Breaking an hour ago via The Trail blog on the WP:

Courts Allow Same-Day Vote Window to Go Forward in Ohio

Basically, if you live in Ohio, you can register to vote and submit an absentee ballot at the same time between September 30 and October 6.


GOTV Ohio!

How does this work?

…in Ohio, absentee ballots must be ready for distribution 35 days before the election but the voter registration deadline is 30 days before the election. That gap creates an “overlap” period for same-day registration and absentee voting

Thank Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner for defending the democratic political process and the rights of Ohioans to have their votes counted:

Phone: (614)-466-2655
Toll Free: (877)-767-6446

If you live in Ohio (and especially if you live in an area where election day “irregularities” have been common the last few times around), please consider voting during this window. The more votes get cast and counted, the less likely a screw up and the more effectively the national campaigns can allocate their assets and personnel

Given the systematic disenfranchisement of poor communities and people of color in recent cycles, this has to work in Obama’s favor. For those of us who live elsewhere it’s time to go to the phones.

Update (10:34pm EST): icebergslim has the details on Daily Kos.

Campaign fail.

The stock market’s not the only thing in free fall these days

Strategies and Tactics

September 29, 2008

Barack Obama and John McCain could not agree on the definition of a strategy vs a tactic during Friday night’s debate. Nevertheless, James Fallows of The Atlantic makes a really strong case that the reason Obama came out on top among undecided and independent voters following the debate stems from his more effective application of precisely this distinction.

This is a shameless cross-posting of my contribution to the Berkman Center’s Publius Project. In the essay, I respond to a piece published by Ken Banks last week (“One Missed Call,” see link below). If you have time, I highly recommend reading Ken’s piece first. I also recommend checking out the other excellent contributions to the project, which enjoys the expert guidance of Caroline Nolan at Berkman (thanks, Caroline!).

Ken Banks’ provocative contribution to the Publius Project, “One Missed Call” boldly urges the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community to look beyond bureaucracy-heavy, top-down solutions to global poverty and inequality. In a similar spirit, my response to Ken’s piece will take the form of a question, critique, and complementary challenge to the ICT4D community that runs somewhat afoul of the Easterly-Schumacher-inspired vision he offered.

Ken echoes William Easterly’s disdain for bureaucratic, large-scale approaches to global poverty, calling instead for the adoption of small techno-centric solutions based on principles of Human-Driven Design and deployment by “grassroots” NGO’s. Like Easterly, he encourages us to bet on the ingenuity of small-time entrepreneurs to break the world’s persistent cycles of poverty. If we identify these entrepreneurs, the theory goes, we can eliminate poverty without the immense waste and inefficiency that plague so-called “Big-D” development projects.

While both Easterly and Banks present compelling, attractive claims, they leave a key question unanswered: how can ICT4D advocates effectively confront the systemic and structural aspects of poverty or inequality within this framework?

Easterly’s argument takes for granted that well-positioned innovators can overcome institutional constraints at the regional, national and global levels. Indeed, his arguments in The White Man’s Burden closely resemble the work of free-market ideologues Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek insofar as he objects to all forms of developmental “planning” as fundamentally misguided. Empirical research in Development Studies contradicts this position, suggesting that the ability of grassroots NGO’s and others to deploy technological solutions effectively is overdetermined by the institutional environment within which they act (for a recent example, see Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans – The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism). Of course, to adapt Margaret Mead’s much abused phrase, I do not doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. And yet, such changes are bound to be fleeting in the absence of broader interventions.

The problem, as I see it, stems from the fact that Easterly’s proposition is free-market economics with a friendly face – compassionate conservatism in the truest sense of the phrase. Embracing Easterly’s vision entails a radical denial that broad political, economic, and cultural structures determine developmental outcomes in any way. The history of global development since World War II offers numerous grounds on which to reject this claim. First of all, the emergence of the United States as a superpower influenced the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the primary institutional frameworks within which development projects took place (until recently). Secondly, the concomitant dissemination of U.S. culture, values, and products has also shaped the ideals and aspirations through which people across the world understand what it means to be “developed.”

As a result, we cannot talk about “development” without referring to the broad political, economic and cultural currents that defined the late 20th century and the processes of globalization. All contemporary development projects operate in the institutional space defined by this history – and in many cases it is the space itself, rather than the any individual bureaucracy or top-down vision of change that determines what is and what is not possible for the poor and middle income populations of the Global South.

