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comment on thornhill (2019)

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A few weeks ago, the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity published an article by Ted Thornhill called “We Want Black Students, Just Not You: How White Admissions Counselors Screen Black Prospective Students.” It’s a good article and I encourage you to read it. Basically, the author conducts an experiment where he sends college admissions counselors letters of inquiry. Some have indicators of anti-racist activism. The result is that letters with the anti-racist treatment get fewer responses. It’s a solid contribution to the growing field where people use audit studies to identify the effects of race on employment and educational opportunities. This post has three additional comments.

I. I think the word choice in the letter merits more scrutiny. On page 7 (of the online version), Thornhill lists the four letters sent. One has no mention of activism (narrative 1). The second mentions an “environmental awareness group” and a greenhouse planning committee (narrative 2). A third mentions jazz band, gospel choir and a student group promoting cultural understanding (narrative 3). The final one mentions the Black Student Organization and Anti-Racism student alliance  (narrative 4).

The logic of the experiment is that narrative 4 differs in that it reveals the letter writer’s race and participation in anti-racist clubs. But one has to be careful – narrative 4 has two students groups listed and they may have very differing cultural valences. On college campuses, Black Student Unions go back to the 1960s and they have often been at the center of some very contentious political events, like the 1968 Third World Strike at San Francisco State College. Thus, groups that use the label “Black Student Union,” or the very similar “Black Student Organization” may evoke reactions related to radicalism and even violent conflict. In contrast, the “anti-racist student alliance,” I think, has no similar history and the effect might be different. Thus you have to potentially differing effects.

To get a sense of the issue, consider if narrative 2 had instead had contained the sentence: “I belong to the Earth Liberation Front high school chapter and I started a chapter of Be Nice to Puppies.” ELF evokes strong negative feelings due to its radicalism and contentious past while the pro-puppy group does not. Having both in the same letter muddies the issue.

II. The other issue that merits comment is narrative 4. Specifically, the order of themes is simply different in narrative 4 than the other letters. Specifically, narratives 1-3 all end with a version of “would your college be a good fit for me?” Narrative 4 inserts that in sentence 2 after the salutation.

I found this to be odd since we know from decades of survey research that question order, phrasing and other features of survey questions can have a noticeable effect on survey responses. This may have been done to misdirect the respondents and avoid detection of the experiment. But it may be important. Why? Since each admissions officer was only sent 2 of the four narratives and there were 517 people in the sample, narrative 4 was sent only to 275 people (Table 5, page 12 in the online version, top 3 audits). I don’t think word ordering would reverse the effects, but it could reduce them and it’s not too crazy to think that it may affect the statistical significance of audit 3 (narrative 3 v 4/anti-racist v racially conscious).

III. The study focuses only on the responses of white admissions counselors. I found this to be puzzling. Given the research design is low cost (emails, basically), why not do the same for non-whites? Or admissions officers at HBCUs? Such a study would be intrinsically interesting for many reasons. For example, there is a debate about the role of HBCUs in anti-racist politics so it would be good to know if their staff follows the same scripts as staff at HPWIs. Also, in the section on research design (page 9) reports a 100% (!!) agreement between the author and an assistant in assessing the race of admissions counselors. How was that achieved? Getting 100% agreement on racial ascriptions in a larger sample is very challenging.

To be honest, I think the result reported in the paper is correct and I think this is a valuable contribution to the study of race and higher education. However, I think there is some reasonable criticism to be made of the experiment and I hope that future replicators will take those into consideration.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 20, 2018 at 4:21 am

Posted in uncategorized

burns v. mclean

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Last year, Nancy McLean of Duke University published a book called Democracy in Chains, which  claims that economist James Buchanan was a shill for segregationists. I’ve read some Buchanan and, while it can be criticized, it is dry public choice economics, so the book’s claims surprised me. Until the McLean book came out, I had never heard that there was anything racial about Buchanan’s work. Later, critics noted weird things, like that Buchanan’s collected works do not mention segregationist thinkers and there is indirect evidence to believe that he did not support segregation, such as his long standing association with anti-apartheid academics. Other critics, like Phil Magness, have argued that McLean simply doesn’t seem to understand the documentary evidence, makes ample errors, and relies on suggestion rather than provide concrete evidence of racial animus.

