On stories of war in Entebbe.

Travellers who are alone seem to share more with strangers – as if not speaking, or not having someone you are sure to speak with on a regular occasion, makes one prone to gorging on a given opportunity.

Lucy* sat in the restaurant at an inconspicuous hotel in Entebbe. The eating area built of white painted cement, tables neatly laid for breakfast. There were no windows – the weather never too warm or too cold. It looked out over flower boxes into the gardens and the gravelled entrance. A television turned to Al Jazeera news rumbling.

She had finished breakfast and was reading from her iPad when we sat down. While we ate our fruit and eggs, drinking Nescafé, she spoke of her trip. She inflected negatives, but never outright confirmed that she did not enjoy something. For example, her companion during a trek, after the guides had abandoned them, nearly ran into an elephant. “I thought I was going to die,” she said, later, multiple times, referring to altitude sickness.

It was not at this hotel that she told us about her German heritage – although I noticed that she said goodbye to another guest in German – surprising for an American. By then, she mentioned only that she had spent a significant period of her life in Vancouver, until she married an American and moved to Pasadena, California. She was born in the United States.

We went to another coffee shop in the little town so she could buy some local artwork from an Italian woman running a gift shop and café. Large circular gazebos with thatched roofs. Serving cups of sweet milky tea spiced with cardamom and slices of cake. The conversation shifted: Israel and Gaza, to selling real estate in California to Chinese millionaires, to dual citizenship. Someone had told her, while waiting in line to enter at a European port, that she should have gotten dual citizenship.

Her mother, who later became a turbine engineer, left to Berlin to study on an exchange from her university in the United States shortly before the Second World War broke. There, she met a German man and became pregnant. Someone in the family, who worked for the American administration at the time, warned her grandmother to get her daughter out of Germany. She was on one of the last boats out of the country; the war broke shortly after.

Her father was declared legally dead, but resurfaced after the war when released from a “British prisoner’s concentration camp.” He was a single child, from a wealthy family, used to money and being waited on. During the war, he worked on the Reichsautobahn, which carried its own sordid history. He built a castle and hunting lodge; with dirty money, Lucy’s mother, who refused to enjoy them, thought.

The family was reunited in Germany after the war. Lucy’s father had met someone else and wanted a divorce. His parents also wanted to see their only grandchildren. Lucy and her sister Julia* went along, spending weeks in Paris until money ran out and her father had to be confronted. The second marriage never happened, and her father found money to post a $100,000 (in dollars at that time) bond to immigrate to Canada.

“My sister thought we should ghost author a bestseller, ‘the Bimbo and the Nazi,’” said Lucy, when I asked about the history around her father’s work in Germany during the war. He was not implicated in the Nuremberg Trials, but was probably no more than a rank below those who were, she suggested. Nor did he speak about the war; it was not asked about. I asked about her father’s time in the camp, but this was also never discussed. The only remaining allusion was he could not stand turnip soup. And that, since he spoke strong English, he had worked with the Red Cross as an interpreter.

Lucy’s mother was aghast when her daughters decided to visit the castle in Germany. The family had never claimed it, and her mother protested. “We just want to see it,” Lucy said, “We aren’t going to knock on the door.” The castle was huge, forbidding (perhaps even comically so, almost self-aware of its sour history), with shutters drooping from windows or closed entirely.

Seventy-seven year-old Lucy who travelled, after the death of her husband, to so many places I could not keep count: Morocco, Turkey, Nepal, China, Burma, the Black Sea, among others. The span of history is vast; perhaps we bury what is overwhelming so as to live in the present. 

* Names changed.

On a burial.

A slow trickle of people move through the town centre and down a narrow path cutting through the fields on the left-hand side. Those coming from farther ride as passengers on a motorcycle. In the distance, a green hill rolls, quite sleepily.

