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Blog Archive June 2014

The Online Sleuths and the Cold Case

Mostly criminal justice has been assigned to law enforcement authorities. There has always been some exceptions, where outsiders supplement the public officials’ task in apprehending law breakers.

Three such private actors come to mind: Vigilantes, bounty-hunters, and sleuths.

For centuries, members of these three groups have patrolled the darker paths that remain largely invisible to the ordinary, law abiding citizen. From Jack the Ripper to the Boston Bomber, private citizens have sought to assist in uncovering the killer. Traditionally, in the old analogue world, the private actors put time on the street, using up shoe leather talking to people in neighbor haunts, taking in oral information, following up until they had enough information to establish a probable location where the offender could be found. While their working methods were roughly similar, their motives differed. And revealing a person’s motives is usually a good way to tell a story that people can understand and relate to.

Vigilantes are motivated by personal or ideological reasons to bring a criminal to justice. A vigilante is emotionally driven. He or she is more likely to go along with street justice and dispense with due process.

A bounty-hunter, in contrast, has a more straightforward reason—his or her motive is money. They deliver a criminal to law enforcement officers in return for receiving a cash reward and what the authorities do with the criminal is up to them as the bounty-hunter walks away counting his cash.

Professional or licensed private investigators or sleuths undertake cases on behalf of clients who might wish a wayward bank teller is caught with their hand in the till. They aren’t motivated to go after a wrong-doer in their capacity as sleuth. It involves work, it can involve danger, and most people seek to minimize the risk of harm unless they can see the cash up front.

Amateur digital sleuths who work online to solve crimes that law enforcement officials have let fall between the cracks. This is a new category, and appears to fall somewhere between gaming and support groups. It is hard to peg all of the sleuths in this category as it is still evolving and taking in members from the traditional brigade of privateers who work the edges of the criminal justice system.

Vigilantes, for the most part, tend to be amateurs fired up by anger and hated. That fuels the emotional rocket for awhile. Though true-believers can burn up a lot of nuclear fuel before exploding into a white dwarf. Bounty-hunters and sleuths have the appeal of being cool, rationale, Sherlock Holmes cerebral types who through deliberative, clever, deductive reasoning solve the mystery that leads to the wrong doer. From online feuds and flame wars, the amateur digital sleuths have their irrational, emotional side, as well as their Dr. Spock, never-understood-emotional-response types. A CBC News report titled Madeleine McCann to Jeffery Boucher: Web sleuths quest for the missing

Private citizens spend untold hours online trying to solve crimes — does it help police? about online sleuthing, mentions that empathy for the families of the victim is another motivator.

Laura Miller, who writes for Salon,  reviewed Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. The book comes out 1st July 2014. The Skeleton Crew goes into the online sleuthing community to report on how the digital

Miller writes about The Skeleton Crew and the personal drama that arises from online sleuthing. There is, in Miller’s words,  “a methodological schism over how to interact with law enforcement and the families of the lost. Halber divides the two groups into the ‘mavericks,’ who prefer to proceed swiftly and as they deem fit, and the ‘trust builders,’ who insist on deliberating as a group before approaching officials or the bereaved.”

This is an interesting premise but I am not certain The Skeleton Crew is for me. The book is a series of anecdotes that illustrate the lives, ordeals, successes and drama of online investigators. In other words, as told from the lives of actual investigation as opposed to analysis of big data to see what patterns emerge from the activities of this community. Anecdotes, no matter how entertaining, revealing, and persuasive are not evidence. They are a story about a story. The end.

Miller’s review got me started thinking about the implications of three traditional categories being ultimately disrupted by a digital community that wouldn’t have existed 10 years ago. Halber’s book is coming at a very good time. Others are discussing the growth, meaning and use of the online sleuthing community. If Wikipedia can bring in hundreds of experts to work for free to patrol the factual accuracy of information, there must be thousands of people who a lifetime of movies, TV, and novels behind them to give them a sense that: a) they can have fun; b) they can meet other people who share their interests; c) they can benefit the public; d) they can obtain status in the eyes of others by solving cases that have stumped the police.

A cup of coffee in hand, and a burning to desire to find a murderer or kidnapper without leaving the comfort of one’s home was sufficient to attract the attention of the BBC. If you want to become a digital sleuth, where should you start? At the start, you are likely going to be looking to solve a ‘cold’ case. That’s an old, unsolved case that just won’t go away and the police, at least from the public’s perception, have put it in the unsolved file.

There are a number of sleuthing websites like Websleuths.com DoeNetwork Reddit’s Bureau of Investigations, NamUs.gov and Unsolved Mysteries. Inside of these websites, you’ll discover digital communities of people who devote time and effort, sharing information to solve kidnappings and murders. The BBC also know the danger of vigilante justice, and sites the Boston Bomber case, where the wrong person was accused of involvement.

