Hazing and Sexual Assault

October 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Random thoughts on the Sayreville hazing. (If you are not familiar with this case, see yesterday’s Times article here.)

1.  At least nobody is accusing the freshmen footballers of bring the assaults on themselves by dressing provocatively – those tight, shiny spandex-like pants, their torsos sometimes bare in the locker room. Nor is anyone saying, “if you don’t want seniors shoving their fingers up your butt, avoid being on the football team” the way women are told that if they don’t want to be raped, they shouldn’t drink too much at frat parties.

 In fact, the freshmen did know that they were at risk in the locker room.

First came the shout: “Varsity’s coming in five minutes,” and they knew it was time to move. Some dressed outside the locker room, pulling on their shirts and tying their shoes. Some rushed to finish their showers, if they showered at all.

2.  Sexual assault is about power even when it’s also about sex. The seniors might even be confused by the charges of sexual assault since for them, there was nothing sexual about it.  They experienced no sexual gratification or even arousal.  What they wanted was to humiliate – always the goal in hazing – and for that purpose, genitals and anus are much more effective targets than any other part of the body. More than the punching or kicking, which also happened, groping a boy’s genitals and poking things up his anus demonstrate power. They say, “This is what we can do to you.  We can attack the most private parts of your body and self. ”

In date-rape and party-rape, the obvious sexual component allows men to ignore its enactment of power.  But for the victims, as for the Sayreville victims, the experience is much more about power and humiliation than about sexual pleasure.

3.  The law is a clumsy instrument for dealing with much of what goes on among teenagers. These boys may be charged with
aggravated sexual assault, aggravated criminal sexual contact, conspiracy to commit aggravated criminal sexual contact, criminal restraint, and hazing for engaging in an act of sexual penetration. [CNN]

These charges do not distinguish between the hazing offenses, which some of the victims shrugged off as trivial, and far more serious crimes. This “one size – the largest – fits all” approach also applies to the 10th-grade girl who has a topless selfie on her iPhone. She is violating kiddie-porn laws that make little distinction between her and a someone who distributes thousands of such images, and these laws come with a hefty prison sentence. (See Hanna Rosin’s recent Atlantic article (here) on teen sexting.) What happens is almost entirely at the discretion of a district attorney. The broader the law, the greater the power of the DA.  As Justice Jackson said 75 years ago, “The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”

4. Racial comparisons are inevitable, though I will evade them here save to note that in the press and in comments from ordinary people, those charged are usually referred to as “boys,” never as “thugs,” certainly not as “criminals.”

5.  While nobody blames the victims for their victimization (see #1 above), some people do blame them for the consequences – the cancellation of the football season and the possible legal punishments might happen to the offenders. In Jonathan Haidt’s schema of conservative moral thinking, these people invoke the principle of tribalism, or as Haidt calls it, loyalty.  The victims have gone against the group (the team, the school, the town).  They should have suffered silently, taking one for the team. In this case, taking one for the team also means taking it from the team.

Names – The Last Shall Be First

October 16, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

What to name the baby has become more and more of a problem. A few generations ago, you could give a boy a name that had always been in the family. When is the last time your heard a parent call, “Junior, come here”?  Parents in a high-status family could give a son a family name as a first name. Calvin Trillin used to say that his upper-class Yale classmates in the 1950s were named things like Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, III (and had nicknames like Mutt and Biff).

In more recent generations, parents have been choosing names the way they might choose a work of art for the living room. It has to be different – you don’t want the same thing that everyone else has – but not so different that it’s weird. And if you are a college-educated person of some taste, an enlightened person, you don’t want a name that’s the equivalent of those cottage-and-stream cliches or Elvis on black velvet.

Hence, the proliferation of books with advice on what to name the baby. The graph from Google nGrams shows the number of mentions of the phrases “what to name the baby” and “baby names” in books since 1900.

Even during the baby boom (1946-1964), interest in baby names did not increase. That boom didn’t start until the late 1970s. 

