A Cautionary Tale

July 30, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andrew Gelman (here) summarizes and links to a “killer story” that “ is so great that all quantitative political scientists (and sociologists, and economists, and public health researchers)” should take notice.  He’s right.

First, there’s the clever finding that political moderates literally see more shades of gray than do people whose views are more extreme, right or left.  Literally.  It’s a test of color perception.*

But the more important part of the story is Part II.  The authors (Brian Nosek, Jeffrey Spies, and Matt Motyl) could have gotten the study published, but they decided to do a replication first just to put the clincher on their findings.  The result: a p = .01 effect completely disappeared: p = .59.

I’ve commented before (here) on difficulties with replication and the more general problem of diminishing effects.  (See also Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article  “The Truth Wears Off.”) But this is as dramatic a turnaround as I know of.

In a comment on Andrew’s blogpost, Ashok Rao suggests that authors post the odds they would give on replication.  Making the authors bet on their results “seems like a pretty good way to discern papers where authors believe what they publish from, well, that where the ‘ample incentives’ dominate.”  (Rao also links to his own paper where he quotes Alex Tabarrok: “bets are a tax on bullshit.”)

------------------------------
* If you’re thinking “50 Shades of Gray,” Andrew already beat you to it.  That, in part, is the title of his blogpost.

Anagrams - Combinatorial Probabilities

July 27, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Maybe you’ve just taken a course in advanced probability.  Here’s a problem. Consider the following tweet*


What is the probability that someone else within the next day or two, coincidentally and without any knowledge of this tweet, would tweet a message that is a perfect anagram of this one? 

I have no idea even how to start thinking about it. The tweet has 29 letters, probably the more frequently used letters.  How many groupings of them form words, how many of those groupings make sense, and so on.  I give up.  But here’s one answer.


Second question.  What is the probability that someone would create a program to cull the Twitter universe, extract anagrams, and post them to a Tumblr page?  I’m not sure how to calculate that one either, but when you see the site, you might well think the probability approaches 1.0, i.e., “It had to happen.”**


This Tumblr has been up for less than a week, and so far there are about thirty examples, most of them short. It’s possible that the pool of matches has been edited to include only those that sound like they might be a conversation.  Like this:


Or this conversation between hooker_225 and FutureShrink:

You can find the entire collection at Anagramatron (here).

---------------------------------
* Ignore whatever else Victoria and Larry, with their interesting @ might be doing. Focus on the letters in the message.

** UPDATE:  My advanced probability informant tells me that it can be done with a fairly simple algorithm. Take two phrases, strip out everything but letters, sort alphabetically, and check to see if they are identical.  For the 400 million tweets in a single day, your computer has to do only about 80 trillion such comparisons.

Poll Puzzle

July 25, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

People responding to opinion surveys don’t have to be consistent or logical.  That’s why using only a few questions to gauge public preferences on policy is a risky business.  Here are results on three questions from a recent NBC/WSJ poll.

(Click on the graphic for a larger and clearer view.)
Obama’s approval rating is nearly four times greater than that of Congress. Yet by ten percentage points (48% - 38%) people prefer that Congress “take the lead in setting policy for the country.” 

This paradoxical result is not a one-off.  Approval of the president almost always greater than approval of Congress.  Since January 2005, approval of Congress has never been above 40% and is often below 20%.  Yet since at least 1994, the earliest year shown in the survey, only once has the president topped Congress on the “take the lead” question.  That one time was January 2002, only four months after the attacks on the Trade Towers and Pentagon.

Political scientists must have an explanation for this.  I just don’t know what it is.

Symbolic Events and Public Opinion

July 24, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

A single event can take on great symbolic importance and change people’s perceptions of reality, especially when the media devote nearly constant attention to that event.*  The big media story of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman probably does not change the objective economic, social, and political circumstances of Blacks and Whites in the US.  But it changed people’s perceptions of race relations.

A recent NBC/WSJ poll shows that between November of 2011 and July 2013, both Whites and Blacks became more pessimistic about race relations.


(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

Since 1994, Americans had become increasingly sanguine about race relations.  The Obama victory in 2008 gave an added boost to that trend.  In the month of Obama’s first inauguration, nearly two-thirds of Blacks and four-fifths of Whites saw race relations as Good or Very Good.** But now, at least for the moment, the percentages in the most recent poll are very close to what they were nearly 20 years ago. 

