Archive for August, 2009

Stakeholders in the rubber room

Like a lot of econ soc people nowadays, I’m generally more interested in “open systems” analyses of organizational fields than in anything that opens up the black-box of the firm, but two article (New Yorker and NY Times) make me seriously envy the people who do qualitative case studies. At least read the Times article and if possible the NYer, but here’s an outline:

  1. In NYC it’s almost impossible to fire a school teacher who has tenure (which they reach after three years). Termination involves an extremely long (NYer compares it to the OJ trial) and expensive arbitration hearing. Apparently in the last few years a total of 8 teachers have been fired mostly or entirely for poor performance, in general you have to do something like molest a kid or be a serious drunk to get fired, and even in these cases that would only be at the end of a long arbitration process.
  2. In the past few years, the NYC school chancellor has shut down schools that he judges to be failing. Some of the teachers were hired by other schools but several hundred have either not applied or have been rejected. The chancellor would like to figure out a way to fire these remaining teachers, but because of point “1” most of the teachers in these schools go into the “reserve pool,” continue to be paid, and are sometimes used as subs until they get a permanent job but mostly are kept idle.
  3. NYC public schools have a hiring freeze, which in practice means that vacant positions can only be filled from the reserve pool.
  4. Many principals would rather leave the positions vacant that hire the reserve pool teachers.

Regardless of whether you sympathize more with the reserve pool teachers or with the chancellor and principals, you can agree that this is an organization with a serious internal power struggle among stakeholders and a conflicting set of rules, incentives, and expectations. There’s so much going on here that it could fill many a b-school/soc dissertation, but I’ll try to hit a few of the obvious points in a couple hundred words.

The first thing to note is that the principals clearly have a very strong preference (both expressed and articulated) for new workers over displaced incumbents. The young workers are apparently superior both in terms of price and perceived quality. The price thing is simple, since (like most civil servants) school teacher salaries are determined by seniority and credentials, it’s much cheaper to higher new entrants than incumbents. (NYC teachers start at $45,530 but with enough seniority and credentials can make up to $100,049). Furthermore there’s a kind of option value to hiring young workers in that they don’t have tenure (yet) and thus the principal can try them out on a probationary basis, whereas once you hire a displaced incumbent you’ll be stuck with them, even if problems manifest immediately.

The quality thing is more complicated. The principals perceive the reserve pool teachers as far below average because they came from failing schools and nobody else wanted to hire them when the schools closed. If you take seriously a preferential attachment/cumulative advantage argument that the schools with the most disadvantaged students and the worst reputations got stuck with the most incompetent teachers then this is an entirely rational inference on the part of the principals. Likewise it makes sense if these were good teachers ex ante but after having spent a few years in these schools they learnt (and cannot be trusted to later unlearn) a shared student/teacher culture of mediocrity. The only way I can think of to argue that the principals’ perception is flawed is to note that status is defined by one’s associations, so it’s plausible to imagine that teachers whose skill and motivation are actually typical of the district would acquire stigma from having worked with stigmatized students. (This latter model implies that family background is such a strong determinant of school outcomes that the schools did not fail the students, but vice versa). Another dimension of stigma could be ageism (which Gary Becker might define operationally as a taste for young workers net of productivity). Thus we can come up with both valid and invalid reasons why principals might think the reserve pool teachers were incompetent. Indeed, they seem to be judged deficient not just relative to the opportunity cost of young workers but in absolute terms — some principals say “they planned to eliminate open positions from their budgets rather than take on teachers they considered undesirable.”

However it’s not just that the perceived undesirability of the incumbents but the perceived desirability of the new entrants. The poor economy can be seen as a shift in the supply curve for labor so for any given price point you’re going to get a higher quality worker. Simply put, you get a better worker for your $45,530 a year when unemployment is high and it’s a buyer’s labor market, as it is now. Thus by historical standards the applicant pool now has to look really good.

If you were a principal, would you rather hire a recent graduate of Rutgers, maybe even a fired up “Teach for America” participant from Columbia, or a teacher who has been occasionally subbing since the district shut down PS 1373682 because only 5% of the students were reading at grade level? What about when you consider that between seniority and credentials (which are of dubious pedagogical utility) you’d have to pay the lifer about 1.5x – 2x the salary of the kid? The obvious answer is that most principals have an extremely strong preference for the kid and get pretty frustrated when told they have to hire the lifer.

