Economists of the Union

Last night’s State of the Union address by President Obama was not his most memorable speech, although it was not devoid of heart-wrenching moments and reasonable (if unlikely to succeed) policy proposals. Sadly, what caught my ear the most* was Obama’s explicit and implicit invocations of economists. The implicit was the more consequential: the call for universal pre-school. Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman has been pushing the universal pre-school argument hard for years now, based in part on evaluations of the Perry preschool experiment conducted in Ypsilanti, Michigan. While economists are not the only ones pushing for universal preschool, the language President Obama choose suggests the influence of social scientists and especially economists, rather than a moral or purely educational argument:

.Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on — by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.

Elsewhere in the speech, in reference to the deficit, Obama explicitly invoked “economists”:

Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion — mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances.

In 2011, Congress passed a law saying that if both parties couldn’t agree on a plan to reach our deficit goal, about a trillion dollars’ worth of budget cuts would automatically go into effect this year. … They would certainly slow our recovery, and cost us hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s why Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as the sequester, are a really bad idea.

President Obama is not the first president to invoke “economists” in the State of the Union, though he is the first to do so multiple times, and he has done so the most of any President. A quick search of UCSB’s Presidency Project database of State of the Union addresses shows that Cleveland in 1895, Harding in 1921, and FDR in 1938 mentioned economists, and then the term went unused until Obama’s 2010 and 2011 addresses, both of which mentioned economists (in reference to the stimulus bill and health care respectively).**

I’m not sure what to take away from this exercise, except perhaps to say congratulations economists, President Obama seems to be paying attention.***

* Ok, second-most. The bit about 102-year old Desiline Victor waiting in line six hours to vote was amazingly touching. But seriously, she deserves more than a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience.
** The State of the Union was not always been given as a speech, especially throughout most of the 1800s. Notably, in the 1860s, Andrew Johnson mentioned “political economists” (the predecessors of modern economists) three times, in reference to questions of public debt and currency.
*** It probably goes without saying but “sociologist” has never been used in a State of the Union address. A broader search of documents in the USCB archive reveals a few references to sociologists by presidents, but not many. Perhaps most amusingly President Clinton referred specifically to Max Weber in 2000, in a discussion with Reverend Bill Hybels: “In 1918 the German sociologist Max Weber wrote an essay. You and I never talked about this before; I just thought about it while you asked me the question. It’s called “Politics as a Vocation.” And Weber was a Christian Democrat, a devout Catholic. And he said politics is a long and slow boring of hard boards. And anyone who seeks to do it must risk his own soul.” Clinton accounts for most of the “sociologist” usages, including other references to that essay, and references to Margaret Mead (oddly enough).

The Left’s (Non-) War on Science: Anti-Nuclear and Anti-Hydroelectric are not “Anti-Science”

This week, Scientific American has an interesting, but I think flawed, article about the anti-science attitudes on the left. More specifically, Michael Shermer argues that:

Whereas conservatives obsess over the purity and sanctity of sex, the left’s sacred values seem fixated on the environment, leading to an almost religious fervor over the purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food.

Shermer’s starting point is the admittedly frightening statistic that 41% of Democrats (along with 58% of Republicans) are young Earth Creationists, and 19% of Democrats (compared to 51% of Republicans) doubt that the Earth is warming. That last difference is quite huge, and has been much discussed in the sociological literature (e.g. McCright and Dunlap 2011). Similarly, general trust in science is now substantially higher among liberals than conservatives (Gauchat 2012). So, there may be substantial anti-science sentiment on left, but there is not nearly as much as there is on the right.

That said, Shermer’s more interesting claim is not that the left is as strongly anti-science as the right, but rather that it’s anti-science in different ways. And here, I think his examples are just off or misleading or involve some sort of redefinition of what it means to be “anti-science.” Here’s one claim from the article, citing a recent book:

There is more, and recent, antiscience fare from far-left progressives, documented in the 2012 book Science Left Behind (PublicAffairs) by science journalists Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell, who note that “if it is true that conservatives have declared a war on science, then progressives have declared Armageddon.” On energy issues, for example, the authors contend that progressive liberals tend to be antinuclear because of the waste-disposal problem, anti–fossil fuels because of global warming, antihydroelectric because dams disrupt river ecosystems, and anti–wind power because of avian fatalities. The underlying current is “everything natural is good” and “everything unnatural is bad.”

Although I agree that this characterization of the left’s attitude towards nature has something going for it (especially as contrasted with the right), it’s not really an attitude about science. It’s about the moral weight of different kinds of harms. Specifically, it’s not “anti-science” to oppose an increased use of nuclear energy because of concerns about storing nuclear waste, nor to oppose hydroelectric power because it disrupts ecosystems. At least, it’s not anti-science the same way that denying global warming is anti-science: nuclear waste actually is a significant problem, and dams do actually disrupt ecosystems. Whether or not these costs are worth the payoffs (i.e. reduced fossil fuel usage) is a very different question than whether or not these costs exist.

