Thanksgiving for Social Scientists—Wish It Were

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Thanksgiving for Social Scientists—Wish It Were

A gate at UC Berkely. (Photo:  Wally Gobetz/flickr/cc)

I wish there could be a Thanksgiving for the applied bounty that could come from the hundreds of thousands of political scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists.

I am referring especially to those social scientists who are full-time, tenured professors at universities, colleges and community colleges who are not indentured to commercial moonlighting. Those of us who look for ways to get things done for the betterment of society seek such contributions from people who spend their days studying what is happening in our country, and to whom. Other than a few minor exceptions, this union has not occurred.

Nearly fifty years ago, a leading administrative law professor Kenneth Culp Davis–interested in governance–wrote a controversial article bewailing the near total absence of any useful contributions in this field by political scientists.

Here is a brief list of contemporary needs that could benefit from academic specialists who are concerned and knowledgeable about our country’s shortcomings and could know how to get things moving.

1. The lack of civic motivation to show up and do something about wrongs widely agreed upon–all over America, a tiny percentage of engaged citizens face the same problem. They can’t get people to show up at the polls, at town council meetings, or at rallies and marches. Maybe the psychologists could try their hand at that one. Look at the back of a $2 bill and see the drawing from 1776–showing up is half of democracy.

2. The need for proper yardsticks by which to measure abuses of power–power structures control these metrics so that they can control debate, inflict censorship and depress people’s expectations. Some economists have offered ways to measure economic progress–e.g. the condition of children–as alternatives to what the business economists have structured for the corporatists. Much more needs to be done to “yardstick” the qualities of economies in order to expose better the disconnect between GDP growth and people’s well-being.

3. Ways to reach and motivate enlightened billionaires to provide the water for the already fertile soil of just changes–some of these enlightened super-rich have told me they have little idea of how to effectively put their money to work for justice, so they continue giving to charities. A society that has more justice needs less charity. Also, how about some functional insight on the majority of super-rich who are, shall we say, tight with their money? Addressing the parsimony of the plutocrats invites an inter-disciplinary action plan stimulated by theorists and empiricized by the applied wings of these disciplines.

4. How can small but effective civic groups be started in the thousands to fill the widespread imbalances of power in our deteriorating society? An example of one of these groups would be full time Congress Watchdogs with part time volunteers in every congressional district to lift the yoke off 535 men and women, most of whom are using their authority to shoehorn corporate power over Washington and driving our country into the ground. The Right calls this crony capitalism; the Left calls it corporate welfare or the corporate state.

5. How do you counteract the periodic war mania that the warmongers fan in our country–think the 2003 invasion of Iraq and other unlawful displays of brute force foreign policies? The manufactured, bloody Iraq war was based on Bush/Cheney lies and deceptions which led to over 300 retired high military, national security and diplomatic officials speaking out against the pending invasion. These included the two main security advisers to the first President Bush, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. All this was well known to applied social scientists (they’re not all theorists). Imagine them figuring out how to band such a group together with overtly anti-war critics such as mega-billionaire George Soros. Such a well-endowed secretariat for these highly credible, retired leaders could have widely exposed the falsifications, jolted Congress and the media and stopped the drive to this ruinous war that is erupting again in a brutal civil conflict.

6. When overdue reform movements get underway, how can sociologists help with suggestions to sustain their momentum so they do not burn out? I’m thinking of Occupy Wall Street and its theme of standing up to gross inequalities.

7. Recently, the media watch group, FAIR, published data showing the enormous bias of the national media based on who they invite to speak about U.S. military intervention. For example, on the recent question of military options in Syria and Iraq, the “high-profile Sunday talk shows” had 89 guests. Only one guest, Nation editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel, in FAIR’s words, “could be coded as an anti-war guest.” The rest came from the usual militaristic politicians, like the ubiquitous Senator John McCain (who recently noted his 101 appearances just on Face the Nation) and war hawks from Washington “think tanks” or publications like The Standard. With all the multi-disciplinary communications specialists, some well-connected, in academe, can’t some come up with a strategy to change this brazen exploitation of the public airwaves?

Maybe some academics think such practical immersion is not intellectually challenging or career advancing. Recall Albert Einstein who once said that physics is simple compared to politics.

Many social scientists are employed or retained by corporations to “get things done” for them. That’s paying work backed by business power and money. But given the present cultures and mind-sets of social scientists, I doubt whether, absent these pre-existing infrastructures, they could come up with practical answers even if the civic culture could afford them.

The exceptions need more publicity. For example, professor and biologist Barry Commoner brilliantly organized scientists to press the government toward a test ban treaty and highlighted the radioactive fallout of atomic bomb testing on the American people.

Professor Paul Wellstone, starting penniless and at zero in the polls, teamed up with maverick political consultant Bill Hillsman to win a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota in 1990.

Educational anthropologist Penny Owen for years singlehandedly taught middle-school students, who were considered very difficult learners, through the use of theatre and other self-actuating activities to discover their inner talents and motivations.

Economist Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has helped organizations advance arguments for raising the minimum wage and for instituting a small tax on stock trades.

Besides giving us insights, surveys and findings, can more social scientists like these few but important examples change some routines to provide strategies, tactics, and solutions that can more practically flow from their knowledge to action?

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