COVID-19 is not a metaphor

A quick search reveals scores of articles by people who, like me, have recently read or re-read Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977).

Sontag’s thesis is simple: “illness is not a metaphor, and … the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking” (3). She adds, “The people who have the real disease are also hardly helped by hearing their disease’s name constantly being dropped as the epitome of evil” (85).

I would say: It is wrong to use sick people as assets in arguments, as new reasons for conclusions you already held. If you want to use a disease as a metaphor, ask yourself whether you would make that argument in a sick person’s hearing. If that would be cruel, don’t say it anywhere.

There is no such thing as a fact that is innocent of comparison and evaluation, no “writing degree zero” that lacks metaphor. But we can adopt an ethic of very close attention to known details about our actual fellow human beings, or we can venture into broader speculation

Sontag explores how “Illnesses have always been used as metaphors to enliven charges that a society [is] corrupt or unjust.” She shows that “to liken a political event or situation to an illness is to impute guilt, to prescribe punishment.” (72) But little actual insight comes from likening a moral or social problem to a disease, or vice versa. “Traditional disease metaphors are principally a way of being vehement” (83).

This is a warning against using the pandemic for rhetorical purposes. I am collecting examples for a short commissioned article of political theory that is mostly an argument against theorizing casually while people are suffering.

Sontag’s main examples are cancer and tuberculosis. She argues that they provided rich (but problematic) material for metaphor because their causes were unknown. Their mysterious etiology gave them rhetorical power. In contrast, everyone always understood that syphilis was an infection transmitted through sex, so it never worked as anything but a crude and direct trope. Since we basically understand COVID-19 already, maybe its rhetorical uses will be limited.

See also: on the moral dangers of cliché; on the proper use of moral clichés; and on the moral peril of cliché and what to do about it.


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Massachusetts tax shortfall: up to $750 million this fiscal year

Declining tax revenues will likely cost our state about $500-$750 million during the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. Over the next five quarters, the loss may reach $3 billion. I believe the total budget for the state is $43 billion, so that would be a 7% reduction–at a time of intense need.

The scale of this problem may not surprise anyone, but it’s important to be able to quantify it as a basis for smart policy. These estimates come from a new brief entitled “Estimating the Shortfall in Massachusetts Tax Revenues,” from the new Center for State Policy Analysis (cSPA) at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, where I work.

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Trump’s polling bump in perspective

I’ve collected polls of France’s Emmanuel Macron (but this site shows less improvement for him); Italy’s Giuseppe Conte; New York’s Andrew Cuomo; Poland’s Andrzej Duda; and the UK’s Boris Johnson (the Tories now have their best support in the history of British polling). For Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, and Mexico, I am using Morning Consult polls from here. I take Trump’s approval rating from FiveThirtyEight. Countries with strong parliaments and weak executive branch leaders typically do not poll their national leaders often.

The graph below shows how various national populations rate their own leaders’ handling of the pandemic. (It is from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, hence the three Canadian leaders.) Note that Macron is rated worse than Trump on handling the virus but still gets a bigger bounce in approval polls.

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a Green recovery

“We have a responsibility to recover better” than after the financial crisis in 2008, UN secretary general António Guterres warned. “We have a framework for action – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. We must keep our promises for people and planet,” he added.

On this topic, I would yield to people who understand economics and the environment better than I do. I also recognize obstacles to making sure the recovery benefits the environment. (Will we have a recovery at all within a reasonable amount of time? Will the political elites in any important country allocate resources well?) But it seems worth discussing principles, because a decent outcome will depend on public pressure. We should decide what to demand.

I would propose four principles:

