Interview with Bill Thompson: Fragmented Information

10 Mar

This is the fourth and concluding part of the interview with BBC technology columnist, Mr. Bill Thompson.

part 1, part 2, part 3

This kind of completes two of the major questions that I had. I would now move on to digital literacy and fragmented informational landscape. Google has made facts accessible to people – too accessible, some might say. What Google has done is allowed the people to pick up little facts, disembodied and without the contextual information. It may lead to a consumer who has a very particularistic trajectory of information and opinions. Do you see that as a possibility or does the fundamental interlinked nature of the Internet somehow manages to make information accessible in a more complete way? In a related point do you see that while we are becoming information-rich, we are also simultaneously becoming knowledge poor?

That is such a big question. In fact, I share your concerns. I think there is a real danger – that it’s not even just that there is sort of a surfeit of facts and a lack of knowledge, its that the range of facts which we have available to us becomes defined by what is accessible through Google. And as we know that even Google, or any other search engine, only indexes a small portion of the sum of human knowledge, of the sum of what is available. And we see that this effect also becomes self-reinforcing so that somebody is researching something and they search on Google, find some information, they then reproduce that information and link to its source and it becomes therefore even more dominant, it becomes more likely to be the thing people will find next time they search and as a result alternative points of view, more obscure references, the more complex stuff which is harder to simplify and express drops down the Google ranking and essentially then becomes invisible.

There is much to be said for hard research that takes time, that is careful, that uncovers this sort of deeper information and makes it available to other people. We see in the world of non-fiction publishing, particularly I think with history every year or two we see a radical revisionist biography of some major historical figure based on a close reading of the archives or access to information which was previously unavailable. So all the biographies of Einstein are having to be rewritten at the moment because his letters from the 1950s have just become available and they give us a very different view of the man and particularly of his politics. Now if our view of Einstein was one defined by what Google finds out about Einstein we would know remarkably little. So we need scholars, we need the people who are always going to delve a little more deeply and there is danger in the Google world – it becomes harder to do that and fewer people will even have access to the products of their [careful researcher’s] work because what they write will not itself make it high up the ranking, will not have a sufficient ‘page rank’.

So I actually do think Google and the model of information access which it presents us is one that should be challenged and it should only ever be one part of the system. It is a bit like Wikipedia. I teach a journalism class and I say to my students that Wikipedia may be a good place to start your research but it must never be the place to finish it. Similarly, with Google, anybody who only uses the Google search engine knows too little about the world.

You bring up an important point. Search engine design, and other web usage patterns are increasingly channeling users to a small set of sites with a particular set of knowledge and viewpoints. But hasn’t that always been the case? An epidemiological study of how knowledge has traditionally spread in the world would probably show that at any one time only a small amount of knowledge is available to most people while most other knowledge withers into oblivion. So has Google really fundamentally changed the dynamics?

You are trying to do that to me again and I won’t let you.

This is not a fundamental shift in what it means to be human. None of this is a fundamental shift in what it means to be a human. Things may be faster, we may more access or whatever but we have always had these problems and we have always found solutions to them. And I am not a sort of a millenialist about this; I don’t think this is the end of civilization. I think we face short-term issues and we historically have found a way around them and we will again. That Google’s current dominance is a blip. In a sense – it will go, I don’t know how. Ok, here’s a good way in which Google’s dominance could go. So, at the moment we have worries in the world about H5N1 avian flu mutating into a form which infects humans. Let’s just suppose that this happens and that somebody somewhere writes an obscure academic paper which describes how basically to cure it and how to prevent infection in your household. Well all the people who rely on Google won’t find this paper will die and all the people who go to their library and look up the paper version will live and therefore the Google world will be over. How about that? There is something, perhaps not quite on that scale, something will happen which will force us to question our dependence on Google and that would be a good thing. We shouldn’t ever depend on anyone like that.

You know Mr. Thompson, even libraries have sort of shifted. They are increasingly interested in providing Internet access.

Yeah, it is and it is search rather than structure. And you know the fact is that search tools make it easy to be lazy and we are a lazy species and therefore we will lazy and we will carry on being lazy until we are forced until something bad happens because of our laziness at which point we will mend our ways.

That’s why I had brought up the question of fragmented knowledge earlier. One of my close friends is blind and he generally has to read through the book to reach the information that he wants. He tends to have a much fuller idea of context and the kind of corroboration that he presents is much different from the casual kind of scattered anecdotal argumentation that others present. Of course part of that is a function of he being a conscientious arguer but certainly part of it stems from he not having as many shortcuts to knowledge and actually having a fuller contextual understanding of the topic at hand. The fact is that most users can now parachute in and out of information and Google has helped make it easier.

I don’t think we see what’s really going on. There is a lot more information and there is a lot more to cope with and this superficial skimming is a very effective strategy. Skim reading is something we know how to do, we teach our children how to do, we value in ourselves and indeed in them, and skim surfing is just as valuable. You know I monitor thirty-forty blogs, news sites and stuff like that and when I am doing it, I don’t look too closely at things. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the ability or the facility to do something which is a lot deeper and a lot more involved.

I have a fifteen-year daughter. She is doing her GCSE exams this year. And I have watched over the last 18 months or so how she has developed her ability to focus, her research skills, her reading around, she is surrounded by a pile of books, she has stopped using the computer as the way to find things quickly because she now needs to know stuff in depth and she is doing all of that. So I suspect that from the outside observing children we seem them in a certain way because we only see part of what they do and we have to look in more detail. It is too easy to have the wrong idea and actually I am a lot more hopeful about this, having seen this with my daughter and I think I will start to see it with my son, who is fourteen at the moment. And again I see his application to the things he cares about and the way he searches. He is a big fan of The Oblivion, the X-Box game, his engagement and the depth of his understanding is immense. So we shouldn’t let the fact that we look at some domain of activity where they are purely superficial let us lose sight of the fact of other areas where it is not superficial at all, where they have developed exactly those skills which would want them to have.

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Bill Thompson’s blog

Interview with Bill Thompson: Copyright Law

8 Mar

This is part III of a four-part interview with Mr. Bill Thompson, noted technology columnist with the BBC.

part 1, part 2

“Copyright is not a Lockean natural right but is a limited right granted to authors in order to further the public interest. This principle is explicitly expressed in the U.S. Constitution, which grants the power to create a system of copyright to Congress in order to further the public interest in “promoting progress in science and the useful arts.” (Miller and Feigenbaum, Yale) UK’s copyright law dates back to Statute of Anne from 1709, which states – “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned.” Both seem to see copyright as something tailored towards the public good. The modern understanding of it has sort of disintegrated into a sort of “right to make as much money as one can”. Am I correct in saying that? Please elaborate your views on the subject.

Copyright started out as an attempt to restrict the ability of publishers of books to control absolutely what they did under contract law and to establish limitations on the period in which a work of fiction or indeed any written work could be exploited by one group of people, and to ensure that after a certain amount of time it was available as part of the public domain to serve the public good. So copyright has always been about taking away any absolute right so that the creator of a work of art, fiction, literature or non-fiction has so that everyone can benefit; take away the absolute right and give away in return monopoly over certain forms of exploitation during which period they are expected to make enough money or gain enough benefit to encourage them to carry on creating.

So the idea is that it is a balance – give the creator enough so that they can create more and encourage them to do that because it is good but make sure that the products of their creative output fall into the public domain so they can be used by everyone for the wider good on the grounds that you can never know in advance who will make the best use of someone else’s creative output and therefore it should be available. So, the fact that the early years of the last century a cartoonist in the United States called Walt Disney drew a mouse based on other people’s ideas is great and Disney and his family have had a lot of time to exploit the value in the mouse but there are other people now who could do a better job with it and they should be allowed to get their hands on the mouse and do cool stuff with it. That’s the idea and that is the principle that is being broken by large corporations who see the economic advantage to themselves in extending the term of copyright, in limiting the freedoms that other people have because they don’t care about the public good, they care about their own good. And legislatures, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere, have been bought off, corruptly or not, and have not been true to the original principles, which is that in the end it should all go into the public domain so that anybody who wants can make use of it and exploit it in creative ways that we cannot yet imagine. In a sense it’s an expression of humility – it’s saying that we cannot know for sure who will be able to do the best with its work and therefore it is the interest of everybody that it should be available to everybody. That was the breakthrough – the insight – of copyright law 300 years ago. We are coming up on the 300th anniversary of the Statute of Anne, the first codified copyright law and I think we should big party for it.

The point is that – the point is most eloquently made not by Larry Lessig, who is good, but by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation and his point is just that copyright is broken and it needs to be rebalanced and we need new and different approach to copyright and in a sense it is the one area of law where we actually do need to start again. I am always an advocate of trying to make old laws work with new technologies. I think that we should be very cautious about making new laws because looking back historically it does like that today’s politicians are more stupid and more corrupt than those of older days and therefore are less likely to make good laws – that just seems to be the case. Correct me if I am wrong. And therefore we should avoid giving them the ability to screw things up. But with copyright, we are forced to. So we have to engage with the political system, we have to make sure that the people who have political power understand the issues and we have to force them to do the right thing. In other areas for example libel laws and all sorts of other aspects of what we do online, in fact, the existing legal framework has proven remarkably robust. There have been problems over jurisdiction and problems over enforcement but the laws themselves have applied pretty well in the networked world and we haven’t needed that many new laws and that is a good thing. Copyright is the one area where we clearly do.

Copyright, if minimally construed, is the right to produce copies. This particular understanding is fabulously unsuited for the Internet era where technology companies like Google have a business model based on making daily copies of content and making it searchable. Book publishers, along with some other content producers, have cried foul. It seems to me that they don’t understand the Internet model, which in a way has changed the whole dynamic of ‘copying’.

I don’t think it has changed the whole dynamic as much as it as exposed another reading of the word copy and made it the dominant reading and so undermined part of the ball. Parliamentary draughtsmen, the people who wrote those laws, were perfectly right in using the word like they did; it is just that we have promoted one particular facet of copy. The fact that we use the word copy to refer to the version that is made in sort of viewing a webpage on a browser – the version that is held in the display memory and all those sorts of things – we could have avoided a lot of this fuss by redefining what the word copy means thirty years ago or fifty years ago or just not using the word copy. It wouldn’t have actually helped the larger issue because the real problem with copyright is not that too many incidental acts on our computer systems, on our network are in principle in breach of copyright, it’s the fact that the existence of the network makes it possible to breach copyright deliberately, almost maliciously.

As we talk I am waiting for the Episode 13 of Series 3 of Battlestar Galactica to download onto my PC via BitTorrent from the United States so I could watch it. Ok! Now that is a complete infringement of copyright.
[I reply jokingly – so I am going to the MPAA.] Feel free, I would welcome their letter. I would delete it once I have watched it and I would buy the DVD once it comes out. But Sky here hasn’t started showing it four months after it was on the Science Fiction channel. Well, I am not going to wait four months to watch something when it is available. I mean that’s just foolish. That exposes holes in copyright law. It also exposes holes in the economic strategy of multinational corporations who run the broadcast industry in the UK and the US because they just don’t understand the market or what people are doing. There are times when you have to stretch the system to demonstrate the absurdity of the old model and that’s what I see myself as doing.

The US and EU copyright regimes differ in some marked ways. Similarly, Australian copyright law is different in its statute of limitations that is much smaller than the US. Post Internet, we do really need a common international framework for copyright.

But we do. We have that. We have the World Trade Organization, we have WIPO – the World Intellectual Property Organization, we have the Berne (convention signatories). There is an international framework for copyright. It’s as broken as anything else. We need a new Berne, we need to go back to Switzerland and renegotiate what copyright means on a global level but there is that framework but it’s been caught out by technology.

Databases are given legal protection in EU via its database directive while similar privileges haven’t been granted in US. What do you make of this effort to give copyright to databases?

That’s just a European absurdity which we will realize was a mistake and eventually change. You have a database copyright in the European Union and in some other countries though not in the United States and it is clearly a mistake. There is growing awareness that something needs to be done about it because it’s not necessary to offer such protection. The idea that you get automatic protection for taking other people’s data and structuring it in a certain way has limited economic flexibility and has damaged competitiveness.

There is always a problem you see that as new technologies emerge to suggest new rights to go with them and this was the case where [we drafted something into] a law before wiser counsels could prevail.

Gowers report recently received a fair bit of attention. The report, I believe, had this wonderful recommendation for handling patent applications. It talked about putting up patent applications online and having an open commenting period. You in fact wrote about the report in your recent column. Can you talk a little more about the report?

Gowers report was commissioned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who is a senior government minister, basically second only to Tony Blair and indeed Gordon Brown hopes to be Prime Minister within the next few months. Because of the way British politics works he can probably manage that without ever getting elected because he would just become party leader and therefore automatically the Prime Minister because the Labor Party is the dominant party in the government.

Brown commissioned a man called Andrew Gowers, who had at that point just been fired from being the editor of the Financial Times, to carry out this report. Andrew is a nice man but many of us doubted his ability to resist the Copyright lobby, to resist the pressures, to write something which would make industry happy, but he surprised us all, partly thanks to the excellent team of people he had working for him at the Treasury in the UK. He came up with a report that wasn’t radical but was sensible and what we do best in British politics is sensible because people can behind sensible. He said some things which were well argued, didn’t give in to the vested interests and didn’t give the music industry what they wanted.

Unfortunately, the Gowers Report is just that – it is a report, it is a series of recommendations which then goes into the government machine and has then to be acted on. It doesn’t do anything itself. We have a political issue here which is that when Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer commissioned the report, he believed that by the time it was published he would be Prime Minister, he believed by then Tony Blair would have gone and he would then be in a position to take this report and say I commissioned this report when I was Chancellor and it is absolutely fantastic, now I am Prime Minister and I am going to make it happen. Unfortunately, Tony Blair has refused to go and so Gordon Brown has received the report as a Chancellor and has no real power to deliver on it. And so the question is when Gordon does become Prime Minister – will it be his priorities – probably not, will the world have changed- probably, will he have been leaned on so effectively by the very wealthy music and movie industry so that he will actually dilute some of its recommendations –well tragically probably yes. So the timing is all wrong. The opportunity that Gowers presented was for Gordon Brown to say – this is great let’s just do it. Now we are going to have to wait – eight months – and [in that time] things would have changed and there will be a lot else for Gordon Brown to do. So for those of us who think that the recommendations are good are trying to keep the pressure on and keep track of what is happening, have the right conversations and make sure that when Gordon does become Prime Minister, because it looks fairly likely that he will, that he is reminded of his at the right time in the right way so that it can then turn into real change.

The other thing to remember is that a lot of changes that are proposed, a lot of recommendations are proposed, are actually international recommendations. So there are things that will have to happen at a European level or at a global level and so to some extent it is a call for British ministers, for British representatives, for British commissioners at Europe, for British delegates at WIPO to behave in a different way but it will take some time before we know that’s being successful. The report advocates engagement at a global level. It then needs to happen.

Interview with Bill Thompson: The Political Economy of the Internet

6 Mar

This is part 2 of the interview with Bill Thompson, technology columnist with the BBC. part 1

When I look at the Internet, there is this wonderful sense of volunteerism. It is incredible to see the kind of things that have come out of recent technology like the open source movement, and Wikipedia. Even Internet companies seem to have adopted sort of socially nurturing missions. How did these norms of volunteerism get created? Has technology merely enabled these norms? Or are we witnessing something entirely new here?

If you look at common space peer production, as Yochai Benkler calls it, what motivates people is exactly the same question as what motivates altruism. Because what we have with contributions to open source projects like Linux or positive contributions to Wikipedia, is what would seem to be on surface just pure altruistic behavior. So we can ask the same questions. What do people get in return? And do they have to get something in return?

Pekka Himanen in the Hacker Ethic, I think, nailed what people get in return— the social value you get from that, the sense of self-worth, the rewards that you are looking for, all of that makes perfect sense to me. I don’t think we need to ask any more questions about that. You get stuff back from contributing to the Linux kernel or putting something up on SourceForge. The stuff you get back is the same sort of stuff you get back from being a good active citizen. It is the same stuff as you get back from say recycling your trash.

The question as to whether something new is emerging, whether what’s happening online, because it allows for distributed participation – because the product of the online activity is say, certainly in the case of open source, a tool which can then itself be used elsewhere, or in the case of Wikipedia, a new approach to collating knowledge. Whether something completely new or radical is coming out of there still remains to be seen. I am quite skeptical about that. I am quite skeptical of brand new emergent properties of network behavior because we remain still the same physical and psychological human beings. I am not one of those people who believes that singularity is coming, that they are about to transcend the limitations of the corporeal body and that some magical breakthrough in humanity is going to happen thanks to the Internet and new biomedical procedures. I don’t think we are on the verge of that change.

I think that Internet as a collaborative environment might emphasize what it is to work together and change what it means to be a good citizen, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter the debate.

But the kind of interactions that we see today wouldn’t have happened if it were not for the Internet. For example, the fact that I am talking to you today is, I believe, sufficiently radical.

But has it changed anything fundamentally? Ok, it has allowed us to find each other but there was in the 13th century medieval Europe a very rich and complicated network of traveling scholars, who would travel from university or monastery to share each other’s ideas, they would exchange text. It was on a smaller scale, it was much slower, and it was at a lower level but was it fundamentally different to what we are doing in the blogosphere or with communications like this? Just because there is more of it doesn’t mean it is automatically different.

Let me move on here to a related but different topic. I imagine that the techniques which have been developed around this distributed model be applied to a variety of different places. For example, lessons from open source movement can be applied to how we do research. Can lessons of the Internet be applied elsewhere? Certainly, alternative forms of decision making are emerging within companies. Is Internet creating entirely new decision models and economies?

That’s quite a big question. There’s a sort of boring answer to it which is just that more and more organizations and more and more areas of human activity are reaching that third stage in their adoption of information and communication technologies. The first stage is where you just computerize your existing practices. The second stage is where you tinker with things and perhaps redefine certain structures. But the third stage is where you think ok these technologies are here so lets design our organizational processes, structures and functions around the affordances of the technology, which is a very hard thing to do but something which more and more places are doing. So just as in the 1830s and 1840s, organizations built themselves around the capabilities of steam systems and technologies and in the 1920s they built themselves around the new availability of the telephone, so now, in the West certainly, it is reasonable to assume that the network is there, and the things it makes possible it will continue to make possible. So you start to build structures, workflow and practices, businesses and indeed whole sectors of the economy around what the net does. In that sense, it is changing lots of things. As I said, I think that’s a boring insight. That’s what happens! We develop new technologies and we come to rely on them. It’s happened for the past five thousand years. So while it may be a new one but it’s the same pattern. Joseph Schumpeter got it right in the 1930s talking about waves of ‘Creative Destruction’ and everybody is now talking about that in the media but fundamentally there is nothing different going on there.