Jennifer Burns, a historian at Stanford, deepens the critique and essentially calls Democracy in Chains propaganda for the left. The review in the History of Political Economy is brutalRather than being a critique and review of Buchanan’s works, Burns finds it totally disconnected from evidence. I do not exaggerate:

While it is always diffcult to establish influence between thinkers or across generations, MacLean is working at the edge of accepted historical methodology, relying on assertion and suggestion rather than evidence. Such a move is not impermissible, particularly for a senior scholar, or for a topic that has generated few surviving documents. But typically, an analytic stretch of this nature would be quali¥ed more directly in the text, and draw strength from previous discussions rooted firmly in archival or documentary evidence. Or, it would be buttressed by the scholar’s immersion in the oeuvre of the thinker in question. To insinuate a connection between a reviled racist and an esteemed contemporary figure with such flimsy evidence is risky business. But emphasizing Calhoun’s with MacLean’s larger scholarly effort to document connections between the conservative movement and Southern regionalism, or what she called in the title of a separate essay, “Neo-Confederacy Versus the New Deal.”

And there’s more. The book is not even scholarship, in Burns’ view:

In the end, Democracy in Chains is characterized by a fundamental lack of curiosity.
The book is disconnected from not just economics or political theory, but from all
social sciences. Its citations draw almost exclusively from recently published books
about American social or labor history. As such, it bears witness to an alarming parochialism. The narrative of American history it presents is insular and highly politicized, laying out a drama of good versus evil with little attention paid to the larger worlds—global, economic, or intellectual—in which the story nests. Ultimately it is not a book of scholarship, but of partisanship, written to reinforce existing divides and con¥rm existing biases. As such it will not stand the test of time, but will stand rather as testimony to its time.

I’m the type of person who thinks personal freedom is an important value and that the private economy is a good thing. So I think it is important to criticize people who use freedom as an ideological and rhetorical against minorities. Thus, there is a value for calling out people who do not live up to standard of decency. At the same time, that is not a license to essentially push personal smears as scholarly analysis. There are skeletons in the closet, but they’ll lie happy and undisturbed if this the best that can be brought to bear.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 19, 2018 at 4:12 am

Posted in uncategorized

james buchanan and the stealth plan for insurance copays

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I’ve been thinking about James Buchanan again in light of Jennifer Burns’ new critical review of Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains. (Steve Teles and Henry Farrell both defend their own positions — and their independence from Charles Koch — one last time as well.)

I’m done talking about Democracy in Chains, but Buchanan was on my mind today. I don’t know how much direct influence he had on public policy. He hasn’t come up that much in my work, although obviously public choice arguments bolstered the case for deregulation.

Recently, though, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around health policy a little bit, in part to test whether arguments I’ve worked out looking at other social policy domains apply there as well. And here Buchanan plays an interesting — though quite indirect — role.

Health economics as a field only emerged in the 1960s. After federal health spending shot up with the 1965 passage of Medicare and Medicaid, government became increasingly interested in supporting such research.

One of the early papers that shaped that field — and indeed, the whole policy debate over universal health insurance — was Mark Pauly’s 1968 American Economic Review paper, “The Economics of Moral Hazard.”

The paper points out that individuals who are insured against all health costs are likely to seek out more care, at least of some types, than those who are not insured. Thus insurance that includes no deductible or cost-sharing is likely to result in overuse of care. The argument seems obvious now, but at the time — while familiar to insurers — it was novel in economics.

(Interestingly, in Kenneth Arrow’s comment on the paper, his counterargument to Pauly is basically, “this is why we have norms” — to prevent people from consuming more than they need: “Nonmarket controls, whether internalized as moral principles or externally imposed, are to some extent essential for efficiency.”)

