Coasian Comparison

Josh Barro wrote a somewhat controversial op-ed in the NYT attempting to apply the Coase theorem to the negotiation between passengers on a plane about whether or not to recline their seats. Economist Greg Mankiw and political theorist Jim Johnson each posted a short reaction to the paper. See if you can spot the difference in tone. First, here’s Mankiw:

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 10.51.00 AM

And here’s Johnson:

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 10.51.55 AM

I wonder what Steve Medema would say.

Statistical Optimism: Mortgage Finance and Depressions, Retro Edition

Let’s coin a new phrase: “statistical optimism.” Statistical optimism refers to the belief that if only we had better statistics about X, and that everyone was made aware of those statistics, then we would make better decisions about X and some set of problems would go away without any major changes in the institutions actually making decisions. It’s a practical, quanty version of the classic Enlightenment-style idea that more knowledge always makes things better. Note that by statistics, here, I mean the production and distribution of quantitative data, the old sense of statistics (vital statistics, censuses, national income statistics, etc.), and not the inferential field we know and love today.

This phrase came to mind today as I was reading through a March, 1932 interview with Senator La Follette* about the need for better economic statistics to improve economic planning in the midst of the depression. The interview is chock full of great quotes that give you a flavor of what it was like to live in a time before the CPS, NIPA, and all the other routine, standardized, official data we take for granted. For example:

It is a sad commentary on our statistical information that in the third winter of the depression we have absolutely no authoritative official figures on unemployment. The only data we have are those collected by the census in 1930 for the country as a whole and for certain cities in January 1931.

The authoritative bit here was to be important, too, as FDR and Hoover fought in the 1932 campaign over whose (partial, non-standardized) unemployment figures were better.

The belief that gets me, though, and that seems to be widely shared across the political spectrum at this point, is that just having good data will fix all kinds of ideological disputes. It was this belief, in part, that motivated the founding of the NBER, and it was this belief that animated Hoover to work to produce all kinds of economic reports in the 1920s and early 1930s in concert with economists and businessmen (e.g. Recent Economic Trends, Recent Social Trends, etc.). La Follette was a Republican also, but later founded the Wisconsin Progressive Party, and clearly believed in less business-led solutions to economic problems than Hoover, but he had the same attitude of statistical optimism. A quote from the end of the interview about the potential for authoritative statistics to prevent future depressions struck me as especially relevant and, from a post-2008 perspective, ironic:

Suppose late in 1928 some authoritative body in Washington had publicly emphasized the fact that there was an excess of private houses on the market. Suppose it had pointed out that construction figures showed an appreciable falling off in the building of new houses. Surely in the light of such warnings people would not have continued investing their hard-earned savings in first and second mortgage real estate bonds thus increasing the supply of new capital for speculative building which continued into 1929.

If only it were so.

FRED New Housing Starts 2006 to 2011

Though, I suppose, in fairness to La Follette, what he called for was not simply the creation of better data but also the creation of an institution – a national economic council, somewhat of a precursor to what ended up being the Council of Economic Advisers – that would have the authority to interpret data, not just collect it. Still, the optimism is palpable, and from our vantage point, tragic.

* La Follette is important in my work because he introduced a resolution in 1932 which called for the creation of the first** official US national income estimates.
** Well, he thought they were the first, and so do most people. The FTC actually produced an estimate in 1926, but almost no one knows about it, and no one did much with it then either.

RSVP for the Junior Theorists Symposium!


The 2014 Junior Theorists Symposium is just three weeks away! Below, please find an updated schedule. JTS 2014 will be held at the University of California Berkeley in 60 Evans Hall. A complete list of paper abstracts is available here (pdf link). If you have any questions, please contact Jordanna Matlon and myself at

Junior Theorists Symposium
University of California (Berkeley)
60 Evans Hall
August 15, 2014

8:30 – 9:00 | Coffee and Bagels

9:00 – 10:50 | Culture, Action, and Difference
* Michael Halpin (University of Wisconsin – Madison) – “Science and Sociodicy: Neuroscientific Explanations of Social Problems”
* Ellis Monk (University of Chicago) – “Bodily Capital: Capturing the Role of the Body in Social Inequality”
* Daniel Sherwood (The New School) – “Acting Through the Margin of Freedom: Bourdieu as a Social Movement Theorist”
Discussant: Omar Lizardo (University of Notre Dame)