The teacher’s union likes to emphasize the price argument and alleges that the district is trying to push out teachers with a lot of seniority. From one perspective this is an implicit admission that the seniority payscale is decoupled from productivity and thus in pushing for such a payscale the union itself has created the unintended consequence of making incentives for the district to try to push out senior teachers. From another perspective (which I’m assuming the union would be sympathetic to), young teachers are not signing up for the $45,530 a year they get at the start, but for the whole career, an important part of which is the expectation of regular raises. Under this model, the seniority payscale (and for that matter, the comparably generous pension system) is effectively a form of deferred compensation and it’s not so much that senior teachers are “overpaid” so much as that they are effectively drawing backpay and in attempting to cut them loose the district is engaging in the time inconsistent bargaining.

Another issue you see in all this is that classic of 60s org theory, loose coupling:

Several principals — who did not want their names published for fear of angering the administration or the teachers’ union — said they were circumventing the restrictions by offering new teachers jobs as long-term substitutes or hiring them as specialized teachers but placing them in regular classrooms. Some said they planned to eliminate open positions from their budgets rather than take on teachers they considered undesirable, and others said they were holding out in the hope that Mr. Klein would lift the restrictions.

That is, these principals have some slack and autonomy and are using it to evade the rules so as to get more desirable workers, either by hiding the position under a different line-item or simply by keeping it vacant so they keep the option value in the event that the rules change (a case of “regime uncertainty”).

Overall what we’re seeing is a shift in the institutional model of the school district driven by policy entrepreneurs (most notably Klein and Bloomberg) which is embraced by some stakeholders (principals) and resisted by others (teachers). The chancellor describe the change as moving from a system that serves the interests of adults — read, teachers — over students to vice versa, but another way to describe it is a shift from a highly institutionalized model that emphasizes process and rights, to one that puts more emphasis on measured results. A corollary of this is a shift, characteristic of the broader economy, from lifetime employment to one where the employee’s value to the organization is continually evaluated. What has not yet happened, but what the chancellor would like to see, is a switch from a system that puts its highest priority on avoiding false accusations against teachers (and has substantial due process safeguards to ensure this) even at the expense of thwarting accurate accusations to one that emphasizes getting an estimate of teacher quality and not worrying so much about cases where the bias goes against the teacher.


August 31, 2009 at 2:28 pm 3 comments

Contradictory findings

| Gabriel |

Last week on econtalk, the guest was David Brady who, among other things talked about how Congressmen very precisely tailor their voting to their districts. So Congressmen whose party platform is unpopular in their district will vote to the center so as to decouple their particular identity from that of the national party. The “people in my district know I’m not a typical [Democrat/Republican]” thing. Furthermore, he presented some evidence that this strategy is effective and the guys who practice it get reelected. OK, fair enough, my vague understanding is this is typical of the poli sci of Congress literature.

Of course, there’s another poli sci literature that can be summed up as the “voters are morons” school. (One famous paper compares voters to Homer Simpson, another by the same author showed that voters seem to blame politicians for the weather and shark attacks). The general thrust of this literature is that voters don’t know who their congressman is, yet alone the subtle intricacies of his voting record, but if you’re lucky voters understand party platforms fairly well and use party as a heuristic. (This doesn’t strike me as a particularly bad voting strategy, for instance if you are a Nevada voter very interested in culture war issues, which is actually better to predict how Harry Reid will vote on important things like filibustering a conservative SCOTUS nom, his party affiliation or his centrist voting record?).

What I don’t get about political science is how you can have the “I vote with my district” and the “voters are morons” findings in the same quadrant (American) of the same discipline (poli sci). This is like finding out that your friend writes the most amazingly personalized love letters to his wife and they seem to have a good marriage but he has never noticed that she doesn’t speak English. The only way I can think of to reconcile these two findings is if opposition candidates were able to use campaign ads to draw attention to voting records that are out-of-whack with the district — “Congressman Incumbent says he shares Utah values, but what he doesn’t want you to know is that he voted to teach masturbation to kindergartners.” Hopefully some political scientist has squared this circle, if so, I salute him/her.

On another note, despite not being a political scientist, I still feel qualified to call this one for the Tories.

