Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Complementarity of thick and thin theories of the actor

There is a range of approaches to the social sciences that fall under the umbrella of "actor-centered" theories (link). The chief fissure among these theories is that between "thin" and "thick" theories of the actor -- theories which provide less or more detail about the mental frameworks and beliefs of the actors being described. The extremes of the two types of theories range from pure rational choice theory to social psychology and ethnography. The two types of theories have complementary strengths and weaknesses. Thin theories, including especially rational choice theory and game theory, make use of a particularly sparse theory of the actor’s decision framework. This approach provides a basis for representing the motives and decisions of actors that can be readily incorporated into powerful techniques of simulation and calculation. Thick theories, including pragmatist and ethnomethodological theories, offer a basis for investigating particular social settings of action in detail, and they provide an in-depth basis for explaining and understanding the choices, judgments, and behavior of the individuals they study. But thick theories are not so readily incorporated into simulation models, precisely because they do not provide abstract, general characterizations of the individual’s action framework.

These comments make the contrast sound like a familiar set of oppositions: nomothetic explanation versus idiographic interpretation; causal explanation versus hermeneutic interpretation. And this in turn suggests that rational choice theory will be good at arriving at generalizations, whereas pragmatist and ethnographic theories will be good at providing satisfying interpretations of the actions of individuals in concrete social and historical circumstances, but not particularly good at providing a basis for general explanations.

The situation is not quite so binary as this suggests, however. A central tool for actor-centered research is set of simulation techniques falling under the rubric of agent-based models. To date ABMs have tended to use thin theories of the actor to represent the players in the simulation. However, it is entirely possible for agent-based models to incorporate substantially greater levels of specificity and granularity about the action frameworks of the individuals in specific circumstances. An ABM can introduce different kinds of agents into a simulation, each of which embodies a specific set of beliefs and modes of reasoning. And it can be argued that this increase in granularity provides a basis for a better simulation of complex social processes involving heterogeneous kinds of actors.

For example, a simulation of the political appeal of a nationalistic politician like Donald Trump may benefit by segmenting the electorate into different categories of voters: white nationalists, aging blue-collar workers, anti-globalization young people, .... And the model should represent the fact that actors in these various segments have substantially different ways of making political judgments and actions. So ABM simulations can indeed benefit from greater “thickness” of assumptions about agents. (This was illustrated in the discussion of the Epstein rebellion model earlier; link.)

On the other hand, it is possible to use RCT and DBO theories to illuminate historically particular instances of action -- for example, the analysis of historically situated collective action along the lines of Margaret Levi's review in "Reconsiderations of Rational Choice in Comparative and Political Analysis" (link). These theories can be applied to specific social circumstances and can provide convincing and satisfying interpretations of the reasoning and actions of the agents who are involved. So narrative explanations of social outcomes can be constructed using both thick and thin assumptions about the actors.

Moreover, the explanatory strength of thick theories is not limited to the degree to which they can be incorporated into formal simulations -- what can be referred to as "aggregation dynamics". It is clear that real explanations of important phenomena emerge from research by sociologists like Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class (link), Al Young in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances (link), and Erving Goffman in Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (link). We understand better the dynamics of the French professional classes, inner city neighborhoods, and asylums when we read the detailed and rigorous treatments that micro-sociologists provide of these social settings.

What this suggests is that analytical sociology would be well advised to embrace pluralism when it comes to theories of the actor and methods of application of actor-based research. Thick and thin are not logical contraries, but rather complementary ways of analyzing and explaining the social worlds we inhabit.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Systems management and the War on Poverty

One of the important developments in engineering and management thinking since World War II is the value of approaching large problems as systems rather than simply as a sum of separable components. Designing a ballpoint pen is very different from designing an aircraft or a fire control system; in the latter cases there are multiple functionalities and components that need to be incorporated, each associated with specific engineering and material disciplines. It was recognized during World War II that it is much more effective to treat the product and the design and manufacturing efforts as systems so that it is possible to conform components to synergistic and mutually supportive inter-relationships.

