Category Archives: Sociology

If we can put a man on the Moon…: Getting big things done in government – William D. Eggers and John O’Leary

“The requirements for achieving great things are two simple but far from easy steps–wisely choosing which policies to pursue and then executing those policies. The difference between success and failure is execution.”

It has become something of a truism that just having good ideas isn’t enough: they also have to be implemented well. Eggers and O’Leary (who should be a comedy duo, based on their names) argue that because we don’t always realize this, we tend to spend a lot of time looking for someone to blame when something goes wrong, rather than realizing the flaw is often systemic. When we try to solve a systems problem by changing an individual, we inevitably fail.

The book maps out how to end up with a good public policy. Start with a good idea; turn that idea into a specific design, often through writing some draft legislation; win approval for the idea (more of an issue in the American system than in Parliamentary ones, in which the party often has a majority already and so the parliamentary step is straightforward); implement it competently; generate the desired results; and over time, re-evaluate and look for ways to do better. All the while, of course, avoiding classic traps like confirmation bias, overconfidence, and complacency.

The book is strongest if you aren’t familiar with the various ‘innovative’ practices going around already. Unfortunately, most of their examples—prizes for innovation, hackathons, the London congestion charge, etc—have been analyzed at length in the past. Eggers and O’Leary come from the American civil service, for which the practices are relatively new, but for other readers most of it won’t seem that exciting. The authors also have a disturbing tendency to make up their own non-intuitive names for things, which can sometimes be confusing. Overall, not a bad book, but probably not new for most readers in the field.

Controlling the Message – Victoria A. Farrer-Myers and Justin S. Vaughn

“In a system in which any person can share his or her viewpoint given the low entry cost into the social media marketplace of ideas, [can] too much information be detrimental to the American form of democracy?”

The top five most viewed YouTube videos relating to the 2012 American election were all music videos: Obama’s words assembled into Call Me Maybe, an Obama vs. Romney Rap, Obama’s words into Sexy and I Know It, “Mitt Romney Style”, and Obama’s words into Born this Way. Is this boosting political outreach to non-traditional constituencies, or reflective of a broad disinterest and apathy by the electorate? What does it mean that a picture of Obama hugging his wife after the election was the most liked Facebook post ever, or the most re-tweeted photo of all time? Are social networks advancing democratic discourse and citizen engagement, or making us effectively voiceless?

These are the questions Controlling the Message engages with in a series of essays by different authors looking at the effect of technology on America’s 2012 presidential election. The essays vary in quality: some advance interesting ideas or studies, such as one that looks at comment forums and finds the number of negative comments is no more than in normal political conversation. Another explains that in 2012, Obama’s campaign messaged their supporters asking them to urge a particular friend of theirs to vote, register, or volunteer; a carefully organized and minutely targeted campaign to reach the most valuable voters, using social networks.

Others are weaker. Some advance non-falsifiable hypotheses, meaning their findings are basically just circular reasoning: one seemed to treat social networks as a foreign land, making me wonder whether an author who has clearly never used Facebook has a lot to give in terms of understanding its effect on politics.

The general finding is that social media does not fundamentally change either political campaigns or reporting. It does, however, make a difference in reaching 5-10% of voters. Since those are the voters that decide elections, that means it is important, but perhaps not revolutionary.

The bottom line: Controlling the Message asks great questions, and for that alone it’s worth considering. Unfortunately, it may be just too early to come up with clear answers to them.

Disclosure: I read this as an Advance Reader Copy: it is released April 14th. You can see details on Controlling the Message on Amazon.

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth – Michael Booth

“Denmark was the happiest place in the world. The happiest? This dark, wet, dull, flat little country made up of one peninsula, Jutland, and a handful of islands to its east with its handful of stoic, sensible people and the highest taxes in the world? The United States was twenty-third on the list. But a man at a university had said it, so it must be true.”

Scandinavia is often referred to as some sort of paradise, where all is well and everyone is happy. Michael Booth, a Brit living in Denmark, tries to understand whether that reputation is deserved, and if so why. To spoil the ending, he believes we have much to learn from those countries, including their priorities, how they handle their wealth, and how they balance work and play while educating themselves and supporting each other. He also has serious concerns, about increasing fissures around race and social equality, alcoholism, a vast public service that is funded with an ever increasing share of total income, and – particularly in Denmark – a debt to income ratio that is double that of Spain and quadruple that of Italy.

The strength of the book, though, is in his witty, clever, and curmudgeonly perspective on it all. Booth is a funny and entertaining writer, and it makes the whole book work, part travel guide and part documentary. If you want a serious analysis of why Finland’s education system is one of the best in the world, why the suicides rates in Scandinavia are so high, or why Sweden is the 8th largest arms exporter in the world, this isn’t the book for you. If you are planning on visiting the countries, though, or better yet moving there, The Almost Nearly Perfect People can teach you to avoid sitting next to the host at a party in Sweden unless you want to make a speech; give you advice on how to socialize with the remarkably taciturn Finns; and above all, make you laugh.

