Man on Why

January 31, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Man on Wire” is the documentary about Philippe Petite walking a wire stretched between the two towers of the World Trade Center a quarter-mile above the ground. The tagline for the film is “The Artistic Crime of the Century.”

As that implies, the movie takes much from the “caper” film genre, and Fabio Rojas had a great post sketching the social organization dimensions of Petit’s operations. Petit is the center of attention, but his feats (he’s done this sort of thing more than once) are made possible only through extensive planning and coordination with a team of others.


But there’s a cultural note as well – that good old American automatic reflex, the utilitarian assumption (see here for another example). After Petit is captured by the police and brought to earth, a news reporter interviewing a cop at the scene asks, “Did he say anything about why he was doing it?” The question occurs again and again.

In the film, we hear Petit remembering back 30 years, still incredulous, describing the immediate response of the Americans:
And you know, “why, why.” . . . I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a practical ‘Why, why?’ The beauty of it is that I didn’t have any why.
That’s what makes it an artistic crime. Art for art’s sake, a concept that seems almost un-American.

Texas, Texas, What Do You Censor?

January 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1950s, there was HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and Joe McCarthy’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee keeping us safe from commie ideas. Now there’s the Texas Board of Education. It just blacklisted Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (Dallas Morning News story here).

The Board didn’t ban just Brown Bear. They crossed all books by Bill Martin, Jr. off the third grade reading list. Martin wrote dozens of books (partial list here); Brown Bear is easily the best known, certainly by me. I read aloud so often to my kid that I probably have it memorized. Most of the space on the page has illustrations. You can read the text in about a minute, literally. But obviously the Board didn’t bother to do that. Instead, they relied on information that Bill Martin had written also written a book containing “very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system.”

It’s an understandable enough mistake. After all, Bill Martin is an unusual name – how many can there be? And lots of authors who write books like Ethical Marxism are known to slip their insidious ideologies about “the categorical imperative of liberation” into children’s books that contain fewer than 50 different words, most of those words being I, you, what, do, and see.*


In the mid-1950s, the CBC broadcast a satire called The Investigator. It was later released as an LP that was distributed in almost samizdat-like underground fashion in the US. The premise was that Sen. McCarthy has been in a plane crash and gone to heaven. There, he teams up with Torquemada and others to root out communism and subversion on high. Their committee questions many people (Voltaire, Jefferson, Socrates, et. al.), and winds up sending them from Up Here to Down There.

McCarthy keeps calling Karl Marx before the committee, and each time he gets the wrong Karl Marx. “Oh no, I am not Karl Marx the writer,” each one says with a German accent “I’m Karl Marx the watchmaker.” Or the baker or whatever. Finally, McCarthy gets so frustrated, he sends all Karl Marxes to Down There.

And now we have the Texas Board of Education – Life imitating Art – sending all Bill Martin, Jr. books Down There.

The real problem is not just ignorance by the Board or its staff. It’s also the centralized structure of the Texas educational system. The Board makes decisions for all schools in the state. The irony here is that conservative Texans complain loudly about “bureaucrats” in Washington making decisions that affect very local issues. They have a point. The same point applies to the Texas Board of Education.

* The book does have five two-syllable words: goldfish, purple, yellow, teacher, and looking. I don’t mean to mess with Texas, but if these Bill Martin, Jr. books are being considered for third grade reading lists, you have to be a bit concerned about the quality of education in the Lone Star State.

Hat Tip: Elizabeth at Underage Reading . Inside Higher Ed also ran this story, apparently under the assumption that in Texas, third-grade reading lists fall into the category of higher ed.

City Mice, Country Mice

January 27, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Pennsylvania – Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in between.

The quote is usually attributed to political consultant James Carville. But how much “in between” is there? That’s crucial if you’re counting votes, which is mostly what Carville is interested in. But it’s also important for demographic variables that might not have much to do with voting.

I was thinking about this problem today because I’d just assigned students to look at the distribution of a variable across states. The trouble is that when you see a high or low score on some variable for a state, there are two important things you need to know:
  • how concentrated is the state’s population; how much of it is accounted for by one or two large cities?
  • how different are the metro and non-metro populations on this variable?
Unfortunately, the data set my students have to work with doesn’t provide that information.

