Category Archives: Serious

Fitness, Marketing and the Search for Shortcuts

One of the weirdest things about my visit to the U.S. was all the comments I got on how I look. Once or twice a week, some random person would come up to me and ask me about my workout routine.

At the gym, 7 in the morning, this guy in his early 40s stops me as I’m leaving.

“Hey kid, I’ve got a question,” he says.

“Um, I’m 33…” I say.

“What do you do, or not do, to look like that?”

This happened other places too. A member of my rock climbing club invites me to dinner, asks me what—‘if anything’—I’m allowed to eat. A barista asks what diet I’m on, whether I do yoga. I order a drip coffee and he says ‘I guess you’re not allowed to drink Frappuccinos, huh?’

The first weird thing about these comments is that I’m not in very good shape. As I’ve chronicled here extensively, I don’t go to the gym with any kind of strategy or diligence. My eating habits are more Jurassic Park than Julia Child. Even with the dimmest of lighting, the generous-est of Instagram filters, I don’t even have one pack, much less six.

The second weird thing is how these compliments always came in the form of a question, as if I know something other people don’t. The guy at the gym that morning, he wanted to know exactly what my eating and exercise routine was, like there was some technique I had mastered or secret vegetable I was growing in my backyard. Even my friends, people I’ve known since I was 10, familiar with my indolence, my sitting-down tummyrolls, press me: “Come on, you’re drinking protein shakes, right?”

I never get comments like this when I’m in Europe. Ever. The obvious reason for this is because I’m closer to the median BMI there, plus so many standard deviations below the median height that no one even notices what kind of shape I’m in. But I’m convinced there’s something else going on too: Europeans aren’t marketed to as much as Americans.

I have no, like, data-data on this, but after living on both continents, I really notice how much more intermingled fitness and commerce are in the United States. In Copenhagen, everyone you see cycling has a modest, slightly rusted old bike. Men ride upright on ladybikes, women roll to work wearing jeans and high heels. In the U.S. it’s all titanium frames, spandex, shoes with those little clips on the toe. In Berlin, jogging is something you do in old sweatpants. In the U.S., it’s an activity that requires moisture-wicking pants and barefoot shoes.

It’s like this with diet too. Americans have entire categories of foods that Europeans don’t. Omega 3 energy bars, creatine powder, recovery drinks. Somehow we went straight from making these up to believing it was impossible to be in shape without them.

This, I feel like, is where the ‘what do you do, man?’ from baristas and fellow gymmers comes from. People think there’s a trick, a shortcut, a specific thing I’m eating or drinking or doing that keeps me (relatively) height-weight proportionate. Like I’m gonna say ‘asparagus water!’ and that will unlock the secret for everyone else.

That’s what marketing has sold us: Not a specific product, but the idea that there’s one we’re missing. Our bodies are set up to respond to our habits, the decisions we make 80 percent of the time. The economy, however, is set up to sell us something new every day, to feed us ‘superfoods‘, to sign us up for Crossfit, to tell us again and again that fit people don’t have better genes or routines, but make better purchases.

Like I said, I’m not in good enough shape to give out food or fitness advice, but what I told the Americans who asked me about my workout regime the last few weeks was that I try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and do something exercisey that I like every day.

“Shit,” the guy at the gym said that morning. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”

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Filed under America, Food, Personal, Serious, Travel

‘I literally saw a naked baby standing in a pool of water’: Eleven observations from a contract manufacturer in China

I know I’m belaboring these now, but I’m learning a lot from all the people writing in to add points and arguments to my Myth of the Ethical Shopper article. Here’s one from Glen, a project manager at a contract manufacturer in Shenzhen:

Awareness is the first step, and this article does an excellent job of pointing out that contract manufacturing will always result in unfair labor practices. The smaller companies are the biggest offenders because their order sizes don’t warrant the attention of “golden factories”. Not that Apple and Wal-Mart are good examples, but their manufacturing is some of the cleanest out there… After working for a contract manufacturer in China for several years, I can give you a quick glimpse of how it looks in China in relation to this article:

1) Wal-Mart gets caught with unfair labor practices > people protest > Policy reform

These reforms are pushed on factories that really want to improve, but mostly they want the business. They reform simply to keep the business.

2) Factories conform to reforms > operation costs at factories go up > Factories lose money

Making these changes and being socially compliant come at a HUGE cost to the factory, but larger customers will not accept the increased costs to reflect in their orders. Suddenly, factories are losing a lot of money, but they can’t lose Wal-Mart as a customer. Most Wal-Mart-contracted factories operate at zero margins just for the business. They’ll use the molds to remake products under other brands to sell in China.

3) Factory finds cheaper factory to do their production

The original factory might do 20% of the order, but they’ll contract “shadow factories” to do the bulk. These are your “sweatshops”, they don’t exist on paper, but they make up easily 95% of the factories out there. Now, the large Wal-Mart orders can once again turn a profit, because costs are reduced by manufacturing at the shadow factories.

4) Factory becomes an audit mill.

Passing an audit is a big deal, especially the strict standards of Wal-Mart compliance. The factory can now make large sums of money fronting for other companies and factories. They will host audits on a regular basis, to give compliance to hundreds of other companies. A company might not even have a factory, but they’ll get compliance to make products. Now they can make products wherever they want, and when it comes time they can set up their front at the fake factory. Most companies do this.

