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is ethnography the most policy-relevant sociology?

The New York Times – the Upshot, no less – is feeling the love for sociology today. Which is great. Neil Irwin suggests that sociologists have a lot to say about the current state of affairs in the U.S., and perhaps might merit a little more attention relative to you-know-who.

Irwin emphasizes sociologists’ understanding “how tied up work is with a sense of purpose and identity,” quotes Michèle Lamont and Herb Gans, and mentions the work of Ofer Sharone, Jennifer Silva, and Matt Desmond.

Which all reinforces something I’ve been thinking about for a while—that ethnography, that often-maligned, inadequately scientific method—is the sociology most likely to break through to policymakers and the larger public. Besides Evicted, what other sociologists have made it into the consciousness of policy types in the last couple of years? Of the four who immediately pop to mind—Kathy Edin, Alice Goffman, Arlie Hochschild and Sara Goldrick-Rab—three are ethnographers.

I think there are a couple reasons for this. One is that as applied microeconomics has moved more and more into the traditional territory of quantitative sociology, it has created a knowledge base that is weirdly parallel to sociology, but not in very direct communication with it, because economists tend to discount work that isn’t produced by economics.

And that knowledge base is much more tapped into policy conversations because the status of economics and a long history of preexisting links between economics and government. So if anything I think the Raj Chettys of the world—who, to be clear, are doing work that is incredibly interesting—probably make it harder for quantitative sociology to get attention.

But it’s not just quantitative sociology’s inability to be heard that comes into play. It’s also the positive attraction of ethnography. Ethnography gives us stories—often causal stories, about the effects of landlord-tenant law or the fraying safety net or welfare reform or unemployment policy—and puts human flesh on statistics. And those stories about how social circumstances or policy changes lead people to behave in particular, understandable ways, can change people’s thinking.

Indeed, Robert Shiller’s presidential address at the AEA this year argued for “narrative economics”—that narratives about the world have huge economic effects. Of course, his recommendation was that economists use epidemiological models to study the spread of narratives, which to my mind kind of misses the point, but still.

The risk, I suppose, is that readers will overgeneralize from ethnography, when that’s not what it’s meant for. They read Evicted, find it compelling, and come up with solutions to the problems of low-income Milwaukeeans that don’t work, because they’re based on evidence from a couple of communities in a single city.

But I’m honestly not too worried about that. The more likely impact, I think, is that people realize “hey, eviction is a really important piece of the poverty problem” and give it attention as an issue. And lots of quantitative folks, including both sociologists and economists, will take that insight and run with it and collect and analyze new data on housing—advancing the larger conversation.

At least that’s what I hope. In the current moment all of this may be moot, as evidence-based social policy seems to be mostly a bludgeoning device. But that’s a topic for another post.

 

Written by epopp

March 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm

let’s panic thoughtfully

Since we’re both here, my social media bubble probably looks a lot like your social media bubble. And in my social media bubble, people are freaking out about the Trump presidency. There are false voter fraud claims, ugly attacks on the media, chilling of speech at government agencies, and a whole host of policy actions many find disastrous. I am also disturbed and fear that the U.S. is making an irreversible turn toward authoritarianism.

At the same time, I’m disheartened by how quickly academics and others who should know better unreflectively buy into the latest outrage on social media. This has negative consequences independent of Trump’s actions. Catastrophizing the bits that aren’t catastrophic undermines our authority to speak up about the things that actually are. And further politicization of the media and, now, the federal bureaucracy will continue to erode the very things that protect us from Trump’s worst.

I do not mean to create a false equivalence here. What Trump has the power to do vastly outweighs the chattering of academics or journalists on Twitter or Facebook. But I have no direct influence over Trump’s administration. I can, however, exhort my academic colleagues to do better.

In that spirit, here’s two things to consider before you decide to share the latest outrage.

1) Is this an important bill? Or just another bill?

In the 114th Congress, more than 12,000 bills were introduced. You know how many became law? 329. 86% never even make it out of committee. There are a bunch of extremists in Congress. Some of them introduce the same bills over and over that are never going to see the light of day. This has been going on for decades.

