The Ethics of Pandemics

Book edited by Meredith Celene Schwartz: “The rapid spread of COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on modern health-care systems and has given rise to a number of complex ethical issues. This collection of readings and case studies offers an overview of some of the most pressing of these issues, such as the allocation of ventilators and other scarce resources, the curtailing of standard privacy measures for the sake of public health, and the potential obligations of health-care professionals to continue operating in dangerous work environments….(More)“.

The co-ops that electrified Depression-era farms are now building rural internet

Nicolás Rivero at Quartz: “In 2017, Mark McKinney decided enough was enough. The head of the Jackson County Rural Electric Membership Corporation in southern Indiana, a co-op that provides electricity to a rural community of 20,000 members, McKinney was still living without a reliable internet connection. No internet service provider would build the infrastructure to get him or his neighbors online.

“We realized no one was interested due to the capital expense and limited number of members per mile,” says McKinney, “so the board made the decision to go at it on our own.”

The coronavirus pandemic quickly proved the wisdom of their decision: Thanks to their new fiber optic connection, McKinney and his wife were able to self-quarantine without missing work after they were exposed to the virus. Their son finished the spring semester at home after his university shut down in March. “We could not have done that without this connection,” he said.

Across the rural US, more than 100 cooperatives, first launched to provide electric and telephone services as far back as the 1930s, are now laying miles of fiber optic cable to connect their members to high speed internet. Many started building their own networks after failing to convince established internet service providers to cover their communities.

But while rural fiber optic networks have spread swiftly over the past five years, their progress has been uneven. In North Dakota, for example, fiber optic co-ops cover 82% of the state’s landmass, while Nevada has just one co-op. And in the states where the utilities do exist, they tend to serve the whitest communities….(More)”.

The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free

Essay by Nathan J. Robinson: “…This means that a lot of the most vital information will end up locked behind the paywall. And while I am not much of a New Yorker fan either, it’s concerning that the Hoover Institute will freely give you Richard Epstein’s infamous article downplaying the threat of coronavirus, but Isaac Chotiner’s interview demolishing Epstein requires a monthly subscription, meaning that the lie is more accessible than its refutation. Eric Levitz of New York is one of the best and most prolific left political commentators we have. But unless you’re a subscriber of New York, you won’t get to hear much of what he has to say each month. 

Possibly even worse is the fact that so much academic writing is kept behind vastly more costly paywalls. A white supremacist on YouTube will tell you all about race and IQ but if you want to read a careful scholarly refutation, obtaining a legal PDF from the journal publisher would cost you $14.95, a price nobody in their right mind would pay for one article if they can’t get institutional access. (I recently gave up on trying to access a scholarly article because I could not find a way to get it for less than $39.95, though in that case the article was garbage rather than gold.) Academic publishing is a nightmarish patchwork, with lots of articles advertised at exorbitant fees on one site, and then for free on another, or accessible only through certain databases, which your university or public library may or may not have access to. (Libraries have to budget carefully because subscription prices are often nuts. A library subscription to the Journal of Coordination Chemistryfor instance, costs $11,367 annually.) 

Of course, people can find their ways around paywalls. SciHub is a completely illegal but extremely convenient means of obtaining academic research for free. (I am purely describing it, not advocating it.) You can find a free version of the article debunking race and IQ myths on ResearchGate, a site that has engaged in mass copyright infringement in order to make research accessible. Often, because journal publishers tightly control access to their copyrighted work in order to charge those exorbitant fees for PDFs, the versions of articles that you can get for free are drafts that have not yet gone through peer review, and have thus been subjected to less scrutiny. This means that the more reliable an article is, the less accessible it is. On the other hand, pseudo-scholarhip is easy to find. Right-wing think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Hoover Institution, the Mackinac Center, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation pump out slickly-produced policy documents on every subject under the sun. They are utterly untrustworthy—the conclusion is always going to be “let the free market handle the problem,” no matter what the problem or what the facts of the case. But it is often dressed up to look sober-minded and non-ideological. 

