Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Organizational failure as a meso cause

A recurring issue in the past few months here has been the validity of meso-level causal explanations of social phenomena. It is self-evident that we attribute causal powers to meso entities in ordinary interactions with the social world. We assent to statements like these; they make sense to us.
  • Reorganization of the city's service departments led to less corruption in Chicago.
  • Poor oversight and a culture of hyper-masculinity encourages sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Divided command and control of military forces leads to ineffective response to attack.
  • Mining culture is conducive to social resistance.
We can gain some clarity on the role played by appeals to meso-level factors by considering a concrete example in detail. Military failure is a particularly interesting example to consider. Warfare proceeds through complex interlocking social organizations; it depends on information collection and interpretation; it requires the coordination of sometimes independent decision-makers; it involves deliberate antagonists striving deliberately to interfere with the strategies of the other; and it often leads to striking and almost incomprehensible failures. Eliot Cohen and John Gooch's Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War is a highly interesting study of military failure that makes substantial use of organizational sociology and the sociology of failure more broadly, so it provides a valuable example to consider.

Here are a few framing ideas that guide Cohen and Gooch in their analysis and selection of cases.
True military "misfortunes" -- as we define them -- can never be justly laid at the door of any one commander. They are failures of the organization, not of the individual. The other thing the failures we shall examine have in common is their apparently puzzling nature. Although something has clearly gone wrong, it is hard to see what; rather, it seems that fortune -- evenly balanced between both sides at the outset -- has turned against one side and favored the other. These are the occasions when it seems that the outcome of the battle depended at least as much on one side's mishandling of the situation as on the other's skill in exploiting a position of superiority ... The causes of organizational failure in the military world are not easy to discern. (3)
From the start, then, Cohen and Gooch are setting their focus on a meso-level factor -- features of organizations and their interrelations within a complex temporally extended period of activity.  They note that historians often start with the commander -- the familiar explanation of failures based on "operator error" -- as the culprit.  But as they argue in the cases they consider, this effort is as misguided in the case of military disaster as it is in other kinds of failure.  Much more fundamental are the organizational failures and system interactions that led to the misfortune. Take Field Marshal Douglas Haig, whose obstinate commitment to aggressive offense in the situation of trench warfare has been bitterly criticized as block-headed:
Not only was the high command confronted by a novel environment; it was also imprisoned in a system that made it well-nigh impossible to meet the challenges of trench warfare. The submissive obedience of Haig's subordinates, which Forester took for blinkered ignorance and whole-hearted support, was in reality the unavoidable consequence of the way in which the army high command functioned as an organization under its commander in chief. (13)
So why are organizations so central to the explanation of military failure?
Wherever people come together to carry out purposeful activity, organizations spring into being. The more complex and demanding the task, the more ordered and integrated the organization. ... Men form organizations, but they also work with systems. Whenever technological components are linked together in order to carry out a particular scientific or technological activity, the possibility exists that the normal sequence of events the system has been designed to carry out may go awry when failures in two or more components interact in an unexpected way. (21, 22)
And here is the crucial point: organizations and complexes of organizations (systems) have characteristics that sometimes produce features of coordinated action that are both unexpected and undesired.  A certain way of training officers may have been created in order to facilitate unity in combat; but it may also create a mentality of subordinacy that makes it difficult for officers to take appropriate independent action.  A certain system for managing the flow of materiel to the fighting forces may work fine in the leisurely circumstances of peace but quickly overload under the exigencies of war.  Weapon systems designed for central Europe may prove unreliable in North Africa.

Eliot and Gooch place organizational learning and information processing at the core of their theories of military failure.  They identify three kinds of failure: "failure to learn, failure to anticipate, and failure to adapt" (26). As a failure to learn, they cite the US Army's failure to learn from the French experience in Vietnam before designing its own strategies in the Vietnam War.  And they emphasize the unexpected interactions that can occur between different components of a complex organization like the military.  They recommend a "layered" analysis: "We look for the interactions between these organizations, as well as assess how well they performed their proper tasks and missions" (52).

The cases they consider correspond to this classification of failure.  They examine failure to learn in the case of American antisubmarine warfare in 1942; failure to anticipate in the case of the Israel Defense Forces' failure on the Golan Heights, 1973; and failure to adapt in the British disaster at Gallipoli, 1915.  Their example of aggregate failure, involving all three failures, is the defeat of the American Eighth Army in Korea, 1950.  And they reserve the grand prize, catastrophic failure, for the collapse of the French army and air force in 1940.

Each of these cases illustrates the authors' central thesis: that organizational failures are at the heart of many or most large military failures.  The example of the failure of the American antisubmarine campaign in 1942 off the east coast of the United States is particularly clear.  German submarines preyed at will on American shipping, placing a large question mark over the ability of the Americans to continue to resupply Allied forces in Europe.  The failure of American antisubmarine warfare was perplexing because the British navy had already developed proven and effective methods of ASW, and the American navy was aware of those methods.  Unhappily, Eliot and Gooch argue, the US Navy did not succeed in learning from this detailed wartime experience.