The change was predictable, given the obsessive media coverage of the case and the dominant reactions to it.  On one side, the story was that White people were shooting innocent Black people and getting away with it.  The opposing story was that even harmless looking Blacks might unleash potentially fatal assaults on Whites who are merely trying to protect their communities.  In both versions, members of one race are out to kill members of the other – not a happy picture of relations between the races.

My guess is that Zimmerman/Martin effect will have a short life.*** In a few months, we will ascend from the depths of pessimism. Consider that after the verdict in Florida there were no major riots, no burning of neighborhoods to leave permanent scars – just rallies that were for the most part peaceful outcries of anger and anguish.  I also doubt that we will see the optimism of 2009 for a long while, especially if employment remains at its current dismal levels. 

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

* Journalist Martin Schram called the coverage, “a roadblock . . . stretched across all lanes of democracy’s information highway.  It blocked the far right lane, the center lane, and the far left lane. Which is to say, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.”

** The percentages responding Very Good are so small – usually in single digits for both Whites and Blacks – that I combined the two categories.  For a .pdf with the original survey data, go here.

*** Language peeve. The term short-lived does not mean that something was lived for a short time. It means that it had a short life. Therefore, a trend is “short-lived,” pronounced with a long “i” just as someone with a short knife is short-knived.

The Passive-Aggressive Voice

July 21, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

I disagree with those who reject all use of the passive voice as though it were a Voldemort-like construction that must not be uttered.  The problem with the passive voice is not that it’s wrong or “weak,” but that it can create ambiguity.

Ann Coulter, in a column a few days ago wrote the following paragraph:
Perhaps, someday, blacks will win the right to be treated like volitional human beings. But not yet.
It doesn’t mean what you probably think it means – and what many on the left thought it meant.  Coulter was writing about The New York Times’s treatment twenty-eight years ago of the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, Edmund Perry, by a White undercover cop.  The teenager was a graduate of Exeter and was to enter Stanford in the fall.  The Times at first framed the story as a bright future snuffed out.*

But Perry was not an innocent victim.  In fact, he was trying to mug the cop.  When that fact became known, the Times changed its theme.  Here is Coulter’s sentence just before the money paragraph quoted above.
When it turned out Perry had mugged the cop, it was no one's fault, but a problem of “violence,“confusion” and “two worlds” colliding.
Then comes that sentence about winning the right to be treated like volitional human beings.  But whose treatment of Blacks are we talking about? Many readers would assume Coulter meant society or White people in general and that she was saying that until Blacks win that right, Whites may legitimately treat them as something other than human beings.

But in fact, Coulter is talking about the treatment of Blacks by the liberal media.  It is they, says Coulter, who are denying volition to Blacks. The liberal media treat Blacks as though their behavior were entirely caused by external circumstances rather than by their own decisions.  Here is how the sentence should have read:
Someday, Blacks will win the right to have the liberal media treat them as volitional human beings.
The passive-voice construction allows her to omit that crucial element.

Did Coulter deliberately create this ambiguity?  We don’t know, and I assume that she would deny it.  But she is a professional writer, and she does delight in baiting liberals.  So it would not at all surprise me if in writing this sentence and in setting it apart as an entire paragraph, she was already, with a satisfied smirk, imagining how liberals would react.

Stick it to those hated liberals by writing an agent-less “to be treated” – the passive-aggressive voice.

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

* Coulter says, “the media rushed out with a story about Officer Lee Van Houten being a trigger-happy, racist cop.” But except for one sentence from The Village Voice (“Perry was "just too black for his own good," ) she gives no quotes from the Times or anywhere else to illustrate her view.

Need To – The Non-imperative Imperative

July 18, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross-posted at Sociological Images


Dispatcher: Which entrance is that that he’s heading towards?
Zimmerman: The back entrance... fucking punks.
Dispatcher: Are you following him?
Zimmerman: Yeah.
Dispatcher: Okay, don’t do that.
Zimmerman: Okay


If you followed the Zimmerman/Martin killing closely, you probably recognized that the dispatcher did not say, “Don’t do that.”   The correct transcript is:

Dispatcher: Okay, we don’t need you to do that.

