Archive for the ‘current events’ Category
Last week, Indiana Ph.D. student Karlijn Keijzer was killed on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The university news web site reports that she was an athlete, gifted science student, and an accomplished teacher. Her passing is a tragedy that has deeply touched the IU community.
History will likely pin this senseless death, and the deaths of hundreds of others, on the separatists and their cruel patron in Moscow. Yet, we should reflect on a broader point. This type of violence, where governments hand out such sophisticated weapons of war to masked men, is made possible by nationalist sentiments. Putin only thrives because of a deep spring of nationalist pride that legitimizes war, a sentiment that exists in many nations. Before we egg on our leaders and demand that they bring war to other nations, let us remember the innocent people who will suffer.
The Koch brothers are, of course, a favorite liberal bugaboo. And while they bankroll a wide range of right-wing institutions, more recently they’ve shifted their focus to the world of higher education. Most recently, the Koches made the news when UNCF (formerly the United Negro College Fund) accepted a $25 million grant to provide scholarships to students interested in entrepreneurship, economics and innovation—a decision that was followed by the union AFSCME cutting its own ties to UNCF.
Now, UNCF is a nonprofit, not a university. But the Koches support universities as well. George Mason is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest recipient of Koch largesse. Overall, in 2012, Koch foundations gave $12.1 million to 163 U.S. universities and colleges.
On the one hand, this is small potatoes. A single hedge fund manager gave Harvard $150 million this year. On the other, it raises important questions about when colleges should say no to money.
“Radical chic” is an old term from the 70s indicating that a politically liberal person is trying to look cool by promoting radical causes. I think we are now seeing a similar phenomenon among conservatives. Many call themselves libertarian to sound cool, but they don’t actually endorse many libertarian positions except for free trade.
Case in point: The person who defeated Eric Cantor is David Brat, a professor of economics who uses the term libertarian to describe himself. But on a range of issues beside economic deregulation, he appears to be a standard issue social conservative. Immigration? Against it. Abortion? Against it. Foreign policy? Vague. Cutting the military? Nope. Gay rights? Silent. And like many conservatives, cutting government means just cutting the programs that conservatives are upset about, like Obamacare, rather than across the board cuts. If you think that libertarians are socially liberal but economic conservatives, he seems to be very close to a social conservative.
My theory? Social conservatives don’t have a very positive image outside of their movement. Social conservatives have been tarnished by anti-immigration hysteria, anti-Black attitudes, and a strong emphasis on abortion. In contrast, libertarianism is a small movement but has some high status adherents (e.g., many well known economists are libertarians, a number of Silicon Valley billionaires, even a Harvard philosopher). It might also be a political term that is less familiar, so there is less risk in using it.
One of the biggest news stories from last week is that a militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has quickly captured key cities in Iraq. CNN asked if ISIS is the first terrorist group to build an Islamic state? Well, the answer is no, as long as you define “terrorist” as “armed political group that targets civilians.”
The have been states founded by organizations that, at one time or another, targeted unarmed civilians. For example, Irgun, a militant Zionist group, included people who would become important in Israeli politics. The nation of East Timor was partially founded by an armed revolutionary group, FreTiLin, which morphed into one of the ruling parties. In terms of Islamic states, one could make the argument that the Taliban was a terrorist group that conquered the secular Afghan state and made it Islamic. There are also various Islamic groups in Africa and Southeast Asia that have conquered territory and have acted like states.
Perhaps what is shocking is that ISIS is doing something uncommon – literally ripping territory from two existing states. Normally, armed revolutionary groups or terrorist groups topple existing elites but otherwise leave boundaries unchanged, or maybe lead a secession. But otherwise, armed, civilian targeting groups are fairly normal aspects of state formation. The relative peace of post-WWII Europe is an anomaly in world history.
I recently reviewed Joshua Busby’s book social movements and foreign policy. He uses a number of case studies from American and European politics to show how moral pleas, in certain contexts, can move policy. From PS: Perspectives in Political Science:
Busby asks a simple question: How do activists affect a state’s foreign policy? He answers with a two-part theory. First, there is the balance of values and costs. Activists may demand something that is expensive or cheap. Similarly, activists may demand policies that have low or high resonance with moral values. Second, activists must successfully interface with gatekeepers, such as legislators or policymakers, who have the power to legitimize the movement’s demands. The author then goes on to support his theory with empirical studies of a range of policy domains, such as AIDS policy and the international courts.
The importance of Busby’s argument is that it is an alternative to the interest-based view of foreign relations, which asserts that states do what they must to protect a narrowly defined resource such as trade, military power, and so forth. His view is that the beliefs of citizens are very important, not because political leaders follow the whims of voters but because domestic public opinion defines a spectrum of possibilities. The moral resonance of an issue defines the political cost of taking an action.
Works like Moral Movements and Foreign Policy illuminate the relationship between sociology and political science. This book is an example of the use of sociological theory to enrich a topic typically associated with political science. The international relations field has been dominated by arguments among realists, liberals, constructivists, and others over state behavior. Social movements have not usually been at the center of this debate. By itself, Busby’s book does not upend these theories, but it does suggest that there is still unexplored territory in IR theory. Social-movement activists are now recognized as a group of actors who are not state elites, nor are they average voters, nor are they marginalized cranks. Rather, they are specialized political entrepreneurs who use tactics ranging from lawsuits to protest to promote their causes. Research on transnational activism documents a global network of actors who influence and create the policy environment for states. By showing when and how activism leads to changes in foreign policy, Busby shows one way that sociology and political science can enrich each other and expand a research area that may appear to be well covered.