Neil Freeman at Fake is the New Real gives us some help by slicing metro areas (blue) away from states (brown) and then resizing each according to population. Here’s Pennsylvania, carved à la Carville.


(Fake Freeman puts the areas in rank order of population. I had to find the pieces and put them back together to make this graphic.)

New Yorkers often distinguish between the New York City area (NYC plus the Long Island and Westchester suburbs) and everything else, called “Upstate.” Here’s how that one looks (Fake Freeman separates Buffalo and Rochester as well).

(Note: the scale in the two graphics is the same. So Pennsylvania without its cities is more populous that New York without its cities. Pittsburgh metro is much larger than Buffalo or Rochester.)


Other interesting states:
  • Illinois – Chicago and Downstate
  • Texas – even without its big cities, Texas ranks fourth (after NYC, LA, and Chicago). There’s still a lot of non-metro Texas. Don’t mess with it.
  • Nevada – Las Vegas (ranked #64) dwarfs the rest of the state (#93).
  • New Jersey– Fake Freeman takes out the urban areas, giving them either to the NYC or Philadelphia metro area. After that, there’s just not much left – geographically, at least (in population, non-metro NJ is ranked 89th, which puts it ahead of a half-dozen intact states).

Correlation and Cause - Feeding and Breeding

January 25, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andre Bauer’s idea that poor people are like stray animals is what will get most of the attention, as I suppose it should. Bauer* is running for governor of the enlightened state of South Carolina, where Appalachian Trail hiker Mark Sanford is still in that office.** Bauer is Lt. Gov., and here’s what he said à propos programs for free and reduced-price lunches in the public schools.
My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better,
Bauer stands by his analogy and says he was quoted out of context. Right.

Obviously, Bauer did not take Sociology of Poverty. Of less importance politically is that he also skipped the methods course. Apparently, he has some data – a bar graph – but he mistakes correlation for cause.
I can show you a bar graph where free and reduced lunch has the worst test scores in the state of South Carolina. You show me the school that has the highest free and reduced lunch, and I'll show you the worst test scores, folks. It's there, period.
I suppose that it is somehow possible that providing food for impoverished kids makes them dumb. Maybe electing people to office in the Palmetto State has a similar effect.

*Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer is not to be confused with Andre Braugher, the excellent actor who plated Detective Pembleton on “Homicide” (the forerunner to “The Wire”) and is currently in “Men of a Certain Age.” Pictures below. You figure out which Andre is which.



** What’s up with The Palmetto State and its public servants? Lt. Gov. Bauer is incautious not just in his campaign speeches. He also tends to get stopped for speeding, and he once crash-landed a small plane. (CSM article here.) Then, besides Sanford and Bauer, there’s the former chair of the SC Board of Education, who home schooled her kids, believes that “intelligent design” and “abstinence only” should be taught in the schools, and resigned only when it was revealed that she also publishes online porn (oops, I mean erotic fiction.) The story and links to her very NSFW prose are here. I guess she just wanted to put the palm back in palmetto.

Sod -- How Dirty Is It?

January 24, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I was taken aback when I noticed this license plate on the car in front of me.


I’ve posted before about an off-color vanity plate that sneaked through the NY DMV. That one was in French. But this is English – albeit British English.

I had thought that sod was a fairly offensive word. I had heard that it was short for sodomize, and I had heard phrases where it was interchangeable with fuck in meaning if not strength. “Sod all” to mean nothing; “sod off,” or “sod that.”

I sent the photo to a native informant, my colleague Faye Allard, born and raised in Walthamstow, East London, who natively informed me that on a scale of one to ten, sod would be about a 3. Maybe the DMV is more linguistically aware than I am.

Googling around, I discovered that there’s a Bjork song called “Sod Off.” Then, in a letter published a few days ago in the Times (UK), a woman wrote, “My runner's high has sod-all to do with endorphins.” And a Guardian interview with newscaster Jon Snow (“the moral anchor”) begins with Snow looking at his bicycle tire and exclaiming, “Sod it. I’ve got a puncture.”

So my sod-off shotgun misfired. Still, Faye got a kick out of the shot of the license plate.

