Reply to Yesterday’s Comment

April 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm 9 comments

| Gabriel |

In the comments to a previous post, Don raised a series of points about the reform process and the nature of ASA governance. This seemed to be most directly in response to OW, who had her own response immediately below Don’s comment. Ezra and I also had some thoughts, which are largely similar to OW’s in emphasizing that we intend no animus and see the issues as largely structural. Since this is a reply to a public comment and largely concerns procedural issues of the nature of debate about the ASA, Ezra and I decided to post it publicly instead of sending it in a private e-mail.

Dear Don:

First, we’d like to thank you for your service to the discipline. We are sure that during your four years as treasury-secretary, you made many sacrifices and had to deal with all kinds of challenges, and obviously your motivations in taking on the job and working so hard at it were based on the purest of intentions. Indeed, it is our view that the ASA’s funding shortfall (if that is an accurate characterization for the rationale for the dues increase) is not a result of impure motivation but of an organization that has become institutionalized in such a way that it is not sufficiently transparent and inclusive. Individuals within such an organization – whether they be staff members or elected officers – may be capable, diligent, and having the best of intentions, but what they are up against is much bigger than themselves.

It is of course true that this manner of raising criticisms is somewhat unruly and the rules are unclear. For instance, is it right or wrong to use pseudyonyms? What to do about the fact that the questions come up here, there, and everywhere on different blogs?  We can imagine that from your perspective it can feel like playing whack-a-mole.

However please consider the situation as an organization theorist: do you really prefer a system in which concerns are channeled via private notes to the ASA president? We think it is not healthy for people to confine their concerns to “going through the proper channels” as isolated complainants. Rather, people who perceive a problem need to caucus amongst themselves to develop a common understanding of the problem and solutions to it. Sometimes they may discover that there are compelling answers for their concerns (for instance, the ASA has now provided a useful account about the interest-rate swap). At other times, they may collectively develop a more thorough understanding of issues that were not apparent at first (such as that journals are a profit center for the association, or that one of the main reasons the ASA is expensive is because it has adopted a mission of raising the public profile of the discipline), and these issue are then raised as policy issues for the membership to consider. As you noted, the ASA has an elected leadership; we would add that another positive externality of caucusing is to recruit informed, motivated candidates.

As to the issue of insulting the staff or officers, we certainly do not want to make ad hominem attacks and we have strived to avoid it. However there is the danger that too strenuous efforts to avoid giving offense will mean never criticizing strategies or policies. Doing so would create the danger of excessive status quo bias and possibly create structural rachet mechanisms. For instance, can we never question the necessity of the ASA providing a service lest the staff member who provides that service take offense?  And is it wrong to criticize a past decision lest the people responsible for it take offense?

Please consider in this regard: We can’t recall the last time that an ASA officer was elected on a reform ticket, or any kind of platform that involved criticism of how previous administrations have done things. In fact, we’re pretty sure that this has never happened.  There are a whole bunch of reasons that we think this has never happened, but we will refrain from offering them here.  Rather, we would just ask:  if we were to design a membership organization, wouldn’t we prefer one in which reform candidates have at least some possibility of existing, and in which the members are encouraged to gather in public spaces and debate the policies and practices of the organization?  The answer is obvious, and we apply it in every other organization or government in which we participate.  And if that is the answer, the ASA leadership should try to get past the feeling that they are being personally attacked, and realize that the firestorm of criticism is a very productive development for the organization, which should be channeled to reform the system. The first step in doing so is to provide (to the members as well as the leadership) a clear picture of how much the ASA spends on various services, how much it brings in through various revenue streams, and how this compares to peer organizations.  Having done so,we will all have a clearer picture of how the ASA works and whether it would be preferable to increase its revenues, decrease its ambitions, or some mix of the two.  And in this kind of environment, we can be confident that we will also make more productive uses of our resources such that we might realize our ambitions for sociology while using less of our members’ resources.

Yours,

Gabriel Rossman and Ezra Zuckerman

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Regressive Aspects of the ASA Leadership’s T&T Policy The one-drop ethnicity

9 Comments

  • 1. Jenn Lena  |  April 1, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Agreed.

    • 2. mike  |  April 4, 2011 at 11:21 pm

      +1

  • […] blogosphere has been discussing the ASA’s proposed dues increase (See here, here, here, and here). Many are skeptical that the dues increase is in the best interest of the members. But even those […]

  • 4. John Logan  |  April 12, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I appreciate the commentary about the ASA dues proposal, which I found only because I received emails from the ASA Executive Officer alerting Council members to the concerns that are being expressed.

