The American Dream

May 31, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Social stratification has two important dimensions: inequality and mobility. How wide are the gaps between people in the society, and how easy is it to move up the economic ladder?

It’s clear that the gap between rich and poor has been growing. So has the gap between the rich and the middle. Those at the top of the income distribution have been getting a larger and larger slice of the total pie. In the last 30 years, average real income has risen moderately, but incomes for the top 1% have nearly tripled. The typical CEO in 1978 got about 40 times what the average worker earned. Today, he makes 260 times as much. European countries have a seen a similar trend, though it is far more muted. Among the OECD countries, when it comes to inequality, we’re number one.

But even if inequality is greater in the US than in other industrialized countries, America is still the land of opportunity, the country where people are freest and most able to work their way up the ladder of success, right?

Certainly this is what Americans believe. Isabel Sawhill and John Morton have just published a short, non-technical, and very understandable report: “Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well?”

The dream is certainly alive, as this chart from the report shows.


In comparisons with people in other countries, Americans are the least troubled by economic inequality in their society. They are also most likely to believe in the idea of economic mobility — to think that economic success should and does depend on individual effort rather than social forces, and that the government should not try to reduce inequality. It’s the belief expressed succinctly in a bumper sticker, “I fight poverty, I work.”

But is the American dream reflected in reality? Or is George Carlin right when he says, “The reason they call it the American dream is that you have to be asleep to believe in it”?

Sawhill and Morton looked at “intergenerational mobility”— the income of thirtysomethings today compared with their parents’ income at a similar age. Of the countries they measured, the US comes out at the low end.


Germany has 1.5 times as much mobility as the US, and Denmark has three times as much. Only Great Britain has less mobility than does the US.

It looks as though the American Dream is alive and well . . . and living in Denmark.

American Nostalgia

May 28, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston


“American Graffiti” was on the other night, and I watched some of it in company with the teenager in residence. We didn’t watch the whole thing. We didn’t need to. The movie is pure nostalgia – the sounds and sights of another time – and once we soaked up enough of that, we lost interest. You don’t watch George Lucas films for character and dialogue.

I was sitting there singing along with the oldies. Occasionally, I would offer an astute cinematic comment like, “The fifty-eight Impala, what a car.” But later as we were talking about it, my son wondered what sorts of things from today would trigger the same kinds of response forty or fifty years from now. “Will we look at a movie and say, ‘Wow, a 2007 Accord!”? He didn’t think so.  He didn’t even think the music of today would have the same kind of meaning for his generation that those early rock songs have.

It wasn’t that he thought those old songs were better. (He dismissed “Sixteen Candles,” one of the first songs on the soundtrack, as sounding exactly like “Earth Angel,” which for some reason we’d heard earlier that day. And I really couldn’t argue.) But what makes “Sixteen Candles” so powerful, so evocative of an era, may be that the source of music then was much more centralized. In the 50s and 60s, a city would have only a handful of AM radio stations, most of them playing the same top-40 list. Youth today have a much greater variety of music, and they have become a much more fragmented public. For its grand finale this year,  “American Idol,” rather than use the hits of today, turned the clock back to “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” an album from forty years ago, long before any of the contestants was born.

As for cars, they are still a crucial part of American culture, but standout individual models are rare. SUVs look pretty much alike, as do sedans. More tellingly, cars may have lost their symbolic value as markers of identity.

So what objects might my son, forty years hence, point out in a period film? “Hey look, an iMac. Remember when Apple called all their products iThis and iThat?” He was right. The iPod might well be the equivalent of the those doo-wop songs. But the emblematic object is the medium (the iPod), not the message (the various songs it plays). Or if we are looking for specific items, we might do better in the electronics department than at the car lot. Movies (or whatever storytelling medium we will have in 2050) might evoke the world of 2007 with an X-box and Halo, a Play Station and Grand Theft Auto.