What do the professionals say about this development?

Professor David Wall of Durham University, is quoted as saying that he “believes online communities can be hugely beneficial in some cases, but the temptation to get involved in more serious crimes is a recipe for disaster.” Joe Giacalone, a NYPD retired Detective Sergeant, with many years of experience, worried about the public getting involved in old, unsolved cases. “‘As an investigator, where you’re dealing with evidentiary issues and things, you don’t want to have people poking into the case,’” he says, adding, ‘You gotta remember, you have anonymous people sitting behind keyboards, you don’t know exactly – you could have somebody with an axe to grind.’” He’d never seen a case solved by someone working through one of the online sleuthing communities.

Professor Wall is joined by Nic Groombridge, a senior sociology lecturer at St. Mary’s University in London, England, who told CBC News,  “During the Jack the Ripper case, one of the problems the police had wasn’t a lack of leads — it was too many leads.”

The British, through their Association of Chief Police Officers take a slightly different view from Giacalone, saying, “” [Wrong quote repeated from above, you should have the Brit one handy.]  There are a fair number of lawyer’s demarcations as to the boundaries that private sleuths must recognize. It is a rather nice touch to use property law concepts to define the police as the owners of a criminal case. As former property law professor, the police are alerting outsiders that trespass is something to avoid. The case belongs to them. Be careful or you might be in trouble with the police and saying you were only trying to help won’t likely be a defense.

Where there is a niches that appear to welcome these outside communities it is with medical examiners who have skeletal remains and no clue as to the identity of the person. There have been some breakthroughs in identifying skeletal remains. There are a couple of larger questions looming in the near future—is online sleuthing a passing fashion at this stage of development? Big Data is developing at a speed that is difficult to assess (without metadata to help assess big data—you start to see a pattern not unlike one Escher’s recursive birds or frogs). My best guess is solving crimes turns on the amount, quality, provenance of data, and it is only a matter of time before the amateurs will be way outside the information silos where it is stored and analyzed.

Will the idea of police ownership of criminal cases gain more support as police forces hire experts and development specialized algorithms to search through vast amounts of data looking for clues? The probable answer is the police monopoly over cases will increase over time. And a monopoly is a property owners best friend.

Meanwhile, there are online scheduled meet ups and book clubs for online amateur sleuths. You’ll need to do a bit of sleuthing to find a meet up near where you live.

Posted: 7/3/2014 8:49:39 PM 


Predicting Future Crime With Big Data

Historically criminals were hauled off to the gallows for what today would be considered minor offenses. The rope was slipped around the neck of the convicted pickpocket as well as the convicted killer. Both fell through the same trapdoor. The executioner worked his art without discrimination.

The New York Times  correspondent Sandra Blakeslee reminded us that in 1765, John Ward was hanged for stealing a watch and a hat.

The historical cases reveal a very different world of criminals and law enforcement officials. The authorities have been reactive. They’ve had to wait until a crime has been reported before springing into action. Catching someone who violated the law meant rounding up witnesses and gathering evidence that implicated a wrongdoer.

The old policing model has very little to say about the future. It functioned on what was known in the present. A victim lodged a report. It also rested on the hunch or intuition of the police. Experienced police had knowledge about neighborhoods. Though that information, in the large scheme of things, was bound to be incomplete and tainted by bias. Until recently, the literature of crime followed the Sherlock Holmes model of a logical, clever and objective detective who outsmarted the villain.

We inhabit a very different world now. Not only do most countries no longer hang watch and hat stealers, they are using Big Data to predict geographical areas where crime may, on probability, be more likely to occur and with that information police can step up patrols. We have entered the machine age of law enforcement. The old model is in the process of a radical change as Big Data arms the police with predictive models and that takes policing into the future where crime hasn’t yet been committed. Such a change allows for development of policies of crime suppression for crimes that might be committed.

Los Angeles police have managed to reduce burglaries (33%), violent crimes (21%) and property crimes (12%) by adapting software developed to predict earthquakes and aftershocks.  Eighty years of crime that included 13 million criminal acts were fed into the mathematical model that used the data to predict the areas where crime was most likely to occur. It seems the model yielded good results. New crimes are constantly added to the database, and the LAPD officers who were at first resistant to taking orders from a mathematical model have become true believers.

