Monday, 24 February 2014

What language should we use? Aesthetics vs. inclusiveness

The Economist is known for being a strident defender of all things capitalist (it was once said that “its writers rarely see a political or economic problem that cannot be solved by the trusted three-card trick of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation”). One reason for why it has been so successful in pushing this agenda is its widely acknowledged quality of writing. It is so well known for its clear non-jargon writing that the Economist Style Guide has become a best-selling book. Idle browsing led me to  their advice on what titles to use when writing about someone:
The overriding principle is to treat people with respect. That usually means giving them the title they themselves adopt. But some titles are ugly (Ms)… 
Now, it had not even occurred to me that anyone would think that “Ms” was “ugly”. I was brought up taking it for granted that we should automatically use “Ms” rather than “Mrs” so it doesn’t strike even strike me as odd. Perhaps that reaction is different in older generations. (In any case I doubt that we should be using gendered titles at all).

But I wonder whether it even matters whether it is “ugly” or not. As the article suggests the “overriding principle is to treat people with respect” and whether or not a word or phrase sounds or looks nice seems to be a fairly unimportant consideration in comparison. Treating people with dignity and respect by using inclusive language seems to me obviously more important than aesthetic considerations. Using slightly longer or more unusual language seems such a small price to pay for being decent towards other people.

However a lot of people who do not like “politically correct” language seem to think differently. They scoff at differently abled rather than disabled, sex workers rather than prostitutes, transgender rather than transvestite. Their real motivation is usually that they do not believe in the underlying claims for respect and equality, but it is often dressed up as caring about the attractiveness of language itself. (For a perfect takedown of these “political correctness gone mad” people see this sketch by Stewart Lee).


Perhaps there is however a more respectable position than the anti-"political correctness" crowd when it comes to the trade off between more inclusive language and aesthetics. Perhaps there is something to the idea that language should not be altered so much so that it becomes sterile and bureaucratic. Maybe the aesthetic value of language is in fact greater than I have suggested. Let me even grant for a moment the point that some inclusive language can appear ‘unattractive’. Saying fisherperson rather than fisherman for example might truly strike some as weird.

But even on this I’m not convinced. Our understanding of what is and is not aesthetically pleasing language is not objective and unchanging. Just as with “Ms” and “Mrs” I think we can become quite quickly accustomed to new language and no longer consider it unattractive. Salesperson, spokesperson and police officer have all become so accepted that I doubt whether anyone still sees them as intrusions on attractive language. Our aesthetic judgements are intimately connected with our wider views about justice and equality. When our views on the latter change, it affects the former.

Of course the aesthetic costs of using inclusive language might vary from language to language. English for example does not have gendered articles (the, a) and it has relatively few gender specific nouns, and those that are can be made neutral fairly easily. That is not the case with many other languages. German for example has gendered articles (der/die, ein/eine) as well as most nouns. In German you can't for example just say "the student" or "a professor" and be gender-neutral, because there are different versions of the noun to refer to either females or males. So in order to be gender-neutral you have to write "der/die Schüler/-in" and "ein/-e Professor/-in" to include both female and male students and professors. That is more cumbersome and less attractive than it is in English. But the alternative is using a single gender (which nearly always means the male gender) to cover everyone. I think the consequences of that are much worse than using a few extra slashes and hyphens.

The temptation might be to try to find some middle ground position. But in this case my view is that inclusiveness trumps aesthetics every time when it comes to language. The language we use shapes the environment that people live in, and when that language excludes and insults people it contributes to a hostile and oppressive environment. I’m willing to sacrifice quite a lot of aesthetic value to avoid that.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Scoring for loans, or: the Matthew effect in finance


source: wikipedia

Last year, we moved to a lovely but not particularly well-off area in Frankfurt. If we applied for a loan, this means that we might have to pay higher interest rates. Why? Because banks use scoring technologies in order to determine the credit-worthiness of individuals. The data used for scoring include not only individual credit histories, but also data such as one’s postal code, which can be used as a proxy for socio-economic status. This raises serious issues of justice.

Sociologists Marion Foucarde and Kieran Healy have recently argued that in the US credit market scoring technologies, while having broadened access, exacerbate social stratification. In Germany, a court decided that bank clients do not have a right to receive information about the formula used by the largest scoring agency, because it is considered a trade secret.

This issue raises a plethora of normative questions. These would not matter so much if most individuals, most of the time, could get by without having to take out loans. But for large parts of the population of Western countries, especially for individuals from lower social strata, this is impossible, since labour income and welfare payments often do not suffice to cover essential costs. Given the ways in which financial services can be connected to existential crises and situations of duress, this topic deserves scrutiny from a normative perspective. Of course there are deeper questions behind it, the most obvious one being the degree of economic inequality and insecurity that a just society can admit in the first place. I will bracket it here, and focus directly on two questions about scoring technologies.

