May 23, 2022
The growth and development of the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) at Caltech offers a rich and fascinating chapter of Caltech history. In the following discussion, Bruce Cain relates his time at Caltech as an assistant professor when HSS was in "growth mode," attracting young and promising faculty who were taking innovative and largely quantitative approaches in their research.
Cain's early career research focused on U.S. and British politics, with special emphasis on election law, redistricting, and the interplay of policy and representation. Subsequent to Caltech, Cain joined the faculty at UC Berkeley before taking on his current position at Stanford. His awards include the Richard F. Fenno Prize and the Zale Award, and he has served as a consultant for a wide range of government and political organizations.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Monday, May 23rd, 2022. I'm delighted to be here with Professor Bruce Cain. Bruce, it's great to be with you. Thank you for joining me today. To start, would you please tell me your title and institutional affiliation?
BRUCE CAIN: At the current time, I'm a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, and Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the Bill Lane Center. How did that get started, and are you the inaugural director?
CAIN: I'm not the inaugural director. David Kennedy, a distinguished historian, was the inaugural director, along with Richard White, another distinguished historian. It's a center at Stanford that was founded a little over a decade ago by David Kennedy and then later Richard White joined him. It is dedicated to the study of the American West from many different disciplines. We do everything from public conferences to academic workshops to internships for students in the American West, and with various energy agencies across the American West. We also do programs about Arts in the West. We span the globe in this sense. We also sponsor classes, including a popular team-taught class on the American West. One particular line of study that ties a little bit back to Caltech is that we do a lot of work on water and energy. When I was at Caltech, I largely concentrated on issues of political reform—redistricting, campaign finance, et cetera— but I was friendly with my EQL colleagues and would quiz them about what they were doing. At the time, they were doing innovative work on everything from emissions trading to looking at the determinants of smog and its health impacts. Being friends of mine, they would say, "Bruce, you should come and work with us." I always kind of regretted that I never did that, because I was too busy trying to make my career in the voting rights area, but I had stored in the back of my brain that this was potentially an area that could use political science help, because many of the environmental goals—at that time, it was air pollution—conflict with normal commercial and citizen activity. In that realm, scientific solutions that seem on paper should be easy to implement turn out to be very hard to implement. Understanding what you'd have to do to make these things viable seemed a useful task that I could have worked on.
When I had a chance to come to the Bill Lane Center, I appreciated that it was located in Stanford's engineering quad. A major Lane Center focus was the problem of drought and water supply, which is a huge issue in the West, and, as you know, in Southern California in particular. I had remembered very vividly when I arrived at Caltech during a dry period down in Southern California. In the 1970s, I recall taking showers where you'd turn the water on, soap up, and turn it off, turn it on again to rinse off, et cetera. That was not something that a kid from Massachusetts ever had any experience of. And the fires. We had fires that came down the San Gabriel Mountains, and I had never seen a whole hill ablaze and threatening communities. So, I was aware then that these were critical issues in the West. Since the Bill Lane Center was located where the environmental sciences were. I thought, "Okay," I thought, "I'm a little old to start yet another line of research, but wow, this is a second bite of the apple. It's something I could have done many years ago, but I didn't."
By the way, many of the Stanford environmental scientists regard EQL and the people that ran it as really an innovative, important part of Caltech. I don't think Caltech people completely appreciated at the time how important and innovative the EQL was, but I certainly do looking back on it now. So, as I said, this was a second chance to do what I wasn't able to do at the time. I don't think I made a bad choice, because obviously I have had a distinguished career, but I do think back, "What if I had just made a little more time for this then?" It would have been really fascinating to have been involved in some of the early efforts on emissions trading, or to think about how to reduce the pollution in the L.A. area. That's a long way of saying that I'm running the Bill Lane Center as a way of partly redoing a piece of my life that I wish I had done more of when I was younger and at Caltech.
Political Science and Sustainability
ZIERLER: As a snapshot in time, what are you currently working on? What are some of your big research projects?
CAIN: I'm just finishing a manuscript, a short little book, based on a distinguished lecture series at the University of Oklahoma, on climate adaptation politics in the American West. The central question of the book is really, why don't we adapt more quickly to the dangers of wildfire and drought? Why are we behind the eight ball in terms of water storage? Why are we letting people move back into areas that are at high risk? And what are the consequences of that neglect? The costs of delayed action are quite severe in terms of putting out wildfires, protecting property, protecting people against the smoke, et cetera. Why didn't we act more quickly on this, especially given that many knew that climate change would have these impacts eventually? Even in California, despite the fact that it's a deep blue state, we weren't prepared. Nor were people in the interior of the West prepared for all of what we're seeing right now. The book is basically about that. I look at drought, wildfires, and sea level rise. They all have slightly different politics to them, and so there's separate chapters for each. Then there is a chapter on similarities between energy and water storage and distribution, concluding that we have to find ways to have more coordinated decentralization, which sounds easy, but it's not, politically, for a variety of reasons.
A second emerging agenda is decarbonization strategy. Adaptation focuses on sea level rise, droughts, and wildfires, which are a product of the Western climate stressed by climate change. I may next write on the problems of energy governance given critical issues of coordination and environmental justice that arise as we try to decarbonize not just the grid but all sectors of the economy.
ZIERLER: I'm curious if you see any intellectual through-lines between your work in voting redistricting and rights and your more current interests in energy and environmental issues?
CAIN: Yes, there are, and deeper ones as well. I am influenced to this day by the Caltech political economy approach that analyzes the incentives embedded in institutions and policies that cause people to either perform well or not well on matters of collective action. Having a model in mind, whether mathematical or intuitive, that explains in very simple terms why institutions incentivize bad outcomes, and what you can do to fix it is important. That was very much the framework that Roger Noll, John Ferejohn and others had in mind. Others in the division were more interested in trying to prove that neoclassical economics was the only way to look at the world, which was a problem for me.
