both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique

In our Introduction to Civic Studies course, we have been discussing how to analyze institutions–“analyze” in its root sense of dividing things into smaller components. Our major theorist is for these sessions is Elinor Ostrom, and we are learning from her how to think about the specific types of goods, actors, incentives, rules, and other aspects in play in each situation.

Our goal is not (merely) academic. I believe that institutional analysis helps people to support good institutions, to change or even subvert imperfect or bad ones, and to design alternatives.

Some of our students push back against this fine-grained analysis, because they want to interpret all the specific components of particular institutions in much larger contexts. For example, the police or the schools may manifest white supremacy, and that is the issue.

Meanwhile, they are working on a published case, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott.” In class, I suggested that Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues were good at both interpreting specific circumstances in holistic terms and analyzing the details.

Starting the day after Rosa Parks’ arrest, King described the segregated bus system of Montgomery as part of at least three very large and deep histories: the global history of European colonialism and slavery, the struggle to create an American democracy, and a providential story of sin and redemption. These are debatable interpretations, but he offered all three explicitly.

Yet he also said, “But we are here in a specific sense, because of the bus situation in Montgomery. We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected.” He and his colleagues realized that the privately owned and segregated buses depended on fares, and that by properly organizing an alternative system for getting Black workers to their workplaces, they could defeat this company. Their strategy required both analyzing the existing institutions of Montgomery to reveal a vulnerability, and also very cleverly designing a new institution, the boycott, that transported 17,500 people to work for many months.

I think each of us must decide which of these approaches to social problems we will develop and employ more. This is a personal and even existential choice, and I wouldn’t offer an answer for anyone else. But I do believe that our skills of holistic social critique have probably improved, thanks to the flourishing of several important schools of critique–of which Critical Race Theory is just the most controversial example at the moment. At the same time, I think our skills of institutional analysis have tended to weaken, mainly because too few Americans get hands-on experience leading associations.

Therefore, I would advocate for everyone to at least experience detailed institutional analysis so that we know how it works and form our own views of it. And I would argue that it’s better to put holistic interpretation aside while analyzing institutions, or else the crucial details will be lost. For instance, if you read everything as “neoliberalism,” you will not be attentive to the significant differences among firms, markets, and goods–differences that might create openings for action.

See also Complexities of Civic Life; civic education and the science of association;  a template for analyzing an institution; the legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School.

vaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science

In Fox News’ September survey, 78% of Democrats and 31% of Republicans say that both vaccines and masks are effective against COVID-19, and another 10-11% of each say that only masks work. That is a 47-point gap. Democrats are also about 50 percentage points more likely than Republicans to support mask mandates. Masking indoors seems to be normative as well as mandated in places like Cambridge, MA, where I live. On the other hand, not wearing a mask is normative in many parts of the USA. Masks are extraordinarily visible and they have accrued symbolic meanings.

This pattern is not inevitable. When we visited Amsterdam in late August, we hardly saw anyone else in a mask–not even in the crowded interior of the Rijksmuseum. The vaccination rate is similar in the Netherlands and Massachusetts–probably three points lower in the Netherlands. The Dutch generally fall to the left of Americans on the political spectrum. Yet they do not happen to see masks as good behavior.

Should the scientific evidence tell us what to do? Here are two examples of relevant studies (out of many):

Evidence for vaccination: Pollack et al 2020 is an example of a randomized controlled experimental test of an mRNA vaccination (the one produced by Pfizer) against COVID-19. Individuals were randomly assigned to receive the vaccine or a placebo. The vaccine was “95% effective in preventing Covid-19 (95% credible interval, 90.3 to 97.6). Similar vaccine efficacy (generally 90 to 100%) was observed across subgroups defined by age, sex, race, ethnicity, baseline body-mass index, and the presence of coexisting conditions.” (These results were obtained before the Delta variant, but studies after the rise of Delta continue to find high impact.)

Evidence for masking: Abaluck et al 2021 is the most ambitious and best-publicized study of masking against COVID-19. The researchers randomly divided 600 Bangladeshi villages into three groups. In 200 villages, they gave out free surgical masks and advocated their use. In another 200, they did the same with cloth masks. The third group was the control, with no intervention. Mask-wearing was about three times more common in the treatment villages than in the control villages, and COVID-19 prevalence was 9 percent lower in the villages with the surgical mask intervention.