It makes sense to read questions like “How old is the Earth?” or “Has the average temperature of the Earth increased in the past century?” as connected to an underlying attitude about science because these are issues which scientists have made strong positive claims about: the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, the Earth warmed about .6 degrees Celsius in the 20th century. To deny these claims is to deny science. But to claim that we undervalue the disruption of ecosystems by dams, for example, is not an “anti-science” claim.*

I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with Shermer’s article, except perhaps the contrary urge (we all know the Right is so much worse on science, but look, really the Left is just as bad!), but it seems to me like a classic example of false equivalence, powered by the conflation of skepticism towards technology on the grounds that it may have unforeseen consequences and the rejection of science. In sum, I remain a skeptic about the existence of the “Liberals’ War on Science.”

* Which is not to say that there aren’t tons of claims made by opponents of nuclear power or dams that run contrary to nuclear science, ecology, and so on. I’m sure there are. But that doesn’t amount to a campaign to delegitimize science as an institution: what we would properly call a “War on Science.” But maybe that’s the definitional issue that’s precisely troubling me, and that is entirely implicit in the article: what does it mean to be anti-science in the first place?

Climate Skeptics and the OJ Simpson Defense

Predictably, the NOAA announcement that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the US (a full degree higher than the previous record high average, and three degrees higher than the 20th century average) has brought out the climate skeptics in force. Fox News (surprise!) ran this story: Hottest year ever? Skeptics question revisions to climate data. The details are not especially important: the NOAA re-ran some of its models and updated its historical data series from version 2.0 to 2.5, this apparently caused some slight increase in measured warming in the late 20th century. These changes are pretty small in comparison to the massively hot 2012, however. The defenders of the NOAA – and, let’s say, people trying to keep humanity from frying itself to death – tried to make this argument but in so doing offer an interesting if pessimistic analogy:

Aaron Huertas, a spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that the debate over the adjustments misses the bigger picture.

“Since we broke the [temperature] record by a full degree Fahrenheit this year, the adjustments are relatively minor in comparison,”

“I think climate contrarians are doing what Johnny Cochran did for O.J. Simpson — finding anything to object to, even if it obscures the big picture. It’s like they keep finding new ways to say the ‘glove doesn’t fit’ while ignoring the DNA evidence.”

I think this analogy is pessimistic – if incredibly accurate – because Cochrane managed to convince the relevant decision-makers (the jury) that there was reasonable doubt about OJ’s guilt, even as people still routinely assume OJ was guilty (as Huerta implicitly does in the quote). Let’s hope the analogy fails as a prediction. So far though, it seems spot on.

Pro-Business vs. Pro-Market: Right-to-Work as Restriction of Contract

For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of contemporary political debates about economic matters is the conflation of pro-market and pro-business (specifically pro-big business) policies or principles. I’ve written about this a bit before, but I wanted to bring it back up in the context of the current contention over “right-to-work” legislation in Michigan. In general, debates over unions seem to be one of the major places where “pro-market” and “pro-business” get very muddied. In theory, pro-market should mean freedom of contract – all exchanges are good, since they are (presumed) voluntary, and individuals would never make a voluntary exchange that was not in their interests. But, we can imagine unions as a kind of nexus-of-contracts (just as corporations are a nexus-of-contracts in modern legal understandings and financial theory). So why is it that Republicans, the supposed champions of the free market, as so anti-union? Well, because they aren’t actually pro-market, they are pro-business and, at least in the short run, weaker unions means less bargaining power for workers and thus higher profits for business. And, as Paul Krugman has recently noted, the share of national income going to wages has gone down and the share going to profits has gone up lately, probably reflecting increased monopoly power produced by corporation concentration – just what you’d expect without the countervailing power of unions to force the redistribution of some of that profit to workers.

All of this brings us to the “right-to-work” law that was just signed in Michigan. What is right-to-work? Most simply, it’s a restriction on what kinds of contracts are allowed. Here’s how HuffPo summarized it: ‎”Right-to-work laws forbid contracts between companies and unions that require all workers to pay the union for bargaining on their behalf.” That’s right, “right to work” is actually a government restriction on what kinds of contracts private actors can make. Why is this a Republican position? Well, because it weakens the bargaining power of workers and because it cripples a major base of Democratic financial support.*

Now, of course, we can step back and remind ourselves that corporations – and unions – are actually creations of the state, and that markets in general exist because of, not in spite of, state action. But sadly that’s a whole different rhetorical ballgame, and one neither major political party is excited about. For the moment, let’s just remember that “pro-market” is a rhetorical move as much as a substantive claim, and that the “right-to-work” of the person who doesn’t want to pay union fees for their representation is at once the elimination of the right for employers and unions to sign union shop agreements.

* I should note here that I am a union member in the state of Michigan, so all this is quite personal.

The Other Triumph of the Nerds

The internet has been all aflutter with the story of a local Michigan boy done good: Nate Silver. The academic responses have been quite interesting, including a very useful discussion over at Scatterplot of what Nate Silver’s success (and that of other poll aggregating election forecasters) means for social science and its strong distaste for public opinion polls with very small response rates. The humorous responses include the excellent #NateSilverFacts, modeled after Chuck Norris facts, and #DrunkNateSilver, which narrate incredible predictions made by a drunk and disorderly Silver.*

But there were other nerdy election stories. For example, a Maine State Senate candidate vilified for her World of Warcraft hobby won her election. My favorite, however, concerns the differential success of Get Out the Vote technology by the two campaigns.

