Saturday, December 30, 2017

Is history probabilistic?



Many of our intuitions about causality are driven by a background assumption of determinism: one cause, one effect, always. But it is evident in many realms -- including especially the social world -- that causation is probabilistic. A cause makes its effects more likely than they would be in the absence of the cause. Exposure to a Zika-infected mosquito makes it more likely that the individual will acquire the illness; but many people exposed to Zika mosquitoes do not develop the illness. Wesley Salmon formulated this idea in terms of the concept of causal relevance: C is causally relevant to O just in case the conditional probability of O given C is different from the probability of O. (Some causes reduce the probability of their outcomes.)

There is much more to say about this model -- chiefly the point that causes rarely exercise their powers in isolation from other factors. So, as J.L. Mackie worked out in The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation, we need to be looking for conjunctions of factors that jointly affect the probability of the occurrence of O. Causation is generally conjunctural. But the essential fact remains: no matter how many additional factors we add to the analysis, we are still unlikely to arrive at deterministic causal statements: "whenever ABCDE occurs, O always occurs."

But here is another kind of certainty that also arises in a probabilistic world. When sequences are governed by objective probabilities, we are uncertain about any single outcome. But we can be highly confident that a long series of trials will converge around the underlying probability. In an extended series of throws of a fair pair of dice the frequency of throwing a 7 will converge around 6/36, whereas the frequency of throwing a 12 will converge around 1/36. So we can be confident that the eventual set of outcomes will look like the histogram above.

Can we look at history as a vast series of stochastic events linked by relations of probabilistic causation? And does this permit us to make historical predictions after all?

Let's explore that idea. Imagine that history is entirely the product of a set of stochastic events connected with each other by fixed objective probabilities. And suppose we are interested in a particular kind of historical outcome -- say the emergence of central states involving dictatorship and democracy. We might represent this situation as a multi-level process of social-political complexification -- a kind of primordial soup of political development by opportunistic agents within a connected population in a spatial region. Suppose we postulate a simple political theory of competition and cooperation driving patterns of alliance formation, institution formation, and the aggregation of power by emerging institutions. (This sounds somewhat similar to Tilly's theory of state formation in Coercion, Capital and European States, A.D. 990 - 1992 and to Michael Mann's treatment of civilizations in The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1, A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760.)

Finally we need to introduce some kind of mechanism of invention -- of technologies, institutions, and values systems. This is roughly analogous to the mechanism of genetic mutation in the evolution of life.

Now we are ready to ask some large historical questions about state formation in numerous settings. What is the likelihood of the emergence of a stable system of self-governing communities? What is the likelihood that a given population will arrive at a group of inventions involving technology, institutions, and values systems that permit the emergence of central state capable of imposing its will over distance, collecting revenues to support its activities, and conducting warfare? And what is the likelihood of local failure, resulting in the extinction of the local population? We might look at the historical emergence of various political-economic forms such as plunder societies (Genghis Khan), varieties of feudalism, and medieval city states as different outcomes resulting from the throw of the dice in these different settings.

Self-governance seems like a fairly unlikely outcome within this set of assumptions. Empire and dictatorship seem like the more probable outcomes of the interplay of self-interest, power, and institutions. In order to get self-governance out of processes like these we need to identify a mechanism through which collective action by subordinate agents is possible. Such mechanisms are indeed familiar -- the pressures by subordinate but powerful actors in England leading to the reform of absolutist monarchy, the overthrow of the French monarchy by revolutionary uprisings, the challenges to the Chinese emperor represented by a series of major rebellions in the nineteenth century. But such counter-hegemonic processes are often failures, and even when successful they are often coopted by powerful insiders. These possibilities lead us to estimate a low likelihood of stable self-governance.

So this line of thought suggests that a stochastic model of the emergence of central states is possible but discouraging. Assign probabilities to the various kinds of events that need to occur at each of the several stages of civilizational development; run the model a large number of times; and you have a Monte Carlo model of the emergence of dictatorship and democracy. And the discouraging likelihood is that democratic self-governance is a rare outcome.

However, there are several crucial flaws in this analysis. First, the picture is flawed by the fact that history is made by purposive agents, not algorithms or mechanical devices. These actors are not characterized by fixed objective probabilities. Historical actors have preferences and take actions to influence outcomes at crucial points. Second, agents are not fixed over time, but rather develop through learning. They are complex adaptive agents. They achieve innovations in their practices just as the engineers and bureaucrats do. They develop and refine repertoires of resistance (Tilly). So each play of the game of political history is novel in important respects. History is itself influenced by previous history.

Finally, there is the familiar shortcoming of simulations everywhere: a model along these lines unavoidably requires making simplifying assumptions about the causal factors in play. And these simplifications can be shown to have important consequences for the sensitivity of the model.

So it is important to understand that social causation is generally probabilistic; but this fact does not permit us to assign objective probabilities to the emergence of central states, dictatorships, or democracies.

(See earlier posts on more successful efforts to use Bayesian methods to assess the likelihood of the emergence of specific outcomes in constrained historical settings;
link, link.)

Friday, December 22, 2017

The culture of an organization


It is often held that the behavior of a particular organization is affected by its culture. Two banks may have very similar organizational structures but show rather different patterns of behavior, and those differences are ascribed to differences in culture. What does this mean? Clifford Geertz is one of the most articulate theorists of culture -- especially in his earlier works. Here is a statement couched in terms of religion as a cultural system from The Interpretation Of Cultures. A religion is ...
(1) a system of symbols which act to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (90)
And again:
The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate, is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. (5)
On its face this idea seems fairly simple. We might stipulate that "culture" refers to a set of beliefs, values, and practices that are shared by a number of individuals within the group, including leaders, managers, and staff members. But, as we have seen repeatedly in other posts, we need to think of these statements in terms of a distribution across a population rather than as a uniform set of values.

Consider this hypothetical comparison of two organizations with respect to employees' attitudes towards working with colleagues of a different religion. (This example is fictitious.) Suppose that the employees of two organizations have been surveyed on the topic of their comfort level at working with other people of different religious beliefs, on a scale of 0-21. Low values indicate a lower level of comfort.


The blue organization shows a distribution of individuals who are on average more accepting of religious diversity than the gold organization. The weighted score for the blue population is about 10.4, in comparison to a weighted score of 9.9 for the gold population. This is a relatively small difference between the two populations; but it may be enough to generate meaningful differences in behavior and performance. If, for example, the attitude measured here leads to an increased likelihood for individuals to make disparaging comments about the co-worker's religion, then we might predict that the gold group will have a somewhat higher level of incidents of religious intolerance. And if we further hypothesize that a disparaging work environment has some effect on work productivity, then we might predict that the blue group will have somewhat higher productivity.

Current discussions of sexual harassment in the workplace are often couched in terms of organizational culture. It appears that sexual harassment is more frequent and flagrant in some organizations than others. Women are particularly likely to be harassed in a work culture in which men believe and act as though they are at liberty to impose sexual language and action on female co-workers and in which the formal processes of reporting of harassment are weak or disregarded. The first is a cultural fact and the second is a structural or institutional fact.

We can ask several causal questions about this interpretation of organizational culture. What are the factors that lead to the establishment and currency of a given profile of beliefs, values, and practices within an organization? And what factors exist that either reproduce those beliefs or undermine them? Finally we can ask what the consequences of a given culture profile are in the internal and external performance of the organization.