Several caveats are necessary, however. Despite the intervention, the majority of people did not wear masks in the treatment villages, but 13% did in the control villages. The effects were not statistically significant for people under age 50. The physical and social context is different in rural Bangladesh than in, say, Boston. Finally, because villages, not people, were randomized, the authors must make some statistical assumptions that could be challenged. Note that the 9% estimate could be too low rather than too high; but there are several layers of uncertainty.

According to this particular pair of studies, the effect of vaccination is a bit more than 10 times larger than the effect of masking. We should think differently about evidence–and about other people’s attitude toward evidence–when results are this different. I am suggesting that a change of state occurs somewhere between 9% and 95%: a cloudy belief turns solid.

We should be very surprised if additional research casts doubt on the core finding that COVID-19 vaccination works. The methodology was simple and compelling, the outcomes were huge, and there is every reason to believe that a vaccine has consistent effects despite variations in context.

In contrast, we need additional research on masking, and subsequent studies are unlikely to yield a result of 9% again. With socially-embedded, behavioral interventions that have small effect sizes, the outcomes will vary from study to study. Future research may well yield null results as well as bigger effects.

If you began as skeptical of COVID-19, of vaccination, or of the new mRNA vaccines, then the vaccination experiments should change your mind. Critical debate is always welcome, but I don’t think you can responsibly criticize the vaccines–or any policy designed to promote vaccination–without seriously considering these studies. In essence, we know that the vaccines work, and if there is a debate, it should be about follow-up issues, like boosters, or about explicitly normative questions, such as how to distribute scarce vaccine doses internationally or whether to mandate as opposed to recommend vaccination.

If you began as skeptical of masks, then the Bangladesh study should cause you to revise your views in a somewhat more positive direction, especially since the preponderance of other evidence also supports masking. (See, e.g., Tirupathi et al 2020.)

However, if you began by assuming that masks are highly effective, then perhaps you should revise your estimate downward. Although you may not have quantified your prior estimate of the effectiveness of masks, you may have been assuming that they cut the spread of COVID-19 by 50%, or at least 20%. Nine percent may be lower than you were assuming.

I wear a mask. I think the evidence points in favor of them. Also, I think that legitimate institutions, such as my city and my employer, have a right to make decisions about such matters, and unless I have major grounds for conscientious objection, I should do what they say. We live together in communities. Finally, I note that experts widely recommend mask-wearing, and they may add a kind of practical wisdom or experience-based judgment that has value above and beyond the results of specific studies.

At the same time, you could predict my view of masks pretty well from my party identification and my place of residence. That fact gives me the following concerns:

  • Partisan heuristics may be causing US liberals to over-estimate the value of masks, thus possibly encouraging us to take other risks (such as close indoor contact) that we should avoid.
  • US liberals may be overlooking equally or more important policies and social norms because masks have become symbolic of good behavior. For instance, why aren’t we all regularly taking COVID-19 tests at home? Partly because of an unconscionable state failure to provide these tests (for which the Biden Administration now shares responsibility), and partly because testing has not become a mark of personal responsibility–while masking has.
  • We may be marking the boundaries of appropriate debate wrong. Scientific institutions are often too powerful and should never be allowed to shut down dissent. On the other hand, responsible participants in public debate should not ignore truly compelling evidence. Criticizing vaccines is probably bad for the public debate (even though criticism is–and must remain–legal). But criticizing masks probably enriches the public debate, since masking involves tradeoffs and uncertainties and we should be constantly updating our opinions.

An additional problem: vaccinating and wearing a mask have benefits for others, not only (or mainly) for oneself. Therefore, they could generate a tragedy of the commons, in which individuals fail to do what would be best for all.

One way to overcome that problem is to establish a powerful social norm in favor of the desired behavior. Sometimes, marginalizing criticism is a way to reinforce a norm. For instance, almost everyone now decries littering, there is no pro-litter movement, and there is not all that much litter. On the other hand, criticism is the lifeblood of democracy. Marginalizing controversial views threatens to free and open debate.

