Saturday, June 30, 2007

Social sciences and social theory

Over the past couple of days, I've kept coming back to questions of the relationship among the social sciences, and the state of progress in them. My mind may have been primed for this topic by hearing Tyler Cowen (a week ago today) give a terrific talk on the place of economics in social inquiry.

Since then:

I've puzzled over an imaginary syllabus for either an introductory or a capstone course for the Politics, Philosophy, & Economics major some of us are working on developing at McGill.

I've thought about issues of disciplinary borrowing and its absence: how economists stereotypically think that no question has been studied until it's been studied by an economist (no empirical question has been studied until it's been studied by a labor economist using an instrumental variable or an exogenous shock, no theoretical question has been studied until it's been studied by a modeler), and so won't bother to read even the standard works in a field they've decided to dabble in; and legal academics stereotypically know just enough social science to get themselves into trouble, reading the works that someone happens to have cited in law reviews already regardless of its standing in its home discipline; and how political scientists, sociologists, and historians seem to have gone through a generational shift from reading one another constantly to reading one another almost never.

I've reread Elster's Sour Grapes for the first time in years, and marveled at it-- as a piece of prose, as a model of joining formal analysis to humanistic erudition, as a powerful statement about what social inquiry needs to be like that the disciplines still haven't caught up with 24 years later. And I thought: its year of publication, 1983, also saw Imagined Communities, Spheres of Justice, Nations and Nationalism. The next year The Evolution of Cooperation came out; the year after that, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Weapons of the Weak, and Taylor's Philosophical Papers. 1981: Treatise on the Family; Theory of Communicative Action.

I recognize all the sources of rose-colored hindsight bias, and how we're able to see things at a distance that we couldn't see up close. Yet I still thought: Those are books that I think all social scientists and social theorists should have a familiarity with; and I'll bet I'll still think so in ten years. And I wonder how many works published in the last four, or the last ten, that will be true for.

This all put me in the perfect mood for the pointer from Henry Farrell to this paper by Peter Hall about social inquiry and the disciplines.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

New look

I've upgraded the aesthetics around here a bit. Beaucoup beaucoup de whitespace, which I always have trouble appreciating until I see it. (My instinct is to cram as much text as is humanly possible into a given space. My Senior Page in my high school yearbook was... not aesthetically pleasing or very easy to read, though it amused me.) I like the ability to browse post titles in the left-hand sidebar.

The change was in the service of fixing my permalinks. The good news is: one can now click on the permalink button below each post and get a functioning link. The bad news is: this doesn't fix any of the old bad-code links. Sorry about that.

Took the occasion to tweak the blogroll, dropping some things (e.g. the late lamented Crescat Sententia) and adding a handful of new ones.
Is it my imagination...

or did the Supreme Court's term end with an awful lot of identical 5-4 splits? It's not just that O'Connor switched sides often enough that you might get some 5-4 liberal decisions and some 5-4 conservative ones. It's that there'd usually be a few significant cases that turned out to have 6-or-more-person majorities. The past couple weeks seems anomalous to me in recent-historical terms. The five conservatives hung solidly together as did the four liberals, with no interesting defections except for Kennedy on the death penalty, across an especially wide range of cases.

Update Stuart Benjamin says something similar. He thinks it's unusual that an antitrust case followed exactly te same 5-4 roght-left cleavage as constitutional cases, and that the majority and minority are now engaged in ideological "shadowboxing" even over cases that aren't directly ideological.

Eugene Volokh reports that Kennedy was in the majority in all 24 5-4 cases this term-- he is now the swing vote, with the other 8 dividing the same way over and over again. Overall Kennedy was in the majority 69 out of 71 times.

But Kennedy did swing back and forth a bit: "Note that the 24 5-4 cases came out with Kennedy joining the four conservatives 13 times, the four liberals 6 times, and no easily identifiable bloc 5 times."

Munroe-Blum condemns proposed UK academic boycott

June 19, 2007

Statement by the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University, Heather Munroe-Blum, on the potential boycott of Israeli universities by the United Kingdom’s University and College Union

The exchange of knowledge and ideas is essential to the advancement of human development in all its forms: civic, scientific and cultural. Any attempt to constrain the ability of universities to engage freely in scholarship and teaching is an attack on the fundamental value of academic freedom.

The boycott of Israeli universities which is being considered by the United Kingdom’s University and College Union (UCU) should be thoroughly condemned.

We live in a world in which universities and their faculty members should seek to promote scholarly understanding and to remove barriers to academic exchange and expression.

