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response to seth masket on social protest and civil rights

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Seth Masket recently discussed the popularity of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement more generally. In general, the civil rights movement was deeply unpopular, even at its height. Polls showed that a majority approved of civil rights after the fact.

The point is well taken, but there is more to the story of public opinion and civil rights. Roughly speaking, public opinion was moving the direction of civil rights for decades, even if the general public didn’t quite approve of individual people or groups. It didn’t happen by itself. As Taeku Lee shows in Mobilizing Public Opinion, public opinion started to soften because of activism. A lot of local action caused civil rights to emerge on the agenda of elites at the state and federal levels.

Seth is right that for most people, the time is never right for protest. But that is not necessary for movements. You can accomplish a lot with a strongly motivated coalition of activists and elites. And if you push hard enough, public opinion will follow.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 17, 2014 at 12:01 am

winchester mystery house social policy

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Andrea Campbell has an article in Vox about the often perverse consequences of means testing in social policy. If you really need help, then means testing creates an incentive to completely spend all your assets so you can qualify. She uses the tragic case of her sister-in-law who was left paralyzed after an auto accident and now requires round the clock medical care:

Brian continued: Marcella qualified for Medi-Cal because she is disabled, but because Medi-Cal is for poor people, Dave and Marcella have to be poor to receive it-they have to “meet” the program’s “income test.” Counterintuitively, meeting the income test doesn’t mean having enough income (as in doing well on a test), but rather having low-enough income. The income test is actually an income limit.

Moreover, because Dave is employed, he and Marcella would be in a particular version of the program called “Share of Cost” Medi-Cal. It works this way: as a family of three with one disabled member, they are allowed to keep $2,100 of Dave’s $3,250 monthly earnings to live on. The rest of Dave’s earnings, $1,150, would go to Medi-Cal as the family’s share of cost. That is, any month in which Marcella incurred medical expenses, she and Dave must pay the first $1,150. To our surprise, if Dave earned more money, the extra amount would also go to Medi-Cal: the cost sharing is a 100 percent tax on Dave’s earnings. I figured out later that the $2,100 my brother and sister-in-law are to live on puts them at 133 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of three. Essentially, the way they meet the income test is for Medi-Cal to skim off Dave’s income until they are in fact poor. Brian noted that they are “lucky” that they are allowed to retain that much income; if Marcella weren’t disabled, the amount they’d be allowed to retain would be even lower than $2,100. And this is how things will be indefinitely. In order to get poor people’s health insurance, Dave and Marcella must stay poor, forever.

To make issues worse, California has an arcane system of means tested programs that make it hard to even understand what you might, or might not, be qualified for:

So much for helping my brother and sister-in-law navigate the system. Medi-Cal is a collection of more than 100 programs, each with its own income methodology and rules. A person familiar with Medi-Cal likened the program to the Winchester Mystery House, the San Jose mansion constructed continually over four decades by the odd widow of the Winchester rifle fortune: there is no master plan. “All the ‘rooms’ added on over the years makes it very difficult to see which rules apply to which groups and to follow them all the way through,” this observer told me. And even if Dave and Marcella could retain a bit more income to live on, they are still subject to the asset limit and all of Medi-Cal’s other strictures. They are still trapped in an eccentric’s mansion, where the stairways lead to ceilings and the doors open onto walls.

Campbell nails it on the head when she notes that social policy is a bizarre contraption of programs. Lesson: Make social policy simple and with wide coverage. Otherwise, don’t bother.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 16, 2014 at 12:37 am

an argument for ending foreign interventions and letting things unfold

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Today, the US government will close its combat command in Afghanistan. One of the most difficult arguments to have about foreign policy is when to end an intervention, such as terminating our involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan. By the time that happens, many lives have been lost and much has been spent. It is often the case that political groups may seize power and might be anti-American in their orientation. Understandably, people might ask, “Is it all for nothing? Did our soldiers die so that a democratic government would fail and be replaced by tyrants?”

People should ask a different question, “What guarantee do we have that more lives and money will make things better?” We should also ask, “Is there a significant chance that our actions could make things worse?” The answer to these questions is “in most cases, things will not get better with more intervention and they might get better if we stand back.”

