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levy book forum 3: is civil society that bad?

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In the last two installments of the Levy book forum, I reviewed the basic ideas of the book and some of his discussion of states. In this last installment, I will discuss Part III of the book, which goes into how associations can be pretty nasty.

Part III starts with a parade of the horrible things groups can do to members and their types of dysfunctions. Factionalism, interest groups who hijack the state, angry majorities who hunt minorities. The discussion makes me afraid to walk home at night!

I think most sociologists would be comfortable with this overall view. There are many groups that are illiberal in nature and we should be concerned. And this is a permanent feature of the human condition. We ally with others of similar mind to oppose those we find distasteful or dangerous.

A few questions came to mind as I read that section. First, empirically, have civil associations been fairly depicted? I think my answer is no. I think that non-states can be repressive and violent, but since they like access to state violence, the magnitude of the problem is much less. Levy is not an empirical social scientists, so it may be a smidgen unfair to raise this issue. But we can ask – what are the worst atrocities committed by non-states vs. those committed by states? In some order: the European genocide of non-European peoples; the mass murder of people by socialist states like China in the Cultural Revolution or in the Leninist-Stalinist phases of the USSR; genocide and war making by imperialist and fascist states in the mid 20th century.

In contrast, it is hard to find atrocities of this level committed by private groups without the assistance of states. When we look at private atrocities, like Belgian companies killing millions in the Congo in the early 20th century, they are supported and endorsed by the Belgian state. People often look at example like United Fruit massacre, where a private company killed many, many people. The casualty there is much lower (about 2,000 in the worst estimate) and even then, many historians think it had the blessing of the US state.

A second issue is how we can think to limit or mitigate the illiberal tendencies of civic associations. One answer I wish Levy had delved into is to have states strictly enforce the right of exit from any contract or agreement. A hardcore libertarian might say that we have the right to waive that right. But pragmatic concerns point in a different direction. If courts consistently make it possible to exit communities with low or reasonable penalties, then associations would have an incentive to act in ways that treat members well. It doesn’t address all the pathologies that Levy talks about, but an Al Hirshman perspective might help a lot here.

To summarize: Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom is a good long read in political theory. I think it raises great questions for sociologists and political scientists alike. Recommended!!

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!

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Written by fabiorojas

November 14, 2017 at 5:06 am

levy book forum 2: political theory and the nature of society

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A few weeks ago, I began reviewing Jacob Levy’s new book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom. The main point of the book is that you can’t have it both ways. A political liberalism that restrains the state can’t, at the same time, celebrate the civil sphere without qualification because civic associations themselves can become illiberal. Private groups can behave in fairly repressive ways that resemble what states do.

As I wrote, the book is lengthy and covers a lot of ground. In this part of the review, I want to delve a little into Part II, which examines how political theory has thought about the state. I think sociologists might enjoy this because it provides an alternative to how we think about states. In modern sociology, states, per Weber, are holders of legitimate force, or they are the place where ultimate authority is created and exercised. Perhaps a Bourdieusian might suggest that it is a place for statecraft, while a post-Bourdieusian view, like that espoused by McAdam and Fligstein (2012), would see it as an “ultimate” field that overlaps with other fields.

What does Levy draw from the discussion of states over the course of political theory? Perhaps most interesting to sociologists is the idea that modern states are not so much about violence, but rather the centralization of force and violence. Second is the response to centralization – things outside states are about self governance rather than governance by others. So, as we shifted away from the middle ages to modernity, we built big fat states, which encouraged people to assert independence in various forms (guilds, universities, etc.) There is much more to Levy’s analysis, but this captures a crucial starting point. Third, modern notions of freedoms are about trying to pull together all the concessions made to individual freedom by states during their formation. A lot of political theory is about trying to provide a more integrated account of freedom because in the middle ages freedom was defined in an ad hoc and disconnected way.

What should sociologists draw from this? One obvious lesson is that a crucial dimension of fields, such as states, is vestment in governance. In a particular field, or social domain, who has the authority? Is there a lot of self-governance? Centralized power? Or some sort of collegium model? Second, rights – political rights in Levy’s case – may be scattered or concentrated. Thus, in understanding fields, it is not about inequality or resources, but also about claims over resources and autonomy. As the case of political rights shows, rights can be broken up (e.g., right to trade, right to free speech) and effort (“institutional work” in modern jargon) must be expended to make the right more coherent in its context. The big lesson is that maybe field theory, and the sociology of states, focuses too much on resource inequality and should think more carefully about autonomy and control.

Next week, I’ll focus on Levy’s claims about the ills of private associations. Thanks for reading.

