Critics of the executive branch’s information control practices tend to focus on the here and now. They argue that overclassification of national security–related documents undermines democratic self-rule. They inveigh against delays and denials in the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. They condemn regulations that “incorporate by reference” materials developed by industry groups. They worry about the growing use of black box algorithms, criminal leak investigations, and secret waivers for former lobbyists turned political appointees. All of these critiques raise important issues, even if they sometimes understate the transparency that exists—U.S. administrative agencies “are some of the most extensively monitoredgovernment actors in the world”—or overstate the benefits of sunlight.
One of the executive’s most worrisome information control practices has received relatively little attention, perhaps because it requires taking a longer view. Over the last several decades, as Matthew Connelly explains in a new essay on “State Secrecy, Archival Negligence, and the End of History as We Know It,”[*]our national archives have been quietly falling apart. FOIA backlogs look like a Starbucks queue compared to the 700,000 cubic feet of records at the National Archives and Records Administration’s research facility in Maryland that were unprocessed as of 2013. The Public Interest Declassification Board recently estimated that it would take a year’s work by two million declassifiers to review the amount of data that a single intelligence agency now produces in eighteen months.
The U.S. government’s entire system for organizing, conserving, and revealing the record of its activities, Connelly maintains, is on the verge of collapse; a “digital dark age” awaits us on the other side. His is less a story about excessive information control than a story about the absenceof information control. Archivists simply have not been able to cope with the flood they face. The negative consequences extend far beyond the professional study of history, as Democrats learned last month when NARA announced that it was incapable of reviewing and releasing all of Brett Kavanaugh’s papers before the Senate votes on his nomination to the Supreme Court.
How did this crisis in the archives develop, and what might be done to mitigate it? Woefully inadequate appropriations and “dubious management decisions” bear some of the blame, according to Connelly. When the ratio of spending on the classification and protection of national security secrets to spending on their declassification exceeds 99 to 1, the historical record is bound to suffer. But the deeper cause of the crisis, Connelly suggests, lies in the exponential growth of government records, particularly electronic records. In a world where the State Department generates two billion emails each year—all of which need to be screened for sensitive personal and policy details prior to disclosure through any official process—the traditional tools of archiving cannot possibly keep up.
Maybe the tools ought to be updated for the age of “big data,” then. Connelly has collaborated extensively with data scientists on the problems he highlights, and he argues that sophisticated use of computational methods, from topic modeling to traffic analysis to predictive coding, could go a long way toward rationalizing records management and accelerating declassification. If these techniques were to be combined with bigger budgets for archivists and greater will to curb classification, NARA might one day make good on its aspiration to ensure “continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their Government.” There is something intuitively appealing about this vision: Digital technologies got us into this mess, and now they ought to help get us out of it. Connelly’s diagnosis of information overload and political neglect is so stark, however, that one wonders whether any such reforms will prove adequate to the challenge.
Three response pieces recast this challenge in a somewhat different light. The Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, emphasizes steps NARA is taking to digitize its holdings, enhance public access to them, and enforce government recordkeeping requirements. Ferriero does not dispute that “the country would be well served” by greater funding for the agency he leads, but he suggests that progress is being made even within severe budgetary constraints.
Elizabeth Goitein largely endorses Connelly’s reform proposals but urges that they be pushed further in the area of national security information. Drawing on extensive research and advocacy she has done as co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, Goitein offers a suite of specific recommendations, from tightening the substantive criteria for classification to requiring federal agencies to spend certain amounts on declassification to subjecting officials who engage in serious overclassification to mandatory penalties.
Finally, Kirsten Weld raises critical questions about Connelly’s characterization of the problem and urges that his reform proposals be pushed much further. Weld points out that the records maintained by NARA represent just a “slice” of U.S. history, albeit an important one, and that the government’s management of that slice has always been bound up with larger political struggles. The true source of the crisis at NARA, Weld submits, is not the rise of electronic records or the politicization of transparency but “the dismantling of the postwar welfare state and the concomitant ascendance of neoliberal governance.” To address the crisis, accordingly, technical fixes are bound to be insufficient. Nothing short of “a sea change in the federal government’s priorities” and “a massive reinvestment in the public sphere” will do.
A crisis in the national archives, all of the authors agree, is a crisis in American democracy. It is certainly not the only one we face, and it may not be the most acute, but preserving a record of our collective history arguably has a kind of epistemic priority. As we fight for our democratic future, these essays remind us to fight for the institutions that help us understand how we arrived at the perilous present.
[*]Connelly’s paper is being published, along with three response pieces, as the sixthinstallment in a series I am editing for the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
A surprisingly common part of my life: a patient asks me for a doctor’s note for back pain or something. Usually it’s a situation like their work chair hurts their back, and their work won’t let them bring in their own chair unless they have a doctor’s note saying they have back pain, and they have no doctor except me, and their insurance wants them to embark on a three month odyssey of phone calls and waiting lists for them to get one.
