Umpires and Allegories

May 22, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Michael Stewart talked about his new podcast “Against the Rules” at the 92nd Street Y with fellow journalist and podcaster Malcolm Gladwell. The seven episodes of the podcast are about “what’s happened to fairness — in financial markets, newsrooms, basketball games, courts of law, and much more. And he asks what’s happening to a world where everyone loves to hate the referee.”  Lewis says that one inspiration for the series was what happened after a close play at home in a softball game played by nine-year old girls. It happened ten years earlier. But it can easily be an allegory for tactics and a tactician of the present moment.

 (If Blogger has deleted this audio clip, you can go here and listen. It's about 2:20.)

The story continues (to hear the rest of it, get the entire episode and push the slider to about 12:40), but the excerpt here is sufficient. It shows a winning-obsessed and angry man using his position of power to bully an impartial judge. I chose to end the clip at the point where the angry bully says, “You’re fired.” (We’re not long on subtlety here at the Socioblog.)

Lewis has another anecdote turned allegory about a man on the far right becoming enraged at impartial judges who threaten his privilege. This time, it’s Curt Schilling.

(Also here)

 Lewis is worried about what happens when influential people (the stars of sports, media, and politics) encourage people to dismiss the refs as partisan agents helping out their side. In sports, says Lewis, as the calls have gotten more accurate, fans and players have become even more outraged at the refs. I’m not sure he’s right, and even if he is right today, attitudes and behavior may soon change. It’s hard to imagine John McEnroe yelling “You cannot be serious!” and other verbal abuse at the Hawk-Eye replay system.*

But that’s sports. Chief Justice Roberts famously said that what he does as a judge is to “call balls and strikes.” But the courts have no pitch-track machine, no Hawk-Eye, no hi-def, slo-mo replay. So Lewis is right to worry that if the independence and authority of courts and other referees dwindles, the biggest bullies will be the winners even more than they already are.

* In this anecdote about Schilling v. Pitch-Track, Lewis says parenthetically, “Why they even keep the umpires there is another question, ’cause the machine could just do it.”

Today (May 23), Kendall Baker of Axios sports brings this news:

An electronic radar system called TrackMan will soon be calling balls and strikes in the Atlantic League, an independent East Coast league that has emerged as MLB's testing ground for new rules and equipment initiatives. 

In a simple test to make sure that TrackMan data could be successfully transmitted and understood, home plate umpires were fitted with earpieces that relayed calls to them one-tenth of a second after the ball crossed the plate.

What Do Women Want?

May 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brad Wilcox thinks he knows what makes a woman happy in her marriage — a helpful husband. He also thinks that progressives are wrong to assume that conservative ideology —  religious and political — tells men not to be helpful. His New York Times op-ed  on Sunday has the defensive title, “Religious Dads Can Put Kids to Bed, Too.” As Wilcox puts it, “Both feminism and faith give family men a clear code: They are supposed to play a big role in their kids’ lives.”

Wilcox likes religion, especially Christianity, and he likes conservatism, so he is happy to report that in his survey of wives, religious conservatives are the most likely to say that the quality of their marriage is “above average.” Score one for conservatives, or as Wilcox calls them “traditional.”

(Click for a larger view.)

But among the non-religious, traditionals are much less likely to be happy, and by a lot (33% vs. 55% for secular women). How to explain these unhappy conservative women?  Wilcox has a hunch. It’s the men they married.

We also suspect that these groups are less likely to have husbands who have made the transition to the “new father” ideal that’s gained currency in modern America — and they’re not happy with their partner’s disengagement.

Yet even though traditional husbands have become more evolved as fathers, there’s one area where they may differ from progressive dads. — housework. The progressive egalitarian man doesn’t just take care of the kids; he also does housework, an activity Wilcox does not mention at all. I downloaded the pdf of his report (linked to in the online version of the NYT piece) and searched for “housework,” “cleaning,” and “cooking.” Nothing.

The conservative/religious dad may be involved with the kids, but the marriage hardly egalitarian. Wilcox’s epitome of the traditional wife is Anna, a stay-at-home mom he interviewed for a book on marriage.

I feel so blessed to have Greg as a husband. His involvement as a father and leadership in the family only adds to my level of happiness.”

Father, breadwinner, leader. From his niche in TV history, Ward Cleaver smiles approvingly.

As for those women married to traditional but  non-religious husbands, they may be less happy for another reason, says Wilcox. They don’t have a church.

We suspect that part of their relative unhappiness, compared with religiously conservative women, is that they don’t enjoy the social, emotional and practical support for family life provided by a church, mosque or synagogue.

Note that even Wilcox won’t say that the benefits of religion have anything to do with belief, faith, prayer or anything else explicitly religious. What nonreligious “traditional” wives aren’t getting is “support for family life.”

I confess that I don’t know much about what churches, mosques, and synagogues provide in the way of support for family life.  Wilcox doesn’t mention anything specific. His phrase “we suspect,” here and in the previous quote, is another way of saying, “We have no evidence for this but we hope it’s true.” So I’ll offer my own guess.

I suspect that for the woman in the traditional sex-role-segregated marriage, church makes a difference because it offers her escape from the home.  Her family roles — wife, mother, housekeeper — are solo numbers, performed in isolation and with little moment-to-moment confirmation from others that she is performing these roles and performing them well.  At church she finds others who will giver that confirmation — the “social, emotional support for family life” Wilcox may be referring to.  But church also offers her other roles — friend or member of some church subgroup or committee — that take her outside of the house.

Since the 1950s, sociologists have worried about women in traditional marriages, isolated their homes all day, while their breadwinner/leader husbands are in constant interaction with a variety of other people in the world of work. Betty Draper in the first season of Mad Men is an extreme if fictional example. I’m sure she has her counterparts in far less wealthy households. I just can’t think of an example right now. What church provides is not so much support for those isolated roles but friendship, even community.

At least, that’s what I suspect.

Ethnic Slaughter, Gang Rape, and Jil Sander Pants, $1,120

May 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

What is the right word for this?

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

It’s a page from the Sunday New York Times Style Magazine, which the Times calls “T,” (for Travel, I think.)  This issue is “Everything Old Is New Again: Adventures in Ancient Lands.” It has articles on the Draa Valley in Morocco, the Greek island of Ithaca. The fashion section is embedded in an article about Myanmar.  The text that appears on the page under the photo:

effectively pushing out about 300,000 citizens. Streets and cities were renamed. A law was established in 1982 that rendered many ethnic minorities, including the Rohingya Muslims — an ancient tribe descended from Arab traders, sailors and migrants who had lived in the Rakhine province of the country for generations before the British arrived — as ineligible for full citizenship. Just as the Burmese had been made British subjects by fiat, so, too, were the Rohingya Muslims rendered not Burmese by decree.