There is a more interesting aspect of that. Are some of the outputs of the more technological areas—the open source movement and things like that—creating wholly new possibilities for human creative and economic expression? And, they might be. I don’t think we know yet. I think it’s too early to tell. We have seen the basis of the Western economy and hence of the global economy move online (become digital) over the past twenty years. As Marx would put it the economic base has shifted. We are seeing the superstructures move now to reflect that. The idea of economic determinism is not right at every point in history but certainly, the world we live in now is a post-capitalist world. We still use the word Capitalism to describe it but in fact, the economy works in a slightly different way and we are going to need a new word for it. In that world – we have a new economic base – we will find new ways of being. And we will start to see the impact in art and culture, in forms of religious expression. You know we haven’t yet seen a technologically based region and it is about time we saw something emerge where the core presets rely on the technology.

Are we really post-Capitalist as you put it? I would still argue that Capitalism still trumps. The usage patterns of websites etc. still largely reflect the ‘old economy’. More importantly, I would argue that the promise of Information Age has long been swallowed by the quicksand of Capital.

When I say post-Capitalist, I don’t mean it’s not capitalist. If you look at the move from the feudal economy to Capitalism, the accumulation of capital became important. It still remains very important. It is still what drives things. The rich get more, the powerful remain more powerful and indeed those who have good creative ideas get appropriated by the system. We are seeing it happen already with the online video world where now if you create a cool 30-second video, your goal is to monetize that asset and basically you put it on Youtube and try to advertise it – you become part of the system and that this continues to happen. Just in parenthesis, the idea is that we are post-Capitalist not in that we are replacing Capitalism but it’s a different form of Capitalism—it is Uber Capitalism, it is Networked Capitalism. We need a new word for what we can do now. It doesn’t mean that those with capital don’t dominate because they do and they will continue for some time, I imagine.

In that sense that the network had some sort of democratizing influence is misguided. It hasn’t. It has enabled much greater participation. It may well make it possible for more people to benefit from their creativity in a modest way but I don’t think it will do anything to challenge the fundamental split between the owners of capital, those who invest their money and that counts as their work, and the wage slaves, the proletariat, those who have to do stuff every day in order to carry on and earn enough money to live. I don’t think it will change that at all.

Your comments are just spot on. There is an astute understanding of the political economy of the net especially at a time when one constantly hears of the wondrous impact of the Internet to revolutionize everything from Democracy to Economy.

Yeah. The network is a product of an advanced Capitalist economy largely driven by the economic and political interests of the United States although that balance is starting to shift. We see what is happening – particularly India and China are starting to have some influence, not very strong at the moment but growing, on the evolution of the network. But again India and China are trying to find their own ways of be industrial capitalist economies. They are not really trying to find their ways to be something completely different.

The digital economy, as you pointed out, still largely reflects the ‘real’ world underneath it. Things will change and are changing in some crucial fundamental ways but the virtual world is anchored to the real world. One facet of that real world is the acute gender imbalance in the IT industry. What are your thoughts on the issue?

There have been massive advances, particularly in Europe and the United States, [which] are I think two [places] in which over the past 100 years we have accepted and indeed believe that differences [in treatment] between men and women, which existed in many other societies, were just wrong. The differences which are currently enforced on billions of women around the world by their religions should be overcome. This was a historical era. There is no real difference [between genders]; the gender differential is unjust. Social justice requires equality. But it’s [gender equality] a very recent idea, it’s a very recent innovation and one of the last places where it has made an impact is within the education system so that fifty years ago the education system would push the men towards science and technology and women towards art and domestic skills. I think we are just living through the consequences of that in that sort of adults that we have today, in the people of my age now. When I was in school the girls would be glided away from the sciences and as a result technology and engineering were to a large extent male preserves and we are still correcting that historical injustice.

Now, what’s interesting though is that whilst we see that difference between those who build and create the machines, and at the engineering level, we are seeing it much less and less at the user level. So now the demographics of Internet use, computer use, laptop use, mobile phone use and all those sorts of things, certainly within the West, reflect the general population. Over the last ten years I have watched Internet use equalize, certainly here in the UK between men and women, and indeed what research has been done about how computers are used in the household makes it very clear that the computer has now become another household device that is as likely to be used by or controlled by the women or girls in the house as by the boys. So I think at the user level where the technology pushes through into our daily life that distinction isn’t there anymore. It’s at the programmer level where we see fewer women programmers and fewer women web designers. There are still a lot of them out there, friends of mine, male and female who are just as equally good and astute and capable at coding and developing and all those things but we still do see fewer. And I think it’s just a general societal imbalance that has yet to be corrected.

Interview with Bill Thompson: The Future

5 Mar

While technology has become an important part of our social, economic and political life, most analysis about technology remains woefully inadequate, limited to singing paeans about Apple and Google, and occasional rote articles about security and privacy issues. It is to this news market full of haberdasher opining that Mr. Bill Thompson brings his considerable intellect and analytical skills every week for his column on technology for the BBC.

To those unfamiliar with his articles, Mr. Bill Thompson is a respected technology guru and a distinguished commentator on technology and copyright issues for the BBC. Mr. Thompson’s calm moderated erudition of technology comes from his extensive experience in the IT industry in varying capacities and a childhood without computers. “I was born in 1960. So I grew up before there were computers around. Indeed, I never touched one at school.” It was not until his third year at Cambridge University when he was running experiments in Psychology that he first touched a computer. He says that in many ways his first experiences with computers formed his mindset about computers. And that view—computers are there to perform a useful function—has stayed with him for over 25 years.

Mr. Thompson went on to get a Master’s level diploma in Computer Science from Cambridge University in 1983. After graduating from Cambridge, he joined a small computer firm and then quit it to join Acorn Computers Limited, creators of the successful BBC Micro, as a database consultant. He left the enterprise because “they wanted to promote me” and joined as a courseware developer with Instruction Set. After a stint with PIPEX, he found himself running Guardian’s New Media division a decade or so ago when the Internet was still in its infancy. After working for a few years managing Guardian’s online site, Mr. Thompson left to pursue writing and commenting full time. It is in the field of writing and providing astute analysis on technology-related issues that Mr. Thompson finds himself today.

I interviewed Mr. Thompson via Skype about a month ago. The interview covered a wide range of issues. Given the diversity of issues covered I have chosen to put an edited transcript of the interview rather than an essay styled thematic story. Here’s an edited (both style and content) transcript of the interview.

The technology opinion marketplace seems to be split between technology evangelists and Luddites. Your writing, on the other hand, manifests a broad range of experience; it reflects moderated enthusiasm about what computers can do. I find it an astute and yet optimistic account.

I am fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities of this technology that we have invented to both make the world a better place and to help us recover from some of the mistakes of the past and make better decisions as a species, not just as a society, in the future. It informs my writing. It informs as well the things that I am interested in and the areas that I want to explore.

Our relationship with machines was once fraught with incomprehension and fear. Machines epitomized the large mechanized state and its dominance over the natural world. There was a spate of movies somewhere in the 70s when refrigerators and microwaves rose up to attack us. Over the past decade or so, our relationship has transformed to such a degree that not only do we rely on fairly sophisticated machines to do our daily chores, but we also look at machines as a way to achieve utopian ideals. Fred Turner, professor of Communication at Stanford, in “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism” traces this rise of digital utopianism to American counterculture. How do you think the relationship evolved?

The way you phrase the question leads me to think that perhaps it was the exaggerated claims of Artificial Intelligence community that led people to worry that computers would reach the point at which they would take over. And the complete failure of AI to deliver on any its promises has led us to a more phlegmatic and accepting attitude, which is that these are just machines; we don’t know how to make them clever enough to threaten us, and therefore we can just get on with using them.

The fact is known that Skynet is not going to launch nuclear weapons at us in a Terminator world and so we can then focus on the fact that the essential humanity of the Terminator itself, certainly in the second and third movies, is a source of redemption. We can actually feel positive about the machines instead of negative about them.

When you have a computer that is around, that crashes constantly, that is infected with viruses and malware, that doesn’t do what is supposed to do and stuff like that, you are not afraid of it. You are irritated by it. And you treat it as you would a recalcitrant child that you might love and care for and that has some value but is certainly not something that is going to threaten you. And then we can use the machines. That then actually allows us to focus on what you call the Utopian or altruistic aspects. It allows us to focus on machines in a much broader context, which recognizes that human agency is behind it.

The dystopian stories rely on machines getting out of control but in fact, we live in a world in which the machines are being used negatively by people, by governments, by corporations, and by individuals. The failure to have AI allows us to accept that – to reject the systems they have built without rejecting the machines themselves.

And for those who actually believe that information and communication technologies are quite positive – (it allows us) to focus on what could be done for good instead of just dismissing all of the technology as being bad. It allows us to take a much more complex and nuanced point of view.

You make an excellent point. I see where you are coming from.

In a sense, it is where I am coming from and which is—I am a liberal humanist atheist. I believe we make this world and we have the potential to make it better, and the technologies we invent should be part of that process.

Just as I am politically socialist, I believe in equality of opportunity and social justice and all those things [similarly] I have a humanist approach to technology which is that what we have made we can make ‘do good’ for us.

Interview with Victor Stenger

3 Mar

Dr. Victor Stenger is professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He is the author of God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist, which debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List last week.

When did you first realize that you were an atheist? Was it a sort of a Eureka moment or a gradual realization?

In high school, I started reading a lot of popular science, especially astronomy, nuclear physics, and evolution. I began to see Catholicism as irrational but I did not become an atheist immediately. When I was a graduate student at UCLA I attended a Methodist church and sang in the choir. When I lived in Hawaii, my wife and I sent our kids to church-related schools, although we did not go to church. Finally, in the 1980s I began to get involved with the skeptical movement and learned about Humanism. The more I gained from experience, the more I read, the more I realized that the God concept had no merit.

Church attendance and belief in God have remained relatively steady in the US, while there has been a precipitous decline in Western Europe. What do you think is behind this?

Big money is given by extremely conservative, wealthy sources in the US to churches and other organizations such as so-called think tanks to brainwash Americans. Europe is less vulnerable to what Chris Hedges, in his best-seller, called “American Fascists”. Incidentally, he is not an atheist.

On occasion when I chance upon religious programming on TV – it seems half gimmickry and half psychological therapy. In fact, mass religions from fairly early on took on the job of providing ‘guidance’ to people. What do you make of this sort of role of religion?

While it is mostly good-intentioned, much in the religious right — the American<br />Fascist movement — is motivated by the desire for political power and the helping people aspect is a phony con game that is part of the scheme.

This question is somewhat related to the previous one. Say if we were to find out that belief in God is psychologically helpful, can we argue for an evolutionary reason behind the existence of religion? This question was famously asked by Time in its article – The God Gene – does our DNA compel us to seek a higher power? What do you make of these kinds of assertions?

I don’t think it’s in the genes. I think religion evolved in cultures, ironically, by Darwinian means. Religion has always be the method used by those in power to keep the masses in line. For example, I was recently in India. There the vast majority of people live in misery and squalor. But they don’t complain, they don’t revolt against the rich because the Hindu religion tells them it is their dharma – their fate. In the West, the divine right of kings justified their dominance. Today George Bush tells us that he is doing God’s work.

People have often times argued that religion is needed to uphold moral values. Psychology literature points to that people are more liable to take advice from institutions or people they trust. Is there a case to be made for religion to be there as a service that disseminates morality?

This is the prime example of how religious brainwashing works. People are told that morals come from God. But the facts say otherwise. Moral concepts such as the Golden Rule were around centuries before Jesus. They are the collective principles of humanity. Studies show that atheists are at least as moral as theists, and certainly, there is a connection between fundamentalism, in Islam and Christianity, and antisocial behavior. I prefer to call myself a humanist rather than an atheist because Humanism is the source of our morality and provides a positive outlook on life.

Religion in everyday life is understood as something uncontestable while scientific theories are considered debatable. How can we provide a more open attitude towards investigating religion?

Religion makes testable claims so these can be treated the same as any scientific claim. I document these in detail in the book, but let me give you one example. Most believers do a lot of praying and think it has a positive effect. These effects should be observable. Controlled experiments have been done and have found no effects. It could have turned out otherwise, in which case I would have to admit that science had found God.

It is a well-known fact that very few people actually ever read the religious texts and it is likely that very few of those who read them understand them. So there is a chasm between the way a religion is lived and the way it was fundamentally conceived and hence the numerous ‘fundamentalist’ movements. The argument that I am making is that ‘faith’ that is driving most religious people is of a vague though absolute kind. Debunking the extraordinary stories of the books, and even providing convincing arguments against God is unlikely to change the views of the majority of religious people.

Probably. But there are still a lot of people I think I can reach with rational arguments: agnostics; believers who are not too sure; young people, especially college students who are learning to think critically and have not yet formed their views. Also, I provide ammunition for those who think like I do to use in their arguments with believers.

Science thrives on the parsimonious model. One shouldn’t create something if it isn’t needed to explain the phenomenon at hand. Hence if all ‘natural’ phenomena can be conceivably explained by variables at hand then why devise new ones. This, I believe, is one of the chief arguments that you try to make about the absence of God. Can you expand a little more on this?

In an earlier book, Has Science Found God? I refute the claims that there is scientific evidence for God. In this book, I go much further than just the absence of evidence argument that you reiterate in your question. I claim there is positive scientific evidence against the existence of the God most people worship, as in the absence of support for the efficacy of prayer that I mentioned earlier.

It is a well-known scientific corollary that absence of proof is not proof of absence. The kinds of models that you describe in your book are really a probabilistic debunking that derive their strengths from 95% confidence intervals and the unlikelihood of the hypothesis but not proof that it doesn’t exist. Can you shed a bit more light on this?

The word “proof” has at least two different meanings. In logic and mathematics, a proof or disproof is with certainty given the starting assumptions. In science and law, proof means beyond a reasonable doubt. The latter allows one to conclude that God can be “proved” not to exist if the data show this beyond a reasonable doubt. Note I use “show” rather than “prove” in the subtitle to avoid that confusion.

One of the arguments that is made by people who believe in God is that there must a reason for our existence. This is sort of an existentialist argument that says that we must have a cause behind our lives and only human lives, I may add. What do you think of this?

That is simply a pious hope. There is no basis, and I would add, no evidence, for this. In fact, the universe looks just as it should be expected to look if there is no special role or purpose for humanity. However, it is important for me to add that this does not mean that we cannot find purpose in our own lives in the family, work, art, music, doing good deeds, and so on. In fact, releasing the bonds of religion gives us more freedom to explore all that life has to offer.

Q. Tell us a little more about the kind of problems you see if we allow religious superstition to dictate policy and even science.

As documented in several other books, the religion-based decision making of the Republicans and Bush administration does more harm than good, threatens the health and well being of all of us, and increases the amount of unnecessary human suffering in the world. For example, most of the federal money spent on AIDS, in Africa and America, goes to advocating abstinence and none to condoms. Scientific studies showing that abstinence does not work are deleted from government reports.

Q. Any final words to the believers and the non-believers?

If scientific evidence were ever found for God or some other form of the supernatural, then scientists like myself would become believers. I give hypothetical examples of observations that would convince me that God exists. I ask all believers and nonbelievers to look at the data and argue about it rationally, without polemics or ad hominems. I try to do this in my book.

Media Effects

26 Feb

Context in news has been missing for a long time. For instance, crime news, a staple of local news, almost never includes a discussion of the larger socioeconomic factors. Disconcertingly, even these abysmal standards are slipping.

A big part of the problem is that mass media (television) lends itself very well to dramatic imagery and sound effects. A visual medium hustling for advertiser dollars is not likely to be good at focusing on the dull numerical facts. Perhaps it’s not just dullness of facts that prevents media from showing context but also a deliberate strategy to “frame” news in a way that doesn’t put any pressure on the citizen to act to demand action from government or local authorities. The subtext of crime stories is that all crime is due to bad people and who can prevent the evil within; bad people only listen to authority. Television’s coverage of news not only changed how news was covered there but also had a critical impact on how news was covered in print. For example, the print cycles hastened for magazines from a month to a week, newspaper story lengths dropped etc.

Clearly diminishing context is not the only ailment that mass media brought to the coverage of news. Improvements in technology have not only brought us perennial coverage of news, albeit sometimes the same news, but also ‘live’ coverage of news. These, in turn, have contributed to the diminishing marginal value of news (more on this in next column), and a renewed impetus for newspapers and journalists to get their first rather than get it right. Given that the heaviest coverage of a news story in mass media happens when journalists have the least clear idea about the ‘truth’ (which generally emerges through careful research and interviews with key players over the longer time), the dissemination patterns are catastrophically skewed towards presenting bad quality information quickly.

The theories which my above anecdotal argument dovetails are akin to ‘medium is the message’ and that the ‘popular medium influences coverage in other forms of media’. To fully understand a medium’s impact one must account for the fact that medium not only affects presentation but also stipulates the resources needed (in broadcast medium – a lot), distribution structure (to lots of people), organizational structures within news organizations, self-selection of reporters, managers, and editors (camera hungry bimbos or hard-nosed journalists or teenage bloggers), content of the message (what is covered and not covered, how it is covered), the economic landscape of other media organizations etc.

Given the possibility of significant multifaceted effects, it is useful to chart out how our day’s new media – the Internet – will change news media.

‘New Media’

There are three main characteristics of ‘new media’ – most popular ‘new media’ assets are controlled by ‘old media’ organizations, for example prime media assets like NYTimes.com or BBC.com are controlled by old bigwigs, the ‘new media’ departments are generally run by younger people or/and people with comparatively less experience in professional journalism, and ad-based rather than subscription-based monetization, which is same as the economic model for mass media.

The new media effects

There has been a ‘virtual’ explosion of sites (includes blogs) devoted to politics and news over the past decade prompted by the lowering of the threshold for publishing. Aside from the small positive effect stemming from the factual criticism by bloggers that have made the media companies more cautious of what they write and how they write, the impact of the glut of politics and news sites has been largely negative. Rapid rise in number of people publishing has led to increased competition, resulting in hustle for revenue, market share, and imperatives for controlling costs, and perceived increase in diversity of stories resulting in perceived sense of lower responsibility for writing a balanced context-rich story given that other ‘angles’ will be covered by someone else.