Anyway, Pauly was a student of James Buchanan, and credits Buchanan with turning his attention to health policy. Pauly thought he’d do a thesis on “designing the economic framework for a government-funded voucher system for public education” (ahh, now we’re getting into MacLean territory).

But the passage of Medicare had created new pools of money for health research, and Buchanan suggested Pauly might look at health care instead.

Focused on his studies as well as his new wife, 25-year-old student Pauly was only vaguely aware and not much interested in these outside happenings until his mentor, James M. Buchanan, PhD, explained that the law creating Medicare also provided funds for academic health economics studies. He suggested that Pauly switch his thesis focus from education to health care economics and apply for a federal grant.

“Broadly speaking, I was interested in government and public policy,” Pauly remembers. “But the thing that drew me to health care economics was the money. I wish I could be more noble, but that was the reason. I got the grant and the rest is history.”

Three years later, the moral hazard paper was published. It significantly eroded the economic case for universal health insurance without meaningful cost-sharing—just the sort of plan that Ted Kennedy was then advocating—although economists like Rashi Fein would spend the next decade trying to build support for just such a plan.

Capture

The moral hazard argument also led the Office of Economic Opportunity to initiate the RAND Health Insurance Experiment, which was intended to estimate the effects of different pricing structures on healthcare consumption and outcomes.

After a decade of study and nearly $100 million in expenditures, the Health Insurance Experiment found that cost-sharing reduced the use of care without harming outcomes. (There was, of course, much debate over the results.) Employers took note: “The fraction of major companies with cost-sharing insurance plans rose from 30% to 63% in the years immediately following the publication of the experimental results.”

The next couple of decades would see repeated attempts to reform healthcare, but the principle of social insurance — of some kind of broad-based, universal coverage like Medicare — stayed on the margins of health policy conversations, replaced by a focus on cost-sharing, means-testing, and the promotion of competition.

So James Buchanan never got the education vouchers he would have liked, and that MacLean focuses on the context of Virginia’s multiyear desegregation battle. And he hardly would have been a fan of Obamacare, which gave government a sizable new role to play in healthcare. And really, whatever credit — or blame — there is should go to Pauly, not Buchanan. Buchanan was just there with advice at a critical moment.

But maybe, just a little, we can point to James Buchanan for helping to give us the healthcare system—with plenty of copays and high deductibles, and still no universal coverage—that we have today.

[With credit to Zach Griffen, who knows much more than I do about both health economics and health policy, for pointing me in the right direction.]

Written by epopp

September 18, 2018 at 8:47 pm

Posted in economics, health, policy

nico wilterdink v. andrew abbott

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In the August 2018 Theory and Society, sociologist Nico Wilterdink takes issue with Andrew Abbott’s recent book, Processual Sociology. The highly critical review goes through many of Abbott’s major claims and to argue that Abbott is either sloppy or is covering things that are already well established.

Perhaps the most cutting passage from the review is this one:

Originality is of course an important value in sociology, like in any scientific field. But because of the low degree of consensus in sociology about the basics of the discipline and, moreover, the problematic relation between sociological knowledge and lay knowledge, originality in sociology (as in other social sciences and large parts of the humanities) often comes down to what I would call quasi-originality. This may take the form of introducing new terms or proposing new conceptual distinctions that confuse rather than clarify or of advancing an idea that radically contradicts a mainstream view but is in no way more adequate than its opposite. Quasi-originality is innovation insufficiently checked by serious scientific (i.e., sociological) considerations. Yet it may acquire a degree of recognition among colleagues. Insofar as this is the case, it will contribute to theoretical pluralism but hinder rather than stimulate theoretical progress. Abbott’s book, I regret to write, contains various examples of this all-too-common sociological anomaly. I discuss some of them here.

Ouch. Harsh, but Wilterdink is really onto something. It is often the case that I will pick up a book and notice that it ignores a literature that I am familiar with. Abbott is treading dangerous waters here. In social theory, there is a long tradition of process oriented analysis and also a ton of people who are anti-positivist, humanist sociologists. Unless I had some obviously amazing innovation in this area, I’d probably steer clear.