The crowd, sheltered from the sun in spurts under hastily erected tarps, sits facing the deceased’s brick home. Sitting in almost neat rows on benches and raffia mats. Horizontally organized matoke tree branches cordon off the area. The choir, all in red, sings and collects donations in a bucket. The crowd hums under its collective breath. The songs are muted. A farther cradles and plays with his daughter, his young son hanging onto his other arm. A mother bottle feeds her child. It’s hot and the air is still; but rain clouds build and threaten.

The officiant, an older man, forcefully reads from a piece of paper. After singing, the local chairpersons give surprisingly brief speeches. Parts of these involve warning the single heir of the deceased, the son, as well as the son’s children, that their bad behaviour – drinking, petty theft – will no longer be tolerated. While the deceased could pay off the police, or negotiate a compromise with the local chairperson, she is no longer there to protect them.

The kingdom representative goes on – what seems like from the perspective of an observer with little context – a tangent from the affair at hand. His belly bulging under his bureaucratic, well-ironed dress shirt – you rise in power, you rise in weight – he talks about rule under the British and the expropriation of kingdom land by a neighbouring kingdom during a colonially-orchestrated land division. The point is: they plan to sue. The burial is a prime occasion for a public announcement, since not everyone listens to the radio.

The officiant intervenes again. A friend emotively speaks again about the bad behaviour of the heir and his children. The heir stands at the front of the crowd a bright blue shirt, face unmoving, eyes expressionless, with his two boys. They move away when told to and melt into the crowd. There is no will, so conflict is likely to arise between the immediate heir and other relatives, over the house, which – with its solid walls and roof – is desirable real estate.

A letter from a relative unable to attend is read.

Some words, by the priest, more singing and the coffin is lifted. The crowd follows. Coffin into the ground and attendees crowd around the hole, throwing a handful of red soil. Hands washed from water in a jerry can. Food is brought into the home of the deceased and everyone slowly re-settles, with expectation of being fed. The burial started late, so people are edgy.

On a morning run.

Schoolchildren travelling in packs of two to six in matching colourful uniforms, ripped in creative places. Those going to the new private school at the top of the hill wear the envious bright yellow shirts. Different expressions: stone-faced, a hasty curtsy, a wan smile. One little boy, wearing a bright blue uniform, carrying tree switches twice his size and in a slight panic, uses his fast short legs to stay ahead.

The elderly drunkard in the town centre. There are no signs of inebriation from afar, so he is greeted as if he was an elder – he wears the signs of being older, a greying and patchy beard, worn skin, slightly stooped. But, no drunken wobbling, muttering or uncertainty. Just a slow, straight shuffle. Not until close up does the smell of stale beer or local brew gin, whichever it was the night before, and absent eyes, catch up.

Husband and wife, in the field, every dawn. The woman holds a plastic cup of tea for the man who sinks his hoe into the soil in a repetitive, controlled movement. They are clearing a patch of land bordering the cash crop, sugar cane plantation. The husband never looks up, focused on the ground, but the wife does. She waves cheerfully, plastic cup in hand.

The motorcycle drivers. Some go fast – so fast you cannot hear them coming and barely notice them passing, save a cloud of red dust and the smell of burnt gasoline. Those ones are running wares to and from town, such as petrol, and hurry, hurry. Others, weighed down with a passenger or three, rumble at a slower pace: women sit side-saddle in fine dresses and wraps, stately; men, looking comically organized, sport matching anoraks, hoods up and tied tightly around their chins.

Little Susie and her mother. They walk from their home, down the hill and to the compound to work for the day. Susie, a most cheerful two-year old, spends the day under minimal supervision content to play by herself. She alternates between picking up a hoe twice her size and digging it into the ground, and climbing over obstacles on the compound. She seems less willing to compromise and play with others though, as Saturday playtime with a little boy turns into punching, crying and the strewn remains of a tree car on a string.

The sugar cane workers. “Shit,” one says, under one’s breath, when the blue lorry comes at a dangerous speed around a corner. Nowhere to hide, least one throws oneself into sharp elephant grass or the sugar cane stalks, still not fully grown. Packed like sardines, all men. They yell and haggle and shout from the open-air lorry bed.