Nowadays, we don’t tell people what to do and what not to do. We don’t tell them what they should or should not do or what they ought or ought not to do.  Instead, we talk about needs – our needs and their needs.  “Clean up your room” has become “I need you to clean up your room.”

The age of “there are no shoulds,” the age of needs, began in the 1970s and accelerated until very recently. Here are Google n-grams for the ratio of “need to” to “should” and “ought to.”

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

  It was Benjamin Schmidt’s Atlantic post (here) about “Mad Men” that alerted me to this ought/need change. Nowadays, we don’t say, “The writers on ‘Mad Men’ ought to watch out for anachronistic language.” We say that they “need to” watch out for it.  Schmidt created a chart showing the relative use of “ought to” and “need to” in selected movies from 1960 to 2011. 



All the films and TV shows in the chart are set in the 1960s.  It’s easy to see which ones were actually written in the 60s. They are more likely to use “ought.” The scripts written in the 21st century use “need.” The writers are projecting their own speech style back onto 1960s characters. The “Mad Men” writers might just as well have had the 1960s Don Draper say, “Peggy needs to shoot Starbucks an e-mail about the Frappuccino thing.” (Schmidt’s article has several other examples of “Mad Men” anachronisms you probably wouldn’t have noticed, e.g. “feel good about.”)

Real imperatives (“Stop that right now”) claim moral authority. So do ought and should. But need is not about general principles of right and wrong.  In the language of need, the speaker claims no moral authority over the person being spoken to. It’s up to the listener to weigh his own needs against those of the speaker and then make his own decision.   

No wonder Zimmerman felt free to ignore the implications of the dispatcher’s statement.  It was not a command (“Don’t do that”), it did not assert authority or the rightness of an action (“You should not do that”).  It did not even state what the police department needed or wanted.  It merely said that Zimmerman’s pursuit of Martin was not necessary.  Not wrong, not ill-advised, just unnecessary.

If the dispatcher had spoken in the language of the 1960s and told Zimmerman that he should not pursue Martin,* would Trayvon Martin be alive?  We cannot possibly know. But it’s reasonable to think it would have increased that probability.

--------------------
* Philip Cohen tells me that a TV commentator said that dispatchers have a protocol of not giving direct orders.  If such an instruction led to a bad outcome, the department might be held accountable.If so, this means that dispatchers themselves recognize need to as the non-imperative.

Profiling - A Modest Analogy

July 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Under current New York City policy, Blacks are far more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police.  Richard Cohen in the Washington Post (here) defends the policy.
In New York City, blacks make up a quarter of the population, yet they represent 78 percent of all shooting suspects -- almost all of them young men. We know them from the nightly news.

Those statistics represent the justification for New York City's controversial stop-and-frisk program, which amounts to racial profiling writ large. After all, if young black males are your shooters, then it ought to be young black males whom the police stop and frisk.
Needless to say, some people – especially people likely to be stopped and frisked – objected (see Ta-Nehisi Coates for example.)

Here’s an analogy, though as with most analogies, it’s imperfect. Maybe it’s completely wrong.  It is merely submitted for your approval . . . or disapproval.

Suppose that back in the 1960s, 70s, or 80s, a Bloomberg-like mayor looked at New York City’s contracts for construction, paving, concrete, etc. and discovered that there was a good deal of fraud and waste because the work went mostly to mob-affiliated companies.  The city was paying too much and sometimes getting shoddy goods.  The great majority of these companies, or the people who ran them, had Italian names.

So the mayor decrees that all companies with Italian names, or companies whose owners or directors are Italian-Americans, will be barred from doing business with the city. To become eligible for city contracts, such a company must submit to a thorough audit of its books, a review of previous deals that the company has had with the city, and a thorough background check of its owners’ or executives’ contacts – business and social. Only after passing these rigorous investigations can an Italianate company be allowed to bid on city business. 

The new policy will save the taxpayers millions of dollars, and it will dry up an income stream that had been flowing to mobsters.  Win-win. 

Sure, some Italian-Americans would protest, but the inconvenience and resentment of at most a few hundred businesses or even a couple million people is a small price to pay in the fight against organized crime and for honest government.