It’s not easy or cheap to be an “independent researcher.” When I was writing my first book, Superpredator, I wanted to look through newspaper, magazine, and journal archives to find everything I could about Bill Clinton’s record on race. I was lucky I had a university affiliation, because this gave me access to databases like LexisNexis. If I hadn’t, the cost of finding out what I wanted to find out would likely have run into the thousands of dollars.  

A problem beyond cost, though, is convenience. I find that even when I am doing research through databases and my university library, it is often an absolute mess: the sites are clunky and constantly demanding login credentials. The amount of time wasted in figuring out how to obtain a piece of research material is a massive cost on top of the actual pricing. The federal court document database, PACER, for instance, charges 10 cents a page for access to records, which adds up quickly since legal research often involves looking through thousands of pages. They offer an exemption if you are a researcher or can’t afford it, but to get the exemption you have to fill out a three page form and provide an explanation of both why you need each document and why you deserve the exemption. This is a waste of time that inhibits people’s productivity and limits their access to knowledge.

In fact, to see just how much human potential is being squandered by having knowledge dispensed by the “free market,” let us briefly picture what “totally democratic and accessible knowledge” would look like…(More)”.

Coming Together While Staying Apart : Facilitating Collective Action through Trust and Social Connection in the Age of COVID-19

Worldbank Report: “Facing the COVID-19 pandemic requires an unprecedented degree of cooperation between governments and citizens and across all facets of society to implement spatial distancing and other policy measures. This paper proposes to think about handling the pandemic as a collective action problem that can be alleviated by policies that foster trust and social connection. Policy and institutional recommendations are presented according to a three-layered pandemic response generally corresponding to short-, medium-, and long-term needs. This paper focuses on building connection and cooperation as means to bring about better health and socioeconomic outcomes. Many factors outside the paper’s scope, such as health policy choices, will greatly affect the outcomes. As such, the paper explores the role of trust, communication, and collaboration conditional on sound health and economic policy choices…(More)”.

How open data could tame Big Tech’s power and avoid a breakup

Patrick Leblond at The Conversation: “…Traditional antitrust approaches such as breaking up Big Tech firms and preventing potential competitor acquisitions are never-ending processes. Even if you break them up and block their ability to acquire other, smaller tech firms, Big Tech will start growing again because of network effects and their data advantage.

And how do we know when a tech firm is big enough to ensure competitive markets? What are the size or scope thresholds for breaking up firms or blocking mergers and acquisitions?

A small startup acquired for millions of dollars can be worth billions of dollars for a Big Tech acquirer once integrated in its ecosystem. A series of small acquisitions can result in a dominant position in one area of the digital economy. Knowing this, competition/antitrust authorities would potentially have to examine every tech transaction, however small.

Not only would this be administratively costly or burdensome on resources, but it would also be difficult for government officials to assess with some precision (and therefore legitimacy), the likely future economic impact of an acquisition in a rapidly evolving technological environment.

Open data access, level the playing field

Given that mass data collection is at the core of Big Tech’s power as gatekeepers to customers, a key solution is to open up data access for other firms so that they can compete better.

Anonymized data (to protect an individual’s privacy rights) about people’s behaviour, interests, views, etc., should be made available for free to anyone wanting to pursue a commercial or non-commercial endeavour. Data about a firm’s operations or performance would, however, remain private.

Using an analogy from the finance world, Big Tech firms act as insider traders. Stock market insiders often possess insider (or private) information about companies that the public does not have. Such individuals then have an incentive to profit by buying or selling shares in those companies before the public becomes aware of the information.

Big Tech’s incentives are no different than stock market insiders. They trade on exclusively available private information (data) to generate extraordinary profits.

Continuing the finance analogy, financial securities regulators forbid the use of inside or non-publicly available information for personal benefit. Individuals found to illegally use such information are punished with jail time and fines.

They also require companies to publicly report relevant information that affects or could significantly affect their performance. Finally, they oblige insiders to publicly report when they buy and sell shares in a company in which they have access to privileged information.

