In praise of whistleblowers

“They could just spy on the world without telling a soul. The American government, in total disregard of its founding charter, fell victim to precisely this temptation. In secret, it assumed the power of mass surveillance, an authority that by definition afflicts the innocent far more than the guilty. It was only when I came to a fuller understanding of this surveillance and its harms that I became haunted by the awareness that we the public—the public of not just one country but of all the world—had never been granted a vote or even a chance to voice our opinion in this process. The system of near-universal surveillance had been set up not just without our consent, but in a way that deliberately hid every aspect of its programs from our knowledge. To whom could I turn? Who could I talk to? Even to whisper the truth, even to a lawyer or a judge or to Congress, had been made so severe a felony that just a basic outlining of the broadest facts would invite a lifetime sentence in a federal cell.”

“The freedom of a country can only be measured by its respect for the rights of its citizens, and it’s my conviction that these rights are in fact limitations of state power that define exactly where and when a government may not infringe into that domain of personal or individual freedoms that during the American Revolution was called ‘liberty’ and during the Internet Revolution is called ‘privacy’.

It’s been six years since I came forward because I witnessed a decline in the commitment of so-called advanced governments throughout the world to protecting this privacy, which I regard—and the United Nations regards—as a fundamental human right. In the span of those years, however, this decline has only continued as democracies regress into authoritarian populism.”

[from: Edward Snowden, Permanent Record, Metropolitan Books, 2019, Preface.]

Imagine you, the citizens (the “principals”), delegate some tasks for your protection to an agency (security, police, armed forces). You cannot observe everything they do yourself, so you set some rules and constraints on their practice, and appoint some monitors (government, judicial system) to check and impose some accountability on that agency. The problem is that the agents’ own interests and agenda are often not aligned with yours: especially when wielding instruments of power, they may tend to use them to expand their own power, and use it even against you. Moreover, the nature of their work requires some secrecy, which makes it harder for external monitors to see and report misbehavior in real time; and the monitors themselves (government) are often ‘captured’, i.e. they tend to side more with the agency than with you.

The problem is aggravated by the fact that the agents in a team or organization tend to enforce a “code of silence” among themselves (through various formal or informal sanctions and mutual protection), to ensure members remain loyal to the agency itself and do not inform external parties of any deviation from the principals’ stated goals. As we wrote in the introduction of a paper with A. Bisin (here) dealing with formal theoretical aspects of these moral hazard issues: “informants within teams are exceptions, usually ostracized, harassed and subjected to social sanctions by their teammates; for this reason, in many private and public institutions whistleblowers rarely come forward and need to be formally protected when they do.”

In those contexts, whistleblowers play an important role in warning us about and therefore prevent abuses of power. To protect our freedom, we need to encourage people involved in structures of power (public and private) to blow the whistle when they witness practices in violation of our rights and liberties. People like Snowden should be commended and protected, not prosecuted or forced into exile. But no warning will be effective if we don’t act upon them to radically reform our laws and institutions, in order to prevent as much as possible those deviations in the first place.

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Roberto

A 11 anni mi regalarono una chitarra (la prima, che ancora conserva il suo bel suono). Mio zio Roberto era appassionato di musica, autodidatta e pianista amateur, a quei tempi si riuniva ogni settimana con un gruppo di amici in una casa di campagna a suonare un po’ di jazz. Aveva imparato anche le posizioni sulla chitarra, e fu lui a insegnarmi le prime cose essenziali, gli accordi e i giri armonici: una base fondamentale per la comprensione della musica che mi ha accompagnato tutta la vita, e che non si studiava nei corsi formali. Quando due anni dopo iniziai la scuola di musica, sapevo già tirare giù gli accordi e accompagnare qualsiasi canzone – grazie a lui. Più avanti arrivò in casa un pianoforte (quando mio fratello Paolo iniziò a studiarlo), e allora le visite di Roberto divennero più frequenti, avendo un piano da suonare. Ogni volta mi sedevo tutto il tempo di fianco a lui, nella stanza del piano, e così cominciai ad ascoltare le sonorità del jazz. Ma non solo suonava: ci parlava e spiegava la struttura dei pezzi, degli accordi. Lo seguii così religiosamente che pur non avendo mai studiato quello strumento, arrivai a imparare col piano due pezzi: uno che ricordo ancora nota per nota ma di cui ho dimenticato il nome, l’altro il famoso standard “All the things you are”. Più avanti, vedendo l’interesse che mi aveva suscitato, fu di nuovo Roberto a passarmi i primi dischi di jazz, tre o quattro LP di vinile di una volta, tra cui non mancò di attirare la mia attenzione un disco di Miles Davis del primo periodo cool. Da allora non ho mai smesso di ascoltare jazz e altra buona musica, di divertirmi con la chitarra e il sax, come faceva lui con gli amici.