A few days ago, an Alabama Republican introduced a bill that would pull the U.S. out of the United Nations. Twitter went nuts, quoting the bill with captions like “WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. HELL.” It spread like crazy.

Problem is, this is nothing new. This representative has been introducing this bill into each Congress for the last two decades. It has nothing to do with Trump, nor are there any indications it was treated differently this time. There are lots of things to get worked up about. This bill is not one.

2) Is this politics as usual? Or something truly new and dangerous?

There has also been a lot of freaking out in the last couple of days about the silencing of federal agencies. EPA, NIH, and USDA have all had reports about communications restrictions, including cancellation of a planned climate change conference and a halt on all “public-facing documents” at USDA.

A lot of Trump’s political agenda will play out—or not—through the executive agencies. It is very likely that his appointees will attempt to undercut what many see as their basic missions. By all means, oppose this with great intensity.

But when administrations change, they are going to point agencies in new political directions. I don’t have firsthand experience working in federal agencies. But I have spent a lot of time reading documents from just these types of agencies in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Putting a pause on public communication during a transition doesn’t seem that radical to me.

I keep looking for a quote from an actual agency employee that says, “This is wildly different from what happened when George W. Bush took office.” The closest I can find is ProPublica saying an EPA employee “had never seen anything like it in nearly a decade with the agency.” But that only covers the Obama transition, which aligned with the mission of the EPA. It’s not clear that this is not politics-as-usual. Could it transition into something new and dangerous? Absolutely. But that ship has not yet sailed.

Why commitment to critical thinking matters in the face of a Trump administration

I can already hear people yelling that I’m not taking Trump seriously enough. “This isn’t ordinary times! This is an emergency. Real lives are at stake!”

But it’s precisely because I don’t think this is ordinary times—because I think we’re in a uniquely dangerous moment—that it is especially important that we retain the ability to think clearly, for two big reasons.

First, treating every single action of the administration as dangerous and disastrous, without any larger context, further politicizes our fragile institutions. It may be too late for the media. But it is not good for democracy if our bureaucracies go rogue.

People are delighted that the Badlands National Park gave the administration a big old middle finger yesterday with its climate change tweets. But to the extent that federal government functions at all, it functions because of all the unelected, unappointed people who do their jobs, regardless of administration. If ordinary government employees become seen as actively in the bag for the left, we are one step closer to having our government stop functioning entirely.

Is there a time to say “no”, and openly rebel or quit? Absolutely. And if you haven’t already, you should probably write down your own personal lines in the sand, before our sense of “normal” further erodes. If you’re at the EPA, maybe it’s active suppression of climate change evidence. If you’re at NSF, maybe it’s meddling with individual grants. Maybe your lines have already been crossed.

But if they haven’t, as a civil servant you serve democracy better by doing your job—even if that’s carrying out decisions made by someone you hate—than by throwing shade from a government Twitter account.

Second, assuming everything is catastrophic limits our ability to focus on the real catastrophes. The single most dangerous thing Trump has done in the last few days (and I know, it’s been a busy few days) is double down on his claims about massive voter fraud. Because if people don’t believe that our elections are basically honest and agree to respect the results of those elections, our democracy is truly toast.

The good news is that, according to the Washington Post, “Trump has virtually no elected allies in this assault on the election system.” Not even Sean Spicer will say Trump’s claims are actually true.

If we cry wolf about every change that is not in fact catastrophe—if we suddenly scream “fascism” about changes that are part of the normal workings of democracy, we undermine our ability to fight the things that matter most.

And if we don’t have a democratic government, all this other stuff we care so much about—healthcare, immigration policy, racial justice, science, foreign policy, whatever your personal biggest concerns are—will be irrelevant. A fully authoritarian government can do what ever it wants, and we’ll have no say. Defending democracy has to be priority #1. And defending democracy means commitment to reason.

Written by epopp

January 25, 2017 at 5:10 pm

the antitrust equilibrium and three pathways to policy change

Antitrust is one of the classic topics in economic sociology. Fligstein’s The Transformation of Corporate Control and Dobbin’s Forging Industrial Policy both dealt with how the rules that govern economic life are created. But with some exceptions, it hasn’t received a lot of attention in the last decade in econ soc.