Disclosure: I read this as a Advance Reader Copy. You can get it on Amazon: Almost Nearly Perfect People.

The Triple Package – Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

“This book is about the rise and fall of groups. Its thesis is that when three distinct forces come together in a group’s culture, they propel that group to disproportionate success.”

What do the CEOs of Dell, Citigroup, Fisher-Price, and Deloitte; the majority leader of the US Senate; Ken Jennings of Jeopardy fame; Stephen Covey, who wrote 7 Habits of Highly Successful People; and Stephanie Meyer, author of Twilight, all have in common? They’re all Mormons, and, if you believe Chua and Rubenfeld, they have a triple package of a superiority complex, an inferiority complex, and impulse control, something they share with American hyphenated Nigerians, Muslims, Cubans, Indians, Jews, Iranians, Indian, Jews, Iranian, Lebanese, and Chinese, among others.

Amy Chua’s last book, Tiger Mother, wasn’t exactly unprovocative, and she’s clearly decided that’s how to sell books. This one argues that the large differences in the success of different immigrant groups in the US are due to cultural factors: inferiority, superiority, and impulse-control lead to drive and resilience. She worries though that those cultural factors, leading to material success as they do, also breed problems, such as materialism or an over-focus on competition.

It is empirically true that some groups do better in the US than others, of course. And unless we want to argue that genetics decide everything, culture likely plays a role in that. So far, so good, though a lot of people discussing the book don’t seem to get even that far. What’s less certain is exactly what aspects of culture matter, and frustratingly, the book lacks the analysis to really answer that question. The cultures listed have high performing members, yes: but do they also have low performing members? If the Triple Package increases the variance without increasing the mean, then the book’s argument takes on a very different slant, and I’d have loved some insight on whether that’s the case. I should admit I have the exact same problem with Tiger Mother’s discussion of parenting, by the way.

The book ends with a story of decline: the US has lost its Triple Package (except for the superiority complex), and suffers debt and an inability to plan for the long term. In the end, it actually feels like a very standard message: the ability to delay gratification is important, for both countries and individuals. Whether an inferiority or a superiority complex is a necessary component of that, however, I’m less sure.  If you’re like me, you’ll find the weak statistics and overzealous claims somewhat annoying, but even if it’s only as a foil, the book at least asks interesting questions.

Strange Fruits: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate – Kenan Malik

“As the rise of the politics of difference has turned the assertion of group identity into a progressive demand, so racialisation is no longer viewed as a purely negative phenomenon. The consequence has been the resurrection of racial ideas and the imprisonment of people within their cultural identities…The concept of race is irrational. The practice of antiracism has become so. We need to challenge both, in the name of humanism and of reason.”

The idea of race has what I find a surprisingly short history. For much of humanity’s past, it was group membership of things like socioeconomic status, citizenship, or faith which mattered. As late as 1881, the King of Hawaii was given precedence over the Crown Prince of Germany; social rank mattered more than race.

Race then had its heyday, but post WW2 it for good reasons became unacceptable. Malik worries in “Strange Fruits” that it is returning in popularity in the guise of culture and under the auspices of antiracism. The right, he argues, uses human diversity as an argument to exclude the different; the modern left uses human diversity as a reason that people must be treated differently. Both, he suggests, rely on race and emphasize differences between people. Often it is culture that the left argues must be preserved: but that he suggests is too often used as a proxy for race, and one’s membership in a culture is defined by who one’s ancestors were. When museums restrict access to certain exhibits for cultural reasons, as they do in Australia and elsewhere, genetics and descent is the gatekeeper to knowledge.

In the end, race explains an insignificant 3-5% of human variation. Its categories are almost entirely arbitrary, and impossible to define over a constantly changing humanity. If science wishes to use it as a pragmatic way of grouping people, Malik argues, as when the FDA approved a drug targeting African-Americans, then fine; but it is the use of a social construct for convenience without the specificity to be anything more, and should be treated as such, not as a fixed dividing line between groups. Antiracists on the left who argue that cultures/races must be treated differently because they are different, he suggests, should remember the same: celebrating racial differences requires the same assumptions about race as those held by racists, an unscientific and unfounded philosophy.

To find out more, you can pick up a copy here (or just read the reviews) – or in the UK or Canada.

