Norms and Negotiations

January 29, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jenn Lena links to Tom Chiarella’s 2005 essay, “Haggling for Hot Dogs,” placing it in the context of Harold Garfinkle’s ethnomethodology and the “breaching” (i.e., norm-breaking) assignment often used in intro sociology course. In one frequently used version, the instructor tells students to go buy something but offer to pay less than the posted price. (The item must be the kind where price is not negotiated -- a bottle of soda, not a car.)

Chiarella starts out asking a hot dog vendor for a $1 discount. He gets nowhere.
The hot-dog man looked at me then and slapped closed the lid to his cart. "No deals!" he snarled. [See a longer description of this exchange in the full article here.]
Clearly, Chiarella was breaking a norm.

I don’t use the norm-breaking assignment, and I’m not sure what instructors who do use it want students to learn. It seems that there are four obvious lessons:
  • All situations are governed by norms.
  • A norm is usually invisible until someone breaks it.
  • It’s not easy to deliberately break a norm (a lot of students cheat on the assignment), but . . .
  • . . . our anticipatory anxiety about breaking a norm is way out of proportion to the actual response of other people.
Garfinkle has at least one more important point to make: norms are flexible, not absolute. No matter what the assignment he gave students – no matter how bizarre the action – once they were in the field, they were able to create a context in which that action seemed normal, even unremarkable.

The simplest strategy is to frame it as “an experiment.” Tell a stranger, “Hop up and down three times on your left leg,” and you’ll get some weird looks and not much co-operation. But if you say, “Excuse me, this is an experiment for my sociology class. Would you mind hopping three times on your left leg?” you’ll get a more polite response and probably a lot of hopping. But even without resorting to the experiment frame, Garfinkle’s students were able to create normalizing contexts.

Chiarella ends his article with another hot dog vendor.
Last week I was walking my dog in the large city near my town. . . .on the marble steps of a war memorial. . . . There was a man selling hot dogs on the sidewalk below. . . .
This time, without even trying, Chiarella has created a context for a free hot dog. The key is his own dog.
I approached and offered my money. He handed me my hot dog.
For one moment, I thought about making an offer on a second one. But I . . .let it go. “Is screwing a working guy out of seventy-five cents really worth the time?” . . . So I started slathering on the mustard instead.
“I've got something for you,” the vendor said, and when I turned to look, he was holding a hot dog.
I smiled and shook my head. “I'm good,” I said. “No thanks.”
But he was holding it out for my dog, who wolfed it out of his hands without pause. I laughed. The man seemed happy; the dog, ecstatic. Why not? It’s what I had been saying from the start. A free hot dog? That’s a good deal for all.

Russian Blues

January 28, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Whorfian hypothesis” – the general idea that language influences thought – regularly takes a drubbing over at Language Log, especially when their resident linguists get wind of yet another instance of the “'no word for X' fallacy.’” This week, Mark Liberman (here) caught Rachel Donadio in the New York Times claiming that “Italian has no word for accountability.” This came barely a week after a debate at The Economist (“This house believes that the language we speak shapes how we think.”) where Liberman had argued the “no way” side.*
in its common interpretation, which sees a list of dictionary entries as determining the set of available thoughts, this proposition is false.
Well yes, if you put it in stark terms like that (“determining . . . available thoughts”). But I would imagine that having a word for something makes it more accessible, more visible. Without a word for X, we are less likely to notice it or distinguish it from things that are close to X but not exactly X. Take colors, for instance.
Unlike English, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (‘‘goluboy’’) and darker blues (‘‘siniy’’). . . . Russian speakers were faster to discriminate two colors when they fell into different linguistic categories in Russian (one siniy and the other goluboy) than when they were from the same linguistic category (both siniy or both goluboy). . . . English speakers tested on the identical stimuli did not show a category advantage in any of the conditions.

These results demonstrate that (I) categories in language affect performance on simple perceptual color tasks and (ii) the effect of language is online (and can be disrupted by verbal interference). [emphasis added]
This is from the abstract of a 2007 article, “Russian Blues Reveal Effects of Language on Color Discrimination.”

That title reminded me of another article in the Times this week about a Russian and blues.

Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution Is Vindicated

    And in a speculative moment in 1945, [Nabokov] came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues.