Increasingly competitive market and proliferation and popularity of nearly free user-generated content have resulted in companies less willing to support quality investigative journalism that is resource intensive. News organizations have also resorted increasingly to third-rate punditry which is much cheaper to produce. These trends were already present in the competitive cable news market but have merely been magnified by the emergence of these new sites.

Responsibility in the era of information glut

On the content side, journalists and news organizations increasingly feel that they don’t have to write a well-rounded piece because they are covering only a speck of the spectrum. Reporting tends to be ever more context-free, and ever more fragmented. The misguided idea behind this trend is that given the informational options that a viewer or reader has, s/he can build a comprehensive idea of the entire story by reading multiple stories from multiple sources. Of course, media and readership don’t work like this and certainly not in the US.

The second worrying trend is that the role of editor as a guide to what is important has been sacrificed to the role of the public at large and strategic groups at large. The proliferation of top ten lists in newspapers and other link referral and aggregation sites like Digg have helped drive visibility of few articles, generally fluff – a cursory glance at these lists should be enough to prove this contention- beyond their importance.

The most insidious part of the rise of mass media is that it has somehow validated infinite subjectivity as a valid model for covering news. The dominant opinion that pervades in the ‘new media’ is that it is a normative good to allow everybody to participate and that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. What we have gotten is a proliferation of absolutely bunk analysis and increasingly readers are getting subsumed in this with little or no idea of what is going on anymore. We read and see more yet we know less. Partly it’s because we see more of the same thing, and partly because reading ten stories about a topic doesn’t tell us exactly how to weigh each of those things and construct a bigger picture.

There are a few solutions that I would like to propose for the kind of problems that we are seeing. Firstly, new media must develop clear standards for ethical discourse that highlights objective information instead of inane opinionating. Secondly, new media firms should start investigating how to bring the editor back as a guide to the common reader. Thirdly, we need investigative journalists and foreign bureaus with a larger understanding of the ‘bigger picture’. We need them to provide context to the small stories media covers endlessly, which I would argue the media can stop doing. Lastly as my friend Chaste mentioned in his column – get journalists trained in statistics. Don’t let journalists mindlessly adorn their stories around with pretty but inaccurate numbers.

Pioneering man behind Aravind Eye Hospitals

22 Feb

Dr. G. Venkataswamy is a force of nature. He has performed more than 100,000 successful eye surgeries in spite of the fact that his fingers were severely crippled at a young age from a rare form of rheumatoid arthritis. More impressively, he has helped create a chain of eye hospitals, Aravind Eye Hospitals, run on ‘pay me if you can after the treatment’ basis, and helped provide access to eye care to a country with the largest number of cases of preventable blindness in the world.

For his efforts, He has won numerous awards including the Helen Keller International Award and the Padma Shree Award given by Government of India.

To learn more about this man, see this documentary:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-430943131005128104

Basic math evades journalists

22 Feb

“It is estimated that 70 million Indians in a population of about 1 billion now earn a salary of $18,000 a year, a figure that is set to rise to 140 million by 2011.” BBC Reports

Chaste, who has previously contributed to the site, weighs in on the ‘facts’ in this personal note.

“I do not know where the hell these guys get their numbers from, but I hope that stories about the Indian economy are not based on such number crunchers. It says that 70m of Indians make more than $18,000 per year. Multiply 70m by 18000 and you exceed the Indian GDP. Perhaps, it is possible for earnings to exceed GDP. I doubt it since that should give the average American family of 4 an income stream of 150K. Some other common sense calculations that should have occurred to this person: Less than 40% of India is non-agricultural which is probably were these incomes comes from. That cuts the pool down to 400m. Well under 60% of Indians are in the working age group. That brings the number down to just over 200m. Add the women in the workplace issue, and the number of India’s non-agricultural work force comes to only around 150m.

So! According to these people, about half of non-agricultural workers in India make over $18,000 per year. It is of course possible, though unlikely, that 70m Indians live in families making $18,000 per year. I would be surprised, but it is certainly possible.

On a side-note, I was thinking about the role of the media in a Wikipedia world. Wikipedia can give the context, comprehensiveness and accuracy of information that the news can never hope to match on
any topic. It even has decent coverage for reasonably current political topics. Novels or films much better cover the human condition, and the social condition is much better covered by documentaries of various kinds. In such a context, the only role for mass media would derive from the instant nature of the coverage (within one day). As such, its contribution is not to an understanding of the issues, but rather to staying current with the issues. I can see no particular role for staying current with any issues other than a social function. Mass media news then is best suited to perform the role of social Greece AKA gossip. The profit motive and conformance with the elite’s interest in maintaining an uninformed citizenry had produced an inane mass media in the past. Now, that inanity is justified by the advances of the information age: it is the function that the mass media is best suited to perform. Perhaps we should give up worrying about the media. That sense of frustration is based on the role that the media was best placed to perform more than ten years ago. In any case, the role is not best performed by for-profits, but rather by PIRGs and such likes.”

Response to Dominique Moisi

7 Feb

This article is in response to Dominique Moisi’s article, ‘The Clash of Emotions – Fear, Humiliation, Hope, and the New World Order (pdf) in Foreign Affairs.

In 1993, merely a year after Francis Fukuyama, a former student of Huntington, had announced the ‘end of history’, Huntington took to the pages of Foreign Affairs to describe his vision of the world riven with cultural cleavages. He argued that post-ideology- capitalism had already won the battle – culture would prove to be the organizing force within the world.

Huntington’s flawed work has attracted numerous adherents, especially in influential policy making departments of the West – for it fits nicely the racist stereotypes that they hold and works as a wonderful political tool – and spawned a kind of policy making that has turned Huntington’s naive theory into a self fulfilling prophecy.

Dominique Moisi, adds ’emotion’ to Huntington’s idea of culture, and argues that its not really clash of civilizations as much as a ‘clash of emotions’- Asia displays a ‘culture of hope’, West a ‘culture of fear’, and the Arab world a ‘culture of humiliation’. Regardless of the theory itself, Moisi’s essay ends up looking like a product of his self-described West’s ‘culture of fear’.

Moisi’s analysis appears to be old wine in a new bottle. The new terminology Moisi cloaks his arguments in is often nothing more than a rehash of arguments made by Huntington or Bernard Lewis. What Moisi is really arguing about when he talks about Arab ‘culture of humiliation’ is that the Arab culture is stuck in historical paralysis, recounting the glory days of Islam and deeply resentful of West’s rise and yes, the formation of Israel.

Analyzing world by ascribing ’emotional’ charges to entire regions of the world is at best a deeply flawed enterprise and to do so to make an often made point about how the West must work to end Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems like too much unnecessary exertion. Nations, let alone regions, are much more complex organisms. We cannot group together Egypt and Iran, with their significant pre-Islamic histories and large cosmopolitan populations with the largely urbanized Kuwait or Bahrain or Oman. Neither can we straddle Lebanon, with its French occupation and outward looking population, with Saudi Arabia, for little meaningful analysis will result from it. And while it is easy to get carried away with sloganeering, important forces that still shape foreign policy are still the hustle for resources and military supremacy.

If Moisi’s analysis about this ‘culture of humiliation’ is correct, I fail to see why countries in Asia would be so insulated from it. After all, both Indian and Chinese civilizations have seen equally, if not more so, impressive glory days of their respective civilizations. And a majority of Indians and Chinese are equally alienated by the ‘progress’ that has really meant westernization. The rise of Hindu nationalism in India and the associated communal tensions are arguably rooted in the ‘culture of humiliation’. More importantly, Moisi’s assessment of Asia’s culture of hope, seems deeply misplaced given there are more poor people in Asia that anywhere else in the world. It is also important to note that it is terrorists from South Asian country, Pakistan, that were implicated in the bomb blasts in London, and not people from the Arabian peninsula.

The overall point Moisi is interested in making is that the root of Arab ‘culture of humiliation’ is the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course Israel has become a important rallying cry for myriad of Arabs but it has become so because criticizing it is the only authorized form of dissent as they live under authoritarian regimes that outlaw demonstrating about say lack of jobs. Even if we agree that Arab-Israeli conflict is an important emotive conflict, and it is – not only on the Arab street but in rest of the developing world for it is seen as an unabashed display of American Imperialism – it is still left to us to figure out why is it that the Arab world needs the West to solve conflict within the region? Moisi conveniently leaves out how Israel has been unabashedly armed, supplied and supported continuously by US and other western European countries.

Lets devote our energies to test the fundamental assumption that underpins Moisi’s analysis – the threat faced by the West from Arabs. Yes, Western Europe and US have seen some terrorist attacks but in terms of sheer number of casualties or damage, the impact has been minuscule. There is little rationale ground for fear of terrorism in the West, if we just predicate it on past incidences. Yes, Europe will have to face important questions about assimilation of Muslim immigrants and the nature and shape of society but to irrationally magnify those fears and make the basis of indulging in spiritless intellectual gymnastics is inexcusable. So perhaps inadvertently Moisi has stumbled on the key truth about global reality – the West fighting imaginary ghosts. Obviously Moisi only sees problem with the Muslim world – whose problems West needs to solve – so that it can live peacefully.

Book Review: The Acid Alkaline Balance Diet

31 Jan

There has been a glut of diet books in recent years that have tried to tap into the robust US market for weight loss and increasingly, healthy eating. Between the 190,000 books that come up when I search for the word ‘diet’ on Amazon to the 164 million hits that come up on Google for the search of the same word, both the business and the need for diet information seem virtually inexhaustible. In this cluttered market comes Felicia Drury Kliment’s Acid Alkaline Balance Diet: An Innovative Program for Ridding Your Body of Acidic Wastes

The premise of this book is that a good balance between acidic and alkaline substances is crucial to avoiding a variety of chronic problems. And if acidic wastes, primarily stemming from food processing, are allowed to accumulate in the body over time, they will lead to a spate of problems. Kliment argues that while the body has evolved to handle naturally occurring toxic by-products of foods—such as the acids produced from the digestion of grains, the body is not capable of efficiently clearing artificial chemicals such as flavor enhancers, chemical preservatives, and pesticides.

The diet plan this book recommends is that people go back to consuming the ‘ancestral diet’. Kliment strongly recommends that people eat natural, preferably organic, unprocessed food. This book takes to task the companies that market processed, phyto-chemicals and fiber lacking, calorie and sodium rich food sprinkled with a variety of vitamins as ‘healthy’ food. Kliment persuasively argues that these ‘healthy’ foods’ are not only unhealthy, but also they can have an adverse impact on your health and waist.

Kliment believes that enzymes are important for disease prevention and encourages people to eat raw foods with each meal that contain their own enzymes. Except, Vivian Crisman, a nutritionist at Stanford University, argues that body has all the enzymes it needs to digest food and that enzymes eaten by people will most likely be neutralized by stomach acid. Crisman further adds that cooking a food can sometimes increase the bioavailability of certain vitamins, for example tomatoes are much better cooked than raw for cooking increase the presence of lycopene and anti-oxidants.

Often times it seems that Kliment treats anecdotal evidence as indisputable facts. Kliment argues that her diet can help combat obesity, digestive ailments, hypothyroidism, cardiovascular disease, and even alcoholism, and ‘female reproductive disorders’. It seems unlikely that these miraculous effects exist. One may argue that she relies on anecdotal evidence because insufficient clinical studies have been carried out with these treatments in mind but then again why not wait to corroborate the claims before writing.

There is very little doubt in my mind that eating predominantly plant based, organic, unprocessed food would alleviate a lot of problems that afflict Americans today. And, while consistent overstatement of claims undermines the overall message of the book, I still believe that this book would prove to be useful to people struggling to find a simple effective diet plan.

Monika Kowalczykowski contributed reporting to this review.

Why Not to Think Like a Lawyer

30 Jan

The following article is by Chaste. The article was written as a response to the following two reviews in the New York Review of Books:

Note
I respond to two articles by Ronald Dworkin to illustrate the pitfalls of using lawyerly thinking in our role as citizens. Lawyerly thinking focuses on the controversy as presented, it relies on opinion rather than facts, and it misunderstands the nature of contemporary government and market actions. NYRB published the first a year ago at the time of the Danish cartoons controversy (March); in September, it published a second, which discussed the issue of same-sex marriages among others.

Why not to think like a lawyer

As we remember the Danish cartoons controversy that erupted a year ago, and as the issue of same-sex marriages takes its course, I offer this reflection on the way we often approach marginalization of minorities by markets and by governments. I will frame my reflection as a response to two of Professor Ronald Dworkin’s pieces published in the New York Review of Books. In his March article on the Danish cartoons, he approved the discretion of Anglo-American media, defended the European press’ right to ridicule, and urged an acceptance of the right to ridicule even when constrained by holocaust related exceptions. In the second article published in September, he argues in favor of the legalizing of gay marriages on dignitary and cultural grounds. He declares that these grounds make the issue different from say religious prayer, and make civil unions an inadequate alternative.

I am disturbed by several aspects of Dworkin’s reasoning, which I will characterize as ‘lawyerly’:

  • Dworkin, as in his Danish cartoons piece, is more interested in addressing the problem as offered to him than in framing the problem adequately. This is analogous to the role of an adjudicator who tries to settle only the controversy presented before him. Yet the needs of a fuller understanding and of justice often demand the examination of additional parties and issues.
  • Dworkin at times relies more on opinion than on fact. This tends to produce principled rather than well-informed pragmatic choices. Judges and by corollary, lawyers rely on legal principle and opinion. Even common law judges seldom see themselves as making laws to address the facts. Yet making pragmatic choices informed by facts is precisely the function of citizens. Unfortunately, most of Dworkin’s stands are principled rather than pragmatic; even his pragmatic stand on religion in the pledge of allegiances couched as an exception to principled choices. Principled stands are particularly unfortunate in humanitarian matters: given the scale of injustice in the world and our tacit acceptance of those injustices, principled choices are likely to project hypocrisy rather than conviction.
  • Dworkin’s solutions are sometimes mal-formed because of an unfortunate understanding of markets and of the government as expressions of common intent. With notable exceptions like antitrust, markets appear before the legal system largely as a series of contracts between consenting parties for securing mutual advantages. The government, on the other hand, appears as an instrument of the majority that is capable of imposing constraints on any and all. Such a view prompts a heightened legal scrutiny of government regulations relative to market practices. Yet the consequences of market constraints are no less serious from the market unavailability of abortion facilities to the effects of inane media on the information level of Americans. Therefore, we need to focus on the nature and effect of the constraints themselves, and not overemphasize their source.

Danish Cartoons of the Prophet

Dworkin’s piece on the Danish cartoons shows up the pitfalls of such ‘lawyerly’ thinking. I will begin by laying out the main free speech issues in the order of their priority to the Danish press and government:

  • Holocaust sensitivities: Jyllands-Posten’s cultural editor who commissioned the prophet cartoons was sent on immediate indefinite leave after saying that he might, after review, print Iranian cartoons of the Holocaust. The editor-in-chief said that the paper would in no circumstances publish the holocaust cartoons, and the cultural editor recanted with “I am 100% with the newspaper’s line.”
  • Christian / market sensitivities: The editor of the Sunday edition of Jyllands-Posten turned down cartoons about Jesus’ resurrection, saying that readers would not enjoy the drawings because they would “provoke an outcry.”
  • Danish dairy exports: Within five days of the dramatically successful boycott of Danish dairy exports, Jyllands-Posten apologized. The apology preceded most of the violent protests and was not a response to them.
  • Freedom of expression: Speech affecting the three preceding drew from Jyllands-Posten, suppression and retaliation, suppression, and an apology respectively. Speech affecting the last proved to be no such encumbrance.
  • Muslim sensitivities: Jyllands-Posten made no apology for 3-4 months after Danish Muslims and Muslim nations protested the publication.

Dworkin allows the parties before him to frame the issue rather than framing it himself. The consequence is that he focuses primarily on Muslim sensitivities as a threat to free speech even though it was the only one of the four to be no encumbrance. As for the three that did trump freedom of speech, Dworkin mentions only the one specifically raised by one of the parties, namely, holocaust related sensitivities. This inattention to facts leads Dworkin to the misleading framing of the problem and to the inappropriate principled solution mentioned above.

A fuller attention to facts reveals the problem to be not whether there should be a right to ridicule; rather it is the extent to which large commercial entities can ridicule marginalized groups to seek commercial gain. Recall that Jyllands-Posten was the largest selling Danish newspaper at the time, and had experienced sharper circulation drops in recent years than its competitors. This is not speech that can claim freedom from regulation that it may speak truth to power; such speech is itself an exercise of power. For the minority that constitutes an insignificant market segment, it does not help to know that it is the market and not the government, which has generated the demeaning images swirling around them. There is no good reason why the law should not limit such an exercise of power, much as it limits the actions of other players like the government or of large commercial players in other markets. Such limits on speech would naturally be narrow, and limited to large commercial players. The size requirement will ensure that expression which is not a major exercise of power would stay regulated; the commercial purpose requirement will ensure that such expression is not effectively suppressed by limiting it to minor fringe players. It will safeguard against the abuse of free speech as a commodity to generate profit: a commodity that can evade the usual social cost-benefit analysis based regulations. Dworkin’s tired adherence to a principled position on free speech mixed with calls to marginalized groups to endure unequal legal limits on free speech is as inadequate a solution as his articulation of the problem is misleading. Indeed the only context for which Dworkin’s analysis is appropriate is that of the publication of the cartoons in Muslim countries, a context that he fails to mention.

Same Sex Marriages

Dworkin’s reasoning about same-sex marriages in “Three Questions for America” is similarly unfortunate. After a brilliant discussion of the teaching of evolution controversy, he argues on dignitary grounds for a principled position in favor of marriage rights for same-sex couples, and for an understanding (not a justification) of the exception of including religion in the pledge of allegiance on materiality grounds.

I will assume civil unions with full rights as the pragmatic alternative to same-sex marriages. They are politically viable in several states, yet proponents of same-sex marriages like Dworkin dismiss them as inadequate. The assumption also clarifies that Dworkin and other advocates of same-sex marriages object to the law’s embodiment of a cultural detriment even when there is no corresponding legal detriment. This is both startling and impractical. It is startling because the law is not the best arena for renegotiating cultural detriment or privilege. It is impractical because cultural inequities are generally too embedded even in law for such an effort to be little more than picking favorites. Consider the example of July 4th. Americans undertake legally favored celebrations for an event that was to perpetuate slavery for 30 years after the mother country abolished it. Blacks can justly view such legally favored celebrations as a cultural detriment, but there are few moves afoot to replace July 4th with the day that civil rights became effective.