5) No reason for factories to TRULY conform to regulations

Now that these workarounds are in place, it’s quite easy to get certified without even having a factory. So now that most factories are off the map, they have no incentive whatsoever to follow anything close to standards being set in the USA. Everyone is protected by the “golden factories” that are running fake audits and essentially covering for the ones doing real production runs. Foxconn is a golden factory. Their conditions are incredible compared to those of 99.9% of factories in China. In over 4 years working in China I have never set foot in a factory that is as clean and compliant as Foxconn.

6) Audit companies get in the game as well.

For MANY if not MOST inspection companies in China you can’t pass an audit unless you pay a bribe. Usually $1000/inspector is enough. Even if your factory really is perfect, you need to pay off inspectors to get the certification.

7) American companies have no control

US companies might know this is happening, or not…. it really doesn’t make a difference. Companies that are aware will distance themselves intentionally so that they’re not liable or seen as negligent. Companies that aren’t aware really truly believe that they are covering their bases.

8) The danger of trade companies passing an audit.

Our trade company passed the [Shoe Company Inc.] audit on a factory that doesn’t exist (we used the name of our company as the factory and the inspection took place at a factory we contracted specifically for a social compliance audit). Now that the trade company has passed this certification, we can make products ANYWHERE. It’s a step beyond the factory using contract manufacturers. Most trade companies are lying to their customers, so it’s incredibly difficult to know if you’re working with a trade company or a real factory. In my experience it’s almost always a trade company if you don’t have boots in the ground in China.

9) When a company issues a RFP (request for proposal), they are essentially GUARANTEEING that their products will be made in some of the nastiest ways possible.

This is very common for companies in our space, sports accessories. Companies like [Shoe Company Inc.] will essentially say some requirements for a product, and they’ll send that to all of their licensees. Those with licensing rights to the brand will contact their suppliers to have them compete for the best prices. Trade companies are typically the supplier they contact, and those trade companies will contact all of their connections for the best price. RFPs are are designed so that the companies like New Balance will get the best and cheapest deals for the required products they need. It’s a beautiful system for the brand, because they do no sourcing whatsoever, and they hold no responsibility whatsoever on how the product is being made.

10) Trade companies intentionally used as a buffer.

I don’t think this is news to you, but some companies with use trade companies because they understand the process. This will keep them legally exempt from issues and can blame the trade company for hoaxing them on their labor practices. A lot of companies know this and I’ve had several people tell me to just “do what we do” to make sure things work on our end.

11) The yoga mat industry in China is disgusting

Just a comment to add here. I did a sourcing project for a [Shoe Company Inc.] request for yoga mats. The factories I saw we’re disgusting. I literally saw a naked baby standing in a pool of water just yards away from where the finished goods were being stacked. These were all TPE yoga mats, and I found it ridiculous that in the factory they were printing logos that said “eco-friendly”. Anything that is so simple to make is going to eventually make its way to these kind of factories.

I chose not to use that factory and instead went with a better factory (still wouldn’t pass an audit, but who does?) for the proposal. We didn’t get the business, it was beyond their budget. Had I used the prior factory we would have fallen within their price target…

This is the current state of things. There isn’t an easy fix. There aren’t regulations to solve this. All I know is that with more awareness solutions will be worked out in the future. I know a lot of these points were made in the article, but I felt they needed repeating. These are truths that I wish all consumers could know and understand.

Go read Glen’s blog it’s hella good!

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Filed under Development, Serious

Some responses to my ‘Myth of the Ethical Shopper’ article

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by me.

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by me.

I’m working on a longer follow-up to respond to some of the reader responses to my article, but for now, I’ll quote some people who know way more about this topic than me, on what my article got right and wrong.

First up, here’s a note I got from one of the auditors I interviewed for the article:

One thing that I hear repeatedly nowadays is that we can’t forget the role of government. We focus on CSR and what companies should be doing but we can’t forget that companies are primarily acting on these issues because local governments are failing to uphold international obligations to protect human rights, to adhere to treaty obligations, and to enforce their own national legislation, which is often much stricter than anything in any buyer code of conduct.
In addition, we can’t be prescriptive about solutions. The West doesn’t have superior solutions. If we want to know what needs to be done, we need to talk to the rights-holders themselves to understand what they want and what they need. In other words, participatory solutions are critical and much more valuable than anything we can dream up in isolation. When communities are engaged holistically in developing solutions, they own that process and it can impact the outcomes much more positively than anything being imposed from the top down.

When considering the shift of consumer power away from the global North / West, we shouldn’t forget that there is still a lot of financial influence, via organizations such as the World Bank, regional development banks like ERDB, ADB, IADB, and of course investors like state funds and SRIs [socially responsible investors].

If you look at the numbers, there are trillions of dollars backed by SRIs alone. But more than that, financing options for many of these institutions are linked to ESG commitments [environmental, social and governmental]. Loans are routinely linked to compliance with things like IFC Performance Standards covering issues from environment and labor to community impact. Funding can be suspended or terminated for non-compliance. Complaint mechanisms allow communities or activists to lodge complaints with ombudsman offices, like those in the IFC and OECD.
Last year, I did an investigation into a land rights issue in Asia and found myself in the field alongside a regional investor who was also investigating the issue and working with their client to bring them into compliance.
And here’s one from Jason Hickel, a buddy of mine and an economics professor at LSE

What workers in the global South need is not better international labor standards, but rather the freedom to organize themselves and demand better standards for themselves.  You point out that Foxconn in Indiana is not a sweatshop. It’s not just because the US has good institutions; it’s because the US had a strong labor movement that won basic things like safety laws, weekends, the minimum wage, etc.