The reason is that countries drawing the attention of democratic nations tend to be very broken on some level. In Iraq, the nation was saddled by Baathist tyranny and sectarian violence. In Afghanistan, the problem was a weak state created by decades of Soviet and American interventions, tribalism, and the drug trade. When a third party intervenes in such nations, it is, by definition, an outsider. External threats tend to make people rally around the leader, however vile that person may be.

Instead, we should let nations be free of threat from American forces. That doesn’t mean that the nation will magically heal itself, but, at the very least, it deprives tyrants and charlatans of one source of their power. They no longer have us to point to, or, when we give them arms, they no longer use our guns to undermine our goals. And sometimes it works. Our departure will sometimes allow a political evolution to occur that might be impossible with troops on the ground. Vietnam is still ruled by a communist party, but it has opened up in significant ways and is more integrated into the global economy than we might have suspected in 1975. Ask yourself, what would Vietnam look like today if we had taken John McCain’s advice and stayed 100 years until the job was done?

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 9, 2014 at 12:01 am

the sociological approach to politics

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When I started graduate school in the last century, my approach to political analysis was very close to an old school rational choice model. People had interests and ideological tastes. Then they asked government to defend their interests or enforce their tastes.  In the last 15 years that I’ve been working on institutions, movements, and related issues, my views have changed. With respect to politicians, I still adopt a somewhat standard rational choice model. Elected leaders have fairly intuitive utility functions, it’s just that the political environment is stochastic in nature and suffused with ambiguity.

However, my approach to voters and “retail” politics is completely different. For example, I no longer believe that people (even fairly educated people) have consistent ideological beliefs. Public opinion research and everyday observation shows that people hold contradictory views on policies, when they even have any knowledge at all. I also don’t believe that many people have terribly stable material interests that are expressed at the voting booth.

So what’s left? The big drivers of politics are group identity and individual self-image.  Basically, my current position is that a lot of mass politics is some version of group identity writ large. For example, a great deal of partisan identity in the US is driven by being pro or anti-black. Foreign policy makes little sense until you understand that a lot of it has to do with fighting outsiders (e.g., Islamists, communists).  In many nations, party coalitions are defined along class lines, linguistic lines, and ethnic lines. In fact, Lipset and Rokkan have an old book that succinctly argues that multi-party politics is really easy to understand once you take all these social categories into account.

While most sociologists appreciate group identity, they tend to under appreciate the role of self-identity, which is really appreciated by psychologists. For example, it is certainly true that the Democratic/Republican cleavage rests on racial attitudes. But that doesn’t explain why Democrats would be less into the military. Theoretically, you might imagine a party that combines pro-black and pro-military attitudes. Once you accept that unrelated identities  can be bundled, it is easy to see that attitudes toward defense probably reflect an individual’s desire to be seen as tough, which through historical accident can be bundled with racial attitudes.

Now, when I try to understand polls or parties or policies, I do consider interests, but I also use the lens of group identity and self-image. It clears up a lot of things.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

December 2, 2014 at 12:02 am

q&a with hahrie han: part deux

We continue our Q&A with Hahrie Han on her new Oxford University Press book, How Organizations Develop Activists.

Question 3. A crucial distinction in your book is mobilizing vs. organizing? What does that mean?

 The highest engagement organizations in my study combined what I call “transformational organizing” with “transactional mobilizing.” The difference between mobilizing and organizing really comes down to the extent to which organizations invest in developing people’s skills, motivations, and such as they do the work. Mobilizers are focused more on breadth–getting more people to do more stuff–so they care only about the “transactional” outcomes: how many people wrote the letter? Organizers believe that they achieve breadth by building depth–how many people became more motivated or more skilled (“transformed”) as activists by being part of the letter writing campaign? So they design work that may be harder at first, but builds more depth over the long-term.

It might be easiest to describe the difference between “transformational organizing” and “transactional mobilizing” through some examples.

Let’s say an organization wants to generate a letter writing campaign to get letters to the editor published around a particular issue. Mobilizers would create letter templates and tools people could use to click a few buttons and send off a letter to their local paper. Organizers might ask people to compose their own letter, using trainings they provide. Or, organizers might match potential letter writers with a partner to compose a joint letter.

