The Weinstein case: is #Metoo delivering justice?

They got him! It cost millions of dollars in legal fees, and involved multiple trials, settlements, and dismissal of the worst charges, but they convicted Harvey Weinstein. A bit like a buck who is taken down by a pack of wolves might receive the killing bite from a different wolf to the one who started the chase or who had the strongest bite, so too has the chase of Weinstein ended in a kill by just 2 of the dozens of allegations made along the way. The long chase and the kill has been reminiscent of the effort it took to bring down Bill Cosby.

For the #Metoo movement, this is a win, a vindication. The heart of the accusations leveled against Weinstein was always that he used his position of influence to get sex with unwilling partners. And the accusations always went beyond the notion that he was ‘merely’ soliciting prostitution, which by the way is unlawful in California. Weinstein is now proven to have overstepped the law and forced himself upon others. Whether one can prove 2 counts of that or 50 counts is somewhat immaterial in this regard: if 2 are deemed proven, the other 48 accusations that didnt make it to court are bolstered in that the public will believe there was a pattern of someone trying their luck within the law if possible, but outside of it if necessary. The conviction convinced me he was in the habit of forcefully and illegally demanding sex of those he could. His life is effectively over.

Time to look around and see the broader effects of the #Metoo phenomenon that began with the actresses of Hollywood rebelling against Weinstein.

The novelty of the #Metoo phenomenon was the possibility of crowd-sourced accusations of sexual impropriety, where patterns of misbehaviour could be found from initial accusations finding multiple co-accusers. Crowd-sourcing made it possible to find a pattern one would not see or be convinced off if one had an isolated accusation.

Not all initial accusations unearthed a pattern and thus a clear abuser. Like Weinstein, Kevin Spacey was brought down by an initial accusation that was affirmed by many follow-on accusations. As a counter-example, Michael Douglas was basically vindicated by a lack of any affirmation when an initial accusation came against him, leaving the initial accusation isolated, showing that making an accusation is not without risks to the accuser.

By construction though, finding a pattern via crowd-sourcing accusations only works with famous people because otherwise the initial accusation is not widely reported and hence will not alert potential co-accusers. So by its nature, the possibility of running into a crowd-accusation changes the costs and benefits of being famous, but changes little for anyone else. The abusive beggar on the street is not going to be unmasked by a crowd-sourced accusation.

So, one clear effect has been to raise the risks to men (and to a lesser extent women) of becoming famous or very rich: their sexual behaviour is under the potential microscope following a crowd accusations, and that microscope extends back to when they were not yet famous or rich.

This increased cost of fame will have long-run consequences, one of them being that ambitious young men are going to be much more careful about their sexual activities with people who know their names or who get a good look at them and could hence recognise them later. One might see this as the within-men leveling effect of the #Metoo movement. Famous, rich, and highly ambitious men have all been taken down a peg relative to less rich, less famous, and less ambitious men.

Note this does not mean that average behaviour has changed much, only that the behaviour of the very ambitious and famous will have changed. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Ethics, Gender, History, Politics - international, Politics - national, Social Policy, Society | 1 Comment

Intellectual authoritarianism: The Golden Age of Female Philosophy Edition

I do think that in normal times a lot of good female thinking is wasted because it simply doesn’t get heard.

Mary Midgley

I’ve written about the blokey intellectual authoritarianism of economics on numerous occasions, for instance writing here about how it has become:

a discipline more or less ruined by a relentless cult of stupid cleverness, and its crude abstraction from historical, social and economic context, a discipline in which ideas that are absurd on their face – like the idea that the Great Depression was a spontaneous holiday taken by tens of millions of people – are made respectable by cleverness.

