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Project Occupy

I’m very happy to announce that the wonderful high school students that we worked with over the summer at Occupy Summer School have decided to self-organize into an after-school program at their school, the UAI, starting this fall (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go check out our webpage or the press we got from the New Yorker written by Alex Carp).

A few of us from the Alt Banking group had a meeting with 5 of them earlier this week. Together they represent the organizing committee of their new activism group, which they named “Project Occupy.” Their plan is to hold weekly afternoon meetings, which will be topic-based, and for a given week they want material for their chosen topic in the form of a short video or an article. One of the topics they already chose for one of the first meetings is “cultural appropriation.” They then named a bunch of examples of cultural appropriation of black culture. I’m planning to send them this for reading material.

They are, as always, very sharp and observant. Teenagers are the best.

I am super proud of them and I can’t wait to see what they do. I told them how much they’ve taught us about keeping protests fun and generous, and giving away gifts of food or balloons (actually, both) to make their point well-received.

They want to eventually plan events around the topics they’ve learned about and gotten passionate about, and possibly also create podcasts or YouTube video series. Oh, and they want food at all their meetings. Gotta keep things fun.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Continuing War on Teachers

We all know about the achievement gap, whereby poor kids don’t do as well on standardized tests as rich kids. It’s big and it’s growing. Logically speaking, we might try to solve it – to close the achievement gap – by lowering inequality. But that’s a hard thing to do, politically. It would require things like higher taxes and better minimum wages and stronger safety nets.

So instead, politicians everywhere have decided to simply assign blame to the school teachers who the last people to be seen with poor kids before they take the standardized tests.

If you watched the Republican debate, you might have seen Chris Christie emphatically suggest that the teachers’ union should be punched in the face. He’s willing to repeat that:

Speaking of getting rid of teacher unions, that’s exactly what they did in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, 10 years ago. And the results are mixed:

I googled for "new orleans charter school performance"

I googled for “new orleans charter school performance”

In Washington D.C., they hired School Chancellor Michelle Rhee to fix their ailing schools, so she came in and fired a bunch of teachers with bad scores, and then gave bonuses to a bunch of teachers and schools with good ones, and then ignored the ensuing cheating scandal. After she left scores largely went back to normal. The achievement gap is wider than it was before Rhee:

None of this particularly surprises me because, again, it’s likely not a teacher-specific problem, but rather an economic problem, and residents of New Orleans are still poor.

It’s a correlation versus causation problem, actually. We know poor kids do badly on tests compared to rich kids, and we look for something we can control that would change that story. Originally we focused on more tests, thinking that shining a light on the problem would automatically solve it. That didn’t work, so we turned our focus to teachers, again mostly as an easily available knob to turn. It’s taking a few years for the data to come out that this new method also isn’t addressing the problem.

There’s a new idea afloat on how to close the achievement gap, by way of Florida (h/t Jordan Ellenberg). Namely, to give bonuses to teachers that themselves got good SAT scores. A few details:

  1. The bonus is $10,000
  2. The cut-off is 80th percentile of SAT scores
  3. Teachers are eligible even if they took the test 30 years ago
  4. The teachers also need to be rated “highly effective” to earn their bonus
  5. Except if they are first year teachers, in which case they don’t have a rating yet, so just their high SAT scores will do

It’s probably unnecessary to mention exactly how ridiculous this is, but I do want to point that teachers have no motivation whatsoever under this new scheme. They either qualify or they don’t. Not sure what it’s supposed to achieve in terms of carrots or sticks. It’s the equivalent of giving tall men extra money to buy suits.

I’m waiting for the meta-analysis that shows the achievement gap doesn’t respond to firing bad teachers, or charter schools, or even more testing, or any other easy target.

So what should we be doing? I have two suggestions, and neither of them is politically easy.

First, if we really wanted to see progress, we should stop persecuting teachers and immediately normalize the funding of school systems so poor kids have equal or more resources than rich kids. That would have some effects – at least poor districts could afford the latest books, for example.

Second, even that kind of progress would take us only so far. As long as a deep inequality of opportunities exists, and mobility is low, we can expect a lack of investment in poor people. We need to address these issues on the societal level.

Categories: Uncategorized

Litigation finance: a terrible idea

I watch my share of bad commercials on TV. I don’t have cable but I have an antenna so I can receive some free TV stations, including one that is clearly meant for senior citizens called CoziTV. Cozi regularly has marathons of Murder She Wrote, Magnum P.I., Hart to Hart, and Fantasy Island, all shows that I somehow can’t stop watching, partly I think because I get so much confirmation from them about how awful my childhood was.

