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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Dan Little: Actors in historical epochs [feedly]

Actors in historical epochs

I've argued often for the idea that social science and historical explanations need to be "actor-centered" -- we need to ground our hypotheses about social and historical causation in theories of the pathways through which actors embody those causal processes. Actors in relation to each other constitute the "substrate" of social causation. Actors make up the microfoundations of social causes and processes. Actors constitute the causal necessity of social mechanisms.

In its abstract formulation this is little more than an expression of ontological individualism (link). But in application it represents a highly substantive research challenge. In order to provide concrete accounts of social processes in various cultural and historical settings, we need to have fairly specific theories of the actor in those settings (link): what motivates actors, what knowledge do they have of their environment, what cognitive and practical frameworks do they bring to their experiences of the world, what do they want, how do they reason, how do they relate to other actors, what norms and values are embedded in their action principles?

Rational choice theory and its cousins (desire-belief-opportunity theory, for example) provide what is intended to be a universal framework for understanding action. But as has been argued frequently here, these schemes are reductive and inadequate as a general basis for understanding action (link). It has also been argued here that the recent efforts to formulate a "new pragmatist" theory of the actor represent useful steps forward (link).

A very specific concern arises when we think carefully about the variety of actors found in diverse historical and cultural settings. It is obvious that actors in specific cultures have different belief systems and different cognitive frameworks; it is equally apparent that there are important and culture-specific differences across actors when it comes to normative and value commitments. So what is needed in order to investigate social causation in significantly different cultural and historical settings? Suppose we want to conduct research on social contention along the lines of work by Charles Tilly, with respect to communities with widely different cultural assumptions and frameworks. How should we attempt to understand basic elements of contention such as resistance, mobilization, and passivity if we accept the premise that French artisans in Paris in 1760, Vietnamese villagers in 1950, and Iranian professionals in 2018 have very substantial differences in their action principles and cognitive-practical frameworks?

There seem to be several different approaches we might take. One is to minimize the impact of cultural differences when it comes to material deprivation and oppression. Whatever else human actors want, they want material wellbeing and security. And when political or social conditions place great pressure on those goods, human actors will experience "grievance" and will have motives leading them to mobilize together in support of collective efforts to ameliorate the causes of those grievances.

Another possibility is to conclude that collective action and group behavior are substantially underdetermined by material factors, and that we should expect as much diversity in collective behavior as we observe in individual motivation and mental frameworks. So the study of contention is still about conflicts among individuals and groups; but the conflicts that motivate individuals to collective action may be ideological, religious, culinary, symbolic, moral -- or material. Moreover, differences in the ways that actors frame their understandings of their situation may lead to very different patterns of the dynamics of contention -- the outbreak and pace of mobilization, the resolution of conflict, the possibility of compromise.

Putting the point in terms of models and simulations, we might think of the actors as a set of cognitive and practical processing algorithms and who decide what to do based on their beliefs and these decision algorithms. It seems unavoidable that tweaking the parameters of the algorithms and beliefs will lead to very different patterns of behavior within the simulation. Putting the point the other way around, the successful mobilization of Vietnamese peasants in resistance to the French and the US depended on a particular setting of the cognitive-practical variables in these individual actors. Change those settings and, perhaps, you change the dynamics of the process and you change history.