I think we have to ask ourselves why these same movements and institutions don’t exist in the global South.  And the reason, as far as I can tell, is that the governments of global South countries have been explicitly prevented from nourishing them.  The history of structural adjustment from the 1980s onward was a process of actively dismantling state institutions, forcing domestic economies open to the flux of global markets, and rolling back wages and labor standards. If global South countries did otherwise (if they bolstered state institutions, increased wages, etc), they could be sanctioned by the IMF, and have loan capital withdrawn.

Today, this pressure comes mostly in the form of investor-state dispute mechanisms, which are written into free trade agreements.  Through these mechanisms, multinational corporations have the power to sue sovereign states for introducing laws (like labor and safety laws) that compromise their expected future profits.  And then of course there’s the Doing Business rankings, which also actively pressure global South countries to deregulate.

I think another way to approach the issue is to ask why workers in sweatshops are willing to take jobs that are so terrible.  And the answer, of course, is that they have no other choice.  And, as a result, they have very little bargaining power.  Let’s go back to the US again.  Workers were able to successfully bargain for better conditions in factories because they had a real alternative: they could pick up land in the midwest on the cheap, and become farmers (and, later, they had a passable welfare state that allowed them the option of not taking dangerous jobs and still surviving).  If they didn’t have that option, chances are we wouldn’t have the weekend today.  The same can be said of global South countries.  The rise of sweatshops was preceded by a long process of dispossession, of actively kicking people off of their land (and then later dismantling what little welfare mechanisms existed).  Without any other options for survival, people are forced to accept sweatshops jobs.  This continues today in the form of land grabs; i.e., Fred Pearce’s book.

Voting power in the IMF and WB is still terribly, absurdly skewed [basically, rich countries get more voting power].  They keep making noises about changing this in response to outrage from developing countries, but the most they’ve managed is a little bit of window-dressing.

The WB still uses structural adjustment programs.  In the 1990s, they had to rhetorically back down from them because of the riots and global outcry, but all they really did is change the name to Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. The main difference is that PRSPs must be drafted by the loan recipient, as opposed to the WB, but of course everyone knows the papers have to include structural adjustment if the loan is to be granted. The brilliance is that this allows the WB to evade liability for any disasters that might ensue as a result of the policies, since the recipient country technically offered to adopt structural adjustment policies voluntarily.

As for the WTO: it’s stalled, and for good reason… because global South countries refuse to bargain on unfair terms any longer.  But now bilateral trade agreements are proliferating as a way of getting around this.

And from a friend who works at an international institution working on private-sector human rights abuses:

You rightly criticise the auditing industry as fraught with design flaws and full of suppliers who have become highly adept at fooling the auditors. But at the same time, while it’s not a silver bullet, it is one of the best approaches a company has to the issue at the moment. Sure it doesn’t fix the extire global problem. But it fixes small corners of it, and it is those small corners that the company is most worried about, because its business touches upon them.

And yes, some things do get past auditors. But many violations are caught that way, and prevented too. I often compare it to checking my kids room after I’ve told them to clean it. Just the fact that they know it will be checked, means they do a sufficient job (although they still try to fool the auditor by kicking junk under the bed and stuffing it in the back of the closet).

So I wouldn’t be overly dismissive of supply-chain auditing, although I recognise it’s not a global solution, it’s just a band-aid. Because I want companies to keep doing it and to continue to try to perfect the practice (which today is more sophisticated, and includes supplier capacity building). This continued practice will help keep the pressure up, while at the same time, it will allow us to experiment at the micro-level with various good practices, which can then be exported into a global solution.

You are right in identifying the country-challenges in supply chains, like when you compared conditions in Mexico to China. But even those country-challenges can be changed by the pressure from big business. I remember speaking with [giant apparel company] about their experience in Pakistan. They told the Govt of Pakistan that they would not allow their suppliers or licencees to source from Pakistan because the labor conditions were so poor that [the company] couldn’t afford the risk.

So the Govt of Pakistan asked the ILO for help to improve their labor conditions so that they could attract the business. That’s definitely a dynamic we want to encourage with other big buyers. And it’s a dynamic which has a positive spill-over into the really critical aspect of the problem – those suppliers which are producing for the domestic market, rather than for the big Western buyers.

Also, if you’re interested in why Nike’s approach to its suppliers hasn’t improved conditions in them, check out this great Richard Locke lecture from a few years back.

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Filed under Serious, Work

‘We are not going to shop ourselves into a better world’

Warehouse in Kampala. Photo by me!

I’ve been working on this article, in my head at least, since probably 2007, when I started working in CSR, consulting companies on how to reduce their human rights impacts. The conclusion I came to, that everyone in my field seems to come to eventually, was that companies don’t matter. What matters is the environments where they operate.

One little story that didn’t make it into the article:

Here’s a World Bank profile of a Vietnamese Nike factory. In 1997, 84 percent of workers had nose and throat infections, mostly from failing to wear masks when they were working at dyeing stations. Nike, scrambling to respond to the decade-long boycott campaign against it, started delivering worker training, posting hazardous-material info in the break rooms, issuing a monthly health newsletter. By 1998, infections were down to 20 percent.

Huge success story, right? Well … hmmm. The same investigation found that managers were dumping wastewater in the local river, transferring the health risks to the entire population downstream. When the case came to light, they hired the son of the local Communist Party chairman to negotiate the terms of the settlement. The company was never punished.

In that story is everything that consumer boycotts have achieved. It’s not nothing that the factory improved its health and safety practices. In another study, a Cambodian manager grumbled to investigators that “Nike is so much stricter about everything.” Props to Nike, seriously.

