Cause and Responsibility

August 30, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Causation is a tricky problem, especially when any degree of distance separates a causal factor from the actual behavior we are trying to prove, and especially when that causal factor is social – a structure, a culture – rather than individual. Moral responsibility is a different matter, less subject to the rigors of scientific proof.

When Dr. Tiller, who did late term abortions, was assassinated, Operation Rescue disclaimed any moral responsibility for the crime although they had long been calling for the doctor to be “brought to justice.” At the time (in this blog post) , I was reminded of the assassination of Thomas Becket by Henry II’s knights. I should have added that King Henry, at least, later took responsibility for the crime.

Now we have a pastor in Arizona who, shortly before Obama made a local appearance, preached sermon with prayers for the death of Obama.

One of Anderson’s parishioners was Chris Brougton, who showed up at demonstration in Phoenix outside where Obama was speaking. Broughton was carrying an AR-15 assault rifle.
Broughton didn’t shoot. But somebody else might. Rick Sanchez on CNN says
A CNN source with very close to the U.S. Secret Service confirmed to me today that threats on the life of the president of the United States have now risen by as much as 400 percent since his inauguration, 400 percent death threats against Barack Obama — quote — “in this environment” go far beyond anything the Secret Service has seen with any other president.
An “environment” is not legally responsible for any specific act. It would also be difficult, if not impossible, to show which individuals created the environment. That’s the wonderful thing about thinking only in terms of individuals and ignoring social forces. It allows you to disclaim all responsibility.

Red Jock, Blue Jock

August 29, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The US Open starts today. Not the real stuff, but the qualifying rounds for unknowns hoping for a spot in the draw. You can walk into the Tennis Center, no charge, and see some good matches. Who knows, you might see Federer or Venus working out on a practice court.

And after a long day swatting a little yellow ball back and forth, there’s nothing pro tennis players like better than to give money to the Democrats, even more than Nascar drivers give to Republicans (in absolute dollars, not in Red/Blue percentages).
Newsmeat has the data on presidential contributions from the sports world since 1978, and Andrew Gelman converted it into this nifty chart.

allsports.png


The numbers are slightly misleading. The big contributions come from the owners and executives, not the athletes (are Nascar drivers athletes?). Steinbrenner, Modell, Wilpon, et. al., have ponied up hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in a couple of cases, millions. The contributions of most of the players we see on the screen rarely spill out of four figures.
Andre Agassi gave $189,500, 95% to Democrats.

Good for Agassi. And his colleagues. I always did like tennis.

If you want to find me at the Open, check the men’s doubles matches. Why? See this (ungated, at least for the moment).

Status Politics Again – Looking Back From the Future

August 26, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The news photos of health care reform protestors – invariably described as “angry” – remind me of the photos and footage of the angry protestors in Little Rock over a half century ago.

The boy in the picture on the right must be in his sixties today. When he sees this photo now, what does he think of himself, or of his parents or whoever it was that got him to carry the sign? And all those other protesters – how many years did it take, I wonder, for their anger to turn to embarrassment or even shame? Or are they still proud of their efforts to keep black children from going to school with white children?

And now we have people angrily protesting an attempt to ensure that all Americans have health care. How will these protesters feel in ten or twenty years when they look back? What will their children or grandchildren think when they see these pictures 50 years from now?


These protests are status politics (an earlier post on this is here). They are about the symbolic meaning of a policy rather than its actual consequences. Whatever fantasies about “race mixing” may have haunted the white protesters in Little Rock, in their more rational moments, they could not really have believed that desegregating schools would have some real effect on their kids’ education or lives. Instead, desegregation was a statement that they and their ideas had lost their status in US society.

In the same way, I find it hard to believe that the people screaming about Hitler, socialism, death panels, and the rest really want to keep 40+ million Americans uninsured and to keep US health care the least cost-effective in the world. Their protests, like those of the segregationists, are about “the government.” The government, in this sense, is the symbolic representation of the country. The message they heard in desegregation and hear now in “Obamacare” is that their position in the country is no longer the dominant one.

Good Terrorists

August 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms are in the physical.” When psychologist Solomon Asch, in 1946, told American students that the quote was from Lenin, they rejected the idea. Told that Jefferson was the author (and he was), they tended to agree with it. After all, the Fourth of July is a celebration of revolution, i.e., rebellion.

Fast forward to the present, and let’s talk about terrorism. I thought the word terrorist was an automatic red flag. Remember Sarah Palin’s “pals around with terrorists” slur on Obama because he had served in a couple of education and anti-poverty organizations that Bill Ayres was also part of?

Suppose a Congressman holds a public meeting at which a member of the audience says, “I’m a terrorist.” How would any US politician respond? Would he denounce the man, or would he call him “a great American”?

Think again.

Wally Herger is a Congressman from Northern California, and last week he held a town hall meeting on health care.