Burgers and Budgets

July 16, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

McDonald’s, which always has its workers’ interest and welfare at heart, has distributed this pamphlet showing employees how to make a budget and stick to it.


(As you can see, the pamphlet is a joint effort by McDonald’s, VISA, and (apparently said with a straight face), Wealth Watchers International.

The  “key to your financial freedom” is keeping a budget journal.



Here’s the sample budget McDonald’s uses. 


The budge is encouraging, to say the least.  With an income of $2060 a month, a 2-earner family can save $100 each month.

But do you notice anything missing?  Food, for example. Presumably, that comes out of the $27 a day in spending money.  Transportation costs? Car payments are included, but not gasoline or upkeep. On an income of $24,000 a year, will this family have a car that needs no maintenance?  And if the two earners have only one car, it’s likely someone will have to take public transportation to work.  Oh, wait  – maybe they both work at the same McDonald’s. And they never buy clothes.

I’m not sure how McDonald’s employees get health insurance for $20.  Or home heating for free. 

I compared this budged with those found at the The Economic Policy Institute, which has a “Family Budget Calculator.”  You enter the location and the number of adults and children, and it shows the budget for “a secure yet modest living standard.”  Since McDonald’s used a 2-earner family, I imagined a family with two adults and one child.  Here’s what they would need in San Antonio.*

Here’s a northern city, Akron.

Both cities require a monthly income of $4400 for a modest living, more than double what McDonald’s envisions for its employees.  The big difference is health care – $1200 a month is a lot more than $20.  Then comes transportation ($600 vs. $0).  Then there’s the $580 for childcare, an item that is also absent from the McDonald’s budget.  (Apparently, workers at Golden Arches are part of that low-fertility problem that some observers in the Wall Street Journal worry about – here for example).
As for daily spending, food alone, at $600, more than wipes out what the McDonald’s budget suggests. Perhaps McDonald’s assumes that the family eats most of their meals on site, taking advantage of the 50% employee discount.  

So much for the spending part of the McDonald’s budget.  What about the income part?  The Glass Door  posted these pay ranges for various positions.  


Workers might get as little as $6 or even $5 per hour.  The average seems closer to $7.  That means that at least some fast food is not covered by federal minimum wage, but let’s use that minimum, $7.25, as a default estimate.  A forty-hour week, four weeks a month, comes in at $1160 – very close to the $1105 in the McDonald’s sample budget. So that side of the balance sheet is fairly realistic.

That annual income of just under $24,720 is above the official poverty line – $19,530 – but not by all that much.  Given the omissions in the expense column, I would think that a family would find it very hard to live on that little.  And I doubt they could sock away $100 in savings, no matter how much “journaling”** they did.

------------------------
* My choice of cities was arbitrary except that I wanted to avoid high-cost areas like San Francisco.

** My linguistically conservative ear still reacts with pain when I hear journal as a verb.  The McDonald’s-VISA pamphlet has sections on “Journaling” and “How to Journal.”  I guess that’s to compensate for the omission of Fooding, Public Transportationing, and Health Insurancing.

A Loss of Innocence

July 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a tremendous asset to the public discourse, and I love the way he comes across in his writing. You might disagree with him, but I don’t see how anyone could dislike him.  And usually, he gets it right.

But he gets one small thing wrong in his “thoughts on the verdict of innocent for George Zimmerman.” 

Back when I taught criminal justice, I brought a Legal Aid lawyer to campus to give a talk about his work. During the Q-and-A, a student started to ask, “If a you’re on trial and a jury finds you innocent . . .”  The lawyer immediately stopped her right there and said, “Since the founding of this republic two hundred odd years ago, no jury as ever found any defendant  innocent.”  The girl was more tha baffled, she was stunned.  Then he explained that in our system of criminal justice, there is no such thing as innocence.  Innocence is a factual matter. Guilt is a legal matter.

The question a jury must answer is not “did the defendant do it?”  And it’s certainly not, “what verdict would do justice?”  The question is much narrower: is there reasonable doubt?  More specifically, is there reasonable doubt that the defendant’s actions make him guilty of the crime as defined in the criminal code – the crime that the state has charged him with?  