The NYT reported on Sunday about horrid conditions among the 6,000 construction workers, mostly migrants, responsible for building a new campus at NYU Abu Dhabi. According to the Times,
Virtually every one said he had to pay recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages to get his job and had never been reimbursed. N.Y.U.’s list of labor values said that contractors are supposed to pay back all such fees. Most of the men described having to work 11 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, just to earn close to what they had originally been promised, despite a provision in the labor statement that overtime should be voluntary.
The men said they were not allowed to hold onto their passports, in spite of promises to the contrary. And the experiences of the BK Gulf strikers, a half dozen of whom were reached by The Times in their home countries, stand in contrast to the standard that all workers should have the right to redress labor disputes without “harassment, intimidation, or retaliation.”
Some men lived in squalor, 15 men to a room. The university said there should be no more than four.
“Not happy,” Munawar, a painter from Bangladesh who only gave one name declared, speaking in limited English. Back home, he said, they have lives, families. “Come here,” he concluded, “not happy.”
News about harsh labor conditions in the UAE is nothing new. But news that NYU is supporting it raises a whole new set of questions.
It looks like international branch campuses are here to stay. Major American and European universities realize that they have become not just educational institutions but “global brands.” NYU has perhaps gone farthest on this front, calling itself the “Global Network University,” but there are now more than 200 such campuses, with the center of gravity shifting from the Middle East to Asia.
These campuses raise a number of issues — about academic freedom, educational quality, and simple economic payoff. But what, outside of pulling a William F. Buckley and standing athwart history, yelling Stop, should those of us who care about universities do, when news like this comes along?
Certainly we should be holding NYU’s feet to the fire on this and other issues. The administration has apologized for the “troubling and unacceptable” abuses, but its plan “to try to correct, to the extent still possible, any lapses in compliance” sounds…well, less than compelling.
But it is hard to find points of leverage when the incentives for universities to look the other way — not just on this but on a whole host of issues — are so great. My thought at the moment: challenging universities’ tax-exempt status or access to federal aid are the ways to really get their attention.
One of the interesting features of post-WW2 international politics are tribunals that punish those who conduct genocides. The New Yorker has an interview with Thierry Cruvellier, who has a new book on his work documenting tribunals. For me, the most interesting part was the politics and incentives of these tribunals. On why genocides foreign sponsors escape:
Then, of course, there’s a more embarrassing reason these courts don’t go after foreign responsibility: judges and prosecutors don’t want to get into trouble with permanent members of the U.N. Security Council or Secretariat, which pays most of their salaries. It’s an obvious weakness of these tribunals, but perhaps it’s just not their function. Their credibility problem may lie much more in the poor quality of the investigations, and in the fact that only the weak are prosecuted.
The most shocking part of the interview was when they pointed out some thing I had never though of, but is obvious – the massive tendency to focus on right wing or authoritarian regimes and the near silence on left wing regimes (e.g, Maoism, the Soviets, etc):
You make the key point that the Duch trial was the first international tribunal case to address the crimes of Communism. The Rwanda and Yugoslavia courts, like the prosecutions at Nuremberg and Tokyo, dealt with crimes of ultra-nationalist regimes, which you identify as ideologies of the right. Only the Cambodia tribunal has addressed the crimes of the left, and you say that made human-rights lawyers notably uneasy. You say they had great difficulty addressing the connection between Communist ideology and systematic mass murder. You say that much of the tribunal crowd preferred to imagine the Khmer Rouge as noble until it went awry and became vile—and that some were outright fellow-travellers. For instance, the woman hired by the U.N. to handle Khmer Rouge victims at the Duch trial was an unrepentant Maoist. Why was that? And how did this sympathy for the left affect the general atmosphere of the trial?
There is a historical lineage between the far left and the human-rights movement. In the nineteen-sixties, after Stalin’s terror was widely acknowledged; in the seventies, after Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation of the Gulag; and then, finally, in the eighties, after the horrors of Pol Pot were fully revealed, many Western intellectuals moved from the discredited and disgraced Marxism-Leninism to the ideals of universal human rights. As opposed to the boredom of prosaic reforms, advocating for human rights is, in its own way, another grandiose and poetic enterprise where we, as a people, fight against exploiters. As the French philosopher Raymond Aron astutely noted, human rights, as a political philosophy, is based on a notion of purity. It’s not about taking responsibility for a decision “in unpredicted circumstances, based on incomplete knowledge”—that’s politics, said Aron. Instead, human rights function as a refuge for utopia.