But I think the incentive focus on institutional design was formative for me and highly influential to political science generally at the time. It departed from dry, descriptive political science about institutions, and sought to understand the institutional logic that leads politics and policies to progress and develop the way they do. I think that legacy of that work has been very important, and it was adopted in a lot of places. The newest generation of political scientists—unfortunately, everything goes in fashion—has sort of forgotten that, and spends a lot more time just on measurement per se. It might be another 10 or 15 years before we'll get back to that incentive design orientation, because fashion is a fact of life. Every generation of scholars wants to reject the previous generation, with some new identity, so what we see now is a real fussiness about the way we measure things, which is useful, but it seems like political science has lost some of the lessons that we were trying to instill about understanding institutions and their logics more seriously in order to reform them effectively.
ZIERLER: Where do you sit on the social science versus the humanities divide? Where do you see your research?
CAIN: I try to be as eclectic as I can, so it makes it harder to put me on that spectrum, because I have done case studies as well as quantitative work. My motto, which I give to the graduate students, is, "The advantage political science has over physics is we can actually talk to our data points."
CAIN: And we ought not to neglect the advantages we have, okay? If a physicist could talk to an electron, I'm sure that would be great? They might find out a lot more. But, they can't. But you can talk to people. You don't have to believe everything they say, but you can get some insights as to how they're thinking and why they make the choices they do. That's why the Lane Center was a good fit for my eclecticism. For instance, we developed a program in the arts, and we've worked on programs with Stanford's literature department. So I have a great appreciation for the humanities. Many of my friends at Caltech were on the humanities side of the division.
In particular, I think any political scientist worth his salt has to pay attention to history. We can call it something different. We can call it time series, which we do. [laughs] We can quantify it a bit, so it looks like it's completely different from the history, but in reality, time series is a form of history. In fact, all social science is a form of history, because when you do your regressions, you're basically saying, "What are the patterns in the past, and are they likely to predict the future?" I would say I had very deep ties to historians, in particular Dan Kevles, a historian of science and Morgan Kousser, a historian of voting rights and race in the South. That was useful, because of course historians understand the way fields emerge and change, which was always a useful lesson for me as I witnessed the different fashions in social science.
I believe that I kind of spanned the social science-humanities divide. I wrote an op-ed piece with Dan. I wrote several articles with a philosopher at the time, Will Jones. We wrote about how you could understand rational design philosophically and how the Madisonian system conformed in some ways to contemporary rational choice incentives and in some ways diverged. I co-taught with Morgan Kousser and Brian Barry a political philosopher. I bridged the social science-humanities divide as opposed to the abstract micro-economics scholars.
ZIERLER: Being a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s, studying in England as well, what were some of the larger social and political issues that might have influenced your early scholarship?
CAIN: Oxford at the time had fairly strong connections to sociology. Even their political science was more sociological. I learned a lot about why elites in various contexts always rise to take leadership roles, making it a permanent feature of how groups make decisions. I definitely believe that aspects of that education were important to me. The other thing I remember about that time in my life was that Marxism was taken more seriously in European universities than it was in American universities. I immersed myself in learning more about what Marxism was all about and trying to understand how it evolved from its early stages, its theorizing about class divisions and the volatile nature of the economic system, and how that translated into a workers' movement or into socialism, et cetera. That influenced me later in my thinking about incentives, because a lot of the highly formalized ways of modeling incentives tended not to take the questions such as where preferences come from, or why do people come to have this attitude as opposed to another, seriously. Some of my social science colleagues did not think of the source of preferences other than self- interest was important, but I had already come to believe that how people think about social relations and the tie to underlying structures is extremely important. If you don't explain how people come to believe the things that they believe or have the preferences that they do, and that those things might be related to their social and material circumstances—if you don't have that, you have kind of a black box formalism that says, "Well, we just don't know why people do what they do, but we simply look at their actions and infer what their motives are from that." I thought, "Well, okay, that's sometimes true but that's not completely true." We need to know much more about what goes inside the black box of people [laughs] to really explain and predict what they're going to do.
It made me a bit of an outlier inside the social science division at the time, because it was very much into that sort of black box formalism that made possible these mathematical models, some of which were valuable, some of which were less valuable. That made a kind of uneasy relationship between me and some of the economists who believed that if you couldn't explain phenomena with a mathematical equation, you were clearly not rigorous and not explaining anything. I could see that while sometimes these models were very valuable to working out the implications of people's logic or why markets work, but having such a cribbed notion of why and how people make decisions simply wasn't adequate. That made me something of a suspicious character to some of the hard core, like Charlie Plott, who didn't really believe in that.
One traumatic thing that happened while I was at Caltech was that we had a colleague who had a nervous breakdown here. I was at the dinner table when he had his breakdown, and I was there with Charlie Plott and Dave Grether, and both of them didn't know what they were seeing. But my father was a psychiatrist, my mother was a psychiatric social worker, and I had worked in the family business, McClean Hospital, for six months between stints in grad school, so I knew a nervous breakdown when I saw one. Over the course of the dinner, my colleague just devolved down to a point where he became catatonic. I don't know whether he was off his meds or what. Charlie, who had for years dismissed the notion that there could be anything like mental illness or that people could behave irrationally was just stupefied. He didn't understand what was going on. But that was a moment of clarity for me right there, that not everybody is a rational calculating machine. Charlie happens to be, but most people aren't! [laughs]
ZIERLER: [laughs] To go back to Harvard, who did you work with there? Who was your thesis advisor?
