Indifference, racism and violence: what comes after justice for George Floyd?

by Ramiro4 min read12th Jun 2020No comments


[This a translation of a text published in the blog of our EA group in Brazil, with some adaptions for a broader context; but all the opinions here expressed are my own. Thanks to Gavin Taylor for his revision and comments]

TL;DR: Black lives matter - it doesn't matter where they live. Following this idea to its ultimate conclusions, we should recognize that, just as criminal justice discriminates against minorities, our societies and cultures place less value on those living on the periphery.

For more than two weeks now, protests against racism and police violence have been spreading around the world, incited by the death of George Floyd – an African-American who was strangled to death by police officers and the video that went viral. In Brazil, the issue gained further definition by the Supreme Court's decision to restrict police operations in Rio's slums during the Covid-19 epidemic – operations that have already resulted in at least 434 deaths this year. Let me ask what has probably already crossed everyone's mind: What will happen next?

The protests have some factors reminiscent of the demonstrations in 2013, when "the giant woke up" in Brazil; they are analogous to the Arab Spring of 2010-2011, which also began with a viral video showing the shocking death of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself in protest against the Tunisian government (as highlighted in our post on the book The Public Revolt). The Arab Spring brought regime changes and instability to North Africa and the Middle East (including the ongoing civil war in Libya); in turn, Brazilian demonstrations in 2013 marked the emergence of movements and personalities who would later dominate the national political scene. Our current scenario is even more delicate: we are at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, during an unprecedented economic crisis and political disputes which, to use a neutral euphemism, are simply bizarre - to say the least. So it seems quite sensible to ask what is our "end of game" here; even if the situation is radically uncertain, we are more likely to regret it if we have no idea where we want to go and how to get there.

My suggestion is to focus on the ideas that black lives matter and that we need to reduce police violence - and lead them to their ultimate consequences; the problem is that these consequences may be counterintuitive for many. First, black lives matter anywhere in the world - in Minnesota, Alagoas or Congo. So why does the suffering of people in the periphery of the world not attract even a fraction of the attention we give to violence and discrimination in our own countries? Second, evidence matters, incentives matter: if we want to solve or reduce the problem of police violence, we need to act across the whole scope of criminal justice; starting with the obvious: criminal policy should be evidence-based, with the explicit goal of effectively preventing and deterring violence and suffering, and not of satisfying the desire for revenge, nor people’s psychological longing for retribution. In the following text, I’ll limit myself to discussion on the former idea; however, there’s also a lot to be said about the latter, and I think one should start by checking the CEA’s Groups remarks.

Racism in life expectancy

Today, the World's estimated life expectancy at birth in 2019 is 73.2 years (there is some discrepancy between estimates) in general, and 70.8 for males. Now compare it with the following life expectancies, in years, compiled from Nexos, Rede Brasil Atual and the World Bank

It's hard to know where to start here. First, let's emphasize the good news, the progress that has occurred in most of these populations; it would likely have been even greater had it not been for the AIDS epidemic - which, for instance, starkly decreased life expectancy in South Africa. But in general, life expectancy more than doubled in a century; and poor countries are improving fast, as highlighted in the book Factfulness - these societies have the highest economic growth rates and human development index increases presently observed.

Second, bad news; life expectancy, especially for men, has three "turbulent moments": a) from 0 to 5 years (i.e., infant mortality), b) adult youth, from 15 to 30 years (possibly a reflection of risky behaviour: traffic, violence, alcohol drug abuse), c) over 60 years (a consequence of ageing). Discrimination and, above all, poverty contribute to all these factors everywhere: they restrict access to information, education and health, as well as time available for personal and family care - and increase the likelihood of living in places without adequate sanitary conditions and with gang conflicts.

Take a world map and notice how development and poverty (as measured by the inequality adjusted human development index - the HDI-Gini) occur in geographical clusters.

There are distinct explanations for that:

(a) confounder: neighboring countries are culturally similar, and (according to Acemoglu & Robinsons’s Why Nations Fail) culture influences institution influences economy ;

(b) climate: although I’ve seldom seen economists discussing it, they do realize that tropical countries (with the exception of some city-states such as Singapore, Brunei, Hong Kong and Qatar) lag behind in economic development - perhaps because climate affects culture (reduction ad institutionalism), or agricultural production, or the prevalence of fatal contagious diseases such as malaria, schistosomiasis and pneumonia;

(c) catch-up effects: an innovation in one country leads to its development - and then, thanks to trade and foreign investment (and decreasing marginal returns), it is exported to (or copied by) other countries, which "catch up" with the developed country.

In addition, notice how countries are often more likely to offer support and solidarity to nations with which they have close ties, such as their neighbors (see how Europe responded together to the pandemic, even if some countries were affected more than others), who can offer emergency goods and services in the event of temporary difficulties. On the one hand, this policy of “good neighbor” is justified by a basic tit-for-tat notion of reciprocity. But we should not think that, for this reason alone, our neighbors are more deserving of attention - that their suffering is morally worse than that of distant people.

Now take the map again, and look at those tropical countries, with low-productivity agricultural zones, terrible endemic diseases, governance problems (a euphemism for dysfunctional or oppressive regimes); which, instead of of a history as trading partners of developed nations, have a legacy of colonial exploitation and violent wars with their neighbors. In these places, tragedies occur that we rarely hear about. Think, for example, about how the prejudices of the British Empire affected its actions during the Great Famines in Ireland and, a hundred years later, in Bengal. Amartya Sen has remarked that democracies with a free press do not suffer from great famines - because, on hearing of the disaster, the public demands government measures.

Attention is a scarce resource: for example, if we focus only on the headlines of the day, we may end up forgetting that the coronacrisis and a plague of locusts can cause a similar disasters this year.

The economics of attention

In 2018, there were an estimated 228 million cases of malaria, with 405,000 deaths (94% in African countries). In 2017, long before the pandemic, 2.5 million died of pneumonia - 800,000 children; the area most affected is Central Africa. Recently, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a new outbreak of Ebola has been detected; in the same country, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has denounced the massacre of thousands of civilians. In fact, this region has been the scene of ethnic and political violence since the 1990s, when there were the Great Wars of the Congo, killing more than 5 million people (estimated by excess deaths). But most people have never heard of it. Similarly, if the refugee crisis in Europe impacts world politics, the fact that Uganda is home to more than 1.4 million refugees (mainly from DRC, Sudan and South Sudan) is largely ignored. These things rarely appear in your newspaper, let alone on Twitter, so it may be interesting to check out current Wikipedia events from time to time.

All black lives matter. And how we express this “mattering” also matters. We should use this dramatic moment to draw attention for this fact; people can contribute directly to mitigating the suffering enhanced or caused by discrimination and indifference - by working with or donating to philanthropic organizations like GiveWell, The Life You Can Save, Against Malaria Foundation, and Give Directly. We can also influence others - and so improve the prospects for refugees and the international aid budget.