When Big Data Becomes Bad Data

Corporations are increasingly relying on algorithms to make business decisions and that raises new legal questions.

Protesters participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Among the visible signs are those advocating for equal rights, integrated schools, fair housing and fair employment. (Marion S Trikosko/PhotoQuest/Getty)

A recent ProPublica analysis of The Princeton Review’s prices for online SAT tutoring shows that customers in areas with a high density of Asian residents are often charged more. When presented with this finding, The Princeton Review called it an “incidental” result of its geographic pricing scheme. The case illustrates how even a seemingly neutral price model could potentially lead to inadvertent bias — bias that’s hard for consumers to detect and even harder to challenge or prove.

Over the past several decades, an important tool for assessing and addressing discrimination has been the “disparate impact” theory. Attorneys have used this idea to successfully challenge policies that have a discriminatory effect on certain groups of people, whether or not the entity that crafted the policy was motivated by an intent to discriminate. It’s been deployed in lawsuits involving employment decisions, housing and credit. Going forward, the question is whether the theory can be applied to bias that results from new technologies that use algorithms.

Asians Are Nearly Twice as Likely to Get a Higher Price from The Princeton Review

One unexpected effect of the company’s geographic approach to pricing is that Asians are almost twice as likely to be offered a higher price than non-Asians, an analysis by ProPublica shows. Read the story.

The term “disparate impact” was first used in the 1971 Supreme Court case Griggs v. Duke Power Company. The Court ruled that, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it was illegal for the company to use intelligence test scores and high school diplomas — factors which were shown to disproportionately favor white applicants and substantially disqualify people of color — to make hiring or promotion decisions, whether or not the company intended the tests to discriminate. A key aspect of the Griggs decision was that the power company couldn’t prove their intelligence tests or diploma requirements were actually relevant to the jobs they were hiring for.

In the years since, several disparate impact cases have made their way to the Supreme Court and lowercourts, most having to do with employment discrimination. This June, the Supreme Court’s decision in Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. affirmed the use of the disparate impact theory to fight housing discrimination. The Inclusive Communities Project had used a statistical analysis of housing patterns to show that a tax credit program effectively segregated Texans by race. Sorelle Friedler, a computer science researcher at Haverford College and a fellow at Data & Society, called the Court’s decision “huge,” both “in favor of civil rights…and in favor of statistics.”

So how will the courts address algorithmic bias? From retail to real estate, from employment to criminal justice, the use of data mining, scoring software and predictive analytics programs is proliferating at an exponential rate. Software that makes decisions based on data like a person’s ZIP code can reflect, or even amplify, the results of historical or institutional discrimination.“[A]n algorithm is only as good as the data it works with,” Solon Barocas and Andrew Selbst write in their article “Big Data’s Disparate Impact,” forthcoming in the California Law Review. “Even in situations where data miners are extremely careful, they can still affect discriminatory results with models that, quite unintentionally, pick out proxy variables for protected classes.”

It’s troubling enough when Flickr’s auto-tagging of online photos label pictures of black men as “animal” or “ape,” or when researchers determine that Google search results for black-sounding names are more likely to be accompanied by ads about criminal activity than search results for white-sounding names. But what about when big data is used to determine a person’s credit score, ability to get hired, or even the length of a prison sentence?

Because disparate impact theory is results-oriented, it would seem to be a good way to challenge algorithmic bias in court. A plaintiff would only need to demonstrate bias in the results, without having to prove that a program was conceived with bias as its goal. But there is little legal precedent. Barocas and Selbst argue in their article that expanding disparate impact theory to challenge discriminatory data-mining in court “will be difficult technically, difficult legally, and difficult politically.”

Some researchers argue that it makes more sense to design systems from the start in a more considered and discrimination-conscious way. Barocas and Moritz Hardtestablished a traveling workshop called Fairness and Transparency in Machine Learningto encourage other computer scientists to do just that. Some of their fellow organizers are also developing tools they hope companies and government agencies could use to test whether their algorithms yield discriminatory results and to fix them when necessary. Some legal scholars (including the University of Maryland’s Danielle Keats Citron andFrank Pasquale) argue for the creation of new regulations or even regulatory bodies to govern the algorithms that make increasingly important decisions in our lives.

There still exists “a large legal difference between whether there is explicit legal discrimination or implicit discrimination,” said Friedler, the computer science researcher. “My opinion is that, because more decisions are being made by algorithms, that these distinctions are being blurred.”

 

http://www.propublica.org/article/when-big-data-becomes-bad-data?utm_source=et&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailynewsletter&utm_content=&utm_name=

Is Silicon Valley in Another Bubble . . . and What Could Burst It?

