Some of my favourite people are hacks

Hello, readers. I’m Alex DeForge, a philosophy PhD student at Duke University. I’ve spent a number of years working with non-profits, legal advocacy groups, labour unions, and political parties, so I feel somewhat justified in subjecting you to my commentary on these matters. I’ll be posting here from time to time.

A disclaimer on the following post: I have never worked for a politician that I thought was a hack. Needless to say, I haven’t worked for many politicians.


systemfail

       “Who are all these fuckin’… who are these hacks man?”

                   —  Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson,

                         City Council Meeting, July 8th, 2010

Yes, it was inappropriate for a Mayor to say this at a city council meeting, even if he didn’t realize his mike was still onRobertson apologizedHowever, for those of us that are not elected officials, this is often the right question to be asking when assessing our politicians. 

The urban dictionary says that a hack is “a person who is a professional at doing some sort of service, but does crappy work.” So, to determine if a politician is a hack, we have to determine what their job is and whether they are crappy at it.

In a democracy, politicians ply their trade in a deliberately adversarial arena. Joe Heath’s paper, an “An Adversarial Ethic for Business, outlines how in adversarial institutions, we can distinguish competitors’ goals within the competition from the aims of the competition. Applied to elections, our politicians are supposed to campaign with the goal of winning enough votes to be elected to legislative assembly — even though democratic elections themselves aim to select the best representatives of our interests for the purpose of making good social policy. However, after elections, our politicians are supposed to actually govern, which is to do the job of representing their constituents’ interests to create policy and law to serves those interests.

Politicians are supposed to try to win elections and to make good legislation. But because they need to do the first to be selected to do the second, our democratic system can reward tactics that are great for winning elections and terrible for making just legislation. And there is nothing in the structure of our democratic elections that stops us from electing politicians who are just really good at campaigning but crappy at governing.

We see graphs like this that represent senators’ tendencies toward disagreement over legislation. Sure, it might be the case that they are simply representing constituents’ increasingly polarized interests. Regardless, this sort of disagreement makes it difficult to get bills passed. So, even if our elected officials were voting to represent constituents’ interests, they could still be doing a crappy job of creating social policy.

Maybe I have been a little hard on our politicians. Do I think that all politicians are hacks? No. Some of my favourite people are politicians. 

But in all seriousness — a lot of them are hacks. 

 To be clear, I’m not claiming that all politicians are crappy at every aspect of their jobs. In fact, they seem to be very good at campaigning to win elections. What many of them are not good at, and maybe don’t even care about, is doing the “people’s work” that we supposedly elect them to do. It’s this failure that should lead us to ask, “who are these hacks man?”

Let’s revisit the Vancouver Mayor. Back in 2010, the Mayor’s center-left party, Vision, was part of an official coalition with the city’s far-left party, COPE. Vision realized that if they cooperated with the far-left in elections, they would gain the cooperation that they needed in post-election councils to get their municipal projects off the ground. This was a strategic move, too. By running a non-overlapping slate of candidates with COPE, Vision was able to gain the support and votes of Vancouver’s more liberal constituents. 

COPE eventually decided to end the coalition in 2013.

This is an interesting case study because Vision was able to garner votes by taking actions that were prudent for governing. It seems rare these days to find a political climate that rewards behavior that is strategic to good governance, and not just strategic to winning campaigns. 

We should worry that we are doing something wrong if we believe that our democratic elections are supposed to select for the best representatives for the purpose of governing — these days, it looks like we are selecting hacks. 

- Alex DeForge

Pst! This blog is about to wake up again

(stay tuned)

Why Lance Armstrong isn’t the “Bernie Madoff of cycling”

On another blog, at the end of the summer, I spent far too much space trying to figure out what we should think about Lance Armstrong after his quasi-implicit-wink’n’nudge-pseudo-confession. That statement from Armstrong came as he announced his decision to, in essence, plead “no contest” to the US Anti-Doping Agency’s public hearing of his case. My colleague Chris MacDonald follows up on the case on his Business Ethics Blog — and does so much more concisely, and with special attention to the “adversarial ethics” angle.