But you see this with almost all of these company efforts: The gains inside the factories are dwarfed by the impacts outside of them. Colluding with political officials, poisoning local communities, these are exactly the kinds of things that audits can’t find, that companies can’t fix, that consumers can’t keep track of.

A few months ago I made that video about Uganda. In 2007, the Industrial Court, the place where workers go to file complaints, lost its mandate. It wasn’t renewed until this year. That means that for eight years, labour inspectors couldn’t levy fines against companies that were breaking the law. Workers couldn’t take their bosses to court for failing to pay back wages. I see this again and again in the developing countries I go to for work: Institutions are there on paper, but absent in practice.

Another little point that that didn’t make it into the article:

Sweatshops don’t happen without the participation of their host governments, and they don’t get solved without them either. One of the reasons India’s garment sector is so informal, so exploitative, is that only 2 percent of its textile factories use shuttle-less looms. In China, it’s 15 percent, boosted by government loans, grants, more than a decade of cajoling its factories to move up the value chain.

India’s own Ministry of Textiles boasts that its desperately poor workers are a competitive advantage: “Rising wages and cost of living in countries closely competing with India,” says the agency’s strategic plan, “provides a vast opportunity for India to capitalize.”

If we’re going to solve sweatshops, we need to consider why they are there, why they endure. We need to stop trying to vote with our wallets, and start voting with our votes.

Thanks to everyone I interviewed for this article! All of the ideas in it, especially the smart ones, are not mine, they’re all taken from the work of researchers and inspectors and CSR folks who have thought about and done this a lot longer than I have. I’m gonna write some follow-up posts highlighting their work.

Also, I have the best editors. As you can tell from the un-edited snips above, I need them!

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Filed under Essays, Personal, Serious

The Role of the Media in Development Aid

So USAID asked me to speak at one of their conferences last week about the role of media in development. Being utterly unqualified for this task did not stop me from doing it, and below is an adaptation of my little talk!

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Think of all all the companies you know that didn’t exist 30 years ago and are now worth more than a billion dollars. It’s easy, right? Facebook, Google, Starbucks, Amazon, Whole Foods, Uber, we could go around the room for ages.

Now think of all the development NGOs or national nonprofits that didn’t exist 30 years ago and now get more than, say, 100 million in donations.* Doctors without Borders: 1971. Human Rights Watch: 1978. Amnesty International: 1961. Greenpeace: 1969. And those aren’t even the big-big ones. Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, Care International, we’re talking World War II or before.

And what’s weird about this comparison is that in those 30 years, we’ve made significant progress some really hard problems. A lot of countries that were desperately poor three decades ago aren’t now. But, somehow, we haven’t created social institutions at the same pace we’ve created profit-making ones.

I think this is, at least partly, the media’s fault. The media struggles, has always struggled, to tell good news, to tell slow news, and to tell stories that happen more than once. That’s exactly what social progress consists of, and it’s why an alarming percentage of people think we now live in a world that is poorer and more dangerous than it used to be, neither of which are true.

But I think this is getting better! If you want to understand the role of media in development, you have to understand how it is changing.

1. Social media is making traditional media obsolete

The first change is the most obvious: Social media. We all know that Twitter and Facebook allow organizations to communicate directly with their audiences and bypass traditional media. However you feel about Kony 2012 or the ice bucket challenge, they’re not the last nonprofits that are going to go viral. The media only came to those organisations, those issues, after the rest of the world already knew about them.

This direct communication makes the media increasingly obsolete, and gives institutions the opportunity to play on their turf. Last year the World Bank did an analysis of all the pdfs on their website and found that 87 percent of them had never been cited; 31 percent had never been downloaded at all. If the World Bank wants to get its research, its conclusions, more widely talked about, it doesn’t need to call the New York Times or the BBC. It needs to record Ted Talks, to make animated explainers, to bundle its research into infographics, tweets, summaries for distinct audiences. For organizations with something to say, the media isn’t an amplifier for telling their story, it’s just part of the background noise.

2. Traditional media is getting slower

There was this story in the New Yorker in September about how Salt Lake City beat homelessness. The city was spending $20,000 per homeless person on emergency services, extra policing, jail time, temporary shelters. A free apartment cost just $8,000 per year. Salt Lake City decided to simply give each homeless person a free apartment, no (well, few) questions asked. The homeless population fell by 72 percent.

This is exactly the kind of bureaucratic innovation that development is made of. Since it came out, the story has gotten tons of attention. I mean, the Daily Show did a segment on it.

In journalism school they used to tell us the old cliche that ‘journalism is the first rough draft of history‘. For media companies these days, it seems like that’s not enough anymore. ‘27 Maps that Explain America‘, ‘What We Know About Inequality (in 14 Charts)‘, these are not attempts to tell you something new, but to reframe, contextualize, what you already know.

When Vox media, one of the most prominent digital-native startups, got an hourlong interview with President Obama, they barely asked him anything about current events. They asked him about the state of the world, what Americans get wrong about foreign aid, why he’s been so polarizing. They specifically designed the interview to be evergreen, reflective, to offer insight to the news cycle rather than stay in front of it.

For development practitioners, this should be hugely encouraging. You don’t have to package your organisation around a news event, include those cheesy anecdotes (Sally walks two hours every day to school…’) at the beginning of your annual report. You can tell a longer, slower, larger story (‘why weren’t the roads paved? It all starts in 1978…’)—and the media will help you.

 

3. The line between media and NGOs is blurring.

Last February, the editor-in-chief of the New York Times left to work for a ‘nonprofit news organization‘ explicitly dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system. Since it launched, its stories have appeared in The New Republic, the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post.