    I’ve been on ASA Council for nearly three years. The idea of a dues increase was floated in the first year. It was linked to the concept of increasing progressivity. However the initial iterations of the proposal would actually raise most new revenue from people at the lower end of the distribution. It was claimed that greater progressivity could not be accomplished without raising revenue, and it was asserted that new revenue was not the motivation, not at all. However the initial proposals would actually have generated more revenue than the current proposal.

    A memo from the Executive Officer prepared for the 2/11 Council meeting stated a different position. “EOB has also been reluctant to ask Council to have the membership vote a change the dues structure until the association needed additional revenue. While the dues model circulated by Council member John Logan is a more progressive model, it does not provide the necessary increase in revenue.” Further, the memo states the view of EOB that “ASA will have difficulty maintaining a balanced budget and will not attain the cash reserve level its business requires without more revenue in the relatively near future (either from a reversal of current revenue trend lines, increased dues, new sources of revenue, or a combination of these).”

    The latter point is debatable, but ASA finances are stretched enough that without making changes in activities supported by the Association (which have naturally grown over the years) one could argue that increasing revenue from dues would provide necessary breathing room in case of future downturns. My own view is that the middle of a deep recession is not the time for this, but a majority voted to proceed this spring.

    Given the Council discussion (which everyone will eventually be able to review through the Minutes), I was surprised and disappointed that the Footnotes rationale didn’t even mention revenue. I hope that this failure will be rectified, though we are so close to the balloting that it may be too late.

    I will vote in favor of the dues increase anyway, because I think people in my bracket can afford it and the money will be carefully spent.

  • 5. Jenn Lena  |  April 12, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Thank you, John, for providing some insight into how the dues proposal evolved into its present form. I have just one clarification question: Is it your sense that the new revenue be spent (as you suggest in your final line) or will it be treated as cash reserves (as you suggest in your quote from the Executive Officer memo for the 2/11 meeting)?

    Of course, I expect the council will make an official declaration on this point (that is, if they want an educated voting constituency) but I would love it if you would clarify your personal sense of things.

  • 6. John Logan  |  April 12, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    I can’t say for sure how the funds will be used. This is for a future budget year that has not yet been considered. I would hope it would add to our reserves. However, this is entirely speculative. There is evidence that higher income people do not pay the posted amount (American Sociologist 1998) and it is possible that a dues increase will result in loss of members. So in the short run there might be no revenue gain.

  • 7. ezrazuckerman  |  April 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    John: Thanks so much for providing this background. It is very unfortunate that the rationale was provided in terms of progressiviy rather than revenue-raising. And of course, it is still a mystery what that revenue is for. I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that ASA services have “naturally grown” over the years. Quite obviously, growth in services results from strategic decisions rather than acts of God, and there is no reason we should be committed to a particular service just because they previously seem to have made sense. Especially when ASA dues are higher than those of peer associations and when budgets are tight, it seems imperative to reexamine those services and see if some of them should be dropped or scaled back before asking for members to pay higher dues. Finally, while you as a council member may have information that makes you comfortable trusting that the money will be well spent, I hope you can understand that there is no particular reason for the typical ASA member to have the same level of confidence– especially given the lack of disclosure by the ASA on its finances. I really hope the next communication from the ASA addresses these and related concerns. And given the timing, I see no particular reason it needs to wait till the April Footnotes.

  • 8. Corey Colyer  |  April 13, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I also thank John for the helpful information. But I’m having trouble squaring EBO’s proclaimed need for increased revenue with the information provided in the March Footnotes on the financial well being of the association.

    The footnotes article makes no reference to the need for increased revenue. In fact, it suggests that the Association’s finances are in good shape. So if council is being told that our current revenues are insufficient to maintain a balanced budget, why is the membership being told that our cash reserves are at “prudent” levels?

    As Ezra notes above, transparency should provide a clear picture of what the Association is doing with the funds; if our cash position is slipping we can correct that by raising revenue (b/c the membership desires a continuation of current services) or we can reduce services. I’d like to know what’s on the table before I cast a vote one way or the other.

  • 9. olderwoman  |  April 13, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    A couple of weeks ago, we got an email via section lists from ASA about the American Community Survey. If the ACS is truly being threatened (and I couldn’t tell from the email whether it was), and if having the ASA be in DC and be paid, in part, to lobby on our behalf about things like that, then I support paying more dues for the associated expenses. But I would still like transparency and open discussion about this.


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