I guess a little terrorism now and again is a good thing, so long as it’s right-wing terrorism. To what extent will the far right wingers convert their admiration for terrorism from words into actions? The record of terrorist attacks on abortion clinics and abortionists gives us some cause for concern.

Update, August 27. The video of the exchange between the self-proclaimed terrorist and Rep. Herger shows that the man uses the phrase right-wing terrorist almost in quotation marks, as if to preface his proclamation by something like, “Supporters of Obama have called us ‘right-wing terrorists.’ In that case, I am a proud right-wing terrorist.”

But as far as I know, nobody has called these tea-baggers and other assorted wingnuts terrorists unless they have in fact committed terrorist acts. Google the phrase and all you will find are references to this guy at the town hall meeting and to the Homeland Security report on real right-wing terrorists.

(HT: Mark Kleiman)

Was He Fat? I Didn’t Even Notice

August 24, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

At least two or three times a semester, I’ll tell my class that people don’t really know why they do what they do. Nobody believes me, so I rephrase the idea: We are often unaware of many things that affect our behavior.

Sometimes, we pay a price for that ignorance.

In an experiment reported this year, Eugene Caruso and colleagues told volunteers that they would be competing in a sort of trivia contest, and they could choose their teammates. They were shown pictures of the potential teammates and given information on three variables, each with three categories)
  • Education (High School, B.A., M.A.)
  • IQ (23, 93, 104)
  • Experience (never played the game before, played 3 times, plays every week)
Oh, and one more thing. The person in the picture could be either thin or fat.

Researchers asked the subjects, 101 college students,* why they made the choices they did – that is, which criteria were most important in their decisions. Weight, which has nothing to do with winning trivia contests, was the big loser. On a 9-point scale, the students rated it 2.5 in importance; the other factors were rated 4.9, 6.4, and 5.2, respectively.

But the data on actual choices told a different story. Weight accounted for more of the variance than did any other variable, about 25%. “Participants gave up about 11 IQ points to have a thin rather than overweight teammate.”

Three points here.
  • First, the students discriminated against fat people.
  • Second, they were unaware of how their own prejudices involved.
  • And third, when you ask people why they did something, what you get is not an accurate assessment of factors that actually affected their behavior. Instead, people mention those factors that should rationally be at work.**

*For reasons not explained in the paper, these were Bulgarian students. The title of the paper is, “101 Bulgarians Using Conjoint Analysis to Detect Discrimination Revealing Covert Preferences from Overt Choices.” Just kidding about the part before the dash. Bulgaria is not all that far from Dalmatia, but Cruella DeVil is not even in the footnotes.

** The classic statement of this idea is Nisbett and Wilson’s “Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes,” Psychological Review 84 (May 1977), pp. 231-259.

The Food’s Not Bad Either

August 21, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

For those of us who have never lived in a country with socialized medicine, it’s always useful to get the truth from ground level about the horrors of these inferior systems. J.A. Getzlaff is an American journalist who lives, for the moment, in Paris. Here are some excerpts about French medical coverage from her blog, Foreign Parts.

Obviously, she’s biased and selective in her reporting. For example, she completely omits any mention of les panels de mort.

A euro is about $1.42. To make it simple, just multiply by 1.5. So as an American in Paris, she pays about $85 a month for her health insurance.

The hospital room costs her $24 (€16) a night, more if she wants a . . .


No Heroes

August 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “more guns, less crime” crowd have a romantic fantasy of bravely defending themselves and their property (and of course their wives and children) against potential predators (see my earlier post here) . It’s the adolescent boy’s super-hero fantasy, only the boys are older, and instead of imagined super-powers, they have actual super-weapons.

The reality of shooting bad guys in self-defense is far more complicated. The people who have done it don’t feel like heroes.

I tried to make this point in an overly long post a few days ago about Charles Augusto, the Harlem store owner. Kareem Farim, reporting in today’s The New York Times, does it better. He mentions Augusto’s sympathy for the families of the robbers. Then,
His emotions echoed those of Peter Giron, the co-owner of a South Bronx dry cleaning establishment who shot and killed a 17-year-old gunman in 1978. Mr. Giron collapsed and had to be sedated after the 17-year-old’s father visited his store and politely asked about the shooting.

A few owners said the shootings in their pasts, even those from decades ago, were still too painful to talk about. One, who would speak only anonymously, said, “I’ve been trying to forget about this since it happened.”

Ivan Blume, who wrestled a gun away from a robber and killed both him and his accomplice at his store, Quality Canines, in Brooklyn, in 2003, would say only, “It’s a chapter in my life I’d rather close.”

Healthcare, Lies, and Videotape, and More Lies

August 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

You can’t fool all of the people all of the time, said Honest Abe. Maybe so, but Lincoln missed the point. You only have to fool about half of the people every couple of years. And dishonesty seems to be a pretty effective way to do it.

