Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The philosophy of economics

The philosophy of economics intersects with several different areas of philosophy, including the philosophy of science, ethics, and social philosophy. (Dan Hausman is the leading expert in the philosophy of economics. His The Inexact and Separate Science of Economics is a recent contribution.) The field is concerned with methodology, values, and substance.

The primary focus of the field is on issues of methodology and epistemology—the methods, concepts, and theories of economists. What kind of knowledge is provided by the discipline of economics? How is economic knowledge justified or confirmed? How does it relate to other social sciences and the bodies of knowledge contained in those disciplines?

Second, philosophy of economics is concerned with values—the values of human welfare, social justice, and the tradeoffs among priorities that economic choices require. Economic reasoning has implications for justice and human welfare; more importantly, economic reasoning often makes inexplicit but significant ethical assumptions that philosophers of economics have found it worthwhile to scrutinize.

Finally, the philosophy of economics is concerned with substance—what might be called the ontology and theoretical space of economics. Here philosophers have expressed interest in the institutions and structures through which economic activity and change take place, and have turned a critical eye to the assumptions economists often make about institutions and social processes. Are there alternative institutions through which modern economic activity can proceed? What are some of the institutional variants that exist within the general framework of a market economy? What are some of the roles that the state can play within economic development so as to promote efficiency, equity, productivity, and growth?

In thinking about the philosophy of economics it is worthwhile dwelling briefly on the intellectual role played by philosophy of economics. Philosophers are not empirical researchers; and on the whole they are not formal theory-builders. So what constructive role does philosophy have to play in economics? There are several.  First, philosophers are well prepared to examine the logical and rational features of an empirical discipline. How do theoretical claims in the discipline relate to empirical evidence? How do pragmatic features of theories such as simplicity, ease of computation, and the like, play a role in the rational appraisal of a theory?  How do presuppositions and traditions of research work to structure the forward development of the theories and hypotheses of the discipline?  Further, philosophers are well equipped to consider topics having to do with the concepts and theories that economists employ—for example, rationality, Nash equilibrium, perfect competition, transaction costs, or asymmetric information.  Philosophers can offer helpful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of such concepts and theories—thereby helping practicing economists to further refine the theoretical foundations of their discipline.  In this role the philosopher serves as a conceptual clarifier for the discipline, working in partnership with the practitioners to bring about more successful economic theories and explanations.

In this aspect philosophers can serve as intelligent critics of the coherence and empirical and theoretical credibility of the theories and approaches that economists put forward.  In order to accomplish this goal, the philosopher of economics has a responsibility that is parallel to that of the philosopher of biology or philosopher of physics: he or she must attain a professional and rigorous understanding of the discipline as it currently exists.  The most valuable work in the philosophy of any science proceeds from the basis of significant expertise on the part of the philosopher about the “best practice,” contemporary debates, and future challenges of the discipline.

So far we have described the position of the philosopher as the “underlaborer” of the economist.  But in fact, the line between criticism and theory formation is not a sharp one.  Economists such as Amartya Sen and philosophers such as Daniel Hausman have demonstrated that there is a very constructive crossing of the frontier that is possible between philosophy and economics; and that philosophical expertise can result in significant substantive progress with regard to important theoretical or empirical problems within the discipline of economics.  The cumulative contents of the journal Economics and Philosophy provide clear evidence of the productive engagements that are possible when philosophy meets economics.

One issue stands out for special philosophical attention -- the role of values in economics.  Economists often portray their science as “value-free”—as a technical analysis of the demands of rationality in the allocation of resources rather than a specific set of value or policy commitments. On this interpretation, the economist wishes to be understood as analogous to the civil engineer rather than the transportation policy maker: he or she can tell us how to build a stable bridge, but not where, when, or why to do so. It is for citizens and policy makers to make the judgments about the public good that are needed in order to decide whether a given road or bridge is socially desirable; it is for the technical specialist to provide design and estimate of costs. But philosophers doubt that economics is in fact value-free, or that it should aspire to being so. Here is an earlier post that considers recent thinking about this issue.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Character and history

How do features of character play into the fabric of history? The first has to do with psychology, motives, and agency; the second has to do with large events and processes.  So how might a better understanding of the domain of individual character contribute to better historical understanding?

When we talk about a person's character, we are usually thinking of a set of fairly durable characteristics of thinking and acting that go beyond the choices of a minute. The color of tie that I choose in the morning isn't a feature of my character -- though it might be influenced by character traits. The decision to stand up to a bullying colleague probably does express a character trait. So character is a feature of agency that seems more fundamental than motives or purposes. It is an embedded disposition of behavior, a way of looking at the world of action and choice. Will Kane, the sheriff in High Noon, makes his choices for reasons that are more fundamental to him than trying to bring about this outcome or that. 

There is also a suggestion of moral valuation involved in making assessments of character. We often describe people who act according to principle or who act out of virtue as having "good" character, whereas people who lie, betray, break commitments, or act viciously are thought to have bad character. Iago had bad character while Cincinnatus had good character -- courage, integrity, fidelity.  Here is a good article by Marcia Homiak on "moral character" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that makes the connection between character and virtue ethics. (Interestingly, it would appear that Kant’s ideal moral agent is one who has no character whatsoever, but instead acts purely out of rational recognition of the dictates of practical reason.)