Anyhoo, back to the commercials. I couldn’t help notice a proliferation of ads for help with a medical condition called “transvaginal mesh injury.” Basically the ads were asking whether the viewer had such a problem, and whether they’d like to perhaps talk to a lawyer at this free phone number. Pretty much every other ad was about this condition, so it seemed like a pretty big deal, at least for the intended audience of old ladies.

Well, I didn’t pay much attention to it, until I came across this fascinating Reuters special report on corrupt medical lending practices entitled New breed of investor profits by financing surgeries for desperate women patients and written by Alison Frankel and Jessica Dye.

The article outlines the following scheme: financiers find women who need this surgery, based on a defective medical part, but don’t have the money for it and whose insurance companies won’t immediately cover it. They offer them the financing now in return for part of the eventual settlement with the company that was responsible for the faulty mesh. But then they make a deal with a surgeon to overcharge for the surgery, and they inflate the costs as well, and at the end of the whole thing they take a large part of the settlement which the woman was entitled to, and sometimes the woman even ends up owing them money.

It’s horrible, but it’s really just one example of a large industry of what is known as litigation finance, which just means the world where people with lots of money decide to bet on outcomes of court cases.

A recent Bloomberg article discussed the growing industry of litigation finance, and describes how congresspeople are starting to pay attention to all the hedge funds getting in on the act.

Of course, the financiers defend this practice by pointing out that, with money from people like them, a given side in a legal proceeding has more resources to make their case. They would also point out that they only put money behind cases that have at least some chance of winning.

However, there are two big problems with it as a concept. First, it means that there will be more money available to lawsuits in general. We’ve already seen what happened with college tuition when something that’s already too expensive gets access to loans: it gets even more expensive. It’s an arms race. According to Bloomberg, the typical client for these litigation finance firms are big companies which use corporate law firms.

Second, the justice system is already super unfair, and it’s not like hedge funds are running into this game to improve the system. Rather, they are there to exploit the system. That’s what hedge funds do. So if they have detected a bias in the system, they are going to treat it like an arbitrage situation and throw money at it for all they’re worth. The side effects of that will have nothing to do with justice.

The real reforms we need to see with the justice system is a way for money to be less of a factor, not more.

Categories: Uncategorized

The inevitability of sexual assault

Whose fault is it when a woman gets sexually assaulted? For most people I interact with, the answer seems obvious: the assailant is at fault. Otherwise we’re blaming the victim.

In spite of that commonsense logic, though, there seems to be a sustained argument on the other side of the debate, and not only from right-wing talk radio. For example, over on the Guardian there’s quite a discussion about how The Pretenders star Chrissie Hynde blames herself for previous sexual assault, with the following excerpt pretty much summing up her position:

She said: “Technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was all my doing and I take full responsibility. You can’t f*** about with people, especially people who wear ‘I Heart Rape’ and ‘On Your Knees’ badges … those motorcycle gangs, that’s what they do.

“You can’t paint yourself into a corner and then say whose brush is this? You have to take responsibility. I mean, I was naive.”

In Bangladesh, we similarly see arguments for why people marry their daughters off young which rely on the inevitability of sexual violence:

“I photographed the wedding of Akhi’s 13-year-old sister last year, and when I asked her mother why she was marrying her daughter off, she described not feeling comfortable to let her walk to the corner store because she would be harassed by men and boys,” Joyce said. “She also said no boy wants to marry a girl older than 18. If a girl is still single past that age people will ask too many questions. She knew it was wrong to marry very early, but they weren’t from a wealthy family, and she told her daughter’s husband to wear condoms for a few years, so it will be OK. Marriage is seen as a cover of respect and protection for women. By not going to school, it reduces the risk of being sexually active outside the house or be harassed while commuting.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think sexual violence is outrageous and wrong. The last thing I’d want to do is to suggest acquiescence in the face of it. I don’t want to blame victims or make things worse for them in any way. But we hear arguments like the above from reasonable, thoughtful people, who have plenty to lose by being wrong. They’re coming from personal experience which we should listen to. We should, in addition, examine why the “logical” argument doesn’t seem to work with them.

I have a theory. It’s about what our cultural expectations about men are. I’ll divide it into cases.

