Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mechanisms and powers

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source: William Bechtel, Discovering Cell Mechanisms: The Creation of Modern Cell Biology

The causal-powers approach to the understanding of causation is sometimes presented as an exclusive alternative to both traditional regularity theories and to more recent causal mechanism theories. In an earlier post I discussed Ruth Groff’s contributions to this topic. Here I would like to present a provocative view: that the causal mechanisms and causal powers are complementary rather than contradictory. The causal mechanisms theory benefits by being supplemented by a causal powers theory and the causal powers theory benefits by being supplemented by a causal mechanisms theory. In other words, the two theories are not exclusive alternatives to each other, but rather serve to identify different parts of the whole of causation.

The causal powers theory rests on the claim that causation is conveyed from cause to effect through the active powers and capacities that inhere in the entities making up the cause. The causal mechanisms theory comes down to the idea that cause and effect are mediated by a series of events or interactions that lead (typically) from the occurrence of the cause to the occurrence of the effect. In other words, cause and effect are linked by real underlying causal sequences (often repeatable sequences).

My thesis of the mutual compatibility of powers and mechanisms goes along these lines. If we press down on a putative mechanisms explanation, we are led eventually to postulating a set of causal powers that provide the motive force of the postulated mechanisms. But equally, if we press down on the claim that a certain kind of entity has a specified causal power or disposition, we are led to hypotheses about what mechanisms are set in play be its constituents so as to bring about this disposition.

Begin with a causal mechanism story:

  • C => {x happens bringing about y, bringing about z, bringing about u, which is E} => E

How is it that the sub-links of this chain of mechanism pieces happen to work to bring about their consequent? We seem to have two choices: We can look to discover a further underlying mechanism; or we can postulate that the sub-link entity or structure has the power to bring about its consequent. So if we push downward within the terms of a mechanism explanation, one way to close the story is by postulating a causal power at some level.

Now start with a causal power claim. Suppose we assert that:

  • Salt has the causal power of making H2O electrically conductive when dissolved.

Is this simply an unanalyzable fact about salt (or saline solution)? It is not; instead, we can look downward to identify the physical mechanisms that are brought into play when salt enters solution in H2O. That mechanism is well understood: the Na+ and Cl- ions created by the dissolution of salt permit free electrons to pass through the solution.

So we can explain the causal power by discovering the causal mechanism that gives rise to it; we explain links in the putative mechanism by alluding to the powers of the entities involved at that stage; and we can explain other things by referring to the causal powers that we have discovered to be associated with various kinds of things and structures.

If we take this set of possibilities seriously, then powers and mechanisms are answering different questions within the causal nexus. The reference to powers answers the question, “What does x do?”, while the reference to mechanisms answers the question, “How does x work?"

From a scientific point of view, it is always legitimate to ask how the powers of an entity or structure come to be in the natural world. What is it about the micro-structure of the thing in virtue of which the thing’s properties are established? In fact, this is one of the key intellectual challenges of the sciences. And this is a request for specification of some of the mechanisms that are at work. But likewise, it is always legitimate to ask what gives force to a given mechanism; and here we are eventually driven back to the answer, “some of the components of the mechanism have X, Y, Z powers to affect other entities” without further analysis within that particular explanation.

One might imagine that there are primitive causal powers — powers attached to primitive particles that have no underlying components or mechanisms.  We might begin to give a list of primitive causal powers: mechanical interactions among physical objects (transfer of momentum from one particle to another); electromagnetic properties inhering in one object and creating forces affecting other objects; gravitational forces among objects possessing mass; the causal interactions that occur within the central nervous system. And we might seek to demonstrate that all causal powers depend on combinations of these sorts of "primitive" causal powers -- a kind of Hobbesian materialism.  But this is needlessly strenuous from a metaphysical point of view. Better is to consider the middle-level range of powers and mechanisms where we are able to move upwards and downwards in our search for underlying causal mechanisms and supervening causal powers.

This line of thought suggests that questions about the metaphysics of causation are perhaps less pressing than they are sometimes made out to be. A thing's powers are not irreducible attributes of the thing; rather, they are the orderly consequence of the composition of the thing and the causal properties of those components and their interactions. It is hard to see that much turns on whether we think of the world as consisting of entities with powers, or as composites with system properties created by their components. The key question seems to be something like this: what is implied when we make a causal assertion? Both CP and CM agree that the core implication is the idea that one event, structure, or condition brought about the occurrence of another event, structure, or condition.  And the languages of both powers and mechanisms do a pretty good job of expressing what we mean in asserting this implication.

(John Dupré takes a similarly ecumenical view about several approaches to the theory of causation in a recent article, "Living Causes", where he advocates for what he calls "causal pluralism"; link. He writes: "I believe that causality is a complex and diverse set of phenomena, and most or all of these accounts provide valuable and complementary perspectives on the topic. Such a pluralistic view is quite a common one among contemporary philosophers; however there are significant differences in the form that such pluralisms can take" (20). On the mechanisms side within the philosophy of biology is William Bechtel's Discovering Cell Mechanisms: The Creation of Modern Cell Biology, who writes: "Beginning in the 1940s an initially small cadre of investigators who were pioneers in the modern discipline of cell biology began to figure out the biochemical mechanisms that enable cells to perform these functions. although miniaturized, the mechanisms they found to be operative in each cell are staggeringly complex" (1 ).)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Causality and metaphysics


Advocates of the causal powers approach attach a great deal of importance to the metaphysics of causation -- the sorts of properties and relations that we attribute to the kinds of things that we want to postulate. The neo-Aristotelian point of view represented by Ruth Groff and others appears to have metaphysical objections to the causal-mechanisms approach: the CM approach postulates the wrong kind of relations among entities, according to this group. So if I want to argue that mechanisms and powers are compatible, as I do, then I need to take into account the metaphysical arguments. It will be necessary to tell a story about the nature of the world that gives a place and meaning to the metaphysical premises of each theory.