Doing Research on Weed . . . Not

January 21, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Todd Krohn at The Power Elite yesterday had a nice commentary on the lack of scientific research on marijuana – a post in which Todd manages to use a different soubriquet for the drug each time he mentions it (and I can think of several he didn’t get around to). Todd’s point is that Big Pharma is putting the kibosh on such research because there’s no profit in it for them. As California shows, even when marijuana is legal, the production and distribution remain decentralized.

A Times article about this on Tuesday (in the News section, not in the Science section) blamed the lack of research on the conflict between different wings of the federal government – medical/science vs. law enforcement:
Bureaucratic battles between the D.E.A. and the F.D.A. over the availability of narcotics — highly effective but addictive medicines — have gone on for decades.

Federal officials have repeatedly failed to act on marijuana research requests in a timely manner or have denied them, according to a 2007 ruling by an administrative law judge at the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Todd links to an article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. The headline asks, “Is Marijuana a Medicine?”

To answer that, we need research, and if f the Obama administration means what it said about taking science seriously, researchers may have some grants approved. But (as pot smokers say . . . not) don’t hold your breath. As the Times article puts it,

So medical marijuana may never have good science underlying its use.

And by the way, the online version of the WSJ had this image, which sort of jumped off the screen at me.



Oh wow, man. Like what a flashback. Was it just me, or was the WSJ deliberately trying to blow my mind?


Milton Glaser’s 1967 Dylan poster that came folded in the Greatest Hits LP. Groovy.

The Nabes

January 18, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Now playing at a theater near you,” say the movie ads. How do they know?*

The distinction between “downtown” movie houses and“the nabes” has gone the way of the double feature and the newsreel. Most movies open everywhere. Still, not all neighborhoods are alike, and theater owners have a good idea of which movies will play well in their neighborhood.

Neighborhood patterns show up even when the geography of film distribution is not a factor – when you’re renting or downloading from Netflix. The Times has a cool interactive map that shows a film’s Netflix rankings in various neighborhoods. Here are the graphs in the New York region for “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “Vicki Cristina Barcelona.”

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Paul is the negative image of Vicki. Did you see both these films? Did anyone see both these films?

Some films have no discernible pattern. The map of “Benjamin Button,” for example, is solid orange throughout. Others, like “Mad Men” are mostly white but with a few predictable shaded areas, like Manhattan and Montclair – a similarity that shows up in the map of just about every film. Montclair is basically the West Side but with lawnmowers.



On the Times site, you can choose from a dozen different metro areas. Take a look at the movies in a city near you, a city whose demographics you’re familiar with, for in most cases, the movies are proxies for demographic variables. Not all films follow the same patterns. Here’s “Last Chance Harvey” in New York and Boston.


Notice the concentric circle pattern in both cities. Somewhere, Burgess, Shaw, and McKay look down and nod.

*I once heard a comedian use this line (can’t recall who it was).

Pleasure and Value

January 16, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

We have a campus listserv for political discussion. Recently, someone started a thread about the Swiss minaret ban and other European responses to demographic changes. But here’s what leapt off the page, to me at least:
I recently saw an article in the NY Times about a project sponsored by French president Nicolas Sarkozy to initiate a discussion of what it means to be French.

The man put in charge of this project, Eric Besson . . . went on to say that the debate was grounded in “the idea that there is a pleasure in discussing”. Yes, this is true, but I would have agreed even more strongly if he had said “there is a value in discussing.”
Where the M. Besson thought in terms of Pleasure, my American colleague wanted Value. The idea that there is “pleasure in discussing” is just not an idea that comes easily to the American mind. We discuss things, but we don’t do it for pleasure. We have a much more utilitarian view. Discussion, as the above quote implies, should have some practical “value”; we should be able to cash it in on some tangible goal.

The French apparently see pleasure as a legitimate end in itself. We tend to be a bit more suspicious of pleasure. Something can be pleasant – good food, good sex – but we might add some utilitarian justification (health, energy, self-enhancement, etc.). We are, after all, the culture where people talk about taking a vacation to “recharge my batteries” – so they can return as more productive workers.

