Summers School

November 29, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t know Larry Summers (though my father was a very good friend of his uncle), but I always sensed he was the kind of guy I wouldn’t like even when I agreed with him. And that was before I read this:

Over lunch not long after Summers took over the presidency in 2001, Ellison said, Summers suggested that some funds should be moved from a sociology program to the Kennedy School, home to many economists and political scientists. “President Summers asked me, didn’t I agree that, in general, economists are smarter than political scientists, and political scientists are smarter than sociologists?” Ellison said. “To which I laughed nervously and didn't reply.”

A major critique of Summers by faculty has been that he plays favorites with subject areas.

It’s from a Boston Globe piece in 2006, when Summers, as president of Harvard, was busy alienating much of the faculty.


Hat tip to Henry at The Monkey Cage, who is, I suppose, smarter than the average sociologist Boo Boo.

Vegans to the Moon

November 26, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

One of those strange coincidences. For some reason, Monday morning I was sitting in my office thinking about Jackie Gleason in the Honeymooners, his Ralph Kramden character stomping about the kitchen in anger and frustration. “One of these days, Alice, one of these days . . . . POW. Right in the kisser.” Or he would threaten to hit her so hard, she would go “to the moon.” These were regular laugh-getters.

Here's a collection of these threats; the first “pow” comes at 6:55 into the clip.



We knew he didn’t mean it. So did Alice, who would respond – unfazed, arms akimbo, scornful – “Sure, Ralph.” (It was the fifties. “Yeah, right” didn’t yet exist.)

Even so, you couldn’t use that “joke” today, I thought. ’Taint funny, McGee.

The coincidence is that the next day, bellelettre at Scatterplot posted a link to a blogpost by a law professor, Michael Dorf Neil Buchanan*, who asks, “How quickly can norms change?” Here’s his first example of norms that have changed:
I recently watched a rerun of the 60's sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show." The story revolved around a woman who was drawn to a man because he was a mean drunk, bringing out her "maternal" side. The final line of the episode had one character saying to another: "You know what we should do? Go home and hit our wives." Raucous laughter, upbeat theme music, roll credits. It goes without saying that this is shocking to us today.
Dorf’s Buchanan's other examples, besides domestic violence, are smoking, the environment, and alcohol use / drunk driving. But what’s interesting is that in Dorf Buchananf’s version, these attitudes change seemingly by themselves. People just change their minds. Here’s his take on smoking:
The driving force in this social change seems to have been more a matter of deciding who had the right to force other people to do what they wanted. This may have been caused by concerns about suffering, but from my perspective it seemed to be more about attitudes toward public cleanliness. Smoking came to be seen as ugly, not dangerous (which people had known even before the surgeon general's report in the 60's).

Dorf Buchanan presents change as a strangely passive phenomenon. There’s no human action/agency involved. Smoking “came to be seen as.” You can’t do “to the moon” jokes anymore “because of a rapid and widespread public acceptance of a new norm.”

Dorf Buchanan, who is now a vegan, wants attitudes on veganism to change, and he frames the issue as a matter of the awareness of harm. Attitudes on smoking, domestic violence, and the rest changed because of a similar awareness of harm.

But how do people become aware? I guess law professors don’t know about “moral entrepreneurs.” Anti-smoking groups, MADD, NOW, etc. If veganism becomes more accepted, it will have more to do with the actions of PETA and other groups than with the outcome of Talmudic debates about the certainty of suffering.

*SocProf at Global Sociology pointed out that I incorrectly attributed the post to Dorf when in fact it was written by Buchanan posting on Dorf's blog.

Mirror, Mirror

November 24, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m skipping the “Self and Socialization” unit this semester. The real reason is that time thieves have been at work, and the term is about two weeks too short this year. But beyond that, I’ve lost my faith. I realize how wrong I’ve been about some basic ideas. Taking the role of other, seeing ourselves as other see us, the looking-glass self – what a crock. In fact, people don’t see themselves as others see them, and I’m not just talking about people who are clearly delusional.

A few months ago, I was interviewed for a TV show – a show you’ve never heard of for a network you’ve never heard of, unless you’ve heard of Ebru TV. Weeks later, they sent me a DVD of the show. It was painful to watch myself. Not because I said things that were wrong (though there was some of that too), but because the person in that real video looked and sounded so different from the person in the imaginary video of myself that I carry around in my head.

