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thank you, orgtheory

Starting on January 1, 20201, Katherine Chen and I will be at “Markets, Power, & Culture.” This post is a good bye and thank you.

I want to say “thank you” to Brayden King and Teppo Felin, who started this blog in 2006. Back then, I was an anxious junior professor and desperately in need of discussion about organization theory. I found a blog called “orgtheory” and started leaving comments. The owners, Teppo and Brayden, invited me to guest blog and then permanently be part of the team. It is more than I ever hoped for. Through the blog, I made friends, had great conversations, and even got some real professional outcomes, including a book contract. Without Teppo and Brayden, none of that would have happened. I also wanted to say thank you to every person who joined as a permenent blogger, guest blogger, wrote a comment, or shared the content. What makes a blog exciting is the community of people.

It may be interesting to say a few words about why Katherine and I are rebooting at Markets, Power, and Culture. Our view is that this is simply a very natural evolution. We’re just shifting from a website where you have tons of authors, to a website with only two authors. Second, we’re going to experiment with some new content and rebooting the blog around those expectations makes sense. Third, the visual aesthetic will be slightly different and a little more colorful. If you have enjoyed orgtheory, I am leaving all posts up for posterity. I will also keep a copy of the blog in my dropbox should you ever have problems accessing wordpress. Just send me a message.

On January 1, 2021, we’ll have a short hello post and the start off the New Year with some discussions of the academic profession, organization theory, and more. I hope you’ll join us.

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 31, 2020 at 12:01 pm

Posted in uncategorized

open the schools: liberal democrat edition

The consensus against school openings is starting to crack. First, Biden’s selection for Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, is openly for restarting school. From a report by the Las Vegas Review Journal:

Mr. Cardona has expressed support for opening classrooms to ensure that students who can least afford it don’t fall further behind thanks to the inadequacies of remote learning. Mr. Cardona and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont have “made it a priority to keep schools open for in-person learning amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic,” the Hartford Courant wrote this month, “They have said there is little evidence of COVID-19 transmission within schools and that there are numerous social, emotional and educational benefits to in-person classes as opposed to online learning.

Yup. And it doesn’t stop there, California Governor Gavin Newsom, often the advocate of some the most stringent measures, is now trying to open schools. From SF Gate:

Under Newsom’s plan, school districts will receive additional funding if they agree to a firm timetable for reopening schools beginning in mid-February. The proposal will be submitted to the state legislature as an adjustment of the state budget and offers additional funding for schools, up to $450 to $750 per student, if they commit to reopening.

The plan is specifically geared toward getting students from kindergarten to the sixth grade back in the classroom, with a special emphasis placed on reopening schools in underserved areas disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The funds are expected to help schools adopt safety protocols such as testing systems, universal masking and increased sanitation.

What is the rationale for this? It’s actually simple. First, the risk of COVID mortality is very, very low for young children. How low? According to the Centers for Disease Control, for school age kids (5-14), the total COVID mortality in the US is 51. You read that right. 51. It’s horrible that anyone should die at such a young age but it helps to compare with other activities. For example, there are about 25 student homicides each year in American schools and about 5 more are killed per year in transportation. In other words, the risk of a school student dying from COVID (51) is slightly higher than the risk of death from simply going to school (30).

Furthermore, the COVID risk is much smaller than other risks we tolerate every day. For example, the COVID fatality rate for kids is very, very small compared to the estimated yearly auto-fatality rate for kids. For example, the Department of Transportation has data indicating a fatality rate of about 1.5/100,00 for kids (0-14) dying from automobiles. In contrast, the 0-14 COVID fatality rate is 102/ (19,576,683+28,446,096+12,548,067)= .0000016 or 1.6 per million.* In other words, the fatality rate for young people from COVID is an entire order of magnitude less than from auto accidents – and we don’t shut down cars. Furthermore, as I discussed recently, evidence does not suggest that schools are transmitting COVID to community at a higher rate than normal.

COVID is 100% a serious issue but it is a very small risk for young people and there’s little evidence so far that schools make the overall situation any worse. Rather than keeping kids out of school, send them back with sensible distancing and hygiene precautions. Instead, focus our efforts on helping the elderly, such as prioritizing them for vaccines, age grading commercial and social institutions, and improving conditions in nursing homes.

* I took the 0-14 COVID total deaths from here and divided by the 2019 0-14 age population reported here.

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 30, 2020 at 8:33 pm

Posted in uncategorized

open borders: reply to seth stodder

In early December, I had a very engaging discussion with Seth Stodder, who served as Undersecretary of Obama’s Department of Homeland Security, and currently works as an attorney and professor of law. The debate was about open borders and it was host by the Pacific Council on International Policy at the University of Southern California. Here’s I’d like to delve into some of Mr. Stoddard’s comments, then I will tell you who “won” the debate.

Overall, I was pleased to see that Mr. Stodder did not argue with the basic social science. He seemed to accept the immigrants were not more likely to be criminals than native born people and that immigration would not produce mass unemployment. He did object to open borders on the following grounds:

  1. Mr. Stodder referred to sovereignty multiple times in debate. This is one objection to open borders that has always left me puzzled. A state can certainly choose to retract a law and it still remains sovereign. It happens all the time. The issue is whether a government should restrict migration. We have abolished all kinds of laws with challenging the basic idea soverignty.
  2. Mr. Stodder also referred to the need for people to have input into who is in their community. This is a more substantial argument. There are two responses. On ethical grounds, we often say that many restictions on who can be in a community are immoral. For example, if people democratically voted to ban Jews or Blacks from their neighbrohood, we would say that is immoral. We might even have legal or constitutional restrictions on such statutes. Here, I’ll be open: clear ethical principals should over ride democratic politics. On pragmatic grounds, restrictions are wildly counter productive and damage people in the community. If I want to sell my house to Mexicans and the voters say I can’t, I am harmed. Migration restrictions multiply that harm, they do not enhance the community.
  3. The final issue, which is important and subtle, is that borders provide a way to help with “digesting” the inflow of people. Empirically, this really seems off. Just walk around some popular borders, like the US-Mexico border. You see congestion and even crime, as people get tired of waiting for years to get permission to escape poverty and crime. It is not orderly. Rather than let people adjust to the new country, we just create chaos at the border. Another empirical point is that the US has seen some massive internal migrations and we don’t see massive disorganization. For example, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated to the US and it was okay, 6 *million* blacks moved North in the Great Migration, and thousands of people moved from New Orleans after Hurrican Katrina. If we let people move around, we can have a great deal of order. If we set giant walls and borders, we’d just create misery.

So who won? The way they score the debate is through a poll – and whoever “moves the needle” in their direction “wins.” Results? Pre-debate: 45% for open borders/55% against. Post-debate: 50%/50%. Whoooo hooo!!!! One step at a time.

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 23, 2020 at 12:47 am

Posted in uncategorized

it’s probably ok to open schools: i was right edition

Global Epidemics, a public health website operated by Brown University’s School of Public Health, has an article that makes the sensible case that we can definitely have schools be open during the COVID epidemic as long as we follow some very reasonable health measures. This is a reversal of their prior position:

We recommended that schools be closed once the average daily case rate rose above 25 cases/100,000 people, at the county level. Since July, our scientific understanding of COVID has increased significantly, as has our understanding of degrees of risk in schools, and we can now recommend that schools be open even at the very high levels of spread we are now seeing, provided that they strictly implement strategies of infection control. 

What are the recommendations?