Transposing stock market insider trading regulation to Big Tech implies that data access and use should be monitored under an independent regulatory body — call it a Data Market Authority. Such a body would be responsible for setting and enforcing principles, rules and standards of behaviour among individuals and organizations in the data-driven economy.

For example, a Data Market Authority would require firms to publicly report how they acquire and use personal data. It would prohibit personal data hoarding by ensuring that data is easily portable from one platform, network or marketplace to another. It would also prohibit the buying and selling of personal data as well as protect individuals’ privacy by imposing penalties on firms and individuals in cases of non-compliance.

Data openly and freely available under a strict regulatory environment would likely be a better way to tame Big Tech’s power than breaking them up and having antitrust authorities approving every acquisition that they wish to make….(More)”.

A Time for More Democracy Not Less

Graham Smith at Involve: “As part of the “A democratic response to COVID-19” project, we have been scanning print and social media to get a sense of how arguments for participation and deliberation are resonating in public debates….

Researchers from the Institute for Development Studies point to learning from previous pandemics. Drawing from their experience of working on the ebola epidemic in West Africa, they argue that pandemics are not just technical problems to be solved, but are social in character. They call for more deliberation and participation to ensure that decisions reflect not only the diversity of expert opinion, but also respond to the experiential knowledge of the most vulnerable….

A number of these proposals call for citizens’ assemblies, perhaps to the detriment of other participatory and deliberative processes. The Carnegie Trust offers a broader agenda, reminding us of the pressing contemporary significance of their pre-COVID-19 calls for co-design and co-production. 

The Nuffield Council offers some simple guidance to government about how to act:

  • Show us (the public) what it is doing and thinking across the range of issues of concern
  • Set out the ethical considerations that inform(ed) its judgements
  • Explain how it has arrived at decisions (including taking advice from e.g. SAGE, MEAG), and not that it is just ‘following the science’
  • Invite a broad range of perspectives into the room, including wider public representation 
  • Think ahead – consult and engage other civic interests

We have found only a small number of examples of specific initiatives taking a participatory or deliberative approach to bringing in a broader range of voices in response to the pandemic. Our Covid Voices is gathering written statements of the experience of COVID-19 from those with health conditions or disabilities. The thinktank Demos is running a ‘People’s Commission’, inviting stories of lockdown life. It is not only reflections or stories. The Scottish Government invited ideas on how to tackle the virus, receiving and synthesising 4,000 suggestions. The West Midlands Combined Authority has established a citizens’ panel to guide its recovery work. The UK Citizens’ Assembly (and the French Convention) produced recommendations on how commitments to reach net zero carbon emissions need to be central to a post-COVID-19 recovery. We are sure that these examples only touch the surface of activity and that there will be many more initiatives that we are yet to hear about.

Of course, in one area, citizens have already taken matters into their own hands, with the huge growth in mutual-aid groups to ensure people’s emergency needs are met. The New Local Government Network has considered how public authorities could best support and work with such groups, and Danny Kruger MP was invited by the Prime Minister to investigate how to build on this community-level response.

The call for a more participatory and deliberative approach to governance needs to be more than a niche concern. As the Financial Times recognises, we need a “new civic contract” between government and the people….(More)”.

Nudging in Public Policy

Alice Moseley in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics: “Nudging” in public policy involves using behavioral, economic, and psychological insights to influence the behavior of policy targets in order to help achieve policy goals. This approach to public policy was advocated by Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge in 2008. Nudging is underpinned by a conception that individuals use mental shortcuts (heuristics) in day-to-day decision-making, shortcuts that do not always serve their long-term interests (for instance, in relation to eating and exercise patterns, road safety, or saving for the future). Nudging does not involve seeking to persuade individuals about the merits of pursuing particular courses of action that will better serve their long-term welfare. Rather, it involves altering the choice environment so that when people follow their instincts, using familiar mental shortcuts, the most prominent option available to the policy target will be one that is likely to promote their own welfare, and that of society more widely. Nudging has come to be considered a core part of the policy toolkit in many countries but academic scholarship has also debated the ethical dimensions of nudging, and there is a flourishing research literature on the efficacy, public acceptability, merits, and limitations of this approach within public policy….(More)”.