Shopkeepers opening their stores in the town centre. The town centre is the biggest on the way from the main town to the next place, wherever that may be, although there is not really all that much there. A restaurant serving posho and beans, a bar, a hair salon, a hardware shop, a few places to buy sodas, basic provisions, and an excellent chapatti maker.

In changing (and not changing) places.

This neighbourhood has changed a little since 2008. It looks even wealthier. Defining markers of a rising middle class. Kisementi now has a massive Acacia mall modelled after Garden City. The bakery – the “Cafesserie” – smells like France. Buttery hot breads. Coffee shops, a Nakumatt, American-export KFC. New restaurants. The choices once seem limited: delicious local food or, if you wanted something with fresh vegetables, the Crocodile Cafe and Bar. Now there are new restaurants, busy, bordering the paved road heading around the mall.

Fortunately, other things remain the same. The landscape is still a stunning washed out. Green bleeds into red, orange roads, banana tree leaves so big they could probably stretch across my body head to toe. Bananas are sweeter (fresh from the garden), the white sweet potatoes do not turn into a mash boiled in hot water or buried under a serving of groundnut stew and dried fish. Bubbles serves the same Savannah apple cider. Matatus honking, busy streets, busy people, kids being dropped off at school in matching uniforms at first light. The ‘embassy run’ up the steep incline on Hill Lane is just as hard.

For the first time, coming back here does not leave me disoriented. It can take a while for a place to grow on you. But, when it does, there is satisfaction.

On stories while rushing.

Hectic airport trip this morning. I get up at 4:45 AM to squeeze in a short run before catching the Airport Express at 6:35 AM outside the Bond Hotel near Church and Dundas. Another woman joins me, pulling two suitcases, one misbehaving. We wait patiently and, as it happens when two people are waiting for the same thing, we start talking. Then we begin to think the bus is not coming. The hotel is full of Lion’s Club members – Toronto is hosting a massive annual reunion, which involves thousands of delegates spread across the city – and at least six large Coach busses stop by the hotel. None for us.

Things are hectic. Around 7:00 AM, the fire alarm in the hotel goes off. I only notice this when suddenly there is a young Danish family outside with one of the daughters wearing a towel around her hair. She has very blue eyes and keeps prodding her sister, Emma, who shows no interest. Calling to her daughters, the mother has them pose for a photo – one with hair wrapped in a towel, the other apathetic. Another group of guests – a group of older married couples – appear in colourful, luxurious silk pyjamas and robes. A French woman with a young son, wrapped in a blanket, without shoes or socks, carrying a little stuffed Canada toy bear, sits down with her husband who pinches the boy’s cheeks. And finally the entire hotel spills out, surrounding us. Three firetrucks come screaming to a halt in front, unloading firefighters with pick axes and serious, used equipment. Obligingly, tourists take pictures.

When the firefighters pack up their equipment – false alarm, although a few days ago a similar evacuation happened at another Toronto hotel when a drunk guest flooded one of the rooms with a hose – it is clear the bus is not coming as it should. We anxiously wait until 7:35 AM, thinking about catching a cab with a third person, when the bus finally rounds the corner. I cannot help but ask the bus driver what happened – it’s not his fault, it sounds like they just forgot about the 6:35 AM run. He’s apologetic, further slowing things down. I can’t guarantee you will arrive on time, he says, as he takes his time loading luggage. Only a few weeks in Toronto has taught me that anything involving highway in this city means enduring long delays.

I share a seat on the bus with the woman who was waiting with me. She was a correctional officer in several California prisons, but she is now retired. She lists off her recent trips – Toronto this time, Italy last time, and Australia next. She loves being retired. As for the California prison system, you work with what you have, she says, not regretfully, just as it is. She worked in male prisons. I say she must be a tough lady, but no, she tells me, it’s less likely a man will hit you – he will think twice – but with a woman you have to fight back. I tell her she is not what I expected from a correctional officer and she laughs. There’s a lot of recidivism, people have nowhere to go, she offers. She’s not married, never was, and no children. You can’t change yourself for another person, she says, and I always knew – from when I was young – that I didn’t want children.