In August 2017, Myanmar initiated a round of ethnic slaughter, mass gang rape and the burning and razing of hundreds of villages. Despite the installation of a nominally democratic government headed by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi the previous year, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims were driven from their homes by Myanmar’s military forces and Buddhist mobs. This latest conflict began when security posts and an army base were attacked by Rohingya insurgents, killing 12 officers. It was apparently reason enough for the military to initiate a massive genocidal campaign. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the country’s de facto leader but does not control the military, has been criticized for her inaction during the crisis and for her refusal to call it ethnic cleansing. That is Myanmar’s truth, and everyone from the military to government officials has doggedly stuck

Here is a better view of the photo and the caption that on the page appears in the middle of the text.

When The New Yorker in 1963 published Dwight MacDonald’s four-part series “Our Invisible Poor,” based on Michael Harrington’s The Other America, critics were quick to note that MacDonald’s words about dire poverty amid affluence shared the magazine’s pages with advertisements for expensive perfumes, watches, and other baubles for well-heeled consumers. I’m sure that others have called out this same irony in many other places in the decades since. So yes, this blog post is something of a cliche of culture critiques, but I found the juxtaposition just too striking to ignore.

It’s the sort of thing that might be tagged with keywords like neocolonialism or cultural appropriation or exploitation. But is there a word that embodies not only the idea that the commerce of wealthy nations is exploiting poor nations but also that wealthy consumers fail to see that exploitation, even when the contradictions stare back at them in black and white print and color photos on the pages of T?

Stay In Your Lane

May 7, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Chris Cillizza at CNN pretends to be baffled by Donald Trump’s tweet about the Kentucky Derby. In case you missed it, the horse that crossed the finish line first, Maximum Security, drifted out at the quarter pole, bumping into another horse and impeding another.

Here is the crucial ten seconds showing Maximum Security (in the lead, pink silks) moving out and then back in.

The jockeys of the two horses to his right claimed a foul, and the stewards upheld the claim. They disqualified Maximum Security* and awarded first place to Country House.**

Our Handicapper-in-Chief objected.

(The original tweet had the first mention of the race as “the Kentuky Derby.”)

“Donald Trump’s ‘Kentuky Derby’ tweet makes literally no sense,” says the Cillizza headline. It’s referring to the part about political correctness.

The PC-DQ connection makes perfect sense to Trump, also to his followers, and to me. Political correctness is all about rules, specifically rules that aim to protect the less powerful against those with more power. These rules that limit what the powerful can do and say. Trump likes “rough and tumble.” He decries rules that limit how rough cops can be with people they arrest. He’s upset that police have to be “too nice.” He scoffs at NFL enforcement of rules that protect players. “Too soft.” I could imagine that in an earlier era, he would have had a similar macho reaction against batting helmets or rules against beanballs and spitballs.

It’s not that Trump is against rules and their enforcement. If he owned (or had bet on) the horse that Maximum Security impeded, he would have been screaming for a DQ. But Trump treats rules not as abstract principles to be applied in a universalistic way. For him, rules are just another tool. If they help, use them. If they hinder, break them and denigrate those whose job it is to enforce them —  the courts, the FBI, even Bob Mueller, the straightest of arrows. Trump accuses them all of using their position in a personalized, biased, and self-serving way —  that is, of sharing his own transactional attitude towards rules.

Have Trump’s attacks on these institutions undermined the public’s confidence? The General Social Survey shows no obvious trend in that direction.

Nevertheless, journalist Michael Lewis, in his new podcast series, sees the Trumpian view of rules and their enforcement as a more general trend in the US. His podcast “Against the Rules” argues story by story that Americans have become less willing to stay in their lane and accept the authority of traditional rule enforcers. The initial episode, which Lewis reports mostly from the NBA,  is called, “Ref, You Suck,” a more succinct version of what our president said about the stewards at Churchill Downs.

 * Trump has consistently argued that the US is in grave danger from outsiders — Muslims, Central Americans, immigrants generally — and that we must increase our spending hugely to defend against these dangers. Still, I’m sure that it’s purely coincidence that the horse he thinks should have gotten the roses is named Maximum Security.

** Sondheim lovers should have been backing Country House, which is also the title of a song cut from the original version of Follies, put back in for some later versions. It’s a husband-wife dialogue about the kinds of problems that don’t usually make an appearance in Broadway songs. (A good version — Julie Andrews, Stephen Collins — is here.) The horse paid $156 for a $2 win ticket. My mother, whose handicapping system gave much weight to names, would have had her money on the winner. Of course, since “Country House” is a show tune, she probably would have be it to show. 

More Woke in the Era of Trump

April 14, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The Negro Family — a Case for National Action.” That was the official title of 1965 Labor Department document that came to be called the Moynihan report after its chief author and researcher Pat Moynihan. It became the center of a tangle of conflict both in social science and in politics. One strand in the tangle emphasized the role of “structural” factors — things that the poor can do little about: the kinds of schools available, the job market (the number and kinds of jobs available and the wages they pay), and of course racial discrimination.

The conservative strand in the tangle found the causes of poverty in personal failings — e.g., laziness — or in a culture that encourages behavior that leads to poverty or at least discourages behavior that would lead people out of poverty. If only poor people waited until they were married to have children, remained with their spouses and provided good role models for those kids, then all would be well.

That was then. It’s also now.

Just last week, Pew published a report (here) about race in the US. Among many other things, it asked respondents about the “major” reasons that Black people “have a harder time getting ahead.” As expected, Whites were more likely to point to cultural/personal factors, Blacks to structural ones. But compared with a similar survey Pew did just three years ago, it looks like everyone is becoming more woke.

Here are the Pew results for the structural factors.

(Click on an image to for a larger view.)

For “racial discrimination,” Black-White difference remains large. But in both groups, the percentage citing it as a major cause increases – by 14 points among Blacks, by nearly 20 points among Whites. The percent identifying access to good schools as an important factor has not changed so much, increasing slightly among both Blacks and Whites.

More curious are the responses about jobs. In 2013, far more Whites than Blacks said that the lack of jobs was a major factor. In the intervening three years, jobs as a reason for not getting ahead became more salient among Blacks, less so among Whites.

At the same time, “culture of poverty” explanations became less popular.

Blacks especially were likely to discard family instability and lack of role models as important factors. And the laziness explanation gets little support – about 22% — from either Blacks or Whites.

The General Social Survey, which has asked similar questions going back to the 1980s, shows a similar convergence in the ideas of Blacks and Whites.

The GSS question asks if “lack of motivation and will power” is a cause of Blacks having “worse jobs, income, and housing.” The convergence comes earlier than in the Pew surveys, around 2002, and in some years the percent of Blacks agreeing exceeds the percent of whites. Also, the percentages are much higher than in the Pew survey. Instead of 22% for both races, here 36% of Whites and 41% of Blacks point to this personal flaw. Maybe it’s easier to agree that race differences are caused by “lack of motivation and will power” than to say that Black people are lazy.

With external factors — discrimination and not having “the chance for education that it takes to rise out of poverty” — Blacks are still much more likely to say that yes, these are causes. But even the 25-point Black-White gap on racial discrimination is smaller than in the 1980s and 90s.

