Archive for the 'Economics' category

Musing about boycotts (or, the challenges of effectively living your values without being overwhelmed).

This summer it seems like boycotts are on a lot of people's minds.

In the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, Stevie Wonder announced that he won't perform in Florida until its Stand Your Ground laws are repealed.

Author John Scalzi announced that he will no longer be a participant, panelist, or guest of honor at any convention without a harassment policy. But he also announced that he's disinclined to join in a boycott of the Ender's Game movie, despite the fact that he thinks the views of Ender's Game author Orson Scott Card (who is also a producer of the movie) on same-sex marriage and on LGBT folks more generally are "completely, totally and egregiously wrong."

There is, in the field of philosophy, an ongoing Gendered Conference Campaign asking people to decline to participate in conferences all of whose announced speakers are male.

Individual academics have also engaged in boycotts of specific journals and publishers on account of their objections to their editorial practices or to the other kinds of business in which they engage. University libraries have also announced plans to boycott publishers whose institutional licensing agreements they felt approached extortion.

There's a lot of back and forth in almost all these instances (and in the many others not mentioned here) about whether boycotts are an effective way to communicate your objection to the target of the boycott, whether they hurt others who really aren't responsible for the thing you object to, even whether organizing or engaging in a boycott is a display of intolerance.

It's a complicated tangle of things to worry about, at least if you're a person who wants to live something approaching an ethically consistent life.

If you value X, you don't want to give material support to a person or organization actively working against X. If you view Y as a great harm, you don't want to have your consumer choices reinforce a system that perpetrates or enables Y. But chains of cause and effect can be complicated, and sometimes what people or organizations are working for or against can be obscure.

Sometimes boycotts have been effective, either leading organizations to change their practices of their own volition or bringing political pressure upon them to do so. In other cases, boycotts seem to have little effect beyond giving their participants something about which to feel themselves superior.

My own personal consumer choices are pretty motley.

There are pizza franchises that will never get my business (even if they were, some day, to make a palatable product) on account of the political donations of their founder. There are big-box stores whose threshold I will not cross (and have not since … the 1980s, I think?) owing to their abusive labor practices. In my immediate neighborhood, there are two gas stations I feel passable comfortable using; the others are off the table owing to the corporate owners' involvement with environmental disasters, human rights violations, and lobbying against reasonable clean air standards in my state.

But I still use computer hardware from a company that I feel has a pretty lousy concept of corporate social responsibility, one that has gone to great lengths to avoid paying its fair share of taxes in states like California. I still buy chocolate, despite the environmental harms and labor atrocities involved in its production. (The fact that I don't buy Hershey's chocolate probably does't get me off the hook.) And there are plenty of goods I buy from any number of corporations where I have no clear idea what the production of those goods entailed, nor what sorts of actions those corporations are engaged in or are supporting with the proceeds of their business. I'm making choices in a condition of radically incomplete information, and even what I do know indicates that some of my choices are quite a bit less than optimal.

It's not obvious to me that my individual consumer choices make a whit of difference to large multinational corporations. They probably are more hassle for me than for the businesses I'm patronizing (although honestly, in a world where there are fewer places I'm comfortable buying gas, my response is to drive less whenever possible -- and that's probably a good effect).

I don't believe we're going to save the world with our consumer choices. I'm not entirely comfortable equating money with speech.

Then again, until I've entered into an agreement to secure a good or service, I don't believe anyone has a right to my money.* Thus, ethical issues seem like as good a reason as any to opt out of buying a particular product or patronizing a particular business.

If you're going to tell me it's wrong to opt out of buying tickets to see "Ender's Game," you're going to need to give me a positive argument.

Beyond that, despite how thoroughly we are cast as creatures of consumption (usually by someone who wants to sell us something), I suspect that the real action in the marketplace of ideas takes place at some remove from the exchange of currency for goods and services. Some of it is happening where people are interacting and actually exchanging ideas and opinions.

And here, the choices get a lot trickier for me than they do when I'm deciding where to get my groceries or gas.

For example, there are people with whom I interact because our kids are involved in some of the same activities. I am aware that some of these people belong to organizations whose aims I think are not good -- to organizations that see some people as less than fully human, and that put lots of money into political campaigns to restrict their rights.

If these people were businesses, I'd drive right by them. But they are parents of my kids' peers -- of their friends.