Chicago police have gone beyond hot spots to using Big Data to target people most likely to commit a crime in the future. There is mapping of crime hot spot areas of the city and the mapping of social networks is the logical extension. “Commander Steven Caluris, who also works on the CPD’s predictive policing program, put it a different way. ‘If you end up on that list, there’s a reason you’re there.’” In the future, the map of your social network may be used by the law enforcement agencies to assign you a probability statistic as your future criminal activity. Like a travel ban list for air travel, you may never know what is behind the inclusion of your name on a hot list. Florida is going down the same road.

Professors at Rutgers’ School of Criminal Justice have received grants to develop software called Risk Terrain Modeling Diagnostics Utility.  Here’s a glimpse of the future of Big Data in policing:

“The National Institute of Justice recently awarded two grants, totaling nearly $1 million, to conduct RTM research in seven U.S. cities: Newark; New York City; Chicago; Arlington, Texas; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Glendale, Ariz.; and Kansas City, Mo. Researchers from Rutgers’ School of Criminal Justice and John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York are conducting the studies using the RTMDx Utility. The Rutgers software is currently being used in the top four U.S. markets: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. It is being adopted by industry and law enforcement offices in many countries, such as Australia and Canada, and major foreign cities such as Paris and Milan.”

The Australian Crime Commission has also funded a big data project. The goals is to use to “data mining to trawl through data sets looking for patterns and potentially predicting emerging crime issues and trends across the country.”

The promise is that patterns emerging from the big data will allow the police to identify areas where resources are needed. This has the advantage of consolidating resources in the areas where crime is most likely. It is being sold on the basis of efficiency. Like Wall Street brokers, the police have entered the world of big data with the goal of assessing risks. For a broker, it is getting in and out of a stock so as to make a profit. For the police they have structured data that predicts what types of crimes are on the increase or decrease for a given geographical area. The police study the big data looking for trends. And like a broker, the police having identified a trend, can allocate necessary resources to deal with the kinds of crime that are predicted from the data.

The BBC reported on Big Data in crime prevention, noting the need to accumulate masses of data about an area in order to predict crime trends. Making connections between crime and connections, and those that happen across international boundaries leads to unraveling complex networks of individuals. The BBC report shows how far we’ve come since the hanging of John Ward in 1765. Big Data allows a corporation to detect who on the inside is communicating with whom on the outside and to look for patterns that suggests an employee may be leaking information. It also allows the military tactical advantage in the field as Big Data is constantly fed into analytical models updating positions, movements, and communications on the ground.

Philip K. Dick predicted in The Minority Report that the State will evolve a system to predict crimes before they are carried out. The Big Data is used to define ‘hot spots’ where crime is most likely to occur. In the future, before you buy that house or condo, you might want to ask the real estate agent about whether the property is within a crime hot spot!

One should bear in mind that we are very early days into collecting and mining Big Data. The dynamics of technological change make predictions in the medium and far future nearly impossible. The reality is that we are headed down a road for future decision-making about the mechanism of the criminal justice system and we don’t know where it will lead us. We only have best guesses and cognitive biases such as best-case scenario.  We run the real risk of an information infrastructure that will build a criminal justice system that surrenders our notions of free will and liberty.

In the future, John Ward may be hanged before he steals the watch and hat, doomed by Big Data, which assigns a 98% probability of future criminal conduct. Or if he had a 98% probability of being a serial killer, would you agree that he should be arrested and sent to prison? On the Big Data road map, this might be a destination. We have set out on a long journey and along the way we lose much of what we value as individuals for a class of elites who have most to gain in a new culture based on total security.

Posted: 6/26/2014 8:56:05 PM 


Spotlights and Flashlights

Life is messy. So are component parts of life: our politics, the environment, economics, and social relationships. History teaches a valuable lesson that there is something inherently unstable about our world, and we are forever seeking ways to reach an equilibrium to stabilize it. Outcomes we wish to see happening are uncertain to occur. The utopian view is that there is an ultimate solution to fixing the mess. Others argue there is no fix and we must learn to adjust and live according to the limitations of what we know and can know.

This causes anxiety like watching a PGA golf tournament and the professional who is on the green but 20 feet from the 7th hole sends the ball on its way. We hold our breath. Is the putt too soft or too hard? You simply wait and watch with everyone else.

In politics, those with the putter claim the ball will drop. Even when it misses the hole, they claim the ball dropped. Ambiguity trails us like a shadow. There is rarely an objective moment, unlike golf, where you don’t need to rely on anything other than your own eyes to know whether the shot succeeded.

Our political life isn’t a game of golf. We can never escape the velocity of doubt whether the politicians are using the right club, lining up correctly over the ball, or accurately reporting the trajectory of their shot in relationship to the hole.