Agatha Hughes and Thomas Hughes organized a group of leading researchers to reflect upon the history of systems engineering and management, and the chief results are included in their 2000 volume, Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After. The contributors include experts (and participants) in the history of the development of complex military systems during World War II -- for example, radar-controlled fire control systems for anti-aircraft use (David Mindell); experts like Donald MacKenzie on the incorporation of computing into the control of complex technologies (for example, the pathbreaking SABRE system for airline reservations); and experts on expertise such as Gabrielle Hecht, who provides an essay on post-war French technology management.

Here is how Hughes and Hughes describe the systems approach in their introduction to the volume:
Practitioners and proponents embrace a holistic vision. They focus on the interconnections among subsystems and components, taking special note of the interfaces among the various parts. What is significant is that system builders include heterogeneous components, such as mechanical, electrical, and organizational parts, in a single system. Organizational parts might be managerial structures, such as a military command, or political entities, such as a government bureau. Organizational components not only interact with technical ones but often reflect their characteristics. For instance, a management organization for presiding over the development of an intercontinental missile system might be divided into divisions that mirror the parts of the missile being designed. (2)
Hughes and Hughes provide a narrative that is intended to show the origins of systems engineering in operations research during World War II, and in the rapid development of highly complex technology systems needed for weaponry during the war (automated fire control, for example). In their telling of the story, the development of the digital computer during and after the war was a critical component of the development of the systems approach and the increasingly complex technologies and systems that the approach stewarded into existence. (See earlier posts on the development of ENIAC; linklink.) Much of this research took place within government and military organizations such as OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development); but private companies like RAND and MITRE soon emerged to take on contracts from military agencies for large-scale systems projects (5). And the research and development process itself came to be treated as a "system", with new software developed to support project planning and management. One important example was the PERT (Program Evaluation Review Technique) software system, developed by Booz, Allen & Hamilton (10).

Of particular interest here is the light the volume sheds on the efforts by the Johnson administration to apply systems thinking to the large social problems the country faced in the early 1960s, including especially poverty and urban problems (16) (link). David Jardini's essay "Out of the blue yonder: The transfer of systems thinking from the Pentagon to the Great Society, 1961-1965" explores this effort to transfer these systems methods to the social field. "[The chapter] argues that the construction and implementation of the Great Society social welfare programs and their analytical methods can be found at the core of Great Society policy making" (312). 

It emerges that a central political and policy disagreement that determined the course of events was a fundamental disagreement about centralization versus community involvement in social welfare policy. Policy leaders like Robert McNamara preferred to see the nation's social welfare policies to be managed and monitored centrally; affected communities, on the other hand, wanted to have greater control over the programs that would affect them. These disagreements converged on the question of the role of CAPs (Community Action Program) in the implementation and management of policy initiatives on the ground. Should CAPs serve as effective venues for local opinions and demands, or should they be sidelined in favor of a more top-down administrative organization?
The first CAP program guide, for example, suggested that local organizations provide "meaningful opportunities for residents, either as individuals or in groups, to protest or to propose additions to or changes in the ways in which a Community Action Program is being planned or undertaken." In fact, protest and confrontation were viewed by many CAP organizers as at least therapeutic means for the poor to vent their frustrations. (339)
But Johnson's administration was not interested in providing a venue for community advocacy and protest, and quickly sought to find ways of managing social welfare programs to reduce the level of activism they stimulated. The solution was the extension of the PPB (Planning-Programming-Budgeting) model from defense systems administration to the Great Society. But, as Jardini observes, this hierarchical system of control is poorly adapted to the problem of designing and administering programs that affect vast groups of people who can see its effects and can have very different ideas about the appropriateness of the policies being conveyed. "In this sense, the DOD is a poor model for the democratic ideal many Americans hold for their government institutions" (341).

This example illustrates an important tension that runs through many of the essays in the volume concerning the political significance of systems engineering and management. The volume gives support to the idea that systems management is an expert-driven and non-democratic way of organizing complicated human activities. What Robert McNamara brought to Ford Motor Company and the Department of Defense was a hierarchical, analytical, expert-driven system of management that sought to replace decentralized decision-makers with an orderly process driven from the top. For some purposes this may be a reasonably effective way of organizing a large effort involving thousands of agents. But for purposes like social reform it has a fatal flaw; it makes it almost impossible to create the level of buy-in at the local level that will be crucial for the success of a large project.