Dworkin’s habits of view regarding the government and the market prevent him from realizing that in the absence of legal detriment, the different unions on offer resemble cultural products on a market, and hence are more akin to a market rather than government constraints. His refusal to view a fuller picture makes him appear oblivious to the fact that his principled position constitutes picking favorites. Indeed civil unions may become a new and more inclusive cultural product: one without the historical advantages/baggage of marriage, but /one capable of adequately competing with it in due course.

Any regulation for mitigating the market constraints imposed by a cultural product should follow the usual social cost-benefit analysis. Unlike the inclusion of religion in the pledge, which mandates expression that may be antithetical to a group’s beliefs, marriage laws only deny a cultural product to particular groups. Whereas an unregulated media may inflict countless fresh detriments on insignificant market segments (minorities), marriage laws only preserve an existing cultural detriment. Therefore, it is not clear to me that same-sex marriages have a compelling case in the current divided and polarized environment.

Dworkin may argue with some justification that principled positions can be useful in the pedagogical framework that his piece invokes. It is not clear to me that an American high school environment and the stage of maturation it represents is the best arena for forming self-defining opinions. Further, it is likely to exacerbate the American habit of forming opinions without much regard to evidence. When based on evidence of the effect of government recognition of same-sex relationships on religious beliefs and practices and on lifestyle choices, there may be some merit to such an experiment since high school is the last structured educational environment for many. Yet neither of Dworkin’s suggested readings, for all their eloquence and careful thinking, contain any evidence that addresses the real or imagined fears of same-sex marriage opponents.

EU and US print press: A ‘radical’ difference

24 Jan

Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, accused the BBC of “perverting political discourse” during the prestigious Hugh Cudlipp lecture at the London College of Communication, according to the BBC. He further “accused the BBC of stifling debate and being against the conservative values held by millions of Britons.”

Of course, the comment would have been less ironical had Daily Mail not itself been a bastion of unadulterated right wing propaganda. The fact is that majority of bestselling newspapers in UK and France tends to be more radical, more assertively right wing or left wing, than US print press.

Take for example Le Figaro (or The Barber), a newspaper with a universally acknowledged partisan right wing stance and a circulation of near 350,000 or Le Monde, with a noted left wing stance and a circulation that’s close to 370,000. The right wing newspaper, The Telegraph in UK sells over 900,000 (and the right leaning The Sun boasts of a circulation of well over while The Guardian, the prima donna of left wing, sells close to 300,000. Compare these with mainstream US newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today or even the Wall Street Journal, and one finds that the US print media tends to much more centrist.

So what causes these differences? There are two quick caveats before we proceed – newspapers are much more widely read in UK and France than in US, and the US “center” is decidedly right of the European “center”. One may trace the differences between the print press in Europe and US to a variety of causes including differences in political institutional structure, media ownership, origin of newspapers, newspaper readership, or combination of one or more of the above.

One likely cause for these differences can be the difference between the political structures of US and Europe, generally. For example, UK has a robust multi-party parliamentary system as a compared to an effectively bi-party presidential system. In US the two primary parties are always trying to appeal to the center, though what constitutes the center keeps shifting with time, while in UK a lot of parties, for example the Liberal Democrats, survive primarily through appeals to the ‘fringe’. This sort of a competitive multi-party parliamentary system may create a more radical press that espouses beliefs of each of the parties.

It is possible that the radicalization of the press is both ‘mediated’ (statistical term for cause) and ‘moderated’ (affects the size of the effect) by media structure and ownership. In particular, one may argue that the presence of large state player in the broadcast sector (BBC) pushed all the discontent and radical sentiment down to the printed press. It is also likely that ownership of newspapers have a distinct impact on their editorial policy. For example, Serge Dassault of Dassault Aviation owns the controlling stake in Le Figaro. Serge Dassault and his son both are also politically active in the conservative party UMP. Serge Dassault in an interview remarked “newspapers must promulgate healthy ideas”, and that “left-wing ideas are not healthy ideas.” (Wikipedia, quoting Le Figaro of December 14th, 2004)

Lastly one may also study newspapers editorial policy as a vestige from the relative national origins of press. In US, the press developed after the ethos of progressivism, and its roots lie in populist anti-intellectual stories while press in most of Europe lies rooted in strong macho reformist intellectualism. It would of course be naïve to imagine that origins of individual newspapers or broadcast environments explain the differences today. It would be interesting to explore how norms survive (and are lost) in an organization, especially an organization like press which is obsessed with normative issues with focus on institutional memory and agnotology.

Aronica and Ramdoo pummel Friedman’s flat world back into a sphere

24 Jan

It has been over a year and a half since I wrote a modestly critical review of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat – A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Friedman’s book has managed to be on the New York Times Bestseller List for most of that time.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that Friedman’s book is flawed.

Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo have tried to set the record straight with their blistering critique, The World is Flat? – A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller. While Aronica and Ramdoo’s book is not full of Friedmanesque anecdotes, or anointed by a catchy title like the ones Mr. Friedman is so adept at coming up with, just to take the two examples, Lexus and the Olive Tree to The World is Flat, what their book does offer is a richly supported, step by step, dismantling of each of Friedman’s arguments.

The vision of the globalized world that Friedman offers in his book is a rose-tinted, cheery, bullish version, one that has little to do with reality, according to the authors. Friedman’s ‘golf course account’ of globalization revels in accounts of successful businesses and people. Friedman proffers a vision of a globalized world that has an essentially ‘flat’ meritocratic global playing field, and provides limitless opportunities for profit for people who are intelligent or who choose to invest in schooling. He seasons his ‘analysis’ with accounts of his unmitigated fascination with gadgetry, and unbridled confidence in technology. Friedman’s conjuring of this globalized world is in fact so utopic that even the familiar hindersome ‘olive tree’ is missing – only rearing up its head in the Middle East to let you in on the fact that its only the backward culture that’s holding the Arab civilization back from the wonderful riches of the flat world. There are no losers in Friedman’s flat world – only people for whom it may take a little longer to get their piece of the pie, for example the Chinese sweatshop worker who saves up to educate his kids who then go on to get better jobs and better pay. And sometimes it looks that way but looks, as we all know, can be deceiving.

Aronica and Ramdoo talk about a variety of substantive problems that afflict the current global economic regime including how the massive account deficits of US that underpin the global economic system, and how the middle class is increasingly losing out. They argue that Friedman’s book is a testament to how you can be a peripatetic and still be basically a resort town to resort town peripatetic who never really visits the vast global ghetto made of upwards of 3 billion people with limited access to potable water and surviving on $2/day. Ramdoo and Aronica describe the vast underclass that dots the globalized world. The simple fact is that the world is not flat (or even ‘flattening’, except at the center) because it is patently laughable to compare the opportunities of the millions born into starvation and penury with children from the first or third world elites who get to buy $100 sneakers (made of course by the starving children).

Throughout the book, Ramdoo and Aronica are concerned about the shrinking white collar jobs, the vanishing health and retirement benefits, and the simultaneous mass exploitation of the poor in the global third world. This attrition, this slide to the bottom, on both sides of the globe, argue the authors, is due to one single mechanism – the transnational corporations whose gargantuan profits have been fuelled by leeching the job security from the white collar workers in the west and extorting labor and resources from the unprivileged.

The message that I could distill from this book is that this kind of rampant predatory capitalism is not sustainable. The global economic regime is trying to cut off its nose to spite its face or in other words, corporations are willing to sacrifice the middle class for their hunt for profit. Profit is not the global good but often times pursuit of it is left unmonitored based on the argument that it somehow is.

There is a popular saying that a capitalist will even sell you the rope that you need to hang him with and that seems to be becoming increasingly true. We must disassociate global good from corporate profit and argue and work stridently towards a sustainable future before it is too late.

Aronica and Ramdoo’s sobering account is an important addition to the literature of globalization and a necessary therapy for all who have read Friedman’s glib book.

Interview with Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo

23 Jan

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, the runaway bestseller by New York Times columnist Friedman has now been on the New York Times Bestseller list for over 85 weeks and has sold over 2 million copies in hardcover alone. Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo, authors of The World is Flat? – A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller, point out that Friedman’s book is also full of factual and argumentative inaccuracies, some deliberate and some as a result of living in the CEO bubble. In their book, Ramdoo and Aronica conduct a step by step demolition of nearly all the points that Mr. Friedman makes in his book.

Q) What prompted you to write this book? Were you primarily motivated by wanting to straighten the record? Can you also talk a little more about your background and how this book came about?

RA: With a 30-year career at the intersection of business and technology under my belt, I coauthored a book in 2001, The Death of “E” and the Birth of the Real New Economy. In that book, we described how the technology-enabled globalization of white-collar work would be the new frontier in the world economy. The book is about business transformation as a result of the world being wired and the capability that the Internet provides to interconnect business processes around the globe. It was time to prepare for a whole new way of operating a business. In 2006, I picked up a copy of Friedman’s book and was floored by its superficiality. But what was more shocking to me was the fact that millions of copies had been sold and its influence on leaders in business and government. Indeed, I wanted to set the record straight, for Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, and the stories Friedman spun are but a small piece of the overall tapestry of this monumental transformation.

Globalization is a highly complex interaction of forces. Not only does it exhibit integration, it also exhibits disintegration. It is rooted in cooperation—and it is rooted in violence. For some, it represents the triumph of free-market capitalism over communism, ushering in democracy, world peace and universal prosperity; for others, it represents conflict, unbridled greed, deregulated corporate power, and an utter disregard for humanity.

Yet, the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. Few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress—that it is being turned upside down. And they may suspect that it has to do with the word, globalization, which increasingly appears in the press and other media. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories about Friedman’s friends, elite CEOs and other personal contacts.

The notion of globalization has been around for centuries, and has taken many forms: political, economic, cultural, and technological, to name a few. But the twenty-first century-style globalization that Friedman writes about is unique. It has a name: “corporate” globalization.

What we want our book to do is to go beyond Friedman’s superficial treatment of globalization and encourage readers who were awed by his book to “think again.”

The aim of our short monograph is to provide a counterbalance to Friedman’s cheerleading for corporate globalization. To help readers get a fuller understanding of the issues, we provide suggested readings at the end of our book and at our Web site, www.mkpress.com/flat Globalization is so important to all of us that we need become more fully informed, not misinformed by story after story based on personal anecdotes, and stories spun from meeting Friedman’s daughter’s friend’s boyfriend at Yale, or playing golf with rich and famous corporate executives. While readers might be unable to find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book, neither can they find the whole truth, nor most of the critically important facets needed for a full picture of globalization.

Q) The current way of globalization, according to you, seems like a race to the bottom. It seems like a system largely driven by large corporations and their obsession with lowering the cost of production. Let me juxtapose this thought with something which is oft mentioned – that success of US from the 1950’s onwards was largely buttressed by robust middle class with decent disposable incomes. My question to you is that is there a chance that the vanishing middle class will translate into a vanishing consumer, and what will that mean for the whole enterprise?

MR: That’s a very good question, for it touches on some of the more profound aspects of twenty-first–century style globalization. We have a whole section in our book, “America’s Former Middle Class” that talks about the plight of the American middle class. Three pillars: land (material resources); labor; and capital form the foundation of industrial economies. In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, Dickensonian industrialists kept labor down when it came to any stake in wealth. Then, in 1901, Republican Teddy Roosevelt became President. He distrusted wealthy businessmen and, as a Trust Buster, dissolved 40 monopolistic corporations. His Square Deal promised a fair shake for the average citizen, including regulation of railroad rates, and pure foods and drugs. As an outdoorsman, he promoted the conservation movement, emphasizing efficient use of natural resources. After 1906, he attacked big business and suggested that the courts were biased against labor unions. In short, you might say Roosevelt gave birth today’s American middle class. Recognizing the capitalists’ excesses during the Industrial Revolution, leaders, such as Roosevelt, reigned in raw capitalism and created a “mixed economy,” not the pure laissez-faire form of capitalism advocated by the Dickensonians.

Fast forwarding to today, free-market Friedman seems to assert that now, with his utopian, digitally connected flat world, even the nation-state could wane as flat-world capitalists create, in the words of Marx and Engels, “a world after its own image.”

Henry Ford was a pioneer of “welfare capitalism” designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men a year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. In January 1914, Ford announced his five-dollar a day program. The revolutionary program called for a reduction in length of the workday from 9 to 8 hours, a 5-day work week, and a raise in minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers.

Wall Street criticized Ford for starting the 40-hour work week and the minimum wage, but he showed that by paying his people more, Ford workers would be able to afford the cars they were producing—which would be good for the economy. Ford labeled the increased compensation profit-sharing rather than wages.

With today’s corporate globalization, we are seeing a return to Dickensonian capitalism on a grand scale. Not only do we need a strong American middle class, we need a strong global middle class, not a global 3rd world that is seeing America heading toward 3rd world status. We need a new Teddy Roosevelt and thinking capitalists in the likes of upstart Henry Ford if the world is to avoid Wall Street’s rule and its preeminent goal of only increasing shareholder value.

Q) You raise multiple points in your book illustrating ways in which the world is not particularly “flat”. If I read you right, you are not against “flat world” but a Friedman conception of a neo-liberal “flat world” that exists today. Tell us a little more about your thoughts the current “flat” world and the kind of “flat” world that you would like to see. In other words, how does the current global economic regime look like and what would you like to see changed?

RA: Neo-liberals believe that free markets, free trade, and the free flow of capital are the most efficient ways to produce the greatest social, political, and economic good. They argue for reduced taxation, reduced regulation, and minimal government involvement in the economy. They include privatizing health and retirement benefits, dismantling of trade unions, and generally opening our economy to foreign competition. Detractors see neo-liberalism as a power grab by economic elites and as a race to the bottom for everyone else.

The current economic regime unleashes neoliberalism. Agriculture, indigenous peoples’ resources, water, genes, medicines—increasingly, they are all being privatized and placed in the hands of transnational corporations. The field of economics has always addressed both private and public goods. But today’s neoliberal philosophy views all goods as private goods—perhaps even our laws are becoming private goods.

Corporations no longer influence our laws—now, they write them! Multinationals, working behind closed doors are writing the world’s economic agreements unfettered by any one nation’s interests and unaccountable to individual nations’ citizens. For example, the WTO, which emerged from GATT, which covered international trade and tariffs, is an organization that protects multinationals. And Chapter 11 of the supposed free-trade agreement of NAFTA, establishes a new system of private arbitration for foreign investors to bring injury claims against governments. The operative principle is that foreign capital investing in Canada, Mexico or the United States may demand compensation if the profit-making potential of their ventures are injured by government decisions. This gives foreign-based companies more rights than have domestic businesses operating in their home country. Global corporations are free to litigate on their own without having to ask national governments to act on their behalf in global forums. The national identity of multinationals will become less and less relevant, since they have status to challenge governments. NAFTA creates, as Lydia Lazar, a Chicago attorney, puts it, “an open class of legal equals.” She adds that “NAFTA is really an end run around the Constitution.”

What we’d like to see changed is the form of governance needed for global trade. Current forums and trade agreements (WTO, World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, CAFTA) have stripped many nation-states—hence, their people—of their former roles governing trade. Not doing this, indeed, could lead to the scenarios described in Harvard’s David Korten’s book, When Corporations Rule the World.

Because globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, there’s no pat checklist to instantly change policy and strategy. We’re talking about a multi-year struggle for individuals, companies and nations to adjust and readjust. Although we do not in any way provide cookie cutter solutions in our book, we enumerate many of the issues that must be addressed. Here are some examples:

  1. Reform of the dependence on Treasury securities, which funds U. S. over-consumption with borrowed dollars from China, Japan and other export driven nations.
  2. Reform the IMF, World Bank, and WTO to make their decision-making more transparent.
  3. Provide education subsidies, not farm subsidies in the U.S. and Europe
  4. Establish worldwide regulation that would restrict continuing damage to the environment and maintain biodiversity.
  5. Have government once again govern corporations versus the reverse as it is today (e.g. put trade policy back into Congress, not in trade agreements written behind closed doors).
  6. Establish a U.S. Federal Competitiveness cabinet position.
  7. Break the bribery cycle between poor countries’ governments and international companies.
  8. Establish tripolar trading blocs, not American unipolar hegemony (e.g. establish true economic unions, not asymmetric trade agreements).
  9. Separate public goods (the commons) from private goods.
  10. Foster. increased savings (e.g., with automatic 401K plans).
  11. Develop energy policies and strategies that will break our dependency on oil (e.g. rethink and reorganize America’s sprawling suburbs (exurbs)).
  12. Globalize health care, e.g., allow people to spend Medicare dollars overseas (Mexico would boom, solving much of the illegal immigration problem in the U.S.). We are well overdue for a wakeup call to address these and other issues. And an open debate could just lead to peoples’ active engagement in creating a just, sustainable, economic world.

Q) You spend a fair amount of time on describing the underbelly of the beast – the 998 million Indians with no access to Internet, the farmers coming suicide there, or the laid off workers in Detroit. The global middle class and under class are suffering. But certainly the number of Chinese below poverty line has taken a dramatic nose dive in the past two decades. It also seems clear to me that the 9% growth rates in India are benefiting some poor. Certainly the story of globalization is not all doom and gloom. Tell us about the cross cutting forces at work in globalization today.

MR: Today, leading economists, both advocates and critics of globalization, agree that international trade has improved the lives of many across the world, bringing technology and knowledge to virtually every corner of the globe, and has raised many above the tyranny of backward and often repressive cultures. No doubt volumes could be filled with success stories of international trade. It’s “corporate globalization” that’s at issue in the 21st century. Neoliberal free-trade proponents too often frame the issues in a polarizing way: “free-trade” versus “protectionism,” “good” versus “bad.” “Your are either for us, or against us,” they might say. “Free-trade reduces poverty, protectionism creates poverty.” Of course, this is bullshit. Globalization is not a bipolar issue, while the case can be made that “corporate globalization” is.