The highway opens up, we rush through smog, to the airport.

In Ethiopique.

I was complaining about being rusty a few days ago – that is, rusty from not writing. I had been avoiding the task, not thinking that I was anywhere particularly interesting. Nor do I know enough to write about anything that is particularly important. But, it is sadly easy to forget all the small stories around you. I used to have an instinct for what would be good to write about. Now, instead, I analyze, analyze until I am fully dissuaded from putting anything down. Are these stories not just useless accumulations?

But then I picked up Adichie’s Americanah this morning on the urging of a friend. It reminded me that details can be absurdly interesting. And Toronto appears to be full of such details.

Last night, I met a group of friends at a little Ethiopian restaurant at the corner of Church and Dundas called Ethiopique. A family-run, fairly hole in the wall place with massive, delicious platters of vegetables and meats on dark pieces of injera. We were sat down by a calm, slowly smiling older man. Between the six of us, we were well on our way to clearing out his wine cabinet by the end of the evening – a collection of dusty bottles in a wine rack along with a few of those “dépanneur” wines behind the bar. That, and a cold, sweating green bottle of Tusker.

While he took a break from his unruly guests, I followed him to the bar and inquired about whether, might he, by chance, be serving cold Niles – a vigilant eye for finding anything Ugandan that might exist in this so-called mosaic city for T. Sitting on a stool, watching us, a friendly man with a fast smile – nothing ponderous here – laughed and asked how I would even know about Nile. I briefly explained and we quickly launched into a discussion about South Africa, where he was from. How could anyone ever leave Cape Town, I inquired? A place I want to visit, and never leave – we listed Cape Town’s richest assets. Ocean, mountains. Family keeps him in Toronto, he tells me, his children left South Africa, found jobs and settled in this cold North American city. This story must be familiar to the many who live in this city. We talk about the direct Toronto – Addis flight I am boarding the following day. In the corner, the owner’s silent teenage daughter shakes her head when asked if she’d ever taken the Toronto-Addis direct flight (although it appears she had). By the end of the evening, she settles in the corner with her own plate of injera and stew, an eye on her phone.

At the airport, twelve hours later, out of the corner of my eye, I see a daughter put her elderly father with a greying beard and unsteady hands on the Toronto-Addis direct flight. She speaks for him, loading his bags on the baggage belt. Lives across many continents.

On my way back home around eleven on the tram – or streetcar as the locals say, raising an eyebrow when I say tram (where in the world do people say tram? I think in the Hague, but I could be wrong) – an older man waits at the door and his pants fall to the ground, revealing a sunken behind. He seems entirely unperturbed as he pulls his shorts partially back up his skinny legs. We all avoid eye contact or prying stares. Following him out the tram, a man’s head is overwhelmed under a broad straw hat – the type used when working in the rice fields, like an upside down pointed bucket, which Wikipedia calls a ‘conical Asian hat’ – and what appear to be numerous keffiyeh. He wears a shirtless black t-shirt under all this confusion; massive arms, stocky build.

The Big Picture: “It’s Not the ‘Confidence Gap’ – Here’s What’s Really Holding Women Back”

My discomfort with the “confidence gap” article by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in the Atlantic was not singular. Elizabeth Plank published a great reply in PolicyMic. Her article looks at the fundamental structural issues in the workplace that put women at a disadvantage. While confidence may be a barrier or an issue to some women, the problems raised by Plank are a barrier to all women, particularly those who are already disadvantaged. These are the issues we – first and foremost – should be thinking about and working to rectify.

One of the craziest things about the U.S. (apart from the fact that some of our citizens think Hillary Clinton planned her own shoe-throwing incident) is that we are the only industrialized country without paid maternity leave. Approximately half of mothers in the U.S. workforce don’t receive any paid leave, and many of them are forced by their employers to leave work early in their pregnancy without remuneration. Although Kay and Shipman acknowledge that women are the ones who get preggers (and devote a small paragraph to the importance of that basic biological truth), it’s mainly glossed over in their article.