If both Whites and Blacks are paying more attention to racial discrimination and less to personal-cultural factors, if everyone is more woke, how does this square with the widely held perception that in the era of Trump, racism is on the rise. (In the Pew survey, 56% over all and 49% of Whites said Trump has made race relations worse. In no group, even self-identified conservatives, does anything coming even close to a majority say that Trump has made race relations better.)

The data here points to a more complex view of recent history. The nastiest of the racists may have felt freer to express themselves in word and deed. And when they do, they make the news. Hence the widespread perception that race relations have deteriorated. But surveys can tell us what we don’t see on the news and Twitter. And in this case what they tell us is that  the overall trend among Whites has been towards more liberal views on the causes of race differences in who gets ahead.

Van Doren

April 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the fall of 1961, I took a semester of freshman lit. The instructor was a young man named John Van Doren. He would pace slowly back and forth at the front of the narrow classroom, often pausing mid-sentence and looking up at the wall, apparently searching for just the right word or idea. He held his white handkerchief to his mouth, as though his intense concentration might be causing him to drool slightly. Then he would turn back to the class and continue speaking.

There was something familiar about him, but what? After a few weeks, I finally realized what it was: Charles in the isolation booth.

Hesitating, wincing, biting his lip, adjusting his earphones in a soundproof glass booth, mopping sweat from his brow, Mr. Van Doren, after an apparently excruciating mental struggle, responded: “The Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. The Sea of Marmara. Russia, Turkey, Romania and … Bulgaria.” [from the obit in today’s Times.

I had watched the show, though not often. I don’t know what relation my teacher was to the Columbia professor who four years earlier had drawn millions of Americans to their televisions each week to watch “Twenty-One.” A cousin perhaps.* Certainly there was a family resemblance.

I remember almost nothing of Henry IV, part i or As I Lay Dying and whatever else was on the syllabus. What I remember is Van Doren’s performance and its similarity to that of his famous relative, right down to the handkerchief held to his mouth, as in the right-hand frame above.

* UPDATE, April 12.  John was the younger brother of Charles. (Thanks to Anonymous for providing the link. In 1961, such information was not a click away.) John died in January of this year.

You’re Cheatin’ President

April 7, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How you do one thing is how you do everything,” says Rick Reilly, author of Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump.

Reilly may be right about Trump and golf. But that “How you do one thing” aphorism is wrong, even about Trump.

Reilly was on the podcast “Right, Left, Center,” interviewed by the show’s podcaster-in-chief Josh Barro. 

Here’s a redacted transcript.

Rick Reilly: He kicks the ball so much the caddies call him Pele. He kicks the ball, he throws it out of bunkers, they throw it out of lakes. But he kicks other people’s balls into the bunker so that he wins.

Josh Barro: . . . in his presidency he was surrounded by people all the time who know he’s cheating.

Rick Reilly: . . . His caddies all get paid to cheat for him, and so they’re kind of his Cohens. They’re always out there doing the dirty work, and then he can say he never touched the ball. Well, OK, you pay your caddies to do it. I snuck into the Bedminster caddyshack, and they all said, “Well Trump doesn’t cheat. We cheat for him.”

How you do one thing is how you do everything, and golf gives you a chance to look at that.

I like the image of Trump kicking his ball out of the sand trap, and kicking the ball of his opponent in. (After a shot, Trump has his “supercharged” golf cart speed up the fairway so that he gets to the balls while his opponents are still far away.)

But why kick? He could place the ball more accurately if he picked it up and tossed it. At first, I thought that it was one of those cognitive gimmicks that we use to give ourselves “plausible deniability.” Picking up the ball seems so deliberate, so unmistakably intentional. Kicking it could be accidental. Then it occurred to me that for Trump, bending over to pick up something off the ground might be too much of an effort.

Deniability is certainly the motive for paying caddies to do the actual rule-breaking. (In the interview, Reilly says, “he throws it out of bunkers, they throw it out of lakes.” I assume that the they in that sentence are Trump’s caddies.) The caddy, for Trump, serves basically the same function that the shabbos goy does for orthodox Jews, the chief difference being that Trump doesn’t brag about the arrangement. (An earlier post on the this topic is here.)

Reilly’s final statement — “How you do one thing is how you do everything” — sounds awfully good. It’s a very tempting and persuasive idea, one that we often use in judging “character.”  At the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, women defending him insisted that the honorable and respectful way he acted as a boss, co-worker, or friend must also be the way he acted as a drunken teenager at parties. (See this post for a fuller discussion.) A lawyer who had known Kavanaugh professionally for 20 years, said that the man he saw in the hearings “seemed like a different person altogether.” (More here.)

Trump too can change his “presentation of self,” especially when he’s trying to get something — money from potential donors, for example. Or sex. Remember the “60 Minutes” interview with Stormy Daniels?

Anderson Cooper: How was the conversation? 

Stephanie Clifford: Ummm (laugh) it started off— all about him just talking about himself. And he's like “Have you seen my new magazine? 

Anderson Cooper: He was showing you his own picture on the cover of a magazine. 

Stephanie Clifford: Right, right. And so I was like, “Does this — does this normally work for you?” And he looked very taken— taken back, like, he didn't really understand what I was saying. Like, I was, “Does, just, you know, talking about yourself normally work?” 

 [she describes threatening to spank him playfully with the rolled-up magazine] 

Stephanie Clifford: So he turned around and pulled his pants down a little — you know had underwear on and stuff and I just gave him a couple swats. 

Anderson Cooper: This was done in a joking manner. 

Stephanie Clifford: Yes. and — from that moment on, he was a completely different person. 

 Anderson Cooper: How so? Stephanie Clifford: He quit talking about himself and he asked me things and I asked him things and it just became like more appropriate. [emphasis added]

There’s no doubt that Trump does a lot of cheating, also a lot of lying. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why the map of Trump support looks a lot like the map of country music. But in different circumstances, as Stormy Daniels says, Trump can become a different person — just  like Brett Kavanaugh, just like all of us.

That Word Again — More Taboo, Less Taboo

April 5, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

The latest issue of the Hasbrouck Heights High School journal, The Pilot’s Log, reports on their student survey.
  • 98% of students polled hear or see the word used on a daily basis
  • 85% of those students say the word was used in a non-derogatory manner
  • 70% of students polled admit to using the word in a friendly manner
The word, of course, is nigger, or in the Pilot’s Log version “the N-word.”

OK, this survey isn’t the GSS. The editors make no claims for their sample (n = 160) as representative even of their school. As for Hasbrouck Heights, it’s an upper middle class suburb eight miles from New York City, median family income greater than $80,000. The high school students are mostly White, with some Hispanics, and fewer Asians. Less that 4% are Black.

Still, the results, whatever they’re worth, suggest contrary motion. At the same time that nigger is becoming less acceptable and more deplorable, it is also changing its meaning and becoming more widely used and accepted in places where it was once largely unspoken.