Nabokov was a synaesthete – his brain transformed the sound of each letter into a particular color. In his “colored hearing,”

The long a of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony.
He was also very sensitive to subtle differences in color.**
Passing on to the blue group, there is steely ‘x’, thundercloud ‘z’ and huckleberry ‘h’.
The fine distinctions among shades of blue in the Russian language and the Russian emigre’s interest in lepidopteral blues is surely a coincidence, but it’s one that might have pleased the novelist.

*In the voting, Liberman lost the debate by a 3-1 margin. That doesn’t mean he was wrong; it just means he wasn’t persuasive.
**In the literature course that he performed while on the faculty at Cornell, Nabokov would often correct the available translations of French or Russian novels. In one of these, the translator used the word purple. Nabokov would tell his students to cross out the word and substitute violet, then he would shake his head and chuckle softly at the translator’s pathetic error and mutter, “Purple!” seemingly to himself. I thought I had read this somewhere, but now I cannot find any such account.

When Prophecy's Faked

January 26, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

It turns out that the only scientific evidence linking autism to childhood vaccinations was a fraud. The doctor who reported it, Andrew Wakefield, faked the data, most likely because he was in cahoots with lawyers who were suing vaccine makers. (The story is here and many other places.)

What does that mean for autism-vaccine believers like Jenny McCarthy, who has been one of the more noticeable vaccine skeptics and one of Dr. Wakefield’s strongest supporters?

Jonah Lehrer writing in Wired draws a parallel (which I’m embarrassed not to have noticed) between this turn of events and the origins of “cognitive dissonance,” particularly When Prophecy Fails.

Much of the early research on cognitive dissonance, a term coined by Leon Festinger, came out of the social psych. lab – all those contrived experiments by Festinger and others. But the idea had its origin in a real-world study. In 1954, Festinger noticed a newspaper article about a small group of believers who were predicting that the world would be destroyed on Dec. 20 of that year.

Festinger and two colleagues joined the group, pretending to be believers (no IRBs in those days) and regularly attended its meetings. They were especially interested in how the group would react when, come Dec. 21, they were all still on this planet. The group had gathered on the fated night and waited for the spaceships to rescue them from the great destruction. But nothing happened. How would they resolve the dissonance between their belief (about the end of the world and its causes) and the evidence?

It should be no surprise that they held to their basic ideas. Instead, their leader (a Mrs. Keech*) relayed the latest message from the space aliens: the heroic efforts of this little group had created such a powerful force for good that God had chosen to spare the world. Both the world and their belief system were saved.

The other, possibly surprising, outcome was what happened next. You might think that the group members would lose their enthusiasm and that the group would gradually dissipate. Instead, they vowed to redouble their efforts and turn outward. Before, they had been content to save themselves. Now they set out to proselytize.

The same thing apparently is happening on the autism-vaccine front. Lehrer quotes Jenny McCarthy
This debate won’t end because of one dubious reporter’s allegations. I have never met stronger women than the moms of children with autism. Last week, this hoopla made us a little stronger, and even more determined to fight for the truth about what’s happening to our kids. [Lehrer’s emphasis]
He adds, “That’s right: the demonstration of fraud has made McCarthy even more convinced that vaccines cause autism.”

After prophecy fails, it’s only logical (well, psycho-logical) to claim that your beliefs are even stronger and to go out and proselytize. In the face of disconfirming evidence, you have to work even harder to convince yourself. And, as we teachers well know, one of the best ways to clarify and strengthen your own ideas is to go out and teach them to others.

* Not her real name.

BLEG: I dimly recall hearing somewhere that Robert Coover took the inspiration for his first novel, Origin of the Brunists (1966), from When Prophecy Fails. But my Internet searches have turned up no confirmation of this. Does anyone have any information about this? If you know Coover, call him up and ask.

Hard Work and Its Rewards

January 24, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Protestant ethic had a pretty good run in America, where it was also known sometimes as “the work ethic.” But the huge reaction to Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal essay is a sign that “hard work” has become a matter of considerable ambivalence. Some of Chua’s critics were sure that her all-work-and-no-playdates regime would render children socially inept. Her supporters saw her article as a reminder of how far American parents have strayed from their proper roles. (My recent post on the article is here.)