The factors that Eliot and Gooch cite include: insufficient patrol boats early in the campaign: insufficient training for pilots and patrol vessel crews; crucial failures on operational intelligence ("collection, organization, interpretation and dissemination of many different kinds of data"; 75); and, most crucially, organizational failures.
A prompt and accurate intelligence assessment would mean nothing if the analysts could not communicate that assessment directly to commanders on the scene, if those commanders did not have operational control over the various air and naval assets they required to protect shipping and sink U-boats, if they saw no reason to heed that intelligence, or if they had no firm notion of what to do about it. The working out of correct standard tactics ... could have no impact if destroyer skippers did not know or would not apply them. Moreover, as the U-boats changed their tactics and equipment ..., the antisubmarine forces needed to adopt compensating tactical changes and technological innovation. (76)
This contrasts with the British case:
The British system worked because it had developed an organizational structure that enabled the Royal Navy and RAF to make use of all of the intelligence at their disposal, to analyze it swiftly and accurately, and to disseminate it immediately to those who needed to have it. (77)
So why did the US Navy not adopt the British system of organization?  Here too the authors find organizational causes:
If the United States Navy had thought seriously about adapting its organization to the challenges of ASW in a fashion similar to that chosen by the British, it would have required major changes in how existing organizations operated, and in no case would this have been more true than that of intelligence. (89)
So in this case, Eliot and Gooch find that the failure of the US Navy to conduct effective antisubmarine warfare off the coast of the United States resides centrally in features of the organization of the Navy itself, and in collateral organizations like the intelligence service.

This is a good example of an effort to explain concrete and complex historical outcomes using the theoretical resources of organizational sociology.  And the language of causation is woven throughout the narrative.  The authors make a credible case for the view that the organizational features they identify caused (or contributed to the cause) of the large instances of military failure they identify.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

How things work

Social scientists have a set of abstract goals in approaching their work.  They want to formulate specific research questions about limited aspects of the social world and then arrive at empirical and explanatory insights into those matters. They look for the evidence of social structures and systems, regularities of social behavior in populations and groups, and so on. They are looking to provide abstract, general knowledge about how society works. They would like to arrive at clear "diagrams" of the social structures and mechanisms that constitute the contemporary social world.

But think about the challenge of understanding society from the other end of the stick -- the perspective of the ordinary participant. From the participant's perspective the situation often looks more like an environment of black boxes: how will the world respond if I do X, Y, or Z? And for a significant part of society, how the boxes work is a life-affecting mystery.

There is a significant proportion of almost any society for whom these kinds of questions can be answered with a satisfying routine: if I go to work today I can count on getting a day's pay; my pay will permit me to satisfy my ordinary needs reasonably well; and tomorrow will be equally routine. The police won't hassle me, my home won't be broken into, my health is good, and my children's school situation is good.  So there isn't much at stake for this group of people as they consider how the social world around them works.

What about people for whom life is not routine and comfortable, however? Put yourself in the position of an African-American high-school-educated worker who has just lost his job in Taylor, Michigan. Suppose you've got an apartment for your family of five that costs $750/month. You've got an old car that breaks down frequently. While you've been working your family has just barely scraped by. Now that you've lost your job things are no longer routine. Unemployment insurance brings in less than 60% of the wages you'd been making. That's not enough to cover all the bills you've got -- rent, food, clothes for the children, gas for the clunker, a few medical bills.

So what choices does the environment offer now? The largest part of the family budget is the apartment. So maybe moving out early is a good choice -- find something even cheaper, live in a shelter for a few months, live in the clunker. These are desperate choices -- being homeless is desperate, and it's hard to find an apartment for less than $500. Also, the landlord will probably want first and last month rent deposit as well as proof of employment, and you haven't got that. So maybe it's the shelter or the car.

Looking for a new job is an obvious choice. But the unemployment rate in Wayne County is much higher than the rest of the state and the nation. So that's iffy. How about borrowing? Like many of your friends and family, you don't have a credit card and you don't have assets that could be the basis for borrowing. There's nothing in the house that can be sold. And you've got about $1000 in cash. So what to do? Your landlord won't be patient after a few months of missed rent checks.

Maybe looking for work outside of Wayne County will occur to you. Maybe there are jobs in Texas. But how would you find out? Would you use part of the thousand dollars and take a bus to Houston where you have a cousin, or to Dallas where you don't know anyone? That leaves about $800 for your family to survive on while you're gone -- is that a good risk? And how likely is it that you'll find work in Texas that will permit you to send enough money back home to make the difference?

Or maybe another part of Michigan might have more jobs. Not Flint, that's for sure. But what about Grand Rapids? Now the question of race comes into the picture. How receptive is Grand Rapids to an unemployed black man looking for work? How will the police treat you when you arrive in the bus station? Are there social services that might help out till you found work? How would you know? Have you got any friends in GR who might be able to get you started?

You might be very well aware that a lack of education is holding you back. So maybe you can get some training at a community college to boost your job skills -- welding or health tech, perhaps. But that takes time, and you've only got a thousand dollars and an unemployment check. That would have been a good idea a while ago, but it's hard to see how to make it work now.

And what about the criminal options? Maybe you know some guys who sometimes break into stopped rail cars in Detroit. Once in a while they find stuff that can be sold. Does that make sense? What's the likelihood of being caught? Is there money in this kind of racket? How would you sort that out?

My point in this thought experiment is to draw out how different the "social epistemics" are for the marginalized 30-40% in our society from the rest of us. The routine relationships they have with the social world around them don't satisfy their most basic needs. They've got to do something different. And none of the options are obvious in their mechanics or outcomes. There are uncertainties everywhere, and every choice is a bet against disaster. This is a very personal kind of social calculation: it requires figuring out which play may push destitution off for a few weeks or months.

And yet in one sense they're dealing with the same realities as the social scientist: large institutions (labor market, state social service agencies), informal social practices and networks (networks of people willing to share what they've got, networks of people preying on the formal economy), large social realities like racism and police violence.

