Over at Montclair Socioblog, Jay Livingston discusses a recent study showing that some Americans don’t think that their votes make any difference in how they’re governed. Those of us who care about politics often respond to this kind of pessimism with the old adage that every vote counts, but are they wrong?
Livingston suggests that they’re not.
He cites political science research that compared 1,779 policy outcomes with the preferences of ordinary voters, economic elites, and interest groups. Here’s the data; note that if the black line is going up to the right, that means that the policy outcomes and preferences align.
The slope on the relationship between “average citizens'” preferences and policy is, Livingston writes, “close to zero.” The disaffected, in other words, might be onto something.
What about those of us who care about policy? It seems to me the take away message from this research isn’t not to vote, but to get involved in changing the outsized role money has in politics. If we really want to make the country a better place, voting isn’t enough.
It seems certain that the political economy textbooks of the future will include a chapter on the experience of Greece in 2015.
On July 5, 2015, the people of Greece overwhelmingly voted “NO” to the austerity ultimatum demanded by what is colloquially being called the Troika, the three institutions that have the power to shape Greece’s future: the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank.
The people of Greece have stood up for the rights of working people everywhere.
Greece has experienced six consecutive years of recession and the social costs have been enormous. The following charts provide only the barest glimpse into the human suffering:
While the Troika has been eager to blame this outcome on the bungling and dishonesty of successive Greek governments and even the Greek people, the fact is that it is Troika policies that are primarily responsible. In broad brush, Greece grew rapidly over the 2000s in large part thanks to government borrowing, especially from French and German banks. When the global financial crisis hit in late 2008, Greece was quickly thrown into recession and the Greek government found its revenue in steep decline and its ability to borrow sharply limited. By 2010, without its own national currency, it faced bankruptcy.
Enter the Troika. In 2010, they penned the first bailout agreement with the Greek government. The Greek government received new loans in exchange for its acceptance of austerity policies and monitoring by the IMF. Most of the new money went back out of the country, largely to its bank creditors. And the massive cuts in public spending deepened the country’s recession.
By 2011 it had become clear that the Troika’s policies were self-defeating. The deeper recession further reduced tax revenues, making it harder for the Greek government to pay its debts. Thus in 2012 the Troika again extended loans to the Greek government as part of a second bailout which included . . . wait for it . . . yet new austerity measures.
Not surprisingly, the outcome was more of the same. By then, French and German banks were off the hook. It was now the European governments and the International Monetary Fund that worried about repayment. And the Greek economy continued its downward ascent.
Significantly, in 2012, IMF staff acknowledged that the its support for austerity in 2010 was a mistake. Simply put, if you ask a government to cut spending during a period of recession you will only worsen the recession. And a country in recession will not be able to pay its debts. It was a pretty clear and obvious conclusion.
But, significantly, this acknowledgement did little to change Troika policies toward Greece.
By the end of 2014, the Greek people were fed up. Their government had done most of what was demanded of it and yet the economy continued to worsen and the country was deeper in debt than it had been at the start of the bailouts. And, once again, the Greek government was unable to make its debt payments without access to new loans. So, in January 2015 they elected a left wing, radical party known as Syriza because of the party’s commitment to negotiate a new understanding with the Troika, one that would enable the country to return to growth, which meant an end to austerity and debt relief.
Syriza entered the negotiations hopeful that the lessons of the past had been learned. But no, the Troika refused all additional financial support unless Greece agreed to implement yet another round of austerity. What started out as negotiations quickly turned into a one way scolding. The Troika continued to demand significant cuts in public spending to boost Greek government revenue for debt repayment. Greece eventually won a compromise that limited the size of the primary surplus required, but when they proposed achieving it by tax increases on corporations and the wealthy rather than spending cuts, they were rebuffed, principally by the IMF.
The Troika demanded cuts in pensions, again to reduce government spending. When Greece countered with an offer to boost contributions rather than slash the benefits going to those at the bottom of the income distribution, they were again rebuffed. On and on it went. Even the previous head of the IMF penned an intervention warning that the IMF was in danger of repeating its past mistakes, but to no avail.