CITY BY THE FROTH
In the U.S. alone, nearly 100 tech start-ups are currently considered unicorns.
Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe.
With the tech industry awash in cash and 100 “unicorn” start-ups now valued at $1 billion or more, Silicon Valley can’t escape the question. Nick Bilton reports.
One Thursday morning in early June, the ballroom of the Rosewood Sand Hill hotel, in Menlo Park, was closed for a private presentation. The grand banquet hall appeared worthy of the sprawling resort’s five-star designation: ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling; silk panels with a silver stenciled design covered the walls. Behind a stage in the 2,800-square-foot room, a large sign bore the name of Andreessen Horowitz, one of Silicon Valley’s most revered venture-capital firms.As breakfast and coffee were offered, the company’s partners mingled with the men and women who endow their $1.5 billion fund. The investors were dressed invariably in business casual, with the top button of their dress shirts noticeably undone. (A mere handful of men stood out in a suit and tie.) Off in the distance, you could make out the faint purr of Bentleys and Teslas ferrying along Sand Hill Road, depositing the Valley’s other top V.C.’s at their respective offices—Greylock Partners, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Sequoia Capital, to name just a few—for another day of meetings with founders, reviewing the decks of new start-ups, and searching for the next can’t-miss company.

After some chitchat (Mitt Romney had addressed the group the previous night), Scott Kupor, a managing partner, took the stage to tell the assembled investors what was going on with their money. A16z, as the firm is commonly known in the Valley, had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in some of the industry’s biggest companies—Instagram, Facebook, Box, Twitter, and Oculus VR—along with a number of upstarts, such as Instacart, a grocery-delivery business that had been recently valued at about $2 billion. After the guests found their seats, Kupor began moving through a series of slides depicting the past and present of the tech sector, using data that would help inform the firm’s investments in the future. Each set of numbers had been meticulously researched and culled from sources that included Capital IQ, Bloomberg, and the National Venture Capital Association.

Yet the presentation, which adhered to a16z’s gray-and-deep-orange palette, seemed to have an ulterior motive. Kupor, his hair neatly parted, was eager to assuage any worry about the existence of a tech bubble. While he conceded that there were some eerie similarities with the infamous dot-com bubble of 1999—such as the preponderance of so-called unicorns, or tech start-ups valued at $1 billion and upward—Kupor confidently buoyed his audience with slides that read, “It’s different this time,” and charts highlighting the decrease in tech I.P.O.’s, the metric that eventually pierced the froth in March of 2000. Back then, a company went public almost every single day; now it was down to about once per week. This time around, he noted, the money was flowing backward. Rather than entering a company’s coffers in the public markets, it was making its way to start-ups in late-stage investments. There was little, he suggested, to worry about.

And then, toward the end of his reassuring soliloquy, the ANDREESSEN HOROWITZ sign fell from the wall and landed on the floor with an ominous thud. As the investors looked on, some partners in the Rosewood ballroom laughed awkwardly. Others did not seem so amused.

KIM JONG UN VS. HITLER

While the rest of the country has spent the past year debating gay marriage, policing tactics, Obamacare, and Deflate-gate, the inescapable topic of discussion in Silicon Valley is whether we are in a technology bubble. Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of his eponymous venture firm, is perhaps the leading advocate against the bubble chatter. On his Twitter feed, he has referenced the word “bubble” more than 300 times, repeatedly mocking or refuting anyone on his radar who even hints at such a possibility. One of his arguments, as the slides in the Rosewood ballroom suggested, is the exponential growth of mobile phones, which have fundamentally changed the way we buy and sell virtually everything, from groceries to taxi-like services, and created unprecedented disruption. Also, in contrast to the days of the dot-com boom, many tech companies are creating revenue—in some instances, lots of it.Andreessen’s points are all valid, but the bubble chatter is still impossible to quell, in part, because the signs are increasingly ubiquitous. When I moved to the Bay Area to cover the tech industry for The New York Times,in the summer of 2011, the Valley was still reeling from the bursting of the last bubble, which led to more than $6 trillion in losses, and sent the NASDAQ on a downward spiral similar to the Dow’s amid the Wall Street crash of 1929. In 2000, some start-up C.E.O.’s lost millions of dollars in a matter of hours. Others saw their entire net worth fall to zero in months. People vanished; commuting times were sawed in half; private investment ossified. At the time I arrived, LinkedIn was the only publicly traded social-media company. A little-known upstart with a catchy name, Uber, had just raised a seemingly staggering amount ($11 million) in venture capital. Postmates, Tinder, Instacart, Lyft, and Slack didn’t exist. Silicon Valley was an actual place, not an HBO show.