One of the things I appreciate in Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins novels is the care Mosley takes to work out the ordinary street knowledge that Easy needed -- and mastered -- as he survived and thrived in the gritty world of Los Angeles in the fifties and sixties. Easy had a very strong street epistemology, not as a sociologist but as an intelligent observer of a complicate set of social black boxes. Here is one good example, A Little Yellow Dog : Featuring an Original Easy Rawlins Short Story "Gray-Eyed Death".

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sociologists on race

It is apparent that society in the United States is racialized in deep ways that greatly disadvantage the African-American population in the country, from health to longevity to education level to income and wealth levels. The disparities in all these areas of life are well documented (for example, here). Moreover, they seem to be more durable and intractable than those that exist for other ethnic and national minorities in the US.

It is crucial that the social and behavioral sciences do a better job of diagnosing the dynamics and the structural realities of race in the United States.  If we are to reverse these patterns of injustice, we need to understand better how they work.

One key mechanism producing these racial disparities is the continuing fact of residential segregation by race. Elizabeth Anderson, a highly accomplished philosopher at the University of Michigan makes this argument and its consequences very clearly in The Imperative of Integration.  Here is her central finding (summarizing a great volume of social science research):
Segregation of social groups is a principal cause of group inequality. It isolates disadvantaged groups from access to public and private resources, from sources of human and cultural capital, and from the social networks that govern access to jobs, business connections, and political influence. It depresses their ability to accumulate wealth and gain access to credit. It reinforces stigmatizing stereotypes about the disadvantaged and thus causes discrimination. (2)
And here is how Anderson summarizes her conclusions:
I have argued that integration is an indispensable goal in a society characterized by categorical inequality.  It is necessary to block and dismantle the mechanisms that perpetuate unjust social inequality, and to realize the promise of a democratic state that is equally responsive and accountable to citizens of all identities. (180)
Two areas of the social sciences pay particular attention to race in society. One is social psychology, where experts like Claude Steele and many others engage in theoretical and empirical work investigating how people think and act with respect to racial features of the social environment. Steele's studies of stereotype threat are an important example here (Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do).

But it is sociologists who have given the most comprehensive studies of race in American society. And here it is crucial to observe that there are several fairly different paradigms of thought that have guided sociological thinking about race.

One tradition has tried to frame issues of race within a more general framework of ethnic and cultural groups. The Chicago School of sociology gave voice to this approach, including especially Robert Ezra Park (Race and culture). The idea here is that groups enter society, they struggle for a while, and they eventually assimilate to positions of approximate equality in a complex and open society. The paradigm draws on the experience of various immigrant groups in American history. Distinct ethnic and cultural groups are a fact of life, and the goal of policy should be to find ways of cultivating harmonious relations among them. This is the "race relations" paradigm.

Stephen Steinberg argues in Race Relations: A Critique that this tradition started us off on the wrong foot and has made it more difficult to discover the social realities of the race system in the United States:
While the term "race relations" is meant to convey value neutrality, on closer examination it is riddled with value. Indeed, its rhetorical function is to obfuscate the true nature of "race relations," which is a system of racial domination and exploitation based on violence, resulting in the suppression and dehumanization of an entire people over centuries of American history. (kindle location 203)
Another important paradigm of race theory begins in a very different place. It emphasizes the inequalities of power and opportunity between majority society and the African-American population over time and it highlights the power relations through which these inequalities have been maintained from slavery through Jim Crow laws into the modern system. Robert Blauner's Racial Oppression in America offered an important instance of this approach in 1972. This perspective emphasizes the violence and domination that has been the face of the US racial system between white and black citizens. This we can call the "racial domination" paradigm.

The first paradigm fails to pay enough attention to the coercive aspects of the race system in the United States and tends to be "accomodationist". The second framework emphasizes the role that violence and oppression played (and play) in the subordination of African-American people in many important social structures.  Both frameworks pay attention to the role that prejudice and overt discrimination play in the racial disparities we currently observe, but the second paradigm gives greater attention to domination and a structure of systemic exclusion that is part of the history of race in the United States.  Michelle Alexander's recent The New Jim Crow is a very good contribution to the second perspective.

An important effort to make a new beginning within sociology on understanding race in the United States has been offered by Michael Omi and Howard Winant in their presentation of racial formation theory in Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s.  Winant summarizes much of this new thinking in a review article, "Race and Race Theory," published in Annual Review of Sociology in 2000.  Here is the text of the article that is posted on Winant's research webpage.

History and contemporary social realities require that we come to grips with race more honestly than we have in most of our past in the United States. This in turn mandates that we honestly confront the permanent ongoing costs that racialized social structures, including segregation, have imposed on African Americans in the US. We need to have an intellectual framework and narrative that honestly faces these facts, and we need to resolve to correct these injustices within a reasonable period of time.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

How much inequality?

How much inequality is too much?  Answers range from Gracchus Babeuf (all inequalities are unjust) to Ayn Rand (there is no moral limit on the extent of inequalities a society can embody). Is there any reasoned basis for answering the question?  What kinds of criteria might we use to try to answer this kind of question?

