Moneyball

September 30, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Stanford is a three-touchdown favorite over UCLA tomorrow night.  Which is the more desirable team?

If you said Stanford, you’re probably one of those people who thinks that the Big Ten consists of ten schools.  You probably also thought that football was all about points on the board – six for a touchdown, three for a field goal, and so on.  Silly you. 

As the recent (and perhaps continuing) realignment of conferences makes clear, college football is about points, but they are Nielsen points.  And on the Nielsen scoreboard, UCLA crushes Stanford. 

 
The graphic is from a Nate Silver article at The New York Times (here).  It’s the companion piece to Taylor Branch’s recent article  in the Atlantic.  Branch gives the sordid details.  Nate Silver provides the systematic numbers – fan base and TV market share.  What both make clear is that college football is not about good match-ups.  It’s about good profits.
The S.E.C.’s interest in Texas A&M becomes easier to understand once you recognize that the Aggies have among the largest fan bases in the country. The fact that Notre Dame’s fans are dispersed throughout the country explains why they’ve been loathe to join a conference. And that the West Coast is less enthusiastic about football than other parts of the country, making the Pacific-12 a harder sale to the television networks, explains why the conference is going to great lengths to expand into football-crazy states like Texas.
Not to go all Marxist here, but by design, the money flows entirely to the networks, to the universities, and to the coaches.  The workers who put their bodies on the line get nothing.  Actually some of them do get some trinkets and favors, but in the ideal world of the NCAA, they are supposed to get zero dollars.  After all, they are not workers.  They are scholar-athletes, and they do get scholarships, which are worth something, though it’s questionable whether they get much of an education.  But even though they produce substantial amounts of revenue for other people,they are not workers.   Running back Kent Waldrep was paralyzed during a game in 1974.  When his university stopped paying for his medical bills, he sued for workers’ compensation. 
The appeals court finally rejected Waldrep’s claim in June of 2000, ruling that he was not an employee because he had not paid taxes on financial aid that he could have kept even if he quit football.
The university – ironists take note – was Texas Christian.


HT: My colleague George Martin for calling Silver's article to my attention. 

UPDATE, Oct. 2:  By game time, UCLA was a 23-point underdogs.  Stanford won  45 - 19No information yet on how many viewers watched the game on TV.

Education Divested

September 28, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here in New Jersey, as in Wisconsin and elsewhere, the governor has been attacking educators and cutting education budgets, and educators have been doing their best to fight back. 

In France too, professors are trying to win public support against the “depouillement” of education.  The word literally means stripping or skinning, leaving something bare, and it carries the same connotations as the English “fleecing.”  So the profs have posed, depouillé, for a calendar. 


The writing on the blackboard carries a message appropriate both to the academic area and to the protest.  The double meaning gets lost in a literal translation.  “Let’s do economics, not budget-cutting.”

The decreasing function in math is more obvious.


As you might expect, the conservative reaction laments that by doing something that might win public opinion to their side, the profs “dévalorisaient la profession.”  Of course, if you really want to “devalue” something, you  reduce the money you allocate to it, which is what the government is doing. 


View and download all twelve months here, all safe for work.  The calendar begins with Septembre 2011, so you’d better hurry.

HT:  Maîtresse

Chic Cliques (or is it Chick Clicks?)

September 27, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sara Wakefield mentioned on Facebook that Kindergarten Moms’ night was “remarkably like high school where I did okay with all groups but fit in with none.”  (I took note because at the time,  I was just about to leave for my own high school reunion.)

The social structure of high school, it seems, is all about cliques – freaks and geeks,* jocks and emos, preps, goths, cool kids, et. al.  But there’s a paradox here.  Whenever I ask students about cliques in high school, they all say pretty much what Sara said.  (I mean, that's what they say once they figure out that when I say “clique” – rhymes with “antique” or “unique” – I really mean “click.”)  I ask them to jot down a list of the cliques at their school.  Some make longer lists, some shorter, but nobody sits there with a blank sheet of paper. Then, when I ask them which they were in, it turns out that nobody was a member of any clique.  Instead, like Sara, they affiliated loosely with many of the groups, or they had friends in several different cliques.

But wait a minute. You can’t have a group without members.  So if nobody is a member of any clique, then cliques don’t exist.  How can everyone see all these cliques when nobody in the school belongs to a clique?

The paradox stems from two different definitions or ways of thinking about cliques – as an actual group, and as a label.  When we think about other people, we think of the clique as both – group and label.  But when we think about ourselves, we think of the clique primarily as a label.  And while we are very willing to apply a label to other people, we resist labeling ourselves. 