Usually we don't talk directly at all about the political divides. It's possible (although I haven't taken steps to find out) that they are opposing some of these organizations from the inside; I'm related to some people who do that, and I think they're fighting the good fight.

I'm not engaging in a fight. How I'm playing it right now is that I'm trying to be someone who interacts with these folks, someone who interacts with these kids, someone who they know to be caring, trying to be a help …

… so that by the time they connect the dots and notice that I fit in one of the groups targeted by their organization (or that people I care about with the same regard I show to them are so targeted by their organizations), they're going to have to reevaluate whether they stand behind what their organizations are doing.

This all depends on the assumption that growing to care about actual people in their lives can make a difference to the organizations and activities they support. It turns on the assumption that getting to know the "other" makes it harder to treat the issues as abstractions. It recognizes that people are complicated -- that almost all of us have contradictory views and commitments in our heads, and that most of us haven't put lots of effort into noticing this or trying to sort out which views or commitments we really endorse.

And it is helped by the fact that, so far, these folks I know haven't displayed values or views so repellent that I give up engagement with them as a lost cause. That could still happen. I'm hopeful that it won't, but I'm watchful.

But honestly, the complications of personal entanglements in a marketplace of ideas make decisions about how ethically to spend one's money look a lot more straightforward. That seems like a weird outcome.

*Except the state (at the relevant level), since I partake of the goods the state offers, and thus have an obligation to pay my share to support those goods.

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An ad in the sidebar that kind of bugs me.

Just now, on this blog, I noticed an ad for an "online reputation management service". There are ads for services like these all over the place (including on the airwaves of the big San Francisco public radio station, although they don't call them "ads" because public radio isn't supposed to have ads).

Anyway, I hadn't really given much thought to these businesses. I figured it was mostly for restaurants or similar kinds of clients trying to "accentuate" their good online reviews (while eliminating the negative ones, or at least pushing them down in the search results). Kind of slimy, but in a way I've come to expect from companies trying to attract me as a customer.

But I have come to learn lately that cheating scientists sanctioned by the ORI have been hiring online reputation managers to try to push the cyber-trails of their cheating out of sight. It's even possible (although not conclusively established by any means) that especially vigorous online reputation managers for hire might be engaging in shenanigans to use false DMCA claims to literally eliminate negative information that the scientific community (and indeed, the larger public) has an interest in being able to access.

So, yeah. Everyone has bills to pay -- people who work in online reputation management, people who had to leave science because they got caught cheating, blog networks like Scientopia. Commerce marches on. But that doesn't mean I have to like all of what happens in the service of paying those bills.

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The things you can learn reading a comment thread.

So, Chemjobber (whose blog focuses on "[q]uantifying the chemistry job market" and "helping chemists find jobs somehow") wrote an interesting post on the supply/demand mismatch when it comes to chemistry Ph.D.s and how this might affect a person's rational deliberations about whether it's worth the gamble to pursue a chemistry Ph.D.

That post got me thinking (as good posts do), and I posted some of my thoughts about what we (in a sort of societal-level "we" that at least includes chemists and chemical educators, broadly construed, but that might also encompass higher education types and even society as a whole) might want to do about this supply/demand mismatch, and about how what we think we should do is probably connected to how we think about the point of education in the first place.

My post got Farked.

I went and read the comments. (I know, who does that?)

There, I learned:

1. Putting up a blog post that includes some typos (or maybe they were artifacts from the voice recognition software) means that your Ph.D. should probably be revoked. Immediately!

2. The existence of one commenter with a Ph.D. in chemistry who has an intellectually stimulating job that pays well means that there is no job crisis for Ph.D. chemists! (False alarm, kids! Come on back to the lab!)

3. The existence of one commenter who works placing interns for his university's STEM college and reports a 100% placement rate for students looking for internships means that there is no job crisis for Ph.D. chemists! (Even though maybe these are undergraduate students being placed? And maybe some of these internships pay less than what you'd view as a living wage, or perhaps nothing at all? Still, companies will welcome cheap transient labor from science majors, so the economy is totally fine!!)

4. Ph.D. programs in chemistry are probably way easier now than they were 100 years ago. (Whither intellectual rigor?) Maybe these lower standards are to blame for the glut of chemistry Ph.D.s.