Finally on June 25, the Troika made its final offer. It would provide additional funds to Greece, enough to enable it to make its debt payments over the next five months in exchange for more austerity. However, as the Greek government recognized, this would just be “kicking the can down the road.” In five months the country would again be forced to ask for more money and accept more austerity. No wonder the Greek Prime Minister announced he was done, that he would take this offer to the Greek people with a recommendation of a “NO” vote.
Almost immediately after the Greek government announced its plans for a referendum, the leaders of the Troika intervened in the Greek debate. For example, as the New York Timesreported:
By long-established diplomatic tradition, leaders and international institutions do not meddle in the domestic politics of other countries. But under cover of a referendum in which the rest of Europe has a clear stake, European leaders who have found [Greece Prime Minister] Tsipras difficult to deal with have been clear about the outcome they prefer.
Many are openly opposing him on the referendum, which could very possibly make way for a new government and a new approach to finding a compromise. The situation in Greece, analysts said, is not the first time that European politics have crossed borders, but it is the most open instance and the one with the greatest potential effect so far on European unity…
Martin Schulz, a German who is president of the European Parliament, offered at one point to travel to Greece to campaign for the “yes” forces, those in favor of taking a deal along the lines offered by the
On Thursday, Mr. Schulz was on television making clear that he had little regard for Mr. Tsipras and his government. “We will help the Greek people but most certainly not the government,” he said.
European leaders actively worked to distort the terms of the referendum. Greeks were voting on whether to accept or reject Troika austerity policies yet the Troika leaders falsely claimed the vote was on whether Greece should remain in the Eurozone. In fact, there is no mechanism for kicking a country out of the Eurozone and the Greek government was always clear that it was not seeking to leave the zone.
Having whipped up popular fears of an end to the euro, some Greeks began talking their money out of the banks. On June 28, the European Central Bank then took the aggressive step of limiting its support to the Greek financial system.
This was a very significant and highly political step. Eurozone governments do not print their own money or control their own monetary systems. The European Central Bank is in charge of regional monetary policy and is duty bound to support the stability of the region’s financial system. By limiting its support for Greek banks it forced the Greek government to limit withdrawals which only worsened economic conditions and heightened fears about an economic collapse. This was, as reported by the New York Times, a clear attempt to influence the vote, one might even say an act of economic terrorism:
Some experts say the timing of the European Central Bank action in capping emergency funding to Greek banks this week appeared to be part of a campaign to influence voters.
“I don’t see how anybody can believe that the timing of this was coincidence,” said Mark Weisbrot, an economist and a co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “When you restrict the flow of cash enough to close the banks during the week of a referendum, this is a very deliberate move to scare people.”
Then on July 2, three days before the referendum, an IMF staff report on Greece was made public. Echos of 2010, the report made clear that Troika austerity demands were counterproductive. Greece needed massive new loans and debt forgiveness. The Bruegel Institute, a European think tank, offered a summary and analysis of the report, concluding that “the creditors negotiated with Greece in bad faith” and used “indefensible economic logic.”
The leaders of the Troika were insisting on policies that the IMF’s own staff viewed as misguided. Moreover, as noted above, European leaders desperately but unsuccessfully tried to kill the report. Only one conclusion is possible: the negotiations were a sham.
The Troika’s goals were political: they wanted to destroy the leftist, radical Syriza because it represented a threat to a status quo in which working people suffer to generate profits for the region’s leading corporations. It apparently didn’t matter to them that what they were demanding was disastrous for the people of Greece. In fact, quite the opposite was likely true: punishing Greece was part of their plan to ensure that voters would reject insurgent movements in other countries, especially Spain.
And despite, or perhaps because of all of the interventions and threats highlighted above, the Greek people stood firm. As the headlines of a Bloomberg news story proclaimed: “Varoufakis: Greeks Said ‘No’ to Five Years of Hypocrisy.”
The Greek vote was a huge victory for working people everywhere.
Now, we need to learn the lessons of this experience. Among the most important are: those who speak for dominant capitalist interests are not to be trusted. Our strength is in organization and collective action. Our efforts can shape alternatives.