  1. The fiscal stimulus should be large and carbon-negative. Governments can and should spend heavily, because borrowing costs are extraordinarily low and social needs are critical. Once the pandemic ends, to the maximum extent possible, unemployed people should be paid to build and install renewable energy sources, to improve the power grid, to enhance public transportation (which will face a crisis of confidence in response to the pandemic), to restore natural resources, and to change agriculture.
  2. Bailouts should be carbon-neutral. I am not callous about people whose livelihoods depend on mining or drilling for carbon. But nowhere is it written that oil, gas, and coal companies deserve public subsidies, especially given the massive negative externalities of their industries. There is an immense amount of carbon underground and enormous incentives to extract and burn it. Our best hope is to cut the supply in the short term so that alternatives can become more affordable. Turmoil in carbon markets will have human costs, but also benefits. Thus: no bailouts for carbon.
  3. Financing should be equitable and carbon-neutral. I think the wisest macroeconomic policy is to borrow in the short term and pay it back with new taxes only later on–that’s the most stimulative approach. But we could negotiate an agreement now to pay it back later in a good way. That could mean phasing in carbon taxes along with highly progressive wealth taxes while permanently holding down income and payroll taxes for households with lower incomes.
  4. Spending should be planned and allocated in a participatory and deliberative way. This is not just a matter of justice or a way of generating civic benefits from the pandemic crisis. It is also an urgent practical need. Let’s say you want to build a new transit line to reduce carbon use. If a community organizes against it, it won’t go through. Also, people won’t ride the line unless it meets their needs, and transit without many passengers does no good for the environment. Therefore, effective spending depends on genuine support, which can be earned by creating opportunities for people to discuss and decide. Ideally, such discussions will also influence individuals’ decisions as workers, consumers, and investors, giving many people a justified sense that we are rebuilding the economy, and saving nature, together.
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unveiling CIRCLE’s data tool

Although it’s hard to concentrate on politics right now, a massively consequential election is coming up, and today CIRCLE unveils a data tool that can help nonpartisan groups, partisan outfits, campaigns, and the media make smart decisions regarding young voters.

If you head to youthdata.circle.tufts.edu, you can explore youth registration and turnout, youth demographics, and an array of relevant civic factors for states and congressional districts over time–setting your own queries and seeing the results.

For instance, here is youth turnout in my hometown’s congressional district:

I also explored various underlying factors that might affect youth engagement in that district.

(The team has come a long way since the days when we’d generate a few charts and put them in a document that we expected people to print.)

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mobilizing higher education against COVID-19

Tufts’ president, Anthony Monaco (an MD/PhD) has an op-ed in the Boston Globe calling on colleges and universities to deploy their resources to fight the public health emergency. He is not only talking about closing our campuses to reduce contagion or providing research and education for the public–although those are important contributions–but also about turning our dorms into quarantine centers and our college parking lots into “drive-through triage centers.” A longer list of highly tangible ideas is in his op-ed.

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the virus, the election, and democratic theory

[It] seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 1

The answer may be “accident and force.” This graph, derived from Christopher Achen, shows an almost perfect correlation between presidential election results and economic growth during two quarters before the election, adjusted for how many years the incumbent party has held office. It implies that who wins the White House in November will depend almost entirely on what the COVID-19 virus does to GDP during this quarter and next. If the US economy manages 1.5% positive growth despite COVID-19, Trump should win. If it declines, he will probably be done, regardless of the Democratic nominee.

One should always be careful about correlation graphs with relatively small numbers of data points and carefully contrived axes. You can fish for combinations of variables that generate uncannily neat pictures. However, this graph shows the result that you would predict if you hold a theory of electoral politics that goes back at least to Joseph Schumpeter in 1942:

  • People have better things to do than follow politics closely, let alone form and test careful hypotheses about the impact of political positions on outcomes (holding other factors constant). Voters are not going to be rigorous social scientists.
  • Instead, voters will assess the most prominent political leaders of the moment by evaluating their own circumstances. They won’t only think about economics, and certainly not only about the nation’s GDP. However, GDP growth is a decent proxy for how well a whole population is faring in their everyday lives compared to last year.
  • People will judge politicians using other heuristics, such as partisanship, demographics, and ideological labels. These factors also determine what we hear or read about the world beyond our doors. (Watching the Fox News homepage during the COVID-19 crisis, as I have done, is an object lesson in ideological framing.) However, in a system like ours, two closely equal voting blocs with their own media networks will emerge as an equilibrium. Who actually wins any given election depends on the main variable that changes from month to month: GDP growth.

This is bad news for any theory of democracy that envisions millions of people deliberating about ideas and making choices. With Schumpeter, we might at least hope that a national election functions as a test of performance, rotating failures out of office. We would expect Trump to lose in November because things will go badly between now and then, and that will serve as a vivid test of his fitness for office, his allies in the media and Congress, and his ideology (nationalism), which has guided his response to the epidemic. The voters would demonstrate collective rationality by throwing him out.

