were hauled off to the gallows for what today would be considered minor
offenses. The rope was slipped around the neck of the convicted pickpocket as
well as the convicted killer. Both fell through the same trapdoor. The
executioner worked his art without discrimination.
The New York Times correspondent Sandra Blakeslee
reminded us that in 1765, John Ward was hanged for stealing a watch and a
The historical cases
reveal a very different world of criminals and law enforcement officials. The
authorities have been reactive. They’ve had to wait until a crime has been
reported before springing into action. Catching someone who violated the law
meant rounding up witnesses and gathering evidence that implicated a
The old policing model has
very little to say about the future. It functioned on what was known in the
present. A victim lodged a report. It also rested on the hunch or intuition of
the police. Experienced police had knowledge about neighborhoods. Though that
information, in the large scheme of things, was bound to be incomplete and
tainted by bias. Until recently, the literature of crime followed the Sherlock
Holmes model of a logical, clever and objective detective who outsmarted the
We inhabit a very
different world now. Not only do most countries no longer hang watch and hat
stealers, they are using Big Data to predict geographical areas where crime may,
on probability, be more likely to occur and with that information police can
step up patrols. We have entered the machine age of law enforcement. The old
model is in the process of a radical change as Big Data arms the police with
predictive models and that takes policing into the future where crime hasn’t yet
been committed. Such a change allows for development of policies of crime
suppression for crimes that might be committed.
police have managed to reduce
burglaries (33%), violent crimes (21%) and property crimes (12%) by adapting
software developed to predict earthquakes and aftershocks. Eighty years of
crime that included 13 million criminal acts were fed into the mathematical
model that used the data to predict the areas where crime was most likely to
occur. It seems the model yielded good results. New crimes are constantly added
to the database, and the LAPD officers who were at first resistant to taking
orders from a mathematical model have become true believers.
police have gone beyond hot spots to
using Big Data to target people most likely to commit a crime in the future.
There is mapping of crime hot spot areas of the city and the mapping of social
networks is the logical extension. “Commander Steven Caluris, who also works on
the CPD’s predictive policing program, put it a different way. ‘If you end up on
that list, there’s a reason you’re there.’” In the future, the map of your
social network may be used by the law enforcement agencies to assign you a
probability statistic as your future criminal activity. Like a travel ban list
for air travel, you may never know what is behind the inclusion of your name on
a hot list. Florida is going down the same road.
“The National Institute of Justice
recently awarded two grants, totaling nearly $1 million, to conduct RTM research
in seven U.S. cities: Newark; New York City; Chicago; Arlington, Texas; Colorado
Springs, Colo.; Glendale, Ariz.; and Kansas City, Mo. Researchers from Rutgers’
School of Criminal Justice and John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City
University of New York are conducting the studies using the RTMDx Utility. The
Rutgers software is currently being used in the top four U.S. markets: New York,
Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. It is being adopted by industry and law
enforcement offices in many countries, such as Australia and Canada, and major
foreign cities such as Paris and Milan.”
The Australian Crime
Commission has also funded a big data project. The goals is to use to “data mining to
trawl through data sets looking for patterns and potentially predicting emerging
crime issues and trends across the country.”
The promise is that
patterns emerging from the big data will allow the police to identify areas
where resources are needed. This has the advantage of consolidating resources in
the areas where crime is most likely. It is being sold on the basis of
efficiency. Like Wall Street brokers, the police have entered the world of big
data with the goal of assessing risks. For a broker, it is getting in and out of
a stock so as to make a profit. For the police they have structured data that
predicts what types of crimes are on the increase or decrease for a given
geographical area. The police study the big data looking for trends. And like a
broker, the police having identified a trend, can allocate necessary resources
to deal with the kinds of crime that are predicted from the data.
reported on Big Data in crime prevention, noting the need to
accumulate masses of data about an area in order to predict crime trends. Making
connections between crime and connections, and those that happen across
international boundaries leads to unraveling complex networks of individuals.
The BBC report shows how far we’ve come since the hanging of John Ward in 1765.
Big Data allows a corporation to detect who on the inside is communicating with
whom on the outside and to look for patterns that suggests an employee may be
leaking information. It also allows the military tactical advantage in the field
as Big Data is constantly fed into analytical models updating positions,
movements, and communications on the ground.
Philip K. Dick predicted
in The Minority Report that the State will evolve a system to predict
crimes before they are carried out. The Big Data is used to define ‘hot spots’
where crime is most likely to occur. In the future, before you buy that house or
condo, you might want to ask the real estate agent about whether the property is
within a crime hot spot!
One should bear in mind
that we are very early days into collecting and mining Big Data. The dynamics of
technological change make predictions in the medium and far future nearly
impossible. The reality is that we are headed down a road for future
decision-making about the mechanism of the criminal justice system and we don’t
know where it will lead us. We only have best guesses and cognitive biases such
as best-case scenario. We run the real risk of an information
infrastructure that will build a criminal justice system that surrenders our
notions of free will and liberty.