Americans have a low opinion of Congress. Less than 10% of the voters think that Congress is doing a good job. But their own Representative . . . not so bad. A third of us think that our own rep deserves re-election (Rasmussen). Even that is low. Until recently, a majority of people approved of their own representative while disapproving of Congress in general. It’s been the same with crime. People feel safer in their own neighborhoods than elsewhere, even when those other neighborhoods have less crime.
Race relations too are bad . . . elsewhere. In the last year, the percent of Americans saying that race relations in the country are “bad” doubled (roughly from 30% to 60%). That’s understandable given the media coverage of Ferguson and other conflicts centered on race. But people take a far more sanguine view of things in their own community. Eighty percent rate local race relations as “good,” and that number has remained unchanged throughout this century. (See this post from last summer.)
Not surprising then that the problem with marriage in the US turns out to be about other people’s marriages. A recent survey asked people about the direction of their own marriage and marriage in the US generally.
Only a handful of people (5%) see marriage generally as getting stronger. More than eight times that say that their own marriages have strengthened. The results for “weaker” are just the reverse. Only 6% say that their own marriage has weakened, but 43% see marriage in the US as losing ground.
Why the “elsewhere effect”? One suspect is the media bias towards trouble. Good news is no news. News editors don’t give us many stories about good race relations, or about the 25-year drop in crime, or about the decrease in divorce. Instead, we get crime and conflict and a variety of other problems. Add to this the perpetual political campaign with opposition candidates tirelessly telling us what’s wrong. Given this balance of information, we can easily picture the larger society as a world in decline, a perilous world so different from the one we walk through every day.
At first glance, people seeing their own relationships as good, others’ relationships as more strained seems like the opposite of the pluralistic ignorance on college campuses. There, students often believe that things are better elsewhere, or at least better for other students. They think that most other students are having more sex, partying more heartily, and generally having a better time than they are themselves. But whether we see others as having fun or more problems, the cause of the discrepancy is the same – the information we have. We know our own lives first hand. We know about those generalized others mostly from the stories we hear. And the people – whether news editors or students on campus – select the stories that are interesting, not those that are typical.
Daniel Drezner once wrote about how international relations scholars would react to a zombie epidemic. Aside from the sheer fun of talking about something as silly as zombies, it had much the same illuminating satiric purpose as “how many X does it take to screw in a lightbulb” jokes. If you have even a cursory familiarity with the field, it is well worth reading.
Here’s my humble attempt to do the same for several schools within sociology.
Public Opinion. Consider the statement that “Zombies are a growing problem in society.” Would you:
Neither agree nor disagree
Um, how do I know you’re really with NORC and not just here to eat my brain?
Criminology. In some areas (e.g., Pittsburgh, Raccoon City), zombification is now more common that attending college or serving in the military and must be understood as a modal life course event. Furthermore, as seen in audit studies employers are unwilling to hire zombies and so the mark of zombification has persistent and reverberating effects throughout undeath (at least until complete decomposition and putrefecation). However, race trumps humanity as most employers prefer to hire a white zombie over a black human.
Cultural toolkit. Being mindless, zombies have no cultural toolkit. Rather the great interest is understanding how the cultural toolkits of the living develop and are invoked during unsettled times of uncertainty, such as an onslaught of walking corpses. The human being besieged by zombies is not constrained by culture, but draws upon it. Actors can draw upon such culturally-informed tools as boarding up the windows of a farmhouse, shotgunning the undead, or simply falling into panicked blubbering.
Categorization. There’s a kind of categorical legitimacy problem to zombies. Initially zombies were supernaturally animated dead, they were sluggish but relentlessness, and they sought to eat human brains. In contrast, more recent zombies tend to be infected with a virus that leaves them still living in a biological sense but alters their behavior so as to be savage, oblivious to pain, and nimble. Furthermore, even supernatural zombies are not a homogenous set but encompass varying degrees of decomposition. Thus the first issue with zombies is defining what is a zombie and if it is commensurable with similar categories (like an inferius in Harry Potter). This categorical uncertainty has effects in that insurance underwriters systematically undervalue life insurance policies against monsters that are ambiguous to categorize (zombies) as compared to those that fall into a clearly delineated category (vampires).