In the world controlled by grown-ups, the word is basically taboo — powerful and dangerous. It must be treated with special circumspection. Steven Pinker told the Pilot’s Log that their survey results surprised him.

In the public sphere . . . the word is more taboo than ever. . . Writers have been excoriated for simply mentioning the word as a word, commenting on how it is used . . . I notice that not even you spell out the word . . . but use the euphemism”’N-word” — that is an indicator of how taboo it is.

Note the important caveat Pinker starts with: “In the public sphere . . . .” He’s talking only about the world ruled by grown-ups, the world where even when Whites are not in control they are still within earshot. In private, of course, things are different. African Americans speaking among themselves do not accord nigger a sacred/taboo quality; maybe they never did. And now, among White kids as well, the word is apparently losing its strong overtones of denigration and hostility.

I would guess that the main cause of this change in usage among young Whites is hip-hop. The historical arc of rap resembles that of earlier Black music like the blues and R&B. Those too began as Black musicians speaking to Black audiences. Eventually, White folks listened in, especially White folks who wanted to be hip or cool. That’s true of rap as well, But rap, with its wordy and uncensored narratives, gives White listeners (and maybe Black listeners) the impression that this is how Black people really talk among themselves, or when they just don’t care what White people think.

As in the past, White people, especially young White people are adopting the  sounds and rhythms and moves of Black culture. Also its language. Not just new coinages (bro, 24/7). But some words that have been around for a long time are losing their White meaning and coming to be used the way they are used among Blacks. I’m not a linguist, but my guess is that dude and bitch fall into this category. Sixty years ago, a dude was a “city slicker” — a too-nicely dressed urban dandy, the guy who showed up at a “dude ranch.” Only among Blacks was it a generic term for men.*

Now, it seems that White kids are using nigger not with its White meaning — a nasty racist epithet — but with something more like its Black meaning. I noticed this five years ago seeing a bunch of middle-class White and Hispanic girls at a Sweet Sixteen party in the Bronx.

I was impressed watching these kids recite by heart the rapid-fire lyrics, and I realized they could do the same for lots of other rap hits. Those songs too have this same taboo word. Yet there they were, these sweet sixteen and fifteen year old girls, rapping along with Jay-Z about their gang of niggas. (The full blog post is here.)

I expect there may be some conflict during this evolution, some people insisting that it’s wrong to for certain people to use the word this way.**  But from being on the losing side of language battles too often, I expect that political arguments about what’s right will be just as ineffective as my shouting, “It’s ‘for you and me,’ not ‘for you and I,’” at the people on television.

* In the early 1960s, a Black co-worker — we were shampooing rugs on site, and the boss, for purposes of future sales, wanted information on the homes we went to. My co-worker, filling out the form later, asked me, “How many rooms did that dude have in his crib?”

**See the famous 1975 SNL sketch (here) with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor, where a job interview morphs into a tense battle of racial epithets.

Is Jeanine Pirro Taking Orders From the Pope?

March 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jeanine Pirro’s comment about Ilhan Omar (D - MN) is a perfect example of the variation on Betteridge’s Law I offered a while ago (here).
Whenever the title of a book or article is phrased as a question, two things are almost certain:
  •     The author thinks that the answer to the question is “Yes.”
  •     The more accurate answer is “No.”
In this case, the question in question is not a headline but part of her commentary about Rep. Omar.

Think about it: Omar wears a hijab. Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?

It’s a cheap rhetorical trick. It lets you promote an idea without having any evidence. And if challenged, you can claim that you were not making an accusation, but merely asking a question.

This time it didn’t work. Even Fox News suspended Pirro, saying that they “strongly condemn” her comments, and that the comments "do not reflect those of the network.”

My other reaction to this incident is: how soon we forget.

Pirro is a practicing Catholic. She was nine years old when John F. Kennedy ran for president. At the time, some Protestants argued that if Kennedy were elected he would be “taking orders from the Pope.” It’s the same charge that Protestant ministers made in 1928 against the country’s first Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith. Catholics, so the argument went, cannot be true to their religion and still uphold the Constitution. They are under the control of nefarious non-American religious sources.

 And now a Catholic commentator is making the same accusation against a Muslim that was made, in her lifetime, against her own co-religionists .

Danny Boy — Bill Evans

March 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

For a long time, I dismissed “Danny Boy” as a treacly song that was usually crushed under the weight of too much sentiment, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, especially by tenors. Yet never did I breathe its pure serene till I heard Bill Evans’s eleven-minute exploration of it.

The story I’ve heard (but haven’t fact-checked) is that after his bassist, the incredibly talented Scott LeFaro, died in an automobile accident in July 1961, Evans went into mourning, or at least stayed out of the studio. In April, 1962, Evans went into the studio alone, sat down at the piano, recorded four tunes, and walked out.

For the first few choruses, he stays very close to the melody, first in B-flat, then B-natural (!), then F. Only in the fifth chorus, back in B-flat, does he improvise single-note lines.

For more on Evans, see the documentary “Time Remembered” (available at Amazon Prime), which is also the title of the album on which this take was eventually released. If you watch it, or maybe if you just listen to this track, you will understand why I keep a picture of him on my piano.

Scientific Management and Child Rearing

March 12, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Listen to the opening minutes of the 2006 episode of This American Life that was rerun this past weekend. (If you don’t want to listen, a transcript is here. The clip ends with Ira saying, “and this is the way it was for decades.”)

The John Watson mentioned in this excerpt — the psychologist who thought that kissing your child more than once a year was “overkissing” — wasn’t just president of the American Psychological Association, he was the founder of behaviorism, which dominated academic psychology in the US for much of the twentieth century. Behaviorism focused on behavior. Thoughts, emotions, desires, personal attachment — these internal states were invisible, and behavioral psychology brushed them aside as unimportant or irrelevant.

Behaviorism in psychology was a close cousin of Taylorism in business. Both had little use for these human feelings. Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” reduced work to a carefully controlled series of steps for workers to carry out with machine-like consistency. It was an inconvenient fact for Taylorism that the workers were people, not machines. They would just have to suppress those human qualities, at least on the job.

Behaviorists usually did their experiments on animals. The lives of these lab animals, as far as the experimenters were concerned, consisted entirely of learning — learning to get food, learning  to avoid electric shocks. These subjects could not convincingly protest to the psychologists that their thoughts and emotions were being ignored.

It’s only a short step from the psych lab to the nursery, white rats to children and the idea that raising kids was, or should be, a matter of conditioning. In both settings, but especially with children, the person in charge was imposing order and control on what in nature tended to be messy. And in bringing order to this messiness, scientific rationality was better than relying unthinkingly on what seemed natural. Scheduled feeding was better than on-demand feeding, and scientifically produced formula was better than breast milk. Half a million years of evolution may be telling you to respond to your child physically and emotionally, but John Watson says, “Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap.”