It’s not just newspapers, not just criminal justice reporting. ProPublica, a progressive nonprofit, works with NPR to do stories on pharma company payments to doctorsgovernment cuts to workman’s comp (yes, there are charts). As early as 2005, ABC News was running stories produced by International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention NGO.

It goes the other way too. Human Rights Watch has deliberately started doing work that is, if you took the logo off it, indistinguishable from journalism.

 

All three of these changes tell the same story: The media is getting squeezed into a narrower and narrower band. As revenue shrinks and newsrooms atrophy, the things that journalism used to do—publicize institutions, bring attention to societal changes, retell press releases—are being done around it.

So if development NGOs want to get their message out, they need to meet the media where it is and where it’s going. Get stories directly to the people you’re trying to reach, let the media come afterwards. Tell the story of your issue—homelessness, teen pregnancy, water scarcity—not your organization. And if you don’t like the way the media is telling your story, tell it yourself.

 

* I stole this thought experiment from Gerald Chertavian, the guy who runs the charity Year Up, who I interviewed for a story the week before the talk.

 

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Filed under America, Development, Serious, Work

Should journalists care how their stories are shared?

IMG_6122

The latest episode of NPR’s Invisibilia is about Daniel Kish, the famous ‘blind dude who can ride a bicycle‘.

How does he do it? It’s all in the clicks. Kish uses echolocation—yes, just like a bat—to feel the contours of his environment. According to the episode, neurologists are discovering that blind people’s brains are capable of way more ‘vision’ than we once thought they were.

That’s all super fascinating. What’s a bit troubling is the way the story is framed. Invisibilia packages Kish’s story as a fable about expectations. For most blind people, we expect them to be helpless, to be led around by the arm. For Daniel, his mother expected him to take care of himself. As early as five, he was climbing trees and barreling down hills on his bike. In this telling, it was the expectation, not the neurology, that allowed him to be so much more capable than other blind people.

Kish is—again, according to the episode—part of a growing movement among blind people to teach kids echolocation and independence much earlier. There’s a scene (do podcasts have scenes?) where Kish forces a blind kid, convinced he’s incapable, who almost never leaves the house, to climb a tree, 40 feet up, literally the blind leading the blind. The kid resists, then climbs, then falls, then gets up and tries again. Kish expects him to climb, to see, and eventually, he does both.

You can see what’s heartwarming, what’s enlightening, about all this. A blind woman describes how echolocation allowed her to ‘let go of the arm’, to go places without her husband leading her. Kish leads a group of blind people on long hikes each year, along ravines, with nothing but canes and clicks to guide them.

Once I was done learning and thinking (and, at one point, crying—that woman and the arm!) I started to find it really troubling. Not the episode itself—like everything on NPR, it’s professional, meticulously researched, you feel smarter for having heard it—but how, I fear, it will be retold.

The show includes dozens of caveats. Many blind people have other disabilities that make it difficult to gain more independence. Echolocation is really hard to learn as an adult. Even once they learn to ‘see’ through echolocation, blind people are still significantly disabled, will still require assistance, will still do things more slowly and more carefully. One of the hosts of the show, her dad is blind, she rejects the idea that all he’s missing is someone to berate him into climbing a tree.

But of course the episode’s reservations are not what you take away from it. What you learn is, ‘blind people have the ability to see’ and ‘our expectations are making blind people helpless.’ That’s what you’re going to repeat to your friends when you talk about it. If anything from this episode travels, it will be those two ideas, caveat-less.

It reminds me a bit of the 10,000 hours thing. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers popularized the idea that most of the people we consider as having ‘inborn talent’—Tiger Woods, Mozart, Bobby Fischer—have in fact worked incredibly hard to refine and develop it. No one just picks up a tennis racquet and is suddenly John McEnroe, not even John McEnroe. Being good at something, no matter your inherent coordination or musicality, means practicing and practicing and practicing.

In its original conception, it’s a pretty small point, a slight tweak to our understanding of talent and practice, far from a revolution in it. Yet all the caveats in Gladwell’s original article, the deliberate smallness of his argument, the concept of 10,000 hours has traveled without them. People have written responses—and a whole book!—arguing that yes, some people are born better at things than other people, that no, you will not become Mozart at something just because you practice it a lot. That’s not a response to the Gladwell expressed—he’s said he agrees, that his 2008 self would have too—but the version of it that traveled, the one we all retold to each other.

I wonder if journalists think about this, the inevitability of it, as they’re doing their work. Caveat all you want, many people will still conclude from that NPR episode that you should never help another blind person across the street, that the ones who can’t by themselves are constrained by their own un-adventurousness, not their physical limitations.

This is entry like 10,000 in my ongoing journalism is hard stomachache. Should NPR not have made this episode just because it will be distorted when we all truncate and tweet it? Fuck no, it was great, I’m super glad I heard it. Should they have included more caveats, been even more reserved in their conclusions? Meh, who wants to listen to an episode that’s all preamble and meta-discussion and asides? Kish’s story is gripping; the tellers of it can’t restrain themselves just because their listeners might draw the wrong lessons from it.

Maybe I’m not making an argument about them, maybe I’m making one about us. I don’t have any blind friends or family members. I don’t know anything about neurology or echolocation or tree climbing. I’m profoundly un-educated on every single issue contained in this podcast. What makes this kind of journalism so great, and so troubling, is that it makes me forget that.

Photo by the wonderful Luise Schröder!