So why would character be important in history? There are several possible reasons.
  1. It might be held that a key actor's choices were crucial for a turning point in a historical sequence, and those choices were influenced or determined by his/her character. For example, "FDR’s steadfastness contributed to the end of the Great Depression"; "Hitler’s vicious antisemitism caused the Holocaust".
  2. We might observe that a large population acted collectively in a critical moment -- say, the Solidarity struggles in Poland or ordinary African-American people in Montgomery during the boycott -- and their decisiveness was influenced or determined by a widespread feature of character -- courage, obstinacy, perseverance.
  3. It is possible that important features of character are historically conditioned or instigated by key historical experiences -- the Great Famine in China creating widespread fearfulness about the future, the 1960s anti-war movement creating optimism about collective action. In this respect "character" is historically conditioned and collective rather than purely individual.
  4. We might look at some historical events or episodes as being particularly important because they embody or exemplify certain features of character that we want to valorize -- the defense of Stalingrad or the protection of Jewish children in Le Chambon, for example (Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There).
This question about character and history reproduces an older issue in the philosophy of history, the question of the role of individuals in history. But this question is both more and less specific. It is more specific because character is only one factor in agency. So even if we have settled that actors make history, we are asking a more refined question by singling out "character" for specific attention. And it is less specific because it is conceivable that we might argue that collectivities had character as well as individuals.  So it might be held that the sans-culottes possessed a collective character that distinguished their behavior from that of other social groups.

Let's briefly consider a related question: what is character to a biographer? The biographer is trying to put together a truthful interpretation of the subject through his/her actions and expressions. What motivated the subject? What were his/her overriding beliefs and goals? What moral or religious convictions did the subject possess, and how strongly did these influence her actions and choices? Character comes into this mix when the biographer is obliged to answer questions like these: Did the subject possess courage and conviction? Or did threat and opportunism suffice to influence action? Can we interpret the narrative of the subject's life as a meaningful expression of his or her abiding character?

It seems that a reasonable answer to the opening question might come down to this: History is composed and propelled by socially embedded actors whose behaviors are themselves complex outcomes of an internally embodied system of reasoning, feeling, and acting.  As argued in earlier posts (link, link), we don't have particularly good theories of the actor on the basis of which to analyze them (desire-belief-opportunity theory, rational choice theory, practical rationality, pragmatism, ...). It seems reasonable to hypothesize that the features of individual thinking and behavior to which we refer with the concept of "character" are indeed important aspects of agency.  So "character" is relevant to history because it is a constituent of agents and a potentially important part of our theory of the actor.

(This discussion leaves a number of open questions. What is the relation between character and other important drivers of behavior -- interests, habits, or commitments? Further, we would like to know where character comes from in the individual’s development. Here is a contribution to a volume on the philosophy of action where I try to provide some additional details; link.)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

How to think about work

Work defines a large portion of life in any society, traditional or modern.  How should we think about the social and economic forces that create "work"? What are the institutions and practices through which individuals use their bodies, brains, skills, and talents to create value within a given set of economic relationships? These questions are just as relevant in consideration of the medieval economy -- serfs and freemen, artisans, highwaymen, retainers, soldiers, the odd banker -- as they are for the contemporary economy. (It would be very interesting to analyze Marc Bloch's account of feudalism from the point of view of the kinds of skilled work he identifies in the medieval manorial economy in Feudal Society: Vol 2: Social Classes and Political Organisation.)

So what does the division of labor look like in the contemporary economy? And how is it changing?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains a "Standard Occupational Classification System" encompassing tens of thousands of job types, organized into 23 major groups (link). (My own profession, philosophy professor, falls in category 25-1120 "Arts, Communications, and Humanities Teachers, Postsecondary".) Here is the table of major groups of occupations:

The International Labour Organisation maintains a different classification system of occupations (link).  This system includes managers, professions, technicians and associate professionals, clerical support workers, service and sales workers, skilled agricultural, forestry, and fishery workers, craft and related trades workers, plant and machine operators and assemblers, elementary occupations, and military workers.

It is interesting and important to observe the trends of change that can be observed in the distribution of tasks across categories of worker over time -- the evolution of the division of labor in society. A good beginning would be a table indicating the percentage of the labor force in each category.  It would be very interesting to see the shifting distribution across these categories over the past 75 years -- though I can't easily locate a study that provides this kind of analysis.  Presumably a century-long comparison would demonstrate a major shift in the BLS groups from group 45 (agriculture) to groups 47, 49, and 51, and a later shift to service occupations like groups 31, 35, 37, 41, and 43 in the past thirty years. (The BLS SOC is revised periodically, most recently in 2010, so comparison across time is presumably non-trivial.)

It is evident that there is a generally falling scale of authority, compensation, skill, and prestige across both sets of categories. So the division of labor, as expressed in these classification systems, proceeds from low-skill, low-specialization at the bottom, to high-skill, high-specialization at the top.

So the question of skill and division of labor is not exclusively one of sociological theory; it is a statistical feature of the social order that is amenable to direct empirical research. But the arrangement of the occupations in a society is not solely a question of economic efficiency. It is also directly tied up with the distribution of power and authority in society. Assigning a person the title of "manager" or "director" not only reflects the individual's skills; it also assigns him or her a measure of power and authority.

(It is mildly interesting to note that there is a whole slice of specialized work in contemporary society that is not included in either classification: extra-legal activities like smuggling, piracy, gambling, organized crime, drug dealing, etc. These activities also have their own specialized division of labor, ranking of skills, and rates of return.)

Friday, October 19, 2012

The talent supply chain

I had an interesting discussion with a senior executive of Kelly Services that provided some very striking new perspectives on the world of work. Kelly Services is a global workforce solutions company, providing temporary and medium-term workers with a very wide range of specialized skills (link). One thing that was particularly striking is the fact that Kelly provides advanced technical and scientific expertise to corporations and government agencies as independent contractors. In fact, according to their website they have over 11,000 scientists and engineers available for placement. On any given day they have placed roughly 150,000 workers around the world, and are administering another 100,000 or so who are provided by independent contractors. So Kelly Services has a strong real-world knowledge base about the talent needs of the current global economy.