Some of the assertions about health care reform –broadcast in the media and sent around the Internet – are just plain lies. Here are four of them. The assessments are from either PolitiFact or FactCheck.org


(For a larger, legible view, click on the image.)

Do these lies have any impact? A recent NBC/WSJ poll asked people how likely some of these outcomes were.
  • Will give health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants
  • Will lead to a government takeover of the health care system
  • Will use taxpayer dollars to pay for women to have abortions
  • Will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly
Does lying work? At least for the moment, it certainly looks as though it’s not doing the liars any harm.


One more thing. Of the people who had seen coverage of the town hall meetings, most (62%) said that these made no difference in their views. The rest were about evenly split – 16% said they’d become more favorable to the Obama plan, 19% less favorable, because of the protests.

(Hat tip: Ezra Klein)

Kind of Blue

August 20, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Kind of Blue. The LP was released fifty years ago this week. It’s the best-selling album in the history of jazz, and year in year out, it continues to sell. Has anyone in the sociology of culture tried to explain this kind of durability?


It’s easy to explain how and why Kind of Blue was different and influential – its use of modes rather than chord changes as the basis for solos (though the first track on the album Milestones, recorded a year earlier, was also modal in concept). But that’s probably not much of a consideration for most people who buy and listen to the album. Its initial success owed something to the tastes of the time. It came out at a time when jazz was at its most popular. But does that account for its continued popularity?

Are there other albums in other genres that still sell decades after they first came out. The Wall? Sgt. Pepper? The Glenn Gould Goldberg Variations?

Inside the Insurance Industry

August 19, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is just the threat of a public option changing the way insurance companies do business? I had to call my insurer yesterday to find out if an MRI at the place designated by my doctor would be covered. The MRI lab is in New York, my coverage is in New Jersey, so it wasn’t clear and simple. The guy I talked to was incredibly polite and helpful, checking every way he could, explaining the problem, asking if it was all right to put me on hold while he checked. He might as well have been saying, “We really, really want to keep your business.”

Meanwhile, if you had any doubts that the structural forces of the market affect health care, and not always for the benefit of the patient, check out this long interview with Wendell Potter. Potter is the former Cigna head of “corporate communications” who has been telling tales out of school, revealing what insurance companies actually do – how and why. (The “loss ratio” he refers to is the percent that the insurance company pays out to cover medical expenses. The lower the loss ratio, the higher the company’s profit. See this earlier SocioBlog post. )
As recently as fifteen years ago, the medical-loss ratio in this country was 95 percent. Since then, there’s been great industry consolidation to the point that now there are seven companies that dominate. They’re all for-profit. During the time that this consolidation, this shift to for-profit occurred, the medical-loss ratio has continued to drop. Now it’s around 80 percent. That means twenty cents of every dollar goes to something other than paying medical claims. Just fifteen years ago, ninety-five cents of every dollar went to paying medical claims. This trend is due to pressure from Wall Street. If a company misses Wall Street’s expectations—if the medical-loss ratio starts to inch up—the company will suffer. I’ve seen companies lose 20 percent of their stock value in one day by disappointing Wall Street with their medical-loss ratio.

Sightseers on the sociology tour bus will come across other points of interest in this interview.
  • Social movements? The role of corporate PR in the “grassroots” reaction against health care reform. (“They’re skilled at setting up front groups to spread disinformation.” )

  • Ideology? The relation between the insurance industry and Congress (“The industry has contributed so heavily to the Republicans over the years that they are pretty much assured that every single Republican in Congress will vote exactly the way they want.”)

  • Social psychology? How the structure of insurance executives’ lives shapes their perceptions and misperceptions (“you get a very skewed understanding of America.”)
Potter also cites the events that led to his own apostasy (“Sicko,” a free health care expo at a fairgrounds in Virginia (“hundreds of people waiting in the rain while physicians attended to patients in animal stalls . . . ‘Is this the United States?’ ”).

The Roads Go Without Saying, Don’t They?

August 18, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Republican attack on Obama’s health care proposals has worked marvelously. The “public option” is all but dead. Harking back to Ronald Reagan’s line that “government is the problem,” Republicans railed against “government run” health care, stating as fact that the government can’t run anything well. For Republican lawmakers, this apparently includes the legislatures they themselves are part of. But pay no attention to that.

There’s a lot more to pay no attention to, and not just the government-run medical programs that do exist – the VA, Medicare, and Medicaid. Most of the protestors drove to their protests on government-run roads; most send their kids to government-run schools, and honor their government-run police and fire departments. . . .

Here’s Monty Python making the same point thirty years ago. “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”


(Hat tip: Mark Thomson at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.)

