the political world uses psychological techniques to read and fulfill our desires, to make their products or speeches as pleasing as possible to us. Curtis raises the question of the intentions and roots of this fact. Where once the political process was about engaging people’s rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a society, the documentary shows how by employing the tactics of psychoanalysis, politicians appeal to irrational, primitive impulses that have little apparent bearing on issues outside of the narrow self-interest of a consumer population. He cites Paul Mazer, a Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in the 1930s: “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

* * *

The videos from Episode One, “Happiness Machines,” are below.  Here is the BBC‘s overview:

The story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his American nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to take Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.
* * *

Bernays was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts, to eroticising the motorcar.

* * *

His most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.

* * *

It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today’s world.

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” “Deep Capture – Part IX,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” “Industry-Funded Research,” “Captured Science.”

Posted in Deep Capture, History, Marketing, Politics, Public Policy, Public Relations, Video | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Our Stake in Corporate Behavior

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 23, 2010

Situationist Contributor David Yosifon published a thoughtful and timely op-ed,  in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle. Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Corporations are crucial institutions in our society. Consumers rely on them for everything from the basic provisions of food and clothing to the more dispensable delights of computers and cell phones. Workers rely on them for jobs. Communities need them for a tax base. Shareholders rely on them for profits that fund retirement, or entrepreneurial activity.

We all have a stake in effective corporate operations. Yet corporate directors are not required, indeed are not allowed, to put the interests of any party above shareholders in their decision making.

Now the Supreme Court has declared that the First Amendment forbids us from restricting corporate spending on political campaigns. If we cannot restrain corporations from influencing our democracy, then we must have more democracy in the management of our corporations. Directors of publicly traded corporations should be required to become informed about and to deliberate on the interests of all corporate stakeholders, not just shareholders.

The idea that we all have a stake in corporate behavior might seem at odds with the current “shareholder primacy” rule in corporate governance. But it could make sense. Most shareholders are highly diversified, with small investments in a large number of funds or corporations spread across the country and the world. The profit-maximization rule provides shareholders sufficient repose to invest their money at such a distance and with so little say in corporate decisions. Workers, on the other hand, can negotiate and monitor their wages and working conditions directly, or through unions. Consumers can manage their corporate interests at the cash register – they can buy at the offered price or walk away.

But corporations are often more powerful than workers or consumers. Firms can skimp on safety, for example, in ways that are difficult to observe – think asbestos in the factory or trans fats in the fries. Sure, sometimes the socially responsible corporate policy is also the most profitable – as when safer products attract more consumers. But it is naive to think that shareholder interests are always aligned with the rest of society. For a long time policymakers have argued that even where society is vulnerable to corporate overreaching, corporate boards should still focus on shareholder interests. We should rely, the story goes, on external government regulation – such as workplace safety, consumer protection or antipollution statutes – to safeguard social interests.

This approach assumes that government will be capable of developing regulations sufficient to constrain corporate misconduct. But corporations have the incentive and power to stunt such efforts. Firms accomplish this in part through lobbying, donations and direct spending in support of candidates. Because of their wealth, corporations can routinely best other constituencies in the competition for regulatory favor. This problem will only intensify with the new Supreme Court ruling.

* * *

You can read the op-ed in its entirety here.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Taking the Situation of Consumers Seriously,” “Against Freedom of Commercial Expression – Abstract,” “Merchants of Discontent – Abstract,” “The Changing Face of Marketing?,” Reclaiming Corporate Law in a New Gilded Age – Abstract,” “The Situation of Illusion,” “Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,” The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” “The Changing Face of Marketing?,” “The Illusion of Wall Street Reform,” “Reclaiming Corporate Law in a New Gilded Age – Abstract,” “Deep Capture – Part VI,” and “Deep Capture – Part VII.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Global Climate Change and The Situation of Denial

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 11, 2010

Situationist Contributor John T. Jost together with Irina Feygina and Rachel E. Goldsmith have recently completed a fascinating article examining the motivations behind some people’s unwillingness to take climate change seriously.  The article, titled “System Justification, the Denial of Global Warming, and the Possibility of ‘System-Sanctioned Change’” will be published later this year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Here’s the abstract.

* * *

Despite extensive evidence of climate change and environmental destruction, polls continue to reveal widespread denial and resistance to helping the environment. It is posited here that these responses are linked to the motivational tendency to defend and justify the societal status quo in the face of the threat posed by environmental problems. The present research finds that system justification tendencies are associated with greater denial of environmental realities and less commitment to pro-environmental action. Moreover, the effects of political conservatism, national identification, and gender on denial of environmental problems are explained by variability in system justification tendencies. However, this research finds that it is possible to eliminate the negative effect of system justification on environmentalism by encouraging people to regard pro-environmental change as patriotic and consistent with protecting the status quo (i.e., as a case of “system-sanctioned change”). Theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed.

* * *

For the NYU Alumni Magazine,  Sharon Tregaskis and Jason Hollander recently wrote a piece, titled “Why We Put Environmental Time Bomb on the Backburner,” in which she discusses that article.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

Imagine a mammoth meteor blazing toward Earth. When it will arrive and whether it will hit directly is debatable, but scientists are unanimous on one thing—it’s coming. And they’re trying desperately to motivate everyone to take action before it’s too late.

While this scenario is science fiction, a similar danger—just as daunting and apocalyptic—is on the horizon. Researchers now almost universally believe that catastrophic climate change, caused primarily by carbon dioxide emissions, is more a matter of “when,” rather than “if.” NASA climate scientist James Hansen predicts that we have perhaps a decade to halt our runaway greenhouse gases, otherwise we will guarantee for our children a fundamentally different planet—one where sea ice no longer blankets the Arctic, where storms relentlessly buffet coastal communities, and conflicts over scarce fresh water and shifting climactic zones rock international relations. And yet global carbon emissions are rising at unprecedented rates, and Americans are expected to produce ever-greater volumes of carbon dioxide in coming years.

Our inaction, in part, boils down to how we think. As with the meteor hurtling in our direction from millions of miles away, the science for measuring climate change and its future effects is complicated, and so far most evidence comes from distant, barely habited places. We, and our leaders, are easily distracted by closer issues—war, terrorism, disease, race relations, economic distress. “People get motivated with near-term dangers, but this is different,” says Tyler Volk (GSAS ’82, ’84), a biologist and core faculty member in NYU’s new environmental studies program. “It’s not like the Hudson River is suddenly full of mercury and everyone is threatened.”