(I remember asking Tom Hughes in 1999 or so what he thought about the massive "Big Dig" project in Boston, then approaching completion and affecting many neighborhoods and thousands of residents. He commented that he felt that we should not judge the success of the project on the basis of whether it came in under budget; in fact, he suggested that this would show that the project designers and managers had not done enough to modify and adapt the project to gain support from the communities that the project affected.)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Errors in organizations

Organizations do things -- process tax returns, deploy armies, send spacecraft to Mars. And in order to do these various things, organizations have people with job descriptions; organization charts; internal rules and procedures; information flows and pathways; leaders, supervisors, and frontline staff; training and professional development programs; and other particular characteristics that make up the decision-making and action implementation of the organization. These individuals and sub-units take on tasks, communicate with each other, and give rise to action steps.

And often enough organizations make mistakes -- sometimes small mistakes (a tax return is sent to the wrong person, a hospital patient is administered two aspirins rather than one) and sometimes large mistakes (the space shuttle Challenger is cleared for launch on January 28, 1986, a Union Carbide plant accidentally releases toxic gases over a large population in Bhopal, FEMA bungles its response to Hurricane Katrina). What can we say about the causes of organizational mistakes? And how can organizations and their processes be improved so mistakes are less common and less harmful?

Charles Perrow has devoted much of his career to studying these questions. Two books in particular have shed a great deal of light on the organizational causes of industrial and technological accidents, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters. (Perrow's work has been discussed in several earlier posts; linklinklink.) The first book emphasizes that errors and accidents are unavoidable; they are the random noise of the workings of a complex organization. So the key challenge is to have processes that detect errors and that are resilient to the ones that make it through. One of Perrow's central findings in The Next Catastrophe is the importance of achieving a higher level of system resilience by decentralizing risk and potential damage. Don't route tanker cars of chlorine through dense urban populations; don't place nuclear power plants adjacent to cities; don't create an Internet or a power grid with a very small number of critical nodes. Kathleen Tierney's The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience (High Reliability and Crisis Management) emphasizes the need for system resilience as well (link).

Is it possible to arrive at a more granular understanding of organizational errors and their sources? A good place to begin is with the theory of organizations as "strategic action fields" in the sense advocated by Fligstein and McAdam in A Theory of Fields. This approach imposes an important discipline on us -- it discourages the mental mistake of reification when we think about organizations. Organizations are not unitary decision and action bodies; instead, they are networks of people linked in a variety of forms of dependency and cooperation. Various sub-entities consider tasks, gather information, and arrive at decisions for action, and each of these steps is vulnerable to errors and shortfalls. The activities of individuals and sub-groups are stimulated and conveyed through these networks of association; and, like any network of control or communication, there is always the possibility of a broken link or a faulty action step within the extended set of relationships that exist.

Errors can derive from individual mistakes; they can derive from miscommunication across individuals and sub-units within the organization; they can derive from more intentional sources, including self-interested or corrupt behavior on the part of internal participants. And they can derive from conflicts of interest between units within an organization (the manufacturing unit has an interest in maximizing throughput, the quality control unit has an interest in minimizing faulty products).

Errors are likely in every part of an organization's life. Errors occur in the data-gathering and analysis functions of an organization. A sloppy market study is incorporated into a planning process leading to a substantial over-estimate of demand for a product; a survey of suppliers makes use of ambiguous questions that lead to misinterpretation of the results; a vice president under-estimates the risk posed by a competitor's advertising campaign. For an organization to pursue its mission effectively, it needs to have accurate information about the external circumstances that are most relevant to its goals. But "relevance" is a judgment issue; and it is possible for an organization to devote its intelligence-gathering resources to the collection of data that are only tangentially helpful for the task of designing actions to carry out the mission of the institution.

Errors occur in implementation as well. The action initiatives that emerge from an organization's processes -- from committees, from CEOs, from intermediate-level leaders, from informal groups of staff -- are also vulnerable to errors of implementation. The facilities team formulates a plan for re-surfacing a group of parking lots; this plan depends upon closing these lots several days in advance; but the safety department delays in implementing the closure and the lots have hundreds of cars in them when the resurfacing equipment arrives. An error of implementation.