Neo-institutionalism. Saving humanity from the hordes of the undead is a broad goal that is easily decoupled from the means used to achieve it. Especially given that human survivors need legitimacy in order to command access to scarce resources (e.g., shotgun shells, gasoline), it is more important to use strategies that are perceived as legitimate by trading partners (i.e., other terrified humans you’re trying to recruit into your improvised human survival cooperative) than to develop technically efficient means of dispatching the living dead. Although early on strategies for dealing with the undead (panic, “hole up here until help arrives,” “we have to get out of the city,” developing a vaccine, etc) are practiced where they are most technically efficient, once a strategy achieves legitimacy it spreads via isomorphism to technically inappropriate contexts.
Population ecology. Improvised human survival cooperatives (IHSC) demonstrate the liability of newness in that many are overwhelmed and devoured immediately after formation. Furthermore, IHSC demonstrate the essentially fixed nature of organizations as those IHSC that attempt to change core strategy (eg, from “let’s hole up here until help arrives” to “we have to get out of the city”) show a greatly increased hazard for being overwhelmed and devoured.
Diffusion. Viral zombieism (e.g. Resident Evil, 28 Days Later) tends to start with a single patient zero whereas supernatural zombieism (e.g. Night of the Living Dead, the “Thriller” video) tends to start with all recently deceased bodies rising from the grave. By seeing whether the diffusion curve for zombieism more closely approximates a Bass mixed-influence model or a classic s-curve we can estimate whether zombieism is supernatural or viral, and therefore whether policy-makers should direct grants towards biomedical labs to develop a zombie vaccine or the Catholic Church to give priests a crash course in the neglected art of exorcism. Furthermore, marketers can plug plausible assumptions into the Bass model so as to make projections of the size of the zombie market over time, and thus how quickly to start manufacturing such products as brain-flavored Doritos.
Social movements. The dominant debate is the extent to which anti-zombie mobilization represents changes in the political opportunity structure brought on by complete societal collapse as compared to an essentially expressive act related to cultural dislocation and contested space. Supporting the latter interpretation is that zombie hunting militias are especially likely to form in counties that have seen recent increases in immigration. (The finding holds even when controlling for such variables as gun registrations, log distance to the nearest army administered “safe zone,” etc.).
Family. Zombieism doesn’t just affect individuals, but families. Having a zombie in the family involves an average of 25 hours of care work per week, including such tasks as going to the butcher to buy pig brains, repairing the boarding that keeps the zombie securely in the basement and away from the rest of the family, and washing a variety of stains out of the zombie’s tattered clothing. Almost all of this care work is performed by women and very little of it is done by paid care workers as no care worker in her right mind is willing to be in a house with a zombie.
Applied micro-economics. We combine two unique datasets, the first being military satellite imagery of zombie mobs and the second records salvaged from the wreckage of Exxon/Mobil headquarters showing which gas stations were due to be refueled just before the start of the zombie epidemic. Since humans can use salvaged gasoline either to set the undead on fire or to power vehicles, chainsaws, etc., we have a source of plausibly exogenous heterogeneity in showing which neighborhoods were more or less hospitable environments for zombies. We show that zombies tended to shuffle towards neighborhoods with low stocks of gasoline. Hence, we find that zombies respond to incentives (just like school teachers, and sumo wrestlers, and crack dealers, and realtors, and hookers, …).
Grounded theory. One cannot fully appreciate zombies by imposing a pre-existing theoretical framework on zombies. Only participant observation can allow one to provide a thick description of the mindless zombie perspective. Unfortunately scientistic institutions tend to be unsupportive of this kind of research. Major research funders reject as “too vague and insufficiently theory-driven” proposals that describe the intention to see what findings emerge from roaming about feasting on the living. Likewise IRB panels raise issues about whether a zombie can give informed consent and whether it is ethical to kill the living and eat their brains.
Ethnomethodology. Zombieism is not so much a state of being as a set of practices and cultural scripts. It is not that one is a zombie but that one does being a zombie such that zombieism is created and enacted through interaction. Even if one is “objectively” a mindless animated corpse, one cannot really be said to be fulfilling one’s cultural role as a zombie unless one shuffles across the landscape in search of brains.