It would be a gross violation of the values which form the foundation, and progressive evolution, of civil society if the UCU endorsed this action. I urge our British university colleagues to reject the boycott proposal.

I join in solidarity with President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University and Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau of the University of California, Berkeley, in support of unfettered interaction with Israeli scholars and institutions and in saying to those members of the UCU who would pursue this deplorable action: if you choose to isolate Israeli universities, you should add McGill to your boycott list. We will stand steadfast against those who seek to undermine academic freedom.

Heather Munroe-Blum
Principal and Vice-Chancellor
McGill University

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Nussbaum on India and democracy

The convocation address given by Martha Nussbaum when she was awarded an honorary degree by McGill last month is now online.
Ethics revisited

So-- as people have been delighted to point out to me-- New York Times Magazine ethics columnist Randy Cohen has been revealed to have donated money to, in violation of the Times' ethics rules governing political activity by its writers.
The New York Times, Randy Cohen, ethics columnist, $585 in three donations in August 2004 to, which conducted get-out-the-vote drives to defeat President Bush. In addition to the syndicated column "The Ethicist" for the Times Magazine, Cohen answers ethics questions for listeners of NPR.

Freelancers like Cohen are covered by the Times policy, which says, "Times readers apply exacting standards to the entire paper. They do not distinguish between staff-written articles and those written by outsiders. Thus as far as possible, freelance contributors to The Times, while not its employees, will be held to the same standards as staff members when they are on Times assignments, including those for the Times Magazine. If they violate these guidelines, they will be denied further assignments."

Cohen said he thought of as nonpartisan and thought the donation would be allowed even under the strict rule at the Times.

"We admire those colleagues who participate in their communities — help out at the local school, work with Little League, donate to charity," Cohen said in an e-mail. "But no such activity is or can be non-ideological. Few papers would object to a journalist donating to the Boy Scouts or joining the Catholic Church. But the former has an official policy of discriminating against gay children; the latter has views on reproductive rights far more restrictive than those of most Americans. Should reporters be forbidden to support those groups? I’d say not. Unless a group’s activities impinge on a reporter’s beat, the reporter should be free to donate to a wide range of nonprofits. Make a journalist’s charitable giving transparent, and let the readers weigh it as they will.

"Those who do not cover anything, but write a column of opinion should have even more latitude. It is such a writer’s job to make his views explicit. Those donations to nonprofits will no doubt reflect the views he or she is hired to express. In evaluating such civic engagement, it is well to remember that to have an opinion is not to have a bias. To conceal one’s political opinions is not to be without them."

After checked the names of Times staff and contributors on this list with a spokesperson for the Times, Cohen sent this addendum:

"That said, Times policy does forbid my making such donations, and I will not do so in the future."

Over at NRO, Douglas Kern provides commentary that manages to be almost right and yet totally nuts.
Dear Randy:

Nincompoops talk ethics. Men talk virtues. Stop being a nincompoop.

My highest law-school grade was in Legal Ethics. I achieved a stellar grade because I devised an infallible mechanism for solving any legal ethical dilemma. My mechanism was this: Remember that legal ethics is a system of rules:

1) designed by sociopaths;
2) for sociopaths;
3) to prevent public acknowledgment of their sociopathy;
4) while still allowing said sociopaths to fleece said public.

Once you realize that contemporary ethics is not morality but the clever simulation of morality, you’re halfway to qualifying for an ethics-consulting job.[...]

I’m only kidding a little about the sociopathy. By definition, a sociopath is one who can only emulate the rules and mores of society, as a sociopath never internalizes any sense of right and wrong. In a country where fewer and fewer people agree about how to determine right and wrong, the bogus pseudo-answers of ethics begin to sound more and more appealing. Put another way: As we grow more sociopathic as a society, ethics makes more and more sense.

And that’s where you come in, my fine ethical friend. Your job as a public ethicist is not to teach people how best to apply the rules and obligations of a transcendent authority, as the ethicists of old once did. That would be hard. And intrusive. And divisive. And let’s face it: “transcendent authority” carries the whiff of the red state, with all the unpleasantness (NASCAR, Wal-Mart, redundant children) there attached. Neither is your job to teach philosophy. That, too, would be hard, and unsatisfying as well; when do philosophers ever agree? No, your job is to provide just enough soothing advice to scratch that fleeting itch that your affluent readership feels when confronted with moral questions that vacuous self-serving upper class prejudices can’t immediately resolve. Forget right and wrong; the role of the modern ethicist is to move puzzled smart people from a state of mild dismay to a pleasant coma of satisfied smugness in the shortest time possible. You seek to avoid not sin, but the appearance of impropriety. But a great many virtues can appear quite improper, and a great many sins can appear quite proper indeed.

