Consciousness and Congress; Policy Networks and Entrepreneurship: January reading and reflections

Should an academic write non-academically? I’ve gotten both of these pieces of advice in my first semester of graduate school:

  1. Don’t have a blog. When you look for academic jobs, people will wonder why you wasted your time writing a blog instead of publishing papers.
  2. Have a blog. Writing publicly is the only way to sharpen your writing skills and get into the practice of synthesizing all the things you’re reading.

As is evident, I’ve decided to follow the second stream of advice. So much so, in fact, that I have prevented myself from reading all the fun papers on my desk until I take some steps to record, if not synthesize, what I’ve been reading. Here is the list for the first three weeks of January–with a particular eye toward what a young policymaker or candidate might take away from each:

On Consciousness 

Science is pushing hard toward a better understanding of the human brain. Much of this research overlaps with conversations about artificial intelligence. Two questions for policymakers to consider:

  • We will increasingly be making governing decisions by algorithm–deciding who has access to what services, and even what laws to pass, based on computer models. Who gets to determine what those algorithms are? Who gets to see what’s in them?
  • As we learn more and more about the consciousness of non-human animals (and push toward consciousness in non-organic systems) how do we decide who gets what rights?

Readings: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist by Christof Koch and the Stanford-based 100-Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100).

On networks and policymaking

I’ve continued to be surprised at how little has been written on network analysis and public policy. In fact, I was disappointed last spring to discover that the chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Public Policy on “Policy Networks” looks at groups of people that call themselves “policy networks” instead of starting from the realization that all policymakers, like the rest of us, are embedded in networks of social relationships that reinforce and alter our preferences and behaviors. One exception is The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives, which quantifies just how much more partisan (and ineffective) the US Congress has become. Here’s a visualization from that paper that shows just how bad it’s gotten: 

Blue dots (also called ‘nodes’)= Democratic representatives; red = Republicans. Lines between them (called ‘edges’) represent bills they’ve worked together on. As you can see, Ds and Rs seldom worked together in recent Congresses. Image via this WaPo article.

Explaining Policy Ties in Presidential Congresses: A network analysis of bill initiation data looks at similar data from Chile and Argentina–finding that there, party membership wasn’t the only thing that determined whether legislators work together. Representatives were also more likely to work together on legislation if they had spent time together on committees, and when their districts were located near each other geographically.

At some point, I would hope to apply some of this type of study to look at migration. Migrants’ social networks and weak ties: accessing resources and constructing relationships post-migration is one of the few papers that does. The thing that jumped out to me from this article was that even in network analysis, that people tend to create categories and buckets for things and people that often obscure, rather than clarify.

On entrepreneurship and policymaking 

One project I’m working on this semester is to have a look at the intersection of entrepreneurship and policymaking. To what extent do (or could) policymakers act entrepreneurially? And what might people who research policymakers learn from people who research entrepreneurs? Effectuation, Causation and Bricolage is a fantastic paper that lays out three ways of understanding entrepreneurial behavior, including one–effectual logic–that we employed with our entrepreneurs at UnLtd USA. Policy entrepreneurs and the role of advanced cognition in policy innovation is a rough cut at applying that logic to policymaking (though, like with most Will Smith movies, the pitch is more compelling than the delivery). 

Identity and Politics

There’s a lot of talk right now about identity politics right now. In his book In the Name of Identity, Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf argues that ethnic identities are the source of much evil and pain; and to suggest that humans have a single, overriding, core identity is wrong and dangerous. Rather, we should build and maintain a “multiplicity of allegiances,” the way that French ethnographer Alex  de Tocqueville observed Americans doing in the early 19th century. A couple of salient quotes from Maalouf:

Ethnic massacres are always backed up by fine excuses–justice, equality, independence, the rights of the people, democracy, the fight against privilege and so on.

Whenever the political climate becomes racist, totalitarian or based on the notion of unity through community, the role of democrats everywhere is no longer to support the preferences of the majority but to see that the rights of the oppressed are respected, if necessary in the face of numerical superiority.

Fate is to man as the wind is to a sailing boat. The helmsman cannot decide the direction or the force of the wind, but he can manipulate his own sails. And that can make an enormous difference.

With regret,

There were a few literary casualties along the way, sadly. For the third time, I gave up trying to plow through Brothers Karamazov. I read the introduction but couldn’t bring myself to dig into Gödel, Escher, Bach, another book on consciousness. Then there were all these, which I had to turn into the library before I could get to them:

… in addition to Dewey’s The Public and its Problems. 

What am I missing? What am I wrong about? What should I learn next?

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