5. On balance, it is a good thing when a sub-par chemist finds a job teaching philosophy!

Thankfully, we sub-par chemists can look to Fark comment threads for helpful examples when we teach logic and critical thinking.

And, because I count it as due diligence, I immediately emailed Chemjobber to alert him to the news that he's been mistaken about the chemistry job market. I expect by the end of the week he'll shift his blog over to providing photos of labware with hilarious captions.

Finally, given that the blurb that went with the link to my posts reads:

The market value of a Ph.D. in chemistry is now limited to asking 'Would you like fries with that?" On the positive side, chemistry students are bumping the hell out of English majors in the paper-hat careers

I could get all shirty about pointing out that my Ph.D. in a "useless" non-STEM field helped me secure a tenure-track job (and, ultimately, tenure) in a field where it's maybe even harder to get an academic job than in chemistry. (Look at me being a dumbass with my sunk costs and such!) And, there are no fry-o-lators or paper hats involved.

But that would just be mean of me.

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A thought for Texas Governor Rick Perry about science.

Despite my best efforts to steer clear of debates between presidential hopefuls at this point in the calendar (because I have important job-related stuff to do with those waking hours, and also, I have been cautioned that the budget will not provide a replacement for my existing desk should my head eventually break it), bits of information from these debates do manage to get my attention. For example, in the September 7 Republican debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, Texas Governor Rick Perry (with an "E") made some comments on science and the state of scientific agreement, especially as relates to what we know about climate change. The following exchange began with a question from John Harris of Politico:

HARRIS: Governor Perry -- Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

PERRY: Well, I do agree that there is -- the science is -- is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans' economy at -- at -- at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet, to me, is just -- is nonsense. I mean, it -- I mean -- and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell.

But the fact is, to put America's economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country is not good economics and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.

HARRIS: Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you've done that.


Are there specific -- specific scientists or specific theories that you've found especially compelling, as you...


PERRY: Let me tell you what I find compelling, is what we've done in the state of Texas, using our ability to regulate our clean air. We cleaned up our air in the state of Texas, more than any other state in the nation during the decade. Nitrous oxide levels, down by 57 percent. Ozone levels down by 27 percent.

That's the way you need to do it, not by some scientist somewhere saying, "Here is what we think is happening out there." The fact of the matter is, the science is not settled on whether or not the climate change is being impacted by man to the point where we're going to put America's economics in jeopardy.

(Bold emphasis added.)

In less than 500 words, we get some insight into Gov. Perry's attitudes towards science.

He thinks it would be a mistake to be guided by "some scientist somewhere saying, 'Here is what we think is happening out there,' " although, presumably, he can bolster Texas's success in cleaning its air with empirical measurements of nitrous oxide and ozone taken by some scientist somewhere.

He's aware that weekly, maybe even daily, scientists are bravely coming forward to question the idea of anthropogenic global warming, but when asked to identify the scientists that he has found most credible on the subject of climate change, Perry either cannot name any of these scientists, or won't identify them as credible ... or maybe is keeping their names to himself to protect them? (From whom is he protecting them? Does this mean that these scientists have not "come forward" to state their views within their scientific communities -- or to the public -- but that they have "come forward" to Gov. Perry in private?)

Perry also references Galileo, stating that this hero of scientific progress also "got outvoted for a spell." I leave it to full-time historians of science to explicate the problems with Perry's understanding of Galileo, but I will note that there is a difference between having one's theory accepted by one's fellow working scientists and having one's theory accepted by the Roman Inquisition of the Catholic Church -- and I'm pretty sure Galileo himself did not have a vote in the latter.

But, here's the piece of Perry's position that really struck me: He states that climate science is not settled enough that it ought to guide policy which, by Perry's lights, would jeopardize the American economy. But this turns on an assumption that economics is a more settled (and more reliable) science than is climate science.


I suppose, then, we have the awesome predictive power of economic theory (about which there is strong consensus) to thank for warning us about the great recession before it happened, and for laying out a set of effective interventions that, once implemented, will save the economy and put millions of people back to work!

The economists, I'm sure, will be holding a press conference to explain their theory, describe the interventions that are needed, and call on our political leaders to implement them, just as soon as they've gotten their academic terms off to a good start. I'll be here (with my unicorn) waiting for that press conference.

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