Archive for the ‘Sean Safford’ Category

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

can hillary turn the page?

Hillary’s challenge last night was to articulate her case for why she should be the President. For me that means articulating her governing philosophy. So far — and this includes last night — she has not really done that. She has built her case almost entirely in opposition to Trump. She is right to do so of course. Trump cannot be allowed to occupy the White House. And her safest course to victory may be simply to assert that the alternative is too frightening to contemplate.

Maybe that will be enough. But I actually hold to the idea that the winning candidate for President is always the one who has a clearer view of the challenges and opportunities facing the country and articulates a viable roadmap for how to navigate them. Despite the fact that he is a clown, I am convinced that if Trump wins it will not be because people are blindly enamored of his celebrity but because they are persuaded by the governing philosophy that many of my friends on the left refuse to acknowledge he has. He has one. And so I don’t think it is enough to paint him as a mad man. His ideas need to be taken seriously and countered.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

July 29, 2016 at 8:12 pm

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

challenging the supremacy of economics

note: this is my first post in a while and I’m a bit rusty.  I accidentally hit “publish” on a decidedly un-publishable version of this in the midst of editing and writing earlier. Sorry for the confusion.

I was asked a few weeks ago to comment on the fact that a French economist has been awarded the Nobel Prize this year.  Frankly, the answer I gave was kind of lame:

… Sean Safford, an associate professor of economic sociology at Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, the elite institute for political studies known as Sciences Po, said the awarding of the prize to Mr. Tirole, a professor of economics at the University of Toulouse in France, was notable for coming at a time of economic malaise and brain drain, when so many of the country’s brightest are emigrating elsewhere in Europe or to the United States. “The average French person, who is struggling to pay the bills, is not going to rejoice,” he said.

I’ve been mulling over what I meant to say since then.  It started to come together when I read Paul Krugman’s lengthy reflection yesterday on a recent working paper by my colleagues Marion Fourcade and Yann Algan who, along with their co-author, Ettienne Ollion have written a little incendiary bomb of a paper titled The Supremacy of Economics. The paper documents the striking dominance that economics has achieved since the 1980s over sociology and political science in the United States.  I read The Supremacy of Economics immediately on the heals of another of Marion’s papers, this one with Rakesh Khurana which documents the rise of financial economics within American business schools.  Taken together the two papers paint a clear picture establishing that the discipline of economics — and financial economics in particular — has taken a confidently dominant position at in the United States which has given it unprecedented sway in the halls of policy-making and of commerce and proposes a compelling account of how it got there.

Krugman calls the tone of The Supremacy of Economics “jaundiced”.  I would call it wistful.  You get the sense that it could have gone another way if it weren’t for the social skill of certain individuals and the interlocking of particular ecologies at particular points in time.  (If that wasn’t the tone Marion and the others meant to convey, then I’ll claim it for myself.)

If that alternative is possible anywhere, it should be in France where I now live and work, since — as is the case with its food, its wine and its health care system — here in France the nexus of academic, political and business elites is different.  Very different.

In contrast to the story that Marion and her various colleagues tell about the US, academic disciplines (including economics) have not — yet — assumed the central role in France that they have in the American scene.  As Bourdieu observed with far far greater skill than I could, French grandes ecoles are unapologetic factories of elite self-reproduction.  Most teachers are graying wizened poobahs of their field.  Politicians and policy-makers teach other politicians and policy-makers.  Engineers teach other engineers.  And researchers basically teach and train other researchers on how to be researchers, and thats all.  Period.

As Marion and Rakesh show, American business schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries were organized along lines not all that different from the French model.  There may have been economists at the helm, but the predominant logic was vocational in the sense that the teachers were mainly practitioners who saw their roles as socializing a younger generation to the norms of the field as situated within prevailing moral values of the day.  (Moreover, the “economists” were of the old-school institutionalist variety, not today’s preening quant-jocks).

This begs the question: How did the academics break this pattern to lay claim to teaching, consulting and advice-giving well beyond their home “territory” in America?  And how, ultimately, did the (financial) economists come to dominate it?  The story Marion and Rakesh tell is fascinating and it is well told.  It involves strategic action, social skill and a healthy dose of help from the Ford Foundation all couched within a nuanced theory that mingles Fligstein, McAdam, Bourdieu, MacKensie, Callon and Abbot almost in equal measure.  Briefly put, there are two major steps that led America down that particular path.   The first was the appearance of an alternative model pioneered at Carnegie-Mellon.  Seeking to establish itself in a field dominated by Harvard and Wharton, Carnegie-Mellon hewed to a boldly discipline-based approach to business education.  This alternative was amplified by the Ford Foundation which was seeking to differentiate itself within its own competitively saturated field.  In the aftermath of the Great Depression, it was understood that previous models of training the elite had produced disappointing results.  The Foundation latched on to Carnegie-Mellon’s idea and worked to diffuse it throughout the field.  The second step brings in the University of Chicago which ran with the idea of discipline-based teaching, but focused it much more sharply on economics and in particular, on financial economics.  The GSB then became the leading player in the “performative” turn which has brought financial economics into boardrooms, Wall Street, the halls of government and of course, the annals of social science.

Which brings us back to France.

France today faces what the Times (constantly) refers to as “persistent malaise.”  The economy is flat. The European project is stalled.  Its political elite are perceived as out of touch.  There is a sense that the system around which France has been organized since 1946 is… just kind of disappointing.  And this has led to a broad reflection on the process by which this country produces its political elite.

Sciences Po, where I work, sits at the center of that debate.  In the years after the Second World War, General De Gaulle gave Sciences Po a special status that made it the primary path to entering the bottom rung of France’s administrative and political elite, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.  Sciences Po’s teachers were largely drawn from the ranks of the political elite itself.  But the school has moved in recent years to beef up its academic credentials and in large part that shift has been justified by a familiar narrative: it is the disciplines, with a dispassionate and theoretically grounded approach, that should take the lead in defining the curriculum of elite education.  (As an example: Dominique Strauss-Kahn taught Sciences Po’s main introduction to economics course up until his appointment at the IMF.  Today its taught by… Yann Algan).

