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Sunday, February 07, 2021

Organizational hierarchy is immoral by default

I've been thinking lately about how organizations make up of decent people can do immoral things.

When you have to do something, you usually do it. In relationships where you have less than half the power, or roughly half, you need to be careful to tell the truth, keep track of your promises, and generally own the things you say and do.

But if you have much more than half the power, you just don't really need to do any of those things. You can even intend to do them, and do them much of the time, and credit yourself for doing them. But when you don't do them -- when you misstate facts, or omit facts, or ignore your promises, or reverse course without owning the change, or drop a position without acknowledging it, or enforce a rule that hasn't been articulated -- well, you totally can.

There are many forms of self-regulation that are effective, without requiring external pressure. And in organizations, there are leaders who work to hold themselves to a high standard on these measures.

You might say that in the long term, this self-regulation is rational and strategic, because an organization without it will bleed people and customers. Maybe, but the pressure is very indirect. Whereas the more basic effects of a power imbalance are more obvious. As in, what can get you fired?

Take lying. A boss can generally get someone under them fired, or at least written up and put under HR pressure, for being caught lying about something substantial. But what about when the employee catches the boss in a lie? It's not that there is no repercussion ever. But in a basic sense, the employee won't get very far going to HR and telling what happened.

It's analogous to police violence. It's a perfectly mainstream thing to think, "I know the police may have been too aggressive when they shot that guy, but there was a scuffle and for all they know, he was going to kill them." But it's much more uncommon to think "I know that citizen may have been too aggressive when he shot that cop, but there was a scuffle and for all he knew, the cop was going to kill him." Which he did!

I hope nobody kills anyone, and I support police safety and understand the risks of policing. I'm just trying to point out that when we look at a situation with a genuine power imbalance, that shapes the lens of what we do and don't see as acceptable.

In a relationship with roughly equal power -- a marriage, say, or a business partnership -- there is often a LOT of messy back and forth. Tons of feedback happening. Lots of apologies and changes of course. That's not because the people involved suck at relationship, it's because they're *good* at relationship, and a power balanced relationship involves lots of doing fucked up things, yelling at each other, listening better, and changing.

What does it do to a relationship, if you take the power and make it wildly imbalanced? Well, it becomes no longer possible to hammer out grievances the less powerful person has.

You can still hammer out grievances! There can still be listening and change! But it's essentially one-way, with only small, limited, heavily risky opportunities for expressing grievances the other way. This isn't due to anyone involved being a bad person. It's the underlying power situation. Rewind time, switch the individuals in their hierarchical roles, and you'd probably get the same result.

How do you defy this trend? Well, you can't pretend it doesn't exist. "Let's all get drinks and be chums" is good, but it doesn't actually threaten the power imbalance, so it's immaterial to this dynamic.

To undo it in a systematic way, you need to actually shift the power dynamics in ways that are not just window dressing.

Take something like giving credit: what I've seen, over and over, is that credit is given in groups according to power alliances more than according to work. So to combat this, you need institutional practices that pay attention to who is doing what work, and you need to use those to recognize contributions *even when they seem off*.

As with a Constitution, this sort of practice doesn't matter when it easily aligns with the way things are already done. It matters when you don't want to do it, but do it anyway. "Ugh, Carol again, she's such a PITA... Hey everyone, let's thank Carol for arranging this meeting."

You could have a practice like a weekly survey of whose work is helping you most, and use it to specifically recognize people, with negative bias the higher in the hierarchy someone is. And you can make "asking tough questions" a specifically solicited quality of meetings and workplace culture, with cultural practices like calling out others' questions for their value if they seemed difficult to ask.

Expertise with an area of work is different from management of that work, or of management in general. Make it a practice to seek out and consult those who know most about a topic in the org, not those who have the most power, when changing something in that area.

Overall, this is a problem that needs deliberate action to overcome the inherent bias in the power imbalance. Can people throughout your organization immediately point to ways that management gives up part of its power, and puts not just the feedback of the rank-and-file but the planning and direction of the rank-and-file on an equal basis with management?