Defining poverty is key to any discussion of the so-called poverty lines. Is economic globalization the only form of globalization? Should some goods be off limits to corporate globalization and, if so, which ones? To answer these questions, we’ve included a large section in the book devoted to the concept of the Privatization of the Commons. We quote Indian ecologist Dr.Vandana Shiva, “People do not die for lack of incomes. They die for lack of access to resources. Here too Jeffrey Sacks (The End of Poverty) is wrong when he says, ‘In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor, their lives are in danger.’ The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalaya, peasants whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity has not been destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they do not earn a dollar a day. On the other hand, even at five dollars a day, people are poor if they have to buy their basic needs at high prices. Indian peasants who have been made poor and pushed into debt over the past decade to create markets for costly seeds and agrochemicals through economic globalization are ending their lives in thousands.”

After China announced plans to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers’ rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980s, guess who started lobbying the Chinese politicians? As David Baboza reported in the New York Times, “The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here. The workers’ advocates say that the proposed labor rules—and more important, enforcement powers—are long overdue, and they accuse the American businesses of favoring a system that has led to widespread labor abuse.” “You have big corporations opposing basically modest reforms,” said Tim Costello, an official of the Global Labor Strategies and a longtime labor union advocate. “This flies in the face of the idea that globalization and corporations will raise standards around the world.”

What’s currently going on is called “corporate globalization,” where powerful transnational corporations, backed by supposed “free trade” treaties penned by corporate lobbyists in Washington, go to the ends of the earth to exploit slave-like labor. No one of us wants continuing poverty in China, India, or elsewhere. But is making $2.00 a day (the oft quoted dollar amount to be “out of poverty”) the goal, the only goal?

Out of Poverty?

Life in rural communities in China, India and elsewhere is tough. Are we to displace a non-money economy with formerly self-sufficient peoples moving to the mega cities to live in slums? In the recent PBS documentary, “China From the Inside,” rural people dislocated due to the damming of rivers were given new high density housing. But as one of them exclaimed, we have no jobs and cannot raise our food anymore. Relocation from dam areas, like the Three Gorges, is causing huge social upheaval (75,000 riots in China in 2005).Thousands of families are divided throughout China as parents spend most of the year in large cities making a living, while their children remain in rural villages with grandma tending to all the chores and to the fields. In other cases, women are left in the villages to raise children while husbands go off alone to the cities to work. Expectant mothers still abort female fetuses or abandon newborn girls because of the long-held view that women are not as valuable to the culture as men. China is the only nation in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than that for men. Of course, relocated peasants cannot afford the shoe strings on the brand-named shoes they manufacture in sweatshops. But then, again, they do get to see their children 4 days out of the year! So yes, they are “out of poverty” according to the $2.00 a day rule, but at what cost? Is there hope for a Global Middle Class? Why, when the Chinese Communist Party’s latest five-year plan called for increased focus on unions, did multinationals threaten to relocate jobs to Viet Nam or other dirt-cheap–labor countries?

China is run by the Communist Party, which bases its legitimacy on delivering both stability and the conditions for prosperity. But stability is under threat as the economic boom strands millions at the margins. Meanwhile, rampant corruption is sapping people’s trust in the Party. Officials are seen, increasingly, not as public servants but as profiteers. Is China Corporate Globalization’s 21st century poster child where the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer in social as well as monetary terms? We don’t have the answers in our book, but we identify the essential questions, such as, Is earning $2.00 a day the end of poverty? You’ll see little discussion of these matters in Friedman.

Q) Thomas Friedman in his book, “The World is Flat: A brief history of the 21st Century” quotes Bill Gates, “Thirty years ago, if you had a choice between being born a genius on the outskirts of Bombay or Shanghai or being born an average person in Poughkeepsie, you would take Poughkeepsie, because your chances of thriving and living a decent life there, even with average talent, were much greater. But as the world has gone flat, and so many people can plug and play from anywhere, natural talent has started to trump geography.” It seems to me Bill Gates is comparing a child born to fairly rich educated parents near Bombay or Shanghai given only a tiny fraction (about 1% in India) of people in India and China have access to “plug and play”, something which you point out in your book. Even if we agree with Mr. Gates, we still miss the close to 95% of population with its share of geniuses that don’t live close to Mumbai and Shanghai. Can you shed some light on their chances for “success” or integration in the global economy?

MR: What Gates and Friedman are discussing are the opportunities for the elite. Friedman writes, “I cannot tell any other society or culture what to say to its own children, but I can tell you what I say to my own: The world is being flattened. I didn’t start it and you can’t stop it, except at a great cost to human development and your own future. But we can manage it, for better or for worse. You can flourish in this flat world, but it does take the right imagination and the right motivation. While your lives have been powerfully shaped by 9/11, the world needs you to be forever the generation of 11/9 [the fall of the Berlin wall]—the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.”

While these lessons display concern for his children, he leaves it up to their imagination as to the way forward. Friedman’s daughter attends Yale, and there he sees the “precisely the sort of young person we want the America education system to keep churning out.” People getting degrees in biomedical engineering while having medical doctors and science professors for fathers.

If only every kid in America had these advantages and could graduate from Yale, all would be well in the Kingdom of Flat. All they need is a wealthy daddy, a degree from U.S.-President-producing Yale, and we are off to the races. But for those of us whose children do not breathe such rarefied air, Freidman tells them to use their imagination.

Ditto for our children that don’t breathe such rarefied air Chindia (China and India). The haves and have-nots are growing further apart in both rich countries and poor. But there is hope in programs such as microbanking. Bangladeshi Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Indeed, there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, but few multinationals seem to notice. While most IT activity is focused on urban centers such as Bangalore, India’s Netcore is producing the $100 PC for the next billion. So, the big hope for addressing poverty isn’t about the “zippies” in Bangalore that Friedman writes about, it’s about the bottom of the pyramid. And when innovations happen there, entrepreneurs in Chindia will take them global at Chindia prices. Change is being driven by the bottom of the pyramid and not in the chrome and rosewood boardrooms and halls of the WTO or the World Bank or Wall Street.


Q) Friedman has all sorts of suggestions for parents living in suburbs like Poughkeepsie. What would you like to say to the parents of young kids across America – Is it to vote to change the economic and social policy of the government?

MR: Americans are just beginning to think about what can happen as early as 2010. Some forecasts show that, with an average growth rate of 8–10%, China’s GDP will, by 2010, have surpassed Japan’s, by 2030, China will have the world’s largest economy, and, by 2050, it could be double that of the U.S.

Meanwhile, Washington leaves industrial policy up to the “free market”—or, as we write in our book, Washington has no industrial policy, which is perhaps the real issue—America does not have a national industrial policy that identifies and strengthens the industries in which it wants to be the master in the twenty-first century. America’s economic policies are, by and large, set by transnational corporations who wield excessive power in Washington. Their interests are not in America, but are in their stockholders. As more than one CEO has said, their interests may indeed lie outside of the United Sates. So, keeping this in mind, Friedman’s thesis could translate into “Go East, young man. Get your engineering degree, and move to Bangalore, because that’s where your job is going.”

For starters, I’d tell parents to read Sen. Byron Dorgan’s book, Take this Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America. It’s a real eye opener. Then visit his Web site, http://dorgan.senate.gov, to see the kind of legislation that is needed to put America’s industrial policy back on track. He calls for: (1) antisweatshop legislation that bar imports produced under internationally defined “sweatshop” conditions and hold companies accountable for using forced labor or denying basic human rights to workers, including the right to organize; (2) repealing tax incentives for American companies that enjoy all the benefits of being “American”—government services and subsidies, and U.S. Military protection—while discarding reciprocal obligations to the country—jobs, economic investment, and paying a fair share of the tax burden; And (3) capping trade deficits and stopping the $800-billion-a-year trade deficit hemorrhaging. These recommendations do not deal with every disorder caused by globalization, but they could jump-start a debate that Congress has long avoided. And they are not about “protectionism.” Instead they are about America formulating an industrial trade policy, because as, as former Reagan commerce advisor Clyde Prestowitz said, , “China and India have very clear national industrial policies. America does not.”

Q) You bring out a variety of points that dismantle nearly all of arguments that Friedman makes in the book. What, according to you, did Friedman get right in his book? What does he get about global economic regime?

RA: The main thing Friedman got right was that there is a need for a book on globalization that can reach the general population. Unfortunately, his book misinforms the public. We could not find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book. What he wrote, he mostly got right. But it’s what he didn’t write—it’s what he left out—that makes the book so problematic. There’s little more in his book beyond being a cheerleader for unfettered corporate globalization. And its important to recognize that, in some sense, this globalization stuff he writes about really does seem to work; if you consider that if four average blue-collar Americans join Friedman at a bar, the five of them, on average, would be a group of millionaires. As some of our politicians like to remind us, America is the economic envy of the world, and similar statistics to the bar scenario prove them right. That’s right, eh?

Q) Thomas Friedman started of as a successful Middle-East pundit, something for which he has actually received training. It is at best a strange transition from being a Middle-East pundit to being an “expert” on globalization. Do Friedman’s flaws in his economic analysis, as pointed out by you and numerous other scholars, emanate primarily from his lack of intellectual training in economics or his lack of intellectual honesty or is it something else entirely?

MR: It seems Friedman is an opportunist. Remember, he started on his globalization quest when he was on assignment for the Discovery Channel doing “The Other Side of Outsourcing.” It seems to have occurred to him during that assignment, “Aha. A book!” You’ll see that he based many of the stories in his book on the Discovery documentary. Being a well-placed smart person, Friedman did what any capitalist would do, he used his celebrity assets to make money. And to him, we say kudos. Stiglitz, Bagwhati, Roach, Leamer and other well-respected, fully-qualified economists and business analysts can write their hearts out, but who will read them? Celebrity has its privileges.

What’s unnerving is not Friedman, but the overwhelming traction of his book. This is best explained by Professor Roberto Gonzalez, “Ultimately, Friedman’s work is little more than advertising. The goal is not to sell the high-tech gadgetry described in page after page of the book, but to sell a way of life—a world view glorifying corporate capitalism and mass consumption as the only paths to progress. It is a view intolerant of lives lived outside the global marketplace. It betrays [unconsciously reveals] a disregard for democracy and a profound lack of imagination. This book’s lighthearted style might be amusing were it not for the fact that his subject—the global economy—is a matter of life and death for millions. Friedman’s words and opinions, ill informed as they are, shape the policies of leaders around the world. Many consider him to be a sophisticated thinker and analyst—not a propagandist. It is a sobering reminder of the intellectual paralysis gripping our society today.” Today we don’t play sports; we sit on the couch and play our sports vicariously through celebrity sports stars. Today, we don’t have much time to think; we let our celebrity pundits do that for us.

Q) You heavily rely on paraphrasing and quotations from others authors to put forth your case. Was that a conscious decision or was it strictly a result of time pressures?

RA: We’ll give you yet another quote to tell why! Here is Bill Moyers at the 2007 National Conference on Media Reform, “The degree to which this [free trade] has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that people can weigh the gains and losses is reflected in Thomas Friedman’s astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it. That is simply because it stood for ‘free trade.’
We have reached the stage when the Poo-bahs of punditry have only to declare that ‘the world is flat,’ for everyone to agree it is, without going to the edge and looking over themselves. It’s called reporting.”

And that’s exactly what we want to accomplish with our book, going to the edge and doing some “reporting” on what those qualified to analyze and report on 21st century globalization has to say.

We have 46 footnote references on our sources of information. Friedman has zero. We don’t make stuff up and tell stories about friends and elite CEOs. And we explore nine critical issues Friedman ignores or glosses over, along with an enumeration of 22 action items. Our book would be hundreds more pages if we expounded on each of these strategies and their rationales. We meant only to set the record straight on what Friedman is saying by providing the views of the experts, and then to provide the reader with a roadmap for exploring this vital subject further, for globalization affects all our lives and will be of even greater significance to our children and grandchildren. Simply stated, we all must learn about globalization and our available choices as we define our place in a global economy.

We hope our analysis of Friedman’s book provides readers who were awed by his 600 pages of bafflegab with a second take on the monumental subject of globalization.

To help our readers to develop their understanding of the issues, we have a shortlist of suggested readings and a comprehensive and growing resource list at www.mkpress.com/flat. Our message is “Wake up!” it’s past time to come to grips with the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution.

Q) Friedman is often accused of writing newspaper plain speak, speaking in clichés and in analogies but avoiding facts and avoiding substance to story telling. The idea is, according to Friedman, to be a translator of the economic jargon and make it accessible to the public. Is there any merit in this idea? Are economic facts about the current global regime so complex?

RA: A translator of economic jargon would be great. We open our book saying that the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. But few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress, that it is being “turned upside down.” And the person on the street may suspect that it has to do with the word, which increasingly appears in the press and other media: globalization. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many complicated political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Walter Cronkite or Bill Moyers could probably do that.

Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in business, government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories from friends, CEOs and other personal contacts of the author. These stories are not harmless, for they become solemn writ for lawmakers and opinion mongers.

It’s not so complex to explain that multinational corporations, are by their very nature, aimed at maximizing shareholder value. To achieve this corporate goal, multinational corporations are literally going to the ends of the earth in search of dirt-cheap labor for both manufacturing and high-end knowledge-based workers. IBM recently laid off 15,000 employees in America, while hiring 45,000 in India. There is nothing complex about that idea.

But shipping jobs overseas and hollowing out America’s middle class is only part of the picture. America is exporting its pollution by relocating manufacturing facilities to countries where environment laws are lax or non-existent. Let’s not forget about the human abuses lurking behind famous brand names and companies. Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee cites Wal-Mart among others as repeat offenders. Friedman has nothing but awe for Wal-Mart’s supply chaining, failing all mention of Wal-Mart’s darker side cited by Kernaghan. Like other US retailers, Wal-Mart claims to be enforcing decent labor conditions, but investigators find otherwise. Kernaghan points out that the same companies have won enforceable rules in trade agreements to protect their trademarks, labels and copyrights, yet regard protections for workers as “an impediment to free trade.” “Under this distorted sense of values,” says Kernaghan, “the label is protected but not the human being, the worker who makes the product.”

What’s so hard for the laymen to understand about that? Plain newspaper speak is great if it conveys substance. Friedman is especially destructive when he opines on public matters outside his supposed expertise. His thinking seems to be anchored by Ayn Rand’s social philosophy: Let the strong prevail, let the weak pay for their weakness. There is no doubt that many of those who read Friedman are now convinced the world is flat (perhaps they also believe the moon is made of green cheese). But newspaper plain talk doesn’t make it so. Having paid the price of wading through Friedman’s almost 600 pages of grandiloquent prose and bafflegab, there are those who want to protect that investment by clinging to the idea that they have gained a full understanding of globalization. Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Friedman’s simplistic treatise on globalization fails that test.

While Friedman’s personal anecdotes fascinate many readers and make for good tales at cocktail parties, it’s what’s left out of story after story after story that makes the book such a flawed distillation of globalization. Thus, it is what’s ignored on the many issues that Friedman touches upon that makes the book dangerous, for it gives average readers a false sense that they are gaining a true understanding of this broad and complex subject, globalization.

Interview with Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo

23 Jan

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, the runaway bestseller by New York Times columnist Friedman has now been on the New York Times Bestseller list for over 85 weeks and has sold over 2 million copies in hardcover alone. Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo, authors of The World is Flat? – A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller, point out that Friedman’s book is also full of factual and argumentative inaccuracies, some deliberate and some as a result of living in the CEO bubble. In their book, Ramdoo and Aronica conduct a step by step demolition of nearly all the points that Mr. Friedman makes in his book.

Q) What prompted you to write this book? Were you primarily motivated by wanting to straighten the record? Can you also talk a little more about your background and how this book came about?

RA: With a 30-year career at the intersection of business and technology under my belt, I coauthored a book in 2001, The Death of “E” and the Birth of the Real New Economy. In that book, we described how the technology-enabled globalization of white-collar work would be the new frontier in the world economy. The book is about business transformation as a result of the world being wired and the capability that the Internet provides to interconnect business processes around the globe. It was time to prepare for a whole new way of operating a business. In 2006, I picked up a copy of Friedman’s book and was floored by its superficiality. But what was more shocking to me was the fact that millions of copies had been sold and its influence on leaders in business and government. Indeed, I wanted to set the record straight, for Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, and the stories Friedman spun are but a small piece of the overall tapestry of this monumental transformation.

Globalization is a highly complex interaction of forces. Not only does it exhibit integration, it also exhibits disintegration. It is rooted in cooperation—and it is rooted in violence. For some, it represents the triumph of free-market capitalism over communism, ushering in democracy, world peace and universal prosperity; for others, it represents conflict, unbridled greed, deregulated corporate power, and an utter disregard for humanity.

Yet, the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. Few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress—that it is being turned upside down. And they may suspect that it has to do with the word, globalization, which increasingly appears in the press and other media. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories about Friedman’s friends, elite CEOs and other personal contacts.

The notion of globalization has been around for centuries, and has taken many forms: political, economic, cultural, and technological, to name a few. But the twenty-first century-style globalization that Friedman writes about is unique. It has a name: “corporate” globalization.

What we want our book to do is to go beyond Friedman’s superficial treatment of globalization and encourage readers who were awed by his book to “think again.”

The aim of our short monograph is to provide a counterbalance to Friedman’s cheerleading for corporate globalization. To help readers get a fuller understanding of the issues, we provide suggested readings at the end of our book and at our Web site, www.mkpress.com/flat Globalization is so important to all of us that we need become more fully informed, not misinformed by story after story based on personal anecdotes, and stories spun from meeting Friedman’s daughter’s friend’s boyfriend at Yale, or playing golf with rich and famous corporate executives. While readers might be unable to find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book, neither can they find the whole truth, nor most of the critically important facets needed for a full picture of globalization.

Q) The current way of globalization, according to you, seems like a race to the bottom. It seems like a system largely driven by large corporations and their obsession with lowering the cost of production. Let me juxtapose this thought with something which is oft mentioned – that success of US from the 1950’s onwards was largely buttressed by robust middle class with decent disposable incomes. My question to you is that is there a chance that the vanishing middle class will translate into a vanishing consumer, and what will that mean for the whole enterprise?

