Twitter in Thailand

I’ve been following the twitter feed on #redshirt for a week now (since April 11, the day the red shirt demonstrators invaded the Pattaya resort hosting the ASEAN meeting). (See an earlier post on the civil unrest there.) It’s been truly fascinating in many ways.

(It’s a big disadvantage, of course, not to be able to read Thai; so there is a segment of the feed that I can’t address at all.)

Here are a few things I’ve gathered in the week of reading. I’ve become familiar with a couple of voices — bangkokbill, andrewspooner, anitchang, smartbrain, piriya … I’ve learned a bit about the timing of events in Bangkok during the Sunday and Monday showdown with the government. I’ve probably gotten a bit of the flavor of the issues and emotions that divide the contending protest movements, red and yellow. I got some useful links to valid news and academic sources on the conflict.

And I’ve viewed the controversy about who is REALLY dominating the twitter feed — yellow shirts or red shirts. Andrew Spooner is out front in asserting that yellow shirts are spinning the facts in the twitter feed; others characterize him as “pro-red shirt” and biased in that direction. It’s gotten a bit personal — maybe it’s a good thing Spooner is off on a travel article assignment. But actually — I’m not seeing the evidence of bias that Spooner sees.

Another interesting aspect of the feed — there are only a few eye witness real time comments from the streets — certainly few compared to the ongoing commentary by the regulars. And there appear to be no real time reports from participants — red shirts or conceivably cops and soldiers.

The biggest issues of debate that people are clashing about on twitter are important ones. Did the government use more force than necessary? Were there more deaths than the four that were reported? Were more bodies secretly taken away? (This is a persistent theme in Spooner’s postings.)

And second, how does the “street” feel about the demonstrations? Is there more support for the yellow shirts and the current government, or is there mass support for the red shirts and Thaksin? Are the red shirt demonstrators mostly concerned about democracy and social progress, or are they dupes of Thaksin’s party?

Spooner makes what sounds like a valid point about access — it makes sense that poor people who might support Thaksin are less likely to have access to twitter and the Internet. But since you can tweet straight from a cell phone, this doesn’t seem to be much of a barrier. There are a lot of cell phones in Bangkok!

What never really gets addressed directly is the extent of mob violence exerted by red shirts on several occasions last weekend: the invasion of Battaya, invasion of the ministry of interior, smashing of the vice minister’s car and serious beating of the official himself, and the burning of numerous buses. All of this is well documented in the press and on YouTube — but almost never mentioned in the twitter polemics.

And of course there’s the mysterious assassination attempt on the life of a former official, Sondhi, who was a prominent figure in the yellow shirt demonstrations in the fall — some mention of this shooting on the twitter feed but no real news.

What is truly fascinating about the demonstrations in Bangkok this past week, and the twitter feeds that emanated as a result, is what it suggests about the future. Imagine that 10% of demonstrators contribute comments and feelings every few hours; imagine the freelance commentators and partisans are putting in their interpretations; and imagine the parties and the government make an effort to chime in and provide spin, interpretation, and misinformation. This would be a torrent of as many as four thousand tweets an hour for an extended time — perhaps 350,000 tweets to make sense of in a week. What a data-rich cacaphony for the journalist, the sociologist, and the intelligence analyst to try to make sense of. Thailand 2009 isn’t the twitter revolution — but maybe the next one will be.

Spreading the wealth around?

So Joe the Plumber thinks Obama may be a socialist, and that he wants to spread the wealth around. And this all seems to come from Obama’s proposed tax policies — higher taxes for individuals and businesses with income more than $250,000 and lower taxes for everyone else. So why does that count as “spreading the wealth around”, and why exactly should the 95% think it’s a bad idea?