But within months I noticed that private money was returning and a cavalcade of start-ups were reshaping the city in their image. Engineers from companies I hadn’t yet heard of began showing up at open houses with checks written out to cover rent for the first few months (a recruiting perk, I later learned). I attended a jungle-themed Halloween extravaganza featuring acrobats, a 600-pound tiger, and other wild animals in order to bolster photo moments that people were posting on a hot new start-up, Instagram. Meanwhile, I was pitched countless apps to find a parking space, or messaging services to tell someone that you are running late. The founders told me their companies were worth tens of millions of dollars. When I asked for their logic, they looked at me as though I were the crazy one. Shortly after the Facebook I.P.O., I learned about a secret group within the social-network company called “T.N.R. 250”; it was an abbreviation of “The Nouveau Riche 250,” comprising Facebook’s first 250 employees, many of whom had become multi-millionaires. The members of T.N.R. 250 privately discussed things they wanted to buy with their windfall, including boats, planes, Banksy portraits, and even tropical islands.

Whenever I even suggested the word “bubble” in my reporting, I became a punching bag. After I scrutinized the ethics (and preposterous valuation) of Path, an ill-fated social network, Michael Arrington, once a nexus of power in Silicon Valley who had invested in the start-up, called me a “pit bull” and said I wasn’t a very noble person. But lately the worries have spread. There are now fast approaching 100 unicorns based in the U.S. alone, and counting. The NASDAQ recently closed at an all-time high, surpassing a record set right before the dot-com crash in 2000. The Shiller P/E ratio, a measure of the ratio of price to earnings, has a number of investors worrying, with The Wall Street Journal noting that it shows stocks are “frothy.”

Lately, in fact, even some of the most aggressive V.C.’s have cowered. Not long after the Andreessen Horowitz presentation, Roger McNamee, co-founder of the private-equity firm Elevation Partners, told CNBC, “We are going to have a correction one of these days.” Bill Gurley, a partner at Benchmark Capital and Andreessen’s nemesis (“my Newman,” as he recently put it, referring to the Seinfeld character), echoed this sentiment on Twitter, venture capitalists’ preferred platform of communication. (Many are staked in it.) “Arguing we aren’t in a bubble because it’s not as bad as 1999,” Gurley tweeted, “is like saying that Kim Jong-un is fine because he’s not as bad as Hitler.” (Gurley declined to comment for this story.)CONTINUED:

http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/08/is-silicon-valley-in-another-bubble

Dismaland, Banksy’s parody theme park

A despairing response to a complex world

By Kelly Taylor
26 August 2015

The announcement that artist Banksy was creating “Dismaland”, an installation parodying the theme park experience, created a huge wave of interest. (See the video trailer here.)

The website selling advance tickets for the show crashed due to the volume of people trying to make a purchase. Banksy issued apologies and follow-on announcements. Despite rumors that the process was a hoax, a spokeswoman for the artist insisted, according to the BBC, that the attraction’s website was “100 percent real” and had gone down under “huge demand”.

Dismaland at night

In any event, the ticket-buying experience was a taster for the theme park as a whole—how the process of life under capitalism of building hope, excitement and anticipation in youth becomes butchered by the reality of disappointment, anger and loss in adulthood. This was a sentiment expressed by one of the artworks, proclaiming, “Keep hold of your longings … going … going … gone”.

Banksy says he hit upon the location for the theme park while walking past the disused Art-Deco “Tropicana” Lido in the seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare (on the Bristol Channel, 18 miles southwest of Bristol) six months ago. There is some irony to the fact that the event is being held in the town. After the Second World War it became a popular holiday destination for workers from industrial Birmingham, but then fell, like many resorts, into a protracted decline in the 1970s. Today, with significant alcohol and drug problems, parts of Weston have turned into a real-life Dismaland.

A slogan at Dismaland

Entry to the theme park is via an airport-type security installation created by California-based artist and filmmaker Bill Barminksi. Actors play the roles of unhelpful and intimidating staff. For visitors, it is probably the only opportunity they will get to poke fun at security measures and not face further consequences.

This effort to warn about the threat of a militarised and locked-down society is married to another concern of Banksy—attendees bringing in pens, markers and paint. They are not allowed on site, for fear of attack on the artwork by opponents of Banksy who feel he has sold out to commercialism.

Coming through the main gates into Dismaland, one is confronted with a world that is terribly sick, where the staff are depressed, uncooperative and dreary, and the slowed-down Hawaiian-style holiday music continually bears down on you. The entire thing is a scene of surreal carnage, with a riot van operating as a fountain on the palace lake.