President Obama’s reelection campaign apparently took to hear the message of Big Data, and they did it well. Time has excellent post-election coverage of the Obama campaign’s fundraising and voter turnout efforts. The campaign adopted such staples of the high tech revolution as massive integrated databases, A/B testing, and social media apps that directed volunteers to contact their friends and encourage them to participate (i.e. vote). The Big Data team apparently made the call to suggest President Obama answer questions on Reddit as a cheap way to reach a large group of persuadable voters.

The Romney campaign’s use of data does not seem to have gone so smoothly. For example, Romney’s campaign piloted a massive “Project ORCA”, an automated tool designed for 29,000 election day volunteers to help get out the vote in key swing states. The tool was apparently a disaster. Sociologists will sympathize with this tech-savvy Romney’s supporters frustrations:

Now a note about the technology itself. For starters, this was billed as an “app” when it was actually a mobile-optimized website (or “web app”). For days I saw people on Twitter saying they couldn’t find the app on the Android Market or iTunes and couldn’t download it. Well, that’s because it didn’t exist. It was a website. This created a ton of confusion. Not to mention that they didn’t even “turn it on” until 6AM in the morning, so people couldn’t properly familiarize themselves with how it worked on their personal phone beforehand.

The predictable problems ensued. The “app” was not stress tested, and numerous failures occurred, and the whole system apparently went down around 4pm.

Based on pretty simple forecasts derived from economic fundamentals, Obama was a small favorite to win. And, indeed, Obama won by a small margin (in the popular vote). So it’s hard to say that the Romney campaign did a terrible job. As usual, both campaigns were massive and presumably mostly canceled each other out, moving the results back to the fundamentals-based prediction.** That said, I wonder if Obama’s integrated data analysis and ad buying made his campaign’s ad spending much more effective than Romney’s Super PAC-fueled ad buys, which could not rely on any internal targeting, and thus Obama had a significant advantage despite a smaller total amount of fundraising (and I think others have made this argument as well). Similarly, his superior GOTV efforts might have netted a small advantage in the key swing states, giving him a bit of a cushion in the electoral college (though one he ended up not needing). If so, then I think we can see in this presidential election another triumph of the nerds: Obama’s Silicon Valley-esque “Victory Lab” over Romney’s .. whatever it is they were. Bad web developers, I guess?

* My personal favorite #NateSilverFact, for its appropriate level of nerdery, is “Nate Silver once walked over each of the bridges in Konigsberg exactly once.”
** This problem is similar to one named “Friedman’s thermostat” in economics:

Everybody knows that if you press down on the gas pedal the car goes faster, other things equal, right? And everybody knows that if a car is going uphill the car goes slower, other things equal, right?

But suppose you were someone who didn’t know those two things. And you were a passenger in a car watching the driver trying to keep a constant speed on a hilly road. You would see the gas pedal going up and down. You would see the car going downhill and uphill. But if the driver were skilled, and the car powerful enough, you would see the speed stay constant.

So, if you were simply looking at this particular “data generating process”, you could easily conclude: “Look! The position of the gas pedal has no effect on the speed!”; and “Look! Whether the car is going uphill or downhill has no effect on the speed!”; and “All you guys who think that gas pedals and hills affect speed are wrong!”

Similarly, you can look at a series of elections that all converge mostly to the fundamentals-based prediction and say, “Campaigns don’t matter!” Or, you could say that most presidential campaigns are well-funded and competent, broadly speaking, and thus cancel out. The two are very different claims.

Sociology and the Technopolitical Two-Step: The Case of the Regnerus Study

The July 2012 publication in this journal of my study on the young-adult children of parents who have had a same-sex relationship created more criticism and scrutiny than have most sociological studies. … Some perceive it as a tool for this or that political project, a role it was never designed to fill. It cannot answer political or legal questions, and is by definition a retrospective look at household composition and dynamics. – Mark Regnerus

In July of this year, Mark Regnerus, a family demographer and Associate Professor of Sociology at UT-Austin, published a study comparing various outcomes for “young-adult children of parents who have had a same-sex relationship,” also referred to as children of “gay fathers” and “lesbian mothers.” This study, in contrast with most prior research, found that these children had worse outcomes on a variety of measures (educational attainment, current employment, etc.). The study elicited immediate interest from conservative political groups, the media, and a wide range of scholars. Virtually every aspect of the study has since been criticized, from the representativeness of the survey sample to the seemingly sloppy shorthand that transformed “young-adult children of parents who have had a same-sex relationship” into children of gay fathers and lesbian mothers to the publication process (especially the shockingly fast timeline, and the conflicts of interest of reviewers and commenters). The already available November issue of Social Science Research (SSR, the journal in which the original study was published) explores these criticisms and perceived irregularities in extensive detail. Sherkat, an editorial board member at SSR, reviewed the internal records and reports thoroughly on the review process. The issue also includes two open letters commenting on the paper, a summary by SSR’s editor, and commentary by several other authors, as well as a response from Regnerus himself (quoted above).