Remembering WWII in Malmö (Part II)

I just noticed today that Popper’s parents (at least I believe them to be) are buried near him in the Malmö Jewish Cemetery. His father was a lawyer and his mother a doctor. The father’s headstone reads, in part: “He came the long way to rest in a Jewish spot with our only child.” The wife died many years later. Her headstone reads: “At last together.” Perhaps I’m being overly sentimental here, but I find it fascinating that a little piece of touching history can be found in this seemingly random corner of the earth.

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“The failure of desegregation”

I posted a link below to this article, “The failure of desegregation,” but I just wanted to highlight two additional paragraphs, which I think are particularly important:

To the extent that the word “desegregation” remains in our vocabulary, it describes an antique principle, not a current priority. Today, we are more likely to talk of diversity—but diversification and desegregation are not the same undertaking. To speak of diversity, in light of this country’s history of racial recidivism, is to focus on bringing ethnic variety to largely white institutions, rather than dismantling the structures that made them so white to begin with.

And so, sixty years after Brown, it is clear that the notion of segregation as a discrete phenomenon, an evil that could be flipped, like a switch, from on to off, by judicial edict, was deeply naïve. The intervening decades have shown, in large measure, the limits of what political efforts directed at desegregation alone could achieve, and the crumbling of both elements of “separate but equal” has left us at an ambivalent juncture. To the extent that desegregation becomes, once again, a pressing concern—and even that may be too grand a hope—it will have to involve the tax code, the minimum wage, and other efforts to redress income inequality. For the tragedy of this moment is not that black students still go to overwhelmingly black schools, long after segregation was banished by law, but that they do so for so many of the same reasons as in the days before Brown.


Morning reads: education.

  • Eleanor J Bader in her article “Academia under the influence” reviews Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maria’s new book, The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent.

Chatterjee and Maira, in a 43-page introduction to the text, situate the academy within a “global structure of repression, militarism and neoliberalism.” Indeed, they report that colleges and universities have historically done the bidding of government, weeding out rabble-rousers who challenge the status quo.

“If you ask who can afford to go to law school, or who can afford a lawyer, the answer is: not most people in America,” he said. “Those who do manage to graduate from law school end up with excruciating debt. They feel compelled to take jobs with the highest paycheck to find some relief. They don’t feel free to work in jobs that fit their interests or that meet a critical demand. The result is most people can’t afford quality legal services and millions of Americans are deprived of access to qualified lawyers.”

Schooling mirrors the government in power, but also amplifies its structures and messages.  The case of Rwanda reminds us that not just any schooling builds peace.  This is an important reminder to donors, policy-makers, students and teachers.

Black and Latino students in New York have become more likely to attend schools with minimal white enrollment, and a majority of them go to schools defined by concentrated poverty. Three-quarters of the city’s charter schools, which were a key component of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts at education reform, have fewer than one per cent white enrollment. At Stuyvesant, the most exclusive of the city’s specialized public high schools, where admission is determined by a competitive exam, only seven black students and twenty-one Latino students were offered places in next year’s freshman class. New York is simultaneously the most diverse city in the United States and the most glaring indicator of integration’s failures.

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman on The Confidence Gap

Edit: A reply was recently published on PolicyMic to the article below. I agree that the structural issues which put women at a disadvantage should be – first and foremost – of primary concern. Specific to the Katty Kay article on confidence, read on.

A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.

- Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Confidence Gap.

I.      I read Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s article The Confidence Gap with great interest. I am also guilty of downplaying success and attributing it to factors outside my control, e.g. sheer luck, an easy exam, an arbitrary selection process. I am also guilty of worrying – to unnecessary degrees – about whether I will be properly qualified to do a job once I am given it, or whether I will pass an exam. As this article suggests, it seems that the world of worry is one where mostly women live. It’s something I see in myself, and female friends and family.