The idea that hard work is in itself a good thing has been in decline in the US for at least a half century. At the same time, a new value has been rising – the value on self-fulfillment. That’s what drives conservatives up the wall, and they see a clear connection between the two. Our tolerance and respect for drudgery has declined because of the sixties-liberal-hippie idea that work should be intrinsically rewarding.

But it’s not just self-fulfillment that’s causing problems for the old value. Hard work for hard work’s sake also conflicts with other long-standing American values: rationality, utilitarianism, pragmatism, self-interest – the idea that behavior is all about attaining specific goals. If hard work doesn’t seem to be achieving the goals, sinking ever more effort into it just isn’t very practical.

Chua’s article, with its anecdotal evidence for the efficacy of hard work, offers some comfort for traditional American beliefs and values. More so than most advanced countries, we believe that work pays off.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

In the Brookings international survey, the US was nearly at the top in agreeing that “People get rewarded for their effort.” Over 60% agreed, compared with a median of about 35% for the 27 countries in the sample.

The belief also gets a push from Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule.” Outliers like the Beatles and Bill Gates weren’t just talented. They, and others who eventually wound up at the top of their fields, all spent thousands of hours working to develop their craft. We are familiar with the fictional version of this scenario – the hero who, at all costs, pursues his dream. Others scoff and try to discourage him, but he perseveres, often at great sacrifice. He remains true to his vision, and in the end, he triumphs.

The trouble is that we don’t know about all the similarly single-minded dream-pursuers who didn’t make it. How many other bands and other programmers put in their 10,000 hours and wound up where they started, in obscurity?

The radio show “This American Life” often gives the other side of our most beloved stories. Last month, it aired the story of Duke Fightmaster, a one-time mortgage broker who decided that he was going to be the replacement for Conan O’Brien when Conan replaced Jay Leno (NBC’s plan at the time).
I had this idea that if I just follow my passion or find something that I'm passionate about, something that uses my creativity, and if I just am able to find that and throw myself into it I'll be successful.
He started doing his own talk show from his own bedroom. Eventually, he quit his day job in order to pursue his dream of replacing Conan. He moved the show out of his house first to a VA hall, then a small nightclub. He maxed out his credit cards, went bankrupt, lost a house, lost a car, and had a sort of breakdown. Still, he didn’t give up on his dream. He stopped after three years, but only when he could no longer find a place to do the show.

Here is what he says in response to NPR producer Sarah Koenig’s what-have-you-learned-Dorothy question.*
Going out and saying I'm going to be the replacement for Conan O'Brien, it turns out that that's a lot easier said than done. It's not as easy to start a talk show and replace Conan O'Brien as I thought it might have been.
Koenig laughs and says,
I could have told you that three years ago. I mean, nobody gets to be Conan O'Brien. Only Conan O'Brien gets to be Conan O'Brien; that's why it's so hard to be Conan O'Brien.
* A podcast of the show is here. The above segment begins at about 34:30. A transcript is here.

Grade Inflation

January 19, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

John Sides at The Monkey Cage posted ths final gradesheet from a Goverment course that John F. Kennedy took in 1939-40.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

JFK’s B- isn’t bad. Although that was the modal grade, the class mean and median were a C+. I haven’t seen any gradesheets from current Government courses at Harvard, but I would expect that a B- would fall pretty far down the curve. And just for the record, it was Kennedy’s lowest grade that term. In his other courses, he got two Bs and a B+.

UPDATE. Jan. 25. Lisa Wade at Sociological Images has more on this topic-- a graph of grades in US colleges going back as far as 1920 -- and a link to the source,, which has much, much more.

Speak Roughly To Your Little Boy

January 18, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Amy Chua says that her recent book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is about her personal “journey” of change away from the “very strict Chinese parenting model.” But the Wall Street Journal edit of the memoir for its op-ed page reduces Chua’s journey to a one-dimensional promo for that extreme Chinese model. The WSJ selected those elments of Chua’s story that embody the current conservative world-view in the US. For example, the chief family virtues in this model – for the the children and the parents as well – are hard work and perseverance. The model also emphasizes goals rather than process; the “journey” is less important.  Still less relevant is the way the child feels about any of it. Finally, the tiger mom method places all responsibility on the individual and rejects the influence of external, situational forces.