I’m not going to comment much on the substance of the dispute here, as it’s not especially my area of expertise, and the critics in SSR and elsewhere have done an admirable job on that score already (I especially recommend this early criticism by Andrew Perrin aptly summarized by its title “Bad Science Not About Same-Sex Parenting.”) I do want to comment on the role of politics in the research process and especially the quote with which I opened this post. Regnerus’s study, flawed as it may be, attempts to address a politically salient question: do the children of same-sex parents experience worse outcomes than children from various other family structures? Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to debates over the legalization of same-sex marriage (or, perhaps, the end of the prohibition on same-sex marriage), and especially the debates over adoption by same-sex parents, knows that this question is politically salient. We also can tell that this issue is politically salient because of the coverage afforded to the prior research on the topic (the same research Regnerus critiques). For example, one study found that children raised by lesbian couples experience better outcomes than their peers. Finally, Regnerus’s study was funded by the politically active, and very conservative, Witherspoon Institute, which suggests that someone somewhere thought it was going to be politically relevant. Were it not politically relevant, odds are that Regnerus would never have been able to conduct the study.*

So, how is it that Regnerus can open his response in the November issue of SSR with the blanket statement that his study “cannot answer political or legal questions”? Here, I’m going to argue that Regnerus engages in a beautiful example of what I am going to call the “technopolitical two-step.” Technopolitics is a wonderful term that comes from the field of science, technology, and society (STS), especially the work of Gabrielle Hecht and Timothy Mitchell (although their own uses of the term differ), both of whose work is rooted in the tradition of Bruno Latour. This tradition argues that technical and scientific projects have incredibly important political consequences and that technical and scientific decisions are often made with political projects (broadly conceived) in mind. In other words, the technical and political are deeply intermingled. One goal of this tradition in STS is to expose this intermingling and thus refute, in some sense, deep claims about impartiality often put forward by scientists and engineers.

Economists have perhaps the most famous version of this claim to neutrality in a classic essay by Milton Friedman, “The Methodology of Positive Economics.” Friedman argues, among other things, that economics must be a positive science, not a normative one, and that, while economists can help governments efficiently achieve a pre-specified end, they cannot offer any guidance about how much weight to give the various possible ends. Friedman writes, “Positive economics is in principle independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments.” For example, following Friedman, economics might be able to show that there are tradeoffs between efficiency and equality, but economists have nothing to say about the moral, political, normative question of how much weight we want to place on maximizing our total output vs. distributing that output more evenly.

The “technopolitical two-step” then is a dance commonly performed by researchers engaged in policy-relevant work. Step one, claim privileged knowledge or skills for answering questions of deep political significance. Step two, reject the implication that the knowledge you produced can actually answer any political question. This dance is, I think, especially pervasive among social scientists. On the one hand, claiming relevance is absolutely essential to securing funding and attention. And, most social scientists, I think, actively want to influence political outcomes (at a minimum in some sort of generic “making the world a better place” fashion). But if the connection between a finding and a particular political debate is too transparent, the objectivity of the research is more likely to be called into question, threatening to transform the findings from “facts of the matter” into mere political rhetoric.

Regnerus’s version of the technopolitical two-step is instructive, though not particularly unique. Regnerus emphasizes that his findings are “by definition a retrospective look at household composition and dynamics.” In other words, Regnerus has only studied what has happened in the past, not what will happen next. But, this is true of virtually all scientific research. Without some assumptions that the future will be like the past, that the past provides a useful guide to the future, science is politically worthless.** Frustratingly, the researcher is often in one of the best possible positions to assess the likelihood that the future will be like the past and to outline the circumstances that might affect the reliability of estimates from the recent past as guides to the near future. Regnerus hints at this issue in the discussion section of the original article:

While the NFSS [Regnerus’s survey] may best capture what might be called an “earlier generation” of children of same-sex parents, and includes among them many who witnessed a failed heterosexual union, the basic statistical comparisons between this group and those of others, especially biologically-intact, mother/father families, suggests that notable differences on many outcomes do in fact exist.

What does it mean for the survey to capture an “earlier generation”? I think Regnerus is suggesting that the causal forces at play during the childhoods of the adults he surveyed are quite different from the causal forces that might be at play for similarly categorized individuals today. But Regnerus does not especially expand on this point and certainly does not add any kind of deep history to his finding. Again, I don’t think anything about this is atypical – it’s a short article, and it states clearly its own limitations in a way that other social scientists would be unlikely to mistake. But nothing more.

Another variation on the technopolitical two-step involves the classification of individuals (or other units of analysis) and the mapping of those classifications onto commonly used, politically and culturally salient, terms. Here is another common moment where researchers have significant influence, albeit not necessarily individual influence. Regnerus compares eight statistical groups (including “intact bio family”, “lesbian mother”, and “gay father”) on outcomes like educational attainment, relationship quality, and depression. Regnerus summarizes the main result of his study as one of simply noting differences between these groups: “The between-group comparisons described above also suggest that those respondents with a lesbian mother and those with a gay father do not always exhibit comparable outcomes in young adulthood.” Regnerus in particular has received a lot of criticism for this part of the dance, but again I think it’s a pervasive problem for social science. For sexuality research in particular, Barrett’s comment in SSR does an excellent job of discussing the problems of constructing categories in research and mapping those categories onto politically salient ones:

Coming from a research focus on the experiences of working-class men who are sexually active with other men but may not identify as ‘gay,’ I have found that representation and presentation of these men often taps into public meanings that misrepresent them. … When I have taken the shortcut of labeling the men ‘gay’ but noting that they do not identify as gay, I have found that both reviewers and other readers conflate the men’s experiences with the experiences of the more well-known middle-class, publicly self-identified, gay male; readers thus have difficulty understanding my points about class discrimination within gay culture, or about the class limits that affect the ability to access the resources available to self-identified gays (e.g., supportive work environments). Similarly, it is very common in manuscript reviews to encounter situations where authors (and some journal editors) do not grasp the hazards of using the term ‘gay’ to describe populations where many are same-sex involved but may not publicly self-identify as gay.