Attribution theory has a similar take on “personality.”  If we are given a list of personality traits – from Affable to Zany –  and asked to say whether they apply to some person we know, we have no trouble going through the list and checking Yes or No for each trait. But when asked if those traits apply to us, we balk and go for the column marked “depends on the situation.”  As one of the attribution pioneers (Walter Mischel?) put it, apparently a personality is something that other people have. 

The same self/other difference shapes our ideas about cliques – that they are something that other people belong to – and for the same reason: the clique label, like the personality trait, is too limiting.  To say that I am “introverted” implies that this is how I am.  Always.  But “always” doesn’t feel right.  For one thing, I know that sometimes I can act in a very outgoing way. And for another, if I assign myself that label, then I can never act effusively and still be true to who I “really” am.

Similarly, to label myself as “one of the cool kids,” flattering though that may seem, limits me to that characteristic – coolness – when in fact I know there are times when I feel very uncool.  And besides, I sometimes hang around with kids who are not in the cool group.  (I’m using “I” in the hypothetical, generic sense. In reality, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the cool kids.)

The distinction probably even applies to official groups like the football team.  If you’re not a member, you might think of them as “the jocks” with all the connotations that the word carries. But I suspect that your local linebacker is more reluctant to apply that label to himself. There’s no doubt that he’s on the team. But he probably doesn’t think of himself as a jock.   

So while cliques have a certain reality embodied in real people, they are also cognitive categories that we construct and use to simplify and make sense of the social life of school.  Perhaps it’s equally useful to think of cliques not so much as actual groups of people but as ways of being that real people slide into and out of. And if any of what I’m saying here is accurate, how might it apply outside the high school microcosm – for example, to the concept of social class?

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* At about this same time when Sara and I were thinking about high school, Mrs. Castelli’s  students – actual high school students –  were thinking and blogging about “Freaks and Geeks.”

danah boyd on Bullying asTrue Drama

September 23, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

Long ago, David Matza contrasted two styles of studying deviance –  “corrective” and “appreciative.”  The corrective approach is moralistic.  It applies a prior set of values and shows how the subject under review fails to measure up.   It asks, “Why do these people do these bad things, and how can we get them to stop?”  The appreciative approach asks, “How does the world look from the subject’s point of view?”

That was the point of my post about sociologists in Las Vegas.  But if you want a better example, read the op-ed (here) on bullying in today’s Times by danah boyd* and Alice Marwick.  While most writing and research on bullying falls squarely in the corrective camp, boyd and Marwick actually talk with teenagers and listen to them.  A lot.  Mostly online.
 Given the public interest in cyberbullying, we asked young people about it, only to be continually rebuffed. Teenagers repeatedly told us that bullying was something that happened only in elementary or middle school. “There’s no bullying at this school” was a regular refrain. . . .
While teenagers denounced bullying, they — especially girls — would describe a host of interpersonal conflicts playing out in their lives as “drama.” . . . .

At first, we thought drama was simply an umbrella term, referring to varying forms of bullying, joking around, minor skirmishes between friends, breakups and makeups, and gossip. We thought teenagers viewed bullying as a form of drama. But we realized the two are quite distinct. Drama was not a show for us, but rather a protective mechanism for them.
You should really read the whole article.   

boyd has been writing about social media and “drama” for at least five years.   Now that she’s in the newspaper of record, maybe her ideas and observations will get the attention they deserve.

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*The Times insists on initial caps, the first time I’ve ever seen her name printed that way.

False Equivalence

September 22, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross posted at Sociological Images)

Do Democrats and Republicans have a similar lack of respect for science?  Alex Berezow seems to think so.  The title of his op-ed in USA Today  is “GOP might be anti-science, but so are Democrats.”

I hope that others will point out the false equivalence.  For evidence of  Democrats’ anti-science, Berezow cites mostly fringe groups like PETA, which objects to scientific research on animals, and fringe issues like vaccination.  According to Berezow, many people who oppose vaccination are Democrats.  True perhaps, but these positions are held by only a small minority of Democratic voters.  And neither of these positions has been espoused by any of the party leaders.* 

Compare that to Republican anti-science.  Most of the leading GOP presidential hopefuls, now and in the previous election, have voiced their skepticism on evolution and global warming.  Only Huntsman and Romney have hinted that they agree with the near–unanimous opinions of scientists in these fields. 