August 30, 2009 at 2:29 pm 3 comments

Appropriateness, professionalism, the body, etc

| Gabriel |

Jenn has a series of recent posts on professional socialization (e.g., here), some of which are about not being a flake and others of which have to do with the dilemma of personal appearance, especially but not exclusively for women academics. Jenn mentions a disparaging comment she heard about older female academics who wear “wooden jewelry,” but the flipside to that is that the friend who I remember getting the most shit about her appearance in grad school got it not for dressing like Stevie Nicks or Britney Spears but Betty Draper. I don’t think Jenn would be shocked by this as the general thrust of her recent posts (and the comments attached to them) is that there’s a definite scylla and charybdis thing going on. (In order to navigate it maybe the Banana Republic catalog should be on the syllabus of the pro-seminar).

In related news, Slate’s sister site Double X has a post on girl watching which isn’t that interesting (long story short, the author finds women to be aesthetically appealing but tries to be tasteful about it) but which has the mother of all comment threads on which you could easily imagine a dissertation being written. A lot of it seems to center on how intrusive is the male gaze, is it worse for it to be lecherous or dismissive (i.e., is it more offensive for a women to be thought worthy or unworthy of a man’s fantasy), and how important it is to distinguish between a discrete glance vs a prolonged leer vs this or this:

[Updated] Also on the subject of the male gaze, Flight of the Conchords does a good job (and not for the first time) of inverting gender:

August 28, 2009 at 3:05 pm

Convert a log to a do-file

| Gabriel |

I was looking at some old files (untouched for about 18 months) and realized that I’d done everything in Stata interactive mode (boo, hiss), but at least had enough semblance of responsibility to keep a log file. Wanting to do it right from here on (ie, do everything from scripts and always start from the raw data) I wrote a simple bash shell script to change a log file into a do file. In this script “foo” is the name of your log file. If for some reason you use smcl, first translate to text (the “.log” extension) using Stata’s “translate” command.

grep '^\. ' foo.log >
awk '{ gsub("^\. ", ""); print $0;}' "" > ; mv

Note that the do-files generated from your log-files are not ready to run and must be hand-cleaned for several reasons, including but not limited to:

  • This code makes no attempt to check whether Stata choked on the command.
  • This code doesn’t keep long commands that are separated by a hard return.
  • This code leaves in commands like “help” and “browse” that are only useful in interactive mode.

It would be technically feasible to write a script that wouldn’t have these limitations but it’s a pain (most Unix commands look at data one line at a time so it’s hard to edit text across multiple lines) and I figured there’s more bang for the buck to writing the simpler version since even a better version should probably still be hand-checked.

August 28, 2009 at 5:31 am 1 comment

Production of culture

[Below is a recent list Peterson wrote outlining the production of culture perspective. You can view it as an update to his ARS with N Anand. Pete wrote it to accompany a talk he gave and circulated it to some friends. I copy-edited/tagged it and am posting it with permission. If you know links for any of the non-tagged citations email me or put them in the comments and I will update the post. –Gabriel]

| Richard A. Peterson |

Examples of works written in the spirit of the Production of Culture Perspective

Created for the working conference
Euro-Pop: The Production and Consumption of a European Culture
Villa Vigoni, Lake Como, Italy 9-10 June, 2009

Richard A. Peterson

A. The production of culture perspective focuses on the ways in which the content of symbolic elements of culture are shaped by the systems within which they are created, distributed, evaluated, taught, and preserved. Initially practitioners of this perspective focused on the fabrication of expressive-symbol elements of culture such as art works, scientific research reports, popular culture, religious practices, legal judgments, journalism, and other parts of what are now often called “the culture industries”. More recently the perspective has been successfully applied to a range of quite different situations where the manipulation of symbols is a by-product rather than the purpose of the collective activity.

In the 1970s, when it emerged as a self-conscious perspective, it challenged the then-dominant idea that culture and social structure mirror each other. A symbiotic relationship between a singular functioning social system and its coherent overarching culture was then embraced by a wide range of theorists of contemporary society including most Marxists who distinguished between material structure versus superstructural values on the one hand and functionalists — among them Talcott Parsons. The former asserted that those who controlled the means of producing wealth shaped culture to fit their own class interests; the latter believed that a set of monolithic abstract values determined the shape of social structure. Breaking from these mirror views, the production perspective — like most of the other contemporary perspectives in cultural sociology — view both culture and social structure as elements in an ever-changing patchwork. In this view then culture is seen as not so much society-wide and virtually unchanging as it is situational and capable of rapid change.