There seem to be two large causal mechanisms responsible for establishment and maintenance of a particular cultural constellation within an organization. First is recruitment. One organization may make a specific effort to screen candidates so as to select in favor of a particular set of values and attitudes -- acceptance, collaboration, trustworthiness, openness to others. And another may favor attitudes and values that are thought to be more directly related to profitability or employee malleability. These selection mechanisms can lead to significant differences in the overall culture of the organization. And the decision to orient recruitment in one way rather than another is itself an expression of values.

The second large mechanism is the internal socialization and leadership processes of the organization. We can hypothesize that an organization whose leaders and supervisors both articulate the values of equality and respect in the workplace and who demonstrate that commitment in their own actions will be one in which more people in the organization will adopt those values. And we can likewise hypothesize that the training and evaluation processes of an organization can be effective in cultivating the values of the organization. In other words, it seems evident that leadership and training are particularly relevant to the establishment of a particular organizational culture.

The other large causal question is how and to what extent cultural differences across organizations have effects on the performance and behavior of those organizations. We can hypothesize that differences in organizational values and culture lead to differences in behavior within the organization -- more or less collaboration, more or less harassment, more or less bad behavior of various kinds. These differences are themselves highly important. But we can also hypothesize that differences like these can lead to differences in organizational effectiveness. This is the central idea of the field of positive organizational studies. Scholars like Kim Cameron and others argue, on the basis of empirical studies across organizational settings, that organizations that embody the values of mutual acceptance, equality, and a positive orientation towards each others' contributions are in fact more productive organizations as well (Competing Values Leadership: Second Edition; link).


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Is public opinion part of a complex system?


The worrisome likelihood that Russians and other malevolent actors are tinkering with public opinion in Western Europe and the United States through social media creates various kinds of anxiety. Are our democratic values so fragile that a few thousand Facebook or Twitter memes could put us on a different plane about important questions like anti-Muslim bigotry, racism, intolerance, or fanaticism about guns? Can a butterfly in Minsk create a thunderstorm of racism in Cincinnati? Have white supremacy and British ultra-nationalism gone viral?

There is an interesting analogy here with the weather. The weather next Wednesday is the net consequence of a number of processes and variables, none of which are enormously difficult to analyze. But in their complex interactions they create outcomes that are all but impossible to forecast over a period of more than three days. And this suggests the interesting idea that perhaps public opinion is itself the result of complex and chaotic processes that give rise to striking forms of non-linear change over time.

Can we do a better job of understanding the dynamics of public opinion by making use of the tools of complexity theory? Here is a summary description of complex systems provided by John Holland in Complexity: A Very Short Introduction:
Complexity, once an ordinary noun describing objects with many interconnected parts, now designates a scientific field with many branches. A tropical rainforest provides a prime example of a complex system. The rainforest contains an almost endless variety of species—one can walk a hundred paces without seeing the same species of tree twice, and a single tree may host over a thousand distinct species of insects. The interactions between these species range from extreme generalists (‘ army’ ants will consume most anything living in their path) to extreme specialists (Darwin’s ‘comet orchid’, with a foot-long nectar tube, can only be pollinated by a particular moth with a foot-long proboscis—neither would survive without the other). Adaptation in rainforests is an ongoing, relatively rapid process, continually yielding new interactions and new species (orchids, closely studied by Darwin, are the world’s most rapidly evolving plant form). This lush, persistent variety is almost paradoxical because tropical rainforests develop on the poorest of soils—the rains quickly leach all nutrients into the nearest creek. What makes such variety possible? (1)
Let's consider briefly how public opinion might fit into the framework of complexity theory. On the positive side, public opinion has some of the dynamic characteristics of systems that are often treated as being complex: non-linearity, inflection points, critical mass. Like a disease, a feature of public opinion can suddenly "go viral" -- reproduce many times more rapidly than in previous periods. And the collective phenomenon of public opinion has a feature of "self-causation" that finds parallels in other kinds of systems -- a sudden increase in the currency of a certain attitude or belief can itself accelerate the proliferation of the belief more broadly.

On the negative side, the causal inputs to public opinion dynamics do not appear to be particularly "complex" -- word-of-mouth, traditional media, local influencers, and the new factor of social media networks like Twitter, Weibo, or Facebook. We might conceptualize a given individual's opinion formation as the net result of information and influence received through these different kinds of inputs, along with some kind of internal cognitive processing. And the population's "opinions" are no more than the sum of the opinions of the various individuals.

Most fundamentally -- what are the "system" characteristics that are relevant to the dynamics of public opinion in a modern society? How does public opinion derive from a system of individuals and communication pathways?

This isn't a particularly esoteric question. We can define public opinion at the statistical aggregate of the distribution of beliefs and attitudes throughout a population -- recognizing that there is a distribution of opinion around every topic. For example, at present public opinion in the United States on the topic of President Trump is fairly negative, with a record low 35% approval rating. And the Pew Research Center finds that US public opinion sees racism as an increasingly important problem (link):



Complexity theorists like Scott Page and John Holland focus much attention on a particular subset of complex systems, complex adaptive systems (CAS). These are systems in which the agents are themselves subject to change. And significantly, public opinion in a population of human agents is precisely such a system. The agents change their opinions and attitudes as a result of interaction with other agents through the kinds of mechanisms mentioned here. If we were to model public opinion as a "pandemonium" process, then the possibility of abrupt non-linearities in a population becomes apparent. Assume a belief-transmission process in which individuals transmit beliefs to others with a volume proportional to their own adherence to the belief and the volume and number of other agents from whom they have heard the belief, and individuals adopt a belief in proportion to the number and volume of voices they hear that are espousing the belief. Contagion is no longer a linear relationship (exposure to an infected individual results in X probability of infection), but rather a non-linear process in which the previous cycle's increase leads to amplified infection rate in the next round.

Here is a good review article of the idea of a complex system and complexity science by Ladyman, Lambert and Wiesner (linklink). Here is a careful study of the diffusion of "fake news" by bots on Twitter (link, link). (The graphic at the top is taken from this article.) And here is a Ph.D. dissertation on modeling public opinion by Emily Cody (link).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Varieties of organizational dysfunction


Several earlier posts have made the point that important technology failures often include organizational faults in their causal background.

It is certainly true that most important accidents have multiple causes, and it is crucial to have as good an understanding as possible of the range of causal pathways that have led to air crashes, chemical plant explosions, or drug contamination incidents. But in the background we almost always find organizations and practices through which complex technical activities are designed, implemented, and regulated. Human actors, organized into patterns of cooperation, collaboration, competition, and command, are as crucial to technical processes as are power lines, cooling towers, and control systems in computers. So it is imperative that we follow the lead of researchers like Charles Perrow (The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters), Kathleen Tierney (The Social Roots of Risk: Producing Disasters, Promoting Resilience), or Diane Vaughan (The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA) and give close attention to the social- and organization-level failures that sometimes lead to massive technological failures.