*         *         *

Clifford Geertz is one of the people who has taken a fairly radical view on the topic of the constituents of the actor. In "Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali" in The Interpretation Of Cultures he argues that Balinese culture conceives of the individual person in radically unfamiliar ways:
One of these pervasive orientational necessities is surely the charac­terization of individual human beings. Peoples everywhere have devel­oped symbolic structures in terms of which persons are perceived not baldly as such, as mere unadorned members of the human race, but as representatives of certain distinct categories of persons, specific sorts of individuals. In any given case, there are inevitably a plurality of such structures. Some, for example kinship terminologies, are ego entered: that is, they denote the status of an individual in terms of his relation­ ship to a specific social actor. Others are centered on one or another subsystem or aspect of society and are invariant with respect to the perspectives of individual actors: noble ranks, age-group statuses, occu­pational categories. Some-personal names and sobriquets-are infor­mal and particularizing; others-bureaucratic titles and caste desig­nations-are formal and standardizing. The everyday world in which the members of any community move, their taken-for-granted field of social action, is populated not by anonymous, faceless men with­ out qualities, but by somebodies, concrete classes of determinate per­sons positively characterized and appropriately labeled. And the symbol systems which denote these classes are not given in the nature of things --they are historically constructed, socially maintained, and individu­ally applied. (363-364)
In Bali, there are six sorts of labels which one person can apply to an­other in order to identify him as a unique individual and which I want to consider against this general conceptual background: ( I ) personal names; (2) birth order names; (3) kinship terms; (4) teknonyms; (5) sta­tus titles (usually called "caste names" in the literature on Bali); and (6) public titles, by which I mean quasi-occupational titles borne by chiefs, rulers, priests, and gods. These various labels are not, in most cases, employed simultaneously, but alternatively, depending upon the situa­tion and sometimes the individual. They are not, also, all the sorts of such labels ever used; but they are the only ones which are generally recognized and regularly applied. And as each sort consists not of a mere collection of useful tags but of a distinct and bounded terminologi­cal system, I shall refer to them as "symbolic orders of person-defini­tion" and consider them first serially, only later as a more or less coher­ent cluster. (368)
Also outstanding in this field is Robert Darnton's effort to reconstruct the forms of agency underlying the "great cat massacre" in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History; link.

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Urban Institute: Shocking drop in life expectancy shows the US is still in bad health [feedly]

Shocking drop in life expectancy shows the US is still in bad health

This post was originally published by New Scientist.

Five years ago, a groundbreaking report showed people in the US in worse health and dying younger than people in other rich nations. And recently, despite the alarm the report generated, we learned that US life expectancy declined for a second year in a row—astonishing by any standard.

The original report, released by the US National Research Council and Institute of Medicine and subtitled "Shorter Lives, Poorer Health," documented a large and growing US "health disadvantage." As my New Scientist commentary at the time explained, widespread evidence showed that compared with people in other wealthy democracies, people in the US under age 75—men and women, rich and poor, of all races and ethnicities—die younger and experience more injuries and illnesses.

Even a cursory look at developments over the past five years reveals why the country is still so unwell. Public policies and poor living conditions all play a part.

The US is also in the midst of one of the worst drug epidemics in the nation's history. It is a public health crisis that has been unfolding over two decades but only recently garnered urgent national attention. Drug overdoses, often from opioid use, now surpass road accidents as the leading cause of death from injury (as opposed to disease), for people in the US ages 25 to 64. More than 175 people die every day as a result of overdoses, the equivalent of two full 747 jumbo jets crashing every week somewhere in the country.

Along with deaths attributable to alcohol and suicide, the overdoses have been branded "deaths of despair." Compared with other rich nations, the US also continues to experience higher rates of infant mortality and gun deaths.

Taken together, such trends have led to a US life expectancy that stagnated after 2012, dropped for the first time in two decades in 2015, and dropped again in 2016. All this is taking place against a backdrop of growing inequality in income, wealth, and health.

Despite these dismal health outcomes, the US outspends other countries on health care. In 2016, it spent $9,364 per person compared with $4,094 in the UK. US spending on social welfare programs is comparable with that of other rich nations. What distinguishes the US from other countries is how that money is spent: it is less redistributive, with less going to children, families, and people with low incomes.

As the "Shorter Lives" study argues, a key barrier to improvements in health is "limited political support among both the public and policymakers to enact the policies and commit the necessary resources." On this front, too, the US is slipping. Despite its imperfections and needed reforms, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was a landmark piece of legislation that by 2016 was providing millions of uninsured people access to health insurance for the first time.

Under the Trump administration, Congress has repeatedly tried to repeal the ACA and is poised to weaken it through its recently passed tax bill. It has even allowed the less controversial Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides low-cost health insurance to 9 million children across the country, to go unfunded.

As Americans continue to debate policies in an increasingly divided and polarized country, a health disadvantage decades in the making continues to grow. Until the country bridges some of these divides and acts on the evidence, its people will continue to pay a steep price: shorter lives and poorer health.

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DeLong: Should-Read : Why hasn't globalization reduced inequality in emerging markets over the past generation? Jeffrey Frankel... [feedly]

Should-Read : Why hasn't globalization reduced inequality in emerging markets over the past generation? Jeffrey Frankel...