The most striking part of our conversation is this. Our traditional thinking about a job and a career is badly out of date. We think of the normal work situation as fulltime longterm employment in a specific location and with a salary and benefits. But this situation isn't even the majority situation anymore. We know that a lot of employers don't offer benefits, but that isn't the big news. According to this executive, almost half of workers in the US economy are self employed or part-time or temporary. These workers don't have benefits usually, and they don't have job security. What they have is a specific set of talents to sell in a national or global market, and their standard of living depends entirely on the value of this set of talents.

Think of the crowdsourcing system that has gained some visibility recently. Amazon's Mechanical Turk system is an example (link), and InnoCentive provides an example for problems at a higher level of difficulty (link). Here is how it works. A company has a problem to solve. It formulates a clear and unambiguous description of the problem and posts a prize for the first one or two people who come up with a solution. There are an unknown number of people who are earning their livings through his kind of work.

Or think of this challenging idea. A company like Kelly can reposition itself as a "talent chain management" company. They enter into contract with a large corporation to take on some or all of the company's talent supply needs, from custodians to junior accountants to research scientists. The company is relieved of the costs of recruitment, human resource management, benefits, and sometimes supervision. The company gets high quality work at the time and place it needs, and Kelly manages the process. (Here is a report from the Wharton School on "Talent on Demand" (link).)

So what are the foreseeable social consequences of these changes in the ways that work and talent are mobilized? Several are quite straightforward. These developments imply a rapid deepening of inequalities in the future between people with good education and training and those without. As governors in many states are saying, high school dropouts won't find decent jobs in the future because they haven't cultivated the skills and talents that bring a high rate of return. And as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says on every possible occasion, all workers need some post-secondary education or training. Simply a willingness to show up and perform repetitive labor won't support a decent life.

But this also has consequences beyond income. If more and more work is performed by private contractors and freelance individuals, the elements of the social security net that have traditionally been provided by employers will be gone -- retirement contributions, healthcare insurance, longterm disability insurance, etc. All of these would need to be funded by the individual or socially through national insurance plans. Self-funding works for workers at the high end of the salary range; but it doesn't work for people at the lower end.

These tendencies are at work already. The growing separation between incomes in the top end of the distribution and the lower quintiles reflects these tendencies; so does the shrinking labor market for "good" manufacturing jobs; and so does the declining percentage of employers who offer health insurance to their workers.

So the conclusions are stark. Encourage all young people to invest in their educational opportunities; make sure that these opportunities are provided for rich and poor alike; but prepare for a world in which there is more and more deprivation for the bottom 60% of society. Progressives will want to address this coming crisis of poverty and deprivation directly by reinforcing the safety net and improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged people, and conservatives seem more willing to ignore or even justify the inequalities that we will see. But one way or another, it's hard to see where the opportunities for a "middle class" life will come for more than half of society.

(Kelly Services has created an iPad app called Talent Project (link).  The app provides a portal into a collection of research papers and data on the future of work.  There is a mountain of interesting data and research on the talent economy here.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Who was Leon Trotsky?

Leon Trotsky was something of a hero for a part of the anti-Stalinist left from the 1930s through at least the 1970s. Sidney Hook and John Dewey offered substantive support to Trotsky and his reputation during and after the end of his life through Dewey's role in the "Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials". Trotsky was a theoretician of communism, a strategist, a man of letters, and the merciless chief of the Red Army immediately following the success of the Boshevik Revolution (represented by the character of Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago!). Expelled from the USSR by Stalin in 1929, he spent the rest of his life in exile in a series of countries and was assassinated by Stalin's agent in 1940 in Mexico City. The Trotskyist left opposed Stalin's policies long before other segments of the European left did so.

There is a narrative that places a lot of the history of the USSR into the framework of personality and character of its early leaders, including Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. The legend is that Trotsky was a principled revolutionary but a poor street fighter, and that Stalin was a power-hungry and ruthless opportunist who out-maneuvered his primary opponent after the death of Lenin. And Trotsky was too full of amour-propre to fully engage in the battle with Stalin. But it wasn't all about personality; Trotsky and Stalin differed substantially about the future course of Communism, and Trotsky's was the more radical view (permanent revolution versus socialism in one country). So who was Trotsky, and how would we know?

Trotsky himself addresses these topics in his autobiography, and indicates that he thinks they are unimportant: personality and character have less to do with his life than theory and the inevitable currents of history, in his own telling of his story. Here are a few lines from My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography:
My intellectual and active life, which began when I was about seventeen or eighteen years old, has been one of constant struggle for definite ideas. In my personal life there were no events deserving public attention in themselves. All the more or less unusual episodes in my life are bound up with the revolutionary struggle, and derive their significance from it. This alone justifies the appearance of my autobiography. But from this same source flow many difficulties for the author. The facts of my personal life have proved to be so closely interwoven with the texture of historical events that it has been difficult to separate them. This book, moreover, is not altogether an historical work. Events are treated here not according to their objective significance, but according to the way in which they are connected with the facts of my personal life. It is quite natural, then, that the accounts of specific events and of entire periods lack the proportion that would be demanded of them if this book were an historical work. I had to grope for the dividing line between autobiography and the history of the revolution. Without allowing the story of my life to become lost in an historical treatise, it was necessary at the same time to give the reader a base of the facts of the social development. In doing this, I assumed that the main outlines of the great events were known to him, and that all his memory needed was a brief reminder of historical facts and their sequence.
I am obliged to write these lines as an √©migr√©— for the third time— while my closest friends are filling the places of exile and the prisons of that Soviet republic in whose creating they took so decisive a part. Some of them are vacillating, withdrawing, bowing before the enemy. Some are doing it because they are morally exhausted; others because they can find no other way out of the maze of circumstances; and still others because of the pressure of material reprisals. I had already lived through two instances of such mass desertion of the banner: after the collapse of the revolution of 1905, and at the beginning of the World War. Thus I know well enough, from my own experience, the historical ebb and flow. They are governed by their own laws. Mere impatience will not expedite their change. I have grown accustomed to viewing the historical perspective not from the standpoint of my personal fate. To understand the causal sequence of events and to find somewhere in the sequence one’s own place —that is the first duty of a revolutionary. And at the same time, it is the greatest personal satisfaction possible for a man who does not limit his tasks to the present day. (preface)
So it is all about ideas, political commitments, and the march of history (as well sometimes as the personal weaknesses of others). But biographers need more than this.