Contemporary global development paradigms (ICT4D among them) bear the traits of organizational and philosophical predecessors. The Millenium Development Goals represent a continuation of the Big-D development schemes of the 1950’s and 1960’s, where gigantic multilateral institutions like the United Nations dictated the terms on which the world’s poor would modernize. Similarly, the small-d development ideal proferred by Easterly and others places great faith in the ability of unregulated markets and small-scale entrepreneurs to bring widespread economic growth “from the bottom up.” This represents a scaled-down version of the so-called Washington Consensus of the 1980’s and 90’s that saw the dismantling of social welfare systems and the deregulation of financial markets around the world. The results of such “structural adjustment” were catastrophic for the poor, as local elites and multinational corporations extracted spectacular profits at the expense of less-empowered populations.

Both approaches – the big-D and the small-d – are stained by fundamental shortcomings that no amount of revisionism can wash away. On their own, neither will bring about sustainable widespread enhancements in the quality of life for the chronically poor and unstable regions of the world.

As a result, I challenge the ICT4D community to confront the contradictions of these competing paradigms of poverty and inequality alleviation.

At a practical level, we cannot simply abandon participation in (or engagement with) large national and multilateral political institutions. Access to fantastic gadgets and services will mean little in the long-run without a corresponding framework to support sustainable improvements in “human capabilities.” Likewise (and here I agree completely with Ken), the best intentioned multilateral efforts will fail unless they are grounded in the sort of modular, experimental approach embodied in Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” ideal.

Therefore, the ICT4D community (along with fellow travelers like myself) must find ways to split the distance between the Big-D and the small-d. We must reach out to the small grassroots NGO’s and innovators at the same time as we pursue less glamorous forms of political transformation and institution-building. We must design brilliant, appropriate gadgets and cultivate strong, accountable institutions. Together, these digital and social technologies will enable more people around the world to thrive, facilitating access to knowledge, networks, sanitation, water, and healthcare.

The need for broad political engagement has rarely been more apparent than in the present context. The collapse of the World Trade Organization’s Doha round of negotiations and the current global financial crisis provide textbook examples of institutional failures that grassroots intervention alone will not resolve. The lack of consensus at Doha reveals the extent to which existing global governance institutions have failed to meet the needs of low and middle income countries. Meanwhile, the implosion of the housing and credit markets in the United States has illustrated the risks of insufficient coordination between government and the private sector in the face of an obvious, long-standing threat to the collective interests of society. In the absence of sustainable solutions to these overlapping problems, rampant inequalities will likely reproduce and spread, leading to further financial and political instabilities.

In this setting, ICT4D advocates cannot afford to turn their backs on global institutions as critical mechanisms for achieving lasting techno-social change. Of course, analyzing and participating in big bureaucracies such as national states, multilateral governance forums, and international standards committees entails a distasteful degree of compliance with abusive forms of power. In this regard, Easterly’s claim that we must be wary of the tendency for these organizations to deliver corruption and inappropriate technologies is on target.

Nevertheless, if we want to avoid “missing the call” for technologies that have the potential to facilitate enhanced access, equality, and prosperity, such political and institutional engagement is more necessary than ever.


Lessons in economics (photo by "Grim Reaper With a Lawnmower" - cc-by-sa)

The current issue of The Prospect magazine contains a “debate” between Tim Harford and Pete Lunn on the significance of behavioral economics to economic theory as a whole.

The two authors succeed in putting on a friendly show of insult-swapping; in the process they somehow manage to endorse divergent perspectives on the latest research in their field.

Lunn contends that behavioral research is nothing less than a revolution in the making, uprooting the rotten foundations of the discipline in favor of a more nuanced, empirically accurate models of human action and motivation.

Harford puts forward a contrary view, in which behavioral theories and methods take their place among the tools of mainstream economics, but fall far short of transforming the field in a radical fashion.

FWIW, I find many of Harford’s claims quite compelling. I suspect that many economists can freely admit the limitations of theories grounded in a narrowly-selfish model of motivation; I recall reading something by Milton Friedman himself in which he points out that the accuracy of the assumptions is irrelevant, it is only the accuracy of the predictions that matters. In other words, Friedman agreed that it was obvious that narrowly-selfish “rationality” was a mere shadow of the depth and complexity of the human psyche. He merely claimed that it was the most reliable assumption anyone had yet found to model economic behavior on a large scale.