1) Is the use of scoring technologies as such justified? The standard answer is that scoring expands access to formal financial services, which can be a good thing, for example for low-income households who would otherwise have to rely on loan sharks. Banks have a legitimate interest in determining the credit-worthiness of loan applicants, and in order to do so cheaply, scoring seems a welcome innovation. The problem is, however, that scoring technologies use not only individual data, but also aggregative data that reflect group characteristics. These are obviously not true for each individual within the group. The danger of such statistical evaluations is that individuals who are already privileged (e.g. living in a rich area or having a “good” job) are treated better than individuals who are already disadvantaged. Also, advantaged individuals are usually better able, because of greater “financial literacy”, to get advice on how they need to behave in order to develop a good credit history, or on how to game the system (insofar as this is possible). The use of such data thus leads to a Matthew effect: the have’s profit, the have-not’s lose out.
         There are thus normative reasons for and against the use of scoring technologies, and I have to admit that I don’t have a clear answer at the moment (one might need more empirical data to arrive at one). One possible solution might to reduce the overall dependence on profit-maximing banks, for example by having a banking system in which there are also public  and co-operative banks. But this is, admittedly, more a circumvention of the problem than an answer to the question of whether scoring as such can be justified.


2) Is secrecy with regard to credit scores justified? Here, I think the answer must be a clear “no”. Financial products have become too important for the lives of many individuals to think that the property rights of private scoring companies (and hence their right to have trade secrets) would outweigh the interest citizens have in understanding the mechanisms behind them, and in seeing how their data are used for calculating their score. In addition, social scientists who explore social inequality have a legitimate interest in understanding these mechanisms in detail. It must be possible to have public debates about these issues. Right now, the only control mechanisms for scoring agencies seems to be the market mechanism, i.e. whether or not banks are willing to buy information from them. But one can think of all kinds of market failures in this area, from monopolies and quasi-monopolies to herding behaviour among banks.
      One might object that without trade secrecy there would be no scoring agencies at all, and hence one could not use scoring technologies at all (note that this only matters if one’s answer to the first question is positive). But it seems simply wrong that transparent scoring mechanisms could not work. After all, there is patent law for protecting intellectual property, and in case this really doesn’t work, one might consider public subsidies for scoring agencies. The only objection I would be worried about would be a scenario in which transparency with regard to scoring agencies would reinforce stigmatization and social exclusion. But the problem is precisely that this seems to be already going on – behind closed doors. We cannot change it unless we open these doors.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Nudge, Nudge? Privatizing Public Policy

"Like all major changes to democratic accountability, it happened with a minimum of fuss. By the time we heard about it, it was already over."

Photo: Illustration by Bill Butcher 
This week the government announced that the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), commonly referred to as the 'nudge unit', has been 'spun out' of Whitehall into a mutual joint venture. The new "social purpose company" is now owned, in roughly equal shares, by BIT employees, the government, and Nesta (an independent charity established by the previous government using £250 million of National Lottery money). The privatisation deal has been described as "one of the biggest experiments in British public sector reform" (Financial Times), on account of this being the first time that privatisation has reached beyond public services and utilities to include an actual government policy team. My intuition, like many other people's I would imagine, is that this marks a dangerous new precedent in the rise of private power over the public. But what precisely is it that is doing the work for this intuition?

Debates about  the privatisation of government functions tends to give rise to instrumental questions concerning the desirable ways of providing these services, most often casting the matter in terms of the trade-off between private entrepreneurialism and public bureaucracy. Proponents of privatisation emphasise efficiency, innovation and flexibility; opponents of privatisation emphasise the loose fidelity of private entities on account of the lack of accountability. The case for privatising the BIT followed suit: Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, has stated  that "this government is determined to help Britain win the global race by setting free innovative public sector entrepreneurs like these". This is part of its aim to build a "diverse ecosystem of providers... working alongside the public sector", in order to drive innovation in government commercial models.* Similarly, the reaction from those who see this as "backdoor privatisation" focuses on  the lack of accountability (for instance, the BIT is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act), a danger that is made more worrying in light of recent scandals involving services that the government has already outsourced (e.g., problems with private prison providers, and the referral of G4S and Serco to the Serious Fraud Office).  

We can understand this debate, therefore, as taking place within a framework provided by a shared assumption of both the proponents and opponents of BIT's privatisation, namely, that the governmental function in question (i.e., behaviour change policy) can in principle be performed by either public or private entities and that the choice between them must be based on addressing the empirical question of who is likely to perform this function better. However, my (and others') intuitive dislike of BIT privatisation does not look like it can be explained in terms of instrumental concerns about the efficacy of function-provision. Rather, its underlying rationale is grounded in different normative considerations to those officially used to justify the opposition to privatisation: an oft-unarticulated conviction that the identity of the agent is crucial in providing the good.