We live in a world where a large number of people exchange their doubt and anxiety for a promise to deliver a more certain, stable, ordered and predictable world than the actual one they live in. That is costly, as politicians must rely on various illusory devices and tricks to conjure up this illusion with enough credibility that they substitute reality for a replacement story that creates an alternative reality.

We are willing to pay relatively high price in the reality stakes for answers that allow us individually and collectively to believe what we are told is true. The illusion of Understanding (see my essay on the Illusion of Understanding.) is easier to maintain and the tacit conspiracy to pretend the illusion is real allows us to move on from an issue and spend our cognitive resources elsewhere.

There is a constant tension over the official story between the individual and her group, and between her group and other groups. The group may be a circle of friends, relatives, colleagues, sports team or a religious, secular, or political party. We draw much comfort in shared, collective beliefs and we draw our identity from our group association.  Mostly we place group solitary and individual identity as a higher priority than understanding the complexity where the truth is difficult to detect with certainty. Our group, returning to the golf metaphor, always makes a hole in one, while those in rival groups are lost in the tall grass, looking for their ball as the night closes in.

How do we resolve this dilemma that arises as we move between the goals of group grooming and truth-finding?

We have two basic models to work with: Insubordination and Challenge. Each of them offers a separate vision on how best to work through the messy, hard problems that confront us. Sometimes these two very different systems work in harmony, side-by-side, with each delegated a role; sometimes, one model is ascendant and marginalizes the other.

The Spotlight Culture

The first model that controls how we perceive reality rests on a system of subordination. Officials inside an institution such as an orchestra or movie set work along a chain of command. Orders are passed down the chain of command. The orders are to be obeyed and not to be challenged by subordinates. The film director (he has a producer breathing down his neck) or conductor (has a wealthy patron breathing down his neck) is in charge. Despite certain limitations, his word is the law of what the performance will be.

The job of film director or orchestra conduct is to avoid chaos. So long as everyone he leads follows his direction, he can deliver a certain quality of performance. The price of a subordination system is the agreement for all involved to accept submission to a disciplined hierarchy where each person’s role is defined and the person giving the orders possesses the position and rank to justify his subordinate to act without questioning the order.

Officers in the military expect their subordinates to follow orders, and they expect to follow the orders of those officers who rank above them in the chain of command. This is fundamental to the culture of the military. Subordination systems share values in common such as authority, loyalty, honor, respect and continuity. Whether it is the military, the police, a court system, a sports team, a factory assembly line, a film set, or an orchestra, there are subordination values used to co-ordinate the work among a group of people.

An orchestra where the first violinist stops the performance and challenges the conductor’s interpretation of a movement would change our experience of music. Whatever the private feelings of the first violinist or the cello player, these are not expressed and the conductor’s authority is unchallenged as the orchestra performs.

In other words, criticism, dissent, difference of opinion give way to the rules of subordination otherwise the performance by the orchestra collapses, a lower court overrules an appellant court, the quarterback’s call is reversed by the right tackle, and a sergeant decides against his officer’s command to advance on an enemy position. All of these reversals happen now and again and the person who makes such a challenge is guilty of insubordination. Treason, betrayal, faithlessness and disloyalty are express the stigma attached to such insubordination.

If the conductor had absolute power, he might seek to expand his authority to include what is appropriate for poetry, ballet, literature, drama, TV, computer games and film and impose an artistic vision for all of the arts. That is unlikely to happen. There are too many different visions, tastes, traditions, and messiness for any one person to control. Any attempt at such a command and control system would drive artists underground. In the arts, like in science, we assume that experimenting and testing is a good thing to be encouraged. Note that some of it will be a dead end and without value to the artist or society, but that is only discovered by allowing the space to fail.

The spotlight culture is a place where truth is manufactured and distributed to the consumer. The finished product is complete, reliable, and ready for immediate consumption. There are no alternatives to challenge the truth in the spotlight culture.

Flashlight Culture

The flashlight model (this is idealized) is based on the individual’s right to criticize, challenge or question authority, policy, motives, efficiency, or outcomes by those in power. Journalists, scholars, academics, NG0s, whistleblowers, and outside experts are obvious players in the flashlight culture. The flashlight has also become a symbol in protest and demonstrations as the picture below from the Ukraine illustrates. People have a huge desire to see the hidden and buried story. Those who seek information of activity occurring behind the scenes of power rely on the flashlight. These lights are pointed at the dark areas well outside the spotlight and act to keep government officials honest and transparent.  In the case of someone like Edward Snowden the flashlight is on the magnitude of a supernova. Socrates urged people to ask questions as a way of shining a light into darkness and to ignore the facile answers found in the spotlight.

