Review of “The Nature of Race”, Ann Morning (2011)

I just finished reading Ann Morning’s The Nature of Race. It’s excellent. Morning shows, through analysis of high school textbooks, interviews with scientists (biologists and anthropologists), and interviews with undergraduates, that racial essentialism is still the dominant mode of understanding race. Again, this is true among practicing biologists, and it’s even true among many undergraduates studying cultural anthropology (though this belief is not as prominent). Morning is one of a number of scholars (including Steve Epstein, Alondra Nelson, and others) who have pointed to the return of biological conceptions of race connected to modern understandings of genetics. More generally, Morning shows that peoples’ conceptions of race are mixed and messy, but with an essentialist biological argument playing a starring role in many settings.

A bit more on what Morning means by essentialism. Morning lays out three broad positions on race (“racial conceptualizations”) that are themselves not entirely coherent (as in, there are multiple versions of each): essentialism, constructivism, and anti-essentialism.

Essentialism holds that humans are divisible into discrete biological groups which we can call races, and that members of these racial groups are different in important and unchangeable ways. Contemporary essentialist arguments invoke genetics; older arguments relied on phenotypes to assign people to races and on different understandings of biology to motivate their arguments about the fixedness of various traits (intelligence, athletic ability, what have you).

A second position, anti-essentialism, says that essentialism is wrong – human biological variation does not neatly fall into discrete groups, humans have always interbred across what we think of as racial lines, and racial classifications reflect cultural biases not biological realities.

The last position, constructivism, is in many ways an ally to anti-essentialism – the two can go hand in hand, but they are often invoked separately. Constructivism says that race is a social and cultural construct, but that it is real and meaningful and connected to various forms of domination and inequality (empire, slavery, etc.). The two positions both make sense, but they sometimes seem to imply contradictory actions: constructivism implies that it’s important to measure race and racial difference because it’s so baked into how we setup society that we can’t ignore it but have to effectively fight it, while anti-essentialism seems to imply that we should just get rid of the damned thing entirely. That’s a bit of my extrapolation from her argument, but I think it holds up. I think anti-essentialism and constructivism also become more useful in different contexts: when thinking about say, school segregation vs. research on new medications.

An important caveat: these are conceptualizations not people; an individual can express multiple such positions when prompted in different ways, even though they seem to contradict. People are funny like that.

The book is excellent, and readable, and inspiring… but it’s also depressing as hell, in a subtle way. As Morning shows, strong arguments against essentialist biological understandings of race go back at least to the 1930s (and almost surely further, but in very recognizable forms to that period). The scientific evidence against racial essentialism has only gotten stronger. And yet, somehow, we are losing the fight. Morning’s last chapter offers some tentative ideas about why racial essentialism is so enduring, and why it might be especially resurgent now in an era that has seen tremendous legal victories in the fight for civil rights, but persistent and massive racial inequality and segregation. But at least one reason has to be that social scientists haven’t yet figured out how to convince everyone – especially, but not limited to, biological scientists and undergraduates – that race is not an essential biological fact, but rather an enduring cultural and social creation that plays out meaningfully in everyday life and is baked into social structures of domination. I’m not sure how we do that, but somehow we have to do better.


Piketty’s “Capital”, Link Round-Up

There’s a new big red political economy book in town! This weekend, I had the pleasure of reading the first few chapters of economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The book is impressive and interesting, if almost a bit out of time. Piketty’s analysis of the dynamics of capital and inequality feels like one part Karl Marx, two parts Simon Kuznets (both of whom he cites approvingly, if critically). This style of analysis, rooted in a long-run historical dynamic of reasonably simple aggregates, is intentionally in contrast with the dominant style of economics today. So far, it seems to be working out quite well, as everyone and their advisor is commenting on Piketty’s work. Below is a partial collection of links to blog posts and more formal reviews of the book, for my and your perusal. Even more than usual, linking here is not an endorsement. If I get a chance, I may go back through and pull interesting quotes. For now, here’s the list.

Forces of Divergence, John Cassidy, New Yorker.