Adesso che il Covid si è portato via Roberto, ho ripensato a come una persona può contribuire anche in brevi momenti alla vita degli altri, semplicemente comunicando qualcosa di bello, che arricchisce l’esperienza umana. Che la musica ti accompagni, Roberto, come mi accompagnerà il tuo ricordo, ogni volta che riascolto un pezzo come questo:

Posted in Existential, Music | 2 Comments

Popper on democracy (and the coming US elections)

In 1988 the philosopher Karl Popper wrote an article on democracy for The Economist, republished in 2016 (here). Here are some of his main points, as I see it.

In the classical view, the fundamental problem is “Who should rule the state”; the answer: democracy as the rule of the people, the people having a right to rule. Objections: i) nowhere do the people actually rule, it is governments that rule (and bureaucrats) – whom it is difficult to make accountable for their actions; ii) popular leaders might even be invested with tyrannical powers by a popular vote. Reasons for founding the idea of democracy upon the practical principle of avoiding tyranny rather than upon people’s rule: democracy as the alternative to tyranny, to arbitrary rule.

After expressing sympathy for the anarchists’ unsuccessful attempt to get rid of all forms of rule, Popper focuses on a new fundamental problem: “How is the state to be constituted so that bad rulers can be got rid of without bloodshed, without violence.” How can we best avoid situations in which a bad ruler causes too much harm? Democracies are practical solutions to this problem: the principle that the government can be dismissed by a majority vote. Not the rule of the people, but rather the rule of law that enables us to peacefully get rid of the government. Elections in this view are mainly times of judgment over the performance of the incumbents (contrasted with the oppositions), leading to a decision to vote them out of office or reelect them.

Popper’s suggestions are quite in line with research from the economic analysis of politics focused on accountability and agency problems: with asymmetric information and limited ability to control the behavior of rulers, voters could use elections for a retrospective judgement on the incumbents, voting out of power those who failed to show a minimum competence or behaved in ways too much in conflict with their fundamental values, interests and preferences.

Continue

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On Twitter

I opened a Twitter account: twitter.com/daguaitoli. I won’t spend much time on it: no time to engage in every discussion; no interest in shouting matches or like contests. It will be for me a notebook to pin down things (short notes there, longer notes here). You can see it on the web even if you are not a Twitter user.

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Referendum Italia

“Il prossimo 20 e 21 settembre gli elettori saranno chiamati a esprimersi sull’entrata in vigore della riforma costituzionale che riduce drasticamente il numero dei parlamentari. Se la riforma verrà confermata, la Camera sarà composta da 400 deputati (rispetto agli attuali 630) e il Senato da 200 senatori elettivi (rispetto ai 315 di oggi).” *

Perché? Sono “troppi”? In base a quale criterio? Risparmiare un caffè all’anno a testa? C’è qualche motivo per pensare che migliorerà la qualità della rappresentanza?

“La riforma costituzionale mantiene il sistema bicamerale perfetto vigente e lascia irrisolti tutti i problemi che ne derivano: due camere fotocopia che non garantiscono la piena funzione legislativa del singolo parlamentare, poiché il potere esecutivo, in nome della governabilità, ne limita le funzioni attraverso l’abuso sia della decretazione d’urgenza che del ricorso al voto di fiducia.

