Fiscal Sociology Workshop at SSHA

A few years ago, I participated in a wonderful workshop on the sociology of taxes and tax policy held the day before the Social Science History Association annual meeting. The workshop organizers are at again and have just released a call for papers / applicants. If you’re a social scientist or historian interested in the history of taxes, I highly recommend applying. Details below.

6th Annual Workshop on Comparative Historical Approaches to Fiscal Sociology

In recent years, scholars from a variety of disciplines have embarked on an innovative wave of multidisciplinary research on the social and historical sources and consequences of taxation. We invite interested graduate students from history, law, and the social sciences to participate in a one-day workshop on this “new fiscal sociology.” In addition to brief lectures introducing students to the basics of taxation and the comparative history of taxation, the workshop will consist of discussion of classic and contemporary texts.

The workshop will be held on Wednesday, November 5th, in Toronto, Ontario, in conjunction with the annual meetings of the Social Science History Association (SSHA). Interested students will also have a chance to present their own work on Thursday, November 6th, as part of the SSHA conference.

Space is limited. Small housing and travel stipends will be provided for a limited number of applicants. Applicants should submit a CV and a paragraph explaining their interest in this workshop, and (if applicable) a draft of a research paper that they would be willing to present at the SSHA. Preference will be given to students who also submit conference papers, but we encourage applications from all students interested in the workshop, including those at early stages of their graduate careers.

Please submit materials via e-mail to the following three faculty conveners no later than February 21, 2014.

Monica Prasad, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University
Ajay Mehrotra, Maurer School of Law, Indiana University – Bloomington
Isaac Martin, Department of Sociology, University of California – San Diego

Utah: No Same-Sex Marriages Because… Diversity?

The Colbert Report has an occasional segment called “The Craziest F#?ing Thing I’ve Ever Heard.” On the segment, Colbert shows a clip or explains an argument that produced the titular reaction, i.e. the verbal exclamation “That’s the craziest f#?ing thing I’ve ever heard.” (Example here, warning: pretty crazy.) Today, I had a similar reaction upon reading this brief Inside Higher Ed piece, “Did Higher Ed Affirmative Action Ruling Bolster Gay Marriage Bans?”

A bit of background. Affirmative action in higher ed has been hotly debated in the courts for decades. The first major Supreme Court ruling came in 1978, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The Bakke ruling held that quotas for racial minority students were unconstitutional. But the ruling was unusually split, with a total of six opinions being issued. Although a majority agreed that quotas were unconstitutional, a different majority agreed that race-based affirmative action was permissible in some form or another. The most important opinion ended up being a sole-authored piece by the swing justice, Powell. In that opinion, Powell introduced the idea “diversity” might be a compelling state interest, and race might be considered a “plus factor” with such a justification. Diversity was not especially defined in this ruling, nor were clear tests laid out for what kinds of racial preference were justifiable.

Higher-ed administrators turned Powell’s opinion into actual admissions practices, creating various programs that took race into account in admissions and drawing on diversity to justify those programs (Berrey 2011). In 2003, the Supreme Court considered two cases about affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan (for admission to the law school and the main undergraduate program). During the case, the University argued that educational diversity (having a wide variety of viewpoints in the classroom) was essential to its educational mission and benefitted all students. In the end, the Supreme Court upheld the idea of diversity as a compelling state interest, although limiting its use by striking down the particular program employed by the undergraduate college.* A follow-up ruling last year, Fisher v. University of Texas, further limited the kinds of race-based affirmative action programs that could be justified through the diversity argument by increasing the burden required of universities to justify affirmative action programs.

So, that’s the brief history of “diversity” arguments at the Supreme Court. Now it’s 2014, and the state of Utah is in the midst of litigation about its same-sex marriage ban. In December, a Federal District Court ruled that Utah’s same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional, drawing on the recent decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. What’s this got to do with diversity, you might ask? Apparently, something, according to Utah’s brief to the Supreme Court:

Society has long recognized that diversity in education brings a host of benefits to students. See, e.g., Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003). If that is true in education, why not in parenting? At a minimum, the state and its people could rationally conclude that gender diversity — i.e. complementarity — in parenting is likely to be beneficial to children. And the state and its people could therefore rationally decide to encourage such diversity by limiting the coveted status of “marriage” to man-woman unions.

