Samuel Barber asks what might happen “If Mayors Ruled the World”

Richard Florida interviews Samuel Barber about his forthcoming book titled If Mayors Ruled the World. Here is why Barber thinks mayors are increasingly important:

The problem here is that political sovereignty has passed to the economic sector, where global financial capital and multinational corporations exercise an undue influence on both domestic and international affairs. Cities share jurisdiction over the economic resources of the city — where commercial, financial and information capital are concentrated — but that jurisdiction is limited by the emerging sovereignty of economics over politics.

Where the city is able to exercise control of economic resources it must live with the superior jurisdiction of nation-states, who may interdict cities trying to collaborate across borders. A city boycotting goods made by child labor in a developing country may be held in violation of the WTO’s fair trade rules (which bar certain kinds of boycotts); or a city trying to control guns may be ruled in violation of the right to bear arms, as happened recently when the Supreme Court invalidated the District of Columbia’s gun control rules…

What I want to suggest is that these myriad global networks, and the inherent disposition of cities to cooperate, exemplify the deep capacity of cities to work together across borders, and justify my claim that a global “parliament of mayors” could achieve a good deal of concord voluntarily both on common policies and on common actions. This is what the networks are already doing, and what a formalization of the process could achieve. The key is a “soft” bottom-up approach to cooperation organized around “glocality” rather than a top-down “legal mandate” approach of the kind we associate with (and fear from) “world government.”…

While the details of a parliament of mayors would be worked out at an inaugural convening of interested cities, I propose some guidelines that could be considered. That there be three parliaments/audiaments per annum, each in a different (voluntary) city, and each representing 300 cities chosen by lot from a list of all cities wishing to attend. This would allow up to 900 cities per annum to participate. Given that all common actions would be voluntary.

The starting point for this conversation is the growing power, particularly economic, of the top global cities. While these cities operate within nation-states, they have economies and populations that rival nations.

Several thoughts about this:

1. While national leaders also talk about the economy and jobs, it seems like mayors may have more direct influence on bringing jobs to their domain. I would guess that overall, mayors are more pro-business and are always looking to attract top corporations and new firms. Perhaps mayors have to be more pragmatic about jobs and business climate as their connections to the business interests in their city are very important.

2. Let’s say Barber’s ideas about a “parliament of mayors” come to pass. What might actually come out of this? Mayors in the largest cities already meet and try to share best practices. Perhaps Barber thinks the mayors can forge stronger economic ties between their respective cities? Perhaps mayors can band together to put pressure on national governments?

3. I would be interested to know how the political clout of mayors around the world compares. Certain mayors in the United States are well-known but is this primarily because of the size of the cities in which they were elected or are their dynamic movers and shakers from smaller cities as well. Are mayors in different parts of the world more important or less important compared to US mayors? I could imagine that in countries with weaker governments mayors might have more relative influence.

Do politicians understand how polls work?

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed 80% of Americans do not think their family is financially better than four years ago:

Just 20 percent of Americans feel their family’s financial situation is better today than it was four years ago. Another 37 percent say it is worse, and 43 percent say it is about the same.

When asked about these specific results, Harry Reid has this to say about polls in general:

“I’m not much of a pollster guy. As everyone knows, there isn’t a poll in America that had me having any chance of being re-elected, but I got re-elected,” he told TheDC.

“I think this poll is so meaningless. It is trying to give the American people an idea of what 300 million people feel by testing several hundred people. I think the poll is flawed in so many different ways including a way that questions were asked. I don’t believe in polls generally and specifically not in this one.”

The cynical take on this is that Reid and politicians in general like polls when they are supportive of their positions and don’t like them when they do not favor them. If this is true, then you might expect politicians to cite polls when they are good but to ignore them or even try to discredit them if they are bad.