A key source for the past fifty years has been the magnificent biography of Trotsky in three volumes by Isaac Deutscher, beginning publication in 1954 (The Prophet: Trotsky: 1879-1940 (Vol. 1-3)). Deutscher was a Polish writer and historian who was more or less miraculously posted to England at the time of the Nazi conquest of Poland; so he spent the rest of his life in England, while almost all of his family perished in the Holocaust. Deutscher's work is an admirable piece of historical writing, with appropriate attention to historical detail and available historical sources, including a major archive at Harvard University. The book is favorable to Trotsky as a tragic and outcast leader, but is not sycophantic. It weaves together the biographical narrative with the great struggles in the USSR and Europe that took place during Trotsky's life and to which he was an important contributor. (Here is the Google Books link to the first volume, The Prophet Armed.)

Deutscher puts the arc of Trotsky's revolutionary leadership at the end of the Civil War in 1919 in these theatrical terms:
At the very pinnacle of power Trotsky, like the protagonist of a classical tragedy, stumbled. He acted against his own principle and in disregard of a most solemn moral commitment. Circumstances, the preservation of the revolution, and his own pride drove him into this predicament. Placed as he was he could hardly have avoided it. His steps followed almost inevitably from all that he had done before; and only one step now separated the sublime from the sinister -- even his denial of principle was still dictated by principle. Yet in acting as he did he shattered the ground on which he stood. (486)
This step was the decision to establish a system of dictatorship by the Communist Party. And this step led to some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, including Stalin's war on the Kulaks.
When Trotsky now urged the Bolshevik party to 'substitute' itself for the working classes, he did not, in the rush of work and controversy, think of the next phases of the process, although he himself had long since predicted them with uncanny clear-sightedness. 'The party organization would then substitute itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee would substitute itself for the organization; and finally a single dictator would substitute himself for the Central Committee.' The dictator was already waiting in the wings. (522)
In these three volumes Deutscher provided a detailed account of Trotsky's actions and theorizing as well as their impact on history. But what were Trotsky's motivations? Not much of the character, personality, or singularity of Trotsky emerges from Deutscher's treatment.

In 2011 Robert Service published a new biography of Trotsky (Trotsky: A Biography), making use of sources that were not available to Deutscher in the 1950s. This book of more than 600 pages presents itself as the most historically authoritative treatment of its subject yet.  But the book has created great controversy about some of its most basic claims. Service has previously published biographies of Lenin and Stalin.  But the Trotsky book has generated huge criticism. A well documented but scathing review of the book was published by Bertrand Patenaude in the American Historical Review (AHR (2011) 116 (3): 900-902), and the review is summarized in Inside Higher Education (link).  Patenaude asserts that Service makes dozens of important errors of fact in the course of the book, and that it sets out to "thoroughly discredit Trotsky as a historical figure;" and Patenaude concludes that the book falls woefully short of the standards of historical rigor that it should have met. "[The publisher] has placed its imprimatur upon a book that fails to meet the basic standards of historical scholarship." (902)  Patenaude also reviews David North's In Defense of Leon Trotsky. North is himself an American Trotskyist and Patenaude was prepared to find a hatchet job in North's treatment of Service. Instead he finds a powerful and well founded critique of the many errors, distortions, and bias in Service's treatment of Trotsky. So the partisan gives a more faithful account of the facts than the professional historian!

Patenaude's own treatment of Trotsky's life in Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary is restricted to the Mexico years, and is very detailed and interesting.  His narrative moves back and forth between Mexico and earlier periods as needed, but is focused on the final years of Trotsky's life. Trotsky's personality and behavior are made very clear in the narrative: socially difficult, harsh to those closest to him, dogmatic, committed, egoistic, and courageous. (Patenaude provides details of Trotsky's affair with Frida Kahlo that were unknown to Deutscher at the time of writing The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940. Deutscher doubts the existence of the affair, whereas Patenaude provides the evidence.)

So thousands of pages have been written, but we still don't really have a clear answer to the question, "Who was Leon Trotsky?". The Service biography appears to be thoroughly discredited for the most basic faults a historian can possess: lack of attention to the historical facts, and bringing an axe to grind to the subject matter. The Deutscher biography is less about the person than the actions he took. And the controversies about Trotsky persist.

Here is a fascinating discussion with Christopher Hitchens and Robert Service about Trotsky's life and impact.