It can’t be anywhere near as bad in the natural sciences because science is much more falsifiable in practice than the social sciences and that makes intellectual authoritarianism there harder to get away with – except where it works which is as it should be. Even so, there are plenty of stories of sciences going off on misguided adventures and staying on them long after it would seem there was good reason to reassess. And the more speculative they are – the more they relate to the ‘architecture’ of a set of ideas rather than the ideas themselves and the hypotheses that can be cashed out of them – the more intellectual authoritarianism for its own sake can thrive.1

As I documented here, neo-Darwinism generated a powerful intellectual authoritarianism based around a particularly compelling and simple aesthetic quite similar to those driving neoclassical economics. As Denis Noble put it:

What went wrong was that the Modern Synthesis became hardened into dogmatism. Starting from the theory that this is the way in which evolution could have happened, it became transformed into the conviction that this was the only way in which evolution must have happened.

Continue reading

  1.  I was listening to this excellent edition of The Jolly Swagman interviewing Eric Weinstein which raised a similar point regarding string theory – though with no connection to the gender issue. Here’s Weinstein when the compare Joseph Walker tells him of his conversation with a leader of string theory who’s now disappointed at the progress it made:

    The string community has a particular crime that it has to deal with. No one feels comfortable levelling the charge but I do because I’m outside of it. The string community when it became very animated around 1984 with something called the anomaly cancellation, which was an interesting development. … When orcas decide that they’re going to kill a whale very often what they do is interfere with that whale’s ability to get to the surface and they’ll plug its blowhole or they’ll invert it so that it can’t breathe. … Now that’s what the string community did to every other branch they said look we’re the only smart people we’ve got this.

    Let’s go back and read all those articles in which you said … this is the only game in town blah blah this is a terribly behaved community that’s absolutely brilliant. … And so I think the next time you have a conversation with anybody in that community Consider asking the question what responsibility to strengthen yours have when they claim to have once been overzealous and very optimistic. Because a lot of us said you’re not you’re not even close to an answer, you’re deluded. And I think that a lot of us are tired of being called cranks and being pushed around by a bunch of aging baby boomers who don’t seem to be able to deliver on the many promises they made through the press through the funding agencies that explained their right to take the resources of the community.

    You took the most important intellectual community that academics has ever produced. And you threw our legacy which belongs to everybody in this area into the toilet to promote a theory that did not deserve the hype of the resources and the reduction in vitality and diversity that we’re intellectually present in that field beforehand. So I think it’s really time for those of us who have been talking since 1984 about the excesses of that community to getting much clearer and better description of how badly this part of the community fucked up.

    I made precisely the same claim about the monoculture of neoclassical economics in its assault on the summit of imperfect competition in ‘new trade theory’ in my debate with Krugman. I was amazed that, though Krugman had learned of what I’d said through Mark Thoma’s otherwise excellent blog of links to economic articles – Economists View, Thoma wouldn’t post my own response to Krugman or otherwise respond to tell me why. Was it really unworthy of the site?

Posted in Economics and public policy, Education, Gender, History, Philosophy, Political theory | 13 Comments

Vale Holden: I told you so edition

I was sending this column to an ABC journo regarding the auto industry. It makes for sad reading today. From 

Herewith – somewhat late owing to my being out of the country – is my second column for the Age and the SMH in Ross Gittins’ place while he goes on hols. It seems there is further news – that we’re disgorging some more money to the mendicant car companies. I am not close enough to things to know all the details, but it certainly looks like it conforms to the kinds of things we did with Mitsubishi – which was to chase them with money while they slowly withdrew from production.

Next week governments with an interest in Australia’s auto industry – from Victoria, South Australia and Canberra close in on Detroit, cap in hand, wallets open begging Ford and GM to keep manufacturing in Australia.

They should look around. Having once housed nearly 2 million souls, Detroit is now down to about 700,000. Large parts of Detroit remain like Mad Max sets come to life. Criminal homicides are down to just 300 a year, a big improvement on the past, but still over 3 times America’s average levels and 20 times Australia’s!