As individuals, we may not deny the mounting evidence of global climate change, but we do harbor an inherent desire to keep our minds on other things. In his 1974 Pulitzer prize-winning book The Denial of Death, social scientist Ernest Becker argued that “the essence of normality is the refusal of reality,” echoing Freud who believed repression to be our natural self-protection. In order to tolerate all sorts of inequities, we will often support or rationalize the status quo even when it contradicts our own self-interest, says NYU social psychologist John Jost, who calls this phenomenon “system justification theory.”

Last spring, Jost collaborated with graduate student Irina Feygina (GSAS ’10) and Mount Sinai Hospital psychologist Rachel Goldsmith to investigate how system justification theory interacts with environmental attitudes. Among their findings: Most people who believe that society is generally fair are also skeptical about the forecasted climate crisis. “There are psychological obstacles to creating real, lasting change,” Jost says, “in addition to all of the scientific, technical, economic, and political obstacles.” Because of this, he notes, denial is far easier and more convenient than supporting a carbon tax, paying more for high-efficiency technology, or giving up cheap goods shipped through elaborate, fuel-guzzling supply chains.

Even so, denial is getting harder, as scientists gain an increasingly nuanced understanding of the mechanics—and the consequences—of climate change. . . .

* * *

This public conversation is slowly trickling up to policy makers. In April, a cadre of retired U.S. generals and admirals offered the chilling statement that climate change was a “a threat multiplier” for global security and the fight against terrorism, as it will further destabilize desperate regions in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Even George W. Bush, who rejected the Kyoto climate accord in 2001, for the first time acknowledged global climate change in last winter’s State of the Union address. “The problem is, among other things, ideological,” Jost says, “and it needs to be addressed at that level, as well as at other, more technological levels.”

* * *

[T]he momentum seems to be growing, says philosopher and director of environmental studies Dale Jamieson, who sees a parallel between the climate campaign and the Civil Rights Movement or widespread efforts to enact smoking bans, where over time, a moral and personal imperative emerged. “There’s no way of addressing this unless people come to see it as an ethical issue that changes what they see as right and wrong, how they live, and what kind of world they’re going to leave to their children,” says Jamieson, adding, “The question [remains] whether we’re going to act, and whether it will be meaningful.”

* * *

To read the entire essay, click here.  To read a sample of related Situationist posts, see “John Jost Speaks about His Own Research,” “The Situation of Climate Change,” “Getting a Grip on Climate Change,” “Juliet Schor, ‘Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies’,” “Denial,” The Need for a Situationist Morality,” “The Heat is On,” “Captured Science,” and Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and, particularly, Part V.”

Posted in Abstracts, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Juliet Schor, “Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 23, 2009

With the disappointing Copenhagen Climate Summit just behind us and with the most consumption-heavy holiday before us, there is no better time to hear Juliet’s Schor’s analysis of, and insights regarding, how we are living and what we might do differently.

Juliet Schor is Professor of Sociology at Boston College. Before joining Boston College, she taught at Harvard University for 17 years, in the Department of Economics and the Committee on Degrees in Women’s Studies. Schor’s latest book is Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (2004). Born to Buy is both an account of marketing to children from inside the agencies and firms and an assessment of how these activities are affecting children.

Schor is author of the national best-seller, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992) and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. Schor is also the author of Do Americans Shop Too Much? (2000), co-editor of Consumer Society: A Reader (The New Press 2000) and co-editor of Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the Twenty-first Century (2002). She is currently working on issues of environmental sustainability and their relation to Americans’ lifestyles.

At the third annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place im March of 2009, Professor Schor’s remarkable  presentation was titled “Colossal Failure: The Output Bias of Market Economies.”  Here’s the abstract:

Mainstream economic theory claims that a competitive market equilibrium delivers optimal levels of consumption and well-being. The reasoning relies on a number of invalid assumptions, including the crucial premise that individuals’ preference structures are independent. If consumption is social, as considerable social science research shows, then the market delivers excessive levels of consumption, too many hours of work, and too much ecological degradation. (This is in addition to the well-known argument that ecological goods are externalities.) In this talk I discuss the implications of what has become a profound market failure, and how we can rectify it.

You can watch her presentation on the three (roughly 9-minute) videos below.

* * *

* * *

* * *

* * *

For more information about the Project on Law and Mind Sciences, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Juliet Schor on the Situation of Consumption,” “Economist Stephen Marglin Thinking about Thinking Like an Economist” and Jeffrey Sachs on Our Situation – Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.”

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Life, Public Policy | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The Corporate Situation of the Prison Population

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 7, 2009

In the video below, Free Speech TV’s news magazine program SourceCode looks inside the private prison boom, and at the growing opposition to for-profit private prisons, jails, and detention centers.

* * *

* * *

Stephen Colbert recently parodied the trend.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Conference on the Free Market Mindset,” The Situation of Solitary Confinement,” The Situation of Punishment (and Forgiveness),” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “The Situation of Punishment,” “Why We Punish,” “The Situation of Death Row,” and “Lessons Learned from the Abu Ghraib Horrors.”

Posted in Deep Capture, Ideology, Public Policy, Video | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Rebecca Onie: Doing Something about the Situation of Medical Care

Posted by J on October 7, 2009

Project Health LogoRebecca Onie, a former student of mine, was recently named a MacArthur Fellow (“genius grant”)  for her amazing work as executive director of Project Health, a non-profit organization that she co-founded while a sophomore at Harvard College.  Project Health, dedicated to breaking the link between poverty and poor health, places undergraduate volunteers in medical clinics to help medical professionals connect patients and their families to local food and housing.

Here are some videos depicting the good work that Rebecca and Project Health do in attempting to assist families achieve a situation that will permit them to become healthy.

* * *

* * *

* * *

Congratuations to Rebecca and the other remarkable people at Project Health.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Racial Health Disparities,” “The Disturbing Mental Health Situation of Returning Soldiers,” “The Racial Situation of Pain Relief,” “The Situation of Medical Research,” and “Infant Death Rates in Mississippi.”

Posted in Life, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Problem of Old Fears and New Dangers

Posted by Adam Benforado on October 6, 2009

Credit Card Lock1A few weeks ago, the grandfather of law and economics, Richard Posner, decided to weigh in on President Obama’s proposal for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA), which would regulate consumer financial products including mortgages and credit cards.  He bemoaned the idea of a new regulatory body—dismissing it as the misguided vision of a cadre of idealistic behavioral economists.

As he explained, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “Behavioral economists are right to point to the limitations of human cognition.  But if they have the same cognitive limitations as consumers, should they be designing systems of consumer protection?”

The enemy is a familiar one for Posner and any self-respecting classical liberal: paternalism.

Posner’s concern is that “the agency will steer consumers to those financial products that it thinks best for them, whatever they naïvely think.”

That statement is misleading and problematic for two reasons.