Reality – We Lost It at the Movies

August 17, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston
If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. Whether or not Einstein really said this or really meant it, it might well be the motto of the New York Post.


In New York, last week, four robbers entered a run-down looking restaurant supply store on 125th St. They started to struggle with one of the employees, hitting him with a pistol, paying no attention to the owner, 70-year Charles Augusto. Augusto pulled out a shotgun and fired three times, killing two of the robbers, wounding the other two.

The New York Post carried the headline “Make My Day.” But what happened on 125th was not Dirty Harry (see the relevant clip from “Sudden Impact” here ). Charles Augusto tried to persuade the robbers that there was nothing worth stealing. He tried to get them to leave. Confrontation was the last thing he wanted. Pulling the shotgun was impulsive, not thought out. The gun had been sitting, never fired, for twenty years, so Augusto could have no idea whether it would even work.

The Daily News headline got it right. Shooting the robbers was not something he wanted to do. It brought him no satisfaction, nor does he think it was at all heroic. He was not trying to rid the world of evildoers. He was trying to get some robbers to stop hitting his employee.

Unlike the Post and Dirty Harry, Charles Augusto understands that death – even the death of a violent criminal – is not an isolated fact. Other people are inevitably involved, as Augusto knew from experience. His own son had committed suicide twelve years earlier, and now he has nothing but sympathy for the families of the dead. “I know the pain these people must feel.”

The Post headline reeks of smug self-satisfaction, a reaction far different from Charles Augusto’s reality. “I don’t know what feels worse, now or when my only son died.”

“Funny People” – Making Hard Choices Easy

August 15, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“We make extremely right-wing movies with extremely filthy dialogue.” Seth Rogen was talking about “Knocked Up,” and by “we” he meant the Judd Apatow repertory company.

Ross Douthat, the New York Times’s new right-wing columnist, included the quote in his op-ed on Apatow’s most recent film “Funny People.” According to Douthat this movie is more “grown-up” and “realistic” in its family values. “Doing the right thing comes harder.”

I saw a movie called “Funny People” last week, but it must not have been the same one Douthat saw. The one I saw twisted itself out of shape to make doing the right thing come easy.

Spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal the plot and ending,

George (Adam Sandler) is a very successful comedian who contracts a potentially deadly disease but then, miraculously, recovers. When he thinks he’s facing death he phones his ex-girlfriend Laura, who left him twelve years earlier because he was cheating on her. She is now a wife and mother. He realizes that he messed up back then and wants to rewind the tape.

She comes to visit, and later, when George is healthy again, he goes to see her in her Marin County home (her husband is, as usual, out of town). Both meetings show that they still love one another and that they still have a certain something. George wants her to break up her marriage and be with him.

The conservative message comes at the end, when Laura is faced with a family-values dilemma: should she leave her husband and get back together with George?


At first, the film tips the scales towards divorce. She and George still have that chemistry, and besides, her husband is isn’t much of a husband. He’s macho-obnoxious and frequently out of the country on business. And he cheats on her.

Whichever she chooses, love or family, she will lose something. If she stays with her husband, she will lose George’s love, humor, etc. If she chooses happiness with George, she will lose her family; her children will suffer as well.

It’s a real dilemma, a grown-up problem. True love or family. You can’t have it both ways. But wait.

American movies and television have a long tradition of presenting a real problems and then conjuring up amagical solutions. It’s called “the Hollywood ending.” “Funny People” is no exception. At first, Laura decides to split from her husband and go with George. But no sooner does she nod in his direction than he is suddenly transformed, and not for the better. Five minutes ago, he delighted in playing silly games on the floor with her kids and dogs; now he can barely bring himself to stay in the same room with them. Before, he was attentive to every nuance of Laura’s feelings. Now, he ignores her, flipping open his cellphone to read text messages about movie deals and money.

Her husband has a similar transformation though in the opposite direction, renouncing his extramarital affairs (just two), vowing to get a job that will keep him close to his family, and declaring his love and devotion to his wife. Surprise, surprise – she decides to stay with her husband.

See, the decision only appeared to be a hard one. In the end, doing the right thing brings no sacrifice at all.

The real cheating in this film is not men’s infidelity to women; it’s the director Apatow’s infidelity to the story he himself has created.

This is not a perfect film. The “lonely at the top” theme is a bit of a cliche. The movie is long, nearly 2 ½ hours, because it tries to paste together three different movies: the ex-girlfriend dilemma; George facing death; Ira (Seth Rogen) the virtuous, innocent schnook, hanging around with the super-successful George.

But the movie is often funny, and it’s at its best when it’s about comedy. It makes you appreciate how difficult stand-up is, with its strange relationship between performer and audience. The key to success is not to tell a funny joke but to capture the audience. The same jokes that seem lame when done by an unseasoned, aspiring performer (Rogen) become good material in the hands of a pro like George, partly because of his ability, his craft, but also because the audience is already on his side. The film also shows how much these comedians rely on “dick jokes,” which don’t bring much admiration from colleagues but can get laughs, especially with unsophisticated audiences.