One way of describing these kinds of errors is to recognize that organizations are "loosely connected" when it comes to internal processes of information gathering, decision making, and action. The CFO stipulates that the internal audit function should be based on best practices nationally; the chief of internal audit interprets this as an expectation that processes should be designed based on the example of top-tier companies in the same industry; and the subordinate operationalizes this expectation by doing a survey of business-school case studies of internal audit functions at 10 companies. But the data collection that occurs now has only a loose relationship to the higher-level expectation formulated by the CFO. Similar disconnects -- or loose connections -- occur on the side of implementation of action steps as well. Presumably top FEMA officials did not intend that FEMA's actions in response to Hurricane Katrina would be as ineffective and sporadic as they turned out to be.

Organizations also have a tendency towards acting on the basis of collective habits and traditions of behavior. It is easier for a university's admissions department to continue the same programs of recruitment and enrollment year after year than it is to rethink the approach to recruitment in a fundamental way. And yet it may be that the circumstances of the external environment have changed so dramatically that the habitual practices will no longer achieve similar results. A good example is the emergence of social media marketing in admissions; in a very short period of time the 17- and 18-year-old young people whom admissions departments want to influence went from willing recipients of glossy admissions publications in the mail to "Facebook-only" readers. Yesterday's correct solution to an organizational problem may become tomorrow's serious error, because the environment has changed.

In a way the problem of organizational errors is analogous to the problem of software bugs in large, complex computer systems. It is recognized by software experts that bugs are inevitable; and some of these coding errors or design errors may have catastrophic consequences in unusual settings. (Nancy Leveson's Safeware: System Safety and Computers provides an excellent review of these possibilities.) So the task for software engineers and organizational designers and leaders is similar: designing fallible systems that do a pretty good job almost all of the time, and are likely to fail gracefully when errors inevitably occur.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Capitalism 2.0?

Capitalism is one particular configuration of the economic institutions that define production and consumption in a society. It involves private ownership of firms and resources, and a system of wage labor through which individuals compete for jobs within the context of a labor market. In its nature it creates positions of substantial power for owners of capital, and generally little power for owners of labor power -- workers. In theory capitalism can be joined with both democratic and authoritarian systems of government -- for example, France (democratic) and Argentina 1970 (military dictatorship). (Here is an earlier post on alternative capitalisms; link.)

As Marx himself noted, capitalism brought a number of powerful and emancipatory changes into the world. But it is plain that there are substantial deficiencies in our contemporary political economy, from the point of view of the great majority of society. For example:
  • Rising inequalities of income and wealth
  • Disproportionate power of corporations in political and economic life
  • Persistence of racial and ethnic segregation and discrimination 
  • Slow rates of social mobility
  • Pervasive inequalities of opportunity
  • Overwhelming influence of money in electoral politics
  • Inability to address the causes of climate change
  • Inability of the state to effectively regulate products and processes to ensure health and safety
  • Manipulation of culture and values for the sake of profit
What kinds of institutional changes might we imagine for our current political economy that do a better job of satisfying the demands of justice and human wellbeing?

A number of philosophers, political scientists, and economists have addressed the question of how to envision a more just form of capitalism. Kathleen Thelen considers the prospects for an "egalitarian capitalism" (Varieties of Liberalization and the New Politics of Social Solidaritylink); Jon Elster had an important contribution to make on the question of alternatives to capitalism (Alternatives to Capitalism; link); and John Rawls put forward a view of a preferable alternative to capitalism, which he referred to as a property-owning democracy (O'Neill and Williamson, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond; link).

So what might capitalism 2.0 look like if we want a genuinely fair and progressive society in the 21st century? Several features seem clear.
  • Something like decentralized markets in labor and capital seem unavoidable in a large modern society. So the 21st-century economy will be a market economy.
  • Rawls is right that extreme inequalities of property ownership lead to unacceptable inequalities of political participation and human capability fulfillment. So the 21st century will need to find effective ways of distributing wealth and income more broadly.
  • Market mechanisms generally leave some disadvantaged sub-populations behind. A key goal of the 21st century state must be to find effective ways of improving the prerequisites of opportunity for disadvantaged groups. This means that a substantial equality of availability and access to education, nutrition, housing, and other components of quality of life need to be secured by the state.
  • Existing market institutions do not automatically guarantee fair equality of opportunity. So the political economy of capitalism 2.0 will need to use public resources and authority to ensure equality of opportunity for all citizens.
What kinds of political and economic institutions would serve to advance these social goals?