Wilterdink is also to be commended to picking up on careless analogies. One of my pet peeves is the analogy from mathematics. In other words, a writer may pick up on some idea from mathematics and then claim that it is a good fit. Perhaps, but a lot of work has to go into showing that it is appropriate. Wilterdink critiques Abbott for pushing the fractal analogy when it isn’t helpful.

Bottom line: “One does not simply walk into processual sociology…

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Written by fabiorojas

September 18, 2018 at 4:47 am

Posted in uncategorized

harassment of students in medicine

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The New England Journal of Medicine has a “Perspectives” piece that reports on a survey of graduate and professional students at the University of Texas and Pennsylvania State University. The take home: female medical students report incredibly high rates of harassment compared to almost all other areas.

Commentary: Definitely bad news, but it fits a pattern that a lot of people have hypothesized about. Namely, you expect exceptionally have rates of abuse in institutions that have lopsided power dynamics. And if any field concentrates power in the hands of the few, it is the world of medicine.

I don’t think that the power dynamics will change any time soon in medical education, but university leaders can do a few things. First, there have to be serious repercussions for reports of abuse. Universities are more responsive than before, so that may help. Second, and more importantly, universities should think about ways to disperse power and create multiple points of authority. Medical education is a situation where people wield a lot of authority over students. So if one person is abusive, there are few people to turn to. It is not clear to me what the solution might be, but it would start by rethinking the way that senior physicians interact with new doctors.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 17, 2018 at 4:22 am

Posted in uncategorized

a delta blues anthology

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Written by fabiorojas

September 16, 2018 at 4:24 am

Posted in uncategorized

what is a “free speech absolutist?”

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In discussions of campus free speech, people toss around the phrase “free speech absolutist.” What does that mean? First, you have to define what a college is: an educational institution set up for adult education and research in various scholarly areas. What would it mean for there to be “absolute free speech?” Here is one way to think about it:

  • Absolutist free speech would mean that the college has to let anyone come to campus and say anything they want.
  • Absolutist unfree speech would mean that you can’t say anything unless it was approved by the college, which can censor whatever it wants.

In American history, colleges have shifted dramatically to the stronger tradition of free speech. It used to be the case that professors and administrators controlled most public speakers and clubs didn’t do much. Now, most colleges has a ton of student groups that are given free reign to invite whatever speaker they want to campus. And they do so without too much faculty interference.

Thus, most readers are already leaning toward the “absolute” side of things, but not totally.  Most people, including myself, don’t believe that colleges are obliged to host anyone who asks for a space to talk, but they do give a lot of leeway to students and faculty. The real issue happens when a professor or student invites a speaker who is genuinely controversial.

I think the anti-free speech people mean something like “if someone says something dangerous, we should have the right to ban them from campus.” Sometimes this is honest; people are genuinely alarmed by certain ideas. Sometimes it is just a way to shut down people who disagree with you.

But ultimately, how should we decide what is dangerous? In some cases, it is pretty obvious. If someone spouts a call for anti-Semitic violence, for example, they won’t be welcome. But, what if, a speaker thinks that immigrants are more likely to commit crime? Or that some that some ethnic group has an undesirable trait? In such cases, there are not calls to violence. Instead, they are unpopular opinions that can be subject to scholarly debate.

Ultimately, it lays on the shoulders of students and faculty to decide what unpopular opinions should be debated on campus. What if students or faculty invite crazies? Here, I like the view of Emily Chamlee-Wright, who advocates higher levels of faculty involvement. Faculty can say, “do you feel that you want your name attached to this idea? Is this really a good example of scholarly debate?” Normally, faculty sponsors for clubs intervene very little but with some more effort, faculty can help maintain an atmosphere of free speech on campus while having it applied in a more thoughtful way.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 13, 2018 at 6:23 pm

Posted in uncategorized