MR: That’s a very good question, for it touches on some of the more profound aspects of twenty-first–century style globalization. We have a whole section in our book, “America’s Former Middle Class” that talks about the plight of the American middle class. Three pillars: land (material resources); labor; and capital form the foundation of industrial economies. In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, Dickensonian industrialists kept labor down when it came to any stake in wealth. Then, in 1901, Republican Teddy Roosevelt became President. He distrusted wealthy businessmen and, as a Trust Buster, dissolved 40 monopolistic corporations. His Square Deal promised a fair shake for the average citizen, including regulation of railroad rates, and pure foods and drugs. As an outdoorsman, he promoted the conservation movement, emphasizing efficient use of natural resources. After 1906, he attacked big business and suggested that the courts were biased against labor unions. In short, you might say Roosevelt gave birth today’s American middle class. Recognizing the capitalists’ excesses during the Industrial Revolution, leaders, such as Roosevelt, reigned in raw capitalism and created a “mixed economy,” not the pure laissez-faire form of capitalism advocated by the Dickensonians.

Fast forwarding to today, free-market Friedman seems to assert that now, with his utopian, digitally connected flat world, even the nation-state could wane as flat-world capitalists create, in the words of Marx and Engels, “a world after its own image.”

Henry Ford was a pioneer of “welfare capitalism” designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men a year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. In January 1914, Ford announced his five-dollar a day program. The revolutionary program called for a reduction in length of the workday from 9 to 8 hours, a 5-day work week, and a raise in minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers.

Wall Street criticized Ford for starting the 40-hour work week and the minimum wage, but he showed that by paying his people more, Ford workers would be able to afford the cars they were producing—which would be good for the economy. Ford labeled the increased compensation profit-sharing rather than wages.

With today’s corporate globalization, we are seeing a return to Dickensonian capitalism on a grand scale. Not only do we need a strong American middle class, we need a strong global middle class, not a global 3rd world that is seeing America heading toward 3rd world status. We need a new Teddy Roosevelt and thinking capitalists in the likes of upstart Henry Ford if the world is to avoid Wall Street’s rule and its preeminent goal of only increasing shareholder value.

Q) You raise multiple points in your book illustrating ways in which the world is not particularly “flat”. If I read you right, you are not against “flat world” but a Friedman conception of a neo-liberal “flat world” that exists today. Tell us a little more about your thoughts the current “flat” world and the kind of “flat” world that you would like to see. In other words, how does the current global economic regime look like and what would you like to see changed?

RA: Neo-liberals believe that free markets, free trade, and the free flow of capital are the most efficient ways to produce the greatest social, political, and economic good. They argue for reduced taxation, reduced regulation, and minimal government involvement in the economy. They include privatizing health and retirement benefits, dismantling of trade unions, and generally opening our economy to foreign competition. Detractors see neo-liberalism as a power grab by economic elites and as a race to the bottom for everyone else.

The current economic regime unleashes neoliberalism. Agriculture, indigenous peoples’ resources, water, genes, medicines—increasingly, they are all being privatized and placed in the hands of transnational corporations. The field of economics has always addressed both private and public goods. But today’s neoliberal philosophy views all goods as private goods—perhaps even our laws are becoming private goods.

Corporations no longer influence our laws—now, they write them! Multinationals, working behind closed doors are writing the world’s economic agreements unfettered by any one nation’s interests and unaccountable to individual nations’ citizens. For example, the WTO, which emerged from GATT, which covered international trade and tariffs, is an organization that protects multinationals. And Chapter 11 of the supposed free-trade agreement of NAFTA, establishes a new system of private arbitration for foreign investors to bring injury claims against governments. The operative principle is that foreign capital investing in Canada, Mexico or the United States may demand compensation if the profit-making potential of their ventures are injured by government decisions. This gives foreign-based companies more rights than have domestic businesses operating in their home country. Global corporations are free to litigate on their own without having to ask national governments to act on their behalf in global forums. The national identity of multinationals will become less and less relevant, since they have status to challenge governments. NAFTA creates, as Lydia Lazar, a Chicago attorney, puts it, “an open class of legal equals.” She adds that “NAFTA is really an end run around the Constitution.”

What we’d like to see changed is the form of governance needed for global trade. Current forums and trade agreements (WTO, World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, CAFTA) have stripped many nation-states—hence, their people—of their former roles governing trade. Not doing this, indeed, could lead to the scenarios described in Harvard’s David Korten’s book, When Corporations Rule the World.

Because globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, there’s no pat checklist to instantly change policy and strategy. We’re talking about a multi-year struggle for individuals, companies and nations to adjust and readjust. Although we do not in any way provide cookie cutter solutions in our book, we enumerate many of the issues that must be addressed. Here are some examples: 1. Reform of the dependence on Treasury securities, which funds U. S. over-consumption with borrowed dollars from China, Japan and other export driven nations. 2. Reform the IMF, World Bank, and WTO to make their decision-making more transparent. 3. Provide education subsidies, not farm subsidies in the U.S. and Europe 4. Establish worldwide regulation that would restrict continuing damage to the environment and maintain biodiversity. 5. Have government once again govern corporations versus the reverse as it is today (e.g. put trade policy back into Congress, not in trade agreements written behind closed doors). 6. Establish a U.S. Federal Competitiveness cabinet position. 7. Break the bribery cycle between poor countries’ governments and international companies. 8. Establish tripolar trading blocs, not American unipolar hegemony (e.g. establish true economic unions, not asymmetric trade agreements). 9. Separate public goods (the commons) from private goods. 10. Foster. increased savings (e.g., with automatic 401K plans). 11. Develop energy policies and strategies that will break our dependency on oil (e.g. rethink and reorganize America’s sprawling suburbs (exurbs)). 13.Globalize health care, e.g., allow people to spend Medicare dollars overseas (Mexico would boom, solving much of the illegal immigration problem in the U.S.). We are well overdue for a wakeup call to address these and other issues. And an open debate could just lead to peoples’ active engagement in creating a just, sustainable, economic world.

Q) You spend a fair amount of time on describing the underbelly of the beast – the 998 million Indians with no access to Internet, the farmers coming suicide there, or the laid off workers in Detroit. The global middle class and under class are suffering. But certainly the number of Chinese below poverty line has taken a dramatic nose dive in the past two decades. It also seems clear to me that the 9% growth rates in India are benefiting some poor. Certainly the story of globalization is not all doom and gloom. Tell us about the cross cutting forces at work in globalization today.

MR: Today, leading economists, both advocates and critics of globalization, agree that international trade has improved the lives of many across the world, bringing technology and knowledge to virtually every corner of the globe, and has raised many above the tyranny of backward and often repressive cultures. No doubt volumes could be filled with success stories of international trade. It’s “corporate globalization” that’s at issue in the 21st century. Neoliberal free-trade proponents too often frame the issues in a polarizing way: “free-trade” versus “protectionism,” “good” versus “bad.” “Your are either for us, or against us,” they might say. “Free-trade reduces poverty, protectionism creates poverty.” Of course, this is bullshit. Globalization is not a bipolar issue, while the case can be made that “corporate globalization” is.

Defining poverty is key to any discussion of the so-called poverty lines. Is economic globalization the only form of globalization? Should some goods be off limits to corporate globalization and, if so, which ones? To answer these questions, we’ve included a large section in the book devoted to the concept of the Privatization of the Commons. We quote Indian ecologist Dr.Vandana Shiva, “People do not die for lack of incomes. They die for lack of access to resources. Here too Jeffrey Sacks (The End of Poverty) is wrong when he says, ‘In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor, their lives are in danger.’ The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalaya, peasants whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity has not been destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they do not earn a dollar a day. On the other hand, even at five dollars a day, people are poor if they have to buy their basic needs at high prices. Indian peasants who have been made poor and pushed into debt over the past decade to create markets for costly seeds and agrochemicals through economic globalization are ending their lives in thousands.”

After China announced plans to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers’ rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980s, guess who started lobbying the Chinese politicians? As David Baboza reported in the New York Times, “The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here. The workers’ advocates say that the proposed labor rules—and more important, enforcement powers—are long overdue, and they accuse the American businesses of favoring a system that has led to widespread labor abuse.” “You have big corporations opposing basically modest reforms,” said Tim Costello, an official of the Global Labor Strategies and a longtime labor union advocate. “This flies in the face of the idea that globalization and corporations will raise standards around the world.”

What’s currently going on is called “corporate globalization,” where powerful transnational corporations, backed by supposed “free trade” treaties penned by corporate lobbyists in Washington, go to the ends of the earth to exploit slave-like labor. No one of us wants continuing poverty in China, India, or elsewhere. But is making $2.00 a day (the oft quoted dollar amount to be “out of poverty”) the goal, the only goal?

Out of Poverty?

Life in rural communities in China, India and elsewhere is tough. Are we to displace a non-money economy with formerly self-sufficient peoples moving to the mega cities to live in slums? In the recent PBS documentary, “China From the Inside,” rural people dislocated due to the damming of rivers were given new high density housing. But as one of them exclaimed, we have no jobs and cannot raise our food anymore. Relocation from dam areas, like the Three Gorges, is causing huge social upheaval (75,000 riots in China in 2005).Thousands of families are divided throughout China as parents spend most of the year in large cities making a living, while their children remain in rural villages with grandma tending to all the chores and to the fields. In other cases, women are left in the villages to raise children while husbands go off alone to the cities to work. Expectant mothers still abort female fetuses or abandon newborn girls because of the long-held view that women are not as valuable to the culture as men. China is the only nation in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than that for men. Of course, relocated peasants cannot afford the shoe strings on the brand-named shoes they manufacture in sweatshops. But then, again, they do get to see their children 4 days out of the year! So yes, they are “out of poverty” according to the $2.00 a day rule, but at what cost? Is there hope for a Global Middle Class? Why, when the Chinese Communist Party’s latest five-year plan called for increased focus on unions, did multinationals threaten to relocate jobs to Viet Nam or other dirt-cheap–labor countries?

China is run by the Communist Party, which bases its legitimacy on delivering both stability and the conditions for prosperity. But stability is under threat as the economic boom strands millions at the margins. Meanwhile, rampant corruption is sapping people’s trust in the Party. Officials are seen, increasingly, not as public servants but as profiteers. Is China Corporate Globalization’s 21st century poster child where the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer in social as well as monetary terms? We don’t have the answers in our book, but we identify the essential questions, such as, Is earning $2.00 a day the end of poverty? You’ll see little discussion of these matters in Friedman.

Q) Thomas Friedman in his book, “The World is Flat: A brief history of the 21st Century” quotes Bill Gates, “Thirty years ago, if you had a choice between being born a genius on the outskirts of Bombay or Shanghai or being born an average person in Poughkeepsie, you would take Poughkeepsie, because your chances of thriving and living a decent life there, even with average talent, were much greater. But as the world has gone flat, and so many people can plug and play from anywhere, natural talent has started to trump geography.” It seems to me Bill Gates is comparing a child born to fairly rich educated parents near Bombay or Shanghai given only a tiny fraction (about 1% in India) of people in India and China have access to “plug and play”, something which you point out in your book. Even if we agree with Mr. Gates, we still miss the close to 95% of population with its share of geniuses that don’t live close to Mumbai and Shanghai. Can you shed some light on their chances for “success” or integration in the global economy?

MR: What Gates and Friedman are discussing are the opportunities for the elite. Friedman writes, “I cannot tell any other society or culture what to say to its own children, but I can tell you what I say to my own: The world is being flattened. I didn’t start it and you can’t stop it, except at a great cost to human development and your own future. But we can manage it, for better or for worse. You can flourish in this flat world, but it does take the right imagination and the right motivation. While your lives have been powerfully shaped by 9/11, the world needs you to be forever the generation of 11/9 [the fall of the Berlin wall]—the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.”

While these lessons display concern for his children, he leaves it up to their imagination as to the way forward. Friedman’s daughter attends Yale, and there he sees the “precisely the sort of young person we want the America education system to keep churning out.” People getting degrees in biomedical engineering while having medical doctors and science professors for fathers.

If only every kid in America had these advantages and could graduate from Yale, all would be well in the Kingdom of Flat. All they need is a wealthy daddy, a degree from U.S.-President-producing Yale, and we are off to the races. But for those of us whose children do not breathe such rarefied air, Freidman tells them to use their imagination.

Ditto for our children that don’t breathe such rarefied air Chindia (China and India). The haves and have-nots are growing further apart in both rich countries and poor. But there is hope in programs such as microbanking. Bangladeshi Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Indeed, there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, but few multinationals seem to notice. While most IT activity is focused on urban centers such as Bangalore, India’s Netcore is producing the $100 PC for the next billion. So, the big hope for addressing poverty isn’t about the “zippies” in Bangalore that Friedman writes about, it’s about the bottom of the pyramid. And when innovations happen there, entrepreneurs in Chindia will take them global at Chindia prices. Change is being driven by the bottom of the pyramid and not in the chrome and rosewood boardrooms and halls of the WTO or the World Bank or Wall Street.


Q) Friedman has all sorts of suggestions for parents living in suburbs like Poughkeepsie. What would you like to say to the parents of young kids across America – Is it to vote to change the economic and social policy of the government?

MR: Americans are just beginning to think about what can happen as early as 2010. Some forecasts show that, with an average growth rate of 8–10%, China’s GDP will, by 2010, have surpassed Japan’s, by 2030, China will have the world’s largest economy, and, by 2050, it could be double that of the U.S.

Meanwhile, Washington leaves industrial policy up to the “free market”—or, as we write in our book, Washington has no industrial policy, which is perhaps the real issue—America does not have a national industrial policy that identifies and strengthens the industries in which it wants to be the master in the twenty-first century. America’s economic policies are, by and large, set by transnational corporations who wield excessive power in Washington. Their interests are not in America, but are in their stockholders. As more than one CEO has said, their interests may indeed lie outside of the United Sates. So, keeping this in mind, Friedman’s thesis could translate into “Go East, young man. Get your engineering degree, and move to Bangalore, because that’s where your job is going.”

For starters, I’d tell parents to read Sen. Byron Dorgan’s book, Take this Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America. It’s a real eye opener. Then visit his Web site, http://dorgan.senate.gov, to see the kind of legislation that is needed to put America’s industrial policy back on track. He calls for: (1) antisweatshop legislation that bar imports produced under internationally defined “sweatshop” conditions and hold companies accountable for using forced labor or denying basic human rights to workers, including the right to organize; (2) repealing tax incentives for American companies that enjoy all the benefits of being “American”—government services and subsidies, and U.S. Military protection—while discarding reciprocal obligations to the country—jobs, economic investment, and paying a fair share of the tax burden; And (3) capping trade deficits and stopping the $800-billion-a-year trade deficit hemorrhaging. These recommendations do not deal with every disorder caused by globalization, but they could jump-start a debate that Congress has long avoided. And they are not about “protectionism.” Instead they are about America formulating an industrial trade policy, because as, as former Reagan commerce advisor Clyde Prestowitz said, , “China and India have very clear national industrial policies. America does not.”

Q) You bring out a variety of points that dismantle nearly all of arguments that Friedman makes in the book. What, according to you, did Friedman get right in his book? What does he get about global economic regime?

RA: The main thing Friedman got right was that there is a need for a book on globalization that can reach the general population. Unfortunately, his book misinforms the public. We could not find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book. What he wrote, he mostly got right. But it’s what he didn’t write—it’s what he left out—that makes the book so problematic. There’s little more in his book beyond being a cheerleader for unfettered corporate globalization. And its important to recognize that, in some sense, this globalization stuff he writes about really does seem to work; if you consider that if four average blue-collar Americans join Friedman at a bar, the five of them, on average, would be a group of millionaires. As some of our politicians like to remind us, America is the economic envy of the world, and similar statistics to the bar scenario prove them right. That’s right, eh?

Q) Thomas Friedman started of as a successful Middle-East pundit, something for which he has actually received training. It is at best a strange transition from being a Middle-East pundit to being an “expert” on globalization. Do Friedman’s flaws in his economic analysis, as pointed out by you and numerous other scholars, emanate primarily from his lack of intellectual training in economics or his lack of intellectual honesty or is it something else entirely?

MR: It seems Friedman is an opportunist. Remember, he started on his globalization quest when he was on assignment for the Discovery Channel doing “The Other Side of Outsourcing.” It seems to have occurred to him during that assignment, “Aha. A book!” You’ll see that he based many of the stories in his book on the Discovery documentary. Being a well-placed smart person, Friedman did what any capitalist would do, he used his celebrity assets to make money. And to him, we say kudos. Stiglitz, Bagwhati, Roach, Leamer and other well-respected, fully-qualified economists and business analysts can write their hearts out, but who will read them? Celebrity has its privileges.

What’s unnerving is not Friedman, but the overwhelming traction of his book. This is best explained by Professor Roberto Gonzalez, “Ultimately, Friedman’s work is little more than advertising. The goal is not to sell the high-tech gadgetry described in page after page of the book, but to sell a way of life—a world view glorifying corporate capitalism and mass consumption as the only paths to progress. It is a view intolerant of lives lived outside the global marketplace. It betrays [unconsciously reveals] a disregard for democracy and a profound lack of imagination. This book’s lighthearted style might be amusing were it not for the fact that his subject—the global economy—is a matter of life and death for millions. Friedman’s words and opinions, ill informed as they are, shape the policies of leaders around the world. Many consider him to be a sophisticated thinker and analyst—not a propagandist. It is a sobering reminder of the intellectual paralysis gripping our society today.” Today we don’t play sports; we sit on the couch and play our sports vicariously through celebrity sports stars. Today, we don’t have much time to think; we let our celebrity pundits do that for us.


Q) You heavily rely on paraphrasing and quotations from others authors to put forth your case. Was that a conscious decision or was it strictly a result of time pressures?

RA: We’ll give you yet another quote to tell why! Here is Bill Moyers at the 2007 National Conference on Media Reform, “The degree to which this [free trade] has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that people can weigh the gains and losses is reflected in Thomas Friedman’s astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it. That is simply because it stood for ‘free trade.’
We have reached the stage when the Poo-bahs of punditry have only to declare that ‘the world is flat,’ for everyone to agree it is, without going to the edge and looking over themselves. It’s called reporting.”

And that’s exactly what we want to accomplish with our book, going to the edge and doing some “reporting” on what those qualified to analyze and report on 21st century globalization has to say.

We have 46 footnote references on our sources of information. Friedman has zero. We don’t make stuff up and tell stories about friends and elite CEOs. And we explore nine critical issues Friedman ignores or glosses over, along with an enumeration of 22 action items. Our book would be hundreds more pages if we expounded on each of these strategies and their rationales. We meant only to set the record straight on what Friedman is saying by providing the views of the experts, and then to provide the reader with a roadmap for exploring this vital subject further, for globalization affects all our lives and will be of even greater significance to our children and grandchildren. Simply stated, we all must learn about globalization and our available choices as we define our place in a global economy.