The distinction is not particularly important in Coates's column, which I recommend that you read right now (here) – after all, he guy took valuable time away from his Paris sojourn (on Bastille Day yet) and his French lessons to write it. And while you’re at it, read Andrew Cohen (here), who explains why in highly publicized cases, the issues for the jury are very different from the issues that most engage the public.

Covers

July 13, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the arts, when one work resembles another, it’s not always clear whether the similarity is coincidence, influence, homage, or just a plain ripoff.

This book cover for Lolita appears in a BuzzFeed piece on books that are “harmless. Until a friend or loved one tells you that one of them is their favorite.”  A FB friend of mine thought the cover was brilliant.  And it is.


But I couldn’t help thinking of that other meaning of “cover” – the one in music, as in  “Madonna’s cover of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way.’” The Lolita cover reminded me of a black-and-white photo by Ralph Gibson, a photographer known for his minimalist style as well has his nude and erotic photography.



I’m fairly sure that the Gibson photo predates the Lolita cover by decades.  I have no idea whether the book designer had ever seen the Gibson photo.  But even if he or she actually had seen it, and even if the Lolita cover was deliberate imitation, there’s no way for the designer to credit Gibson.  Works of art do not include footnoted references.

(The problem of imitation/influence/plagiarism in the arts was the topic of one of the first posts on this blog.  That one (here) was about magicians.  This one and this one were about fiction.)

Spoiling the Party

July 10, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The World Meteorological Association included this graph in its report on Global Warming.  Using decades shows the general trend more clearly than would a graph showing year-to-year variation.*



Needless to say, those who scoff at the idea of climate change added their discordant notes at sites like WaPo’s Wonkblog, which is where I found this graph.

Dan Savage – not a climate scientist – in a recent podcast talks of listening to a “This American Life” episode where state climatologists in conservative states say they are afraid to even use words like warming or climate change because the local ranchers and farmers, who just do not want to hear that idea, might force them out of their jobs. It’s happened. This reaction reminds Savage of the AIDS denial by some gays thirty years ago. 
Standing around gay bars in Chicago, in New York, in 1983, 1984 and listening to gay men who were in complete denial about the fact that AIDS was a sexually transmited infection.  They refused to believe it.
The people whose lives are the most likely to be ravaged are the loudest voices in the chorus of denial. 

Of course, the farmers and ranchers are not alone. Big Energy has also worked hard to push the idea that nothing’s happening.  AIDS denial and climate-change denial are examples of “motivated reasoning,” and the motivation in both cases is the same: if the science is correct, we’ll have to stop partying. 

-------------------
* The lack of a 0-point on the Y-axis suggests that this is a sort of “gee whiz” graph, rigged to make small differences appear large.  But with global temperatures a change of one degree Celsius is a big deal. 

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

July 9, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In 2010, the Pittsburgh Pirates won 57 games and lost 105. That .352 was the worst in major league baseball.  As we speak, they are at .602.  But for last night’s 1-0 loss to Oakland, they would be tied with St. Louis for the best record in baseball. 

What caused the turnaround?  Socialism and planning. 

The socialism part is revenue-sharing. Teams that make a lot of money must put some their profits into a pool for the less wealthy teams.  From each according to his ability to pay and all that.  The idea is that small-market teams can use the money for larger salaries to attract better players.

The NFL’s version of revenue-sharing shares a great deal of the wealth, which is why a “dynasty” in football rarely lasts more than a couple of years.  It’s also the reason that a huge media market, Los Angeles, has not had an NFL team for nearly two decades. 

In baseball, revenue sharing is less extensive, hence the long-term domination of big-market, wealthy teams like the Yankees.  Still, some of the TV money gets distributed to the poorer teams. But according to leaked documents in 2010, it looked as if the owners of some small-market teams (notably two Florida teams, the Rays and the Marlins) were paying the money to themselves, not to their players.

The Pirates too came under suspicion since they kept to their tight-fisted payroll.  But in fact, the Pirates were using the money for development – scouting young players, signing them, and giving them a couple of years in the minor leagues. 


The result is a first-rate pitching staff (their closer, Jason Grilli, may be the next Mariano Rivera), and some pretty good hitting.  All this on a payroll that’s less than one-third of what the Yankees are paying for their currently fourth-place General Hospital team. 