Should-Read: Why hasn't globalization reduced inequality in emerging markets over the past generation? Jeffrey Frankel wants to say that it is because the HO-SS theory is misleading and unhelpful for inequality issues. I think that is not right. HO-SS says economic integration will reduce inequality if it raises the relative demand for factors of production controlled by the poor. But the most important shift in relative factor abundance has been the ability to plug yourself into the world economy: that is controlled by the rich in emerging markets, and that has become much much scarcer relative to demand: Jeffrey Frankel: Does Trade Fuel Inequality?: "Trade has been among the most powerful drivers of... the convergence between the developed and developing worlds...

...The HO-SS theory, which dominated international economic thinking from the 1950s through 1970s, predicted that international trade would benefit the abundant factor of production (in rich countries, the owners of capital) and hurt the scarce factor of production (in rich countries, unskilled labor).... Then... Paul Krugman and Elhanan Helpman introduced... imperfect competition and increasing returns... Marc Melitz... shift[ing] resources from low-productivity to high-productivity firms.... Not all of the HO-SS theory's predictions have come true.... Pinelopi Goldberg and Nina Pavcnik.... "There is overwhelming evidence," they write, "that less-skilled workers in developing countries "are generally not better off, at least not relative to workers with higher skill or education levels."... Ten years later, inequality continues to worsen within developing countries, including the so-called BRICS.... This does not mean that the forces described by the HO-SS theory are irrelevant. But there is clearly more to current inequality trends than trade.... Inequality is clearly a serious problem that merits political attention. But focusing on trade is not the way to resolve it...


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Dani Rodrik: More on distinguishing ideas and interests -- an exchange with Peter Hall [feedly]

More on distinguishing ideas and interests -- an exchange with Peter Hall

My recent post on ideas versus interests elicited some comments from Peter Hall, my Harvard colleague who has done probably more thinking on this issue than any other scholar I know. With his permission, I am attaching these comments below, along with the brief subsequent exchange we have had.



A few quick thoughts inspired by your recent blog post on ideas and interests.  As you know, this is a topic that has long interested me.  These are rather cryptic thoughts (ars longa, vitae brevis) but I pass them along in case they are stimulating.

You are, of course, right to observe that interests are always interpreted (by ideas), i.e. they do not arise unambiguously from the material world.  And I think you are on the right track when you contrast the 'ex ante' account from interests with an ideas account of outcomes. 

But one might put even more emphasis (than I gather you do?) on the implication, which is that people always act based on both their ideas and their interests.  That is to say it is impossible to have perceptions of interest without ideas (and it is those perceptions of interest rather than the interests in themselves that motivate actors). 

Thus, claims that people are acting on their 'interest' are, in effect, claims that they are acting in line with some conventional set of ideas about what those interests are.  The classic example would be analyses that attribute to actors a set of interests that a conventional understanding of neoclassical economics would ascribe to anyone in their socioeconomic position.  The implicit claim of such analyses must be that those actors understand their position in that way, i.e. in line with these conventional ideas.

On my reading, this is what you mean when you associate interest-based arguments with a 'parsimonious' account of the attributes of the actors.  I do wonder whether parsimonious is the correct characteristic to highlight here (ie thinness vs thickness) since the ideas that underpin such action can be rather 'thick' (in the sense of depending on a relatively elaborate worldview).  The more important point, I think, is that these actors operate out of a worldview that can readily be seen as 'conventional' (in the sense of that term that it is widely-accepted as orthodox).

Now, there may be small sets of actors who in certain circumstances act against their 'interests' in the sense that they realize, by virtue of the ideas they hold, that they will lose something they value (material goods, power, etc.) by so acting.  And those actors might do that as a result of holding (other) sets of ideas, eg. of the sort associated with some sort of 'altruism'.  Soldiers who sacrifice themselves in battle might fall into that category.  However, I suspect that this is a very small category of people and, in many instances, as your argument intuits, such people could be said to have an unconventional view of their interest which dictates their action.

To continue then with the main account, if my view is correct, it becomes interesting to inquire about the role of ideas when there is (some kind of) contestation about precisely what is in the interest of the actors.  In your terms, these are cases in which ideas become salient to action And it turns out that is a relatively-common occurrence.  Thus, ideas often have influence over action, and the key problem is to explain (make claims about) why some ideas become influential in specific contexts while others do not.