In favor of writing the note: It would take me all of five seconds. I completely believe my patients when they say their insurance is demanding the three month odyssey. Or sometimes they don’t have insurance and it would be a major financial burden for them to consult another doctor. Also, I’ve seen these other doctors and they have no objective test for back pain. 90% of the time they just have the patient stand in front of them, make whatever movement it is that hurts their back, ask the patient if it hurt their back, and when the patient says yes, the doctor says “That’s back pain all right, take some aspirin or ibuprofen or whatever”.
Against writing the note: I am a psychiatrist. I usually treat patients via telemedicine, which means that in many cases I have literally never seen their back. All I remember about back pain from medical school is that some people call it “lumbago”, a word that stuck in my head because it sounds like a cryptid or small African nation. I know even less about the ergonomics of chairs, or when people do vs. don’t require better ones. Any note I write about back pain and chair recommendations is going to be a total sham, bordering on medical fraud. I could demand my patient take time off work to come in for an examination, sometimes from several hours away, just so I can do the thing where they bend their back in front of me and tell me it hurts. But that’s kind of just passing the shamminess a little bit down the line in a way that seriously inconveniences them.
In other words: the request puts me in a position where I either have to lie, or have to refuse to give people help that they really need and that it would be trivial for me to provide. It’s one of my least favorite things, and I would appreciate any ethical advice the philosophers here have to give.
But my latest strategy is radical honesty. I write a note saying:
To whom it may concern:
I am a psychiatrist treating Mr. Smith. He tells me that he has chronic back pain (“lumbago”), and asks to be allowed to bring in his own chair to work.
It’s too soon to have a good sample size. But it seems to usually work. I think it works because there is nobody at Mr. Smith’s workplace – maybe nobody in the entire world – who’s really invested in preventing Mr. Smith from bringing a chair into work. Someone wrote up a procedure for employees using special chairs, so that they’re not the sort of cowboys who make decisions without procedures. Someone else feels like they have to enforce it, so that they’re not the sort of rebel who flouts procedures. But nobody cares.
I think a lot about David Graeber’s work on bulls**t jobs. In an efficient market, why would profit-focused companies employ a bunch of people who by their own admission aren’t doing anything valuable? I’ve been wondering about this for a long time, and I try to notice when something I’m doing is bulls**t. I guess this fits the bill. It seems to be an issue of people spending time and money to create and satisfy procedures that degenerate into rituals, so that they can look all procedural and responsible in front of – courts? regulators? bosses? investors? I’m not sure. But I do wonder how much of the economy is made of things like this.
NOAA makes available data on CO2 concentrations on Mauna Loa in Hawaii that go back to 1959. This is the famous Keeling curve, and the annual averages look like this:
The data is approximated to a very high accuracy by a quadratic curve, indicating that the increase in carbon going into the atmosphere each year is itself increasing linearly. This next graph compares the annual increase in carbon in the atmosphere to fossil fuel emissions of carbon (from BP):
(You can convert the concentration of CO2 changes to absolute amounts if you know the mass of the atmosphere and the weight of CO2 molecules). Since the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is increasing slower than carbon emissions, clearly some of the emissions are absorbed (by the ocean and by land plants) each year. The fraction of emissions absorbed is almost constant, but has increased slightly over time:
But I think a more interesting way to look at the question is this. Think of the sink as reflecting the fact that the CO2 in the atmosphere is not in equilibrium with the CO2 in the ocean and terrestrial ecosystems. These latter components change slowly - the ocean is huge and takes around a thousand years to turn over, so changes in the atmosphere in the last few decades are far from fully equilibriated. Likewise, changes in terrestrial ecosystems have only just begun.
From that perspective, we might expect the amount of carbon being absorbed by the ocean and biosphere to be proportional to how far the current atmospheric concentration is from pre-industrial concentrations (generally believed to be about 280ppm). If we plot this - the size of the annual carbon sink vs the departure from pre-industrial, we see that it is indeed linear:
There are of course substantial year to year fluctuations depending on just how well global plants grew in any particular year (given weather). But if you try fitting a quadratic to that data (allowing for the possibility of the sink degrading over time), it lies exactly on the linear curve - there is no indication of a tailing off.
This is somewhat reassuring with respect to the "Inevitable Near Term Human Extinction" (INTHE) view of climate change. One class of mechanisms that could lead to a runaway climate feedback would be if the biosphere were to start to turn from a net sink to a net source as a result of climate change - for example, forests burning, dying back from disease, the Amazon turning to savannah etc. While all of these things are happening to a modest degree, the fact that overall, the global climate sink continues to behave in a predictable linear way suggests that this particular class of runaway feedbacks are not biting hard yet.
This is an update of a post of mine from six years ago. The conclusion hasn't changed with six more years of data.