CAIN: I had several, but the main one was John Jackson. That's a funny story. I was really only a third-year graduate student at Harvard when Caltech got in touch with me. My thesis advisor John knew the Caltech crowd, and I don't know whether it was Mo, or whether it was Bob Bates, but some combination of them got in touch with John Jackson and asked who the best people were that might be appropriate for Caltech to consider. John Jackson had given them a couple of names, and he said, "Oh, there's this third person, but I don't think he's right for you, and also he's just in his third year. But I think he's got the most potential." [laughs] For whatever reason, they took that as, "Oh, you don't want us to see your best person." They went and requisitioned my records from Harvard, which were really just the transcripts of the courses I took. I don't remember that we even had any letters at that point, because I wasn't intending to go on the market. Caltech invited me to give a talk, and so I showed up and gave one. I remember my opening line. I said, "I'm so honored and pleased to be here in the land of minimax regret." [laughs]
CAIN: So, I kind of threw a few jabs at the direction of Mo and John, figuring I had nothing to lose. What the hell? I was a third-year grad student. [laughs] To their credit, they to this day have put up with my sense of humor. We still get together once a week by Zoom to talk about things, and I see them socially regularly here. To my surprise, they offered me a job, so I had to finish my thesis and my graduate career in three years. Now, I had had two years at Oxford, so strictly speaking, it was my fifth year in graduate school. I had taken a year out between Oxford and Harvard, so it was really six years out. I was 27, and I was really ready to get a job, so I said, "Okay, you know what? I'm just going to go all out and just finish this thesis." The joke of my housemates was I never left my chair except to go to the bathroom and to eat. I just worked, worked, worked, worked, to get it done, because I knew if I showed up at Caltech without my thesis done, I would be cooked. They would cut my salary. They would put a lot of pressure on me in my first year. I didn't want that.
ZIERLER: What was your thesis on? What did you look at?
CAIN: It was on British politics at the time, because I had gotten a hold of a really amazing dataset the summer before when I was in England. I was able to look at some of the prevailing theories about issue voting behavior. At the time, voting behavior had largely arisen from the marketing and sociology. It wasn't really well connected to understanding why realignments happened, or why politics could change in critical elections. You had to really spend more time looking at the issues, and at why voters shifted in their ideology over time. Most of the prevailing theories had been about why coalitions were stable over time. This is a long way of saying I was always thinking about doing British and American politics; British, because I had spent two years as a Rhodes Scholar, and American, because I was fundamentally interested in American politics.
So, I started out writing about British politics, and began to shift to doing more comparative work when I wrote a paper on party ID with John Ferejohn, and later I did this project with them on representation in Britain and America, which turned out to be a book called The Personal Vote, which has been cited thousands of times. It was an effort to say, how do representatives in these two completely different political systems handle the balance between paying attention to their constituencies and paying attention then to the national political scene? Surprisingly, we discovered that that same tension existed in Britain when many people had believed that British politics was only about the national party, not about local constituency stuff. We were able to show that, while it's certainly true that the tensions between local and national were more skewed in America and the local incentives were much stronger because of the way the primary systems operate and the weakness of the American political party systems at the time. Not now with regard to the latter, but at the time.
I got interested in issues of representation. Because I was working with computers, and interested in the way districts influenced politicians, I was offered a chance to work on the California Assembly redistricting, I thought, "Wow, that would be right up my alley." In 1980, four years after I came to Caltech, I had an opportunity to switch over more to American politics by working on redistricting. By the time I finished that, I had two books: the Personal Vote book, which I had to finish with Mo and John, and one on redistricting. I essentially wrote the latter book in nine months. That's kind of how it evolved early on from being purely British politics to British and American politics. But that was really surprising, because I knew I was going that way, eventually.
Building up Humanities and Social Sciences at Caltech
ZIERLER: It's one thing to be recommended by your advisor; it's another to actually get the job. What do you see as the point of connection between what you were looking at, and what Caltech was trying to build up, promote, in HSS, at that point?
CAIN: Obviously John, Morgan and Bob Bates would know better, but my sense was that they understood that there had to be a spectrum of work from the highly theoretical social and rational choice theory to the more applied analysis of why political systems are designed as they are, and why people in them do what they do. I think they envisioned from the start, in the political science group, a kind of continuum. I think I represented somebody who knew about rational choice, had invested in learning statistical and econometric methods. I had taken classes at Harvard. I actually audited a couple of classes at MIT. I had read a fair amount of the rational choice literature. So, I had rational choice, statistics, and was doing something in British politics which they found interesting. It was some combination of those things, I suspect, that led them to want to do it. Beyond that, I can't say. I don't know who else they interviewed or why they chose me over the other people.
ZIERLER: Administratively, when you got to Caltech, was HSS a formal division already in existence, or that was still entrained when you joined the faculty?
CAIN: My understanding is that HSS had existed for quite a while. What had changed was social science's role. It had largely been more "H" and very little "SS." Alan Sweezy was an economist, and there was another whose name is escaping me at the moment who did business economics and accounting. There had been an "H" but not much "SS," so the "SS" part was what had developed with Roger and Bob Bates and John, and that had preceded me by a half a decade, if not more, of changing evolution when the economists came in—Lance Davis, Charlie Plott, and David Grether, and various others. When I arrived, it was still evolving, but already had its foundational pieces. Gary Miller had come in the same year, so they made two appointments that year, Gary Miller and me. Later, there were other political scientists that were appointed, like Rod Kiewiet, Doug Rivers, Keith Krehbiel and Larry Rothenberg.
ZIERLER: This would have been both above your pay grade and before your time, but when you got to Caltech and you were learning about these developments, what was your sense of why Caltech institutionally was looking to build up social science? What are the big takeaways there?