John Rawls offered a fairly simple criterion of the extent of inequalities that a just society can tolerate in A Theory of Justice.  His background assumption is that the wealth of a society is a joint product of all members of society.  The rules of distribution create more or less inequality among citizens.  Citizens are concerned to "protect" their interests in case they wind up being in the worst-off positions in society.  So justice requires that institutions should create the least degree of inequalities subject to maximizing the position of the least-well-off position in society.  (He also stipulated an equality of opportunity principle: positions need to be open to all through a fair system of competition.)  If the empirical theory is true that economic inequalities sometimes create more wealth (through incentive effects), then it is just to increase inequalities up to the point where any further increase would leave the position of the least-well-off member of society unchanged.  This is the least system of inequalities subject to maximizing the position of the least-well-off.  Rawls justifies this principle (the difference principle) on the ground that it expresses an important sense of fairness: everyone is fairly treated when higher incomes are assigned to some individuals only when doing so benefits all individuals.

By this principle, current inequalities in the United States and Great Britain are demonstrably unjust: it would obviously be possible to lower the incomes of the 1 percent without lowering the income of the bottom forty percent.  So current inequalities are plainly more extensive than they need to be for the purpose of increasing overall output and improving the condition of the least-well-off.

Joseph Stiglitz offers a different kind of theory of inequality in his recent The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future. (Here is the anchor essay as it appeared in Vanity Fair; link.) His argument is a pragmatic one based on a theory of social stability.  Essentially he argues that when inequalities become too extreme in a given society they breed social conflict and instability. This happens perhaps because of raw deprivation -- the bottom 40% really do have pretty desperate lives -- but more because of what Stiglitz identifies as erosion of the social contract.  Here is how he puts the point in the Vanity Fair article:
Of all the costs imposed on our society by the top 1 percent, perhaps the greatest is this: the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important. America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them. It is this sense of an unjust system without opportunity that has given rise to the conflagrations in the Middle East: rising food prices and growing and persistent youth unemployment simply served as kindling. With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent (and in some locations, and among some socio-demographic groups, at twice that); with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from “food insecurity”)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted “trickling down” from the top 1 percent to everyone else. All of this is having the predictable effect of creating alienation—voter turnout among those in their 20s in the last election stood at 21 percent, comparable to the unemployment rate.
So for Stiglitz, inequality is not simply a moral issue, but is also an issue of social stability and cohesion.

Here is another way of answering the question: perhaps extreme inequalities are actually bad for a population's health.  There is one sense in which this is obviously true: extremely poor people have worse health outcomes than affluent people.  But maybe the simple fact of inequalities is itself a toxic influence on public health, for poor and rich alike.  This is the argument that Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett make in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.  Their argument is a complex one that suggests several causal explanations for why this might be the case; but their core idea is that great inequalities create widespread "stress" that is harmful to each individual's health.  Wilkinson and Pickett are public health experts and their argument is a cross-national statistical one.

So we might adapt their analysis into an answer to the question posed above: inequalities should be reduced until there is not measurable harm to public health.  (These arguments are considered in earlier posts.)

There is even a utilitarian argument for greater equality of income.  If we accept the plausible point that income makes a diminishing marginal contribution to happiness as income rises (perhaps after some inflection point), then under many realistic circumstances a more equal society with lower GNP will have a higher level of happiness than a more unequal society with higher GNP.  Lower-income people have more to gain from an additional $1000 of income than higher-income people.  So if we think it is a good thing to maximize happiness, then we ought to regulate inequalities accordingly.  Benjamin Page makes some of these arguments in an Institute for Research on Poverty position paper, "Utilitarian Arguments for Equality" (link).

Are we forced to choose among these frameworks in order to conclude that our economy has generated vastly too wide a set of inequalities of wealth and income?  No, we aren't, because these arguments are mutually supportive.  A system of greater equality, regulated by a tax system designed for that purpose, would be more fair, more supportive of equality of opportunity, more harmonious, likely healthier, and likely happier.  We have lots of good reasons for preferring greater equality of wealth and income and lots of good reasons to reject the "anything goes" philosophy that currently drives much of the political discourse on the right.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ostrom's central idea

Elinor Ostrom was a very important contributor to the theory of public rationality and the institutions that underlie cooperation, and she was most deserving of the recognition that accompanied her receipt of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.  Her passing today is a sad loss for the academic world.

Her key contributions were included in Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, a masterful book that presents a new theoretical framework and body of empirical evidence for conceiving of the ways in which human communities can handle common property resources -- forests, fishing grounds, grazing areas, water supplies. Anyone interested in the ways that collective action works in practice will want to read the book. (See also Baden and Noonan, Managing the Commons, Second Edition for an important set of perspectives on "managing the commons" and solving common property resource problems.)

Rational choice theory has been unfriendly to the idea that communities can self-regulate when it comes to public goods and public harms.  Garrett Hardin offered the theory of the "tragedy of the commons", in which he argues that rational egoists will inevitably overuse a common resource. And Mancur Olson offered similar arguments about the feasibility of collective action in an extended group in The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Against these views, Ostrom and her research collaborators demonstrated that human communities have actually created a number of informal institutional complexes for regulating access to common resources that succeed in creating a stable balance between use and resource renewal.