(There are many other reviews of Service's book, and some are more favorable and some even more negative. Here is a detailed discussion by Paul Le Blanc in the International Journal of Socialist Renewal (link), and here is a review by philosopher John Gray in Literary Review (link). Baruch Knei-Paz's The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky is a generally respected treatment of Trotsky's thought as an organized system.)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Voter registration, Mississippi, 1960

One of the most important and hard-fought dimensions of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s was the issue of voting rights. The Jim Crow South had made democratic participation almost impossible for black citizens throughout the first half of the century in spite of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1868 and 1870. Intimidation and discriminatory voter registration requirements made it all but impossible for African Americans to exercise the right to vote.

Here is a summary of methods of disenfranchisement used during the Jim Crow period up through 1965 (link), provided on the excellent website maintained by Elizabeth Anderson and Jeffrey Jones at the University of Michigan. Here is a good description of the use of "literacy tests" in Mississippi in 1965, provided by the website for Civil Rights Movement Veterans. And here is an example of one such literacy test (link).

Bob Moses was a key leader in the NAACP's voter registration efforts in Mississippi in 1960.  Here is one of his own experiences during this campaign:
We planned to make another registration attempt on the 19th of August.... This was the day then that Curtis Dawson and Preacher Knox and I were to go down and try to register. This was the day that Curtis Dawson drove to Steptoe's, picked me up and drove down to Liberty and we were to meet Knox on the courthouse lawn, and instead we were to walk through the town and on the way back were accosted by Billy Jack Caston and some other boys. I was severely beaten. I remember very sharply that I didn't want to go immediately back into McComb because my shirt was very bloody and I figured that if we went back in we would probably be fighting everybody. So instead, we went back out to Steptoe's where we washed down before we came back into McComb. (The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader: Documents, Speeches, and Firsthand Accounts from the Black Freedom Struggle, 171)
So what would Bob Moses and other black applicants have found when (or if) they were permitted to attempt to register to vote in Mississippi? Here is a copy of the voter registration form that was in use in Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. (The copy was provided to students in my class by John Hardy, a participant in the Freedom Rides and the voter registration drives of 1961 and 1962. Thank you, John, for the document and for your eloquent lecture on the period.)

The document is worth reading in its entirety. It makes it plain that the purpose was to intimidate people from exercising their rights of political participation and to provide a basis for excluding them from voter registration if they did make the effort to register.  The form is highly complicated, requiring a series of answers to questions about prior residence and employment.  It then requires the applicant to provide an interpretation of the meaning of an assigned clause in the Mississippi Constitution.  The Registrar had the ability to rule that the explanation applicants provided of the required clause was not a "reasonable interpretation" and therefore disallow their application for registration.  Likewise, the Registrar could disallow the response offered to question 20: "a statement setting forth your understanding of the duties and obligations of citizenship under a constitutional form of government." And, finally, the applicant is forced to endorse clause 209 of the Mississippi Constitution: "Separate schools shall be maintained for children of the white and colored races." This registration form is dated 1955. But the US Supreme Court had already ruled a year earlier in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schooling was unconstitutional.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was intended to make these sorts of practices illegal (link).  The Act specifically prohibited the imposition of any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."

This history of deliberate and violent efforts to prevent African-Americans from voting during the Jim Crow period of American history makes current efforts to tighten voter registration and voting highly suspect to many in the African-American community today.  Voter suppression efforts in a number of states look like a highly reactionary step backwards into a dark period in our history, when powerful individuals, groups, and government agencies vigorously attempted to prevent the black population from exercising their democratic rights. (Here is an ACLU report on voter suppression efforts this year.) It is good to know that several of those efforts have been put on hold by Federal courts, but the effort itself is insidious and shameful, given our history around this issue.

Here are Bob Moses and E.W. Steptoe talking about their registration efforts in Mississippi.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Philosophy of Social Science Roundtable Call for Papers

22-24 MARCH 2013
University of California-Santa Cruz


We are organizing the fifteenth annual working conference on topics in philosophy of the social sciences. The 2013 Roundtable will continue a tradition of meetings that brings together philosophers and social scientists to discuss a wide range of philosophical issues raised in and by social research. This year Paul A. Roth at the University of California-Santa Cruz will host the Roundtable. Abstracts on any topic in philosophy of the social sciences or in the philosophy of social phenomena are welcome. We especially welcome papers that tackle philosophical issues as they arise in, and are consequential for, practicing social scientists.

Keynote Speaker:
Mark Bevir, Department of Political Science, UC-Berkeley

We will assemble a two-day program of papers to be presented in workshop format so that intensive discussion can be the focus of the meeting. We choose papers with the aim of ensuring a broad mix of topics and of presenters from diverse disciplinary backgrounds. We particularly welcome contributions from junior colleagues and colleagues new to the area. In this spirit, we have established an alternate year policy for regular participants; we give preference to new contributors over those who presented papers at the previous year’s Roundtable. Selected papers from the Roundtable will be published in an annual special issue of Philosophy of the Social Sciences (see any March issue of Philosophy of the Social Sciences from
 2000 onward for papers from prior Roundtables).
Send a ONE-PAGE ABSTRACT to any member of the program committee (listed below) by DECEMBER 15, 2012.

If you would like to be on a distribution list for email notices, send a note to this effect to James Bohman at the address below. Check the Roundtable website for news and updates: http://humweb.ucsc.edu/roundtable/


James Bohman
Department of Philosophy
Saint Louis University
3800 Lindell Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63156-0907

Stephen Turner
Department of Philosophy
FAO 226
University of South Florida
Tampa, FL 33620
Alison Wylie
Department of Philosophy
University of Washington
Box 353350
Seattle, WA 98195
Mark Risjord
Department of Philosophy
Emory University
Atlanta, GA 30322
Paul Roth
Department of Philosophy
UC - Santa Cruz
1156 High Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95064

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Contingent pathways in Eurasian history

Economic historians and historians of Asia have been deeply involved in a debate with long roots: Why did modern economic development occur first and most consistently in western Europe in the seventeenth century, and why did China not capitalize on its many advantages in the early Qing Dynasty to take the lead?  Those advantages included advanced scientific and medical knowledge; extensive population; and an effective central state governing a vast population.