  1. Men can more or less control violent urges and are not inherently sexual predators. In this worldview, women of all ages should be free to wear whatever we want and go wherever we want and expect only consensual sexual interactions. This is an ideal world, which one might call civilized. Mind you I’m not even talking about being bombarded with idealized visions of sexualized femininity on billboards (but that would be nice too). I think I more or less live in this world and that means I’m lucky.
  2. Men are divided into two groups: sexual predators and “others.” Just as it would be silly to ask a lion not to kill an antelope when it’s hungry, and similarly it would be ridiculous to think that (some) men wouldn’t rape a woman if they had the chance. That’s along the lines of the worldview of Chrissie Hynde. If you really think that there just simply are men out there who are uncontrolled and uncontrollable sexual predators, then of course it’s up to the individual to steer clear of them. And it doesn’t make her wrong and us right, it just means we have different expectations of what men are like.
  3. No man can be trusted, they’re all trying to take advantage of women at all times, and harassment is to be expected. This does seem to be more or less the expectation in certain situations, like in the above quote from a mother in Bangladesh as well as all the communities torn apart by war and insecurity and desperate poverty. If someone faces this kind of reality, they have to work within it, even if it means marrying off their 13-year-old daughter before she’s ready or willing. It’s a bad choice versus a worse choice.
Categories: Uncategorized

A huge win for contractors and franchise workers

Today I’m celebrating some good news for working-class people in this country. Namely, the definition of “employee” is changing, making it easier for employees at McDonalds and other places to complain about poor treatment. The good news comes via a National Labor Relations Board ruling yesterday.

I wrote previously about the economics of McDonalds franchises, but it comes down to this: 90% of the low-level employees at McDonalds don’t technically work for McDonalds at all; instead, they work for a local franchise owner, who in turn rents stuff, including the McDonalds brand, from the parent corporation.

In spite of the technical and legal framework, the parent corporation controlled the burger flippers at a minute level, through surveillance, customer service policy, branding requirements, and most importantly through controlling the margins of the franchise owner.

The legal separation, which was solidly working until yesterday, meant that employees couldn’t complain about bad treatment of their employer, McDonalds, but rather had to complain only about the way the local franchise owner treated them. This prevented large-scale unionization attempts among other things. The new ruling means that the workers will have the right to negotiate with McDonalds corporation as a “joint employer.” Another way of saying this is that McDonalds will have much more liability when it concerns mistreatment of franchise workers.

An example of how this is good news is the following: it used to be true that if one McDonalds unionized, and demanded and received better wages, it would have little knock-on effects and indeed it would be quite difficult to pull off, given how tight the margins are for franchisees. Now, with the new ruling, a second McDonalds location could possibly use that one example as leverage in a bargaining agreement. Moreover, as a joint employer, McDonalds corp cannot shut down a franchise just for unionizing.

The ruling extends well beyond McDonalds. In fact the original case was a company that hired contractors to do its recycling. It will likely mean that it will in general be much harder for corporations to create legal distance between itself and the people hired to do work for that company, so contractors of all varieties, as long as the parent company has a substantial amount of control over the workers.

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Tipping, power, and the gig economy

Power is the opposite of dependency. I learned this definition from Adam Reich when he came to talk to my Occupy Summer School students this summer about sociology and the OurWalmart struggle.

It’s useful and convincing: you have power over someone if they are dependent on you.

So it makes sense that systems of tipping gives us power as consumers. Waiters, or other service people, are dependent on us for tips, which are often a large part of their overall salaries, so we have power over them.

In fact, it gives us a kick, a real but short-lived kind of status in service situations. We get to temporarily play the part of the “little lord.” Some people exploit this role, demanding too much, asking for special favors, and enjoying having someone do our bidding. Others are over-sensitive to slights; if they feel like their status is being questioned at any level, they switch from little lords to little tyrants, demanding attention and extra work from their waiters. We’ve all seen this.

When you ask an American, we like our tipping systems, and we don’t want to give them up, even though it leads to all kinds of financial problems for restaurant workers. Partly this is because, as part of the power relationship, if the waitstaff or serviceperson wants to get a good tip from us, they have to be nice to us. They have to make us feel like they like us, and, a secondary requirement, that they like their job. Surly waiters are waiters who don’t depend on tips and who make us realize that being a waiter isn’t always such a great job. Not that this entire dynamic is obvious to us every time we enter into a tipper-tippee relationship, but it’s there, lurking.

So far nothing I’ve said is at all new. Tipping has been around for a while. But there is a new kind of service economy evolving, which I call “the gig economy,” but which tellingly has been described as “the sharing economy” by some.