That is a 2011 AFPS paper by Sarah F Anzia and Christopher R Berry, here is the abstract:
If voters are biased against female candidates, only the most talented, hardest working female candidates will succeed in the electoral process. Furthermore, if women perceive there to be sex discrimination in the electoral process, or if they underestimate their qualifications for office, then only the most qualified, politically ambitious females will emerge as candidates. We argue that when either or both forms of sex‐based selection are present, the women who are elected to office will perform better, on average, than their male counterparts. We test this central implication of our theory by studying the relative success of men and women in delivering federal spending to their districts and in sponsoring legislation. Analyzing changes within districts over time, we find that congresswomen secure roughly 9% more spending from federal discretionary programs than congressmen. Women also sponsor and cosponsor significantly more bills than their male colleagues.
I also would consider the alternative hypothesis that the women legislators are simply more conscientious and less wrapped up in themselves. Nonetheless this result is one possible equilibrium relevant to the recent MR discussions on statistical discrimination.
Here is a paper showing female mayors have higher political skills, This paper shows that women do better in a minority party than in a polarized majority party setting.
Discrimination stories tend towards the non-obvious 'offsetting effects' with unknown sum: discrimination during the selection can lead to higher female legislator quality, but discrimination is the legislation might make female legislators less effective too. And then potential candidates need to make decisions on how to self-sort and voters need to to eventuate candidates given their perception of how discrimination and self-sorting has played out in the past (i.e. what does the very existence of a female candidate signal for their quality?) and how will discrimination affect their future effectiveness? One reason to have people play the 'non-discrimination' policy is that undoing other people's discrimination is a damn hard problem and it creates lots of follow on inference problems. It messes up markets and how much information they can convey usefully...
Do judicial courts in authoritarian regimes act as puppets for the interests of a repressive state – or do judges act with greater independence? How much do judges draw on their political and ideological affiliations when imposing the death sentence?
A study of Nazi Germany’s notorious People’s Court, recently published in the Economic Journal, reveals direct empirical evidence of how the judiciary in one of the world’s most notoriously politicised courts were influenced in their life-and-death decisions.
The research provides important empirical evidence that the political and ideological affiliations of judges do come into play – a finding that has applications for modern authoritarian regimes and also for democracies that administer the death penalty.
The research team – Dr Wayne Geerling (University of Arizona), Prof Gary Magee, Prof Russell Smyth, and Dr Vinod Mishra (Monash Business School) – explore the factors influencing the likelihood of imposing the death sentence in Nazi Germany for crimes against the state – treason and high treason.
The authors examine data compiled from official records of individuals charged with treason and high treason who appeared before the People’s Courts up to the end of the Second World War.
Established by the Nazis in 1934 to hear cases of serious political offences, the People’s Courts have been vilified as ‘blood tribunals’ in which judges meted out pre-determined sentences.
But in recent years, while not contending that the People’s Court judgments were impartial or that its judges were not subservient to the wishes of the regime, a more nuanced assessment has emerged.
For the first time, the new study presents direct empirical evidence of the reasons behind the use of judicial discretion and why some judges appeared more willing to implement the will of the state than others.
The researchers find that judges with a deeper ideological commitment to Nazi values – typified by being members of the Alte Kampfer (‘Old Fighters’ or early members of the Nazi party) – were indeed more likely to impose the death penalty than those who did not share it.
These judges were more likely to hand down death penalties to members of the most organised opposition groups, those involved in violent resistance against the state and ‘defendants with characteristics repellent to core Nazi beliefs’:
‘The Alte Kampfer were thus more likely to sentence devout Roman Catholics (24.7 percentage points), defendants with partial Jewish ancestry (34.8 percentage points), juveniles (23.4 percentage points), the unemployed (4.9 percentage points) and foreigners (42.3 percentage points) to death.’
Judges who became adults during two distinct historical periods (the Revolution of 1918-19 and the period of hyperinflation from June 1921 to January 1924), which may have shaped these judges’ views with respect to Nazism, were more likely to impose the death sentence.
Alte Kampfer members whose hometown or suburb lay near a centre of the Revolution of 1918-19 were more likely to sentence a defendant to death.
Previous economic research on sentencing in capital cases has focused mainly on gender and racial disparities, typically in the United States. But the understanding of what determines whether courts in modern authoritarian regimes outside the United States impose the death penalty is scant. By studying a politicised court in an historically important authoritarian state, the authors of the new study shed light on sentencing more generally in authoritarian states.
The findings are important because they provide insights into the practical realities of judicial empowerment by providing rare empirical evidence on how the exercise of judicial discretion in authoritarian states is reflected in sentencing outcomes.
I got excited about the title of this post, since I've run into individual cases of Nazi period courts acting otherwise than one might naively expect, at times against explicit leadership orders, especially in the first couple years and then again in the war, especially after 1943 (some of this is running out the clock on some cases, with discretion of which part of a very large docket the court will actually work on using what speed). So I'd welcome a more comprehensive study of the issue. But this doesn't appear to be it. Also the obvious question of who gets a trial or not. More research!