A flashlight culture assumes we share similar flawed knowledge and the same cognitive biases that distort reality unless corrected. Western parliamentary styled political systems rest on the opposite, an opposition challenging the government of the day to explain and justify their decisions. The individual challenges the group leader because he or she is one of us and knows no more than anyone else about the complex network of information.

Unlike an orchestra, the prime minister, unlike a conductor, answers his or her critics with explanations rather than with threats or suppression. The role of the opposition is to make the conductor account for his choices. The purpose of shining a light on evidence that is contrary to the government’s narrative is to expose weakness of policy or execution of policy. The motives of flashlight holders may not be pure. They may be exposing facts for political gain at the expense of the government but such exposure works to the favor of the general population which benefits from  a correction in policy or a change in personnel to carry out the policy.

The encouragement of challenging authority is what has given us a robust scientific method. The most junior member of a research team is not disqualified from overturning the theory of the most respected member of the scientific community. The theory, in other words, is separate from the personality supporting it. But we have difficulty distinguishing attacks on theory as attacks on the person who supports the theory. The question in science isn’t, what does this critic have against the person who supports the String Theory, but what evidence does he or she have to refute the theory. In non-scientific areas such as politics, we are still a long way from isolating policy for critical analysis from the personality, background and reputation of the person who has proposed the policy.

We can also accept that the challenge-the-authority paradigm isn’t always appropriate in all circumstances. An orchestra, military, police, or football team, to name a few examples, depends on subordination to work effectively as a cohesive unit. The question is how and who decides what is the right place for one system to operate and claim legitimacy over and above the other?

The flashlight culture exposes flaws and defects in the spotlight cultural truth products. The flashlight illumination exposes dangers, risks, omissions, and distortions. Truth becomes stripped of illusions in the process.

Fitting Spotlights and Flashlights into a Unified Lightning System

Every culture has a different interpretation on how to fit these pieces together, and who gets the job, and how those with power are selected, controlled and discharged.  How best to light the political stage is a question every country answers in its own way. The reality is we need to find the right combination of subordination and challenge. Last week, I examined the BBC 2012 top-ten list of the largest employers in the world. (Crunching Big Number, Understanding Short Lists.) From the American Defense Department to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the ability to scale huge operations relies on implementing an effective subordination system.  A ‘soft’ subordination system explains the presence of Wal-Mart and McDonalds on the same list. Co-ordination on a large scale is impossible without an order and command structure, where insubordination is punished.

The question is whether the Spotlight or subordination system, an absolute one, where flashlights are confiscated and flashlight people’s action are criminalized, can operate effectively at the political and government level. Can a government be run along the lines of an orchestra with a conductor choosing the music, time, length, place of performance and exclude any other orchestra from performing and jail music critics who claim the cello player made several mistakes and the piano needed tuning?

Looking around the world from Thailand, Egypt, Syria, and the Ukraine, the old consensus on the right mix of spotlight and flashlight culture has broken down. The attempt to contain instability, the messiness of life, leads to fear, and to banish fear is to embrace subordination. There is a belief that salvation rests in choosing the right conductor and letting him run the whole performance. Challengers to the vision are seen as enhancing fear and instability. They are the first violinist who rises and objects to the choice of music. The pendulum swings to subordination. But the nature of pendulum is to swing back, too. In time, the flirtation with expanding the subordination model into the political realm will reinforce a historical lesson about the nature of governing.

As the flashlight culture has gone online, the means of shutting it down are difficult. The digital flashlight exposes hypocrisy, deception, half-truths, cover-ups in a very public way. This is inconvenient and embarrassing for those who banish flashlights and wish to return people’s attention back to the spotlight.

Throwing your opposition in jail or send them fleeing into the mountains and jungle or exile, may work in the short-term, and you can control the performance. But in the long term, people who want classical music will understand they need to accommodate a space for those who love jazz, hip-hop, pop, Hollywood show tunes, and even for those repulsive noise traps called rap, country and Korean boy bands. Politics is a noisy place. When one director plays only one tune you can be sure people will sooner or later find a way to switch the channel. To return to our lighting metaphor, the amount of repression required to neutralize and co-op its flashlight holders would turn the world against those in standing in the spotlight.

Posted: 6/19/2014 8:51:29 PM 


Crunching Big Numbers, Understanding Short Lists

Give a writer some facts, numbers or basic information and ask him to use it to tell a story. See what happens. What kind of story does he tell?  Is it plausible? Is it true?

Most of the time we unearth information from personal experience and observation. Other times we stumble over information sent by others that stimulates our imagination.

A friend* sent me a link to a top ten list of the world’s largest employers. I immediately saw a story. One told in numbers. As the impact of Big Data filters into our daily lives, you can expect more storytellers to mine these huge information warehouses to cull stories.

