Monthly Archives: September 2004

art as intellectual property

Emboldened by the fact that Tongues of Fire is downloaded from this site 25 times a week, I’m thinking of putting another, more ambitious work of fiction online. I’d like to illustrate it and otherwise add elements of “multimedia.” The perfect illustrations (since I cannot make my own) would be certain Old Master drawings by the likes of Guercino and Domenichino. Unfortunately, there are remarkably few such images online, because the owners of the originals tend to refuse permission to disseminate them electronically. Even public museums usually block people from photographing their collections unless we agree not to sell or give away the images we make. For the same reason, the countless beautiful illustrations in my University’s Art Library are not to be copied. I have been looking at old books–volumes published more than 75 years ago–that reproduce baroque master drawings. They contain many beautiful images that would fit my purposes perfectly. The books are in the public domain, but what about their illustrations? Does the Queen of England own the rights to a photograph taken of one of her drawings in 1900? What about an etching or mezzotint that reproduces a drawing that she owns?

I am trying to obey the law, but only because I don’t want to encounter problems later. From a moral point of view, I find it outrageous that owners of beautiful objects, especially public libraries and museums, should prevent their electronic reproduction. As a result of this short-sighted and selfish policy, an extraordinarily small proportion of great art can be found on the World Wide Web.

blogs by experts

Matthew Yglesias bemoans the lack of blogs by specialists. Most bloggers who cover social issues and policy are generalists with opinions, not people with expertise (whether formal or informal) or new information to share. Of course, there are exceptions, and some good ones are listed in the responses to Yglesias’ post. For some reason, most of the exceptions are political theorists and constitutional law professors. There are very few blogs devoted to aspects of public policy (as opposed to electoral politics), other than the few listed on Crooked Timber. I do like these:

  • Jay Rosen, who is a distinguished scholar of the only field that he blogs about: journalism.
  • Baptiste Coulmont, a sociologist who mainly writes (in French) about religion and sexuality.
  • There are 3.6 million blogs, and some of them must be highly focused and well-informed. But they aren’t very prominent, and I’d be glad to know of more.

    skepticism about surveys

    I keep encountering new reasons to be skeptical about survey results. The moral is not to dismiss everything you read that’s based on polling, but to use surveys very carefully.

    1. We looked at the percentage of young people who said they were registered at several moments during each of the last four presidential campaigns. The results show lots of up and down movement, including quick declines of as much as 10 points. This doesn’t make sense, since people register during the campaign season and don’t lose or drop their registration in large numbers. Furthermore, self-reported registration rates at any given month do not predict turnout in November–at all. For example, self-reported registration rates were consistently the highest in 1996, the year when we saw the lowest youth turnout ever. September of 2000 looked terrible, but then the registration rate rose to the highest ever recorded in November of 2000–even though actual turnout was poor that year. The registration number seems to move randomly and isn’t meaningful.

    Since all election polls use registration questions to screen voters, this finding should make one skeptical of horse-race polls.

    2. Some states (e.g., Michigan and Minnesota) collect hard data about voters, such as their ages. In these states, one can compare the demographics of the actual voters against exit poll data. We have found striking discrepancies in past years. Presumably, problems arise because people are not equally likely to participate in exit polls, and many now vote absentee.

    3. When pollsters call random phone numbers, in theory they should reach a representative sample of Americans. In fact, as I know from bitter personal experience, they tend to reach samples whose demographics differ greatly from the Census Bureau’s–and not in predictable ways. Therefore, pollsters almost always “weigh” their samples. If they reach half as many African American males as they should, then each Black man in the sample counts for two. But there are huge questions about which variables one should “weigh,” and by how much.

    I put more faith in trends, rather than snapshots. For example, I’m very skeptical about claims like “Bush has 52% of the vote,” because they are based on calculations involving who is registered; but I’m more persuaded that Kerry has lost three points since the last Gallup poll. However, even an apparently identical survey does not give you comparable results if the sample is weighted differently each time.