First, the aim of the CFPA is not to force consumers to agree to something they wouldn’t otherwise agree to; the point is to promote real disclosure so that consumers can make informed decisions.  Thus, the impetus behind the plan for pre-approved “plain vanilla” financial product forms, for example, is not a desire to constrain choice, but to ensure a format that customers can understand.  Without understanding there is no free choice.

Second, even if we accept Posner’s inaccurate and unfair characterization of the agency as paternalistic, that must certainly be better than the status quo that Posner tacitly supports in which companies steer consumers to those financial products they think best for the company, whatever consumers naïvely think.  For someone committed to preserving the autonomy of the individual to pursue his own conception of the good, the world Posner affirms is a coercive nightmare far worse than his caricature of America’s future under the CFPA Act: at least in the latter case, the implicated entity is attempting to pursue the best interests of the American public, not its own.

What is to explain Posner’s inability to see that under the current system individuals lack free choice?  After all he is a very smart guy and the evidence on how mortgage and credit card products are deliberately created and marketed to compel consumers to step into higher cost products is overwhelming.

Why is Posner so ready to see the government as the totalitarian bogeyman and so unwilling to see the consumer financial products industry in this role?

It is hard to say, but I expect part of it grows out of being stuck in a mid-20th-Century mindset.

Richard Posner, born in 1939, came of age during the Cold War.  (Interesting aside: a thirteen-year-old Posner agreed to give his electric train set to the Rosenberg children when they visited his house shortly after their parents were executed.)  During that time, the enemy was the totalitarian state—the overbearing government that thought it knew what was best for the people.  Corporations, by contrast, were the good guys.  They listened to our wants and responded to our desires.  They helped keep us free and happy.

Today, rather than looking objectively at what presents the greatest danger to liberty; he is stuck looking for the nefarious influence of big government.  And that’s where he has gone wrong.

The CFPA isn’t a big government command-and-control-style creation.  It is minimalist, reflecting the ideas of a younger generation of law professors and economists—including Posner’s colleagues, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler—dedicated, like Posner, to an environment of free choice, but aware that the government must sometimes act to ensure that such freedom exists.  It is hard to see how an agency that requires credit card companies to not print their U.S. contracts in Arabic or incomprehensible legalese is a real threat to liberty; it seems like a sensible way to make sure that consumers can accurately compare products and that markets work efficiently.

And it is not clear that the CFPA’s oversight would actually hurt the profitability of companies.  Sure, entities that have survived the last few years on trickery and outright deceit would struggle in the new climate of openness, clarity, and disclosure, but what about all of those honest consumer financial businesses that were kept out of the market because they were undercut by sharp practices?

Posner needs to get with the times or get out of the way.  His refrain, “too much, too soon, too costly,” is a tired old mantra that ignores the dangers, abuses, and costs hidden in the status quo.

* * *

Some of the themes touched on in this post are developed in much greater detail in several  law review articles by Situationist Contributors, including the following two (which can be downloaded for free at the given links): “Naive Cynicism: Maintaining False Perceptions in Policy Debates,” “Legal Academic Backlash: The Response of Legal Theorists to Situationist Insights,”

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Credit Card Regulation,” “Naïve Cynicism in Election 2008: Dispositionism v. Situationism?,” The Financial Squeeze: Bad Choices or Bad Situations?” “The Situation of the American Middle Class,” “Are Debtors Rational Actors or Situational Characters?,” and “The Situation of College Debt” – Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, Marketing, Public Policy, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

The Situation of Credit Card Regulation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 28, 2009

Credit Card in IceSituationist Contributor Adam Benforado recently published the following op-ed, titled “Time to Rein in Tricks of the Financial Trade,” in Cap Times.

* * *

I have a confession: I teach contract law, and I do not understand everything in my credit card agreement.

If business law professors are getting lost in the fine print of consumer financial products, we have a fundamental problem.

Back in the early 1980s, the average credit card contract filled up a single page. Today, a similar agreement runs to more than 30. These contracts are designed to maximize company profits by hiding costly traps for consumers in a dense forest of confusing provisions and mysterious words like “LIBOR” and “Cash Equivalent Transactions.”

It is no wonder that a 2006 study by the Government Accountability Office found that “the disclosures in the customer solicitation materials and card member agreements provided by four of the largest credit card issuers were too complicated” and that “many (credit card holders) failed to understand key aspects of their cards, including when they would be charged for late payments or what actions could cause issuers to raise rates.”

Credit card companies defend themselves by explaining that they fully disclose the terms and risks associated with their products, but it is not disclosure if you know that the other party is incapable of understanding the information you are conveying – and particularly if your profitability model is based on that person not understanding.

The situation is really no different than if credit card companies decided to print all of their U.S. contracts in Arabic instead of English. Yes, consumers would technically be given all of the relevant particulars about rates, balance calculations, and payment periods. However, just as here, companies would know that most consumers would not grasp the fundamental provisions of the agreements and that, as a result, the companies could get away with hiding plenty of underhanded – but highly profitable – tricks in the details.

The consumer financial products industry loves to talk about how it works tirelessly to cater to consumer choice, but these incomprehensible documents are a testament to the lack of choice under the current system. Dozens of critical decisions are dictated by the company with no input at all by consumers. Indeed, these contracts – whether credit card agreements, car loans, or mortgage papers – are filled with provisions that few if any rational consumers would choose if they had the option.

What customer would select a universal default provision, permitting a bank to increase interest rates even when that customer is meeting all of the terms of her credit contract? Who, in their right mind, would choose to have double-cycle billing, allowing companies to charge interest on money that a customer has already repaid? Who would elect to give the opposing party in an agreement the right to change the terms of the contract at any time, for any reason, while binding himself to follow every little detail?

The current system is not about maximizing customer choice; it is about maximizing profit while constraining choice. By strapping customers into contractual straightjackets, credit card companies can reach their hands into Americans’ back pockets without much effort at all. And that they do: for billions of dollars a year in ill-gotten interest payments, fees, and other credit charges.

So what is to be done?

We need a regulatory agency to protect our freedom of choice and to force companies to provide real disclosures – ones that everyone understands. Though it has not gotten much attention in the press, President Obama recently proposed just such an entity: a Consumer Financial Protection Agency charged with ensuring financial product safety.

Unifying and mending what is now a patchwork quilt of ineffectual, complicated, and contradictory regulations, the CFPA would have the power to set guidelines and monitor mortgages, car and payday loans, and credit card contracts. The agency would work to promote clear explanations of the real risks and costs of financial products in contracts that could be read in three or four minutes without the assistance of a lawyer or an MBA. With this newfound clarity, consumers could knowledgeably compare products and exercise real choice, allowing market competition to work effectively and allowing those honest and fair companies that currently don’t stand a chance to rise to the top.