Schools and Obesity - A Sweet Deal

January 14, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The good news is that obesity may have maxed out. The rate has not increased in the last five years. The bad news is that one-third of Americans are obese, or to use the technical term, really, really fat.

The Times article quotes Steven Gortmaker, a Harvard public health professor, who suggests that our approach to obesity should resemble the successful campaign to reduce smoking.
“If you look at the reversal of the smoking epidemic,” Dr. Gortmaker said, “substantial change didn’t really happen until there were bans on advertising and limits on consumption through things like taxation. We have to make some substantial changes.”
Make something harder to get – less available or more expensive – or make it less socially attractive, and people will buy less of it. That was the anti-smoking strategy.

Cigarette companies may not use ads that appeal to kids, nor can they install cigarette machines in schools. No such restrictions apply to junk food companies. Many schools today have vending machines dispensing sugar-water in a hundred different forms, transfat chips, cookies, and candy.

And why do the schools put the machines there? Because they get a share of the profits. The government stiffs the schools on funding, so the schools turn to Obesity, Inc. We starve our schools, and as a result kids wind up eating more junk food. Obesity, Inc. gets both profits and the chance to build “brand loyalty.” The school gets much needed money. For the school and Obesity, Inc,., it’s win-win. For the kids, it’s gain-gain.

I wonder how people would react if Maxim magazine and Cosmo paid schools to allow them to install vending machines selling their mags at a discount. Publishers could argue that the mags are legal – no bare naughty parts – and besides, they encourage reading..

An Urban Institute report recommends, among other things, banning food advertising aimed at kids. If only. Sweden bans advertising for all kids’ products, not just food. Imagine not having TV telling kids how happy they’ll be with this or that toy, or not telling them to nag Mom to get dee-licious Yummy Sweet-O Flakes cereal.

Picking Cherries

January 13, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Greg Mankiw, a big shot economist (he was the chairman of President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors) had a brief blog post on Monday comparing European countries and the US. It’s part of a long-standing debate about the relative merits of European-style social democracy. The left wants the US government to do more to reduce inequalities (ensuring universal health care, for example, or providing benefits for the unemployed and the poor, requiring employers to offer paid maternity leave, etc.). Those on the right argue that these policies would stifle the economy. They offer an economic picture of America the dynamic outpacing Europe the stagnant.

The volume on that debate got turned up by an article by Jim Manzi in National Affairs. He refers to “government policies — to reduce inequality or ensure access to jobs, education, housing, or health care — that can in turn undercut growth and prosperity.”

Paul Krugman, in his column on Monday, rejected this idea:
The real lesson from Europe is actually the opposite of what conservatives claim: Europe is an economic success, and that success shows that social democracy works.
Greg Mankiw gives some data on GDP per capita, adding with a sly grin, “Readers of today’s column by Paul Krugman might find these figures useful to keep in mind.” He gives the income data for “the United States and the five most populous countries in Western Europe.”


We’re number one. We’re way ahead – 30% higher than the UK next in line. Mankiw wins; Krugman loses. Case closed. Or is it?

I’m sure there’s a good economic reason for this cherry-picking – choosing only the five largest cherries. But if you were curious about some countries in Europe and elsewhere that were too insignificant for Mankiw to include, you might want to take a look at the entire list. Here's an expanded chart:

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)

It turns out that among the non-Asian industrial democracies, there are a few countries that fall in that $11,000 gap between the US and UK. And when you include all those countries, the US is no longer number one.

Gaffes, Truth, and Inconvenience

January 11, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.” So said Michael Kinsley perhaps as long ago as 1984.

This weekend gave us one more example. It’s also an example of the difficulty of having an honest discussion about race.

The news this weekend was that a new book about the 2008 Presidential campaign quotes Harry Reid as saying at the time that Obama would make a good candidate because he was a “light-skinned African American with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.”

Newspapers and TV were all over this revelation, and they all labeled the statement a gaffe. Republicans are calling for Reid to resign his leadership position. Democrats are defending him, saying that he is not at all prejudiced.

But nobody in the mainstream media, as far as I know – not the politicians, not the news writers, not the TV interviewers – has dared to discuss the substance of Reid’s statement.

Facts, Ideology, History

January 9, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Republican version of history seems to be that George W. Bush took office at about 10 a.m., Sept. 11, 2001.