Infidel – Ayann Hirsi Ali

Most of Infidel is devoted to Ali’s life: born in Somalia, she moved between Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya before fleeing a marriage and settling in Holland. Her life also reflects an intellectual journey as she experiences the differences between Holland and Somalia, and her opinions and ideas, particularly about Islam, change as she does. In Holland she was elected Member of Parliament partly due to her advocacy and activism on the issue of Muslim women’s rights, receiving repeated death threats for her work. A filmmaker with whom she collaborated was murdered due to the film they made together, and she is forced into hiding with bodyguards, fleeing the country for her own safety.

Ali argues that Islam has never gone through an Enlightenment that would allow for questioning of its rigid views on individual freedom; that as a result, mistreatment of homosexuals and women is deeply embedded in it. Her life has been enriched by the good parts of Islam, including compassion, charity, and spiritual guidance, she argues, but she condemns their treatment of of women and minorities.

I found the book interesting for two different reasons. First was simply the very different environment she grew up in from mine: her description of female genital mutilation, though hardly pleasant reading, was one of many things in I know little about. Second, reading about her personal journey to how she arrived at her views is compelling, whether you agree or disagree with her conclusions, particularly when she is forced into hiding. Holland is hardly an oppressive country, and her description of being forced into hiding and having her colleague killed for making a movie is shocking; it’s hard to imagine such things happening in Holland, yet they most certainly did.

Though the book is not within my normal line, I got a lot out of it: it’s beautifully written and whether you support her criticisms or not, there’s a lot to be learned from it. It’s worth picking up.

The World Until Yesterday 1 – Jared Diamond

“Traditional societies represent thousands of millennia-long natural experiments in organizing human lives. We can’t repeat those experiments by redesigning thousands of societies today in order to wait decades and observe the outcomes; we have to learn from the societies that already ran the experiments.”

A bit late on posting this – apologies. It’s been a busy week.

We too often mistake past cultures based on flawed information and unconscious assumptions. Jared Diamond has actually done the research, and has the breadth of knowledge to make interesting, provocative, and informative assertions on the nature of humanity and human society.

As a result, The World Until Yesterday is a great book. Jared Diamond is an absolute master of his field, as readers of his other books can attest, and his breadth of examples and insights is exhaustive. In past books though, he has tended to take a single thesis, and argue for it based on case studies. Here, Diamond examines 9 broad themes, discussing how we treat them in the modern world, and how they were treated then. In some ways, we are clearly better off: in other ways we are perhaps not. Those nine themes are dividing space, peace/dispute resolution, war, raising children, treatment of elderly, danger response, religion, language, and diet/lifestyle.

Perhaps the most fundamental takeaway is that there are many possible ways of organizing a society, and that the narrow field of possibilities we experience for ourselves is just that: narrow. Some of these alternatives are probably undesirable from the modern standpoint: among the Kaulong people, when a man died, his brothers would strangle his widow, or in their absence, one of her sons. If they failed to do so fast enough, the widow would mock and humiliate them in order to pressure them to fulfill their obligation. Others, though, have a definite appeal, as with care for children and elderly, or our diets.

Exactly what we should learn from traditional societies is up for debate, and Diamond does not attempt to reach a consensus. His point is more profound: that we should at the very least think about other possible ways of organizing our societies, and that traditional cultures provide a way to see other possibilities in action. As they shrink and disappear, we lose a cultural laboratory of untold richness.

If you’re interested in how human society works (and if you ask me, you should be), then you should read this book, no questions asked. You can get it here (or in the UK or Canada). Later this week, I’ll look at a few of the specific examples contained within.

Shop Class as Soulcraft – Matthew Crawford

“This book grows out of an attempt to understand the greater sense of agency and competence I have always felt doing manual work, compared to other jobs that were officially recognized as ‘knowledge work’.”

How many people with University of Chicago PhDs in philosophy do you think become motorcycle mechanics? After you read Shop Class as Soulcraft, you can claim you know of at least one. Having gotten a well-paid position at a thinktank, Crawford left it after 5 months, and turned instead to working with his hands. He claims he’s happier for it.

Shop Class as Soulcraft is about the difference between monetary and psychic nourishment. It worries that in today’s world, it is assumed that we get the first from our jobs and the second from our two week holiday, a somewhat woeful ratio. It is in the trades, Crawford argues, that both can be found, and his book merges philosophy, psychology, a love of the local, and stories of fixing motorbikes.

In today’s world, manual labour all tends to be dismissed as mindless. Crawford suggests this arises from the error of confusing manual labour with assembly line work. Assembly line work is easily depersonalized and turned into a process, forced to respond to forces remote from where the work is done. Indeed, this was a stated goal of production when the assembly line was introduced, as it allowed the use of unskilled labour. It has little if anything to do with a trade like woodworking or fixing motorcycles, however, in which problems must be diagnosed and unique solutions formed: the jobs simply vary too much to be reduced to a single process. Modern white collar labour, in contrast, often can be, and as Crawford wisely points out, trafficking in abstraction is not the same as thinking.