Here’s the thing, while Marion and Rakesh expertly situate their account within a smartly argued and largely persuasive theory of “linked ecologies”, I could not help feeling that there was an element of chance involved in the ultimate rise of financial economics in the US: The University of Chicago happened to become home to a troika of free-market true believers which included Milton Friedman.  The result, ultimately, leads us to The Supremacy of Economics.  Could there have been an alternative?  One that was less dogmatic?  One in which the other disciplines were not isolated and ultimately relegated to the junior leagues?

This brings me back to a French economist winning this year’s Nobel.

When I arrived at Sciences Po, I was impressed by the idea that sociology, political science and economics stood on a more equal footing here than had been the case, certainly, when I was on the faculty of the Chicago GSB.  I felt the conditions existed here in which a real dialogue across these disciplines could produce a richer, more compelling approach.  It was a place where what we call “economic sociology” could find a fresh home.

I still hope that.  But that outcome is by no means inevitable.  Winning the Nobel Prize in economics this year and the phenomenal success of Thomas Pickety’s book raise the profile of economics in this country precisely at a moment when political, business and academic elites are questioning the system and looking for the kinds of concrete answers that disciplinary economics provides.  In other words, the conditions exist for the intermingling of intellectual streams which seems possible here to breakdown and head down a path toward a European version of The Supremacy of Economics.

Yet the very existence of the paper that motivated this post is a prime example of the kind of dialogue which seemed (and still seems) possible here suggestiing that that outcome could turn out differently.  After all, Marion is a prominent young sociologist of world-class capabilities, Yann Algan is very much her equal in economics and the paper was written during Marion’s two-year sabbatical at Sciences Po.  But the lesson that I take from Marion and Rakesh’s work is that economic sociology — or whatever you want to call this more egalitarian approach to social science — needs to “perform” itself.  And it does that by building a curriculum capable of producing the next generation of elites.

My bottom line is: If economic sociology is to amount to anything, this kind of cross-disciplinary dialogue must continue and it must mature into something that does more than simply critique the hegemony of economics.  What it must turn into is a curriculum.

The opportunity is there.  But is economic sociology ready for prime time?  (Oh, and does anyone have a good contact at the Ford Foundation?)

Written by seansafford

December 3, 2014 at 10:49 pm

contradictions and confirmation bias

I don’t envy these people who are tasked with coming up with a memorial quote that is simultaneously pithy and meaningful.  Hendrick Hertzberg, among others, is criticizing the architect of Martin Luther King’s memorial for failing to take the context of King’s speech into account when he decided to use this truncated quote on the side of King’s statue:


If you read the sermon, it becomes clear that, not only did the architect commit a hatched job,  the paragraph he pulled actually contradicts the whole point King was trying to get across.

King’s point was to rail against the “drum major instinct”; the drive in each of us that says “hey look at me!”  But then, toward the end, he sort of makes a verbal personal foul and says: if you want to call me a drum major then at least say I am doing it for the good of mankind because that is not… er… quite as megalomaniacal as… uh… I mean… anyway back to what I was saying….

My take is that the quote came from a moment in which King started down an unfortunate verbal path and was trying to get out of it to get back to his main point.  Oops.

Last April, Caroline Alexander brought up the same question of context regarding the use of a quote on the 9/11 Memorial.  In that case, the quote “No day shall erase you from the memory of time,” actually came from a longer sentence in which the poet Virgil was lauding his own role as a poet recording history in venerating the memory of an amorous pair of soldiers who died in midst of battle.  Virgil is basically saying: it’s a good thing I know what you two were up to, because otherwise you would die in obscurity like every other piker… or something like that.

What is the common thread?   Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

January 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm

i’m just a silly man who needs a shave

An incisive rebuttal laying bear bare the overdetermined intersection of social identity theory, categorization, hierarchy and agency within organizations.  Bravo.

Clearly, organizational theory would be better off if it had more bears.



Written by seansafford

January 31, 2011 at 8:52 pm

tunisia: another data point on revolutions

Given the events in Tunisia, I thought it would be worth pointing toward two (lengthy) Org Theory posts written during the “Green Revolution” in Iran last year.

The first is my post “Fisking” Andrew Miller and Gideon Rachman’s dialogue on the factors that lead some revolutions to succeed while others fail.  Events have moved so quickly in Tunisia, that I don’t really have much of a read on what just happened.  But as we learn more about how this revolution unfolded, it will add yet another data point.  For instance, current news reports mention relatively little about internal divisions among the elite, but if previous revolutions have anything to teach us, it would suggest that this must be part of the story.

In addition, I am interested in the government’s violent response to initial protests.  In Tunisia, this spurred further protests.  In Iran, violently putting down protests helped to squelch the movement.  Why?  This points to what I think is probably the most important open question in the social movement literature: why do some cycles of protest catch fire while others peter out?

On this, the evidence so far suggests that new social media played a role and so, I will also point toward Brayden’s post on the role that social media (i.e., Twitter and Facebook) might have played in Iran.  Brayden’s argument, if I can paraphrase, was that Twitter and Facebook may be more important in conveying the voice of movement participants to the outside world — becoming an “audience generation machine” in his words — but that they were not as effective as a coordinating mechanism.  In Tunisia, it does seem that social media helped to coordinate.  The difference, it seems, has to do with how the two regimes regulated social media, but it seems like there is more of a story to be told here.

Indeed, reports are that the role of social network media was to bring outside information in that changed the political opportunity structure: information unveiled by Wikileaks laid bare the corruption of the regime, this spread through social media, and helped to drive people to the street.

Written by seansafford

January 14, 2011 at 7:16 pm

the federal wage freeze

With these words, President Obama announced an across the board pay freeze for Federal workers:

In these challenging times, we want the best and brightest to join and make a difference.  But these are also times where all of us are called on to make some sacrifices.  And I’m asking civil servants to do what they’ve always done — play their part.

Anyone looking at either the politics or the substance of our America’s budget deficits recognizes that something should be done about the federal budget.  But is asking 2.1 million workers to shoulder the burden the right approach?  And even if it is, is doing it in an “across the board” freeze, the right way to go? No it’s not. Here’s why. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

December 1, 2010 at 8:05 pm

ah, the little choices we make

Two years ago I did a radio interview about a company called “The Point”.  The name of the company came from Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”.  The idea was to use the web to facilitate collective action.