As I listened to the podcast, glad that the days of behaviorist conditioning had been left behind, I suddenly remembered “Ferberizing.” In 1985, Dr. Richard Ferber published Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. Its centerpiece was a technique that would condition your child to sleep through the night. When the child cries, do you wake up and give comfort? Bad strategy. Instead, well here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the Ferber approach:

1. At bedtime, leave the child in bed and leave the room. 

2. Return at progressively increasing intervals to comfort the baby (without picking him or her up). For example, on the first night, some scenarios call for returning first after three minutes, then after five minutes, and thereafter each ten minutes, until the baby is asleep. 

3. Each subsequent night, return at intervals longer than the night before. For example, the second night may call for returning first after five minutes, then after ten minutes, and thereafter each twelve minutes, until the baby is asleep.

It’s pure behaviorism. Instead of rewarding the undesirable behavior, the parents “extinguish” (as behaviorists say) the crying response.

You don’t ignore the child completely. It’s OK, even good, to stand in the doorway so that the poor kid doesn’t think you’ve abandoned them. But do not go into the room and comfort the child. Let them “cry it out.”

It works, said my fellow parents. The nights of crying it out had been followed by uninterrupted slumber for all. So my wife and I decided to try it. I cannot remember how old our son was at the time, nor do I remember the hour when he awoke crying, maybe around eleven p.m. We went to the door of his room. I checked my watch and mentally started counting down the three minutes. Our son, seeing us through the bars of his crib, cried even harder. And why not? The parents who he knew as reliable sources of comfort were now choosing to let him suffer.

After thirty seconds or so, I knew there was no way I could last three minutes.I turned to my wife.  “Dr. Ferber is saying let him cry.  Half a million years of evolution is saying go pick up the kid and hold him.”

And that was our one attempt at Ferberization.

Faith and Disaster

March 9, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do groups do when they are faced with strong evidence that their core beliefs are wrong? Ever since When Prophecy Fails (1957), we’ve known the answer. They try spread the word, both to others who they try to convert, and to themselves with greater demonstrations of their faith.

The phrase “acts of God” usually refer to natural disasters — floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes. Yet after these events, no matter how devastating, people rarely give up their belief in God as a beneficent being.

When Prophecy Fails followed a group that believed that on a given date, the world would be destroyed but that aliens in flying saucers would come and rescue them. They were not unusual. Faith often is a belief in a distant and powerful figure who will save the group from disaster. If there are two such figures, the faiths can be combined.

The idea of a God-Trump alliance may be widespread among his Christian supporters. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stated the idea explicitly: “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president, and that’s why he’s there.”

An act of God that caused great destruction and loss of life is not going to shake the faith of Alabama Christians. As for Trump, it’s possible that his administration will come through for Alabama. But even if FEMA fails to deliver the kind of relief Alabamians expect, and even if their lives do not improve during the Trump years,they will probably maintain their belief in his goodness and blame any misfortunes on others.


Previous posts include examples of failed prophecy among liberals, the NRA, economists, and a Trump supporter in the South who is young, Black, and gay.

Suicide and Well-Being. SOC 101, Week 1

March 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

I begin the semester with the Durkheim’s idea of social facts, and I use his example of suicide rates. The rate may be made up of individual facts (each suicide) but that rate takes on an existence that seems separate from those cases. It is more a property of the society or the specific group. Here are the numbers of suicides and the rate per 100,000 (age-adjusted) in New Jersey for the last four years (CDC)
2014   786 (8.3)
2015   789 (8.3)
2016   687 (7.2)
2017   795 (8.3)
In three of the four years, the numbers are nearly identical, differing by only 9 suicides in a population of over eight million. So it makes sense to think of the rate as something about the state, not about the individuals that make up that rate. Rates in the other 49 states, though they vary widely from state to state, show the same kind of stability. Each year the state produces roughly the same number of suicides.

In case students had missed the point that it’s not about individuals, I remind them, “The 789 people who killed themselves in 2015 cannot be the same 786 who killed themselves in 2014.” I add, “There aren’t many facts in social science that were 100% sure of, but that’s one of them.”

My second point is that while we can use individual facts to explain other individual facts, when we try to explain social facts, those same explanatory individual facts often aren’t much help. For explaining the individual suicide, it makes obvious sense to look at a variable like happiness. I’m willing to assume that people who kill themselves are not as happy as people who don’t. But are people in Greece three times as happy as Americans? 

A headline in the local papers a couple of days ago looped us back to that first week of class.

In fact, New Jersey ranked 31st. The headline is referring to a recent Gallup report (here). Gallup calls its measure “well-being,” not “happiness.”  Whatever. As for the happiest or wellest-being  states? Here’s the map.

The map of well-being looks strikingly similar to the map of suicide that I show students in Week 1. The same states that have a lot of well-being also have a lot of suicide. Here is Gallup’s list of the top ten on well-being. I have added a column to show the ranking and rate for age-adjusted suicide.

All but two of the states highest on well-being are in the top twelve on suicide rates. Only Delaware has a lower-than-average suicide rate.

If happiness doesn’t keep suicide rates low, what does? Durkheim’s answer was “social integration.” Unfortunately, Gallup doesn’t have a variable by that name. But the Well-being index is a score made up of five components: Career, Financial, Physical, Social, and Community. The one that seems closest to Durkheim’s conception of social integration is not Community (“liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community”) but Social (“ having supportive relationships and love in your life”). What the scale-makers call Community does not sound a lot like Gemeinschaft. It's more an individual feeling of pride or safety. It does not require actual involvement with other people. By contrast, Social seems to be a measure of interpersonal involvement.

So Social seems much closer to Durkheim’s notion of social integration than does Community. So we shouldn’t be surprised that those high-suicide mountain states also rank high in Community. But mostly they are not among the highest in Social. New Jersey, with its low suicide rate, is low on Community (ranked 40th) but high on Social (9th).

There are many anomalies. Colorado, for example, comes out very well on Social and all the other sub-scales of Well-being, yet its suicide rate is 10th highest (tied with Nevada). New York  ranks in the bottom half on four of the five components, including Social, and in the bottom fifth on three of them (Community, Career, Financial), yet it has the lowest age-adjusted suicide rate among the fifty states.

The Gallup numbers do support the Durkheim explanation — not overwhelmingly, but enough for the first week of class, enough to open the door to social  explanations of what seems like a highly personal decision.

Let’s Write a Zeitgeist Hit

February 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s easy to look back and see how a movie, TV show, or book was a massive hit because it fit perfectly with the spirit of its time. Maybe it expressed what we, all of us, were feeling, or maybe it gave us something we lacked. Think of those 1930s musicals, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, elegantly dressed and dancing their way through sets that dripped with luxury.  Perhaps they were so popular because “their musicals offered the purest form of escape from the woes of the Depression, a fantasy of the 1920s seen through the darker prism of the 30s.” (John Rockwell in the New York Times, “Escaping Depression? Just Dance Blues Away.”).