What was interesting to observe at the Khmer Rouge tribunal was that former Western Maoists or fellow-travellers were not transformed, when they became disillusioned with Communism, into skeptical minds. They now presented themselves as human-rights defenders. The appeal of “pure” ideologies seemed irresistible to them. Revolutionaries get indignant about police abuse or ruthless capitalism, and then forgive, in the name of the revolution, every injustice they had otherwise denounced. Interestingly, the moral indignation of human-rights activists can suddenly be silenced when institutions that they helped create and that were supposed to exemplify their ideals—such as international war-crimes tribunals—start violating the very principles they have claimed to stand for. They say that criticism would serve the “enemies” of justice. They begin to accept that the end justifies the means. Double standards widely apply. The drive that often made them efficient when they worked in a hostile environment now, when they are empowered, transforms into an intransigence that can make them very insensitive to realities that don’t fit their ideological paradigm. International tribunals can be a harsh reminder that injustice and unfairness are not incompatible with humanist intentions.
At the Cambodia tribunal, a surprising number of Westerners who did not come from the far left also showed a level of sympathy for the “good intentions” of the Communist project. As a result, the trial was never going to be a trial of Communism as a political philosophy. Instead, it was all about Pol Potism, circumscribed and vilified as a despicable betrayal of a genuine revolutionary ideal. Such leniency would not be seen at trials against ideologies of the right.
There is much more. Highly recommended.
Gary Becker passed away this weekend at the age of 83. Becker was among the most influential economists in sociology. He was one of the first economists to use economic theories to explain social phenomena, leading the way for contemporary scholars like Steven Levitt. Interestingly, I think Becker was less influential in organizational theory, despite doing important work on human capital. Over on the evil twin blog, Peter Klein pays a nice tribute to Becker, mentioning his relationship to organizational economics.
Sociologist are fond of citing Becker for saying that he thought about transferring to sociology in grad school but that he found the subject “too difficult.” One thing that made Becker stand out from sociologists was that could simplify very complex problems/social phenomena – like discrimination – using a equilibrium model. This is not the sort of thing sociologists would do, and I suspect that most sociologists found the language he used to describe preference maximization offensive, but in a world of formal modeling and rational choice theory, Becker’s perspective was elegant. He helped create a tenuous bridge, along with Jim Coleman, between mathematical sociology and economics.
Reading his Nobel speech this afternoon, I was struck by this insight about the impossibility of Utopian dreams. Becker reminds us just how precious and valuable our time is, especially in a society where so many of our other wants and needs are satisfied.
Different constraints are decisive for different situations, but the most fundamental constraint is limited time. Economic and medical progress have greatly increased length of life, but not the physical flow of time itself, which always restricts everyone to twenty-four hours per day. So while goods and services have expended enormously in rich countries, the total time available to consume has not. Thus, wants remain unsatisfied in rich countries as well as in poor ones. For while the growing abundance of goods may reduce the value of additional goods, time becomes more valuable as goods become more abundant. Utility maximization is of no relevance in a Utopia where everyone’s needs are fully satisfied, but the constant flow of time makes such a Utopia impossible.
If you were to summarize the Republican party’s collective memory about its leadership, it would go something like this:
- This dude named Lincoln totally ruled and crushed his enemies, but his one flaw was that he trampled state’s rights.
- [empty space]
- [empty space]
- [empty space]
- Jesus Christ, Reagan was awesome. Especially that part where exhumed Lenin’s body and spiked it atop the Brandenburg Gate.
- [empty space]
- [empty space]
- Mitt Romney
the guy we just nominated and who is the least insanerocks!
This is in contrast with the Democratic collective memory. You can’t expect people to remember every leader from 200 years and they’ll get some stuff wrong, but they actually remember the big ones. Jackson. Wilson. FDR. Kennedy. Even Carter and Clinton get the love. This isn’t to say that Democrats always get history right, but, at the very least, they seem to have a normal, flattering understanding of their history.
A few factors are at work in explaining the GOP’s collective amnesia. First, they’ve elected some real clunkers. Nixon, for example. Bush II will go down as a clunker and is already banned from polite conversation in the GOP. Second, there have been some insanely boring dudes in the GOP, like Calvin Coolidge.
But there’s a deeper reason, one that explains a lot of the memory loss. The GOP of 2014 is a radically different beast than the party of Lincoln. The original GOP was wealthy Northern interests + freedmen and their descendants. Thus, what used to be cool is no longer cool. For example, the presidential Republicans of the 1920s were relatively pro-Black. Not pro-integration in the modern sense, but they did believe that Blacks should have access to Federal jobs, education, and other resources. Also, the GOP wasn’t populist in the Palin/Cruz sense. You had some effective but insanely boring people like Dwight Eisenhower, who was popular at the time but now forgotten among the masses.
So, then, what’s the deal with Reagan? I think Reagan combines two traits: some genuine policy triumphs (e.g., nuclear disarmament) and he was willing to be populist. He also benefited from a historical accident. He happened to be president during the end of communism, an event he shaped but certainly didn’t cause. Thus, in the GOP’s collective memory, he comes off as a successful warrior and a populist.
I am an extremely strong believer in vaccinations. Vaccinations are low cost, low risk interventions that save millions of lives. After sanitation, you can’t find a procedure that is so effective and so important to our collective and individual well being. Still, there is a growing anti-vaccination movement, which is discussed in a recent Slate article about whether pediatricians should treat unvaccinated kids.
My answer: Sure, but pediatricians should parents of un-vaccinated kids the same way that professionals treat other “difficult” clients – a surcharge for being a difficult and increasing costs. In other words, by exposing other children in the clinic and at school to disease, you are increasing the costs of healthcare. Thus, the parent should bear the cost of healthcare. If each life of a child who dies from preventable infection is worth, say, a few million dollars, then it wouldn’t be unreasonable to charge a parent a few thousand extra dollars.