One approach that is gaining international attention is the idea of a universal basic income for all citizens. Belgian philosopher Philippe van Parijs makes a powerful case for the need for universal basic income (link) in the world economy we now face. Here is his definition in the Boston Review article:
By universal basic income I mean an income paid by a government, at a uniform level and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society. The grant is paid, and its level is fixed, irrespective of whether the person is rich or poor, lives alone or with others, is willing to work or not. In most versions–certainly in mine–it is granted not only to citizens, but to all permanent residents. 
The UBI is called "basic" because it is something on which a person can safely count, a material foundation on which a life can firmly rest. Any other income–whether in cash or in kind, from work or savings, from the market or the state–can lawfully be added to it. On the other hand, nothing in the definition of UBI, as it is here understood, connects it to some notion of "basic needs." A UBI, as defined, can fall short of or exceed what is regarded as necessary to a decent existence. (link)
Swiss voters defeated such a proposal for Switzerland this spring (link), but serious debates continue. 

Another approach results from politically effective demands for real equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity requires high-quality public education for everyone. So capitalism 2.0 needs to embody educational institutions that are substantially better and more egalitarian than those we now have -- ranging from pre-school to K-12 to universities. Consider this fascinating county-level map of the United States combining per capita income, high school graduate rate, and college graduate rate (link):

The map makes clear the strong association between county income and educational attainment, which implies in turn that children born into the wrong zip code have substantially lower likelihood of attaining high-quality educational success. A more just society would show little variation with respect to educational attainment, even when it also shows substantial variation in per-capita incomes across counties. Achieving comparable levels of educational attainment across rich and poor counties requires a substantial public investment in schools, teachers, and educational resources.

Another determinant of equality of opportunity is universal access to quality healthcare. Poor health affects both current quality of life and future productivity; so when poor people are in circumstances in which they cannot afford or gain access to high-quality healthcare, their current and future life prospects are at risk.

All of these ideas about a more just capitalism require resources; and those resources can only come from public finance, or taxation. The wealth of a society is a joint product which the market allocates privately. Taxation is the mechanism through which the benefits of social cooperation extend more fully to all members of society. It is through taxation that a capitalist society has the potential for creating an environment with high levels of equality of opportunity for its citizens and high levels of quality of life for its population. The resulting political economy promises to be the foundation of a more equitable and productive society. (Here is a post on the moral basis for the extensive democratic state; link.)

Friday, June 10, 2016

Making change happen

There are many large social ills that we would collectively like to change. We would like to see an end to debilitating poverty; we would like to end the systematic disparities by race that exist in our society, in health, education, or income; we would like to see gun violence rates drop to levels found in other advanced countries; we would like to see a dramatic reduction in the smoking rate among young people. And we would like to see crucial public institutions like public schools function at a superlative level. How feasible is it to deliberately bring about change in these kinds of social realities? In particular, how much real leverage do change agents like mayors, governors, presidents, or corporate or foundation leaders have in bringing about these kinds of social progress? How about community activists and community-based organizations?

There are a few considerations that make it clear that reforms leading to large social change in a short time will be very difficult. The example of the War on Poverty discussed in the prior post is instructive (link). On the one hand this case demonstrates that determined political leadership can succeed in focusing large amounts of resources in deliberate policy packages aimed at solving big problems. On the other hand detailed review of the WoP shows that there are very hard questions about causation and policy effectiveness that are still hard to answer (Bailey and Danzinger, Legacies of the War on Poverty).