  • universal masking (including while speaking)
  • hand and bathroom hygiene
  • achieving 4-6 air changes per hour of ‘clean’ air through any combination of ventilation and filtration (or outdoor classrooms)
  • 3 ft social distancing for young learners at all levels of community spread
  • 6ft social distancing for high schools when levels of community spread rise above 100/100,000 daily new cases; 3ft social distancing below that level
  • robust quarantine policies and contact tracing practices
  • and, where feasible, surveillance/screening testing, also discussed below under “testing.”

In other words, the Brown School of Public Health statement simply says that if schools follow basic social distancing/hygeine guidelines that we had back around April or May (hygiene, masks, modest physical distancing) and some new simple rules that we knew about around summer (air circulation is crucial), you can have in-person schools.

Some readers of this blog got rather upset at me when I suggested we open schools because they believed that schools would be hot houses of infection. The Global Epidemic website reviews to the literature to knock this one down:

There is a growing body of evidence that students are not at heightened risk from school re-openings (and as we said above, in-person schooling brings lots of benefits to students and families). A wide range of scientific papers find that both susceptibility and infectivity increase with ageA CDC report on Covid infections in children in the U.S. has found that between March and September 2020, children 12-17 years old have been diagnosed with Covid about twice as often as children 5-11 years old, while both groups’ infection rates have consistently been significantly lower than those of adults.

And how do infection rates compare with the community? Roughly the same:

Within the database, from September through November 2020, cases in schools largely mirror community trends: The cumulative percentage of in-person students who are assumed or confirmed positive for Covid is 1.2%, compared to a community case rate of 1.5% in the same areas during the same time frame. That said, these numbers capture a variety of different mitigation and testing methods across communities and schools and therefore provide only an initial impressionistic picture, warranting further analysis.

COVID is absolutely dangerous. However, most of the illness burden is shouldered by elderly people and people with underlying conditions. The elderly and people with risk factors should get most of our help. We shouldn’t shut down crucial services for young people who are low risk, especially if we can institute low cost and relatively easy to implement practices to reduce transmission.

Bottom line: Protect the elderly, release the young. It’s not hard and it works.

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 21, 2020 at 5:24 am

Posted in uncategorized

the sociology of the dr. jill biden brouhaha

The Jill Biden doctorate controversy is one the lamest public events in a long time, rivalling the tan suit debacle, the “binders full of women” blow up and the endless mockery of presidents who play golf. And for the record, I definitely side with Jill Biden’s defenders. A doctorate simply means scholar or teacher, a doctorate of education is a real advanced degree, and it’s appropriate for professional situations, as long as your aren’t in a hospital. And yes, I also agree with her defenders that the original WSJ post was cranky and condescending, to say the least. And also, yes, if you were offended by the WSJ column, you just got gaslighted.

Here’s the real sociological question: When can you use your professional title in society? When are you allowed to assert status in a way that would be recognized by others as acceptable? Aside from monarchs and perhaps the most elite of political leaders like a US President or Prime Minister, I think the answer is only in professional settings. Here are some examples:

  1. A medical doctor goes to a Subway sandwich shop and demands that the person at the counter, whose title is actually “Sandwich Artist,” demands to be called “Dr. Karen.”
  2. A medical doctor goes home and demands that her spouse call her “Dr. Karen.”
  3. The high school principal, who has an Ed. D., asks to be called “Dr. Karen” during faculty meetings.
  4. The medical doctor asks that a nurse call her “Dr. Karen.”
  5. The medical doctor asks that other doctors call her “Dr. Karen.”
  6. A medical doctor is in conference with her lawyer over a non-medical legal issue (e.g., closing a real estate deal) and wants to be called “Dr. Karen.”

I think #1 and #2 are wrong, as these are either informal settings like family or out of expertise settings. #3 is fussy but people would go along with it. Schools are more chill than hospitals, but the hypothetical principal is the leader and wants to be recognized as such. #4 and #5 would also be accepted because, like #3, Dr. Karen is in the relevant professional setting. #6 is actually ambiguous. A legal consultation is certainly a professional setting, but Dr. Karen’s medical degree is not relevant. In practice, we might say that Dr. Karen actually has earned her title and merits the honorific, but it’s not needed and a bit fussy. I think that Jill Biden would be justified using Dr. in policy settings, as it’s actually normal. For example, in a formal meeting at the Department of State, it would be normaly to introduce an expert on Chinese politics with a Ph.D. as “Dr.” Everyobody obviously knows that the hoorific refers to scholarly expertise, not medical expertise. Biden, for example, might asked to speak at the Department of Education and her Ed.D. is obviously relevant. Super elites, like Presidents and monarchs, seem to over ride these considerations and people will use the honorific without problem in most settings.

Personally, I will tell graduate students to call me by my first name because they’re colleagues in training. I tell undergraduates to use “Mr. Rojas,” since that was what my father used. And if it was good enought for him, it’s good enough for me. Students from the South will insist on “Professor” or even “Doctor.” Since it’s in the obviously professional setting of a university, it’s fine by me. Finally, just because the public has conflated medical training with the word “doctor” doesn’t mean that the title should be dropped in non-medical settings.

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 17, 2020 at 5:49 pm

Posted in uncategorized

contexts fall 2020: the pandemic issue

Simply spectacular. An all star roster of leading sociologists providing commentary and analysis of the social impact of the epidemic. Free for 30 days – download it now. Don’t miss it.

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 16, 2020 at 12:10 am

Posted in uncategorized

book spotlight: creating the creation museum, how fundamentalist beliefs come to life by kathleen c. oberlin

It’s a real pleasure to be discussing this book. Casey Oberlin, as she prefers, is a proud graduate of IU’s sociology program and the author of this really unique study of the creationist movement. The scholarly background is this: religion scholars have long studied creationism as a form of Biblical literalism that split from mainline protestantism, but few sociologists have studied creationists as a social movement that challenges mainstream science. This is probably thr first book to really tackle this topic and it focuses on how creationists have set up a scientific community around Biblical literalism, museums, and academic research.

Based on tons of ethnography at Kentucky’s Creation Museum, Casey got the inside view of the movement’s history, inner workings, and how they reconcile themselves with traditional science. The basic gist is this – creationism is a movement that tries to marry its core belief – the absolute truth of the Bible – with an acceptance of the scientific methods and the institutions it represents. Thus, creationists have tried gain credibility of the public, and deepen support among evangelical Christians, by employing or mimicking the practices of mainstream science. They have a museum, creationist scientists have graduate degrees from regular universities, and they now have their own creaton science courses and peer reviewed journals.

Casey’s book delves into the history of schism that leads up to the museum’s creation and presents us with gripping accounts of how creationists situate their claims. My favorite part of her work has to be the discussion of how central dinosaur fossils are to the way creationism is presented to the public. As a very obvious piece of evidence that the earth is quite old, creationists must face dinosaur fossils head on.

Overall, this book is not only a wonderful contribution to the study of religious movements and science, it also adds to the now growing literature on how movements “by pass” the mainstream by setting up their own shop. This would include Jaime Kucinskas’ work on meditation/Buddhism in America and Davis and Robinson on how fundamentalist groups set up their own social service programs. Recommended!

CODA: Last year, I discussed my visit to the Creation Museum. Don’t agree with the science, but it was a very enjoyable visit. And the dinosaur fossils are indeed fabulous!