Billy Collins has a poem “Nostalgia.” The joke of it (its “conceit,” as English professors might say) is that nostalgia is limited to the relatively short span of our own lives. It begins:
Remember the 1340’s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Collins might have added that nostalgia extends in one direction only — backwards, towards the “old days.” When we picture those people in the 1340s, or when we see films of those people of the 1920s walking stiffly about in black-and-white at four frames per second in their narrow suits and bowler hats; it’s hard to realize that to those people, their times were not the old days, and they themselves were not old-fashioned. They were at the cutting edge, the height of modernity.

In the same way, it’s hard to think that from the perspective of the future, our lives today are old-fashioned, and in only a few decades we’ll chuckle nostalgically to see people thumbing their Blackberries or watching downloads of “Pirates of the Caribbean” on their cell phones.

Muslims and Methodology

May 26, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Pew Research Center this week published a poll that asked Muslims in the US and other countries their views on several political issues. News stories here focused on the US results, but whether those results were cause for relief or alarm depends on who was reading the poll.

The mainstream press (aka “the mainstream liberal press”), ran headlines like these:
In many ways, US Muslims are in mainstream America (Christian Science Monitor)
Muslim Americans in line with US values (Financial Times)
Survey: U.S. Muslims Assimilated, Opposed to Extremism (The Washington Post)

The right-wing press picked up on one number in the poll:
TIME BOMBS IN OUR MIDST - 26% OF YOUNG U.S. MUSLIMS BACK KILLINGS (The New York Post)

Or as the Washington Times put it in an op-ed piece by Diana West, “According to Pew's data, one-quarter of younger American Muslims approve of the presence of skin-ripping, skull-crushing, organ-piercing violence in civilian life as a religious imperative —‘in defense of Islam.’”

For some on the right, 26% was a lowball estimate. Here’s Rush Limbaugh:
“Two percent of them say it can often be justified, 13% say sometimes, and 11% say rarely.” So let’s add it up, 26 and 2 is 28, so 31% think to one degree or another, suicide bombing is justified. If you add to that the 5% that don't know or refuse to answer, it's even worse. So almost a third of young American Muslims who support in one way or another homicide bombings according to the Pew poll.
(If Limbaugh had taken a basic statistics course, he could have inflated his estimate even more. There were only about 300 young Muslims in the sample, so the margin of error means that the true proportion might have been several percentage points higher.)

When a result can be open such different interpretation, maybe there’s something wrong with the survey methodology. Let’s take a look at the actual question:

Some people think that suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. Other people believe that, no matter what the reason, this kind of violence is never justified. Do you personally feel that this kind of violence is often justified to defend Islam, sometimes justified, rarely justified, or never justified?
The conclusion of Limbaugh and others is that unless you say that killing is never ever justified, you’re a menace to society.

But what would happen if we substituted “Christianity” for “Islam” and polled Christians in the US? How many Christians would absolutely reject all violence in defense of Christianity? And how many might say that violence, even violence against civilians, is sometimes justified to defend Christianity from its enemies? I wouldn’t be surprised if the number were higher than 26%.

Consider the war in Iraq, which Limbaugh and the others support. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed, several thousand of them as “collateral damage” in US operations. The “shock and awe” bombing in the original invasion certainly included “skin-ripping, skull-crushing, organ-piercing violence” upon civilians. But at the time, a majority of Americans supported it, and Bush’s position still remains that we went to war to defend our freedom against its enemies.

The survey has many more interesting findings, and it’s especially useful for comparing US Muslims with those of other countries. But of course those matters were not newsworthy.

The Point of Tipping (was "Cheap Bastards")

May 25, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

At Marginal Revolution, a blog that seems to be run mostly by economists, a post about tipping
has been provoking much response. Tyler Cowen, the original poster, got right to the central question.
The best way to understand tipping is to go to a restaurant you will never patronize again. Once your meal is over, when she is not looking, leave your tip not on your table but rather on another table she served. That way she still gets her money and you have in no way ripped her off.

That is psychologically tough to do.
We will never come back to the restaurant; we are never going to see this waiter or waitress again. Why should we care what they think of us?