Maybe the candidates take these anti-science positions because the people whose votes they want – the GOP faithful – also reject the scientific consensus.

Here are the results of a recent Gallup poll   that asked which position  “Comes closest to your views.”

  • God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10 000 years or so
  • Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process
  • Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process


    Half of all Republicans think that humans have been around for only 10,000 years.

    The Republican base is also much more dubious about global warming than are Democrats.


    The graph goes only to 2008, and beliefs about global warming since then Americans’ have become somewhat more skeptical about the issue, but I am certain that Republicans are still well above Democrats on the chart.

    As for the anti-vaccine crowd, Berezow sees them as mostly Prius-driving, organic-vegan liberals.    Maybe so.  I have a scientist friend whose son runs an organic food co-op, and she is furious at his decision not to have his kids (her grandchildren) vaccinated.  (FWIW, she drives a Prius.)  But is there more systematic evidence of this liberal/anti-vaccine connection?  Here’s Berezow’s proof.
    a public health official once noted that rates of vaccine non-compliance tend to be higher in places where Whole Foods is popular — and 89% of Whole Foods stores are located in counties that favored Barack Obama in 2008. . . . . With the exception of Alaska, the states with the highest rates of vaccine refusal for kindergarteners are Washington, Vermont and Oregon — three of the most progressive states in the country.
    Areas with Whole Foods have both more vaccine skeptics and more Obama voters.  The thread of the logic is a bit thin (how big a difference is “tends to be higher”?), and it runs the risk of the ecological fallacy.  But it sounded right to me – my friend’s son lives in Vermont – and 75% (three states out of four) is pretty impressive evidence.

    But there are 46 other states plus DC, and I wondered if they too followed the pattern.   So I looked up the CDC data on the  percentages of vaccination refusal for non-medical reasons in each state (here).  I also got data on how Democratic the state was – the margin of victory or loss for Obama in 2008.** 


    Sure enough, the top three – Washington, Vermont, and Oregon – are all on the Obama side of the line, though it’s worth noting that in Washington, vaccine exemption was as common in the conservative eastern part of the state (near Idaho, which also has a high exemption rate and was strongly for McCain) as it was in the more liberal western counties.   And of the states with 3% or more taking non-medical exemptions from vaccination, eight were for Obama, four for McCain. But overall, the correlation (r = 0.12) is not overwhelming.   And even in the most anti-vaccine, pro-Whole Foods states like Washington and Vermont, nearly 95% of parent s had their kindergartners vaccinated.  That’s hardly convincing evidence that Democrats are anti-science.   Compare that with the 50% of Republicans (and 75% of their presidential hopefuls) who think evolution is a hoax or at best “just a theory.”

    --------------------
    *Berezow notes that seven Democratic senators (and one Republican) wrote a letter to the FDA “threatening to halt approval of a genetically modified salmon.”  But he implies that their position had more to do with money than anti-science.  They were from the salmony Northwest, while the company seeking approval is in Massachusetts.

    ** The CDC had no data for Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Wyoming.

    Bloggiversary

    September 20, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston

    Well, says the CarTalk-like voice in my head, it’s happened again – you’ve wasted another perfectly good year blogging.  Another 180+ posts.  (Five years, 830+ posts in all.)  Here’s a selection of ten from this year that I liked.  They are not necessarily the most astute or the most sociological; my criteria for choosing them, as nearly as I can tell, were inconsistent and idiosyncratic.

    Pleasant Surprises (Oct. 18) The unplanned crossing of paths and cultures that can happen in cities.

    Blockheads  Oct. 12) Mostly because I’m twitting (no, not tweeting) a Very Big Economist.

    The Sneakiest Sneak  (Dec. 16) Applied Goffman.

    Onward Christian Soldiers   (Nov. 20) No more Medals of Honor for killing.

    Mom and Apple Pie Sesame Noodles   (Jan 17) The “Tiger Mom.”


    Hard Work and Its Rewards  (Jan 24) The work ethic and American values.

    Iyengar Management  (April 14)  Mostly for the pun in the title, but also the similarities and differences in the two video clips.

    Overcoming Social Desirability Bias  (April 19) Mostly for the G&S parody.  The post is about methodology.
     
    Compulsory Fun   April 24  A foreigner sees taken-for-granted, unnoticed aspects of American culture.

    That Uncertain Feeling  (September 5) My one post that went viral (well, a modified, limited virus), getting mentioned in blogs and tweets by real political scientists and economists.  And Andrew Sullivan.