The appeal of the Chinese model stems in part from our fear that America has become, in Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s phrase, “a nation of wusses.” Rendell was referring to the NFL’s decision to reschedule a football game in Philadelphia a few weeks ago when heavy snow made travel to the stadium dangerous and nearly impossible.
The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.
Rendell was joking, but the joke reflected our anxieties about ourselves vis-à-vis China.

The remedy for this wussiness, at least in the ideal WSJ family, is basically the parent-as- marine-drill-sergeant. The drill sergeant doesn’t “journey.” He barks that he wants results not excuses, my way or the highway, and similar bons mots. This model of child-rearing combines several elements of the conservative mentality: authoritarianism, intolerance of ambiguity, cognitive simplicity, and certainty.* Parents are always right, their rules are clear and absolute, and children should unquestioningly do what parents say.** Therefore, whatever parents do to enforce rules is legitimate and beneficial since it leads to the desired results. (Some of Chua’s methods will strike many readers as psychological cruelty if not abuse.)

Another virtue in the war on wussiness is Toughness. This means the rejection of emotions, especially “feminine” emotions like sympathy, as irrelevant or even detrimental to the task at hand. (Remember the right-wing reaction to “empathy”?) “Masculine” emotions that can be used for goal attainment are O.K. These include pride and anger, and perhaps even envy and greed (hey, four out of seven ain’t bad.)

This tension between toughness and kindness towards children is nothing new. The Lewis Carroll poem from Alice in Wonderland (1865) alluded to in the title of this post was itself a parody reaction to a popular poem of the time, “Speak Gently”
Speak gently to the little child!
Its love be sure to gain . . . .
Speak gently to the young, for they
Will have enough to bear;
Pass through this life as best they may,
’Tis full of anxious care!

The conflict is also reflected in the bimodal reaction over at Amazon, where the book is #6 on the bestseller list. In the end, I doubt that the book will have much lasting influence on child rearing here, though some parents will use it to justify what they were already inclined to do.

The much greater influence will be that of American culture on Asian-Americans. As Chua says, she was “humbled” (and presumably changed) by her 13-year-old. The Asian kids at my son’s high school (where they were about half the population) would often say, “Asian parents are crazy.” When these kids and Amy Chua’s kids become parents, they will probably not be quite so “crazy.”

* For a somewhat controversial review of the literature on this topic, see this 2003 Psychological Bulletin article, which includes studies from other countries.

**This upends the usual American formulation, at least in movies and other fictions, where children are typically wiser than parents. (See my earlier post contrasting this configuration with the British version of childhood as seen in “Atonement.” Or this post on the non-authoritarian sitcom family.)

Mom and Apple Pie Sesame Noodles

January 17, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Amy Chua’s essay in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” has been getting a ton of attention.

When it comes to child-rearing, Americans seem forever to be seeking out expert advice. This used to be the province of print – books and magazine articles – but videos and TV shows are now in the media mix of advice for parents. This advice cannot be an “only in America” enterprise. Still, I would guess that we manufacture and consume more than our share.
Societies with a stronger sense of tradition would have less anxiety about whether they were doing it right. But in American culture, tradition usually loses out to rationality – effective means to desired goals. There seems to be a value on rejecting the ways of the previous generation (“I’m not going to make the same mistakes my parents made.”) Turning to experts for new ways of raising kids also fits nicely with American optimism and belief in progress. (“The new, improved child-rearing – get it now. Operators are standing by.”)

The trouble is that parents have many goals for their children – success/achievement, social skills and friendships, autonomy, self-fulfillment, proper behavior, happiness, and so on – for the immediate present and for various distances into the future. These goals are not in perfect harmony, and to get more of one good thing, you may have to give up another. Worse, even if parents could decide which goals they wanted to emphasize, they have precious little evidence, beyond the very short run, for the effects of one strategy or another. So we turn to those who claim to have some special knowledge, and the books and videos just keep on coming. “How can I make sure my kid is happy?” Or smart? Or successful? Or well-liked? If there were clear answers to these questions, we wouldn’t need another book.

So while these books purport to tell us how to raise kids, they also document the anxieties and ideologies of their authors and readers.