Just as Rome’s invaders and then its inhabitants feasted on the eternal city – scavenging marble and bronze from its buildings, smashing statues for souvenir cameos – today Detroit’s gangs squat in long deserted buildings scavenging the very materials from which they’re built. Barring a fatal fall, or knife fight over the spoils, a day’s work stripping copper from a tenth-floor roof gable might reward its new owner with a few hundred dollars on the scrap markets. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy | 1 Comment

Erwin Fabian: RIP

Well as economists and physicists have been known to say, something that cannot go on forever eventually ceases to go on. I learned last night that Erwin Fabian who was a good friend of my father in the camps from 1940 to 1944 (I think) when they were released into the 8th Employment Company (which they called the 8th Enjoyment Company) to work on the docks and at Albury moving freight from one train to another at the change in gauge and in various other places. After the war Erwin became an exotic inspiration to a group of Australian artists who were destined for fame – Arthur Boyd, John Perceval definitely – and I think Tucker and Nolan.

I believe he was 103 and had an opening of his work in Tatura late(ish) last year – launched by Jana Wendt who’d taken a particular interest in him and gave a fine speech. An earlier profile she did of him is here. There are some wonderful pictures. Erwin also did a marvellous portrait of my father about six months after they arrived in Australia.

Links to other posts I’ve done on Erwin are here. And below the fold is one of the first I did – impressed as I then was with his being 91! Continue reading

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Honours: 2020

I wrote a piece on Australia’s Honours system for Australia Day last year and decided this year to make it an annual event. So here’s this year’s column, which had a couple of hundred words edited out of it to meet the Conversation’s arbitrary limit of 900 words. (How can you run a self-respecting corporate operation without arbitrary policies? Or KPIs on the monthly ‘performance’ of your contribution.)

In any event, here’s the article in the full glory of its 1,071 word and 6061 character glory.

We think of Gough Whitlam’s government as the most radical in our post-war history, dedicated to its leader’s “crash through or crash” style. (In the end, it crashed.) But Whitlam’s approach to Australian honours was bold only on the surface. 

Imperial Honours were scrapped. Today it’s rare for Australia’s worthies to run round town being called “Sir Bruce and Lady So and So” or “Dame Raylene” by every Tom, Dick and Harry in the street (or Sir Tom, Sir Dick and Sir Harry at the club). But when you look closer, it’s clear that Whitlam didn’t really refurbish imperial honours so much as rebrand them. 

Back then there was a hierarchy of awards and though there was some correlation between your achievement and the level of honour you received for it, where you already stood in the social hierarchy counted for much more. 

If you were out there selflessly contributing to your local community, you might eventually get an MBE (that’s a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). If you got luckier and had made more of a splash, you might get an OBE. That made you an “Officer” of the very same order of most excellent British things. Above that was the CBE which made you a “Commander” of exceedingly excellent entities.  Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Ethics | 2 Comments

Trust and the competition delusion: A new frontier for political and economic reform

The Griffith Review has just published a substantial essay of mine that I’ve been working on for some time. I reproduce the introductory section below after which you’ll have to hightail it to their website to finish. But it would be good to see you back here for comments which aren’t provided for on the Griffith Review website.

Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Lecture, 2009

SINCE ADAM SMITH, economists have marvelled at competition’s capacity to improve our world – not by fostering virtue, but by harnessing the opposing self-interest of buyer and seller in a market. As Smith himself famously suggested, instead of trusting his wellbeing as a consumer to the benevolence of the butcher, baker or brewer, he’d rather rely on their regard for their own interests in competing for his custom.

There’s a lively debate today about how to inject greater competition into Australia’s notoriously oligopolistic industries – like finance, supermarkets, fuel, energy and telecommunications – not to mention our new global digital overlords like Facebook and Google. And there’s a more ideologically charged debate about whether competition will drive better or worse outcomes in sectors where non-market values are important – like health, education and social services.

