October 21, 2005

Cronyism, Corruption and Incompetence: A Network Analysis

Attention Conservation Notice: a 2100-word, semi-serious proposal for politically inflammatory social-scientific research, worked out by non-social scientists. Does not adequately explain all the technical concepts involved. Contains media criticism and blogging in-jokes.

Note: This idea was developed with a close collaborator who prefers, however, not to be named. Using the first person singular just means that I'm the only one doing the actual writing here, not that I deserve the credit for whatever merits this may have. (The blame for its faults, however, is all mine.)

I haven't written anything about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, because nothing I could think to say seemed at all adequate in the face of the horrible human disaster and national shame. Others have said what I'd want to say better than I could have. But about the political fall-out, and the cronyism that preceded the catastrophe, and which continues to be relevant day in and day out — there I think I can suggest something.

It's by now abundantly established, at least to all sentient beings, that Michael Brown had no business running much of anything, never mind FEMA, and had the job not because people thought he was the most qualified possible person, or even a reasonably qualified person with the right political ties, but solely and exclusively because of his political ties. This naturally leads to two logically independent questions: (1) How many other people hold important government positions just because of who they know in the GOP apparatus and/or Bush family retinue? (2) Is this any worse than it was under any fairly recent previous president? It could be, after all, that the level and proportion of incompetence is no higher than it ever was, or even lower, but the Bush crew has had the bad luck of having disasters happen which exposed that incompetence; or perhaps the quality and morale of the civil service has been steadily eroded by many decades of serving under incompetent political hacks, and so can no longer adequately compensate for the folly of their masters. (Think of an unreleased episode of Yes, Minister where Sir Humphrey is merely counting the days until he can begin collecting his pension, and Bernard has split for a private-sector consulting gig.)

I've now read a couple of news stories which attempt to address these questions, and I am dissatisfied. Take, for instance, this one in the New York Times. It purports to be about this subject, but, while it reports some striking instances of cronyism and patronage, contains nothing like facts on which a reader could judge whether this problem is any worse than it's ever been, or even worse than it's been recently. It also contains the following sentence about half-way through: "People who have studied the workings of the federal government for years say this administration is no worse than President Bill Clinton's or any other recent ones in the qualifications of political appointees." This is followed by a number of quotes from such experts, none of which, carefully examined, actually say anything of the kind.

For another example, here's a story from Time, again going through the anecdotes, and quoting one of the same experts (Paul C. Light) to the opposite effect, saying that things are now much more "centralized" and politicized than before. So, from reading the reports filed by — one presumes — well-regarded journalists, not only can the concerned citizens learn absolutely nothing about whether the Bush administration is unusually incompetent and cronyist, they can't even learn what one presumptive expert (Prof. Light) thinks about the topic. Citizens might even wonder what "centralized" means here, and the news isn't going to help. The New Republic's list of the administration's fifteen worst hacks, while at once amusing, depressing and frightening, shouldn't actually convince anyone that "no administration has etched the principles of hackocracy into its governing philosophy as deeply as this one". It may be — it is! — unacceptable to treat the government of a free people this way, but it doesn't mean that this is anything new.

Let us not gnash our teeth in despair over the mainstream media, however: social network analysis can come to our rescue! What's wanted — but what the journalists don't provide — is a study where one builds the network of Presidential cronies, cronies' cronies, cronies' cronies' cronies, etc., and then asks questions such as:

Many people have asserted that networks of influence and social connection are important to how the modern GOP works — Henry Farrell reports that this is an important part of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's Off Center, which I'm eager to read, and it's more or less explicit in Michael Lind's Up from Conservatism and John Judis's The Paradox of American Democracy — but nobody seems to have really studied this thoroughly. To do it right, you need to carefully define what you mean by "crony". Since, ultimately, the whole species forms a single human web, you want to only consider ties which are actually meaningful indicators of political alliance and, still more, of nepotism and cronyism. Also, you want to set out your criteria carefully and rigidly before collecting data, otherwise there'll be a lot of temptation to manipulate things as you go along, and the result will be closer to Lyndon LaRouche than to Randall Collins (or even Malcolm Gladwell). At the very least, I'd think you want to include the following kinds of ties:

  1. "relative of";
  2. "business partner of";
  3. "made political donation to" (for donations large enough to be matters of public record);
  4. "worked for campaign of";
  5. "worked as a lobbyist for";
  6. "hired as consultant by";
  7. "hired as attorney by";
  8. "served on same board as" (for advocacy groups or companies)
There are probably others, which an experienced political journalist (or political operator) could suggest. The kind of intelligence analysis described by Marc Sageman in his (excellent) Understanding Terror Networks has (I hope!) well-thought-out and operationalized criteria for deciding which kinds of relations to include. It would be good to know what they are, and use them.