A looking-glass self? Maybe, but that looking-glass is flat and flattering. That’s why it’s so distressing to look in those triptych mirrors in the fitting rooms. Or to watch yourself on TV. Who was this stiff-looking guy with the ungraceful walk and a much higher forehead than I remember, this guy who looked like my brother (what’s Jack doing in this video?) and not at all like Gregory Peck?

I didn’t sound like Gregory Peck either. I knew that already, but even so, I certainly didn’t hear myself as others hear me. It wasn’t just my voice, which sounds so much more resonant from inside my head than from outside. It was all those verbal tics – “y’know” and “I mean.” I had no idea how often and how unwittingly I utter them.

Maybe the proper question is not how socialization works. The interesting questions are about the discrepancy between the image we have of ourselves and the image others have of us. Why do we so seldom become aware of the discrepancy? And given this discrepancy, how do we manage to sustain social life?

Taylorism – Ann Taylorism

November 20, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

I had thought that Taylorism was a quaint bit of early twentieth century history. You remember Frederick Taylor, the father of “scientific management,” the guy who reduced each job to its smallest component motions, timing out exactly the one best way a worker could do each step.

Taylor wrote The Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. As early as the 1950s, those principles were already the subject of some disdain. In the 1954 musical The Pajama Game, the principle comic role is Hinesy, the “time study man,” who sings “Think of the Time I Save.”

Taylorism might have been appropriate for work in factories, even pajama factories. From working with a machine, it’s only a small step to working like a machine. But in the service sector, workers deal with actual human beings (customers), so it makes little sense to try to impose the dehumanizing style of Taylorism.

Or so I thought. Earlier this season, the Wall Street Journal reported on another Taylor – Ann – which had installed the Ann Taylor Labor Allocation System, ATLAS.
Ann Taylor spent a year studying labor efficiencies. It established standards for how long it should take for employees to complete certain tasks: three seconds to greet a shopper; two minutes to help someone trying on clothing; 32 seconds to fold a sweater; and most importantly, five minutes to clinch a sale.
The computerized system clocks sales per hour for each employee so that managers can cut back on the hours of less “productive” employees. “Each Wednesday, the new system generates the following week’s schedules, broken into 15-minute increments for maximum efficiency.” Some employees wound up with only a three-hour shift, a ten-hour week.

The consequences were predictable. Labor costs went down, employee dissatisfaction went up. Some workers quit, but that was before the current economic debacle. Strange, but for some reason the workers didn’t like their every minute being measured for efficiency. As John Gibbons, a sort of twenty-first century Taylor, says. “There’s been a natural resistance to thinking about human beings as pieces in a puzzle rather than individuals,” but he adds that when it comes to “clear methods of measurement [i.e. Taylorism], it’s a natural transition to apply it to human resources as well.” Natural somehow isn’t the word I would have chosen for this transition.

It’s not that Ann Taylor wasn’t thinking about employee reactions. That’s why they gave the system that cute name ATLAS. It “was important because it gave a personality to the system, so [employees] hate the system and not us.”

Ann isn’t alone. This week, the Journal reported on similar applications of Taylorism in retail – operating the cash register, folding clothes, making sales.

(Click on the chart to see a larger version.)

So the next time you’re shopping at Ann Taylor, the Gap, Wal-Mart, or any other retail chain store, remember, as Hinesy in The Pajama Game says, seconds are ticking, girls, seconds are ticking.

Hondling with the Bureaucracy

November 17, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Department of Motor Vehicles – the epitome of bureaucracy. I suspect I’m not the only sociology teacher who uses it as an example in the unit on bureaucracy. In an intro text, a picture of an office carries this caption: “Bureaucracies, such as this Department of Motor Vehicles, are organized according to hierarchical and rule-driven forms of social organization.” Hierarchy of authority and universalism, just as Weber says.

A few weeks ago, I found a ticket on my windshield: improper display of registration sticker. The glue holding my sticker to the windshield had proven not up to the task and one side of the sticker had curled away from the windshield.

I didn’t know that the Parking Violations Bureau was so offended by impropriety. Nor did I think that the iron cage of a rule-driven bureaucracy would stretch the rules for me. But I was pissed. So I took some pictures, typed a very brief objection, and checked the box marked “Not Guilty.”