It is the nature of 'the good' in the case of the private provision of nudge policy that seems to be doing a lot of the work for this normative constraints justification, which states that: while a privatised nudge unit can execute the task (and perhaps do it better than the state-owned nudge unit), there are normative constraints that preclude the performance of nudge policy being made by agents other than the state. "Nudging" is the controversial policymaking mechanism that implements policy on citizens' automatic, subconscious behavioural responses in order to elicit targeted behaviour change. It works by applying Kahneman-style lessons from cognitive psychology and behavioural economics so as to promote behaviour that is in citizens' own, as well as society's general, interests; but nudging "works best in the dark" (i.e., without the 'nudgee' knowing it is happening), so has been charged with being a subtle type of psychological manipulation, which might look to be morally problematic as a behaviour change tactic even to those who are sympathetic to the goals that nudge is trying to achieve.

But if we put to one side issues surrounding the legitimacy of a state-owned nudge unit and focus on the public-private dimension of legitimacy, a non-instrumental anti-privatisation argument might maintain that some functions are "inherently governmental" and that nudging (as psychological manipulation aimed at behaviour change) is one such function. So the justification for the role of the state in nudging is based on who it is that is doing the nudging (rather than, say, the state's superior nudging ability). This represents a normative consideration that has not been aired in the critical discussion of BIT's privatisation. It is not clear that this line of argument could be fruitful; but it is worth exploring whether or not it could be, because if it does capture a relevant consideration, then it might be that we find ourselves in a strange situation: where the UK government has privatised (and wants to privatise other) inherently governmental functions - that is, functions that cannot in principle be privatised.

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* In reality, it appears that a key motivation was "staff retention": privatizing the BIT means that the 16-strong team are no longer bound by civil service pay grades; they are now policy consultants and shareholders in a for-profit company that has a great competitive advantage, and one that has already been linked with the use of success fees, meaning that if its advice leads to significant customer (governmental and/or private-sector) savings, the company gets a share.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Capping Working Hours


Recently, the scandalous decisions of some investment banks to treat their employees like human beings by suggesting they take Friday nights and Saturdays off has raised much debate amongst financial journalists and their ilk.

The issue of long working hours is not limited to investment banks; a survey in the US of 1000 professionals by Harvard Business School found that 94% worked fifty hours or more a week, and for almost half, working hours averaged over 65 hours a week. With the increase of automisation in production chains moving labour into customer facing service roles, more individuals will likely face this challenge in their daily lives.

There are good reasons to think that these hours are not useful at all. Economists have long known that as working hours increase, the marginal production of workers fall – mistakes increase and the quality of work produced falls.

More importantly than the impacts on productivity however, are morally relevant considerations that are related to cultures of long working hours:

Industries with long working hours are typically biased in favour of those who do not have other commitments which limit their available time – most notably child care and currently, in our society, this means women. Economist Claudia Goldin finds that gender gaps in wages are greatest in those industries which exhibit “non-linear pay structures” – essentially those in which individuals who can work extremely long hours are disproportionately rewarded. This describes most jobs in the corporate, financial and legal worlds.

There are important health implications of longer working hours with significant evidence that those who work longer than 48 hours a week on a regular basis are “likely to suffer an increased risk of heart disease,stress related illness, mental illness, diabetes and bowel problems.”

Finally there are various employment related issues worth considering – for example would unemployment be decreased if each 100 hour-per-week job were split into two of 50? Would such a policy help reduce the concentration of power in organisations as key managerial tasks would likely have to be increasingly shared?

While our society may gain significantly from moving away from working long hours, it will always be incredibly difficult for any firm to act unilaterally in this matter due to substantial co-ordination failures in this area.

The appropriate response, I believe, is for Government to intervene with a hard cap of 48 hours per week that applies across almost all industries, with no built in exceptions beyond those which are absolutely essential. The current EU working times directive which is supposed to provide a similar function, is farcical in its ability to constrain individuals from working, due to the amount of exceptions and opt out clauses built into it.


A hard cap of 48 hours would be hard to implement, would have some uncomfortable implications (for example - forcing individuals who enjoy their jobs to go home and stop working) and would likely have some negative consequences on the economy. However there would seem to be substantial positive gains to be made and I believe that these are large enough to justify developing such a cap.

*Update: Marxist economist, Chris Dillow, has an excellent post describing how problems like long working hours can naturally arise without actually benefiting anyone.