In the future, John Ward
may be hanged before he steals the watch and hat, doomed by Big Data, which
assigns a 98% probability of future criminal conduct. Or if he had a 98% probability of being a serial killer, would you
agree that he should be arrested and sent to prison? On the Big Data road map,
this might be a destination. We have set out on a long journey and along the way
we lose much of what we value as individuals for a class of elites who have most
to gain in a new culture based on total security.
Life is messy. So are
component parts of life: our politics, the environment, economics, and social
relationships. History teaches a valuable lesson that there is something
inherently unstable about our world, and we are forever seeking ways to reach an
equilibrium to stabilize it. Outcomes we wish to see happening are uncertain to
occur. The utopian view is that there is an ultimate solution to fixing the
mess. Others argue there is no fix and we must learn to adjust and live
according to the limitations of what we know and can know.
This causes anxiety like
watching a PGA golf tournament and the professional who is on the green but 20
feet from the 7th hole sends the ball on its way. We hold our breath.
Is the putt too soft or too hard? You simply wait and watch with everyone
In politics, those with
the putter claim the ball will drop. Even when it misses the hole, they claim
the ball dropped. Ambiguity trails us like a shadow. There is rarely an
objective moment, unlike golf, where you don’t need to rely on anything other
than your own eyes to know whether the shot succeeded.
Our political life isn’t a
game of golf. We can never escape the velocity of doubt whether the politicians
are using the right club, lining up correctly over the ball, or accurately
reporting the trajectory of their shot in relationship to the hole.
We live in a world where a
large number of people exchange their doubt and anxiety for a promise to deliver
a more certain, stable, ordered and predictable world than the actual one they
live in. That is costly, as politicians must rely on various illusory devices
and tricks to conjure up this illusion with enough credibility that they
substitute reality for a replacement story that creates an alternative
We are willing to pay
relatively high price in the reality stakes for answers that allow us
individually and collectively to believe what we are told is true. The illusion
of Understanding (see my essay on the
Illusion of Understanding.) is easier to maintain and the tacit
conspiracy to pretend the illusion is real allows us to move on from an issue
and spend our cognitive resources elsewhere.
There is a constant
tension over the official story between the individual and her group, and
between her group and other groups. The group may be a circle of friends,
relatives, colleagues, sports team or a religious, secular, or political party.
We draw much comfort in shared, collective beliefs and we draw our identity from
our group association. Mostly we place group solitary and individual
identity as a higher priority than understanding the complexity where the truth
is difficult to detect with certainty. Our group, returning to the golf
metaphor, always makes a hole in one, while those in rival groups are lost in
the tall grass, looking for their ball as the night closes in.
How do we resolve this
dilemma that arises as we move between the goals of group grooming and
We have two basic models
to work with: Insubordination and Challenge. Each of them offers a separate
vision on how best to work through the messy, hard problems that confront us.
Sometimes these two very different systems work in harmony, side-by-side, with
each delegated a role; sometimes, one model is ascendant and marginalizes the
The first model that
controls how we perceive reality rests on a system of subordination. Officials
inside an institution such as an orchestra or movie set work along a chain of
command. Orders are passed down the chain of command. The orders are to be
obeyed and not to be challenged by subordinates. The film director (he has a
producer breathing down his neck) or conductor (has a wealthy patron breathing
down his neck) is in charge. Despite certain limitations, his word is the law of
what the performance will be.
The job of film director
or orchestra conduct is to avoid chaos. So long as everyone he leads follows his
direction, he can deliver a certain quality of performance. The price of a
subordination system is the agreement for all involved to accept submission to a
disciplined hierarchy where each person’s role is defined and the person giving
the orders possesses the position and rank to justify his subordinate to act
without questioning the order.
Officers in the military
expect their subordinates to follow orders, and they expect to follow the orders
of those officers who rank above them in the chain of command. This is
fundamental to the culture of the military. Subordination systems share values
in common such as authority, loyalty, honor, respect and continuity. Whether it
is the military, the police, a court system, a sports team, a factory assembly
line, a film set, or an orchestra, there are subordination values used to
co-ordinate the work among a group of people.
An orchestra where the
first violinist stops the performance and challenges the conductor’s
interpretation of a movement would change our experience of music. Whatever the
private feelings of the first violinist or the cello player, these are not
expressed and the conductor’s authority is unchallenged as the orchestra
In other words, criticism,
dissent, difference of opinion give way to the rules of subordination otherwise
the performance by the orchestra collapses, a lower court overrules an appellant
court, the quarterback’s call is reversed by the right tackle, and a sergeant
decides against his officer’s command to advance on an enemy position. All of
these reversals happen now and again and the person who makes such a challenge
is guilty of insubordination. Treason, betrayal, faithlessness and disloyalty
are express the stigma attached to such insubordination.
If the conductor had
absolute power, he might seek to expand his authority to include what is
appropriate for poetry, ballet, literature, drama, TV, computer games and film
and impose an artistic vision for all of the arts. That is unlikely to happen.