“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.” I’m not sure if Einstein really said this, and if he did, I’m not sure how he meant it to apply to physics. But I do know that in everyday life, the facts come in for a good deal of rough treatment. We select the ones that fit with our ideas; as for those that don’t, we often twist and contort them until they do, or else we just deny that they exist.

Even prominent people speaking in public about very well-known facts let their ideology override the facts. For example, the conservative ideology is that conservatives are “tough” on terror, while liberals are “soft.” Toughness scares off would-be terrorists; softness invites them. Therefore, when conservatives are in power, people in America are safe from terrorism.

One of the great public relations successes of recent times is the Bush administration’s ability, using this theory, to convince conservatives and many others that the attacks of 9/11 didn’t happen on their watch. For some reason, even people who are in the business of thinking and reporting about important events find it hard to remember who it was that had been in the White House for nine months on that day.

Here we have Dana Perino, former press secretary for George W. Bush, telling Sean Hannity two months ago, “We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush's term.”


That little thing on Sept. 11, 2001, nine months into Bush’s term – Perino apparently forgot about it. And neither Hannity nor his other guest could remember it either. It did not fit with their view of history.

Not until it was pointed out to her did Perino issue a correction via Twitter:
I obviously meant no terror attack on U.S. post 9/11 during Bush 2nd term.
You’d think that after Perino’s gaffe, prominent Republicans would remember not to make this claim so explicitly. But oops, they did it again.

Rudy Giuliani on Good Morning America tells George Stephanopoulos, “We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We’ve had one under Obama.” (The line comes at about the 3:20 mark.)


And Stephanopoulos, just like the guys on Fox, lets the remark pass. It’s not that he forgot about the attacks. But, I suspect, Stephanopoulos too has unwittingly absorbed the picture painted by the conservative ideologists. It takes just a bit more mental effort to remember something that clashes with prior ideas. So with his mind on closing this segment of GMA on time, he doesn’t realize that Giuliani has just made a huge misstatement of fact.

Did Giuliani not know who was president on Sept. 11, 2001? Maybe Rudy didn’t remember his own speech at the Republican convention
I grabbed the arm of then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and I said to him, “Bernie, thank God George Bush is our president.”
Well, as I said above, it seems that someone else must have been president until just after the planes hit the towers.

Even if you allow the Perino dodge (“no terror attack post 9/11"), as Giuliani did in a subsequent “clarification” of his remarks, you still have to block out the fact of the shoe bomber, who was remarkably similar to the current terrorist, the main difference being which parts of his body he was willing to use as a weapon. Later, Giuliani went on the Larry King show. Even then, even knowing that his remarks would be carefully examined, Giuliani continued let his ideology shape his facts. When reminded that Bush took six days before he issued any kind of response to the shoe bomber attack, Giuliani said, “And I believe that six days was before the September 11th attack.”

It wasn’t. It was three months after.

Change the facts.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

January 7, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

It seems almost like a Monty Python sketch: the interviewer leaning over to ask the little school boy what he wants to be when he grows up, and the boy stammers, “A- a- a- an actuary.”

Kieran Healy linked to this site, which rates and ranks the best jobs for 2010. Kieran’s post singled out #11 (Philosopher). Here’s a longer list. Click on the image for a somewhat larger view. For a view that you can actually see, and a fuller disclosure of the methodology, go to the original site.

(Click on the image.)

Comfort Zones

January 7 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

De Tocquville said it first. Every time I read some observation about America and Americans, especially by writers from the other side of the Atlantic, I’m almost certain I could find something similar in Democracy in America.

This time it was Geoff Dyer’s “Letter from London” in the New York Times Book Review. Dyer contrasts the pleasantness of life in America with the willingness of his fellow Brits to endure small deprivations. “We didn’t drive big gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s, and if we were chilly of an evening we put on a sweater rather than turning up the heating (or, more accurately, turning off the A.C.)”