To the first point, this sounds like a different kind of redistribution than Joe is calling it — not a redistribution of income or wealth, but a redistribution of tax burdens towards the wealthiest citizens. And what is the moral justification for such a shift? Surely it’s based on the principle of placing the tax burdens our society creates disproportionally on those individuals with the greatest ability to pay and who derive the greatest benefits from our society. And there’s a moral justification for this principle: higher income individuals are gaining more from the extended system of social cooperation our economy consists of, and it’s only fair that they should pay more of the total costs created by that social cooperation. Someone has to pay these costs — so the fundamental issue is simply how they should be divided. And the principle of “higher rates for higher gains” has a lot going for it.

But is it socialism? Certainly not, except in the over-the-top sense in which downstate Illinois Republicans denounced FDR for being a socialist in the 1930s. There’s no collective ownership (except of banks, thanks to a $700 billion bailout). There’s not even much of a social safety net — especially when it comes to healthcare or extended unemployment benefits. And workers and other citizens have only the most limited role imaginable in making decisions about the management of the private companies they work for. So it’s not socialism in any meaningful sense.

But the bigger question is this: why would any middle- or low-income American object to the principle that the most affluent should assume slightly more of the burden? Is it that they imagine (fictionally) that this is where they will wind up eventually, and they won’t want the bigger tax burden when they get there? Do they give credence to the trickle-down theory that got this whole slide towards greater income inequality going in the first place in 1980? Plainly most people are deeply offended by the excesses of executive compensation that are now so visible; is that an impulse towards socialism? Or is it simply that they’re alienated by the label that is being thrown at this fairly ordinary tax proposal — which certainly gives a lot of credence to the irrational power of negative image marketing?

But there is another possibility that maybe the current spin meisters haven’t thought through well enough: that the obfuscations aren’t going to work any longer; that the majority of Americans will recognize that they have a basic interest in a society that assures a decent social minimum; that paying taxes is an important act of citizenship — and therefore “patriotic”; and that the costs of sustaining social cooperation ought to be tilted moderately in favor of the non-wealthy in our society. Maybe they will begin to demand more of their government, in the form of a meaningful social safety net and assured healthcare. And maybe the old saws about having to fear “socialism” are nothing but a tired marketing campaign that just won’t work anymore.


The word of the day is “change” — the political conventions are blaring it out, and apparently the voting public is ready for it.

It’s worth thinking about what “change” amounts to. Things change in many ways — by accident, by the inevitable workings of natural processes, or as a result of the actions of people and groups. The eruption of Mt. Krakatoa in 1883 changed many things in the world, for better or worse. But this isn’t what “change” means in this context.

When people talk about “change” in a political or social context, they are referring to outcomes that can be influenced by human agency and choice. We want to change the pace of global warming — that is, we want to take deliberate steps that will result in a slowing of the buildup of greenhouse gases globally. We want to change the “pay to play” mentality that many city governments have permitted to develop between contractors and politicians — that is, we want to create a new set of regulations and laws that do a better job of controlling corrupt practices in city government. We want to change the level of threat of terrorist attack that the United States faces — that is, we want our leaders to design a set of strategies for diplomatic, military, and intelligence agency actions that will reduce the motivation of potential attackers or interfere with the execution of their plans. We want to change the degree of disparities of income and quality of life that is found among Americans in this century — that is, we want a set of government and economic policies that have the effect of increasing income and quality of life for the least-well-off.

So the relevant meaning of “change” has to do with actions, goals, and strategies. Calls for change in this sense generally mean one of three things: we need to change direction — the things we’re aiming at aren’t quite the right mix. We need to change strategies — our plans for intervening in the world on the basis of which we are pursuing our goals aren’t working well enough. Or we need to change the way we operate — to embody greater transparency, greater allegiance to human rights, greater honesty. Change is about agency in the world — the things we aim at, the means we use, and the principles we adopt.

Government — its policies, its strategies, its priorities — is at the center of what people are concerned about when they call for change. This is true primarily because governments have the greatest ability to influence the outcomes that we care about the most; but it is also true because governments have badly disappointed us at various junctures in our history, by pursuing the wrong goals or bungling their efforts to achieve the right goals. So it’s not a bit surprising that a debate about the need for change would crop up around the moment of this critical election in the United States.