Here is a fantastic place to show the deep problems with trying to cleanly separate out technical “findings” and political “consequences.” Regnerus, constrained somewhat by his reviewers and editor, had control over the terminology of the findings. Without some specialized skills, outside readers would not be able to assess the quality of the link between the political commonplace “gays and lesbians” or “gay and lesbian parents” or “gay and lesbian families” and the family structures specified in Regnerus’s study. Regnerus’s study actually investigates a group that is not socially or politically meaningful “young adult children of parents who have had a same-sex relationship.” But Regnerus reports his findings in terms that are filled with political salience: children of same-sex parents, or children of lesbian mothers and gay fathers. An attentive reader with access to the full article and some understanding of how to read a methods section can decide on their own whether or not the statistical category in the data corresponds to the salient, socially recognized, politically meaningful category. But in attempting to forge that link, Regnerus converts his findings into ones more directly relevant to the political debate, and thus more capable of answering “political or legal questions”, like should same-sex couples be allowed to marry or adopt. The conclusion is especially telling:

While previous studies suggest that children in planned GLB families seem to fare comparatively well, their actual representativeness among all GLB families in the US may be more modest than research based on convenience samples has presumed.

Note here that Regnerus himself is offering a redefinition of the politically salient category of gay and lesbian families. It’s quite possible that advocates for GLB families would not draw the boundaries of the category in the same fashion of Regnerus. And, significantly, advocates of same-sex marriage (who Regnerus references elsewhere in the conclusion, noting that courts are increasingly legalizing same-sex marriage) may explicitly have in mind stable, intact, two-parent units who plan their families, not Regnerus’s definitions, which count as a GLB family any case where either parent had any same-sex relationship. Neither definition is wrong – definitions, in some sense, are incapable of being wrong in their own context. But findings do not stay within the confines of a single paper or study. Facts “travel”, in Mary Morgan’s delightful phrase. And when social scientists subtly redefine a category (and in some sense, they are incapable of doing otherwise, as the socially recognized category rarely maps perfectly onto the categories available in a dataset, and is likely too fuzzy and contested for any single definition to accurately characterize everyone’s understanding), and then make claims about that category, they are engaging in an important kind of politics.

Similarly, Regnerus explicitly disavows any causal claims in the conclusion of the article:

Although the NFSS offers strong support for the notion that there are significant differences among young adults that correspond closely to the parental behavior, family structures, and household experiences during their youth, I have not and will not speculate here on causality, in part because the data are not optimally designed to do so, and because the causal reckoning for so many different types of outcomes is well beyond what an overview manuscript like this one could ever purport to accomplish. … I am thus not suggesting that growing up with a lesbian mother or gay father causes suboptimal outcomes because of the sexual orientation or sexual behavior of the parent; rather, my point is more modest: the groups display numerous, notable distinctions, especially when compared with young adults whose biological mother and father remain married.

Here is a beautifully executed dance move. Regnerus makes a technical point: this study looks at correlation, not causation. This point is flawless. The statement satisfied reviewers, as well it should – within the context of the article, it’s very clear and appropriate. And yet, social science research that explicitly disavows causality is still mobilized as causal for political purposes. We all know this. How responsible should authors be for not only accurately stating the technical limitations of their findings, but going out of their way to explain how those limitations affect the political usefulness of their findings? If the author disavows any capacity to answer “political or legal questions”, then of course they do not need to worry about it. If instead of continuing to dance the technopolitical two-step, the author were to engage frankly in a discussion of why and how their findings might or might not be useful for particular political claims (about the causal connection between having gay parents and having good outcomes), the veil would be cast aside, and the separation between the two realms would be in danger.

My point in writing this post is not (just) to criticize Regnerus for his dance moves. I want to argue that these problems are endemic to policy-relevant social science. The case of Regnerus is especially useful because the intense scrutiny focused on the study brought together communities of experts who laid bare the tight connections between technical decisions (how variables were collapsed together and named) and political consequences (claims by conservatives that Regnerus found that children of GLB parents had worse outcomes and thus refutes the claims made by proponents of legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption). Sociologists can continue to dance the technopolitical two-step in our journals, but the collapse of the fact/value dichotomy is real, and claims to objective knowledge are inherently political acts. We need more systematic ways of thinking about the political implications – both obvious, as in the Regnerus case, and more subtle – and how those should affect the way we conduct our research and frame our findings.

* Not everyone agrees that the question Regnerus attempts to answer is, in fact, relevant to the political question of legalizing same-sex marriage or adoption. We don’t deny anyone else the right to parent just because their background might predict that their children would be less likely to succeed in school, etc. And, even those who believe the findings are relevant mobilize them in different ways: on the right as evidence that GLB parents are unfit, and on the left as evidence that banning same-sex marriage (and other anti-GLB policies) harm the children of GLB parents.

** Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams provides a beautiful, and haunting, description of such a world.