With regard to that problem, it must surely be the case that a specific set of ideas (relative to other ideas) are more likely to become influential when they bear directly on the interests of the actors (understood as gains/losses of power or goods that the actor values).  Actors usually gravitate toward ideas that seem to them to serve their interests, understood in this stripped-down fashion. This is why interests and ideas typically bear together on action. 

What sorts of implications follow from this?

  • The Germans are probably not acting out of 'interest' independently of ideas. They are influenced by (Hayekian) ideas that tell them that their current posture is in the national interest as they construe it.  And, if we want to think of the latter as some sort of stripped-down 'material' interest, we have to bear in mind, first, that this conception of material interest is itself underpinned by an explicit set of ideas and, second, that there are other ways to interpret national interest and even material national interest.  For instance, policies that provoke a second Euro crisis might not ultimately be in that interest.  In other words, your initial point that all 'interests' must be interpreted by 'ideas' means that we cannot claim that interests trump ideas in instances such as this.
  • Although ideas are, on this view, important in all cases, we can detect, as you argue, instances that are distinctive by virtue of something about the prominence of the role that ideas play in them, such as the case of the Reagan tax cut. The issue is: what is distinctive about such instances?  I would argue it is not that ideas are somehow more important than interests in such instances.  After all, making the tax cuts was very much in the political interest of the Reagan administration.  What is distinctive is that there was contestation, with significant numbers of partisans on each side, about how to interpret (in this case) the economic interests of the populace.  It is the presence of contestation, rather than the importance of ideas, that distinguishes this case.
  • My bottom line is that the analytical way forward is not to ask: 'can we distinguish cases in which ideas were more important or influential from cases in which they were not?' but rather to ask: 'how might we best distinguish between situations in which ideas play a somewhat different role in the interaction between interests and ideas that underpins all action?'.

Don't hold me to this.  These are difficult issues and I find my views on them changing over time.  But I hope this is stimulating.



Dear Peter

Thank you very much for this. It is incredibly helpful, and I agree with much of it.

I am all for pursuing the agenda you set out at the very end – tracing out the different ways in which ideas affect interests and their interaction with prevailing ideational environment. But I would like to resist the formulation where interests are always subservient to ideas, which this approach presumes. There is a sense in which this is true, and you put it very well yourself in your note. A statement of the form, "the industry pursued its interest" must have some meaning, even though at the end of the day what we really mean to say is "the industry pursued its interest, as it perceived its interest to be."

We are often concerned with explaining changes. Why did an actor change its behavior? There is substantive difference, it seems to me, between two sort of explanations:

  • an explanation that relies on behavior in the context of an unchanged understanding of what the actor's interests are. The actor's utility function and its understanding of how the world works stay the same, but there are changes in the world it confronts. For example, the constraints it faces are altered.
  • An explanation that relies on a change in the actor's understanding of what its interests are. The actor's utility function changes or its understanding of how the world works is altered.

The distinction I would like to make is that case (a) is what many realists have in mind in IR or rational choice political economists tend to focus on. And I think it is OK to call these cases interest-driven cases.

Case (b) would fall in my ideational category.

Just like you, I am not sure about any of this. But we should try to figure out a way of thinking these issues more.





What you say makes excellent sense.  Focusing on cases of change is very promising.  And the distinction you draw between (a) and (b) a compelling one.  I agree that ideas do not trump interests.  The latter are just as important to be sure.

Of course, some of the most interesting cases are ones with features of both (a) and (b), i.e. constraints/opportunities in the world change and (partly by virtue of that) there is consideration, albeit not always adoption, of new ideas.  But the distinction strikes me as an excellent starting point.


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Links, and some warm music for these chilly times [feedly]

Links, and some warm music for these chilly times

Links, and some warm music for these chilly times


Add note

–Ask not for whom the shutdown tolls. It tolls for thee. IE, it does if you're someone who recognizes the need for functional gov't. Over at WaPo.

To be clear, this is not a critique of the D senators that are blocking the deal. As a friend puts it, "They are forcing governance in the face of total bad faith and incompetence from the other side, and shouldn't be shy in saying that."