“There’s just a natural sort of feeling among the women that they will not get a prestigious job, so why bother trying,” she explained. “Or they think that they are not totally competent in the area, so they’re not going to go for it.” As a result, female students tend to opt out. “They end up going into less competitive fields, like human resources or marketing,” she said. “They don’t go for finance, investment banks, or senior-track faculty positions.”


The advice implicit in such findings is hardly unfamiliar: to become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act. And yet, there is something very powerful about this prescription, aligning as it does with everything research tells us about the sources of female reticence.

- Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Confidence Gap.

II.      A lack of confidence manifests itself in many ways. Some barriers are probably easier to surmount. I think overcoming a lack of confidence in the context of seizing opportunities, as described above, is a good place to start. One way to motivate oneself to act is to put into context the very worst that can happen if one does act. I may think I am not competent to do a job, but I will always apply. Quite literally, the worst that can happen is I am told ‘no.’ Failure, at least at that initial stage, is not a reasonable fear. Moreover, failure can be a great motivator by offering direction and shaping ambition. Rejection, however unpleasant it may be, is a great way of learning more about oneself. As the authors suggest, it’s also good practice for challenges down the road.

III.      My worry tends to set in if I get the job (particularly one I really want): Will I do well? Will I learn fast enough? Am I just qualified on paper? These are questions that I think are both capable of holding someone back, but also propelling someone forward. The outcome likely depends on whether you let this worry get the best of you, and how you express it to others. The brain is incredible, and there is evidence that it can be trained to behave in a way which is less harmful to you and to people around you (what the authors call brain plasticity). In my case, a healthy dose of self-awareness and the ability to tell myself to “stop” has gone a long way to curbing unproductive worrying, which, in turn, has allowed me to focus more on working hard.

IV.      Erin Anderson published a short comment on The Confidence Gap in the Globe and Mail yesterday and it goes directly to something I find missing from the debate on women and lack of confidence.

But isn’t the real hazard that we put too much stock in over-confidence (the kind not supported by competence)? To quote an Arabian proverb: “He who knows not and knows not that he knows not … is a fool, shun him.” And yet the opposite happens; nations and businesses too often reward the blowhards, and the results – from wartime to Wall Street – are legion. The failure to distinguish between luck and skill is what sinks many a gambler, and not just the ones in Vegas. In a society today, we much bemoan the vacuum of smart, effective, moral leaders. Consider the qualities elevated in Forbes’ list of the best 100 quotes on leadership: courage and charisma, obviously, but also the ability to share credit, heed the opinion of others, to assess failure, to self-reflect. Not exactly the qualities of a strutting peacock.

Confidence is surely a quality worth cultivating (although, with our own kids, the current worry is that we might have planted the self-esteem seed too well.) But what’s the message here? If only women were as mouthy and cocky (ahem) as men, the problem would be solved. Hardly.


Young women need to learn to demand fair compensation and recognition for their talents and to find mentors who will guide them. That’s a given. But this “problem” can’t be placed solely on them. Society still sidelines mothers and judges women for being too outspoken. Men don’t get called “pushy” or “bossy.” Changing those attitudes requires more equitable workplace policy, clear messaging from the top, as well as reversing institutional gender bias. Seeing through overconfidence to recognizing the potential leadership skills in humility and competence is good for business. Who really wants slick, when they can have smart?

Having a “lack” of confidence is not necessarily a terrible thing. A healthy dose of humility (which I think, if you shift your perspective, is interchangeable with what the authors seem to perceive as a lack of confidence) has been identified as an important trait in the workplace (although it remains understudied). For example, it can help build relationships with colleagues, who might otherwise be intimidated or annoyed by overconfidence. It can allow for a creative space where others can pitch in. It can motivate you to work harder and to continuously seek new opportunities to learn and improve. Society seems to understand humility as an admirable character trait, and I think it does so accurately. After all, a person may be qualified for a job, but more often than not there are other factors, structural and social, that play into success. It’s a matter of finding a healthy balance. Humility should not prevent you from speaking your mind, starting a business, or seizing an opportunity. But, humility keeps success in perspective, which is beneficial in and of itself.

