Tag: poverty

What Does the Rise of AI have to do with Ferguson and Eric Garner?

One might think that looking to the future of artificial intelligence (AI) and the recent spate of police brutality against African American males, particularly Michael Brown and Eric Garner, are remotely related if they are related at all. However, I want to press us to look at two seemingly unrelated practices (racial discrimination and technological progress) and look to what the trajectory of both portend. I am increasingly concerned about the future of AI, and what the unintended consequences that increased reliance on it will yield. Today, I’d like to focus on just one of those unintended outcomes: increased racial divide, poverty and discrimination.

Recently, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Nick Bostrom have argued that the future of humanity is at stake if we create artificial general intelligence (AGI), for that will have a great probability of surpassing its general intelligence to that of a superintelligence (ASI). Without careful concern for how such AIs are programmed, that is their values and their goals, ASI may begin down a path that knows no bounds. I am not particularly concerned with ASI here. This is an important discussion, but it is one for another day. Today, I’m concerned with the AI in the near to middle term that will inevitably be utilized to take over rather low skill and low paying jobs. This AI is thought by some as the beginning as “the second machine age” that will usher in prosperity and increased human welfare. I have argued before that I think that any increase in AI will have a gendered impact on job loss and creation.   I would like to extend that today to concerns over race.

Today the New York Times reported that 30 million Americans are currently unemployed, and of that 30 million, the percentage of unemployed men has tripled (since 1960). The article also reported that 85% of unemployed men polled do not possess bachelors degrees, and 34% have a criminal background. In another article, the Times also broke down unemployment rates nationally, looking at the geographic distribution of male unemployment. In places like Arizona and New Mexico, for instance, large swaths of land have 40% or more rates of unemployment. Yet if one examines the data more closely, one sees an immediate overlay of unemployment rates on the same tracts of land that are designated tribal areas and reservations, i.e nonwhite areas.

Moreover, if one looks at the data supported by the Pew Institute, the gap between white and minority household income continues to grow. Pew reports that in 2013, the median net worth of white households was $141,000. The median net worth of black households was $11,000. This is a 13X difference. Minority households, the data says, are more likely to be poor. Indeed, they are likely to be very poor. For the poverty level in the US for a household containing one person is $11,670.   Given the fact that Pew also reported that 58% of unemployed women reported taking care of children 18 and younger in their home, there is a strong probability that these households contain more than one person. Add these facts regarding poverty and unemployment an underlying racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, and one can see where this going.

While whites occupy better jobs, have better access to education, have far greater net household incomes, they are far less likely to experience crime. In fact, The Sentencing Project reports that in 2008 blacks were 78% more likely to be victims of burglary and 133% more likely to experience other types of theft. Compare this to the 2012 statistic that blacks are also 66% more likely to be victims of sexual assault and over six times more likely than whites to be victims of homicide.   Minorities are also more often seen to be the perpetrators of crime, and as one study shows, police officers are quicker to shoot at armed black suspects than white ones.

Thus what we see from a very quick and rough look at various types of data is that poverty, education, crime and the justice system are all racially divided. How does AI affect this? Well, the arguments for AI and for increasingly relying on AI to generate jobs and produce more wealth and prosperity are premised on this racist (and gendered) division of labor.  As Byrnjolfsson and McAffee argue, the jobs that are going to “disappear” are the “dull” ones that computers are good at automating, but jobs that require dexterity and little education – like housecleaning – are likely to stay. Good news for all those very wealthy (and male) maids.

In the interim, Brynjolfsson and McAffee suggest, there will be a readjustment of the types of jobs in the future economy. We will need to have more people educated in information technologies and in more creative ways to be entrepreneurs in this new knowledge economy.   They note that education is key to success in the new AI future, and that parents ought to look to different types of schools that encourage creativity and freethinking, such as Montessori schools.

Yet given the data that we have now about the growing disparity between white and minority incomes, the availability of quality education in poor areas, and the underlying discriminatory attitudes towards minorities, in what future will these already troubled souls rise to levels of prosperity that automatically shuts them out of the “new” economy? How could a household with $11,000 annual income afford over $16,000 a year in Montessori tuition? Trickle-down economics just doesn’t cut it. Instead, this new vision of an AI economy will reaffirm what Charles Mill calls “the racial contract”, and further subjugate and discriminate against nonwhites (and especially nonwhite women).

If the future looks anything like what Brynjolfsson and McAffee portend, then those who control AI, will be those who own and thus benefit from lower costs of production through the mechanization and automation of labor.   Wealth will accumulate into these hands, and unless one has skills that either support the tech industry or create new tech, then one is unlikely to find employment in anything other than unskilled but dexterous labor.   Give the statistics that we have today, it is more likely that this wealth will continue to accumulate into primarily white hands.   Poverty and crime will continue to be placed upon the most vulnerable—and often nonwhite—in society, and the racial discrimination that perpetuates the justice system, and with it tragedies like those of Eric Gardner will continue. Unless there is a serious conversation about the extent to which the economy, the education system and the justice system perpetuates and exacerbates this condition, AI will only make these moral failings more acute.