CAIN: I think the big transformation was from humanities and social sciences—and again, mainly "H," not much "SS"—being a service department, i.e. a department that was there to help primarily science and engineering students develop their writing and reading skills, which is of course a critical function. But I think they wanted the Division to have more intellectual prominence and to be on the cutting edge, to not have one area of the university that was not cutting edge. I think there was a sense that to be cutting edge in the social sciences, you had to find a reason for people to come to Caltech and not go to Ivy League schools or elsewhere. The connection to economics, which was a little further along; the kind of identification with what was a hot and growing area of political economy area at the time; I think that was what they saw as their best opportunity to sort of breaking into the market with a small number of people. Most of the top-flight departments at that time were the large Ivy League political science departments that had 45 or 50 people. The question was, how do you, with a small number of people, make a national impact? This was the Caltech formula. Not to try to do everything, but to do certain things very, very well. That's the best way that a relatively small research institute can become a powerhouse. That was what was going on.
ZIERLER: Do you think that Caltech's traditional focus on excellence in science and engineering influenced the way it wanted to develop its social science program?
CAIN: In some ways, yes, but not in the way that you probably imagine. I think the notion that whatever you do has to be excellent, and that you have to try to be innovative—if you spend any time talking to the rest of the university, which I did; I had a lot of friends outside the Division—you certainly picked up on the ambition of the place, and the way in which they thought about how they developed their programs. I think for some of the more quantitative people in HSS— I should say particularly the people that were doing microeconomics in a mathematical abstract way—I think their frustration was that the rest of the university was much more interested in empirical work that actually made real-world observations as opposed to things that looked beautiful on paper because of the math. Some of the leading people at the time like Feynman and Gell-Mann were very dismissive of applying calculus to everything that people did. In fact, Feynman in a somewhat famous way had described it all as "cargo cult science," meaning that economists were like natives on an island, when somebody dropped a cargo ship of rational choice tools on them, and they were going wild and worshipping the god of rationality. [laughs] It was quite clever, and of course I agreed with much of what he said.
CAIN: On the other hand, he was overdoing the critique, because actually there is an element of rationality—not as much as we'd like, but there is an element of rationality in the way we design democratic institutions, so it was somewhat unfair, even if at the same time it was insightful.
ZIERLER: Coming direct to Caltech from graduate school, skipping over the traditional postdoc stop, what did that mean in terms of revising and refining your thesis research into a monograph, or switching directions entirely once you joined the faculty?
CAIN: I would call it stressful. This happens anywhere, but it's particularly hard at a place like Caltech. The first year is magical, because you're no longer a graduate student; you're elevated to being a professor, and you have to get used to students calling you professor. It's magical. Then, year two kicks in, and you realize, "Oh, damn, I've only got four years to make a national reputation for myself." I had tried to write a book based on the articles I had published out of my thesis. If my older self had been there with my younger self, I would have said, "Hey, you did what you were supposed to. You published articles out of your thesis." But at the time, political science was still largely a book-driven field, and so I wasted about a year and a half or maybe two years trying to turn these articles into a book, and realizing that it just wasn't going to work. There were three good articles, but the book wasn't there, so when I had the opportunity to do the redistricting, I said, "Ah, okay, this is a better idea. I can write a book out of this." I did, and it turned out to be a very important foundational book in the study of redistricting. So, I take points away from myself for not recognizing that I had done my job when I had published the articles from my thesis, and I give myself points for thinking that "Okay, this isn't working, and I need to change gears."
I took what I think in retrospect was a courageous choice of going to work for the legislature for nine months. Everybody in my academic circle—Mo, John, and others—said, "Oh, Bruce, you'll never come back. This is a huge mistake." I said, "Well, maybe? But maybe not. I think I know what I want to do and know how this could work." Of course, I was right, and those bozos were wrong! [laughs] Which I like to remind them, maybe once a week, or something like that. I remind graduate students that the time to take risks is when you're young. That's the time to take risks, and if you're afraid to take a risk, then you're never going to do anything that's innovative or novel. But if you take risks, sometimes you will fail, and that's just part of the business, and you've got to accept that. I took a risk, and I went out and worked. When I came back, I did the same thing I did with my thesis; I locked myself in my room, and just worked nonstop to get a book out of this. It became The Reapportionment Puzzle.
The Reapportionment Puzzle got featured in the Caltech alumni magazine. You can go back and see that there's a big picture of The Reapportionment Puzzle on it. I think the head of the NSF, a major poohbah, came through when I was on the presidential search committee, which would have been in the late 1980s, or maybe it was the mid-1980s I don't remember—but the article in the alumni magazine on redistricting he had read on the airplane. I was on a Presidential search committee with all these distinguished physicists and chemists, et cetera, and he said, "I just read this most interesting article in the alumni magazine." It was like having your mother talk about you in front of your friends. I thought, "Oh, wow, this guy could be my agent!" [laughs] All these distinguished scientists were kind of amazed that I would get recognition from this person. That was a moment that I will cherish forever.
ZIERLER: A counterfactual question: would The Reapportionment Puzzle have been a different book if you were at a different institution?
ZIERLER: In what ways did Caltech influence the way the book came about?
CAIN: In every way. By letting me take the leave. That was important; not every school would have done that. Secondly, the fact that I was looking at reapportionment from the point of view of how drawing these lines affects the incentives and behaviors of representatives. That in a sense, when you draw district lines, you're shaping the way representation evolves. If you give somebody who is a very liberal person a very conservative district, they have to either accept defeat or change their politics. The fact that I could hire lots of technical people from Caltech to work on the redistricting was huge. When I ran the redistricting operation, the Assembly had made a contract with Sonoma State to essentially merge Census data to political data so they could evaluate the political fairness of plans, or unfairness, as the case may be. I went up and visited it with Dan Kevles, the historian of science as I mentioned before, who was my friend. We flew up to Sonoma State and visited the contractors. We realized that the database being constructed for the state was being built by a bunch of potheads. The stench of marijuana was strong. They hadn't made much progress but seemed unperturbed.