The show consists of three parts: the traditional Banksy dark view of modern life with old, battered fairground toys littered everywhere, along with works from his previous shows in Bristol and New York; a more traditional art exhibition inside the old main building; and an area of tents given over to the promotion of “political activism”. Throughout the exhibition there is a strong anarchistic theme, conveyed through simplistic slogans such as “Power Inherently Corrupts, Don’t Trust Experts”.

Dismaland brings together artists from all over the world and particularly the oppressed countries of the Middle East in an interactive art form, with Banksy in the role of curator. Some of the art works are sensitive and emotionally charged, and address the chaos and violence of the present class system, including:

* Banksy’s “Immigrants on a Boat”. This traditional seaside slot machine game allows visitors to steer boats across a pool, but with a difference. Numerous boats are packed with migrant workers, but one is a gunboat patrolling below the white cliffs of Dover while the attendant shouts out, “I see no borders, I see no race”. It comes as a shock to visitors to realise the water is littered with dead migrants or to discover they are steering the gunboat. The feeling that these people are human and deserve better is heightened by the intricate and individual detail in each migrant’s face, clothing and posture.

Migrants on a boat by Banksy

* Amir Schiby’s upside down image of four Palestinian boys playing on a beach, recalling the innocence and beauty of childhood and made all the more emotive knowing they were later killed by Israeli shelling.

* Jimmy Cauty’s UK town in the aftermath of a social uprising, the scale and detail of which is breathtaking. The flashing blue lights of the police light up the set. The streets are awash with soldiers and police, a few of whom spray “Fuck the P……” on a wall—a reminder of the false flags and provocations often carried out by the police to justify further oppression.

* Darren Cullen’s “Pocket Money Loans” installation, offering a satirical attack on payday loan companies. Children are offered a good price to sell their healthy teeth and get advance payments on their pocket money.

From Darren Cullen’s “Pocket Money Loans” installation

* The “Museum of Cruel Objects”, curated by Gavin Grindon, housed in a blacked-out bus with a timeline of war and oppression.

* Tammam Azzam’s reproduction of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss”, projected onto a bombed-out housing complex in Damascus, Syria.

The simple iconoclastic images in Dismaland and the one-liners that often accompany them offer the visitor an amusing, angry and healthy protest, but after a while their impact weakens and one is struck by the build-up of unrelenting despondency. Inevitably, hopelessness and the lack of belief that the situation can be improved create a certain cynicism.

However genuine Banksy’s opposition to the existing set-up may be, his outlook has never developed beyond a youthful anarchism gained on the trendier back streets of Bristol.

Tamman Azzam’s reproduction of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss”

Disneyland, like McDonalds, is an easy target and something of a cliché for artistic treatment. More problematic still is the thin line between attacking big-brand influence on economic and political life and blaming the working class for supposedly being wedded to consumerism and viewing a trip to Disneyland as the “holiday of a lifetime”. Attendants in various places hold bunches of black balloons—as if for sale-which read, “I am an imbecile”.

The resignation, passivity and fatalism expressed by the likes of Banksy become links in a causal chain. This is an artist who has had an impact on people. It is an evasion of responsibility simply to say “Oh, what a terrible world we live in, but there’s not much we can do about it”.

The limitations of the parody theme park raise the need for a far greater appreciation by artists of a host of historical and contemporary issues, including the crisis of working class leadership and perspective. Only such a deeper understanding will help break down the scepticism and pessimism that dominates in artistic circles, even the “oppositional” ones. And it might lead Banksy and others to avoid simply portraying working people as passive victims of the “consumer society”, but as the social force that can and will fight for something better.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/26/bank-a26.html

How Colleges Train For Work, Not For Thought

Prof. Larry Wilkerson discusses the role universities play in prepping a work force rather than an intellectual force.

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

While leading Democratic party politicians are now hawking new plans for a debt-free college experience, which of course sounds great to what are now the most indebted college graduates in world history, there are still some concerned about the kind of education even those not having to pay at all would receive. In a recent article for Harper’s magazine William Deresiewicz describes a situation where, as he says, colleges have sold their soul to the market.

To discuss this is Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell and a professor at the College of William and Mary. We welcome back Col. Wilkerson to the Real News. Welcome back.

LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks, Jared. Good to be with you.BALL: So tell us what you think about this article. It suggests that neoliberalism has taken hold, and the designs of the corporate world are all that most universities are being encouraged, at least, to be concerned about. What do you see is the problem here with this trend?