And then there’s James Taylor, whose two spoken lines in the film (he also sings one song) are hilarious – playing completely against his usual persona.

What He Said

August 14, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

After I’d written yesterday’s post – and I actually spent some time trying to make my thoughts coherent – I found out that The Daily Show had made pretty much the same point two days earlier. They now have a recurring segment called “Reform Madness,” an allusion to Reefer Madness. This installment was called “White Minority” and featured Senior Black Correspondent Larry Wilmore.


This is just a screen shot. Go here to see it if you missed it earlier this week. You’ll see what I mean (and maybe what Trrish meant in her comment yesterday.

Status Politics and Anti-HealthCare

August 13, 2009  
Posted by Jay Livingston

The hard core protesters are making it clear that for them, this isn’t really about health care. It’s about something much larger.


Poor Arlen Specter. He may have wanted to talk about health care, but as the New York Times  reported yesterday, many in the crowd didn’t want to discuss coverage.
They got up before dawn in large numbers with angry signs and American flag T-shirts, and many were seething with frustration at issues that went far beyond overhauling health care. . . .
“This is about the dismantling of this country,” Katy Abram, 35, shouted at Mr. Specter, drawing one of the most prolonged rounds of applause. “We don’t want this country to turn into Russia.”
For Obama and the Democrats, it’s about getting it right and getting it passed. For several other interested parties (insurance companies, Big Pharma, and the rest), it’s about economic self-interest. But for the protesters – the people shouting down discussion at town meetings, carrying signs about “socialism,” ranting about rationing and “death panels” – the issue has taken on symbolic qualities that have nothing to do with health care and much to do with status politics.

Harold Lasswell famously said, “Politics is who gets what, when, and how.” But status politics has little to do with tangible interests. Status politics is flying the Confederate flag on the state capitol. It has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with status. Campaigns to make English the “official language” have this same quality. The question is not who gets what. Instead the question is: whose country is this?

My thinking in all this is inspired by Joseph Gusfield’s Symbolic Crusade, about the temperance movement, which grew in the late 19th century and achieved its greatest victory in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment.

As Gusfield puts it,
Since governmental actions symbolize the position of groups in the status structure, seemingly ceremonial or ritual acts of government are often of great importance to many social groups.
Gusfield argues that while anti-alcohol laws may have been about the evils of drink, they also reaffirmed the cultural and political dominance of those who had been running the country but now felt their position threatened. Beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, these groups – Protestant, rural or small-town, middle class, and agrarian – saw new groups rising to challenge the position of dominance that they had long taken for granted. These arrivistes were largely urban rather than rural, industrial rather than agrarian, Catholic rather than protest, lower class or upper class rather than middle, cosmopolitan rather than local, modern rather than traditional. And they drank. They did not share the old order’s value on abstinence as a sign of virtue, nor did they deem it a necessity for respectability.

By passing laws, especially a national law, the old order could reassure themselves that America was still their country. Then, in 1929, it became clear that what they had been doing with their country hadn’t turned out so well, and in 1932 the “Roosevelt coalition” – urban, ethnic, industrial (plus the anti-Republican South) – swept them out. Notably, one of the first things on the agenda was Repeal.

With health care, the status-politics issue is less clear because private and public insurance are not important aspects of any group’s identity. But these protesters bear a strong resemblance to the temperance constituency – white, non-urban, middle class, local, largely Protestant, anti-immigrant. They are Palin’s peeps.

Ever since Obama took office, they have been looking for a battleground issue where they could show that they were still in control. The financial bailout might have been the Big Issue, but since the economy tanked when Bush had been in control for eight years, it was hard to blame the crisis on Obama or the Democrats. And Bush himself had been the one to start tossing huge sums to Wall Street. The Teabaggers didn’t really have an issue; they could never clarify what they were against let alone what they were for. Foreign policy? Most Americans would prefer to forget about Iraq. They feel that any foreign policy would be better than what Bush got us into.

So health care is where the old order makes its stand. Early on, their spokesman Rush Limbaugh said flat out that he was rooting for Obama to fail. So they protest “Obama care.” But the issue is not really health care, and not even the president. Obama – urban, non-white, cosmopolitan, with ties to both the lower class (community organizing on Chicago’s South Side) and the upper class (Harvard Law) – has become the symbol of their loss of dominance.

The protesters remind me of a spoiled child used to having his way. “Seething with frustration,” is how the Times reporter put it – frustration at losing their position of dominance. They feel that despite Obama’s getting a majority of the votes, his Presidency is still an illegitimate usurpation. The “birthers” make this claim explicitly. But the health care protesters seem to share this idea that their power has been illegitimately taken from them. “I demand my voice,” said one of the signs at the Specter meeting, implying that even if that voice was in the minority and had lost the election, it still should carry the day.

