May 30, 2011
by Annelise Riles

The Nightmare of Transparency

In a recent Business Week article, Hernando de Soto is once again peddling his simplistic view of property rights as the path to pure market transparency. He argues, to considerable journalistic and popular acclaim, that the problem with derivatives markets is simply that property rights are not sufficiently well defined and standardized.  Bring in good old fashion property law and related tools such as title registration, he argues, and the markets will magically clean up.

As I discuss at some length in my book, the proposal is preposterous from the point of view of anyone who knows anything about property law. Property rights are never clear in the way that non lawyers imagine them to be.  As I show with regard to actual cases of property claims in the derivatives markets, as is the case with ordinary property rights, there is tremendous room for interpretation, confusion, conflict and gamesmanship within the language of property law.

De Soto should know better.  He claims to have come upon his insist through field research, and I would venture that even a few casual conversations with any legal expert in the derivatives markets would reveal how property sets the stage for conflict of a different kind rather than bringing pure clarity to things.  But since I have laid out the problems with De Soto’s claim that property achieves transparency in the book, let me ask a different question instead: is transparency tout court always a good thing?

One of the painful rituals of daily life in Tokyo at the moment is the daily review of government statistics on radiation levels.  In response to complaints that it was not sufficiently transparent about radiation risks, the government is now drowning us in numbers.  There are readings taken by each city, each prefecture, and by the national government for each city and prefecture.  There are numbers for each kind of radiation–cesium, iodine, and so on.  Of course the numbers produced by the national and local governments rarely match up.  And we are given no explanation of these numbers since that would be the biased view of government officials–it is just purely transparent information. Truck loads and truck loads of it.

So we the citizens are left to ask ourselves every day how we translate these numbers into an answer to questions like, is it safe for my four year old to play outside today? Is it safe for me to drink the milk or the water? What are the odds of my dying of cancer as a result of my exposure to the rain this summer? And so on.

My husband and I both have PhDs in social scientific subjects and are used to working with data. And yet the deeper we try to dig into these numbers–to compare them for example against the safety standards set by international bodies–the more confused things become. First, it is as if just about every international organization, and every local data collecting body in Japan, has its own system of units.  Conversion between these units turns out to be basically impossible as they are apples and oranges, measuring different things. But some of the problem is simply the violence of probabilities. Learning for example that exposure increases cancer risk by a certain percentage tells you nothing about your own situation since it is based on averages, across global populations (is the average nuclear victim an eighty year old Swede or a twenty year old Bangladeshi?).  And in the case of nuclear accidents we have so little data anyway that those probabilities are probably best described as guesses.

But even though we know that these numbers tell us next to nothing, we can’t stop ourselves. The information is there, it is transparent, so we feel almost compelled to enter into it. Its analysis becomes the daily ritual of our worry.  Did iodine levels go up or down compared to yesterday? And what does that mean, anyway relative to how much iodine our child absorbed, or how much he can absorb?  Every day this analysis of the numbers ends with the same sick feeling in the stomach of total confusion, total lack of clarity about an issue of paramount importance to our family. I experience this daily ritual as its own kind of political violence.  It is as if this absurd cacophony of purely ordered data is taunting me, leaving me all the more exhausted and demoralized.

Now I realize this transparency nightmare seems quite far away from the wonders of property law de Soto would prescribe for the derivatives markets. Yet it is not so different in fact.  After all, market transparency, which is what he advocates, is just a matter of the availability of data. If the data is available, the theory goes, some smart people will make sense of it all. And yet data itself is only meaningful within a framework.  Our problem is that we lack a framework for analyzing the numbers because the people who produced the numbers themselves also lack a singular and coherent framework.  In that situation, the consumer of transparency is saddled with the absurd burden of making meaning–making something standard and comparable–out of what by definition is not standard.  This is often the case in the derivatives markets as well.  In the derivatives markets traders often dodge the pure impossibility of the task by just doing what everyone else is doing–using the same model, the same pricing tool as the next guy, even if we all know its limitations. That is called a herd mentality and we have seen its disastrous effects.