The Wall Street Journal article is a case in point. I refer to it as the “WSJ article” and not Amy Chua’s. Here is the cover line at Penguin.
This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a thirteen-year-old.
But the WSJ article has no such change of mind, no ambivalence, no uncertainty. The Chua in the WSJ is the Tiger Mom, driving her daughters with a strictness that most readers will see as cruelty. And in the end, the WSJ Chua is triumphant. Her unrelenting demands and no-sympathy tactics vindicated, she remains convinced of the rightness of her approach. But that is far from the whole story. Here she is in an interview with Jeff Yang at SF Gate:
The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they'd put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn't even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end -- that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.
It’s possible that Chua is kidding herself. Yang’s SF Gate post quotes someone on Chua’s “woeful lack of self-examination.” But he also says, “The book’s tone is slightly rueful, frequently self-deprecating and entirely aware of its author’s enormities.”

The WSJ edit tells the story so as to make it conform with the American conservative world view (more on this in another post). I guess that one moral of the story is that you should be wary of heavily edited excerpts on the WSJ editorial page. Or, as my fellow fourth-grader’s book reports invariably ended, “If you want to find out what happens, you’ll have to read the book.”

Animated Speakers

January 12, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I teach, I rarely use the board. My handwriting is terrible, and for just about everything I say in class, I have a write-up that I post on Blackbloard with the ideas and evidence laid out systematically and all the key concepts and names in bold type. When I do write on the board, I often see student struggling to decipher the letters. I tell students not to worry about copying it all down. They can find everything written clearly and spelled correctly on Blackboard.

Underlying my casual attitude to the board is the assumption that I-write-you-copy ritual breaks the flow of thought. That’s also one of my objections to PowerPoint, especially if students focus on writing down what’s on a slide rather than thinking about what’s being said.

Who am I kidding? The only one whose thought gets broken is me. For students, a pause while I write on the board would give them a minute to think about the idea. Besides, I realize now that having a written version, even with no pause for reflection, reinforces and somehow adds to a lecture. I realize this thanks to RSA Animate. Watch even a minute or two of one of their animations. Here for example is Zizek on cultural capitalism.

The drawings don’t really add anything intellectually, and the words are just a shortened transcript of what Ehrenreich is saying. But the message coming simultaneously via two senses seems much more memorable. (The RSA site also has the video of Zizek on camera for the full half-hour lecture, for connoisseurs interested in side-by-side comparisons.).

I guess I’ll be spending the rest of winter break working on my marker skills.

Beach Blogging Bingo

January 8, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The SocioBlog is heading for a week in the sun (I hope). Internet access may be dicey. If I do post, it will be from . . . well, I’ll let the Saxophone Colossus tell you. (Jazzers will know what I mean. Or click on the link for the classic track.)

Brands - Image and Reality

January 7, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In yesterday’s post, I wondered what “brand equity” meant in higher education. I think I have a vague idea. A school doesn’t just educate. A school is also a brand, and its graduates carry that brand regardless of the education they may (or may not) have gotten there.

Juilliard, for example, was GLM’s top-ranked music school for brand equity (it was also twelfth in the list of colleges, just behind Wellesley, just ahead of Vassar).

I knew a Juilliard graduate, Brad, many years ago, back when I was a playground dad. Not many other men were there on weekdays. Often, it was just me and Brad (plus the moms and nannies), and we got to know each other. He had come from Boston with his saxophone, but at Juilliard he studied conducting. After graduating, he stayed on the West Side and eventually actually managed to land a job as conductor with a regional orchestra somewhere in New Jersey that did five concerts year. It didn’t pay all that much, but it allowed him a lot of free time, which was why he was one of the few other dads regularly at the playground in the afternoon.

One day we were sitting on the bench, and Brad asked me where I’d gotten my Ph.D. I guess we’d never talked much about higher education. Harvard, I told him.

“I didn’t know that,” he said, surprised, “and I’ve known you all this time.”

“Don’t be impressed,” I said.

“But I am,” he said. From his voice and the look on his face, I could see that he meant it. I wanted to convince him not to be.

“Oh Brad,” I said, my voice rising in mock awe, “You went to Juilliard?! You must be this really great and talented musician. Juilliard – wow!” Or something like that.

He laughed.