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Rolling Stone, Serial and the Advantages of Uncertainty

Gerry Spence’s How to Argue and Win Every Time—which I read when I was 13 and remember as vividly as other kids remember To Kill a Mockingbird or whatever—has a whole chapter about how one of the keys to persuasion is admitting the weaknesses in your own case. Spence was a celebri-lawyer in the 1990s, he defended Imelda Marcos, and the example he uses in the book is a dude who got hit by a car crossing the street.

The guy was ruined-drunk at the time, and the prosecutor planned to use this information against him at trial. Instead, Spence, his lawyer, not only admitted that his client was drunk in his opening statement, but made it the center of his case. Who’s more deserving of the protection of the law than someone in a vulnerable, confused physical state? Spence won.

The more I think about the Rolling Stone case, the more I think the critical error wasn’t that the reporter failed to check out the details of the rape survivor’s story (though she should have), but that she didn’t tell us the weaknesses in it herself.

In other words, I wonder if we’d still be having this scandal if the RS article included a big fat caveat, if it admitted the limitations of this kind of reporting up front, something like

Look, we didn’t contact the people accused of rape in this story because Jackie didn’t want us to. Given the sensitivity of rape accusations and how traumatized she already is, we didn’t want to re-victimize her by potentially exposing her to more abuse by her rapists. Furthermore, we weren’t able to confirm some details of her account. Regardless, it is not up to us to investigate whether or not she was raped. That is the job of her university, and they have failed spectacularly.

I’m speaking from a counterfactual here, so of course I have no real argument that this would have made a difference. But one thing I’ve realized in the last few years is that when you learn a piece of information can be as important as the information itself.

This is (to make a totally inappropriate transition) I think what makes Serial so great and so popular. The host isn’t playing us clips and going ‘Look! He’s innocent! This is a travesty!’ She gives us the evidence from the prosecution, from the defendant, and goes ‘all of this could mean something … or not. Maybe he’s a misunderstood young man. Or maybe he’s a sociopath!’ She isn’t trying to simplify her case, she’s deliberately admitting the complexities and inconsistencies in it. And by doing so, she not only maintains the mystery of what happened, but of what kind of show we’re listening to. She’s bringing us into the reporting process with her, and giving us some of its power.

What’s happening now is that other reporters are re-doing the Rolling Stone article themselves, interviewing the accused rapist and other people who were there. We’re essentially re-investigating the case, en masse, in real time, and in public. There’s a good reason the justice system does not work this way—one, it is shitty, and two, it results in false certitude, each reporter defending their own source as the ‘credible’ one. Here we are focusing on the events of one particular night in September 2012. Meanwhile, the overall point of the story, namely that universities do not take rape claims seriously, regardless of their veracity, has been lost.

I wrote something earlier this year about how what got Jonah Lehrer in trouble, what makes Malcolm Gladwell so (occasionally) infuriating is this failure, to bring us into the process, to share the knots in their stories and their doubts in themselves to untangle them.

I don’t want to pile on Erdeley. She’s probably having the worst week of her life, and her sin—promoting a false anecdote to illustrate a real problem—is understandable, if not defensible. I just wish she would have shared it with us herself.

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Being a Journalist is Scary

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Like everybody else this week, I read the Rolling Stone article about the University of Virginia, how women who were raped there had their complaints minimized and ignored.

On the content of the article itself, there’s little to say that isn’t obvious: The crimes are horrific, the university’s response was appalling, the systems for preventing and adjudicating rape claims are pathetic. It’s self-evident that all of that should be fixed.

But as I read it, that’s not what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the tremendous power of journalists, and how scared I am that I am now sort of one of them.

The first power of journalism is highlighting. The author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, chose the University of Virginia, from all the colleges across the country, to investigate. Maybe UVA has the biggest rape problem in the nation and maybe it doesn’t. But by pulling out this one university for scrutiny, everyone who read that story, me included, has the impression that it’s the fucking worst ever and has to be stopped.

The second power is condensing. I’m sure Erdely spent weeks at the school. She must have interviewed dozens of people, heard hundreds of stories. She has chosen, as a journalist, as a person, which of those to retell.

There’s a part in the story where she quotes a letter from the fraternity where the rape happened, responding to her investigation.

UVA chapter president Stephen Scipione recalls being only told of a vague, anonymous “fourth-hand” allegation of a sexual assault during a party. “We were not told that it was rape, but rather that something of a sexual nature took place,” he wrote to RS in an e-mail. Either way, Collinsworth says, given the paucity of information, “we have no evidence to substantiate the alleged assaults.”

I’m sure the letter was longer than that. Maybe Erdely sent him 10 points for clarification and he responded to each one in turn. Maybe he detailed the history of the fraternity’s response to sexual assault, how it has changed over time. Erdely quoted the part that was relevant and moved on.

The third power of journalism is conclusion. The way the facts are presented, how they are ordered and described, Erdely has done this in a way that makes ugh these fucking people the only sensible response.

I do not believe that Erdely has wielded these powers irresponsibly. She has taken an important issue and presented it grippingly and urgently. I trust that she has fairly summarized the e-mail from the fraternity president, that she investigated the veracity of the claims made against it.

I’m not even making an argument here, just an observation: The power that she, this one person, holds is profound. Rolling Stone reports, rather gleefully, that the governor of Virginia has issued a statement in response to the story. The university has suspended all its fraternities, amid protests from (justifiably!) livid students.

The J-school cliché is that journalism is supposed to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. That appears to be what happened in this case. Erdely could have told a similar story (I fear) about many universities across the United States, but she didn’t, she chose this one. And, in so doing, afflicted it.