Bottom line: People are entitled to their own erroneous beliefs, but when it causes real harm to others, they should bear the cost. To do otherwise is folly.
Joeff Davis, Malachi Ritscher, Iraq War Protest, Chicago, 2003. Included in the project Malachi Ritscher by Public Collectors. Image taken from the Whitney 2014 Biennial Website.
Last week, while I was visiting CUNY, I made some time to get down to the Whitney Museum to see the Biennial. This year was notable because the show was split three ways. Each curator got her own floor and each took a wildly different approach. The fourth floor was given to Michelle Grabner, a professor and artist. That was probably the most jammed part of the show with art on the walls, floors, and ceiling. It was also the most educational. Basically, Grabner found artists who explored all kinds of materials. For example, Sheila Hicks, one of my favorite fabric artists made this huge rope column. There were also some interesting gems, like a few shiny abstract canvasses mottled with salt by Carissa Rodriguez. Each work was an education in what you could do with particular materials. The floors by Stuart Comer and Anthony Elms were about youth and what one might call “intellectual concerns:” ethnography, politics, etc. For example, there was some strong work dealing with gay subculture, such as Tony Green’s work, Paul P. ‘s watercolors and Elijah Burgher’s pencil drawings.
The critics constantly complained about the whole show. I think it is better to admit that art has massively expanded and that there are multiple centers of gravity. Overall, you’ll be overwhelmed, or bored by the spectacle. But if you slow down, you’ll find that there is a lot to be enjoyed depending on what you want from art.
For me, there was one very moving part of the show, an exhibit by the group Public Collectors dedicated to Malachi Ritscher. He was a Chicago resident who was an avid free jazz fan and antiwar activist. He was notable for two things. First, he created an extensive library of recordings from the Chicago creative music scene. Second, he killed himself in 2006. To protest the Iraq War, he lit himself on fire on the Kennedy Expressway. He recorded that as well.
Malachi’s life and my own crossed many times. I am also a free jazz fanatic and sat next to him many times. I would go to the shows that he recorded. I actually recognized some of the shows whose recordings are in the exhibit. I am pretty sure that I am at least in one them and I am certainly an audience member in many other recordings that are part of Malachi’s library. He documented me. A brooding graduate student, I never introduced myself. But still, he was part of my world.
Later, I would dedicate part of my academic career to recording the antiwar movement. I spent quite a bit of time going to major cities, like Chicago, and conducting surveys and long form interviews with activists. Malachi is probably recorded in my materials. Maybe he filled out a survey. Maybe he was interviewed by me or my research partner. Or, more likely, he is part of an audience that I documented with a photo or audio recording.
The Ritscher exhibit deeply moved me. Malachi and I cared about the same things. Malachi and I passed by each other many, many times over a nine year period. Our lives have been stamped by the city of Chicago and its culture. We were even employed by the same organization – the University of Chicago.
But our stories diverge. He chose a path that I find hard to understand. Faced with the brutality of war, he did something brutal to himself. I have not walked in his shoes, so I won’t pass judgment. All I’ll say is that I remain viscerally shocked by his death. I mourn the loss of him and his knowledge. I responded to the war in a different way. I became the documentarian, the recorder of events.
Ending this post is hard because there simply is no end. I just don’t know what to think of Malachi’s musical contribution, or his suicide, or the crossing of our paths. Perhaps all I can now is dig out my copy of Emancipation Proclamation, which of course, was recorded by Malachi Ritscher.
March 16 is Open Borders Day, the day where we draw attention to the right to peacefully move across national borders. The Open Borders position is that borders are unethical and have harsh consequences. March 16 was chosen because the Open Borders web site opened for business on that day two years ago. If you are interested in Open Borders Day, you might want to participate in the following way:
- Tweet about Open Borders. #OpenBordersDay is our hashtag.
- Write a blog post.
- Use the image above as your banner image on Facebook.
If you participate in some other way, please email me and I’ll link to it.
I’ll wrap up this post by talking a little bit about why Open Borders is such an important issue. First, it is massive. We could easily and quickly lift millions of people out of poverty with the simple policy of not stopping people from migrating. Second, this is a policy that is consistent with most political beliefs. Hate inequality? Open the borders. Hate racism? Open the borders. Want to help abused women? Open the borders. Like free labor markets? Open the borders. Want to encourage families to stay together? Open the borders. Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians should all stand united for freedom of movement. Open borders!
A few days ago, Ju Hong heckled President Obama at a speech. He asked the President to sign an executive order to stop deportations. The President said that he did not have the power to do so and that Congress would have to change the law. This is just plain wrong. While it is certainly true that Congress writes the law, the executive branch has a lot of freedom in choosing which laws to enforce and how to enforce them. For example, the state and local police don’t give tickets to every single person on the highway who drives 61 miles per hour or faster. The police make all kinds of judgments about when the infraction should be punished. And this is a standard feature of being a prosecutor. You actually have discretion.
At the Federal level, it is very clear that the modern presidency has accumulated a great deal of discretion in how to enforce the law. For example:
- Signing statements – apparently, lots of presidents have gotten away with ignoring laws they find inconvenient.