There are too many different visions, tastes, traditions, and messiness for any
one person to control. Any attempt at such a command and control system would
drive artists underground. In the arts, like in science, we assume that
experimenting and testing is a good thing to be encouraged. Note that some of it
will be a dead end and without value to the artist or society, but that is only
discovered by allowing the space to fail.
The spotlight culture is a
place where truth is manufactured and distributed to the consumer. The finished
product is complete, reliable, and ready for immediate consumption. There are no
alternatives to challenge the truth in the spotlight culture.
The flashlight model (this
is idealized) is based on the individual’s right to criticize, challenge or
question authority, policy, motives, efficiency, or outcomes by those in power.
Journalists, scholars, academics, NG0s, whistleblowers, and outside experts are
obvious players in the flashlight culture. The flashlight has also become a
symbol in protest and demonstrations as the picture below from the Ukraine
illustrates. People have a huge desire to see the hidden and buried story. Those
who seek information of activity occurring behind the scenes of power rely on
the flashlight. These lights are pointed at the dark areas well outside the
spotlight and act to keep government officials honest and transparent. In
the case of someone like Edward Snowden the flashlight is on the magnitude of a
supernova. Socrates urged people to ask questions as a way of shining a light
into darkness and to ignore the facile answers found in the
A flashlight culture
assumes we share similar flawed knowledge and the same cognitive biases that
distort reality unless corrected. Western parliamentary styled political systems
rest on the opposite, an opposition challenging the government of the day to
explain and justify their decisions. The individual challenges the group leader
because he or she is one of us and knows no more than anyone else about the
complex network of information.
Unlike an orchestra, the
prime minister, unlike a conductor, answers his or her critics with explanations
rather than with threats or suppression. The role of the opposition is to make
the conductor account for his choices. The purpose of shining a light on
evidence that is contrary to the government’s narrative is to expose weakness of
policy or execution of policy. The motives of flashlight holders may not be
pure. They may be exposing facts for political gain at the expense of the
government but such exposure works to the favor of the general population which
benefits from a correction in policy or a change in personnel to carry out
The encouragement of
challenging authority is what has given us a robust scientific method. The most
junior member of a research team is not disqualified from overturning the theory
of the most respected member of the scientific community. The theory, in other
words, is separate from the personality supporting it. But we have difficulty
distinguishing attacks on theory as attacks on the person who supports the
theory. The question in science isn’t, what does this critic have against the
person who supports the String Theory, but what evidence does he or she have to
refute the theory. In non-scientific areas such as politics, we are still a long
way from isolating policy for critical analysis from the personality, background
and reputation of the person who has proposed the policy.
We can also accept that
the challenge-the-authority paradigm isn’t always appropriate in all
circumstances. An orchestra, military, police, or football team, to name a few
examples, depends on subordination to work effectively as a cohesive unit. The
question is how and who decides what is the right place for one system to
operate and claim legitimacy over and above the other?
The flashlight culture
exposes flaws and defects in the spotlight cultural truth products. The
flashlight illumination exposes dangers, risks, omissions, and distortions.
Truth becomes stripped of illusions in the process.
and Flashlights into a Unified Lightning System
Every culture has a
different interpretation on how to fit these pieces together, and who gets the
job, and how those with power are selected, controlled and discharged. How
best to light the political stage is a question every country answers in its own
way. The reality is we need to find the right combination of subordination and
challenge. Last week, I examined the BBC 2012 top-ten list of the largest
employers in the world. (Crunching
Big Number, Understanding Short Lists.) From the American Defense
Department to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the ability to scale huge
operations relies on implementing an effective subordination system. A
‘soft’ subordination system explains the presence of Wal-Mart and McDonalds on
the same list. Co-ordination on a large scale is impossible without an order and
command structure, where insubordination is punished.
The question is whether
the Spotlight or subordination system, an absolute one, where flashlights are
confiscated and flashlight people’s action are criminalized, can operate
effectively at the political and government level. Can a government be run along
the lines of an orchestra with a conductor choosing the music, time, length,
place of performance and exclude any other orchestra from performing and jail
music critics who claim the cello player made several mistakes and the piano
Looking around the world
from Thailand, Egypt, Syria, and the Ukraine, the old consensus on the right mix
of spotlight and flashlight culture has broken down. The attempt to contain
instability, the messiness of life, leads to fear, and to banish fear is to
embrace subordination. There is a belief that salvation rests in choosing the
right conductor and letting him run the whole performance. Challengers to the
vision are seen as enhancing fear and instability. They are the first violinist
who rises and objects to the choice of music. The pendulum swings to
subordination. But the nature of pendulum is to swing back, too. In time, the
flirtation with expanding the subordination model into the political realm will
reinforce a historical lesson about the nature of governing.
As the flashlight culture
has gone online, the means of shutting it down are difficult. The digital
flashlight exposes hypocrisy, deception, half-truths, cover-ups in a very public
way. This is inconvenient and embarrassing for those who banish flashlights and
wish to return people’s attention back to the spotlight.
