Thursday, May 22, 2008

Corruption, correlation and causation

Transparency International has repeatedly ranked Finland as one of the least corrupt country in the world. The CPI ranking, or Corruption Perception Index, is based on interviews, and as it says in the name, perceptions, and so it is a somewhat subjective measure. At least the perception so far has been that Finns, and the Finnish political system in general, would be honest and fair. This perception is changing, as now, as The Dude would put it, new shit has come to light.

MP's have failed to report who has funded their campaigns, funders themselves have been hiding behind dodgy societies, neither seems to remember anything about the transactions that therefore had no effect, but still there seem to be very uncomfortable connections between the funders, the politicians, and some political decisions they are currently trying to make.

This reminds me of the cash for honours -scandal in the UK. Big party funders were given peerages and other privileges, in some cases as a direct compensation for substantive donations to party war chests. There was of course public outrage, heads rolled and rules were reformed. However, public perception was that there was nothing new here (see Yes, Minister & Yes, Prime Minister, any episode), it had just grown to be so ugly, unashamed and disgusting that it was therefore time to put an end to it. But, as the British are extremely cynical about their politicians, these "breaking news" were just confirming what they knew already - the system is rotten, everyone is there for their personal benefit, all politicians are corrupt and the country is run by tycoons.

I don't think the conclusions would go quite as far in the Finnish case, if not for anything else, because the sums are considerably smaller. In the UK, the sums donated were millions of pounds, in Finland the largest individual donation was 20 000 euros, although the totals for some of these groups are in the hundreds of thousands.

The discussion is now taking a rather unfortunate non-analytical turn. As is often the case, things get confusing, and some people confuse things deliberately. Is the political system in crisis, as the prime minister has said? No, the system isn't, but his government is. Several MP's, both government and opposition are. Mr. Vanhanen deliberately muddles things up and tries to hide behind his office, but the fact is that the rules have been there, the legislation has been at place already, and these individuals (en masse, unfortunately) just have failed to respect the spirit of the law, and in many cases even broke the letter of the law. It's all fine for them to now blame the unclear rules and try save faces by proposing changes, while amending their dodgy declarations, but they shouldn't get away with just that.

Any trust-issues the Finnish people might have about politics as a result of this, are not generally about the Finnish constitution or the offices it describes, but about these idiots who claim they don't have a clue who paid for 1/4 of their campaign and expect people to believe them. Similarly, nobody lost their belief in Finnish business because this bunch of "fundamentalist entrepreneurs" now claim they don't know who got the hundreds of thousands of euros they donated and to which they expect no return.

That's one thing, the other of course is, whether funding political campaigns is corrupt in every case. The issue here is pretty much the same as in the question of correlation vs. causation. It's understandable that businesses or labour unions want to see that the candidates that share their views do well in elections. In the "ideal" scenario, politicians have their opinions first, and funding follows, because someone with money likes those opinions. In the cynical scenario, receiving funding changes the politician's opinions to those of his/her funders. In both cases, there's a correlation between receiving funding from an interest group and having opinions that they like. The direction of causation is the key element that separates democratic fair play from rotten corruption.

Whether either extreme exists in the real world, I'm not sure. There is probably a continuum there, and many politicians today seem to dwell in that gray area in between. But, something close to the ideal scenario exists and it can even be seen as an important part of democracy (as a guard of marginal, and why not even mainstream interests). Therefore rules (and enforcement of them) are needed, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to set a limit to how much money a candidate can get from a single donor, and a total limit should be considered as well. And, as a precautionary measure to tackle future ignorance and amnesia, politicians and donors should be forced to keep better minutes of their campaign funding and spending.

The Finnish political system with strong corporations and interconnections between politicians and special interests isn't necessarily corrupt in the sense that, say, Somalia (179th, or last in the TI CPI), Albania (105th) or even Italy (41st) are, but it isn't spotless clean, and definitely it doesn't seem to be all that transparent, either. That's something that should be reflected in the next CPI. If Finland falls from its joined first spot, it doesn't mean we've suddenly changed to be more corrupt, it's because we're finally starting to take a good look into how the decision-making here actually works.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Reality check

What is real?

It's a deep philosophical question, and while for Plato or Descartes the question was whether they could trust their senses or not, for us the issue is further complicated by all things virtual.

If I'm having a conversation with someone about politics in an online forum, is s/he real? Are her opinions real, is the conversation real? How about the conclusions? Have we really agreed? Or has my nickname agreed with someone else's avatar? Have we communicated, if communication is psychologically defined as aligning each other's cognitive states?