“Consider a world in which cause and effect are erratic. Sometimes the first precedes the second, sometimes the second the first….
Each act is an island in time, to be judged on its own. It is a world of impulse. It is a world of sincerity. It is a world in which every word spoken speaks just to that moment, every glance given has only one meaning, each touch has no past or future, each kiss becomes a kiss of immediacy.”

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Sasha K and Jamie B for comments on a previous draft of this post.

Romney 2004 vs. Romney 2012 on Climate Change

In 2004, then Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney signed a Climate Change Protection Plan, available here via the Washington Post. Romney wrote in his opening:

I am proud to announce the Massachusetts Climate Protection Plan, the first in the history of the Commonwealth and among the strongest in our nation. Since taking office in January 2003, this Administration has embarked on a “no regrets” policy towards climate change. Rather than focusing our energy on the debate over the causes of global warming and the impact of human activity on climate, we have chosen to put our emphasis on actions, not discourse. If climate change is happening, the actions we take will help. If climate change is largely caused by human actions, this will really help. If we learn decades from now that climate change isn’t happening, these actions will still help our economy, our quality of life and the quality of our environment.

The plan called for “a range of strategies to achieve significant near-term reductions in GHG emissions.”

Even as recently as 2008, the Republican platform called for addressing climate change responsibly, as the WaPo blog notes, quoting the platform:

“The same human economic activity that has brought freedom and opportunity to billions has also increased the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. While the scope and longterm consequences of this are the subject of ongoing scientific research, common sense dictates that the United States should take measured and reasonable steps today to reduce any impact on the environment. Those steps, if consistent with our global competitiveness will also be good for our national security, our energy independence, and our economy.”

The 2008 platform went on to call for “technology-driven, market-based solutions that will decrease emissions, reduce excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, increase energy efficiency, mitigate the impact of climate change where it occurs, and maximize any ancillary benefits climate change might offer for the economy.”

And even as recently as last year, Romney said, “the world’s getting warmer,” and “I believe that humans contribute,” and “I think it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases.”

Last night, presidential nominee Mitt Romney said:

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans. And to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.

Anyone watching the speech will remember the laughter from the convention attendees after Romney’s first line. Climate Change went from being a serious problem to a laugh line. And Romney went from endorsing an innovative, if market-oriented, attempt to curb GHG emissions and slow climate change to towing the party line which belittles the seriousness of climate change and denies the scientific consensus on its magnitude, causes and consequences. The 2012 Republican platform mentions climate change just once, in a criticism of President Obama’s national security policy:

Finally, the [current Administration’s] strategy subordinates our national security interests to environmental, energy, and international health issues, and elevates “climate change” to the level of a “severe threat” equivalent to foreign aggression. The word “climate,” in fact, appears in the current President’s strategy more often than Al Qaeda, nuclear proliferation, radical Islam, or weapons of mass destruction.

Maybe Mitt Romney’s family will be ok as the ocean level rises, and extreme weather like heat waves and droughts become more common. For the rest of us, stopping or slowing climate change is one of the most important things the government can do to help our families. Where have you gone, Mitt Romney of 2004?

On Mitt Romney, the Culture of Poverty, and the Denial of Structure

There’s been a lot of media coverage of Mitt Romney’s gaffes on his foreign policy mini-tour of the UK, Poland and Israel. After accusing London of being unprepared for the Olympics*, Romney moved on to Israel where he accused Palestinians of being poor because of their bad culture. Here’s the quote via WaPo:

“As you come here and you see the [Gross Domestic Product] per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” Romney said, according to a pool report.

“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from that book, by David Landes. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

First, a glaring factual problem: the differences in GDP per capita are much, much starker, as the WaPo notes: “According to the World Bank, Israel’s GDP per capita is actually $31,282. The same figure for the Palestinian areas is around $1,600.” So, instead of a difference of 2:1 the real ratio is about 20:1. Oops.

While some have read this comment as an indicator of Mitt Romney’s complete foreign policy naivety, I actually worry that it speaks more to his complete unwillingness to see structure behind the determination of any outcome, no matter how obvious the structures are. Palestinians hardly live in a land of opportunity. Rather, they are routinely denied basic freedoms of movement, just for starters. It’s quite hard to make a good living if you aren’t even allowed to go to work. It’s mind-boggling to attribute the difference in incomes to the nebulous, and racist in a low-information-signaling sort of way, “culture”, when so many structural forces are plain to see with the naked eye.

I find this particularly disturbing because the structural forces at play in the US that produce and reproduce inequality are so much subtler (if not exactly subtle). Segregation’s still a big deal here, but there aren’t as many military checkpoints enforcing it. And so on. If Mitt Romney denies the existence and relevance of structural barriers to opportunity and equality in Palestine, what must he think of the economic position of, say, minorities in the US?

EDIT: For a much better informed, and more informative, discussion of why Romney’s assertion about Palestinian poverty makes no sense, see Juan Cole’s recent post, Dear Mr. Romney: Palestinians are Poor Because You Stole from them and Kept them Stateless.

* Occasioning a fantastic retort from British PM David Cameron who noted that it’s harder to host the games somewhere people want to go as opposed to “the middle of nowhere” (i.e. Salt Lake City).