One reason for the difficulty of large interventions is that these social problems are "wicked problems" with densely interconnected sets of causes (link). John Kolko defines a wicked problem in these terms:
A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. Poverty is linked with education, nutrition with poverty, the economy with nutrition, and so on. These problems are typically offloaded to policy makers, or are written off as being too cumbersome to handle en masse. Yet these are the problems—poverty, sustainability, equality, and health and wellness—that plague our cities and our world and that touch each and every one of us. (link)
The interconnected nature of these difficult social problems means that attacking one component of causes may inadvertently worsen another source of causation, making the original problem worse. This is one of the discoveries that emerged from the effort to invoke systems engineering and the expertise of the aerospace industry to address urban problems in the 1960s (Hughes and Hughes, Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After).

Another source of difficulty in addressing large system social problems is the question of scale of the resources that any actor can bring to bear on a large social problem. Private organizations have limited resources, and governments are increasingly constrained in their use of public resources by anti-tax activism. Cities are chronically caught in fiscal crises that make long-term investments difficult or impossible. And Federal funding since the Reagan revolution has been subject to intense opposition by the right. Finally, it is almost always true that a given strategy of change produces winners and losers, and groups that stand to lose something of value through the exercise of a strategy have many means of resisting change -- through lobbying, through strategic use of the legal system, or through exit. It is often difficult to build a sustainable consensus of political support for a large strategy of transformation or to overcome self-interested opposition.

That said, change sometimes occurs, and it sometimes occurs as a result of determined and intelligent strategic work by one or more agents of change. Recent examples in Michigan include the "Grand Bargain" that resolved the Detroit bankruptcy; the substantial progress achieved by a new Detroit mayor on delivering city services; substantial economic recovery in the state of Michigan since the 2007 recession; and the success of the Affordable Care Act in bringing health coverage to tens of millions of previously uninsured Americans (including about 600,000 in Michigan alone).

So it is possible for important social change to occur through deliberate political and policy action. But notice the limits of each of the examples cited here. Each involves taking a fairly simple policy step and maintaining political support for carrying out that policy. Too many uninsured people? Design a way of expanding an existing program to make health insurance more available to poor and middle-income individuals and families. The politics were horrendously difficult for President Obama, but the mechanics were clear. Need to save pensions and a world-class art collection from the  Detroit bankruptcy process? Do some fundraising on a very large scale to allow an acceptable resolution of the bankruptcy process that preserves these two core things. Again, the task of maintaining the coalition was enormously difficult, but the mechanics of the strategy were not very different from other kinds of fundraising efforts in support of collective goods.

Let's think about the problem from another angle. What needs to happen in order for large social change to occur? Here are a couple of categories of change: change of law and policy; change of widespread social values; change of widespread patterns of behavior and disposition (smoking, racism, education); change of distribution of outcomes across a diverse population (health, income, residence). These examples fall in a couple of large types: setting legal and bureaucratic structures (Civil Rights Act, Department of Housing and Urban Development), influencing behavior, and changing values and attitudes.

What are the levers of change for these different kinds of social reality? Consider first structures. Law, policy, and taxation are the result of political and legislative competition. So legislative agendas by politicians and advocacy by interest groups and lobbyists are the main variables in determining the success or failure of a given initiative. The War on Poverty is a good example; the Johnson administration sought to create a number of large funding programs affecting housing, education, and employment, and it succeeded in part in many of these initiatives because the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. (Though recall the frustration expressed by President Johnson at Congressional underfunding of many of these initiatives, expressed in his message to Congress on cities; link.)

Governments can address problems like these from two broad avenues: anti-discrimination law and policy initiatives aimed at addressing the obstacles that stand in the way of economic opportunity. Civil rights legislation supporting voting rights and legislation aimed at eliminating discrimination represent the first lever. Using federal funds to improve urban transportation and housing illustrates the latter.

Using the power of the state to raise revenues for initiatives like these through taxation is crucial. The War on Poverty was not chiefly an effort at persuasion; it was a determined political effort to direct Federal resources at enormously important national problems.