Piketty’s Triumph. Short reviews by Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, Heather Boushey, Branko Milanovic at Here’s a quote from Hacker and Pierson:

Piketty suggests that the pressures for change will eventually prove overwhelming. Either ever-richer capitalists will tear one another apart in the race for diminishing returns, or the rest of society will rise up and impose a fairer framework. For a book that insists on the primacy of politics, however, Piketty has relatively little to say about how—with organized labor weakened, moneyed interests strengthened, and anti-government forces emboldened—the kind of political movement necessary for a fairer future will emerge. (It was war, after all, not universal suffrage, that ultimately tamed inequality in the 20th century.)

Heather Boushey (and Me) on Thomas Piketty. Brad DeLong, blogging at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, responding to one of the short reviews above. His conclusion:

Piketty says: sociologically, America today may be the worst of all worlds for those who are neither top income earners nor top wealth successors: you are poor, and depicted as dumb & undeserving: “nobody was trying to depict Ancien Régime inequality as fair”.

Reading “Capital”: Introduction. The first part of a reading group organized by the Free Exchange blog at The Economist. Several more parts are already posted, with more to come.

Capital in the 21 Century: Still Mired in the 19th. Dean Baker, blogging at the Huffington Post. A tidbit:

Rather than continuing in this vein, I will just take one item that provides an extraordinary example of the book’s lack of attentiveness to institutional detail. In questioning his contribution to advancing technology, Piketty asks: “Did Bill [Gates] invent the computer or just the mouse?” Of course the mouse was first popularized by Apple, Microsoft’s rival. It’s a trivial issue, but it displays the lack of interest in the specifics of the institutional structure that is crucial for constructing a more egalitarian path going forward.

Remind anyone of a similar critique of the last big red political economy bestseller?

[EDIT] Henry Farrell presents a strong argument that Dean Baker took the above quote out of context, and that the debate over Piketty’s small inaccuracies is both unfair and undermining the bigger conversation (where both tend to agree on, e..g, Piketty’s lack of institutional discussion). Here’s Farrell’s take:

What Piketty actually says (p.512 of the proofs version of the book, which I assume maps on to the final text):

As for Bill Gates and Ronald Reagan, each with his own cult of personality (Did Bill invent the computer or just the mouse? Did Ronnie destroy the USSR single-handedly, or with the help of the pope?)…

In other words, Piketty isn’t claiming that Bill Gates invented the computer, or the mouse, any more that he’s claiming that Saint Ronald went in there like Rambo with his missile launcher (with or without the help of trusty sidekick JP-II) to bring the Soviet Union to its knees. He’s engaging in sarcastic hyperbole to illustrate the ludicrous way in which popular wisdom attributes vast historical changes to the intervention of singular, godlike culture heroes.

Dean Baker on Piketty’s Capital: Or, How FDR Proved Marx Wrong. Steve Roth at Angry Bear, in dialog with Dean Baker’s post.

The Problem of “Capital in the Twenty First Century”. Peter Frase, writer for Jacobin, on his personal blog.

Q&A: Thomas Piketty on the Wealth Divide. An interview with Piketty by Eduardo Porter of the NYTimes’ Economix blog.

A Relentless Widening of Disparity in Wealth. Porter’s review of the book in the NYTimes proper.

Notes on Piketty (Wonkish). Paul Krugman, on his personal blog hosted by the NYTimes.

Krugman starts talking about labor share… Have hope middle class. Edward Lambert at Angry Bear, responding to Krugman’s post. Krugman continues here, Lambert responds to that here.

In Praise of the Utopian Political Imagination. Kathleen Geier writing for The Nation.

[Added 3/25]

The Top of the World. Doug Henwood’s review at Book Forum.

The Dead Are Wealthier Than the Living. Tim Noah at Pacific Standard Magazine. His critical conclusion:

It’s always dangerous to project current trends into the future, but here’s one extrapolation I’ll subscribe to: predictions about the future will usually prove wrong. With regard to r > g, lets remember that most of Piketty’s evidence comes from the pre-industrial economy. The industrial and post-industrial economies are only about 150 years old, and for nearly half that time g was greater than r. That almost certainly means we lack sufficient data to determine how, or whether, capital accumulation goes haywire in the coming years.