A number of bellwether studies of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s exemplified aspects of what would become the production perspective. [See, for example, the studies discussed in section C. below.] Such studies illustrate the emerging production perspective in so far as they: a. Focus on the expressive aspects of culture rather than values, b. Explore the processes of symbol production, c. Use the tools of analysis initially developed in the study of organizations, occupations, networks, communities, and symbolic interaction, and d. Make possible comparisons across the diverse cites of culture creation.

While there was a scatter of provocative studies, not until publication in 1976 and 1978 of collections entitled The Production of Culture, edited by Richard A. Peterson and Lewis A. Coser respectively, did scholars collectively recognize that these and other scattered studies illustrated elements of culture being shaped in the mundane processes of their production. The empirical studies were drawn from sites as diverse as science laboratories, artist communities, and country music radio stations. Some authors have found it convenient to understand the dynamics of production in terms of six constraints or facets which include law and regulation, technology, industrial (field) organization, organizational form, career dynamics, and markets. (See sections D. and E. below.)

B. The most recent summary statement of the perspective (from which the statement above is largely drawn) is:

C. Thirteen works that were very useful in the early formulation of one or all facets of the production perspective. Include:

  • Mills, C. Wright. 1951. White Collar: The American Middle Class. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Highlights the vital causes of the shift from the entrepreneurial to the organizational (white collar) middle class and the ramifying consequences of the change.

  • Selznick, Phillip. 1952. The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Shows how the structural form of organization affects its cultural effectiveness.

  • Stinchcombe, Arthur. 1959. “Bureaucratic and Craft Administration of Production.” Administrative Science Quarterly. 4:168-187.
  • Demonstrates that the structural organization of work determines the sorts of products that can be produced.

  • White, Lynn, Jr. 1962. Medieval Technology and Social Change. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Chronicles the central role of changing technology in effecting productive systems.

  • Jacques, Ellul. 1964. The Technological Society. New York: Knopf.
  • Lays out the many ways in which differences in techniques rather than ideology underlie changes in society and culture.

  • White, Harrison C. and Cynthia A. White. 1965. Canvases and Careers. New York: Wiley.
  • Shows the close link between the organizational forms of artistic forms and both careers and the art produced.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1967. “Systems of Education and Systems of Thought.” International Social Science Journal 19:338-358.
  • Shows that knowledge does not depend on the ‘spirit of the age’ but on the particular habitus learned in specialized ‘intellectual clans’.

  • Hirsch, Paul. 1972. “Processing Fads and Fashions.” American Journal of Sociology 77:639-659.
  • Demonstrates that changes in popular music can be understood by examining the structure of the music industry.

  • Molotch, Harvey and Marilyn Lester. 1974 “News as Purposive Behavior.” American Sociological Review 39: 101-112.
  • News people do not simply report the news, but they decide what events should be reported and how they should be framed.

  • Crane, Diana. 1976. “Reward Systems in Art, Science and Religion.” American Behavioral Scientist 19:719-734.
  • Shows that reward systems available to cultural workers shape the sorts of cultural products produced.

  • Peterson, Richard A. 1976. “The production of culture: a prolegomenon.” Pp. 7-22 in Richard A. Peterson, editor. The Production of Culture. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  • Becker, Howard S. 1978. “Arts and Crafts.” American Journal of Sociology 83
  • Shows that the nature of cultural objects produced is a function of the expectations of the work environment in which they work.

  • Griswold, Wendy. 1981. “American Character and the American Novel.” American Journal of Sociology 86:740-65.
  • Humanists asserted that the many 19c American-authored novels about man-against-the-wilderness reflected an element of The American Character. In fact parlor romances were the most favored novels but the workings of copyright law account for the paucity of American writers of this genre.

D. The following are works that touch ALL six facets of the Production Perspective.

E. The following are works that use the Production of Culture paradigm though not all reference the perspective per se. Citations are grouped together by the facet which is of prime importance. A number deal with several other facets, so browse accordingly. The references cited below should be considered illustrative and not definitive or all inclusive. Please send suggestions for additions to:

Thanks to John Ryan, Paul DiMaggio, Shyon Baumann, N. Anand, Loic Wacquant and Gabriel Rossman who contributed suggestions for the list. Thanks also to Rossman for editing the list and adding the URLs. Baumann noted that “It’s tough to step back and identify when the PofC perspective is being used because it seems like a (the?) natural sociological stance today.”