I was pretty sure that their response would be to quote the relevant passage in the law and tell me to pay the $65. Or maybe, just maybe, they’d uphold my plea. I figured that in the rules, these were the only two possibilities – guilty or not guilty.

Instead, the PVB has a deal for me.


(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

So the bureaucracy wants to hondle. They’re saying in effect, “The fine is sixty-five dollars . . . . but for you, forty-three.” And I thought plea bargaining was just for criminal court.

I wonder if Weber is turning over in his iron cage. I’m also wondering what happens if I make a counter-proposal. I offer them $20, and we finally settle at $30 or so. Oh, I know what the paragraph below the offer says – take it or risk an all-or-nothing decision. But what the hell – if they’re willing to knock off a third of the price just because I sent in a couple of photos, maybe they’ll come down a little further.

Food As Medicine

November 13, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Food as medicine. That was the dismissive phrase David G. used. David has been in the food biz in one way or another for decades, and he has little use for the idea of health-conscious eating. He has nothing against health. He just doesn’t make it his primary criterion in deciding what to eat. It’s like people who go to the race track and base their bets on the jockey’s silks. Yes, the silks are pretty, and some are more attractive than others, and it’s a good thing to wear nice clothes. But that’s not what horse racing is all about.

Food, like sex, is one of those items that gets slathered with layers of cultural meaning. A British friend, decades ago, pointed out to me that in the US, advertisements for food, especially children’s foods, were often all about the energy that food gives you so that you can go out and achieve.

If there really is a culture war, food may be one of the important battlegrounds, except that in the food-culture war, there are several different flags. What’s in a meal? Love, togetherness, Cartesian logic, propriety, health, efficiency? Are we having a healthy meal or a happy meal?

Lisa at Sociological Images showed how different themes got packaged into different TV dinners. It was a great post. Lisa called attention to the fonts, the names, the colors – things you see but don’t consciously notice. Health, it seemed, was a feminine concern.

So I was a bit surprised to see this ad on the commuter train this morning. And I remembered David G.

Why I Am Not in Business

November 10, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Dave was looking for shoelaces when I ran into him on the street yesterday. He can certainly afford them. After a successful career as a bond trader, Dave formed his own small investment company, and even in these hard times in the financial industry, with jobs, companies, and banks disappearing, he hasn’t had to lay anybody off.

He’d been walking for fifteen blocks and still hadn’t found shoelaces for his sneakers. Now he was on his way to Tip Top Shoes on West 72nd St., which would surely have them. I would have been annoyed; I might even have been curious as to why shoelaces had become so hard to find. That’s why I’m in academics and not business.

“I figure in this economic climate, people will be buying shoelaces,” Dave said. “They won’t be buying new shoes. It’ll be shoelaces. And Shoe-GOO, remember that?” I nodded, and he went on, “I should be looking for shoelace companies to invest in.”

It sounded like he was kidding. Maybe not. But that thought wouldn’t even have crossed my mind.

A Sign of Change

November 7, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s not that I don’t get sentimental and emotional and teary sometimes about political events (like recent ones). I do. It’s just that I don’t care for emotionality as a political tool. I especially dislike the use of little kids in politics – by candidates or supporters. I cringe when I see kids marching carrying signs their parents have persuaded or forced them to carry – even when I agree with what the signs say.

But this is different.


It’s by Ezra Klein at The American Prospect, and you must absolutely go here and see the full photo-story.

It’s spontaneous and not exploitative. And it’s something you would never have seen at a McCain or Palin celebration.

Take a Tip from Me

November 7, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a new blogger on the block - Brooke Harrington at Economic Sociology. Most recently, she wonders why tip jars don’t get stolen more often. The tip jar is an easy target, often unwatched. Brooke sees the survival of tip jars as evidence of trust.

Yes, but there are also laws against stealing, even when you can probably get away with it.

Economists are puzzled by seemingly irrational behavior, especially when it doesn’t violate the law – like standing in line to vote when it’s almost certain that your vote won’t affect the outcome of the election. Even worse is irrationality that’s explicitly economic. When a person or organization fails to maximize its gain, say charging less than what the market would bear, economists refer to it as “leaving money on the table.”

That’s also a pretty accurate description of tipping, which is another puzzle to economists. But here’s a puzzle for lawyers or ethicists: If you sit down at a restaurant table that still hasn’t been cleared and you pocket the tip someone left, that’s stealing. But what about this: you take half the money, and when you finish your meal, you add it to the tip you leave. The server comes out no worse, but the previous diner looks like a piker, and you look like a very generous tipper.

