The ethics of race- and ethnicity-based statistics

Since the Vichy government, France has been more than just reluctant to collect statistics based on race, ethnicity, skin colours, etc. — it has positively banned such activities, and recently ruled that a sociology professor’s survey which sought to collect such data was unconstitutional. This from todays’ episode of CBC Radio’s Dispatches.

The EU has recently stipulated that its member countries work to fight discrimination and France has established a body to adjudicate claims of racial discrimination but it has so far seen few cases because without the body of statistics to back up such claims, there are few hard facts upon which to proceed.

The argument offered for maintaining the status quo by one of the interviewees, himself a university professor who studies discrimination (and whose own research showed that resumes with North African-sounding names were three times less likely to receive call-backs), were pretty weak. He claims that because there is, officially, no such thing as race in France, there can be no racial discrimination, and that race is an unscientific concept (true) therefore there can be no study of its effects in society (an incredible non-sequitur).

He reasoned that it would lead to greater discrimination because if, say, you asked who was Muslim, then decided that you would set aside a certain number of jobs for Muslims, that would lead to you needing to define “Muslim,” which would in turn lead to abuses.

This is of course not a bad point: the Canadian government’s definition of “Indian” is contributing directly to the disappearance of “Indians” (in one of Thomas King’s books he cites a statistic that there will be no Indians left in 20 or so years — I forget the exact number).

But taking education as an example, the prevailing attitude in France seems to run exactly counter to the approach that, in North America, is increasingly seen as both progressive and necessary to addressing blatant and serious inequalities. This is exemplified by the Toronto District School Board‘s fairly exhaustive and admired student survey, by the work of the US-based Education Trust, whose sole mandate is to work towards closing the achievement gap and does extensive research on the different educational outcomes of young people from various ethnicities, and is also heard in the calls of First Nations in Canada for better data on the achievement, dropout rates, and so on of young Aboriginal people. In North America, the issue is more often around privacy than potentially discriminatory use of such data.

Despite the pitfalls identified by Thomas King and the French professor on the CBC program, no sound policies for adequately addressing inequality could be formulated or implemented without this sort of knowledge.

Slavoj Zizek web 2.0

Some thoughtful and entertaining musings from everyone’s favourite neo-Leninist:

Zizek’s reivew of Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding appeared in the February 2008 issue of Harper’s, and in the current, May 2008 issue we are treated to Critchley’s response. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read Critchley’s book.)

While I agree with Critchley on the unfortunate fact of Zizek’s tendency towards “rhetorical posturing” and his absurd authoritarianism, I think Critchley writes Zizek off too quickly, and that there are in fact decent points in Zizek’s review that merit argument and discussion.

For one, I have to disagree with Critchley’s definition of politics as “the invention of interstitial distance”, and it is in fact statements such as this that lead people to mis-read Critchley as a postmodernist. In fact, Zizek sounds remarkably (and somewhat surprisingly) reasonable when he queries:

If the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish it (or capitalism), why retreat from it? Why not act with(in) the state? Why not accept the basic premise of the Third Way?

I don’t think we need to interpret “accepting the Third Way” as endorsing Chavez-style authoritarianism. What it means for politics and political philosophy is that the “beautiful soul” model that Zizek accuses Critchley of promoting (whether this accusation is fair I cannot say, not having read Critchley’s book) is not enough, and that left-wing politics must get its hands dirty and act “with(in) the state”–without, of course, meaning that violent revolution is the answer.

Here, I side with, I think, Critchley, Hannah Arendt, Gandhi, and an English truism when I say that violence only begets more violence. For more on violence, politics, and “starting with a blank slate”, see Naomi Klein:

Stiglitz: Iraq war to cost US close to 5 trillion USD

In an interview in the March issue of New Perspectives Quarterly, Joseph Stiglitz suggests that the Iraq war will cost 3 trillion by “conservative estimates” (the most recent figure I’d heard), but is more realistically expected to cost nearly 5 trillion.