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

November 9, 2017 at 5:01 am

the democrats can’t decide how radical they want to be on antitrust

The other day I wrote about the current moment in the spotlight for antitrust. (Here’s the latest along these lines from Noah Smith.) Today I’ll say something about the new Democratic proposals on antitrust and how to think about them in terms of the larger policy space.

The Democrats are basically proposing three things. First, they want to limit large mergers. Second, they want active post-merger review. Third, they want a new agency to recommend investigations into anticompetitive behavior. None of these—as long as you don’t go too far with the first—is totally out of keeping with the current antitrust regime. And by that I mean however politically unlikely these proposals may be, they don’t challenge the expert and legal consensus about the purpose of antitrust.

But the language they use certainly does. The proposal’s subhead is “Cracking Down on Corporate Monopolies and the Abuse of Economic and Political Power”. The first paragraph says that concentration “hurts wages, undermines job growth, and threatens to squeeze out small businesses, suppliers, and new, innovative competitors.” The next one states that “concentrated market power leads to concentrated political power.” This is political language, and it goes strongly against the grain of actual antitrust policy.

Economic antitrust versus political antitrust

Antitrust has always had multiple, competing purposes. The original Progressive-Era antitrust movement was partly about the power of trusts like Standard Oil to keep prices high. But it was also about more diffuse forms of power—the power of demanding favorable treatment by banks, or the power to influence Congress. That’s why the cartoons of the day show the trusts as octopuses, or as about to throw Uncle Sam overboard.

The Sherman Act (1890) and the Clayton Act (1914), the two major pieces of antitrust legislation, are pretty vague on what antitrust is trying to accomplish. The former outlaws combinations and conspiracies in restraint of trade, and monopolizing or attempt to monopolize. The latter outlaws various behaviors if their effect is “substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly.” The courts have always played the major role in deciding what that means.

Throughout the last century, the courts have mostly tried to address the ability of firms to raise prices above competitive levels—the economic side of antitrust. For the last forty years, they have focused specifically on maximizing consumer welfare, often (though not always) defined as allocative efficiency. Since the late 1970s, this has been pretty locked in, both through court decisions, and through strong professional consensus that makes antitrust officials very unlikely to challenge it.

Before the 1970s, though, two things were different. For one thing, the focus was more on protecting competition, and less on consumer welfare per se (the latter was assumed to follow from the former, and was thought of a little more broadly). For another, the courts sometimes took concerns into account other than keeping prices low.

The most common such concern was the fate of small business. Concern for small business motivated the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936, which prohibited anticompetitive price discrimination. It was clear in the Celler-Kefauver Act of 1950, which restricted mergers out of fear that chain stores would eliminate local competition. And the courts acknowledged it in cases like Brown Shoe (1962), which prevented a merger that would have controlled 7% of the shoe market by pointing to Congress’s concern with preserving an “economic way of life” and protecting “local control of industry” and “small business.”

Today, Brown Shoe is seen as part of the bad old days of antitrust, when it was used to protect inefficient small businesses and to pursue confused social goals. This is a strong consensus position among antitrust experts across the political spectrum. While no one thinks that low prices for consumers are the only thing worth pursuing in life, they are the appropriate goal for antitrust because they make it coherent and administrable. Since those experts’ views dominate the antitrust agencies, and have been codified into law through court decisions, they are very resistant to change.

The Democrats’ proposal: radical language, incremental proposals

So when the Democrats start talking about “the abuse of economic and political power,” the effects of concentration on small business, and limiting mergers that “reduce wages, cut jobs, [or] lower product quality,” they are doing two things. First, they are hearkening back to the original antitrust movement, with its complex mix of concerns and its fear of unadulterated corporate power.

Second, they are very much talking about political antitrust, and political antitrust is deeply challenging to the status quo. But their actual proposals are considerably tamer than the fiery language at the beginning, and are structured in a way that doesn’t push very hard on the current consensus. New merger guidelines could make some difference around the margins. Post-merger review would definitely be good, since there’s currently no enforcement of pre-merger conditions that firms agree to, and no good way to figure out which merger approvals had negative effects. I have a hard time seeing a new review agency having much effect, though, since it’s just supposed to make recommendations to other agencies. Even I don’t like bureaucracy that much.

So my read on this is that the Democrats feel like they need a new issue, and it needs to look like it helps the little guy, and they want to sound like populist firebrands. But when you get down to the nitty gritty, they aren’t really so interested in challenging the status quo. That is, basically, they’re Democrats. Still, that the language is in there at all is remarkable, and reflects a changing set of political possibilities.