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A Tale of Two Poverties: Sachs versus the world

Interpreting evidence related to poverty and development is never straightforward. Neo-liberal supporters of free market economics tend to point to economic growth as evidence that global inequality is stabilising, while those “closer to the ground” often point out the limitations of economic measurements and encourage a broader understanding of the everyday signs of exploitation and inequality in countries around the world- classic Development Studies 101. Evidence of this sustained divide between those who talk about poverty and those who seek to understand global economic inequality can seen by contrasting a recent NYT opinion piece by Jeffrey Sachs and an extensive research report on poverty. Sachs (primarily focused on the continent of Africa) declares that poverty is ending…soon; while a broader report published 24 hours later found that “economic growth is not helping Africa’s poor.” It seems almost unbelievable that such disparate accounts of “the developing world” can be printed within a 48 hour period. Poverty is ending, poverty is deepening, the market will save Africa, the market has destroyed Africa. With such contrasting messages it is no wonder that the general public (particularly students trying to understand ‘development’) can get confused. Continue reading

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Visualizing the “Misery” of Failed States


Foreign Policy magazine has just released their yearly Failed States Index (“A Year in Misery: The 2011 Failed States Index”), which also includes their photo essay called “Postcards from Hell.”

This photo essay raises the ire of those who criticize it as “poverty porn.” This criticism is usually directed at aid organizations (see here and here) that exploit and misrepresent people’s poverty and insecurity through shocking images to generate support and fundraising. As the infamous article “How to Write About Africa” satirically prescribed:

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wander the refugee camp nearly naked, and wait for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.”

The FP photo essay plays into this too. Many of the photos portray those living in so-called failed states as helpless victims or maniacal militants. This is not to say that extreme conditions of repression, poverty, and violence are not prevalent in these states and it’s also important not to sanitize images just to protect our sensitivities. But the photos provide no context on the individual circumstances and strip those in them of their dignity. (See the photos of Haiti, Iraq, Kenya, Burma, CAR, especially). Nor do these pictures help us understand the causes and conditions of state failure and nor do they prescribe solutions. They simply invite shock and awe.


I teach a course on weak and failed states, and while I have the utmost respect for Foreign Policy magazine and assign their articles regularly, I don’t find much analytical value in this index. If anything, we spent most of the semester picking apart the index and pointing out the inconsistencies with scholarly analysis of failed states. And after delving more into individual case studies, my students were more critical of the generalizations and misrepresentations in the photo essay and articles. I’ll give you that teaching about failed states is tough – not least because there is no consensus definition – but the key challenge is to avoid attributing all the world’s ills (terrorism, civil war, poverty, transnational crime) to the amorphously defined “failed states.”

I intend to plow through the index and articles and will post more thoughts in upcoming posts.

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“Too Fat to Fight”

Mission: Readiness, a collection of retired generals, admirals and other senior military officers issued their latest report this week and the accompanying press release should draw the attention of IR scholars interested in the Copenhagen School and securitization: “Childhood Obesity Endangers National Security.” The news was particularly bad for my state:

…obesity rates among children and young adults in Kentucky are significantly higher than the national average. Weight problems have become the leading medical reason why young adults are unable to serve in the military, both in Kentucky and nationwide…

“Today, in Kentucky and across the country, otherwise excellent recruit prospects are being turned away because they are simply too overweight,” Major General [D. Allen] Youngman said.

The Louisville Courier-Journal summarized the report’s bad news for local readers:

The report says that 51 percent of young adults in Kentucky were overweight or obese in 2007-09, up from 38 percent in 1997-99. Indiana’s rates, meanwhile, rose from 37 percent in 1997-99 to 40 percent in 2007-09.

Nationally, the report found that about one in four 17- to 24-year-olds is too fat to serve in the military….

“As we look to the future, military defense will remain an important issue for our country. We are confident we’ll have the tanks and ships.…What we’re really concerned about is who will be able to join the military,” said retired Army General D. Allen Youngman of Bowling Green. “In Kentucky, we are worse off than elsewhere.”

Obviously, there are many good reasons to be concerned about childhood nutrition and obesity — particularly given high rates of childhood poverty and hunger as well. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act is probably desirable policy. However, I do wonder about the need to sell the policy by framing it as a national security issue. Even a human security frame would be preferable, but that’s not likely a persuasive message in the US.

Where does US militarism end?

Given this ranking and this data, I’m expecting the new school superintendent in Louisville to be a Dean Wormer disciple.

Note: the title of this post comes from the original report issued by Mission: Readiness.

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Glitterati Power

From USA Today: “Darfur Benefit Party Brings Celebs Out in Force

While Forest Whitaker chatted with a refugee, his wife, Keisha, worked a table selling her line of lip gloss, with money going to the IRC. Her top seller: the shade she named Forest.

Whitaker, who arrived directly from the Toronto set of Repossession Mambo, said issue-oriented films remain high on his agenda. In March, he’ll shoot Hurricane Katrina-related The Patriots, to be directed by Tim Story (Fantastic Four).

Shopping for jeans and dresses, Heather Graham said she was disappointed “that our country isn’t doing more for Darfur. Africa’s one of those places that really needs help.”

It’s easy to make light of the glitterati for this self-serving humanitarianism. (For another example, click here.) Celebrities use causes to brand themselves.

But so what?

Governments do the same thing when they tie foreign aid to official recognition of their beneficence. And whether it is Bono peddling poverty reduction, George Clooney advocating for Darfur, or Leonardo diCaprio condemning conflict diamonds, celebrity sponsorship seems to go hand in hand with public awareness of global issues.

But scholars of humanitarian affairs should be asking: under what conditions are these humanitarian players effective in practical terms, and at what? Is theirs an agenda-setting effect: can the rise of new issues in the transnational primordial soup be traced to celebrity influence? Or do they essentially bandwagon on issues that have already gained prominence? If so does this at least have a catalyzing effect on transforming campaigns into mass movements? Do they exercise power, as Dan Drezner’s recent National Interest piece argues, through social networks of access to policymakers and donors – civic activism plus? Or, is the power of celebrities not their personal crusades but the stories they tell on screen?

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