After the interview, I contacted the founder.  We had lunch.  He was brimming with ideas.  But he was also really interested in… well…  OrgTheory.  He wanted to take the ideas we talk about on this blog and try to turn them into a company.

We talked a few more times after that. He wanted to know if I wanted to get involved. I decided it would be better to focus on my writing.  But I did mention there were grad students who would love to spend time with his company; to mine it for data and hopefully help tweak the model too.  In the end though, I couldn’t find anyone willing to pull themselves away from studies of status rankings and categorization.

By the by, Andrew Mason and I lost contact and that company became Groupon which has, apparently, been sold for $6 billion to Google.


Written by seansafford

December 1, 2010 at 1:25 pm

confessions of a social spatial navigator

Network analysts can roughly be divided into two camps: those who look at the “whole” network and those who concentrate on individuals and their “local” set of network connections.  One problem often raised about network analysis is that the two camps have relatively little to do with each other.

Indulging in my side interest in urban transportation planning, I came across a discussion of the different ways that people navigate physical space.  It got me thinking about parallels to the way people navigate social space and about how different people approach the question of social “navigation”.  It speaks to this bridging of the two network camps.

First, some terminology:

Humans have two methods of navigation.  Spatial navigators can construct maps in their heads as they experience a place, and also tend to be good at using maps as navigational aids.  Narrative navigators navigate by creating or following verbal directions.  For spatial navigators, the answer to the question where? is a position in mapped space.  For narrative navigators, the answer to where? is a story about how to get there.  Obviously, this is a spectrum; many of us are in the middle with partial capabilities in both directions.

The same concept, put differently:

[Giuseppe] Iaria and McGill University researcher Véronique Bohbot demonstrated in a study they published six years ago that our mapping strategies fall into two basic categories. One is a spatial strategy that involves learning the relationships between various landmarks—creating a map in your head, in other words, that shows where the flower shop is in relationship to the movie theater and to the Wendy’s. The other is a stimulus-response approach that encodes specific routes by memorizing a series of cues, as in: Get off the bus when you see the glass skyscraper, then walk toward the big park.

Lets put this in terms of social structural navigation.  Say you have a hipster friend who wants to go on a date with a Polish kid who the friend has been eying for a while, but doesn’t see a route in.   Plenty of people think about social structure in the same way that roughly half of the population thinks about physical space; that is in narrative terms: “So, hipster from Williamsburg, you want to figure out how to ask that Polish kid out on a date?  Well, Pauline used to own the store with Mitch, but they split up and he started his own store.  I think that kid works for Mitch and I am going to dinner with Pauline so I can see if she’d ask Mitch to make an introduction.”

Myself, however, I’m a spatial navigator when it comes to physical geography.  When I ask my phone for directions, it initially pops up with a series of “turn left here, go right there” instructions which I ignore completely as I head straight for the map.  I then assess the whole map and adjust the route the computer gives me in light of information I might have, for instance, that I know there’s a really great cupcake shop on a slightly altered route.  In fact, I do this in a lot of areas involving instructions: for instance, I tend to improvise based on recipes I look up rather than following exactly what the cook-book says.

And, not surprisingly, I do it too when it comes to social space.  Rather than specific individuals and their connections, I tend to think in terms of cliques and the key people within those cliques.  Carrying on the example from before:  “Mitch and Pauline don’t talk any more.  No love lost in that breakup.  But, I’ve noticed that Mitch has a few Polish kids who are here for the summer working for him.  I don’t know if this kid is one of them, but I see a bunch of them downing vodka shots at the Pig Wednesday night.  That’s when you and the rest of the hipsters are normally drinking G&Ts at the Governor Bradford.  I can’t guarantee it, but you might want to consider boogieing across the street.  I bet he’ll be there.”

Both approaches will get you to the destination, but the cognitive map that gets you there is different.

This distinction has the potential to be very useful both for how we teach network concepts and also for pointing toward research directions attempting to bridge individual and network levels of analysis.  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

August 24, 2010 at 7:31 pm

the long fiscal game

I supported the stimulus package, but agree with the likes of Ryan Avent that the problem with Obama’s stimulus was that it was not only poorly executed, but that that execution is rooted in a systemic problem:

A country committed to stimulus will take care to prepare to use stimulus. It will construct a system of automatic stabilizers that provide immediate counter-cyclical aid as an economy deteriorates. It may have a backlog of needed infrastructure projects at the ready, which can be rushed into action as conditions warrant. A country generally skeptical of stimulus, on the other hand, will reach for it in an emergency and find that it is unprepared. Automatic stabilizers will be too small and will require constant Congressional maintenance. Too few projects will be shovel-ready. The need to legislate will lead to inclusion of pork items that aren’t particularly stimulative. Stimulus will be less targeted, timely, and effective as a result.

My take for some time has been that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are no more pro-Keynesian than Greg Mankiw or other detractors of a stimulus approach.  And, just as it was a bad idea  to have a government with a distaste for government running major a government operation like the response to Katrina (i.e., G.W.B.), it has been a problem having economists running the response to the crisis who are implementing a Keynesian approach while quietly holding their noses.  Which brings me to Martin Wolf’s insightful post on how the politics of supply-side economics have influenced modern thinking both among Democrats and Republicans: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

July 27, 2010 at 1:44 pm

embrace immigrants, don’t divide and conquer

Robert Putnam and Jeb Bush have an editorial in the Washington Post today arguing for more coherent — and embracing — approach to immigration.  They draw on a theme I also touch on in my book.

A century ago, religious, civic and business groups and government provided classes in English and citizenship. Historian Thomas P. Vadasz found that in Bethlehem, Pa., a thriving town of about 20,000, roughly two-thirds of whom were immigrants, the biggest employer, Bethlehem Steel, and the local YMCA offered free English instruction to thousands of immigrants in the early 20th century, even paying them to take classes. Today, immigrants face long waiting lists for English classes, even ones they pay for.