ZIERLER: I wonder why. [laughs]
CAIN: I reported back to Willie Brown, "You're screwed. [laughs] There ain't no database. And if there is a database, it's going to be designed more for the State Senate, not the Assembly." So Willie said, "Well, we're not going to do that." So, they gave me a big budget, and I hired a substantial number of Caltech undergraduates to build the software and GIS system. So the state database, which exists to this day, was founded at Caltech. We built one of the first merged political and Census datasets in California. The other one had been built for the Republicans at the Rose Institute in Pomona, but we did the first one at the block level. Ken McCue, one of my graduate students, still has the business of doing this for the state, all these years later.
I also hired tons of Caltech students and some Caltech wives and others to do a lot of the work manually that now can be done all by computer, but at the time, these maps had to be hand-drawn. They had to be double-checked and triple-checked. We had to work morning, noon, and night to get it done. So, I don't think I could have done it at any other institution. It was just fortuitous that I was there, and that I was chosen for random reasons. They had asked Dan Kevles to do it, and he said, " I'm not going to do that. It has nothing to do with my field." But we were playing on a softball team called Old And In The Way. At the time, we were all in our late twenties and thirties. We thought we were old, because we were playing against all the grad students. The first baseman for the Old And In The Way team was a friend of Dan Kevles's who was playing first base. His name was Wally Karabian, and he had been former majority leader for the Democrats and had lost a statewide election for secretary of State to March Fong Eu. He knew Willie Brown very well, and raised money for Willie Brown, and so they were looking for somebody to take over the redistricting operation who wasn't part of the fighting factions between Willie Brown and Leo McCarthy. I fit the bill perfectly. I knew something about computers, and I knew something about districts. So we ran the operation in Pasadena, and we had lots of Caltech people working for it. That wouldn't have been possible anywhere else. I wouldn't have even tried.
We were able to go to JPL and do the first GIS mapping. We were the first ones to put in automated mapping systems, because there was a unit doing precisely that at JPL. At the time, it was very expensive, so I could only do L.A. County with the JPL contract. I like to say that I delayed the transition from a central computer to the modern system of decentralized personal computers at Caltech by at least a year because we had a state contract that we had to fulfill. At the time, there was one computing center, and they were doing all this work for the state. They wanted to close that computing center, but they couldn't do that in part because of this residual contract. When the contract ended, they were able to initiate decentralized computing. Yeah, it was only possible at Caltech. It was only possible by the coincidence that I was in that job. That never would have happened that way if all these things hadn't happened. It's a reminder that the world is sometimes determined by pure coincidence.
ZIERLER: A question I'm endlessly fascinated by, and I wonder if you have any insight, is why social scientists take on graduate students at Caltech, but humanities professors do not.
CAIN: I think part of the reason is that at the time Humanities research depended heavily on having a world-class library. While the Caltech Library is very good in certain specialized ways, it didn't have a broad humanities collection, so most of the humanists were tied to the Huntington. The Huntington didn't have its own graduate students so it was largely a place for research. I remember a number of the older humanists had been recruited to teach, not to do research primarily. They might have written some articles here and there, but they were largely there to teach, and so they had heavier teaching loads and took their teaching mission very seriously. There had been some discussion of merging with other schools to remedy this, but I think that would have taken Caltech too far from its mission. With the social sciences, we didn't have the same tie to the Huntington, and our data collection tasks were more often team-oriented than individualized scholarship. Again, people were recruited in the social sciences to do research in addition to teach. People in the humanities initially had been recruited primarily to teach undergraduates.
ZIERLER: As the social science program developed at Caltech, what aspects do you credit with a bottom-up approach, meaning the professors and students who were promoting these developments, and where was this coming top-down, that administration recognized the value in the social science research and wanted to support it?
CAIN: Certainly the HSS Divisions Chair Bob Huttenback supported it. I think initially, the rest of the Institute was divided, because many of the largely teaching-oriented humanists were well-integrated into the rest of the university. One of the literature professors was really good at writing clever lyrics to songs that were used for some of the faculty events. So, I would not say that Caltech as a whole embraced making HSS more social science and research oriented—Bob Huttenback definitely was the key figure. He went on to be chancellor of Santa Barbara and ran into some problems with his faculty there, but he was a very effective leader. Then he was followed by Roger Noll who was also an effective and forceful advocate. I think it was definitely having skilled HSS chairmen—Bob Huttenback and then Roger Noll—put us on the pathway. Then later Dave Grether, so you basically had leadership at the division level that embraced the research mission of social sciences very enthusiastically.
ZIERLER: There's lots of metrics to figure out how well the program is doing. One of them, of course, is recruitment. For both junior scholars and potential graduate students, how did Caltech fare, relative to some peer institutions in terms of getting the best people to come to Caltech to do social science?
CAIN: We had more success in political science than in economics. The economists won't admit this, but I think it became a sore spot, that very quickly the political scientists were more influential within our own field than the economists were within their field. It introduced a bit of tension about that. Political science was highly visible because Mo Fiorina and John Ferejohn had meteoric career rises and were extremely visible in the profession, and pretty much everybody in that group eventually went on to have a very distinguished career. Gary Miller didn't even stay, and he went on to have a chair at Wash U Saint Louis. Mo got picked up by Harvard, and John got picked up by Stanford. They were constantly getting offers every year. It was clear that we were a hot commodity.
The other thing is that Caltech, because it was paying an 11-month salary, tended to offer better deals. As I remind my graduate students who whine about their salary, my starting salary was $18,000, which at the time was the highest offer to a political science assistant professor. I was proud to have that, but $18,000 [laughs], even if you do it in modern terms, is under the going market price now in real terms. It's more like $90,000 in current money. I looked it up once. The point is that Caltech was paying better than most of the other jobs, but that wasn't really it. It was much more that Roger, John, Mo, and Bates, Morgan, all had really made an impact and were the hot young group. At the time, I had the choice to go to a more established school—because once everybody found out that Caltech was interested in me, I got flown down to Yale, and lots of other schools wanted to take a look at me. I said, "Nah, you know what? I'd rather be with a bunch of people that are more my age than to be in an Ivy League department with hierarchical seniority system and not to have as many colleagues to work with. I'd rather have some colleagues to work with and learn from." For me, that was my motivation. I can't speak to other people, but I think probably that logic was replicated with other people as well.