- Pardons – if a law is deemed to be wildly unjust, the President can just pardon people en mass. For example, President Carter pardoned a couple of million people who evaded the draft.
- Executive order – Obama could easily produce a legal argument that deporting someone causes great economic harm and separates them from their family, and thus constitutes harsh punishment for the administrative violation of coming to America without the right paper work. Then, he could instruct the federal department (DHS) to simply suspend deportations, especially of minors, because it is unconstitutional.
In other words, a legal system that allows presidents to kidnap people and send them to Guantanamo forever could easily be mustered to prevent the deportation of the guy with the leaf blower. It ain’t that hard.
Sociologist and blogger Phil Cohen has an op-ed in the NY Times on gender inequality. Here’s a key clip:
The assumption of continuous progress has become so ingrained that critics now write as if the feminist steamroller has already reached its destination. The journalists Hanna Rosin (“The End of Men”) and Liza Mundy (“The Richer Sex”) proclaimed women’s impending dominance. The conservative authors Kay S. Hymowitz (“Manning Up”) and Christina Hoff Sommers (“The War Against Boys”) worried that feminist progress was undermining masculinity and steering men toward ruin.
But in fact, the movement toward equality stopped. The labor force hit 46 percent female in 1994, and it hasn’t changed much since. Women’s full-time annual earnings were 76 percent of men’s in 2001, and 77 percent in 2011. Although women do earn a majority of academic degrees, their specialties pay less, so that earnings even for women with doctorate degrees working full time are 77 percent of men’s. Attitudinal changes also stalled. In two decades there has been little change in the level of agreement with the statement, “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”
After two steps forward, we were unprepared for the abrupt slowdown on the road to gender equality. We can make sense of the current predicament, however — and gain a better sense of how to resume our forward motion — if we can grasp the forces that drove the change in the first place.
Read the whole thing.
Friday marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Given this occasion, guest blogger Barry Wellman asked me to post, on his behalf, his 1993 article “Disbelief in Authority: JFK, Milgram and Me.“
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning:
Update: Here’s the entire excerpt, with Barry’s permission:
DISBELIEF IN AUTHORITY: JFK, MILGRAM AND ME
Reminiscences for the 30th Anniversary of Obedience to Authority, Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Toronto
Barry Wellman, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto
Not only was 1963 the year that Stan Milgram’s Obedience to Authority was published, it was also the year that Stan, JFK and I came together for one explosive moment in November.
SOC REL 200 was the centerpiece of Harvard’s Social Relations Department. Each week a Harvard star gave new graduate students the word on his latest masterpiece. Each week, I sat shaking in my seat, a New York City street kid who had never studied sociology before, trying to figure out what was going on and to make believe that I already knew.
You’ll recall that Soc Rel’s raison d’etre was to bring together social and clinical psychologists with sociologists and anthropologists. In no other graduate school, would I have routinely encountered Erik Erikson or Roger Brown, or met Stan Milgram.
Stan was new at Harvard too, an untenured professor. I didn’t know if he was shaking or not. In those days I looked at faculty members with awe, and even addressed them as “Professor”. (Nowadays, when a Toronto student calls me “Professor,” I immediately wonder what s/he wants out of me.) In mid-November, Stan did SOC REL 200. He enthralled us with the shocking news of his then-recent “obedience to authority” experiments. This clearly was a formidable guy; this clearly was a crafty guy. You’d never know when he’d pull an experiment on you.
The following week, Talcott Parsons lectured to SOC REL 200 about the nature of social systems. In the midst of Talcott’s guided tour through the labyrinth of A, G, I and L boxes, Stan Milgram burst into the lecture hall, and rushed to the podium.
“I have horrible news,” he announced. “President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas!”
“Cut the crap, Milgram,” I remember blurting out from my seat, forgetting even to call him “Professor”. “You’re just doing another experiment on us.”
“No, it’s true! Listen, Ed Kelly has it on his radio.”
Sure enough, Ed Kelly (then a psychology graduate student) brought in a transistor radio which kept announcing that President Kennedy had been shot.
“This guy Milgram sure is a great experimenter,” I said to my classmates. “Just like Orson Welles, he’s even rigged up a simulated radio broadcast to convince us that this is true. I wonder what the experiment is really about.”
It was only after we left Emerson Hall, went out into Harvard Yard and talked to others, that we realized that JFK had been shot and that Stan Milgram had only been telling us the truth this time.
The “experiment” had been an inadvertent one: my persistent denial of a painful truth. However, I am sure that if Stan Milgram hadn’t had such a reputation as an imaginative researcher and hadn’t demonstrated it just a week before, I would have accepted the news much more easily.
Stan and I became friendly after this. I was a great fan of his ingenious experiments and noble goals. I especially remember the time in the mid-sixties that he mailed a bunch of envelopes to the southern US. Some of the envelopes had return addresses indicating that they were from racerelations groups; others were more innocuous. Sure enough, many of the race-relations envelopes were opened en route, Milgram had a trick to show that.