From purely economic perspective, tipping is not rational, and it’s interesting to read the responses of hardline economists twisting themselves in knots to explain how, ultimately, tipping really is economically rational.

But the simpler explanation is that we are social beings, not merely economic maximizers. If you want to understand tipping, you’re better off reading Erving Goffman and not Adam Smith. We do care what others think, even anonymous strangers in public settings. Even when there are no real consequences, we follow the norms of self-presentation.

The payoff is not to our pockets but to our self-concept. You don’t want the waitress to think you’re a cheap bastard because you yourself don’t want to think that you’re a cheap bastard. At least one commenter at Marginal Revolution tells of deliberately not leaving a tip, but he feels obligated to give a long account so that we won’t think that this cheap bastard is a cheap bastard.

I don’t know if the research has been done, but what do you think would happen if you asked people to rate themselves as tippers — below average, average, above average? How many would say that they were below average tippers?

A couple of years ago I was talking with a student, a slightly older (late 20s) woman who had at some point in her career worked as a waitress, and somehow the conversation got around to tipping. “I always leave a good tip,” she said, “on a $12 check, I might leave a $5 tip.” And she was by no means wealthy. Her income was certainly far less than mine. I was an 18-20% tipper —average, right? But suddenly I felt like a cheap bastard.

What’s an extra dollar or two on a $10 lunch tab or cab fare — what would you do with that money anyway. And it turns you from an average 20% tipper to a generous 30% or 40% tipper.

Mary Douglas

May 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The New York Times had two featured obituaries yesterday, and both were for social scientists: Eugen Weber, a historian who wrote several books on France; and anthropologist Mary Douglas.

I know very little of Eugen Weber’s work. I remember reading his essay “Who Sang the Marseillaise?” many years ago, and how surprised I was to learn that the unification of France, politically and linguistically, was such a recent transformation. But that’s about it.

Mary Douglas was another matter altogether. I heard her speak once, when I was in graduate school. She was giving a brown-bag-lunch kind of talk, very informal. I had never even heard of her, but my girlfriend at the time, Melissa, had studied with Douglas as an undergrad in England, and she encouraged me to go with her.

There were maybe two dozen people in the seminar room. Douglas stood at one end of the long table; Melissa and I sat against the opposite wall. I remember absolutely nothing of what Douglas said. In fact, I remember only one thing. At some point, Melissa leaned close to me and whispered, “She’s my ego-ideal.” And even this small detail I remember only because she used the British pronunciation, “eggo,” so for a moment I wasn’t sure what she had said.

It was nearly a decade later that I finally read Purity and Danger, and it was a revelation. I was teaching the deviance course in those years, and I saw how Douglas’s ideas about the “unclean” could be easily applied to the “deviant.”

“Dirt is matter out of place,” she wrote. Places that are dirty, places that need to be cleaned, have things in them that do not belong. These things do not fit with our rules for how that place should be arranged. Dirt— literal dirt (soil, earth)— is not “dirty” when it’s in the flower pot. Similarly, animals that are “unclean” (to use the Biblical term) are those that do not fit our categories for “food.” We have a food taboo on dog meat, but dogs are not “unclean” as pets.

It was all about boundaries. A culture must construct categories, cognitive boundaries for perceiving the world and giving it meaning. Obviously, things which fall on the wrong side of the boundary will be considered deviant. But no system of categories will be perfect; some things will not quite fit into any of the categories. These anomalies as Douglas called them would also be deviant. They challenge the boundaries not by attacking and crossing them, but by making them fuzzy, imprecise, and even inaccurate.

Douglas’s ideas about purity and categories provided the larger framework for other ideas I was interested in. Suddenly, these diverse pieces began to fit together — Kai Erikson’s ideas about deviance as a boundary-marker (Wayward Puritans), ideas from small-group sociology about boundary-awareness in groups and individuals (Philip Slater’s Microcosm), rites of passage and the taboo-power of people who are crossing boundaries, even ideas from Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I was disappointed to find out many years later that Douglas was politically conservative and critical of the environmental movement. Nothing else of hers that I read had the same impact as Purity and Danger.