[Added 3/27]

Capital in partial equilibrium. A harsh review from the econ blog Updated Priors. The post concludes:

Capital is tremendously informative, and Piketty’s use of literary anecdote is a nice touch; but ultimately this is a chart book, with plenty of economic data but very little economics.

[Added 3/29]
Kapital for the Twenty-First Century?. James K. Galbraith critiques Piketty in Dissent, in part for glossing over the problems of aggregating different kinds of capital into a single measure, and thus implying that changes in the return on capital largely reflect the destruction of physical wealth rather than financial value:

Much of Piketty’s analysis turns on the ratio of capital—as he defines it—to national income: the capital/income ratio. It should be obvious that this ratio depends heavily on the flux of market value. And Piketty says as much. For example, when he describes the capital/income ratio plummeting in France, Britain, and Germany after 1910, he is referring only in part to physical destruction of capital equipment. There was almost no physical destruction in Britain during the First World War, and that in France was vastly overstated at the time, as Keynes showed in 1919. There was also very little in Germany, which was intact until the war’s end.

So what happened? The movement of Piketty’s ratio was largely due to much higher incomes, produced by wartime mobilization, in relation to the existing market cap, whose gains were restricted or fell during and after the war. Later, when asset values collapsed during the Great Depression, it mainly wasn’t physical capital that disintegrated, only its market value. During the Second World War, destruction played a larger role. The problem is that while physical and price changes are obviously different, Piketty treats them as if there were aspects of the same thing.

[EDIT] Brad DeLong response to Galbraith here. Key quote:

Piketty’s book is about distribution and social power, not about accumulation and productivity growth. I don’t know where Galbraith gets the idea that it was. … Why does Galbraith think that Piketty is a neoclassical committed to the marginal productivity theory of distribution? I cannot figure that out.

[Added 4/1]
Trickle-up Economics. David Cay Johnson at Al Jazeera America.

The Return of “Patrimonial Capitalism” (pdf). Branko Milanovic published this long review of the book back in October (based on the French edition). It’s excellent, but lengthy, and I’m looking forward to revisiting it now that I have the English version of the book in hand. Two gems from the review:

What with Africa and India? Piketty does not say anything, but again, we can assume that in some more distant future, the same process will befall them too. This, however, opens a potential crack in Piketty’s argument—even if it is fully logically coherent—namely, that the period of high global growth (on account of convergence) may continue during the entire 21st century. And if it does, then the inequality r>g may be overturned as it was during “el periodo especial” and the bleak future described in the book may be postponed by at least another one hundred years.

And the last line of the review, perhaps my favorite praise for a book ever:

When reading Piketty’s book, it is indeed hard to go back to thinking about anything else: one gets totally absorbed in it. This is perhaps the best compliment that the author of an almost thousand-page long economics book can ever expect to get. Don’t take this book on vacation: it will spoil it. Read it a home.

[Added 4/8]
The short guide to Capital in the 21st Century. Matthew Yglesias over at the new A nice summary of a vulnerable assumption of the book:

Piketty says that r = 5 percent regardless of the rate of growth and provides fairly convincing empirical evidence that this has been the case in the past. But the theoretical basis for this pattern is unclear so it might not hold up. In principle, a permanent slowdown in growth could lead to a concurrent slowdown in the rate of return on capital leading to a stabilization in the wealth-income ratio. In that case, either everything would be fine or else if things weren’t fine it would be because the growth rate is too low not because the wealth-income ratio is rising.

[Added 4/11]
Why We’re in a New Gilded Age. Paul Krugman’s long-awaited (well, two weeks-awaited anyway) review in the NY Review of Books.

And that’s just what’s come through my newsfeed! Post your reactions to the book, or links to any other interesting discussions of it around the web, in the comments.