Cities, crowding, and the coronavirus: Predicting contagion risk hotspots

Paper by Gaurav Bhardwaj et al: “Today, over 4 billion people around the world—more than half the global population—live in cities. By 2050, with the urban population more than doubling its current size, nearly 7 of 10 people in the world will live in cities. Evidence from today’s developed countries and rapidly emerging economies shows that urbanization and the development of cities is a source of dynamism that can lead to enhanced productivity. In fact, no country in the industrial age has ever achieved significant economic growth without urbanization.

The underlying driver of this dynamism is the ability of cities to bring people together. Social and economic interactions are the hallmark of city life, making people more productive and often creating a vibrant market for innovations by entrepreneurs and investors. International evidence suggests that the elasticity of income per capita with respect to city population is between 3% and 8% (Rosenthal & Strange 2003). Each doubling of city size raises its productivity by 5%.

But the coronavirus pandemic is now seriously limiting social interactions. With no vaccine available, prevention through containment and social distancing, along with frequent handwashing, appear to be, for now, the only viable strategies against the virus. The goal is to slow transmission and avoid overwhelming health systems that have finite resources. Hence non-essential businesses have been closed and social distancing measures, including lockdowns, are being applied in many countries. Will such measures defeat the virus in dense urban areas? In principle, yes. Wealthier people in dense neighborhoods can isolate themselves while having amenities and groceries delivered to them. Many can connect remotely to work, and some can even afford to live without working for a time. But poorer residents of crowded neighborhoods cannot afford such luxuries.

To help city leaders prioritize resources towards places with the highest exposure and contagion risk, we have developed a simple methodology that can be rapidly deployed. This methodology identifies hotspots for contagion and vulnerability, based on:
– The practical inability for keeping people apart, based on a combination of population density and livable floor space that does not allow for 2 meters of physical distancing.
– Conditions where, even under lockdown, people might have little option but to cluster (e.g., to access public toilets and water pumps)…(More)”.


Book by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini: “In the age of upheaval, top-down power structures and rule-choked management systems are a liability. They crush creativity and stifle initiative. As leaders, employees, investors and citizens, we deserve better. We need organizations that are bold, entrepreneurial and as nimble as change itself. Hence this book.

In Humanocracy, Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini make a passionate, data-driven argument for excising bureaucracy and replacing it with something better. Drawing on more than a decade of research, and packed with practical examples, Humanocracy lays out a detailed blueprint for creating organizations that are as inspired and ingenious as the human beings inside them….(More).

Creating a digital commons

Report by the IPPR (UK): ” There are, today, almost no parts of life that are untouched by the presence of data. Virtually every action we take produces some form of digital trail – our phones track our locations, our browsers track searches, our social network apps log our friends and family – even when we are only dimly aware of it.

It is the combination of this near-ubiquitous gathering of data with fast processing that has generated the economic and social transformation of the last few years – one that, if current developments in artificial intelligence (AI) continue, is only likely to accelerate. Combined with data-enabled technology, from the internet of things to 3D printing, we are potentially on the cusp of a radically different economy and society.

As the world emerges from the first phase of the pandemic, the demands for a socially just and sustainable recovery have grown. The data economy can and should be an essential part of that reconstruction, from the efficient management of energy systems to providing greater flexibility in working time. However, without effective public policy, and democratic oversight and management, the danger is that the tendencies in the data economy that we have already seen towards monopoly and opacity – reinforced, so far, by the crisis – will continue to dominate. It is essential, then, that planning for a fairer, more sustainable economy in the future build in active public policy for data…

This report focusses closely on data as the fundamental building block of the emerging economy, and argues that its use, management, ownership, and control as critical to shaping the future…(More)”.