The Climate Change Dystopia and National Accounts

I joke a lot about the robot apocalypse. I follow the news on the latest things we’ve taught robots and AI to do (e.g. consume organic matter, lie, shoot guns, recognize cats, etc.) and laugh at how when you add their capabilities together, you get the robot apocalypse that fiction (and Charli Carpenter) have warned us about for years. I like to think about the robot apocalypse because, while plausible in a science fiction way, it doesn’t seem imminent. Unlike the Climate Change Dystopia (CCD, let’s call it).*

This morning I read a piece from the next issue of Rolling Stone, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. There’s not that much that’s truly new about the piece, but it does an excellent job of summarizing how bad things have gotten and how much worse they’re going to get absent immediate, radical changes. The piece is framed around three numbers: 2 degrees Celsius (the amount of warming scientists used to think would be allowable without triggering CCD, though new estimates are a bit lower), 565 gigatons of carbon (how much more we can dump into the atmosphere and keep global warming to 2 degrees Celsisus), and 2,795 gigatons of carbon – the amount of fossil fuels that large companies already have in their reserves. That’s perhaps the most novel contribution of the article: to think through the political and economic consequences of the fact that fossil fuel producers have already discovered five times more fossil fuels than we can safely burn without triggering a catastrophe. These reserves are built into the value of large oil and gas companies around the world. These companies will fight tooth and nail for the right to burn all of what they’ve found, and even to search for more. In fact, they are already fighting hard, and have successfully produced doubt in the public about the extent and severity of the problem, as well as the scientific consensus (see Oreskes and Conway for details). And that’s going to destroy the world as we know it.

Here’s just one choice quote from the article on the absurd politics of energy and climate change:

Sometimes the irony is almost Borat-scale obvious: In early June, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled on a Norwegian research trawler to see firsthand the growing damage from climate change. “Many of the predictions about warming in the Arctic are being surpassed by the actual data,” she said, describing the sight as “sobering.” But the discussions she traveled to Scandinavia to have with other foreign ministers were mostly about how to make sure Western nations get their share of the estimated $9 trillion in oil (that’s more than 90 billion barrels, or 37 gigatons of carbon) that will become accessible as the Arctic ice melts. Last month, the Obama administration indicated that it would give Shell permission to start drilling in sections of the Arctic.

For one clear demonstration of how things are going to get worse: this year’s record heats have made it harder to grow corn. When it’s too hot for too long, corn kernels don’t develop right, and they won’t produce corn. The US exports a tremendous amount of corn, and that keeps global food prices low (lower than they would be). This year, food prices are going to go up. Here’s a graph and caption from Paul Krugman:

I’ve been searching for something useful to say about the epic heat wave and drought afflicting U.S. agriculture, other than that this is the shape of things to come. Of course it’s about climate change: a rising number of temperature records is exactly what you’d expect given an underlying upward trend in global temperatures. And the economic consequences will be large: maybe 1 percent on U.S. consumer prices, but suffering and food riots in poorer nations that spend more of their income on food.

I don’t have too much insight into climate change beyond the apocalyptic things I read from the actual experts. The one point that arises from my research is that if we took climate change – or really, the environment at all – into account in our estimates of economic growth, the picture we have of “the economy” would look dramatically different. For example, Muller, Mendelsohn and Nordhaus (2011) produce a modified set of national accounts that take into account just one kind of environmental damage: air pollution (including estimates of the cost of CO2 emissions, where possible). Muller et al find that including this one form of pollution radically alters our assessment of how valuable certain industries are to the overall economy (understood here as “what GDP measures”).

For some industries (sewage treatment plants, solid waste combustion, stone quarrying, marinas, and petroleum fired and coal-fired power generation), [Gross Environmental Damage, GED] actually exceeds conventionally measured [Value Added, VA]. Crop and livestock production also have high GED/VA ratios, which is surprising given that these activities generally occur in rural (low marginal damage) areas. Other industries with high GED/VA ratios include water transportation, carbon black manufacturing, steam heat and air conditioning supply, and sugarcane mills. It is likely that many of these sources are underregulated.

Muller et al are cautious because of the many kinds of uncertainties in their estimates, and because GDP is already a wacky enough measure to begin with that it’s hard to take too seriously as a measure of economic welfare (despite the fact that we do just that all the time), but the point is clear: we are much less well off than we think if we think hard about pollution, and some industries may be downright destructive (at least at the margin), with their marginal product being less valuable than their marginal environmental damage.

Muller et al end with a call for the production official national accounts that take into account environmental damage. While they don’t make this link, I would argue that such accounts would be a helpful tool for climate change debates: every time someone asks, “But what will this do to the economy?” we would be able to provide a very different answer, one that recognized the previously undercounted costs (including increasing global warming). But, like most of the incremental political tools mentioned in the Rolling Stone article, these sorts of changes would likely take years, and only have small effects on our national debates. And we simply may not have the time for incremental measures anymore.

* For an excellent fictional account of the CCD, see Paolo Bacigalupi’s work, especially The Windup Girl.

On the Limits of Presidential Power: FDR and Glass-Steagall

Matt Taibbi, rockstar financial journalist, has a new lengthy piece in Rolling Stone on How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform. I highly recommend the article, which covers strategies used by big banks to fight the implementation of the Dodd-Frank act. But, I also want to quibble with one of the arguments Taibbi – and many others – make about the act’s historical analog, the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933.