It's well known that especially in anonymous forums (fora?) people take more extreme views and often play very exaggerated roles. Partly this is due to the low signal-to-noise -ratio in these boards, which means that everyone has to shout louder to be noticed, which in turn worsens the ratio etc. It's also common that people vent their frustrations and demonstrate their immaturity, or just deliberately sabotage conversations so that any conversation worth having falls apart relatively quickly. Bullying is very common, that of other board members, public figures, and more often whoever has online presence. Fat, thin, ugly, nerdy, odd, weird clothed, spotty, ethnic, poor, different... any of these apply to you, and you have posted your pic online to any social networking site, chances are someone has linked it somewhere with insulting comments, for other idiots to laugh at.

As if you're not a real person.

Would they do this to a person they know? Are they just cruel idiots or can they not tell the difference between reality and their virtual world? I'm not sure which answer is the more pessimistic, given the ubiquitousness of virtual presence and social interaction.

TV and papers are very good at blurring the borders of reality. The so-called reality shows are a big hit, but here reality means something different. Media tends to make virtual caricatures out of real people (sports personalities, politicians etc.) and real people out of fictional characters (soap stars: some papers write news stories about tragedies that happened in the show to the characters, as they would write about what happened to the actor) and the semi-fictional people in semi-reality shows are just a big mess anyway.

When people bring flowers to the cross-roads where a soap character had an accident with a tram and died in the show, why is that? Are we so fed up with reality that we need to pretend that the stories into which we like to escape for a while are actually true? Or, if our feelings for the character are real, why not express them as we would in real life? Nothing wrong with that?

Is that the reason why these reality shows are so popular? Because they claim they are true, their virtual world is closer to the real one and easier to sink into? Is that why the events and outcomes of these shows are so eagerly discussed in papers, speculation gets to epic proportions and everyone is supposed to have an opinion of these people?

Fundamentally, there's nothing new in any of this, of course. Storytelling, legends, songs, epics, and fantasies have always been an important part of being human. Our very ability for imagination is what sets us apart. We turn to fantasy for guidance, seek solace in stories, purpose in prose, emulate social interaction in songs, and all in all, need all this to keep our sanity. We can't turn the imagination-engine off, and so we need to constantly feed it.

Also, sports isn't real anymore, neither is music. Both arguably used to be, but we have chosen to pay for the pleasure of observing them and not do them ourselves. Sports heroes and pop stars (and the Royal families) live constantly in the Big Brother house, for us to criticise, vote, identify with and have feelings for. Newspapers write about them as if they were real, often forgetting that they are.

Our opinion of our colleague or neighbour is not necessarily any more real than our opinion of the runner-up in Amazing Race. Most people work with ideas and fantasies rather than bricks, mortar and other concrete things. And I don't necessarily have problems with more fantasy, it's the less reality -part of the equation that bugs me. If we only see each other as avatars or virtual characters, and if more and more people behave in public like they are in a first-person perspective video game, what will happen to the way we treat each other? If people talk about politics and look at politicians as if they are useless celebrities and tv-show characters from that soap opera they call the 20.30 news, what will happen to democracy?

And don't get me started on what's true and what isn't, or what's important and what isn't. :-)

Friday, May 02, 2008

East Germany

Unfortunately I left my camera cable at home, so I can't show you the Ossie-charm of my hotel room in Leipzig. The high point is the lonely cupboard with one (1) coffee cup and one (1) schnapps-glass. The view outside is also puzzling. Completely renovated jugend buildings alternate with derelict and abandoned ones. And then there are sprinklings of GDR-concrete here and there. And amidst the buildings, trees with budding leaves. The spring is about a month ahead of Finland.

So, Leipzig. Never been here before, didn't really know what to expect but it seems to be all here. And the hotel room is actually nice. The bathroom's been completely refurbed, along with most of the room and all the furniture, but there's some "gloom" under all this, sounds of past.

Our workshop and symposium starts tomorrow morning. The last two-three weeks have been riddled with technical difficulties and all sorts of obstacles, and so I needed to change my presentation plan. So, after promising so many times "never again", here I am again, still writing my presentation when the meeting is already about to start. Never again.

P.S. Oh, Deutsche Bahn is amazing. The new Berlin Hauptbahnhof is one of the most stunning buildings I've ever seen. No, absolutely the most stunning building I've seen. Inside, trains go criss cross in three levels, it's full of shops and restaurants and escalators and elevators and steel and glass... Stunning. I took the ICE, which was very comfortable. We briefly hit 200 km/h but most of the time we were rolling along at a leisurely 180 km/h across fields with forests of windmills. It takes an hour and 10 minutes to get from Berlin to Leipzig. I've also tried Berlin buses and Leipzig trams, along with Finnish trains and buses, so the day has been a public transport extravaganza. Oh, almost forgot, there was also the flight from Hki to Berlin. Rather not mention that, trains are much cooler.