    It Didn’t Stay in Vegas

    September 19, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston

    Everett Hughes cautioned that the worst sin for a sociologist was snobbery.   I think he meant not just cultural snobbery, but moral snobbery as well.

    The next generation – Becker, Goffman, Gans, and others – similarly showed how our understanding suffers when we turn observation into a primarily moral enterprise.   As researchers, especially as ethnographers, we’re better off bracketing our aesthetic and moral judgments. 
    As has been repeatedly shown in the study of non-literate societies, the awesomeness, distastefulness, and barbarity of a foreign culture can decrease to the degree that the student becomes familiar with the point of view to life that is taken by his subjects.  (Goffman, Asylums)
    So here’s grad student Colby King back in South Carolina fretting publicly at Everyday Sociology over what happened in Vegas.  He’s concerned that his instincts as a sociologist – to become familiar with the point of view of people in Vegas– were politically correct.  At the ASA meetings in Las Vegas, Colby went out to talk to people. 
    I began a conversation with one of the gentlemen wearing a shirt and passing out cards. I asked him about his work, and then when I felt I had established some rapport, I asked him if it would be possible to purchase a shirt like his. He smiled, sat down his cards, reached into a bag, and pulled out a t-shirt that just like the one he was wearing.

    Some of my peers have admonished me for this action. They have underscored the point that I could not have done anything to appear more like a privileged white male than to ask a man working on a street corner for the shirt off of his back. I have also realized that by buying the shirt from him I was in some small way endorsing the industry in which he works, thereby furthering in the exploitation of workers like him and the women advertised on the shirt. I even worried about admitting I had purchased the shirt, afraid that such an action would be perceived as unprofessional.
    This sort of Puritanism – constant examination of oneself and others for any sign of sin or deviation from correctness  – is not likely to endear the researcher to those he or she is studying.  (The title of the Las Vegas Sun article – “To the sociologists: If you don’t like Vegas, don’t come back” – succinctly summarizes this reaction.  The whole article is worth reading.)  Worse, that view often comes at the expense of seeing the reality lived by the people.  I think it was Becker who said something like, “We want the people we study to be able to see themselves in what we write about them.”

    I wonder how Hughes, the son of a Methodist minister, would have reacted if Colby were his student.

    Chart Art - FBI-Style

    September 17, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston
    (Cross-posted at Sociological Images.)

    The FBI is teaching its counter-terrorism agents that Islam is an inherently violent religion.  So are the followers of Islam.  Not just the extremists and radicals, but the mainstream. 
    There may not be a ‘radical’ threat as much as it is simply a normal assertion of the orthodox ideology. . . .The strategic themes animating these Islamic values are not fringe; they are main stream.
    Wired  got hold of the training materials.  The Times has more today, including a section of the report that describes Muhammad as “a cult leader for a small inner circle.” (How small? Twelve perhaps?)  He also “employed torture to extract information.”*

    An FBI PowerPoint slide has a graph with the data to support its assertions.


    The graph clearly shows that followers of the Torah and the Bible have gotten progressively less violent since 1400 BC, while followers of the Koran flatline starting around 620 AD and remain just as violent as ever.

    Unfortunately, the creators of the chart do not say how they operationalized “violent” and “non-violent.”  But since the title of the presentation is “Militancy Considerations,” it might have something to do with military, para-military, and quasi-military violence.  When it comes to quantities of death, destruction, and injury, these overwhelm other types of violence. 

    I must confess that my knowledge of history is sadly wanting, and I was educated before liberals imposed all this global, multicultural nonsense on schools, so I know nothing about wars that might have happened among Muslims during the period in question.  What I was taught was that the really big wars, the important wars, the wars that killed the most people, were mostly affairs among followers of the Bible.  Some of these were so big that they were called “World Wars” even though followers of the Qur’an had very low levels of participation.  Some of these wars lasted quite a long time – thirty years, a hundred years.  I was also taught that in the important violence that did involve Muslims – i.e., the Crusades** – it was the followers of the Bible who were doing most of the killing. 

    Perhaps those with a more knowledge of Muslim militant violence can provide the data.


    -----------------------------

    * To be fair, the FBI seems to have been innocent of any of the torture that took place during the Bush years.  That was all done by the military and the CIA – and by the non-Christian governments to which the Bush administration outsourced the work. 

    ** Followers of the Bible crusading to “take back our city” from a Muslim-led regime may have familiar overtones.

    Two Worthwhile Links.