Consider, for example, the “ethical” rule that precludes journalists (and quasi-journalists like yourself) from donating money to politicians and overt shill machines. You’ve correctly deduced that this rule is asinine. Suppose for a moment that you obeyed it. Would you feel any differently, write any differently, be biased against conservatives any differently if you kept your $585.00 instead of donating it? And would you suddenly evolve into a better, purer, more ethically unstoppable self if you gave that money to The Medusa Fund for Underprivileged Maoists in Malibu, instead of Kucinich for President? No, this rule does nothing to prevent bias. It rewards those sneaky enough to donate anonymously, or through a proxy, even as it penalizes those who make their political biases a matter of public record. Note that my infallible ethics problem-solving mechanism predicts this rule perfectly:

1) It’s easily implemented, so that even a sociopath can enforce it;

2) It’s easy to obey, so that even a sociopath can abide by it;

3) It gives the public the entirely false sense that journalists who abide by this rule are honorable and unbiased; and

4) It doesn’t prevent any journalist with even a lick of cleverness from secretly donating money to politicians and then copping a “fairer than thou” attitude from an unassailable position of serene non-involvement.

A real system for determining right and wrong requires commonly held first principles and leadership with the acknowledged authority to interpret and apply those principles. That kind of agreement is in short supply these days. In modern societies where people adhering to all sorts of creeds regularly interact in order to make money, principles and dogma will tend to take a backseat to rough ‘n ready codes of conduct – and modern ethics is nothing if not rough ‘n ready. Morality is for heroes; modern ethics is for sophisters, economists, and calculators. We tolerate modern ethics, as we tolerate sophisters, but they should both know their place, and neither should command great love or respect.

So ignore the rules, Randy, and donate away. Of course, your donation will expose you as an appalling hypocrite, and you may lose your job consequently. That’s okay. Your job is stupid. Why not write a column calling men to heroic virtue instead of cocktail-party pleasantries?

OK, in order:
1) If Randy Cohen actually knew about the Times policy and thought that somehow (the PAC, not the affiliated 501c4) was relevantly like a nonpartisan charitable contribution and not relevantly like a political contribution, and didn't even wonder about this enough to ask someone, then he's dumb. When you donate to a PAC, and fill out the paperwork that gets the donation into the FEC database, you get lots of verbiage about this not being a tax-deductible charitable contribution. You're contributing directly to the election or defeat of political candidates, even though you're not contributing directly to the candidates. This is the basic distinction of American campaign-donations law. It's not hard. One may not like the rules that put PACs on one side and the Catholic Church on the other of a very bright line, but they're not hard to understand from a donor's perspective. (They may be hard for the organizations themselves to understand, in terms of what's permitted or not to groups on either side of the line.)

I don't think he's that dumb. Therefore I think he's a liar.

2) He's not, strictly speaking, a hypocrite, because-- as I kvetched about all these years ago-- his official position on the relationship of ethics to political morality is that the rules are less important than being on the leftward side. He's living up to his announced code, though of course that differs from the Times' code.

3) I agree with both Cohen and Kern that this is a pretty dumb rule. It's not as dumb as the famous case of the Washington Post editor who doesn't vote lest it prejudice him, but it's dumb. Journalists categorically shouldn't be in the pay of political actors. But how one gets from there to the rule that they should not themselves contribute to such actors is beyond me. Making the contribution doesn't add to the journalist's bias. In order to avoid (yes) the appearance of impropriety or conflicts of interest, I'd say that news (not opinion) reporters who directly cover politics and elections shouldn't contribute-- lest the donation make the reporter feel that he or she now has a psychic stake in the candidate's success. (But note it's only a psychic stake; the conflict of interest is much harder to identify than when a business reporter owns stocks.)

4) But, contra Cohen's general position and Kern's view about this case, I think that following the rules is morally important. This may make me less than manly in Kern's eyes.

[Aside: Has any good ever come from someone who feels the need to announce he's being manly? Among the defining traits of John Wayne types is that they don't talk very much, certainly don't talk about themselves very much, and basically never talk about themselves with the kind of self-reflexivity that says, 'hey, didja see what I just did? Didja see what kind of action that was? When someone tells you he's being manly, call him a poseur-- it's ok, you can use a French word, because you're not pretending to be John Wayne-- and then check to make sure your wallet's still in place.)