This week I’m headed to the archives at Columbia University. I was really excited to leave snowy Michigan, only to learn that it’s going to snow here tomorrow. Alas.

Also, if you have any recommendations for good food spots – especially breakfast and lunch places or coffee shops – near Columbia, leave your suggestion in the comments. Thanks!

Regulating Better, Not Regulating Less: Occupational Licensing Edition

Today, I came across an interesting-looking NBER working paper on occupational licensing, Relaxing Occupational Licensing Requirements: Analyzing Wages and Prices for a Medical Service by Kleiner et al. The paper, which I have only skimmed, examines the consequences of relaxing restrictions on what kinds of services nurse practitioners can offer to patients (as compared to services offered by doctors). Here’s a big chunk of the abstract summarizing their findings:

We find that when only physicians are allowed to prescribe controlled substances that this is associated with a reduction in nurse practitioner wages, and increases in physician wages suggesting some substitution among these occupations. Furthermore, our estimates show that prescription restrictions lead to a reduction in hours worked by nurse practitioners and are associated with increases in physician hours worked. Our analysis of insurance claims data shows that the more rigid regulations increase the price of a well-child medical exam by 3 to 16 %. However, our analysis finds no evidence that the changes in regulatory policy are reflected in outcomes such as infant mortality rates or malpractice premiums.

So, to summarize: letting nurse practitioners do more decreased the cost of care to patients without sacrificing quality. Assuming for a moment that the results hold up, this paper clearly strikes a blow against the current system of occupational licensing which puts such restrictions on nurse practitioners. Keen.

I posted the above paper to Facebook and was amused to see quick responses from two libertarian friends who read my posting of the paper as an endorsement for a general end to occupational licensing (as called for e.g. here).* But this paper contributes virtually nothing to our understanding of the possible consequences of eliminating licensing. The point of the paper is that some kinds of care can be done by a larger set of licensed professionals than currently do them – there’s not much evidence here (for or against) abandoning licensing entirely. And I think it’s telling that this paper drew such a reaction, where evidence of a regulatory imperfection is read as strong proof that the entire idea is flawed, even when the proposed alternative (i.e. no licensing) has not actually been tested.

More generally, to make social democracy work means regulating better, not (necessarily) regulating less.** It’s very much in keeping with social democratic principles to argue that particular rules should be reformed, and even better, to draw on evidence to make those arguments. But that’s a far cry from abandoning a whole class of regulation because we have evidence that they’re not perfectly implemented, especially when we’ve just been given tools to make those regulations work better.

*Some of this may have been in mocking jest, i.e. “Dan <3s neoliberal schemes for deregulation:-)".
**Regulating better has been made especially difficult lately by the performative insistence of half the political class that government as a whole must be incompetent.

On Informative File Names

Warning: This post is about professional etiquette and/or venting about a pet peeve.

Suppose you are submitting a paper to a conference, paper award, or the like – a judged competition which usually receives a relatively large number of submissions – by means of an email attachment.* What should you name the attached document? There are some real issues here. There is no standard format, and there has been some historical variation in which characters were acceptable (spaces used to be annoying, now are not, etc.). But I think we can all agree that a reasonable answer should include, at a minimum, the author’s last name, some version of the paper title, and perhaps some indication of the competition to which it is being submitted, e.g. “Hirschman_Totally Awesome Paper Title_Section Award.” My preferred variant is actually “Hirschman (2014) Totally Awesome Paper Title (Section Award Version)” as it’s most useful for me, but I don’t have a strong claim to it being the perfect solution.

What doesn’t, and can’t, make sense is a submission simply titled “Section Award.pdf.” This can’t make sense because it doesn’t scale. If everyone uses the same filename, the organizers or award committee members will have a directory entirely consisting of “Section Award (n).pdf” for n from 1 to N, and no way of telling which was which without using some kind of internal search feature. So what possible logic leads people to consistently title attachments this way? Arguably, the purpose of the submission is the least important piece of information in the filename as it’s the one thing the recipient already knows, and which is shared across all submissions!

Tl;dr: When sending out a paper as an attachment, please use an informative file name.