The possibility of fundamental metaphysical incompatibility cannot be trivially ruled out. Consider this different kind of example: the distance between the premises of analytical Marxism and the neo-Hegelian theory of internal relations espoused by Bertell Ollman in Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (link). Even if there were the possibility of some degree of convergence in conclusions about capitalism -- e.g. the likelihood of recurring crises -- the two schools of thought differ fundamentally on the nature of social entities and structures. They differ in terms of their social metaphysics. Analytical Marxists take the view that the structures of capitalism are the composite effect of variously motivated individuals; so there is an underlying atomism in the ontology of AM. Causes are fully distinct from the things they affect. Ollman, by contrast, believes that we need to conceive of the structures and social relations of capitalism relationally: the wage labor relation is not an atomistic relation between capitalist and worker, but rather a mutually implicating set of relations between the two that cannot be fully separated. Here is a passage in which Ollman attempts to capture the distinctive features of Marx's social metaphysics:

What is distinctive in Marx's conception of social reality is best approached through the cluster of qualities he ascribes to particular social factors. Taking capital as the example, we find Marx depicting it as "that kind of property which exploits wage-labor, and which cannot increase except on condition of getting a new supply of wage-labor for fresh exploitation" (Marx and Engels, 1945, 33). What requires emphasis is that the relation between capital and labor is treated here as a function of capital itself, and part of the meaning of "capital". This tie is extended to cover the worker as well, where Marx refers to him as "variable capital" (Marx, 1958, 209). The capitalist is incorporated into the same whole: "capital is necessarily at the same time the capitalist . . . the capitalist is contained in the concept of capital" (Marx, 1973, 512). Elsewhere, Marx asserts that "the means of production monopolized by a certain section of society", "the products of laborers turned into independent powers", "money", "commodities" and even "value that sucks up the value creating powers" are also capital (Marx, 1959b, 794-5; Marx, 1958, 153; Marx, 571). What emerges from these diverse characterizations is a conception of many tied facets, whose sense depends upon the relations Marx believes to exist between its components: property, wage-labor, worker, his product, commodities, means of production, capitalist, money, value (the list can be made longer still). (Chapter 2, section ii)

This example demonstrates the possibility of a genuine and deep incompatibility between two social theories at the level of the assumptions they make about the nature of the world -- their metaphysical theories.

So what about causal powers and causal mechanisms? The primary metaphysical commitment that the CP theorists advocate derives from their treatment of powers and essences -- two characteristic ideas from Aristotle. A power is thought to inhere in a thing in a particularly deep way; it is not an accidental expression of the empirical properties of the thing but rather an essential and active expression of the nature of the thing. The causal powers theory comes down to the idea that things and structures have an active capacity to bring about certain kinds of effects. In Groff’s terms, things are not passive but rather active.

Here is how Tuukka Kaidesoja introduces the metaphysical framework of critical realism in relation to causality in Naturalizing Critical Realist Social Ontology. Kaidesoja finds that the concept of a causal power is fundamental to critical realism (105). A thing's power is the characteristic of the world through which causal influence arises; without the concept of causal power, we would indeed be stranded in a Humean world of pure constant conjunction. Kaidesoja quotes Harre and Madden in these terms:

"X has the power to A" means "X (will)/(can) do A, in the appropriate conditions, in virtue of its intrinsic nature". (Kaidesoja, 106)

So what about the metaphysics of the causal mechanisms theory? Generally speaking, advocates of the mechanisms approach have not been very interested in the metaphysical issues. They (we) are generally realist, so we postulate that there are real causal interactions. This is indeed a metaphysical position. But this family of thinkers tends to be mid-range realists: they want to understand the necessity of causal relations at one level as deriving from the real workings of the physical or social system a bit lower down; but they generally don't seem to want to pose the ultimate question: how could any event or structure exert causal influence on another? So the causal mechanisms theorists are perhaps better described as scientific realists rather than philosophical or critical realists. They take the view that the world has the properties (approximately) that our best scientific theories attribute to things. (Could we call them "Galilean realists"?)

Curiously enough, this contrast seems to have a lot to do with the quibble I raised for Ruth Groff in the earlier post: whether powers should be thought to be "irreducible". Scientific realists would say they are not irreducible; rather, we can eventually arrive at a theory (molecular, genetic, economic, psychological, rational choice, physical) that displays the processes and mechanisms through which the ascribed power flows from the arrangement and properties of the thing.

On this standpoint, powers are attributions we make to things when we don't know quite enough about their composition to work out the physics (or sociology) of the underlying mechanisms. They do attach to the entity or structure in question, surely enough; but they do so in virtue of the physical or sociological composition of the entity, not because of some inherent metaphysical property.

We might try to reconcile these two perspectives with a few simple ideas:

  1. Entities and structures at a range of levels of being have causal powers: active capacities to influence other entities and structures.
  2. Whenever we identify a causal power of a thing, it is always open to us to ask how this power is embodied; what it is about the inner constitution of the entity that gives it this power.
  3. When we succeed in arriving at a good scientific answer to this question, we will have shown that the power in question is not irreducible; it is rather the consequence of a set of mechanisms set in play by the constitution of the entity.

So the discovery of a given causal power of a thing is not a metaphysical fundamental; it is rather an empirical scientific discovery that invites analysis into its underlying composition.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Change in higher education


There are a couple of former university presidents whose opinions seem particularly insightful on the subject of the strengths and weaknesses of universities today. One is Michael McPherson, formerly president of Macalester College and author (with Morton Schapiro) of The Student Aid Game. Another is Bill Bowen, formerly president of Princeton and author of Higher Education in the Digital Age. And a third is Derek Bok, twice president of Harvard and author of Higher Education in America. Each of these thinkers and leaders has given serious, reflective, empirical study to the complex of institutions that make up American higher education. And each has had the concrete and challenging experience of leading a college or university through important changes. Given that being able to maintain superlative university education for the broadest spectrum of our young people is critical for our economic and global future, it is worth thinking hard about their assessments. (Another voice I've admired on these topics for many years is that of Martha Nussbaum, whose Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities and Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education shed welcome light on the curricular side of the issue.)

