Archive for the ‘current events’ Category

facebook’s data scandal won’t make much of a difference: a comment on interpersonal vs. structural privacy

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Right now, Facebook is under tremendous criticism because the firm inappropriately allowed a third party to use their data. There is much consternation and even Facebook’s stock price has taken a hit. But from my view, I don’t think much will change. Why? People are very comfortable with a lack of “structural privacy.” In contrast, they deeply resent the violation of “interpersonal privacy.”

These discussions assume that there is a single thing called “privacy” and that people will get upset when they don’t have privacy. This assumption comes from the nature of human interaction pre-industrial revolution. Before the rise of modern information systems, whether they be Census documents or Facebook meta-data, privacy meant that people in your immediate environment did not have access to all the information about you. This even applied to families. Many of us, for example, have diaries that we don’t want other family members to read.

Why do we value “interpersonal” privacy? There are many reasons. We may not want our immediately relations to know that we are critical of what they do. Maybe we don’t want our neighbors to know that we like strange food. Or maybe we don’t want our employer to know that we don’t like them so much. What these reasons and others share in common is that the possession of knowledge prevents inter-personal conflict. Without privacy, we wouldn’t be free to form opinions and we would likely be in constant conflict with each other.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Snowden revelations are about a different flavor of privacy – one that I call “structural privacy.” In the modern age, all kinds of institutions collect data on us. It could be the phone company, or the Internal Revenue Service, or Facebook. However, the data is often summarized so that it doesn’t involve a single person. When people access it, they rarely have any personal relationship to the people in the data base. Thus, people don’t usually experience interpersonal conflict when they loose “structural privacy,” the privacy that is maintained when information is collected by institutions for collective purposes. The IRS agent who peeks at your return or the Facebook employee who looks at your friendship list almost never know you and they don’t care.

This suggests that Facebook will probably be fine in the long term. People, in general, seem to be ok with the fact that firms and states routinely violate their structural privacy. The Snowden revelations barely elicited any push back from the public and almost no change in public policy. Here, I think the same process will play out. As long as Facebook can maintain privacy at the interpersonal level, they can carry on as usual.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 9, 2018 at 4:45 am

the iraq war, a forever war


On September 10, 2001, I never imagined that the US would be involved in an endless war in Iraq, a conflict that still takes thousands of lives each year. Even after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, I did not imagine that the US would be involved in Iraq fifteen years later, sending money and advisers in a nearly endless stream.

What horrifies me is the human cost. When I was doing the research for Party in the Street, I met people who had lived in Iraq or served in Iraq. Meeting and talking to them showed me the immediate cost of the war. Families lost. Lives shattered. Faces disfigured. Children who committed suicide.

What now? The Iraq War is a “Keynesian war,” to used a phrase coined by sociologist Sidney Tarrow. Modern wars are often fought with borrowed money and volunteer armies. They are kept out of the public view. They are pursued in ways that prevent scrutiny and public input. That means that the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan, can continue in one way or another for quite a while.

I am not a pessimist. But I am a realist, this will continue for a while before it gets better. My hope is that Iraq follows the path of the Philippines after it was occupied by the US in the early 20th century. They had a long insurrection but then a period of modernization and integration into the global economy. Sadly, we’ve already had the violence, and it’s time to move on.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 22, 2018 at 4:22 am

defending free speech the right way: three cheers for gabriel rossman

Recently, a UCLA conservative student group invited Milo Yiannopolous to speak at the campus. Then, UCLA sociologist (and former orgtheory guest) Gabriel Rossman wrote an open letter to the Bruin Republicans urging them to rescind the invitation, which they did. Excerpts from the letter, as published in The Weekly Standard:

The most important reason not to host such a talk is that it is evil on the merits. Your conscience should tell you that you never want anything to do with someone whose entire career is not reasoned argument, but shock jock performance art. In the 1980s conservatives made fun of “artists” who defecated on stage for the purpose of upsetting conservatives. Now apparently, conservatives are willing to embrace a man who says despicable things for the purpose of “triggering snowflakes.” The change in performance art from the fecal era to the present is yet another sign that no matter how low civilization goes, there is still room for further decline.

I want to be clear that my point here is not that some people will be offended, but that the speaker is purely malicious.

I could not agree more. Gabriel makes it clear that he is defending their right to have a speaker, but that it is unwise and unethical to invite this particular speaker. On Twitter, Gabriel also makes it clear that there was a lot of internal pressure to cancel this talk, and that the open letter was a secondary part of the story.