We hope our analysis of Friedman’s book provides readers who were awed by his 600 pages of bafflegab with a second take on the monumental subject of globalization.

To help our readers to develop their understanding of the issues, we have a shortlist of suggested readings and a comprehensive and growing resource list at www.mkpress.com/flat. Our message is “Wake up!” it’s past time to come to grips with the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution.

Q) Friedman is often accused of writing newspaper plain speak, speaking in clichés and in analogies but avoiding facts and avoiding substance to story telling. The idea is, according to Friedman, to be a translator of the economic jargon and make it accessible to the public. Is there any merit in this idea? Are economic facts about the current global regime so complex?

RA: A translator of economic jargon would be great. We open our book saying that the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. But few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress, that it is being “turned upside down.” And the person on the street may suspect that it has to do with the word, which increasingly appears in the press and other media: globalization. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many complicated political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Walter Cronkite or Bill Moyers could probably do that.

Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in business, government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories from friends, CEOs and other personal contacts of the author. These stories are not harmless, for they become solemn writ for lawmakers and opinion mongers.

It’s not so complex to explain that multinational corporations, are by their very nature, aimed at maximizing shareholder value. To achieve this corporate goal, multinational corporations are literally going to the ends of the earth in search of dirt-cheap labor for both manufacturing and high-end knowledge-based workers. IBM recently laid off 15,000 employees in America, while hiring 45,000 in India. There is nothing complex about that idea.

But shipping jobs overseas and hollowing out America’s middle class is only part of the picture. America is exporting its pollution by relocating manufacturing facilities to countries where environment laws are lax or non-existent. Let’s not forget about the human abuses lurking behind famous brand names and companies. Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee cites Wal-Mart among others as repeat offenders. Friedman has nothing but awe for Wal-Mart’s supply chaining, failing all mention of Wal-Mart’s darker side cited by Kernaghan. Like other US retailers, Wal-Mart claims to be enforcing decent labor conditions, but investigators find otherwise. Kernaghan points out that the same companies have won enforceable rules in trade agreements to protect their trademarks, labels and copyrights, yet regard protections for workers as “an impediment to free trade.” “Under this distorted sense of values,” says Kernaghan, “the label is protected but not the human being, the worker who makes the product.”

What’s so hard for the laymen to understand about that? Plain newspaper speak is great if it conveys substance. Friedman is especially destructive when he opines on public matters outside his supposed expertise. His thinking seems to be anchored by Ayn Rand’s social philosophy: Let the strong prevail, let the weak pay for their weakness. There is no doubt that many of those who read Friedman are now convinced the world is flat (perhaps they also believe the moon is made of green cheese). But newspaper plain talk doesn’t make it so. Having paid the price of wading through Friedman’s almost 600 pages of grandiloquent prose and bafflegab, there are those who want to protect that investment by clinging to the idea that they have gained a full understanding of globalization. Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Friedman’s simplistic treatise on globalization fails that test.

While Friedman’s personal anecdotes fascinate many readers and make for good tales at cocktail parties, it’s what’s left out of story after story after story that makes the book such a flawed distillation of globalization. Thus, it is what’s ignored on the many issues that Friedman touches upon that makes the book dangerous, for it gives average readers a false sense that they are gaining a true understanding of this broad and complex subject, globalization.

Interview with Felicia Drury Kliment

22 Jan

Interview with Ms. Felicia Drury Kliment, author of Acid Alkaline Balance Diet: An Innovative Program for Ridding Your Body of Acidic Wastes, was conducted via email over the past week.

The book, “Acid Alkaline Balance Diet: An Innovative Program for Ridding Your Body of Acidic Wastes” is in stores now.

Q) Let me begin by asking you a little more about yourself- Where did you grow up, in particular, what kind of food you generally ate while growing up?

A) I grew up in the late forties and fifties in Youngstown, Ohio, population 100,000. The food additive industry was still in its infancy then, so food was relatively free of pesticides. At the time a well balanced meal which included the three food types—carbohydrates, fat, and protein—was the by-word to good health. A typical dinner was made up of meat, potatoes, vegetables and salad, while a typical breakfast consisted of eggs, bacon, and toast for breakfast.

One of the highlights of my youth was the food we got fresh from a farm or grown in our backyard. Although Youngstown was then referred to as a steel town, we –my mother, father, and brother—lived in a suburb only minutes away by car from many small farms In the summer my mother and I would drive to the Fite farm to buy corn on the cob. When we arrived, Ms. Fite would go out to the cornfields and pick corn especially for us. I also remember our ‘milkman,’ delivering milk in glass bottles. The top third of the bottle was pure cream because milk was not homogenized in those times. What also stands out in my memory are the beefsteak tomatoes my mother raised in the backyard. She fertilized them with her ‘handmade’ fertilizer—a compost heap of leaves and other debris.

Q) Tell us a little more about your professional background. What led you into your current profession and your interest in the Acid Alkaline Diet?

A) You might say that it started when I was 10 years old. I had terrible headaches from the strong glasses I wore, so I started eating raw carrots all day long. In three months my eyesight was normalized and I threw my glasses away! My interest in the healing power of foods then went into hibernation—until I was in my early thirties when I picked out a book in the library at random, unintentionally re-awakening my interest in alternative medicine and diet. The book was about how vitamin E could heal eye disease. I was hooked! I began researching the subject of alternative health and writing articles in professional journals and popular magazines. Years later I began teaching at City College in New York.

What triggered my book writing and health consulting was an ailment I had developed, acid reflux. My knowledge of chemistry had made me aware that the body consists most basically of acid and alkaline particles. Their balance is vital not only to good health but to survival itself. Acid reflux increases the levels of acid in the body, thereby disrupting the acid-alkaline pH of the blood. I set about working out a diet that would heal acid reflux and other degenerative disease, thereby restoring the normal ratio of the acid alkaline ph balances in the body. Then I wrote a book about it, the Acid Alkaline Balance Diet.

Q) Can you talk a little more about the history of acid alkaline diet? Who first came to the conclusion that it is the acid-alkaline imbalances that lead to certain diseases? How has the field grown since?

A) Concern with acid alkaline imbalance stretches way back to the late nineteenth century. However, the idea that acid waste can disrupt the acid-alkaline pH balances in the body has evolved fairly recently, in the last 25 years or so. German and Japanese scientists came to the conclusion that the acid wastes from metabolic (organ) function was the cause of pH imbalances. I have taken the problem a step further by pin pointing the wrong diet as the principal culprit in the production of acid waste in the body.

Food that the individual can’t break down in the digestive tract turns into acid waste, which is highly toxic. The blood stream carries it to all parts of the body and wherever acid waste settles, it inflames organ tissue. This is how degenerative diseases get started.

Q) A simple search on Google for “healthy diet plans” reveals that diet plans these days are inextricably linked to weight loss. In particular, the diet options seem particularistic and generally tailored towards “fixing” the weight problem. Please tell us about you thoughts on this issue?

A) That’s the problem with most diet plans. They’re standardized—one size fits all—as if every person has the same physiology as everyone else! Furthermore, most diet plans aim directly at losing weight, rather than doing so indirectly—by eating foods that enhance health. The primary aim of my book is to help the reader find foods that they can digest easily rather than merely the foods that take off weight. Because foods that aren’t digested properly ultimately put on weight. When your digestive system works well, you automatically lose weight because there is no leftover acid waste— some of which the body converts into fatty acid which puts on pounds..

Q) There is a proliferation of healthy diet plans and ideas including the macrobiotic diet and what not. Tell us about the specific problems with other kinds of “healthy” dieting options that fail to address the acid-alkaline balance?

A) What very few diet plans don’t address is the differences in individual digestive metabolism. I advocate eating according to your metabolic needs. When you do this you are not only eating foods that your digestive system can break down, but you’re also supplying your body with the nutrients you are short in, while eating less of those nutrients that you have in excess. When you approach dieting in this way, you automatically normalize you acid-alkaline pH balances.

Q) Can you walk us through the biology behind the acid-alkaline diet? How important is the acid-alkaline balance as compared to say other health eating virtues including low fat or including Omega3 etc. and healthy lifestyle virtues like exercising regularly. Am I amiss in asking you to compare and contrast when the real answer is syncretism of these options?

A) No you’re not. First, a low fat diet is unhealthy because scientists long ago showed that for normal body function, 25% of your diet should consist of fats and oils. All health issues, including obesity can be resolved if you eat according to your metabolic type. There are three types of metabolisms: the grain eater, the meat eater, and the omnivore (meat and grain) eater. The niacin test in my book enables you to discover which metabolic type you are. Your type of metabolism determines what food you should eat. For example, the meat eater does well on lots of meat, butter, root vegetables, etc., This leads in to your question about omega 3 oils. Everyone needs some omega 3, but the grain eater can digest greater quantities of it than the meat eater because the grain eater can eats lots of fish the primary source of omega 3 oil. By eating the foods for which your digestive system was designed, you will maintain the proper acid-alkaline ph balances in the blood and other bodily fluids. To answer the third part of your question. Certainly exercise is important, but the problem is that the press, fueled by the medical profession, implies that exercise is the most important factor in good health. A healthy diet comes first. Another problem that should be addressed is electro-magnetic pollution, particularly from cell phones and computers. There are chips which are very effective in neutralizing this pollution.

Q) The book lays a lot of blame on the current dietary acid-alkaline imbalances to modern agricultural and food processing methods including food coloration, hormones, insecticides, preservatives etc. Tell us a little more about this. Pleases give us an example of a specific chemical and how it affects us, if so is possible.

A) There is so much pollution in everything that we are exposed to that it’s hard to know where to start. Obviously organic foods should be eaten when ever possible. While not totally free of pesticides, they have far lower levels than agribusiness produce and are free of antibiotics, and additives including food coloring. I’ll mention one additive that is particularly harmful to health, and that is the growth hormone in milk. Studies show that it causes a spurt in growth which makes those who grow above a certain level 2 to 3 times more likely to get pancreatic and colon cancer.

Q) You advise people to eat raw foods including organic eggs. If I am not wrong, there is a chance that some harmful bacteria and fungi can be ingested as a result of eating raw organic eggs.

A) You do read a lot about the danger of eating raw eggs, but the facts don’t support the claim. The American Egg Board reports that research studies conducted by food scientists have found that the average consumer might encounter a salmonella-infected egg once in eighty-four years! Because organic eggs weren’t used in the studies, the chance of eating a salmonella-infected egg if the egg is organic would be even more remote.

Q) Should we take your book as a whole hearted approval of eating organic foods?

A) I certainly would encourage buying organic, but for anyone who is tight financially it isn’t necessary to buy all organic produce. If possible, don’t buy fruits and vegetables found to be higher in pesticide residues such as peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, strawberries, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, carrots, and potatoes. On the other hand, if you’re short on cash you can buy broccoli, bananas, pineapple, mangoes, frozen sweet peas, frozen corn asparagus, avocados, and onions since they are low in pesticides.

Q) Lastly, what would be your diet advice for average Americans that cannot avoid eating out?

A) For such people who for one reason or another cannot avoid eating out most of the time, I would suggest that they buy a juicer and make at least one glass of juice daily, preferably in the morning. Use organic vegetables such as carrots, beets, celery, lettuce, zucchinis, and a little parsley. I would also recommend taking supplements that are derived from food complexes. Standard Process is one such brand and probably the best. (I’ve been through their factory and seen their cultivated fields and the animals they raise, which are the raw materials for their supplements.)

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Foreign Reporting and Technology

20 Jan

Part 5 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Let’s talk a little more about the challenges of foreign reporting. I feel that some journalists like Ryszard Kapuscinski have done wonderful reporting from Africa while most others have failed to bring out the complexities while reporting on other countries. Can you talk a little more about what journalists can do in this regard?

That’s part of what you had asked me before. I think its really important that over the course of three or four-year tour of duty in Africa or the Middle East to give a well-rounded body of work that captures both the complexities of the region and gives readers some sense that something else is going on besides conflict. I love Kapuscinski’s work, and some of my colleagues have done great work, but sometimes I am critical of them and myself because we make it sound like it’s one big war. In the Middle East as well, the Israeli society and the Palestinian society are complex, interesting creatures. There are a lot of things going on, and I always found that some of the most interesting stories are about events and forces at work within each society rather than the constant struggle between them. We can’t understand that struggle unless you understand the forces at work within each society, especially in the Israeli society. Both sides get shortchanged by this kind of parachute phenomenon. We write about the war and we leave, and we write about the conflict, but we never write about the actors, the two societies at work. In Africa as well.

One way to do that is to constantly be thinking about the counter story if you will. The conventional wisdom, if you will, or the story that confirms everyone’s deepest prejudice – conflict Africa, Africa at war, Africa can’t feed itself –it is really quite lovely to find once in a while where people are being fed quite well and to write about why that is, what works. So I remember writing about – this is long ago, far away – Zimbabwe in 1984 when it was the breadbasket of Southern Africa – it had an enormously successful agricultural system and just writing a long piece which ran on the front page of the Washington Post about how that worked and how they were exporting 2 million tones of grain to other parts of Southern Africa. Partly it was the function of the weather, but mostly it was the function of a successful process. Not only did they paid farmers a decent amount for their product, a decent rail system, and a warehouse system so you could actually take maize and corn and transport it, get it off the farm and on to a market. And how American dumping of our maize was potentially damaging to that system, our cheap corn, given in the name of our policy for providing food to hungry people. Those are more complex, rich stories that contradict the conventional wisdom.

I think it is really really valuable as a foreign correspondent to think about ways of subverting the conventional wisdom, so you tell your readers about something surprising – I mean what is journalism telling among other things – telling them things that they don’t know, surprising them, making them think twice about the world we live in and about their own role and you do that by being critical of the conventional wisdom. ‘Wait a minute – is this really true and if it’s not what’s my role here.’

One of the great things about being a journalist is that you should be able to be constantly self-critical and the critical analysis that you provide to the world around you, you also apply to your own work and to the work of your many dear colleagues and trying to figure out what are we missing here. Journalism, I think still fundamentally rewards that kind of enterprise, that kind of critical analysis. I think there is still room – whether its Seymour Hersh writing about the Iraq war or others I think it still really rewards people who can climb their way out of the conventional wisdom and surprise you and shock you or stun you in some way. That’s the great correcting mechanism in journalism if there is one.

What challenges and opportunities do blogs and social media present?

I have no problem with that. My fear is that because of the technology, because dead tree edition is in trouble—and I don’t mind if dead trees themselves are in trouble—that’s ok if we move away from the newspaper form. My fear is that our big newsrooms and our big newsgathering operations are also shrinking. It should be a vast marketplace with many forms of journalism. The blogosphere can be out there counting angels on a pin. That’s fine as long as we can keep the whole thing thriving, including the kind of thing that I am talking about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Reporting on Emotional Issues

20 Jan

Part 4 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Since we have just broached the Middle East, what are the special challenges for reporting from there. What are the challenges in reporting around highly emotive issues more generally?

Where do you begin? If we are talking about Israel and Palestine, we are talking about two national movements, with their own histories, their own set of grievances and their own interpretation of their history and the relationship to each other and how they have treated each other over now 100 years. Plus, the national histories go back way before that. So what you have is an armed struggle between two national movements. And inevitably those two movements are going to – because it is an ongoing war – mobilize every fact and every tool and every potential weapon as part of that struggle. And the press, the media simply becomes another stage, if you will, another battleground in that struggle.

And I think we have to be constantly aware of the fact that we are – we walk in their trying to be neutral observers, trying to capture truth as best as we can – we are constantly being told to not be neutral observers, constantly being pulled in one direction or another, intimidated, coerced, seduced, and if we don’t fulfill the demands of each side then we are under attack – sometimes physical attack, oftentimes emotional, verbal -all of that. So, you have to go in there with an understanding, or you learn over time, just who you are and who they are and what they want from you and they are not going to be satisfied with your neutral best, even-handed approach. That’s not gonna work for them. They are going to be part of your audience but you are not really working for them, and you are not writing for them. You are writing for the world, if you will, especially now. So, your obligations are first and foremost are to the readers, to your customers – whatever you want to call them and to the truth as best as you can discover.

And so I have very little patience with journalists who fall victims to one side or the other if you will or who eventually take on the coloration of one side or the other. It is easy to do, there is plenty of justification you could have for doing it but it’s not what I see my role as. There is certainly room for journalists who become advocates, who become highly critical. Take someone like Robert Fisk, a correspondent for The Independent. I have great admiration for Robert Fisk’s for this courage, for his enterprise, and for his writing ability. I consider Bob to be a strong advocate of a certain point of view. And there is a role for him and a role for people for people like him and a role for people who are very supportive of the state of Israel; I don’t see my role and the role of Washington Post to be similar to that. I think we play a very different role. I think in a way – it’s in some ways harder, and in some ways easier. What Bob does per se, the personal courage of Bob, the risks he takes, the beliefs he has – I don’t question them at all. I don’t agree with the journalism because it’s not the kind of journalism I am seeking to practice. I think that he belongs on one side of the spectrum; he is valuable and useful for people to read. What we do, try to do is something very different.

Its really hard to do, because the struggle, the constant demands on you from people who have real grievances – I mean you know it is hard to find a family on either side of the divide from those national movements who haven’t had a direct personal loss at this point, who haven’t lost a family member, whose lives haven’t been affected in some horrible way by this struggle. Its very much a war of populations. Its not just governments fighting each other and enlisting people in the army and going off to a battlefield and fighting, it is a war which takes place within the civilian populations of both communities, both national movements. So, it becomes, even more, person and intimate. It is an inter-communal war where everyone is a soldier whether they want to be or not. Trotsky once said that you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. This kind of war allows no one to be a neutral observer. You can be a shop keeper in Ramallah and simply want to do business every day – you are not allowed to do that in this war because the Israeli army will come and shut you down because you are in middle on an unrest zone or Palestinian kids will come back at you and make you open up, your child trying to go to school on a given day could be shot, school can be closed, so many things could go wrong and then its your kid out there throwing rocks at a tank and your kid rebelling against you as well as the Israeli occupier. So many things happen. So many lives have been lost.

My job as a journalist is to try to understand all of that, to get within that process, and to meet these people and to write about them in a world they live in with empathy and understanding and at the same time to stand outside of it and to be critical of both sides and their inability to get beyond this and to find a way out of this.