Derek Bok's Higher Education in America appeared a few months ago, and presents over 400 pages of description, analysis, and temperate criticism of American colleges and universities today. (It would have been useful if he had provided a short policy companion, pulling out central concerns and key recommendations for reform, keyed to the full text.) The book includes treatments of research universities, community colleges, public comprehensive universities, private liberal arts colleges, for-profit schools, and professional schools (medicine, law, business).

One point that Bok understands very well is that each college or university is an institution in the technical sense -- a set of governance rules, power blocs, constituencies, leaders, and missions and goals. The overall effectiveness of the college or university is the net product of the workings of these various factors, and it is valuable to try to uncover some of their system properties. Do systems of published student evaluations of teaching push faculty towards grade inflation? Do formal rules of faculty governance obstruct needed processes of internal reform? Do presidents and senior administrative officers have built-in incentives to create administrative bloat and mission creep? Do faculty prefer lecturing because it is a time-saver?

Here I referred to "overall effectiveness" as if we knew what that was for a university. But because universities serve a plurality of goals, it is difficult to define "overall effectiveness". Universities want to support strong and well funded research, provide effective undergraduate and graduate education, play a positive role in regional or national economic development, satisfy elected officials, and raise funds. Are there unavoidable tradeoffs among these goals? If so, how do we make good decisions about how to balance efforts across the various goals? Or is it better to compartmentalize goals by units of effort, asking a dean to optimize undergraduate education in her college and asking the vice president for research to optimize research activities? Or perhaps even worse -- should we allow certain goals to coast on auto-pilot while actively striving across units to improve performance on another goal? (Some universities give the impression that they've made that choice when it comes to the goals of improving undergraduate education and furthering the research activities of the university.)

This is where the expertise and experience of people like Michael McPherson, Bill Bowen, and Derek Bok come into particular importance. They have been at the center of these kinds of institutional ensembles and have gained important practical insights into what works and what doesn't when it comes to leading a process of change in a university. And they each take the approach that this is a complex empirical process and must be studied using appropriate tools of empirical investigation.

One theme that I found particularly useful in Higher Education in Americais Bok's treatment of undergraduate education and curriculum. Bok underlines the value of a broad university education at every level -- for the individual, for the business who hires him or her, and for the society.

According to employment experts Anthony Carnevale and Donna Desrochers, companies find that graduates who have completed a broader, more traditional program tend to adapt more easily to changes in the nature and skill requirements of their jobs and to be more "trainable" for evolving occupational demands than those who have received a narrower vocational training. (169)

So the idea that an undergraduate education should have breadth across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities finds support in some of the empirical research that Bok cites. And Bok finds broad consensus among university faculties about the most general intellectual skills that need to be cultivated by a university education: critical thinking, capacity for self-directed learning, mastering knowledge in a discipline, and developing ability to write and communicate clearly (167). Along with these skills there is broad consensus as well about fostering tolerance, developing creative abilities, improving racial understanding, and developing moral character.

So how well does the typical university curriculum do in fostering these skills? Bok finds that there is empirical research on this topic, and it supports the conclusion that students typically make measurable progress with regard to core learning goals through their undergraduate years. Here is a summary table from Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research: 2 (Bok, 179).

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This table (measured in terms of standard deviations in achievement exam scores) indicates progress. But as Bok points out, it is reasonable to hope that we might do a lot better than this. Take critical thinking -- the data indicate a half of a standard deviation improvement in this skill from freshman to senior. This means that the individual who scored at the 50th percentile as a freshman would score at the 67th percentile if he/she took the same test in the field of similar freshman students. (Other areas show more progress, it should be noted.) It is Bok's view that this is a relatively modest improvement, and this seems right. (Of course it must be noted that these results are aggregated over many institutions, with students of varying levels of proficiency and ability at the freshman level. So it is possible that the same measurement performed at, say, Berkeley, would lead to stronger results and performed at XYZ university would lead to worse results.)

What this suggests is that university faculty and administrators -- deans, provosts, directors -- should be paying a lot of attention to the best available ways of measuring progress in key intellectual skills, and equally they should be paying attention to curricular and pedagogical innovations that can improve attainment. If lecturing about the fundamentals of organic chemistry can be shown to be less effective than small-group interactive discussion, reading, and experimenting, then surely faculty and administrators need to find ways of modifying the classroom experience so that the more effective approach is taken. Put it another way: the learning and teaching experience in a university is a complex amalgam of faculty, students, curriculum, prevailing pedagogical approaches, and assessment tools. We should be working intelligently to understand each component of this system with an eye to improving the overall results.

Here is an interesting example in physics teaching that Bok cites:

Two professors of physics, Ibrahim Halloun and David Hestenes, gave a striking illustration of the drawbacks of lecturing after they began to suspect that students in their introductory course did not really understand the basic principles of physics covered in class. Instead of putting their suspicions aside -- as professors often do when temporarily assailed by dark thoughts about their teaching -- they devised a test consisting of problems students could easily solve if they truly understood the basic concepts. They then gave the test to students prior to the first class. Since the course had not yet begun, the results were naturally abysmal. At the end of the course, however, when students should have mastered the basic concepts, the instructors gave the same test again. The results showed virtually no improvement. The students could recite the concepts, but they did not understand them well enough to apply them even to simple problems that differed from those taken up in class. (188)

Bok then describes the changes that these physics professors introduced into their teaching to improve their students' basic understanding of the physical principles. One such change aligns with the idea of "engaged learners": "Rather than lecture extensively, they should spend much of the time in class having students grapple with problems raised by their readings. In many subjects, students will gain more from such exercises if they work in groups where those having trouble grasping a concept or solving a problem can get help from fellow students" (189). This in turn dovetails with the idea that is emerging in the digital learning context of the "flipped" classroom: lectures and demonstrations are relegated to multimedia materials on the web that students are required to study, and the classroom is reserved for discussion, problem solving, and active engagement with the principles involved in the online materials.