But, I would like to ask a more fundamental question: are politicians any better than average Americans in understanding polls? Reid seems to suggest that this poll has two major problems: it doesn’t ask questions of enough people to really understand all Americans (a sampling issue) and the questions are poor which leads to biased answers (an issue of how the questions are worded). Is Reid right? From the information at the bottom of the CBS story about the poll, it seems pretty standard:

This poll was conducted by telephone from March 7-11, 2012 among 1009 adults nationwide.

878 interviews were conducted with registered voters, including 301 with voters who said they plan to vote in a Republican primary. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The margin of error for the sample of registered voters could be plus or minus three points and six points for the sample of Republican primary voters. The error for subgroups may be higher. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

Yes, the number of respondents seems low to be able to talk about all Americans but this is how all major polls work: you select a representative sample based on standard demographic factors (gender, race, age, etc.) and then you estimate how close the survey results are to the actual results if we asked all American adults these questions. This is why all polls have a margin of error: if you ask less people, you are less confident in the generalizability of the results (which is why there is a larger 6% gap for the smaller Republican primary voters subgroup) and if you ask more people, you can be more confident (though the payoff of asking more people usually diminishes between 1200-1500 respondents so it is not worth asking more at some point).

I don’t think Reid sounds very good in this soundbite: he attacks the scientific basis of polls with common objections. While polls may not “feel right” and may contradict anecdotal or personal evidence, they can be done well and with a good sample of around 1,000 people, you can be confident that the results are generalizable to the American people. If Reid does understand how polls work, he could raise other issues. For example, he could insist that this is a one-time poll and you would want to measure this again and again to see how it changes (perhaps this is an unusual trough?) or you would want other polling organizations to ask the same question and triangulate the results between the surveys (like what Real Clear Politics does by taking averages of polls). Or he could suggest that this question doesn’t matter much because asking about four years ago is a rather arbitrary point and philosophically, does life always have to get better over time?

“85% of economists agree that local and state governments should not subsidize professional sports”

The Freakonomics blog has a discussion about whether cities and states should help pay for professional sports arenas and the weight of academic evidence says no:

So we have two perspectives and one question: Do sports generate jobs and economic growth?

This is a question that has been addressed numerous times by economists.  And these studies – summarized by economists Rob Baade and Victor Matheson — tend to reveal two answers.  When the study is completed by paid consultants prior to the public money being spent, the benefits from sports are numerous are large. However, when independent researchers – who are not paid by professional sports teams or leagues – look for these benefits after the fact, evidence of more jobs and economic growth are hard to find…

Given these three effects, the empirical evidence suggests quite strongly that sports do not create many jobs or generate much economic growth.  And such evidence has proven to be quite persuasive.  In fact, a survey of economists by Gregory Mankiw noted that 85% of economists agree that local and state governments should not subsidize professional sports. Mankiw also notes that only five issues have more agreement among economists.

But with all of this evidence, why would the city of Sacramento recently vote to spend money to build a new arena so that the Sacramento Kings would stay in the city?

Such a story clearly suggests that the Kings used the threat of re-location to elicit a substantial subsidy from the people of Sacramento.  Although the Kings do not have much economic impact on Sacramento, the Kings do make basketball fans happy.  And if they departed, those same people would be very unhappy with Kevin Johnson.  Consequently, the Mayor has an incentive to do what he can to keep the Kings in Sacramento (although it not entirely clear if making the non-basketball fans unhappy is good politics).

I think this is correct: no one want to be the politician that allows the popular local sports franchise to leave town. The stakes are even higher in places like Sacramento where the Kings are the only professional franchise so if they left, the city isn’t even on the professional sports map. A politician who let this happen might be punished by opponents and by voters (though they too would then have to go against all of the evidence from studies). I think this is similar logic to what happens in tax breaks debates like the one recently in Illinois: while it is hard to justify giving wealthy corporations a tax break to stay in Illinois, who wants to be the politician who let several thousand good jobs go to another state?