August 26, 2009 at 4:31 am 1 comment

TextWrangler 3

| Gabriel |

Version 3.0 of TextWrangler came out yesterday. TextWrangler is an excellent text editor, especially for data cleaning, although I prefer TextMate for writing code.

August 25, 2009 at 1:27 pm

If it ain’t broke

| Gabriel |

I was running some code today and noticed the return message

(note: you are using old merge syntax; see [R] merge for new syntax)

I looked this up and saw that the syntax had changed from this in Stata 10 and earlier:

use macro, clear
merge macro_id using micro

to this in Stata 11:

use macro, clear
merge 1:m macro_id using micro

My first thought was, aha, they must have added the “1:1” and “1:m” options as a way to make a more general syntax that will combine the functionality of merge, joinby, and cross into one command. However on RTFM I see that:

if you think you need to perform an m:m merge, then we suspect you are wrong. If you would like to match every observation in the master to every observation in the using with the same values of the key variable(s), then you should be using joinby

So it turns out that the what “m:m” does is not to replicate joinby, but to allow a sort order merge within matches, a prospect that the Stata people warn is probably a bad idea (and I agree).

So the new version of merge doesn’t add any real functionality and it seems to be changed only as a reliability check, so that you don’t accidentally do a one-to-many when you think you’re doing many-to-one. Since that worry has never kept me up at night in the first place, I’m sticking with the old syntax (which has not been deprecated and still works, even without the “version” command).

(That aside I’ve been very happy with Stata 11 so far. It’s running really fast and most of the changes are clear improvements).

August 20, 2009 at 6:55 pm

SPPA 2008

| Gabriel |

The 2008 wave for the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts is now available at CPANDA. In the WSJ, Terry Teachout noticed one basic thing in the data, which is that nobody born since the Ford administration likes jazz. I’ve been waiting for this dataset for awhile because several years ago Pete Peterson and I noticed some weird differences between 92 to 02 (particularly as relates to the omnivore hypothesis) and we need a third data point to help us figure it out. Another cool thing about the dataset is that they now ask questions about literature by genre, which as seen in the literature based on SPPA music questions, is a good way to get at cultural capital type issues.

Anyway, one of the minor annoyances about SPPA is that it uses a convention of “1=Yes 2=No” whereas any native Stata speaker knows that this is an abomination and contrary to the divine rule that in all binary variables, 0 shall equal “no” and 1 shall equal “yes.” (For one thing, this makes it easier to sum the dummies into a count). As such I’ve written this code to fix these perverse variables. Just add it to the end of the do-file that CPANDA generates for you when you download the file.

*change all the yes/no vars to Stata convention where 0 is no and 1 is yes
*all variables that are similar to yes/no but slightly different (eg, PEDWWNTO) are left alone
*to avoid confusion by plugging into scripts that assume SPSS yes/no, rename these variables with suffix "r"
sum $yesnovars
*check that range is (1,2)

lab def yesno 0 "N" 1 "Y"

foreach var in $yesnovars {
	recode `var' 2=0 1=1 .=.
	lab val `var' yesno
	ren `var' `var'r

August 18, 2009 at 5:45 am 1 comment

Data collection

| Gabriel |

A few months ago I took this picture at a rest stop on I-40 near Tucumcari, New Mexico.

It struck me as pretty funny that the highway department would collect quality control data in this way. On ruminating about it, there’s a kind of McLuhanesque “medium is the message” quality to it in that a survey conducted with push buttons and lightbulbs is necessarily going to be terse and to the point. Compare this to your standard social science or marketing survey, gavaged with the “usual suspects” battery of demographic background questions, the interminable list of Likert-scale questions that are only slight paraphrases of each other, etc.

August 17, 2009 at 5:00 am 1 comment

Applied diffusion modeling

| Gabriel |

Via Slashdot, some mathematicians at the University of Ottowa have modeled zombie infestation. It’s basically your standard endogenous growth model with a cute application. Here’s the conclusion:

In summary, a zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilisation, unless it is dealt with quickly. While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often. As seen in the movies, it is imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble.

Here’s an even more “sophisticated” simulation, which allows spatial heterogeneity.

August 14, 2009 at 11:04 pm

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