Some of the ironies and contradictions of this war identified by Stiglitz include:

  • this is the first war in American history to be financed entirely by deficit, much of this via China purchasing US Treasury bods with monies from their trade surplus — in the words of the NPQ interviewer, “a consumer democracy with no savings borrows from a market-Leninist state to combat terrorism and hold free elections in the first Shiite government in an Arab state in 800 years!”
  • this is the first war where taxes have been lowered as war was undertaken
  • this is also the most privatized war in history, with security contractors making up to $400,000 a year for the same job that American soldiers get paid about $40,000 a year for doing
  • US taxpayers pay insurance for the private contractors, but the insurance companies are exempt in cases of death/injury by “hostility”

beard caught in pencil sharpenerMeanwhile, Senator McCain admits that he doesn’t understand the economics behind the Iraq war and has no ideas about how to finance it.

Iraq is Jasper, and the US is Abe.

Inequality is bad: left-wing dogma, or common sense?

The Australian Centre for Independent Study (CIS) recently claimed, in an article purporting to debunk “six social policy myths“, that an “egalitarian orthodoxy”, i.e. a systematic and biased belief that inequality is bad, “shapes the public policy agenda in all sorts of ways without people even realising it.”

This is a little bit like claiming that a “democratic orthodoxy” likewise pervades the public policy agenda. Sure it does, but is that so bad? Not everything is “up for question”, and I suggest that the ideal of equality (however that is interpreted) is not up for radical questioning. This is essentially what C.S. Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man: to question such things is to place yourself outside the “tao” or the canon of traditional morality (which sounds very conservative, but isn’t actually) and to set yourself up as a nihilist.

In any case, there are lots of reasons for thinking inequality is bad. Among them are those offered last fall by U of T professor of Philosophy and Political Science Frank Cunningham (What’s Wrong with Inequality? – published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)) and, somewhat randomly, Daron Acemoglu et al’s Theory of Military Dictatorships, in which they argue that inequality is a serious threat to the emergence of democracy.

This last item echoes the findings of the CIA State Failure Task Force, which examined state failure over the last 50 years and found that the main predictor was high infant mortality and that while democracy lowers the risk of state failure (akin to Amartya Sen’s suggestion that democracies do not suffer famines — a bit overstated, but generally true), poor democracies are still very vulnerable to state failure.

Report: most countries will fail to meet Millennium Development Goals by 2015

According to the recently published Global Monitoring Report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), most countries will fail to meet the goals by 2015, despite many countries being on-track to halve extreme poverty by that time.

The authors of the report propose a 6-point plan to further efforts to meet the goals, including integration of the development and environment agendas, and more and better aid. They also suggest that the currently somewhat bleak situation could be addressed if “advanced” countries lived up to their commitments as part of the 2002 Monterrey Consensus in which they committed to, among other things, foreign official development aid (ODA) at a level of 0.7% of GNP.

Canada’s ODA expressed as a percentage of GNP is currently about 0.3%; the last time it even came close to 0.7% was in the mid 80s, when it hit 0.5%. According to the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, the federal conservatives’ 2007 Budget took no significant steps towards increasing ODA to 0.7%.

In related news, a recent Ipsos-Reid poll found that Canadian youth spend a higher proportion on foreign aid than the government does. In fact, they spend 5% of their income on donations to charitable organizations that work outside of Canada. The comparison is inexact, but still this is pretty amazing.

So much for the stereotypes about selfish and lazy youth. A Statistics Canada study last year found that, on average, Canadian youth do 7.1 hours of paid and paid labour a day, accounting for both weekdays and weekends. That’s a 50 hour week.

Canada on intellectual property rights — not so bad after all?

See Michael Geist’s post on the recent World Economic Forum report on “network readiness”. Although, overall, Canada doesn’t fare so well, it ranks above both Japan and the U.S. on intellectual property (IP) protection.

Two areas where we come up quite short are, of course, the lack of competitiveness in our broadband and mobile networks (we have among the highest prices in the world), and also, interestingly, on the amount of paperwork it takes to start up a business. For more on the sorry state of Canada’s broadband access, see David Crane’s piece on Canada’s broadband infrastructure.