I also think that while this can be studied in economic terms, i.e., does helping to build a stadium lead to economic benefits for the city, or in political terms, this misses some of the point: having a sports team is also about status. It makes a city feel like a major league city. While perhaps we could argue that Sacramento has enough going on being the state capital of the country’s largest state, the average citizen might connect more to the sports team. When national TV crews come to televise a game, fans feel like they are being recognized (see this post as an example of this). With a sports teams, politicians and business people can take big wigs to games, signalling that their city is really part of the big time, even if the economic data doesn’t necessarily bear this out. While I am skeptical of arguments that people in Cleveland are worse off because their sports teams haven’t won, having a big sports team can mask other issues or at least help people ignore them. This is more difficult to measure than economic benefits but this cultural dimension still matters when these decisions are made.

(This post was prompted by part of a TrueHoop post from yesterday.)

A new world where weak social ties can spread videos like Kony 2012

The Kony 2012 video has been watched over 65 million times on YouTube. While there has been much commentary about how the video lacks nuance, there is another interesting issue to consider: how exactly did it spread so quickly? One columnist suggests the sociological idea of weak ties provides some insights:

Many years ago, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published a seminal article in the American Journal of Sociology on the special role of “weak ties” in networks – links among people who are not closely bonded – as being critical for spreading ideas and for helping people join together for action.

An examination of the spread of the Kony video suggests that one weak tie in particular may have been critical in launching it to its present eminence. Her name is Oprah Winfrey and she tweeted: “Have watched the film. Had them on show last year” on 6 March, after which the graph of YouTube views of the video switches to the trajectory of a bat out of hell. Winfrey, it turns out, has 9.7 million followers on Twitter…

In this online world of weak ties, famous tweeters like Oprah Winfrey have more influence than they have ever had before. Even though television shows or movies might be larger cultural works, new developments like Twitter and Facebook allow anyone with some influence to reach a large number of people quickly. With Winfrey located closer to the middle of a global cultural network, her suggestion can resound throughout the world.

The same columnist also considers what might happen as the result of these weak ties. In other words, what does it matter that over 65 million people saw this video?

The really interesting question, though, is whether this kind of development will further ratchet up the pressure on democratic politicians. The last two decades have shown how 24/7 media coverage of foreign atrocities can lead western leaders to morally driven interventionism.

We’ll have to see how this plays out. The Kony video itself claims that these sorts of media efforts work as they already pushed the United States to send 100 military advisers to central Africa. Additionally, they say this happened “because the people demanded it.” But they also suggest their viral efforts are not enough: the video talks about targeting a collection of political and cultural leaders, “20 culture-makers and 12 policy-makers.” Take these figures, such as Oprah Winfrey or Condoleezza Rice, out of the campaign and would as many people, in the public or on Capitol Hill, pay attention? Could just the public put enough pressure on governments through social media or viral videos? Also, the video itself is quite a production (a number of people involved in making it, per the credits on the YouTube video) from an established organization. This is a little different from a 10 year making a video in her bedroom.

This is not to take away from the fact that this videos has reached a tremendous amount of people. But if we want to understand why all those people paid attention, the story is much more complicated. Mass numbers can have an influence but powerful people are more centrally located within social networks and have more influential ties. If Kony 2012 is going to have legs and lead to lasting change, weak ties may not be enough.

“Scientists and scientific studies have a minimal effect on public opinion” about global warming

While one might think that scientific data and reports are convincing, a sociologist argues that these matter little in the debate over global warming:

“Scientists and scientific studies have a minimal effect on public opinion,” says Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, lead author of a new climate attitude study in the Climatic Change journal. “What really drives public opinion on climate change are the ways that political elites describe the science.”…

In the current Climatic Change journal, Brulle and colleagues looked at 74 public opinion surveys from 2002 to 2010, in a bid to figure out the contradiction in opinions between experts and everyone else…

“The science doesn’t matter because the science isn’t the real issue,” Brulle adds. “It’s about politics and money.” All we have with climate change, he suggests, is politicians taking sides in an economic debate over whether we should spend money to address climate change, or not (with one side very strongly opposed), and hiding behind a smokescreen of debate about settled science to avoid making those issues clear.