People are calling for change today because they are dissatisfied with the outcomes, trends, strategies, and manner that current public actors are achieving. They see outcomes that are the result of deliberate policies — but that are highly undesirable. They see policies that are intelligently related to the achievement of certain goals — but the goals are the wrong ones. They see policies and initiatives that are ill-conceived and bungled. And, often enough, they see public actions that are morally defective in a variety of ways — dishonest, devious, illegal, anti-democratic, self-interested, or hateful.

So when people call for change, it would appear that they’re asking for one of several possible kinds of change: a change of goals, a change of strategies, a change in the manner in which a government or corporation behaves, and perhaps a change in the personnel carrying out these actions. They want to see public action to be aimed at goals that the majority in society can support when honestly conveyed. They want to see policies and strategies that are well suited to achieving these goals, and supported by facts and analysis. They want to see coordinated efforts by their governments that will lead to better outcomes and will put the trends onto a more acceptable course. And they want to see a manner of action that respects the law and the requirements of a civil democracy.

Let’s hope that the next several months of political debate can really focus on these core questions: what problems do we most urgently need to solve in the next ten years in this society and this world? What strategies and initiatives do the candidates propose to address these problems? What evidence can we marshall to assess the likelihood that they will follow through with their stated intentions? These are exactly the right debates; and once we think clearly about the goals and priorities we have as a nation, perhaps the choice we make among candidates will be less about personality and more about confidence in the program and the team that will implement it.

Public versus hidden faces of organizations

Think of a range of complex organizations and institutions — police departments, zoning boards, corporations, security agencies, and so on indefinitely. These organizations all have missions, personnel, constituencies, and policies and practices. They all do various things — they affect individuals in society and they bring about significant social effects. And, in each case there are at least three aspects of their realities — the ways they publicly present themselves, the ways their behaviors and effects are perceived by the public, and the usually unobservable reality of how they actually behave. Usually the public persona of the institution is benign, fair, and public- spirited. But how close is this public persona to the truth? In many of our basic institutions, the answer seems to be, not very. We are daily confronted with cases of official corruption, corporations that abuse their power, legislators who take advantage of insider status, and the like. So how can we conceptualize the task of getting a reasonably accurate perception of the hidden workings of our major institutions and organizations?

First, let’s consider whether it is possible to specify a minimum charter of good organizational behavior in a democratic society. This would be a partial answer to a part of our question: what defines the conditions of a socially acceptable and publicly defensible organization? Consider these aspirations —

  • The organization should have goals that are compatible with enhancing the public good.
  • The organization should have appropriate policies about behavior towards employees and the public.
  • The organization should genuinely incorporate a commitment of compliance to law and regulation.
  • The corporation should embody a faithful commitment to exerting its efforts on behalf of its stated mission and stakeholders.
  • The organization should be committed to transparency and accountability.

Bad business practices and corruption can often be traced to a violation of one or more of these principles. The most offensive practices by powerful organizations — predatory behavior, asset stripping, the use of coercion and threat to achieve organizational goals, fraud, deception, illegal behavior, toxic waste dumping, evasion of regulations, and bribery — all fall within the categories identified here.

So how are we to determine whether our existing organizations and institutions satisfy these minimal conditions? We might imagine a routine “scan” of major institutions and organizations that asks a small set of questions along these lines:

  • What are the real operational goals and priorities of the organization?
  • What are the operational policies that govern corporate action?
  • How do agents of the organization actually treat members of the public in carrying out their tasks?
  • To what extent are there discrepancies between policy and practice?
  • To what extent do powerful leaders and managers use their positions to favor their own private interests? (conflict of interest)
  • To what extent do business crimes occur — accounting fraud, investor deception, evasion of regulations for health and safety?
  • And, most generally, to what extent is there a discrepancy between the official story about the organization and its actual practices?