An interesting problem with Harford’s argument crops up in the following passage, though:

…the orthodox, rational-choice approach continues to work. Take a step back and look at the big picture. According to the laboratory experiments on public goods you describe, there is no such thing as the free-rider problem. If only that were true. It would mean that there was no climate change problem, because people would voluntarily restrict their carbon emissions to preserve the planet for strangers and the children of strangers. It would mean that fish stocks were healthy because fishing crews realised they were dealing with a common resource. London’s congestion charge would be counterproductive, because people do not respond to individual incentives: drivers would have willingly left their cars at home in order to leave the roads congestion-free for others.

No matter how many experiments you allude to, the discomfiting rational self-interested model explains our environmental predicament perfectly. It is also the inspiration for solutions such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme.

Harford argues that orthodox models of narrowly-selfish rationality still work, but he neglects to point out that orthodox economists may have something to do with that fact.

As Michel Callon (1998) has theorized and Donald MacKenzie (2006) has demonstrated, if you look under the hood of every carbon-producing, fish-catching, and emissions-releasing industry, you find classically trained economists!. This is not a surprise, but it means that economic theorists can no longer turn to the world of already existing industries and firms as empirical “proof” of the accuracy of their predictions. Why not? It’s like betting on the outcome of a baseball game when you’re the starting pitcher. Economists and their theories play such a large role in shaping contemporary industries that it is no longer possible to distinguish clearly their theories from those industries. They have actively gone out and propagated the theory to such a degree that they can be said, in some cases, to have made it come true.

How does this relate to behavioral economics? That remains to be seen. Analytic models and business plans constructed on assumptions of altruism, cooperation, sharing, and social wealth are only beginning to emerge. Nevertheless, I wonder what kinds of industries would emerge out of more empirically accurate models of behavior?

Cell Only Voters

September 24, 2008

Some interesting research just released by Pew analyzes polling methods and the political preferences of people who only own cell-phones.

(hint: they tend to support the candidate who uses a blackberry on a regular basis and knows how to email).

The big question remains: can these so-called “Cell Onlys” be translated into votes on election day?

I have a somewhat smaller question which is how the cell phones themselves could be better used as get-out-the-vote tools?

In a putatively democratic country where people my age tend to vote in absolutely dismal numbers, this seems like an area that should have already attracted a lot of attention.

What projects are doing this well (or at least experimenting in similar areas)?

Anyone who harbored doubts as to the political credentials and personal style of Sarah Palin needs to read the profiles published by the NYT and WaPo over the weekend.

The Washington Post piece focuses on Palin’s brief tenure as Mayor of Wasilla, where she reduced her personal responsibilities by hiring an administrator, bought a new car, lambasted taxes and corruption (at the same time as she used growing city revenues to dish out favors and hockey rinks), ousted experienced professionals from positions in the public administration, and raked in a steady stream of pork from D.C.

The Times, on the other hand, offers a close look at the workings of Palin’s inner circle during her stints as Mayor and Governor respectively. Generally speaking, the authors uncover recurring examples of cronyism, personal aggrandizement, secretive tactics to evade accountability and transparency,  absentee governance , corruption, and personal attacks and intimidation against anyone who disagreed with the “typical hockey mom.”

Remind you of anyone you know?

Let’s see…a lack of executive experience, lack of foreign policy knowledge, allegations of corruption and abuse of power, rhetorical support for fiscal conservatism matched by reckless, spendthrift behavior…

Wait, wait, don’t tell me!

Do we really need to wait for Palin’s palls in the Alaska state house to get promotions before we confirm that she (and her supporters) are not up to the job

Approximately 80% of the country agrees that the Bush administration has mismanaged the country. To me, that suggests that further illumination of Palin’s profound character flaws and irresponsible actions will raise some tough questions for the McCain/Palin campaign.

John McCain has argued that he and Palin are “mavericks” who will change Washington. With a voting record that agrees with Bush 90% of the time and a Vice-Presidential nominee who resembles the former Texas governor in more ways than one, this misleading rhetoric will not stick.