Pride, Privacy, and Assistance

Pride, Privacy, & Assistance

“Margaret said she had known a lot of shelters – crossed the country twice, staying in shelters along the way – and The Refuge was one of the best, mainly because they didn’t pry and didn’t attach conditions to their help. She wanted to keep her private life private, and at The Refuge she could do this,” writes Elliot Liebow about one of the women he profiled for his book on homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am. Being poor and asking for assistance is hard. It is not easy to admit just how needy one is, what mistakes one may have made along the way, and what personal shortcomings one is still struggling to overcome. However in the United States, getting aid often requires going through a series of questions and divulging such personal information to strangers, agencies, and charities before someone is willing to provide assistance.
In the past I have written about our preference for private charity over government provided aid. I suspect that part of the reason we favor private charity is because we can attach more conditions to the aid and ask more questions of those receiving the aid. It would not be fair for the government to place certain restrictions on how aid can be utilized, to require certain actions of those requiring aid, or to ask certain questions of the petitioners. However, many private charities or religious organizations can limit aid for seemingly trivial reasons. For example, first amendment protections mean that the government could not deny someone aid for wearing an offensive t-shirt, but a religious organization could certainly deny someone aid or assistance if they refused to change out of an offensive shirt.
What I think is important to realize from Liebow’s quote is that there is an additional issue beyond charitable strings and limitations that goes with the questioning and lack of agency that people experience when asking for aid. The questions people face are often repetitive, sometimes don’t seem relevant, and can be prying. People lose their sense of privacy and individuality, something most of us prize and assume to be ours by default, similar to how we think of constitutional rights (in some senses privacy is a constitutional right). Liebow continues, “To the petitioner, it is as if the wall of questions that stands between her and life’s necessities is a hurdle to be scaled only by those willing to leave their pride and privacy behind them.”
Many of us have made mistakes that make us cringe when we look back on them. Hopefully most of us have appropriately processed what went wrong and learned from our mistakes, but nevertheless, we don’t normally like to think back on our worst moments. We certainly don’t like to have people bring those moments up over and over and ask us to keep reliving them or remembering them. Even if we have accepted our mistakes and learned important lessons, we want to leave those mistakes in the past and move forward. The continual questioning and lack of privacy for those in needs means they can never move forward from their mistakes. They become defined by their errors, poor judgement, past laziness, previous drug use, and any other potential cause of their poverty and homelessness. They can’t move forward because they need help and can’t receive help unless they are willing to give up any privacy and pride and live within their worst histories. The questioning and limitations we place on aid seem harmless and sensible to the donor, but to those who need aid for daily survival, it can be humiliating and make everything feel much more difficult for them. “It is difficult to appreciate the intensity of feeling, the bone-deep resentment that many of the women felt at always having to answer questions,” Liebow wrote.

An Illusion of Security, Stability, and Control

The online world is a very interesting place. While we frequently say that we have concerns about privacy, about how our data is being used, and about what information is publicly available to us, very few people delete their social media accounts or take real action when a data breach occurs. We have been moving more and more of our life online, and we have been more accepting of devices connected to the internet that can either be hacked or be used to tacitly spy on us than we would expect given the amount of time we spend expressing concern for our privacy.

 

A quick line from Tyler Cowen’s book The Complacent Class may explain the contradiction. “A lot of our contentment or even enthrallment with online practices may be based on an illusion of security, stability, and control.”

 

I just read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow and in it he writes about a common logical fallacy, the substitution principle. When we are asked difficult questions, we often substitute a simpler question that we can answer. However, we rarely realize that we do this. Cowen’s insight suggests that we are using this substitution fallacy when we are evaluating online practices.

 

Instead of thinking deeply and critically about our privacy, safety, and the security of our personal or financial information in a given context, we substitute. We ask ourselves, does this website intuitively feel legitimate and well put together? If the answer is yes, we are more likely to enter our personal information, allow our online movements to be tracked, enter our preferences, and save our credit card number.

 

If matching technology works well, if our order is fulfilled, and if we are provided with more content that we can continue to enjoy, we will again substitute. Instead of asking whether our data is safe or whether the value we receive exceeds the risk of having our information available, we will ask if we are satisfied with what was provided to us and if we liked the look and feel of what we received. We can pretend to answer the hard questions with illusory answers to easier questions.

