Winner-Take-All Politics: Blog Round-Up

Political Scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have a new book out, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, and it’s making a big splash in the blogosphere. I came across Hacker and Pierson’s work when, on the recommendation of one of their graduate students who was visiting Ann Arbor, I read the article version of this book in Politics and Society. The entire June issue of P&S was devoted to the article and several excellent responses, I recommend checking it out (and if you are feeling cheap, the article is a decent substitute for the book).

To briefly summarize the argument, Hacker and Pierson note first that economic inequality in the United States in the last 30 years has risen dramatically, that most of that increase is driven by the top 1% and even .1% receiving a much larger share of the pie (e.g. the top 1% have gone from something like 8% of all pre-tax income in 1980 to something like 18% in 2007). They argue that this hyperconcentration of income at the very top cannot be explained by traditional arguments about growing income inequality which privilege outsourcing or “skill-biased technical change” (i.e. the increasing value of a college degree). Instead, American politics is to blame, and the story of exactly how American politics led to increases in the very top is the bulk of the argument.

I’m still finishing the book itself, but I think it’s a fantastic piece of research, and incredibly accessible. If I were teaching an undergraduate economic sociology, political economy, stratification, or related course, I’d probably assign the book or large chunks of it. But why take my word for it? Here’s a round-up of excellent reviews and commentary.

Henry Farrell on Crooked Timber:

This is a transformative book. It’s the best book on American politics that I’ve read since Before the Storm. Not all of it is original (the authors seek to synthesize others’ work as well as present their own, but provide due credit where credit is due). Not all of its arguments are fully supported (the authors provide a strong circumstantial case to support their argument, but don’t have smoking gun evidence on many of the relevant causal relations). But it should transform the ways in which we think about and debate the political economy of the US.

Farrell also has one of the best summaries of the book.

Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution: “[T]his is an important book for raising some of the key questions of our time. I would recommend that people read it and give it serious thought.” Cowen goes on to give the book some criticism for failing to clearly establish its second argument – “The guilty party is American politics.” – by paying insufficient attention to the role of finance. Cowen argues that:

If the top earners are screwing over their wage earners in the big companies, by pulling in excess wages, options, and perks, we should observe non-stagnant median pay for people who avoid working in firms with fat cat CEOs. Or we should observe talented lower-tier workers fleeing the big corporations, to keep their wages up. Yet no evidence for these predictions is given, nor are the predictions considered. It is likely that the predictions are false.

Thus, Cowen concludes:

In my view, most likely we have two largely separate phenomena: a) median wage growth slows in 1973 because technology stagnates in some regards, and b) liquid financial markets, in various detailed ways, allow people with resources to earn a lot more than before. Politics may well play a role in each development, but with respect to b) its role has been largely passively, rather than architectural and driving.

I recommend reading his entire review, along with a follow-up post.

The Economist blogs have also chimed in, with posts by W.W. and M.S. W.W. hasn’t read the book yet, and instinctively argues against its central points (including the empirics, suggesting that inequality in the U.S. has not in fact gone up, in part of inflation accounting issues*). M.S. discusses in detail Hacker and Pierson’s views on the Median Voter Theorem and its failures, and concludes, “It’s a pretty good book.”

Last but not least, James Kwak of the Baseline Scenario:

In 13 Bankers, Simon and I argue that the key forces behind the transformation of the financial sector and the resulting financial crisis were political, not simply economic. To this argument, at least two good questions spring to mind: Why finance? And why then? Hacker and Pierson have good answers to both of these questions. Their answer to the latter question is better than (though not inconsistent with) the answer we gave in our book.

Judging by the blogging world, Hacker and Pierson may have written the most important book in the last few years. I hope so. Agree or disagree, I think Hacker and Pierson will help move the conversation in Political Science, Sociology and Economic (among other places) back towards focusing on the big and interrelated questions of growing inequality, the failure of political institutions to protect the poor and middle-class, and the nuts and bolts of policy-making that let it happen. I’ll let Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber have the last word on the failures of the American academy that Hacker and Pierson may help remedy:

The authors set the book up as a whodunit: Who or what is responsible for the gross inequalities of American economic life? They show that the other major suspects have decent alibis (they may inadvertently have helped the culprit, but they did not carry out the crime itself. They show that their preferred culprit had the motive and, apparently, the means. They find good circumstantial evidence that he did it. But they do not find a smoking gun.