It is useful to have a few examples in mind as we undertake to probe this question more deeply. Here are a number of important accidents and failures that have been carefully studied.
  • Three Mile Island, Chernobyl nuclear disasters
  • Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters
  • Failure of United States anti-submarine warfare in 1942-43
  • Flawed policy and decision-making in US leading to escalation of Vietnam War
  • Flawed policy and decision-making in France leading to Dien Bien Phu defeat
  • Failure of Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ensure reactor safety
  • DC-10 design process
  • Osprey design process
  • failure of Federal flood insurance to appropriately guide rational land use
  • FEMA failure in Katrina aftermath
  • Design and manufacture of the Edsel sedan
  • High rates of hospital-born infections in some hospitals
Examples like these allow us to begin to create an inventory of organizational flaws that sometimes lead to failures and accidents:
  • siloed decision-making (design division, marketing division, manufacturing division all have different priorities and interests)
  • lax implementation of formal processes
  • strategic bureaucratic manipulation of outcomes 
    • information withholding, lying
    • corrupt practices, conflicts of interest and commitment
  • short-term calculation of costs and benefits
  • indifference to public goods
  • poor evaluation of data; misinterpretation of data
  • lack of high-level officials responsible for compliance and safety
These deficiencies may be analyzed in terms of a more abstract list of organizational failures:
  • Poor decisions given existing priorities and facts
    • poor priority-setting processes
    • poor information-gathering and analysis
  • failure to learn and adapt from changing circumstances
  • internal capture of decision-making; corruption, conflict of interest
  • vulnerability of decision-making to external pressures (external capture)
  • faulty or ineffective implementation of policies, procedures, and regulations

******

Nancy Leveson is a leading authority on the systems-level causes of accidents and failures. A recent white paper can be found here. Here is the abstract for that paper:
New technology is making fundamental changes in the etiology of accidents and is creating a need for changes in the explanatory mechanisms used. We need better and less subjective understanding of why accidents occur and how to prevent future ones. The most effective models will go beyond assigning blame and instead help engineers to learn as much as possible about all the factors involved, including those related to social and organizational structures. This paper presents a new accident model founded on basic systems theory concepts. The use of such a model provides a theoretical foundation for the introduction of unique new types of accident analysis, hazard analysis, accident prevention strategies including new approaches to designing for safety, risk assessment techniques, and approaches to designing performance monitoring and safety metrics. (1; italics added)
Here is what Leveson has to say about the social and organizational causes of accidents:

2.1 Social and Organizational Factors

Event-based models are poor at representing systemic accident factors such as structural deficiencies in the organization, management deficiencies, and flaws in the safety culture of the company or industry. An accident model should encourage a broad view of accident mechanisms that expands the investigation from beyond the proximate events.

Ralph Miles Jr., in describing the basic concepts of systems theory, noted that:

Underlying every technology is at least one basic science, although the technology may be well developed long before the science emerges. Overlying every technical or civil system is a social system that provides purpose, goals, and decision criteria (Miles, 1973, p. 1).

Effectively preventing accidents in complex systems requires using accident models that include that social system as well as the technology and its underlying science. Without understanding the purpose, goals, and decision criteria used to construct and operate systems, it is not possible to completely understand and most effectively prevent accidents. (6)

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Organizational dysfunction


What is a dysfunction when it comes to the normal workings of an organization? In order to identify dysfunctions we need to have a prior conception of the "purpose" or "agreed upon goals" of an organization. Fiscal agencies collect taxes; child protection services work to ensure that foster children are placed in safe and nurturing environments; air travel safety regulators ensure that aircraft and air fields meet high standards of maintenance and operations; drug manufacturers produce safe, high-quality medications at a reasonable cost. A dysfunction might be defined as an outcome for an organization or institution that runs significantly contrary to the purpose of the organization. We can think of major failures in each of these examples.

But we need to make a distinction between failure and dysfunction. The latter concept is systemic, having to do with the design and culture of the organization. Failure can happen as a result of dysfunctional arrangements; but it can happen as a result of other kinds of factors as well. For example, the Tylenol crisis of 1982 resulted from malicious tampering by an external third party, not organizational dysfunction.

Here is an example from a Harvard Business Review article by Gill Corkindale indicating some of the kinds of dysfunction that can be identified in contemporary business organizations:
Poor organizational design and structure results in a bewildering morass of contradictions: confusion within roles, a lack of co-ordination among functions, failure to share ideas, and slow decision-making bring managers unnecessary complexity, stress, and conflict. Often those at the top of an organization are oblivious to these problems or, worse, pass them off as or challenges to overcome or opportunities to develop. (link)
And the result of failures like these is often poor performance and sometimes serious crisis for the organization or its stakeholders.

But -- as in software development -- it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between a feature and a bug. What is dysfunctional for the public may indeed be beneficial for other actors who are in a position to influence the design and workings of the organization. This is the key finding of researchers like Jack Knight, who argues in Institutions and Social Conflict for the prevalence of conflicting interests in the design and operations of many institutions and organizations; link. And it follows immediately from the approach to organizations encapsulated in the Fligstein and McAdam theory of strategic action fields (link).

There is an important related question to consider: why do recognized dysfunctional characteristics persist? When a piano is out of tune, the pianist and the audience insist on a professional tuning. When the Nuclear Regulatory Commission persistently fails to enforce its regulations through rigorous inspection protocols, nothing happens (Union of Concerned Scientists, link; Perrow, link). Is it that the individuals responsible for the day-to-day functioning of the organization are complacent or unmotivated? Is it that there are contrary pressures that arise to oppose corrective action? Or, sometimes, is it that the adjustments needed to correct one set of dysfunctions can be expected to create another, even more harmful, set of bad outcomes?

One intriguing hypothesis is that correction of dysfunctions requires observation, diagnosis, and incentive alignment. It is necessary that some influential actor or group should be able to observe the failure; it should be possible to trace the connection between the failure and the organizational features that lead to it; and there should be some way of aligning the incentives of the powerful actors within and around the organization so that their best interests are served by their taking the steps necessary to correct the dysfunction. If any of these steps is blocked, then a dysfunctional organization can persist indefinitely.

The failures of Soviet agriculture were observable and the links between organization and farm inefficiency were palpable; but the Soviet public had not real leverage with respect to the ministries and officials who ran the agricultural system. Therefore Soviet officials had no urgent incentive to reform agriculture. So the dysfunctions of collective farming were not corrected until the collapse of the USSR. A dysfunction in a corporation within a market economy that significantly impacts its revenues and profits will be noticed by shareholders, and pressure will be exerted to correct the dysfunction. The public has a strong interest in nuclear reactor safety; but its interests are weak and diffused when compared to the interests of the industry and its lobbyists; so Congressional opposition to reform of the agency remains strong. The same could be said with respect to the current crisis at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; the influence of the financial industry and its lobbyists can be concentrated in a way that the interests of the public cannot.

Charles Perrow has written extensively on the failures of the US regulatory sector (link). Here is his description of regulatory capture in the nuclear power industry:
Nuclear safety is problematic when nuclear plants are in private hands because private firms have the incentive and, often, the political and economic power to resist effective regulation. That resistance often results in regulators being captured in some way by the industry. In Japan and India, for example, the regulatory function concerned with safety is subservient to the ministry concerned with promoting nuclear power and, therefore, is not independent. The United States had a similar problem that was partially corrected in 1975 by putting nuclear safety into the hands of an independent agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and leaving the promotion of nuclear power in the hands of the Energy Department. Japan is now considering such a separation. It should make one. Since the accident at Fukushima, many observers have charged that there is a revolving door between industry and the nuclear regulatory agency in Japan -- what the New York Times called a "nuclear power village" -- compromising the regulatory function. (link)

Monday, December 4, 2017

New perspectives on Chinese authoritarianism


The question of China's political future is an important one and a difficult one. Will China evolve towards a political system that embodies real legal protections for the rights of its citizens and some version of democratic institutions of government? Or will it remain an authoritarian single-party state in which government and the party decide the limits of freedom and the course of economic and social policy?