In my opinion, the evidence for vaccines is so strong that vaccination should be a social norm as well as a legal requirement for many people. The main question is what works to get to the outcome of near-universal vaccination. If marginalizing vaccine skeptics is effective, let’s do it. (But if it backfires, let’s not.) On the other hand, we should encourage debates about masking even if that makes it harder to get everyone to mask up, because debate is valuable.

See also marginalizing odious views: a strategy; marginalizing views in a time of polarization; why protect civil liberties in a pandemic?; mixed thoughts about the status of science; Despite Similar Levels of Vaccine Hesitancy, White People More Likely to Be Vaccinated Than Black People

“do ordain and establish”

A note on Constitution Day: I haven’t often focused on the key verbs in the phrase, “We the People … do ordain and establish this Constitution.”

The authors held a precarious role. They took it upon themselves to write a legally authoritative document that included its own process of ratification. Their logic was circular. They adopted the first-person plural voice of the nation, but it was by no means clear that the people would agree with them–not even the propertied white men who would have an official voice in ratification. The Framers could have said that they were “requesting” or “proposing,” but they chose to ordain, and also to establish. This was a performative utterance if there ever was one.

The Northwest Ordinance (1787) had begun, “Be it ordained by the United States in Congress assembled. …” “Be it ordained” is an expression of explicit authority, like a court’s “so ordered, adjudged and decreed.” In the case of the Northwest Ordinance, the basis was a majority vote of the Congress. “We the people … ordain this Constitution” was more metaphysically complex, since “the people” could not speak until the Constitution that was attributed to them had actually come into force.

Already in 1325, according to Robert of Gloucester, “The king.. let ordeiny..& let rere up chirchen” (he ordained and let churches be reared up.) As in this example, “ordain” can mean “to decide the order or course of; to arrange, plan” (OED), although that use is now obsolete. Much more common is the sense of “to confer holy orders on,” which is not what the Framers meant.

To “establish” can mean “to fix, settle, institute or ordain permanently, by enactment or agreement” (OED). Chaucer used it in that sense ca. 1386, in the Parson’s Tale: “The peynes that been establissed and ordeyned for synne.” Note how he uses the Preamble’s two key verbs in one phrase, albeit in the opposite order from the Preamble.

Was it redundant to say both ordain and establish, or were their meanings subtly different? Legal language often incorporates pleonasm, as in “null and void,” “terms and conditions,” and “each and every.” These are examples of a whole category called legal doublets.

The Virginia Constitution of 1776 (written by elected “delegates and representatives of the good people of Virginia”) included the phrase “do ordain and declare.” Robert Ferguson (1987) thinks that the Constitution’s framers had this text in mind as a draft and self-consciously improved it for the Preamble, although I must admit I like the way the Virginians presented their work as the product of “having maturely considered … the deplorable conditions” of their state.

Source: Robert A. Ferguson, We Do Ordain and Establish: The Constitution as Literary Text, 29 WM. & MARY L. REV. 3 (1987) See also: why social scientists should pay attention to metaphysics; liberals, conservatives, and love of the Constitution; constitutional piety; etc.

investing in the Appalachian cities

If Congress passes a reasonably ambitious spending package, I hope that some of the money can serve as at least a down-payment on the idea proposed last year by the mayors of Pittsburgh; Youngstown, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati; Huntington, W.Va.; Morgantown, W.Va.; and Louisville. They call it a “Marshall Plan for Appalachia” and they cite Re-Imagine Appalachia‘s “New Deal” proposal for the region. They rightly recommend investing in the whole region, but they write as mayors, and I’d advocate for focusing substantial investments in the cities.

For more than a century, Appalachian resources, especially coal, were extracted to fuel US industrial growth. The social and environmental damage was grave, and now the region will bear a disproportionate price for de-carbonization. Already, about 15.2% of all residents of Appalachia live below the official poverty line. That’s not far from the 13.4% rate for the country as a whole, but poverty is concentrated in some Appalachian counties. McCreary County, KY has a poverty rate of 41% and a median household income below $20,000. Its last coal mine closed in 1994.