Just as they have deceived consumers with legalese and fine print, industry representatives are now trying to muddy the waters for policymakers with convoluted arguments, faulty logic, and fear mongering. We must not lose sight of the truth: The CFPA is needed to protect the freedom and economic stability of hard-working American families.

* * *

To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Financial Squeeze: Bad Choices or Bad Situations?” “The Situation of the American Middle Class,” “Are Debtors Rational Actors or Situational Characters?,” and “The Situation of College Debt” – Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Law, Marketing, Public Policy | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Posner on Keynes and the Economic Depression

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 25, 2009

John Maynard Keynes Time CoverJudge Richard Posner just published an essay, “How I Became a Keynesian” in the New Republic.  In it he describes how the economic depression led him to go back to read Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money and his new-found appreciation for Keynes and elements of Keynesianism.  Here are some excerpts.

* * *

I knew that John Maynard Keynes was widely considered the greatest economist of the twentieth century, and I knew of his book’s extraordinary reputation. But it was a work of macroeconomics–the study of economy-wide phenomena such as inflation, the business cycle, and economic growth. Law, and hence the economics of law–my academic field–did not figure largely in the regulation of those phenomena. And I had heard that it was a very difficult book, which I assumed meant it was heavily mathematical; and that Keynes was an old-fashioned liberal, who believed in controlling business ups and downs through heavy-handed fiscal policy (taxing, borrowing, spending); and that the book had been refuted by Milton Friedman, though he admired Keynes’s earlier work on monetarism. I would not have been surprised by, or inclined to challenge, the claim made in 1992 by Gregory Mankiw, a prominent macroeconomist at Harvard, that “after fifty years of additional progress in economic science, The General Theory is an outdated book. . . . We are in a much better position than Keynes was to figure out how the economy works.”

We have learned since September that the present generation of economists has not figured out how the economy works. The vast majority of them were blindsided by the housing bubble and the ensuing banking crisis; and misjudged the gravity of the economic downturn that resulted; and were perplexed by the inability of orthodox monetary policy administered by the Federal Reserve to prevent such a steep downturn; and could not agree on what, if anything, the government should do to halt it and put the economy on the road to recovery. By now a majority of economists are in general agreement with the Obama administration’s exceedingly Keynesian strategy for digging the economy out of its deep hole. Some say the government is not doing enough and is too cozy with the bankers, and others say that it is doing too much, heedless of long-term consequences. There is no professional consensus on the details of what should be done to arrest the downturn, speed recovery, and prevent (so far as possible) a recurrence. Not having believed that what has happened could happen, the profession had not thought carefully about what should be done if it did happen.

Baffled by the profession’s disarray, I decided I had better read The General Theory. Having done so, I have concluded that, despite its antiquity, it is the best guide we have to the crisis.

* * *

[The General Theory] is an especially difficult read for present-day academic economists, because it is based on a conception of economics remote from theirs. This is what made the book seem “outdated” to Mankiw–and has made it, indeed, a largely unread classic. (Another very distinguished macroeconomist, Robert Lucas, writing a few years after Mankiw, dismissed The General Theory as “an ideological event.”) The dominant conception of economics today, and one that has guided my own academic work in the economics of law, is that economics is the study of rational choice. People are assumed to make rational decisions across the entire range of human choice, including but not limited to market transactions, by employing a form (usually truncated and informal) of cost-benefit analysis. The older view was that economics is the study of the economy, employing whatever assumptions seem realistic and whatever analytical methods come to hand. Keynes wanted to be realistic about decision-making rather than explore how far an economist could get by assuming that people really do base decisions on some approximation to cost-benefit analysis.

The General Theory is full of interesting psychological observations–the word “psychological” is ubiquitous–as when Keynes notes that “during a boom the popular estimation of [risk] is apt to become unusually and imprudently low,” while during a bust the “animal spirits” of entrepreneurs droop. He uses such insights without trying to fit them into a model of rational decision-making.

* * *

Posner’s essay is reviews many of Keynes’s arguments and insights and then concludes as follows.

* * *

Although there are other heresies in The General Theory, along with puzzles, opacities, loose ends, confusions, errors, exaggerations, and anachronisms galore, they do not detract from the book’s relevance to our present troubles. Economists may have forgotten The General Theory and moved on, but economics has not outgrown it, or the informal mode of argument that it exemplifies, which can illuminate nooks and crannies that are closed to mathematics. Keynes’s masterpiece is many things, but “outdated” it is not. So I will let a contrite Gregory Mankiw, writing in November 2008 in The New York Times, amid a collapsing economy, have the last word: “If you were going to turn to only one economist to understand the problems facing the economy, there is little doubt that the economist would be John Maynard Keynes. Although Keynes died more than a half-century ago, his diagnosis of recessions and depressions remains the foundation of modern macroeconomics. His insights go a long way toward explaining the challenges we now confront. . . . Keynes wrote, ‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slave of some defunct economist.’ In 2008, no defunct economist is more prominent than Keynes himself.”

* * *

In March of 2009, Judge Posner spoke at the Third Annual Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference, titled “The Free Market Mindset.”  In his talk, “A Failure of Capitalism,” Posner discussed his own explanation for the economic depression, informed by his then-recent reading of The General Theory.  You can watch a video of his talk here.  (Thanks to Goutam Jois for sending the link to Posner’s essay.)

Posted in Behavioral Economics, Ideology, Law, Legal Theory, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Legal Situation of the Underclass

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 19, 2009

A StoryDavid Ray Papke, has posted his recent paper, “Law, Legal Institutions, and the Criminalization of the Underclass” on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

* * *

The contemporary underclass is defined not by race but rather by its weak or nonexistent ties to the labor market. Members of the underclass are more likely to be labeled as criminals than are any other members of society. The process is not a tightly coordinated conspiracy, but in various ways police, prosecutors, and jailers routinely deem members of the underclass to be nefarious lawbreakers. While in many cases underclass men and women have committed acts that justify this perception, the criminal justice system as a whole is too eager and too hasty to attach the criminal label to members of the underclass. What’s more, law and legal institutions contribute to an even broader process of criminalization, one which assumes the entire underclass is criminal. This criminalization of the underclass dooms members of the underclass to be outsiders in American life and becomes a central and powerful premise in the general framework of sociopolitical thought.

* * *

To download the paper for free, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “A Situationist View of Criminal Prosecutors,” “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,”The Situation of Criminality – Abstract,” “Clarence Darrow on the Situation of Crime and Criminals,” “The Racial Situation of Criminal Juries and the Consequences,” “The Situation of “Justice” in Tulia Texas,” Jena 6 – Part I,” and “Jena 6 – Part II.”