The implication is that there is a zeitgeist tide in the affairs of culture which taken at the flood leads on to fortune, or at least a 15 Nielsen. They’re pretty much the same thing. All you have to do is suss out the zeitgeist.

I had thought that people in the business would be skeptical about this way of thinking. Old Hollywood hands who have a lot of experience in actually making movies and TV shows know how hard it is to create a hit, to know what the public will respond to. Try to imitate a hit by incorporating those elements in it that seem to have resonated with the audience, and you often fail miserably. As screenwriter William Goldman famously wrote in 1983, “Nobody knows anything.”

I had thought that sociologists would be skeptical about this way of thinking. They would be familiar with Wendy Griswold’s 1981 AJS article showing that the content of novels published in the US in the late 19th century may have had more to do with the economics of publishing rather than with a supposed cultural transformation. It was the change in copyright laws, not the feminization of American culture.

Ken Levine (rhymes with divine) is an old Hollywood pro, mostly as a writer — Cheers, M*A*S*H, Frasier, Simpsons, and so on. He also does a weekly podcast (“Hollywood and Levine”). I hadn’t listened to it in a while, but the episode title “How SEINFELD Got on the Air”  made me curious. It turned out to be a conversation with another old Hollywood hand, Preston Beckman, whose metier is scheduling. He knows not only how Seinfeld got on the air but why it was on the air Wednesdays at 9:30. He used to blog anonymously as “The Masked Scheduler.” He also has a Ph.D. in sociology from NYU.*

The entire conversation is interesting. Here’s the part that includes the word zeitgeist. They are discussing the success of “American Idol” and “24."

Here’s a transcript, somewhat edited.

KEN LEVINE: Back in 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, the country needed something to get out of its funk. And the Beatles came along at just the right time a couple of months later.And in a sense I always felt that “American Idol” was similar in that it was after 9/11. It came along and we needed something positive to focus on. And that became the zeitgeist hit.

PRESTON BECKMAN: I totally agree with you. I totally agree. I don’t think anybody at Fox thought it was going to be what it was going to be.  And afterwards, thinking about it — and maybe my background as a sociologist before I went into this business. . . . I think the country needed something.

What was great about American Idol is that it put control of the process in the hands of the viewer. So after seeing the devastation and everything we had seen, it was like “OK, I have input into this. I have some control over this event.

The pilot episode of “24” was completed in time for the opening of the fall TV season in 2001 but was delayed because Fox was broadcasting the baseball playoffs. Then came 9/11. 

PRESTON BECKMAN:  We actually had to edit the pilot because there was a scene of a plane being blown up. That was another situation where we didn’t know whether this was going to be rejected because of what had happened or going to be embraced, and fortunately I think the casting of Kiefer Sutherland had a lot to do with the success of the show.

The Hollywood pro and the sociologist-turned-Hollyword-pro agree: It’s the zeitgeist — what the country needed. “American Idol” offered “something positive,” something that gave viewers control at a time when people’s sense of control over their lives and their country had been shaken. It was, says Levine, a “zeitgeist hit.” The zeitgeist was there; the Idolators just figured out a way to cash in on it. Apparently, William Goldman was wrong. Somebody knew something.

But Beckman, though he seems to be unaware of it, says something that’s much closer to Goldman’s view. Nobody at Fox expected “American Idol” to be such a huge hit. The same goes for “24.” Before the show aired, “we didn’t know” if it was going to be a hit. It’s only in retrospect that Levine and Beckman can construct the zeitgeist connection. Even then, Beckman seems to be giving greater weight to casting decisions than to the post-9/11 zeitgeist.  It’s only in retrospect that we can look at the attributes of these shows, match them up with elements of the zeitgeist, and then “predict” their success.

* The title of his 1981 dissertation is “Predicting Television Viewing: an Application of the Box-jenkins Methodology for Time Series Analysis to Levels of Television Usage in the United States (1966-1975).”

The Sorrows of Old Brooks

February 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In his Valentine’s Day op-ed bemoaning the supposed disappearance of romantic love, Arthur Brooks begins with Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. In that novel, the title character falls in love with a woman who is already engaged to someone else. She gets married. He commits suicide. Got it?

I wouldn’t pitch this plot to Netflix today if I were you, but in 1774 in Europe, it was a huge hit.  “Young men began to dress like Werther. Most alarming, the novel was said to have stimulated copycat suicides among brokenhearted lovers.” It was “Werther Fever.” And, says Brooks, it’s what we need more of in America today. I am not making this up.

What is the opposite of Werther Fever? Whatever it is, we’re suffering from it in the United States today. Particularly among young people, there is an increasing absence of romantic love.

I looked through the General Social Survey for data that would confirm Brooks’s idea about the withering of romantic love. The evidence was hardly convincing (see the previous post). But let’s suppose Brooks is right, that younger Americans are turning away from romantic love. If young Werther is our shining exemplar, maybe we should ask whether romantic love is such a good thing.

To begin with, romantic love has little connection to reality. Can one person satisfy all the emotional and erotic needs of another person? We know that this notion is unrealistic. That’s why romantic love is often likened to a dream state, with a “dream lover,” the “man of my dreams,” and so on. Even more unrealistic is the idea that only one person in the world can work this dream-like effect. For young Werther, it’s Charlotte, and if he can’t have this one person, there’s no point in living. Up close, it seems idealistic. But take a step back, and it looks pretty silly. As Philip Slater says, what would we think of a man who died of starvation because he couldn’t get any Brussels sprouts?

These stories also tell us, inadvertently, that romantic love is unsustainable. The lovers in these stories spend almost no time together. Instead, the plot focuses on the lovers’ struggles against the obstacles that separate them. Once these obstacles are overcome – or not – game over. Can these two people sustain romantic love over the long (or even not-so-long) course of a marriage?  Tales of romantic love dodge that question. They end either with the death of one or both lovers (Romeo and Juliet, Young Werther) or with their union. “They lived happily ever after. The end. Don’t ask what actually happened in that ever-after.”

The “ever after” is hard to imagine because romantic love is based on fantasy. You may fall in love with and pursue the “dream lover.” You may even wind up together. But in a sustained relationship (what is still often called a marriage), you have to live every day with a real person, not a dream.

Brooks is particularly concerned about the “precipitous decline in romantic interest among young people. . . . . While 85 percent of Generation X and baby boomers went on dates as high school seniors, the percentage of high school seniors who went on dates in 2015 had fallen to 56 percent.”

To which I am tempted to respond, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Maybe Brooks’s memories of dating in high school are sunnier than mine, but it seems to me that kids dated because there was no alternative. They felt they were required to pair off in some simulation of a romantic couple. Often, neither boy nor girl was comfortable with that arrangement — about what you’d expect with two people more or less forced together having to come up with the rules and roles in this new relationship. My impression is that for most kids, that relationship rarely achieved the romantic love that Brooks imagines.