WILKERSON: This is an age-old problem, as you probably know. It goes way back in the life of universities, certainly argued majorly in or on campuses like Oxford University, Cambridge University in England, and other, older schools. It is typified by on the one side the humanists, the exponents of liberal arts, of teaching young men and young women how to think critically as opposed to skills enhancement and training, and those on the other side of the argument exemplified at that time by the Huxley brothers, scientists, by those who reflect what we’re talking about today when we say STEM, science, technology, engineering and so forth.

And what is increasingly becoming the case, and I think is the real object of the article in Harper’s and others who are talking about this in great detail today, and that is the predatory capitalist state, which is what we have become in addition to being a national security state. That predatory capitalist state wants, one, workers who are not going to question things. That is to say, they can’t think critically. And it wants people who are more or less inured to what they produce, do, and mean in daily existence. That is to say, they want workers who are compliant with the structure that we’ve created in this country, the structure that works for minimum wages, that does things that need to be done for the corporate good, and so forth.

It’s a meaner argument, if you will, today. I can give the Huxley brothers their due, as they argued for example with John Henry Cardinal Newman about whether a liberal arts education or a science-based education was the best. And like Plato and Aristotle I would probably argue that somewhere in between is probably the best kind of education. That is to say, you need scientists who can think critically too, and therefore be good voters and so forth, and you need humanists that know something, liberal arts people who know something about science, engineering, math, and so forth. That’s the ideal world.

What you do not need is colleges and universities that are focused on getting jobs for people, and getting jobs in a society that is increasingly plutocratic, that is to say, the only people with the really good jobs are at the very top, and everybody else is a worker bee for those people. That’s what these colleges and universities are tending towards now, and that’s what the advertisements, that’s what the brouhaha in U.S. News and World Report and other places like that is all about. Oh, you’re spending $200,000 for Jane’s education. Then Jane needs to get a job, and she doesn’t need an education. What she needs is training and skills enhancement. Well, that’s not the purpose of a university.

BALL: But this sounds like, to me at least, that this is an expansion, as you said, of a much longer existing problem. That is, that for many, that is for working whites, for poor working whites in this country and certainly for African-descended people and indigenous people, there has long been a history of teaching those communities only to be part of the workforce. That is, with Native American residential schools, with the industrial schools of the 19th century for African-Americans, for the establishment of a public school system in this country in general that was designed specifically to prepare white working people for their roles in society, that this has long been an issue.

So how is this discussion, other than upping it, so to speak, into the upper echelons of society, how is this a change in terms of the history of this country’s education, generally speaking?

WILKERSON: It’s not a change in the sense that you just expressed it, that it has all this complexity, all this nuance and all these different parts to it. For example, there is the part of minority education, the part of minorities being shorted for 400 years, still being shorted. I worked in the DC public school system, for example, for Colin Powell for ten years. It is for all intents and purposes I was segregated when I worked in it as it was in 1850, if it existed at that time. I mean this is no, nothing news to people who’ve worked in inner city schools, that minorities get short shrift when it comes to education.

But this is a bigger argument. It’s a huge argument at the very top of what you might call the sophistication of education argument. And it is first of all, should everyone get a university education, well, I for one, I’m talking about. The answer to that question is no. no matter how egalitarian you may be, everyone in the world does not need to be a philosopher, does not need to be a Ph.D in nuclear physics, and so forth. They don’t have the intellectual capacity, and frankly–and this is more important–they don’t have the inclination.

There are plenty of people that ought to run automotive repair shops, ought to be tradesmen and craftsmen and so forth. And we’ve sort of lost that in this culture today because what we are is a finance giant. We service people, we finance things. We don’t do any real making of anything anymore. But there is a niche, a huge niche in our society for artisans. For craftsmen. For people who by their own wishes don’t want what I’m talking about when I say a university education. And in many cases, aren’t intellectually equipped for it.

So that’s the first division you have to make, and you do have to make that division. We’ve been very [inaud.] by allowing the market to make that division, which is why we get so many idiots who are billionaires, and so many bright people who are not making any money at all. It’s a hypocritical stance in this country that we take on merit and education, and so forth.

But back to the argument, the university takes in people who are intellectually, mentally predisposed to and want to be critical thinkers. That’s not everybody in society. I daresay if a study were done, and it were done over time, you’d probably find 30-40 percent of any given society that really ought to have a university education of the type I’m talking about. Other types of education that mostly community colleges can offer, that are in fact sort of a combination of what I mean by education and what I mean by skills enhancement that are aimed at particular niches in society for example, computer training being the latest example of that on a broad base, ought to be done also. But this is a sort of combination of the university and the artisan segments of society.