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 15, 2020 at 12:01 am

Posted in uncategorized

george coleman –> blue train

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 13, 2020 at 12:42 am

Posted in uncategorized

the post-racist society: a hypothesis vindicated

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called “post-racist, not racial.” This post made people incredibly angry. Most of the anger was misguided because people simply didn’t read the post. For example, many people thought I said that race had ended or that there was no more racism. This is actually what I said: “The term ‘post-racial’ implies that we are somehow ‘beyond race.’ Of course, that’s not true. Also, people use the term ‘post-racial’ when they are trying to evade difficult discussions of race. Or as a way of avoiding blame for their own tasteless actions.”

This is what I argued: “Racial discrimination is no longer legitimate.” In other words, if you understand “legitimacy” the way sociologists use the term – as meaning that a belief or practice publicly acceptable, then you being a racist is not legitimate. For example, you can’t walk around in a white robe and still be respectable. You can’t advertise hotels that only accept White guests. That is what I meant when I wrote that people no longer build “racism into our laws and culture.”

Here’s I’ll add more evidence that we’ve shifted from the pre-Civil Rights regime to this post-racist cultural position. Since 2013, we’ve seen:

There seems to be two interesting responses to my views. First, maybe racism has just transformed itself. Seamster and Ray made this argument in Sociological Theory. That can absolutely be true but consistent with the thesis. If you can’t publicly trash non-White people, then you have to go underground. Seamster and Ray is also consistent with the view that racism has layers, public and private, and that we’ve now chipped away significantly at the public version, but private versions can mutate. Second, what about Trump and other openly racist people? As social scientists, I hope that you can understand that I’m talking about trends, not outliers and exceptions. For example, the people at Charlottesville, in my view, represent a very vocal minority. They’re dangerous, but they aren’t the majority and I don’t see any evidence that we’re seeing a return to, say, the early 1900s where the Klan could literally win elections and control the statehouse. Bottom Line: Racism and racial inequality is real, but 21st century American is a really different place than before. And that’s a good thing!

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 10, 2020 at 12:26 am

Posted in uncategorized

yes, it’s probably ok to keep schools open: more evidence on transmission within college campuses

One of my pandemic policy positions is that it’s probably ok for schools and colleges to open. The reasoning is fairly straightforward: young people are at low risk for harm a COVID infection, losing out on school can have serious long term consequences, sustained closures of schools can financially wreck them, outbreaks are rarely connected to schools in contact tracing studies, and we can implement policies to protect the elderly (e.g., support older faculty for remote learning or providing extra help for students to learn remotely if they live with elderly family members). If you want some mainstream support for this view, the NY Times ran an editorial supporting position and Dr. Fauci issued some language that also supported this position

However, there is one empirical issue that is, until now, unresolved. What if people attend school or college and have high infection rates and then bring it to the community? Well, researchers at my own university’s medical school have provided some strong evidence that this is likely not the case. Medical school professors at IU’s medical school compared contraction rates among students who attended class in person and those who attended class remotely. Infection rate data from mandatory random sample testing of students and faculty. The finding:

“What we found is that, actually, the more in-person credit hours a student had, the less likely they were to test positive for COVID-19,” said Dr. Lana Dbeibo, assistant professor of clinical medicine and medical director of infection prevention at the IU School of Medicine, and a key member of the IU Medical Response Team. “This analysis gives us even more confidence that the safety measures IU put in place in order to resume in-person instruction — in addition to the diligence of our students, faculty and staff following public health guidance throughout the semester — have been effective.” 

I should note that IU was pretty strict about banning large gatherings and enforcing mask use on campus. They also insisted people stay home if you showed any symptoms such as fever. But still, it shows that with sensible precautionary measures, you can have a school be open and minimize transmission. 

This isn’t the final straw in the debate over whether social institutions can be open during COVID, but it is very telling evidence and it is consistent with a lot of earlier work on where people tend to contract COVID, which is mainly not at school. In my mind, I think this supports the view that we should “protect the elderly, but release the young.”

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 8, 2020 at 5:19 pm

Posted in uncategorized

the worst jazz solo of all time

++++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 6, 2020 at 12:53 am

Posted in uncategorized

open borders at the university of southern california

At 5pm PST/ 8 pm EST, I will be arguing in favor with open borders at the Pacific Council on International Policy, at the University of Southern California. The critic will be Seth Stoddard, law professor and Obama administration homeland security deputy secretary. It is an online conference and it is FREE. Registration is here.

+++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 3, 2020 at 6:50 pm

Posted in uncategorized

russ roberts vs. expected utility

If you listen to recent Econ Talk episodes, you will notice that the host, economist Russ Roberts, will express dismay at some standard tools of economic modelling. Specifically, he really finds it troubling that a lot of economic analysis models behavior using expected utility – you assign a number to an outcome, guess at the probability it will happen and then take the average of utility of X and not X. He is also skeptical, or cautious, about econometrics as a whole. It’s not that he hates statistics, but rather finds that a lot of the modelling relies on dubious assumptions and models are only as good as the data.

Here, I want to dig into two of the reasons that Roberts doesn’t like utility theory. First, he has said that by focusing on the mean, you may not really appreciate the importance of various outcomes. For example, when I drive a car, the average is that I am ok. But once in a while, I get into a serious accident. Yet, the average is near zero death for driving a car. There’s something weird about that. Second, Roberts seems to think that economics over the course of its history has shifted from thinking about economic institutions and behaviors to a form of engineering. By reducing economic behavior to expected utility, you miss some big stuff. In a recent podcast, he offered a great example: economics can be either about how many widgets you make, but it’s also important to know why the market for widgets exists in the first place or why a company would want to be in the market for widgets. 

My responses: On the first issue, I think I am ok with expected utility as long as you stick to situations with “well behaved” utility functions. What would count as “well behaved?” Maybe situations where outcomes vary smoothly and rare events don’t have super high or low utility. In statistics, we would say that utility functions have to be a finite mean (when you add it all up to take the average, you get a finite number). I think that would apply to most daily situations, but I can imagine important situations where it doesn’t hold (see Monday’s post). On the second issue, you are now really hitting a truly deep point. What is economics supposed to be? The modern answer is, roughly, “applied decision theory plus regression models.” Of course, there are heterodox economists who might dispute this, like Austrians, but Roberts, I think, hasn’t endorsed Austrianism or another form of heterodoxy. At best, you might say that he’s a Chicago guy who is a “neo-Smithian,” which a is good way to describe his recent book on Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. I’d also humbly suggest that he has an inner economic sociologist who wants to come out.

+++++
50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)
Intro to sociology for just $1 per chapter – INSANE BARGAIN!!!!!
A theory book you can understand!!! Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)
The rise of Black Studies:  From Black Power to Black Studies 
Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!!!!

Written by fabiorojas

December 2, 2020 at 7:09 pm

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rational choice vampires

The philosopher Laurie Paul has a book called “Transformative Experiences.” It grapples with a very important philosophical problem: there are experiences that transform who you are and it is difficult to reconcile the person before and after the experience. For example, before you have children, you vow that children are too annoying. After you have children, you can’t imagine life without them. In an interview with Russ Roberts, Paul uses a great example from fiction – vampires. Few humans would say, “sure, I’d like to drink blood for a living.” But after they experience the life of vampires, they’re all for it. Being human seems so puny in comparison to an eternal life. I won’t get into whether I completely buy Paul’s analysis, whether there are indeed events that literally change you in a basic way that makes intertemporal comparisons of utility impossible. Instead, I’ll use Paul’s basic point to pivot to a discussion of rational choice theory.