That’s right folks. According to Utah, we should ban same-sex marriages to encourage diversity.

And that’s the craziest f#?ing thing I’ve ever heard.

* We (Ellen Berrey, Fiona Rose Greenland, and I) tell a detailed version of this story, focused on the evolution of the points system used by the undergraduate college at the University of Michigan, here.

Reminder: Junior Theorists CFP

The extended submission deadline for the American Sociological Association annual meeting has passed, but the deadline for the Junior Theorists Symposium is still a few weeks away! As a reminder, JTS is a 1-day conference held the day before ASA, featuring the work of not quite ready for primetime theorists*, with commentary provided by theoretical rock stars (this year, Saskia Sassen, George Steinmetz, and Marion Fourcade). The full CFP is here. The deadline for submitting your extended abstract is February 15. We look forward to your submissisons!

*Actually just anyone from ABD to less than 6 six years past receiving their PhD. Hopefully everyone will be ready to present!

“Middlebrow Megachurch Infotainment”

Benjamin Bratton is a associate professor of visual arts at UCSD and a big critic of TED. He took his criticisms to TED itself (well, TEDx San Diego) in the form of a talk entirely about the pathologies of TED. So meta, it hurts. But actually, I thought it was right on point, nicely encapsulating the problems with the TED format while simultaneously hitting on a lot of key themes from STS (about the need to think about social systems and politics in order to make a technology succeed, for example).

One of my favorite bits is Bratton’s discussion of “placebo science and medicine” vs. “placebo politics.” Bratton argues that TED speakers are great at debunking, or at least avoiding, bad science and medicine. But their technoutopianism leads them to offer versions of politics that are just as plagued by wishful thinking as “placebo medicine.” Hence, “You should be as skeptical of placebo politics as you are of placebo medicine.”

Bratton ends with a nice critique of a dominant metaphor of innovation, and also a call for more radicalism in our search for solutions:

“Our problems are not puzzles to be solved. This metaphor implies that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It’s not true. Innovation defined as puzzles, as rearranging pieces and adding more processing power, is not some big idea that’s going to disrupt the broken status quo, that precisely is the broken status quo.”

Recommended. (Via BoingBoing.)

Derivatives and Deregulation

Happy New Year! And with that new year, a new paper.

Russ Funk and I have been working on a collaborative project on law and organizations in the context of financial regulation. I’m pleased to be able to post a new working paper for the project.

Derivatives and Deregulation:
Financial Innovation and the Demise Of Glass-Steagall

Abstract: Just as regulation may inhibit innovation, innovation may undermine regulation. Regulators, much like market actors, rely on categorical distinctions to understand and act on the market. Innovations that are ambiguous to regulatory categories but not to market actors present a problem for regulators and an opportunity for innovative firms to evade or upend the existing order. We trace the history of one class of innovative financial derivatives—interest rate and foreign exchange swaps—to show how these instruments under- mined the separation of commercial and investment banking established by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. Swaps did not fit neatly into existing product categories—futures, securities, loans—and thus evaded regulatory scrutiny for decades. The market success of swaps put commercial and investment banks into direct competition, and in so doing undermined Glass-Steagall. Drawing on this case, we theorize some of the political and market conditions under which regulations may be especially vulnerable to disruption by ambiguous innovations.

The paper is available from SSRN or downloadable directly here. Let us know what you think!

Foucault and the Promise of Holistic Admissions

It’s that time of year again. College admissions season. And along with the actual admissions process, and the torrent of advice pieces on how to win the game, come a host of essays, news stories, and blog posts about what it all means. An example of this genre is The Atlantic’s The False Promise of ‘Holistic’ College Admissions’. The essay argues that holistic admissions promise an individualized form of assessment that they can’t actually deliver:

In exchange for your candor (‘here are my parents’ tax returns, my transcript, an essay about my deepest secret, and some letters from my teachers about what I’m really like’), many colleges promise to evaluate you as a human being.

The issue, then, isn’t that schools look beyond grades and scores. It’s that admissions committees don’t really know applicants personally, and that their claiming to do so is bad for students.

The article links to a useful NYTimes piece that reports the experiences of a past application reviewer for UC-Berkeley, who notes that each application gets about eight minutes of review, and that the criteria for sorting packets into rankings (from 1 to 5) are deeply weird.