“See what I mean?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. Then a pause. “But I’m still impressed.”

Brand Equity in Higher Ed

January 6, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Global Language Monitor has just released its rankings of colleges and universities (here). GLM ranks “brand equity.” No measures of faculty or student quality, no measures of cost, no graduation rates. Just “buzz.”
TrendTopper MediaBuzz utilizes a mathematical model that ‘normalizes’ the data collected from the Internet, social media, and blogosphere as well as the top 75,000 print and electronic media.
Those other rankings – the ones that look at the schools themselves – are biased.
GLM’s TrendTopper MediaBuzz Rankings actually removes all bias inherent in each of the other published rankings, since they actually reflect what is being said and stated on the billions of web pages that we measure.
Here are the top ten universities
1. Univ. of Wisconsin—Madison
2. University of Chicago
3. Harvard University
4. Mass. Institute of Technology
5. Columbia University
6. Univ. of Michigan—Ann Arbor
7. Cornell University
8. University of California–Berkeley
9. Yale University
10. University of Texas—Austin
And the top ten colleges
1. Davidson College
2. Occidental College
3. Williams College
4. Wesleyan University
5. Carleton College
6. Amherst College
7. Bucknell University
8. Oberlin College
9. United States Air Force Academy
10. Pomona College
The aren’t any surprises in the first list, except perhaps that four of the top ten are state schools (the “public option” when there’s a “government takeover” of education.) But with the colleges, I wonder what the nature of the buzz was. Is Occidental at #2 because Obama went there as a freshman? Why is Bucknell more buzzworthy than, say, Kenyon or Vassar?

I also wonder what brand equity means. In commerce, it adds value. It increases the price of a product or share of stock. What does it do for education?

Options and Adoptions

January 5, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In “Knocked Up” and “Juno,” single women with unplanned, unintended, unwished-for pregnancies wind up keeping their babies (and presumably live happily ever after). As Ross Douthat says in this NY Times column on Monday, these films make abortion seem “not only unnecessary but repellent.” A few American films, very few, have taken a different view of abortion, notably “The Cider House Rules” and “Dirty Dancing.”*

There’s a third option to unwanted pregnancy – adoption. Douthat sees it as the bridge between infertility and unwanted pregnancies. The trouble, Douthat says, is that because of abortion, fewer babies are crossing that bridge.
Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason.
Instead, those babies are being “destroyed.”
This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.
Douthat’s article got some strong reaction. Read the comments on the Times website. Or if you prefer blunt outrage, try Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon. She frames the question differently. You can’t just say, “Abortion bad, adoption good.” You have to ask: good and bad for who? Take that closing, somewhat mawkish line of Douthat’s. The mother who is “destroying ”the foetus is obviously not the person who “hungrily desires” it. Nor are the people involved in adoption equals. There’s a social class dimension. Douthat’s abstract prescriptions when applied to the real world mean this: because a middle-class white couple hungrily desires a child, a poor girl must carry her baby to term and give it to them.
to return to an era where being a sexually active, unmarried woman was de facto criminalized so that your labor could be forcibly extracted from you to benefit people who do a much better job than you of keeping up appearances.
Douthat sees the pre-Roe era as one of possibly troubled girls gratefully and happily giving up their happy babies to happy and grateful adopting couples. Marcotte is less sanguine. It was instead an era when
young white women . . . who turned up pregnant were forced to give birth to babies and forced into maternity homes where they were restrained and often subject to torturous behavior so they couldn’t resist when their babies were snatched from them against their wills.
Adoption, in the real world, is not such a simple solution. Maybe that’s why there are so few movies about it. I can’t think of any movies with adoption as an important element of the story. Surely there must be some.** [Update: See Tina’s comment.]

* My favorite American film with an abortion theme is “Racing With the Moon,” (1984) with Sean Penn, set in 1942 – a good film that nobody saw. For more on abortion in the movies see Stephen Farber at The Daily Beast last April.

** I think adoption does enter into soap operas and medical dramas like “Private Practice,” but usually with such complicated entanglements that the basic conflicts and problems of adoption get lost.

Inequality at the Threshold

January 2, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Economic inequality in the US has been increasing, but mostly because of sky’s-the-limit incomes at the top. The relative inequality among the rest of us, the bottom 95% or even 99%, has remained fairly stable. But the six-figure income of thirty years ago has become a 7- or 8- figure income today.