Or doing it. Trump and much of the R caucus have put every partisan priority before DACA and CHIP, programs that have bipartisan support (despite McConnell's nonsense  claim that DACA is preference of the D's "far-left base." As the minority, they're using the tools at their disposal to fight for permanent solutions to problems that both sides claim to want to address.

Still, here's my bottom line:

But abstracting from this latest episode, the broader dysfunction is strategic. It is not politically neutral. "A pox on both their houses" doesn't capture its essence. It is driven by too many policymakers who, in so many words, argue that Washington is broken, and they will make sure it stays that way.

While political pundits are actively debating which party will get blamed for the current mess, at the end of the day, the real losers are those of us who firmly believe that a functioning, representative, amply funded public sector is essential to the well-being of the people, especially the majority without the resources to offset market failures with their wealth holdings.

Instead, the majority party under a completely feckless leader is busy transferring the nation's wealth from the Treasury to the top few percent, adding to the debt while arguing that this higher debt requires cuts in spending on behalf of moderate and low-income households. At the same time, by refusing to compromise with those whose votes they need to keep the government open, they're turning up the dysfunction dial to further undermine the notion that the government can help meet the challenges we face, those that the private sector will not meet, including rising inequality, climate change, health and retirement insecurity, deteriorating public infrastructure and more.

Again, this hurts all of us who don't have the wealth to insulate ourselves from the hurt, and when it comes to climate change, even your massive wealth portfolio won't protect you.

–Vox has a piece challenging any Trumpian credit for the historically low black unemployment rate. Obviously. I made this figure to underscore the point that Trump's riding a trend he inherited.

Source: BLS, HP Trend

–Finally, I see that where Steve 'Grizzly' Nisbett, the drummer of the great reggae band Steel Pulse, who's music I've featured here before. His beautiful spirit, along with his smooth riddim's–here's a great example–will be sorely missed.

Speaking of Jah's soundtrack, I can't stop listening to the great, young artist Chronixx. Here are a couple of crucial eg's.

"I'm pleased
To be chillin' in the West Indies
Jah provides all my wants and needs
I got the sunshine and rivers and trees."

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Slowly but Surely, a Farewell to Fossil Fuels [feedly]

Slowly but Surely, a Farewell to Fossil Fuels

Repairs to an oil rig in North Dakota, United States: Eighty percent of the world's energy consumption is based on fossil fuels (photo: North Dakota/Jim Gehrz/MCT/Newscom).

This has never happened before. Never. Three years of stagnating carbon dioxide emissions coupled with relatively healthy global economic growth. In this podcast , International Energy Agency Chief Economist Laszlo Varro talks about leaving fossil fuels in the past.

Eighty percent of the world's energy consumption is based on fossil fuels, which account for most of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet . Varro was recently invited to speak to IMF economists about the impact of climate change on energy policy.  He says that achieving broad-based GDP growth in all the major regions of the global economy, while also decreasing emissions, was possible due to the declining energy intensity of the Chinese economy, rapid, large-scale investments in renewable energy—especially in solar power—and a large-scale shift from use of coal to natural gas.

"When economies shift from using coal to using gas, which is a very powerful structural shift that is ongoing in the United States, and to a lesser degree also in China, and it has an impact on reducing carbon emissions," Varro says.

To successfully further decrease reliance on fossil fuels, Varro says there must be a persistent push on renewable and low-carbon energy sources into electricity, because the overwhelming majority of clean energy investment is in the electricity sector.

"There are technological solutions, but countries have to rethink their electricity regulations in a quite comprehensive fashion," he says.

Varro concedes that electricity has its limits with the current state of technology. For example, do not expect to see an electric aircraft anytime soon. So, countries need to continue to innovate to develop other technological solutions that will replace fossil fuels, he says.

Large-scale shifts in economies rarely comes without some political challenges, and job losses are usually at the forefront. Varro says how technology affects employment is absolutely a concern, but he does not think that shifts in energy sources is the largest part of this.

"In the past 12 months in the U.S., the retail industry lost more jobs because of Amazon than the coal industry's job losses in the last five years combined," he says.

Listen to the podcast:

Other readables:

End of the Oil Age: Not Whether But When

Chart of the Week: Electric Takeover in Transportation  

Countries Are Signing Up for Sizeable Carbon Prices

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