Stan and I have kept on dancing around the same issues — similar perspectives, different techniques. His “Small World” research became one of the touchstones of social network analysis. Our communities are far-flung networks. Stan showed that we’re all connected to each other by five (or fewer) interpersonal ties. My students are skeptical of this until I demonstrate that they’re all linked to Wayne Gretzky: one of my students always knows him, or knows someone who knows someone who knows him. They’re even more convinced (although less excited) when I demonstrate our links to Inner Mongolian yak herders (three indirect ties via one of my graduate students).
Stan moved to CUNY and New York City; they taught each other many things. I think warmly of Stan every year when my urban sociology students read “The Experience of Living in Cities” (Ed: see article) — which is about everywhere but reeks of New York. Stan not only talked about the lack of neighborhood community; he showed how to investigate it — simply and neatly. You must remember that Toronto is both the safest and the most uptight city in North America. People here fear interpersonal contact when they have the least reason to do so. Right after reading Stan’s article, I send my students out to do an experiment: “Just look people in the eye and smile at them. Record who smiles back, by age, gender, social circumstances and personal characteristics.” Most
Toronto students find this hard to do, but they plunge in as a wild adventure. They report that almost all of the people they smiled at, violently twist their heads away from them.
We call this experiment, “The Neckbreaker”. Stan would have loved it.
 Sexist pronoun empirically accurate.
 Where Love Story was later filmed.
Two weeks ago, my organizations class discussed a chapter from Nicole Woolsey Biggart’s classic study of direct selling organizations (DSOs) as charismatic organizations. DSOs rely upon people using their personal networks to recruit customers and, more importantly, new members who distribute products and services. Members share a portion of their sales with sponsors, or those who recruited them to the organization; such sponsors derive most of their income from recruited members’ sales. DSOs’ techniques are more commonly known as multi-level marketing, which have been criticized by some.
In past years’ discussions of the DSO reading, students listed familiar examples of DSOs like Tupperware, Cutco, Amway, and Mary Kay. This time, students named a new DSO that I wasn’t familiar with: Primerica. Two said that they had studied for their license to sell Primerica life insurance. After class, I looked up Primerica’s business model. One of the summary articles (bonus: 300 page prospectus) noted Primerica’s origins (citigroup) and flagged one of its sources of revenues as the $199 license fee that members-in-training front, along with a recommended monthly fee.
In the financial sector, another DSO Herbalife has been the epicenter of an unusually vocal feud between two hedge fund managers, one of whom is shorting Herbalife’s stock and the other of whom is going long. In explaining the rationale for their fund’s position on Herbalife, Bill Ackman and his analyst Shane Dineen gave a 3 hour-long presentation with a 300-plus slide Powerpoint analysis that claims that “Herbalife Displays Indicators of Being a Pyramid Scheme.” During the presentation, Ackman and colleagues argued that Herbalife is primarily about recruiting people for a “business opportunity” rather than selling products or services. For example, the presentation describes how the top 1% of distributors claim 88% of Herbalife’s compensation. Not surprisingly, in a subsequent cnbc interview, the Herbalife CEO countered Ackman’s analysis as an attempt to “manipulate our stocks.”
Ackman’s analysis inspired at least one blogger to journey to Queens to visit a Herbalife nutrition club’s meeting and post about his impression. On the other hand, a Herbalife distributor who has been disappointed by his business opportunity results has filed a suit using claims similar to Ackman’s contentions. An executive summary version of Ackman and Dineen’s Powerpoint analysis underscores the potential impact of DSOs upon distributors’ networks:
Recruiting family members, friends, work and church acquaintances and others in their communities into a rigged game, one that is highly likely to exact financial and emotional harm on those loved and trusted by them, has an impact that cannot be repaired or recompensed with dollars alone.
In class discussions over the years, students have made similar conclusions, with some sharing experiences about how they no longer can socialize with relatives and friends who are members of DSOs because of the relentless pressure to buy and join. Others continue to do part-time work as DSO members who were recruited by family.
Teaching resources on DSOs
Here are recent studies of DSO practices:
- Paid to Party: Working Time and Emotion in Direct Home Sales by Jamie L. Mullaney and Janet Hinson Shope (Rutgers, 2012)
- Making Up the Difference: Women, Beauty, and Direct Selling in Ecuador by Erynn Masi de Casanova (University of Texas Press, 2011)
- The Hard Sell: An Ethnographic Study of the Direct Selling Industry by John Bone (Ashgate, 2006)
- The Tupperware! documentary is a great complement for teaching Biggart’s work
More on Ackman vs. Ichan
Despite the cnbc announcer’s attempts to steer discussion towards the two callers’ opposing positions on Herbalife, Ackman and Carl Icahn revisited an old disagreement, with traders ohhhing in the background. A Vanity Fair article delves into the origins of their feud and other feuds over what sound like spot agreements gone sour. Word on the street is that Ackman may have another presentation on the ready.
The Posse Comitatus Act was passed in order to prevent Federal troops from enforcing state and Federal law. In other words, you can’t use Federal troops as local law enforcement. The law had dishonorable origins – it was designed to prevent the Federal government from using its troops to protect Southern Blacks. But it did establish the idea that unless there is an emergency, or an exception made by Congress or the Constitution, the standing army will not be used to enforce domestic laws. Soldiers and police are different.