Much more pleasant were the times I spent hanging around with groups of friends. And apparently that’s where teen-age culture is heading. Less dating, more hanging out and hooking up. It’s not perfect. The “hookup culture” among college students that Lisa Wade describes in American Hookup seems joyless and unsatisfying. But college students do go on dates, and most wind up in pair relationships. It’s just that these often develop out of and follow more casual relations and hookups.

Brooks thinks that this is a change for the worse. Me, I’m not so sure. When those baby boomers went to the high school prom, it was a date; they went as couples, two to a car, and if you didn’t have a date, if you were not paired off, you didn’t go. Today, they clamber into limousines as a group — as many as the limo will hold — some in couples, others not.  I don’t know why Brooks wants to re-impose the rigidities of dating. Maybe he misses those Werther-like sorrows.

Bye-Bye Love

February 15, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Arthur Brooks, in a Valentine’s Day op-ed in the Washington Post, brings us the sad news that the flame of romantic love is sputtering. “Particularly among young people, there is an increasing absence of romantic love.”

Really? To convince us, Brooks offers three bits of evidence.

1. While 69% of pet owners planned to give their pets a gift, only 61% of pet owners planned to give a gift to a spouse.

I’d put this in the “I am not making this up” category, but maybe Brooks threw it in just to lighten the mood. The numbers are from VetIQ, a pet health company not widely known as a source of national survey data. Whatever. Brooks offers no information on planned Valentine gift-giving among the petless.

2. Surveys of kids show that the custom of dating is on the wane. Or as Brooks’s son, a college junior, says, “Nobody dates.”

3.  The General Social Survey. Now we’re getting serious.

from 1989 to 2016, the percentage of married people in their 20s fell from 32 percent to 19 percent. And lest you think they are forgoing marriage but not sex, note that the percentage of 20-somethings who had no sex in the past year rose by half over the same period, from 12 percent to 18 percent.

The decline in marriage and the increasing age for getting married may be have just a wee bit to do with factors other than romantic feelings — things like the economy, the labor market, and the cost of having children. As for not having sex, if more 20-somethings are unmarried, more of them will be without sex partners.

So if we accept Brooks’s idea that no-sex is a good indicator of the lack of romantic love, we should look at just the unmarried. Here is the GSS data on 20-somethings.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

If you look only at the first and last years (the GSS did not ask this question before 1989), you see what Brooks pointed out.  No-sex  goes from 17% to 23%. But there’s no clear overall upward trend (the dotted trend-line in fact goes downward). Yes, the 2016 numbers were high. But that may be a statistical anomaly like the unusually low rates in 2012. It would help if we had 2018 data, but we don’t, not yet.

But let’s pretend that romantic love, as measured by no-sex, really is decreasing. The question is why?

“Kids, I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today.”

The father in “Bye-Bye Birdie” (1960) may not have known what’s wrong with these kids, but Brooks does . “The greatest culprit for the United States’ increasingly romanceless culture is fear.” Ya got trouble, my friends, right here in River City, with a capital F.

And how do kids come by this fear? From protective parents (known not long ago as “helicopter” parents.)

Children are discouraged from venturing alone out of the house by their parents, who also adjudicate their disputes with other children. The protection culture often deepens in college, with the proliferation of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” to allow avoidance of hurtful ideas. As a result, many young adults enter their 20s with little experience in conflict and rejection — with the social equivalent of a peanut allergy. It is no surprise that love and dating would seem scary and foreign to so many.

If Brooks is right, we would expect to find that Americans brought up in less protective times and places are more daringly romantic. The upward trend towards less sex should be stronger among the children of college-educated parents (Annette Lareau’s “concerned cultivators”) than among those whose parents never got a college degree.

For the period 1996 - 2008, we see the difference Brooks would predict. The children of (presumably) protective parents are more likely to have been without a sexual encounter in the previous year. If Brooks is right about coddled kids, and assuming that protective parenting was still on the rise among educated parents in the 1990s, that difference should have grown even wider in the current decade. But it didn’t. Instead, it disappeared.

Protective parenting is relatively new, says Brooks, so we should also see a generational difference — a stronger trend towards no-sex among younger people.

(For both age groups, I excluded those who were married. For the older group 
I included the divorced and separated along with the never married.)

The older group, the ones raised before helicopter parenting, are more likely to have gone without sex. That’s the opposite of what Brooks would expect. Of course, it may have more to do with life circumstances and the ease of finding partners than with how protective their parents were. In any case, the trends in the two lines are not vastly different. 

Maybe Arthur Brooks is right, and America’s youth are the vanguard leading in the wrong (in his view) direction, away from romantic love. At least for the moment, I don’t find the evidence convincing. As listeners to the Annex Sociology Podcast might know, I tend to be skeptical about claims of social decline, especially those centered on young people. The two myths that I spoke about with host Joe Cohen on that podcast (here and here) are the decline of authoritarianism and the loss community. To this, we now add the fading rose of romantic love.

Billionaire? Moi?

February 4, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof had no problems with the word rich. He did not sing, “If I were a person of wealth, Ya da deedle deedle. . .” He laid it on the line.

Howard Schultz is more squeamish, especially about people saying how much money he actually has — i.e., at least a billion dollars.

The moniker “billionaire” now has become the catchphrase. I would rephrase that and say that “people of means” have been able to leverage their wealth and their interest in ways that are unfair, and I think that speaks to the inequality but it also speaks to the special interests that are paid for people of wealth and corporations who are looking for influence. [from an interview yesterday with Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times, emphasis added]

“People of means” sounds dated to my ear, especially for a guy running for president in 2020. Ditto “person of wealth.” So I went to Google nGrams to see how the frequencies of these terms had changed over the years, at least in published books. I threw in another term that could also be used to indicate someone with large amounts of money.

Schultz’s preferred terms are indeed a throwback. They were at their peak back when Sophie Tucker said, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and believe me, rich is better.” Or as Mr. Schultz might say, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been a person of wealth, and believe me, being a person of wealth is better. Rich makes me sound so greedy.”

These were also the years when you could still get a cup of coffee for a dime. Since then the popularity of “person of means” and “person of wealth” has been on the skids. As for the cost of that cup of coffee, maybe you should ask Mr. Schultz.

Today’s Big Match-Up

February 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s Superbowl Sunday, and this year we’re about to see a contest between two rivals that have met several times previously on this blog. No, not the Rams and the Patriots, not exactly. It’s The Wisdom of Crowds versus The Smart Money.

The theory of the wisdom of crowds says that the average guess of all the interested participants is better than the guesses of the experts. The full title of James Surowiecki’s 2004 book on the topic is The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. He begins with the famous anecdote of Galton at the fair. Here’s a summary from an earlier blog post on the topic.

Plymouth, England, 1906. On display is an ox, slaughtered and dressed. How much does it weigh? Fairgoers submitted their guesses. A statistician, Francis Galton, happened to be there and recorded the data. Galton was also a eugenicist, so he was certain that the guesses of the masses would be less accurate than those of the experts. But it turned out that the crowd, as a group, was far more accurate. The average of all the guesses (n=787) was within one pound of the actual weight (1,198 lbs). No individual guess came that close.