I figure if Fabio can plug his book, then I can too.  In Chapter 4 of Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, I talk about the differences between how immigrant workers were treated in Bethlehem and Youngstown.  In both places, local elites saw the arrival of new immigrants as a threat.  But they defined the threat differently.  In Bethlehem, the threat was seen as the break down of community.  And so business and civic leaders took action to create bridges to immigrant groups (largely through religious outreach: that is, through organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association).  This had the effect of forging ties both between the elites and the working classes and among the various ethnic immigrant communities that made up the working class.

Elites in Youngstown interpreted the threat, not in terms of community, but in terms of elite’s interests.  And so their approach took a different form as well:

The connections among founding families forged through their economic, civic and neighborhood ties led elites in Youngstown to circle the wagons against the new arrivals.  The strategy that emerged to deal with the threat was essentially divide and conquer.  By controlling settlement patterns through their control over real estate, [Youngstown’s] founding families fragmented the city’s new immigrant working class into separate ethnic enclaves, a strategy later reinforced by the law-and-order and obviously racially and ethnically divisive approach favored by the Ku Klux Klan.  Ethnic differences among early northern European settlers subsided as salient sources of identity; class interests were forefront in the minds and actions of various groups in [Youngstown region].

It seems to me that we continue to face this choice and Bush and Putnam are (explicitly) advocating for the approach that prevailed in Bethlehem.  History is on their side, as the differences between these two communities turned out to be very important in the long term.  The cross-cutting ties that Vadasz discussed laid the ground work for far more cooperative relationships with labor unions and, indeed, much more control on the part of business owners over Bethlehem’s unions.  The divide and conquer approach in Youngstown sewed mistrust both among workers and, certainly, between workers and company managers.  In the short term, the differences were stark: the Little Steel Strike of 1937 turned violent in Youngstown with dozens of pickets killed.  The strike largely missed Bethlehem and, in general, labor relations and social order were far calmer there.  More importantly, in the long run, the integrative approach that prevailed in Bethlehem made that community far better prepared for the demands of a global economy than Youngstown has proven to be.

(P.S., the BBC has been doing a series on the revival of the US Rust Belt, including a segment on Youngstown).

Written by seansafford

July 6, 2010 at 6:22 pm

a primer on ‘networking’

I have spent the last couple of years using social networks as the basis of both my research and my teaching.  I can geek out about academic terms like network centrality and cliques.  I can tell you about multiplexity and eigenvectors (well, that last one, maybe only sorta).  But then I come across comments like this one from Sam Biddle, re-posted by Andrew Sullivan this morning:

I am not entirely sure what networking is, and I’m not sure anyone else is either. I am somewhat sure that I am not doing it. I’ve been given the gist of it before. I know that it’s all about meeting the right people, and making new contacts, and following up and other italicized things.

Actually, meeting the right people and making new contacts is a fairly ineffective approach to “networking”.  First, you can get much of the information you need through people you already know (or, at least through the people who you know, know).  Second, just meeting the right people isn’t enough.  You have to close the deal.   I study and teach this, and I tell the students in my MBA classes this is the wrong idea.  But, how would a hapless philosophy major know that?  He simply wants to know what the heck is “networking” and how do I do it better? And, we—as a field—have not done a great job of distilling the key ideas and getting them out there.

So here, in very stylized form, is the state of the academic art on “networking”.  (A note to orgheads: there are no “citations” to these ideas, but I’ve provided embedded links to some of the most important ideas.  I hope folks will use the comments section to fill in the (probably copious) holes I’ve left out or errors of interpretation I’ve committed.)

First, I’m going to assume that by networking you mean using social contacts to get something you want, whether that thing is a job, an idea, an investment, etc.  If so, then there are two pieces to the problem of effectively “networking”: search and trust.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

July 6, 2010 at 4:53 pm

the key to success: get it wrong

It’s hard to write academic pieces well.  Getting the evidence right takes skill, time and patience.  Making sure I have the literature down and accounted for means revisiting notes taken years ago and stashed somewhere I can’t quite remember.  But for me, the hardest part of writing a paper is the framing because framing is generally about recognizing how I, and most everyone else who has tackled this problem, was wrong in some way.  In other words, just about every good piece of organizational theory written in the 20th century follows a general formula which begins by saying: organizational theorists have argued X, but I am going to contradict that to argue that Y holds instead.

After months — sometimes, years — of wrestling with an idea or a data set, finding that contradiction can feel impossible.  But it has to be done.  It’s what makes people read your work and, to some degree, what makes them believe you.  That realization came from the inevitable grad school airing of Murray Davis’s classic essay “That’s Interesting! Toward a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology.”  Murray writes:

An audience will consider any particular proposition to be worth saying only if it denies the truth of some part of their routinely held assumption-ground. If it does not challenge but merely confirms one of their taken-for-granted beliefs, they will respond to it by rejecting its value while affirming its truth. They will declare that the proposition need not be stated because it is already part of their theoretical scheme: “Of course.” “That’s obvious.” “Everybody knows that.” “It goes without saying.”

Recently I was reminded of this idea when I was reading an interview with Ira Glass, the host of public radio’s This American Life.   He was asked “what is the big pay off  for the listener in stories… ”  To which he replied:

Well, if the story works, you become the character, right? You agree with their early point of view, and then when it gets shattered, you are shattered with it. So in the storytelling, you want to manipulate the evidence and the feelings so that the audience is right there agreeing with the person who’s about to be proven wrong. When that happens, if it’s done right, you as the audience get flipped upside down.

He goes on to talk about a few of the best This American Life stories about being wrong and brings up the Squirrel Cop story and their series on the mortgage crisis.  [Both well worth listening to.]  Or, there is this lovely animation of a story on This American Life which is about being wrong about being wrong.

Sometimes these kinds of switch-backs can lead to juicy interpersonal drama.  Intellectual history is rife with examples of students’ “killing the father” which is to say, publicly contradicting the theories that one’s own mentors and advisers championed.   But the sweetest examples are those rare, revelatory, instances when big deal thinkers confront and admit their own wrongness after years and decades of towing the line.

It’s all a reminder to me that, while we strive for scientific rigor in our work, the best orgTheorists are also excellent storytellers whose goal is not simply to find sociological “truth”, it is to influence discourse; to change the way people think by exposing their own intellectual struggles in a way that sheds light.  And it makes me wonder: where will the next great contradictory switchback come from in OrgTheory?