Let me explain the kind of story to expect in the future.

Mathematics conceals all kinds of interesting stories about how societies, economies, and governments are entangled. The language of numbers opens information doors to understanding the complexity of these relations. When we examine the numbers, we can draw conclusions about the dynamic relationship of private and public sectors within cultures and across cultural boundaries.

This is an essay about economic and political structures, allocation of power, concentration of resources, and how power is projected inside a political system. It is also an essay about how top ten lists influence our view of reality.

I’ve become suspicious of all the lists: top ten, top 50, or top 500. One reason is all of these lists share in common an implicit promise of completeness. The purpose of a list is to close off ignorance, which is ringed by information presented. It is as if a list has a roundness of knowledge that deflects our lack of understanding, knowledge or awareness. Lists create an illusion of knowledge at best and at their worst promote a lie or deception that doubt has been addressed and answered. The main danger of lists is they seduce us not only by the false promise of completeness by also by the allure of simplicity. A list masks the higher level of complexity it closes off.

When you examine any list you might think of playing chess in a dark room where you can’t clearly see the board or pieces. You know there are 32 pieces and 64 squares as part of the game. The average top ten list you read is addictive because you are playing in the dark like the rest of us and want the edge of knowing that you’ve discovered that what amounts to 10 moves will show you how the game is won. In the final part of the essay, I have a look at how difficult it is to play chess in the dark with lists with your cheat sheet to victory.

A list: The Top 10 Largest Employers in the World

Work is an essential component of any economy, whether based on capitalism, socialism or any other ideology designed to govern the business of extracting resources and energy, and distributing and allocating products and services. An employee’s ‘work’ is carried out under the authority and supervision of an employer. The employer may be the government; or it may be a private company. One way to understand any national system is to ask who are its largest employers. Identifying the major employers and the enterprises it controls tells a great deal about a country’s values, politics, beliefs, and policies.

If you were to draw a list of the world’s largest employers, including public and private, what would you expect to find on that list?

In 2012 the BBC produced a top ten list of the largest employers.

(Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_employers )

In 2012, 30% of the world’s largest employers came from the ‘private enterprise’ sector. 70% were ‘state enterprises’ or government workers (though we don’t often think of soldiers as government workers that is indeed what they are). Leaving aside what the figures suggest about India where the Indian state railway has more employees than the Indian army, my attention is on the ‘big’ employers in the US and China. These two countries, with three employers each in the top-ten list, comprise 60% of the big employer list for 2012.

Military Employees

Take the US Department of Defense. There are “2.13 million active duty soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and civilian workers, and over 1.1 million National Guardsmen and members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Reserves. The grand total is just over 3.2 million servicemen, servicewomen, and civilians.” (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Department_of_Defense ) Private contractors are no longer a niche but viewed as part of the total military force. (Source:  http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R43074.pdf ) It is difficult to source the role of private contractors in the PLA. It is enough to note that the two top positions are military organizations organized, equipped, maintained and deployed by the government, with, at least on American data, a healthy percentage of private contractors part of the enterprise and who are supplied by private companies.

The US population in 2012 was 312.8 million (Source:  for China it was 1.26 billion people.) That results in  1.023% of the total population were employed by the US military.

In contrast, the military footprint in China works out to 0.1825% of its population. Thus in roughly population terms there was a huge disparity in the size of the military in comparison to the size of the relative populations. America’s military employees are 5.6 times greater than China in terms of total population. Based on the BBC statistics, in terms of military to military comparison of numbers, in 2012 the US military was about 39% larger than the Chinese.

Roughly 143 millions were employed in the US in 2012. (Source: http://www.marketplace.org/topics/economy/visual-history-us-workforce-1970-2012 ), which works out to 2.2377% of the total work force being US Department of Defense employees. In 2012, China’s workforce reached 764.2 million and its military personnel was 0.30096% of this workforce. (Source: http://www.statista.com/topics/1317/employment-in-china/ ) In terms of comparing overall employment numbers between the two countries, the disparity between those employed by the military indicates that the US military as a percentage of the total work force is 7.44 times larger than the Chinese work force.

The statistics reveal something about the presence of the military employment footprint in the population and the workforce of the country. Size matters for a lot of reasons including politics and economics, not to mention the social component from having a large number of people in uniform. The military has a particular ‘culture’ based on rank, duty, discipline, honour and authority. Profitability doesn’t appear as part of this culture. Its primary duty (some may disagree) is to project power in order to instill fear, which will cause adversaries to bend to the will of political establishment in charge of the military.