Having fixed our criteria for which kind of relationships will count as links in the network, it'd then be necessary to build the network. A natural starting point would be the strategy sometimes called "snowball sampling": pick an initial target, say G. W. Bush, and identify everyone who counts as one of his cronies (by our criteria). Then go over each of his cronies, and see who their cronies are — Bush will be one of them, but presumably there will be others. Repeat this until either all the cronies are exhausted, or you're exhausted. Note that, if there really is just one network, then it doesn't matter whether you start with Bush, or Karl Rove, or Tom DeLay, or Jack Abramoff, or any of their other unindicted co-conspirators, except for the people who are so marginal to the network that you might reach them from one starting point but not another.

Once you have people in the network, we need to see whether they've been named to government positions (not necessarily confirmed, just named), and whether they met the legally-defined norms of competence for those positions. A simple scheme would be to code them 0 if they just met the qualifications, +1 if they were clearly more than qualified, and -1 if they had no discernible qualifications. This could be hard to do — some key positions don't seem to actually have any minimum qualifications at the moment — but something like this is necessary to answer questions like, "How much more likely are you to be named to a post if you're qualified than not, controlling for social position?" and "How much more likely are you to be named to a post as a function of social position, controlling for qualifications?" (For aficionados: I'm contemplating logistic regression coefficients here.) It's probably completely unrealistic to imagine having a matrix of qualifications scores for all people for all 3000-odd appointed posts, which would let us see whether favorably-situated cronies get named to posts they might be able to do, or just to any old thing, or what.

Now, to really do this right, we'd need to do it all over again, not just for the current administration, but for another one as a control — the Clinton administration, say, or Bush's father; Reagan or earlier is probably too far back. This seems to be the only way to answer questions like whether this administration is more centralized than its predecessors, or more likely to nominate incompetents. The crucial question, for us, is whether your odds of being nominated are more or less dependent on your distance from the center of the network under this administration than under previous ones.

Even without doubling our workload by doing a comparative study, however, simply seeing the network of cronies would let us answer some interesting questions. Who really are the most central members of the network? Are they people with formal positions of authority? Are they people you've ever even heard of? Or are they comparatively little-known fixers with huge address books, but no officially constituted authority? (Bruce Sterling, back during the Clinton troubles, compared our current mode of government to being ruled by some sort of literary movement, where often the most well-connected and subterraneanly influential people are not the most public figures.) Could we discern factions or communities, in the form of cohesive sub-networks? Is the president — the object of such veneration, verging on idolatry (no, that's not a joke) — actually at the head of his machine?

We could also compare the structure of the crony network to that of other well-studied networks of interest. Sageman looked at al-Qaeda, and while the comparison would be provocative, it's probably not really fair: al-Qaeda is very small, comparatively, and also very hard to study, so issues of missing data are much more serious. Perhaps more interesting would be a comparison with the network of people who sit on boards of directors of corporations, where two people are linked if they serve on the same board. This is a fairly sizeable network — some data sets contain over 7000 people — but one with very little formal structure. (Once you take into account the distribution of the number of boards people serve on, it looks almost perfectly random.) Economic sociologists have established that this network is a very important coordinating mechanism for big business, and, less adaptively for the corporations concerned, a mechanism for cronyism, patronage, and giving responsibility to incompetents. (Despite its coordinating role, the board network is not group which tells, e.g., the gas-station owners of America how much to charge for a gallon of regular unleaded, as apparently imagined by certain rabble-rousers who fear the market system because they don't understand it.) It would be interesting to see, then, whether the presidential crony network can be distinguished, in its broad, structural features, from the board interlock network, or whether they are both, in practice, acephalous.

It will not have escaped the reader's notice that I do not present anything like the kind of network I say we should find. In the immortal words of Stephen Pinker, "Good science is pedantic, expensive, and subversive", and this is certainly all three. We're talking, after all, about collecting and manually processing an immense amount of information on at least 3,000 people, and then doing it all over again on another administration. This would be a lot of work, of a kind to which I am totally unsuited; to get results in less than a year would need a team. Moreover, it is completely unfundable, unless the Ancient and Hermetic Order of the Shrill is now giving out grants to further the study of the "mendacity, malevolence, incompetence, corruption, uselessness, simple idiocy, or sheer disconnection from realty of the George W. Bush administration". Nonetheless, I would very much like somebody to do it, because it seems to me that it could actually answer some important questions about how our country now works.

Manual Trackback: In Search of 42; Green Gabbro; Crooked Timber

Networks; The Running Dogs of Reaction; Modest Proposals; The Beloved Republic

Posted by crshalizi at October 21, 2005 18:02 | permanent link

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