This weirdness is not surprising if we step back and think about colleges as organizations. Admissions, including holistic admissions, are designed to meet multiple organizational objectives at once. Mitchell Stevens shows this tremendously well in Creating a Class, an ethnographic look at admissions at a small, selective liberal arts school. Administrators need enough football players for the team, enough academically talented admits to keep up the academic reputation of the school and populate honors programs, enough rich admits to pay full tuition to help make up for the scholarships needed to attract students who bring other talents or desirable traits, and so on. Ellen Berrey, Fiona Greenland and I explore some of these tensions in the history of the transition at the University of Michigan from more mechanical, quantitative admissions to a holistic process modeled after the Ivies in the wake of the 2003 Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action [pdf available here].

But what struck me about this particular Atlantic essay was not the general concern with the subjective character of holistic admissions, or the deep weirdness of the admissions process and its conflicting goals, but rather the Foucauldian aspect of the current system. Students are asked to translate their entire lives into transcripts, essays, and letters of recommendations, to tell the truth about themselves in a way legible to a large bureaucracy, to become a certain kind of admissions subject:

“Holistic” language is central to how students understand the application process. On the New York Times’s college-admissions blog, then-high school senior Michael Campbell wrote of “the struggle to disassociate an admissions rejection from the rejection of me as a person.” Yet he added, “I hope colleges see and evaluate ‘human me,’ not just ‘transcript-test-scores-class-rank me.’” Unfortunately, it’s the very notion that a college might be able to identify “the real and complete Michael Campbell” that makes rejection that much more difficult.

Older systems (at least at Michigan) judged applicants purely on some (admittedly problematic) standardized metrics, mostly GPA and SAT/ACT score. Holistic assessment abandons this pretense of mechanical objectivity in favor of a deeper engagement, an attempt to get to know the real you. The supposed payoffs include being able to better take into account the context of a student’s academic performance (a low junior-year GPA might mean less if a student dealt with a difficult personal or family problem that year, etc.). But it also means a shift from judging students on what they’ve done (grades, test scores) to judging them based on who they are.

And, as usual, the system itself is kind of a joke compared to its promises – how can an admissions officer know your true self from eight minutes spent with a carefully tailored application package? The Atlantic story emphasizes these failures in order to try to absolve applicants:

Ultimately, what’s at stake in college admissions isn’t who you are as a person, but whether you’ve demonstrated that you have the skills and experiences that qualify someone for a slot at a particular institution. If a school rejects you, what they’re really rejecting is your application.

Good intentions aside, holistic admissions becomes one more process forcing us to have a “true self” that we can somehow put fully into documents in order to be processed by a faceless bureaucracy – that delightful combination of individualized attention and mass control that characterizes Foucauldian/disciplinary systems.

What’s the IRB Got to Do With Teaching?

Inside Higher Ed has a new story with a few more details about the tenured Colorado University sociology professor who was forced to resign over concerns about a lecture/skit on prostitution in her sociology of deviance course. Some things are clarified, many things remain confusing. For example, CU does not appear to have denied the “post-Penn State” comment:

[Dean] Leigh told [Professor Adler] that there was “too much risk” in having such a lecture in the “post-Penn State environment,” alluding to the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Asked about the “post-Penn State” comment that Adler reported being told, [CU spokesman] Miller said that “all education institutions, including CU-Boulder, have to ensure that no student or employee feels subject to discrimination or harassment.”

Again, I’m really not sure what connection there is between the Penn State scandal and TAs feeling uncomfortable participating in a skit for a lecture on deviance, except perhaps that the former is now the newest excuse for heightened centralized bureaucratic authority over academic affairs. To be a bit kinder to the university, and in admission of a lack of full information, it’s always possible that there is more to the story, and that one of the undergraduate teaching assistants made a serious complaint that went unheard or something of the sort. Right now though, the rhetoric seems over the top.

But perhaps the most perplexing new detail is the administration’s invocation of the IRB as a relevant entity:

Mark J. Miller, a spokesman for the university, said via email Sunday night that the university was limited in what it could say because a personnel matter is involved. But asked whether there were concerns about the prostitution lecture and whether they were expressed to Adler, Miller said: “Yes. CU-Boulder does not discourage teaching controversial topics but there has to be a legitimate educational basis for what is being taught in the classroom. In all cases involving people in research or teaching, whether controversial or not, we want to insist on best practices to ensure full regulatory compliance. In some cases, this could involve review from our Institutional Review Board, which is responsible for regulatory compliance involving human subjects.”