On Wednesday (October 10), the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released a small mountain’s worth of evidence against champion cyclist Lance Armstrong. Not surprisingly, comparisons to corruption in the world of business were not far behind. On Twitter, a number of wags referred to Armstrong as the “Bernie Madoff of cycling,” or variants on that.

The comparison with Madoff is to be expected. In both cases, you have wrongdoing of impressive scope. In both cases, the wrongdoing was truly brazen, going on right under the noses of regulators. In both cases, you can’t escape the feeling that someone should have been able to figure it all out sooner. And in both cases, you see the eventual fall of a man who was a hero to many.

But the comparison is also off target in important ways….

 

‘Utmost Good Faith’ Between Adversaries?

Not much has yet been written about the quasi-adversarial relationship that obtains between consumers and the companies from which they buy goods and services, at least not in those terms.

And it’s clear, I think, that the relationship is quasi-adversarial. In game-theoretic terms, it’s a ‘mixed motive’ game — one in which cooperation of some form is useful, but in which each party has some incentive to deviate from maximally cooperative behaviour. When Apple sells me a computer, they would ideally like to squeeze as much money out of me as possible, while giving me a product as cheap-to-produce as possible. And my own preferences are the exact opposite. We both benefit from doing business together, but our interests in the interaction are not quite aligned. In fact, in terms of pure dollars and cents, the transaction between Apple and me is a zero-sum game: every extra dollar they charge for their computer is a dollar out of my pocket and into their corporate coffers. It’s not a fully-adversarial relationship, but it’s still one that needs some rules to keep it civilized.

In this regard, it’s good to know about the legal concept of uberrima fides. This is a legal doctrine, relating specifically to insurance contracts, which says that “all parties to an insurance contract must deal in good faith, making a full declaration of all material facts in the insurance proposal.” The relationship between insurer and insured, in other words, is a game that must be played by very strict rules.

The concept of uberrima fides doesn’t mean the insurer and insured are on the same team, metaphorically speaking. So it implies a relationship quite different from, say, a fiduciary one. A fiduciary relationship, as a famous legal judgment once put it, requires “the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive.” In a fiduciary relationship (e.g., the relationship between lawyer and client), the commercial aspect of the relationship takes a back seat, and one party (e.g., the lawyer) is expected to put the other party’s interests ahead of their own. In a relationship subject to the uberrima fides standard, the relationship is still at least partly adversarial, but the adversaries in question are expected to play very strictly according to the rules. This makes particular sense for the relationship between insurer and insured, presumably, because both parties are so highly vulnerable to gamesmanship and dissimulation on the part of the other.

This suggests, I think, that we think of various kinds of buyer/seller relationships as existing along a spectrum, from the aggressively adversarial to the utterly fiduciary. The question, then, is not which rules should apply to buyer/seller relationships in general. The question, rather, is which rules should apply to what kinds of buyer/seller relationships, and why.

Link

The Bachelor Reality TV Survey

The Bachelor: Watch it? Love it? Hate It? Judge it? I would really appreciate you taking just a minute to fill out this (very short and totally anonymous) survey.  Results will be revealed in a post here on the Ethics for Adversaries blog early next week!

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LCMY75V

Thanks so much for your participation!

Duke Student Government Elections: Students actively avoid adversarial tactics

While national democratic politics are generally adversarial, it turns out democratic politics in the context of student governments at American universities are not. Last week, the Duke Student Government held its annual debate for candidates running for student body president and vice president. The presidential candidates had very similar platforms, so the moderator spent most of the debate asking questions about their leadership styles. In a race where candidates differed on personal, rather than ideological, attributes, the candidates did surprisingly little to distinguish themselves from their opponents. None of the candidates directly criticized the other, and when asked to the name the biggest weaknesses of their opponents, one candidate declined to answer for sake of “constructive conversation.” Interestingly enough, the candidates were willing to scapegoat the school’s administrators on every issue.