Melissa went back to London, married a political radical, and made documentary films often with a feminist bent. As I read the obit for Douglas, I wonder how long she remained Melissa’s eggo-ideal.

Wolfowitz, Corruption, and Parking Tickets

May 22, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Paul Wolfowitz has finally agreed to resign from presidency of the World Bank. The controversy, at least on the surface, was about corruption. In some countries that received Bank money, some officials used their position to siphon off funds for personal gain rather than playing by the rules. Wolfie had gone to the World Bank as the guy who would sweep out corruption. Then it turned out that Wolfie himself had used his position to secure favors (a job with a high salary) for his girlfriend, Shaha Riza.

Wolfowitz and his supporters, mostly American neoconservatives — the folks who gave us the wonderful war in Iraq— argued that he had done no wrong and that he had played by the rules and cleared the package of goodies for his girlfriend with others at the Bank.

The whole affair raises questions about corruption as an individual and cultural characteristic. I seem to recall studies that contradicted the notion of a single trait that we might call “honesty.” Children who cheated on a test in one situation (in class) were not necessarily the ones who cheated in another (a take-home exam). Obviously the situation, the degree of opportunity it provided for cheating, made a big difference in the rate of dishonesty.

But although situational forces are important, some people may be more prone to dishonesty. The same goes for countries. Researchers, notably at the World Bank, have developed measures of corruption, and some countries consistently rank high (Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Paraguay), while others rank low (Denmark, Singapore).

In low-corruption countries, officials follow the rules even when it might be more convenient and more profitable to break them. In high-corruption countries, officials use the rules for private gain. Usually this takes the form of bribery. If you don’t bribe the right people, they may delay your project with interminable bureaucratic rules. Does this spill over into a general willingness to ignore inconvenient laws?

Ray Fisman at Columbia University realized that the UN in New York provided a ready-made natural experiment. Maybe Fisman had noticed all those cars with Diplomat plates parked in No Standing zones or next to fire hydrants, even though the city reserves special parking zones for them where we ordinary mortals may not park. Why shouldn’t they park illegally? They can get away with it. If Fisman or I parked there, we’d get a hefty ticket ($115). But diplomats have immunity, and they don’t have to pay for parking violations. Still, many diplomats obey the parking signs.

Fisman wondered if there might be a pattern among countries that freely flouted parking rules. So he got the city’s data on parking violations— even if the city couldn’t collect a fine, it still kept records— and sure enough, there was a strong correlation between a country’s score on the corruption index and the number of parking violations its diplomats had run up.



This copy of the graph is not very clear, and even in the original those three-letter country codes may be hard to read or decipher. You can get the full data set and original graph here.

The “culture of corruption” may explain parking violations. But what about Wolfowitz? It’s not hard to explain why a bureaucrat in Chad or Kazakhstan might use his office to secure a cushy job for his girlfriend. That’s just the way things are done. But the US does not have a culture of corruption.

Perhaps it’s more our belief in “US exceptionalism.” One facet of this belief is the idea that the US has a special place in the world and that it has been chosen by God to lead the world and improve the world. Because we are so important and because our intentions are so pure, we need not follow the usual rules and restraints that govern other countries when we try to accomplish our mission. As the World Bank investigation concluded, “Mr. Wolfowitz saw himself as the outsider to whom the established rules and standards did not apply.”

And besides, we have the power to force our will on other countries. Or as Mr. Wolfowitz so diplomatically put it, “If they fuck with me or Shaha, I have enough on them to fuck them too.”

In my mind’s eye, I can see Wolfowitz parking his car next to a No Standing sign and thinking “What I’m doing is so beneficial to the world that I must park in the most convenient spot, regardless of what the sign says.”

What’s My Survey Result?

May 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
The TV networks have announced their new shows and schedules. The descriptions would be easy to parody if they didn’t already sound like parodies themselves (“a unique, character-driven drama that explores the very different worlds of law and spirituality in a humorous and heartfelt way”).

So I will resist temptation and note merely the presence of a sociological reality show on CBS.