It is very easy to think of examples of bad organizational behavior illustrating each of these questions — waste management companies fronting for organized crime groups, pharmaceutical companies producing defective generic drugs, police officers accepting bribes from speeding drivers, mining companies hiring “security workers” to evict “squatters.” And it would be a very interesting exercise to try to provide brief but accurate answers to each of these questions for a number of organizations. Based on the answers to questions like these that we are able to establish, we could then make an effort to answer the question of how great a discrepancy there is between the benign public persona of major institutions and their actual workings.

In theory we might say that answering these questions is no more difficult than putting a man on the moon — costly but straightforward. However, as was said twenty years ago in the context of anti-ballistic missile technology, the difference is that the moon doesn’t fight back. Organizations — particularly large governmental and corporate organizations — are very adept at covering their tracks, concealing bad behavior, and re-telling the story in their own interests. So the investigative challenge is a huge one — we might speculate that corruption multiplies geometrically, while investigative capacity multiplies arithmetically (a sort of Malthusian theory of misbehavior). Any given abuse can be uncovered in the New Yorker or on the 6 o’clock news — but bad behavior outstrips investigative resources.

So the task of understanding this aspect of modern society amounts to finding effective ways of shining a light on the real practices and priorities of important organizations and institutions. And the practical interest we have in controlling bad organizations — controlling corruption, ensuring good environmental and labor practices, eliminating coercion and violence — comes down to the challenge of enhancing the ability of democracies to investigate, regulate, and publicize the standards and outcomes of behavior that are required.

(Earlier posts have addressed aspects of this issue, including comments on corruption and publicity.)

Rights and violence in China

There is a pretty vibrant conversation going on internationally and in China about the role that individual rights should play in Chinese society. (There was an interesting conference on this subject at the University of Michigan early in February.) Some theorists object to the idea of formulating China’s issues of state-society relations in terms of individual rights. They object that the theory of individual rights is an expression of liberal or neo-liberal morality, and that this theory doesn’t give enough expression for the value of the society as a whole.

Other social scientists document the fact that there are a variety of increasingly visible groups in China who are formulating their claims in terms of rights: peasants in terms of their rights of land use, workers in terms of their labor rights, urban homeowners in terms of incursions against their homes by land developers, and city dwellers in terms of their rights against environmental harms. In each case the groups consist of people who have a deep and shared interest in something — access to land, working conditions that are safe and compensated, immunity from environmental toxins, security of their homes; these interests are threatened by powerful interests in Chinese society; and people in these groups want to have the freedom to struggle for their rights, and they want the state to have a system of law that protects them against violence when they do so. (Kevin O’Brien documents some of these social movements in Rightful Resistance in Rural China.)

So what is involved in advocating for “legality” and “individual rights” for China’s future? Most basically, rights have to do with protection against repression and violence. The core rights that Western political theorists such as John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, or John Locke articulate are rights like these: freedom of association, freedom of action, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and the right to security of property. Karl Marx criticized these rights as “bourgeois rights”, and some post-modern theorists today denigrate these rights as a vestige of liberalism.

But I want to assert that these rights are actually fundamental to a decent society — and that this is true for China’s future as well. Moreover, I want to assert that each of these rights is a reply to the threat of violence and coercion. Take the rights of expression and association: when a group of people share an interest — let’s say, an interest in struggling against a company that is dumping toxic chemicals into a nearby river — they can only actualize their collective interests if they are able to express their views and to call upon others to come together in voluntary associations to work against this environmental behavior. The situation in China today is harshly contrary to this ideal: citizens have to be extremely cautious about public expression of protest, and they are vulnerable to violent attack if they organize to pressure companies or local government to change their behavior.

The use of private security companies on behalf companies, land developers, and other powerful interests in China is well documented — as it was in the labor struggles of major industries in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. And these companies are pretty much unconstrained by legal institutions in their use of violence and gangs of thugs to intimidate and attack farmers, workers, or city dwellers. It’s worth visiting some of the web sites that document some of this violence — for example, this report about thugs attacking homeowners in Chaoyang. Similar reports can be unearthed in the context of rural conflicts over land development and conflicts between factory owners and migrant workers.