So, if you hire an Uber or Lyft driver to drive you somewhere, the payment has become somewhat invisible, since it happens on your credit card via the app, and instead of tipping you rate your driver (although you can tip as well). in fact the “cashless and seamless” experience of being driven by an Uber driver is one of the selling points. “Hassle-free” is a commonly heard phrase around the gig economy.

But in terms of power dynamics, replacing tipping by rating doesn’t do much, since Uber drivers are entirely dependent on their overall rating to stay employed. And you might object because riders get rated as well, but let’s face it, the worst thing that could happen to a poorly rated rider is that he gets kicked off the app and has to use another rider app, but the worst thing that can happen to a driver with a bad rating is he could lose his job.

My fear is this: the invisibility of the transaction makes us as consumers even less aware of the power dynamics than we already are. We have gone from a transactional relationship, in a restaurant, to a inequitable faux-friendship. The marketing of the “sharing economy” doesn’t help:

Lyft

Why is this a problem? Some of the most important lessons I teach my children is how to be grateful, polite, and non-tyrannical to people who are serving us, at a restaurant or wherever. It’s part of learning how to be an empathetic person, and a balancing out of one-on-one human interactions which I think is super important. I want them to know that service is not servitude, and that everyone is a person just trying to do their best. Of course, this goes for any kind of transactional service, not just the tipping kind.

However, the first step in extending gratitude to people who are extending us a service is to know when that transaction is occurring. If every bill is magically and invisibly settled, then my kids won’t even recognize that it existed, and instead of gratitude for help, they might just think the person they just interacted with really liked them. Another way for my kids to learn empathy is, of course, for them to have jobs in which they experience the other side of the transaction, and I hope they do have jobs like that, although it’s getting much harder to get such a job than it used to be.

Maybe I’m being an old fuddy-duddy here. After all, when I think about the future of work, I often come to the conclusion that sooner or later, once the robots are doing lots of the grunt work and hard labor, the rest of us will be more or less in service to each other. There will be teachers, and personal trainers, and personal assistants, and life coaches, and people who hang out with old people, and nannies, and so on. Every now and then society will support people who just think – although they too will provide service in the form of essays or research – or people who just have loads of cash and just entertain themselves all the time.

So, maybe it’s old-fashioned to want balance in each relationship; instead, we can enjoy the “friendly interactions” of servicing one person and then turning around and being serviced by someone else in another realm. Maybe someday I’ll be an Uber driver, smiling at my rider, then I’ll meet up with my personal trainer who is extremely nice to me. Maybe the seamlessness and cashlessness of each future transaction will free everyone up to talk about politics, and philosophy, and what have you, instead of haggling over the bill.

Or, and here’s my pessimistic side emerging, or maybe we’re watering down the appearance of power relationships because we have redefined the word “innovation” as “ways to make rich peoples lives easier” and we call something a “disruption” if a bunch of people’s job security is weakened and they need to rely on rating systems – and need to claim to like their job and their customers – in order to scrape by.

What do you think? What are the consequences of the gig economy on power dynamics between people?

Categories: Uncategorized

Links about big bad data

There have been a lot of great articles recently on my beat, the dark side of big data. I wanted to share some of them with you today:

  1. An interview with Cynthia Dwork by Clair Cain Miller (h/t Marc Sobel). Describes how fairness is not automatic in algorithms, and the somewhat surprising fact that, in order to make sure an algorithm isn’t racist, for example, you must actually take race into consideration when testing it.
  2. How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election by Robert Epstein (h/t Ernie Davis). This describes the unreasonable power of search rank in terms political trust. Namely, when a given candidate was artificially lifted in terms of rank, people started to trust them more. Google’s meaningless response: “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine the people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.”
  3. Big Data, Machine Learning, and the Social Sciences: Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency by Hannah Wallach (h/t Arnaud Sahuguet). She addresses the need for social scientists to work alongside computer scientists when working with human behavior data, as well as a prioritization on the question rather than data availability. She also promotes the idea of including a concept of uncertainty when possible.
  4. How Big Data Is Unfair by Moritz Hardt. This isn’t new but it is a fantastic overview of fairness issues in big data, specifically how data mining techniques deal with minority groups.
  5. How Social Bias Creeps Into Web Technology by Elizabeth Dwoskin (h/t Ernie Davis). Unfortunately behind the pay wall, this article talks about negative unintended consequences of data mining.
  6. A somewhat different topic but great article, The MOOC revolution that wasn’t, by Audrey Watters (h/t Ernie Davis). This article traces the fall of the mighty MOOC ideals. Best quote in the article: “High failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs,” Caulfield suggests, “because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers.”
Categories: Uncategorized
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