Sunday, January 30, 2011

Herbert Simon's satisficing life

Herbert Simon was a remarkably fertile thinker in the social and "artificial" sciences (The Sciences of the Artificial - 3rd Edition (1969, first edition)).  His most celebrated idea was the notion of "satisficing" rather than "optimizing" or "maximizing" in decision-making; he put forward a theory of ordinary decision-making that conformed more closely to the ways that actual people reason rather than the heroic abstractions of expected utility theory.

Essentially the concept of satisficing takes the cost of collecting additional information into account as a decision maker searches for a solution to a problem -- where to eat for dinner, which university to attend, which product to emphasize in a company's short-term strategy.  And the theory commends the idea that we are best served overall by accepting the "good-enough" solution rather than searching indefinitely for the best solution.  Rather than attempting to inventory all possible choices available at a given point in time and assigning them utilities and probabilities, the satisficing theory recommends setting parameters for a problem of choice, and then selecting the first solution that comes along that satisfies these parameters.  It means searching for a solution that is "good enough" rather than optimal.

And why not go for the optimal solution?  Because the cost of collecting the additional information associated with a broader choice set may well exceed the total benefit of the current decision.  This is obvious in the case of the decision of which restaurant to go to; slightly less obvious in the case of the decision of which university to attend; and perhaps flatly unpersuasive in the case of decisions where the outcome can influence life and death.

I've described the theory of satisficing in a little detail here for an unexpected reason: Simon took some interest in the art of autobiography, and it turns out that he interprets his own life as a series of satisficing decisions.  His autobiography Models of My Life appeared in 1996, and it's an interesting narrative of the intellectual and personal choices that led Simon from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh and beyond.

The idea is particularly apt for Simon's view about how a life unfolds.  He rejects the idea that one's life has an overriding theme.  He discusses the fact that the title of the book is a plural noun -- "Models of My Life".
There is a further reason for using the plural [models].  It is a denial -- a denial that a life, at least my life, has a central theme, a unifying thread running through it. True, there are themes (again the plural), some of the threads brighter or thicker or stronger than others.  Perhaps clearest is the theme of the scientist and teacher, carrying on his persistent heuristic search, seeking the Holy Grail of truth about human decision making.  In my case, even that thread is woven of finer strands: the political scientist, the organization theorist, the economist, the management scientist, the computer scientist, the psychologist, the philosopher of science. (xviii)
Rather than one underlying theme that underlies a person's biography and career, there are multiple choices, directions, and emphases -- that add up to a woven lifetime of contribution when the choices work out well.

Simon accepts the implication that this vision of a life presents: that there is no single "self" underlying all these changes and choices:
Which of the wanderers through these different mazes will step forward at the call for the real Herbert Simon?  All of them; for the "real" self is an illusion.  We live each hour in context, different contexts for different hours.... We act out our lives within the mazes in which Nature and society place us. (xviii-xix)
The analogy between daily decision-making and living a life is a direct one: instead of setting upon a course with very specific goals and objectives, and then taking the steps necessary to bring about the achievement of that system of goals, Simon is recommending a more local form of life decision-making. Build capacities, recognize opportunities, take risks, and build a life as a result of a series of local choices.  It is a form of bounded rationality for living rather than an expression of a fully developed life plan.  So we might say that Simon's "philosophy of living" is entirely consistent with his theory of bounded rationality.

There are a few real surprises in the book -- for example, a conversation between Simon and Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina in 1970.  Simon was fascinated by Borges' use of the idea of a labyrinth in his novels, and wanted to find out from Borges how he was led to this family of metaphors.  Simon himself was drawn to the idea of a series of choices as a maze -- incorporating the insight that there are always unexplored outcomes behind the avenues not taken.  So a labyrinth is a good metaphor for choice within uncertainty and risk.
I have encountered many branches in the maze of my life's path, where I have followed now the left fork, now the right.  The metaphor of the maze is irresistible to someone who has devoted his scientific career to understanding human choice. (xvii)
Here is a snippet of the conversation between Simon and Borges as quoted in the book:
SIMON: I want to know how it was that the labyrinth entered into your field of vision, into your concepts, so that you incorporated in your stories.
BORGES: I remember having seen an engraving of the labyrinth in a French book -- when I was a boy. It was a circular building without doors but with many windows. I used to gaze at this engraving and think that if I brought a loupe close to it, it would reveal the Minotaur.
SIMON: Did you see it?
BORGES: Actually my eyesight was never good enough.  Soon I discovered something of the complexity of life, as if it were a game. In this I am not referring to chess. 
SIMON: What is the connection between the labyrinth of the Minotaur and your labyrinth, which calls for continual choice? Does the analogy go beyond the general concept?
BORGES: When I write, I don't think in terms of teaching. I think that my stories, in some way, are given to me, and my task is to narrate them. I neither search for implicit connotations nor start out with abstract ideas; I am not one who plays with symbols. But if there is some transcendental explanation of one of my stories, it is not for me to discover it, that is the task of the critics and the readers.
And a final surprise -- it emerges from the conversation that Borges had read "a very interesting book" early in his life, Bertrand Russell's Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy -- not exactly the most predictable influence on the creator of magical realism.  And Russell's mathematical logic was likewise a formative influence for Simon, at a comparably early age.

There is an interesting short section where Simon discusses one of the directions he did not take in his own personal career maze -- the step of trying to become a college president at Carnegie Mellon or elsewhere (262 ff.).  Simon writes briefly about the reasons why this might have been a realistic aspiration for him -- a history of administrative competence at the department level and a stellar academic record.  But he decided not to pursue the presidency at CMU:
However that may be, I did not seriously consider taking on the context. ... I have never regretted the decision, especially in view of Dick's stellar performance on the job, a performance made possible by a "deviousness" that our colleague Leland Hazard admiringly attributed to him, and that I surely did not possess. (263)
He adds that he didn't have the personality needed to cultivate the community of wealthy businessmen whose support would be essential to Carnegie: "In fact, the close association with the business community that is essential for effective performance as president of a university such as Carnegie Mellon would have been uncomfortable for me" (263).

But here is the way this discussion strikes me (as a person whose career did take him in that direction). Simon gives no evidence here of understanding even the most basic facts about this domain of choice: what the job of president actually is; what the qualities of personality and leadership are that would lead to success; and what the intellectual satisfactions might be in the event that he became a university president. He seems to be working from a very shallow stereotyped view of the job of university president. In other words, Simon had none of the information that would be needed to make an informed career choice about this option. And this suggests that his decision-making on this issue was narrowly bounded indeed -- driven by a few stereotyped assumptions that were probably a poor guide to the reality.

(Here is a lecture by Herbert Simon on organizations, public administration, and markets:)

Friday, January 28, 2011

The politics of cultural despair

The last century gave us far too many examples of the rise of extremism in mass societies -- both democratic and authoritarian.  Some of the political mechanisms of extremist seizure of power are well known -- paramilitary force, extremist organizations, demogogic leaders, hyper-heated rhetoric, appeals to nationalism and racism, and inflammatory mass media.  But it's also worth asking -- what is the cultural basis for the rise of various extremisms?  What factors in the ideas, thoughts, and emotions of a population have sometimes led to the rise of extremist states -- fascism, ethnic cleansing, murderous nationalism, or deranged communism such as the killing fields of Cambodia?  Does philosophy play a role in the rise of extremism?