Una situazione che rischia di essere ancora peggiore nella misura in cui il minor numero di parlamentari renderà molto difficile il lavoro nel luogo più importante dei processi decisionali, ossia le commissioni parlamentari. Ciò sarà vero soprattutto al Senato, dove sarà necessario ridurre il numero delle commissioni o il numero dei componenti con effetti negativi sulla capacità di svolgere le proprie attività.

La riduzione del numero dei Parlamentari diminuisce gli spazi di rappresentanza sia a livello territoriale che politico dato che l’ampliamento dei collegi elettorali ridurrà il rapporto tra elettori ed eletti e aumenterà il costo delle campagne elettorali.

Meglio sarebbe stato ridurre il numero dei parlamentari a 600 e farli insediare in una unica camera, superando il bicameralismo mediante trasformazione del Senato in camera di rappresentanza delle Regioni e delle Autonomie Locali.” *

Quell’alternativa avrebbe potuto rendere il Parlamento più efficiente (ma era la riforma bocciata nel 2016…), permettendo di avere sia collegi uninominali non troppo grandi, sia una quota proporzionale sufficiente a garantire il pluralismo. E per una vera separazione dei poteri tra legislativo e esecutivo, elezione diretta del premier. 

Se l’attuale riforma non ha nessuna motivazione seria e anzi comporta conseguenze negative, la scelta logica è quella di votare No. Anche per non accodarci a questo populismo mediocre che cercano di venderci quasi tutti i partiti sia di governo che di opposizione.

[* da Radicali Italiani – No alla controriforma]

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Morricone

La colonna sonora delle nostre vite

once in americaOnce Upon A Time In America

Deborah’s Theme

 

la califfaLa Califfa

 

 

etc. etc. …

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Independence

declaration of independence“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

(US Declaration of Independence)

As R. Barnett writes (here): “The assumption of natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence can be summed up by the following proposition: “First comes rights, then comes government.” According to this view: (1) the rights of individuals do not originate with any government, but preexist its formation; (2) the protection of these rights is the first duty of government; and (3) even after government is formed, these rights provide a standard by which its performance is measured and, in extreme cases, its systemic failure to protect rights—or its systematic violation of rights—can justify its alteration or abolition; (4) at least some of these rights are so fundamental that they are “inalienable,” meaning they are so intimately connected to one’s nature as a human being that they cannot be transferred to another even if one consents to do so.”

In today’s language, I would translate the first line above as “We hold these axioms as the normative basis of justice in society’s rules and institutions: that all persons have equal moral status, expressed in a set of inextinguishable rights, among these Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness; etc.”. We know of course that through history the American government violated systematically these principles in relation to Native Americans, African Americans, women, immigrants, workers, political dissidents, and citizens at large. Still, since everything you say can be used against you, this strong statement in the Declaration of Independence can be used against the abusive rules and rulers by anyone who fights those violations. In the end, true independence is not about nationalism or identity. It’s about not being dependent on anything or anybody that does not respect our equal rights. Independence is just an exercise of freedom.

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Alberto Alesina

Con Alberto Alesina scompare uno dei più brillanti economisti italiani (e non solo), che per più di trent’anni ha contribuito ad estendere i confini dell’analisi economica nello studio dei comportamenti e dei meccanismi politici, del ruolo che storia, cultura e istituzioni giocano nel determinare gli equilibri sociali e economici. Contributi sempre interessanti e innovativi, come ricorda qui Alberto Bisin. Per non ripetere cose già dette, mi limito a un paio di ricordi e commenti personali.