POWER OF 10 polls thousands of people across the U.S. asking them, well, just about everything - from “What percentage of married Americans said they were virgins the day they got married?” to “What percentage of American's believe they are smarter than the president?” Each week, contestants must decide if they have their finger on the pulse of the American majority and can accurately predict the results of these nationwide surveys.
The CBS reality crew is taking us from “Survivor” to survey. Maybe “Power of 10” will be useful in Methods courses. Or courses on American culture.

It sounds a lot like “Family Feud,” and maybe this is just another instance of television recycling its garbage. CBS is starting the show in the summer, a scheduling ploy that suggests they don’t have a lot of confidence in the show.

But then, the last game show to start in the summer was “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and it became a huge hit — probably because the host, Regis Philbin, got his bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Vacations II

May 16, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was a couple of days too early with the previous post about vacations. The graph I used was from a report that’s several years old. But today, the Center for Economic and Policy Research published a new study by Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt on the topic: “No-Vacation Nation.”

Here are some excerpts from the first paragraphs:

The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. European countries establish legal rights to at least 20 days of paid vacation per year, with legal requirement of 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries.

In the absence of government standards, almost one in four Americans have no paid vacation and no paid holidays. . . .The average worker in the private sector in the United States receives only about nine days of paid vacation and about six paid holidays per year.

Lower-wage workers are less likely to have any paid vacation (69 percent) than higher-wage workers are (88 percent).

US exceptionalism and our ignorance of the rest of the world have consequences. I wonder what would happen if Americans knew that workers in other countries are entitled by law to several weeks paid vacation. Americans are finally beginning to realize that people in other advanced countries do not live in fear of financial ruin because of illness, and politicians are finally beginning to talk about“single-payer” health plans. The single payer is, of course, the government, and these are the plans that used to be vilified as “socialized medicine.”

In a similar way, defenders of no-vacation nation argue against the government requiring employers to give even a few days of paid vacation. On “Marketplace,” the Public Radio business show, a “economics consultant” said, “I don't think it’s proper for the government to impose a one-size-fits-all policy on employers and workers.”



His statement has a familiar ring to it. Economic consultants say similar things about laws regarding minimum wage and workplace safety, and in the 19th century they probably made the same arguments against child labor laws.

Closed for Vacation?

May 15, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Real estate prices in Paris must be really low compared with New York,” said my son, then fourteen years old. It was August a couple of summers back, and we were on vacation in Paris. Why did he think so, I asked. Was he already, at age fourteen, looking around for investment opportunities?

“Well all these stores and restaurants, they close for a whole month,” he said. “In New York they can’t afford to close for a day.”

He was certainly right about the closings. We had walked around Paris and seen the signs, often hand-lettered, in small shops of all kinds—the household appliance store, the tabacs (newsstands), bakeries, bookstores. “Congé annuel. Nous serons fermés du 28 juin jusq’au 1ère septembre.” The tourist guidebooks even have a section for “restaurants open in August”; unless a restaurant was listed there, you could assume it was closed.

It wasn’t just Paris. Europeans generally get about twice as much paid vacation as do Americans (seven or eight weeks to our four). Paris real estate may have been less expensive than New York, but it wasn’t cheaper by a factor of two. So what could account for those long vacations and month-long closings?

Economists cite taxes. If those extra euros you get for working are going to be taxed at a high rate, why not take a vacation? Unions are also an important factor. In countries like France and Germany, most workers are covered by some sort of collective bargaining arrangement. But that raises the question of why those unions would press for more vacation rather than more money.

That leaves culture. European values and American values differ when it comes to weighing vacation time against more money. Americans can’t understand why someone would close the store when there’s money to be made. They are especially frustrated in Europe when they want to spend their money at one in the afternoon only to find that most of the stores are closed till three or four. Could lunch be more important than doing business? Apparently, it could. Not to Americans, who often eat while doing other work-related things — commuting to work, doing paperwork at their desks—but to the French, the Italians, and other Europeans.