Here is how Ostrom casts the problem in Governing the Commons:

The term “common-pool resource” refers to a natural or man-made resource system that is sufficiently large as to make it costly (but not impossible) to exclude potential beneficiaries from obtaining benefits from its use. (30)
Instead of presuming that the individuals sharing a commons are inevitably caught in a trap from which they cannot escape, I argue that the capacity of individuals to extricate themselves from various types of dilemma situations varies from situation to situation. The cases to be discussed in this book illustrate both successful and unsuccessful efforts to escape tragic outcomes. (14; kl 306)
Institutions are rarely either private or public -- "the market" or "the state." Many successful CPR intitutions are rich mixtures of "private-like" and "public-like" institutions defying classification in a sterile dichotomy. By "successful," I mean institutions that enable individuals to achieve productive outcomes in situations where temptations to free-ride and shirk are ever present. A competitive market -- the epitome of private institutions -- is itself a public good. (14; kl 311)
Ostrom demonstrated, both theoretically and empirically, that legal regulation is not the only possible solution to public goods problems. Instead she documents community-based solutions to common property resource problems that have proved successful over multiple generations. These are quasi-voluntary arrangements through which a community of users (fishers, grazers, irrigators) are able to manage the resource collectively and control violators, in such a way as to preserve the resource over time. And she points out that these institutions can be self-maintaining, in that participants have an incentive to watch out for cheaters and shirkers.  In describing the Alanya inshore fishing system in detail she writes, "The process of monitoring and enforcing the system is, however, accomplished by the fishers themselves as a by-product of the incentive created by the rotation system" (19-20; kl 378).

Given that common property resource problems are ubiquitous, her policy recommendation are sensible ones:

An important challenge facing policy scientists is to develop theories of human organization based on realistic assessment of human capabilities and limitations in dealing with a variety of situations that initially share some or all aspects of a tragedy of the commons. (23; kl 436)
What is missing from the policy analyst's tool kit -- and from the set of accepted, well-developed theories of human organization -- is an adequately specified theory of collective action whereby a group of principals can organize themselves voluntarily to retain the residuals of their own efforts. Examples of self-organized enterprises abound. (24; kl 449)
Essentially her research comes down to this point: There are multiple possible property systems through which access to natural resources can be mediated. A simple Lockean theory of private property holds that all goods have individual private owners. It is possible, however, to conceive of forms of “social property” or community property through which at least some assets are held in common, and for which there are fair and well-defined procedures for providing rights of access to the use and enjoyment of the social property.

As Ostrom demonstrated in depth, there are socially feasible arrangements in which a “common property resource” such as a fish stock is exploited by a number of independent producers within the context of a stable community.  In this instance we have a combination of private property (nets and boats) and social property (the waterway and fish stock), and Ostrom documents several different sets of social rules that establish the terms of access and use that individuals will have to the common property resource.

There is extensive debate over the economic efficiency or viability of social property arrangements such as these. Concerning fisheries and traditional practices of forestry, for example, there is the familiar argument that rationally induced free-riding will eventually undermine the community-based rules of use. The point here not that social property regimes are superior, but rather that they are possible. And Ostrom's research illustrates a great variety of common-property resource regimes that appear to be efficient and stable.  It is therefore a matter of public debate which particular rules and institutions ought to govern the use of property. And there may be something in this finding that provides new ways of thinking about economic arrangements in the twenty-first century as well.

(I had an interesting exchange with Ostrom on the occasion of her receiving an honorary degree from the University of Michigan in 2006. I raised the topic of agriculture and food within the world economy and referred to a continuing debate I'd been having with my daughter about traditional farming versus largescale industrial agriculture.  My argument was that traditional farming was not productive enough to feed the world's population, and my daughter's view was that industrial agriculture is unsustainable and destructive of existing rural communities.  I asked Ostrom about her opinion.  Her response was: "you are both right." In hindsight, after rereading Governing the Commons, I'm inclined to interpret her response as expressing the idea that solutions to our large global problems need to be mixed solutions. Her work on self-governing community-based systems for making use of resources suggests that she would have some sympathy for the continuing significance of traditional farming systems within the larger context of the world agriculture system. But at the same time, she was always insistent that we need to be realistic about the assumptions about behavior that underly the solutions we recommend.)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Organizations and the Chicago school

Andrew Abbott is a fascinating sociologist, and he is an expert on the Chicago School. His book Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred provides an excellent analytical discussion of the theories and people of the school. So his contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Sociology and Organization Studies: Classical Foundations, "Organizations and the Chicago School," on the place of organizations in the research tradition of the Chicago School is doubly interesting. The piece is posted here on Abbott's website.

The piece is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it gives Abbott an opportunity to articulate once again what he thinks is most distinctive about the Chicago School approach to the study of society. Second, it allows the reader to infer how Abbott himself thinks "organizations" ought to be studied. And third, it presents a very interesting example of how to do the sociology of a knowledge field.

In several ways Abbott thinks that the perspectives offered on "organization" by the Chicago School sociologists are more insightful than those provided by the other more mainstream approaches in US sociology -- "the Harvard based human relations school, the Weberian tradition descending from Parsons through Merton at Columbia, and the more formal and economic approach associated with March and Simon at Carnegie Tech" (399).

This additional insight starts with the grammar of organizations. For the Chicago School, organization is more verb-like, a process, 'the organizing of social life', whereas for the other main traditions organization is a noun, a concept that refers to a static thing to be studied.  For Abbott this is an important differentiating factor in the Chicago School approach generally: a tendency to look at social affairs as an active and dynamic set of processes rather than a settled and stable set of durable structures.  "'The world', in the ringing phrase of the Chicagoans' philosopher colleagues George Herbert Mead, 'is a world of events'" (401).