There has been a strong case made by a group of historians led by Ken Pomeranz, Bin Wong, and James Lee that this way of characterizing world history embodies a host of misconceptions, including the idea that there is one best pathway to modern economic development (link).  Pomeranz's The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. and Wong's China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience led the way in this line of thought.  And this group also challenges the idea that the Chinese economy was backward in 1600; instead, they argue that agriculture was comparably productive and that the standard of living in China was also comparable to the standard of living of working people in western Europe.  This group argues that more specific features of the historical setting led to the "great divergence," including New World metals, the labor power of slaves, and the fortuitous geographical location of deposits of coal in Great Britain.

Bin Wong and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal took up this line of thought in Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe.  They disagree with a number of the positions defended by Pomeranz and Wong, and they argue that Late Imperial China was in fact a conducive business environment for modern economic growth, and that it possessed long-distance credit institutions that would have been comparably effective in supporting the expansion of business activity in China.  But if it wasn't differences in the economic environment that brought about divergent pathways in Europe and China, then what was the cause of divergence?  They point to a new factor: the political and military competition that Europe experienced and China did not (link).

Prasannan Parthasarathi brings a new voice and new perspective into this extended debate (Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850).  He focuses on India rather than China, and he argues against a number of the historiographic premises that infuse the current debate.  In particular, he challenges the idea that there must be some small number of important structural or institutional differences that explain the great divergence -- the acceleration of modern growth in Europe and the continuation of pre-modern institutions and slow growth.

Parthasarathi takes the view that there is no single large factor that accounts for differences in economic development among Europe, China, and India.  He argues instead for a large number of contextual and contingent factors that were present in the three settings, leading to significant differences in development.
More critical for the arguments of this book, however, are findings that the economic "situation" or context shapes the decisions, choices and actions of individuals. These advances in economic thinking indicate that divergent paths of development need not imply -- nor require -- deep differences in economic institutions, for context matters.
The approach to divergence taken in this work moves away from seeing economic development in the eighteenth century in binary terms, as either leading to modern industry or its failure. Instead, it points to the existence of plural paths of change, which were the products of the pressures and needs that the dynamic and diverse economies of Europe and Asia faced. (1)
Parthasarathi offers an innovative set of methodological principles for comparative economic history.
First, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were a variety of economic and political goals which produced plural paths of development. Second, different paths of economic change were the products of human agency and choice, and were shaped by social, political and economic context. … Finally, there is a political dimension to economic life. State actions were critical in determining paths of development in both Europe and Asia from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. (9)
He finds that two pressures in particular account for a lot of the difference in development between Europe and Asia.
The first emanated from the global trading system, in which the position of Europeans was very different from that of both Indians and Chinese. ...
The second pressure that differed across Europe and Asia lay in the realm of ecology, specifically in the supply of wood. While Britain and parts of France and central Europe faced shortages of wood, which was essential for fuel, building material and countless other uses, Scandinavia and Russia had plentiful supplies. Similar differences existed in Asia. (10)
Like Pomeranz and Li in the case of China, Parthasarathi finds that the standard of living in Bengal was comparable to that of England in the eighteenth century. He provides estimates of "grain earnings" for weaving labor in Britain, South India, and Bengal in mid-eighteenth century: 40-140, 65-160, and 55-135 lbs. per week (table 2.4). The ranges for both Indian wage estimates are higher, not lower, than Britain. This challenges the "immiseration" thesis that powered the Malthusian and Smithian interpretations of Asian economies. (Parthasarathi concedes that the estimates of real wages across countries are exceptionally difficult for the early modern period, and that Robert Allen's estimates of Indian real wages are substantially lower.)

Parthasarathi also argues, surprisingly, that more recent price data about finished cottons show that Indian cottons did not enter the English market so strongly because they were cheap, but because they fulfilled specific market needs for higher quality textiles.
In many markets around the world Indian cottons were more expensive than locally made cloth. This was the case in Southeast Asia where low-quality cotton cloths were manufactured in large quantities, but higher-quality Indian cottons, despite being more costly, were in great demand. (34)
In the late seventeenth century consumers in Europe embraced the cotton textiles of India for their beauty, convenience an d fashionability. (89)
But European manufacturers were fast to imitate Indian cottons:
The future was to be with cotton, however. From its home in the Indian subcontinent, the art of turning the cotton boll into cloth of extraordinary beauty, comfort and versatility migrated to Europe.Imitation in the seventeenth century led 150 years later to Western Europe becoming the center of the world's cotton manufacturing. The migration of this industry marked a great transformation in the global economy. (89)
This transformation involved several processes of great importance, including technology transfer and innovation and expansion of the slave trade.

Parthasarathi's treatment of the role of scientific and technical knowledge in India is particularly important. Parthasarathi finds that the status of science and technology in India was substantially different than the standard narrative would have it. In Mysore, for example, he finds:
There is extensive evidence for a push towards agricultural improvement, with policies designed to expand irrigation, bring fertile land under cultivation and promote the adoption of valuable cash crops, including sandalwood, sugar and black pepper. A sophisticated system of revenue incentives was designed to meet these aims. In addition, under Tipu Sultan, efforts were made to improve the breeding of cattle, which were critical not only for agricultural operations, but also for the transport of goods and military supplies. The push for improvement in Mysore also extended to manufacturing. The European-style military that Mysore sought to create required the expansion of metal-working facilities, especially iron. In the 1780s, orders were issued for the construction of twenty new iron-smelting furnaces within the kingdom. Mysore also developed a major armaments industry, which cast cannon in both brass and iron. (207)
The stereotype of Indian "backwardness," like its cousin view of Chinese "stagnation," is not grounded in the facts.