For observers born since 1930 a natural place to raise this question is the rise of National Socialism in Germany.  How could a party dedicated to an explicit programme of racism, repression, and murder have gained mass support and control of the state in Germany?

A particularly important early effort to answer this question was Fritz Stern's pathbreaking The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (1961), now fifty years old.  The book is a careful intellectual history; but it is more than that.  It is an effort to link a set of philosophical ideas to a series of political developments that involved increasingly wide circles of German citizens.  So it serves as one example of how we might think about the relationship between large cultural ideas and currents, and more specific developments in politics.

Stern opens the book with these words:
This is a study in the pathology of cultural criticism.  By analyzing the thought and influence of three leading critics of modern Germany, this study will demonstrate the dangers and dilemmas of a particular type of cultural despair.  Lagarde, Langbehn, and Moeller van den Bruck--their active lives spanning the years from the middle of the past century to the threshold of Hitler's Third Reich--attacked, often incisively and justly, the deficiencies of German culture and the German spirit.  But they were more than critics of Germany's cultural crisis; they were its symptoms and victims as well.  Unable to endure the ills which they diagnosed and which they had experienced in their own lives, they sought to become prophets who would point the way to a national rebirth.  Hence, they propounded all manner of reforms, ruthless and idealistic, nationalistic and utopian.  It was this leap from despair to utopia across all existing reality that gave their thought its fantastic quality. (1)
These three figures were important cultural voices in Germany, even though they were undistinguished within the academic world.  Paul de Lagarde (1827-1891), Julius Langbehn (1851-1907), and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck (1876-1925) were intellectual and cultural precursors for the ideology of National Socialism.  They were harsh, vitriolic critics of modern German social life; they were anti-Semites; and they were wedded to a discourse of passion and hatred as devices for influencing their readers.

The central focus of this cultural criticism was the fact of modernity -- liberalism, secularism, Manchesterism, consumptionism, and individualism.  These were conservative critics; they favored an earlier time that was more traditional, moral, hierarchical, and religious.  They preferred villages and towns to cities; they preferred cultivated thinkers to merchants and professionals, and they feared the rise of the proletariat.

By liberalism they meant to encompass several ideas: individualism, self-interest, parliamentary government, and glorification of commerce and the market.  And their criticisms were unswerving: they hoped to turn back all of the liberal democratic and industrial transformations that modern Europe was undergoing.
The movement did embody a paradox: its followers sought to destroy the despised present in order to recapture an idealized past in an imaginary future. They were disinherited conservatives, who had nothing to conserve, because the spiritual values of the past had largely been buried and the material remnants of conservative power did not interest them.  They sought a breakthrough to the past, and they longed for a new community in which old ideas and institutions would once again command universal allegiance. (7)
The conservative revolutionaries denounced every aspect of the capitalistic society and its putative materialism.  They railed against the spiritual emptiness of life in an urban, commercial civilization, and lamented the decline of intellect and virtue in a mass society.  They attacked the press as corrupt, the political parties as the agents of national dissension, and the new rulers as ineffectual mediocrities.  The bleaker their picture of the present, the more attractive seemed the past, and they indulged in nostalgic recollections of the uncorrupted life of earlier rural communities, when men were peasants and kings true rulers. (9-10)
In addition to their critique of a rising liberalism in Germany (and Europe more generally), these critics were also united in a virulent anti-Semitism.  Their denunciations of the Jews became a common thread in Nazi propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s.

Stern makes the important point that these three writers depended on the emotions and the passions rather than reason and argument to express themselves.  "All three wrote with great fervor and passion.  They condemned or prophesied, rather than exposited or argued, and all their writings showed that they despised the discourse of intellectuals, denied reason, and exalted intuition" (4).  Here is a particularly important observation of the nature of this cultural criticism that appears to be relevant in our own time as well.  Julien Benda, a liberal thinker, noted that political discourse "began to play the game of political passions.... Our age is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds" (6).

Stern has two fundamental aims in this study.  First, he hopes that the study of these three cultural critics will illuminate an important current of history: Germany's drift towards extremism and anti-Semitism.
This study, then, takes up the origins, content, and impact of an ideology which not only resembles national socialism, but which the National Socialists themselves acknowledged as an essential part of their legacy.  But it will also point to another link, admittedly less tangible--to wit, that the Germanic critics in the peculiar tension between their lives and their ideological aspirations anticipate the type of malcontent who, in the 1920's, found a haven in the idealism of the Hitler movement.  ... We may not have sufficiently reckoned with the politically exploitable discontent which for so long has been embedded in German culture. (5)
But second, the book is interested in popular culture as well.  How did ordinary Germans fall prey to mobilization and propaganda based on nationalism, violence, and anti-Semitism?  Stern tries to show through a detailed study of the cultural framework expressed by these thinkers, that we can also attempt to reconstruct the modes of popular consciousness that percolated through German society in these decades.  These ultra-conservative currents helped to make even ordinary people susceptible to the efforts at mobilization that were directed towards them by the National Socialists.

Are there parallels in twentieth-century America?  Stern thought there were, in 1961.
Cultural pessimism has a strong appeal in America today.  As political conditions appear stable at home or irremediable abroad, American intellectuals have become concerned with the cultural problems of our society, and have substituted sociological or cultural analyses for political criticism. ...  There is a discontent in the Western world that does not stem from economic want or from the threat of war; rather it springs from dissatisfaction with life in an urban and industrialized culture -- a dissatisfaction that the three critics discussed in this book felt and fostered. (13, 14-15)
Two elements seem especially relevant in today's political culture: the willingness of some voices in the political sphere to engage in the emotional hyperbole and hatred that were the stock-in-trade of these German critics; and the extremist language surrounding the rejection of "liberalism" that is to be found in the airwaves today.  Today too we are confronted with a virulent rejection of many aspects of a "liberal" world, and an apparent yearning for an earlier (mythical) time when there was one defining moral-religious framework to which all of society subscribed.

One of the greatest failures of German liberals and academics in the 1920s and 1930s was their inability -- perhaps even their unwillingness -- to make the positive case for a modern, liberal society.  The values of justice, equality, citizenship, and mutual respect embodied through decent economic and political institutions need to be defended; and German thinkers fell short in this historical task in the early twentieth century.  It is certainly important for Americans in the early twenty-first century to be more successful in making this case.

(Here is Fritz Stern on

Saturday, January 22, 2011

New ideas about taxes in France

The structure of the tax code in France is getting new attention these days. President Sarkozy has made fiscal reform a key issue in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2012. The Nouvel Obs has a very good section this week on a recent book by Camille Landais, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez, economists with long expert knowledge of the French fiscal system. The book is Pour une révolution fiscale: Un impôt sur le revenu pour le XXIe siècle, and it offers a stringent critique of the existing system and a set of proposals for a reformed system. The book has a companion website here.

In a word, these experts conclude that the existing tax structure in France is seriously unjust because it is anti-progressive at the very high end of the income distribution -- the top 1 percent decline steeply in the percentage of their income that is collected in the form of the several tax vehicles.  Only 20% of the state' revenues derive from taxes that are truly progressive (Nouvel Obs, 2411, p. 18).

As we can see from the graph, the total tax burden of the top 1 percent of income earners declines sharply from 48% to about 32%. And the reason for this is the portion of the French tax system devoted to funding social services (Cotisations sociales et taxes sur les salaires). This assessment is roughly flat from the 30th percentile to the 99th percentile, and then it declines rapidly. (The other components of taxes represented here include the income tax, a tax on returns on capital, and taxes on consumption including the TVA.)

Here is what the distribution of tax burdens would look like on the basis of their proposals:

So what is their proposal? It is to significantly revamp the income tax and the cotisation. The cotisation needs to be progressive rather than regressive; and the income tax needs to be higher. Their proposal is revenue-neutral in this particular sense: the median tax payer today bears a 47% tax burden, and this remains the same under the reform.
Ce livre plaide pour une revolution fiscale précise et opérationnelle, dont tous les détails sont chiffrés au grand jour. Nous proposons en particulier la création d'un nouvel impôt sur le revenue, remplaçant un grand nombre de taxes existantes, notamment la contribution social généralisée (CSG), l'actuel impôt sur le revenu (qui, sou sa forme actuelle, serait purement et simplement supprimé), le prélèvement libératoire, la prime pour l'emploi et le  bouclier fiscal.  Ce nouvel impôt sur le revenu, payé par tous les Français et socialement adapté a la France du XXIe siecle, sera entièrement individualisé, prélevé directement a la source sur les revenus du travail et du capital. (18)
Also of interest are the summary graphs that the authors provide of the distribution of income and wealth in France:

Two things are particularly striking in this discussion. One is how significantly different the French fiscal system is from the U.S. system. Income tax is less than 10% of income for all income levels. And the cotisation is a substantially larger share of total taxes than the Social Security tax in the U.S.

But the other striking thing is the significantly different perspective that these authors take on taxes, compared to almost all discussions of taxes in the U.S. They are fundamentally concerned about the fairness of the tax burden; they care about progressivity; and they are concerned to prevent the ability of "les tres aisées" to exercise political influence in order to reduce their share. "Fiscal rigor" doesn't mean severe budget reductions and elimination of the social security net for French citizens; it means creating a tax system that is adequate to the spending commitments of the French state, and that is fair in its distribution of tax obligations across the whole of society.

I think most observers of French politics doubt that this kind of progressive and sweeping fiscal reform is in the cards in the coming decade. But it is at least encouraging that the issues are being raised.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Violent rhetoric and violent behavior

Is there a possible causal relationship between an increasing occurrence of violent political rhetoric in broadly available media channels and the occurrence of violent political behavior?   How would a social scientist investigate this hypothetical relationship?   (Here is a pretty worrisome timeline of events, statements, and actions over the past several years involving violent rhetoric against the government and violent actions.)

Much of the debate since the Tucson shootings has focused on what seems like the wrong question: was there a direct influence from the extremist rhetoric of the past two years to the violent actions of this particular assailant?  Sometimes the answer to this kind of question is "yes" -- Timothy McVeigh was directly inspired by the violent ideas and passions associated with the right-wing militia movement.  But the harder question is that of indirect and diffused influence: is it possible for a pattern of virulent media communications to create a culture of violent attitudes that leads through indirect mechanisms to political violence directed against individuals and institutions?  

In order to think carefully about this set of issues, we need to think through the ways in which individuals are led to commit violent actions.  We might model the potentially violent person along these lines: Anger and hatred are emotional states that motivate violent attacks. Social inhibitions and processes of self-control work in most people to inhibit acting on hateful, violent impulses. Some social and physiological influences have the effect of weakening inhibitions. Individuals are most likely to engage in violence when hateful emotions are strongest and inhibitions are weakest. They are most likely to direct violence against symbols or representatives of the object of their anger and hatred.

Media and public discourse can affect each of these three factors. Angry speech can increase feelings of anger in the listener. This is very much the purpose of the speech; it is aimed at whipping up the passions of the viewer.  Second, it can focus angry impulses towards a specific group. Again, this is the goal; it is to focus anger on government, or government officials, or other groups. And it can lower inhibitions by positively valorizing violent action. "Your peers will admire you for taking action; other people have done so too. You are justified."

We might model the media ranters as involved in a game of escalation, competing against each other for greater shock value and virulent language. They have an interest in generating a committed audience, and they are competing with other voices for that audience. They have an interest in escalation.  "Shock radio" is intended to shock.

It doesn't appear that direct psychological research has yet been done on this question.  But there is a related question that has been very extensively studied, and that is the effect of dramatized television violence on children's propensity for aggression.  It appears that there is fairly strong evidence in the social psychology and developmental psychology literatures for a causal link between exposure to television violence in children and increased aggression.  Here is a paper in Developmental Psychology by L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard Eron (link), where the authors find a significant link between childhood exposure to TV violence and adult aggression.
Over the past 40 years, a body of literature has emerged that strongly supports the notion that media-violence viewing is one factor contributing to the development of aggression. The majority of empirical studies have focused on the effects of watching dramatic violence on TV and film. Numerous experimental studies, many static observational studies, and a few longitudinal studies all indicate that exposure to dramatic violence on TV and in the movies is related to violent behavior (Huesmann & Miller, 1994; Huesmann, Moise, & Podolski, 1997). Furthermore, a substantial body of psychological theory has developed explaining the processes through which exposure to violence in the mass media could cause both short- and long-term increases in a child’s aggressive and violent behavior (Bandura, 1977; Berkowitz, 1993; Eron, 1963; Huesmann, 1988, 1998; Zillmann, 1979). Long-term effects with children are now generally believed to be primarily due to long-term observational learning of cognitions (schemas, beliefs, and biases) supporting aggression (Berkowitz, 1993; Huesmann, 1988, 1998), whereas short-term effects with adults and children are recognized as also due to priming (Huesmann, 1998), excitation transfer (Zillmann, 1983), or imitation of specific behaviors. Most researchers of aggression agree that severe aggressive and violent behavior seldom occurs unless there is a convergence of multiple predisposing and precipitating factors such as neurophysiological abnormalities, poor child rearing, socioeconomic deprivation, poor peer relations, attitudes and beliefs supporting aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, frustration and provocation, and other factors. The evidence is already substantial that exposure to media violence is one such long-term predisposing and short-term precipitating factor. The current longitudinal study adds important additional empirical evidence that the effects of childhood exposure to media violence last into young adulthood and increase aggressive behavior at that time for both males and females. (201)
And here is a 2003 article from Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Anderson, Berkowitz, Donnerstein, Huesmann, Johnson, Linz, Malamuth and Wartella summarizing research leading to similar conclusions (link).  Here is their abstract:
Summary—Research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts. The effects appear larger for milder than for more severe forms of aggression, but the effects on severe forms of violence are also substantial (r = .13 to .32) when compared with effects of other violence risk factors or medical effects deemed important by the medical community (e.g., effect of aspirin on heart attacks). The research base is large; diverse in methods, samples, and media genres; and consistent in overall findings. The evidence is clearest within the most extensively researched domain, television and film violence. The growing body of video-game research yields essentially the same conclusions. 
Short-term exposure increases the likelihood of physically and verbally aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive emotions. Recent large-scale longitudinal studies provide converging evidence linking frequent exposure to violent media in childhood with aggression later in life, including physical assaults and spouse abuse. Because extremely violent criminal behaviors (e.g., forcible rape, aggravated assault, homicide) are rare, new longitudinal studies with larger samples are needed to estimate accurately how much habitual childhood exposure to media violence increases the risk for extreme violence. 
Well-supported theory delineates why and when exposure to media violence increases aggression and violence. Media violence produces short-term increases by priming existing aggressive scripts and cognitions, increasing physiological arousal, and triggering an automatic tendency to imitate observed behaviors. Media violence produces long-term effects via several types of learning processes leading to the acquisition of lasting (and automatically accessible) aggressive scripts, interpretational schemas, and aggression-supporting beliefs about social behavior, and by reducing individuals’ normal negative emotional responses to violence (i.e., desensitization). 
Certain characteristics of viewers (e.g., identification with aggressive characters), social environments (e.g., parental influences), and media content (e.g., attractiveness of the perpetrator) can influence the degree to which media violence affects aggression, but there are some inconsistencies in research results. This research also suggests some avenues for preventive intervention (e.g., parental supervision, interpretation, and control of children’s media use). However, extant research on moderators suggests that no one is wholly immune to the effects of media violence. 
Recent surveys reveal an extensive presence of violence in modern media. Furthermore, many children and youth spend an inordinate amount of time consuming violent media. Although it is clear that reducing exposure to media violence will reduce aggression and violence, it is less clear what sorts of interventions will produce a reduction in exposure. The sparse research literature suggests that counter-attitudinal and parental-mediation interventions are likely to yield beneficial effects, but that media literacy interventions by themselves are unsuccessful. 
Though the scientific debate over whether media violence increases aggression and violence is essentially over, several critical tasks remain. Additional laboratory and field studies are needed for a better understanding of underlying psychological processes, which eventually should lead to more effective interventions. Large-scale longitudinal studies would help specify the magnitude of media-violence effects on the most severe types of violence. Meeting the larger societal challenge of providing children and youth with a much healthier media diet may prove to be more difficult and costly, especially if the scientific, news, public policy, and entertainment communities fail to educate the general public about the real risks of media-violence exposure to children and youth. (81)
Significantly, both reviews single out mechanisms that appear relevant to hateful and violent language by widely disseminated media commentators.  Here are some of the important psychological mechanisms cited in these two survey articles:
  • long-term observational learning of cognitions (schemas, beliefs, and biases) supporting aggression
  • imitation of specific behaviors
  • priming existing aggressive scripts and cognitions
  • increasing physiological arousal
  • triggering an automatic tendency to imitate observed behaviors
  • reducing individuals’ normal negative emotional responses to violence (i.e., desensitization)
These articles seem to go some ways towards framing an answer to the question posed above: can exposure to violent speech in the media create indirect causal influences leading to more violent behavior by individuals?  The psychological literature appears to support the plausible prior belief that exposure to extreme and violent language in the political media can make individuals somewhat more disposed to aggressive behavior.   And this effect doesn't need to proceed through the direct "true believer" mechanism; virtually everyone who has a television or a computer is exposed to this kind of speech, and the literature suggests broad and diffused effects on behavior as a result.

Here are a few possible mechanisms that seem relevant today when we consider the possible causal connections from over-the-top political rhetoric to the occurrence of acts of political violence:
  • Exposure to violent language directly motivates some individuals to become "true believer" violent actors.
  • Exposure to violent language causes some unstable individuals to focus their aggression against a specific range of targets.
  • Exposure to violent language gradually reduces inhibitions against violence, leading to more readiness to commit violent acts.
  • Exposure to violent language influences groups and networks of individuals to be more favorable to the use of violence.
So these seem to be fairly strong empirical reasons for being very concerned about the inflammatory language that has become increasingly common in political discourse and media rants.  The issue isn't simply the value of political civility; it is the very real possibility that extremist rants can influence a small number of listeners to be more prone to engage in acts of political violence, and even people who aren't listeners can be influenced by those who are.

Monday, January 17, 2011

National values on racial equality

Today the country celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Most of us think of Dr. King as a genuinely important American thinker, and one whose life and actions permanently changed some important values and thought processes in this country when it came to racial equality and affirming communities in the United States. His death by assassination at the age of 39 cut short a life of influence from which our country could have benefited greatly in the intervening decades.

How much have we changed in our thinking about race since 1968?  Is it possible to assess the degree of influence that Dr. King has had on current American attitudes about race and about what needs to be done?  How would we assess the nature and depth of changes that have occurred in American attitudes towards race, equality, and community since 1968? What were some of the mechanisms of value transmission through which those changes took place? And how would we attempt to sort out the elements of those changes that can be traced back to Dr. King?

One part of the mechanism of influence is pretty obvious. Dr. King was a visible and influential leader from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 to the month of his assassination in Memphis in 1968. He gave hundreds of speeches, he had a meaningful and visible footprint on television and radio, and he reached a mass audience during those years. White and black Americans probably heard his messages differently, but there is no doubt that King influenced millions of Americans during his lifetime.  So this is a very direct form of influence -- people who were exposed to the struggles of the Civil Rights era and to the speeches and actions of Dr. King, and who absorbed a new set of attitudes about racial equality and social progress from those experiences.

It is an interesting and difficult question to assess how much of that direct first-person influence persisted into the next generation of children and adults.  But here again, mechanisms of transmission are easy enough to identify.  Many of those persons who were directly influenced during the Civil Rights generation had children of their own, whom they influenced through their example and their speech, and a certain number of them became teachers and broadcasters and health care providers -- each creating his/her own avenue of influence on others.  So the primary contemporary effects of Dr. King's teachings and actions had a second- and third-generation echo.

Another form of influence during his lifetime was more focused. Dr. King was an elite civil rights leader and strategist, and he stood in a central position within networks of activists and leaders, both black and white. He was successful in positioning his own rhetoric and strategies in nodes of influence within these networks and organizations. His own views didn't always prevail -- but they did often enough to permanently influence debates about racial justice and strategy within the next generation of influencers. So King's philosophy and vision found vivid expression by the next generation of leaders and influencers both nationally and regionally. And these leaders in turn influenced future debates and many millions of people through their own political actions and leadership.

A third mechanism of influence stems from historical tragedy -- the assassination itself.  The traumatic impact on American consciousness of King's assassination surely had an impact on the degree to which his philosophy and vision penetrated the American psyche. It was a visceral warning for all of America about the virulence and violence of racial hatred. It served as an unforgettable signal that these conflicts must be resolved and that we must find ways of ending American racism. And Dr. King's message was a promising one: we can be better than this, we can move beyond slavery and discrimination to a world of equal love and respect.

All these pathways of influence contributed to other large changes as well, including especially the effort to broaden school curricula to include issues of race and racial equality.  Those curricular innovations were certainly influenced by Dr. King's example; and millions of American children from the 1970s through the present were exposed to positive ideas about equality and the value of diversity in language that had very much in common with Dr. King's vision of the future.  So it is reasonable to expect that young people's attitudes towards race in the 1970s through 1990s were very different from those of children educated in the 1940s and 1950s.

So how much change has there been in fundamental attitudes since 1954 (the year of the Supreme Court school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education)? And how much of MLK's stamp do current American attitudes bear?  Howard Schuman and other scholars have attempted to investigate this question empirically (Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, Revised EditionBlack Racial Attitudes: Trends and Complexities).  Schuman and his colleagues work carefully through the main political events of the 1940s through 1960s, and attempt to synthesize public opinion data to assess the changes that occurred within the population over a fifty-year period.

It certainly appears that American attitudes towards race, and towards a racially just society, have changed dramatically since the 1950s.  The Civil Rights struggle itself -- the struggle by African-American men and women to overcome systematic discrimination and racism -- is surely the largest part of this change.  And there certainly were other visions and voices among civil rights leaders who helped to shape the debate.  But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s voice seems to have had the most pervasive and enduring impact on mainstream America when it comes to racial justice and an inclusive community.  Dr. King offered a unique combination of realism and optimism that seems to have worked very well with other deep American values.  Here is some realism, from "A Testament of Hope" included in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr..
Whenever I am asked my opinion of the current state of the civil rights movement, I am forced to pause; it is not easy to describe a crisis so profound that it has caused the most powerful nation in the world to stagger in confusion and bewilderment.  Today's problems are so acute because the tragic evasions and defaults of several centuries have accumulated to disaster proportions. (313)
And here is some of his finest optimism, concluding the same essay:
A voice out of Bethlehem two thousand years ago said that all men are equal.  It said right would triumph.  Jesus of Nazareth wrote no books; he owned no property to endow him with influence.  He had no friends in the courts of the powerful.  But he changed the course of mankind with only the poor and the despised.  Naive and unsophisticated though we may be, the poor and despised of the twentieth century will revolutionize this era.  In our "arrogance, lawlessness and ingratitude," we will fight for human justice, brotherhood, secure peace and abundance for all.  When we have won these -- in a spirit of unshakable nonviolence -- then, in luminous splendor, the Christian era will truly begin. (328)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Rawls on political liberalism

Long after the transformative impact Rawls brought to social and political philosophy with A Theory of Justice: Original Edition (1971), Rawls continued to wrestle with the question of how a just society ought to work.  One major part of this question is how a just society ought to encompass major disagreements among its citizens about values and "conceptions of the good;" and much of his thinking is reflected in his 1993 collection of essays, Political Liberalism.  Here is how he formulates the central problem:
A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines.  No one of these doctrines is affirmed by citizens generally.  Nor should one expect that in the foreseeable future one of them, or some other reasonable doctrine, will ever be affirmed by all, or nearly all, citizens.  Political liberalism assumes that, for political purposes, a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime.  Political liberalism also supposes that a reasonable comprehensive doctrine does not reject the essentials of a democratic regime. (xvi)
So, to start, Rawls recognizes that modern society is not based on consensus around the major values or issues; rather, individuals differ in their commitments about rights, justice, and the good human life.  How in the context of this pluralism of important value systems, is it possible for a modern society to nonetheless possess the features of civility and stability that we would desire?

Here, then, is what Rawls calls the problem of political liberalism:
How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable though incompatible religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines? Put another way: How is it possible that deeply opposed though reasonable comprehensive doctrines may live together and all affirm the political conception of a constitutional regime?  What is the structure and content of a political conception that can gain the support of such an overlapping consensus? (xviii)
One prior thought we may have had about a liberal society is that the state establishes no more than a neutral system of law, within the context of which individuals can pursue their own separate and incompatible conceptions of the right and the good.  So the liberal state is a neutral state -- one that gives no privilege to one conception of the good over another.

Neutrality is certainly part of the ideal of a liberal state; but it isn't quite enough.  The reason is that some conceptions of the good and the right require the intervention of the state for enforcement.  If the Alpha group believe that fetal stem cells are nascent human beings and therefore should never be used for the purpose of scientific research, while the Beta group believe that fetal stem cells are no more than useful compounds of organic molecules that can relieve human misery; then both sides of the debate want to prevail through legislation -- either to prohibit stem cell research or to permit stem cell research.  Each side sees its position as being driven by a moral imperative -- and therefore not to be compromised without an unacceptable loss of moral integrity on the part of the losing group.

To overcome this contradiction, neutrality is not enough.  We need to add a commitment to democratic, constitutional procedures as being the moral trump card when it comes to legislation about areas of conflict based on fundamental disagreements about the right and the good.  Essentially this comes down to a second-order commitment that every citizen needs to share:  When policy issues arise that lead to profound disagreement among blocs of citizens, the right solution is the procedurally correct solution arrived at through legitimate democratic processes.  In other words, all citizens need to put their commitment to legitimate democratic procedures ahead of their commitment to a particular conception of the good and the right. Democratic values supersede religious, political, and moral convictions when there is no choice but to legislate an issue.  Citizens are entitled to argue their case for or against proposed legislation; but they are then morally obligated to accept the democratically chosen outcome as a legitimate resolution of the issue.

Rawls captures this conundrum with the idea of toleration: the idea that citizens must tolerate and respect the strongly-held convictions of their fellow citizens, even while participating in a political process that leads to legislation that is inconsistent with those convictions.  This means that if the Alphas prevail through the political process, the Betas need to accept the outcome as morally legitimate -- even though it contradicts their own firmly held moral convictions.  But why would one accept the moral necessity of toleration?  Doesn't this mean sacrificing one's own moral convictions to the will of a contrary majority?  And doesn't this imply that one's own convictions are tentative and conditional?

The answer seems to go along something like these lines.  When one is a member of a society, one recognizes the inevitable fact of the kind of fundamental pluralism Rawls has described here.  This means that society will sometimes legislate about issues concerning which reasonable citizens disagree, based on fundamental moral convictions on both sides.  So the citizen is asked to bracket his/her particular moral convictions when considering outcomes, even as he/she is free to vigorously argue on the basis of those convictions during the process leading up to legislation.  The citizen is asked to take a double perspective on his/her own moral convictions: first-person, that these are my convictions and they seem binding and justified from my point of view; and third-person, that there is disagreement about these matters, and the only defensible process for resolving the issue is the democratic process in which each person's reasons count as much as every other person's.  This is something like Thomas Nagel's understanding of altruism in The Possibility of Altruism; the individual is asked to recognize the moral reality of other persons and not to assign a privileged role to his/her own perspective.

A key part of Rawls's own solution to this problem of democratic pluralism is the idea of an "overlapping consensus" among citizens.  Here is how he defines that idea:
Such a consensus consists of all the reasonable opposing religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines likely to persist over generations and to gain a sizable body of adherents in a more or less just constitutional regime, a regime in which the criterion of justice is that political conception itself. (15)
In such a consensus, the reasonable doctrines endorse the political conception, each from its own point of view.  Social unity is based on a consensus on the political conception; and stability is possible when the doctrines making up the consensus are affirmed by society's politically active citizens and the requirements of justice are not too much in conflict with citizens' essential interests as formed and encouraged by their social arrangements. (134)
So the ideal here is the notion that some set of constitutional arrangements may be acceptable from all points of view -- from Christian to libertarian to Muslim to socialist.  This hope seems to rest on the idea that a neutral, democratic set of political institutions give the best opportunity for the adherents of any particular theory of the good to pursue their interests; so each of the "reasonable opposing religious doctrines" may have good reason to endorse the neutral democratic constitution.  (This is a kind of "original position" argument, applied to opposing comprehensive doctrines.)

What makes this a consensus of any kind is not the notion that there is an overlapping set of values that persist across all the comprehensive doctrines; rather, it is the hope that there will be at least one political arrangement that can serve as the consensus choice of all the incompatible comprehensive doctrines.
The preceding account says that the consensus goes down to the fundamental ideas within which justice as fairness is worked out.  It supposes agreement deep enough to reach such ideas as those of society as a fair system of cooperation and of citizens as reasonable and rational, and free and equal.  As for its breadth, it covers the principles and values of a political conception ... and it applies to the basic structure as a whole. (149)
So -- what is a political liberal, according to Rawls?  It seems to boil down to this.  It is a moral individual who has his/her own conception of the good and set of fundamental doctrines; who recognizes nonetheless that he/she is a member of a polity that is fundamentally plural when it comes to conceptions of the good; who recognizes that there is no basis for insisting on privilege for one's own conception of the good; and who recognizes the moral legitimacy of constitutional democratic procedures when it is necessary to decide among policies that involve conflicting conceptions of the good.  It is a person who puts civic commitment to constitutional democratic processes ahead of one's one fundamental convictions when necessary.  And it is a person who is fully committed to ensuring the neutrality of the state across fundamental convictions.  Neutrality of law across persons and conceptions of the good, full recognition of fundamental pluralism within a modern society, respect for the equal worth of all other citizens, and a recognition that one's own beliefs have no basis for being privileged over those of other citizens -- these are the fundamental commitments of a political liberal.

We can now give a fairly simple explication of illiberal thinking as well.  It is moral, religious, or political fundamentalism -- the idea that one's own moral convictions are so compelling that no democratic process could legitimately override them.  It is the idea that the individual has a persistent right to oppose the state when the state's actions are inconsistent with one's own moral convictions.  It is authoritarian -- it endorses the idea that one's own group or party has the right to override the majority's will when the state contradicts one's fundamental convictions.  And it is, of course, a position that is fundamentally disrespectful of democracy and of the equal dignity and worth of one's fellow citizens.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Media and political culture

How are people's political beliefs, concerns, and passions influenced within a modern mass society? There are many mechanisms, certainly: family, school, place of worship, place of work, and military service, to name several.  But certainly the various channels of the media play an important role. Newspapers, television and radio, social media, and blogs have a manifest ability to focus some parts of the electorate on one issue or another.

So it seems worthwhile to ask whether it is possible to perform some empirical study of the content and value systems associated with various media channels.  (Here is a textbook by Klaus Krippendorff on the use of content analysis in journalism and the media; Content Analysis: An Introduction to Its Methodology.) This question falls into several parts: first, are there important differences in content and tone across various media channels? And second, what effects do these configurations of content and tone have on the users of the media?

The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellent Journalism offers a window into the first of these questions with a fascinating new tool (link).  The "Year in the News Interactive" tool is the front end of a valuable database that codes various media streams according to content.  The database is then searchable so that the user can produce reports on the percentage of the "newshole" devoted to a particular issue or person in a particular medium.  Here is a sample of what the tool produces:

This chart repays close examination.  It picks out five segments of media -- "All Media," "Large Papers," Talk Radio," "NBC Evening News," and "Fox News," and it compares these outlets with respect to five issues: Obama Administration, Health Care, Tea Party, Mosque Controversy, and Sarah Palin.  These are highly politicized issues, so it is interesting to see how the patterns of treatment differ across different segments of the media.

If we consider "All Media" as a benchmark -- representing the average amount of attention given by the media as a whole to various issues -- we see that Talk Radio and Fox News show a few remarkable patterns.  Both sources give the mosque controversy more than twice the percentage of the newshole; likewise the Tea Party gets twice as much attention with Talk Radio and Fox News as with All Media.  Fox News gives Sarah Palin over twice the exposure she gets from All Media -- and nine times the exposure she gets from Large Papers.  Both Talk Radio and Fox News give an inordinate amount of air time to Health Care and the Obama Administration.

Now take a different cut: the network news programs and Fox News with respect to a much less political list of topics -- BP Oil Spill, Haiti Earthquake, Toyota Accelerator Recall, and Cyberspace.

Here the main contrast that seems evident is that Fox News devotes significantly less time to the non-political issues.  Fox devoted about half the percentage of its newshole to the BP Oil Spill compared to NBC news; Haiti got roughly a third the amount attention on Fox; and the Toyota Accelerator Recall got less than half the exposure as it received on NBC news.

At a minimum, this shows something pretty interesting: the regular viewer or listener to Fox News and Talk Radio will get a very different view of the world from the person exposed to All Media or Large Papers.  These media channels give an inordinate amount of airtime to "hot button" issues that have the potential of inflaming their viewers.  And these channels spend much less time that the other media on non-political issues -- Haiti, Toyota recall, or Cyberspace.

What would be particularly interesting in today's environment is an additional dimension of content analysis, reflecting antagonism, intolerance, and hostility.  It would be very useful to have a few years of data on the percentage of the newshole devoted to incendiary reporting about issues, individuals, and the government.  Many observers have the definite impression that this kind of language has increased dramatically; it would be very useful to have quantifiable data on this topic.

(As we think about the tenor and extremism of some of the voices in political media today, it is sobering to remember the role that "hate radio" played in the Rwandan genocide; link.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Deciphering French society

Louis Maurin recently published a valuable book on contemporary French society, Déchiffrer la société française, which is intended to shed light on the social realities of France in a way that is genuinely accessible to the public. There are chapters on population, the family, schooling, immigration, unemployment, consumption, and social values, among other important topics (link).  The book is intended to capture and encapsulate some of the data that is available through French sources that will make the basic outlines of France more transparent to the public. (There is a companion website for the book as well.) Denis Clerc provides the preface for the book -- another voice in French society calling for greater transparency about inequalities.

Maurin believes that there is a wide gap between the rhetoric that French elites and journalists use to characterize contemporary French society, and the social realities. In order for France to successfully address the social problems it faces, it is important for the public to have a better understanding of the background and the current realities. So the goal of this project is straightforward:
À l’encontre de ce mouvement, ce livre vise à dresser un état de lieux et à expliquer certains mécanismes du fonctionnement de la société française. Il s’agit bien d’abord de «déchiffrer», car l’objectif est, autant que faire se peut, de mesurer et d’analyser des évolutions. Sans fétichisme du chiffre, il devient indispensable de mettre sur la table des données pour sortir de la rhétorique française où chacun se paie de bons mots. Ce qui permet à tout le monde d’avoir raison en même temps, faute de pouvoir être départagé par les faits. Dans la mesure du possible, nous essaierons de présenter des séries sur longue période, pour élargir les perspectives. L’objectif est aussi de « déchiffrer » des phénomènes qui ne sont pas tous immédiatement perceptibles. De dégager des tendances pour mieux comprendre l’évolution de la société dans un monde où l’avenir semble, pour beaucoup, très incertain. Sur la plupart des phénomènes présentés, vécus au quotidien, chacun a sa petite idée, qu’il s’agisse de famille, d’école, d’immigration, de chômage… Toute la difficulté de la démarche et son intérêt consistent à échapper aux expériences personnelles pour analyser le comportement d’un ensemble. (Avant-propos)
[To counter this trend, this book aims to develop a baseline description and to explain some mechanisms of how French society functions.  It is indeed a first effort, because the goal is, as far as possible, to measure and analyze trends.  Without making a fetish of data, it is necessary to provide tables of facts in order to escape the rhetoric to which everyone pays lip service.  Without facts, everyone can claim to be right at the same time.  Wherever possible, we attempt to present a series of data over a long period, to broaden the perspective.  The goal is also to "decipher" phenomena that are not immediately obvious.  We seek to identify trends in order to better understand society in a world where the future for many is very uncertain.  For most of the phenomena presented, each individual has his/her own perspective, whether it concerns the family, schooling, immigration, unemployment, ...  The challenge is to separate out one's personal experiences in order to analyze the behavior of the larger group.]
Each topic is a fundamental one -- population, nuptiality, family, schooling, immigration, employment, consumption.  And the data that Maurin summarizes are often striking and unexpected.

Here is a striking graph of the absolute number of marriages and divorces since 1960, and a graph of family size changes between 1900 and 1970.  The marriage rate increased sharply in the 1960s into the early 70s; it then went into a steep decline.  

Here are several graphs representing economic and social changes in the past thirty years.  The first tracks the percentage of adults in different socio-economic groups: workers, managers, professionals, executives, farmers, and permanently unemployed. The second tracks the fairly steep decline in the number of hours worked annually by a worker, from under 2000 to under 1500.  The third tracks the shifting composition of the workforce, documenting a dramatic decline in industrial labor from 35% to 15%.  And the fourth graph tracks union membership, from a high of 30% in 1949 to a low of 8% in 2005.  This is surprising for Americans who think of the French workforce as being highly unionized.

Here is an indication of how French consumption has evolved over the past sixty years.  Television and washing machines started early; home computers and mobile phones came in the decade of 1990-2000.  (It appears that several labels may be switched on this graph; it's hard to believe that microwave ovens became common well before refrigerators.  And in fact the 2007 snapshot from INSEE suggests that these two labels have been switched.)

Here is a snapshot from INSEE for household items for 2007:

And what about education?  Maurin draws attention to the progress of the bac over the past 60 years.  The creation of the bac technologique and the bac professionnel in 1968 and 1988 respectively conjoined with growth in the bac general to produce rapid increase from the mid 1980s through 1990s; and the total has remained flat since the 1990s.

Maurin expresses a certain amount of disappointment with the discipline of academic sociology in France for its failure to provide a "public" sociology -- an empirical and theoretical research program aimed at shedding light on the most pervasive patterns in French society today. ("Malgré des progrès récents, le monde scientifique — la sociologie, en particulier — ne semble plus vraiment chercher à dresser ce portrait social de la France;" avant-propos.) And here again in the conclusion:
La statistique n’est pas seule en cause : la recherche laisse de côté de très nombreux domaines, pourtant indispensables à la compréhension du monde contemporain, quand bien même les données existent. Les sociologues qui travaillent sur des sujets aussi essentiels que les revenus, la mobilité sociale ou la consommation ne sont qu’une poignée. Dans certains domaines, comme l’exclusion ou l’immigration, ils se comptent par dizaines… Personne ne conteste la nécessité de ces travaux. Il n’en demeure pas moins que, pour partie, la sociologie française s’attache aux «dominés », oubliant que, pour analyser les processus de domination, il faut aussi regarder vers le haut. (Conclusion)
[The data are not the only cause.  Researchers leave to the side many domains that are indispensable to comprehending the contemporary world, even when the data exist. Sociologists who work on such essential subjects as income, social mobility, or consumption are only a handful.  In some domains, such as exclusion or immigration, they are fewer than dozens.  No one can disagree about the necessity of this work.  Instead, the French sociologists prefer to focus on the "dominated", forgetting that it is necessary to look at the top in order to understand the processes of domination. (Conclusion)]
In short -- French society is as complicated as any other, with its own history and current social forces.  And many of the social realities the French currently face are obscure in their causes and their distribution across regions and classes.  So it is particularly important for authors like Maurin to help pull back the curtain from some of these basic social facts.

(Each chapter offers a short list of key internet sources that allow the reader to pursue the data questions of the chapter directly.  A few key resources on population, labor, poverty, family, immigration, and education include --
  • Eurostat (Service statistique de l'Union européenne link)
  • INED (Institut national d'études démographiques link)
  • INSEE (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques link)
  • CNAF (Caisse nationale d'allocations familiales link)
  • Ministère de la Justice link
  • Secrétariat d'état à la Famille link
  • Cité nationale de l'immigration link
  • Gisti (Groupe d'information et de soutien des immigrés link)
  • Ministère de l'éducation nationale link
  • CEE (Centre d'étude de l'emploi link)
  • Céreq (Centre d'études et de recherches sur les qualifications link)
  • IRES (Institut de recherches économiques et sociales link)
  • Ministère de l'emploi link
  • Observatoire des inégalités link
  • Observatoire national de la pauvreté et de l'exclusion sociale link
  • Crédoc (Centre de recherche pour l'étude et l'observation des conditions de vie link)
  • Iresco (Institut de recherche sur les sociétés contemporaines link)
  • Cevipof (Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences-Po link)
There is a volume of valuable data available from these sources.)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Historical GDP estimates for early modern China

Li Bozhong is one of China's most influential economic historians, and he is undoubtedly the most internationally connected.  Much of his work in the past several decades has been devoted to constructing a detailed economic history of the lower Yangzi Delta (for example, Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850).  His findings have been crucial empirical contributions to the "involution" debate (link, link, link) about whether the Chinese economy was stagnant and significantly less productive than the European economy.  Thanks to his research we now have a much more informed understanding of the economic dynamics of the Lower Yangzi region in the early modern period (1620-1850).  And his research largely supports the "no involution, significant productivity growth" interpretation.  (Ken Pomeranz has a nice review of Agricultural Development in Jiangnan, 1620-1850 here.)

Li's most recent book has now appeared in Chinese, and it takes an important step forward in terms of methodology.  (The cover and title are included above.  The book includes an extended summary in English, which allows non-Chinese speakers to get the highlights of method and findings.)  The important step that Li introduces here is a first effort to apply the methodology of historical national accounts to China. Essentially this method allows the researcher to use the discipline of GDP accounting to arrive at systemic and internally validated estimates of economic activity in a region over a period of time.  (Jan-Pieter Smits, Edwin Horlings, and Jan Luiten van Zanden provide an extensive and detailed description of the method in "Dutch GNP and its Components, 1800-19193" (link).  Olle Kranz describes the method in application to Sweden here.)

Li's current book is a massive effort (over 600 pages), but it is itself only a pilot project for a more ambitious study to come in future years.  Li has selected one limited district within his previous area of study in the lower Yangzi Delta (Huating-Lou), and attempts to apply the method of historical GDP to this limited region for a single period of time (1823-29).  His goal is to determine whether the discipline and method of historical GDP can shed new light on the scattered economic statistics and materials that more traditional economic histories have assembled.  The results are highly interesting, and they challenge several key assumptions that have been made about the early Qing economy.

Li hopes for two advantages from this approach.  The first is that it provides a unified framework within which to organize and validate existing economic data.  "Because the methods of the GDP study are quite elaborate and standardized, they can provide a coherent macroeconomic framework covering the whole economy" (603).  And the second is to provide a consistent basis for comparison with other historical regions where the same methods have been utilized.  This means that the kinds of comparisons suggested by recent work in Eurasian economic and demographic history will be enhanced as other scholars apply the methodology to European regions.

Huating-Lou is roughly a single county, Songjiang County, with an area of 870 square kilometers and a population in 1816 of 563,052.  (From the maps it appears that the county falls squarely within the current city of Shanghai.)  So the area covered by Li's study is a microcosm of the larger economic region in which it is lodged; Jiangnan had a population of roughly 36 million in the mid nineteenth century.  Li makes use of the same kinds of data sources he has used in earlier works: gazetteers, agricultural handbooks, and modern field investigations of the region (in particular, the Japanese South Manchurian Railway Company studies from 1937-41). Essentially Li proceeds by transforming the variety of data provided by these sources into a uniformly formatted table of national accounts.

The method involves attempting to estimate the magnitude of economic activity in several sectors by assessing production, expenditure, and income. The idea is that the data for these three aspects of the economy are fairly independent; but they should be expected to lead to similar estimates of overall economic activity. (If production estimates indicate a region is producing 10 million yuan of goods, but income estimates indicate only 2 million yuan of income, we can be assured that there is an important data inconsistency.) The method involves making use of the System of Historical National Accounts to provide a unified framework for collecting and presenting the economic data. (See also a paper by Frits Bos describing the use of national accounts as a tool for economic history (link).)

Here is a description of this method as implemented by Luiten van Zanden and colleagues for the Netherlands (link):
Our main method is to gather specific information on annual output and added value in each of the most important economic branches, following the System of National Accounts (SNA) used in contemporary economic-statistical research. The starting point is the production approach; the branches that are being reconstructed include agriculture, herring fisheries, peat extraction, production of textiles, sugar and paper, to name but a few. Weights will be derived from a reconstruction of the structure of the labour force in three moments in time: 1510/14, 1670/80 and around 1800. Combined, the chronological series and the data on the structure of the labour force will serve as a basis for estimating developments in the level and structure of national income.
Li's results are fascinating. First, he finds that production, income, and expenditure estimates for Huating-Lou in 1823-29 all converge on an estimate of about 13.5 million taels of silver. The production estimate is 13.5 million taels, the income estimate is 13.3 million taels, and the expenditure estimate is 13.9 million taels.  So the three systems of accounting all point to approximately the same level of economic activity.  This amounts to an estimate of GDP per capita of about 24 taels of silver.

Second, the sectoral composition of the Huating-Lou economy is genuinely surprising (as indicated in table 1). We commonly think of China's Ming-Qing economy as largely rural and agricultural. But the primary sector, including agriculture and fisheries, amounts to only 31% of the local economy, while the secondary sector (manufactures and textiles) contribute 33% and the tertiary sector (commerce, service, government, etc.) contributes 36%. The prior expectation we might have had of the early modern Chinese economy as largely agricultural is flatly refuted for this region by the 1820s. This finding is corroborated by Li's analysis of the structure of employment in the region; only 27% of employment was in the primary sector, with 56% in the secondary and 16% in the tertiary sectors.

Third, Li points out that the composition of income is also somewhat surprising. Wages represented 61% of the Huating-Lou economy; rent 11%; interest 3%; profit 20%; and depreciation 6%. What is surprising about this estimate is the unexpectedly low percentage of all income that derived from rent -- contradicting the idea that the Chinese economy was a rent-dominated one. (Earlier work by Victor Lippit (Land Reform and Economic Development in China: A Study of Institutional Change and Development Finance) sought to estimate the total surplus created by the Chinese rural economy; he estimates 10.7% of income from rent, 3.4% of income from farm business profits, and 2.8% from rural interest payments.  See Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science, pp. 121-22, for more discussion.  Li's estimates of rent and interest are about the same as Lippit's, whereas Li's estimate of profits is substantially higher than Lippit's.)

All of this is highly interesting, though (as Li emphasizes throughout), it is based on only one small region during one limited time period.  So it will be very interesting to see whether it is possible to perform this kind of analysis for larger parts of the historical Chinese economy.

Estimating economic activity was one of the goals of this research.  The other was to establish a consistent basis for comparison across different parts of Eurasia.  Li takes up the comparison with the Netherlands that is made possible by the work mentioned above by Jan-Pieter Smits, Edwin Horlings, and Jan Luiten van Zanden (link). And indeed, the comparisons are very interesting.  Here is the comparison of the sectoral composition of Huating-Lou and the Netherlands:

And here is the comparison for the structure of employment:

The one comparison that Li does not highlight (in the English summary, anyway) is the GDP per capita comparison between Huating-Lou and the Netherlands.  This comparison raises some of the issues involved in a recent discussion here of the standard of living (post), since the Dutch analysis is denominated in guilders and the Chinese work is denominated in taels of silver.  Smits, Horlings and van Zanden estimate a Dutch population size of  2,163,092, implying a GNP per capita of 227 guilders per capita.  Recall that Li estimated a per capita GNP of 24 taels. 

So what is the conversion of tael to guilder? Here I have to go beyond my own specialized knowledge and speculate a bit, so this calculation shouldn't be taken uncritically.  The guilder was defined in 1840 as equivalent to 9.45 grams of fine silver (link).  A tael was equivalent to 37.3 grams of silver, according to Li. So in silver equivalents, the Dutch GDP per capita was 227*9.45 grams of silver, and the Chinese GDP per capita was 24*37.3 grams of silver -- 2,145 grams versus 895.2 grams.  By this estimate, the early nineteenth-century Dutch economy produced a silver equivalent per capita over two times that of the Chinese economy.  However, the purchasing power of silver was significantly greater in China than Europe; so this estimate overstates the disparity in real wage between the two regions.  In "Real Wages in Europe and Asia: A First Look at the Longterm Patterns" Robert Allen estimates the wage basket for China at 247.3 grams of silver, versus 579.7 grams of silver in England (link, pp. 180, 182).  If we took the wage basket as the basis of a cost-of-living deflator, then the disparity between the Netherlands and China essentially disappears.  The Dutch GDP per capita PPP-adjusted product is 3.7 against a 3.6 per capita PPP-adjusted product for China, using the wage basket as deflator.  This would indicate that the Dutch economy was marginally richer than the Chinese economy in the lower Yangzi region -- but not by much.

Li finishes this comparison by raising the question of traditional versus modern economies.  Both economies considered here contradict the assumptions of a "traditional" economy -- largely rural, largely agricultural, and largely stagnant.  Instead, these comparisons indicate a surprisingly urban, manufacturing- and service-based economy in the second decade of the nineteenth century, and Li argues that we can appropriately describe each of them as a "modern" economy.

Li's book is an important new contribution to Chinese economic history, and the historical GDP method seems to be a highly fruitful innovation. It is a really valuable new analytical perspective on the Chinese economy.  I hope the book will be translated into English as quickly as possible.