Throwing your opposition
in jail or send them fleeing into the mountains and jungle or exile, may work in
the short-term, and you can control the performance. But in the long term,
people who want classical music will understand they need to accommodate a space
for those who love jazz, hip-hop, pop, Hollywood show tunes, and even for those
repulsive noise traps called rap, country and Korean boy bands. Politics is a
noisy place. When one director plays only one tune you can be sure people will
sooner or later find a way to switch the channel. To return to our lighting
metaphor, the amount of repression required to neutralize and co-op its
flashlight holders would turn the world against those in standing in the
Give a writer some facts,
numbers or basic information and ask him to use it to tell a story. See what
happens. What kind of story does he tell? Is it plausible? Is it
Most of the time we
unearth information from personal experience and observation. Other times we
stumble over information sent by others that stimulates our
A friend* sent me a link
to a top ten list of the world’s largest employers. I immediately saw a story.
One told in numbers. As the impact of Big Data filters into our daily lives, you
can expect more storytellers to mine these huge information warehouses to cull
Let me explain the kind of
story to expect in the future.
Mathematics conceals all
kinds of interesting stories about how societies, economies, and governments are
entangled. The language of numbers opens information doors to understanding the
complexity of these relations. When we examine the numbers, we can draw
conclusions about the dynamic relationship of private and public sectors within
cultures and across cultural boundaries.
This is an essay about
economic and political structures, allocation of power, concentration of
resources, and how power is projected inside a political system. It is also an
essay about how top ten lists influence our view of reality.
I’ve become suspicious of
all the lists: top ten, top 50, or top 500. One reason is all of these lists
share in common an implicit promise of completeness. The purpose of a list is to
close off ignorance, which is ringed by information presented. It is as if a
list has a roundness of knowledge that deflects our lack of understanding,
knowledge or awareness. Lists create an illusion of knowledge at best and at
their worst promote a lie or deception that doubt has been addressed and
answered. The main danger of lists is they seduce us not only by the false
promise of completeness by also by the allure of simplicity. A list masks the
higher level of complexity it closes off.
When you examine any list
you might think of playing chess in a dark room where you can’t clearly see the
board or pieces. You know there are 32 pieces and 64 squares as part of the
game. The average top ten list you read is addictive because you are playing in
the dark like the rest of us and want the edge of knowing that you’ve discovered
that what amounts to 10 moves will show you how the game is won. In the final
part of the essay, I have a look at how difficult it is to play chess in the
dark with lists with your cheat sheet to victory.
A list: The Top 10
Largest Employers in the World
Work is an essential
component of any economy, whether based on capitalism, socialism or any other
ideology designed to govern the business of extracting resources and energy, and
distributing and allocating products and services. An employee’s ‘work’ is
carried out under the authority and supervision of an employer. The employer may
be the government; or it may be a private company. One way to understand any
national system is to ask who are its largest employers. Identifying the major
employers and the enterprises it controls tells a great deal about a country’s
values, politics, beliefs, and policies.
If you were to draw a list
of the world’s largest employers, including public and private, what would you
expect to find on that list?
In 2012 the BBC produced a
top ten list of the largest employers.
In 2012, 30% of the
world’s largest employers came from the ‘private enterprise’ sector. 70% were
‘state enterprises’ or government workers (though we don’t often think of
soldiers as government workers that is indeed what they are). Leaving aside what
the figures suggest about India where the Indian state railway has more
employees than the Indian army, my attention is on the ‘big’ employers in the US
and China. These two countries, with three employers each in the top-ten list,
comprise 60% of the big employer list for 2012.
Take the US Department of
Defense. There are “2.13 million active duty soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen,
and civilian workers, and over 1.1 million National Guardsmen and members of the
Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Reserves. The grand total is just over 3.2
million servicemen, servicewomen, and civilians.” (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Department_of_Defense ) Private contractors are no
longer a niche but viewed as part of the total military force. (Source:
http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R43074.pdf ) It is difficult to source the
role of private contractors in the PLA. It is enough to note that the two top
positions are military organizations organized, equipped, maintained and
deployed by the government, with, at least on American data, a healthy
percentage of private contractors part of the enterprise and who are supplied by
In contrast, the military
footprint in China works out to 0.1825% of its population. Thus in roughly
population terms there was a huge disparity in the size of the military in
comparison to the size of the relative populations. America’s military employees
are 5.6 times greater than China in terms of total population. Based on the BBC
statistics, in terms of military to military comparison of numbers, in 2012 the
US military was about 39% larger than the Chinese.
The statistics reveal
something about the presence of the military employment footprint in the
population and the workforce of the country. Size matters for a lot of reasons
including politics and economics, not to mention the social component from
having a large number of people in uniform. The military has a particular
‘culture’ based on rank, duty, discipline, honour and authority. Profitability
doesn’t appear as part of this culture. Its primary duty (some may disagree) is
to project power in order to instill fear, which will cause adversaries to bend
to the will of political establishment in charge of the military.