Next time I’ll look at some of the problems people are suggesting antitrust can solve. Because there are a lot of them, and they’re a diverse group. Tying them together under the umbrella of “antitrust” gives an eclectic political project some nominal coherence. But is it politically practicable? And could it actually work?

Final note: If you are interested in the grand historical sweep of antitrust in capitalism, I recommend Brett Christophers’ The Great Leveler. Among other things, he totally called the emerging wave of interest before it actually happened. Sometimes the very long lens is the right one to use.

Written by epopp

August 3, 2017 at 3:04 pm

fdr and the unjust incarceration of japanese americans

Another reason to hate the 32nd president. On his Facebook account, historian David Beito posted this excerpt about how FDR ignored the FBI’s recommendation that Japanese Americans be left alone:

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover “argued against calls for the evacuation of the 110,000 Japanese-Americans (70,000 of them U.S. citizens by birth) living on the West Coast:

‘The necessity for mass evacuation is based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data. Public hysteria and, in some instances, the comments of the press and radio announcers have resulted in a tremendous amount of pressure being brought to bear on Governor [Culbert] Olson [of California] and Earl Warren, Attorney-General of the State, and on the military authorities.’

Roosevelt disregarded Hoover’s advice. He listened instead to alarmist voices from California, among them that of the general commanding West Defense Command, John L. De Witt, who insisted that, despite their peaceable appearance, Japanese-Americans were ‘organized and ready for concerted action.’ De Witt drew sinister conclusions from his own lack of evidence. ‘The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date,’ he perversely argued, ‘is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.’ The president was surprisingly impressed by De Witt’s lack of logic. On February 19 he signed Executive Order 9066, which paved the way for the mass internment of Japanese-Ameri­cans on the West Coast, who were branded as disloyal and deprived of their liberty without trial or right of redress.”

Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 74

Wow, when J. Edgar Hoover accuses you of making it all up, you are really on the wrong side of history. What I find interesting about this excerpt is how DeWitt’s reasoning  belies the paranoia and illogic of bias. When people aren’t doing anything, that is evidence they are up to something!!!

Chinese workers, Japanese farmers, Mexican laborers, Syrian refugees – the story is the same every time. Guilty until proven innocent. The less they do, the more dangerous they are. It behooves us to remember historical episodes like this the next time political leaders demand that some group be punished.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 4, 2017 at 12:49 am

russian and chinese control of social media

Last week, I was asked to be a discussant on a panel for a conference on Russian media. I responded to a paper by journalist, Andrei Soldatov, whose paper chronicled the Russian state’s response to social media. The way I summarized it is as follows:

  • As with most states, initial confusion.
  • Then, journalists, and social media by extension, were granted Western style autonomy.  Until…
  • The contraction of the Russian economy de-legitimized Western views of press freedom.
  • And then the Russian state clumsily tried to usurp social media firms.
  • And then that failed, they turned to the Chinese state for help managing social media.

In my reading, then, the Russian state is in between Western and Chinese models of social media control. The Western model is passive and uses law enforcement as a model. You let people post what they want but you do surveillance and intervene as needed. In the Chinese model, you control the entire platform and censor as needed.

Soldatov added that recently the Russian and Chinese states have met to set up standards and arrange for the purchase of Chinese equipment, which suggests that the Russian state is going deeper into the Chinese model of social control.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 18, 2017 at 12:17 am

let charles murray speak

On Tuesday evening, Charles Murray will speak at Indiana University. Not surprisingly, his visit has resulted in a bit of discussion on campus. A number of people have immediately wanted to protest the meeting and, like at many campuses, people want “answers.” A lot of my colleagues have acted honorably. While some have jumped to wild conclusions and recommended strong actions, most have done what scholars are supposed to do. They are asking questions, they are discussing the scholarly responses to Murray’s work, and they are organizing their own events.

Here, I want to lay out how I think about campus free speech. Basically, campus free speech is really about the ability of the owners, managers, and employees of an academic institution to discuss whatever they want in a civil environment. There is a lot of trust and tolerance built into this view of free speech. There are no boards that police campus events. There is no party that the campus represents. It is not the Indiana University of Liberals and it is not the Indiana University of Conservatives. It is simply Indiana University. Thus, if a small group of students and faculty obtain their own funding to bring in an outside speaker, so be it.

In this discussion, two important issues are raised and they deserve an answer. First, does permitting Murray to speak somehow legitimize or bring attention to “hate speech?” The answer is clearly no. Lots of ideas are taught and discussed in universities, including hateful ones, but that doesn’t legitimize them. For example, many Western Civilization classes and history classes will read Mein Kampf, in an attempt to understand national socialism and related movements.