-------------------                           
Big hat tip to Alan Barra at The Atlantic.  My Pittsburgh connections, who blame owner Robert Nutting for the Pirates’ dismal record these past few years, claim that Barra’s article is “the Nutting PR machine at work” and that we should wait to see what changes the Pirates (and the Cards and Reds) make to their roster in the second half of the season.

Pleasure - Danger or Distinction?

July 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

This 1960s poster (“L’Art de Boire” by Martin) in a neighborhood French restaurant reminded me again of the different ways of thinking about pleasure. 

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

In puritanical cultures, pleasure is a temptation to be resisted. In both the religious version, where pleasure leads to sin, and the secular version, pleasure is dangerous because it means excess and a loss of control. What is sin, after all, but too much of a good thing? The puritan approach to pleasure assumes that even one taste can crack the rigid structure of control.  If you don’t have total control, you have total lack of control. 

The hard-boiled detective story provides a classic example.  Any sex in these stories is always dangerous, usually with temptress trying to seduce the private eye away from his pursuit of justice, or worse, luring him into the hands of the bad guys, who beat him up, threaten him, or try to kill him.  Alcohol too sabotages the hero’s self-control, and he often winds up drinking too much since he’s drinking for all the wrong reasons. 

American comedies, too, may revolve around a similar theme of pleasure as an occasion for guilt and repentance (my earlier post on guilty pleasures in Judd Apatow films is here).  These films are not too far from the lite beer commercials, where pretty girls and alcohol, like the temptations of Circe, turn men into oafish creatures of swine-like mentality.*  The main difference from the noir take on this is that the audience is supposed to view this loss of control with good-natured affection.

The French, as illustrated in the poster, have a different message about pleasure. It is to be sought, not avoided. But it is not something you get just by letting your guard down or jettisoning your inhibitions. You must learn pleasure. You don’t just drink. You mindfully follow a sequence of steps – sniff the cork, note the color, inhale the aroma, taste the wine – each designed to maximize pleasure from the senses. Drinking is not an abandonment to desire, it is an art. The goal is not satiation but, as the last frame of the poster says, appreciation.

Of course, that idea of pleasure goes against the egalitarian American grain, for it implies that some pleasures are of a higher order than others, requiring greater sophistication, discernment, and distinction. 

The 1987 movie “Babette’s Feast,” set in a Danish coastal town in the 1870s,  is entirely about the contrast of these two views of pleasure. Babette, fleeing the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune, arrives in town and finds work as a housekeeper for two elderly sisters who are members of an austere Christian sect.


The dinner of the title is the film’s climax – a sensuous multi-course meal of the finest French dishes and wines that Babette prepares for the dour sisters and others.


Hesitantly and with suspicion, they eat and drink and finally come to experience what they had been so leery of and had deliberately lived without. Nor, as the sherry and champagne and burgundy and brandy are drunk, do they fall into drunkenness or debauchery, just pleasure. 

The entire film is available on YouTube.  It’s worth watching.

---------------
* In a TV show of some years ago, perhaps on “My So-Called Life,” a high school class is discussing the Circe episode in The Odyssey.  “Turning men into pigs,” says one girl dismissively, “Some magic.”

Mom (Hold the Apple Pie)

July 2, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

As we come up on the Fourth of July, it’s time to reflect on Mom and Apple Pie.  We love them both, we Americans.  The apple pie part is easy, as easy as  . . . well, never mind.  But motherhood involves two political and economic elements – child birth and child care – that seem to give us more trouble.

Conservatives in the US still insist that in all nearly matters, private enterprise is far superior to a “government takeover.” They also believe, as do most Americans, that we are unsurpassed in our love of family and children. 

It’s hard to maintain these beliefs when we compare ourselves with other wealthy countries.  They may not eat as much apple pie.  But on measures like maternity (and paternity) leave, day care, and early education, and the general well-being of the kids, they eat our lunch. 
Compared to the scope of and level of support offered by family policies of France, Germany and Italy, the US appears to have a low level of political commitment to the well-being of families, lacking even the guarantee of unpaid leave to all workers.  (Source here.)
In these family matters, we mostly leave things up to individuals and the private sector. If your employer wants to give you paid or even unpaid maternity leave, you’re in luck.  If not, too bad.  If you want child care, find it and pay for it.  Government support comes in the form of income tax breaks, which are of little use to people with low incomes. 