Written by seansafford

June 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm

will the tea party still be going when the next republican president shows up?

I’ve been having a discussion with Sean over the meaning of my latest paper, which shows that Democrats stopped showing up at antiwar rallies after Obama’s inauguration. Sean wrote: ” i am trying to unpack the assumptions that go into the idea of being “anti-bush” which are separate from being against his policies. of course, it could (should) go beyond the war: economy, social issues, budget priorities, tax policies, etc. but i think its reasonable to assume that his role in the war took center stage in the widespread anti-bushness of democrats.”

Here is what I wrote in response. I suggest at the end that if partisanship is a big factor in movement politics, you should see a huge GOP drop off at Tea Party demonstrations:

… Let’s say someone is extremely partisan, then they approve/vote for the person/party and not the policies. A simple example: many important elements of the Obama HCR were done in Massachussetts first by Romney, yet Romney criticized these very policies. It’s pretty obvious that he’s showing a preference for the people associated with the policies, not the policy itself.

In contrast, the issue driven person votes only for policies and not people or parties. The “peaceniks” you describe in the first comment fit this bill. As long as there is any presence at all in Iraq, they’ll be marching in the street, no matter who is the president.

Of course, in real life, there are few people at either extreme point of the spectrum. Probably the best description is that people make judgments on the bundle of people and policies. If your party is in power, you probably guess that they are pushing policies you like, or are doing the best they can with policies you don’t like. If it’s the opposite, you asssume that these policies just represent what’s so horrible about the other party.

From this perspective, you can then imagine antiwar crowds as being a mix of people: people for whom the war is just the worst aspect of an incompetent Republican presidency and those who are just anti-war in general. So when a democrat gets in, the partisans give him the benefit of the doubt, while the policy protesters stick to protest. So when the other party is in power, protest is an opportunity for an alliance between these two crowds and the opportunity makes no sense when there is a new government. And the regressions show bundling: self-identified democrats tend to give Obama a higher evaluation in his handling of the war than non-democrats. Democrats are more likely to say specific anti-Bush things and non-democrats are more likely to mentions their radical ideological perspective.

The real test of the hypothesis is if you see a similar shift in the Tea Party when the next GOP president comes in. Right now, I’d bet that you get a high proportion of GOPers at Tea Party events. If I am right, that should drop when a GOP president comes in and all you’ll be left with is anti-tax extremists and third party populists. If I am wrong, they will still rally in large numbers and insist that the new GOP president repeal HCR.

Anyone want to take a bet?

Written by fabiorojas

April 28, 2010 at 4:22 am

brooks discovers sociology: our time has come?

It’s hard to let David Brooks’s piece in the New York Times this morning go without a comment.

First there’s the title: History’s Return.  A reference to Fukyuama’s pronouncement that we had reached:

…not to an “end of ideology” or a convergence between capitalism and socialism, as earlier predicted, but to an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.

Brooks extrapolates from this: economics won the game; not just as a discipline, but as the intellectual underpinning of economic and political liberalism from here on out.  Oh really?  Not so fast, he says:

…the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009… is a climax of sorts because it exposed the shortcomings of the whole field.  Economists and financiers spent decades building ever more sophisticated models to anticipate market behavior, yet these models did not predict the financial crisis as it approached. In fact, cutting-edge financial models contributed to it by getting behavior so wrong — helping to wipe out $50 trillion in global wealth and causing untold human suffering… More than a year after the event, there is no consensus on what caused the crisis. Economists are fundamentally re-evaluating their field.

Which leads to this hopeful prediction:

One gets the sense, at least from the outside, that the intellectual energy is no longer with the economists who construct abstract and elaborate models. Instead, the field seems to be moving in a humanist direction. Many economists are now trying to absorb lessons learned by psychologists, neuroscientists and sociologists. They’re producing books with titles like “Animal Spirits,” “The Irrational Economist,” and “Identity Economics,” about subjects such as how social identities shape economic choices.

Words to stir the soul of any self respecting economic sociologist / organizational theorist.  Yet, somehow, I’m not stirred.  I don’t believe the day of the economists’ intellectual hegemony has ended.

First, its not like we haven’t been saying this all along.  Brooks makes it seem like sociologists, psychologists and the like have been waiting for our moment.  Sociology and the humanists originated the field and we never really went away (its worth remembering that Max Weber called himself an economist; Act I in Brooks’s formulation was preceded by a whole lot of people we would today call humanists, political scientists and sociologists who were unpacking the nature of economic activity and action). So one has to ask: if we’ve been right all along (and I think we have been) then why should we think that this crisis will be the one to change the game back in our favor?

Otherwise put: why did they win the day for the last half of the 20th Century?  One idea: it is because economists give definitive answers.  They are comfortable with saying “this is the right answer” or “this is a set of principles on which to make in informed choice”, even if they are eventually proved wrong.  That isn’t going to change.

And it isn’t just bravado.  People who need to make decisions want a rationale for those decisions to be conveyed with clarity. For as much as I think sociology and our sister — humanist oriented — disciplines come closer to understanding reality, we nevertheless will continue to lose arguments because of the wishy washy way we make our arguments.  There is little interest or tolerance among economic sociologists for articulating a coherent, prescriptive, philosophy of economic action.

Until we do, I’m afraid we are always going to be playing second fiddle.

Written by seansafford

March 26, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Posted in economics, Sean Safford

sean safford and jerry davis on google

The NY Times has a nice article on Google’s head quarters. My co-blogger, Sean Safford, comments:

Sean Safford, a professor who studies organizations and markets at the University of Chicago, noted that Google was replicating traditional company-town practices by placing housing for its employees near its headquarters.

“It will be so interesting to see how much of their human resources strategy is about creating a community feeling that goes beyond the offices,” Mr. Safford said. “Sometimes when you’re competing for workers and prominence, there’s a need to stick your chest out and say, ‘We’re the big dogs in town.’ ”

Our good ol’ buddy Jerry Davis also chimes in on the topic of different forms of community investment by firms:

Perhaps uniquely, Google is also casting itself as a partner with NASA, now the proprietor of Moffett Field. This partnership is making Mountain View a stop along the virtual route to Mars and the real route to the Moon.