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Law, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

How Ted Kennedy’s Passing Influences ‘Obamacare’

Posted by Jason Chung on September 12, 2009

Ted KennedyCan Ted Kennedy’s death help shape future health care negotiations and pass a compromise bill?  Yes – but not for the reasons you think.

On August 24, 2009, President Barack Obama’s ambitious health care agenda looked to be at serious risk.  Numerous sources such as MSNBC, CBS News, and even the blogosphere were noting that Obama’s key initiative was losing traction among an American electorate that was alternately confused on the details of an amorphous plan, concerned about taking on additional costs during a nearly unprecedented recession, or ideologically opposed to a supposedly ‘inferior’ “Canadian-style health care”  A Republican Party which had appeared confused and unfocused in response to Obama’s popularity suddenly had an issue around which could re-energize their base.

But on August 25, something seemingly important happened –Ted Kennedy passed away.  Instantly, a Democratic Party which had been previously charitably described as ‘torn’ on the issue of a national health care plan sprung into action.  Hours after Kennedy’s passing, Nancy Pelosi attempted to rally her party around an issue which Kennedy had described as his life’s unfinished work.  ‘Win one for Teddy’ was the message and the rally around the flag effect came into play to varying degrees of receptivity. Kennedy supporters, such as his former press secretary Bob Shrum, were hopeful that his “long shadow” could spur renewed commitment for a deal.  Those sceptical of the need to reform health care in the United States, such as John McCain, were quick to dispute the notion that Kennedy’s passing would help the pro-reform crowd due to the loss of the senior senator from Massachusetts’ strong bipartisan deal-making ability and passionate advocacy for his ‘pet project’.

Ultimately only time will tell what, if any, long-term effect Kennedy’s death will have among centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans (the key demographics necessary to pass health care reform).  However, a week following the events of Kennedy’s death the centrist reconciliatory approach hoped for by Shrum already appears to have been a pipe dream as Kennedy’s passing seems to have a had a marginal impact on the terms of debate.  On a recent head-to-head debate spot on CNN on September 7, 2009, Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) repeated almost verbatim the general entrenched arguments of both sides.  Hatch argued that adding a layer of complexity to the current U.S. health care system by putting it in the hands of the ‘bureaucrats’ (a favourite target of the Republicans since the Reagan days) while Sanders questioned how adding a public option and introducing competition to the private sector would negatively impact the business models of HMOs (overlooking the fact that a public option would have access to vast amounts of capital and visibility that some HMOs would be unable to compete with).

President Obama’s major address to Congress on health care on September 9th did little to heal these ingrained divisions.  While the speech was well received by many centrist critics, the reaction among both the left and the right was largely humdrum.  As noted by many observers from a wide spectrum of sources, Obama’s rhetoric and appeals to bipartisanship may have appealed to moderate Americans but did little to move legislators and, most likely, their core constituents.

Obama Health Care Speech

The seeming inablity of both sides to parrot anything other than their entrenched arguments got me thinking about modern conceptions of the ‘art’ of negotiation and how it pertains to hot-button national political issues.  Specifically, current political debates serve to underscore how undervalued situation has been as a consideration by scholars when studying political negotiations.

A favourite case study used by negotiation theorists to illustrate the power of political negotiators in bargaining situations is the Malta-U.K. negotiation for British leasing rights of a Maltese naval base in 1971.  William Howard Wriggins advances the notion in his case study that Malta managed to maximize the value of their lease agreement with the U.K. by shopping their outdated and relatively unimportant military outpost to NATO enemies such as the Soviet Union, Libya and other Arab states.  Malta’s leader leveraged the situation at the height of the Cold War to their advantage by making the alternatives to the U.K. and its NATO allies (that of having a rival’s outpost right in the middle of the Mediterranean) exceedingly unattractive.  The contention of negotiation scholars is that Malta’s leadership managed to reframe the terms of the negotiation from a straight-up lease renewal of an unimportant outpost into a broader issue regarding NATO defence strategies.

While Wriggins’ example is an entertaining example of how political negotiators can use situation in order to reframe the terms of debate, state-to-state negotiations rarely share characteristics with intra-state political negotiations.  To exemplify this point, take the Malta-U.K. example.  What must be kept in mind in that case is the fact that the Maltese prime minister was wildly popular for taking on ‘outsiders’ (the U.K.).  His aggressive and sometimes belligerent negotiation tactics helped foster an ‘us-against-them’ mentality among his constituents and consequently helped unite them in a (mostly) singular cause – making the British pay.  Even though the costs to the Maltese would be great in financial terms were negotiations unsuccessful, their shared goal made the issue a collective struggle.  However, in cases of internal political divisions such as the debate over health care, this ‘us-against-them’ phenomenon is more destructive.  Because the foe in this case is not an ‘outsider’ and the issue an ideologically salient one regarding the future direction of the country, any attempts to incite such bravado inflame existing tensions making a peaceable resolution less likely.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your political viewpoint), the debate surrounding health care has already reached ‘us-against-them’ proportions as the debate between Senators Sanders and Hatch would attest.

The differences between the forums in which these negotiations take place are also exceedingly important.  State-to-state negotiations usually take place at a high-level and behind closed doors where the public only knows the final outcome.  Because the number of participants in these negotiations is so limited, it makes the tactics used by skilled negotiators more valuable.  This is because the participants and negotiators in these sessions are freer to discuss options (framing various options in their favour being what skilled negotiators do best) without public scrutiny and gives ‘low-skill agents’ less opportunity to distort situations.  Internal political negotiations, on the other hand, necessarily take place in the public sphere.  Due to the fact that issues such as health care affect all Americans, possibly for generations, there is little tolerance for elite-driven closed-door bargaining – the public wishes to be engaged.  Hence, even if closed-door negotiations did put an end to the health-care debate among legislators (which is unlikely), there would be little public acceptance of such a deal due to the fact that it would fail ‘second-table’ negotiation – that is negotiation with constituents.

But what about if you abandon strategic bargaining and try ‘principled negotiation in order to ‘expand the pie’?  This ‘principled’ conception of negotiation was introduced by Roger Fisher and William Ury at the Harvard Project on Negotiation.  Fisher and Ury’s assumption was that negotiators and stakeholders have the power and ability to reframe the terms of the negotiation and introduce new `win-win’ scenarios as possible outcomes.  In essence, the theory posited by Fisher and Ury advances the notion how you negotiate (Fisher and Ury, Getting to Yes Second Edition, p. 177) makes an enormous difference because skilled negotiators can come up with creative options by which to ‘expand the pie’ and can overcome vast differences in power between the negotiation parties.  While Fisher and Ury’s points are well made and are essential practical skills for negotiators, their points are less adept at explaining the dynamics driving intra-state political negotiations, such as that over health care.