I want to add a few words about the defense of free speech, drawn from Gabriel’s letter. First, Gabriel avoids a common mistake – no where does he oppose the talk because he thinks that having the talk will somehow legitimize racism or undermine UCLA. Universities are hardy creatures and hosting a shock jock conservative will not have any appreciable effect on racism in the larger society.

Second, he focuses on wisdom – is this really the right thing to do? Does inviting Yiannopolous really promote truth seeking? This is the difference between hosting a “conservative performance art” event and a conservative intellectual with genuinely held beliefs that need to be debated. I think this is the difference between inviting Charles Murray – who provides evidence and is willing to debate – and Yiannopolous. One has controversial views, the other is a controversy machine. There is a huge difference.

Finally, this approach provides a broader defense of free speech and debate for all people. On a basic level, students and faculty have been given the privilege to invite who ever they want to campus. And that means some nasty people will be invited from time to time and we should support that right.

On a deeper level, we need a higher standard to decide which speech should be actively supported. If someone provides data and can treat others civilly in debate, we should be very tolerant. If someone shows a basic mastery of argument and analysis of evidence, they deserve a hearing. Conversely, if a faculty member is a scholar in good standing, we should be forgiving if they mis-speak in public.

We need to appreciate that the core of the university is not free speech.  Rather, free speech is a starting point. What real scholars do is select which speech merits a spotlight and an analysis and that’s a crucial activity.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 16, 2018 at 5:12 am

three cheers for california!

Marijuana is now legal in the state of California and a few other states. I applaud this move. I am glad that the arrests and criminalization are coming to an end. The ingestion of narcotics should be treated the way we treat alcohol. It should be legal and you should only be prosecuted if your behavior endangers others. And if you harm yourself, go see the doctor. You shouldn’t go to prison. Let’s hope this is part of a bigger trend.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

January 8, 2018 at 8:10 am

why contemporary architecture sucks and why economic sociology is the future we’ve been waiting for

Biranna Rennix and Nathan Robinson have a long, but well-written essay called “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture, and If You Don’t Why You Should”.  The hook: name one example of a building built in the last 70 years that stands up to anything built before the War?  You, like me, probably have a hard time thinking of an answer.

The explanation they offer is that this isn’t just a question of taste.  It is that computers have allowed architects to do things now that weren’t possible before the war.  So we don’t design buildings anymore, we engineer them.  And the engineering possibilities far outstrip normal human capability.  Combine that with capitalism’s emphasis on efficiency and what you get is buildings that are both ugly and inhuman.

As I started reading it, I was thinking to myself “it is so nice to read something long and thoughtful that has nothing to do with Donald Trump.”  But of course, it’s not that simple.  Eventually, I found myself substituting the phrase “public policy” for “architecture.” And in doing so, I found myself coming to an explanation for the “populist moment” we are living through: Just as post-war architecture became more and more focused on efficiency and technical superiority at the expense of feelings and human needs, public policy in the post-War period has become more distant, abstract and technical.

I sympathize with the reaction of elite architecture professors who resist the idea that the solution to the problem of contemporary architecture is to retreat into “nostalgic” buildings.  Similarly, I resist the idea that the response to the critique of contemporary public policy is to go back to a nostalgic pastiche of an vaguely defined golden era.

But here’s the thing: even if I don’t agree with the treatment for the illness I can’t ignore the underlying diagnosis.  Massive policy projects—whether the European Union or reforming the American health care system—are Le Corbusian in their ambition and intelligence as well as their capacity for mass alienation.  And that policy alienation has produced a real and consequential backlash that we should not ignore (despite our moment of joy over the results in Alabama–go ‘Bama!).

The upshot of the architecture article is a call to reintroduce fallibility and limited human capacity into processes by which buildings get built.  Venice and Bruges resulted from the work of builders who contributed in ways that improved on what was already there.  They did so with tools and technologies that suffered from human limitations.  But the result was architecture that is human and even sometimes beautiful. These places evolved in response to—and, were limited by—the people and communities that inhabited them, not the other way around.  Can we find a way to make public policy that takes the same lesson to heart without retreating to a past that never actually existed?