Wainaina interview on This is Africa

The interview is available on This is Africa. I particularly liked this comment on Nairobi, a city I lived in for nine months in 2009/10:

Nairobi is a strange and interesting place. Unlike Lagos or Kampala, it really doesn’t belong to anybody. That’s the worst and best thing about it. People may have very strong opinions about things, but they also inherently hate the idea of you saying, “This is African culture or this is whatever culture.” They say, No, no, no, me I just want to be anonymous in the city. I don’t need you imposing this weird thing. I do my thing. There isn’t the same sense you get in Kampala that everything is everybody’s business.

“The Federal Rules at 75: Dispute Resolution, Private Enforcement or Decisions According to the Law?”

Interesting article by James R. Maxeiner critiquing the U.S. Federal Rules of Evidence. He concludes that the U.S. needs to start re-evaluating its justice system in light of systems in other countries (civil and common law). In other words, a bit of legal pluralism can go a long way in shaping a healthier domestic justice system. An excerpt from the introduction:

The two sides [members of the profession who live by the rules versus business persons who are subject to them] demonize each other. The one side sees no lawsuit that is other than frivolous and whose costs are other than outrageous; it doubts the ethics of anyone who would promote such base behavior. The other side sees no plaintiff’s plea that is other than proper and finds no price that is too high to pay for “justice”; it questions the conscience of anyone who would reject such claims of right and put a dollar value on justice. Both sides can point to thousands of cases that fit their respective views.

Neither side, however, addresses the millions of cases that do not fit either viewpoint. These are cases of people who don’t vocalize about the Federal Rules. These people are the ninety-nine percent. They have no goal in mind loftier than routine dispute resolution according to law. They are the people who, when they have a claim against a careless contractor or a cash poor customer, think that the legal system should uphold their rights and return to them their claims without deduction. They are the people who, when they are sued, think that they should have a day in court to voice their views. They are the people who when they are fired by their employers think that they should have a chance to challenge the grounds for termination. These people are left out of the conversation altogether. Often, they give up with- out ever taking their cases to court

These people cast a pall on the revelries of the Federal Rules at seventy-five. 

“Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”

This article in the Washington Post caught my eye: “Rich people rule!” The paper discussed in the article is available in draft form here. It’s an excellent read. I do not think their conclusions are intuitively surprising, but the authors do boast that they have accumulated the first set of data demonstrating the impact of interest groups in American politics. This is bound to lead to further equally interesting research on wealth and policy-making. In particular, I would really like to see comparative analysis of similar date gathered in other countries, e.g. Sweden. Some highlights:

But the picture changes markedly when all three independent variables are included in the multivariate Model 4 and tested against each other. The estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all (15) [emphasis added].

By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy. This does not mean that theories of Economic Elite Domination are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy influence with organized interest groups. Still, economic elites stand out as quite influential – more so than any other set of actors studied here – in the making of U.S. public policy (16) [emphasis added].

The Cost of Specialization

From Voltaire’s Bastards:

Specialization and professionalism have provided the great innovations in social structure during the Age of Reason. But they have not created the bonds necessary for public cooperation. Instead they have served to build defensive cells in which the individual is locked.

One of my greatest concerns in going to law school would be that, instead of opening my mind to issues I knew nothing about, the law would force me to (or I would give in) think in a constrained, “legal” structure. This fear has partially manifested itself. I found that with the more knowledge I gained in one field, the less I felt entitled to speak out about issues unrelated to what I was learning. I was, in a sense, becoming a specialist.

I agree with John Saul on the dangers of becoming a specialist. I also agree with the dangers of acting as an expert on issues that you know nothing about. There’s a fine balance to be struck and one which remains evasive to me. Fear of speaking out on issues unrelated to one’s specialty means that one becomes trained in an insular and potentially narrow-minded way of thinking with little relevance to the rest of the world. It also means that you deprive other specialists of skills you have developed that could provide meaningful insight. On the other hand, speaking out on issues which you know nothing about can cause serious damage, particularly if done irresponsibly or with little concern or awareness of the ‘real world’ repercussions. This is particularly well-illustrated in the fields of international development and aid.