Here’s the issue: Rational choice theory assumes that there is an actor (individual or collective) that has a very stable utility function over time. This is an important assumption because, without it, the theory is not informative. For example, if I eat chocolate today and vanilla tomorrow, it doesn’t help to say, “some days you like chocolate and some days you like vanilla.” Paul’s analysis points out that this does not seem to be accurate in some very important cases (e.g., your preferences before and after children). So you have some theoretical choices (ahem) to make. You can either just throw up your hands and say “well, this shows rational choice theory is garbage.” I don’t think that this is a defensible position, as it is nearly impossible to have a discussion of human action without some language that describes options, choice, and incentives. It’s also highly counter-intuitive as most people do seem to make choices everyday.

I think a more defensible position is this: Rational choice is about about stable actors and their incentives in relatively well defined situations, but it is not true that human beings represent a single “actor” over their entire lives. In other words, rational choice may be a decent way to describe, say, whether a presidential candidate will spend campaign money in a particular state (i.e., stable actor, clear choices and costs). But it’s a horrible way to understand how actions taken as a child represent the same actor that makes choices in old age. You are literally biologically and culturally different at age 70 and age 7, though your old and new selves will clearly have a lot of similarity, more than with other people.

Of course, Paul is not the first social theorist to run into this problem. Becker himself had to soften up on classical rational choice theory in his work on drug addiction. According to him and Kevin Murphy, the issue is that drugs to actually change people and thus it makes no sense to assume that preferences are stable. Thus, preferences are endogenous to choice (e.g., taking drugs changes your utility function). It was still rational choice, but it made a very big concession. In Paul’s language, drug addiction is a very negative transformative event.

Paul’s and the Becker/Murphy example point to a different model of human action – over your life, you can be “transformed.” Aging, child bearing, changing professions, etc. Thus, to talk about action long term, you need an “overlapping actors”* model. Short term, RCT is not a bad way to talk about daily choices, but long term people transition between states. RCT will be silent about the transition and about cross-transition comparison, but will be useful within each life.

Bottom line: Yes, we live in a world of incentives and those matter, but long term, you get issues where classical rational choice just doesn’t say a lot.

*Not original – see here.

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November 30, 2020 at 7:23 pm

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open borders 2020: this weekend!

The Open Borders Conference will be this Saturday, Nov 21, 2020 – all day!! We will have panels in the Western Europe, New York and Los Angeles time zones. We will have four key note addresses and more panels. Our key note speakers will be Samah Sisay (see above), Harsha Walia, Helena Maleno, and Shikha Dalmia.

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November 17, 2020 at 7:44 pm

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book auction open until 9pm tonight!!!

Brief note: the book and art auction is now open. We will take bids up until 9pm. Go to this link: https://www.instagram.com/openbordersconference/

Each book or artwork gets its own blog post and drop bids in the comments. We will also livestream via instagram from 8pm to 9pm. So go to the instagram and click on the round icon for the account to access the livestream. Hope to see you there!

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November 12, 2020 at 6:56 pm

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book auction for open borders back on schedule – check it out

The Open Borders Conference is having a fundraiser. From now until Thursday at 9pm, we will be auctioning books via the Open Borders Instagram page. Here’s how it works:

  • For the next few days, we will post pictures of the books on the Open Borders Instagram page.
  • Until 9PM on Thursday, you can bid on books – just write the price (e.g., $20) in the comment section. Only bids with time stamp 9pm or sooner will count.
  • If you win, just donate the amount to the Free Migration Project and indicate the book you won. We will not take cash or checks.
  • If you don’t have an Instagram account, email me at hoosierfab@gmail.com and I will proxy bid for you.
  • From 8pm to 9pm, I will be doing an Instagram livestream with Jamila Hamami, a New York area activist and writer, in support of the auction. So tune in and have some fun.
  • I am donating a copy of “From Black Power” and my own copy of Caplan and Weinersmith’s open borders book.

Remember that you can also support the conference the old fashioned way by buying a ticket for $15. Please check out the program as well. I hope you can bid.

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November 10, 2020 at 9:17 pm

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relief, sadness, and determination

The election of Donald Trump was the first time I had ever felt threatened by the outcome of an election. The US definitely has problems, but, sorry, Mitt Romney and John McCain were not scions of a new White supremacy as many might like to say. But Trump was the first candidate of a mainstream party to openly advocate ideas that, I thought, had been relegated to the dustbin of history. He essentially wanted to close the US enitrely to migration, wanted trade wars with China, and was happy to dog whistle genuinely violent racist groups. I never bought into the most hysterical talk. For example, I openly laughed when a friend of mine seriously argued that Trump would start a nuclear war. But still, Trump was a serious problem.

I briefly felt relief when it became clear that Trump had been voted out but very soon there after, sadness set in. The person who was voted in had supported some incredibly damaging policies. For me, Biden’s biggest mis-step was voting for the Iraq War. This is no small thing. The war took the lives of nearly 5,000 American troops, wounded thousands more, and devastated entire nations. And this is not isolated. On some of the biggest issues, Biden has been on the wrong side of history. He supported the 1994 crime bill, which many believe made law enforcement needlessly punitive, and, in the 1980s, was one of the politicians who began the process of turning Supreme court nominations into a zero-sum, winner takes all political battle. And of course, it is not clear what Biden did, if anything, to try to halt or slow the massive wave of deportations that occured during the Obama administration. The badness of Trump, or the diversity of the Democratic ticket, does not wash away those stains. I feel no pride or joy and I didn’t dance in the streets.

However, if you can stop thinking of politics as a television show where knights in shining armor defeat dragons, you have a more expansive view of the world. On Tuesday, a number of jurisdictions legalized narcotics, essentially nullifying the War on Drugs. That is clearly a good thing and it was made possible by local activists who spent the time and energy to campaign for those referenda. I think a very deep approach to politics is to recognize that the reality television show known as Congress and the White House does have its place and those folks weild genuine power, but that really substantial social change can be acheived in other ways. You won’t get awards or millions of Twitter followers, but if you helped your state vote to end drug prohibition, you have directly improved thousands, perhaps millions, of lives. And that’s more important than just about anything you can do in politics.

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November 9, 2020 at 12:44 am

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(almost) post election comments on nov 5, 2020

Around 10pm on Tuesday night, a number of friends on Facebook noted that if Biden were to win Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska’s 2nd district, he’d reach 270 electoral votes. Since then, I stopped thinking about who would win and more about take home points.

First, the national polls did as good as usual. In the Real Clear Politics average of polls with four candidates, Biden had 50.6%, Trump 43% and 3rd parties had 2.6%. The popular vote as of late Thursday? Biden has 50.47%, Trump 47.8%, Jorgenson had 1.15% and Hawkins had .23%. The message here is simple: undecideds moved to Trump, or finally admitted to voting for Trump, and some 3rd party people moved to Trump or admitted that they weren’t really going 3rd party. I’ll also note that this result – Biden exceeding 50% – is consistent for a challenger running during a recession.

Second, the state level polls were mixed. Some states were simply way off while others did well. The RCP poll average for Ohio was about 6% off – way beyond the margin of error. Similarly, Wisconsin was supposed to have a Biden win of +6% . The polls in Michigan and Pennsylvania were actually close to the final, or nearly final, results. If you know polling, this is expected. State polling is ususally less accurate than national polling. I haven’t seen any way so far to fix the problems that state level pollsters tend to have.