This is where economic sociology comes in.  I don’t go too much for economist bashing.  I like economists.  Some of my best friends of economists.  The strength of their insights is undeniable.  But there is no doubt that the quantitative turn in economics is the equivalent of the arrival of CAD technology in architecture.  It has lead to an exceptionally technocratic era of policy analysis the goal of which is to rationalize and to engineer policy-making on a superhuman scale.  Intellectually, it’s good stuff.  But over-reliance on it, in combination with embracing a certain form of capitalism the last fifty years, has introduced a lot of the same problems that CAD technology introduced into architecture.  We have extracted humans and history from the process of making policy and Trump (and Brexit, and Marine Le Pen) are a result.

Economic sociology, if it doesn’t get itself too distracted by fancy tools, has a contribution to make.  Or more than a “contribution”, economic sociology could become the intellectual basis on which to build a new approach to thinking about public policy.  One that reintroduces a focus on human interactions—with their faults and frailties, as well as their capacity for beauty and insight—as the central actor in the process by which strong societies—not just policies (i.e.,buildings) but societies—are built.  It is not just a matter of understanding the behavioral psychology of people in response to the engineered policies in which they live.  It is understanding how the interaction of human beings produces and evolves social institutions.

The irony of ironies is that Donald Trump—the guy who brought the idea of “look at me” architecture to its tackiest heights when he demolished the perfectly nice 1929 Art Deco Bonwit Teller building in order to build a minimalist brass-tinted-glass monument to value engineering—should be leading the populist policy “movement”.  We can and should reject both his facile, anti-intellectual nostalgia and also the technocratic policy elitism of the second half of the 20th century.  Economic sociology, or at least some version of it, seeks to understanding how institutional fabrics emerge and evolve.  Yet we have not really figured out how to translate that knowledge to a wider audience.  But, we need to (because if we don’t someone else will)

Yes we can.

Written by seansafford

December 13, 2017 at 3:19 pm

the PROSPER Act, the price of college, and eroding public goodwill

The current Congress is decidedly cool toward colleges and the students attending them. The House version of the tax bill that just passed eliminates the deduction on student loan interest and taxes graduate student tuition waivers as income. Both House and Senate bills tax the largest college endowments.

Now we have the PROSPER Act, introduced on Friday. The 500-plus page bill does many things. It kills the Department of Education’s ability to keep aid from going to for-profit schools with very high debt-to-income ratios, or to forgive the loans of defrauded student borrowers . It loosens the rules that keep colleges from steering students into questionable loans in exchange for parties, perks, and other kickbacks.

And it changes the student loan program dramatically, ending subsidized direct loans and replacing them with a program (Federal ONE) that looks more like current unsubsidized loans. Borrowing limits go up for undergrads and down for some grads. The terms for income-based repayment get tougher, with higher monthly payments and no forgiveness after 20 years. Public Service Loan Forgiveness, particularly important to law schools, comes to an end. (See Robert Kelchen’s blog for some highlights and his tweetstorm for a blow-by-blow read of the bill.)

To be honest, this could be worse. Although I dislike many of the provisions, given the Republican higher ed agenda there’s nothing shocking or unexpectedly punitive, like the grad tuition tax was.

Still, between the tax bill and this one, Congress has taken some sharp jabs at nonprofit higher ed. This goes along with a dramatic downward turn in Republican opinion of colleges over the last two years.Capture

Obviously, some of this is a culture war. Noah Smith highlights student protests and the politicization of the humanities and social sciences as the reason opinion has deteriorated. I think there are aspects of this that are problems, but the flames have mostly been fanned by those with a preexisting agenda. There just aren’t that many Reed Colleges out there.

I suspect colleges are also losing support, though, for another reason—one that is much less partisan. That is the cost of college.

I think colleges have ignored just how much goodwill has been burned up by the rise in college costs. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been buried in data about tuition rates, net prices, and student loans. Although intellectually I knew how much prices risen, it was still shocking to realize how different the world of higher ed was in 1980.

The entire cost of college was $7,000 a year. For everything. At a four-year school. At a time when the value of the maximum Pell Grant was over $5,000, and the median household income was not far off from today’s. Seriously, I can’t begin to imagine.

The change has been long and gradual—the metaphorical boiling of the frog. The big rise in private tuitions took place in the 90s, but it wasn’t until after 2000 that costs at publics (both sticker price and net price—the price paid after scholarships and grant aid) increased dramatically. Unsurprisingly, student borrowing increased dramatically along with it. The Obama administration reforms, which expanded Pell Grants and improved loan repayment terms, haven’t meant lower costs for students and their families.