Two recent books are worth reading in this context, and they seem to point to rather different answers. Ya-Wen Lei's The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China makes the case for a broadening sphere of public discourse and debate in China, which seems to suggest the possibility of a gradual loosening of governmental control of thought and action. Wenfang Tang's Populist Authoritarianism: Chinese Political Culture and Regime Sustainability on the other hand makes the case for a distinctive version of populist authoritarianism in China that may have the resources it needs to retain power for a very long time. Neither scholar is dogmatic about his or her findings, but they give rather different pictures of the evolution of China's polity in the next several decades.

The two books use rather different kinds of data. Tang relies primarily on various surveys of Chinese public opinion, whereas Lei's research relies on a range of qualitative and observational data about the contents of China's legal system, media, and social media. She makes use of newspaper archives, legal texts, interviews, online texts from Internet forums, and survey data (lc 466).

Tang's book begins with several paradoxical facts. One is that the Chinese state already embodies a kind of democratic responsiveness, which he refers to as "Mass Line" politics. According to this political ideology, the Party represents the interests of the masses, and it must be responsive to the interests and demands of workers and peasants. So the CCP is sometimes responsive to demands expressed through public demonstrations and protests. Here are a few of Tang's comments about the Mass Line ideology: "Some observers see the totalitarian nature of the Mass Line.... Other scholars, however, see the empowerment of society under the Mass Line.... Others describe the Mass Line as a democratic decision-making process" (kl 357-388). But Tang's own view appears to be that the Party's adherence to the ideology of the Mass Line makes for a compelling imperative towards paying attention to the attitudes and interests of ordinary peasants and workers, and towards improving their material conditions of life.

The other paradoxical fact in Tang's account is that China's government commands support from a remarkably high percentage of its citizens. Using survey research, Tang reports that there are issues of concern to the Chinese public (corruption, environment, land use policy), but that the large majority of Chinese people support the single-party government of the CCP.
The 2005–2008 5th wave of the WVS [World Values Survey] coordinated by the University of Michigan further indicated that Chinese respondents expressed the strongest support for political institutions including the military, the police, the legal system, the central government, the Communist Party, the national legislature, and the civil service. (kl 712)
But Tang also notes that surveys indicate a low level of "happiness" and satisfaction by Chinese citizens. In the WVS 2005-2008 survey "China ranked at the very bottom of this happiness index (65). Above China were eastern Germany (65.5), Slovenia and South Korea (66), India (67), Taiwan and Spain (68), Italy and Chile (69)," along with many other countries. This presents a third paradox in Chinese political realities; low citizen satisfaction is often associated with low approval of government, but this is not the case in China at present. Tang observes, "there seems to be a contradiction between the low level of happiness and the high level of regime support" (kl 774).

Here is how Tang characterizes China's particular version of "populist authoritarianism". China's particular version involves ...
the Mass Line ideology, strong interpersonal trust and rich social capital, individual political activism and political contention, weak political institutions and an underdeveloped civic society, an often paranoid and highly responsive government, and strong regime support. (kl 240)
What strategies and mechanisms permit an authoritarian state to maintain its stability over time, beyond the exercise of force? Tang supports the "political culture" strand of thinking about politics; he believes that the beliefs, identities, and attitudes that citizens have are crucial for the way in which politics unfolds in the country. One factor that Tang rates as particularly favorable for regime stability in China is the high degree of nationalism that Chinese people share, according to survey data. Survey data support the finding that Chinese people have a high level of identification with the value and importance of China as a nation. And, significantly, the central government makes explicit efforts to reinforce popular nationalist sentiment.
While Chinese civilization is an ancient concept, Chinese nationalism is a relatively new idea in contemporary China. It is constructed by the CCP to incorporate a multi-ethnic state that was inherited from the Qing dynasty. It has been used by the CCP to justify its resistance to liberal democracy which is often associated with Western imperialist invasion of China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. More importantly, nationalism is an inseparable component of contemporary Chinese political culture that provides the soil for the CCP to nurture its legitimacy. (kl 1364)
So Tang's conclusion about regime stability in China is tentative, but he leaves open the possibility that the CCP and single-party government has enough resources available to it to survive as a popular and populist government in China for an extended period of time. He suggests that populist authoritarianism is potentially a stable system of government -- anti-democratic in the traditional western sense, but responsive enough to the demands and interests of ordinary citizens to permit it to maintain high levels of legitimacy and acceptance by the broad public over an extended period of time.

Now let's look at the political dynamics described in Ya-Wen Lei's very interesting 2018 book, The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China. Lei too regards China as an authoritarian state. And yet Chinese society possesses a surprising degree of public contestation over important social issues.
Authoritarian states, by definition, undermine civil society—the basis on which the public sphere is built—thus conventional wisdom tells us that the conditions for political life and a public sphere in such contexts are likely to be quite bleak and suffocating (Habermas 1996, 369). Yet, when I looked at what was going on in China, I saw lively political discussion, contention, and engagement—in short, the emergence of a vibrant public sphere, against all apparent odds. (kl 264)
In describing this "unruly sphere capable of generating issues and agendas not set by the Chinese state" (kl 278) Lei is primarily referring to the cell-phone supported social media world in China, within which Weibo is the primary platform. And Lei takes the position that the emergence of this public sphere in the early 2000s was an unintended consequence of "authoritarian modernization".
I argue that the rise of China’s contentious public sphere was an unintended consequence of the Chinese state’s campaign of authoritarian modernization. The government desperately needed to modernize in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. To do so, the state institutionalized the double-edged instruments of modern law, marketized media, and the Internet. It sought to utilize but also contain these instruments, recognizing the potential risk each posed of empowering professionals and citizens and destabilizing political control. Nonetheless, the state’s choices set in motion complex and interconnected processes beyond its control. Building legal and media institutions and adopting information technologies, paired with political fragmentation and marketization, increased the capabilities of citizens and professionals, encouraged the formation of multiple overlapping social networks of collaboration, engendered widespread legal and rights consciousness, and created a space for contentious politics. Through everyday practices and the production of so-called public opinion incidents (yulun shijian), media and legal professionals, public opinion leaders, activists, NGOs, and netizens translated individual grievances into collective contention—and in so doing, facilitated the rise of a contentious public sphere. (kl 290)
Lei maintains that the state was aware of this risk and has taken measures to ameliorate it; but she also believes that the forces leading to open debate and social networks that are relatively free to engage in these kinds of discussions are more numerous than authoritarian censorship can manage to control. President Xi's current crackdown on ideological deviation is the most recent version of the state's effort at control; but the logic of Lei's argument suggests that these repressive measures will not succeed in eliminating the emerging public sphere. She refers to this situation as the "authoritarian dilemma of modernization":
Yet the Chinese state’s authoritarian modernization project has encountered what I call an “authoritarian dilemma of modernization.” On the one hand, the state has to build economic, legal, and political institutions to pursue socioeconomic development. The state also needs capable professionals and citizens to make institutions work, produce economic growth, and ultimately achieve the goal of modernization. These capable agents need to be educated and have knowledge, information, and even some autonomy to participate in the tasks designated by the state. (lc 354)
New legal institutions and new forms of information technology create opportunities for increasingly well-educated people to find new ways of pursuing debates and advocating for policies that the state would prefer not to have to consider.