But the protesters, the followers of Fox News and Limbaugh, still can’t grasp that they were outvoted last November. They still think that the US is their country. In the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush years, they knew it was their country. Democrats were allowed to live in it as long as they accepted that dominance. If they dissented, they were accused of treason. “America – love it or leave it.”

Yet even though they are now in the minority, they still think that they are “the Real America” and that the US still belongs to them. But the Real America is coming face to face with reality.
The change has been coming for a while. – the 2006 elections were a sign of this political and cultural shift as I suggested at the time (here) . But the election of Obama and now the possibility that he will enact a real change confronts them with the reality of their loss of dominance. That’s why they see health care in such apocalyptic terms. That’s why I also fear that their tantrums may turn even uglier.

Rescission, Decision, Division

August 12, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Mike at Pragmatic Idealists may have had a similar reaction to mine when he heard the “Fine Print” episode of This American Life. Patients testifying before Congress told of how their health insurance companies had rescinded their coverage and refused to pay their claims. These patients were desperately ill and in need of expensive care. But the insurance companies found mistakes in documents submitted when they applied for insurance years earlier and used these minor errors to cancel coverage. It’s called rescission.

Then we heard from insurance company executives testifying before the same committee. They all said that rescission affects only about 0.5% of their policy holders.

Here was my problem: how could I square this statistical reality with the anecdotal data from the woman with aggressive breast cancer whose coverage they rescinded because she had once been treated for acne? How could I balance 0.5% against my absolute knowledge that these executives were heartless bastards?*

Mike points to a post by Taunter that has the answer, and I was a bit embarrassed not to have realized it myself. Both Mike and Taunter see it in terms of Bayesian probability and the Monty Hall problem, and they are right. But there’s a simpler way – not Bayes, but fifth grade arithmetic.

A rate, like the rescission rate, is fraction. So we have a division problem. But what are we dividing by what? What is the numerator, and, more important, what is the denominator?

Let’s say that the Vulcan Fire Insurance company covers 1000 houses. Last year, none of those houses had a serious fire. A very few had small fire damage costing much less than the owners had paid in premiums over the last few years. Is Vulcan going to scan anyone’s documents looking to rescind coverage? Of course not. Those customers are paying premiums in and not taking anything out. But suppose that this year, one house is completely destroyed by fire, with damages of $300,000.

Now Vulcan gets out its magnifying glass and scans the fine print trying to find some basis for rescission, but just for this one customer. They find their pretext, they rescind the coverage, and they don’t pay a dime.

And when the CEO of Vulcan is called before Congress, he says, “Rescission affects only one-tenth of one percent of our customers.”

True enough. One recission divided by 1000 policy holders equals 0.1%. But if you do the division differently, if you change your denominator from “all customers” to “policy holders whose houses burned down,” the recission rate is 100%.

With health care, the question isn’t what percentage of all patients are rescinded. The question, which nobody on the Congressional committee thought to ask, is what is the rescission percentage of patients filing expensive claims – people with conditions that require expensive and continuing treatment and care. Taunter estimates that if you draw the line at the top 5% of patients (“top” in terms of medical costs), the rescission rate is more like 10%. And if you look at the top 1%, it’s closer to 50%. **

Check out Mike’s post and the links in it for a more thorough presentation and analysis of the problem.

The fine print problem takes other forms besides rescission. As Consumer Reports study concluded, “Many people who believe they have adequate health insurance actually have coverage so riddled with loopholes, limits, exclusions, and gotchas that it won't come close to covering their expenses if they fall seriously ill.” Read here about a woman who thought she had health care and wound up paying over $20,000 for a normal pregnancy and childbirth.

* Opponents of the public option and “government run” health care, try to scare us by suggesting that “faceless bureaucrats” will be making life-and-death decisions about us. I’ll take a faceless bureaucrat over a heartless bastard any day.

** Another statistic. Several bloggers linked to Taunter’s post – bloggers at important places like Reuters and The Atlantic. Views of Taunter’s posts rarely reach three figures. But this one post got nearly 10,000 hits.

The Conspiratorial Mind

August 11, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I wanted to punch the guy,” said my son, a young man not given to violence. The guy in question was standing outside the 72nd St. subway entrance wearing a sandwich-board sign that said, “9/11 Was an Inside Job. Prove Me Wrong.”

We had been talking about the Birthers, and that had reminded him of this other conspiracy theorist.


It got me to wondering about conspiracy believers, specifically what they think of other conspiracists. Are they like some religious believers, whose rejections of one another’s ideas about God are so intense they can lead to mass slaughter? Or are they more like New Age religionists who allow that “there are many paths up the mountain”?