“It’s a cool anomaly because the company-town tradition had basically died in the U.S.,” said Jerry Davis, a professor at the University of Michigan, who has written about the ties between companies and cities. “It’s interesting to see Google put their touches on the idea.”

Historically, company towns have grown up around organizations with large manufacturing operations that can support thousands of local workers. To attract top executives to often less-than-ideal locales, the companies donated large sums to cultural institutions.

“The main reason Ford put money into the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is to make it plausible to recruit executives to Detroit,” Professor Davis said. “It was a human-resources move as much as it was philanthropic.”

Check it out! Hat tip to William S.

Written by fabiorojas

February 20, 2010 at 3:36 am

pukeworthy comparisons and insight into relative depravation

Steve Levitt, has a provocative blog post up today.  Forwarding a reader’s email he asks:

“What other benefits can be found in poverty? Obviously there is a difference between the regular poverty of say, a good chunk of Western college students versus the extreme poverty of many people in Africa. Depending on the situation, I am thinking there could be a connection between poverty and with things like creative resourcefulness and happiness.” Your thoughts?

As for thoughts, an orgTheorist who shall go nameless posted this on his facebook page questioning whether Steve might have had an aneurysm.  Its hard to disagree with that sentiment.

But then it did make me think of Amartya Sen’s argument in Development as Freedom.  In a nut shell, Sen’s goal is to shift the debate away from mainstream economists’ notions of utility and from philosophical (sociological?) questions of justice or fairness to emphasize the capability of people to do and be what they value.

Echoing Levitt’s reader’s (puke-worthy, yet nevertheless thought provoking) comparison of Western college students and “people in Africa” (whatever that means given that it is a continent of 1 billion people and countless cultures and subcultures), Sen’s argument is, fundamentally, that poverty is relative.

If a lack of income is standing in the way of doing things you want to do — worship, vote, be comfortable — then you are poor.  But those restrictions can come just as easily from social norms, religious edicts or political structure as income.  At the same time, simply having a low income does not make one either poor or unhappy.  The Botswanan bushman who is living a full and meaningful life within a traditional society is neither unhappy nor poor because he has full capability to achieve what he wants to achieve in life.

Sen likes to point out that in his wanderings in Calcutta’s ghettos, he never encountered anyone who said that their poverty made them unhappy.  The same, I venture, could not be said of your average college student living on loans.  Myself, I remember spending a few very miserable winters in Ithaca eating ramen noodles.  Yet, the capabilities of the Calcuttan ghetto-dweller to achieve the things they may want to achieve are vastly inferior to the capabilities of the students.  So why are they happier?  The difference is, essentially, ignorance: the poor in Calcutta make-due under overwhelmingly adverse circumstances while students in the US feel worse off relative to others in society.  The poor may seem happier, but their happiness is in light of their relative lack of freedom compared to the US student.  Which is worse?  Sen argues that happy ignorance is not bliss.  I’d say I have to agree.

Written by seansafford

February 5, 2010 at 7:19 pm

the dual nature of brokerage

Maureen Dowd went populist in her column yesterday.  Picking up on on Matt Tabai’s slimy imagery, she refers to “Goldmine” Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”…

The name calling tries too hard to foment middle and working class anger where, frankly, I don’t really see protests forming in the streets.  But what I find interesting is Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s rebuttal to the claim.

We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital… Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle. We have a social purpose.

So here’s a question…  Clearly, banks are brokers; they are intermediaries engaged in managing the two sided market of investors and investees.  But, what kind of broker are they?

Ron Burt’s work shows convincingly that brokers realize economic benefits from connecting disconnected actors.  For Ron, brokers are  tertius gaudens: the third who benefits by exploiting asymmetric resource flows and contests for control. Isabel Fernandez-Mateo built on this to ask the following question: do brokers’ profits come from making transactions more efficient or do they come from the fact that, where two parties lack full information, the left hand doesn’t really know what the right hand is doing?  She shows that brokers can pass on greater rewards to partners with which they have a closer relationship and that the pound of flesh is extracted from the other partner to the transaction.  One interpretation of this is that the latter mechanism prevails.

Yet, by emphasizing banks’ socially beneficial role, Blankfein is channeling what David Obstfeld refers to as the “tertius iungens” form of brokerage.  The intuition behind the iungens idea is that more value is created by connecting disconnected actors than if they weren’t connected.  Everyone benefits: the parties to the transaction, the broker and society at large.

So which is it?  Are investment banks iungens or are they gaudens?  In Fernandez and Gould’s formulation, are they honest brokers or… not?

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

November 12, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Posted in markets, Sean Safford

about that tale of two numbers

Michael Roston points out a very interesting tale of two numbers in the news yesterday:

Perhaps you’ve heard that the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached 10,000 today, finally, at long last…

But it turns out that while Mr. Dow Jones believes that our Great Recession is over (that’s a joke), one invisible hand in our market doesn’t know what the other is doing.

That’s right, the Pentagon reported on this day of Dow 10,000 that our strained Armed Forces have beat their recruiting goals for the fiscal year, driven by economic unease. (h/t: the Daily Dish).

Here here! for pointing out the obvious. Seriously.  The man makes a good point.

The AFL-CIO and the Economic Policy Institute make another good point: the current recession is hitting women worse than men, and  minorities worse than non-minorities.

One reason women workers are so adversely affected by manufacturing job loss is that they are concentrated in industries that have been drastically affected by the surge in cheap imports over the past decade, such as textiles, apparel and leather. Women make up more than 50 percent of the total workforce in these industries. Faced with high levels of foreign competition, these jobs have had high levels of trade-related job displacement.

Not good.  So what to do?

One idea that has been proposed is to redirect stimulus and TARP funds to smaller regional banks where it is more likely to go to support small businesses where conventional wisdom suggests more jobs will be created in the short term.

That’s not a bad idea, per se.  But it doesn’t solve the larger problem which is that the U.S. economy has been putting off a denouement with itself for decades: the engine that built and sustained the middle-class is broken and we need to figure out what to do about that.   Sometimes its important to take a step back and think about the big picture.