ZIERLER: Did you have much opportunity to interact with Caltech undergraduates during your time here?
CAIN: Oh, yeah, for sure.
HSS and Caltech Undergraduates
ZIERLER: Given the fact that they came to Caltech usually for science and engineering, what were some of the opportunities and challenges in having them in your classes?
CAIN: Caltech at the time was largely oriented towards physics. Even what they called engineering was largely applied physics. We would get very bright physicist kids. Typically they were the number one or number two person in their state in physics. They had straight 800s. Caltech loved people that had straight 800s across the board in quantitative. But here's the thing about physics, and Feynman used to say this: at some point, it's not really about the math; it's about the intuition. For some reason, it's like mathematics; you can hit a ceiling where you just don't have the intuitive ability. Usually it would hit around sophomore year. So, I would wait for sophomore year, and people would hit the limit and realize they weren't going to be the next Feynman or the Gell-Mann. They would get all depressed and they'd lock themselves in their room, and they would end up, because they had to take courses in the humanities and social sciences, in my class. I would say, "What's wrong?" They would say, "Well, I discovered that I'm not the genius I thought I was." Then I would draw a little bell curve and I would say, "Okay, let's put this conversation in perspective. We're talking about analytical ability. Feynman is way out there on the right side, there, with an extreme intuitive ability that very few human beings have. You're about, eh, I'd say an eighth of an inch over from the far high end of the bell curve of humanity, meaning you're way out there in the 95th percentile. Wake up! [laughs] You can do a lot with that! Stop whining!"
Some of these former physicists became economists. Some of them became political scientists. Some of them became lawyers. Some of them became doctors. I would wait for them to leave physics and try to pick them up for social science. I had students who were in and out of my office all the time and working on various things. Mike McDonald, for example, went on to have a career in redistricting, and is now down in Florida teaching and working on some of the biggest cases. Several of them ended up in history of science. If you paid attention, you could identify the students who could become excellent social scientists or accomplished figures of the world. I would just wait for that moment of recognition that physics was not their path. That was my strategy. I also taught the introductory American politics class, and I had close to 70 or 80 students in there. I also taught a wide variety of other classes, and I always had about 15-25 kids in those. If you were a dedicated teacher and you cared about students, Caltech students were very appreciative of that. I co-taught classes with Morgan Kousser, Dan Kevles and Brian Barry, people from whom you could learn a lot. Of course, you had to be careful in these classes with equations, because if you showed them a regression equation, they'd want to question the formula. They'd want to know, "Wait a minute, how was this regression derived?" They'd get stuck in the weeds if you let them.
I remember there were some humorous moments. One involved the was president of the student body at the time. He now is at Stanford and SLAC. At any rate, he was the top physics student as well, and a football player. He came into my office and said, "Bruce, I have had this great insight." I said, "What's that, Ray?" He said, "I think we can actually have government without actual government, without actual people, without actual bureaucrats." He was basically thinking well in advance about the possibilities of governing populistically-- plebiscitary democracy with the computer. I said, "Well, here. Ray, why don't we read a little political theory about the reason why we have governments? This notion of a world without governments, which of course became the fantasy behind the internet. I took Ray through the writings of various political philosophers who wrote about why you needed government. In the end, I convinced him that we needed government. I enjoyed that, because in retrospect, that was the first time I encountered what became the prevailing myth in the internet, that we didn't need government, that we would be better off without it.
ZIERLER: Tell me the origin story, the conversations with John Ferejohn and Mo Fiorina, that led to The Personal Vote monograph.
CAIN: Mo had written a book about constituency service in the US—it was a short little book. I'm forgetting the name of it now, but it basically argued that congressmen used their district projects and case work to insulate themselves against electoral defeat. It was in the context of trying to explain why the incumbency effect was so strong in that period of time, and why party effects were so weak. Then in discussion with him, the question was, "Let's pick a system exactly the opposite, the British system, and see, how they handle their district experiences." We dug up a little money and sent me over to England for the summer. I rented a car and went around interviewing retired MPs, because I figured they would have the time to talk to me and the incentive to be frank. I did also interview MPs who were in office later. That was kind of fun, because you'd interview them over drinks on a balcony overlooking the Thames. But for the most part, elected officials were less forthcoming, because they didn't want to say anything that embarrassed themselves, so it was important to interview people in their homes who had retired recently, to find out how much they did. I discovered that, oh my goodness, they actually do care about their districts. But why, given that they were in a parliamentary system, and allegedly did not need to do that. I brought that back to Mo and John, and they thought, "Wow, that's kind of interesting. Let's design something much more systematic." We got an NSF grant to try to understand differences in representation and how it related to the incentives of the two political systems. I had already done a paper with John on comparative party ID, so I had already had some interaction with John, and I had co-taught with John and with Mo as well, an introductory politics course for the graduate students. I had familiarity with them and socialized with them. John and I went over and did the interviewing of dozens and dozens of MPs to make a good sample, and then we did the same thing with members of Congress. Then we also did surveys in both countries that matched their districts, and we wrote The Personal Vote, which turned out to be one of the classic books in political science.
If I hadn't been there, if I didn't know something about British politics, no, we wouldn't have written it. But would I have been able to do it by myself without them? No way. It was a good partnership. But like all partnerships between three egotistical males, they fall apart eventually. [laughs] Even though you can be friends, and we were friends, and there was never any tension like a rock band or anything, but three egotistical men, there's only so much you can do together and then you're off on your different directions, and that's basically what happened.