Both acts were passed in the wake of major financial crises, by majority parties swept into office by the fallout from those crises. Glass-Steagall famously separated commercial and investment banks, created deposit insurance (the FDIC), and capped interest rates on deposits (Regulation Q), among other things. Dodd-Frank’s goals were more modest, in some ways, but included the Volcker rule which prohibits banks from engaging in proprietary trading (somewhat analogous to the separation of commercial and investment banks) and requirements that derivatives be traded on market exchanges when possible (most derivatives were “over the counter” (OTC) before the act, and thus very difficult to make sense of and regulate). And, indeed, Glass-Steagall was frequently mobilized in the past few years as an explicit marker of what used to be great about American financial regulation and thus what needs to be recovered.

Taibbi mentions Glass-Steagall (GS) as well, in order to argue that Dodd-Frank (DF) started out weaker than GS, and thus was easier for banks to delay and evade. I agree in general, but I want to contest one part of Taibbi’s characterization of the history of GS:

In fact, Obama’s initial response to the devastating financial events of 2008 represented a major departure from the historical precedent his own party had set during the 1930s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched an audacious rewrite of the rules governing the American economy following the Great Crash of 1929.

Upon entering office, FDR was in exactly the same position Obama found himself in after his inauguration in 2009. Then, as now, the American economy was in tatters after the bursting of a massive financial bubble, brought on when speculators borrowed huge sums and gambled on unregistered securities in largely unregulated exchanges. This mania for instant riches led to an explosion of Wall Street fraud and manipulation, creating a mountain of illusory growth divorced from the real-world economy: Of the $50 billion in securities sold in America in the 1920s, half turned out to be worthless.

Roosevelt’s response to all of this was to pass a number of sweeping new laws that focused on a single theme: protecting consumers by forcing the business of Wall Street into the light. The Securities Act of 1933 required all publicly traded companies to register themselves and offer prospectuses to investors; the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 forced publicly traded companies to make regular financial disclosures; and the Commodity Exchange Act of 1936 required all commodities and futures to be traded on organized exchanges. FDR also created the FDIC to protect bank depositors (through an insurance fund paid for by the banks themselves) and passed the Glass-Steagall Act to separate insurance companies, investment banks and commercial banks. Post-New Deal, if you put money in a bank, you knew it was safe, and if you bought stock, you knew what you were buying.

Ok, here’s my problem with this narrative: Roosevelt didn’t do it! Well, FDR did in fact sign each of these laws into existence. But FDR was not the driving force behind them. As co-author Russ Funk and I discuss in our history of the rise and fall of Glass-Steagall (working paper available here), pressure to pass financial regulation preceded FDR taking office. Senator Glass and Representative Steagall were both working on financial reform bills in the early 1930s, without much success. The Pecora commission investigations into Wall St. shenanigans created public outcry and helped push for specific provisions which ended up in the act. FDR, in fact, was on the record against the creation of deposit insurance, as he thought it was an overreach of federal regulation. Here’s how we put it in the paper:

In light of the Pecora Commission’s findings, Congress passed the Banking Act of 1933 in June. The law merged Congressman Steagall’s deposit insurance bill with Senator Glass’s bill separating commercial and investment banking, and thus is commonly known as the GlassSteagall Act of 1933. Roosevelt somewhat reluctantly signed the bill into law; he was concerned that deposit insurance was an overreach, and he had only lukewarm support for the separation of commercial and investment banking (Perkins 1971: 524). Thus, although the Glass-Steagall Act is commonly included in lists of Roosevelt’s New Deal accomplishments, his own role was quite minimal: both major components of the law were proposed before he took office, and Roosevelt simply allowed them to enter into law. (Funk and Hirschman 2012: 20)

Why does it matter that Congress, not FDR, provided the momentum for Glass-Steagall? For one, I think it reminds us of the importance of Congress in making and enforcing the rules. Democrats controlled Congress in 1933 when Glass-Steagall was passed, but they continued to control it well past the law’s implementations – for more than the next decade, in fact. In contrast, Democrats lost control of the House before Dodd-Frank was implemented. As Russ and I describe in our paper, and as political scientists have long known, the process of regulation is a slow and gritty one. New regulations take time to implement, and always have holes. Over time, these holes accumulate as businesses invent new practices and products (one field’s “innovation” is another field’s “policy drift”). Thus, continued control of Congress, and interest by legislators, is required to patch up the gaps, fund regulatory agencies, and so on. The President can’t do that alone.

For another, I think it also reminds us that the presidency has changed in the past 80 years. We tend to read back into history the modern executive, with their immense power. And that’s just bad history. FDR played a not insignificant role in the expansion of federal authority, and of executive power. But that’s a story that continues to present. The more we talk about “FDR did this” and “Obama should do this,” the more we naturalize the current power of the president as an inherent feature of the system. That makes for bad history, and also tends to foreclose discussions of the future. What can wax can also wane.

To reiterate, Taibbi’s article is a fantastic window into the strategies of big banks to stall the implementation of Dodd-Frank and repeal major provisions. And elsewhere, Taibbi does a fantastic job of showing the importance of Congress – for example, reminding us that they control the budget for key regulators like the CFTC. But I think the article would have been slightly stronger with just a bit more attention to the history of Glass-Steagall and the importance of Congress in its passage.