But what are the mechanisms to prevent journalists from afflicting the afflicted? From choosing their targets unwisely? From condensing ungenerously? Rolling Stone has every incentive to play up its stories, to megaphone the ways it changes the world from which they are drawn. This is what journalism is supposed to do, what journalists are always telling us is its primary virtue, the one making up for all of its vices—its celebrity news, its comic strips, its listicles.

Rolling Stone, every magazine, has no mandate to provide proportionality, only entertainment. And outrage, like humor, like crossword puzzles, is one of its forms.

Except in extreme cases—libel, fabrication—the only accountability mechanism for journalists is their own story. Erdely didn’t quote that e-mail from the fraternity president (I assume) because it was long, it was boring, it wasn’t in her voice. She didn’t include all the stories she heard from her other interviews because they would have been detours from her primary narrative.

We condense, we highlight, we conclude, as people who want to tell a story in its shortest and interestingest form. This process is, by nature, intrasparent and autocratic. We’ll never know everything lost from Erdely’s story due to her cuts, nor the criteria she used to make them. We share her conclusions, but we easily forget that it was she who fed us the information on which to make them.

Shit, I sound like I’m criticizing her, don’t I. I’m really not. These are just the structures she works in. The same ones that, I guess, I do now too.

I read Erdely’s article the same week that something I wrote for The New Republic got a lot of attention. People have e-mailed me to thank me, to ask me to give them advice and interviews and speeches and join their organisations. I’m happy that something I wrote has been enjoyed by other people across the internet, but I am also nervous. These powers wielded by Erdely, by journalists everywhere, now they are mine. I am not confident that I am ready for them.

I’ve already talked about my own unworthiness here, how I try to make my summaries transparent, my judgements accountable to those upon whom I make them. I could have been more of a dick in my article, I tell myself, could have condensed less charitably, could have wrung the evidence for my own perspective more tightly. Maybe you already think I have.

The reason I am scared is that there would have been no punishment for doing so. A slightly boringer story, maybe, a polemic, something that could have been titled ‘the case for’. As a reader, that incentive is enough. As a writer, sometimes I fear that it is not.

Update: Oh man, so this non-argument of mine just got pretty darn concrete. I’m going to leave the text as it is—I’m too lazy to change it and no one reads this blog anyway!—but it looks like Erdely’s story is less a hypothetical parable about the powers of journalism than an instance of this power improperly applied. Me making this all about my own fears and insecurities still applies. 

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Plagiarism Needs a Better Definition

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There’s this parable that economists always tell.

Your car breaks down and you take it to the mechanic. He opens the hood and looks at your engine for a few seconds. Then he takes out a little hammer and taps it on the top. Suddenly it works again.

‘That’ll be $100,’ he says.
‘But all you did was make a little tap!’ you protest.
‘The tap, that’s $1,’ he says. ‘Knowing where to tap, that’s $99.’

Like everyone else who writes for a living, I’ve been reading the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism allegations with a knot in my stomach.

Here’s what we know so far:

In 2012, Zakaria blatantly yoinked a Jill Lepore (love her!) paragraph in an article he wrote about gun control. He got busted and he apologized.

Dude has written for legit every publication, so his current employer and his alma maters investigated his old work for copy-pastage. They apparently didn’t find anything because Zakaria was back at his desk after a few weeks.

Then, this summer, two bloggers with awesome pseudonyms started looking into his work more closely. They found dozens—no, seriously, dozens—of instances where Zakaria paraphrased from other authors without giving them credit.

Check out this clip from his book, with questionable phrasing in yellow:

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He also pilfered some figures from Michael Lewis’s (love him!) investigation of California’s financial problems.

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Then Zakaria issued a suuuuper half-assed rebuttal (‘These are all facts, not someone else’s writing or opinions or expressions’) that was torn apart by theOur Bad Media bloggers (seriously read it, it’s the best post of this whole episode).

So those are the charges. Now we can start debating how pissed off about them we want to be. The Columbia Journalism Review (love you guys!) just put out a longform-ish dissection of what we talk about when we talk about plagiarism.

Lots of the debate, like every debate ever, hinges on definitions. Plagiarism sounds like a binary distinction—you copy-pasted or you didn’t—but looking at it so technocratically allows writers to do what Zakaria did, make slight modifications to other people’s sentences to slip past plagiarism-detection software

The real issue here is lack of attribution, which is just a Zakarian weasel-word for ‘stealing other people’s ideas’.

Let’s go back to the Michael Lewis example. I’m not particularly offended by the fact that Zakaria took a few of Lewis’s words and put them in the same order. As Zakaria himself points out in his rebuttal, there’s only so many ways to say something.

But dude, Lewis worked to get those numbers. Using them to make a broader point about municipal finance, the difficulty of balancing a budget in as a medium-size American city, that was Lewis’s idea to find those numbers and use them as an argument.

The defences of Zakaria usually stick to the technical definition. Here’s the CJR again:

Jacob Weisberg, head of the Slate Group, defended Zakaria’s mistakes as “minor, penny-ante stuff” unworthy of the “plagiarism” label, according to The Daily Beast. “I’m not sure we have a strict operational definition of plagiarism at Slate,” he added in an email to CJR. “To me, plagiarism involves not just using someone else’s research or ideas without credit, but also taking passages of prose and distinctive language.”

Fred Hiatt, Zakaria’s editor at the Washington Post, prefers the term ‘improper attribution’, which sounds about as serious as a parking ticket.

I was listening to a badass podcast this morning called ‘America’s Diversity Explosion Is Coming Just in Time.’ The interviewee, a Brookings Institution researcher named William Frey, wrote a book about how America’s changing racial and age-al makeup is going to remake the country for the next generation. It’s a provocative argument, and he uses hella stats to make it: About 80 percent of people over 65 are white, compared to about 50 percent of people under 17. Fifteen percent of all marriages are multi-racial. Blacks vote for Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 87 percent.