The Germans do this really well. They have trade schools and they have universities. And they know everyone’s not going to university, by inclination or by capability. So they identify those people and send those people to university. Those who want trades and good jobs in trades, like working at Mercedes or BMW or whatever, they then send to trade school. Because they want to go to trade school, and because they have intellectual and other capacity to do that. This is the way education should be divided in this country. But hypocrites that we are, hypocrites that we’ve always been, we say everyone should have a $250,000 or more university education. That’s pure poppycock.

BALL: Larry Wilkerson, thanks again for joining us here at the Real News.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me on, Jared.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. For everyone involved, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

 

Jared A. Ball is the author of “I MiX What I Like: A MiXtape Manifesto” (AK Press, 2011) and co-editor of “A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X” (Black Classic Press, 2012). Ball is an associate professor of communication studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland and can be found online at IMixWhatILike.org.

 

http://www.alternet.org/education/how-colleges-train-work-not-thought?akid=13408.265072.1tPeuq&rd=1&src=newsletter1041316&t=16

The network is hostile

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Following this weekend’s news that AT&T was as friendly with the NSA as we’ve suspected all along, cryptographer Matthew Green takes a step back to look at the broad lessons we’ve learned from the NSA leaks. He puts it simply: the network is hostile — and we really understand that now. “My take from the NSA revelations is that even though this point was ‘obvious’ and well-known, we’ve always felt it more intellectually than in our hearts. Even knowing the worst was possible, we still chose to believe that direct peering connections and leased lines from reputable providers like AT&T would make us safe. If nothing else, the NSA leaks have convincingly refuted this assumption.” Green also points out that the limitations on law enforcement’s data collection are technical in nature — their appetite for surveillance would be even larger if they had the means to manage it. “…it’s significant that someday a large portion of the world’s traffic will flow through networks controlled by governments that are, at least to some extent, hostile to the core values of Western democracies.”

The Tianjin explosions and the discrediting of capitalism

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15 August 2015

The official death toll from the massive explosions that devastated a substantial area of the port of Tianjin on Thursday night has reached 57. The number of fatalities is expected to rise significantly, as hospitals try to save critically injured patients among the more than 700 being treated across the Chinese city of 14 million people.

The information filtering out as to the cause of the disaster has triggered open recriminations against the regime of the Stalinist Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Reports indicate that a warehouse operated by Rui Hai International Logistics, a company started in 2011, was storing up to 700 tonnes of highly dangerous sodium cyanide and unspecified quantities of calcium carbide. Containers holding these substances will explode when heated. The fire-fighting crews sent to combat a blaze at the warehouse were not told about the chemicals. At least 21 emergency workers died in the blasts that followed.

Hundreds of port workers were sleeping barely 600 metres away in overcrowded dormitories. Some 90,000 people live within a five kilometre radius of the warehouse. If the explosions had taken place during the day, when the streets and buildings surrounding the docks were bustling with human traffic, the carnage would have been far worse.

The CCP government in Beijing is nervous over the public reaction to the Tianjin explosions, which have demonstrated again the consequences of the unchecked capitalist development over which it has presided for more than 35 years. According to official reports, Rui Hai International Logistics was storing deadly chemicals without the knowledge of, or intervention by, any authorities. The company’s owners and management are being hunted down and arrested. They will more than likely face execution or draconian prison sentences after highly public trials, in an effort to deflect any scrutiny of the broader issues posed by the disaster.

The claim that “no-one knew” about the chemicals has been greeted with disbelief and anger. The popular outrage, expressed on social media and in comments to online news reports, has only been heightened by the fact that this flagrant and criminal indifference to public safety took place in Tianjin.

Tianjin’s port is the tenth largest in the world and the seventh largest in China. It receives the largest number of imported cars of any Chinese port, as well as massive quantities of iron ore, coal, oil and other natural resources needed to supply the industrial complexes and power plants of northern China.

The city itself is China’s fourth largest and, due to its strategic and economic importance as the transport, industrial and technical hub for the capital Beijing, is under the direct political administration of the Housing Ministry of the central CCP government.

In the regime’s propaganda, Tianjin, along with Beijing and the adjoining Heibei province, will be developed into the world’s greatest continuous “mega-city” by 2020, with a population of 130 million people who will purportedly be able to enjoy the best jobs and highest incomes in China.

Thursday’s explosions have sheeted home the social reality: whether in Tianjin or a remote village, the well-being of the Chinese working class is subordinated by the regime to the immediate requirements of transnational and national corporations, and the accumulation of profit for the capitalist elite who own them.

Since the CCP initiated the restoration of capitalist relations in 1979, it has utilised its military and police apparatus to brutally repress all opposition by workers to ruthless exploitation and facilitate China’s transformation into the centre of global low-wage manufacturing.