For those keeping score at home, IRBs generally have nothing to do with teaching. Their mission is to handle regulatory compliance for research involving human subjects. That is, they make sure people give informed consent to participate, that protocols are in place to deal with problems, etc. To my knowledge, IRBs are only involved in teaching when the students in the course are to conduct their own research.* But what does the IRB possibly have to do with a professor giving a lecture?

Academic readers – have you ever heard of a faculty member getting IRB approval for something done in the classroom (that was not also part of a research project)?

EDIT: Two updates. First, the CU provost has issued a statement clarifying their side of the story. The provost argues that Adler was not forced to resign, but rather only forced to not teach deviance next term and warned that further issues could bring about a dismissal. The provost also points to complaints by anonymous TAs who felt uncomfortable refusing to participate and thus felt coerced as the source of the investigation / issue: “Student assistants made it clear to administrators that they felt there would be negative consequences for anyone who refused to participate in the skit. None of them wished to be publicly identified.” The full statement is up at HuffPo.

Second, Andy Perrin contacted Colorado to follow up on the “IRB, wtf?” part of this story. In a comment on a ScatterPlot post, he reproduces Colorado’s response: “You are quite correct regarding the misunderstanding about the appropriate role of IRBs, which is limited to the review of research activities. Our Provost will be providing a clarification in a memo to the campus this afternoon.” The Provost’s note (again available at HuffPo) does not mention the IRB.

EDIT 2: Today’s Chronicle story (gated) about the incident includes some follow-up from Colorado on the IRB question. The answer seems to be that Colorado acknowledges that the IRB has nothing to do with teaching… yet:

Mark K. Miller, a university spokesman, initially responded to questions raised by Ms. Adler’s treatment by suggesting that it might have been best for her to run her skit plans by an institutional review board.

He clarified on Monday that Steven R. Leigh, dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, had raised the question of whether it might be appropriate for a review board to pass judgment on such an activity, but the university recognizes that such boards are established to oversee human-subjects research, not teaching.

So, the Dean knows IRBs don’t handle teaching, but thinks it would be appropriate for them to do so in the future. Lovely.

* For example, the research methods course at Michigan has some kind of blanket approval from the IRB, allowing the professor and graduate students to approve undergraduate research projects. If students want to continue those projects after the course (e.g. for an honors thesis) they are allowed to do so if they then get further IRB approval.

Tenured Colorado Sociologist Forced to Retire For Lecture on Prostitution?

Reports are coming in that a tenured sociologist at Colorado University – Boulder is being forced to stop teaching because of concerns about a lecture/skit about prostitution for a class on the sociology of deviance. Here’s one description of Professor Adler’s lesson:

The prostitution lecture is given as a skit in which many of Adler’s teaching assistants dress up as various types of prostitutes. The teaching assistants portrayed prostitutes ranging from sex slaves to escorts, and described their lifestyles and what led them to become prostitutes.

Senior Caitlin McCluskey, who was an assistant for Adler’s sociology class, performed as a prostitute during the skit earlier this semester.

She said all assistants were given the option of participating, and no one was forced to act in the skit. McCluskey said she was tasked with portraying an “upper-class bar whore” and wore a dress she already owned as a costume.

“I never felt pressured in any way,” McCluskey said. “I never felt uncomfortable. (The skit) was one of the main reasons I wanted to be come an (assistant) in the first place. It seemed like a lot of fun.”

As bad as the idea that a professor was forced to retire for a reasonably innocuous skit is, the rationale that Adler claims the University offered is even worse:

Adler told her students she tried to negotiate with the administration about leaving the skit off the syllabus. Administrators allegedly told Adler that in the era of sex scandals at schools like Penn State University, they couldn’t let her keep teaching.

So, because a university was grossly negligent in its duties to investigate allegations of sexual assault by coaches, a sociologist who finds engaging ways to teach about deviance is losing her job? Seriously? Is there anyone who rationally believes that such lessons would increase the possibility that a university will find itself involved in some kind of horrific sex scandal?

Grr. Argh.

Students have organized a petition in support of Professor Adler; it can be found here.

Chicago-Bound for SSHA!