There is a great deal more of interest in Higher Education in America -- on medical education, on business curricula, on faculty governance, on presidential leadership, and on the challenges and necessity of change within universities in the current environment. The book is worth reading carefully by faculty leaders and university administrators as they make their best efforts to enhance the educational effectiveness of their programs.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Causal powers from a metaphysical point of view

ontology revisited

A number of scholars who are interested in causation have recently expressed new interest in the concept of causal powers. This makes sense in a very straightforward and commonsensical way. But it also raises some difficult questions about metaphysics: how are we to think about the underlying nature of reality such that things, events, or conditions have "causal powers"? These questions raise issues that a number of talented philosophers are now taking on in a systematic way. Particularly interesting are recent writings by Ruth Groff, who represents a wave of contemporary thinking in metaphysics that aims to revitalize portions of Aristotle's views of causation in opposition to Hume's.

Groff's work on causal powers is sustained over a number of recent works, including especially her 2012 book Ontology Revisited: Metaphysics in Social and Political Philosophy (Ontological Explorations), her introduction and chapter in Greco and Groff, eds., Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, and her contribution to Illari, Russo, and Williamson, Causality in the Sciences. Groff emphasizes a broad clash of perspectives between a Humean theory of causation ("constant conjunction, no necessary relations among things or events") and a neo-Aristotelian theory ("things have powers, powers underlie causal relations among things and events"). Here is how she and Greco put the perspective of the "New Aristotelianism" in Powers and Capacities:
Humeanism is now under serious pressure within analytic metaphysics. In particular, after having been dismissed for generations as so much antiquated animism, the loosely-Aristotelian theorizing of real causal powers has now come to be a major focus of research within the specialty. (kl 204)

Moreover, Groff believes that American social sciences are still largely in the grip of the Humean metaphysics.  In "Getting Past Hume" in Causality in the Sciences, she writes:
One can't help but wonder what the outcome would actually be, were there to be a floor-fight on the question, i.e., a substantive debate within analytic philosophy and methodology of social science on the merits of Humean anti-realism about causality versus the merits of a powers-based, realist account of causality.

What is significant about all of this for my own argument is not so much that Humeanism continues to be the default ontology of especially American, often positivist, social science; but rather that it can be combined with the idea that it is not -- i.e., with the idea that competing versions of regularity theory somehow differ in a deep way, or that it is possible to remain neutral on what causality is, whilst engaging in causal explanation.

This poses a stark contrast; either you are positivist, anti-realist, and Humean or you are anti-positivist, realist, and neo-Aristotelian.  However, it is worth observing that there seem to be two currents of realist thought that reject Humean causation, not just one: the powers ontology that Groff (and Mumford and Anjum in Getting Causes from Powers) advocate; and the causal-mechanisms approach that has been advocated by philosophers and sociologists such as Hedstrom, Elster, and Ylikoski under the broad banner of analytical sociology. One might take the view that the causal-mechanisms approach ultimately requires something like the powers ontology -- "How else are we to account for the fact that sparks cause gasoline to explode?"; but on its face, these are two fairly independent realist responses to Hume. And certainly it is difficult to find a neo-Aristotelian predilection among the causal-mechanism advocates.

Groff takes up causal mechanisms theory in "Getting Past Hume" in  Causality in the Sciences. She concedes that this approach -- in the hands of Jon Elster and in my own writings, for example -- claims to be realist and anti-positivist, in that it rejects the notion that explanation depends on the discovery of general laws. But she doesn't think that the causal-mechanisms approach actually succeeds in presenting a substantive alternative to the Humean framework on causation: "Upon closer examination, the mainstream mechanisms model is more of the same, metaphysically."

Fleshing out her argument, she seems to be arguing that causal-mechanisms theory can either retreat to constant conjunction (at the level of the linkages of individual causal mechanisms) or it can press forward to a causal powers interpretation; there is no third possibility. "As with the other models, nothing on the mainstream mechanisms model is in a position of actually doing anything, in the sense of actively producing an effect. Thus here too, with an extra bit of ironic panache, the explanation-form functions as a delivery mechanism (no pun intended) for a Humean metaphysics." And it is true that most definitions of causal mechanisms make some kind of reference to regularities and repeatability.

My own formulation of the mechanisms theory is one of the targets of Groff's critique. And in fact I can reconstruct my reasons for thinking that mechanisms need to involve some kind of regularities; and I don't think it implies a collapse onto Humean causation. (At one point I wanted to call them "pocket regularities", to distinguish them from the grand social or psychological laws that Hempel and Mill seemed to want to discover.)  I wanted to assert that:
"M [information diffusion] is the mechanism connecting E [police beating] with O [rapid mobilization of an angry crowd]" is a description of a real underlying (perhaps unknown) causal process through which the features of E bring about the occurrence of O.

This is an ontological claim and it is a realist claim. But there is also an epistemic issue: How would we know that M is indeed such an underlying reality? It seems unavoidable that we would need to either produce empirical evidence supporting the conclusion that M frequently conveys these kinds of effects in these kinds of circumstances (the approach Tilly takes) or we need to have a theory of the mechanism which accounts for how it works to bring about the effect. The first boils down to a discovery of a limited set of regularities in a range of circumstances; the latter is a theoretical demonstration of how it works.  So this way of conceptualizing mechanisms does indeed invoke regularities of some sort.  However, it doesn't agree with the Humean idea that causation is nothing but regularities or constant conjunction. The regularities that are invoked are symptoms of the underlying causal mechanism, not criterial replacements for the mechanism.

Moreover, the powers theory seems to be subject to the same possible objection: how do we know that lightning has the causal power of starting barns on fire, unless we have repeatedly observed the chain of events leading from lightning strike to blaze?