What may come as a
surprise is that Wal-Mart, owned by one family, employs almost as many employees
as China’s People’s Liberation Army. And if Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s were to
form an alliance, their combined employees would outnumber the entire American
military with a significant number of employees left to take over part of the
Chinese military as well.
In other words, the
world’s two largest private sector employers have under their umbrella more
employees than the world’s largest military. When you start to register the
power employers have to influence the attitudes and values of their employees
(not only the military runs boot camp for new recruits), the political influence
of such employers’ wealth would attract the attention of politicians and their
campaign staff. Beyond this obvious risk of system policy being wealth driven,
there are other, deeper implications to consider.
Wal-Mart and McDonald’s
share, in a manner of speaking, certain similarities with military culture:
there are no unions, recruits are assigned largely routine, frontline jobs that
take stamina and discipline, they have uniforms, codes and little prospect of
mobility up the chain of command. They are canon fodder for the elite. They are
also paid less than soldiers.
Wal-Mart is a dystopia
vision of what a peacetime military might look like if it had different uniforms
and grunts were assigned to patrol aisles of merchandise with the mission of
maintaining order and security. McDonald’s, like the US military, has bases
established all over the world, siphoning money to shareholders in return for
distributing dubious foodstuff with a dodgy health record and a tendency to make
regular diners obese.
grunt earns $15,576 per year or 13% less paid to a military private.
These two huge US
employment giants weren’t created by an act of God or evolved from nature. Their
corporate growth and success was largely luck, which in retrospect, we explain
in stories about brilliant leadership. Myths are created to support the
conclusion that their rise was inevitable. American
its privatized counterpart of this myth. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s were never
destined to become the 3rd and 4th largest employer in the
world by 2012. In fact, each company emerged in the domestic US market as a
result of an ecological system comprised of culture, history, values, and laws,
and like that if you changed the variables everything might have turned out
quite differently. And their corporate success can be attributed, in part, to
the protective umbrella of the US military which was funded by all taxpayers
(including Wal-Mart and McDonald’s employees).
Another thought is, this
private army of soldiers serving the domestic consumer appetites for food,
gadgets, and aisles stocked fire-ladder high with consumer goods, is itself
protected against intruders from abroad and can enforce its presence in the
intruders backyard by using the military. Guns protect existing markets and they
open new markets. That’s why the military is so important for a country on an
economic march, whether grabbing resources, or opening new consumer
The top ten list of the
largest employers presents an opportunity to compare compensation paid to for
those at the top of management with their counterparts in other sectors and the
disparity between the top manager with the medium pay of a worker employed by
that employer. If you want to know why Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the
21st Century with evidence of huge income and wealth disparity
has struck a chord, a good place to start is an examination of the US military
and Wal-Mart pay.
The salary of the Chairman
of the Joint Chief Staff is $20,263.50 a month, and that of
a private in the army is $1,467.00 per
month. The Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff makes roughly fourteen times as
much as a private in the army. That’s right. 14 times is what separates
the top solider from the one pulling the trigger on the frontline. The army pay
range from top to bottom is closer to a Denmark or Norway than to the big
employers inside the world of private enterprise in the US.
Not only is the Wal-Mart
grunt paid 13% than a private in the army, the CEO of Wal-Mart is paid 1,034
times the median salary of a Wal-Mart worker. (Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/29/walmart-ceo-pay_n_2978180.html)The CEO of McDonald’s is paid 434
times the median salary of a MacDonald’s worker. In the rankings from the
highest disparity between CEO and medium pay for a worker in the company,
Wal-Mart is number 1 but MacDonald’s falls to number 5. Three companies pay
their CEO at the following multiples of one medium worker: Target #2 at 597:1,
Disney #3 at 557:1, Honeywell #4 at 439:1.
If you applied the
Wal-Mart ratio of 1034:1, using the bottom pay (note this is likely lower than
the medium pay of all soldiers) which is that of a private, the Chairman of the
Joint Chief Staff would be paid $21 million a month, or $8.8 million a month if
applying the McDonald’s 434:1 ratio. One person is in charge of the defense of
an entire country; the other is in charge of selling consumer goods and services
inside the same country.
It seems in the scheme of
things someone is vastly under paid or overpaid in the military if the private
enterprise system values apply to the military. The system that generates
muscles has a wholly different compensation system than the underlying system it
is designed to protect which is based on maximizing profit. One way to
accomplish that goal is to underpay the hugely numerous military personnel,
especially those at the higher leadership ranks.
The generals in the US
military don’t own the tanks, forts, jet fighters, submarines, aircraft
carriers, canons, rifles, and flame throwers. More importantly, the sons and
daughters of the generals don’t inherit their father’s rank and step into his
shoes on death as owners. While the generals stand in as leaders of the
enterprise, they don’t own it.
The top Wal-Mart
leadership is under the control of the Walton’s family. There are no
congressional hearings, no public vetting, and no presidential appointment.