Without any conflict, the debate lacked entertainment, for sure—but also substantive value. The platforms of all the candidates were vague and inflated, and they all got away with inaccurate statements. The candidates had plenty of opportunities to go after each other, but none of them did.

Much of this lack of conflict can be explained by the candidates’ relationships to one another. At the end of the campaign, the candidates will inevitably see each other again in class or at a party. They don’t have the luxury of returning to their home states or hiding behind a camera. The candidates have to directly confront each other, and a contention taken the wrong way would make future interactions awkward. On the national stage, it is easy to call your opponent a flip-flopper. On a cafeteria stage in front of a group of peers, a comment with even the slightest contrast can be taken offensively.

In some ways, a government where members are sensitive to conflict will be a government with a lot of mutual respect and cooperation. However, less conflict means fewer substantive policies are crafted on the campaign trail, and candidates win with broad promises without a map to completion. Additionally, voters cannot make informed decisions—without the ability to compare differing platforms or leadership styles, voters inevitably base their decisions on recommendations from peers and name recognition.

At the end of the debate, the uncontested candidate for vice president lambasted the presidential candidates for their remarks about the administration (see it here at 1:00:35), and the audience responded with hoots and applause. The candidates may not like conflict, but the voters sure do.

Eating Caterpillars

When I was in middle school, I lived next door to two boys who were constantly creating ad hoc competitions between themselves.  Of course, their parents thought this was cute when they had bike races down the street or tried to build the best snowman.  Except apparently those little battles weren’t extreme enough.  To up the ante, they decided to recreate Fear Factor in their back yard, and the next thing anyone knew, both boys were gulping down live caterpillars in an effort to outdo each other.  What most people would consider unthinkable suddenly became necessary and desirable in the name of competition.  By making rules for themselves and calling it a game, absurd actions became permissible and exciting.  (If anyone is wondering by the way, the record was thirteen live caterpillars in a row).

This caterpillar-eating frenzy is what immediately comes to mind when I first heard about Ultimate Tazer Ball.  No, that was not a typo.  Ultimate Tazer Ball.  The players carry tasers, self-defense weapons, and zap each other as they fight over a 24” ball.

According to Discovery.com:

The sport was is the brainchild of Leif Kellenberger, Eric Prum and Erik Wunsch, who work in the world of professional paintball.  They were brainstorming ideas for new extreme sports and thought of adding some real energy with the use of tasers. As the concept developed, they dropped real tasers, which can cause cardiac arrest and death, for stun guns that cause pain but are not dangerous. “It’s relatively safe as any contact sport would be” Prum says.

Then they turned to creating a sport that would be more than a gimmick. It includes elements of rugby, soccer and hockey. Teams of four vie to carry or throw a 24″ ball into the opponents’ goal. Tackling is allowed; punching isn’t. Defenders can only taze a player in possession of the ball who is within a designated space around the goals. (Tazing of the shoulders and groin is always illegal.)

Well, as long as shoulder and groin tasing are illegal…

With the creation of Ultimate Taser Ball, Kellenberger, Prum, and Wunsch have transformed assault into a game.  While the tasers used aren’t police-grade one and are set to a lower amperage than would be required to induce cardiac arrest, the players are fairly vocal about the pain.  Of course, in any sport or game, there is a risk of injury that players consent to undertaking.  How much risk, however, can or should someone consent to accepting in the name of competition?  Are games, no matter how dangerous, acceptable as long as the players agree to abide by the rules and accept the relevant risks?  In war, soldiers consent to risk of being killed, but should a civilian be allowed to consent to the same for the purpose of playing a game?

(You can watch videos of Ultimate Tazer Ball on YouTube.  One example can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5M5_Jlio08k ).