ZIERLER: Bruce, if we can attempt to historicize what is normative on campus nowadays, where you have behavioral economics professors who are collaborating with neurobiologists, did that cross-pollination happen during your time at Caltech, would you say?
CAIN: No. There were two things that happened at Caltech afterwards that I would have been interested in, if I had stayed. One is exactly what you're talking about—the cross-pollination with biology would have been interesting to me. But probably, to a greater degree, it would have been the 2000 election and the election administration, because long before 2000, I had been working on election administration issues, and I had a lot of ties to election administrators through redistricting. If I had stayed at Caltech, I probably would have also been involved in the L.A. city neighborhood movement, which created neighborhood organizations in a formal way. Eventually, I got involved in election administration anyway, but I probably would have been pulled into the collaboration with MIT and done the work that Michael Alvarez was doing. That didn't happen when I was there. Nobody even discussed it. The stuff I did on election administration was just an outgrowth of working on redistricting, where after you've changed the lines, there's an enormous amount of election administration clean-up that has to occur. That's how I got involved in that. I probably would have picked that piece up, if I had stayed.
ZIERLER: After initially resisting attempts to poach you away to other schools, what changed, ultimately, for you? What was attractive about leaving Caltech at a certain point?
CAIN: It was hard, because I was vice chair of the faculty at the time, and I was slated to be the next chair of the faculty. I would have been the first non-scientist to be chair of the faculty. I suspect if I had stayed, I would have probably ended up in administration in some way, college administration. I wasn't sure I wanted to do that. That was what I originally thought when I went into academia. I knew that I had some leadership skills and thought, "Well, I'll probably end up as a dean or a president somewhere." But I ended up liking the scholarly work and the teaching, and I never really wanted to give that up, so I stayed on that track.
What happened was I had offers from Texas and Irvine, and in discussion with Cornell, but that didn't pan out; it wasn't clear what they were looking for. Then when Berkeley came by and they had the Institute of Governmental Studies, I was increasingly concerned about the fact that when we lost Roger, and we lost John, and we lost Mo, we lost the people that sort of linked the abstract mathematical people with those of us who did empirical work. I felt like the dichotomy between people doing empirical work and people doing this modeling, that that gap was growing, and I didn't really want to deal with it. I didn't feel like I had enough graduate students, and I didn't feel like I had the impact that I wanted to have. Berkeley just seemed like a better opportunity for me, with a larger number of graduate students—plus they recruited me very hard; they really wanted leadership for The Institute of Governmental Studies. I anticipated that I would eventually become the head of the IGS, and that that it would be a much more visible place to work on policy and politics. I was right about that.
It was a hard decision, because I had a lot of friends at Caltech, but I felt like it was getting to the point where I was more valued by the scientists than I was by the economists. The economists regarded me as a lesser being, because I didn't do microeconomics. After a while, that gets kind of tiresome. Give me a break! How can you make judgments like that, based on the form of your research? It's not like I ever doubted myself, but you just get tired of people that are constantly assuming their superiority and assuming you're an idiot. Contrast that response with that natural sciensits scientists, and they'd all say, "You're the only useful person over there." [laughs] I thought, "This is crazy. This is a topsy turvy world I'm in." When I left, I think some of my science friends were unhappy with me and unhappy that I left, but I think I made the right choice.
ZIERLER: To the extent that you kept up with HSS over the years, when you left, do you think that accelerated these trends that were already happening, or was there some course correction over time?
CAIN: They corrected. They did bring in Mike Alvarez, to their credit. First, it was Liz Gerber, who was my former student, and then it was Mike Alvarez. I think they recognized, even though I was a pain in the ass, I probably had a useful function, and they tried to replicate it. Whether it was internally that they decided this, or whether they were told by the central administration, I have no idea. Probably at some point they figured that somebody had to do the teaching. I was a good teacher, and I did a lot of teaching for the undergraduates. It was probably some combination of that. But at that point, I was out the door, so I didn't really have any say.
I had also chaired the committee that had changed the orientation of the requirements for the admissions to Caltech, and I had helped to open up the door to having more women students. We had a very distinguished committee at the time of younger professors that did that, The Young Turks, one of whom, Steve, went on to become the provost.
ZIERLER: Steve Koonin.
CAIN: Yes. I mention it only because some people were very irritated that we had uncovered evidence that women at a given board score level were outperforming men, considerably. At the time, we were accepting lots of men that had uneven records but had scored lots of 800s instead of people that across the board had SAT scores of the 700s but were good at many different fields. Gary Lorden was on my committee, and when he ran the data, he found that women with lower board scores, but had more across-the-board strength, had higher GPAs at graduation. I had no problem with our recommendations, but it did make some people in mathematics and physics mad that the admissions committee had made it easier for women to get in. I was told after I left that some people blamed all of this on me, which of course I don't mind—I'm proud of that—but the reality is that it was a committee decision. It was hard to leave Caltech. I had a lot of friends on the faculty and the student are so smart. I still visit people. Dan eventually left. Peter Goldreich left also—my friends eventually went different places anyway, so we were all basically pulled in different directions by our careers.
Caltech and Coherent Thinking
ZIERLER: For the last part of our talk, some retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll end looking to the future. Do you see the things that you learned and the interactions that you had at Caltech as staying with you throughout your subsequent career to Caltech?
CAIN: Absolutely. One hundred percent. As Stanford is trying to form this new sustainability school, many of the things I learned on the faculty board and dealing with the physicists about how to think about developing a coherent group, many of the discussions I had within the social sciences about how to integrate people across disciplines, all these things were more valuable than I realized at the time. Interdisciplinary work is now more and more the norm, to work on teams to solve climate change problems, racial problems, et cetera, bringing together people with different expertise. That's how I was nurtured, right? I was nurtured in an environment that did that. I definitely believe that it was formative to the way I thought about things in ways much deeper than I realized at the time. So, yeah, absolutely. As I said, the orientation of looking at incentives and finding what's valuable in economics—there were things that I disagreed with. I used to call it "rigor mortis"—rigor to the point of death was problematic. Nonetheless, the insights were there. So yes, it was very important to me.