Picture1What I’m positing is that the rising cost of college and the accompanying reliance on student loans have eroded goodwill toward colleges in difficult-to-measure ways. On the one hand, the big drop in public opinion clearly happened in last two years, and is clearly partisan. Democrats have slightly ticked up in their assessment of college at the same time.

But I suspect that even support among Democrats may be weaker than it appears, particularly when it comes to bread-and-butter issues, rather than culture-war issues. Only a small minority (22%) of people think college is affordable, and only 40% think it provides good value for the money. And this is the case despite the growing wage gap between college grads and high school grads. Sympathy for proposals that hit colleges financially—whether that means taxing endowments, taxing tuition waivers, or anything else that looks like it will force colleges to tighten their belts—is likely to be relatively high, even among those friendly to college as an institution.

This is likely worsened by the common pricing strategy that deemphasizes the importance of sticker price and focuses on net price. But the perception, as well as the reality, of affordability matters. Today, even community college tuition ($3500 a year, on average) feels like a burden.

The point isn’t whether college is “worth it” in terms of the long-run income payoff. In a purely economic sense there’s no question it is and will continue to be. But pushing the burden of cost onto individuals and families, rather than distributing it more broadly, makes it feel unbearable, and makes people think colleges are just in it for the money. (Which sometimes they are.) I’m always surprised that my SUNY students think the mission of the university is to make money off of them.

This perception means that students and their families and the larger public will be reluctant to support higher education, whether in the form of direct funding, more financial aid, or the preservation of weird but mission-critical perks, like not taxing tuition waivers.

The PROSPER Act, should it come to fruition, will provide another test for public institutions. Federal borrowing limits for undergraduates will rise by $2,000 a year, to $7,500 for freshmen, $8,500 for sophomores, and $9,500 for juniors and seniors. If public institutions immediately default to expecting students to take out the new maximum in federal loans each year, they will continue to erode goodwill even among those not invested in the culture wars.

The sad thing is, this is a self-reinforcing cycle. Colleges, especially public institutions, may feel like they have no choice but to allow tuition to climb, then try to make up the difference for the lowest-income students. But by adopting this strategy, they undermine their very claim to public support. Letting borrowing continue to climb may solve budget problems in the short run. In the long run, it’s shooting yourself in the foot.



Written by epopp

December 4, 2017 at 3:55 pm

brooke harrington has committed no crime

It is very unfortunate that an American sociologist working in Denmark, Brooke Harrington, has become entangled in immigration law. She is being charged with a criminal violation for giving lectures within Denmark. From Inside Higher Education:

Harrington’s research is controversial in that it deals with tax loopholes and offshore accounts of kind documented in the so-called Panama Papers. Yet that isn’t what Danish officials find problematic. Citing a series of lectures Harrington delivered — ironically — to members of the Danish Parliament, Danish tax authorities and a law class at the University of Copenhagen this year and last, they’ve charged her with working outside her university and therefore the parameters of her work permit.

Denmark has taken a relatively hard line against immigrants in recent years. The charges against Harrington are notable, however, in that she is an internationally recognized scholar, not a refugee or a low-skill worker — those who are more typically criticized in the country. Her case is also part of a bigger reported crackdown on foreign academics sharing their research in Denmark.  Some 14 foreign researchers across Denmark’s eight public universities have been accused of violating their work permits on similar grounds, according to Politiken, a major newspaper.

Harrington faces $2,000 in fines and a much bigger problem: paying up simply to move on would mean admitting to a crime, with major repercussions for the rest of her career. Job applications and even travel visas often have a box asking whether one has ever been convicted of a crime, she said. There’s little room for nuance in answering a yes-or-no question, Harrington added, so “yes” applications typically get tossed in what she called “the round bin.”

Yes, I completely agree with  Harrington’s supporters. She should not face criminal charges and they should immediately be dropped. I also urge that people should reconsider the strict work permit laws that exist in many countries. The state should not place these sort of regulations on work. A moral and just society does not impose arcane and arbitrary rules on how a person can earn a living, or where than can give paid lectures, and that applies to natives as well as migrants. If you feel that Professor Harrington has been treated unfairly, then you will easily understand how such strict rules curtail the freedom of millions around the world. Let’s support Professor Harrington and let’s support the right of people in general to live and work as they please.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 30, 2017 at 5:01 am