    September 15, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston

    • Call for Philip Morris.   Researchers in the UK have done interviews with 5,500 kids (11 - 16) focusing on their attitudes about cigarette marketing.  Now Philip Morris is trying to use the Freedom of Information to get all the raw data.

    • Who do you trust?   Why do people accept expertise in the physical sciences, but in the social sciences feel free to form their own opinions?  Robin Hanson asked the question.  Sean Carroll at Discover answers it.  Hanson’s question is about economics, but much of what Carroll says is relevant to sociology.  Besides, he includes a clip of the Stand-up Economist.

    Home Team Advantage

    September 14, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston
    If you’re looking for an example of the Lake Wobegon effect (“all the children are above average”), you can’t do much better than this one.  It’s almost literal.


    The survey didn’t ask about the children.  It asked about schools – schools in general and your local school.  As with “Congress / my Congressional rep,” people rated America’s schools as only so-so.  Barely a fifth of respondents gave America’s schools an above-average grade.  But when people rated their own local schools, 46% gave B’s and A’s.  The effect was even stronger among the affluent (upper tenth of the income distribution for their state) and among teachers.

    The findings about the affluent are no surprise, nor are their perceptions skewed.  Schools in wealthy neighborhoods really are above average.  What’s surprising is that only 47% of the wealthy gave their local schools an above-average grade. 

    The teachers, though, are presumably a representative sample, yet 64% of their schools are above average.  I can think of two explanations for the generosity of the grades they assign their own schools:
    • Self-enhancement.  Teachers have a personal stake in the rating of schools generally.  They have an even larger stake in the rating of their own school.
    • Familiarity.  We feel more comfortable with the familiar.  (On crime, people feel safer in their own neighborhoods, even the people who live in high-crime neighborhoods.)  So we rate familiar things more charitably.  For teachers, schools are something they’re very familiar with, especially their local schools.
    [Research by Howell, Peterson, and West reported here.
    HT: Jonathan Robinson at The Monkey Cage]

    The Sweet Smell of “The Help”

    September 14, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston
    A stirring black-empowerment tale aimed squarely at white auds . . .
    So begins Variety’s take on “The Help.”

    Really?  White auds, yes.  But is this movie really about black empowerment? 

    Years ago, I speculated here that all American films were about success.  O.K. not all of them, of course, but many of them – even movies that seem to be about something else. Love and romance, for example. Or race relations. 

    Variety continues
     “The Help” personalizes the civil rights movement through the testimony of domestic servants working in Jackson, Miss., circa 1963. . .
    Civil rights?  As I’m sure others have pointed out, “The Help” is civil rights lite if at all.  It does personalize things. That’s what movies are good at. They’re not so good at showing us larger structures and forces. “The Help” not only reduces political and social issues to the individual level, but even the individuals seem less like real people than like caricatures.  It’s all very simple – good guys and bad guys. Or in this case good women and bad women (men in this film are an afterthought).  Bad woman really – just one, the mean girl (Hilly). The other white women may be a tad ignorant, but they’re well-intentioned. And the black women are nearly perfect. 

    As is typical in American films, all conflict is external. Nobody has to face any truly difficult problems or dilemmas that have only imperfect solutions.  Right and wrong are simple and clear.* That’s the way we like our movies.

    But what “The Help” is really about is success.  The central character is the white girl Skeeter, and the story that arches over everything else is her career.  The problems and triumphs are the ones she faces in her pursuit of success – landing a job, getting an idea for a book, securing the cooperation of the help, keeping the work a secret, writing the book, meeting her deadline.  She plugs away, finishes the book, and sees it become a best-seller.  Ultimately she moves on and up to the New York literary world. 

    It’s The Little Engine The Could chugging through Mississippi, and it requires about the same depth of thought.**  If you do see this movie, when you’re done, go watch “Nothing But a Man” (your local library should have a copy) for a grown-up version of the South in the early sixties. It also has a much better soundtrack

    -------------

    * A minor sub-plot that takes a few minutes of screen time involves a real moral dilemma faced by Skeeter’s mother. She too turns out just fine. 

    ** The movie does have its virtues.  It looks good, and some of the actors are excellent (Viola Davis will probably get an Oscar nomination; maybe Allison Janney too).  It was made without big names and without special effects, so it cost a pittance by Hollywood standards.  It has brought in $130 million gross and counting, five times its cost, so maybe it will nudge Hollywoods’s blockbuster mentality, and we’ll get more small films.