All those numbers are publicly available, they’re mostly from the Census and shit, but knowing where to look, pulling them out, putting them in that order, drawing conclusions from them, that is work. This dude has read and thought and written way more about this than I ever have, and it would be such a dickmove for me to copy the work part and then be like ‘the numbers were there all along!’ Zakaria is deliberately mixing up the tap with knowing where to tap.

Which leads to my proposal for how we should consider these cases in the future: What would the original author think if they read your summary? If Frey, the Brookings dude, read the above two paragraphs, where it’s clear that it’s his ideas and my summary, I don’t expect he’d feel robbed. Even if I happen to have used phrasing similar to his or a few words in the same order, it washes out under the credit I’ve given him.

When my development article came out, I sent it to the authors whose books I’d summarized. I wanted to share it with them, not just the story but the experience of getting their ideas and examples out to a broader audience. I wasn’t worried they’d find the article, I was worried they wouldn’t retweet it.

Part of the reason I do this is just basic politeness and golden-rule-following, but it’s also a sort of self-regulation mechanism. Knowing, before I even start writing, that the authors I’m discussing are going to read what I say and think about them, it makes me more careful—not just in my phrasing but in my conclusions.

That’s why I’m always arguing for more collaboration between journalists and their sources. Personally, I’m utterly terrified of accidentally plagiarizing something. I know the ‘I forgot to add a footnote!’ excuse sounds like ‘I have lots of black friends!’—but losing track of sources, forgetting that a sentence in your notes is someone else’s words and not your own, it’s a genuine risk. Working with the sources of your ideas is the only reliable protection against inadvertently stealing the expression of them.

I’m not suggesting the plagiarized-from authors should be given responsibility for Zakaria’s fate, or that every single article should be approved by its sources before its released. But read those passages above (especially the one from his book! Phwoof!) and ask yourself, ‘if you wrote the original text, would you feel comfortable with Zakaria’s version?’

Personally, I wouldn’t be pissed that he stole my words, I’d be pissed that he stole the thing I was using my words to describe. Detecting plagiarism doesn’t require more sophisticated software, it requires more sophisticated ethics.

Under the current definition, plagiarism asks whether two authors are tapping in the same place. We need one that acknowledges the work of knowing where to tap.
Photo by Seung-Hwan Oh

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‘It’s not that development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t.’

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That’s me in an article for The New Republic out today. It’s basically my (unworthy) attempt to write a New York Review of Books essay. I barely interviewed anyone for this, just read and thought and typed.

I know that goal-reaching is boring to read, but the whole process has not gotten any less special for me. Editors who interrogate my drafts like tiger moms, fact-checkers who don’t let me get away with anything, online teams who package me with stock photos and tweet me around the internet, I love being a part of it.

I want to talk about the (scant) reporting I did for this article, toward the end of the process, and how I feel about the final product. The first section of the essay deals with an NGO called Deworm The World, the brainchild of Michael Kremer, a Harvard professor who found that deworming pills improved education outcomes for kids in Kenya way more than free textbooks did.

Since Kremer’s Kenya studies, his idea has caught fire, and both the Kenyan and the Indian government have launched large-scale deworming programs on millions of kids. But, as I found out when I called him and Evidence Action, the NGO that has taken up his work, they’re no longer measuring whether deworming improves school performance. They’re administering deworming tablets to 17 million kids in India without testing whether they’re actually having an effect on the kids, rather than just the worms.

This was the first time in my little pretend-journalist experiment where I had to call someone up and tell them, to their face, that I disagreed with what they were doing, that I would be saying this in print, in front of the whole country.

And part of me feels bad about what I wrote. Kremer is a brilliant guy, and was way friendlier than I deserved when I called him up and told him all this. Evidence Action is part of a movement to bring scientific rigor to development aid, something I wholeheartedly support, even if I disagree with the specifics of the way they’ve upscaled.

The internet is not a good place to make a narrow point. We don’t have small disagreements or different preferences, we go on ‘tirades‘, we ‘slam‘ each other.

The truth is more complicated—and much less interesting. If you listed all of the things that I believe and all the things Kremer does, 99 percent of them would line up. Describe to me every project that Evidence Action is doing around the world and I would probably throw dollars at the vast majority of them. I’m not saying that he’s a fraud, or that the charity is bullshit, or that we, the world, should abandon deworming as a development approach.

My point, like I guess everything once you strip the headlines and the retweets away, is pretty small: I do not believe the evidence for deworming rises to the level where its effects on education should no longer be measured. That’s it, that’s the whole argument. He has evidence for his side, I have evidence for mine. Maybe I’m wrong and maybe he is, we both agree that more testing should be done. Even if his project fails, if deworming has no effect on education whatsoever, Kremer and Evidence Action are responsible for treating worm infections in 17 million Indian children. That’s more than I’ve ever done with my life, and that achievement shouldn’t be discarded just because the TED Talkiness of their impacts is more complicated than they originally presented them.

We shouldn’t let them off the hook either, though. There’s an understandable human impulse to rush to rules from particulars, and we’re allowed to criticise people who make this sprint without the proper self-scepticism. But we also need to keep our own scale in mind, keep our criticism from spilling out from action onto character.

Anyway, this is all just a long and tortured way of saying, let’s all be nice to each other! I hope readers will forgive my tirades, and I, for my part, promise to forgive those who tirade against me.

 

photo by the wonderful Guy Billout

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