As for the medical side of having children, the US is number one, at least when it comes to costs.  According to the story in Monday’s New York Times, pregnant middle-class moms are in for sticker shock, though it’s not always easy to find the sticker.
When she became pregnant, Ms. Martin called her local hospital inquiring about the price of maternity care; the finance office at first said it did not know, and then gave her a range of $4,000 to $45,000. “It was unreal,” Ms. Martin said. “I was like, How could you not know this? You’re a hospital.”
The average out-of-pocket cost for women with insurance is $3,400, far higher than in other wealthy countries.  And that’s for women lucky enough to have coverage.  Many non employer health plans (62%) do not cover maternity. 


Nor are we are not getting more for our money.

And though maternity care costs far less in other developed countries than it does in the United States, studies show that their citizens do not have less access to care or to high-tech care during pregnancy than Americans.

From 2004 to 2010, the prices that insurers paid for childbirth — one of the most universal medical encounters — rose 49 percent for vaginal births and 41 percent for Caesarean sections in the United States, with average out-of-pocket costs rising fourfold.           

Two decades ago, women typically paid nothing other than a small fee if they opted for a private hospital room or television.

This is hardly ringing support for the idea that the private sector drives down costs and brings us better service at lower prices.  Maybe that’s because the private sector runs on the profit motive; the more stuff you sell, the greater the profit.

“I feel like I’m in a used-car lot,” said Ms. Martin.
 She fought for a deep discount on a $935 bill for an ultrasound, arguing that she had already paid a radiologist $256 to read the scan, which took only 20 minutes of a technician’s time using a machine that had been bought years ago. She ended up paying $655.

The online Times asked readers to contribute their own stories of childbirth in foreign lands.  Here are three shorter ones:
  • I'm an American living in Canada. Total paid for each pregnancy, (one caesarean, one vaginal birth): $15. For parking at the hospital.
  • One expense, Royal Hospital for Women, Paddington, New South Wales, 1985: $5 for a phone in my room.
  • I gave birth in Germany where I had a voluntary C-section (which is free for women over 35). I stayed in the hospital 3 days following the birth. I had to pay 10Euro a day for each day in the hospital. Total bill for the birth 30Euro (approx. 50$) Also all prenatal tests were free of charge.

 Obamacare is hardly a government takeover – compromise with conservatives killed the modest “public option” – but some aspects of it may help decelerate of even lower the cost of giving birth.

The Effect of Voter ID Laws – Evidence for the Obvious

July 1, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Immediately following the Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, some states rushed to enact voter ID laws. The states had previously been unable to get pre-clearance for these laws because of their likely disproportionate suppression of racial-ethnic minority voting. 

A comment on an the previous post questioned that conclusion and asked if there were evidence.  Admittedly, this is a little like asking for evidence on the sylvan location of ursine defecation or the religious preference of the bishop of Rome. 

But yes, there is evidence.  A couple of years ago Gabriel R. Sanchez, Stephen A. Nuño, and Matt A. Barreto surveyed registered and likely voters in the great state of Texas.  Their findings showed that the more stringent the requirements for valid ID, the greater the disparity between Blacks and Whites.  Those requirements include these criteria
  • Up to date
  • Matching Name – the name must exactly match the voter registration (too bad if you got married and changed your name on one but not the other)
  • Matching Address – the address must match exactly the voter registration
Their graph shows clearly what most people would have expected.


As the authors concluded a year before the recent decision:
a sizable segment of Latino, Asian, and African American voters will need to overcome additional hurdles if the courts uphold the Texas photo-ID law. For example, those lacking the required identification may need to purchase a copy of their birth certificate to obtain a valid state issued identification card. Furthermore, the time costs required to go to a state department to obtain a state issued ID, or a driver’s license office for a new driver’s license.
As I said in that previous post, a gap of even three percentage points can swing a close election.  The 13-point gap between Blacks and Whites can have much greater consequences.

Sanchez’s blog post with more information and links to the original research is here.