The trade-off of having insider access vs. passing along bad information

Several journalists are fighting over what boils down to this: can you have access to political insiders and still pass along correct information and/or critical analysis?

Is political science a rigorous field that journalists ought to tap when trying to understand and explain what’s happening in American politics? Will doing so imbue them with a structural understanding of events that’s superior to the armchair analysis provided by journalists and sources who overestimate their own expertise? Or are Washington, D.C., political journalists excessively beholden to so-called experts and their impenetrable jargon, people with no understanding of America beyond an insular bubble, whose track record of awful recommendations includes the Vietnam War, a conflict run by “the best and the brightest”?

Those are rough outlines of the positions taken by two high-profile journalists, Ezra Klein and Thomas Frank, during a much-discussed exchange on American political journalism. They’re actually arguing over a subset of the field that focuses on describing politics as it currently is. My typical focus has been on how Americans ought to govern themselves, rather than the depressing business of how they actually do govern themselves, so I’m commenting here as something of an outsider. In time, we “oughts” hope to persuade Americans to give Klein and Frank a less depressing status-quo to fight over. But there are so many people thwarting us.

Drawing on nine years in the nation’s capitol, Klein acknowledges one class of obstacles. “Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research),” he explained, “but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma.” Sweet validation! I’ve often suspected that official Washington is populated by enough disingenuous, misinformation-spreading hucksters to fill an underground container of organic waste. No one has better standing to render this judgment than Klein, whose earnest, tireless embrace of deep-in-the-weeds wonkery is unsurpassed in his generation. He wouldn’t assert a whole cesspool of intellectual waste product without having seen plenty of specific examples…

It’s such a wonderful quote: “Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research), but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma.” Kudos to Klein for saying what many insiders would never acknowledge. But if even powerful insiders who know that solidly enough to confidently declare it for publication won’t name names, the cesspool will never be drained.

A tough problem to overcome: insider access leads to scoops on information and comfy relationships. At the same time, the public might be better served by outsiders who aren’t so beholden to particular political figures or camps.

One solution could avoid having to drain the swamp of insiders by balancing insider and outsider perspectives. This is where the power of a news organization could come in. Let’s say the New York Times has reporters both with insider connections as well as people who can take the broad view. The newspaper could work to balance these accounts, not presenting one or the other as better as each other but combining them to give a more complete picture. This reminds me of the job of an ethnographer who seeks to balance the insider perspective (participating in the group/culture under study) but maintaining an outsider perspective (avoiding “going native” and retaining the ability to critically analyze the situation). It might be too much to ask this of any one journalist who has to find some way to get information but a media organization could help pull the pieces together.

Trader turned sociologist writes book about Goldman Sachs

A new book on Goldman Sachs is written from an interesting perspective: a trader for the firm turned sociology PhD student.

After writing a paper about organizational change, a professor encouraged him to write about Wall Street.

“He said, ‘No one in sociology understands banks, so you can make a contribution in that area,’ ” Mr. Mandis said…

The essence of his argument is that Goldman came under a variety of pressures that resulted in slow, incremental changes to the firm’s culture and business practices, resulting in the place being much different from what it was in 1979, when the bank’s former co-head, John Whitehead, wrote its much-vaunted business principles.

These changes included the shift to a public company structure, a move that limited Goldman executives’ personal exposure to risk and shifted it to shareholders. The I.P.O. also put pressure on the bank to grow, causing trading to become a more dominant focus. And Goldman’s rapid growth led to more potential for conflicts of interest and not putting clients’ interests first, Mr. Mandis says.

More sociological analysis of the financial industry, particularly from the inside of important firms, is needed. Considering their outsized importance on the global economy as well as global cities, it is a little surprising such books aren’t more common.

The review is fairly favorable, calling the book “accessible” and “clearly written.” However, the review doesn’t hint at criticism of Goldman Sachs. Given the opinions of many sociologists, is that would many sociologists would expect when reading such a book?

Use data in order to describe Anacostia neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

A recent NPR report described the changes taking place in the Anacostia neighborhood in Washington, D.C. In addition to calling Washington “Chocolate City” (setting off another line of debate), one of the residents quoted in the story is unhappy with how the neighborhood was portrayed:

Kellogg wrote that “in recent years, even areas like Anacostia — a community that was virtually all-black and more often than not poor — have seen dramatic increases in property values. The median sales price of a home east of the river — for years a no-go zone for whites and many blacks — was just under $300,000 in 2009, two to three times what it was in the mid-’90s.” After profiling one black resident who moved out, Kellogg spoke with David Garber, a “newcomer” among those who “see themselves as trailblazers fighting to preserve the integrity of historic Anacostia.”