What may come as a surprise is that Wal-Mart, owned by one family, employs almost as many employees as China’s People’s Liberation Army. And if Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s were to form an alliance, their combined employees would outnumber the entire American military with a significant number of employees left to take over part of the Chinese military as well.

In other words, the world’s two largest private sector employers have under their umbrella more employees than the world’s largest military. When you start to register the power employers have to influence the attitudes and values of their employees (not only the military runs boot camp for new recruits), the political influence of such employers’ wealth would attract the attention of politicians and their campaign staff. Beyond this obvious risk of system policy being wealth driven, there are other, deeper implications to consider.

Private Enterprise Employers

Wal-Mart and McDonald’s share, in a manner of speaking, certain similarities with military culture: there are no unions, recruits are assigned largely routine, frontline jobs that take stamina and discipline, they have uniforms, codes and little prospect of mobility up the chain of command. They are canon fodder for the elite. They are also paid less than soldiers.

Wal-Mart is a dystopia vision of what a peacetime military might look like if it had different uniforms and grunts were assigned to patrol aisles of merchandise with the mission of maintaining order and security. McDonald’s, like the US military, has bases established all over the world, siphoning money to shareholders in return for distributing dubious foodstuff with a dodgy health record and a tendency to make regular diners obese.

The average Wal-Mart grunt earns $15,576 per year or 13% less paid to a military private.

These two huge US employment giants weren’t created by an act of God or evolved from nature. Their corporate growth and success was largely luck, which in retrospect, we explain in stories about brilliant leadership. Myths are created to support the conclusion that their rise was inevitable. American exceptionalism has its privatized counterpart of this myth. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s were never destined to become the 3rd and 4th largest employer in the world by 2012. In fact, each company emerged in the domestic US market as a result of an ecological system comprised of culture, history, values, and laws, and like that if you changed the variables everything might have turned out quite differently. And their corporate success can be attributed, in part, to the protective umbrella of the US military which was funded by all taxpayers (including Wal-Mart and McDonald’s employees).

Another thought is, this private army of soldiers serving the domestic consumer appetites for food, gadgets, and aisles stocked fire-ladder high with consumer goods, is itself protected against intruders from abroad and can enforce its presence in the intruders backyard by using the military. Guns protect existing markets and they open new markets. That’s why the military is so important for a country on an economic march, whether grabbing resources, or opening new consumer markets.

Compensation Disparity

The top ten list of the largest employers presents an opportunity to compare compensation paid to for those at the top of management with their counterparts in other sectors and the disparity between the top manager with the medium pay of a worker employed by that employer. If you want to know why Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century with evidence of huge income and wealth disparity has struck a chord, a good place to start is an examination of the US military and Wal-Mart pay.


The salary of the Chairman of the Joint Chief Staff is $20,263.50 a month, and that of a private in the army is $1,467.00 per month. The Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff makes roughly fourteen times as much as a private in the army.  That’s right. 14 times is what separates the top solider from the one pulling the trigger on the frontline. The army pay range from top to bottom is closer to a Denmark or Norway than to the big employers inside the world of private enterprise in the US.

Not only is the Wal-Mart grunt paid 13% than a private in the army, the CEO of Wal-Mart is paid 1,034 times the median salary of a Wal-Mart worker. (Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/29/walmart-ceo-pay_n_2978180.html)The CEO of McDonald’s is paid 434 times the median salary of a MacDonald’s worker. In the rankings from the highest disparity between CEO and medium pay for a worker in the company, Wal-Mart is number 1 but MacDonald’s falls to number 5. Three companies pay their CEO at the following multiples of one medium worker: Target #2 at 597:1, Disney #3 at 557:1, Honeywell #4 at 439:1.

If you applied the Wal-Mart ratio of 1034:1, using the bottom pay (note this is likely lower than the medium pay of all soldiers) which is that of a private, the Chairman of the Joint Chief Staff would be paid $21 million a month, or $8.8 million a month if applying the McDonald’s 434:1 ratio. One person is in charge of the defense of an entire country; the other is in charge of selling consumer goods and services inside the same country.

It seems in the scheme of things someone is vastly under paid or overpaid in the military if the private enterprise system values apply to the military. The system that generates muscles has a wholly different compensation system than the underlying system it is designed to protect which is based on maximizing profit. One way to accomplish that goal is to underpay the hugely numerous military personnel, especially those at the higher leadership ranks.


The generals in the US military don’t own the tanks, forts, jet fighters, submarines, aircraft carriers, canons, rifles, and flame throwers. More importantly, the sons and daughters of the generals don’t inherit their father’s rank and step into his shoes on death as owners. While the generals stand in as leaders of the enterprise, they don’t own it.