10:50 – 11:00 | Coffee

11:00 – 12:50 | Measures of Worth
* Alison Gerber (Yale University) – “Tradition, Rationalization and Worth: A Theory of Decommensuration”
* Katherine Kenny (University of California – San Diego) – “The Biopolitics of Global Health: Life and Death and Neoliberal Time”
* Brandon Vaidyanathan (Rice University) – “A Cultural Theory of Differentiation”
Discussant: Marion Fourcade (University of California – Berkeley)

12:50 – 2:00 | Lunch

2:00 – 3:50 | Place and Perspective
* Hillary Angelo (New York University) – “From the City as a Lens to Urbanization as a Way of Seeing: Refocusing Social Categories for an Urban Planet”
* Jennifer Carlson (University of Toronto) – “Citizen-Protectors: Guns, Masculinity and Citizenship in an Age of Decline”
* Victoria Reyes (Princeton University) – “Global Borderlands: A Case Study of the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, Philippines”
Discussant: Saskia Sassen (Columbia University)

4:00 – 5:30 | After-panel: The Boundaries of Theory
* Stefan Bargheer (University of California – Los Angeles)
* Claudio Benzecry (University of Connecticut)
* Margaret Frye (Harvard University)
* Julian Go (Boston University)
* Rhacel Parreñas (University of Southern California)

5:30 – ? | Theory in the Wild: Beer, wine, and good conversation (off-site)

The Junior Theorists Symposium is an open event. In order to facilitate planning, please RSVP by sending an email to with the subject line “JTS RSVP.” We suggest an on-site donation of $20 per faculty member and $10 per graduate student to cover event costs.

If You’re Going to San Francisco…

Dear Readers!

First, a bit of housekeeping. I’ve been officially recruited onto the Scatterplot blogging team. So, for the time being, substantive posts about sociology and related topics will likely be posted over there (e.g. this piece on clarifying the debate over replication in the social sciences). I’ll save this blog for more personal updates and shameless self-promotion.

Speaking of which… I’m very excited for this year’s ASA in SF! If you want to hear what I’m up to or say hi, you can find me at two fantastic events. The first is the Junior Theorists Symposium, which I’m co-organizing with Jordanna Matlon. We’ll be posting the paper abstracts and further details next week, and I’ll make sure to link them here. Please RSVP if you’d like to attend! JTS will be held at the University of California, Berkeley on Friday, August 15 (the day before ASA proper begins in earnest). Old announcement with details here.

The second is a panel on “Credit and Inequality: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” Greta Krippner and I will be presenting our first paper from a new collaboration on the politics of pricing in insurance and credit. This paper looks at the fascinating legal and legislative contention in the 1980s over the use of gender in risk-based pricing of life and auto insurance.* The panel is Sunday, 2:30-4:10pm.

Hope to see you all there!

* Ok, I admit, few people would normally use “fascinating” to describe any aspect of “insurance pricing.” But believe me, it’s a really rich space to see the workings out of various logics of fairness, discrimination, and the meaning of “individual treatment” in the context of statistical models of risk – questions that rate to be ever more relevant as more and more aspects of our lives are connected to predictive algorithms.

Save ASA’s Archival Records!

As some readers of this blog may know, there’s been a debate over the past few years about what to do with a large collection of archival material held by the American Sociological Association. Specifically at issue are the editorial records of the ASA journals (ASR, Sociological Theory, etc.) from 1991-2009. The ASA council no longer feels that it is worth the expense to warehouse the records in physical form, and is also unwilling to put up the required cash – $120,000 – to digitize the lot. Instead, in an act of uncharacteristic thriftiness, ASA has punted the problem to its members. If we can raise the money by next year, they will happily digitize the records. If not, whatever we can’t pay to digitize will be destroyed.

Led by Alan Sica and Charles Camic, a group of sociologists have organized to try to fundraise to Save Our Archival Records. For more information on the campaign, go to their website. You can donate directly to the effort there, or through ASA’s page. Thanks!

GDP is important, but it’s not that important

Given that I’m writing a dissertation on the history of national income accounting, I hate to say this, but… GDP just isn’t as important as some people want to make it out to be. Some of the worst offenders in this genre of claim seem to be, unsurprisingly, GDP’s biggest critics. Let’s take an example from an op-ed in this week’s New York Times*, Our Mismeasured Economy by Lew Daly at Demos. The editorial follows in a nearly 100-year old tradition of criticizing how national income statistics handle hard to measure, non-market production, in this case government output. Daly argues, sensibly enough, that the way we handle government is ad hoc and arbitrarily rules out the possibility that government could actually add value (we explicitly assume that the value of government output is equal to what we pay for it, no more, no less).