As we have seen above, the ‘us-against-them’ mentality has already taken root which makes principled negotiation difficult.  As I noted in a previous piece, UVA Social Psychology Professor Jonathan Haidt argues that when the public is faced with a difficult political question (of which health care would certainly qualify), most people “generally lean one way or the other right away, and then put a call in to reasoning to see whether support for that position is forthcoming.”  Most tellingly, Haidt notes that “Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions.”  Hence, while the negotiators behind the health care debate (in this case, legislators) may know the intricacies underpinning their respective arguments, convincing their constituents at second-table negotiations will be difficult.  Indeed, even Senators with impeccable conservative credentials such as Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are getting hammered by his core constituents who are concerned he may “bend too much on the way to compromise”.

In addition, while some legislators such as Max Baucus’ bipartisan “Gang of Six” have been working toward a health care compromise bill for months, most of the debate has been waged in full view of the American public.  While this makes sense given the nature of the issue and the unlikelihood of success of second-table negotiations if negotiations were held behind closed doors (as noted above), this has also served to make fringe media characters on both sides more powerful.  While these fringe agents aren’t ‘low-skill agents’ per say given that they aren’t actual negotiators or ‘agents’ they can be described as tools used by low-skill agents in gaining traction or core support for their more aggressive demands.  Therefore, such talking heads as Keith Olbermann and Ann Coulter add a degree of obfuscation and surreality to the health care debate.  Fringe media used by low-skills agents often impede the process of negotiations due to the fact that they are more interested in increasing their profile rather than wishing for any reasoned compromise.  As noted by Michael Caine (Alfred) in the Dark Knight “Some men can’t be … reasoned with.  Some men want to watch the world burn”.

Knowing all this, then, the question remains –Will Ted Kennedy’s passing influence the passage of ‘Obamacare’ and is there any hope for a compromise?  The answer to both is yes though for reasons some may find counterintuitive.

Kennedy’s passing surely has an impact on the health care debate in America.  While the central disagreements may have stayed the same, the loss of Kennedy is surely a blow to civilized discourse regarding health care reform.  As noted by both Republicans and Democrats in the wake of Kennedy’s death, he was a respected legislator who was “willing to work with others to get things done, for the greater good.”  His passing, then, means that there is one less communicator to sell health care and one less contemporary off of which Republicans can bounce their objections and ideas.  Sadly, Shrum’s vision of a bipartisan Congress working toward a peaceable compromise on health care is growing more unlikely.  As noted by Senator Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania), “We shall pause for our fallen comrade, but nothing seems to have any effect on the partisanship.”  Instead, Kennedy’s legacy is more likely to be used to Democrats to rally their troops as Obama did September 9th.  Kennedy’s legacy regarding the passage of reformed health care, then, may not be as a segueway to grand compromise but as a tool for greater Democratic engagement.

But is there still any hope for compromise bill?  And can political negotiations regarding sensitive national issues still attain success?  There is, and it can.  However, building in order to reach this compromise we must build upon the lessons of Fisher and Ury.  In negotiations such as this how you negotiate strikes me as less important than with whom you negotiate.  In order to reach a negotiated settlement to the health care debate, politicians must turn the page and realize that their audience for negotiations rests ultimately not with their political peers but with their constituents.  The negotiation is therefore not with each other but with voters.

With mid-term elections coming up, political leadership on both sides must realize that the fringes of their support have little place to go – those Republicans opposing all forms of government intervention aren’t going to vote Democrat or vice versa.  Even those disaffected by any compromise aren’t likely to stay home given the pervasiveness of the issue and its potential effects.  Therefore, the leaders on both sides must moderate their tone and aim for the squarely for the soft centre, where there is more leeway and additional votes to be had for or against health care reform.  Only in this way will either side get (or, in the case of the Democrats, hang on to) the seats necessary to control the framework of negotiations for health care reform.  President Obama has seemingly realized this appetite for compromise among the centre given his speech on health care.  The question is, are legislators listening?

Posted in Politics, Public Policy, Video | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Zimbardo Interview at The Believer

Posted by Thomas Nadelhoffer on September 6, 2009

Zimbardo montagePhilosopher Tamler Sommers was kind enough to post a link over at the Garden of Forking Paths to an interview he did with Situationist contributor Philip Zimbardo that appears in the latest edition of The Believer.  Here is the first question and answer from the interview:


THE BELIEVER: I take it that one of the goals of the Stanford Prison Experiment was to build on Milgram’s results that demonstrated the power of situational elements. Is that right?

PHILIP ZIMBARDO: It was really to broaden his message and put it to a higher-level test. In Milgram’s study, we don’t know about those thousand people who answered the ad. His subjects were not Yale students, although he did it at Yale. They were a thousand ordinary citizens from New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut, ages twenty to fifty, and in his advertisement in the newspaper he said: college students and high-school students cannot be used. It could have been a selection of people who were more psychopathic. For our study, we picked only two dozen of seventy-five who applied, who on seven different personality tests were normal or average. So we knew there were no psychopaths, no deviants. Nobody had been in therapy, and even though it was a drug era, nobody (at least in the reports) had taken anything more than marijuana, and they were physically healthy at the time. So the question was: Suppose you had only kids who were normally healthy, psychologically and physically, and they knew they would be going into a prison-like environment and that some of their civil rights would be sacrificed. Would those good people, put in that bad, evil place—would their goodness triumph?


That sitautionist snippet should convince you to check out the rest of the interview!  Also, it is worth pointing out the Sommers has a forthcoming collection entitled A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, which includes past interviews with philosophers and psychologists such as Galen Strawson, Michael Ruse, Jon Haidt, Frans de Waal, Steve Stich, Josh Greene, Liane Young, Joe Henrich, William Ian Miller, and Zimbardo.  So, make sure to check it out as well once it comes out.

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see, “Milgram Remake,” “Zimbardo on Milgram and Obedience Part I,” “Zimbardo on Migram and Obedience Part II,” and “Zimbardo Lecture on How Good People Turn Evil.”

Posted in Classic Experiments, Philosophy, Public Policy, Social Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Take the Policy IAT

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 4, 2009

If you haven’t already (or even if you have), we invite you to take, the “Policy IAT.”  We urge  individuals of all political and ideological orientations to participate in the on-line test designed to examine whether and to what extent people have implicit preferences for certain types of policy options.  Please encourage your friends (and, to those of you who are bloggers, your readers) to participate as well.

To learn more or to take the Policy IAT (a roughly 15-minute task), click here.