It is also worth noting people’s emotions. For me, this was not an emotional roller coaster. Rather, it was like watching a normal election in very, very slow motion. If you understand that all those mail in ballots tilt Democrats, then you’d guess that Biden had the stronger position. Nothing shocking given the recession and pandemic, but just really, really slow.

Third, the real big surprise is that Democrats lost ground in the House and didn’t get much traction in the Senate. This may seem puzzling from one point of view – presidential winners (sometimes) have coat tails. But perhaps it is less surprising from the view that the election might have been a referendum on Trump and people were happy with the status quo. Another possibility is that the emergence of a strong progressivism a la Sanders simply has limited mileage in competitive districts. In other words, people may be happy to dump Trump but pulling the trigger for Sanders and AOC might be one step too far.

Finally, I’ll note that some policy issues I favor did well. Decriminalization of narcotics made headway and that it is something civil libertarians, abolitionists, and progressives should see as a big gain. Also, as a sign of improving toleration, a number of LGBT candidates did well and won their races. If you have additional insights, put it in the comments!

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November 6, 2020 at 1:04 am

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book spotlight: billionaire wilderness by justin farrell

Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and The Remaking of the American West is a book by Justin Farrell that uses ethnography to explore how super, duper, like incredinly wealthy, people think about the environment. Farrell hung out in Wymoing in an enclave of people who have made, or inherited, vast fortunes and he gets to understand how they see “nature” and use it.

The book is a lively and interesting exploration of a subculture that few people ever get to see. I’m quite impressed by his ability to gain access to research subjects. This is definitely an excellent contribution to the sociology of elites and it sits well next to the works of other sociologists of elites, like Lauren Rivera and Shamus Khan.

The main point of the book is that the ultra rich have used “nature” as a place they can buy and turn into a retreat that has highly symbolic value for them. The result is that you now have these enclaves where the ultra rich sit next to some very working class people. In a sense, the book might be an extension of a Bourdieusian analysis of conservation – conservation is simply another field where financial and symbolic resources for status competitions. But I’d also add that Farrell covers some more humanistic elements of the story as well. Wealthy respondents talk about the enclave as something that isn’t the same as buying another yacht or mansion, there’s definitely a desire for something more in life. While status competition is defintiely a big part of the story, it’s not the only part of the story.

So a thumbs up from me. Required reading for environmental sociologists, sociologists of elites and stratification scholars.

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November 4, 2020 at 12:17 am

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final election 2020 commentary

As of this morning, Real Clear Politics has the four way race going for Biden at around 52%, Trump 45% and the Libertarians (Jorgenson) and Greens (Hawkins) at about a combined 2.5%. I am not going to spend time forecasting elections results because the popular vote is clearly going to Biden. Nate Silver’s posits a 10% chance of an Electoral College upset for Trump and that seems reasonable. A Trump Electoral College win is definitely unlikely, but not outside the realm of possibility. If you’re a Democrat, you might enjoying knowing that Michigan progrssive groups have been massively spam texting me for a month becuase I used to live there. Clearly, “we’re not letting THAT happen again!”

Instead, I’ll add a few comments about other aspects of this election. Let’s start with 3rd parties. I take this election cycle as more evidence for the “parking lot” theory of third parties. A lot of voters will say they are interested in 3rd parties in surveys but when it comes around to voting, they really just want a brand name major party politician. This year just confirms the hypothesis. The Greens and Libertarians are doing even worse than in 2016. We have a beleagured president and a tepid challenger and yet, third parties are just having no impact, aside from being spoilers at the state and local levels. The message to me is clear – 3rd parties remain pretty ineffective tools for political influence for fringe ideas.

Second, I’d like to talk about police reform and the “party in the street” hypothesis – namely, movements back off when their party is in power. In the Spring, we saw a big push for police reform and even some folks arguing for defunding or abolition. I thought that when Kamala Harris became the VP nominee, we’d see some big push back from party activists because of her “law and order” record. But very little happened. My prediction is that should Harris win, many police reform folks will praise the candidate that they loather earlier in the year. The Party in the Street hypothesis 1, police abolitionists 0.

Have any other perspectives on this election cycle? Put it in the comments!

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November 3, 2020 at 4:14 pm

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the economic paradox of quality television

Old style network television was based on the following economic model. Make a bunch of stand alone episodes and advertisers pay for it. If you get lucky, you get to syndicate the show and future advertisers can pay for it again. The aesthetic trick is to make sure that each episode is relatively self-contained so that in the short term, new viewers can easily pick up. If you can’t just turn it on and get it, it will be hard to syndicate.

The big evolution in modern television is arc story telling. Rather than have stand alone tales, television episodes form one long narrative. The first show to completely do this and hit it big was the Soprano’s in the early 2000s. But you could also see arc story telling in earlier science fiction, like Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5. Now, the default mode for television on streaming platforms is the story arc.

This presents a pretty serious economic problem. Arc stories are really powerful in ways that old procedurals and sit coms are not but they undermine the economic logic of television. Short term, it is hard to build an audience unless they buy in early. For most shows, it is just hard to pick up a show in season 3 and get it. Long term, it’s horrible. As much as I love Game of Thrones, it will be very hard for future viewers to start in season 6 and really get the most out of it. In contrast, the all time great sit com show, Friends, still keeps making new fans every single day. It is so “stand alone” that young people think it’s about them – in 2020!

So this leads to some very perverse dynamics in the modern entertainment industry – high quality shows are very likely to get cancelled. Netflix is notorious for this. If you can’t get an audience by season 2, you get chopped. And other streaming services aren’t much different. This has resulted in some very daring shows – like Sense8 on Netflix – getting chopped very early and leaving people hanging. And I can’t blame network executives. It’s expensive and if you can’t get viewers, you have a problem.

If you believe this analysis, then we may see a shift back from “prestige” arc story to traditional stand alone story telling. Instead of betting on the next Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, streamers may try to mimic network television and go for the next Monk or Friends – shows that are very easy to replay in the future.

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October 30, 2020 at 12:17 am

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covid mitigation stringency: some data

A few days ago, commenters on the blog argued that I was fighting a strawman by suggesting we move from strict measures to a laxer “protect the elderly” position. Lockdowns in response to COVID simply weren’t happening and my argument was entirely off base. Here, I’ll briefly review some evidence on COVID mitigation measures. My suggestion for COVID – focus on at risk groups such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions – may be wrong, but the evidence does not suggest that I am fighting a straw man.

First, the media is reporting that many parts of the world are becoming more stringent:

Of course, the media may be missing the story. They might be exaggerating things or I might be selectively looking at things. There is actually an independent source of data that tracks the stringency of COVID mitigation: The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. Their rank nations from 0 (no response) to 100 (the banning of nearly all gatherings).

If you look at the data, you will immediately see extremely wide variation in government response. I have chosen five nations to show the range and how it varies over time. The US as a whole, it is safe to say, has modulated between moderate to high stringency – from 60% to 70%. New Zealand has widely oscillated between a near 100% rating and a 20% rating. Sweden is cruising along at 40% – moderately lenient but not as open as the media would suggest. Ireland has been pretty strict, but for one month, dipped low. Peru has been very strict the entire epidemic – nearly 100% most of the time.

Why do I bring this up? Simple. Many nations are definitely highly stringent and some are very stringent. Some are not stringent at all. Discussing curfews, mass quarantines, and the like is not fighting a strawman. Focused COVID mitigation – “protect the elderly” – may be a bad idea, but the debate over strict COVID measures is real and needs to be had.