That’s all well and good, but what bothers me is the over-the-top way in which Daly motivates his critique. Here’s the opening line:

Today’s polarized debates about the role of government often boil down to a single issue: the size of government compared with the size of the overall economy, as measured in gross domestic product.

Really? Are we following the same debates? Because although I’ve certainly seen reference to the size of government (and in fact, we see examples of these claims as far back as the early 1930s), they do not seem to me to be a dominant mode of debate at the present juncture. To be fair to Daly, I have not done a systematic content analysis of contemporary ‘debates about the role of government’, but I would be shocked if even a small percentage of these debates (5%?) explicitly or implicitly referenced the size of government as measured in the national accounts. And far fewer “boil down to a single issue” in those terms. Think, for example, of the recent Hobby Lobby case, and other debates around the Affordable Care Act. This debate is about ‘the role of the government’, but it’s not about the ‘size’ of the government but about its intrusiveness: can the government mandate that private companies provide certain kinds of care to their workers? Think also of the NSA wiretapping scandals. Again, the proper role of the government is at the center of the debate, but not the government’s size as a percentage of GDP.

Daly’s op-ed makes a number of sensible points about what we miss if we focus our debate on the productivity of government on the national accounts (though I’m not sure I agree that the fix is to change how we measure GDP as opposed to, say, coming up with alternative measurements of government productivity and restricting our analysis of GDP to where such a number makes the most sense – GDP is built on a bedrock of “market epistemology”**, and I doubt it will ever move far from that principle). But there’s no need to tee those claims up with an overblown one about the centrality of GDP to contemporary political debates about the role of the government.*** GDP is important because of its diffuse implications for how we think about the world, as well as some more narrow technical uses (such as the World Bank’s categorization of “least developed” countries, see, e.g, Jerven’s work) – but it’s not quite so woven into technical systems as, say, inflation statistics, which directly determine wage increases and social security benefits. And so I get that it’s a bit tougher to talk about why getting GDP ‘right’ is so important. But maybe that means we should be having a different debate, about what the right ways to measure and think about the productivity of government are, rather than a narrow technical one about GDP. Somehow I doubt that the Tea Party is going to stop complaining about the Affordable Care Act if the government’s share of GDP goes down a point.

* H/T to Beth Berman for sending this piece along.
** I define market epistemology as the belief that markets provide the best or only definitive information about economic value. Market epistemology shapes debates about the production boundary and in turn the boundary of the economy – that is, it shapes what we decide to count and how we decide to count it, especially for difficult cases like unpaid housework, government output, and owner-occupied housing. See, e.g., chapter 4 of the dissertation I should be writing instead of this blog post!
*** At this point, I’d also like to fully embrace the irony of using a single editorial as a case to motivate a more general argument about the perils of motivating a general argument about discourse from a handful of cases. I can dig up more if you’d really like, I read this stuff for a living.

Two Problems with the Facebook Study Debate

I just wrote a my first post on Scatterplot, about the debate over the recent Facebook emotions study. For at least a little bit, I’ll likely be blogging over there. Since I imagine my readership overlaps a fair bit, I will likely not cross-post most of the content, unless I want to keep a record over here for my own purposes. Either way, if you’re interested in the Facebook debate, please check out my post and let me know what you think!

For “Central Conflation”; Against the Structure/Agency Dichotomy

The newest issue of Sociological Theory was just released. Several of the articles look fascinating, but with my spare time between reading a 400p congressional hearing and (failing) to read an 1100p congressional hearing, I had time to look at just one: For “Central Conflation”: A Critique of Archerian Dualism by Tero Piiroinen. I admit, I was a bit skeptical at first: like many others in the sociology blogosphere, I’m a bit sick of the endless debates over critical realism. That said, having invested the time to make sense of critical realism enough to follow said debates, I was interested to hear what this new critique had to say about the topic. I was pleasantly surprised. Here’s the paper’s abstract:

Taking a side in the debate over ontological emergentism in social theory, this article defends an outlook that Margaret S. Archer has dubbed “central conflation”: an antidualistic position appreciating the interdependency of agency and structure, individuals and society. This has been a popular outlook in recent years, advocated broadly by such theorists as Pierre Bourdieu, Randall Collins, and Anthony Giddens. However, antidualism has been challenged by those who believe the key to success in social science lies in level-ontological emergentism. Archer’s own morphogenetic theory is an explicitly dualist version of that approach. I answer Archer’s arguments for emergentism, in so doing clearing a path for the even fuller acceptance of antidualism by theorists.