If not, your organization may be immoral, in its structure, in a way that makes good intentions irrelevant.

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Parents worry about the wrong things

I appreciated this Emily Oster post assuring parents that they don't need to worry about heavy metals in baby food.

Among Oster's other points is that there's a much bigger heavy metal problem, that really is real: lead in drinking water.

I raised my kids in a brownstone in Brooklyn, and most old buildings like that have lead solder in their pipes that leaches lead into water over time. The solution is to always run the cold water until it's as cold as the outside -- 30 seconds or so -- before using it for drinking or cooking. 

What was surprising to me was that so few other helicopter-ish parents in Brooklyn seemed to be aware of this problem. We had our water tested as soon as we moved in, and sure enough, there was lead in the water if it had been sitting in the pipes, and no lead if we let it run 30 seconds first. This must be the case for hundreds of thousands of homes in NYC. But there was zero government messaging around that, no pushing program to encourage replacing pipes or other mitigation, etc.

And while one data point isn't "data", a family we knew really did discover that their child had lead poisoning, presumably from their home (though perhaps from playing in the dirt in the backyard, since many brownstones for decades disposed of their coal ash by burying it in the backyard).

Meanwhile, parents were super tuned in to kidnapping fears and you'd almost never see a 10 year old taking the subway alone.

I just think there are massively misplaced priorities.

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Monday, February 01, 2021

Authoritarianism can be both a joke, and legitimately destructive

There's been a debate on the left since the January 6th coup attempt: does the conservative movement constitute an autocratic threat against liberalism? Or is that concern being overblown by holders of power to empower the Biden administration and undermine leftist insurgents like Bernie Sanders? After all, the judiciary didn't come close to permitting the coup to go through legally; for an autocratic movement, they don't seem to have much actual purchase.

It seems to me like both views have merit. You might synthesize them by saying that there is a strong anti-democratic tradition in the US, which has flexibly and fluidly moved from using the Constitution and rule of law to defying them.

And not just in that direction! All tools are at its disposal. So Trump really has increased authoritarianism by appointing lackeys with weak fidelity to universal principles and the law, even if when put under the spotlight they sometimes side with the law.

Gerrymandering and steady, whatever-works voter suppression don't make our democratic processeses useless, they just fiddle at the margins and give the GOP more power and the occasional presidency.

Corey Robin, arguing against alarmism about the right, is right that progressives shouldn't see the FBI and CIA as bulwarks against authoritarianism -- they have generally been forces for more authoritarianism. But just as American authoritarianism is fluid and uses whatever it can, so can the forces for American democracy. The FBI and CIA don't have to be only one thing; we can appreciate when they hold the line against political abuse, even if they have happily facilitated political abuse against others.

The Afghan and Iraq wars are a good case to focus on. Our democratic institutions have supported them, and they have been, on balance, a force for authoritarianism, if sometimes in balance with elements of progressivism (girls' education, freer elections).

The 9/11/2001 attacks would have happened if Gore won, but it's reasonable to imagine that the shift toward unaccountable military power and arbitrary violence would have been less severe. We might have not gone to war with Iraq. That win for authoritarianism didn't require a total destruction of democracy, it only required purging Black voters in Ohio and Florida.

There's no chance the GOP will rule forever as a minority party. But just shifting the electoral bias 5% does a lot. Taking one Supreme Court seat does a lot. Running one of history's most successful propaganda media operations does a lot. Coexisting with bonkers conspiracy theories does a lot.

One of the surprising facts about lynching was how effective it was at maintaining rigid racist boundaries, while killing in any one county only occasionally. Lynching never needed to kill everybody, or abolish the rule of law, to succeed. White people were sometimes prosecuted for murdering Black people in the Jim Crow South. Lynching just needed to shift the playing field so that the rule of law was an uphill battle.

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