Overall, I have no clear answers on the issue of specialization and what this means for society and for society’s ability to work together towards a consciously designed and improved system. I do think Saul is correct in suggesting that specialization undermines our willingness to speak out and to work with others, consequently giving more power to elected officials who may not have our best interests in mind. This issue of specialization is something that I want to start tackling, and I hope that law schools and other institutions training “specialists” will encourage real and meaningful interdisciplinary study as a first step.

Discourse in Welfare: It Matters

Interesting article in The Guardian (UK) on the British welfare state by Ha-Joon Chang, economics professor at Cambridge University. Chang underlines that a key issue with the modern welfare system is how it is framed to the public:

Important though these criticisms are, the biggest issue is the very way in which the “problem” of the British welfare state has been defined and understood. The cap is based on the view that the UK needs “to prevent welfare costs spiralling out of control”, given the wasteful nature of such spending. This is not backed up by the evidence.

He makes an excellent point. It’s hard to hold an informative and productive debate on the issue of welfare when sentences like “spiralling out of control” are used by the political parties to further their policies to cut welfare spending.

Similar to what Stiglitz argues in his book the Price of Inequality, the notion of “welfare” is grossly misunderstood. Contrary to popular belief, there is evidence that the “welfare” state can actually improve growth. As Chang (and he’s not alone!) writes:

The point is that the welfare state – if well designed and coordinated with labour market policies to re-train people and get them back into work – can encourage people to be more accepting of change, thereby promoting growth. Firms in countries such as Finland and Sweden can introduce new technologies faster than their US competitors because, knowing that unemployment need not mean penury and long-term joblessness, their workers do not resist these changes strongly.

The National Self-Represented Litigants Project

This looks like an important initiative for access to justice reform in Canada.

The National Self-Represented Litigants Project (NSRLP) builds on the National Self-Represented Litigants (SRL’s) Research Study conducted by Dr. Julie Macfarlane from 2011-2013. The project takes its mandate from the Final Recommendations of the Research Report: 10 Actions Steps for the SRL Phenomenon.

NSRLP aims to continue to generate energy and motivation towards serious contemplation of system change, reflecting the findings of the Research Study.

NSRLP is committed to collaboration to enhance the responsiveness of the Canadian justice system to SRL’s, and to continuing dialogue among the stakeholders who include SRL’s, lawyers, judges and court services staff.

NSRLP is also acting as a clearinghouse for information and resources related to the SRL phenomenon. NSRLP is committed to information and resource-sharing on the SRL phenomenon among all interested and affected parties.

NSRLP is funded from 2013-14 by the University of Windsor, Faculty of Law and aligns with Windsor Law’s mandate to promote Access to Justice for all Canadians.

We are very excited about continuing our work with and for SRL’s in the coming year. We invite you to join us – bycontributing your story as a SRL, by inviting a SRL to speak to your professional conference.

Participate in a policy working group and by signing up to participate in the regular discussion on Facebook, follow our Blog, joining our listserv and signing up to receive our e-newsletter.

Charting inequality

John Cassidy has compiled an interesting set of charts on inequality in the New Yorker. The chart comparing income inequality in Anglo-Saxon countries between 1910 and 2010 is particularly interesting. Take a look at Canada between 1945 and 1990. Is the stabilization (and later progressive destabilization) in income inequality related to the beginning and end of the so-called welfare state?

Access to justice in Canada

The Canadian Bar Association released a report on access to justice metrics in April 2013 (I would read this in conjunction with the Roadmap for Change report). I think this issue of “measurement” is crucial. What measures are in place to determine whether an access to justice intervention is actually working for a community? I feel like access to justice rhetoric in Canada could draw a lot from lessons learned in the context of international development. Also, an interesting access to justice initiative: “Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court.” This looks like a much more holistic approach to criminal justice. See more here.