In contrast to Tang's "populist authoritarianism", Lei refers to a "fragmented and adaptive authoritarianism" in China. And she argues that this fragmentation (through new institutions, new legal frameworks, and new ways of communicating and disseminating divergent opinions) has led to the possibility of social changes emerging that were not intended or sanctioned by the governing elites.

In an interesting way Lei's view of fragmented authoritarianism has some themes in common with Fligstein and McAdam's ideas of organizations as "strategic action fields" (link); different actors within the Chinese polity are able to gain resources and leverage to pursue their own concerns. Lei's analysis emphasizes the shifting resources available to various actors within the field of politics, including new legal institutions and new opportunities for communications and interaction through the Internet. The strategic-action-field theory does not presuppose that "governors" or "insurgents" automatically have the upper hand; instead, it posits that change within a strategic action field is highly contingent, with a variety of possible outcomes. And this indeed seems like a very good description of Chinese politics.

(Here is an earlier post on Martin Whyte's research on public opinions about social justice in China in Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China; link.)


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Collapse of Eastern European communisms


An earlier post commented on Tony Judt's magnificent book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. There I focused on the story he tells of the brutality of the creation of Communist Party dictatorships across Eastern Europe (link). Equally fascinating is his narrative of the abrupt collapse of those states in 1989. In short order the world witnessed the collapse of communism in Poland (June 1989), East Germany (November 1989), Czechoslovakia (November 1989), Bulgaria (November 1989), Romania (December 1989), Hungary (March 1990), and the USSR (December 1991). Most of this narrative occurs in chapter 19.

The sudden collapse of multiple Communist states in a period of roughly a year requires explanation. These were not sham states; they had formidable forces of repression and control; and there were few avenues of public protest available to opponents of the regimes. So their collapse is worth of careful assessment.

There seem to be several crucial ingredients in the sudden collapse of these dictatorships. One is the persistence of an intellectual and practical opposition to Communism and single-party rule in almost all these countries. The brutality of violent repression in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other countries did not succeed in permanently suppressing opposition based on demands for greater freedom and greater self-determination through political participation. And this was true in the fields of the arts and literature as much as it was in the disciplines of law and politics. Individuals and organizations reemerged at various important junctures to advocate again for political and legal reforms, in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and even the USSR.

Second was the chronic inability of these states to achieve economic success and rising standards of living for their populations. Price riots in Poland in the 1970s and elsewhere signaled a fundamental discontent by consumers and workers who were aware of the living conditions of people living in other parts of non-Communist Europe. Material discontent was a powerful factor in the repeated periods of organized protest that occurred in several of these states prior to 1989. (Remember the joke from Poland in the 1970s -- "If they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.")

And third was the position taken by Mikhail Gorbachev on the use of force to maintain Communist regimes in satellite countries. The use of violence and armed force had sufficed to quell popular movements in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in years past. But when Gorbachev made it credible and irreversible that the USSR would no longer use tanks to reinforce the satellite regimes -- for example, in his speech to the United Nations in December 1988 -- local parties were suddenly exposed to new realities. Domestic repression was still possible, but it was no longer obvious that it would succeed.

And the results were dramatic. In a period of months the world witnessed the sudden collapse of Communist rule in country after country; and in most instances the transitions were relatively free of large-scale violence. (The public executions of Romania's Nicolae and Elena CeauČ™escu on Christmas Day, 1889 were a highly visible exception.)

There seem to be many historical lessons to learn from this short period of history. Particularly sharp are the implications for other single-party dictatorships. So let's reflect on the behavior of the single-party state in China since the mid-1980s. The Chinese party-state has had several consistent action plans since the 1980s. First, it has focused great effort on economic reform, rising incomes, and improving standards of living for the bulk of its population. In these efforts it has been largely successful -- in strong contrast to the USSR and its satellite states. Second, the Chinese government has intensified its ability to control ideology and debate, culminating in the current consolidation of power under President Xi. And third, it used brutal force against the one movement that emerged in 1989 with substantial and broad public involvement, the Democracy Movement. The use of force against demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and other cities in China demonstrated the party's determination to prevent largescale public mobilization with force if needed.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that China's leaders have reflected very carefully on the collapse of single-party states in 1989, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. They appear to have settled on a longterm coordinated strategy aimed at preventing the emergence of the particular factors that led to those political catastrophes. They are committed to fulfilling the expectations of the public that the economy will continue to grow and support rising standards of living for the mass of the population. So economic growth has remained a very high priority. Second, they are vigilant in monitoring ideological correctness, suppressing individuals and groups who continue to advocate for universal human rights, democracy, and individual freedoms. And they are unstinting in providing the resources needed by the state organizations through which censorship, political repression, and ideological correctness are maintained. And finally, they appear to be willing to use overwhelming force if necessary to prevent largescale public protests. The regime seems very confident that a pathway of future development that continues to support material improvement for the population while tightly controlling ideas and public discussions of political issues will be successful. And it is hard to see that this calculation is fundamentally incorrect.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Corruption and institutional design


Robert Klitgaard is an insightful expert on the institutional causes of corruption in various social arrangements. His 1988 book, Controlling Corruption, laid out several case studies in detail, demonstrating specific features of institutional design that either encouraged or discouraged corrupt behavior by social and political actors.

More recently Klitgaard prepared a major report for the OECD on the topic of corruption and development assistance (2015; link). This working paper is worth reading in detail for anyone interested in understanding the dysfunctional origins of corruption as an institutional fact. Here is an early statement of the kinds of institutional facts that lead to higher levels of corruption:
Corruption is a crime of calculation. Information and incentives alter patterns of corruption. Processes with strong monopoly power, wide discretion for officials and weak accountability are prone to corruption. (7)
Corruption can go beyond bribery to include nepotism, neglect of duty and favouritism. Corrupt acts can involve third parties outside the organisation (in transactions with clients and citizens, such as extortion and bribery) or be internal to an organisation (theft, embezzlement, some types of fraud). Corruption can occur in government, business, civil society organisations and international agencies. Each of these varieties has the dimension of scale, from episodic to systemic. (18)
Here is an early definition of corruption that Klitgaard offers:
Corruption is a term of many meanings, but at the broadest level, corruption is the misuse of office for unofficial ends. Office is a position of duty, or should be; the office-holder is supposed to put the interests of the institution and the people first. In its most pernicious forms, systemic corruption creates the shells of modern institutions, full of official ranks and rules but “institutions” in inverted commas only. V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born Nobel Prize winner, once noted that underdevelopment is characterised by a duplicitous emphasis on honorific titles and simultaneously the abuse of those titles: judges who love to be called “your honour” even as they accept bribes, civil servants who are uncivil and serve themselves. (18)
The bulk of Klitgaard's report is devoted to outlining mechanisms through which governments, international agencies, and donor agencies can attempt to initiate effective reform processes leading to lower levels of corruption. There are two theoretical foundations underlying the recommendations, one having to do with the internal factors that enhance or reduce corruption and the other having to do with a theory of effective institutional change. The internal theory is couched as a piece of algebra: corruption is the result of monopoly power plus official discretion minus accountability (37). So effective interventions should be designed around reducing monopoly power and official discretion while increasing accountability.