* The same holds for submissions to, say, department workshops where only one paper is being presented at a time, but in that context proper naming is somewhat less urgent, as receiving only one submission at a time makes it more likely I will rename the file anyway. That said, the more informative your file name, the easier it is for everyone receiving it rename to their liking, and usually such submissions have larger audiences and thus burden more people if you use an uninformative file name as everyone has to rename it.

Undoing Publication Bias with “P-Curves”, Minimum Wage Edition

Following the blog rabbit hole today, I came across an interesting statistics and data analysis blog I hadn’t seen before: Simply Statistics. The blog authors are biostatisticians at Johns Hopkins, and at least one is creating a 9-month MOOC sequence on data analysis that looks quite interesting. So, far my favorite post (and the one that led me to the blog) is a counter-rant to all the recent p-value bashing (e.g. this Nature piece): On the scalability of statistical procedures: why the p-value bashers just don’t get it. The post’s argument boils down to something like, “P-values, there is no alternative!” But check out the full post for the interesting defense of the oft-maligned and even more oft-misinterpreted mainstay of conventional quantitative research.

Apart from that post, I also enjoyed a link to a recent working paper, which is what I wanted to highlight here. Even though the blog authors defend p-valus as a simple way of controlling researcher degrees of freedom, they also seem to be part of a growing group of statisticians interested in finding ways of correcting for the “statistical significance filter“, as Andrew Gelman puts it. The method presented in “P-Curve Fixes Publication Bias: Obtaining Unbiased Effect Size Estimates from Published Studies Alone” seems quite intuitive. Basically, the authors show how to simulate a p-curve (distribution of p-values) that best matches the observed p-values in a collection of studies, given the assumption that only significant results are published (but not perfectly accounting for other forms of p-hacking, discussed in the paper). Although the paper is short, it presents payoffs for analysis of two vexing problems, including the relationship between unemployment and the minimum wage. Here’s the example reproduced in full:

Our first example involves the well-known economics prediction that increases in minimum wage raise unemployment. In a meta-analysis of the empirical evidence, Card and Krueger (1995) noted that effect size estimates are smaller in studies with larger samples and comment that “the studies in the literature have been affected by specification-searching and publication biases, induced by editors’ and authors’ tendencies to look for negative and statistically significant estimates of the employment effect of the minimum wage […] researchers may have to temper the inferences they draw […]” (p.242).

From Figure 1 in their article (Card & Krueger, 1995) we obtained the t-statistic and degrees of freedom from the fifteen studies they reviewed. As we show in our Figure 4, averaging the reported effect size estimates one obtains a notable effect size, but correcting for selective reporting via p-curve brings it to zero. This does not mean increases in minimum wage would never increase unemployment, it does mean that the evidence Card and Kruger collected suggesting it had done so in the past, can be fully accounted by selective reporting. P-curve provides a quantitative calibration to Card and Krueger’s qualitative concerns. The at the time controversial claim that the existing evidence pointed to an effect size smaller than believed was not controversial enough; the evidence actually pointed to a nonexisting effect.

So, Nelson et al. provide an intuitive way of formalizing Card & Krueger’s assertion that publication bias could account for some of the findings of a negative relationship between unemployment and minimum wage increases – and even further, that publication bias could actually reduce the best estimate of the effect to zero (which seems consistent with much, thought certainly not all, of the recent literature).

These methods seem really neat, but I’m not entirely sure what problems in sociology we could generalize them to. In the subfields I follow most closely, most research is either not quantitative, or is based on somewhat idiosyncratic data and hence it’s hard to imagine a bunch of studies with sufficiently comparable dependent variables and hypotheses from which one could draw a distribution. I’d bet demographers would have more luck. But in economic sociology, published replication seems sufficiently rare to prevent us from making much headway on the the issue of publication bias using quantitative techniques like this – which perhaps points to a very different set of problems.

JTS Deadline Rapidly Approaching!

A quick reminder – the deadline for submission to the Junior Theorists Symposium is this Saturday! We look forward to your submissions. Details are here.


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!