Substandard safety practices are the norm, not the exception. Andy Furlong, director of policy at the Institution Chemical Engineers in London, told theGuardian: “The view expressed to us very recently by Chinese experts was that in the field of chemical storage their technologies are outdated, some of the equipment they use is primitive, safety management is poor and employee training is not up to scratch.”

Similar comments could be made regarding every sector of the economy and the human cost is staggering.

In 2014, 68,061 Chinese workers were killed in workplace “accidents”—more than 185 per day—and hundreds of thousands more injured. In just the last 24 hours, a gas explosion in a coal mine in Guizhou province has killed 13 miners. In Shaanxi province, 64 miners and their families have been buried alive inside poorly built dormitories by a landslide triggered by a deluge of rain.

According to state media, some 1,600 people, mainly better paid professionals, die at their place of employment each day from the phenomenon known asguolaosi, or extreme overwork.

The air, soil and water systems are thoroughly contaminated in most urban centres due to unchecked industrial operations and development, to the extent that it is estimated that more than 4,400 people die each day—1.6 million per year—from the effects of pollution.

Scandals have wracked food safety, with contaminated milk powder sickening more than 300,000 people and killing six babies in 2008. The capsize of a ferry on the Yangtze River in June, killing more than 400 people, was only the most high profile of regular transport disasters that are generally linked to safety violations.

All the CCP’s promises that the Chinese masses would ultimately benefit from rampant capitalist development over the past 36 years are in tatters. The regime’s legitimacy is already under question, rocked by the slowing economy, a stock market collapse, a slump in property prices, environmental crises, endemic official corruption and ever widening social inequality. The CCP’s rule, along with the capitalist market itself, will be further discredited by the Tianjin disaster.

The political fall-out from the Tianjin explosions is being watched no less anxiously by transnational corporations and banks, as well as by governments around the world. Any disruption to the corporate profits extracted from the Chinese masses by the development of large-scale social unrest will deepen the economic slump internationally and potentially trigger panic in financial markets. For global capitalism, in other words, any effort to change the conditions in China that give rise to disasters such as the Tianjin explosions would be a catastrophe.

That fact underscores the historic bankruptcy of the profit system and the urgency of forging the unity of the Chinese and international working class, in the common political struggle to end capitalism and establish a world planned socialist economy.

James Cogan

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/08/15/pers-a15.html

Noam Chomsky: How America’s Way of Thinking About the World Naturally Produces Human Catastrophes

The scholar talks about the seemingly innocuous elements of our socialization that promote one-world view over another.

http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365466479

Tavis: Noam Chomsky is, of course, internationally recognized as one of the world’s most critically engaged public intellectuals. The MIT professor of linguistics has long been an unapologetic critic of both American foreign policy and the ideological role of the mainstream media.

He joins us now from MIT to talk about the seemingly innocuous elements of our socialization that promote one-world view over another. Before we start our conversation, a clip from “The West Wing” that I think will set this conversation up quite nicely.

Tavis: Professor Chomsky, good to have you on this program. Thank you for your time, sir.

NoamChomsky: Glad to be with you.

Tavis: I think that clip, again, sets up our conversation nicely. Let me just jump right in. Why all these years later is the west better than the east, the north better than the south, Europe better than Africa? These notions continue to persist. Tell me why.

Chomsky: There’s a generalization. We are better than they, whoever we are. So if you look through the whole history of China, one of the most ancient, most developed, civilizations which, in fact, was one of the centers of the world economy as late as the 18th century, China was better than everyone else.

It’s unfortunately a natural way of thinking, very ugly and destructive one, but it’s true. We are the west, the north, Europe and its offshoots, not Africa. So, of course, we’re better than them.

Tavis: When you say it’s a natural way of thinking, unpack that for me. What do you mean by a natural way of thinking?

Chomsky: It’s not unusual for people to think that our group, whatever it is, has special traits that make it better than others. So, for example, I happen to be Jewish. If you look at the Jewish tradition, the leading rabbis and so on, many of them held the position that Jews are a special race above ordinary mankind.

China had similar views. The north and the west had the same views and, of course, it’s enhanced by the imperialist history which ended up with Europe and its offshoots conquering and controlling most of the world.

Actually, this world view about, you know, the north somehow being on top and the south being on the bottom goes way back to the origins of what’s called western civilization.

So, for example, it was believed in classical times that nobody could live south of the equator because their heads would be pointed downward. I think even St. Augustine held that view, if I remember correctly.