I don’t expect that the 9/11 believers also share the specific beliefs of the Birthers, though there’s a remarkable symmetry, as Brendan Nyhan shows in this graph he created with data from different surveys.


Graphed on belief in the two conspiracies, the proportions of Democrats and Republicans are mirror images of one another. And about 5% of each group accepts both conspiracies (I’m assuming that the Democrat Birthers also believe that 9/11 was an inside job; similarly for Republicans who accept the 9/11 story.)

But what about the Birthers who do not themselves believe the 9/11 conspiracy, or the 9/11 “Truthers” who don’t believe the birth idea? Are they more tolerant of other people’s conspiracy theories?

Those of us in the mainstream view both of them as wackos who spend a lot of effort ignoring reality. But do the Birthers reject the 9/11 believers as wackos, or are they generally more tolerant of any conspiracy theory? Or is this purely a partisan thing, as Nyhan implies, with each side accepting the theory that makes the other side look bad?

My hunch is that there’s a conspiratorial mentality that makes any conspiracy seem more reasonable. Conspiracists of all sorts share the assumption that “they” (some powerful cabal) are hiding the truth from the rest us in order to further their quest for political or economic domination. So a Birther seeing the guy with the sandwich board would not think, “What an outrageous and ignorant insult to the families of the victims,” as my son did, but, “Maybe he’s on to something. You never know.”

Surely there is already research on this question. It’s just that I don’t know about it. They must be hiding it from me.

Talking Sophisticated

August 9, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston
It's very important that -- that there be a robust waste, fraud and abuse oversight of health care, not only in the government programs of Medicare and Medicaid, but clearly the duplicity that we find in our health care system. (Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) at a Congressional hearing, June 17, 2009).
A sensible health reform plan that coordinates and simplifies all government health programs like Medicare, Medicaid and the proposed public option with one easy-to-understand set of rules would reduce confusion and duplicity, and save money.
Thomas M. Cassidy Setauket, N.Y., Aug. 3, 2009 (NYT, Aug. 3, 2009) The writer, an economist, is a clinical associate professor in the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University and a former senior investigator with the New York State attorney general's Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.
I’ve made my peace with solecisms. I don’t even use the word solecism any more. The linguists have converted me. What I used to call “mistakes” I have learned to think of as “interesting.” These interesting word choices call not for correction but for explanation and even appreciation.

If people talking about a lucky break say “fortuitous” instead of the pedestrian “fortunate,” that’s fine with me. If they think characterizing a relationship as “ideal” doesn’t sound sophisticated enough and instead call it “idyllic,” even though the couple live in midtown Manhattan, hey, I can get behind that too. I know what they mean. At dinner I myself no longer use salad “dressing”; chez moi, we pass the dressage.

But sometimes the “interesting” word choice can be confusing. Like duplicity. Rep. Camp seems to be a conservative, linguistically I mean. He even uses the subjunctive. Correctly. And Prof. Cassidy is an educated man, an educator. But by duplicity, does he mean deception or does he mean duplication? No doubt, both are unwanted aspects of Medicare and Medicaid. I just wish I knew which one to be concerned about.

I guess what a good health care system needs is less duplicity and more singularity.

What Are the Chances – Don't Ask.

August 6, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

No doubt others will be blogging today’s NY Times story, “For Today’s Graduate, Just One Word: Statistics .”

I probably shouldn’t be saying this on the eve of the ASA, but there are times when statistical, sociological thinking is, well, not wrong, but not quite appropriate. Several months ago, on This American Life, a man told of something that happened early in a romantic relationship. I don’t remember anything about him, except that he was some sort of scientist, or at least he looked at the world in a scientific way.

He and his girlfriend, were talking about “how great it was that we were in love and that we’d found each other, it felt so ‘fated.’ And she asked, ‘Do you really think we were the only one for each other?’” He did some quick mental calculations and figured that out of the six billion people on the planet, the number of girls that he could have matched up so well with would have to be a fairly small number – a teeny tiny fraction of a percent.

“And I said, ‘I don’t know if you’re the only one for me, but I think that you have to be at least one in a hundred thousand.”*

It was their first big fight.

Or as Tim Minchin sings,
Your love is one in a million
You couldn’t buy it at any price
But of the 9 point 9 hundred thousand other loves,
Statistically some of them would be equally nice.

It's just mathematically unlikely
that at a university in Perth
I happened to stumble on
the one girl on earth
specifically designed for me

It’s from his song “If I Didn’t Have You,” which Kieran posted a couple of months ago. In case you missed it then, here it is.



* For the record, 100,000 out of six billion is 17 one-thousandths of a percent.
Even adjusted for sex and age, it will be a small fraction of a percent.

One More Reason to Hate Microsoft

August 5, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

Bing is Microsoft’s new search engine, their challenge to Google.