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October 27, 2020 at 7:51 pm

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book auction fund raiser for open borders 2020

Update: The book auction will be moved to November 12.

I am fund raising for open borders 2020 – a global online conference for people interested in maker a freer and better world. The easiest way to help is simply to buy a ticket. $15 – for a gathering of some amazing people. Click here. But you can also participate in the book auction. We have some great books to donate – and you can get a copy signed by the author! We will do a live chat on October 28, Wed, at 8pm. While we chat, just bid on books! Click here for more information. Test edit.

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October 26, 2020 at 7:35 pm

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i want $15 from you – open borders 2020 fund raising

On November 21, 2020, we’re having the 3rd Open Borders conference. It’s open to all people – Left or Right, Black and White, and more! And we have three amazing keynote speakers: European immigration activist Helena Maleno, star journalist Shikha Dalmia and Vancouver civil rights defender Harsha Walia. It’s online so you can participate from anywhere you have an Internet connection.

But we do need a teensy weensy bit of help. We have some costs, like translators and paying for tech support. The easiest way to help out is to simply to buy a ticket, even if you can’t make it that day. It’s only $15. We also waive the fee for anyone who asks.

Another way to help us out is to participate in the Open Borders book auction, which will occur on Wednesday, October 28. We’ll be doing a live event and you can log in and bid on signed books. It’ll be fun!

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October 23, 2020 at 12:20 am

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more tweets, more votes: biden edition

The main empirical claim of the More Tweets, More Votes paper is that in the 2010 and 2012 Congressional elections, candidates who got more tweets relative to their competitor got more votes relative to the competitor. For a long time, I thought that Trump was an exception to the rule. He always gets attention, no matter if he’s winning or losing. Even in the original data, we found many cases where scandals, and other factors, could create exception to the MTMV line.

Well, this recent article in Axios suggests that maybe even Trump, the master of social media trolling, may actually be conforming to the MTMV hypothesis. They don’t use the MTMV methodology, but use a different measurement of engagement online to show that Biden now has more Twitter attention than Trump. Sociologically, what is happening is that people are realizing that Trump is probably going to lose and they’re paying attention to the expected winner. If you have other explanations of the graph, please use the comments.

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October 21, 2020 at 12:08 am

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long term covid effects: commentary on yelin et al. (2020)

On this blog, we’ve had a debate over my opinions on COVID policy. To summarize, here is my view:

  1. Most of the damage from COVID is disproportionately shouldered by the elderly.
  2. Harm from COVID is relatively rare among non-elderly adults and young people.
  3. It is possible to reduce transmission to elderly people with relatively simple policies like age screening, increased testng for care givers and encouraging the elderly to reduce contacts with younger people who have been out in the community.
  4. Widespread lockdowns and closure have some very damaging effects such as unemployment, mental health problems, and erosion of the community.

Points #1 and #2 are very much the consensus. Most people seem to accept #4. #3 is more contended – but I am puzzled about why focusing on at risk people is seen as such a misguided policy. It’s what we do for other illnesses (e.g., if your family doesn’t have a history of sickle cell anemia, we won’t monitor you for it). The conclusion , however, is pretty simple: a relatively “open” policy – relase the young, protect the elderly. There are a growing number of epidemiologists who are moving toward this position. Even the WHO is backing off on lockdowns as a default method for COVID mitigation.

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October 19, 2020 at 8:13 pm

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tohsinori kondo (1948-2020), you flippin’ rocked

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October 19, 2020 at 12:48 am

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social theory without super heroes

A while back, I did a podcast with Kyle Green about Theory for the Working Sociologist. He’ll release it later this semester but I wanted to report on an exchange we had. He asked me about the movement among scholars to revive earlier figures like DuBois. Cooper and others. I said a few things. First, many of these figures have been overlooked because of the history of racial discrimination in our country and in our discipline. Second, I am actually a fan of going back into sociology’s history and reviving lost thought. There might be something valuable.

But I did warn Kyle about something. I don’t want the old canon of sociology “superheroes” to be replaced with a new canon of “superheroes.” Why? Two major reasons. First, social theory should be about understanding the social world, not valorizing particular people. When you read X’s writing because X is popular, you’re doing intellectual history not science. I honestly don’t care about Marx the person. But I do care whether the theory of class conflict is actually an accurate theory of the world. When we do “superhero” social theory (e.g., Marx, Weber, Durkheim), we really miss the point. Having a new team of superheroes just reproduces the problem.

Second, when you set up a team of sociology superheroes, you create a mythology and encourage ad hominem reasoning. For example, a lot of people want DuBois to be a new sociology super hero. I think he’s a great sociologist, but DuBois had a lot of problematic positions. For example, he was an unapologetic Stalinist. Seriously – click on the link. By treating DuBois as a new superhero, you will not see the complete person.

Also, by treating social theory as a superhero issue, you might be tempted to make ad hominem attacks. For example, a lot of people are gunning for Weber because, frankly, he had some really racist views of non-white people. Seriously – click on the link. I think the critics are correct, but that doesn’t imply that his other ideas are wrong. That’s a logical fallacy.

Will I still read and teach DuBois and Weber? Sure! The logical validity of an argument does not depend on who speaks the argument. Some readers would say that there’s a sort of contamination – people with racist ideas produce incredibly racist theory. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. You simply need to assert independent judgment. Is Weber’s theory of Calvinism a secret imperialist plot? Nope. Is Souls of Black Folk a secret defense of Stalinist gulags? Give me a break!

Here’s the bottom line. I really get nervous when people start arguing about the lives of dead sociologists and which ones we should worship instead. Really, they are all false gods. The only thing you should do when you read any sociologists is just take the theory and look for supporting and contradicting evidence. That’s it.

++++++
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Written by fabiorojas

October 16, 2020 at 12:54 pm

Posted in uncategorized

migration restriction and the arrest of activists

One of the biggest lessons I got from hearing Shikha Dalmia speak at the 2018 Open Borders conference was that migration restriction violates the rights of people in the host nation. Want to hire Juan from Mexico City? You can’t. Want Juan to be a guest in your home? You can’t. Basically, the restriction of migration entails the violation of the freedom of assembly and commerce that most of us enjoy.

I also appreciate that migration restriction also harms people who advocate on behalf of migrants. WHYY, the NPR station in Philadelphia, reported on the arrest of Nancy Nguyen at her home after she protested in front of the home of a border control official. The charge? Trespassing and littering (!), because she placed some signs on the man’s lawn. In my view, this is obvious over-reach by law enforcement.

Let me add an extra note here. I think it is correct to presume that a public official should be able to spend time at home without a crowd on their lawn. But doesn’t that standard also apply to people from other cities or countries who just want to live in peace in a new place? In other words, if you think that people should be able to be at home without harassment, doesn’t it also apply to me if I want to hire or marry a person from a different country? Why shouldn’t me and my friends from other nations be left alone?

My hope is that authorities drop these charges and people can focus on the bigger issue – there is a very large and very punitive system that makes life miserable for millions of peaceful immigrants.

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Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
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Written by fabiorojas

October 14, 2020 at 6:25 pm

Posted in uncategorized

the prisoner’s dilemma in 2020

This is a post whose content I have been meditating on, for a long time, since I last wrote about my concerns about responses to SARS-CoV-2 in March.  For years, I’ve taught about the classic prisoner’s dilemma in the context of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons book.  Ostrom’s book draws on collectives to explain how such groups collectively self-manage and regulate common resource pools like fisheries and grazing grounds; her work offers some insights into how to tackle shared, contemporary issues.  For example, many of us have concerns about how to combat environmental degradation, where the longterm outlook is often hard to forecast against shortterm gains and externalities generated by corporations. 