May 5, 2011
by Annelise Riles

Lecture at Wesleyan

On Monday I gave a public lecture at Wesleyan University about Collateral Knowledge. The audience was mainly humanists and critical theorists and the presentation was geared toward what the book might have to say to those audiences rather than to lawyers or regulators  Video of the event:

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May 1, 2011
by Annelise Riles
1 Comment

How can we better harness the insights of different disciplines to address market reform?

Last week we convened another meeting of our working group of economists, anthropologists, lawyers, psychologists and policy makers interested in how our disciplines could work together in new ways to solve market problems.  It is a very smart, high-powered group of creative people who truly have the best interest of the national and global economy at heart.  And the policy makers are brilliant, dedicated individuals who know how things work on the inside, and who think broadly about the issues.  Once again, our meeting was supported by the Tobin Project, as well as by the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture at Cornell Law School.

The theme this time was health care insurance reform and we did some hard thinking about what our disciplines could say, practically, about what kind of insurance exchanges might help different kinds of consumers make the best choices possible for them.


But there is another running conversation at these meetings about how the disciplines can be reconfigured to work better together in the future. The disciplinary truce worked out in the early twentieth century was a kind of cold war-like division of the territory: anthropologists study exotic others, sociologists study deviant groups at home, psychologists study individuals, economists study markets, and so on. Thank goodness that along the way we learned that all these elements are inter-related and that each of these disciplines has much to say about every aspect of life. So how else could they work together?


One model that is emerging from our meetings is a kind of production model, beginning with original insights and moving all the way to the incorporation of ideas into policy.  Eric Johnson, a distinguished psychologist teaching at the Columbia Business School, suggested that anthropologists could provide the insight (based on ethnographic research), economists could provide the models, and psychologists could provide the data (based on experiments)–and that we need data and numbers to convince policy makers.


Another model seems to be a model of internal change within fields.  Peter Spiegler, an economist at U Mass Boston and one of the most truly original scholars I have ever encountered, suggested that economics needs to start incorporating ethnography into its own method of research, rather than just taking insights (about trust, or reciprocity or whatever) from anthropology and modeling them in the traditional way.  I argued that anthropologists, conversely, need to learn to value simplicity as well as complexity, and to communicate openly and clearly and generously with people in government and in other fields, as economists and psychologists have learned to do.


There are a lot of things that infuriate me about anthropology and anthropologists.  But at the end of the day, some of our most basic insights are sorely lacking in the policy world and could make an enormous contribution to market reform.  Here are just a few obvious ones:

-Asking about the givens: noticing what is so important that it is just taken for granted by everyone, including perhaps even the researcher.  For example, at our meeting, we were deep into how to structure consumer choices about insurance and one anthropologist asked “why do we value choice so much in the first place?”

-thinking about the global dimensions of even the most domestic policy problems, and thinking comparatively about policy problems. For example, what could we learn about health reform from Japan, or Singapore, or South Africa?

-thinking about the range of actors and interests involved in law reform.  For exaple once a law like the health care act is passed the story is not over–it has to be implemented by armies of regulators, interpreted in practice by physicians, drug companies and insurers, used by consumers…how do all these people come together in practice?

-reflexivity–realizing that academics are part of the picture and bear some responsibility for what we advocate for, and its consequences, intended and unintended.

Insight rather than data–ultimately ethnography gives you a picture, and a story, and helps you to to become aware of the aspects of a problem you may have ignored altogether in constructing your model or your policy proposal.  Private companies have grasped the value of this kind of insight and are employing ethnographers in large numbers to do market research and study organizational culture within their companies but we have a ways to go before it is adopted as broadly in policy circles.


What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of each discipline in thinking about market reform? How do you think fields like economics, anthropology and law could better work together to address market reform?


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