In fact, antitrust hasn’t been on the public radar that much at all. After the Microsoft case was settled in 2001, antitrust policy just hasn’t thrown up a lot of issues that have gotten wide public attention, beyond maybe griping about airline mergers.

But in the last year or so, it seems like popular interest in antitrust is starting to bubble up again.

Just in the last few months, there have been several widely circulated pieces on antitrust policy. Washington Monthly, the Atlantic, ProPublica (twice), the American Prospect—all these have criticized existing antitrust policy and argued for strengthening it.

This is timely for me, because I’ve also been studying antitrust. As a policy domain that is both heavily technocratic and heavily influenced by economists, it’s a great place to think about the role of economics in public policy.

Yesterday I put a draft paper up on SocArXiv on the changing role of economics in antitrust policy. The 1970s saw a big reversal in antitrust, when we went from a regime that was highly skeptical of mergers and all sorts of restraints on trade to one that saw them as generally efficiency-promoting and beneficial for consumers. At the same time, the influence of economics in antitrust policy increased dramatically.

But while these two development are definitely related—there was a close affinity between the Chicago School and the relaxed antitrust policy of the Reagan administration, for example—there’s no simple relationship here: economists’ influence began to increase at a time when they were more favorable to antitrust intervention, and after the 1980s most economists rejected the strongest Chicago arguments.

I might write about the sociology part of the paper later, but in this post I just want to touch on the question of what this history implies about the present moment and the possibility of change in antitrust policy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

January 9, 2017 at 6:51 pm

free college: not dead yet

im-not-dead-yet

I’m not dead yet.

While higher ed has certainly been under attack since the election, Donald Trump hasn’t said too much about his agenda for higher education, and with Betsy DeVos, charter school aficionado, at the helm of the Department of Education, it seems like K-12 issues may be at the forefront of the new administration.

What’s pretty clear, though, is that “free college”, a la Bernie or, more reluctantly, Hillary, is not on that agenda. But free college, it turns out, has not disappeared: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a free college proposal of his own, to apply to SUNY and CUNY schools.

Cuomo’s proposal would make SUNY/CUNY tuition-free for families with incomes of up to $125,000. It would require full-time attendance, and be “last-dollar” aid—i.e., the fee waiver would kick in after federal Pell grants, NY state Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants, and any scholarships were already used up.

New York is not the first state to set forth some kind of “free college” proposal—see Tennessee and Oregon. However, it is the first to take it beyond the community college level. And the mere size of the NYS system—enrolling a million students—makes it impossible to ignore.

So, some caveats. “Free tuition” probably doesn’t cover fees, which at my SUNY, at least, are nearly $3000 a year. And it definitely doesn’t cover living expenses. New York also has low tuition, compared to most states—it is still only $6470 at four-year SUNYs. And it has a decent—though not as generous as California’s—state grant aid program in TAP. If your income is low enough—I’d guess below $50k, though that’s just a ballpark—between Pell and TAP you’re not paying any tuition anyway. As Matthew Chingos accurately points out in the Washington Post, families with incomes between $80,000 and $125,000 will benefit most.

And the fact that living expenses are still, at SUNY/CUNY, larger than tuition costs means that it’s also not going to make that much dent in student loans, which are lower-than-average (about $20k for four-year degrees) for SUNY graduates anyway. Cuomo’s headline about “alleviating crushing burden of student loans” is hyperbole.

So what this is, is a significant, and expensive, expansion of grant aid for the middle-class, and a reframing of what college costs (nothing! I know, I know) that may encourage lower-income students to go to college. And tying the benefit to full-time attendance may encourage more full-time enrollment, which evidence suggests (though there are a lot of selection effects here) facilitates completion.

And, of course, this is just a proposal. It’s not yet legislation, and there are a lot of steps between here and there. Nevertheless, despite its limitations, if this became a reality I think the implications for higher ed would be huge—for the symbolic value of committing to the idea that students should not pay for tuition, if nothing else.

Several commentators have explored the policy and student effects of Cuomo’s proposal. But what would the organizational impacts look like? Here, there are a couple of things to think through.