    Cheering for Death - Again

    September 13, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston

    (In case you thought the cheering for death I referred to in the previous two posts was a fluke.)

    “Are you saying society should just let him die?” The man in question is hypothetical, the subject of a question Wolf Blitzer put to Rand Paul in the Republican candidates’ Tea Party debate last night – a healthy 30-year old who looks at the probabilities and decides not to pay $200-300 a month for health insurance.  But something happens and he winds up in intensive care. 

    The question is not whether he should have bought insurance – of course he should have.  The question is: given that he doesn’t have insurance, should society just let him die.

    “No . . .” Paul starts to say.  But you know those Republican debate audiences, especially the Tea Party folks.  When it comes to righteous death, they’re just so darned irrepressible.  Sure enough, a few of them shouted, “Yes.”  Go to the video  and listen, if you can, to the enthusiasm for letting someone die.

    UPDATE:  A commenter did not think that the people were “cheereing.”  (Either that or he didn't think that “let him die” involved death.)  So here's the excerpt:

    Cheering for Death

    September 11, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston
    About my previous post – the one about Republicans applauding the high number of executions in Texas under Gov. Rick Perry:  Despite a New Year’s resolution to reduce the amount of snark I dump into this blog, that crowd reaction did set me off.  I wasn’t the only one.  Many non-Republicans (and I hope some Republicans too) were surprised if not appalled. 

    It’s one thing to be in favor of capital punishment.  It’s quite another to cheer for it.  Imagine a liberal forum where a question begins, “Mayor Bloomberg, in New York last year there were more than 80,000 abortions . . .” and the audience breaks into applause.  It wouldn’t happen, of course.  Most pro-choice people see abortion, the termination of an unwanted pregnancy, as an unfortunate, regrettable event* – that’s why they also support contraception and sex education since these too can reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and thus reduce the number of abortions.  If an audience did applaud high numbers of abortions, we would be right to wonder about the moral compass of those who cheered.

    But for those cheering Republicans Wednesday, when it comes to killing the convicted, apparently the more the better.  In a way, this conservative enthusiasm for execution is puzzling.  The Republicans, let’s remember, are the folks who think that government can’t do anything right.  But when it comes to executing people, the government, in Republican eyes, somehow becomes infallible.  (In contrast to this belief, the government in death penalty cases is indeed fallible.  At least one of those 234 executed, Cameron Todd Willingham, was almost certainly innocent.  And the government would have executed several other innocent people had it not been for the efforts of independent groups like the Innocence Project.)

    Conservatives rail against government and want to reduce its power – the power to provide education or to protect workers, consumers, and the environment.  Yet when it comes to the power to take life – they lead the cheers.  That power – the power of legitimate killing – is the greatest government power of all.  In fact, execution is a good indicator of repressive government power.  Page through history or look around the globe today at the countries that execute the most people; these are not the governments that let freedom ring.

    My guess is that underlying the avid support for death is a tendency towards cognitive simplicity.**  This simplicity (often euphemized as “moral clarity”), divides the world in two  – Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, and most basically Us and Them.  That Us/Them distinction explains how support for death penalty squares with “Thou shalt not kill,” for the commandment carries an unstated specification: Thou shalt not kill one of ours.  That’s what it meant to the Hebrews of the Bible, and that’s what it means to the Christians of Texas.  They too wrap their rationale in a tribal Us-vs.-Them imagery.  We are killing Them.  For example, to hear Gov. Perry on Wednesday, you would think that only non-Texans commit crimes that warrant execution.   “If you come into our state and you kill one of our children . . . you will be executed.” The problem is not Us; it’s all these homicidal outsiders coming into our state.

    This is of a piece with a more general view that seems more characteristic of the right than of the left.  To be a conservative is to live in a world in which We are under constant threat from Them.  Them is the government, especially a distant government like the government of the nation, taking our money and giving it to “those people.”  Them is immigrants coming into our country, our neighborhood.  Them is non-Christians, and some of Them are trying to impose their Sharia law on Us.  Them is the Obama voters who took Our country from Us.  And of course Them is the criminals – the ones we have to protect ourselves against by walking around fully armed, the ones we have to show who’s boss by levying the most Draconian punishments.  So when we do kill one or two or 234 of Them, that’s something to be cheered.

    ------------

    * Gloria Steinem used to say that if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.