When a family member of the Wal-Mart dynasty dies, his or her share is
inherited most likely by another member of the family. Any family that has 2.1
million people working in it is business is, in effect, a kind of aristocracy.
While the original meaning of aristocracy was ‘rule by the best’, it has come to
mean control over the most. In our time of democracy, aristocracy and oligarchy
have risen to new positions of power and influence that would have been the envy
of dukes and earls of the past.
The Wal-Mart family given
the size of its private workforce and the profits generated are a potent
economic and political force. The influence of the Wal-Mart family, as its
wealth accumulates, has a strong possibility of being expanded over multiple
generations. And the accumulation of greater wealth, power and workers inside
one family will likely persist as military generals come and go like store
story telling in the reign of Big Data
The number of employees
isn’t necessarily the best way to ask who is in control of the world’s wealth.
You can’t really understand the true lay of the pieces on the chessboard by
limiting your study to the Top 10 List of the World’s largest Employers. The
relationship of employee numbers to control of wealth is, for example,
misleading when the real question is: who is in control?
The “The Network of Global Corporate Control” examines a data
base that includes 37 million companies and finds that 147 companies in the
world control 40% of the world’s global wealth. The Walton
family, the one
that owns Wal-Mart comes in as Number 15 on the list of the top 147.
While Thomas Piketty has
used big data to break the code of silence and ideology around the issue of the
wealth owned by the 1%, but there is another shoe to drop. Having shown the
history of wealth concentration is useful. But it doesn’t necessary tell us how
wealth translates into control. It is the nature of control that flows from
wealth that allows us to move a step closer to understanding how economic and
political power is financed and allocated and functions. The old adage of
‘follow the money’ needs to be refined to read: follow how the money is
The 2011 study on global
corporate control shows that: “Network control is much more unequally
distributed than wealth. In particular, the top ranked actors hold a control ten
times bigger than what could be expected based on their wealth.”
The underlying grid of
connections emerges from Big Data. As our information accumulates, the emergent
patterns will likely show correlations that are predicted by dogma and lists, or
from our usual inventory of cognitive biases. In the future, others will look
back at our ‘list mania’ as another example of how we played chess in a dark
room and without a true understanding of how the game worked, and we compensated
by simplifying it, dumbing it down to a game of checkers or draughts.
This essay has been a
brief glimpse at the top ten largest employers of the world in order to make
sense of how we are governed, compensated, and protect and exploit resources and
markets. It is an essay about the perils of lists in a sea of complexity.
Knowing who are the largest employers on the planet reveals an aspect
of existing economic and political systems and the public institutions that
carry out government pro-business and growth policies.
I suspect the BBC list is
based on less than big data. It is crude and limited data. The time will arrive
when we will have a better idea from much more complete data sets and links
between data sets. It is what we have now. Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem
suggests that no data system will ever be complete; that contradictions will
emerge. This sentence is false. A sentence we can never shake off,
answer or ignore. It follows us like a black dog on a moonless night.
can practice their skills by examining the numbers. They will be important in
the future; when confronted with big data we will want plausible explanations of
meaning. Also, storytellers will highlight what is missing from the existing
For example, it would be
interesting to know in a Thomas Piketty statistical way whether the ratio of
employees working for public and private companies in the top ten positions has
been constant over time, whether the ratio is connected with concentrations of
wealth and income, and the consequences of major economic events like recessions
on downsizing, wage capping, and success of rival economic powers and systems in
taking market share.
More data will provide
answers as to whether the world’s largest private employers are best explained
by the use of Western styled democratic systems, or whether they might have
evolved in modified form from a Chinese styled system. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s
might not have emerged from the chaotic American democracy without the presence
of American coercive power at its back. The culture of the military, with its
authoritarian command structure and democratic compensation system, may have
played an essential role.
Other powerful US
companies with fewer employees such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple,
Hollywood filmmakers, and war equipment manufacturers have added members to the
new emerging American aristocracy. Defense contractors, might reasonably be
added to the employees of the Defense Department as the separation between
public and private and between civilian and military is often artificial and
maintained for political purposes. Thus allowing retired generals a second
chance and career to cash in on the profitable side of violence.
I leave you to consider
this data: Wal-Mart is committed to hiring 100,000 ex-military personnel by
2018. (Source: http://walmartcareerswithamission.com ) But they should keep in mind
that grunts at Wal-Mart start at less pay than a private. This is a story that
between now and 2018 will likely be told by some writer, somewhere, wondering
about the complexity of our future life, which is unfolding.
People become uncompromising once their argument settles into a battle over who is right and who is wrong. Everyone wishes to be right. Arguing that your opponent is wrong only doubles their faith in their belief (Backfire Effect) and you are banished from their list of people who know the difference between right from wrong. Everyone is arguing over their positions, preference, values, and beliefs. Husband and wives, neighbours, friends, colleagues, and strangers. We live in an angry, emotional time. And I am trying to get a handle on why this is.