Dear Readers,

This week is the annual Social Science History Association meeting. I’m excited to be presenting a preliminary overview of my dissertation, “Inventing the Economy (or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the GDP)” at a panel on Saturday at 10:15am called “Making Things with Social Science.” The panel also features Lisa Stampnitzky talking about torture and human rights experts, and Joseph Harris on the role of experts in the expansion of universal healthcare across the world. Our discussant will be philosopher of science and blogger Dan Little.

I hope to see some of you there! And drop me a line if you’re interested in grabbing coffee, etc.

Dear New Yorker: Kuznets Did Not Invent GDP (and that matters)

The New Yorker just published a short piece by James Surowiecki on the difficulty of valuing the gains for consumers generated by new technologies, especially digital goods which are given away for free. The piece is a nice summary of recent research by economists like Brynjolfsson and Mandel who attempt to augment existing national income accounts with better measurements of the consumer surplus generated by the internet. So far so good.

In making this argument, Surowiecki briefly invokes the history of our existing national accounts:

Our main yardstick for the health of the economy is G.D.P. growth, a concept devised in the nineteen-thirties by the economist Simon Kuznets.

Despite its brevity, this sentence packs in two big, misleading claims.* First, “GDP” was not commonly used in the 1930s, or even the 1940s. In the US, economists only began to emphasize GDP in the 1990s. Elsewhere, the transition to GDP as the principal aggregate took place a little earlier. Gross National Product was first discussed in the early 1940s, during World War II (Carson 1975).** Before that, including throughout the 1930s, economist tended to write about National Income.

Second, Simon Kuznets did not “devise” GDP, or even GNP. Simon Kuznets did write extensively in the 1930s and 1940s about the practice of compiling national income statistics. Kuznets identified several different aggregates of interest, and came up with many useful conceptual distinctions for determining where to draw the “boundary of production” and how to value those goods and services included in that boundary (especially problematic goods that lacked market prices). Kuznets himself focused his attention National Income, which looks more like Net National Product than GDP or GNP. The biggest difference between national income and GNP is the attempt to subtract out capital depreciation, although Kuznets’ version of national income also treated government expenditures differently than GNP as developed by the Department of Commerce in the 1940s (Carson 1971).

That said, even though Kuznets was a major figure in the development of national income statistics in the United States, he was by no means the sole deviser of our modern national income accounts. The idea of calculating a total national income goes back to at least William Petty and his 17th century Political Arithmetick (Studenski 1958). Important precursors include such storied names as Lavoisier, better known as the founder of modern chemistry, who also worked on the double-counting problem in national income statistics, and Wesley Mitchell, Kuznets’ mentor and a co-founder of the National Bureau of Economic Research. And contemporary to Kuznets, we have figures in the UK like Colin Clark, James Meade, and Richard Stone (not to mention John Maynard Keynes himself, see Tily 2009). Stone, notably, won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1984 for his work developing international standards for national income accounts. These standards (e.g. the United Nations System of National Accounts) follow conventions closer to the US Department of Commerce, and to the British Treasury, than Kuznets would have preferred. In fact, Kuznets was skeptical of the whole project of thinking of national income through the metaphor of accounts and accounting (Kuznets 1948)!

Both mistakes – claiming that GDP goes back to the 1930s, and suggesting that GDP was devised by a single man – tend to suggest that our current understanding of the economy has been more fixed and unchanging since the 1930s than it really has. These mistakes also downplay the multitude of alternatives that have been considered over the past 100 years, from Nordhaus and Tobin’s (1972) “measure of economic welfare” to Norway’s inclusion of housework in its official national income statistics in the 1940s (Sangolt 1999), to contemporary attempts to account for environmental damage (Muller et al. 2011). I am enthusiastic about attempts to augment GDP, to create alternatives, and to make explicit its arbitrariness and quirks by showing what it fails to see. But we do that debate a disservice when we collapse all of the work of national income statisticians into Kuznets, and all of the various proposed measures into GDP.

In short: Don’t blame Kuznets. GDP is younger than you think, and more alternatives have been proposed than we usually remember.

* Note that while I’m picking on Surowiecki here, this basic claim is repeated all the time in criticisms of national accounts. Surowiecki actually treats the issue more carefully than most by citing some of Kuznets’ cautionary words on the dangers of overinterpreting measures of national income.
** For citations, see this bibliography.


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