The premise about reform process that Klitgaard favors involves what he refers to as "convening" -- assembling working groups of influential and knowledgeable stakeholders in a given country and setting them the task of addressing corruption in the country. Examples and case studies include the Philippines, Columbia, Georgia, and Indonesia. Here is a high-level description of what he has in mind:
The recommended process – referred to in this paper as convening – invites development assistance providers to share international data, case studies and theory, and invites national leaders from recipient countries to provide local knowledge and creative problem-solving skills. (5)
Klitgaard spends a fair amount of time on the problem of measuring corruption at the national level. He refers to several international indices that are relevant: Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index, the Global Integrity index, and the International Finance Corporation's ranking of nations in terms of "ease of doing business" (11).

What this report does not attempt to do is to address specific institutional arrangements in order to discover the propensities for corrupt behavior that they create. This is the strength of Klitgaard's earlier book, where he looks at alternative forms of social or political arrangements for policing or collecting taxes. In this report there is none of that micro detail. What specific institutional arrangements can be designed that have the effect of reducing official monopoly power and discretion, or the effect of increasing official accountability? Implicitly Klitgaard suggests that these are questions best posed to the experts who participate in the national convening on corruption, because they have the best local knowledge of government and business practices. But here are a few mechanisms that Klitgaard specifically highlights: punish major offenders, pick visible, low-hanging fruit, bring in new leaders and reformers, coordinate government institutions, involve officials, and mobilize citizens and the business community (chapter 5).

A more micro perspective on international corruption is provided by a recent study by David Hess, "Combating Corruption in International Business: The Big Questions" (link). Hess focuses on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the United States, and he asks the question, why do large corporations pay bribes when this is clearly illegal under the FCPA? Moreover, given that FCPA has the power to assess very large fines against corporations that violate its strictures, how can violation be a rational strategy? Hess considers the case of Siemens, which was fined over $1.5 billion in 2008 for repeated acts of bribery in the pursuit of contracts (3). He considers two theories of corporate bribing: a cost-benefit analysis showing that the practice of bribing leads to higher returns, and the "rogue employee" view, according to which the corporation is unable to control the actions of its occasionally unscrupulous employees. On the latter view, bribery is essentially a principal-agent problem.

Hess takes the position that bribery often has to do with organizational culture and individual behavior, and that effective steps to reduce the incidence of bribery must proceed on the basis of an adequate analysis of both culture and behavior. And he links this issue to fundamental problems in the area of corporate social responsibility.
Corporations must combat corruption. By allowing their employees to pay bribes they are contributing to a system that prevents the realization of basic human rights in many countries. Ensuring that employees do not pay bribes is not accomplished by simply adopting a compliance and ethics program, however. This essay provided a brief overview of why otherwise good employees pay bribes in the wrong organizational environment, and what corporations must focus on to prevent those situations from arising. In short, preventing bribe payments must be treated as an ethical issue, not just a legal compliance issue, and the corporation must actively manage its corporate culture to ensure it supports the ethical behavior of employees.
As this passage emphasizes, Hess believes that controlling corrupt practices requires changing incentives within the corporation while equally changing the ethical culture of the corporation; he believes that the ethical culture of a company can have effects on the degree to which employees engage in bribery and other corrupt practices.

The study of corruption is an ideal case for the general topic of institutional dysfunction. And, as many countries have demonstrated, it is remarkably difficult to alter the pattern of corrupt behavior in a large, complex society.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

China today


There are a lot of opinions about China today in the United States -- authoritarian, farsighted, effective at economic progress, overly committed to Party authority, challenged by the environmental effects of rapid economic growth, burdened by a corrupt and aging party elite. Some believe China is on the path to becoming a dominant super power, while others think that the suppression of individual freedom and thought is a fatal weakness that will eventually spell serious problems for Chinese stability and progress.

Several specific impressions from a recent trip to China leave me with more nuanced versions of several of those thoughts. Here is one: whenever you drive into a parking garage in virtually any major city in China your license plate is immediately scanned and stored. This makes it very convenient for parking -- you don't need a ticket and the parking charge is automatically added to your form of payment when you leave. But it also means the state has the tools necessary to create a vast and up-to-the-moment database of the current locations of millions of citizens. This is part of a surveillance system on a truly massive scale. We know how important this kind of meta-data is in the case of phone and email records -- think how much more of a reduction of privacy it creates when your vehicle is tracked from highway to parking garage to surveillance camera on the street. And why does the parking lot scanning system exist? Surely for the purpose of social monitoring and control. Patterns of movement as well as current locations can be analyzed and inferences can be drawn about one's private life, social connections, or current plans. (Is there a concentration of vehicles around a certain address corresponding to membership in an environmental action organization? Is more intensive investigation needed to head off a possible demonstration or protest?) So this small detail -- ubiquitous license plate scanners -- points to a more basic feature of the vision China's leaders have for the relation between state and individual. It is the panopticon.

Here is a related observation. Take a look at these photos of classrooms at different universities.


Notice the video surveillance system at the rear of the room in each photo. Why is it there? How does it affect the behavior and speech of students and professors? The answer is fairly obvious. The video device has a chilling effect on the content of a professor's lecture and the comments that students make, whether or not it is currently functioning. It permits direct monitoring of the content of classroom discussion. There are a handful of large subjects that cannot be discussed in the classroom. Everyone knows what those topics are, and where the sensitivities of the political officials lie. The seven forbidden subjects include universal values, freedom of speech, civil society, civil rights, historical errors of the CCP, crony capitalism, and judicial independence (link). And a recent program of disciplinary inspections of universities ordered by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) demonstrate the seriousness of the central government's resolve on the points (link). So the mere fact of the presence of the video device is a reminder to students and faculty that their words and thoughts can have large consequences in their future careers. And we can predict that this fact will change the way students and faculty think and express themselves. Once again -- surveillance and control. This environment is bad for students and faculty; but more fundamentally, it is bad for China's longterm ability to foster creativity and independence of mind among its future leaders.


Here is a third observation, in an entirely different key. It is the sudden appearance of the yellow bicycle in many cities in China, almost overnight. This is a bike-sharing system that uses a phone app so the user can find a bike nearby, rent it for a short trip, and leave it wherever he or she wishes. Ofo and its similar competitor Mobike are funded by some of China's biggest and most innovative companies -- Tencent, Foxconn, and Alibaba. This is very convenient for the "last mile" problem of how to get a commuter from the bus or subway stop to the final destination. This innovation too has a major surveillance aspect -- as soon as I pick up a yellow bike I'm on the radar thanks to the connected GPS device on the bike. But mostly it's an interesting example of the kind of innovation and entrepreneurship that is underway in China today. Is it a viable business model? That isn't yet clear. Does it solve a persistent problem in cities with hundreds of thousands of commuters underway everyday? That too is uncertain, given the challenge of scaling such a system in a city the size of Shanghai. Does it have the potential for creating brand new problems of urban behavior? Certainly so, given the unmanageable piles of yellow bikes you now see in many locations in Chinese cities. Does it give a basis for optimism about local initiative in China as a solution to its problems? Yes, for sure. The very speed of this onslaught of the yellow bicycle gives amazing evidence of China ability to quickly try out novel systems and solutions. (The bikes have shown up in a big way in Seattle as well, along with their orange and lime cousins.)