Abbott argues that there are complicated reasons why the Chicago School is not regarded as having developed a significant sociological theory of organizations.  One part of the story is the fact of inter-paradigm politics. Influential figures in the human relations school at Harvard made deliberate efforts to minimize the Chicagoans' involvement in organizational studies (402).  Another part of the story is the fact that the Chicago School contribution to this field of study took place largely through dissertations rather than through large theoretical treatises.  And finally, there is the historical fact that American organizations underwent profound change from 1920 to 1960, both nationally and in Chicago.  The super-sized organizations of giant corporations, federal bureaucracy, and the army emerged in the years of World War II; whereas much of the research agenda of the Chicago School was set in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

Nonetheless, Abbott argues here that there is indeed a broad body of work within the Chicago School on the subject of organizations, and it is of high quality.  It presents an alternative way of engaging in a sociology of organizations.  He picks out three themes around which to organize the Chicago research that he studies here:
(1) static aspects of the interiors of organizations, (2) diachronic aspects of single organizations, and (3) aspects of relations among organizations. (402)
Referring to Charles Richmond Henderson, he writes:
Like most of the Chicago sociologists, Henderson located what we now call organizations as one among many types of 'institutions'. The concept of institutions was general at the time, denoting any body of social behavior or structure dedicated to carrying out what we would now call a function of society. (404)
Abbott finds that Henderson and Small supervised thirty-one dissertations, and nine of these were relevant to the topic of organizations: stockyards, churches, the steel industry, and employment agencies, for example.  Abbott finds that "the focus is much more on dynamics: institutionalization, ossification, change, and evolution" (407). Another feature of the Chicago "sociological imagination" was an abiding interest in peripheral social roles -- delinquents, hobos, criminals, and taxi dancers (412). This conforms to the Chicago penchant for studying the social particular and the Chicago tendency towards progressive causes. But he also finds that the division of academic labor shifted during the 1930s, with the study of organizations going to the political economists rather than the sociologists (409).

One of the sociologists whom he cites is Paul Goalby Cressey, whose sociology dissertation centered on the organization of the "taxi dance hall." The dissertation was published as The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Sociological Study in Commercialized Recreation and City Life.  Abbott praises this work:
The other Chicago works on entertainment institutions -- Paul Cressey's The Taxi-Dance Hall (1932) and Walter Reckless's Vice in Chicago (1933) -- are first-rate organizational studies.  Cressey's analysis of types of dance halls touches on the resource dependencies of the dance halls, the evolution of different types of halls, competition and specialization among them, and, of course, locational patterns. (413)
Another work that he admires is a dissertation by Edwin Thrasher:
A final work of this type is Edwin Thrasher's The Gang (1927), probably the ultimate Chicago statement of organizations as things that are always in transition. For Thrasher, gangs are rooted in communities, and thus are evidence of ongoing 'social organization'. But for us, Thrasher's study provides clear evidence that the organizations Chicagoans found most interesting were those that were the most transient. (414).
And here is another study that Abbott admires:
Even more extraordinary, however, is Ernest Shideler's 'The Chain Store' (1927). This is a comprehensive organizational analysis of the emergence of a new organizational form.... This is organizational sociology of a comprehensiveness and theoretical sophistication that would not be seen again for another fifty years. (415)
World War II brought about a set of changes in organizational America that made the Chicago School approach less appealing to the mainstream. "The conflictual, processual, local theories of the Chicago School made little sense in a world now conceived as grand, unified, and even static, a huge mechanism for steady expansion in a non-ideological, managed world" (416).  But this stability was short-lived, and Abbott believes that the Chicago approach is once again worth studying. Here is how Abbott concludes:
What then are the lessons contemporary organization theory can learn from the Chicago organizations tradition and its vicissitudes? The most important lesson is that there is no necessary reason for seeing the social world as a world of organizations. The Chicago School's sublimation of organizations into an epiphenomenon of social processes reminds us that to see the social world in terms of organizational entities -- as the human relations school did -- is to take a quite historically specific view, one anchored firmly in the worldwide importance of large, stable bureaucratic structures in the years from about 1925 to 1975.
But that epoch of stable, fixed social structures is over, Abbott seems to say, and the fluid, shifting, and event-ful social world that we now confront is better studied using the approaches of the Chicago School. We now face "a world of rapid turnover and change in organizations, a world of continuous organizational restructurings and financial prestidigitation, of networks and arm's length relationships, a world in which the employment and production structures that were laboriously built by scientific management and human relations have been deconstructed through outsourcing and offshoring" (419).

And for that more fluid social world, the Chicago School approach is very well prepared.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Priorities for tax dollars

There is a very strong impulse in many state legislatures to cut taxes, no matter what the cost is to the state's ability to provide essential services for its citizens.  The Michigan League for Human Services draws attention to the consequences of this impulse when it comes to the welfare of the children of Michigan.  MLHS is the publisher of an important report on the state of children's welfare in Michigan, and this report is a really important contribution (link).

The Michigan legislature is proposing to speed up a reduction in Michigan income tax rates by a few months, resulting in a loss of tax revenue of about $90 million. This change will make only a very small difference for each individual Michigan tax payer, whereas these tax revenues could have made a large difference for a number of important public priorities.

Gilda Jacobs, president & CEO of the Michigan League for Human Services, comments on the "opportunity cost" that this decision creates for the children of the state -- the things we give up by making this decision. "While this is being touted as a tax break, for most people it is not a decrease. Most of us will barely notice this change in light of the big increases that hit low- and moderate-income households the hardest starting in tax year 2012."

To consider the public policy issue fully, it is necessary to ask a fundamental question: how else could that $90 million have been spent as base budget?  What is the opportunity cost of this policy change?

Here is a list of items that could have been funded for that amount, and the investment would have had a meaningful impact on the children of the state.
  • Implementing the governor’s Infant Mortality Summit recommendations to combat Michigan’s high infant mortality rate at a cost of just $16 million. According to Kids Count, Michigan is among the 10 worst states in the country with African American infants at triple the risk of white infants.
  • Expanding Healthy Kids Dental nearly statewide to the half-million Medicaid-eligible children who may otherwise lack access to dental care.
  • Sending 24,000 preschoolers to high-quality early education centers.
  • Restoring the Earned Income Tax Credit to 11 percent of the federal credit. It will drop to just 6 percent of the federal credit, down from 20 percent, starting in tax year 2012.

