Sunday, June 25, 2023

The Rohingya and Facebook: A Case Study about hate

“Power and Progress,” the book recently published by Acemoglu and Johnson (AJ), should not be promoted as a book on technology written by two economists, but as a book about the battle for political and economic equality in times of technological change. It is an important book.  I look forward to reading reviews of it by other scolars in the forthcoming months and years. I hope that the debate that the authors try to encourage expands and at least awareness is raised about the importance of directing technological progress at the service of humanity and not the richest and powerful small minorities.

One of their messages is that the economic model of privately owned social media encourages the transmission of hate. We see that in developed democracies, every day. Grievances, ridiculous exagerations, insults, lies, whataboutisms… find a fast motorway in Facebook and Twitter. I am only in the latter, and the protections against hate there (which I try to use) seem to me like an umbrella to contain a nuclear attack. Worse: they are part of the problem, pretending they do something when the business model from which they profit is the engine of the problem.

AJ address the case of the abuse against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar in pages 356-359. By 2017 there were 22 million Facebook users in Myanmar out of a population of 53 million. In a “combustible mix of ethnic tension and incendiary propaganda,” Facebook employed only one person who monitored Myanmar and spoke Burmese but not most of the hundred or so languages used in the country. According to Acemoglu and Johnson and the independent sources they quote in their long bibliographic essay, “the platform had become the chief medium of organizing what the US would eventually call a genocide” against the Rohingya Muslim minority. 

What these economists say about Facebook’s business model had a dramatic, violent expression in Myanmar, but is applicable also in communities where at the moment there is now less (or no) violence: it was “based on maximizing user engagement (to enable the company to sell more individualized digital ads), and any messages that garnered strong emotions, including of course hate speech and provocative misinformation, were favored by the platform algorithms because they triggered intense engagement from thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of users.”

Sunday, June 18, 2023

It’s the supply side of politics, stupid!

Larry Bartels is an essential author in the frontier between economics and political science. In his previous books, he established quite convincingly that the rich’s preferences have more weight in democratic collective decision making than the poor’s, and he debunked the “folk theory of democracy,” by which the solution to many democratic political problems would simply be more democracy, because, according to such folk theory voters are always right. And no, the solution is not less democracy, but lower expectations and better democracy.

I learned yesterday from a very good article in the Financial Times by Jan-Werner Müller –an author from whom I learned a lot in his book on populism- that Bartels had just published a new book, “Democracy Erodes from the Top.” I bouhgt it on Kindle, and after a first quick reading, I encourage anyone interested in European populism to get a copy.

In his new book, Bartels analyzes the recent evolution of populist parties in Europe and assesses the supposed crisis of democracy that results from it. After analyzing European public opinion in the last decades until 2019, the author challenges the idea that the surge in populism comes from the demand side of politics, from voters’ attitudes that would be more skeptical today about democracy and the European integration. That’s not what the data says.

What is more consistent with the historical data is that there’s always been a minoritary reservoir of extremist voters, but the size of this reservoir has not changed much over time, and especially it has not after the global financial crisis of 2008. The increasing influence of right wing nationalist populist forces is the result of supply side movements, by which conservative elites make choices that give more weight to destabilizing populists.

That is, Trump and Johnson are endogenous, and the result of their parties resorting to them to reach or keep power in particular historical moments. It is difficult not to think in the same terms in the local cases that are closer to me.

In Catalonia, it was the decision around 2012 of the conservative traditional nationalists of Jordi Pujol and Artur Mas to get hold of the secessionist banner, which increased the political relevance of national-populism in its most destabilizing form. They were surrounded by corruption allegations and criticism of their local version of austerity policies, and they decided to scapegoat “Madrid” for their problems, tapping on a reservoir of discontent based on some real and invented grievances.