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Written by seansafford

October 15, 2009 at 6:52 pm

of cows and collective action, ostrom wins a nobel

Elinor Ostrom has won the Nobel Prize in Economics.  Boo rah!

For a lot of orgTheory readers, Oliver Williamson’s win will be the more exciting and relevant of this year’s laureates.  Oliver Williamson is really one of us; many orgTheorists find his work compelling or at least a useful foil.  But I’ll let others comment on Williamson because, for my money, the questions and topics that Ostrom work on are as (if not more) relevant and compelling to my understanding of organizations and of organization theory.

Sometimes it is the quality of the questions one asks — more, perhaps, even than the answer one gives — that makes for a great thinker.  To some degree, I think this applies to Ostrom.  In the end, I find her answers somehow incomplete.  But, the questions she asks as she breaks down the larger puzzle are compelling.

CowsonthecommonsHer fundamental question is this: in a world of abundant but rapidly depletable resources, where individuals have incentives for survival that, if acted on, would undermine the long-term viability of the resources on which they depend, how does coordination and cooperation emerge? That is, she’s interested in the Tragedy of the Commons.  The term derives from the fact that farmers with access to the local grazing land (The Commons) have an incentive to feed their cattle as much as possible.  But if all farmers fed their cattle as much as possible it would rapidly deplete the grass leading all of their cattle to suffer.  There are two prevailing answers to that dillema: (1) may the best farmer win (which would mean the commons would no longer be a commons) or (2) institute some set of rules and enforcement mechanisms to govern the behavior of farmers.  Obviously, the second often wins out.  The question is how.

Her conclusion: it’s complex.  There is no silver bullet (which makes it all the more surprising that the Nobel committee has decided to honor her work.  Economists, I’ve noticed, put a lot of value on “elegance”; Ostrom is a strong writer, but elegant… not so much).  There are a series of mechanisms that come into play to keep good order and that, if harnessed and understood, can lead to behavior that sustains survival. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

October 12, 2009 at 1:23 pm

azoulay bait: russian dolls and the identification movement

The Economist airs some inter-disciplinary dirty laundry within the identification movement.  On one side, the forces aligned behind isolating causality through the use of instrumental variables:

minimalist russian dollsOften derived from a quirk in the environment or in public policy, [instrumental variables] affect the outcome (a person’s earnings, say, to return to the original example) only through their influence on the input variable (in this case, the number of years of schooling) while at the same time being uncorrelated with what is left out (scholastic ability). The job of instrumental variables is to ensure that the omission of factors from an analysis—in this example, the impact of scholastic ability on the amount of schooling—does not end up producing inaccurate results.

On the other are leading lights such as James Heckman and Angus Deaton:

According to Mr Deaton, using such instruments to estimate causal parameters is like choosing to let light “fall where it may, and then proclaim[ing] that whatever it illuminates is what we were looking for all along.”

Their alternative: model the selection effect directly by first predicting, for instance, whether a woman is likely to want to leave the market for some period of time to raise a family and then use that model as a control when you estimate discrimination.

Here’s the rub: the article poses these as an either-or choice.  But choosing to employ a selection model involves its own trade-offs. More importantly, instrumental variables and selection models are hardly the only options available.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

August 18, 2009 at 2:59 pm

orgtheorist makes good: kogut on the daily show

dailyshowthumbTry as I might, I have not been able to figure out how to embed this video: the Daily Show with Jon Stewart takes on the MBA oath and Bruce Kogut plays a staring role.

Having watched it, I am now considering getting some prominent arm tattoos… clearly they generate more respect from MBA students than my current sartorial efforts have achieved to date.

More importantly, kudos to Bruce for playing the straight man with aplomb.  I’d say he does the George Burns thing to John Oliver’s Gracie very well indeed.

Written by seansafford

August 14, 2009 at 3:37 pm

watts – gladwell smackdown on diffusion

Popularizers par excellence Duncan Watts and Malcomb Gladwell go mano a mano in a Fast Company article by Clive Thompson over mechanisms of network diffusion.  Watts attacks Gladwell’s key idea that “influentials” are the drivers of viral diffusion effects:

Why didn’t the Influentials wield more power? With 40 times the reach of a normal person, why couldn’t they kick-start a trend every time? Watts believes this is because a trend’s success depends not on the person who starts it, but on how susceptible the society is overall to the trend—not how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether everyone else is easily persuaded.

Ed Keller rides in to defend his (and by extension, Gladwell’s) argument:

“They’re fonts of word of mouth,” Keller insists. And ahead of the curve, too: In the 20 years he has been polling them, Keller has found they began using computers, mobile phones, and the Internet years before the mainstream.

I take Keller’s and Gladwell’s points to be that social space is heterogeneous and the identity (not just the structural position, e.g., being a broker) of an individual matters in explaining the effect that individual has on diffusion within the network.  Indeed, I’ve made that argument myself.

Yet, Watts is on to something here.  Particularly if you are interested in whether a practice or idea or innovation is incorporated into behavior (and I’d guess that most of us who read orgTheory are), and not simply in whether an idea spreads ephemerally.  It suggests parallels with the concept of political opportunity structures in social movement theory or even to the importance of Stinchomb’s “liability of newness”.  People and organizations are embedded, not just in a set of relationships, but in a set of roles and rules governing those relationships.  So, in order for an idea to spread and take root, the roles and rules implicated by an innovation need to be buttered up (or undermined) first. Very few studies have pulled off the dual challenge of examining structural diffusion along side these broader institutional, cultural and political opportunity structures simultaneously.

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Written by seansafford

August 13, 2009 at 7:29 pm

health care is not made in china

Trade Balance Medical

Trade Balance - Medical Equipment, 2008

Matt Yglesias makes the point that the price of new cars has not increased as fast as inflation over time, nor have High Definition TVs which have seen costs come down.  He wonders why the same hasn’t happened for health care technology:

This gets back to some of the perversities of fee-for-service medicine. The current market creates strong incentives for people to develop “better and more expensive” methods of treatment, but almost no incentive to develop “as good but cheaper” methods of treatment. Both kinds of innovation, however, are extremely valuable. The world’s resources are limited, and the development of cheaper methods of treatment would allow for more overall treatment and thus better outcomes.