Another thing that demands more attention is an assumption about the implications of the "realism" of powers. What follows from the idea that things have real causal powers? Groff puts the view in these terms: to assert that powers are real is to assert that they are irreducible (kl 204). But that seems questionable. We may think that feudalism was real, while at the same time thinking that its properties and dynamics derived from more fundamental social relations that compounded to create the distinctive dynamics of feudalism. So it doesn't seem that realists have to also accept the idea of irreducibility of the things about which they are realist. Or to put the point the other way around: the idea that realism implies irreducibility appears to also imply a fairly strong thesis about emergence. Groff returns to this set of ideas in Ontology Revisited, chapter three: "An emergent phenomenon (property or entity) is one that is not equivalent, ontologically, to the plurality of its parts." And here too she emphasizes irreducibility. But, as Poe Yu-ze Wan shows in "Emergence a la Systems Theory: Epistemological Totalausschluss or Ontological Novelty?" in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, philosophers have differed on the question of whether "emergence" implies "irreducibility" (link). The theory of emergence offered by Mario Bunge does not require irreducibility.

One thing I particularly like about Groff's work on causal powers is her persistence in working through the logical and conceptual implications of this field. She is painstaking in her effort to discover the implications of various parts of the several theories of causation (and freedom of the will in other essays); and this is exactly how we make progress on difficult philosophical issues like these.

Friday, October 18, 2013



Suppose a country had come to the brink of financial catastrophe because the two parties in its legislature were unable to find compromises in the public interest. Suppose further that the discourse in that country had evolved towards a highly toxic and hateful stream of anathemas by one party against the other. And suppose that one party projects an unprecedented amount of vitriol and hatred towards the leader of the other party, the president of the country. How would we describe this state of affairs? And what hypotheses might we consider to explain how this state of affairs came to be?

First, description. This seems like a society on the brink of political breakdown. It is riven by hard hatreds, with almost no strands of civility and shared values to hold it together. One side portrays the other in extreme terms, with few voices that insist on the basic decency of the other party. (There is one maverick voice, perhaps, who breaks ranks with the extremists of his party, and who expresses a decent respect for his political foes. He is accused of being too soft -- perhaps a secret ally of the opposition.)

Here is how the point is put in a recent piece in the Washington Post:
Today there is a New Confederacy, an insurgent political force that has captured the Republican Party and is taking up where the Old Confederacy left off in its efforts to bring down the federal government. (link)
Consider this map of the distribution and density of slaveholding in the South that Abraham Lincoln found very useful in the run-up to the Civil War; link.

Compare this to a map presented by Richard Florida in the Atlantic link:


There is a pretty strong alignment between the two maps.

So where does the extremism come from? There is a fairly direct hypothesis that comes to mind: racism and racial resentment. We are facing a real inversion of the white-black power relation that this country has so often embraced. Perhaps this is just very hard for the president's opponents to accept. Perhaps it creates a curdling sense of resentment that is difficult to handle. This is certainly the impression created by the recent incident involving the waving of a confederate flag in front of the White House, an act not so different from a cross-burning in front of the home of a black family. And in fact, there is a pretty striking correlation between the heart of this anti-government activism and the distribution of slaveholding in the United States before the Civil War that is revealed in the two maps above.

Another possibility is that it's really and truly about ideology. The right really hates the president because they think he advocates an extreme left set of policies. The problem with this idea is that the President is in fact quite moderate and centrist. The health care reforms he spearheaded were themselves advocated by conservative think tanks only a few years earlier; the President's agenda has not given much attention to poverty; and the President has avoided serious efforts at redistribution through more progressive taxation. So in fact the President represents the center, not the left, on most economic policies.

So where do these trends seem to be taking us? I used the word "polarization" to describe the situation, but perhaps that is not quite accurate. The percentage of the electorate represented by the extremist faction is small -- nothing like a plurality, let alone majority, of the population. So the extremism in our politics is being driven by a fairly small segment of our society. Because of the extreme degree of gerrymandering that exists in many Congressional districts, though, these legislators are secure in their home districts. So we can't have a lot of hope in the idea that their own electorates will turn them out.

Maybe this society will cycle back to a more moderate set of voices and values. Maybe the public will express its displeasure with the extremist voices, and like good political entrepreneurs they will adapt. Maybe. But we don't seem to see the signs of thaw yet.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Purposive social action

So many of the changes we have witnessed in the past forty years have happened to us, not by us. Supreme Court decisions have changed the rules of voting and university admissions, blind economic forces have created new patterns of inequality and new distributions of opportunities, inner cities have gradually deteriorated as places to live and develop. Some of these changes have represented the efforts of a few powerful actors -- Supreme Court justices, the Koch brothers, or CEOs of major companies. But few of these seem to be the product of social movements for change, where ordinary people have a common goal and succeed in bringing about a change in the conditions that they object to. So we are forced to ask the question: can social advocacy and mobilization bring about progressive social change?

We do have a few examples of enduring changes brought about by purposive social mobilization. Arguably it was activism and advocacy about gay rights that brought about the gradual changes of social values that have created new configurations of marriages and families in America and a few other countries. The demise of the Jim Crow system of the South resulted from the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of activists and ordinary people for racial justice. The Vietnam War probably came to an earlier end than it otherwise might have because of the militancy and activism of many college-age students.

But it is worth posing the question today: are there opportunities for social groups and mobilizations to help craft a better and more democratic society in our current circumstances? Take Detroit, the metro region where I live. We face massive social ills: school systems that fail more than half the students they serve, large gaps in health status by race, persistent segregation, crushing levels of youth unemployment, and high rates of violence. And we have activist organizations that mobilize many strong people who are committed to helping the region progress in these areas. I think of ACCESS, Southwest Solutions, New Detroit, the NAACP, Focus:Hope, the Detroit Urban League, City Year Detroit, Youthville, and literally hundreds of other social justice organizations that are wholly committed to making a difference. These organizations want to attack the structural forms of injustice and inequality we face, and they want to improve the quality of life for the disadvantaged groups of the region, including especially children and young people. But let's pose the question, how much effect can these organizations really have? And what are the strategies that can have the greatest effect?

What is most evident in examining these groups and their strategies is that they aim at gradual, incremental change at a local or regional level. And it is credible that each group may be somewhat successful in achieving its progressive goals. More kids will stay in high school, more adults will get job training, there will be a degree of improvement in the availability of free health clinics. The harder question is this: do these effects succeed in bending the arc of our city's progress? Do they actually lay the ground for higher quality of life for the majority of our population? Or are they simply small successes in an overall worsening social reality?