The lack of any smoking gun (or, alternatively, good evidence against a smoking gun) is the direct result of a major failure of American intellectual life. As the authors observe elsewhere, there is no field of American political economy. Economists have typically treated the economy as non-political. Political scientists have typically not concerned themselves with the American economy. There are recent efforts to change this, coming from economists like Paul Krugman and political scientists like Larry Bartels, but they are still in their infancy. We do not have the kinds of detailed and systematic accounts of the relationship between political institutions and economic order for the US that we have e.g. for most mainland European countries. We will need a decade or more of research to build the foundations of one.

It’s Sunday morning, September 26, 2010. Let’s get going!

* See Stapleford’s, The Cost of Living in America: A Political History of Economic Statistics, 1880-2000 for an excellent historical account of the politics of inflation accounting.

Review: Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences by Kristin Luker (2008)

Yesterday, I picked up from the library a copy of Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences, a newish (2008) methods book by UC Berkeley sociologist Kristin Luker. I just finished reading -or perhaps more accurately “devouring” – it. Luker does something (really several things) I’ve been looking for ever since I started graduate school but never seen done well and manages to produce an incredibly fun, readable, and useful text, at least for someone like me. Salsa Dancing is not for everyone (much as salsa dancing is not for everyone, including me!). Luker’s book is specifically aimed at scholars doing “non-canonical”, usually qualitative research. And indeed, I think her division of the world of social science (really, sociology) research into two camps is one of the single most useful contributions of the book. This division is not based on methodology, in the old sense of “kind of data”, but rather in the kind of questions we are asking – and Luker argues that the non-canonicals have a lot of learn from the canonicals, and a lot to learn about how to talk to them and convince them of the value of our work.

So, what are canonical and non-canonical social science? Here’s how Luker describes the difference:

[C]anonicals want to know the distribution of a population among known categories, as estimated from a properly drawn sample with a known error factor. We salsa-dancing researchers, on the other hand, want to discover the relevant categories at work, not the distribution of some larger population across categories that we have a priori chosen. We have turned to our kind of research because we have a question that canonical social science can’t take on, or can’t take on very well. (p. 102)

Note here that the difference is not simply in what kinds of data the researcher draws on – surveys vs. interviews vs. fieldwork vs. archives etc. – but rather in the kind of questions that puzzle us. Luker emphasizes how canonical research is grounded heavily in a logic of verification, while salsa-dancers are (or ought to be) grounded in a logic of discovery. The problem is that until now, there have been relatively few “good” places for non-canonicals to go for rigorous advice on methodology.

What do I mean by good? One of the most compelling parts of Luker’s book is the way she seamlessly weaves together insights from the history of social science and methodology, especially Foucauldian and science studies perspectives, along with practical advice. Luker quickly traces the history of the large scale survey, and how before WWII, quantitative work in Sociology was gendered feminine and associated with activists like Jane Addams (who was in fact on faculty at Chicago, and published in AJS frequently). With the rise of the large-scale survey, and the infusion of government and foundation money into the practice (“governmentality” much?), the gender of quantitative work switched rapidly, and the older model of verstehen and all that fell out of favor. Luker tells this story to get across a key finding from the Foucauldian/post-y perspective – all methods are problematic, all methods are tied to power dynamics, and so on. But, that doesn’t mean that the folks doing quantitative, canonical work are mindless cultural dopes fulfilling their role in the state apparatus. And in many ways, because there has been so much work put into canonical sociology, salsa-dancers have a lot of catching up to do.

Luker focuses on three interrelated aspects of canonical methodology that non-canonicals have to pay attention to, and have to do figure out how to do differently: sampling, operationalization and generalizability. Luker’s point is that canonical methodology works well to answer these three concerns for canonical problems – the relationships between pre-given categories. For research that aims to generate theories – and to generate lists of relevant categories rather than conditional correlations between variables – these problems must be solved differently.

So, rather than producing a random sample from an exhaustive (or nearly) frame of everyone you wish to generalize about, salsa-dancers should seek out “data outcroppings”, rich sites where the dynamics of interest should be easiest to see. Unfortunately, such sampling can (just as canonicals always allege) create a problem of bias that weakens generalizability. The non-canonical researcher relies on a logical generalizability rather than a statistical one – e.g. I have no reason to think that the public school I studied in my fieldwork is different from most other schools in ways that would affect my findings, and I put the burden on your to show me what I have logically missed. Having a few cases, or at least a shadow comparison, can help with this sort of argument. Luker also pushes us to generalize up, rather than across – not simply generalizing to all sites similar to where we do our fieldwork, but to broader kinds of problems (“how classes reproduce themselves without seeming to” p. 126).