Policy change is hard. But achieving behavioral, attitudinal, and cultural change is even harder, it would appear. There is a lot of uncertainty about the causal mechanisms that might drive culture and behavioral change on a large scale. Further, there is often deep conflict about the content of culture change: what is a favorable attitude change for one group is anathema for another. Both considerations point in the direction of privileging non-governmental organization and community-based organization strategies over governmental strategies. Government and law must pay attention to behavior, not attitudes. So the burden of striving to change attitudes and values seems to belong to private initiatives within civil society. So the non-profit Michigan-based social service organization ACCESS can create and promote the "Take on Hate" program for young people as a way of addressing anti/Muslim bigotry, whereas the Department of Education probably couldn't. The national movement aimed at changing the public's attitudes towards same-sex marriage is a good example of a broad coalition of non-governmental organizations and groups successfully bringing about substantial change in public attitudes over a relatively short time.

In order to achieve lasting solutions to major social problems, it seems that all the avenues mentioned here will be needed: legislative action providing for real equality of opportunity and access for poor people to society's positions and advantages; public investment in factors like improved transportation, education, internet access, and green spaces; and private and collaborative efforts at generating public support for change of policy and behavior on a short list of particularly important social problems.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

LBJ's commitment to cities

In the United States we have been in the desert for decades when it comes to big, transformative policy reforms aimed at addressing our most serious social issues. But the 1960s marked a decade of vigorous national effort to address some of our most serious and difficult social problems -- racial discrimination, war, poverty, education, and the quality of life of poor children and the elderly. It is worth thinking back to the large ambitions and strategies that were adopted between 1960 and 1968, the election of Richard Nixon.

A very interesting place to begin is Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, and especially his 1968 Special Message to the Congress on Urban Problems: "The Crisis of the Cities." (link). Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger's volume Legacies of the War on Poverty provides a rigorous specialist assessment of the achievements (and shortcomings) of the war on poverty. Johnson's message is powerful in each of its rhetorical components -- aspiration, diagnosis, and policy recommendations.

The document paints a high-level picture of the way in which cities had developed in the United States in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. And the narrative for the 20th century builds to a sense of deepening urban crisis.  
We see the results dramatically in the great urban centers where millions live amid decaying buildingswith streets clogged with traffic; with air and water polluted by the soot and waste of industry which finds it much less expensive to move outside the city than to modernize within it; with crime rates rising so rapidly each year that more and more miles of city streets become unsafe after dark; with increasingly inadequate public services and a smaller and smaller tax base from which to raise the funds to improve them.
The document identifies a host of key problems in American cities: inner-city youth with limited education and opportunity; violent crime; deep penetration of prejudice and discrimination in the normal workings of social life; poor public health levels; and disaffection among inner city citizens, both young and old.
The city will not be transformed until the lives of the least among its dwellers are changed as well. Until men whose days are empty and despairing can see better days ahead, until they can stand proud and know their children's lives will be better than their own -- until that day comes, the city will not truly be rebuilt.
The document emphasizes both material and psychological factors -- poor housing and "empty and despairing" lives. Johnson links the crisis of cities with the goals and achievements of the fundamental Civil Rights legislation of the recent past. 

Johnson's urban policy recommendations focus on several key city-centered crises: poor housing, inadequate public mass transit, extensive urban blight, high unemployment for young people, and institutions supporting lending and insurance for urban homeowners. The document also recommends increased support for urban-centered social-science research. 

What is most noteworthy is the overall ambition of Johnson's agenda: the goal of devoting substantial organizational effort at the federal level (through the establishment of new agencies like HUD) and billions of dollars to implement effective solutions for these awesomely difficult and important social problems. It is striking that we have not had national leaders since LBJ with the courage and vision to set such an ambitious agenda for progressive social change. The persistent problems of poverty, race, and educational failure will be amenable to nothing less. 

There is one other aspect of Johnson's message that is of interest here -- the sociology of knowledge implications of the document. This is a good example of a place where an STS approach would be helpful. There is probably an existing literature on the policy expertise that underlay Johnson's reasoning in this document, but I haven't been able to identify the person who drafted this message on Johnson's behalf. But there is obviously a high level of expertise and judgment implicit in this document -- and this certainly doesn't derive from the president himself. What is the paradigm of urban theory and policy that drives the reasoning of the document and the associated policy proposals? And what are the blindspots associated with that historically situated research framework? Causes, outcomes, and levers of change for urban decline are all identified. Are these still credible as empirical theories of urban realities?