    One can improve the quality of a survey by spending the time and money necessary to reach a high proportion of the people who were on your original, random list of phone numbers; or even better, by supplementing phone calls with home visits. Such efforts will be reflected in a high “response rate,” such as we see in Census polls. But the response rates of other polls are rarely disclosed and vary enormously. Many respectable firms have disturbingly low response rates. I think the lesson is to distinguish between a few solid polls and many dubious ones, and to pay attention only to the former.

    deliberative democracy and tolerance

    Last Friday, I heard a colleague present a good paper on tolerance and deliberation. I don’t want to summarize his position here, but I think that mine would be different. I see a tension between public deliberation and tolerance. In a true “deliberative democracy” (which, in practice, we can only approximate), everyone who is potentially affected by an issue discusses it together, without limitations as to topic or outcome, giving reasons and considering underlying values and principles. Deliberation can increase tolerance as people come to understand one another’s perspectives; but that’s hardly guaranteed. Such conversations often reveal profound differences of principle, which are closely connected to identity. Karl Mannheim argued that “political discussion” characteristically turns into a fundamental attack “on the whole life-situation of the opponent.” He exaggerated, but he had a point.

    If you want people to get along, to “live and let live,” then you may want to take certain issues off the table. For example, the Constitution bans state-sposored religion. This narrows the range of serious discussion but probably increases tolerance. You may also want to create mechanisms for reaching decisions without direct interaction among people who disagree. Elections and markets provide such impersonal interactions.

    Many proponents of deliberative democracy are upset by the profound gap in values between, for example, Greenwich Village and rural Mississippi. They’d like these two “communities” to sit down together and come to understand each other’s values. I also favor diverse and inclusive conversations, but not because I expect them to increase tolerance. I think the best way to help Greenwich Village and rural Mississippi to coexist peacefully is to keep them separate and allow their elected representatives to logroll and compromise their way to a deal. Some federal money can go to arts subsidies, some can go to farm supports, and both sides can purchase goods on the same market. If they don’t deliberate, neither group has to think too hard about the other.

    By bringing disagreements to the surface, deliberative democracy threatens tolerance, but it also depends on it. Without a basic willingness to put up with people who disagree, conversations will go badly. Thus, if we are committed to public deliberation (perhaps because we believe it will create better policies and help people to develop and refine their own opinions), then we’re going to have to work hard to keep the peace.

    the “democracy advantage”

    Just now, I heard my former student Joe Siegle give a sneak preview of a book that he has written with Morton Halperin and Michael Weinstein, The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace. The conventional wisdom among powerful experts holds that democracy arrives only at the end of a process of economic development. First, says Fareed Zakaria, a country must reach a per capita income of $6,000; then it can democratize. Below that level (allegedly), autocratic governments are better than democracies at marshalling resources, working for the long-term, suppressing conflicts, and thereby getting their countries to $6,000 per person.

    Siegle et al. find that this is all thoroughly wrong. Among low-income countries over the last 40 years, democracies have grown as fast as autocracies. Most of the successful autocracies have been the “tigers” of East Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, and the like). If you exclude them from the sample, low-income democracies perform much better than autocracies. The data would favor democracies even more clearly if we had economic statistics from all the dictatorships. The worst tyrannies are very secretive and don’t release plausible development statistics, but clearly countries like North Korea would pull the autocracies’ average down if they were counted.

    One of the reasons for democracies’ strong economic performance is their consistency. Compared to autocracies, they don’t collapse as often, and they don’t collapse as badly. Of the 80 worst cases (losses of GNP within a single year), only five have been democracies.

    If one moves beyond GNP per capita or GNP growth, the other human development statistics favor democracies much more. For example, in poor countries, democratic government seems to confer about 9 extra years of life expectancy, compared to autocracies. And citizens of poor democracies are 40% more likely than citizens of poor autocracies to attend secondary school.