It is possible that the social problems we face break into a couple of fairly different kinds of challenges that are more or less amenable to amelioration through citizen mobilization. There are social problems that are essentially the effect of entropy and neglect. A neighborhood may slowly slide into decline for a few random reasons, and its decline may be halted by a concerted effort by a group of concerned citizens. So the concerned citizens can push off the brownian motion of slow urban decay. But other social problems derive from something more intentional: a structural and strategic use of power by one group that disadvantages another group.

Perhaps fracking is a good example of the kind of process where powerful interests oppose change: energy companies have the resources needed to reach agreements with vulnerable land holders in an area, and before you know it, the county is fundamentally changed by polluted water, heavy trucks, small earthquakes, and irreversible property rights that make it impossible for others to limit the practice. Here again mobilization is possible. But the opponent has a great deal of power in politics, law, and media, and the challenge is a difficult one. The table is tilted towards the energy company.
So let's consider a really hard problem: mobilizing a largescale social movement to reinstate the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Civil rights organizations around the country believe that the Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act when it invalidated Section 5 of the act that lists specific jurisdictions with a prior history of discrimination in voting regulations and requires them to gain approval from the courts in advance of any changes in their voting rules. The Congress is free to reestablish such a clause based on contemporary facts. But it is generally believed to be impossible to get such a bill through Congress. So what would it take to create a mass-based social movement that pressured the House and Senate to do so? And how decisive do we imagine the power of a few wealthy and conservative political foundations would be in blocking such an effort?

The obstacles facing largescale collective action by ordinary people are quite high: the difficulty and cost of creating national or state organizations to coordinate mobilization, the power possessed by elite interests committed to the status quo, and the tendency of social movements to fracture over goals and tactics, to name a few. And yet it would appear that only mass collective action will suffice to begin to change some of the structures of our society that are most damaging for the most disadvantaged groups in our society.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why a war on poor people?

poverty illinois

American conservatives for the past several decades have shown a remarkable hostility to poor people in our country. The recent effort to slash the SNAP food stamp program in the House (link); the astounding refusal of 26 Republican governors to expand Medicaid coverage in their states -- depriving millions of poor people from access to Medicaid health coverage (link); and the general legislative indifference to a rising poverty rate in the United States -- all this suggests something beyond ideology or neglect.

The indifference to low-income and uninsured people in their states of conservative governors and legislators in Texas, Florida, and other states is almost incomprehensible. Here is a piece in Bustle that reviews some of the facts about expanding Medicaid coverage:
In total, 26 states have rejected the expansion, including the state of Mississippi, which has the highest rate of uninsured poor people in the country. Sixty-eight percent of uninsured single mothers live in the states that rejected the expansion, as do 60 percent of the nation’s uninsured working poor. (link)
These attitudes and legislative efforts didn't begin yesterday. They extend back at least to the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. Here is Lou Cannon describing the Reagan years and the Reagan administration's attitude towards poverty:
Despite the sea of happy children’s faces that graced the “feel-good” commercials, poverty exploded in the inner cities of America during the Reagan years, claiming children as its principal victims. The reason for this suffering was that programs targeted to low-income families, such as AFDC, were cut back far more than programs such as Social Security. As a result of cuts in such targeted programs-including school lunches and subsidized housing-federal benefit programs for households with incomes of less than $10,000 a year declined nearly 8% during the Reagan first term while federal aid for households with more than $40,000 income was almost unchanged. Source: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon, p. 516-17, Jul 2, 1991
Most shameful, many would feel, is the attempt to reduce food assistance in a time of rising poverty and deprivation. It's hard to see how a government or party could justify taking food assistance away from hungry adults and children, especially in a time of rising poverty. And yet this is precisely the effort we have witnessed in the past several months in revisions to the farm bill in the House of Representatives. In a recent post Dave Johnson debunks the myths and falsehoods underlying conservative attacks on the food stamp program in the House revision of the farm bill (link).

This tenor of our politics indicates an overt hostility and animus towards poor people. How is it possible to explain this part of contemporary politics on the right? What can account for this persistent and unblinking hostility towards poor people?

One piece of the puzzle seems to come down to ideology and a passionate and unquestioning faith in "the market". If you are poor in a market system, this ideology implies you've done something wrong; you aren't productive; you don't deserve a better quality of life. You are probably a drug addict, a welfare queen, a slacker. (Remember "slackers" from the 2012 Presidential campaign?)

Another element here seems to have something to do with social distance. Segments of society with whom one has not contact may be easier to treat impersonally and cruelly. How many conservative legislators or governors have actually spent time with poor people, with the working poor, and with poor children? But without exposure to one's fellow citizens in many different life circumstances, it is hard to acquire the inner qualities of compassion and caring that make one sensitive to the facts about poverty.

A crucial thread here seems to be a familiar American narrative around race. The language of welfare reform, abuse of food stamps, and the inner city is interwoven with racial assumptions and stereotypes. Joan Walsh's recent column in Salon (link) does a good job of connecting the dots between conservative rhetoric in the past thirty years and racism.  She quotes a particularly prophetic passage from Lee Atwater in 1982 that basically lays out the transition from overtly racist language to coded language couched in terms of "big government".

Finally, it seems unavoidable that some of this hostility derives from a fairly straightforward conflict of group interests. In order to create programs and economic opportunities that would significantly reduce poverty, it takes government spending -- on income and food support, on education, on housing allowances, and on public amenities for low-income people. Government spending requires taxation; and taxation reduces the income and wealth of households at the top of the ladder. So there is a fairly obvious connection between an anti-poverty legislative agenda and the material interests of the privileged in our economy.

These are a few hypotheses about where the animus to the poor comes from. But there is an equally important puzzle about the political passivity of the poor. It is puzzling to consider why the millions of people who are the subject of this hostility do not create a potent electoral block that can force significant changes on our political discourse. Why are poor people in Texas, Florida, and other non-adopting states not voicing their opposition to the governors and legislators who are sacrificing their health to a political ideology in the current struggles over Medicaid expansion?