In short, the paper argues against the implicit or explicit dualism of much of sociology, expressed most fully in Archer’s account of agency and structure. Archer names this antidualism position the “central conflation”, and Piiroinen embraces that label and wants to turn it – and antidualism – into badges of pride. To do so, Piiroinen draws on a diverse set of authors – Giddens and Bourdieu, but also Elias, Latour and especially Dewey – to argue that individuals are inherently social, and thus to deny the problem of the emergence of society from individuals. Here’s a Dewey quote to that effect from the paper (p. 86):

Then “society” becomes an unreal abstraction and “the individual” an equally unreal one. . . . [And] there develops the unreal question of how individuals come to be united in societies and groups: the individual and the social are now opposed to each other, and there is the problem of “reconciling” them.

Piiroinen reiterates a basic insight, expressed nicely in Callon and Latour’s (1981) agenda-setting piece on “Unscrewing the Big Leviathan”, that the micro- and macro- are not the same as the agent and the structure, or really all that different except as analytical tools and questions to be investigated (p. 91):

As antidualists deny any metaphysical hiatus between micro-scale agency and macro-scale structures, they encourage us to effortlessly zoom back and forth between the micro and the macro: to zoom as close to small-scale encounters and as far back to the consistencies of large-scale dynamics as needed to understand the spatiotemporal chunks of the social practices of people-in-relations that are most relevant for the case at hand, in all their relevant details and big-picture connections. And, arguably, antidualists manage this precisely because they avoid the self-appointed problematic of the linkage between individuals’ inter- actions and sociocultural systems.

I like it!

Beyond tickling my theoretical fancy, the paper has some lovely bits of writing and great short examples when it moves to critiquing Archer’s understanding of culture from this antidualist perspective (great examples, that is, if you’re a massive nerd who loves seeing Comic Con and cosplay mentioned in one of the discipline’s top journals) (p. 93):

Consider someone cheerfully identifying himself as a “nerd” or “geek” and dressing up as a “stormtrooper” (from the Star Wars movies) to participate in the Comic-Con event in San Diego, socializing with countless likeminded people who share with him similar identities and may also dress up as stormtroopers, or as “Princess Leia,” “Spider-Man,” “Dracula,” a “barbarian warlord,” “little grey man”* or “zombie,” or any of thousands of iconic pop culture characters or archetypes instantly recognizable and meaningful to hundreds of millions of people around the world. Notice that logic and reasoning play no important role in that regard. There are true and false propositions that can be formed about pop cultural items, and there are even more vaguely explicable “intelligibilia,” as Archer (1995:180) calls them, “item[s] that have the dispositional capacity of being understood by someone,” but understandability, to say nothing of logical consistency, is not a key notion in sociology of culture, it is not why cultural phenomena are sociologically important. Rather, they are important because there are people who care—rather passionately—about those items and interact with others who also care about them. It is a social affair.

Following this paper, I think my new favorite critique is going to be, “yeah, but can your theory explain cosplay?”

My only real criticism of the paper is that it spends so much time beating up on critical realism and Archer in particular, and thus spends less time than it could developing the implications for research that come from adopting a conflationist antidualist perspective. Hopefully, in future work, Piiroinen and others will pick up from this place to answer that question, and in so doing, perhaps help attract more interest from empirically-minded scholars who sometimes slip into the dualist framing but couldn’t be bothered to read one more piece for or against critical realism.

* I feel like I might lose nerd cred for saying this, but is little grey men the Finnish term for little green men? Or is it some cool new nerd reference that I just don’t get?

“The Power of Market Fundamentalism”: A Q&A with Fred Block and Peggy Somers

For thirty years, Fred Block and Peggy Somers have been writing about the ideas of Karl Polanyi. In part because of their efforts, Polanyi has become a central theoretical touchstone for economic sociology. In their new book, The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique, Block and Somers collect some of their most influential articles alongside several new chapters exploring Polanyi’s understanding of the political power of ideas, and the ethical importance of recognizing “the reality of society.” Below is the full version of an email interview I conducted with Fred and Peggy; a condensed version will be published in Accounts, the newsletter of the Economic Sociology Section of ASA.*

Q. Let’s start at the very beginning. How did you first come into contact with Polanyi’s work? What did it mean to you at the time?

A. We both read The Great Transformation initially in the 1960’s and we saw Polanyi’s overall political and intellectual sensibility fitting with the kind of humanistic Marxism that was embraced by our part of the New Left. The book made a deep impression and as the relentless rise of Thatcherism and Reaganism began to demean the image of New Deal and Great Society movements and social programs, and the 1960s more generally, we kept coming back to it as we sought to make sense of the political defeat of those earlier movements.