With SARS-CoV-2’s worldwide spread, the prisoner’s dilemma is now evident in everyday decisions on the part of individual people, organizations, and governments. These decisions, in aggregate, have both immediate and longterm consequences for all:

Scenario 1Both parties defect: Most or all persons fail to wear masks properly, socially distance to the fullest extent possible, and/or live and work with conditions that promote safer interpersonal contact (i.e. gets tested with short turn-around results, cooperates with contact tracing, spends time outdoors or indoors with open windows, enhanced air circulation, etc.).  The outcome of not reducing risky activities manifests in collectively worse outcomes for everyone – societies experience more illnesses, more need for hospitalizations at the same time (which hospitals cannot handle given staffing and equipment capacity), more deaths, more not-yet-know longterm effects, more uncertainty, etc. 

Scenario 2One party defects while the other party cooperates: One party refuses to do social distancing, mask usage, etc. while the other does.  The outcome is still worse for everyone, but less so compared with when both parties defect.  

Scenario 3Both parties cooperate: Everyone engages in proper mask wearing, social distancing, regular, rapid testing, etc.  These actions hopefully push transmission down to few or no cases.  This is the most ideal outcome from a collective health standpoint.

In NYC, my students and their communities have learned the hard way about the consequences of the prisoner’s dilemma, especially given the failures of various elected leaders and organizations to properly conceptualize and communicate risk.  I tried my best, from the beginning of the spring semester, to prepare my undergrad and grad students, my household, and those around me for what I thought was likely to happen, based on what I had read about China and recommendations from qualified experts.  For example, I told students to start identifying neighborhood businesses and organizations that they might have to patronize, should they no longer be able to travel.  If they lived in the dorms, I encouraged them to think through plans for returning home.  I asked students to test working online with their devices.  I intensified my teaching of decentralized organizing techniques, including mutual aid.  I spent time in multiple meetings, explaining to administrators my preparatory steps for moving online, and drafting and sending emails asking decision-makers at various organizations to take steps to protect communities.  I contemplated what to do if I got incapacitated.

Here’s what we experienced, healthwise, in the spring 2020:

  • a death of the senior-most colleague in my department
  • a student, who had been ill himself, learned of a death in his extended family, during groupwork in my class
  • students and their family members hospitalized
  • students and CUNY colleagues suspected they had COVID-19 symptoms (headaches, fevers, cough) but couldn’t get tested for COVID-19
  • one student’s entire family got sick, possibly from their child’s school which had teachers who had been hospitalized. This student almost died due to an nearly too late diagnosed complication of COVID-19.
  • death of a parent at my child’s school

My CUNY colleagues reported similar or worse experiences; for example, one undergraduate lost both parents to COVID-19.  Everyday during our lockdown, every passing siren was an auditory reminder of how failed states can deplete collective capacity to coordinate effective action.

When I talk with academic colleagues and my research communities across NYC and the US, they have reported voluntarily following the recommendations of experts who have researched public health, indoor air quality, and aerosol diseases.  Most are at organizations that have allowed them to work from home or outdoors.  They have chosen to reduce exposure and transmission risks, for example, by wearing masks and replacing riskier activities, such as dining and socializing indoors with those outside of their households, with other kinds of activities like virtual meetings, walking together outdoors while masked, etc.  Some do it out of concerns for their own health; others are concerned for those around them.    

When we talk about how life has changed and will continue to change, we acknowledge that we have the means and privilege to do this, and that we do this in order to collectively reduce risks for those who cannot.  Accepting such changes has not always been easy, especially when we are unsure when we can next gather with loved ones safely, across long physical distances.  Each day feels like the 1990s movie Groundhog Day, but with deaths, illness, and grief.  The temptation to individually defect, in an attempt to return to the 2019 “normal,” is high.  That said, mutual cooperation is much easier if we think of our interdependent futures, as well as our connections with prior and upcoming generations.

In the absence of coordinated state action, informal and formal organizations can step in. Organizations like schools and universities can offer decision-making guides to their members about the impact of participating in get-togethers and similar “individual decisions” upon surrounding communities. Organizations can support people in collecting data that might not otherwise be deemed by gatekeepers as worthy of inclusion. With these steps, people can learn about possible risks to their community, and take actions that might eventually generate a collective best, rather than worst, outcome for all.

Written by katherinechen

October 7, 2020 at 6:35 pm

Posted in uncategorized

Tagged with ,

bambi (1969)

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Written by fabiorojas

October 4, 2020 at 12:26 am

Posted in uncategorized

an issue with amy coney barrett and most other supreme court nominees and justices

Sometime this Fall, Amy Coney Barrett will likely become a Supreme Court Justice. A lot of people are shedding tears over Mitch McConnell’s rush to get Barett on the court. Well, if you believe what politicians tell you about election year court appointment norms, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

Instead, I want to draw attention to an issue with Barrett and most other elite jurists. People who get appointed to that level – appeals courts and the Supreme court – usually have very little experience in criminal law. If you look at most justices on the Supreme and appeals court, they have spent very, very little time defending regular people on criminal charges. Usually, a Supreme court nominee goes to an elite law school, then works for the government at an elite level and then goes to work at a fancy law school. In the mix, they may spend a few years working in corporate law or in “boutique” firms defending unusual or elite clients. Very rarely do they have deep experience with criminal law, or even regular civil law. For example, I think the only Supreme Court justice that spent a lot of time in criminal law was Sotomayor – and she was a prosecutor. It is very rare for an elite judge to have spent an extended period in criminal defense.

Barrett’s biography indicate a similar trajectory, with some modification. After graduating from Notre Dame, she clerked for Scalia and then worked for Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, which tends to represent high profile DC clients like Ted Kennedy, and then Baker Botts, which defends notable Republicans, such as Bush v. Gore. And then she returned to law school as a professor and then moved to the appeals court. Her academic specialty? Constitutional law. As far as I can tell, Barrett, like most jurists at that level, has very little experience with normal people with normal legal problems.

By itself, it’s not a problem. No lawyer can know every type of law, but when an entire legal system is full of leaders who actively avoid and lack experience of a major branch of the legal system, that’s an issue. I could go through and discuss issues where I may agree or disagree with Barrett, or the circus that Supreme Court nominations have become, but I prefer to argue for nominating bench that is diverse in terms of legal experience, and that may be just as important as demographic and ideological diversity.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 2, 2020 at 12:10 am

Posted in uncategorized

it’s probably ok to send kids to school during COVID: a review of some research about young children and covid

My COVID policy: protect the elderly, release the young. The basis for this recommendation is simple: young people are at very low risk for mortality from COVID. However, a common refrain is “won’t kids catch COVID and take it home.” Well, we now have some evidence that can provide insight.

In Science Magazine, Snape and Viner review a few studies that now focus on the issue of whether small children are responsible for variation in infection rates. Let’s dig into these studies:

First, do kids bring COVID from home to school? Viner’s team has a preprint and the answer is “probably not.” They review the literature to find contact tracing studies that explore how often children were likely to be spreaders vs. adults. The answer? .56 – children are half as likely to be spreaders as adults.