Now let’s fast forward to 2013. The National Security Agency is part of the Department of Defense. It is headed by a member of the armed forces. And it grew out of the Armed Forces Security Agency. It is part of the standing army. Would that mean that it’s collection of phone calls, email, and other communication in mass from domestic sources is a violation of posse comitatus? Here’s the statute text:
Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
The wiki legislative summary notes that the revised Posse Comitatus act makes exceptions when domestic persons are al Qaeda or Taliban related. But still, that only covers a minute portion of the American population. If I read the act correctly, the NSA, as part of the Department of Defense and managed by active senior military staff, is in violation of posse comitatus when it conducts surveillance of individuals who have no plausible connection to al Qaeda or similar organizations – which is most of us.
Consider this an open thread on this evening’s accquital of George Zimmerman. When I see cases like this, I try to remember that criminal trials, especially murder trials, are highly complex. While I do believe that the shooting was not justified self-defense – especially since police told Zimmerman not to pursue – I also know that the media doesn’t always accurately portray what happens in a court room. Perhaps the prosecution bungled the case, or maybe there simply wasn’t enough compelling evidence relating to the interaction between Zimmerman and Martin. I’m especially interested in hearing from readers who have legal expertise.
Neil Gross cements his position as the leading sociologist of American intellectuals with his new book Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care?* This book collects into one text a series of arguments about the American professoriate that Gross and his collaborators have presented in a series of articles. Essentially, Gross argues that American academia, on the average, is liberal because of self-selection on the part of conservatives. The specific issue is that academia, for a number of historically specific reasons, has acquired an aura of extreme liberalism. Thus, conservative students say “Why bother? Academia is for liberals. What’s the point?”
What is impressive about Gross and his confederates is that they test all kinds of alternative hypotheses. For example, one might think that academic skills explain conservatives lower enrollments in PhD programs. But it doesn’t. Differences in values don’t explain much either. In other words, Gross et al systematically test all kinds of hypotheses and show that they are simply not true or that they only explain a small proportion of the differences between conservatives and others.
Eventually, using historical evidence and interview data, Gross makes a good case for self-selection. Sociology is a good example. In principle, there’s lots of places for non-liberal sociologists. For example, one could work on non-ideological aspects of sociology, like research methods. Or, as many conservatives have done, they could work in areas of interest like family sociology, where in some cases (like studies of negative divorce effects on kids), they could work on topics that are consistent with their ideology. But if you sit down and ask a typical conservative undergrad why they didn’t take many soc courses, they’ll tell you an image of evil ultra-liberals who are bent on political correctness.
Now, where I would criticize this book is the study of conservatives. For example, Gross argues that there isn’t much evidence of bias against conservatives. He uses the example of a study he conducted with Jeremy Fresse and Ethan Fosse where they contacted graduate directors with email from fake students. Some emails mentioned working for a GOP candidate, some a Democrat, and other none at all. Gross et al find no differences in how graduate directors responded.
First, there’s the issue, which Gross acknowledges, that graduate directors probably write a lot of boiler plate emails. But there’s a deeper criticism – why didn’t Gross interview people at risk for discrimination from liberal colleagues? For example, why not interview liberal (Keynesian) and conservative economists (monetarists or Austrians)? Or, why not interview Rawlsian philosophers (liberals) and compare their careers with Nozickians (libertarians) or Burkeans (conservatives)? Or, even better, why not collect materials from people who submitted books or articles on conservative topics but were rejected?
I think that Gross is right – anti-conservative bias is not nearly as bad as people think, if it exists at all – but the treatment of conservatives is not nearly as nuanced as the treatment of liberals. This probably speaks to the development of the project, which started with analyzing massive data (like the GSS) that trues to tease out conservative/liberal differences. Developing a theory or map of conservative intellectuals probably came late in the game.
Regardless, this book is massive progress on a central issue in the study of American intellectuals and the academy. This will be required reading for anyone interested in this topic.
* And I’m not saying that because he said nice things about me in the book. But he did. Oh yeah, and I’m not just saying it because he edited another cool forthcoming book about academia with a chapter by moi. But he did. Ok, maybe he buttered up a little. But just a little!
The defenders of the NSA’s mass surveillance raise a point worth discussing – much of what is being done is legal. They point out that the NSA programs were authorized by Congress, reviewed by Courts, and run by the executive. They also read the Fourth amendment in a very narrow way. Personally, when I read that the people will be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” I’m pretty sure that means electronic communication. It would be bizarre if this right only applied to technologies present in 1789. “Papers and effects” seems to imply a lot of stuff, but the Courts and the executive seem to disagree.
This suggests to me that may we need to make mass surveillance explicitly illegal. How? The Digital Rights Amendment:
The right of the people to be secure in their transactions made through electronic media and other forms of communication, and in the data generated by such transactions, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. The people will retain the right to review such warrants and challenge them in the courts.
In other words, you need a warrant to collect our data or even our “metadata.” And we get to see the warrant and we can take you to court. If you think I’m a criminal, you’ll have to explain it in court.