It's hard to miss important signs of social change in ordinary consumer behavior as well. In 24 hours in Shanghai I saw several Porsches, two Maseratis and a Bentley -- more super-luxury cars than I've ever seen in Michigan. In a city of 40-50 million maybe that's not exceptional, but that's part of the point: the scale of China's population and economy means that there is a class of super-rich, affluent, and middle class people that may be larger than many European countries. This implies a rapid upward shift in the income distribution. It also demonstrates the increasing purchasing power that China brings to the world economy.

A final observation is familiar but important -- China's success in rapidly creating an extensive network of bullet trains. It is now possible to travel by train from Shanghai to Beijing in 4.5 hours -- compared to twelve hours just ten years ago. This is roughly the distance between New York and Chicago. This too has been an impressively rapid development, and it has the potential for changing the social and urban networks of China. This contrasts painfully with the inability of the United States to effectively address its infrastructure problems, let alone creating new transportation options. The Chinese state's consistency and perseverence on an infrastructure plan have paid off with major benefits to the economy and society.

These snippets seem to point to some very important facts about China today. One is the confidence and stability created by several decades of sustained, real economic growth and infrastructure improvement. The lives of vast numbers of Chinese people are substantially better off, in almost all sectors. Second, the weight of surveillance and control has visibly and disturbingly increased in the past ten years. The central government and party are very serious about maintaining ideological control, and they have increasingly effective tools for doing so. Moreover, this level of control seems to be largely accepted by young people and university leaders alike. And third, China is demonstrating its ability to compete at a global level in the areas of business innovation and scientific and technological research. University research centers are increasingly able to deliver on the promise of offering world-class research progress on a wide range of scientific and technological problems.

So in some ways the assumptions made in the United States about China's current realities seem to be a bit off. The speed and quality of China's economic growth is greater than most American commentators believe, and this record of success seems to have created a deeper reservoir of legitimacy and acceptance by the Chinese citizenry than is often believed. Second, the power and security of the central state seems greater than often imagined, and the determination of China's leaders to maintain power and ideological control seems more likely to succeed than many American commentators believe. President Xi and his political apparatus show every indication of an ability to carry out their agenda of continuing economic growth and strict ideological control.

So the current really looks something like this: an authoritarian state apparatus that succeeds in managing economic strategies and individual behavior surprisingly effectively. An authoritarian party state with continuing economic progress seems to be in the cards for China's future for at least the next few decades.

There is a better and more inspiring vision of the future for China. It is a future in which citizens and leaders alike have confidence in the capability of everyone to contribute to China's progress. It is a future in which discussion, criticism, and alternative ideas are expressed freely. It is a future where no one has the power to unilaterally decide China's future, no matter how well intentioned. It is a world in which the Chinese people decide their own priorities and plans, and one in which progress and harmony continue.

This is a pluralist and democratic vision of China's future. And most fundamentally, it is a vision that is hard for the CCP to embrace, because it seems inconsistent with single party rule. So it is hard to see how this future can emerge from the current configuration of power, authority, and ideology.

(Andrew Nathan's recent piece in the New York Review of Books provides useful insights into these topics; link. Nathan sheds more doubt on the "soothing scenario" -- the idea that China will soon evolve towards a more open-minded form of democratic society because of its involvement in the liberal framework of global trading relations. China is not "evolving" towards a more democratic form of socialism; and it is not showing signs of collapse under its own economic inadequacies either.)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Europe after World War II


Europe faces major challenges today, from the rise of the extreme right to Brexit to the ongoing threat of ISIS terror. But these challenges pale against those faced across the map of Europe in 1945 and for the next twenty years or so. Tony Judt makes the depth and power of those challenges and changes very clear in his 2005 book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Here is a good statement of his vision of the period from early in the book. 
An era was over and a new Europe was being born. This much was obvious. But with the passing of the old order many longstanding assumptions would be called into question. What had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air. The Cold-War confrontation; the schism separating East from West; the contest between ‘Communism’ and ‘capitalism’; the separate and non-communicating stories of prosperous western Europe and the Soviet bloc satellites to its east: all these could no longer be understood as the products of ideological necessity or the iron logic of politics. They were the accidental outcomes of history—and history was thrusting them aside. (kl 250)
Since 1989—with the overcoming of long-established inhibitions—it has proven possible to acknowledge (sometimes in the teeth of virulent opposition and denial) the moral price that was paid for Europe’s rebirth. Poles, French, Swiss, Italians, Romanians and others are now better placed to know—if they wish to know—what really happened in their country just a few short decades ago. Even Germans, too, are revisiting the received history of their country—with paradoxical consequences. Now—for the first time in many decades—it is German suffering and German victimhood, whether at the hands of British bombers, Russian soldiers or Czech expellers—that are receiving attention. The Jews, it is once again being tentatively suggested in certain respectable quarters, were not the only victims . . . (kl 439)
And in this 900-page masterpiece Judt lays it all out.

The book has a fantastic level of texture, allowing the reader to gain a powerful sense of experiencing the deprivations, crimes, and successes of the period. Judt makes significant use of economic statistics to give a scaled impression of the devastation of the immediate post-war years and the rapid growth that occurred in many countries. From the number of cars on Italy's roads in 1960 to the plummeting numbers of cinema tickets purchased in Britain in the same year, Judt manages to use the economic statistics to give a powerful impression of the ways in which life was changing across the continent. But equally Judt is at home with the culture, cinema, and literary currents of these countries and times. He is particularly adept in using film to illustrate the themes and patterns of experience that characterized change in these countries and decades.

A more somber thread of the narrative is Judt's telling of the horrendous experience of the Stalinist and post-Stalin states in Eastern Europe. Show trials every bit as horrifying as those in the USSR itself, murderous crackdowns by the Soviet military in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, the resurgence of official anti-semitism in Poland, and the establishment of a regime of repression and violence throughout Eastern Europe -- Judt provides fine detail for stories that often get just a sentence or two in recollections of the Cold War. The separate histories of Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Yugoslavia during these years all warrant close attention.

Perhaps more than in most histories, Judt's narrative makes it clear that there are large moral realities interwoven with the facts and events he conveys. Individuals commit actions that are deplorable or admirable. But more profoundly, whole nations were confronted with choices and actions in these decades that were formative for generations to come. This is nowhere more apparent than in the ways different European countries dealt with their own responsibility for the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust. Judt deals with this issue in the epilogue to the book, and it is an important piece of historical writing all by itself. (A version was published in the New York Review of Books (link).) He demonstrates that almost none of the involved nations -- especially the Netherlands, Poland, Italy, France -- lived up to the duty of confronting honestly the behavior of its citizens and officials during the Shoah. France's mendacity in particular on the subject of its willing deportation of 65,000 Jews created a permanent stain on French culture -- and it laid the basis for the continuation of denial of French responsibility by the FN up to the present day.

Judt's grasp of the details of the separate threads of history that he weaves together is truly impressive. Individuals, ideas, events, and interconnections across countries flood off the pages in a depth and precision that is hard to fathom. I find myself wondering what his work process was -- vast numbers of note cards? Stacks of annotated reference books? A prodigious memory? Every work of historical writing involves a large volume of factual material. But this book stands out for the fact that it provides expert and detailed discussion of several dozen countries in their political histories, economic transformations, and cultural and literary scenes. And there isn't one story line but several -- the intricacies of the Cold War, the shifting facets of youth culture, the fate of anti-semitism, the struggles in many countries to create effective social democracies. 