But Garber and others didn’t like the portrayal, as even WAMU’s Anna John noted in her DCentric blog, where she headlined a post “‘Morning Edition’ Chokes On Chocolate City.”

On his own blog And Now, Anacostia, Garber wrote that the NPR story “was a dishonest portrayal of the changes that are happening in Anacostia. First, his evidence that black people are being forced out is based entirely on the story of one man who chose to buy a larger and more expensive house in PG County than one he was considering near Anacostia. Second, he attempts to prove that Anacostia is becoming ‘more vanilla’ by talking about one white person, me — and I don’t even live there anymore.”

Garber also complained that Kellogg “chose to sensationalize my move out of Anacostia” by linking it to a break-in at his home, which Garber says was unrelated to his move. Garber says Kellogg chose to repeat the “canned story” of Anacostia — which We Love D.C. bluntly calls a “quick and dirty race narrative.”

Garber continues, “White people are moving into Anacostia. So are black people. So are Asian people, Middle Eastern people, gay people, straight people, and every other mix. And good for them for believing in a neighborhood in spite of its challenges, and for meeting its hurdles head on and its new amenities with a sense of excitement.”

This seems like it could all be solved rather easily: let us just look at the data of what is happening in this neighborhood. I have not listened to the initial NPR report. But it would be fairly easy for NPR or Garber or anyone else to look up some Census figures regarding this neighborhood to see who is moving in or out. If the NPR story is built around Garber’s story (and some other anecdotal evidence), then it is lacking. If it has both the hard data but the story is one-sided or doesn’t give the complete picture, then this is a different issue. Then, we can have a conversation about whether Garber’s story is an appropriate or representative illustration or not.

Beyond the data issue, Garber also hints at another issue: a “canned story” or image of a community versus what residents experience on the ground. This is a question about the “character” of a location and the perspective of insiders (residents) and outsiders (like journalists) could differ. But both perspectives could be correct; each view has merit but has a different scope. A journalist is liable to try to place Anacostia in the larger framework of the whole city (or perhaps the whole nation) while a resident is likely working with their personal experiences and observations.

Sociologist immerses himself in dumpster diving

Sociologist Jeff Ferrell spends “a couple of hours each day” dumpster diving. Here is some of what he has discovered while dumpster diving:

“There is a stereotype that (dumpster diving) is done mostly by the homeless. Yes, many were. But they were generous and helpful to me and helped me survive. But they were only one group doing this.”

Ferrell said there are several categories of trash pickers. “The good old boys,” he says, are an ethnic mix of mostly older males who drive pickup trucks and scrounge for scrap metal.

Some, Ferrell said, are immigrants from Mexico and Central America who came looking for the American dream and were left with “scraps of the American dream.”

Another group Ferrell describes a “freegans,” people who came out of the vegan movement and consider eating thrown away food less harmful to the earth than “going to Walmart to eat a vegetarian sandwich.”

Alternative artists also make frequent dumpster dives, searching for scrap metal, broken glass fragments and other material.

Ferrell’s friend, Dan Phillips, builds low-income homes in Texas made entirely from salvaged items.

“These people are not lazy, ignorant and shiftless,” said Ferrell. “They are remarkably resourceful and smart.”

The last group of participants, said the professor, are those who shop retail and don’t have to dumpster dive to survive.

This is not an area that many Americans spend much time thinking about but texts like Ferrell’s Empire of Scrounge and the 2001 book, Rubbish!, written by two archaeologists working on the University of Arizona’s garbage project, shed some light on what happens to what we throw away.

It is also interesting to note that Ferrell seems to become quite involved in his research. The article also mentions his research time of five years as a graffiti writer (published in the book Crimes of Style).  In both of these instances, studying dumpster diving and graffiti, it would be near impossible to conduct a typical survey or even a broad range of interviews due to the more hidden and deviant nature of these activities. Additionally, this consistent insider perspective can provide much different information including insights into motivations and social hierarchies within these activities.