So this brings us to “legality.” What is the most important feature of the rule of law? It is to preserve the simple, fundamental rights of citizens: rights of personal security, rights of property, rights of expression. Why, in the photos included in the web site above involving an organized attack by security thugs against innocent Chaoyang residents — why are there no police in the scene making arrests of these thugs? And what does it say to other people with grievances? What it says is simple — the state will tolerate the use of force against you by powerful agents in society. And what this expresses is repression.

It is also true that the state itself is often the author of repression against its own citizens for actions that would be entirely legitimate within almost any definition of core individual right: blogging, speaking, attempting to organize migrant poor people. When the state uses its power to arrest and imprison people who speak, write, and organize — it is profoundly contradicting the core rights that every citizen needs to have.

It should also be said that these legal rights cannot be separated from the idea of democracy. Democracy most fundamentally requires that people be able to advocate for the social policies that they prefer. Social outcomes should be the result of a process that permits all citizens to organize and express their interests and preferences — that is the basic axiom of democracy. What this democratic value makes impossible is the idea that the state has a superior game plan — one that cannot brook interference by the citizens — and that it is legitimate for the state to repress and intimidate the citizens in their efforts to influence the state’s choices. A legally, constitutionally entrenched set of individual civil and political rights takes the final authority of deciding the future direction of society out of the hands of the state.

Give Chinese people democratic rights and they can make some real progress on China’s social ills — unsafe working conditions, abuse of peasants, confiscation of homeowners’ property, the creation of new environmental disasters. Deprive them of democratic rights, and the power of the state and powerful private interests can create continuing social horrors — famine, permanent exploitation of workers, environmental catastrophes, development projects that displace millions of people, and so on. The authoritarian state and the the thugocracy of powerful private interests combine to repress the people.

So let’s not fall for the post-modern jargon, the equation of liberal democratic values with neo-conservative politics or worse, and let’s advocate strongly for a Chinese society that incorporates strong legal protections for individual rights and liberties.

Voter decision-making

It is the night of the New Hampshire primary, and the pundits are at work.

But what can we learn about American political choices based on what we see during this election season? What do voters care about when they decide which presidential candidate to support? Is it issues and positions; personality of the candidate (likeability); rhetoric and buzzwords; their perceptions of qualities of leadership and effectiveness; party affiliation; or something else? And which of these groups of qualities make sense as a criterion for choosing a president?

Many of the interviews with prospective voters we hear on radio and television refer to personal qualities: “I don’t like Hillary,” “Obama is exciting,” “Thompson is too boring.” It is worth wondering whether these sorts of personal responses make any sense at all as a basis for choosing a president. What are we to make of the possibility that many voters base their preferences on features they might notice in a “speed dating” event (looks, style, charm)?

Would it not be better to have a president whose manners and looks we don’t like but whose leadership competence is certain and whose agenda for change is one we can enthusiastically support? How can such superficial features as looks, style, and charm make a difference to a choice of this magnitude?

So what about judgments about leadership and effectiveness? This at least appears to be a rational basis for choice. If a president is inept at the challenge of inspiring citizens and other leaders to work together and to get things done, then his or her program doesn’t matter very much; the leader will not be effective in implementing it. So favoring a candidate who has the hallmarks of competence and leadership effectiveness is related to the ultimate goal of having a president who can successfully manage the affairs of the nation. So attempting to assess the candidate’s qualities of leadership and effectiveness makes sense as a criterion of choice.

But it would seem that the most important question is that of priorities and goals — the candidate’s program. If we assume that each voter has a set of preferences and interests about national and international policies, then it seems logical to suppose that the voter’s challenge is to decide which candidate will do the most satisfactory job of implementing those preferences and interests. On this approach, we might model the voter’s task as, first, articulating his/her chief priorities for national public policy, and then assessing each candidate in terms of the degree of fit between the candidate’s program and the voter’s preferences. Essentially, this amounts to the decision rule: measure the candidates by the programs they promise to pursue, and choose that candidate whose program lines up best with the voter’s preferences and interests.