 

In the end, we land in a place where the companies and organizations operating on the internet have little incentive to improve their systems, to innovate in ways that create disruptive changes, or to pursue big leaps forward. We are already content and we are not actually asking the hard questions which may push innovation forward. This contentment builds stagnation and prevents us from seeing the risks that exist behind the curtain. We live in our illusion that we control our information online, that we know how the internet works, and that things are stable and will continue to work, even if the outside world is chaotic. This could be a recipe for a long-term disaster that we won’t see coming because we believe we are safely in control when we are not.

Privacy in Politics

The work of politics requires backrooms, closed doors, and confidential communications. This reality is often undervalued. We live in an age where everything can potentially be captured on camera or shared across the country for anyone to view. In the United States we have passed laws opening up the legislative process, freeing up information and communications, and bringing transparency to the political process. We do this in the name of democracy, however, this trend has made the actual process of governing and coming to legislative decisions nearly impossible.

 

Jonathan Rauch writes about this reality in his book Political Realism and he argues that there are some things in government that have bad optics, but are necessary for a functioning political system. He writes, “In full public view, complicated deal-building is hard to do, indeed usually impossible; therefore machines tend to prefer privacy.” In order to build a coalition, leaders and individuals need to be able to bargain and compromise. A bill that may be incredibly beneficial for one group of people or for a certain state could be completely unfavorable for a different group of people or for individuals in a different jurisdiction. Anyone representing the group that does not get anything will be politically pressured to oppose the new legislation, even if it makes a huge difference for a politically sympathetic group someplace else. Deal-making, compromise, and making trades allows coalitions to be built, but this type of deal-making must be done in private. In the open, trading votes in such a way can be ruinous for more than just someone’s political career.

 

Politics requires a delicate balance between transparency and privacy. Too much privacy and we risk corruption, but too much transparency and we risk unending political gridlock with no path forward for even sensible legislation. In the United States Congress is one of the most open institutions. Congressional emails are saved, debates and meetings are televised on C-Span, and reporters swarm the capital every day. As a result, our representatives must be open about their processes, goals, and deal-making activities. What we ultimately see, is a branch of government that cannot move forward with major pieces of legislation and has incredibly low favorability.

 

In contrast, out nation’s Supreme Court is relatively well liked. It is closed from the public and allowed, even expected to have, deliberations in back rooms and behind closed doors. Decisions must be made and when they are, they are usually well accepted. I don’t think congress should operate like the Supreme Court, but I think Rauch’s argument should be taken seriously. We should find ways to allow political decisions to be semi-private and safe for legislators, so deals can be made that help our nation move forward, even if they are politically toxic for some members who must go along with the rest of congress.

Privacy In Politics

The work of politics requires backrooms, closed doors, and confidential communications. This reality is often undervalued today. We live in an age where everything can potentially be captured on camera or shared across the country for anyone to view. In the United States we have passed laws opening up the legislative process, freeing up information and communications, and bringing transparency to the political process. Doing this however, has made the actual process of governing and reaching legislative decisions nearly impossible.

Jonathan Rauch writes about this reality in his book Political Realism and he argues that there are some things in government that have bad optics, but are necessary for a functioning political system. He writes, “In full public view, complicated deal-building is hard to do, indeed usually impossible; therefore machines tend to prefer privacy.” In order to build a coalition, leaders and individuals need to be able to bargain and compromise. A bill that may be incredibly beneficial for one group of people or for a certain state could be completely unfavorable for a different group of people or for individuals in a different jurisdiction than the target population. Anyone representing the group that does not get anything will be politically pressured to oppose the new legislation, even if it makes a huge difference for a politically sympathetic group someplace else. Deal-making, compromise, and making trades allows coalitions to be built in these situations, but this type of deal-making must be done in private. In the open, trading votes in such a way can be ruinous.

Politics requires a delicate balance between transparency and privacy. Too much privacy and we risk corruption, but too much transparency and we risk unending political fights with no path forward for even sensible legislation. In the United States Congress is one of the most open institutions. Congressional emails are saved, debates and meetings are televised, and reporters swarm the capital every day. As a result, our representatives must be open about their processes, goals, and deal-making activities. What we ultimately see, is a branch of government that cannot move forward with major pieces of legislation and has incredibly low favorability.

In contrast, out nation’s Supreme Court is relatively well liked. It is closed from the public and allowed, even expected to have, deliberations in back rooms and behind closed doors. Decisions must be made and when they are, they are usually well accepted. I don’t think congress should operate like the Supreme Court, but I think Rauch’s argument should be taken seriously. We should find ways to allow political decisions to be private and safe for legislators, so deals can be made that help our nation move forward, even if they are politically toxic for some members who must go along with the rest of congress.