From Appalachian Regional Commission:

Appalachian residents live shorter lives than other Americans, and the gap is growing. According to Singh et al., “Cardiovascular diseases (especially heart disease), unintentional injuries (which include drug overdoses), and cancer accounted for 57.8 percent of the life-expectancy gap.”

Data derived from Gopal K. Singh, Michael D. Kogan, and Rebecca T. Slifkin, “Widening Disparities In Infant Mortality And Life Expectancy Between Appalachia And The Rest of the United States, 1990–2013,”
Health Affairs 2017 36:8, 1423-1432

Direct federal investments are appropriate and could help. However, the relationship between Appalachian residents and the federal government is bad, for deep and complex reasons. Trump won Leslie County, KY with 89% of the vote. (The county’s median household income is $18,546 and it ranks 3,120th out of 3,142 in life expectancy at birth.) I mention partisanship not to make a judgment about how people should vote, but for a pragmatic reason. I think it would be difficult to spend money effectively under conditions of deep distrust.

Appalachia is already more dependent on federal programs than any other region, but that has not made most voters favor those programs or their source. One resident, a Republican who previously voted for Democrats, told The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter: “People in Harlan County have been on the front lines of the war on poverty for 50-plus years and can see its actual effects. It is degrading.” Whether this person is right about welfare programs (as they are designed today) is immaterial; the point is that voters and local elected officials will not be primed to cooperate to make federal funding work. (Harlan gave 85% of the vote to Trump in 2020–having favored Democratic presidential candidates until and including 2000. Harlan ranks third from the bottom in the USA in life expectancy and has a median household income of $18,665.)

This is where the cities come in. Rural Appalachia is closely linked to nearby cities. In addition to Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Youngstown, and the West Virginia cities (whose mayors all signed the op-ed), one could add Allentown, Binghamton, Charlotte, Chattanooga, Lexington, Nashville, and Scranton, among others. People, goods and culture flow back and forth between these cities and rural areas.

And almost all of these cities have Democratic mayors. Again, I mention partisanship not as a value-judgment but for practical reasons. Municipal leaders who believe in government may work better with federal officials and may use federal funds better, particularly when that is what their voters demand. At the same time, thriving cities in or near Appalachia can create markets and other opportunities for rural residents.

Insofar as we can spend funds to boost rural Appalachia, I am all for it. Infrastructure spending may go over better there than welfare, for understandable reasons. But I am especially optimistic about the impact of federal funds for transportation, renewables, health, and education in the cities within or near the 420 counties of Appalachia.

See also A Civic Green New Deal; a Green recovery; who wants less government?; Building Civic Capacity in an Era of Democratic Crisis by Hollie Russon-Gilman and K. Sabeel Rahman

twenty-five thousand books to Bosnia

Today, my late father’s books are on their way to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Most of that library’s collection was lost on August 25-26, 1992 when the Army of the Republika Srpska shelled the building. Several generous friends have helped my family and me to cover the shipping costs.

1992: Vedran Smailovic plays his cello in the destroyed National Library, Sarajevo.
Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev

The books fill more than 1,000 60-pound boxes, for about 30 tons of weight (27 metric tons). We did our best to measure the linear feet this spring and estimated there are 25,000 volumes. Although I watched dad pick out books over many years, it is still kind of amazing that he purchased each one individually, thinking about its price, whether he already owned a copy, and what he thought of it. He bought the majority in Britain, so most are making their second transatlantic voyage.

The coverage is basically Western European cultural and intellectual history from 1500 to 1900, with some offshoots. Dad didn’t read all his books, but he only purchased what he could read, which means that the languages are Latin, French, Italian, and English, with just a few exceptions.

We didn’t send all his books to Bosnia. Since 2014, several hundred volumes have been on loan to Montpelier, James Madison’s house. They match editions that we know Madison owned. (His library was sold to meet the debts of his stepson.) I also kept about 2,000 volumes, books printed between 1500 and 1820 that I didn’t think would survive the travel well. They now line the walls of my office at Tufts–rising eleven feet on three sides, which is hard to capture in a photo.

We intend these books as a gift to the people of Sarajevo and Bosnia and as a commitment to the humane values that made the library a target for destruction in 1992.