Monthly Archives: May 2003

online privacy

I have just published a new

article on "information privacy." "Information

Technology and the Social Construction of Information Privacy: Comment,"

Journal of Accounting and Public Policy Volume 22, Issue 3, May-June

2003, Pages 281-285)

The abstract says:

Privacy is not merely "socially constructed"; it is a good

thing. We should defend privacy because it supports freedom, property

rights, informed consent, personality development, happiness, equality

of power, an appropriate separation of society into multiple zones,

and rights of association, while helping to prevent discrimination and

defamation. Accountants have a professional responsibility to help protect

information privacy.

This short, commissioned piece begins with some comments about the methodology

of another article in the same journal; these remarks are not very interesting

for general readers. I think the main value of my piece (if it is useful

at all) is that it lists the goods and rights that we can enhance by protecting

online privacy. None of the items on my list is original, but they are

all together in one place.

public work in the private sector

When I spoke a few weeks ago at Berkeley, Philip

Selznick made an interesting point about the value of commercial

firms that are not profit-maximizers. As he noted, the genteel old

publishing houses needed to cover their costs, and probably wanted to

make a comfortable profit, but they were at least as committed to producing

public goods in the form of high-quality literature. By contrast, a publicly

traded firm must maximize profits, so if it generates public goods, they

come as unintentional collateral benefits (at best). My friend Harry

Boyte has promoted a whole philosophy of "public work,"

which prizes the ability of every citizen to generate public goods, often

in collaboration with others. One hallmark of public work, it seems to

me, is an intentional focus on public benefits. That is what is

missing in profit-maximizing firms, but it’s very evident in certain less

economically efficient private enterprises. Boyte’s schema is useful,

in part, because it allows us to reshuffle the traditional categories

of state/market/civil society. Public work can take place in any of these

sectors, or it can be absent or suppressed in any of them. For example,

if a state apparatus becomes heavily bureaucratic and rigid, then civil

servants will stop performing public work. Likewise, if traditional publishing

houses are bought by international conglomerates that relentlessly aim

at efficiency, then their editors must cease to do public work. (Obviously,

I owe an argument here about why public work is valuable. In brief, I

think there are objective benefits to the community and subjective or

psychological benefits to public workers.)

legacy preferences

At a seminar today, some colleagues and I discussed Senator John Edwards’


to eliminate the preference for "legacies" (children

of alumni) in college admissions. Some people are saying that legacy preferences

are on the same footing with affirmative action for racial minorities

and women. If we ban affirmative action as a form of discrimination that

undermines meritocracy, we should ban legacy admissions as well. If we

keep one, we may (or must) keep the other. A third problematic policy

is the preference that public universities often give to in-state students.

Isn’t it discriminatory for UC Berkeley to prefer Californians?

(It is worth noting that being denied admission to Harvard because one’s

place went to a "legacy" is not a tragedy—there are many

other fine schools. Being denied admission or financial aid at Michigan

because one lives in Kentucky is at least as unfair.)

I think this issue is fairly complicated. First, there are practical

considerations. Presumably a policy banning legacy preferences would cause

at least some rich alumni to curtail their contributions, thus removing

some financial support from scholarship and education. Likewise, a policy

banning in-state preferences could lead states to withdraw support from

their own colleges. However, either or both of these fears might turn

out to be unwarranted.

If one justifies legacy preferences mainly on practical, economic grounds,

then it doesn’t make sense to prefer the children of alumni who have never

contributed anything to a college. Yet most colleges deny that they prefer

donors’ children; that would be too crass. Implicitly, their argument

seems to rest on freedom of association and the value of preserving their

membership as a community over time.

Private universities probably have a right as associations to prefer

their own members (alumni, staff, and current students). That doesn’t

make a legacy policy morally admirable, however. It certainly has the

disadvantage of preserving a heriditary elite and undermining meritocratic

competition. Thus we might want to use the leverage of federal funding

to discourage such preferences. On the other hand, maybe it is admirable

to build community bonds within private associations. In that case, is

it equally acceptable for states to treat themselves as exclusive communities

that prefer their own citizens? Should federal policy allow or discourage


why Dante damned Francesca da Rimini

I looked at statistics for this site recently and was surprised to see

that the most popular search terms that take people here include "Dante,"

"Paolo," "Francesca," and "Inferno." I am

surprised because I think of myself as a civics, democracy, and political-reform

guy; I have not contributed much to the study of Dante, and this website

certainly doesn’t offer much on the topic (beyond the one page

about my ongoing Dante project). Today, however, I posted one of my

published Dante articles, and I will add more soon—all in the interests

of serving my audience.

In "Why

Dante Damned Francesca da Rimini," I argue that there are

two explanations for Dante’s decision to place Francesca in Hell (even

though her real-life nephew was his patron and benefactor). First, he

may have sympathized with this fellow lover of poetry who tells her own

sad story so movingly, but he realized that she had committed the mortal

sin of adultery. Thus he damned her because his philosophical reason told

him that she was guilty, and he wanted to suggest that moral reasoning

is a safer guide than stories and the emotions that they provoke. For

the same reason, the whole Divine Comedy moves from emotional,

first-person, concrete narrative toward abstract universal truth as Dante

ascends from Hell to Heaven.

But there is also another,

subtler reason for his decision. Francesca loves poetry, but she reads

it badly. Her speech is a tissue of quotations from ancient and medieval

literature, but every one is inaccurate. In general, she takes difficult,

complex texts and misreads them as simple cliches that justify her own

behavior. Meanwhile, she says nothing about her lover or her husband—not

even their names—which suggests that she cannot "read"

them well or recall their stories. Her failure as a reader suggests

that Dante was not necessarily against poetry and in favor of philosophical

reason. Instead, perhaps he wanted to point out some specific moral pitfalls

involved in careless reading.

on praising one’s own children

I like to say nice things

about other people, in their presence and also behind their backs. Yet

I try not to say overly nice things about myself. Praising others makes

me feel good (and often comes naturally); praising myself makes me feel

guilty. I used to be able to follow both principles consistently—until

I had kids. Now, I often want to say nice things about my children, even

when they are not around. But many people see praising one’s own offspring

as a way of bragging about oneself. This is especially true of other parents,

for we moms and dads are a very competitive lot (even the nicest ones).

Indeed, when I praise my own children behind their backs, I feel a tinge

of guilty pride that resembles the feeling I would have if I had just

bragged about myself, even though I honestly do not see myself as responsible

for the good things that my children do. (Then again, I’m not sure that

I’m responsible for any good things I may do.) Is this feeling

of pride a sign that it is wrong—immodest—to praise one’s children

when they are not present? Or is it right to praise them, as long as one

does not feel pride when doing so? (After all, they are individuals in

their own right, so why should anyone think about their parents when they

are discussed?) Or is it right to praise them and to feel proud

about their good qualities, even though it is wrong to praise oneself?