Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

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Politics, Claims and Scope Conditions

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I’ve been talking here about a twin set of concepts, democratic efficiency and oligarchic inevitability. In short, ‘democratic efficiency’ involves the assumption that public opinion automatically translates into policy (or at least does generally absent some distortion), while ‘oligarchic inevitability’ is the notion that elites necessarily win out regardless of what the public does. It occurred to me recently that I ought to connect these concepts with something else I’ve been discussing here–the idea of politics as a contest of claims making.

I’ve been less clear on how I think about these two concepts. Both are usefully understood as claims. Sometimes they are made directly–people insist that an outcome must be supported by the public because we are a democracy. Other times they are made indirectly–were people make statements that assume one or the other concepts.  Direct claims are always based on some set of assumptions that are themselves indirect claims. Another way of saying this that we need to attend to both manifest and latent content.

One of the key things to remember about claims is that they are observable, intersubjective things, unlike beliefs (which are internal states and not observable, and generally understood as subjective). It may be that the actor who makes the claim believes it, but this isn’t necessarily true nor relevant. A claim can be made successfully without being believed, by either the speaker or the audience. This also means demonstrating that a claim isn’t true is irrelevant to whether it matters. Some statements can never be facts, but will always remain claims–for example, when they involve essentially contested concepts or when they depend on claims about motives or beliefs. In political science, there is a tendency to dismiss claims as “talk” as opposed to “action”, despite that fact that many of the “actions” studied are themselves talk, such as a veto or the filing of a lawsuit. Scientific claims can be substantiated or not, and to different degrees, but often can never be facts–something that can be considered simply true or false.

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Written by David Kaib

October 14, 2014 at 4:12 pm

Description, Explanation and Social Science

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I recently started readings The Unheavenly Chorus by Schlotzman, Verba and Nie. It’s an interesting book addressing inequalities in ‘political voice,’ which focuses not solely on the individual level but combined this with the organizational level. The title is a reference to E. E. Schattschneider’s famous line “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.”

While I plan to have more to say about what the book has to say about inequality, for now I wanted to highlight their discussion of explanation and description in social science.  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

October 13, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Americans Remain Divided on Completely Meaningless Question

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A recent Gallup poll (h/t Jonathan Cohn) provides another illustration of a point I’ve made before–view of Americans as presented in the media are a product of the weird sorts of questions asked by pollsters. gov activity poll Now, what on earth is this asking? Do people really have opinions on “how active” government should be, unmoored from the specific things government does? We know that many people would like government to address a range of problems – like poverty and lack of health care and improving public education. But “every area it can”? Why should anyone have an opinion about that?

The reason this makes sense to Gallup and their audience is because many things government does are naturalized. meaning it’s not seen as a choice. Property protection, contract enforcement, the military, prisons and policing–these things are likely covered under most people’s understandings of “basic functions.” But of course, government could be sprawling and expensive while only doing these things (especially the last two). Political scientists have been pleading for over a generation with people not to ask only about “government” in general but to pair that with more specific questions. I’d go further and say asking about “government” when we know full well it means different things to different people makes no sense unless you are trying to mislead. That’s not to say that’s what’s happening here. It’s exceedingly common to see people act like talk about “government” is not inherently contestable and ambiguous. Those who want government to act to serve the interests of those at the bottom often use this language. But it doesn’t make it useful for understanding people’s positions on what government should be doing (let alone for enlisting support for specific policies).

For what it’s worth, this is why ‘big government’ is a concept that causes such confusion. As near as I can tell, ‘big government’ means actions that punish the powerful or help out the disadvantaged, while not big government are actions that punish the disadvantaged or serve the interests of the powerful. So ‘anti-government’ conservatives railing against ‘big government’ can expand the carceral state, the national security state, the bloated military. And that’s why people can say ‘keep the government out of my Medicare’. It looks foolish because we don’t mean the same thing by these terms as those we criticize. It would make both polling and politics easier if we all meant the same thing by terms.

But sadly, that’s not how things work.

Written by David Kaib

October 2, 2014 at 9:40 pm

‘Humanitarian Intervention’ is a Claim, Not a Fact

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I was watching MSNBC earlier this evening, where Ari Melber, sitting in for Chris Hayes, was covering the beginnings of what is being called a “humanitarian intervention” in Iraq in response to ISIS which allegedly* is at this point only about delivering food and water. I’ve argued before that the word ‘intervention’ ought to be avoided, for two reasons. First, it implies that one is getting involved in an area of the world, when typically, the actor doing the ‘intervening’ has long been heavily involved. Second, it covers both war making and non-war making activities, and that means obscuring a very important difference. The legal, moral and political questions between say, offering asylum or providing medicine are not at all connected to those related to mass aerial bombing or a ground invasion. But helping people tends to more popular than war, despite what people claim about the public, so elites that prefer more war tend to avoid talking about it explicitly.

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Written by David Kaib

August 7, 2014 at 9:33 pm

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Treating All Children Like Human Beings

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Fund Our SchoolsBryce Wilson Stucki has an interesting piece called Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Rethinking ‘Zero Tolerance’ discussing recent efforts to challenge so called “zero tolerance” policies in public schools. Such policies, which grew out of the Drug War and political efforts to get “tough on crime,” have ended up pushing many youths out of school and into the “school to prison pipeline.”  She notes that some places have been moving in a different direction, attempting to enact a less punitive approach to discipline, in particular the adoption of restorative justice.  One example is the Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School (KCAPA) in Philadelphia, “where about 90 percent of students are Latino or black and 100 percent are below the poverty line”. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

July 2, 2014 at 1:43 pm

Radio: Wall Street and the Schoolhouse

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Alexis Goldstein interviewed me on the Disorderly Conduct podcast on my three part series on Wall Street and ed reform. It was my radio debut.

You can listen to the interview here.

[Update: The other guest was Kshama Sawant. You can hear the whole episode here. And you should!]

[Update 2: You can also read the full transcript of my interview.]

And here are the posts. Don’t forget part three – it needs some love.

Wall Street and the School House Part I: The Culture of Smartness

Exploitation, Hard Work and Motivation: Wall Street and the School House Part II

Markets, Efficiency and Choice: Wall Street and the School House Part III

Dan Greene contributed some additional thoughts here:  There’s always another market: Liquidity, Wall Street and Ed Reform

 

Written by David Kaib

June 26, 2014 at 6:20 pm

Criminalization is Pretty Harmful Too

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CelaIt’s a pretty standard thing to see: in an argument about whether we should either decriminalize or legalize some thing, oftentimes the argument revolves around one thing. Is this thing harmful? The best example, although it’s not the only one, is drugs. Obviously, if the argument in favor of criminalizing something is that it’s harmful, than evidence that it is not supports ending legal prohibitions.

Is prison harmful? Is ripping apart families harmful? Is the endemic sexual assault found in prison harmful? What about the risk of violence, or the torture of solitary confinement? Or overcrowding, or lack of medical care? How about the collateral consequences of imprisonment–unemployment, being barred from public housing, food stamps, federal education aid and a whole host of professions or voting? What about the impact on communities where many people are shuffled between prison and the neighborhood? What about the police harassment that comes with hyper-aggressive law enforcement?

Few things we criminalize because they are ‘harmful’ are anywhere close as harmful as prison.

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Written by David Kaib

June 26, 2014 at 7:53 am

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