The problem with that theory is the massive element of randomness. The signal can easily be lost in noise. If COVID-19 hadn’t hit now, Trump wouldn’t be seriously tested. If Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders were president now, the government’s public health policy would be better than Trump’s, but we would still face a global pandemic and probable recession. Then the signal would convey that neoliberalism or democratic socialism–not nationalism–was the failed ideology.

To make matters worse, politicians are systematically rewarded for the wrong things. Andrew Healy and Neil Malhorta show that spending (or not spending) money on prevention has no effect on electoral outcomes. However, relief spending is a big boost to an incumbent. This means that Trump may benefit from COVID-19 if things play out fortuitously for him. If we are in recovery by November and Trump is handing out stimulus relief, the crisis may carry him to reelection. In that case, not only would the public receive a false signal about his competence and ideology, but his policy of doing nothing to prevent a crisis would have been rewarded.

Should we therefore give up on democracy? I definitely think not, for these reasons (and I leave aside the tired argument that it is better than the alternatives):

First, all the models discussed above are based on political leaders who are plausibly competent and whose stances and worldviews put them in sync with close to 50% of voters. Trump has always risked not quite meeting those criteria. Up to now, his approval ratings have been well below what you would expect for an incumbent presiding over historically low unemployment. If he were to lose because his statements and policy choices have alienated a significant minority of voters who would have voted for him otherwise, then we’ll learn that national elections at least serve to weed out true losers. Four years too late, but better now than never.

Second, it matters which groups coalesce into the two large blocs of active voters. Those groups are better served when their side wins. Therefore, it matters which citizens we engage and motivate to vote.

Third, a national election, although important, is an outlier among all forms of politics. It is episodic and short-term. Millions of people participate, each having a microscopic impact. It is entirely mediated, since only a tiny proportion of us actually know the candidates. Given our electoral system, it is filtered through a party duopoly.

Local politics can be much better. So can national politics, over a longer time-span. Consider the improvement in mainstream attitudes toward sexual minorities in the US, which affects the stances of presidential candidates as well as many other aspects of our society. That, too, is politics: the result of advocacy, organizing, discussion, and learning. Our expectations for self-governance should be much higher than our expectations for presidential elections, where we must hope that Alexander Hamilton’s “accident” is benign.

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my thoughts for students as we move online

Like many other universities, Tufts has decided to close physically for the semester and switch to online education. I am sure my colleagues across the country are discussing this shift with their students as they meet for the last time this week–or virtually, if students have already dispersed.

This is what I’m saying. The text is “open source” in case anyone wants to copy some of it, although I’m sure my colleagues will want to say different things or make similar points better.

First, I am disappointed that we will not meet again in person. I thought the conversations were fascinating and compelling. I have been impressed by your commitment and intellectual and emotional investment.

For my part, I was committed to continuously improving the class. We recently made a shift to more small-group discussions, and I would have sought to make more such changes. My goal would have been to end the semester very strong, better than we began it. It frustrates me to have to move into a kind of triage mode.

But we need to do the best we can. The point is to give you the best learning experience possible under the circumstances, which will vary from person to person and over time. Of course, that’s always supposed to be the point. A college class is not a transaction, with you doing what the professor wants in order to get a grade. It’s always supposed to be a joint creation with the objective of learning. Now we’ll really have to accomplish that together.

Usually, students want predictability. A syllabus nowadays looks almost like a contract: you do this, I will do that, and the results are guaranteed. I don’t think we can be predictable this semester. Who knows how many of us (if any) will be directly affected by the disease? Or whether videoconferencing platforms will hold up under the strain? On the bright side, I assume that professors and teachers will invent successful new strategies that will go viral. We don’t know now how we’ll teach and learn in April.

In the absence of predictability, we need communication. It’s your responsibility to share feedback and ideas with me–especially since we will not be meeting face-to-face. I can’t know what you are experiencing or how you assess the course unless you tell me.

I assume that your circumstances and responses will vary. Some may find it hard–for practical and/or emotional reasons–to participate in various ways. But some may be bored and frustrated that they’re not learning enough during one of only eight semesters of a conventional undergraduate education. I need to hear from you, wherever you stand.