Parthasarathi's book is detailed and careful; but more importantly, it pursues economic history through a new lens. The reader is led through parts of the story that are familiar -- the importance of coal for Britain, for example -- but is then challenged to look at these developments in different ways. Parthasarathi offers a number of surprising but carefully supported claims: India's cotton industry was substantially more sophisticated than the standard account would have it. The standard of living for Indian workers was comparable to that of English workers. The policies of the states of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire had substantial effects on the nature and course of development. Pursuit of scientific and technical knowledge was an explicit priority for the states of India from the seventeenth century forward (186). Better history of science is needed in Indian history.

Almost all of these findings challenge one or another part of the standard narrative of economic development across Eurasia.  Parthasarathi's work is an important contribution to the debate.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Water and public policy research in Vietnam

We don't get a lot of exposure to social science and policy research from Vietnam, so it was very interesting for me recently to run across two recent books by Vietnamese researchers: Pham Cong Huu's Floods and Farmers: Politics, Economics and Environmental Impacts of Dyke Construction in the Mekong Delta / Vietnam and Ly Thim's Planning the Lower Mekong Basin: Social Intervention on the Se San River. (The research was done at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn.) Rural development and agricultural change are topics of interest to me, so I was very interested to read both these books.

Water control is the central focus of both books.  Floods in the Mekong Delta are among the most destructive in Asia. Pham Cong Huu quotes data that demonstrate that Vietnam has more deaths by flooding than any other state in southeast Asia. The river is also crucial to the intensive agriculture of the Mekong Delta, which produces 18 to 21 million tons of rice annually (Huu, 4). So the challenge of creating and maintaining systems for controlling flood waters and directing water into agricultural land is an enormously important one -- both economically and in terms of human welfare.

Key among the measures the Vietnamese government has taken is a large system of dikes designed to control flooding. This system has generally had a positive impact on reducing the hazard of massive flooding and improving the stability of cultivation. But Huu observes that it also has major unintended negative consequences as well: "erosion, plant diseases, soil fertility decline and natural degradation in the protected flooding areas" (5).

Huu's central interest is the decision-making processes that governed the creation and maintenance of this system of water control. He finds that it is dominated by government agencies with little input from farmers and non-governmental organizations.
It is therefore the purpose of this study not only to understand and discuss the "planning and implementation of the dyke system in the Mekong Delta", but also to investigate the reactions of the farmers and of affected farming communities, with the ultimate aim and goal to include their experiences and visions into the broader social and economic context of the project area. (6)
Huu's overall assessment of this decision-making process is favorable to the government but highlights crucial deficiencies:
The governmental approach is a correct and wise decision. The dyke system is seen by the government as a relevant flood control measure that needs to be implemented in the floodplains of the MD. This assumption, however, and its perception and consequences are -- from a bottom-up perspective -- partly adverse to the necessities and practical experiences of the local population. Therefore, farmer communities and local organizations rejected this dyke system in their practical flooding situation. (9)
 Here is how Huu summarizes his analysis of the decision-making process for dike construction in Can Tho city:
In summary, the reconstruction of the planning process and the results of own research substantiate our hypothesis that the whole planning and implementation process of the dyke system has been a top-down activity by the central government and its bodies. Professional knowledge, experience and voice of organizations and residents, especially that of planners at local level, were not asked but rather ignored in the dyke system planning process. (75)
Huu's book is particularly valuable for the in-depth glimpses it permits of how land-use and water-control decisions are made in Vietnam. He also lays the ground for the idea that a substantially more multi-level process of decision-making would have served the people of the Mekong Delta better -- one which took more account of the experience and knowledge of local people and their organizations. Here is how Huu puts this point:
Thus, one may argue that a considerable constraint of the city is the lack of democracy in the whole process of dyke system planning. The participation of civil society in planning issues towards the decentralization and devolution of many areas of natural resource policy and state responsibility are an international trend. Democratic decentralization is obviously more efficient and equitable than state-dcentered control, especially when local issues and problems are at stake. (91)
 Now consider Ly Thim's research.  Thim is primarily interested in hydroelectric projects and the dams that they depend upon.  He focuses on the Se San river basin. There are several important differences between the problems that Huu and Thim consider. Most important is the fact that Huu's focus is on sub-national planning (regional flood control), while Thim's work involves river basins that span more than one country.  In the case of the Se San river, policy choices were mediated through the Mekong River Commission including Cambodia and Vietnam.  A second important difference between the two cases is the role that NGOs played.  NGOs are more or less invisible in Huu's account, whereas they play a key role in Thim's account of the development of policies and implementations for hydroelectric power systems on the Se San river.