Furthermore, it is not clear to me that Murray’s talk would even fit the definition of hate speech, which is that it is speech that “attacks” or “disparages” a minority group. His speech is about his book, Coming Apart. I have not read it, but it appears to be about the differences between working and middle class Whites. It may be right or wrong, but does not appear to be hate speech, as normally understood (“disparaging” or “attacking” remarks about an ethnic group). Finally, it would be unwise for universities to directly police speech. I rue the day that a committee of professors and students directly intervene in invited talks and seminars.

Second, people ask whether it is good or bad that conservative groups sponsor a talk. Once again, I return to the foundation of higher education. A university is not a community of liberals or conservatives. It is a community of scholars. Thus, funding – from any source – is not a problem so long as the funding is consistent with the ideals of independent scholarship. It is totally ok if a group funds scholarship that they like, so long as the student or faculty member is free to come to the conclusion they feel best reflects the evidence.

This is the standard that should be applied to liberal groups, like the Soros Foundation, or conservative groups, like the American Enterprise Institute, which often donate to campuses. In terms of the Murray talk, the faculty who helped organize the talk – some of whom I know personally – have also invited liberals, such as E.J. Dionne, and conservatives, such as a recent talk by Bill Kristol. The Murray talk seems to be consistent with inviting a fairly broad spectrum of commentators, even those who are in the opposite camp.

Finally, let me end with a discussion of the source of Murray’s notoriety. It is not Coming Apart, it is The Bell Curve.  That is the book that most people are alluding to when he is accused of hate speech. In all honesty, it is the only work by Murray I have read in its entirety. I read it in the 1990s to see what all the controversy was about.

It’s a mixed bag in my view. The book’s main goal is to argue that IQ research is not a sham and that it is a variable of importance for studying life outcomes. This is actually a fair point and it is consistent with a lot of sociological practice, but not its rhetoric. For example, how many models of achievement or status control for “academic ability?” Answer: tons. In the mid-20th century, it wasn’t unusual for sociologists to have a regression with IQ in it, such as Blau and Duncan’s The American Occupational Structure. Even today, many surveys will include measurements of cognitive ability. The GSS even has a verbal test in it so the researcher can adjust for IQ.

But The Bell Curve goes farther than that and makes many dodgy claims. For example, it claims that American cities will become segregated by cognitive ability, which may or may not be true. Then, there is the very short section on group differences – including racial differences – in IQ, which should be treated with great caution. But, for me, most people skipped over the most non-sequitur claim in The Bell Curve, which is that cognitive limits should be the basis of public policy (e.g., cutting social support makes sense since it won’t change IQ and thus behavior). This strikes me as bizarre. If low IQ individuals have limited life course chances, shouldn’t they be the first to get help? Even on its own terms, The Bell Curve stretches a lot of evidence and argument to reach the authors conclusions on policy.

The bottom line is that the university should be a place of free speech, even speech that may disgust us. There is a difference between unpopular opinions or distasteful opinions and truly hateful speech. Murray says a lot of things I disagree with (e.g., his recent move to restrict migration, which is a bad policy) but he is not in the realm of the politician who incites people to violence (e.g., see Trump’s infamous “Get ’em out of here!” moment), the student who loses their temper, the student’s who physically attacked and injured a professor at Middlebury College, or the faculty member who directly calls for brute force against journalists.

Let him speak. Show up if you want to, or not. Either is fine.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 11, 2017 at 12:17 am

brayden king discusses the importance of organizational theory

In Contemporary Sociology, Brayden King reviews recent works and offers his opinion on the state of organizational sociology. A few choice clips:

There are numerous institutional reasons that organizational sociology has moved toward the periphery of the discipline, including the lack of sociology jobs in the subfield and the fact that many organizational sociologists, this author included, are no longer housed in sociology departments but in business schools. But if we put aside the questions of where and how organizational sociologists are trained and get jobs, at the heart of the problem is whether organizational sociology has anything new to say to sociologists who do not study organizations. If organizational sociologists are becoming irrelevant, it is because we are increasingly disconnected from the conversations most central to sociology as a discipline.

And, after describing recent work on the decline of the “classic” organization:

If public corporations are disappearing for their lack of functionality and because the elites that once steered them are disconnected, then there is clearly an opportunity for organizational innovation. Sociologists, less tied to a strict normative imperative of maximizing wealth than economists are, are well positioned to offer insights about the future of organizing. Doing so would surely make the work of organizational sociologists more relevant to sociology as well, inasmuch as it would reconnect our subfield with sociology’s fundamental concerns about improving communities and societies.

Read the whole thing!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

Written by fabiorojas

March 10, 2017 at 12:05 am