Anyway: this may make me less than manly in Kern's eyes. And in Cohen's it means that I'm morally deluded. But the rules are how we live with our moral and political disagreements. The rules are how we avoid case-by-case post-hoc ajudication-- the kind of ajudication that is most likely to be infected by bias. Until the day comes when everyone working on a newspaper has precisely the same political principles, because they've fallen in behind Kern's manly "leadership with the acknowledged authority to interpret and apply those principles," a news organization needs some way to know, and to provide mutual reassurance, that people with strong but divergent beliefs about ultimate political ends are all operating within the same restraints on means.

Kern is kind of right about the difference between ethics and virtue-- but completely wrong about what that means about ethics. Ethical rules tell us: don't stuff the ballot box, even when you think it's really really morally important that your guy win because of your general theory of justice. They tell us: zealously represent your client, even if you think he's scum, or get out of the way and let someone else do so, because you're a professional with expert knowledge and the client-customer has a hard time monitoring whether you;re doing a good job or not. They tell us: don't give a students bad grade because they disagree with you politically, even if you think that their political views reveal that they must be really dumb or very bad people. They tell us-- contra Cohen's advice-- not to authorize ourselves to commit workplace fraud in the service of our overarching vision of how commerce and labor ought to be organized.

That's not to say that ethics is ultimately more important than morality broadly understood. Ethics offers a particular register of morality, not the whole of it. But the ability to live on terms of fair and reciprocal cooperation with those who disagree with us is morally important in its own right. Honoring professional and contractual obligations is morally important. In denigrating ethics as the morality of sociopaths, Kern implicitly calls for the morality of narcissistic megalomaniacs-- those so sure of their own virtue and the rightness of their cause that they can't imagine the need for moral engagement with those who might disagree.
Compare and contrast

Two new blog entries on political science research on diversity.

Daniel Larison (at the new, revamped American Scene) on Robert Putnam's "Ethnic Diversity and Social Capital" research (see his Skytte Prize Lecture), showing that increases in local diversity can be "devastating" to social capital in all the affected communities; people hunker down in the face of unfamiliar neighbors, their intracommunal associational life dries up and intracommunal ones don't develop anytime soon.

Henry Farrell on Scott Page's book, The Difference, showing that under various not-too-restrictive conditions diversity in a pool of decisionmakers has benefits. Different perspectives, assuming that they're perspectives on a shared question, problem, or enterprise, can be more valuable than expertise. (Diverse agents with divergent preferences don't getthe same results.)

Note that these conclusions are entirely compatible with one another. A neighborhood isn't an enterprise association. It may be that the epistemic benefits of diversity can only be obtained in fairly artificially structured environments. (Most formal decisionmaking bodies are artificially structured environments.)

Add Putnam and Page to my reading pile; and puzzle over the implications for liberal theory and democratic theory respectively. Or else throw it out into the world and encourage a grad student to do the puzzling...

Monday, June 25, 2007

Poli sci papers

Henry Farrell has set up a new blog with abstracts and links to political science papers, kind of like what Larry Solum does for law, Brian Weatherson does (used to do?) for philosophy, and various econ bloggers do for their discipline.

Sunday, June 24, 2007


to Oxblog founder Josh Chafetz.
A reason to be either a textualist or a public-meaning originalist, and never an intentionalist

Bush claims oversight exemption too

By Josh Meyer, LA Times Staff Writer
June 23, 2007

WASHINGTON — The White House said Friday that, like Vice President Dick Cheney's office, President Bush's office is not allowing an independent federal watchdog to oversee its handling of classified national security information.

An executive order that Bush issued in March 2003 — amending an existing order — requires all government agencies that are part of the executive branch to submit to oversight. Although it doesn't specifically say so, Bush's order was not meant to apply to the vice president's office or the president's office, a White House spokesman said.


Waxman and J. William Leonard, director of the Information Security Oversight Office, have argued that the order clearly applies to all executive branch agencies, including the offices of the vice president and the president.

The White House disagrees, Fratto said.

"We don't dispute that the ISOO has a different opinion. But let's be very clear: This executive order was issued by the president, and he knows what his intentions were," Fratto said. "He is in compliance with his executive order."

[...]Cheney's office drew criticism Thursday for claiming that it was exempt from the reporting requirements because the vice president's office is not fully within the executive branch. It cited his legislative role as president of the Senate when needed to break a tie.

At a Friday news conference, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said constitutional scholars could debate that assertion.

But, she said, Cheney's office is exempt from the requirements because the president intended him to be.

Sigh. "I secretly had my fingers crossed!" is not a desriable approach to rulemaking or lawmaking. No rulemaker should have an incentive to write an unclear rule (which this was not, but which the interpretive strategy on offer here would encourage) so that later on the rulemaker can opportunistically reveal his secret "intention."