For Crawford, “real knowledge arises through confrontations with real things:” it is in facing the real world, with universal standards like ‘does the engine run?’ that we truly test ourselves. In the corporate environment, on the other hand, accountability is at best diffuse, and we rarely have any sort of independent standard by which to judge our success.

In the end, the best jobs engage the human faculties as much as possible. For some people, this is in the life of the mind. For others, it is in the trades. If Crawford is arguing for anything, it is for people to pick careers based on what is good for their soul, not just what is good for their wallet or the respect of society. He believes that can be found in the trades, and though I probably believe it will vary widely between people, I’m happy to agree they’re worth a try.

Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan

“Imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.”

Why do you eat what you do? How was it produced? If you can answer with more than the aisle of the supermarket you bought it from, well done. If you can’t, does that worry you? Is all food created equal and of equal health benefit? Is beef from a grass-lot the same as feed-lot, or vegetables grown industrially the same as organic? Do you know the answer to that? If not, does that worry you?

Michael Pollan argues it should worry us. Three principle chains of food sustain us, all of them linking one biological system, ourselves, with another, a patch of soil. Most of us, however, remain woefully ignorant of any sort of understanding of our food systems. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan explores each of the three methods of food creation, industrial, organic, and hunter/gatherer, and examines the costs and benefits of each.

There are a lot of shocking facts in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but to highlight one, I hadn’t realized that in industrial production of beef, cattle are dosed with antibiotics as a preventative measure, since they are so susceptible to disease from the poor conditions in which they live. Antibiotic resistance may be one of the most serious problems humanity as a whole faces in the coming years; to squander our antibiotics in a manner almost designed to create resistance is for me simply unacceptable. Shaving pennies off the price of beef just doesn’t seem worth the cost of our ability to fight disease. Health warning: readers of sensitive stomach may find they learn rather more about how broiler chickens are raised than they might have wanted.

There are of course two sides to every story, and Pollan is careful to examine the benefits from cheaper food in terms of health and living standards. He’s right, and the animal rights movement sometimes unfairly ignores these benefits. The reality though is that most of us aren’t in a position to decide either way; we remain willfully blind to the reality, ignorant of what we eat and where it comes from. Perhaps the tradeoff is worth it, but we should at least be aware of the processes our food goes through, whether that means glass walls on slaughterhouses or increased education about industrial production. In the end, what you eat is a personal choice, but it’s one that should be made out of information, not ignorance.

If you want to learn more about what you’re eating, you can get Pollan’s book here (or in the UK or Canada). Or, join the Subtle Illumination email list to your right!

Fixing Social Capital: Bowling Alone 2

“We remain, in short, reasonably well-informed spectators of public affairs, but many fewer of us actually partake in the game.”

Feeling a bit sick? Moving to a high social capital state may be as good for your health as quitting smoking. Most of us think of the benefits of social capital as coordinating the group to solve collective action problems and reinforcing democracy. More subtly, however, it also brings psychological benefits, encouraging tolerance and empathy and reducing stress, depression, and illness. Social capital smooths the path of modern society. Though we may not require saints for society to operate, we do require a minimum willingness to serve the group and resist taking advantage of everyone else.

As we have seen in the first half of the review of Bowling Alone, social capital has fallen dramatically in the United States, in terms of poker games, picnics, community societies and pretty much all other civic activities. Putnam turns to why this is a problem and how it can be resolved.

Putnam compares our age to the Gilded Age, in the early 1900s, with inequalities in wealth, class, and race exacerbated by concerns over the fracturing of communities and the centralization of corporate power. The question then and now was how to “reform institutions and adapt our habits in this new world to secure the enduring values of tradition,” and the Gilded Age preceded an enormous surge in social capital. The loss of social capital is not inevitable, and it can be reversed.

To rebuild social capital we require both supply and demand for communities.  We must create a supply of civic activities by establishing clubs, societies, and groups that allow individuals to interact with each other, while also creating demand for such activities through education and other means. In other words, we require both individual change and institutional change.

Bowling Alone covers a fundamental idea, and does so exhaustively. At times, this can be a bit much: he would make a claim, I would agree, and then thirty pages of supporting statistics followed regardless. It can also feel a bit dated; though published in 2000, it is his bad luck that the leaps and bounds in technology since then mean his discussion of the internet and mobility feel the need for an update. For someone seeking insight into communities, however, the book is a must read, both because you will see it cited in any modern work on a related subject, and because it introduces ideas that remain a major concern today, and deals with them thoroughly.

You can read Bowling Alone here (or in the UK or Canada). Or, just join the Subtle Illumination email list to your right and do your part to restore social capital!