And it carries over up to the present when Henry Kissinger says, “Nothing important ever came from the south.” He’s essentially expressing a modern version of the same racist conception.

Tavis: Since you mentioned Henry Kissinger, I was just about to ask, so I will now, Professor Chomsky, how our socialization–or as you might put it–how this natural way of thinking ultimately impacts and affects our foreign policy. If we think that we are better than everybody else, how does that impact and affect our foreign policy?

Chomsky: Oh, very definitely. You see it very clearly if you study internal documents, you know, declassified documents discussing how leaders plan things among themselves.

So go back to, say, 1945 when the U.S. pretty much took over domination of the world. It was incredibly powerful without any counterpart in history, half the world’s wealth, incomparable security, military powers.

So, of course, it planned detailed plans as to how to run the world. Now a lot of it was laid out by the State Department policy planning staff. It’s head was George Kennan, one of the highly respected diplomats, one of the framers of the modern world.

And he and his staff parceled out different areas of the world and described what they called their function within the U.S.-dominated system. So, for example, the function of southeast Asia was to provide resources and raw materials for the industrial countries of Europe and the United States and so on.

When he got to Africa, he said, well, we’re not that much interested in Africa, so we will hand Africa over to Europe for them to exploit–his word–for them to exploit for their reconstruction. If you look at the history of relations between Europe and Africa, some slightly different conception might come to mind, but it never entered the thought of the planners.

So the idea that Europe should exploit Africa for Europe’s reconstruction passed without comment. This is just deeply imbedded in the consciousness of what’s sometimes called white supremacy which is an extraordinary doctrine.

Comparative scholarly studies, George Frederickson, for example, one of the main scholars who dealt with it, concludes that in the United States, white supremacy was even more extreme than in apartheid South Africa. It’s a very powerful concept here. It’s buttressed by imperial domination.

The more powerful you are, the more you dominate others, the more you create justifications for that in ideology and education and media and so on. If you’ve got your boot on someone else’s neck, it’s typical to provide a justification for it. We’re doing it because we’re right, they deserve it, we’re better and so on.

Tavis: I want to come back to how we change that thinking before our conversation ends. Let me go back one more time, though, to your Kissinger reference when Henry Kissinger said that, “Nothing good ever came out of the south”.

If the earth is a sphere–think about this–if the earth is a sphere and we’re constantly in motion, what is to be gained by drawing consistently certain countries on the top half and other countries on the bottom half? What is to be gained by that?

Chomsky: What’s to be gained by that is a graphic representation of the fact that we are more important and better than them. We’re the north, they’re the south. We dominate because of our essential superiority of character, qualities, righteousness and so on.

It’s a graphic manifestation of the we are better than them conception that, as I said, is unfortunately pretty natural and is greatly enhanced by when it’s associated with power. So when you actually dominate others, that enhances the natural we are better than them conceptions.

Tavis: Speaking of conceptions, it seems that every other day now someone else is announcing that he or she is running for president. And I suspect, between now and November 2016, we will hear the term “American exceptionalism” over and over and over again.

By any other definition or espoused any other way, is this notion again that we’ve been talking about tonight that the USA is all that and then some, what do you say to the American people about how we challenge our own thinking, how we reexamine our assumptions, how we expand our inventory of ideas, as it were, about this notion that we hold onto so dearly?

Chomsky: Well, the best way to do it is to look carefully at the facts that are easily available to us. So take the phrase, “American exceptionalism”, which is supposed to express our unique superiority to other countries, the unique benevolence of our intention with regard to others. You get this across the spectrum.

So a recent issue of the New York review of books, the kind of ideological journal of the left liberal intelligentsia, has an article by the former head of the Carnegie Institute for Peace saying that it’s just obvious beyond discussion that the United States is unique. Other countries work for their own interests. We work for the interests of mankind.

That’s American exceptionalism. There are two problems with it. For one thing, it’s flatly false. As soon as you look at the record, you see nothing like that is true.

The second problem is it’s not uniquely American. Take other great powers in their day in the sun, they had the same doctrine. England was British exceptionalism. France was France’s civilizing mission. Anywhere you look, you find the same thing.

We happen to be the world dominant power for a long time, certainly since the Second World War economically, even before that. Sure, American exceptionalism is our version of the same disgraceful conception of history that’s concocted by the powerful. And how do you combat it? With the facts.

Tavis: Easily said, not easily done. Always pleased to be in conversation with this brilliant thinker, Noam Chomsky, challenging us tonight to reconsider our world view. Professor Chomsky, thanks for your time. Never enough time with you, but I’m honored to have had you on this program tonight, sir.

Chomsky: Thank you.

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT.

 

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