I cannot customize perfectly because I have more than 50 students and more than 20 advisees, plus other responsibilities beyond teaching. However, we can differentiate the experience to some extent. We can add optional activities for students who want more and make accommodations for those who are struggling to keep up.

As always, assigning grades is an inevitable task, and I’m not saying that everyone will get an A because of the circumstances. Still, I am hoping that, even more than usual, we can put the assignment of grades somewhat aside and focus on maximizing the learning for everyone. Your responsibility is not only to try to learn but also, to the extent possible, to help others to learn. Those are the two overarching criteria of assessment. We will succeed if we co-produce this class and fail if we give up on it.

With all that being said, my current plan is to form you into groups of 4-5, with changing membership each time. Those groups will hold videoconferences during each of the scheduled class times. I will provide detailed discussion questions with suggested allocations of time for each topic. Each group will write succinct overview notes on a shared document. I will comment substantively on that document when I see places to weigh in. Individual writing assignments will remain the same as on the syllabus.

Now and throughout the semester, suggestions and critiques of this plan are not only welcome, but expected.

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what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?

In a course on policy analysis, we have been investigating these policy questions: Who should decide which kids attend which schools? (E.g., Should parents choose in a marketplace of schools? Should all kids be required to attend the nearest public school?) And on what basis should these decisions be made? My students have begun to investigate other policy issues of their own choice, using similar tools.

We have been applying a scientific paradigm, in this sense: We ask why questions, and the “why” is causal. What causes people to put their kids in certain schools? What causes schools to have certain outcomes? What might cause a government to choose a given policy for school assignment?

Answering these questions seems relevant to policy because we can decide what the state should want and then how to set up institutions so that those outcomes are more likely, given what individuals are likely to do in the situations that confront them.

Lots of factors can cause people to act in certain ways, including emotion, error, and instinct. But we have often assumed that people act in order to accomplish ends. Parents try to get their children into a given school so that their kids will be on a path to safety and wealth. Governments segregate schools to preserve white supremacy or else integrate them to promote a certain form of equity. These explanations assume purposive behavior toward ends. We could call them “functionalist” explanations. We are asking, “What is—and what should be—the function of public schools?”

In this context, I have assigned Clifford Geertz’ classic text, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Daedalus, vol. 101, no. 1, Myth, Symbol, and Culture (Winter, 1972), pp. 1-37.

Geertz and his unnamed spouse–both of them “malarial and diffident”—arrive in a village in Bali, Indonesia in the late 1950s to study it. They encounter many institutions and practices e.g., farming and Hindu temple festivals. Among these, cockfighting is prominent and also somewhat alien, since most Americans don’t participate in cockfights. It creates puzzlement for Geertz and his readers and seems to need an explanation.

Our puzzlement grows as we realize that cockfighting: 1) occupies a lot of energy and time; 2) persists even though it is illegal; 3) involves betting that is “irrational” in the sense that it is carefully contrived to cause a net loss of utility; and 4) conflicts with several pervasive Balinese norms. For instance, Balinese culture is integrated on sexual lines, but cockfighting is just for men. Balinese culture is very courtly, but cockfighting is violent and extremely competitive.

You could ask lots of “why” questions. Why do Balinese people engage in cockfighting? More specifically, why are the betting odds for the main event always set at 1:1 and why are there also side bets that are never 1:1? Or why do people from the same factions never compete in the main fight?

And you could pose functionalist explanations. The function of cockfighting in Bali is …?

But here is a different question. What is a Balinese cockfight? That question has many possible answers:

  • “A chicken hacking another mindless to bits “(p. 84)
  • An example of “deep play” (p. 71)
  • “fundamentally a dramatization of status concerns” (p. 74)
  • an “encompassing structure” that presents a coherent vision of “death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss, beneficence, chance” (p. 79)
  • “a kind of sentimental education” from which a Balinese man “learns what his culture’s ethos and his private sensibility (or, anyway, certain aspects of them) look like when spelled out externally in a collective text” p. 83

These descriptions range from “thin” (chickens fighting) to “thick” (a vision of death and masculinity)

Gilbert Ryle originated the thin/thick distinction here:

Two boys fairly swiftly contract the eyelids of their right eyes. In the first boy this is only an involuntary twitch; but the other is winking conspiratorially to an accomplice. At the lowest or the thinnest level of description the two contractions of the eyelids may be exactly alike. From a cinematograph-film of the two faces there might be no telling which contraction, if either, was a wink, or which, if either, were a mere twitch. Yet there remains the immense but unphotographable difference between a twitch and a wink. For to wink is to try to signal to someone in particular, without the cognisance of others, a definite message according to an already understood code.