Americans, he implies, would never resign themselves to a car that was too small or a room that was not a perfect temperature. He traces this British “ostrich stoicism” to the War.
Our finest hour (the blitz, the Battle of Britain), manifests itself in a peculiar compromise: a highly stylized willingness to muddle on, to put up with poor quality and high prices (restaurants, trains), to proffer (and accept) apologies not as a prelude to but as a substitute for improvement. We may not enjoy the way things are, but we endure them in a way that seems either quaint or quasi-Soviet to American visitors.
Here’s de Tocqueville on the issue of creature comforts, over a century before World War II, nearly two centuries before Geoff Dyer, and with a slightly different spin:
In America the passion for physical well-being is . . . general; it is felt by all. The effort to satisfy even the least wants of the body and to provide the little conveniences of life is uppermost in every mind.

I never perceived among the wealthier inhabitants of the United States that proud contempt of physical gratifications which is sometimes to be met with even in the most opulent and dissolute aristocracies.
For de Tocqueville, stoicism came not from experience (the Blitz) but from structure, specifically aristocracy. For those in the upper levels,
the comforts of life are not the end of life, but simply a way of living. . . . enjoyed but scarcely thought of. . . . The members of an aristocracy often display a haughty contempt of these very enjoyments and exhibit singular powers of endurance under the privation of them.
For the poor in aristocracies, the lack of mobility creates its own kind of stoicism.
They do not think of things which they despair of obtaining and which they hardly know enough of to desire.
Just as the structure of aristocracy made for its stocism, it is the structure of democratic society that breeds the obsession with the comforts of life.
When . . . the distinctions of ranks are obliterated and privileges are destroyed, when hereditary property is subdivided and education and freedom are widely diffused, the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich.
De Tocqueville knew nothing about l'empreinte charbon, but our love of comfort is a huge part of the reason that Americans produce, per capita, three times as much CO2 as do Europeans. What do we Americans do when we get to Europe and find that we have to dry our clothes on a line, not a dryer, and that the car we rent has no automatic shift, no air conditioning, and no cup holders?

(All de Toqueville passages are from Democracy in America, Book II, Chapter X.)

Compare and Contrast

January 6, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Male or female?



Look at the two faces for more than a second and you’ll realize that they are the same.

This bit of androgyny won third place in the Best Visual Illusion of 2009 contest.*

The illusion is that although it’s the same face, the one on the left looks more female, the one on the right more male. The reason is something familiar to all of us who read the make-up tips in Allure, Glamour, etc. We use blush to contour and highlight, to add shape and definition (i.e., the illusion of shape and definition). We use eyeliners in rich colors. And our lipstick, whatever color might suit us best, accents the difference between our mouth and the surrounding area. In a word, we add contrast.

Contrast is the crucial factor in this illusion: more contrast = female; less contrast = male. (Try downloading this .gif into your photo editor and then fool around with the contrast control.)


*Prizes were awarded last May. I discovered it only recently thanks to Brad DeLong’s blog. The original research is by Richard Russell of Harvard: “Russell, R. (2009) A sex difference in facial pigmentation and its exaggeration by cosmetics” Perception, (38)1211-1219.

Cabs, Culture, Class

January 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Where to, Guv’nor?” It was my first cab trip in London, and the man asking the question was at least twice my age.

I mentioned this to my friend after I’d gotten to her flat. “The cabby called me guv’nor,” I told her, somewhat bemused.

“Well, you are a governor, aren’t you?” she said.

I wasn’t a governor, I was a kid in my twenties. I wasn’t someone in authority giving orders. Nor did I think of the relation of cabby to fare as one of governed to governor or servant to master.

I remembered this incident Sunday as I was reading Geoff Dyer’s “Letter from London” in the New York Times Book Review.
The archetypal American abroad is perceived as loud and crass even though actually existing American tourists are distinguished by the way they address bus drivers and bartenders as “sir” and are effusive in their thanks when any small service is rendered.
Dyer, a Brit, attributes this to two aspects of American culture – politeness and informality – and he contrasts it with the “rudeness in British life.”

But “sir” and “thanks” also stem from our ideology of equality. We Americans feel uncomfortable with the idea of social hierarchy. Those who call attention to class differences are accused of inciting “class warfare,” in other words, of being un-American. And since, according to this same ideology, we have unlimited social mobility, a person’s social position is not at all fixed or permanent. Our Constitution prohibits titles of nobility, those immutable and inherited designations. In a European aristocratic system, if you are born an earl, you remain an earl no matter how incompetent and immoral you may be. Not in America.