Here is how Thim formulates his purposes in the research:
This book focuses on how various social actors influence the planning process for Se San River Basin's management in response to the effect of Vietnamese Yali-Falls dam on Cambodian local communities' livelihoods.... The objectives of this book are as follows: -- To develop an understanding of historical process of hydropower development in Se San River Basin; -- to identify the major actors, their roles, interests, power relations and strategies in influencing decision-making process in hydropower development sector in Se San River Basin; -- to provide a concluding remark on the impact resulting from responses as a means for Se San River Basin management (1).
Thim finds that non-state actors had significant influence on the policies he considers.  NGOs were able to express their policy recommendations, and local communities were also able to find voice in the processes.
Various important actors who had a direct engagement with dam issues can be identified, such as the affected riverbank communities, the NGOs, the Cambodian government officials, and the Vietnamese government officials. The view of affected riverbank communities is mainly based on their local knowledge, their observation of changing river condition, and their experiences. The view of NGOs such as NTFP and Oxfam America clearly represents the protection of social welfare of affected communities as well as the protection of water resources environment and ecology. In this regard, the actions taken by NGOs ... could bring the voice of local communities to provincial, national and international agencies for resolution. By this way, affected communities are empowered through NGOs. (93)
Both these studies are focused on policy decision-making processes governing water in Vietnam, but their methods of approach and their central findings are rather different.  The differences in findings probably reflect differences in the issue areas themselves -- local and regional dike systems, versus massive international dam projects.  But it also seems noteworthy that Thim's approach give substantially more importance to the voices of local communities and community-based organizations; whereas Huu finds that the political culture of Vietnam continues to be a top-down bureaucratic system of decision-making.

I am glad these two books made their way to my office in Michigan. This is another strong argument for the importance of digital distribution of books and research reports: these physical books probably won't show up in your local library. But since they are available in digital editions on Google Books, anyone can download them for more careful study for a fraction of the paperback price.  Here is Ly Thim's Planning the Lower Mekong Basin, and here you can find Pham Cong Huu's Floods and Farmers. (They aren't available as Kindle editions, unfortunately.)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Domain of agent-based modeling methods

Agent-based modeling is an intriguing new set of tools for computational social science. The techniques permit us to project forward the system-level effects of a set of assumptions about agent behavior and a given environment. What kinds of real social phenomena are amenable to treatment by the techniques of agent-based modeling? David O'Sullivan and his co-authors offer an assessment of this question in their contribution to a valuable recent handbook, Heppenstall et al, Agent-Based Models of Geographical Systems. (Andrew Crooks and Alison Heppenstall provide a valuable and clear introduction to ABM methodology in their contribution to the volume.)

O'Sullivan and colleagues offer a basic taxonomy of different applications of ABM research.
  • simple abstract models where the focus is on exploring the collective implications of individual-level decision making. 
  • more detailed [accounts that] locate virtual model agents in a representation of the real world setting of interest. Typically, such models operate at a regional or landscape scale
  • some of the most ambitious models aim at detailed ... representations of both the geographical setting and the processes unfolding in that setting (111-112)
This taxonomy depends on the degree of abstraction and realism that the model aspires to.

Here are a handful of research projects that are amenable to these techniques, most of which are illustrated in the Heppenstall volume.
  • Land use patterns in peasant agriculture 
  • Residential patterns -- urban and rural
  • Patterns of burglaries
  • Occurrence of interpersonal violence in civil war
  • Traffic patterns -- pedestrian and vehicular
What do the clear examples have in common? They are situations where a number of independent individuals react to a social and natural environment with a set of goals; and they are usually situations where individuals influence each other through their actions. These are situations of dynamic interactive choices. O'Sullivan and colleagues put these points this way:
We consider the most fundamental characteristics of agents in spatial models to be goal-direction and autonomy.... However, more specific definitions of the concept may add any of flexibility, ‘intelligence', communication, learning, adaptation or a host of other features to these two. (115)
(Crooks and Heppenstall provide a similar list: autonomy, heterogeneity, and activity; 87.)

O'Sullivan et al also pose an important question about what the circumstances are where the features of agents makes a difference in the social outcome:
This argument focuses attention on three model features: heterogeneity of the decision-making context of agents, the importance of interaction effects , and the overall size and organization of the system. If agents are the same throughout the system, then, other things being equal, an aggregate approach is likely to capture the same signifi cant features of the system as an agent-based approach.
Essentially the point here is a simple one: if an aggregate outcome results from homogenous individuals making a decision about something on the same basis as everyone else, then we don't need an agent-based model. ABM techniques become valuable when heterogeneous agents interact with each other to bring about novel outcomes.

There are quite a few social situations that do not fit the terms of these models well. Some social processes are not simply the aggregate outcome of choices by a set of independent autonomous agents. For example, the flow of work through an architectural design studio is determined by the rules of the firm, not the independent choices of the employees, and the behavior of an army is largely determined by its general staff and command structure. O'Sullivan et al put the point this way:
A more important question may be, “what should the agents in an ABM of this system represent?” If the interactions among individual actors in the real world are substantially channelled via institutions or other social or spatial structures, perhaps it is those institutions or social or spatial structures that should be represented as agents in an ABM rather than the individuals of which they are formed. (120)
So a general question for ABM methodology is this: where do structural social factors come into ABM models? Here I am thinking of things like a system of regulation and law; a pattern of racialized behavior; the architecture of the transport system; a tax system; .... We might treat these as parameters in the environment of choice for the agents. They are beyond the control of the agents and are regarded as constraints and opportunities. (This is one place where the framework of "strategic interactive fields" disagrees, since the SIF approach looks at institutions themselves as part of the field of strategic interaction in that individuals strive to modify the rules to their own benefit.)

It seems reasonable to judge that ABM techniques are very useful when we are concerned with phenomena that are aggregates of strategic behavior by individual actors; but they are not pertinent to many of the questions sociologists pose. In particular, they do not seem useful for sociological inquiries that are primarily concerned with the dynamics and effects of large social structures where the behavior of individuals is routine, homogeneous, or largely determined exogenously. These are the circumstances where the premises of the ABM approach -- autonomy, heterogeneity, and activity -- are not satisfied.