Alesina formava parte di quella generazione, circa cinque anni avanti a me, che iniziò ad andare in forze all’estero per gli studi di dottorato, e la successiva carriera accademica. Per noi studenti in Bocconi, lui e Guido Tabellini erano allora i volti più noti: completarono il PhD mentre noi avanzavamo con il corso di laurea, venivano ogni tanto in visita. Ricordo una classe di Alesina, mi pare in un corso di Monti (con Tabellini ebbi modo di parlare e mi ispirò per la mia tesi). E fu indubbiamente guardando loro che molti decidemmo di seguirne l’esempio e tentare l’avventura americana. Quando aspettavo con totale incertezza l’esito delle mie domande di ammissione, ricordo il giorno in cui Alberto Alesina mi telefonò da Carnegie Mellon (università a cui avevo applicato proprio perché c’era lui che insegnava) per dirmi che ero stato accettato come studente di dottorato con una piccola borsa di studio: grande eccitazione, era la prima risposta e voleva dire che ci sarei andato davvero in America (anche se poi la destinazione non fu quella, ma la più grande università di Chicago). Continua

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BLACK LIVES MATTER

I Am Not Your Negro

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Sedition

jove amb estelada 1“First they came for the Catalan independentists, and I did not speak out, because I was not an independentist. Then they came for…”

In the kingdom of Spain, organizing peaceful mass demonstrations and a vote to push for self-government is a crime of sedition, resulting in 9 to 13 years in jail. And, the judges said, this can be applied to any situation where non-violent protesters make it hard for police to carry out whatever task assigned to them, including the use of force to prevent the peaceful protest itself. With perfect timing, prime minister Pedro Sanchez declared that “Spain is a consolidated democracy, a State of Law of the most advanced in the world and one of the freest and safest countries”: yeah, you have definitely overtaken Hungary and will now compete with Turkey in that league…

Amidst the deafening silence of European institutions (and most of the Spanish left), some foreign voices reacted: “Whether you support Catalan independence or not is irrelevant. A supposedly democratic European state locking up political dissidents is grotesque – as is the lack of condemnation by other European governments” (Owen Jones); “These politicians have been jailed for seeking to allow the people of Catalonia to peacefully choose their own future. Any political system that leads to such a dreadful outcome needs urgent change” (Scotland’s prime minister Nicola Sturgeon); “If a Member State of the EU can get away with locking up democrats, what message does this send to oppressive regimes that use sedition and other vague charges to target political opponents? The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention made it quite clear that any prison sentences would be a flagrant violation of Spain’s international law obligations. The Supreme Court has shamefully ignored this warning and poured contempt on the UN” (international lawyer Ben Emmerson).

The elites in charge of the state power structure made it clear that they are ready to trample human rights and liberties when facing a serious challenge to the status quo. But they underestimated the more than two million people who are ‘guilty’ of the same crime. In reaction to the verdict, tens of thousands in Catalonia took to the streets, blocking the city and the international airport, marching across the country, gathering more than 500,000 people in Barcelona last Friday.

Unfortunately something else happened. Both the Spanish and the Catalan police from day one started violently harassing the protesters, beating them with clubs and shooting plastic bullets (here is a sample). During the week a minority among the protesters reacted by burning containers and throwing objects. More than 500 wounded (2 more seriously, a young girl and a policeman), 4 people lost an eye to rubber bullets, dozens of reporters beaten by police.

The situation has improved over the weekend. On Saturday a few thousand people sat in the street for hours facing the riot police, avoiding serious clashes, then celebrating when the police left (see here). On Sunday the police finally decided not to engage the protesters and the same main street was peacefully occupied (like this).

One of the main strengths of this movement for self-determination has always been its peaceful nature. The repression of peaceful protests fuels anger and may trigger violent reactions. But in a long, ongoing struggle, non-violent civil disobedience and peaceful mass protest are still the most powerful and responsible strategies (see Tsunami Democratic). When all political elites fail, it’s up to the people to reclaim the basic demands:

Peace – stop police violence and repression

Amnesty – free political prisoners and exiles

Self-determination – let the people vote and determine their future.

“We are people, neighbors, we have a right to decide our future and our lives. It’s not a question of flags or nationalism, it’s a question of individual and collective rights”.  (CNT)

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”   (Gandhi)

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