The Averaged American

by Kieran Healy on December 11, 2006

Aha, via “Andrew Gelman”: I see that a book I’ve been waiting for has just been published. Sarah Igo’s The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public is a study of the history of quantitative social research in America, documenting how Americans came to think of themselves as the subjects of social science, and how the categories of survey research got embedded in our culture. From the publisher:

bq. Igo argues that modern surveys, from the Middletown studies to the Gallup Poll and the Kinsey Reports, projected new visions of the nation: authoritative accounts of majorities and minorities, the mainstream and the marginal. They also infiltrated the lives of those who opened their doors to pollsters, or measured their habits and beliefs against statistics culled from strangers. Survey data underwrote categories as abstract as “the average American” and as intimate as the sexual self. With a bold and sophisticated analysis, Igo demonstrates the power of scientific surveys to shape Americans’ sense of themselves as individuals, members of communities, and citizens of a nation. Tracing how ordinary people argued about and adapted to a public awash in aggregate data, she reveals how survey techniques and findings became the vocabulary of mass society–and essential to understanding who we, as modern Americans, think we are.

I knew Sarah in grad school and heard her present parts of the project once or twice. It seemed to me then that she was going to write an absolutely first-class book. Apparently it’s just won the Social Science History Association’s President’s book award, so it looks like I was right.

Charging for consumption of public goods.

by Harry on December 11, 2006

This is the first year that we’ve contributed to the local NPR affiliate. I listen to NPR a fair bit, and so does my wife, but, unlike her, I’d happily do without it myself. It enhances my life, but not in a way that I value enough that I would pay if they turned it into a subscription-only service (she made the contribution, then, obviously).

I probably spend a similar amount of time listening to BBC7. On my new website I mention that it could have been dreamed up just for me – the best of BBC radio’s irresponsibly depleted archives, and an old school friend of mine is their best presenter; a joy. I’d be embarrassed to admit how much I’d be willing to pay if they made it subscription-only.

So, what if some super-national governmental agency decided to charge me to pay for the enjoyment I get from NPR and BBC7? Would I have a reasonable complaint against it? Just to put one issue aside – I wouldn’t complain, in either case. But I think I would have a complaint in one case and not in the other. I’d have a complaint in the case of NPR because my relationship to NPR is like that of the shoemaker to the elves. They do something nice for me, which I enjoy, but I didn’t ask for it, and if I’d been offered the choice between paying for it or not getting it at all, I’d have chosen the latter. But BBC7 is quite different; not only do I plan around it, but if I’d had the choice between paying for it and not getting it I’d have chosen the former (at an embarrassingly high price).

So, I don’t think I’ve any complaint if they charge me for BBC7 but I do if they charge me for NPR. To say this is different from saying that the people who, in fact, pay for BBC7 and NPR, have a complaint against me if I don’t contribute. Suppose (counterfactually, but to keep the focus where I want it to be) that both are paid for entirely voluntarily by people who are producing them just for themselves and I only get the benefit from them because they don’t know how to exclude non-contributors. If the contributors are securing what they want at a price they are voluntarily paying, it might be a bit oafish of me to consume it without contributing when I could, but it is hard for me to see that I am doing something unjust to them. So my intuition is that even though there is no injustice when I do not contribute to the production costs of BBC7, there is no injustice, either, when I am forced to contribute as much as or less than I would have voluntarily contributed in order to secure access if that were the only way of doing it.

Am I right about this? I’m sure that David Schmidtz says something about it in The Limits of Government, and even surer that Tyler Cowen does in his wonderful In Praise of Commercial Culture, but some bugger walked off with my copies of both! And I’m impatient to hear your thoughts.

I’ll write a follow-up post explaining what this post is really about in a week or so.