The same now with VOX in Spain. The far right is obviously not new in Spain, actually the mainstream Popular Party was founded by a Francoist fromer minister. Now the PP is reaching regional and local agreements with VOX, raising the spectrum of a VOX-PP national coalition after the snap election on July 23rd. There are no more fascists in Spain now than 5 years ago, it’s just that the PP and the social and economic sectors that support it, may need them now more.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Inequality, fascism and populism in Italy and Spain

The current Italian government presided by Post-fascist politician Giorgia Meloni will organize a state funeral in the cathedral of Milan in honour of Silvio Berlusconi, arguably the founder of modern populism. He vertically integrated politics into his business, tried to subvert justice and allegedly had links with the Mafia. His ascent to power had to do with the disintegration of traditional political parties that colluded in a system to keep a strong (but moderate) Communist Party out of power in the times of the cold war.

Spain risks giving itself a government similar to the Italian, if the left and the center-left do not mobilize strongly in the snap election called for July 23rd. Although the current government of Pedro Sánchez is praised by the European Commission and the international media, and has managed the economy satisfactorily, the traditional conservative party, PP, founded by a minister of the military dictator Franco, allied with the far right party VOX, may win a majority. The right in Spain is unfortunately very different from the center-right in Germany, because the agreements that made the transition possible in Spain to lower the stakes of democracy (in the words of Stanford scholar Barry Weingast) kept almost intact traditional institutions such as the Monarchy, the Catholic Church and the economic and judicial elites. VOX is allied with Meloni, sympathises with Trump, questions climate change and is openly anti-feminist. The PP has no problem in sharing regional governments with them.

In my previous post, I listed the possible reasons why democracies such as Italy and Spain are compatible with high levels of inequality. All the reasons are applicable in our countries, as are applicable in other capitalist democracies. But a conservative movement and conservative elites that have had for different reasons a historical advantage make capture, lobbying and corruption (more affordable for the rich) especially present, to the extreme of vertical integration in the case of Italy. I mentioned in my previous post “Agenda-setting and mobilization of non-distributive agendas by the rich (strategic political supply, eg plutocratic populism).” Nationalisms feeding each other, anti-immigration feelings and cultural battles are clearly present in the two countries. Trumpian techniques such as lies and de-humanizing insults to the political rivals are also part of the tool-kit.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Globalization, inequality and democracy in class

The CORE Project’s e-book “The Economy” (it's free, read it!) starts with inequality (Unit 1) and finishes with politics (Unit 22). So I thought it would be fitting to end the course discussing with the students how is it possible that democracies are compatible with inequality, and in particular the concentration of the benefits of economic growth on the richest 1%.

To discuss the answer to this question, at the end of the 16 main units of “The Economy,” we discussed a selection of the “capstone” chapters 17-22. After showing them a graph with the historical ups and downs of globalization since the end of the XIXth century and the graph of “Milanovic’s elephant,” we discussed Rodrik’s trilemma (Unit 18), and redistributive preferences (Unit 19). Then I presented the Median Voter model (Unit 22) as a benchmark with which we can compare more realistic polities. Using additional material, I proposed an exercise with three type of voters and 3 alternatives, showing that different voting systems may yield different collective outcomes (without changing the individual preferences) and none of these voting systems is perfect (echoing Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem).

Based on “The Economy” models, on the article of Bonica et al. in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, and my own thinking in discussion with the students, I came up with this list of non-exhaustive answers to the question of “why democracy is compatible with increasing inequality?:”

-Objective constraints to redistribution at the national level due to (hyper)globalization.

-Incentive reasons: Higher rates of taxation reduce labor supply and effort provision.

-Prospect of upward mobility (P.O.U.M.).

-Unequal turnout and political participation: the rich participate more (not only by voting).

-Ideological shift (persistent belief in “trickle down” economics) and cultural reasons (believe in “incentives” and “merit”, preferences for the extremes).

-In some cases, a voting system may eliminate the option preferred by the MedianVoter if there are more than two relevant alternatives (France 2002?)

-Capture, lobbying, campaign contributions, corruption (more affordable for the rich).

-A combination of electoral and ideological polarization, and institutions that are slow to change or evolve, and which reduce the accountability of oficials to the majority (“gerrymandering” in the US, non-proportional electoral systems).

-Agenda-setting and mobilization of non-distributive agendas by the rich (strategic political supply, eg plutocratic populism).

I challenged them to complement or correct the list, not necessarily on the spot in class, but as food for thought for their hopefully productive lives as social science students and graduates.

(Class slides available upon request)