One is the question of whether this would be resource-neutral for SUNY and CUNY. There’s no indication it’s not intended to be, but a lot will depend on the details. For SUNY, at least, funding has only been loosely linked to tuition levels. Sometimes New York State has raised tuition to plug its revenue gaps, without SUNY ever seeing the money.

A second is how it intersects with the push for larger enrollments, which has been a pounding drumbeat over the last three or four years at SUNY (not sure about CUNY). Right now, additional students—even in-state ones—bring marginal benefits, but would that still be the case if many of them weren’t paying tuition? I don’t think the enrollment push has been particularly good for the institution, but it’s also been sold as the path to financial solvency. If free tuition means no benefits to larger enrollments, SUNY will have to find a new strategy for achieving long-term fiscal stability.

This could also affect who gets to enroll. Free tuition might make selective schools more competitive—which is probably good for them as institutions. But it also might encourage an even heavier focus on out-of-state and international students who can bring more revenue. That, in turn, could lead to battles over who gets the seats—New York residents or non-New-Yorkers paying full freight—which have been brutal in California, but largely absent in New York.

Finally, this clearly affects the complex organizational ecosystem of higher ed. It’s bad for private institutions in New York, especially small struggling colleges like Albany’s Saint Rose, which cut two dozen tenure lines last year in a desperate attempt to stay afloat. It’s probably also bad for for-profit colleges—largely because of the symbolic value of making college “free” rather than real changes in relative cost, since for-profit students are disproportionately in the lower-income group that wouldn’t benefit anyway.

But I’d hold that the biggest impact of such a plan would be the symbolic one. Is it ideal that it’s basically a middle-class tax benefit that does nothing material for lower-income families? No. But the institutional details of the New York State system—its relatively low tuition and preexisting state grant aid—make it possible to create “tuition-free college” here for less money than it would cost in many places. Showing that it can be done will make free college more than a pipe dream. SUNY/CUNY is the 500-pound gorilla of public higher ed. Where New York leads, others will follow.

Written by epopp

January 5, 2017 at 6:05 pm

Posted in academia, education, policy

echoes of espeland: competing rationalities in the dakota access pipeline

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Yesterday, the Army Corps of Engineers announced a temporary halt to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project. It stated that it would explore alternative routes for the pipeline that would, presumably, avoid the areas of deep concern to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

The DAPL story has been in the news on and off since September, when journalist Amy Goodman captured a clash in which guards used dogs and pepper spray to drive back protesters. I had only been paying superficial attention to it, but started thinking more yesterday with the Corps’ decision to hit pause on the project.

Specifically, I was thinking about the echoes between this battle and the one chronicled by Wendy Espeland in her classic book, Struggle for Water: Politics, Rationality, and Identity in the American Southwest.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by epopp

December 5, 2016 at 11:11 pm

how we abandoned the idea that media should serve the public interest

Yesterday the New Republic wrote about how little attention has been paid to policy in the current election. In 2008, the network news programs devoted 220 minutes to policy; this year, it’s been a mere 32 minutes.

The piece goes on to bemoan the decline of the public-interest obligation once held by broadcasters (and which still remains, in vestigial form) in exchange for their use of the airwaves, and to connect the dots between the gradual removal of those restrictions and the toxic media environment we find ourselves in today. While — I think appropriately — the article doesn’t overemphasize the causal effects, it does highlight a broader shift that was going on in the 1970s and is still echoing today.

The 1970s saw a wide, bipartisan embrace of the deregulatory spirit in many areas. The transportation industries — air, rail, trucking — were one chief target. Banking was in there. So was energy. More controversial, and less bipartisan, was the push for the removal of new social regulations—rules meant improve the environment, health, and safety. But even when it came to social regulation, both sides believed in regulatory reform. (I’ve recently written about some of this history.)

Economists were one group that made a strong case for economic deregulation — the removal of price and entry barriers in industries like transportation, energy, and finance. (For the definitive account, see Martha Derthick and Paul Quirk’s 1985 book.) Their role in airline deregulation, led by the colorful Alfred “To me, they’re all just marginal costs with wings” Kahn, is probably best known. But economists also had something to say about the Federal Communications Commission.