    ** An earlier post on this is here.

    Executions and Audiences

    September 10, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston

    When you are executing people, as with any performance, you have to know your audience.
    When the Sirjan [Iran] town authorities tried to hang two men convicted of robbery on the morning of Dec. 22, protestors threw stones at the police and members of the court carrying out the execution. . .  the protestors also shot at officers with handguns.
    Amidst the chaos, the protestors managed to cut down the convicts, who were still alive a minute after the attempted hanging  (Story here, but do not go there if you are troubled by pictures and videos of this sort of thing.)
    The hangmen misjudged their audience.  They could have played to a much more receptive crowd – the Republicans who showed up for the candidates’ debate Wednesday. 

    Brian Williams began a question to Gov. Rick Perry, “Your state has executed 234 death row inmates more than any other governor in modern times . . .”  But before Williams could finish, the Republican faithful, on hearing that number, broke into applause.  Listen to the enthusiasm.

    )

    We don’t know how long the applause would have continued if Brian Williams hadn’t interrupted to continue his question.

    Oh my, those Republicans.  They sure do love them some executions.*  The applause wasn’t thunderous – the deaths under Perry work out to a measly two a month, barely one-tenth of what Iran generates.  But Texas currently has more than 300 people on death row.  Imagine the Republican audience reaction if Gov. Perry can manage to get most of those 300 executed before the next debate.  An O for sure.  With 500 executions under his belt next time, not 234, there’s gonna be a lot of love in that room.  

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    * They also have a curious fondness for torture.  See my earlier post here.

    New York Sports

    September 8, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston

    Cities provide all sorts of free amenities and diversions for those who live and visit there.  But New York offers free Foosball.  Can other cities make that statement? These tables are only a block from Madison Square Garden, so you have a choice: Foosball or the Knicks. 



    That Uncertain Feeling

    September 5. 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston
    (A shorter version of this is posted at Sociological Images

    Long before the Freakonomics guys hit the best seller list by casting their economic net in sociological waters, there was Gary Becker.  If you want to explain why people (some people) commit crimes or get married and have babies, Becker argued, just assume that people are economically rational.  Follow the money and look at the bottom line.  You don’t need concepts like culture or socialization, which in any case are vague and hard to measure.*

    Becker wrote no best-sellers, but he did win a Nobel.  His acceptance speech: “The Economic Way of Looking at Behavior.” 

    In a Wall Streeet Journal op-ed Friday about the recession, Becker started off Labor Day weekend weighing in on unemployment and the stalled recovery.  His explanation:  in a word, uncertainty.
    These laws [financial regulation, consumer protection] and the continuing calls for additional regulations and taxes have broadened the uncertainty about the economic environment facing businesses and consumers. This uncertainty decreased the incentives to invest in long-lived producer and consumer goods. Particularly discouraged was the creation of small businesses, which are a major source of new hires.
    It’s the standard right-wing, anti-government line, and Becker has impeccable conservative credentials, so I shouldn’t be surprised.  Still there’s something curious about it.  He pushes uncertainty to the front of the line-up and says not a word about the usual economic suspects – sales, costs, customers, demand.  It’s all about the psychology of those people in small business, their perceptions and feelings of uncertainty,  Not only are these vague and hard to measure, but as far as I know, we do not have any real data about them.  Becker provides no references.  The closest thing I could find was a small business survey from last year, and it showed that people in small business were far more worried about too little demand than about too much regulation.


    Compared with Regulation, twice as many cited Sales as the number one problem.  (My posts on uncertainty from earlier this summer are here and here.)

    Desperate for data, I looked at unemployment rates.  Which sectors should be most plagued by uncertainty?  I turned to Becker:
    political leaders wanted to reformulate antitrust policies away from efficiency, slow the movement by the U.S. toward freer trade, add many additional regulations in the medical-care sector, levy big taxes on energy emissions, and cut opportunities to drill for oil and other fossil fuels.
    OK, got it. The financial sector, medical care, and mining/fuel-extraction.  That’s where we find the greatest threat of government interference, so that’s where we should find the highest uncertainty. So those are the sectors where unemployment should be highest.   

    And here are the rates as reported in the BLS August report


    The three most uncertain sectors are also the three that are suffering the lowest rates of unemployment. 

