Friday, March 04, 2011

Collective action problems redux

Thoughts for today's khutba and my research program for the next few years:

I am still reading and trying to figure out the factors that make religion sometimes successful in solving collective action problems and sometimes not. Two cases in point that I've been watching carefully are the perpetual demonstrations syndrome in Egypt and Tunisia on the one hand, and the perpetual building of mosques and similar institutions in Houston, which are manifestations of the same problem: Muslim/Arab countries and communities (and I consider other religious groups that share the cultural foundation, say Copts, to be integral parts of these) have for a long a time failed miserably at solving collective action problems for social, political, and economic improvement of the well being of citizens/members.

Recent success in organizing demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt were miraculously remarkable, and although neither used (cheap) religious slogans, I cannot but see them as "religious" movements in the true sense of the world: Demanding Justice, which is the dual name of God (Justice in its abstract form = العدل, and Justice in its judicial form = الحكم). It is in this regard that the worst aspects of religion, which in fact defeat the goal of solving larger collective action problems by getting members mired in smaller (club-like, as Larry Iannaccone's brilliant but limited "economics of religion" analysis has shown) solutions to collective action problems -- through superficial sectarian and other exclusivity-inducing mechanisms.

Now that the demonstrators have succeeded, they do not know when to stop. They cannot see their way to solving an even bigger collective action problem: Now that we have dismantled these ridiculously corrupt and oppressive regimes, how do begin to build a new one. What is needed is nothing short of a new social contract. Sure, in Tahreer Square, where my alma mater was located, there seemed to emerge a new social contract for a few weeks. In the meantime, farmers were building illegally on farm lands, criminal gangs were fighting for territory and looting rights, etc. The groups that have found a tool (demonstrations) that worked for one type of collective action problem solving are tempted to assume that the same tool will work for other problems, which it won't.

This is also the problem of our Houston community (and many similar ones): We have successfully solved collective action problems for building mosques, etc. So, we keep doing more and more of that, with huge portions of our community wealth now tied up in this unproductive real estate. When we build schools, we build them to segregate the kids of the "more committed" Muslims, who also dress anachronistically, spend inordinate amounts of time in the mosque when they should care for their families, and so on (again, Iannaccone and Berman have some interesting economic analyses of why costly signals of this form -- mediocre education for one's children, and it is always mediocre at best; lost income and family time etc. -- create solidarity for the "inside group," or real citizens of the mosque as one of our local Imams once called them, in contrast to the people he called green-card Muslims, i.e. less committed).

I see little difference between these inside groups in the mosques and the inside groups in Tahreer square: They have found a hammer and now every collective action problem looks like a nail. But religion teaches a lot more than this. It teaches that there is time for this tool and time for other tools. Using one tool where the other is appropriate is deemed sinful.

Other societies have obviously worked hard at solving the larger longer term collective action problems also with mixed (albeit greater) success. I don't see any difference between the reverence for constitutions (e.g. here in the U.S.) and reverence for scripture (also here as well as elsewhere, and for many religions and denominations). Invariably, of course, these are interpretations of the words of scripture, constitutions, etc. by contemporary men (mostly men, very few women), which also degenerate into dogma and self-defeating rhetoric that creates club to solve smaller and shorter-term collective action problems at the expense of greater and longer term ones.

Political scientists have written a lot about this, including most famously Mancur Olson and Lyn Ostrom (the recent Nobel laureate in economics, who is actually a political scientist but who has worked extensively with economists and other social scientists). I have not so far found in the literature an analysis of this concept of society being trapped in a local optimum by solving the smaller shorter-term problems at the expense of the (more important) larger and longer term ones. Mancur Olson's writings seemed to get close, but not quite. I think that the (correct) definition of religion (from relegare, to bind fast, as the verse orders, quite literally, "و اعتصموا بحبل الله جميعا و لا تفرقوا", and later "و لا تكونوا كالذين تفرقوا و اختلفوا". These and many orders seem precisely to be ordering us to focus on the larger human (not even petty national) collective action problems. That is the Divine command... what it's all about.

This appears to be a very fertile field for research (and personal growth :-). Of course, what I can publish will have to be inane, spuriously quantitative (see, I have numbers and graphs, I must be smart), and obsessed with fake objectivity. However, it would also be interesting to me as I work on it, and that -- of course -- is the ultimate academic arm-chair avoidance of working toward real solutions for collective action problems!