Europeans value vacations not just as a way to relax but as a component of identity and self. “Americans talk about their jobs. The French talk about their vacations.” That quote (I wish I could remember where I found it) gets at the idea that people talk about things that are central to their sense of who they are. If someone tells you about his vacation, the way the people lived, the art in the museums and the folk art in the villages, the interesting foods and the elegant restaurants, etc., he is presenting himself as a certain kind of person, one who is curious about about art and culture and knows quite a lot about these subjects.

Americans talk about work. In fact, it’s not unusual for Americans to talk about vacations as a way to “recharge their batteries.” In other words, we take a vacation so that we can do better at work. And even when we’re on vacation, we now have cell phones and Blackberries to ensure that our separation from work is never complete.

It’s not just a matter of individual preference. These ideas about work and vacation get written into the rules of the society. This month in France, there are only something like twelve official working days. The other 19 days are vacation days of one sort or another. That includes the four Sundays in May. In America, up until a few decades ago, the blue laws of our Puritan heritage required stores to close on Sunday. But those laws have fallen away, and as my son noted, stores can’t afford to close even on Sunday because of competition with the stores that do stay open. If most companies can give only two weeks vacation, you’re going to have a hard time finding a job if you demand four or five weeks vacation.

M. Sarkozy, the newly elected president of France, has said that he wants the French to work more, and he may have some success in cutting back on vacation time. Still, it’s unlikely that Europeans will increase their work weeks to resemble ours. We spend more time at work, and as a result, we make more money and buy more stuff (Americans have very low rates of saving compared with other countries). We have bigger houses and bigger cars and more gadgets. We even have more vacation homes. We just have less vacation.

We'll Always Have Paris

May 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

France is still playing its typecast role in the American imagination. At least in the imagination of many Americans, France remains synonymous with sex— illicit, tempting sex. Sex for pleasure.

I thought this view had pretty much disappeared now, forty years into the sexual revolution. In pre-revolutionary America of the 1940s and 50s, sex wasn’t American, it was French. If you wanted to imply sex, you alluded to France. There was a big difference between a kiss and a “French kiss.” To “French” someone was to give them a blowjob (pardon my French). American “underwear” was plain cotton, functional without a hint of sex; if you wanted something lacy and sexy, you needed a French word— “lingerie.” A woman’s “nightgown” was about as sexy as flannel pajamas, and she wore it to bed when her goal was sleep. But if she were going to bed for sensual pleasure, she put on her “negligee.”

It was classic Freudian repression and projection. The culture repressed its own sexual thoughts, projected them onto France, and then castigated the French for expressing these sinful ideas.

Apparently, old stereotypes never quite die. Mitt Romney provides the most recent example. Romney was governor of the cosmopolitan and liberal state of Massachusetts, but now he’s running for the Republican nomination for president, and he’s trying to get the votes of the religious right. (Religion in America, and many other places, packs a strong dose of sexual repression.) So on Saturday, he gave a speech at Pat Robertson’s Regent University. According to the Washington Post report

He also criticized people who choose not to get married because they enjoy the single life.

“It seems that Europe leads Americans in this way of thinking,” Romney told the crowd of more than 5,000. “In France, for instance, I'm told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up.”

Pure imagination. There’s no such thing. There was a French movie that came out in 2003, “7 Ans de Mariage.” And in 1955, “The Seven-Year Itch,” a very American film gave us that famous image of Marilyn Monroe, a blast of air from a subway grating ballooning her white skirt.

But there’s no official state-approved marriage, and in fact France and most other countries in Europe have lower divorce rates (i.e., higher rates of lasting marriages) than does the US.

Where did Romney get this idea? And why didn’t the Washington Post reporter and many others who heard or read about the speech think to check Romney’s “facts”?

It seems that this is a classic “urban legend” — an anecdote, almost always without factual basis, that nevertheless gets passed along, told and retold, as true. According to Jan Harold Brunvand, who coined the term, these false stories gain currency and resist skepticism in part because they resonate with existing images and ideas.