    If financial regulation has Wall Street shaking in its boots with uncertainty, that trepidation doesn’t show up in the employment numbers.  As David Weidner writes in the WSJ (here)
    The securities industry still employs about 800,000 people nationwide, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association. That is only 7.8% fewer than the all-time high, and roughly the same as in 2006, when Bear Stearns Cos. and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. still roamed the earth.
    As for other businesses, with both taxes and interest rates at an all-time low, the time to invest and hire should be now.
    [The uncertainty-about-taxes-and-regulation argument] would make more sense if, say, taxes were already high and might be going higher or regulatory burdens were heavy and might be getting heavier. But when taxes are at a 60-year low and the regulations are pretty much the same as they were in the 1990s boom, the argument makes no sense at all.  (Mark Thoma quoting an e-mail from Gary Burtless. )
    Surely there must be some data showing the importance of uncertainty.  This is the US economy, not a Bob Hope movie.  I can’t imagine that a Nobelist like Becker would pull unsupported ideas out of the air.  

    Personal note: As I mentioned in an earlier post, my family is trying to sell a condo in Pittsburgh.  We could put more money into fixing the place up – hiring workers to trim the garden, fix the loose tiles, replaster and paint that moldy spot on the wall where the leak was.  This hiring would be our own small contribution to economic recovery.  But when we’ve discussed it, none of us has ever mentioned uncertainty about Pennsylvania taxes or regulations.  Instead, we talk about the demand, specifically the demand for truly elegant, spacious, ideally situated condos in Shadyside.

    UPDATE, Sept. 10:  A day after I posted this, Greg Ip had much better post on this topic at The Economist.

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    * This is an oversimplified version, but it will do for present purposes.

    Doubles Down

    September 4, 2011
    Posted by Jay Livingston

    I went to the US Open on Friday.  I’ve been going every year since back in the days of Forest Hills.  I usually try to find a good doubles match.  It’s not hard.  Doubles has more action – the rapid flurry of volleys back and forth across the net, the ball zipping at a pace that leaves you gasping at how the player can even get a racket on it let alone zing it back to a precise spot.  

    Yet doubles remains pretty much ignored – ignored by the media and by the public, even those who trek out to the Open.  Only the Bryan twins can attract a crowd, and they lost in the first round.  (I’m told they were off their game.)

    When the team that beat the Bryans, Ivo Karlovic (6' 10") and Frank Moser (6' 6") played their next match, against an Italian team, the stands were all but empty.

    And I had the feeling that about half the people there had some personal connection (coach, friend, wife, girlfriend) to one of the players.
    I can think of a few reasons

    1.  Fans follow individual players.  In other sports, fans follow teams, but the teams are connected with cities.  (I still check the Pirates scores even though I couldn’t name a single player on the team.)   Tennis teams are less permanent.  Part of the appeal of the Bryan twins is that we can be sure they will stay together as a team.


        To bring in new fans and generate enthusiasm among old fans, you need not just a star – a highly talented player. You need a celebrity – a Michael Jordan, a Joe Namath, a Tiger Woods.  If someone is really good, the publicity machine and turn him or her into a celebrity.  It’s hard to make teams into celebrities.  (This is true in other fields.  Yo-yo Ma, Andres Segovia, and Wynton Marsalis expanded the audiences for their respective instruments and musics.)


        The other quality that develops fan following is consistency.  Fans want someone who’s going to be in the finals tournament after tournament.  That’s much more likely in singles, which is often dominated by a single player (Connors, Sampras, Agassi) or just a handful of players who meet regularly in the finals (Federer and Nadal, Borg and McEnroe).


    2.  In singles, it’s easier to see athleticism.  In doubles, the players make incredible shots, but they work in a relatively confined space.  Singles players run back and forth across the whole court, speeding and sliding and occasionally diving. 


    3.  Television wants the individual celebrity.  The medium brings us “up close and personal.”  It wants a simple story with a clear ending, a head-to-head match.  I suspect that’s one of the reasons soccer still cannot find much of a TV audience.  Doubles, like soccer, depends not just on individual performance but on strategy that may be hard to see.  Singles is easier to understand.*


    4.  The USTA relegates doubles to the periphery.  The difference in prize money tells the players what’s worthwhile and what isn’t.  In the old days, many players entered both the doubles and the singles draws.  No more.  It doesn’t make economic sense. 


        In its scheduling of matches at the Open the USTA treats doubles matches as though they were like the restrooms.  You have to have them, and some people may want to go, but they’re not something you want people looking at, and you don’t want to talk much about them in public.

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    *Single strategy, despite the efforts of commentators, is not all that complicated.  I remember a post-match press conference where an interviewer kept asking the winner about his strategy and his opponent’s counter-strategy.  I can’t remember who the player was – this was many years ago – but he was European, and he seemed puzzled by the question.  Finally he answered, “I heet the ball to heem.  He heet the ball to me.”