David Pogue at the New York Times says, “in many ways, Bing is better.”

But in at least one way, Bing sucks. It refuses to find this blog.

Today, someone got to this blog by searching for “football players with a sociology degree ” in Google, no doubt, where we were the fourth hit on the list. But when I entered those terms in Bing, I clicked through the first ten pages and the SocioBlog still hadn’t turned up. Even adding specific terms that were in the relevant post (“clustering,” “Coulter”) didn’t help.

If you Google “Borat, Milgram, Goffman,” this blog is at or near the top of the list. Try it in Bing, and you get five hits, none of them this blog (and only one in English – the others are in French, Portuguese, or Italian). Bing adds this note at the bottom of the list: “Some results have been removed.” Just in case I wasn’t already feeling paranoid.

I checked a few other strings that people have used to get to this blog – “sports prediction market,” “Mary Douglas anomaly,” “gee whiz graph.” In Google, we were on the first page of results; in Bing, I gave up after ten pages.

Nobody outside Google knows what their algorithm is. I certainly don’t know Bing’s algorithm. Truth be told, I’m not sure what an algorithm is, and as others must have said, I find it odd to have the terms “Al Gore” and “rhythm” in the same paragraph let alone in the same word.
But whatever it is, Bing’s algorithm apparently has no place for this blog.

La Topless – Passé?

August 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve been leaving breast-blogging to Sociological Images or other sociology blogs. A year ago, I came across an interview with French sociologist Jean-Claude Kaufmann, whose research interests include topless sunbathing. In 1995 he published Corps de Femmes, Regards d'Hommes, based on 300 interviews supplemented with observational research at the beach.

I was going to blog it with a title like “For this you can get a grant?” But I merely filed it away.

Now, a year later, a French magazine reports that younger women at the beach are leaving their tops on. The story went mostly ignored in France, The US and UK press were much more enthusiastic. They played it up as a trend towards prudishness among the young, as if to say, “See, they've finally come around to our way of doing things.”

Time magazine for example, says,
Younger women disinclined to baring themselves make up the majority of female sunbathers; those still willing to go topless are usually older French women.
Time has no data on this. If they sent some lucky staffer to Cannes for an informal count, they’re not saying. Time did check a recent a IFOP survey of 1000 French women (“Les femmes et la nudité”) which oddly enough did not ask women if they went topless at the beach. The Time article, in a desperate effort to show a cultural shift, does a really bad job of reporting the data. There were some small differences between younger and older. More of the 18-35 women said they felt uncomfortable seeing topless women at the beach than did the over-35s (31 % vs. 20%). But when asked their level of “pudeur personelle,” the youngest women (18-24) were indistinguishable from the over-35s.

(For a slightly larger view, click on the picture. Maybe NSFW – if your co-workers have really good vision.)

In either case – bared or covered – the French frame the decision over female anatomy as a matter of female autonomy. Last year, Kaufmann said of the decision to go topless, “le phénomène de la topless reste un choix qu'il exprime le désir d'être libres et de communiquer cette liberté.”* This year he sees not going topless as a rejection of fashion. “The practice has become common, and therefore less compelling as a fashion.”

It would be interesting to compare the situation of bare breasts in France and in the US. Here, topless beaches are few. Instead, the image of women baring their breasts is that of Girls Gone Wild or Mardi Gras – girls getting drunk and flashing a crowd of shouting boys (does anyone remember Rude Norton?).

How different from the French beach scene Kaufmann describes, the men
avec des yeux pas particulièrement expressifs, qui ne démontrent pas d’intérêt, mais qu’ils coulent rapidement sur le paysage féminin de la plage de manière attentive. . . .. Pour montrer ses seins, une femme doit se sentir à l’aise.**
There may also be French-US differences in the matter of quality vs. quantity. Kaufmann says that the unwritten rules of the beach permit that only “beaux seins” be exposed. Asked to define his terms, he says, “Selon les interviewés, de beaux seins sont ceux des jeunes filles: plutôt petit, dur, bien attaché au thorax.

Plutôt petit. Rather small. In the US, surgeons do nearly three times as many breast augmentations as breast reductions. In France, the numbers are reversed. Maybe that’s why when the IFOP asked women who, among six celebs who had posed nude, represented the most gracious female nudity, Pamela Anderson got only 2% of the vote, behind Kate Moss (6%). Laetitia Casta was the big winner, especially among the 18-24s, followed by Emmanuele Béart. (If you are not familiar with these referenced sources, you're on your own.  We're not that kind of blog.)


* “The topless phenomenon remains a choice that expresses the desire to be free and to communicate this freedom.”

** “with eyes that are not particularly expressive and that show no interest, eyes that flow quickly over the feminine landscape of the beach in an attentive manner. . . . To show her breasts, a woman must feel at ease.”