If we already assume that Europeans, especially the French, take a cavalier approach to marriage and that they care more about their own sensual pleasures than about the sanctity and stability of the family; and if we assume that not just their people but also their governments are out to undermine the American way and American ideas (as the French sought to undermine the American view that invading Iraq was a really nifty idea); then the seven-year marriage story is so obviously in keeping with what we already “know” about them that we needn’t bother to check and see whether it’s actually true.

Hat tip to Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community on the Romney story.

The NBA Referees Story: Turnovers and Steals

May 5, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Well, I was right about at least one thing in my previous post about NBA referees: the story was heavily blogged. For the next two days it was #1 on the Times website list of most blogged articles. Bloggers on race (blackprof.com), sports and all angles on sports (thesportslawprofessor), and especially economists. The authors of the original article are economists. Levitt and Dubner of Freakonomics fame blogged it in reaction to popular demand: “Never in the history of the Freakonomics blog have so many people sent e-mails requesting comment on a newspaper article.”

But wait a minute. Excuse me. Why is this economics? This is a multiple-regression analysis of the effects of race on perception. Sociologists and social psychologists have been doing this sort of thing for over half a century. In college we read about Gordon Allport’s classic study, the one that resembled the parlor game
telephone.” One person views a picture, describes it as fully as possible to another, who in turn describes it to another and so on down the line. In the original picture, there is a black man (in 1945 he was probably a Negro) and a white man. The white man is holding a knife. Somewhere in the chain of telling and retelling, the knife changes hands.

The idea of the NBA study is that white refs perceive fouls differently depending on the race of the player. The effects were so tiny as to be invisible except under the microscope of a very large sample size. But regardless of the results, this is not economics. Money has absolutely nothing to do with it.


This is merely the latest incursion of economics into sociology
s court. Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt with Stephen Dubner, was a huge hit, a best-seller. But the topics in it often have little or nothing to do with economics: match-fixing in sumo tournaments; the popularity of baby names as a function of social class; the effect of black first names (e.g., DeShawn) on social mobility; the effect of Roe v. Wade on crime rates. Sounds like sociology to me.

Even sociologist Kieran Healy, in his Sociological Forum
review of Freakonomics, seems to concede the turf to the economists. Sociologists should pay attention to the substance of what he [Levitt] is doing, and then ask whether we think we have something better to offer in response. But the substance of what he is doing is sociology. And the same goes for the NBA study. I wonder if that unpublished paper would have gotten as much ink and bandwidth if the authors were sociologists and it had been submitted to a sociology journal.
Six years ago, Joel Best surveyed the history of sociological ideas that eventually became popular or practical: social work, public opinion polling, criminology, etc. It seems as though every time sociologists develop something that looks like it could turn a buck, we get rid of it. The title of Bests article was Giving It Away.” (American Sociologist, Spring 2001. Sorry, no link; it's not on line.)

But the NBA ref research and the kinds of studies in Freakonomics and elsewhere seem less like a clumsy turnover— dribbling the ball off our foot and into the other team’s hands— than an outright steal by the economist team. A take-away rather than a give-away.

I don’t think Best is asking for the refs to blow the whistle. But maybe more sociologists can get back on the floor and into the game.

Black and White in Black and White

May 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The New York Times had a front page sports story today. Not ARod’s homers, not Daisuke’s K’s. It was a story based on an unpublished paper by two academic economists. Study of N.B.A. Sees Racial Bias in Calling Fouls,” said the headline.

“We find that black players receive around 0.12-0.20 more fouls per 48 minutes played (an increase of 2 ½-4 ½ percent) when the number of white referees officiating a game increases from zero to three.”

Bloggers everywhere are going to be all over this story, but here's my take.

Are the NBA refs racially biased? The Times couldn’t find anyone in the NBA who would say so. Doc Rivers and Mo Cheeks—both black, both coaches— declined to comment, and Rod Thorn, president of the Nets said he didn’t believe it. There may be a difference between what guys in the NBA can say publicly and what they really think. Still, “no comment” is hardly ringing endorsement of the economists’ thesis, and you’d think the Times might have been able to get at least one or two retired players to say that maybe the white refs might have made some questionable calls against black players.