Second, do kids bring COVID from school to home? This is hard to estimate, but Snape and Viner cite recent research on contact tracing and find that school kids are a very small fraction of the people who actually spread COVID. For example, Public Health England study of nasal swabs in British children shows that a tiny fraction of kids at home have active COVID infections. How infrequent? 3.9 out of 100,000.

Of course, this isn’t the last word. But right now, data indicate that children spreaders are not the issue. It’s not zero transmission, which is an incredibly tough standard, but it’s simply small compared to adult transmission. I also note that the studies that Snape and Viner cite use data from the Spring when we were initially reacting to COVID. Today, we know that masks work and keeping physical distance works. Schools are also moving to low density set ups, such as having classes outside when possible and rotating the student attendance (e.g., only 50% of students show up on a given day). Thus, the risk of disease from young people is probably lower in Fall 2020 than Spring 2020.

The conclusion here is simple: opening parts of society aimed at young people is fairly safe. Kids rarely get sick from COVID, they spread less disease than adults, and the prevalence of COVID among kids is really, really low.

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Written by fabiorojas

September 30, 2020 at 12:47 am

Posted in uncategorized

release the young, protect the elderly: further consideration of an “open” covid policy

As loyal readers know, my position on COVID policy is simple: protect the elderly, release the young. Why? COVID is very low risk for young people, but extremely damaging for people who are older. This position is very much an “open” position. Here, I’ll discuss some recent evolutions in this argument.

First, Linkdn’s new website ran an article by Martin Kulldorff, who teaches at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s hospital. In brief, he argues for a position similar to mine. Instead of society wide lock downs, we should be age focused. We should come up with policies that minimize costs on young people while reducing risk for older people. A few quotes:

With age 70-79 as baseline, relative mortality risks are shown in Table 1. For COVID-19 exposed individuals, people in their 70s have roughly twice the mortality of those in their 60s, 10 times the mortality of those in their 50s, 40 times that of those in their 40s, 100 times that of those in their 30s, 300 times that of those in their 20s, and a mortality that is more than 3000 times higher than for children. Under Scenario B, with higher exposure among the young, the age differences are even larger.

In other words, the risk of mortality for the elderly is 3000 times more than children. He admits that perfect information is not available, but what we do have suggests that burden of disease is incredibly lopsided.

This is not controversial. This age-COVID mortality association was established in the Spring and is the consensus view. Kulldorff is simply emphasizing what is widely known and accepted. What is unusual is that Kulldorff makes a rather simple argument: if young people are relatively unaffected, we can open much of society, so long as we screen by age. Key quote:

To date, most government mandated mitigation measures have either been age neutral, such as restaurant closures, or targeted at young and middle-aged people, such as school and office closures. A more appropriate age targeted approach is needed. Just as some pubs ban customers under the age of 21, government officials could set temporary upper age limits of say 50, 60, or 65 for visiting or working at restaurants, stores, offices, airports, and other public places. So, for example, while all 60-plus-year-old supermarket cashiers, gas station attendants, police officers, postal workers, garbage collectors and bus drivers should stay home, their younger colleagues should keep working, taking extra shifts as needed.

This is a direct implication of the epidemiology of the illness. If X is not affected and Y is affected, focus on Y and leave X alone. However, much of the discourse in the United States is about policies that affect everyone (like lockdowns) or policies that heavily burden the young (e.g., college and school closures).

In Jacobin magazine, Martin Kulldorff and his colleague Kathrine Yih argued this position further. A few more key quotes. This is Yih discussing the need to evolve policy beyond a simple “minimize cases” approach:

I don’t think it’s wise or warranted to keep society locked down until vaccines become available. There are nine vaccines in large-scale efficacy trials as of mid-September 2020, and my guess is that at least one will be approved for use in the United States by some time in 2021. But this is not certain to happen. Furthermore, neither the effectiveness nor the duration of immunity from any of these vaccines is known as yet.

There are additional uncertainties about how many vaccines can be manufactured, distributed, kept at the requisite temperatures, and administered in a short amount of time after authorization or licensure, and whether a sizeable portion of the population will refuse vaccination. So we can hope but we certainly can’t count on a vaccine saving us either as individuals or as a population in the short term.

Regarding policy, early in the US epidemic, based in part on the experiences of Italy and Spain, the urgency of “flattening the [epidemiologic] curve” was emphasized. It was indeed crucial to take steps to ensure that hospitals and health care resources not be overwhelmed, as they very nearly were in parts of New York City, for instance.

But I have been struck by how this emphasis on keeping the numbers down at all costs has not evolved with time. There is a kind of simplistic goal of keeping people from getting infected, period. Now this may seem like a worthy goal, but with a highly contagious respiratory virus to which most of the world’s population is probably still not immune, people are going to get infected. The virus will spread, quickly or less so, until herd immunity is reached.

In sum, policy can’t be stuck in March 2020, when the only thing we knew was that there was high mortality in a few spots. Now that we know more, we can change the policy. What should that be? Open institutions that have few older people in them. This is Martin Kulldorff:

Children and young adults have minimal risk, and there is no scientific or public health rationale to close day care centers, schools, or colleges. In-person education is critically important for both the intellectual and social development for all kids, but school closures are especially harmful for working-class children whose parents cannot afford tutors, pod schools, or private schools.

You might think this is isolated. But others are coming around to the “release the young, protect the elderly” policy. This is from a recent article in Science Magazine by Matthew Snape and Russell Viner. Key quote:

Abstract: Children have a low risk of COVID-19 and are disproportionately harmed by precautions.

How harmful is COVID for kids? Worst case is that it is similar to adults, but probably few kids get sick:

Evidence from contact-tracing studies suggest that children and teenagers are less susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection than adults; however, community swabbing and seroprevalence studies conducted outside of outbreak settings suggest that infection rates are similar to those in older age groups (13). Only half of children and teenagers with antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 have experienced symptoms, and there is growing evidence that there is a broad range of presentations, emphasizing the limitations of community-based prevalence studies based on testing only children with respiratory symptoms. Hospitalization for severe acute COVID-19 in children is rare, but among these pediatric inpatients, respiratory symptoms are more apparent than in infected children in the community (4). Case fatality in hospitalized children is, fortunately, relatively low at 1% (compared with 27% across all ages) (4).

Do kids spread a lot COVID at home? Not very much:

 Looked at from another perspective, when household outbreaks of infection have occurred, it appears that children were responsible for only a small minority of household introductions of the virus. Also, recent surveys found that reopening of schools in a number of European countries in April and May had no clear impact on community transmission, with cases continuing to fall in most countries after reopening (11).

Do school closures have real harmful effects on children? Probably:

School closures and attendant loss of other protective systems for children (such as limited social care and health visiting) highlight the indirect, but very real, harms being disproportionately borne by children and teenagers as a result of measures to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. In the UK, it is estimated that the impact on education thus far may lead to a quarter of the national workforce having lower skills and attainment for a generation after the mid-2020s, leading to the loss of billions of dollars in national wealth (11). Additionally, there are a variety of other harms to children’s health, including the risk of reemergence of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles because of disruptions to immunization programs.

My serious hope is that these voices become more common. We need to move from “COVID is an existential threat to humanity that needs to be shut down at all costs” to “COVID is a disease with a specific population profile that mitigation policies need to reflect.” In other words, release the young, protect the elderly.

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Did Obama tank the antiwar movement? Party in the Street
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Written by fabiorojas

September 24, 2020 at 4:45 pm

Posted in uncategorized