In short, I’d say the answer comes down to China, or really its relative absence from the health care market.  As an NPR report from a few days ago illustrated nicely, the reason consumer goods like TVs, toasters, shoes and even cars has come down has a lot to do with the unsustainable trading relationship between the U.S. and China.

Key point: consumer goods are transportable.  But health care is fixed in place.  You get sick where you live.  So while capital is free to scurry the globe in search of cheap labor and factor inputs for consumer goods, health care has to contend with the realities of operating in a high-wage, highly-regulated society.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by seansafford

July 28, 2009 at 7:16 pm

politics of health care reform: do doctors have too much power?

There are a lot of things I like in the health care reform bills passing through Congress.  Most importantly, all of them make it easier for individuals and small businesses to buy insurance.  But what is not clear is how the reforms will achieve the equally important goal of controlling costs.  President Obama gives a two-piece answer to this question.  The first is rationalizing care and eliminating wasted dollars, largely by digitizing medical records.  The second has to do with moving away from “fee-for-service” system, which provides incentives for doctors to over-treat illnesses, and toward the one where doctors are compensated based on a combination of cost reduction and quality.

To work, both of those fixes have to be effectively implemented at an organizational level.  They will require changing the way doctors, nurses and other medical care providers do their job.  And that means changing the organizational rules by which hospitals and doctors offices operate.  But what that organizational model will look like has not been specified.  It might look like the Mayo or the Cleveland Clinics which use computerized records, pay doctors salaries and reward them for patient outcomes rather than per service.  Yet as the New York Times points out, only one plan in Congress addresses the organizational model and that one is just a pilot program.  Massachusetts is looking at ways of urging doctors to shift into salary-based provider networks.  But there’s no discussion of a mandate or of anything with teeth that would move the medical industry in that direction.

How many reform movements have succeeded in winning legislation meant to change society, but then fail to actually change anything?  Too many to count.  Why?  Because the devil in achieving real change is in the details of organizational implementation.

Specifically: even if reforms are enacted, those who want to maintain the status quo can simply let reforms pass and then either comply only symbolically or make sure that the reforms are implemented in ways that  effectively maintain the system in place.  News that the American Medical Association has signed on to major elements of the reform process is important to getting reform passed through Congress.  But what really matters is how reforms are implemented inside hospitals and doctors offices.  In other words, in the absence of a specific plan for how to restructure the way medical care is organized, the endorsement doesn’t mean a whole lot.

In fact, I fear that it makes it more likely that history will repeat itself.

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Written by seansafford

July 25, 2009 at 7:34 pm

could penske’s purchase of saturn fundamentally change the auto industry?

Roger Penske is purchasing Saturn and the implications are possibly far reaching.  If a crisis, as the saying goes, is a terrible thing to waste then the auto industry circa 2009 presents a golden opportunity to see how a crisis opens opportunities to re-write the rules that govern an industry.  Penske’s gambit aims to do that and if he succeeds it could fundamentally change the way cars are designed and manufactured.

Saturn has been cast in the role of change agent before.  The company was conceived in 1982 as a “new kind of car company, making a new kind of car.”  Back then, the rap on the American car industry was that it produced poor quality goods.  That problem, in turn, was blamed on ossified relationships between the car companies and their “stakeholders”: relationships with the unions had become paralyzingly adversarial, relationships with suppliers were dictatorial, the companies’ own designers weren’t cooperating across divisional boundaries and the dealer network were unwieldy.  Saturn was meant to push the reset button on all of these relationships.

Saturn’s new model worked, for a while.  Its quality ratings were high and the brand developed a strong customer base.   But rather than spreading into the rest of GM, the opposite happened: GM re-colonized Saturn.  When Saturn opened a new plant in Wilmington, Delaware in 1996, it was stripped of most of the key organizational innovations of the original plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee.  Labor-management cooperation was replaced with a regular pattern contract, the car’s design was outsourced to a GM subsidiary, Saturn’s relationships with suppliers reverted to form, and plant’s managers were brought in through GM’s regular management career channels.  Saturn became just another GM subsidiary.

That is, with one exception: the brand and the dealer network maintained a good deal of independence. And they are essentially what Roger Penske has now purchased: not a company that makes cars (GM will continue to design and manufacture vehicles for the time being after which Penske plans to outsource manufacturing to a global network of manufacturers), but a brand and a distribution channel.

On first inspection, that doesn’t seem to be the stuff of fundamental industry change.  But it could turn out to be just that if Penske is able to capture power in the value chain and use it to influence the way cars are designed and manufactured.  The open question is whether Penske has the wherewithal to pull it off.

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Written by seansafford

July 12, 2009 at 12:15 am

systemic risks: too big, too complicated or too central?

Duncan Watts had an article in the Boston Globe last week (hattip: Karl Bakeman) looking at how the network structure of the banking industry might have amplified the financial crisis.  Watts comments:

Traditionally, banks and other financial institutions have succeeded by managing risk, not avoiding it. But as the world has become increasingly connected, their task has become exponentially more difficult. To see why, it’s helpful to think about power grids again: engineers can reliably assess the risk that any single power line or generator will fail under some given set of conditions; but once a cascade starts, it’s difficult to know what those conditions will be – because they can change suddenly and dramatically depending on what else happens in the system. Correspondingly, in financial systems, risk managers are able to assess their own institutions’ exposure, but only on the assumption that the rest of the world obeys certain conditions. In a crisis, it is precisely these conditions that change in unpredictable ways.

He suggests that regulators assess a company’s network position and take action to ensure systemic viability:

On a routine basis, regulators could review the largest and most connected firms in each industry, and ask themselves essentially the same question that crisis situations already force them to answer: “Would the sudden failure of this company generate intolerable knock-on effects for the wider economy?” If the answer is “yes,” the firm could be required to downsize, or shed business lines in an orderly manner until regulators are satisfied that it no longer poses a serious systemic risk. Correspondingly, proposed mergers and acquisitions could be reviewed for their potential to create an entity that could not then be permitted to fail.

This is a very interesting idea.  But it also raises a number of intriguing questions worth fleshing out in a little more detail:

Read the rest of this entry »