Our belief in equality makes for some contradictions. We treat bus drivers and cabbies not as servants but as equals doing a job. But at the same time, we recognize that it is not a “good” job. Who would want to be a servant? Yes, people do service work – cleaning our houses, pouring our drinks, driving our buses and cabs – but we expect that they are striving for a better occupation. People are equal, occupations are not.

In the British tradition, “service” was* an honorable occupation (at least in the picture we get from “Upstairs Downstairs” or “The Remains of the Day”). The British did not treat servants as equals; servants were clearly not the equals of their employers (masters), and it would have been silly to pretend otherwise. Instead, the British ideal was not equality but fairness. Rather than apply the same norms to everyone– if the bartender calls me “sir,” I should call him “sir” – the British recognized a hierarchy, each level with its own expectations and obligations. Since individuals were not all judged by a single standard, occupations did not carry the same moral connotations.

“Where to Guv’nor?” depends on the rules of civility making for fairness between people who are unequals because of their unequal positions. In the American cab, there are no gov’nors. Just as in all those old movies, it’s “Where to, Mac?”**


*I use the past tense here because I have no idea how these ideas have weathered the Thatcher and post-Thatcher years, and for all I know, I am referring to an England that has faded into history and is preserved only on film and videotape.

**Caroll Spinney, who does the voice of Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, “says he modeled Oscar on the Bronx taxi driver who drove him to the old Muppet Mansion the first day he played the character, greeting him with a gruff, ‘Where to, Mac?’” (Washington Times)

A Low Dishonest Decade

January 4, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Whatever you call this decade we’ve just been through – the aughts, the noughties, etc. – you have to think that it was not a great one. How bad was it? The Washington Post ran this simple graph showing job growth in each of seven decades, beginning with the 1940s. It also notes the change in GDP and household net worth.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Thinking back on these years called to mind (my mind at least) the opening lines the Auden poem “September 1, 1939”:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade
As the title implies, Auden was writing on the occasion of Germany’s invasion of Poland,* but these opening lines seem apt for the Bush decade as well – and not just the economy.

Even with economics, many people will continue to believe that right-wing policies – tax cuts and deregulation – are good for the economy, regardless of evidence like that in the graph. Note that even the Reagan decade, the 1980s, finishes behind all but the Bush decade in job growth and GDP gains.


* The poem is probably Auden’s most famous work, and it was much quoted after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 (see the NY Times store here). But Auden himself had second thoughts about the poem soon after he wrote it. He tried to revise it, but gave up. “The whole poem, I realized, was infected with an incurable dishonesty—and must be scrapped.” He omitted it from his collected works and often refused to grant permission to reprint it.

Not-so-secret Admirers

January 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

USA Today loves polls. The bottom of page one often has a box showing the mood of the nation as a simple graph. These used to be accompanied by a “We” headline (“We’re Eating More Fish!”).

The newspaper closed out the year with a front-page report of their poll on the men and women we most admire. The idea of the poll is silly enough. Here are the results for most-admired men.


And the women.


Whatever the wording of the question actually is, what it’s really asking is: “Try to think of someone who’s famous but isn’t a rock star or TV/movie actor.”

But USA adds another layer of silliness with this interpretation of the results
The close finish by Clinton, named by 16% in the open-ended survey, and Palin, named by 15%, reflects the nation's partisan divide.
It does? Then why doesn’t the list of admired men also reflect the same close divide? Yes, the sitting president always gets top spot, but the margin varies. The results from 2006 were
  • George W. Bush 10%
  • Bill Clinton 8%
  • Al Gore 6%
  • Barack Obama 5%
The combined Democrat percent nearly doubled that of the one Republican. For this year’s results, even if you toss Billy Graham and the Pope in with Bush and Beck in the conservative box, Obama still outpolls them three to one.

Similarly, in this year’s women’s poll, the combined liberal percentage (Hillary, Oprah, Michelle Obama) beats the conservatives (Palin, Rice) 31% - 17%.

But the real mistake is to think that when you ask people to name someone they admire you are getting a political profile of the nation.