One approach to comprehending the forces that have caused this intellectual dead end to control public debate is to ask a few basic questions:
(1) What do we really understand about an issue or policy?
(2) What knowledge do we have and where did we turn to find that knowledge?
(3) How complete and updated is our information? and
(4) What are the limits to our understanding of the underlying complexities of the system from which the issue emerged or the policy must be implemented?
Researchers have suggested that one problem is that we suffer from the illusion of understanding about how something works, say, a flush toilet or air-conditioning unit. They are familiar objects in our daily life. Because they are familiar we believe we understand how they work. That is an illusion unless you are a plumber or air-conditioning engineer. The illusion of understanding also applies in the political realm to policies on immigration, transportation infrastructure, health care, energy policy, climate change and so on. Given where I live and write, I am interested in the politics of change.
We read the headlines (though 66% of people don’t read newspapers). Most of our opinions on policy issues have a headline depth—a mile wide and inch deep. We believe though we know all there is to know about a preference or position from an 800-word story. We would begrudgingly admit there are a few minor details we might look up if need be, but we are pretty confident that our knowledge is solid and relevant. Our 800-word world of knowledge has prepared us for a policy debate, and we enter the battle over right and wrong with a brittle, dull blade and no shield. But we are confident that our weapons of knowledge will allow us to prevail and we emerge in victory, showing that we are right, and they—fools and charlatans, their reasons turned to ashes have been defeated.
That’s pretty much our world of political debate. We dive head first into a pool that is an inch deep and if possible close down the counter arguments made by people who are basically ignorant, know-nothing troublemakers. We need to convert them to the right side.
In utopia people come to their senses and realize that they lack an in depth understanding of a policy position. In the real world, we are ‘cognitive misers’ says BBC’s Tom Stafford.
Our cognitive vulnerability flows from two sources: first, we are lazy thinkers and would rather know just enough to lay down an emotional platform of support that plugs us into our community of like-minded believers.
Second, our headline knowledge gives us a feeling of familiarity about policy issue debate: it might be gun law restrictions, sending special forces to find school girls kidnapped in Nigeria, or the wisdom of a coup in Thailand. An audience of true believers will emerge with similar talking points. Slogans and talking points create a sense of real knowledge and of the familiarity.
An extremist position for or against a policy is almost always drawn from a slogan, talking point, headline grab that passes as reason or justification for why a position is right. This leads to conflict between people on the opposite side of an issue. They hurl reasons at one another. The other side sneers at the reasons from their opponents. Deadlock ensues, positions hardened, and violence begins to rear its ugly head.
Third, our mental processing of patterns, knowledge, and values is filtered through cultural filters. These biases can’t ever be overcome; they are our setting, channels, frequencies over which information is sent and received.
Danger and red flashing lights should be turned on once it is realized that our problem is our tendency to unquestioningly accept that our understanding is sufficient, good enough, to support high confidence in our position. That’s why it’s an illusion. It is also why it’s a contradiction. We deceive ourselves in believing our simple understanding is an accurate summary of how a complex system functions when we don’t understand the complexity.
Researchers have shown that politically polarizing positions rests on superficial understanding of the complexity of how policies work. When pressed we can’t explain how the policy functions in such complexity. We don’t have the information or breadth of knowledge needed to connect policy, policy outcomes, and the system in which policy sinks or swims. The problem with requiring someone with a polarized position to give such an explanation is that it threatens the black and white thinking. The hallmark of an extremist is one who refuses to undertake such an inquiry.
We need diverse information about systems, and that comes from people who see and experience the system in diverse ways. But diversity of explanations can be viewed as challenges or criticism. If you had true power, you’d close down those explanations that didn’t support your policy or actions. Here’s an example from my week.
I received an email from the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand) this week about an event:
With absolute power, you can shutdown all public voices that probe for a deeper knowledge, and a broader explanation of the mechanism working inside the system. Asking a question can be viewed as an act of aggression. While a coup is unusual in most countries, the impulse to control policy making by keeping away from the deep waters of knowledge that may cause ‘confusion’ or ‘undermine authority’ is nearly universal.
Our understanding of policies remains stuck at the abstract, superficial headline level of reality. That understanding is disconnected to an inquiry as to how policies function inside the day-to-day system. The takeaway from The Political Extremism research is the conclusion that when people discover their illusion of explanatory depth, they moderated their opinions. They become less confident in supporting an extreme position.
How do we discover the illusion of explanatory depth has deceived us over whether a policy is good or bad? When asking someone about a policy, the trick is to refrain from asking them to give a list of their reasons to support their preference or position. But why not listen to their reasons? Because the probability is their reasons are degraded products built from inferior materials e.g., vaguely understood values, third-hand reports, talking points by leaders, opinion-makers, celebrities, and pundits they trust or admire, or form from the star dust of generalities that don’t require a great deal of knowledge.