The Earned Income Tax credit has been a major issue for the MLHS because of the potential this program has demonstrated in addressing poverty.  It was one of the victims of the tax restructuring that took place in 2011 in Michigan, with significant negative consequences for poor families.

Any of these items would have a substantial impact on the welfare and life prospects of thousands of children in the state.  So how can it be considered rational to prefer to provide a tax break of $15 for millions of taxpayers rather than rejecting the change and investing the money in projects like these?

It would seem that the answer is fairly straightforward: the policymakers do not assign a high priority to issues like infant mortality, kids' dental health, or access to preschool education for poor families. The value of cutting taxes trumps the possible benefits that would derive from not doing so -- even though the value of the tax reduction is negligible for the typical taxpayer.  It's hard to see how this can be considered good policy.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Mark Blaug, John Rawls, and the history of political economy

In an earlier post I spent some time trying to determine what the major sources were of Rawls's knowledge of the history of classical political economy.  I noted that Rawls refers several times in A Theory of Justice to Mark Blaug's important history of economic thought, Economic Theory in Retrospect , and speculated that this might have been an important source of knowledge for Rawls.

Since then I've learned that there is more direct evidence of Rawls's study of Blaug.  Eric Schliesser posted several interesting items last fall at the time of Mark Blaug's death.  The first post provides PDFs of several pages of notes and annotations in Rawls's hand in a copy of Economic Theory in Retrospect, thanks to David Levy.  It is evident from these pages that Rawls paid close attention to the book.

The second post goes into some detail about Blaug's career.

Schliesser also links to a fascinating hour-long interview with Blaug in 2006.  Thanks to Offsetting Behaviour for linking to the interview. It is fascinating to hear about the drama of Blaug's life and career, including his encounter with the McCarthy committee in the 1950s.

Economic Theory in Retrospect was an important book for me as well during graduate school in the early 1970s, and I have admired Blaug's work ever since.

Since the earlier post I've also learned that the seminar and reading course that Rawls attended in 1950 with William Baumol at Princeton had substantial readings from the classical of political economy, including several selections from Marx. Baumol has shared with others that Rawls seemed to be impressed with Marx when he read him.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Rawls on a property-owning democracy

John Rawls's critique of capitalism was deeper than has been commonly recognized -- this is a central thrust of quite a bit of important recent work on Rawls's theory of justice. Much of this recent discussion focuses on Rawls's idea of a "property-owning democracy" as an alternative to both laissez-faire and welfare-state capitalism. This more disruptive reading of Rawls is especially important today, forty years later, given the great degree to which wealth stratification has increased and the political influence of wealth has mushroomed. (I've addressed this set of issues in prior posts; link, link.) Martin O'Neill and Thad Williamson's recent volume, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond, provides an excellent and detailed discussion of the many dimensions of this idea and its relevance to the capitalism we experience in 2012. It includes contributions by a number of important younger political philosophers.

O'Neill and Williamson make the point in their introduction that this issue is not merely of interest within academic philosophy. It also provides a powerful conceptual and normative system that might serve as a basis for a more successful version of progressive politics in North America and the UK. Politicians on the left have found themselves locked into a defensive battle trying to preserve some of the features of welfare state capitalism -- usually unsuccessfully. The arguments underlying the idea of a property owning democracy have the potential for resetting practical policy and political debates on more defensible terrain.

The core idea is that Rawls believes that his first principle establishing the priority of liberty has significant implications for the extent of wealth inequality that can be tolerated in a just society. The requirement of the equal worth of political and personal liberties implies that extreme inequalities of wealth are unjust, because they provide a fundamentally unequal base to different groups of people for the exercise of their political and democratic liberties. As O'Neill and Williamson put it in their introduction, "Capitalist interests and the rich will have vastly more influence over the political process than other citizens, a condition which violates the requirement of equal political liberties" (3).  A welfare capitalist state that succeeds in maintaining a tax system that compensates the worse-off in terms of income will satisfy the second principle, the difference principle. But in the striking recent interpretations of Rawls's thinking about a POD, a welfare state cannot satisfy the first principle. (It would appear that Rawls should also have had doubts about the sustainability of a welfare state within the circumstances of extreme inequality of wealth: wealth holders will have extensive political power and will be able to effectively oppose the tax policies that are necessary for the extensive income redistribution required by a just welfare capitalist state.) Instead, Rawls favors a form of society that he describes as a property-owning democracy, in which strong policies of wealth redistribution guarantee a broad distribution of wealth across society. Here is how Rawls puts it in Justice as Fairness: A Restatement:
Property-owning democracy avoids this, not by the redistribution of income to those with less at the end of each period, so to speak, but rather by ensuring the widespread ownership of assets and human capital (that is, education and trained skills) at the beginning of each period, all this against a background of fair equality of opportunity. The intent is not simply to assist those who lose out through accident or misfortune (although that must be done), but rather to put all citizens in a position to manage their own affairs on a footing of a suitable degree of social and economic equality. (139)
O'Neill and Williamson draw out the implications of this view of a just society by contrast with the realities of 2012:
The concentration of capital and the emergence of finance as a driving sector of capitalism has generated not only instability and crisis; it also has led to extraordinary political power for private financial interests, with banking interests taking a leading role in shaping not only policies immediately affecting that sector but economic (and thereby social) policy in general.... The United States is now further than ever from realizing what Rawls termed the "fair value of the political liberties" -- that is, the core value of political equality. (5)
How would the wide dispersal of wealth be achieved and maintained?  Evidently this can only be achieved through taxation, including heavy estate taxes designed to prevent the "large-scale private concentrations of capital from coming to have a dominant role in economic and political life" (5).