Two factors seem to be relevant in explaining the political powerlessness of the poor. One is the gerrymandering that has reached an exact science in many state legislatures in recent years, with unassailable majorities for the incumbent party. This means that poor people have little chance of defeating conservative candidates in congressional elections. And second are the resurgent efforts that the Supreme Court enabled last summer to create ever-more onerous voting requirements, once again giving every appearance of serving the purpose of limiting voter participation by poor and minority groups. So conservative incumbents feel largely immune from the political interests that they dis-serve.

This topic hasn't gotten the attention it deserves in studies of American politics. One exception is the work of Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. In Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Failthey offer a powerful interpretation of the challenge of bringing poverty into politics.
Most poor people are "working poor" and are not homeless. But there are hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the United States, and their living conditions are horrible. Here is a powerful and humanizing album that captures some of the situation of homeless people in America. Give US Your Poor is worth listening to. Here is the title clip of the album:


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Issues about microfoundations


I believe that hypotheses, theories, and explanations in the social sciences need to be subject to the requirement of microfoundationalism. This requirement can be understood in a weak and a strong version, and sometimes people understand the idea as a requirement of reductionism.  In brief, I defend the position in a weak form that does not imply a reductionist theory of social explanation. Recent discussions with Julie Zahle have led me to sharpen my understanding of the requirement of microfoundations in social theorizing and explanation. Here I would like to clarify my own thinking about the role and scope of the principle of microfoundationalism.

A microfoundation is something like this: an account of the mechanisms at the individual actor level (and perhaps at levels intermediate between actors and the current level -- e.g. institutions) that work to create the structural and causal properties that we observe at the meso or macro level. A fully specified microfoundational account of a meso-level feature consists of an account that traces out (1) the features of the actors and (2) the characteristics of the action environment (including norms and institutions) which jointly lead to (3) the social pattern or causal power we are interested in. A microfoundation specifies the individual-level mechanisms that lead to the macro- or meso-level social fact. This is the kind of account that Thomas Schelling illustrates so well in Micromotives and Macrobehavior.

My thinking about the need for microfoundations has changed over the years from a more narrow requirement ("we need to have a pretty good idea of what the individual-level mechanisms are for a macro-property") to a less restrictive requirement ("we need to have reason to believe that there are individual-level mechanisms for a macro-property"). In The Scientific Marx I liked the idea of “aggregative explanations”, which are really explanations that move from features of individual actors and their interactions, to derivations about social and collective behavior. In Varieties of Social ExplanationI relaxed the idea along these lines:

This doctrine [of microfoundationalism] may be put in both a weak and a strong version. Weakly social explanations must be compatible with the existence of microfoundations of the postulated social regularities, which may, however, be entirely unknown. More strongly social explanations must be explicitly grounded on an account of the microfoundations that produce them. I will argue for an intermediate form—that we must have at least an approximate idea of the underlying mechanisms at the individual level if we are to have a credible hypothesis about explanatory social regularities at all, A putative explanation couched in terms of high-level social factors whose underlying individual-level mechanisms are entirely unknown is no explanation at all. (kl 4746)

My adherence to microfoundationalism today is a little bit weaker still. I now advocate a version of microfoundationalism that specifies only that we must be confident (an epistemic concept) that such micro-to-macro relations exist. We must be confident there are such mechanisms but not obliged to specify them. (I also hold that the best ground for having that confidence is being able to gesture plausibly towards roughly how they might work.) Another way to put it is this requirement: "No magical thinking!" That is, we exclude explanations that would only be possible if we assumed action at a distance, blocks of wood that have complicated mental lives, or intelligent beings with infinite computational faculties. A convincing way of discrediting a meso-level assertion is to give an argument that it is unlikely that real human agents would in fact act in ways that lead to this meso-level situation. (Example: Chinese planners who created the collective farming system in the Great Leap Forward assumed that collective farms would be highly productive because a "new socialist man" would emerge. This was unlikely, and therefore the individual behavior to be expected on collective farms would lead to "easy riding" and low productivity.)

Here is an effort to simplify these issues into a series of assertions:

  1. All social forces, powers, structures, processes, and laws (social features) are ultimately constituted by mechanisms at the level of individual actors. (ontological principle)
  2. When we assert the reality or causal powers of a social entity, we need to be confident that there are microfoundations that cause this social entity to have the properties we attribute to it. (microfoundations principle)
    1. A description of the microfoundations of a social entity S is an account of the circumstances and individual mechanisms that bring about patterns of individual activity resulting in the properties of S.
    2. Strong version: we must provide a credible statement of the microfoundations.
    3. Intermediate version: we must have a back-of-envelope sketch of possible microfoundations.
    4. Weak version: we must have confidence that there are microfoundations, but we don’t have to have any specific ideas about what they are.
  3. A "vertical" social explanation of the features of a social entity S is a derivation of S from facts about the individual level. This is equivalent to providing a specification of the microfoundations of S; a derivation of the properties of S from a model of the action situation of the individuals involved; an agent-based model. This is what JZ calls an individualist explanation.
  4. A "horizontal" social explanation is one in which we explain a social entity or structure S by referring to the causal properties of other meso-level entities and conditions. This is what we call a meso-level explanation. (The diagram above illustrates these ideas.)
    1. Horizontal explanations are likewise subject to the microfoundations requirement 2: the entities and powers postulated need to be such that we have good reason to believe that there are microfoundations available for these entities and properties. (Epistemic requirement)
    2. Or slightly stronger: we need to be able to offer at least a plausible sketch of the microfoundations / individual-level mechanisms that would support the postulated entities. (Epistemic+ requirement)
  5. Providing or hypothesizing about microfoundations always involves modeling the behaviors and interactions of individuals; so it requires assuming a theory of the actor. So when we try to specify or hypothesize about microfoundations for something we are obliged to make use of some theory of the actor.
  6. Traditional theories of the actor are generally too abstract and too committed to a rational-choice model.
  7. Social scientists will be better able to hypothesize microfoundations when they have richer theories of the actor. (heuristic principle)