My favorite baby-name book was Beyond Jennifer & Jason : The New Enlightened Guide to Naming Your Baby.  As the title says, you want to get beyond the currently popular names – the book was first published in the 1980s – and note also that word Enlightened.  The title of the most recent edition is Beyond Jennifer & Jason, Madison & Montana: What to Name Your Baby Now.

As the lede in a Huffington post (here) put it, “We’re always looking for baby names that are wonderful but also unusual.” It then offered a list of “100 great names given to fewer than 100 babies in the U.S. last year.” The names on the 100 under 100 are not so unusual as to be weird. Many are revivals (Winifred and Mamie, Roscoe and Chester), some are foreign transplants (Pilar and Romy, Laszlo and Aurelio), some are borrowed from other things – flora and fauna mostly.

Then are the last names that have become first names
  • Baker
  • Baxter
  • Mercer
  • Shepherd
  • Slater
These follow others that have already become widely popular, though they first started out as names that enlightened, upscale parents chose – like Carter as in Burden (b. 1942), identified by the Times as a “progressive patrician”). Last year, Carter was the 32nd most popular name for boys. Here are others in the top 100:
  • Mason (4th)
  • Hunter (36th)
  • Taylor (59th for girls)
  • Tyler (63rd)
  • Parker (74th)
  • Cooper (84th)
Like Thatcher Baxter Hatcher, these names suggest ancestry going back to the Mayflower and before that to landed English gentry. But only to our American ears. No upper-class British parent would have given a kid these names.  Like Thatcher and Baxter and Hatcher, they are the names of commoners whose family names come from an occupation.  These are ordinary tradespeople. (Hatcher is topographical – like Hill or Forest – rather than occupational. It denotes someone who lived near the gate or hatch. Baxter is a variant of Baker.)

Parker et. al are not so popular across the pond. Only two of these trade-names made the UK top 100 last year –  Mason (27th) and Tyler (37th) – and I suspect that neither of these will turn up very often on the rolls of Eton.  In Britain, if you want to suggest good family, you don’t give your kid a name like Baxter or Cooper.  George, Harry, William, and James will do nicely, thank you, especially if they are prefaced by something like Prince.

World Standards and American Exceptionalism

October 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Today is World Standards Day. “The aim of World Standards Day is to raise awareness among regulators, industry and consumers as to the importance of standardization to the global economy.” It seems like a good idea, everyone using the same standards and measurements. It makes stuff like the Internet possible. It’s sort of like the metric system. Everything from machine parts to scientific reports made in one country can be used in any other country. Almost.

Map of countries officially not using the metric system

At least we’re in good company – Myanmar and Liberia.

The map reminded me of Ann Coulter’s rant  against soccer back during the World Cup.  It was, I hope, her attempt to be funny à la Stephen Colbert – which made her a conservative imitating a liberal imitating a conservative. The Colbert ploy allowed her to be more outrageous than usual in her xenophobia and flaunting of American exceptionalism.

The increased popularity of soccer in the US, she said, is” a sign of the nation’s moral decay.” Among her supporting theses was this:

Soccer is like the metric system, which liberals also adore because it's European. . . .

Liberals get angry and tell us that the metric system is more “rational” than the measurements everyone understands. This is ridiculous. An inch is the width of a man's thumb, a foot the length of his foot, a yard the length of his belt. That's easy to visualize. How do you visualize 147.2 centimeters?

American exceptionalism is, at least in part, the idea that the rules everyone else plays by do not and should not apply to the US.  The underlying assumption is that our ways are better. It follows therefore that we should pay no attention to anything outside our shores, and the rest of the world should be like us.*

As for World Standards Day, we do celebrate it – just not today. In the US, World Standards Day will be October 23, a day when no other country will be celebrating it.

* Often mixed in with this arrogance is a resentment of foreigners who do not follow our example and do not do what we tell them to.  The Coulter and Colbert oeuvre must have many examples, but the one that comes to mind readily is Randy Newman’s “Political Science” (this version  is from 1972, when the song was new and Newman was young – or do I mean when the song was young and Newman was new?)