The policies of airport/passenger security are a good example of polarized positions. The government claims its security/inspection policies are essential tools to fight terrorism. This is their reason for what we go through at airports when we travel, young, old, it doesn’t matter. The possibility of a terrorist boarding a plane with potential weapon is the headline reason that in a given year a billion airline passengers must remove their shoes, belts, watches, keys, coins, declare their iPads, laptops, Kindles, and leave behind any liquid more than 50ML.
Remember while you’re putting your shoes back on, and gathering up all the bits and pieces from the plastic tray, that in many countries, officials don’t check boarding passengers’ passport against a database of stolen passports. In a story about stolen and false passports in Thailand, The Guardian noted:
“Interpol’s database of Lost and Stolen Travel Documents (LSTD). Created after the September 11, 2001 terror attack on New York and Washington, the LSTD database now has some 40m entries. The inter-governmental police cooperation organisation says this weekend it is searched more than 800m times a year, mainly by the US, which accessed it 250m times, the UK (120m) and the UAE (50m).”
Two passengers on the ill-fated MH370 flight that vanished without a trace (remember that?) boarded with dodgy passports.
Instead of confronting authorities who support the current airport inspection regime not to give their reasons for supporting failed security, we might ask them for a mechanistic explanation of the effects of its procedures, how those procedures were designed, how they have been subject to quality control, how system operators have been trained, how their skills are updated, what disruptions occur inside airport processing systems and how does the policy account for those disruptions. These aren’t questions of preference; it is an explanatory discussion of how inspection works, who works in that system, who supervises and updates, manages and is accountable in the system, the cost of the system (direct and indirect), and what outcomes the policy has produced.
Certain problems can only be resolved by a military solution. That is the use of force to remove an obstacle to the state’s interest and neutralize the threat of the obstacle being reinstalled. Most problems are political in nature and a military solution is ill-suited to serve as a substitute for a political process which is inherently civilian, with the military is only a component in the overall grand plans for governing.
Taking off your shoes at an airport and executing a military coup to overthrow a government are both justified on the basis of providing public security. Can one discover a rational link between these two very different situations in which security is invoked? We seek explanations as to why and to whom policies apply, how the policy targets were designed, detected, and detered, the process of implementation to assess security measures. All policies, including ones connected with security, ultimately must pass through the test of whether the operational filters reduce security threats. Are we, in other words, detaining the people who threaten security or people who ask questions about power arrangements?
People can argue all day and never persuade the other to change his view on the use of a military solution to resolve a certain conflict. Pro-intervention supporters would reason that the military as the last resort could be trusted where politicians are characterized as evil, corrupt and bad people. Anti-intervention supporters would reason that a democratic system can’t by its very nature emerge from a military dictatorship. And the two parties would go round and round in a debate, each feeling more confident the other person was insane and they’d been right all along.
Might there be another more promising approach, which might diffuse each opposing party’s fixed position based on the illusion of understanding?
There is. And it works like this. You ask the other person not for his reasons to support his position on a matter of government, resource allocation, energy or environmental programs, climate change, but you ask him to explain, step-by-step how the position he supports would define its policy and the goal or outcome it seeks to achieve. The Cognitive Miser Theory kicks in at this point. It exposes that the fixed knowledge of how something works, what it takes to make it work, how it breaks down or other limitations, is very shallow.
Finding a middle ground means that people learn to change their use of hearsay, values, and headline knowledge. The breakthrough comes with the realization that these elements promise the illusion of an ocean of truth but deliver a tiny, muddy pond. Rather than attack their policy (that won’t be productive), ask them to explain how the policy they support will bring about the outcome they claim will happen. Give us the specifics of how the policy is connected to and integrated with the larger system, and how that system will be modified, altered, updated and how someone can measure whether it achieved the intended outcome.
Remember that this approach to diffuse political extremism is a two-way street. No one thinks they hold extreme views; this is a label that we stigmatize others with. If you ask another person to take you along an explanatory tour of how the policy he or she supports integrates with the larger system and produces the outcome claimed, he or she may well ask you to do the same. Your explanation may also stall or fail, and you also realize the illusion of understanding doesn’t only rear its head from your opponent’s nest; it lives inside of you, too. That’s when both sides of a policy debate realize they both need to revise their understanding about the meaning, design and purpose of a policy; that it wasn’t as absolute and perfect as they thought and a compromise becomes possible.
Debating the illusion of understanding is an interesting idea. Unfortunately it can’t be raised until the possibility of an illusion is acknowledged. That acknowledgment is difficult to come by and that is core of the problem. Many people are frustrated because their minds are tuned (perhaps imprisoned is a better metaphor) to the easy ride they are accustomed to along the lazy mental landscape of illusions. Suggesting this is an illusion is to touch a nerve and the patient jumps a mile high out of his armchair. Anger and hate are the preferred anesthetic in dealing with the cognitive dissonance.
The discussion between those holding conflicting policy views and what steps are needed before we can go on that explanatory journey has been put on ice. But I write from the tropics where the ice, sooner or later, melts under the noonday sun.