Brulle is suggesting that instead of debating how much we should respond to global warming (which seems like an interesting debate to have in itself), the debate has turned to the credibility of the actual science. So if conservatives admit that there is warming, then they would have to admit that money needs to be spent on fighting it and they don’t want to do that? There seem to be two issues here: the actual data and then the value judgments about what should be done.

I’ve been seeing reports on Brulle’s findings for several months now. If he is correct, are politicians taking notes about how to change public debates? At the same time, I imagine it is more difficult to make the case for spending money on environmental concerns with such economic issues (see the Keystone pipeline debate).

I wonder if there are other areas where there is something similar going on and scientific studies have little impact. If there is a common view that science is the province of liberals and elitists, how many people will trust what it has to say?

What happens when Tim Pawlenty comes to your sociology class

Courtesy of modern technology, you could have been following a live Twitter stream chronicling what happens when former Minnesota governor and former Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty visits a sociology class at the University of Kansas:

“23 minutes later and I have no idea what he’s talking about,” tweeted Ray. “Freedom, drugs, a kickass pool, meatpacking, MLK.”

It sounded interesting, so I called Ray for an after-action report. The room, he said, was somewhat full and somewhat interested.

“A few hundred students are enrolled in class,” he said, “but maybe a hundred show up. I figure that a lot of the people in the class are freshmen who are just taking it to take it. They probably know Romney, they know Santorum, but Pawlenty dropped out so early that they might not know him.”

But what did the great man say? “Somebody asked him what he thought about Santorum’s victories yesterday,” remembered Gray. “He congratulated him, but he brought up the fact that John McCain lost 19 states and still won the nomination.” Gray paused. “It sounded like a backhanded compliment. And he referred to Minnesota as one of the smaller states, in terms of political power.”

A few quick thoughts:

1. Should we trust a single student’s report in a large 100-level lecture class where roughly half the students don’t attend? I always find it interesting to hear what students remember or find noteworthy.

2. Politicians are now tracked at almost every turn.

3. What exactly does Tim Pawlenty know about sociology? The class is titled “American Identity”…was Pawlenty talking about what he thinks this identity is? I would be really curious to hear (1) what Pawlenty thinks sociology is and (2) whether he thinks sociology has any value.

4. It sounds like Pawlenty was on campus to talk about how the still-to-be determined candidate for President will run a campaign and govern.

Find the social mobility of the American Dream in Canada

One analysis of social mobility in Canada suggests the American Dream can be found north of the border:

Yes, the U.S. is richer, but it’s also significantly more unequal, and a lot less mobile. Inequality is inherited, much like hair and eye colour.

The conclusion is based partly on the work of University of Ottawa professor Miles Corak, a social policy economist and former director of family and labour research at Statistics Canada…

“What distinguishes the two countries is what’s happening at the tails,” Prof. Corak explained in an interview. “Rich kids grow up to be rich adults and poor kids stay poor. In Canada, that’s not so much the case.”…

But it’s a country of extremes, and life is good if you’re at the top in the United States. A child’s chance of staying at the wealth pinnacle is much greater than in Canada.

While I’m sure people will bring up some important differences between the United States and Canada including a much bigger population in the US plus a different history of immigration, this is still interesting. One of the primary ideas of the American Dream is that anyone can get ahead if they work hard and take advantage of the opportunities in front of them or that they create. Recent research suggests this is not as available to American citizens as the popular image might have people believe. Moving from the bottom to the top is actually rare and a lot of people are simply stuck in place.

It would be interesting to hear politicians talk in more depth about this. One common answer is to help American students go to college as the degree will help compete in the new information economy. But then we get into questions into who should pay for this college education and how schools before college need to be improved so that students are prepared for college. Job training programs are another popular answer though I’m not sure they are helping a large number of Americans. Are there other, better answers or is this a minefield a lot of politicians would try to avoid outside of platitudes about helping people reach the American Dream? Could a politician even cite this recent research about limited mobility without being vilified?

Just asking: is there a “Canadian Dream” that is similar to the “American Dream”?