Posted in Ideology, Implicit Associations, Public Policy | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Consuming Merit, Gatekeeping, and Reproducing Wealth

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 10, 2009

Harvard Graduation Caps

The op-ed excerpted below, America’s Best Colleges: Merit by the Numbers,” by Harvard Law School Professor Lani Guinier and Columbia Law Professor Susan Sturm, appeared in the August 5, 2009, edition of Forbes. It eloquently examines the role played and not played by universities in educating young people to promote the system-justifying illusion of merit.

* * *

In its recent commencement issue, an Ivy League college newspaper displayed a snapshot of the Class of 2009 “by the numbers.” Although the students had by then been at the college for four years, all of the relevant “numbers” were based on a profile of the class at the time of enrollment. Prominently featured were the 157 children of alumni; the 9.7% of applicants who were admitted; and, last but not least, the median SAT math and verbal scores–740 and 750, respectively–of the class.

Amazingly, all the “merits” of the graduating seniors involved attributes that predated the students’ arrival on campus. Totally missing from the portrait was the “merit” that the Class of 2009 developed as a result of the four years they had spent at the school. Nor was any mention made of the contributions they were poised to make. Apparently, the defining qualities of merit–and what was most valued in the students–were the attributes they already had as incoming freshmen.

Selective colleges and universities, like this one, act more like consumers than producers of merit. They build their reputation based on the credentials of the people they admit rather than the contributions of the people they graduate. Trapped by a rankings culture that ties their reputation to admissions inputs, they also define themselves by whom they exclude. Schools that attract a lot of applicants, and then reject 92.3% of them, are held in the highest esteem.

But this process valorizes a uniform set of test-taking skills that produce results no better at predicting college performance than family wealth. In fact, Jesse Rothstein, a Princeton economist, found that the socio-economic status of a high school is a better predictor of what kind of grades its students will earn their first year in college than the individual SAT scores of its students. In effect, the testocracy reproduces privilege and stratifies the higher-education system by race and class. Individuals who perform well on high-stakes tests are awarded admission to college or law school as a prize for performance on a test that best predicts not aptitude, but parental income and education. This inequality effect of the SAT undermines a range of public values, from providing access to college independent of wealth and privilege to developing problem-solving capabilities.

The preoccupation with backwards-looking statistical criteria also severs the tie between admissions and mission. The testing regime deflects the college’s responsibility away from, for example, producing a diverse and dynamic learning environment that actually builds capacity among the students to become the leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs of the Harvard Gatenext generation. Reputation based on numerical ranking assumes greater importance than reputation based on the development of innovative ideas and publicly spirited graduates. The primary function of admission becomes status and prestige enhancement for the institution itself and for those who enroll.

Beyond that, the pre-eminent role of high-stakes tests also negatively affects student engagement and learning. The standardized and time-limited nature of the SAT and the ACT fixate student attention on the mastery of test-taking techniques, rather than on developing qualities such as creativity, ability to collaborate, critical thinking and drive. It misleads, by reinforcing the view that ability is fixed when in fact intelligence is both malleable and incremental.

A static view of intelligence has been widely debunked; it undermines intellectual risk-taking. It is also self-fulfilling. According to social psychologist Carol Dweck, students who hold a “fixed” theory of intelligence expend enormous energy worrying about how smart they are–they become preoccupied with avoiding mistakes and are less likely to engage in the excitement of learning. In contrast, people who believe that one’s capacity to learn is “expandable” are more willing to challenge themselves.

An openness to learning from others is crucial in today’s complex environment. People who tackle the world’s problems with the benefit of different perspectives are less likely to get stuck in the same dead ends. As Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, has demonstrated, diverse groups have greater potential to generate effective and innovative solutions to tough problems.

* * *

To read the entire column, including Guinier and Sturm’s discussion of solutions and alternatives to the “testocracy,” click here.

To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Firefighters and the Situation of “Merit”,” “Rich Brains, Poor Brains?,” “The Situation of ‘Genius’,” Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids,” How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition” (which includes a video of Carol Dweck), “The Perils of Being Smart,” “Stereotype Threat and Exit Exams,” The Situation of the Achievement Gap,” The Situation of Standardized Test Scores,” and “The Interior Situation of Intergenerational Poverty.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Distribution, Education, Illusions, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The Post-Obama Situation of Racism – Abstract

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 27, 2009

Obama Prisoners - images from FlickrIan Haney-Lopez, has recently posted his thoughtful paper, “Post-Racial Racism: Crime Control and Racial Stratification in the Age of Obama” on SSRN.  Here is the abstract.

* * *

What does the 2008 election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency portend for race in America? This Essay uses the tremendous racial disparities in the American crime control system to assess race and racism as key features of contemporary society. The Essay begins by considering a compelling thesis that racialized mass incarceration stems from backlash to the civil rights movement. If true, this raises the possibility that Obama’s election, potentially marking the end of backlash politics, also represents a likely turning point in the war on crime. The Essay then reconsiders mass imprisonment from the perspective of “racial stratification,” a structural theory that emphasizes the simultaneous formation of racial categories and the misallocation of resources between races. A stratification approach leaves one less sanguine about rapid change in American race relations, though without disparaging either the historic nature of Obama’s inauguration or the possibility of incremental improvements in racial justice. Reflecting the continued need to push for positive racial change, the Essay concludes by arguing morally and politically for a renewed focus on racism, in particular on “post-racial racism.”

* * *

To download the paper for free, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of the Obama Presidency and Race Perceptions,” “Black History is Now,” The Cognitive Costs of Interracial Interactions,” “Guilt and Racial Prejudice,” “Perceptions of Racial Divide,” “The Situation of Solitary Confinement,” and “Examining Why Estimated “Costs” of Racial Inequality Vary by Race.”

Posted in Abstracts, Distribution, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Firefighters and the Situation of “Merit”

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 16, 2009

Firefighter - by Rossco (Image Focus Australia)The following excerpted op-ed, “Trial by Firefighters,” co-written by Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier and Columbia Law Professor Susan Sturm, was published in the July 11, 2009, edition of The New York Times. They are also the co-authors of “Who’s Qualified: A New Democracy Forum on the Future of Affirmative Action” (Beacon Press, 2001).

* * *

STANDING on the steps of the federal courthouse in New Haven, the lawyer Karen Torre reveled in her clients’ victory in a recent case before the Supreme Court. She anointed her clients — the white firefighters who scored well on a promotion test — “a symbol” for millions of Americans who are “tired of seeing individual achievement and merit take a back seat to race and ethnicity.”

But the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 decision last month — that New Haven should not have scrapped the test — perpetuates profound misconceptions about the capacity of paper-and-pencil tests to gauge a person’s potential on the job. Exams like the one the New Haven firefighters took are neither designed nor administered to identify the employees most qualified for promotion. And Ms. Torre’s identity-politics sloganeering diverts attention from what we need most: a clear-eyed reassessment of our blind faith in entrenched testing regimes.