Surowiecki doesn’t say much about sports betting, unless you consider ox-weight estimation to be a sport. But my immediate reaction was that if Surowiecki is right, then bookmakers should be an endangered species, constantly paying out on many bets and collecting few. Not a good way to run a business.

Sports books are experts. They set a line that they think will bring in an equal amount on both sides.* They often assume that the public will share their views on the abilities of the teams, and often they are right. But sometimes, the public thinks that the bookmakers are wrong and bet so much on one team that the books have to adjust the point spread to bring in more action on the other side.

This year, bookmakers judged the Rams and Patriots as evenly matched. The opening line on the Superbowl was pick-’em. Neither team was favored. (A small number of books had the Rams as a 1-point favorite, a few others had the Patriots by one.) The crowd roared in on the Patriots, and the books quickly raised the line to New England minus 2½. Bet the Rams, and you start the game ahead by that many points. Or bet them without points and get $120 for a $100.

Even that couldn’t attract enough money on LA.  Bookies are holding three times as much money on the Pats as on the Rams. On Thursday, a high roller bet $2 million on the Rams at the MGM, and that still didn’t offset the New England money. If the Rams win and MGM has to pay out that $2M, it will still finish well in the black.

It’s not just the oddsmakers who think the crowd is wrong. The “sharps,” professional gamblers who make a living from sports betting,** are also hitting the Rams — just not in large enough amounts to balance the millions of dollars coming in on the Pats.

I am posting this four hours before kickoff, and perhaps the crowd will move in with lots of money on the Rams, but I doubt it. If things stay as they are, today’s game is a good example of The Wisdom of Crowds vs. The Smart Money. (Of course, it is only  a single data point and by itself will prove nothing.)
UPDATE: The crowd was wise. The Patriots won 13 - 3. The crowd was also wise on the over/under which started at about 58, but the crowd, betting heavily on the under, brought it down a couple of points.

* Most point-spread bets are 11-10 — the bettor wagers $110 to win $100. If the action is evenly divided, the book makes money no matter who wins, paying out $100 to each winner and collecting $110 from each loser.

** The guy who made the $2M bet is not considered a sharp, even though he won a very large bet last year when he took the Eagles over the Patriots in last year’s Superbowl.

The First Derivative of the Wisdom of Crowds

February 2, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

If this is Superbowl weekend, then the Socioblog’s fancy must be turning to thoughts of the wisdom of crowds vs. the smart money.  It’s a question I have returned to several times since the first year this blog was on the field. (See. for example, this post about the 2010 Superbowl.)

The “wisdom of crowds” is like the Ask-the-Audience option in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” The “smart money” is like Phone-a-Friend — a friend who knows a lot about the subject.

The trouble with the wisdom of crowds is that sometimes the crowd is wrong, as it was in the 2007 NFC championship game between the Bears and the Saints that I blogged about at the time (here.)

Now, a trio of academics — John McCoy (marketing), Dražen Prelec (management), and  H. Sebastian Seung (neuroscience) — has a variation that allows you to derive the right answer from the crowd even when the crowd is wrong. You might call it the first derivative of crowd wisdom.

Is Philadelphia the capital of Pennsylvania? 

Suppose you don’t know, and you ask the crowd.

The correct answer is no. The capital is Harrisburg. But many people think it is, because Philadelphia is a large, populous city. Most people know about Philadelphia. When you ask that question to a crowd of people, as we did with MIT students, only about a third of the crowd gets the correct answer.*

Yes is the popular answer. The crowd, by two-to-one, says Yes, Philadelphia is the capital. The crowd is wrong. The capital of Pennsylvania is Harrisburg. So much for the wisdom of crowds.

Wait, not so fast, say McCoy and his colleagues. Let’s also ask another question: “What percent of people do you think will answer No to this question?” The average estimate is 23%. But in fact, 33% answer No. This makes No a “surprisingly popular” answer, surprising in that more people than expected say No. It’s as though you are taking the first derivative of crowd wisdom rather than the wisdom function itself.

If you went with the popular answer, you’d say Yes and be wrong. But if you go with the derivative — the “surprisingly popular” answer —  you’ll get it right.

McCoy sees applications of this to all kinds of forecasts — the market for some product, the price of gold, voting, He doesn’t mention the Superbowl. Right now, about 25% of bettors think that the Rams will win or that they will lose by 2 points or less. But suppose we asked all bettors, “What fraction of people do you think are betting the Rams?” If they guessed that only 10% of them are backing the Rams, then the Rams would be the “surprisingly popular” choice, and you would be a fool not to put down a grand to win $1250. Alas, I know of no such surveys. Besides, I don’t trust Belichick.

Two other thoughts:
First, McCoy’s makes the concept harder to understand by choosing an example where No is right. “Is No the correct answer?” “Yes, No is right.”

Second, I was stunned that two-thirds of MIT students did not know the capital of fifth most populous state in the country. Look, people, we’re not asking about Pierre or Carson City. This is not rocket science. And now I get the feeling that at MIT a question about rocket science might have gotten a higher proportion of correct answers.

*From an interview with McCoy on a Wharton School podcast. An article by Prelec, Seung, and McCoy in Nature is here behind a paywall.

Michel Legrand — 1932 - 2019

January 28, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

As a callow youth, I dismissed Michel Legrand as a guy who wrote pretty tunes and scores. In fact, he did write 200 or more scores for movies and TV. Then I heard Legrand Jazz (1958) with his arrangements for three different groups — 1. a big band, 2. a group centered on Ben Webster and four trombones, and 3. the core of Miles Davis’s 1958 sextet (Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers), Phil Woods instead of Cannonball, plus a few other instruments including flute and harp.

The tunes were  eleven jazz classics, from Dixieland (Louis Armstrong’s “Wild Man Blues” ) through swing (Benny Goodman, “Stompin’ at the Savoy”) to bebop (Dizzy’s “Night in Tunisia”). The arrangements were “far out” for the time, and even 60 years later, they hold up well.

Legrand later described the recording session with the Miles.

Everyone said to me: “Miles will come to the meeting and stand near the door, keeping his trumpet in his closed case. He will listen for five minutes, and if he likes music, he will sit down, open his case, and play. If he does not like, he will leave and he will never again contact you.” I was so afraid that I had flare-ups of sweat! I started rehearsing with the orchestra. The door opened, and Miles listened by the door for five minutes. Then he sat down, opened his case and began to play. After the first catch, he asked me, “Michel, is my game [playing] suitable?” That is how it all began.

Here is that group playing Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz.”

The record went out of print and out of sight. I rarely met anyone, jazzers included, who knew of it. It was something of a collector’s item. Somewhere along the line, I lost my copy and wound up paying the equivalent today of about $75 for a used copy. Eventually, the album was re-issued as a CD, and now you can stream it anytime, anywhere.