It seems apparent that progressives lack powerful visions of what a just modern democracy could look like. The issues and principles that are being developed within this new discussion of Rawls have the potential for creating such a vision, as compelling in our times as the original idea of justice as fairness was in the 1970s.  It is, in the words of O'Neill and Williamson, "a political economy based on wide dispersal of capital with the political capacity to block the very rich and corporate elites from dominating the economy and relevant public policies" (4).  And it is a society that comes closer to the ideas of liberty and equality that underlie our core conception of democracy than we have yet achieved.

(Williamson and O'Neill provided an excellent exposition of the idea and some of the foundational questions that need to be explored in 2009 in "Property-Owning Democracy and the Demands of Justice" (link).  The concept of a property-owning democracy originates in writings by James Meade, including his 1965 Efficiency, Equality and the Ownership of Property.)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Where is poverty in the national agenda?

Our elected officials are charged to do their best to create legislation and policies that work best to secure the important life interests of all citizens. Can we take that as a shared assumption? This is how we want it to work, and we feel morally offended when legislators substitute their own wants and opinions for those of the public.

If this is a fair description of the role obligations connected to elected office, then there are some important discrepancies that arise when we look at the actual work that legislators do, both nationally and at the state level. For example, a striking number of legislators bring their own personal and religious convictions into their work. Legislators all too often attempt to draft legislation that furthers their moral opinions on issues like stem cell research, gay marriage, abortion, and even birth control. But given that reasonable and morally grounded people disagree about these issues, how could they possibly be the legitimate object of legislation? Legislation needs to be designed to treat all citizens equally and fairly, so how can the personal moral or religious opinions of the legislator ever be a legitimate foundation for legislation? How is it any different from a legislator who tries to steer a highway project over a particular piece of land in order to favor his own business interests? In each case the legislator is substituting a personal interest for the public interest as a foundation for legislation.

Or how about this puzzle: every state in the country has serious problems of poverty and discrimination. That means that every state has a percentage of its citizens who live under demeaning and impoverishing circumstances. And in many cases this current fact derives from a past history of segregation, discrimination, and unfair treatment. These problems are urgent and pressing. If the responsibility of legislators is to identify and address urgent, pressing problems, they ought to be intensely interested in poverty, discrimination, and racial disparities. So why is it that virtually all governors and state legislators continue to ignore these facts -- even when their own departments of human services are fully able to document the human results of these facts about poverty? Why is it virtually impossible for elected officials to address the facts of racial inequality in American cities? Can we imagine a legislature in Illinois, New York, Florida, or Michigan undertaking a serious debate to decide how best to address racial disparities in the state? And yet -- doesn't the fact that legislators are responsible for preserving and enhancing the quality of life of all citizens simply require honesty and action about these facts?

There seem to be a couple of reasons why that kind of honest debate does not occur. One is the position of relative privilege from which elected officials are usually drawn. It is possible to lose sight of unpleasant truths about your own society when they don't really impinge on your own daily life. And it is possible to tell a story of "progress and problem solving" that succeeds in papering over the unpleasant truths.

Another possible interpretation is a regrettable hard-heartedness that many people have in the face of poverty. "There is nothing to be done; the poor bring their deprivation upon themselves; the poor are different from the rest of us." These attitudes are all too common in our politics, and they often get intertwined with a long history of racialized thinking as well.

I think there is another possibility as well that has more to do with "problem cognition". An honest politician may accurately perceive the human cost of persistent poverty, and he/she might also have a sincerely empathetic response to these perceptions. But this politician may be wedded to a particular theory of social change that leads him or her to discount the systemic features of the poverty he sees. For example, the "jobs, jobs, jobs" mantra may push out other more nuanced theories about how poverty and the inequalities of race can be addressed. If you think that the cause of poverty is simply the unemployment rate, then you may feel justified in ignoring race and paying attention to business growth. but this is a mistake. Racial disparities and inter-generational poverty are created by specific, durable institutions, and they can only be attacked on the basis of intelligent and specific strategies. Trickle-down economics doesn't work for specific segments of America's population.

So how can disadvantaged Americans get the sustained attention of their legislators? How can poverty, segregation, and discrimination get the place on the public agenda they deserve to have? The classic answer offered by American politics is simple: mobilize, elect some legislators if your own, and find ways of challenging those legislators who continue to ignore your issues. There's just one problem with this: there isn't much history of success in the US for poor people's movements. I suppose specialists could offer some reasons for why that would be true -- poor people don't vote, poor people are distributed in small numbers over numerous districts, poor people can be misled by political rhetoric too -- but it's hard to think of parties or majorities who have paid serious attention to poor people's issues. (How much political influence does the homeless guy selling the homeless people's newspaper on Main Street really have?)

So getting government and elected officials to place poverty on the action agenda is hard work, and the officials themselves are unlikely to lead the way. This implies -- to me anyway -- that anti-poverty, anti-racism organizations will need to take the lead. There are such organizations in every city. Are there ways for them to gain more influence?

 (Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward offer a classic interpretation of the challenge of bringing poverty into politics in Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail.)