This is a book that everyone should read who wants to make humane sense of the past seventy years, and it helps greatly in underlining how important the project of creating a durable set of European political, social, and cultural institutions is.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

A localist approach to Chinese politics


How do the domestic politics of China work, from 1949 to the present?

This question covers many issues: Why does the Chinese state act as it does? Why does it choose the policies it has pursued over time? How does the Chinese Communist Party work? What are the mechanisms of policy formulation and adoption in China? How do ordinary people and groups express their needs and wishes? What kinds of issues lead to mobilization and protest? How does the state respond?

One thing apparent in these questions is the polarity they presuppose: state and civil society, central government and the people. But in fact, of course, this polarity obscures a crucial stratification of levels of political power and authority. There is an extensive central government, of course, with substantial power. But there are also units of government at lower levels -- province, county, city, town, and village. Officials at each of these levels have powers, authority, and responsibility; and there are powerful stakeholders at each level who have the ability to pressure and influence their actions. Moreover, central government often wants to control and lead the actions of lower-level units of government. But this is a loosely connected system, and actors at various levels have significant freedom of action with respect to the mandates of higher levels. So there are deep principal-agent problems that are manifest throughout the Chinese political system.

This limited ability of the central state to enforce its will throughout the system of political action is what Vivienne Shue refers to as the "limited reach of the state" in The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic. Philip Kuhn documented similar weakness during the late Imperial period in Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864. He demonstrates the importance of local militias led by local elites in the response to the Taiping rebellion. And Elizabeth Perry describes the local politics of mobilization, unrest, and repression in the late Imperial period in Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945. So it is apparent that political power exercised at lower levels of Chinese society has been important for several centuries. (I discuss most of these authors in Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science.)

Given this segmentation of political power in China, both historically and in the current time, it is important to understand the dynamics of government at lower levels as well if we are to understand the overall behavior of the system.

This is the task that Juan Wang sets for herself in her excellent recent book, The Sinews of State Power: The Rise and Demise of the Cohesive Local State in Rural China. She has chosen the title deliberately; she wants to demonstrate that China's overall political behavior is the result of a complex interplay among multiple levels of political organization. In particular, she finds that the particulars of the relationships that exist between three levels of local government have important consequences for the actions of the central government.

There are numerous strengths of Wang's treatment. One is her emphasis on disaggregation: don't consider political power as an undifferentiated whole, but instead as an interlocking system including both central authority and local political institutions and actors. Second, Wang's approach is admirably actor-centered. She attempts to understand the political situation of local officials and cadres from their own points of view, identifying the risks they are eager to avoid, the motivations they are pursuing, and sometimes the individual rewards that lie behind their decisions and actions. As she points out, their behaviors often look quite different from the idealized expectations of officials and cadres in specific roles.
This book focuses on intergovernmental relations among the county, township, and village levels of administration for the following reasons. First, in terms of central-local relations, these three levels, which constitute the CCP's local and grassroots reach, are the most remote from the national power center. Their actions reflect the capacity of the regime for agency control. Second, in terms of state-society relations, governments at the county level and below have the most immediate interaction with rural residents. Everyday interactions between farmers and government officials can reach the county level but rarely farther up. Third, historically the CCP's unprecedented success in bringing the party-state to the countryside was realized by building the county-township-village state apparatus and a cadre corps to staff them. This study is an account of how that came to be and, more recently, how it then unraveled. (5)
Wang believes that one of the greatest concerns of the central state is the frequency of occurrences of popular unrest -- demonstrations, appeals against corrupt officials, protests against land seizures and environmental problems. Local officials have an interest in containing these kinds of protests. But significantly, Wang finds that sometimes local cadres align themselves with protesters rather than officials, and even serve as instigators and leaders of local protests.

One of her central theoretical tools is the idea of "elite coherence"; her core thesis is that the coherence of interests and identity among officials and cadres at the local level is showing signs of breaking down. And this, she believes, has important consequences for social stability.
The formation and maintenance of intrastate alliances therefore require certain conditions to be present. Inspired by the literature on collective action and contentious politics ..., I focus on the following causes that facilitate the formation of collective action: common interests, selective interests (such as distributive benefits), networks (i.e., interpersonal interactions), and emotions among state agents across the three types of actors. (9)
The switching of allegiance of the village cadres is a factor that Wang believes to be of great importance for China's future stability.
Based on my fieldwork, an increasing percentage of collective action in the countryside after 2000 was mobilized, supported, or joined by village cadres.... The decline in administrative functions for brigade and commune cadres led to an excess of government personnel. Later, administrative reforms aimed at streamlining the communes and village brigades took place. Losing their power, grassroots cadres increased their loyalty toward the local community. Together with the revival of kinship groups, grassroots cadres spearheaded numerous illegal actions and riots. (31)
Key to changes in the alignment of the governmental system from central state to township or village is the issue of revenue extraction. If a given level of government lacks the ability to extract revenues from its area of jurisdiction, it will be unable to carry out policies and projects whether locally conceived or centrally mandated. Wang finds that there were crucial changes in revenue policies that fundamentally altered the political relations among levels of local government.
Important structural changes in the tripartite relationship occurred after 2000, which ultimately disrupted local state alliances. On the one hand, the central policy changes in the early 2000s recentralized fiscal and political autonomy and authority to the county level. The creation of a county leviathan reduced previous mutual reliance between counties and townships. On the other hand, sources of government revenue and personal benefits at township and village levels began to subside. The competitiveness of collectively owned TVEs against state-owned enterprises (SOEs) helped facilitate central policy toward further liberalization. The privatization of small and medium SOEs and TVEs finally bypassed collectively owned TVEs in market competition. (91)
One important topic that Wang does not consider in depth is the means through which the central state attempts to solve its problems of limited control over local officials. Contrary to Tip O'Neill, it is not the case that "all politics is local." What Wang describes in the book is a series of principal-agent problems that impede the effective control of the central government over local officials; but the central state has exercised itself to gain more complete compliance by its local agents through a variety of means (accommodation, threat and intimidation, anti-corruption campaigns, ...). The central state is by no means powerless in the face of contrarian local officials and cadres. The example of the village of Wukan is instructive (link). At the time of its organized resistance to corruption and bad officials, it appeared that villagers had won important victories. Now, six years later, it is apparent that the central state was able to prevail, and the protest movement was crushed. More generally, the central state has prevailed in the implementation of numerous large policies over the opposition of local people, including the dislocations created by the Three Gorges Dam project.

Wang's study is a good example of the dynamics of social power arrangements theorized by Fligstein and McAdam in their theory of strategic action fields (link). The interplay among different levels of officials and cadres that Wang describes appears to be precisely the kind of fluid, network- and relationship-based set of alliances through which power and influence are wielded within organizations, according to Fligstein and McAdam.

The Sinews of State Power is an excellent contribution to our understanding of how political decisions and compromises are reached in China in the current period. It will be very interesting to see whether the current efforts by Xi Jinping will succeed in resetting the balance of power between the center and provincial and local authorities, as appears to be his goal.

(Readers may also be interested in Guobin Yang's analysis of Internet activism in China in The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. Yang's book is an excellent exploration of several important causes of popular dissent in contemporary China -- exactly the kinds of issues that lead to protest and petition in Wang's account as well; link. Also of interest is a recent collection edited by Kevin O'Brien and Rachel Stern, Popular Protest in China; link.)