Gabriel Rossman is a professor of sociology at UCLA. His research addresses culture and mass media, especially pop music radio and Hollywood films, with the aim of understanding diffusion processes. You can follow him at Code and Culture.
A recent Pew survey compared attitudes a year ago and last month on the subject of abortion. The 2015 survey was done in the immediate wake of those now-famous videos of Planned Parenthood officials, videos shot surreptitiously and edited tendentiously. The demographic that showed the largest swing in opinion was Conservative Republicans.
Among people who identified themselves as Conservative Republicans, opposition to abortion rose from 65 to 79%. Four out of five Conservative Republicans now oppose abortion. No other group in the survey comes in at more than half.
The obvious explanation is that in the past year an additional 14% of Conservative Republicans have become more conservative on abortion. The hardliners are becoming even harder. But there’s another possibility – that many of the Conservative Republicans who did not oppose abortion a year ago no longer call themselves Conservative Republicans.That’s not as unlikely as it might seem.
The Gallup poll shows that among Republicans, those who identified themselves as conservative on both economic and social issues – the largest segment of the faithful – dropped from 51 to 42%. What if all the dropouts were abortion moderates?
I did some simple math. I imagined 100 Republicans in 2014. Of those, 51 were self-identified conservatives and of those 65% opposed abortion. That makes 33 who thought abortion should be illegal nearly all the time.
Last month, only 42 of those 100 Republicans said they were thoroughly conservative, 9 fewer than a year ago. Of those left, 79% were anti-abortion. That makes 33. In my scenario, these were the same 33 as a year ago. The 9 who defected to the less-than-fully-conservative camps were the ones who were wishy-washy about making abortion totally illegal. These nine people looked at the hardcore, and the next time that a pollster asked them about where they stood politically, they thought, “If being a Conservative Republican means wanting all abortions to be illegal, maybe I’m not so conservative after all.”
I’m speculating here of course — the data and calculations here are surely too simplistic; I am not a political scientist — but maybe the party purists are indeed forcing others who used to be close to them politically to rethink their identification as Conservative Republicans.
Who believes that the climate is changing? Researchers at Yale’s Project on Climate Change Communication asked 13,000 people and they found some pretty interesting stuff. First, they found that there was a great deal of disagreement, identifying six types:
The Alarmed (18%) – believe climate change is happening, have already changed their behavior, and are ready to get out there and try to save the world
The Concerned (33%) – believe it’s happening, but think it’s far off or isn’t going to affect them personally
The Cautious (19%) – aren’t sure if it’s happening or not and are also unsure whether it’s human caused
The Disengaged (12%) – have heard the phrase “climate change,” but couldn’t tell you the first thing about it
The Doubtful (11%) – are skeptical that it’s happening and, if it is, they don’t think it’s a problem and don’t think it’s human caused
The Dismissive (7%) – do not believe in it, think it’s a hoax
As you might imagine, attitudes about climate change vary significantly by state and county. You can see all the data at their interactive map. Here are some of the findings I thought were interesting.
More Americans think that climate change is happening (left) than think it’s human caused (right); bluer = more skeptical, redder = more believing:
Even among people who say that they personally believe in climate change (left, same as above), there are many who think that there is no scientific consensus (right) suggesting that the campaign to misrepresent scientific opinion by covering “both sides” was successful:
People are somewhat worried about climate change (left), but very, very few think that it’s going to harm them personally (right):
Even though people are lukewarm on whether it’s happening, whether it’s human-caused, and whether it’s going to do any harm, there’s a lot of support for doing something about it. Support for regulating CO2 (left) and support for funding research on renewable energy (right):
Take a closer look yourself and explore more questions at the map or read more at the Scholars Strategy Network. And thanks to the people at Yale funding and doing this important work.
Medical professionals often have the final say in deciding what counts as a “defect.” Often, their decisions exceed the bounds of medicine, addressing bodies that may deviate from “normal” or “average,” but do not actually cause medical problems.