Mobilizers would have a few staff people organizing the entire campaign–those staff would create the templates, craft the messages asking people to write the letters, and coordinate any needed follow up. People themselves would not have to do anything more than click the buttons to indicate their willingness to write the letter. Organizers would set up the campaign so that staff people might design the trainings and the goals, but a distributed network of volunteers would be charged with generating letters in their local communities. Then, they would train and support those volunteers in getting those letters.

The organizations that had the highest levels of activism did both–they did organizing AND mobilizing to get both breadth and depth. It’s not that one is better than the other; it’s that organizations need both.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by fabiorojas

November 20, 2014 at 12:01 am

i don’t want to be right

That’s the name of an article in the New Yorker that explores the work of my good friend political scientist Brendan Nyhan. The essence of pretty simple: people don’t change beliefs if it somehow challenges their identity:

Last month, Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth, published the results of a study that he and a team of pediatricians and political scientists had been working on for three years. They had followed a group of almost two thousand parents, all of whom had at least one child under the age of seventeen, to test a simple relationship: Could various pro-vaccination campaigns change parental attitudes toward vaccines? Each household received one of four messages: a leaflet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that there had been no evidence linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (M.M.R.) vaccine and autism; a leaflet from the Vaccine Information Statement on the dangers of the diseases that the M.M.R. vaccine prevents; photographs of children who had suffered from the diseases; and a dramatic story from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about an infant who almost died of measles. A control group did not receive any information at all. The goal was to test whether facts, science, emotions, or stories could make people change their minds.

The result was dramatic: a whole lot of nothing. None of the interventions worked. The first leaflet—focussed on a lack of evidence connecting vaccines and autism—seemed to reduce misperceptions about the link, but it did nothing to affect intentions to vaccinate. It even decreased intent among parents who held the most negative attitudes toward vaccines, a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. The other two interventions fared even worse: the images of sick children increased the belief that vaccines cause autism, while the dramatic narrative somehow managed to increase beliefs about the dangers of vaccines. “It’s depressing,” Nyhan said. “We were definitely depressed,” he repeated, after a pause.

and

It’s the realization that persistently false beliefs stem from issues closely tied to our conception of self that prompted Nyhan and his colleagues to look at less traditional methods of rectifying misinformation. Rather than correcting or augmenting facts, they decided to target people’s beliefs about themselves. In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior. For example, when women are asked to state their gender before taking a math or science test, they end up performing worse than if no such statement appears, conforming their behavior to societal beliefs about female math-and-science ability. To address this so-called stereotype threat, Steele proposes an exercise in self-affirmation: either write down or say aloud positive moments from your past that reaffirm your sense of self and are related to the threat in question. Steele’s research suggests that affirmation makes people far more resilient and high performing, be it on an S.A.T., an I.Q. test, or at a book-club meeting.

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.

Read the whole thing.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

October 24, 2014 at 12:01 am

think tanks vs. universities: a reply to eric crampton

Last week, I argued that academics face poor incentives. We are rewarded for solving hard problems, but rarely rewarded for simple, but important, problems. On Twitter, Eric Crampton suggested that my argument could be seen as a vote for think tanks as policy vehicles:

There’s a simple logic here. Policy is the whole point of think tanks. In practice, there would probably be a bias in favor of simple solutions as voters and politicians would have a tough time understanding complex solutions.

Still, I don’t see most think tanks as immune from perverse incentives. Rather, they have a different audience that imposes its own incentives. For example, an Atlantic article chronicles the decline of the Heritage Foundation as the primary source of high quality conservative policy work. The story is straightforward, the need for funding made it hard to resist the Tea Party. Heritage flipped on so many issues from health care to immigration that it’s hard to recognize it as the same organization.

Academia has the perverse incentive of rewarding people for technical skill at the expense of real world importance. The think tank world has a different problem. These organizations depend on fickle donors. So yes, simple is good, until the winds change.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power

Written by fabiorojas

September 25, 2014 at 12:01 am

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