So the ontological principle is simply that social entities are wholly fixed by the properties and dynamics of the actions of the actors that constitute them. The requirement of microfoundations simply reproduces the ontological principle, ruling out ontologically impossible relations among social entities. The requirement of microfoundations is not a requirement on what an explanation needs to look like; rather, it is a requirement about certain beliefs we need to be justified in accepting when we advance a claim about social entities. It is what JZ calls a “confirmation” requirement (or perhaps better, a justificatory requirement). A better theory of the actor supports the discovery of microfoundations for social assertions. Further, it provides a richer "sociological imagination" for macro- and meso-level sociologists. So the requirement of microfoundations and the recommendation that social scientists seek out better theories of the actor are also valuable as heuristics for social research: they provide intellectual resources that help social researchers decide where to look for explanatory links, and what kinds of mechanisms might turn out to be relevant.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Beyond stagnation


source: Lane Kenworthy, Consider the Evidence blog (link)

Thirty years ago Sam Bowles, David Gordon and Tom Weisskopf published a book with a provocative title, Beyond the Waste Land: A Democratic Alternative to Economic Decline (1983). (Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison's Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment and the Dismantling of Basic Industry (1984) sounds similar themes from roughly the same period.) The "waste land" title seemed perhaps a bit apocalyptic when it appeared during an earlier period of economic stress in the United States and the early expression of the free-market fundamentalism associated with Reaganism. How does it look today in 2013?

The book has a simple argumentative structure. It documents a grim view of the economic situation of America in the early 1980s; it offers a critique of "trickle-down" economics; and it provides the architecture of an alternative. Bowles and his co-authors describe their alternative as a more democratic approach to modern economic life, and it focuses on what they refer to as an economic bill of rights.

The economic conditions to which the book responds are the circumstances of slow economic growth, stagflation, and moderately high unemployment of the early 1980s.  Unemployment peaks in 1982 at over 9% -- significantly higher than the average for 1950-`965 of about 5% (22). The authors believe that the economy of the 1980s is a "slack" economy: it embodies a high degree of wasted resources due to a number of different failures of cooperation across groups and sectors. Perhaps most important within these sources of waste is the pool of unemployed workers that the economy of the 1980s was producing. Instead of putting the talent and productivity of this large population to work on productive tasks, the system excluded these workers from productive jobs. Bowles et alargue that corporations -- large, powerful business entities -- are a primary cause of this chronic situation of wasted resources and slack productivity. They describe what they call the "post-war corporate system" in these terms:

[It] was based upon relations of domination and subordination, forged into an inflexible and hierarchical structure of private privilege. (6)

And in fact they believe they can produce statistical evidence demonstrating that this system has strongly negative effects:

the costs-of-corporate-power model statistically accounts for almost all of the slowdown of productivity growth in the U.S. economy. (7)

Here is how they illustrate their theory with respect to the largest sector in the U.S. economy, the automobile industry:

The auto industry provides a graphic example of the waste burden in our economy. A quarter of a million unemployed automobile workers have been told that their layoffs are necessary to revive the industry. But much of the current competitive plight of the U.S. auto industry results from the waste built into the structure of the industry. For every worker engaged in the production of cars and trucks and buses, there are nearly two additional employees engaged either in supervising the productive workers or in selling cars.... Those salaries impose a burden borne by workers and consumers alike. (8-9)

And the costs of pursuing policies based on trickle-down economics are likely to be large, especially for the health of our democracy:

Under conservative economic policies, the near future will witness many more losers than winners. Trickle-down solutions will therefore require that more and more people be excluded from economic decision-making. (15)

So what is the democratic alternative that Bowles and colleagues advocate? It involves several important rights for ordinary citizens and workers:

  • the right to economic security and equity
  • the right to a democratic workplace
  • the right to shape our economic futures
  • the right to a better way of life

The most striking of their recommendations involves the idea of a right to a job.

Direct intervention to promote the right to a job, to promote employment security and equity, is the first requirement of any democratic alternative. (274)

What they mean by this right is that specific affirmative steps need to be taken, in managing the economy, to achieve "full employment" -- a level of employment that ensures that anyone seeking a job can find one. They distinguish between job security -- keeping the job one currently has -- and employment security -- having confidence that one will find a job somewhere in the current economy. The former demand implies economic rigidity, whereas the latter is compatible with substantial economic flexibility. They accept the point that achieving this goal will often mean creating a program of public employment.

Whenever the actual unemployment rate exceeded 2 percent in a local area, the federal government should make funds available to local governments to finance guaranteed public employment for anyone who needs and is able to work. (276)

In addition to a government-backed right to employment, BGW argue for substantial institutional reforms in the direction of ensuring greater workplace democracy. This might take the form of expanded roles for labor unions in the organization and direction of the workplace, or it might look more like the systems of works councils found in various European countries (link). They believe that greater workplace democracy is likely to increase labor productivity, as workers have a stronger incentive to work efficiently and intelligently.

These policy recommendations may have appeared difficult in 1983; they seem wildly unreal in the context of mainstream American assumptions today about the way a market economy works and the role government should play within that economy.

The picture that Bowles, Gordon and Weisskopf offer of the economy of the 1980s is bleak. But on the dimensions of slack economic growth, high unemployment, and stagnant incomes for the great majority of the working population, the evidence of the past ten years seems to be even worse. The graph at the top seems to document that reality: slack growth for low and middle income workers has persisted, and inequalities have continued to increase since 1980.

What is striking in rereading the book is how refreshing it is to find a critical view of the basic structures of the post-war economy that highlights imbalances of power and income as the key problems. It is hard to think of a serious economic analysis of our current conditions that is as honest in confronting these fundamental structural realities. And yet the solutions that BGW offer don't seem to be very promising today.

So we urgently need to pose the key question: What are the reforms within our contemporary economic institutions that can help to bring up the incomes of the bottom sixty percent of our society and help to compress the growing inequalities of income that we have witnessed in the past twenty years? How can we achieve growth with equity and a decent quality of life for all Americans? And where are the bold thinkers who can help us answer these questions?