“Ideas Matter” is the slogan of the Boston Review. This is a controversial claim in the social sciences. (Disclosure: I write a column for BR; I wear a tee-shirt of theirs that says “Ideas Matter.”) Do ideas really matter? How much do they shape individual behavior or society compared to material circumstances such as economic incentives, physical constraints, and military force?

Arguments about how much ideas matter have addressed broad historical issues, such as explaining the economic rise of the West – was it the “Protestant Ethic” (Max Weber), or the West’s geographical advantages (Jared Diamond)?  – and differences between Asian and European societies – are they about Confucianism vs Greek thought, collectivism vs individualism, the timing of industrialization, or something else? Arguments over individual differences in behavior similarly polarize around the issue of whether they are to be explained by what people think or by people’s circumstances, as in the debates over the “culture of poverty.” Ideas matter, across these sorts of debates, to the extent to which they shape how people understand the world, value their options, and are guided by social norms.

This post however, is about a different way that ideas can matter: by re-shaping the “reality” to match the idea. Ideas can become, in the phrase developed by the great sociologist Robert K. Merton “self-fulfilling prophecies.” Ideas about the world, although initially false, can become true – and consequential – because people believe them to be true. Consider a few examples from psychology and economics.

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As many Americans anticipate the likely nomination by a major party of a woman for president – the New Republic cover of July 14 calls Hillary Clinton “Inevitable” – it is worth pausing to reflect on how women’s participation in politics has changed over the course of American history. In eras before Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Nancy Pelosi, participating in politics was not only nearly impossible for women but was also considered a violation of what it meant to be a woman.

A just-published article in the Journal of the Early Republic by Emily J. Arendt illustrates the stark contrast between then and now. Arendt tells the story of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, “the first female voluntary association in the United States,” formed in 1780 to assist Continental soldiers. The domestic nature of its work and awestruck reaction observers had to activist women underlines the era’s low expectations for women’s participation in civic life. Those low expectations lasted – despite the notoriety of early feminists – well into the twentieth century, making the last half-century a sharp historical departure for women in politics.

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Government Works

For such a smart guy, New York Times “Upshot” Editor David Leonhardt made a surprising goof in the July 15th issue, writing, “When the federal government is good, it’s very, very good. When it’s bad (or at least deeply inefficient), it’s the norm.” One can understand how the goof – the snarky comment about “the norm” – happened. Leonhardt was focusing on special, targeted initiatives for the poor, many of which fail. But he missed the forest for the trees — or the government for the programs.

Americans commonly do not notice the successful operation of government, including the federal level; they, too, snarkily diss government. They do not notice the success because, like air, is all around them and taken for granted. To say government is generally successful is, of course, not to say government operations are optimal. We should strive for A-grade performance, not settle for B grades. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that attaining A grades for the government would call for more of it.

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In a just-released preview of his new book, Narrative and Collective Action, Public Policy scholar Frederick W. Mayer of Duke discusses the power of the well-told story for leaders of social movements and politicians. Starting with the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mayer recounts how effective leaders deploy stories rather than analyses. Stories compel us, he says, for almost biological reasons; they can draw people to collective action – if they are the right stories, ones that resonate with the listeners’ biases. Perhaps by imaginatively making us actors in the unfolding excitement, stories move us to action.

For many social scientists, stories, particularly personal stories, are “mere” anecdotes. They drive us nuts by driving out data. Commonly, undergraduates will respond to a well-established finding in the social sciences – say, that rich people are happier than poor, that racial discrimination persists, that children face better odds if they live with two parents – by raising a hand and saying, “But I have an aunt who…” or “I know this guy who….” More importantly, the public persuasiveness of a personal story well told trumps tables of data anytime. Ronald Reagan taught me that.

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Back – it seems long ago but really fewer than six years – when Barack Obama was elected president, much of the nation hoped that we were in for a new, “post-racial” age. Defeated GOP candidate John McCain himself spoke in those terms in his concession speech: “ This is an historic election . . . we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation . . . . America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of [an earlier] time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States.” Some whites feared that Obama would try to benefit his race, but (to the chagrin of many in the black community) he steered in almost the opposite direction, a post-racial one.

Yet the new color-blind age was not to be. For one, the financial disaster Obama inherited disproportionately damaged African Americans, widening economic gaps that had been narrowing. For another, the politics of racial resentment was too tempting a tool not to be used. Ironically, Obama’s elections themselves were only tilted a bit by racial attitudes; those who voted by race, pro or con, were already voting Democrat and Republican accordingly (see here).

But we remain far from the post-racial dream. This post is another look-see at the status of race relations, presenting a few recent studies that show how, though the progress Senator McCain noted has certainly been made, race still matters — a lot. And then I return to the politics.

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For several years some psychologists have been arguing that Americans (especially American youth) of the modern era are more self-absorbed and self-interested than were Americans of an earlier era. (“Earlier” can mean pre-21st century, or pre-1960s, or pre-20th century, or whenever.) Much of the evidence they offer – heavily debated – come from compilations of personality surveys taken by college students. More recently, some researchers have offered evidence based on counting word types. The latest instance is an April paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (h/t Robb Willer) that codes and tabulates words in presidential State of the Union addresses to make the same point. This paper is, frankly, a trifle. But it does provide an occasion for commenting on the general thesis and for extracting the serious and in some ways valid thread in this line of work.

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Virtuous Debt

Pawnshop, 1940

Pawnshop, 1940

In the many postmortems of the Great Recession, a common diagnosis pointed to the consumerist, spendthrift, live-for-today borrowers that Americans had presumably become — and to the highly-indebted government those Americans had voted into office. The crisis revealed, some observers argued, Americans’ fall from an earlier, sober, accounts-balancing virtue. These critics, I argue in my latest Boston Review column, incorrectly explain the crisis, underestimate the importance of debt, and misremember American history. See here.


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