My father claimed that this hypothetical was a question on an exam when he was a law student.

Two Years Ago - Illinois, DC, Hawaii

November 4, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

The news kept reminding me that this campaign had been going on for two years. True, and things can change a lot in two years. Here's a map, apparently legit, from SurveyUSA.


Exactly two years ago, SurveyUSA completed interviews with 600 voters in every state (30,000 total interviews), asking them how they would vote in a 2008 Presidential Election between John McCain and Barack Obama.

Hat tip to Wesleying, where I first saw this.

Is Realignment Real?

November 4, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

What will the Democratic victory today mean for political alignment?*

At our one-week-to-go colloquium on the election last Tuesday, political scientist Dan Cassino talked about realignment. Some Presidential elections seem to turn the political map inside out. When Dan flashed from the election map of 1928 to the map of 1932, it looked almost like a magic trick. Watch closely – with a click of a mouse, the country goes from nearly all red to nearly all blue.



He repeated the effect with 1964 and 1968.


Did these elections crystallize a long-term realignment in US politics? The 1932 election was the first of five straight Presidential victories for the Democrats. The Republicans, starting in 1968 won five out of six.

But is realignment real? Certainly the realignment Karl Rove predicted – a permanent Republican majority – didn’t happen, despite the efforts of the Bush administration to turn every government department and agency into a wholly owned subsidiary of the RNC.

Now, in reading around in Brendan Nyhan’s blog , I discover that realignment itself may be a myth, existing more in the eye of the beholder than in political reality.
David Mayhews Electoral Realignments: A Critique of an American Genre . . . argues convincingly that so-called realignments are a product of statistical naivete and the human penchant for hyperactive pattern detection rather than a real phenomenon of American politics.
Those periods of Democratic and Republican dominance might just be the result of random variation.
In the sequence of presidential elections from 1856 through 1980, the distribution of victory “runs” by party . . . did not differ significantly from the runs of heads and tails that would be expected from coin flips. Also, in the absence of repeat major-party candidates (such as Reagan in 1984 or Bryan in 1900), a presidential election four years ago holds virtually zero predictive value for this year's election—either in predicting this year’s victorious party or this year’s party shares of the vote
Why do I find this idea so hard to accept? In sports, I’ve always scoffed at the idea “momentum.” The sports announcer saying that “after that interception in the third quarter, the Jets had the momentum” is like a roulette player talking about red gaining the momentum from black.

But voting is not a random event. Voters aren’t flipping coins. They are making choices based on their perceptions of the candidates and the current situation. People may change their ideas when circumstances change. And newer generations of voters may see the world and politics differently from older voters.

So realignment may be real, just not as sudden as the maps make it appear. Our two-party system and winner-take-all allocation of each state’s electoral vote magnify differences. Two states may differ by a fraction of a percentage point, but one will be all blue and the other all red. Maps that allowed for shades of purple would show a much more gradual shift.

*Im writing this well before the votes have been tallied, in fact before most votes have been cast.

The Bars of a Cell

November 3, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has a some information on something I’ve been wondering about for some time:
  • What are pollsters doing about sampling cell phone users
  • Does it make a difference whether they are sampled?
The answers:
  • It depends on the pollster
  • Yes
The polls in the Cingular-y orange color include cellphones in their samples; the polls in gray do not. The cellphone polls have Obama ahead by an average of 9.4 points; the landline-only polls, 5.1 points.

I did a radio hit the other afternoon with Mark DeCamillo of California's vaunted Field Poll, which does include cellphones in their samples. He suggested to me that it was much easier to get the cooperation of cellphone users on the weekend than during the week. How come? Because most cellphone plans include free weekend minutes. Conversely, one might expect that young people are particularly difficult to reach on their landlines over the weekend, since they tend to be away from home more (especially on a weekend when some nontrivial number of them are out volunteering for Obama). So, while I haven't tried to verify this, it wouldn't surprise me if the "cellphone gap" expands over the weekend, and contracts during the week.


Subprime Wine

November 2, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If Wall Street gives you a recession, take the subprime cabernet you wouldn’t dare sell under your usual label, call it Recession Red, and price it so that retailers can sell it for four dollars.

They also have a Recession White (chardonnay) and of course, in honor of Miles Raymond, a Merlot.