New Haven used a multiple-choice test to measure its firefighters’ retention of information from national firefighting textbooks and study guides. Civil service tests like these do not identify people who are best suited for leadership positions. The most important skills of any fire department lieutenant or captain are steady command presence, sound judgment and the ability to make life-or-death decisions under pressure. In a city that is nearly 60 percent black and Latino, the ability to promote cross-racial harmony under stress is also crucial.

These skills are not well measured by tests that reward memorization and ask irrelevant questions like whether it is best to approach a particular emergency from uptown or downtown even when the city isn’t oriented that way. The Civil Service Board in New Haven declined to certify the test not only because of concerns about difference in scores between black and white firefighters but also because it failed to assess qualities essential for firefighting.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in her dissent, tests drawn from national textbooks often do not match a city’s local firefighting needs. Most American fire departments have abandoned such tests or limited the multiple-choice format to 30 percent or less of an applicant’s score. In New Haven, the test still accounted for 60 percent of the score. Compounding the problem, insignificant numerical score differences were used to rank the firefighter candidates.

What should a city do when its promotion test puts a majority of its population at a disadvantage and is also unlikely to predict essential job performance? People who excel on such a test may expect to be promoted. But testing should not be about allocating prizes to winners. No one has a proprietary right to a particular open job, even if that person worked hard preparing for a test.

When a city replaces a bad test, as New Haven wanted to do, the employees who did well on it do not lose their right to compete for promotions; they merely need to compete according to procedures that actually identify people who advance the mission of saving lives and property — and enhance the department’s reputation in the community for treating all citizens with respect.

Yet many Americans believe so strongly that tests are fair that they never question the outcomes, especially when those outcomes conform to stereotypes about people of color. Such preconceptions lead to the conclusion that blacks or Latinos who don’t do well must lack individual initiative or ability.

As the plaintiff in the New Haven case, Frank Ricci, declared, “If you work hard, you can succeed in America.” His lawyer went further: White officials who voted for a better assessment system must have been lowering “the professional standard of competence,” she said, “for the sake of identity politics.” Yet, in New Haven, no one was promoted instead of the white firefighters.

In fact, many fire departments with a history of discrimination, like New Haven’s, still stack the deck in favor of candidates who have relationships to people already in the fire department. Those without $500 for the study materials or a relative or friend from whom they might borrow the books were put at a disadvantage.

Moreover, it was the firefighters union — which sided with the white firefighters in the Supreme Court — that negotiated the contractual mandate giving disproportionate weight to the multiple-choice test. Those negotiations occurred two decades ago when the leadership of the department was virtually all white. Taking this into account, after five days of public hearings, Malcolm Webber, one of the white members of the New Haven Civil Service Board, said: “I’ve heard enough testimony here to give me great doubts about the test itself and the testing — some of the procedures. And I believe we can do better.”

* * *

To read the entire op-ed, click here. For a collection of previous Situationist posts discussing how situation influences standardized test scores, click here.  For those discussing Supreme Court nominee, Judge Sotomayor, click here.

Posted in Distribution, Education, Ideology, Politics, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Attiudes about Progress

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 7, 2009

Russian PeoplePaul Starobin of has an interesting commentary on President Obama’s trip to Russia and how the President, in Starobin’s view, might receive an unenthusiastic welcome.  An excerpt of Starobin’s piece explains why.

* * *

But if Obama, more ambitiously, hopes to win over the hearts of the Russian people — along the lines of his recent Cairo address, pitched over the heads of the governments of the Islamic world and straight at their citizenry — he can expect to leave disappointed.

The Russians, to start with, have never been all that enthralled with the Obama phenomenon. On the eve of his inauguration, a 17-nation poll conducted by the BBC World Service found that in every country except two, a majority of the people believed his presidency would lead to an improvement in relations between the United States and the rest of the world.

The two nations feeling otherwise were Russia and Japan. And a poll just released by the Levada Center in Moscow found that only 23 percent of Russians feel confident that Obama will “do the right thing in world affairs.”

One reason for this attitude is that the Russians do not quite share Obama’s sense of global priorities. For Obama, as for so much of the planet, global climate change is a serious and even urgent concern. But as the BBC poll found, this is not a priority for Russians, and neither is making peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, another big agenda item for Obama and his allies.

A deeper reason for Russian skepticism of Obama, and of the Obama craze in general, goes to a core difference of temperament. Obama is prototypically American in his penchant for singing his political song in the key of optimism. For Russians, life tends to be lived in the bittersweet key of tragedy.

While the Russians are not gloomy pessimists — they have a sardonic genius for finding a way to laugh through their tears — they are skeptics on the distinctively American idea that history is all about progress. Experience, painful experience, has taught them otherwise.

* * *

For the rest, click here.  For Situationist posts on the related concept of terror management theory, which refers to the perception that society progresses in every generation, click here.

Posted in Ideology, Life, Politics, Public Policy | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Food: The Movie

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 3, 2009

Food Inc

From Michael Phillips’ Chicago Tribune review: Several things — too many, probably — are going on in “Food, Inc.,” all connected. Kenner begins by tracing the impact of 20th Century American fast food on industrialized food production, and notes that when McDonald’s brought factory assembly-line strategies into practice, everything changed. McDonald’s became a universe of beef-purchasing power unto itself. Their cows, like so many millions of other feedlot residents, consume corn instead of grass; the humans in our increasingly obese nation eat a ton of corn as well, courtesy of high-fructose, heavily subsidized corn syrup found in everything from ketchup to Twinkies to Coke. As a Brooklyn, N.Y., doctor in another food doc, “King Corn,” put it: American food policy ensures that “we subsidize the Happy Meals — but we don’t subsidize the healthy ones.”

Are the federal regulatory and protection agencies doing enough to keep us safe from E. coli outbreaks and the like? The film answers that one with a firm “no.” Does eating organic food lead to a healthier diet and a healthier environment? What do you think?

The film got virtually no cooperation from representatives of the dominant players in industrial food production, including Tyson (we see a chicken processing factory in full swing), Monsanto (whose strong-arm business practices come off very, very badly) and others. As a result, “Food, Inc.” is a rangy, well-articulated essay rather than a compelling point-counterpoint.

Official Web Site.  Here is the trailer.

* * *

* * *

For related Situationist posts, go to Our Situation Is What We Eat,” Big Calories Come in Small Packages,” “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,”The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,” The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” and “The Situation of our Food – Part IV.”

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Entertainment, Food and Drug Law, Politics, Public Policy, Video | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

%d bloggers like this: