Saturday, October 30, 2010

China's confidence

Traveling in China for the past two weeks has given me a different perspective on the country.  The most powerful impression I've had is one of collective national confidence; the sense that China is on the move, that the country is making rapid progress on many fronts, and that China is setting its own course.  We've known for twenty years about the unprecedented rate of economic development and growth in China since the fundamental reforms of the economy in the 1980s.  China's manufacturing capacity is also well known throughout the world.  But the story is bigger than that.  What is perhaps not so well understood outside the country is the scope and purposiveness of the development plans the country is pursuing.  

One aspect of this is the breadth of forms of capacity building that the country is investing in. The nation is making long-term investments in a range of fundamental areas aimed at providing a foundation for long-term, sustained evolution.  Transportation is one good example.  The extension of the high-speed trains among China's important cities indicates a good understanding of the future importance of economic integration and mobility for future innovation and growth.  But this high-speed rail system indicates something else as well: China's readiness to successfully design and build the most sophisticated engineering and technology projects on a large scale.  The high-speed train between Hangzhou and Shanghai opened last week, with a sustained speed in excess of 350 km/hour; this brings the travel time down from 78 minutes to 45 minutes over the distance of 202 kilometers.  Similar service will be completed between Beijing and Shanghai, providing 5-hour service between these key cities.  So China will soon be leading the world in high-speed rail. 

Higher education is another great example.  The universities in and around Shanghai have built whole new campuses in the past ten years, reflecting a local and national commitment to improvement of the high-end talent base in the country.  Universities in Beijing, Guangdong, Hangzhou, and Souzhou are making rapid and focused plans to enhance the quality of their faculties and the effectiveness of their curricula -- especially in the areas of mathematics, science, and engineering.  My visit to the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou was a great example of this dynamism.  There I saw many bright, talented students from all across China studying the fine arts, design, and multimedia on a beautiful urban campus serving 9,000 students. The student work is very good, and it gives a sense of the creative potential invested in the current generation. 

A more intangible aspect of China's current confidence comes from a long series of conversations with Chinese faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students.  There is a real pride in China's cultural heritage -- new friends in Hangzhou and Souzhou were eager to explain the meaning of ceramics, paintings, and gardens in terms of the Chinese value systems they represent.  And there is a sense of purpose and direction in many of these conversations -- as if people in their 60s and people in their 20s alike have absorbed China's history and its half-century of turbulence, and are now looking forward to consolidation and enhancement of the cultural and economic power of their country. There also appears to be a deep underlying fear of turbulence; the people we met want to see stable, continuous progress. There was sympathy for Liu Xiabo, but not much appetite for radical changes in rights and liberties. "China needs to maintain stability."

This sense of confidence is accompanied by a lack of "Western envy."  There is very little sense that any of the people I talked with over these several weeks think that their country should emulate Europe or North America -- politically or culturally.  "China can create its own way ."  Some of the students I talked to were very clear in their criticisms of the policies of their own government -- from educational access and equality to internet access -- but none expressed the notion that China should simply follow the European or North American models in these areas. (I was asked, why do corporations have so much influence on the government in the US?)  And more importantly -- many of these young people have the desire to study abroad; but they also express a very specific intention to return to China and have their lives and careers in China. And equally important, I met leading Chinese academics who have chosen to return to China from leading universities in the US. 

So -- rapid, sustained economic growth; a broadly shared sense of China's distinctive values and history; successful incorporation of advanced, largescale technology systems; the world's fastest super-computer; integrated regional and national plans for the future; and a degree of recognition of the importance of addressing China's social problems -- this is a powerful foundation for a China-centered future for this country and its 1.3 billion citizens.

Where is the place for social criticism in this picture? China faces a number of difficult social problems that will require decades to solve. Consider some of the hardest problems: Dealing with the needs of China's aging generation; providing quality healthcare to everyone; rapidly increasing incomes to China's poorest 40%; reining in the steadily rising pressures on air and water quality; reducing the prevalence of guanxi and corruption in business and daily life; and handling the challenges of rapid rural-urban transformation, to name just a few important problems. Many of these problems affect large segments of Chinese society, and their solution will require critical demands by these groups if the government is to take appropriate action. So allowing Chinese people a genuine voice in defining the problems the country needs to tackle is crucial. 

Moreover, many of the policy choices that need to be made will affect different social groups differently.  Expansion of the rail network or the power grid provides large gains for many people, but it imposes important costs on other people. And often the "losers" in these policy areas are poor people with little effective voice in the policy arena. If poor people don't have open avenues through which they can express their needs and sources of hardship, these needs will not be heard.  So for both these types of reasons, it is crucial that China move in the direction of creating greater space for dissent and the expression of fundamental concerns and interests. 

An important part of this evolution is the development of an institutionally protected investigative press. It is crucial in a modern society that the role of the news-gathering investigator be established and secured against the pressures of government. Investigations of corruption sometimes occur in the Chinese press. But there seem to be fairly clear limits to the depth and subjects that journalists can undertake. Investigators trying to establish culpability for school building collapses during the Sichuan earthquake quickly ran into government controls for going too far. And yet it is only when the spotlight falls on corruption that it can be addressed. 

So the confidence that Chinese people currently have in their future is warranted. And the path will be more direct if the Chinese political system continues to develop more institutionalized ways of allowing citizens and groups to express their concerns, desires, and criticisms. There will be a distinctively Chinese polity in the future. And it needs somehow to solve the problem of facilitating citizen voice and deliberative social problem solving. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

The global talent race

We have a lot of anxiety in the United States about the quality and effectiveness of our educational system, particularly at the elementary and secondary levels. And the anxiety is justified. A large percentage of our school-age population lives in high poverty neighborhoods, and they are served by schools that fail to allow them to make expected progress in needed academic skills, including especially reading, writing, and math. And we have high school dropout rates in many cities that exceed 25% -- leading to the creation of large cohorts of young adults who lack the basic skills necessary to do productive work in our society. So at a time when personal and social productivity depends on problem-solving, innovation, and invention, many of our young people in the US haven't developed their talents sufficiently to make these contributions.

How does this problem look from an international perspective? Other countries and regions seem to have taken more seriously the macro-role that education and talent will play in their futures, and are preparing the ground for superior outcomes on a population-wide basis. Here is one example -- Hong Kong. Though part of the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong retains a degree of autonomy in its social policies, and education is one of those areas where Hong Kong government can take special initiatives.

There is a pervasive feeling in Hong Kong that educational success is absolutely crucial. School children are strongly motivated, their families support them fully, and the city is trying to ensure that all children have access to effective schools. And there is a lot of civic focus on the quality and reach of the Hong Kong universities as well.  Business and civic leaders recognize the key role that well-educated Hong Kong graduates will play in the economic vitality of the city in the future. And university leaders are keenly interested in enhancing the quality of the undergraduate and graduate curricula  Here is a valuable survey report by Professor Leslie N.K. Lo, director of the Hong Kong Institute of Educational Research at Hong Kong Chinese University ( The report documents the priority placed on quality of education by the authorities, even as it raises concerns about the effective equality of education in the city. Here is a report on the state of education research and reform in HK (  The report raises the possibility that Hong Kong's educational system is skewed by income and language: low-income families attending Cantonese-speaking schools may not get a comparable education to that provided to middle- and upper-income families in English-speaking schools.  But it isn't easy to find detailed educational research that would validate this point.

One very interesting data point concerning the equality of access provided by Hong Kong education can be located in the distribution of family incomes among students in Hong Kong's elite universities.  Basically the data indicate that the Hong Kong universities are reasonably well representative of the full income spectrum of the city.  About half of students in the elite universities in Hong Kong come from families in the lower half of the income distribution (or in other words, the median student's family income is equal to the median family income of the city).  This compares to a markedly different picture in selective public universities in the United States, where the median student family income is at about the 85th percentile of the US distribution of family income.  In other words, universities in the United States are over-represented by students and families from the higher end of the income distribution; whereas the Hong Kong university student population is relatively evenly distributed over the full Hong Kong income distribution.  (These data are based on a summary report prepared by researchers at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.)  

This statistical fact gives rise to a suggestive implication: that students of all income levels in Hong Kong are roughly as likely to attend Hong Kong's elite universities.  And this contrasts sharply with the situation in the United States, where attendance in elite universities is sharply skewed by family income (Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (Thomas Jefferson Foundation Distinguished Lecture Series)).  

The issue is important, because in the world-wide race for talent cultivation, those countries that do the best job of cultivating the talents of all their citizens are surely going to do the best in the economic competition that is to come.  Countries that waste talent by denying educational opportunities to poor people or national minorities are missing an opportunity for innovation, creativity, and problem-solving that can be crucial for their success in the global environment.  And if Hong Kong, China, and other East Asian countries are actually succeeding in creating educational systems that greatly enhance equality of opportunity across income, this will be a large factor in their future success.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Toyota in Guangzhou

I got a chance to visit Guangdong this week, and it's a pretty amazing place.  You get a very vivid feeling for globalization when you see dozens of container ships lined up off Kowloon, preparing to off-load and reload in several container ports in eastern Guangdong and the lower Pearl River delta.  I visited the district of Nansha in an eastern area of Guangdong that was primarily agricultural only five years ago.  Now there has been extensive development, with the population going from 40,000 to 260,000 in just a few years.

One of the largest parts of the development in Nansha District is a large Toyota factory, opened in 2006 and now producing 360,000 cars a year.  This plant is a joint venture with Guangzhou Automobile Group. The factory employs about 7,000 workers in two shifts, and it embodies one of the most recent examples of the Toyota production system. A vehicle passes by every 68 seconds, so a new Toyota exits to the test track every 68 seconds as well. 1,000 cars a day roll of one of the production lines and another 500 exit the second line.  (Here is a 2004 news release on the venture from China Daily.)

But here is the first surprise. Every car produced in Nansha is headed for the domestic Chinese market -- along with the output of the other major Toyota factory near Beijing.  Toyota plans to sell more than half a million cars in the domestic Chinese market in the coming year.  Compare that to European and American production for China, and you get a sense of Toyota's worldwide ambition. Fiat just celebrated its millionth car sold in China. Toyota will exceed that number from just this factory every three years.

The factory is highly automated, with numerically controlled welding machines and other robotic assists, and it appears that the skill level of shop-level workers is low.  Training is brief for the regular line worker.  Workers are largely recruited from Guangdong Province, and the factory boasts of its conformance to the highest standards of worldwide vehicle quality. The company representative wasn't able to share information about workers' wages, but someone familiar with the local economy estimated a monthly wage somewhere around 3,000 RMB. That works out to an income of about $5,100 a year -- significantly higher than China's per capita income, but not a middle class lifestyle either.  That's about $2.33 per hour, and it works out to about $87 in direct assembly labor costs per vehicle.

This is a fairly good factory environment, though it's a bit Chaplin-esque to watch hundreds of workers rushing to return to their stations after a 10-minute break during which the line is turned off. But it's no sweatshop, and it appears that workers are likely to be grateful for their jobs. Safety, efficiency, and quality seem to be the guiding management goals. The recent strike at a Honda plant in Guangdong makes it plain, of course, that Chinese workers have important demands. But realistically, this plant is good for China's goals of improving the standard of living for poor people. It seems a bit analogous to GM or Ford in Detroit in the 40s and 50s.

At the same time, the numbers here document the challenge faced by manufacturing companies in the US and Europe.  A similar factory in Michigan would have direct labor costs per vehicle in the range of $450, and no amount of labor concessions can erase that difference. So to compete on price American producers need to find more efficient ways of handling the other cost components of the manufacturing process -- but those efficiencies are equally available to producers worldwide.

I suppose one way of reading the situation is to see Guangdong as one of the leading change points in a longterm evolution towards a common global wage for unskilled or semi-skilled labor. Wages and quality of life have certainly gone up for Chinese workers in Guangdong in the past 10 years -- just as they've gone down for industrial workers in the US.  And the living standard gap that existed between Hong Kong and Guangdong has substantially narrowed in the past decade as well, according to longterm observers. And this makes the point about education and talent in a very pointed way: the only thing that commands a premium in the world labor market is talent, skill, education, and innovative capability. We are certainly not doing nearly enough in the US to take the steps needed to prepare our population for this basic reality.

So what's next for Guangdong? Will the region be content to exploit its labor cost advantage and continue to gain market share as the world's low-cost manufacturer?  I don't think so. The economic development official I talked with in Guangdong was eager to discuss the region's plans for the expansion of universities, increasing support for research and development, and moving into the industries of the twenty-first century. She specifically cited growing knowledge capacity in sustainable energy and electric vehicles, advanced logistics systems, electric battery breakthroughs, and information technology enhancements in life sciences and healthcare. The province and the central government want to make the investments in education and research that will position the region for a talent-based economy of innovation. And the infrastructure investments you can observe in the region -- new sea-water port facilities, major apartment complexes, new university facilities, extension of passenger rail -- suggest the region is taking the long view about its economic future.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Zomia reconsidered

An earlier post described James Scott's recent book on the segment of Southeast Asia that he refers to as Zomia (The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia).  As noted there, Scott turns in his usual creative, imaginative, and innovative treatment of the subject matter; the book is an absolutely captivating argument about the push and pull between states and fugitive peoples.  As such, it suggests the possibility of bringing some of the central ideas and analyses to bear on other geographies as well.  But how accurate is Scott's reading of the primary historical experience of these parts of Southeast Asia -- Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and Bangladesh?

This is the question posed by the current issue of the Journal of Global History (link), with essays by C. Patterson Giersch, Magnus Fiskesjo, Sarah Turner, Sara Shneiderman, Bernard Formoso, and Victor Lieberman.  All the essays are fascinating, including the editorial introduction by Jean Michaud.  But particularly important is Lieberman's essay.  Lieberman is one of the leading contemporary historians of Southeast Asia, and he is a very fertile and imaginative thinker himself.  So his responses to Scott's arguments are worth looking at closely.  (His most recent volumes, Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 (v. 1) and Strange Parallels: Volume 2, Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830, are directly relevant to Scott's analysis.)

Lieberman begins by establishing the territory on which he agrees with Scott. First, he accepts the fact of a growing separation between lowland and highland peoples in Southeast Asia during early modern times, and he agrees about the importance of analyzing this pan-Southeast Asian phenomenon.

Another point of agreement is the fact of highlander agency. Lieberman agrees with Scott's insistence that highland peoples throughout Southeast Asia crafted their own social worlds in response to the political and natural environments that faced them. He writes:
Scott's basic thesis is that highland societies, far from living in isolation, have been profoundly and continuously moulded by their relation to plains-based kingdoms. (333)
He notes that Scott's approach turns the narrative of state-building on its head; highland peoples were defined in terms of state-avoidance. The lowland states had an interest in gathering manpower and taxes, and the highland peoples had a persistent interest in evading both. Lieberman writes:
Scott claims that these processes transformed Southeast Asia's mountainous interior into a vast "shatter zone," an area of flight, a sphere of asylum and marronnage for runaways from state-making projects in the plains. (334)
Scott's central achievement, then, is to bring hill peoples into the mainstream of regional history by uncovering their relation to lowland states and societies. (336)
So Lieberman acknowledges the importance and boldness of Scott's effort at providing a comprehensive historical study of Zomia.  But Lieberman offers a series of important criticisms of Scott's historical case.

First, he finds Scott's documentation to be weak, in that it makes little use of Burmese-language sources. This has led, in Lieberman's opinion, to a number of errors of fact, some more significant than others. He cites estimates of literacy, for example; Scott says less than 1 percent of people were literate in Southeast Asia, and Lieberman documents 50 percent for Burma in 1800.

More significantly, Lieberman believes Scott over-estimates the importance of manpower as a determinant of military success in the region. The degree of maritime commerce was equally important, he argues. And this is critical to Scott's argument, since competition for manpower is one of the primary reasons Scott cites for the efforts of lowland states to attempt to dominate the highlands.

Finally, and most important, Lieberman argues that there is little documentary evidence for significant population flight from lowland to highland (339). This is key to Scott's interpretation, and Lieberman argues the evidence isn't there to support the claim. After reviewing Scott's own evidence and some additional data of his own, he writes:
All in all, outside central Vietnam perhaps, this remains a rather limited record of displacement and flight. (341)
Moreover, Lieberman argues that Scott's interpretation of the highlands becomes so dependent on one causal factor, state oppression, that it neglects the processes of development that were internal to the highland societies themselves. "Ecological and cultural conditions that were intrinsic to the hills and that were substantially or completely divorced from the valleys receive little or no attention" (343).

This point is more important when we consider an example not included in Scott's analysis -- the highland peoples of Borneo/Kalimantan. Lieberman argues that these tribes had virtually all the characteristics of culture and agriculture displayed by Zomians, including swidden cultivation and a proliferation of local languages, and Scott interprets these traits as deeply defensive. Yet these features of highland life emerged in Borneo without the pressure if a surrounding predatory lowland state (345). And this casts serious doubt on Scott's anarchist, anti-statist interpretation of Zomia.

Lieberman's point isn't that Scott's interpretation of Zomia is unsupportable. Rather, his point is that it is a bold and substantive interpretation of a complex historical domain, and it requires serious, fact-based consideration. And this is exactly what the essays in this special volume of Global History promise to do.

This debate is interesting and important, in part, because it sheds light on the practical empirical research challenges that arise when we consider bold new interpretations of social data.  A bold hypothesis is advanced, purporting to pull together the processes of development observed in a variety of places; and then there is the practical question of evaluating whether the hypothesis is born out when we do the detailed, local historical research needed to test its basic assertions.  In this case, Lieberman is suggesting that several of the components of the theory are found wanting when applied to highland Burma.

(The image above is a satellite-based survey of fires across Southeast Asia (link), relevant to the practices of swidden farming.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lukes on power

Steven Lukes's Power: A Radical View was a very important contribution when it appeared in 1974. Lukes emphasized several important points that became landmarks in subsequent discussions of the social reality of power: that power is a multi-dimensional social factor, that power and democracy are paradoxically related, and that there are very important non-coercive sources of power in modern society. In the second edition in 2005 he left the 1974 essay unchanged, but added a substantive introduction and two new chapters: "Power, Freedom and Reason" and "Three-Dimensional Power".  Also new in the second edition is substantially more attention to several other writers on the social context of power, including James Scott and Michel Foucault.

Lukes offers a generic definition of power along these lines:
I have defined the concept of power by saying that A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B's interests. (37)
But this definition is too generic, and Lukes attempts to provide a more satisfactory interpretation by constructing a "three-dimensional" account of power.

What are the "dimensions" of power to which Lukes refers? He begins his account with the treatment of power provided by the pluralist tradition of American democratic theory, including especially Robert Dahl in 1957 in "The Concept of Power" (link). This is the one-dimensional view: power is a behavioral attribute that applies to individuals to the extent that they are able to modify the behavior of other individuals within a decision-making process. The person with the power in a situation is the person who prevails in the decision-making process (18).
Thus I conclude that this first, one-dimensional, view of power involves a focus on behaviour in the making of decisions on issues over which there is an observable conflict of (subjective) interests, seen as expressing policy preferences, revealed by political participation. (19)
The second dimension that Lukes discusses was brought forward in rebuttal to this pluralist theory; critics pointed out that it is possible to influence decisions by shaping the agenda, not merely by weighing in on existing decision points. Lukes quotes from Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz in their 1962 "Two Faces of Power" (link): "'to the extent that a person or group -- consciously or unconsciously -- creates or reinforces barriers to the public airing of policy conflicts, that person or group has power'" (20). So shaping the agenda is an important source of power that is overlooked in the pluralist model, the one-dimensional view.

The three-dimensional theory of power turns to a different problem -- the fact that people sometimes act willingly in ways that appear contrary to their most basic interests. So the third dimension is the set of ways in which the powerful transform the powerless in such a way that the latter behave as the former wish -- without coercion or forcible constraint -- for example, by creating a pervasive system of ideology or false consciousness. Both pluralists and their critics overlook an important point, in Lukes's view:
The trouble seems to be that both Bachrach and Baratz and the pluralists suppose that because power, as they conceptualize it, only shows up in cases of actual conflict, it follows that actual conflict is necessary to power. But this is to ignore the crucial point that the most effective and insidious use of power is to prevent such conflict from arising in the first place. (27)
And again:
What one may have here is a latent conflict, which consists in a contradiction between the interests of those exercising power and the real interests of those they exclude. These latter may not express or even be conscious of their interests, but ... the identification of those interests ultimately always rests on empirically supportable and refutable hypotheses. (28-29)
When Lukes returns to the three-dimensional theory in the final essay in the second edition, he shifts the language slightly to refer to "power as domination." Domination can occur through explicit coercive means, but it can also occur through unconscious mechanisms.  This allows Lukes to address the theories of people like James Scott (Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts) and Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction).

In hindsight, it seems a little dubious to refer to these as "dimensions" of power, rather than aspects or forms of power. To call them "dimensions" somehow suggests that overall power is a vector of quantities in three or more orthogonal dimensions, each of which can vary independently. The features that Lukes identifies as "dimensions" seem more like tools in a toolkit or strategies in a repertoire: exercise control by doing X or Y or Z. So the language of dimensions seems inappropriate in this context.

But here is a more basic concern that is visible with the advantage of hindsight: there is very little in Lukes's treatment that sheds light on the social mechanisms of power. What are the social features that enable one individual or group to wield influence in any of these ways? Through what sorts of institutional and individual facts are individuals enabled to exercise power over others? Lukes doesn't address this question; and yet it seems to be the heart of the matter. We would like to have a way of analyzing social relations that allows us to discern how it is that some groups gain the material and social resources necessary to prevail. Marxism offers one such theory -- power derives from class position; but this answer doesn't really satisfy in the contemporary social world. (Lukes devotes a few paragraphs to the debate between Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband on the right way of understanding the exercise of power within a capitalist society; 54-58.) But generally, it seems fair to say that Lukes comes closer to offering a semantic analysis of the use of the term "power" rather than offering a sociological analysis of the causal and structural reality of power.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

French economic inequalities

France is one of the more affluent countries in the OECD, but it continues to contain significant poverty and meaningful inequalities of income, wealth, and life outcomes. The past several years of rising unemployment have worsened these circumstances. A lot of this variation occurs across the lines of ethnicity and national origins; immigrant communities in France tend to have significantly higher levels of poverty, unemployment, and health disparities, often concentrated in the banlieue surrounding major cities. So how should concerned French citizens get a better understanding of these fundamental features of French society?

A research center and website that attempts to track these inequalities is the Observatoire des inegalites, directed by Louis Maurin. The website is found at, and it is worthy of regular visits. The goal of the Observatoire project is to make sense of the social statistics of France and to communicate this information to the public in an understandable way. Right now the organization is focusing on recently released statistics on the rate of poverty on France. It would be very useful if there were similar sites in other countries, including the United States. (Here is a valuable source of information on poverty data provided by the United States Census Bureau; link.)

Two issues are particularly central when it comes to measuring poverty: first, how to define the poverty line (and how to interpret the poverty budget that this corresponds to); and second, how many people are poor in France by this criterion, and how this has been changing in the past several years.

On the first question, the official standard in France is pegged to a budget defined as half of the median income. This raises the first significant debate, because the EU pegs the poverty rate to the 60th percentile of income rather than the 50th percentile (median). Naturally, more people are classified as poor by the second criterion than the first. (In the U.S. the poverty line is calculated on the basis of an estimate of the income needed to purchase a specified "poverty budget" wage basket.)

Two features of the French definition of poverty are noteworthy. First, it is a relative rather than absolute definition of poverty; the index rises as economic growth occurs and median family rises. Rather than conceiving of poverty as absolute deprivation, it conceives of poverty in relation to the income levels of the rest of society. The poverty line will be different in Sweden and France. And the U.S. definition is more similar to an absolute definition: unless the contents of the poverty wage basket changes, people who are at the poverty line in 1970 will have the same purchasing power as people at the poverty line in 2000.

Second, this is a purely income-based criterion of poverty, rather than an all-round assessment of living standards. As Amartya Sen argues, poverty is not solely determined by low income. The poverty wage basket approach comes a bit closer to Sen's idea that it is the overall ability of the poor family's ability to satisfy its basic needs that determines its status as poor or not-poor. (The main component that Sen emphasizes in his overview of quality of life as being overlooked by a pure income criterion of poverty is the provisioning of social services by the state; and France sets a fairly high standard with respect to this factor.)

So how does France measure up when it comes to poverty? Basically, the data suggest that the poverty rate is significant in France (7.1% in 2008, representing 4.3 million people), and, even more pressingly, it seems to have stabilized at that level. In 1970 the rate was 13.5%, falling to 7.2% in 1998. But during the next decade there was no significant change; there were 4.3 million poor people in France in 1998 and in 2008. (The poverty rate in the U.S. is estimated at a whopping 14.3% for 2009 -- a striking increase over the previous decade (link), and an appalling counterpoint to the extreme increases that have taken place in the United States in the concentration of income at the top of the distribution.)

Measuring poverty is a very important step for any decent society. More difficult and more important is deciphering the economic mechanisms giving rise to poverty and creating the observed changes in the rate over time. Unemployment is one obvious factor, and France is experiencing high rates of unemployment along with much of the rest of Europe. But what about other mechanisms? What about discrimination in housing and employment, for example (as suggested in Didier Lapeyronnie's Ghetto Urbain).  And what about the terms of the grand social compact -- the division of income and wealth among classes and educational levels? This is essentially what the conflict is about in France today, between unions and business, and between the Sarkozy government and large segments of society.  And these are the mechanisms that generate inequalities of income and wealth, and they contribute to the macro-facts about poverty as well.

Another point established by data on the Observatoire is the fact that the mechanisms generating jobs and joblessness are very differently distributed across the map of France. The unemployment rate in France as a whole was 9.5% in 2009. But this rate encompasses a range of rates across regions of France, from 5.0% in Lozere to 13.5% and 13.6% in Herault and Aisne (link).

Also interesting on the site at present is an analysis of inequalities across social groups in terms of access to the baccalaureate degree; data provided here demonstrates sharp inequalities by group in terms of access to this valuable source of personal development and earning potential (link). Since education -- especially higher education -- is crucial to entry in higher-earning professions and occupations, the differential social processes at work here are also relevant to the distribution of income in the coming generation.

The Observatoire does a very good job of approximating the ideal of a transparent, understandable representation of the social data of a whole population. As such it is a very important experiment in "understanding society."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Strategies of economic adaptation

Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin made a powerful case for there being alternative institutional forms through which modern economic development could have taken place in their 1985 article, "Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Industrialization" (link). In an important volume in 1997, World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization, they take the argument two steps further: first, that institutional variations were not merely hypothetical, but in fact had an extended history in a variety of industries well into the twentieth century; and second, that the current situation of pervading uncertainty about our most basic economic institutions was characteristic of the earlier periods as well.  The volume represents the work of an intensive seminar in economic history sponsored by the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme.  Contributors include a broad swath of researchers in economic history across Europe (not Asia!).  Chapters take up the processes of mechanization, specialization, and mass manufacture in a variety of industries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- silk, cutlery, watch-making, metal-working, and ship-building.  (Here is part of the very good introduction to the volume provided by Sabel and Zeitlin; link.)

Sabel and Zeitlin take the view that the history of business and technology can in fact shed quite a bit of light on the economic situation we face today -- from brand new sectors (Google, Facebook, Amazon) to the abrupt decline of old industries (the US auto industry) to speculation about the next big area of business growth (biotech, alternative energy).  They highlight a couple of features of the business and economic climate in the late 1990s that seem equally applicable today -- an acute sense of economic fragility and institutional plasticity.  They argue that these features were also the hallmarks of earlier periods of economic change as well.  So they argue that we can learn a great deal for today's challenges by considering the situation of industries like glass-making or watch-making in 1880 or 1920.
The sense of fragility goes to the once commonsensical idea that progress would lead to the gradual consolidation of particular forms of economic organization, and hence to an ever more certain sense of how best to deploy technology, allocate labor and capital, and link supply of particular products to demand. Today ... it is commonsensical to believe that the way many of these things are done depends on constantly shifting background conditions whose almost insensible mutation can produce abrupt redefinitions of the appropriate way to organize economic activity.
The second experience is one of the recombinability and interpenetration of different forms of economic organization: the rigid and the flexible, the putatively archaic and the certifiably modern, the hierarchical and the market-conforming, the trusting and the mistrustful.
The central theme of this book is that the experience of fragility and mutability which seemed so novel and disorienting today has been, in fact, the definitive experience of the economic actors in many sectors, countries, and epochs in the history of industrial capitalism.
But this double perception of mutability and fragility ... has not led them to exalt catch-as-catch-can muddling through as the organizing principle of reflection and action. What we find instead is an extraordinarily judicious, well-informed and continuing debate within firms, and between them and public authorities, as to the appropriate responses to an economy whose future is uncertain, but whose boundary conditions at lease in the middle term are taken to be clear.
Our purpose here is to show that most firms in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and the United States, neither mired in tradition nor blinded by the prospect of a radiant future, carefully weighed the choices between mass production and what we would now call flexible specialization. (2-3)
One of Sabel and Zeitlin's most basic arguments is the idea that firms are strategic and adaptive as they deal with a current set of business challenges. Rather than an inevitable logic of new technologies and their organizational needs, we see a highly adaptive and selective process in which firms pick and choose among alternatives, often mixing the choices to hedge against failure.  They consider carefully a range of possible changes on the horizon, a set of possible strategic adaptations that might be selected; and they frequently hedge their bets by investing in both the old and the new technology. "Economic agents, we found again and again in the course of the seminar's work, do not maximize so much as they strategize" (5).
During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, the silk merchants and weavers of Lyons carefully monitored but did not imitate the policies of design routinization, subdivision of labor and price competition pursued by their Spitalfields counterparts, preferring alternative strategies based on rapid style change, increasingly flexible machinery and the skillful exploitation of fashionable markets for high-value products. ... Much as they admired the efficiency of American methods, detailed accounts of the American system in trade journals and technical society proceedings typically emphasized that this efficiency depended on standardization of the product which was wholly incompatible with the current or expected organizations of their respective markets. (12)
In other words, specialized firms did not "resist change;" rather, they carefully assessed the full implications of one form of organization and one use of technology against another, and selected those innovations that represented the best match to their own business realities. 

An interesting case study of an alternative way of organizing production is provided in the chapter by Peer Hull Kristensen and Charles Sabel, "The small-holder economy in Denmark."  It was an example of cooperative-based agriculture and small-scale production that provided a durable alternative to private capitalism farming and manufacture:
Denmark was the exception.  There in the decades before World War I peasant small holders built a technologically innovative cooperative movement that outcompeted estate-owners and urban financiers in virtually every segment of the dairy, egg and pork products industries.  In so doing they created demand for particular kinds of capital goods that contributed to the modernization of the small-shop sector of industry as well. (345)
Alongside the agrarian republic there was another estate of small holders, the artisans and craftsmen.  Their property was the knowledge of tools, materials, and techniques which made them independent of any one market or employer. By the outbreak of the First World War, they too had built institutions -- particularly a network of technical schools -- which allowed them to defend their place in Danish society by constantly renewing it. (365)
The history these activities in Denmark demonstrate that it was possible for voluntary producers' cooperatives to manage the provision of specialized services, marketing services, and economies of scale to farmers and artisans that we sometimes believe can only be provided by the market.  This system did not last forever -- though it proved economically durable for half a century, and it demonstrated much of the flexibility and organizational innovativeness that Sabel and Zeitlin emphasize in their introduction.
But some fifty years later, in the late 1950s, the cooperative core of this small-holder economy was coming visibly undone.  First cooperative dairies, then the cooperative slaughterhouses began to combine into larger and larger units abandoning in the process many of their original constitutional features and becoming in fact and law corporations. The corporations in turn fought with one another and the remaining cooperative for control of their respective markets. (374)
I find the contributions to this volume interesting in exactly the way predicted by Sabel and Zeitlin in the introduction: for the models they illustrate of deft navigation of uncertain economic environments by firms, cooperatives, and individuals.  The economic and business environment in the region where I live is unforgiving for a wide range of industries; for example, job shops and tool and die shops have largely disappeared in the Detroit metropolitan area.  However, there are a number of mid-sized adaptable businesses that have continued to thrive, through exactly the kinds of intelligent, forward-scanning adaptation to new opportunities described by contributors to this volume.  These businesses are in the engineering and advanced services sector, and they are innovative in two ways: they are constantly looking for new opportunities to apply existing and new technologies to new applications; and they are looking for customers in developing countries, including especially the Middle East from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia.  Energy, solar power, building control systems, urban parking systems, and aviation maintenance can be found within the portfolio; and the leaders of these companies are systematically and strategically developing the relations abroad that are necessary to secure the next wave of contracts.

It is interesting to consider whether there is a difference between economic history and business history. One might say that the former has to do with the large features of economic organization, social regulation, and logistics that constitute an economic system, whereas business history has to do with the tactical maneuvering and small-scale adaptations that individual firms undertake within the general framework of the existing economic structure.  But I think Sabel and Zeitlin's answer would be a fairly decisive one: there is no fundamental distinction between the two levels of analysis.  They frame the distinction in terms of the ideas of "epochs" and "crises"; this language distinguishes between long periods of institutional stability, and short periods of dislocation and change -- something like the theory of punctuated equilibrium.  But Sabel and Zeitlin doubt the validity of this distinction.  "The solution, we think, is to relax the distinction between periods of stability and periods of transition in the same way and for the same reasons that we relaxed the distinction between maximizing actor and constraining context" (29).  Or, in other words, when we look closely, almost every period of economic activity is also a period that mixes elements of stability with deep and unpredictable change.

Friday, October 8, 2010

French philosophy?

Is there such a thing as "French philosophy"? Or is philosophy a purely universal discipline, raising the same abstract questions no matter whether the philosopher is Chinese, English, French, or Brazilian? One way to address this question is to consider the collective intellectual practice of "philosophy" from the point of view of sociology -- that is to say, historically and empirically.

Jean-Louis Fabiani's book Qu'est-ce qu'un philosophe français? (which was released in France this week) addresses this question from the point of view of sociology, and it provides a fascinating and innovative approach to the history of philosophy. (Here is a link to Fabiani's academic bio.) Fabiani was a student of Bourdieu, and he approaches philosophy in something like the way that other sociologists have approached the study of science: as a socially situated intellectual activity which is amenable to sociological analysis and explication. The fact that it is intellectual implies that there is an internal logic to the development of the discourse; organized thinking moves it forward. And the fact it is situated implies that philosophy is conditioned and motivated by social circumstances external to the philosophical community.

Fabiani attempts to steer a highly original course between the idea that social context determines the content of a specific philosophical tradition, and the idea that philosophy develops wholly and solely according to its own internal intellectual logic. Crude sociology of knowledge falls in the first camp, and traditional history of philosophy often appears to fall in the second camp. Fabiani takes an approach that allows both for social influence on philosophy as well as critical, rigorous logical analysis and thought wielding its influence.

Here is a description that Fabiani provides of philosophy as an object of sociological study. (The passages quoted here are drawn from a pre-publication translation Fabiani provided in a visit this month to the University of Michigan.)
Philosophy is never limited to a collection of texts, knitted together by the threads of tradition. It also includes material objects, spaces and social practices. It includes all types of reception, including the less orthodox. As with any other type of work, philosophical texts imply different types of appropriation in space and time, and exist only through the successive pacts of reception that constitute them as valued objects in a particular culture.
He asks the questions, what is a sociology of philosophy and why is it needed? And here are some of his answers:
I wish to analyze philosophy just as what we now call science studies have analyzed processes and controversies in the various scientific disciplines. Science studies have questioned the great epistemological divide which reserved the study of contextual elements for sociologists (institutions, organizations, strategies, etc.) and removed the assertions, demonstrations and the quest for evidence from their purview (except if they are crudely determinist and seek to explain concepts entirely by contexts, to put it simply).
What could be interesting about a socio-historical analysis of philosophy? First, we have to suspend our belief -- at least for a while, because it is the habitual battleground of the activity -- in the existence of an abstract and universal frame for the philosophical debates, this the result of a venerable scholarly tradition. The « relocalization » of philosophical interactions is necessary in order to see that philosophical texts are also performances, not only embodiments and products of lifestyles but also their sources.
Studying philosophy by means of sociological methods would appear to be one of the most important challenges for the social sciences today. « The queen of disciplines,» as it is called in France (or the crown--or crowning as I once described it years ago) has long resisted any attempt at objectivation.
Although the most general objection to the ascription of social determinants in the shaping of social thought are now superannuated, the explanatory power of theories applied to the field of intellectual production still remains quite limited. The modes of categorization applied to products and to individual intellectual strategies are too crude and their use too poorly controlled; we no longer take for granted that society as such can be read (at least in a cryptic language) through symbolic production.
So what is in play when we ask whether philosophy (or any other intellectual discipline) is conditioned by its historical and social context?  We might say that a national tradition of philosophy could be characterized according to several different criteria: topics, styles of thought, modes of validation, and lineage of predecessors. For example, British philosophy defined itself in terms of several core ideas -- the role of the senses in the acquisition and validation of knowledge, for example; and Hume, Locke, and Berkeley deployed recognizable forms of argument and styles of reasoning as well.  Hume's treatises look and feel quite a bit different from Descartes' meditations.  Here is a way of conceptualizing the situation of philosophical research and discovery:

The diagram is intended to be a way of visualizing a philosophy research tradition at a moment in time. The unit of production, the philosophy research group, is steeped in a conventional specification of the important topics; it is skilled in a specific set of modes of argument; it holds out a set of exemplary philosophical works from the history of the discipline as currently understood; it operates in a space that may include other research groups pursuing different topics and methods; and it functions within a set of institutions -- graduate programs, journals, tenure processes, associations, prizes -- that train, valorize, and rank various individuals and their products.  Each aspect of these "internal" features is amenable to concrete historical and sociological investigation; we can seek to trace out the institutions, discover the order and rationale of the topics, etc.

 External to these factors are circumstances in history and current social life (World War I, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement), and intellectual currents from outside the discipline (Freudianism, for example), that exercise influence on the development of philosophical positions and frameworks. The social context draws attention to (or away from) certain topics; context also sometimes provides institutional constraints that favor or disfavor some positions.  (For example, McCarthyism and the Cold War created constraints and incentives that greatly deformed the course of research in the humanities and the social sciences.)  The intellectual activities of the current research groups lead to a degree of development of the ideas, positions, and schools of philosophy at a given moment in time. So the received setting, external environment, and application of modes of invention and argument drive forward new philosophical content, and the institutions of the profession attach credibility/lack of credibility and prestige/scorn to the results.

The diagram indicates as well several ways in which a philosophical tradition might possess a distinctive, national character. The list of valued topics may differ across national traditions; likewise the styles of reasoning and modes of argument; and different traditions may valorize very different bodies of predecessors as well. So it is fairly evident that Fabiani's question warrants a "yes" -- there are distinguishing characteristics or signatures across traditions of philosophy. And even when the topics and questions appear similar -- the focus on the conditions of knowledge in common between British and French philosophy in the 17th century, for example-- the styles of thinking, modes of reasoning, and examples of good solutions still differ widely.

Should we think of these differences as defining distinct paradigms of philosophy? I'm inclined to use a different term -- perhaps "research tradition" -- to suggest a high degree of variation within a national tradition of philosophy. Like other areas of humanities production, it seems to me that the standards and exemplars that hold together "analytic philosophy" or "hermeneutic philosophy" are much looser and less prescriptive than their counterparts in the natural sciences. So the term "paradigm" does not fit the framing of philosophy in context very well.

Fabiani's work rewards study and bears an interesting relation to other efforts to discover distinctive features of French intellectual life (the distinctiveness of French sociology (link), the development of French anthropology (link)).  Johan Heilbron's work is relevant to these topics as well (The Rise Of The Social Sciences And The Formation Of Modernity). Here is the table of contents of Fabiani's current book:

Première partie
L’institution d’une discipline

Chapitre premier – La philosophie en classe
Chapitre 2 – Carrières et concepts
Chapitre 3 – Les moments et les crises

Deuxième partie
Une philosophie nationale?
Chapitre 4 – Le rempart de la raison
Chapitre 5 – Le spiritualisme français
Chapitre 6 – Transferts conceptuels

Troisième partie
Art, religion, science et philosophie
Chapitre 7 – La religion ddans les limites de la simple raison?
Chapitre 8 – Aux frontiers de la science
Chapitre 9 – Le philosophe artiste et la tentation prophétique

(The photo above is of Alexandre Kojève.  It is relevant to the current topic because of Kojève's complex philosophical heritage -- Russia, Germany, and eventually the leading explicateur of Hegel in post-war France.)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rawls and the history of economics

What did John Rawls know about the history of political economy? In particular, how much did he know about classical political economy, including especially the theories of Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Marx, or Mill?

It appears from his writings and lectures that he was generally familiar with the most basic theoretical positions and debates in classical political economy -- the labor theory of value, the invisible hand, the theory of land rent, and the simple theory of a competitive market. And beginning with the marginal revolution (Jevons, Pareto, and Marshall), he seems to have studied economic theory more carefully. But I don't find any evidence in his corpus of a careful reading of Smith, Ricardo, or Malthus. So what was the source of his knowledge of classical political economy?

One source of exposure to the history of economics occurred during his first two years of teaching as a lecturer at Princeton.  Tom Pogge indicates in John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice that Rawls did significant reading and study of political economy during 1950-52:
In the fall of 1950, he attended a seminar of the economist William Baumol, which focused mainly on J. R. Hicks's Value and Capital and Paul Samuelson's Foundations of Economic Analysis.  These discussions were continued in the following spring in an unofficial study group.  Rawls also studied Leon Walras's Elements of Pure Economics and John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern's Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. (16)
So there is some direct evidence of Rawls's reading in economics.  Another way in which he might have gained a speaking acquaintance of the history of economics is through secondary surveys of the field.  Were there standard histories of political economy in Rawls's formative years from 1950 to 1965?

One of the great historians of economic thought during those years was Joseph Schumpeter.   Schumpeter's Ten Great Economists appeared in 1952. This book focuses largely on post-classical political economy; after a long chapter on Marx, Schumpeter provides short discussions of Walras, Menger, Marshall, Pareto, von Bohm-Bawerk, Taussig, Fisher, Mitchell, and Keynes.  More important than TGE is Schumpeter's major contribution to the history of economic thought, History of Economic Analysis, which appeared posthumously in 1954.  It is possible that Rawls used these books as a sort of intellectual guide to his understanding of the history of economic thought. The only reference to Schumpeter in Rawls's corpus is a single citation of Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy in A Theory of Justice.  This doesn't preclude the possibility that he read Schumpeter's histories of economics.  But is there any basis for supposing that Rawls was in fact acquainted with Schumpeter's work?

Here is a clue worth pursuing.  Pogge notes that Rawls spent a final year of fellowship at Princeton in 1949-50, and that he spent part of this time in an economics seminar with Jacob Viner, a distinguished Princeton economics professor. (The other main area of study during that year was in the history of U.S. political thought with Alpheus Mason.) And this establishes a tenuous connection to Schumpeter and the history of economic thought.  Viner was a significant contributor to economic theory and policy in the 1930s and 40s at the University of Chicago and Princeton, and he also had a sustained interest in the history of economic thought.  In 1954 he wrote one of the first (and most prominent) reviews of History of Economic Analysis in American Economic Review (link).

So here is a hypothesis: it seems likely enough that part of the work that Rawls did in 1949-50 with Viner was concerned with the history of economic thought, and it seems likely as well that he would have learned of Schumpeter's ambitious research on the history of economics from Viner. Schumpeter's book existed only in extensive notes and drafts at the time of his death in 1950 and was edited for publication by his wife, Elizabeth Boody Schumpeter, following his death. Exposure to Schumpeter through Viner would have given Rawls the motivation to study History of Economic Analysis carefully when it appeared in 1954. Rawls was an assistant professor of philosophy at Cornell by that time, and Pogge emphasizes his discipline when it came to reading and reflecting on the materials that he found relevant to his philosophical work.

Two other books on the history of economic thought that appeared during the approximate time period are Mark Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect (1962) and George Stigler's Essays in the History of Economics (1965).  There are two references to Blaug in A Theory of Justice, so Rawls was certainly familiar with this book.  Maurice Dobb's Theories of Value and Distribution since Adam Smith: Ideology and Economic Theory (1973) appeared a few years later.

    Rawls and economics

    A topic of continuing interest to me is the role that serious engagement with economic theory played in the formation and development of John Rawls's thought (link).  To what extent were important aspects of the theory of "Justice as Fairness" influenced by elements of economic theory?

    I'm inclined to think that we can look at Rawls's major papers between 1955 and 1971 as a fairly reasonable sample of the intellectual influences that affected the development of his thought.  His first major paper, "Two Concepts of Rules," appeared in 1955, and A Theory of Justice appeared in 1971.  All of his major papers are included in Collected Papers, so this is a fairly convenient way of surveying his thought during this first portion of his career.

    So what can we learn from these papers when it comes to the influence of the economists on Rawls?

    Here is an inventory of Rawls's references to economists from 1955 to 1971, from the essays included in Collected Papers.

    Two Concepts of Rules (1955)
    • Lionel Robbins, The Theory of Economic Policy in English Political Economy (1952)
    Justice as Fairness (1958)
    • John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1947); R. Duncan Luce and Howard Raiffa, Games and Decisions (1957) (56)
    • IMD Little, A Critique of Welfare Economics (1957); KJ Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values (1951); JR Hicks, Value and Capital (1946); Tibor Scitovsky, Welfare and Competition (1952) [66]
    • Jerome Rothenberg, The Measurement of Social Welfare; JC Harsanyi, "Cardinal Utility" (1953) and "Cardinal Welfare" (1955) [85]
    The Sense of Justice (1963)
    • WJ Baumol, Welfare Economics and the Theory of the State; RD Luce and Howard Raiffa, Games and Decisions [104]
    Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play (1964)
    • KJ Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values (1951)
    Distributive Justice (1967)
    • RD Luce and Howard Raiffa, Games and Decisions (1957) [133]
    • Wilfredo Pareto, Manuel d'economie politique (1909) [135, 160]
    • Nicholas Kaldor, An Expenditure Tax (1955) [143]
    Distributive Justice: Some Addenda (1968)
    • JC Harsanyi, "Cardinal Utility" (1953), "Cardinal Welfare" (1955) [173]
    Justice as Reciprocity (1971)
    • FY Edgeworth, "The Pure Theory of Taxation" (1958) [203]
    • John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1947); Luce and Raiffa, Games and Decisions (1957) [205]
    • RB Braithwaite, Theory of Games as a Tool for the Moral Philosopher (1955)
    • IMD Little, Critique; KJ Arrow, Social Choice; JR Hicks, Value; JC Harsanyi, "Cardinal Welfare", Tibor Scitovsky, Welfare and Competition (1963) [217]
    A couple of things are noteworthy in this inventory.  First, Rawls's references are highly contemporary to the 1950s.  He appears to have a reasonable level of acquaintance with what was happening in economics in that decade. And there are virtually no references to earlier figures in the history of economics; Pareto is virtually the only repeat entry in the index (Pareto principle).

    Second, there is a decided focus on several areas: welfare economics, social choice theory, and game theory.  Von Neumann and Morgenstern are cited several times, as are Luce and Raiffa; and Kenneth Arrow and John Harsanyi are repeat visitors as well. (Amartya Sen is cited in later essays, but not prior to 1971.)  Keynes is not mentioned in these early articles, and only tangentially in TJ.  And there is no mention of general equilibrium theory.

    Third, none of these citations corresponds to a significant or substantive discussion of the economist's views.  Rather, Rawls tends to illustrate a philosophical point by finding a relevant theoretical claim in one economist or another.  This indicates a degree of familiarity with the contemporary literature, but a fairly low level of intellectual engagement with the debates and analytical approaches.  In contrast to his treatment of utilitarianism, Kant, or Rousseau, Rawls's treatment of economic theory is brief and non-substantive.

    Significantly absent from this inventory of references is any mention of the classical political economists. The index of Collected Papers contains no references to Ricardo, Quesnay, or Malthus, and only one reference to Adam Smith (ideal spectator theory; 201).  John Stuart Mill is discussed in some detail, but always as a utilitarian philosopher, not an economist.  Marx is mentioned briefly (Critique of the Gotha Programme; 252). The labor theory of value -- the central construct of classical political economy -- is not mentioned once.

    There are a few references to Smith in A Theory of Justice, but they are superficial and incidental: Smith as a utilitarian, the concept of the invisible hand (57), the moral sentiments (184, 479), and impartial spectator theory (263).  There is nothing to suggest a careful or extensive reading of Smith, Ricardo, or Malthus in A Theory of Justice.

    It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the history of economic thought played a limited role in Rawls's thought.  Rawls was reasonably well acquainted with contemporary economics as of the 1950s and plainly found some aspects relevant to his philosophical agenda (Arrow, Harsanyi, von Neumann).  But I don't find much reason to believe that Rawls's important philosophical insights on justice were very much shaped by a reading of the history of economics.  Contemporary economists appear to have had greater influence -- decision theory, game theory, and social choice theory in particular.

    (See an earlier entry on "Rawls and decision theory" for more on this; link.)

    Saturday, October 2, 2010

    Opportunity index

    It would be very interesting if we had something we might call an "opportunity index" that could be applied to young children to estimate their probability of later success in life. The idea would go along these lines: Take some measure of adult success -- perhaps graduation from college or success in attaining a skilled job or career by the age of 30. Then identify a series of societal developmental factors that enhance the probability of the outcome. Finally, construct an index of these factors for each child that estimates the overall likelihood of success for that child. The logic is analogous to identifying risk factors for heart disease: given this set of factors, the individual's likelihood of O is p.

    The positive opportunity factors might include things like this:
    • Quality of schools
    • Reading level at grade 5
    • Presence of caring adults and mentors
    • Quality of family environment
    • Adequate nutrition
    • Adequate housing
    • Adequate family income
    • Access to healthcare
    There are probably redundancies here; public health professionals and education specialists would need to chime in. But suppose we've got some set of factors that can be scored 1-5, and suppose the index aggregates the factors to an overall estimate of probability of success. Maybe it goes along these lines: children with low scores in all factors (1) have only a 20% likelihood of success. (I.e. some children survive even crushing adversity; but it is only a small percentage who do.) Children with a 3 score have a probability of success of 75%. And children with the top scores have a probability of success of 95%. (I.e. students with good schools, high reading levels, great families, and affluent circumstances are almost certain to succeed.)

    Just supposing we had such an index, what would it tell us when we applied it to a large population of children? The index collects societal factors that influence the child's likelihood of success, and the aggregate index is intended to correspond to the overall likelihood of success. So looking at the distribution of the likelihood of success over a population would be sort of a CT scan of the opportunity structure that is presented to children in different social locations: affluent suburb, poor inner city, declining suburb, farm community, ... And we could then look at the index as a way of measuring "opportunity equity."

    My suspicion is that the result of this thought experiment would be pretty shocking. The factors that individually contribute to success are likely to covary by neighborhood, income, and race. It is therefore likely that whole schools full of children are likely to have similar scores. This suggests that there are gross inequalities of probability of success by race and poverty status. And this would highlight what is really a glaring source of injustice in our country: the likelihood of life success varies enormously by race and affluence.

    Further, since the factors mentioned here are external social factors which are simply presented to the children, there is no sense in which we could maintain that these differences derive from things the child is responsible for. So, in other words, these gross inequalities of opportunity and outcome are fundamentally unjustifiable.

    I'm led to this set of thoughts as a result of spending some time with young people in Detroit. The high school and college graduates I've been acquainted with display a remarkable set of talents and aspirations. They are on their way to success in whatever way we choose to define that term. And yet their own stories demonstrate what a difficult road it has been for them, and how many of their peers have been left behind. Fewer than 50% of Detroit school children go on to graduate from high school. Violence, hunger, homelessness, indifference, and illiteracy have prevented so many of their brothers and sisters from achieving the same kind of success. These are system characteristics, not individual failings. And these are the objective obstacles to opportunity that simply must be eliminated.