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13 December 2017

It's Time to Take Place out of Politics

FiveThirtyEight has a cool, ongoing podcast series on gerrymandering. It's gotten me thinking about an underlying issue that everyone seems to take for granted and no one I've heard is questioning. Namely, our entire representative democracy is based on geography; that is, we are represented based on where we live instead of (or even in addition to) our political ideology, social identities, etc. That's not to say that politics, identity, etc. aren't a part of electoral politics; it's just that those things are all mediated (inefficiently, I would argue) through place.

Undoubtedly, the central role of place in our democracy is owed to the technological limitations of colonial America. Moreover, land (and thus place) mattered in agrarian society in a way that it longer does in a post-industrial society. Place, then, is a decidedly 18th-century solution to representative democracy that simply no longer represents the people of the 21st century. I've written around this idea previously.

One reason that place has persisted is that place can quite easily be exploited by those with terrible intentions. For example, "state's rights" (i.e. regional autonymy) was invoked as a defense for first slavery and later Jim Crow discrimination. Another example is calls for "local control" as a defense for segregation in school districts.

A term that shows up in the podcasts (which I assume is from the political science literature) is "natural political geography." The basic idea is that people "naturally" sort themselves by place, most importantly by conservative/Republican and progressive/Democrat. In other words, it's not so much that people on the coasts have convinced each other over time to become liberal and that people in the "flyover states" have convinced each other over time to become conservative; instead, it's that people have been more likely to move to specific regions, states, cities, and neighborhoods where people already share their ideology. (Incidentally, sociology has long known of the structural sorting that happens for race and class.) However, there is nothing "natural" about people choosing to live by those with politics that are similar to their own or, more accurately, choosing not to live among those who are politically intolerant to them. If this phenomenon does indeed exist, it is at least in part a response to the fact that we do politics via place.

Our current set of political issues are not bounded. They include structural concerns over race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. We need an electoral system that acknowledges this. Moreover, the problems that SCoTUS is currently considering in Gill v. Whitford, including "packing and cracking," are created by our insistence on place and could be remedied if we admit that we don't live in that world anymore.

04 December 2017

Religion : Atheism :: Government : Anarchy

I've noticed a couple new hashtags, #emptythepews and #churchtoo, popping up in my Twitter feed lately. I was given pause, not because I disagree with their purpose and the problems that they expose but instead because of the ends to which many of those who employed the hashtags took them. Explicitly, many using the hashtags were militantly arguing for atheism. It reminds me of a phenomenon that I've long noticed but haven't yet written about.

All institutions are imperfect because they are organized and peopled by individuals who are imperfect. It seems that people hold the institution of religion to a different standard than they hold other social institutions. For example, we have a long history of governments doing very, very bad things. Think wars, genocide, totalitarianism, etc. Almost no one, however, points to the institution of government and says, "We should do away with that and have anarchy!" Of course they don't. Instead, most say, "Yes, some governments have committed atrocities, but governments have also done a lot of good in the world, and even if government as an institution was a flawed endeavor, it is better than the alternative." What most can see is that government is necessary.

It's not just government. We can choose virtually any institution:

  • The family
    • Some families are dysfunctional and abusive, but no one argues that we should abolish all families. 
  • The law
    • Some laws are patently unjust, but no one argues that we should have no laws.
  • The economy
    • Capitalism is inherently unjust, but no one imagines that we could have a society without an economy of some kind.
  • Education
    • Some schools are better than others, but no one argues that we should shutter all of them.
  • etc.
Why is religion unique among other social institutions? It's an open theoretical question, I believe.

Robots, Men, Women, and Nursing

This is good and worth watching:

However, I still think it leaves out a few important sociological findings:
  • Glass Ceiling
    • Even as women aspire to promotions and pay increases and those benefits appear accessible, there are structural barriers that hinder most women's ability to reach them.
      • Think about the different way we treat parents. Women are often not promoted because it is assumed that they will take maternity leave at some time. Even if it is assumed most men will have children during their career, it is not assumed that they will take leave, or at least not more than a few days.
  • Glass Escalator
    • Men who do work in traditionally feminine fields are often promoted out of the day-to-day work of those fields. 
      • Think about male kindergarten teachers. Many parents are uncomfortable with men teaching their kids at such a young age. Administrators can't fire these men. Instead, they promote them out of the classroom, making them principles. Of course, such promotions come with better pay, which could have gone to a woman but now is more likely to go to a man.
  • If nurses were paid better, men would be more likely to enter the field, and as men enter fields, those fields tend to offer better pay.

27 November 2017

Vacation Is for Unicorns

Only in America could you run this ad (which for some reason plays twice in this link, sorry):

Essentially everywhere else in the advanced, industrialized world, workers are guaranteed four weeks of paid vacation on top of holidays. The idea that two weeks is "standard" and that demanding three weeks somehow makes one a nonstandard unicorn would be comical if it weren't downright depressing. What's more are the inevitable pressures not to actually use those vacation days.

17 November 2017

Structure and Sexual Misconduct

We appear to be in a watershed moment. The floodgates have been opened to a seemingly endless cascade of sexual misconduct claims, ranging from the rape of minors to inappropriate and undesired language. One reaction I have heard is lament: "When will the accusations end?" This is understandable. However, I tend to see things much more optimistically: This is what social change looks like. It's uncomfortable and ugly and disappointing but good, good because it signals a change in norms. We are together affirmatively stating that such behavior is no longer acceptable; moreover, such behavior will be sanctioned. In a way, a desire to "make it all go away" is a wish to return to a time when our silence tacitly approved of such behavior and, thus, allowed it to continue unabated. As disquieting as it is, this is progress.

What's more, I think we can start to talk about the social structure and culture that has possibly and ironically elevated those among us who are more likely to do such deviance to positions of power, authority, and celebrity. Think about the presidency as an example. It takes a special--and not in a good way--person to consider him- or herself qualified to be the most powerful person in the world. To look at the impossibility of that political office, at the crushing and awesome responsibility it affords, and to say, "Sure, I could do that!" is the height of hubris. Not to mention the gauntlet one must travail to ascend to the catbird seat. We should not be surprised that virtually all candidates for president are, to some degree, clinical narcissists. We should recognize that it is a system of our own design that elevates people with these characteristics (and indeed perhaps even engenders these attributes) and that these very characteristics are what make such people feel entitled to act as they please without fear of consequences. Think Nixon and Watergate or Kennedy and Clinton and their sexual dalliances. Narcissism is not so much a personality disorder as it is an inevitable result of our way of doing social order. It is more bad society than bad actors.

This line of thinking can easily be translated to the systems that elevate movie stars, musicians, comedians, Senators, and CEO's. All require and encourage antisociality. This isn't to say that such behavior is confined to these fields. We ordinary folks are not immune. It is, however, an empirical question worth investigation: do people in positions of power, authority, and celebrity do sexual misconduct at a disproportionate rate?

An even more uncomfortable question to ask is, inasmuch as these elites, whom we've elevated, embody our ideals, what does this say about us?