Of course the situation is more complicated than this, in that each voter also reaches a judgment about “electability.” Why would a voter cast his/her ballot for candidate X whose program lines up perfectly with the voter’s preferences, if the voter also judges that X’s likelihood of election is 10% compared to the 60% likelihood of election for candidate Y whose program is still pretty well aligned with the voter’s preferences? So it seems rational for the voter to weight the judgment of consistency with my agenda by the estimate of the likelihood of the candidate’s being successfully elected.

But let’s turn the picture a little bit and consider parties and their programs. Policy implementation requires coordinated and disciplined efforts in the executive and legislative branches to enact legislation. So would it not be most rational to begin the choice process by evaluating the priorities and agendas of the parties? Why do American voters make their decisions on the basis of the personality rather than the party? Would we not be better off thinking primarily about the party’s program — as voters in many European democracies do? Here the first question would be: which party presents a program that best corresponds to my preferences and interests? And then, is the party’s candidate sufficiently competent to give me confidence that he/she will be able to advance the party’s program through legislation and public policy? And can I trust that the party’s candidate is genuinely committed to the party’s program?

All of these questions are subject to intensive empirical inquiry, and there are legions of political scientists who are devoting their energies to interpreting the thought processes and decision rules of American voters. (One whose work I have admired is Samuel Popkin and especially his book The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns.) But is it possible that we might actually be a more effective democracy if we gave more thought as a society to the ways in which voters join with issues and challenges and shape their preferences, and try to find institutions that make for a more engaged and deliberative electorate?

What is the value of “democracy”?

What is involved in the value of democracy? Why is this an important social value? And why should we think that democracy is a good thing for poor people?

Consider first the fundamentals. Why is there a role for democracy in any circumstances? Democracy is a type of political institution — a form of group decision-making. Political institutions are needed in circumstances in which decisions are needed that affect all members of a group. Each member of a group has his or her own set of preferences about choices that affect the group; so there needs to be a process for arriving at a set of social preferences — a social choice function. Democracy requires designing a set of arrangements through which each person’s preferences will have equal weight in determining the ultimate decision. Otherwise we would have a system in which one person decides (dictatorship) or a minority decides (oligarchy). So democracy represents a set of decision-making institutions that embody respect for the equal worth of all citizens. And the fact that otherwise powerless people can express their preferences through democratic means is a substantial form of potential influence for non-privileged groups.

In addition to the aggregation of individual preferences, democratic values consider as well the circumstances under which the members of a group form their beliefs and preferences. Narrow democratic theory takes individual preferences as exogenous. But broader versions of democratic theory attempt to bring democratic values into the social processes through which beliefs and preferences are formed. The theory of deliberative democracy emphasizes in particular the features of civility, mutual respect, and open-mindedness through which debate and critical examination of issues leads to a fuller understanding of issues and a more reflective set of preferences. This aspect of democracy is valuable because it corresponds to a society in which open and uncensored debate leads to the formation of individual and collective preferences and embodies the ideas of democratic equality among citizens. And less-privileged groups can exercise their voices in these forums to attempt to influence other citizens to support more just policies and choices.

(See Ian Shapiro, The State of Democratic Theory and Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy?.)

There is a final reason for cheering democracy: it is possible that democracy is more likely to protect the rights of the relatively powerless in society; democratic institutions can function as a bulwark against the arbitrary power of elites of all kinds. If the powerless have political voice, they then have an ability to advocate for, and democratically support, the policies that favor their perspectives and interests. (This political power is offset, of course, by the political power and influence wielded by elite minorities in most societies.)

(See Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America.)

The most fundamental reasons, then, to value democracy are its correspondence to the value of the moral equality of all persons and the capacity it creates for non-elite groups’ struggles for justice. Democratic institutions honor the equality of all persons in the fact that each person has an equal voice in deliberating upon and deciding collective policies. A democracy is morally preferable because it best embodies the more basic moral value of fundamental human equality and dignity and it provides a feasible mechanism for pursuing social justice.