The Great Transformation also resonated as a critical counterpart to Marx’s story of England’s transition from a pre-industrial agrarian economy to the rise of factory production. In the 1970s and 80s, as interest in Marx retreated, many social scientists turned away from political economy altogether and focused instead on the state. In Polanyi we found a home that allowed us to retain the critique of what we call (adapting Polanyi) free-market utopianism, but from a perspective that made the state and social relations the constitutive elements of all market economies. Polanyi thus provided us with the foundations of a political economy that foregrounded politics and culture without any retreat from the centrality of the economy.
Read the full post »

“The Case for Reparations”, Ta-Nehisi Coates

In case you haven’t seen it already, you should go read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new, lengthy essay, The Case for Reparations. Rather than trying to summarize it, I’ll just post a few of many choice quotes. On the overall argument:

Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated. Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society. Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, “Never again.” But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.

On how redlining and segregation were about public policy, not just individual preference:

When terrorism ultimately failed, white homeowners simply fled the neighborhood. The traditional terminology, white flight, implies a kind of natural expression of preference. In fact, white flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors. For should any nonracist white families decide that integration might not be so bad as a matter of principle or practicality, they still had to contend with the hard facts of American housing policy: When the mid-20th-century white homeowner claimed that the presence of a Bill and Daisy Myers decreased his property value, he was not merely engaging in racist dogma—he was accurately observing the impact of federal policy on market prices. Redlining destroyed the possibility of investment wherever black people lived.

On fatherhood, and misplaced criticisms of black family values as the root of social ills:

From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people. But Billy Brooks Jr. had a father. Trayvon Martin had a father. Jordan Davis had a father. Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder. Adhering to middle-class norms is what made Ethel Weatherspoon a lucrative target for rapacious speculators. Contract sellers did not target the very poor. They targeted black people who had worked hard enough to save a down payment and dreamed of the emblem of American citizenship—homeownership. It was not a tangle of pathology that put a target on Clyde Ross’s back. It was not a culture of poverty that singled out Mattie Lewis for “the thrill of the chase and the kill.” Some black people always will be twice as good. But they generally find white predation to be thrice as fast.

I can imagine using this in a variety of undergraduate classes. Both historians and sociologists figure prominently, as Coates addresses the different regimes of oppression that have created and maintained black-white economic inequality (and especially the wealth gap) over the past 400 years, up to the 21st century racial disparities in subprime mortgage lending.

Coates also posted an addendum on his blog, tracing his intellectual journey from opposing to supporting reparations. I was especially interested by Coates’ connecting the current debate about affirmative action to the failure of a conversation about wealth and reparations:

I’m thinking about it with the Supreme Court set to dismantle Affirmative Action. Isn’t the “diversity” argument actually kind of weak? Isn’t the recompensation argument actually much more compelling? Except this was outlawed with Bakke. What I am thinking is right now, at this moment, American institutions (especially its schools) are being asked to answer for the fact that country lacked the courage to do the right thing. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision coming down, in the wake of (what looks like) a second Obama term, we could make a really strong case that now is the time renew a serious discussion about Reparations.

This narrative is a small one in the final piece, but an important one.

The ever brilliant Tressie MC has an excellent follow-up post, further connecting Coates and the push to address wealth inequality to the impossibility of higher ed fixing contemporary racial inequality:

No matter what black college grads do, they are more sensitive than non-blacks to every negative macro labor market trend. They are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and hold low quality jobs even when they have STEM degrees. I point out that last bit because apparently STEM will save us all or something.

When we allow education to be sold as a fix for wealth inequality, we set a public good up to fail and black folks that do everything “right” to take the blame when it goes “wrong”.

Read it all, if you can. This is what happens when history and sociology get taken seriously in the public sphere, and it’s both wonderful and depressing.* As it should be.

* This quote from Coates’ follow-up post is especially touching:

… I became convinced that an unfortunate swath of popular writers/pundits/intellectuals are deeply ignorant of American history. For the past two years, I’ve been lucky enough to directly interact with a number of historians, anthropologists, economists, and sociologists in the academy. The debates I’ve encountered at Brandeis, Virginia Commonwealth, Yale, Northwestern, Rhodes, and Duke have been some of the most challenging and enlightening since I left Howard University. The difference in tenor between those conversations and the ones I have in the broader world, are disturbing. What is considered to be a “blue period” on this blog, is considered to be a survey course among academics. Which is not to say everyone, or even mostly everyone, agrees with me in the academy. It is to say that I’ve yet to engage a historian or sociologist who’s requested that I not be such a downer. [emphasis added]


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