An alternative might be to allow the patient to decide if his or her body is acceptable, but in doing so they risk allowing people’s deeply subjective and often dysmorphic perceptions of their own bodies determine whether they undergo a risky procedure.
Is there another way?
Pediatric surgeon Norma Ruppen-Greeff and hers colleagues thought so. Pediatric physicians often correct hypospadias: a condition in which the meatus, or opening of the urethra, doesn’t quite make it to the top of the penis during fetal development, such that the urethra exits the penis somewhere along the shaft. This is generally corrected surgically, but physicians found that some men returned to them as adults with concerns that their penis still appeared abnormal.
Instead of dismissing men’s concerns or jumping with a knife, they decided to ask women if they noticed. They had 105 women fill out a questionnaire and rate which aspects of penile appearance were important to them. And, lo and behold, the shape and placement of the meatus was the least important. No need for surgery, plus they can reassure the guys that they’re okay. (Someone should follow up and ask gay and bisexual men; anyone for an awesome senior thesis?)
This is a great way to measure the sociocultural value of a surgery. Whereas we’re used to thinking about surgical issues as psychological (someone wants it) or medical (someone needs it), these physicians asked a distinctly sociological question. They measured how penises are widely perceived and which parts are socially constructed as important. That’s a pretty neat way to incorporate sociological realities into surgical practice.
The governors of Virginia and South Carolina have now taken stands against the Confederate battle flag. So have honchos at Wal*Mart, Sears, Target, and NASCAR.
NASCAR! How could this cascade of reversals have happened so rapidly? Did these important people wake up one morning this week and say to themselves, “Gee, I never realized that there was anything racist about the Confederacy, and never realized that there was anything wrong with racism, till that kid killed nine Black people in a church”?
My guess is that what’s going on is not a sudden enlightenment or even much of a change in views about the flag. To me it looks more like the process of “pluralistic ignorance.” What these people changed was not their ideas about the Confederacy or racism but their ideas about other people’s ideas about these matters. With pluralistic ignorance (a term coined by Floyd Allport nearly a century ago) everyone wants X but thinks that nobody else does. Then some outside factor makes it possible for people to choose X, and everyone does. Everyone is surprised – “Gee, I thought all you guys wanted Y, not X .” It looks like a rapid change in opinion, but it’s not.
A few years ago in places like Ireland and Europe, people were surprised at the success of new laws banning smoking in pubs and restaurants. “Oh, the smokers will never stand for it.” But it turned out that the smokers, too, were quite happy to have rooms with breathable air. It’s just that before the laws were passed, nobody knew that’s how other people felt because those people kept smoking.
The same thing happened when New York City passed a pooper-scooper law. “The law is unenforceable,” people said. “Cops will never see the actual violation, only its aftermath. And do you really think that those selfish New Yorkers will sacrifice their own convenience for some vague public good?” But the law was remarkably effective. As I said in this post from 2009:
Even before the new law, dog owners had probably thought that cleaning up after their dogs was the right thing to do, but since everyone else was leaving the stuff on the sidewalk, nobody wanted to be the only schmuck in New York to be picking up dog shit. In the same way that the no-smoking laws worked because smokers wanted to quit, the dog law in New York worked because dog owners really did agree that they should be cleaning up after their dogs. But prior to the law, none of them would speak or act on that idea.
In South Carolina and Georgia and Bentonville, Arkansas and elsehwere, the governors and the CEOs surely knew that the Confederacy was based on racist slavery; they just rarely thought about it. And if the matter did come up, as with the recent Supreme Court decision about license plates, they probably assumed that most of their constituents and customers were happy with the flag and that the anti-flaggers were a cranky minority.
With the support for letting that flag fade into history, it looks as though for a while now many Southerners may have been uncomfortable with the blatant racism of the Confederacy and the post-Reconstruction era. But because nobody voiced that discomfort, everyone thought that other Southerners still clung to the old mentality. The murders in the Charleston church and the subsequent discussions about retiring the flag may have allowed Southerners to discover that their neighbors shared their misgivings about the old racism. And it allowed the retail giants to see that they weren’t going to lose a lot of money by not stocking the flag.