The top Wal-Mart leadership is under the control of the Walton’s family. There are no congressional hearings, no public vetting, and no presidential appointment.  When a family member of the Wal-Mart dynasty dies, his or her share is inherited most likely by another member of the family. Any family that has 2.1 million people working in it is business is, in effect, a kind of aristocracy. While the original meaning of aristocracy was ‘rule by the best’, it has come to mean control over the most. In our time of democracy, aristocracy and oligarchy have risen to new positions of power and influence that would have been the envy of dukes and earls of the past.

The Wal-Mart family given the size of its private workforce and the profits generated are a potent economic and political force. The influence of the Wal-Mart family, as its wealth accumulates, has a strong possibility of being expanded over multiple generations. And the accumulation of greater wealth, power and workers inside one family will likely persist as military generals come and go like store managers.

Complexity and story telling in the reign of Big Data

The number of employees isn’t necessarily the best way to ask who is in control of the world’s wealth. You can’t really understand the true lay of the pieces on the chessboard by limiting your study to the Top 10 List of the World’s largest Employers. The relationship of employee numbers to control of wealth is, for example, misleading when the real question is: who is in control?

The “The Network of Global Corporate Control” examines a data base that includes 37 million companies and finds that 147 companies in the world control 40% of the world’s global wealth. The Walton family, the one that owns Wal-Mart comes in as Number 15 on the list of the top 147.

While Thomas Piketty has used big data to break the code of silence and ideology around the issue of the wealth owned by the 1%, but there is another shoe to drop. Having shown the history of wealth concentration is useful. But it doesn’t necessary tell us how wealth translates into control. It is the nature of control that flows from wealth that allows us to move a step closer to understanding how economic and political power is financed and allocated and functions. The old adage of ‘follow the money’ needs to be refined to read: follow how the money is leveraged.

The 2011 study on global corporate control shows that: “Network control is much more unequally distributed than wealth. In particular, the top ranked actors hold a control ten times bigger than what could be expected based on their wealth.”

The underlying grid of connections emerges from Big Data. As our information accumulates, the emergent patterns will likely show correlations that are predicted by dogma and lists, or from our usual inventory of cognitive biases. In the future, others will look back at our ‘list mania’ as another example of how we played chess in a dark room and without a true understanding of how the game worked, and we compensated by simplifying it, dumbing it down to a game of checkers or draughts.

Final thoughts

This essay has been a brief glimpse at the top ten largest employers of the world in order to make sense of how we are governed, compensated, and protect and exploit resources and markets. It is an essay about the perils of lists in a sea of complexity. Knowing who are the largest employers on the planet reveals an aspect of existing economic and political systems and the public institutions that carry out government pro-business and growth policies.

I suspect the BBC list is based on less than big data. It is crude and limited data. The time will arrive when we will have a better idea from much more complete data sets and links between data sets. It is what we have now. Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem suggests that no data system will ever be complete; that contradictions will emerge. This sentence is false. A sentence we can never shake off, answer or ignore. It follows us like a black dog on a moonless night.

Meanwhile, storytellers can practice their skills by examining the numbers. They will be important in the future; when confronted with big data we will want plausible explanations of meaning. Also, storytellers will highlight what is missing from the existing numbers.

For example, it would be interesting to know in a Thomas Piketty statistical way whether the ratio of employees working for public and private companies in the top ten positions has been constant over time, whether the ratio is connected with concentrations of wealth and income, and the consequences of major economic events like recessions on downsizing, wage capping, and success of rival economic powers and systems in taking market share.

More data will provide answers as to whether the world’s largest private employers are best explained by the use of Western styled democratic systems, or whether they might have evolved in modified form from a Chinese styled system. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s might not have emerged from the chaotic American democracy without the presence of American coercive power at its back. The culture of the military, with its authoritarian command structure and democratic compensation system, may have played an essential role.

Other powerful US companies with fewer employees such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, Hollywood filmmakers, and war equipment manufacturers have added members to the new emerging American aristocracy. Defense contractors, might reasonably be added to the employees of the Defense Department as the separation between public and private and between civilian and military is often artificial and maintained for political purposes. Thus allowing retired generals a second chance and career to cash in on the profitable side of violence.

I leave you to consider this data: Wal-Mart is committed to hiring 100,000 ex-military personnel by 2018. (Source: http://walmartcareerswithamission.com ) But they should keep in mind that grunts at Wal-Mart start at less pay than a private. This is a story that between now and 2018 will likely be told by some writer, somewhere, wondering about the complexity of our future life, which is unfolding. Now.

*Thank you, John Murphy.

Posted: 6/12/2014 8:51:35 PM 



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