ZIERLER: At least unofficially, between you and your colleagues and what was happening at Caltech when all of you left and moved on to other places, is there something like a Caltech school that came out of these collaborations that only could have happened at a place like Caltech?
CAIN: Absolutely. Ironically, of course, some of us reconstituted at Stanford—at least in my case, it wasn't by intention; it was because Stanford wanted me to run the Lane Center. But there's at least six or seven people from Caltech that were in the Social Sciences Division for periods of time I arrived on the farm as they say—Keith Krehbiel, Roger Noll, John Ferejohn Mo Fiorina, Doug Rivers and Barry Weingast. There's about seven or eight of us that ended up together again, some/ after being at Harvard, WashU or Berkeley. Caltech was influential on the profession. But the way fashions work in the social sciences, some of the things that we were strong in have been kind of deemphasized but might come back in 10 or 15 years. Because every generation has to reject the one that's right above it in order to distinguish itself. That's just part of the dynamic. It's kind of a Hegelian logic, but it's based more on ego [laughs] than rationality.
ZIERLER: Two last questions, looking to the future. First, of course, right now we find ourselves in a very perilous moment in terms of American democracy. Going all the way back to graduate school, what are some of the things that are absolutely surprising, and what are some of the things where you see this rooted long-term in American history?
CAIN: They're definitely rooted, but at the same time some of this has surprised me. I thought we had made more progress on race than we have made. That's discouraging. There were a lot of people when Obama was elected in 2006 who were saying, "We're post-racial" and I knew that was wrong. I knew that was flat-out wrong. But I didn't anticipate the degree to which we could end up with a so many white nationalists pushing white supremacy in 2020, 2022. I just didn't anticipate that. Secondly, I thought the Cold War was over, so it caught me by surprise that Mr. Putin thought he needed to reclaim the Soviet empire. We'll see how that ends, but I didn't see that one coming, either.
If we look back on both of these things, we could see the roots of this earlier. When Trump appeared in 2016, I was at least smart enough to say, "You've got to take this seriously. He could win." I wasn't predicting necessarily that he would win, because I was looking at the popular vote, but there was no way at the time to really calculate what would happen in the Electoral College, and I still think that's very hard to predict. But the reality is, I was aware of the way that race was coming up again, how immigration politics was playing out, how 9/11 images lingered, the increasing diversity of our population post-1965 and civil rights. I recognized that there were populist tensions out there, but I guess I imagined them to be more multiracial, not as biracial. But when you look at what was happening with the police in terms of their tactics and the persistent poverty in the African American community, it's clear that I was a little more pollyannish about where we were going than I should have been. While I knew about the warning signals, I don't think I completely appreciated how severe the problems were. When you look back, you realize that it's surprising but maybe we should have been paying more attention to the underlying trends.
ZIERLER: Finally, Bruce, an even bigger question of a longer strategic threat to the United States and the whole world—climate change and global warming. Given your interdisciplinary approach, the way that you straddle so many disciplines, what are the things that you're looking for right now as they can contribute to us actually getting a handle on this extraordinarily complex challenge?
CAIN: Well, it's not just a complex challenge; it's probably the most severe challenge that we face right now, because every aspect of our modern life is intertwined with carbon emissions in ways that your average citizen doesn't appreciate yet. One of the things that I'm most focused on is the lag in people's recognition of the problem and the seriousness of the challenge, and the resistance that comes partly from partisanship but also partly from the fact that people are more willing to talk the talk than walk the walk that we have to take in order to go through this transition. It's not an easy transition. We don't have the batteries yet that we need to have long term storage. We don't even have adequate storage for water in the state to deal with more severe droughts. There are a lot of hard choices ahead of us.
I see a tendency for us to fool ourselves, and I'm talking about people that actually believe in climate change such as Democrats. There's a tendency to greenwash things and to think that we are further along the path of decarbonization than we are. Stanford announced it's now 100% renewable. But that means the university bought enough green energy contracts to compensate for its fossil fuel usage. Every time you turn the lights on at night, unless you've got enough battery storage, you're drawing electrons from all over the grid, and they're likely to be fossil fuel at night. There's a lot of kind of greenwashing going on. It's a hard question, because on the one hand, you want to keep people optimistic, but on the other hand, people have to understand that this is a much harder challenge than they imagine, and that we have to really think seriously about all the tradeoffs.
The people that oppose wind turbines because of what it does to birds have to realize that if we allow climate change to get out of control, a lot more birds are going to die. The people that don't want to have desalinization on the coast because of biota loss from the salt water intake have to realize that water supplies along the Central coast especially are going to be scarcer, or from the Colorado River in Southern California, because there's a lot of growth in Las Vegas and other cities on the northern end of the Colorado River. It's getting people to recognize and realize the tradeoffs, getting people to be serious and walk the walk and not just talk the talk. That is a real challenge. I'm 73. This is going to be a challenge for the next 30 years or more. I probably won't be around to work on it. But what I can do for the next few years, while I still am not senile, or not completely senile, is my focus no.
I volunteered to be part of their new sustainability school, which may drive me crazy, because it's not clear that Stanford has any clear idea of what they're doing. This is where they differ from Caltech. At Caltech, people always have a clear idea of what they're doing, and I really appreciated that about Caltech. Caltech was able to make the money conform to the vision. Let's just say at times Stanford lets the vision conform to the money.
ZIERLER: Interesting. Bruce, it has been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I'm so glad we were able to do this. Thank you so much.