You could ask, “Why did the boy’s eyelid contract?” That helps you answer the question, “What was that?”

According to Berry Tholen (“Bridging the gap between research traditions: on what we can really learn from Clifford Geertz.” Critical Policy Studies 12.3 (2018): 335-349.),

Three aspects of Deep Play are most often cited as exemplary for interpretive research in the social sciences:
• trying to understand people as they understand themselves;
• offering understandings by presenting thick descriptions and
• using text-analysis as the paradigm for studying societal meanings.

What is the relevance of this kind of inquiry to policy?

1) It reminds us that “what?” is often as hard and important a question as “why?”

I was recently the principal investigator for a social science research project asking whether a new arts venue in Boston’s Chinatown—the Pao Arts Center—benefits community members, specifically by improving their mental health. This is a causal question, and we investigated it using surveys and interviews. Ideally, researchers would randomly assign people to get the “treatment” of the Pao Arts Center, or not, and measure its effects on hard outcomes, like stress hormones.

But there is also a question of “what.” On a given afternoon at Pao, the auditorium might be a venue for a classical Chinese opera or a spoken-word performance by a young Asian-American artist. What are those things? I have so little background in Chinese opera that I can only give the thinnest description (“Chinese opera”). I cannot thicken those words to say, “This is an excellent, if conventional, performance of an opera from the Beijing court tradition.” Or, “This is a subversive postmodern version of a well-known classic.” Or, “This is an incompetent effort to perform a classic.” I do not know how to thicken the description, but I could ask better-informed observers or learn more myself.

Only once we know what the art is can we know whether that kind of art helps with mental health. Hence our project deliberately combined humanities scholars from Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies with public health scholars from the Tufts Medical School.

2) It requires certain methods.

How can we know what a culturally complex object is? How does Geertz go about knowing? This is a moment to talk about ethnography, textual analysis, and other methods of interpretation. And it is a moment to ask whether interpretations are arbitrary and subjective, or whether they can be valid.

3) It recognizes that human beings do not always act for outcomes.

Geertz asserts (citing Weber, vaguely) that “the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence” (p. 16). We sometimes act not to do things but to “increase the meaningfulness” of things. If that is true, policy analysts and policymakers should take meaning into consideration.

To return to our original policy question: What is a school in modern America? What is a school within a given system of school assignment? What is a “no-excuses” charter school, or a de facto segregated neighborhood school, or a small-town school that serves everyone?

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the youth vote in Super Tuesday

CIRCLE has released detailed information on youth voting in South Carolina and Super Tuesday.

I’m seeing a lot of commentary on disappointing youth turnout, some of it leading with Bernie Sanders’ remark, “Have we been as successful as I would hope in bringing in young people in? And the answer is ‘no.'”

Your assessment will depend on expectations. Youth turnout increased in most states:

It didn’t increase enough for Sanders, who won the youth vote by margins as large as 47 points in Tennessee but didn’t experience a tsunami of youth voting.

I am also seeing suggestions that turnout of all ages set records–for example, in South Carolina. But that state’s population is growing by 1.3% per year, so the narrow increase in the number of votes cast since 2008 actually represents a significant decline in participation.

CIRCLE is working on comparative graphs for past elections, but their recent 2020 graph certainly reminds me of one they released somewhat later in the 2016 cycle. Biden now is about where Clinton was then.

It hardly needs to be said that if Biden is the nominee, he will have to engage youth better than Clinton did four years ago. Ideological positioning, rhetoric, and the candidate are not the only factors. The Clinton campaign did a poor job of nuts-and-bolts outreach to youth, and the Biden campaign should invest more. That means investing in diverse young people to do the organizing, not bombarding youth with messages.

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