(Click on the graph for a larger view. The original, via Lane Kenworthy, is here. )

Tyler Cowen, in a recent article that’s been getting some attention, says that our biggest concern, morally and economically, should be with the elephantine incomes of people in the financial sector.
In short, there is an unholy dynamic of short-term trading and investing, backed up by bailouts and risk reduction from the government and the Federal Reserve. This is not good.
Today’s greedy Gordon Geckos game the system. As we saw in the 2008 meltdown and bailout, it’s heads they win, tails we lost. This view, though, turns out to be politically controversial. Blaming the system (unregulated speculation, no downside risk) and the greediest doesn’t sit right with conservatives.

But how then to explain the inequality at the top? By blaming those who are just not greedy enough.

Seriously. Reihan Salam at National Review Online reads Cowen’s article and homes in on a what Cowen calls “threshold earners . . . . someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often.”*

Cowen also says that
any society with a lot of ‘threshold earners’ is likely to experience growing income inequality . . . If the percentage of threshold earners rises for whatever reasons, however, the aggregate gap between them and the more financially ambitious will widen. There is nothing morally or practically wrong with an increase in inequality from a source such as that.
Cowen doesn’t offer any evidence, probably because it would be very hard to measure the threshold attitude. Nor does he even guess as to how much inequality it accounts for. But Salam uses the idea to argue that when we look at the graph we should see not the outcome of an economic and political system. Instead, it’s a matter of personal preference – the personal choice not to earn as much as possible.
The measured stagnation in wages and to a lesser extent in compensation is thus seen as an artifact of political economy rather than a phenomenon that is driven in no small part by changing preferences.** [emphasis added]
For conservatives, the individual-preference model accounts for inequality at the bottom as well as at the top. They see unemployment, for example, as individuals choosing not to work. That, plus unemployment compensation – the princely $300 per week (“paying people not to work” in the words of The Wall Street Journal) that subsidizes the choice to avoid working. (As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. See my earlier post on this is here.)

The trouble is that we don’t know much about threshold earners. As Salam says, “this has been a pretty darn un-rigorous discussion, as we’re talking about phenomena that are hard if not impossible to measure.”

Even so, I don’t see the logical connection between the threshold orientation and inequality. My first guess was that threshold earners would decrease inequality, not increase it. Andrew Gelman thought so too.

Both Gelman and Salam quoted a paragraph from Cowen’s article that begins
The funny thing is this: For years, many cultural critics in and of the United States have been telling us that Americans should behave more like threshold earners. We should be less harried, more interested in nurturing friendships, and more interested in the non-commercial sphere of life.
Cowen says that such cultural change will increase inequality. Again, we have no evidence. But when I read those sentences, I kept hearing the word that dare not speak its name – France. Or Europe generally. That’s where people spend less time working and more time enjoying life. (The French, on average, spend a full hour per day more than we do à table – and not just because their food is better.) Nearly all Europeans, on average, spend more of life in the non-commercial sphere. This mentality extends, or possibly even begins, in the upper reaches of the income scale. Yet European countries have much less inequality than does the US. As I recall, Tyler Cowen spent some time last summer in Germany, so I find it especially curious that in his article, he makes no cross-national comparisons.

*Anyone who took Sociology 100 knows that threshold earners. are nothing new. In The Protestant Ethic, Weber writes of the frustration of employers who try to get more worker output by offering piece-work incentives rather than a flat hourly wage. This strategy runs into
a peculiar difficulty: raising the piece-rates has often had the result that not more but less has been accomplished in the same time, because the worker reacted to the increase not by increasing but by decreasing the amount of his work. [The worker] did not ask: how much can I earn in a day if I do as much work as possible ? but: how much must I work in order to earn the wage, 2 ½ marks, which I earned before and which takes care of my traditional needs? [Chapter II, online here.]
Weber, lacking the vocabulary of modern economics, referred to these workers not as “threshold earners” but as “traditional.”

**The passive voice (“is thus seen as”) obscures Salam’s point – two points really. First, that the usual ways of measuring income inequality are not
useful, and second, that what drives inequality is individual preference, in this case, preference for things other than income.