Our friend Jenn Lena draws my attention to a serious issue in Russia – the state is attacking the Levada Center, an independent organization of social scientists who conduct polls. I quote from Jenn’s post:
The Center has been (with other non-profit organizations) asked by its government to identify itself as a “foreign agent” because it receives money from outside Russia and engages in political activity. As this NY Times article on the crack-down on Levada makes clear, approximately 3% of the Center’s funding comes from abroad, namely, grants from MacArthur, Ford, and the Open Society Institute. The Center provides us with the only social scientific polling data on Russians I’m aware of that isn’t generated by the state. The Center’s origins actually lie in conflict with the state over political attitudes:
The center’s founder, Yuri Levada, incurred Mr. Putin’s wrath a decade ago by publishing polls that showed waning approval of the United Russia party and the Chechen wars. When Kremlin officials tried to assert control over his organization by appointing a new board of directors in 2003, Mr. Levada resigned and formed a private company, the Levada Center. His employees followed him.
Consequently, the Levada Center staff went about their business, sorting out what Russians really think about their country.
In other words, independent scholarship is being attacked. Here is a petition, asking state officials to relent.
The Open Borders movement is based around a simple idea – in most cases, people should not be restricted in their movement across borders. This idea was featured this weekend in The Atlantic. The article presents the case and discusses the academics and writers who congregate at the Open Borders blog, which is run by Vipul Naik.
Michael Huemer, a philosopher, boils down the argument with the hypothetical story inspired by the “Starvin’ Marvin” South Park character:
[Marvin] is very hungry and is trying to travel to the marketplace to buy some food. Another person, Sam (Sam has a large number of nephews and nieces, so we’ll call him Uncle Sam), decides to stop Marvin from going to the marketplace using coercion. He goes down there with his M16 and blocks the road. As a result, Marvin can’t trade for food and, as a result, he starves. So then the question is, did Sam kill Marvin? Did he violate his rights? Almost anyone would say yes, Sam acted wrongly. In fact, if Marvin died as a result, then Sam killed him. It wouldn’t be that Sam failed to help Marvin. No, he actively intervened….This is analogous to the U.S. government’s immigration policy. There are people who want to trade in our marketplace, in this case the labor market, and the government effectively prevents them from doing that, through use of force.
I was also cited for discussing open borders strategy:
“Open borders will become a reality when the public stops believing that immigrants are a threat,” sociologist Fabio Rojas recently wrote, comparing the open borders movement to the gay rights movement. “Even if a pro-immigration referendum fails to pass, it will still serve the function of forcing the issue onto the public stage. These actions won’t change the minds of those strongly committed to anti-immigration policy. Instead, they will make immigration seem ‘normal’ to a later generation of people.”
Check it out.
Apparently, yes. An article in Talking Points memo reports on a rare, but disturbing, aspect of our immigration laws. Hospitals may pay for undocumented immigrants to be moved to medical facilities in their original nation. They occasionally do this when people start in the emergency room, they stabilize, and then insurance does not pay for long term care:
Hundreds of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally have taken similar journeys through a little-known removal system run not by the federal government trying to enforce laws but by hospitals seeking to curb high costs. A recent report compiled by immigrant advocacy groups made a rare attempt to determine how many people are sent home, concluding that at least 600 immigrants were removed over a five-year period, though there were likely many more.
To be sure, very uncommon, but it starkly points to a disturbing issue. Current law allows the state and other entities, hospitals in this case, to grossly violate one’s individual freedom if the aren’t a documented migrant. There’s a healthy debate to be had over the degree to which hospitals should provide care for the uninsured, but that doesn’t imply that somebody can be be shipped to another country because they are a non-citizen and it saves the hospital some money.
Due to the detonations (warning: graphic) at today’s Boston Marathon, Boston, NYC, and DC are now on high alert. For those of you in Boston, please stay safe. We are getting conflicting reports of Boston area cell service being down vs. increased capacity.
- Boston Police Dept. twitter feed is here.
- Looking for someone/have info about someone in Boston? Use Google person finder here.
- No-fly zone over the Boylston St. area of Boston, heightened security expected at Logan airport
A few weeks ago, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma tried to ban the NSF from supporting political science research. And of course, a lot of folks in the academy voiced their objection. But there’s a broader question for political science: Why is the political science profession so reliant on NSF funding? Repeatedly, people said that a majority of political science projects are funded with NSF funds. Is this true? If so, then it is a precarious state of affairs.
Academic disciplines should rely on a diverse group of supporters. If Congress deems social science a worthy effort, then great. But if they don’t, then we should still be ok. Relying on the NSF is analogous to a business having a single wealthy customer. That’s usually a bad business model. Instead, social scientists should actively court different sources of funding ranging from the public sector, non-profits, individuals, and the corporate world. If you look at sociology, you see many important projects funded by all kinds of folks. The General Social Survey is your typical big project funded by the NSF. Ron Burt obtained a lot of his data from private consulting gigs. Merton’s reference group research was done for the Dept of War during WWII. A lot of Columbia sociology in the 50s and 60s was sponsored by for-profit groups in New York.
It is up to each researcher to decide what kind of funding they are willing to pursue. But collectively, we should encourage funding from many sources, or we’ll be at the mercy of the Tom Coburns of the world.
We live in a golden age of papal betting. Within my own lifetime, I will have had at least three opportunities to wager on papal elections (’78, ’05, ’13). Better than bingo. If you need a primer on the possible leaders, click here. Intrade is trading 47% for an Italian pope. For individual cardinal odds, click here. For sociology of Vatican II, check out Melissa Wilde’s ASR article on the topic. Consider this an open thread on the social science (and gaming) of the papacy and/or information markets.