So, Luker does a great job on the theoretical (establishing a framework for understanding the discipline of sociology and how it got to be arrayed the way it is, and then for figuring out which kind of research you want to be doing) and the broadly methodological (thinking about case selection, constantly asking “what is this a case of?”, considering sampling, operationalization and generalizability on our own terms). She also has tons of nuts and bolts practical tricks – ways to think about coding interviews, or gaining entree to a research site, or organizing an interview to elicit (including, for example, embracing leading questions as useful ways to elicit responses and push-back from interviewees, rather than eschewing them as is done in canonical survey research, p. 177). She also writes like someone who actually cares about how easy and fun it is to read her book, and it makes a huge difference. From the salsa-dancing metaphor running throughout the book (which is also practical advice about the virtues of unfamiliar physical activity as a way to relieve anxiety and open up your mind), to hilarious asides*, the book is just eminently enjoyable. It’s also very tight – just 225 pages plus appendices and bibliography. If I were teaching a research methods class**, I’d probably assign the whole thing or almost all of it.

A few parting thoughts. One, I’m not wholly convinced by the discussion of Ragin’s Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), which Luker discusses in glowing terms. But I haven’t read the original, and I’m now at least interested enough to go check it out. Two, for someone with some background in historical research, a lot of what Luker discusses feels familiar. I think this is actually a strength, not a weakness. Luker comes out and admits in a chapter on comparative and historical work that many of her ideas come from comparative and historical sociology, and she argues that most comp/hist sociologists (if not all) are already salsa-dancers. But she goes on to say that they learned the tricks of their trade through trial-and-error and apprenticeship; there is no good go-to text. I think she’s right about that, and I think her book will be an excellent tool for bridging the gap between what comp/hist folks know they want to do and helping them figure out how to do it. More importantly, I think this book will help qualitative/fieldwork/interview-based scholars who are non-canonical find historical allies and build a common methodological language – rather than attempting to shoehorn their work into the independent/dependent variable model inherited from the canonical folks.

In summary, Salsa Dancing is a fantastic book for anyone who wants to do non-canonical social science, or teach others how to do it.

* Two favorite examples: On librarians: “Librarians, along with pediatricians, are among the greatest human beings in the universe.” (85) On content analysis and its history: “Paul Lazarsfeld (who seems to have invented almost every social science method known to humans in his spare time) and Harold Lasswell laid out the framework for doing content analysis as long ago as the 1920s and 1930s.” (187)
** More specifically, if I were teaching a graduate research methods class. I am actually GSI-ing (TAing) an undergrad methods class in the Fall.

Lakoff (2010) “Disaster and the Politics of Intervention”

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from Columbia University Press asking if I might be interested in a free copy of a new book, and suggesting I should mention said book on my blog, and also offering to make the editor available for interviews, guest posts, etc. I was really impressed by this offer, and I want to encourage more such in the future. So, publishers of the world – send me your books! I will promise to at least look them over.

I don’t promise to say really nice things about them, however. The book that Columbia UP sent me is Disaster and the Politics of Intervention edited by Andrew Lakoff. The book was underwhelming. I was initially excited, as the five chapters include contributions by science studies big shots Donald MacKenzie and Sheila Jasanoff, and the introduction was by Lakoff himself. So I had high hopes for some really interesting stuff. Overall though, I think the book fell flat.

I think the biggest problem I faced was not being sure who the audience was supposed to be. It certainly isn’t academics and graduate students deeply enmeshed in science studies, the politics of risk, quantification, etc. The essays average about 20-25 small pages, and are pretty thin theoretically, drawing a lot on established work (Ulrich Beck, science studies stuff on quantification and performativity, etc.) rather than making super novel contributions. So maybe the audience is supposed to be policymakers interested in what sociologists and our fellow travelers have to say about risk and disasters? If so, perhaps the book will do some good. I could also see undergrad soc majors getting something out of it, especially if they were interested in one of the particular topics covered (carbon markets to avert climate change, HIV/AIDS, the history of FEMA, etc.). Like most edited volumes, there isn’t a strong narrative running throughout, so if you are interested in a given chapter, go straight for it and ignore the rest.

Ok, I hope that was “tough but fair”. Any other presses out there want me to read your books and say mediocre things about them? Email asociologist at!