Why haven’t any players made the racism call against the refs? Why did it take two professors? Mostly because the racism, if it exists, is invisible to the naked eye. First, any racism on the part of the refs has to be unconscious. I can’t imagine a real racist anywhere in the NBA, certainly not among the referees.

More important, the bias effects are so small, you have to collect a mountain of data in order to detect them. It’s like a coin that you have to flip 10,000 times to detect its slight bias. The economists used thirteen NBA seasons with 600,000 fouls. And what did they come up with? A difference of at most 0.20 fouls per player per game. Five players, one-fifth of a foul. Imagine an all-black team playing an all-white team; at the end of the game, the black team would have been called for one more foul than the whites. (In my mind’s eye, I picture the all-white team, their shooting guard hacked while attempting a two-hand set shot, then going to the line and shooting his free throws using the old underhand scoop technique.)

In the real NBA of course, there are no all-white teams; blacks account for 83% of all playing minutes. How often do you see a team with even three white guys on the floor, even when the coach has gone deep into the bench? So with 17% white players, it works out to less than one extra foul every five games. It may be “statistically significant,” but statistically significant is not always meaningful.

The Celtics finished the 2006-07 season 24-58; they lost more than 70% of their games. They are not the Celtics I remember, the Celtics of the 1980s with Bird and McHale and Parrish. The difference is painful. But it’s not about the refs calling one extra foul a week.

Rereading James Baldwin

May 1, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
My son’s high school English teacher assigned James Baldwin’s Another Country. I had read this novel long ago but could remember absolutely nothing about it. Of course, that didn’t stop me from saying authoritatively that as a novelist Baldwin was a second-tier at best and that his greater contribution to literature was an an essayist.

The teacher should have assigned Nobody Knows My Name, I told my son, who didn’t seem to be much interested in my literary opinions. Still, for my own satisfaction, I went back to that book, and in the first essay I found this bit of sociology: Baldwin has returned from several years living in Europe, mostly in Paris; in comparing the US and Europe, he discovers
a rather serious paradox: though American society is more mobile that Europe’s it is easier to cut across social and occupational lines there than it is here. This has something to do, I think, with the problem of status in American life. Where everyone has status it is also perfectly possible that no one has. It seems inevitable, in any case, that a man may become uneasy as to just what his status is.

But Europeans have lived with the idea of status for a long time. A man can be as proud of being a good waiter as being a good actor, and, in neither case, feel threatened.

Baldwin wrote that in about 1960. I think deTocqueville said something similar 125 years earlier. Plus ça change.
Baldwin is particularly concerned for the way that the fluidity and uncertainty of American society affects the novelist.
The charge has often been made against American writers that they do not describe society, and have no interest in it. They only describe individuals in opposition to it, or isolated from it. . . . But what is Anna Karenina describing if not the tragic fate of the isolated individual, at odds with her time and place?

The real difference is that Tolstoy was describing an old and dense society in which everything seemed . . . to be fixed forever. And the book is a masterpiece because Tolstoy was able to fathom, and to make us see, the hidden laws which really governed this society and made Anna’s doom inevitable.

What Baldwin says about writers might just as easily apply to sociologists, both as researchers and especially as teachers of undergraduates. In fact, where Baldwin uses the word writer, meaning novelist, we might equally substitute sociologist.

American writers do not have a fixed society to describe. The only society they know is one in which nothing is fixed and in which the individual must fight for his identity. . .
The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.

Every society is really governed by hidden laws, by unspoken but profound assumptions on the part of the people, and ours is no exception. It is up to the American writer to find out what these laws and assumptions are.
Baldwin is best known as a black writer and for his writings on race, which are worth rereading. He was also a homosexual. He was born in 1924 and came of age in America of the 1940s and 50s, when being black and gay were even heavier burdens than they are today. Being an outsider, doubly so, does not guarantee that you’ll be a great novelist, but it does make you aware of the “laws and assumptions” that others take for granted and often do not notice