Perhaps the most famous — certainly one of the earliest — critics of the FCC was Ronald Coase. Coase argued in 1959 that there was no good reason, technical or economic, for the government to own the airwaves, and made the case for auctioning off the radio spectrum. He was not at all impressed with the argument that licenses should be distributed according to the “public interest”, and emphasized not only the legal ambiguity of that standard, but the fact that the FCC’s decisions reflected “a degree of inconsistency which defies generalization.”

At the time, the idea of the airwaves as a public trust was so universally accepted that Coase’s views seemed quite radical, even to other economists. When, in 1962, he extended his argument into a 200-page RAND report, coauthored with Bill Meckling and Jora Mirasian, RAND quashed it for being too incendiary. Later, recalling these events, Coase quoted an internal review of the paper: “I know of no country on the face of the globe—except for a few corrupt Latin American dictatorships—where the ‘sale’ of the spectrum could even be seriously proposed.”

By the early 1970s, though, a new consensus had emerged in economics around questions of regulation, and this consensus saw FCC demands that broadcasters behave in unprofitable ways not as acting in the “public interest,” but as a source of efficiency losses that should, at a minimum, be regarded skeptically. This aligned with increasingly loud arguments from outside of economics (as well as within) about regulatory capture, which implied that the “public interest” pursued by executive agencies would never be more than a sham, anyhow.

Eventually, this shift in mood led to a change in how the FCC regulated broadcasters. The public interest standard was loosened, and in 1981 the agency began to shift from using hearings to allocate spectrum licenses — in theory to the applicants that best served the public interest — to lottery. In 1994, it moved another step closer to Coase’s prescription, beginning to auction off the licenses — a move that stimulated a great deal of research in auction theory as well as generating substantial revenue.

The “public interest” goal, which had initially been baked into the allocation process (however poorly it was pursued in practice) became increasingly marginalized. Or perhaps it was subsumed within the assumed public interest in encouraging efficient use of the spectrum. The process echoes the one that took place in antitrust policy, in which historically significant goals other than allocative efficiency — goals that often conflicted with efficiency and even with each other — were gradually defined as being simply beyond the scope of what could be considered. (Indeed, Coase’s criticism of the inconsistency of the FCC’s behavior sounds quite similar to Justice Stewart’s scathing critique of merger law, written around the same time: “the sole consistency I can find is that under Section 7 [the merger section of the Clayton Act], the Government always wins.”)

I don’t know enough about the history of the FCC to have an informed opinion on whether the public interest standard as it stood circa 1970 was redeemable or if the agency was irreparably captured. And I definitely don’t think the decline of that standard is the main explanation for the current media environment, which goes far beyond television.

But I do think that the demise of the idea that we should expect media to have obligations beyond profit — which is bound up with the ideal, if not the practice, of the public interest standard — is a big contributor. Individual journalists — that increasingly rare breed — may remain professionally committed to an ethical code and a sense of mission that isn’t primarily about sales. But at the corporate level, any such qualms were abandoned long ago, and the journalistic wall between “church and state” — editorial and advertising — continues to crumble.

What this means is that we get political news that is just horse race coverage, and endless examination of the ugliest aspects of politics — which, unsurprisingly, encourages more of the same. Actually expecting media to pursue the “public interest”, whether through regulatory means or professional commitment, may be unrealistically idealistic. But giving up on the concept entirely seems certain to take us further down the path in which objective lies merit just as much attention as truth.

Written by epopp

November 3, 2016 at 11:39 am

Posted in economics, policy

don’t be fooled: trump gave a remarkably effective speech 

I woke up this morning and started reading the post-mortems on Trump’s speech.  Andrew Sullivan pronounced it boring and lacking substance. Michael Barbero in the New York Times called it a missed opportunity.  People are getting comfortable that Hillary’s point-spread will hold and we will ride Trump out.

Those people are wrong. First, I’ll say this up front and as clearly as I can: I do not support Trump for President of the United States. His temperament, his instincts, his tactics and his values are antithetical to mine and I cannot support him. But having said that, I will also say that he gave a remarkably effective speech. And I think it will get him elected. Let me be specific: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

July 22, 2016 at 4:58 pm