HT: Shankar Vedantam

Author or Economist - Greg Mankiw and the Principal-Agent Problem

October 7, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Greg Mankiw regularly comes to the moral and economic defense of the very, very, very rich (here for but one example). He himself is also rich (though without the verys) thanks in part to his best-selling economics textbook.

(If you haven’t been a student for a while, that $286.36 is not a misprint.)

Planet Money recently asked why college textbooks were so expensive (the $286 for Mankiw’s 7th edition at Amazon is actually $17 less than the price on the 6th edition). Their answer: the principal-agent problem. The student (i.e., the principal)  shells out the $286, but the decision as to which book the student must buy is made by the professor (the agent). The agent need not care so much about price; it’s not his own money that’s paying for the book.

The result is that textbooks cost much more than they would in a market where students were free to make their own consumer decisions or where the agent paid attention to price.*  So Planet Money asks bluntly if a textbook author is “making more money than he should.”

It’s an economics question, and since Mankiw’s is the best selling economics textbook, Planet Money called Greg Mankiw.  But it seems that the person they reached was not Greg Mankiw the Economist. It was Greg Mankiw the Author.

Mankiw the Economist might have answered that yes, in a market that operated according to ideal principles, textbook prices would be lower. Under the current system, authors, publishers, and bookstores are getting “rents.” They are making more money than they should.

Instead, the answer came from Mankiw the Author, who justified his royalties in two ways:

1.  Hey, lots of people get away with this. It’s “not unusual” said Mankiw. When our doctor recommends a procedure, when our auto mechanic picks out the replacement parts, when our contractor buys materials – in all these areas and others, we “rely on someone else to look out for our best interest and . . . help us make an informed decision.”  The Planet Money reporter pointed out that health care, car repair, and home contracting are precisely the areas where people complain about getting screwed by their agents. So yes, it’s not unusual (as economist Tom Jones might have said, “It’s not unusual to be screwed by anyone”). But it’s still an economic and moral problem.

Mankiw does admit that “there’s a risk” that the agent will not “do due diligence.”  “But a good professor would do that.”

Economist Mankiw would, I hope, point out that the principal-agent problem is a distortion of the market.  It puts the agent in a position of inherent conflict of economic interest, and conflicts of interest make it harder for people to be virtuous. Mankiw the Economist might even recommend a free market that does not rely on the virtue of the agent (“a good professor”). But Mankiw the Author has no problem with the current system.

2.  Hey, no big deal – it’s just a few bucks.  For students, Mankiw says, “the biggest expenditure is not money, it’s time. Giving them the best book. . .  is far more important than saving them a few dollars.” 

Mankiw the Economist might have said that those “few dollars” are excess profits. Whose pocket those dollars should wind up in is, of course, a moral question, not an economic one. But in his writing in defense of huge salaries and low taxes for CEOs and hedge-funders, Mankiw blends the moral into the economic, so it’s interesting that he omits it from his discussion of textbook prices.

The Planet Money reporters, to their credit, turned to other economists (who are not also textbook authors), and they looked at a different textbook market – high school. In college, the student is not the one who decides which book to buy, the professor is, and profs don’t have to worry about price. In any case the student is buying only one book. Not a lot of leverage there. 

But with high school texts, the school district is both decider and buyer.  Unlike the professor-as-decider (agent), the school district as decider-and-buyer (agent and principal) does care about the price. A lot. It is also buying those books by the carload, so it can exert some pressure on price.  Consequently, publishers’ profit margins on high school books are only 5-10%. On college textbooks, profits are closer to 20-25%.

I’m sure that Mankiw’s book is a very good book, and Mankiw himself sounds like a nice man. But if you want to know about who wins and who loses in the principal-agent problem, maybe your primary source of information shouldn’t be the agent.


* If the professor is the author of the book, his economic interest runs directly opposite to the interests of the student. The more money he can make the students pay for the book, the more money he makes, so we have the principal-vs.-agent problem. Some schools, including Montclair State, have policies aimed at preventing professors from making money in this way. I think it’s a New Jersey state law. I do not know if Harvard requires Mankiw to give up the royalties that come from sales to students in his courses.