It’s a beautiful job in a sense because I could be one day in a family’s home in Nablus talking about their dead son, who was killed by Israeli soldiers, and who he was and what happened and how they feel about him, and I could be at Tel Aviv next day at the ministry of defense talking to Yitzhak Rabin about how he sees the situation in Nablus and what he thinks he is trying to do. No one else is allowed to move between those two poles. No one else but a journalist can see all the things or can see both sides in that way, and there are times when of course both sides try to prevent our access to both sides. In Iraq, it is impossible to do what I have just described because the physical threat is so huge. In Israel and Palestine, at times it has been very very difficult because the army may seal off Nablus or the Palestinian authority police won’t let you in within an area. Lots of things can happen to prevent that access. But our job is to go to both those places and to talk to all those people and to process and understand what we are hearing, and to understand both the delusions, if you will, and the assumptions and the limited knowledge both sides are working under about each other and to present the best we can to our readers.

Some people have pointed to the distinction between being balanced and being accurate. They see a journalist’s responsibility towards being accurate and not particularly towards being balanced. Tell me a little more about your thoughts on the issue.

I don’t agree with a notion that there is a contradiction or an inherent conflict between being fair and even-handed and being accurate. When I talk about being fair and even-handed, it’s not a ‘on the one hand and on the other hand’ kind of journalism. I think inherent in our assumptions and the way we write stories, a good journalist conveys the truth as best he or she can.

The even-handedness involves being fair, understanding the assumptions that both sides are making, their motives, their imperatives, their personal constituencies – why is prime minister of Israel making a certain decision at some point, what are the political reasons behind that, what are his own constituents demanding of him? Understanding the internal dynamic of why he may make a decision is not the same thing as apologizing for him.

I think that the heart of accuracy is to be even-handed and to be fair and at the same time telling the truth as best as we could find it. The fact that you give everyone a chance to explain themselves in a story doesn’t mean that the story isn’t clear about whats going on. If a massacre occurs, if Israeli army guns down six or eight Palestinian women standing outside a mosque where they are protecting or putting their bodies in front of Hamas fighters, which happened a couple of weeks ago in Gaza. Reporting on that – telling the truth about who opened fire, and how it was done and the fact these people are dead and what people is Gaza feel about that. Going back to the army and figuring out what were the rules of engagement, who did that. Reporting as best as we can – reporting the Israeli apology but at the same time reporting the rules of engagement and whether this was about the individual initiative of the soldiers – I think all of that is important and all of that speaks to the truth of the situation.

It’s our obligation to report the whole thing; to see the whole complex picture of what went on. That doesn’t take away from the horror of what happened. I think in some the explaining of how it happened and to allow both sides to explain that does not say – we don’t know what the truth is, on the one hand, one the other hand. That’s not what that kind of reporting does. That kind of reporting brings you insight into how that kind of thing can happen. I think its the most valuable reporting we do and I don’t think – I think you can be very critical and provide your readers with a real understanding so that they can make their own judgment about it. Your story will guide them to a judgment.

I always thought it was most important in covering a conflict to make sure each side understood the price of what they were doing. If you are in Israel and you say that it is really important to the hold the West Bank, there is no way we can give that up. We are killing two Palestinian kids a day right now, and we are doing damage to our own army. I always felt that the journalist’s role was to make sure that everyone, our readers, understood what the price was, understood what this number 2 a day consisted of – who those people were – that they had families that they had fathers and mothers, that they were out there doing whatever they were doing, what their motives were. I felt that our role to make sure everybody understands the price and consequences of their actions. If you can do that, you have done a lot. I really believe deeply that it’s both.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Principles of Good Journalism

19 Jan

Part 3 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glenn Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


People can be fairly clever in coming up with justifications for why they did what they did. Can empathy come in the way of critically looking at the choices made by people? How do you provide both an empathetic and a critical account?

I think you have to do both. First of all, journalism to me is a fairly large spectrum of things which ranges from the sort of very aggressive — move in there and find out wrongdoing and attack it — sort of Seymour Hersh approach to people who are writing perhaps more nuanced account — lets get into the mindset of people making decisions, trying to figure out why did the things they things. The best journalists can do that and do it critically– both be critical at the same time and give a full rounded portrait. To people who inevitably end up crossing the line and writing very sympathetically about the people who made terrible decisions.

I think the very best journalists find a way to do both and to not lose their critical edge. I am thinking, it may not be an appropriate example, but we can take someone like [not clear] writing in the 1960s about somebody like Joe DiMaggio, the greatest sports star. [not clear] writes this wonderful piece for Esquire about DiMaggio which both I think summons up both the grace and charisma of DiMaggio but at the same time when you walk away from the piece, you have a very very critical understanding of his illusions, of the damage he has done, and of his total inability to say understand women in his life, and the way he seeks to dominate, manipulate and control everyone around him. To me that’s a work of art — it almost surpasses journalism, but it is an act of journalism. That kind of piece, you know, is a model of being able to both understand someone’s mindset and why they do the things they do but at the same time delivers to the readers a portrait that also is unmistakably critical and powerful. Now that’s clearly the ultimate. I can’t do that, and I don’t expect most journalists to be able to do that, but I do expect people to be both tough and fair. That’s not too much to ask.

You can tell — to apply it to much recent example — when you look at say some of the people who wrote about the Iraq war, the run-up to the Iraq war — the obvious suspects like Judith Miller of the New York Times. I hate to mention Judy in such a way because she becomes a scapegoat but nonetheless that sort of rather uncritical recitation of the material that your sources provide you – you know I think we have to be able to do more than that. I think if you contrast some of the thinks Judy was writing at the time say with Bart Gelman of the Washington Post wrote, you can see the difference. And you can see kind of being a little more careful, a little more critical, a little more that step of asking yourself about the sources. That’s part of what good journalism is about. Always kind of asking yourself about the sources, double-checking — that’s part of what good journalism is about. Not falling captive to your sources or to a particular perspective, checking it again, being critical, I think that’s something that journalists can and have to practice on a daily basis.

Having singled out Judy, it’s also a process that involves editors because that’s what editors are for. Reporters often go in certain directions and believe they have come across something quite unique and sometimes they have, but it’s the function of the editors to ask those questions to reporters that things have been covered. So, I think our failure, as collective failure to the run-up of the war, was not just the failure of the reporting, but it was mostly a failure of the editing. This gets us into a whole different subject. I really believe strongly that good journalists could do both and that empathy is not the enemy of truth.

How do you make the informational landscape, the moral topography of the choices available to somebody, accessible to the readers? How can the journalist go about doing this?

Well, this is tough because you inevitably oversimplify things to an extent. Just the act of putting something in the story, you are leaving out. Part of the art of journalism is what you don’t put in. In fact, I think most of the choices you make — first you make them into deciding what you are going to pursue and what you don’t choose to pursue; of all the human activity we could be writing about. So the first really important question is what don’t we go after? And then of course in gathering material you always leave out a lot of things, any good journalist will tell you that they are leaving 90% or more of what they find out. You actually make a lot of choices, and it is in those choices that I would argue that in those choices that subjective individual values really emerge. There are so many different kinds of stories and ways of storytelling. We find out today, and we have to have it in the newspaper by tomorrow, and that can be very valuable and very important.

The place I have always strived to get to is to go back to those stories and to tell longer narratives that involve storytelling and that involve characters, explaining to readers who people are. It is a very character-driven form of journalism and it has its flaws because when you look at history — there are forces at work and there are individuals at work, and the balance between those and who is really in the driver’s seat is something that we have all studied for and debated and will continue to debate for a long long time. Character driven journalism that uses characters to summon dilemmas and choices that were made. I am thinking of a recent good model – Karen DeYoung’s new book on Colin Powell called Soldier. It comes way after the fact so it’s only one kind of journalism — the kind of re-exploration. Karen gets to have 5 or 6 interviews with Powell.

Her portrait of Colin is both empathetic and understanding his motive, who he was, where he came from and how important the military was for him, how important it was for him to be an autonomous individual yet also feeling his responsibility was to support his leader. And, she captures that very well and at the same time she captures what a huge mistake Powell made and how he feels about that. He feels betrayed on the one hand, which she captures as well; the fact that he wasn’t willing to take a more activist aggressive stance when he realized things were going badly — to blow the whistle on it if you will — ‘I can’t do this anymore. I am quitting, protesting, whatever.’ I think in the way a very very good journalist does, Karen both helps you understand what Powell is thinking, what he was trying to do, how he was trying to work within the administration to be a moral force if you will or force for moderation and how he failed.

This gets me to the thing that I think I have focused on most of all – beyond the breaking of news and in production of all the information that we deliver day after day in newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, I really feel that if we get 50% of it correct on that first day, we are doing very well because we are reporting on limited information, limited sources, under deadline with people constantly either lying to us consciously or unconsciously with information that they don’t themselves really understand and we are struggling to produce the subject for the next day. We are writing history on the fly. I don’t think there is any getting around that. There is no way – maybe we can improve it to 55% at times or 60%, but there is no way we are going to get much beyond that because of the nature of the enterprise.

Let me interject here. In a way, I feel that newspapers overstate their case all the time. They don’t let the readers in on the fact that they don’t know certain things or the constraints that they are working under.

I think you are absolutely right. You can almost put a box in every story—by the way, keep in the mind that we hope that half of this is true. We are coming at it again tomorrow, and we will try to do better on this particular story as we move along. First, we are going to tell you that we have won the war and tomorrow we are going to tell you that it turns out that we didn’t win the war. There is getting around it when you come out every day. It is a human enterprise.

It puts enormous pressure, enormous responsibility on us to go back at things, to revisit anything important. In my career – you always learn so much more when you go back the second time or the third time – so many things you assumed or thought you knew turned out to be wrong. A classic example of my time in Israel during the first Palestinian uprising when a young woman, a Jewish settler was killed in a small Palestinian village, called Beita. She was the first Jewish Israeli to be killed in the first uprising. So long ago and such a naive almost seems like a golden era compared to how many people have died since. Anyway, the circumstance of her death was so complex, and I went back last year or earlier this year and reread my first-day story, and it says she had been stoned to death by Palestinian villagers because that’s what the army had announced and that was totally wrong. It turned out she had been accidentally been killed by her own bodyguard. We got that story wrong the first day, and we got it a little better the second day, the army itself was investigating- whether in good faith or not. It took a week later when I went back to -had to sneak in through the army’s cordon – they had cordoned off the area- we weren’t allowed in. Two of us eventually made our way through — snuck our way in — interviewed the villagers, interviewed some of the Jewish settlers who were with her that day, got some materials from the army investigators as that came out and gradually pieced together a much much more accurate account of what had happened, and the sort of sequence of events that had led to the tragedy or disaster. It was very close to the truth, to the full truth about a week later. I looked at it and appalled at what we all wrote the first day, and I am very very proud of what I wrote a week later.

I think that’s all you can do in a sense—own up to the flaws, to the flaws of the process. There are both personal flaws, lack of skepticism at times. We can load our stories with phrases that say — “according to preliminary report”, “we had no way to being able to verify this,” “according to unconfirmed information because we weren’t allowed to interview witnesses at the time” — all those things can go in there, have to go in there but they don’t really mitigate enough of what we are saying. We have to be willing and able to go back to thing and to admit that we are mortal, that we are flawed, that the information that we provide is only as good as what our sources are giving us at that time, and to go back at it again and again, and to be as transparent and honest about the process as we can be.

And you are right—newspapers tend to speak in this magisterial, almost divine voice that claims omniscience when it is, in fact, it is a very flawed and hesitant process that we go through. I think we have come a long way over the years and admitted that and been more open about that. Certainly, that has been one of the advantages of having a blogosphere and to have everyone be a media critic. One of the real advantages of that is that it has made us more careful and it has made us a little more honest about, and a little more open about the process we go through. And surprise, surprise it’s a human flawed complicated and often subjective process.

It seems like European news organizations like the BBC are a little more careful about attribution and more conscientious in providing context. Do you think this is the case? How do you compare it to NY Times and Washington Post?

Yeah, I don’t really agree with you. First of all let’s separate out the British press—The Guardian, The Times of London, and those from the BBC. Those I would argue strongly are less careful in attributing that the Washington Post or the NY Times.

The BBC, compared to any other broadcast outlet, is head and shoulders above. Certainly, compared to certainly any American broadcast outlet, BBC is an absolutely marvelous news institution and the online version, which is what I see these days – I just got back from living in the UK for almost four years – and I admire BBC enormously.

They are thorough, they stick with things, and they cover a much broader range of countries than the New York Times or the Washington Post. They have an extensive staff. If we had a license fee and the zillions of dollars floating in from the government — we would be more extensive also. We are private institutions.

Nonetheless, I don’t agree that their attribution or their general accuracy exceeds ours. I just don’t buy it. They are good, they are careful, they may at times be a little more cautious but when I see what they write about events in America or covering the Middle East, Israel, and Palestine. I think they have a rather, at times the BBC has a sort of a London media elite set of assumptions – certainly about Israel and Palestine – that shines through their copy in ways and in their reportage –which can be skewed. Please keep that in context. I love BBC, and I think they do a wonderful job but no, I would defend us and the New York Times in terms of the quality and things that you talk about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Early Professional Experiences

19 Jan

Part 2 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


How was it working for a small newspaper? How did you learn the ropes of going about say finding and investigating a story?

There is nothing like a small newspaper in a small community because it really is the laboratory where you can begin to do things and where when you make mistakes, they are generally small ones – they don’t have a huge impact. At the same time, you really learn very quickly that accuracy is crucial, that you were accountable for what you were writing not only to the small group of people around you at the paper but to people you were writing about because they were reading you intensely. Even in this little weekly in Chesterfield County – its called the Chesterfield news journal, I was covering the board of supervisors, which is the county government which met weekly. Everyone read this little journal intensely, and if you screwed something up, they were on top of it and if you were critical, they knew it, and they quickly took your measure as to how they felt about you. So, you were accountable to them in a way – not so much to write things that weren’t true, to skew what you were writing to please them – more that you had to be accurate and you had to be careful.

I had fairly long hair, not very good clothes. I was making a $1.65/hour on this job, and I couldn’t afford a wardrobe or even a car that started very well. (Chuckles) I was driving a Volkswagen van that had to sit on a hill to push it to start it. There are not many hills in Chesterfield County. It was always an adventure to get that thing going. But it really was a good place to sort of learn the basics.

Because I had no training as a journalist, because I had never taken a course, never written a word for a newspaper, I really had to start from scratch and there wasn’t much help at the Chesterfield News Journal and I have to add that at least for the first year, there wasn’t much help at The Richmond Mercury, the place where I worked next, a weekly newspaper in Richmond, Virginia. Both of the newspapers no longer exist. I found that I had to teach myself by and large in this first stretch.

Fortunately Richmond, Virginia is on the outskirts of the Washington Post circulation area. So for 25 cents or 50 cents a day, I could get what turned out to be a very practical useful textbook guide to modern daily journalism, the daily Washington Post. I pored over it, read it thoroughly. Really for the first time, I read the newspaper thoroughly every day. I had been a newspaper reader, war fairly knowledgeable about governmental affairs and things like that, I certainly wasn’t an ignorant person, I was well educated, but I had a lot to learn. I would sort of simply look at the way Washington Post approached stories, both in terms of how they were written and the different forms. It’s not hard; it’s not brain surgery to figure out various forms of stories. What was in the second paragraph, how did the first paragraph work, I would just analyze it for that but also for attitude and the Post then was a very muscular cheeky newspaper. Some days it was not terribly well edited, some days it almost bizarre in parts but many days, it was really quite exciting to read and in this time of Watergate, especially exciting. I used that as my text. So, developing an approach to how you did the reporting very much came from that and from my own understanding of what a reporter’s role was – I felt I was there to uncover things, to find out things.

Lord Northcliffe, the old British press manager once said, ‘News is what they don’t what you to know, everything else is advertising.’ The direct quote is “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress, all the rest is advertising.” That’s not all news is but its certainly a good starting point and certainly coming out of Columbia University in the 1960s with everything that had happened over Vietnam and everything else; certainly, my attitude and my approach was aggressive, critical, looking for the problem. That type of newspaper approach fit well with what I wanted to do. So what I had to learn over time was to be -Yes, it was important to have had edge and that sort of critical attitude but at the same time to be open to new experiences, to not make too many presumptions about what a story was, to be able to be open to the experience of reporting and actually talking to people, getting out, realizing that the truth, as best as I could determine, was more complex, had more shades of grey than the sort of black and white that I had wanted to think. That only occurred over time, and it was a very long and painful process.

Did journalism change you as a person? It seems that you came to appreciate the subtleties more. Please talk a little more about how what impact did journalism have on you and how you changed over time.

Yeah, Everyone matures over time and hopefully becomes a little more sophisticated or a little more understanding, a little more aware of your own mortality and therefore a little more forgiving, a little more aware of your own personality flaws and therefore more understanding of other people’s. That doesn’t just apply to journalists but applies for all of us, and I think that process occurred with me.

I think you become a better journalist as you understand that the world is not a simple place. And there is a fine balance between in keeping a code and an edge in the sense of – ‘Lets get on that, lets get to the bottom of that, and lets be really relentless in pursuing a particular subject’, and at the same time understanding the sort of human frailties that go into a situation or developing empathy in other words. I don’t think we are automatically empathetic creatures. I think that’s an acquired quality over the course of time.

For me, the best journalism has always been about the most complex subjects and about getting to the bottom of things that are not simple either in terms of the information involved or the morality involved. Developing a taste for that and realizing that the sort of gotcha stories, where you do an expose’ – well that’s immensely satisfying in some ways, it is even more satisfying to write about complex mechanisms and people and the reasons why people do the things they do and figuring out of the motives.

I have always been more interested in the perpetrators than the victims – whether that’s the people who ran government in Virginia and who had a rather successful oligarchy of power – ‘Who they were, what they were thinking and what they told themselves about the decisions they made’ – or whether it was in South Africa – people in the Afrikaans league who were running the government back in the days of apartheid, or whether the Israeli establishment leaders – ‘What information were they getting? What were they telling themselves or how did they justify doing things that to me seemed unjustifiable, in some ways kind of evil?’

Saying its evil doesn’t get you all that far. In the end, it wasn’t as interesting to me as figuring out who these people were, what they told themselves, what they told their children about what they were doing and how they were justifying. That to me was fascinating, and it still is.