Having offered some thoughts on those issues elsewhere, in this essay I discuss something more fundamental and, because of that, widely overlooked. We’re falling for the ‘competition delusion’ by which I mean this: In our embrace of private competition as a goal, we mostly pass over a prior issue – which is the terms on which that competition takes place. That’s undermining trust in a remarkably wide range of institutions in our economic and public life.

The analogy with sport is illuminating. Australian Rules football is the crucible of some of the most intense competition you can imagine. But unlike some thinkers about our economy and society, its administrators understand that competition won’t amount to a hill of beans unless the rules of the game make it the game we want to follow. Seeing things this way, it’s an obvious mistake to ask whether football should be competitive or cooperative. Competition and cooperation are inextricably entangled in the game, each defining the other.

The competition delusion sees competition and cooperation as two ends of an ideological spectrum. And it presumes that, where one has to choose, competition should be presumed preferable to cooperation. The perspective I’m sketching here suggests a new take on JK Galbraith’s argument about private affluence amidst public squalor. As he put it in 1958:

Cars are important, roads are not… Vacuum cleaners to ensure clean houses boost our standard of living, street cleaners are an unfortunate expense. Thus we end up with clean houses and filthy streets.

Whatever the validity of this critique of America’s real economy of the 1950s, it’s a remarkably and increasingly apt picture of the knowledge and ideas that govern our economy and society in the age of the competition delusion.



Podcast at this link. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Philosophy, Political theory, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 15 Comments

Defending independence in the age of deep spin

If you know anything about the latest State of the Union Address, you know that after Donald Trump had handed Nancy Pelosi his speech as if she were his secretary when she held out her hand to him to shake hands, Pelosi tore up his speech. Didn’t look particularly well-judged politically to do that to me but there you go. What would I know?

Trump operatives have now released the video (above) of Pelosi tearing up his speech spliced interleaved with Trump’s comments praising heroes like aged soldiers. Facebook have agreed to take down the video as obviously misleading.

(Only kidding. Facebook wasn’t interested in getting in the way of its profits). On the other hand, Twitter has said that the Tweet violates policy that will be enforced when they’re ready to do so on March 2.

I can imagine it’s a scary call for Twitter to say so to the Gangster in chief. Rage will ensue and Donald Trump has a lot of power including the power of his mob. In those circumstances if I were Twitter, I’d be wanting to distance myself from this process, whilst having a decent approach.

I’d do it with a standing citizens’ assembly. If I were Twitter I’d recruit a demonstrably objective selection of ordinary American citizens using the same kinds of methods we use to recruit juries (in which I’d include random selection and representative random selection of various kinds.)

I’d then pay them to meet and deliberate on the question of what policies Twitter should adopt to be consistent with Twitter enhancing democratic deliberation whilst minimising the extent to which it harmed it. Then Twitter would have something to say to the various sides of politics who would inevitably accuse it of bias. It isn’t being biased – it has a process of integrity for determining the considered opinion of the public on this matter.

That process consists of

  1. the consideration of specific cases
  2. the deduction of policies and rules from those cases
  3. the application of those policies and rules by Twitter
  4. constant rinsing and repeating.

I expect the citizens’ assembly should be turned over relatively frequently, say every six months. But I’d also like to see the development of a cadre of the best of past citizens’ assemblies chosen in a non-competitive way, to help develop the ‘culture’ of the body as ‘elders’. The greater autonomy the body acquired through this mechanism, the more successful it would be in achieving its objectives of protecting the public – and protecting Twitter from accusations of bias.

I think this kind of thing may offer the last best hope for independence to be nurtured and protected in many other circumstances – for instance in public agencies. Existing mechanisms for nurturing independence (say of the public service from their political masters) or for ensuring ethical behaviour (as with ethics committees) are demonstrably failing. But I’ll defend that proposition on another occasion.

Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Information, IT and Internet, Media, Sortition and citizens’ juries | 4 Comments